Chelsea leaned against her car, absently scratching Bentley’s ears. The big mutt hadn’t whined once at being left inside. Instead, he had poked his head out the window and settled his chin on her shoulder, bright blue eyes begging to be let out.
“I love you too much.” She snuggled his long neck, fingers threading into his thick brown fur. “You have to stay safe. Stay in the car.”
Keegan’s laugh drew her eye and her camera. He had perched on the bleached wood fence, elbows rested on long legs. The endless prairie sky, pale blue and wispy clouds, stretched out behind him, the Black Hills a brown smudge on the horizon. But what commanded her attention was the rare smile of genuine delight on his thin face. Keegan often laughed, but rarely did he smile. She wanted to draw the emotion, to remember something so pure in a friend.
Good humor twinkling in his dark eyes, he hopped off the fence once the camera stopped clicking. “I swear he understands you.”
“Me too.” She leaned her head against Bentley’s chocolate brown one. “He obeys every command and doesn’t need a leash.”
Keegan roughed up Bentley’s fur. “What do you think happened to him?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. He was starving when I found him. He has shown no desire to take off. He’s my dog now.”
“Agreed.” Keegan leaned against the car and threw an arm over Bentley’s neck. “I’m glad you have him.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “What’s that mean?”
“You have a lot more edge than I remember.” Keegan stared out at the prairie. “Hunters need an edge, but yours is serrated.”
A cold wind blew out of the north and right through Chelsea. Winter would be here sooner, rather than later. She shrugged. “This hasn’t been the easiest year of my life.”
Keegan gave a short, dark laugh. “Gotcha. But I’m glad you have Bentley.”
A smile found its way to her face. “Me too.”
The smell of smoke came with the wind. Chelsea and Keegan stood up as one, though he headed for the fence again. She flung a hand out, glaring at Bentley. “Stay. Stay in the car.”
The big dog sighed again, before laying down in the backseat.
Chelsea put a hand on her ax as she jogged a few steps, catching up with Keegan. “Is that our friends?”
Keegan shrugged, eyes searching the prairie. “Let’s hope so. I’d rather be dealing with a controlled burn than a wild one. No chupacabra is worth trying to outrun fire.”
The plan was simple, if dangerous. This particular chupacabra was a water creature. As long as it stayed in the stream that ran through the pasture, it could easily kill them. A little gasoline in the water and a match would send it looking for a safer home. Keegan and Chelsea would deal with it on land.
However, that didn’t make this safe. The autumn winds carrying the fire to the dry grass was only one danger. An angry water monster with no home was a much larger one.
It didn’t take long for the chupacabra to find them. Rain fell, though the clouds remained wispy and high overhead. Keegan nodded to her as he snugged on heavy work gloves. She pulled her ax, and he reached into his coat.
The weapon he produced was a white can. He flipped it, caught it, and shook the can, all the while searching for the source of the rain.
Eventually, the origin of the storm became apparent. The smoke swirled and moved, circling a body. The creature was hard to see, more impression than presence. Vaguely human and totally translucent, hidden as much by its nature as the water droplets that danced on the wind, between the leaves and wisps of smoke.
Keegan pointed the dewar at the chupacabra and pulled the trigger. As the white mist met the water creature, a crackling crunched in the air; the sound of leaves breaking as the water in them froze instantly.
The chupacabra slowed for a few steps before stopping. Chelsea ran, ax out and at the ready. As she approached the monster, she planted her feet and swung.
The ax crashed into the ice. For a moment it stuck. Then the ice cracked. Limbs fell into the high grass.
“Nice one.” Keegan slapped her arm. “You’ve got a hell of a left hook.”
“So they tell me.” She cocked her head towards the smoke. “Aren’t they supposed to be here?”
“Soon. They are watching the fire.” Keegan pulled a few huge plastic bags out of his jacket. “Help me bag this fucker.”
Chelsea sighed, but picked up a large chunk of ice. Cleaning up monster kill was the worst part of the job. She helped with the biggest chunks, then wandered over to the car.
Bentley sat up, tail thumping against the seat. Chelsea opened the door for him. He pranced and danced, circling the car twice before lifting his leg. Business attended, the huge mutt trotted over to Keegan to investigate the remains of the monster.
“Get away from that, Bentley.” The words came out harsher than she meant. Luckily, Bentley took no offense. He walked away, nose to the ground.
Keegan glanced over at her. “You okay?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Sorry, I don’t want my dog eating chupacabra guts.”
“Yeah, I can dig that, but why are you snapping at both of us?”
Chelsea looked past the smoke at the wide-open prairie. “I don’t think I’m built to be around people for long periods of time.”
“You were the most domesticated hunter I ever knew.” He chucked. “Amber’s that good in bed?”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t remember you being this big of a dick.”
“You’re still avoiding the issue here. You can be pissed off at life, but why are you pissed at me? Excluding my churlish dickishness that your attitude inspired.”
Bentley brushed against her legs, forcing her to step to the side. She scratched at his neck. “Are you gonna get creepy and hit on me just because we hunted something together?”
Keegan chuckled as he bagged the last of the ice. “You make sex with me sound so attractive.”
“Answer the damn question.”
Gathering the bags into a backpack, he avoided her gaze. “Look, Chelsea, I’m not the one making things weird.” He hurried over to the car.
Chelsea popped the trunk with the keyfob. “But you are the one avoiding questions at the moment.”
Keegan slung his backpack into the trunk. “Yeah, I am. Just leave it at I’m not the one making things weird.”
What the hell does that mean?
The pain on his face cut off the question. Whatever else was going on, Keegan was a friend.
She sucked much needed air. “C’mon, let’s pick up the other two and grab a beer.”
Keegan leaned on the roof of her car. “You still don’t know their names, do you?”
“Nope.” She let Bentley in the back, before claiming the steering wheel. “You coming?”
He let out a huff of a breath that might have been an attempt at a laugh. “Yeah. Thanks for the ride.”
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