Buck slid across the ground on his stomach, moving no part of his body that he didn't have to. His eyes watched the bird in front of him as it searched the ground for food. With a quick snap of his hand, he let lose of the rock, the projectile finding its target. The quail toppled over.
Buck rose to his feet and retrieved the bird, adding it to the burlap sack nearby. He decided he had enough birds for their supper that night and decided to head back to the station.
Buck had been feeling restless lately and had finally decided the night before that he would spend the next morning hunting. Not just shooting an animal, but actually hunting, like he had as a child, something he hadn't been able to do regularly in recent years. He needed to get out and become one with the land, seek his prey by using all his senses. It's not that he enjoyed killing, he did it only out of necessity, but he enjoyed the act of tracking, and wanted the spiritual aspect of the hunt.
So he had risen before dawn, Ike being the only one to see him leave. His friend had awoke as he was leaving and Buck quietly explained where he was going and that he would be back mid morning. He had exchanged his boots for moccasins so he could run, and had dressed in his most neutral colored clothing, leaving his hat and vest behind, so he would blend in to the landscape. Then he had set out at a steady, mile-eating trot, the physical activity feeling good and refreshing his soul.
He had spent several hours flushing out eight quail, thinking that they might make a nice change of pace for their supper. He harvested some wild onion, sage and cattail tubers as well as wild grape leaf. These were in a separate burlap bag tied at his waist. He had also spent this time breathing in the fresh air, watching a hawk soar through the sky in search of prey, watched a pair of baby raccoons frolic through the underbrush and a doe and her young fawn search for their breakfast.
Most of the morning he'd had the feeling of being watched, but kept telling himself that it was his imagination, or that he was feeling guilty for not being at the station to help with the chores. So he ignored the little voice in his head that warned him to be cautious. Still, he'd look around, using his eyes and ears to search for whatever watched him, just to find a crow perched in a tree or a squirrel collecting nuts that would stop in its task to stare at him.
He began the five mile run back to the station, still not shaking the feeling of eyes on the back of his head, but trying to lose himself in the run, clearing his mind as he ran. By the time he had gone a mile, the eyes had been forgotten.
As he was running through a wooded area two miles from the station the feeling came back. He stopped and looked around him, finding nothing, and resumed his run.
Buck, he thought, your imagination is getting away from you.
Then he fell flat on the ground, his vision swimming and pain exploding at the back of his head. The bag of quail flew from his hands into some bushes. He pulled an arm to his side and began to push himself up. He felt something slam against his head a second time, knocking him to the ground again. He heard voices as his vision went black.
"What is it Ike?" Teaspoon asked the young man. Ike had started acting nervous about an hour before lunch, looking to the southwest every few minutes. He finally approached Teaspoon with his concerns.
Buck should have been back hours ago, he signed. I'm getting worried.
"He probably just got distracted. You know, caught up in the hunt, or maybe he stopped for a swim. It would be a beautiful day for one."
No, something happened, I know it. He said he'd be back mid morning. He always does what he says. I want to go look for him.
"Well, you're right about that. When Buck says he'll be somewhere at a certain time, he's always there. Why don't you go saddle a couple horses. I'll go with you."
Ike ran off and Teaspoon went looking for Emma to tell her where they were going.
"It's probably nothing," he told her. "But Ike would feel better if we go look for him, and I will too. We shouldn't be long."
Buck had told Ike the direction he was going, intending to hunt a wooded area to the southwest. They headed in that direction. They traveled through the woods and when they came to the edge where grasslands once again took over, they turned around and searched the woods closer. The area was large and there would be no way they could search the whole forest region in one day, but there were several trails running through the woods and they concentrated there.
Finally Teaspoon picked up moccasin tracks, and surprisingly, horse tracks following them. The footprint would be the right size for Buck. They followed, finding signs where the man on foot had knelt, where he had laid down and crawled into some shrubbery, and finally where he had headed out of the woods. The horse tracks followed the same route.
They followed the tracks out of the woods and along a creek bed, then into a pastured area. They were headed straight back to the station. The tracks lead to a small road and they became clear and easy to follow. It was also easy to see where the man on foot had fallen, where his body had been drug and placed on a horse, and where that horse had ridden. The two men looked the area over, trying to find an indication of who the man on foot was, although Ike was already convinced it was Buck.
When Ike produced the burlap bag full of quail from the bushes, Teaspoon had to agree. Buck had been here and had been taken by force.
"Go get the others, son. Have them pack for a long trip, and bring my gear. I'm going to follow these tracks."
Ike nodded and kicked his horse into a run.
"Buck, what kind of trouble are you in?" Teaspoon said to the empty air.
>"Over here Teaspoon!" Cody called out. The group of riders had lost the horse tracks and had spent the last hour looking for them.
"Did you find them?" the older man asked as he approached.
"I think so. But now there're three sets of tracks. Look here." The boy pointed at one print. "This is the one we've been following, right?" Teaspoon nodded, looking at the markings from the horseshoe.
