The Dark Bones (A Dark Lure, #2) by Loreth Anne White
Cariboo Country. Sunday, September 27, just over twenty years ago.
Whitney’s chest burns as she runs. Her throat is dry. Sagebrush, pine needles, and flint cut into her bare feet. Blood pours down the insides of her legs, leaving sticky traces on the dry grasses in her wake.
She drops into a crouch. Panting, she listens carefully to the ambient sounds of the autumn woods.
Grass pricks her naked buttocks. The ripped fabric of her shirt sticks to her skin. Her left breast pokes through a ragged tear, and bite marks puncture the flesh around the nipple. Her long hair—the same yellow-gold as the wild grasses in which she seeks cover—is caked with sweat and dirt.
A squirrel chirps angrily. She can hear the soft rumble of a distant truck on a logging road at the far end of the lake. A hot, crackling energy presses down over the forest—a thunderstorm is building. Wind stirs, and the whole forest whispers and sways.
But she can’t hear them.
A kestrel keens up high. She glances up sharply. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s reached the forest fringe. Beyond the safety of the fringe lies an exposed meadow. It’s full of fireweed gone to seed, tufts wafting like summer snow over the meadow as thunder grumbles and storm clouds shoulder together. Shadows creep over the forest.
She knows this area. Hidden among dense trees on the opposite side of the meadow are the decaying buildings of an abandoned summer camp. It’s part of Haugen Ranch. She could hide there.
But terror traps her in a vise. They could be watching. Waiting for her to bolt out into the open like a wounded deer. Time stretches. Clouds boil thicker and muscle across the face of the sun. Shadow darkens the meadow.
Has she lost them? Is it possible?
Thunder claps. A wham of pressure slams against her eardrums. Fear spikes her into action. She lurches up and pitches forward into the meadow. Wildly, she smashes through the thick fireweed and grasses, her gaze fixed determinedly on a gap between trees on the other side of the clearing, her bare buttocks bouncing like the bull’s-eye of a fleeing whitetail deer.
She hears a whoop behind her.
The growl of an ATV engine kicks into life from the opposite direction. She’s being circled, cut off.
Tears stream down her face. But she doesn’t stop. She keeps flailing through the tangled foliage, aiming for the sanctuary of those trees across the clearing.
A boom blasts through the air. Birds explode from the canopy. The hot whir of a bullet passes her cheek. She screams and veers sideways, changing direction. Thunder cracks again. The sky turns black. Fat marbles of rain begin to bomb to the earth.
She feels a blow on the back of her shoulder. It knocks the wind from her. The impact, the shock, spins her sideways, and she stumbles and falls into fireweed. For a moment she lies on her back, stunned, hidden by the vegetation. A hot wetness seeps beneath her shoulder. Pain. Incredible pain. All over. She can’t breathe. Drops of rain begin to pelt her upturned face. The sky above her, she realizes absurdly, has turned an eerie orangey purple.
She thinks of her mother. Her mom likes thunderstorms. She thinks of all her mistakes. Of Trevor. Ash—everything that has gone so wrong . . . She begins to float softly away on a sea of indescribable pain. But a shrill whistle slices back into her consciousness. Her eyelids flare open. Her heart kicks into a wild stammer in her chest. She can’t die—can’t—will not die.
She struggles to roll onto her side. But she’s unable to make her left arm work. With her good hand she clutches a fistful of fireweed, pulls herself up into a crouch. It’s pouring now, rain pummeling down upon her back, slicking her hair to her face. Branches twist in a frenzy as wind whips and swirls across the meadow and through the forest. The lyrics of the song she’d been listening to in Ash’s truck snake through her mind.
All I wanna do is live it up
Before I die, have some fun,
In LA. It’s gonna be great.
Party all night, until the sun
Comes up over LA . . .
She was close.
So very close.
To living her dream. To seeing LA. She almost escaped this town. It was all going to be good. Fun. Now all she wants is to stay alive. To go home to her mom. Back to the familiarity of the trailer park.
Hunched over like a chimpanzee, she wobbles her way through the tall fireweed, her left arm dangling uselessly at her side and streaming with blood and rainwater. She aims doggedly for that gap in the trees. But her vision is narrowing. She’s getting dizzy. A clap of thunder explodes right above, and lightning forks in a jagged bolt to the ground. She barely flinches. She reaches the trees.
Then comes another rifle crack. Everything moves in slow motion as bark shrapnel explodes from a trunk near her face. Splinters pierce her cheek and blind her right eye. Mewling and blubbering now, she staggers into the dense woods on the other side of the meadow. Dark here. Very dark. Safe, maybe. The vision in her left eye adjusts to the shadows. Ferns and wild blueberry bushes carpet the forest floor. She locates the trail she knows is hidden beneath that growth and stumbles along it. Voices—she can hear voices. Yelling. Male. Coming closer. The roar of the ATV engine grows louder.
She sees the old cabin ruins covered in dead moss and lichen. Saplings push up between the rotted floorboards. In the shadows of the ruins stands a deer. She freezes. The deer watches her with big, liquid eyes, ears flicking.
But as the ATV comes closer, the deer bounds off with a loud crashing noise through the brush. Panic seizes her. She spins in a circle. Where can she hide? The old cabins will be the first place they look. Why did she even think she could be safe here?
Her gaze settles on a fallen log. It’s a giant ancient cedar. Covered in moss and orange lichen and ferns. She staggers over to the log and drops to her knees. It’s rotted hollow inside, offering the kind of place a bear chooses to hibernate safely through a winter, or where a cougar might den with her kits, safe from predators. She crawls inside, dragging her limp, slippery, bloody arm at her side. The wood encircling her smells like the old chest in which her grandmother used to store her fur coat. It smells familiar. Safe. Like family. Welcoming. Deeper and deeper she goes. Until the space narrows and chokes too tightly around her. There she curls herself into a tight ball deep inside her cave. The cedar is scratchy soft against her bare buttocks and the skin of her arm. The ATV engine growls to a stop somewhere outside the log.
She hears another yell. Another gunshot. She squeezes her eyes shut, waiting to be hauled out by her feet. But the voices grow distant, as does the sound of boots crashing through the forest. The ATV engine fades into the woods.
And suddenly all is quiet apart from rain drumming steadily on her log.
They’re chasing the deer, she thinks. The spirit deer sent to distract them and save her.
Great big palsied shudders take hold of her body. She clasps her hand hard over her mouth to stop her own whimpering. Just in case one of them is still out there, in case it’s a trick to get her to come out.
But she hears them no more.