The Mosin Nagant leaned against a tree facing away from the path with an ammo pouch beneath it. Andrew pulled back the bolt and checked the chamber. Loaded. As expected. He undid the magazine housing and caught four bullets before they hit the ground. The stubborn fifth bullet soon followed. Another look at the chamber revealed the gun to be unloaded. He pushed the bolt back in place.
Stripper clips were in the ammo pouch. About forty rounds. Andrew added five more to the bag. Leaving the bullets so close to the rifle didn't seem safe. It was unlikely that someone would come along, spot the weapon, and use it on the 'squatch while it played him. Previously, a 'squatch being keen to a game of chess would have struck him as equally as unlikely.
The Spot X communicator beeped. Another message from Carter. Right on time. All good?
Andrew's thumbs danced across the pad, bringing back memories of outrageous cell phone bills. All good. Nearly there. Found rifle. Moving bullet bag.
Carter's reply arrived immediately, LOL
He placed the bag of bullets behind a nearby tree, ensuring that the rifle couldn't be seen from where the bag laid. None of the trees in the area were hollow, either.
Something had to know he was coming. The weather was perfect. A tranquil stillness lingered in the forest. Wildlife observed him along his way. None of the animals ran from him. The hex had even relented, much to his relief. He'd be able to play the cryptid without the need to do so nagging away at him. So long as Carter's presence wasn't noticed.
If it all worked out, Andrew planned on making two copies of the video. One would stay at home while the other resided in a bank vault. He'd bring it out for Christmas to show to his daughters when they stopped by to visit. They could keep a secret.
He couldn't decide if Carter should be allowed to retain a copy. Carter hadn't brought it up. He must have assumed he would get one. Andrew didn't like that idea, but if he couldn't pay Carter enough to sacrifice his right to a copy, he would have to give him one and hope nobody else found it through him.
Andrew double checked his coordinates with the communicator. He had made it. The trees provided privacy to a small clearing perfect for any sort of activity. Andrew had a look around. If he could find Carter, there wasn't much point in continuing. Before leaving that morning, Carter had been sure to wash off his natural odor. The outfit he wore had been specifically made to mask his scent. Andrew knew where Carter had said he would be, but couldn't see him.
So far, so good. Andrew sat the backpack down, which he had filled with basic supplies in addition to an old Polaroid camera he had picked up off eBay. A model from the late eighties wouldn't take the best possible picture, but he could live with that, especially since he was making a video out of the game. No point in getting any greedier.
He retrieved a water jug and two egg sandwiches from his backpack. One sandwich was for the 'squatch. An offering, of sorts. It seemed right. Plenty of time remained to eat. Andrew undid the pocket containing the squirrel piece and set it down in front of him.
All at once, dozens of birds leapt from the trees they were perched in and flew to the east. Rabbits appeared, scattering in every direction. Deer followed. They were all on such excellent terms with the 'squatch that they running interference for it. If anyone was out hunting, they were sure to get something to bring home. Nobody would think of going any further into the forest and potentially interrupting the game.
A huge black bear stepped into the clearing. It looked entirely disinterested and gave off no indication of being a threat as it walked towards Andrew. Ahead of it standing slightly hidden amongst the trees was a tall, hairy figure with something slung over its back. He had no time to gawk as the bear was upon him.
Rather than claim the sandwiches Andrew had dropped, the bear sniffed him. It found something it didn't like in his pocket and pawed at it while emitting an annoyed growl. The communicator. Andrew produced the device, only to have it swatted out of his hand. The bear turned away from him, knocking the communicator forward until it came to a stop and had a seat.
The figure in the trees moved into view with an eerie manner of silence and grace. A Sasquatch. It carried a bag made up of material harvested from high-end tents over its shoulder and an old slab of wood in the other arm. Her. Her shoulder and other arm. Coarse hair afforded her some modesty, but failed to cover an odor befitting an animal that wandered around under the sun all day with such a thick coat of fur.
