Shasta's Hunt

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A family dog and her owner has a strange encounter after running away from home. Murder and supernatural occurrences.

Submitted: May 27, 2013

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Submitted: May 27, 2013

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Shasta was an old mutt, probably a bit of a terrier ‘cause she was built low and stocky and she was an independent sort of dog. Mr. Troy bought her from a friend about a year after his wife ran off. That event rocked Mr. Troy and he was barely able to keep his mind, his job and his family together. Three weeks before he got the dog, Mr. Troy’s brother Charlie sat him down, told him had two young daughters who needed him as much if not more than ever, and he needed to get his head together. Mr. Troy found a therapist and reasoned that besides a wife, nothing said “family” like a dog. Charlie had a buddy who was moving back to Ireland and needed a home for his dog, and Mr. Troy liked the idea of not being saddled with a puppy. Mr. Troy surprised his daughters with Shasta on a cool October evening and their laughter made him feel better than he had in a long time.

When she was younger Shasta had delighted in escaping from the Troy’s backyard, first using a large rock at the back of the yard to leap over the old wrought iron fence. After Mr. Troy had the old fence torn out and a taller one put in Shasta responded by finding a quiet corner and attempting to tunnel under. Unfortunately the soil had a hard layer of clay just under the topsoil but Mr. Troy found enough evidence of Shasta’s escape efforts to dub her “Steve McQueen” for a few weeks. Eventually Shasta gave up on the tunnels but once the heavy western New York snows came she discovered that the snow drifts created ideal ramps for McQueen-like attempts to vault over the fence again. Mr. Troy swore out loud the first time he let Shasta out after a lake-effect storm and watched her take a running start, plunge up the drift and bounce over the fence. His children laughed, who were of course all off school that day, cheered both the escape and Dad’s bad language. Mr. Troy told them to finish their cocoa and go shovel the driveway, which caused much wailing, while he pulled on his coat and boots and went to find “the damn dog”.

Attempting to catch Shasta in the early years was usually pretty fruitless. She delighted in the chase, charging through the park that backed right up to the Troy’s property to chase squirrels, cats and once, memorably, a skunk. No-one witnessed that battle but Shasta turned up at the door after the sun had sunk below the horizon, whining and rolling and smelling like she had bathed in rotten eggs. Mr. Troy swore quite a bit that night, and so did his older daughter Rachel who had to help with getting the dog clean, and Mr. Troy did not correct her. If ever there were a time for those words, he told his co-workers the next day, bathing a skunk-sprayed dog was it. In the end, Shasta would always return, tongue lolling out of a huge doggy grin that expressed no shame or doubt.

The park was called Highland Park. It was well-named, as it covered several square miles of sharp rolling hills that millennia ago had been gouged out of the earth by retreating glaciers. Now the steep hillsides held flower beds, lilac bushes and secret corners that invited games of hide and seek and long dog walks during the day, trysts at twilight and the occasional illegal transaction after dark. Just beyond the Troy’s property line the land rose sharply to a ridge that was covered with old pine trees. A path curved along the path that was ideal for jogging, walking and playing various games that involved yelling and surprising the other participants. The Troy children rightfully thought of the park, especially the ridge, as their own. 

On a warm afternoon when she was seventeen Rachel Troy was walking Shasta along the ridge and talking to her friend Jasleen about the goings-on at school and the idiocy of her little brothers when she glanced down into the backyard on one Mr. Brayling, who lived three doors down. From the top of the ridge one could see down into the backyards of all the houses that backed up to the park. The sun was coming down behind her so she would be barely visible through the trees, perhaps only as a flitting shadow through the thick pines. Shasta was pulling her along at a good clip so she couldn’t stop and take a good look but she did think it was odd that Mr. Brayling was carrying a large blue drum and handsaw into his house and not into the garage, which would have made more sense since what else would one use those things for besides making a composter or some other boring gardening project? Mr. Brayling had the most lovely flowerbeds on the street, expansive arrangements of tulips, roses and other flowers that the whole neighborhood admired. 

Thinking of Mr. Brayling’s flower beds reminded Rachel of her mother. Mrs. Troy had loved to garden as well and had often admired Mr. Brayling’s flower beds. Mrs. Troy had not come back from work one afternoon. Mr. Troy admitted to the police that they had been having trouble, but then the officers found her car at the bus station and a ticket purchased in her name bound for San Antonio. For a while the police tried to find her, contacting the police in San Antonio and such, but nothing much ever came of any of it. The Troys had to accept that Mrs. Troy was gone and was not coming back. Rachel was the only Troy child who had a clear memory of those days. She had seen her father weep, and watched him fall apart and put himself back together.  

