01 Feb Ravager’s Last Stand
“Ravager's Last Stand”Written by Heath Pfaff Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 31 minutes
Promise Valley was nestled in the valley below, tucked in quietly at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. As I eased my horse down the rough trail leading to the settlement, the place looked as serene as could be. It made the missive from my brother seem a farce, but I’d never known Johnny to be flighty. If there was one thing I could say fondly of my brother, it was that he was as steady as the mountains he’d chosen to call home.
I ain’t never called on you before. I know the blood between us is bad, but I need you now. Something or someone is taking people out of their homes in the night. We ain’t been able to catch ‘em. People are scared. We sent out our best trackers, but they didn’t come back. Gene, I’m worried about Callie and the girls, worried I can’t protect ‘em. I never approved of your choice to take lives for a living, but maybe those skills can be turned to real good now.
It had taken the letter ten days to reach me, and then it took me another six to get to the mountains. That was half a month’s time, and I’d come as fast as I could. Johnny was a bully and a fool, but he was my brother, and I wasn’t inclined to let him die. Though if I got to his door and found out he was trying to make a fool of me, I’d probably feed him his own teeth.
He’d wanted to claim a lot of land and make a go of life in the west, but I had been eager to make a name for myself as a man of the law. Fool kid I was, I’d thought that life with a star on my chest would be full of adventure and fond times, but I learned quick enough that lawmen were often only lawmen because they were the strongest bully in town. Honest men existed, of course, but they were fewer than I’d imagined.
I did what any disillusioned boy might have done if they’d already committed themself to learning the skills needed to wear a badge, and took up those skills like a bird takes up flying. I became a bounty hunter. When Johnny heard what I was doing he was furious. It was bad enough I was running around with a gun on my hip, but now I was just a scum-of-the-earth bounty hunter, taking cash for corpses or captures. Thing was, the years between my leaving and my return with a new job had made me bigger than Johnny. He couldn’t bully me anymore, and he wasn’t going to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do.
We got into a fistfight the week before he was set to leave, and I broke his nose and laid him out in front of his new wife. There was another sore point. I’d always liked Callie, but she’d been his age, four years older than me. That meant I was a kid in her eyes, and I certainly hadn’t proved my manliness by taking my brother down. I’d left angry and ashamed.
That was eight years gone, and I hadn’t seen them since. I got a letter when each of his kids was born, and each one told me not to bother visiting. Now there was this.
I’d ridden hard to reach the valley, and I was on my fifth horse. Trading for fresh mounts had cost me a small fortune. Promise Valley was at the base of a rocky hill, buried in amidst a sea of evergreens that stretched forever to the north and south. The ride down into town was worn in a way that told me it had once been heavily tread, but lately not so much. Weeds were creeping in to fill the path.
My horse began to act skittish long before I drew it up at a post on the side of the road. The words “Promise Valley” had been haphazardly painted over, like someone was in a rush. “Dangjer Wherwulfs, sand help” had been painted over the top, clearly by someone who wasn’t proficient in the written word.
My nose picked up a faint smell of rot and I wrinkled my nose. Werewolves were common enough in tales told around campfires. I guessed most people knew what they were, but this was the first time I’d had anyone try to claim they were real. I might have laughed in amusement, but my brother’s note stuck in my mind.
The mount beneath me was growing anxious, trying its damndest to break away, and I found myself hard-pressed to keep my saddle. Finally I dismounted and tied the beast to a tree on the opposite side of the road, though this barely seemed to calm the creature. It wasn’t the first time I’d ridden a skittish beast, but this one seemed a breath away from full panic. Its nostrils flared and eyes rolled.
“Calm, Elsie,” I said, reaching a hand out and putting it on the horse’s neck. She was the steadiest mount they’d had at my last switch, and had proven a stable, steadfast companion so far.
“We’ll be moving on soon. I need to look and see what’s to see.” The mare seemed to calm somewhat at this, the touch and the soft voice helping. I stayed with her a few more seconds, and then crossed the road to the sign. Again, the smell of rot grew stronger the nearer I came to the crude warning.
Clearly someone from town had written this, but what did it really mean? Were they under attack from wolves, or were they under attack from men dressed as wolves? The first seemed unlikely. The town would have huntsmen to keep up with wildlife, even particularly aggressive wildlife. That left us with the possibility that this was some kind of sick joke by men attempting to scare people. I wasn’t sure to what end.
I let my nose guide me out past the sign, into the brush at the side of the road. It wasn’t long before the buzz of flies told me I was approaching my target. I pulled my bandanna up and pushed out through a line of bushes and almost stepped directly into a large pile of offal. I could make out an impressive collection of organs. There was a stomach, intestines, spleen, liver, heart, lungs . . . it was a disgusting pile of slightly mangled insides. My stomach churned, happy I’d had a light breakfast.
It was all human organs. I’d seen enough to recognize the size and shape of them. Besides, there was a can of paint lying next to the mess, a dried brush stuck into the grass nearby. Some animal had come for him after he’d written his little message.
