He stopped a moment to wipe the sweat off his face with a sleeve of his shirt. Even his sweat smelled fresh, as if his innards were clean.
He heard something.
A very faint sound. It had to be an animal. But he'd gotten used to the owls and the sparrow hawks, to the chipmunks and the skunks, and to the wolves. This sound wasn't one of them. He hoped it wasn't another person invading his mountain. His was the only cabin in the high meadow. There were other cabins, but they were lower, at least a half mile away. No one came up here except maybe in the summer to hike. It was mid-April. No hikers yet. He hefted his ax again. He froze in midswing when the sound came again.
It was like the desperate cry of something - a kitten? No, that was crazy. Still, he pulled on his flannel shirt, and the down jacket. He leaned down and picked up his ax. The weight felt good. Had another man come onto his mountain?
He paused, holding perfectly still, letting the silence invade him until he was part of it. He felt the cool afternoon breeze stir the hair on his head. At last it came again, a soft mewling sound that was fainter this time, broken off into two distinct parts, as if suddenly split apart.
As if a creature was nearly dead.
He ran fast over the flat meadow where his cabin stood. He ran into the pine forest that surrounded the high meadow, slowing because of the undergrowth, praying he was going in the right direction, but uncertain even as he ran.
He heard his own hard breathing and stopped. Little sun could cut through the dense trees. Now that it was late afternoon, it was nearly dark here deep in the forest, where there were suddenly no sounds at all. Nothing. He calmed his breathing and listened. Still nothing. He heard a slithering sound. He whipped around to see a small prairie rattlesnake winding its way under a moss-covered rock. The snake was higher up than it should be.
He waited silent as the trees on all sides of him. He felt a cramp in his right bicep. Slowly he lowered the ax to the ground.
Suddenly he heard it again, off to his left, not too far away, muffled and faint, a sound that was almost like an echo of itself, a memory of what it had been.
He moved slowly now, eyes straight ahead, his stride long. He came to a small clearing. The afternoon sun was still bright overhead. There was rich high grass waving in the breeze. Blue columbine, the Colorado state flower, was blooming wildly, soft and delicate, already welcoming spring.. It was a beautiful spot, one he hadn't yet found on his daily treks.
He waited now, his face upturned to the slanting sun, listening. There was a squirrel running up a tree, a distinct sound, one he'd learned very quickly to identify. The squirrel scampered out on a narrow branch, making it wave up and down, its leaves rustling with the weight and movement.
Then there wasn't anything at all, just silence.
Copyright © 1998 Catherine Coulter. Reproduced with the permission of G P Putnam's Sons. All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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