This is the fourth installment of a novella, originally published at SkyWatch Magazine. Here are the links to the first three installments: Part I, Part II, Part III. Warning, some content may be disturbing, because it deals with spiritual warfare and the unseen.
[G]ranny Amburgey lived in a one-room cabin up on Ford’s mountain. The roads that the coal company had built ended halfway up the steep incline, so what few visitors chose to scale the mountain did so either by foot or by mule.
John Thundercloud had borrowed a three-year-old mule, one of Wash’s favorites named Daisy, and she now carried the long-legged Winnebago slowly up May’s Branch Road toward the summit. The trail that wound up the side of Ford’s mountain seemed like a thin ribbon of dirt to the Indian. Recent rains had left the dirt-packed trail rutted and muddy, and low-lying pine branches slapped and scratched at Thundercloud’s arms and face all along the way. Up ahead near the crest of the hill, Millard Collins’ mule trotted along at a quicker pace, and the young Collins seemed unperturbed by the pines that blocked their way. “Nearly there, Mr. Thundercloud!” he called back over his shoulder. “Just over this rise here.”
Thundercloud said a silent prayer of thanks for the safe passage and nearly kicked Daisy to speed her journey, but then he remembered Millard’s warning not to kick the stubborn animal, unless John wanted to walk the rest of the way. Just as Millard had promised, once the mules and riders had surmounted the slight rise of undergrowth, they saw the smoke of Granny’s cabin. The weathered building looked like an anachronism. Made of split cedar and chinked with mud, the 18th century cabin must have been one of the first permanent dwellings west of the Cumberland Gap. Granny had been born in the cabin, as had her father, Amos Ford. Granny, whose given name was Roselle Drucilla Ford Amburgey, had married Eskil Amburgey in 1878 at the age of fourteen. Some records, however, said she’d been just thirteen, which made her ninety-nine years old. Either way, Granny’s prune-apple face had seen better days. The once beautiful young flower of the mountain had withered into a bent crone with thin, white hair and blind, blue eyes.
The cabin stood at the center of a packed dirt compound, decorated with a rusting plowshare, two ramshackle chicken coops surrounded by a dozen Rhode Island reds, and a leaning corncrib, piled to the ceiling with drying ears of yellow feed corn. Millard tied the mules to a rotting fence post, then dipped a gourd into a rain barrel, offering the mules some water. He tied a feedbag onto each, and then led Thundercloud to Granny’s door.
“She’ll speak to you if she chooses, but don’t speak to her first. She’s a might crazy, an’ she’s got a real temper, lessin you follow her rules. An’ don’t mess with any o’ her stuff. She may be blind, but she’ll know.”
Millard knocked on the gray, wooden door. Square nails and a leather flap kept the aging planks from falling to pieces.
“Don’t knock it down!” came a dry squawk.
“That means come in, I reckon,” Millard said with a shrug. “Come on, but keep quiet until she says to talk.”
The two men entered the musty cabin, and it took a moment for their eyes to grow accustomed to the dim interior. A pleasant fire crackled in the immense hearth, but no lamps were lit, nor were any windows open. From the beamed ceiling hung rabbit skins, beaver skins, dried herbs, an immense abandoned wasp nest, a stuffed owl, and hundreds of strands of dried berries and beans, done up on twine.
Two chairs and a rocker provided seating, a square table with an unlit kerosene lamp sat off to one side, and an old rope bed covered in two delicately stitched quilts completed the furnishings. Granny Amburgey sat in the rocker, her blind eyes staring at her guests, a cottony mass of white hair glowing in the firelight.
“Brought an Indian with you, did ya’, Millard Collins?”
Millard glanced at John, making a puzzled face. “Yes, Ma’m, Granny. I did. His name’s….”
“I knowed his name afore you brung him, Millard Collins. John Thundercloud. I seed you comin’ while back. An’ I brung you to me.”
John’s black brows lifted up as looked at Millard, wondering if he should speak.
