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John leapt towards the doe as the gunman fired. He felt the pressurised waves of sound pushing the air ahead of the round, gyroscopic patterns of velocity ensuring its journey through the distance. He caught the chemical signatures of the man’s fear, alongside the burst of cordite and the snap of the trigger.
The bullet hit him in the left shoulder and continued as John fell forwards onto the doe. He roared as the round exploded out of his upper back in a wet, agonising burst of flesh and bone. The doe broke his fall as he rolled to his right, unable to get back onto all fours as the doe kicked and thrashed underneath him. His pride in the hunt and his hunger fled before the pain as he dug his back legs into the earth and cried out. His heart thumped in his chest as he felt blood staining and sticking his fur to his back as he pushed backwards. Through the haze of pain, he saw the gunman bring the rifle to his shoulder and fire again.
The bullet passed John and hit a tree behind him, splinters of bark flying into the air as the sound echoed through the still forest air. Each movement was a sermon in pain, and John felt the hole in his upper back, bleeding with the smallest motion as he shuddered with the pain. The insult tested his control, but he knew the gift of the second round missing was transient and he needed to get away. Through his blurred vision, John saw the gunman shout behind him and realised he was not alone. John distributed his weight between his right fore paw and his back legs, lowered his tail for balance and loped around, heading for the trees as he heard other voices join the chorus of alarm, some faint whilst others sounded closer in the primordial quiet of the forest.
John ran, although each movement opened the wound in his upper back, sending a single deep of agony deep into his body with each motion. He let himself sink into the ocean of instincts, churned by pain and circumstance into a storm of perceptual horror as the pressure built up within him.
He ran until exhaustion laid a yoke on his shoulders and he stopped, laying down against the soft moss and breathing hard through the waves of pain which washed over him in rhythm with his heartbeat. He could not see the wound in his upper back but its presence was as fundamental as the sun in the sky above and he shuddered with the sudden, debilitating bursts of cold as he lost blood.
He had underestimated the competence of their pursuers and the insult hurt as much as the first bullet. He got up onto his paws and moved through the woods, slow and stiff to accommodate the wound. Rifle rounds were large, most of their damage coming from the amount of blood and tissue lost to their passage. The wound in his upper back felt like someone had punched out a divot of tissue and each step lectured him on his arrogance as he limped into the darkness.
Black and red dots peppered his vision as he kept moving. He thought of Kelly and it lent impetus to his movement, creating a perpetual struggle between will and agony with each step. He lowered his nose to the ground, inhaled the memories of Kelly’s skin, her breath and kept following it. His world intensified and reduced to finding her, letting go of the pain and the pride, the thwarted appetites and the failure of his will as he moved through the simpler, uglier world his senses created for him.
Each step built upon the last as he made his way back, wounded and determined.
Olivia and Grant ran to Gregor’s location where he had already gathered two of the other men and pointed out the direction the dog had run in. They watched the doe struggling to get to its feet with indifference but Olivia moved past them, the gun in her hand as she moved towards it.
Olivia’s interest was in the doe as it looked at her with disbelief and shock. She aimed and fired twice into its midsection as it jumped with the impact before it laid still.
‘At least we won’t go hungry.’ she said.
One grimaced and shook his head. He had a yellowing blunt spade of beard which fell from his chin as he shouldered his rifle.
‘No one’s eating that. You’ve contaminated the meat when you shot it in the gut. Hope that makes you feel better.’ he said.
Olivia felt the heat rising in her face as she holstered her gun and turned her attention to the ground. The others were moving forwards, alert and invested in the hunt for the first time since they started. Gregor came over to her, with his rifle in his hands.
‘It was not like a normal dog.’ he said.
Olivia studied the ground where the thing had clawed into the ground and tilted her head to one side.
‘Yes, very big and not normal. It was attacking the deer when you came across it?’ she said.
Gregor nodded and Olivia returned her attention to the ground. She saw the faint spray of blood and the large puddles where it had soaked into the ground.
‘Conditioning works up to a point, but you hit this thing and it ran off?’ she said.
Gregor nodded but his eyes were damp and unfocused. Olivia had Jasper’s ear and he feared what she might report back to him.
‘It wanted the deer which was how I got the shot at all.’ he said.
She gave a cold, officious smile and asked him a few more questions. Gregor confirmed it was a huge animal, it was trying to bring the doe down by leaping at it and it ran off, bleeding from where the round had gone straight through. Olivia dismissed him with a nod and he joined the others in following the blood trail.
‘The owner is probably close. He’ll have a whistle set to its hearing range or something to reinforce the conditioning. Tell the others to be aware of it over the dog itself, Gregor.’ she said.
He did not look back but raised his right fist as an acknowledgement. Olivia returned her attention to the ground, working out the dimensions of the beast as a way to assuage her curiosity.
Olivia bloomed when she could work. A lot of her work for Jasper had been reputation management but here she had come across a genuine mystery. Retrieving the package would have been the best possible outcome, but she had done that before.
The claw marks in the ground were large and she had to lean across to make a rough estimate of its dimensions. Her stomach was hollow with anticipation and her skin prickled like static as she realised they were hunting a genuine monster.
Olivia had not investigated dog fighting and breeding. Even with the federal laws, most of the activity went to state and local law enforcement as there would be narcotics, firearms and gang activity but she consulted on a few larger cases, profiles of the training used for the dogs to add to tactical assessments before any raids took place.
This dog, she decided, was special. A lot of breeding, blending traits over generations to produce a particular animal. It took money, and with the lease paperwork she had found, associations lit up her synapses like a fireworks display. She got up and walked after the others, smiling with a nervous anticipation as she slipped her gun back into the holster.
‘Here, boy.’ she said.
Kelly laid out the logs for the fire but she did not light it. She had remembered John’s method and followed it, which made her keen to wait and see his expression when he came back.
She put her coat and gloves back on as the temperature dropped. The surrounding shadows lengthened and thickened, feeding on her heat as she paced back and forth. Kelly reassured herself John would be back soon, and they would eat together and she could fall asleep next to him again. She drank some water, focused on her breathing but the anxieties were alert and keen to cut her off from any illusions of calm.
Kelly watched the forest, keen for a sign of his return. Kelly’s intuition about John was solid, but his confession spoke to complexities which were beyond her experience. His damage, his regret and his attempts to control and understand himself were uncommon for being spoken of with humility and honesty. He had been the victim of circumstances beyond his control but he knew the choices he made in the aftermath were better demonstrations of character than anything he might say.
Kelly reflected on her own choices, such as they were. Dropping out of school had not been about her mom but a good reason to do it without being questioned about it. The truth was sour in her mouth and she drank a cold mouthful of water, rinsed and spat to rid herself of the taste.
She needed to wait this out, she told herself. John isn’t a man out there, which is why he’ll come back to her and they’ll get out of this situation. Kelly picked out a strip of jerky and chewed on it, relishing the texture and salty nourishment as she kept vigil.
John caught the scents of his pursuers. The tang of adrenaline, the intestinal flora festooned into their breath and the sweat signatures came to him in waves. He got onto all fours and rolled his shoulders without a debilitating blast of pain to punish his efforts. The skin was tingling but he could not feel the wound anymore, only the reluctant tug of knitting flesh as he wondered what had happened.
The wound had healed up and with the revelation, John turned back and sniffed the air, testing for their relative proximity. Kelly was close and he was aware of how he had bled during his retreat. Pain was a good teacher, and John wanted to share his lesson with those who had taught it to him in the first place.
He tracked two men close to him and lowered his upper body to the ground. John gauged their distance and moved towards them.
John’ lips drew back as he wrinkled his muzzle and began to run towards them.