Alas, your revered publisher has been remiss in posting the promised weekly — make that “monthly” — riff from future Fire-Rider tales. So much paying work has come flooding in to our parent company, The Copyeditor’s Desk, that I’ve had no time to do anything more than cope with the tsunami. But we have a brief respite before the next two projects hit the beach, so now’s our chance to play for a bit!
You’ll recall that Seth, ranch foreman for Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells, visited the fur and clothing shop run by Caddy and Linaya, one a huntress and the other a tanner and tailor. Caddy, daughter of Fallon’s man for all seasons Tobias, baffles Seth: he doesn’t know quite what to make of a woman who seems to be, as he privately opines, “all boy.” But she has reported seeing a wild woman running loose on the northern range, and Seth, as concerned about poaching as about the stranger’s welfare at the start of an ice-age winter, has suggested that the two of them go in search of her.
Caddy agrees, and the two head out together for the trapper woman’s most distant hunting ground.
Caddy was right, as Seth knew she would be, when she said the day would be too short to give enough light for them to make a round trip from her trapper’s cabin to the section of her trapline where she had seen the woman. Under a cloud cover, darkness came in long before they began to feel tired. They had gathered several rabbits and a mean wolverine from Caddy’s traps. And she had surprised Seth by releasing a coyote, uninjured, from a trap.
“Why didn’t you kill it?” he asked, an edge of annoyance to his voice.
“Why should I?” she returned. “There are no lambs or calves out here. He’s not doing us any harm. Just going about his business, hunting—like you and me.”
Seth couldn’t think of an answer offhand and he sensed that if he could, he probably should keep it to himself.
As they hiked across the coarsely forested landscape, they searched for tracks and spoor that might alert them to the stranger’s presence. They found precious little.
At one point Seth, frustrated with the absence of any clue at all, asked her if she was sure she hadn’t seen a deer in the gloaming.
“Well, sir,” she said, “I’ve been making my living as a hunter and trapper for upwards of ten years. Think I know what a deer looks like by now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “I reckon so.”
They continued in silence, walking northward over light snow and the occasional damp humousy forest floor.
It was strangely quiet, Caddy thought. No birdcalls. Not even the sound of the breeze sifting through the pine and juniper. Maybe it was just because it was so still this afternoon. With no wind to cover the racket of the two of them tromping around, they must sound like a herd of bulls moving through the brush. Must have scared off the wildlife.
This far north, miles above Cheyne Wells, they were approaching the edge of the permanent ice sheet. Most of the little streams were frozen by now, although a few still trickled with pale blue-green glacier melt.
“What do you say we camp here?” Seth said. They had come upon a dry, level patch where a partially flowing stream had cut in below the bank.
Caddy agreed that it was a good spot. They unloaded the two mules and pitched their lodges. Caddy had picked up some firewood and kindling as they passed through the occasional copse. She set a campfire going while Seth climbed down into the riverbed with a couple of buckets to fetch some water for cooking.
She had just got the tinder lit beneath the kindling when she heard Seth call her. “Come on over here, will you?” he yelled.
“What is it?” she asked as she approached.
“Easy,” he said. “Don’t step over there.” He indicated the running water’s icy margin. “Take a look at this.”
He pointed to a smudged, half-filled-in set of tracks in the mud. The cold ground and water had pretty well obscured most of them, but they could make out a few. “Bet this is your girl,” he said.
“What on earth?” She knelt beside them to get a closer look. “Those look like toes. She’s barefooted? In the snow?”
“Did she not have shoes on when you saw her?”
“Well, I…come to think of it, I couldn’t tell you. She was a distance away. She had on trousers and a jacket made of skins. With fur on them. And she had scraggly hair flying around her head. I didn’t notice what she had on her feet.”
“Huh. Maybe she came down here to wash or something.”
“In this kind of chill? She’d have to be even crazier than she looked.”
Caddy studied the tracks. Then she stood and set her own foot next to one. “Her foot is bigger than mine, even with my boot on,” she said.
“I’d have sworn she wasn’t any bigger than me,” she said.
“Hard to tell, from a ways off,” Seth replied.
“I guess,” she said.
“Maybe she has a man with her.”
“Wouldn’t you think we’d see more sign, if two of them were out here?”
“Don’t know. Maybe not, if they’re watching us.”
“Cripes.” She looked around. With dusk settling in, not much was to be seen. “Let’s get back up to the camp.”
Caddy butchered a rabbit that she had gutted and skinned after retrieving it from a trap, and they cooked it over the campfire. They simmered some grain in the water Seth had carried up from the stream and, as darkness closed in around them, enjoyed a decent enough meal.
After they gathered their provisions and hoisted them, packed in a bag, onto a tree limb out of bear’s reach, they sat down to enjoy the last of the campfire’s warmth. Seth offered to share a pipe of imp with Caddy.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I like to keep my edge sharp when I’m out here in the bush.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” he agreed, though he declined to take the advice to heart just then. “It’s kind of dangerous to come out here alone.”
