The Hidden — Chapter 8 — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH -- Chap 8 #2

CHAPTER EIGHT:  TRAPPED!

The clearing was undisturbed, dead-silent. Zelda’s sleeping bag and blanket lay where they had been the night before. The tent and campfire were as they should be, and cooking utensils and coolers hadn’t been touched. There were no signs of a struggle, not even any tracks. Everything was where it was supposed to be except for his sleeping wife.

A cold blanket of dew drenched everything and a fine mist hung low over the fields, shrouding the plants like a veil. Nate leaped to his feet and his head swam. He ground his fists into his temples and waited for the grogginess to ease. When it cleared, he stepped over to the tent and looked inside. The tent was empty. Sunlight streamed in through the nylon mesh window and puddled in a square on the floor.

Straightening up, he called her name loudly and waited. The only sounds were those of the crickets and the ever-present rustling of the corn. He wasted no time chiding himself for falling asleep, there would be time for self-recrimination later. His first concern was finding Zelda and keeping her safe.

Struggling to remain calm and think clearly, Nate bent over and picked up the hand ax, where it had fallen from his belt while he slept. Scanning the horizon, he tried to decide in which direction to search. There was no sign of the creatures from the night before, and when he thought of them, it was hard not to believe it had all been just a dream. But if the events of the previous night were a figment of his imagination, then where was Zelda and what was he doing out here in the middle of nowhere, toting a sidearm and an ax?

No, Natey-boy, they were real, all right, and what’s worse, they took Zelda right from under my nose while I slept!  His inner thoughts bore into him.

Still, he couldn’t let himself believe she was dead…or eaten.  He had to try to find her — but where to start?

His backpack lay near the smoldering remains of the campfire. He picked it up and then, deciding it would be better to travel light, tossed it up into the lower branches of a small sycamore tree. There it would be safe to retrieve later, and it could dry in the sun.  He took a few steps toward the cornfield and hesitated. If they were out there, Nate wouldn’t stand a chance in hell against them.  Better to stay out in the open as much as possible.

He started toward the woods, staying close to the fence row. All the while, he scanned the area for tracks or some sign that they’d passed this way. The thought of going for help occurred to him, but he rejected it for two reasons: How would he get back and how would he convince the authorities of his story? It was obvious that he and Zelda were in this on their own, and he was determined not to let her down.

His muscles ached from spending the night on the hard, cold ground, but he didn’t spend much time concerning himself about it. Foremost in his mind were thoughts of his wife and her safety. Nate didn’t want to even think about what life would be like without her.

It was strange, really, when you thought about it. Nate had come close to losing her emotionally in the city, and they had come way out here to find each other again. Now that he’d regained her love, he’d lost her physically. In a real sense, he felt the pain of her absence more now than he would have at any other time before this day. Squaring his shoulders and thrusting out his chin, he marched, squinting into the morning sun.

I am not going to lose you like this!

The soft call of a dove murmured through the morning air, lending a sad, haunted feeling to the day. Out in the field, a flock of crows flew up, beating their dark wings and croaking harsh epithets at each other. They seemed exasperated at his intrusion.

About half-way to the edge of the woods, he noticed something in the bean field. He was unable to quite make out what it was, but something dark was sticking up just enough to be seen above the plants. Nate blinked his eyes, rapidly, and tried to bring it into focus. But it was no use. He would have to get closer.  Which meant abandoning the fence row and the small amount of cover it afforded, but he couldn’t pass up any leads that might help him find Zelda.

The dew-covered plants soon had his pants soaked up past his knees, but his boots kept his feet warm and dry.

When he had gotten to within a few feet of the thing, he began to slow down, partly due to caution and the fear he had of discovering Zelda’s partially clad, savaged body.

At first, it appeared to be a wet grocery bag, but then he saw that it was pink and wrinkled, with tufts of hair protruding from it. He heard the buzzing of flies, and his mind pictured the corpse of his wife, her scalp ripped from her head, lying in a heap among the rows of beans. Remembering the severed head in the tree, he wavered, unable to approach any nearer. Indecision pulled at him. He couldn’t just ignore it and continue his search, knowing she might be lying out here in the sun.  He had no choice but to look.

Resigning himself to the task, he took another cautious step.  The hair on his own scalp raised when the clump of flesh moved and an unholy roar sliced through the air. Before his startled eyes, a creature like the one from the day before rose up from its hiding place in the beans and charged him. Its mouth was split wide in a hellish snarl, and it lurched forward on two legs, wielding its claws, menacingly.

