And Hell Followed Him
The McCormicks' boy was the first one to die. They found him in his pa's cornfield, his head hacked in half, the brains yanked clean outta his head. Could've been a man, I suppose. 'r an animal, maybe. But the way it was done, kinda mixed up between sheer brutality and cold precision, can't rightly say I think it was either. Something in-between. Nobody said it, but I think a lotta folks knew it.
See, the world had changed, just a little bit. Well, of course, the world had changed a lot, what with the Confederate uprising, brother fighting brother and all. But that was our world, man's world. Man's world is prone to change, that's just the way of it. Our changes seem sizable to us, but God's world, well, it just keeps on spinnin'. A giant piece of clockwork, and if just one gear slips a cog, a little change like that can send mountains crashing into the ocean.
Maybe it was all the blood we spilled in the earth, poisoned it just that little bit. Or maybe it had nothin' to do with us a'tall. When God plays dice, all we can do is just hold our breath and hope He don't roll snake eyes. But whatever it was, something had happened to change things. The rules we lived by got a little bit... looser.
We sent a huntin' party out to find whatever it was did that to the McCormick boy. Then, when they went missing for three days, we sent out another bunch to find the first, which they did, about twelve miles into the forest, their bodies ripped to pieces, and scattered like kindling. They found Ben Haber's head halfway up a juniper tree.
Folks got scared, naturally. Took to jumpin' at shadows. Abram Wilcox was trippin' home drunk one night, saw somethin' he swears looked like a monster comin' at him, and blasted it with his Colt Peacemaker, only to find out he'd just gut shot the Sheriff. Poor guy was three days dyin'.
Funny, though, scared as people was, they still found time to hang ol' Abram.
Went on that way for weeks. Got so something was bein' killed almost every day, mostly livestock, but it never took too long to find another human body. Always at night, so people took to barricading their doors when the sun went down, or bunking with their neighbors. Some folks, the ones who could afford it, or the really terrified ones, packed up their stuff and rode outta town. We were being whittled down to nothing.
That was about the time the Preacher came.
He was the biggest man I'd ever seen, with long hair and cold blue eyes. His rough hands and scuffed leathers would've marked him for a fighting man, except he wore a white clerical collar, and a shiny silver cross.
He rode in on an old buckboard pulled by two wiry horses, with three men riding in the back, huddled together. They were filthy and unshaven, from the road, I figured. But there was something else... all three had that look in their eyes, that angry look of caged beasts.
I'd stepped out of my hotel to watch them ride in, and the Preacher pulled the wagon up to my hitching post. He stood and stretched, sounding off loud cracks and pops. Stretched out, he looked even more massive, like he'd been carved from a giant piece of oak. He stepped off, and the buckboard raised about four inches off the wheels.
I nodded to him. "How do you do?"
He nodded back. "Need room and board for me and my flock."
I looked at the men in the back of the wagon. They were giving the Preacher the evil eye. Now that they were up close, I could see all of them had taken recent punishment... one had an eye swollen shut, another had blood crusted under his nose and mouth. The third's nose was broken and mashed. And they were all shackled together, chained to the floor of the wagon.
"Four rooms, then?" I said.
"Just the one."
I swallowed. "Have to charge you for the extra people."
He went to the back of the wagon, and unlatched the giant padlock linking them all together. He grabbed their chains, and tugged, forcing them to their feet, stumbling from the wagon. He turned to lead them forward, and as he did, the one with the broken nose took a swing at the back of his head, manacled hands laced together.
Maybe the Preacher heard him coming, or maybe he saw the look on my face. He took a single, unhurried side step, and ducked, just as the prisoner's fist whooshed over him. As the Preacher stood up, he elbowed his attacker in the busted nose. The howl of agony was like an animal. The Preacher yanked the chain, forcing all three men to their knees, and wrapped the length of the chain around his attacker's throat.
The man's face went red, cords bulging from his neck, as he choked out little rasps of air. The Preacher stood over him calmly, said, "'The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.' Hebrews, four-twelve." He released the chain, and the man dropped to the dirt, coughing blood.
The Preacher pulled out a few coins, let them clink into my hand, enough for the four of them, plus a generous extra.
"Upstairs," I said, "Whichever room's your pleasure. We're pretty empty."
