Ken was a successful software engineer by trade, but a paleontologist by passion. He paid a big chunk of money each year to lease the CTH Ranch for the entire month of September to dig for fossils, and he saved all his vacation time and personal days for this annual trip. Over the last decade and a half, he had dug up a Hadrosaur skull, two Triceratops horns, and numerous isolated teeth and claws, but his dream find was a Tyrannosaur skull. He’d learned how to dig out and prep fossils from some of the best experts in the field, and took satisfaction in knowing that all his specimens were handled by no one but himself, from the day they were dug until he placed them in the sealed glass cases where he displayed them.
As he carefully probed the decayed sandstone around the bones, he could tell there was more bone extending beneath the dirt he hadn’t yet moved. The teeth were long and serrated, and as he finished exposing them, he knew he had finally found at least part of his dream. But was the rest of the skull there? Only more digging would answer that question. He covered the bone with a sturdy piece of cloth and then got ready to attack the side of his hole with the shovel again, peeling back the overburden in the direction the bone seemed to be angled.
Before he could get even halfway down to the right layer, he heard the sound of a Mule four-wheeler approaching. He set the shovel down, wiped his face clean with a handkerchief, and looked down the slope as the owner of the ranch came riding up the hill.
“How goes the dig, Ken?” Benjamin McClinton asked him. Ben was a big man, a hair over six foot four, with a sturdy shock of white hair pulled back into a ponytail. He had owned the CTH ranch for forty years, ever since his father had died of a heart attack at the age of forty-two and left him with the hundred-thousand-acre spread. He liked Kenneth; the man paid him faithfully, every year, for the privilege of digging on the ranch, whether he found anything or not. Many ranchers dug and sold fossils themselves these days, but the income was never a sure thing, and hundreds of hours could be spent on a fossil that might not find a buyer, or might turn out to be worth less than anticipated. By leasing the ranch for 30 days at a time during the warm months when digging was possible, Ben had provided himself with a stable, steady income for the last fifteen years. But of the half dozen diggers who leased from him, Ken was his favorite. The engineer had been the first collector to approach him and had always treated him with great respect. The two men had an understanding; Ken would help Ben from time to time with ranch work when an extra pair of hands or eyes were needed, and Ben allowed Ken to use ranch equipment, and also made a standing offer to extend Ken’s dig time in the event of a major find that couldn’t be dug in a single month. Ken was also invited to the ranch house for dinner when he was digging – a privilege only rarely shared by Ben’s other clients. Simply put, the two men had developed a real friendship that went above and beyond their business arrangement.
“I think I hit the jackpot!” Ken said. “Looks like the premaxilla from a juvenile Rex, or maybe a Nanotyrannus – either way, it’s my best find here yet!”
“That’s awesome!” the big rancher said. “I know that’s your top bucket list item, so I hope the rest of him is there!”
“I’d be happy with just the head,” Ken replied. “I’d have to build a new wing onto my house to mount an entire skeleton!”
“Well, I hate to pull you away from a hot spot,” Ben told him, “but I could use a bit of help.” “What’s up?” the engineer asked, leaning on the Mule.
“Got a call from one of the ranch hands earlier,” Ben answered. “Something’s killed several head of cattle over on the far side of the ranch. Signal was crappy, I couldn’t make out half of what he said, but he sounded scared enough that I want to head on over. Would you come?”
“Something killed your cows? What you think, wolves?” Ken asked.
“Possibly,” the rancher replied. “Normally they only prey on cattle in the hard winter months – there is an abundance of game this time of year. But a mountain lion would only take one, usually a calf or a sickie, and grizzlies rarely attack cattle. I’m packing a couple of rifles and my .44; I didn’t like the way Jerry sounded in that call.”
“Loaded for bear, huh?” Ken said. “Count me in; this will make an interesting story at the office when I get home, anyway.”
“City slicker!” his friend laughed. “Let’s roll!”
Ken hopped in the passenger side of the Mule and they went bouncing across the ranch towards the dark, looming mountain that stood on the far property line. The ranch was so big, and the fossil strata on the western side of it so rich, that Ken had never explored the eastern half of the property.
“What’s that peak called again?” he asked. “Hell Creek Mountain,” Ben said. “It’s an outlier for the Rockies, the highest peak this far west for a hundred miles north or south. Nasty place. Granddad said the Indians hated it and called it cursed, and my Dad got so tore up by cactus when he tried to climb its western slope as a kid that he steered clear of the place for the rest of his life. Never seen cactus that big, or thorns that nasty, anywhere else in the badlands! But there’s some good pasture in the valley below it that stays green late in the year, and my cattle graze there every fall. Never lost more than one or two there in forty years, before this. Something’s not right -unless Jerry is pulling my leg.”
Ken knew Jerry Carwell slightly, and frankly thought the big cowboy too dumb to come up with such a prank – not to mention Ben was known to have a short temper when it came to such foolishness. But what could kill multiple cows in a single night? He hadn’t been raised as an outdoorsman but spending every September in Montana had taught him a lot about the local fauna, and he couldn’t think of any predator that could wreak such havoc – except for a pack of wolves. But why would a wolf attack on the herd spark panic in an experienced cow hand? He mulled the possibilities over in his mind as the sturdy Mule bounced across the rough, rocky ranch paths.
