He led her through the dark workshop. Having been bred for shepherding, Dude stayed close by their calves and helped navigate the pitch-black. Yule unbarred the backdoor and they crept outside. They held their breaths and tied the satchel to Yule's horse. The paint was already saddled.


Yule mounted and gave Misty a hand up behind him. The horse was slick-wet and it was slippery mounting. He tied his rifle loosely across the pommel. Finally they were situated, and Dude pointed his muzzle westward along the alley. Yule compelled the horse in that direction, away from the crossroads. The alley terminated at the edge of town and they rode through the brush till the torches behind them were dimmer. The climb out of the valley would force them onto the main road eventually – the grade otherwise became too steep and the ground too loose for Yule's paint to climb, burdened by two riders as it were.


The road west zig-zagged up the mountain first by a slew of winding switch-backs and then by a steady, steep grade. The horse grunted and Dude paced ahead or alongside, guided by the whim of his nose. Way up yonder, the trail appeared to end where a sliver of moonlight shone down. The moon flickered, hiding behind tree-limbs in the night-shadows, unseen except in that negative light. The further they went up the switch-backs, the closer the woods crowded in. Misty shivered and clenched herself more tightly against Yule. Sliding her hands up under his duster, she held onto his torso. It were right cozy to share his jacket that way. She tried to find his heart but could feel only the jostle of the trotting paint beneath them.


When they were well out of town he said, “My horse has already gone a long way today. I should prefer to ride till morning, making the most of night's cover – but I worry he'll need rest and water before then.”


“I can hear the creek off yonder,” Misty began, “We could pause there a spell and give him a chance to drink.”


“No.” Yule was adamant. “I need to find a well or spring. The crick will not do at all.”


“What about the Lawless Camp? You reckon they might have a well there?”


“I don't reckon after sunset it is ever advisable to travel the road past their encampment. We'll veer into the woods before then and head for higher ground. I know of a spring in these parts but locating it without the sun might prove troublesome.”


“You'll find it,” she said. She laid her cheek between his shoulders and inhaled the sawdust aroma of his jacket.


She must have nodded off for a few winks because next she knew they were no longer on the trail. Yule was leaning forward and whispering, encouraging the horse in its ear. Misty could not see a thing but could suss out the surrounding forest by the scent of its pines. They were traveling uphill and the paint was straining. Its sweat had drenched her bare extremities. Yule brought the horse to a halt and held his breath.


Misty whispered, “Did you hear something?”


“No,” he replied, urging the paint to plod uphill again. “But is that a cavern I spy up ahead?”


“I can't even spy my own hand in front of my face,” she said. “The dark is so thick.”


“You were snoring some.” Misty could hear the smile in his voice. “When the sleep falls out of your eye you'll spy better.”


He was right, and by the time the paint brought them to the cave's opening Misty could make out shapes in the moonlight. Yule brought the horse to a standstill and dismounted.


Still in the saddle, Misty said, “Before you command me, know that I would prefer to wait here while you investigate.”


“I will be right back,” he said. He passed her the paint's reins and then his shadow melded with that of the cavern's mouth. Dude followed after and was vaporized likewise. The horse bent its neck and grazed. Misty cocked her ear and held fast to the sound of Yule's boots scraping the stone floor. She heard him returning already.


He emerged and proclaimed, “I certify this cavern's habitability to the extent I am able – though I don't claim to be even an amateur spelunker. It will be safer than sleeping in the road. Here, climb on down.”


He was beside the horse and he lowered Misty off the saddle. “I reckon it will be safer than catching forty winks at the Bare ever were,” she said.


Yule led her inside after digging a blanket out of his sack. He unfolded it, and then refolded it once in half so it might be a thicker mattress. He laid it out on the cave's floor, careful to situate it some feet in from the entrance so the sun wouldn't bake them while they slept. Dude slunk past, into darker crevices which were too narrow but for slender dogs. Misty sat upon the blanket. It lacked a canopy and the pillows were made from the same hard stuff as the mountain – but she adored that bed. She didn't reckon anyone had ever given her anything so fine.


“Are you hungry?” Yule asked. “Are you cold?”


“Yes to both, I reckon.”


He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her. “I hope that will do. There is jerky in the rucksack. Tomorrow I will shoot us something to eat…hopefully.”


“The coat is fine but would be finer if you’d share some of your warmth, too.” She patted the blanket beside her.


“I would like that,” he said, but he remained standing at the cave’s mouth.


“Are you going someplace?” Misty asked.


“Yes,” Yule explained. “I will tie the horse in a safe spot away from the cave and I believe the spring should be nearby now, too. I will be back soon. Dude will stay and protect you from wild things.”


She drew the jacket tightly around her shoulders and laid down, pulling one of its sleeves up under her head. Eyes half-closed, she yawned.


“Go quick and be safe,” she said. “You should exercise Godspeed, Yule – or of the dog's warmth I'll be forced to partake.”


