Authors: Ben Brown
Deep in the back of Jonathan’s mind, a voice screamed at him to pick up the weapon and keep fighting. As much as he wanted to comply with the voice, his body simply would not respond to his force of will. The blow from the creature’s head had temporarily severed the link between mind and body.
Jon could vaguely see teeth rushing at him again, but he could not place any danger with the image. He knew the teeth meant pain and possible death, but his concussed brain could not link the thoughts to either action, or fear.
Callum watched on as his father battled the creatures. Sally’s screams had subsided to a mere whimper, and now she too watched as Jonathan Wentworth split the skull of one of the creatures with the ease of a skilled logger.
Like a caged lion, Hector began to pace hither and thither, howling as he went. Callum stabbed his knife into the ground before him, and unshouldered his bow. He quickly put an arrow to string, and pulled back ready to fire on the last of their attackers. But like his father, on recognizing their pastor he froze.
He watched as Pastor McCullum barreled into his father, taking him to the dirt. He watched as his father blocked the creature’s attack by placing his tomahawk between himself and the monsters bloodthirsty mouth. Finally, he watched as the creature head butted his father, apparently knocking him out.
Callum knew he should react, but fear held him with the strength of steel restraints. His father was going to die, and he seemed unable to help. Suddenly, Hector let out a bloodcurdling howl, and then charged at the creature pinning his father. The dog’s chilling howl severed the bonds of fear holding Callum, and with bow still raised and taut with arrow, he leaped off in pursuit of his trusty dog.
Hector hit the creature hard in its side, sending it flying off his master. Both dog and creature landed in a tangled heap of gnashing teeth and guttural growls. Hector quickly disengaged from the creature, and took up a defensive position in front of his fallen master.
The slavering beast, which had once held Sunday service, rocked back and forth as if trying to calculate its next move. In an instant, it sprang for Hector.
By the time Callum had gotten to his feet, all fear had left him. He now saw the truth of his situation. Either he acted like a man, in other words, like his father, or they would all die. With that realization ringing in his mind, the moment he got a chance at a clear shot he took it. A calm fell over him as he let loose his arrow.
He felt no guilt, no sorrow. He knew the thing his arrow would slay was no longer Pastor Jacob McCullum. He knew an ungodly abomination had replaced the man who had read to him from the bible. His arrow was an act of kindness. It would release the pastor into the hands of God, where he belonged.
His arrow flew with unerring accuracy, and found the creature’s eye. The handcrafted shaft—tipped with steel and guided by feather—cut the nightmare down with ease. But more importantly, before it could do further harm to his kin.
As the creature fell, Callum dashed to his father’s aid. Jonathan still seemed dazed, but he appeared to be regaining his senses. Callum turned his gaze to Hector. The dog stood over the creature, sniffing and wagging its tail. Then, in a final gesture of triumph, he cocked his leg over the dead creature, and let loose a stream of urine. The dog then barked and kicked two small piles of dirt in the creature’s face. Once hector seemed satisfied with his work, he moved happily to Callum’s side.
“Son, you did mighty well just then.”
Callum’s gaze returned to his father. “Really, Pa? I … I locked up for a second. When I saw yonder monstrosity was Pastor McCullum, well, it nigh on took the wind out of me.”
Jonathan offered his hand to his son, and Callum pulled him to his feet. “The same damn thing happened to me, so it ain’t nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Pa, you just cursed.”
Jonathan laughed. “I’m sure the Lord will forgive me. How’s Sally?”
Both Wentworths looked towards the pale faced young girl sitting in the dirt. She looked around blinkingly, and then struggled to her feet.
“I owe the two of you my life,” she said as she stumbled towards them. “Daddy is still in town, but the place is overrun with …” she looked at the four dead creatures one at a time. “… those things.”
Jonathan placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and asked, “What happened?”