The grim peak of Hell Creek Mountain loomed larger ahead, the late afternoon sun doing little to illuminate the dark basalt and granite slopes. He could see the lower half of the mountain was covered in thick vegetation, mostly cactus at the lower elevations, giving way to scraggy, stunted firs and junipers higher up. The last thousand feet or so of the peak were bare stone, with a few white flashes of snow near the summit. Some mountains were beautiful, some even inspiring, but Hell Creek Mountain was ominous and forbidding, especially compared to the majestic Rockies that dominated the distant horizon to the east.
After about thirty minutes of jouncing along the rocky trail that aspired to be called a proper road someday, the Mule topped a ridge and the two men looked down at a green valley that stretched from the far side of the gully below them to the bottom slope of the mountain, a mile or so away. At the bottom of the gully, about fifty cattle huddled alongside the winding stream, bawling nervously. Across the grass behind them, Ken could see the huddled shapes of dead cows scattered across the field. He began counting, and then paused in disbelief. At least twenty cows lay dead in the rich prairie grass, but there was something gravely wrong. Even at a couple hundred yards’ distance, the carcasses looked smaller than they should have been, and the vultures that should have been feasting on them were nowhere in sight. In the middle of the field, they could see the ranch’s other Mule, but the four-wheeler was on its side, its top caved in, and of Jerry Carwell there was no sign.
“What the hell?” Ben said in shock, then gunned the Mule down the slope and across the rocky stream towards the remains of his ravaged herd. As they drew close to the first dead cow, the rancher stopped the ATV and got out. Ken climbed out and looked at the animal in disbelief, for it was not a dead cow they were staring at, but half of a dead cow. The animal’s body had been sliced clean in two just behind its shoulders, and a trail of blood and intestines led away, towards the next body, which was missing its head and one of its front legs. Dazed, the men went from one corpse to the next, finding all of them had been torn – cut – bitten? – sometimes in half, sometimes with just the heads or limbs removed.
“I don’t understand,” Ken said. “What could do this?”
“Nothing I’ve ever heard of,” the rancher said, “and my family’s owned this ranch for a hundred and thirty years now!”
Ken looked closer at the last cow they had approached. The animal’s hindquarters were gone, and a sticky green goo covered the ripped skin where they had been removed. The engineer leaned in and smelled a fetid, powerful odor that overpowered the stink of blood and bile from the ruined animal. He dipped one finger in the odd gel and yanked it back quickly. It had blistered his skin at the touch, and he quickly scrubbed it off with his handkerchief.
“What is that stuff?” Ben asked him.
“Some sort of lubricant, maybe,” the engineer said. “It’s highly acidic, but it doesn’t smell mechanical. I’m going to try and get some of it into a specimen jar – don’t touch it! Stuff burns skin on contact!”
He kept a half dozen baby food jars in his utility pack whenever he was digging, to keep small teeth and other microfossils in. He’d left his pack at the site but had one in his vest pocket. He’d stuck a couple of small Dromeosaur teeth in it earlier, but he transferred them to his shirt pocket and used his knife to scoop some of the foul smelling ichor into the jar, careful not to get it on him as he screwed the lid tight.
“Where’s Jerry hiding?” the rancher said.
“Let’s look at the Mule he wrecked,” Ken replied. “I hope he’s not pinned under it!”
They were a hundred yards from their own ATV and perhaps another hundred from the one Jerry had been using, so the two men walked rather than rode. As they got closer, they exchanged a concerned glance. The Mule was not just wrecked, it was destroyed – and like the cattle, it was not complete. From a distance, they thought the aluminum and vinyl top had been caved in, but as they got closer, they saw that most of it was gone – as was one of the front tires and about half the hood. When they got alongside the ruined ATV, they saw the damaged areas were slathered with the same green goo they’d seen on the mutilated cattle.
“I don’t like this one bit,” Ben said. “What could do this – rip those cows to pieces and destroy an ATV, too?”
The sun was westering, and as it shone across the lush green pasture, Ken saw a line of depressions in the field leading from the wreckage back towards Hell Creek Mountain. They were so large his mind denied the obvious conclusion at first, but the longer he looked, the surer he became.
“Ben,” he said. “I think, whatever it was, I’m looking at its footprints!” The rancher followed his pointing finger and swore.
“Nothing alive has feet that big!” he snapped.
Ken walked up to the clearest depression and looked down. It was three feet across and four feet long and looked like no footprint he’d ever seen. Six long, deep slashes extended from a massive round pad, four in front and two in back.
“No creature I’m aware of has six toes arranged like this, either,” he said. “Nothing alive on earth . . . and nothing that lived here in the past!”
“Looks like Jerry lost his boot,” Ben said, spying a cowboy boot lying a few yards away. Ken walked over to pick it up and was surprised by how heavy it was – until he turned it the other way and realized that the cowboy’s foot and ankle were still inside it. The brisket sandwich he’d eaten for lunch a couple of hours before came rushing up and he vomited into one of the nightmarish footprints.
