"The Eye of the Hunter"

Rating and Reader Alerts: PG, contains violence

Story Summary: Hunter and hunted, who can say which is which on a given day?

The Author Would Like to Thank: Everyone who pushed, prodded, and helped make this story what it is now. Kimba, for putting up with every single updated paragraph. Daydreamer, for the beta. And Irish, for absolutelytearing it apart in places, so it could be assembled much better. What would I do without you guys?

Note: I hate FFnet's new text editor. What's wrong with spaces and our own dividers? Rar.


I. A Deadly Game

I watch them now, the unsuspecting fools. They don't think I know they've been following me, tracking my every move. Little do they know that now they are the hunted ones. I watch them now as they set up their camp for the night, blissfully unaware of how close to death's door they are. They're lucky, as I'll spare them now. Like any good hunter, I will get to know my prey better. A premature attack is the sign of an amateur.

The light has faded from the forest, and I watch the shorter of the two men as he feeds sticks into the fire. Long and lean, he reminds me of a proud buck I once hunted. The buck, however, took care to tame his hair, unlike this man's wild mane. The green jacket he wears does nothing to hide his presence among the leaves and dirt. The glow of the fire intensifies, and I take a few steps back, just to be on the safe side. He chatters on inanely about cows, while I watch his movements carefully. Movements say much more about a creature than words ever could.

He tosses another stick in the fire and leans back on his elbows, careless in the safety of the light of the fire. His hazel-green eyes dance with mischief as he teases the other man about some branding incident. For one who dares to hunt me, he seems awful confident that I won't rush in there and carve a chunk out of his carcass. I won't, but that's not the point. He's changed subjects, from cows to women. Typical cowboy. His companion doesn't seem to be paying him any mind, so I decide to direct my attention to him.

He's similar in build to the noisy man, but whereas the one by the fire is relaxed, I can sense the air of caution around this one. His taste in clothing is even worse than the other, if he's intending to blend in at all. Even even the most inattentive squirrel could spot the bright red shirt he wears. The black pants and vest may disguise him some at night, but are probably just as striking as the shirt during the daytime. His blue eyes narrow in suspicion as he glances around the clearing they've chosen for camp. I crouch lower to the ground instinctively. When he doesn't see anything, he draws the horses in closer to the fire before securing them for the night. I decide to keep a closer eye on this one; he may prove to be more cunning than his partner.

"Hey!" Noisy interrupts both my and Cautious' thoughts. "You all right there?"

"It's too quiet," Cautious mutters as he moves closer to the fire. "I think he's close."

"Aw, stop being so skittish! We just got on the trail today; there's no way he could know we're after him."

Yes, Noisy. I'm not even ten yards away from you. Please, continue to amaze me with your ignorance.

"Just the same, I don't think you should get too comfortable. He's tricky; I've already lost his trail twice today." Cautious drops down to his knees next to Noisy, who offers him a mug of foul smelling brew. "Thanks... just be on your guard."

Cautious' face grows hard as he glares right in my direction. However I know all he sees is darkness. "Remember what he did to Frank."

Noisy's face transforms instantly, dropping the mask of levity. "Hard to forget. Trust me. He won't get away with it."

Oh, won't I? I try to remember this "Frank" they're talking about. Perhaps they mean the nervous little man who took a shot at me? That's the only human I've seen in the past month. Of course he had it coming to him. I had been minding my own business, but this Frank man seemed to think I was trying to steal one of their oh so precious cows.

Perhaps I was... but I was hungry. It was a scrawny little thing too; they wouldn't have gotten a good price for it. I was saving them money. Then Frank had the nerve to try and shoot me. Did he give me fair warning? Did he try to tell me that I was taking what was obviously the next royal bloodline of beef? No. He tried to kill me. What I did next was simply self-defense... and a little gratification.

From the length of time it's taken them to find me, I guess they didn't find dear Frank for a while... or perhaps it just took them that long to realize who it was. I get a bit carried away when I get angry, I will admit.

I back away from camp; I've learned enough for tonight. I don't bother to cover my tracks, as part of me hopes that at least Cautious is smart enough to realize who they're dealing with. I doubt that he's a match for my cunning, but it would be nice to match wits with someone for once. Either way, the next few days are going to prove to be very fun.

After leaving my prey's camp that night, I weave a confusing path for them to follow the next day. If they're going to follow my every move, I might as well keep them entertained. No one can ever accuse me of being a bad host. That's one of the things Mother taught me early on. (Father would have taught me, but he was never around.) She also taught me to cover my tracks if any snoop started nosing around. All it takes is simply watching where you step, and leaving your marks only where you want them to be found. As soon as I lead them in well-planned circles and a few doubling backs, I'll make sure to take to higher ground where I won't leave any tracks. I'll let them search up there if they can follow the trail that far, but, after heading a safe distance, I'll take back to the wooded area to find a place to bed down for the day.

Dawn starts peeking over the horizon as I lay down. I'm not stupid though. I'm well covered in case they do manage to somehow find their way through the rocks. I'm not going to underestimate Cautious this early in the game, although I can easily write off Noisy as a tag-a-long. Perhaps I can use him as bait a little later on - snatch him away when he and Cautious separate. I close my eyes even as I feel my body tense in anticipation. Telling myself there will be plenty of time to plot out my next move, I allow myself slip into a light slumber.

