The sounds started off to their left. It was making a large circle around them. At one point it got close enough that they could hear it’s breathing, slow and thick, but then it faded again, and all they were left with was the sound of it squeezing its body through the trees and shrubs. They nodded at each other, barely able to see through the dark, and started after it.
Each step had to be precise. The dark swamped their eyes and muddied their vision, but they strained and squinted, taking care that each step was clear – or as clear as it was going to get. All it would take was one slip, one crash, and the dark wolf would have the jump.
A hand on Jimmy Ginn’s shoulder almost made him yelp in surprise. He turned and mouthed what the fuck at Deacon. Deacon only pulled him back slightly and pointed. His jeans had caught on a thin branch and pulled it. A few more inches and the branch would have released, snapping back and making the entire tree shudder. Jimmy Ginn only nodded at Deacon before they started again.
They couldn’t hear it anymore. Silence reigned in the woods.
“Did we lose it?” Deacon asked, his voice the smallest whisper he could physically make.
“I don’t think so,” said Jimmy Ginn, “Nothing else is making noise, either.”
Deacon jerked his head in the direction they had been going, and they started again. This time they went a little faster, and a little clumsier. They had lost it. If they ever actually had it. It could have just been a regular wolf, the dark woods amplifying its sound, making it larger only in their minds. Deacon suppressed a laugh. They had spent all this time in the wood and ended up paranoid, following what would probably end up as a stray dog. They’d probably walk around for a while more, go back to the truck, and agree to keep this night to themselves.
Jimmy Ginn put an arm out and hit Deacon, stopping him. Even in the dark Deacon could see the intensity in his wide eyes. He pointed, and Deacon strained against the dark to see.
Up ahead, maybe about fifty yards, was a thin stream. They could hear it bubbling and gurgling, still the only sound in the wood. Some of the trees split perfectly enough to allow them to see a small segment of it. There was a shape. It could have been a rock, could have been a solid shrub. Deacon squinted harder, so hard he might strain his eyes.
Above them, the solid clouds that had covered the night broke, and a half moon hovered almost directly above them. It wasn’t much, but compared to what they had, someone might as well as have trained a spotlight on them. They could see silver flecks reflecting thinly off the water in the stream as it bounced around rocks and fallen branches and the teeth of the dark wolf.
That had been the shape. Something drinking. Jimmy Ginn pulled up his binoculars. It was hunched and crouched down to reach the water. Its tail swished back and forth lazily. The fur, a calico combination of gray and brown and black, started out fairly normal, maybe a little matted, covered in a few burrs here and there, nothing out of the ordinary. Until you got to its shoulders, and then it became clear that it was covered in something, too dark to be water and too thin to be mud. It started as a spattering, and then grew, until its entire face was covered in the substance, except where the stream had washed it off.
Blood. It had killed something recently. And it was a messy eater.
This was the dark wolf. An ancient thing that was rare, and so killed plenty just to even things out. They both knew the legends of it, although maybe only Deacon knew the oldest was from over a millennia ago, a cautionary tale from a tribal oral story. A wolf, who may have been a man once, no one seemed to know, that slept for twenty-three years before coming to life. It was as tall as a man even when it walked on all four legs and had a jaw strong enough to cut down to and through the bone. Some legends said it took a forest for its own with clearly marked boundaries, others said it roamed where it wanted to. Either way it hunted whatever it could. Both said human was its favorite meat. It had a few things in common with a werewolf – silver was the only thing that could kill it, for example – but for the most part it was its own terrifying entity. If the people at the bar were telling the truth, it had already killed ten cows, a couple of horses, and three locals. And if Deacon and Jimmy Ginn were successful, they were going to be the first two to kill one in twenty years.
Jimmy Ginn put down the binocular and looked over to Deacon to decide on a plan. Jimmy frowned.
Sitting on the front of Deacon’s left shoulder, looking almost like a lapel pin, was the largest beetle Jimmy Ginn had ever seen. It had to be at least three inches long, maybe four. The thin moonlight reflected dully off its back, its legs, and the giant pincer-like jaws it had. Its tiny antennae moved slowly in tiny arches. Jimmy reached out to brush it off so they could get down to business when Deacon looked down and saw it for himself.
The sound that came out of Deacon was somewhere between a little girl getting pushed off the swing and a poodle getting run over in the driveway. Jimmy didn’t think a sound that high pitched could come out of a man that size. The shriek pierced Jimmy’s ears and made him wince. Still Deacon screamed. He started to flail, apparently attempting to brush the bug off but not coming remotely close. Just as he finally ran out of wind to scream, Deacon took off in the darkness.