Nate snatched the gun from its holster and then remembered how low he was on ammunition. He had only the four bullets remaining, and he may need them before this ordeal was over.

If I can make it to the trees on the fence row, I may be able to avoid wasting any shots!

During the siege of their camp the night before, his thoughts had turned to the partial corpse, rotting in the tree above them, and it had dawned on him that these creatures must not be able to climb. Whoever the poor unfortunate whose head had been left behind must have tried, not quite successfully, to escape using that route.

This was why Nate had been following the fence row — in hopes that, were he attacked, his theory would prove correct.  Now he was going to have a chance to find out, provided, of course, he could outrun this horrific beast.

As he spun around, however, he heard yet another growl and saw a second beast rushing at him from the direction of the fence row, effectively cutting off his escape!  This one, apparently, had been hiding in the beans as well, and Nate must have walked right past it.

Damn things were stalking me!

These were obviously more clever creatures than Nate would have guessed.  Coming at him this way, it would be difficult for him to kill both of them. By the time he got a shot off at one, the other would be on him.  It was rather like chasing down and tagging a baseball runner caught between first and second base.

This second creature galloped on all fours and moved much quicker than the first. In fact, Nate could see that, given its present speed, it would overtake him in just a few more bounds.

It was time.  He had no choice but to spend some ammunition now. Surely things couldn’t get much more desperate than this. He whirled and fired a round at the first creature. Not waiting to see the effect of his shot, he dove, headlong and attempted a clumsy somersault into the beans, kicking up a cloud of dust as he fell. His dive was at right angles to the path of the second beast, whose claws raked the side of Nate’s boot as it charged through the spot where he’d been standing. By the time it halted its rush and doubled back for another pass, Nate was already running.  The creature let out a roar of rage and gave chase.

Nate had badly underestimated the speed of these creatures. Although he believed he killed the first, placing a hollow-nosed .357 slug right through its chest, there was no way he could outrun this second creature.  It would be on him before he made half the distance to safety. And placing another such shot while on the run for his life would be beyond luck and closer to a miracle. There was no time to stop and plant himself to fire.  All he could do was redouble his efforts and run like he had never run before.

He heard a vicious scream from behind and put his head down, concentrating on which branch he would leap for if he did, through some marvel, happen to make the trees.

***

 

Zelda awoke to a nightmare. A hard, scaly paw was shoved down hard upon her mouth, covering nearly half her face and making it almost impossible to breathe. She could feel the sharp claws digging into the side of her neck, and she saw the silhouette of the creature’s face leaning over her.

She tried to struggle, but the beast was much too powerful. She was a tiny rag doll in its grasp. Straining her eyes to the left, she could make out Nate’s body lying motionless by the fire. Zelda cried out against the filthy pads of the creature’s paw, but her voice was muffled to practically nothing.

In terror, she realized that the creature had come back and killed Nate. And now it had her in its grasp. She prayed the end would be mercifully quick.

Silently it picked her up and smashed her against its chest. The dry, wrinkled skin and the tufts of matted hair ground hard and rough against her cheek.  Its pungent, animal odor revolted her and made her retch.  Rising up on powerful hind legs, the creature shuffled away from the campfire and out into the night, dragging her along like a child carrying a stuffed toy.

Out into the beanfield, it carried her, the wet plants slapped coldly against her bare legs. Tears blinded her vision as she watched the campfire growing smaller and smaller, swallowed by the darkness. Suddenly, it stopped and dropped her roughly upon the ground, removing the gagging paw from her mouth. Her jaw ached from the pressure it had exerted on it and her lip had been cut by one of its pads.

She cried pitifully for it to stop, to leave her alone, but the creature stood there in silence, staring at her from the blackness of the night. Finally, it brought its cruel face to within inches of hers and glared hungrily into her eyes. The smell or its breath nearly gagged her and she turned her face.  It reached out and, hooking one of its claws through the sleeve of her sweat-shirt and guided her arm down toward its belly where her hand came to rest on a huge throbbing lump of turgid flesh.

She lashed her arm back from it as though she’d laid her hand on a hot poker, ripping her sleeve in the process. She opened her mouth to scream but her captor brought a paw hard across her face and the night erupted in a blinding flash. The last thing she remembered before she lost her grip on consciousness was being rolled over on her belly and feeling the creature’s hot breath on the back on her neck as it grabbed a mouthful of her collar.