II. The Arrogance of Men

I have been called many things. I am Cuguacuarana or the cougar, the puma, the mountain lion. The Paiutes call me Klandaghi, which means lord of the forest. The Washoes referred to me as the Cat of God. Many of the pale ones, not too unlike my prey, call me a devil cat. I am all of these things. I am a god to those who understand my power and respect it, and I'm a wrathful demon to those who dare intrude on my territory.

I wait until dusk settles this time before I seek out their camp. I'm one with the darkness as I silently creep along the trail they've unwittingly created for me. The impressions left in the soft dirt of the forest floor are as clear as day to me; I can see every movement they and their mounts have made. I start at the site of their previous camp, seeing the deep imprints of what I assume to be Cautious' boots next to where I prowled around their camp last night. I can't help but smirk as I imagine the concern etching his brow as he realizes how close I was to him and his friend last night. I briefly wonder what sort of expression settled on Noisy's face as it dawns on him that he's safe nowhere as long as he's in my domain.

I continue along, almost beside myself with glee as I watch their confused movements in the dirt where I doubled back on them. Noisy's steps become erratic for a moment. In my mind's eye, I can see him twirling around, wondering if I'm hovering in a tree over his shoulder and waiting for the opportune moment to take down one of my pursuers.

Soon, Noisy, soon. Let us play this game a little longer, shall we?

As I suspected, they lost my trail as soon as I took to the rocky terrain. I see in the dirt that they searched for a while, but they decided to give up and retreat back to the woods for the night. Perhaps they think it offers them protection from me. Tomorrow they'll know differently. I creep along the ground and I hear their voices carry along on the wind.

Stupid, so very stupid of them to give away their position. Or perhaps they already know hiding from me is futile. Although I can hear their words from a distance, I don't trouble myself with making out what they're saying until their camp is in sight.

"I bet you he's watching us right now!" Noisy paces the length of the camp before flinging an arm out in the darkness. He's nowhere close to my location though.

"Probably." Cautious is stretched out along his bedroll, watching Noisy's nervous motions with patience. I wish it were amusement... that would make him far more interesting.

"He's too damn smart." Noisy halts his pacing as he scrubs a hand across his face. "He's just toying with us - waiting until we drop our guard so he can pick us off."

Yes, Noisy, now you understand. I lick my lips as I taste his fear from this distance, and oh how so delicious it is. I wait for him to tell me more, however he surprises me by whirling on his companion.

"And you just sit there as if this is some picnic!"

I hope that Cautious decides to take this moment to take Noisy down with a well-placed barb, but apparently I don't have him pegged right.

"Yep." He leans back onto the saddle-turned-pillow, throwing Noisy a quick grin. "The way I figure it, we're dealing with one smart kitty."

He's even stupider than the loud one. He knows what he's dealing with, yet he doesn't have the common sense to be afraid!

"So you agree with me?" Noisy asks.

"I'm not disagreeing with you am I?"

"Weren't you the one telling me we have to keep our guard up?"

Yes, Cautious, I must know why you've suddenly joined Noisy in the ranks of stupidity. It seems as though you've suddenly switched places in just one day.

"Oh, I am, don't doubt that." Cautious raises a finger up to forestall an interruption. "Working myself to a frenzy isn't going to do either one of any good. I mean, if you want to, then by all means, do so. I'm going to be ready when he finally decides to strike though."

Interesting. Not that it's going to help you any when that time does come, but an interesting outlook nonetheless.

Noisy snorts as a smile starts to form. "You know, if you keep making sense like that, I might have to start taking you seriously."

I smother a grunt of annoyance at his arrogance, and listen as they start to chatter on about poker games, saloons, and - yes- women. After what seems like an eternity, they finally drift off to sleep. When the silence has settled around the camp, I quietly slink in, making sure to stay upwind. I quickly make my way over to the pack animal that chewed through its line, wandering away from the others for some late night grazing. Before it can make a sound I swiftly slash its throat.

"Blame your masters for this," I hiss as the life bleeds out of the stupid beast.

I make sure the horse is dead before moving back through camp. I pause, only feet away from the slumbering form of the loud one. It would be so easy to repeat my handiwork on him, however I force myself to continue on. As satisfying as it would feel now, I know the longer I wait, the more I make him sweat, then the more enjoyable the kill will be. I slide out of the camp like a shadow, the only mark of my presence in the form of a carcass.

I learned two important things tonight. The first one being that these two are less predictable than I realized. The second tidbit is far more important: their real names. I am hunting a Joe Cartwright and Candy Canaday.

III. The Master of Life and Death

The death of their packhorse, right under their noses, has the desired effect. They're both unnerved, although Candy -formerly known to me as Cautious- hides it much better. He does not rub the back of his neck every time he steps off his horse like Joe - who I still think is rather noisy- yet I can still sense the fear he tries to keep tightly clamped down. I've rested in naps today, preferring to keep a closer watch on my prey. They're far more amusing than I would have ever imagined. Their incessant prattling would get on my nerves, but, thankfully, I'm far away most of the time so I don't hear it.

