The Zoo

by Heather F.

ATF Universe

Part 3

Josiah and Nathan continued straight down the corridor. It had to lead to somewhere.

Buck and JD headed back up the stairwell. Wilmington took a quick peek around the banister, 'slicing the pie', checking to make sure the stairwell was empty.

"Ok JD lets go."

The kid was past his older friend moving quickly keeping himself hunched over....making a smaller target.

Gunfire roared in the enclosed space. JD threw himself flush against the wall narrowing down his own strike zone. The young Bostonian calmly raised his Sig. and fired two rapid shots. There was a grunt and the clatter of metal on concrete. Their assailant had dropped their gun.

Buck sprinted passed JD and hit the next landing. Who ever was shooting at them was gone for the moment.

Wilmington whistled to the Kid. Dunne took a deep breath and followed his older comrade.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan and Josiah trotted down the hallway. It forked and intersected multiple times. Sanchez led the way arbitrarily making direction changes. Jackson followed close on his heels keeping his eyes on their back trail. So far so good. They cringed with each gunshot that sounded in the distance. They teammates had to be ok...Had to be.

"Shit," Josiah muttered. He was pushed forward as Nathan ran into him.

"Why'd we stop?" Jackson asked. He checked for a pulse on Standish. Alive.

"End of the line brother," the profiler stood before a closed door. "Authorized Personnel Only" was clearly stenciled on the door. "Should we see what's behind Door Number 3?"

"Might as well don't have much choice," Nathan returned. He could almost feel their attackers hot on their heels. He hoped Chris and Vin made it out ok. Buck and JD? Those two though not invincible were darn near close to it when together.

Sanchez twisted the doorknob and pushed it open.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Chris continued to lay down suppressing fire until their teammates had disappeared from view.

"What do ya think Pard'?" Vin swiveled his eyes toward his partner as he slapped a new clip home.

"I think we best get out of Dodge," Larabee slid the chamber closed on his gun. The muzzle was hot to touch and the gun barrel smoked.

"After you," Vin smiled knowing he was the better shot and would do a slightly better job at watching their six o'clock.

"Wise ass," Larabee muttered conceding to the sharpshooter's skills. Larabee headed down the corridor Buck and the others disappeared down.

They passed the stairwell and branched left at the first fork they met going in the opposite direction of Josiah and Nathan.

The sharp report of gun fire on the stairwell made them pause.

"Think Buck and JD are alright?"

Chris thought for a moment, "Yeah, Nothin' is gonna stop Buck from keepin' JD safe," Larabee even allowed a slight chuckle, "and JD sure as hell won't let Buck out do him in anything."

Tanner nodded in agreement. The poor imbeciles that hunted Wilmington and Dunne were in for a rude shock.

Larabee continued to lead them down the hallway taking alternating lefts and rights. They eventually came to a dead end with a large heavy metal door. "Authorized Personnel Only" written in blazing orange warned trespassers away.

Chris tucked his Sig under one arm. He cranked the doorknob and shoved the door open with his shoulder.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah stepped through the door onto dirt. The spring sun had set. Long dark shadows of twilight stretched heralding the close approach of night. Floodlights brightened only sections of the vast tall grassy field. A few gnarled trees dotted the meadow. The tall prairie grass waved rhythmically with the breeze.

Sanchez adjusted the dead weight across his shoulders. Standish was getting a bit heavy.

"I don't like this," Nathan's stomach rolled with an uneasy feeling. The only thing he could easily discern other than the trees were a few large boulders mid meadow. The field itself had to be between 50-100acres. A large perimeter chain link fence started from the edge of the building out line.

"I have to agree with you Brother," Josiah remarked. This field offered no cover and with the added burden of the undercover agent there was no way they could move with any speed.

"Lets go back," Nathan reached behind himself and turned the door knob.

It wouldn't give.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin crossed the threshold of the doorway. The heavy metal door swung closed clicking with an ominous finality. The two men froze. Their world had suddenly changed.