Sometime later, she awoke in complete darkness.  There was cold, damp stone beneath her cheek and her body ached with the aftermath of spending a long time unconscious upon a hard surface. She tried to remember where she was and what had happened to her, but she was completely disoriented. And, being in total darkness, there was nothing for her eyes to fall on to help her adjust.

Slowly, she pulled herself back from the world of the dead. She moved around, gingerly, flexing first one limb and then another. Everything seemed to be working, but where was she? And how did she get here? Suddenly, she remembered. It came back to her in a rush — the path, the monster, the clearing, Nate’s death, the abduction and the attack in the field… everything!

She sat bolt upright and hit her head on something hard. Sparks flew across the backs of her eyes and she slumped to the floor again.

With mounting horror, she realized she was in a hole of some kind.

Oh my god! The damned thing buried me alive!

Her heart hammered in her chest and a sharp metallic taste came to the back of her mouth, threatening to choke her. She reached out her hand and waved it around panicking in the darkness until she came upon a wall. Following it, she groped her way until it met another wall, about four feet along.  Continuing along this wall, she came to an open space where this chamber apparently let out into another one. On her hands and knees, she stretched her arm out into this open space, leaning out as far as she dared. In her mind, she got the feeling she was in a cave of some kind, the walls being made of hard stone, and not in a hole in the dirt, as she had first imagined. Crawling past the “doorway”, she continued to feel her way blindly in the dark.

Suddenly she touched something soft and warm — and alive! And then she felt a hand grasp her arm and hold it firmly. She cried out and tried to pull away, but the grip held fast.

“Sh-h-h-h! Quiet… it’s all right.” The voice was small and soft, like that of a child. “I’m not gonna hurt you… Shh-h-h!”

Zelda stopped struggling and listened. She could hear breathing and the rustling of clothing.

“Please?… Please?” the tiny voice whimpered. Whoever it was, drew nearer to her and folded their arms about her. She was surprised to realize, it WAS a child. Even in the dark, she could tell it was a little girl, a frightened little girl, that was clinging to her desperately, and crying. Her hands came up instinctively and stroked the child’s soft hair. It was matted and tangled, but it still held the softness of a little girl’s tresses.

“Okay… okay.” she soothed. “Don’t cry now, baby, don’t cry.” She held the little girl for a while, letting her cry. In truth, after all that she’d been through, it felt good to have someone to hug.  She rocked the child back and forth in her arms, patting her back and stroking her hair some more.  Finally, the sobs eased and the child’s stiff body relaxed a bit.

Pulling back a little, she asked, “Who are you, baby?  Do you know where we are?”

The child stopped sniffling, but she still clung tightly to Zelda’s hand. “I’m… My name is Susie Chamness, and… I don’t know where this is exactly, but it’s a bad place — real bad!”

 

***

 

 

Nate saw the branch growing nearer and nearer, and to his amazement, he grew confident that he was going to make it! With every muscle, he strained to reach the tree and climb to safety. He didn’t dare take time to look back over his shoulder to see if the thing was gaining on him. He could only assume it was about to overtake him and every precious second counted in his race for survival.

The cold, damp plants felt like hands that clutched at his legs, threatening to trip him and send him tumbling among the weed-strewn rows to meet his doom. He could hear the creature’s labored breathing close on his heels — hot and moist, on the back of his neck. Any second now, a sharp blow to the middle of his back would send him sprawling and then the beast would be on him.  Its heavy body bearing him to the ground while its talons ripped at his guts and that foul slobbering maw opened wide to swallow his face.

He reached for the low-hanging branch and leaped. Primal instinct told him that the creature was already in mid-air. His hand grasped its rough surface and he swung his legs in a “skin-the-cat” maneuver over the branch and hauled himself up into the tree. As he executed these gymnastics, he expected to feel the claws of the beast, snaring his leg and dragging him back to a horrible death by dismemberment.  Once again, the thought of the rotting remains in the tree from yesterday flashed through his mind.  He wasted no time in scrambling even higher into the tree.

It wasn’t until Nate had climbed to a perch about fifteen feet up among the branches that he paused to assess the situation. Looking down at the base of the tree, he was surprised to see the creature was not there. He turned his gaze back to the beanfield he’d left in such haste, and there it stood, glaring at him from over the body of its fallen comrade.