“I expect,” she said, with a barely perceptible shrug. “Truth to tell, I enjoy being out in the bush on my own. There’s something about the solitude…and the wild—it’s good.”
A born mountain man, Seth reflected silently. He wondered where she picked up such a thing. Certainly not from Tobias, who was not what anyone would call the outdoor type.
“Must have been a surprise to find you had company,” he remarked.
“You surely could say that!” She laughed.
“And it wasn’t a bear?” he asked, after a moment had passed.
One of the mules nickered. Then a single loud bray burst out. Caddy stared into the darkness. The two of them fell silent, listening.
Hearing nothing more, she replied, “I reckon not. Did those tracks down by the water look like bear to you?”
He puffed on his pipe, soaking up the mellow, sweetish smoke.
“What d’you suppose she’s doing out here, running around barefoot in the snow?” he said.
“Can’t imagine,” said Caddy. “Probably some crazy hermit. Maybe she’s talking to God.”
“Must be trying to talk Him into taking her into the next world.”
She chuckled quietly and picked up a stick to stir the fire’s embers. An owl hooted in the distance.
Then her hand froze in place.
Out of the blackness came a loud, shrill scream, followed by a long and mournful wail:
“That’s strange,” said Seth.
“It is odd,” Caddie agreed.
Down the way, their two mules jostled each other, yanked against their tethers. If they hadn’t been hobbled as well as tethered, they would have bolted.
“What do you suppose it was?” Seth asked.
“Probably a cougar. Maybe a bobcat. They make crazy noises when they’re in heat.”
“Now? It’s wintertime. I never heard of a cat coming into season in early winter.”
“’Tis a little off-season,” she said. “But you never know. Sounds like a lady lion squalling, to me.”
“Maybe it’s caught in one of your traps.”
“Don’t have any big enough to hold a lion around here.”
Seth hauled himself to his feet.
“Going to turn in?” Caddy asked.
“Not quite yet,” he said. “I want to check on them mules.”
She got up, took her bow in hand, and followed him into the darkness beyond the fire’s circle of light.
Both animals were nervous and jittery. Seth’s mule showed the whites of his eyes in the faint glimmer of the campfire, yards distant from where the two beasts were tethered.
“Whoa, Jonniboy, easy now,” Seth crooned as he approached them.
“It’s gotta be a lion,” said Caddy. “We should take them over near the lodges.” She moved closer to her own animal, which she called Molly.
“Careful. Be sure she can see you come up on her. They’re pretty spooked—she could kick.”
Caddy stepped out and away from Seth to put herself firmly in Molly Mule’s line of sight. Just as she did, out of the corner of her eye she saw a black shape plunge out of the tree that sheltered the stock.
Before she could utter a sound, the shadow slammed down on top of Seth.
Flattened on the ground, face-down, Seth struggled to regain the breath that was knocked out of him. Before he could begin to figure out what was happening, the thing attacked him. He felt blows—kicks?—to his back, and it—a woman, could this possibly be a wild woman?—had its hands around his neck, squeezing.
He shoved an elbow backward, made contact, hard enough to loosen the grip around his throat for an instant, long enough to gasp in some air.
“Caddy! Run, girl!” he cried before the hands closed around neck again. Maybe she’s already taken off, he thought. He fought to turn over and shove his assailant away. The harder he fought, the heavier the other seemed to get. Air cut off, Seth was drifting into unconsciousness.
So this is what it’s like to die, he thought, strangely calm, even uncaring. Dying didn’t seem to matter…though he wouldn’t mind taking this other with him.
The weight on top of him seemed to grow heavier, heavier and quieter. It stank, smelled of musk, skunky. Limp, it was. It was rolling off him.
Caddy was there, kicking hard at something.
“Seth!” He heard her call his name. “Seth, for God’s sake. Answer me.”
His lungs drew a breath of cold air into his chest, and he grunted.
“Are you all right, man? Come on…get up!” She was kneeling beside him and shaking him, as if to wake him from a sound sleep. Had he dreamed it all?
He pulled himself up on his elbows.
“Can you speak?” Caddy prodded him. “Come on, Seth, answer me.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.” He rolled over and sat up. “What the hell?”
His attacker lay beside and partly across him, an arrow through the back and another through the side of the ribcage.
He pulled free of the other’s weight.
“Seth. Are you all right?”
“Holy God,” he said. “What is that?”
“I don’t know. Just tell me if you’re all right. Can you stand up?”
“Think so. Give me a hand, girl.”
She took his arm and pulled him to his feet.
They stood and stared at the dead thing on the ground.
“What in the name of God is that?” Seth wondered.
“It’s not a woman, is it?” Caddy replied. Covered with thick, long fur, it had distinctly unfeminine gonads. The mane growing out of its head and neck had looked to Caddy, from a distance, like a woman’s hair flying in the wind.
“No, ma’am, it’s not.”
They stood back and looked at the body.
“Did you kill it?” he asked.
“Wasn’t anybody else around to do it.”
“Not bad marksmanship,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” she said.
