This story has been excerpted from Jason S. Walters’ adult horror collection An Unforgiving Land by the publisher for promotional purposes. Feel free to share, reproduce, or distribute this story in any way you desire. The complete book is available on Amazon, http://www.barnesandnoble.com, and directly from the publisher at http://www.blackwyrm.com. It is also available in a wide variety of electronic formats on the web.
AN UNFORGIVING LAND: PHAT ALBERT
“There may be something more exciting than lion hunting, but I don’t have her phone number anymore.”
- Peter Capstick, Death in the Long Grass
Sheriff Sal found the PH drinking in his kitchen. He hadn't invited him over, yet he wasn't surprised to find that he was there. He sat down wordlessly across from the big, white haired man and turned his bottle around to have a look at the label. Bookers. The Sheriff chewed his lower lip.
"This shit is about 300-proof." He said. The PH didn't answer. He just poured himself another double shot. The PH didn't drink.
The two men were a study in physical contrasts. The Sheriff was short and dark, with mournful brown eyes that seemed far too sensitive for a rural policeman. The PH was very tall, with white hair, pink skin, and bright blue eyes that gave away nothing.
Spiritually, however, the two men were remarkably similar. They were creatures of the desert. Both were tough, taciturn, and soft-spoken, with a love of open spaces. And both thought nothing of killing when it seemed necessary. So it wasn't particularly hard for each man to guess what the other was thinking.
"So, do you want to tell me about it?" asked Sal as calmly as possible.
"Man," Sal said so softly is was almost inaudible, "you really don't have a choice."
The PH glared up at him as if through a bloodshot fog - which, the Sheriff reflected, was probably pretty much how things appeared to the older man at the moment. He looked like that character from the Johnny Cash song where the guy gives his son a girl's name: big and mean and bent and old. He glared hard at Sal, then sagged a bit and looked away.
"You probably wouldn't believe if I told you." the PH muttered.
The older man stirred his bourbon with his finger for the moment.
"There are things out there in that desert that are better not talked about."
"I know. But not in this case." The Sheriff was firm. The PH sighed, downed his whiskey, and then leaned back in his chair, which creaked slightly under his weight. Then he leveled both bloodshot, unblinking barrels on Sal and began.
* * *
Barker had lived out in the high desert his entire life. Every kind of tough at one time, he looked like a shaft of barbed wire wrapped in beef jerky. Barker became a cowboy the moment his father could shove him into a saddle, until 50 years later when he'd contracted influenza. That had slowed him up a bit. Now he lived down in Hualapai, making the half-hour drive each day up to his isolated spread in the Granites where he kept a herd of horses.
He didn't ride that much anymore, but he still loved horses. Barker kept Western breeds mostly - Colorado Rangers, Appaloosa, Painted, and Indian - but there were a few Arabians mixed in as well. When he was a bit younger he used to breed them professionally and strictly, but now he just let them mingle freely and enjoyed seeing what sort of random offspring they produced. He thought he was getting a bit soft in his old age.
Horses are tricky creatures. It takes years of experience to understand their body language, facial expressions, and behavior. Barker had been riding literally before he could walk. He knew horses better than he knew people. So it didn't take him more than a couple of seconds after climbing stiffly out of his massive Ford F-350 on a Thursday morning to realize that something was terribly wrong.
The herd was upset. They had crowded up against one corner of the fence, and the wooden gate showed telltale signs of splintering where it had been kicked. Only force of habit prevented them from battering the corral down entirely. The moment his boots hit the mud they rolled their eyes at him, bobbing their heads up and down and whinnying loudly with terror. Barker reached under his truck's bench seat and drew out his lever-action Winchester. It was chambered for .45 Long Colt: an old-school cowboy round for an old-school cowboy. Forty-Five LC wasn't accurate past fifty yards, but Barker couldn't see worth a damn any farther than that - and never missed under it - so it suited him fine.
He threw open the backdoor of his crew cab. Dan and Ann spilled out in a flurry of fur and drool. They were hound hybrids: huge, droopy things the size of small ponies. He'd gotten them years before from a crazy mountain man dog breeder that lived up in the Jackson's for fifty bucks of canned goods and a few hundred rounds of .22 LR. Best deal he'd ever made. Dan and Ann were smart. Barker figured they had the brains of seven-year-olds. As loyal as your own children: which was a damn sight more than he could say for his actual children. He relied on the two of them more and more as he got older.
Barker reached down, grabbed his dogs by their collars, and looked directly into their brown, intelligent eyes.
"I want the two of you to go around that way," he pointed, "and have a good hard look around. You find anything, you howl. Understood?" They locked gazes with him for a brief instant, than shot off around the edge of the coral. Barker grunted. He was trying to reason with his dogs again, which meant he'd spent too much of his life alone in the high desert. Too much time alone in the Black Rock and your dogs become more than people, and people less than dogs. It was a sure symptom of desert rat madness, and he was most definitely a desert rat. Probably mad too, he thought with a chuckle.