I like watching Joe wrap his arms around his chest and bounce from one foot to the other as Candy tries to puzzle out my latest trick. I can tell he doesn't even realize he's doing it. Sometimes he'll scan the area around him, feeling my presence as I watch over them like a wrathful god. Every step he takes he feels the realization sink in further that I control life and death here. He only lives because I choose it to be so. When I decide it, death will visit him swiftly and without mercy.

I see him starting to unravel; soon he will make that fatal mistake and I will swoop in to end his pitiful existence. Until then, I'm content to let him amuse me. It's the other one that concerns me now.

Candy continues to track me with far more accuracy than should be allowed. My surveillance of their progress today has been impeded by the fact that I have to keep moving; otherwise, they will catch up - something I don't want to happen yet. He's far too sure of himself in his skills, and in his arrogance, to think that he can "be ready" for me when I decide to swoop in and crush him. This I cannot stand. The more I think about it, the more it infuriates me. His confidence has only been chipped away a little by my stalkings last night, and is serving as a buffer for Joe's fears. This insolent little pup needs to be taught a lesson.

Candy paces along the creek I passed through two hours ago trying to fathom how I managed to outsmart him once again. Joe is only a few steps behind, taking guard so his friend can concentrate on the tracks. This simply will not do at all. I need Candy to be alone for my plan to work. I glare at them from my vantage point high above on the rocks. Separating them will be tricky, as all of the hunted know that they are safer in groups. I don't mind a challenge though.

I withdraw from the top of the world and join my prey on the rocky slopes. I crouch low as I conceal myself behind the boulders lining the cliffs. I smirk in delight as I see Candy give up on the creek for now, throwing his arms up in frustration. After eavesdropping today, I can only imagine the conversation between him and Joe.

"God damn cat!" He swings around to face the grim expression of his companion. "What kind of crazed feline wades through water?"

I can assure you, Mr. Canaday, I was not overjoyed by the prospect myself, and as much as I hate to admit it, you're a better tracker than I originally thought you could be. Joe doesn't respond to the rhetorical question, so Candy continues.

"It's insane how smart this thing is! He's leading us in circles... he's trying to drive me nuts. You know that!"

Joe glances over his shoulder, feeling my gaze burn into his back. "I noticed that, too. I think he's behind us... I swear, I feel his eyes drilling holes through the back of my head."

"It's plain unnatural," Candy comments, as his gaze passes by my boulder hideout without pause. "We might as well have lunch now. Maybe a full stomach will help me figure out what trick he's pulled this time."

"I've got hard-tack here in my saddle bag," Joe lamely offers. "That's about it though since Kitty decided to take out the pack horse."

Ah, and I'm sure my small subjects didn't leave the food the carcass was guarding in too good of shape for you either? There are times when I really do enjoy those nighttime scavengers.

"Should've brought more," Candy rubs his temples, trying to block out the frustration I've mounted upon him. "If we head back for more supplies I think we might lose his trail for good."

Oh really? I inched forward, flicking my ears in the direction of the conversation. I thought they were too stupid to give up.

"We can't let that happen," Joe says with so much determination it startles me. "He'll kill again for sure."

Joe's voice drops low, so low I think so Candy can't hear it, but I can make the words out clearly. "Why he hasn't killed us yet I don't know..."

"He's not through playing with us," Candy spits out. "You ever seen a cat with a barn mouse? He'll bat it back and forth until it's so dizzy it doesn't know which way is up; he'll trap it under his paws, only to let it run away. It doesn't get too far, because then he'll snatch it up. Make no mistake, Joe, even if we wanted to leave here, he wouldn't let us."

I feel rage start to well up inside me at being compared to an ordinary house cat, but I squash it down and force myself to listen to the rest of their conversation. His insolence will be punished soon enough.

Joe stops glaring at my hiding spot and motions in the opposite direction. "There's a line shack just beyond that ridge there. Plenty of supplies there for a heartier meal. We can be there and back here without losing much light."

Candy presses his lips into a thin line as he considers this. "Let's keep looking. He had to come out of that creek somewhere."

"Look, we lost him in the rocks yesterday, and it looks like we've lost him in the creek today." As Joe starts to get assertive, I can see Candy bristling. Maybe I won't have to do anything. "We're not going to starve while you chase ghost trails, and I'm not going to leave you here alone while I get us something to eat. With how close he's been following us, I wouldn't be surprised if he was listening to us right now!"

I find myself above having to comment on the irony of that statement.

"I can live on hard tack as long as it takes me to pick up that trail again!" Candy growls.

Joe's shoulders bunch together as he tenses up, though I'm too far away to see for sure, I can imagine his eyes sparking in anger. "Well, as long as you can, that's all that matters, right?"

Candy's jaw clenches, but before he can continue, Joe presses on. "And what am I suppose to do? Watch your back as you follow the cat that's following us, and just wait for him to take us down one by one?"

"No!" Candy roars back. "Because I'm going to find him and kill him; because that's what we're out here to do!"

Really? No one informed me of this change in plans. Clearly, I've let this man think he was in control for far too long. Their argument rages on despite my annoyance.

"Damn it, Candy! He's beaten us for the day. Just admit it!"

"No." Candy's voice drops to a calm and controlled level. "He's beaten you."