Andrew had been on the wrong end of the firing range more times than he cared to remember. He had grown accustomed to such stress. Meeting with a legendary creature purported not to exist triggered a manageable amount of primal fear within him. His heart slammed against his chest so hard he could feel it beating in the back of his throat as he stood trembling while the Sasquatch dropped the board on the ground in front of him. It was even checkered, because of course it was. She really must have had a lathe in her cave.
The Sasquatch sat the bag down beside the board and got down on her knees. She gave a nod and a gentle grunt before extending her massive hand across the board.
Andrew clasped two grey fingers nestled in dark brown hair in his right hand and gave them an awkward shake. "I'm Drew. It's. . .an honor to meet you." Another nod followed by a pleasant grunt of acknowledgement. The sandwich. Andrew retrieved it from the ground. "I brought this for you."
It was far sillier than it had been when he had thought it up. Even so, the Sasquatch took it and gave it a sniff. She tore a chunk of it off, which she gave to the bear. The rest of the sandwich was devoured in one bite. Judging by the massive maw of the animal, he wasn't playing against someone in a suit. She gave Andrew a thumbs-up.
Andrew tapped his skull. "Eggs are brain food. They help you play chess. We're even."
Another pleasant grunt. She didn't understand a word of what he was saying, but she was polite about it.
There was no point in exchanging further pleasantries. Andrew slapped the board. "Ready when you are."
The Sasquatch tapped the board, accepting the challenge. She turned the knapsack over, spilling a bunch of chess pieces on the ground beside her. With swiftness not previously displayed, she set her side up with pieces made from darker wood. Andrew was to be the teak-colored player.
Squirrels represented pawns, just as he had expected. Sparrows stood in for rooks. Bears served as bishops. Deer were knights. Finally, two Sasquatches portrayed the king and queen, differentiated by height and form.
Andrew put his pawn on the board, earning a thankful grunt from the Sasquatch. She reached over and arranged his pieces for him, knocking over a few of her own in the process. Once everything was in place, the Sasquatch pointed to herself and then to him, finishing with a shrug.
"You go first," Andrew said.
She moved a pawn forward, airing out room for the bishop on her left. Andrew looked over at the bear. Some eggs were still stuck to its muzzle. The bear met his gaze, and its demeanor changed to respond to the challenge. It had the eyes of a fighter. Why was it there? He forfeited the staring competition and grabbed a knight, which he used to make an incorrect move. The bear issued a warning with a low growl. No good. Across from him, the Sasquatch looked confused. The bear was the arbiter. And the Sasquatch hadn't been expecting to play against an amateur.
Andrew nodded. He really needed to sell the apology. "Sorry. I'm still a little starstruck." He pointed at his head and shook it, trying to indicate that he hadn't been thinking. "This is what I meant to do." Andrew corrected the move.
Another growl from the bear, as if to say not to let it happen again. The Sasquatch shrugged it off and cleared a path for her queen to stroll through. Andrew brought his other knight out, prompting the Sasquatch to hide her queen behind the pawn that had stepped forward. A beginner's mistake. Fiddling with the queen so early typically didn't end well.
He was thinking too much, which was usually when he started to lose. Andrew let his gut take over. Whatever happened would happen. He lost his knight. The other knight. A pawn. The bishop. All to the queen. The Sasquatch clearly had a favorite piece. His initial assumption couldn't have been more inaccurate. Sensing a pattern, Andrew brought out his own queen in defense. It was a valiant effort that his opponent countered. With her own queen.
The Sasquatch put her hand up to her mouth, failing to conceal her snickers. Their arbiter licked its chops furiously. Occasionally, a chortle escaped from the bear.
They were laughing at him.
Carter's pathetic attempts to win a single round out of the ten he had subjected himself to the other evening came to mind. Andrew hadn't thought of insulting him, not even after having to continually point out how the knight was supposed to move, even when it put him at a disadvantage.
