Michael D. Winkle was born (and still resides in) northeastern Oklahoma. He is the author of thirty published stories, including “Wolfhead” (Andre Norton’s Tales of the Witch World 3) and “Leviathan,” (Twenty Thousand Leagues Remembered), plus one honest-to-Azathoth hard copy book, I Heard of That Somewhere (American Hauntings Ink). Hopefully, despite pestilence and war, there will be many stories and books to come.
by Michael D. Winkle
Ed lay across the stained comforter, reading by the sallow light of an oil lamp. He flipped another page of True Detective and clucked his tongue. He shifted on the squeaky box springs, partly to see the illustrations better, partly to show them off.
“Lookee here, Mary,” said the farmer. “This feller in Arkansas, he shot some young ‘uns in the head while they sat in their jalopies doin’ God knows what.”
He nodded knowingly.
“Ye reap as ye sow; Ma said that often enough. Seems to me this Texarkana Phantom is an avenging angel, punishing the ungodly.”
Mary made no comment. She hardly ever did, not since the day she quit her job at the truck stop. Ed closed True Detective and set it on a mound of similar publications. He rolled up Mary, straggly hair, leathery skin and all, and stuffed her in a grocery sack.
He carried the smoky oil lamp to the kitchen. He hardly needed it to navigate; he knew the moldering farmhouse inside and out, being its sole inhabitant and caretaker. Of course, you couldn’t really get lost in here, as boxes, broken furniture, tattered clothing and empty cans filled nearly every room, leaving only small pools of space for Ed’s couch, table and bed.
Ed set the lamp on the kitchen counter. He opened the icebox and rattled out a bottle of Blatz Beer.
Alcohol in moderation wasn’t a sin; folks in the Bible drank wine. Ed pulled the cap off with a pair of pliers. He sat in a rickety kitchen chair and gulped down the foamy brew.
He was just draining the brown bottle when he heard the snuffling. It was quiet on the farm in autumn, except when the wind moaned or the mice squeaked, so he made no mistake: Something sniffed and scratched along the back porch, whuffing excitedly as it reached the door.
Ed rose. He chewed his week-old wad of Black Jack chewing gum as he studied the door. Maybe a dog, he thought, or a coyote. He couldn’t peek out the window to see, because he had tarpapered over the glass years ago. Well, varmints had come nosing around before. Not always the four-legged kind, either.
He didn’t think it worth fetching his rifle. If it still sniffed around in the morning, when people could see it and wonder what it was interested in, then he’d do something.
The whuffling crept up the door frame. Ed imagined the black tip of an animal’s snout, glinting with slobber and snot, sliding up the wood like a snail. The sniffing sound rose higher, level with his waist, then his chest, then his head—then higher still, passing across the lintel.
Ed stopped chewing. What critter could rear that high? Bear? Catamount?
The critter growled, eye-level with the farmer, as if it watched him right through the wood. The rusty knob rattled. No, it didn’t simply rattle, as if slapped by a paw. It turned, slow and deliberate, first clockwise then counterclockwise. The door shook as the critter bumped it, and Ed was glad he’d thrown the deadbolt earlier.
He decided he would get his .22, and maybe his Mauser while he was at it.
He took down his .22 rifle and found some loose shells in the top drawer of his splintering old bureau. He slipped one into the breech as the varmint, whatever it was, shook the door again. He carried the rifle back to the kitchen, afraid the deadbolt would give way.
The noise of his approach apparently startled the beast. At least, it quit shaking the door. It snorted or maybe sneezed. The farmer hesitated, rifle port arms, hoping the critter had gone. Then something banged on the door to the summer kitchen.
Ed frowned. He could just see the mess that would result from an animal dragging the old entrails and hides out in the yard. The farmer pulled the bolt with a callused hand and yanked the door open.
