Sean had a moment when he seemed to float away, seeing his predicament as if from above. He was remembering a night earlier in the autumn when he was hiking out of the Gallatin Range and two German shepherds came running at him, growling as if possessed by demons. Too exhausted to be afraid, Sean had wheeled on a heel and shouted, "Get out of here!" The dogs abruptly turned tail. He tried the command now, the words the same but his voice unable to convey the requisite note of authority. Sean smiled in spite of himself. Then the growling started again, the smile was gone, and he was back on Earth.
Sean had been saving the battery of his headlamp, but now he switched it on and swept the beam up the slope. The eyes that reflected back at him burned with green fire. Sean felt the hairs on his neck tickle against his jacket collar. For a few moments he seemed not to breathe. Then the eyes were gone.
He turned his head to cast the light, catching the eyes again, piercing in their intensity. Sean began to walk down the trail, the cat—for he could think of nothing else it could be—prowling the hillside above him, following abreast, growling. After the initial shock, the reflective eyes had a curiously calming effect, for they gave away the animal's position.
Sean snapped the safety off the pepper spray. He could trigger a blast in the direction of the eyes, but why take the chance of provoking an attack? Besides, he'd bought the spray when he first moved to Montana. It was years out of date, the canister dented, and as it had ridden in the glove compartment of his '76 Land Cruiser summer and winter, the contents had been subjected to temperatures that ranged from ninety-five degrees to minus forty. It might not work at all. It was only after one mile became two, with the cat still following, that Sean's unease turned to fear. The near-continuous growling had diminished. The eyes fired back at him less often when he swept his light. No odor, nor had there been since it had begun to follow. Now all was silence, all was darkness.
And it could have been anywhere.
Sean had reached the toe of the ridge, where a creek ran with snowmelt. On his way in that afternoon, he had forded the creek farther up, where it was narrow and three logs spanned it. But now, in trying to keep to open ground, Sean had strayed from the trail. To reach the Forest Service road where he'd parked his rig, he'd have to wade the stream. Tentatively, he took a step onto the pane of ice near the bank. His boot broke through and he felt the ice of the water as it rushed over his boot top. He took another step. Now the water was flooding over the tops of both boots. One more step, using a stick he'd found on the bank as a wading staff. The stick slipped on ice covering submerged rocks and Sean half fell, then, attempting to regain his balance, abruptly sat down in the stream.
The shock of immersion disoriented him. He knew he looked vulnerable and struggled to his feet. Where is the cat? He slogged to the far bank, his boots heavy, sloshing water, his legs staggering under the weight of the pack. 'Don't panic,' he told himself. Where is the damned cat?
Sean began to walk, twisting his neck this way and that, the light on his hat flaring up into the trees. He hadn't heard the animal or seen its shape since before reaching the creek. After what might have been twenty minutes—it seemed much longer—he saw the Land Cruiser bulking against the pines. Sean fished his keys from his pocket. His fingers were numb from cold and he fumbled the key ring into the snow. He shrugged the heavy pack off and knelt down and dug with both hands, his heart jackhammering in his chest. There. The keys glinted. He unlocked the door and hefted his pack inside, then climbed into the cab. He turned the key and listened to the motor cough, then just sat there, his body shaking. As the adrenaline rush slowly subsided, he told himself that he hadn't really been that afraid, only alert.