(Content Warning: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language.)
Lee Oswald awoke to the sound of a shrieking moan not more than ten yards from his bedroom window. Without contemplation, his feet hit the cold floor running, knowing that his cattle were in danger. Rushing through his cabin, Lee eyed his double-barrel shotgun hanging above his fireplace and grabbed it. The weapon was always loaded for occasions just like this, and for a brief moment, Lee was glad he had it. Wearing nothing but white long johns, he exploded outside, ready for combat.
The cool air stabbed Lee’s skin like a thousand daggers erasing any grogginess leftover from his slumber. The thermal underwear provided no protection against the frosty March temperatures, but this was the least of his concerns. Something was attacking his cattle. This was Lee’s livelihood and the only reason he could afford to live on the outskirts of Franklin.
Lee ran through the field, allowing the frozen grass to slash at his pajamas like a thousand thorny vines in a rose garden. He paid no mind to the minor inconvenience and continued his search. The moan came again. He was close now, very close. Lee halted with senses alert and listened. He knew this valley well, having spent most of his life here.
When Lee was a young boy, his parents, Ben and Martha, moved to Pendleton County in hopes of striking it rich. It was the time of the big gold rush, and everyone had the gold fever. The Smokey Caverns just to the east of Franklin bore huge golden nuggets, which attracted hundreds of eager families and decent folk who only wanted to get ahead. Things were fine for a time, but then the greedy businessmen came to town with their slave laborers and stripped the mines dry.
Most people moved away during this time. They had the good sense to know when to get out, but not everyone was so fortunate. Ben and Martha had spent everything they had relocating from Virginia to Colorado, so they had no choice but to stay.
Over the next few years, the Oswald’s carved out a nice life by raising cattle and selling them to the local butcher in Franklin. They were not rich by any means, but they made the best of things. Money was scarce, but there was love. Always love.
Lee grew up under the stern but loving guidance of his father and learned the ways of the land. His mother taught him everything else, like cooking and how to treat the ladies. Through the years, Lee became so adept at working the land that he knew every nook and cranny. If a cow wandered too far, Lee knew exactly where to find the estranged animal. Martha wished that her son had the same fortitude when it came to finding love. She desperately wanted to be a grandmother, but it was not meant to be.
Through the years, Lee had to say goodbye to his parents when they fell ill and died from cancer. The loss was devastating, but Ben instilled in his only son an iron will to carry on, and so he did. Martha gave him the gift of compassion, and without hesitation, he took over the farm and endured.
Time is our greatest enemy, and before Lee knew it, those old hands of time had caught up with him. Standing alert in the frozen field, Lee’s heart thundered in his chest, and his ancient bones ached from the sudden sprint. Arthritis bit his nerves like a feral cat gnawing on a half-dead rooster, which is what he felt like.
With steely eyes, Lee scanned the land looking for anything that might be amiss. His gaze fell upon a lonely hill where the soil had been disturbed. Contorting his face with determination, Lee gripped his shotgun and trudged forward.
The hill was slick from the frozen precipitation, and Lee cursed his old bones. He made it to the top with small baby steps and peered down the slope. In the pale glow of moonlight, Lee saw one of his cows lying on its side. At first, he thought the animal was sleeping, but the sound of cracking bones and violent convulsions made him think otherwise. The lonely cow wasn’t sleeping. Something was eating it.
Lee scrunched his lips and aimed the shotgun. The moonlight shining through the trees allowed a sliver of illumination, but still, shadows remained, and the predator bathed in the darkness. Lee wanted a better look before firing because he needed to know what this thing was for future reference. A good farmer needs to be aware of all threats.
Taking a step closer for a better look, the icy grass crunched beneath Lee’s feet, betraying his presence. The invading creature lifted its head, knowing it wasn’t alone anymore. Hideous yellow eyes stared at Lee, which was the only thing he could make out.
“Come out here so I can get a better look at ya!” he yelled.
The creature let loose a fierce growl and teetered into a stray strand of light. If by purpose Lee couldn’t tell, but he did manage to get a brief glimpse. The monster looked like a coyote but stood on two legs and had a massive humped back. Lee could see a steady stream of blood flowing from the demon’s maw, and in a panicked fright, he fired.