“I think this may be all that’s left of Jerry,” he said, dropping the limb in horror.
“No wonder his call cut off so quickly!” Ben said. “Poor man was running for his life!”
Ken wandered over to the wrecked Mule and studied it more closely. Something black was jutting out from the engine block, and he pulled a pair of pliers from his pocket and began yanking on it. It took several pulls for him to get it free, but when it came loose, he just stared at if for a moment. The tooth was about five inches long, snapped off cleanly at its base. It was conical, and faint grooves ran down its sides. There was no front and back, no serrations, just a black spike of enamel that glistened in the fading sun. From the broken end, some of the same foul green slime that covered the car was dripping. Ben approached and stared at the tooth as the engineer held it in the pliers.
“That looks like it came from one of the critters you been digging up!” he said. “Well, look pardner, it’s getting dark pretty soon, and I don’t want to be out here when it does. I’m gonna grab our Mule, and we’ll load up poor Jerry’s foot and one of these cattle carcasses. When we get to the ranch house, I’m calling the sheriff and the game warden. Tomorrow we’re going to find whatever did this, and we’re gonna take care of it!”
“If it doesn’t take care of us first,” Ken said nervously. The sun was getting uncomfortably close to the horizon, and he was suddenly terrified of the thought of being stranded in the dark with some monstrous predator big enough to bite a thousand-pound bull in half. Ben trotted back to the Mule, moving fast for a man of sixty-five. Ken wiped the tooth off with his now-ruined handkerchief and dropped it in the side pocket of his cargo pants, then retrieved the bloody boot and its sad contents. Moments later, the Mule pulled up and he placed poor Jerry’s limb in the storage compartment. He hopped in and Ben steered them towards one of the smaller carcasses. This cow had been almost entirely consumed, with only its head and front legs left lying in the bloody grass. It still took both of them to hoist the remains onto the back of the ATV, and Ben swore as some of the toxic drool burned his hand. He secured the corpse to the Mule with bungee cords, and as he tightened them up, both men froze at the sound that erupted across the still evening.
It was a weird, ululating roar, a sound that was wholly alien, sending the surviving cattle into a panicked stampede – and it was coming from the mountain behind them. Ken grabbed a pair of binoculars that the rancher had left on the dash and swept his gaze across the slopes, trying to see the source. The bottom half of Hell Creek Mountain sprang into focus, and even a mile away he could see that it was covered with the densest growth of cactus he had ever seen. But as the westering sun’s rays hit the thicket, he could see a swath of cactus that were ripped up, mangled, and broken, leading straight up the side of the mountain. He followed the swath of devastation, which appeared to be almost fifty feet wide, up past the cactus and into the sparse forest above it. He could see the trees had also been pushed aside, uprooted, and smashed. Finally, his eyes came to rest in an opening in the side of the mountain. Fresh rubble and scree littered the slope below it, as if the cave’s entrance had been suddenly and forcefully enlarged. The mouth of the cave was black, the sun’s dying rays unable to penetrate its depths.
“Whatever it was, I see where it’s hiding,” Ken said, not taking his eyes away from the binoculars. Then, suddenly, something moved. What it was he saw, he could not say, then or later. But it was BIG, and even as his eyes tried to register it, that horrible screech came again, rolling down the mountain towards them, assaulting their ears with its unearthly tones.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” snapped Ben, and the younger man didn’t argue. As the remnants of the herd scattered in terror, he gunned the mule and didn’t let up on the accelerator until they were back at the ranch house, three miles away. Ben lived with his wife Peggy and his oldest boy, Tom, and Tom’s family – three sturdy boys, one young girl, and his wife Regina. There were also three full time ranch hands – two now, Ken sadly corrected himself. Peggy was the family’s cook and had laid out a magnificent spread for supper, but food was the furthest thing from the men’s minds as they pulled the mule into the tractor shed. Ben already had his cell phone out as they emerged from the tin building and began walking towards the ranch house. Ken listened to one side of the conversation as they crossed the front yard.
“Look, Jimmy, I don’t care if you believe me or not, I’ve got twenty dead cattle and one dead cowboy on my hands!” Ben snapped. “The cows have been bitten in half, Sheriff! What does that?” He paused for a moment, then spoke again. “I don’t know, either, but whatever it is, it’s big, mean, and hungry! We’re going to need the heaviest weapons you got, and as many men as you can muster, as soon as it’s light.” He fell silent again, and then raised his voice in anger. “No, Jimmy, I have NOT been drinking, dammit! My dino digger was out there with me and he saw the whole thing – dead cows, poor Jerry’s mangled foot, and the tracks! This thing left footprints big as a bathtub!” The sheriff’s voice came of the line again, too faint for Ken to hear, but Ben cut him off. “Just get your lazy butt out here, sheriff! Bring all the deputies you can muster,” the rancher snapped. “You’ll believe me when you see what we brought back to the house!”
Ben disconnected and looked over at Kenneth with a rueful grin. “I donated to that moron’s campaign, and he hasn’t been worth two cow flops as sheriff,” he said. “Laziest public servant in the county, but I think I lit a fire under him. Our game warden’s a different story, though – Ronnie’s good people; his family’s been in the badlands longer than mine. Go on in and get cleaned up while I give him a holler.”