"But look here. These are different shoes. The markings are different. Two more horses joined the first."
"Yep, I'd say you're right. Now look here." Teaspoon pointed a few feet away where the horse tracks came from. "The first rider got down and walked over to one of the new horses and back to the first horse. The tracks going away are deeper than those coming back. He was carrying something. Probably Buck."
Both Cody and Kid studied the tracks, seeing the differences Teaspoon pointed out as Jimmy and Ike joined them. Silently they all mounted and followed the tracks once more, until it became too dark to see. They then made camp for the night, none of them getting much rest as they worried about what had happened to their friend. They were mounted and ready to go before the sun was up the next morning.
Buck opened his eyes slowly, but could see nothing but black. He moved his hands up to his eyes, checking for a blindfold and finding none. He closed his eyes again, then opened them once more, hoping to clear his vision. This time he could make out just a trace of light, turning the inky darkness to a lighter shade of the same. He rolled over to his side, then to his stomach where he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Nausea rolled over him, and he paused a few moments to let it pass before using his hands to feel around him.
The floor beneath him was wood. He crawled forward, using his hands as eyes. In only a foot or so of movement he came upon bars, like those of a jail cell. He grabbed hold and pulled himself up on wobbly legs then followed the bar wall. He could only move a few feet either way before coming to a corner, and only about five or six feet before coming to another. The realization that he was in some sort of cage sank in, causing a sudden burst of anger. He grabbed hold of the bars and pulled on them, as though they would give way. Of course, they didn't.
He began to feel his way up the bars, finding a bared ceiling at about a foot or so above him. Still fighting nausea and a headache that thumped away at his temples, he sank to the floor, his only option being to wait until his captors put in an appearance.
He decided the nausea was from hunger and he began to wonder when he had eaten last. There was also a lingering odor on his clothes. It reminded him of the time the doctor had used chloroform to put Kid to sleep so he could remove a bullet. Both of these things could also account for the headache.
He racked his brain, trying to remember what had happened. He had gone hunting. Quail. He had started back to the station and…? Blank. He subconsciously rubbed the back of his head, where a lump and a small amount of dried blood were located.
He leaned his head back against the bars and closed his eyes. He was quickly asleep.
Buck awoke next to the sound of keys in a door lock. As he tried to blink away the last vestiges of sleep, he saw light suddenly pour through an opening door. Two men walked through. One approached the cage as the other began lighting lamps in the room and pulling aside heavy curtains.
The first man stood before him, his thumbs looping into the watch pockets of a brocade vest. He wore a black bowler hat and sported a short, neatly trimmed beard. Buck still sat, leaning back against the bars, wondering what the man would do next.
"So, you're finally awake. We had such a hard time keeping you asleep on the trip here, then we couldn't get you to wake when we wanted to. It's a good thing our boss is a busy man. He hasn't had any free time until today."
"Just who's your boss?" Buck asked. The man seemed surprised.
"You speak English? Well, I suppose that might come in handy. I just hope the boss thinks so."
"Should I ask again? Who's your boss?"
"A smart mouth too, huh? Well, that will change. And you'll meet our boss soon enough. He just has some business to conduct and then he'll be here. We came to get things ready."
"Ready for what?"
"You'll find that out soon enough, too. Hungry?"
"The cook is bringing some food. Gotta keep your strength up."
"I told you already, you'll find…"
"...out soon enough." Buck finished for him. "I guess I'll just have to be patient, huh?"
"You catch on after awhile. I've got work to do." The man walked away and through a second door. He left the door open, but he was out of Buck's vision and Buck couldn't tell by the sounds what the man was doing. The second man had also left the room and Buck was alone once more.
His nose told him that the cook was coming before she even entered the room. His mouth watered and he wondered again how long it had been since he ate last. The woman studied him as if he were some sort of monster or some animal she hadn't seen before. Then she moved forward and slid a tray through a narrow slot at the bottom of the cage door. She turned quickly on her heels and walked quickly out the door she had entered through.
Buck moved forward and pulled the tray toward him. He picked up a biscuit and began to chew, then took a piece of bacon. It wasn't long before the meal had disappeared. The nausea faded and even his headache dissipated. He found himself waiting again. He dozed off.
His eyes snapped open as he heard the sound of boot heels against stone flooring. Buck was momentarily disoriented, but his eyes focused quickly, just to see a man in a fancy black suit standing before him. The man began walking around the cage, as if inspecting Buck, nodding occasionally, before turning to the man in the bowler hat.
"Very nice, very nice. An excellent specimen. You've done well."
"Thank you Mr. Brooks."
Buck sat studying the man as he talked, pulling one of his legs up and leaning his arm against his knee, looking casual and unconcerned, even though his mind was racing, trying to figure out what was happening and how he might get out of this situation.
"Specimen for what?" he finally asked.
