One more week I have goofed. I left Norval Joe out of the Voting. Since there are already votes I can’t change the poll without deleting it and that would loose all the vote we already have. So, if you like his story, and really who didn’t, please let him know. if you would like to vote for his story please leave a comment. Here and I will count the number of comments as votes.
I forgot the mention this in the podcast. Sorry about that.
“Silver Bullets; the real reason that some cowboys carried them.”
By: Eric Moseman
Tim stared at the silver bullet as it turned itself over and over through his fingers. It felt almost hot now, as it always did. He remembered the first winter he had gotten the pair when he was twenty-one. He had left them out all night in the cold air, so as to suck the warmth right out of them. He recalled how he had put them out in the dusting of snow the small town had gotten overnight, and watched the snow melt for about six or eight inches around them. That’s when he started to believe that they might actually have some magic in them after all.
His Grandaddy Red had told him all about them many times, and unlike most of the old man’s stories, this one never changed in each successive telling. He told the boy Timmy of how he had gotten them when he’d sold his first ranch-raised heifer. In town that very same day, Grandaddy went and told the smith exactly what he wanted; a perfectly-matching pair of silver bullets. The blacksmith told him that he could not guarantee they would work if Red ever wanted them to, but that did not matter to Red. He explained that they were a symbol of his start on the road to prosperity, and he didn’t plan on using them unless the road came to an out of the blue kind of ending. Now Tim understood what his grandfather had meant.
Grandaddy also told him that he had gone to a real honest-to-goodness missionary – over two days travel time from the ranch – just to get them blessed. The missionary had thought the man a fool, but if the tithe was right, he was willing to bless his aunt’s skivvies. The way Grandaddy had told Timmy, the missionary had said some gobbledy gook, in Latin he figured, and splashed holy water on them. Red said he winced when the preacher did that, but he didn’t imagine wiping them clean could wipe off the blessing anyway. The bullets stayed with Red until he passed them on.
When Timothy’s father turned twenty-one, the herd had numbered over two dozen, due in large part to the hard work “Lucky” had done since he could walk, pretty much. Though he was small compared to his three brothers, he took to life on the ranch; working his backside off. Eventually Lucky, whose real name was Darren, took over the place, growing it into the most profitable farm for three counties. He was no stranger to work, but Lucky knew how to make a deal just a smidge fairer for himself, too. But most folks who’d dealt with him all called him fair. He just had that knack.
He had some charisma too, which didn’t hurt. Tim knew that he did not have that same magnetism about him. He watched the way people used to just make a crowd around the man he had most admired and wanted to be like. It was like they just wanted some of that luck to rub off onto them. Stories said his Dad had stopped getting invited to poker games, because he never lost one. He hadn’t ever cheated either, he told his son. The cards just lined up in the deck for him, and marched themselves out right so he would always win by the end of the night.
Tim was not like his father, except that he had pretty much the same sense of fairness handed down to him. His business sense was not founded in luck as was his father’s, but rather in making sure he never got the short end of any stick. He wasn’t no charity, and business was business after all. Most folks did not mind dealing with Tim from the Silver Bullet Ranch, that’s for sure. But business never got better than it had in his old man’s day. It had, in fact started to wane about six or seven years into Tim’s tenure. He never could figure out exactly why, but he remembered about when it started going downhill slow.
The deal that began that slide haunted him still, and it was the strangest one of his life. It came by way of a group of folks who had been traveling through town. Though they came through only once fifteen years ago, he recalled it vividly; as though it had happened last week. Tim remembered dealing with their leader – a woman no less. She dressed like nothing he had ever seen and smelled like earth and lavender and lightning. Her scent was strange and familiar; earthy and exotic all at once. He could actually smell the woman just by conjuring up her memory, and the smell was as intoxicating and fearsome to him now as it had been then.
He had not been unfair with those travelers either. He gave them the typical price of a cow for non-locals. But she had got all mad when he would not budge on that price, calling him a cheat and a few other choice words no woman should have used, at least not in his book. Then she crooked her finger at him and put a stupid curse on him. Well, he figured that was what it was though he could not understand any of it. It sure as heck wasn’t, “God bless and good day,” anyway. Yep, she pointed that strong little bony finger right at his silver bullets, which he had taken to wearing in the band of his hat. It was kind of an advertisement for the Silver Bullet Ranch, and he felt kinda invincible with them there. It was one week to the day later when he’d lost the first of the pair.
He was crushed when he realized it was gone. He had started touching them frequently when he needed some of the luck he knew they conferred, so he knew fairly quickly when one was not there. He could not sleep and did not eat, spending two whole days looking for that thing. He finally gave up when exhaustion overtook him, though not before he had scoured every inch of all his land, and most of the town, much of it on his hands and knees.
Time had gotten all different on him after that. He started missing appointments and forgetting deals. He actually had to sell off some of the ranch’s sacred land to the railroad company to make ends meet. But ends mostly did meet for a pretty good while. Most recently though, they were not meeting. They were not meeting at all. This past year, in fact, they were miles apart. He hadn’t made enough to keep himself fed, and had lost weight badly. He did not, however look as bad as what remained of his thinning herd. They were looking thin and sick. Even the land was going barren on him. All he saw seemed not to want to cooperate. It got so he could see not a glint of hope through a thick fog of despair.
The second silver bullet did give off a glint, though. As it twirled through his fingers, the evening sun sparkled off it, and as he looked more closely, it distorted his wan features. In its tiny mirror, he looked about as ghastly as he felt. After some time, maybe ten minutes, maybe an hour, he decided the time had come. He had not come to the decision quickly or lightly and he knew of no other way to fix his fortunes.
Oddly now, the bullet felt as it never had before. It felt as cold to him as a piece of ice might. He supposed the coldness was pretty fitting, as if that bullet knew this would be the last night it would see him.
by: Travis Nelson
Hank Swenson’s backside ached a bit more with each jarring bounce of his tailbone against the worn saddle leather. He shrugged his shoulders to settle his heavy coat, tugging the frayed collar back in place to cut the flow of the chill morning wind that whistled down the valley. He pulled his faded hat lower to block the sunlight that cut through the ragged cleft in the far off hills. Sniffing briefly, he inhaled the sharp scent of pine, sagebrush and moist morning air, sneezed once, violently, shaking the edges of his shaggy brown handle-bar mustache and jarring his spine again. Hank groaned.
He was truly beginning to hate cattle. God-awful before sunrise mornings, draggin’ on ’til near sunset, just to track down the far flung herd as they grazed in spring pasture. Hauling in heifers near calving, or tracking down the little ones, fresh born, that had strayed into something they couldn’t get out of, mending far flung fences and the like…it was all beginning to worry his mind, like a dug in burr, wedged twixt saddle and skin.
Hank shifted and rolled forward a bit, to ease the pressure on his tailbone, gripping the saddle-horn to pull himself briefly up in the stirrups. The roan crabbed slightly sideways and whuffed an annoyed cloud of steam toward the sunrise, misting the air around it’s long face with a momentary rose-gold halo. Hank was beginning to wonder if the animal hated this job as much as he did. Surely the beast seemed a bit more surly each morning as he was led from his warm stall. Hank didn’t blame him…not one bit.
Easing himself back down gingerly on the saddle, Hank heeled the horse forward. They moved further up the scrub covered hillside, heading toward the sparse tree-line far above. Although he was shivering now, by noon he’d be down to his shirt-sleeves, sweating and thankful for whatever minimal shade the scraggly mixture of pine and aspen would provide. A Killdeer’s strident cry climbed up from the valley with them, the notes bouncing and rebounding in echos while the small bird piped its joy to the sunrise from the sand and gravel edged stream winding its way down to the valley floor.
Then again, Hank thought, rarely was anything as truly majestic as the blaze of sunrise topping the ridge, the sky a rich blend of pink, red, orange, gold and misty purple, fading off to dark blue at the valley’s far edge. And then, a wave of gold light that etched the shadows of scattered sagebrush, rocks, grass and trees, throwing them into stark relief, etching them on the eye, edges so sharp and clear that some mornings…well, some mornings, it almost hurt to watch the sun rise over the valley. Mornings like that, seeing that awesome display, breathing deeply of air so clean it might have never known humanities sullying hand, on those mornings it was almost…truly almost worth getting out of bed. Chuckling at his own poetical imaginings, Hank urged his horse onward. He had plenty to do today. Might as well get to doin’ it.
It was early afternoon when Hank found the first remains. As the day moved on, he’d worked his way steadily around the upper rim of hills, stopping briefly to check a small stand of trees favored by the herd for mid-day shelter and, finding nothing amiss, moved on. After traveling further up along the ridgeline, he stopped to cut down a few young pines, mended some sections of fence that needed seeing to, then ate a bite of lunch while the roan stood quietly by cropping grass. He was on his way back down to the river when he ran across the mangled scattering of bones, skin and hair, nearly hidden in the lee of a large chunk of sage. It took several minutes for his sharp blue eyed gaze to recognize the broken bits as the remains of one of the herd, picked nearly clean by scavengers. Hank swore briefly under his breath as he climbed down out of the saddle, tied his horse’s reins to a nearby tree and stepped in close for a better look.
At first, he was nearly certain that what had killed the cow was a large coyote, or perhaps a wolf. Wolves were rare in this part of the state. They’d been heavily hunted to prevent losses just like this from occurring. Something large and ravenous, at least there only appeared to be one…thank God for that, had ripped into the beast, tore it joint from joint, then gnawed on and cracked several of the larger bones. It wasn’t until he moved away from the bones, back towards his horse and found the first set of prints that he began to wonder what the beast really was.
The paw prints were huge, much larger than the wolf prints Hank expected to find They were nearly four times bigger than a coyote’s prints. But the ultimate strangeness was not their size, it was their shape. A wolf’s paw has a large central pad and four toes. Whatever made this print, it had five toes, and they were long, distended things. It almost looked like a huge handprint! It was as if a clawed hand had been pressed deep into the soil, the huge palm forming the paw’s tremendous pad, with five hooked fingers splayed out for stability on the uneven ground. Lord have mercy. What in Heaven’s name could have made a print like that?
Well, whatever it was, Hank knew that he needed to find it, and kill it. Once a large predator found a cattle herd as a steady supply of food, they were like as not to keep feeding there, until something or someone ran them off, or all the cows were dead, whichever came first. Hank needed to kill the beast before it took down any more of the cattle. He grabbed his horses reins, slipped his rifle out of its scabbard along the roan’s right flank and began to track the prints as they wound their way further down toward the river. He found a second cow’s carcass about 100 feet further along the creature’s path. This one was badly mutilated, but still had all of the meat on its bones.
Hank found five more mangled cows over the next several hours as the sun began to drop to the western horizon. The evening breeze began to blow down out of the hills and the temperature started to fall. Hank donned his coat to hold off the chill, but nothing would rid him of the dark cold ball of ice forming itself in the pit of his stomach. Whatever he was tracking, the thing definitely was not natural. As he followed the oddly spaced, huge paw prints, as he saw the fresh killed cattle strewn across the stones, grass and sagebrush, the fear began struggling to work its way out if his gut. He could feel it boiling up inside him. And, that fear had a name. Skinwalker.
He’d had little to do with the Navajo as he’d worked his way north from the cattle drives in Texas, through the Northern Utah ranches to reach his little slice of land up north. But, he’d heard the stories from other cowboys, stories of blood and magic and death. Stories of the skinwalkers. He was quickly beginning to believe that those stories, told to scare one another around the campfire in the dim and the dark had at least a small shred of truth to them. The unfortunate thing was, while those late night scare stories had plenty of gruesome details fit to turn a man grey before his time, not one contained the least little bit of information on how one might stop a skinwalker.
Hank thought through what he knew, trying to find something that might help him if this creature was really what he secretly dreaded it was. Skinwalkers were men, twisted, evil and powerful, yes, but still men. These men had the power to change their form, taking on the warped shape of any animal. It was said that to look a skinwalker in the eye would allow him to actually steal your body, to walk inside your skin, wearing it like a set of clothes and that you would cease to exist. They were always described as evil, brutal and strong. How in God’s name was he going to kill this thing? He lost any chance to speculate as the sun dropped blow the horizon, deepening the green hills to a dull blue black, painting the nearby ribbon of the river with crimson fire. Near the water, he saw something move.
It crouched, black and gnarled, over the top of another slain cow, tearing at the body, but not really feeding. Hank took a deep breath, held it briefly, then gently let it out. The thing was massive. Nearly five feet tall and almost that wide, its muscles bunched together under its rippling silver pelt. If he hadn’t already known what he was looking at, Hank might have mistaken it for a wolf in the fading light. But then it moved, and all similarity to a wolf dissappeared.
The creature lifted it’s oddly shaped head, rounded, somewhat human shaped, but with a huge, distended muzzle. It sniffed the air and bared its long fangs. They flashed blood red in the setting sun. Hank stiffened. He slowly reached back and tied the reins of the roan to a nearby tree. He’d gotten lucky. The wind was blowing along the valley, up the river, and across the area were he and the skinwalker were. Neither upwind, nor down, the skinwalker hadn’t yet caught wind of him, nor had his horse sensed it yet. He kept himself between the creature and the roan’s head as he began to ease his rifle up to his shoulder.
He sighted down the barrel, aiming straight for the thing’s back. It continued to worry at the carcass, tearing bits of meat loose, swallowing the chunks whole. Hank took a deep breath and gently squeezed the trigger. The gun fired. Faster than Hank would have believed possible, the thing moved. It slid sideways, spun, and bared it’s teeth in a deep roaring growl. It wasn’t fast enough, however. The bullet caught its left shoulder and knocked it off its feet. Not waiting for it to regain its footing Hank charged forward, raising his gun to fire again.
As it landed hard on the rock-strewn ground, the thing twisted. It rolled. And, before Hank expected it, the creature was on it’s feet, sprinting toward him, claws digging into the earth, propelling it forward at an unbelievable rate. Surprised, Hank fumbled his second shot, sending the bullet ricocheting of the rocks behind the beast. It continued to charge as he swung his gun around. He wouldn’t be able to get off a third shot.
The creature hit him with the fury of a runaway locomotive. It bowled him over, and slammed it’s head toward him, darting it’s fangs toward his throat. He barely managed to pull the rifle across his body in time. Holding the stock in one hand and the barrel in the other, he jammed the weapon into the creature’s mouth holding it back away from his face. Its fetid breath hit him in a wave and it struggled to reach him, to bite through the gun. The rifle creaked in protest, but did not give way.
The skinwalker’s front claws came up reaching for him as he struggled to throw it off of him. Hank knew that he was about to die. As the beast’s claws reached forward to tear at him, he felt it twist around, trying to bring it’s rear claws to bear as well. As the creature pressed against him, there was a loud hiss, like frying bacon, and it pulled away from him in pain and startlement. Glancing down, Hank could see an arc of seared flesh in the animal’s side. Looking to his own waist, his eyes fell in amazement on the shining glint of his belt buckle.
He’d won the thing in a poker game years ago, won it from another cowboy working the Chisholm trail. The fellow had considered himself quite a dandy, fancy hat, fancy clothes and that great shiny belt buckle with a rim of solid silver along the outer edge. Hank rarely wore it. It was a gaudy piece. But, it held his pants up. And now, it might just save his life.
He pushed with all his strength on the gun, shoving the skinwalker back. Already off balance, the beast stumbled and fell hard upon the rocks. Dropping his right hand from the weapon, Hank grabbed the buckle, ripping the fastening loose, yanking the belt from its loops whipping the worn leather in a coil around his fist. The creature gathered itself to spring again, and dislodged the barrel of the gun from its mouth. It leapt, opening it’s muzzle wide, lunging for him. Hank brought his hand up, the belt wrapped tight around it, and as the monster leapt toward him, he slammed his arm into the creature’s mouth, past the bared teeth, and deep into its throat.
The skinwalker howled, trying to pull back as the silver burned it, but hank pushed forward, driving his fist further down the creature’s gullet. It gurgled and thrashed, it’s claws forgotten in the depths of its pain. Hank grabbed on tightly to its neck and continued to push, to drive the silver further into its body. With one last thrash and a muted gurgle, it fell, senseless, to the ground.
Hank pulled his arm free, leaving his buckle embedded deep in the creature’s throat. He stumbled to the stream, using the chill water to sluice the blood from his wounds and wash the sweat from his body. He looked back to where the skinwalker lay and shuddered. When he got back to town, he’d see about getting some silvered bullets made up special. If he ever tangled with one of these beasts again, he’d be ready. He set off back up the hill to fetch his horse and head back to the cabin. It was going to be a long night. Hank didn’t think that he’d be getting much sleep.
Skinwalker by Travis Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
By: Zach Ricks
The little town, if you could call eight buildings and one street a town, seemed peaceful enough. A little stream meandered out of the mountains that surrounded the town on two sides, the afternoon air was cool and fresh, and the sky shone overhead. It looked like a little slice of heaven. But I knew a few things about sleepy little towns, and I wasn’t about to let this one get the drop on me.
Three done and down, Sinner, the Preacher had cackled. Now, go NORTH, young man! North! I still remembered his scarecrow frame, his crazy silver hair, and his harsh crooked nose below beady blue eyes. Up in Colorado, they’re sipping the Earth’s black blood! Canon City! You’ve got to be there by the fifteenth, or… and the Preacher had paused.
I’d finished the sentence for him. “Or there’ll be Hell to pay.”
The Preacher had cackled. That’s right, Sinner. Hell to pay, indeed!
I got down off Bones, and thought. It was the evening of the 14th, I might be early. But knowing the Preacher, he’d meant me to be here today. Or tonight. I shook my head. The things one does for one’s immortal soul. Such as it is.
“Well, Bones, here we are. It’s a pretty little Eden we’ve found ourselves, isn’t it? Will we play the snake or find it?” Bones shook his mane with a whinny. I chuckled at him. “I know, I know. But if my Daddy can reference the Book, why not I?”
Bones did his best to ignore that. Horses are good at ignoring things when they want to. I checked my pistol and the silver circles on my black hat. Then I started walking, leading Bones by the reins. Where the Preacher sent me, there was trouble, no doubt about it. This would be no different.
Canon City was a pretentious name for a score of ramshackle buildings, even if it did have a hotel and a bathhouse. I stabled Bones for the night, and considered the bathhouse. Goodness knew I needed it after a week on the trail, but it was already early evening. I shrugged, totaled my meager, but adequate sums in my head, and reckoned I had time for a bath.
Let no man say otherwise. Hot water is absolutely proof of God’s love for His children. As is a hot meal, also provided by the accommodating proprietor of the bath house. He was a large, jolly man, slightly balding, but drawing all of the attention away from that with a fantastic black mustache. Midnight black, waxed and curled at the ends, it did an almost adequate job of distracting one from the way his eyes kept straying to the door… to the window beyond, and the setting sun.
“Waiting for someone, Mister?” He started at the sound of my voice.
“I’m sorry… what?” He was tapping the fingers of either hand together, only half paying attention to me. His eyes were still fixed on the door.
“Are you waiting for someone? You keep staring out there.”
He jerked his head away from the door and back to me. “It’s only that it’s getting late,” he said with an apologetic laugh. “I’ve got to be home by dark.”
I considered his answer. “I can pay extra if that’s an issue. And getting home shouldn’t be too much of a problem – there’s a full moon tonight.”
The color drained from the man’s face at that, and he laughed again – strained, nervous. “No, it’s my wife. If I’m not home, she’ll… worry.”