“Well? Cain’t Winnebago Injuns talk?”
Thundercloud stepped forward. “Yes, Granny. We talk. Do you?”
She laughed, a high-pitched wail. “Sit down, John Thundercloud. Millard, you wait outside. My words ain’t fer you.”
“Yes m’am, Granny. You got any chores need doin’?”
“There’s three more Injuns hidin’ out back o’ my corn crib. You tell them I said to show you where to cut wood. Then you four get Granny enough wood for my fire. ‘Nuff to last through the month. Now go on.”
Millard left, and John sat near the fire, next to the old woman.
“I cain’t see with my eyes no more, John. But I can see with my spirit. You can, too. An’ one day you’ll lose part o’ yerself. But that won’t stop you. Now, you want me to tell you ‘bout Jessie Combs.”
“Yes, Granny, I do. Your eyes see clearly, like a hawk. Can you see who killed Jessica?”
The old woman raised her hands, two knobbed appendages with skin as thin as paper, and she began to sing a riddle.
“There’s a word in the wood, and it wears not a crown. It goes up like a man, but as a beast it comes down. From the sky with the lights, in a chariot of blue, from the hell below earth, comes the great beast for you. Shedding skin, taking skin, growing claws, sinking teeth, beast of woe, beast of night, fighting this takes belief. Jesus paid for our sins, but the Devil pays none, crooked back, crooked tongue, foe of heaven, Devil’s son.”
She lowered her hands to her lap, as she stopped singing. Then she turned to look directly into Thundercloud’s face.
“You listen to Granny, John Thundercloud. This beast is a Skin Walker. You know what I mean. But not like the ones your people tell about. This one wants a new skin. It wants to be more than it is. You better pray yourself up! Cause ain’t nothin’ but Jesus can stop this beast.”
She turned back to the fire, her sharp features glowing. “Go on now, John. Granny’s gotta rest.”
The Indian rose. “May I ask one more question?”
She nodded without turning. “I reckon so,” she said, reaching for a basket of berries and slowly sliding each onto cotton thread with a needle.
“May I pray for you, Granny?”
Again she looked at him, her clouded eyes boring into his. “I’m goin’ home soon, John. Goin’ to see Jesus. He paid for Granny’s sins. I know lots o’ folks think I’m a witch. You know what it’s like – havin’ the sight. Come ta’ me when I lost my eyes of flesh. Don’t know why God give it ta’ me. Reckon I’ll know by and by. You pray fer me. That’d be good. An’ I’ll pray fer you. You’re welcome back here, whenever ya’ need me, John Thundercloud. Now you go talk ta’ those three rascal Injuns from Hindman. They’s waitin’ fer ya’.”
He bent and kissed her forehead. “Thank you, Granny.”
She began to hum as a smile briefly crossed her face. The rocker moved and creaked, and John left the blind woman’s cabin to rejoin the world of people who had no such eyes.
Outside, a few paces behind the corncrib, Little Tree, Peaches, and Standing Bear had gathered around a rain barrel and were dousing their heads.
“We been splittin’ wood all mornin’, Winnebago. You come to help?”
John gazed at the wood pile. “Looks like you better put in another morning, Standing Bear. This doesn’t look like enough wood for a week, much less for a month. Granny knows what you’re about.”
Peaches shook his long hair, showering his companions with silver droplets. “That Granny, she knows all about you, too, John Thundercloud. She’s been tellin’ us that you were comin’. She say we’re to tell her when the western Indian arrives with the FBI smile. Sure sounds like you. So, you gonna help hunt down the monster killer, FBI?”
Thundercloud dunked his own head, grateful for the clean rush over his scalp. “Well,” he said as he dried his face and short hair with a red handkerchief. “If this killer can’t be caught, the FBI might just come down here. Have any of you heard or seen anything you’d call unusual in the woods?”
“Besides you, Winnebago?” asked Standing Bear.
Millard returned with an armload of wood, stacking each split log neatly by the corncrib. “These three giving you trouble, Mr. Thundercloud?”
