A chopper drifted over the steep ramparts of the Mogollon Rim; a black monolith dividing the summer night. The moon offered what little glow it had, but still wasn’t bright enough for a full Search and Rescue operation. Dawn would bring on the horses and dog teams more fit for the terrain.
That left Dale. He was the only pilot in Gila County that could fly the SAR helicopter; a battered Bell 207 that barely survived the Vietnam War. It came back a true veteran, smoked out and riddled with bullets, before a redeployment to the badlands of Arizona. Once a war fighter, the chopper now served to extract lost and injured hikers. It sputtered to stay up in the warm night sky.
The county acquired it in a military surplus bid; it read SIOUX SCOUT along the tail. As far as Dale could tell, it was an experimental recon aircraft, and the only one of its kind.
The lowlands transitioned into dense forestry, and the valley crimped to form jagged slot canyons at the foot of the mountain. The chopper roamed just over the treetops as it navigated the rolling hillside.
Dale guided the aircraft over the old sandstone quarry. It hadn’t been used in a decade, reduced to a crumbling borehole in the earth. The spotlight illuminated a wasteland of empty beer bottles and shell casings; the makings of local litter. Dale made a mental note to have it cleaned up and cited the next morning.
An old mountain road led out of the quarry and up the Rim, which was really two ruts chewed into the caliche. It became impassable another half mile up the face, but Dale used it as a marker to weave back and forth in his hunt. The mountain was like a forgotten elder; blacker than the night sky and wreathed in reflective halos. SIOUX SCOUT buzzed before it like a firefly.
Dale picked up the radio transmitter and punched the button.
“Hey, it’s me. Where’d you say he put it down?”
The radio coughed up a fit of static.
“On the backside of Shoofly Mesa, between the quarry and river basin,” Betsy replied. Dale could hear other voices in the office behind her.
He repositioned the helicopter and said, “Keep him around just in case I can’t find it. He’s the only one who knows where it is.”
“Roger that, stud,” Betsy said in an easy voice. “Unbelievable, isn’t it?”
“No shit,” Dale chuckled. “Hollywood in our own backyard.”
He rehung the transmitter and flew deeper into the wildland.
The road evaporated into low brush and trees, and all evidence of human recreation disappeared as the face sloped into treachery. Pine trees crowded together the further up Dale went, creating a near impenetrable canopy of swaying tree tops. He slowed the chopper down and scoured the mountainside.
A vein of birch trees traced along an opening in the woodland; native signs of a creekbed. SIOUX SCOUT lulled over the gap in the needles and followed the dry waterway through the forest. Foxes and rabbits darted out of the spotlight when he came by overhead.
Dale turned where the creek banked and came upon a camping tent; it flapped violently beneath the fan blades. He squinted down and took in the details. One small truck, no discernible litter, and a properly maintained campfire. A single lantern flickered through the thin polyester. A pang of guilt carried through his stomach at the accidental intrusion.
He picked up the transmitter and switched the output to the loud hailer under the cockpit.
“Good evening, this is Gila County Search and Rescue,” his voice boomed over the valley.
No one stirred to respond.
Dale shrugged and decided to make it quick.
“There’s been an aerial incident this evening, please remain at your campsite until sunrise,” he chewed his lip and sighed. “Please be advised: there is a lion loose in the area. Do not engage. Please report anything out of the ordinary to the Game and Fish Department.”
A shadowy limb sprouted from the window flap and offered Dale a stiff middle finger.
He nodded and continued onward.
Shoofly Mesa was a roaming flatland at the base of the mountain, popular for its outdoor recreation. It wasn’t the most convenient place to camp or fish, but it promised true isolation and serene views. Dale thought it was perhaps the worst place for an African lion to be free; lots of cover, rocky vista overlooks, and a number of unsuspecting outdoorsmen.
He did his best to avoid the more trafficked camping areas; September kicked off the best weather of the year. The whole thing reminded him of Jaws, but instead of a tide full of beachgoers, he had a forest full of campers. Dale, of course, became the wary town sheriff, and the shark was replaced with the biggest star of all.
