Authors: Rose J. Allister
A faint rustle sounded from a dense grouping of trees a ways off, and she froze. The sound was too insistent to be wind blowing the branches and too rhythmic to be pinecones hitting the thick layer of pine needles on the ground. Footsteps were approaching, and fast.
Too late, she realized the footsteps were running too quickly to be human, coming at more of a gallop as she heard something crashing through tree branches and shrubs. Then came another
, and before she could drop to her knees to take cover, bushes nearby parted as a large, furry animal emerged. She spun on her heel to set off at a dead run away from whatever it was.
A scream tore from her as she tried to identify the animal from the blurry piece of fur she’d caught sight of before turning away. Coyote? Bear? Her legs burned with the effort of sprinting after the miles’ worth of hiking that her body wasn’t used to. The backpack flailed wildly around the hand that was still clutching it. The racing steps behind her grew closer, no matter how fast she tried to flee. She plunged into a thicket of trees, dodging right and left in hopes that the cover would make her less of a target. It was no use, however. She could hear the thing bearing down on her. Belatedly, she realized it would have been smarter to hide when it first approached, let it continue on past as it ran away from the gunshots that were no doubt scaring it off. Instead, she had become something to chase.
A heavy weight slammed into her back, sending her skittering off balance belly-down onto the ground several feet from the edge of the cliff. She screamed and rolled instinctively, bringing the backpack up in front of her as a shield while she tried to scoot herself upright. Her wild eyes turned on the creature and widened in panic. The wolf stood over her, glowering down with a brilliant yellow stare. Its brownish-gray fur bristled around its neck and back. Slowly, it lowered its snout and began sniffing at her.
“Go away,” Aimee said, wishing she sounded more terrifying than terrified. “I’ll hit you.”
The wolf bared its fangs as she hefted her backpack to swing it around in hopes of nailing the animal in the head. When the pack came around to bear, the creature actually clamped down on the padded strap with its sharp teeth, yanked the bulk from her hand, and sent the bag hurling away with one powerful motion of its head. She watched in horror as the brown pack skidded right to the cliff and disappeared over the ledge.
“No!” she said. “My gear.”
The wolf stepped forward while she scooted away on her ass and hands, grabbing at handfuls of pine needles and leaves while wishing for a tree branch or rock she could use as a weapon. Jesus, she was going to be attacked. Why hadn’t the thought of wild animals occurred to her when she’d wandered off?
She and the beast stared at one another for a long moment, Aimee still inching her way back. Then the wolf jerked his head upward, sniffed the air, and took off running like she hadn’t ever been there. When more rustling came from the woods, she was shaking so hard with adrenaline that she couldn’t even get back on her feet. Moments later, a woman burst through the tree line, gun in hand. She was dressed in olive drab from head to toe, save for black hiking boots and a small shock of red hair visible from beneath a duckbill cap. Jogging at full tilt, the woman barely glanced at Aimee before rushing past.
“Help!” Aimee shouted.
The woman paused, heaving out sharp breaths as she looked down at her. “Which way did it go?” she snapped.
“The wolf?” Amy jerked her head to indicate the direction. “Up that way. Wait!” she added when the woman started off again without a word. “I’m lost, and the wolf tossed my survival gear over the cliff.”
The look that was flashed down on Aimee made her realize just how pathetic that story sounded.
“Were you bitten?” the redhead asked.
Aimee hesitated, and the woman’s tone grew sharp. “I said, were you
“No. It just knocked me down and scared me.”
The woman jogged up the trail.
“That’s it?” Aimee called after her, finally getting to her feet. “Can’t you help me? Please.”
The redhead whirled on Aimee. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m busy at the moment.”
“Can you show me the way back to the waterfall overlook spot?”
“I don’t have time to play babysitter. You want help, here’s some advice. Don’t hike in the woods alone if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Unless you want to be on the dinner menu, that is.”
“What am I supposed to do, then? Sit here with an apple stuck in my mouth?”
The woman gave her a derisive glance. “Head for the ranger station six miles east. You won’t beat the storm, but you can make it before nightfall. Which I highly recommend, by the way. It’s a full moon tonight.”
With that, she took off at a full clip, leaving Aimee alone. “Which way is east?” she shouted after the woman. “My compass went over the damn cliff.” The woman was gone before she’d even finished the tirade, and she sighed. “Great.”
Aimee carefully stole over to the cliff’s edge to peer over the side. The pack was within eyesight, lying on top of a branch sticking out from the cliff a good fifteen feet down.
“No way I’m getting that back,” she said, rubbing her arms against the falling temperature and turning back to survey her surroundings. Which way would take her back to the trail? Was she really better off trying to find the ranger station, or should she try and retrace her steps?
The station was east. She raised her eyes to the skyline. The sun set in the west, meaning if she headed the opposite direction, she’d theoretically find a ranger to help. Trouble was, the sun was nowhere in sight thanks to the black clouds roiling overhead. No way to tell which way was which.
The wind whistled through the trees now, loud enough to dampen the sound of the falls. The falls! Maybe she could follow the noise back to where David must by now be wondering what the hell had happened to her. If she could get close enough for him to hear her pathetic shouting, he could guide her the rest of the way.