“Nah. They’re okay, Millard. Just a little backward.”
Standing Bear rushed at Thundercloud with his fists ready, but Little Tree pulled him back. “You’re too old for that, Standing Bear. Besides, FBI is only jokin’. Right, FBI?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Were any of you at the dance three weeks ago?”
Millard started to answer, but Standing Bear spoke first. “We were there. But we saw nothin’. Not nothin’.”
“That’s a great help, Standing Bear. Thanks.” John turned and headed back to Daisy the Mule.
“What you mean, Winnebago? You jokin’ me again?”
“We ain’t seen nothin’. We spent whole evenin’ dancin’. That’s right. Not one of us left. Not once.”
“Thanks again,” Thundercloud replied, grabbing the mule’s mane and pulling himself up onto her bare back. “So then you’re probably all three going to the dance tonight, too, huh?”
“Maybe. But just to dance!” Peaches cried out, beaming as if he’d made a point.
“We’ll see tonight,” Thundercloud said cryptically. “Come on, Millard. Granny’s got these three to help with the wood. They should just be able to finish in time for dancing.”
Judas Cain had slept since noon. Now the shadows of early evening had grown long, and sunset’s ruby rays fell upon his face. Hadn’t mother woken up?
He sat up, wiping his eyes and yawning. He’d wanted to work on his new doll today, but he’d slept through the good light. And he had grown hungry again. Ravenously hungry.
“Mother!” he called into the twilight of the cabin’s musty rooms. “Mother! Why didn’t you wake me?” Judas stretched as tall as he could, not much over five feet, and his hunched back cracked with the effort. Some days he felt as though he carried ten tons on his back. Swimming, when he could manage it, helped. But nearby Hart’s Branch hadn’t been deep enough that summer for a safe swim.
He dragged his aching body into her bedroom, one of only two private rooms in the entire cabin. A tiny flame flickered in a dusty kerosene lamp. It would go out soon, for the life-giving fluid had been nearly spent.
The bed looked slept in, but no one was in it. Judas felt the sheet, actually a thin blanket, to see if it was still warm. Cold as ice, just like her.
He hobbled back into the kitchen and set his mind on food again. His cells screamed for nourishment, and his heart thumped, echoing the empty rumblings of his stomach. He knew a ham hung in the smokehouse. She wouldn’t like it if he took it, but she didn’t seem to be here.
And meat sounded so very good.
[T]hat Saturday, the small town of Angel Falls buried one of its children in the morning and toasted to the engagement of another that night. By nightfall, nearly every resident of the former mining camp had gathered in Hank Fugate’s new barn, complete with an oak plank floor, to shake off the heavy weight of losing one of their kinfolk.
“Death comes to us all, but life goes on,” Hank said as he greeted her neighbors. The bright red barn proudly welcomed the bustling crowd. Fugate offered each unmarried girl a flower for her hair and each unmarried fellow a red kerchief. Since his daughter Imogene had become engaged to a successful grocer in Hindman, Fugate wanted the entire world to fall in love—and true love meant an expensive wedding.
“Nice barn, Hank,” offered his farm neighbors as each passed through the wide, sliding doors. “Ain’t that a Mail Pouch sign on the road side?”
“Sure is. Their folks paid me to let ‘em paint that big sign. They said since my farm’s so close to the Hindman road, that folks passin’ will see it an’ mos’ likely wanna stop at the next store an’ buy some. Don’t know if it works, but it brings me an extra $20.00 a year!”
As if by ritual, Hank shared this source of pride with each passerby, and in turn each neighbor would join Hank in a good laugh at the tobacco company’s expense. Fugate would then direct the man or woman to the brightly lit interior where an imported band from Hindman was tuning up.
“Local folks ain’t good enough for ya’, Hank?” asked one man, whose wife had brought an enormous gift for the happy couple, a willow basket containing bread-and-butter pickles, cinnamon sticks, corn meal, and two jars of blackberry preserves.
