A distant scream jarred Mac from his sleep.
His hammock swayed. Rubbing his temples, he gazed at the green tinted waves breaking ashore. He’d fallen asleep at his inn’s beachfront bar again.
Had the noise been the terns squeaking, or an auditory nightmare?
A singsong wail pierced the sea song. He closed his eyes, but the sad soul would not be ignored. Sighing, he twisted to his feet, grabbed a first-aid kit from behind the bar, and slogged down the beach.
Clusters of tin-roofed dwellings bracketing a pristine white church formed the village.
On the stoop of a shanty near the church, Carmen wept as her upper body rocked. A priest lent a comforting hand to her shoulder as several villagers stood dumbstruck.
“Lucinda, Lucinda.” Carmen screamed.
“Lucy? What’s happened to Lucy?” Mac asked.
He saw the girl just yesterday. She was delivering laundry for her mother. Mac had been napping and awoke to find the little girl struggling to lift the ankle of his dangling leg back into the hammock. She’d beamed, sans a couple front teeth. The girl shared her mother’s delicate features and black tresses. When Lucy had first come around, he’d begrudgingly accepted the girl’s intrusions, but eventually he welcomed them. He taught her checkers and go-fish. Beyond commercial transactions, she was his sole social connection. Why she didn’t have the sense to steer clear of the island’s only expat, as the others did, was unclear to Mac.
Carmen said, “Mr. Mac, Lucinda is gone.”
“She probably wandered into the jungle and got disoriented. Why hasn’t a search begun?” Mac said.
Mac gazed at the villagers. Many of the most able-bodied islanders worked on the mainland during low season. Lucy’s dad was a deadbeat as far as Mac could tell. One couldn’t cobble together a topnotch search party from those available, but he didn’t understand their uncharacteristic idleness.
“They’re scared, Mr. Mac. El monstruo took her. Please help me. ” Carmen said.
“Monster? Who’s that?” Mac said.
Carmen nodded toward the doorway of her one-room mud-block home.
With the early morning sun penetrating the room, Mac could make out muddy footprints. They were colossal in size, but were shaped like a human print – though with a width disproportionate to their length. Upon closer examination, he spotted a conical indent in the floorboard in front of each toe.
“Someone is trying to fool you.” Mac said to the crowd, and then he asked Carmen, “You didn’t hear anything?”
He didn’t mean it accusatorially, but the words brought fresh tears to Carmen’s eyes. The room was so small and the beds were just feet apart.
“We’ll find her.” Mac said to Carmen; then, turning to the priest, “Padre, will you notify the authorities and organize a search around the village? She may be hiding. I’ll be back.”
The priest nodded solemnly.
Mac ran back to his room. Typical for low season, he had no guests. He gathered essentials into a daypack, and filled a water bladder. Then he readied a lever action rifle, a Colt sidearm, and ammunition for both. The rifle wasn’t meant for this type of job, but it was all he had.
Mac returned to find villagers scouring the village.
“What do you intend to do?” The priest asked.
“Follow the tracks and bring back Lucy. Any idea who’s got her?”
“They call it el monstruo. I’ve never seen it. Few have. Its legend dates back generations, but it’s usually only spoken of by drunkards and confessors fearing harbingers of damnation. Among those who’ve glimpsed it, there’s little agreement other than it’s brown and furry. Some say it’s the size of a man and others say it’s twice the breadth of the stoutest of men. It’s said to live in a remote and treacherous part of the highlands.”
“Surely, you don’t believe in monsters, Padre?”
“Everyone else here believes with iron-clad certainty. Don’t discount that. The Lord works in mysterious- and sometimes strange- ways. Be careful, my son.”
The sounds of the sea faded, supplanted by a cacophony of birds and monkeys. The ground was saturated from daily rains, making tracking easy. Lucy’s abductor stayed on the trail. Doing otherwise would require arduous machete work. The challenge was monitoring ambush threats as he tracked. The trail became ever steeper and his legs tired. He was no longer in shape for this type of work. After all, he’d come to the island to eliminate harsh physical activity and gunfights from his list of occupational hazards.
After a time, the canopy thickened and the groundcover thinned. The claustrophobia of hiking down a corridor of lush vegetation was replaced by a nagging feeling he was being watched from distant shadows. He saw no human prints on this portion of the path- just local fauna and whoever he was tracking. Then the abductor’s long strides came to a stop, and he saw the prints of a barefoot child. His bliss at the discovery was matched by puzzlement about the loop of the prints. As he walked onward the monster prints resumed their solitary journey.
The jungle closed in again and then Mac entered a narrow clearing skirting a gorge. The accompanying silence unnerved him. The only way forward was to cross the chasm via a stout log. The footprints suggested the abductor crossed there. Venturing to the edge and peering downward, he saw angular slabs of rock that had sloughed off the canyon walls. He put his foot on the log and nudged it to test its stability. It didn’t budge.
Looking across the gorge, there was another clearing then a dense grove of bamboo. A break in the bamboo formed a path snaking toward the ridge. He focused on the bamboo to avoid looking down. Stepping onto the log, Mac suppressed his fear of heights. That fear flooded back with his first teeter.