Elsie, my horse, gave a loud scream and I turned around to see her rise up on her rear legs and pull at the rope I’d used to tie her in place.
“Whoa, Elsie!” I called, turning back and heading towards her at a quick but steady pace. The last thing I needed was for her to break her lead and get away. No sooner had this thought brushed across my mind than she reeled back again and let out one of the most terrified sounds I’d ever heard an animal make. The rope holding her to the tree had not been secured with my best effort and it came free, and Elsie took off. I dashed after her, but it only took me a few steps to realize that it was going to be a wasted effort.
“Shit!” I snapped, angry at myself more than at the horse. I should have taken her back a bit, secured her more tightly, been more careful. She had most of my supplies. I had the bullets on my bandolier, the knife at my side, and the guns on my hips. My rifles were gone, along with most of my ammo. Those were good guns, expensive guns. If I was lucky Elsie would run home to where I’d picked her up and I could check for her when I got back there, but I doubted my stuff would still be with her by the time I showed up. No, that gear was far too tempting to sell.
“Shit,” I repeated with a little less venom as the acceptance of what had just happened settled in. I was near town. It would take me another hour maybe to get there, and then I could see about restocking my supplies. At least I kept the majority of my money hidden on my person. With a begrudging sigh I started for Promise Valley again, taking one last look at the warning sign.
I’d have to be careful. Clearly something dangerous was happening here. Something more than men dressed as wolves having a bit of fun. My brother hadn’t been exaggerating, though I doubted the sign was accurate. Werewolves. More likely it was a bear that had taken to hunting men.
The trek the rest of the way to town took me over an hour. I didn’t come across any other corpses or other forms of warning. The first had left me unsettled enough, truth told. I’d spent a lot of time out in the wilderness by myself, and I’d seen some nasty creatures. A rabid wolf attacked me in the night once, and I ran afoul of a mama bear and her cub. Those situations had been scary, but this one had me feeling jumpy.
What kind of animal would disembowel a man like that, and then leave all of that meat behind? I chuckled slightly to myself. A werewolf might.
The town was quiet when I arrived. Mainstreet almost looked abandoned. Houses had their windows shuddered and boarded up, and the stores were closed down, even with the sun still high above. I’d seen a mining town with a similar look once, after the mine turned up a bust and then collapsed, chasing out the last few stragglers. I’d never seen one that looked like this laying in the middle of what seemed to be a lush and fertile valley. They should have had everything they needed to be self-sustaining, and yet the town looked like it was dying.
I was halfway down the main street when two men stepped from a building along the side of the road and came out front. One sat down in a chair and the other walked to the edge of the building’s covered porch. The man who’d sat down had a rifle, and the other wore a sheriff’s badge and had a piece at each hip. This was the local law.
“Sheriff,” I nodded my head to the man with the badge.
“Stranger.” He nodded back stiffly. “You’d do yourself best by turning around and going back the same way you just come from.” It sounded just a little more than a friendly suggestion.
I nodded. “No doubt that’s true, but family called me in, and I’m not leaving until I see them.”
“Family?” the man on the chair asked as though surprised. “What clan are you a part of?”
“I’m Johnny Welling’s brother, Gene,” I explained. I didn’t like this moment we were having. Law men were often paranoid, but this felt like something more. These people were on edge in a way that spoke volumes about the danger that lurked here. They were under attack, but they had no idea where it was coming from. Every stranger was a suspect.
“Wait, are you saying that you’re Eugene Welling? Gene Welling?” The man who’d taken a seat was up now, his rifle forgotten on the small table next to him. “You’re pulling my leg.”
Gene Welling had a reputation.
“No, my time is valuable. I’d prefer not to make trips out to the middle-of-nowhere so I can play jokes on lawmen.” I smiled to take some of the sting out of the words. I’d been in this situation before. How would it play out this time?
“Johnny didn’t do you any favors inviting you here,” the man with the badge said. He eyed the guns on my hips. “We’ve already got a lot of guns here. Two more aren’t going to help anyone.”
“I like to think my winning personality adds some extra value to the iron.” At this point, my smile had fled. This circling of the problem at hand was getting to me. “The sign at the edge of town says you’ve got werewolves.”
“It says what?!” the second man about spat. He looked at the sheriff apologetically. “I told Ferling to put up a warning sign. I didn’t say nothing about no werewolves.”
“That’s where Ferling went?” The sheriff asked the second man. “You sent him to put up a sign, even knowing that nobody comes back?”
Now there was an interesting bit of information.
“It was just to the sign and back!” The second man sounded uncertain now.
The sheriff turned his attention back on me. “Did you see any sign of the man who put up the sign?”
“Sign is about right.” I nodded. “There was a pile of human entrails just off the road. Looked like something had opened him up, but taken the more recognizable parts.”
“Shit.” The sheriff shook his head. “Shit!” he said louder, turning an angry glare on his second.