"He speaks English?" Brooks asked the man in the man in the bowler hat. Bowler hat nodded. "Well, that's a surprise. Well, well." The man paced a bit, studying Buck some more.
"I've traveled the world over, adding to my collection." He gestured at the various mounted animal heads that graced the walls of the room. Deer, bear, cougar, and numerous animals that Buck had never seen before, were stuffed and placed on wood plaques. Some had horns, some tusks, others had colorful stripes, some had spots. There was even a pelt lying on the floor in front of the fireplace, and a full sized bear stood in a corner.
"You're my next specimen. For my hunt."
Teaspoon stood staring at the ground for the hundredth time that day. Once again they had lost the tracks and were having a hard time finding them. It was now mid afternoon and he wasn't sure that they had even managed to put twenty miles behind them. And it wasn't because the riders they were following were making any attempt to cover their tracks. They weren't. But the area they were riding through was dry and rocky and often times there were no prints left.
Teaspoon looked up and scratched the back of his head. He scanned the area, locating each of his boys, and hoped that one of them would call out that they had found sign, and soon. But even as he watched them, each one continued moving slowly and methodically, eyes to the ground, or examining bushes and plant material for signs of horses passing through.
An hour later they were still looking, their search having progressed to such a distance so that he could barely see each boy. But not a one of them suggested stopping. Their stubborn tenacity made Teaspoon proud. His boys would not abandon one of their own.
But even Teaspoon began having doubts that they would pick up the trail when they were still searching at dusk. He set out to gather the wandering boys and stop for the night, riding toward one boy at a time and marking where they had stopped, then moving on to the next.
He had located Kid and Jimmy, and was riding toward Ike when a gunshot filled the air. The three kicked their horses locating Ike within the half mile. The young man stood next to a tree, pointing excitedly at the remains of a fire. Teaspoon dismounted as Cody rode up to join them.
"What'd ya find?" the blonde rider asked as he, too, jumped to the ground.
Teaspoon examined the ashes as Kid and Ike looked over the ground, locating the shoe prints that they had been following all day. And better yet, there were clear tracks leading away from the encampment.
"Good. Now we have a direction to go again. We'd best make camp for the night, get a fresh start in the morning."
We can't stop now, Teaspoon! Ike signed. We've wasted too much time already today.
"I know how you feel Ike. But we've got, maybe, half an hour of light left. We'll set up camp and be on our way at first light."
Ike reluctantly agreed, nodding his head as Teaspoon patted his shoulder.
"Let's get some wood gathered while we can still see." The boys somberly headed off to follow the man's instructions.
"I don't see why I can't go after them, Emma!"
"Because someone has to stay here and take the runs. Besides, how would you know where to go? I don't even know where they started from."
Lou flopped down on a bench at the table.
"You're right." she grumbled, grabbing a handful of snap beans from the table and ripping each bean in half. Emma watched her, understanding the helplessness the girl felt. If Emma thought she could have helped, she would be out there with the others searching herself.
"Still, I should be out there helping." Lou wasn't ready to give up the argument quite yet, feeling the need to make that one last statement before getting up to feed the horses and check the barn one last time before supper.
None of the search party slept much. At any given point in time during the night there was at least one of them up pacing, or poking at the embers of the low fire. And most times there was more than one of them doing so. Teaspoon tried to rest, knowing that with the others not resting, their tempers would have short fuses, and he wanted to be sharp enough to put out the fires and still get them all through this in one piece.
When the sky began to lighten ever so slightly, each rider rose and began to saddle their horses. They ate a cold breakfast and started on their way as soon as they could make out the tracks. They were all silent and Teaspoon took this as a blessing. If any one of them made a wrong comment, another was bound to blow up over it. Teaspoon hoped they would have sense enough to hold their tongues until this was over.
They followed the tracks easily, the ground having turned more sandy as the rocky terrain was left behind them. But they still could only travel at a walk, for fear of missing where the prints made a turn. They all knew without saying it that they were falling behind the people they tracked. The only hope they had was if the other riders would stop soon. Otherwise they would get further and further behind.
Buck thought he must have heard wrong. The confusion must have shown on his face because Brooks began to chuckle.
"What do you mean, for your hunt?" Buck asked when he regained his ability to think and speak.
"As I said, I've hunted the world over. Sought out every manner of beast." Brooks walked toward the animal heads on his wall. "This is an Indian elephant. I nabbed him five years ago. This one is a zebra, from Africa. What a wonderful trip that was! More game than you can ever imagine, just waiting for the taking. More in one spot than any buffalo herd I've ever seen. Can you imagine?" Brooks turned toward Buck as if expecting a reply from the young man. When none came, the man continued on his tour.
"This little beauty is a tiger. He was a wonderful challenge. Very stealthy. He led me on one of my most exciting hunts. I came close to losing him, but I was the victor." He reached up and patted the beast's stuffed head. Buck shook his head ever so slightly, not believing what he was seeing and hearing.
