Chapter 29: Poachers

Snake eyes stiffened. We got trouble. The men saw Shana. She's traveling with them now under the guise of a lost hiker. She has them convinced she's an empty-headed silly female.

"Empty-headed and silly are not words that come to mind when talking about Shana O'Hara," Charlie said, but smiled anyway. "We married some clever girls, didn't we."

Snake Eyes smiled back. We may be stupid males, but at least we were smart enough to marry clever females.

Charlie laughed—then had to turn and translate for the park ranger standing next to them. "Snake Eyes' wife was spotted as she tried to follow the poachers, and to make sure they didn't see her as a threat, she pretended to be a lost hiker. But they're on their way back now; the girls scared enough game off that the poachers haven't shot anything today and they're turning around and coming back. Get ready to apprehend them—but also be warned that the red-haired woman with them is his wife and a trained Army soldier."

The ranger looked unconvinced, but nodded.

He'd been looking unconvinced the whole time, from the moment that Charlie met him at the cabin and led them to the forward operations base Snake Eyes had established overlooking the poacher's camp. Their expressions said it all; you guys are Army elite? The skeptical looks had lessened somewhat when confronted with Snake Eyes' scarred, forbidding visage; but there were still some reservations, especially when Charlie told the Rangers that they were honeymooning here with their wives, both also military, and had run across poachers.

A group of the rangers had already gone back down the trail, taking a circuitous route to where the carcasses had been left to rot, and had taken pictures. Disposal was another matter; but it had eventually been decided to simply leave them there; the vultures and carrion birds were already busy, and some larger carnivore had evidently staked a claim as well, so it had been decided to let nature take care of the remains. Now they were all just waiting for all the poachers to return to camp before rounding them all up.

They were all a little worried about the cub inside the crate; apart from the howl when the man had kicked the side of the crate—a move he repeated every couple of hours as if to make sure the captive in it remained alive—the prisoner inside the crate was silent and apparently not making an attempt to escape. No scratching, clawing, hissing, protesting; Charlie was worried the cub was either too young to be separated from its mother or injured/dying.

It was just after sunset, though the last of the light hadn't yet left the sky, that Cam finally joined them. She nodded simply to the Ranger, then addressed all of them. "They're coming. Shana's fine, she's been pretending to be a silly giggling idiot so they wouldn't suspect a thing. They actually think she's a model, here on assignment for a photo shoot; she's been telling them all the stories Courtney's told us about her time as a supermodel, and they've bought it, hook, line and sinker. Gullible idiots, but it's worked to our advantage so I'm not going to complain too much." A slight smile. "She's very good at it, though; she's shoveled enough verbal manure on them that she could have fertilized half the mountain by now, and they bought it, every single bit."

And sure enough, not half an hour later, here came Shana, hanging on the arm of the lead poacher and giggling. By this time, the rangers had arranged themselves around the perimeter of the camp, waiting with guns and rifles for a signal to move in and arrest the poachers. The lead Ranger looked even more skeptical when he saw the long red hair hanging loose, the porcelain skin and long legs under the shorts.

The poachers strolled into the camp, plunked their bags and packs down with a sigh as the leader went to talk to the guy they'd left behind watching the camp. As soon as he stepped away from her side, Shana reached down, picked up the rifle, and cocked it. "You're all under arrest for poaching."

The leader stared at her in disbelief. "Looky here, missy.."

"Don't 'Missy' me. You know those trees you passed with the black and red stripes? That was my land you trespassed on. My land and my husband's. You idiot, all that time I spent walking with you and you never once noticed my wedding ring?"

"Well, now, Ma'am…"

"And get another thing straight. The name is Shana. Not Missy, not ma'am, not 'pretty lil thing' or any of the other things you've called me while we were walking back." She held the gun steady with one hand while she fished her dog tags out from under her shirt. "If you have a problem saying my name, you can call me by my rank. Master Sergeant Shana O'Hara, US Army." Snake Eyes, Cam, and Charlie stepped out to flank her, and she nodded to them. "You've already met Corporal Cameron Arlington, and beside her is her husband Specialist Charlie Ironknife, and this is my husband Master Sergeant Snake Eyes. No, I'm not giving you his name because if I did I'd have to kill you, and I'd much prefer that you stood trial for the animals you wantonly slaughtered."

The leader finally found his voice. "The four of you can't arrest the fifteen of us."

Shana moved so quickly he never even saw her coming. One moment she was facing him with his gun, the next minute Snake Eyes was holding the hunting rifle that had been in her hands, and the leader was flat on the ground with his arm once again twisted up his back, exactly as Cam had pinned him hours earlier. "I can break this arm right now and while you were screaming I can get three more. And Snake Eyes is even better. Do you really want to tempt me, because I swear I'll do it. Mountain lions are endangered, and you've killed three. And there's a baby animal in that wooden crate."