I considered that for a moment, then nodded. The picture was starting to get a little clearer. I stood and held my hand out for a towel, which the man was only too glad to give, and he practically sighed with relief as I stepped out of the tub to dry and dress myself.
I changed into a clean white shirt, covering it with my usual ensemble. Black pants and vest. A string tie, as I would be visiting a local saloon to replenish my funds, and my black hat, with the silver chain of circles around my head. I thought about leaving the gun in the hotel room for a moment, then reconsidered. If there was evil here, and the Preacher had sent me after it, most likely it was centered in the saloon. And even if it wasn’t, it would more than likely stop by for a drink. Really, I was killing two or three birds with one stone by heading in that direction. And knowing the Preacher and his tasks, I’d be killing more than birds before the night was through.
The saloon was nearly empty. The bartender gave me a hard look as I entered, but seeing I was a stranger, he kept whatever he had to say to himself.
There were a few tables, but except for me and the bartender, there were only four men in the place, sitting at a table in the back corner. The shades had been drawn in such a way that the dying rays of the sun lit up the room – except for that corner.
I walked up to the bartender, and put a hand on the bar.
“Bar’s closed, stranger.” the bartender said.
“Doesn’t look closed to me,” I said, looking back at the men playing cards.
“That’s a private party, and you’re not invited.” the bartender said, jerking his head toward the open door.
“Now, Sully, that’s no way to treat a stranger who’s just come to town.” The voice reminded me of someone grating stones together. Deep, dry, maybe a bit of growl at the end.
The bartender hesitated, then nodded toward the corner. “Sure thing, Mr. Travis.” He turned back to me. “What’ll you have?”
I shrugged. “What can I get for this?” I pulled a dollar from my vest and laid it on the dark-colored wood. He glanced at it, then at me, and took the dollar. Strolling to the back, he came back with a brown bottle, which he set down next to me.
I took the bottle – it was cool! He must have been keeping these in water from the mountain stream. I raised it slowly to my lips, and savored the brew for a moment. Turning to the corner, I raised the bottle. “Thank you, sir, for allowing me to attend your party.”
The voice laughed at me with its grating voice, and I could see white teeth bared in what I assume was a smile. It was the only thing I could make out in the corner. “Care to join us for a round of poker?”
I took another pull at the dark bottle. “Don’t mind if I do.” I approached the corner slowly, letting my eyes adjust. The man who had addressed me had a broad face, dark thick hair that came down into big sideburns on either side of his mouth. The mouth full of shiny white teeth that seemed to glisten as I got closer.
He shuffled the cards expertly, sniffing the air. Cutting the deck, he licked his lips. “You smell like blood, stranger. Blood and… sulfur?” He sniffed again, and his eyes – and the disconcerting smile – grew even wider. “Well, tan my hide. Royalty. You’ll fit in here just fine.”
The smile on my face died somewhere between my lips and my eyes. “’Fraid not, mister. Momma was a simple Irish girl from the old country.”
The man shuffled the cards again with a throaty chuckle. “Don’t think it’s your mother’s side of the family I’m smelling.”
I quickly glanced at the other people sitting at the table. The one to my left was pale, with stringy yellow hair hanging down around his thin face. The one to my right had a huge, bulbous nose, and what appeared to be a permanent scowl under cold, grey eyes. And the other one, sitting to the leader’s right, had a thick, curly black beard and a tan hat. The leader motioned to the space between the two opposite him. “Pull up a chair, Mr…”
“McAllen. Seth McAllen.”
“And I’m Daniel Travis. These are my deputies. Conroe,” he nodded at the stringy-haired man, “and Will”, the scowling big-nosed one on my right, “and Matthias here is my brother.”
I pulled a chair over to the table. “Deputies?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m the local sheriff.” He pulled back his jacket to show the tin star pinned to his vest.
“Mmmm… Spent some time in Texas with the Rangers myself. But I imagine you don’t have too much trouble here in this little town.”
“You might be surprised. Local folks aren’t any trouble, but every now and then we get… strangers, and they’re usually up to no good. They’ve heard about the oil.” He started dealing the cards.
Conroe piped up. “Greedy little con-men from back East, mostly.” His voice was nasal, and his breath reeked of onions.
The smile disappeared from Mr. Travis’ face for a moment. “Yes, we’ve had some troubles. But nothing we couldn’t take care of, right boys?” They all laughed short, hard barks of laughter. The cards were dealt and I took a glance at my hand.
Three nines, an ace, and the Queen of Hearts. It was a good hand. But then, cards and I had something of an understanding. They were always good hands.
We played, and I nursed that big bottle while we did. The men around me drank like fish, but it didn’t seem to affect them. At least, it didn’t affect their card playing, not that it mattered. Oh, I folded occasionally, and dealt off the bottom to the men around me when I could. After three hours, I was only up thirty dollars. It was part of the understanding. But it was also getting late, and I had a good idea of what I needed to do.
That last hand was fantastic. The cards knew I was done, and determined to send me off in style. I played the men as well as I could, growing the pot bigger and bigger. By the time we were done, there was a few hundred dollars on the table, and the ownership of Bones. He hated it when I gambled with him. And he absolutely refused to believe me when I insisted that I never gamble.
So when I revealed the royal flush, the color drained out of Will’s nose, and Connor growled at me. Travis and his brother both smiled coldly at me.
“I do believe you are a cheater.” Sheriff Travis said.
“I beg your pardon, Sheriff. But I never cheat.” And I reached for the pot.
Connor grabbed my hand as I was pulling the money my way. “You’d have to have the devil’s own luck to come up with that hand.”
I glared at him. “Let go of my hand, sir.”
“You are a liar and a cheat,” Will growled.
“And there’s more of us than there are of you. And we happen to be the law.”
I could feel the heat rise in my face, and Connor, seeing my eyes, removed his hand. “In the Rangers we had a saying. No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’. But if you’re so upset, then here.” I threw half the bills back on the table. “I won that hand, fair and square, but I’m not a heartless dog.” Now, I’ll admit, saying that I’d won the hand fair and square may have been a bit of a stretch, but luck isn’t cheating. Still, at my comment they all stood up, and Will and Connor reached for their guns. I held my hands up in protest. “I didn’t mean anything by it, Sheriff… Deputies… Matthias. Can’t imagine why anyone would take offense at that anyway.”
Sheriff Travis just grinned his white-toothed grin, and gestured to the door. “Why don’t we settle this outside?”
I shrugged, and waved to the door. And that was when I got a glance at the bartender as he strolled to the back. He had gone sheet-white, and I heard the latch lock as he closed the door behind him.
I stood. “After you, gentlemen.”
Travis and his brother led the way, while Connor and Will followed me out. I left the pot on the table. I’d be back for it.
The four men paused before they left the saloon to fix their hats. As we walked to the street, the bright full moon shone directly overhead, and their faces were shadowed by their wide brims. Will and Connor followed the Sheriff and Matthias to one side of the street.
“Four against one? Hardly seems fair.”
“Well,” Matthias talked – for the first time that night – “Like Connor said… you do have the devil’s own luck.” And the four men took off their hats. Under the silver moonlight, their forms grew hazy, melting and changing, until in the place where they had stood a moment before, four large wolves remained. One was pale, yellow, and mangy – Connor. One had a huge nose, and cold eyes – Will, and the two in the middle – thick and black-furred – those would be the Sheriff and his Brother.
I smiled, and reached up to pull the Rangers badge from my vest pocket. I pinned the silver star in the circle to my vest, just over my heart. If anything, it was the wolves that seemed nervous to see the silver. I shook my head. Silver on my hat all night, and now they cringed? I shrugged. “All right, Sheriff. You know my daddy. But I’m here representing someone else. In the name of the Power that sustains this land, I’m here to end you.”
The stringy haired wolf and the large nosed ones charged. My hand dropped to my revolver, and I drew, firing once at the smaller werewolf, twice at the larger one. They dropped where they’d been hit, Connor yelping once in pain, and Will not making a sound at all as they fell dead.
“HOW?” the Sheriff-wolf growled at me.
I pulled a bullet from my pocket and held it up in the moonlight. The glint of the silver shone under the moon as if illuminated from within.
I fired again, missing as they scattered to either side of the street. Only two bullets left in my pistol. Another miss would mean I’d have to reload. And whichever was left would have me.
I walked slowly down the street, pausing at the gaps between buildings. One street, nothing. Two, still nothing. At the third, I saw the gleam of white teeth on my left, but as I turned to shoot, I heard a scrabble behind me. I whirled and fired as Matthias leapt for my face.
Two shots rang out in the night, then Matthias was on me, his bulk dragging me to the ground. But he was limp and heavy – dead before he’d hit me. I shoved him off me, and the Sheriff was on me.
He paused, straddling my chest and staring down at me with his cold eyes. “You killed my brother, and my friends. But you’ll not end me this day, demon child.”
That was when I jammed the bullet I still held in my left hand into his eye. The wolf howled in pain, rolling over and over as the silver burned blue flame in the moonlight. I stood and pulled a single bullet from my belt, loading my Peacemaker.
Unlike my daddy, I am not a cruel man. A single shot rang out in the night, and it was done. The wolves shimmered in the moonlight, transforming back into men. I shook my head and turned back towards the hotel.
After two steps, I saw something shining in the dust of the road. Bending over, I picked up a silver dime. Four, I thought to myself. Twenty-six to go.
The inn was locked, of course, but after a few minutes of insistent pounding, the innkeeper had let me in to grab what sleep I could before the dawn.
As I left the hotel the next morning, the whole town was out waiting for me. There were thanks, and tears, and hands were shook. A reward was offered, which I declined.
Then I remembered that I’d left the pot sitting on the saloon table. I headed in that direction, not really believing it would still be there.
Of course it was. No one goes to a saloon first thing in the morning. The bartender nodded as I entered. “I figured, I really shouldn’t touch the money either way.” He put a cold brown bottle on the bar, and went back to polishing glasses.
I strolled back to the corner, bottle in hand, and found the Preacher sitting in Dan Travis’ seat. “Well done, Sinner. Claim your prize?”
I stared at the Preacher, sipping from the bottle, and not reaching for the pot. “Where now?”
The Preacher’s wrinkled pale face broke into a wide grin. “Virginia!”
I stared at him. “Virginia?”
The Preacher nodded at me. “That’s right, Sinner. Alabama hedge-wizard trying his hand at necromancy in Richmond. Seems convinced the South will rise again!”
I shook my head at the Preacher. It would be a few days ride to Wyoming, but the railroad had just been finished. And chances were good that I’d need more bullets when I got to Virginia. So I grabbed a fistful of dollars, and strolled out into the morning sun.
“Waltzing with Werewolves”
By Mick Bordet
I have drifted across these prairies and wandered along this trail for so many long, lonely years to no avail, but now that I have found you and can hold you in my arms, I can’t resist falling for your deadly charms. And I wonder how long it will be ’til the day that our love is torn apart by the games that we play.
With your animal instinct and my steel forty five, I am waltzing with werewolves, in love to survive. The full moon will highlight the claws of my bride; waltzing with werewolves, silver by my side.
By Scott Roche
Dr. Louis McGurk finished up yet another wonderful show. He’d sold at least a hundred dollars worth of his various potions and concoctions to the residents of this backwards little burg. That would get him to the next sizable town where he could run his shows indoors regularly for the remainder of the scorching summer.
With no small effort he grabbed the edge of what served as a stage and pushed up. The hinges protested thanks to an accumulation of sand but once the whole thing was in motion it went easily enough. He walked forward, running his hands down the painted wood as he did so. The underneath was painted just the same as the side of his wagon was. It proclaimed the contraption to be part of “Dr. McGurk’s Magical Mystery Tour” and that same worthy to be a doctor lauded in all of the civilized portions of the world selling wards against zombies, warlocks, vampires and all other such abominations that seemed to be popping up everywhere these days.
Of course it was the only part of the tour. Once upon a time he had a partner and a couple of dancing girls, but they had run off together for cooler climes. Last he heard they were doing well and truthfully he was happy for them. He wasn’t selling any less without them and there was no one to split the take with.
With everything safely locked up and in place for the next leg of his journey, McGurk decided to head over to the tavern for a quick nip of what passed for brandy around here. There were still a few hours of sunlight left so plenty of time for that treat and he could be fifty miles down the road before stopping for the night. He checked to make sure that he had a few coins on him, along with the double barreled holdout pistol, just in case. He straightened his cream colored summer weight suit over his compact frame and placed his broad brimmed hat carefully in place, covering thinning blond hair. Satisfied that he was as ready as could be, he walked quickly towards the one real street that this place possessed.
The swinging doors beckoned him and the relatively cool air beyond offered respite from the late afternoon sun. One hand thrust out in front of him ready to push them aside easily. His face was set with an air that bespoke congenial authority. Before he crossed the threshold though, a hiss caught his ear.
“Hey Doc, over here.”
The stage whisper hid the gender of its owner. It came from the nearby alley. McGurk had little fear of being jumped. Old though he was, he could handle himself well in a stand up fight. That and he was armed, the pistol in easy reach from a coat pocket and a boot knife nestled snugly alongside his right calf. Combine that with the fact that it was broad daylight and he hadn’t been in town long enough to be revealed as a charlatan.
Perhaps it was a customer that had been reluctant to buy one of his cocktails or poultices in a more public venue.
With one hand in his pocket, near the gun, he changed course for the alley. He was shocked to see a boy easily one-quarter his age dressed in dingy overalls. Heavy boots covered the young man’s feet and bright red hair poked out from underneath a yellowed kerchief tied around his head. The thing that really got McGurk’s attention was the sawed off shotgun that the boy clutched in trembling hands.
“Hey Doc. Bet you thought you’d never see me again.” The white knuckled grip on the gun indicated some level of fear or agitation, but the words were cold and flat.
The combination sent a thrill of fear through McGurk. This boy would kill him that much he was sure of. If he twitched too much more then the street sweeper could conceivably cut him in two a little earlier than its owner intended. “Easy, my boy, easy.” His left hand waved in the air, making what he hoped was a calming gesture. He didn’t recall ever seeing this young man before today, but then he had seen so many faces over the years.
“I’m not your boy.” He raised the scattergun to his shoulder. “My name’s Josh Singleton and you’re responsible for my brother being dead.”
“Mr. Singleton, my apologies, but perhaps you have me confused with someone else. I have killed no one.” There was no way for him to grab his pistol and shoot without risking the boy’s gun going off in the process. “Let us talk and see how we can right this wrong without violence.”
Red hair danced as he shook his head. “I didn’t say you killed him you old coot, but he’s in the ground thanks to you, just the same.” The hand bracing the shotgun dug into an overall pocket. For a brief moment the barrels dipped and it looked like the weight change might cause the trigger to be pulled. Mercifully though, there was no explosion. Singleton tossed a few pieces of metal towards McGurk and his hand returned to its place, steadying the weapon.
McGurk looked down and saw what he recognized as three slugs glinting in the dirt. The red hair and build combined with the evidence staring him in the face caused something like recognition to click in his mind. He didn’t ordinarily sell munitions, but there had been a time when he did. A good deal on some valuable ammunition had been more than he could resist.
“You told Terry that them bullets were silver. You lied.” Singleton stepped forward as though that were necessary for him to stand a better chance of hitting McGurk. Missing with that canon was hardly likely.
The good doctor nodded and then realized that could be misconstrued as an admission of guilt. He shook his head. “Yes, I remember your brother now. There’s a misunderstanding here. He told me that he was afraid that there were lupines attacking your cattle. He was looking for silver bullets to take care of them for good. I told him that I had just the thing.” His thoughts were running wild, scrambling to remember exactly what had happened.
Singleton nodded, his face turning red, almost as red as his hair. “Uh-huh, so you admit it.”
“No, my friend, I spoke the truth. The bullets are silver… plated. Real silver bullets would simply not work, as they would be far too expensive. I told your brother…”
The young man stepped forward quickly and pressed the cold metal barrel against McGurk’s head, knocking his hat to the ground in the process. “On your knees old man.”
McGurk did as he was told, sinking to the dirty alley’s floor slowly. His throat had gone completely dry. He struggled to think of what to do, but could come up with nothing. The words that he had used to sell snake oil and talk young ladies out of their foundation garments for decades were all gone, driven before the desert wind. He closed his eyes.
An echoing gunshot made him flinch, but surely if the youth had pulled the trigger he wouldn’t have heard the report. A whimpering noise and the absence of the cold metal against his skull along with his continued drawing of breath reassured him. He opened his eyes.
The younger Singelton lay on the ground, clutching his leg. The man beyond him was without a doubt cut from the same bolt of cloth, simply a bit older. McGurk recognized him though he’d only seen him once. There was a rugged air about him, more than simply the passage of time could account for. Red hair crawled down his face in thick sideburns. There was a lean and hungry look on his face.
“Stand up doc.” Terry Singleton gestured with the pistol he had used to shoot his brother.
Confused, but glad, he did as he was told. “Why? How? He said that you were dead.”
“To him and my family I was. You told me right; those bullets would only slow down the skin changers. I was too dumb and cocky to listen. There were too many of them and they overtook me and left me to change or die. It’s our way.” He gestured again, this time with a nod. “That’s what I’m gonna do with this one here, just like I did with Ma and Pa.”
McGurk took a few steps back. “Well I thank you good sir, for my life.”
That face cracked nearly in half with a toothy grin. “Oh don’t thank me yet Doc. Soon as he changes we’ll come lookin’ for you. I don’t hold you accountable for what happened to me, but you’ll make a good first kill for my brother here. The hatred he has for you’ll drive him through the pain. It’s the only way he’ll survive.”
McGurk took a few more steps back, nearly out of the alley now. He knew the truth of the man’s words. The change was almost always fatal the first time. If you had something to get you through that, then each subsequent change got easier. He watched as Terry holstered the pistol and stepped to his brother.
The big redhead knelt and spat into his hand, rubbing it into the leg wound. That’s all it would take. The next full moon, tonight by McGurk’s reckoning, would find him in the throes of his first transformation. That gave the scarred salesman just a few hours to get lost.
He thought about shooting the older man. The holdout pistol he had did contain two solid cast silver bullets. One through the skull should do it. Even in human form though, the skin changers were just so fast though. If he missed then his life would certainly end here. If not, then he would be in the clear. There was too much risk. Running gave him a better chance. He spun on his heels and put everything he had in getting to the wagon.
Behind him the throaty chuckle turned into a wolf’s howl. Night would come much too quickly.
By: Danny Machal
July 21st 1897
To my dearest friend and mentor Father Daniel,
I write to you with desperate haste. I do hope the mail courier is
able to procure this letter in a timely fashion for I require your
knowledge and insight. As you know, Bishop Crane bequeathed to me his
post in the town of Fairview New Mexico. The inhabitants here are
finding themselves drawn to God and I find myself his living
incarnation fighting for their salvation. Silver fever has polluted
the many souls here and they look to me to make it right. We are also
without a reputable physician so we have become reliant on the trite
medical knowledge I acquired under Father Casper during my Monastery
The daughter of a prosperous business man Frank Winston, was brutally
attacked. The poor dear was taken from her bed while she slept by
something awful. She found herself clutching to life in their stable
with a deep gash in her back. Daniel, it was unlike anything I have
seen in all my forty years. No known animal or blade did that to her.
Towns folk here formed a lynch mob that did little more than prowl
the out-land ranches and scare a few sleeping farmers. These people
are untamed and quick to band together, it makes me nervous.
I write to you because I fear something ungodly might be upon us.
Your work with the young Doctor Van Helsing will hopefully be able
instruct me and guide me in this dark hour.
