We rode out just as the sun peaked above the horizon. Scarfed down eggs and biscuits, followed by coffee as the first few rays of light began to show through the window. We said goodbye to our ma and pa and then we left. My older brother Bud and I are leaving our home in the beautiful foothills of Tennessee for the famed women, whiskey, and gold of the West. We’re riding north to Missouri and then to pick up the trail heading out to Santa Fe.
“Hey bud, slow up there. I don’t want to tire already” I call.
“Well then don’t tire. We got a few hours until lunch, then we can stop and give the horses a rest, and then go on. That oughta set a good pace.”
“I hope so. I don’t wanna be stuck going across the plains during summer.”
“Relax. It’s still April. Hell, there’s still snow up on Rocky Top.”
We camp in the evening in a small clearing near a stream. We let the horses water and graze while we start a fire and eat our first dinner on the trail. The birds sing us a relaxing serenade as the sun sets and light begins to fade.
“That wasn’t too bad, Bud” I say.
“That was only the first day. We’re still excited. Give it two weeks and we’re not gonna want to get back in the saddle.”
“It’s starting to get a little chilly, huh?”
“Yeah it was real nice there til the sun disappeared behind those trees.”
In the waning light, my eyes catch something just in the woodline. I turn and barely catch a glimpse of antlers retreating back into forests.
“Huh…most deer should have shed by now, yeah?” I ask.
“Yeah should’ve. Why?”
“I just saw one that still had his crown. Man I’d wanna be the soul that finds those sheds come summer.”
“You wanna stay here and wait until they fall off?”
“No. I’m just saying.”
“Alright. We’ll find some more, don’t worry.”
The sun rises and we get up. Make coffee, break our fast, and set off. Lunch, nap, camp, rest. The cycle repeats and the days begin to blend together. In a couple of weeks, we find ourselves in Missouri. Luckily the weather has been in our favor, but the hills lessen and the land begins to open to us. We can see storms moving across the plains, some of which stand in our way.
The rain hits and it doesn’t let up. We ride on until we eventually find a rock outcropping in which we can take shelter. Lightning shoots across the sky and thunder brings it crashing down.
“Horses don’t like this.”
“Bud, I don’t like this.”
“Hope this lets up soon. It’s a hell of a storm. We can’t get nowhere in this.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“At least we got this. Small as it is, it’s some shelter. At least from the wind.”
“I’m gonna try to make a fire.”
“You go ahead and try.”
I look back towards the fading sun as the sky flashes once more and see a misshapen form lurking on the horizon. It lifts its head as if it is calling, and the thunder crashes. A cold breeze gusts, and I get a strange feeling that I’ve seen it before. But when lightning strikes again, the horizon is clear and I feel a sudden chill.
After a few days, the rain finally relents and we are able to carry on. We ride through the thick springtime mud left from the storms. The warm sun pokes through the clouds, landing on our skin and refreshing us. As we look to stop for lunch, we find an old trail just off the road and take it, leading us to the edge of a small hayfield. We dismount and give the horses some feed before we lay down to rest ourselves.
“This is much better” I say.
“I was starting to forget just what sunshine looked like.”
“I hope we’re through the worst of it. I don’t know if I can do that again.”
“Let’s just relax and enjoy this while we can.”
“Yeah. Anyway I gotta take a leak” I say as I stand and walk into the woods. I unbuckle my pants to do my business and hear a few raindrops on the brim of my hat. I look up in curiosity and am horrified by the sight that greets me.
“Bud get over here now!” I shout. Mutilated arms, legs, and a headless torso hang upside down from the branches above me. Rain water drips pale red from the exposed intestines. The chest cavity is strewn apart, ribs ripped open and the lungs gone.
“I didn’t even see the blood on the ground I don’t understand how I missed that I don’t know how I didn’t see this how I could just I” I stammer.
“Hey hey calm down. It’s okay. We’re fine. We’re alright. Look. It just rained. It probably all washed away. Whoever this was has been dead for sometime. A long time likely”
“Who would do this?! Why would they do this?!”