“What the hell do you think it is?”
“Don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it. Maybe it’s some kind of a bear.”
He studied the corpse. “That’s no bear,” he said. “Look at its paws. It doesn’t have claws. For godsake, it has fingernails.”
“It must be some kind of deformed, crazed hermit.”
“No. Whatever it is, it’s not a person.”
“Maybe it’s a demon,” she said.
“God help us.”
“It’s not human. It’s not an animal. What else can it be?”
“I don’t know. But if we let something like that get out, we’ll find ourselves in trouble.”
They stood staring in awe at the inert form, its face almost human but yet not, massive and hulking, its body covered in coarse hair.
“But how could it be a demon?” Caddy resumed. “An arrow through its heart wouldn’t have killed it. Because it wouldn’t have a heart.”
He glanced at her in brief amazement. “Well,” he said, “if it’s some kind of a critter, then likely there’s more than one of them out here.”
“Maybe,” she replied. “Hope not.”
He considered the arrows in the creature’s back and chest. Either of them would have killed it. She must have drawn and shot her second arrow in less than an instant after she got the first off. Both hit home. By firelight.
“Caddy,” he said, “where did you learn to shoot like that?”
“I dunno,” she replied. “Taught myself. It’s not very hard, you know.”
“You have one hell of an aim.”
“Practice,” she said.
Seth stood staring at the corpse. “Are you all right?” Caddy asked him.
“I think so,” he replied. “Don’t think anything’s broken. Well…maybe a rib or two.”
“Let’s go back to the camp. I’ll wrap your chest with some strip bandages, and we can check you over by the fire. C’mon—I’ll come back and get the livestock.”
“We’d better take them with us now,” he said. “They’re already spooked. Leave them here with that dead thing, whatever it is, and they’ll be crazy wild by the time you get back.”
She gave Seth her bow to carry, released the leather hobbles from the mules’ feet, and took their leads in hand. They walked back to where the lodges stood next to the waning campfire. Caddy didn’t like the looks of Seth’s stiff gait. If he was pained now, what shape would he be in by the light of dawn?
The animals re-hobbled, she dug out her first-aid bag and helped Seth out of his jacket and shirt. He was bruised, scratched, and gouged, but not too much the worse for wear. She guessed. If he had a broken rib, to say nothing of two, that might not be good. But one way or the other, about all she could do was bind him up and pray for the best.
“Caddy,” he said as she was tending to him, “you shouldn’t be out here alone. You need to have someone with you when you come up the traplines.”
“Well, that wouldn’t be very practical,” she replied. “Can’t very well have some guy out here stomping around the woods with me. Takes some quiet and finesse to do this job.”
“You could bring Linaya with you,” he suggested.
She rolled her eyes and gave him a look. “That would be like bringing the barn cat!”
“Better than being alone.”
“Don’t think so. Linnie couldn’t even begin to keep up with me. Besides, we couldn’t make a living that way. She makes all our stock from the hides I bring home. And she runs the store—she’s the one who’s selling everything I bring back.”
“It doesn’t strike me as very safe, Caddy. If there’s more than one of the them things…what are you going to do if something like that jumps you when you’re out here by yourself?”
“I’ll have to deal with that when it happens. And, my friend, let’s not tell Linaya too much about this, if you don’t mind. It’ll just worry her.”
He fell silent, flummoxed. She finished wrapping his ribs and tied off the length of bandaging. Seeing his look of frank disapproval, she persisted: “Come on, Seth. It’s not like I’m the only hunter out here. The place is crawling with cowboys chasing steers, fishermen, other hunters…”
“Uh huh,” he said. “Well, I’m telling my guys to work in pairs after this.”
“Good luck with that!” She laughed. “You can tell them, but d’you think they’ll do it?”
“All it will take is for one man to get killed, and you bet they will.”
Caddy frowned. “We’d better take that critter’s body back into town with us,” she said. “Or at least its head. Otherwise, nobody’s going to believe us.”
“Yep,” he said. “Right now, though, I need to lie down for a spell. But we’d better have one or the other of us keeping watch through the night.”
“Same thought occurred to me. I’ll take the first watch.”
“Wake me along about midnight.”
“Surely,” she said. If Seth had been Linaya, he would have recognized Caddy’s tone as one she used when she meant exactly the opposite of what she said.
This is an excerpt from a future volume of the Fire-Rider saga, yet to be published. Don’t miss the first three Fire-Rider novels, The Saga Begins, Fire and Ice, and Homeward Bound. Available in handsome print versions here at Plain & Simple Press or in Kindle format through Amazon.
Seth: Depositphotos, © PEPPERSMINT
Coyote: Coyote profile: Christopher Bruno. StockXCHNG. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Footprints in Snow: Shutterstock, © Valentyn Volkov
There’s something about the solitude: Shutterstodk: © Chokniti Khongchum
Night forest: Depositphotos, © kohy81
Bow at night: Depositphoros, thefinalmiracle
Caddy: Depositpbhotos: Huntress. OlgaOsadchaya