Authors: James Byron Huggins
James Byron Huggins
Copyright © 1999
by James Byron Huggins
This eBook is licensed for personal use only. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between characters or events in this story and
with any other person or creature, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
"That boy dies in four hours."
The words were all but lost beneath the roar of a low-soaring helicopter that swept across the darkening sky before vanishing into cloud. Thundering past the encircling tree line, it whirled thick cold air as the big man cast a cigar to the ground, grinding it angrily.
"Sheriff Cahill," a radio barked inside a patrol car and he turned, staring. His square face had been chaffed by the bitter winter wind. He reached through the window and palmed the microphone. "This is Cahill."
The voice at the other end was cautious: "Sheriff, volunteers searching the trailhead haven't found any sign of the kid. And the Guard is spread out all the way to Cedar Pass but they ain't found nuthin' either."
The frown deepened on Cahill's broad face. "Listen," he growled, "We have four hours 'til dark. If we don't find that boy before then, he's gonna freeze to death. Weather report says we got heavy snow coming. How many birds we got in the air?"
"Six." Static on the line increased. "But it's hard to see through the trees 'cause the clouds are cuttin' the light pretty bad."
Cahill cursed under his breath and leaned against the car, which tilted at his imposing weight. "Keep everybody moving," he said. "We don't stop, not even if we lose the light. If the rest of us are hurtin', think how a four-year-old boy feels out there."
A black pickup stopped beside him as Cahill tossed the mike onto the seat. He turned to the sound of sliding gravel and his mouth opened in surprise as a man, followed by a great black wolf, stepped from the door. The man came around the front of the vehicle, staring hard at Cahill.
"What do you have, Frank?" he asked.
The gigantic wolf turned its huge head toward the tree line.
Clearly shocked, Cahill took a moment to reply. "Damn, Hunter. I thought you was out of the country or somethin'."
"I got back a couple hours ago." Hunter bent to tighten knee-high moccasins worn over faded blue jeans. His shirt was leather, brown and worn. "Tell me quick what you've got, Frank."
Cahill stepped forward, seemingly galvanized. "Well, Hunter, we got a four-year-old boy lost out there somewhere who's gonna be dead by true dark if we don't find him. I've got deputies, three hundred volunteers and a thousand National Guardsmen out there on the north ridge. We got dogs on the track, six birds in the air. But we can't find hide nor hair. It's like the kid just vanished."
Moving with grim purpose and almost frightening speed, Hunter snatched a portable radio from Cahill's squad car, strapping it quickly to his belt. His voice was cold. "Where was the boy last seen?"
"There." Cahill pointed with a burly arm. His voice was excited. "Up near the trailhead. He was there one minute and then, his parents say, he just vanished in the trees."
"What was he wearing?" Hunter placed food and an emergency kit in a leather bag slung from one shoulder. He carried a single canteen on a leather case at his belt.
"A red shirt, blue coat, old jeans and tennis shoes," Cahill answered. "He was warm enough to last the da
y but he ain't gonna make it tonight."
Hunter threw a coat over his shoulders.
It was leather and strangely designed, coming midway down his thighs. It had double hoods that draped over the shoulders, as if one could be used to protect his head from the wind while the other shed rain from his back. Cahill, who had always been amazed at the design, knew Hunter had made it himself.
"Dogs been over the tracks?" Hunter asked.
"Yeah. Dogs. Volunteers. Hell, every damn body."
"Tell everyone to stay where they're at." Hunter frowned at the forest, which was darkening quickly. "The tracks are gonna be messed up enough."
He looked at the huge wolf.
"Ghost," he said.
With primordial strength—a terrifying animal strength brought to life with the single word—the enormous wolf turned, massive muscles bunching and hardening beneath the heavy black coat. The huge head, as broad as an anvil, went to the ground as it padded toward the treeline.
"Hey, Hunter," Cahill called after them, his voice revealing a faint nervousness. "You really think you have a chance? I mean, what with the tracks all messed up like they are?"
Hunter hesitated, and his stern eyes—eyes a strange blue—revealed a determination that chilled even more than the blast of freezing wind that rushed over them.
Hunter turned away. Vanishing
Winter whispered in a gathering wind as snow drifted over his small form. And he could feel the darkness gathering, could sense the sun was almost gone.
So cold . . .
The boy cried and held himself and wished desperately that he was someplace else, someplace warm. As he cried, he trembled and rocked back and forth on the snow-covered ground, his teeth chattering. There was no place to go, and nothing he could do but cry.
He wished someone would find him.
Deep in the forest, Hunter moved like a human tiger, bending to study the ground with a quick, keen alertness. In the distance behind him, he heard National Guard helicopters flying in a wild and desperate pattern.
He paid them no heed as he moved quickly forward, knowing that Cahill was right. The boy would die with night, probably within a few hours. Then, hurtling a log that the child had slid beneath, Hunter bent down, studying the ground again.
