Todd Sampson

Pack Instinct

 

 

Like most night-crawling gamblers with too many shots of whiskey floating in their bloodstream, Charlie Gibbs knew about the ghost road between Beecher Island and Sandsage. He knew about the dangers of using it: soft shoulders, deer on the road, narrow as the path to heaven, and no one around for miles to help if he had vehicle trouble. And up to the point where he’d lost control of his truck, taking the road hadn’t seemed like much of a risk at all; in fact, it seemed like a sure bet. What were the odds that the county maintainer would finally decide to grade the neglected road and then abandon a pile of stuff in the middle of it to finish after the weekend? Charlie turned off the headlights. Odds. Everything was odds. If only his winning streak at the dog fights had held out a little longer…

Above Charlie, an orange glow drew his attention. Still lit, he mused gratefully.  Yielding to gravity, he let his arm dangle over his head to retrieve the half-smoked cigarette. His fingers were shaking as he brought the cigarette to his mouth and sucked in a long drag. Tom was going to kill him for this. Not just for rolling the truck, but for the cargo he had probably killed. Blowing out a thick stream of smoke, Charlie noticed something beneath the quiet song of the crickets, a low rumble. Maybe a tire rubbing on the fender, he thought. After rotating the steering wheel side to side, the rumble persisted. He took another drag from the cigarette and exhaled worriedly. Growling.  There was no denying it now, he had heard that sound too many times in the throats of these deadly pitbulls.

As the growling intensified, there was a change in its direction. Now it seemed louder in his right ear. He could no longer hope that they were still in their crates. If only he had given them treats or praise for winning their fights instead of beating them so much. This time their pitmaster was the captive: afraid and battered without a friend in the world.  

“Mac,” he called, gently, but only growling came back. “Dagger…is that you?” A shrill scratching sound pierced his ears as one of the dogs clawed at the windshield. Through the spiderweb of splintered glass he could make out the scarred face of his top-earning pitbull, Mac.

A faint whimper called from behind the dog, and Mac left to investigate. Several minutes passed with no other sounds. Wishing the rifle behind the seat was closer at hand, the truck driver waited a few more minutes before risking any movement or sound that might bring them back.

Pinned between the steering wheel and the seat, Charlie barely had the range of motion to fumble around for the phone in his pocket.

He selected the last person on the recently called list.

His associate didn’t answer the first round of ringing, so he tried again.

“What is it, Charlie?”

“Hey, Tom.  Afraid I got some bad news. I mean, I’m alive, so not all bad news. But the truck’s totaled…”

Tom sighed and didn’t respond for a long time. “Where are you?”

“Few miles out, I took the ghost road.  Shouldn’t have to bribe any cops.”

“Need a wrecker, I take it,” Tom offered, yawning.

“Yeah, won’t be rolling out of here.”

“How about my dogs?”

“They’re alive, but they wandered off. Whoever you send, they might want to come prepared.”

“Right.”

“It was the shoulder, Tom—I got too close and it just sucked me in.” He coughed, wincing at what was most likely bruised ribs.  “Don’t worry, we’ll find ‘em.”

“Sure we will.”

 

~

 

John Bledtzer had a dark secret. In the small farming and ranching community of Sandsage, secrets didn’t last very long. Most of the residents had lived there for generations and seemed to think they had a natural born right to know everyone’s business, no matter how private. John Bledtzer knew first hand that escaping the town gossip was especially difficult if your family had money. The Bledtzer family, arguably, was seated at the very top of the food chain. The first evidence of this prestigious position in the community was simple land accumulation. North of Sandsage, the property on either side of the highway for thirty miles was theirs. Included in that area was a substantial feedlot that dwarfed the surrounding competition. Along with owning a few offshore drilling rigs, the Bledtzers also had oil wells on most of their property. It wasn’t that other families didn’t have wells and cattle and land, they just didn’t have the driving ambition to grow their dynasty properly. That was something the Bledtzers never shied away from. For as long as the Ogallala Aquifer supplied water for cattle and corn, the Bledtzers would dominate Sandsage.

Over the years, general consensus seemed to imply that the Bledtzers wouldn’t be happy until they owned everything. A ridiculous fear, but money did that to people.  John, in particular, didn’t settle well with others. And when it came to mingling with so-called hunters at dinner parties, he never walked away without a new enemy—if he could help it. Sandsage was stuffed to bursting with little hunters boasting their little hunting stories that simply withered in the shadow of his game room. Mule deer, whitetail, even bears and mountain lions—none of them could hold a candle to taking an African lion.

