Savage Nature(2)

By: Christine Feehan

Chills slid down her spine as she quietly slipped into her boat. Had an alligator managed to kill the person hunting it? As she pushed off into the carpet of duckweed, a screaming roar of absolute fury cut through the swamp. Spitting growls and deep roaring reverberated through the cypress grove. The world around her froze, every creature going still. Even the alligators fell silent. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood up. Goose bumps rose. The breath left her lungs in a rush.

A leopard. She knew the legends and myths of leopards in the swamp. The Cajuns who spoke of seeing one of the elusive creatures referred to them as “ghost cats.” A few naturalists said they didn’t exist. Others claimed they were Florida panthers out of the Everglades, looking for new territories. She knew the real truth, and they all had it wrong.

Saria sat very still in her boat, her body trembling, her hand feeling for the reassuring knife at her belt. She’d carried that knife from the time she was ten years old and she’d discovered the truth. Using careful, deliberate movements, she extracted her gun from the case beside her and checked to make certain it was in perfect firing order. She had begun practicing at the age of ten and was a deadly shot—which had made her invaluable when hunting with her father. She could hit that small quarter-sized spot on the back of an alligator’s neck to kill it every single time.

She moistened her suddenly dry lips and waited there in the dark, heart pounding, hoping the trees and the root systems hid her. The slight wind carried her scent away from Fenton’s Marsh. The roars faded into the night and the silence stretched for what seemed hours. She knew the large predator was still close—the night was far too still.

She had tried to tell herself for years that she’d had nightmares, and maybe she’d actually convinced herself it was true until she heard that sound—that roar. And now she could hear a rasping call and then a sawing cough. She closed her eyes and pressed her fingertips to her temples, biting down hard on her lower lip. The sounds were unmistakable. She could pretend away many things, but not that. Once heard, it was never forgotten. She’d heard those sounds when she was a child.

Remy, her oldest brother, was sixteen when she was born and was already considered a man. He worked on the river, as did Mahieu by the time she was walking. The boys were in school and worked afterward for long hours while her mother slowly succumbed to some wasting disease and her father retreated further and further into the world of alcoholism. By the time she was ten, her mother was long gone and her father rarely spoke. Remy and Mahieu and Dash were all serving in the armed forces overseas and Gage had just joined. Lojos, at eighteen, ran the store and bar nearly single-handedly and rarely had time to do more than grab a handful of food before rushing out to work.

Saria had been responsible for the house and the fishing lines, running wild in the bayou without supervision from that time on. The boys had come home for a mini reunion     before they scattered again, back to the service. They were barely aware of her existence, eating the meals she provided, but not really paying attention to the fact that she cooked. She had desperately wanted attention and felt alienated and left out—not angry exactly, but rather sad that she didn’t really fit in with them.

The night had been warm and humid and she hadn’t been able to sleep. She was so upset at the way her family treated her—as if she didn’t exist, as if she was beneath notice. She’d cooked and cleaned and taken care of their father, but like him, her brothers must have blamed her for her mother’s slow sink into depression and then death. She hadn’t known her mother when she was the vibrant woman they all remembered; she’d been too young when she’d died. At ten, she’d been resentful of their relationships when she felt as if she didn’t quite belong. She had gotten up and opened her window to let in the comforting sounds of the swamp—a world she could always count on, one she loved. The swamp beckoned to her.

Saria hadn’t actually heard her brothers leave the house, they all moved in eerie silence—they had most of their lives—but when, resentful and hurt, she’d gone out her window to find solace in the swamp as she had hundreds of nights, she caught sight of them slipping into the trees. She followed, staying well back so they wouldn’t hear her. She had felt so daring and a little superior. Her skills in the swamp were already impressive, and she was proud of herself for being able to track them without their knowing.

That night had turned into a surreal nightmare. Her brothers had stripped. She’d sat up in a tree with her hands over her eyes wondering what they were up to. Who would take their clothes off in a swamp? When she’d peeked through her fingers, they were already shifting. Muscles contorted grotesquely, although later she’d admitted they’d all been fast and smooth at it. Fur covered their bodies and they were horrifyingly real as leopards. It was just—scary gross.

They had made those same noises as she heard tonight. Chuffing. Rasping, sawing coughs. They’d stretched tall and raked the trees with claws. The two smallest had gotten angry and erupted into a furious fight, swiping at one another with claws. The largest roared in fury and cuffed both hard enough to send them rolling, breaking up the fight. The sound of that ferocious roar had shaken her to her very core. Her blood went ice cold and she’d run all the way back to the house and hid under her covers, her heart pounding, a little afraid she was losing her mind.