Getting angry rarely helped, especially when it came to chess. Andrew had to up his game. His king needed to run for cover. Andrew had just let go of his king when the Sasquatches queen slid up next to it. Their arbiter fell to the ground, rolling around on his back and roaring. The Sasquatch had her hand below her mouth, laughing like a distinguished wife of an officer at a dirty joke.
Andrew grabbed his king and looked down at the board. He didn't have another move left. His king was in the crosshairs of a queen and a bishop. "Great."
The Sasquatch cleared her throat and offered him a thumbs-up. It came across as being out of pity. Normally, he would be offended, but he could tolerate a lot more from a Sasquatch than he could a human. That didn't mean he could stop himself from getting a little annoyed with her. His patience had its limits.
Their arbiter hadn't managed to contain himself. The Sasquatch leaned over and gave the bear a light swat on his haunches, prompting him to sit up and stop grunting. Andrew accidentally locked eyes with him again. Everything he thought he knew about body language shouldn't apply to wild animals or cryptids. Yet something in the bear's eyes shook him up. If the other animals were placing bets on who would win with their food, the bear wouldn't put any honey on Andrew.
A cold sweat covered Andrew's back. Luck had left him since the tournament. Perhaps everyone he had ever beaten had just been bad. These were the big leagues. The Sasquatch knew the game better. He didn't deserve to be playing her.
Andrew caught himself. He was thinking like a teenager. Such feelings of doubt would have gotten him killed in the military. If it were anyone else, he wouldn't be so flustered at having lost one game. Of three, even. He could still win. Even if he didn't, he'd have his loss immortalized in a series of bytes that made up a MKV file. So, he would still win. Just not as legitimately.
The Sasquatch placed her captured pieces on his side of the board. Andrew followed her example and set them up without her help. She pointed at him and made a gentle grunt. This time, he would go first. Not that it seemed to matter.
He took a deep breath. Play without thinking. It worked in the past. It would work in the future. It could work now. Andrew exhaled slowly. It would work now.
Andrew brought out a knight. The Sasquatch brought out her own on the opposite end. He had a pawn leap forward two spots. She mirrored him again, brimming with confidence. Andrew brought out his queen, being met at the opposite side of the board with the same move reversed. He moved his king to the queen's throne, giving the opposing king the same idea. Andrew reversed the move, putting his king back in its original position. The Sasquatch copied him again.
His assessment of the Sasquatch's etiquette was as off as the game they were playing. "That's not funny."
She snickered under her breath, knowing she had been caught misbehaving. Andrew moved another pawn forward. The Sasquatch poised her queen for an attack, demoralizing his wooden army of forest critters.
Down went a teak deer. A teak bear. Andrew's squad of squirrels stood no chance unless he somehow made it to the other end of the board and promoted them to queens. Most fell prey to bears or were trampled by deer while others found themselves blocked by their own kind. He kept his queen next to his king as the Sasquatch laid waste to his army with her own queen. If he could manage to take that one damn piece away from her, she might forget how to play the game.
She moved to take away a rook with her queen, leaving it in the crosshairs of his own queen. Without thinking, Andrew grabbed his queen and knocked it over in adolescent defiance. She made a move around him before he even had a chance to sit back. His king was captured by a bishop and a knight. The Sasquatch clapped her hands, fell back, and started laughing. That was all the encouragement the bear needed to do the same thing.
Andrew clenched his jaw. "I thought this game was supposed to be friendly."
Nothing in the document containing the rules mentioned anything about being humiliated. His opponent couldn't be the one that had played Mike. No, this Sasquatch was new.
He needed to stand up for himself. It no longer mattered that he was in the company of a cryptid. He'd feel the same urge if an alien from some advanced species from another planet was berating him. Actions spoke louder than words. Andrew grabbed the backpack and retrieved the communicator while the bear was still preoccupied. He had been keeping an eye on the pawn he had originally been given and plucked it from the Sasquatches captured pieces. This caught her attention. She sat up, still giggling.
Andrew placed the pawn in the backpack and put an air of finality into zipping it closed. "You win."