When they weren’t throwing back Coors Light and watching football, the Elmer Fudds, as he called them, crafted stories about the “true” source of his wealth. Mafia ties were the latest spine-tingler going around. If only they could find something truly scandalous to sink their teeth into—something to bring John down to their level in some small measure—maybe then they could forgive him for rubbing Africa in their noses year after year.

Of course, he couldn’t blame anyone for wanting what he had. Everyone envied a lottery winner. But money, as his father used to say, was a responsibility that not many in the world ever wore well. Most people didn’t have the discipline to direct and channel the power that wealth inevitably brought toward any sort of healthy end. An individual had to be trained to harness that power, to not waste a single opportunity to invest and grow one’s dynasty. Without an iron soul, money always ended up possessing. To be its master was serious, manly business that very few ever appreciated.

There was no need to buy an airplane, or date a supermodel, or travel incessantly.  Even his lifelong trophy hunting obsession had to be corralled with self-imposed limitations.

One trip to Africa a year. No exceptions. He could have afforded dozens, but his childhood training was too ingrained. A time for work, a time for play. There were no shortcuts. It didn’t matter how much wealth he acquired. Abandon discipline and he might as well curl up with the bums and a brown bag. Discipline was the only thing holding any life together.

The trouble was, as of late, John’s discipline was slipping. Rather than excessive drinking or smoking, something he would have quickly recognized and put and end to, the subtlety of this addiction was its camouflage.

What had once been a guilty little pleasure was now his mainstay in life. Most days, if he was being honest, it was his only reason for getting up in the morning. Little by little, this secret had burrowed its way into his soul and grown fat as he fed it over and over. And now, though it shamed him to admit it, he knew he would never stop. It was cruel, cheap, low-class, and vulgar, completely unmentionable in any social context.

Her name was Heidi. A beautiful pitbull with a fighting spirit that dwarfed any creature he had ever encountered on the planet. There was simply nothing that could best her in a one-on-one match-up.

Fear of imprisonment kept John from involving Heidi in a dog ring. But there was  no need to prove her in such a way. The wild provided ample opportunities to see what she could do. Coyotes and snakes made up the majority of her fights, but there was really no challenge in those. The occasional badger was always the hope of the day. It was unfortunate they lived so far from the Rocky Mountains—and that he had so many mundane business matters to attend to—otherwise she might have a bear by now.

Today was certainly no challenge for Heidi. It was the third coyote of the morning and she didn’t have a scratch on her. The present victim was almost done kicking. Heidi’s eyes were closed in utter bliss as she held fast to the coyote’s throat. This was all she cared about. High-stakes brawls or run-of-the-mill exterminations. She killed because it brought her relief. This was her time to be free of the leash, to finally accomplish what she was bred to do—take life.

There was never a need to prod or coax Heidi to load up and find prey. Her eyes might be closed after breakfast, but she was always listening, waiting for him to assign the hands their work for the day and then casually invite her to come “check the cattle” with him. Which was mostly an unnecessary post—anyone on the payroll could have been asked to to it—but it was a convenient way to find coyotes without attracting attention. Complications with newborn calves always brought a curious varmint or two.

The coyote in Heidi’s jaws kicked its last and she immediately lost all interest. It was definitely all about the kill, not the feast. Wild game just wasn’t her thing. She didn’t care how long she had to wait for it—beef was all this pitbull cared to eat. Lame stock or not, beef was probably a bad thing to give a ruthless killing machine like Heidi, but she left the healthy cows alone, so he saw no harm in letting her have a leg or two before the dead truck took the rest.

Tom “The Rendering King” Schroeder’s dead truck. That was a sight John never grew accustomed to. So much time and money down the drain. He kicked dust into the coyote’s eyes. “One less of you, anyway.”

On to the joyous task of getting a head count together for Mr. Schroeder. Hopping into the cab of his immaculate black Tundra, he paused to watch Heidi sniffing at the ground. At it already, he thought, and started the truck. He let her venture up the trail a little ways to see if she found a den. Before she journeyed out of sight, he slapped his hand against the door. “Load up.”