“We all know our local folk play the best, Elmer. It ain’t that. I just wanted everybody to have a good time and not worry ‘bout entertainin’. These ole’ pickers might enjoy a few fellers sittin’ in though. Well, Queentina, that basket for me?” he asked the woman, laughing.
Queentina Pigman, known mostly as Tina, giggled, which sent her appreciable girth to jiggling. “Hank Fugate, you know it’s for Imogene and her fella, what’s his name again?”
“Reginald Ison. He’s a right smart lookin’ feller. That’s him standin’ over there by the bandstand. His uncle plays in the band. That tall fiddler there.”
Soon the food table burst to overflowing, and the gift table equally so. Imogene and Reggie shared private blushes, whispering back and forth of their upcoming marriage and their planned honeymoon in Tennessee. Old maids and well-intended mothers shared advice with the girl, while several of the older men pulled Reggie aside for a man-to-man chat made all the easier with a swig or two of corn liquor.
Fiddle, mandolin, and banjo music filled the air as the band, known as the Knott County Pickers, began the first of a long night of dance tunes. Reggie’s uncle, Bob Ison, sawed happily on his handmade fiddle, while the engaged couple led the way to the dance floor.
John Thundercloud arrived well into the third tune as Wash Collins’ guest. Wash and Melinda left their single son, Millard to flirt with Mandy Jenkins, the neighbor girl from two farms over. Thundercloud contented himself to sit on a straw bale and watch the joyful crowd. Life and death, marriage and birth; that’s what drove the people of Angel Falls. They lived life to its fullest, worked hard, and played harder. Not one wouldn’t do everything possible to help a neighbor. When one fell, they all fell. And when one rejoiced, they all rejoiced.
Such was life in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
“Care for an apple fritter, Mr. Thundercloud?”
The Winnebago stood to greet a frail but handsome woman who looked to be in her fifties. She wore a homemade shirtwaist dress of apple-green check. Her hair had been tied up in a soft knot near the back of her head, and the silver now outnumbered the former wheat color. Small blue eyes crinkled at the edges, but the mouth held creases that spoke of a lifetime of laughter. This was a happy woman.
“I’d love one. Did you make them?”
“Name’s Etta Goble. I sure did. Fried ‘em up just afore we come down. My husband, Will Goble, that’s him over there smokin’ pipe with Wash Collins, he’d like ta’ talk with you, if you got a minute. You see, that boy Len that you found. Well, that brush pile is on our property. We reckon we’d like ta’ know more ‘bout this killer. We got three girls and a teenage boy, Willie. That’s Willie dancin’ with Polly Walker over by the food table. She’s wearin’ that red dress. I’d not pick Polly for Willie, she’s a might flighty, but he’s set on her.”
Polly Walker appeared to be a free spirit. Her red print dress had puffed sleeves that accented her slender arms and broadened her shoulders enough to make her waist look even smaller. As she twirled, it was clear that she wore a crisp white crinoline. She wore shiny black patent leather shoes and delicate white anklets. Her auburn hair had been pulled into a flirtatious ponytail. In any other town, Polly would have blended in, but here, her vivacious personality and desire for fashion branded her as being flighty.
Will Goble, on the other hand, showed no prejudice against Polly’s modern ways, indeed his manner revealed his preference for it. The gangly teen danced awkwardly, but Polly didn’t seem to mind. Her high-pitched squeals echoed high into the rafters.
“He’s a handsome boy,” the Indian said thoughtfully. “I’d be pleased to speak with your husband, Mrs. Goble. And thank you for the fritter. It’s delicious.”
She nodded, and then moved on to a group of bachelor farmers playing checkers on an overturned oak barrel. Thundercloud finished the fried dessert, noticing a familiar face peeking in a barn window. Wiping crumbs from his hands, the Winnebago decided to walk outside to see if the dark face really did belong to Standing Bear.
Just as he reached the open barn doors, a hand snatched at John’s jacket.
