Winterkill (Part Two)
Tom was the only one awake when the first sound came. The floor was hard under his sleeping bag, and he couldn't get comfortable. The others' snoring and farting hadn't helped. But something had been troubling his mind, and he hadn't settled down as quickly as they had. He hadn't had so much to drink, either. The room was dimly lit by the orange glow from the stove - enough for Tom to see their outlines. Corn and George were both slumped in armchairs. Herm was laid out along the couch, covered in gunny sacks. Abe must've made it to his own bed. No one else was stirring, leastways. Tom sat up and looked at his watch. A quarter of four. A fierce wind had been howling for a couple of hours, but that wasn't what had made the sound. A howl was what it was, though - just not like one he'd ever heard before, except in late-night movies.
He still had his clothes on, so he slipped out of the bag and felt his way over to the window. Lifting the blind a nitch, he peeked out on the next surprise: Abe left an outside security light on all night, and by its yellow gleam Tom could see snow. A heap of it, and still coming down in thick flakes. The turn-around was a carpet of white, and Herm's truck was a wedding cake - up to the wheel nuts already, like the tires were flat. The nimbus of light was just wide enough to catch the rim of lodgepoles edging the mountain road. Their trunks were etched black above the scree like giant legs.
And there, between them... something moved. It was too distant to make anything out for definite - just a dark shape, passing across the gaps. Tom cupped his hands around his eyes and fixed on the place for a few moments, waiting. But it was still now. Just the snow, falling faster and thicker.
Herm mumbled something in his sleep, and the couch springs squeaked as he shifted his weight. Then all was quiet again. Tom began to think he'd imagined that movement out there - a combination of tiredness, the falling flakes, the drink. And the images of that dead bear, which wouldn't shift. He'd seen what they hadn't. And he'd been trying to figure what might have been big and strong enough - ferocious enough - to do that damage. A larger bear was all he could think of. A brown, it had to be. And a big bastard. Bigger than one he'd seen in those parts. It might explain the Stevie Nouds story - though, dumb as he was, even Stevie knew a bear when he saw it. And when he'd first mentioned it, a few weeks ago - over too many suds in the Winding Post Tavern - Tom saw the look in his eye. He remembered that look. It was another thing he wouldn't forget.
He gave it a couple more minutes, then dropped the blind and went back to his corner. He'd no sooner crawled back inside the bag, though, when the howl came again. Louder now. He couldn't tell from which direction, but could pretty much guess. Long and deep - like Abe had said; like a wolf, but with a rougher, growling tone. Not like a bear, either - leastways, no bear he'd ever heard. Something between them. Whatever it was, it turned him cold - colder than the bag was going to thaw. He knew there was no chance of sleep now. This was something that needed dealing with. He got up again and crept out to the utility room. He felt for his boots and hunting jacket and got into them. He clamped his beaver cap down over his head and pulled up his hood. Then he took up his rifle. The snow billowed in like a burst pillow when he opened the trailer door, but the light was good enough to see by. He pulled the door shut behind him again and shouldered his way into the lowering night.
Abe had been drifting along in sleep for a while, but was finally pulled out by the dream. The whiskey usually stilled his mind, but tonight something was working in there. The old stuff, coming on as it always did. Shadowy images at first - strange dark shapes moving around, like wings flapping in the night. Bats, maybe - their eyes lit as if by glowing coals inside their heads. The eyes getting closer, becoming those of men - faceless in the darkness. The sense was there, as always, that they were coming for him - that they would find him wherever he chose to hide. He tried to turn away from them, but they were everywhere, encircling him and closing in. He could hear them - the strange, nonsensical chatter. And then - the thing that finally woke him - the cry.
He sat upright. The sound had seemed real enough, though he could never be sure in dreams. He listened. The wind rushing in the trees like a fast-moving river. The faint ticking of the clock. Other than that, the darkness was still and silent. Like it was back then. The nights of waiting, when the least sound - a branch snapping - could be anything at all.
He was taking a piss in the can by the bed when the shots rang out. Two of them in quick succession, then a few short seconds before two more. The piss streamed over the floor as he grabbed at the window blind, almost ripping it down. It was snowing heavily, but he could make out a footprint trail leading over towards the trees - flickering in the background like shadows on a badly-tuned old TV set. Some movement over there, maybe - he couldn't be sure. Another shot sounded off - more muffled, like it was fired under a pile of sacks.
And then came the scream. The most god-awful sound, like a hog having its guts ripped out. It was there in Abe's head again, in a flash. 1968. Huế. The Tet Offensive. The things he'd seen and heard. The things he'd hoped he'd never see and hear again. He knew then that this was no hog at the slaughter.
"Sweet mother of mercy!"
He pulled his jeans on and stumbled through into the other room. The other three were awake now, too, gathered around the window. He flicked on the light.
"Kill it, Abe, fer Chrissakes!" George cried, waving his arm out. "Forget yerself already?"
Before he did, Abe noticed Tom's sleeping bag, rumpled up in its corner like an empty skin.
"Is that Tom out there? Was that him?"
The others turned and looked, too. Abe saw enough in their eyes to know the truth. He threw the switch. Then he joined them by the window, and the three of them peered into the scrim of night.
"Nope. No eyes in the gaps. Just that shit ever'where," said Corn.
Just that. The trees were now engulfed by it - like millions of insects, swarming. The truck, picked out by the light, was beginning to look like a gun nest already.
"My shotgun's in there," said Herm. "Gonna head on out and get that."
Abe laid a hand firmly on his shoulder.
"You stay right where you are. No sense in taking any more risks."
He saw the whites of their eyes as they looked up at him. He guessed they saw his, too. And maybe what was in them. He felt his way around the table and over to the stove.
"I've got something can maybe take care of this little platoon. Close that blind again, Corn."
Abe struck a match and lit a gas lantern. Then he took a key from a hook by the door and used it to unlock the tall cupboard in the corner. He took out the rifles one at a time and laid them down on the couch, ready. There were magazines, too. And boxes of cartridges.
Herm picked up one of the rifles.
"Oh Jeez, fellahs... Look-it this here."
An M16, service issue. Fully-automatic. ACOG optics. Herm checked the switches, put it to his shoulder, eye at the sight, felt the resistance of the trigger against his finger. Even in the dim light, he knew it. It fitted like a glove. Like it was yesterday.
"Sonofabitch, you beauty!"
There were two others, plus an M14, plus two M1911 pistols. Corn and George joined in - like boys who'd woken to find their Christmas presents. Like men who'd been given their orders. Finally, Abe took out his own rifle and showed them. A 416 Remington Magnum. 400 grain shot. George's mouth dropped open.
"Christ, Abe. Blow the ass out an elephant with that sucker!"
"Sounds like I may need to."
They picked their weapons each, ran the checks, loaded up, released the catches. Then they stood together, eyes gleaming in the light.
"Just like the old days eh, boys?" said Herm.
Abe pulled a salute. The others did the same.
"God bless the glorious eight-fifty-seventh," said Abe.
"Oo-rah!" cried all four together.
They slapped palms together in turn.
Then Corn put out the lamp again and they took their positions.
They turned their eyes back to the clamouring night.
They waited for whatever was in those trees, coming for them.