The indirect light of the oil lamp showed only a hulking shape on the porch by the summer kitchen, its outline a shagginess of frayed fur. Ed fired the .22 into the air. The animal dropped aside and ran, the warped planks clattering beneath it like the keys of a king-sized piano. It reached the end of the porch and sprang out onto the hard earth. The moon revealed more of the critter as it ducked around the corner of the built-on shed. It was long and low, not at all like a bear, with a muzzle and pointed ears like a wolf. From the side it looked thin, but that flash of it before it whipped out of sight revealed a wide torso, like a bear or even an ape. Its tail hung long and bushy behind it, though, and neither bear nor ape had that.
Rather than pursue, Ed shut the door and dragged a few grimy boxes of machine parts in front of it.
In the morning Ed toted his .12 gauge Remington to the edge of his property. He found paw prints leading up from the woods, doglike but huge, wider than his spread fingers. Oddly, there seemed to be only two paws in use most of the time, except at the corner of the shed, where he knew it sprang out on all fours. Here he found the marks of four feet, only each front paw had five rather than four digits, the extra one jutting out to the side like a thumb.
Ed chewed his wad of Black Jack for a long, reflective moment. He recalled the doorknob turning as if gripped in a hand. What critter had a paw so much like a hand?
Ed tracked the animal across fields that boasted only the occasional weed. The trail angled toward the culvert where he buried junk and leftovers he didn’t need. The farmer’s frown deepened as he clambered down to a bare patch at the bottom of the gully. Clods of earth lay scattered like the aftermath of a shell burst. The beast, whatever it was, had done its best to dig into Ed’s buried garbage.
That had to stop. There were things down there that did not need to see the light of day.
But what was he up against? A critter with a wolf’s head, that walked on two legs sometimes, that could tear into earth like a ‘dozer?
Ed remembered a motto from one of his war books: “Know your enemy.” He didn’t know this one, true, but, lacking radio and family, the farmer was an avid reader. He knew where to look for answers.
Ed’s Ford sedan rumbled down the highway towards town.
Wolf’s pointy ears and snout, he thought. A man’s hands and broad shoulders. Wolf… and man.
He remembered the scary films they ran at the movie house, where he’d treat the local kids to popcorn and a show. There was a critter in those films that walked like a man but left wolf tracks. Bit people’s throats, jumped all over that flat-topped fella with the stitches, chased that funny fat man who was always crying out for his partner.
Wolf—Man—Seemed like Ed had even heard folks mention such things when he’d join them to shuck corn or paint barns. Not like they were real, but like ghost stories. Legends. Well, Johnny Appleseed was a legend, but he was a real man, once.
“Why, Eddie Gein! Haven’t seen you in a coon’s age!”
The librarian was tall and thin, her green eyes large behind black-rimmed spectacles. She was not Eddie’s type, but to be polite he said “Howdy!” and “Guess I ain’t been around much.”
He headed back to the card catalog, the maple wood cabinet with the tiny drawers. He pulled open a little drawer and wondered at how it and its brothers resembled corpse-holding slabs in a morgue, only smaller. He started with the very general “Animals”, which, according to the white cards, could be subdivided into such topics as “wild”, “domestic”, “care and feeding” and “in myth and legend.”
The last brought fruition quickly, its own subdivisions directing him to “Werewolves”.
The first book he found, by a reverend named Baring-Gould, contained three chapters about an old-timey fellow named Gilles de Retz, who sounded mighty interesting but whose story didn’t really help at the moment. Soon, though, he reached the meat of the book.
“In Norway and Iceland certain men were said to be eigi einhamir, not of one skin,” muttered Ed. “The full form of this strange superstition was, that men could take upon them other bodies, and the natures of those beings whose bodies they assumed… By this transfiguration extraordinary powers were acquired; the natural strength of the individual was doubled or quadrupled… The manner in which the change was affected varied. At times, a dress of skin was cast over the body, and at once the transformation was complete.”
He found another book by, would you credit it, another reverend, and here he read, “The transformation was sometimes effected by donning a girdle made of the pelt of the animal whose shape was to be assumed, or else made of human skin.”
Ed smiled and shuffled into the stacks, putting the books back where they came from. That talk of skins was right up his alley.
The librarian looked up as Ed headed out again. “Leaving so soon, Eddie?”
“Yup,” said the farmer, scratching his thinning hair. “Got a varmint problem and was just readin’ how to fix it.”