They stood within a humid climate. Swampy glades lay before them for as far as the dark twilight would allow. The cry of an exotic bird filled the area. The heavy dank smell of rotting vegetation was nearly palatable. Something nearby slid into the dark, sluggishly, moving water. Small black ripples lapped the shore. Whatever it was displaced a lot of water.

"This don't feel right Cowboy," Vin whispered narrowing his eyes hoping to penetrate the encroaching blackness.

"I think you might be right," Chris answered. Larabee reached for the door knob. He turned his wrist...only his hand moved sliding on the sheen of condensation on the metal door.

It was locked.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD skipped the Lobby and continued up to the second floor. Dunne stood flush to the wall and flung the door open. Wilmington took a quick peek through the doorway before pulling back obscuring himself from view.

"Looks clear kid," Wilmington entered the second level in a crouch position expecting gunfire at any moment. A quick survey and it seemed the place was empty.

JD followed close on his heels. The kid let the door slam shut behind him. The harsh slamming of a closed door caused Wilmington to whirl around bringing his gun up. He found JD staring at him flushed faced and embarrassed.

"It's ok JD...couldn't have known," Buck replied before turning his attention to the new scene.

It was an office floor. Desks laced the area. Computers, rolodexes, scanners, calendars and even potted plants dotted the area. The resemblance of normalcy was almost soothing. JD smiled when he eyed the features of every desk. Phones.

Without waiting for Buck, Dunne walked to a desk and picked up a phone. He hit 'Line 1' dial tone...he repeated it with all the other lines. No dial tone. The young computer whiz flipped on a computer. No lights, no hum, nothing.

"Buck," The worry in the young agent's voice shot a sense of fear down Wilmington. Not much openly scared the kid. He had faced gunmen, lunatics, raving judges, the wrath of Chris Larabee and JD fared basically very well under such forces with only apprehension. The fear that laced his voice and expressed itself in his face made Buck shutter.

"They cut the power kid," Wilmington tested a few phones himself. He played with light switches. Nothing.

"Well nothin's ever easy is it?" Buck smirked to himself. "Least ways we don't have to listen to Ezra belly ache about ruining another suit."

JD smiled in appreciation for what Buck was attempting but the severity of the situation was alarming. This was Zoo. Their back up systems had back up systems. There were contingency plans for just about everything, safety protocols, independent energy sources. Zoos were little islands of self sufficiency and someone had crippled it. Someone had thoroughly cut the power life line to the place.

Whoever was hunting them was serious about getting them. This was not good.

"I got to tell ya kid...this ain't good."

"Tell me about it...What if all the automatic waterers aren't working," JD rifled underneath a desk trying to find an elusive independent, nonexistent, energy source. Where was McGyver when you needed him.

Wilmington did a double take. Waterers...Admirable Kid....don't ever change.

JD crawled out from under a desk. He scanned the room hoping to find something useful.

The metallic click of a hammer being cocked grabbed Wilmington's attention. "Down!" Buck dove for cover praying JD was already on the floor.

Automatic fire peppered the area. Papers were thrown into the air. Computer terminals popped and smoked while some fell over from the force of impacting bullets. The second story window exploded outward showering the immediate area with glass.

Buck crawled toward JD. The office furniture was not bullet proof. They were in a world of hurt.

Wilmington found JD curled on the floor next to a desk. The young agent had his gun at the ready his eyes squeezed closed. He was waiting for his chance to attack.

"JD we're goin' out the windows," Buck searched his young friend's face and found only determination. "On the count of three...."

When they hit three..Wilmington and Dunne jumped to their feet like Siamese twin Jack in the Boxes. With Sigs firing they ran for the windows and dove.

Buck hit the ground with a sickening crack. JD scrambled to his feet all the while pulling Wilmington along with him. Buck scrambling with feet and hands the two agents disappeared into the dense forest environment found in Siberia.

Part 4

Nathan led the way. The medic kept the concrete barrier to their immediate right. The barrier itself stood close to seven feet tall. Anchored to the top of it was an immense Chain link fence. What was beyond it he could not be sure, but he figured it would be another moat and then an area a few feet higher that allowed for viewing. Exactly what the masses would be trying to see out here was something Nathan had not quite figured out.

