The Calling Page 22

We’d reached the bottom of the mountain when Kenjii stopped. Her ears swiveled forward and she glanced up into the trees.

“Cat,” I said to the others.

Corey looked at Kenjii, who was silently scanning the treetops. “Yeah, you can tell by the way she’s going crazy, barking and racing around to drive off the despicable feline. Your dog is weird, Maya.”

“No, she’s just accustomed to Fitz,” Daniel said.

True, but Kenjii hadn’t minded felines even before Fitz—a three-legged bobcat—adopted us. She’d grown up with a wild cat—a partial one, at least.

A sudden yowl made Hayley jump and Kenjii stiffened, her expression not nearly as friendly now.

“Cougar,” I said, motioning the others back.

A flash of tawny flank ten meters overhead confirmed it. I continued to back everyone up slowly. The cat was high in the tree, stretched out on a sturdy branch. A female. I could tell by the size, and the first thing I thought was It’s Annie. She’s come looking for Rafe.

But it wasn’t. Like me, Annie had a paw-print birthmark on her hip. There was no mark on this cat’s flank.

The cat peered down at us, her black-tipped ears swiveling, long, thick tail flicking. When I kept moving the others back, Corey said, “I get that cougars are dangerous, Maya, but this one doesn’t look that big.”

“Because she’s way up there,” Daniel said.

I nodded. “It’s a female. She’s smaller than a male, but she’s still bigger than Kenjii. One chomp of those fangs would be the last thing you felt. And she wouldn’t hesitate to do it if you got in her way. So let’s just give her some room. Please.”

The cat yowled again, then got up and stood on the branch, lowering her head to peer down at us.

“I think she’s hungry,” Sam said.

I shook my head. “It’s not winter yet. She isn’t starving, and she wouldn’t attack five of us even if she was. Something’s wrong.”

It wasn’t odd that the cat had let us get so close. Cougars are masters of camouflage. We might have passed right under her if it wasn’t for that yowl. Which is how I knew something was bothering her. No way should she have let out that cry and given herself away.

Something was bothering me, too. A black pit of anxiety swirled in my gut. I found my gaze drawn up to the cougar. As I met her eyes, I felt a fresh jolt of fear. The cat paced along the branch, and I knew it wasn’t my own anxiety I was feeling.

“Uh, Maya?” Corey called. “You said she was dangerous, so can we leave the kitty alone now?”

“Something’s really bothering her.”

Daniel walked over. “Is she hurt?”

“I don’t think so. Just … upset. Anxious.”

“Um,yeah,” Corey said. “Because there are a bunch of teenagers and a very big dog blocking her way down.”

“That’s not it,” I said. “She—”

The cat’s ears swiveled and she looked sharply to the east. I caught a high-pitched whine.

“An ATV.”

The others glanced about until the sound got louder. Corey heard it first and grinned.

“Hallelujah,” he said. “I never thought I’d be happy to hear one of those damned things.”

I flashed back to the last ATV I’d seen—driven by the people who’d set the fire. Daniel caught my eye, obviously thinking the same thing.

Corey hobbled forward. “It’s just over there. Heading this—”

The ATV headlight bobbed into view. Daniel shoved Corey to the ground, yelling “Down!” to the rest of us. Sam and I obeyed. Hayley looked around, confused, until I grabbed her hand and yanked her.

“What the hell?” Corey whispered.

“Have you forgotten the last time someone ran toward rescuers?” Sam hissed. “Nicole?”

Hayley paled and flattened herself against the ground.

“That was on the other side of the hill,” Corey said. “How would they even know to look for us here?”

“They had ATVs before,” Daniel said. “If they’re the same guys, they’ve had plenty of time to load those ATVs on a truck and bring them up. We should back into those bushes and watch.”

The bushes were about ten meters away. As we crawled into them, we startled a couple of deer on the other side. They bolted, heading straight for the ATV.

There was a thud and a shout. The ATV motor died.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” A man’s voice rang through the forest.

A radio squawked. He answered it.

“Yeah, that was me. Just hit a deer. Remind me who had the bright idea to use these damn things? Some project manager sitting in his fancy L.A. office, I’ll bet. Never seen a forest, much less tried to search one. I could have hit one of the kids for all I would have noticed, whipping around like this. I can barely see through these woods. Can’t hear anything. But you can bet your ass those kids can hear us.”

“And a good thing, too,” Corey muttered.

A voice tried to interrupt the man’s tirade, but he cut it off, saying, “Calvin’s got the right idea, searching on foot. I’m leaving this piece of crap here. If the Nasts want it, they can come get it. Tell Calvin I’ll meet him at the bend in ten.”

We heard the man stalk off, branches crackling in his wake.

“Now that’s sweet,” Corey said when he was gone. “An ATV, just sitting there, ours for the taking. The ride goes to the handicapped guy.”

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