Alex carefully opened his eyes, staring into the sputtering fire. The sun had disappeared beyond the horizon, but the last rays of light were still more than enough to let him see. A light layer of freshly-fallen snow covered the ground, and more flakes fell steadily from the sky, settling into a faint crust across the fur of his back. Across from him, Tom huddled under his camouflage jacket, shivering despite the fire. With his knees clutched to his chest and his arms wrapped around them, he looked like a teenager stuffed into his dad’s clothes. Past the hunter, the forest extended into the distance, sparse trees interspersed with a short grasses, mostly brown and withered.
The bear carefully rose, pressing the necklace into his breastbone. Snow fell from his shoulders and back as he moved, then cascaded down in a flurry as he shook off the last of his trance. “Come on, Tom,” he called out to the man on the other side of the fire.
Tom’s head snapped up to the bear’s, startled. “Go… where?”
Alex held out a heavy brown-furred paw to him, helping him rise. “To find something you’ve lost.” Once Tom was on his feet, the bear turned and began walking away from the fire, deeper into the forest.
Tom drew back. “It’s dangerous out there.”
The bear paused, then looked back. “No,” he said calmly, fingering the bear-claw hanging from his neck with one paw, the other held out to Parson. “I’ll protect you. We need to hurry, though.”
Tom hesitated, then followed, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat. “I don’t like this,” he grumbled as he walked. “I wish I had my guns.”
Alex didn’t look back, though he did raise his nose to the faint wind. The only scents that came to him, though, were his own and Tom’s, and the fire, only visible behind them as shifting strands of light against the ground. “Why’s that, Tom? Is there something out here? And by the way, which way are we going?”
The hunter glared at Alex, stopping in his tracks. “I. Don’t. Know,” he said slowly and deliberately. “I just don’t like it here. I feel naked.”
The bear couldn’t help but grin and deliberately look down at his nude—though furred—form at that. When he opened his muzzle, though, the words were serious. “Tom, I think you know what’s out there, and I think you’re afraid of it. I know you’re scared, but whatever it is, I’m here to help. Okay?”
Tom’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I’m not scared.” His chin jutted out defiantly. “I’m… you won’t believe me.”
Alex held out his paws, pads up. “I’m here, aren’t I? Just show me, Tom. Show me what’s out here.”
Tom withdrew, standing for several seconds, looking back in the direction of the fire. He nodded, then spoke around clenched teeth. “Fine. This way.” The hunter turned, then strode into the forest, further from the flames. He was rigid as he walked, his pace almost a run, his arms held stiffly at his sides. Alex jogged lightly beside him. scanning the trees with all his senses, but everything told him that the two were alone. “Walker was the only one who believed me,” Tom continued. “He has a plan.”
“Walker?” Alex asked, trying not to sound winded. “Who’s Walker?”
Tom didn’t answer; he instead motioned towards a small cluster of trees towards which he walked. The campsite had vanished behind them, leaving them with only the faint rays of dusk and the first slivers of moonlight to light their way. “You wanted to see. It’s behind there.” His voice was hard, tense, with hints of fear creeping in around the edges. “I did warn you.”
Alex nodded, then deliberately slowed back to a walk. “Easy, Tom. Let’s go slow. I’m right here, okay? Whatever it is, I’m here. Wait here. Let me go first.” He held out a paw, waving Parson back, then carefully approached. A patch of ground had been scraped clear, and in the middle of it was the remains of a fire pit, a small pile of ash and charred wood. Beside it lay the remains of a Child of Deer. From the position of the body and the blood stains on the ground, it looked like he’d been shot once in the shoulder, fallen and tried to crawl away, then bled to death from a second bullet in the neck. One of his antlers had cracked in the fall, and his muzzle hung slightly open. One eye gazed balefully upwards staring in empty shock.
The bear put a paw over his muzzle, holding back the churning, but a familiar clack behind him made him freeze. “I told you,” Tom said. “It’s dangerous out here.”
Alex didn’t move. “Shooting me won’t bring him back, Tom. What happened?”
“He said I was one of you,” Parson spat. “And he wanted to show me. He wanted to help.” He sneered the word. “Up against the tree. I. Don’t. Need. Help.”
Alex moved, slowly, taking up a familiar position against one of the trees, his paws gripping the rough bark. “This isn’t going to prove anything, Tom. Are you?”
