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.”
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.
“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.
“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.