He walked toward the door, letting his arm drop to his side, still holding the chain. When it pulled taut, the men tripped to their feet, stumbled to keep up.
"What name should I write in the book?" I called after him.
"Enoch," he said over his shoulder.
I paused. "Is that your Christian name or surname?"
"No idea," he said, and pulled the men up the stairs.
The Preacher probably wouldn't've gotten involved in our town's little problem, but for the escape.
He'd managed to keep the men prisoner through the night with nary a sound, not even a snore, which led me to think that maybe there hadn't been much sleep. Come dawn, he'd pulled them downstairs, their eyes bloodshot and lined with dark circles, and chained them in the wagon, threading the chain through the eyelet screwed to the floor of the buckboard. He paid for a bowl of eggs, oatmeal and hard bread, and let them fight each other for it, while he gnawed a piece of jerky.
As the Preacher was thus engaged, the Mayor, a fairly corpulent and disagreeable man, waddled his way up to the wagon, sausage-thick fingers smoothing his waxed mustache, and immediately began speaking as if to an old friend, a habit of his that I found considerable irritating.
"Preacher," he said, "it is mighty fine to see a man of the cloth after all this time..." our own minister having met a bad end owing to consumption many months before, "... and we would be so very honored if you would favor us with a sermon and a proselytizing of the scriptures."
The Preacher cocked an eyebrow at him, unchewed jerky in the corner of his mouth. I can't say for certain, but it seemed to me the look of a man who was deciding whether or not to wring the fat fool's neck, an odd dilemma for a holy man, but again, a quandary that had confounded me many times, so I couldn't throw stones.
To his credit, the Mayor seemed to note the stare. "We'd repay your kindness, of course! A small tithing would naturally be expected!"
Hearing that, the Preacher swallowed his jerky, and nodded his acquiescence.
"Brilliant!" the bloated halfwit said, and set about to ringing the church bells.
The church was a quarter full when the Preacher began services, the most packed it'd ever been. Guess you couldn't blame folks, what with all that had happened. The Preacher started slowly, almost nervously, as if he hadn't stood in front of so many people before. He wiped his palms on his duster a good deal, but hot as he seemed, he never unbuttoned his coat. It occurred to me then that I hadn't seen him without it.
After sputtering a few words of greeting, then reciting a fairly vague blessing, he launched right into the sermon, talking about the good man Jesus and his time on earth, the lives he touched and the miracles he performed. All tales we knew very well, except for one about Jesus and clay pigeons, that seemed a mite more petty and vengeful than any of the stories I'd ever heard, but nobody in the congregation raised a fuss, so I kept myself to myself on the matter.
As he spoke, his voice getting stronger and louder, I noticed that he kept glancing out the window, to where he'd parked his wagon. I stole a look myself, and suddenly realized that he'd kept his three friends chained in the back of the wagon. I glanced again and saw that all three were standing in the back of the wagon, all yanking their chains, tight as they could. The Preacher noticed as well, began walking down the aisle at a quick clip, still talking in a booming voice about the power of salvation.
But before he got to the door, the men in the cart all heaved at once, yanking the eyelet they were chained to out of the cart's wood floor. The Preacher kicked open the door and raced outside, and we all spilled out after him.
But before he could reach the wagon, the man closest to the front leapt into the driving seat, grabbing the reins, and yelling at the horses. The horses screeched and took off galloping, and the Preacher missed grabbing onto the wagon by inches.
As the wagon roared down the main drag, the Preacher swept his coat open, to reveal a pair of .45 revolvers underneath, in holsters tightly strapped to his chest. The women in the congregation gasped. He pulled one of the .45s, took careful aim, and fired.
The prisoner holding the reins jolted, his hand split wide by the bullet, and he dropped from the wagon. The horses didn't stop, and the wheels ground over him, pulping his body. The Preacher muttered something that sounded suspiciously like a curse under his breath, and aimed again, but one of the other prisoners grabbed the reins, and yanked them hard, swerving the horses sharp left, off the main drag and out of the preacher's line of fire.
The Preacher's lip twitched, but that was the only reaction I saw from him. He turned to me calmly. "Trouble you for a horse?"