He kissed her on the forehead and then Yule was gone. It was alright, because Misty was too tired to worry. She fell asleep before the last echoes of the paint's hooves could dissipate.

When she roused it was easier to see, but still tough to suss the situation. She reckoned the sun might be up within the hour. The world had turned paler. How long had Yule been gone? It didn't feel as though she'd slept much, if at all. Had something startled her awake? She could see her breath and the cave were so cold – she reckoned she might have been warmer sleeping in the creek. Misty sat up and put her arms into the sleeves of Yule's jacket. She felt a lump in the pocket and wondered if that might have been what woke her. It was a few folded pages of pink parchment. She blushed. The parchment smelled just the same as the perfume she always wore at the bordello. Misty opened the letter carefully. At the folds its seams were flimsy from use. The first page was packed with mysterious, looping symbols.


“There may come a day when these runes have meaning,” she said, “but at this juncture my illiteracy impedes me once a-fucking-gain.”


Outside, the dog barked and the echo poured into the still cave the way whiskey permeates an empty belly – all at once and then some. She stuffed the parchment back whence it came and tried to stand – but the cave was too short.


Hunching over, she whispered at the top of her lungs, “Hush Dude! Quiet! You're gonna get us found out, what with all your woofin'!”


But it was too late for that – and she knew it. Dude's growl was ferociously gnarled, issuing a thick-blooded warning to someone outside the cave. Back at the bordello, a trick would sometimes pass Madame an extra dollar and proceed to tie Misty to the bedposts. The only way her body knew to protect itself was by tightening her vulnerable sphincters and going limp everywhere else. Rubber-kneed, Misty sunk and knelt upon the cave's floor.


Dude came backing into view. His hackles were raised from the crown of his skull to the croup of his tail. The whole dog was tautly puffed-up to accentuate his vicious display. He had always been such a gentle pet, but Misty saw his fangs bared and oozing drool.


So softly she could scarcely hear herself, she asked, “What is it, boy?”


Outside the cave something kicked up gravel and Misty heard a man choking. Then Dude was upon her for an instant and he blew past just as fast. His paws tapped against the stone as he disappeared into depths where Misty could not follow.


The pale ring at the cave's mouth was interrupted by a man's silhouette. Sloppy as a well-lubed drunk, he fell against the stone wall and braced himself. His defects were undeniable: a hunched, slanted spine and limbs possessed by wracking palsies. He weren't choking. Misty reckoned whatever was wrong with him compelled that noise from his gullet. It were the sound of a man hocking up an endless rope of mucus.


He wore thigh-high waders, scrawled with black lines of blood. His overalls were cruddy as a man's get when he works all day slaughtering hogs with a sledgehammer. He craned his neck and stuck his nose straight up toward the ceiling. The veins in his throat were thick eels of turgid, cobalt blood. Quick as a bear-trap, the gimp clacked his jaw open and shut once. He found Misty without benefit of sight, smell, touch, taste, or even hearing. He did not require his eyes nor ears. He hunted by a sixth sense – keen hunger, perceived by the fangs. Her blood was his whole reality. Phantom teeth inspected Misty all over in the tactile manner of a blind man. She knew it in her bones and meat. A serpentine hiss blew out of the gimp's lips, gradually rising in octaves the way a tea-kettle comes to scream incrementally. That were Satan sounding his supper whistle. Misty skirted backward, further toward the darker place where Dude was snarling.


The gimp lurched a step inside the cave. Misty wanted to call out loud for Yule but she could only meekly demand, “You go on now, Mister. Get outta here!”


All the while, her mind shrieked: the crone! The crone! The crone!


The gimp came unhinged at the sound of her voice. He wanted her so badly. He rushed forth, arms stretched out to serve as extensions of his jaws. He meant to swallow her with his whole self. His head knocked against the stone ceiling and he collapsed to his knees. Defying mortal notions of pain, the gimp fell to all-fours and kept on coming. His gait was uglier than sin, indignantly disjointed as a half-squashed dung-bug. She could not tell if his eyes were bulging or if the skin around them was receding – but either way she feared they would leap from his skull and splatter on the cave's floor.


Misty was beginning to curse the rising sun. She saw the bony serrations of his cracked teeth. He ground his lower-jaw back-and-forth and writhed after her. His was a mouth made for sawing hard bones – not only the mere rending of soft flesh.


Beyond the gimp, another shadow crossed the cave's mouth. It were an immensely obese feller. He shambled and slumped against the wall. He was wielding a pick-ax, wringing its handle the same way he might also squeeze a woman's neck. He eclipsed the pre-dawn hint of sunshine and the whole cavern was dimmer than it had been only moments prior.


Yule is already dead.


The crone has come back to et you yet.


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About the author


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Bio: I'm Kile and I'm excited to be sharing weird stories on the internet. I'm a dad and a husband who gets up very, very early every morning to get some writing in before everyone else wakes up. Thanks for finding my story and hope you enjoy!

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