Gray’s hands were gripped tight on his hunting rifle. He moved as silently through the woods as he could, leaves wet with condensation slapped against his face. Catching a deer had been the subject of conversation two nights before as he and his friends had sat around the kitchen table in the small hunting lodge. But now he was hunting something that hunted back and for the first time in his 21 years of life he was afraid. Afraid for himself yes, but even more so for the nine friends that hunted alongside him.
His footfalls as they broke through the thin layer of frozen snow and frost sounded preternaturally loud in the soft diffused dawn light. His heart hammered in his ears, his finger tapping restively on the trigger guard of his Remington 30.06. At his feet were tell-tales signs of his original quarry and the newer one, deer scat a few hours old had been pressed into the earth by what appeared to be a size 11 boot, only mere minutes before.
He did not like this at all. They were hunting men whose weapons were of much better design for this kind of undertaking, and here they were, 10 friends, 8 men (barely) and 2 women. Of them all Gray was the only one with military training and even that had been cut short when he had broke his femur due to a zip line failure as he dangled twenty feet up on the underbelly of a Chinook helicopter.
Gilen his younger brother came up to him, of all the participants that jumped in the rabbit hole this morning Gilen was the wild card among them. Gilen would have gone on this expedition alone if he had too.
“Why’d you stop?’ Gilen said quietly as he scanned ahead. Although getting a look of anything past twenty yards through the dense brush of upstate Maine was impossible.
“We’re close.” Gray replied, still looking down at the fresh track.
Gilen started to move forward, Gray grabbed his shoulder.
“What Gray? We’ve got to go!” Gilen demanded.
“We’ve got to think this out.” Gray said wiping his forehead with his left hand, not surprised at all to see the amount of perspiration there even though the temperature hovered around the low 40’s.
“What’s going on?” Gray’s best friend, Tory asked cautiously.
“Gray says they’re close and for some reason he thinks we need to wait.” Gilen said goading Gray.
“They could be laying a trap Gilen, are you in a such a rush to catch a bullet?” Gray retorted.
Gilen ‘pahed’. “We’ve got them running for their lives.” Gilen said boastfully.
“Maybe we do and maybe we don’t, if they’ve since caught wind of who’s chasing them they might decide to turn and fight.” Gray said cautiously.
Gilen was about to start up again. “You don’t get it, four of us have bolt actions and the others including me have 5 or 6 round clips max. Of the two girls only Pamela has ever touched a gun before, and Brandt (Parker’s younger brother) couldn’t hit a penned up Rhino with a scope from thirty yards away. There are only six of them but they have at least four assault rifles. The only and I mean ONLY thing we had over them was the element of surprise and even that’s gone now.”
“Do you think we should just go and get help?” Parker asked, not fully realizing how bad the odds were until Gray laid them out.
“We turn now Parker and those kids are dead.” Gilen said with fire in his eyes.
“He’s right.” Gray said but that still didn’t make him feel any better about the situation they now found themselves in.
“Brandt I dropped my gun!” Bridget yelled her voice cutting through the light fog. “Will it still work?”
“Shut up!” Was Brandt’s issued warning and just as loudly.
“I’m just saying, because now it has snow on it and I don’t want it to blow up in my face or something.” She whined.
“I’m going to blow up in your face if you don’t shut the hell up Brigdet.” Brandt said matching her decibel for decibel.
“This is the group you’re so willing to run into battle with Gilen?” Gray asked with lament.
Gilen had moved away to confront Bridget, when he got there she was still staring down at her fallen gun, he picked it up and handed it back to her.
“You scream like that again Bridget, I’m going to mash your face into the ground until your nose falls off.”
She was about to unleash an East Boston tirade on him, but something in the set of his eyes and the fact that she didn’t see a triplex dwelling anywhere nearby let her rethink her strategy.