One foot in front of the other. Slowly.
Halfway across the gorge he heard creaking sounds. The bamboo parted into a “V”. He stopped mid-step and looked anxiously at the splay. A shaggy beast sprang through the gap. Its long loose hair billowed while airborne, making it appear deceptively massive. The creature leaned forward and roared from its gaping mouth filled with prominent yellowed teeth.
Mac stepped back while bringing the rifle onto target – the brown furry chest of the beast. His aim aligned as his retreating heel landed on the rounded surface of the log and slipped. He fingered the trigger as he began his plummet. Driven by self-preservation, he twisted his body so he could grab the log. The rifle broke from his grip and dropped into the abyss. He clung to the log with all his strength. The pendulum action of his swinging legs pulled him under the log, but his grip held. He wrapped his legs around the log and hung from its underside with his head toward the monster.
Viewed upside down, Mac saw the beast kick the end of the log with its brawny clawed foot. The deadwood rose up in the air and flew toward the gorge’s lip. Certain he was about to die, Mac continued to embrace the log with all his might. The weatherworn timber caught on the gorge wall’s craggy mix of soil and rock and wedged tightly.
Mac could feel the waning tremors of the monster’s retreating footsteps. He began to crawl toward the monster’s side of the gorge. He crept along, afraid of jostling the log. When he got to the edge, his problem crystallized. The shifting weight was causing the end to slip slightly. If he tried to top the timber, he’d nudge it away from the precipice.
Roots grew out of the canyon wall, and if he could grab them he might be able to pull himself over the edge. He stretched out his arm to test tug the root. It was just out of reach. Desperate, he let go with this legs. Holding onto the log with his arms put his back against the gorge wall and closer to the roots. Stretching out one hand, his fingers touched the root, but still couldn’t grasp it. He swung his legs seeking an extra inch. As he grabbed the root, with a crack the log succumbed to the lateral force he’d imparted. His heart racing, he saw the log dashed to splinters on the rocks.
Pulling himself up, he got an arm over the edge. Then he clawed his way onto the clearing. Exhausted, he lay on his back gasping. His mind momentarily had leisure to contemplate the beast. It was bipedal but with long dangly arms. Clawed and fanged like a predator, but with opposable thumbs. What it was, he didn’t know. Mostly, he remembered the eyes. Its black and brown eyes were intelligent, and… sorrowful?
Mac forced himself up, drew his pistol, and continued along the trail. He’d little doubt that the beast could wrench his limbs off with ease if it got a chance. Fear of ambush was ever-present. He could see nothing beyond the vegetation that lined the trail. He reached the ridge and saw ocean to either side. It wasn’t the pinnacle, but rather a saddle point between two climbs.
He saw the beast climbing toward the more treacherous of the two peaks. A large scree slope merged into a stone tower about thirty feet high. The monster ascended rapidly lunging upward and catching itself, then springing up to a yet a higher elevation. Had he not lost the rifle, Mac could have dispatched the beast, but it outranged his handgun.
By the time Mac got to the scree, the creature was out of sight. The climb was steep, but crags and fissures provided many holds. Unlike the beast, he tried to maintain three points of contact as he worked one limb at a time up the rock. This tedious process saved him when one of his footholds fell away from under him to the talus below.
“Mr. Mac, Mr. Mac.” He heard Lucy’s voice and looked up. She peered down at him from the ledge ten feet overhead.
“Lucy, stay back!” Mac said.
The creature, taking note of Mac, leaned over the edge and roared. Mac lost his footing but clung to the tower by his hands. His feet scrambled for purchase on the rock. The monster picked up a 50 pound rock, and began to lift it overhead.
Mac got a foothold as he drew the Colt. Extending his arm skyward, he fired a round before the creature could dash the boulder down on him. The round hit its chest. The rock carried the monster forward over the ledge.
Its shin hit Lucy, knocking her over. She screamed. With a burst of speed, the monster plucked the girl from the air and pulled her into its torso, her screams muffled in its fur. Its other hand grabbed for the stone wall, catching a rounded pillar of rock. It turned itself so that it’s back slammed into the rough rock leaving the girl unharmed.
Mac reholstered the pistol. He was now eye to eye with the beast. Its rage filled eyes became thoughtful eyes. No doubt the creature would have taken Mac with him if he could have done so and spared the girl. Sensing motion, Mac looked up to see the beast’s fingers skidding on the rock- claws etching stone. The brown fur of its stomach was blood matted. Thoughtful eyes began to glaze.
It handed Lucy to Mac. Eyes once more sorrowful, it fell away from the rock wall.
As he sought a new route back to the village, Mac tried to make sense of events. He didn’t know what the creature was, but it was the last of its kind. Why’d it break the unwritten covenant with the villagers, transgressing their lands? Loneliness was the only motive that made sense. Why Lucy? Perhaps the beast could smell fear and loathing, and Lucy was the only one who didn’t stink of it.