Monday, January 4, 2010

Finding Home by Jude Mason

Chapter One

As Joe Cob bent to get a better look at the big buck's footprint, a torrent of rainwater sluiced from his hat, filling the small depression, and washing away any hope of seeing how fresh it was. Jacob Cob cursed under his breath. Heavy rain made tracking the animal a whole lot easier, but it had its drawbacks. The dull green rain jacket he had on made it impossible to be quiet, and limited visibility. Even the normal woodland smells faded to nothing but wet dirt and leaves.

Hunting rifle held across his chest, he moved slowly ahead, continuing to peer down at the mud. He hoped to catch a glimpse of yet one more footprint. Bingo. A large, very fresh indentation sunk deep in the mud next to a puddle. He must be close. The rain hadn't crumbled the edge of the print, and almost no water filled the depression. And, he just felt that this one was near.

His skin crawled, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He looked around trying to see through the heavy underbrush, but the salmon berry bushes and other scrub restricted his sight to only a few feet. The river wasn't far, and its roar made it impossible to hear much of anything.

He straightened and took another reading from his compass before going on. The last thing he needed was to get turned around in this weather.

Something grunted to his left and he squatted down, rifle to his shoulder. The howling of the storm surrounded him. He heard nothing else but the wind.

Rising, he slid the compass into its pocket on his vest. Slowly, he eased his way toward the noise, ready for the animal he'd been tracking for the past two hours to bolt. Clambering over a well-rotted log, he pushed through the ferns, keeping as silent as possible. He slowly turned, listening and watching for any movement or sound that seemed "not right." Rain pelted off his hat to the beat of a snare drum gone wild.

There, a flicker of movement, about ear height on a buck.

Bringing his rifle to his shoulder, he took careful aim, only to lose his target when it crashed into the bush ahead. "Damn," he cursed, scowling at whatever had spooked it. Again, he made his way after the buck.

The underbrush grew thinner, and he could see farther, but didn't get a glimpse of the deer for some time. About a kilometer further in, he heard a soft rustling noise to his right. He instinctively froze, moving only his eyes in that direction. He slowly turned his head.

Standing in a clearing, head high, chest thrust out and breathing deeply, the buck he'd been following peered into the undergrowth. His shoulder twitched and he flicked his ears then turned toward where Jacob crouched, stone still.

Suddenly, behind the buck and to the right, he saw--something. For an instant he thought it was a cave, but the edges were too symmetrical, too smooth and there was no vegetation grew around the opening. Six feet across, the inside of the circle was too black, too stark, as if the great maw sucked all the light from the vicinity into it. Even the buck sensed its unnaturalness and turned away, leaping over a fallen cedar and vanishing a few moments later.

Jacob couldn't simply leap away. His curiosity piqued, he slung his rifle over his shoulder and took a step toward the--something. A black hole, its insides twisting and turning--that's what it looked like to him. Getting closer, he realized he was being pulled forward. Not a lot, but enough to get his attention.

He stopped, and looked around. Silence blanketed the area. Still curious, he proceeded with caution.

The pull grew harder, and he quickened his pace. A breeze whipped around him, and ahead, the strange blackness whirled.

Reaching out his hand, he gasped when it vanished. Too late, he tried to stop. The pull dragged him forward--and through.

* * * *

Jacob rolled over, grabbing for his pillow to tuck under his head. For some reason it'd slipped free and he was lying on--

Eyes wide, he climbed to his feet. His heart was in his throat, wedged there by growing panic. The surroundings were strange. He wasn't in his bedroom. Hell, he wasn't in a house, or anywhere he remembered being.

Legs wobbling, he sat down, and cringed when his tailbone struck something solid. He squirmed. "What the fuck!" he mouthed, soundlessly.

Straight ahead, about twenty feet from him, a small stream rushed over boulders and weaved its way around a bend. Overhanging willows trailed long supple branches into the water. All along the banks there were shrubs growing. But, the forest was different. Alders and evergreens mixed, maples, even a few ash trees, not the single variety wood he was used to. First growth came to mind. This wilderness had never been harvested.

He spun around. The black hole. Whatever it was--was gone.

Panic gripped him. His mind blurred. He whirled around, booted feet digging into the grass, desperately looking for something familiar.

It was then he realized how warm it was. The sun shone, the air was clear and smelled of trees and grass. It looked like it hadn't rained for days, at least. His jacket creaked loudly. Not far to his left, a bird launched into the air--a willow grouse.

From habit, he reached for his rifle. It should have been across his back, the sling over his shoulder. It wasn't there. Again, he scrambled around, his panic rising. He spotted the butt lying in the grass and grabbed for it. The long gone game bird didn't matter. He wasn't defenseless.

He got to his feet and went to the stream's side where he bent for a drink. His reflection showed a wild glint to his otherwise calm blue eyes. A shock of long blond hair stuck out from under his hood at odd angles, making him look demented. He pushed back the mottled green head covering, and took a couple of deep breaths, trying to pull himself together. Whatever had happened, there had to be a rational explanation.

Sitting on a log by the creek, he took stock. "Cell phone," he remembered excitedly. What a dummy. Pulling it out of his vest pocket, he flipped it open, pressed the power button, and waited. Finally, the "no signal" popped up. Jacob gaped at the tiny instrument. "What the fu…" He turned, holding the phone out, waiting for it to activate. Again, he got nothing.

Giving up, he closed the flap and stuck the phone back in its pocket. He should have gotten a signal. Hopefully, when he hiked a little further down the stream, he'd get reception. He wished he'd brought a GPS, but never dreamed he'd need one. After all, he knew the area well. Looking around, he decided he didn't, and was again confused.

"I'll never find a road unless I get moving." He got to his feet. Dragging his compass out, he opened it and took a reading. Not knowing where he was, the best he could do was make sure he traveled in a straight line. "Okay, Jacob me boy, let's just follow the stream. If nothing else, I'll at least have water."

The terrain was fairly easy to travel. An animal trail wandered along the bank of the stream giving him time to look around, and become more awestruck by the forest. He saw squirrels and a family of river otters. They didn't appear to be afraid of him. They watched him, of course, but none of them ran.

"I'll be go to hell," he stammered, when a full grown raccoon wandered out from the trees and walked within a dozen feet of him, heading for the creek. He stopped to watch the fat critter walk into the water and begin hunting for its dinner. Other than the tiny splashing sounds coming from the furry little beast, and the odd twitter of a bird, the world was silent.

Jacob enjoyed the quiet, but after two hours of following the stream, he should have come to a logging road or something. Apprehension was setting in. What had happened to him? He surmised he'd been moved from the woods he entered that morning for his day hunt to somewhere else. Perhaps the hole had simply been a cave and he'd wandered around until he came to the other end, and collapsed from some noxious gas. As ludicrous as that sounded, he couldn't think of anything better.

When the sun met the treetops, and he still hadn't reached a road, he realized he'd be spending a night out. As he walked, or scrambled over fallen trees, he searched for shelter. A hole at the base of one of the giant trees, a fallen log over a boulder, anywhere to have even the semblance of a roof over his head.

He'd just about given up, when he smelled wood smoke.

Jacob was ecstatic. Civilization. Still hugging the bank, he hurried forward to what he assumed was a hunting camp. Stumbling over a fallen log, he made his way around a bend in the small stream, and froze.