“Hear that,” Dick McIlhenny said.
He removed the headset and handed it to me, while holding the Bionic Ear cupped toward the woods.
“I hear it.”
“What does it sound like to you?”
“Footfalls, coming this way. Look at that horse.”
The gelding stood at attention behind the trailer, his body rigid and his ears forward while the mare cropped the little grass she could reach from the shortened length of rope. The dark woods dripped around the circle of light the lantern made, and in the headset the measured stealthy tread drew closer. I shucked it off and gave Dick back the equipment.
“It’s just Larki pulling grass,” I said.
We heated coffee on the Primus stove and opened two MREs from the carton Dick had brought. The night chilled, and rain started to fall again. We drew on ponchos and ate supper off the dropped tailgate of the pickup truck, the shotguns within easy reach under the camper shell.
“I vote we sleep in the truck tonight,” Dick said.
“Agreed. It will be a hell of a lot drier.”
“And safer. We’re not secure surrounded this way by woods.”
While he arranged the truck bed and unrolled the sleeping bags I watered the horses and loaded them in the trailer for security, leaving only the manger doors open to the night. It got colder and the rain went on falling, stirring the branches of the fir trees and turning the surface of the logging road slick.
“You think this could turn to snow by morning?” I asked.
“Probably not. Today is only the fourth of August.”
“And we’re at 11,000 feet, don’t forget.”
We turned in in our clothes, and Dick pulled the tailgate up and drew down the back window of the camper shell and locked it. Lying in the unzippered bags with the shotguns beside us, we heard the rain pattering on the fiberglass roof and watched the glass fog over with our breath.
“I was hoping we’d hear something tonight,” Dick said.
“It could be the rain. Everything’s taken cover until the weather clears.”
“Will the horses let us know if something does come in?”
“I think so. It all depends on what they take this thing for.”
“I’m starting to drift. If the balloon goes up, I expect we’ll know about it.”
At first light the mists ascended like spirits from the forest before the sun climbed above the mountains, turning the gray cloud ceiling above it gold. We boiled water for coffee on the little stove and struck the camp, packing it back in the truck while the clouds burned away and the summer day grew bright and hot. Eight hundred vertical feet below, an open park at the end of another logging road offered a view of the forest around and alpine peaks rising over 12,000 feet to the south. On a rise of ground between the creek running through the park and the forest edge we made a second camp, raising the tent and staking the horses to graze on the lush grass. It was a good camp having a good view of the approaches all around, except for a point of the woods running close in behind the flat place where the tent stood. We gathered wood, built a fire to signal our presence and boil water for tea, and sat in the late afternoon sun with the tin cups in front of us and the big revolvers on the camp table beside the cups, glassing an elk herd bedded a half-mile out and a couple of thousand feet above on the steep alpine meadow where patches of snow remained.
“Have you thought what it was you might have heard if it wasn’t that?” I asked Dick.
“I’ve thought. Nothing that’s supposed to belong here: elk, bear, moose, cougar, wolf coyote—”
The sound came a mile or so from camp in the direction of the lake: a cry such as a man—a giant one—could produce and yet not like a man’s. Singers call it a calling voice: in the head, unmixed with chest tone but with no trace of falsetto.
“There it goes,” I said.
It lasted about four minutes, changing pitch several times in a tonal step-up or step-down that gave it a distinctly musical quality, and when it ceased Dick still had not succeeded in getting the recording equipment set up.
“Is it what you heard at Leadville?” I asked. /p>
He nodded. “Pretty much.”
“What do you suppose it means?”
“It means the word is on the street already. I think we can look forward to an encounter tonight.”
I threw damp wood on the fire for a heavier smoke column as Keith Hawkins and his son Andrew arrived from Kansas after stopping to check the bait they had set out three weeks before on the southeastern end of the ridge at the top of a talus slide above the river. The curiosity bait with its wax tabula for recording hand prints had been untouched, and so were the other baits Keith had rigged. Enclosed in the Jeep Cherokee, rattling and grinding on the rough mountain roads, they had not heard the sound which had ceased only a half-hour before. They raised their tent beside ours and parked the Jeep to fill in the semicircle of vehicles arranged like a wagon train expecting attack. Finally we let the fire burn down to coals and cooked our supper over them, while boiling another pot for tea. A small thunderstorm blew up over the peaks, silver veils of rain falling from black clouds through the golden light of the evening sun, and from the stony bowl above the camp a pack of coyotes whooped and nattered.
“Something set them off,” Keith Hawkins said thoughtfully.
Fully dressed except for our boots we turned in at nightfall around ten o’clock after shutting the horses away in the trailer, securing the camp, and arranging the flashlights and loaded guns to hand in case of emergency while the moon, rising above the treetops, diffused its light hke a silver gas as far as the black, impenetrable shadow of the surrounding forest.