The monster snarled and took off. It had an uneven gate and looked like a gorilla running through the field. Lee had never seen anything like it before and wasn’t sure if he had wounded the creature. With trembling hands, Lee reached up and wiped the sweat beads from his brow, which steamed in the moonlight. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to allow his heart rate to settle.
After a while, Lee returned to the warmth of his cabin, but going back to sleep was out of the question. Thoughts of the creature filled his mind, and he wondered if he was safe. He knew the world was changing, and change was the only constant thing in the universe.
Life is about making choices and dealing with the consequences. The outcomes of those actions bring change whether we like it or not. The results can be good or bad, but we don’t know until we venture down that chosen path. It’s a paradoxical dance that Lee knew all too well.
With this demon on the loose, Lee knew that nothing good could come from its existence. How could it? Evil only lives to serve its own intentions.
When the sun kissed the moon goodnight, Lee ventured back into the field and buried his cow. He wasn’t sure if he could even move the animal, but there wasn’t much left to move after the attack. Still, it took Lee all morning to lay the lifeless husk to rest.
Lee stayed ever vigilant over the next few days, but he didn’t see the beast again. He scoured the land for any signs of the creature but found nothing out of the ordinary. He reckoned that maybe his shot did wound the monster, and perhaps it ran off to die somewhere like most wild animals tend to do.
That night, Lee slept like a baby and awoke early to make breakfast. He had a craving for biscuits and gravy and thus gathered all the necessary ingredients. His joyous mood turned sour, however, after discovering that he was out of flour. Lee cursed his forgetfulness. In all the time thinking about the strange creature, he had neglected his weekly run to the grocery store in Franklin.
Lee sucked in his aggression and released his pent-up rage with a deep breath. All the while, his stomach grumbled, wanting to digest food that wasn’t there yet. Dreading the thought, there was no getting around this dilemma. He had to go to town.
Grabbing his satchel and some coin, Lee fetched his walking stick and set out for town. The winding road leading into Franklin was nothing to brag about, but the luscious scenery did bring a wry smile to Lee’s face. It’s funny the things you get used to. Most people go about their business and never take the time to look around. Those that do get accustomed to their surroundings and forget the beauty that nature brings.
The town of Franklin was only three miles from Lee’s house. Although he hated the pain that ravaged his bones, walking was a simple pleasure that he enjoyed. It was something that brought meaning to his lonely, isolated life. After all, a simple man could only have so many conversations with cattle before people called him crazy. Lee cursed himself once more for not listening to his mother. He should have married when he was younger. Approaching his destination, Lee cast the thought aside.
One might call Franklin a ghost town for all that remains. After the gold rush fallout, the only thing left in town were two rows of buildings that mirrored each other on opposite ends. The entrance sign read “Welcome to Franklin,” but the cruel hands of time had all but faded the carved words. The dry-rotted plank hung on two rusty nails, not knowing when to give up, just like the few unlucky souls who still remained.
Lee made his way to the general store without much fanfare and purchased the flour he needed and a few other choice items. His gaze fell upon a local bar called the Bowery on the way out. Lee rolled his tongue around in his mouth and salivated at the thought of having a drink. He was a sucker for a good whiskey.
Strangling the thought into obscurity, Lee decided that ruining a sixteen-year dry spell wasn’t worth it.
“Hello, Lee. It’s good to see you out and about!”
Lee turned to see Harold, the local butcher. He was a robust man that didn’t miss a single meal. His white blood-stained apron screamed for release and smelled like fresh meat.
“How are you, Henry?” Lee greeted with a smirk.
“I’m doing just fine,” Henry boasted. “You still fixing to sell me those cattle next month?”
Lee cocked his head and wondered if he should tell Henry about the creature. He decided against it. Once you get a reputation for being crazy, it’s all over. “Yep, those cows are plump and juicy. They’ll be ready, minus one.”
“Minus one?” Henry repeated, confused.
“Yeah, I lost one recently from a wild coyote, but I shot that sum-bitch, and haven’t had any trouble since.”
“Good,” scoffed Henry. “I’ll be seeing you next month! Aside from killing cows, the only thing worth doing is playing cards, drinking beer, and screwing the local whore!”
Suddenly, a big buxom woman strode over and slapped Henry. “The local whore has a name, you big fat disgusting pig!”
Henry’s face turned crimson. “S-sorry, Linda,” he stuttered. “I was only kidding!”
Lee grimaced and walked away. He had what he needed and didn’t see the point of wasting time.