It had him worried.

The Floodlights went out. Josiah and Nathan paused. It seemed all their senses shut down for a brief second. Then the sounds of twilight picked up. The hum of insects, the sound of a breeze through the grass and Josiah shifting feet behind him.

What lived in an open grassy meadow? A Serengeti from the feel of it. Jackson paused. Giraffes...they would seem docile enough, Zebras....they were horse like therefore not so frightening in a bizarre sense...What else? Ant eaters... Jackals, Hyenas....

Quit screwing around Jackson and just admit it....Nathan berated himself, Just say it, "Lions."

"What was that Brother?" Josiah heaved out. His lower back and Quads were beginning to burn.

"You think they keep lions in here?" Jackson questioned trying desperately to hide his concern.

"It would be better than wildebeest or water buffaloes," Sanchez gulped another breath, "They'd kill a man just to watch him die."

Jackson swung around and stared at the ex anthropologist.

Josiah realized his potential mistake and tried to atone for it, "Or so I've heard," he finished meekly, unsettlingly unconvincing.

"Great." Nathan leaned against the concrete wall. He really missed his city streets right about now. Jackson stared up at the patchy cloudy night. Pink and purple highlights stretched across the greying sky. It really was a pretty night.

The medic stared at his older friend, "Ya want me to take 'im for a bit?"

"Do you mind?" Josiah was half tempted to stash Standish somewhere and come back for him later. He had not only because he had learned long ago their undercover agent feared abandonment. As a result of that fear the Southerner tried to leave or force you to make him leave before being walked out on....a screwy convoluted way to protect oneself. Chris saw it and squelched it.

Nathan hefted the dead weight. He wiggled his shoulders and craned his neck freeing pinched skin.

"Rhinoceroses, can't forget the Rhinos," Sanchez remembered as they continued their walk.

"This just keeps getting better," Nathan muttered trailing behind the preacher's son. Jackson found it easier staring at the ground just in front of his feet.

They trudged on for a few more minutes before Sanchez stopped and declared, "Rhino pen."

"How can you be so sure," Jackson did not bother lifting his gaze. The leadened burden across his shoulders made it too much of an effort.

"Rhino manure," Sanchez simply stated and side stepped the pile. Gnats and flies dotted the remains rising to the air and hovering while the intruders shuffled passed.

Nathan followed in his friend's path. Damn a Yugo could get stuck in that mound.

They walked for what seemed an eternity. The landscape rose slightly adding to Jackson's misery. Sweat meandered between his shoulder blades. He could feel blisters starting on the sides of his toes. He could think of better things to be doing right about now.

"Nathan stop moving." Though this was a suggestion he had hoped to hear the Medic dreaded Sanchez's tone.

Jackson froze at the harsh whisper.

"Ya think you can make it to that ledge over there with Ezra?"

Nathan craned his head up and stared at the small rock cropping near the boundary. It held a small footpath.

"I think so...what's going on?"

"Rhinos have noticed us,"

"Can we out run them?"

"Can you out run a speeding jeep?" Josiah moved so he stood between Nathan and the large Rhino that lowered her head at them. Rhinoceroses were notorious for their poor eyesight. When confronted with unfamiliar things in their territory the large 2-3 ton animals tended to charge. Built like a tank with the attitude of a pitiful Rhinoceroses were not the gentle giants one sees in picture books. They were marvels to watch and observe...untamed and unmatched in both beauty and power, the White and Black Rhinos were forces of nature. It was a privilege to see one.


"Don't run just walk real slow," Sanchez directed. He gently pushed Jackson in the direction of the rocks, never taking his eyes off the animal. Josiah shadowed his friend. The preacher watched as the large Rhino browsed with its prehensile lip. Black or White? he mused. Which had the prehensile lip as opposed to the flat lip like a horse....A Black Rhino or A White one?

Blacks did...they were opposed to grazers. Nature had a way of distinguishing and protecting her wild children.

