“Now you know how this works, right?” he said into my ear. I had to ignore the heat his breath was generating, the way it tickled down my neck and back. I had to. “You pull the trigger and the hammer comes down. The piece of flint strikes against the pan. There’s a spark. It ignites the powder in the pan, and in turn the powder in the gun. The bullet has nowhere to go but out.” His mouth came closer to my ear. “Right at your target,” he added in a gravelly voice.
I suddenly became acutely aware that he had ever so subtly pressed himself up against me until we were almost in an embrace. I didn’t want to say anything—and I didn’t want him to move. There was something about the way his rock hard, strong body was encompassing mine that made me feel more combustible than the rifle in my hands.
At the same time, these feelings inside my body and inside my heart were filling me with confusion and fear. I needed to concentrate. I needed to survive.
I don’t know how I found my voice, but I did. It was quiet and shaky. “Do I need to know how to load it?”
“Darlin’,” he said. “I can load a muzzleloader faster than anyone I know, and I still don’t think it’s going to be enough when the time comes.”
“If the time comes,” I corrected him.
His voice lowered. “You know it is coming. You know we’re not getting out of here without a fight. These mountains, those monsters, they won’t let us go so easily. It’s calm right now, and right now is where this moment will stay.”
“Like the storm clouds on the mountains.”
“Just like. They’ll come down soon and sweep away that sweet sunshine just as the monsters will come out of the trees at some point and try and sweep us away. Only difference is we can’t change the weather, but we can change our survival. We can’t shoot the clouds, but we can blast a damn bullet through one of their heads.”
His grip tightened around my wrists. “This is the moment. We need to take it.” His breath at my ear and my own breathing seemed to match, to build. Heat flared at my back. There was no cold, there was no chill. Just him. Just heat. “Aim at that first tree. Pull the trigger.”
The air exploded around us, and my hands felt like they were being ripped apart in a black cloud of powder. The force pushed me back into Jake, who held on and kept me steady, kept the rifle from dropping out of my hands.
“My word!” I exclaimed, trying to straighten up.
“It’s got a kick,” Jake said as he took the rifle from my hands.
I peered through the smoke that was hanging around in the cold air. “Did I hit the tree?”
He laughed. “No, you sure did not.”
I grimaced, suddenly defensive. “I wasn’t expecting that. You make it look so easy.”
“I make a lot of things look easy,” he said as he pulled the horn of powder from his holster. “But the secret is practice. You do something and you do it enough, you’ll be good at it. Even if you haven’t done it in a while, you’ll pick right up where you left off.” There was an almost velvety quality to his voice as he tapped the powder down the muzzle of the gun. “Everyone’s first time tends to be…awkward. The second time is always less painful. You may even enjoy it.”
I frowned at his tone, but he continued to load it and pointed out what he was doing. “Now remember,” he said, staring me square in the face, his dark eyes determined. “Gunpowder is highly combustible. The slightest spark, the slightest anything will set it off. Treat it with respect. Never look down the barrel. Never hold it near your face. You understand?”
I nodded quickly. I was still shaken from the first shot. He didn’t need to scare me twice.
“Now, I reckon you should get us our dinner.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “I beg your pardon, but I can’t shoot anything. You saw what I just did.”
“You took a good piece out of the air. That’s still something.”
“Eve,” he said back and put the rifle in my hands. “Trust me. You’ll do just fine.”
“But I didn’t hit the tree and that wasn’t even a moving target.”
“I trust in you,” he said in a measured voice. “You will do just fine. Come on, let’s go get us something to eat.”
He steered me around so we were heading back the way we came. As we walked, I kept taking in the ground, watching for the prints of jackrabbits. We were quite high up in the mountains so I wasn’t sure if they would be around, but sure enough I saw some marks and droppings as we went.
As cute as I thought rabbits were, I’d grown up living off the land and had no problems eating them as food. I just didn’t think I’d be able to shoot one, and with each shot I would take, we would use precious gunpowder. I don’t know why Jake had faith in me to hit it, but he did. He did even if I didn’t.
He did, and he was one of the few people left alive that felt that way.
The jackrabbit looked as if it had veered off into the forest, so I automatically headed that way with Jack right behind me.
“You know something?” he said. “You ain’t that bad of a tracker.”
I scoffed. “It ain’t that hard when you’re following rabbit droppings on snow.”
“I mean it though. I’m glad you’ll be able to fend for yourself out here should anything happen.”
I shot him a worried glance over my shoulder. “That’s not exactly positive talk there.”
He smiled kindly, the tanned skin around his eyes crinkling. “I’m just being realistic. I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, but we both know the possibilities are there. With your gun and your tracking, you can find yourself all the way back home.”
“I’d rather not go it alone,” I murmured.
“As do I. And I give you my word I will do whatever I can to protect you while I can.”
“And I’ll protect you.” Even though we were still walking through the forest, my pace had slowed while that warm, intangible feeling came back to dance with me.
He didn’t say anything for a moment. The only sound was the soft crunching of snow beneath our boots.
He cleared his throat. “Not sure if I’m worth protecting, Pine Nut. First chance you get, you’re getting out of here. Take the gold and start a new life.”
“Is that what your plans are?”
“They were,” he said thoughtfully. Another pause. “Things change. Now my plans are keeping you alive and getting you back home.”
“And where will you go?”
“If I’m lucky, anywhere my heart desires.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that but it didn’t matter. A faint sound on the forest floor brought my senses away from my swirling heart all the way to my limbs. I froze as Jake did the same. I concentrated and could hear the delicate thumps continue to our left.
Without looking behind me at Jake, I raised the rifle up and aimed it low to the ground and right through a line of trees. If I was right, a rabbit would come bounding through at any moment and I would have to be quick.
