Friday, February 21, 2014

The Stalker - Part I

By Bettyann Moore

Bo and Cleo watched in anticipation as their master pulled his Browning from the top of the refrigerator. When the Browning came out, it was time for their walk. Their tails thumped, thumped, thumped on the kitchen linoleum as Digg Dunham sighted down the short barrel cop-style, gun resting on his left arm, right trigger finger ready, feet wide and hips pivoted.

“Ready, kids?” Digg said as he straightened out and holstered the handgun. Cleo’s huge front paws clicked a tap dance while Bo stretched and started pawing at the corner of the door.

“Hang on, hang on, you two!” Digg commanded. “It’s frickin’ wet out there.” Digg grabbed a rain poncho from the rack on the wall and pulled it on. It was September in the Rockies, for Pete’s sake, he should be worried about smoke coming up the ridge, not about keeping dry.

The rains had pounded down for almost two weeks now. Not all day, but every day. Like clockwork, by 2 pm the clouds moved in and began the night-long soak. Colorado’s dryness was one of the reasons Digg had moved there; that, and the ethnics that peopled the streets of Baltimore. His neighbors in the canyon, though, were all white as far as he could tell and few and far between. 

Since it was in the lower canyon, the house didn’t have a view. What it had was better: isolation. The creek the canyon was named for ran through his property and under his driveway. The back of the house abutted a sheer, rocky cliff. It was almost like living on an island. Still, the loaded Browning kept its prominent position atop the fridge. Digg had seen In Cold Blood, after all. The kids would alert him, but the Browning would take care of any asshole who dared to cross his threshold, or beyond. Walking the kids with the Browning was just a matter of course.

Cleo and Bo bolted the second Digg opened the door. Leashes were for pussies. Digg never let the dogs out alone, not since that Chink back home had tried to get close to Cleo by holding out a dog treat. Digg just knew he was trying to grab her to take home to his stew pot. At least they had room to roam here. They usually ran right toward the creek to get a drink or a good soaking, but ever since the rains began, the normal trickle was now an angry, roiling torrent. The dogs avoided it now, but went nuts over the smells: those skinny gray squirrels, ground squirrels that darted down holes disguised by rocks, chipmunks, all sorts of strange birds – the ones Digg dubbed “big, blue chickens” drove the kids nuts. It was too wet, though, to screw around.

“Just take a shit, you mutts,” he yelled over the pounding of the rain. The dogs, though, followed their noses, darting from one rock to another and from pine to pine. The bark on the pine was black, it was so soaked.

“Christ, I hope we don’t go from rain to snow,” Digg growled. “I gotta get into the woods and take some trees down before that.” A four-acre expanse of trees – his trees – ran along the creek and came right up to the house.

Digg surveyed the pine/fir mix with dismay. He was an ace with a gun, on the range at least, but had never used a chain saw. Out of the corner of his eye he saw both dogs scurrying toward him, tails between their legs, despicable behavior for a Rottweiler and a pit. They practically bowled him over trying to get back into the house.

“What the hell?” Digg bellowed as Bo scratched at the door and Cleo danced behind him. He looked out into the gathering gloom of the evening and saw something tawny and quick dart through the woods. A deer? A fox?

“No freakin’ way any dog of mine is scared of any deer or fox,” Digg said, even as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He threw open the door and the dogs scooted inside like the devil was at their heels. Hand on his Browning, Digg did likewise, throwing the deadbolt behind him.

Ignoring the whining dogs behind him, Digg peered through the slats of the blinds on the door window. Though the rain and falling darkness obscured his vision, he thought he saw something big, something stealthy, slinking through the trees. Then it was gone.

Digg shook himself and turned on the dogs. “No good, worthless mutts,” he roared, kicking out at them with steel-toed boots. No stranger to that type of behavior from their master, the two dogs scampered away, inches from the steel toes.

Keeping his Browning in hand, Digg stalked through the dining room and into the living room, the dogs giving him wide berth, tails low, but waggingly hopeful. Digg pressed his face against the glass of the living room window. By then, though, darkness had fallen completely. He pulled down the blinds, ignoring the shaking hand that pulled the cord.

