Worst thing about riding point on my first hunt? Waiting to find out if I was going to die on my first hunt. Of course, when we Del Toros said hunting, we meant monster hunting. Or, as my big brother Ben called it, the family rodeo.
Nervous sweat soaked my hands and neck. It didn’t help the sun was dialed to extra crispy. The towering sandstone and granite cliffs surrounding us corralled the summer day and turned the three-square-mile valley into a giant oven. The heat of the soil radiated through the soles of my cowboy boots. Easing from foot to foot, I wondered how long it took to be baked alive.
Tucking my mace—a club-like weapon with an iron ball on the business end—under one arm, I wiped my palms on my T-shirt for the third time. Last thing I wanted was to ‘slip yer grip,’ as the old saying goes.
Even after drying my hand, I left damp spots on the leather-wrapped haft I oiled just yesterday. As I sat on the living room floor cleaning it, I had wondered how many monsters—the ones we called skinners—the mace had sent into oblivion throughout its long lifetime. A lifetime that spanned four centuries of creepy creature busting, first in old Spain and then in the New World.
“Matt.” I jumped at my father’s voice. “Enough daydreaming. Focus.”
“I am focused.” Focused on not throwing up, I thought. Anxiety tied my gut into a half hitch. I wished those skinners would just attack already and get it over with. I peeked up at Dad. A little parental reassurance and all that.
My father was mounted on horseback a few feet away. He rose in the stirrups and scanned the valley. His face, stern and sharp featured, reminded me of a hawk on the hunt; his black goatee matched the stallion under him.
Man, if I could be just one fourth the hunter he was, I’d die happy. I wondered what it would take to reach that goal. I tightened my grip on my mace and glanced at Dad’s.
About three feet in length, it hung from a leather loop around his wrist and rested against the saddle skirt. Like mine, the head of his weapon was decorated on four sides with our family’s sigil: a crescent moon, its tips curved upward like the horns of a bull. Even though the designs were etched deeply into the iron, generations of monster whacking had pitted and scratched those Del Toro moons until they were almost invisible.
But they were still there—hard to see, kind of beat up, but fighting the good fight—just like us.
The black stallion stomped a front hoof the size of a gallon bucket. Dad patted Turk’s massive neck. “Easy, mi amigo. We will meet those skinners soon enough.”
Skinners. My flesh crawled at the thought of getting my first real look at the creatures. Licking my dry lips, I studied the terrain. The valley’s floor was trashed with scattered boulders large enough to hide a skinner or two probably salivating for a taste of fresh boy. A chill ran down my spine. Don’t mess up. Just don’t mess up.
Because messing up meant family members—both the two-legged and four-legged ones—might die.
Yeah. No pressure there.
Speaking of the four-legged. I laid a hand on the shoulder of another family member standing next to me. Family member and my best friend: the warhorse, El Cid. The warm, silky coat felt soothing under my palm. As did the powerful muscles beneath it.
The stallion lifted his nose, nostrils quivering, and his ears swiveled around. With a soft exhale, he turned his head toward me. The muscles in the thick neck rippled under a coat the color of weathered chrome. He studied me with an ebony eye half covered by a lock of white mane that hung to his nostrils in proper Andalusian style. Then, he opened his mouth and spoke.
“It’s normal, Matt,” he said, his voice a deep rumble, “to be nervous. We all are—to some degree.”
Turk snorted and curled his lip. “Speak for yourself, old goat.”
El Cid ignored him. “You’ll do fine.” He shook his forelock out of his eyes and butted me with the side of his long nose. “You’ve been well trained, both by me and your papá. And, when in doubt, always—”
“—listen to the warhorses,” I finished, repeating one of my father’s top three rules. The other rules were “do not get killed” and “do not get your brother killed.”
“El Cid.” Dad caught the stallion’s attention. “Anything?”
The gray sniffed the air again. “Nary a scent nor sound, Javier. We can stand down—at least for the time being.”
Another huff of derision from Turk. El Cid pinned his ears flat. I tensed. Great. Just what we needed. Another fight.
“Enough. Both of you.” Dad sighed and pushed back his cowboy hat, a Stetson as black as Turk’s soul. No, really. His golden amber eyes—a Del Toro trait Ben and I shared with him—narrowed in the afternoon’s glare. “So, my son. What do you make of those tracks?” He pointed his chin at the ground in front of me.
I bent over and eyed the dog-like paw prints. They circled past a nearby pile of boulders and disappeared. A single animal. Straightening, I checked for other tracks. Nada. Just to make sure, my gaze swept over the landscape.
