Authors: James C. Glass
Tags: #science fiction
Copyright © 2007 by James C. Glass
Cover painting Copyright © 2007 by James C. Glass
Published by Wildside Press LLC
For those of us with European ancestry
who accept the fact that there’s
a little bit of Neanderthal in all of us.
In the light of dusk a splash of blood looked black against the straw covered ground. Jake Price froze when he saw it, and then closed one hand tightly around his rifle. The cattle moved nervously around him, eyes rolling, still fearful of whatever had happened only moments before.
Must have been quick
, he thought. Otherwise every cow would have stampeded down the canyon. Jake cradled the rifle in one arm and pushed his way forward until the puddle was at his feet and he could smell salty musk. A part of his mind was screaming for a drink. The thing had killed before, and only in this canyon. He had seen it and heard its cry, but when he’d warned the men they’d only laughed. Poor old Jake, drinkin’ his own stuff again. Well, this time he’d make sure it wouldn’t be so funny.
He worked the lever of the Winchester, and put the hammer on half-cock. The grass was bent and crushed where the bleeding animal had been dragged, and he followed it up a steep hill. There was less than an hour until sunset, and he had no lantern.
I’ll follow until sunset
, he thought,
then pick it up in the morning, but no way will I spend the night up here, rifle or no rifle.
The trail led straight up the canyon towards cliffs of grey slate towering three hundred feet above his head in a series of shelves. Jake’s heart was pounding when he reached the field of boulders and rubble separating grass from cliffs, for the trail had suddenly become a scramble climb.
How the hell could it drag a cow up here? Maybe a calf, but that’s still two hundred pounds of dead weight! Jesus, I can’t catch my breath!
He breathed deeply, then reached into his back pocket and pulled out a flask. He took a long pull from it, and closed his eyes as the whiskey burned a path into his stomach. He took another pull, then studied the rocks ahead of him. The trail had disappeared, but the canyon was getting narrow, and he had seen nothing moving up the cliffs. Plenty of places to hide in the boulder field.
Ahead of him there was a crashing sound.
A cascade of pebbles bounced down the steep slope, narrowly missing his left foot.
Jake raised the rifle, aiming at shadows, swinging the barrel back and forth.
Silence. Nothing moved. Even the birds were still. So many shadows, so many places in which to hide. It could be waiting for him anywhere, eager for the chance to tear out his throat. He remembered his dog Bustard, a hundred pounds of mongrel, throat gaping, belly slashed open from neck to testicles, and the shadowy form loping up the hill behind his barn after slaughtering everything in the hen house.
The lip of a prospector’s test hole loomed ahead, a miniature moraine. Jake stepped up to it, holding the rifle across his body, peering into the darkness. Something was there, a form, on its back, legs splayed out and very still. He took a deep breath, then climbed down the shallow moraine side of the hole in soft dirt.
It was the carcass of an adult cow, gutted and partially eaten, the head nearly torn away and dangling limply. The stench of blood and decaying organs engulfed him in a wave of nausea that undoubtedly saved his life, for as he scrambled out of the hole
were coming for him, relying on surprise against an armed man.
Jake Price scrambled gasping from the hole, a cocked rifle clutched in one hand, gasping for air, looking up to see three nightmarish figures descending on him from the surrounding boulders. Two beings crouched, ready to spring, the third standing tall, arm drawn back, startled by Jake’s sudden appearance. A whirring sound as Jake ducked beneath the edge of the hole, and a fist-sized pebble smashed into the shale at his back. He sat up and fired without aiming, a deafening explosion in the narrow canyon and then a gratifying shriek of fright. Rising up on his knees as he aimed the rifle, Jake saw low sloping foreheads and bared, yellow teeth in grimaces as two figures rolled out of sight over boulder tops. The third bounded lightly from one boulder to the next, then turned and looked at Jake defiantly, daring him to shoot.
