Fall in the foothills of Denver showed itself with a smattering of red. Most of the trees were pine, but the occasional copse of elm was obvious with the turning of the season.
“You know where you’re going, right?” Vin teased from the passenger side of the black Ram truck.
“Yeah, I know where I’m going. It’s been awhile – just after Adam was born - but the cabin’s still there, I know.” Chris Larabee glanced in the rearview mirror and was satisfied to see empty road behind him. The turnoff from the highway was miles behind them at the bottom of the long valley. All that was left from this point on was open land and private hunting cabins. He offered a tight, lopsided grin. “You’ll love it. It’s decrepit, dark and there’s not a power pole or cell tower for miles.”
“Aw, now you're just teasin’ me,” Vin snorted. “Ya had me at primitive.”
Chris laughed as he steered around a long, sweeping turn that eked around the end of a deep valley. "Yeah, well, that description scared the rest of the team off."
"They just don't know how to have a good time, that's all." Vin spoke as he looked out the window. Chris could see contentment on Vin's face, reflected in the glass.
The only thing below was green and green with a smattering of red and orange, and a sun sitting low on the horizon. Pink and orange clouds embraced the beautiful display in their billowy arms as the sun prepared to set.
“Nice,” Vin breathed. “How come you never invited us up here before?”
“Timing,” Chris replied instantly. “After summer, before the heavy snow, and a period where I didn’t think you guys would shoot me. Everything aligned this year.”
Chuckling, Vin nodded. “Well, ya do tend to piss me off quite often.” He settled into the leather seat and folded his arms across his belly. “But I’m feelin’ pretty relaxed right now. Thanks, Chris.”
“You’re welcome.” Larabee kept his attention on the road ahead, still reluctant to verbalize the real reason why he hadn’t been up here for years. The last time he’d driven this road, Sarah was at his side and Adam was safe in a booster seat behind him. Halloween had just passed, and he’d taken his family into the mountains to enjoy the fall leaves. Since then, he’d been to hell and back. Only now was he strong enough to return, his best friend at his side, to enjoy the natural beauty. Well, that, and some rock climbing at Vin’s insistence.
“Too bad the guys couldn’t make it,” Vin said with a twinge of regret. “They would have had fun.”
“Right. Trying to keep up with a mountain goat like you and then listening to your taunts? Hardly fun, Vin.”
“Pah,” Vin breathed with a flick of a wrist. “Wussies, all of ‘em.” He twisted his head to smile at Chris. “’cept you, ‘a course.”
Chris chuckled, allowing the Texan to pull him from an impending dark mood. “Of course, because I’m the dark one and you’re the joyous light of the team.”
There was a short, quiet pause before they both busted up laughing.
Chris wiped his eye on the next turn and reacted before he realized what was going on - something darted across the road in front of them and Chris wrenched the wheel to the left to avoid it.
“Look out!” Vin yelled as he grabbed the dashboard.
“Hang on!” he barked as he fought for control. The truck twisted sideways looking for traction on the gravel shoulder, then spun around and dropped into a ditch.
The last thing Chris saw before blackness was a wall of tree trunks.
+ + + + + + +
“It was a dog.”
Vin’s voice tickled Chris’ brain and he forced his eyes open. His head throbbed. “What?” he asked.
“A dog. A dog ran across the road.”
Chris looked up and saw his friend squatting in the road. A black and white dog sat in front of him, its tail sweeping the roadway as Vin ducked and dodged the animal’s quick tongue.
Chris frowned. “Oh,” was all he said. Looking around, he realized he was still behind the wheel of the truck, which was at an odd angle.
“It’s in a ditch. Don’t think you can get it out without help,” Vin said, pointing at the front of the truck. He walked to the passenger side, dog at heel, and leaned in the window. “Since it’s nearly dark, I say leave it for the night since you’re off the roadway. There’s an empty cabin over there.”
“Cabin?” Chris felt like he was a step behind. He saw Vin frown at him.