Then he sighed, swung under the barbed wire fence that bordered his property with practiced ease, and hobbled off after his dogs. The horses emerged from the protection of their corral and crowded dangerously around him, nudging him and complaining with exaggerated motions of their mobile lips. He paused, dug some treats out of the pocket of his ragged Carhartt jacket, and tried to sooth a few of them with calm words. He fed them and stroked their long, bony faces, but the horses remained agitated. After a few moments he continued walking across the field. They didn't follow.
When he was half way across Dan and Ann bounded back to him, barking and leaping about nervously. He followed them to the far side of the field where the massive corpse of a stallion lay motionless in a great sticky pool of its own blood. It was Boss, one of his biggest and most spirited Arabians. Something had broken his neck, hurled the huge animal to the ground, and gutted him. Strings of intestines and bits of internal organ littered the ground in a crescent moon shape outward from his stomach. Most of Boss's back legs were missing, and one of his front legs had been ripped completely off.
Barker squatted stiffly, swatting away clouds of flies as he dipped his hand into the coagulated blood. Boss had been dead for about 12 hours. Whatever had killed him had come down to the ranch around twilight. No secret what it was, either. Barker cursed softly to himself, straightened, and walked back to his truck.
* * *
The Professional Hunter got the hell out of Zimbabwe while it was still Rhodesia. A veteran of the vicious Bush War, he didn't have to be a mathematician to know that the Rhodesians couldn't hold down the Indigenous with a population ratio of 22 to 1. So he deserted from the elite Selous Scouts, walked across the border into Zambia, and paid a brush pilot to fly him to Johannesburg where he caught a tramp freighter to Florida. The rest of his family didn't have his basic math skills, so they became dead. It was a lesson that hadn't been lost on him. The PH made of point of never being in the wrong place at the wrong time if he could help it.
Safely inside of the US, the PH found that he only had three skills: farming, soldiering, and hunting big game. He used the first to gain his American citizenship, spending four years at Fort Bragg training Special Forces in counterinsurgency techniques. Safely out of the military life for good, he decided that he liked hunting a lot more than he liked farming and set himself up as a professional hunter. He was a deadly shot, with a natural affinity for firearms and the careful patience needed to stalk big game. His Boer accent didn't hurt, either. American's jumped at the chance to have their hunting expeditions led by the last of poor, dead Rhodesia's White Hunters (not that he personally liked or used the term). He led groups of puffing adventurers into the depths of Alaska in search of caribou, into the forests of Montana after big horn sheep, and into the mountains of California for brown bear. It paid well and was fun, so the PH saw no reason to interrupt his existence by giving a damn about much of anything else.
Yet there was one animal that the PH enjoyed hunting more than any other. He had killed plenty as a young man in Africa, but somehow going after them never got old. Here in North America, where his chosen quarry was smaller, smarter, and more elusive, he found the hunt even more intriguing. That was how he ended up living in the tiny, eccentric town of Hualapai high in the Black Rock Desert. It was where there were more of them than any other spot in the continental United States.
Lion. His home was a PETA member's nightmare of their stuffed corpses.
* * *
The PH was on his front porch chuckling his way through the bullshit-filled pages of Capstick's Death In The Long Grass when Barker's massive pickup slid to a halt in his gravel driveway, kicking up a magnificent plume of choking dust. Moments later the old man emerged angrily from the brown cloud, puffing furiously on a cigarette that the PH knew he shouldn't be smoking. Barker stomped up onto the porch, grabbed a rocking chair, and sat down across from the PH.
"You got a hunting party coming out here in the next couple days, right?" Barker spat out. He motioned with his Marlboro as if he were creating exclamation points out of smoke after each word.
"Sure." The PH answered levelly, intrigued by his neighbor's uncharacteristic agitation. The old man normally displayed about as much emotion as a stump. "I've got two guys coming out tomorrow from Reno. Figured on taking them out into the Limbo's for a couple of days."
"Well, you can forget that shit. I know where the damn cats are." Barker explained how he found Boss's body. When he was done, the PH let out a long, sharp whistle.
"Yeah." the older man agreed. "I figure what we got here is a pair, or maybe even three, of young tom's fresh out of the mountains. Probably all from the same litter. Or maybe some of those bastard man-eaters the fucking Californians are always dumping over our boarder are working together. Anyhow, there's got to be more than one and they've got to be hungry if they're willing to take on a stallion."
The PH nodded in agreement. Sometimes in the spring adolescent mountain lions that didn't know any better would come down to the low country in search of an "easy" meal. Sheep, foals, calves, house pets, or even small children were their preferred prey; which meant that they didn't live very long. The California Department of Game and Wildlife had made things worse in recent years by dumping any dangerous - meaning man-eating - cats they caught over the border into the "uninhabited" regions of northern Nevada. It was an unofficial but well-known policy that may have made liberal housewives in San Francisco and Los Angeles happy, but it made things a bit dicier in places like Hualapai.
Still, it was unusual for mountain lions to work together under such circumstances and the PH said so. Barker shrugged.
"No way that one cat - even a big tom - took down big old Boss on his own. No sensible cat would even try. Too dangerous. So, I figure that we got two or three hungry teenagers that've been kicked to the curb by mammacat. They came as far down as my place looking for a foal or mare. Boss came out to challenge them, so they took him instead."
The PH agreed. It sounded like a pretty likely scenario.
