The rocky terrain should have been an advantage. The bristlecone pine, beneath which Jackrabbit hid, provided scant cover. Cougar dove between the rocks and branches and pinned Jackrabbit with a swipe of her paw.
“Have you ever considered going vegetarian?” Jackrabbit squealed, struggling. He could still speak as only one of Cougar’s claws had pierced his side.
Cougar lowered her haunches and brought her second paw down on Jackrabbit’s belly. “How would I explain such a choice to my sisters?”
“Are you beholden to them?”
“Of course not.”
Out of habit, Jackrabbit’s hind legs kicked out, beating like tom-toms gathering braves to war. “Sorry about that. Now…”
“I’m hungry. Please quit your chattering.”
“You certainly look hungry.” Jackrabbit radar’d a tall ear, nothing but the scratching of tortoises returned. “I imagine you enjoy being a slave to your appetites.”
“Your presumptions are making my stomach grumble.” Cougar’s purr-threat echoed about the hillside.
“You see, just as I thought. Just a worn-down gear in the circle of life.”
Cougar flexed her claws. “You think THESE are worn?”
“Oooh, no, not at all. I’m simply wondering if you’ve never thought to question the repetitive nature of your life.”
“To what end?”
Jackrabbit twitched his whiskers. “To determine if this savagery reflects who you really are—inside.”
Cougar twitched her own whiskers. “Go on.”
“I see from the length of your fangs you must have raised many fine cubs. The sensitivity and care you provided them, is that not also a part of who you are?”
“Eleven cubs have I raised. All fine and glorious hunters.”
Jackrabbit nodded his head. “A wondrous record, to be sure. They must love you very much.”
“I wouldn’t know. They’ve all left me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I dedicated my life to their well-being. What do I get in return? Their disregard? Contempt even?”
“I would never forsake or dishonor you. I would rejoice in your exultant presence. And I know hundreds of others who would do the same.”
“You lie to live.” Cougar bared her teeth, their ivory sheen terrifying in the starlight.
“I speak truth. But yes, to live.” Jackrabbit fake-coughed and felt Cougar’s grip ease. “I see a queen before me. I could make you queen of the desert.”
Cougar flexed all her claws, their tips like needles in Jackrabbit’s skin. “A queen, you say?”
“A mighty queen.”
“I’d like that,” she purred and bit the head from Jackrabbit’s body.
He twitched while she sank her teeth in his back and ripped off his hide. She devoured the little meat he provided, crunching his bones for their marrow. When done, little more remained of Jackrabbit than a stain in the dirt.
“Yes, I think I’ll be a queen.”