The story continues…
You never know how fast you can move until you absolutely have to. You don’t realize you can focus every atom of your being into a laser-tight beam on a single goal until the crisis erupts. I could say events blurred after I found my son gone. That wouldn’t be accurate. I could say time stood still. That’s not right either. It was like I stepped outside of time.
In my altered state, seconds ticked by like hours. I reloaded my rifle with preternatural care. I crammed extra cartridges in the pockets of my Filson. I went straight to where I had left the leashes for the dogs, though in normal life I forget such things and have to wander around like the Absent-Minded Professor my grandmother liked to call me.
I leashed Harry and looped the end over my left wrist. I grabbed the big lantern. Then we went to get my son back.
In the back of the cabin, the lantern showed a spray of dark blood and tissue against the wall where my first shot went through. Paka was a still lump, snow already collecting on her body. No time to mourn; I forgot her as if she never existed and let Harry tug me to the disturbed snow where the thing fell. Blood fanned out on the snow where the second heavy round had gone through. It was still steaming in the cold, which gives some idea of how few seconds it had taken me to get on the trail.
Harry put his nose down and pulled me forward. I had my rifle slung muzzle down behind my left shoulder, the leash in my right hand and the lantern in my left. I wouldn’t release Harry until it was time to shoot. This processional of thoughts marched through my brain with perfect clarity.
The blood trail was easy to follow. With the lantern I could have followed it without Harry. But it never occurred to me to waste time trying to leave him behind. He tugged me along as fast as I wanted to go, damn near trotting. Somehow my boots found the right spots on the uneven terrain without conscious thought. My breath exploded in white puffs, and sweat ran down my face, even in the cold. I was ready — and able — to follow that thing across the whole damn mountain range if it came to that.
Every so many feet, a pink froth of blood to the side of the disturbed snow steamed quietly. Lung shot, I identified dispassionately. That will slow it down. The trail led down along the river, and I experienced a burst of dread: if it forded the river I might not be able to follow. Immediately suppressed — I damn well would follow.
But it turned upstream, and stayed on this side. The land rose where the invisible rock walls of the Gorge began to close in. Running up any kind of grade would normally wind me quickly; this night, over lumpy uneven ground, half blinded by the snowfall, I didn’t even notice. Under the Filson wool, my body was a furnace. Sweat was soaking my armpits, running down my back. I sleeved sweat out of my eyes without breaking stride, the lantern’s beam stabbing wildly.
Harry growled. Then I smelled it — that terrible stench.
The vagrant wind had shifted, pushing that smell down on us. Harry turned away from the blood trail. I tugged him back, but he resisted. He wanted to strike at an angle into the brush, following the airborne scent. The wind shifted again, and the scent eddied away. But not before I caught the metallic tang of hot blood. We were close. Then I knew why Harry tried to turn.
The thing was trying to circle us.
I gave Harry his head. We left the river and crashed through thick low-lying skunk cabbage and salal. Harry just kept driving, growling steadily now. We clambered over a windfall, a dead tree whose girth was waist-high. Another blow-down loomed ahead, a forest giant felled a long time ago by the vicious Gorge winds. It lay aslant the rising ground, partly elevated from the humus by the shattered stubs of its branches.
The lantern picked up a patch of wild mushrooms, torn and ripped. Red drops glistening. The thing had come between these two deadfalls. Harry wanted to go under, but it was too high for me to climb. I dragged him uphill to go around the base of the tree. I could see the root system standing far higher than my head where it had been wrenched out of the soil when the tree fell. I could still smell that awful odor on the shifting wind.
Harry hit the end of the leash like a freight train, tearing it from my numbed fingers. He plunged into the hole left by the tree’s root ball, barking furiously. The bark cut off suddenly, replaced by his rumbling growl. I switched hands with the lantern, twisted my rifle up with my left and against my right shoulder in one movement with the lantern pressed against the fore-end, and pushed up to where Harry had vanished.
The thing had gone to ground in the stump hole. Harry had hold of its hindquarters, shaking his head violently, tugging backwards.
A tremulous little voice said, “Hawwy?”