The three shaken New Englanders, along with trusty old Hector, moved to a nearby fallen tree. The two Wentworths and Sally settled on the log. Hector curled up at Callum’s feet as Sally began to recount her story.
“Twas the evening before last when we saw the first of those … things. Jack Minster, you know him, he always hung around outside daddy’s shop.”
Jon pulled his pipe and began to pack it with tobacco. “Ain’t he the fella who used to look after the church for the pastor?”
Sally nodded. “That be the fella. Well, he slept out past the church, in that old barn just off the main road. He kept it pretty nice, considering his gammy leg and all. Anyhow, he came running into town, or at least running as much as a fella with a clubfoot can run. He started screaming blue murder about a bunch of fellas eating his pig. Daddy ran out of the store and took him by the arm, and he says, ‘Now calm down, Jack, and tell us what the heck it is you are talking about.’ Jack took a couple of gulps of air and he replied, ‘A bunch of fellas are eating my pig alive!’
“Well, by the time he finished his tale, half the town was stood around him. Half the folks are laughing, the other half are just rolling their eyes. Jon, you know how old Jack was. He told more tall tales than anyone in this here county.”
Jon nodded as he sucked on his pipe. He then looked briefly at his son, and started circling a finger slowly in the air, indicating for Sally to get to the meat of her story.
“Almost everyone started to head back to where they had come from, but before they had gone more than a few yards, a groaning filled the air. Everyone turned towards the groans, and we saw six or seven of the strangest looking fellas you’ve ever seen heading straight up the middle of Main Street. At first, I guess they kinda just shambled towards us, but then their whole demeanor changed. It was as if they suddenly realized we were there, and seeing us flicked some kinda switch in their heads.
“Next thing I remember is they had Jack and two other men, I can’t remember who the other two were.” She looked at the Wentworths with pleading eyes. “You have to understand, all this seems like a nightmare to me, and like a nightmare, as time passes my memories blur. At least some of my memories are. What happened next will haunt me for the rest of my days. You see, those things had the men on the ground, and they…” Sally stopped her tale and shuddered slightly.
Totally enthralled by the recount of her past few days, Callum leaned towards her and uttered in little more than a whisper, “What, Sally, tell us I beg. What happened next?”
Sally’s hand went to her eye and she wiped away a solitary tear. “They started eating the three they had on the ground. Those things, those affronts to God, just started to rip the men apart. At first, no one moved. I think none of us could believe our eyes. Then the men under attack started screaming, and suddenly panic filled the crowd.
“Next thing I know is, everyone is running. This spurred the monsters into more of a frenzy. The things jumped up and just started grabbing and biting people at random. They didn’t seem to want to eat them, not like the fellas on the ground; they just wanted to bite as many people as they could.
“Old woman Jones started shouting stuff about demons, and how the Cove had been cursed, but one of those things clamped its mouth around hers, and tore of half her face. She ran off holding the tattered remains of her cheeks, and I just dropped to my knees.” Sally started to sob, but quickly regained herself. She shifted slightly, and then stoically continued.
“It was then daddy grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the store. The only man that didn’t run was the pastor. He moved to help the men on the ground, the ones still suffering the most. One of the things feeding on poor old Jack turned as quick as a snake and latched onto his arm. A second later, the pastor was screaming in agony.
“Daddy dragged me to the store, and then threw me inside. He quickly grabbed his gun, and then turned and ran back out into the street. There was mayhem out there, but daddy stayed calm. He raised his gun and shot the one latched to Pastor Jacob, and it flew backwards and released the pastor’s arm. He didn’t wait to see if it was dead, instead he dashed over to the pastor and pulled him away. The one he’d shot now had a hole in its guts, but it just got straight up and started after the two of them. Daddy threw his gun at it, and dragged the pastor into the store. We quickly locked the door, and then took him upstairs.
“From the upstairs window, I watched as the things circled the street. Daddy wrapped the pastor’s arm, but he said it would do no good. Sure enough, a minute or two later, the pastor died … or at least we thought he did.
