The Swamplands of Central Florida
Early Spring, 1950
First Night. Full Moon.
Max stared down at water so black, it swallowed moonlight as absolutely as the creature he stalked gobbled souls. He and David hadn’t said a word while picking their way between the swampland’s trees and over the cypress knees. They chose every step as if their lives depended on it. Any sound could be the sound that doomed them.
The Beast’s trail had led them to the dark, lapping edges of the swamp’s body. Until now, at least they’d had some semblance of ground under their feet, spongy and wet though it was. Swamp gas reeked in Max’s nose and watered his eyes. He didn’t dare raise his voice above a whisper, even with all the grisly little God-Knows-What trilling and shrieking from God-Knew-Where.
He waited until David had crept up to him, so close the broad rims of their hats brushed. The little wooden balls, dangling from the brims to thwart mosquitoes and gnats, waggled and clacked softly. Max whispered, "I don’t want to go in there."
Max was too fixated on the dark, brackish water licking at his boots to look up. David kept his voice low, but he couldn’t keep amusement out of it. "Alligators are a little low on our list of things to worry about."
Max looked at him. "Do you want to go in there?"
David lost his smirk and gazed down at the blackness. Yeah, Max didn’t think so. But they both knew they had to.
"Shit," Max said. He leaned his shotgun against the nearest cypress and unstrapped the sidearm from his thigh. He looped the gun belt bandelero-style, waited while David did the same with his, then hiked his shotgun tight against his armpit and waded into the murk. "Why the hell did it have to come this way?"
"Enjoys the company of alligators, I suppose," David whispered back, working his way carefully after Max.
Sarcastic old Navajo. "You’re sure it came this way?" Max asked.
David kept wading through. "As sure as you are."
Max wasn’t that sure anymore. Well, actually to be perfectly honest, the truth was that he didn’t want to be sure anymore, now that they were crotch-deep in black water.
The flick of something against the backs of his thighs stopped him cold. He looked down, knowing he couldn’t hope to pierce the water’s black veil. He would never see the six foot snake, or the fifty pound snapping turtle, or the ten foot gator until it had his ass in its jaws.
So quit thinking about it, he told himself, and wade. But when he heard the howl, he stopped. He stared at David. David was staring back.
He leaned close and whispered to Max, "How far, do you think?"
"Hard to say. I’m not even sure which direction it came from."
"We should stop a minute and try to feel it."
"David, it’s really gonna be hard to concentrate while I’m standing in the middle of a gator infested swamp ..."
David didn’t budge. Max heaved a sigh, and then closed his eyes, looking inward for the warning gut-twist. But the only knot in his belly was for the invisible toothies slithering around his legs. This wasn’t the distinctive, rocky clench that warned him of the Beast’s approach. He shifted his shotgun to his left side, removed his right glove and brought his palm close enough to see it in the filtered moonlight of the swamp. He waited.
The pentagram was there. Dim, but fully formed. The Beast wasn’t nearby, but it wasn’t far off either.
Another howl wafted through the swamp gas and cypress. David looked straight ahead. "That way."