Chelsea leaned against the car door, eyes glued to Bentley. Curled up on the backseat, he seemed to be asleep.
Please stay asleep until this is over.
Keegan paced in front of her, long, thin legs eating up the distance between the dark headlights. The other monster hunters stood around in shifting groups of denim, flannel, and leather. Nobody talked much, and all the laughter was short and sharp in the ever-blowing prairie wind.
The last report had Taku-He five miles out on Donovan’s farm and heading towards the trap. The hunters who would close the barn doors stood ready. Four to push the door shut once Chelsea’s party moved in, four more to secure everything.
Once the monster showed up, they would rush forward, screaming and driving it into the barn. Not only was there a baited trap, but the building would hold Taku-He until they could force him into it. He was big and a predator, but shy and hated loud noises and confrontation. As long as he was scared, but not angry, the danger was minimal.
A smudge of smoke polluted the horizon. Before Chelsea could ask if anyone else saw it, Beau Chang, all leathery skin and tall cowboy hat, waved the hunters to their feet. “Here they come!”
Chelsea pulled her axe, standing behind the hunters with their guns. Taku-He was stronger and faster than any bear, jumped farther than the biggest cat, and could get up on hind legs to attack. It was also smart enough to be scared of guns.
He tore out of the field, with the truck on his tail. The monster headed not for the barn, but for the twenty or so hunters Chelsea stood with. The hunters in front lifted their guns to the air. As the cryptid approached, Beau’s arm dropped, and the hunters fired. Taku-He’s smooth gait stuttered.
Beau signaled for another round from the hunters. At the thunder of the guns, Taku-He stopped, spun around, and headed for the open barn doors.
“Go, go, go,” Beau Chang waved them forward. For a moment, everyone stood still. A cry came from the right, and then another. Chelsea’s throat and her legs ached. She had no idea she was running until hunters passed her. Still screaming, she ran faster, keeping up with the pack.
Taku-He waited for them in the barn. Somewhat bear-like with a hulking, fur-covered body on all fours, the monster quickly rose to two legs. Then it seemed more simian than ursine. What had looked like paws took on the quality of hands, and Taku-He had a face. A defined human jaw, and recognizable pectorals.
The barn had a sweet putrescence about it. The meat from the butchered hogs had been sitting out, and even the ever-growing cold hadn’t been enough to stop the stink. A good thing though, as Taku-He loved meat.
Behind the monster stood a black wall, with a single opening. Beyond that hole was the cage. Taku-He would be easier to kill once it was contained. But first they had to force it in to that cage.
Yelling came from outside the barn. Chelsea didn’t much care, Taku-He was inside the barn and that was her priority. Her hatchet at the ready, she yelled and waved her empty hand along with the rest of the hunters.
Taku-He, still on two feet, backed up a few steps, then leapt. He cleared the hunters easily, clinging to the beams of the roof.
Chelsea turned, heart pounding. The doors to the barn were still open. Taku-He swung and the furry red body flew through the air towards freedom. Once the monster cleared the doors, it stopped suddenly.
“Shoot it!” The call came from inside the barn, but it was the sound from outside that got her attention. A familiar sound, a voice, but not human. A sharp, deep bark that rose the hair on her neck and arms.
“Bentley!” She pushed at the hunter next her, who had raised a rifle. “That’s my fucking dog out there. Don’t shoot.”
Keegan reached for her arm. Chelsea punched him the ribs before hauling ass, yelling for her dog. In front of her, Taku-He still hesitated. Red fur shifted to the left, then to the right, shuffling in fear. Chelsea made herself as small as possible and inched for the door.
Bentley’s angry barks continued as she cleared the monster. Her huge mutt stood his ground, dark fur raised on his neck and back, bright blue eyes murderous.
“No, Bentley. Bad dog. Go to the car.” She pointed into the dark, terror freezing her brain.
Bentley took a backward step, then shuddered and advanced. Taku-He paced and pattered, before turning tail and running back to the barn. The hunters there scattered to either side, avoiding the giant monster.
Taku-He dropped to all fours between one step and the next, gaining speed. Red fur dived into the black hole built into the false wall. The entire structure shook as the cage door slammed shut behind it.
Chelsea’s knees gave out as her tears fell. Bentley crawled to her, belly scraping the floor, tail beating a happy tattoo, nonetheless. She buried her face in the fur of the dog’s back. Once she cried herself out, she ran her fingers over Bentley’s legs and body, looking for hurts.
“You really do have a mean left hook.” Keegan rubbed at his ribs as he squatted beside her. “Is he okay?”
She nodded, unable to speak.
“You know, you may just have to accept that he’s going to get out and try to save you.”
She shook her head.
“It’ll be easier on your car’s windows.”
She sobbed out a laugh and wiped at her eyes. “What am I going to do with him?”
Keegan flipped dark hair off his nose. “Give him away, or accept his help. That’s literally it.”
“I c-can’t.” Tears rolled down her cheeks again. Bentley whined, sat up, and licked her face.
A warm arm wrapped around her, but Keegan said nothing. She stayed here, petting her crazy, stupid, awesome dog until Beau Chang hurried over.
The little man adjusted his cowboy hat. A huge grin strained his lined face. “That brute of yours… we might have lost Taku-He without him. He’s a smart bastard. Tunneled out of your backseat and popped the trunk as soon as you charged. We tried to grab him, but he was slicker than a greased pig.”
Chelsea leaned forward and grabbed the fur of Bentley’s face. “You’d better be as smart you seem since I can’t keep you out of hunts.”
Bentley’s tongue hung out, and he yipped. The chuckles from the other hunters didn’t thaw the lump in her chest at all.
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