It was the summer of 1872 in the far Northwest, and Mike and Rena King were hurrying home from their Aunt Alta’s. Mike carried a package of fresh meat from Uncle Duane in a tin bucket. As they followed an old Indian trail, they could hear the rushing waters of the Nooksack River.

Suddenly Rena said in a hushed voice, “The birds have stopped singing.” She pulled at her brother’s sleeve. “I’m scared, Mike, and it’s getting dark.”

The sky had turned gray and heavy, and a deep rumble echoed along the canyon walls. The tallest alder trees shivered, their leafy branches whispering.

“The clouds make it look later than it is,” answered Mike.

“Can’t we walk faster?” Rena urged, tugging harder on her brother’s sleeve. She kept looking into the thick underbrush on either side of the path. “There’s something in there!” she whispered. “I’m sure of it.”

A deep, loud boom sounded in the forest and Rena leaped ahead. Mike soon caught up with her. “It’s only thunder,” he assured her.

“Let’s go back,” Rena pleaded, tears in her brown eyes.

Mike tried to sound brave and encouraging. “We’ll make it,” he said. “We’re already half way home.” But the strange silence between thunderclaps had unnerved him too. “We’ll run awhile if you want to. Our turnoff is just ahead.”

Puffing hard, they jogged to the bend, then slowed to a walk as the path led up the ridge known as Squaw Hill. The trees were farther apart now and the sky seemed lighter.

“Still scared?” asked Mike.

Rena shook her dark head. “But it was spooky back there.”

They had not gone far when Rena exclaimed, “Oh look, Mike, blackberries!”

Mike tasted the small tart berries. “We can pick enough in a few minutes for a pie.”

“I love wild blackberry pie,” said Rena. “Pick as fast as you can.”

Mike handed Rena the deer meat and his fingers flew among the thorny brambles until the tin pail was nearly full. “That should be enough,” he declared.

“This package is leaking,” Rena said, wrinkling her nose. “Do I have to carry it?”

“Only for a little while,” Mike answered. “We can’t put it back in the pail or it would squash the blackberries.”

Rena sighed and held the bundle away from her long warm coat. “The sky’s getting blacker again,” she said.

Mike looked up. “It sure is. We’ll have to make up for lost time. Maybe we shouldn’t have stopped for the berries.”

“But I LOVE blackberry pie,” Rena countered. “Besides, I was just being a scaredy-cat, and we’re almost to the top of the hill now.”

“We still have that stretch of bluejoint (grass) to go through,” Mike reminded her.

From the top of Squaw Hill they could see their house across the valley. Twin curls of smoke rose from the stone chimneys.

As they neared the field of waving bluejoint, Mike sniffed. “Smells good.”

“It’s twice as tall as I am,” said Rena. “I’ll race you home!” She turned to glance at her brother, but her attention was caught by a movement half way up the ridge. “Mike, a big tan dog is following us,” she whispered.

A shriek pierced the air like a woman screaming. Rena’s face turned white and Mike put his arm around her shaking shoulders. “It’s not a dog!” he exclaimed. “Only one animal makes a noise like that—a cougar!”

“It’s coming this way! Run Mike!”

“No!” All the stories Mike had ever heard about the huge cats flashed through his mind. He gripped Rena’s arm. “Go slow and easy until we’re out of his sight,” he warned her.

Rena forced her trembling legs to take slow steps as Mike backed after her. The big cat’s tawny, rippling body bounded with powerful grace, floating over the ground with distance-eating speed. Mike’s heart sank. He knew they couldn’t possibly reach home before the swift animal caught up with them. He felt the first blades of bluejoint on his back. He whirled and shouted at his sister. “Run, Rena. Don’t look back, no matter what!”

The grass tunnel seemed endless. Then Rena tripped and fell, almost dropping the venison.

Mike knelt beside her. They could hear the rustle of dry grass, even before they saw the great moving shadow blending with the dusk. The cougar crouched and inched toward them. His ears lay back.

“He smells the meat!” cried Mike. He pulled Rena to her feet, grabbed the venison from her arms and hurled it in the path of the advancing cougar.

The giant cat circled the package.

Growling and slashing at the wrapping, the lanky beast ripped the meat apart.

Mike and Rena broke out of the tall grass and pounded up the path, darting quick looks behind them.

Reaching the house, they lunged inside and slammed the door. Both speaking at once, they panted out the story to their parents. “And we almost didn’t think to throw the package of meat down!” Mike said, grinning in relief.

Father gently pried the boy’s white, cramped fingers from around the handle of the tin bucket. A few wild blackberries were still in the bottom of it.

Illustrated by Joseph Cellini