Page 13


She got what she expected: nothing. But she smelled the wet again and understood that the wind had changed direction. What was more, she knew they’d been much closer to the river than she realized.


Three seconds later, she’d strapped on her fanny pack and set off down the trail at a dead run.


There came the gurgling boil of water over rocks. Another ten feet through a thick stand of aspen, and then she saw the water churning to white froth. The sight of all that water made her nearly crazy. She wanted to run and dunk her face; no, she wanted to dive in and start gulping.


Easy, just take it easy.


She unscrewed her water bottle, filled it, dropped in a purification tablet, then capped the bottle and gave it a good shake. In seven minutes, she would have plenty to drink.


This river was wide—sixty, seventy feet across—with a series of drop-offs and waterfalls that went on for a good fifty yards before tailing into rocky shallows. A tangled trio of aspens had fallen across from her side of the river, where the bank was much steeper and the ground more unstable. The felled trees acted as a dam, forming a single deep pool—not dead center, but to the right, so that water shot left down a natural rock sluiceway. A fourth tree jutted over the water. Almost exactly halfway down its length, the trunk forked into a wide V, and the thicker, stouter end of the fork hung over the pool.


Ellie was there, rod clutched in both hands, her back and shoulders hunched against the cold. Her feet dangled fifteen feet above the water. The open bait box perched in a tuft of smaller branches to her left. The Glock—in its holster—nestled on her right.


When she spotted Alex, Ellie threw a look that Alex easily read: Please don’t be mad. To her surprise, Alex wasn’t, but she was worried about how she was going to get Ellie to shore without both of them ending up in the drink. Hitching herself out over the water wasn’t hard, but the trees were slippery with frost and freezing cold. She could feel the muscles of her thighs dancing away from the frigid bark. She wasn’t exactly sold on how stable the thing was either. Every bump and jostle, every quiver, set her teeth on edge, and she kept waiting for a huge CRACK.


She stopped when she was perhaps five feet from where Ellie perched. “So, you really think they’re going to be biting? It’s pretty cold.”


“Grandpa says fish get hungry, too.” As if to prove a point, Ellie twitched her line, reeled it in, inspected a tiny orange nubbin on the hook.


“What is that? It doesn’t look like a worm.”


“Egg sack,” Ellie said.


“Really?” Everything Alex knew about fishing could be written on the back of a matchbook, a definite gap in her backwoods education. “You mean, like sushi?”


She saw Ellie give this some thought. “Sort of. I don’t think you’d want to eat it, though.” Ellie flashed a look of concern. “I wasn’t hoarding it from you or anything.”


“I know.” She uncapped her water bottle, tipped back a mouthful. The water was so cold, she got brain freeze and then gasped as the water burned all the way down her chest before exploding in her stomach. She had never tasted anything so wonderful in her life, and despite the ache, she took another swallow and then another. She might have kept going if not for Ellie. As it was, handing over the bottle was an act of will. “Drink up,” she said to the girl. “We’ll fill our bottles before we leave.”


“Thanks,” Ellie said gratefully. She took two ginormous gulps, nearly draining the bottle, then cast a fearful look at Alex.


“Go ahead,” Alex said. “It’s okay. There’s a whole river, right?”


“Yeah.” Ellie drained the bottle. “Thanks.”


“No problem,” she said. “So, how’s it going? You had the bait in your box?”


“Uh-huh. It’s going okay.”


“How do you know this is a good place?”


“Because Grandpa said so.”


“Because it’s a pool?”


“Uh-huh. He said you should always cast on the downstream part of cover and not right on top of them …” Ellie prattled on, but Alex listened with only half an ear, her mind already leapfrogging ahead, trying to figure out how to bring up the subject of, oh, next time you decide to go hiking, please tell me, and by the way, don’t touch the Glock.


“And then you eat them,” Ellie finished with a flourish.


Eat them. That got her attention. Saliva squirted into Alex’s mouth, and her stomach cramped. If Ellie really could catch a fish or two … She nearly moaned out loud. “Do you know how to cook them?”


“Sure. Don’t you? Your dad taught you everything.”


“Not this.”


“Oh. Well, you scale them. With a knife. And cut open their stomachs to get out all the guts.”


“Yuck.” She meant that.


“It’s not so bad,” Ellie said airily. “You save the guts to use for bait.”


“You’ve done that?” She was genuinely impressed.


