I turned the map slightly to the side squinting over the top of it trying to make sense of the markings. An exasperated sigh caught my attention and I lowered the map to turn toward my companion.
“I’m pretty sure it’s this way,” I said, trying to hide the doubt in my voice.
“We are completely lost aren’t we?” Eric asked, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
“Not completely, we are definitely somewhere on this map,” I said.
Eric sighed again and leaned back against a tree with his backpack. I was sure he regretted carrying so much of our gear by now. Even if we had made it back to the car when we were supposed to he’d have been sore from carrying so much. The added two hours hadn’t done much to improve his disposition.
“I thought you knew how to read it?” he asked.
“Yeah, It made a lot more sense when we were still by the river. Now it’s just a mess of greens and squiggly lines,” I gestured at the worn paper in my hands.
Eric looked over at the map as if he wanted to snatch it away from me, but to his credit he didn’t. He did continue to pout however.
“You may as well get out something to eat,” I told him, smoothing the map open on a nearby rock for a better look.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“You haven’t eaten since breakfast, we’ll never get back if you get sick now,” I said.
Eric bit his lower lip slightly considering his response, the green of his eyes flashed briefly up to meet mine and I knew I’d won the argument as he shrugged out of his pack letting it drop softly on the ground. He knelt beside it and zipped it open.
“Do you want anything?” he asked, holding up a granola bar.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said taking it from him.
We munched our granola bars in silence. Eric avoided meeting my gaze, choosing instead to monitor the activities of a nearby ant colony. The silence continued as we re-shouldered our packs and began to move again, Eric falling into step quietly behind me.
He made for a somewhat large and ominous shadow following behind me that way, his tan skin blending into the darkness of the forest floor. Some of the others didn’t like working with him for that very reason, but I’d grown accustomed to his stature and the stealthy way he managed to carry himself.
We made quite the pair, me with my compact figure and pale skin contrasting against his large muscular frame and deeply browned complexion.
I heard a twig snap from somewhere behind me causing the corner of my lips to tug down slightly. It would have been easy to write it off as nothing, but I knew better than to ignore my instincts.
“Right side,” Eric said, his voice barely a whisper.
I nodded my head slightly to indicate that I had heard him and continued walking forward. I closed my eyes slightly and tilted my head back inhaling deeply through my nose. The woodsy smell of trees and mud swarmed my senses. I pushed those smells aside and tried to pick out another smell, different from the others.
Eric grabbed my shoulder suddenly jerking me to a stop. I snapped my eyes open and glanced down at the rock I’d nearly tripped over.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Can’t place it,” I admitted.
He nodded as if he’d expected as much and released his grip. I stepped around the rock and continued walking. Eric fell back into step behind me, but I could feel him walking closer this time. The hairs on the back of my neck tingled slightly as a drip of sweat slipped past them.
It wasn’t long after that when we heard the second twig snap. I glanced up at the bits of blue sky peeking between the tree tops. There was already some pink starting to mingle with the blue signaling the onset of dusk. I stopped walking.
Eric managed to catch himself before he ran into my back, but only just barely.
“Scout left, circle back” I said dropping my pack to the ground slowly.
Eric glanced behind us tensely, his pack slowly lowering to the ground.
“We’ve got to be close now,” he said.
“Maybe, but we can’t take the chance,” I replied. I shifted myself toward the right and began carefully making my way through the dense foliage.
Off the main path the smell of rotting leaves and wet wood was nearly staggering. I picked my way carefully between the trees and bushes, stepping over the branches and vines that threatened to snag my sneakers.
Finally I had gone far enough, I hunched down low and quietly made my way back the direction we’d come from, moving slightly back towards the path. This was costing us valuable time and as I continued my slow progress I began to worry that I’d made a mistake. Perhaps the sound had just been some hapless woodland creature not smart enough to stay clear of us.
A dark shape moved suddenly into my line of sight. I dropped low and held my breath as it slipped just beyond the trees that surrounded the path. It moved swiftly and I lost sight of it just as quickly as I had managed to spot it.
I nearly slipped on some wet leaves as I stood back up and made my way back to the path. I slid behind a tree and peeked around the side down the path toward the direction the shape had traveled. Whatever it was it had been following us for some time.
Glancing down I tried to make out some imprints in the mud, but the mess of leaves coating the ground made it impossible to discern anything.
“Did you see it?” Eric asked. I glanced up, momentarily startled, but managed to quickly recover myself.
“Any idea what it was?” I asked him as he pushed past some branches blocking his way back onto the path.
“Some kind of animal I guess,” he said.
“Pretty big animal,” I said.
Eric shrugged and looked away.