“You okay, Cowboy? I know you hit your head, but you said you were fine.” Vin tipped his head and gave Chris a long look. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m good.” Actually feeling a little disjointed, Chris opted to keep that to himself for a bit and kicked open the driver door.
Vin pulled their sleeping bags and packs from the rear seat of the truck. “Well, I smell a storm comin’ so we best get movin’. Your stuff's on this side.” He indicated the location with his chin and then struck off up an overgrown, dirt road.
Chris used the truck for support as he walked around to his pack and bag, and paused before leaning down pick them up. His head throbbed and his vision swam, but after a few deep breaths, the view settled and he followed his friend.
The narrow road curved sharply and ended at a dark, wood cabin. It wasn’t very big, but had a solid front porch with a short flight of steps leading to the front door and a roof that probably didn’t leak much. Leaves pirouetted across the shingles as the wind gusted. Vin waited for him on the porch, the dog sitting contentedly beside him.
“So, is our friend joining us?” Chris nodded to the dog as he mounted the steps.
“Well, I figure it’s in exchange for almost hittin’ him.”
“Damn fool ran across the road. Not my fault.”
“You gonna talk about fault with a dog? Really?”
Chris shook his head, grinning, and wished the headache would fade away. “Valid point. Let’s see what’s in here.”
Vin pushed the door open with a hard shove and the dog bounded inside like he lived there. Chris took a moment to look around, dropping his pack and bag to the porch. From here, the road was hidden from view. The trees were thick, just a few feet between them, and circled the cabin all around, except for the break of the narrow, dirt road leading to the front porch. The fall leaves twisted and flickered in the faded sunlight with an occasional leaf breaking off and floating to the ground.
Between gusts, the breeze was light but Chris could smell the coming rain. He looked up and saw rolling black clouds starting to obliterate the sky.
“You staying long?”
The voice made Chris jump. He looked down and saw a uniformed Deputy Sheriff standing in the driveway. The man was tall and thin, and his hook of a nose brought forth Ichabod Crane’s name to Chris’ mind. How he got there so quietly made Chris frown.
“Uh, no. We got stuck in the ditch and decided to wait out the storm.” Chris descended the stairs and held out his hand. “I’m Chris Larabee. The cabin we rented is a few miles up the road, but it we thought it was safer to stay put.”
“Deputy Bannon,” the rail of a man said, rolling one eye in Chris’ direction and ignoring Chris’ hand. “’We’, you say?”
“Yeah.” Chris dropped his hand and stopped a few feet from the Deputy. “Vin’s inside. He’s befriended a dog.” He blamed his headache for his talkativeness.
“Dog?” The Deputy looked at the cabin again. “Black and white fella?”
“Yeah. We almost hit him in the road. You know who he belongs to?”
Bannon stared at the house for a few seconds before turning to go. “He just lives up the way a bit. He’ll take care of ya.” He then walked away, turning his head to speak over his shoulder as he walked. “Keep dry. I’ll check on y’all in the morning.”
“Sure.” Chris, puzzled, watched him go. “Take care us?”
“Hey, Chris! Bring some wood in, will ya? There’s a fireplace.” Vin stood in the doorway, grinning. Chris could see the light form of the dog behind him.
Vin grabbed Chris' things from the porch and disappeared inside just as Chris heard the first roll of thunder. With that encouragement, he quickly finished his chore.
Loaded down with an armload of short logs, Chris entered the house and looked around. It seemed colder than it was outside, so she dumped the wood and worked on getting a fire going. He could hear Vin rattling their small fry pan and the hiss of the small, propane backpacking stove somewhere out of sight.
Chris set the wood and followed the noise, passing through a rough, wood arch to enter the kitchen area. “How’s it going?”
“Freeze dried beef stroganoff. Dinner of the Gods,” Vin said as he set the pan of water to boil and picked up a plastic bag of food. “Tasty! Here, have a beer. I grabbed a few from the cooler in the truck. We can get more later.”
