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Ellie’s eyes went even wider, but she nodded—a quick jerk like a puppet. She started backing away in little hip-hops, up and down, like a kid hitching along a balance beam. Every bounce knocked a gasp from Alex’s chest, and she hissed, “Not so fast. We’ve got some time, be careful.”


“Almost there!” Ellie wailed. She’d made it back to the V butt-first, but instead of turning, she swept her right hand back to reach for the Glock nestled in its thick cradle of branches—


Alex saw it right before it happened. “Ellie, no, stop!”


Too late.


Ellie’s hand knocked the gun, a good solid hit that sent the pistol sailing. Ellie let out a shrill no! She tried to snatch at the gun, but then her body shifted, and she screamed again, throwing herself forward this time and wrapping her arms around the tree. Alex watched in a kind of dumb horror as the gun tumbled butt over bore, once, twice, three times, and then hit the water with a dull, wet thawunk, a sound Alex had heard countless times as a kid dropping rocks into a pond from a tire swing. She watched, helpless and sick, as the water swallowed the gun. Swallowed her dad.


“I’m sorry.” Ellie’s teeth showed in a tight, terrified rictus grin. She hugged the tree with both arms. “I’m sorry, I lost my balance. I’m sorry, I’m—”


There had to be something else she could use as a weapon. Alex’s eyes raked the tree, looking for something, anything. She saw that the dogs were fording the river now, carefully crossing over rocks, keeping one eye on them and the other on where they were going. She had to hurry.


“What about your knife?” Ellie’s voice was breathless with terror. “Can you use your knife?”


“Not enough reach.” The blade wasn’t long and all a dog had to do was dodge and grab her wrist, and then it was over.


Drop into the river? Alex was a good swimmer. She eyed the water, saw the gush. That current was pretty fast. The rocks were slippery and the water deep and, probably incredibly cold. She might make it, but she didn’t think Ellie would, not with boots and a parka and clothes to drag her down. And dogs could swim, too; she knew that. Even if Alex got her feet under her, one slip and those dogs would swarm in and she’d be done.


Groping beneath the tree trunk, she wrapped her hand around a branch as thick around as her wrist and pulled. The branch bent, squealed, and Alex tugged harder, heard a snap and then a splintery sound, and gasped as the branch gave so quickly that she slipped. Still clutching the branch, she squeezed her thighs around the trunk; felt her chin bang wood and then pain, red and hot as a brand, as her teeth drove into her tongue.


“Alex!”


“I’m okay,” Alex said, swallowing a ball of blood. Her mouth sang with pain. Her fingers knotted around the stick in a death grip. “Go back the way you came. Down that great big branch, the one you were fishing from. Hurry.” Alex waited until Ellie had shimmied off the main trunk and begun inching onto the branch before following. She listened to the crackle of branches, holding her breath each time. Please, God, just get us down there.


“Alex, how … how much farther do you want me to go?”


Alex flicked a glance. The branch was thick and stout, as big around as Ellie, and she was at the midway point. The branch bowed in a slight, gentle curve, but Ellie wasn’t swaying and Alex thought it was strong enough. “That’s good. Stay right there. I’m coming.”


“But what are you doing? What are we going to do?”


Alex didn’t answer. She wouldn’t need to go far, just enough so the dogs had only one way of getting at them. A funnel leading to a chute, like the rocks on the mountain. If she was far enough from the V, the dogs would have to come single file, and that she could defend. She butted against the V, then hugged the tree as she swung her left leg up and around. There was a solid thunk as the side of her boot knocked wood, and then she was hitching up her hips, thinking, I never was any good at balance beam.


“You’re almost there,” Ellie said. “Scooch up your butt.”


Alex did, dropping onto the branch hard enough that she felt the bang ripple up her spine. Beneath her legs, the branch groaned and bent, like an archer’s bow being drawn, and Alex held her breath, waiting for the break, the crack, the sharp razor of a rock slicing the back of her head …


The limb swayed, creaked like a step in a haunted house, but did not break.


She felt the tiniest squeak of relief. “Ellie, can you give me some more room?”


“Yes.” The wood shuddered in Alex’s arms as Ellie scooted back, and then Alex saw the bark ripple and buckle. This time, the limb protested with a loud squall that reminded Alex of forcing open a wooden door, swollen with humidity, on a hot summer day.


“That’s far enough.” Maybe too far, but at least she had some maneuvering room now. She looked left, saw that the very big mutt was already across and eyeing the trunk. Then her head swiveled right, and she saw with a sudden, sickening jolt that the hound was already halfway to the V—just twenty feet away. “Hang on, Ellie—really, really tight.”


