The massive beast exploded out of the woods in front of the boy, causing the little kid to wet his pants. The monstrous grizzly knocked him senseless with savage fury and hurricane force.
The boy sprawled on his back as the snarling bear skidded to a halt on the rocky trail and spun around. Its horrible gaze fixed on him, the boy caught a glimpse of a badly-scarred face before the furry chest slammed into him a second time. Claws slashed the air above his head. Fangs snapped before his face.
Struck by the boulder of fury, the boy was forcefully thrown clear of those fangs and sent rolling toward the lip of a ledge to one side of the trail. With a helpless wail, he hurtled over the ridge, his arms waving, his legs thrashing.
He then dropped through fifty feet of empty air, spiraling down into a canyon, the wind howling in his ears, the beast leering at him from above.
Then, the river at the center of the canyon embraced him in its freezing clutches. As its frothy green water closed over his head, the boy sank like a stone . . .
“The dream,” gasped Ryan, clawing his way free of his sleeping bag. “The damned dream again!”
He quickly stood up, peering down at the campfire. Still shaken by the dream, Ryan shivered as cool night breezes caressed his bare chest and shoulders. Shoving his hands deep into his jean pockets, he inched his way to the lip of the ridge overlooking the wooded valley far below.
Dark hair trailing over his bare shoulders, fourteen-year-old Ryan MacNeil gazed down into the moonlit vale, and forced the Beast of the dream out of his mind.
Locking his heels together, he focused on the fireflies drifting like wind-blown sparks above the spires of the pines below the high ridge, and for a moment, he wished he had wings like the glowing insects swirling through the late summer air. If so, he thought, it would sure make his quest a lot easier.
Below him, graced by silver moonlight, Stag-Heart Woods seemed like a magical place, and Ryan imagined himself soaring like a swift-winged owl over those woodlands, using the bird’s night vision to search for the object of his quest.
Yet Ryan lowered his head as reality sank in. For he knew, Stag-Heart was anything but a magical place. It was a haunted realm. And he had no wings. Any search in those dark woods would be done on foot, and not from the safety of the air where fireflies drifted.
Ryan sighed, remembering the day four years ago when he first ventured into the Woods. He was ten then, and armed with a .22 rifle and a bone-handled hunting knife, he had defied fear.
It had been an autumn day. The leaves were brilliant in their coats of yellow and orange. The sun peeked out from dark clouds scudding across the skies of North Dakota. Yet it had been chilly enough to wear a thick flannel, his faded jean jacket, and long johns beneath his jeans.
He had just been studying the waffle-like imprints his Timber-line boots made in the muddy trail, when the Beast had come raging from out of nowhere. No sound of warning. No snapping or crackling of branches. The huge, murderous fury had appeared on the trail like a demon from hell.
Hot, stinky breath blowing in Ryan’s face, razor-sharp claws missing him by inches, he had found himself bowled over by the mountain of muscle and fur. Ryan had suddenly found his feet where his head should have been. It had all happened so fast, that later, all Ryan could recall was the scarred and battered face of the Beast, and what he swore were its glowing red eyes.
Spitting in defiance at the forested vale below him, Ryan retraced his steps to his crumpled sleeping bag. Scooping it up and slinging it around his shoulders, he looked once more to the wooded vale. When morning came, he hoped they could simply slip down into those forested depths, retrieve their two lost dogs, and safely sneak back out again. Long before the Beast even knew they had been in his realm.
The dog appeared on the trail below the high ridge as morning sunlight spilled down into Stag-Heart.
Even from where he stood, Ryan could tell something was wrong. The yellow Lab, Raxster, was usually as hyper as a gerbil. Now, though, the dog swayed from side to side as he attempted to climb the trail leading out of Stag-Heart.
Ryan cursed when he saw the bloody front paws. He then rushed past his two companions bundled in their sleeping bags. Leaping over the ashes of last night’s fire, he shouted, “Get up, you guys! Raxster’s come out of the Woods! He’s hurt bad!”
His long, dark hair whipping over his shoulders and the tail of his blue flannel trailing behind him, Ryan hastily descended the ridge.