A mile from town, a harsh wind brushed against Lee’s wrinkly skin as he reached up to scratch his white stubble. Out of nowhere, he heard a blaring moan that echoed through the valley. The creature!
Lee gripped his stick and cursed himself yet again for not bringing his shotgun. There was no way he could run all the way home; it was too far. He circled the area looking for any signs of danger, and when he came around, he saw a medium-sized shepherd dog with brown fur and a black nose. The animal had a nasty cut across its left eye and limped around.
“Hello, there,” whispered Lee. “What’s happened to you, girl?”
The dog whimpered and nudged against Lee’s leg. Having his full attention, the animal flicked her head toward the Smokey Caverns as if to tell him something.
“What is it, girl?” asked Lee. “Do you want to show me something?”
The dog moaned again, wanting Lee to follow her. He reached down and patted her head. Her fur was wet and sticky with fresh blood.
Taking a deep breath, Lee uttered, “Well, I guess breakfast can wait.” He motioned for the wounded animal to move on and said, “Lead on, girl. Let’s see what this fuss is all about.”
Lee followed the injured dog with great intent and kept up reasonably well. After a few yards, Lee realized where they were. The animal had led him to the top of the Smokey Caverns. The view was breathtaking and showcased the entire valley. He only had a few moments to take in the majestic beauty before the dog led him to the edge of the cliff. There, Lee heard a faint squealing sound.
He got on his knees for a better look, and his investigation yielded an unexpected result. Nestled on a narrow ledge just beneath him were four puppies crying for their mother.
“Well… would you look at that!” Lee gasped.
Lee’s attention was diverted as he heard the momma dog growling fiercely. He turned and saw the hunched-backed coyote demon snarling at them with hungry intentions. The monster was even more grotesque in the daylight than Lee could have ever imagined. The beast had mangy black fur, long claws, razor-sharp canine fangs, and spikes protruding along its humped back.
Most people would flee for their lives, but Lee was beyond running. Without his shotgun, he didn’t know how to fight back. At this fragile moment, Lee was able to piece together what had happened.
Momma dog must have come across this demon making its way to Franklin and placed her pups down on that ledge for protection. Then, she fought the monster, who no doubt wanted to eat them as a light snack before moving on to town. Putting up a valiant effort, momma dog must have sustained those injuries and saw me walking along the road and rushed towards me for help.
Rising to his feet, Lee locked eyes with the creature and held his walking stick like a shotgun. He hoped the monster might be fooled by this farce from their earlier encounter. “Runaway, you bastard, before I shoot you again!”
The creature wasn’t afraid. It was fear itself. Leaning back, the demon sprang forward, unleashing its claws for a deadly strike. Before the beast could land a killing blow, momma dog pounced first and knocked Lee out of the way.
Lee flopped on the ground and felt every bone in his body crack. The bag of flour in his satchel busted open and blew in the air like a fine mist. The demon now stood at the edge of the cliff and had found its prey. The pups were howling for their momma to save them. Hearing her babies cry for help gave momma dog another burst of energy. She raced away from Lee and bit the hunched-backed monster in the hind heel just as it reached down for the pups.
The monster withdrew its claws and howled towards the horizon. Momma dog would not let up. She sank her teeth deeper into the creature's flesh, causing dark ichor to spew forth.
Lee grabbed a handful of flour and rose to his feet. He knew he had to do something before the monster could regain momentum. He limped over to the beast and roared, “Breakfast is ready!”
He threw the flour into the demon’s face clouding its vision. The beast was angry, and it slashed the air in a desperate attempt to kill the old man, but Lee was able to keep his distance.
Lee reached down and grabbed his walking stick. “Hold it steady, girl!”
Momma dog clenched her jaw tighter and pulled the beast to the edge of the cliff. Lee held his stick like a spear and stabbed at the beast, throwing it off balance.
“Let go of it now, girl!”
As momma dog released her jaw, Lee put every ounce of energy into his last thrust and jabbed the monster off the cliff. The beast fell with a haunting scream that would no doubt disturb Lee’s sleep for the rest of his days.
With the monster dead, Lee reached down and gently pulled each pup to safety. He brought them home with him and discovered a new bond that he had never felt before.
Together, they became a family, and as they looked on at a new horizon, they realized that where the shepherd dogs lie is indeed a great place to live.
Daniel R. Hayes