May the mighty shepherd keep you and bless you,
July 29th 1897
I’m sorry to hear your new post is not going to be the highlight of
your missionary career, but then again, you might find yourself
canonized by the locals should sleuth this attack into a justifiable
fruition. I would much prefer to come to you for direct
correspondence, for I fear it will be most grave if not resolved
quickly. Unfortunately, my own duties to the church bar me from such
travel. By the time you receive this letter I predict at least one
more soul will have fallen victim to this daemonic presence and I pray
it not be you. So you must act quickly.
You are in the heartland of indigenous Navajo unrest. You very well
might be under attack from one of the most outlawed cultural
practices. Much like the satanic witches that permeated the civil
unrest of the new world years ago, the local native inhabitants of
this land are no stranger to their own practitioners of the dark art.
You must not under any circumstance venture out during the night.
Encourage the people of Fairview to follow this same instruction, at
least until an acceptable explanation can be found. There are certain
tasks ahead of you, a few of which I pray you fail, for if you
succeed, you are in a danger of the highest caliber.
I need you to start keeping track of the moon cycles. Each day,
during dawn or twilight, mark down how much of the white face is
exposed. On this same record you must note when the attacks occur.
Write to me when you have two weeks worth of observation.
Second, you must venture into the mountains and look for the Atropa
belladonna plant. The people there are sure to know it as the deadly
nightshade. Look for any sign it is being harvested or cultivated
Thirdly it would behoove you to gain the allegiance of the local
correspondent to the indigenous Navajos of the area. Thomas for your
own safety they must understand you are a friend to all of the Navajo
people. Under no circumstance is he to know that you might possibly
suspect his people of anything. Learn all you can about their
feelings toward the presence of Fairview’s settlers.
Lastly Thomas, you must persuade some of the local miners to show
their support for the church in raw silver ore. Once you have
adequate enough supply, conscript the local blacksmith to make you a
walking stick tipped on both ends with silver caps and also a new
rosary. This may be of use and protect you against the daemon, for
most cannot bare the touch of silver.
God bless you,
August 20th 1897
You were correct about the attacks, we have seen two more as I write
this letter. The local school teacher, one Miss Lori Kelstin, was
found next to a nearby creek with her body completely shredded.
Daniel it was a horror that will scar me for this life and the next.
Also the banker’s son, Phillip Augustus, has gone missing. It has
posed too much for the populous to take. This place is not safe for
anyone, and more people are leaving everyday. By the time you receive
this correspondence my Sunday mass will be attended by the last horde
of miners standing steadfast by their government claims. Still
clinging to the hope of striking it rich, they will die before they
leave and I fear they will. God has put me here to erase this evil
from existence and I’ll see it done, if it is the last thing I do.
My observation of the moon and attacks directly relate to each other.
When the full whiteness is exposed we have reason to be afraid. The
full moon brings this plague of evil upon us without fail. By my
calculation the next attack will happen in one weeks time when the
moon is full again. Daniel, it is by the simple mathematical
principle of probability that I fear for my own life now.
I sought out the Atropa belladonna as you instructed. I found most
of it quite undisturbed except for one patch on the outskirts of a
local Navajo settlement. The berries were picked clean, and some of
the leaves were visibly torn off. I was advised that the plant is
completely poisonous in all respects. Whatever animal fell victim to
it’s alluring beauty would surely be dead within a day or two.
The local Navajo correspondent and I have become acquainted, also at
your instruction. The subject of the attacks seems taboo for us to
talk about. I have expressed my concern for his people in the area
but he seems very indifferent to the whole situation and fears not for
them. We have discussed at length the history of his people. It is
quite obvious to me now that we have no place here.
I’ve resorted to turning the church into a fortress of God’s light to
illuminate this darkness. I enlisted the services of the remaining
craftsman to barricade the windows with heavy timber and reinforce the
doors with heavy iron bindings. Something taps the outside of the
building at night and prevents me from getting adequate sleep.
Jesus Daniel what is happening here? What must I do? Please help.
September 1st 1897
It is exactly as I feared. This letter should reach you eight days
time before your relief. I’ve communicated the gravity of your
situation to our people in Albuquerque. I’ve convinced the proper
authorities that it is in the Church’s best interests to extract you
from your situation and leave the fate of the town in God’s hands. I
will come myself and receive you in Albuquerque.
Thomas I believe you are in the evil clutches of none other than a
native Skin-walker. No doubt the local Navajo Medicine Man has fallen
from grace. He seeks retribution for the forced March of his people
to Fort Sumner by the U.S. Army Forces those many savage years ago.
He is using the extract from the Atropa belladonna to make himself a
nightly potion so that he may practice Lycantrophy and manifest the
daemon purely out of his own energy. If you come into contact with
the man before the beast, you must not kill the man. If the beast is
created and the man dies, the beast will turn into a ravenous vampire
that will kill anything it can. For the vampire, requires abundant
amounts of the life force to survive. Warn everyone you can to defend
themselves with silver if it comes to it.
You should at all costs avoid contact with the beast. Lay low until
they come for you Thomas. Let God sort it out. It is not worth the
risk to your life my friend.
Praying desperately for you,
September 5th 1897 – message delivered via Western Union Telegraph Service.
TO: Father Daniel
FROM: Church of Christ Albuquerque New Mexico
FATHER THOMAS STATUS: DECEASED.
B. CASPER REQUESTS YOU PERSUE INVESTIGATION.
September 9th 1897
TO: Doctor Van Helsing (recorded dictation from Father Daniel)
Abraham the church needs you, I need you. One of my dearest friends
was taken from me in a small desert town of the American South West.
I believe he was killed by ancient native American lycantrophic
means. You will know what to do. Please come at once to Albuquerque
New Mexico, US.
September 12th 1897 – message delivered via Western Union Telegraph Service.
TO: Father Daniel Albuquerque New Mexico
FROM: Abraham Van Helsing England
TRAVEL TO U.S. NOT POSSIBLE.
ONTO SOMETHING MORE IMPORTANT WITH J. SEWARD
L. WESTERNA LIFE AT STAKE
Daniel crumpled the thin telegraph paper in his fist and brought his
hands up in prayer. L. Westerna could only be one person. Lucy,
lovely Lucy, the daughter of the one woman he ever loved. He would go
to England, to Doctor Van Helsing, and to Lucy. He would give his own
blood and life if it meant saving hers.
“Silver Solves The Dilemma”
by Mick Bordet
A blood-red setting sun cast their long shadows into the town a full five minutes before they arrived, ambling along the main street in silhouette: the LaRue gang. Everyone knew who they were, well in advance, thanks to the ‘Wanted’ posters adorning every public place within a fifty mile radius and beyond. News spread quickly from town to town, as it always did around these parts, whenever a new band of trouble-makers gathered to harass and terrorise the regular townsfolk. Most often around here the big problem was cattle rustling, but gangs like these were equally happy robbing banks, hijacking stagecoaches and extorting money from local businesses under threat of violence. To make matters worse, all too often they would proceed to blow their ill-gotten gains in the local saloons, inevitably culminating in a drunken rampage through the town, trashing property, attacking passers-by, shooting and shouting and causing more damage than they could imagine. Whilst some towns fought back, capturing or killing those responsible, many simply fell apart, the people broken by the parade of constant violence, stores unable to make a profit over the cost of repairs and ultimately, faith in human nature destroyed.
The streets of Arizona Bay emptied in seconds. Every inhabitant knew the routine; they would sit by their windows watching the gang saunter around the centre of town, kicking over signs, benches, buckets or anything else that would move, spitting into open windows, swearing at anyone they saw watching them. At this point in the proceedings the LaRues had committed no serious crime within the town limits, but they were making their presence known, marking their territory and sizing-up the local populace, looking for easy targets to pick on and identifying anyone to avoid. The locals had seen this game played out before and waited in anticipation for the next stage, the point at which it became interesting, when they made it clear they were not a town to be messed with.
A long, groaning creak echoed across the street as the door to the Sheriff’s office opened. The LaRues stopped their posturing activities and turned to look, waiting for the first glimpse of the one person who could potentially stand in their way of making this town their own. Silence fell over the town centre as they waited. Strong, deliberate footsteps sounded out from the dark doorway, setting the scene for the Sheriff to step out into the street.
“Evening Gentlemen,” he said, his voice firm, but not threatening, “welcome to Arizona Bay. I am Sheriff Clayton, the law-man in these parts, paid by the good people of this town to keep everything running smoothly without any illegal activities. You boys enjoy your time here and if you need anything at all, just you let me know.”
His brief lecture over, he stood watching them, waiting for the message to either sink in or trigger the start of open hostilities.
“Why, thank you, Sheriff. We sure are glad that you’re so accommodating. We’ll be certain to tell you if anything… untoward… should arise.” The man, who was the tallest, leanest and most grizzled of the gang, addressed Clayton directly, only turning to the side to wink to the rest of his party, who smirked in return. They tied up their horses and entered the saloon.
Within two days of their arrival, reports began to trickle in to the Sheriff’s office of cattle going missing.
“Looks like they’ve started, Sheriff,” said Deputy Driscoll, Clayton’s right-hand man.
“Yep. It was only a matter of time, Barney.”
“Do you think it’s wolves again?”
“Usually is when they go straight for the cattle. It’s a fair guess, I’d say. You better dig out the special ammo and load the guns to be on the safe side,” the Sheriff said, nodding.
Barney walked over to the gun cabinet and unlocked the bottom drawer. He pulled out a small box, marked only with the word “silver”, and opened it.
“Remember now, no fingers,” said Clayton. “Put your gloves on to load them. Father Bronson has blessed each bullet individually. We don’t want them losing any of their power.”
The deputy did as instructed, struggling to pick up the glistening metal slugs and fit them into the chambers of the two guns. He passed the Sheriff’s weapon back to him and holstered his own, before making the sign of the cross and heading to the door.
The two lawmen stepped through the saloon doors and followed the sounds of the drunken gang to the back of the bar. Four of the five LaRue brothers sat at a table straining under the weight of dozens of glasses that the barman was too scared to clear up.
“Shewliff, come an’ choin us!” slurred one of the men, raising his glass towards Clayton.
“I don’t think so, Mr LaRue. I need to ask you a few questions.”
“Sush as?” the self-appointed spokesman, Luke, asked.
“Would you have any information about the cattle that have gone missing in the last couple of days?”
“Nosirree… nope,” the elder LaRue replied, “jus ask anybubby here. We’d been here aw the time. We beed very loyal cumstobers to you saloon.”
The Sheriff sighed.
“Okay, then, where is your brother? Frank, is it?”
“Now thass a veddy good queston. Haven’t zeen him for agesh. If you find him, lettim know he owes us abou ten rounds o’ drinks.”
The missing brother didn’t return to the saloon and the cattle thefts continued. On revisiting the gang in the bar, their numbers had diminished once again. The three men sat around the table in close conversation, only half-a-dozen glasses in front of them and serious expressions on their faces.
“Have you found my brother yet, law-man? He’s been missing a full five days and now Jonny’s gone too. No message left, nothing packed, he’s just gone,” said Luke LaRue, pointing at Clayton.
“I can only assume they’ve taken their spoils and are trying to sell them in some other town,” the Sheriff answered.
LaRue rose to his feet and stared directly at the law-man.
“I’ve told you already, Sheriff, we are here for a break. There’s nothing we’ve done here that your locals wouldn’t do if they had the guts to. Nothing illegal, dammit, not even anything immoral. Just drinking, singing and playing cards. We might be a bit noisy now and then, but I don’t think that’s a crime, is it?”
“What about him?” the Sheriff asked, pointing at the youngest LaRue brother, “What’s wrong with him?”
The boy looked up at Clayton with a pitiful expression in his deep-set, bloodshot eyes. He looked quite ill; ghostly in complexion and skeletal in form.
“Mikey? Nothing wrong with our Mike. He’s just a little hung-over is all,” Luke answered.
“I’m watching you,” said Clayton, turning to walk out the saloon, “all of you.”
The following day, just after sunset, the town’s peace was broken by Jed Tucker, a ranch owner from the far end of the canyon, who rode into town as fast as his horse would carry him. He leapt off outside the Sheriff’s office and banged on the door, shouting, “Sheriff! Sheriff! There’s been a killing!”
Within seconds, the door opened and Sheriff Clayton strode out. The noise had disturbed a number of nearby residents, including Deputy Driscoll, who also ran over to see what the fuss was about.
“Calm down now, Jed,” said Barney. “Take a couple of deep breaths and then tell us what you’ve seen.”
“I was in town earlier buying provisions from the store and on my way back to the ranch I came across something lying on the road. This here,” he said, opening one of the saddlebags on his horse’s side and handing the contents to the Deputy. There was a gasp from the small group of people who had gathered round to hear the news. It was a human arm, severed below the shoulder, still covered in a blue checked shirt sleeve.
“Sheriff, I think it might be one of those LaRue brothers. I saw two of them heading out of town as I came in this afternoon. I couldn’t see any body or any sign of the other brother,” Jed said.
“Thanks Jed. You get over to the saloon and get yourself a strong drink. Tell them it’s on me,” said Clayton. He looked around the gathered faces, “Has anybody seen the third brother?”
“He’s still in the saloon, Sheriff. Passed out about an hour ago, blind drunk and moaning about his missing two brothers. You want me to fetch him over?” Barney answered.
“Better not, the last thing we need is for him to go crazy at the news.”
“Sheriff, there’s one more thing,” Jed said, looking somewhat apologetic, “I heard a wolf howling, real close to where I found that arm. I’m not saying that’s what killed him, but…”
“Okay, Jed. Thanks for letting us know. You go and get yourself that drink, but for God’s sake don’t say a word to LaRue if he wakes.”
Jed nodded and, shaking with nerves as he walked, guided his horse over to the saloon to tie him up. Clayton addressed the remaining group of people.
“You all need to get back inside and make sure all your doors are locked and shutters closed. One of you run along the houses and make sure everyone does the same. Deputy Driscoll, you’re with me. We have a killer to catch.”
The wolf stood over the fallen cow, blood covering its claws and still dripping from its jaw full of bared teeth, growling at the men as they approached. In a single, fluid motion it rose on its hind legs and took a step towards them. Barney winced at the sight of the creature towering above him. No matter how often he came across werewolves, far too often for his liking, their sheer size always took him by surprise. He struggled to keep his gun aimed straight, but need not have worried, for the Sheriff’s aim was well-practised and his single shot pierced the creature’s side. Its body shuddered and fell to the ground in a heap beside its prey.
“Go and get Doc Jameson, tell him to bring his cart. We’ll never get this thing onto the back of the horse,” said Clayton.
By the time the Deputy arrived back with the doctor, he realised that the werewolf had reverted back to its human form. The three men lifted the bloody body of Mike LaRue, the youngest of the gang, onto the cart and returned to the town. News of the capture had already spread throughout the townsfolk, courtesy of Doc Jameson’s wife Clara, whose skills in the art of gossip were second to none, and a restless crowd had gathered in the square.
“Here’s your cattle rustler, folks,” announced the Sheriff as the cart drew to a halt outside his office.
“Is it true? Was it another God-danged werewolf?” a voice shouted from the crowd.
“Yes, he was a wolf. We caught it red-handed, so to speak, in the process of killing one of Ted Sawyer’s cattle. The Sheriff killed it with a single shot,” said the Deputy.
Without warning, a silence fell over the townspeople and a channel cleared through their midst, leaving space for the eldest of the LaRues to approach: his pace slow and considered, his eyes fixed on the Sheriff, not even glancing at the corpse of his brother on display.
“You killed my kin, my youngest brother,” he said.
“He was found destroying cattle and he attacked us. He was shot in self-defence; I couldn’t risk my Deputy or myself being bitten and falling foul of the same curse,” the Sheriff replied.
“Dammit, Mike was the only one of us that would never have hurt anybody. Now you’re saying he was a killer?”
“It would explain what happened to your brothers, wouldn’t it?” asked Clayton.
“I don’t understand how this could have happened. One thing is for certain, though. You killed him. No matter what he may have been guilty of, you damn-well killed him. The LaRues don’t forget and we… I… can never forgive. Your time will come Sheriff, I promise you.”
The Sheriff straightened up where he stood and laid his hand on his gun, a deliberate motion made clear for everyone present to see.
“That sounded like a threat, Mr LaRue. I still have five silver bullets loaded in this gun. We can soon find out if you suffer the same condition as your brother. I suggest you pack your belongings and leave this town today.”
LaRue stared at Clayton for a few seconds that felt like a hour to the surrounding crowd, breaths held in anticipation, before turning on his heels and striding back to the saloon without a word.
Normality returned to Arizona Bay and the townsfolk thanked their Sheriff and got back to living life free of fear. Sheriff Reph Clayton should not have rested on his laurels, though. He was being watched. Luke LaRue was a man with vengeance on his mind and murder in his heart. For weeks after leaving the town, he had observed the Sheriff at work, identified his daily routines, the people he visited and the routes he used. He knew that Thursday evening that Clayton would ride out towards the Canyon and was waiting in ambush.
He threw himself off the large rock sitting beside the track as the Sheriff rode past, grabbing him and pulling him to the dusty ground with the full force of his bodyweight. Clayton was stunned for a moment, but fought back, blocking the outlaw’s furious, uncontrolled punches and scrambling to pick himself up off the ground. As he got to his feet, LaRue pulled out his gun and aimed. Clayton dived for cover behind a pile of rocks, but not fast enough to escape a bullet through his lower leg.
“Come out, you coward. Die like a man,” yelled LaRue.
Clayton drew his gun and fired back at the man, who in turn ducked for cover. The Sheriff took the opportunity to move further up the hillside, towards the caves in the canyon walls. More gunfire came from below, which he returned, moving ever closer to safety with each deadly exchange. He had a good lead on LaRue, who only realised his quarry was escaping as Clayton reached the mouth of the cave and clambered inside.
With the Sheriff lost from view, LaRue left his cover and climbed the slope towards the cave, laughing with delight at the thought that the law-man would be trapped. Once inside the cave, he waited for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. There was no sign of the Sheriff in the immediate area, so he crept to the back of the cave. He kept on walking, surprised at how deep the cave went. There was still no indication that his prey was nearby, yet his legs were tiring. It was only when a shaft of light appeared from above, illuminating his path, that he saw he had been climbing up as well as going deeper into the cave. After another ten minutes he was out in the light, standing on unusually-lush green grass and facing a small wooden house. He looked beyond the house, then all round him, and saw that he stood on a stack at the edge of the canyon, a sheer drop all around and no form of access to the top other than the cave tunnel he had just emerged from.
Assuming the Sheriff had gone inside for help, LaRue paced around the outside, trying to peer in through the windows, but the blinds were all firmly shut. At the front of the house was a paddock that was home to, by his quick estimate, over fifty head of cattle. That wasn’t unusual, but he did notice that many of the cows bore completely different brandings. Was this the destination of the cattle rustling his brothers and he had been accused of? The footstep he heard behind him came too late to warn of the shovel that slammed across the back of his head, rendering him unconscious.
To be a man, part II
By: Norval Joe
Calvin missed his horse. Without her he had walked for hours to reach the homestead. He got there just before sunset and was hot and tired. Sand kept getting through the holes in the soles of his boots and he had to stop several times to empty them. He would have to cut pieces of felt from his old hat and shove them down into the boots to make them last a few more months.
How would he explain the loss of the sheep, and of his horse, to his mother. She would surely think that he was lying or gone mad.