Ken walked into the dining room and told Peggy that something had happened to Jerry and that Ben was contacting authorities, then he went down the hall to the bathroom and scrubbed his hands and face, studying the blisters that had welled up on two of his fingertips where he’d touched the green slime on the cow’s body. Kenneth was not given to conspiracy theories and had always thought that Bigfoot and Nessie were just wishful thinking and hoopla, but he also was not one to ignore the evidence of his eyes and ears. There was something huge and predatory stalking the ranch, something whose anatomy did not correspond with any known creature living or prehistoric, which apparently had acidic saliva as well as massive fangs. Where did it come from? Why had it never been seen before? And most importantly, what could they do to kill or contain it? He wasn’t sure deer rifles would be enough to do the job.
After he got cleaned up, he went out on the front porch and found Ben smoking a cigarette. He knew the rancher had been trying to quit off and on for the last decade, and had largely succeeded, but he wasn’t going to begrudge his friend a smoke under these circumstances. “Got another one of those?” he said.
“I thought you quit,” Ben replied.
“I thought you did, too!” Ken quipped back, and the rancher chuckled and handed him a Marlborough.
Ken lit it and took a deep puff, cleared his throat, and looked at his host. “So what happens now?” he asked.
“Jimmy and Ronnie are both coming over now – they want to see what we brought back. Then tomorrow morning at first light we take a posse out and find this thing and see if we can figure out how to kill it.”
“You know, I love wildlife, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t like the idea of killing a one-of-a-kind creature out of fear,” Ken said. “But seeing what that thing did and imagining what it’s capable of – I think getting rid of it permanently is our only option.”
“Ronnie Singleton raised that issue as well, but I think he’ll change his tune when he sees what that thing has done,” Ben said. “Look, I don’t have much appetite after what we just saw, and you may not either, but we’re going to need our strength tomorrow, so let’s go eat. I don’t want to worry Peggy too much, but after I pack her and little Jennie off, I want to gather the menfolk and tell them what we’re up against. We’ll wait for the sheriff and the game warden, so we only have to explain it once. Now let’s get some dinner now while we can!”
Ken found his appetite had returned with a vengeance, and the pot roast and potatoes, with pinto beans and cornbread on the side, hit the spot with a vengeance. Peggy was upset about losing Jerry, and curious about what had happened, but the look Ben shot her when she tried to ask convinced her to save her questions for later. Dinner was just about done when Ben saw the headlights of a car turning off the county road down the long drive to the ranch house. The rancher stood, wiped his mouth, and turned to the men at the table.
“Fellas, I want y’all to come outside with me and Ken and see what’s happened today. It’s ugly business. Peg, you put Jennie on to bed, and I promise you I’ll explain the whole thing when we’re done outside,” he said. The men at the table pushed their chairs in and headed outside, following Ben towards the tractor shed. Sheriff Carson was the first to arrive, but Ronnie Singleton, the game warden, was only a couple minutes behind him. Ben tossed Kenneth the keys to the Mule and asked him to pull it out under the powerful halogen security light between the house and the tractor shed, since the last glow of twilight was rapidly fading. He then introduced the engineer to the two local officials, and then began to speak.
“Sheriff, Warden, I’m sorry to call you all away from your homes at suppertime, but we have a dead serious situation here. This afternoon I got a panicked call from Jerry Carwell, telling me something had killed a bunch of my cows – ‘ripped’em up good’ was how he put it. The signal was so bad I could only make out part of what he said, so I asked Kenneth here to join me and we headed over towards the mountain,” he began. “When we got there, we found twenty cows that had been torn or bitten in two, with parts and blood scattered everywhere.”
“Nothing can bite a cow in two, Benjamin,” interrupted Ronnie Singleton. “No American predator has a bite radius anywhere close to big enough!”
“You think I don’t know that?” Ben shot back. “Take a look!” Ken pulled away the tarp they had used to cover the carcass they’d brought back, and there was a collective gasp. Singleton overcame his shock first and knelt to study the massive damage.
“Don’t touch that green goop!” Kenneth said. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s highly acidic and blisters on contact.”
“I can vouch for that,” Ben said, holding up his burned hand. “I saved a sample,” said Ken, pulling the jar out of his pocket. “I think it’s some kind of venom.”
“Thanks,” Ronnie said. “I can send it off for analysis.”
“You can send this, too,” Kenneth said. “I pulled this out of the engine block of the wrecked Mule – it’s a tooth.” The men all clustered together to see the five-inch enamel dagger he’d pried loose from the Mule’s engine, and they all gasped at its size and sharpness.
“Kenneth, you’re the fossil guy,” Ronnie said. “Did any prehistoric animals have teeth like this?” “It doesn’t look like a reptile tooth,” Ken replied. “They tend to have a keel along one or two edges, and are also usually curved. This thing is just a straight up spike – it looks more like some of the large fossil fish teeth we find in the Cretaceous ocean deposits, but it’s larger and more robust than any fish fossil I’ve ever seen. The footprints we saw have no counterpart in the fossil record either – six claws on each foot, three in front and two in back. Whatever this thing is, it doesn’t seem to resemble any earthly life form I’m familiar with.”