I see Joe tighten at the accusation, and for a long moment, I'm sure it's going to come to blows. That moment passes though, and instead of slugging his friend, Joe practically flings himself away, stomping several paces towards that line shack I know he wants to seek shelter in. Candy growls and storms in the opposite direction. He's only a few feet from me now, and I can feel the anger and frustration radiating off of him.

I consider the situation presented before me. Joe faces away from us, caught up in his anger, yet has left his rifle in the scabbard on his saddle. Candy's rifle is in a similar situation, and he only stands a few feet from me. How could I resist such a tempting offer?

I see Candy spin around, some angry thought forming into words on his lips as I crawl onto the top of the boulder that's been my hiding place for the past few minutes. With the sun behind me, my shadow overtakes him and he sees me spring from my crouch in a beautiful arc before I land on him. His head bounces against the ground, and I hear a satisfying smack as it connects with the rocks. I see his eyes roll into the back of his head as he almost blacks out, but some sort of resilience keeps him conscious.

He struggles under my weight, futilely trying to push me off. I curl my claws into his chest - not far enough to draw blood, yet close enough so he can feel every sharp point as it presses painfully into his skin. His arms flail about, trying to pull my paws away from him. He quite simply isn't strong enough. I force this fact onto him as I lean my face close to his, opening my jaws wide enough so that he knows I can crush his skull that very instant if I so please.

I savor every tremble, every desperate struggle he offers. However, my fun is interrupted by a shout from Joe. Great. The idiot decides he has to turn around now instead of giving us a few more seconds. He's moving towards the spooked horses to grab his rifle- as if he could make it there before I could crush this weakling's windpipe with my paw, or tear him open with a swipe from my claws. No matter; I've made my point. With a satisfied rumble, I move off the fallen tracker and slink back into the anonymity the rocks provide.

His rifle is free by the time I blend back into my surroundings. I watch as he skids next to his friend, trying to rouse him from his shocked state. I savor the lingering taste of Candy's fear as I leave them. They both know now. They both know I am the master of life and death.

IV. The Lord of the Forest

After my display of power this afternoon, I find a secluded spot and stretch out for a long and well-deserved nap. The man's terror from this afternoon hangs at the back of my throat, and I find myself yearning for more of it. It's sweet but tangy, and the power it yields is far more intoxicating than that repulsive whiskey drink men insist on consuming. The cooling of the air around me alerts me to the falling sun, and I stretch the sleep out of my limbs. My stomach rumbles, reminding me that I spent most of the day observing my prey rather than finding any food.

I have to return to their camp tonight though; it would be bad manners otherwise. To taunt a prey consecutively, only to leave it expecting is just rude, and if anything, Klandaghi is not rude. My appetite must be satiated though. I briefly consider heading to the forest to stalk a deer on my way to the last point I saw the men. It would take up too much time. No, I will simply have to find something to satisfy me around wherever the men have decided to sleep tonight.

I pick up their trail at the creek then pause at the tracks. Curious. It seems that the arrogant one decided to stay on the ground for a little while after my visit for the impression is deeper than the spot where the loud one knelt. I move on, as there's no need to dwell on the tracks too long. Candy's strides are a bit more awkward. Probably trembling in fear of his discovery, I muse, as I reach the spot where they join the horses. I pick up my pace as the horses' strides lengthen, leading me towards the tree line. My mind recalls their conversation earlier, and I know before I reach there where they've decided to camp.

Sometimes these men that fancy themselves as hunters are so predictable. When it dawns on him what he's gotten himself into, he holes himself up behind wooden walls, thinking that he's safe from my wrath. It may stall me for a little while, however I am a creature used to sitting still for a long while as my prey's patience thins. They can hide away in their fort for a night or two, but eventually they have to come out.

The line of trees is thin around the shack. Normally this would be a problem as the light of the moon might give away my position. Not tonight though as the clouds are thick enough and have blocked it out most of the night. I see light spilling out of the windows of the cabin, so I know one of them is awake. It annoys me that I can't spy on them in my usual manner, yet I'm sure that I can find some way to let them know I've been around. I creep around the tree line, mindful of the direction of the wind. I know the equines are around here somewhere so I can't give away my position just yet.

The thought of horsemeat for dinner makes my mouth water, and my stomach begins to rumble. I have to stop and wait for it to quiet down before I continue. Cursed things these stomachs are, I assure you. I focus my thoughts on keeping my steps light, my scent away from the horses. I'll savor the taste of the kill when it comes, but I must not reveal myself before it's time. I creep across the ground, keeping my body and head so close to the ground they almost scrape it. As I press myself into the shadows around the cabin I try to see if I can hear anything through the walls to give me a clue of what goes on inside. The wall separating me from my prey muffles the sounds going on inside. Still, being a Cat God, I have hearing far superior to that of a mere human.

Boots scrape against the floorboards as one of the men paces back and forth. Joe has been more prone to pacing in our time together, although after earlier today... I can easily imagine Candy being agitated enough to prowl the walls of his prison too.

There's a creak as the pacer stops and rests his foot on a board. I wait and hope for the start of a conversation, but the thumping of boots tells me he has resumed his pacing. The other one is awfully quiet, which is a bit puzzling. I can't help but smirk as I wonder if maybe I terrified Candy into silence. Ah, that certainly would be a fun development.