Raxster voiced a pitiful greeting, and then collapsed in the middle of the trail. As Ryan skidded to a stop in the soft dirt, he could clearly see that the two wounds on either of the Lab’s legs were deep. Blood flowed freely from both of his forelegs. “Oh hell, Rax,” whispered Ryan, tears coming to his eyes. “You’re hurt really bad.”
Raxster whined and gave Ryan a helpless, sad-eyed look. The dog then tried pulling himself up onto his paws. Ryan placed a gentle hand on the yellow Lab’s head. “No, boy. Just lay still. I’ll get you out of here.”
Suddenly realizing just where he was, visions raced through Ryan’s mind of the creature who did such cruel damage.
Glancing warily at the distant tree line, he then hurriedly kneeled beside the whining dog and gently slipped his arms beneath Raxster. “Going to hurt, Rax,” he said through gritted teeth as he lifted the dog in his arms.
And it did, for the Lab yelped loudly. Ryan winced as if he could feel the dog’s pain, yet held its body close and started up the trail, turning his back on the Woods, leaving himself vulnerable to the Beast. He cringed with every step he took as he felt its red eyes boring into his backside.
He made it to the top of the trail, though, and collapsed before the ashes of last night’s fire.
Ryan sat Raxster down on his sleeping bag. He then discovered why his friends, Trevor and Corey, had not come down into the Woods to help him. Their bags were empty. They now stood nearly thirty feet down the ridge, unaware of Ryan and the dog, for the two boys had troubles of their own.
Both were surrounded by a five other boys and an assortment of dogs. The J.D.’s (juvenile delinquents) of Riverview and their hounds from hell had come to pay an unfriendly visit.
“You little puke!” snarled the tall, lanky blond-haired boy who held little Corey Springer by the front of his sweatshirt. “Told you to bring you’re damned mutt to the Cliff last night, you crusty faggot! Told you Goof and Mauser were going to leap the Cliff! Why in hell didn’t you show?”
Corey, small for a twelve-year-old, balanced on his tip-toes and scrunched up his freckle-spattered face in genuine terror. The little, dark-haired kid had good reason to be terrified. The bigger kid who had clamped onto his shirt was Brad Logan, the worst of Riverview’s delinquents. Streaks of goodness ran thin in his blood, and when he wasn’t terrorizing kids in town, he was serving time at the juvenile holding camp thirty miles down the river.
“Put him down!” Trevor Taylor said, as he attempted to help his smaller friend.
Ryan watched his best friend from his place near the edge of the bluff. At fourteen, Trevor, with his long tail of white-blond hair, looked like an avenging angel in the rays of the morning sun. But Trevor was no match for sixteen-year-old Brad Logan. Brad would surely put him down with a barrage of cruel punches.
Scanning the group of J.D.’s who had come with Brad, Ryan quickly determined which of the five might also cause trouble. He also glanced at their assortment of dogs. Among the bristling beasts, Ryan noted the two that were definite biters. The bulky Rott which belonged to Logan and the German shepherd held by Billy Ray Morris.
And Billy Ray wouldn’t think twice about turning his dog loose on Ryan and his friends. This could turn nasty, real fast.
“Oh my God!” cried Trevor, dropping to his knees beside his dog. “What in hell happened to you, boy?”
Pity tore at Ryan’s heart as Raxster to weakly licked Trevor’s hand. He wished to God there was something he could do. For both of them. But he simply kneeled there, looking up through blurry eyes as Corey joined them.
The little kid placed his small hands on Trevor’s shaking shoulders. “Damn!” gasped Corey. “What did that to him, Ryan?”
“Don’t know,” replied Ryan.
One of the other boys from the J.D. crowd muttered, “The Beast did it, sure as hell!”
Keeping their own dogs back and struggling with them as they nosed the air at the scent of blood, the other J.D.’s talked in cryptic whispers among themselves.
“I’d say a friggin’ bear ripped it open!”
“I’d say a friggin’ big friggin’ bear, if you ask me!”