“Lets go get our stuff,” I said, “We’re going to have to hurry if we want to make it back before dark.”
By now the sunlight was already beginning to wane. I wasn’t holding out much hope of making it back to the car before we had to break out the flashlights, but I figured now wasn’t the time to sound pessimistic.
We walked a ways back down the slim path to where we’d left the back packs. Trouble was there were no longer any back packs to be found.
Eric cursed softly, I agreed, and the sun continued to set.
We wasted more precious time searching the area, but aside from some matted grass where the packs had sat there was nothing to find. Eventually we gave up and decided to continue on our way.
My stomach growled miserably, breaking the silence.
“You okay?” Eric asked, his tone implying more reflex than actual concern.
“I’ll be fine once we get out of here and grab some dinner,” I replied.
At the mention of dinner Eric’s stomach chimed in with a growl of it’s own. I grinned at him. He was less than amused and crossed his arms again.
I considered teasing him to try to lighten his mood, but Eric wasn’t the sort to react well to such things so I left him alone.
The light had gone gray around us by the time I caught the first whiff of something out of place, asphalt.
“We’re near the road,” I said.
“The right road?” he asked.
I shrugged, the map was tucked firmly inside my pack, wherever that was.
“I guess it’s better than wandering around the woods all night,” he said.
A soft rumble in the distance caught our attention. A small ways ahead of us I could just make out the dim headlights of a car poking their way through the tangle of the wilderness.
“Hurry,” I called as I shot off toward what I assumed to be the road.
Our footfalls pounded in my ears as we ran, ducking under branches and hopping over roots as we made our way off the path. The rumble of the car engine increased to a mild roar as we made our way closer to the road. The headlights flashed between the trees, reflecting in my eyes and blinding me for a second. Eric wasn’t able to catch me this time and I went sprawling to the ground. I heard a crunch as he dove sideways to keep from running me over. The engine sound got softer and softer as the car continued on into the distance.
Now it was my turn to curse as I rolled onto my side and grabbed at my knee. I could feel the slice in my jeans where the warm sticky blood was seeping out of me. Eric was kneeling over me a second later, pushing my hands away so he could get a look at the damage.
“It’s too dark, I can’t tell how deep the cut is,” he said wiping the blood away with his hand over and over.
I breathed in and out deeply trying to regain my composure. I was just starting to calm down when something made a sound from the direction we had come from stopping my breath in my throat.
“Can you walk?” Eric asked looking back over his shoulder into the darkened woods.
“I think so,” I replied, suddenly not all that sure. He stood and extended his hand to me. I grabbed onto him and he easily drug me to my feet where my knees promptly buckled nearly sending me sprawling again.
Eric slid his arm around my waist holding me tighter this time as I regained my balance. Once my feet felt like they were actually going to stay put I released my death grip on his arm and managed to stand on my own. I took one step, then another, my knee burning as I moved.
“We need to get to the road,” I said, hobbling along as best I could.
There was a rustling, closer this time. I glared toward the road, willing it closer when another sound caught my attention, another car.
Eric reached out for me, but I pushed him off.
“Get to the road, if you can flag down that car they can give us a ride back to the lot,” I said.
“Come with me,” he said, trying again to reach for me.
“I’ll meet you there in a minute, but if you don’t go now we’ll miss the car,” I said angrily.
“What about?” he started.
“Just hurry up and go, I’ll be right there,” I said sternly.
He hesitated glancing back into the woods.
“Eric, hurry,” I said. The headlights were visible now, the car would be passing by soon.
Swearing he broke into a run, I continued jerking my leg forward trying to keep up, but he was quickly becoming just a dark shape mixed with all the other dark shapes that stood before me. Soon I couldn’t even pick him out.
I focused on the headlights, growing closer and closer. I hoped he made it in time. A growl behind me stopped me in my tracks as I spun around. Something moved between the trees, in the darkness I could only make out a slight glint of what I assumed were its eyes.
Behind me I heard the sounds of tires screeching to a halt. Eric had made it to the road.
The growling grew louder as the mass moved towards me. I stepped backwards trying to create some distance, but it was no use. The furry beast raised up onto it’s hind legs,arms spread wide,it’s claws glinting in the dying light. It was the largest bear I had ever seen.
Eric called my name, he was coming back for me. I took another step backwards, toward Eric and the road.
The beast sniffed the air and roared,so close I could smell the rankness of it’s breath over the dirt and leaves.
Another growl broke out low from behind me then another. There was a grunting noise followed by a piercing howl. The bear lowered himself down, eyes darting behind me. For just a brief moment I thought maybe I’d gotten lucky, maybe the bear would run away, but as it raised it’s hackles preparing to charge all hope I’d had disappeared.