“Now you need to see what it can do to a human,” Ben said. “This is all we found of poor Jerry.”
He lifted the boot with its grisly contents out of the Mule’s storage compartment, and group drew back at the sight. The sheriff, who had been silent so far, finally spoke up.
“Ben, I’m sorry I doubted you, but you have to admit your story sounded a lot more farfetched over the phone than it does now, looking at these remains,” he said. “I’ll see how many men I can rustle up by morning, and I’ll talk to Sergeant Wilson at the National Guard armory and see if he will let loose of some weaponry for us. He owes me a favor or two.”
“I’ll get the tooth and the venom sample shipped off to a state lab with highest priority,” Singleton said. “It’ll still be a few days before we hear back, but at least we’ll be able to get a better idea of what we are dealing with.”
“I’m hoping we’ll have a giant carcass for them to study by sunset tomorrow,” Ben said. “Or it may be some of us that wind up on a slab!”
“Or maybe in its gullet,” said Tom, Ben’s son. On that grim note the meeting adjourned.
The sheriff took custody of Carwell’s remains, and Ben dumped the cow carcass in a gully behind the ranch house where trash was buried. Ken headed for the ranch hand’s quarters, where he slept during his stays at the ranch, and reflected that fossilized monsters were infinitely preferable to the flesh and blood variety. He slept fitfully that night, visions of mangled cows and dismembered bodies woven into his dreams.
He woke at six, as the eastern sky was growing light, and dressed quickly. The smell of bacon, eggs, and biscuits filled the house. Peggy was bustling about the kitchen, her faced pinched with worry despite the smile she greeted him with.
“Kenneth, you look after my man out there today, and don’t let him do anything stupid,” she said. “I’ll do my best, ma’am,” he replied.
Tom entered the kitchen with his two boys, Frank and Jesse, trailing behind him. Frank was eighteen and Jesse fifteen; the latter was in the middle of a furious argument with his Dad.
“I want to go with you! You’ll need every pair of hands you can get, and every gun, too!” he insisted.
“Son, I don’t want to leave the women here without a man to protect them,” Tom replied. “If we fail to stop this thing, there would be nothing between it and our house! I know you’re nearly grown now, and I’m not treating you like a little boy – I’m trusting you to defend our family! So man up and quit arguing, please.”
Jesse sighed and sat at the table, where the rest of the family and the two remaining ranch hands joined the group. As they were finishing breakfast, they heard the sound of cars coming up the drive. Ben got up and looked out the window, and then turned to the group and smiled.
“Looks like eight or ten cars,” he said. “Sheriff came through for us!” The menfolk – with the exception of a still-surly Jesse – rose from the table, thanked Peggy and her daughter-in-law Sue for the meal, and headed outside to meet the posse. Ben knew just about everyone in the group; Ken had met three or four of the dozen men that gathered in the driveway before, but the only one he really knew was John Purvis, who operated the ranch next to Ben’s and was a frequent visitor to the CTH ranch. Every man had a rifle, and one was actually holding what appeared to be a small rocket launcher.
“Sergeant Wilson wanted to come, but he was on duty this morning,” Sheriff Carson. “I did talk him into letting go of a half dozen of these babies, though!” He reached into his pack and pulled out an Army issue hand grenade, generating some admiring comments. “I’m keeping two, giving two to Ronnie, and the other two to Ben,” he said. “They are ONLY to be used if firearms prove ineffective, though, am I clear? We have no idea exactly what we are dealing with, except that it is big, carnivorous, and dangerous. When we see it, light it up with all the firepower we’ve got, and we’ll use the grenades to finish the job if we have to.”
There were nods of agreement, and Ben stepped forward to speak.
“First of all, thank you guys for coming out to help me defend my property and my family,” he said. “I see most of you came in SUV’s, so you should be able to navigate the ranch roads well enough. We haven’t had any rain yet this fall, so everything is dry. Ken and I will lead the way in the Mule, with Tom and Frank riding flank in Tom’s Land Rover. The rest of you follow behind, and when I stop, you stop. Any questions?”
A young rancher named Jerry Tate spoke up. “Who gets to keep the horns, if it has any?” he asked. “Whoever kills it, of course!’ Ben shot back, and the group laughed. “Now grab your guns and gear and let’s get going!”
Within a few minutes, Ken found himself bouncing along in the passenger seat of the Mule, retracing their steps from the afternoon before. He looked over at the rancher and saw that Ben’s mouth was set in a straight line, his jaw clenched, and his eyes glittering with determination. His host glanced over at him, and his face relaxed a bit.
“This is a bit more than you bargained for, I know, Kenneth,” he said. “But I am glad to have you by my side today. Are you ready for this?”
The engineer nodded slowly. “As ready as a man can be to face the unknown,” he said. “I am curious about so many things! What is this creature, where did it come from, and why has it never been seen before?”