Around me stretched El Laberinto Wilderness Area, a twenty-five square mile mesa jutting up from the prairie. The entire mesa was a labyrinth of deep ravines and needle-thin slot canyons—their openings were dark doorways to no place good. Ben once said the surrounding rock walls with the open valley in the center reminded him of a twisted version of the Coliseum, where folks went to die horrible deaths. The locals of the nearby town of Huerfano, Colorado, just called it the Maze.
“Put in some trails,” Ben often pointed out, “and Huerfano could be a world-class hiking and mountain biking destination.”
“Except for that one little problem,” Dad would respond. “People keep disappearing in it. Permanently. Not good for tourism.”
A breeze moaned through one of the slot canyons. The sound made me feel tiny and alone and isolated. If we got killed, no one would know. Except Ben. Longing for my brother swept over me. Too bad he wasn’t due home for another day or so.
“Matt?” Dad’s voice called me back. “Before Christmas.”
“Um . . . skinner tracks.”
“Are you certain?” Removing his hat, he stuck it on the saddle horn. He wiped his brow and raked his fingers through hair sprinkled with a few silver strands that I swore weren’t there last year. “Not a coyote?”
His casual tone didn’t fool me. “I don’t think so. Too big.” I squatted down and splayed my fingers, measuring the skinner’s track; it was as large as my hand. “Not unless we’ve got coyotes the size of Turk.” And just as mean tempered. I kept that thought to myself. “I think it’s just one—”
“Quiet.” El Cid stiffened and raised his head.
The hairs on the back of my neck snapped to attention. I gulped, fighting back the impulse to crawl to safety behind him. “Skinner?” I whispered. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Turk circling his nose in the air, nostrils flared.
“One,” the black said. “About twenty-five strides away and sneaking toward us. Using the rocks as cover.”
Before my father asked, I did the math in my head. A horse’s walking stride was about two yards in length. “Fifty yards.”
“Bueno.” Dad screwed his hat down on his head, taking care to cock it just right. “An opportunity for some action, then. Mount up.”
Sticking my left foot in the stirrup and grasping the horn, I hopped once on my right leg, then hauled myself into the saddle and gathered up the reins attached to El Cid’s halter. My hands trembled. I told them to knock it off. You, too, I ordered my heart banging away in my chest.
I ran my hand over the mace’s ball for luck. My thumb traced each moon, one after the other, as a soft vibration traveled through my skin from the metal. Wrapping my fingers around the iron head, I squeezed it until my knuckles whitened. Please, I said to it silently, don’t let me do anything stupid. Like get eaten by that thing.
With a quiet word to Turk, Dad edged over to me. He gestured at my mace. “Take some warm ups.”
Swinging my weapon in a figure-eight loop on either side of El Cid, I rolled through the basic strikes Dad had taught Ben and me. We both started formal training when we were strong enough to hold an iron mace straight out in front of us for a full minute without dropping our arm. It wasn’t until two years ago, when I turned ten, that I was able to do that. Barely.
I flexed my shoulders. No, not really. “Sure.”
“Now, what is the most important thing to remember today?” Dad raised an eyebrow.
“Besides listening to El Cid and the not getting killed thing?” I frowned, thinking what topped staying alive. “Um…”
El Cid let out a long-suffering sigh. “Remain mounted at all costs.”
“Oh. Yeah. That.”
Dad shifted in the saddle. “El Cid? If things get hot—”
“Really, Javier? You’re giving me instructions?”
“My apologies.” In spite of what was coming for us, a corner of Dad’s mouth twitched. “What was I thinking?”
“Clearly, you weren’t.” The stallion flicked an ear. “But, rest assured. I’ll keep the boy safe.”
“Hey.” Pride elbowed aside my fear. “You guys talk like I’m some little kid…” The rest of the words crept away.
The soft crunch of gravel. Something moved behind a nearby jumble of boulders. A faint drone. I cocked my head, listening. The sound grew louder. Like a swarm of flies or mosquitoes, a buzzing that rose and fell but never stopped until a person was ready to scream. Another rattle of stones—probably under a giant paw.
“Oh boy,” I whispered. Goosebumps broke out on my arms. Had Dad felt this loose-boweled when he was my age and faced a skinner for the first time? Doubtful.
Nothing fazed Francis Javier Del Toro, old-school monster hunter, life-long Denver Broncos fan, and a true caballero: a gentleman of the horse.