“I need to talk to you—please!”
Thundercloud turned and saw a tall woman, clearly part Indian, whose dark eyes revealed something Thundercloud knew all too well – fear.
“I’m Mahala Goins. Most folks call me May. I need to tell you some things, if you have the time, Mr. Thundercloud.”
“Mahala? I mean, May, that’s very pretty. Excuse me for staring, but you look Indian. Cherokee, maybe?”
“Somewhere back, I guess. I’ve heard Choctaw, too. And Portuguese, even Moroccan. Folks just say my people are Melungeon. It means lost soul, or that’s what my great-granny said. I think you met her, Granny Amburgey.”
John nodded. Now it began to make sense. “Your great-grandmother’s a singular woman. She didn’t mention you though, May. I’m starting to wonder why. You’re very well spoken, and you I expect that you share her gift.”
May pulled John outside and toward a stand of pines that served as a windbreak to one of the tobacco fields. “I wish you wouldn’t say that too loudly. People in Angel Falls treat the Melungeons better than folks in other parts, but they become distrustful when any of us starts showing signs of that gift you mentioned.”
“You went to college, didn’t you?” he asked suddenly.
She looked surprised. “Yes. Morehead State. My degree’s in English with an education certification. I’ve been trying to build a school here.”
“I thought Angel Falls had a school.”
“If you can call it one. It’s a one-room building with a lot of books and no teacher. There used to be one, but she died three years ago. Since then, the older kids have been teaching the younger ones. It’s a system, I suppose, but a lousy one, if you ask me.”
“You certainly have drive, May Goins. So, what is it you need to tell me?”
May’s strong features shone in the moonlight. Her eyes gleamed like two black buttons, and her straight nose and high cheekbones gave her a regal appearance. Long black hair cascaded down her back in waves, over a white shirt she’d tucked into belted Levi’s. May certainly didn’t fit in.
“Mind if we sit? I’ve been walking a good bit today, gathering up berries and nuts—and persimmons. I helped Granny put up some persimmon jelly. She may be old, but she has quite a sweet tooth.”
She led him to a clearing, where she sat on the ground, crossing her legs in front of her. “I know you’re staying with Wash Collins and his family. They’re good people. Honest. But not everyone around here is. Is it true you once worked for the FBI?”
He nodded. “That gift you talked about. The federal government likes to take advantage of it when they find it, but they’re not inclined to advertise its uses to the general public. Let’s just say I worked with them for a few years.”
She bit her lower lip, a sign of nervousness. “May I call you John?”
“I’d be pleased if you would, May.”
“John, Angel Falls has changed a lot since I was a girl. Twenty years ago, the settlement was dying. Most of the merchants had already left, and the farmers barely made a living. In ‘42, Cholera cut through the town like the Angel of Death, taking about a third of the population. The war took a lot of our young men. But everything started to change in 1948, and I believe it can be traced back to one particular night in August of that year.”
“Someone new move in? New business?”
“No,” she answered, anxiously smoothing her dark tresses as she stared into the moonlit sky. “Not someone new. Something new. On August 12, 1948, something crashed in the woods just outside a nearby town called Indian Basin, about four or five miles northeast of here.”
“No, not a plane, but a craft. And the government people were all over it. I saw it, John. I was staying with one of my cousins in Indian Basin, and the thing crashed in her daddy’s woods. We found it. And it was not a plane. And the thing we saw was not a human. Delly, my cousin, said she saw spacemen just like the papers talk about. But that’s not what I saw. It looked like a spaceman, but inside it was a huge creature, like a Shadow. A Shadow with wings.”
[J]udas Cain hated admitting that he missed his mother—that he worries about her, yet her failure to come home gnawed at his brain. Could it be he actually loved her still? Impossible. He merely found her absence a curiosity as yet unexplained. She’d show up soon, spitting venom for his lack of caring. Damn her anyway.
