Authors: R.D. Brady
Scottish Seoul Publishing
Scottish Seoul Publishing.
Copyright © 2015 by R.D. Brady
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.
Printed in the United States of America.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and events herein are a product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to real individuals, situations or events are purely coincidental.
any of a family (Hominidae) of erect bipedal primate mammals that includes recent humans together with extinct ancestral and related forms and in some recent classifications the gorilla, chimpanzee, and orangutan
- Webster's Dictionary, 2015
"Well now, you'll be amazed when I tell you that I am sure they exist."
Jane Goodall, Animal Rights Activist, NPR Talk of the Nation, September 27, 2002
Twenty Years Ago
Rogue River National Park, Oregon
er heart pounding, eight-year-old Tess Brannick’s eyes flew open. She sat up, pulled her dark hair out of her eyes, and strained to listen.
There was nothing. And there should have been something. She and her twin brother were in a tent on the southeastern end of Rogue River National Park. She should hear crickets, owls, animals skittering through the surrounding forest.
But there was only silence.
“What is it?” Pax asked, turning on the lantern. His bright blue eyes reflected his fear.
Even though they were twins, and separated by only four minutes, Tess had always been the big sister looking out for Pax. Tonight was no different.
She was shaking inside, but she tried to keep her voice calm. “It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.”
A snarl sounded from somewhere outside the tent, followed by a series of yells—her dad.
Pax latched on to her hand.
Before the trip, Tess and Pax had begged their dad to let them sleep in their own tent. He’d finally relented. Now Tess really wished he hadn’t.
“Tess?” Pax asked.
A shotgun blast sounded from close by. Tess jumped. “Get out of your bag,” she hissed. They both squirmed out of their sleeping bags, and Tess wrapped her arms around her brother.
When the tent flap flew open, they both screamed.
Their dad rushed in, his shotgun cradled in his arms. Gene Brannick was always calm and ready for a laugh. But now, his blue eyes were deadly serious, and no smile crossed his lips. As he crouched down in front of the twins, Tess could smell his sweat.
“I need you two to run for the ranger’s station,” he said. “Do you remember where it is?”
Tess was terrified, more than she'd ever been in her life, but one look at Pax’s face told her she had to be the brave one. She swallowed down the fear. “Dad, what’s going on?”
He shot a glance over his shoulder before answering. His hands shook, and so did his voice. “Mountain lions,” he said. “You need to go.”
“But Dad, they shouldn’t be here,” Tess said.
While other kids read comics, Tess read everything she could find on animals. She knew lions shouldn’t be out this far, and that even if they were, they stayed far away from people.
“There’s been a drought,” her dad said. “It must have driven them farther out than before. I never should have brought you here.” He stared back at her, his eyes larger than she’d ever seen them. “There’s too many of them, Tess. You need to run.”
Too many of them?
Tess knew that shouldn’t happen either. Lions were solitary creatures, unless they were young males.
Her dad placed a trembling kiss on each of their foreheads. Then he pulled them to their feet and pushed them from the tent. “Go.”
A crashing sounded from the trees to their right. Her dad pulled his weapon to his shoulder. “Get to the ranger station. Now! Run! And don’t look back!” he yelled.
A shadow slunk from the trees, and her father pulled the trigger.
The noise spurred Tess into action. She grabbed Pax’s hand and ran. Behind her she heard footsteps. Then another shotgun blast sounded. And the footfalls went silent but a scream split the night air.
Pax stumbled. “Dad!”
Tess grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him to his feet even as tears ran down her cheeks. “You have to get up,” she cried, tears clogging her throat. “We have to run.”
A crashing sounded in the trees behind them.
Tess grabbed her brother’s hand. “Run, Pax! Run!”
They sprinted through the forest side by side, leaping over downed trees and small bushes.
Footfalls sounded behind them, and then more joined in. Tess’s heart threatened to burst out of her chest, but she didn’t dare slow, not even to look behind her.
Movement to her left drew her eyes. In the trees, a shadow was moving alongside them. As Tess glanced over, the shadow burst into a shaft of moonlight.
