July 3rd, 2009
Seth Anson flipped his cap around and aimed the binoculars to the northwest, picking up Fortress Mountain. He panned slowly to the west until Coulter Peek came into view, momentarily catching a sliver of the setting sun, causing him to wince. Clear. He walked down the deck and aimed west toward Yellowstone, then panned 90 degrees to where Togwotee Pass petered out. From the south deck, he brought Younts Peek into focus, seeing clear skies and a lush carpet of pines rolling off into the shadows of the Carter Mountain Range. That area was clear, too. He let the binoculars drop to his chest. It seemed all wrong. Not a wisp of smoke or glint of fire. Though it was July 3rd, he would have expected at least few inebriated campers burning up a few acres of campground. He gave thanks to the Ranger Gods, nevertheless. The big day was tomorrow, and for all he knew the whole Shoshone National Forest would go up like one big sparkler.
Seth walked around to the north entrance of the tower just as the surface mounted loudspeaker croaked a three-alarm blast in his ear. He made it to his radio station in five quick strides and fisted the mic. “Anson on Wheeler Ridge, go ahead dispatch.”
“Hey, Seth, it’s Tony. No fire alert here, I repeat no fire alert. I just—“
“Damn, I just swept the horizon and thought I missed something.”
“Calm down. Nothing going on out there except for a restaurant fire in Yellowstone and 40 acres in Bighorn. Shoshone is clear. Look, we just received a BOLO report from the county sheriffs department, asking if we would patch in a bulletin to all our smokies. Seems that Hilda’s place was hit by some unknown prowler or pest—tore the hell out of the livestock pens, killed some roosters, and made off with one of her little potbellied show pigs. You know Hilda, right?”
“Yeah, she’s the old gal six miles up the South Fork from me, just off 291. Tucked back in there real good. Man, that’s a shame. What are your looking for? Lion?”
“They aren’t really sure. The prints suggest a big cat, but everything was too smeared up. Nothing you could make a cast out of—just a trampled wake. They put some dogs on it. Could be a big brownie—they’re moving right about now.”
“What makes you think grizz?”
“You know that big black and gray mastiff she had?”
“Well, it got him, too. Broke his neck and back. Didn’t tear the flesh, either. That sounds like a bear swat, don’t you think?”
“Hell, don’t know. Maybe. That’s bad juju having one of those guys that close to the river. We’ve got campers all over the banks, from Younts to the reservoir. Spencer, Wiley, the Faust family, they all live down in there, too.”
“Yeah, some deputies are doing some house to house visits and spreading the word to keep everyone alert and locked up. You still packing that hog leg?”
“Yep, Colt three-five-seven. Don’t have any solid jackets on me. Got a bag full of .38 target wax loads. They won’t stop a papa bear. Might scare the crap out of him, though.”
“Seth, don’t do anything stupid, okay? If you see something call it in. We don’t know if this thing is going south toward you or not. Stay frosty and keep your eyes open. You’re safe in Masada. Just be careful when you have to hit terra firma for anything.”
“You’re rattled about this, Tony. I can hear it in your voice.”
“I was out to Hilda’s place this morning, Seth. Pretty spooky scene. The last time I saw anything like it was on the internet. Remember that Tim Treadwell guy and his girl Amy something? They ended up bear scat.”
“Awe, I don’t think so.”
“I’m just telling you. Check in every three hours with base. Just to be on the safe side.”
“Okay, I’ll squawk you every three. Take care, Tony. Get some rest, will you? Anson on Wheeler out.”
Seth set the mike in the cradle and hit the light switch, casting an eerie glow in the one-room loft house. He put a cup of water in the microwave and tore open a container of instant coffee. After removing the Osborne fire finder from the central table, he prepared his coffee and sat down, thumbing through an old issue of National Geographic. He looked absently at his pull down bed, resisting the urge to splay out his Penthouse and Playboy collection he had stacked next to it. He’d dog-eared those slicks, and right now he didn’t feel like being reminded that he was single and the only female that might share his company tonight had a two-dimensional smirk on her face and a staple through her belly. He pushed the National Geographic magazine away and walked outside onto the deck. Much better to watch the sun go down, he reasoned. Although he did that all the time. He leaned up against the west railing and gazed off into the distance. Coulter Peek was just a dim, gray shadow now, backlit by a half-crescent ruby. The sun sank swiftly, leaving some high altitude cirrus clouds with pink underbellies. It was a beautiful evening. He wished Reagan had stayed with him long enough to share another moment…like this.
Three years of marriage and they had failed to produce a child. That’s what had brought the matrimonial hammer down on their relationship, he reminded himself for the umpteenth time.
