Summary: While looking for strays, fifteen-year-old Joe spots some tracks that he feels compelled to investigate, despite knowing the objections his family would raise.
Word Count: 1660
They were cougar tracks. He was sure of it. Well, almost sure. As his finger traced the outline of a track, Little Joe tried to remember what Hoss, the best tracker he knew, had taught him. Four small pads splayed out in front of one larger one, but that was true of most critters hereabouts. No claw marks, so it wasn’t a wolf, coyote or wild dog. The front of the heel pad had two lobes; the back had three, and the front paw was bigger than the rear one. Definitely a cat of some kind. Too large for a bobcat. This print was both big and wide, almost circular in shape. Cougar — bound to be. Now, what to do about it.
He knew what Pa was likely to say, if he’d been here. Older brother, too, for that matter. They’d both tell him to hightail it home and leave cougar-hunting to grown men. Hoss? Well, he’d probably just say to be careful and keep behind him, but none of them were here to say anything. That meant he was in charge, right? He had to make the decision on his own. That’s what Cartwrights did in tight spots, right? Conveniently ignoring that he knew exactly what each member of his family would say to that line of reasoning, he gave a sharp nod as he stood up. They’d lost enough cattle to that cat. Time to hunt.
A shiver ran up his spine. It wasn’t a job to take lightly. At fifteen, the largest game he’d ever stalked was deer, and deer didn’t fight back. Cougars most generally wouldn’t attack humans, either, but might if they felt threatened — or so he’d heard. With a rifle aimed at his tawny hide, this one might feel good and properly threatened. So . . . be careful, Joe cautioned himself as he secured his horse and began following the tracks deeper into the forest.
The tracks led upward into rocky terrain, where the trees thinned out, along with the air. Ought to make him easier to see, Joe assumed, as he lifted his eyes to the surrounding pines. Nothing there but some bushy-tailed squirrels, so he lowered his gaze to the ground and continued to follow the track, ever upward, heedless of how far he was getting from home and help.
He trudged after that track for what seemed like hours — and probably was, he admitted when he noticed how low the sun had dropped toward the horizon. Logic — one of Adam’s fancy words — and concern for his backside told him that he should turn around, but he sensed that he was getting close. His nose wrinkled involuntarily. Close enough to smell…and hear. The low-pitched hiss drew his wary glance up the tall tree to his right, and his breath caught at sight of the huge cat crouching some eighteen to twenty feet above his head. He’d guessed from the size of the track that the cougar was large, but this one must weigh better than 150 pounds. Slowly, he raised his gun. Suddenly, the cougar sprang toward him.
“Uh-oh,” Hoss said to his brother Adam as their father, face as burnished as the lowering sun, galloped toward them. “What you reckon’s got Pa so riled?”
“Three guesses, if you need them,” Adam snorted. “Have you seen our beloved baby brother lately?”
“Doggone,” Hoss muttered. “That kid is harder to keep rounded up than any stray on the place.”
Ben reined his buckskin to an abrupt halt and asked, with slightly different wording, the same question as Adam.
Hoss tried to look nonchalant. “No, sir. Now that you mention it, I ain’t seen hide nor hair of the boy since noontime.”
“Why not?” Ben demanded.
“Because we split up, to cover more ground,” Adam said with a shrug.
Ben’s scornful gaze moved from his middle son to his eldest. “You two seem to be together.”
“No, sir,” Hoss protested. “I mean, we are now, sure, but we just happened to head in about the same time. It’s gettin’ late, Pa, and…” His voice trailed off. It was late; Joe should have been headed into camp for supper, same as them.
“One of you should have stayed with him.” Worry sharpened the edge in Ben’s voice.
Adam bristled at the accusatory tone. “Look, Pa, I accept the truism that I am my brother’s keeper,” he said stiffly, “but Joe is old enough to ride the range on his own.” The granite glare that met that response reminded him that, fifteen or not, Little Joe shouldn’t be riding the range on his own with night drawing on. He moistened his lips. “However, as Hoss says, it is late, and I’m concerned about the boy, as well, so if you’ll see to those strays…” he swung his chin toward the cattle that he and Hoss had brought back, which had drifted past Ben during their conversation,“…we’ll ride out and round up that other one with the Cartwright brand on him.”
