The crack came unforeseen and deafening like a lightning strike on a clear day. Close enough to raise the hair on his neck, Leo tipped his head back scanning for telltale signs of a pending storm but found only a cloudless, azure sky.
The mystifying thunderclap drove birds from the surrounding trees. Their escape momentarily blotting out all light filtering through the forest canopy with a thick, swirling cloud of panicked caws and shrieks.
Leo squinted toward the bright sun once the birds flew away. Tipping his head back, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling through his nose. There was no tang of sulfur he expected from a lightning strike, only the sweet perfume of pine sap and pollen.
Kneeling in the tall grass, Leo put his palms flat on the ground, trying to feel the rumble of stampeding animals he expected to roar his way. Only it never came. Standing again, he looked in the opposite direction of where the birds flew, there was no plumes of dust rising behind charging animals.
All he saw was sunlight breaking through the treetops, spilling over the leaves. Without the birdsong, without the chirp of crickets and cicada, there was no sound in the forest.
Still facing the direction of the splintering report, Leo started walking toward the sound, his senses heightened, listening and sniffing the air.
Pushing aside low hanging boughs and thorny vines, Leo slowly made his way deep into the woods. As the trees thinned out, Leo stepped into a wide clearing. In the center stood a tall, rangy pine. About a quarter of the way up the narrow bole, the tree had split nearly in two, twisted from above like something had attempted to wrench it from the ground. Fresh sap seeped from the wound like thick, sticky blood.
Standing well back, Leo studied the ground around the mutilated tree. There were no signs of footprints, no disturbance of any kind.
Leo knelt again, facing the tree, hands on the ground and listened. He could hear the hush of the wind and the steady whoosh his own heartbeat. His head bowed, his eyes closed, Leo tried to separate what he heard into their distinct sounds. Turning his head an almost indiscernible angle, Leo looked past his right shoulder.
An invisible force was moving through the tall grass, trampling the tender shoots. At the edge of the clearing, trees leaned to either side, creating a wide path.
Leo smiled and slowly stood.
“You can’t hide from me,” he whispered as he followed the tracks to timberline.