Rounding a bend in the steep mountain track, George was temporarily blinded by the rays of morning sun that the shoulder of rock had hidden. He tipped his hat brim down over his eyes and focused on his feet. A misstep here would be fatal, for after days of scaling the mesa, he was acutely aware of the peril of the precipice on his right, and there would be no one to catch him if he stumbled.
A loosened pebble skittered off the path and into the expanse beyond, its pattering echo cracking the shell of silence that seemed to encase him and shut him off from the world of the living. The hollow sound reminded him once more of how alone he was. Or was he truly alone, George wondered, thinking about the nocturnal howl and the paw prints and boot marks he had noticed yesterday and this morning. Did someone else know of his contract?
Head still tilted and hat limiting his vision beyond the next few paces, George suddenly saw a moving black shadow slice the path in front of him. Glancing up in surprise, he was once again blinded, then shielded his eyes with his left hand—the other one sliding to the Wilhelm 56Z in his holster. A tall figure was outlined at the head of the steep track, hands raised and palms out.
“Who are you?” George shouted, weapon at the ready. “Why are you here?”
The figure turned and disappeared around a turn in the track. George yelled and sprinted up the path.
“Stop, or I’ll shoot!”
Reaching the turn in the path where the figure had vanished, George halted abruptly. The person had disappeared. Listening, George realized the silence of moments before had resumed. He heard no running steps or scattering rocks. The early morning chill had already evaporated, and even this brief exertion had left him sweating and out of breath in the unusually thin air. For a moment, George felt dizzy. Had he merely imagined the figure? Was he hallucinating? When was the last time he had spoken to another living soul? He had lost count of the days since he had buried his guide. Had it been days, or weeks? George shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Holstering his Wilhelm, he tugged a water canteen from his pack and drank.
Yes, surely he had been hallucinating. His mind felt much clearer now, and George tried to forget the disturbing occurrence and refocus on the path and his mission. In all this solitude, he needed to keep his mind active if he wanted to retain his sanity.
George began to sort through possible internal conversation topics. He pictured a hearty German breakfast, with link sausage, poached eggs, and cider, and quickly regretted the thought, as his stomach began to grumble. Dry bread, water, jerky, and tinned food was all the fare he had eaten since the journey began, and even once he completed his mission, he would have to subsist on the same until he returned to the seaport to board his ship home. He would be able to enjoy a good meal soon enough—once he finished Mr. Acton’s contract, that is.
To try to forget about breakfast, George surveyed the barren scene around him. He thought of the beautiful mountains of Germany that were nothing like this desert of rock and aridity and glaring sun. Had these mesas ever raised a real tree, not one of these scraggly bushes that barely resembled its German cousins? George snapped off a dry twig as he passed a “tree” and broke the branch into pieces with his restless fingers, scattering the splinters as he walked. Dusting his hands off, George refocused on the path and quickened his pace. He squinted far up the path and realized his destination was in sight.
Distracted by what he saw at the top of the path, George passed the boot prints in the sandy ground without a glance or a moment’s thought. Neither did he hear the quiet steps behind him which his own scramble up the rocky path had muffled. For a second, George felt the coolness on the back of his neck of a passing shadow, but as he began to turn to discover the source, a breeze followed, and with it, a hand and the butt of a gun.
Cold, darkness, a pain in his neck and head, biting wind, and a faint tapping sound. As George pried his stiff eyelids open, at first he thought he was in a dark room. Or was he blind? He blinked, and his eyes began to water, then to clear and focus. Pinpricks of starlight appeared, and he realized it was night and he was on his back. What had happened? His blurred thoughts began to clear, then awoke with freezing clarity as he heard a snarl, and then the first low notes of a howl. A howl that was louder and closer than it had ever been in all his nightmares, and George knew without a doubt that this was no nightmare. His fingers twitched softly toward his hunting knife; his Wilhelm would be no use from the ground against an opponent that had the close quarters advantages of claws and teeth. Gripping the knife handle, George slipped it silently from its sheath. He heard faint panting and a quiet click-click-clicking circling him and coming nearer.
…To be continued and concluded by Catdust19.