Published on Wednesday, July 2, 2014
An Incident at Cutler Creek
By Christopher Bleakley
The cattle deaths were savage and unexplained, dominating all talk in Cutler Creek. A week ago, without warning, the sinister attacks had started. Emmet Grady's Longhorn herd, three dozen and a half prime steer, one by one succumbing to a foul destruction. Each dawn brought a new skeleton, stripped of hide and meat, bones bleaching in the early sun. No leather, no beef, no money. Not even a sinew left for the vultures. Now less than thirty animals remained. Grady's dream of owning a great ranch, driving thousands of cattle along the Chisholm Trail, was disintegrating as the days passed and another heap of ribs and vertebrae ushered in a new horror. He stayed up, Winchester and two ranch hands by his side, patrolling the few acres of land. They saw nothing.
At Round-up Saloon No 9 Pedro Hernandez had his own theory.
"This no work of no man," he said, his hybrid accent displaying signs of nervousness. "This work of something more than man. Sí, señor. Is big man-beast. Sé que esto. Créame!"
"God dammit, dammit, dammit," Emmet Grady yelled, slamming his fist on the bar. "Begging your pardon for my language, Pastor, but all this hot air ain't doing me no good." He stared contemptuously around the bar. Tall and broad shouldered, Grady had a tanned, welcoming face which suited his cobalt coloured eyes. Drawing breath to calm himself he adjusted his hat brim, pushing it up slightly with his left hand, and took a drink of whiskey. "I'm losing myself dollars a day, and ain't got me an idea in tarnation the cause of all is. Begging your pardon, Pastor, but I know no praying ain't gonna fix things for me. Whatever I do to deserve this? Worked hard for Cutler Creek since I was thirteen years a boy. Employed men, I have. Put food on tables, boots on feet and shirts on backs. Plan to build me a ranch o' cattle for the future o' this town. And what reward? Cattle bones, that's what! And it ain't just me suffering. Longer this goes on, longer Cutler Creek pays. Where you gonna get your beef and leather? Hey! You thought o' that?"
He looked round, blinking deliberately.
"Is big animal, señor," Pedro said again. "Créame!"
"Ain't no animal I heard of in these or any other parts that can strip a nine-hundred pound steer to the bone 'tween dusk and dawn. No way."
Grady stared into his whiskey with the glazed eyes of a defeated man.
The voice belonged to a stranger, stood just inside the saloon doors. Nobody had seen him enter, or knew how long he'd been standing there. His appearance was sudden, like a stage illusion. He wore a red hat, black shirt, red trousers and black boots. On either hip a holster nursed a Smith & Wesson No. 3 Russian. The stranger's face was grey, creased, and dangerous looking. A hole the size of a thumbnail glared black in his left cheek. A broken nose and several deep scars completed his edgy countenance.
The Pastor addressed him, having first made the sign of the cross.
"Welcome sir, come and sit with us." He beckoned to a free stool at the bar. "Had a long journey? I don't think we've seen you in these parts before."
"You haven't." The stranger spoke as if he were crushing glass between his teeth. He walked to the bar, tipped his hat, and sat down on Grady's right.
"A drink, señor?" Still nervous, Pedro was eager to give a hospitable impression. He felt vindicated that the stranger had seemed to agree with his thoughts.
"Whiskey. With whiskey."
Pedro brought a bottle and glass over and poured a generous slug. The stranger sank it in one and motioned for another. Pedro obliged.
"That's the voice," Blind Annie said. "Listen to him. He's got the words."
The stranger looked at the old woman but said nothing. Grady looked furtively at the hole in the stranger's cheek. His stomach turned, thinking about what could have caused it. He poured himself another drink from his own bottle.
"Right about what?" Grady said, without looking back at the disfigured face.
The stranger drank again, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, took a crumpled cigarillo from his shirt pocket and lit it. He inhaled then blew out two plumes of bluish smoke—one from his mouth, the other from his cheek. He dragged again then turned to Grady.
"Cooper Slade. Tracker. I track big animals. Just like our friend José here was talking about." He nodded to Pedro.
Offering his hand and grinning like a drunken clown, Pedro said, "My name is Pedro Hernandez, señor. Is my saloon. I am at your service. You welcome any time, señor. What you need, you ask Pedro. Sí?"
The stranger smiled, showing yellow and brown teeth, but he didn't take Pedro's hand. The movement of his face momentarily closed the gap in his cheek.
Answering Pedro, he said, "Sí, señor. Another drink. Gracias."
Grady said, "Big animals, huh? So what big animal's responsible for murdering my livestock?"
"What you know, Pedro?" Slade said, ignoring Grady's question.
"I know nothing, señor. Only that big man-animal is all can do this." He turned away, shakily wiping down the bar.
"The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. I cannot presume to question His methods."
Slade turned to Blind Annie.