You can imagine my disappointment when the annoying little man decides to finally speak. His voice sounds weighed down with fatigue and agitation. "Joe, if you pace across that cabin one more time I'm going to tie you down to that chair!"

The outburst has the desired effect since the thumping ceases. "I thought you were asleep."

"Hard to sleep with you making all that racket."

"How's your head?"

"It's fine. I can see all the fingers you hold up. I can remember that we ate cold mush this morning. I am not the conqueror of the New World like I claimed earlier, and I still know the difference between a stallion and a mare." Candy lets out a long sigh after his little rant.

The cabin descends into silence, and I wish the walls weren't there so I could witness the battle of wills I'm sure is still going on. The boots slam against the wood and the noise grows louder as Joe storms over to the wall. A small thump as something, perhaps his hands, meet the wall with more force than necessary. I hear him take in deep breaths, so I can imagine him trying to school the anger from his face.

His voice comes out controlled, except I can detect the hint of anger he can't keep from creeping into his voice. "You could have wound up like Frank. He had his jaws around your head" I hear a breath suck in past clenched teeth on the opposite end of the cabin, letting me know that Candy hasn't forgotten his lesson from earlier. Joe doesn't notice though, and continues, "and my rifle was ten yards away!"

The wall reverberates as Joe emphasizes his point by banging his fist against the wall. How mature.

"And so was mine." Candy counters in what I'm sure he wanted to be a calm voice, save that it's a bit higher than his usual conversational tone. I have to stop myself from purring with contentment. That unflappable confidence of his has been breached. He won't get it back before I finally end this game. "He was just... just playing with me."

"Don't worry; he can't get to us in here."

Once again, Noisy Joe, your stupidity amazes me.

"I'm not worried!"

I think I believe him as much as Joe does. A nicker from behind the cabin grabs my attention, and I decide to move my attention that way as they continue to fret over how to escape me. I round the corner to find the remaining two horses in a small wooden corral. Stupid humans with their annoying wooden contraptions. I'll have a harder time making a meal out of either animal if I have drag its carcass from the corral. No doubt that the moment I attack one, the other will scream its pathetic little head off and alert the humans inside.

This complication means that now it'd be easier to just leave my prey alone tonight – to find my meal elsewhere. However, I am a conqueror of men, so I refuse to let one of their little devices get the better of me. I bunch my shoulder muscles together before leaping out, eating up the distance between me and my targets with long strides. My focus narrows, until the only things left in the world are my new kills and I.

I'm so absorbed in my path that I don't hear the creak of the cabin door as one of the men exits. The pinto shrieks as I land in the middle of the corral then backs itself into a corner when I turn to face it. Behind me, I can hear the frantic thundering of hooves as the other horse tries to escape its pen. I ignore it in favor of my current victim, approaching with unrestrained glee. Terror pumps through the horse's veins, reaching out, begging me to free it with a grand swipe from my paw. I lumber forward calmly as the horse rears up in panic. Easily dodging the flying hooves I move in to strike, the image of the perfect killing machine.

Thunder roars and fire tears along my hind leg before I can reach my prey, causing me to falter. The pain forces me down, and I barely roll away in time before the pinto pounds me with its hooves in its effort to escape. I stagger to my feet, pain lancing up my back leg. My mind is awhirl as I spin around to see what hit me. There's another roar. The ground next to me explodes, knocking up a cloud of dust that obscures my vision. The towering form of a man with a rifle approaches, and the pain in my leg burns at the sight of the weapon. As the dust clears, I can see my assailant more clearly. I vow my revenge against Joe Cartwright.

Vengeance must wait, as I have to escape for the moment. I try to ignore the pain lancing up my leg as I wheel around the pen. I hear the cock of the rifle, and despite the horrendous pain trying to drag me down into oblivion, I use my back legs to spring out of the enclosure. I land forefeet first, yet as soon as my injured leg touches the ground, I feel my strength start to leave me.

Dark spots dance across my vision, only the sound of the booming gun behind me spurs me forward. I take to the trees, knowing that I'll leave a trail, but I can weave my way through the darkness enough to lose my pursuers. Exhaustion pulls at me by the time I reach the safe haven of my den. The pain in my leg has faded to a dull throb... I want nothing more than to give into the beckoning sleep. I nearly do so... then remind myself that I need to take care of my wound. The sight of my own blood marring the perfect coloring of my fur nearly makes me fall over in shock. Here I am a god, yet still I feel pain... and I bleed.

V. Hunger, Blood, and Fear

I don't sleep well that night. I am plagued by images of giants with rifles and my blood splattered around me, which ward away any real sleep. The only good thing about the coming of morning is that I feel no more pain in my leg, as long as I keep it still. I move it slightly, as if I'll prop myself up, then I feel it twinge in protest. Foul men and their accursed weapons! The hairless beasts have no real strength so they have to use the power of something else. I might have suffered an injury, but it is they who are still weak.

The noisy human earned his death warrant last night, and I will gladly serve it to him. I think of all the ways I could make him bleed, of the longest, most excruciating routes to his end. My plotting is interrupted by pangs of hunger. That annoying man really has inconvenienced me. Not only has he decided to try and cripple me, but now he has to make me feel hunger for the first time since I was a cub.