The thin woman nodded. “We’ve got in that new copy of Knights of the Bushido,” she volunteered. “It’ll be ready for the shelves next week.”
“Thank’ee kindly,” said the farmer. “I’ll be sure to take a gander at it.”
That night Ed sat in the old Chevy pickup near the east end of the gully. The beast wouldn’t creep back to its diggings without him spotting it.
The grimy windshield became nearly opaque, though, with his every breath. The farmer wiped the condensation away with his gloved fist. The moon glittered on the fallow grass as on a field of gold.
Ed glanced at the .12 gauge on the seat beside him. Been a while since he’d been hunting. Of course, even back in the day he’d only bagged rabbits and ‘possums, but it had been fun, taking the local boys into the woods and teaching them how to shoot and field dress critters. Made him feel like a part of the community.
He’d never hunted deer, though. As for this varmint—
He thought about what he’d read in town. About folks who could put on the skin of an animal and become that animal, like those Norse Berserks.
Ed’s big hunting knife lay in its sheath on the dash. “No blow with a stick will injure him, but if he be struck with a knife, especially on the forehead or the scalp, and blood drawn, he will be cured,” that second reverend had written. The skin would split and a mortal man would be left there, both books agreed on that.
These were-critters had magic powers. Powers granted by wearing pieces of another living creature. He’d always suspected such things could be, by instinct maybe. Ma would call it nonsense at best, the Devil’s work at worst… which was kind of ironic, come to think of it.
The windshield fogged over again. Ed wiped the glass harder. Twin red lights burned at him from the end of the hood. Dragonish smoke chugged from the nostrils just below them.
Ed yelled in shock. The beast slapped two wide paws on the hood and sprang.
Gaping fangs and the smaller teeth between them cracked against the glass. The creature’s head ricocheted aside, but its wide chest, narrow hips and long legs accordioned up like boxcars behind a braking locomotive.
Ed turned the key in the ignition as the beast slid back off the vehicle. The engine ground to life, but the beast scrambled around to the driver’s door. The farmer batted the mushroom-shaped button of his horn. Just as the critter seemed ready to yank the door right off, it jumped away from the loud blare.
Ed fought the pickup into gear and stomped the gas. It coughed and shuddered and lurched forward. The critter loped after. It clawed the old Chevy’s side and barked. Ed bounced over the uneven earth, clicking on the lights to see the terrain. He had to swerve or he’d drop into the gully. He twisted the wheel right, putting the driver’s door to the edge of the precipice.
The beast fell back, and Ed worked the pickup into second gear. There was another bark, and the truck jolted as if he’d hit a curb. The wolfish thing caught the tailgate and hauled itself into the bed of the Chevy.
“Dah-yum!” yelled the farmer.
The beast scrambled for its footing like a dog on a new-waxed floor. Now the toothy muzzle grinned into the rear window, inches from Ed’s shoulder.
The creature rose and slapped like a cat. It still did not seem to understand glass. It slapped again, and white fractures crossed the back windscreen. Knowledge of windows wouldn’t matter in a moment.
Ed stomped the accelerator to the floor. The smallest bumps jolted him right through the chassis and seat.
What about a big bump? the farmer asked himself.
The family’s tractors, trailers and plows jutted out of the dead grass all around, left to rust as the clan died off. Ed aimed for the old hay wagon, specifically its thick wooden tongue angling into the ground. The farmer bounced hard, his cap-covered head banging the cab roof. The beast flew higher, dropped back, cracked its long jaws on the edge of the cab and toppled out.
Ed shifted his work shoe from gas to brake, swinging the Chevy around nearly one-eighty degrees as he came to a stop. The headlamps played over the harsh landscape of stick-saplings, straw-grass and black earth. The beast tumbled along, swiping and kicking, and finally landed on its stomach.
The red eyes flared in the headlights. The creature pushed itself up and sat back on its haunches. Doglike its head might be, but its movements were just not canine.
Ed slid out of the pickup, pulling the Remington with him. The beast sprang as he raised the shotgun. He let fly with one barrel and heard a satisfying yelp. The varmint spun around and galloped away on all fours.