He slung the backpack around one shoulder and looked down at the communicator. Carter needed to get out of there. Sending him a message electronically didn't seem wise. Neither did looking in his general direction to signal him. Carter faced the trail leading back to the cabin and put an open hand horizontally across his chest. He made a frantic sweeping motion. The animals wouldn't understand it, but Carter would know Andrew really wanted him to leave if he hadn't already.
Pleading grunts came from behind him as he walked away from the board. A heavy finger kept poking at his neck. Andrew turned around and gave the finger a slap. The Sasquatch had followed him on her knees. Her face was all screwed up. On the verge of tears, she shook her head and pointed back at the board, where their arbiter had regained his professionalism. Her other hand reached behind him to gently block him if he thought about leaving before the final game was played.
Enduring a third round of torture would give Carter more time to get away safely. It was a little late to be surprised by it, but they hadn't talked about that portion of the plan the other night. Andrew figured Carter knew what he was doing. He probably hadn't anticipated Andrew would forfeit the match, though. If he were spotted now, the bear and Sasquatch would see him as a fleeing hunter. Unless they saw the camera. The safe thing to do was play one more game.
But this time it would be on his terms.
Andrew threw his head back and uttered the best fake laugh he could muster. He cut himself off abruptly, startling the Sasquatch. Andrew shook his head. "None of that. Yeah? Do you understand?"
She nodded eagerly, pretended to laugh, and shook her head.
Though it was futile due to their language barrier, Andrew had already started and couldn't stop. "I didn't fucking come here to be insulted. Yeah, you're a prodigy. I can tell. You got me beat at chess. Good for you. That sure as hell doesn't make you better than me. I can guarantee you that."
She repeatedly bowed low while still on her knees to convey an apology.
Andrew held up a single finger. "Last chance. Get it? If you so much as snicker, I'm done."
She held up a single finger and continued to nod eagerly. He didn't trust her. She was only apologizing because she had gotten in trouble. Just like a teenager.
"Let's get this over with."
As he walked back to the board, he gave the same signal as before. The bear had a look on his face suggesting that the outburst had been entirely on him, but Andrew ignored it. He placed the communicator on the ground next to the bear and retrieved the pawn from the backpack. As the Sasquatch took her seat across the board, Andrew signaled for Carter to leave one more time.
After setting up the board, Andrew pointed at the Sasquatch, indicating that she could go first. She nodded, grabbed a pawn, and moved it forward two spots. Her arm hair accidentally knocked over a couple of her own pieces, drawing a yelp of surprise.
Andrew heard a distinct pop coming from somewhere nearby as the Sasquatch hunched over to collect the pieces she had accidentally disturbed. He spotted a pink pom pom trying to mix with the coarse hair of the Sasquatch. She cried out in actual surprise, which popped Andrew's ears. She sat up on her knees, reached behind her back, and pulled out a dart.
A tranquilizer dart.
One with fluid still inside of it since the shot had missed.
The Sasquatch exposed her teeth and narrowed her eyes, clearly having a decent idea of what was going on. She crushed the dart in her hand. White liquid leaked through her fingers. In a shocking display of agility, she was on her feet and heading back where she had come from with the bear tailing her. A second dart cut through the air, missing her by a wide margin.
In her haste to escape, she had abandoned her belongings. Andrew didn't imagine she would be in any hurry to get them back. Or play against anyone else ever again, for that matter.
Andrew retrieved the communicator, his hands shaking in response to the anger rising within him. A chunk of the forest floor stood up and headed towards him. Carter. His face paint hid his shame. He carried a tranquilizer rifle Andrew wasn't familiar with.
"What the fuck did you just do, Carter?" Andrew demanded.
Carter thought carefully before replying. "I failed to make both of us a lot of money."
Andrew realized Carter would try playing down the gravity of the situation, which didn't matter, because they weren't friends any longer.
"This wasn't part of the plan, Carter! You gave me your word you wouldn't shoot anyone, you fucking liar!"
Though under a fair degree of stress, Carter kept calm. "I said anyone. Not anything."