We found the two remaining prisoners the next morning. Their bodies were stripped apart like chickens, skinned and gutted. The skins were draped on the ground at obscene angles, their bones scattered among the smashed pieces of the wagon. I dare not even describe what had been done to the horses.
I had ridden alongside the Preacher, both for the adventure, and to make sure he didn't away with one of my best horses. But the thrill of the chase had worn itself off after a single night huddled in the woods, hoping whatever was doing the killing didn't descend upon us. When we awoke in the night, hearing the men's screams even from miles away, I am not ashamed to say I soiled myself.
Upon seeing his flock thus defiled, he didn't even turn to me as he said, "You folks seem to have a bit of a critter problem."
I tried to explain the situation to him, tamping down my own opinions about the religious implications of it all. He nodded as if he saw this sort of thing just about every day, then crossed himself. "These men's souls were priceless."
"Amen," I said.
"But," he said, "their bodies were worth two hundred dollars to me. My church, I mean."
I wasn't sure how to respond.
"If I were to aid you with your problem, might it be worth your town's while to make a..." he struggled to remember the Mayor's word. "... tithing?"
I looked at the men's dead bodies, the string of guts littering the earth, their stomachs torn open to reveal the eggs and oatmeal they'd had for breakfast.
"I reckon," I said.
The Mayor was overjoyed at the prospect, and immediately hugged the Preacher when he proposed it. I suspect he had been hoping the Preacher might make just such an offer.
The Preacher asked for provisions, as well as any volunteers who might choose to ride with him. No one took up the cause. I was not anxious to join myself. But men of the cross have always had a way of pulling the guilt out of me, so volunteer I did, on the condition that the town pay for a new stove for my kitchen. So agreed, we rode out the next morning at dawn.
That whole day, we seemed to ride in circles. Every so often, the Preacher would stop his horse to rest and graze, but otherwise, we rode in silence. As he seemed to ride with intent, I stayed quiet on the matter, but as the day wore on, I couldn't keep my tongue any longer.
"We gonna lay any traps, things of that nature?" I asked.
"No need," he replied.
"Dare I ask what it is we're looking for?"
"Ain't lookin' for nothin'. From what you say, he makes victim of those traveling in small number, the further from town the better. We're drawin' him out ourselves, ridin' 'til he makes himself known."
We rode in silence for a time.
Finally, I said, "I had been rather studiously avoiding that tactic."
"Feel free to keep on avoiding it. Head on back if you'd rather."
By that point, town was almost a day's ride in the other direction. To turn back now was to almost certainly draw the beast down on me.
"I do believe I'll see this out."
He nodded. "The Lord favors the bold."
I seemed to remember something about the meek, but again, there were many verses of scripture that had gone from my mind over the years.
"What do you think it was, did this?" I asked.
"Men. Or beasts. But not the monster you folk have conjured."
"Oh?" I said, suddenly embarrassed. That it was not human nor beast of the field seemed obvious, as I've said, but I am not a worldly man, and in that moment, I felt very small and cloistered indeed.
"The true monsters I've known are among men," he said, "I've not seen any evidence in my time to prove the existence of anything beyond what we can see and touch."
I thought about that a moment.
"Except God in his Heaven," I said.
He nodded. "But for that."
We had stopped to make camp on a bluff overlooking the horizon. We sat on the rocks, staring into the sunset, each of us armed with our guns, and bottles of whiskey I'd brought from my personal supply. The sky had turned blood red. I tried to find peace in the clouds, and could only see violence, torn-up bodies and murder.
"We're being judged, aren't we?" I asked.
He looked at me.
I continued, "God has sent a beast to cull us. It's like the Good Book says in Revelations, we are the dogs, the murderers, and the idolaters, and he has begun his cleansing. Plagues, famine, war, and death will follow. We're in the end of days."
He took a deep drink before he answered.
"Take heart, brother, not all of God's mysteries are punishments. 'Know ye my works in the eye of the storm, as in the spring of the bud.' Psalms, one-sixty-four."
He finished his bottle in three big gulps.
I sat, staring at my drink for a long while, trying to decide what to say. Finally, I looked at him. "You know, my daddy was a preacher."
He nodded absently without looking at me.
"Read to us from the Book every day since I was born," I continued. "Learned my letters using the Bible. Was the only book I read 'til I was fifteen, come to think."