“Not a bear, I don’t think. A bear would have finished him. He couldn’t have gotten away from a bear with those legs gone to hell like that.”
“Might have been the Stag. Hooked him good and then went on his way.”
“No. Those are bite marks. Looks like he’s been in a fight. Maybe he tangled with a wolf or a badger.”
Corey looked to Ryan as he fearfully asked, “What about Goofy? Didn’t he follow Rax out of the Woods?”
Ryan had nearly forgotten about Corey’s Bull Terrier. The Goof, as they fondly called him, had been with Raxster the past night when the two dogs chased a pack of coyotes out of town. Corey had chased the foolhardy dogs from the dumpster in town all the way to the edge of the bluff overlooking Stag-Heart. He had then returned to Riverview in hysterics, bawling out his story to Trevor and Ryan. The three of them wasted little time getting to the bluff at the edge of the Woods. They had hoped to find the dogs early this morning.
Corey walked to the edge of the bluff, trying to sound brave as he said, “Goof probably saved Rax. He’s more than likely chasing whatever attacked him.”
“You’re probably right,” stated Ryan, as he joined his smaller friend at the edge of the overlook. Bolstering young Corey was the best he could do. Ryan didn’t want him to go into hysterics. He and Trevor needed Corey’s help getting Raxster to Doc’s place. The last thing they needed was for the little kid to go half-crazed into the Woods to find his lost dog.
Brad Logan didn’t help matters, though, as he gazed out over the tree tops. “Goof’s down there? Hell, he’s dead meat for sure. Face it, punk, your pooch will be little more than bear poop by tomorrow!”
With a snarl that echoed across the valley, the little kid tore into Brad in a furious rage. Corey hit the bigger kid three times in the face before Brad staggered back and out of his reach.
“You little bastard!” growled Brad.
And then amidst hoops and howls from his J.D. associates, Brad Logan lashed out with a wicked right hook.
Amazingly, Corey ducked. The fist simply passed above his head. Brad was now furious. The little kid was making him look bad. Really bad.
Ryan latched onto Corey, and swung his wiry friend around behind him. “Back off, Logan!” he shouted, and then received a fist in the face for all his efforts.
“Yowl! Way to go, Brad!” arose from the band of excited J.D.’s. “Knock his teeth in the dirt!”
“Yeah,” another of the rowdy kids yelled, “kick his butt over the bluff!”
Even the dogs sensed the violence in the air. One by one they began yapping and leaping forward.
Ryan tasted blood. The fist had landed dead-center on his chin, causing his teeth to rattle. A trickle of blood trailing down his chin, he backed away from Brad. He then dropped quite suddenly to the ground, his splayed hands making little slapping noises on the smooth dirt as he swiftly performed a leg sweep on Brad, taking the bigger kid’s legs out from under him.
Brad hit the ground with a surprised “Oomph!” of pain.
The other J.D.’s now went wild with enthusiasm. Their dogs did the same. Crusher, the huge Rottweiler, lunged forward, nearly pulling free of Billy Ray Morris. The dog had his sights fixed directly on Ryan. He was now obligated to avenge his fallen master. If Billy Ray released him, the snarling, slavering, teeth-gnashing beast was going to tear into Ryan and do mortal damage.
Ryan tried to ignore the lunging dog as Billy Ray was pulled forward. He had to, for Brad Logan was scrambling to his feet. “You’re dead!” Brad screamed, hooking his hands into claws as he charged Ryan. “You’re dead, you son of a bitch!”
Had Brad not screamed those last words, Ryan would have simply sidestepped his clumsy attack, possibly tripping Brad as he sailed past him. But there was a deep hurt inside Ryan MacNeil. A thing from his past that haunted him every day of his life. Most kids laughed it off when called that particular name. Some took offence; if they were the son of a bitch, what did that make their mother? In the case of Ryan, who had lost his mother ten years ago when she was killed by a drunken driver, he was more than simply angry. He was deeply hurt and offended all over again.
