Yule Sherwin reckoned the woods couldn't get much more dark. Then the sun went down. Keeping up with Doc Sanders became about more than he could muster. The Doctor's mare was unreal. She hadn't broken a sweat the entire day. She might have been the same animal as Yule's paint – but she was a different beast entirely. The Doctor called the breed Appaloosa; said it had once belonged to the native people who long ago saved Misty from the typhoid, the same native people Rex Westman had poisoned for their pelt-rich land.
“Sanders!” Yule called out over the hoof-clops. “Ease up the pace. My horse is damned near beat to death.”
The Doctor kept riding without glancing back. Up yonder the moon shone mercilessly upon their destination. The gate of the Baltimorean's ranch was widely agape. At the property-line Doc brought the Appaloosa to a halt and Yule was grateful. Could have been he needed to catch his breath even worse than his poor pony.
Yule's blood was racing. Within the breast of every man, he reckoned, there is a scale; and at either end of the beam hang counter-weights called Hope and Fear. They present as opposite extremes, but they are not so dissimilar. They depend on one another for balance. A man light on Hope can be thrown off-kilter by a solitary spec of Fear, the way a camel's back finally falters under that last straw of hay.
As Yule rode up alongside him, Doc Sanders said, “I hope we ain't too late.”
“I fear we are,” Yule gloomed.
The Doctor did not reply. He drove his mare onto the Baltimorean's property. The paint traipsed after, and Yule went along for the ride.
He wondered how he'd come to be on this terrible errand. Mayhap during Doc's administration of Misty's ether some stray vapor had crept inside his own nose. Or mayhap he had just gone yellow over time, castrated by the course of history; and how it repeats itself, same as a hammer driving nails. No matter the root cause, he was done making decisions for anybody. Whatever might come was on Doc's head because this was his plan and not Yule's. He had only come along on account of not knowing what else to do.
He tilted his flask and then corked it. The paint plodded after Doc Sanders. Up ahead across a pasture there was the outline of a cabin. Yule didn't see a lamp lit.
The moonlight showed how the pasture had been desecrated. All over were the wretched relics of a still-steaming massacre. Livestock had been mutilated. There were capsized sheep with jutting stumps instead of legs. Some were undone and their glistening innards spilled and matted with the grass. Their wool was blackened and Yule reckoned what appeared to be white fleece amongst the mounds were actually marble hunks of fat. There were un-skulled bulls'-eyes and mouthless tongues and legless hooves. There were many, many of these scattered hooves and Yule sussed it was only because they were not edible. Here and there the earth appeared scorched but it was merely puddles of black swine-blood. Segments of skeletal animals had been discarded in the dirt and were sowing themselves therein.
Yule took an unplanned gulp from his flask. He didn't know how the whiskey had dug itself out of the saddlebag and he did not care. They came upon the cabin and the door was wide open. It was dark inside. Bones were strewn upon the wooden porch.
“Maybe we ought turn right around,” he said. “If Angus's daughter is out here still, she ain't apt to be much more than body parts. I don't see any signs of life. How about it, Doc?”
In response, the Doc held one finger to his lips. He cocked his head and listened to something yonder.
“What is it?”
Then Yule heard it, too – but only for a moment. It was the sound a lost girl would make, a bleating cry in the dark woods. Yule pictured the farmer's daughter hiding out in a cave or in some scrub. Mayhap she was hurt. Mayhap her father had hurt her the way he'd hurt Misty.
The Doctor ordered, “Have ye rifle ready, Yule.”
Yule stowed his flask and urged his paint to follow the Appaloosa. Doc was leading them into the woods. The creek was nearby. Here, the air was cooler and more humid. The horses stopped without being commanded.
Trailing behind, Yule heard the Doctor groan, “mother of fuck.”
Yule rode up alongside him and loomed over the creek. Even before he knew what he was seeing, blazing whiskey-puke poured out of him in one fierce gush. The paint turned away from the creek and Yule fought to catch his breath and keep in the saddle. He was sweating everywhere and tingling all over, too – the whiskey was seeping out through each of his pores.
He began to get a grip on what he had seen. The Doctor was cursing. Yule clung to the paint's neck and closed his eyes. The creek was not water. It had turned to flowing meat-sludge, a pinkish gruel swirled with purple-and-green iridescence. Its surfaced frothed and spit up off-white foam. Beneath the foam, the creek was stocked with maggots in lieu of trout. Whole schools of maggots knotted together and swam squid-like through the stream of mashed flesh. Then Yule was puking up a second gush, this time with his back to the creek.
The Doctor demanded Yule, “Be quiet!”
And from the far-side of the creek the desperate bleat repeated. With his shirt-cuff Yule wiped the vomit from his lips. Both men listened, not breathing, staring through one another in the dark so as to better concentrate – but they didn't hear the cry again. Yule could only hear the sound of the sludge-river. It was an oddly familiar noise, akin to soap-suds creeping into the ear canals while bathing. Perhaps, he thought, this was the language of maggots.
He shook the thought from his head and asked the woods-at-large, “What in the heavenly fuck?”
“We need bullets,” the Doctor said, “and torches.”
“Listen. I ain't explaining this more than once.” Pointing upstream, Doc Sanders asked, “You see there? That tub in the center of the mess? Fashioned of corrugated steel?”
Yule could only look for a second before his eyes were watering. Turning away, he said, “I see it.”