The Bionic Ear magnified our own breathing and the sounds of sleep from the tent next door, and after we turned it off and lay awake in the darkness, listening, our own ears, aided by the imagination, picked up impulses the electronic model did not. The horses, confined in the trailer, stamped and pawed; caught in the Mag-Lite, their faces hanging through the open mangers looked impatient and alert, not quite apprehensive. Deep in the night I awoke and moved to the door of the tent. Something was talking from the darkness a quarter-mile or less from camp: the voice we had heard the afternoon before, modified from a calling volume to an almost conversational pitch. It ran on and on as if talking to itself, and once there was another sound—two spaced clicks, as if a couple of rocks were being knocked sharply together. I waited to be certain it was not a dream, and then shook Dick awake. He reared from the bag like a galvanized corpse and lay back down again, his beard white in the moonlight through the open flap of the tent. “Do you hear it?” I whispered. He signaled affirmatively but he was not really awake, and when the talking in the woods stopped and did not resume I lay down myself and slept until first light, when I thought a heard a crow calling from the trees behind the camp. Only I didn’t remember seeing crows or ravens in the mountains since we arrived.
At breakfast Keith mentioned a clacking sound he had heard from the forest during the night, like two rocks knocked together. “That’s primate behavior,” he remarked. “Dominance display perhaps. Could be a threat, even.” He left with Andrew to look for footprints at the bottom of the talus slide and cast for trout down on the river while Dick and I saddled the horses and rode out to the end of the logging road. Where the road quit after a mile we dismounted and tied up. From the broken rock lying around on the ground we selected a couple of handsized chunks, and Dick climbed astride one of the barked logs. “The way to find this thing,” he said, “is to make sure it finds us first.”
Seated back to back to survey the woods around we banged rocks together and, using a single rock, pounded the log until it reverberated like a drum in the hot resinous stillness of midafternoon. Then we untied the horses and returned to camp, which stood intact and unmolested. We built the fire back, set the pot to boil on the grate, and sat at the table to watch the afternoon storms build above the bare red peaks. “Even if we don’t find it,” I said, “it’s wonderful to be in the mountains again.”
The sound arose in the southeast, overriding the confusion of the approaching storm: a voluminous roar with a scream above it, a two-track cry like separate voices bonded to produce a single one. It came and came again, each attack following instantly upon the release, a surging cry echoed repeatedly across the darkening wilderness, diffused by distance but overwhelming still and terrific, lasting three and a half minutes.
“It’s too far out to pick up,” I said as Dick went for the Ear and his recording equipment. “Keith must have gotten an earful where he and Andrew went to check bait, though.”
“As far as tonight goes, I’m afraid we’re the bait,” Dick said.
At bedtime I tied the horses to stand sentry behind the trailer. Dick and I were working hard to talk ourselves awake when we woke suddenly outside the tent, in our sockfeet clutching 12- gauge shotguns among flashing lights, a wailing siren, and a car horn sounding, while somewhere in the darkness Keith Hawkins shouted, “False alarm!” Wakened by a prolonged episode of rock clacking at a distance of about a hundred yards from camp, he listened for 20 minutes before setting off the car alarm accidentally. It was two in the morning and almost as bright as day in the full moon, except for the black forest that seemed to have moved in closer during the night. Keith laughed. “I bet that thing is still running,” he said. “We won’t be hearing any more from it tonight.”
He returned to bed while Dick and I lay talking until dawn. Once, hearing footfalls in the woods behind the camp, we emerged from the tent into the cold predawn to scan the treeline through the Night Vision apparatus. Panning with the Mag-Lite, I caught the horses standing at attention, ears forward as they stared across camp to the trees where the footsteps had come. Beyond the yellow shine of their eyes, two points of red light that could have been spots on the surface film of my eye winked in the darkness in the direction of the suspended rock sounds. The grass wetted our sockfeet with a cold dew, and the woods breathed silently in and out as if the moonlight were their vaporous breath, hanging on the cold mountain air.
We spent the morning looking for sign in the surrounding woods. Inside the treeline 125 yards out from camp the forest duff was disturbed as if some softfooted thing had paused there in the night, leaving nothing plainly identifiable as tracks. The sun climbing above the pine trees burned the dew from the grass and penetrated deep inside the woods, lighting the ragged tree spires, depth on depth. Wildflowers unfolded, small white clouds appeared in the sky, and on the mountainside above a herd of grazing elk slipped imperceptibly into the timber and disappeared.
“If you guys were to stay another night I think you’d be okay, probably,” Keith said, but Dick shook his head.
“They had us surrounded last night,” he said. “Mv question is. Why? I know you think these things are basically benign, but I’m not so certain. I keep going back to my Marine Corps training, when the only reason you were told to surround something was to take it out.”
We broke camp in the still somnolence of noon, watched by the woods that had had us under surveillance for the past three days, and drove out the logging road winding down from the mountain. The road skirted for some miles below the summit of the ridge, then switchbacked in a steep canyon with towers and knobs of rock rising above it to the river. We rumbled across the bridge and stopped to turn the wheel hubs out, looking back at the country we were leaving.
“What do you think now?” I asked Dick. “Is it in there, or isn’t it?”
“It’s in there,” Dick said.
“Then—what is it?”
“I don’t know. For now I just want to call it a Being. Something much smarter than if s ever been given credit for.”
I remembered something then.
“Did you catch those points of red in the Mag-Lite?” I asked.
“What points of red?”
I told him about the red spots the light had picked out from the darkness in the early morning.
He looked startled. “You didn’t tell me about that.”
“I forgot. Do you think it’s important?”
“They’re reported to have red eyeshine,” Dick said.