Scott sniffed as he shouldered his rifle, crouched low in the high reeds of the mighty Mullica, eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of his elusive quarry. He and Mike had been out in the chill of the Pine Barrens for the past two hours, having witnessed the sunrise some thirty minutes ago as they waited for signs of activity amidst the duck community so prevalent in this river.
“Why haven’t they flown yet?” Mike whispered to Scott, his long hair tied back in a loose ponytail, his white knuckled grip on his shotgun belying his frustration at the whole hunt altogether. “Should we try the duck call again?”
Scott merely shook his head, eyes still facing ahead. Beyond the reeds to the opposing shore of the Mullica, a stand of high grass and mossy tree trunks offered a breath of darkness in the dawning light of the crisp autumn morning. Without a word, he raised his gun and took careful aim. Mike quickly pulled his own shotgun up shoulder-level, searching the opposing coast for whatever it was his friend had seen.
Mike squinted his eyes and calmed his breathing, examining every shadow and rock, looking for whatever had crossed into Scott’s crosshairs. The only sounds to be heard were the faint buzzing of the cicada and the gurgling of the river before them, along with Scott’s almost rhythmic breathing as he stared down the sights of his rifle.
“What is it?” Mike hissed. “A deer? Quail?”
“No.” Scott drawled, his word punctuated by the high crack of his rifle firing in the calm morning air. A gaggle of birds flapped away from the trees surrounding them. A loud keening noise, one reminiscent of an injured elk, sounded throughout the woods, along with the trampling of grass as whatever Scott had shot retreated deeper into the woods.
Scott slung his gun over his shoulder, leapt to his feet and sloshed through the ankle deep water to a series of slippery stones that allowed the hunter to cross the wide river with practiced ease. Mike followed along, hot on his trail. The two of them had hunted in the Pine Barrens of Southern Jersey their entire lives, save for when Scott had been called away to serve his country in the Second Gulf War. While he’d returned a far more somber individual, his love of hunting always seemed to bring about that old cheer that Mike remembered from when they were younger. The grizzled veteran seemed more like his old self when he was out in the woods with his friend, ready to bring home some fine game to prepare.
Crossing the river with ease, Scott stopped some ten feet into the woods, dropping to a knee to study a set of tracks that Mike had never seen before. Widely spaced and set deep in the moist earth, they looked like horse's tracks if not because whatever left them was bipedal. Mike gasped as he caught sight of a spattering of gore plastered to a knotty pine close by, red flesh mixed with black, smoking blood.
“What the hell did you shoot, Scott?” Mike asked, moving closer to the stained trunk. “Whatever got hit, got hit solid. No way is it going far like this.”
Scott looked up from the tracks, one hand carefully tracing the edges of the hoofprints. “Let’s finish the job.”
Scott led Mike deep into the Pinelands, down steep hills and over streams, stopping only to analyze the occasional print left behind by their elusive quarry, or to take stock of a smear of blood left against a tree trunk or dribbled onto high grass. Two hours died to the hunt, until Scott held his hand up in a fist, a sign he’d taught Mike to “Halt.”
Squatting over a creek, a red-skinned creature only twenty paces away from the two hunters. Great leathery wings sprouted from the creature’s mid back, folded up like bat wings, while the creature’s brow bore a pair of curved horns. Long hooked fingers were slowly digging into a bloody wound in its side, searching for the bullet that has pierced it’s leathery hide, a sneer on its horse-like face as it winced from the exploring fingers.
“What in the hell is that?” Mike asked in a hushed whisper. The creature’s head spun to look at the duo.
Mike realized his voice was not as hushed as he’d thought.
Scott quickly shucked his rifle from his shoulder into his hands as the creature screeched, turning and leaping through the air with wings unfurled, mouth spread wide to reveal rows of jagged teeth. With careful aim and perfect timing, Scott squeezed the trigger, blasting the creature directly in the face, blowing away the monstrosity’s skull in a shower of gore and blackened blood.
Mike walked over to look at the still twitching corpse, staring at the long equine legs and the tail ending in a heavy red spade… he’d seen nothing like it before in his life! “What is it?”
With a simple click of his weapon, of his weapon, Scott turned to look at his friend as he reloaded his rifle. “If there’s one thing I learned to go through the hell of war Mike,” Scott said as he moved toward the downed beast, “it’s how to recognize another Devil when I see one.”
“Devil? You mean you’ve seen one of these before?” Mike sputtered, shocked at the very idea.
Scott pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, tapping the red package in his hand thoughtfully. “I look in the mirror every day, don’t I? Well we’re in the neck of the woods in Jersey, and I just killed me a Devil…”
Mike looked at Scott like he was mad. “Are you saying that thing the Jersey Devil?”
Scott looked over his shoulder with a feral grin. “It was.”