The Good Day
Max had been hunting since early morning, the rain heavy, the terrain slippery and dangerous. Twice he'd almost fallen, losing traction in the slick mud and loose rocks. This far up the steep mountain slope, the chance of injury was great. A damaged limb was something he could not afford.
Lives depended on him.
His brothers and sisters.
Since the Great Gray Wolf had killed his mother, father, and nearly him, he'd had to assume the pack leadership. Max was too young for the job, barely five months old, but he was by far the strongest of the pack, and so the position fell to him.
Thus, the hunt.
But Max wasn't the only one hunting.
The Eurasian lynx had traveled far, starved and mistreated. The poachers who captured him and his mate back in their native alpine mountains had driven far before dumping their crate off the truck in an attempt to elude capture from the police. The attempt had failed, and the men were arrested, but the police had not seen the lynx's crate as it tumbled down into a ravine, splintering a few old boards, leaving the lynx and his mate trapped with no food, no water.
The male lynx worked long into the night, ripping away strips of wood until making an opening large enough to squeeze through. His mate, fat with kittens, followed him into the thick woods, where they found water and a cave for shelter. She gave birth to a litter of three less than a week later, but something hadn't gone quite right. She bled badly, nearly dying. Her mate stood guard as the kits nuzzled into place and ate while their mother slept, slowly healing. Since then, she'd been weak, lethargic, able to do little more than waddle outside the den to dispense water and waste and then stagger back inside before collapsing, exhausted, into feeding position.
The male lynx turned, leaving the small cave, roaming the hills until he came upon an old farmhouse.
His mate needed food.
Seeing a single female pup sleeping under the house's porch, he padded closer. Smoke poured from the chimney, scattering quickly in the wind and rain. As the lynx stalked, it picked up the scent of young males, but they were not here, not now. The female was much smaller than the lynx's sixty pounds, maybe half his size, maybe less. The lynx was downwind, the rain covering its already silent movement.
The Mal didn't wake up—not until it was too late—and the lynx's teeth were around her throat.
Max saw the cave. It wasn't large, but the scent coming from it was. He caught the first whiff more than a mile out and air scented back and forth through the downpour until he found it.
Some sort of cat.
It was in the cave.
As he watched, a female walked out into the rain. She looked weak. Max could smell the blood.
The lynx eliminated its waste and turned to move back to the cave. A strong gust of wind made it stagger, almost knocking it over.
The muscles in Max's legs, haunches, and shoulders knotted, ready to explode.
It would be dead before it knew he was there.
The male lynx made it almost halfway to its den, the heavy meat hanging from its jaws, blood dripping in its wake. He hadn't eaten any of it, saving it for his mate.
Rain pelted his fur, running into his eyes as lightning sparked and thunder crashed overhead.
He stopped—dropped the meat.
The Malinois thirty yards away was bigger than the female pup but still smaller than him. It dragged a large dead animal in its mouth but released it as soon as they made eye contact, just as the lynx had.
The two predators sized each other.
And then they started the dance, circling warily, looking for an opening.
Max dropped the dead prey, the rain and mud splashing as it thudded to the ground. The wild cat was larger than him, older, more experienced. It looked different than the cats he'd fought and killed in the past—spotted like a leopard—thick fur, high pointed ears.
His first run-in with a bobcat had been an ordeal. Max still sported scars from the encounter. The animal had been fierce, fast—a flailing ball of claws and teeth. But in the end, Max killed it, like he killed everything. Everything but the Great Gray Wolf.
The lynx looked tougher than the bobcat, bigger, with scars across its nose telling of other battles it had survived.
Max moved to the right, careful of his footing in the drenched environment. He was still young, but life and genetics had already laid the foundations of his prowess. Padding carefully, they came nearly opposite, putting Max downwind … and then it hit him … the scent of Max's Pack, Max's sister. Max looked at the dead meat lying at his feet, then back at the lynx, realization punching into his animal brain. Across from him, Max saw the lynx sniff the animal Max had dropped.
The two of them stared at each other.
And then, like a starter pistol, a bolt of lightning thundered overhead.
The lynx made it back to its den in the cave, dropping the meat before its kits which were still too young to consume anything other than mother's milk. Their eyes had opened, and their ears unfolded, but they were weeks away from solid food. The meat was for their mother. She followed her mate into the cave and ate as much as she could before giving herself to the kittens, who fell to suckling frantically.
The male lynx went back outside, searching the area. He located where Max had hidden. Where he'd attacked. He'd been right here, in actual contact with his mate, yet Max had spared her—just as the male lynx had spared the female Malinois. Death had been a stroke away, the female Mal helpless before him, his jaws wide, pointed teeth stretching around her throat. But then he'd seen the two other pups playing and wrestling in the rain. They were too far away to be of any help to the female, but the wind was strong and brought their scent to him.
They were her brothers. They were a pack.
Just like the male lynx, his mate, and their kittens.
He left her, trotting away as she came out from under the porch, unharmed. He found a fat hare on the way back to his den—not as big as the pup, but it would have to do. Then he met Max, smelled his mate, saw that the dead animal was not her.
Both predators continued the circle until reaching their own prey.
And then they went their way.
Max delivered the deer—thankful his Pack was safe. He stood guard, the rain powerless against him, while they ate under the porch, out of the elements.
He scented the male lynx's odor under the porch.
On his sister.
It was the kittens that stopped Max, wandering to the edge of the cave just as he charged, about to sink his teeth into the female lynx's throat. But then he saw them, his incredible reflexes stopping him even as he was delivering the death blow. It made him think of his own Pack and the Great Gray Wolf.
Max left her, catching the small dear on his return to the farmhouse. When he met the male lynx, the scents and the hare told him all.
Death had drifted close. Two Packs nearly destroyed. Instead, the protectors sat watching their families eat, the rain cleansing the land.
It was a good day.