blood trail

 

A MAN moved through the stunted trees. His footsteps were soft, each step deliberately chosen. He stopped for a moment, cocking his head. Listening. Waiting. A heavy breeze blew through the bare branches of the trees. They rattled together like bones. It didn’t bother him as it once had.

The man heard nothing more and took another step. He adjusted the strap to the oak bow over his shoulder. He thought about the sun hiding behind the leaden gray clouds above. It had been a while since he’d seen it. It had been a while since he’d seen the sky behind the clouds.

The man known only as Cavalo moved through the trees, unaware that it was his fortieth birthday. Even if he’d known, he wouldn’t have given it a passing thought. He thought little of such things now. They were frivolous things. Things meant for the towns. Not for him.

Maybe part of him knew, but it was suppressed. Buried. Like the sky. Like the sun. He was aware of things, sure. The weight of the pack on his back, a quiver of arrows sewn at the side. Dark feathers attached to the ends of the shafts. The scrape of the heavy tunic against his thin chest. The dark stubble on his face, flecked with gray and itchy. A lock of hair against his ear, loose from the deer hide strap that held it back. The sharp, metallic scent in the air. His companion moving unseen thirty yards to his left. The weight of the old rifle hanging around his neck. It was rarely used. Bullets were precious things. Unusual things. He had many of them, collected over years. He tried not to use them if he could help it.

That didn’t mean he hadn’t before. He fired the rifle every now and then to make sure it still worked. Into a tree. He always dug out the bullets, the flat discs still hot in his hands. He’d done this twice a year since he’d been given the gun by his father at the age of sixteen. It’s a Remington, his father had said, though when asked how he knew, his father had shrugged. That’s what I was told when it was given to me. See those markings at the top? A scope would have gone there. It helped you see things far away up close. Like those binocs that old Harold has. It’s gone now. Have never been able to find one that fits when the trade caravans come through.

His father had died just a few weeks later. Found in a ditch. Neck broken. Thrown from his horse as he rode home. The smell of rye whiskey still hung around him even as the flies began to land on his open eyes. Accident, the constable had told Cavalo when he came to deliver the news. Just an accident. These things happen, you know.

Cavalo had nodded and asked after the horse. It’d been found two miles away, grazing in a field. He later sold it for coin. Didn’t get for it what he’d asked, but a horse that throws a rider was a hard sell, even if the rider had been drunk.

He’d left the town shortly after, the rifle on his shoulder.

Cavalo now had forty-seven discs.

But the shots into the trees hadn’t been the only times he’d fired the rifle. There had been two others. Once to stop the charge of an angry bull elk he stumbled upon in the low hills to the north. Its eyes had been milky white with blindness, a deep froth pouring from its mouth. Irradiated. It hadn’t made a sound when it charged, its accuracy frightening. Time had slowed for Cavalo, and even though his heart thudded like thunder in his chest, he’d moved slowly. Surely. The stock against his shoulder. Rifle cocked. Sights lined. Breath in. Breath out. Fired. The snap against his arm. The loud crack in the clearing. Spray of blood as the bullet pierced a white eye, an impossible shot that Cavalo couldn’t do again even if he had millions of years and millions of bullets. The bull had come to a stop. Shuddered once. Twice. Fell over as it began to seize. Its tongue lolled from its mouth as blood dripped from its nose. Cavalo had stayed with it until it died, the massive chest rising one final time, followed by an exhale, followed by silence.

The man, much younger then, had sat near the bull, watching it for hours. Eventually night had begun to fall, and predators stirred, drawn by the smell of dead flesh. Cavalo had stood and walked away.

There had been one other time he’d fired the gun. But that didn’t matter now. It was in the past. It brought ghosts. He didn’t like the ghosts.

He’d had a handgun once too, but he didn’t know what had happened to it. After.

He continued on now, listening.

He moved in between the trees, a thin figure, hidden as he passed them by, moving with an economic grace. His black boots were covered in alkaline dust. He had a puckered scar on his right temple, fingernails dark with grit. His face was weathered. Lined. Severe, it was said by others who whispered about the man with one name. All planes and angles. Grizzled. Worn.

But he cared not about such things.

Not anymore.

Moments later he pressed his hand against the trunk of a gnarled tree, the bark rough against his skin. He knew this tree by its shape, because it was her tree. It looked like her, or as much as a tree can look like a woman now dead and gone. The base was wide, like a dress. The trunk slimmed out as it rose and curved, like a torso. Branches swung out wide. Arms. The breeze carried through these branches and they waved, like it was dancing.

Like she was dancing.

He knew this tree because it was her tree, and for a moment, this man, this one-named Cavalo, let himself stop and drift, a thing he thought to be most useless. But even here, the coarse bark under his fingers turned to smooth cotton, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and they danced. He could hear the music swell, could smell the lilacs that were her scent, could hear her laugh in his ear, her husky voice as her words promised him things he’d never thought of before, and how they swayed. How they moved. The curve of her thigh. The whisper of her—

A chuffing noise, low, followed by a growl.