Ed fired again, but the creature already lost itself in the trees. Now running on all fours looked strange, for it at least.
The farmer placed the shotgun back in the cab. He climbed into the Chevy and shut the door. The odor of gunpowder and cordite hung over him like the fog outside. Ed had a good look at it; the critter was nothing natural. It about had to be a werewolf.
His hunting knife had bounced down to the floor. He’d need a hell of a lot bigger blade to draw blood from betwixt that thing’s eyes.
The farmer rattled off, shaking his head. He had no intention of getting that close. Hell, the thought of returning to the gully, with all his guns, in broad daylight, made unseasonable butterflies flutter in his stomach. But if that critter dug out what all he’d hid down in the garbage—if folks saw it—
He had to beat it to the prize, or kill it, or both, and soon.
He pulled up to the kitchen. He didn’t quite run, but he walked fast to the door and secured it as best he could once he was in.
He imagined digging for hours in the gully with that hanging around. If only there were some way to get down through the dirt fast…
Ed pulled up to the rental store in Wausau. He hardly ever traveled this far from home, but he needed special equipment today, and he didn’t want to set tongues to wagging back home. He stepped in, a little bell jingling over his head.
A bald man with a gray mustache appeared from aisles of power tools and lawnmowers. Ed was glad he didn’t have to deal with a woman, as in the hardware store in Plainfield.
“Help you, Mister?”
Ed smiled crookedly. “Name’s Travis,” he said. “Gotta reach a water line on my land. I was wantin’ to try out one of those hole-drillin’ machines I seen in Mechanics Illustrated. I figger we could poke eight, ten holes in the right places and pick away the rest.”
The bald man drew out a clipboard with a paper attached.
“Well, now, we’ll see what we can do. If you’d just fill out this form…”
Ed accepted the clipboard and a pencil and sat on a bench near the front. He was glad he’d kept the driver’s license a local hunter had—lost. He didn’t want anyone or anything pointing back to the farm.
Occupation: Farmer. He’d never convince anyone he was anything else. Address: Too far away and the shop man might ask why he didn’t go to a closer rental place. He thought of Mary’s tavern and put down its number.
As Ed scribbled, the morning sun crept higher, dispelling shadows along the aisles. The farmer lifted his gaze and blinked. On a table some yards away, between a snow blower and bags of wood chips, sat a strange device with a bright blue cowling, perfectly circular when seen from the side. A pull-rope indicated a two-cycle engine, and handlebars, with grips like those of a motorbike, stuck out fore and aft. A third hand-grip, long and curved, twisted out one side and up behind.
From the bottom of the chassis a metal tongue of a thing, a yard long, stuck out.
“What in tarnation is that?” asked Ed.
“That?” the proprietor asked back. “That, my friend, is the Stihl Model BL One-Man Tree-Felling Machine. They just shipped ‘em here from Germany.”
“Them Germans are clever about a passel of things,” Ed remarked. Then, after a moment’s thought: “Is that for rent too?”
Ed dragged aside boxes of oil cans and piles of newspapers. He drew tattered curtains away from the closet-niche in his den.
Ma hung there like a scarecrow, her hollow eyes and gaping mouth not nearly as cheerful-looking as the other women’s.
“I’m goin’ to need your help, Ma,” whispered Ed, clutching his hunting cap respectfully in both hands. “Gotta dig up the leftovers we hid out there, or kill that werewolf critter if it shows up again. Gotta get right up to it if it does, and I’m afraid to go out there alone.”
“You always did bawl like an infant, Boy,” said Ma.
Ed parked the Chevy just where he had last night. He wiped the windshield more frequently. The tips of Ma’s fingers left a slight residue from the mineral oil that kept her skin pliable. It had to stretch considerably to fit over his knobby digits.
Ma’s reflection stared back from the glass, eyes round and empty, mouth a dark “O”. He never could get her hair to behave. It always stuck out as if charged with electricity. Maybe it was, in a way.