"So you want me to take my guys up to your place and hunt them down? Not a problem. Can't say I don't thank you, Barker. You just saved me a lot of time and effort."
He grunted. "I liked that horse. Couldn't ride him anymore on account of being all old and crippled up, but we were still friends. I want those bastard cats dead for it. If it makes you some money, than we're all better off."
"I'm gonna get a cooler of beer and head back up to the ranch. If those fuckers show up before you do, I'll plug them myself. Otherwise, they're all yours. See you tomorrow."
The old man put out his cigarette in the PH's flowerbed, then turned and stomped back to his truck. A moment later he was gone.
* * *
Like a lot of older gun enthusiasts, the PH was a dedicated fan of old "Nitro Express" rifles from the turn of the last century. These were the ultra-powerful hunting weapons in their day, suitable for killing elephant and Cape buffalo. Named after the nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin worked into their smokeless powder, his particular favorites included .375 H&H Magnum, .416 Rigby, and .404 Jeffery. When he thought about Africa Rifle, he thought about one of these.
The PH also had a collection of custom weapons chambered for eccentric
"wildcatted" cartridges that had been cooked up by some backyard American Frankenstein or the other: .585 Nyati, .577 Tyrannosaur, and .600 Overkill to name but a few. But you didn't need that sort of cannon for cat hunting. So he went into his gun cabinet - so large that it could more accurately be thought of as a gun closet - and got out a hundred-year-old Krag-Jorgensen cambered for 6.5x55 Swedish. It was an old cartridge, but it had low recoil, superb penetration, and was inherently accurate He's put an excellent nine-power Zeiss scope on it, making it into what was in his opinion the ultimate cat hunting rifle.
He patted the old weapon affectionately, and then walked back out to the
living room where his two clients were waiting for them. They were a father and son: big, beefy men so close together in appearance that they could almost be brothers. Both were dressed in desert MARPAT camouflage, wore camelbacks, and carried bolt-action .22 magnum rifles that looked like toys in their large hands. In short, they were experienced, sensibly equipped hunters of the sort one expected to find in the rural West. They eyed his rifle curiously.
"Your right." he responded to their unasked question. "It's a bit big for hunting cat. I don't expect to use it. But the old Krag is an excellent 'what if' rifle, so let's bring it along, shall we?"
"A 'what if' rifle?" asked the younger hunter, genuine curiosity in his voice. His father chuckled.
"He means 'what if' you 'n I are idiots and almost get ourselves killed by an angry tom.’"
"Or 'what if' a wounded cat turns on us." the PH replied tactfully, though in truth the older hunter was dead on. "It's rare, but it's been known to happen. We have to be especially careful since we know that there are two or more of them working together." He had phoned the older hunter yesterday, right after Barker had left, to apprise him of the situation. The hunter had quickly agreed to change their planed hunt from the Limbos over to the Granites. Both men seemed intrigued by the idea of taking down a couple of rogue cats, and were more than happy to help out a local rancher in the process.
"It's rare for them to work together, isn't it?" asked the younger hunter. "I mean a big, male tom has a territory of what - 300 square miles?"
The PH nodded.
"Yes, that's right. It's rare. Cats - especially adult toms - are extremely territorial and don't work together. So, we're dealing with one a few things here. Most likely a couple of young toms have decided to throw in because food is scarce up in the mountains. Pretty rare: but it could happen if they're littermates. Another possibility is that we have a female taking her almost-grown litter on a big hunting trip. Sort of like a final exam. It's the wrong time of year for that, but stranger things have happened around here."
"They don't normally go after horses, do they?" inquired the older hunter, "Especially not a full grown horse."
"No, it's too risky for them. One cracked rib because of a horse's hoof and a cat can't hunt. If it can't hunt, it's dead. So generally attacks on horses only happen for three reasons. The first is because an adolescent tom gets kicked out of the nest and goes looking for an ‘easy’ meal. They usually don't last too long before a rancher gets them. The second is because an old tom has lost its territory to a young one. It has to go looking for an easy meal. The third is because the cat is starving. I don't think that's too likely, though deer and pronghorn have been a little thin on the ground this year."
The three men walked out back to where the PH kept his kennel.
"Maybe it’s a combination of two things?" asked the older hunter. "Say, a couple of starving young toms from the same litter? Maybe three even?"
The PH shrugged as he began opening the kennel doors. "Could be. Again, it's rare, but something killed old Barker's prize stallion, and it sure as hell wasn't a single 145 pound tom." He stepped back as his three redbone hounds - Marlow, Kurtz, and Leopold - came bounding out of captivity, frolicking about the men's legs and licking their hands enthusiastically. The PH patted Leopold's head affectionately.
"Load up." He commanded after a moment, and the three dogs shot off toward his Land Rover with howls of excitement. The older hunter chuckled appreciatively.
"Enjoy their work, do they?"
"They enjoy having work. As do I." The PH added with an appreciative nod.
The three men hooked up a trailer containing three beaten up quads to the Land Rover, pilled in with the barking, excited dogs, and headed off toward the Granites.
