Home > Prey (Linda Howard)(9)

Prey (Linda Howard)(9)
Author: Linda Howard, Abby Crayden

He studied the sheep. He was downwind of the herd, the cold mountain air bringing the scent sharp and clear to his nostrils and whetting his appetite for the kill. He moved slowly through the trees, stopping whenever one of the wary sheep raised its head and surveyed its surroundings for a moment before returning to grazing. A big ram turned and looked right at the underbrush where the bear lurked; whether or not the ram had seen him move and would have given an alarm was something the bear would never know, because he didn’t wait to find out. He didn’t know caution; he knew only the finely honed killing instinct in him that said the moment for attack was now, and he exploded out of the underbrush with all the raw power he possessed, muscles bunching, claws digging.

The herd of sheep scattered; bleating in panic, the lamb scrambled to its feet and bounded for its mother. The bear swiped its huge paw at the lamb’s hindquarters, claws drawing blood, but the lamb wasn’t a newborn and it gave a tremendous leap that took it out of the bear’s reach. Within thirty yards, the bear realized its prey was gone as the sheep bounded up the mountain into the rockiest terrain they could find.

He went into a frenzy of destruction, bellowing his rage and frustration as he took out his killing fury on the vegetation around him, tearing saplings up by the roots, shredding bushes, sending rocks as big as his head rolling down the mountain. Eventually he wore himself out and stopped where he stood, huffing and snorting. The sheep were gone. He sniffed the wind, but no other smells took his interest. He pawed through the vegetation for almost an hour, looking for some nuts or insects, but the season was late and most of the nuts were gone. After a while he lifted his head to test the wind again; his temper tantrum had left him thirsty, and this time his acute sense of smell was attuned to the fresh scent of water. He found what he was looking for, as well as something even more interesting, and he began moving purposefully down the mountain.

The hiker’s name was Daniel Warnicki. He was twenty-three; last spring he had graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, but he hadn’t yet found the right job, so he was making do with a drudge job during the day and at night waiting tables parttime at a popular bar. It said something that his tips almost equaled his pay at the drudge job. Sometimes the hours were tough, but he was young and the extra money meant he could occasionally afford to get away like this.

He stopped on a high curve of the narrow trail and leaned on his thick, heavy walking stick as he looked out over the breathtaking scenery that opened up before him: a huge, natural V of landscape, starting with a curling, dancing creek at the bottom, splashing white as the water flowed over jutting rocks, widening to the narrow strip of sandy gravel beside the creek, the steep rise of meadow that had lost all its autumn color but gained a different stark perspective now that the lines of the land were clearly seen, then the rugged, majestic mountains lifting up to the crystal clear blue sky.

He sucked in a deep breath of air. God, being out here like this was awesome. The air was fresher than anything he could ever inhale in the city, the scenery was amazing, and the quiet was so deep he could hear his own breathing. He loved to be lost in the trees—not lost lost, as in he didn’t know where he was, but lost in the sense that he was the only person for miles around. There were no exhaust fumes, no cell phones ringing, no texting, no constant hum of people and machinery filling the air. There was just him, the mountains, and the sky.

This was fun. His idea of fun didn’t always jibe with that of his friends—or his girlfriend—but this was pretty much perfection to him. He liked to rough it, while their idea of camping included large amounts of booze, inflatable mattresses, and they never wanted to be too far from a McDonald’s. Danny liked a party as much as any of them did, but when he was camping he wanted to stay clearheaded. He even preferred a sleeping bag to an inflatable mattress. It was kind of silly, but it made him feel as if he had something in common with the settlers who, a hundred and fifty years ago, had made do with wrapping themselves in a blanket.

As for food, he was happy with trail mix and water for a couple of days. Roughing it made him appreciate the soft mattress on his own bed and a hot meal a lot more when he got home.

His girlfriend, Heather, sometimes got a little annoyed when he took off on a camping trip for two or three days at a time, but she didn’t offer to come along—not anymore; once had been enough for her. If he was being honest, that once had been enough for him, too. Heather didn’t appreciate quiet the way he did. She’d talked and talked and talked, scaring all the wildlife away, and most of her talking had been complaints. The going was too rough, it was too hot, or too cold, or she was thirsty, or she was hungry, or her feet hurt, or the mosquitos were eating her alive. She just wasn’t an outdoorsy person—and that was the understatement of the year. They’d been living together for eight months, and while he was pretty sure he loved her, he wasn’t sure he could actually marry a woman who cared more about her fingernails and her shoes than she did about … this.

Come to think of it, maybe she had the same reservations, but in reverse, about him. Would she want to marry someone who enjoyed something she absolutely hated? Danny shifted his backpack and moved down the trail, thinking about Heather. Okay, maybe she wasn’t perfect, but she did have her good points. She didn’t like the fact that a couple or three times a year he took off on his own, but she hadn’t tried to get him to stay home, either. She hadn’t cried, or gotten all emotional and claimed he didn’t love her just because he wanted to do something without her. No, instead she’d bought him a portable GPS and a canister of bear repellent pepper spray and sent him on his way.

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