He crested a hill and the small wooden house came into view. In front of the house stood four Apache.
Calvin dropped to the ground as quickly as possible and backtracked to where he could run at a low crouch. He circled around to the north where he could get in a position where he could watch the group of Indians clearly, and not be seen, himself. Where were his mother and sister? And why was this small band standing so casually outside his home?
As he pondered this, a fifth Apache came out the front door. He had a knife sheathed at his waist but no other weapons. The five men spoke for a few minutes and then sat in the dirt, ten yards from the little house.
Calvin had to get into the house and get a rifle. There was one concealed under a trap door in the bedroom. Hopefully when he retrieved the gun, he would find his mother and sister hiding there as well.
If the Indians were there to steal from them, they were taking their time in doing it.
He worked his way up a small hill, keeping the wooden structure built over the root cellar between himself and the small band. He rolled into a ditch that they had dug to divert water from a creek bed that filled suddenly when summer thunderstorm rolled through. He crawled its length to the pond behind the house where the diverted water was contained. Here, he was able to approach the back of the house unseen by the Apache out front.
Silently, he climbed in through the window to his parents bedroom.
He crawled across the floor to the rug at the door to the hall. He could see from where he crouched that kerosene lamps had been lit in the kitchen and parlor. It was routine for his mother to light the lamps as the sun dropped below the hill west of their house. Normally there would still be an hour of daylight, but his mother didn’t like the gloomy feeling when the house was in the shadow of the hill.
If his mother had lit the lamps, the Indians must have arrived shortly before Calvin had.
He turned back the loose end of the carpet and wedged the tip of his knife into a small crack that allowed him to lift the edge of the trap door. Raising it only six inches he reached in and pulled the Winchester 1873 model repeating rifle out by the butt.
Calvin whispered just loud enough to be heard, “Mom, Ella, are you down there?”
There was a slight rustling sound from below, but no response from his mother or sister. As he closed the door a strange odor wafted from below. In the back of his mind, he recognized the putrid scent, but other things were occupying his thoughts too much for Calvin to notice.
He peered through the lace curtains in the kitchen window and could see the five Apache sitting as they had been, facing the road, away from the house. He carefully, and soundlessly, opened the front door to step out onto the porch. He had the element of surprise, and he needed it, to keep the Indian party off balance.
He pumped the lever of the Winchester, chambering one of the fifteen rounds, and cocking the rifle. He effectively announced his presence to the party who had enough sense to know that someone skilled with a pump action rifle could take out 2 or 3 of their party before they could arm themselves.
Slowly the leader of the group got to his feet and turned around. He sized the boy up. He spoke to his companions in their own language. Calvin stepped off the porch, holding the rifle comfortably at waist level, finger lightly on the trigger and aimed directly at the leader. The leader spoke again and the rest of the Apache got to their feet.
Calvin warned, before they were all on their feet, “Be careful, I really don’t want to kill any of you. I just want to know why you are here.”
The root cellar was behind the Apache and in Calvin’s direct line of sight. The door to the cellar moved slightly as he waited for the leader to respond. He had the sudden hope that his mother and sister were hiding with in, and would step out, armed and ready to confront the Indians.
“You took Apache horses.” The leader made it a statement, but there was indecision in the tone of his voice.
“No. As you can see, the only horse we have is there, in the corral.” Calvin indicated with a flick of his head in the direction of the corral. His mothers horse stood and watched the Apache and the boy.
Calvin was still jumpy from his experience at the arroyo that morning. He didn’t hesitate to shoot as the door to the root cellar burst open and a creature identical to the snake monster shot toward him. The Apache assumed Calvin was shooting at them and reached for their own rifles. They turned as one when the snake monster roared in pain. The bullet failed to penetrate the hard skull of the creature, but flayed open the skin for two feet above its right eye.
Calvin quickly pumped the rifle and fired two more shots into the animals open mouth. He saw spots of red bloom on the roof of the creatures mouth as his bullets pierced the creatures soft pallet. The creature thrashed back and forth in agony and the Apache scattered and fired at the monster with their own rifles. Calvin was thought that this creature must be about half the size of the one he had seen that morning. The house exploded behind him and Calvin was knocked to the ground. His rifle thrown out of his reach, he remembered the tent like tail end of the creature he had seen that morning.
Calvin rolled to his back and squirmed away, hoping to get out of its reach. It swayed over him, huffing its mouth open and closed. Its fetid breath burst past him in humid, putrid waves. It furled open ready to strike, its rows of hooked teeth undulating as if in anticipation of its eminent meal. It spun, suddenly, and shook in giant spasms, as the house burst into flames around it.
The kerosene lanterns had been spilled across the dry wooden floor of the house when the creature burst out from the hidden cellar beneath. It took a short time, but the wooden house was good fuel for the fire begun by the lanterns.
The snake end of the monster was the mirror image of the tail end and they both shuddered spasmodically as the creature burned.
Calvin climbed to his feet and joined the Apache to empty the remainder of the rifles bullets into the snake head. They aimed for the eyes and roof of the mouth. The thrashing head was not an easy target, though eventually enough of the bullets found the appropriate mark. Head and tail fell as one and were silent, save for the popping and crackling of its skin as it cooked in the burning house.
They all stood stunned, Apache and boy alike.
In time the Apache gathered and walked away. Before they did, the leader turned to Calvin, “Oonunqua take Apache horses.”
Calvin nodded and said, “Oonunqua take white man sheep at Cottonwood Spring last night. Big Oonunqua still there.”
The Apache leader nodded grimly and left with his men.
Calvin’s loss was complete now. The sheep were gone. His horse had been eaten. His mothers horse must have leapt the corral fence when the creature appeared. The house was destroyed by the fire. And worst of all, his mother and sister were undoubtedly eaten by Oonunqua as well. He could think of nothing else to do, so he merely sat in the dirt.
“Calvin” he heard from behind him.
“Mother,” he said, and jumped to his feet. He ran into the arms of his mother. His sister stood beside her, silent.
“I’m sorry, Cal. We were further up the ditch, hiding from the Apache. We saw you when you climbed into the house through the back window. We couldn’t call to you without alerting the Indians.” She hugged him. When she stepped away, she looked at her son.
“Son, I am so proud of you. You acted like a man.”
“Come, Son, Ella, lets go bed down in the barn. Hopefully my horse will come back in the morning and we can decide where to go from here.”
Calvin agreed with his mother. There weren’t any cellars in the barn. He figured it should be safe for the night.
Suspicions and Silver Bullets
By: Eldon KR
The sun began to crawl it’s way back down below the horizon. Ezekiel felt a cold sweat working it’s way down his spine. As he urged his nervous mount to keep moving forward. There was a 5 hour ride to the next town in front of him. It would have been a good idea to stop for the night. But he was out in the open. He wasn’t going to bed down unless he could conceal himself in some way
He spurred his stolen steed into action once more as the last of the sun seemed to sink below the earth. Ezekiel was going to make it to the next town or outpost if he had to ride this horse into the ground in the process. He didn’t hear it over the frantic beating of hooves at first. But after four failed attempts at lighting a cigarette on a fast moving horse he slowed his mount, struck a match on the saddle and extended it to the hand rolled cigarette between his lips. That’s when he heard it, a howl.
The horse had heard it too, and with the horse acting as antsy as it was, it was probably close. Ezekiel’s whole body tensed up as the first howl was answered by another, and another, and another.
“Dammit!” he cried
He’d let his match burn down and scorch his fingers, he tossed the match and stowed his cigarette. Ezekiel spurred his horse forward again but this time the animal didn’t need much encouragement to run like hell. At this point he only had two options. He could continue to run like hell until the horse died or he could hide. With nowhere to go to ground for the night he only hoped he could outrun those wolves.
“Wolves,” he laughed to himself, “those things are no more wolf than I am a stinkin’ gorilla.”
He pushed his horse for another ten minutes before he chanced a glance behind him, through the dust left in the wake of his frenzied horse he saw two sets of glowing yellow eyes. Panicked he kept spurring his horse, hoping that this animal’s need for survival would make it run even faster. No such luck. It wasn’t much longer before he could actually hear them panting and howling behind him, he could almost feel the fetid breath against the back of his neck. One of the creatures swiped at him, he could feel the claws lightly brush past his leg.
He reached for his holster and drew his gun, the black gunmetal of his M1875 glinted against the moonlight as he thumbed back the hammer. He turned and fired aiming for the closest flurry of fur, and teeth and eye shine. His shot went wide, but they slowed down. He spurred the horse again and kept his gun hand ready. He noticed movement a few yards off to his left. He saw another man riding for his life, pursued by two more of the manwolves. He began to form a plan.
He turned and fired upon his pursuers once more and heard one of them yelp in pain. Ezekiel steered his mount in the direction of the man who was also running from the wolves. They were nearing a small canyon, at the bottom was a river. The only way to traverse said canyon was to cross a bridge, If Zeke could time it just right he could find some measure of safety floating down the river for the night. He positioned his horse so that he was right next to the man and the look of sheer terror etched into his face was met by Ezekiel’s own look of determination. He waited just until they were about to cross the bridge and steered the stolen horse into the scared man’s own mount. Man and horse toppled over one another to the ground as Ezekiel leapt from his horse, over the bridge into the water below.
Before he could clear his own horse he heard a gunshot and felt something bite into his hip. This caused him to miscalculate his jump, he toppled head over heel as the cold water below rushed up to greet him, his shoulder collided with a large stone protruding up from the river. He managed to surface and swim to the bank. He pulled himself out of the water, and lost consciousness to the sound of howls, growls, and the death cries of man and horse alike.
Ezekiel woke up moments later to the sound of gurgling, gasping breaths. He looked down to his feet as he felt a hand on his boot. This unknown man he’d sacrificed to save himself had somehow ended up on the river bank, twenty feet below where he’d been attacked. The man’s body was bent and broken at odd angles. He was moving in ways a man shouldn’t be able to. The man was riddled with places where claws raked across his clothes, and sharp teeth had gouged his flesh. Zeke wasn’t sure but he was willing to bet that the hand that wasn’t grasping his boot was keeping his entrails from spilling out.
“Help me.” The man wheezed.
The damned man tried to gasp for breath once more, he opened his mouth and a blood bubble formed, it popped and sprayed tiny flecks of blood when he inhaled. Ezekiel reached for his holster, finding his pistol he helped the stranger in the only way he knew how.
Zeke woke up from a fitful sleep at first light, he kicked the dead body back into the river. Now he had to climb the 20 feet back up the small canyon, he wasn’t that far from the town now. If he was lucky the wolves weren’t able to finish both of the horses, and he would have some semblance of a breakfast before he got started.
As he stood his body was rocked by a blinding pain in his hip, he could barely move his left leg. There was a rattling in his chest and he doubled over as he was overcome by a coughing fit. In grasping his chest he noticed that his right shoulder hung limply and he remembered vividly the night before. There wasn’t much he could do about his leg, but he couldn’t climb with his shoulder the way it was. He looked around and noticed a bull whip on the bank. The stranger from last night must have had it on him. He grabbed it, put it between his teeth. Zeke bit down on the bull whip as he squared his body up and reset his shoulder. Luckily the pouch he kept his tobacco and matches in was somewhat waterproof. He rolled and smoked a cigarette while waiting for most of the pain to pass.
With one leg completely useless and a shoulder pain that nagged him with every movement it took him the better part of an hour to get back to the top of the canyon. There was a considerable amount of his horse left from the night before. But his stomach lurched with one look of it. He grabbed his saddle bag, slung it over his good shoulder. He saw a rifle laying near the remains of the other horse, it was the right length that he could use it as a crutch and keep his weight off of his shot hip. His slow journey to the town was mainly a blur of pain, and fatigue from the heat. He made his way into town by noon.
His intentions were to head straight for the saloon and drown the noise of his pain out with a cheap bottle of whiskey. He only made it as far as the horse trough just outside of the saloon, where he collapsed. When he woke he noticed that he felt clean and bandaged. He also noticed that his legs were shackled and he was also bereft of weapons.
“He’s awake.” A gruff man’s voice said from somewhere out of his line of sight.
Ezekiel heard the clanking of keys in a cell door, followed by a door swinging open on old metal hinges. A man with a sheriffs badge and a drawn gun approached him.
“Care to tell me why you and yours saw fit to terrorize our town, and kill our cattle last night, Changeling?” the sheriff asked
The Sheriff thumbed back the hammer on his pistol as punctuation for his question. The chamber rotated and he saw the glint of silver accent the cold black gunmetal of his interrogator’s Peacemaker.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Zeke asked.
“Last night after the moon rose, all the town folk had to board up their doors and windows to keep the wolfbeasts out that have been antagonizing our town every night for the last week. Every morning we wake up with less and less cattle. Last night some of them got into the saloon and my deputy shot one of them in about the same place our town doctor pulled a silver slug out of you.”
“I was running from the wolves last night, I crossed paths with a man who was also running from his life. He panicked and shot me.”
“We’ll just see about that. The moon is going to rise within the hour. If you don’t change, we’ll apologize and send you on your way with clean clothes, a hot meal, and a fresh horse. If you change, well we’ll have one less hazard to worry about in these parts.”
“Alright, I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Bill, Cover me.” The sheriff said as he holstered his weapon and reached for his keys.
The man who was presumably Bill stepped into the cell with a shotgun. The sheriff unshackled him and began to back out of the cell. Once they had locked him in Bill pulled a rope outside the cell that caused a trap door to open above him. The door swung open to revealed a barred opening. He could see the faint shape of the moon. Soon the sun would set and the moon would shine.
Bill and the sheriff stared at him intently. Bill never lowered his shotgun, and the sheriffs hand rested against his holstered pistol. The seconds passed by slowly, Ezekiel never took his eyes off of the moon as it grew in shape and light. The temperature grew in his cell and he began to sweat. He felt sick. He felt the bile in his empty stomach undulate. His stomach lurched and he doubled over, clenching his midsection as he rolled to the floor. He was able to drag himself to a bucket in the corner of his cell and put his head into position as the contents of his stomach, or lack thereof, staged an escape attempt via his esoughagus. With each wretching gasp he felt significantly worse. Sicker, more feverish, shakier.
His left calf began to burn with a white hot pain. A searing pain that penetrated his muscles and shot up his spine. When the pain reached his head it felt like somebody was striking the backs of his eyeballs with hammers as if they were ringing church bells. Ezekiel’s body tried to fold itself in half in the wrong direction as he was rocked by the tremors of pain that ran from his calf to his brain, using his spine as a superhighway. He lifted the leg of his tattered pants, and amongst a latticework of cuts, and bruises he noticed four slight scratches, as if he was barely grazed by claws.
He realized now that he could smell everything around him. The unwashed bodies of Bill and the sheriff, the tobacco tucked behind Bill’s bottom lip, the whiskey on the sheriff’s breath. He could tell you everything that the two men had eaten since they’d last washed their clothes. Their heart rates increased. Ezekiel could actually hear their hearts beating. The full light of the moon came to bear upon Ezekiel through the hatch in the ceiling and his skin began to itch.
He gazed down at his arms and noticed he was becoming hairier. He cried out in shock and blood filled his mouth, With fingers attached to a hand that was growing hairier by the minute he probed the inside of his mouth. He’s just bitten through his tongue. He could feel his teeth changing shape, becoming sharper and elongating. He glanced up at the moon once more. The light that it was giving off was blinding, it was the brightest thing that Zeke had ever seen. Brighter than the sun itself.
And that’s when the trembling started. At first his knees and elbows just felt wobbly as he fell to all fours. But what just started out as a little uneasieness became a full on seizure. He cried out as he felt his face elongate, his cries turned into snarls as spine stretched and his rib cage expanded. Ezekiel was writing on the floor, foaming at the mouth. His eyes were rolled so far up in his skull that he could have been staring at his own brain. The whites that he was showing to the two frightened men outside of his cell were jaundiced and blood shot.
As night fell the air was punctuated shotgun blasts and pistol fire as they intermingled with howls, and all ended with a whimper.
Suspicions and Silver Bullets by Eldon KR is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
By: Val Griswold-Ford
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
That’s the way most of my best stories start, sadly. I’m very good at realizing far too late that I should have zigged when I zagged, and vice versa. But this one…this was a serious lapse in judgment. We really should have known better, but hey, we were young and in love, and that absolves us of everything, right? Okay, no, but it sounds good.
Matt called me about seven o’clock that night. “Hey, beautiful, any plans for tonight?”
His voice washed over me, warm and inviting. “Nope,” I replied, snuggling down into my overstuffed armchair with the phone. “Why?”
“Want to go for a ride?”
“A ride?” I glanced out of the window. The last rays of the sun were just slipping below the distant mountains. “Isn’t it a little late?”
“C’mon, Kasey. It’s a full moon tonight. We’ll have a blast.”
Right then, something should have clicked. I’ve lived in this area most of my life. My father was a ranch hand on old man Cooper’s cattle ranch for nearly 50 years. I knew the legends.
But hey, what could go wrong? What could we meet that we couldn’t deal with? We were both adults.
After all, werewolves are SO 19th century.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me just get ready. Bring Lady for me?”
“Of course. I’ll be over in a couple of hours, after I finish this painting. Pack us a lunch.”
By the time Matt rode up on his bay stallion, leading my grey mare behind him, I not only had a lunch packed in my backpack cooler, complete with bottle of wine and two wineglasses, but was waiting rather impatiently on my front porch for him. The full moon had started to rise, as promised, and a light mist was starting to creep out from the scrub trees in the front yard. Hastings snorted and shook his head as Matt reined him in; Lady gave a low whinny in greeting as I ran out to meet them.
“What are you wearing?” Matt demanded, as I pulled myself up into Lady’s saddle.
“What?” I looked over at him.
“Is that a gun belt?” He threw back his head and laughed. “You’re wearing a gun? What do you think you need that for?”
“It was my father’s,” I said, my hand drifting down to touch the grip. “I…I don’t know. It seemed right to wear it.” In fact, I barely remembered getting the gun out. I frowned for a moment, thinking, and then shrugged. “Besides, Cody mentioned that he’d found coyote scat again. We might need it.”
Matt leaned in and leered at me. “Will you protect me from coyotes?”
“Maybe.” I leered back at him. “Will you make it worth my while?”
“I think I can manage that.” I’d already spotted the rolled-up blanket tied to Hastings’ saddle. “Follow me.” He tossed me Lady’s reins and then nudged Hastings forward.
The moon continued to rise, turning the lush grass into a gilt-edged wasteland as we rode into the night. Matt led the way, and I was content to follow, listening to the whippoorwills call to one another in the stillness. Everything was darkness and silver. I remembered another ride, long ago – when I had held onto my father’s waist as he rode down, deep into one of the canyons, searching for…a lost calf? Something like that. The memory skittered away as soon as I acknowledged it, and I shrugged. It wasn’t important.
Pretty soon, I heard another sound rising on the breeze. The Pensive River was running high and fast, thanks to the wet spring we’d had, and I could hear it laughing as it rushed along its bed. Weeping willows lined the banks, and in the moonlight, I could almost see the faeries my father had told me stories of riding their horses through the rills of foam. A magical night, this one. Almost anything could happen.
We tethered the horses to one of the trees and Matt spread the blanket out on the ground. The moon drenched the entire area in a pale light as the spray from the river and the fog intertwined incestuously around us. I unpacked our late supper: crackers, brie cheese and smoked sausage slices, along with chocolate-covered strawberries, raspberries and of course, the bottle of wine. Lying facing one another on the blanket, we fed each other, fingers lingering along lips and straying to cheekbones, an extended foreplay to what we both knew was coming.