Ryan lunged forward to meet Brad there on the high ridge, and in one terrible rush of fury, he lashed out at the drunk driver he had killed over and over in his mind since the night he learned of his mother’s tragedy. Little did Brad Logan know what flood gates he had opened by his angry comment. Or what lay just beneath the surface of the Irish-American kid before him.
With all the pent up rage coming to a boil, Ryan heard the words of his father, the Sheriff of Riverview who had dealt with his share of drunken, rowdy rednecks: ‘Let your enemy be his own worst enemy. Turn aside their attack, never meet it head-on if you can avoid it. The Martial Arts are effective for dealing with aggressive force, but always remember, one good punch to the nose sure ruins a man’s day.’
Recalling those words, Ryan extended his thumb an inch above the knuckles of his fist, and drove it forward with brutal force. Brad rammed his nose into Ryan’s extended thumb, and with a cry of pain, the big kid flew off his feet for the second time.
This time, he found it most difficult to get back up. Bringing his hands to his face, he rolled back and forth, moaning and carrying on in such pain that the other J.D.’s cringed just from watching him.
Ryan didn’t like what he’d done. But he had been left with no choice. Brad would have done him great bodily harm. If Ryan hadn’t reacted with violence, that would be him thrashing about in pain on the ground. With his fist still held out before him, Ryan steeled himself for the reaction of Logan’s companions.
Billy Ray was having a tough time holding Crusher back. The huge black dog reared up, pawing the air with his front paws. Twisting his massive head from side to side, he began to bark fiercely. He wanted a piece of Ryan in a bad way.
Long, tense moments passed. Ryan stood facing the angry, sneering mob of J.D.’s and their pack of barking, slavering dogs. He tried not to make eye contact with the madly thrashing Rott.
Suddenly, Crusher gave a terrific lunge, snapping his chain.
The snarling Rottweiler then came barreling directly at Ryan.
Ryan froze as the big dog lunged at him. Crusher’s toe nails scraped the stony ground as he reared up on his hind legs. Just when it seemed the Rott’s slavering jaws were going to close on Ryan’s face, Ryan wheeled swiftly to one side, moving quicker than the dog.
With a yelp, the Rott went spinning away, scrabbling for purchase on the stony ridge top. The black beast rolled dangerously close to the rim of the bluff.
In his mad scramble to regain his paws, Crusher rolled too far.
Everyone on the ridge froze. Even the other dogs fixed their sights on the large canine desperately clawing at the ground to stop himself from falling nearly one hundred feet to the valley below. Crusher’s hind legs went over, then his belly, and then his chest. And dogs and kids alike focused on Crusher’s fear-filled face as he began to slide toward his doom.
Ryan dove flat out on the ground, his arms shooting out before him. Closing his eyes as his chest and stomach slammed into the hard dirt, he reached out blindly for Crusher’s front paws. He knew he would have only one chance. If he missed with either hand, the huge dog would slip from his grasp or maybe even pull him over as he plummeted to the rocky floor of the valley. Ryan breathed a silent prayer even as he closed his hands.
If Trevor hadn’t of latched onto Crusher’s leather collar, Ryan, attached to the dog with both hands, would have gone over for sure. But as it was, the two boys managed to drag the squirming dog back onto solid ground.
It was quiet on the ridge for long moments.
Ryan tugged Crusher past the rim of the bluff, and released him with a gentle push. He then placed his head in the cradle of his folded arms and quietly sighed. Trevor let go of Crusher’s collar, and hastily stepped away from the now silent dog. The J.D.’s and their dogs all stared quietly at the Rott as he lumbered over to his master still sprawled in the dirt. The only sound any of them heard was the huff huff huff of Crusher’s panting.
But the spell of stillness was broken quite suddenly by Brad: “Get him! Kill, Crusher! Kill! Kill!
His eyes widening in fear and disbelief at the dog’s ungratefulness, Ryan peered at the bone-crushing jaws of the slowly advancing Rottweiler. It was Trevor’s quick thinking that saved Ryan from being severely mauled by the fierce dog. He scooped up the .30.30 rifle they had brought with them for their trek into the Woods, and quickly moved back to Ryan’s side. He placed the rifle in Ryan’s hands.
