Chapter 2: The Rustler
Balancing two overloaded trays of coffee, Kerri shouldered open the back door of the dimly-lit warehouse and slipped inside. Squinting against the lower light, she was relieved to find each monitor station double staffed and attentive, the single row of fluorescent lights Jim allowed to stay lit casting stark angles of drifting dust motes high over their heads.
Nodding in satisfaction, she moved on past the row of lit monitors to the small office in the back, dropping off drink orders as she went.
“Lose anyone last night?” she asked, not bothering to hide the cynicism in her voice.
“Sorry, Ker,” Jim announced with a wry grin. “He’s still in the running.”
Kerri rolled her eyes, knowing without needing to hear his name who Jim was talking about. “Ditsy Darren lives to fight another day?”
Jim nodded, accepting a flat white from her. “Though you missed the mini-exposé he did on the importance of knowing the differences between red currants and red baneberries this morning. Came across pretty believable.”
Kerri shook her head. “God save me.” Tossing the empty trays in the recycling bin, she took a sip of the black French roast remaining.
“…Though we did have two call Bugout this morning,” he went on, voice hesitant.
Kerri choked on her sip, looking up at him in disbelief. “Two?”
He nodded, jerking his head to gesture her over to his monitor. “One of the campers from Pennsylvania and the backwoods history teacher from Tennessee.”
“Really? I had high hopes for the teacher. What weeded them out?”
“Said they kept hearing noises in the night.”
Kerri blinked. “Noises? It’s the freaking Rocky Mountains, of course there’s going to be noises! What did they expect?”
Jim just shrugged. “Dunno, but they both said the exact same thing when they called Bugout.”
“Do you have the footage.”
“…Working on it…” Then, after another couple of mouse clicks, an infrared image of John Keller, 43 year-old Tennessee mountain man and history teacher popped into large screen view. The sound of crickets became loud as Jim adjusted the volume and Kerri heard the low call of a great horned owl ghost out of the speakers.
“…I just don’t know. No. No, there it is again…”
Jim made some adjustments to the controls, and the sound of crickets grew louder. As John Keller went still and silent in the video, the rustling of brush joined the noises of the night insects. Kerri wrinkled her brow, tipping her head as she listened.
“Whatever it is, it’s big,” Keller went on, voice barely above a whisper as he held his camera close to his face. “But what worries me ain’t that.” Another pause as the rustling grew closer, the rhythm of the movement leaving no question that it was something big walking around.
Kerri frowned deeper as she listened. Silence fell over the small room as whatever was walking around outside of John Keller’s shelter came to a thudding halt, seemingly right next to his head by the mountain man’s wide-eyed expression. A sheen of sweat was visible across his forehead. Then, after a pregnant pause, the creature stepped away again. But something sounded wrong. The rhythm was… wrong.
Keller took a deep breath, blinking and raising his brows as the sound disappeared. “Naw, I been in the hills all my life. Big don’t bother me.” And he shook his head, still staring at the wall of his flimsy shelter. “What bothers me is… that sucker weren’t on four legs.”
Kerri felt a chill race from tip to toe at his words, her own mind confirming the burly mountain man’s assessment. “Trail cams?”
Jim nodded. “I started them uploading, but they’re remote, it’s going to take a bit.”
Absently, she nodded, still replaying the heavy, even, two-part thumping of the night creature walking around Keller’s tent. “What about the other?”
Frowning, Jim leaned in and flipped over to another camera. Waiting, Kerri listened as the extreme-camper from Pennsylvania cowered against the exact same noises—disturbing footfalls of a heavy, two-beat gait.
“They both said the same thing on Bugout this morning,” Jim explained. “The rustlers came five or six times in the night. At one point even going so far as to jostle Keller’s shelter. Unnerved them both so bad they dialed out at first light.”
Kerri was steadily shaking her head. What on earth? “Jim, I want to see those trail cams as soon as they’re uploaded. I—”
But a clamor from the other room cut off her words. Straightening, she turned to face the wide safety-glass window just as one of the viewers jogged to a halt outside the small office. Not bothering to knock, he swung the door in. “We’ve got a warm body on screen.”