Devil in the Details
by Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2010
Summary: Someone…or something…is on a wild rampage killing livestock in east Texas, and only one person is brave enough to find out what it is. Next in the Young Murdock series.
Disclaimer: TAT belongs to SJC and Universal. I do this purely to satisfy my cryptid hunter curiousity…the truth *is* out there!
He turned on the flashlight, which he'd tied to the barrel of his Daisy Red Ryder like a scope.
The little ewe was dead.
She'd been dead for a while, and by the looks of things, she hadn't gone without a lot of pain. Her jaw had been broken and her eyes, glassy, stared up blankly at the sky. What had been her wooly underside was a congealed mess of blood and entrails.
H.M. had a strong stomach, but he only needed to look once. Dead. No living creature could survive a mauling like that.
It was another painfully humid June Texas night. He'd followed the signs all the way out here to old man Havel's farm, at least half a mile or so. The flashlight had been an afterthought. He was good enough tracking in the dark, had taught himself by reading every field guide he could lay hands on. There was a sheathed Bowie knife at his belt and his trusty Red Ryder BB gun, which he'd finally talked his Granny and Grampa into giving him last Christmas.
He felt invincible.
If his grandparents knew he were out here at this late hour, they'd have given him a whuppin' to end all whuppins. But they were fast asleep back at the house. What they didn't know would never hurt them.
Ray Reynolds at the airstrip always said "better to say yer sorry later then ask first, kid," usually while smoking one of his favorite Lucky Strikes or swearing a blue streak about Commies. H.M. lived and breathed by that saying the way most of the people in town voted Republican every year. Besides, this was an unusual circumstance, and an unusual something he was tracking. He guessed his grandparents would understand.
What exactly he was tracking…that was the exciting part. He didn't really know. It was whispered about, the way people whispered about Grown-Up Secrets. Catnip to his 8-year-old, overactive imagination.
It had started a month or so ago. Paul Havel, their closest neighbor, worried that the coyotes were coming back again in force and picking off his spring lambs in the dead of night.
"Thing is, I ain't never seen no coyote bein' this, y'know, vicious," he remembered the old sheep farmer saying to Grampa in a near-whisper. "Damn it, they're not just killin', but rippin' 'em to pieces."
And it hadn't just been Havel's livestock. The local two-sheet newspaper had written about little except the McCarthy hearings and the mysterious string of killings of sheep and goats recently. People talked, and embellished: at the post office, the feed store, the barbershop.
Even Ray, who was skeptical about everything but Texas A&M football and the importance of a well-maintained aircraft, had been jumpy recently. "Damn Commies. Prob'ly one a' their experiments," he'd said that morning at the airstrip when H.M. had innocently asked the pilot's opinion. "You stay outta that mess, scout. Hang around here where it's safe."
Ray never called him "scout" unless he was really worried.
The newspaper people, and the sheriff, all seemed to guess that the killings were the work of coyotes come down from higher ground after the unusually wet spring. H.M. knew better.
He'd seen a picture of the unknown thing (a blurry one taken from far off, to be sure, but still a picture) in the old issue of Ripley's he'd stolen from Ray's file cabinet one day. It depicted a creature on two legs, hunched over slightly, a crest running up its spine. An alien thing, cruel and ugly. The eyes were what had made H.M. really stop and swallow hard.
Those eyes, even in the grainy, black and white photo, were undeniably those of a killer. Something that had a thirst for blood. Maybe human blood.
He'd also heard the Ramirez brothers who lived on the other side of the tracks talking about the mysterious creature. Those guys were OK, even if nobody else in town thought so. H.M. ran into them sometimes, picking up easily on their Spanish argot.
"Esta las Chupacabras,"the oldest boy, Victor, had said with a serious expression before running off.
H.M. didn't recognize the word. Maybe it had been Victor's idea of a joke on poor, gringo him.
It hardly seemed so at the moment. The dead ewe stared blankly up at the half-moon. H.M. could see, in the golden light of the flashlight, the signs of a struggle: soft indentations from her hooves in the dirt, as well as another set of footprints.
The traces of the intruder were different. Five-toed, with the clear imprint of a claw. They seemed too big to be those of a coyote.
Now he was getting somewhere. He clicked off the light and said a quick prayer for the ewe. After hesitating a moment, he unslung the Red Ryder and edged deeper into the night, following the intruder's tracks with keen eyes.
The sheep pasture gave way to the stand of woods behind Havel's and his grandparents' property. H.M. went in there all the time, usually looking for interesting rocks or frogs or fresh places to shoot off fireworks.
Never in the dark. Tonight was different. Tonight he'd (he heard John Wayne or some other actor's voice murmuring the words) "become a man."
He took a sip of his "liquid courage" from the canteen at his belt. Had he been older, maybe it would have been Wild Turkey or sloe gin. As it stood, it was only grape Kool-Aid. But it did give him courage. He would find the creature. And kill it if necessary.
Hands shaking on the barrel of the little BB rifle, more out of anticipation than fear, H.M. let himself be embraced by the looming pines and cedars.
The woods had their own special smell. It calmed his frantic mind: leaves and needles underfoot, the musky traces of animal spoor, loamy, freshly turned earth. He was a sylvan spirit in his element.
