I looked at my phone for the time: 11AM. Dex had been gone an hour but there was no way he could be back already. I had more than enough time to climb up there, take a look around, then climb back down and head back to the farm before anyone worried about me.
Feeling better about it, I rubbed my hands on my jeans, made sure my phone was secure, and made a go for it.
I stepped up on the rock and made a grab for the next one. I tried hard not to look through the cobwebby, dark spaces in between and kept my eyes focused on the ridge ahead. Two hands, two feet, onto the next rock.
Soon I was stepping off the last rock and onto the flatter ridge. I got to my feet and looked around, feeling like Sir Edmund Hilary. The view from up here was even better and the valley sprawled out in front of it like a patched quilt. To my surprise there was some sheep below as well. I guess the Lancaster’s had more land that I thought.
I walked to the edge and looked down. There was another plateau about ten feet below which fed into the treeline leading down to the valley.
There was something on that plateau, though, that caught my eye. There was a strange, dark area on the dirt with a lot of shuffled earth around it. I put my hand up to my forehead to shield the sun and squinted.
Something hit me on the back of the head with frightening speed. My skull was scraped. I wheeled around to see a blur of black feathers and sky.
The impact knocked me off balance and I put my left leg back. There was no stability. It sank into the slope and I fell backwards.
I smashed onto it, feeling the sharp rocks and sticks poking mercilessly into my back, and tumbled for a few dizzying feet, like a child rolling down a grassy hill. Then the rolling stopped and I was airborne for what felt like a very long time. No thoughts came into my head except the fear that I would be dead when I hit the ground.
I struck the ground with my left shoulder which sent a shockwave of brutal, nauseating pain all the way to my legs, which slammed the ground like a slab of meat.
I screamed from the pain and rolled over on my stomach, my face eating dirt.
Between the shock and the currents of pain, I had one thought: I am a fucking idiot. How could everything go from frivolity to fucking up my body in two seconds?
It was a damn crow. Where the hell had that come from?
When the pain subsided slightly and I was able to get my mouth away from the earth, I took in a few deep breaths and tried to assess the damage. I carefully rolled onto my right shoulder and felt my left arm. I could feel it, which was a good sign. I moved my head (another plus) and looked down at it. It was scraped, wet with blood and caked with dirt, but I didn’t see anything disgusting like a protruding bone or deep gashes. I inhaled, braced for pain and attempted to lift my arm. I let out another whimpering scream. I bent my elbow and wriggled my wrist and fingers around. They were all in working order, though the skin felt so tight and exposed that it stung with each movement.
I sat back, putting most of my weight on my good arm. My left leg didn’t feel so good and moving it was tricky. I bent over and rolled up the pant leg. The jeans had protected my legs but my ankle felt hot underneath the boots. I awkwardly tried to untie it using my right arm, loosening it, and felt around. Yep, definitely swollen.
“Fuck!” I yelled. I sat on the ground for a few minutes feeling utterly stupid and hopeless. I was hoping my ankle would be good enough to walk on but it probably wouldn’t survive me climbing up the slope I just fell down. I’d just have to find another way back to the farm. Dex was going to give me so much shit. No way could I hide my massacre of an arm.
I got to my feet, very slowly, and tried to put pressure on the bad ankle. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought, though I wasn’t going to be walking properly for a while. I dusted off my pants and eyed my dirty arm. First things first, I had to go back to the farm and douse it in extra-strength antiseptic.
I looked around for the best way down into the forest when the dark patch caught my eye again. Now that I was down here, I could see what it was. I limped over and saw that it was a fire pit of some sort. The ground was blackened and a few pieces of burnt kindling were in the center of the circle. Around it there were a few holes in the earth and piles of dirt, as if someone had been digging. I looked closer at the ground. Footprints of different pairs of shoes, at least two, led to the fire and back into the trees. From the other side, near the ridge I just fell off of, there were more markings leading to the fire. Not footprints, though. I moved closer to them. I could make out one of them and it made my heart dislodge with one giant skip.
A paw print.
I shuddered and quickly looked around me. I didn’t want to be here anymore. Forget the fact that I mangled one half of my body - that was the least of my worries now. I didn’t want to be somewhere where paw prints and footprints intermingled. Especially around a fire. I could almost see the flames blazing, the embers flying up into the air…
And that’s when it struck me. This was the setting of my dream. My dream where I was sitting around the fire while the lady with the yellow eyes told me that something had been unearthed here.
I looked down at my feet, at the holes. Something had been unearthed here. I don’t know how I dreamed this but there was no mistaking it.
I glanced around me again, scrutinizing the landscape for any extra signs. To the right, as the foliage from the trees crept up onto where I was standing, something foreign poked out. I hobbled over and saw a rusty shovel lying in a scrubby brush. I picked it up and looked at the spade. It was dark and stained with something. I smelled it. It smelled like blood…or rust. Of course I’d think the worst thing first.