“The first time is the worst.” His attention focused on the boulder pile, Dad reached over and squeezed my knee.
Fighting the urge to grab his hand and cling to it—sheesh, what a baby move that would be—I simply nodded, not trusting my voice. My heart whaled away, trying to crack open my ribs. Hoping to make a run for it while there was still time. I didn’t blame it. Through the thick leather of the stirrup, I felt El Cid’s pulse against my calf muscle, its rhythm slower than mine.
I wondered if it was too late to beg Dad to call off the hunt until I was older. Like thirty. I imagined how badly Ben would tease me if I chickened out. Aw, what’s wrong, Matty? Scared of the big bad wolf? I tightened my fingers around the haft and held on to my courage.
A fly buzzed my nose. I swatted at it. A few more joined in. They pinged off my face like tiny black hail. “What’s with all the flies?”
Turk’s hide shivered. He danced forward a couple of steps. Dad gave a soft hiss. The stallion eased back, tail lashing like a cat’s parked under a bird feeder.
El Cid sniffed. “I saw that.”
“Just warming up my legs,” Turk said.
Liar, I thought.
More flies appeared. They swirled above our heads in a cloud, casting a shadow. Over the buzzing, I caught another crunch behind the boulders, twenty yards and closing. “Dad?”
“I know. Stand ready.”
I reminded myself to breath. Skinners can’t be that creepy. Ben’s been hunting for three years, and he acts like they’re just a big joke. How bad can they really be?
With a roar and a shriek, the skinner burst from hiding. Horror froze me in the saddle.
A bloodied, fresh-skinned carcass. That’s what it looked like. Except that the carcass was alive somehow, raw hamburger molded into a wolfish creature. It wore a black cloak tied around its neck. No, not a cloak. Flies. Flies trailed the creature and feasted on the wet flesh. Like pilot fish following in a shark’s wake.
The skinner charged El Cid and me. Bile burned my throat. Gagging, I tightened my legs around El Cid’s barrel and raised my mace. Kill it, a voice gibbered in my head. Kill it now!
“Hey, chuck roast.” Turk reared. His front hooves boxed the air. “Over here.”
In between one stride and the next, the skinner shifted direction. The flies banked around and swarmed after it. El Cid groaned in frustration.
“No, Turk.” Dad clung to the reins. “Wait for—”
The black launched himself at the creature. My father cursed in Spanish, then leaned forward in the saddle, his weapon at the ready. Head low, the stallion’s powerful legs shortened the distance in a weird game of chicken. With a yelp, the skinner slammed on the brakes, its paws skidding on the gravely dirt. Turk sped up. To my surprise, he shot past the monster.
“Santiago!” Shouting our family’s war cry, Dad swung his mace in a deadly arc. The skinner’s skull exploded. Fragments of bone and gobbets of raw meat flew everywhere. Blood sprayed across Turk’s chest and right shoulder and flecked the ground around them.
For a moment, the creature staggered about, wagging its neck from side to side. A small knobby chunk of head was still attached to its spine. It staggered after my father and Turk. My stomach roiled.
Even broken, they are still a threat. Dad’s voice rose in my memory. Swallowing my lunch back down, I readied my weapon and pressed my heels against El Cid’s sides. “Santiago!” The battle cry came out in a croak. A tiny voice in my head rolled its eyes.
El Cid ignored my signal to charge. “Wait.”
“For this,” El Cid said.
Bang! The skinner vanished. I gasped. It was like the air had clapped its hands, then sucked away the skinner. A cosmic vacuum cleaner. Only the flies remained. They buzzed around, confused by the shutdown of the buffet, then drifted away.
“That is so cool,” I breathed.
“Stupid meat mutts.” Turk swung around in a high-stepping salsa. “They never learn.” His hooves stirred up the dust and crusted his blood-soaked coat. Tossing his mane, he trotted back toward El Cid and me.
My father yanked a handkerchief from his back pocket. “What was that, Turk? I thought we agreed to allow Matt the first strike.”
The black’s nostrils flared. “I never agreed to that, Javier.”
“We discussed it this morning.” Dad’s voice rose in frustration. Grasping the mace just under the head, he spat on the iron ball, then wiped it clean with short, savage strokes. “And what have I told you about rearing before a charge? Bravado like that is going to get you killed. Or one of us—”
“Javier.” El Cid’s ears snapped forward. “Leave off arguing with that mule and be on guard. I thought I heard—”
Four more skinners exploded from behind the boulders.
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