Dale smiled behind the pitch stick and did another lap of the trees.
There was a clearing in the woodland ahead. The spotlight picked up a meadow and the monolithic oak trunks that stood within - their twisted gray bodies framed the glade like ogrish sentries.
The helicopter popped into the air to give Dale a better view. This was a local favorite amongst campers, folks he probably knew.
There weren’t any tents in the clearing, but there was something. Lifting SIOUX SCOUT gave him the vantage, but actually prevented him from discerning any details; he could only makeout dark lumps in the grass. He let the nose drop down to the greenland below.
What he’d seen as lumps were actually the limbless corpses of an elk herd. Two dozen bodies strewn from one end of the clearing to the other, and a desecration of gore in between. Some of the beasts had been ravaged so quickly that their huge bodies still shuddered with a dying breath.
Dale leaned over the navstick and scoured the carnage. He fumbled for the transmitter with a shaking hand.
He got it free and brought it to his lips.
“This is Dale-” he began, but flinched at the sound of his own thunderous voice. The receiver was still dialed to the loud hailer under the helicopter, and only served to help him piss his pants.
“Christ in a frying pan,” he muttered as he switched to the radio.
“Betsy, this is Dale, copy,”
The static waned a response.
“Dale… we… coming through…” Betsy’s voice crackled through the speaker.
He shook his head and dipped the chopper until the skids were just above the pinetops. The higher elevation made it easy to sever radio linkage.
“Betsy, I’ve got eyes on a herd of elk, location approximately north of Old Higly mine,” he outlined. “It’s a bloodbath.”
“He said it’s still in the cage. Maybe you came up on a hunter site?”
Dale fanned the nose back and forth to light up the area; he only recognized hooves amongst the ribbons of flesh.
“Nah, sister. There’s twenty butchered animals out here. There’s nothing left,” he advised. “It’s like they went through a woodchipper, Betsy.”
The radio was silent for a time. SIOUX SCOUT hovered over the killing floor as it waited.
“See if you can get a visual on the lion,” Betsy instructed. “He says there’s no way it got out.”
Dale started to respond but hesitated. Something flickered just beyond the glow of his spotlight. It traced back and forth in the darkness, draping itself in shadows like an apex predator. He waited for it to dart through the light again.
“Sorry,” he piped into the receiver. “Thought I saw something.”
“Keep us updated,”
Dale put the radio back in the cradle.
He pushed the chopper out over the field and inspected the woodline. The gnarled oaks cast long shadows in the meadow, which became further distorted as they stretched up the mountainside.
SIOUX SCOUT shrugged as it cut back toward the basin.
The search allowed Dale time to reason; he figured the elk herd was a good sacrifice. He reckoned the lion was tame, so might slink off to nap after such a brutal onslaught; snoring, covered in blood, and bloated from the feast.
Trees parted around a jagged crevasse that plunged into the earth. The fissure was isolated, out of the way up the mountainside, but still called for a Search and Rescue operation every couple of years; a spelunker occasionally found their way inside and couldn’t make the climb back to the surface.
He cut over the chasm and glided back toward the direction of the creek bed.
That’s where he saw it.
Plane wreckage could scatter itself for miles, but Dale hadn't seen so much as a wing panel. The terrain was curiously tranquil for having just seen a disaster.
The pilot must’ve sailed the aircraft right into the mountainside; the body a mangled wreck, choked up along a rocky ridge. SIOUX SCOUT snaked back and forth with its glaring spotlight.
“Betsy, I found it,” Dale exclaimed into the radio. “It’s a total loss. Tell that pilot he’s got balls of steel.”
“Is the lion onboard?”
He combed back and forth over the tangled wreckage. The plane had been modified to accommodate the cage and the lion, stripped down to barebones and foam.
“It’s hard to tell what’s what,” he explained over the chopping rotors. “No, I can see what’s left of the cage. The bars are blown wide open.”