“We headed downstairs to see if we could head over to the town hall. The creatures in the street were milling around now, and they seemed uninterested in the men they had killed. Daddy told me to keep my eye on then while he looked for something to use as a weapon. Suddenly, old Jack got up with half his guts hanging out, and started acting like the other things. Then the other two fellas did the same. I started thinking about the pastor upstairs. But before I could warn daddy, the pastor came crashing down the stairs groaning and frothing at the mouth.
“Daddy shouted at me to run, so I did. I headed for the back door and bolted for the woods.”
Sally started to cry, and Jonathan wrapped his arm around her. “You had no choice, Sally. You did the right thing.”
She sniffed loudly, and then struggled on. “I hid in the woods all night. It was mighty cold, but I was too scared to head back, and too scared to run. Morning came, and still I hid. Finally, I forced myself to head back to town. At first, the place seemed quiet, but I had hardly set a foot into town before those things spotted me and started to chase me. I caught a glimpse of daddy as I ran. He was covered in blood, but he was still there.”
Jon looked towards the Cove, then at Callum. Jonathan could see his son thought the same as he. Hope Cove was lost. “Sally, are you sure there were only six or seven of those creatures?”
“That means there are another seven or eight of them heading elsewhere,” Callum said coldly.
“You mean there are more of those things!” Sally exclaimed.
“A lot more now. We have to assume everyone in Hope Cove has turned.”
Sally shook her head fervently. “I saw daddy, he was hurt, but he was alive.”
Jonathan banged out his pipe and placed it back in his pocket. “Sally, you saw what happened to the pastor and the others. Those creatures have a curse on them. A curse that passes through their bite. You said the damned things bit a great many people; those people too now carry the curse. We have to assume those people changed just as the pastor did. We have to assume your father has fallen to them too.
“Callum and I were heading to Franklin Town, but now I think we must make haste for Boston. People need to be warned, and I think it best you come with us.”
Sally’s gaze turned in the direction of her home, and she began to weep. The Wentworths allowed her her grief, and she cried openly for several minutes. Finally, Jonathan placed a hand on her shoulder and she nodded slowly.
She looked at Jonathan, and her once pretty young face seemed to have transformed into something old and world-weary. Suddenly, Jon felt as if none of them would ever know happiness again.
“We still have the rest of the day in front of us,” he said as he offered her his hand. “I suggest we put as many miles between us and the Cove as we can.
“Callum, help me collect up our arrows, and don’t forget your gun.”
Once the Wentworths had retrieved all their weapons, the three headed off at a brisk pace.
Boston sat one hundred miles to their south west, a four-to-five day hike from the Cove. Between the Cove and Boston lay more than a dozen small settlements, all of which held between several hundred, and several thousand people. As well as the settlements, countless homes like those of the Wentworth’s were hidden throughout the forests.
Before his encounter with the creatures, and before Sally’s tale, he had based all his assumptions about the godless things purely on what Callum had read to him from Captain William Matthews’ log. The good captain’s entries painted the creatures as mindless and unthinking. Since his encounter with them, Jonathan now saw the things in a new light. He still believed them mindless, but he now also believed a primitive instinct drove them. Much in the same way instinct drove all beasts. It was a base instinct, a simple need for self-preservation. This instinct resides in every living thing on Earth. It needs no thought, no planning, just actions and reactions. The same instinct can be found in even the lowliest of creatures on the planet. Simply put, kill or be killed.
As they walked, his mind went to Sally’s tale repeatedly. It troubled him to think the creatures seemed intent on not only feeding, but biting too. This inferred they had not only a survival instinct, but also some deep-seated need to spread. Did they know their bite spread the disease? Was it their way of increasing their numbers?
If the answer to both questions were yes, then his beloved nation and the world at large would be in a great deal of trouble. Because of what he had witnessed and heard from Sally, he now felt sure the creatures were hunting out victims. This meant they would be looking for settlements, towns, and cities. He knew the ghouls had no idea or concepts of such things. He knew they only saw them as a source of food and a breeding ground to create more of their own.