Apparently, it hadn’t bothered to pursue him at all, only apparitions from his imagination had chased after him.  Its main concern had been the death of its mate. Bending over the bloody corpse, it pressed its muzzle gingerly against the shoulder and nudged. Drawing back, it stared intently into the lifeless face.

Nate was reminded of the nature films he’d seem where an elephant would try to rouse the fallen body of one of its herd-mates after it had been shot by poachers. Had they not been such grotesquely ugly creatures, Nate might have been moved to sympathy. As it were, he was merely curious to witness the act.

He wondered, could these two have been mates, male and female? He knew that some animals, wild geese, for instance — and wolves, mate for life.  Could this be true of these creatures as well?

The beast laid a paw on the body of the fallen one and rocked it gently back and forth. Shifting back to glare at Nate in his tree-top perch, it roared its defiance.  Nate imagined he could hear a note of grief in that challenge, that made it seem all the more terrifying and he was glad for the relative safety of his tree.

He watched as the creature looked sadly back down at the body once more and then, walked over a few feet and squatted down in the beans. There it sat, maintaining a vigil over Nate while giving an occasional glance back over its shoulder at its mate.  The beast, however, kept its distance.

Nate had a nasty, unsettling feeling that, should he climb down for one instant from the safety of his branch, the creature would be all over him, guns or no.

How long is this to last? He thought, miserably. Then his thoughts returned to Zelda, out there… somewhere.

“Could she still be alive?” He asked aloud but doubted it.  He could only pray for the best at this point.

It occurred to him that perhaps his gunshots had attracted some attention and help would soon arrive, but then he remembered that hunting was very common out here in these wooded areas.  HIs brief hope evaporated.  No one would give a second thought to a couple of reports off in the distant fields.

Suddenly, the isolation that had so attracted him to this remote farm lost its appeal and he longed for a little bit for the company of his fellow man.  Meanwhile, here he sat, helplessly up a tree, with no way to search for his wife. It was maddening!

“GO AWAY!” He yelled at the creature, but it sat like a stone and made no move. It merely continued to shift its gaze back and forth between Nate and the dead beast to its rear. “GOOD! I hope that WAS your mate I killed, you ugly bastard!”

He leaned back against the rounded bole of the tree and said to himself, “That’s a start on evening the score,”

The creature, looking unimpressed, licked one of its paws and just waited for its moment…

 

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2018 Jan & Feb Bi-Monthly Goals — Derek Barton

Goal #1

THIS IS MY YEAR!!  (My new mantra!)

 

It is a brand new year with a whole year of opportunity!  I am super excited by what I have planned in store for 2018.  With these bi-monthly goal blogs that I started using this last July, I have really put in a lot of work and accomplished a lot which I will now be able to share with you guys this year.

A quick recap of the year and what I finished up in December:

From July through November —

** Finalize my Chapter Outlines for Bleeding Crown
** Completed my first draft of Bleeding Crown
** Wrote 43,000 words in July
** Completed two large book giveaways (one being my Indie Book Giveaway)
** Obtained over 1500 email subscribers
** Completed a monthly newsletter every month
** Outlined the first three books of the Elude Series
** Created a NaNoWriMo Outline Prep folder
** Completed the first wave of editing for The Bleeding Crown
** Started a 2nd job for extra money for Book Project Saving and monthly income
** Posted 6 chapters of The Hidden, the collaboration I am working with my father

Completed For November & December:

**Complete NaNoWriMo Challenge: 50,000 words — HUGE WIN FOR ME!  This was a fantastic experience and I highly recommend the challenge for any writer out there.  It motivates you and their site provides a ton of information, networking and forums.  Here is their site:  National Novel Writing Month
** Start Round #2 of Editing for The Bleeding Crown
** Create marketing campaign for CWC Audio Book
** Research Arizona Book and Comic cons.
** Send out Monthly Newsletters by 15th of month
** Keep up The Hidden saga on website every 2 weeks

Now for 2018, I have also decided to not only break down my goals every 2 months, but I am also determining when those goals should be accomplished within the two month period.  This will help me be even more successful and organized, but it will also keep me on track.  I am using an Excel Chart Setup for this and have already broken down goals for the first half of the year on there.