* * *
One of the reasons that the PH had survived years of doing counter-insurgency operations against Black Nationalist guerrillas in the African brush is that he could smell when something was wrong. "Wrong" had a mildly poisonous scent - sort of like almonds - that he could detect instantly. It kept him from stepping on a landmine or wandering into an ambush. He was reasonably certain that most people, given a certain amount of time and training, could probably smell "wrong" too. It was just that very few people who lived around "wrong" survived long enough to be any good at it.
The PH got a big snout full of "wrong" from the moment the three men pulled into the Barker ranch. To start with, the doors to Barker's Ford were wide open. The PH motioned to the two hunters.
"Load up your rifles, but stay in the car for a moment." he said a bit tersely.
"Something's off-beam here; and I want to figure out what it is before I lead you into it."
The younger hunter looked at him sourly, but the older one simply nodded. He reached around and threw open the back door, allowing his redbones to spill out onto the dusty desert ground. He was unsurprised when they whimpered and hung around the car. The PH stepped outside. He chambered a round, nodded to his clients, and walked off toward the corral with his three hounds in tow.
It was empty. The gate had been thrown open, allowing the entire heard to escape and scatter. The PH thought he could see a couple of them grazing on a hillside a few miles away, but he couldn't be certain. Those might have been mustang. He bent down and had a hard look at the ground before the gate. There was no mistaking it: the horses had stampeded out of here all at once. It wasn't a good sign.
A few hundred yards away he could see several something's laying on the ground. The PH was pretty certain what they would turn out to be, so he turned around and walked back to the Land Rover.
"How much death has the two of you seen?" he asked calmly through the window.
"I was in Panama in '89." the older one answered. "Then in Desert Storm a couple of years later. The boy here has been hunting since he could walk. We've both seen our fair share."
The PH nodded. "All right then. Come on. I'd rather that there were more witnesses to this than just me."
The three men walked over to where the shapes lay upon the ground on the far side of Barker's field. One was the body of Boss, still lying where the old rancher had found it the day before. The second was an unidentifiable mass of blood, bone, and black fur that the PH figured was probably one - or possibly both - of Barker's dogs. He couldn't be certain. The final shape was the old rancher himself. Or what was left of him.
The older hunter turned pale but held steady. The younger one's eyes grew large, and he turned to vomit uncontrollably into a salt brush. It made a wet splashing sound as it hit the earth. The PH bent on one knee to examine his friend's corpse. It had been years since he'd had to do something like that, and he hadn’t missed the experience very much. Something had torn the old cowboy apart. He was nothing but bloody tatters from the bellybutton down, with his guts pulled out below him like tentacles from a jellyfish. One of his arms had been completely bitten off above the elbow. Landmines did less damage to a man.
The PH had a good, long look at that bite mark and didn't like what he saw. A few feet away Barker's rifle lay discarded in the dust. He picked it up, swung down the lever, and checked the magazine. Unless the old cowboy had been carrying around an empty rifle, he'd fired every bullet before he'd been killed. The PH gingerly set the rifle down and began walking in slow, expanding circles around the corpse until he found what he was looking for. He whistled, set the Krag carefully down on the ground, and motioned for the two hunters. When they arrived, he silently pointed downward.
A large, healthy tom leaves distinctive four-toed tracks about the size of a dinner plate. The single paw print the PH was gesturing toward was roughly the size of a trashcan lid. The "toes" of the print were all wrong as well: non-symmetric and swollen, with distinctive marks at the end that suggested that the animal's claws weren't retractable. The PH pointed a short distance away to where several small pools of coagulated black blood lay. Cat blood. He grunted, as if he were having a conversation with himself, and then rose to face his clients.
"Phat Albert." he said, as if that explained everything.
"Huh?" asked the younger hunter, "What in the hell are you talking about? Cats don't ever grow to be that big."
The PH shook his head sadly. Once again he pointed at the track.
"I'd always thought that is was a bullshit legend." He said. "Kind of like those 'one that got away' stories fishermen tell each other. If I thought the story was real I would have been off after him years ago. Guys would tell me that they had found entire buck deer or stallion way stuck up in big oak trees, the way mountain lions like to leave their prey. Seasoning as they rot. Or they would tell me about tracks they found out in the mountains. Tracks like that one."
The older hunter looked incredulous. "How in the hell could it get that big?" The PH shrugged.
"Gigantism just happens in some mammals. Something goes wrong in the pituitary gland, and you grow to be two or even three times normal size. Remember Jumbo the Circus Elephant? He had it. Or that wrestler, Andre the Giant? Same deal. Maybe Phat Albert is just a freak of nature. Maybe it's because they used to mine uranium out here. Or it could be something else. The Paiute Indians never came out into the Black Rock if they could help it. Said it was haunted."
He shrugged again.
"According to hunters I've talked to, Phat Albert lives way up in a cave somewhere in the Granites. He sleeps most of the time, but once every month or two he comes down and grabs something big. Game's has been a little scarce this year, so he must have been forced down to Barker's place to get a meal. First poor old Boss got in his way, then Barker and his dogs."
The PH sighed.
"Anyhow, I thought it was all bullshit until now."
Silently, the three men walked back to the Land Rover. The PH opened the Thule case he kept mounted to its roof, removed a tarp, and they walked back over to where Barker's body lay. He placed the empty rifle next to it, carefully covered it with the tarp, and then weighted it down with a half dozen large stones. Then he tossed the Land Rover's keys to the older hunter.