“I don’t think it was an animal. Some nut is my best guess. Local gang marking territory maybe?”
“We found it by accident.”
“Well for fun then. I don’t know. If you want to play investigator, be my guest but we should get out of here.”
“What if the people that —”
“We’ll be fine. Let’s just go.”
We put that field far behind us and ride into the night to make it to the next town, and do the same the following day. After warm baths and two beds, when we set off the next morning, the riding starts to put us at ease. The rhythmic walking of the horses. The wind brushing through the swaying grass. Deer and buffalo lumbering across the prairie, paying us no mind. A scarlet sunset replaced by a starry night that melts into the dull light of another sleepy town. Another full belly and a restful sleep. We soon arrive and make a stop at the Army’s Fort Riley for supplies before we continue on.
“I thought they said Kansas was flat.”
“Give it a few days, bud, and you’ll be missing the hills. It will all be flat and there won’t be nowhere to hide.”
“From the wind?”
The night before we depart the army post, we make a stop at the local watering hole for a good night.
“You boys don’t look local” the bartender states as he pours our liquor.
“We’re just passing through on our way out west” replies Bud.
“I see. Well. Have one on the house.”
“Why thank you sir. Have one yourself” I say as I pass a dollar across the bar.
“Now thank you.”
He leans in and lowers his voice, whispering
“Lemme give you boys some warning. Stick to the roads and be wary of strangers. They’re only rumors, but there’s talk of camps attacked and destroyed in the night. And even cannibalism.”
“Cannibalism?” repeats Bud.
“That’s the word. Could just be Indians. Could just be gangs. and the dead picked apart by animals. But the way the wind blows across the prairie…sometimes it shrieks. It’s just strange.”
“Well. We’ll be okay. We can handle ourselves alright.”
“Of course. Just spreading the word. You be careful now.”
“Always. One more round please.”
We throw back our last shots and head back to our rented room. We settle into bed, but despite the liquor I have trouble falling asleep. The wind picked up on our walk back and now I can hear it howling across the plains, almost as a warning.
We wake up and set off with fuzzy heads heavy in the early light.
“You put any stock in what that man said?” I ask.
“Not really. It’s just us out here. I’m sure they make up all kinds of ghost stories to frighten travelers into staying longer and buying more whiskey.”
“What about the indians? Pa fought some of them when he was young. They ain’t nice. And what we found in that tree.”
“Sure. Why do you think I bought this to protect ourselves” Bud says as he pulls out a silver revolver, the sun gleaming off the metal.
“You sonofagun. You’re just now telling me?!”
“ I just didn’t want to worry you. Or worse, say something dumb to a stranger.”
“Well. Hope we don’t need it.”
“If we do, we got it.”
We find a last hill as the land finally flattens out before us. Tall grass swaying in the breeze as far as the eye can see. In the setting sun we light a fire to warm our dinner. Coyotes begin to yip in the distance while we eat, and afterwards we crawl onto our mats to gaze out at the stars.
“I can’t believe it’s so clear out here. So dark, but so peaceful” I whisper.
“It sure is. Quiet too.”
“I bet even the rain is relaxing.”
“Yeah I’m sure that storm we got caught in would have been relaxing alright.”
“Alright that’s it. Goodnight.”
I begin to doze off, when Bud whispers “Man, something must have just died or the wind shifted or somethin’. Do you smell that? I didn’t catch it earlier but damn. This reeks.
“I didn’t either. Gosh that’s awful though.”
“Too late to try to move though. We’ll just have to bear it.”
“Hey, was I asleep for long? I know we’re out in the open but it sure got cold.”
“It’s just the night. It won’t be this bad in the —”
A deafening shriek rips through us, chilling us to the bone as we cover our ears. The horses tear off. In their place, a galloping sound runs up on us and stops just outside the light of our fire. We scramble out of our blankets and huddle together, panicking, eyes searching, gasping, shaking.
“Look” Bud whispers and points “I see…eyes?”
A faint pair of red coals float out in the darkness, belonging to a shape that begins to stomp at the ground, treading, threatening, taunting. As it dances around the edge of light, I begin to make out a familiar pair of antlers, and a thought strikes me hard.