“Felix, this is on you. You go and tell his wife what you done because it ain’t going to be me this time.” As they spoke I could see the cracks in their facade, the stretching of normality peeling back to let an uncomfortable ugliness spill out. Things were very wrong here.
“Perhaps you could explain what’s happening here. You know who I am. You know what I do. If there is some kind of animal . . .” I started to try and get to the bottom of things, but the Sheriff was like a storm when he turned on me.
“An animal?! Is that what you think? You think we’re just a bunch of imbeciles who can’t take care of a rabid bear?” He stepped in my direction, and his hand dropped the slightest bit towards his belt.
My flesh went cold, and the moment went still. My hands knew the path and they walked it with familiarity. Reach, draw and prime, fire. It happened in a hundredth of the space of breath, and the sheriff didn’t know he’d lost a piece of his gun until his hand touched down on the smoldering handle of his piece and jumped away from the burn. The cold left me and I stood stock still, the gun in my hand smoking, as steady as mountain rock.
It had always been like that for me. The act of shooting was an instinctive reflex, a spasm of action that could be neither stopped nor slowed. The only thing that kept it from being a curse was that I had never once shot the wrong target. Not once. I only hit what I needed to hit.
The sheriff was clasping his burnt hand with the other, looking at me like I was the demon that was killing his people.
“Holy shit, them stories have more truth to ‘em that I’d have believed,” the second man, Felix, said.
“I didn’t mean any offense, Sheriff, but don’t you ever try and draw on me. I don’t mean no harm here. I want to help, but you can bet that I’ll separate your spirit from your body if you make me. Now, can we be civil and discuss what’s happening here?” I still had my gun pointed at the man. My arm held straight and unmoving with no effort. I could stand that way for hours if I needed to. This was his game now. The sheriff would make the next move, and that would decide who lived and who died.
“Gray, it ain’t worth fighting about. Maybe he’s exactly what we need…a professional killer. We’ve lost too many already. Too many.” There was pain in Felix’s words.
The sheriff sighed and opened his hands. “I shouldn’t’a drawn on you like that.” I wasn’t going to correct the fact that he hadn’t actually made the draw. “Things are bad here. Your brother was right. I’ve been trying to keep people safe, but fuck, last week I was the deputy, and two weeks before that I was just minding my own damn business and cutting down trees and helping folks build their homesteads. Now look!” He gestured at the street as though I should see something, but there was nothing to see. Not a soul stood by, even though I’d just fired my gun.
“If it ain’t an animal, then what is it?” I asked, uncocking my weapon and returning it to its holster in a single smooth motion.
The sheriff shook his head. “I don’t know. We’ve never seen it, not really. I’ve talked to people who claim to have seen it, but none of them describe the same thing. We only know a few things for certain. It only seems to attack us at night, but it won’t let anyone out, not once you’re here. For a time we got messages out, but then we started getting pieces of the messengers back, delivered to the people that sent the messages. I’m surprised your brother reached you. It must have been just before we were cut off.”
“How many people have been killed so far?” I asked, filing all of this information away. Was this some kind of bandit group pretending to be monsters? What the hell benefit was there to that?
“Forty-three… er, forty-four with Ferling.” Gray was shaking his head. “Gods, his wife is . . . they already lost their son a few weeks back. This will kill her.”
“Forty-four?” I asked, shocked at the number. “How many people live here?”
“There were three-hundred-ten of us at the start,” Felix replied. “We’ve had three good births, so that makes… er… well, it makes too damn many dead.”
“Two hundred sixty-nine,” Gray said. “We were ready to lose a few people over the winter – them’s always lean months, but this . . . this is a nightmare. Every night we lose more.”
I nodded. “Alright, I’m going to go and see my brother. Which way is his stead?”
“It’s about a mile down the road, just past the schoolhouse,” the sheriff told me, and I moved on, reloading my weapons as I went.
It didn’t take me long to reach my brother’s home. The roads were clear, and the only sign that anyone was alive along the way was the occasional trail of smoke coming from a chimney, or the hastily pulled back curtain of a window. These were scared people, and if what I’d heard so far was true – and I had no reason to doubt that – there was a good reason for that. Still, there was no such thing as “unkillable” and it was time for this particular menace to learn that.
I knocked on my brother’s door, and for good measure, I called out as well. “John, it’s your brother, Gene. I’ve come to help.”
I heard voices inside, and then a moment later bootfalls approached the door. My eyes traced the path of the moving man as I calculated the thickness of the door and the trajectory of the bullet path I’d need to hit whoever was beyond that door. It wasn’t something I did because I was worried that there was a threat beyond my brother’s threshold, but because it was something that my mind just did.
“Gene, that really you?” The voice on the other side of the door was John’s, though it sounded rougher than it had last time I’d heard it. Country life wasn’t agreeing with him. It didn’t seem to be agreeing with any of the folk of Promise Valley.
“Yeah, it’s really me. I talked to the Sheriff and his deputy…” I started, but John cut me off.