The two agents slowly climbed the path. Rocks and dirt slid and rolled down the incline. Nathan slipped crashing to the path with a yelp.

The sharp movement and small yelp startled the 2 ton beast. With a sprinting speed that defied logic, the block-like build of muscle and sinew bore down on them with the finesse of an avalanche.

"Get up!...Get up!.." Josiah ran forward grabbing the undercover agent by the suit coat shoulders and hauled him up off Jackson. Sanchez never stopped dragging his unconscious burden further up the narrow trail. Nathan, not one to be left behind nimbly gained his feet. The medic took one glance over his shoulder...and regretted it.

Horns and beady eyes were all he registered. Well that and a wall of grey raging mass of momentum. The medic grabbed the Southerner's feet and yelled, "Hurry Josiah Hurry!"

The two men slipped, scrambled and clawed their way up the maze of closely nestled boulders.

Josiah lost his grip as the suit coat seams finally relented to the misuse. Standish's left shoulder and head dropped to the ground. Sanchez's foot slipped and he fell unceremoniously to his butt. Jackson still working on a flood of adrenaline did not register the sudden bog in the path. Still holding the ankles the medic stumbled and fell into and over the undercover agent and profiler. The threesome became a tangle of limbs.

They lay panting.

"I think we lost her," Josiah panted out.

"I hope so," Nathan gasped taking quick glances over his shoulder.

The two men peeked over one of the rocks. The Rhino huffed and swung its head left and right clearly irritated at the trespassers in her pen. The large vertical horn she used for digging was more than an adequate weapon. Her close proximity gave them a clear view of her three toes.

"They sure are beautiful aren't they?" Sanchez whispered out with a touch of awe. It was the agility and grace that amazed him the most. It was no small wonder that something could grow so huge on just sticks and twigs and leaves. Even White Rhinoceroses, the bigger of the two, fared even better on their diet of grass. Nature and God or God and Nature worked miracles every day. Josiah took pleasure in admiring these natural marvels.

Jackson stared briefly at his old friend and then back down at the creature below. Yes, Yes they are....beautiful and dangerous.

"See that prehensile lip, that one is a browser..Its a Black Rhino they are a little smaller than their White Cousins." Josiah explained absently, "the White Rhino has a broad lip because it's a grazer." He sighed and quietly muttered,"It's been a long time."

Jackson merely nodded. He never knew there was a difference.

The Rhino suddenly swung its head in a new direction. The two men stared to their left and saw three men bearing down on their position from inside the pen. The silhouettes were not familiar.

The giant mammal realized a danger when she smelled one. With a snort she trotted back to her shrub ladened meadow and few scattering of trees.

"We can't outrun both...not dragging Ezra around with us," Nathan remarked.

"What do you suggest?"

"We put him someplace safe and come back later for him," Jackson answered not liking their options.

Josiah tried for an adequate refusal. It would not take much...the disgust of his own statement bothered the medic. The simple motto, "Never leave one behind." was not simply ignored.

A miracle wrapped in a foolhardy enigma presented an escape.

Suddenly Buck and JD appeared like a mirage on the other side of the fence.

"'Ey guys miss us?" JD's young voice boomed out.

Both Josiah and Nathan swung around wide-eyed.

"Boy are you guys a sight for sore eyes." Nathan whispered back.

"We got company heading our way. Can we drop Ezra on you? We'll lead them away from ya." Josiah and Nathan did not bother waiting for a response. Their pursuers were quickly closing the gap. In a few minutes they would be in firing rage. Maybe no accuracy but close enough for a lucky shot.

Buck and JD shrugged. The pen they were in was empty or so it seemed liked. If they could only find their way out of it they would be in the clear.

Together Josiah and Nathan hefted the undercover agent over a low point in the fence. The suit coat caught on the top wires and ripped with a sickening sound. Nathan laughed quietly. Ezra's suit was slowing disappearing.

Buck and JD reached up greedily for the body and guided it toward the ground in a controlled fall. Well almost controlled. Dunne cringed.

