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Ark Page 6

by David Wood

  His pulse pounding, he slipped on the ammunition belt, tucked the pistol inside his suit, hefted the rifle, and set out on a little hunting expedition of his own.

  Chapter 10

  Dry leaves crackled underfoot as Bones ran. Dark green foliage flashed by in his peripheral vision. Low hanging branches swatted him and undergrowth snatched at his ankles.

  When you’re waiting in a doctor's office, five minutes takes freaking forever. When you're being hunted by a bunch of inbreeders, it flies by.

  Strangely, Bones was not frightened. Perhaps it was due to the surreal nature of the situation in which he found himself. Of course, this was far from the first time his life had been in danger, and he'd always come out alive. Deep inside, he always assumed things would somehow turn out all right.

  Now he kept his eyes peeled as he dashed through the woods, looking for something that could give him an advantage. He stopped to pick up a few fist-sized stones and stuff them into his pockets. He kept moving, and soon he found himself running along the base of a twenty-foot rock wall. This could be it.

  He hastily spied out cracks and outcroppings that would serve as handholds, and clambered up. It wasn't an easy climb, but scaling rock walls was one of his specialties. Aside from Maddock, few could keep up with him on a free climb. Bones could scale a wall that others would consider impossible to climb. His pursuers would never look for him up here. In short order, he was at the top and hidden in a thicket of hemlock. He waited, all his senses alive and attuned to every sound, every motion in the forest.

  He was rewarded in a matter of minutes. A bearded man in a John Deere cap came trotting along the base of the cliff. It was one of those who had arrived last. Bones did not know his name and didn’t care. As the man passed below him, Bones rose up and flung one of the stones he had picked up as hard as he could down onto the passer-by.

  The missile struck the man on the crown of his head, and with a surprised grunt, he crumpled to the ground. After looking around for other hunters and seeing none, Bones climbed back down to where the man lay. He rolled the fellow over onto his back and removed his cap to reveal a split scalp and a deep indentation that indicated a fractured skull. The wound was probably fatal, but Bones couldn't take the chance that the man would come after him. After all, this guy had been hunting him like an animal and would have shot him for the sheer pleasure of it if he’d gotten the chance.

  Bones growled at the memory of the men taunting him, laughing as they sent him running into the woods. He dragged the dying man off the trail and bound him to a tree with his own belt. The man would probably die there very soon, but Bones didn’t care. These were no longer human beings to him. They were targets to be eliminated.

  One down.

  The man up ahead of Maddock was making far too much noise, carelessly crushing dry leaves and twigs underfoot. Either he was a complete idiot or he didn't suspect danger lurked anywhere nearby. Probably a bit of both.

  With so many threats out there, Maddock needed to dispatch the hunter in front of him as quietly as possible. He didn’t want to use the rifle unless there was no alternative. Even if the other hunters heard the shot and believed it was one of their own firing at Bones, it would still draw them toward the sound and they would be wary.

  Careful to remain silent, Maddock slid the rifle beneath a thick mountain laurel and placed the ammunition belt atop it. He tucked the dive bag holding the stone inside his suit, drew his knife and Bevel’s pistol, and silently crept up on the unsuspecting hunter. Much more cautious than the lummox he stalked, he moved with catlike grace, choosing his footfalls with care. He was keenly aware of the danger he was in as he closed the distance between them. There was no cover along the last intervening twenty paces. If the man heard or sensed his approach, well, Maddock would probably get him first with the .22, but unless he managed a head shot, the fellow just might manage to put a round or two into Maddock with his Remington. Furthermore, the gunfire would be a call to the other hunters. Finally, a voice inside Maddock's head pointed out that he had never fired this particular pistol, so he had no idea of its accuracy or firing tendencies. He shut the voice up, since the point was now moot. He’d make it work.

  Fifteen feet...

  Ten feet...

  Five feet...