The radio went silent again. Dale reached into the utility box and produced a pack of Marlboros. He fired one up after cracking a narrow slat window. The cherry showed his anxious reflection.
“The pilot wants to speak to ya, Dale,” Betsy finally came through the radio.
“Go ahead,” he responded.
Dale didn’t bother to tag back.
“This is Peter Green, licensed out of California. I put the plane down and hiked to town myself,” his voice quivered, but he was clear and concise. “That lion was locked in the cage when I left.”
Dale took a hard drag and said, “It ain’t here, man.”
He turned the spotlight on a tumble of low brush and went rigid at the sight; the behemoth form of the feline, unmistakable shaggy mane of a male. It was the same lion he’d seen a million times - literally. Leo was the roaring mascot from the intro of every movie on the big screen.
Peter’s voice chirped through the radio speaker but Dale couldn’t hear any of it. He was too awestruck at the specimen before him. Leo stretched to his full length, arching to scratch his mane on the knobby manzanita branches.
The lion didn’t bother with SIOUX SCOUT. Dale fanned back and forth, but Leo looked only into the woodline below.
“...a lot of money on the line, if you catch my drift. Hello?”
“I found him,” Dale breathed. “He’s right here.”
“Thought we lost you. Can you confirm your last transmission?” Peter shouted through the static.
“Affirmative, buddy. What a beaut!”
Leo pulled away from the manzanita and slunk into the foliage. Dale tracked his movement with the dim yellow spotlight.
He never looked up at the helicopter - he pursued something in the forest.
Dale rearranged himself in the cockpit and peered down into the swirling tree tops. Spindly shadows danced in the dead air amongst the trunks, branches clawing coyly at one another. The moonlight egged them on like a puppet master.
He sifted through the darkness for the lion’s prey; deer, elk, an unlucky overnighter. There wasn’t any firelight, so Dale hoped there weren’t any campers. Discarding his cigarette, he continued to investigate.
His stomach soured at something below. Dale blinked and traced back over the canopy - there wasn’t movement of any kind. Still, an uncanny spell came over the terrain; unbridled dread. He perceived a sense of awareness just beneath his gaze.
A great pair of eyes blinked up at the cockpit - eyes so large that Dale couldn’t behold the face. It crouched in the pine boughs with an unwavering stare.
Dale white knuckled the control stick as he looked back into the bloodshot pools beneath him. SIOUX SCOUT shuddered as it craned toward the earth.
The moon illuminated gaunt, pale flesh between the needles. A hideous grin chattered below a hooked nose, complete with broken teeth and dark purple lips.
Dale exhaled and reached for the radio. He hit the button but reminded himself that Betsy and the station were roughly forty miles away - this thing was within fifteen yards.
Leo stalked along the forest floor in pursuit of the giant. The helicopter dipped so low that Dale could see moisture in the trembling eyeballs.
He flipped the output to the loud hailer and screamed into the transmitter. The speaker erupted just above the treetops, and turned the colossal face from a stutter to a frothing rage. Its eyebrows clashed as a monstrous arm sprouted from the boughs and clawed at the helicopter.
Dale cranked the stick and SIOUX SCOUT screamed into the night sky. Long, sick fingers curled just under the landing skids.
“What the fuck,” Dale whispered.
The giant dropped away and vanished. It moved with a predatory grace that reminded Dale of liquid.
He looped in a frantic circle with the spotlight.
It wasn’t hiding in the trees - it was the trees. Dale saw the enormous feet shuffling in the darkness of the canopy and realized his folly.
He flipped the dial back to the radio.
“Betsy,” he croaked into the transmitter.
“You still have a visual?” she asked.
The toes wriggled and disappeared in the underbrush; they left imprints like deer beds.
“Betsy, Betsy, Betsy,” he wheezed.
A giggle sprang to life and echoed around the mountain face. It deafened the helicopter engines with a nauseating pitch.
A slender silhouette frolicked between the pines; it towered just shy of the pinnacle, which Dale estimated at thirty feet. Long, gangly limbs carried it around with manic rhythm, like that of a rabid animal.