“That is where these Baltimoreans stored their meats. And that is where the poisoning should have been contained – but it plainly weren't.” He sighed and spat beside his boots. “Westman might have meant to poison this ranch alone, but the whole mountain is most likely tainted – and them who bathe and drink of this crick downstream shall be infected, too.” He paused, seemingly unable to utter what came next. “The only recourse is quarantine – and that can only be administered by guns and fire.”
“Fire? Do you mean to burn down the whole valley?”
“Yes,” was his only reply.
Before Yule could ask him to elaborate, the cry in the dark came blaring back. It was much nearer now, though still emanating from the far side of the creek. The Doctor cupped his hand to his mouth and called, “Little one? We are friends. Come to my voice.”
Yule grabbed him by the arm, but the Doc was already trotting downstream toward the sound. “Sanders,” he begged, “wait! We don't know what else is out there!”
Truth was, Yule did know what fiends might lurk out there. That's what had his knees knocking. Fellers like the Meekses were out there. Creeps same as Madame's risen boy and Angus and the other fuck who'd hurt Misty: dead men who refused to die. Yule grabbed the horses each by their reins. He took his rifle down from the paint's saddle and led both animals after Doc. He could barely make out the old man's shadow up yonder. He did not want to follow him deeper into the woods, but he wanted even less to be left alone.
Downstream the crick was less caustic. Doc sloshed across and the water came to his mid-shin but, as Yule approached, the horses refused to go near the bank. The Appaloosa reared and Yule let it go. It didn't bolt but neither did it cotton at all to crossing. Yule's paint reflected the moon in its wide eyes.
“Sanders!” he half-shouted and half-whispered. Already at the opposite bank, the Doc glared back, pressing his finger tight across his lips. “The horses won't go any further,” Yule insisted. “It's no good.”
“Tie 'em off.”
“And proceed upon foot?” The Doctor had his ear craned to listen to the distant woods. When he didn't answer, Yule elaborated, “You want us to leave our animals and head into the forest with just our boots? No torch nor compass? You sure, Doc?”
“You fuckin' yellow? You hear that little Missy out there in them woods?” The Doctor spat his words without ever looking at Yule. Nor did he divert his ear from the dark.
Yule tied the paint's reins to a pine. He caught the Appaloosa and tethered it likewise. Rifle-in-hand, he tip-toed across the creek. One the other side, Doc asked snidely, “Can you handle that rifle? You want hand it over to me?”
They heard the cry again. No sooner had the girl’s cries petered away, the Doctor was shot into the dark, as if from a cannon. Crashing deeper into the blacker woods, he forged through brittle sticks and branches which could barely be seen. Their twig-talons raked Yule's cheeks as he gave chase. He ducked away from thicker boughs, each time dodging them at the last second.
The Doctor was leading him into the wilderness. The creek's quiet murmur was long-gone. Yule could hear his own shaky breath, instead. He struggled to keep up and hold his rifle somewhat ready. The moon was blocked out by the crush of pines. The rocky earth underfoot was an uneven hazard. If he were to snag a boot and trip, Yule reckoned he might accidentally shoot Doc in the back.
The chase ended suddenly. The Doctor held his arms outstretched at either side to block the way. Yule skidded up behind, barely halting his momentum in time. He stopped so near that he and Doc stared into the dark cheek-to-cheek like a man with two heads.
Doc muttered, “Why I'll be...”
No more than a horse-length ahead the scrub rustled. In the brush two iridescent dots glowed eerily. Yule squinted. This was no girl. This was a baby doe, coming out of the brush on new legs. It was the smallest fawn Yule had ever seen. It bleated again and he winced. Not that it wasn't a sad sound – but up close Yule felt stupid for ever thinking a girl might have been the one making it. Doc should have known better, too.
“Ought we vamoose?” he whispered. “Or are there yet other fauna you'd have us rescue from this forest?”
But something other was out there. The shadows became darker and pressed in at the edges, but the center of Yule's vision became more focused. A figure emerged from the scrub just beyond the fawn. The light which had been reflected in the doe's eyes disappeared. The deer was snatched up by its flank. Yule heard the crackling of tiny bones, and then a gush of fawn’s blood.
The Doctor had gotten a better gander, and now he meant to flee. He worked frantically to get by Yule, to double-back along the path they'd just beaten. They collided in the dark and the rifle went off without warning. Then Yule could hear nothing but his own pulse. Blinded by the flash, he fell onto his back in the snarled brush. Doc came down on top of him. The rifle poked up at the night sky. They were stacked like thin slices of back bacon, with Yule pinned between the scrub and the Doctor he had accidentally murdered.
This was to be it. Yule felt a gust of wind and knew, despite being gun-blind and deaf, that the fawn’s carcass had thudded to the ground. The predator was on to the next. There wasn’t another bullet in Yule’s gun, the rest of his rounds were stashed in his saddlebags still, but it hardly mattered. This was the end. He was trapped beneath the Doc. There was no time to extricate himself. In the last moment wherein he could reckon anything, Yule reckoned he was going to see Emma soon. He reckoned it was about time he got to meet his boy. His babe. He didn't fight it.
But then the Doctor wasn't dead after all and he scrambled to his feet. He barreled head-long through the woods, abandoning Yule.
All at once, sound came back into Yule's ears. He himself wasn't being et, but something else sure was. The gnashing was so rapid it defied reason. Nothing could chew that quick – let alone swallow. Yule's eyes adjusted, somewhat against his will. The fawn was shredded. The moon played in its blood, glistening on rocks and broken sticks. A dismembered doe-leg was still twitching, kicking its tiny hoof. The predator was hunched low over the torso, the way a wolf ets.