CHAPTER ELEVEN: OUT ON A LIMB
Nate’s body was protesting loudly. His legs were cramping and his back, especially between his shoulder blades, ached dully, no matter which way he arranged himself on the branch. The sun had traveled past its zenith, and still, the creature in the bean field had not relaxed its silent vigil.
Nate felt helpless.
If he had just himself to consider, he would wait the bastard out — no matter how long it took. But the thing that drove him to distraction was his concern for Zelda. He kept telling himself that she was alive, which meant she was out there somewhere waiting for him to save her. She had always depended on him, and now she must be wondering why he hadn’t come looking for her.
Restlessly, he stood up and stretched his back for about the thousandth time that day. As soon as he moved, the beast below him clambered to its feet, all attention focused on him.
“You’re burning for it aren’t you, pal?” he growled at his tormentor. Reaching up, he climbed higher in the tree. He let his legs hang down and limbered up their screaming muscles by pedaling in mid-air. This was followed by a few old-fashioned chin-ups on the branch above his head. Stopping for a moment, he gazed up at the sun and sighed. There was nothing else to do, if he were to have any hope of finding Zelda, he was going to have to climb down from this tree. He slipped the gun from its holster, broke it open and took stock of its chambers. His count had been accurate — two bullets remained.
He’d purchased the weapon while they still lived in Chicago. The man behind the counter at the gun shop insisted he buy a “wheel gun” rather than an automatic, due to its simplicity and dependability. At the time, his main consideration had actually been the price.
“Yessir,” the man had told him, with a glint in his eye. “This here revolver will shoot, reload and shoot again faster than you can pull the trigger — just slicker’n cat shit on linoleum. And, statistically speaking, a .357 will break up a fight faster than any other handgun. It’ll stop a man quicker than anything else you’re apt to lay your hands on. If you’re buying a gun for protection… well, you got the right one, baby. Uh… HUH!” His laugh had been just a little too practiced and forced to sound sincere, but Nate bought the gun anyway. There had been a rash of crime in their neighborhood, and when a gunman held up the store which he worked in, he’d decided it was time to own one.
He had taken a course to learn to shoot, and he’d discovered he was pretty much a natural marksman. The man at the pistol range said it was because he aimed with his head instead of his eyes, making the gun a natural extension of his arm. At the time, he’d tried to get Nate to sign up for target shooting competitions, but he wasn’t interested. Never before had he been more grateful for this talent than now, when he planned to put it to the test.
It was Go Time!
Having made up his mind, he moved smoothly and decisively. First, he grasped the branch on which he stood with both hands. Swinging down quickly to hang beneath it, he dropped to the next lower branch, and then on to the ground. Before his feet even touched the earth, the monster was up and charging toward him. Nate landed in a squatting position. Straightening up, he slid the revolver from its sheath and leveled it at the beast. The creature skidded to a stop as if it were on a short tether. Pawing the ground in frustration, it growled and hissed threateningly.
Nate was impressed. “You learn pretty quickly, don’t you, Brutus?” His voice was low, but it carried to the creature’s ears, as was evidenced by its answering snarl of rage.
“Now, now! Don’t get cocky.” He brandished the gun menacingly and moved along the fence row toward the forest. He figured this was his only choice of directions, the timber at least offering some form of retreat should the creature overcome its fear of the weapon.
The monster in the field followed, paralleling his course, but staying just out of range for a safe shot. Nate made it to the next grove of trees and leaned up against the bole of a large shag-bark hickory. It looked as though it had been there since God was a little boy, its branches large and gnarled with time. A vine the size of Nate’s wrist ran down the side of the tree which he took note of, should he need quick access to the lowest branch.
Patiently waiting for an opening, it sat down, eyeing him and following his every move. Just as Nate lowered the gun to rest his arm, the thing was on its feet and advancing. Quickly, he raised the gun again and the creature retreated again to a safe distance. He heaved a sigh and started for the next grove of trees.
This game of cat and mouse continued for some distance down the fence row, as he made his way from one stand of trees to the next. At one point a red-tailed hawk screamed high above them, soaring in slow, looping circles as it rode the air currents above the field. When he looked back down, the creature had closed the distance by several paces and was advancing stealthily.
“You sneaky son-of-a-bitch!” He yelled, startled by how quickly it had moved. He brought his left hand up to join his right in its grasp on the gun. The ugly beast leaped to safety. Unnerved a bit, he continued on, keeping a careful watch on his pursuer. It was when he was almost in reach of his goal that all hell broke loose.