Whatever the creature was, it wasn't much for hiding its presence. H.M. took in the signs of its passing. A couple of broken twigs here and there stamped with its clawed prints, a tree whose trunk stank of fresh urine, even traces of the sheep's blood. The nightengales and crickets, normally a chorus at this time of night, were silent. It was as if they, too, were scared of the creature.
H.M. mentally leafed through his Rolodex of known predators. It could be a coyote…but those prints were large. Bear, maybe, but they were few in this corner of Texas. Nor were there wolves or lions or leopards or…
Any sound in the terrible silence was loud. The suddenness of it was like a cracking whip.
Like a younger version of Davy Crockett, H.M. held his rifle at the ready, poised to annihilate any intruder with a BB through the forehead. Even in the gloom, his young eyes could see as if it were daylight.
And then, as if in challenge, a low, throaty growl from the underbrush.
It was here.
This was it.
"Come on out, you Diablo!" he cried. He could not, would not show his fear.
Some more growling, and then the unmistakable sound of a body making its way through the undergrowth and bushes.
"I'll shoot!" He cocked the little rifle and aimed. Why he was talking to the thing, he had no idea. It was the kind of thing John Wayne, or maybe Hopalong Cassidy, would have done. H.M. went with it.
As if in answer to his challenge, the thing emerged.
H.M. felt his heart leap from his chest to somewhere just under his jaw. It was indeed a Diablo, come from the underworld to eat him.
The eyes glowed phosphorescent green with hellfire. They were the eyes of a beast driven mad by the gods themselves. Its body was vaguely like that of a dog, only without a coat of fur. Its ribs jutted from underneath mottled gray skin. Hooked claws. Bared fangs dripping saliva.
H.M. realized he was not breathing.
He was frozen in place. The BB gun was useless against such an evil thing. He was damned and would be eaten alive.
"Hail Mary," he whispered. He was not Catholic, but it was the first thing that leaped to his mind. "Full of applesauce, give me this day my daily Twinkies and let's hope the Aggies score lots of touchdowns and I really don't wanna get eaten," he prayed, the last words coming out almost as a single syllable.
And then, before he could pray more, a strange thing happened.
The creature whimpered.
It was sad. Scared.
It was more frightened of him than he of it.
He stepped closer, and it shied, still whimpering. Now that he was within twenty feet, he could see it in greater detail, though he did not lower his weapon.
It was no coyote, for sure, and not a bear. It was a dog.
A dog that had seen much better days. Its eyes were not glowing with the lights of hell, as he'd first imagined; they were clouded with cataracts. Its fur was gone save for a few patches (he recalled that Dr. Ericsson, the town vet, had called that condition "mange.") Its claws were gnarled, as if they'd not been cut in ages. Dried blood was crusted on its wiry muzzle.
A battered leather collar was still around its neck. Someone had once loved it.
"Hey, boy," he cooed, not knowing whether it was in fact male. The mangy dog shied, then growled. Who knew how long it had been out here? All alone, and without any friends?
H.M. also suddenly remembered Doc Ericsson talking about "Hydra-phobia," or "rabies" to Granny and Grampa, when Old Grey went for his shots. This dog might be a carrier. If any person came down with it, he was a goner.
Another growl. This one was a warning. He'd come too close.
There was no alien creature, no bogeyman running around slaughtering sheep, no Chupacabras. There was only fear and loneliness and rejection, in the emaciated body of this creature who had once been someone's faithful pet.
Still, as Ray also sometimes said, "better to be a live buzzard than a dead eagle." H.M. couldn't take the risk of being bitten, then having to explain that to Granny and Grampa on top of why he'd been sneaking around in the middle of the night.
He fired his BB into the air; it made a faint paff! "Go on, git!"
The ugly dog didn't move. So H.M. picked up a decent-sized rock and tossed it at the animal without trying to hit it. "Git!" he repeated, louder this time.
One more look at him with those cloudy, sad eyes, and the dog vanished into the forest. He was alone again.
The nightbirds and crickets had begun to sing again. Four o'clock, and all's well, they chorused. It was late…or early, as it were. The Murdock family farmhouse lay somewhere behind the tall trees. It seemed so far away at the moment. H.M. knew he had to go back.
What would happen to the poor, lost, starving dog? He wondered as he jogged slowly back toward home. If the sheriff found him, or Havel, or any of the other farmers, they'd shoot him without hesitation. H.M. cringed. He hated that.
If that were me, would they do that? Why should he have to die, just because he's been doing what dogs do?
Ten minutes at a steady pace brought him back to the dividing line between Farmer Havel's and the Murdock homestead. From where he stood, he could see the light on in the kitchen. Grampa was awake. And that meant he knew.
H.M. took off down the hill at a dead run, trying to concoct some kind of excuse in his mind. He couldn't think of a single one. Maybe if he apologized, he'd only get a talkin' instead of a whuppin'. That, he could handle.
His thoughts turned to the poor thing in the woods, which everyone else thought was a devil or a Communist medical experiment, out to kill the people and sheep and goats and everything else in East Texas.
All it really needed was understanding. And maybe some of that special shampoo that tingled really bad.
H.M. grinned. There was always tomorrow night, and his aching backside would be worth it.
He kept running.