Aside from Ma, Ed wore only his dirt-caked work shoes. Usually he took Ma outside in the summer, as he wore nothing else beneath her leathery hide. Tonight, though, he barely felt the cold. An aura of warmth—strength—power—enveloped him.
“No need sittin’ on yor scrawny rear all night, Boy,” said Ma. “‘If any would not work, neither should he eat,’ it says in the Good Book. Get to diggin’. That critter’ll show up, or else it won’t.”
The farmer stepped out, crunching red-gold leaves beneath his brogans. He stood for a moment, taking in the moonlight, the fields and the ancient white farmhouse in the distance. The night air seared his lungs; cold and hot were alike that way.
“Mighty lonely, the old house in the night,” he remarked.
“Away from the sins of men—and worse, women,” said Ma. “Our fortress of faith in the wilderness, and we must safeguard it.”
Ed studied the tarp-covered machine he had rented in Wausau instead of the power driller. Maybe it was a waste of money. Oh, well, the government paid him not to raise crops, not that he could by himself.
He grabbed the handle of a pick and hauled it from the truck bed. The head was a little bent, and the point dull. He wished he’d had time to sharpen it.
A dark mass rocketed up from the far side of the Chevy and sailed all the way over the truck bed. It landed on the dead grass only inches away, hunched like a bobcat. The farmer had no time to reach into the cab for his Remington. He swung the pick awkwardly, burying the dull point in the shaggy mane on the wolf-thing’s shoulders.
The beast rose and slapped the pick out of Ed’s hand. It seized a pawful of Ma’s loose hide and slammed the farmer against the Chevy’s cab. The monster wrinkled its chops and snapped its tooth-filled jaws onto his throat.
Ed felt no pain, but Ma’s eye-holes shifted away, blinding him. Her skin squeezed against his head, neck and shoulders. The beast had snapped into her throat, not his, and now it pulled as if to rip Ma off him like Christmas wrappings.
“You let go of my Ma!”
The farmer clapped his hands together on either side of the creature’s skull, as if banging the world’s biggest set of cymbals. The beast yelped, and Ed snatched Ma’s skin from its mouth as a woman might yank a fold of skirt out of a door.
“How dare you treat a God-fearin’ woman that way!” bellowed Ma.
Ed punched. Ma punched with him. Though the beast stood a foot-and-a-half taller than Ed, the blow sent it stumbling back.
“You gonna let this mongrel do that to your Mama, Boy?” demanded Ma.
Ed reached into the pickup bed as the critter sprang again. With Ma’s strength aiding him, he whipped up a pointy-tipped spade and swept it around sharply against the critter’s skull. The force of the blow knocked it to the left and Ed to the right. The beast crashed against the truck, which squeaked and squealed on its shocks.
Ed kicked the beast in the stomach. It pushed itself away from the Chevy only to receive the shovel blade clean across the teeth.
“Who is like unto the Beast? Who is able to make war with him?” yelled Ma. “I’ll show ye who!”
Ed ducked a bearlike slash. He rammed the creature in the stomach with his shoulder and sent it crunching back a few more steps.
“The smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever—”
Ed slammed the shovel against the beast’s thigh, muzzle, and chest. He’d never moved so fast nor hit so hard. The power of the Almighty poured through him, channeled by his mother, the holiest person on earth.
The tangled grass ended at a dark void behind the backpedaling varmint. Ed (and Ma) had forced it right to the lip of the gully.
“—And they have no rest day or night, who worship the Beast and his image!”
Ed rammed with the spade as if it were a bayonet. The sharp tip sank into the creature’s gut. It bellowed in agony.
The farmer raised his foot and set his work shoe on the back edge of the blade. He pistoned his leg as if to cut tree roots. The beast clawed at its belly even as it toppled back. It fell with a coyote yip and made a satisfying thud several yards below.
Ed peered into the chasm. The varmint had landed square on some rusty wheelbarrow parts. The triangular blade of the shovel lay buried in its guts. Steam curled from its gaping jaws and opened belly.
Ed studied the moonlight tableau a moment more then he crunched back to the pickup.