Its eyes caught the moonlight when it peered up at Dale.
SIOUX SCOUT bellied up and raced toward the dry creek avenue. It was the clearest and quickest route back into the county.
“Betsy,” he fumbled with the transmitter.
“What the hell is going on?” she asked. “You sound weird.”
“We need everybody out here,” he explained. “Start making calls.”
“What do you mean everybody?”
“I mean the Sheriff’s Department, DPS, Forest Ranger Service, and the National fucking Guard,” Dale said breathlessly.
The helicopter banked from side to side in its effort to make distance. Dale knew he should look underneath himself, check to see if he should create more space. He couldn’t do it. Panic kindled a fire in his heart that started to gain flavor; rusty ribbons of blood leaking between the valves. The pressure in his veins threatened to knock him unconscious.
Only static fizzed back.
Ghastly white branches opened up to show the campsite from earlier; Dale paused in the air and cleared his throat.
“Something climbed out of the mountain when that plane crashed,” he muttered into the transmitter. “It’s like a movie monster.”
He clicked the dial over to the loud hailer.
“This is Gila County, please pack up your belongings-”
Dale looked down at the area and noticed the changes; the new angle showed him the backside of the tent, and the hole punched in the polyester. Coal from the firepit lay scattered in every direction, and the bed of the truck had flattened till it collapsed. The rear tires were reduced to mere strips of rubber from the pressure.
A person moved back and forth in the outer edges of the spotlight. Dale let the transmitter fall from his hand as he frantically tried to track them. They jumped out from the trees here and there like they were trying to hide.
Dale rotated SIOUX SCOUT to get a better eye on the survivor; it exposed the giant hand gripping the person from the waist down. It shook the little body back and forth as it danced it around the treeline.
Vomit plumed up Dale’s throat and spewed over the navstick. He could see the blood matting her hair, and the shattered bones attempting to keep her upright.
With a flick of its oversized wrist, the giant tossed the corpse up at SIOUX SCOUT. It pinwheeled through the air before colliding face first with the windshield. The mangled body impacted with the under panel of the chopper and confused the rotor engines; the chopper dipped even lower with the additional weight.
Dale shrugged the navstick and cranked the aircraft back into the sky. He felt the corpse separate from the wiring under the nose and drop back to the ground, but it pulled something with it. He could feel the resistance of something like an anchor tugging him down.
He scooped the transmitter off the floor and clicked the button; it was dead in his palm. The body had gotten tangled up with the radio box and likely knocked it loose.
The helicopter climbed back into the air and maintained itself. Dale cycled through a series of high school memories; the imagery before him reminded him of the poem Beowulf, and the titan Grendel who loitered in the mountain pass.
He fumbled for the utility box and scattered its contents across the floor; nothing useful presented itself. The only item that caught his eye was the bright orange handle of a flare gun. He tucked it between his legs and resumed the flight maneuvers.
The helicopter rotated as it prepared for its final escape. Heat cascaded down from the overworked fan blades.
As Dale turned away from the camp, he saw the elongated limbs lurch out of the tree line. It struggled back and forth with something, barreling through pine and oak branches toward the chopper.
It was the lion, sprung from the underbrush. Leo roared and raked his claws down the giant’s chest, and sundered the spongy flesh into open wounds.
The giant scrambled to keep the cat at bay, pushing it over and over again with both hands. Leo looked like a normal house cat before the ogre; small, irritated, returning to the same task with unstoppable energy. He bit the shaking fingers every time they reached out to parry him.
Dale watched in disbelief. The tenacity of the lion was a sight to behold - even one as tame as Leo. The fury of his roar frightened the monster and brought it to tremble.
Still, it resisted Leo. The lion couldn’t tell, but the giant let one arm slither behind itself, where it slowly arched into the air. Its palm, cupped and teetering, waited for the lion to creep into range. One great swat would kill the cat for sure.
Only Dale could see all the pieces in motion. Both combatants assumed themselves to have the upperhand.