"You guys figured out what's going on?" Buck asked. Wilmington shut his eyes briefly against the sharp pain in his chest. It was getting painful just to breathe.

Nathan and Josiah shrugged.

The sharp report of gunfire pierced the night. Dirt kicked up a few feet from Josiah.

"Gotta go careful," Sanchez whispered.

Buck nodded as Dunne dragged Standish out of sight. Wilmington snapped off a few attention-getting rounds buying his two friends some valuable time.

Part 5

Chris pulled his foot from the soft mire that held it. His foot threatened to slip from the shoe. The warm muck saturated his socks. He enjoyed the outdoors as much as the next person but this particular area seemed to harbor all the annoyances one found with outside living. Larabee swapped at another mosquito.

"Their attracted to C02...hold yer breath and the'lyl go away," Vin joked.

Chris scowled at him, " I thought it was the pH of your skin?" Larabee cursed as his foot finally slid from the shoe. The vacuum of muck would not relinquish the footwear so readily.

"Gawd damn it," he hissed as the shoe sunk from sight. This whole situation was getting out of hand. They were no longer in radio communication with each other anymore. He did not know how well the rest of his team was faring and it was maddening.

"Whatever," Vin shrugged noncommittally stifling a chuckle as Larabee's shoe oozed from sight.

"You gonna git that or go barefooted?" In times like these Tanner missed Ezra or Buck. You could leave it up to those two fools to taunt Larabee. In unfortunate times like these when the situation arose the Texan felt obligated to harass his partner.

"How 'bout you go after it," Chris returned. This whole situation was getting out of control.

Tanner pushed a few more was kind of fun. Maybe Ezra couldn't help himself when stuff like this happened, "Make me." The smirk and raised eyebrows put a light-hearted twist on the challenge.

Chris thought about trying to force the bounty hunter to do it but figured he did not want to end up in the muck and the mud. With a frustrated sigh the leader of team seven squatted down to dig for his missing shoe.

He never saw or heard it. Never even suspected it was there. It was not until it lunged. Not until the huge jaws closed down on his coat arm did he realize that they were being stalked.

The Crocodile lunged from the black water with the violence and abruptness of a re-emerging submarine. Its movements were blindingly quick.

Terror seized Larabee for a horrendous brief second. In his life he had faced insurmountable odds. He had been shot at numerous times, threatened, knifed, bombed, caught in earthquakes chased by cars, stomped by horses. Never had he ever had something try and eat him.

It sent a primal fear down him that singed his soul. For the first time in his life he understood the mouse's perspective when cornered by a cat, or the deer dragged down by a mountain lion. For the first time in his turbulent life Chris Larabee felt the sickening dread of becoming a meal.

It was something he had never encountered before.

Not all fears are the same. The fear and exhilaration of a roller a coaster was different than the fear and exhilaration of a car accident. The fear of a bullet was somehow remarkably different than the fear of being eaten.

With a force he had never encountered before Larabee was thrown from his feet as if he were a china doll. The Crocodile shook its massive head twice and quickly retreated back toward the water with its prize.

Chris felt himself get shook and torn. He stared mesmerized at the tapered snout. A croc. Didn't Josiah say they had narrow snouts? They were stronger than Alligators or maybe just faster. Well he never did do things half- assed. Eaten by a prehistoric Reptile....Ezra would have a wager in this somehow...Buck a joke and JD would probably wonder if it could be patented as a video game.

Shock had taken its grip.

Tanner stood rooted. In all his years he had never seen anything so incredibly frightening and awesome.

The Texan, as was typical, acted without consciously thinking. Instinct threw itself into overdrive. Without thinking of himself or the probable outcome the long-haired agent did the only thing he knew how....he attacked. With a howl of animal rage Vin dove on the back of the Crocodile. He wrapped his legs around the midsection just behind the short powerful front legs. Tanner cinched his arms around the croc's jaws grabbing his opposite elbows. He pressed his cheek tightly to the scaly head causing his face to bleed from the friction. With eyes squeezed tight the wily tracker held on for dear life....Chris's and his own.