I peered over into the forest to see what else I could find. There was nothing except what looked like a path. Maybe if I followed it, it would take me back to the ranch.
A crow’s call resounded from the trees. I looked up fearfully but didn’t see anything in the branches. I waited a few moments, tense and listening. Nothing.
I looked behind me at the fire pit and the holes. Perhaps if I started digging, I’d find something. I didn’t know what but there had to be something here. Why on earth would I dream about this place?
My head whipped back as I was hit straight in the forehead. I fell again but this time I caught myself on the ground with my good arm.
I never saw it coming. Then I saw the shadow as it flew underneath the sun. The crow had returned for me.
I looked up just in time to see it dive. Instinctively, I reached for the shovel but I had dropped it too far away from me. I barely had enough time to shield my face with my hands as the crow came by again and swooped at my forearms with its outstretched claws. I felt them sink into my thin skin with sickening clarity. The bird made a go through my hands with its lethal beak, trying to get at my eyes, and pecking bloody holes into my palms.
I summoned all my fright and used it to fling my arms to the side until the crow released its grasp, then I made one chop into its chest. Feathers flew and the bird was flung backward into the air. It cried, which sounded too much like laughter, and landed on the ground with a dusty thump.
My eyes were raging; adrenaline flowed through every inch of my being. I was ready to kick the fucking hell out of that god damn evil piece of shit.
The crow flapped its wings a few times, creating a thick cloud of dust, but to my dismay it was still able to fly off. I watched it soar over the trees in a crooked line. I held my breath, poised, waiting for its return.
It didn’t come back right away, so I quickly looked at my hands for damage assessment. I looked like I had fucking stigmata. I gently placed them on the dirt, wincing at the sting, ready to push myself up again, when, out of the corner of my eye, the cloud of dust where the crow had been stirred. I froze and looked over.
At first I couldn’t see anything but a low, hazy shadow. Then through the cloud, a snake emerged. It was no more than four feet away, slithering slowly along the rough earth, heading in my direction.
I was transfixed, paralyzed in total fear. My breathing stopped, I felt encased in ice. I watched it come closer, watched the details of its movements, the way the scales ebbed and flowed with each slink, the way the forked tongue slid in and out of its angular mouth…and its eyes. Its eyes weren’t like snake eyes at all.
I had barely any time to think about my actions. The snake was coming for me. It wasn’t going to stop. It would strike me, it would hurt, and there was no way of knowing how fast the venom would kill me. I was at least thirty minutes from the farm and that’s if I ran, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to do with my ankle, not to mention the fucking venom coursing through my veins. I took my eyes off the snake for a split second and noted how far the shovel was. If I made a move for the shovel, would I get to it first or was the snake able to strike faster than that?
It seemed like my only option and with each second I spent thinking about it, I knew I was losing the battle. The snake was unbearably close now. Would I even be able to move?
I took a deep breath and was about to go for it when the snake pounced in one quick movement. I had no time to react, no time to scream. I could only sit there and watch in slow motion as the snake coiled its head back and flung itself at me, mouth open, fangs protruding.
I braced for impact.
And heard the loudest BANG rip through the sky and shake the earth. Before my eyes, the snake suddenly exploded into a million pieces. A plume of dirt flew straight up into the air like a geyser and my ears throbbed with the sonic boom.
I felt wet. I looked down. Bloody bits and pieces of snake were sticking to me. But the snake was gone and dead.
“Are you OK?” a voice shot out from behind me.
I turned my head and looked up at the slope. At the top of the ridge was Bird, white Stetson on his head, pistol in hand, looking like something out of a Gary Cooper film. He was staring down at me, his face stern.
He may have just saved my life. I looked at where the snake was, just to make sure it really was dead, that I really managed to escape that. It was gone. I was safe.
I nodded, not sure what to say.
“Stay there,” he commanded and quickly slid down the slope, jumping down the last bit. He knelt beside me, sorrow etched into his knobby forehead. He looked me over and nodded to himself a few times.
“You’ll be OK. Can you walk?”
“Yeah,” I croaked out. I cleared my throat, trying to seem more in control and less stupid. “I can, my ankle kind of hurts but I don’t think I sprained it.”
He walked around behind me and pulled me up from underneath my arms, careful not to hurt me. I got to my feet, too embarrassed to even look him in the eye.
“Thank you,” I said quietly.
“A snake is a bad omen. Killing one can be even worse,” he said. “But it would have been far worse if that one had gotten a hold of you.”
“Was it poisonous?”
“The worst. But it can’t hurt you now.”
“You must think I’m a total moron. Going off into the mountains by myself, not even telling anyone. And now my whole left side is a disgusting mess.”
He lay his hand lightly on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. His own were gentle, as always, and seemed to possess endless wisdom.