Brooks stopped in front of the bear. The taxidermied animal stood at least eight feet tall and was displayed with paws upraised and teeth bared.
"This one was my first real kill. You know, a life and death kill not just a hunt for meat kill. I had captured one of her cubs and was having some fun with it. Obviously she didn't like it when she found us. But the gun is mightier than the claw." Brooks chuckled at his play on words. When the man turned back to him, Buck saw the insanity in the man's eyes. For the first time a shiver of fear passed through him. Brooks was crazy and crazy men were dangerous.
"I've been pursuing the hunt ever since." Brooks continued. "But most of these beasts were too easy. I need more of a challenge. I've talked to other hunters, followed their advice for finding a worthy adversary. But I'm bored with them. I want…no, I need to hunt something with intelligence, something that will make me have to use all my skills as a hunter in order to conquer it." Brooks turned toward Buck suddenly, striding toward the young man's cage, grabbing the bars and staring right at him, a crooked little smile gracing his face.
"That's why I'm going to hunt you."
Buck sat in the corner of his cage. Occasionally Brooks' two employees would walk in to the room, pulling large fancy guns from a rack and gathering up knives and spears. Buck watched them, his mind working hard at a solution to this situation.
When the men would leave the room, Buck would stand and check out the cage, but he found no area on his little prison that he would be able to escape through. He looked for anything he could use as a weapon, but there was nothing. The cage was bare and there was nothing loose that he could use.
Before Brooks had left to finish up on some business, he had told Buck that he was an importer, traveling the world round for business purposes, buying goods and bringing them back to the states for sale. He had done very well for himself and was able to purchase homes on both coasts and land in many different countries. He had also bought this large parcel of land in the territories and had stocked it with exotic animals to hunt. But he had grown bored with these and had started to look for more interesting prey.
Buck sat and mulled over the knowledge that in the morning he would be set free, to be hunted down like an animal by a man with limitless artillery and assistance. Top this off with the fact that the land he would be moving through had been filled with animals that Buck was not acquainted with, and therefore could not predict, and Buck knew he was in some big time trouble.
The cook came with his lunch, but Buck didn't feel like eating. He reluctantly ate the supper that she brought in later, knowing that he would need all the strength he could come morning. He was restless, but pacing wasn't satisfying in the confined area he was in. He also found it hard to just sit. Time drug on, minute by minute, hour by slow hour. Buck finally tried to meditate, closing his eyes and running through several Kiowa prayers. It helped calm him so that he wasn't as restless. Time became bearable.
Brooks came back in after supper and stood before the cage studying Buck. Buck returned his stare, sizing up the man himself. Brooks was the first to speak.
"I have to admit, I'm was a little disappointed that you speak English. I was wanting a wild savage."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
"But then I decided that it was all right. It might be more of a thrill to hunt someone that I can communicate with. Mathews told me about your skills. Oh yes, they had been watching you, following you. You're a skilled hunter yourself. It will make the hunt that much better."
"Well, I'm glad you're looking forward to it. That I can supply you with some form of entertainment."
"I like you. I really do. You've got spirit. I like that. Most people around me, they jump when I say jump, they run when I say run, they sit when I say sit. They're no better than trained dogs. Usually I like it that way. But you're different. I have a feeling you'd stand up to me, argue with me if you thought I was wrong." Brooks turned and walked to the door.
"Too bad I'm going to kill you tomorrow." And he walked out.
Buck squinted against the early morning sunlight. Mathews and Baker, Brooks' two employees stood on either side of him, each holding one of his arms. Buck thought it bit of overkill, since his hands were also bound and Brooks stood nearby with a gun pointed at him.
They had come into the trophy room about an hour before, followed by the cook with his breakfast tray. He had barely eaten a thing, part from nerves, part from not wanting that full feeling to slow him down. He was going to need his strength, but also as much speed and agility as he could muster. Then they had opened the cage, tying his hands together and pushed him through the house and outside.
So now he stood, looking around him, trying to get an idea of where he might be. The area was wooded, sitting high, with a spectacular view off to the west. Buck thought that it was an ideal spot to build a house. Too bad the owner was a monster.
Mathews gave him another push onward, leading him to an open pasture, with woods beyond. Mathews stepped in front of him and untied his hands as Brooks leveled the gun at him once more. Several horses stood nearby, one bearing a full arsenal of weapons, the other three saddled and ready to go.
"Here's what we're going to do." Brooks said. "You're going to get a five minute head start. Then we'll be following you. My lands go on for miles so there's very little chance that you'll reach any other homesteads before I catch you."
"Pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?"
"I wouldn't be so cocky. I've shot everything I've hunted since I was twelve. You'll end up the same way. It's just a matter of how soon."
"Don't count on it." Buck said with a confidence he didn't feel. Brooks just laughed.
"In those woods are all types of exotic animals that could take your life, so watch yourself. I wouldn't want them to spoil all my fun."
"That would be too bad."
