He sat silently on the porch, the old rocker creaking quietly under him as he waited in the darkness. All the lights in his cabin were off and he had turned off the automated lights in the yard as well. The night was clear and cool, the first hint of fall in the air and a soft breeze was flowing down the mountainside.
He was, by nature, a patient man, content to sit and wait as long as it took. He let his eyes roam the forest edge, never stopping, never resting on one spot for very long. He knew his peripheral vision would pick up any movement, anything that didn't belong. The moon was high in the sky, the pale light casting sharp shadows around the bases of the trees at the tree line, and the few small bushes that had come up between the trees and the cabin since the last time he cleared the land there.
He knew his target was out there, he could feel it creeping, stalking, watching. The feeling was like a prickle on his skin, an itch between his shoulder blades. The rifle that lay across his knees was a solid, dependable presence as it rested under his hand. It was just a matter of time.
A hour passed, then a second hour before he sensed movement off to his left. He didn't turn his head or look directly, instead allowing his eyes to scan near where he thought he had spotted the shape. The moon had moved on and was at an angle that cast longer, sharp-edged shadows and the shape he was watching was softer, rounder. It was this difference, as much as the slow movement, that caught his attention.
He could see it now, not clearly, but as a lighter shape against the darkness. It was creeping closer, angling towards its prey on the north side of the cabin. He moved slowly, a glacial pace, raising the rifle towards his shoulder until the butt was firmly wedged in place, the sling tight around his supporting arm. He put his eye to the scope and hit the button, the light gathering mechanism silently began to brighten the scene in a phosphorescent green glow.
He breathed out, then in and, on the exhale, let half the breath go and held, his finger caressing the trigger. He found his target and slowly squeezed the trigger, almost, but not quite, surprised when the shot broke. The recoil was negligible, just a strong push, but the noise, after hours of silence, was startling.
He rode the recoil, bringing the scope back on target quickly in case he needed a follow-up shot, but it was all over. His target thrashed for a moment then stopped moving. He watched for a minute longer and then sighed, heaving himself up out of the rocker and stepped down off the covered porch.
He walked the thirty or so yards to the body and nudged it with his toe, rolling it over. He shook his head, saddened, but not remorseful. Life was tough out here on the mountain, and beautiful female or not, he couldn't afford to lose his hens this close to the beginning of winter.
Slinging his rifle across his back by the strap, he crouched down and worked his arms under the mountain lion, feeling his shoulders and his quads strain a bit as he took up the seventy or so pounds of weight. Carrying it back to the cabin, he laid it inside the steel cage, on top of an old blanket that provided some padding. He dug a small flashlight out of his back pocket and turned it on, holding it in his mouth as he worked the dart out from the mountain lion's fur, taking care not to injure it further. The dart had small barbs, enough to hold it in place so the tranquilizer inside could work its magic without being dislodged.
Once the cage was closed and latched, he headed back inside, unloaded the rifle and ran a patch down the barrel before setting it in the rack alongside half a dozen of its more deadly brethren. He would have to be up about sunrise, so sleep was going to be lacking tomorrow, but it was not the first time by a long shot, and almost certainly not the last.
Not bothering to get undressed, he kicked off his boots, stripped his pistol holster off and set it on the bedside table before laying back and closing his eyes. He was asleep almost instantly.
The sun filtering through the cabin window woke him, just like on every other day, and he groaned as he levered himself up off the soft mattress. Mornings were tough on him, had been for years. Decades of abuse and injuries had made mornings a symphony of creaking joints, aching bones and sore muscles.
He stripped off his shirt, giving himself a quick wipe-down with a medicated cloth and then used the aloe lotion that he bought on his monthly trip to town. He spread it evenly across his chest, left arm, neck and as much of his back as he could reach. If he skipped his daily treatment, he would regret it later.
An outsider, looking at him as he worked, would see a tall, powerfully built man with skin like well-tanned leather. A full beard with streaks of gray and a salt and pepper head of hair that hung between his shoulder blades in the back would catch the eye. With his shirt off, the eye would be drawn to the horrendous burn scars that covered his torso and his arm. It looked as though he was made of wax and left in the sun for too long, as if his skin had run and then been frozen in waves and curls. The color was an angry red in places, with strange purple highlights accented by the white of hard scarring at the peaks. With his shirt off, no one would even notice that he was a handsome man under the beard, not that he ever let anyone see the scars.
Finished with his lotion ritual, he set the coffee pot working and then pulled on a clean, long-sleeved shirt and a light jacket to ward off the morning chill. He slid his feet into his boots and buckled on his pistol, settling it around his waist with a practiced flip. He clipped his badge to his jacket pocket, the gold of the metal bright against the green Park Ranger jacket.
With his thermos full of coffee, he set his battered straw hat on his head, locked the cabin behind him and started up his truck. Letting it warm for a moment as he sat and looked around his property.
His cabin was thirty miles from anywhere, and there was only one dirt track of a road that led this far into the mountains. There was a clear firebreak for fifty yards around the place, the forest was like a living wall, circling on all sides. It was quiet out here, the idling truck the loudest thing for miles, and he loved the peace and quiet.
The cabin was built from one of those kits companies, but for all of that it was a sturdy, warm structure that had lasted for ten years now, and looked to stand a hundred more. It had almost two thousand square feet of floor space, including a large basement that had been dug into the rocky ground. Power was supplied by solar cells on the sharply slanted, A-frame room and a pair of windmills, one on each end of the peak.
The windmills did double duty as backup pumps for the well that supplied running water, though there was also a hand pump if he ever needed it. A septic tank and leech field got rid of waste and a one thousand gallon heating oil tank supplied emergency heat if he ran out of wood for the franklin stoves. Even the chicken coop had heat for the winter months!
There was a second building, not quite as large, but big enough to park his truck, a 6-seat snow cat and a pair of snowmobiles. Along the back wall of his garage were the heating oil tank and a thousand gallon gas tank. As he sat there thinking, he made a mental note to get them filled again before the snows set in. Better safe than sorry.
Today though, he would have to head down to the main ranger station, drop off the cat he had captured last night for relocation. He hated to do it, but he hated to have to go and drag the body of some hiker or camper out of the mountains come spring even more. Folks came up here to enjoy nature, or so they pretended, but they really wanted to take pictures and pretend. His job was to protect the land, and to protect the visitors, the two sometimes mutually exclusive.
He sighed and put the truck into gear, backing it up near the porch where the big cat lay, still unconscious. The weight of the mountain lion, plus the cage, was just over a hundred pounds, but he didn't have any problem sliding it off the porch and onto the tailgate of the truck. Securing the cage was the work of a moment.
Going down to the station, which meant going into town, was his least favorite thing to do. He didn't much like people in general and actively disliked people in groups. He had chosen this line of work because it afforded him the peace he needed, away from civilization, away from the life he hated.
The ranger station sat on the edge of town, a picturesque building in a bucolic setting, designed by some famous architect whose name escaped him. Around the back of the building there were animal pens, and that was his first stop of the morning. He would drop off the mountain lion, fill out the paperwork and let the vet know she had another patient.
The pens were a series of eight foot by ten foot covered, chain link enclosures with small, cozy dog houses on one end. There was running water and, even though they were only intended for short term stays, they were kept clean and neat by the staff. One the end that had the entry door, there was a sliding hatch that mated with the cages the Rangers used. He could attach the cage to the hatch, raise the doors on both and leave it in place. The creature in the cage would wake, eventually, and find its way out of the box and into the larger cage. Then the portable unit could be detatched, all without coming into contact with the animal.
.... There is more of this story ...