"What the hell are there for?" he asked.
"Take my car. Go back into Hualapai and tell the Sheriff what you've seen up here. He'll know what to do."
The PH glanced up at the mountains.
"Like hell I will." The older hunter was adamant. "You're not going after that damn monster alone. You need backup. The boy and I are expert shots. We'll pump a dozen rounds into that thing before it can twitch a whisker."
"Barker was an expert shot." The PH pointed out. "He got off somewhere between a half-dozen and a dozen shots before it got to him. Those were .45 Long Colts, too - nice, big bullets with lots of kinetic energy behind them. Not like the spitballs you two are shooting. No way his dogs just stood there and let him die, either. Dan and Ann were as big as Irish Wolfhounds. They must have torn into Phat Albert with everything they had."
"And the bloody thing still walked away from it."
The younger hunter was looking a bit frightened, but his father continued.
"Twenty two magnums might be spitballs, but they’re high velocity spitballs. We'll bleed him out through his exit wounds."
The PH started to shake his head, but the older hunter held up one hand.
"Look, this is the hunt of a lifetime right here. We'll probably never have enough time or money to go to Africa, but sure-as-shit here's an Africa sized lion right at our doorstep. It needs killing. Plus, I'll double your fee if you take us with you."
The PH paused. He did need the money… and the cat was already wounded in any case. Which made it more dangerous, but odds were good that they would track its spoor to a giant corpse. Backup couldn't hurt, either.
"All right." he said, more than a little hesitantly. "But the main goal here is to kill this damn monster, not get a good trophy. It's already shown it can take a bullet; let's give it its fill as soon as we get a chance. It's already killed one good man, and I'll be damned if I let it stay alive long enough to kill another."
* * *
It took a while for the PH to convince his dogs to pick up Fat Albert's trail. They were skittish and frightened, hanging back by the Land Rover as long as they could. But through a combination of coaxing and yelling, the men managed to convince Leopold, nominally the alpha male of the three, to pick up the trail. Once he did, however, the big hound's reluctance melted away, and the remaining two followed him - hesitantly at first, then with increasing enthusiasm as they picked up the wounded animal's scent.
The group formed a ragged line with Leopold taking the point and Marlow and Kurtz taking turns either following behind him or trailing back a little while nervously looking from one side to the other. The three men followed behind them on their quads with the older hunter taking up the front, the younger one behind him, and the PH taking up the rear. Slowly they began ascending a lower mountain known as the Banjo toward the forested saddle that joined it with the towering Granites above. They weren't a particularly quiet group, but that was all right. The PH wasn't counting on the element of surprise. The enormous cat was wounded - probably mortally - and wouldn't be looking for a fight. Ideally the PH hoped to find him dead, or so close to dead as made no difference.
Still, you could never be sure. Not with something like that.
Following the head dog's lead, the group began ascending along the edge of one of the narrow "forests" that springs up along any stream that flows through a desert. When they reached the thin, muddy trickle of water that descended from the Granite's majestic heights, the dogs immediately plunged in, drinking greedily and taking a moment to wallow in the mud. The men turned off their quads and dismounted. They gathered up water from the stream in their hats and splashed it over their heads, enjoying the feeling of cold wetness flowing over their bodies as the temperature quickly ascended over the 80-degree mark, even though the sun had been up for less than an hour.
The younger hunter wandered over to stand underneath the shade of a massive tamarisk. At their elevation the "forest" was only a half-dozen to a dozen trees wide at its broadest point. Farther up, however, where a saddle formed between the Banjo and the Granites, it widened to become a very real if very small forest. The grove they were in was like a tail leading down from a tadpole's body.
"Wow!" said the younger hunter, gazing out over the massive valley below, "It really is hard to imagine how beautiful it is up here from down there, huh?"
"Yes." replied the PH. "And almost no one ever comes up here to find out, either."
"So, what, nobody lives up here?"
The PH hesitated.
"No," he replied after a moment, "no one I'm aware of. This is all BLM - Bureau of Land Management - land. It belongs to the government. It's illegal to live up here, so nobody beside hunters and the odd, very eccentric backpacker ever comes up here."
"Wow!" the younger hunter once again commented. "It really is a lot nicer up here than you might think."
The PH laughed and put his fingers to his lips. "You're right. Don't tell anyone."
Refreshed and cooled down, the six resumed their climb. It didn't take the dogs very long to pick up the scent again. Here and there the PH spotted congealing pools of blood.
"Good." He thought to himself. "He's still bleeding out."
The monstrous tom seemed to be skirting along the edge of the stream,
probably pausing to drink and nurse its wounds as it went along. He imagined it was headed for its cave somewhere in the towering cliffs above. There was no way to know for certain. A healthy, youthful tom had a territory that ranged over 300 square miles. An older one might settle for a couple hundred. It was hard to say what kind of territory a freak of nature like Phat Albert might have.