She looked back at him, inquisitively, then pointed back at the trail, as if to say, “There’s still coyotes out here.”

But, sadly, play time was over.  “Well…”

The pitbull hesitated a moment longer then obeyed and leaped onto the tailgate.

 

~

 

“Boss, you better get over here.” Roy Broderick muttered into the phone in his usual bored and slightly-irritated manner. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have your eye for this stuff. I guess a coyote could have done it, but those don’t usually leave this much behind. Might be a mountain lion.”

John finished pouring his coffee, a smile sneaking into the corner of his mouth. Heidi’s first mountain lion, right before their trip to Africa. This was going to be a good day.  “Heifer or calf?”

“Hard to say. Could have dragged the calf off. Which says mountain lion again—gotta be stronger than a coyote for that.”

“Where you at, Roy?”

“68.”

“Be there shortly.”

John hung up. Heidi had been studying him the whole time, hoping for some good news. He smiled and teased her with an extra long drink of coffee.  “Should we go have a look at those other heifers, see if we can’t get you some proper training?” Heidi barked and ran to the door, tail thumping like a hammer on the floor.

John set down the empty cup. “You never get enough, do you?”

She whimpered, her tail thumping the floor even harder as he stood up and stretched.  “Me neither, girl. Let’s get out of here.”

 

~

 

John stood over the heifer carcass, bored of the telltale signs he saw there. Coyotes. Without a doubt, every sign was there. The only interesting thing about it was the amount of meat they left behind. “Don’t they have pups to feed?” he muttered to himself.

Heidi was busy sniffing the area, growing more anxious at every pass of the carcass. Was she ever going to scratch that killing itch?

“Well, girl, let’s go for a run.”  

There was a chance the den was nearby and Heidi could track it down. If not, the pack would almost certainly return that night for the kill and he would be waiting for them.

He latched the four-wheeler ramps into place and climbed into the bed of the truck. By the time he had the vehicle started, Heidi was blazing a trail ahead of him. Rather recklessly, he zipped down the ramps and caught up to her.

For the better part of two hours, they tore across the sand hills but never scared up more than a jack rabbit. John felt sorry for his tortured companion and let her chase the rabbit down.

It was her fastest take-down ever. But when the dust had settled, surprisingly, the rabbit was still alive. Heidi’s jaws were clamped down onto the lower half of its spine, her fierce yellow eyes scanning the horizon for curious heads as it screamed. If the rabbit quieted down, she shook it. You twisted bitch, he thought, but he had never been more proud. Her ruthlessness was reaching perfection. He had been looking for something like this. It was genius, an act of total control. She was definitely ready for Africa.

Unfortunately, this round, nothing came of her ingenuity. He decided to head back to the truck and make preparations for the stake out. Heidi kept the rabbit in her mouth as she followed after him, only dropping it when it was dead.

 

~

 

The two hunters were nearly invisible under the camouflage tarp. Though there was no wind, the smell of the carcass would hopefully cover them. John reached down to pet his loyal hunting companion, but she didn’t even acknowledge him. There was no calming her down tonight. From toes to ears to teeth, she was wound as tight as the jaws of a bear trap.

It was almost midnight, but they could finally hear the pack approaching as infrequent howls increased in frequency and melded into the consistent yips and barks of a pack united.

Wanting to remind Heidi of his authority, and general existence in the world, John tried again to scratch behind Heidi’s ears. “Easy,” he whispered, as she growled softly. “I want a few, too.”

Usually he didn’t bring a rifle—not wanting to run the risk of accidentally shooting Heidi—but with a heifer dead he needed to thin the pack as much as possible. He’d seen it too many times. If they were confident enough in their numbers to take a cow, it wouldn’t be long before they were picking cats off the porch.

He clicked the night vision scope’s power switch to “on” and brought the gun to his shoulder. Nothing was out there yet. But they sounded close, maybe on the other side of the draw. He lowered the gun and waited.

The yipping and barking suddenly changed pitch to frightened whines and growls as a brawl broke out among the pack. He was surprised how long it lasted.  It sounded like every coyote in the pack wanted a shot at the title.

But when it was over there was no reorganized yipping and barking, rather an unprecedented and overall unnerving silence. He brought the scope up again for another look. As he scanned the horizon, he heard Heidi’s growl become impatiently loud. That usually meant the coyotes were close enough to attack. But try as he might, he couldn’t find them.