The moon rose higher as we made love, the river a counterpoint to the plaintive songs of the whippoorwills and our own intimate sounds. Time had fallen away, lost in the fog, and we were the center of our own universe.
Afterwards, we lay entangled, sweat cooling in the breeze from the river as the mist crept forward. Matt had brought another blanket and we snuggled together, talking softly of the future as we sipped our second glasses of wine.
Which is probably why we didn’t hear them. That, and they moved like ghosts, barely touching the ground.
Without warning, they stood above us: four men, silver as the moonlight, wearing pale tee shirts and running pants. The mist had thickened, so I couldn’t see their feet; nor did I really care. What I knew was that they were standing, and clothed, and we were neither. And my gun wasn’t close to my hand.
They must have been related: as they stared down at us, the same features glowed in the moonlight. Pale faces, with strong, stubborn jaws, a five-o’clock shadow of silky hair, and piercing green eyes. I shivered as they stood there, staring.
Matt recovered first. “What do you want? Money?” His arm tightened around me. “My wallet is over in my jeans. Take it.”
They didn’t respond. Just continued to stare down at us.
“Seriously, guys, take the money. Take whatever you want. Just leave us alone.” Matt’s voice was still calm. His grip kept my shivers from showing.
One of them finally shook his head, slowly, deliberately, and I swallowed, the wine turned to dust in my mouth. I knew what was coming next and shrank from the arms that reached down. If only I could reach my gun…
They were faster than I thought: in an instant, I’d been ripped from Matt’s protective embrace and hauled to my feet, the blanket falling away from my body, leaving me bare to their gazes. Two of them had Matt between them; the third had me. I could feel the heat from his body behind me: a whimper rose in my throat, answered by the leader’s growl.
“Tie her. I don’t want her involved.”
Within moments, I was tied to one of the willows with the remains of Matt’s shirt, my wrists hooked around a branch. I kicked and screamed, knowing there was no one around who could hear us and succeeding in only frightening the horses and getting a gag stuck in my mouth. After that, all I could was watch. And pray.
Once I was out of the picture, they…changed. Shifted. I thought it was the wine, until the first drops of Matt’s blood splattered against the ground. Their claws, their teeth – everything savaged him. The more he bled, the more they attacked, rabid dogs with prey in their sights. I couldn’t avoid the scene: even when I closed my eyes, I could see, could hear. Matt begged for mercy, begged them to stop…and then begged them to finish him, to kill him. To end it. All he got in response was more cuts, and their growls. Those inhuman growls.
Something wet hit my body: the scent of copper hit my nose and I knew it wasn’t water. All I could hear was Matt’s cries, weaker now and intermixed with the crunch of bone. They weren’t just eviscerating him.
They were eating him.
I don’t remember when it stopped, or when they left. At some point, everything went quiet again: all I heard was the river, still laughing in its banks. The whippoorwills came back out and started calling. There were hoofbeats in the distance, or possibly thunder. I couldn’t tell.
Forcing my eyes open, I immediately gagged at the ruined body near me. What remained of Matt’s chest still moved, up and down, somehow. They hadn’t killed him. Bastards.
The gag had been simply shoved in my mouth: I turned my head away and spit it out, then looked at the rags holding my hands. I had to get free. I had to finish this. Before the moon dropped below the horizon.
The knots were tight, but fear lent me strength, and my teeth ripped at the knots. They hadn’t killed him. They hadn’t killed him.
Oh god, they hadn’t killed him. But had they left me the gun?
Finally, my hands fell to my lap, my fingers numb. I scrambled to my feet, rushing past Matt to the blanket, to my clothes…
“Oh, Lord, thank you.” The words fell from my lips in a torrent, a waterfall of tears and harsh breath. I grabbed the gun and turned back to the figure on the ground.
Except he wasn’t on the ground anymore. He was rising, impossibly, and I struggled to unsnap the strap on the holster as he stumbled, fell and rose again, coming towards me. A steady stream of half-vocalized curses and prayers burst from me. I had to get the gun out…
He lunged forward, reaching for me, and I spun, the gun going off and jerking him backwards. A howl, half-human and half-wolf, ripped the darkening sky to shreds. I had to finish this.
As Matt rose, hair already beginning to darken his torn skin, I raised the gun again and aimed. One sharp retort, two, and he fell, one eye gone.
The hole in his head bubbled a little as the silver ate into his brain, and his body twitched. Then, as the moon fell into the hills, the corpse crumbled.
And I cried.
By Jeffrey Hite
He stood over the body, or what was left of it, and nearly cried. “It is over.” he choked out. “It is finally over.” His voice wavered as he spoke, but it didn’t matter, there was no one around to hear it. That was the way it had always been, there was no one every around.
His mind wandered back though the years, and he remembered that he had not always been alone. There had been times though the years that he had a partner, or a friend to share his thoughts with. But that had been longer ago than most people lived, but had had out lived them all. Back then he was young in west West Texas, their had been a young Native American man whose name he could not remember now. That had been almost right after it all started. Back when he was young and he never forgot things. “Why can’t I remember his name, it should be as clear to me as,” He trailed off, because there were other things he could not remember. He knew it was an effect of what he had done to himself.
He knelt down in the red dusty sand and touched the body, it was still warm but not still alive. With an effort he pulled a small via out of a pocket of his coverall’s and took a small amount of blood from the creature. The air such that is was was biting cold to his exposed skin so he wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible. He drew the blood and put the vial back in his pocket, then took a pouch from another pocket and sprinkled some of the contents over the body. Nothing happened at first, but slowly it started the react as the silver nitrate scooped the oxygen out of the air, and began to eat away at the body.
He should have remembered that lesson too, it had nearly cost him his life only a few months ago. Silver still worked on these creatures, but it needed to react with the air, something they needed much less of than he would have ever thought. The airlock on the moon had proven that. The creature had stood there, and laughed at him, after he had been hit with the silver bullet. There had not been enough air to even hear the laughter, but the stupid grin had been all that it took. The creature stood and dug the low velocity bullet out of his skin holding it up for him to see. He had been about to throw it away when the technician began the recycling pumps and the air started to fill the tiny room. Before the creature could drop it, the reaction happened and it’s hand was gone. With the pure oxygen being pumped into the chamber, the reaction happened quickly.
“Hey I thought there were two of you.” The young man had said.
“No Bob,” he said reading the name on the man’s uniform. “Just me. But there does seem to be a mess in the bottom of your air lock.”
“Thank you old man.”
Old man, he thought darkly as he waited. The body was almost half gone, but the low oxygen of the atmosphere here on Mars was making the process slower than usual. Old man, he thought again, that was who he had been for a very long time now. He had been young once, in west West Texas, even when he had followed them in to New Mexico, he had still been young, but that was a long time ago. It had not been until they lead him into the Arizona that he had started to feel old.It was not really even right then, it was more when the Indian had been killed. That was what he had called him, back then and he smiled to himself for remembering that. But his smile faded as the rest of the memory came back. It was not until he reached California that we really understood what feeling old meant.
“You go in the front and they are near the rear of the building. All you have to do is make noise for a few seconds and give me a moment to get the drop on them.”
“Yes friend.” he said friend, he knew but, had used another word. A word that the old man could not remember. He swore at himself under his breath. There had been more of the creatures than either of them had thought. It had only taken a second to overwhelm the two of them. And before the old man could stop them, it had happened. They had bitten the young Indian, and he was beginning his transformation. It would take months for it to be complete, but it would happen.
“You have failed him masked man.” The leader had taunted and as they dragged the young man, still screaming for help out behind them. For the second time in his life, they had left him alive as a warning. He didn’t think that at that point they knew who he was, but it didn’t take much longer for them to figure it out. They didn’t have very good individual memories, but they worked as a pack and the pack remembered.
The body was gone now, only a little bit of fur remained, and the meager wind was picking that up and blowing it away. His work here was done. He needed to get back to the base before the sun had set because he had one more task that he needed to do. He mounted the high riding motor cycle and headed back. The action of getting on to this contraption was like mounting a horse. They had taken his horse as well, but that had been in Arizona, just as they were heading into the southern California.
He had followed them for three months, looking for his companion, or what was left of him. The leader of that particular group had been right he had failed his friend, like he had failed the others, but he was going to rectify that now. He owed his companion that much. When he found them as they were crossing the boarder in to California, he barely recognized the young man who used to call him friend. He was much more beast than man. This was only the first stage of the transformation of course, but he did not intend to let the rest of the transformation take place.
There were only six on them, and he had killed two of them before the rest of them knew he was there. The leader, he knew had to be the first to fall, so he had taken careful aim from across the clearing. The creature had fallen to the ground like a stone, dead, body slowly eating it self from the inside out. The other creature had been less fortunate, and was still alive as the silver ate through his skin. If he had time, he would rectify that later. That left only three and his friend. The confusion had helped, without a leader, the group struggled for a few moments to try to figure out who they should follow and this had given him the chance he hoped for. In the confusion he was able to kill two more. That left only the Indian and his protector.
He watched as the Indian turned on the other creature, remembering enough of who he had been to stop the creature attacking his former friend. He also remembered the fear and resolve in his eyes, as he had drawn his pistol to shot him too. Before he died the young man had told him something that he needed to know.
“You will need to blood of these creatures to stop them all. You will need their power to stop them.”
That had been the hardest thing he had ever done. Not the killing of the creature that his friend had become. That was hard, but he had lost far closer people than that. The reason he had taken to the law was because his family had been killed by these creatures, though he had not known it at the time. And many other good men along the way. No, killing his friend was a necessity, that still tore at him. It was what he had to do next.
With trembling fingers he swallowed the silver point of one if his bullets, then sliced his palm and put it on his friends open wound. After that he didn’t know how long he had been there. It could have been days, or weeks or even months as the two enemies raged inside his body. All the knew was that when he woke up again, the bodies where gone, and he still looked like a man, but he could hear them. Which meant he was at partly one of them.
It had taken him nearly a year after that to learn to control his thoughts, and to find the right mixture of poison and cure to keep his body his own while letting him maintain the connection to the pack so that he could hunt them. Once he was one of them, he stopped growing older.
The years had rolled by, as he found out one group after another, always able to find them, to hear them in his head. Then at the beginning of the real space age, he realized that there as going to be a problem. If they managed to get off planet, he would never been able to stop them. And they would hunt and haunt the human race forever.
It presented both a problem and a solution, he had been able to wipe out many of the small packs that remained. They had heard of him, knew that he was hunting them, and tried to get off planet, but as they came to the space ports he was there and able to stop them. The problem was that he was only one man and a few did slip by. That was why he was here now. Why he had needed to travel first to the moon and now to Mars. He who when he was born near two hundred years before could not have imagined flying let alone leaving the planet. Yet, here he was.
His mind slipped a gear as memory of the time between now and then disappeared. It was a side effect he knew. One that he would soon rectify.
He very much wished that he could return home to West Texas, before he did, but he didn’t dare wait that long, so the desert here would have to do. He did not know if the cure would kill him or not, but he had to be done. As the last remaining member of this species, half bread though he was, he needed to end it.
When he got back to the station he ate and then prepared to go back out. He walked until he was out of site of the station and pumped the mixture of water and powdered silver into his suits water system. He cranked up the oxygen, and waited. He knew that one way or other it was finally over.
When he awoke hours later, it was to a persistent beeping in his suit. It took him a few minutes to realize that it was the low oxygen alarm. He did not know how he had lived, but he had and for that he was glad. He might again see his home one more time before this old man could finally rest.
This weeks prompt comes from me and is:
“A dog with dry skin.”
All Stories for this prompt are due by Midnight Tuesday Aug 11th. Email the text of the story and a recording if you would like me to include it in the podcast to greathites at gmail dot com.
good luck. And don’t forget to come out to the site and vote for your Favorite stories this week. Remember to tell all your friends to come out and join in the fun.
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“Take It Away”
By: Mick Bordet
Arthur grimaced, his shoulders tensed and he dug his fingers deep into his palms, waiting in dread for the first note.
The school didn’t have the money for maintenance of musical instruments, they could scarcely afford textbooks in these days of government cutbacks, so the piano was in a sorry state of repair. At least two strings had snapped in the last year, but since he couldn’t replace them, his only option was to climb into the frame and cut them back with a pair of wire clippers so they didn’t rattle against the others. It was almost completely out of tune as well, despite his best efforts with a guitar tuner and a pair of pliers. There is a reason that piano tuners are few in number: it’s a damn tricky job to do.
As for the keys, they were probably the biggest obstacle to playing the old piano. Most were chipped or cracked, several stuck down when played, others stuck to your fingers with something tacky that proved immune to all known cleaning materials. At last count, four of them didn’t even play a note unless hammered down with full force. The instrument, he knew, was long past mere maintenance. So far beyond, that it would certainly have cost as much to buy a brand new piano as to return this one to a playable state.
Being the only music teacher in the school, he had become used to its foibles, its badly-tuned notes and shoddy appearance, though so few children were interested in playing it these days. They either wanted to play guitar or drums in a rock band or their parents wanted them to play violin or flute or any instrument that their little prima donnas could attempt, and most often fail, to master. Those who did come for piano lessons were all beginners who rarely ventured beyond a two octave range, so Arthur had focused their playing on the section of the keyboard with fewest flaws. It was a method that had kept him sane, free from discordant aural assaults for the most part, for the last few years. Until now.
The Maestro taking his seat at the battered instrument had once been a pupil here, Arthur had discovered. Perhaps he had even learnt to play on that very same travesty of an instrument, back in its heyday. Arthur had a few of the man’s CDs in his collection without knowing the link to the school, he was one of the most highly-regarded pianists in the World. This short, solemn figure commanded respect wherever he went, playing in the grandest of concert halls for Kings, Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers. Now he was here, back in his old school, Arthur’s school, sat at what was quite probably the worst piano in the World. Arthur could hardly bear to listen, to cringe at the beating dissonance of the chords, to see the disappointment, the horror, the disgust on the pianist’s face at the sound emanating from the instrument.
He waited as the man made himself comfortable on the stool, adjusted his playing position as though about to give a headline performance at the Albert Hall, and played a slow chromatic run from the lowest to the highest note. His eyes focused on the keyboard, his fingers registered the weight of every key and his ears twitched like a rabbit’s with every out-of-tune note played.
“That’s it,” Arthur said to himself, “he’s tried it out. He knows how bad it is. He’ll walk away now.”
He didn’t. He sat with his eyes closed for a few seconds, before giving a small cough and returning his concentration to the keyboard in front of him. He began to play.
Arthur’s senses leapt to attention as he recognised the piece, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto, without a doubt and yet somehow different. Arthur could play the piece himself a few years ago, though not with the speed and flair being demonstrated to him now. He watched the man’s hands, jumping around the keys, taking unexpected detours to play a note further up or down the keyboard. He wasn’t playing it the way Arthur was familiar with, yet it was as strong and vivacious a performance of the piece as he had ever heard. Arthur gasped upon realising what he was seeing; the piece of music was being re-arranged before his eyes, in real-time, by this superlative musician. He was slamming his fingers down on the notes that needed extra power, playing the sticking keys then almost instantly flicking them back up with his finger before moving on. The keys that were significantly out of tune he avoided altogether, but instead played the same note up or down the octave, keeping the harmonies intact and turning the melody into a slightly quirky, yet no less beautiful, version of the original.
A number of other members of staff and some children who had been waiting out in the corridor over lunchtime started trickling into the hall, enraptured by the playing. Nobody had ever heard their old piano played like this or heard it sound so good. The man reached the end of the first movement and the room erupted with the sound of applause, causing him to notice for the first time that he had an audience. He gave a modest dip of his head and stood up, placed the lid back down over the keyboard and headed for the door.
Arthur was waiting for him at the exit and introduced himself.
“You must have replaced Mrs Sanderson,” the musician replied, “she was a terrible teacher, a horrible woman. She would yell at every wrong note and bash her knuckles on my head when I played too slowly.”
Arthur shook his head in dismay, “I’m sorry you have such unhappy memories of your music lessons. Things have moved on now, you’ll be glad to hear. Apart from the piano, that is, it must have been much better to play back then.”
“Ha! That thing? No, it always sounded like that. It was always a heap of junk!” he said.
“Oh. How on earth did you manage to become such a great player? You made it sound so beautiful, even with all its flaws,” said Arthur.
“Spite,” the pianist answered. He gave a slight smile as he saw Arthur furrow his brow, “I learned to play to spite that old witch and in spite of that wreck of a piano. They gave me the focus and determination to succeed. You see, once you have played the worst piano, everything else is easy.”
“That was the best movie I have ever seen. Those Converticons were even cooler than in the first movie. And when Melieka was running in slow motion….Man she is hot.” Mike looked back and forth between his two friends, nodding his head.
“I don’t know Mike. There was a lot of action, but, what was the real story? I don’t think there was one. Just a lot of running around and screaming,” the second boy said. He took another bite of his hamburger.
“You’re crazy, Seth. The action is the story. It’s the classic good verses evil, the under dog rising to the challenge, guy gets the girl.” Mike said picking through his French fries.
Tim watched his friends without really taking in the banter. He knew them well and that they were arguing for the sake of hearing their own voices. They would wind down soon enough. He just wanted to relax and enjoy the warm august night as they sat on the patio outside the fast food restaurant. In just a few weeks school would start again and the summers comfortable boredom would come to an end.
The argument lagged, and as if on cue, all three of them picked up their sodas and took a drink at the same time. They all laughed and put their drinks down.
“You got your backpack ready for next week, Tim?” Mike asked him.
“Next week?” Tim asked, suddenly concerned.
“Of course, next week. We’ve been talking about this backpacking trip all summer. Why what’s the big problem? You can’t have other plans.” Mike said and shot a knowing glance at Seth.
“No. We haven’t been talking about this all summer. We talked about maybe doing a trip at the end of August, but we never nailed down a day or where we would go.” Tim said.
“That’s right Mike. I think you and I talked about going next week, but we never told Tim about it.” Seth added.
He turned to Tim, “We thought about going in at Kennedy Meadows and hiking into upper Yosemite, or just fishing a few days in the Emigrant Wilderness Area. You can go can’t you, Tim?”
“Well, no. Becky’s family asked me if I would go with them to Lake Tahoe for the week, starting on Monday. We’re supposed to be there until Saturday.
Mike huffed and pushed his food away, knocking over what was left of his soda, “It figures. You spend all your time over at her house, and then the one time we have something planned, you dump on us. This is our last backpacking trip. Next summer we’ll be heading off to college and won’t have the time. But instead, you run off with your girl friend so that you can make out for a week.”
Tim felt bad. These two had been his friends since Jr. High and they had gone on a summer back packing trip since the summer between seventh and eighth grade. This was to be their first extended hike without adults.
Tim said, “She’s not my girl friend, and we don’t make out. She’s just my friend, and the whole family is going. They’ve rented a cabin and I’ll be in a room with her little brothers.”
“That’s right. You won’t get a chance to make out, with that crowd. They have something like, ten kids? What are they, Mormons?” Mike sounded cynical and angry.
“Relax, Mike. And clean up your mess.” Seth said, and pointed to the soda pooling on the table and dripping to the floor.
“I don’t know what they are, and there are only five kids. But I like being with them. I’ve never had any brothers, and it’s kind of fun to be with them too.” Tim said.
“No brothers. So what are we, crash test dummies? We’ve been brothers to you for a long time. And this is how you treat us? Come on, Seth. Let’s go.” Mike grabbed his keys from the table and headed for his car.