  The man finally realized someone was coming and whirled around. He was too late to bring his rifle to bear, but the barrel smashed into Maddock's left hand, knocking the .22 free. Maddock lashed out with his knife, catching the man across the throat, but it was a shallow slice, barely worse than a cut from shaving. His opponent instinctively drew back, but before Maddock could stab him in the gut, the man struck at Maddock with the butt of his rifle. Maddock took the blow on the back of his left shoulder, turning with it. He spun, brought the knife around in a wide arc, and drove it backhanded into the man's neck just above his right shoulder. The man roared in pain and panic.

  In his death throes, he pulled the trigger, firing wildly into the air. Maddock silenced him with a hard left to the temple that sent him crumpling to the ground. The neck wound was a death sentence, but Maddock didn't want the others to hear any more sounds from the dying man.

  Too late.

  Feet crashed through the undergrowth. Gunfire rang out and a bullet flew past his head and clipped a bough from the pine tree behind him. At least one of the others had been much closer than he expected! He took off back the way he had come, weaving between any bits of cover he could find. A moving target was difficult to hit. A moving target behind cover was even more so.

  “He got Jason!” The cry was punctuated with another shot that barely missed. He dodged to his right into a dense stand of pines. Limbs struck his face and pine cones pierced his bare feet as he ran. In the stillness of the forest he could hear the men’s voices as plain as day.

  “How do you think he got behind us, Pa?”

  “He's an Indian. I suppose they have some tricks up his sleeve. I told you he would be a tough one. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”

  “Bevel will get him if he heads back to the clearing. I’m going to go after him!”

  Maddock spotted a low-growing patch of rhododendron and dove beneath it. He wormed his way in as far as he could go and waited. The footsteps came closer and two sets of booted feet trotted past his hiding place. They would figure out soon enough that Bevel wouldn't be getting anyone ever again. He gave them time to get out of earshot and then headed back toward the place where he'd hidden the rifle. He had not made it far when he heard more voices.

  “He's dead,” said a calm, confident voice.

  “Who do you think done it, Carter? Was it the Indian?”

  “Obviously, unless you think someone else is out here. But why didn’t he take Jason’s rifle when he killed him? It's strange. And whose pistol is this?”

  Maddock crept silently away. Now he had two men on either side of him, and only his knife for a weapon. On a positive note, he could now account for the locations of six of the seven men, two of them were permanently accounted for. Even better, it seemed that none of them had gotten Bones. At least, not yet.

  He moved into deeper cover among the trees that lined the sloping valley wall. When he was far enough away to feel safe stopping for a few moments, he took time to rub dirt on his face, and did his best to blacken his dive suit with more of the rich, dark earth before moving on. He soon came to a spot where time and weather had eroded a deep, winding channel up the side of the mountain. It would likely provide an easy passageway to the top, but he hesitated, fearing he might stumble upon the seventh hunter coming around a blind curve. Instead, he chose a more difficult route up the slope, keeping in sight of the channel, but remaining behind cover as much as he could.

  The sound of the waterfall grew louder as he climbed and he emerged on a ledge overlooking the lake and valley below. The two men who had shot at him were standing alongside the vehicles. The older of the two was speaking, waving his hands and emphasizing his points
by poking the younger man in the chest. If either were to look this way, they would spot Maddock in an instant. That gave him an idea. But how best to put it into effect?

  Chapter 11

  The dense tangle of trees seemed to reach out to grab Bones as he dashed through the forest. Breaking into a clearing, he had to watch his step as the holes of long ago rotted stumps made his path a veritable minefield. He leaped across a deep gap where the game trail he followed had eroded into one of the holes, and landed on an uneven patch of ground. His ankle rolled and hot pain coursed through his leg.

  He had caught a glimpse of two men who were pursuing him. He had a good lead on them, but they definitely had his trail. He'd tried to hide signs of his passing as much as he could, considering the rapidity of his flight, but it had not thrown them off. It galled him that he could not shake the hunters.