That first winter of mine I recall food being scarce; Mother had an impossible time trying to find enough food for my brother and me, much less for herself. She would disappear for long stretches of time as she searched for an unsuspecting yearling or a plump rabbit. She always returned though, most of the time with a kill. The times when she came back with nothing I remember feeling as if my insides were trying to eat their way out, just to find their fill.

The hunger I feel now isn't as bad as that. Still, I must find sustenance soon. I drag myself to my feet, scolding myself for my weakness. A lord does not kneel to pain. My muscles jerk in agony at the pressure although I remain standing. Awkwardly, I make my way out of my den to the cover of the forest. My movements are no longer fluid and graceful, as if heaven itself were guiding me. Another grievance that Cartwright will have to pay for.

Eventually, I manage a more efficient hobble that doesn't agitate my leg as much, allowing my speed to increase. The sun has already risen over the eastern horizon. I loathe having to hunt in the day, as I find the darkness a far superior advantage. I put my skills to use, finally picking up the scent of a rabbit not too far away. I creep through the foliage to the best of my ability, yet as I move to strike, the furry fiend scampers off. I curse my clumsy leg and continue prowling.

The next scent I pick up brings a snarl to my lip, but being the careful individual I am, I manage to resist making any noise. However Joe Cartwright and his companion have already left the area. I spy the tracks of the idiotic equines being led by the men, noting that Candy has taken the lead once again. The impressions in the ground tell me he stopped to examine a bush more closely, and I decide to see what grabbed his attention so. I don't have to get as close as he did to see the splash of red against the green leaves. My blood. A cruel reminder of my mortality.

I melt back into the foliage then turn to check on my leg, to make sure I'm not still leaving such an easy mark for them to follow me. It isn't bleeding; notwithstanding that the path the bullet carved in my leg is still clear to me. Anger boils within my veins as I turn away from the bush. They're following my tracks from last night. Knowing the tracking skills of my opponents, they'll catch up with me if I delay too long.

I return to my hunt with a new sense of urgency. The hunter has become the hunted once again.

I finally manage to find and kill a rabbit, despite the handicap my leg is proving to be. It does not alleviate my hunger completely, but at least I can think now. The pain in my leg is almost intolerable after being on the move constantly today so I finally give in to my body's complaints for rest. I try to take care, as much as I can, to cover my tracks before I slip into the cool shadows formed by the rocks where I first confronted the men the day before.

Has it only been a day? It seems like so much longer with how much running I've done. I tell myself that the rest is only temporary, as sleep tugs on my eyelids, but I find myself falling into a deep slumber. I find myself back with my brother after that hard winter, learning to hunt. My mother would watch us patiently as we stalked our prey. I, of course, was an excellent student, always managing to make one kill before the hunt was over. My brother preferred to practice his skills on me, and more than once I remember having to best him in a wrestling match. He seemed to have never grown out of his kitten stage, always just a touch too curious for his own good.

I go to thwap my brother across the face for scaring off my prey, but instead of my paw impacting flesh and fur, it meets rock. I open my eyes to see the shade of my rocks, and one paw pressing up against the wall. The sun's position has changed. Moreover, the shadows formed by the rocks have stretched further beyond me. I start to rise when I see a flash of green pass by my hiding place. I hunker down to the ground as close as I can, hoping that I'm just imagining things.

"No sign of him," my hated enemy announces to his partner-in-evil.

"Keep looking. The trail leads up into these rocks." Boots crunch on the tiny rocks over my shelter, telling me the location of the other man.

The flash of green I caught before returns into my line of sight. For the first time since my flight from the cabin, I see the foul beast who dared to try and kill a god. I want to growl. I want to tear his throat out, but all I can feel when I see the sun glint off the barrel of his rifle is my heart pounding in my chest. It's hammering so loudly I'm sure that even their puny human ears can hear it. I shrink further back into the shadows.

I inhale sharply as I realize that this shock coursing through my veins is fear. It tastes so sweet when it's reflected in the eyes of my prey, but I never thought that I would find myself subject to its power. It's humbling yet humiliating at the same time, and if possible, my hatred for this man who has done this to me grows even more.

I watch him now as he and his friend comb the rocks searching for me. It's pure luck, or dumb human oversight, that they've missed me. Candy has seemed to have regained his sense of calm since last night, no doubt due to my blood being splattered across half the country. He probably feels safe in knowing that I can be killed just as them. He turns to Joe now, discussing their next move. It seems they have lost me in the rocks.

Watching them, I am reminded of my brother. When he did apply himself, we made a formidable team. I miss him some times, as he always had an amusing outlook on life. If he were here right now those two men would be nothing but bloody strips. Too bad I had to kill him though. He tried to take a mate I had chosen, and well... that's just the way things work out here.

The men finally give up on finding me in the rocks so I am able to leave my haven as dusk settles. Their scent still lingers, and I begin to follow it to where I hope their campsite will be. My leg is stiff from having to hold one position for so long, so I follow the trail slower than I usually would. This is fine, as it gives them more time to settle in for the night. They've drawn my blood; they have made me feel hunger and fear. For this they cannot simply die. They must be executed.