Rachel also saw something else odd on her walk that day, a single hoof print driven into the hard ground of the ridge. She paused in her conversation with Jasleen and ran her hand over the clean line of the print, wondering how a horse could have gotten up here or why anyone would bother to do this as a prank. She mentioned it to her father and Mr. Troy thought she was making it up. Indeed, when they went back the next day (the Troys were an argumentative family and would always follow up on a chance for debate) the print was gone. Mr. Troy suggested that Rachel was talking on her phone too much, which set off another debate and the whole matter was forgotten.

A few years rolled by, longer for Shasta than the Troys and soon her joints pained her and she didn’t run off quite as much. One afternoon Mr. Troy came home from the office distracted, opened the door quickly and Shasta bolted out the door like she often did, making for the park. Mr. Troy swore and started after her and she threw a look over her black shoulder that said, “Thank God…” and stopped. She followed him meekly back into the house and Mr. Troy knelt down and pulled her close, rubbing her wiry hair and she licked his face and rolled over for a tummy rub.

A few nights later Mr. Troy was up late working on some calculations for work. He came into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door to get some milk. By the light of the fridge he saw Shasta sitting by the kitchen windows staring up the hill behind the house. Mr. Troy closed the door and came over to stand by the dog. He hunched down and patted her stocky shoulders.

“What are you looking at, girl?” he murmured, following her gaze. It was a summer night and a warm wind made the trees sway. Shasta abruptly skittered to the door and barked, sharp and demanding.

“Okay,” Mr. Troy unlocked the door and let her out into the backyard. The warm air rushed into the house as he stepped outside in his bare feet. Shasta charged to the rear of the yard and stood there, eyes locked on the ridge. Mr. Troy followed her slowly, listening to the wind in the trees and far off, a rumble of thunder, perhaps? An airplane taking off? He checked his watch…no, too late for that. Thunder, then.  Mr. Troy called to Shasta but she stood stock still at the fence, waving her tail slightly. Mr. Troy finally walked over to her and took hold of her collar. The dog refused to budge, so Mr. Troy crouched down next to her and stared up the hill, wondering what she was seeing. A fox or a deer…nothing. The thunder rumbled again, rolling and gaining momentum like nothing Mr. Troy had ever heard.

“C’mon, Shasta,” he demanded, coming to his feet. As he stood he caught a flash of motion in his peripheral vision. He turned just in time to catch a glimpse of a figure emerging from the trees at the base of the ridge a few houses down. As the figure walked up to the back of a house Mr. Troy saw Sam Brayling in the light of some backyard floodlights. He was dressed in hiking books, dirty jeans and a faded t-shirt that was oddly patterned in random dark swirls. Mr. Troy did not call out to him. He could not see Braylings’ face but his movements were furtive and he entered his house quickly and without a sound. Mr. Troy remained completely still. He looked down at Shasta. The terrier was tracking Brayling as well, her ears laid back against her head, yellowed canines unsheathed.

In the morning there was no trace of rain, and when Mr. Troy asked his daughters if they had heard the thunder they looked at him oddly and made jokes and googling signs of dementia on their smartphones. That morning he nodded to Sam Brayling when he met the gardener walking out to his car in the morning. Brayling was planting a line of line of rose in the dirt and nodded to Mr. Troy calmly, his hands deep in the thick dark soil. Mr. Troy wondered how Brayling got his soil so deep and thick. His wife had always complained about how the soil was so shallow…but he instinctively shied away from thoughts of his wife.

 After a few days the incident receded from Mr. Troy’s mind. As the height of summer approached, the family planned a long weekend to the Finger Lakes. Mr. Troy rented a cottage, the girls invited various friends to come and join them and Shasta watched the whole process with bemusement, her wide brown eyes always straying back to the ridge.

The night before they were scheduled to leave, Rachel was sitting in the kitchen frantically trying to finish a summer reading paper that her dictator of a father had decreed must be finished before they left in the morning. Rachel’s grades had been less than stellar the year before and Mr. Troy was taking no chances this year. All summer work would be done, and done well, before anyone went anywhere or had any fun.

