Rachel stared at the huge wolf, aiming the flare gun at it. She kept her eyes locked on the animal as she fumbled around Bill’s unmoving form, searching for the pistol by feel with her free hand. Finding it, she dropped the flare and aimed the weapon up the slope using both hands like John had taught her.
The wolf stood unmoving, watching her, then turned and disappeared over the backside of the crest. Rachel’s heart was pounding and she was having a hard time breathing she was so afraid. She recognized that the animal was spawning a fear in her that she didn’t experience when around the infected.
Yes, she was afraid of the infected. Respected how quickly they could kill her, but for some reason there was a primal terror of the canine predator buried deep inside her and it had roared to the surface the first time she’d seen the animal. Hands shaking, she tried to calm her breathing.
She knew that if it had charged the odds of her stopping it with the pistol were slim at best. Maybe John, who could place his shots where he wanted them, but she’d be lucky to even strike the target let alone find a vital area that would bring the big wolf down before it tore her open.
Giving it several minutes she checked all around to make sure it wasn’t sneaking up behind her, frequently turning her head to look at the exposed ridge. She didn’t think for a moment that it had gone away. It had been hurt by the flare and was being cautious but that probably also made it even more dangerous. She didn’t think it would approach close enough again for her to take a chance on trying a shot unless it was attacking.
The snow was picking up, wind driving it almost horizontally, and once she convinced herself that an attack wasn’t imminent she turned her attention back to Bill. Even though they were partially sheltered underneath the trees, snow was already piling up on top of him. They needed to move. Needed to get to the lake and get a fire going before they both froze to death.
But Bill was out from the morphine and the lake was at least a mile away at the bottom of a very long slope. She could start a fire where they were, but they both needed water and with the wolf stalking them there was no way she could leave an unconscious man while she went to the lake.
And even if she could safely leave him she wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find him again. Rachel was a city girl and before the attacks had hardly spent any time away from civilization. Leaving the injured pilot behind wasn’t an option. But how to get him down the slope?
Thinking, Rachel fluffed the snow out of her thick hair and put it into a tight braid, hoping to keep it as dry as possible. She was shivering from the cold and knew that if she got wet it would accelerate the onset of hypothermia. Looking around in frustration her eyes stopped when she saw the remnants of Bill’s parachute lying on the ground.
Hers was still on her back and she quickly shrugged out of it and set it down in front of her. Pulling the tough nylon canopy free she spread it out on the rough ground, making sure the lines that secured it to the harness weren’t tangled. Moving on her knees she supported Bill’s broken leg as much as possible and rolled him over onto the edge of the canopy.
Rachel rolled him three more times until he was on his back in roughly the middle of the expanse of white fabric. Standing, she tossed the flare gun onto the canopy with Bill and looked around for the wolf, but it was snowing heavier and she couldn’t see more than thirty yards. The crest above her, where she’d last seen the animal, was now only faintly visible.
Unzipping a pocket on her flight suit she shoved his pistol in then lifted and shrugged into the empty parachute pack. She adjusted the straps and walked down the slope until the lines connecting her to the canopy Bill rested on went taut. Taking a breath she pulled, feeling the smooth nylon begin to slide over the carpet of pine needles.
She had to tilt her body forward to keep moving with the pilot’s weight holding her back. At first it had felt so unnatural to lean downhill that she’d hardly made any progress, but as she grew more comfortable that she wouldn’t fall with the drag of the man’s body resisting she was able to start covering some ground.
Despite the assist from gravity the going was slow and arduous. Frequently the canopy or one of its lines would snag on a tree root or rock and she’d have to stop and move to where it was hung up and work the material free.
The slope was steep in places, nearly flat in others. Where it was steep she had the problem of preventing Bill’s body from building too much momentum and sliding uncontrollably. Where it was almost flat it took every ounce of her waning strength and determination to keep making forward progress.