She looked up as the park ranger sauntered out of the bushes, followed by the rest of the rangers who had hidden around the perimeter of the camp. They stepped out with guns raised, but there was little point; the other poachers had put their guns down and were standing with their hands on their heads, plainly surrendering.

The head Ranger, whose name plate read Lewis, was rubbing his chin as he walked up, but it didn't quite hide the grin. "If you twist that arm off, Master Sergeant ma'am, we won't be able to handcuff him, so I suggest maybe you might want to consider leaving it attached for now."

Shana looked down at the poacher. "But if I twist his arm off he'll never be able to go hunting again. That's got a lot more appeal for me right now."

"If he asked you nicely?" Lewis seemed to be enjoying himself way too much.

Shana regarded the man on the ground. "I might consider it."

Lewis crouched on one knee next to the poacher's face. "Now, I know it smarts, getting bested by a slip of a girl you thought was a silly bubble-headed female, but from where I'm standing, buddy, you got serious problem and a little humility might go a long way right about now. A long way toward keeping your arm. So how about it, you want to think about apologizing to the Master Sergeant here for trespassing on her land and asking her nicely if you can keep your arm?"

The man mumbled something unintelligible.

"Did I hear something? I wasn't sure." Shana leaned forward, the simple movement applying a little more pressure on his arm—in the wrong direction.

He howled. "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry!"

"Ooh. That sounded almost convincing." Shana was obviously enjoying herself. Snake Eyes was trying—and not quite managing—to hide his smile. Ranger Lewis wasn't even bothering to hide his smile anymore, and a few of his rangers were laughing outright.

The poacher's face was red as he struggled to lift his cheek clear off the ground. "I'm sorry for trespassing please don't rip off my arm!"

"Well, seeing how you asked. Somewhat politely…" Shana stepped off him and let his arm go. The limb flopped limply into the dirt, and the man gave a huge exhale of relief, then made mo protest as two park rangers pulled him up off the ground and handcuffed his arms behind his back. None too gently either.

"Now, I know the penalties for poaching aren't really all that stiff, but I swear to you, every one of you—if I catch you on my land again—anything inside the boundary of trees marked with one black and one red stripe—I will shoot on sight." Shana took the hunting rifle from Snake Eyes, shouldered it carefully, aimed at a nearby tent. "See that bee on the canvas?" She fired.

The bee was gone, replaced by a gaping hole. She was expressionless as she gave the gun to Ranger Lewis. "If I'd really wanted to kill you all, I could have done so by now, very easily. You are lucky I did not, but don't push your luck—if you trespass again I will shoot to kill. You'd have been like that bee, gone before he even knew he was in danger. Now, get off my land!" Her voice dropped to a low growl, the dangerous sound of Shana O'Hara completely pissed off.

The men needed no further urging; they piled into the Rangers' vehicles almost eagerly—anything to get away from the red-haired thunderstorm watching them with cold eyes. Shana watched the rangers start loading them in, then turned her attention to her friends.

Cam had crossed the clearing to the wooden crate and was crouched next to it, nails scrabbling at the wooden slats, trying to figure out how to open it. "The lid is nailed down. They didn't intend for the baby to get out."

Ranger Lewis cleared his throat. "It's become something of a sport around here for ranchers who lost livestock to a mountain lion to find a baby one, put it in a crate and tease and torment it until it dies. We've been trying to find out who was bringing the babies down out of the mountains. I guess we found the culprits."

"I want it out of there." Cam was still scraping at the crate with her fingers, ignoring splinters as she tried to get it open, and Shana realized it was because Cam felt some sort of empathy with this imprisoned baby.

Snake Eyes laid a hand on her shoulder; she responded to the unspoken request and sat back. One fast side kick from Snake Eyes later and the side of the crate caved in, and Cam reached in and picked up a handful of fur.

And to their surprise, it wasn't a mountain lion cub, but a wolf cub. Trapped inside the crate, it had been forced to relieve itself and the results had plastered its fur to it. It seemed weak; it barely moved as Cam picked it up, and as she gently peeled one eyelid back to take a look at it, it whimpered feebly and closed its eyes again.

Cradling it in her arms, unmindful of the fecal matter that plastered its stinking fur down to its body, Cam unscrewed the top of her canteen and gently tipped water into the cub's mouth. At first it didn't swallow, but when she sat down on the ground, put it in her lap, and gently rubbed its throat, it finally swallowed—and then opened its mouth for more. "It's still alive. It can be saved. Do you guys have an animal shelter or something that will take orphaned cubs like this one in?"

Ranger Lewis scratched his head. "Well, we do, but they're understaffed and shorthanded and they don't take ones this little. They can't watch these babies and handfeed them and take care of them. There is a wildlife ranch in Oregon who will take babies like this, but it'll take them a week to get out here."

"So what happens? Are you just going to leave it here to die?" Shana demanded incredulously.

