Jiro half hobbled, half slid down the steep hill, sending showers of rocks sliding everywhere. His vision was hindered a little by the fog.
Skidding to a stop against the boulder where he had left his father, Jiro frantically scoured the area. His father was nowhere to be seen! Had he been attacked? Crawled away? The few streaks of blood left behind offered no answer.
“Dad. Dad.” Jiro kept his voice low, terrified the rogue Malsain might hear him.
Jiro checked around the dead woolly rhino, hoping his father had hidden for some reason. Nothing. He scanned the landscape. Still no sign of his father. Where had he gone?
For a moment Jiro feared the rogue Malsain had gotten here first and attacked Daichi, but he dismissed that notion. The Malsain had not had time to pass him, attack and carry his father away before Jiro had arrived. His father might have hobbled away, even with a broken leg, but where and why? He’d known Jiro would return!
Immobilized with shock, Jiro worried which direction his father had gone. They had no means of communication. What if he set off in the opposite direction searching for his father? What if his father was in serious trouble – the only obvious reason for leaving this spot – and Jiro failed to find him in time?
Once more, Jiro wanted to crumple to the ground under the weight of his duress. He needed his father to return. Make everything okay again. Get rid of the rogue Malsain. Find a way to get them safely off Herne.
But thinking like that wasn’t helpful. He reached for his father’s maxims again.
A calm hunter is a safe hunter. He had to get his emotions under control.
Noboru had always been good at maintaining calm in any situation. He had told Jiro countless times that a clear head allowed one to think better. What would his brother do in this situation?
Jiro tried to imagine what his Noboru would do, and only ended up wishing Noboru was here to help him. He had wanted Noboru to come on his first hunting trip. After all, Noboru had taught him to shoot and track–
Track! He knew how to track. Why hadn’t he done that first?
That’s why you have to remain calm. Push the fear to the back of your mind.
Jiro returned to the spot where he had left his father. He fought down the fear that froze his body and mind, then studied the blood stains more carefully. They were short, so his father had either picked himself up or been carried off; in fact, there didn’t seem to be any signs of a physical struggle at all. He would expect more blood if an animal had attacked. But if his father had driven off a sabre-toothed cheetah, he’d know it would return with a pack, especially since his father was wounded. The dead boar provided too good of a food source for hungry predators. His father would’ve felt compelled to find shelter, and certainly could not make it back up the hill.
But if his father had fled, why hadn’t he left a message? Perhaps he had and Jiro had buried it with rocks when he descended the hill. Jiro dropped to his knees and shoved rocks out of his way, looking for such a message, but he came up empty.
He rose, considering his options. What else was in the area? He wished he had his tablet, but had left that in the ship. His father liked to keep technology to a minimum while hunting.
From what Jiro recalled, land ended several miles to the South at the ocean. The landscape to the west was rocky and barren. Maybe a few caves for shelter, but his father would have had to search blindly for them, something he would know never to do. No, his father would have decided heading toward the forest made the most sense. He could find food, water, and shelter in the forest.
Jiro scanned the top of the hill one last time, relieved he didn’t see the Malsain. Then he headed East.
He scanned the rocks around him for blood or other signs of disturbance. Whether the light fog obscured them, or he was going the wrong way, Jiro didn’t know. He had chosen his direction based upon what seemed to make sense, but without knowing what circumstances drove his father away, he might have guessed wrong.
Around midday, with the winter sun offering scant heat, the rocky landscape quickly gave way to a forest floor covered with dead brown leaves, followed by other vegetation, along with a growing number of trees. With every step Jiro debated turning around and heading back, or trying a new direction. His father wouldn’t go deep into the forest, would he?
Jiro finally spotted footprints on forest moss. The prints were too small, though. At first Jiro thought maybe his father had tread lightly, but upon closer examination, he knew they weren’t his father’s footprints. Nor were they animal prints.
Someone else then.
If those belonged to the rogue Malsain, then his father was in great danger.
Jiro’s instinct was to give chase. Get to his father as quickly as possible. He raised his rifle in his left hand, scanning the forest around him. But instead he recited their father’s second maxim to himself: A patient hunter is a successful hunter.
Running recklessly after his father or whatever had him, Malsain or not, would end badly. He might lose the trail. Or run into a trap. Patience had gotten him this far, and he had to trust it would guide him the rest of the way. He had wanted to show his father his tracking skills. Proving them right now might mean their survival.