Without further warning, Heidi sprang from the tarp, barking viciously. John took his eye from the scope, stunned…she never did that. Ever. Not without command. By the time he recovered his thoughts, she was almost a hundred yards away. He looked through the scope again, trying to find her. Finally, he caught a glimpse of her, but only as she bounded over a hill. He listened for the inevitable battle to commence on the other side. But there was only her singular bark, growing more and more faint until he could no longer hear it.

Apparently he had grown lax in his discipline. Putting the gun back into its case, he got up and stretched. He just couldn’t understand it…there wasn’t the sound of a single coyote dying out there. They must have caught wind of them somehow.

“Oh, well,” he said, climbing wearily into the truck, wondering if he should honk the horn and award her with a leash. But he decided against it. That would take her off a fresh trail. Far better to leave her to her work. Even one dead coyote wouldn’t be a wasted night; and she was certain to kill one, if not a more. Mostly, he was just sad that he couldn’t share in the slaughter. An entire day of anticipation must have been too much for her. Next time he wouldn’t let that spring wind up quite so tightly.

 

~

 

Grabbing a shotgun, Tom “The Rendering King” Schroeder stormed out the front door of his single-wide trailer into the night to investigate what was causing his pitbulls to continue barking even after repeated threats to end their lives.

Not seeing anything from the porch, he ventured toward the kennels. Behind the furthest one, near the back end of the dump truck that he used for hauling off dead cows,  he spotted the eye shine of what might have been a coyote, but it was off and running before he could get a bead on it.

He tried a loud whistle and the animal turned around. The driveway’s pole light showed the scarred and bloody face of his lost pitbull, Mac.  

Lowering the gun, no longer angry, Tom called the dog to him, “Mac! Get your ass over here!” But the dog ran to the other side of the dead truck. Tom’s temper flared back to life. “Mac! Make me lose sleep for nothin’—you’re gettin’ it now!”  

Tom stormed back inside the trailer, gathered his shotgun shells that were loaded with rock-salt, and flew out the door. When he caught up to Mac—now trying to jump into the back of the dead truck—he shot the dog’s hind end with the rock-salt and sent it howling into the dark.  

A whimper brought Tom’s attention back to the dump truck. His other missing pitbull, Dagger, was peeking over the side of the dump. “Dagger!  Get outa there!” The dog dropped down and never reappeared. “Dagger! Dagger!” He never had liked that dog. Mac was stubborn, but manageable. Dagger was just plain mental.  

Using one hand to pull himself up and one to hold the gun, Tom peered over the side of the dump. Dagger was near the front of the dump, head lowered and growling.

“Oh, that’s it, you don’t growl at me!”  Tom threw his left elbow over the side to hold himself up, then swung the gun over and caught the stock. He had never shot a dog this close before and wasn’t at all sure Dagger would live through it. But he was too angry to care.

Pain suddenly burned through both sides of Tom’s right calf as something bit down with terrible strength and pulled him off the dump truck. Landing on his back, the gun went flying and Tom was dragged underneath the truck, away from the gun. Before losing the driveway light, Tom saw that it wasn’t Mac attacking him, or one of his other pits. It was someone else’s pitbull. “Mac!” he screamed. “Get back here! Earn your keep you worthless—”

Dagger had Tom by the throat. After they had both swallowed a lot of Tom’s blood, Tom stopped moving. But Dagger didn’t let go until his brother, Mac, returned. Mac carefully nudged the man’s body, licking some of the blood from his owners oozing neck.

Then Mac froze, eyes locked on the discarded gun. Forgetting his deceased owner, the pitbull stalked the weapon as if it might spray hot salt into his hide at any moment. Once close enough, he sniffed the end of the barrel and flinched. Growling, he backed away, slowly. Behind him, Dagger and the other pitbull had each latched onto an arm and were pulling Tom Schroeder apart.

 

~

 

The alarm went off. John Bledtzer swung his legs over the side of the bed and greeted the day with an enormous yawn. He was about to look out the window and see if Heidi had come home when his phone rang.

Picking it up off the dresser, he looked out the window…no Heidi.

“This is John,” he said.

“Good morning, sir,” a generously-accented Hispanic voice greeted.

“Morning, Julio.”

“Sir,  we found  another dead  cow this morning.  Saw what killed her, too, I think.”