VI. His Name Was Death

I come across their camp, only to find it empty. This surprises me more than the fact that they haven't retreated back to their cabin. I flick my ears back as I scan the campsite for some clue as to what's going on. I can see their saddles strewn on the ground, the bedrolls unfurled, and a fire blazing in the center of all this havoc. These are obvious signs of their encampment. The overpowering smell of their horses is another sign, as is the underlying scent of human sweat. A curious development... curious... unsettling.

I dare not enter the sphere of light created by the fire, so instead I prowl the perimeter it creates. I take careful steps, being sure to avoid causing the slightest rustle of leaves. I am surrounded by silence, I can never recall the forest being this quiet. A hush usually spreads in the wake of my arrival every night, but this is different. Dare I say, almost unnatural? I think so.

The deafening silence must be connected with my enemy's disappearance from camp. They surely aren't wily enough to try and set a trap for me, are they? That would be giving them entirely too much credit. They have the beginnings of intelligence, yes, but they have not contemplated life beyond the next woman they'll woo. Still... where are they?

My annoyance intensifies with every step I take, partly due to the growing weakness in my injured leg. Here I come for a farewell visit, and they decide to hide in the trees? I glance up at the limbs hanging over me at this thought; they are empty save for a raccoon that scurries away upon my scrutiny. At least some here still remember my power. I sneer at the retreating vermin before continuing my search.

I decide to follow the horse stench, as that will surely lead me to the cowards. I find the animals a small way away from camp unguarded and tied to a tree. My not-quite-sated appetite tempts me to try and finish what I started last night, but I'm held back by the thought of another bullet tearing through my flesh.

No, I narrow my eyes to study the situation closer; this is entirely too easy. While these two are stupid, they have showed that they can learn. I doubt they would leave their horses so far from camp, just begging for me to tear them apart. I pause as I ponder the likelihood of this being a trap. If it is, it has to be the most unimaginative one ever planned. As if I'm really going to walk in so they can shoot me? Have they not rambled on about my intelligence, only to doubt it at this point?

I heave a deep sigh, reminding myself that they're only humans. I should be impressed that they put this much forethought into this endeavor, however, I just feel insulted instead. I examine the area, trying to pinpoint where they're hiding. Even with my superior vision, I have to admit they've hidden well. I decide to double back the way I came and circle around them. I have grown tired of this game. It's past time to sever those men's ties to the living.

I sweep out a wide area then begin to work my way in, all senses on alert for my unsuspecting snipers. A misstep sends a blinding pain shooting up my leg. I take in deep breaths, focusing on my hate and how close I am to my revenge. It does nothing to kill the pain. Still, it gives me the strength to take that next step, and the one after it. I repeat this process as I weave through the trees. Minutes fly by as I eat up the area surrounding the horses. I begin to think that perhaps I made a miscalculation on the whereabouts of these brave "hunters".

Actually, I nearly miss him as I finally gain speed with my crippled limb. I guess that green jacket of his gave him some camouflage after all. He faces the horses, intently watching them for a sign of me. I duck into a patch of darkness as he turns to look over his shoulder. The rifle is held firmly in his left hand, and I see flashes of the giant from my dreams, except now he wears Joe's face. A spike of fear races down my spine, causing me to take a step further into the darkness.

This is what he's reduced me to. No longer am I a god ruling over his domain, but a kitten cowering in the darkness? I sicken myself. This has to stop! There is only way for me to re-take my rightful place as ruler. I must eliminate the one who knocked me from my throne. Filled with determination, I take that step forward. He sends another glance over his shoulder, and I wait on the edge of the darkness. Finally he gives up trying to see the phantoms behind him. I take this as my cue to act.

My injured leg drags a little, but I reach the halfway point before he even realizes I'm closing in. Perhaps he hears my footfalls, or a sixth sense alerts him, as he looks back to see me gaining on him. He spins around, bringing the tightly clutched rifle to bear. I'm ready for the shot as it leaves the gun, jumping to the side, yet still moving forwards. Then I am upon him so the rifle is useless. I take a swipe at his throat. He blocks my claws with the barrel of the gun. I growl and try to gouge his eyes out with my other paw. He flings an arm up to protect his face. My claws sink into his flesh, and I am rewarded with the gratifying sound of his cry of pain with warm blood racing out of his arm to greet me.

My victory is short-lived as his knee jams into my ribcage, causing me to hitch a breath and him to gain leverage in forcing me off. I recover quickly. We wind up rolling on the ground several times as each of us struggle for control. First he is on top, trying to deal out damage with his bare fists. Then a flip from me gives me the dominant position so I try to score another blow on him. He knocks my claws away and turns us again. Now he tries to untangle himself from me so he can get to his feet, and, presumably to his gun. I sink my claws into his shoulders. The shock - the pain - allows me to pin him to the ground.

I could end it in one simple swipe to the neck, or I could crush his throat with one snap of my jaws. It's too quick though, after what he did to me. He must suffer for the wounds he's inflicted - the fear he's made me feel. I release one of his shoulders long enough to rake my claws over his chest. He shudders under my touch then grabs a hold of my bloody paw with both of his hands trying to drag it away. My vengeance and I are too strong. I shake his hands off, deciding to take out his left arm next. I am able to carve ribbons into his upper-arm when I hear the sound of rapid footfalls.