  He caught a glimpse of sunlight and blue sky up ahead. The forest was thinning out. Perhaps there was an end to this valley, maybe even a road or some other sign of civilization.

  He burst through the undergrowth and came skidding to a halt. The tips of his booted feet slid over the edge of a sheer cliff. The drop was hundreds of feet to the rocks below. No wonder his pursuers had no fear of him escaping. The wooded area through which he ran had neatly funneled him to this dead end. Could he double back and work his way past them or at least get back to high ground? They would expect him to end up here, so they would be moving this way. How could he use that to his advantage? Keenly aware that the sand was running out of the hourglass, he concentrated. What could he do? A thought struck him and he hurried back to the clearing.

  He had done this many times before, so the task was a simple one. In less than a minute he had scooped heaps of crumbling earth out of the hole in the trail until it was a good three feet deep. He’d then covered it over with twigs, leaves, and soil. Ideally, he'd have dug a deep pit and placed sharpened stakes at the bottom, but he lacked the time or tools to create such a trap. When the Viet Cong had made pits like this one, they smeared the sharpened stakes with their own feces in order to give the victim a septic infection. He grinned at the thought of one of these inbreeders impaled on a sharpened crap stick. Too bad he couldn’t go that route. In this case, he just needed to distract his pursuers long enough for him to get away.

  He melted into the brush near the cliff and began working his way back in the direction of the battlefield. In a matter of seconds he heard the stealthy approach of his stalkers. He froze, knowing that any movement could give him away. He watched as the men, the younger one in the lead, followed by Carter, the big, paunchy guy who seemed to be in charge of the group, moved along the path. They were quiet, at least, quiet for white guys, and moved well in the woods; he'd give them that much. Thirty yards from where he watched, the young man stepped right into Bones' trap, gave a yelp of surprise, and fell face-first onto the trail.

  Bones fired off two quick shots at Carter, but the man had reacted the moment the ground gave way beneath his companion's feet. Moving faster than Bones would have believed possible for a man of his bulk and girth, he dived to the ground and rolled behind a tree. Bones' shots sizzled through empty air. He flattened out behind a stump, cursing his luck.

  Now up on all fours, the younger man scrambled for his rifle. Bones squeezed off a carefully aimed shot that took his target in the head. Carter cried out in anger at the sight of his fallen comrade. Bones snapped off another shot in the direction of the cry and then ran as fast as his injured ankle would permit.

  Bullets shredded the greenery around him. He dodged to his right, trying to put an oak tree between himself and his attacker, but just before he moved behind the tree, fire lanced across his chest, and he heard the rifle's report. He knew immediately he had been shot.

  There wasn't time to do more than glance at the bloody streak across his pectoral muscle, but he could tell it was not a serious wound—little more than a scratch. He paused behind the tree long enough to fire off another shot in the direction of his attacker before taking off again. He wondered if the gunfire would draw the other hunters. He assumed it would, but at least he had taken care of another one of them. But could he really expect to take out all of them? His luck couldn’t hold that long.

  Somehow, he had to find Maddock and get the hell out of here.

  Maddock pressed his body into the hollow of an old oak tree. The earthy smells of the forest surrounded him. A gentle breeze swayed the treetops. It should have been a peaceful moment, but the perverse juxtaposition of tranquility and his life-and-death struggle turned his stomach. He gripped the strange black stone he had found in the cave, finding comfort in its weight. It would make for a decent weapon in a pinch.

  Shielded on his other side by a fir tree, he would be nigh invisible to anyone headed up the wash, and he had reason to believe someone would be coming soon. He had prepared his trap and then let himself be spotted crossing the top of the ridge. He had been certain to look like he was on the move, in hopes the men who saw him would not expect an ambush. Now he waited.

  Soon, he heard the faint scuff of a booted foot on stone. Whoever was climbing the wash was being careless. Maddock prayed the man was equally unobservant. His prayer was answered moments later with a loud thwack and a shout of surprise and pain and the sound of something metal clattering to the ground. Maddock sprang from his hiding place and leaped into the wash, the sharp stone upraised, but when his eyes fell on the man, he realized immediately that there was no need for the weapon.