The Browning would join his shotgun in the bedroom that night.

Although the dogs pranced painfully, Digg waited until full light before letting them out to do their morning business. He waited on the porch, eyes watchful. The normally powerful Colorado sun barely made a dent in the layer of clouds overhead. It would be another rainy afternoon.

After a breakfast of coffee and burnt toast, the two things Digg could cook consistently, he donned his shoulder holster over a t-shirt and pulled his Ruger from the top bureau drawer and holstered it. He threw a flannel shirt on, then added his waterproof camo jacket. The dogs sat at attention at his feet, hoping for an outing. Digg undid the door locks and opened the door; the dogs took off like a shot.

“Get back here, you little shits!” he yelled. “Cleo! Bo!” He didn’t have time to mess around with stupid dogs. The rain had already started. Digg could hardly hear himself over the roar of the creek and the pounding of the rain. The dogs must have headed into the woods; he couldn’t see them anywhere.

“Screw it,” he muttered, pulling the door shut and locking it behind him. “You want to slog around in this crap, more power to you. You’ll be dragging your wet, sorry asses back here before long.” Digg eased his Dodge Ram truck down the sodden drive, pausing on top of the culvert to eye the creek. It roared; Digg could feel its power vibrating beneath him. He scanned the landscape one last time for the dogs, then gunned out onto the highway. It was time to see what was happening in his world.

The DivideView Cafe sat at the top of a ridge overlooking the Continental Divide. Its parking lot was a moonscape of water-filled potholes populated with a motley assortment of ATVs, trucks and rust-pitted Outbacks.

“Perfect,” Digg muttered to himself as he dodged the deeper potholes on his way inside. “The gossips are out in full force.” He put his shoulder against the heavy wooden door that had swollen tight in the humidity and practically fell into the main dining area when it gave way. The locals looked up, then turned back to their plates. Unfamiliar faces didn’t interest them in the least.

Digg spotted a stool at the counter and grabbed it. The waitresses and the oldest locals always gathered at the counter; he’d be sure to get an earful.

“What can I getcha?” the perky blond waitress asked.

“Coffee and a Mountain Man,” Digg said, “but burn the toast, will ya?” He’d only been to the cafe twice before, but Digg was a big man and needed the bacon, ham, sausage, hash browns, three eggs and toast in the Mountain Man, so he always ordered it. What else would he order, Eggs Benedict? Ha! He figured one day the waitresses wouldn’t even have to ask; they’d call out “Mountain Man!” when he walked through the door. It would be both his order and his nickname. He liked that.

As he drank his coffee and waited for his breakfast, Digg kept an ear cocked to the conversations going on around him. Mostly they were about the weather.

“I’ve got these huge mushrooms in my meadow, wish I knew if they were good to eat.”

“Hell, I got ‘em growing between my toes!”

“You’re so full of shit, Grady. Growing between your ears most likely.”

“Some of the trees along the wash are falling over cuz the roots got nothin’ to hold onto.”

“Hear about John’s terrier? That big cat’s getting too bold.”

Digg’s ears perked up at the mention of the “big cat.” Digg hated cats, big, little, didn’t matter.

“They figure that ol’ cougar dragged that pup a quarter of a mile from the kill site to her cache. Found a shit-ton of deer bones and others there.”

“What is that now, six dogs she’s got so far?”

A woman hunched over a cup of coffee at the end of the counter spoke up for the first time. Her hair stuck out all over her head and she barely had a tooth in her mouth as far as Digg could tell. She looked like she hadn’t gotten off the stool for weeks, decades maybe.

“The cat’s got a family to feed, for crissake,” she wheezed. “And any idiot who lets their dogs roam loose is just serving up dinner.”

Digg felt a prickle of irritation along his spine.

“Could be kids next,” a younger woman said from a corner booth.

The old woman swiveled around on her stool and gave the other woman the evil eye. She twisted back around to her coffee. “Fool,” she muttered.

“Cats were here first,” a man in a BobCat cap next to the old lady said, earning himself a toothless grin. “They’re just doing what comes natural.”

