The hunt was into its third day. Nestled in an arboreal maze at the foot of a hill, they made their camp for the night. There were three of them. Their number had dwindled from the eight that began the expedition; Husky, Frederick and Philips had succumbed to the searing heat during the second day and retreated back into town. Then there was Sanz. He had departed even earlier, having proclaimed his dislike for the company he was keeping. With him, he had taken the group’s only deck of cards and the portable radio. Morale was low. Colin was also missing, but this had gone largely unnoticed until after they had all pitched their tents in a small clearing.
In his absence, Colin’s rifle stood attendant, propped against the tree next to where his tent was erected. The rest of the group had elected to search for him at dawn. There would be no wandering the woodland at night. They had come to fear their quarry. By reputation, they knew they were searching for a dangerous beast. In hushed tones, rumours ricocheted around town of what fate could have befallen the half-dozen ramblers who made for these hills, seemingly never to return. It was these disappearances that had prompted the employment of the group to investigate and, if possible, bring to a permanent end whatever terror lurked in these woods. But whatever it was, it was conspicuous by the absence of clues to its origin.
‘Did the whelp say where he was going?’ asked Steve as he stoked the campfire he’d created.
‘Who do you mean?’ queried Wilson.
‘He means Colin,’ said a third man, Zack, who was busy setting up snare traps around the perimeter of their encampment.
‘He left without a word,’ said Wilson polishing his rifle. ‘Looks like he left his gun here, too.’
Steve plunged a stake deep into the fire and on rising to his feet, kicked at the dusty turf in anger.
‘Well that’s just fucking great!’ said Steve. ‘What am I supposed to tell his father?’
‘That he won’t be collecting his share of the bounty,’ uttered Zack coldly.
‘Is that all you care about: money?’ Wilson asked; his furrowed brow knitted with a look of disgust.
Zack laughed to himself as he finished preparing the last trap. He walked over to Wilson and pulling out a hipflask from his trouser-pocket, offered him a drink. Wilson shook his head. Zack took several deep swigs of bourbon before tossing the flask unceremoniously in Steve’s direction.
‘What else is there but money, old man?’
Wilson offered no reply. Zack took a seat beside him.
‘The way I see it,’ he continued, ‘we all came into this thing for a reason: there ain’t nothing left in this town for us; no work, no money, no future. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if all those who went missing just got on a train and went far, far away. There’s no roots here ‘cept those tangled in rust.’
Wilson looked hard at Zack with doleful eyes that shone like dimming lanterns.
‘You might say that, sir,’ retorted Wilson. ‘But my daughter and her little girl vanished in these woods, and I’m telling you, they didn’t get on any train.’
Steve, rocking on his heels, cradled the hipflask close to his lips as he played audience to this exchange. His mind was now fraught with concern for Colin. Nobody had wanted him there. He was young, only seventeen. His dad, a family friend, had asked Steve to take him along: “It’ll do him good. There’ll be nothing waiting for the kid here.” Steve had tried not to get too friendly with Colin. The boy often lagged behind the others as they reconnoitred the area. He was quiet and seemed enchanted by the wood; gazing in awe at the trees and elks that coursed majestically through them. Steve recalled how, on the first day, the boy had been close to tears when Zack threatened to shoot one down. He was a burden and now he was lost.
‘You should hear me out, old man,’ said Zack raising his voice. ‘I’ll wager your cut against my cut that there ain’t nothing in these woods or on these hills that’s causing people to go missing. In times of crisis people need a pariah. Am I wrong?’
‘Go on,’ said Wilson, intrigued.
‘Everyone is pissed off, right? They’re all running from something. If it ain’t bills or debts, then maybe it’s the sheer drabness of the day to day. So, rather than putting shit right, people would rather find someone or something to blame. What better in this case than a mythical beast that goes round feasting on the blood of wandering townsfolk? It’s a myth, mark my words.’
‘So, if you’re here for a bounty that isn’t even here, why are you here?’
Zack, for once, was lost for words. Steve looked up at the night sky; it was freckled with stars, but as he looked north toward the hill, it segued into the cosmic fog of the aurora borealis. A smile patterned across his face.
‘What do you think of it all, Steve? Wilson asked.
‘I think I know where Colin went,’ said Steve. ‘Follow me. Leave your guns.’
‘You’re joking!’ cried Zack. ‘We don’t know what’s up there!’
Wilson laughed out loud. Zack, recalling the conviction with which he debunked the likelihood of the man-eating terror, sheepishly nodded his head and left his gun on the ground. Steve began his assent up the hill. Wilson and Zack ambled behind him.
They had not far to go. The moon had illuminated their narrow path through a phalanx of trees. As they reached the summit, they saw the path open up. From a distance, he made out a darkened figure against the light of the moon. As he reached the summit, he saw Colin, his arms stretched out to embrace the sky. A little further ahead, Steve discerned six other figures, silhouetted by the glow of a nearby fire. They all gazed toward the sky. Steve stood next to Colin. They shared no words. All was silent save for the sound of a light breeze as it whistled melodically through the trees. Wilson and Zack joined them. They gazed in unison at the splendour of the aurora; a diffuse glow of green and red adorning the northern sky as far as the eye could see. They had never seen the like. In their travails, the hunters had gone the way of the ramblers: the quarry of nature, ensnared by a beauty of the world hitherto unimagined. It would be a while before they were seen again.