Callum’s voice tore Jon from his deep and troubling thoughts. He turned and looked at his son.
“I think we should stop for a bite to eat,” Callum said as he looked at Sally. “We’ve been walking for a goodly time, and we could all do with the rest.”
Jonathan nodded, unshouldered his pack, and handed it to his son. “Could you share out the dried meat, also some of the bread.”
Callum took the pack and asked, “Why do you want me to do it?”
“I need to take care of my necessaries. Yonder bush will do just fine.”
His son nodded and started rifling through the pack. Jonathan went to turn, but suddenly felt as if they were not alone. He felt as if watchful eyes studied them. He turned his gaze back along the track, then to the forest around them.
After a few moments, the sensation passed. He normally trusted his instincts without question, but he realized their situation might be affecting his senses. He forced the feeling from his mind, and then headed towards the bush so he could ease at least some of his discomfort.
Jonathan unbuttoned his trousers, and squatted down. However, before he had time to relieve himself, he heard movement to his right. He quickly stood, buttoned his trousers, and pulled his tomahawk from his belt.
“You will not need that, my friend.”
Jon spun on his heels. To his left, stood a tall and strikingly handsome Indian brave. Jonathan shook his head slightly and smiled. He had just fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. He now realized the movement and noise to his right had only one purpose, a distraction. Cardsharps often used the same technique; keep the sap watching one hand while the other worked the real magic. The magic of relieving their marks of as much of their hard-earned money as they could.
Jonathan berated himself internally for the ease with which the brave had caught him off guard. He had lived in the woods his whole life, and he knew not only every branch, but also every sound and smell too. The ease with which his young friend had just bamboozled him was unforgivable. Yet, he knew why the brave had done it, and he knew he had it coming.
He had known this fine young man since birth, and he had always joked that he could hear his approach from a mile away. He and the brave’s father had often taken him hunting with them, and Jon had always teased the boy about how heavy-footed he was. He had always insisted the brave would never catch anything off guard. Not a deer, nor an enemy. Naalnish had just proved him wrong, and Jonathan Wentworth felt extremely foolish. The brave had literally caught him with his pants down.
“Naalnish, I am truly clad to see you,” Jon said as he holstered his weapon, and then offered the brave his hand.
The young brave’s handsomely chiseled face erupted into a broad smile, revealing gloriously white teeth. “And I you.”
At that moment, Naalnish’s brother, Elsu, joined them, but kept a respectful distance from his older brother and Jon.
“My father sent me to find you,” Naalnish said as he gestured for his younger brother to leave them. Like a ghost, Elsu evaporated into the trees.
“Callum is preparing some food in yonder clearing. Why not join us?”
Naalnish looked towards Jonathan’s son and nodded.
“Good. Now if you will excuse me, you kinda caught me in the middle of something.”
The brave laughed, and headed off towards the rest of Jonathan’s little group.
Jonathan reappeared a few minutes later. After washing his hands in a nearby stream, he rejoined the group.
“Naalnish, why did your father send you to find me?” Jonathan asked as his hand absentmindedly went to the tomahawk Naalnish’s father had given him.
“Four of our young braves were sent out on a hunt; it was their first and marked their move into manhood. Only one returned. He told of creatures that looked like men, but killed like wolves. He told of how his fellow braves had fallen, and of how one of the creatures had bitten him. A few hours later he died, only to awaken as one of the creatures himself.
“My father killed the brave by crushing his head with a rock. He then ordered scouting parties be sent out to see how widespread these things were. The scouts returned and all told the same tale. Most of the settlements in and around the Cove have fallen to these creatures, and they have reached as far as Franklin Town.