“Alex? What are you going to do?”


She did not answer. Wrapping both legs around the branch, she hooked her ankles together. She hugged the tree with her left arm but let her right fall, choking up only a little on her makeshift club.


Ten feet away, at the fork, the hound hesitated. It was close enough that Alex saw that its eyes were muddy brown, the whites red. Its black lips curled in a yellow snarl. Then it crept forward one step and then another and another …


Alex swung.


Her club cut the air with a whistle. The hound saw it coming, tried twisting to snatch the branch with its teeth, but it was off-balance and too late. The splintery knob smacked the hound’s ribs hard enough to make their perch bob, and then the dog was yelping, its nails scoring bark as it skittered over the slick wood. Still yowling, the dog tumbled from the tree and, unlike a cat, smacked the water with a mighty splash that sent up a geyser of water in an icy coronet.


Yes! Elation thrilled through her like blood. Twisting to peer over her shoulder, Alex saw the hound’s black head, sleek as oilskin, bob to the surface, but the current was swift and the dog was a good twenty feet downstream and still picking up speed. Beyond her feet, Ellie was dripping. “You okay?”


“Yes.” Ellie’s face reflected both mingled hope and mortal terror. “Is it dead? Will it drown?”


“No.” Alex watched as the hound battled for shore and then, ten seconds later, clambered into shallows on the right. Water streamed from its flanks and then sprayed in a wide halo as the dog shook itself. In another moment, it was bounding back up the bank toward level ground. “It’s coming ba—”


“Alex! On your left! Look!”


The shepherd was working its way onto the tree as the collie watched from the safety of solid ground. Then she saw movement to her right, and there was the very big mutt. The animal put a tentative paw on the wood, and then the dog took a step, and then another.


No. The dogs were coming at them from both sides, and she knew she couldn’t do this forever. If only Ellie hadn’t lost the Glock, she might have—


Something rocketed from the woods, something very fast, charging so quickly that Alex caught only a brown blur, and then she saw, with a start, that it was another dog.


No, no, not another one. And then she caught its scent and thought, Wait. Isn’t that—


“Mina!” Ellie crowed. “Mina!”


19


The hound sensed something wrong. It began to turn, but it was already too late.


Mina slammed into the other dog, a solid body blow that lifted the hound, upending it completely. Squealing, the hound turned an awkward somersault, coming down on its back, legs thrashing, neck exposed. Mina’s head darted quick as a snake, and the hound’s squeal cut out as Mina’s jaws clamped around its throat. With its windpipe cut off, the hound made no sound at all. Its legs thrashed and pedaled air, and then, with a single violent twist, Mina ripped out its throat. An enormous fountain of blood erupted from the hound’s neck—


“Alex, look out!” Ellie shrieked.


Startled, Alex whipped around just as a monstrous black shadow loomed. The mutt surged forward, jaws wide, and if Alex hadn’t had just enough time to bring up her right arm, the dog would have had her. As it was, the dog caught the club between its teeth, ground down, and gave the club a vicious twist.


Gasping, Alex let go and felt herself slip, and then the world tilted on its axis. Frantic, she made a last grab for the trunk—heard Ellie shout again—but she wasn’t fast enough.


She crashed into the water, the blow hammering the air from her lungs in a sickening whoosh. The roaring water, so cold her skin burned, closed over her head, and then a white jag flashed across her eyes as her head struck against unyielding rock. Shocked, dazed, she opened her mouth in a huge, involuntary, reflexive gasp. A torrent of frigid water poured into her mouth, rushing down her throat. In a swirl of horror, Alex felt the muscles of her throat seize, close off, and clamp down, and then the flow of water into her lungs shut off like a spigot twisted shut. The water was gone, and she wasn’t choking anymore.


Instead, she was suffocating.


A deep red bled across her vision. Disoriented, her lungs on fire, she churned water in a wild, frothing panic, and then she was lunging for a distant glimmer, what she thought might be the surface, kicking desperately even as the water fisted her heavy boots, greedily fingered her clothes, and tried to pull her back.


She shattered through the water, felt the slash of air knife her face. Coughing, Alex threw her head back, her mouth wide open, and inhaled a single, shrieking gasp. Her blood roared, but her vision cleared, and then she realized that she was turned around, facing downstream, and still moving, the river carrying her in a dizzying sweep. A monstrous tumble of rocks and debris loomed directly in her path, rushing for her face. Too late to flip onto her back, too late!


The river flung her against stone. She felt the impact as an explosion in her left shoulder that scorched a sizzle of electric shocks all the way to her fingertips, but that was also when she realized two things at the same time.

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