A Thing Greatly Feared, Chapter 21

Homole Ravine, Pieniny, Poland

The stream by which Hank came to rest after his fall. A nice view—except when you can't move and it's getting dark. ... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t do this.

Hank pushed himself up from the ground and looked around through teary eyes.

That thing coulda killed me just now, like before; I ain’t got any chance of killin’ it.

Of course you don’t. It can have you anytime it wants. Why did you ever think you could kill it?

Why’d I ever think I could kill it? It ain’t no regular animal; that thing can have me anytime it wants.

Why don’t you just go home?

I’ve had enough of this place; I’m goin’ home.

Instead of returning the way he came, Hank decided to keep going in his current direction and work his way around in a giant loop. On top of the rise the ground was flat, and turned from pine grove to mixed forest; blowdown lay everywhere; chipmunks chattered and heat bugs hummed. Walking was much harder now, and as he stepped over and around a multitude of fallen branches and dead trees, he wiped his eyes and tried to ignore the fact that he still had to spend one more night in the woods, so deep was he into the forest.

Just keep goin’, as far as you can, then build another fire ring, sleep with your guns, an’ by tomorrow afternoon you’ll be back at your truck.

He noticed that the sun had already lowered an unhealthy distance from its midday high, prompting him to keep up a fast pace. Soon he came to a wide opening that was strewn with blowdown, with clear views of the cloudless, crystal-blue sky above, and just ahead, through gaps in a line of bedraggled firs, the nearby hills and valleys.

He made his way across the clearing towards the firs, then hopped the last fallen tree that stood between him and a good viewing spot at the edge of the plateau. He looked up … but he was going down. Rock and loose earth had slipped out from under one of his feet, and he didn’t even have a chance to recover his balance before he found himself first skidding, then tumbling, down a steep slope littered with scrub trees and loose, gravel-like soil. The shotgun came out of his hand at some point, he didn’t know when; he was too occupied with stopping himself and keeping his head from smashing into something. His momentum, however, seemed to be unstoppable unless a huge rock or tree intervened, and he knew that that would be even worse for him. He tried to grab something, or dig his heels in, but grabbing and hanging on was harder at that speed than he’d ever imagined, and his heels were useless at the moment, flailing, as they were, somewhere off to one side. It also didn’t help that at least once every rotation he was getting whacked in the shoulder or the knee or the arm or the ribs, lacing his movements with pain and slowing his efforts to stop. At last, however, his feet fell in line behind him and he dug in his heels as best he could; searing pain shot through the left one, but at least he was beginning to slow–

Lights out.

His head caught the side of a rock and his body went limp. He had slowed enough so that his body had lost momentum, but the damage was done, and he skidded to an unconscious halt in shaley soil near the bottom of a secluded ravine, some 75 yards below the clearing on the plateau.

* * *

“They’re still coming, sheriff.”

“They are?”

“Yes. They may even be there now.”

“Even after what happened with … with Molly?”

“Yes. Apparently they consider innocent civilians expendable … but perhaps they’ll think differently when their woodsmen start dropping like flies.”

“You mean– ”

“Yes, sheriff. It would be best for you if you stayed in town for the next day or two, away from the woods.”

* * *

James, Sara, Darrell and Wade headed out the back door of Sara’s house, bound for town once again.

“Okay if I go with you again, Mr. Morgan?” said Wade as they walked across the driveway, lengthening shadows falling on their path.

“Actually, you’d better go with your dad this time, Wade. I won’t be goin’ with you guys.”

Wade looked at his dad.

“Why not, James?” said Darrell.

“I, uh … I’ve stuck with you guys all day because I thought that’s what I came here to do – help you out. But there’s somethin’ I’ve been puttin’ off too, somethin’ I didn’t know I’d be doin’ at first.”

“What’s that?”

“Goin’ after Hank.”

“We appreciate your concern for Hank, but don’t you think it’s a little crazy to go off into the woods right now? I mean, I think it was crazy for Hank to do it, an’ he knows these woods better than anybody. No offense.”

“None taken. But this is somethin’ I feel I have to do. I mean, I really feel like this is somethin’ I need to do. I’ve got this feelin’ that Hank’s in trouble, that he can’t do this by himself. Besides, you three together make enough brainpower to figure out things on this end.”

“Hank said to not let anyone else go up there – he knew it would be too dangerous for them.”