This was for the best for Deacon. The shriek was certainly enough to alert the dark wolf of their presence. Hell, probably everything in a five mile radius now knew exactly where they were. It was very bad news for Jimmy Ginn, though, because at that moment he was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe let alone run for his life.
Part of his brain was telling him that he had to move or he was going to die. A larger part of his brain was telling him, Jesus Christ, he’s literally going to die from laughter. The rest of his brain, the majority of it, was replaying the scene over and over again, unwilling to part with the scene, the scream, the flailing, the utter terror on Deacon’s face because of a stupid stag beetle.
Something was coming at him fast, crashing through the woods and knocking down trees. Unable to get Donna unstrapped and still laughing, Jimmy Ginn pulled out his pistol and aimed at the direction of sound, keeping his hand as steady as he could.
Out of the woods came Deacon. He had not started running away to get away from the dark wolf, but rather from the beetle that had attached itself to his shirt. He had managed to run directly at the dark wolf, and had had to bang a sharp u-ey just to keep alive. Without stopping and barely slowing down Deacon bent a little, grabbed Jimmy Ginn at his waist, and threw him over his shoulder. With that he went back to full speed and continued running.
The dark wolf was gaining on them. Jimmy watched as it crashed and bounced off trees, its teeth long and gleaming. Each breath was a snarl and a growl. Its eyes, dull and angry, stayed on Jimmy’s face. With each step it gained a foot or so on them.
Jimmy Ginn lifted his pistol again, aimed as well as he could, and fired repeatedly, emptying the gun. And some distant God, perhaps as amused by the situation as he was, gave up a little luck. Some of the bullets connected with his target. There was no killing blow. He heard the wolf whimper and then slowing down. He must have gotten it somewhere in the neck or leg, maybe even on the side of the face. The last he saw of the dark wolf that night was as it came to a slow stop and sat, glowering at the two of them as Deacon continued to run.
Deacon had kept himself in the best possible shape, but he hadn’t run this hard for this long since he was on the football team and not just coaching it. Adrenaline pumped freely into his veins and fueled him once his regular store of energy gave out. They had done a lot of back and forth while looking for the dark wolf, and so only after ten or so minutes Deacon saw his truck, the parking lot, and the EZ Pit Stop. He hurdled the last row of thick shrubs, skidded to a stop in the gravel, and heaved Jimmy Ginn off his shoulder onto the ground. The two men stayed in their respective positions for a few minutes trying to regain their breath, Deacon from running a mile in the woods and Jimmy Ginn from laughing the hardest he had all year.
Finally Jimmy Ginn picked himself into a sitting position. He looked up at Deacon, leaning against his own knees and attempting in vain to slow his breathing. Jimmy Ginn’s eyes grew wide. Deacon cocked an eyebrow. Holding his breath, Jimmy Ginn lifted an arm and pointed.
The stag beetle was still on Deacon’s shirt, its little antennae going wild now, probably trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
Deacon gave another shriek, this one shorter and, if possible, even higher in pitch. With one hand he grabbed the beetle and threw it to the ground. With the other he pulled out his own revolver and aimed at the beetle now on the ground. Deacon then proceeded to empty the entire gun out at the beetle, the sound of each ricochet larger than the beetle itself.
It would take Jimmy Ginn exactly three tellings of the story of how John Deacon got to be called Critter to get it just right. The first would be to Susannah, who would agree to help Jimmy finish the dark wolf after Deacon would refuse to go back into those woods. The second would be to his mother, albeit tweaking the dark wolf to just be a regular wolf. The third time would be to Bern and the Cinq, and here he would perfect his ending.
“Now imagine,” he would say, after taking a sip of whatever he was drinking to make a good pause, “that you are the night manager at the EZ Pit Stop. You’re in your shop, minding your own business, doing whatever it is you do when it’s dead, when you hear a scream followed by six gunshots. Well, you go and you grab your own gun and you race out back to find out what the hell is going on. And what do you find? A six foot four hulk of a human being, all crazy eyes, heaving and panting with a spent gun in one hand, standing directly over a smaller guy who appears to be on the ground convulsing. You can’t tell he’s laughing because he’s got his face in the dirt, you just see him shaking and jumping. So you raise your gun and you say ‘freeze.’ And what do you think the hulking, crazy eyed guy is going to give you as an explanation?”
Here Jimmy Ginn will pause again and do his best Deacon impression as he remembers it, eyes wide, mouth tight, and a deep, almost growling voice.
“There was…a critter.”