I waited with my breath in my mouth, afraid to let go of it. Any minute now.
I put my finger on the trigger and prepared for the kickback.
The foul stench of death filled the air, seeping into my nose, my skin, my pores, and every single hair on my body stood on end.
The rabbit bounded past.
I didn’t shoot.
I was already turning around and looking at Jake with fearful eyes as he growled, “Run!” under his breath.
We took off through the forest, Jake careful to keep me in front of him as we ran. I hadn’t seen the monster but I knew it had been there, somewhere. It could have been in the trees above us, in the bushes below, behind boulders. It could have been anywhere, watching us, chasing us, wanting us, because all I could smell was that terrible odor, the one that made me want to both vomit and cry with fear.
It was enough to let me know it was there. Like Jake had said, our moment was over. Things were changing.
We ran all the way back to the cabin, and it was only as we entered the open, skirting around the frozen edge of Donner Lake, that I dared to look behind us.
There was nothing there, not that I could see, but the smell, I just couldn’t get it out of my brain.
We burst into the cabin, sweating and breathless. The silence was thick and there was another smell. Something cooking.
“Tim?” Jake yelled, and we both peered around the corner at the fire where Isaac was sitting in his long johns and stirring something in the giant pot. “Where’s Tim?” he asked Isaac.
“He’s gone,” Isaac said calmly. He eyed us. “Is something the matter?”
Jake sneered at him in disgust. “Yeah, Isaac, something is the matter. We’re getting the hell out of here. Where’s Tim?”
“I told you,” he said, looking back to the pot. “He’s gone.”
“What are you eating?” Jake asked, peering over at the pot. “Tim said there was no more food left.”
“I improvised,” Isaac said. “Tim isn’t as resourceful as I am.”
Jake patted the gun in my hand and whispered, “Keep an eye on him.” He turned and ran out of the cabin, yelling for Tim.
I stared at Isaac and he stared right back at me, his eyes glinting coldly despite the fire’s warm glow.
“You’re a pretty girl, you know that,” he said.
I pressed my lips together in a hard line and waited for Tim to come back. Isaac was crazy; I couldn’t converse with a madman.
He dipped his spoon into the stew and ate a few bites. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sat back in his chair. “I never was a good cook like Jake was. I’ve been eating this and eating this and it just don’t taste right. It’s hard to make do when all you have is a pinch of pepper.” He looked to me. “I’d offer you a taste, but I’m afraid I’d no longer have an advantage.”
I had to ask. “An advantage?”
He nodded slowly. “You’re weak. I’m strong. It’s how I’ll win.”
My throat felt thick. Oh, why wasn’t Jake coming back? “Win what?”
“Have you ever heard of selective breeding?”
“No,” I answered cautiously, hoping he wouldn’t indulge me.
“It’s the theory that if you only breed—create—strong animals, they will only create stronger animals, and in the end, only the strong survive. They have the advantage.” He smiled absently, clearly suffering from dementia, and looked back at his stew. He stirred his spoon around in it until food from the bottom surfaced at the top.
Within the thick, brown liquid I saw an odd white shape.
An egg? I thought to myself. Where on earth would he get an egg?
Only it wasn’t an egg.
It looked at me.
Isaac scooped it up in his spoon.
And it looked at me.
“I win,” Isaac said before he shoved the eyeball in his mouth.
And all at once it hit me. The smell of death that wouldn’t leave my nostrils wasn’t an after effect. It was here in the cabin with me. Death was all around me.
Unable to look away, I noticed another eyeball in the stew and what looked to be a toe.
Tim was in the stew.
Isaac was a monster.
Isaac had the advantage.
I opened my mouth to scream when I should have raised my gun and fired. The timing cost me.
Suddenly Isaac was at my side, and he backhanded me so hard I flew back in a sea of stars and clouds.
“Do you see now?” he bellowed.
I tried to get up from the floor, I tried to get the gun, but Isaac was at me, stepping on my wrist and about to break it. I stared up at him through the wild hair in my face, everything moving and dizzying. This wasn’t real. Not now.
“Do you see how you’ll lose?” he continued, his voice seething. “And I will win. And others like me will win until we consume the entire human race. This pathetic human race. We will be apart. We will be separate. We will live forever. We will be unstoppable.”
“I reckon I can stop you,” came Jake’s voice. Hard and steady as always.
In the nick of time, as always.
Isaac whirled around to face Jake who was standing in the doorway with a revolver pointed at him. I yelped in pain as he took his foot off me. I tried to scoot away, my throbbing wrist in my hand, until I was backed up against the wall. I eyed the rifle which I couldn’t get to without Isaac noticing.
“McGraw,” Isaac said. “You were the best shot, the best man. I brought you because I thought your morals could easily be bent. Everyone’s heard the rumors about you, that you’re a killer with no heart and no soul. You cut the necks of puppies and rape the finest women.” I widened my eyes at that and looked to Jake. He was staring daggers at Isaac, but he wasn’t moving and he wasn’t reacting. He was keeping as still as possible, his gun trained on him.
Isaac continued, “And yet you looked at me and Hank yesterday as if we were the scourge of the earth. That disappointed me. How strong you could have become if you chose this eternal life.”
“It’s not eternal,” Jake said.
He pulled the trigger and the bullet soared through Isaac’s head. It never came out the other side.
Despite everything, I expected Isaac to fall down, to crumple, to die. But he just stood there, his back to me, and started laughing. He was shot in the head, in the face, and he was laughing.
Chills ran down my spine. The same chills gripped my chest with an iron fist the moment Isaac turned his head and stared down at me. Half of his face was gone, his eyeball blasted into his skull leaving a dark red and black hole of bone, brain, and blood. It was so disgustingly gory it didn’t even seem real. How could it?