“You mean the lumberjack and the drunk?” John sounded irritated, and I could tell without asking that he blamed the current situation partly on the lawmen.
“The same,” I answered. “John, if you don’t let me in I’m going to leave. I’ve got better things to do than stand out in the sun and yell at people through their door. It’s been a long ride, and I could use some food and drink.”
There was a hesitation, but finally the door opened and there stood my brother. He’d lost weight since I’d last seen him, and his face was gaunt. His eyes were sunken and he looked the kind of tired that normally only settled onto the very old.
“John, you look like you fell off the damned mountain.” I wasn’t really one for holding my opinions.
John just nodded and then opened the door wider so I could come in. I stepped inside to see the grim faces of Callie and my three nieces. They all looked at me like I might be the reaper come to claim them. I nodded my head. I hadn’t taken to wearing a hat but I ticked the air with a finger just the same.
Callie was still beautiful, but she was worn too, I could see the fatigue in her. Even the three girls huddled up by the woman they looked so much like seemed tired. Sleep probably wasn’t coming easy with death coming in the night.
“Eugine, it’s good to see you,” Callie said this in a way that made me realize she wasn’t that happy to see me. Fair enough.
The door shut behind us, and then John carefully dropped a large locking beam in place across it. “So you’ve heard what’s happening?” he asked.
I nodded. “Parts of it. I have questions, of course.”
“Callie, can you fetch us some biscuits and some water?” John asked his wife, who nodded and ducked off to do as she was bidden. The youngest girl ran off clinging to her mother’s skirts. She had to be three or four. The other two girls, about six and eight I’d guess, they stayed, hovering in the background to see what was to be said.
We sat down at a couple chairs near the hearth.
“It’s some kind of monster, Gene,” John spoke plainly, which surprised me.
“Someone said it was a werewolf.” I tossed that bit out there, figuring I might as well humor my brother’s madness.
“No, not a werewolf, something worse.” He looked at the girls, then back at me. “You should meet your nieces.”
“Oh, no, John, I don’t think that’s necessary . . .” I started to say, but he called the girls over anyway. “This is Carol.” He pointed at the elder who came up and curtsied in her sleeping skirts. “. . . and this is Moira.” He gestured at the middle girl. She came forward too, but she didn’t curtsy. Her eyes had a somewhat uncanny wideness to them, like she was seeing everything all at once. It was a familiar look. I’d seen it in the mirror enough times, and I remembered gramps having it as well.
Moira looked at the guns on my hips. “Are you a bandit?” she asked.
“Moira!” John snapped. “This is your Uncle Gene. He’s a… well, he’s kind of like a lawman. He helps bring criminals to justice.”
“Uncle?” Carol sounded surprised. “You never said we had an uncle!”
I smiled and shrugged. “I’m sure your Pa has been busy. He probably just forgot about me since it has been so long since we last talked.”
“That’s not right. You don’t forget about family!” Carol stated with a stamp of her small foot.
John’s expression darkened some. “Do you want a whuppin, girl?” he threatened.
This cowed Carol, who shrank back and shook her head “no” vehemently.
“Then take your sister and git!” The two girls ran off into the back of the house about the same time Callie returned with the biscuits and water.
My third niece’s name was Heather, and soon enough she was sent away to play with the other girls, and then it was just the three of us adults.
“Why didn’t you all try to leave together?” I asked after we’d talked for a while. “There is strength in numbers. It doesn’t matter what kind of creature is out there.”
“We tried,” Callie said. “We tried convincing the others that we should all leave together, the same way most of us came, but some don’t want to leave. There are people who think this is going to just end, that if they last it out they’ll be stronger for it, and it’s not just a few people, Gene. If we gathered everyone tonight and had them show hands, I don’t think we’d have the majority wanting to leave. This is home. Leaving here now means leaving everything. We won’t even have the carts we came with.”
“You’d have your lives,” I pointed out.
“I agree,” Callie said pointedly. “John agrees.” She looked over at her husband, and he nodded, but didn’t meet her eyes. Did John agree, or was he just going along with what his wife wanted? “But if only a third of us want to leave, then we have much less strength in those numbers, and some of the people who would stay behind are also those with the most guns. I don’t want to go out there without guns.”
“You don’t need anything more than a hunting rifle, Callie,” John said quickly. “It’ll make things dead just as well as a set of irons, and without being a tool of those who are damned.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Alright, so you’re not all going to leave at once. I need to speak to someone who has seen this thing, and I need to see the places where it has taken others. If I’m going to kill it, then I need to understand what it is.”
“Johnny’s seen it,” Callie said quickly, and this surprised me. I turned to my brother. “You’ve seen this thing? Why didn’t you tell me that right off?”
John’s frown grew so deep I thought it might crease his skull beneath his features.
“No one believes what he saw. He’s tried to tell people, but they think he’s insane, or at the very least that he imagined things.” Callie looked me dead in the eye. “We both know that Johnny doesn’t imagine things. He is steadfast, and he doesn’t exaggerate. I believe him.”