It was too dark to work on his dolls, so Judas decided to follow the music down into the valley. He seldom wandered into the town of Angels Falls, but the fiddling perked his mood, and he longed to see the bright dresses and hear the laughter. Grabbing a walking stick to help him navigate the steep path, and a kerosene lantern to light his steps, Judas put all thoughts of his mother from his mind and let the music lead him.
Standing Bear had been watching from the window, eating an apple, and tapping his foot to the lively fiddle music. Polly Walker’s crinoline fascinated the older Indian. Each time her partner twirled her, the starched netting undergarment would circle her fine legs like a spinning top. Standing Bear would soon see his fortieth winter, so he had no illusions about young girls’ fancies for an aging Indian. But he liked to look.
He tossed his apple core into the yellow brush and wandered away from the celebration and up into the south side of the Ford’s mountain. Although not yet full, the moon shone brightly in a cloudless sky, so Standing Bear’s sharp eyes had little trouble finding the path. To the east lay Dotson’s woods, once a spot for lovers, but now no one dared go there at night.
He had promised to meet up with Little Tree and Peaches so the three could walk back up to Granny’s as a group. Peaches feared the night, and Little Tree’s one good eye made night travel difficult. He had plenty of time before midnight, their planned meeting time, so Standing Bear decided to wander over to Hiram Ford’s place to play some cards. He knew Hiram, being a cripple, would have stayed home tonight. And the Indian figured the old man could use the company. That would make Granny happy, since Hiram was her second cousin.
Standing Bear’s yellow work boots had corrugated soles that bit into the path as he walked. Young pines lined his ascent, and he enjoyed the fresh smell as it mingled with that of the soft earth. He loved to imagine himself as a proud warrior from the ancient past, although his life had followed a much different road. His father had worked for the coal company, but his mother had taught school. Standing Bear had learned to love her books, for they allowed his imagination to soar like the eagle into worlds higher than his own. His mother’s death three years before had left the Indian all alone in the world. Meeting Peaches and Little Tree at a bar in Hindman had lifted him from the dark hole he’d lived in, so he wouldn’t forsake their midnight meeting. These two were like brothers now, and Standing Bear owed them his life.
As he approached a clearing in the trees, the moon fell upon a tall, moving shape in the distance. “Little Tree? That you?” he called. Despite his name, Little Tree towered over many whites, standing at 6’5”. “Hey, Little Tree! You want to go to Hiram’s place with me? Play some poker?”
The tall shape advanced, and Standing Bear’s sharp eyes realized this was not Little Tree. “Who are you?” he called, a knot of fear biting into his stomach. “Hey! Who are you? Speak up! I’ve got a rifle!” he lied, for contrary to his warrior dreams, Standing Bear had never fired a weapon. The shape remained stationary.
Deciding suddenly to forego poker with Ford, Standing Bear turned to hurry back down the mountainside. Behind him, he heard the shape move down with him, a footfall that sounded heavy but swift, matching his own pace.
His heart hammered in his chest, and Standing Bear broke into a run, crashing into undergrowth and saplings that whipped welts onto his arms and sliced at his face. Behind, the shape’s steps quickened, and each footfall thundered in Standing Bear’s ears.
The Indian ran faster, but in his hurry, he failed to see a large tree trunk that had fallen onto the path. The toe of his boot caught a branch and sent Standing Bear tumbling to the ground.
Behind, the racing thunder slowed as it neared its victim.
Standing Bear thought of Chief Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other brave Indian warriors from his mother’s books, and he gritted his teeth and turned toward the advancing Shadow. “Come get me!” he cried, lifting his eyes toward the moon and crying out with a great whoop! “I am Standing Bear, and you will not take me without a fight!”
The thing stopped for a moment, its enormous head cocked to one side as if considering. The moon’s white face peeked between the tall pines and revealed the thing’s face.
“Dear God!” Standing Bear cried, his dark eyes wide. “Nooooooooo!”
The thing’s head straightened and a smile crossed its dark visage. Claws sprang from the fingertips and teeth instantly grew to razor sharp points. Saliva dripped from the eager fangs, and the thing bent to take its first bite.