"Cut the bullshit! They're apes. For all we know, we could be related to them."
"Exactly, Andrew. Could be. But I doubt it. I didn't lie to you."
Carter had to have gotten the gun from his vehicle on his way out earlier that morning. It was why he insisted they arrive separately. Failing to predict Carter's treachery made Andrew even more upset.
"I can't believe you would do this! I trusted you!"
"If it makes any difference, I planned to split whatever we got for capturing a Sasquatch alive with you fifty-fifty."
Andrew felt himself getting dizzy. Carter needed to be backhanded across the face. Though tempting, it would solve nothing. "That's what this all about? Money?"
"I thought your girls wanted to go to college in Philadelphia."
"They do. That's why they hunt for scholarships and keep their grades high because they at least respect that some things in life don't come easy and have to be earned by your own merit."
Carter shook his head. "Come on, Andrew. You know that isn't true. We've both been through divorce. Mine is all I needed for motivation."
"Yeah? What about that story you told me the other day? Was that a lie, too?"
Carter held up a hand and raised his voice. "I did not tell you that story for you to ever feel like you could bring it up again. It happened. I wasn't trying to kill the Sasquatch. Considering what I stood to gain, it was worth the risk."
"You could have very easily killed it. You don't know how much she weighs. And what's in those needles?"
"Exactly what I paid for."
Andrew shook his head. "Were you hoping I'd help you drag it back to the cabin if you had knocked it out?"
Carter took out his communicator. "No. I would have sent in a SOS. They probably would have gotten here quick."
"And what would happen once they looked at your darts?"
"The means by which we achieved such a historic catch could be easily exaggerated." Carter held the rifle in one arm and took a Springfield Armory 1911 from its holster strapped to his leg. He offered it to Andrew. "We had better head back to the cabin. Take this. We could run into trouble on our way back."
"I'm not taking that. I'm not in any trouble. I wasn't the one who took the shot!"
"Fine." Carter put the gun back in its holster. "I thought you would feel a little differently about all this after that thing showed you so much disrespect. How about some good news? I've got the camera in my backpack. I filmed up to the point where you gave the signal to leave, so you still have that."
Andrew opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. Something more important than the argument caught his attention. He saw movement behind Carter. The black bear had snuck through the trees. Sensing that it had been spotted, the bear broke into a charge headed straight for Carter.
"Bear!" Andrew shouted.
Carter turned to face the bear just in time to take its shoulder to his abdomen. Andrew jumped back, narrowly colliding with Carter as he collapsed. He had dropped his rifle, prompting the bear to claim it. Acting on adrenaline, Carter drew the 1911 from his hip and took aim at the bear's skull.
Andrew reached out to grab the .45 in vain. "Don't!"
The bear swatted at Carter's hand, knocking the handgun away. Carter cried out in pain and sought to cover his wounded hand. While lurching forward, he caught the left paw of the bear. With his face. Carter's head snapped back, bouncing off the ground. His hands went to his face. He screamed again, this time with a bit more vigor.
Andrew watched the bear roll him over. It sunk its teeth into his backpack, shaking its head from side to side. He spotted the 1911 in the grass. Going for it seemed unwise. Carter was only being disarmed. The backpack came off Carter's body. He crawled away, his uninjured hand searching blindly for a weapon. Blood poured from the gashes on his face as the bear took to rooting through its prize. Andrew picked up the 1911, turned on the safety, ejected the magazine, and worked the slide back to pop out the chambered round.
"Drew, help me!" Carter begged. "Please! I can't see! That bastard got my eyes!"
It only took a moment for Andrew to discard the handgun and kneel in front of Carter.
"I'm right here." Andrew put his hands on Carter. "It's not going to kill us. Calm down."
"How can you be sure?"
Having thoroughly destroyed the backpack, the bear locked eyes with Andrew and remained stationary.
"You shouldn't have drawn your gun. It just wants your stuff. Remember how it took my communicator? Here, let me look at your face."
"How bad is it?"