As she was closing in on the final paragraph of her paper on Catch-22 Rachel noticed that Shasta had walked soundlessly from her bed in the far corner of the kitchen to the back door. She now stood absolutely silently, ears forward and tail slightly waving as if she was seeing an old friend. Her eyes were locked on the ridge beyond the fence.

Rachel watched her for a moment then went back to her work. Suddenly Shasta barked once, clear and hard. Rachel started upright and walked to the door muttering, “All right, all right…” in exactly the same tone she had used to tell her father that she would finish the paper before they left in the morning. She unlatched the door and Shasta was out the door in a flash. Before Rachel’s horrified eyes Shasta streaked across the yard and cleared the high fence like the escape artist of old, her old joints and muscles inexplicably juiced with the power of greyhounds and Olympic pole vaulters. Shasta landed smoothly on the far side of the fence and pounded her way up the hill, her black coat making her nearly invisible in the swaying undergrowth.

For a moment Rachel was completely frozen. Then she dashed out into the backyard yelling, screaming “Shasta” at the fleeing dog. They would not be going anywhere in the morning without the old mutt and Rachel had made too many promises to her friends about the awesome lake cottage to let the old bitch get in the way of that. Rachel stopped at the fence and strained her eyes up the hill…there, the leaves were moving and she heard Shasta’s high bark, once. For a moment she hesitated. The woods were tall and dark, the night quiet but for a far off rumble of thunder. Her father’s face came to her mind, asking her what had happened to the dog, wondering how she could be so…

Rachel raced back into the house, pulled on her running shoes and a hoodie, more for the pockets into which she jammed her phone and house keys. A flashlight from under the sink, and she was ready. She guessed it had been less than a minute since Shasta had vaulted the fence. She could still catch the dog. Rachel raced out the door.

Over the fence, the woods instantly blocked out the moon and muted the lights from the neighboring houses. Rachel flicked on the flashlight and played it over the hill, calling “Shasta, here girl!” over and over. She picked her way up the hill, moving the flashlight from her feet to the ridge line as she walked, moving as fast as she could. Soon the fence and the house seemed far behind her. The trees creaked and the thunder was getting closer. Shit, she thought, if it starts to rain I will leave the dog out here. But a smaller part of her knew that she would be out here until she found Shasta.

Suddenly above her there was a burst of motion and she stepped back, scream building in her throat just as she saw Shasta’s shaggy face and gleaming brown eyes. The dog buried itself in Rachel’s midsection, nuzzling and whining. The scream turned into a relieved laugh and she wrapped her arms around the small furry body. The dog wriggled in her arms, then suddenly went very still.

The thunder rumbled, very close…and kept rumbling, building and building as Rachel looked down at the dog, then all around, up at the ridge just above her. Shasta wriggled out of her arms and slunk towards the ridge, her body low to the ground as if she had a squirrel in her sights. Rachel called out to her again but could not catch her. No way was she letting the dog out of her sights again. She struggled up the hill after the dog, holding herself low unconsciously imitating the dog.

At the top of the hill, the underbrush ended at the edge of the running path as cleanly as a line painted on asphalt. Rachel reached the top next to a thick old fir tree and settled her hand on the rough, sappy surface. Shasta cowered at the base of the old tree. As Rachel leaned down to take hold of Shasta’s collar, her view of the path was obscured for a moment. In that second, Shasta suddenly surged against her knees. The force of the dog’s movement pushed Rachel onto her bottom at the base of the tree. She almost shouted at Shasta, but the howling interrupted her.

Rachel had once seen a documentary about wolves in grade school. Her fourth grade class had gone to the planetarium to watch giant wolves running across the huge screen above her head. The best scene had been the one in which the pack all got together and raised their voices to find a lost member. The sound had raised the hairs on Rachel’s arms and neck. It was fierce and loving at the same time. It made her want to cry out for her own lost mother in the same way. In the dark of the theater tears had gathered in her eyes as the wolves sang out for their lost packmate.

This howling was not like that. It was fierce and lusting, a warning that something terrible was coming to bring a bloody death to whatever it found. It rose and ebbed slightly, only to rise again as the thunder behind it resolved into the ground-shaking of of hooves. Rachel cowered next to Shasta and stuffed her hand into her mouth to keep from screaming.