I nodded. She was right. He said only what he knew to be real, or at least believed to be real, and that was a very narrow band for him.
“What was it?” I asked him.
“It wasn’t of this place,” he spoke quietly. “You know how you can look at a fish and you know that it doesn’t belong on land? This thing is like that. You see it, and you know it doesn’t belong here, not with us. I don’t know where it came from, but it shouldn’t be here. I was out in the back field, putting out feed for the cattle for the night, and I saw our neighbor, Doctor Blair, walking up the lane towards his house. I didn’t think anything of it at first, because the Doctor travels for his work, but something about my memory of him seemed wrong, so I put down my work and took a few steps in his direction.”
My brother looked to his wife, then back to me. “It had him in its jaws and was eating him, Gene. He wasn’t walking up the lane, this thing had bitten into him and was walking up the road with Doctor Blair just hanging out of its mouth. It looked like another man walking upside down on its hands and legs, but the chest and stomach were a mouth, a huge mouth. Doctor Blair was rising up from it, held in place by this dark, bloated tongue that was thicker around than my arm. I… I hid. I jumped behind a tree and sat there shaking like a baby as it went by. I could hear it crunching into him, and it was talking to itself too, like in a couple different quiet voices. They sounded like regular words, but I couldn’t understand what it was saying. I stayed behind the tree until it was definitely gone, but I stayed longer too.”
“I found him still hiding behind the tree,” Callie said to me. “After he told me what he saw, that’s when I told him to write you. I don’t know what that thing is out there, but it’s not something we can deal with.”
“What time did you see it?” I asked, remembering that the “sheriff” had said it only came out at night.
“It was dusk, about a half an hour before full dark.” John wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were staring off into nothingness, and I knew he was reliving that memory.
“Sheriff says they only attack at night.” I tossed it out to see what John would say.
“That’s because we only find the bodies in the morning. Same with the doctor. The morning after I saw that thing out on the road, we found the Doc and the rest of his family dead in their house.” My brother’s jaw tightened. “I can’t be blamed for that. I had no way of knowing it was headed for his house, or that it was going to attack his family.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t accusing you of anything.”
“No, but you were thinking it.” He glared at me, but the truth was I hadn’t thought of it until he said something. Perhaps sending a warning would have helped the doctor’s family, but it might have also resulted in more people dying. Besides, people did strange things when they were terrified. If anything, my brother’s reaction just made his story more real for me.
“The only thing I’m thinking about, is how we’re going to deal with whatever this thing is.” I didn’t bother to look in his direction, there was no point in offering what he might see as a challenge. I wasn’t afraid of my brother, but I also had no desire to beat him down in front of his family again. “Are there any other witnesses that you know of?”
“No, none that I know of,” he answered, but I could see Callie stiffen, as if something was going unsaid.
“Anything else I should know about?” I asked, and this time I looked at my brother who quickly turned his head away.
“Nothing else that will help you hunt this thing down and kill it.” His words lacked conviction, but I also sensed that pressing this wasn’t going to get me anywhere, not with my brother. I’d have to talk to Callie later.
“Any thoughts on what this thing was? Someone called it a werewolf. Doesn’t sound like one of those.” I offered an exit from the clear lies that John had been presenting.
“I don’t think it’s anything we’ve ever heard of,” John answered. “I don’t even think there is folklore that describes anything like it.”
“Alright,” I said, standing up and heading for the door.
“Where are you going?” John and Callie asked at almost the exact same time.
“I’m going out to find this thing and kill it. That’s why you sent me the letter, right?” I looked between my brother and sister-in-law. Callie met my eyes, but John wouldn’t again. “Am I wrong?”
“You’re wrong,” Callie said. “We want you to get us out of here.”
“I thought people died if they tried to leave?” I raised an eyebrow.
“That’s why we wanted you here,” Callie spoke again.
“We just need your guns. That’s it. Just help us get out of here with the kids.” John sounded angry. He didn’t like asking me for help, clearly. He really didn’t like Callie asking me for help. I was past pining over Callie. She’d made her choice long ago. John had nothing to worry about.
“So you’ll just leave everyone else here to die?” I asked the obvious question. “You don’t care what happens to your neighbors?”
“I can’t think of my neighbors when I have my family to worry about, Gene. You’d understand that if you had your priorities straight.” John’s words were bitter in a way I didn’t care for.
“Fine, you want me to take your family out of here, that’s fine. We’ll leave you neighbors here to die, but I’m not going to be the only one to carry a gun.” I pulled my second piece from my holster and spun its handle out towards John. He stared at it as if I’d just offered him a handful of molten iron.
“I don’t believe in…” he started, but I didn’t let him finish.
“You don’t believe in protecting your family? I can’t watch every direction at once, John. I will do what I can, but I want a second set of eyes with a gun. Come on. Let’s go out into the yard and I’ll teach you how to shoot.” I gave the Ravager a solid shake, indicating he should take the silver burl wood handle I was offering. The .50 caliber cartridges were handmade by me. I had a pair of Equalizers back on my now missing horse, and those with hundreds of cartridges. Unfortunately, that was gone.