It was a kind of man: brute face painted with streaks of red and yellow, amber eyes close-set, small, flat nose and narrow forehead above a tiny chin. A sling dangled from his hand, and when he smiled a malevolent smile there were fine white teeth, and the level, intense stare of a hunting wolf. A quick pirouette on the rock, and the creature-man was gone from view as Jake tugged in vain on the rifle trigger. He’d forgotten to lever a new round into the weapon. Now he remembered, levering and firing in every direction until the firing pin was poking air. Ears ringing, he waited a moment, then scrambled out of the hole and stumbled down the steep gorge, rocks slashing at his knees and thighs until he reached the grass and was running, not looking back, past startled cattle bellowing protests and banging into each other to clear the way for him. An instant later he was clawing at the cabin door, barring it behind him and stumbling to the big oak gun cabinet where he kept cartridges for the rifle. He tore open a drawer, and found only two cartridges in a box.
Jake’s face felt flushed, and the room was spinning fast. He sat down hard on the floor, and fell over on his side, eyes open, a little line of spittle running from his mouth. When he slipped into his blackout, devoid of sight and sound, everything was peaceful again, and there were no dreams.
* * * * * * *
By late morning, Jake had split half a cord of wood, and he was reasonably sober when the sheriff arrived. Tom Henley, the one-man police force and county sheriff based in Crosley, heaved his two hundred sixty pound bulk off of a tired looking mare and strolled smiling over to where Jake was leaning on his axe, eyeing him coolly.
“Nearly noon, Tom. How ya doin’?” Jake said it amiably enough because he liked the man, but he knew right away it was a business call.
“Pretty good: full stomach, and a nice sunny day to visit folks. How’re
doin’, Jake? Feelin’ okay today?”
Jake sighed. “Get on with it, Tom.”
Tom looked down at his size thirteen boots, and shuffled from one foot to the other. “Oh, it’s nothin’ to get over-concerned with, I guess. Lot of shootin’ up here yesterday. Scared some folks, so I thought I’d check it out.”
“People complain and say a lot of things about me, Tom. What else is new?”
“Oh, this is different, Jake. I hear about when you get drunk and puke in the Athens, and Pete ends up finding you a room for the night. And the whole town has heard your stories about the critters a hundred times. But there was a lot of shootin’ here yesterday, and folks is nervous. What happened?”
Jake looked at the round, friendly face: clear blue eyes, a pea-sized brown wart clinging to a jaw line. How many nights had this man put him up in an empty cell, door open, then fed him breakfast the next morning? How many times had they talked about Ester, and what she’d done to him? Here was a man he’d cried in front of. He was a friend.
I was drunk and scared, Tom.”
“Okay. But what happened?”
Jake looked hard at the big man. He felt his mouth moving, and knew he was going to sound crazy again, but with Tom it was somehow safe. “They—they came back—yesterday. I heard ’em screaming up by the cliffs all afternoon—darin’ me to come out.”
“The critters,” said Tom.
Jake swallowed hard. “Yes.”
“The same ones you say hit your place before, even though nobody else has had any trouble?”
“They killed five of my hens, and—”
“We didn’t find anything, Jake. Not a single feather, not a drop of blood. Nothing.”
“I saw them this time. Close up. Three of them. Big. They had weapons. A sling. Nearly brained me with a rock. Not injuns, Tom. Half-men, sort of. They killed one of my cows, Tom, and dragged it up to the cliffs. I found it there. A whole cow they dragged up a steep hill, and I followed the blood and—”
“Easy, Jake, you’re shakin’ all over.” Tom put a huge hand on Jake’s shoulder.
“I took my rifle and went up to the cliffs, and the dead cow was there in a hole, and then they ambushed me. I drove ’em off, emptied the rifle and scattered them good, but then I panicked and my head was spinning. When I came back to the cabin I guess I passed out for a while, but they was screamin’ up there most of the night, and I sat by the window with the rifle in my lap.”
Tom looked sadly at him. “Oh, Jake, what am I gonna do with you?”