The Crocodile did not bargain for the extra fight. It was not accustom to the fight. Though raised in a relatively controlled environment it acted as its wild relatives. The animal thrashed its upper body left and right. It performed its 'death roll' trying to dislodge the added weight to its back. It wanted to slide further into his watery world and submerge.

Chris recognized Tanner on the top of the Crocodile. Larabee tried to pull his coat sleeve from the clamped jaws. Weak jaws my ass. The croc rolled. Chris was submerged one moment and sputtered thick fetid water the next. Up became down. Left and right held no meaning. Larabee fought and struggled with the caught arm.

The croc thrashed itself again. Chris found himself weightless for a second and then slammed to the mud with resounding smack.

Larabee swung his feet around and kicked at the snout of the reptile. The Croc. rolled again. Chris went under for a third time.

The coat sleeve ripped.

Larabee found himself suddenly free. The agent began swimming for the surface. A wave of panic shot through him as he hit the silty bottom of the pool. He had swam down and not up. Ohh Gawd. In a flash of panic and with burning lungs he swam toward what he hoped was the surface.

He shot through the water heaving in large gulps of air and some water. He coughed and gagged. "Vin..." It was hoarse and garbled. "Vin!!"

Suddenly the water to his right splashed upward. Larabee treaded backward a new surge of fear bolting through him.

It was Vin.

The Texan's blue eyes wildly searched the area. He saw Larabee and smiled, "Looks like Buck owes Ezra fifty..."

"Shhhhiiittt," Chris chuckled out. The euphoria of the moment had him promising he would make sure Wilmington paid up. The two scrambled quickly from the black water putting some distance between themselves in its shores.

+ + + + + + +

Buck tried to adjust the weight draped across his shoulders but the pain in his right side protested angrily. Wilmington seriously considered asking JD to carry the undercover agent but had stopped himself. Dunne would be carrying more than his weight. Though Buck did not think the kid would be unwilling or unable to do it, it would put Dunne in a vulnerable position. Ezra and JD,just as the others, were like brothers. Buck would go to his grave protecting them to the best of his ability. If it meant lugging Standish around and sparing JD the hardship then so be it.

"Buck you git the feelin' somethin's followin' us?" Dunne rubbed his neck rolling his shoulders. He had this niggling feeling that someone or something was watching them. It had been bothering him since they dove into this area.

Wilmington sighed. He could not feel anything but the growing pain in his side. It was almost like a stitch from running but worse. It took his breath away if he stepped wrong.

"Nah kid, Why?"

"Somethin's not right," JD had stopped walking. They were surrounded by large flush pine trees. The undergrowth of the forest was surprisingly thick in spots. This struck Dunne as curious since the canopy of reaching pines should have blocked some of the sunlight and stunted brush growth. Maybe the zoo felt the need for the brush.

Buck tried to take a deep breath. A fierce bolt of pain ripped through him. He squeezed his eyes closed and took a stuttering breath. He wanted nothing more than to put Standish down but he feared the simple act would be agony and worse yet he would not be able to get the undercover agent back over his shoulders.

"Buck somethin's behind you," JD's voice had become a soft hesitant whisper. Wilmington faced his young roommate. The fear emanated off the agent.

"What?" Wilmington whispered back.

"Don't know but its eyes are reflecting every once in awhile," Dunne answered. He trained his sig. in the direction of the eyes.

"Are they big?"

JD furrowed his brow. That was a stupid question. "Well they're about at the level of my hip if that's what you mean. I think about three yards behind you just past that last pine." Dunne explained. Whatever it was it was tall.

Buck took a slow step forward bringing himself next to JD. The Ladies man slowly turned and searched for what JD was staring at.

"Josiah can you hear me?" Buck whispered. He got no response. Damn.

"JD what stands that tall hand and has vertical pupils?"

Dunne thought for a moment, "Casey has a cat and it has vertical pupils....oh shit."

"Yeah," Buck took JD's handgun from his tight grasp. "You think you can climb that tree kid?"

