Critter, Part 1

John Deacon killed the engine and stepped out of his pick-up, his boots rasping against the gravel that surrounded the EZ Pit Stop they had parked behind. He leaned on the open door and studied the woods his high beams were currently trained on. A thin barrier of shrubs and weeds that glittered with broken bottles and candy wrappers gave way to moss covered trees and ferns that Deacon couldn’t identify. Something small scuttled away into darkness. Above them, a bat cried out for its meal. A breeze picked up and a chorus of rustling made an unimaginative serenade. Chirps, coos, hoots, katydids and katydidn’ts played melody. It was, in short, like every other wood he had ever walked by.

To his right, Jimmy Ginn belched as he climbed out the passenger side.

“Sounds like normal to me,” Deacon said.

“Because you’ve been checking it out for all of four seconds,” Jimmy Ginn said. He closed his door and stood next to the hood.

“If they’re going to call it the Devil’s Woods, it should be ominous somehow. At least creepy. This is just…normal.”

“What do you know about backwoods, city boy?” he asked.

Deacon knew he was a better hunter than Jimmy Ginn (ten years older and three years more experience said he better be), but he envied the mystery that he and the others maintained. It seemed that a hunter was either a complete puzzle or an open book. Deacon was the latter. Everybody knew the details of Deacon’s life – born and raised in Atlanta, football coach at his old high school, spurred to hunting after the deaths of his downstairs neighbors at the hands of playful spirits, a deadly misnomer considering they were anything but. They knew it all because he hadn’t thought to keep it a secret and now everybody could and did use it against him. Mocking him for growing up in a city wasn’t the worst that could happen, but it was still a pain in the ass.

“I think we should hold off,” Deacon said.

“What? Why?” he asked, leaning against the hood, his voice echoing slightly against the stucco wall behind him. “You were all pistol waving ready ten minutes ago.”

“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “what are we going on here? The word of a few drunks? They could have been screwing with us. I say we back off tonight, do some research and make sure we got a reason to go parading through the wilderness.”

“Okay, one, it wasn’t even nine o’clock. They were buzzed, maybe, not drunk. Two, you heard their stories. Classic dark wolf and they didn’t even know it. Three, I can assure you that at no point will there be parading. Marching, maybe, traipsing, most definitely, there may even be some light frolicking should we find a meadow or glen. But never any parading.”

If Deacon smiled, it was over. He forced a frown.

“Look, what’s the chance we actually find this thing on the first night? And if we do, we got the silver. It’ll be a snap.”

“We can at least wait until morning.”

“So it’s holed up in some hidden cave? We’ve never- oh. Oh, I get it,” he said, a smile on his face. “Deacon, you are thirty-six years old. You can’t be afraid of the woods anymore. It’s not allowed. What is it? Are you worried about the critters?”

“I’m not afraid of critters,” he said, shutting his door with force. “It’s dark. There could be deadfalls. I’m, what, fifty pounds heavier than you? If I break my ankle, you can’t carry me.”

“We got flashlights, we’ll go slowly. We’re just getting the lay of the woods here. Come on, Deacon. It’s a dark wolf. That last hunter to see one was Jesse, and that was twenty years ago. I’ve never seen one. Have you?”

Deacon sighed, then finally let himself smile.

“Let’s load up,” he said.

Perhaps more oddities would be expected of a place where the dominant religion handled more poisonous snakes than an episode of Wild Kingdom, but in fact the area provided few jobs for the average guy searching for the supernatural. So when it became clear that a local inn was being plagued by a poltergeist it was no surprised that two hunters in the area showed up on their own and ended up working together. Deacon and Jimmy Ginn cleared the place in a matter of hours, and ended up at a local bar, the Snakeskin, by eight. They had come to the conclusion that the night would be an encore of the last time they got together, drinking, playing pool or darts or whatever was available, and providing their own impromptu karaoke, perhaps including Deacon’s version of “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA.” And then the bartender overheard the two of them comparing the articles that had brought them there (“Inn Trouble” from the Washington Times in Ohio and the incomprehensible “No Room at the Inn” from the Winchester Star), and suddenly everybody in the place was talking at once about the Devil’s Wood.

Whether Jimmy Ginn actually thought destroying a dark wolf would be a snap or not, they armed themselves to the teeth – knives strapped to their ankles and forearms, pistols in their belts, and Jimmy Ginn’s favorite shotgun, Donna. Jimmy took a pair of binoculars and both of them took flashlights. Deacon thought about tucking his pant legs into socks before going in, but decided Lyme disease was a better fate than letting Jimmy Ginn tell the world about it.

They had been in the woods for the better part of two hours. It was rather slow going. The woods on TV always seemed to be a little better kept, neater, with clear paths and plenty of space between trees. Here, though, everything was cluttered. The space between trees was not just clear ground carpeted with leaves and pine needles but instead filled with ferns, bushes, and prickles. Deacon could feel the thorns trying to get in through his denim. Once, he pointed the flashlight down, and found that below the knees his pant legs had become a science exhibit of burrs and cockles. He thought about stopping long enough to tuck in his pants and catch up before Jimmy noticed, but as he looked up he knocked his head on a low tree limb he hadn’t noticed, making the whole tree shake.

Jimmy Ginn turned around and pointed his flashlight at him, keeping the beam out of his eyes. “What the hell was that?” he asked in a low murmur.

“Nothing, uh, this tree was just giving me attitude,” Deacon said, rubbing his forehead.

Jimmy barked a short laugh and turned around again.

Utter silence knocked both men out of their thoughts. They hit it like a wall. One minute the woods were alive with nocturnal bird songs and chirping bugs, the last second of that very same minute there was nothing. The squirrels and chipmunks and such that had scuttled in the brush around them stopped moving, and Jimmy Ginn and Deacon could sense that they were hiding. Deacon didn’t have to have an intimate knowledge of nature to know that sometimes animals knew better than man. If you’re on a sinking ship, you follow the rats.

They both glanced at each other, and without a word spoken they turned off their flashlights. They stood in the darkness, waiting for their eyes to adjust so they could walk again. Then they heard it.  Rustling. But not like the rustling they’d heard all night. This was not some cute little baby animal looking for Snow White. This was a hulking mass, bigger than Deacon, even. It had clear cut steps, popping twigs, hell, maybe even entire bushes, under its paws. Jimmy Ginn and Deacon stood in the middle of a dark forest and waited for the monster to show.


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