He tossed Chris a can. Chris opened it as he surveyed the small kitchen. The doorway to the fireplace and living room was narrow, as was the kitchen. There was a small, dirty window over a one-hole sink and rain started to tattoo the glass as Chris looked at it.
“Small place,” he noted. There was another door on the far side and Chris opened it, finding several boxes and a narrow cot. The dust was thicker in there and it smelled musty. “Must be a hunting cabin.”
“It doesn’t look like the bedroom’s used much,” Vin said with a glance at to one side. Chris hadn’t noticed the dog curled on the floor to one side of the bedroom door, his eyes busy looking from Vin to Chris, and then to the sink area.
Curious, Chris looked at the sink again and noticed a glass jar tucked back in the corner. A mummified flower protruded from it, amazingly intact but black with age. “Looks like we got a table decoration,” he teased, walking to the sink and dragging the glass into the open. “Too bad we ain’t got a table.”
There was a flash of lightning and a sudden downpour of rain that pounded the roof and kitchen window. Vin laughed, gave the pot a stir, and came over to the dried flower. “Looks like it used to be red,” he noted as he reached over and grabbed the stem between his finger tips. “Ouch!” He dropped the flower on the counter. “It’s still got thorns, too.”
Vin sucked his fingers and glared at the remains of the flower. Chris heard a shuffling noise and turned to find the dog on his feet, staring at Vin, who muttered a curse and nursed his finger. A bright red drop of blood beaded at the small puncture wound and Vin sucked on it again.
Something about the dog’s attitude unnerved Chris. “You okay?” He asked, glancing between the dog and this friend.
Vin snorted. “Just a thorn. It’s not like I need stitches or anything.” He returned to the small cooking pot, and the dog followed his every move. When Vin dished up the goods into their bowls, the dog moved forward sat at his feet.
“Hang on a sec, Pard. I’ll let ya lick the pot.”
“Ew,” Chris said, frowning, as he picked up his bowl. “Ya still gotta wash it, you know.”
“Hey, I cooked. You wash.”
“Since when is boiling water, cooking?”
“Since now. Shut up and eat.” Vin put the pan on the floor and grabbed his bowl. The dog's eyes remained on Vin's face. "Go on," Vin urged, pointing at the bowl. "It ain't that bad." After a moment, the dog stepped up and dipped his nose into the pot.
The animal's reluctance seemed odd to Chris, but when he and Vin moved to the living room, the sound of the pot scraping on the floor joined the pattering of the rain. The two men spread open their bags and sat on them to eat with Chris taking a short break to enliven the fire.
They ate in their usual comfortable silence, listening to the fire pop and the rain's patter. Chris felt his stress melt away along with the persistent headache. There was a ticka-tacka of dog toenails on the bare, wooden floor as the spotted dog joined them and Chris figured he'd better rinse the dishes and get them off the floor.
Vin was stretched out on top of his sleeping bag looking as drowsy as Chris felt. When he stood and retrieved Vin's bowl, his friend didn't move or comment. His eyes flagged half-mast. Chris smirked, annoyed by the heavy tiredness that seemed to fog his thoughts and forced himself to complete the task of rinsing off the dishes. Thankfully, the sink faucet not only worked, but issued clear water. Chris thanked the powers that be for that little miracle and dragged his feet back into the living room.
Vin's eyes were now shut and the dog stretched out next to him, licking Vin's hand where is rested alongside his torso. Chris shook his head in amusement.
"Hey," he said, nudging Vin with his toe. "Take off your boots and get in your bag."
Chris walked around Vin and dropped on top of his bag to do the same thing. After that he shucked off his jeans and folded them to use as a pillow, tucking his hand gun under the garment.
Vin hadn't moved.
"Vin," Chris said a little louder. "Hey, wake up." He reached over and shook Vin's shoulder and wondered at the heat he felt through his friend's flannel shirt. "Vin?"
Chris shuffled over on his knees and felt Vin's forehead. It was hot and dry. His eyes flicked to the licking dog and Chris realized the animal licked the spot where the flower pricked Vin's finger. He reached across and lifted Vin's hand, instantly alarmed by the puffy redness of the injured finger.