"I ain't leavin' ya Buck."

"Don't sass me JD."

"Screw you Buck I ain't runnin'."

Damn you for your loyalty JD.

"Ok then lets just back up nice and easy and hopefully make our way over to that fence." Wilmington felt a flush of pride well up in him. Dunne was better than most men. And the best type of friend a person could ever hope to come and know.

The two men back-stepped making their way to the rock outcropping near the fence.

The vertical eyes disappeared without a sound.

Oh damn. An unseen enemy was more dangerous than a visible one.

A twig snapped to their immediate right. Both men swung their attention toward it. Leaves of a bush moved with the passage of a hot breath. Buck could hear the slight panting.

"Shit...move JD! Move!" Wilmington pushed the kid to run in front of him allowing Buck to protect JD's back. Dunne, however, was intent on protecting his two friends. The young ATF agent fired in the direction of the noise. Dirt kicked up as bullets dug into the ground. The two men hurried to the relative safety of the boulders.

A scream rent the night.

Buck let Standish slip from his shoulders. The pain in his side was momentarily forgotten.

"What the hell was that Buck?" Dunne's voice shook almost as much as Wilmington's legs.

"A tiger I think," Buck shrugged.

Both men watched in awe as the Siberian Tiger melted from the forest. Its massive paws padded the ground softly, kicking up small billows of dust. It kept its head hung low below its shoulders. The tail....was huge. Wilmington had never imagined that the tiger's tails were so long nearly three to four feet in length and as thick as a man's fist. The animal itself was impressive.

It stood nearly 10 feet in length and weighed close to 500 pounds. The largest living cat on the planet it could eat up to 60 pounds of meat in one sitting and then go for days without eating. It attacked its prey by ambush with success in one out of ten attempts. The vertical pupils and yellow green irises could see six times better in the dark than a human.

Buck had fallen for the mystique of the Siberian Tigers as a kid. His mom had shown him a book once with a tiger on it and since then Wilmington had digested just about everything he could about the creatures. Momma Tigers raised their cubs all by themselves...hunted for them, fed them, protected them...did their best for their cubs with no ones help...Just like his mom had done for him. He gazed over at JD....just like JD's mom had done for him.

"Well that sure don't look like Tony Tiger does it Buck?"

"No kid but damn she's beautiful." The wonder in his voice grabbed JD's attention.

"What makes ya think she's a she?"

"Her udder kid. Didn't anyone tell you about the birds and the bees...'sides this poor momma lost her cubs a few days ago. Got some kind of virus." Wilmington had read about it in the local paper. He was surprised at how much it saddened him. Seeing the mother now only increased his sympathy. She was a magnificent creature.

"Now what?"

"I don't know....kind of hopin' Josiah would be in radio contact..figured Marlin Perkins and his trusty sidekick would know what to do."

"Who's Marlin Perkins?"

"Mutual Of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," Sanchez' deep voice boomed over headsets. He sounded breathless ragged harsh breathes filled the line. They could hear Nathan panting somewhere in the background.

"You guys sound like a 1-900 number," Buck smiled relieved to hear the familiar voices.

Dunne sat back against a boulder. What the heck was Mutual of Omaha? He rolled Standish's face out of the dirt and checked for a pulse. Too bad Ezra was sleeping through all the fun.

"Well any ideas Josiah?" Buck asked.

There was a pause. Static held the frequency and then a, "Nope...yer on yer own."

"Where are you guys now?" JD maneuvered Ezra's left arm out from underneath his torso. It looked awful uncomfortable.

Buck could picture Nathan and Josiah searching the area, "I think we're in a...." An "Oh No!" was shouted by Nathan and then a somewhat frazzled answer, "Polar Bears!"

The reception was scratchy at best and the connection was lost.

Wilmington and Dunne exchanged raised eyebrow looks of concern. Better them than us.

"Well kid...What would Crocodile Steve do in a time like this?" Wilmington eased himself back against the boulder clutching his right side. How was he going to get JD and Ezra out of this mess?

"Shut up Buck."


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