The howling grew and grew, bass throbs weaving into high keening notes that cut through the night air, all of it built on the pulsing drumbeat of hooves. Rachel wanted to run but knew she would never make it more than a few feet. She raised her head slightly to look out from under the brush before her face.

A huge dark mass flashed past, then another. She saw thick black legs ending in wide paws flicker over the path, barely touching the ground at their speed. The howling was all around them now; she sensed rather than saw that there were other creatures moving behind her as well. More and more coursed past her hiding spot so that she could hear their panting and chuffing as they ran and paused in their hunting cries. Rachel raised her eyes a bit and caught a glance of a long black body, half again as long as her own and followed by a shaggy tail that swung back and forth like a shark’s. One raised its head to howl and she saw an elongated muzzle that held teeth in long rows and a lolling tongue. And wide golden eyes full of intelligence and empty of pity. The eyes saw her, registered her, but the beast did not stop. She buried her face in Shasta’s shaking body again. She did not look up again.

Finally the hoof beats passed her and faded with the thunder. No rain had fallen. Rachel stood slowly, her arms and legs shaking and her breath coming in soft sobs. There were no broken branches or prints on the ground, no evidence of what had passed. The night was quiet. Rachel leaned down and grabbed Shasta by the collar but the dog hung limp and unresponsive.

“No, no, no…” Rachel shook the small body but there was nothing left. The wide soft brown eyes were open but still. Rachel put her head back and wailed. It was too much to see all of this and lose her dog as well. This was all so…unreal, she thought, and what made it even worse was that she knew it all was real and the worst part was that Shasta was gone. Her father would be so sad, her brothers too and they already had enough sadness. Rachel stood and walked away from the body, trying to pull herself together. As she stood on the path, she became aware of another figure coming towards her.

“Mr. Brayling?” she whispered just before he reached her. She did not see the knife until it was almost too late.

It cut a cold line across her arm as she stumbled back with her arms over her head. She was blind and confused. Her heel hit a root and she fell back. Hitting the ground was almost a relief. It drove the air from her body and she lay their completely helpless. He stood over her, running his fingers over the blade and flicking the blood, her blood, away. His face was almost in shadow as he knelt over her. Rachel raised her arms but she had no strength and he pushed them aside.

“Did you see them?” he whispered.

Rachel froze. She stared up at him. What was the right answer? She nodded and tried to speak but nothing came out.

He smiled down at her. “Pretty. Just like your mother. I wonder, will you make my roses grow as tall?”

Rachel’s breath would not come back. She couldn’t resist as he leaned down, grabbed her by the ankles and began to drag her back along the path. She twisted slightly, trying not be gouged by the roots jutting from the path. Just on the other side of the ridge under a large pine tree was a small charcoal barbeque. Something small and blackened smoked and sizzled on the coals.

Brayling froze, staring at what was on the grill. “Why didn’t he take it?” He turned back to Rachel and she saw no trace of anything human in his face. “Why not this time? I did everything right.” He stared up and down the path, confused. The eyes fell on Rachel.

“You. You’re different. This is your fault.” Brayling kicked her once, meditatively.  Rachel rolled away from the kick and tried to scream and get up but Brayling took another step and kicked her leg out from under her and she collapsed, sobbing.

“Oh well. I guess I can’t keep you after all.” Brayling knelt over her and drew his knife from the sheath at the small of his back. Rachel swung at him wildly, trying to scratch at his eyes, kicking at his groin. He snarled, grabbed her hair and smashed her head into the ground. Rachel’s vision exploded into darkness and she went limp. Brayling leaned down and whispered in her ear.

“Let’s hope your heart makes him happy...”

He smiled, nodded and raised the knife. Rachel squeezed her eyes and opened them, trying to clear her vision.

Thunder rumbled. The howling rose again.

A black shape whispered past and slashed at Brayling’s leg with a moon-shaped fang. He screamed and toppled backwards. The knife fell from his hands and embedded itself in the floor of the path next to Rachel’ head. She rolled away from it unaware, coughing out vomit.

Brayling choked down his screams. He tried to stand and reach for the knife but his leg collapsed under his weight. “…no!” he croaked. He crawled forward to the knife but as he reached for it again the black shape made another pass, slamming him with a thick shoulder and knocking him back onto his side.

Rachel’s vision was slowly returning. As her eyes slowly cleared she could make out the silver shard of the knife blade embedded before her. Brayling mewled and tried to stand again. Rachel grabbed the knife and lunged forward swinging it downward in both hands. The blade gashed Brayling across his chest. He made a choking, confused noise and put his hands out, turning his head as the thunder again resolved into hoofbeats.