“Dude, how’s Tim going to get home? You drove us all here?” Seth said with out moving.
“Let him call his girl friend,” Mike said as he got in and slammed the car door.
“Go ahead, Seth. My house is less than a half mile from here, and it’s a nice night. I can walk home. In fact, I kind of want to.” Tim said. He gathered up his trash, as well as what Mike had left.
“Ok. Sorry about Mike. But get your pack ready anyway. Maybe we can meet you in Tahoe and we can go into Desolation Wilderness on Wednesday.” Seth said. Mike revved the car and turned on the headlights.
“Excellent idea, Seth. See if you can talk Mike into it.” Tim said.
“I can do that. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, and we’ll figure out the menu for the trip.” Seth said and rounded the car to the passenger door. He waved at Tim, got in the car and they drove off.
“That guy will be a diplomat some day. He’s kept the three of us together all this time.” Tim said to himself as he walked from the restaurant to the street.
Tim thought about his friends as he walked down the dark streets lit only at long intervals by dim street lights. The houses he passed were close to the street and many had their windows open, to take advantage of breeze that blew in from the San Francisco bay and across the delta of the San Joaquin river. He imagined families sitting around televisions, or playing board games, or just chatting.
Mike and Seth would both return to find families at home. Each had a brother or a sister, and parents.
Mike still complained that his sister got preferential treatment from his parents, as he had when Tim had first met him. She was on the first backpacking trip that Tim and Seth had taken with Mikes family before eighth grade. From the way that Mike had talked about her, Tim had expected to find a creature with fangs and multiple, viciously clawed arms. Tim found that she took teasing in stride, gave back in kind, and carried her own weight.
Seth had a much older brother who had been out of the home for as long as Tim had known them. Seth spoke of his brother in an almost reverent manner. He idolized his brother, and sought to be just like him.
Tim figured that was why he liked best about being in Becky’s home. She was the oldest child of five. The two youngest were her bothers, age seven and ten. He felt like the big brother when he was at her home. He wrestled with them, played catch in their back yard, and amazed them with the tales of his hiking and mountain climbing adventures. He had actually been thinking of taking the boys on a short hike into the wilderness. He sighed, “I guess I still could on one of the other days, even if Mike and Seth did come up. That will just mean less time with Becky.”
Then there was Becky. He did like spending time with her. Her smile lit up his life. Just the sight of her face gave him hope and optimism that he hadn’t had before he met her. He knew what she would say to him, even before he could make a self deprecating comment, “You’re stronger than you think. You have the power to excel. You are going to be a great success someday.”
He was embarrassed, even after walking all the way home, and by himself in the dark, when he thought of Mike claiming that he just wanted to go to Tahoe so he could make out for a week.
He had only kissed her once, and that was months ago, after the spring formal. The three boys and their dates were all in Mikes family SUV. The others made Tim drop off Becky first so that they could all watch and see if he kissed her. In retrospect, Tim realized that Becky was more ready for it than he was. She had been chewing mint gum from the time that they left the dance. She took his hand as they walked from the car to the front door. She thanked him for taking her to the dance, turned toward him, closed her eyes and held onto his hand. He wanted to kiss her more than anything else he had ever wanted in his life. Time froze. He could almost see him self reflected in her clear lip gloss, standing awkwardly wondering what to do.
Eventually, he leaned forward and gently pressed his lips to hers. As he did so, she parted her lips slightly. He could smell the mint on her breath and taste the sugar on her lips. He didn’t want it to end, but worried almost instantly, what would be considered too long of a kiss. He stepped back and thanked her for going with him to the dance. Intoxicated, he said, “I’ll call you tomorrow. Ok?”
She replied, “Sure, but not too early.”
She opened the front door and he left.
He arrived at his house. He opened and closed the screen door, trying to make as little sound as possible. He walked through the front room, where his grandmother slept in front of the tv. She woke as he opened the refrigerator, looking for a cold soda.
“Don’t wake your grandfather. He’s in a bad mood tonight, and I’m tired of arguing with him.” She said
“Ok, grandma. Oh. By the way. I’m going to Tahoe with Becky’s family on Monday. I should be back by Sunday.” He said as he stopped at the hallway to his room.
His grand mother snored.
In his small room he set his gym bag and his back pack on his bed. Both were empty. Both represented his future. The backpack was his future with his friends, Mike and Seth. The gym bag, his future with Becky.
He wondered, “What will fit best in each?”
The Price of Friendship part 5
By Norval Joe
“Hi Mom,” Chad said when he closed and locked the front door.
“Hi, Sweetheart,” she said. She looked up from her text book where she studied in the kitchen. Though she had been out of work for several months, she continued taking night classes at the community college so that she could look for work during the day.
“Are you hungry? I can make you something to eat.” She said and made as if to stand.
“No, thanks Mom, I’m really not that hungry,” he said. “I’m tired. I think that I’ll just go to bed.
He started to leave the kitchen, his mother exclaimed, “Bed. On a Friday night? It’s not even 9 o’clock. Don’t you want to go do something with your friends?”
“No, Mom. I just want to go to bed. Beside, Mrs. Walker wants me to meet her at the school at noon.”
“Mrs. Walker. your English teacher? On a Saturday? I thought you were doing well in English.”
“I am. In fact Mr. Satoro told me today, that I won a $250 scholarship for a story I wrote.”
“Wonderful,” She said as she stood. She stepped over and gave her son a hug.
“You’ll have to think carefully about how you want to spend it.”
“If I ever get it”, he thought to himself.
His mother stepped back and looked closely at his face. She noticed the dirt on his face and she reached up and lightly touched the swollen redness on his jaw. She asked, “What’s happened to you today?”
He shook his head and looked at the floor. “I’ve had a really tough day, today. Can I just tell you about it in the morning?”
Her face showed how badly she wanted to ask her son more questions, but she said, instead, “OK, Chad. If that’s what you need.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll tell you everything in the morning.” he said and walked to the bathroom to have a shower before getting into bed.
He didn’t sleep much throughout the night. His thoughts jumped spasmodically between images of Amy sitting in class, singing with the school choir and talking with the group of friends at lunch. Then there was Derrick, his grinning face leering over him, then his eyes flashing with anger. Finally, Derrick was leading Amy away, her head down, shoulders rounded, defeated.
When I did finally sleep, he slept so soundly that when he awoke, he only vaguely remembered dreams of Amy deep in a cave or dungeon. She wasn’t chained or miserable. She stood defiant and argued with someone, though he didn’t know if she argued with someone unseen, or with him. He lay in his bed and stared at the ceiling. He tried to remember more details of the quickly fading dream.
He heard his mothers voice from the hallway, “Chad, honey. It’s after 10 o’clock. I thought you had to be at the school by noon.”
“Thanks Mom, I’m getting up.”
He walked out to the kitchen in his pajamas. “I can’t find my jeans. Did you see them?”
“Yes, I took them from your room. I was doing some laundry and thought my might want them washed.
He watched her face as she spoke and felt that there was something his mother was holding back, something left unsaid. He looked her in the eyes and could see the concern. “What’s the matter, Mom?”
She brought a gallon of milk from the refrigerator and placed it on the table. “You’d better eat some cereal, it’s getting late. While you’re eating, maybe you can tell me about this note. I found it in you pocket.”
It was the note that he had written in his science class the day before. “Mom, I know that this sounds crazy, but some crazy things have happened to me. I thought that when Amy met me after school she would just tell me that I was stupid and tell derrick to take his game and get lost. She didn’t. She just went with him, like she was a runaway dog, and that she had been caught by her master. When I tried to stop him, Derrick hit me. He hit me hard, too. I was out for a while.”
“The weirdest thing was when I went to check at Amy’s house. I thought maybe she had gone home while I was laying in the grass. Her parents acted like they knew this kind of thing might happen to Amy. Sure, they were upset, but they weren’t freaking out. On top of that, Mrs. Walker was at their house, and acted like she was part of a conspiracy, or the CIA or something.”
He finally poured some cereal into the bowl and ate quickly. “Mrs. Walker had Derricks game player and kept messing with it while we talked about Amy. She must have picked it up while I was running around looking for Amy. She wants me to meet her at the school to see if we can identify Derrick on a security camera.”
She sat looking at her son with a blank expression on her face. He looked down, feeling uncomfortable with her silent stare, and continued, “The worst part is that they say I am the one that needs to go get her back, since I am the one that sent her away.”
He tried to formulate a statement about the idea of his emotional attachment. He couldn’t understand it him self, so he just let it drop.
“Go get her?” She sounded a little frantic.
“This isn’t one of your fantasy stories, though it does sound fantastic. This is the real world. Kids don’t run off and rescue abducted kids. That is a job for the police. Hurry up and finish your cereal, while I get my car keys. I’m going with you to the school and have a talk with Mrs. Walker, myself.”
“Ok,” Chad said, feeling relieved. His mother was smart and logical. Besides, he didn’t like the thought of lying to her.
They arrived at the school before noon. There were two other cars in the parking lot; Mrs. Walkers Continental, and the Snider’s mini van.
The glass door to the administration office stood open. Mr. and Mrs. Snider sat inside where they could watch Chad and his mother approach. Mr. Snider stood as they walked through the door.
“Chad, Mrs. Baker. Thanks for coming.” He patted Chad on the back and walked past them to lock the door. Chad thought that he didn’t seem at all surprised that his mother had come with him.
“Come on back,” he said after shaking the door, to make sure that it had locked, and led them down a hallway to a small dark room. Mrs. walker looked up as they all crowded into the small security room. There were ten monitors along one wall, though only three of them were on.
The teacher nodded to Mrs. Baker, whom she had met at parent teacher conferences through out the year, and then pointed at one of the monitors. She said, “Look here, Chad. Here you are with a group of friends. Is Derrick one of these boys?”
“No. He had already left when those guys were talking with me.” Chad said.
Mrs. Walker ran the recording rapidly in reverse for a few minutes. Chad watched the comical scene as the boys flapped their hands and arms and then walked away backwards. There was a flicker of static and Chad walked away, backwards, himself.
Chad shook his head, and turned to his English teacher, “Wait a minute. I talked with him in the library, right there where you saw me. He walked away and my friends walked up. He was there, but he’s not in the video?”
“Iridescent Angel, Part II: Ebony”:
By: Guy David
Ebony’s quick dash made her short of breathy and giddy. She looked back at the wall and couldn’t believe it. She was on the other side. She did it. She went through the wall and now she was going to prove them wrong, all of them. She believed that with all the shear determination of a twelfth years old. When she started her dash, her first thought was that she was going to crush into the wall, but her intuition told her that this wall was an illusion. Now she knew she was right. She turned and took a good look at what the world looked like on the other side. At first, she couldn’t tell the difference between the world she left and the one she just entered. To be honest, they weren’t really different worlds, not in the physical sense, but for her they where worlds apart. The world outside looked like the world she grew up in, but the colors where brighter, more pronounced and everything looked magical to her. She started going around the wall, afraid to venture too far from from it in case she couldn’t find her way home. There didn’t seem to be much difference in what she saw around the wall, the same thick vegetation, huge trees and far stretching grass lawns. It was the same as her home, only more pronounced. She went around the wall like this for a few hours, then she realized she had to get back. Her parents would be worried. As much as she wanted to prove to everyone that the world outside is not populated with demons and evil creatures, she was only a little girl and she couldn’t do this to her family. She crossed the wall again, going back.
It was as if the elder was waiting for her on the other side. He watched her crossing the wall in pure shock. “You did the unthinkable” he said, “You crossed the forbidden wall and for that you shell be punished.” She shivered as she remembered that passing the wall was punished with death. She had been spotted and there was nothing to do now but run. She started for the wall as she heard the sound of a gun firing behind her, once, twice, then she was at the wall as the third bullet fired. She felt a sharp pain in her right shoulder as she passed the wall once again. She breathed in the beauty of it all, but the colors shifted, turning red, then all went black.
She awoke in a white room and a woman was leaning over her, a concerned look on her face. “Are you alright?” she asked, then Ebony noticed that the woman was naked, glowing and that she had wings. “Are you an angel?” she asked. The woman laughed cheerfully. “I guess so, sort of. That’s the shape I chose a long time ago” she said, smiling. “Then… am I dead?” asked Ebony. The woman looked confused and a little surprise. “Dead?” she asked “no one died here for such a long time. Why would you think that?” then a look of comprehension crossed her face. “You’re from the reservation, aren’t you?” She said. “The reservation?” asked Ebony. “You wouldn’t know about that since you grew inside it. Anyway, how is it you’re on this side of the wall?” Ebony sighed. “I was curious, I wanted to see what was on the other side. I didn’t believe the stories from the scriptures about demons and evil creatures. I wanted to find out for myself.” She suddenly remembered the gun shot and looked at her right shoulder in apprehension. “We fixed that” said the woman, “I’m Lindsay by the way” she said, smiling again. “I’m Ebony.” Said the kid, smiling back faintly, then her smile faded. “They shot me, didn’t they?” she asked and suddenly looked sad, comprehending her predicament. “I can’t go back” she said, “ever. They would kill me.” A tear formed in her eye. “I would never see my parents again.” Lindsay looked at her for a moment, then said, “You would see your parents again. You will stay here on this side of the wall. Here you can do anything you want, you can even be anything you want. You will be able to see your parents as much as you like. We can give you the keys to technologies that would help you see afar, right into the reservation. As you said, you can’t go back, but you can still keep watch over your parents.” Ebony thought about this for a few moments, then a smile crossed her face. She said “you said that here I can be anything I want.” Lindsay was smiling back and nodded in agreement. “Sure” she said. “Then… one day… can I have wings like you?” Ebony asked.
The Keys to Happiness
By: Jeff Hite
Churchill sat up and smashed his head on the over head at the knocking on his door. “Ow, yes who is it?”
“Come in.” The Door slid open and she stood in the half light of the corridor.
“Are you alright?”
“yes Just banged my head.”
“No I mean you have been in here for over a week. You know we dock with the transfer station tomorrow.”
“Yes, I know. I have been reviewing my notes.”
“For a week?”
“They have taken me a life time to compile.” She nodded thoughtful before responding.
“What is it you are looking for?”
“If I told you I am not sure you would believe me.”
“But you say this man my brother knew, knows where it is?”
“I have a lot of information that says he does.”
“You said you didn’t think I would believe you, but try me.”
“You will laugh like everyone else and I am not sure that I can take that at the moment,” he said hanging his head.
“Alright then.” They were silent for a long while and then she stood up. “Lets go get a cup of coffee and talk about it.” Churchill nodded his agreement and they left his room.
The corridor along the sleeping berths was narrow and only in half light so that you would not disturb someone sleeping if the door was opened. But, I gave the place a surreal look, as most public areas on space craft were well lit. This seemed completely out of place.
They were on their second cup of coffee before he began to speak, “Marie, you know I have spent my life looking for something.”
“Well, it is nothing something that most people don’t think you can actually look for. Most people don’t think it is anything tangible. I am looking for the keys to happiness.”
“There are actually secrets to happiness, they exist and this man, that you brother knew ten years ago, I believe has them.”
“What are you talking about. The secret of happiness is not something you can hold in your hands.”
“See I told you would laugh at me.”
“And I didn’t I am questioning your sanity, but I have not laughed at you.”
“I am sane, as sane as you are, but I tell you that there are keys to happiness. Think about it. What is the key to happiness, is it love? Love fades as dies, if you could stay in that euphoric state of falling in love forever, that might be real happiness but, you don’t eventually you stop falling in love with someone and then you remember that time when you were falling in love and you spend the rest of you life trying to find that again. There are the other obvious answer, Money is not it because if you have it you are always worried about it, and if you don’t have it you are always worried about getting it. The same thing goes for possessions. But there are legends and stories about someone finding the keys to happiness, then on my twentieth birthday, I found something that changed my mind about the keys being something that you could find. I found a text less than a hundred years old, that talked about leaders during wars of the last century having them and trying to protect them. In the end they sent them off planet to keep safe. Then last year, I found a reference gave the identity of the man they had sent them with.”
“So the Leaders of the last century had actually found the keys to happiness and they didn’t use them.”
“I don’t understand all the reason, but there was something that prevented them from. I plan to find out why, and if I can use them.”
“What if it is something that is dangerous?”
“How could the keys to happiness be dangerous?”
“Well what if happiness is finding death?” After long pause he answered.
“I guess, but I don’t think that could be it.”
“I guess all I am saying is be careful what you wish for. There has to be some reason that they didn’t use whatever secret it was, and thought it so important or dangerous that they needed to send it off planet.”
They finished their coffee in silence.
This weeks prompt comes from my loving wife and is:
“A girl discovers Modesty is not such a bad thing after all.”
All Stories for this prompt are due by Midnight Tuesday Aug 4th. Email the text of the story and a recording if you would like me to include it in the podcast to greathites at gmail dot com.
good luck. And don’t forget to come out to the site and vote for your Favorite stories this week. Remember to tell all your friends to come out and join in the fun.
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Price of Friendship, Part 4
By: Norval Joe
Chad walked from the school in the direction of the Snider’s house, not quit dragging his feet. His mind was torn. He badly wanted to know, and desperately hoped, that Amy had just gone home. How would he face her parents? How would they react. What would they ask him, and expect him to know? He wished again, that this was all a dream. He knew that it wasn’t.
The sun was below the horizon, and it was darkening to full night. Amy’s parents would have to know that something was wrong when she didn’t come home from school. “She is as regular as clockwork and predictable as a calendar.” Her mother had once told Chad when he had stopped by, unexpectedly, to visit. She was smart, too, though. Her parents would have to know that she wouldn’t get herself into trouble. “It would take someone like me, to get her this messed up.” Chad said as he rounded the corner onto Amy’s street.
He expected to see police cars parked in front of the Snider’s house. There was only one car that he could see, at the end of the dark street. It was a black Lincoln Continental, big and boxy, a style popular before Chad was even born. He recognized the car as a daily feature in the school parking lot. As he walked past it, he glanced sidelong through the windows, but it was empty of occupants.
Amy’s house was set back in a large front yard that was crowded with old trees. Ancient maples, oaks and sycamores almost completely hid the house from passers by on the street. Most of the residents of the are believed that the land around the house was one of the original homesteads in the area. Most of the trees were estimated at more than 100 years old. They must have been planted in the late 1800’s around the farm house that was removed years ago. The trees formed an opaque ceiling over the walkway that lead between the massive trunks to the front door. Any light from the stars or moon was effectively shielded and Chad made his way through the darkness, guided by a single light on the Snider’s front porch.
He stood for a moment in front of the door, with his hand raised to knock, steeling his nerves for the inevitable confrontation and interrogation. However, before he could wrap his knuckles against the small leaded glass window, it swung open before him. Mr. Snider stood, silhouetted in the doorway.
“Come in, Chad.” He said matter of factly. “We’re in the living room.”
Chads hope bloomed, “Amy is here?” He asked, feeling a sudden wash of relief. As they passed through the kitchen, on the way to the living room, Mr. Snider stopped at the refrigerator and poured Chad a glass of ice water. “No, Chad. She is not.” Amy’s father said grimly, and continued on to the sitting room. Chad saw his reflection in an antique mirror on the kitchen wall. He was a filthy sweaty mess, and understood why Mr. Snider assumed he would want a glass of water. His stomach felt as cold and liquid as the water in his hand.