The attempt at humor deflated like a balloon whose end had come unknotted. “Those strays can look after themselves,” Ben declared. “We all look for your brother — and we all stay together! Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” Adam said with a surreptitious roll of his eyes toward Hoss.
They rode to the place where the three brothers had separated, and then Hoss moved into the lead to follow the tracks of Joe’s horse. Though the others readily acknowledged him the superior tracker, any one of them could have followed that plain trail. When they spotted Cochise, tethered to a branch of a fallen log, all three frowned in concern. Hunting strays on foot made no sense at all. What, then, was that boy up to? Just lollygagging like the lazy rascal he could be . . . or something more serious?
Hoss dismounted to search for Joe’s boot prints, but what he saw alongside them made him drop to knees, mostly in shock, although it was the appropriate position for the unspoken prayer he shot toward the heavens. “It ain’t strays he’s huntin’,” he said, face frozen with fear. “It’s a cougar.”
“Dear God,” Ben whispered, and his words, too, were a prayer of supplication.
Adam reached over to squeeze his father’s shoulder. “Pa, he’ll be fine.”
With a crisp nod of determination, Ben dismounted. “Find him, Hoss,” he pleaded, his voice choked.
“Yes, sir.” Hoss’ expression, even in the fading light, revealed the same adamantine purpose. He moved forward, following the boot prints that paralleled those of the cat, never once losing the trail, even when it passed through the needle-strewn forest into rockier ground above. He moved quickly, praying he could out-race the setting sun.
Finally, the forest opened into a small clearing ahead, and Hoss stopped still at the sight of two silhouettes, dark against a backdrop of burnt orange, one hunkered over the other. “Joe!” he cried.
The figure on top rose — and stood on two legs. “Hey, Hoss!” came the joyous call, followed immediately by a more subdued, “Oh, hi, Pa.”
Ben stormed toward his youngest son. “What do you think you’re doing, young man?” he bellowed.
Little Joe took a step backward. “Well…uh…I’m skinnin’ this cat, Pa.” He painted on a wide, hopeful grin. “I killed him, Pa — single shot! He ain’t gonna bother our cattle no more.”
“Do you think that makes…” Ben gasped at the sight of his son’s shredded shirt sleeve and the dark stains spotting it. “Joseph, you’re hurt, boy,” he cried as he hurried forward.
“Yeah, he scratched me some,” Little Joe said sheepishly as his father took his arm. “I wasn’t expectin’ him to jump me like that. Guess I was lucky to…get…that shot…off, huh?” His voice slowed with each tightening of Ben’s facial muscles.
“I have a feeling his luck just ran out,” Adam whispered to Hoss. The big man responded with a grimace of commiseration.
“What you may need luck for, young man,” Ben growled, “is getting by without a very necessary little talk at my hands!” He exhaled his frustration. “Now, let’s get you back to camp and tend to those wounds.”
“Sure, Pa, that’d be good,” Little Joe said, hoping a submissive spirit would mollify his father’s barely contained wrath. “Just as soon as I finish skinning…”
“Now!” Ben roared.
“But, Pa, it’s my first cougar kill,” Little Joe protested.
“And quite possibly your last!” Ben planted an encouraging palm across his son’s backside. He turned to his older sons before following his youngest down the hill. “Dispose of that cat and get back to camp, pronto.”
“Yes, sir,” Adam promised. “Keep the stew hot… and your temper cool,” he suggested.
Ben’s lips fluttered with his blustery exhale. “I’ll try,” he muttered.
Once his father was out of sight, Hoss squatted by the cougar, knife in hand.
“What are you doing?” Adam asked, although he thought he knew.
Hoss shrugged. “Well, it is his first cougar kill. Reckon he ought to have the skin for a remembrance.”
Adam chuckled. “I reckon, but if I were you, I’d keep it well hidden until it’s cured out. Pa just might have simmered down by then.”
Hoss laughed. “Maybe, but knowin’ our little brother, he’ll likely have found some new way to set Pa’s blood boilin’ by then.”
“No argument there,” Adam said as he took out his knife to help.
“Takes a plucky kid to hunt down a cougar on his own,” Hoss commented as he worked.
“Plucky,” Adam agreed, “and lucky.” The two older brothers looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, and in the depths of each set was one shared thought: they were the lucky ones; they still had a little brother.