Gilen put his index finger to his pursed lips, Bridget nodded obligingly. Then Gilen moved over to Brandt who was nodding in agreement with what Gilen had done. Gilen slung his rifle over his left shoulder and with his right arm he slugged Brandt flush in the nose. Brandt crumpled to the ground from the unexpected blow, blood blew out in all directions.
“Don’t you say a fucking word Brandt.” Gilen said pointing his finger dangerously close to Brandt’s now busted appendage. “You know better.” And with that Gilen helped his friend up. Brandt’s eyes watered fiercely as Gilen placed his hands together like his was praying and then snapped Brandt’s nose back into place. Brandt didn’t so much as whimper from the acute pain.
“Wipe your face off you’re a mess.” Gilen said to Brandt before going back to rejoin Parker and Gray.
“Wicked Pissah.” Gray said sarcastically. “I don’t like this Parker , I know they’re close and now they probably know we are too.”
“Gray honestly what do you think we should do?” Parker asked solemnly.
“Parker if we weren’t four hours from anywhere, I’d say we need to leave and get some help and I haven’t had cell service since we passed through Caribou three day ago.” Gray said, quickly glancing in the direction they needed to go and staring back longingly at the way they had come. A year and a half ago he had been training for a stint in Afghanistan before the rappelling buckle had broken and plunged him to the ground. That brief second and a half he found himself airborne was less stressful than this encounter. He had known the outcome of that, he would strike hard ground and be in pain, possibly paralyzed and maybe even dead, but the options were finite then. He was dealing with so many variables here he couldn’t even keep them straight.
Trent came up to the small group, of them all he was the second best outdoorsman, the best having left the night before and the only one of the group a year round Maine inhabitant. “I scouted up ahead.” He said barely above a whisper.
“And?” Gilen asked.
“He’s whispering Gilen, what do you think?” Gray asked condescendingly.
Gilen stormed off but not far, if a decision was made that he didn’t agree with he wanted to be close to try and sway them back on course.
“After this small rise.” Trent said pointing to an incline about fifty yards ahead. “There is a small dip and then another rise, about double the size of the one we’re looking at here. I mean it’s not much of a climb you’d probably hardly even notice it, but it’s a perfect place for them to set up an ambush or at the very least leave a few of them behind to see what they’re dealing with.”
“They see us crest that hill.” Parker said and they’ll know we’re in way over our heads.”
Pamela who had been sitting on a tree stumps a few yards away trying to catch her breath from the break neck pace they had been using in pursuit of their foe finally stood to be near Gray. Gray and Pamela had dated in High School but he had called it off once he joined the military he didn’t think that it was fair to make her wait for him to come home if at all. Gray had a premonition that signing those enlistment papers was akin to signing his own death certificate and found himself fairly surprised when he was released from active service on a medical discharge. She had not quite accepted his apology and to be fair he hadn’t really tried to build a bridge over the expanse of their destroyed relationship.
Gray looked over at her with care and concern in his visage, her heart just about melted. “Gray.” She said softly. “We can’t leave those kids out there.” She intoned.
“We going to get this show on the road?” Jacob asked. “I’m getting cold, I was getting hungry over two hours ago and now I’m just plain pissed off.”
Gray looked up at his friend who towered him at 6’ 5”, up until the age of 11 Jacob had actually been called Pee-Wee because of his diminutive size. And then either his parents had begun to flood his Cheerios with Human Growth Hormones or Jacob had found a medical supply box with steroids, but in the matter of one summer, Jacob had made every last person that picked on him pay in spades. Gray was thrilled he had stuck with the little kid during those early years.
“We could send him first.” Gilen said from the outskirts of the group, pointing towards Jacob. “He oughta scare the shit out of them.”
“I’d do it for some food, even one of those hard as wood granola bars.” Jacob said.
“No way.” Gray said to his giant friend. “I send you up there and something happens, I’m the one that has to tell your wife Melissa.”
Brandt came over, the blood finally beginning to staunch.