That’s not a mountain lion
, Tess thought. Whatever it was, it had dark fur and incredible height. Tess was overcome by panic. She sprinted ahead, pulling Pax behind her.
They didn’t see the gully until it was too late. They stepped off into nothingness, and with screams they dropped, rolling to the ground below.
Pain shot through Tess’s ankle, but she got to her feet. Pax was holding his shoulder. He threw his good arm around Tess and they hobbled across the narrow creek.
On the other side, a wall of dirt and rock blocked their way. Tess pushed Pax toward it. “Go. Climb.”
“No. I’m not leaving you.”
A roar behind them ended the argument. They both turned. Two lions, both skinny, their ribs showing, slunk across the creek. The lions appeared to be in no rush; this was an easy kill.
Tess’s breaths came out in pants. Pax moved closer to her, his shoulder brushing hers.
“I love you, Tess,” he whispered. She gripped his hand and squeezed.
The lions stalked closer. They were smaller than adults.
Probably young males
. Tess knew that male mountain lions were kicked out of their home after a year, and that they sometimes banded together. She’d felt pity when she’d first learned that. But now, she felt no pity—only fear. Because even though they were young, they would have no problem overpowering her and Pax.
A shadow cut away from the forest behind the lions and moved down to the creek. Tess jumped.
Oh God, there’s another one.
The cats whirled around. The shadow fell over them with a scream that shook Tess to her core. Before Tess could understand what was happening, one cat went flying through the air, screeching. It slammed into a tree and fell to the ground, still.
Something wet splashed on Tess’s face. She reached up and wiped at it. Her fingers came away dark. Blood.
She dropped to the ground, her arms wrapped protectively around Pax.
The shadow grabbed the second lion and broke its back across its knee. Then it ripped the big cat in two.
“No, no, no, no,” Pax moaned.
The shadow paused. It stood in darkness, but Tess was sure it was looking right at her. She could only make out its shape— like a man, but huge. Wider, taller. She squinted. Hairier.
Pax moaned again. The creature watched them for a moment longer, then disappeared back up the side of the gully and into the trees.
Tess and Pax stayed where they were, staring at the spot where the creature had disappeared.
“It ripped that lion apart,”
she whispered, not even recognizing her own voice.
Next to her, Pax only shook harder.
Tess stared into the trees, her arms still wrapped around her brother. She wasn’t sure who was shaking harder, her or him.
“Tess?” Pax whispered.
But Tess couldn’t answer him. Her entire focus was on the spot where she’d last seen the creature. The creature who had saved them. She pictured its height and bulk. Her eyes were drawn to the carnage it had left behind.
What kind of animal could do that?
ess slowed the ATV to a stop at the end of the path. Tall sugar pines with heavy evergreen leaves and long cones surrounded her. In the distance, the dense forest rose and fell over hilltops. It was seven a.m., and she took in a breath, inhaling the early forest air with a smile.
She was at the northeast edge of Klamath National Forest—1.7 million acres of forest that straddled the California and Oregon border. The area was covered with a variety of trees—from Douglas firs and other pines to oak and madrone hardwoods. It was a densely packed forest—with more than five hundred trees per acre in some areas—and teeming with wildlife, from simple squirrels and chipmunks to more elusive animals such as foxes or even bobcats.
Tess’s camp was a forty-minute hike from here, but this was as far as the ATV could manage. She grabbed her pack from the back as she climbed off.
Taking a drink of water, she looked around, getting a feel for the forest. It was quiet, which she expected. Her ATV had made enough noise to chase away all but the hardiest of creatures.
She pulled her rifle from the back of the ATV. Checking that it was loaded—even though she knew she’d loaded it earlier this morning—she looped it around her shoulder, just in case in she ran into one of the hardier creatures. Bears, mountain lions, even wolverines lived in this natural safe zone. Tess respected nature enough to know that she could never be perfectly safe here.
She started to walk the trail. It was a familiar path, but there was still always something new to see. She smiled.
Best commute in the world.
She made quick time, but she didn’t rush. Rushing, even on a well-known trail, was inviting injury. And besides, it’s not like she had a meeting.