“Any cat comes near my dogs or my family, it’ll regret it,” the old guy next to Digg said. “I got a rifle that’ll take it out.”

The old woman threw back her head and hooted.

“Boyd,” she said, “those mutts of yours shit more on my property than your own. You’re lucky I don’t attack them myself. Then what? You gonna shoot me?”

“Law’ll slap you behind bars for shooting a cat,” the man in the BobCat cap said. “Unless it’s going after livestock or humans, you got no call to shoot it. Shoot the mama cat and its cubs and you’re in deep shit.”

“Really, officer,” Boyd said, holding out his hands and shrugging, “the thing was going for my throat.”

Digg chuckled appreciatively. The old woman clucked and shook her head. “Damn fools,” she said.

Digg was getting a crick in his neck following the volley of words. He slurped down the last dregs of coffee, left a 50 cent tip and went to pay his bill. He was with that Boyd guy. Any cat came within a mile of his pooches and he’d let it have it. A tingle went up his spine when he remembered that Cleo and Bo were outside. He threw down enough money to cover his check and fled.

He hoped the good for nothing dogs would be lying on the porch by the time he pulled in, but they were nowhere in sight. Digg whistled and called for them, though he doubted they could hear him over the rain and rushing water.

“Shit!” he swore, slamming the truck door. He ran to the house, slipping and sliding through the accumulating muck. He could feel evil, yellow eyes drilling into his back.

Inside, he stripped off his wet outerwear and boots. He kept the Ruger in its holster and added the hip holster for the Browning. He pulled on a hooded jacket and filled its left pocket with ammo for the Ruger and the right with ammo for the Browning. His wet boots would just have to do. As an afterthought he grabbed a flashlight.

Digg walked down the drive first, hoping the dogs were out in the open. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the woods, exactly, but if there was a big cat out there, he’d like to see it before it saw him. Cats were sneaky, after all, and could climb trees.

He walked all the way to the road calling them, though, and saw nothing but water sluicing down the creek, the road and the rocky cliffs. The creek was so high it was now streaming across the drive. He walked back toward the house, cutting across the front yard to the woods. Just in case, he slipped the Ruger out of its holster and put it in his jacket pocket. He followed a deer trail into the trees, looking high and low as he went.

Of course, Digg reasoned, the dogs could be anywhere, on anyone’s property.

“I’ll wring their goddamn necks when I get my hands on them,” he grumbled. He knew Cleo had to be the ringleader; she was always looking for trouble. “Damn bitch.”

After he’d gotten jabbed in the face by low branches and slipped half a dozen times on the wet pine needles, Digg went down hard on his hands and knees. He was a soaking, muddy mess and it seemed like the rain was coming down even harder. He wished he’d worn gloves; his fingers were freezing. He got himself to his feet and started blowing on his fingers to warm them up.

“What the hell?” he said. The fingers on his right hand looked muddy at first, but it felt sticky and looked darker than it should. Had he cut himself? He fumbled with the flashlight and pointed it at his hand. Blood. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he looked wildly around. He shined the flashlight on the path and, sure enough, there was a large pool of blood soaking the needles and was rapidly washing away – and hair, short black hair, like on a Rottweiler.

Digg had heard the expression “his blood ran cold” many times, but he was never sure exactly what it meant. He did now. It felt like ice water was streaming through his veins. It froze him to the spot. He was afraid to look up, afraid of what he’d see crouched and ready to spring above him. Slowly, he put his hand in his pocket, then quickly drew out the Ruger and shot it into the trees above him without looking. Then he dove off the path and rolled over onto his back.

Branches and needles rained down, but no big cat. What was it the old timer called it … the ‘kill site’ … that’s what this was. Then it hit Digg that it was his Cleo that had likely been killed here.

“My poor baby,” he cried, getting angrier by the second. “My sweet pup!” But where was Bo? Hiding? Back at the house? Dead, too?

Digg scrambled to his feet. He needed to see if Bo had gone home. He needed to get dry. But most of all, he needed a bigger gun.

No comments:

Post a Comment