"That's as may be, ma'am. Truth ain't far from what you say. Or from what Pedro say."
He turned back to Grady, the corners of his mouth curving down, eyes shining like coal.
"Let me tell you something, Mr Grady—"
"How you know my name?"
"You're the only one round here losing livestock, right?"
"Far as I know, but—"
"Let me tell you something, Mr Grady. For a long time, longer than any one here can imagine, I been tracking a creature like none you ever saw or heard. But believe me, it's as real as the whiskey on your lips. I know this creature, know its kind and others. Stuff of monster legend and forgotten lore. Cruel beast. Feral and nasty. Few know its power, fewer still how to defeat it."
The Pastor looked shocked. Pedro looked scared. Grady smirked incredulously.
"I ain't got no idea what your game is Mr..."
"Slade. Cooper Slade."
"Mr Slade, but sounds like a lot o' potato waffle and campfire talk to me. Only monster in these parts'll be me when I get my hands on the skunk that's trying to bring me down." He paused to swirl the whiskey round his glass. "But let's say for a nickel I'm willing to believe there's a corncob o' truth in your tale. What in tarnation you gonna do about it?"
Slade dragged on his cigarillo noisily and exhaled his peculiar double plume.
"Find the beast, save your beef."
"And how you propose to do that?"
"I have my ways. But I must warn you, Mr Grady, there's likely gonna be worse before better."
"I was waiting till you'd get around to that."
"There's no other way. How many men you got?"
"Not that it be any business of yours, but usually two. Had to send one across state line to Pagoda County, try to get me some additional head till I find the son-of-a-whore that's bent on bankrupting me."
"I'll help you find him. But he ain't no son-of-a-whore."
"That's the voice," Blind Annie said. "Listen to him. He's got the words."
"Take a rest with your fancies, Annie," Grady said. He refilled his glass. "Say, anyways, Mr Cooper Slade. What's your take on all this? You expecting some reward from me? 'Cos if you are, I can tell you right now—"
"No reward. I'm just doing my duty."
"That's right. Duty."
"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Pastor Reid said.
Both he and Pedro made the sign of the cross.
Slade said, "Thanks for the whiskey, Pedro," and tossed a coin onto the bar. "I'll be on my way."
"Now you just wait a minute, mister," Grady said.
Slade ignored him and continued walking to the saloon exit. Grady stood to follow, just as Slade passed through the swing doors. By the time he reached the veranda outside the bar, Slade had vanished.
"Darn coot's disappeared," he said, walking back inside, shaking his head unfathomably. "I gotta be going, too. Put what I owe you on account, Pedro."
Grady left and walked the short distance down Cutler Creek's main thoroughfare back to his ranch house, unconvinced by the things Slade had told him, unconvinced by Slade. The strange red and black attire, the hole in his cheek—man wasn't to be trusted even without the horsefeather stories. And Blind Annie encouraging things, and Pedro with his man-beasts, and the Pastor with his faith. Whole town had lost its mind. Grady knew that much. Wolves or coyotes in packs, rabid or otherwise diseased. That was the root of his trouble. Not in no fanciful notions of mutants and ogres. It was 1871 for crying's sake, days of telegraphs and railroads and oil lamps. Science, not no childish tales of bogeymen. Townsfolk ought to grow up.
Grady reached his ranch house and was greeted by Nathan Brannon, the ex-slave ranch hand who worked his property. Brannon had his own superstitions, even less credible than those of Cutler Creek. When he saw Grady approaching he ran to him in apoplexy.
"Mr Grady, sir, something happened to the herd, sir."
"Oh, no, sir! Cleared away last night's bones, sir, incinerated 'em with all the others, just like you told me to. But when I was out riding, checking up on other steers, I sees they not moving so well, sir, slowly like. I gets down from the sorrel for a closer look. That's what I did, sir."
He paused, as though he didn't want to speak any more.
"What is it, Nathan?"
"Disease, sir. Cattle got the pox."
Grady's face soured.
"Get me my horse, Nathan."
A few minutes later the two men were mounted and out on the cattle's grazing land. Grady knew from a distance his cattle had been struck down. For one, Nathan wouldn't lie to him, least of all about something so serious at such a serious time. For two, he had a feeling, and it wasn't a good one. His mind went back to Cooper Slade. He sensed Slade had been here, bent on sabotage, not help. The man's grey, ugly face came clear in Grady's mind. It didn't seem human. Something didn't add up.
Grady dismounted and examined the cattle. There was no mistaking it. The animals were afflicted. Udders dotted with pustules, some seeping yellow-green goo. The disease was advanced.
"Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!" Grady yelled. "Damned herd gonna have to be culled 'fore this goddamned disease spreads to townsfolk. Nobody ain't gonna buy no beef from Emmet Grady when they hear I got a herd full o' pox. God dammit! What in tarnation's name brought this damned trouble upon me?"