Judas Cain ran, or made an effort to do so. With his misshapen form, his gait took on a loping trot, but his feet moved as swiftly as he could make them go. Inside his thin chest, Cain’s heart pounded, blood on his hands and fingers dripped and sprayed on the decaying leaves beneath his boots, but he knew he mustn’t stop.
Ahead, he could see the faint silhouette of his dead father’s farmstead, the one that belonged to his mother now. He wondered if she had returned to her bed yet. Wondered how she would greet him. Wondered if she would see the blood, smell it.
Wondered if she would beat him again.
Back at the barn, the dancers clapped as the last tune finished. The Hindman Pickers had proven their worth. Most of the local musicians who had grumbled at first, applauded as well, appreciating the chance to dance with their wives or swap a tale over a game of checkers.
“There’s plenty food on the table yet!” called Fugate. “Let’s finish it up now! No sense wastin’ good grub!”
But just as his guests started gathering once more around the table, a breathless Indian ran into their midst.
“Peaches! What in God’s name?” called out Fugate.
The partygoers crowded around the exhausted runner, and one woman offered him a cool glass of cider. He took several deep breaths, then began to speak, rapidly, barely making sense.
“Standing Bear! It – it got him! Took his – it took his -.”
“Took his what, boy? What happened to Standing Bear?” Wash Collins insisted.
Peaches started to weep. He had gone as pale as a ghost.
“Boy, look at me! Now, think. What happened?” Collins demanded.
“Standing Bear is dead. The thing – it took his skin.”
Within moments of Peach’s revelation, a dozen men with lanterns and rifles had followed the terrified Indian to the spot where Standing Bear’s mangled body lay. May and John joined Wash and Millard Collins in the hunt, leading the angry mob to the pitiful mass of red that stained the dirt path.
Little Tree, who had been with Peach when he found the body of their friend, had remained behind to guard Standing Bear’s body. Little Tree, who had served in the war, could still site down a running deer with his Remington 12-guage, and he never traveled in the woods without it.
Wash and John reached the spot first, and the Winnebago knelt to comfort Little Tree. “He’s gone on now, Little Tree. You’ve kept him safe from this animal’s jaws, but now let us help to find the clues that will catch this monster.”
May helped Little Tree to his feet and let him weep on her shoulder, while John searched the crime scene for signs. Wash and Millard remained with their new friend, but the rest of the men followed the trail of blood that led up the mountain. “He’s bleeding!” one cried, as he motioned for the others to follow. “Come on! Let’s kill this thing tonight!”
Peaches huddled close to Millard, his teeth chattering. “Do y-y-you s-s-see any c-c-lues?”
Thundercloud didn’t answer, but kept his eyes on the muddy ground. He could see Standing Bear’s footprints, plus another set that were smaller, clad in work boots similar to Standing Bear’s, but this one hobbled, and the steps led up to the body then back up the trail.
“The ground shows Standing Bear fought hard,” Thundercloud told the others. He took a deep breath then touched the bloodied toe of the fallen man’s boot. In a flash, his mind opened to a vision and he saw…
Trees, rushing past. A flash of claws and dripping fangs in an angry mouth. Soft flesh torn open as claws ripped, and the creature’s fowl breath crept into Thundercloud’s nose. A dark red tongue licked at the victim’s body, inhaling the skin like a shroud, and a voice spoke in Thundercloud’s mind… “Do not look at me, John Thundercloud. Go back to your graves, back to the family you let die in Nebraska. Go back and leave us alone.”
John swaggered slightly on the balls on his feet, and he let Wash help him up.
“You seen it again, didn’t ya’, John?”
Thundercloud nodded, looking up the trail of leaves and blood. “Those men won’t find it. This thing’s not animal or human. It’s something much worse.” Then the tall Indian fainted, falling into the leaves of blood.
END PART IV
….to be continued next month. Stay tuned.