The boy was wandering left, right, left again—as a child had the frustrating habit of doing. That's what made a child far more difficult to track than a full-grown man. A man would generally move in a fast straight line. But a child would just venture aimlessly, no true sense of purpose or direction as he became distracted by the tiniest things.
Also, Hunter could tell from the dragg
ing tracks that the boy was perilously fatigued. And with the cold slowing his blood, he would be even more disoriented.
Hunter bent and read the tiny, almost indiscernible tracks. If the boy weighed more it would have been far easier. But the kid was so light, the tracks so vague, that he had to be careful n
ot to miss them in the fast fading light. Then he raised his face against the descending sun and frowned, imagining what the boy would be feeling, scared and lost and alone in this harsh wilderness.
Hunter's gaze hardened.
No, boy, you ain't gonna die . . .
It had taken him an hour to find tracks that hadn't been marred by search parties. Then, tracking for another hour, he saw where the search party had lost the boy's prints. And for the last two hours Hunter had pushed himself without remorse, allowing no rest.
He knew he was close, just as he knew he was almost out of time. Nor did he think the child had gone too much farther because his tracks—prints left by the tiny shoes—were beginning to drag severely, a dangerous sign of fatigue. He saw where the kid was resting more and more often.
Racing a dying sun, Hunter moved more quickly, bending and searching, anticipating the child's moves more effectively because he had tracked so many children and knew basically how they moved. He raised his eyes toward a nearby slope and read the almost invisible scuff marks left where the boy scampered up the ridge. Trying to think ahead of the game, Hunter searched ahead for the path a child would take.
Almost instantly he saw a break in the ridge—a path of light—and knew it was the most likely direction. He moved quickly forward again, making sure he didn't lose even the faintest print because he had no time to backtrack. And as he neared the ridge he saw where the boy had fallen and he paused, staring down. He felt tempted to rush, but a practiced discipline gave him patience to study the ground, making certain.
There . . .
Examining the tiny print closely, Hunter saw it sloping on the right and knew the boy had turned left, wandering again. He followed it, ignoring the brutal cold enveloping him.
With Ghost running lightly beside him, Hunter moved in a loping crouch; fast but cautious, always cautious because he knew the child could
wander away from the path at any point. He didn't cast another glance at the last crimson light of the sun as he moved along the ridge.
Fatigue from moving ceaselessly for hours and expending extraordinary concentration to read the almost invisible tracks was beginning to take a toll. But Hunter knew in his heart that it had come to this moment. He was only minutes from last light and minutes from the boy. But he had to find the child before last light because even he couldn't track in the dark.
I ain't gonna let you die, kid . . .
I ain't gonna let you die . . .
Something huge, dark and frightening suddenly and silently loomed out of the shadowed granite slab above him. And the boy looked up to see ... a man?
A man and ... a wolf?
Yes, it was a man. And it was a wolf.
The boy beheld the beast's black eyes staring over him with such intensity, saw the slightly distended fangs that glinted sharp-white even in moonlight, and felt new fear.
Then the man and wolf dropped without a sound from the rock and bent over him, man speaking soothingly as the huge wolf pressed a warm nose against his cheek, making him smile. The boy raised a shaking hand, touching the warmth of the thick black mane.
Without another word, the man gently wrapped him in his coat and lifted him from the hateful ground, and then they were moving through the trees with the sound of a great roaring of wind—the shadowed leaves and limbs sliding over them but never touching them because the man held him so close and so strong.
He was warm again and, reaching up, he felt the man's great strength, and knew he was safe.
"By God." Cahill shook his head. "I never thought you could pull it off, Hunter."
Cut by branches and covered with bruises, Hunter was silent a moment as he took a sip of coffee, sitting against Cahill's desk. He stared into his cup as he spoke.
"The boy's gonna be all right?"
"Yeah." Cahill rose from his chair, pouring himself another cup. Burly and deep chested with blacksmith arms, the sheriff moved with the square grace of a heavyweight boxer.
"The doc says he's dehydrated and in shock, but they already got him in a room. Ain't got no frostbite." Cahill sat and leaned heavily back, taking a slow sip. "The parents called. They wanted to thank you."
Hunter took a sip. "Tell them I'm glad their boy's okay."
Silent for a while, Cahill studied the face of the man who stood before him.
Muscular with a ragged mane of black hair that fell slightly to his shoulders, Hunter seemed to have stepped out of another, more primitive age. His eyes were dark beneath a low, hard brow burned brown by years of living in the wild. His cheeks were sharp above a mouth deeply cast in a bronze frown. His broad shoulders, deep chest, and heavy arms were evidence of great strength but, Cahill had noticed before that Hunter seemed to possess a greater strength than was visible there. He had long suspected that Hunter's best, greatest, and truest strength was something he purposefully hid. He had always wondered why he hid so much of himself.