A Thing Greatly Feared, Chapter 26

The "Spooky Tree"

Waiting out the creature on a moonlit night. ... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Darrell escorted Sara to the guestroom, then headed for his own bed. Before parting for the night, though, and after thanking Darrell, Sara said, “Darrell, Hank’s a Christian, too, isn’t he?”

“Umm … yeah.”

“Why the hesitation?”

“It’s been a while since he … daily lived his life for the Lord, if you know what I mean. His level of commitment is not where it should be, I guess you’d say.”

She nodded. “Do you … think that makes a difference for what he’s doing right now, out there?” She was afraid he hadn’t understood. “What I mean is, him not being as committed as you say he should be – is that going to hurt him out there, hurt his chances?”

Darrell’s eyes went to the floor.

“That’s my fear.”

* * *

Skish-kish.

Hank heard the rustling sound again. Problem was, it was coming from an area blocked from his view by the rock.

Come on, stick your mangy head around this rock so I can blast it off.

Hank’s attention was then pulled elsewhere. Upstream, not far away, he saw a light bouncing along near the water’s edge.

What the heck is that?

* * *

Heavy breathing. More branches slapping.

Go. Go. Keep goin’.

James was sucking wind hard. His face and hands stung from branches that didn’t pull their punches. A dozen times or more he’d almost taken a digger, saved every time by some miracle of grace that kept his jelly legs underneath him.

His last glance across the stream had come just a moment ago. In a sea of organic objects that all seemed to blend together in a silver-white wash, he’d caught a glimpse of something that reminded him of that Sesame Street segment “One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here”: long, narrow – blue, maybe?

A sleeping bag!

The children’s tune faded from his mind. How absurd, he thought, that it even entered his mind at a time like this.

“Hank!”

James scrambled to find a way across.

* * *

Hank’s head flinched towards the stream; he swore he just heard his name.

Oh no. Hank gritted his teeth. I told him not to follow me.

Scraping sounds. Hank turned his gaze in front of him. Something was shuffling its way across the hillside – in his direction.

* * *

James found a couple exposed rocks leading towards the other side; he preferred to find a whole line of them so he didn’t have to get wet, but such a thing – and the time to look for it – were luxuries he didn’t have right then. He stepped into the cold water, which came up to his knees, and began sloshing his way across.

* * *

Hank had already been holding his shotgun in front of him, but now he raised it and drew a bead where he figured the creature would pop into view. The foul smell had grown stronger.

Come on. Come on.

It appeared.

KA-BOOM!

* * *

James stopped mid-stream, looked up in horror. The echo of the gunshot reverberated all around him.

Hank!

He pushed harder the rest of the way, then lumbered onto the bank and slogged up it, his own guns at the ready.

“Hank!”

Hank looked to his left and saw someone running towards him.

“Darrell?”

“No. It’s James. James Morgan.”

“James? What the heck are you doin’ here?”

“Long story,” said James as he slowed to a walk a few yards from Hank and lowered his flashlight. “Did you get–?”

“Have a look.”

James scanned in front of him with his flashlight.

“Aw, man. I thought somethin’ reeked,” said James.

A skunk – what was left of it, anyway – lay in the dirt, blown apart by the blast from Hank’s shotgun.

“I was expectin’ somethin’ else,” said Hank.

“The creature.”

“I guess Darrell’s told you everything that’s been goin’ on.”

“Yeah, and we’ve learned more since you left. … I also knew a few things myself already.”

Hank looked at him with mild surprise.

“But now’s no time to talk,” said James. “I know it’s around here; I heard it, several times.”

“Yeah, me too. An’ I smelled him.”

“You mean you smelled this,” said James, pointing to the skunk.

“No. The creature has a bad smell of its own, an’ I smelled it before I ever caught wind of this thing. But let’s get out of here.” He tried to stand. “Aaah!”

“Hank, you’re hurt – how bad?”

Hank inhaled with pain. “I’ve seen better days, but I’m better than before.”

“You break anything?”

“I don’t think so, but my left ankle is sprained pretty bad, an’ my right arm hurts, an’ several other places on my body won’t shut up an’ leave me alone.”

“Well you don’t sound up for pullin’ outta here tonight.”

“No?”

“No way. I don’t think I could make it outta here tonight – not unless my life depended on it.”

“It may.”

“You’re right, there.”

“Which is why I wanna move to someplace safer – I’d like to get farther away from the stream, somewhere quieter, an’ get some fires built.”

“Alright. Let me take a quick look around.”

“Yeah, go for it.”

James left and was back in two minutes.

“I found a good spot on the other side of the slope. It’s flat, open, plenty of room for fires, an’ best of all … upwind from the skunk.”

“Yeah? I think the skunk came from that direction, so you better hope there ain’t a whole family of ’em over there.”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?”

James first moved all their gear to the new site before taking on the more difficult task of moving Hank. As they hobbled along, James had agonizing visions of how slow their trip home would be the next day.

“You, uh, you gonna be up to movin’ a lot tomorrow?”

“Oh yeah; I think so. If you’d seen me earlier, you’d be amazed at how well I’m doin’ right now.”

James laughed.

After a few minutes of choppy, wincing progress, they made it to the site. They got Hank situated in his sleeping bag, guns beside him, then James worked on building the fires.

“You know,” said Hank, “I hadn’t planned on leaving these woods until I killed that thing, an’ I still don’t want to leave til I kill it, but even someone as stubborn as me can see that that ain’t gonna happen.”

“Hey, we ain’t outta the woods yet; who knows what’ll happen between now an’ then.”

“Yeah. Maybe. Didn’t know if I’d ever see you again after you left town – certainly didn’t think it’d be out here in the middle of the woods.”

I didn’t know if I’d ever be back. One phone call changed all that.”

“An’ what one was that?”

“Your brother.”

“That’s what I figured. I told him to investigate while I was gone.” He chuckled. “Sometimes I forget how thorough he can be.”

“You’re tellin’ me. I’ve been watchin’ His Thoroughness in action the last couple days – I told him he should’ve been on the police force.”

“They could use an honest cop right now, couldn’t they?”

“Sure could. An’ they could’ve used a better one than me when I was there.”

“What are you talkin’ about? I always thought you did a good job.”

And for the next hour they talked, each sharing everything he knew about the situation at hand, neither of them ever noticing the orange eyes that peered at them out of the gloom of a nearby thicket. The creature stared at them, never shifting its gaze until …

Go.

… it was told.

* * *

When everyone awoke the next morning – Hank and James in their place, and Darrell, Wade and Sara in theirs – everything, for a moment, seemed alright. Then they remembered, and it became a day to dread.

…………

Hank and James ate an early breakfast, then packed up and doused the fires.

“You ready?” said James.

“Gonna be slow, but I can make it.”

And off they started on their long crawl back.

…………

Wade, Darrell and Sara each lay in bed for a few minutes after waking up, the anticipated events of the day running through their minds.

“Lord – ”

“– give me –”

“– strength.”

Then they crawled out of bed to go finish what they had started.

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