“My granddaddy said the Indians cursed that mountain and refused to go near it,” Ben told him. “Maybe they knew something dangerous was sleeping there.” “Perhaps,” said Kenneth. “We’re going to know more than we want to before this day is – oh my GOD!”
The Mule had just topped a small crest and was looking down into the bowl of the valley that lay before the one where Ben’s cattle had been slaughtered the previous day. The remaining herd had fled west, across the creek, away from Hell Creek Mountain, as the two men drove back to the ranch the night before. But they had not gone far enough. Scattered across the valley were the destroyed remnants of the rest of the herd – over a hundred cattle lay scattered, torn to pieces, some partly devoured and some simply killed, torn in two, and left where they lay. Not a vulture circled above them, not a bird sang, not a sound echoed across the valley except the engines of the vehicles pulling up alongside them. As the posse saw what they were looking at, the men climbed out of their vehicles, staring in disbelief at the carnage below. Ronnie Singleton surveyed the scene with binoculars and then approached Ben, shaking his head as he drew near.
“This isn’t normal predatory behavior,” he said. “Animals, with few exceptions, kill to eat, and eat what they kill. Only half those carcasses look devoured, or partially devoured. The rest were just torn up and left lying. There’s a real malice in this slaughter that is rare in the animal kingdom.”
“I agree,” said Ben. “Killing this thing seems like our only option at this point.” “I’m a lifelong conservationist,” the game warden replied, “but this is worse than any invasive species. We need to kill it till it’s completely dead and then kill it again!”
Ben turned to the group and raised his voice. “All right, men, this thing is ranging further afield than it did yesterday,” he said. “All the other dead cattle were on the other side of that far ridge, in the green valley at the foot of the mountain. Looks like our unknown creature has crossed the creek and moved into this valley now – and if it ranges that far again tonight, it’ll be in my back yard! So here’s my suggestion, sheriff. Let’s drive down to the middle of this valley, park our vehicles, and grab all our weapons. We’ll form a line a hundred yards wide or so, keeping some distance between us, and move towards the creek, then cross over and head towards the mountain until we find this thing.”
“Exactly what I had in mind,” said Sheriff Carson. “If you see it, open fire immediately, and everyone join in! I have a feeling it’s going to take every bit of firepower we have to bring this thing down. Saddle up, men, and when we get out of our vehicles, lock and load!”
The ten vehicles in the posse came roaring down the hill and spread out in the level valley, and then all of them came to a halt in the middle of the slaughtered herd. One by one, the members got out, armed with everything from deer rifles to elephant guns. Randy Hope, a recently discharged Army vet, shouldered a small rocket launcher. They formed up, spreading out over a hundred yards or so, and began advancing across the meadow. The ground sloped up on the far side of the valley, and below that ridge was the creek that wound between the two pastures. As they advanced, one of the ranchers Ken didn’t know called out from his right, about fifty feet away.
“What is this crap?” he asked, pointing in front of them. A massive pile of tarry black goop, about four feet across and two feet high, blocked their progress. Singleton, the game warden, approached it carefully, wrinkling his nose.
“I’d say that is the biggest animal dropping I’ve ever seen,” he said. He broke a limb off from a small bush and poked at the steaming pile. Something round was sticking out of the excrement, and when he pulled it clear and scraped the mess off of it, they caught a glint of white. It was a human skull.
“I’d say that’s what’s left of poor Jerry,” Ben said. Suddenly that weird ululating roar that had boomed across the valley the day before sounded again, shattering the stillness around them. It was so loud that that the ground shook, and Ken’s first thought was that whatever made it was much closer than it had been the day before. That was all he had time to think before the creature suddenly rose into view from beyond the ridge, creek water still streaming from its mouth.
Ever since seeing the slaughtered cows and the strange footprints the day before, Kenneth had been trying to visualize what sort of creature could cause such mayhem. But nothing he’d visualized came close to the pure horror that came stomping up the ridge towards the terrified posse at that moment. The sheer alien-ness of it was so stunning that every single member of the group froze in their tracks as it advanced towards them, covering ten feet per stride.
Its head was dominated by a three-lobed, burning scarlet eye – or was it three eyes clustered together? Above them waved three long, whip-like antennae or tentacles, and below the eyes was a nightmarish mouth filled with row after row of gleaming black teeth. It was roughly bipedal, with two stubby, batlike wings sprouting from its back, and six limbs – two long, multi-jointed arms with razor-sharp claws sprouting from seven digits on each paw; then below the arms, two much longer whiplike tentacles which had mouths on their ends, studded with smaller versions of the black, dagger-like teeth that filled its jaws. Its legs were sturdy and massively muscled, terminating on large, almost round foot pads with massive talons fore and aft. Its skin was a dark green and appeared to be covered with both fur and scales – fur on the lower body giving way to massive scales on its upper limbs, neck, and head. A thick, stubby tail swept from side to side behind it, studded with sharp, four-foot bony spikes all the way round its clublike tip.
Suddenly, crazed screams echoed off to the left as two members of the posse broke and ran, their minds shattered by the horror of what they were witnessing. One wandered into town a week later, mumbling and weeping incomprehensibly, while the other seemingly perished in the badlands, never being heard from again. For a moment, the remaining men looked at one another to see who else was going to run.