"Okay, your time starts now." Mathews stepped away and Baker let go of his arm. Buck immediately pushed against Baker and kicked out at Mathews, knocking the man to the ground. Then he began to run across the pasture, Brooks' laughter following him as he leapt over a downed branch and into the trees.
"Time's up boy! Make this a good hunt!" Brooks yelled out five minutes later.
Buck could hear the man even though he had gone some distance into the trees. The voice echoed down through the woods. And he knew that the horses were crossing the pasture following the very clear trail he had left behind. But he needed to put distance between the men and himself. The growth here was thick, with underbrush threatening to trip him if he wasn't careful, so he had to slow periodically. Then the woods would open up and he could add some speed.
Still, he knew it wouldn't be enough. He was going to have to come up with a plan soon.
He jumped over another downed branch, and immediately ducked under another. He had taken two steps before he stopped dead in his tracks. Before him was a large cat, lounging on a rock in the sun. It was bigger than a cougar, orange in color with black stripes. Buck had seen the head of one on the wall in Brooks' trophy room. The cat stared at him, it's mouth opening and a large pink tongue emerged to lick at its jowls. A low growl came from the beast as Buck took several steps backward, avoiding the branches he had just dodged. When he was fifteen feet away, Buck turned and moved a little faster and finally broke into a run when he felt he was far enough away to have been forgotten by the animal.
He tried to slow his run, tried to cover his trail, and for the next hour or so he felt he was succeeding. But the gunshot that rang out, clipping the tree by his head, told him otherwise. He dodged behind a tree, then took off through some bushes. Pushing his way through them he glanced back over his shoulder. His next step found air and he was suddenly tumbling downward.
Buck rolled down the hill, cracking an elbow here, a shin there, on the protruding rocks. Bushes and grasses scratched and cut him. He was rolled over a large rock, knocking the wind out of him and sending him tumbling further. He finally came to rest against a large boulder and lay there, unmoving.
Brooks and his men stood at the top of the hill. He shook his head in disappointment.
"That was much too easy. I really thought he would give me more of a challenge." Then the man turned and mounted. He and his men rode off to find the trail leading downward to retrieve his prey.
When they reached the bottom of the hill, Buck was no where to be seen. Brooks' gleeful laughter carried across the valley.
Buck hid in the shadows under the branches of a large pine tree, hoping that the low branches would help to hide him in the dwindling light. He had spent the afternoon covering his trail and moving slowly, hindered by more aches and pains than he'd felt in a long while. All he wanted now was a chance to rest his bruised and battered muscles.
He had managed to catch his breath and move away from the bottom of the hill before Brooks and his men arrived, and he'd been ahead of them ever since. He had heard them gaining on him mid afternoon, but he had doubled back and gotten behind them. Then he had headed back into the deep woods. He found a small stream to slake his thirst and some early berries to keep away the gnawing hunger pains in his stomach.
When he had fallen down the hill he had picked up a piece of thin slate, and he sat now using the stone to put a slot in the end of a strong stick. The slate was thin enough and sharp enough that he cut his fingers and hand several times before finally shaping what would become the handle of a crude knife. He slipped the piece of slate in the groove he had cut and began to wrap a thin, strong vine around the end to hold the slate in place.
Buck looked at his work. It would have to do for now.
He leaned against the tree trunk. The sun would be down very soon. He could get some much-needed rest. Buck had no idea what all the animals were in these woods or if they were nocturnal or not. But he was at the point of not caring. His head dropped down to his chest and he dozed.
Brooks sat before the fire, coffee cup in hand, a plate with the remains of his supper sitting on the ground next to him. Mathews sat across from him, while Baker checked the horses one more time. "It was a good hunt today. You chose my prey well. I'd say that he probably has another day in him. Then he'll start getting careless."
"I don't know Mr. Brooks. That tumble down the hill might have done some damage."
"If he was hurt badly, he'd have left more of a trail. No, he'll last at least until tomorrow afternoon." Brooks tossed the dregs of his coffee into the fire. "It's time to turn in. We need to keep a watch out, just in case one of my little pets decides to come and visit. You and Baker take turns. I'll take the last watch. I like to watch the sun come up."
Buck stirred. At some point in the night he had shifted his position and was now lying on a bed of pine needles under the tree. He fought to awaken, sleep trying to keep possession. His ears picked up the sound of movement and he was instantly awake, his eyes open and searching even as he tuned his ears to the sound. There were no night sounds, which was a warning that whatever he had heard wasn't friendly.
He finally determined that the sound was that of a large animal breathing. Occasionally there was a low growl as the beast searched through the night. Buck tightened his grip on his crude knife. He lay perfectly still, barely breathing himself, in hopes the animal would pass him by.