Blind Annie's words rang in his ears: Land's cursed.
"There's another thing, sir," Nathan said, quietly.
"You better have some good news for me, Nathan, or hell I might blow my top and blow half of Cutler Creek with me."
"Spit it out, boy."
"Well, sir, reason I was out checking on the herd was I thought I saw something, sir... someone, like... acting all mischievous, out by the fencing on the south side."
"You get a description?"
"No sir. Was too far away. Though man—sure I am it were a man, sir—had a funny red hat, wore red pants, too. Horse were unusual and all, sir, red as a Mexican chilli it were."
Nathan had confirmed what Grady knew—that Cooper Slade was no friend. If he'd done this, then sure as sugar's sweet he'd mutilated the herd, too. There and then, Grady swore to find Slade and hang him from the nearest bough.
"You done me proud, Nathan," Grady sighed, gripping the ranch hand's shoulder, his usually warm, pleasant face now a dark visage of retribution. "A good job. Now, this fellow you saw, name's Cooper Slade. Was in Pedro's just today. Talking up. Claims he's a tracker o' some kind. Claimed too he knew what'd been killing my steers, and how to stop it. Some horse manure notion o' monster."
Nathan's eyes widened when he heard this, his bright white orbs dazzling sharply against his deep brown skin. Grady saw the reaction.
"Now you listen to me, Nathan. I ain't got no truck for any o' this fanciful jargon. You hear me?"
Nathan nodded rapidly.
"Good. Now I was suspect o' this Slade fellow from the first. Ugly critter in chichi clothing. That's two plus two falling short to three, I says to myself. Instincts ain't never been wrong."
Nathan composed himself.
"What you gonna do, Mr Grady?"
"Two things. First, find him. Second, kill him."
Dusk came quickly over Cutler Creek. Just outside the town, a complex of caves opened the earth's crust like gaping wounds of black blood. From a distance, sitting still on his red-skinned mare, Cooper Slade stared unblinkingly at them. He'd travelled a long way to get here, distances across time and space that few but his quarry could contemplate. The same quarry now holed up in somewhere in those hollowed out rocks. Now that the chase was almost complete—that the prey had been tracked to one of its many worldly lairs—made it essential that the next move was the right one. The trap had been set. Inflicting Emmet Grady's herd with the pox was a necessary evil. Grady would be none too pleased, but he'd come good. Fact was, nightmare was coming to an end.
The gibbous moon appeared from behind a charcoal coloured cloud, and as it did, the beast appeared from one of the caves. Erect, nine feet tall, the muscular minotaur stood sniffing the night air. Naked bar a loincloth, the man's body was crowned with the head of a ferocious bull. A gold ring—thick as a thumb, circumference of a stirrup—swayed gently through its pierced snout. This was the cattle killer. A direct descendant of the ancient Mediterranean beast. Cooper Slade tensed himself. Left hand on the reins, he took the revolver from his right holster, span the chamber across his thigh and listened to the reassuring click.
He didn't expect to hear a second click behind him, but nor was it a surprise.
"Drop the iron, skunk, and raise your hands."
Slade gently returned the revolver to its holster and stretched his arms high above himself.
"I told you to drop it."
"No need. Save your talk for the devil."
"You got me all wrong, Mr Grady."
"So you remember me, skunk?"
"I'm here to help you."
"Funny way o' showing it. My boy tells me you diseased what's left o' my herd. All got the pox now. Have to be culled. And that's gonna cost Emmet Grady a packet."
"You'll be compensated."
"Compensated? Take more than a silver dollar a head replace what I've lost."
"You'll get more."
"Damn right I will. Starting with a rope necklace round your throat. Something strange about you, Slade. Knew it from the off. Not just your ugly mush, either. Now, slowly undo your belt and let it to the ground."
"Mr Grady, I understand how this might look to you, but you've—"
"Drop the belt skunk!"
Grady stepped closer, shoved the barrel of his Winchester into the small of Slade's back.
"That be a Winchester, skunk. It don't listen to no reason, just obeys my orders. Now you obey my orders."
Slade couldn't obey, and knew too that he couldn't reason. His eyes were still fixed on the minotaur, which sensed something in the air but couldn't identify what or where it was. It lay down, flat on the ground and sniffed. In a second it was upright again, bounding off at speed towards Cutler Creek and Emmet Grady's ranch. Slade was glad of the precautions he'd taken.
"Okay, Mr Grady. You just be careful with that rifle."
Slade lowered his right hand and undid his belt, then gripped it and swung it behind him with the force and speed of a trapping locomotive. A dozen lead bullets, strapped neatly to the leather, slapped hard across the right side of Grady's face. The impact sent Grady off balance and his hat off his head. Still in the saddle, Slade twisted his upper body round, unholstered a pistol from the swinging belt and fired a single shot into the rancher's right shoulder. The Winchester fell to the floor, Grady shrieked, Slade dismounted. He stood square in front of Grady, pistol aimed low at his belly.