As he had passed the final trees in the fence row and was within fifty yards of the woods another beast, which appeared to be the size of a grizzly, leaped up out of the tall grass to his left and took a swipe at him. He flinched, ducking his head, and the mighty paw passed within inches of his scalp. Uttering a curse, he thrust the muzzle of the gun into the face of the slavering giant and pulled the trigger. Its face erupted like an exploding melon and the beast toppled over backward, twitching like a beheaded rooster, prepared for Sunday dinner.
Nate twisted in time to see the one that had been following him was closing fast. But, worse than this, he saw two more approaching from the other side. It didn’t take a mathematician to figure out he couldn’t split his one remaining cartridge three ways, so he did the only thing he could think of. He ran for his life again.
Heart pounding and feet flying, he raced for the woods and he had a pretty good start on all three of these beasts, but he’d seen how fast they could move. All the same, fear was a marvelous equalizer when it came to a footrace. He was closing fast on the forest, and there was a veritable mother–lode of trees to choose from. An enormous white ash stood out against the backdrop of forest tangle, its branches raw and gleaming in the sun like exposed bones. It was a giant, holding back the verdant green press of the wood with its shoulders and reaching out friendly arms to welcome him.
Snapping a fast glance over his own shoulder, he saw that he was going to make it. He began to look for a low-hanging branch to carry him to safety.
Suddenly, he saw something that almost made him lose his footing and stop. Loping out of the forest on a collision course with him was another of these pug-ugly bastards.
Jesus wept! he thought. I’ve stepped in it this time… It’s a whole freaking nest of ‘em!
Without breaking stride, however, he aimed the gun dead-center of the newcomer’s broad chest. It was snarling viciously, its tongue trailing along the left side of its mouth, sending little droplets of slobber in its wake. Forcing himself to wait until the last possible minute, Nate squeezed the trigger and was gratified to see the beast go down in a heap, rolling over and over in the dirt.
Leaping high in the air, he tried to vault over the fallen body, aiming to sprint the last few yards to safety. But, at the last second, as it rolled on the ground, one of its hoary legs flopped up, catching the toe of his boot. To his dismay, he found himself sailing through the air and diving head-first into the hard dry ground at the edge of the forest.
Rolling to his feet and spitting out a mouthful of dirt, he looked to see how much time his spill had cost him. There wasn’t much doubt now, it was going to take a miracle to come out of this one, for all of the beasts were almost upon him. His old friend from the bean field lead the pack.
He charged into the brush at the treeline’s edge. Looking frantically about, he spied a large branch and made a dive for it. As he hurtled through the air, he heard the closest of these hell-hounds crashing through the undergrowth behind him. A sharp, raking pain in the calf of his leg flared as he wrapped his arms around the tree limb. He bent and peered down into the enraged face of the creature. It was standing on its hind legs with its claws buried in his leg, and it was pulling.
Frantically, he struggled to hold on, but it felt as though the horrid thing was about to twist his leg from its socket like a child ripping the wings from a fly. He knew his gun was useless, but he slipped it from its holster anyway, hoping to bluff the creature. In vain he thrust it directly in its ugly, upturned face, but it took no notice, continuing to drag his leg irresistibly toward its snapping jaws.
He then threw the empty gun at the rock-hard skull of the creature, but again it didn’t react or even flinch. Scrambling he found the camping ax on his belt. Raising it high above his head with one arm, he clung desperately to the tree with the other. When he brought it down, the blade buried itself between the beast’s evil beady eyes, and great gushing streamers of blood sprayed in every direction. Nate was splattered heavily with it as it ran warm and sticky, into his eyes and he could taste its saltiness in the corners of his mouth.
The creature, who had been snarling and gibbering, exhaled sharply and fell away. Its claws snagged briefly in the fabric of Nate’s jeans, giving him one final tug before the weight of it pulled them free and it thudded to the ground. With his strength ebbing, he made one last wrenching effort and drew his legs up just as the other creatures reached his tree.
There was no silent vigil for these two. They leaped and snapped their frothing jaws at him, exhibiting no fear whatsoever.
And why should they? Nate asked himself, as he gaped at them in exhaustion from his perch. I’m unarmed now — no gun, no bullets, not even an ax.
He looked down at the corpse beneath the tree. The handle of the ax protruded from its head, making it look like some grotesque unicorn. He leaned back carefully against the trunk of the tree, trying to get his breath back. Below him the two monsters went on snarling, snapping and raking their claws through the bark, ripping off huge chunks in the process.
“This was a great idea, Natey Boy.” he chided himself miserably. “Just great.”
While Nate waited in his tree-top sanctuary, he dozed, his two keepers having settled down to keep their guard. After snarling and carrying on fiercely for a while, they fell to sniffing about the body of the one he had adorned with his ax, much the same way this beast had carried on with its mate before. Occasionally one or the other would cast a reproachful glare up into the tree and snarl. Eventually, though, they both lay down to rest.