A shiver shook her when she turned to try and find her tracks to follow back the way she’d come. The windbreaker she’d stuffed in her backpack would come in handy about now. Along with several other items she’d never see again, like her cell phone.
Aimee looked around, wishing the trees and rocks didn’t all look so much alike. Which way had the wolf chased her? Adrenaline might have made her run a little bit faster, but it sure hadn’t made her thoughts any clearer. She spotted the area where pine needles had been disturbed when she’d shuffled her ass over the ground to escape the wolf. All she had to do was follow the most likely set of tracks away from that spot and she’d be fine. She might not be a wilderness expert, but she could find her way back to a lousy trail. After she finally answered nature’s call.
* * * *
Thirty minutes later and several degrees colder, Aimee acquiesced to the fact that she was going the wrong way. Pausing in a clearing, she gazed up at the dark sky and felt the first patter of raindrops land on her face.
“That’s just perfect,” she said to no one. She sniffled, both from the cold and to ward off the other moisture threatening to run down her face. She was good and lost now, and the afternoon was growing dark with more than just bad weather. Night was falling.
She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Help!” she cried out for the fiftieth time. “Please, someone. David?”
The call of a distant hawk was the only reply as she trudged along, every step growing harder as the blisters she figured would show up arrived to rub against the boots she wished she could take off. Her fingers were numb from cold and from being clenched into fists as she folded her arms across her chest. As rain fell from the skies above, she stopped holding back the tears that had been threatening for the past half hour, and both mixed together to stream down her face.
Her path among the trees grew blurry in the already dim light, and she stumbled on a rock. She managed to break her fall, though her knees and palms throbbed in protest as she picked herself up and wondered whether David would find her. Had he come looking on his own, or called for help? Were rangers out searching the mountain for her now?
A rumble from her empty stomach was answered by a roll of thunder above. Thunderstorms normally soothed her, but now the sky sounded angry. Hell, she was angry, too. Who was stupid enough to wander off in the woods with little in the way of survival knowledge and have her gear tossed over a ledge by a wolf, of all things?
It really had been a wolf, and the more she thought about it as she walked along, the stranger the entire encounter seemed. Wolves were night animals, for one thing. And they were supposedly afraid of humans. Ha! This one hadn’t gotten that memo. He was smart enough to snatch her pack and toss it away without a thought. Bizarre.
Another rumble shook the mountain, vibrating through her chest. Then the sky opened up, buckets of water pouring down to soak through her thin shirt and drip streams of water from her hair and down her face. She shook her head to clear the view and rubbed the rain from her eyes. If she hadn’t turned her head to the left at exactly that moment, she would never have seen it.
A cave loomed nearby, too dark to see inside, but large enough to offer her shelter from the deluge. She wandered over with caution, squinting as though that could help her peer inside the pitch-black mouth. The opening was wider than her car and several inches taller than she was, but she couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in. No telling how far deep it was, or what, if anything, was lurking in its depths.
She paused just outside, listening through the persistent drone of rainfall for any sign of carbon-based life forms inside. Mama bear rumblings, maybe. Or wolf growls.
Maybe it would be better not to chance it.
Another crack of thunder split the sky directly overhead, and she lunged the last couple of feet until she stood just inside the mouth of the cave. This blocked the main downpour, but gusts of wind brought in enough sprays of water to prod her into creeping back farther. She stopped just out of range, wishing she could flatten herself against the wall of the cave rather than stand dead in the middle in full view of creatures with better night vision. Images of genetically mutated spiders and critters with pincers kept her from venturing close to either wall, so she just stood there hoping nothing was preparing to drop down on her from the ceiling—or pounce on her from within.
Her chest heaved with the exertion of her long trek, and she forced herself to take long, deep inhalations to silence her breaths and hopefully make her presence undetected. After what seemed to be several minutes of quiet, she began to relax. The cave was empty, hopefully not because the current occupant happened to be out for a stroll. She inhaled and was treated to a musty dirt smell. No pungent animal odor. That was reassuring, at least.
She pulled her soaked shirt away from her skin and squeezed water from it. Her teeth began to chatter from the draft blowing in, but at least she had shelter now. If need be, she could stay overnight and hope to God she could un-lose herself in the morning.
Aimee crept deeper into the dark cave, wishing her shirt wasn’t sticking so miserably to her skin. And that she had some food, a blanket, and the flashlight from her backpack so she could actually see where the hell she was going. Oh, well. First thing would be to lose the wet shirt. She could wring it out as best as she could, if nothing else.
She inched forward another few feet and peeled the shirt up over her head. Just as the wet fabric cleared her eyes, she spotted a warm, orange-yellow flicker a few yards off.
There was light in the cave.
She blinked at the anomaly and looked closer. More likely the cave had front and back openings, and she had found the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. She turned around and frowned at the mouth of the cave behind her. It was barely outlined in a paler shade of charcoal gray. Why was the light warmer on the other side? Even if the clouds were parting outside—which seemed unlikely considering the persistent sounds of the storm—the sun would be down by now. The cave was lit from the inside.
When she turned back around, she barely inched toward the golden bloom of light. Several feet ahead, she saw that the cave widened out where the glow grew brighter. The improvement in her vision emboldened her pace, and she was about to enter the wider area when an odd clanking changed her mind.