For January & February:

** Complete the 2nd wave of edits for The Bleeding Crown — Finish by 3rd Week of Jan
** Start 1st wave of edits for Elude #1 — Begin by 4th week of Jan
** Work of Cover for The Bleeding Crown — Begin by 2nd week of Jan
** Complete Marketing Campaign for The Bleeding Crown — Finish by 4th week of Jan
** Complete story subplot and finalize The Bleeding Crown (25,000+ words) — Begin by 2nd Week of Jan
** Finalize work on Marketing Campaign for Consequences Within Chaos Audiobook — Begin by 2nd week of Jan
** Write a separate blog entry outside of goals and The Hidden Saga — Finish by 2nd Week of Feb
** Lose 15 pounds by end of February — Lose 2 pounds a week
** Send out Monthly Newsletters by 15th of month — Completed by Feb 15th
** Keep up The Hidden saga on website every 2 weeks — Finished by 4th Week of Feb

By the end of this year, my hope is to be able to produce for you The Bleeding Crown (sequel to Consequences Within Chaos) by mid-2018, Consequences Within Chaos Audiobook on Audible.com by mid-2018, the first two books of the Elude (horror/action story) by the end of 2018 and the complete work of The Hidden online (and subsequently published in 2019!).

As I said, it is going to be an intense and productive year ahead, but I am so excited to share my worlds and my writing with each of you!  My wish is that for all of you as well to have a great, productive and wonderful new year!

 

Goal #2

 

 

The Hidden — Chapter 7 — T.D. Barton & Derek Barton

TH -- Chap 7

 

CHAPTER SEVEN:  THE SIEGE

 

Dzhankah wasn’t stupid. It was his hubris that had failed him. And perhaps his overconfidence.

Oh, he’d seen guns before and he was well aware of their capacity for destruction. Many times he’d seen deer hunters bring down their quarry from yards away, with just a single shot. He’d heard the report of the gun and seen the blood and hair fly from the deer as their legs buckled and they fell, kicking, to the ground. And then he’d watched as the hunters walked calmly over to claim their prize without even breaking a sweat.

But, he couldn’t understand how they could derive any pleasure from killing this way. There was no chase. There was no last-second pounce with the victim straining with every final ounce of its strength in a terror-stricken struggle for life. They never even got the pleasure of facing their prey and seeing the helplessness in its eyes as it realized it was doomed.

What excitement could there be in killing something without feeling its life-juices spraying in your face and ebbing from its body as you held it, pinned and squirming, on the ground?

Worse yet, the hunters always gutted the carcass, leaving some of the best parts of a kill behind. Whenever he witnessed this he made sure none of the entrails went to waste.  It wouldn’t be fair to the deer to be killed and then not have the honor of becoming a part of their conqueror. This was about as close to a sense of morality as Dzhankah ever came. There were some things he would not desecrate.

Yes, he knew about guns, but those that he’d actually seen had always been rifles, or shotguns — great big, long guns that made great big, loud noises. This weapon that the Meat had held out in front of him was a puny little thing. He had had no idea it could actually pose a real threat.  A popping noise and maybe a prick upon his skin and that would be the end of it. How was he to know it would roar like thunder and punch a hole in his belly big enough to place his paw in?

The prey had fired twice, in rapid succession, the first bullet missing its mark completely.  It was the second which had toppled the mighty Dzhankah like a ragdoll and done all this damage to his innards.

After he left the Meat, standing there in the path, he crawled off into the corn to lick his wounds. At first, the pain was small and dull, seemingly distant. But, as he crouched there in the dirt, straining to reach his throbbing belly with his tongue, the pain came home… with a vengeance! His entire side was wracked with a white-hot, searing flame. It sprung from inside with needle-sharp teeth, gnawing and chewing into his guts. There was no ebb and crest to it. It simply roared to life and remained at peak power, making Dzhankah want to howl in agony.  But he bit down hard on that desire and forced it back where it came from.

Dzhankah was a hunter — there would be no screams even in the face of death. His head began to spin giddily, forcing him to lie back and rest for a while.

As he shifted around between the stalks, trying in vain to make himself comfortable, he discovered the hole in his back. In his mind’s eye, he saw a deer, shot by a hunter. In its coat, there was a small hole where the bullet had entered, but when the hunter rolled it over, he exposed a gaping wound that had ripped a large portion of the deer’s side away, leaving broken ribs jutting from the mangled flesh.

And then, for the first time in his life, Dzhankah was afraid. How ironic that he, who had brought fear to the hearts of so many, should be such a stranger to the emotion. His own heart had never trembled. But now, the icy fingers of impending doom were inching their way through his guts and climbing up his spine.