It was the sheriff who broke the spell that gripped them as the alien beast rapidly lumbered forward. “What are you boys waiting for?” he demanded. “Open fire – NOW!”
One by one, the rifles began booming, and the creature roared again as bullets thudded into its alien hide. The noise was so loud that the men staggered backwards, and Ken gagged as the choking fetor of the monster’s breath hit them. Randy Hope had shouldered his grenade launcher and was fumbling with the trigger, but unfortunately, he was also closest to the creature, and whether by design or alien intelligence, its triple gaze fixed on him first. The gaping maw opened even wider, and a massive pulsating tube-like appendage emerged. It suddenly contracted, and several gallons of the acidic black fluid Kenneth had seen the day before shot from it, soaking the head and shoulders of the unfortunate Hope. He dropped the launcher and shrieked as the venom ate through his skin and clothes, running in circles for a moment before collapsing.
The beast was on the move now, maddened by the stinging bullets that brought gobbets of black ichor flying on impact. One of its massive, multi-clawed limbs swept the sheriff up – he was still fumbling for one of his grenades when those awful teeth sheared him in two. The Montana ranchers were a brave lot, however – their numbers cut nearly in two, they redoubled their fire at the monster.
Kenneth looked over at Ben and yelled: “Aim for the eye!!!”
Both men leveled their rifles and fired at once, and one of the glowing red lobes ruptured in a flood of black fluid. The roar of anger and pain that followed was so loud that Peggy, back at the ranch house, heard it and shuddered. The beast charged into the midst of its tormentors, sweeping its massive tail about and impaling John Purvis through the midsection. The rancher still held onto his rifle and got off one last shot before the monster slammed its tail into the ground, crushing the life out of him. Benjamin McClinton stood calmly in the chaos, firing off the last round in his magazine and reaching into his backpack for one of the two hand grenades he’d been given by the sheriff. Suddenly one of the giant paws swept downward; it struck Ken a glancing blow, sending him flying, and scooped up the rancher, lifting him towards its tooth-studded maw. Just before those massive jaws slammed shut on his friend, Kenneth saw Ben yank the pin from the grenade. The monster’s head exploded in a cloud of black blood, green venom, gobbets of flesh and chunks of bone. Several gouts of ichor landed on Ken’s jacket, and he stripped out of the garment quickly, before they could burn through to his skin. The huge creature slowly swayed back and forth, its tentacles sweeping above its quadruple shoulders across the place where its head had been, and then it slowly toppled over, slamming into the ground with so much force that every man still standing was knocked off his feet.
Kenneth sat and stared at the twitching behemoth for what felt like a long time, until the spasming limbs finally ceased all motion. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see the game warden, Ronnie, standing behind him.
“You hurt?” he asked.
“No,” Kenneth said. “Just in shock, I think.”
“I need your help,” the warden said. “Let me organize these men and set them to work retrieving the bodies, and then there is something else we need to do.”
“Sure,” Ken said, struggling to his feet. Only five men besides him and Ronnie remained out of the baker’s dozen that had left the house, but he was glad to see that Ben’s son and grandson were among them.
“All right, men, let’s start by retrieving the bodies,” he said. “Be mindful of that green goop, it will burn your hands on contact, and its blood may be just as toxic. Tom, bring your Suburban over here and use it to transport the fallen back to the ranch house. If someone has a tarp or old blanket, I think it would be good to cover them. No one needs to see what’s left of our friends unless they have to. When you get them all loaded, I want you to call the number on this card and tell my boss what happened, then call the sheriff’s office and let them know, too.”
“What are you going to be doing while we do this?” Tom asked, still shaken by seeing his father’s gory but heroic death.
“I’m taking Ken and we are going to back track this beast and see where its lair is,” he said. “Above all, I want to make sure there aren’t more of these things.”
“I’m pretty sure it was hiding in that cave about halfway up the side of the mountain,” Ken said. “So we’ll need flashlights, maybe some rope - and are there any grenades left besides your two?”
Landon Spalls, the only deputy who had come with the sheriff, searched the half of the lawman’s body that had not been eaten and found the pack lying next to it.
“Here you go,” he said. “Sheriff Carson didn’t have time to get his hands on them.”
As Ken’s pulse slowed down, he realized the entire battle with the enormous creature had lasted no more than two minutes. He took a swig of water from his canteen and shouldered his rifle.
“That cave is nearly a mile away,” he said. “I’d suggest we use the Mule to get as close as we can.” “Good idea,” Ronnie said. “I’d like to be there and back as quick as possible – someone is going to have to explain all of this.”
They waited for a few moments, making sure that the men were all doing their assigned duties. Deputy Spalls was coming out of the torpor that had frozen him since the sheriff was killed in front of him, and now took charge of the recovery operation. The stench from the massive carcass was getting fouler by the minute, and as Ken watched, he saw its hide beginning to suppurate and liquify.
“It seems to be decaying at an accelerated rate,” he commented.