  It was Nathan, the youngest of the hunters. His eyes were wide in death, surprised at what had befallen him, and his mouth hung open, a string of spittle dripping from his lower lip. His first blood had been his own.

  Maddock had found a springy sapling growing chest-high out of a crack in the stone just beyond a sharp bend in the rock, tied his dive knife to it, bent it back and fixed it in place. He then set a trip line made of vine. It was one of the many tricks he'd picked up during his time as a SEAL. He had expected it to distract and hopefully injure his enemy, but he was gratified to see that the knife had found the young man's heart. Perhaps he should feel bad about taking the life of a youth of no more than twenty, but he could muster no sympathy for one who would hunt down another man like an animal.

  One less murderer walking among us.

  He listened for any sound that would indicate the approach of another hunter. Hearing none, he set to work. He took Nathan’s rifle and a few spare rounds. Next, he freed his knife from the makeshift trap and cleaned the blade on the dead man's shirt. Another one down, but how many more to go?

  If only he could find Bones, they could get out of this mess. Of course, he had heard shouts and gunfire somewhere down below. He hoped that meant Bones was taking care of business. Bones had to be all right.

  He spotted a flash of movement in the undergrowth below. It was barely more than a momentary glimpse. He froze, looking and listening, but he neither saw nor heard anything else. He knew only one person who could move like that in the forest.

  “Bones?” In the quiet, his whisper sounded louder than any gunshot.

  “Maddock?” Bones melted out of the nearby trees. Blood soaked one side of his shirt, but he otherwise looked strong. “About time you showed up. How many did you get?”


  “You suck. I've only gotten two. The next one is mine, and we can flip for the last.” He looked around and caught sight of Nathan's body. He spotted the vine tied to the sapling and nodded.

  “Nice booby trap, Maddock. You keep hanging around with us natives and we’ll turn you into a real woodsman. I guess you used your knife?” Maddock nodded. “Good job. I didn’t like that kid. Didn't have proper respect for his elders.”

  As they moved on up the mountain, each filled the other in on the events that had brought them to this point. Bones cursed when Maddock told him what he had learned from Bevel about the corrupt park ranger and the self-styled hunters of men.

asked me some weird questions, too. It’s almost as if they’ve got some connection to the people who came after Grandfather.”

  “I think Carter does,” Maddock said, remembering Bevel’s words.

  Suddenly, a bestial cry of pain and rage shattered the silence. Maddock immediately dropped to his belly and pointed his rifle in the direction of the cry. From his hiding place, he could see that Nathan's father had found his son's body. Maddock inched forward, looking for a clear shot. Bones wormed his way up alongside him.

  “My turn,” Bones whispered.

  But there was no need for either of them to take the shot, though. Letting loose an anguished wail, Nathan's father let his rifle fall to the ground. He dropped to his knees and drew a pistol from his belt. With trembling hands, he reversed the weapon and put it in his mouth.

  Maddock closed his eyes as the sound of the shot echoed through the canyon.

  “You’re such a wimp.” Bones face split in a wicked grin. “It’s not like it’s the first death you’ve ever seen, and that guy totally deserved it. He’s the one who brought his son into this, and turned him into a wannabe killer just like his old man.”

  “I know.” Maddock grimaced at the thought of what had just transpired. “Suicide just seems like it should be a... private thing.” Nathan’s father deserved no sympathy. In fact, Maddock would have killed him without remorse, yet he took no pleasure from witnessing death. Sometimes, killing needed to be done, but there was always a part of him that found it regrettable.

  “We can talk philosophy later. Let’s get on to the important subject. Did you find it?”

  It took Maddock a moment to realize Bones was asking about the stone. “Oh, sorry dude. All I found was one of those rubber-tipped spears like you guys sell to little kids at your trading posts. Oh, and an Indian taco. I ate that.”


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