He was struck with the realization that his victims had not only been dying as he devoured them, they had also been suffering as well. Before this attack on his person he hadn’t any idea what torture could be like, and therefore, he had no way to empathize with his kills. It wasn’t so much that he was ignorant of pain — he just had never given it much thought. It was somewhat akin to the way a man when he steps on a bug never stops to contemplate how the bug may be feeling.

This, then, was the main reason why Dzhankah had let himself be shot: no one had ever hurt him before. And, although he knew on an intellectual level, that he could be wounded, in his heart he didn’t believe it could ever happen to him. He was young, for his kind, and like the youth of all species, he was unaware of, and seemingly unconcerned form with his own mortality. He had been impetuous and now, as a result, he was facing death. And death was an even better hunter than he had been. When it stalked, little could deter it from its course.

But Dzhankah was nothing if not brave. He would not face death lying down. Wincing with agony, he crawled to his feet and worked his way through the corn rows with slow determination. If he were to die, he had business to finish. Bleeding profusely, he made for the clearing.

 

***

 

When Nate reached the clearing, Zelda was nowhere to be found. His eyes swept the area and he called her name. When there was no answer, he cupped his hands around his mouth and repeated it, only louder. Suddenly he heard her answering cry from somewhere ahead and he darted over to peer into the empty tent. When he emerged, Zelda was sprinting to him from the bean field, where she had been lying down, hiding. Tears welled up in her eyes and she made little groaning sounds as she strained to reach his side.

They embraced and held each other silently for a long time, each of them drawing strength from the other as only two people in love can do. At length, they pulled back and she covered his face with kisses.

“What WAS that thing?” she demanded to know. “Is it dead? Did you kill it?” Her face was streaked with dirt from the dry ground of the bean field. He took her arm and led her over by the fire, away from the corn.

Looking back over his shoulder, he said, “I don’t know… I shot it. But I don’t think its dead.” The corn rustled ominously in the evening breeze.

“Oh Nate, what are we going to do? We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Not now we can’t. Night’s coming on and we definitely don’t want to meet that thing in the pitch black halfway down that path.”

“Then what?”

Nate stood, surveying their situation. He looked back at Zelda and sighed, wondering what was going on in her mind. He wouldn’t blame her for falling to pieces in a gibbering heap or worse yet blaming him for dragging her out here to face this horror.  Just for a fleeting second, he thought he saw the return of THAT LOOK – the look that said, This is all your fault. I still love you, but you let me down by putting us in this situation.

He had hoped they’d left THAT LOOK in Chicago where it belonged. He searched her face again, but it was gone, apparently a figment of his imagination.

She had more strength than he gave her credit for.  Well, if she was going to be strong, so was he. They’d make it through this nightmare somehow, he promised himself. Firmly setting his jaw, he gave her one more hug and then turned to the trees along the fence row.

“Help me gather firewood,” he told her. “We’re going to need plenty to last us through the night.”

 

***

 

She watched him walk away and then turned to survey the surrounding corn. The idea of being out here in the dark after all they’d just experienced was not a pleasant one, to say the least, but she understood that they had no choice. Nate was right. They would need LOTS of firewood. If she had anything to say about it, they would have the biggest, brightest, most blazing fire in history.

She turned to follow him. From somewhere in the tree line, a mourning dove cooed softly settling a false sense of tranquility over the scene.

A half hour had passed, and as the last fading rays of sunset glimmered and faded to blackness, they sat huddled by the fire, alternately staring hypnotically into the flames and gazing into the corn. They talked little, each lost in their own thoughts and worries.

Whenever the night noises would startle them or make them jump, both of them would stare into the corn. Zelda’s grip would tighten on Nate’s arm and Nate’s grip would tighten on Mr. Smith & Wesson.

“I… uh… I left your backpack out there,” he murmured, reluctant to bring the scene back to mind. “But, luckily, I was in such a hurry to get out of here that I didn’t get too much of our stuff in it. We’ve still got mine, with matches, and the flashlight… And we’ve got plenty of water in our new canteen.”

He held the items up for her inspection as he listed them. She smiled when he mentioned the new canteen. She had laughed at him earlier in his eagerness to buy all the provisions they needed for this outing, calling him the world’s oldest boy scout.