“Father is taking the tribe to our northern hunting grounds, and he wanted you and your family to come with us. Because of all you have done for us, our tribe greatly respects you. You and yours are now part of our people, so Elsu and I were given the task of bringing you to safety.”
Jonathan let out a loud sigh and slowly shook his head. “These monsters are spreading fast. As far as Franklin Town you say?”
Naalnish nodded grimly. “Yes, and every day their numbers grow ever higher.
“While I tracked you, Elsu kept watch. He spotted a group of them moving this way, which makes me think they are tracking you too. He came and warned me of their approach, so we headed off on horseback to intercept them. Our horses are the finest around, but we still had trouble running them all down. They are as fast and agile as any horse or deer, but fiercer than a wolf or mountain lion. We finally caught them and slaughtered them all, but it was a hard battle, and they almost bettered us.
“Father says the cold of the north will slow them, and the snows will keep us safe. You and yours must come with us; otherwise, you may not live beyond the years end. What do you say, Jonathan Wentworth? Will you and yours head north with us?”
Jon bit at his dried meat, and then looked towards Boston. “My wife and daughter are that way, not north.”
“Then it is your duty to find them, but why don’t you let me take your son and this girl with me?”
“I thank you kindly for your offer, Naalnish, but my boy stays with me. Sally on the other hand, well, she is welcome to do as she pleases.”
Naalnish looked at the frightened young girl. “Would you come with me?”
Sally shook her head demurely. “I thank you, but I think I’ll stick with these here two.”
Naalnish rose. “We have four extra horses; we brought them for your family. You are welcome to them.”
Jon stood and shook the brave’s hand. “That’s rightly nice of you.”
“Keep to the roads, Jonathan Wentworth,” Naalnish said as he pressed a clenched fist to his chest. “The forests will soon be full of the creatures.”
Jon placed a clenched fist to his heart and replied, “Your words are wise, Naalnish, and your generosity humbles me.”
Naalnish gestured to his left. “Elsu is waiting with our horses some half a mile from here. We should hurry, as the day draws to an end.”
The small group hurriedly packed away their gear, and allowed Naalnish to lead the way. Twenty minutes later, the Wentworths and Sally Hopkins headed towards Boston once more, only this time they were on horseback and kept firmly to the road.
At first, Sally seemed uneasy with the idea of riding bareback, but after a few miles her unease seemed to pass and she settled into the union between rider and horse. She even allowed herself a small smile, which seemed to lift years from her face.
They made their way towards Boston, and what they hoped would be a happy reunion with the ones they loved. They still had a long way to go, but the horses would ease their journey.
As the horses walked slowly along, Jon pondered Naalnish’s words and the doom they had predicted. He prayed he was doing the right thing by keeping Callum and Sally with him. As he contemplated his concerns, his eyes drifted to his son.
Callum was turning into a fine young man, but he was still just a boy, and still his son. All, including his son and Sally, would need to do grievous things over the coming days. He had no doubt about the fact they were riding into danger, a danger he had no idea whether they could survive. Was it right putting two such young and inexperienced people in such a danger?
It was true Callum had proven his salt in their clash with the creatures, but that fight differed greatly from a full out battle. If they became overwhelmed, could Callum look after himself? Also, what of Sally. Could she even handle a weapon?
As Jonathan Wentworth worked all this over in his head, Hector ran to-and-fro behind them. Jon looked at the dog and envied his lack of thought. The hound had no idea of what faced them, and even if he did, Jon knew he would never leave their side. As he marveled at the dog’s loyalty, he realized he had made the right decision. No matter what, families always stuck together. His wife and daughter were in danger, and it was his and Callum’s duty to find them.
He now also knew there were no longer two women in the Wentworth family. Now there were three. Sally, through no fault of her own, was now a Wentworth. She may not know it yet, but Jonathan would die before seeing any harm befall her. As far as he was concerned, she was as much his responsibility as the rest of his family, which meant he needed to keep her close. Right or wrong, the Wentworths would stay together, or die trying.