But the beast had his scent. He heard the animal draw closer, a small twig breaking under one of its large paws just a few feet away. Buck had no choice. He jumped to his feet, forcing his aching muscles into movement. He felt, as well as heard, the animal approach him as he jumped upward, grabbing a low hanging branch. As he pulled himself up he felt a large paw swipe at him, sharp claws connecting against his thigh. He couldn't stop the cry of pain from escaping his lips even as he pulled himself up higher. He grabbed the next branch and continued climbing, the animal lunging upward, and Buck began to wonder if the creature could climb. But it dropped down to all fours and began to pace, looking upward at Buck and growling.
Buck studied it from his perch. The light was limited, with just a sliver of moon to illuminate the night, but it was enough for Buck to tell that this wasn't the same animal he had seen earlier. When it paced into the moonlight he could tell that it was another form of cat at least the same size of the earlier one, but in more of tawny color, with a huge mane around its head.
When Buck felt he was high enough, he examined the scratches on his leg. They were bleeding freely, the scent of the blood seeming to keep the animal below somewhat agitated. The wounds stung, and Buck pulled out a bandana and tied it around his thigh. He pressed against them, trying to stop the bleeding as he continued to watch the animal below him.
Buck spent the rest of the night in the tree. He propped himself between branches, trying to find a position in which to sleep. But rest evaded him. He was afraid of falling from the tree and becoming a late night snack for the creature waiting below. And his mind was racing, a plan formulating and taking root.
By the time the sun was peeking over the horizon, his feline friend had wandered off and Buck had decided to no longer be the prey. He was turning the tables and becoming the hunter.
He lowered himself to the ground, his legs threatening to buckle under him as the circulation slowly returned. Then he set off to find Brooks and his men.
They were closer than he had thought. He stumbled upon them almost by accident. Buck crouched in the bushes, watching as Brooks and his two employees ate breakfast and saddled their horses. He hung back as they rode off, then followed at a safe distance, just watching for a chance to make a move.
That chance came about mid afternoon. It was obvious Brooks was getting frustrated at not having sighted him. The three men stood in a clearing, Brooks giving the men instructions. Then the three split up, Brooks and Baker going to the left, Mathews to the right. Buck followed Mathews.
An hour later the man dismounted and Buck found his opportunity. He silently moved up behind the man, his stone knife in hand. Reaching out, he tapped Mathews on the shoulder. When the startled man turned, Buck's knife found its mark. Mathews eyes grew large as he slumped to the ground.
When Brooks and Baker entered the small clearing just before nightfall, they found Mathews propped between two tree branches and elevated far enough above the forest floor that wild animals could not reach him, his gun lying below his feet.
Buck studied the camp from the darkness beyond. The two men had buried Mathews, then made camp about a half mile away. They had built a small fire and eaten a simple meal then Brooks had crawled into his bedroll. Baker was left to stand guard for the first half of the night. All Buck had to do was wait.
It wasn't too long before Baker nervously moved into the dark brush, reluctantly listening to the call of nature. Buck tossed the vine rope, the loop landing neatly around Baker's neck, and he dropped down from the branch on which he was perched. Baker was pulled upward, his feet kicking, his hands struggling to release the pressure from around his neck. Within moments his movements stopped.
Buck trotted through the darkened woods, his steps weary. He had found a place earlier that evening in which to rest, one in which he would easily be able to hear anything approaching. He dropped down to the ground, leaned up against a rock, and was almost immediately asleep.
When his eyes next opened, it was still dark out, but with that slight, pre-dawn gray filling the sky. He felt a heavy weight across his upper legs and shifted, his hands reaching out to push away what he assumed to be a large branch in his half-awake state. When the branch moved under his hand he was suddenly wide-awake and trying to move to his feet. His feet became tangled in the heavy mass of the largest snake he had ever seen.
It was easily twenty feet long and twelve inches thick. As Buck tried to move away, the snake curled around him, it's heavy muscles contracting and squeezing. Buck tripped and fell and the snake coiled around his waist. He managed to get the knife from his waistband as the snake continued to coil, squeezing tighter and tighter the more Buck struggled, moving around Buck's chest.
Buck knew he was about to die as the air was squeezed out of him. He felt the pressure against his ribcage, felt a bone crack as he raised his knife and plunging it downward into the snake's side and pulled at it, trying to slice the beast open. He plunged it in again and again as the creature's head came around. Buck struck yet again into the head area, the knife slipping off and entering the neck instead, where it broke off.
Buck continued to struggle. Just as he was about to black out from lack of oxygen, he felt the pressure ease and the snake release it's grip. It slithered off into the brush.
Buck struggled to draw a breath, his hand pressing gently against his battered ribcage. He pushed against the rock, trying to get to his feet, but his legs gave out and he tumbled to the ground, unconscious
Buck sat up painfully, his right arm holding his ribcage as he used his left arm for leverage. He studied the sky, trying to determine how long he had been unconscious. Judging from the position of the sun, it had been a couple of hours. He pushed against the rock at his back and stood on wobbly legs, forcing them to hold him upright. The weakness and numbness slowly disappeared.
