Mr. Wenjing stood at the edge of the cold, dark water.
“You have one hour,” he said in clipped, nearly accentless English, “you are authorized to use only the ammunition we have given you. Anything and everything can be hunted. The trees with yellow bands—” he turned to imitate a hemlock behind him bearing a canary-colored sash, “—indicate you are nearing the limits of our territory. They are your warning. If you see the trees with red bands you must turn back. We are absolved of all responsibility if you do not.”
The man standing next to Miriam clicked his tongue, doing a little dance with his eyebrows. He held a shotgun. Pink ammo lined his belt.
The man turned suddenly to Miriam and extended his hand. “Pike Walsh,” he said, “Australian.”
Miriam nodded but did not extend her own hand. Her arms were hidden beneath the grey shawl that swathed her whole torso, hair gathered beneath a dark brown beret.
Walsh smiled, showing a dimple high in his cheek. “Don’t see many Sheilas here, forgive me. This’ll be my third time, how about you?”
A rotund man who employed a young boy to carry his guns and ammo answered without looking up. “First time. I was recommended by an associate. I’m all safaried out, you see.”
Walsh nodded, slightly irked.
“Fifth time,” said a man to Walsh’s other side. He hefted a large gun with ease. An intricate design of swirls was shaved into the side of his head. “I collect for this really upscale restaurant. They don’t even take reservations. You have to know someone. I couldn’t even eat there.”
Walsh chuckled, digging in the soft peat with his toes. The dents he made filled up with brown water.
Mr. Wenjing raised his left arm. The gathered group spread out in a horizontal line. Aside from a frightening old biddy lugging an elephant gun, Miriam was the only woman.
“Pardon my asking,” Walsh murmured out the corner of his mouth, “but you do have a gun, don’t you?”
Miriam slid her pistol out from under her shawl.
“A bit small, isn’t it?”
“I only need one shot.”
“Thatta girl.” Walsh grinned.
Mr. Wenjing dropped his arm. Galoshes and hip boots churned the freezing water into mud. The rotund man got stuck and began wailing. The others pad no mind and pressed deeper.
Miriam focused on walking, lifting one foot and finding a good place to put it down again. Visions of snapping turtles kept plaguing her, no matter how she banished them.
Walsh turned suddenly. “There!” The pink cartridge made a flash and a lot of smoke. Walsh swore, “missed!” and turned to reload.
In the beam of the flashlight taped to his gun, the restaurant hunter found an ancient yellow eye with diamond pupils. Quick as a flash, the old woman’s gun went off. The men laughed.
“All right granny,” the large man crowed.
The old woman planted a neon orange flag by her kill.
Besides sporadic sightings, the animals fell away. Their only company was the sucking sound their feet made in the muck.
“So how’d you hear about this?” Walsh said, eyes up to the treetops.
Miriam could not get out of answering this time. “It was a present. I’m a biologist.”
“No kidding?” Walsh shot her a humored look. “You know they don’t accept specimens from this place?”
“It was more about seeing them. In the flesh.” Miriam pretended to look around, blinking away the tears that were rapidly accumulating. “He knew that much was important to me.” Damn, her voice was getting thick. She coughed to cover it up.
Walsh nodded. “I was—” This time he fired without preamble. Something yelped once in the dark. Walsh struggled with his light, flickering on and off, before he trained the beam on his kill.
A thylacine sat on a raft made of dead branches. The bullet hole at its shoulder was leaking red. It breathed erratically as Walsh sloshed closer. He looked at the dead animal reverently as he gently brushed the fur of its ears with his fingertips.
Miriam crept away while he was distracted, pressing deeper into the marsh. The pros were reaching their kill quota. The first-timers were running out of ammo.
A dragon-like lizard with a bright crest reared in front of her. The rotund man sloshed up beside her, yanking his gun from the boy at his side.
“Banzai,” he cried. His gun did not flash and smoke, there was a definite bang. The other hunters zeroed in on him.
The restaurant hunter marched over and grabbed the gun from his trembling hands. “Real shells. Quentin, you asshole.”
“I’m worth more money than your entire home country, don’t lecture me,” the rotund man yelped, digging out a handkerchief to blot his trembling forehead.
“Money don’t mean jack here. You broke the rules. You’re gone. I’ll make sure you’re banned from my place, too.”
“You can’t do that, I’m on the list for July!”
“I’ll make sure they know that, strike all of your guests from the registry too.”
“Know your place, you—tradesman!” Quentin’s rage grew faint as Miriam snuck away from the scuffle. “You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for people like me….”
The cold seeped into every crack, every exposed bit of flesh. Miriam’s teeth chattered as she pressed on. An old, dead cottonwood loomed before her, yellow band shining like an eye in the night. Miriam gave thanks under her breath and pressed on. Soon the red bands appeared. Theses were not tied high like the yellow bands, instead they were laced between trees to form a sort of fence. Miriam stepped over them and continued onward. Her ears felt pressure, like she was ascending up a mountain.
It was a long, cold, difficult slog. This side had water weeds that slowed her steps. Miriam’s breath steamed as she grew closer to turning back. The worst they could do was ban her. Out here—
Something disturbed the water to the north of her. Miriam clicked her tiny penlight on.
Miriam caught sight of a grey shawl and a hunched back before the person straightened, holding a hand over her eyes. Miriam was looking at herself.
The other Miriam looked puzzled, then broke into a smile. “Mir—”
Like a gunfighter, Miriam’s piece flashed from underneath her shawl and drilled a neat hole in the other Miriam’s chest. She gasped and fell face-forward into the water.
Heart pounding, Miriam made her way over. The other Miriam was wearing the same grey shawl and—dammit! Her hat was a bright burgundy. Miriam took her own hat off and sank it in the water. Too late to look at the boots, she could just say she lost hers and took a pair that she’d found abandoned.
Miriam drew a deep breath and walked forward.
The torchlight was the same as the place she’d left. The faces were different or rearranged. Wenjing had a t-shaped scar on his forehead. An old man who could have twinned for the old woman sat on a pile of his kills. And by the refreshment cart—
“Michael!” Miriam flung her arms out, nearly tripping in her eagerness to get to shore.
Michael met her on the way, warm blanket in hand. The smell that enveloped her with his hug was the same. His touch, the same. His warm eyes were still brown when he pulled away to examine her for wounds.
“I only shot once,” Miriam confessed, “I nearly—I nearly—”
Michael hugged her again. “I understand. Did you have fun?”
Miriam dug her nose into his shoulder. “No. Better than that.”
Wenjing gave her a once-over. Miriam could feel it through her shawl. She drew away from Michael.
“I’m frozen half to death,” she said, “can we continue this in the lodge?”
Michael grinned and the air around her grew a few degrees warmer. “Of course.”
The fireplace was big enough to hold a dining table and hosted a fire made of whole trees. Above the mantel were a collection of tusks from various elephant antecessors. The floor was a cave bear skin rug. Michael fetched her a hot toddy and took her boots off, easing her feet into a bucket of hot water. The other hunters trickled in, comparing kills, slapping each other on the back. Wenjing was the last to enter, face inscrutable as always.
Miriam’s heart beat faster as he approached. He wouldn’t. He didn’t.
“I believe you mislaid this,” he said politely, and dropped a mud-crusted red beret into her foot bath.
Wenjing gave her a long look before turning and walking away.