"I didn't mean that, Mr Grady, but I had to."
"What in tarnation you playing at, skunk?"
Grady stooped forward slightly, his left hand pressed firm against his wounded right shoulder, blood seeping through his fingers.
"I told you Mr Grady, I'm here to help you. Seems you think otherwise."
Grady winced. "You give me a reason not to?"
"Ain't no time to talk now, Mr Grady. Your herd gonna be attacked soon, and I don't think your ranch hand got the mettle to face what's coming."
"I swear to you, skunk—"
"Now if you ain't gonna stay put, I'm gonna have to shoot you again. In the leg. I don't want that, and I don't think you want it either."
Grady gritted his teeth.
Grady nodded. "Right."
"Now leaves me be. Your boy's in as much as danger as what's left of your cattle."
Slade mounted his horse. The animal reared and galloped away.
Steed and rider reached Emmet Grady's ranch too late. Slade found Nathan Brannon in the ranch house, frozen in terror. He took whiskey from the kitchen and forced it down the stricken man's throat.
"I...I...I...I seen s...something, sir, I t...tried something, sir."
Brannon was delirious, sat on the floor with his knees to his chest and his arms locked around them, rocking from side to side.
"It still here?"
Brannon shook his head.
"Did it attack the cattle?"
"That's something then. Look, Nathan, you get yourself down to the saloon, stay there. Tell Pedro I sent you."
Brannon didn't move, just continued to rock.
"I ain't carrying you there."
Slowly the ranch hand stood.
Slade motioned to the whiskey. Brannon gripped the bottle neck like his life depended on it.
Slade saw that Brannon left before mounting his mare and riding back to the caverns.
He didn't check on Grady when he arrived, instead making straight for the cavern where he'd seen the minotaur appear. He dismounted, took a rag torch from his saddle bag, lit it, and entered the hollow rock. Bats flew out at the sight of the bright orange flame, screeching like mice half-trapped under boulders. Slade continued further into the cave, until he reached a large open area, illuminated with sconces affixed to the interior walls. In the centre, on its back, covered in seeping buboes, lay the minotaur, too weak to stand. Hearing Slade's footsteps it slowly turned its head to face him.
"So, Cooper Slade, finally you've caught up with me," it said, its voice firm but faint. "After all this time."
"After all this time."
"Patience. Strength. Necessity."
"What you do to the ranch hand?"
"Nothing. He saw me. I terrified him. That was enough."
"Clever thing you did, giving the cattle the pox like that."
"Back up. Hoped to reach you before you took off for your supper. Had to disease the herd just in case I didn't. Hero of a land owner held me up on a mistaken wrap."
The minotaur wailed in pain. "More fool him."
"He couldn't know otherwise."
The minotaur shifted slightly, trying to increase its comfort. It scratched ceaselessly at the myriad pustules, incapable of satiating the incessant itch. It stared at Slade with an expression of magnified pity, contempt and hubris.
Slade took a medium-sized copper canteen from his pocket.
"Know what this is?"
The minotaur made a gesture that it did.
"Drink it, you'll be cured."
Slade walked slowly towards the beast.
Slade bent down, and poured the liquid across the minotaur's cracked lips and into its dried mouth, continuing until the canteen was empty. He stood and stepped back. Watching the bull-man he saw the pustules and buboes heal and disappear, one by one.
A heinous smile spread across the minotaur's mouth, a crooked, beastly grin.
"Compassionate fool," it sneered. "You coming over to the dark side?"
Slade said nothing. He stepped back.
Leaping to its feet the minotaur sprang at the hunter, arms and legs fully stretched, ready to devour its saviour in an instant.
Slade had already stepped back again in anticipation of the creature's move. He fired six times, alternating the shots between the revolvers he held in each hand. All six bullets slammed into the minotaur's chest. The thing fell hard onto the stony cavern floor.
"Compassionate, but I ain't no fool. And I ain't no beast like you. I don't kill the sick, the dying, the weak, the defenceless. That ain't no fair fight. I gave you that elixir surely so's you'd regain your health. Even it all up. I can kill a strong minotaur in full attack. No compunction to kill a dying one."
The beast tried to speak, but couldn't. The last air had gone from its lungs, the blood flowed freely from its mouth. Its eyes rolled back, its life expired.
Cooper Slade bent down and tore the gold ring from the minotaur's nose. Its value would be more than enough to compensate Emmet Grady.
Christopher Bleakley is a lawyer who suffering legal nightmares during the day likes to relax with literary nightmares in the evenings. A fan of weird fiction since childhood he has been writing short stories in various genres for the last few years, but not nearly as many as he would like to.