Tears for Lucifer
by Wes Blalock
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
They finished their meal, packed up their trash, and started back on the trail, Birdie evaluating the river. Even this far into summer, the water was cold in stark contrast to the eighty-five degree weather. Agreeing to keep the noise to a minimum, they walked along the shore until Birdie found a spot that she felt comfortable crossing.
Mark grabbed a strap on her backpack and followed. Lonnie propped his rifle in his arms and followed suit, taking a firm grip of Mark’s backpack and gestured for Maureen to do the same with his. Cautiously, the human chain pushed into the river, the water rising to mid-thigh on Birdie almost immediately. She checked her footing with each step until she reached the opposite shore and climbed out, water dripping from her pants and sloshing out of her boots.
Maureen signaled that she had to stop and empty her boots of water. While they waited, Birdie walked ahead until she found the cat prints walk out of the river, the wicked scar clearer in the mud at the river bank.
Maureen caught up, and Birdie motioned them forward into the forest. Without the tall grasses of the meadows, the prints were more difficult to find and, a few times, Birdie lost the trail, only to find it a few yards away. The occasional odor of where the cat had sprayed to mark its territory helped direct them. The red summer moon disappeared behind the trees, and their only light was the headlamps they wore or the flashlights they carried, stabbing into the darkness.
They broke into a large, open space and were startled by a gang of elk, grazing and unafraid, no more than twenty feet from them. Birdie’s heart skipped a beat, but she caught her breath and forced it to slow. Turning slightly, Birdie saw the others had reacted sharply as well, Mark standing from a crouch and trying to stretch his bad leg, Lonnie laughing silently, and Maureen shaking her head. Birdie smiled inwardly, turning back to the elk in the glade.
Almost at once, the grazing does raised their heads and turned in the direction of the newcomers, grinding their teeth nervously. Birdie felt her heart beat faster and the hair on the back of her neck rise. Slowly, she unslung her rifle, just in case the elk panicked and charged. The lone bull elk marched toward them and stomped its hooves, lowering its massive antlered head and throwing it up again in a challenge.
Birdie sidestepped and raised her rifle, seeing Mark back up behind her. Lonnie aimed his assault rifle at the nearly 600-pound patriarch as the bull again raised its wide, sharp antlers into the air and bellowed, long and loud, in a way that made fingers of fear roll down Birdie’s spine.
The does burst into motion, some bounding into the woods, others taking a full run away from the humans. The giant bull leapt backwards, still braying and aiming its sharp array of horn at the people. A gunshot made Birdie jump, and she almost pulled the trigger. Her rifle was aimed decidedly at the elk, but the elk stood its ground.
Birdie looked around when she heard Maureen scream in unison with the elk. She saw the bright, green eyes first, glowing in the light of her headlamp and reflecting back at her. Telltale orange and black and white stripes circled a malevolent face, teeth sunk deep into Mark’s neck, his body hanging limply from the great creature’s jaws, handgun still dangling from his hand, smoke rising from the barrel.
The tiger dropped Mark in a crumpled heap and leapt toward Birdie as she swung her rifle around. Lonnie jumped backwards and slammed into her, the two of them crashing to the ground. Jamming the butt of his rifle into the earthground, Lonnie pulled the trigger at the moment the beast landed on him, knocking the wind from his lungs. The tiger jumped away with a howl, then pounced and walloped Lonnie with a tremendous paw, rolling him further into the glade.
Thrashing about, Birdie searched the darkness for her rifle while Maureen took several steps in the direction of a large jeffrey pine and leapt up into the lower branches, desperately scrambling for altitude. Alerting on her, the giant cat hurdled Lonnie and flew into the air, vaulting up twenty feet and catching Maureen’s thighs in it claws. The two of them dropped to the ground, Maureen’s scream silenced by a thump against the hard earth. The tiger sniffed at her, pushing her with its nose, and chuffed like a monster housecat with its mouse.
No rifle, Birdie drew her pistol. With the tiger’s back end facing her, she fired several times. Growling and rolling violently on the ground, the tiger spun back onto its feet, looking at her with predatory eyes, Maureen now forgotten. Silently, it sauntered toward Birdie, mouth open, teeth covered with blood. She saw that her pistol was empty, the slide locked back and the chamber open.