Brad screamed, “Kill! Kill! Kill, Crusher, kill!”
The big, black Rott continued his advance.
With only four feet between himself and the dog, Ryan hastily worked the lever of the .30.30. His heart was torn with the dilemma he found himself in. He had to act, and act fast. With one more leap, Crusher was going to be all over him.
Ryan caught a glimpse of the ejected cartridge spinning away to his right. The J.D.’s all watched it too. A shimmering piece of silver metal, catching glimmers of the bright sun. Even as Crusher charged, a savage growl rumbling in his massive chest, his brown eyes filled with the boy before him, he caught a glimpse of the spinning bullet.
Shouldering the rifle and sighting on the Rott, Ryan slammed the lever back into place. With a solid click! a second shell slid into the chamber of the rifle. Ryan’s thumb dropped the hammer, causing another click! and his finger slid to the trigger.
No! No! No! he was screaming inside. And then he saw that Crusher had been distracted by the whirring piece of metal. It gave Ryan the edge he needed. He fired the rifle.
Ka-blam! The sound of the rifle brought Crusher to an abrupt halt. Hot lead passed a good distance above Crusher’s head. Instantly, the dog broke off his charge. Turning quickly away from Ryan and the smoking rifle, the Rott scrabbled for footing, his paws going in four different directions, and down he went.
Ryan sighed in relief. He looked from Crusher, cowering at his feet to Trevor at his side.
Disgusted with the dog for ruining their entertainment, yet eyeing the rifle in Ryan’s hands, the pack of J.D.’s chuckled at Crusher’s clumsy collapse. All of them except Brad Logan.
“Stupid dog!” he snarled, his hand still cupping his injured nose. “Kill him, like I said!”
Trevor moved in beside Ryan. “The moron just won’t give it up, will he?”
Ryan ejected the spent shell casing, and shook his head. “Not until he forces me to shoot the poor beast.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Trevor’s worried gaze fell upon Raxster now cradled in Corey’s lap. “We’ve got to end it somehow, though. We just got to get Rax to town. He’s gonna bleed to death if we don’t!”
Crusher rose to his feet once more. At his master’s harsh command, the huge black dog snarled at Ryan, and slowly began to advance again.
“Call him off, Logan!” shouted Trevor.
Ryan shouldered the rifle, and checked Brad’s reaction.
Trevor’s words seemed to have little effect. Brad scrambled to his hands and knees. Focusing on Ryan, he snarled, “You shoot my dog and I’ll kill you myself!”
Ryan evenly replied, “I don’t want to shoot your dog, you stupid ass! Just call him off!”
Even the J.D.’s were looking to Brad as if he had lost it completely. They were quiet. Their dogs were also quiet. Once again, only Crusher was making any sounds, and these were low growling noises as he edged his way forward.
Ryan knew if he moved too fast, the dog would charge. It would break his heart if he shot the poor beast, haunting him for the rest of his life. His mind racing for another way out of the situation, he looked from Brad to the Rott to see who might back off first.
“Seconds,” the words of his father came to Ryan, “it’s seconds that change a man’s life. Whole world is made up of valuable seconds, like grains of sand slipping through the narrows of an hourglass. Decisions are made in those seconds. Actions are taken, in seconds. Some people make bad choices, take the wrong actions. In mere seconds, their lives are changed forever. Can’t take back what’s been done. So, make your seconds count. Make your decision, knowing the actions you take only seconds later, will set the course of your life . . . forever.”
Ryan knew he had these kind of seconds before him now. If he shot Crusher–that second–that moment in time, would be etched in his memory forever. A memory like that would slowly poison his insides.
Tears coming to his eyes, Ryan sighted on Crusher’s chest. The big Rott tensed up and prepared to spring forward. In the next second, Ryan knew a part of him would die inside for what he would be forced to do. As Crusher snarled viciously and lunged upward, Ryan’s finger came to a stop on the rifle’s trigger. One single pull and he would send a bullet crashing into the dog’s chest, swiftly ending its life.