Well, he’s definitely earned his badges on this trip. She thought.  Again her heart filled with love for this “city slicker”, trying his best to deal with a horrible situation and to get them home safely. She leaned her head on his shoulder and fixated on the soothing dance of the flames.

“Do you think it will come back?”  The question was barely audible.

“If it does, it’ll get another dose of this.” He flashed the gun in the firelight.

“I sure am glad you brought that.”

He smiled and patted her knee. “It was your idea. But you’re right. Somehow I have the feeling we never would have outrun that thing. Did you see the size of it?”

Zelda thought back to its evil leer. “I saw more than I ever wanted to see.” She gathered the blanket closer around her shoulders.

The night wore on and they labored to distract themselves from the nightmare that hunted within the cornrows. They continued to talk, discussing plans for the future and their life together. The threat of the creature’s attack was always there, hanging over them, but talking helped to keep it in the back of their minds where they could manage it.

Around midnight she stirred beside him and spoke: “Nate, do you think we’ll ever have… children?” She listened carefully to the tone of his voice when he responded.

“Sure, Honey,” he said, poking at the fire with a stick. “I’d like to have kids, you know that. It’s just been impossible up to now because of our financial situation. But we’ll have ‘em, one of these days.”

“When?” She raised her head to look at him.

“Well…”

“I mean, I don’t mean to pressure you, or anything, but I just kind of need to know, you know?” We have the money now.”

“Yes but, we’ve only just begun to experience the kind of life we’ve always wanted. Don’t you think we need some time to ourselves… to travel and such?”

She sighed, heavily. “I suppose, only…”

“I mean, kids are great, Honey, but there’s so much in life we’ve yet to do! And kids would only slow us down.”  He coughed into his hand and then said, “Kids will be great, but first things first, I have to get you out of here and back home safely!

She was silent for a while, thinking.

“Nate?”

“Hm?”

“Seven million dollars would pay for an awful lot of babysitters.”

He chuckled and kissed her brow.

“I mean, you know, we could get a nanny for the kids whenever we went away… and when they were big enough, we could always take them with us. It’d be fun taking our family around the world… London… Paris… Rome and the Eiffel Tower…

Her words trailed off as she drifted toward sleep.

 

***

 

After a time, Nate gently lifted her head from his shoulder.

“Sweetheart, why don’t you lie back here and get some sleep?” he asked, but it wasn’t really a question. “I’m wide awake, and I’ll keep watch.”

She began to protest, but he silenced her with a finger over her lips.

“Don’t worry. If I get sleepy, I’ll wake you and you can take over. Now relax and get some rest.”

Zelda patted his hand and stretched out by the fire. She was already asleep when he kissed her cheek and tucked the blanket up around her chin.

It was about an hour later that Nate noticed the eyes glowing in the light of the campfire at the edge of the corn.

It had dawned on him slowly. He sat, idly poking the embers of their fire and waiting for the night to pass. The air around him was filled with the drilling chorus of millions of insects, as could be expected from a late summer night in an Indiana field. As he gazed out into the night he gradually felt someone was watching him, and then he became dimly aware of two glowing coals floating in the air about twenty feet away. So stealthily did they appear, that at first he wasn’t even startled by them, only curious.

It took a few seconds for it to dawn on him the menace those eyes represented. He felt as though he had been drugged or hypnotized and his addled brain failed to respond the way it should. At length, though, his fuzzy mind warned him that he was in danger and he sat up straight and brought the gun out. He started to wake Zelda and then thought better of it. What if it were just a coon or something… better to let her rest.

As he stared into those red burning eyes, they remained steady and unblinking. Was it the creature? Or was it — dear God, please let it be — just some ordinary denizen of the woods, come to investigate this stranger from Chicago, with his fire popping and snapping in the darkness.

With trembling fingers, Nate switched the gun to his left hand and, keeping it trained on the intruder, picked up a small stone. He hurled it side-arm straight at the glowing orbs in the dark field, but they never even flinched. Instead, they remained steady, maintaining their unblinking vigil.

He sat still for a while, contemplating what he should do if the creature were to come charging into the clearing, snarling and roaring and snapping its jaws. His first move would be to cover Zelda, and his second would be to empty the four remaining bullets directly into the gruesome face of that misbegotten freak. And when it fell, he would take his camping ax and hack off its ugly head.

But Nate had no reason to fear the creature he’d seen on the path that afternoon because the mighty hunter Dzhankah would hunt no more.  He laid ten rows from the edge of the clearing as still and cold as the night air.

