The area looked to be about an hour’s hike from the compound, by Andrew’s estimation. Dani had given him a general idea of where the soldiers had blazed a trail to these training grounds, and presently, Andrew came upon a crude but clearly delineated footpath winding into the woods. As he followed its steep, crooked trail deeper into the forests, he breathed in the moist fragrance of the forest air—pine sap and dried leaves—and listened to the familiar sounds of pine needles and tree branches snapping and crackling underfoot.
At which point, he drew to a curious halt, his head cocked, his brow arched.
There are no other sounds, he realized.
On the day he’d wrecked his Jeep, he’d been trekking through basically these same woodlands, and the air had been thick with the sounds of wildlife—the last waning cricket songs as summer shifted into fall, the fluttering coos of mourning doves, the resonant tap-tap-tap of downy woodpeckers, the distant, overlapping cries of ravens and blue jays, chattering from chickadees and sparrows, sweet refrains from warblers and mocking birds.
Where are all the birds? Frowning, Andrew looked up, panning his gaze through the trees. Other than the sounds of his own footsteps, which were now silent, the woods lay shadow-filled, mist-draped and quiet.
Something’s out there.
“O’Malley?” Slowly, cautiously, he pivoted in a circle, studying the terrain surrounding him. “Corporal O’Malley, is that you?”
Because he received no reply, his next thought was unequivocally predator. As he stepped, he gave his shoulder a subtle little shrug, letting the strap of his rifle droop, the gun lowering so he could take it in hand. All at once, he had a nagging hunch this was no bear. They were opportunistic feeders, not stealthy hunters, so he doubted one could lay low and quiet in the underbrush for long if it was near.
But with cougars on the other hand, stalk-and-ambush was pretty much their forte. The cats preyed on a variety of species, including mule- and white-tail deer and would thus not have been particularly intimidated or dissuaded by Andrew’s size. Not the sort for a trial by combat, they preferred to overpower their prey using the element of surprise, attacking from behind and delivering a suffocating and potentially crushing bite to the neck.
Moving slowly, Andrew spared a downward glance, making sure he had a round chambered in the rifle. He gripped the weapon deliberately, carefully, his index finger slipping against the trigger. He turned in another circle, then drew still and held his breath, listening.
A twig breaking beneath the weight of some unseen passage to his right immediately drew his gaze. When this was followed by a soft, but distinctive, rapid-fire rustle-rustle-snap-SNAP from this same direction, Andrew brought the rifle up, trailing the sound with the barrel sight.
However, he didn’t fire. The sound disappeared and when it didn’t immediately recur, he relaxed, releasing his breath in a long, slow huff. Lowering the gun again, he studied the shadows and trees, frowning thoughtfully.
Had it realized his awareness and run away, whatever it was? He waited, counting in his mind.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi
He counted to sixty then started off again, but that heavy, peculiar silence lingered. Even as he ventured more deeply into the forests, it was like the birds and other woodland animals knew something he didn’t—or at least, of which he was only dimly aware.
Twenty minutes later, and a good half mile further along the trail, he heard another distinctive series of rustles. These were quiet enough that he might have ordinarily otherwise missed them had it not been for that oppressive lack of any other sounds. He’d opted to keep his rifle in hand and was glad for it as he turned in a startled semi-circle, eyes flown wide.
“O’Malley?” he called. There was no reply, but out of his peripheral vision, he caught a sudden hint of movement and swung again. “Who’s there?”
There was no answer, only that permeating stillness, devoid of any rustling, any bird songs, any life. This time, when Andrew started to move again, he broke into a broad, swift stride, weaving among the trees, ducking to avoid low-lying limbs.
From behind him: Snap-snap-SNAP
He turned, rifle readied, but saw nothing. Then, from his right, the crackling of leaves under heavy foots; from his left, the staccato patter of breaking limbs. He whirled around, rifle raised, his heart racing. They’re all around me.
This was no cougar, no pack of coyotes on the prowl.
“Who’s there?” he shouted, his voice hoarse, somewhat shaking. At another quiet yet somehow ominous rustle, he pivoted and caught sight of something to his left, moving swiftly among the shadows and tree trunks—large and definitely upright, bipedal, it was little more than a fleeting glimpse, but still distinctive.
He thought of the thing he thought he’d seen on the night of his crash, the bipedal creature that had been scuttling across the road, that had screamed at him in furious challenge less than a second before the Jeep had slammed headlong into it. Not a bear, he thought. It wasn’t a bear and it wasn’t a cougar, and unless it was my imagination, I don’t think it was human, either.
“Shit.” Andrew heard more rustling and then turned, began to run. Based on what he’d heard, there were at least three of the things in the woods—one behind him, one on either side, all moving in on him quickly, deliberately. And he had no intention of sticking around to find out why.
His boot soles skittered for uncertain purchase in the slippery carpet of leaves and brambles. Twice, he lost his footing, falling onto his knees, his ass, and he scrambled upright as fast as he could. When at last, he came to a stop, he pressed himself against the broad trunk of a pine tree, winded. He wanted to gasp, to gulp greedily to reclaim his breath, but pressed his lips together instead, listening.
Did I lose them? he wondered. He’d cut a zig-zagging, erratic path through the woods on purpose in the hopes of shaking off anyone who’d tried to follow him.
He poked his head around the side of the tree, listened and waited.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi
He didn’t even make it to ten-Mississippi before he heard footsteps crashing through the brush, coming up fast.