Just then, a blast of thunder shook the walls. "Shit!" Chris yelped, hunching his shoulders as the rain intensified enough to deafen him. Vin, however, didn't twitch. "Well, it looks like we're here for the night at least," Chris muttered. Vin's fever didn't seem too high, but his lethargy bothered Chris.
Chris removed Vin's boots and managed to get him in his sleeping bag, finally rousing his friend enough help with the endeavor. Once he was settled, the dog turned two tight circles and laid down on the edge of Vin's bag. After that, Chris stoked the fire and crawled into his own bag. Sleep crashed down within moments to the sound of the growing tempest outside.
+ + + + + + +
A loud bang jerked Chris from sleep. He sat up with a gasp, disoriented by the dark, the unfamiliar surroundings and the pounding rain on the roof. Heart racing with and adrenalin shot, it took a moment for him to backtrack in his mind to figure out what woke him, and he remembered the earlier visit by Deputy Bannon.
"Must be checkin' on us," Chris thought as he raked his hair with his fingers and untangled himself from his sleeping bag. Now that he was awake, he could smell the dampness in the room. Like the Deputy predicted, the roof must be leaking somewhere. He dug out his gun from under the folder shirt doubling as a pillow.
He pushed to his feet and stumbled to the door, rubbing his arms with his free hand in an effort to ward off the chill of the room. Thunder rumbled. Chris glanced over at Vin, worried that he slept so soundly. The dog, snuggled up to Vin's side, watched Chris with his muzzle between his paws, eyes shining in the dark. The intent stare at the door caused a tingle up Chris' spine.
"Damn dog," Chris muttered when he reached the door. A trio of bangs on the door refocused his attention. "Christ, hang on a sec," he snapped.
The wet must have swelled the wood because it took some wiggle and work to get the door separated from the frame and the rusted doorknob fought him as if someone held it from the other side. Finally, he jerked the door open and billow of damp air rolled over him.
No one was there. The rain fell at an oblique angle from the oddly warm wind, drenching most of the run-down porch except for the section in front of the door. It was generally dry, save for the trail of muddy boot prints leading from the stairs to the door. Two parallel prints, still wet and fresh, stopped with the toes at the threshold.
Chris frowned. There were no prints leading away from the door.
He glanced to either side and then peered into the darkness. "Bannon?" he called once, looking for a car or a flashlight or any sign of motion. He only heard the wail of the wind through the trees and the patter of hard rain. After a minute of listening, Chris closed the door, jamming it into the frame with a woody squeak.
Turning around, he wiped the dampness from his face and jerked to a stop when he saw that the dog now stood, legs braced wide, staring intently at the door with perked ears. Chris could see that the animal was not staring at him, but at a point beyond where he stood. The nape of Chris' neck tingled and his grip tightened on his gun while he quietly stood and listened, trying to pick out anything other than the sounds of the storm.
Chris dropped his chin and tipped his head slightly aside, responding to the sudden coolness that prickled his left arm into gooseflesh. A rush of wind rattled the window with hammering rain. In the corner of his left eye, something dark moved. The dog growled softly.
The suddenness of Vin's voice made Chris hiss. He quickly turned to his left, visually searching the shadows.
Chris straightened and sighed, then rolled his shoulders and he headed back to the sleeping area. The fire in the hearth was reduced to glowing embers and he altered his path to throw on more logs. "Though I heard somethin'," he mumbled. "I must have dreamed it." He grabbed a chunk of wood and looked toward Vin, now sitting up as the dog happily nuzzled his hair. The dog's tail swept back and forth like a flag as he checked every part of Vin's head.
Vin snorted and pushed the dog away. It plopped down at Vin's hip with a contented sigh, nose on paws. "Bed hog," Vin accused, rubbing his eye and yawning. "Nothin' out there?"
"Nah. Thought it might be Bannon checkin' on us."