He followed the man into the living room. As he had guessed, sitting with Mrs. Snider, was the owner of the Continental out front, Mrs. Walker. But what she was doing here, he had no idea. Not once in the two years that he had been walking Amy home, had his English teacher come to the Snider’s house. Amy had never mentioned that her parents knew the teacher in any significant way.
“Thank you for coming, Chad. Please, have a seat.” Mr. Snider said, concern evident on his face. Chad sat on the edge of the couch and sipped from his glass. He looked at Mrs. Snider. Her eyes were red rimmed and puffy, as if she had been crying very recently. Mrs. Walker sat next to her, patting the younger woman’s hand, her face the epitome of compassion and understanding. Mrs. Walker looked so sincere that Chad wondered if this was, perhaps, a twin sister of his English teacher. He was confident that his teacher didn’t have a compassionate cell in her body.
“Uhh, hmmm.” Chad cleared his throat, when none of the adults initiated conversation. “Ummm. Did you know that I was coming here?” He asked, feeling the depths of his confusion.
“I’m sorry, Chad. You must know that Amy didn’t return home from school today. Typically, you would have been with her, and hours ago. When we saw you approaching the door,” he said, indicating about the mantel of the fire place, “we assumed that you knew something about her absence.”
Chad looked above the fireplace. He had sat in this living room countless times and had appreciated and discussed the large print by the Japanese artist, Hiroshige, that hung on the wall, above the mantel. The picture was gone, and in its place was, instead, a large monitor divided into several camera view around the house and yard. The bottom left view was from the front porch and showed the entire yard from the porch to the street. They must have know he was on his way to the door from the time he reached Mrs. Walkers car.
“She went with Derrick,” Chad launched into his story without preamble, “She didn’t have to go. It was my problem, but she acted like she had to go with him and when I tried to stop him he hit me.” He stopped, thinking about the oak trees crowding over the small, slow, creek. He was looking at the floor rubbing his bruised jaw. He wanted to look Amy’s parents in the face, to see the looks in their eyes. So that he could see if they understood, but he felt so terribly ashamed. “When I woke up, they were gone. The game was there, but when I went back for it later, I couldn’t find it. I looked for Amy and Derrick. They went onto the nature trail, but I couldn’t find them, either. They were just, gone.”
He was on his feet with his hands held out, like he was pleading with the three adults. Finally, he turned to Amy’s mother. “I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. Derrick took her somewhere.”
“Chad,” Mr. Snider said. He was standing beside him, his hand on the boys shoulder. “It’ really not your fault. You don’t know everything that is going on. You’re Amy’s friend, and that is important. But, we are missing parts of your story. Could you go to the beginning and slowly tell us all that happened, so that we can figure out how to get her back?”
Chad looked up at the man. His own father had disappeared shortly after his birth. With no grand fathers or uncles in his life, Chad’s closest adult male role model was his brother, who was currently away in the military. He wasn’t sure how he should feel about this man asking for his confidence. Amy’s father spoke with such understanding and tenderness that he felt safe in his friends home, and that he could trust her parents. But then he thought of Mrs. Walker. He looked at her closely for the first time, since entering the room. There, cradled on her lap was Derricks game device. He looked from the black cube to the English teachers eyes. She returned his gaze and nodded. “Yes, Chad. Please, sit back down and tell us everything that you know. Anything that you remember.”
Chad was amazed how the sarcasm and condescension were absent from her voice and demeanor.
Chad looked from person to person, then sat back down and launched into the story again.
He spoke about Derrick and how he seemed to arrive from nowhere. As he described the game player Mrs Walker examined it, turning it over in her hands several times. He spoke of the events, and even the emotions that he felt, in great depth and detail. At times details came to him as he spoke. And to his chagrin, he spoke of his feelings for and about Amy, to a degree he hadn’t intended. “I saw her walking away, behind Derrick, like she was trapped, or defeated,” Chad said, “and I knew that I had done something terrible, and something terrible was going to happen to Amy. My heart was breaking. I couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t let her go. But then he hit me and I was out like a light. What a wimp.” He stood again, and paced around in circles. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Does any of this make any sense?” He looked around hopelessly, and sat back down with his head in his hands.
Mrs. Walker spoke. “This boy, Derrick. Do you know his last name?”
“No, I’m sorry, I just never…” he trailed off.
“Don’t worry, Chad.” She said, “You’re not on trial here. You have done nothing wrong. We just need to gather all the information that we can, so that we can get Amy back. Now, can you think of a time in the last week when you were talking with Derrick, in the hallways, the library or the cafeteria?”
Chad thought. “Yeah. The day after he gave me the game player, before school started we talked to me in the library.”
The teachers eyes lit up. “Good. Good.” She said and looked back and forth between Amy’s parents, as if for confirmation. “I should be able to find him on video from the library. Chad, will you please meet me at the school around noon, tomorrow, after I have had a chance to review the video?”
“Sure, I guess so. I don’t usually do much on Saturdays.” He said.
Music suddenly began to play from his backpack. “Oh, shoot. My Mom.” He rummaged through the back pack to get the phone before it went to voice mail. It was his brothers phone. His mother couldn’t afford one for him. When his brothers national guard unit was deployed to Iraq he figured he wouldn’t get much use out of it over there, so he left if for Chad to use. Chad didn’t use it much, only to communicate with his mother; which he had completely forgotten to do this day.
He answered the phone, “Mom, I’m sorry, I’m at Amy’s house, we got busy and I forgot to call.” There was a pause. “Yes, Her parents are here, do you want to talk to them?” Another pause. “OK. I’ll be home in a few minutes.”
Mr. Snider stood as Chad did. “Chad, before you leave.” He stopped the boy on the way to the door. “Two things that you need to work out with your mother; What you will tell her about Amy’s absence; and what you will tell her about yours.” He saw the shock on Chads face and continued, “Let me give you a ride home. We can talk a bit more in the car.”
After the series of weird events that he had experienced this day, nothing should have surprised him, but he thought his involvement going forward should have been very limited.
As soon as they were driving away from the house, Mr. Snyder started right in.
“The short version is this. Amy is not an ordinary girl. She is not even from here, from this world. We have been hiding her here. You might say we have been trying to hide her in plain sight. Things were going too smoothly, we should have known better.
“From your own words, it is clear that you have developed an emotional bond with Amy. A stronger bond than we could have expected. Had we known of the connection, we would have brought you in to the confidence, to help protect the both of you.” Chad was getting lost in Mr. Snider’s dialogue.
“Emotional connection? It’s not like we’re in love or anything.” Chad said defensively.
“Well, actually Chad. Boys your age get infatuated easily. It’s called puppy love, and that is usually the extent of it and it passes. You must have passed that and moved on to a more real or permanent attachment or you wouldn’t have been able to give her away to Derrick and transfer that connection to him. Amy could only be betrayed by someone who loved her.”
“Betrayed,” Chad said aghast. “I’m so sorry.”
They reached Chads house, and Mr. Snider stopped the car and turned out the lights.
“No Chad. There is no time for sorry, and it wouldn’t do any good anyway. It was your love for Amy that made it possible for Derrick to take her away. But since it was you that released her to Derrick, it is only you that can go and bring her back.”
The Cave (pt1)
By: Mick Bordet
“Have you tried contacting them lately,” Edric asked.
“Yes, I’ve been signalling both of them every four hours for the last three days. Not a whisper from either of them, neither hide nor hair,” Elina answered, the concern clear on her face.
“They’ll turn up, don’t worry. It will be something minor, a magnetic disturbance or unusual atmospherics interfering with their equipment, most likely. Erik is not one to disappear without good reason.”
“I know that,” she said, “but I worry about these trips. I don’t trust them; they’re so… so scary!”
“They are not to be feared, lass. Pity their weak minds and the constant battling with each other, but don’t fear them. It is up to us to work with the outsiders and educate them in our ways without forcing them. It will take time, but it will be worth it. Erik knows this and will take care in his meetings with them.”
“Edric, I don’t mean the outsiders. They are brutal and not to be fully trusted, but we all know that, we expect it. I meant the bears.”
“Now that’s just silly! They’ve never shown signs of aggression towards us. We both mutually benefit; they are guaranteed food and somewhere to live and bring up their cubs in safety, protected from the hunters. We enjoy their services as scouts, guides and bodyguards. I grant you, they can be quite imposing, but there has never been violence. The genetic re-sequencing we carried out years ago has removed the urge to attack humans for food, whilst the translators we embed in their collars allow them to communicate with us and discuss problems, not rely on claws, teeth and brute strength.”
Elina nodded and carried on her duties, logging reports from the World outside, “Yes, I’m sure you’re right. They just make me uncomfortable.”
He knew that was as much as she would admit, as her feelings for Erik went deeper than for anyone else and it was quite natural that she would worry for his safety. The man did keep returning home with an ever-growing collection of dangerous tales and risky endeavours, so Edric sympathised with her, but couldn’t help thinking that she was being over-sensitive about the bears.
The scientists who were the next people to see Erik, some four thousand years later, knew no more about what happened in that cave than Elina and Edric did at the time.
Children of the Garden Wars
“> Danny Machal
“Hoppers of the Outlands, come forth.” Lord Cottontail and his
guards stood in the middle of the Thicket.
The bushes rustled with movement. Camouflage piles of wood and
sticks stirred with golden eyes agape. The Outland Hoppers, around
thirty in number, covered ground sheepishly and slowly. They kept
their black and brown faces pointed down as they neared the flawless
white fur of Lord Cottontail.
“Who is in charge here? Why have you not rallied your fighters to
take part in tonight’s raid?”
Lord Cottontail beckoned for none other than the old greying Hopper
chief, Long Ear. A path formed among the bowed noses and lowered
ears, out emerged the large Long Ear towering over Cottontail.
“I am my Lord, my name is Long Ear. We coexist in peace with the
Crawlers here. This is your conflict, not ours.” The most massive of
Cottontail’s guards stepped forward; Cottontail ordered the guard
back into line with a flick of his ear.
“Not yours? My brother we are all in this fight together. Why a
crawler last night just took one of our young from Hoppiton. How can
you sit there and say such things? A poor mother’s child lays
digesting in the belly of one of those slithering vermin,” Cottontail
“The child’s loss is regrettable, but you and I both know a Crawler
would not attack unless provoked. They much prefer the taste of more
“If you refuse to help the cause Long Ear, than consider yourself a
permanent Outland Hopper. The same goes for all of you Heads of
Cottontail threatened the community as a whole but he knew what Long
Ear said was law. It was the Hopper way. Long Ear and other
community leaders spoke for their communes, and Heads of House spoke
for their own families. It was Long Ear’s choice to make, a choice he
had earned the right to make long ago. Long Ear turned his back to
Cottontail and stood upon his massive hind legs to address the Outland
“You are all free to make your own choices here. I would never stop
any of you from doing what you felt was right for your families. We
have prospered many ages here in the Thicket and have done so all by
ourselves. Join Lord Cottontail now if you wish to pursue the assault
on the Crawlers. You will be welcomed back should you return.”
Not one head raised, not one foot moved from where it stood, silently
they all pledged their allegiance to Long Ear. Lord Cottontail stood
stewing in his fast raising temperament. Long ear turned to the young
hopper ruler and bowed his head.
Lord Cottontail narrowed his eyes and wriggled his nose in disgust.
“Come fellow white fur Hoppers, these brown Outlanders wish to be
isolated, so be it. No Hopper is to come to their aid, no matter what
circumstance has befallen them. Let them be fed to the Crawlers and
torn apart by the Longsnouts for their treachery.”
Cottontail’s small executive force bounded quickly north disappearing
in the dense underbrush around the Thicket. Long Ear sighed and
raised his head. The women and the young ones joined their Heads of
House in the open. They all sat in silence with their eyes fixed upon
Long Ear. He turned and hopped to his den to rest without saying a
That night the Thicket echoed with the faint screams of dying Hoppers
and the hisses of fallen Crawlers. Long Ear laid in the dark saddened
at how quickly the peace he had created was being dismantled by
From the inside of a sheltered above ground burrow, two young Hoppers
contemplated defiance of their Heads of House, loyal to Long Ear.
“Why shouldn’t we go? I refuse to sit and let Hoppers fight and die
for the Thicket, we should be out there helping.”
“How do you plan on us doing that? You’re not a fighter, I’m not a
fighter, we have no fighters. Long Ear has worked hard for peace with
the Crawlers and Cottontail is destroying that this night. The
Thicket won’t be safe ever again after this. How could the Crawlers
ever trust us now? Cottontail is lucky Long Ear didn’t challenge
“Old Long Ear? What could he possibly do to Lord Cottontail?”
“My father says Long Ear was a Captain in the Garden Wars. Says he
went on some secret assassination missions and defeated a platoon of
Longsnouts, by himself. He also said that Long Ear lost an entire
squad once, said he was the only Hopper to come back out of twenty.
Guess he went crazy after that, didn’t care if he lived or died.”
The young Hopper stared blankly at the sleeping Long Ear on the far
end of the Thicket. The old grey mound heaved up and down with every
deep breath, creating a faint grumble of a snore.
“Nah, I can’t see it. Long Ear is no warrior. If what you say is
true, how could he possibly have turned out like this? I mean he
speaks out against the War all the time. Something must have happen
to him to turn him into the Long Ear we know. What does your Dad say
Before the answer could come the two were interrupted by another
young male Hopper.
“Hey, we got a group of three going out to help Cottontail you guys coming?”
The Story Teller’s eyes become wide with excitement. He looked to
his comrade for confirmation. Friendship ran deep as a family blood
bond among Hoppers. He waited for the decision hoping the stories of
Long Ear had inspired his comrade.
“We’ll help.” The two smiled at each other and joined the other three.
The five young Hoppers stealthily left the sleeping Thicket and
trotted toward the faint sounds of battle in the distance. Full of
young excitement and vitality they looked back at the moonlit Thicket,
not thinking for one moment they might never see it again.
Later that Night
The Five covered a great distance away from the Thicket into the
forest before they found any new signs of life. Small mounds of
upturned earth became concentrated among the underbrush the further
they penetrated into the thick woodland.
“Crawler dens those are,” the largest of the Five said.
“Split up and start checking them, we won’t catch up to Cottontail’s
front line tonight anyway. At least we can be sure their path home is
clear. Stay within earshot, we’ll need at least two Hoppers to a
Crawler to take them down.”
Hole after hole was inspected. They expanded their coverage area
checking the mounds that were further out and farther apart.
“Found a nest,” the Story Teller called out.
The Five converged on the discovery.
“Look in there, two eggs, maybe three. Let us wait for the female.”
They waited silently in the shadows ten bounds away, a distance
easily covered by a young Hopper in three seconds. After a short
while the small female Crawler emerged, her dark green scales
glimmered in the moonlight. The Five sprinted toward her the moment
the slender tube-like body was fully visible. Her head snapped up as
she sensed the advancing movement. The tail end of her body whipped
the leading Hopper mid bound causing him to tumble. She was frantic
in her defense to protect the unborn. A Mother’s guard is a force
never to be meddled with, no matter the creature.
The other four began nipping with their teeth at any piece of flesh
they could get at. With her calculating targeting system the Crawler
struck the Story Teller, capturing his head between her jaws. She
began to squeeze with skull crushing force. The young Hopper let out
“Get her head off,” the large Hopper shouted.
The four began to take large bits of flesh from the same area in
rapid succession until the spine was served and she relaxed her grip.
The limp Crawler body collapsed on top of the Story Teller. The
comrade pulled as the Story Teller wriggled to free himself from under
the smothering girth of the body.
Filled with the fury of battle the others dashed into the den one
after the other. Smashing the eggs with their powerful hind legs, the
embryonic Crawler-slime splashed their brown noses and quickly crusted
on their fur. Shortly after, they made their way outside, to the
field of victory.
None of them could speak. Thousands of new emotions rippled through
every fiber of muscle in their small young bodies. Their daze was
A large Crawler quickly emerged from the nearby underbrush. It was
a male twice as large as the female. He paused for a split second
surveying the devastation the Five had created. The fight was on and
the Largest Hopper would be the first to die.
Worry and desperation ran an infectious course amongst the
inhabitants of the Thicket. Long Ear went from burrow to burrow
informing the Outland Hoppers of the runaways, and consoling the
families of the Five. A rustling from the south brought two exhausted
blood stained Hoppers out of the underbrush. The Thicket converged
upon them with inquiry. Two relieved Heads of House and three now
more sullen than before huddled close around the two survivors.
“There are only two of you. You were five in number, where are the
others?” the group demanded.
“We got attacked by two Crawlers, a male and a female. Our number
enabled us to kill the female but the male out skilled us. The other
three were crushed, we ran while he was distracted with the last of
the others,” the Story Teller said this as he stood next to his
gullible red streaked comrade.
Long Ear forced himself into the small circle.
“Where is the Crawler now? Were you followed? Stupid young ones, you
killed his mate. His blood lust will blind him to fight to the death
until she is avenged.”
As Long Ear uttered the words a thundering crash came through the
canopy above the Thicket. A Crawler now lay coiled up in a fighting
stance eyeing the bloodied pair of young Hoppers. Long Ear placed
himself between the cluster of Hoppers and the Crawler.
“Get to the shelter of your burrows my Outland Hoppers. Protect the
At his order the Thicket was cleared as Hoppers dashed in all
directions seeking the protection of their fortified burrows. They
all looked on as Long Ear spoke to the Crawler who sat jittering in
“Crawler you have taken three of our young. Surely this is adequate
for your loss. Leave the Thicket in peace, brother of the Garden.”
The Crawler uncoiled like a welled up spring and with jaws wide
lunged at Long Ear. The large greying rabbit’s torso turned to earth
as the Crawler’s nose slammed into the ground. His target moved, and
“Please, let you and I talk this out. There need not be any more
bloodshed,” Long Ear pleaded with the Crawler from his new position
Long Ear was visibly out of breath, the onlooking Hoppers were not
sure if he would be able to dodge another attack. The great muscular
ribs of the Crawler dug into the moist dirt as he drew upon newly
created momentum. Long Ear was already in the air by the time the
Crawler had made the second strike. The great girth of the large
Hopper on his neck made the Crawler summon all his strength just to
stay balanced. Long Ear sank his long dagger teeth into the flesh
behind the Crawler’s head.
Blood sprayed in all directions as the Crawler erratically tossed his
head back and forth. Hissing in pain and writhing in desperate agony
to shake Long Ear off, the Crawler turned over to slam his back
against the ground. It proved to be ineffective and the old Long Ear
stayed firmly affixed until the Crawler moved no more and lay dead in
the middle of the once peaceful Thicket. Long Ear spoke to the
Thicket in a commanding rasping breath.
“Heads of house prepare your families, we must leave the Thicket.”
Long Ear placed his fangs in the familiar holes on the Crawler and
dragged it out of sight.
To act like a man.
By: Norval Joe
The arroyo spread out before him. He shaded his eyes against the mid day sun and scanned the draw below him. Nothing moved in the sage brush.
He was ten years old now, and was acting like a baby. “I’m old enough to ride a horse. I’m old enough to herd the sheep.” He told himself. Since his father died, he was old enough to be the man of the homestead, but still he had cried his eyes out from fear and frustration. He wiped away the salt of the dried tears from his face. There would be no more tears.
He had cried when his father died from the consumption. He had wasted away for a year, getting weaker by the day. They put him in the back of the wagon and took him to the doctor in the county seat but he could do nothing for the emaciated man. The doctor suggested sending Calvin’s father to Denver by train. His dad would have none of it, and insisted that they take him home, and let him die in peace.
He did. Three weeks later, Calvin’s father died in the house that he had built with his own hands.