As his head cleared, too, he remembered what had occurred. That couldn't have really been a snake! There wasn't a snake that could possibly be that large, or that powerful. He looked at the trail the creature had left, a slithering path of gore from the knife wounds Buck had inflicted. Buck moved slowly off in the opposite direction.
"We're going in aren't we?" Jimmy asked.
The rescue party sat on their horses in front of a large wooded area. A sign posted there read 'Private Property. Anyone who enters will be shot on sight.' And the tracks they had been following for so many days led right into the woods.
"Yep. We're going in," Teaspoon replied.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Jimmy said and kicked his horse forward. Each of the riders moved a hand a little closer to their gun, knowing that they had to be alert, and that their journey would probably end in a very short amount of time.
Buck was having a hard time covering his trail. He was hurting more than he would admit to himself, his feet were dragging and he stumbled frequently. He knew he was in trouble. If Brooks caught up to him he would be dead for sure. There was no way he could run far enough and fast enough to elude the man.
He found a stream around noon and drank his fill, then found a cool spot nearby, hidden amongst some bushes, in which to rest. From his resting spot he could watch the stream and the surrounding area. He dozed but woke just minutes later after hearing a noise from the trees above him.
He studied the trees and finally spotted a small, hairy, black animal hanging and swinging among the branches. By now, nothing surprised him. A second one joined the creature and they disappeared into the treetops.
Other noises reached his ears. Glancing at the stream he saw a tall deer like animal with horns stop to take a drink, then bound off. Buck gave up trying to rest and got back to his feet.
He had decided that first day to head in one direction, east, thinking that he would eventually find a way off of Brooks' land. He had strayed from that plan when he decided to follow Brooks and his men, but now he returned to it, anxious to get away so he could heal a little. Then he'd be back after Brooks.
Buck walked off to the east, hoping to put some distance under his feet.
Brooks knelt, studying the tracks before him. He had found Baker that morning hanging from a tree. Then he'd found where Buck had spent the night and tracked the remains of the boa constrictor. Doubling back, he followed the obvious trail Buck had left. He followed it carefully, feeling very suspicious because the trail was a little too obvious. He had seen the blood drops below the tree where the lion had attacked Buck, so he knew Buck was at least slightly injured. Having seen the boa, he figured Buck might be seriously injured. But there was always the possibility that the boy was laying a trap for him, and had planted sign.
Still, the trail here was fresh. At most he was two hours behind his prey, at best, only an hour.
Buck was getting tired. His ribcage ached and he was having some trouble breathing. And his leg where the large cat had scratched him felt hot and throbbed slightly. He was warm and dirty and he really just wanted to sleep for three days. But he kept moving. Judging from the sun, it was late afternoon, just about two hours until sunset. He told himself he would keep going until dusk, then find a place to spend the night. Hopefully he could find some berries and some water before then. The last time he had really eaten was when he was in the cage at Brooks' house.
He came up to a rocky outcropping and made his way around it, continuing toward the east. He had gone about twenty feet when a shot rang out and slivers of wood exploded from the tree trunk next to his head.
"You've lead me on a merry chase, boy. Turn around."
Buck turned slowly to face Brooks. The man stood in front of the outcropping, one rifle slung over his shoulder, another pointing right at Buck. Buck must have passed right by him.
Brooks took in Buck's ripped trouser leg and the dried blood there. He studied Buck's scratched face and watched as Buck held his ribcage tenderly. A smile split his face and a low chuckle rumbled from him.
"Yes. A merry little chase. But it's over now boy."
"Teaspoon? Was that a….?" Cody asked.
"Yep. It sure was. This way."
The riders all kicked their horses into a gallop, heading in the direction of the gunshot.
"So now what? You're just gonna shoot me? Doesn't seem like much of a challenge."
"I haven't entirely decided yet. To just shoot you would be, well, anticlimactic. I'm sure I can come up with something better." Brooks replied, his gun still pointing directly at Buck.
"You want to sit down and talk about it? I might have a few ideas."
"I bet you would. You certainly dispatched Mathews and Baker. They were good men. That didn't make me happy."
"Didn't seem like I had much choice in the matter."
"No, I suppose you didn't. I have to admit, I've really grown to like you. You're clever and intelligent, but a bit too mouthy at times."
"You've managed to allude me much longer than I would have ever given you credit for."
"But I still won. I've tracked you down and now you're mine."
"Will my head end up on the wall like the others? Or are you going to have all of me stuffed, like that bear? Maybe lay me out like a rug?" While Buck talked he saw some movement behind Brooks, just a rustling of bushes on the hill adjacent to the rocks. He studied the area carefully, looking at Brooks yet beyond him, wanting to keep an eye on both spots.
"You know, I haven't really thought that far ahead. I could see your head mounted on a plaque, hanging on the wall. That dark hair of yours would look good against the wallpaper."
"Well, I'm glad I can add to your décor." Buck caught a flash of tawny fur amongst the bushes, thought he heard a slight growl, but Brooks didn't seem to notice.