 

***

 

Nate had had enough of this. He was tired of being terrorized by this creature. After all, HE was the one with the gun. And hadn’t he bested this thing once already? Why should he sit, trembling by the fire? It was time to throw down the gauntlet. Still holding the gun trained on its target, he stood and tucked the ax into his belt. Picking up the flashlight, he shined the beam out into the corn and for a second he thought he saw a large shape, but it melted into the shadows.

Switching off the beam, he saw that the glowing eyes were gone as well, and he breathed a little easier. Probably WAS a coon, he thought.

Suddenly he felt, rather than heard, a presence to his right. Turning quickly, he saw the eyes again, and although he was a city boy without much experience in these matters, they sure looked to him to be too big and too far apart for a raccoon. He was about to bring the flashlight into play again when he was distracted by another pair of red dots, glowing to his left. He glanced back at the original pair for confirmation, and sure enough, there were now two pairs of eyes out there in the corn.

The two were then joined by a third and then a fourth and fifth. The field around the clearing had become a waking nightmare, alive with eyes and the stealthy rustling sounds of large bodies, moving in the night. As he slowly turned, he saw that they spread out in a circle, completely encompassing the clearing.

Shaking violently now, he flipped the switch on the lamp in his hand. To his horror, he saw the creatures, huge grotesque copies of the original nightmare from the path. His mind was raging too much and it was much too dark for him to pick out minor details, but he could see at a glance they were more of the same.  They met his gaze with subtle snarls, but did not react outright or seem surprised by the flashlight.

By God! There were so many of them. Backing up to the edge of the fire, he swept the beam of light back and forth, trying to keep them all in sight as he brandished the gun in accordance with what he saw.

The creatures merely stood their ground, shuffling about and growling softly from time to time. Their growls resembled the low grating grumble of a large stone, dragged over cement. They stood on all fours or squatted patiently. Some even stretched out on their sides, garish nightmares languishing by the campfire of his camp. All of them riveted directly upon him.  When he could bring himself to look back, their gaze bore down deep within him, searching his very soul.

He now knew he had been right not to awaken Zelda. What good would it do her to wake up now and see the horror that surrounded them? It would be far better to let her sleep in blissful ignorance of the demonic horde that encircled their camp, staring… staring… staring…

Why didn’t they do anything? There were enough of them to overwhelm him easily, despite his weapon. Had they witnessed the battle in the corn this afternoon? Was the one he wounded out there with them? Nate played the light around and didn’t see any that looked wounded, but he really couldn’t be sure.

Whatever their reason for not attacking, he hoped they would hold off until sunrise. He stood studying them for some time and then, fearing for his batteries, he doused the flashlight. Turning back to the fire, he threw on another couple of logs and settled uneasily back in a squatting position as they flamed to life. The red embers were reflected back at him from twenty or thirty places out there in the dark, and he remained alert to see if they were advancing any.

A sudden dread overcame him as the thought occurred that they may be closing the circle ever so slowly, an inch or two at a time so as to be almost imperceptible to him. Then, when they got within leaping distance they would be on him in a slashing, clawing heap. His hand longed to shine the light on them again to plot their positions, but he held off, telling himself to be calm.

Instead, he glanced at his watch, holding it up to the firelight… 3:37. It would be light in about three or four hours. Until then he would sit quietly and watch. And if one of those bastards came an inch within the circle of his firelight… BLAM! Monster Mash.

Until then, all he could do was wait.

So began the siege. Nate waited by the fire as the minutes dragged slowly by. He stoked the flames and occasionally dropped in new fuel, well aware of the fact that the fire was their only friend out here in the darkness. The monsters kept their silent vigil, and the crickets in the field droned on and on.

After a time, fatigue began taking the edge off his horror, and his senses began to dull. Occasionally, his eyelids would droop and he would catch his head nodding sleepily. When this happened, he would shake himself and move around, glancing apprehensively out into the darkened field at the red glowing embers and the horrors lurking there behind them.

Yawning, he leaned back, propping himself on his elbows. He looked up at the starry sky, cold and silent witness to the drama unfolding below. In the depths of the nearby wood, an owl hooted, impatiently, once… twice… three times and was silent. It was a lonesome, haunting sound. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened.

When he opened his eyes, the sun was shining and birds were chirping. He rolled onto his side and reached for Zelda, but she was gone.