Calvin was angry now. Someone had taken his sheep, and he was going to get them back. He had to. With out the sheep, they probably wouldn’t last the winter.
He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his kerchief. He returned his hat and walked back to his horse. He stroked the horses neck and patted her shoulder, but didn’t climb into the saddle.
He walked a few paces down the trail to where the tracks of the sheep crossed it, then followed the tracks to the edge of the arroyo, where they ended abruptly.
The prints of their hooves had dug deeply into the sandy soil, indicating that the small flock was running at high speed. “Well, high speed for sheep,” he thought. The hoof prints didn’t indicate that the sheep had slowed in the least as they reached the edge of the narrow valley, as if their intention was to leap clear across, to the other side.
Calvin pondered that perhaps, they had done just that. He expected that a heard of sheep, even a small one, as it dropped fifty feet to the dry riverbed below, would leave some evidence of their sudden stop at the bottom.
Though it was a good distance to the bottom, Calvin’s eye sight was good enough to see that the sand below him was clearly undisturbed. How could bandits or rustlers, or the Apache, have spirited away his sheep, from the edge of the arroyo? Maybe it was the Apache. They had begun stirring up trouble for the settlers again. Cunning as they were, the Apache still weren’t magic, and couldn’t make the sheep disappear into thin air.
He walked back to his horse and mounted. They followed the trail that he sheep had made, back to where they had begun their flight. They had indeed fled. Normally the sheep would travel from place to place in a single slow moving line. The mass of tracks indicated that they had run head long, side by side, in a mass.
He found the place where the sheep had spent the night. There was a grassy area around a spring near a small grove of cottonwood trees. Here there was evidence of the normal relaxed behaviour of the sheep. Patches of the coarse desert grass were cropped close to the soil, areas of sand were smoothed out where the sheep had slept, and hoof prints remained where the sheep had drunk from the small stream.
Water from the spring overflowed its banks and formed a small stream that ran through the grassy area. The stream ended where the water formed a small pool near a large, flat, slab of sandstone.
Calvin sat on his horse and watched the water as a leaf traveled the short distance from the spring to the pool.
His horses ears shot up. She nickered and stomped nervously. “What’s the matter, girl?” Calvin said out loud as he rubbed her neck to calm her.
The horse screamed, went up on her hind legs and spun, all at once. Calvin clung to her neck to keep from being thrown to the ground. She leapt away from the pond as the sandstone slab suddenly lifted from the ground. Calvin looked over his shoulder as the horse bolted away in the same direction that the sheep had run. Horror filled him and he spurred the horse forward.
A creature sprang from an opening under the sandstone slab. Its snakelike head, the size of a buffalo, shot like an arrow across the sagebrush, after Calvin and his mount.
Hot putrid breath blew past the boy and horse aiding them in their flight toward the cliff.
Calvin suddenly understood the sheep’s mysterious disappearance, as a second creature rose up from the arroyo. Its slavering maw gaped open like a tent at a rival meeting torn from top to bottom and blown apart by a giant wind. The creature was beyond the boy imagination and ability to comprehend. Hundreds of rows of hooked teeth undulated toward the center of the mouth, large enough to consume a small herd of buffalo at once.
Calvin knew that, in seconds, he and his horse would be plunging over the edge of the arroyo and into the creatures mouth.
He threw himself from the horse to roll in the sand at the valleys edge. He scrambled to his feet in time to see the creatures jaws snap shut around his horse, and drop below the edge of the cliff. The first creature, that had chased them from the spring was no where to be seen.
Not taking the time to dust himself off, he began the long walk back to the homestead. He gave the meadow of grass, the spring and small pool, a wide birth.
By Jeff HIte
My name is Churchill Westlake III. I have spend my entire life looking for one thing, and one thing only, and now I have heard that there is a man who has found that thing. Now for the first time in my life, I am not looking for it any more, instead I am looking for him. I have been careful over my life to spend the fortune that I inherited when my parents were killed, carefully. But, since I heard of his existence, and I know that my search is coming to an end, I have spend nearly three quarters of what I have left in this final pursuit. I have jumped across the inner solar system, three times in the last month following a path nearly a decade gone cold, only to find that the people had died, or were no longer there. Now in a despreate attempt I am on my way to the inner moons of Jupiter, where I have been told that he was seen a number of years ago. If this fails I may not have the money to get home, and my search may be a complete and total loss.
With that as a backdrop, this trip to the outer planets that would otherwise be very exciting, has had the gauze of worry and weariness wrapped around it. I have spend the last three days with nothing more than a data pad and my small bunk as a companion going over every detail of the last months. The leads that were nothing more than dead ends, the people who had not seen hide nor hair of my quarry since before I was born. The utter disappointment as his trail went completely cold on Earth station four.
I spent three months there waiting on the arrival of someone who had died to years before. When his sister arrived on the station with his ashes, she must have thought I was was a complete loon.
“Ma’am I have come to speak with your brother.” I said standing in the door way of her cabin on the station.
“Who are you?”
“I need to talk to him.”
“My brother is,”
“Ma’am I will not take much of your time, but I really need to talk to him.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I know he does not grant interviews, I am not a reporter, biographer, or anyone else that wants to pester your brother about his life, I have a question about someone he may have meet a few years ago. I just want to know if he knows where he might have gone.”
“You don’t understand he can’t talk to anyone.”
“Please ma’am I have to talk to him, I have spent my whole life looking.”
“I don’t care who you are or what you want you can’t talk to him any more.”
“I wish I could, but.”
“You wish I could, then please grant this to me.”
“He is dead,” she said as she burst into tears right there in the hallway. “He is dead, now please, please just leave me alone.” she stepped back toward the door and I could see the anguish in her face so I did the only thing that I could think of. I reached for her and held her while she cried. It was the first time in years that I had done something for someone else that was not self serving.
When she was done crying we when to the dinning hall and had lunch. I told her what I was looking for, and she let me read from her brother’s journal. He had met the traveler, as I had come to call him, ten years before. At that point the traveler had been planning to go to the Jovian system. And so I was on my way. It is a long shot, details nearly a decade old, but it was the best lead I had found in years.
Marie said that she wanted to come with me, saying that her brother had always wanted to travel the solar system, but had never been able to make it past the moon in life. She has been my companion for the last two months, as we burn our way, scratching and clawing out way out of the Sun’s gravity well toward it’s only rival in the system. I don’t know if she knows or if she does if she understands what it is that I am looking for but I am glad to have her with me. My life has been a lonely one since my parents died, and I have never had any close friends.
This weeks prompt comes from Zach at the Geek survival Guide and is:
“Silver bullets, the real reason that some cowboys carried them.”
Feel free to wander where ever your mind takes you with this one.
All Stories for this prompt are due by Midnight Tuesday July 28th. Email the text of the story and a recording if you would like me to include it in the podcast to greathites at gmail dot com.
good luck. And don’t forget to come out to the site and vote for your Favorite stories this week. Remember to tell all your friends to come out and join in the fun.
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This week We have Stories By:
Arriving At the Airport
Flight 93 is arriving at the airport.
Todd Beamer walks down the jetway, following the signs to the baggage claim with the rest of the passengers.
He checks a monitor to figure out which carousel his bags will be on.
The monitor does not show Flight 93 at all.
“What the hell?” he mutters, and he looks for the Information Desk.
A crowd is building there. The woman at the desk puts down a phone, slowly.
“Holy mother of God,” she whispers, looking down at the television monitor embedded in her desk.
The news crews are only just arriving at the scene of the crash, police harely ahead of them to keep them back from the wreckage.
Todd waves a hand in front of her. “Where are our bags?” he asks.
She cannot speak. Her eyes, wide open, just stare.
Todd looks over the edge of the desk, sees FLIGHT 93 and thinks it has something to do with the bags.
“Where does that say our bags are?” he asks. “What’s going on?”
She blinks her eyes.
The crowd is gone.
She looks at the monitor, then the empty space in front of the Information Desk.
“What just happened?” she asks, but nobody is there to answer her. The police have cleared everyone out of this area since the last flight landed and the passengers took their bags away.
She hears sirens. A dog barking, one of the K9 patrols, sniffing for bombs.
She goes back to staring at the monitor.
By: Norval Joe
A young man, dressed in blue jeans and a long sleeve shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, slumped down in his seat at the airport terminal waiting area. The summer vacation season was in full swing, but he wasn’t on his way to some exotic and exciting destination. He’d had more than his share of exotic and exciting in the last year.
He watched the ebb and flow of humanity as it passed through the airport and felt uncomfortable and edgy in the crowd. All the seats in the waiting are were taken. Families with excited children grouped together in seats or on the floor leaning against the wall. Business people paced around or spoke on cell phones while other seasoned commuters dozed or read magazines.
An automated message played over the speaker system, “All military personnel and their families are invited to relax between flights in the USO, located on the second floor of terminal C”
A girls voice rang out in a clear soprano above persistent murmur, “Look, Mom, there’s Whitney Steers. I wanna be just like her.” She jumped to her feet and pointed at a tall slender woman who was flanked by two large men in dark suits.
“Don’t be stupid, Julie.” A boy, who by his looks and attitude, could only be the girls older brother. “That’s not Whitney Steers. She probably has a private jet. Besides, who would want to be like her, she’s such a loser.”
“Jeremy, don’t be mean.” Julies mother told the older boy.”And don’t call your sister stupid.”
Julie watched the woman disappear into the crowd and started to sing one of the pop stars hits. Dressed in white shorts and pink tank top, she shifted her hips seductively and sang the suggestive lyrics with an accuracy and inflection that could come only through the obsessive familiarity of a true devotee.
Her mother seemed uncomfortable with the amount of attention her daughter was getting, and tried to hush the girl. “Julie, sit down, you’re making too much noise. You’re bothering people. This isn’t the place for that.”
“Yeah, you’re embarrassing me.” Jeremy said and hid his face for emphasis. “Besides, you look more like Rhoda Dakota.”
Julie sat, stuck her tongue at her brother and got out her hand held game.
A large group of men in military uniform ambled past the solemn young man. He noticed that their uniforms lacked decorations other than their names and rifle marksmanship badges. A few had the rank of private. The rest showed no rank at all. He recognized them as recent graduate from basic training. No doubt on they were on their way to their advanced training. He slouched further down into his chair, covered his eyes with his hand and feigned sleep. He was careful to cross his right leg behind his left.
The voice of one of the men in the group broke above the general chatter of the crowd, “It’s an hour before our flight. Lets go get a drink.”
“Chill Wittacker,” another said. “When we get to Fort Sam we can hit the “O” club every night, and the drinks cheaper on post, than you’ll pay in an airport.”
“Chill? You chill, Banks. I can show you chill.” Wittacker was getting agitated and leaned his chest into Banks who only came up to the first mans chin. “You wanna make me chill?”
“Come on,” A third man said, “let’s go wait at our gate. Maybe there will be a bar on the way, and Witt can blow his spending money, if he wants.”
There were murmurs of agreement from within the group and they moved off.
The man in the chair lowered his hand and watched the cluster of servicemen migrate through the airport. His hair was trimmed short at the ears and back of the neck, and tapered to the short cropped hair at the top of his head. If he had fallen in with the crowd that had just left, he could easily have appeared to be one of them.
“What’s the problem soldier?’ A deep, gruff, voice said from the seat next to him. The young man looked to see who addressed him. He was a large man, not fat, but he had obviously been very muscular in his earlier life. He was African American and old enough that the white stubble of what was left of his hair was a sharp contrast to his dark skin.
The highest, or top, ranking non commissioned officer in an army unit, usually a first sergeant or sergeant major was often referred to as Top. The appellation conveys a familiarity, yet the deepest respect. The young man sized the older up, and replied, “I don’t know, Top. I’m retired. It’s not what I expected.”
The older man nodded, and spoke to air in front of himself. “You’re right, there. I spent my last ten years as Sergeant Major in a training battalion. I’ve seen thousands of young men come and go. I can recognize a soldier, and I can also tell when something is getting him down.” He paused and looked at the younger man.
“I’m retired now, too, so I know what you mean,” he said, leaning on his knees. “What’s you name, son?”
“Parker. Matthew Parker. My friends just called me Doc.” He sat up straighter, but kept his knees crossed.
“Medic? Hmmm.” He glanced at Parker. “You said they called you Doc. Your friends don’t call you that anymore?”
“I don’t have that many friends anymore,” Parker said looking away. He coughed and took a deep breath to cover the sudden flare of emotion that threatened to close off his throat. He composed himself and looked back to the Sargent Major. “Did you plan to stay in for so long, you know, and retire, when you first joined?”
“I didn’t join, Parker, I was drafted. Straight from the back woods of Alabama. Eighteen years old, and had never been more than 50 miles from home. I was ready to spend my entire life on that little farm where I was raised. I didn’t know anything else.
“You could imagine how I felt, six months later, finding myself on patrol in the back woods of Viet Nam. Fighting for my life. I had my share of friends that I called Doc, too. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for one of them.”
Parkers felt his face go hot, and his chest tight, “Well, it sounds like he did his job like he was supposed to.” He felt sudden guilt at the vehemence he heard in his own words. “I mean, with all due respect, Top, he must have had to keep a cool head to help someone while under fire.”
The older man laughed a rueful laugh and shook his head, “We walked into a booby trap rigged up with Claymore mines, probably stolen from our own supply bunker. There were no cool heads then. We were all scrambling, and screaming and crying like a bunch of school girls. Everyone, but me, that was. I was in a daze, my head ringing from the blast. I didn’t have any idea that shrapnel had torn through my arm. I was bleeding to death and didn’t know it. Doc held me down and kept pressure over the wound until we could get evacuated.
“I was back in action in just a few weeks, and not a month later, I was holding Doc in my arms, as his life bled away. That first unit showed me what it meant to be a soldier. Those men were my brothers. I would have gladly given my life to save any one of them. I was one of the few, from that group, that actually came home.” He looked at Parker, until he returned the Sargent Major’s gaze. “I guess that’s why I stayed in. To help train other young men, so that they would be prepared for what they would find over there, and be able to come back home, too.”
Though Parker stared blankly at the old man, he did not see him. He saw himself, back in Iraq, riding in a Humvee, joking with the members of his patrol.
“Nice and boring,” Cooper said, “Just the way I like a patrol.”
“Yeah,” Watson said, “but right now I would like to be patrolling the mess hall. What’s the hold up out there?”
“It’s a check point.” Levine snapped. “You know, those places where we stand and hold up other vehicles, and make them wait, when they’re in a hurry? It’s karma. It’s just our turn to wait.”
Our turn, Parker thought.
There was a flash of light and Parker was laying on the dirt road. Everything was silent and his right leg was numb. It wasn’t silent, he realized, his ears were ringing. He began to feel pain in his leg that increased as he thrashed around. As his hearing slowly returned, he began to hear the moans and cries of people thrown down in the blast. He rolled onto his side to find the Humvee. He could only see pieces of twisted metal, scattered bodies and fire. Among the wails and screams of the locals he could hear the members of his patrol, his friends. They were calling for him. “Doc, help me.” “Doc, I can’t see.” “Doc, I don’t wanna die.”
He tried to get up but the nerve endings where his right leg was torn away erupted into new levels of agony. He tried to crawl in the direction of the burning Humvee. “I’m coming,” he shouted, “Hold on, I’m coming.” The overwhelming pain and the loss of blood conspired against him and he passed out.
“I lost them all. Every one of them.” Tears were streaming down Parkers face. “They called me Doc, and I let them down. I let them all die.”
“All I ever wanted to do was serve my country. And when I got to train as a field medic, I thought, shoot, here’s my chance. I could help my buddies at the same time. Top, I failed. I failed my country and my friends.” He wiped his face with his sleeve.
The Sergeant Major looked at the young man for a few minutes, pondering something. Then he said, “Parker, I know it won’t help much right now. But down the road, in a few months, or maybe a few years, remember what this old soldier said. You’re a hero. You were there to do your job, and you wanted to do it. I saw plenty of men in my days, just turn tail and run when their buddies were on the ground crying for help. Just left them there to die. You would have helped them, if you could have. We don’t always get our chance when and how we expect to. You’ll get your chance to help, someday, if you keep looking for it.”
“Final call for boarding of flight 1442 to Birmingham at gate 19. Please have your boarding pass ready and board at this time.” A pleasant voice said over the speaker system.
“That’s me. I’ve got to go.” The Sergeant Major said and stood. Parker got to his feet as well, the right leg of his pants camouflaging the prosthetic leg completely. The older man handed Parker a business card that read, ‘Wilson Garfield, SGM (Ret)’. “If you ever need to talk to someone, give me a call. And I mean anytime. If your ever near Tuscaloosa, look me up. My wife makes veal parmesan, just like they do in the mess hall.” He started to turn, but stopped and looked Parker in the eyes. “You’re a hero son. A hero. Never forget that.”
He watched the Sergeant Major leave through the gate, and said as the door closed behind him, “Thanks Top. If anyone would know a hero, I think you would.”
Standing taller than he had in months, Parker walked to his own gate, with a limp, perceptible only to himself.
Dandelions of Memory
Erica placed the newspaper down on the empty seat beside her. She had already read the same story three times over and, if pressed, could not have provided any details about it. It was a lost cause in these surroundings; she simply could not concentrate. The mix of hundreds of voices all talking at once, of coffee machines hissing and spluttering, of mobile phones ringing and trolleys squeaking, amplified and reverberating around this cavernous white arena, all demanded a little segment of her attention,
The sounds of “Waterloo Sunset” from someone’s mobile ring-tone sent her mind back to her student days and mousey Melina with her exhaustive collection of singles from the 60’s, the room-mate who never wanted to go out, but turned out to be the most outrageous party animal once she eventually ventured through the doors of the union bar.
A smell of bacon triggered another memory, this time of Alex walking out on her, in the middle of breakfast, just last week, the third doomed relationship in as many months. She had been in the middle of cooking bacon rolls and an argument flared up within minutes, over fat content or free-range farms or who knew what. From waking up in a supposedly happy relationship that morning, by lunchtime she was, once again, single and miserable. On the positive side, it had provided her with another reason to say “yes” when she was asked to travel up to Orkney, one more chain of attachment to shed for a month or two,
Since arriving at the airport, Erica had been skipping through her memories like a child in a field of dandelions, plucking them out at random and blowing them gently to release the details before they drifted away in the hazy summer sun. It wasn’t exactly productive, but she was happy to give her brain some time to wind down and sort itself out. Her skills and knowledge would be in great demand over the coming weeks, so a short rest now was probably just what she needed.
The call came for her flight and she joined the queue, which was much shorter than the serpentine lines of holidaymakers bound for the continent or across the Atlantic. As she waited to have her boarding pass checked, her mind threw up an image of this place in five thousand years time, leaving her to wonder what people in the far future would make of whatever was left of the massive building. With the aircraft and their passengers long since reclaimed by nature, what clues would remain to its purpose? Would they have progressed so far beyond mass air transit that they just couldn’t comprehend the idea of people squeezing into tin tubes to travel any distance?
Most likely, she thought, they’ll be left with jewellery that will be tagged with some religious or ritual purpose, CDs and DVDs they’ll have no way of playing and dozens of plastic toys that will gain significance merely by virtue of their inability to decompose. The idea amused her that our civilisation could, in the distant future, be defined in terms of four brightly-coloured deities with different shapes protruding from their heads: the Teletubbian Dynasty.
She smiled at the thought of this as she handed over her boarding card and murmured to herself, “Eh-oh.”