Home > Prey (Linda Howard)(10)

Prey (Linda Howard)(10)
Author: Linda Howard, Abby Crayden

He didn’t need either, but to keep Heather happy he carried them both. There was no personal locator on the GPS, but he’d never gotten lost in his life. It was as if he had a built-in compass in his head. He always knew where he’d come from, and how to get where he was going. As for the bear repellent, it was just something extra to carry; he didn’t think he’d ever need it. All the literature on bears said that they wanted to avoid humans as much as humans wanted to avoid them. But the canister was in an easily accessible pocket of his cargo pants, just in case—to keep Heather happy. He hadn’t cheated by leaving it behind, because if she asked him if he’d carried it, he wanted to be able to say “yes” with a clear conscience.

Danny stopped again, peering through a clearing in the trees that offered yet another spectacular view, but this one was framed by some larch trees. He pulled his digital camera out of a pocket; his hobby—well, his other hobby—was photography, and he’d gotten some great shots up here. They weren’t good enough to sell or anything, but they were good enough for him. When he looked back at this picture he’d remember the solitude, the deep sense of peace.

No wonder he was having such a hard time finding a job that suited him. He should’ve lived two hundred years ago, been a mountain man. The thought made him smile as he snapped a few pictures, checked the quality in the review mode, then returned the camera to his pocket.

There was a rustling noise behind him and Danny turned around. His heart almost stopped, and for a minute he felt as if he might pass out, as if all the blood in his head had drained to the bottom of his stomach, which had lodged somewhere near his throat. His mind had to work hard to process what he was seeing, because this was just wrong. Black bear, less than thirty yards away, lumbering straight at him. Huge black bear. He’d known there were bears here, but in all his trips he’d never been close to one.

For an instant he just stood there, blinking, as if somehow his eyes were playing tricks on him and all he had to do was blink fast enough to make the bear go away. No, it was still there, still coming at him. He blinked, wondering—hoping—if his eyes were playing tricks on him. For a wasted precious few seconds he was frozen, his gaze glued on the massive claws as he tried to remember all the tips he’d heard about confronting a bear in the wild.

Don’t look it in the eye.

Slowly back away.

Speak in a low, calm voice.

Really? Speak to it? Like it freakin’ understood English?

“Good bear.” His voice shook a little but he kept it as even and soothing as he could, just as he kept his retreat slow and easy. He didn’t dare look behind him, to watch where he was stepping. God, don’t let him fall, not now. “Nice, big bear.” His mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow; forming the words took incredible effort. “Where the hell did you come from?”

Good lord that thing was big. Slowly Danny reached down, taking care not to make any sudden, jerky movements that might alarm the monster. He fingered the canister of pepper spray in his pocket and wondered if using it would just make the bear angry, or if it would actually work. The pocket was buttoned, to prevent the canister from falling out as he climbed over rough terrain. He began fumbling with the button.

Bears were supposed to be wary of people. Everything he’d ever heard about them said that the animal should be going away from him, not steadily moving forward. Danny was careful not to make any threatening moves. He didn’t challenge the animal in any way. The bear should be retreating.

But it wasn’t. Each padding step forward meant he had to take at least two steps back to maintain the same distance between them. His instinct screamed at him to run, but he fought it down. He’d been told that was the number one rule: don’t run. A human had no chance of outrunning a bear, plus fleeing triggered the response to chase.

Water. That was it. The bear was heading for the creek, and he was between it and its objective. The best thing he could do was leave the trail at a diagonal, let the bear get past him, then put as much distance between himself and it as possible.

He risked a quick look around him, because leaving the path meant the going wouldn’t be as even, though in this case “even” was a relative term. He edged sideways, to his right, angling upward. To the left was the smoother way, but to the right was a rocky outcropping featuring some big boulders that would take him out of the bear’s line of sight, which seemed like a good thing, if he could just get to it without triggering a charge from the bear.

He used the walking stick to brace himself as he edged across the rough, steeply sloping ground. The stick … would it do him any good against a bear that big? How much did that thing weigh? Four, maybe five hundred pounds? It could snap the stick with a swat of one of those massive paws.

Finally he managed to get the pocket in his cargo pants unbuttoned—too much going on, trying to think of too many things at one time—and pulled out the canister of spray. It felt terrifyingly small in his hand. He needed more than this, he needed a big can … several big cans. Hell, if that thing came after him, he needed a gun. That was a jarring thought, because he didn’t believe in hunting. He never carried a weapon; he came up here to get closer to nature, to enjoy the solitude and beauty of the mountain.

Solitude wasn’t so hot at the moment, and Danny didn’t see beauty, he couldn’t see anything except a mass of matted fur, and teeth and claws, and feral dark eyes. He thought of Heather, and how maybe she was right about staying close to modern conveniences. He wished he’d stayed home instead of escaping to the mountain, and if he got out of this he might not stop taking his camping trips, but he’d definitely make sure his canister of pepper spray was bigger.

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