Ranger Lewis shrugged. "Sorry, Mrs. O'Hara. There's simply not enough personnel to care for it until the wildlife rescue people come to get it."

"I'll take care of it." Cam said determinedly. "For a week, until the rescue people get here. I'm assuming there's a replacement formula or some equivalent that can be given?"

"Um…there is, and the animal shelter does have some, but… it's a lot of work."

Shana looked at the little bundle of fur whimpering pathetically in Cam's lap, now eagerly sucking down water from Cam's canteen, and rolled her eyes. "We're Army. We're not afraid of hard work. We'll take it home with us—can you get some of the formula from the animal shelter and bring it back?"

"I'll go with them," Charlie said instantly. "The cub will need blankets and an animal crate and supplies, so while I'm in town I can get those. Snake Eyes can come with me and we can get everything you girls will need to take care of it."

Shana aimed a swat in his direction. "Go get the supplies, Specialist."

"Aye aye, Master Sergeant, Ma'am." He saluted, but it was spoiled by his and Snake Eyes' grin, and then they headed in the direction of their vehicle, which Charlie had driven here with the Rangers.

Back at the cabin, Shana out her hands on her hips. "He is not coming into the house—"

"Shana!" Cam protested.

"—until he has a bath. Phew. He stinks. He can't want to keep smelling like that."

Cam raised an eyebrow. "Shana, he's a wolf. I don't think he cares how he smells."

"I don't care what he thinks. He's getting a bath." Shana shook her head briskly. "I don't know what's gotten into me, I can't imagine what possessed me to let you bring that ball of fur into my nice clean house, but for some reason I can't turn away a baby. So. He's getting a bath before he comes in." She disappeared into the house, came back with a pair of heavy leather gardening gloves. "You," she stabbed a finger in Cam's direction, "go in and get washed up and changed. You got his crap all over your clothes and you smell only slightly better than he does." Cam giggled and ducked around Shana to go inside.

He did not like the bath.

The little water Cam had given him seemed to have revived him somewhat, and he protested at the top of his little baby lungs at the treatment he was receiving as Shana dunked him in a tub that she usually left sitting next to the back door so that if she or Snake Eyes was out in the meadow barefooted they could rinse their feet before walking in. This got the worst of the gunk out of his fur, and then she paused as she dumped out the water and put a little more—about an inch—inside the tub, and put him down in it. His plaintive howls followed her in, then abated as she came back out with the liquid soap they used for the dishes—the brand was one that, according to its advertising, was used to wash oil off waterfowl feathers, so she supposed it would be safe for him; she didn't want to use her shampoo in case it had something he was allergic to in it.

He didn't like the soaping and rinsing part, and when she brought out an old towel, ragged at the edges, she thought he was going to try and shred it with his claws and teeth. To her surprise, however, he submitted with surprising meekness to being wrapped up in a towel, and by the time Charlie and Snake Eyes came back with formula, a wire dog crate, sturdy pet blankets and a bottle with a silicone nipple on it, he was settled on Cam's lap, mostly contented, while Shana chopped vegetables for a salad and watched the water start to boil for pasta.

Cam put the cub down on the couch and came into the kitchen, grabbing the bottle and filling it with water from the tap, then adding some of the 'puppy replacement formula' powder to the bottle and shook it briskly. She was about to carry it out into the living room when Shana gasped. "You're giving it to him like that?"

"What's wrong with it?" Cam frowned in puzzlement at the bottle.

"You have to warm it up, Cam, you can't just give it to him cold. Did you use cold tap water or did you use warm?" She touched the side of the bottle. "Look. It's cold. He'll hate it cold. He's a baby, Cam, you have to warm it up for him." She grabbed a pair of tongs, firmly grasped the bottle in them, and dropped the bottom half of the bottle into the pot of water she'd put on to boil for the pasta. Two minutes later she fished it out with the tongs, wrapped it in a kitchen towel, and shook it until the cold inner contents mixed with the contents of the bottle closest to the outside, and the temperature of the formula equalized. "See, this is how you do it. If you don't use warm water, you have to heat it up for him," she started to say as she turned toward the living room…and stopped.

The cub was sitting there between the living room and the kitchen, panting softly. And he wasn't looking at Cam, who was now holding the bottle—he was looking right at Shana. As Cam walked over to him, holding the bottle, he growled at her, then got up on wobbly little feet and padded over to Shana, where he then sat down at her feet and stared at her expectantly.

"Hey, she's got the bottle, she's the one who decided to bring you here." Shana pointed to Cam, gently tried to turn his head in Cam's direction. "Go see her." Undeterred, the cub turned around and stared at her. Cam came over, tried to hold the bottle in front of him, nipple first. He ignored her—and the bottle—completely, focusing instead on Shana.

"I think he's decided you're his new mama," Cam chuckled. "Congratulations, Shana, it's a boy."

Shana gave Cam a dirty look, but took the bottle and settled on the kitchen floor with the cub in her lap, sucking happily.