‘This is great,’ Gray thought, ‘let’s just bring everyone in we can have a football huddle.’ He knew they were breaking the cardinal rule in combat, grouping together. A controlled well aimed burst of machine gun fire would almost take out the entire group in one fell swoop.
He had stalled for too long and now it didn’t seem quite that way. ‘Why couldn’t this be someone else’s problem.’ He lamented.
‘Because God deigned it fit that you should be tasked with saving those children.’ His Catholic conscience replied.
Gray inadvertently grabbed his knuckles where the Sisters used to impart their form of discipline with a hard edged ruler. Gray laughed as he watched his brother unknowingly mimic the move as he was most likely also wrestling with this question of morality.
“Alright so we all know what needs to be done.” Gray said.
“Finally.” Gilen said rejoining the group.
“Go get help?” Bridget asked.
“That’s not a horrible idea.” Trent said. “We could send her back.”
Bridget was nodding her head in the affirmative, she had had just about enough of this adventure. Her sister, had told her that hunting usually just revolved around a lot of partying and there would be plenty of cute guys with no competition.
“Don’t even look at me Gray.” Pamela said forcefully. “I’m not going back with her, and I don’t even think I know the way. No scratch that, I have absolutely no idea where I am.”
“Neither do I.” Bridget said fearfully looking around, just realizing that small detail.
Tory who had been the last hold out to leave his watch position came over when he saw the discussion about getting help. “I know the way back, I think.” Bridget looked up at him with thankful doe eyes, she had a crush on Tory for going on the last 6 years and figured having him away from his girlfriend in a small cabin in upstate Maine she would finally be able to make her move.
“You think?” Trent asked. “If we send people back to get help we have to be sure they actually get it.” He said turning back to Gray.
“Trent, you know these woods the best of any of us.” Gray said.
“Payton knows them better than I do and I’m not turning back Gray, not now. Who’ll get the rest of you out when this is over?”
‘I think this was the place of my premonition.’ Gary thought sourly. ‘I’m not planning on getting out.’ Gary reached out and placed his hand on Trent’s shoulder.
“Besides I’ve been marking the trail.” Trent said.
“With what?” Payton asked.
Trent reached into his cargo pocket and pulled out a handful of varying colored beer bottle caps. “Every few feet or so, I break a branch and press a cap into the bark right above it. You’ll have to look for them but they should be easy enough to spot.”
“Shit.” Jacob said. “It’s taken us two hours to come in this far, it’ll take double that to get out even with Trent’s markers.”
“What about our foot prints in the frost. I’m not blonde.” Bridget said. “Even I can follow that.”
“That’ll work for a while.” Trent said, “but it’s going to be fairly warm today and any trail we left is going to be gone soon, a half hour at the most.”
“You haven’t thought of the most obvious thing either.” Gilen said.
The entire group turned to look for his answer.
“What if they’ve doubled back?” He finished.
“Wonderful.” Gray said squeezing his forehead in the hopes of keeping the killer migraine he could sense from making its presence known come to the fore.
“He’s right.” Trent said acknowledging Gilen’s statement. “They’re only going to run so far, they have to get out of here eventually too.”
“Trent, what’s up this way if they keep going? Is there a town or something?” Gray asked.
Trent just shook his head as he thought. “There’s nothing but trees for another hundred miles in damn near every direction except the way we came.”
“Oh my God.” Bridget fairly shrieked. “We’re lost! Pamela I want to get out of here, you said this would just be a big party, well I’m not having fun anymore.”
Pamela smiled sheepishly, embracing her sister. “It’s alright, we’ll be okay.” Pamela said in a soft cooing voice that she hoped mimicked her mother’s. It was a comforting sound when either of the girls had hurt themselves or later in their teenage years when some perceived great drama had unfolded on their lives. Rita Andersen had succumbed to a very aggressive form of pancreatic cancer some three years previous and Pamela had found herself being thrust more and more into the role of surrogate mother to her younger sister.