One second later, and the entire situation on the ridge top changed completely.
Roar! The ungodly sound came ripping up through the leaves of the trees of the woodlands below, sending visions of murder and death through kids and dogs alike, freezing every one of them in place.
Roar! It was a sound that embraced them all, wrapping itself around their souls like monstrous tentacles that threatened to draw them from their haven of safety, and pull them into some deep, dark lair. It was the call of the Beast. And they all knew it, and felt their hearts invaded by a terror so evil and deadly that all of them were left momentarily breathless.
Roar! The Beast made known its presence. It was there below them in Stag-Heart. It was watching them, and knew they all stood on the borders of its kingdom. It was watching them, taking in the sight of every last one of them, focusing on them with its hate-filled glare.
Roar! Into each individual heart the Beast sent its evil, like a spell emanating from the forest to the ridge; a spell that sent visions of the bloody vengeance it wished to deal out to each one of them. The Beast wished to send their souls wind-riding even as it ravaged and ripped their bodies to shreds. It wanted each of them in its savage, terrible embrace. The Beast wanted them. The Beast wanted them, and it was coming for them all.
The J.D.’s, with Brad and Crusher trailing behind them, hastily made their way toward the trail leading toward town. Each of them, including their dogs, seemed subdued by the savage roaring that had drifted up from the forest below the high ridge.
The J.D.’s muttered to themselves, vowing that they would return one day with guns to deal with the Beast. As of this moment, though, they were all committed to clearing out of the area in quite a hurry. Only Brad Logan shouted a few threats back at Ryan and his two friends, promising that their conflict was far from over. Yet somehow, in the aftermath of the terrible roaring of the Beast, his threats seemed hollow, delivered with little conviction.
Keeping his eyes on the trail leading up from Stag-Heart, Trevor slid his hands beneath his whining dog. “Let’s get Rax out of here before that thing down there gets a scent of his blood.”
Ryan looked to Trevor scooping up his wounded Lab. He then focused on Corey standing at the edge of the bluff quietly weeping.
“What about Goof?” sobbed the little kid. “We can’t just leave him down there . . . with that . . . that thing!”
Sighing heavily, Ryan responded, “No, we can’t. And we won’t.”
He locked eyes with Trevor as he said, “Corey, help Trevor get Raxster to Doc’s place. Don’t worry about Goof. I’m going in after him. I’ll find him.”
Gritting his teeth as he cradled Rax in his arms, Trevor narrowed his eyes. “Ryan! You can’t go in there alone! Let’s all get Rax back to town. We’ll search for Goof later.”
Of the two kids, only Trevor knew what it would take for Ryan to actually enter Stag-Heart Woods alone. He’d listened to his best friend’s horrid nightmares about the Beast for years. Trevor was the only one Ryan ever confided in. Trevor was the only one who knew Ryan actually pissed his pants when the Beast attacked him so long ago. Trevor was the only one who wouldn’t have laughed at such a thing.
Ryan looked away from the pleading eyes of his friend. “I’ll be okay. Just tell Doc to call my dad and let him know I’ve gone into the Woods.”
Trevor allowed Corey to ease some of his burden by slipping his slender arms beneath Rax’s hind quarters. Over the smaller kid’s head, he looked directly at Ryan once more. “At least go home and get Bran,” he firmly suggested.
Ryan loaded two more cartridges into the rifle, and kept his eyes firmly locked on the woods below. “No way. I’m not about to take my dog in there. No place for dogs. Now go, Trevor. Get Raxster to town before . . . you lose him.”
Concern for his dog prevented Trevor from arguing further. Rax was whining and squirming, and bleeding badly. He and Corey needed to make haste to reach Riverview nearly a mile away.
Both boys started walking, carrying the yellow Lab between them.
“Please bring Goof back,” begged Corey, as he grunted and strained beneath Rax’s weight.
“I promise,” responded Ryan.
And under his breath, too quiet for the smaller boy to hear him, he muttered, “One way or another–dead or alive–I’ll bring the Goof home.”
He then took the rifle in a two-handed grip and started down into Stag-Heart Woods.