“Did you have time to get a few shots off?”

“No, sir, I stayed in the truck.”

“That’s not exactly what I pay you for, Julio.”

“These weren’t coyote’s, sir. These were dogs. Looked too much like yours. Thought you might want to make sure first.”

John  put the  phone on speaker  and started looking  for some pants. “That’s what’s killing my cows…pitbulls?  Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. There were three that I saw.”

“Pitbulls?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you still there?  Are they still there?”

“Yes, I see them.”

“What’s the area?”

“76.”

“I’ll be there in a sec, Julio. See if you can keep them there for me.”

“No problem.”

John finished dressing and went to the gun vault. He grabbed a Python .357 revolver for a side arm, and a custom wildcat .25 semi-auto rifle for the bulk of the hunt. He was about to leave the room when he decided to go back for a semi-auto twelve-gauge, just in case things got out of hand.

He hoped that Heidi was already dead. A pack of pitbulls were certainly a match for even her. But in his gut he couldn’t fight off the suspicion that she wasn’t dead, that she was the third one. Of the two scenarios—though his ego wanted to believe he had more control over her than that—joining the pack was the most plausible. Many behaviors could be trained out of a dog, but they would never be rational creatures. Under the surface of every canine was something by nature they had no control over. No matter how many times Heidi proved her obedience, she could never be free of her original, pack-oriented nature. When the leash was truly off, especially among the intoxicating freedom of a dog’s own kind, what was to keep obedience at the commanding front in that animal’s mind? Discipline—or instinct? Something was bound to give.  The way she had bolted away from him the previous night seemed to be his answer. She wasn’t coming back.

 

~

 

John pulled up to the gate leading into area 76, stopped the truck, and listened. Julio’s truck was too far away to hear, so he didn’t bother honking the horn. He gave his cell phone an attempt but there was no service. The two-trail path through area 76 was a little rough for the new truck, so John decided to take out the four-wheeler.

Shotgun in hand, he stepped down out of the cab, listening. The wind was too strong to hear much else. Laying his shotgun against the H-brace, he flung open the latch and lifted the gate post and its barb-wire attachments away from the latch. Walking the gate out to the other side of the trail, he dropped it and went back for the rest of his arsenal and the ATV.  A few minutes later, about a mile in, he found Julio’s truck and pulled up beside him.

Julio rolled down the window halfway. “You’re crazy, John, get in the truck at least.”

John smiled. “Where’s the sport in that!  Any idea where they are?”

Julio pointed. “Just down there. You can kind of see the cow’s head sticking out from that bush.”

“Yeah, I see it.” John unzipped the rifle’s case. After chambering a round, he brought the scope to his eye. He could make out the backs of two of the dogs, but nothing resembling a “shot” presented itself.

“Julio, honk your horn.”

The truck horn sounded and all three heads popped above the sagebrush.  

John sighed. The pitbull in the middle was Heidi. He was about to pull the trigger on one of her new friends when they suddenly bolted from cover. They were running flat out, directly at him.

“Boss, boss! Better get in here.”

John leveled the crosshairs onto the head of the nearest dog. Lifting the scope’s horizontal reticle slightly above the animal’s ears, he pulled the trigger. It rolled head over heels in a cloud of dust. The remaining two jumped over the corpse but didn’t waver. John moved the crosshairs to Heidi’s final cohort and shot it in the neck. It spun around in nearly a complete circle, spraying Heidi’s already blood-soaked face.

Heidi slowed her advance.

“Heidi!” he shouted. The pitbull stopped, now only seventy yards away.

John was officially nervous. He almost wished she hadn’t stopped, that would have made this so much easier. He couldn’t just shoot her, standing there, obeying.

She studied him for a moment, then proceeded forward. But it was not her usual, friendly trot. This was her challenging approach, always followed by a sudden, ferocious burst of speed. He quickly brought the crosshairs to her face. There was no friendliness there. He had seen that same look in every predator he had ever brought down. But her’s was somehow more intimidating, more determined, more abandoned: this was her chance to finally be free of him. She was going to kill him.

John shouted once more for her to stop.

***

Todd Sampson grew up in Colorado on an interstate rest area with the South Platte River for his backyard.  He lives in Wyoming now with his wife and their two daughters where he finds employment as an electrician when he’s not writing fiction.

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