“I’d like to get in on that.” Gilen said.
“You’re kind of sick brother.” Gray told him.
“What? I did mean for the comfort of it.” Gilen replied sincerely.
“Sure you did.” Gray replied, air quoting as he mouthed the word ‘comfort’. Gray loved his younger brother Gilen and not just because he was family. Gilen was a year younger but was absolutely fearless a trait Gray sometimes wished he had but more often than not thanked his lucky stars he didn’t.
During a pick up hockey game against some kids from across town Gray had just scored the go ahead goal when the very next play he was cross checked into the boards in an obvious cheap shot. Gilen who had been sitting on the bench catching a break had gone back on to the ice and leveled the other teams biggest player, who by the way was returning from the bathroom and had absolutely no idea what was going on. Gilen just stood over the crumpled form of the player whose lip he had busted daring anyone else to ‘come and get some’, there were a couple that thought about it but none took the challenge.
“Anyone ever cheap shots my brother again, I will fucking kill them.” Gilen said without rage only conviction. It’s one thing to fight but when you look in to the eyes of your opponent and don’t see fear that can be unnerving. The game had ended when two of the opposing players were allowed to drag their friend away from the watchful gaze of Gilen.
Gray was concerned that someday Gilen was going to get himself into a situation that would not end well.
“Gray we can’t stand here all day.” Jacob said as he blew warm air into his hands.
“Jacob.” Gray said as his thoughts were pushed back and the here and now made its presence known. “You’re going to get help.”
“The hell I am.” Jacob said backing away.
“Listen, you’re married.” Gray said.
“Yeah what’s your point? Of us all that means I should stay here the most, you’ve met my wife.” Jacob said in only mock seriousness, he loved Becka more than words could express although he constantly referred to her as his own personal neutering device.
“Maybe so my friend but what about the little one she’s carrying?” Gray asked.
“Cheap shot Gray. I didn’t know you’d stoop that low.” Jacob said more than a little miffed.
“It’s the truth Jacob, you have a kid on the way, and we need help badly. Someone has got to do it, you know your way in the woods fairly well, you have Trent’s markers and you know how to use a rifle if you run into any trouble.”
Jacob was torn, he loved his wife more than the air he breathed and the coming of his child excited him like nothing in his life ever had. But this group of friends was also his family plain and simple. He would no sooner trade one’s safety for the other. “Gray don’t make me choose.” Jacob lamented.
“I’m not.” Gray said forcibly. “You are going to get us help.”
“If you lose your way at all.” Trent said addressing Jacob, keep the sun on your right shoulder and you will run in to the Makewageg River or at least one of its tributaries, follow it down and you will eventually run in to TOWN, then let them know where we are.”
Jacob kept nodding, his heart racing he was going to do his best to sprint the entire way. “Anything happens to you guys Gray and I’ll hunt you down myself.”
“Nothing is going to happen to us.” Gray said with his most cheerful expression, but it fell flat and what was more disturbing to Jacob was Gray turned away as he delivered the message almost as if he didn’t want Jacob to see the lie as it was delivered.
“Gilen, you keep an eye on your brother.” Jacob said as he departed the group and a good clip.
“It’s what I was put on this earth for.” Gilen said softly and with conviction.
Gray felt way better that help while not on the way was at least being called for, if they fell short of accomplishing their goal he could hope that someone else would be able to pick up the fallen torch and run with it. ‘Didn’t know you were such a defeatist.’ He told his psyche.
‘Realist.’ Came the unasked for reply.
Gray waited a few moments until Jacob was completely swallowed up by the dense Maine vegetation before turning back to Gilen. “You ready?” He asked his brother.
“About time.” Was all Gilen said in reply.
“Tory I want you to take Pamela and Bridget about 50 yards to our left, make sure you can still see me.” Gray said. Gray hoped that Tory didn’t realize anytime soon that he was being relegated to babysitter. ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to get any women killed.