The giant stepped forward and lifted its hands into the air for a final strike. Leo hesitated in his action as he realized his fate.
Dale slammed the navstick into the floor and sent SIOUX SCOUT sailing. The nose dipped to the ground and the chopper beelined for the enormous hand in the sky.
The spinning rotor blades bit into the bilious flesh and created a fine black mist in the air. The fan spun through fat and muscle before biting into bone; the giant yanked its arm back and found its hand a bloody mess.
It shrieked and reared back with its other arm, but Leo pounced and wrapped himself up with the fingers. The giant swung the cat back and forth in an attempt to get free, but the claws were buried deep in rancid tissue.
It took shaking steps back toward the wilderness.
“Yeah!” Dale screamed at the interior glass. “HELL YEAH!”
He remembered the chasm up the mountain and the wreckage just beside it. A plan was starting to come together.
Dale swung the chopper around to put the spotlight in the monster’s face; its table-sized eyes dilated under the yellow glare. It brought a shredded hand up to block the light.
He flew SIOUX SCOUT in a circle while he reached for the radio transmitter.
Leo continued his onslaught against the other hand.
“This is Dale Farthing with Gila County,” he screamed through the loud hailer. It still worked without the radio box. “We’ll be sending you back TO HELL THIS EVENING!”
The giant strained under his hollering voice. It continued to back pedal into the trees.
They worked steadily to push it up the mountain, toward the gaping hole in the earth. Dale had lived here on and off for thirty years - he’d never heard any legends of ogres in the woodland. He imagined it crawled up from beneath the surface to end a centuries-long hibernation.
Or maybe that was Beowulf again.
Every time it raised a hand to attack, SIOUX SCOUT rushed forward with its whirring fan blades. Its fingers were reduced to stumps after the third deflection.
Leo sprang from one foot to the other, tearing huge gashes across the toes.
The giant let out a tremendous roar.
Flesh and blood littered the trail up the mountain. The steep angles of the stone outcropping slowed Leo to crawl, who started to lag behind. Any time the giant made an advance toward the cat, Dale dropped the helicopter into slicing range.
“Back it up!” he screamed from the cockpit. “Don’t even try it!”
It clambered up the rocky reaches and flexed in the night. Dale’s muscles went limp under the magnitude, and SIOUX SCOUT dipped away from its ascent.
The giant laughed and made to move back down the stonework. It took creeping steps toward the lion and the pilot.
Dale yanked the navstick and sent the rotor blades whirring through the soft exposed belly.
A wave of thick, black mucus washed over the windshield and took Dale’s visuals away. The smell was even worse; a rotting lather of internal decay. The giant howled so loudly that the rotor engines failed for a moment.
Dale maneuvered the helicopter and opened the window so he could see. The monster teetered on the lip of the chasm, holding its intestines between both hands. Dale gave SIOUX SCOUT all the gas she could handle and screamed up into the sky.
The giant swung a hand up, but only pulled more of its organs out. Dale gripped the flare gun and let it rip out the window slat; the fireball shot across the ravine and landed right between its bloodied feet.
With a final wail, it sank back into the crevasse with a practiced technique; feet first, as if descending a ladder. Flesh and gore highlighted the opening with dark accents.
Dale checked the engine levels and corrected SIOUX SCOUT, who nodded gently in the air. Leo, painted with blood, paced the stone outcrop with tempered vigilance.
They guarded the chasm entrance and waited for ripening dawn.
As mentioned in the byline, this is based on a true story: in 1927, a plane carrying Leo the MGM lion crashed at the foot of a local mountain range. The lion was stranded in the cage for five days before a team was able to retrieve it from the crashsite.
Full story can be found here.
Per usual, I hyped the story up with some Lovecraftian flare by way of inexplicable horror. This story is also currently paired with the book bundle giveaway currently running on my Facebook author page. Details on how to enter can be found there - I'm giving away a copy of The Bachman Books, a rare collector's item worth upwards of $125.
Thanks for reading, and good luck in the contest!
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes