CHAPTER EIGHT: TRAPPED!
The clearing was undisturbed, dead-silent. Zelda’s sleeping bag and blanket lay where they had been the night before. The tent and campfire were as they should be, and cooking utensils and coolers hadn’t been touched. There were no signs of a struggle, not even any tracks. Everything was where it was supposed to be except for his sleeping wife.
A cold blanket of dew drenched everything and a fine mist hung low over the fields, shrouding the plants like a veil. Nate leaped to his feet and his head swam. He ground his fists into his temples and waited for the grogginess to ease. When it cleared, he stepped over to the tent and looked inside. The tent was empty. Sunlight streamed in through the nylon mesh window and puddled in a square on the floor.
Straightening up, he called her name loudly and waited. The only sounds were those of the crickets and the ever-present rustling of the corn. He wasted no time chiding himself for falling asleep, there would be time for self-recrimination later. His first concern was finding Zelda and keeping her safe.
Struggling to remain calm and think clearly, Nate bent over and picked up the hand ax, where it had fallen from his belt while he slept. Scanning the horizon, he tried to decide in which direction to search. There was no sign of the creatures from the night before, and when he thought of them, it was hard not to believe it had all been just a dream. But if the events of the previous night were a figment of his imagination, then where was Zelda and what was he doing out here in the middle of nowhere, toting a sidearm and an ax?
No, Natey-boy, they were real, all right, and what’s worse, they took Zelda right from under my nose while I slept! His inner thoughts bore into him.
Still, he couldn’t let himself believe she was dead…or eaten. He had to try to find her — but where to start?
His backpack lay near the smoldering remains of the campfire. He picked it up and then, deciding it would be better to travel light, tossed it up into the lower branches of a small sycamore tree. There it would be safe to retrieve later, and it could dry in the sun. He took a few steps toward the cornfield and hesitated. If they were out there, Nate wouldn’t stand a chance in hell against them. Better to stay out in the open as much as possible.
He started toward the woods, staying close to the fence row. All the while, he scanned the area for tracks or some sign that they’d passed this way. The thought of going for help occurred to him, but he rejected it for two reasons: How would he get back and how would he convince the authorities of his story? It was obvious that he and Zelda were in this on their own, and he was determined not to let her down.
His muscles ached from spending the night on the hard, cold ground, but he didn’t spend much time concerning himself about it. Foremost in his mind were thoughts of his wife and her safety. Nate didn’t want to even think about what life would be like without her.
It was strange, really, when you thought about it. Nate had come close to losing her emotionally in the city, and they had come way out here to find each other again. Now that he’d regained her love, he’d lost her physically. In a real sense, he felt the pain of her absence more now than he would have at any other time before this day. Squaring his shoulders and thrusting out his chin, he marched, squinting into the morning sun.
I am not going to lose you like this!
The soft call of a dove murmured through the morning air, lending a sad, haunted feeling to the day. Out in the field, a flock of crows flew up, beating their dark wings and croaking harsh epithets at each other. They seemed exasperated at his intrusion.
About half-way to the edge of the woods, he noticed something in the bean field. He was unable to quite make out what it was, but something dark was sticking up just enough to be seen above the plants. Nate blinked his eyes, rapidly, and tried to bring it into focus. But it was no use. He would have to get closer. Which meant abandoning the fence row and the small amount of cover it afforded, but he couldn’t pass up any leads that might help him find Zelda.
The dew-covered plants soon had his pants soaked up past his knees, but his boots kept his feet warm and dry.
When he had gotten to within a few feet of the thing, he began to slow down, partly due to caution and the fear he had of discovering Zelda’s partially clad, savaged body.
At first, it appeared to be a wet grocery bag, but then he saw that it was pink and wrinkled, with tufts of hair protruding from it. He heard the buzzing of flies, and his mind pictured the corpse of his wife, her scalp ripped from her head, lying in a heap among the rows of beans. Remembering the severed head in the tree, he wavered, unable to approach any nearer. Indecision pulled at him. He couldn’t just ignore it and continue his search, knowing she might be lying out here in the sun. He had no choice but to look.
Resigning himself to the task, he took another cautious step. The hair on his own scalp raised when the clump of flesh moved and an unholy roar sliced through the air. Before his startled eyes, a creature like the one from the day before rose up from its hiding place in the beans and charged him. Its mouth was split wide in a hellish snarl, and it lurched forward on two legs, wielding its claws, menacingly.
Nate snatched the gun from its holster and then remembered how low he was on ammunition. He had only the four bullets remaining, and he may need them before this ordeal was over.
If I can make it to the trees on the fence row, I may be able to avoid wasting any shots!
During the siege of their camp the night before, his thoughts had turned to the partial corpse, rotting in the tree above them, and it had dawned on him that these creatures must not be able to climb. Whoever the poor unfortunate whose head had been left behind must have tried, not quite successfully, to escape using that route.
This was why Nate had been following the fence row — in hopes that, were he attacked, his theory would prove correct. Now he was going to have a chance to find out, provided, of course, he could outrun this horrific beast.