“Fifty yards Gray? Are you sure I’ll still be able to see you?” Tory asked questioningly.
“Go.” Gilen said, seeing through Gray’s ruse and covering for him.
“Alright let’s stretch this line out and make them think they’re dealing with a larger force.” Gray said getting everyone into a line with about ten yards spacing between them all. They came up the small rise with as much stealth as possible, only Gray, Gilen and Payton were able to pull it off with any degree of success. Gray could hear Bridget complain about getting brambles stuck on her pants and Blake off to his left stepped on a branch the resulting snap sounding much like a gunshot.
Gray caught movement to his front and left, he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t an animal but most forest dwellers would have left long ago with as much human activity had been happening here within the last fifteen minutes.
“Did you see that?” Gilen asked closing in with Gray to ask the question as quietly as possible.
“What exactly did you see?” Gray asked.
“Two maybe three men up ahead as soon as they saw us they took off.” Gilen said as he kept scanning the ridgeline in front of them.
“Do you think they’re ready to give up yet?” Gray asked Gilen more than half serious.
“Won’t know until we ask them.” Gilen replied with a grin.
“Well let’s not make them wait then.” Gray replied.
Gray could not shake the feeling of a black cloud descending on the group no matter how brightly the sun lit up the blue sky. Birds chirped above their heads, some hardy insects flew on by oblivious to the life and death struggle being played out right in front of them. A red squirrel busily scampered around collecting food from the exposed forest floor.
Carefully they climbed up the other side of the small bowl they were in. The cloud began to coalesce around Gray, any thicker and it would drop with a thud on the top of his head. He had never had feelings of premonition but they were on the other side he was absolutely sure of it. His head was almost level with the top of the hill when he placed his left hand up with a closed fist, the universal sign for ‘stop’ in the military unfortunately the rest of his troupe had not been in the elite Army Rangers.
Gilen had immediately relayed the gesture and nine of them had stopped in time, only Bridget who was busy pulling thorns from her jacket failed to heed the warning. Pamela reached out to stop her sister, the crack of the high velocity AK-47 round tore through the air like a circular saw through an errantly placed finger. Bridget spun as the bullet caught her on the left side of the face. Her bottom lip was sheared away as fourteen teeth were shattered along with her jaw bone. She was dead before she hit the ground as the bullet severed her spinal column. Her legs would convulse for another seven minutes before they realized they would never walk again.
Gilen began his war cry as he rose from his semi-crouched position. His rifle jumping in his hands as he returned fire.
“Bridget…!” Pamela screamed.
“…mom says you have to come in and put on warmer clothes before we go out.” Pamela yelled from the porch of her home some eight years previous to her sister’s untimely death.
“Tell mom I’m fine they’re going to leave without us!” Bridget yelled from the street.
“You heard her mom.” Pamela said from the doorway. “Why do I have to take her with me anyway these are my friends.”
Rita turned from her dishes. “Pamela honey it’s Halloween, I will not have your eleven year old sister running around by herself out here.”
Pamela gave an over exaggerated sigh.
“Besides honey.” Her mother continued. “You should be nice to your sister, of all the people you are going to know in this life she will be the longest among them.”
The concept was lost on the thirteen year old Pamela, who knew just about everything there was to know in life. ‘How can that be?’ Pamela thought. “Mom she’s two years younger than me and I’ve known you and dad since I was born.” Her expression let her mother know that she thought she was a dolt for merely saying what she had.
“Someday you’ll get it.” Rita said as she rubbed out a stitch of pain in her side. “That was weird.” Rita said. “You be nice to your sister, have a great time and make sure you get me some Snicker’s.”
“Yes mom.” Pamela acquiesced. Pamela could not wait to get out of the house, she knew the boys had something scary planned but she had something up her sleeve as well, she would get Gray to kiss her no matter what else happened.
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