American Lion

American Lion


You might not believe it, given the rumors, but a career as a White Valley park ranger is actually quite dull. Sure, you have your incidents. Some knuckleheads like to report strange encounters in the woods. Some claim to see things in the mountains. Some hear things at night. There have been dozens of supposed “phenomena” during my tenure, and I investigated all of them, from a bear shitting in the woods, to a pair of particularly passionate squirrels. Each of these tall tales ended with a perfectly reasonable explanation that did not involve bullshit.

All but one.

On a cold evening in October, my partner and I were stuck in the ranger cabin for an overnight shift. We hoped nobody would call. A snowstorm was forecast to blanket the Valley. Neither of us felt eager enough to test it by going outside. RJ raided the local rental store. I warmed up pizza in the microwave. We had a game plan. Funny how that tends to go.

Murphy’s Law won out in the end. The alarm screamed just after three in the morning. I was asleep at the time, so RJ took the call. I came to about halfway through the conversation, pizza stains on my shirt and beer bottle half empty. I walked over for a refill like any other Tuesday.

Slow down. Slow down. Ma’am, what is your location?

RJ gestured to me wildly. I scanned the cabin for the keys. I found them on the hanger and shucked on a jacket by the door. RJ grabbed a rifle, and we rushed outside into a white wonderland filled with unrelenting wind and snow.

We are heading over there now, ma’am. Please stay calm. Apply pressure to the wound.” RJ turned to me and muted the receiver. “Fuck, Matt, we’re going to need an ambulance.

I could hear somebody screaming on the other end.

It’s still here.

We took the four-wheel-drive Jeep and still struggled through the drifts. We lost connection with the woman about halfway through the trip. The moment we pulled up to the small campsite, it was evident that they were in trouble. Blood seeped into the snow in this horrible little trail that led from the unattended firepit to the cabin. The entire thing looked like something out of a horror movie.

I parked the car near the entrance of the campsite. I opened the door, real quiet-like, making sure the hinge slipped just past the lock. Nothing happened, so I fired a round into the air. I figured any predators in the area would be deterred by the sound of gunfire. But it stayed quiet. Therefore, I felt momentarily safe enough to get out of the car, and I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.

RJ followed my lead.

We exited the SUV quietly. The snow obscured most of our vision, but the path to the cabin looked clear. He gestured two fingers over his shoulder like a soldier. I can still remember how stupid he looked when he did it. I laughed. Obviously, he was joking, we weren’t soldiers, we were stupid fucking kids; but the irony is haunting to me now.

We were about halfway to the cabin when the animal attacked.

RJ screamed behind me horrifically. It was truly a pitiful sound. Like the last bit of juice being sucked through a straw. Two quick swats from dinner plate–sized paws shut him up quick. Then came the ripping.

I ran.

I needed to make it to the cabin. I still had about twenty yards to go. The snow and rain turned to mud under my boots. I sprinted the rest of the way. I didn’t look back. I knew the door would be locked. I fumbled in my pocket for the keys. Then it hit me.

Fuck.

I turned around to watch a very large animal tear apart my friend. In one hand he held the rifle, in the other, the keyring.

The commotion must have finally drawn attention from people inside the cabin. The door opened just a crack. I barreled into them and locked the bolt behind us. I took a second to catch my breath. Then I looked up. Three teenagers stared at me stupidly.

“We need to get out of here.”

One of them was hurt. The rest were okay. I held up my finger to my mouth. We sat in an awkward kind of silence while the animal tore apart my friend outside. I didn’t want to talk and risk exposing our position. Eventually, we heard footsteps, and we thought maybe it moved on. Five minutes later, I relaxed and introduced myself.

The tall boy said he was as Brian. The one on the bed with the blood-soaked bandage was named John. The girl crying by the bedside was Sadie. She must have been the one to call. They all wanted to know the same thing.

What is it?”

I tried to supply the rational answers. Could be a mountain lion. Could be a wolf. Could be a coyote. In my head, judging by the size alone, I knew it couldn’t be any of those things. But I tried to appear authoritative. I tried to push through the horror of what just happened. The kids needed an authority figure. They needed a plan. They were inches from falling apart. And they didn’t buy it.

No fucking way that’s a coyote.”

“Are coyotes five feet tall?”

“Did you see the size of its teeth? Look at my fucking bite marks!”

I tried to come up with another explanation. I tried to think what else could have traveled this far south. I didn’t need one. Moments later, a loud, obnoxious scraping shook the cabin from head to toe. I covered my ears, and the sound still wouldn’t go away, like nails on metal. The children screamed.

Oh my God. It knows we’re in here.”

Why would it do this? Didn’t it just eat?”

It’s doing it for fun. It knows we can’t fight back.”

The din stretched slowly across the length of our room. Then it started to rise, to the windows, to the loft, to the roof. After one final thud, it soon became clear that the animal was standing on top of the house. Then it jumped.

Up, then down.

Up, then down.

The entire ceiling sagged. Bits and pieces of snow and ice slipped in through unseen cracks. I beckoned for the kids to follow me. The beast jumped again.

Up, then down.

Up, then down.

The roof cracked. A split beam fell onto the floor in front of us. A pillar of snow leaked into the kitchen sink. The animal jumped again, and again, as more planks from the ceiling fell haplessly to the floor, and bits of moonlight shone in through the top. We were running out of time.

“We need to run.”

“Follow me.”

“No, follow him.”

I opened the door just as it all gave way. Snow and wood avalanched at our back. Our feet hit the path in a fury. The animal roared. I hoped it would be stuck in the destruction. I didn’t want to wait around to find out. I loaded the four kids in the SUV and gunned it as fast as the shitty path would allow.

The car stalled out in a snowbank a mile away.

I actually made them get out and run. Part of me felt like it was watching us, waiting for another opportunity to strike. Part of me thought there could be more. When we finally made it back, I sounded every single goddamn alarm possible.

“Animal attack. Animal attack. One missing ranger.”

Then we locked up and waited.

It took rescue services the night to reach us. The incident was thoroughly investigated by the National Park Service. They didn’t find anything. My coworker’s death was ruled an “unknown animal attack.” That’s code for “we don’t know what the fuck happened.” They never found his body. I never expected them to. They waited too long. Scavengers will take care of that on a good day.

The kids disagreed about what they saw. It all happened so fast. Brian thought wolf, John swore lion, Sadie said tiger. The only thing we could agree upon was that the animal was taller than all three, and smarter, too.

I quit my job the next day. I still live in town. Even that much is a struggle. I won’t go out into the woods anymore. I won’t go much of anywhere anymore. Not at night. Not alone. Not anywhere close to the trees.

Sometimes, early in the morning, when nobody else is listening, I can still hear her scream.

She’ll be traveling soon. I doubt she’ll be alone.