“Shhhhhh, it’s okay. No need to do anything hasty,” Birdie said as she slowly dropped the magazine from the pistol and pulled another one from her belt.
The tiger took another step toward her and chuffed again, its head held low, its body undulating into a crouch.
“Shhhhh, it’s okay. Just need a second to load my gun.” Birdie slipped the new magazine into the pistol and pressed the slide release, slamming a bullet into the chamber.
“Shhhhh, just close your eyes. This is going to hurt,” Birdie said, as comfortingly as possible, hoping she wasn’t just comforting herself.
She aimed with both shaking hands and saw the collar, a wide leather strap around the tiger’s neck, a heart-shaped medallion and small tinkling bell at its throat. The tiger sprang, and Birdie fired. Again and again, her gun roared until the slide locked open, the gun empty, smoke rising from the chamber. The tiger pitched forward and its heavy head dropped onto her leg, trapping her against the ground. The deep green eyes flicked up to look at her; no malevolence, no fear, no anger, just acceptance that it was over. Birdie jerked her leg out from under the creature’s jaw and scooted back to safety, immediately reloading with her last magazine.
She assessed herself for a moment, before remembering others needed help. Shaw moaned in pain, and Birdie saw Maureen’s chest rise and fall in a regular breathing rhythm, but her eyes remained closed. Standing up, Birdie ran to Mark to evaluate his injuries, but she could see there would be no saving him: crushed vertebrae in his neck and punctures to his carotid and jugular.
Birdie went to check on Maureen next. She had huge gashes in her thighs and at least one bone sticking out of her right arm. Maureen also had a head injury that seemed to be bleeding from directly under her scalp, matting the pretty blonde curls, but her pulse was strong.
Birdie jogged to Shaw and knelt down over him. He looked up at her and grimaced. “And the little Paiute Warrior Woman strikes again,” he said through clenched teeth.
Four red furrows ran across his chest, the t-shirt shredded and the skin beneath open and grisly. Birdie could see the ribs beneath the flesh, gleaming white and broken against the scarlet foreground.
“You’ll live,” she said, forcing a smile. “And don’t make me have the doctors sew your mouth shut.”
“Are you okay?” he asked through deep breaths.
“I’m still screaming in my head, but that’ll go away in a few years with a lot of therapy. You sit tight.” Birdie dropped her backpack on the ground and pulled out her satellite phone.
“Cary Valley Dispatch.”
“Tracey, this is Birdie,” she said, fighting to control her breathing. “We need rescue out here right away. It’s bad.”
“What’s going on?” Tracey asked, concerned.
Birdie tried to focus on being professional, pushing her pain away. “Patient one has a head injury, compound fracture of the right arm, and severe lacerations on both thighs. Patient two has severe lacerations across the torso and broken ribs...Tracey, it’s bad.” Birdie struggled against the vibration in her throat.
“What happened?” the dispatcher’s tone increasingly apprehensive.
Birdie took a couple of deep breaths and tried to relax her voice. “Mark’s been killed.”
Silence on the phone, and then. “Birdie, are you hurt?”
Birdie paused. Are you hurt? Huh. Am I hurt?
“Birdie?” the dispatcher insisted.
“I’m fine,” she choked out. She wiped something wet from her face, thinking it was tears, and realized that it was Lonnie’s blood.
“We’ll have someone there as soon as possible. What’s your location?”
Birdie pulled her GPS from her backpack and gave Tracey the coordinates. Tracey acknowledged them, and Birdie could hear a slight quiver when she spoke.
“We’re coming. Hold on,” the dispatcher told her before hanging up.
Birdie put the phone away and looked around numbly at the carnage. Digging her trauma kit out of her backpack, she went to Maureen, wrapping her wounds, splinting her arm, and cushioning her head, then went to Lonnie and wrapped his wounds and stabilized his ribs.
Sullenly, she pulled a body bag from Mark’s backpack and opened it up. Spreading it out beside Mark’s body, she carefully straightened him out and rolled him to one side and slid the body bag underneath him. She laid him back and pulled the sides together, zipping them up. She heard soft, plastic impact noises and saw that her tears were dripping onto the body bag.
The bull elk bellowed again from the far side of the glade. Wiping her face, Birdie stood and looked over at the tiger, realizing suddenly that it was still breathing, its chest rising and falling rapidly.