I was doing math. I had 44 rounds left in my bandolier, and each gun held five rounds. If I spared five rounds to get him used to firing the gun, I’d only have 49 rounds left. That didn’t feel like enough, but then I never traveled with less than a few hundred rounds. The hardest job I’d taken had cost me seventy rounds, but that had been a very long day. Most problems were solved by a single .50 caliber round, particularly from my rifled revolvers. There was a reason I called the guns Ravagers. Colt made some beautiful pieces, but the Ravagers were horrifyingly powerful. I’d forged them myself, put every screw and spring into place, balancing the action so that it was exactly what I wanted. Even the recoil was managed by a coil-packed hinge at the point between the body of the weapon and the handle.
It still kicked like a horse, but I could fire my entire bandolier before I had to dip my wrists in the nearest stream to ease the ache.
John finally took the gun from me, but he didn’t look happy.
“Are you going to shoot the gun, dad?” A small voice came from one side of the room, and I looked up to see John’s kids hiding in the doorway. Moira had spoken. I wondered how much they’d listened to.
John looked up at the kids, a slow anger rising in him.
“Yeah, he is. Do you want to watch?” I asked. Carol and Heather shook their heads no and retreated from the room, but Moira’s grin brightened and she nodded yes. “Alright, then you can come with us, but you have to stay back, close to the house.”
John shot me a withering look that bounced off my easily returned smile. “Kids like things that are new. Besides, it doesn’t hurt her to gain some faith in her father’s ability to protect her, right?”
John’s fists clenched and unclenched, but he nodded. “Yeah, she should know who is really going to protect her.”
I let the implied insult slide away and a few moments later we were out behind the house. I set up a few targets to shoot at, bits of wood and bark I propped up at different locations. Moira stayed near the entryway to the house, and we were only a few feet. I kept an eye on her at all times. Outside was dangerous. I could sense that.
I began to teach my brother to shoot, aggressively restructuring his stance. “Two hands on the gun. You’re not a gunslinger. You’re a man protecting his family, and we have very little ammo. That means every shot you take matters. It’s better to be slow and accurate than fast and dead. Hitting anything with one of these bullets is going to slow it down.” I refused to let him shoot until his form was as close to perfect as I could make it.
When he finally did shoot, the first attempt was awful. His hands shook, and the kick from the hand cannon nearly caused him to hit himself in the face. I could tell he’d loosened his grip as he was firing. I corrected him and made him shoot again. And again. And again. Seven shots. It took seven shots to land a hit, and then another ten before he was hitting consistently, and then I had to call it. I couldn’t waste more ammo like this.
“That’ll have to do,” I said finally.
“Shooting isn’t that hard,” John announced, and I stifled the desire to cut him down verbally. That didn’t benefit us.
“Is that all you’re going to do?” Moira asked from the porch, and I shot her a smile.
“Yeah, that’s it for today. We’ll save the rest of the bullets for the bad guys,” I told her, and this seemed to get her excited. As we walked into the house she asked about a thousand questions about guns, and my work, and how many “bad guys” I’d killed. I kept my answers as bland as possible.
The sun was getting low in the sky, the shadows cast long from the trees to which they were rooted. It would be night soon.
“John, we should all pack into one room tonight, board up the windows and seal the door. Our shooting might have brought unwanted attention, but we can’t leave tonight. We’ll go first thing in the morning, if that’s still what you want to do,” I spoke quietly to my brother while we grabbed some water in the kitchen.
John’s expression softened some, and I could see the stress weighing on him, the fear that tugged at every part of his face. He looked so much older in that moment. “I have to think about them first. It’s just the way it is.” He told me, and I nodded.
“I came here for you, because you’re family, so I understand what blood means. We’ll leave at first light tomorrow,” I told him, and with that our plans were set.
We gathered the family and packed everyone into the larger of the two back rooms. After that we set to work on sealing things up. We put a table over the window and hammered it into place with nails, and then we stacked furniture against the door.
“You think this is all necessary?” Callie asked.
“Frankly I’m shocked that y’all haven’t been doing this every night,” I told her honestly.
Callie shrugged her shoulders. “You’d be surprised what becomes almost mundane after a time.” She looked over at John who was on the other side of the room putting the girls down to sleep, and then her eyes came back to mine.
She started to speak quickly. “Gene, that thing out there, John saw it a second time. It came after him one night in town. He got away, but…”
“You should get some sleep too, Callie.” John’s voice broke off what she was telling me.
“I was just telling John that you had a rifle for hunting, but we ran out of ammo a few weeks ago,” Callie lied, and I wondered why. What were they not telling me?
“It’s a shame. That would have been helpful,” I told John, which was true enough. I’d have trusted him more with a rifle than with a Ravager.
“Well, we needed the food. It wasn’t an option not to use it.” John seemed to buy this explanation for what we were talking about.