The man opened his eyes under a leaden sky, his hands upon a stark tree that was only a tree. There was no woman. She was gone. And had been for a long time.

Dammit, he thought. I almost missed.

He moved then, quicker than he looked to be able to do. Crouched low, dust kicked up behind him from the parched, cracked earth as he flashed between the deformed trees. He pursed his lips and blew out two quick breaths. The whistles that came were sharp and short. He didn’t receive a response, but he didn’t need one. He’d been heard. He knew. His companion would follow orders.

As he ran through the half-dead forest, he pulled the bow from its strap on his shoulder, the grip familiar in his hands. He reached back and pulled an arrow from the quiver. A bark came from off to his left and he stopped against a malformed spruce. He notched the arrow into the bow and waited.

It came a moment later, the light tap of hooves against the ground. The slap of branches. Rocks kicked. His companion would back off now to wait in case the prey escaped.

Through the trees ahead, Cavalo saw her. A doe, belly white and back brown. White spots on her sides. Little flecks of gold in the hairs. Tail raised as she slowed. Ears twitched. The doe sprayed urine as her head darted around. She would have looked normal had it not been for the two snouts on her face, one going left, the other right. The dead third eye in the middle of her forehead. The fifth leg that hung uselessly from her stomach, obscene as it kicked weakly. She wasn’t the worst he’d seen, not by far, but more often than not, the effects of what had happened in the Time Before, which had created the End and the New Beginning, were still felt every day. Were still seen every day, even a hundred years later.

The man who fancied himself a doctor in Cottonwood, the town closest to Cavalo’s home, had told him it was due to the radiation, that it messed with the genetics even years after the End. Seems safe enough to eat, Hank had told him. Any poison would have been bred out generations ago. Just doesn’t look like much.

It didn’t. It looked foul. It was grotesque. But it was the closest thing to another living creature that Cavalo had seen in weeks aside from his companion, and the bread was hard as a rock now, the mush bland. If he took her, he could avoid a trip into Cottonwood, at least for a while. He could stay away from people. He could—

The doe snapped her head toward him, and he could see the muscles under her skin begin to tense. She crouched low toward the ground, ready to spring. Her fifth leg dragged along the dirt as it twitched. Cavalo could see the flies around her eyes, the curve of her neck, the hairs standing on end. He could hear his own breaths in his ears, low and harsh. The pull of the bowstring. The arrow between his fingers. The painted black feathers brushing his cheek. The subtle strain in his arm. He was getting older, and he could feel it in every part of his body. He was weaker now. Whip thin. Veins pronounced on his arms. Hands callused. The lines around his eyes like canyons.

And as he let the arrow go, he wondered how much longer he could last like this.

The feathers burned against his cheeks. The snap of the bow twanged in his ears. He might not have been as young as he used to be, but his eyesight had yet to fade, and he tracked the arrow as it flew through the trees. Before it hit, he knew it had flown true.

He’d aimed slightly high, anticipating the doe’s sudden leap. As the muscles in her legs bunched, she rose into the air, preparing to flee the threat she felt hidden among the trees. She launched forward toward a clearing ahead. The arrow struck her in the neck. Blood pulsed around the wooden shaft. She jerked her head back, a string of saliva splattering onto a tree. She bleated as she pawed the ground. She stumbled once, twice, and then began to move away. The forest around them grew quiet as she began to die.

It was a good hit. Blood fell from her neck, spattering against the forest floor. She moved in staccato beats through the trees, each step costing her. She picked up speed. Her shoulder clipped a long hanging branch, and she almost collapsed. She shook her head, her eyes wild and frenzied. She moved again and disappeared.

The man took his time. He fastened the bow to his back. He looked back in the direction of the tree that danced like a woman. He shook his head.

He moved to where the doe had been shot. There, upon the dead leaves, upon the rotted floor, glistened the blood trail. He whistled once, a high-pitched two-syllable sound that carried north to his companion. The birds in the trees took it as the all clear to begin singing again. They whistled back at him. He started following the blood trail. She’d find someplace to die. Thick bushes. Maybe into one of the outcroppings in the hills. She wouldn’t last long as she was bleeding out. It was early afternoon, but he needed as much time as he could get.

It was a minute later when a dark dog joined him. A mutt made up of blacks and grays, hair long and damp. Bone thin, like the man. He strode alongside Cavalo, coming up to just above the man’s knees, his long tail flicking back and forth. The dog bent his head forward, sniffing at the blood. He chuffed in the back of his throat and looked up at Cavalo, grinning, eyes bright, the canine arrogance comfortably familiar. It almost made him forget the dancing tree.

“Good work,” Cavalo said quietly, reaching down to stroke along a white patch of fur between Bad Dog’s eyes, back up to his ears. Bad Dog knocked his forehead against the man’s fingers and chuffed again. Cavalo heard Bad Dog’s voice in his head saying, Of course I did good. You did too. What had started out years before as a way to combat the silence had turned into something the man considered real. He spoke and Bad Dog answered. He no longer questioned it.