Standing, she looked back over at the elk and said, “Thank you, brother,” before it turned and melted into the dark. She found her rifle and walked over to the beast. It turned its head again, looking up at her with deep green eyes. The bullet wounds were much easier to see now and its fur was matted with blood. Its breathing labored and forced, the tiger sighed heavily, and dropped its head back into the dirt.
“How did you get here?” She asked softly. She shook her head. “You were just being a tiger. You don’t belong here.” Birdie raised the rifle and pointed it at the back of the tiger’s skull. She pulled the trigger once; the tiger shuddered and stopped breathing. Leaning over the animal, she looked at the medallion on the collar, a bright green heart-shaped tag, engraved with the name “Lucifer.”
Birdie pulled the satellite phone from her backpack and dialed her roommate, an interpretation ranger.
“This is Katie,” she answered, sing-songy.
“Katie, this is Birdie.” She took several deep breaths to calm herself.
“Birdie? I thought you were out tracking a mountain lion.” Katie paused. “Birdie, are you okay?”
“Um... not really, but I’m not hurt.” She wiped a wayward tear from her cheek and saw that her hand still came back stained red.
“Who’s hurt?” Katie asked.
“Everyone else.” Birdie’s breath caught. “Mark’s been killed.”
Katie was silent and then Birdie heard the sobbing over the phone.
Birdie waited for a moment or two. “Katie, can you do me a favor?”
“Yeah,” Katie sniffled.
“Are you near your computer?” Birdie asked.
“Yeah, I’m on my laptop in the kitchen,” Katie affirmed.
“Can you Google ‘Siberian tiger’ and ‘Lucifer’?” Birdie could hear typing in the background.
“I have a news photo of a woman sitting beside a Siberian tiger. The caption says, ‘Eleanor Hodges, local politician and animal rights activist with her rescued circus tiger, Lucifer.’ This is in the Modesto Bee.” Birdie could tell that Katie’s tone was strained, higher in pitch and shaking.
“Does it say where she lives?” Birdie asked.
Katie read out loud, “Um... she lives in Sequoia County where she has previously served as a county supervisor.”
“Call the Sequoia County Sheriff’s Office and ask them to do a welfare check on her. I think we have her tiger here. He’s dead.”
“Is that...? Okay. Will do.” And Katie hung up.
Birdie waited quietly for her rescue and kept watch over Shaw and Maureen. Sitting beside Shaw who was still conscious but trying not to be, she touched his hand and he gripped hers in return.
“How long till evac?” he asked.
“Few more minutes,” she told him.
“I guess you were right. It wasn’t a mountain lion.” Shaw scowled.
“Nope. But it’s not in my nature to say ‘I told you so.’” She gave him a grim smile.
“Really?” He raised his eyebrows.
“No, you’re right. I told you so.” Birdie laughed unconvincingly.
“Why couldn’t it be Bigfoot?” he grimaced. “I really feel Bigfoot and I would have bonded.”
Helicopter blades echoed through the mountains in the dark. Birdie set out the lamp and turned on her flashlight and guided the helicopter down. She helped the paramedics load Shaw and Maureen into the open bay doors. Next came the task of carrying Mark into the helicopter and loading him carefully beside the other two.
Birdie’s satellite phone rang and she answered.
“Birdie, it’s Katie.”
“What do you got, Katie?”
“Sequoia Sheriff’s Office said that they went to the Hodges place, some kind of sprawling ranch up in the outskirts. They found her dead, eaten. Same with her husband and at least two other adults, possibly employees. There’s no tiger on the property, but a lot of other exotic animals that she appears to have ‘rescued’.” Katie took a shaky breath and sighed. “Some of them have been eaten, too.”
One of the ranger paramedics waved his fingers in a circle, indicating to Birdie that it was time to go. Hanging up the phone, Birdie raised her index finger, gesturing for one more minute. She ran back to Lucifer and knelt down beside him. She lifted up the right front paw and inspected it. There were no scars on the pads of the foot.
Birdie stood up and looked out into the darkness of the forest. Even over the sound of the helicopter rotor, Birdie thought she heard the tinkling noise of a small metal bell.
Copyright © 2019 by Wes Blalock