He wondered if Reagan had really left him because of a converted firewatch tower. Masada, he liked to call it, wasn’t exactly the type of home where you could carry your bride over the threshold. The ride up to the front door was via the dumbwaiter, or 175 steps to the top. It had its benefits, offering peace and serenity with all the comforts of a real home…and talk about a room with a view! Maybe the breakup had been his retirement wages…hardly a piffle. It w2to wine and dine a new bride. She knew she was marrying a diehard forest ranger. The forestry service was in his blood. The government had sanctioned his permanent residency of the decommissioned tower and allowed him full volunteer firewatch status. They had lived rent-free. Would his marriage have “escalated” into something better if he had been an accountant installed in a high-rise penthouse?
“I’m not a stinger or a daiquiri man, and the only place I have pinstripes is on my pajamas,” he said to the railing. “Maybe I am a miserable under excuse-my-ass achiever. But I’m a happy one!”
He heard a thump and the crack of branches below. He cocked his head, angling his head for sound. He heard it again—something in the brush 90 feet below. The sound did not come from the area of the tower base, but further off, like an animal blundering through brush beyond the clearing perimeter. He retrieved a flashlight from the loft and started down the switchback staircase, dropping two steps at a time. It took him a few minutes to reach the tower’s base. He walked slowly across the gravel to arrive on the northeast side of the clearing. He was now 100 feet from the tower, near his grove of blowout penstemon plants. Now he damned the endangered plants, as he could see nothing in it or past its three-meter height. Yet something snapped twigs and crackled the sage beyond it. He had the urge to call out and identify himself--a show of bravado. But it came out differently as he un-holstered his Colt Python and held it at waist level.
He tried again, “You’re in a protected national forest. You’ve strayed from the assigned campground areas. You’re not allowed in this...” Then he remembered that there was no trespassing law in this sector. “Are you lost?” The sound of feet passing swiftly over the forest floor answered; the heavy pads first moved left, then moved right. The maneuver seemed frantic, evasive. It also indicated that whatever it was had moved in closer.
“Don’t make me come in there,” he called out. Although he wondered why he would have the impetus to blunder into the forest scrub after…after what?
He pushed slowly through the penstemon stalks, bracing himself on bowed legs. Whatever inhabited the grove had stopped moving. He saw a reflective flash of eyes to his left and wheeled. Animal! He backed up, snagging his ankles in the stalks. He caught a flash of rusty colored hair and teeth. The thing charged, snapping and trampling the plants.
Seth raised his sidearm and squeezed one off. He heard the crack of gunfire and a yelp, followed by a thud. He backpedaled out of the grove and stood on the fringe, shaking uncontrollably. He heard and saw nothing now.
What the hell just happened?
He’d just shot something. How damn surreal was that? More to the point, what dropped under his round?
Seth parted the willowy stalks and peeked inside. With a low crouch, he made his way through the grove. He nearly stumbled on it. It lay on its side, appendages twisted and folded. He nearly dropped his flashlight. The shape was vaguely human, covered in a mat of reddish brown hair. The hands clenched, showing peg-like fingernails.
His heart crashed in his chest as he stepped around it, examining its lines. For a minute, he believed that what lay on the ground before him belonged to some serendipitous legend found in the pages of Weird Magazine. Yet he doubted that conclusion. Such things just weren’t possible! Hadn’t National Geographic proved that?
He probed it with his gun barrel. It did not move. He could see a large ribcage rise and fall rhythmically. He pulled tentatively on a wrist and the torso twisted. Two female breasts rolled on the chest. He dropped the arm, stood back and gasped.
“What are you?” he squeaked. “How are you?” Now what was he going to do? Obviously he’d shot a hairy female something. She was still alive. He knelt and played the light over the strange female thing, examining the profile of her face. She looked human, unlike pictures he had seen of Sasquatch. The body exuded an oily muskiness, and he could almost see the sweat glistening close to the skin. Then he wondered if she suffered from the malady hypertrichosis, the condition of extreme body hair. He decided this might be so, since she seemed normal in most respects, except for the small pelt that adorned her. The head hair, though wound around her neck, was very long and unkempt, full of broken twigs and leaves. He could not see an entrance wound in her body. He had no idea where she had been struck.. But if he didn’t do something quick, she might expire on the spot.
He holstered the gun and pocketed the flashlight. He curled his arms under the body and pulled upward. Too heavy. He took her by the wrists and pulled her along the ground, back- stepping out of the grove and across the clearing. When he got to the dumbwaiter carriage, he folded her limbs and hefted her into it, making sure that she was properly balanced. He began the climb to the loft, a thousand thoughts racing through his mind. He saw scenarios playing out in his mind like still shots in a film—the most obvious one being his arrest and conviction of murdering a deformed human being. Second, but no less significant, was the realization that he could lose his retirement and be thrown off the tower property for life. Neither of those situations appealed to him. Jesus.
When he reached the top deck, he pulled up the access hatch and thumbed the button for the electric wench. It started up slowly, squealing against the heavy load. He looked down anxiously, watching the human cargo rise. He prayed that she would not tumble out of the basket and plummet to the concrete foundation below. It would be just his luck to have her fall and splatter blood all over the base of his tower, bringing investigations, lawsuits, and a media circus.