As he spun around, however, he heard yet another growl and saw a second beast rushing at him from the direction of the fence row, effectively cutting off his escape! This one, apparently, had been hiding in the beans as well, and Nate must have walked right past it.
Damn things were stalking me!
These were obviously more clever creatures than Nate would have guessed. Coming at him this way, it would be difficult for him to kill both of them. By the time he got a shot off at one, the other would be on him. It was rather like chasing down and tagging a baseball runner caught between first and second base.
This second creature galloped on all fours and moved much quicker than the first. In fact, Nate could see that, given its present speed, it would overtake him in just a few more bounds.
It was time. He had no choice but to spend some ammunition now. Surely things couldn’t get much more desperate than this. He whirled and fired a round at the first creature. Not waiting to see the effect of his shot, he dove, headlong and attempted a clumsy somersault into the beans, kicking up a cloud of dust as he fell. His dive was at right angles to the path of the second beast, whose claws raked the side of Nate’s boot as it charged through the spot where he’d been standing. By the time it halted its rush and doubled back for another pass, Nate was already running. The creature let out a roar of rage and gave chase.
Nate had badly underestimated the speed of these creatures. Although he believed he killed the first, placing a hollow-nosed .357 slug right through its chest, there was no way he could outrun this second creature. It would be on him before he made half the distance to safety. And placing another such shot while on the run for his life would be beyond luck and closer to a miracle. There was no time to stop and plant himself to fire. All he could do was redouble his efforts and run like he had never run before.
He heard a vicious scream from behind and put his head down, concentrating on which branch he would leap for if he did, through some marvel, happen to make the trees.
Zelda awoke to a nightmare. A hard, scaly paw was shoved down hard upon her mouth, covering nearly half her face and making it almost impossible to breathe. She could feel the sharp claws digging into the side of her neck, and she saw the silhouette of the creature’s face leaning over her.
She tried to struggle, but the beast was much too powerful. She was a tiny rag doll in its grasp. Straining her eyes to the left, she could make out Nate’s body lying motionless by the fire. Zelda cried out against the filthy pads of the creature’s paw, but her voice was muffled to practically nothing.
In terror, she realized that the creature had come back and killed Nate. And now it had her in its grasp. She prayed the end would be mercifully quick.
Silently it picked her up and smashed her against its chest. The dry, wrinkled skin and the tufts of matted hair ground hard and rough against her cheek. Its pungent, animal odor revolted her and made her retch. Rising up on powerful hind legs, the creature shuffled away from the campfire and out into the night, dragging her along like a child carrying a stuffed toy.
Out into the beanfield, it carried her, the wet plants slapped coldly against her bare legs. Tears blinded her vision as she watched the campfire growing smaller and smaller, swallowed by the darkness. Suddenly, it stopped and dropped her roughly upon the ground, removing the gagging paw from her mouth. Her jaw ached from the pressure it had exerted on it and her lip had been cut by one of its pads.
She cried pitifully for it to stop, to leave her alone, but the creature stood there in silence, staring at her from the blackness of the night. Finally, it brought its cruel face to within inches of hers and glared hungrily into her eyes. The smell or its breath nearly gagged her and she turned her face. It reached out and, hooking one of its claws through the sleeve of her sweat-shirt and guided her arm down toward its belly where her hand came to rest on a huge throbbing lump of turgid flesh.
She lashed her arm back from it as though she’d laid her hand on a hot poker, ripping her sleeve in the process. She opened her mouth to scream but her captor brought a paw hard across her face and the night erupted in a blinding flash. The last thing she remembered before she lost her grip on consciousness was being rolled over on her belly and feeling the creature’s hot breath on the back on her neck as it grabbed a mouthful of her collar.
Sometime later, she awoke in complete darkness. There was cold, damp stone beneath her cheek and her body ached with the aftermath of spending a long time unconscious upon a hard surface. She tried to remember where she was and what had happened to her, but she was completely disoriented. And, being in total darkness, there was nothing for her eyes to fall on to help her adjust.
Slowly, she pulled herself back from the world of the dead. She moved around, gingerly, flexing first one limb and then another. Everything seemed to be working, but where was she? And how did she get here? Suddenly, she remembered. It came back to her in a rush — the path, the monster, the clearing, Nate’s death, the abduction and the attack in the field… everything!
She sat bolt upright and hit her head on something hard. Sparks flew across the backs of her eyes and she slumped to the floor again.
With mounting horror, she realized she was in a hole of some kind.
Oh my god! The damned thing buried me alive!
Her heart hammered in her chest and a sharp metallic taste came to the back of her mouth, threatening to choke her. She reached out her hand and waved it around panicking in the darkness until she came upon a wall. Following it, she groped her way until it met another wall, about four feet along. Continuing along this wall, she came to an open space where this chamber apparently let out into another one. On her hands and knees, she stretched her arm out into this open space, leaning out as far as she dared. In her mind, she got the feeling she was in a cave of some kind, the walls being made of hard stone, and not in a hole in the dirt, as she had first imagined. Crawling past the “doorway”, she continued to feel her way blindly in the dark.
