(The adventure continues in the swamp as Leo deals with losing his way.)
A shot of adrenaline cleared his head, and quickly. He back tracked on his last few paces, and then a few more, before giving up. The reeds, growing in thick clumps, left too many gaps to clearly make out the way. The ground was too sloppy to make out footprints.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Leo grumbled as he pawed through his pocket for his cell. Charles is going to rub this one in, he thought as the screen lit up.
‘Lost the trail. Will try to back track,’ he thumbed into the cell. He waited, hoping Charles would respond quickly. The message stalled, not going through. A glance at the signal strength showed a depressing no signal indicator.
“This is bad,” Leo muttered to himself. He tried holding the phone up high enough to get even a single bar, enough to get the message out, but to no effect.
There were only two choices: keep moving or stop and wait. Waiting was usually the best approach. His brother had the GPS and knew the geography. It would only make sense he would come looking and be better equipped for the search.
Leo wanted to keep moving. It was a gut feeling that drove him, despite the lack of good sense. It occurred to him that the air felt heavy, almost suffocating. His mind wandered to obscure ideas, maybe even facts, about swamp gases and what mild oxygen deprivation could do. Leo shook his head and got moving.
It made sense that the trails would all be interconnected, Leo reasoned, so finding any trail would ultimately lead to the one he lost. And odds were good that the original trail would be nearest. The shotgun stayed in a ready carry, just the same.
The mist got thicker, somehow, making movement trickier and the hand light nearly useless. Every step was taken with care not to slip or step into soggy ground. It was like being blind. Twenty minutes later, Leo checked his phone to find his text message still hanging, unsent.
“Well, in for a penny,” he muttered to himself as he pocketed the cell and started moving again.
Ten steps later he found himself on a trail. It was hard to make it out, but the gap in the reeds was unmistakable and the ground too firm to be open swampland. Score one for gut feelings, he thought, moving in the direction that felt right. It was only a matter of time, and not losing the trail.
A rare break in the clouds flooded the scene with light and, instinctively, Leo took in the surroundings. The mist limited the light, but for the first time in nearly an hour, he could make out the trail ahead of him for half a dozen yards or so. The rest was open swamp. The encouraging detail was a distant house, the Gibson place, off to his right, barely visible between the reeds. This instantly gave him bearings. The line from the house to his position was at a right angle to the trail, and the house was on the right side, making his direction north. The clean geometry in his head, Leo knew, was not as clean in reality, but better than a moment earlier. The gap in the clouds closed, and the light faded out.
North he continued, hoping to find a way west, presumably back to Charles. The house had seemed close, though a distance was hard to factor out. Charles had to be close, and had to be west of him. The slow, blind man’s walk along the trail continued.
A branch to the left came up some thirty yards later, and Leo nearly laughed out loud. The trail might have turned or twisted, making this a bad move, but it was more likely it would bring him west. He moved along, carefully and slowly through the soup of mist and unsteady ground. Some twenty yards later, he thought he heard something ahead. It was muffled, the direction difficult to pin point, and sounded like something moving in the reeds. There had not been puff of wind since they left the truck, so the sound could only be something or someone up ahead.
The easy math suggested it was Charles. Bears and coyotes were not usually big swamp dwellers, and whatever made the sound was at least that big.
Step at a time, Leo thought. He moved with more care to be silent, as much for stealth as to hear any more sounds ahead. Staying on the trail was proving easier, with practice, and Leo was able to focus on staying low and quiet. He heard the sound again, certain it was something moving in the reeds and directly ahead. Each step was made with great care, and growing angst.
The clouds broke open, just for a moment, again, revealing a crouching figure ahead of him. The details were still blurred, but it could only be Charles. Leo took a short step forward, about to announce his return, when a hand clapped over his mouth and an arm about his waist dragging him back into the reeds. The clouds closed and darkness smothered the swamp.