“I’m guessing there are no supplies to be had in town?” I asked.
John shook his head. “People hit the stores a few weeks back, wiped out the supplies. I wouldn’t try to get anything from our neighbors either. They might have been good people before all of this, but everyone is just trying to survive now, and they’ll shoot you as soon as help you.”
“That’s fine. The less attention we gather as we try to get out of here, the better…” My words dropped off as a scraping sound came from outside. Everything in the room fell quiet and still.
No one moved. No one spoke. Had it just been something blowing by the house? There was some wind that night, though I hadn’t heard a breeze at the same time as the sound.
John opened his mouth, but shut it again as the sound of glass shattering came from the front of the house.
Heather let out a scream, and Carol grabbed her and put a hand over her mouth, the young girl’s eyes wide and terrified. Moira, strangely, was relatively calm. She sat still and quiet, maybe too afraid to act, or perhaps she just didn’t understand how dangerous the situation was.
Something plowed through into the main room of the house, hitting the floor with a heavy “thunk” that seemed to shake the building. In my mind’s eye, I could see a shape through the blocked door of the room, a blob of presence where I had determined the presence on the other side of the house must be based upon the sounds it was making. A moment later it hit the bedroom door. The wood creaked loudly and the entire wall shook with the impact.
Time shrank away from me and I drew the Ravager on my right hip and fired two shots in quick succession. The noise of the shots in the small room caused my ears to ring and silenced the thud of the shots ripping through the door and into the thing beyond, but the scream of the beast that followed managed to cut through the ringing in my head. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was full of rage and pain, strangely intelligent and also bestial.
The next impact on the door splintered the door, sending fragments of shattered wood cascading into the bedroom. I fired my gun twice more, wincing at the loudness, but unwilling to stop firing while that thing was still out there. This time the bullets seemed to illicit a more successful reaction. The thing beyond the door turned and moved away, stalking back into the house.
It was still out there. I could hear it moving around, knocking things over. The fact that it was still moving was shocking. I reloaded my gun, my eyes locked on the massive holes in the door. I’d seen the thing for a few brief moments, or I thought I had. I wasn’t sure what it was. I’d seen human skin, fur, and I’d seen the white of bone. It bled black. Tar-like ooze leaked down the door.
For the next twenty minutes I listened as the thing moved around the house beyond the door, and then there was a crunch of glass, and a few moments later it was gone. Everything was silent. Heather’s crying brought me back to the people with me.
“We’ll keep watch for the night, though it’s not like I would have missed that attack,” I noted with a voice that was dry.
“Is it dead?” Callie asked.
I shook my head. “No, it should be, but it’s still alive. It did something out in the house, and then it left on its own. I think I hurt it, but I don’t think I hurt it seriously.” That was an alarming thought. Living things didn’t just shrug off 50 caliber rounds. A single Ravager round could blow a hole the size of a man’s fist in a tree.
“Hopefully we deterred it for the night. We need to get any rest we can. We’ll get out of here at first light,” I reiterated the plan. It was all I could offer the family for the moment. “I’ll take the first watch.” There wasn’t much of a chance that I was going to sleep again that night.
To my immense relief, the rest of the night was silent. By the time the sun was up, so were John, Callie and the girls. We moved back out into the rest of the house with caution. The monster, whatever it had been, had destroyed everything. No piece of furniture stood unmarred, no wall was left untorn. Black blood spattered the walls and floor, but one wall caught my eye quickly enough. There were words written on it, though not all of them were in any form of writing I knew.
“He sees you.” The words were precisely written, and beneath all of the writing on the wall was some kind of sigil, a great spiral with a diamond-shaped point at its outer edge. At the center, it was just a void of black.
“It can write,” John said quietly. “What the hell is it?” My brother was looking rougher this morning, pale and clammy, sweat on his brow. He looked sick.
I shook my head and shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever it is, I don’t want to fight it again. Let’s get out of here.” I’d have to get him to a doctor once we hit the next town.
We took just enough time to gather a few things, and then we left John’s home. There was no looking back as we made our way down the street of town. The “sheriff” and his deputy watched us go by without saying a single thing. They looked grim though, looked like men watching us march to our deaths. For my part, I was hoping that the damage we’d wrought the night before would be enough to slow the creature down at least a bit. Hopefully it wouldn’t come for us at all. Still, I’d given my brother my backup piece, and we were keeping a careful watch on our flanks as we moved out of town along the main road.
As the town began to fade from view behind us, my tension began to rise. How far could we go before the thing from town caught up to us, if it was going to?
“I’m tired.” Heather’s voice nearly made me jump.
I turned quickly and put a finger over my lips. I got an angry look in return, but I could take the anger of a little girl if it meant that she’d shut up and we might not be killed.
“How far do we have to walk?” Carol asked, as if she hadn’t just seen me silence her sister.
“Quiet!” I snapped in a harsh whisper. “Unless you want to be eaten by the thing that broke into the house last night.”