He looked up at me, his blue eyes cold, seeing where I was leading.
I kept on, hiding my shaking hand in my lap. "Now, though I am a God-fearing Christian, I must admit, it has been quite some time since I have picked up the Book and laid eyes for myself."
I finally got the steel to look him in the eye.
"But I'm pretty fair certain that there were only a hundred and fifty Psalms."
He kept staring at me. I met his gaze, and tried not to let my bowels loosen.
Finally, he said, "Is there a question you mean to ask?"
I stared at him. And shook my head.
"Nossir. Just observin'."
I handed my bottle to him.
He nodded, took a gulp.
Finally, he spoke again.
"You might be staggered to know how easy it would be to impersonate a holy man. A man who, say, had never read the scriptures first-hand might, if he put his mind it, go quite a ways acting as such, with nary a moment of doubt from the good Christian folk he encountered. Though, perhaps those good folk had sins of their own they preferred to cover, and thought it validation for a charlatan to speak what they wanted to hear."
I nodded. "And the verse from Hebrews? Where might... this man who never read the scriptures stumble on that, word for word?"
"Mayhap he heard it elsewhere. My own daddy was like to repeat it when he was dolin' out whippin's. I do believe he thought it made him sound... righteous."
I had nothing to say in reply. In truth, I felt a backwoods fool for my faith. What once had been my life's one great foundation, now seemed a petty little thing. And when this "monster" stumbled out of the woods, he would likely reveal himself as another backwoods fool like myself, touched by years of isolation and misguided belief, turned to murder when he learned the truth of our lives' great emptiness.
We drank together in silence 'til the sun started to drip below the horizon.
I had been dozing when the Man stepped out of the forest.
He looked much like any other man, but for his nakedness. Skinny, wiry, knots of muscle poking out of his bare chest. And crisscrossing his smooth skin, dozens of scars, old and new. Fresh gunshot wounds dotted across his ribcage, next to white scar tissue where his ribs protruded.
He was smiling. Maybe it was the dark, but his teeth looked sharp. Like a wolf's, I thought, then chided myself for a soft-headed buffoon.
He spoke in a voice that was calm, but rumbled menace in its joviality. "I saw your cross. I come seeking solace."
The Preacher looked at the cross around his neck, so tiny it didn't even glitter in the moonlight. "Saw it in the pitch of night, did you? From that far away?"
The man smiled, showing them sharp teeth again. "Oh, my vision is very clear. Like Ezekiel's."
The Preacher glanced at me, silently mouthed "Ezekiel?"
I nodded, quietly said, "Prophet."
The Preacher turned back to the Man. "How can I grant you succor, brother?"
The Man approached, palms out. "I have blood on my soul, Preacher. 'twas I, murdered them good folk. I have a rage in me I cannot suppress."
All this he said with a smile of pride.
The Preacher didn't move as the Man moved closer. "You'll pardon me sayin', that seems quite a task for a man of your... stature."
The Man grinned. "The Devil has granted me strength. Let me show you."
And before my eyes, he began to change.
"I'm not a well man, Preacher," he said, skin cracking and bubbling. "I wear the kiss of Cain, the pride of Judas."
"You don't say," the Preacher said, drawing his pistols.
"Oh, yessssss," the Man who wasn't a man said, tilting his head back, his teeth grown so large they no longer fit in his mouth. His fingertips stretched out as if knives were pushing out of them, long bone claws slicing through, sharp and dripping. His knotty muscles bulged, and tips of bones punched through his skin, his body no longer able to contain them. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. No longer a man, but... not like the stories. Not a half-wolf, or whatever they say. A beast, for certain. But unfinished. Trapped halfway between.
And his face was a blur of agony and ecstasy.
He howled with the last of his human tongue, as it grew a foot long out of his mouth, dripping black ichor.
The Preacher emptied his pistols into the creature. It didn't even slow him. He leapt at the Preacher, clearing the distance between them like it was nothing, and then the beast was on him, clawing and goring his chest.
The Preacher screamed in pain, ripping his silver cross off his neck. I saw what he meant to do, and prayed my hardest for his success.
But just as the Preacher disdained the Almighty, perhaps the Almighty also disdained him.