Jiro found further signs as he pressed forward – additional footprints, broken twigs on pines, and even a couple of bloodstains on a juniper and a fir. His heart skipped a beat each time he saw the stains, but they were small and rare.
From time to time he would hear the chitter of a squirrel or a bird’s chirp. He flinched at each noise, wildly scanning for his father or the Malsain, then chastising himself for jumping at nothing.
The deeper into the forest he traveled, the harder time he had finding tracks. Not only did the trees grow closer together, but numerous fallen trunks or branches littered the floor, and saplings, vines, and other plants grew over and around it all, coupled with the light fog. He had to remain laser-focused, scanning the area thoroughly for signs of passage.
A short distance ahead, Jiro spotted an opening in the forest that crossed his path. Nearing the gap, he realized it was an old riverbed, roughly ten feet across. A small stream trickled down the middle. He might as well refill his canteen. His father might need the water when he found him.
A squeal up the riverbed drew Jiro’s attention. A woolly rhino bristled twenty feet upstream. Its brown fur reminded Jiro of a grizzly bear, but it was much closer to an elephant in size. Its thick front horn alone was more than three feet long, like a stalagmite.
Before Jiro had a chance to retreat, the rhino charged. Jiro raised his rifle to shoot, straining to hold it straight with only his left arm, and fired. The shot flew harmlessly past the rhino. It continued its stampede.
No time for another missed shot. Jiro ran and dove back into the trees. Pain flooded through his right arm when he hit the ground. The rhino raced past him down the riverbed and out of sight.
Jiro lay on the cold, hard ground for a few minutes, gasping in pain from his wounded right arm. Fortunately, he had just bumped it this time, rather than actually landing on it. He took several deep breaths and the pain subsided to a dull throb.
Once more he had failed. His father had been right. They should have stuck with hunting a sloth.
Jiro used his rifle as support to climb to his knees, then back to his feet. His clothes were covered in dirt and twigs, but he didn’t dust them off. He set his rifle against a tree, then dropped his pack. His right arm cradled against his side, Jiro used his left to unzip his pack and retrieve his water canteen. He took a large swig of water, then gasped in relief. He took one more, then shook the canteen. Maybe a quarter full.
Jiro trudged to the riverbed and glanced downhill where the rhino had fled. It was long gone. He checked back up the riverbed, but didn’t spot any other rhinos. He dipped the canteen down into the icy water and let it fill, then took another swig. The water chilled his teeth. He swallowed. Cold water was refreshing in a way no other liquid could match.
After a couple more gulps, Jiro refilled the canteen, returned it to his pack, and grabbed his rifle. Crossing the riverbed, he picked up the trail again. Jiro wondered once more what happened to his father. He knew his father hadn’t traveled this far on his own. He would have sought shelter a while ago. So what had gotten him and what had it done to him before carrying him off? Had another hunter found him? They wouldn’t have left, though. Unless his father had passed out without revealing Jiro’s presence. All Jiro really knew was the trail he followed, and the few bloodstains he had seen on the way, seemed to confirm that his father had come this way, likely not of his own volition.
To the southeast, out of the fog, appeared a camp built into a modest cave. Moving cautiously through the trees, Jiro closed in. He ducked behind a large tree to survey the camp. A couple of fat logs stood on end like chairs next to the remains of a fire pit. A few small animal skins hung from trees around the campsite, and adorned the cave entrance.
Then Jiro spotted his father, lying on the ground, legs splayed out.
A flood of dread weakened Jiro’s knees.
His father’s wrists were tied, and after a moment, his chest rose and fell slightly. Alive but unconscious. A prisoner.
A Malsain emerged from the cave. This one possessed a darker green hide than the one he’d seen around their ship. Jiro doubted two Malsain just happened to inhabit the same unpopulated moon, so this one must be a rogue Malsain, too.
A rifle hung from the Malsain’s hip. The rifle was half the length of Jiro’s own, like a carbine. A long, curved knife also hung from the belt at its waist. The Malsain likely had more weapons hidden on it. Additional guns, too.
How was he going to fight the Malsain when he could hardly shoot with his left hand? How would he free his father?
Before Jiro could think of any sort of plan, the Malsain who had blown up his ship waltzed into camp.
(Part 4 coming next week!)