"You're very entertaining. But I've put off my business affairs long enough. Let's get this over with. What's it gonna be? Do you want to start running or do you want to try and attack me and have me shoot you then?"
"I actually prefer neither." Buck watched as the large cat emerged out onto the rock above Brooks' head. It was the same cat that had chased him up the tree and clawed at his leg. It still had made very little noise but was watching Brooks' movements below it.
"Well, it's going to be one or the other. I don't have any more time to waste, so I can't get anymore creative than that. Tell you what, you just do whatever feels right and I'll go along with it."
Buck's eyes were locked on the big cat with the long, fawn colored mane around its head. It was on its feet, approaching the edge of the rocks.
"Don't try to fool with me boy. I'm not falling for any tricks." Brooks' voice took on an edge of irritation.
Buck was still silent. His hand raised up, his finger pointing at the animal.
"Boy, start running or I'll shoot you right there. I don't have…" Brooks' words were cut off by a growl from the beast above him. Brooks turned as the animal leaped at him. The man tried to bring his gun up, but the animal knocked him to the ground before he could fire a shot.
Brooks screamed as the beast's claws tore at him. The animal's teeth sunk in to him and he struggled to get away from the creature's grip.
Buck turned and tried to run as fast as he could. Adrenaline pumped through him and he was able to ignore the pain, at least for now.
He broke through a small stand of trees and continued running. Buck could still hear Brooks screaming as the animal tore him apart. He ran across an open field, glancing over his shoulder as he went. He didn't see the man that positioned himself in front of him until he was just a few feet away.
Buck thought for sure that he must have been seeing things. He stopped in his tracks, then took two wobbly steps forward.
"Teaspoon, we gotta get out of here!" he managed to say before collapsing in the man's arms.
When Buck awoke next he was lying next to a fire, propped up slightly against a saddle so he could breath easier. Teaspoon and Ike sat nearby.
"Welcome back son." Teaspoon said as Ike moved over next to him to give him a drink. The water tasted better than anything he had ever tasted before.
Are you feeling all right? Ike signed.
"I'll be fine, buddy. Just a little sore is all."
The other riders slowly awoke from their bedrolls. They all sat up and greeted their friend.
"Where are we?" Buck asked as he tried to sit up. Even before Ike could stop him, he decided that it was a bad idea.
"Just off that private property."
"Station a guard. Please. Some of them could follow."
"Some of what, son?"
"The animals. There are all kinds of strange animals in there. It's not safe."
"You feel up to telling us what went on in there?"
"I was kidnapped by two men for their boss. He was a hunter."
"Was that who we heard screaming?"
"Yeah. He stocked these woods with all kinds of animals. Ones I've never seen before. He hunted them, but decided he wanted to hunt a human. That's why they grabbed me." Buck continued with his tale, capturing the attention of all the riders, describing the hunt and the different animals he had encountered. The others looked skeptical at his description of the huge snake that had wrapped itself around him, but became more and more mesmerized by the story as it went on.
"Let me get this all straight. He set you loose in the woods to hunt you down. You saw some sort of big orange cat, a deer with horns, and two hairy animals swinging in the trees. You were attacked by a large snake and a big tan cat, which also attacked the man who was hunting you." Teaspoon summarized.
"Sounds pretty crazy when you put it all together like that. But I swear, that's what happened."
"I believe you boy. I believe you. Now you need to get some rest. Ike and I will keep watch for a while. Jimmy, Kid, you have the second shift. Cody, you've got the last."
"Teaspoon, there's at least one person left up there. A cook. At the house."
"Okay. We'll go up there tomorrow. But for now get some rest."
"Hmmm hmm." Buck was already half way there.
They didn't move out until late morning. Teaspoon let Buck sleep as long as he needed, then spent some time wrapping bandages around his broken ribs and cleaning and dressing the scratches on his leg. Then they helped Buck mount up behind Ike and re-entered the woods.
They all rode with their guns out and ready, taking Buck's stories as truth. But all they saw were a few unusual birds and numerous tracks they couldn't identify.
They approached the house carefully, not sure how many people were truly there. But after a thorough search, they only found the cook and an elderly grounds-keeper who also tended the horses.
The boys helped them pack up their belongings and load them into a wagon. By this time it was late in the day. Teaspoon decided it would be safer to stay the night and leave the following morning. While Buck rested on a sofa the boys spent the evening looking the house over again, especially interested in the trophy room. Buck had no desire to see that room again. Teaspoon posted a guard at the top of the stairs and assigned everyone, including Brooks' employees, rooms on the second floor in which to sleep.
The next morning they saddled their horses. As they left the woods and rode past the Private Property sign, Buck pulled his horse up and studied the forest. Teaspoon stopped next to him.
"You okay son?"
Buck nodded, still watching the woods.
"I'll let the army know about the animals. They'll come and round them up."
Buck nodded again. With a final glance at the woods, he turned his horse and followed the others. Towards home.