The Hounds came faster this time, flashing past Brayling and Rachel and circling around. Brayling stumbled onto one foot, Rachel forgotten, and spread his arms wide. Rachel curled up and kept her eyes on Brayling. He was laughing as the hounds flowed past him and then the hoofbeats were upon them. Rachel twisted and saw the Hunter.

The horse was huge and as black as the Hounds. Its breath steamed even in the warm summer night as if it was driven forward by some cold, furious engine. The flanks and chest of the horse were scarred by claws and fangs but the horse’s movement was smooth and unhitched. It wore neither saddle nor bridle to carry its rider.

The Hunter clung to the horse with only curled legs wrapped in ragged trousers. There was a long knife in a leather sheath at the Hunter’s waist. He wore nothing above the waist but a carved wooden mask covering his face. The face had no features, only wide, slightly elongated holes for the eyes and a round hole for the mouth. Long black hair cascaded from behind the mask to stream behind him. His torso, arms and feet were painted in swirling patterns of green, blue and black. A simple horn hung from a leather strap around his shoulders.

In both arms the Hunter carried a long spear, carved from black wood and tipped with a blade of black glass, obsidian, which shimmered at the edges. The Hunter used this blade to pin Mr. Brayling to a tree in a smooth movement that took no more than a second. The Hunter released the spear as his mount’s momentum carried him past Brayling and Rachel. Brayling stared at the long spear calmly, then past to Rachel.

“...I don’t…don..” he slurred his words and leaned forward to lean his head on the spear. Rachel stood as the Hunter turned his horse. She could hear the Hounds all around her but she kept her eyes on the Hunter. He circled his mount and walked it precisely back to where Rachel stood. She stood as still as she could, trying not to breathe. The Hounds circled her, their bodies whispering in the underbrush. She flicked her eyes back to Brayling. He hung still and silent, and she only regretted that she had not been the one to kill him.

The Hunter walked the great black horse up to the tree where Brayling hung, leaned over and pulled the long spear free. As Brayling’s body crumpled to the ground Rachel wondered if she was next. She could not make herself be afraid, but she was sad that she would not see her father or sisters again. They would never know what had happened to her or Shasta.

The Hunter stopped his mount about two feet from where Rachel stood. He regarded her from his black eyes. In a quick motion he raised the spear and thrust the blade into the ground. Rachel stared at the blade as the blood coating the blade and perhaps a foot of the haft was pulled down into the earth leaving the blade clean and shimmering. The Hunter cocked his head at Rachel, hawk-like, curious about the small animal in front of him that was not running the way prey should.

A Hound ambled up to the Hunter’s side and sat by his foot, staring up at him. There was blood around the Hounds muzzle and Rachel realized that this had been the frontrunner that had hamstrung Brayling. The Hunter took his eyes off Rachel and looked down at great black body. He extended his hand and the Hound bumped her head against the Hunter’s palm. The Hound turned her gaze to Rachel and Rachel saw that this Hound’s eyes were a soft, familiar brown, instead of gold like the others. They were friendly, familiar eyes and as Rachel recognized them the Hound bared her teeth and lolled her tongue in a familiar grin. Tears prickled at Rachel’s eyes. The Hunter looked down at his newest Hound to make a faintly disapproving growl. The Hounds raised their voices and all around Rachel the night was full of the deep throbbing song of the Hunt.

She was buffeted by it and wanted to close her eyes and fall to the ground. She didn’t. The new Hound looked at her and then raised her voice, slightly higher than the other Hounds but adding a layer of plaintiveness that took their song even higher into the heavens. The Hunter gestured with his spear and the Hounds fell on Brayling’s body to feed.  Rachel did not turn away even then.

The Hunter raised the horn to his mouth and blew three short blasts that nearly knocked Rachel down. He raised his spear and the black horse surged forward and the Hounds flowed around them and down the path. The hoof beats blended into thunder as the Hunt coursed on and on, as it always had and always would.

Rachel stood in the still woods looking up at the moon and trying not to think too much. She walked back to Shasta’s body and lifted what had been the small dog. Rachel carried the body back into the house and laid it on the little doggie bed by the door. Then she went outside and trampled Mr. Brayling’s roses.  

 

 


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