"Deputy Bannon. They guy I saw earlier. I think you were inside."
Vin's forehead wrinkled in thought. "Oh." Vin laid back down and pulled his bag up to his chin and in a voice heavy with sleep, asked, "What time is it?"
Chris sat on the raised hearth, put his gun down next to his thigh and dropped the log in the embers, then poked at it with a stick, starting a tiny flame. "I think is around midnight. How are you feeling?"
Vin's reply was heavy with sleep and barely audible. "Hot. Weird dreams."
"How's the finger?' He stirred the ashes a little, encouraging the flame while he considered the boot prints on the porch. When Vin didn't answer, he glanced up and sat that he was already asleep.
A feeling that they weren't alone tickled Chris' nerves. He mentally scolded himself after looking around the room and concentrated on the fire. The flame multiplied and looked as if it would sustain itself, so Chris checked on Vin again, and was relieved when he didn't feel any hotter. The dog had shifted so his head rested on Vin's chest and he had a clear view of Chris. Chris chuffed. "Well aren't you cozy."
The dog snuggled in impossibly closer and sighed, rolling his eyes to take in the room before setting them back on to Chris.
Chris shook his head and moved a little closer to the fire, sitting on the hearth and placing his gun in his lap while he warmed his back. He looked around the room, listening to the rain and wind. The place was surprisingly intact, with no roof leaks overhead and a minimum of draft. Chris wondered at the reasons why this place was in the shape it was; true, it was empty, generally unkempt and had its share of cobwebs and dust, but all the windows were intact, there had been wood stacked outside and there didn't appear to be any rodents running around. If this place were closer to Denver, it would have been scarred by vandals and a haven for the homeless.
It was logical that it looked the way it did, being up in the hills, yet something about the place set Chris' teeth on edge.
He didn't think he wouldn't get any more sleep tonight.
He considered the fire for a while until the howl of the wind abated and all Chris could hear was the rhythm of the rain and Vin's even breath. The dog's eyes were closed as he slept with his muzzle still on Vin's chest. Chris started to grin, but it was broken off by a big yawn. He stood and added one more log to the fire before grabbing his gun and finally succumbing to the call of his sleeping bag.
Chris crawled into the down cocoon and tucked the gun under his makeshift pillow, then lay on his back and rested his hands on his chest. Warmth from the downy bag warmed his feet and legs, chasing away the stubborn chill. The fire popped and the rain lessened, and Chris felt his eyelids finally grow heavy as his chest rose and fell with his gentle breathing.
Then he heard whispers. Or was it the rain? Stuck in between slumber and wakefulness, Chris' mind tried to separate the sounds – near words spoken at an audible threshold sounded more like the elements, but, instinctually, Chris knew better.
"Wake up!" his brain ordered, and in his mind's eye, he saw the room he and Vin occupied. He saw their forms lying on the floor, asleep, with dancing orange light from the fire throwing black shadows over them. Beyond the hearth, lacy white forms floated in the doorway to the kitchen, bobbing like floating corks. Slowly, they spilled into the room, skating sideways from the hearth to give it a wide berth.
The whispers multiplied. The odd forms undulated like clumped fog and took on a vaguely human shapes and stayed away from the yellow light, keeping to the shadows off the wall. Chris counted six of them against the wall near Vin, separated from him by the fire's light on the floor.
"Vin!" Chris thought he called as he fought the strange paralysis of his body. "Vin!"
His friend did not respond and instead remained deeply asleep; something even Chris' muddled brain knew was odd. But there was something else – something missing that he couldn't quite grasp. Frozen, he watched the diaphanous figures solidifying, yet they still undulated like they floated on water. Six figures, huddled together, with black holes for eyes and every one focused on Vin.
The barrier of golden firelight narrowed. The figures drew closer, crowding the edge, whispering hungrily.
Chris fought the paralyzing grip of his unusual sleep, his feelings shifting from fear to desperate anger and suddenly, he was awake with a gasp as he bolted to a sit.