Suddenly the PH smelled danger. Really it was more of a reek than a smell. He cleared his throat and was beginning to shout out a warning to the two men in front of him, when IT happened. IT happened so fast that his voice caught in his throat. IT was also one of the few times in his life that the PH had been scared. Phat Albert flew out of a thick grove of Russian olive, aspen, and tamarisk. He was so large and powerful that his leap took him a full ten feet into the air. The creature was monstrous beyond anything the PH could ever have imagined. Its fur was black instead of the usual golden brown of a normal mountain lion. What looked like spines ran down the length of its back from the end of a ragged mane to where its tail began. The side that he could see was covered in dried and clotted blood from where Barker had shot the creature again and again with his rifle. The animal was at least 15 feet long and could have weighed as much as 300 pounds. Its teeth were a frightening, prehistoric mishmash of angles and points that jutted raggedly around its brutalized lips.
But the worst part of the creature was its eyes, which glistened blood-red in the sunlight.
This primeval nightmare landed with one paw on top of Kurtz, pinning the animal to the ground with a yelp. Then it grabbed Leopold in its jaws and began shaking him like a terrier shakes a rat. The huge hound screamed, then died as its back broke with an audible snap. Marlow howled, then ran backwards in terror as the older hunter, still seated on his quad, snatched his rifle from its rack and began rapidly firing. The small bullets hit the side of animal with wet, smacking sounds. As the monster lion turned to lower its awful gaze down upon the desperately firing man, a single round ricochet off of its massive avatavistic skull.
It was then that the PH snapped out of it. He reached down calmly but quickly, grabbed his Krag, and chambered a round. In front of him the younger hunter was panicking, trying to get off of his quad and grab his rifle at the same time. With a single motion of his massive throat, Phat Albert hurled Leopold's lifeless corpse into the air behind him, then sprung at the older hunter. The PH fired while the grotesque thing was still in midair. He was arguably one of the best shots in Washoe County; a county filled with particularly good shots. The PH almost never missed.
Still, he couldn't be sure whether he hit it or not. If he had, the animal showed no sign of it. It plunged down on the older hunter with its two front paws, knocking him from his quad and sending his rifle spinning off into the brush. The man screamed as Phat Albert gathered him up in his mouth. The PH worked his bolt, chambered another round, and calmly aimed the Krag at the cat's left eye. It glowed with malignant, otherworldly hatred, causing him to hesitate for a fraction of a second.
Unfortunately all that the creature needed was that fraction. It turned and sprang back into the grove of trees with the older hunter shrieking and struggling in its mouth.
"Dad!" screamed the younger hunter. For a few moments the PH could hear the older man screaming somewhere out of sight. And then he couldn't hear him at all.
* * *
The young man was sobbing as the PH walked over to inspect the bodies of his two dogs. Leopold had been turned into a bag of bones and punctured organs. He was dead - but he died quickly. Kurtz was still alive, but only barely. Its front right leg had been crushed and its lungs caved in. The dog breathed in ragged gasps as blood poured from his nose. The PH put his hands over the animal's eyes, spoke a few quite, comforting words to it, and then put the barrel of his rifle to its head. He fired once, putting the grievously wounded animal out it its misery.
He then walked back down to the sobbing young man and struck him. Not too hard. Just once across the side of the face. The younger hunter looked at him uncomprehendingly, but stopped crying.
"Stop that." the PH demanded levelly. "We have to rescue your father. He might not be dead."
"Wha… whadda you mean?" the young hunter stammered. "You saw it. You saw what happened. You heard what happened!"
"Yes. But it's still a lion. Monster or not, it's still a lion and it will behave like a lion. If it's not hungry - and I'm not sure why it would be after what we saw down below - it may have just broke your father up a bit and stuffed him into a tree or a cave somewhere."
"He might still be alive." the PH paused. "And if he isn't, that damn thing still needs to be killed."
With a visible effort, the young man pulled himself together. He nodded. The PH walked back to his quad, turned it off, took his backpack off the rack, and then shouldered it. A moment later Marlow rejoined the two men. Redbones are normally brave, loyal, and tough; but the sheer ferocity Phat Albert's attack had driven the animal into humiliating retreat. Marlow had come back only reluctantly, but he had come back. In the PH's mind that was a more profound type of valor than not being afraid in the first place. He scratched the animal affectionately behind his ears, and then motioned for the younger hunter to gather his gear.
"I thought that Phat Albert would be half dead by the time we found him." he said. "I was wrong. Very wrong. For that I'm deeply sorry."
"But we will need to proceed on foot now." he continued. "That thing must have heard us coming from miles away and, obviously, lay in wait. You, the dog, and me: we can move quietly. Quickly too, if we hurry. It will still hear us coming, but not from as far away. Your dad hit it a bunch of times before it grabbed him and I'm pretty sure that I hit it too. There is no way it can keep going with that much lead in it."
He put his hand on the younger man's shoulder.
"We're going to find your dad, find that thing, and then we're going to kill it dead."
* * *
The three figures trudged up the side of the Banjo, each lost in his own dark thoughts. Marlow mourned for his two dead littermates, and wondered if he would have the courage to avenge them if given the chance. The young hunter mourned for his father, though that sorrow was tempered by the dim hope that he might still be alive.
This only made it all the more terrible. The PH grieved the loss of his nerve. What in God's name made him hesitate to take that shot?