I opened my mouth to scream as the bear heaved itself toward me, my arm covered my face instinctively.
There was a smacking sound followed by a series of growls and barks as the wolves propelled themselves onto the bear. The smell of animal and blood overwhelmed me and I fell backwards into Eric’s arms. He pulled me away as the wolves continued their onslaught.
“Did you see the size of that thing?” I asked as Eric carried me to the road.
“Really? That’s all you have to say?” he snapped.
“Um…Thank you?” I asked. Eric just sighed.
The engine of the pick up was still running on the road. Eric scooped me up and planted me on the open tailgate. He went around to the open passenger door and dug out a flashlight and a first aid kit. Then he made his way back and began fussing over my wounded knee.
I could still make out the sounds of the battle going on in the forest. The bear let out another roar, the end of which was drowned out by a victorious howl.
Eric finished tidying up my leg and stowed the first aid kit back in the truck, slamming the door shut.
“Should probably turn off the engine, don’t wanna run out of gas,” I called to him.
Eric moved around the front of the truck and slid into the drivers seat the engine died and he got out and shut the door.
I continued watching the line of trees at the edge of the road for any sign of life.
“Think they’re almost done?” I asked as Eric came around the back of the truck and leaned against the fender, arms crossed again. .
“They’ll probably gonna feed, not often they get such a big kill.” He said.
“You should go get some, I know you’ve got to be starving.” I said.
Eric shook his head. “I can wait.”
“Thanks for coming back for me,” I said glancing up at him.
“Yeah,” he replied.
The sound of laughter cut him off as Jason stumbled to the edge of the trees, his bare skin shinning in the moonlight.
“You guys missed one hell of a fight,” Jason grinned.
“That wasn’t a fight, it was a massacre,” Ty laughed coming up behind his brother. His chest was still covered in blood.
“Where’s Grayson?” Eric asked unfolding his arms.
“Getting in a few more mouthfuls before you two take over.” Jason said.
“Yeah, it’s not often he gets to eat before the Alpha.” Ty said.
“Sorry boys, Eric’s got me all bandaged up, looks like I’ll have to settle for some fast food on the way home,” I said, glad to see they were all okay.
“We can go now if you want” Eric said.
“No way go get you some bear before we go, no telling when we’ll have a chance like this again,” I said with a smile.
Jason found his pants in the dark and pulled them on, stepping out from behind the bushes. Ty was still groping through the darkness trying to find his clothes.
Eric considered my offer and slowly slid out of his t shirt, resting it gently on the side of the truck.
“I’ll be right back,” he said to me as he strode off toward the tree line, undoing his belt as he walked.
Jason came up to the truck carrying an armload of assorted clothing he’d managed to recover.
“Are you sure you didn’t find my pants?” Ty called, still beating through the underbrush.
“Sorry little bro, no gotta,” Jason said. He winked at me and I stifled a laugh.
“Your backpacks are in the truck, Ty picked them up a few hours ago while we were tracking you,” Jason said. He tossed the pile of clothes down next to me and grinned.
“Technically you didn’t find us,” I said.
“Oh, I beg to differ. I nearly ran Eric over when he came running out of the trees.”
“Exactly, we found you,” I replied.
“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that,” Jason said cocking his head.
“Jay, toss me some pants, I’m not finding anything over here,” Ty yelled, still taking cover behind the bushes.
“Come up here and get them yourself,” Jason called back.
Ty cursed at his brother as Eric and Grayson emerged from behind him walking side by side. Grayson still had some blood on his face from the hunt, but Eric looked as clean as ever. Eric was already half dressed and Grayson had his boxers on, having cleverly left them in an easy to find location.
When they reached the truck Eric grabbed his shirt off the fender and tugged it easily over his head. Grayson picked his own clothes from the pile and started getting dressed as well.
“Come on guys,” Ty whined.
Jason just chuckled, but Eric grabbed Ty’s balled up pants and tossed them down to the tree line. Ty emerged a moment later, half dressed and blushing despite the darkness. When the guys had finished dressing Grayson hopped in the back of the truck with me while the others climbed into the cab.
As the engine started up again I could hear Jason laughing about something through the window. Grayson slid close to me as we drove back to the parking lot to collect my car.
“Does your leg hurt?” he asked.
“A bit, but I think I’ll live,” I said.
“That bear could’ve got you,” he said.
“Naw, I was just about to shift and take him out myself when you guys showed up,” I said.
“You’re a bad liar,” Grayson said.
“Yeah, I am,” I admitted, snuggling against him.
I’d have a lot of explaining to do when we finally got home, but for the moment I didn’t even care. My pack was with me and we were safe. Sometimes that’s all that matters.