“Won’t get far,” Cavalo said.

Bad Dog looked up at him, sniffing the air. I know.

“We’ll follow the blood trail,” the man said, even though it was obvious.

Bad Dog panted. Yes. Yes.

“It will be fine.”

Yes. Yes.

After a moment: “I saw the tree again.”

Bad Dog cocked his head. Did you touch it again, MasterBossLord?

“I don’t know.” This was a lie, and they both knew it.

Oh.

He hesitated, then said, “She danced.” He didn’t look at his friend.

Bad Dog bumped his hand. She’s not real.

“I know.”

She’s gone. They’re both gone.

“I know.”

Do you?

The man could not answer.

 

 

THE DOE had made it farther than Cavalo would have thought. The blood trail led them to the edge of the woods. Beyond the stunted forest lay the remains of a massive old road, broken into pieces, chunks of black rock upended. Cavalo knew this was called a “freeway” in the Time Before. People used these roads for travel in motor cars. He’d seen the remains, the burnt-out husks of these motor cars, dead as the area around them. No one could remember how they worked, only that they had been. There had been rumors years ago that someone in the east had a working motorized car, but it had never appeared.

Long distances in such short time. It seemed impossible.

Now this freeway meant something different. It was a line. A division. One that was foolish to cross. To cross was to go west. To go west meant to enter the Deadlands.

Cavalo looked at the blood trail on the ground. Fresh drops at his feet. Away from the forest he knew.

Onto the freeway.

Across the freeway. Into the other side of the woods. West.

“Shit,” he whispered.

Shit, Bad Dog agreed, sitting next to the man.

He couldn’t just let the deer go. She was fat, which was surprising. Good, but surprising. Cavalo didn’t think her pregnant, not with the deformities she had, but she had to have come from somewhere herself, so it was possible. But if she wasn’t, it would be enough meat to last weeks. He could avoid the town. He could avoid the people. Hank and Alma would be worried about him, he knew, but he’d been gone for longer. What had it been now? Three months? It couldn’t be that long, could it? They would understand. They always did.

“What do you think?” he asked.

Bad Dog rose from his haunches and sniffed at the blood again. If we do it, we must be quick. Like the wind.

“Yeah,” Cavalo muttered. “Like the wind.” He looked across the freeway again. It looked no different than the forest behind him. But it was different, he knew. Far different.

The first deer in weeks. Probably just over the road. Right into the tree line. “Probably already dead,” the man said aloud. “Just waiting for us.”

Dead, dead, dead, the dog said, rubbing against him.

“We get in and get out.”

Like we were never there.

“They won’t even know.”

No one will. In and out.

“You ready?”

Bad Dog yipped and watered a dusty bush. I pissed, he said proudly. That bush is mine. Now I’m ready.

The man nodded. “Let’s go.” He hesitated only for a second….

… and stepped onto the freeway.

Bad Dog immediately followed, his toenails clicking against the broken road, nose to the ground against the blood trail. Cavalo looked from side to side, scanning the tree line ahead of him. The shadows were beginning to lengthen. Nothing moved among the trees aside from the birds, calling their songs as loudly as they did on the other side of the freeway. It looked the same. It looked exactly the same.

But it felt so very different.

The man felt it even as he put one foot in front of another. There was a chill here that had nothing to do with the mute sky overhead. It was darker, the trees more dense and stark. The air felt thicker, as if pressing into a barrier that shouldn’t be crossed. He looked down and saw the blood trail, still bright and fresh. He looked back up into the woods, searching for movement.

Only the birds.

He stepped off the freeway and slid down the shallow bank. Bad Dog jumped down behind him, bumping into the back of Cavalo’s legs. They almost fell.

Sorry, Bad Dog said, looking embarrassed.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly, adjusting his back. He tried not to think of the last time he’d crossed the freeway. It was almost impossible to do on this side. He could hear their voices, somewhere far off, calling for him, lost in the haze. The man named Cavalo believed his dog could speak to him and didn’t know it was his fortieth birthday, but he most certainly did not believe in ghosts. Even if he could hear them.

Bad Dog went to the tree line, following the blood trail. He reached the trees and looked back at Cavalo, his tail still, ears perked. Coming? he asked, unaware of the other voices.

Which means they aren’t real, the man thought. Sweat dripped down his forehead. He wiped it away. He thought of the bow. It didn’t seem to be enough. Not with what was on this side of the woods. Not with what they could do.

He unclipped the rifle from his pack. It felt heavy in his hands. He checked the chamber. Loaded. Sight was clear. Safety off.

Bad Dog watched him, eyeing the gun warily. He did not like the noise that came from it. Too loud, he said, flattening his ears. Hate the boomstick. Hate it. Hate it.

Cavalo nodded. “Can’t be helped. Not this time.”

Bad Dog sighed but said nothing. He turned and trotted into the trees.

They aren’t real, the man thought, because he didn’t believe in ghosts.

He followed the dog into the woods.