Jake looked straight into the friendly, blue eyes. “I’m cold sober, Tom, and this is no bull shit, no hallucination. I know what I saw, and they’re killing my animals. I want it stopped.”
Tom’s faint smile suddenly evaporated, and he stood up straight. “All right, let’s go up and look at that dead cow of yours, and I’ll file a report.”
Jake could hear the disbelief, and felt foolish again. “I’ll get my rifle.”
“No need for that. This here is all we need.” Tom patted the Colt forty-four holstered at one hip. “Let’s go.”
Jake led the way up the hill, feeling scared and guilty, and wondering why he’d said anything at all.
You’re the town crazy because you talk too much, stupid. Let ’em find out when their animals are torn apart. Or their kids.
As they approached the cliffs, Jake felt colder and colder. A welcome morning rain had been hard, sending rivulets of mud running down the hill. “I found a big splash of blood about here,” he said, “but looks like it’s been washed away.”
“Well even that rain wasn’t hard enough to wash away a whole cow. Shit, my boots is covered with mud all ready. Let’s get on with it.”
Somehow Jake knew what they would find before they got to the hole. It made sense, all the screaming last night. Covering their tracks. Tom went ahead, a hand on the Colt’s grip, peered over the edge of the hole and sighed. “There’s nothin’ in here, Jake.”
Jake felt his face flush. “They moved it, then. Dragged it away last night. I
them, I told you.”
, Jake. There’s nothin’ here but mud and a foot of water in the bottom of a hole, and my clothes are a mess. God damn it, there’s nothing
! Believe your eyes, for Christ’s sake!”
Jake looked down at mud and water, shaking his head. All feeling seemed to drain from him as his jaw set stubbornly. He walked over to a boulder, pointing to a jagged chip at the top. “That’s where a bullet hit. They couldn’t rub that out or drag it away, but a dead cow they could move, and the rain would obliterate everything else.”
For just an instant Jake saw a hint of belief in Tom’s face, but then the eyes clouded again. Tom stumbled and slid down the moraine of the diggings, and put an arm around Jake’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s talk, but not in this mud.” They hung onto each other on the way down while Jake babbled about man-like critters who screamed like banshees and threw rocks with slings and dragged his animals away. Tom listened quietly, but seemed to be thinking about something else. When they reached the cabin he suddenly turned Jake to face him, taking a deep, slow breath before he spoke.
“We’ve been friends a long time, Jake, and I really believe you think you saw something, so I’ll look into it. I don’t know what I’ll do, maybe set up some kind of watch, but I’ll do
“Now, whether I find anything or not, there’s something I want you to do for me and—well—for yourself. Ever since Ester left you’ve sort of fallin’ apart, and it’s worrying me. You’re drinkin’ too much, Jake, and I think you’ve got a problem with it. I want you to do something about it, put the cork in the bottle for a while, maybe get Doc Ellis to check you out. Do some good for yourself, Jake.”
“You’re right,” said Jake. “I’ve been hittin’ it too hard, and I don’t need to. Guess I’ve been feelin’ sorry for myself, Tom. Losin’ Ester hit me harder’n I expected, is all. First woman I ever fell for.”
“You need help, you yell,” said Tom
“Thanks, Tom, you’re a friend. You’ve always been a good friend.”
The two men hugged like two standing grizzlies, embracing awkwardly, then Tom walked back to his horse and climbed on. Jake stood forlornly by the woodpile, looking like a reprimanded forty-year-old child.
“Check back with you in a couple of days. Take care of yourself,” said Tom, and Jake watched until the horse disappeared in thick stands of trees. He went back to the cabin and ate some jerky and bread, then found a bottle in a cupboard and poured a tumbler full of whiskey for himself. He sipped whiskey all afternoon and into the evening, so that it didn’t bother him so much when the screaming began again later that night, continuing until dawn of the next day.
He returned from oblivion at noon, and discovered that another cow was missing.