Carol flinched away from me like I’d just smacked her, and Callie went and comforted her daughter, shooting me an angry look in the process. “They are children. You can’t talk to them like that.”
I was of half a mind to draw on the woman, but I realized this would only make her talk more, so I held my tongue and kept marching. My warning seemed to be keeping the girls quiet at any rate. We walked for another ten minutes before I felt a small pull on my sleeve. I turned and looked down to see Moira next to me.
“They’re here, in the woods,” she whispered, and she pointed out at the trees to our left. A chill ran down my back, and I almost chided her for fibbing, but then I saw the faintest motion moving through the branches. “They.”
I drew my gun and held it out so John could see, hoping he’d do the same. I reached down with my unused hand and rubbed Moira’s head. “Stay close. Don’t get separated from the rest of us.” I told her very softly. There was going to be a gunfight. I had 33 bullets left, but five of them were in the gun I’d given John, and I’d given him an extra five bullets. That left me 23 rounds, five in the cylinder, 18 beyond that. Three reloads, and then three more bullets. My head ran the numbers automatically, the inventory of ammo just a background process in my thoughts.
We kept walking, but now I was keenly aware that there were several things moving through the woods around us, almost silently. How Moira had noticed I had no idea. She was an observant kid. I was impressed.
Fast motion from my left caused me to point and fire. It was like a spike of cold struck me on that side, and my body moved of its own accord. Even with the mechanical compensators built into the gun the rapid-fire shots rung through my entire arm. The thing I hit looked something like a man, but cut into quarters from the top of its head, and the four separate pieces moved of their own accord, opening like four spiked arms without bones, each clawing at the air like they wanted to drag something into what I assumed was its mouth.
The shots I fired tore through what would have torn through the head and chest of a man, blowing off large pieces of flesh, but this new monstrous configuration had no important organs where I hit it. It didn’t even slow its charge. I recalculated my next shots, aiming lower in the body, in the area that should have been the stomach.
I fired once, and this time the creature tumbled to the ground, so I shot it near the same place again. It was still moving, but this seemed to hurt it. I fired again, fifth round, I started to reload automatically. This final round stopped the creature. It slumped to the ground and let out a shuddering, awful squeal as it seemed to die.
A scream from behind me had me turning as I closed the cylinder on my gun. Eighteen rounds. One of the things had grabbed Callie and was pulling her off towards the tree line. It had used one of its tentacle-head pieces to grab her arm and was drawing it into its center as she screamed. There was a terrible crunch and Callie’s arm tore free, but the creature didn’t let her go. Another piece of it lashed out and grabbed her head. I fired, three shots in quick succession.
Even as the first two knocked the creature away, it didn’t stop chewing on my brother’s wife. It tore the flesh from her head, ripping it away like a hunter rips away a rabbit’s skin. She gurgled on her own blood as the third bullet stilled the monster far too late. I considered firing the fourth round into her skull, but it was a waste of ammo. I needed the bullets to save everyone else.
Behind me I heard three shots followed by Jon cursing. “Carol, no!” I turned and fired my fifth bullet as my fingers danced to reload the cylinders again. Thirteen rounds.
“The stomach, aim of the stomach!” I yelled, firing as soon as I could manage, but Carol was gone, and John – who had fired twice more – was now trying to reload as he held on to Moira and Heather. I closed the distance to them, killing another creature as it tumbled from the forest in our direction. They moved in an ungainly way, as though they didn’t like how thick our air was and had to swim through it.
I fired again and again. Eight rounds. They just kept coming. One got too close and I had to pull my knife and fend it off with one hand as I closed the cylinder and brought my gun up again. I fired point-blank into its guts and the thing went down immediately, black blood spattering across my face.
Fire, fire, fire, turn, fire, reload. Three rounds. Three damn rounds.
Heather screamed, and I turned just in time to see my brother’s head rip open as though split by an ax. I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first, but then I realized that my brother was turning into one of those things. I didn’t know why. I could only guess, but I was so stunned that he had Heather halfway in his gullet before I thought to shoot and kill him.
For perhaps the first time in my life my hands shook as I held my gun, pulling the trigger and unloading into my brother. I pulled the trigger again and the chamber clicked. Had I fired five times? How? No, I’d only had three left. My brother was down, but there was still one coming. I turned as it stomped up behind me, drawing my knife and holding it up like it might actually help.
A gun cracked the air, two short shots, spaced a second apart, and the monster collapsed in front of me. I was shocked. I stood dumbfounded for a second, and then turned around behind me. Moira was on the ground, the barrel of my spare Ravager resting on her dead father’s leg, smoke still rising from the barrel. Tears stained her face, and her eyes were wide in terror. I looked back at the monster. Both shots had struck the vital mass.
I turned back and walked over to the girl, picking her up and taking the gun from her.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
She shook her head “no.”
“Me neither,” I told her. “You did good.”
She nodded once.
“Let’s go,” I said, and together we left Promise Valley.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Heath PfaffPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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