“Yup.” Ellie’s expression bordered on the supremely smug. “Then you poke some branches into their mouths and out the other end and roast them over a fire, and then you eat them just like corn on … Alex? Are you okay?”


“I—” Alex began, but then the odor came again, a harsh blast that nudged the gooseflesh along her arms.


“Alex, what—” Ellie’s gaze drifted to a point over Alex’s shoulder, and her eyes went round. “Oh.”


Alex knew what the girl saw. Much later, she would think all that talk of food was to blame for what happened next. That if she hadn’t been distracted by daydreams of roasted fish on a spit, things might’ve turned out differently. Maybe.


Her heart pounding, Alex turned, already knowing what she would find.


A dog.


18


A few feet in from the right bank stood a collie that looked ragged, thin, muddy, and miserable. A length of frayed rope hung from a worn collar. When it saw Alex looking, its filthy tail whisked back and forth a few times, and then it whimpered.


“Ohh,” Ellie breathed. “It must’ve chewed through its rope. Or maybe somebody lost it. It’s probably really scared and hungry.”


Alex thought that was probably true. After all that talk about wild dogs the night before, she’d been startled at first, afraid the collie was feral. But this dog looked about as dangerous as Lassie. “Hey, girl.” She had no idea if it was a girl or not, but thought the dog wouldn’t be all that choosy. “How are you? Whatcha doing out here?”


The dog’s tail fanned the air, and it danced a step forward and then back.


“Oh, Alex, look, she’s hurt.” Alex felt the tree jiggle as Ellie scooted to get a better look. “There’s blood.”


There was. A dried, rust-colored splotch splashed the collie’s rump.


“Someone shot her.” Laying aside her rod, Ellie hitched herself around and started scooching toward Alex. “We have to help her. Here, girl, it’s okay, we won’t hurt you. It’s okay.”


It was the smallest of movements, and maybe the image of that brown slink disappearing into the woods four days ago had stayed with Alex, because her eyes shot left to a dense thatch of underbrush just beyond the collie—and then her stomach bottomed out.


Another dog crouched, belly to the ground, behind dense brambles. This dog was dirty brown, with a huge ax-wedge of a head. Some kind of very big mutt. Really big.


And the smell she got from it was danger.


Maybe the collie saw her eyes shift and sensed something about to go very wrong, because it let out a short, almost playful yelp.


Ellie laughed. “It wants to play.”


Now that she knew what she was looking for, Alex’s frantic eyes scoured the forest right and left of the collie. She spotted two more dogs in the underbrush: a dusky, speckled hound and a ragged German shepherd, its left ear hanging in crusty tatters.


Four dogs. Four. Less than a week since this nightmare began, and none of these dogs looked like they’d ever been anyone’s pet.


“What are you doing?” Ellie said as Alex pressed back. She let out a yelp and then Alex heard something splash. “Alex, you made me knock the tackle box—”


“Move back,” Alex said, injecting as much urgency as she could without outright screaming. “There are more dogs, Ellie. Move, move!”


“What? I don’t see …” Alex heard Ellie gasp.


“Go.” She felt the girl begin to inch away, and she followed, legs still straddling the trunk, palms cupping the icy bark, eyes never leaving the dogs. She watched as the other three slid from the tangle of brush and briars. The collie was no longer wagging its tail, and the playful look on its face had been replaced by what almost looked like rage. The dogs were rigid, ears pricked, nostrils flaring as they sampled the air. Sampled them.


“Go away.” Her voice shook and Alex thought, God, I sound like dinner. She tried again, putting some steel in it. “Go on! Get out of here, go!”


The dogs did not go. Instead, they tossed looks at one another. Alex could almost hear them debating; felt the air go alive with thoughts. Then four pairs of glittering eyes swiveled back, and the hound and the very big mutt began nosing along the bank.


“What are they doing?” Ellie said in a high voice. “Are they going away?”


“No. They’re looking for a way across.”


“Why?”


“So they can come at us from both sides.” The mutt and the hound were picking their way down the bank, slithering on wet leaves. She kept hoping they’d take a tumble, maybe break a leg, maybe get so wet and discouraged they’d just give up, but they didn’t look like the kind of dogs that gave up. Then she remembered the dried blood on the collie and she thought, Gun.


“Ellie.” She craned her head over the hump of her shoulder. The girl’s face was bleached of color, and she was crying, silently, huge tears rolling down her cheeks. “Ellie. The Glock. Get it.”

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