“It’s too dangerous for him. Besides, when he told you that, he didn’t know I was comin’, an’ he doesn’t know about my experience with that thing he’s huntin’.”

“It sounds like you think it’s your right to kill that thing, not anyone else’s.”

“That’s ’cause it is.”

James walked around to the driver’s door of his car and opened it.

“James. Wait. You’re gonna need a gun … or two.”

“I got some in my trunk.”

Darrell paused. “Why’d you bring guns if you didn’t think you’d be needin’ them? If you thought you were just gonna be helping us here?”

“ ’Cause I was a Boy Scout.”

He got in the car and drove off.

“And then there were three,” said Darrell. “Let’s go do what we gotta do.”

* * *

A big black car pulled off to the side of the dirt road running along Locke Ridge on the northern boundary of Foster’s Glen. The chauffeur got out, walked to the back door and opened it, and out stepped a tall, burly fellow in a black suit and dark glasses who bore no expression.

“There it is, Mr. Hallum,” said the chauffeur. “A hundred and fifty thousand acres of prime virgin timber, soon to be yours.”

* * *

James figured that he wouldn’t catch up with Hank that night, there being only a couple hours of daylight left, but he wanted to get as far as he could, so he broke every speed limit and almost broke the suspension on his car in an effort to get to the Upper Basin posthaste. He couldn’t remember a good place to park, it’d been so long since his last time there, but when he saw Hank’s truck, he pulled over beside it. He went to his trunk, opened it, and spent several minutes gathering up what he needed, then set off on a slow march along the road, looking for any sign as to which direction Hank had taken. The crunchy dirt didn’t take impressions too well, but after some close inspection, James found what he thought were faint outlines, fragments, of bootprints. Judging by the look of things, James figured that the Upper Basin was as little-used now as when he lived in Foster’s Glen, so the prints had to belong to Hank. He followed them until they led off the road, then he slipped quietly into the bushes.

* * *

Darrell, Sara and Wade were cruising the back road through town, winding their way towards the real estate office at the east end of Main Street.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we came after dark?” said Wade.

“Then we’d have to worry about headlights and flashlights drawing attention,” said Darrell. “For now we can still see on our own, but we’re a lot less conspicuous than during the full light of day.”

“And it appears that our fellow citizens have done us a favor by vacating town already,” said Sara.

“Yeah,” said Darrell. “Saturdays tend to be busy in the morning for shopping, and later in the evening when the movie house opens. Right now’s the lull; perfect time for us.”

“And no one will be around the real estate office?”

“Shouldn’t be. They close at noon on Saturdays, but we’ll scope out the situation before we do anything.”

* * *


Coming to, Hank grimaced in pain – and when he tried to move, he grimaced even more.

He drew in a sharp breath as spikes of pain shot up his left leg, from the heel to the knee, and moaned at the throbbing in his head. Lying on his right side, he tried to lift his head, but raising it even a mere half-inch off the ground made him swoon, like a washing machine turning in his skull, and nausea sprang up in his chest. He set his head back down, content for the moment to not move, and for the first time took a good look around. In front of him he saw fir trees and a stream, the sound of which soothed him for a few moments.

I wonder if that’s the same stream I crossed before.

Tilting as far as he could to his left, against the bulk of his backpack, he saw a dimming sky overhead, with a few large clouds here and there, and with a wince he caught a glimpse of the slope, and the trees at the edge of the plateau far away at the top.

Ohh yeah. That’s how I got here.

He looked at the sky again.

Gray. He winced; his aching head hated for him to even think. Gray sky. That means … He tried lifting his left arm and was glad to find that it was largely free of pain, glad also to see that his watch was still working.

But he didn’t like what it showed.

Six o’clock?! Oh, man. I’ve gotta move; gotta build a fire, set up my tent, get some w– “Aahhh!”

He lie still again.

But I’ve gotta move, I’ve got to. Can’t stay here.

He tried rolling over onto his belly; the pain – pain everywhere – was almost unbearable from the first flinch.

“Urr. Ur.” Come on. “Ah– ah, ahh.” Come on! “Urrrahh!”

He flopped onto his belly, his right arm – the bad one – underneath him. Using his left arm, he tried to push himself up onto his knees. “Aaahh!” Then flopped back to the ground. He tried again. “Urr – ah – ahh!” He fell again. A third time he tried, but he no longer had the strength to even get started.

I gotta move.

But you can’t.

But I’ve gotta.

But you can’t.

And so he lay there, the darkness gathering around him.


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