The day had started out hot, but that didn't mean it couldn't get hotter. By the time they reached the actual forest in the saddle between the two mountains the temperature had risen to somewhere near 100 degrees. The three of them collapsed in the shade of a large birch, Marlow panting desperately in an attempt to cool off. The PH gave him a handful of water from his canteen, and then took a drink for himself.
"Hear that?" he murmured to the younger hunter.
"What? I don't hear anything." He whispered back.
"Exactly: there's not a sound coming out of this whole glen. Even the insects have buggered off somewhere else. That means he's either here, or he's been here recently."
The PH stood up and peered in to the densely packed trees.
"Come on," he motioned, "I don't think that he's here right now. Keep your eyes wide open, though, and try not to make a lot of noise."
The three of them rose and walked into the tangle of birch, oak, and aspen. It was cooler and dark inside of the little forest. The air smelled slightly of rot. Here and there shards of light broke through the canopy of leaves above, casting shadows that scurried along the ground below. Desperate for a shot at the creature that had taken his father, the younger hunter nervously yanked his rifle at every tiny flicker of movement. Finally Marlow barked once, sprinted to the base of a large oak tree, and began obsessively circling it. When the two men caught up the PH quieted him with a single, gentle touch to his muzzle, then peered up into the trees thick branches.
"Here," he handed the younger hunter his Krag, "I'm going to climb up and have a look. Might be that he stuck a buck up here, or it might be that your dad is up there. If you see anything that doesn't look like me or him coming down, shoot it with every bullet you have in your gun."
The PH vanished into the tree with a rustle of leaves. The younger hunter stood below, his expression a curious mixture of hope and grim resignation. Marlow danced nervously about, expelling the occasional quite whine as he tried to look in every direction at once. The forest was deadly silent save for the occasional rustle of leaves above. Time got very strange for the younger hunter as his terror mixed with his hope. Could it be possible that his father was still alive? Could anything that came into contact with that terrible beast possible survive?
An eternity later the PH descended from the tree and dropped athletically to the ground. A single glance to his face answered every one of the younger hunter's questions.
"It left his body up there, didn't it?" he almost whispered.
The PH nodded sharply.
"Best thing we can do is leave him up there for right now. The coyotes can't get at him that way." The older man shouldered his rifle and walked away without another word.
* * *
A little while later they emerged from the forest at the base of an enormous granite cliff face. The PH pointed up toward the top.
"There's a bunch of caves up there at the summit. My guess is that…"
As if on cue all three hunters turned to peer at a stand of greasewod about 200 yards away. Something large was moving inside of it, causing the tops of the plants to sway violently. With a snarl the younger hunter brought up his rifle, aimed it at the movement, and pulled the trigger. At the last moment the PH's left arm shot out, knocking the rifle's barrel out of alignment and causing the shot to go wild. The motion suddenly stopped.
The younger hunter turned angrily on the older man. "What in the hell did you do that for? I had him dead in my sights!"
The PH shook his head. "Wasn't him. Wrong size and wrong color. Probably a coyote or bobcat. It you were paying better attention you would have seen that. Plenty of creatures live out here that don't deserve to die because of what happened to your father."
The younger man only snarled in response.
The three of them began making their way up a narrow, winding path that took them around the edge of the cliff. The heat of the sun became disorienting, but the three hunters staggered on determinedly, once again lost in their own individual misery as they struggled along the steep path. The young hunter was awash with guilt over his father's death, and was angry with the PH for reasons he couldn't fully understand. The PH felt guilty over the death of his client, and was vaguely angry himself with the young hunter for not being more alert and competent. Marlow hungered for revenge against the monster that had murdered his brothers, but also wondered if the two humans he was traveling with knew what they were doing. As they staggered along, tripping over loose rocks and struggling around boulders under the blistering sun, even more doubt arose in his narrow canine mind.
Finally the three struggled to the top of a ridge. Below them lay the magnificence of the Black Rock Desert: a lifeless moonscape of blowing sand, barren rock, and towering mountains punctuated by tiny oasis of paradise. Behind them a slate grey cliff ascended un-climbable up into the heavens. They edged gingerly upward along a ledge with Marlow at the point, stepping carefully around loose gravel and slippery granite as the desperate specter of falling rose to meet their sorrow, wrath, and terror of being eaten. At one point the younger hunter slipped, and was saved only by the steadying hand of the PH, which he shrugged off without a word of thanks.
At several points the PH found signs of Phat Albert: pools of black blood, paw prints the size of trashcan lids, and bits of hair. His stride seemed a little uneven, which brought a cruel smile to the hunter's face. He also found another set of tracks - smaller than the monster's, and not feline. Some sort of big male coyote, perhaps. It was hard to tell.
Finally they reached a wider area where the ledge broadened out, allowing another ribbon-like "forest" to cling to the side desperately of the mountain. The PH sat down against a boulder, enjoying the minute amount of shade that it provided. Marlow collapsed at his feet panting desperately, and was given the last of his water. The grateful dog lapped it greedily down as the younger hunter paced impatiently in front of them.
"The caves are up that way," the PH pointed, "up past this glade. He'll go up there and try to sleep his injuries off."