The room was dark and the fire dead, and there were no ghostly forms floating by Vin. The wind shrieked and howled, and Chris heard a tree branch crack as something hit the ground outside. The floor shuddered and a window shattered somewhere out of sight. A pulse of cold air washed through the room. Chris fumbled for his gun and just had it in his grip when he instantly froze from a sound that turned his gut to ice.
With every instinct telling him to run, Chris, instead, held his ground and slowly turned his head to pinpoint the source of the primal noise, blinking in the darkness of the very dead fire.
The dog was on his feet, growling. The animal had placed his legs on either side of Vin's still form, sheltering him with its body. Chris could see by the inky outline that the dog's hackles were completely raised from shoulders to rump, its tail stiff at attention and its head level with it shoulders.
The growl hitched as the dog took a breath and licked its lips. Its teeth chattered a second and the growl intensified as the dog's body dropped a little lower when it flexed its legs for attack. Chris could see shiny white teeth framed by curled, drooling lips.
The dog's entire attention was on the kitchen entryway.
Slowly and carefully, Chris brought his gun around and rolled to his knees, inching backward to get out of the bag. He saw something move in the entryway, sideways, as if re-positioning. The dog snarled and snapped, shifting its front paws after feigning a charge.
Once set firmly on his knees behind the dog, Chris steadied his gun with a two-handed grip and stole a glance at his friend.
"Vin!" he whispered. "Vin!"
The dog erupted into vicious barking and danced in place. There was an eerie wail from the kitchen and Chris saw dark motion in the corner of his eye. He snapped his attention back to the entryway and tightened his grip.
"WAKE UP!" he yelled.
The wail increased, erasing all of the storm's fury as it pierced Chris' ears. He winced, and a white fog suddenly billowed from the walls just as the dog leaped, barking furiously as it attacked. Through the fog, Chris saw the animal throw itself on an inky black amoeba rising from the entryway, and felt the walls tremble with the collision.
Chris shot at the blackness through the fog as the dog fought the thing, growling and tearing in the throes of battle. The thing's shriek collided with the dog's snarls, chilling Chris to the bone as he emptied his clip.
"VIN!" he screamed as the dog howled in pain.
And then the fog whirled crazily and obliterated his sight.
+ + + + + + +
He clearly heard his name along with a steady, annoying beep.
Vin. It was Vin's voice. He must have escaped . . . escaped? His forehead wrinkled in thought and pain erupted in his head. "Awww . . . shit," he hissed.
"I hope not." Vin's voice was teasing. "I ain't got a bedpan."
Huh? Chris forced his eyes open and saw the outline of his friend's head hovering in front of him. "Vin?"
"Well, at least ya ain't got amnesia."
Further confused, Chris worked to sit up.
"Hold on. Allow me."
He felt the bed shake and his torso rise. He rolled his eyes around, avoiding any head movement. "Hospital?" he croaked.
"'fraid so, Pard. Ya ran into a tree."
Now that he was sitting up, Chris surveyed the room. "Tree?"
Vin chuckled. "Yeah, a tree. You swerved to miss a dog. You've been out for nearly a day."
The memory of the cabin was fading fast. "There was a dog. And a Deputy."
"Well, yeah. At the crash." Vin tipped his head and patted Chris' shoulder. "Now that you're awake, they'll boot you outta here, I'm sure."
Chris turned his attention to Vin. "You're okay?"
"Yup, I'm fine. Not a scratch."
"No, I mean, your finger? The dog?"
Vin looked at him as if considering his sanity. "My finger?" He held up his hands, fingers spread wide, and looked at them. "Fine. The dog ran away. You missed 'im."
Chris blinked at him, noting Vin's odd expression. It had all been a dream. "Oh. Okay."
"You should be home in time for the Alien film fest," Vin teased. "Since no trick or treaters make it to your place, we gotta get our Halloween scare somewhere."
"No," Chris replied quickly, relieved that everything was as it should be. "No, we don't. Now get me out of here."
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