The thing moved. It raised a massive arm weakly, as if to shield itself from the lantern beam. A weak mewing sound issued from its snout. Blood pulsed from an exit wound where its sternum would be, making a wet bubbling sound that my weirdly acute hearing picked up under the sound of the wind in the trees. Sucking chest wound, my turbo-charged brain supplied, snapping back to retrieve the phrase from my Army training days.
Then the arm fell limply, and something like a heavy sigh racked the huge body. It seemed to subside into itself. A thick trickle of blood wormed out of its nostrils. The stench was awful. I sidled forward and pushed the muzzle of my rifle against the thing’s half-open eye. The eye didn’t react.
I kept the muzzle pressed there, thumb on the safety, finger on the trigger, while I freed my left hand to move the lantern beam over the body. My son, naked except for his Pampers diaper, was tucked protectively into its elbow, pressed close to its breast.
The thing was female. He was sucking on the nipple. Lactation leaked from the other nipple in a flaccid breast above his head, and matted in its bloody fur.
My son raised his arm in unconscious imitation of the last movement of the beast, reacting to the light. He rolled his eyes back at me with that drugged look I remembered from before he was weaned. The nipple popped free and milk bubbles drooled down his chin.
There was blood spray from the lung wound on his diaper.
I wasn’t ready to remove my rifle from contact with the dead eye. Adrenaline was roaring through me and I was panting hard, now the chase was over. I carefully perched the lantern in the body fur and moved the big arm holding my son. It flopped away loosely and he slid down. One-handed, I managed to get my left forearm under his armpits and lift him against me. He was warm to the touch from the body heat of that thing. In moments though he began to shiver.
“Coallll, Da,” he chattered. It sounded like coal.
“It’s all right, son. You’ll be warm soon.” My voice sounded creaky.
The lantern hadn’t moved or shivered where it sat on the body. Harry kept worrying at it like he planned to eat it, but there was no reaction. The thing was definitely dead. I had to put my rifle aside to open my Filson and button my son inside against my chest. I hunched a little so he wouldn’t slip down, and grabbed the rifle again.
The thing was still dead.
I drew in a deep breath, trying to shift mental gears from the locked-in death march I had been on. It was over. We had to get back to the warmth of the cabin now. I re-slung my rifle and used one hand to hold my boy in place, the other for the lantern. I found the end of Harry’s leash and grabbed it in my lantern hand.
“Drop it!” I said sharply.
He paused in his fierce gnawing to look at me.
“Drop it, Harry.” I tugged the leash. “It’s over. We have to see about Paka. Let’s go.”
He gave one last vicious bite and turned loose. Once he was moving, he came along quietly.
“Good dog,” I said. “Good Harry. You found him for us. Good dog.”
Burdened with my son, I had to maneuver around the deadfall I crawled over on the way in. Once that was past, Harry took the lead again, back-trailing us to the river. A lot of tension had gone out of his posture. I hoped that meant there were no more of those things lurking. I didn’t know if I could fight back with my son under my coat. My focus now was to get to lights and warmth. Fear began to niggle at the edges of my mind.
It seemed a long time to get to the river; I couldn’t believe we had covered that much ground. It was a long slow trudge back to the cabin. There must have been at least two inches of snow down by then, and the wind turned my sweat-wet face to ice.
The door was standing open. I hadn’t even remembered to close it. My son was asleep inside my coat. I locked the door and put him down on the couch under the Filson before I took my rifle to the bedroom — just in case. Snow drifted in the window, building a little pyramid on a big rock lying among glass shards. I gathered the sleeping bag and down vest and bedcovers and took them into the other room, closing the bedroom door against the draft. The fire was nearly out, but came to snapping crackling life with some cedar kindling before I added coal.
I didn’t want to confront the issue of poor Paka. But I was damned if I was going to leave her for those things to do with as they had done to the husky King. I bundled my son up on the couch, waited until the room was getting warm, told Harry to stay, shrugged into my leather jacket and took my rifle and lantern out into the storm. Paka was just a white lump when I found her. When I brushed the snow off, she was already stiffening up. But I felt shattered bones shift when I lifted her.
That was when it all finally came crashing in on me. I stood there holding the corpse of my brave loyal Lab and started screaming curses into the teeth of the wind. I screamed until I was hoarse, holding her broken body against my jacket.
When I finally wound down, the tears came, hot and bitter, spilling on her fur.