The younger hunter glared angrily as the caves he could not yet see, and then chambered a round. The sharp, mechanical sound of the small bullet entering the rifle's action was like an exclamation point. It was then that the PH noticed how silent it was. It was then that he smelled almonds.
Everything began to happen in slow motion around him. Afterward he wasn't entirely sure if that was how he had really sensed it, or merely how his slightly damaged memories of the event had recorded it. He began to turn and rise to his feet as the huge, mutated mountain lion emerged from hiding onto a cliff a few dozen feet above him, its malignant eyes fastened upon him like the headlights of an oncoming semi truck. The beast was covered in its own blood. It swayed unsteadily in the sunlight for a moment, then straightened its shoulders and released a roar that could have come directly through the gates of Hell.
The Krag felt impossibly heavy in the PH’s hands as he brought it up and put the scope to his eye. Phat Albert leaped into the air, majestic and terrible as he reached out at the hunter with both of his forepaws. One of those malignant orbs bust into a shower of gore as the Krag barked, but the monster kept coming. The PH felt himself flung back against the boulder as his rifle flew from his hands. He felt pain explode in the back of his neck and head as he struck a rock. The PH sat down hard, stunned and unable to move but still wide awake, a spectator in the horror that unfolded before him.
Phat Albert turned his maimed head so that his single functioning eye could glare at the hunter. He opened his mouth so that his victim could see the shark-like chaos of jagged teeth it contained. The PH understood: the lion wanted him to know the horrid, ripping death that awaited him. He was seasoning his prey with fear, with its terror of begin eaten alive. But then the crack-crack-crack of the younger hunter's .22 magnum opened up in the creature's side, causing him to scream and squirm away from the PH in pain. The younger hunter was screaming too: an unintelligible, primitive sound of rage as he ran directly at the lion, firing as he went. A howl joined the avenging son's scream as Marlow leapt from the PH's side to fasten his jaws onto Phat Albert's rear left leg.
The younger hunter fired his rifle until its hammer made clicking sounds as it struck against nothing in an empty chamber. Then his threw it at the monster that had killed his father, drew a long knife from his trousers, and leapt upon the creature, stabbing viciously at its neck. Phat Albert thrashed this way and that, desperately attempting to dislodge his attackers. As he watched the creature bit off a piece of the young man's shoulder, then raked is claws against Marlow's side, exposing his ribs in a shower of blood. But the two hunters refused to back off, biting and stabbing at their hated foe with a fervor that seemed monstrous even compared to the creature itself.
Then there was another howl.
The PH felt blood trickle down the back of his neck. Into the corner of his vision bounded one of Barker's hounds; he couldn't tell which one. He had been wrong, then. One of the huge beasts had survived the death of its master and mate. Like them it had come, hunting for revenge high above the Black Rock. And now was its chance. For man or beast, monster or natural, vengeance when awoken became the primary motivator of all things. It was the director that stood behind the camera of their emotions, single-mindedly coordinating every one their actions. Not love or faith or hunger or lust - but revenge. Sweater than wine, stronger than the desire to survive.
The hound slammed into Phat Albert, sending all four of them sliding toward the edge of the cliff.
"No!" screamed the PH, but it was too late. Vengeance had taken every one of them in its unforgiving grip and would not let go, even as certain death loomed. The younger hunter craved it for his father, Marlow for his brothers, Barker's hound for his mate and master, and the PH for his wounded pride. Even Phat Albert wanted payback for all the horrors that nature and bullets had wrought upon his mutated body. Everybody wanted a bloody, red chunk of retribution, and nobody cared how much it cost when God came to collect his bill. Stabbing and screaming and biting and cursing, all four of them tumbled over the cliff and out of sight.
* * *
"It was an hour before my legs started working again." The PH's voice sounded remote, almost disinterested. He stared down into his whisky glass as if trying to figure something out. "Everything still hurts like hell. Guess I must have struck my spine as well as my head. When I could get up, I worked my way down to the base of the mountain. It took me almost till sundown, but I found the boy's body and Marlow's carcass. Didn't find Barker's hound or Phat Albert, though. Maybe they fell down a crevasse or something."
He didn't sound very convinced.
"But you honestly think the monster is dead?" Sheriff Sal's large brown eyes bore down unrelentingly upon the PH in the way that cop's eyes always do. Searching, critical, distant. "You are 100 and ten percent sure that the damn thing died in the fall?"
The PH sighed, and then shook his head. "No. Until I've got its sorry ass hanging from the wall above my fireplace, I will never be certain."
The sheriff nodded. "You still got a bunch of those Africa rifles in your locker? That dinosaur gun or whatever it's called?"
The PH nodded.
"Right. I can cover up the deaths without lying. A big old tom got Barker, then the older guy, and the young one fell to his death while you two were hunting it down. That should keep those pencil pushers in Reno from getting their knickers in a twist. Now, I've still got a .50 Cal stuck up in the rafters of my office. Tomorrow morning you, me, my deputy, and the game warden are going up there armed with guns that would make Godzilla shit his britches. We're not coming back until this is finished.
The PH looked up at Sal, an unfathomable expression in his eyes.
"It's time to put this particular Black Rock nightmare to bed."