Dirt and grass stuck to the blood on Carter's face. Andrew took off his shirt and used it to wipe the debris away.
"You've still got both your eyes."
Carter shuddered as he sighed, a great deal of his anxiety melting away. "Thank God."
Andrew turned his attention to Carter's injured hand. "Your wrist is dislocated."
The wayward bone moved back in place with an audible crunch.
Carter held in his scream and pulled his injured hand away from Andrew. "I think you got it. What's the bear doing?"
"He's just watching us."
"And the 'squatch?"
During all the excitement, the Sasquatch had stepped out of hiding and started collecting the chess pieces in her tent bag. He could hear her sobbing quietly. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked over at him. Her face was all screwed up again. Nobody had ever shot at her before, and she certainly hadn't ever expected that to change. She used the hair on her arm to clear fresh tears from her eyes, rubbed her snout with her thumb, and turned her back to him.
"What do you think?" Andrew asked.
"No more chess?"
"No more chess."
She arrived at the squirrel pawn that had started the whole ordeal. It was the only piece left to collect. Without hesitating, she threw it in her bag and picked up the board. She headed back into the forest without bothering to look back. Once she disappeared, the bear trailed after her at his own pace, leaving the humans to ponder what they had done.
Andrew needed a drink. "They're gone."
"Your camcorder was in my bag. Did it survive?" Carter asked.
The camcorder stood out amongst the rest of the litter. It had been chewed up. Andrew grabbed what remained of the bottom. "The SD card is gone."
"What? It was in there when I started filming," Carter said. "Is it on the ground?"
Searching for a chip the size of a quarter wouldn't be easy. If the bear hadn't accidentally swallowed it, he could still get the data off it even if it was in two pieces. He couldn't imagine himself ever watching it. It would bring back the memory of how the Sasquatch looked at him.
"Doesn't matter." Andrew dropped the busted camcorder.
"Are you sure? We went through a lot of effort to get that footage."
"I'm over it."
Carter sighed. "Alright. I understand. I know you're still upset with me, but do you think you could help me get back to the cabin? That can be the last thing you do for me. There's a good First Aid kit in the kitchen. I can use it to patch myself up."
Leaving a fellow Ranger behind hadn't even crossed Andrew's mind. Now that he had managed to calm down a bit, he knew better than to blame Carter. Everything could have been avoided if he hadn't gotten greedy. The only positive thing he could take away from the situation was not needing to worry about the hex acting up when it came time to find the Sasquatch a new opponent. Suffering through the hex was still preferable to having another ugly mistake to ruminate over for what remained of his life.
Andrew grabbed Carter by his good arm and helped him get to his feet. "Yeah, I'll help you get back." He turned to face the forest in case something was watching them. "I'll come back and clean up here right after that."
"No, I can do that," Carter said.
"I don't want you coming back with that SD card if it's still on the ground somewhere. You'd upload it to the Internet, and then we would both have to lie through our teeth about what really happened here because you probably wouldn't care enough to come up with a straight story we could stick to."
Carter barked a laugh. "Yeah, that does sound like something I would do, doesn't it? I might still have it on me. Would you like to search me before we leave?"
"No point. You don't have it." He hooked his arm around Carter's. "Let's get moving."
"Wait." Carter didn't budge. He moved his head to the right. "Am I looking you in the eyes?"
"You're trying to."
"That's good enough. I know what I did was wrong. I won't apologize for it. I hadn't planned on missing that shot. I'm going to pay for it." Carter's lips moved ahead of what he wanted to say next before he decided it was safe to share. "Also. I just have to say. This won't be the end of the little arrangement those bigfoot's had. They'll get this started back up again eventually. I'm sure of it."
It was a nice thought. "Yeah. I hope you're right." Andrew started back towards the cabin.
"I. . ." Carter cleared his throat. "I would still like to remain friends after this if you can manage to forgive me. I really enjoy our weekly meets at the diner."
Andrew let Carter hang in silence for a moment. "I'll have to think about it."