When the basket reached the top, he pulled her out and drug her around to the loft entrance. He got her through the doorway and onto his bed, and then stood over her wringing his hands. Of course! The first aid kit, you dumb bastard.
He pulled a large plastic case from the wall and knelt at the bed, fumbling through its contents. His nerves on edge, he dropped the bandages. He needed a wound location first! Then again, he didn’t really want to find one. He began plying his fingers over her torso, feeling for anything warm and wet. He noticed a perceptible heat rise from her.. He looked at her face again. That’s when he saw it. The impact wound was three inches above the left eye at the edge of the forehead. The hair was missing there, replaced by a nasty abrasion. He picked a flattened piece of wax from her hair just above the ear. The spent slug. By some miracle, the wax bullet had pan-caked then ricocheted off her forehead. It could have gone through her eye and into the brain...
It had knocked her unconscious!
He swabbed the wound with some iodine and taped a small bandage over it, even as it was beginning to swell. He pulled a light coverlet up to her chin and backed off. With little else to do but wait, he dropped to a knee, bowed his head and recited a short prayer. He faltered, not knowing what else to say, then walked to the radio bench and sat down. He felt like he had a throat full of sand and wondered how he would ever explain this to dispatch. Things like this didn’t happen every day. Who was he kidding? Things like this never happened! Then he had a disturbing thought: he wondered if there was a connection. He dialed up base.
“Anson on Wheeler Ridge, come in dispatch.”
“Dispatch here, go ahead, Seth.”
“Hey, Tony. Any scuttlebutt on that prowler yet?”
“Nah, they’re still looking. How about you? You seen anything out there running around?”
“You know how quiet it is up here. Even the jays and squirrels are tucked in for the evening. Did you ever get a make on this thing? Any eyewitnesses?”
“Neither hide nor hair of the damned thing.”
“I said nothing. No eyes on it. What’s the matter with you? You see something out there?”
“That’s a negative. Just thought I would check. Thanks for giving me the goose bumps over this—now I can’t sleep. You’ve got me checking the grounds every 15 minutes.”
“Stay up in Masada. We’ve got some dogs and hunters tracking this thing. Those cops are liable to sling lead at you if you come popping out of a bush. This has got everybody’s nerves frazzled.”
“You think they’ll kill it outright?”
“What do you think? The sheriff’s running the show. You know Bozeman; he’d pop a cap in a baby if it dribbled on the sidewalk.”
“Yeah. Okay. Just thought I check.”
“Have a drink, Seth. One drink, and go to bed. Ring me up when you’re ten-eight. Dispatch out.”
Seth hung up the mic and went to the kitchen alcove. He pulled down a bottle of Jack Daniels from the cupboard and took a three-shot gulp, following it up with another. He heard a strange hissing noise and looked over at the bed. The hairy female blew small, puffy breaths from her mouth as though gasping. When he went to her side, he realized she was overheated and panting. He pulled the coverlet from her and hooked up a small oscillating fan. The small breeze would provide some measure of comfort, in lieu of the fact that she wore the equivalent of a down sleeping bag over her body. He felt at a loss for knowing what else to do to allow her some measure of comfort, but right now another important matter presented itself.
He went to the small kitchen cupboards and retrieved two jars of cyan and chili peppers. He hurried down the tower steps. After he made it to the forest floor, he sprinkled handfuls of the seasoning in the area where he had found the female. He used his boots to scuff up the clearing, hiding the drag tracks. He tossed a liberal dose of the hot chili at the base of the tower directly on the basket pad. After he ascended the stairs and entered the loft, he checked on his new occupant. She seemed to be breathing normally. He noticed that her feet were cracked and blistered, the heels embedded with broken thorns. Though he hadn’t noticed it before, she had chicken feathers twined into what could have only been described as a beard. On closer inspection, he saw an elastic band tightly grooved around her waist. He bent over to look at it and saw that it was the tattered remnants of a pair of female panties.
“You poor wretched thing,” he muttered. “What kind of hell have you seen?”
He went to his radio table and called up dispatch and signed off for the night. Then he took seat next to his guest, the bottle of Jack at his feet. He felt certain that Bozeman’s hounds would get a snoot-full and blunder off in sneezing fits, avoiding the tower altogether. He had no excuse for his behavior, and his conscience fought with itself over what he had done. How did one make things right in such a bizarre set of circumstances? He said another prayer and fell into a fitful, mind-numbing slumber.
A terrible nightmare assaulted him, which he caught it in bits and pieces. Images of reflective red eyes…canine teeth bright and sharp in the moonlight. The frightful visions turned his bone marrow to ice. A plaintiff howl sounded from some unknown depth of his mind, and he tried to shake the horrid images and sounds out of his head.
He awoke with a start, kicking his liquor bottle over. He looked up to see a vague outline towering over him in the dim light. When his eyes adjusted, he saw a hairy face glaring down at him— and from that face, eyes as gray as quicksilver glared menacingly at him.
Seth Anson screamed long and hard. But nothing came out. The sharp-clawed hand that fisted his throat would not allow it.