“Am I what?” Parson’s voice remained flat.
“One of us,” Alex responded just as calmly.
“Of course not!” The denial came fast and loud. “I’m a hunter! I’m not prey. You, however, are going to make a fine troph—” An angry yowl interrupted Parson’s voice, which rose into a scream, ending in a sharp crunch. Alex whipped around to see a mountain lion crouching over Parson’s prone form. His foreclaws were sunk completely through Parson’s coat. In the faint light of twilight, the big cat’s tan coat looked like pale shadows poured over a skeletal feline frame. His eyes were golden and flashed with anger.
“Murderer,” the cougar hissed, digging his claws in further. “I knew you’d come back. Sumac wasn’t enough for you, was it?” Tom tried to find the air to scream again, but the sudden jab into his shoulders reduced him to a breathless whimper. “At least while you were too scared to go looking, I was safe.” His forearms rippled as he gouged out more of Parson’s flesh, but his eyes turned from the man under him to the bear. “No thanks to you, he’ll be after me next.”
Alex lumbered over and dropped to the ground, for the moment ignoring Tom’s writhing. “Maybe. What’s your name? I’m… well, call me Alex.”
The mountain lion stopped twisting his claws into Tom’s shoulders, instead sprawling across his back and leaning heavily on the open wounds. He regarded the bear for some seconds, then turned and licked at one forepaw, grooming it nonchalantly. Several seconds past, while the cat made a show of ignoring both the question and its asker. Alex held up a paw. “Fine, don’t tell me. Listen… I think you two need to talk.”
The cat looked back at Alex, then down at Tom with a grin. “Oh, I don’t think there’s anything to talk about, is there, Tom?”
“Animal,” Tom gasped in reply. “I don’t… I don’t want—”
“Hey, can you ease off of him? You two need to resolve this.” Alex put a paw on the cougar’s flank. “He’s not going anywhere.”
The cat’s golden eyes narrowed, but he shifted off of Tom’s back, curling up and resuming his impromptu grooming. Alex helped get Tom up to a sitting position, though he groaned as he rose, whimpering at the claws in his back. Once they were both seated, Alex nodded. “Now, why don’t you two tell me what happened to the deer over there.”
Both cat and hunter started at once, then fell silent. The cougar went back to his paw, and Tom turned his head back towards the fallen body. “I don’t know,” he said. “Dave and I… it was the end of college. We’d gone out camping. I used to love that kind of thing. Getting back to nature, all that. It was weather a lot like this, really. We’d been hiking up through Wyoming; Dave said he’d wanted to get well off the trails, so we were well out into the woods. We set up camp and I’d gone out to pull down some small game for dinner, but when I get back—”
The cougar lifted his head at that and hissed. “You whip out your gun and shoot Sumac in the chest.”
Tom turned his head to the can and glared. “Maybe if he’d said what he’d done with Dave—”
Alex rose at that, stepping forward to physically interpose as cat and human leaned towards each other. One paw fell heavily on each shoulder, pushing them back apart. “Okay, kids, that’s enough. I guess that was Sumac back over there I saw. Now, Tom, I get that you’re angry. I get why you’re angry. I don’t get why you’re taking out that anger on us.”
The cat rumbled back in his chest, glaring at Tom. “He didn’t need a reason. He’s just a killer!”
“It was self-defense!” Tom shouted in reply. “I didn’t know what that… that thing had done with Dave! How was I to know I wasn’t next?”
Alex growled. “Okay, knock it off.” He shoved both of them back into their seats, Tom landing with a gasp of pain. “You two don’t get it, do you? You’re really this deep in denial. Tom, have you ever seen this particular talking cat before?” He rounded on the cat. “And…have you ever actually seen Tom before, or do you just know him from his sterling reputation?” At that, both human and cat turned to look at each other, eyes widening at once before they turned back to Alex. “Yeah, thought so. Like I said, you two need to work this out. In the meantime, think I can trust you not to kill each other?”
Tom and the cat looked once more at each other, then back to Alex, before nodding. Alex grinned. “Listen. Nobody said this was going to be easy, but you’re not going to be alone on this. You’ve got others around to help.” They nodded again, and Alex rose, clutching again at his necklace. “I’ll see you outside.”