He drew a long, steadying breath. When he got control of his heart beat — and his doubt — he pressed on.
He came to the first fork a few minutes later. He stared down one avenue, then the other. The right path went on ahead as far as he could see — more than a hundred yards now, the fog held off the canyon floor but still obscuring the walls — then branched at a wide spot into more paths. He couldn’t tell how many.
The left branch wound into a bend about twenty yards in and hid its secrets from prying eyes. He’d have to follow it to see what waited there.
He shook his head, frustrated. He wondered at the time, and regretted not having the pocket watch with him. If he didn’t find the lair soon — maybe another hour or two — he’d go back and bring the horse in. If things kept up like this, he’d have to decide on spending the night in the canyon.
He didn’t want to do that. Not if he could help it.
Another tumble of debris rolled down the cliff behind him. He snapped around rattler-quick, hand on the gun handle, fingertips on the snap securing it in the holster, ready to free it. He almost drew when he noted the lazy roil of the cloud just above the spill, but held his hand when it stilled and resumed the lazy waltz of the fog. A second of detritus clattered down the cliff in a trail of rubble, then stopped. Silence followed, deafening in its weight.
Something nagged at the back of his mind. He tried to focus on it, clarify it, but it eluded him. He turned back to the fork in the canyon, decided to go right.
He stepped more carefully now, cat-quiet, ears primed and eyes straining, scanning, searching. His hand never drifted far from the waiting gun.
The canyon bothered him, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. It was narrow, but opened more as he went farther in down this branch. As he penetrated the murk, the walls in the opening ahead slanted up out of sight. A finger of rock stabbed up in the wide spot, blunt tip a shadow in the denser mist near its top but still visible. The narrow base spanned thirty or thirty-five feet around. It rose twenty yards, maybe less. As he approached the opening, others like it emerged from the gray, silhouette sentinels in the tendrils of the fog.
The reason he didn’t like the canyon, the reason for the tiny landslides, smashed down on him like an anvil. He turned to flee back into the narrow passage, get out of the more open area.
He saw the talons a split second before they struck.
The wind exploded out of him. White bolts of pain erupted throughout his body. He kept his hands away from the snaps on the holsters, and a cold flame burned his side, his ribs, back. The scream shattered out of him despite his effort to hold it in. He felt the warm freshet run beneath his clothes.
The huge leathery wings beat once, twice. He turned his head and saw the jutting finger of rock approaching with the speed of a rushing locomotive engine. The wings beat again, and in a battering wind the floor of the canyon fell away and the cloud swallowed them.
He tried to recover his breath but the constricting scaled feet clutched him about the ribs. They weren’t large enough to encircle him, but the claws sank deep into his flesh.