“Its tissue may be so alien to our world that the elements are corroding it,” Singleton said, hopping in the driver’s seat of the Mule. “Let’s get to that cave and see if we can figure out where this thing came from!”
There was not even a rough pretense of a road crossing the valley, and the lower slopes of the mountain were covered with rocks, scree, and uprooted cactus, so after a bouncy ride, they parked the Mule a short way up from the valley. As they disembarked and headed up the beast’s trail, Ken looked at either side and was struck by the bizarre desert flora. He had seen cactus and scrub trees before, but these were by far the biggest, thorniest, and most forbidding such growths he’d ever encountered. At the same time, none of them looked healthy. There was an aura of sickness and rot clinging to them, as if their size and huge thorns were a protest against some kind of cancer eating them up from the inside.
“I’ve never seen cacti like this,” he said.
“Looks like something that would grow near Chernobyl, if Chernobyl were in the badlands,” Singleton said.
As they neared the cave, they found themselves climbing over freshly fallen rocks and dirt, and the footing grew treacherous. Looking on either side of the rockslide, Ken saw that the cactus and scrub had assumed a sickly grey color, and the closer they got to the cave, the more stunted and diseased they looked.
Finally they arrived at the entrance, and the unmistakable odor of the beast washed over them again. Singleton pulled out two grenades and handed one to Ken, and then they switched on their flashlights and entered the massive opening. It was obvious that the monster had widened the exit to escape, but the further back they went, the more the cave opened up. Rounding a corner, they came into a massive, gallery-like chamber. The stalactites hanging from the ceiling had been knocked down and shattered by the creature’s passing, and there were several more massive piles of its foul excrement in their path. A faint glow seemed to be coming from the back of the chamber, but it wasn’t until they rounded a huge boulder that they saw the source.
The entire back of the main chamber was pulsating and admitting a faint, green-tinted light. As they drew closer, they realized that this wall was not stone – it was some sort of membrane, or barrier. Massive shadows flitted across it, but it was opaque enough that they could not see what was casting them.
“What on earth?” Singleton said.
“That may be the wrong question,” Ken said. “I’m not sure that whatever is on the other side of that is on earth at all!”
By now they had approached within a few feet of the strange surface, and they could feel some sort of energy radiating from it. It seemed to pulsate with faint regularity, as if it were alive somehow. Ken slowly reached out his hand and touched it. His fingers slid effortlessly into the barrier, which felt slightly thicker than water. It did not burn or hurt, but at the same time, he felt a bizarre sensation running through his hand, almost like electricity but without the painful shock. He extended his arm a bit further, and felt it punch through the membrane and emerge into a hot, moist, uncomfortable atmosphere on the other side.
“Whatever is over there,” he said, leaving his arm sticking into the opaque barrier, “I think that is where that thing came from.”
“Does it hurt?” Singleton asked.
“Not at all,” Ken said. “It feels hot and muggy, and I can feel some sort of warmth radiating down on me, like sunshine in a swamp.”
“I am going to take a look,” the game warden said, and without any further warning closed his eyes and stuck his head and shoulders through the translucent wall even as Ken withdrew his hand.
He did not move for a moment, and then suddenly his hands began clenching and unclenching rapidly. Ken tried to pull on him, to bring him back, but Singleton resisted him. Finally, the engineer stuck his own head and shoulders through the barrier and got his arm around Singleton’s neck and yanked them both back through, back into their own world – but not before he got a quick look at what was on the other side, and that glimpse blasted his brain and left him reeling in shock.
He lay on the cool floor of the cave, sucking in huge breaths of good, earthly air, trying to expel the foulness that he had inhaled during his seconds on the other side. His ears were ringing painfully, so much so that he put his hands over them, and then realized that the sound was not from inside his head but from the mouth of his companion. Ronnie Singleton was screaming, screaming in a shrill, terrifying tone that spoke of a mind shattered and ruined. As Ken watched, the game warden pulled out his pistol, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
The silence that followed was far more disturbing than the screams had been, for Ken fancied he could hear the things on the other side of the membrane echoing that awful cry. He did not remember any of what followed – running to the mouth of the cave, throwing four active grenades into it, one after the other, or scrambling down the slope, bruised and bloodied by the landslide he had triggered. Somehow, he got back to the Mule, half walking, half crawling, and drove it back towards the ranch house as the long day drew to its end, passing the huge rotting carcass of the alien thing they had destroyed. Seeing those hideous remains reminded him of what he had seen on the other side, and he began to scream and laugh maniacally as he continued past the giant corpse to the CTH Ranch house.
He climbed out of the Mule and stumbled into the arms of a dozen men; deputies, two game wardens, and the survivors of that morning’s posse. They clustered around him, plying him with questions and well-intended expressions of concern, and after a moment he shrieked out the only words he would ever say before the horror of what he had witnessed blasted him to mute insanity for the rest of his life:
“Three suns . . . trees with teeth . . . flying spiders as big as cars . . . but those things! Those things like the one we killed! We thought we killed a monster, but you haven’t seen monsters yet! Now they are looking for it! Calling it! They’ll break through, see if they don’t! The barrier is too thin, and they will come. They will come looking for their hatchling!!”