Bud’s hand begins to raise, taking aim with the pistol as it glints in the firelight.
“Show yourself. C’mon. Come get some” he challenges, and spits.
The shape snorts, and turns, and trots away. We let out a collective sigh, which is overridden by a scream that pierces the prairie night.
We don’t sleep. As soon as light breaks the prairie, we gather our things. We find the horses a mile from camp, and mount up.
“We need to make it the next town” Bud demands.
“The next town? That’s almost thirty miles away!”
“We don’t have a choice. Whatever that thing was. I don’t know if it will be stopped another night. It must have only been toying with us. It’ll come back.”
“Bud, that creature, I think it’s been stalking us since we left home.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Hear me out. Last night. Bud, it has antlers and…”
“You think that we got a man-eating deer following us from home. Alright that’s nice. Now I know you lost your mind. Hell, we ain’t even been on the plains two days.”
“Listen to me. That first night. I saw that buck duck back into the woods. I didn’t think much of it. But we felt that cold breeze.. And then when we got caught in that thunderstorm, I saw it again and got the same chill. And then last night it got real cold before it came.”
He pulls his horse to a halt, and stares at me, and then the ground.
“You’re right. I remember that now. It has been following, hasn’t it. And the wind…it’s chasing after us.
We almost make it. Almost. We can see pillars of smoke rising on the horizon to the west, beckoning to us. But before we reach safety, we come to a river, swollen from the rains of that terrible storm.
“We can’t cross here. The horses will never make it across.”
“There’s got to be a better place. Either up or down river.”
“And what, we split up to find it? We’ll both be in pieces before sun up.”
“Let’s find a bend in the river. We won’t be able to cross. But it probably can’t either. There’ll be fewer sides we have to defend.”
“Alright. Here, I think I see one upstream. Follow me.”
We reach one in the dying light, dismounting and ditching our horses, as a cold wind begins to pick up. We gather some drift wood and try to set a fire, but each attempt is snuffed out. Finally we give up, and settle on the other side of a washed-up log, our backs to the dark, muddy water. With the sun down, the moon offers the only light, casting faint shadows.
“I guess this is where we make our stand.”
The unmistakable stench of decay begins to waft in, and we know it’s time. A pair of red eyes appears out of the dark. Its feet pound against the dirt. Its breath hisses, savagely. It stomps closer and closer until we can make out its true form. Antlers on top, the same ones that I’ve seen, that connect to a fleshless skull. Fiery coals in its hollowed out eyes and fangs bared. The neck down is that of an emaciated human, twice the size, but with rotten skin and jagged bones. Crawling around on all fours, ready to pounce, ready to kill.
It closes in, approaching our hiding place, hissing, drooling, savoring the ending of its long hunt.
My brother looks at me, nods and then cocks the pistol, pulls back the hammer, taking aim.
It grabs the log.
The cylinder rotates.
The wood is thrust aside.
The hammer slams.
It grabs him. Grabs his head. Screams. Squeezes.
My heart sinks.
A flash of red.
The sickly sound of raw meat hits the ground as his headless body falls.
It lets out a victory cry and I jump, falling back. I land in the water with a loud splash and its eyes fixate on me. The cold river shoots needles into my body, but I force myself deeper, hoping I can maybe make it to the other side. The undertow pulls me beneath the water, but also downstream. I begin to feel the bottom as my breath begins to run out, but then I realize it’s beginning to shallow. I push myself and finally find myself crawling out onto the river bank, gasping for air. I look back across the water and around, listening. Wind out on the prairie. The rushing water behind me. My clothes dripping onto the dirt and stone. Nothing more.
I let out a sigh and begin to sob.
“Bud…bud…we…I…I’m so sorry.”
I begin to collect myself when a cold, foul draft causes me to look up. My own brown eyes meet red ones as a skeletal hand reaches for my face. I try to scream but the bony palm muffles the sound.
Another victory cry.
The night explodes.
Credit: Dan Courier
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