She knew people would probably think she was nuts to spend so much time in the woods. And to be honest, she wasn’t entirely convinced she wasn’t, but being out here… it did something to her. It gave her a sense of peace that the craziness of the real world couldn’t.
It didn’t take long for the animal sounds to return. Birds flew by overhead. Squirrels and the occasional rabbit skittered ahead of her. Every once in a while, Tess had even come across an elk in the more wide-open areas of the park. Today, an endangered spotted owl watched her from a branch twenty feet up. Above, a bald eagle sailed through the sky.
For a year now, she had been making this hour-and-a-half trek into the woods, every Monday through Friday. She stayed overnight at least a few nights a month. She tried to avoid more than that. Her friends and family were worried enough about her without her living out here.
But her escape to the wild wasn’t some carefree lark. It was part of a very carefully laid out plan. A tingle of excitement ran through her as she wondered what today could bring.
Up ahead, she spotted one of her field cameras. She’d placed it six feet up the tree—at five foot six, she couldn’t place it much higher. She pulled it down, swapped out the memory card, and replaced the battery. She doubted she had anything special on the card, though; her subject was decidedly camera shy.
She continued on up the trail. She paused at a boulder where the path forked. To the right was her camp. She had chosen the spot for several reasons. One, it was in a very secluded portion of the park. In fact, she had never run into another human out here in the year she had been using the spot. Two, it was only a short walk from a small lake, which meant plenty of wildlife was nearby. Three, there was a clearing not too far away, so if she ever needed emergency help, there was a place for a rescue chopper to land. And four, it was a pretty spot.
But most importantly, it wasn’t far from where she’d found her first footprint.
She turned left, away from the camp. The path continued over a rise and then down again. At the bottom of the hill, she stopped.
The food bag had been suspended above the trail, but now it lay on the ground, empty. She’d placed over seven pounds of food in there on Friday.
She looked around carefully, staying on the edge of the trail so as not to disturb the area.
Come on, old friend. Show me something.
She walked slowly around, seeing nothing, her hopes dimming. But then, to one side, she saw an impression. A footprint.
Kneeling next to it, Tess could make out the five long toes. The second and third toe were both bigger than the big toe, a condition known as Morton’s foot. The print could easily have been mistaken for a human footprint if not for two things: the toes were disproportionately long, and the foot itself was much longer and wider than any human foot.
The animal was flatfooted, Tess noted—the print was uniform in depth—and must be very heavy, as the impression was three inches deep.
Placing her pack on the grass off the path, Tess pulled out a can of aerosol hairspray and sprayed the track. While it dried, she pulled out her white gypsum cement mix and added water. After a little stirring, it was ready. She carefully poured the plaster into the footprint.
It would take about twenty minutes to set, give or take, so while she waited she inspected the rest of the area. She found only one other print—a shallow heel mark—a short distance away. She cast that as well.
“You were careful,” she murmured. She thought he had probably stayed as much off the path as possible, limiting the chance for footprints. She carefully inspected the ground around the path, but the vegetation made it too difficult to find any traces left behind. She hoped that maybe a piece of hair had gotten caught in the burrs she had glued to the tree, but no—her little traps were empty.
She headed back to the original cast. She tested it, and smiled when she met resistance. Carefully prying it from the ground, she lifted it up and gently wiped away some excess mud. She pulled out her water bottle and poured it over the underside, cleaning off the rest of the dirt. Finally, she blotted the cast with the towel she always kept in her pack.
Returning the water and towel to her pack, she took a breath, trying to calm herself and act like the scientist her degrees said she was. She needed to look at it objectively. It was possible it was just a bear footprint. She knew that when two bear footprints overlapped, they could be mistaken for her quarry.
But when she inspected the underside of the cast, she saw no sign of an overlap. Whatever had created this print was a single creature.
She looked next for the one mark she hoped she’d find.
And there it was. On the ball of the foot was an old scar that had healed over, making a jagged line.
Tess put the cast down, pulled her tape measure out of her bag, and measured the cast. She confirmed what she already knew: the widest part of the foot was eight inches, and from toe to heel, it was sixteen inches.