While he slept, Nate dreamed of Zelda. In his dreams, they were laughing and loving in the yard behind the house. Both of them were nude, and he had a garden hose, spraying Zelda as she laughed, gleefully, and tried to fend him off. She looked radiant. As the light from the westering sky fell upon her face, it became a smoothly glowing sun and her hair was its corona, leaping and flashing in a magnificent aura, shining just for him. The water clung to her skin in tiny droplets, beading up on her breasts. Her skin was awash with goose bumps and her nipples stood out tautly proud against the cool air. He reached out and ran the back of his hand across her cheek, feeling its cool, satiny softness, and he longed to wrap her in his arms. He let the hose fall to the ground and stretched out his arms to her, but she was gone.
He looked for her. “Zel, where are you?” he cried. “Help me, Honey, I can’t find you!”
Turning, he saw her sitting in a tree. She had a picnic basket in her hands and a ridiculously quaint checkerboard tablecloth which was spread over a branch. She was wearing a pale yellow sundress with a broad-brimmed hat, decorated with flowers. Her skin, deeply tanned, contrasted nicely with the bright colors of her outfit, and one strap on her dress kept falling down over her shoulder. She was alluring, as only love could see her.
Then he was in the tree at her side, the bark rough and course against his bare legs. She laughed, coquettishly and leaned against him for a moment. He was as happy as he could ever remember being. He looked at her and said with disbelief, “You’re not dead, I knew that.”
On impulse, he looked down and saw there were dogs — big dogs, they had gorilla faces, and they were staring… staring… and their eyes were hot. He could feel the heat from them.
Zelda laughed at his remark and reached into the basket. It was one of those old-fashioned creels, with a lid on either end, hinged in the middle. She pulled out a small parcel, wrapped in wax paper. He hadn’t seen wax paper since he was a kid… nobody used wax paper anymore. He told her so, but she paid no attention. She was busy unwrapping his food.
Suddenly he was ravenous. His stomach felt cavernously empty, and his mouth watered at the very thought of food. He realized he hadn’t eaten all day, and this was just what he needed. Taking the appetizer eagerly in his hands, he thanked her and prepared his mouth for a treat.
Just then one of the dogs below shouted “Come down here, Meat! Come down! We are sick of waiting to rip you to shreds and lick the blood from your bones.”
He looked to see the gorilla dogs, staring up at him and wagging stubby tails. Fierce, dagger-like teeth stretched beyond their thick lips, and a wild, anxious look filled their eyes.
The sandwich in his hands squirmed nastily, like something alive and slimy. Removing the top slice of bread — His mind screamed NOOOOOO!!!… DON’T LOOK AT IT!! — he saw that the sandwich meat was a decaying face. The face had been peeled from a rotting corpse head. It draped over the bread like a grotesque rubber mask for Halloween — a death mask. Flies squirmed darkly in the sockets of its eyes and its stiff black tongue protruded from purplish swollen lips. As he gasped in horror, he could feel the spinal cord, like a piece of cold, wet string, curling across the back of his hand and tickling his bare leg.
Nate screamed in revulsion while Zelda laughed, hysterically. When he looked, he saw that her neck was broken and her head hung crazily at an impossible angle to her body.
“You didn’t REALLY think they’d let me live, did you?” Her mocking voice echoed hollowly, sounding as though it came from a cave somewhere deep underground. The last of her words were garbled as blackened blood flowed from her mouth. He shrunk away from her on the limb. Out into space, he sailed, his arms scrabbling desperately for a purchase on the tree, as the gorilla-dogs snarled triumphantly: “YES, That’s it! Come on down so we can eat you! Come on down Natey Boy!”
Lurching violently, he was yanked into wakefulness by a strange sense of vertigo. When he opened his eyes he realized that he WAS falling. In his sleep, he had leaned too far and was toppling from his perch to a horrid fate below.
Clumsily, he jammed his hands into the side of the tree, and at the last second, averted disaster. He shook his head savagely, trying to clear away the cobwebs. What a ghastly nightmare that had been! Of course, his waking hours had all been nightmare lately, so what more could he expect?
The voices of those devil-dogs in his dream had been so eerily real he could almost hear them still… “Come down, Meat! Nate, come on down.” Suddenly he snapped completely awake and his skin began to crawl as he realized that he DID still hear them. Someone was talking to him from down there… and the voice was that of his dream. With a shudder of fear and a sense of unspeakable loathing, he lowered his eyes to the ground below.
“We are sick of waiting! Come down, Natey Boy. Come down.”