After an hour she stopped on one of the flatter areas, looking ahead through the trees. The blue lake was barely visible, not looking that much closer than it had when she’d first started walking. Turning to look up the slope she froze when a ghostly figure crossed her vision. The wolf was back.
Rachel grabbed for the pistol but it was snagged on the lining of her pocket. Using two hands she got it loose, glad she hadn’t needed to bring it out in an instant. As she’d struggled with freeing the weapon she’d tracked the wolf with her eyes. It was moving across her track, pausing to look at her before disappearing into the trees and snow.
Why was it holding back? She was vulnerable as she dragged the unconscious pilot down the hill. It could come up behind her, leap and take her to the ground before she even knew it was there. Had she frightened it enough with the flare gun that it was trying to work up the courage to strike?
She didn’t think so. She suspected it was hurting from the injuries the flare had caused and was just watching and waiting for what it felt was the right moment. Maybe it had encountered man before and at least had respect, if not fear, for humans. Or maybe it was just behaving like a wolf.
Keeping the weapon in her hand, Rachel turned and resumed pulling the makeshift litter. It was snowing harder but as she’d progressed deeper into the valley the wind had eased. Whether from a slackening of the storm or because of the protection of the terrain, she couldn’t tell.
She struggled on for another half hour without seeing the wolf again, frequently looking over each shoulder. The lake was steadily growing larger in her limited field of view through the trees to her front, but her pace was so slow because of the load she was pulling it seemed to be taking forever.
Moving down the steepest slope she had encountered so far, Rachel’s foot slipped on a snow-covered rock. She tried to recover but couldn’t stop the momentum of Bill’s inert form. Falling to the ground she tumbled down the slope, getting tangled in the parachute lines as it rolled with her.
Finally coming to a stop at the bottom of the slope she lay unmoving for a moment, evaluating her body for injuries. Other than a few bruises and a sore hip, she was OK. Starting to unwrap the lines that were constricting her legs, Rachel’s head snapped around when she heard a deep growl.
The wolf was less than ten yards away, slightly upslope, standing next to a tree. Lips curled back to expose yellowed fangs it lowered its head and took a small step forward. Rachel froze for a moment then grabbed for the pistol that had fallen into the snow when she’d tumbled. It wasn’t far, but when her body started to shift as she stretched out to reach it the parachute lines brought her up short.
Sparing a glance at the wolf she kicked and lunged, trying to gain the extra inches she needed as it took another, faster step in preparation to leap. Scooping up the pistol Rachel rolled and pulled the trigger as the muzzle came up in the general direction of the animal.
The shot was loud in the snow-quieted woods and still without aiming Rachel pulled the trigger a second time. She’d paid attention to one of John’s lessons. If you can’t get on target sometimes it’s best to put some rounds downrange anyway. You might get lucky and get a hit or scare off your attacker.
She knew she’d never scare off an infected but when the second round struck a tree only inches from the wolf’s head it turned and streaked away, flowing over the ground without any apparent effort. Not wasting the precious time she’d just earned, Rachel fought her way free of the tangle and with renewed energy born of fear resumed her journey down the slope.
Exhausted and damp with sweat, she came to a stop on a flat area of the forest floor an hour later. The lake was five feet in front of her, the ground sloping so gently into the water that there wasn’t a bank and hardly even a discernible shoreline. Tall trees grew right to the water’s edge and sparse grass stuck up through the bed of pine needles she was standing on.
After a slow and thorough scan for the wolf she released the parachute pack and let it drop to the ground behind her. Moving forward and falling to her knees she leaned out over the clear lake. Scooping with her hands she lifted water to her mouth, concerned that her fingers were so cold they didn’t even register contact with the frigid water.
Between every drink Rachel checked over each shoulder, but as far as she could tell the wolf had been scared away by the gunshots. At least that’s what she told herself to keep from panicking. She knew that in reality it was very likely still close, watching and waiting for an opportunity. And as the clouds grew thicker and the snow came down harder she knew it was going to be a very dark night that would favor the predator.