He shoved the cross into the creature's chest. The creature laughed then, a brutal, wet laugh, as his chest enveloped the Preacher's hand. The Preacher screamed again, yanked with all his might, and ripped his hand out of the muck that was the creature's ribcage. The skin on his hand had been flayed open as if by a thousand razors, covered in blood.
The creature razed his claws across the Preacher's face, leaving long, bloody scar trails.
I'm ashamed to say that to this point, I had been frozen to the spot. When I came back to myself, I raised my shotgun and fired.
I was less than three feet away. Taking a full load like that would rip a man's insides apart. And though it did rend his flesh into bloody pulp, it did not slow him. He tore once again into the Preacher, taking a chunk out of his side. The Preacher didn't scream this time, his eyes flickering. I knew he was not long for consciousness, and when he was dead, then I would be torn apart. I vacated my bowels, again, and ran to my horse, digging in my pack.
I heard the struggle behind me, heard the creature's jaws snap again, and my heart skipped a beat or two, as I failed to find what I was looking for. I shoved my arm deep in the pack...
... and my hand found the handle of the axe.
Just a small one, for chopping firewood. Hardly a weapon, just simple iron. But all I could think of. I yanked it out, held it above my head, and with a scream begging God for his mercy, I charged the beast, burying the axe in the back of his head.
He howled in agony, dropping the Preacher to the ground. I stumbled and fell on my back, the wind slammed out of me. I couldn't catch my breath, could only see the monster framed against the sickly half-moon, screaming.
And then he turned on me.
He was upon me in a moment, tearing at me, chewing me with those enormous teeth. Two of my fingers were lost as his jaws snapped down on them, ripping them free of my hand like a string of cheese. I tried to fight, but he was strong, and I were like unto a baby resisting his mama. I tried to push back, to stay awake, but the world was so hazy...
... and then, I felt a warm spray across my face, like a summer rain. My tongue tasted blood. I thought it was my own.
But in front of me, the creature was choking, and I could see that half of his neck was missing, black blood spouting from it. A moment later, his entire head was gone. The creature's body dropped on top of mine, and above me, I saw the Preacher, my axe in one hand, the creature's head in his other, flayed hand.
The creature's body shuddered on top of me, and I swear, as he died, I could feel the ground under my feet lilt. Like the earth itself was fitting to empty its bowels. But the feeling passed.
And then the black closed on me.
I was a good while healing. Where I'd lost my fingers, the hand infected, turning black and withered. The doc must've hacked it off at some point, because the next time I remembered waking, there was only a bandaged stump.
The Preacher convalesced as well, and though no one told me, I knew they feared many times he wouldn't pull through. No telling where he found the strength to haul us both back to town, bloodied and crippled, but strong he was, and pull through he did, and so it was that a pair of months later, we stood as we did when we met, I in front of my hotel, less a hand, he in front of his newly-acquired horse and wagon. His face bore the scars of his battle, and his right hand was a white-scarred mass. He never said, but I know it hurt something terrible to grasp even a teacup, let alone a pistol or a knife. For that reason and more, we didn't shake hands. We didn't need to.
He pulled himself up on his wagon, taking the reins in his good hand. I nodded to him. "Safe travels."
He nodded back, yanked the reins for the horse to go.
I watched as the wagon pulled forward... then pulled to a stop.
The Preacher turned to me.
"You may have had the right of it," he said. "If such a creature as that exists, seems foolhardy to doubt the touch of the Almighty."
My heart sank a bit. I realized that I'd hoped the Preacher would be able to account for the creature's existence, that he would know what science lay behind it. For where once I took solace in my prayers to the Lord, now I feared I was casting them out to a vast black emptiness.
He stared at the horizon. "You were right. Armageddon is comin'. Nothin' we can do to stop it. All we can do is be sure we're ready to stand before the infinite."
He pulled the reins and rode out of town. That was the last I saw of him.
I've thought about it since he's gone, watching the skies slowly turning redder and darker each day, as we suffer through months of drought and disease. As our town, rather than recover from the punishment of the skin changer, continues to wither like rotten fruit.
Be ready to stand before the infinite.
I no longer think I am.
About the Author
John Patrick Nelson is a WGA writer, an editor for "Project Runway," and the voice of a cartoon barracuda. True story.