At this moment I realize I have forgotten the other one. No doubt he carries a rifle as well, so I come to the sad conclusion that I must cut my torture session short. The pounding of the boots against the ground grow louder as I raise my paw up for the final kill. I look down into the wide green eyes of my nemesis and relish the look of unadulterated fear staring at me. He now stares his death in the face. His eyes narrow suddenly, and I see the stubborn determination set in.

I have taken more lives than you can imagine, and each time without fail they all quivered in fear. This is the first time one has faced it with courage. This simple act robs me of the pleasure of the kill. He must leave this world in terror, for I always have the final say!

"Joe!"

With Candy closing in on our position fast, I work on disabling Joe. I use my claws to gouge into his arms. A rifle cocks behind me as I close my jaws around his leg. I can't move fast enough with my clumsy leg. Joe's cry of pain is drowned out by the roar of the rifle. I give out an enraged, pain-filled shriek as a slug digs deep into my already injured leg. The force of the blast knocks my footing out from under me. The fire tearing up my insides tries to steal my attention, but I focus on moving with my three good legs. Another shot is loaded as I fishtail away from Joe.

The next shot whizzes over me and I hear a sharp crack as it plows into a tree. Time slows as I look up into the hardened face of my other foe. I see the frown set as he adjusts his aim. The barrel shifts towards me ... I focus in on it. I launch forward as I see the lever of the gun push downward. A bullet is jammed into the rifle as the lever slams back into place. His finger starts to inch back on the trigger. I heave myself upright to knock the gun out of his hand with a forceful smack of my paw.

A dumbfounded look flashes across Candy's face as he realizes that his gun is no longer in his possession. I fall back to all fours as he stares at me for a moment. Then he dives for the rifle, and I dive for him. He falls a few inches short of his goal, as do I. That damn leg really isn't helping me any. He lunges for the rifle, but I grab a hold of his legs before he can reach it and yank him towards me. My claws sink in through his pants, into his skin. I hear him hiss in pain.

He tries for the rifle again. I tug him further from it. He struggles twisting under my grip then. I tighten my hold. A grin of satisfaction spreads across my face as I lean closer to him, ready to continue our previous lesson. He surprises me by pushing himself towards me, almost as if he were welcoming the end. I never saw him as suicidal, but am I one to complain if he's eager for death?

The push becomes a shove off of the ground as his elbow drills into my chin. My head snaps back with the force, yet my claws sink in deeper still. All his bravado has earned him is more suffering. I slap him across the face with the back of my paw, which dazes him long enough so that I can gain a better position.

A grunt from across the battlefield draws my attention, Joe is heaving himself up, I see. I know he is too injured to be of any help. Why does he persist on doing so despite the pain?

The man under me squirms as he regains his senses; therefore I smash his face back into the dirt. I glance back up to see Joe renew his efforts to move. Interesting. I tear a slice along my captive's chest, which elicits a pained cry. Joe's head snaps up. Though we are several yards apart, I can see the perturbed look that takes over. Oh, how touching. He's not afraid of his own deathI gleefully slash my claws along Candy's shouldershowever he doesn't want to see his friend in pain.

Candy thrashes under me, kicking his legs, flailing his trapped arms about. I give him another smack to the head, this time with the clawed side of my paws. His struggling ceases as his head rings, so I use the opportunity to rake my claws over his abdomen. I look up to see a horrified look on Joe's face as he uses his good leg to push himself along the ground towards the nearest rifle. He tries to gain traction with his arms, but I can see they're proving to be more of a burden than a help. Good, now he gets a taste of his own medicine.

The man under me continues to struggle, except the flailings don't seem as wild as before. I believe he's weakening, which is boring. Terror pumps through him now. I can feel it pulsate under my paws - I can smell it on the blood spilling from his wounds. The aroma makes my mouth salivate, and I wonder why I've never dined on the flesh of men before. No time like the present though. I place both of my paws on Candy's shoulders, firmly pinning him to the ground. I open my jaws then lean towards his face, seeing his eyes widen with the realization he's about to become an appetizer. His struggles renew, now more desperate than ever. I look up one final time to watch Joe's face before I deliver the killing blow.

I see a grim-set face and the barrel of a gun at the same time I hear the roar of the rifle. The bullet slices along my neck before plowing into my shoulder. I'm knocked back, but before I can recover, I feel fire explode in my chest. My world blurs in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. I fall back as I distantly feel myself knocked back by another shot to my chest. I try to move... I can't seem to get my legs working.

It takes more effort to move my head than the time I took down that king buck. The world is hazy, as if I'm trying to see it through a fog. I watch as the rifle drops out of Joe's hand then he staggers forward. Candy pulls himself up and towards Joe in pain-filled motions. They slowly start to fade, and... I realize that I'm the one who's slipping away. Through lidded eyes, I watch their sluggish movements that tell me I got them as good as they got me. The world then goes black as my eyes close and weightlessness overcomes me. I'd lunge for them... scream in denial... tear something to shreds - anything to confirm that I'm actually still here. That would be undignified though. I may be dying, still I know they won't survive either. They'll never reach a doctor in time to treat their wounds. So in the end- even if I've lost - I still win. After all, if a god can't survive a battle like this, how can two insignificant men?

END