Suddenly she touched something soft and warm — and alive! And then she felt a hand grasp her arm and hold it firmly. She cried out and tried to pull away, but the grip held fast.
“Sh-h-h-h! Quiet… it’s all right.” The voice was small and soft, like that of a child. “I’m not gonna hurt you… Shh-h-h!”
Zelda stopped struggling and listened. She could hear breathing and the rustling of clothing.
“Please?… Please?” the tiny voice whimpered. Whoever it was, drew nearer to her and folded their arms about her. She was surprised to realize, it WAS a child. Even in the dark, she could tell it was a little girl, a frightened little girl, that was clinging to her desperately, and crying. Her hands came up instinctively and stroked the child’s soft hair. It was matted and tangled, but it still held the softness of a little girl’s tresses.
“Okay… okay.” she soothed. “Don’t cry now, baby, don’t cry.” She held the little girl for a while, letting her cry. In truth, after all that she’d been through, it felt good to have someone to hug. She rocked the child back and forth in her arms, patting her back and stroking her hair some more. Finally, the sobs eased and the child’s stiff body relaxed a bit.
Pulling back a little, she asked, “Who are you, baby? Do you know where we are?”
The child stopped sniffling, but she still clung tightly to Zelda’s hand. “I’m… My name is Susie Chamness, and… I don’t know where this is exactly, but it’s a bad place — real bad!”
Nate saw the branch growing nearer and nearer, and to his amazement, he grew confident that he was going to make it! With every muscle, he strained to reach the tree and climb to safety. He didn’t dare take time to look back over his shoulder to see if the thing was gaining on him. He could only assume it was about to overtake him and every precious second counted in his race for survival.
The cold, damp plants felt like hands that clutched at his legs, threatening to trip him and send him tumbling among the weed-strewn rows to meet his doom. He could hear the creature’s labored breathing close on his heels — hot and moist, on the back of his neck. Any second now, a sharp blow to the middle of his back would send him sprawling and then the beast would be on him. Its heavy body bearing him to the ground while its talons ripped at his guts and that foul slobbering maw opened wide to swallow his face.
He reached for the low-hanging branch and leaped. Primal instinct told him that the creature was already in mid-air. His hand grasped its rough surface and he swung his legs in a “skin-the-cat” maneuver over the branch and hauled himself up into the tree. As he executed these gymnastics, he expected to feel the claws of the beast, snaring his leg and dragging him back to a horrible death by dismemberment. Once again, the thought of the rotting remains in the tree from yesterday flashed through his mind. He wasted no time in scrambling even higher into the tree.
It wasn’t until Nate had climbed to a perch about fifteen feet up among the branches that he paused to assess the situation. Looking down at the base of the tree, he was surprised to see the creature was not there. He turned his gaze back to the beanfield he’d left in such haste, and there it stood, glaring at him from over the body of its fallen comrade.
Apparently, it hadn’t bothered to pursue him at all, only apparitions from his imagination had chased after him. Its main concern had been the death of its mate. Bending over the bloody corpse, it pressed its muzzle gingerly against the shoulder and nudged. Drawing back, it stared intently into the lifeless face.
Nate was reminded of the nature films he’d seem where an elephant would try to rouse the fallen body of one of its herd-mates after it had been shot by poachers. Had they not been such grotesquely ugly creatures, Nate might have been moved to sympathy. As it were, he was merely curious to witness the act.
He wondered, could these two have been mates, male and female? He knew that some animals, wild geese, for instance — and wolves, mate for life. Could this be true of these creatures as well?
The beast laid a paw on the body of the fallen one and rocked it gently back and forth. Shifting back to glare at Nate in his tree-top perch, it roared its defiance. Nate imagined he could hear a note of grief in that challenge, that made it seem all the more terrifying and he was glad for the relative safety of his tree.
He watched as the creature looked sadly back down at the body once more and then, walked over a few feet and squatted down in the beans. There it sat, maintaining a vigil over Nate while giving an occasional glance back over its shoulder at its mate. The beast, however, kept its distance.
Nate had a nasty, unsettling feeling that, should he climb down for one instant from the safety of his branch, the creature would be all over him, guns or no.
How long is this to last? He thought, miserably. Then his thoughts returned to Zelda, out there… somewhere.
“Could she still be alive?” He asked aloud but doubted it. He could only pray for the best at this point.
It occurred to him that perhaps his gunshots had attracted some attention and help would soon arrive, but then he remembered that hunting was very common out here in these wooded areas. HIs brief hope evaporated. No one would give a second thought to a couple of reports off in the distant fields.
Suddenly, the isolation that had so attracted him to this remote farm lost its appeal and he longed for a little bit for the company of his fellow man. Meanwhile, here he sat, helplessly up a tree, with no way to search for his wife. It was maddening!
“GO AWAY!” He yelled at the creature, but it sat like a stone and made no move. It merely continued to shift its gaze back and forth between Nate and the dead beast to its rear. “GOOD! I hope that WAS your mate I killed, you ugly bastard!”
He leaned back against the rounded bole of the tree and said to himself, “That’s a start on evening the score,”
The creature, looking unimpressed, licked one of its paws and just waited for its moment…