“Where you goin’, Boy?” Ma demanded. “We can’t leave that thing a-layin’ there for all and sundry to see. We gotta bury it.”
Ed bent low and scooped up the fallen pick. “I can handle that myself, Ma,” he said.
He dropped the pick into the Chevy’s bed. He never even got the Remington out of the cab.
“You just want in out of the cold, that’s what,” scolded his mother. “Every generation gets lazier than the one before.”
“I just think it’s time for you to rest, Ma,” said the farmer. “You’re not as young as you used to be.”
He straightened again before climbing in the pickup, taking in his and Ma’s snow-dusted acreage—their little universe. Stark: That was the word for central Wisconsin. Black and white, sharper blacks and paler whites than you’d see in a movie or on one of those newfangled televisions. Cold, still, empty air that sucked the breath out of your lungs and smothered the loudest yell down to a whisper.
He looked over the tarp-covered machine from Wausau. Kind of a shame he didn’t get to use it.
“Good money down the drain, that’s what it is,” Ma commented predictably. “If you can’t run this farm any better than your good-for-nothing Pa, you sure as shootin’ don’t need to spend our life savings.”
Snarls welled up from the gully, not wolf howls but muttered promises of violence and death. Even from the truck Ed heard long claws rake the earth. The beast dragged itself over the lip of the crevasse like a seal popping onto an iceberg.
“On second thought, Boy, maybe we’ll get some use out of this contraption yet!”
Ed yanked off the tarp and grabbed the Stihl’s forward and curved handles. The claim that one person could wield it was barely true, as the machine weighed over fifty pounds. But he was not alone tonight.
“Put your back into it, Boy!” yelled Ma.
Ed and Ma hefted the sawing engine out of the Chevy and set it on the ground. The beast at the gulley climbed to its hind feet only to drop to its knees with a yelp. Maybe a shovel couldn’t kill it, but it was plenty sore.
That didn’t stop it, however. Here it came, galumphing on all fours.
Ed twisted the choke and yanked the pull-start of the sawing machine. It chugged then fell silent. The farmer yanked again. Chug-chug-putt, and the pull cord rewound itself.
The beast growled, eyes aglow, as it crashed through some old fence slats. Ed gave the pull-start one last tug, and the engine sputtered to life, kicking out black then white smoke. Ed twisted the throttle, and it roared like an airplane. With Ma’s help, he hefted it and swung it around.
The wolf-thing rose upright at last and skidded to a halt. Anger gave way to caution as it eyed the sputtering engine and the spinning belt of metal.
“Geee-yaa!” yelled Ed as if guiding cattle.
The beast feinted to the left, and the farmer followed. It dodged to the right, but Ed kept the saw paddle targeted on its hairy chest.
The monster howled straight into the sky in its frustration.
“Take the offensive, Boy!” ordered Ma.
He lunged forward, bobbing the tip of the saw blade up and bringing it down on the creature’s broad chest. The werewolf’s crimson eyes swelled tomato-wide, and its howl became a piggish squeal. It bounced backward like a kangaroo in reverse but jumped forward again just as fast. It smacked the blade aside with one hairy fist, its tongue slinging spit and its jaws showing about a thousand teeth.
Ed spun with the blow, lifting the blade over the bed of the truck and bringing it around to the beast again. The monster’s outstretched claws raked his shoulder. He slammed the spinning belt into the critter’s ribs.
The wolf-thing screeched and grabbed the blade. More blood and muscle sprayed from its clawed fingers. It hopped away like a monkey in a Tarzan movie, its cries twice as shrill.
It stumbled and rolled up like an armadillo, shredding more yellow grass. It fought its way to all fours again and wheeled its legs like Tom and Jerry. It finally shot off to the east, howling and yelping and even making weird, humanlike “Gaaah!”s.
“Dang it, never did cut it between the eyes,” said Ed.
“Never mind that,” said Ma. “I don’t think that critter’ll stop ‘til it reaches Oshkosh. And if it ever comes back, we’ll give it what-for.”
Ed hefted the Stihl Tree-Feller back into the pickup. He grinned childishly behind the mask. We. Ma had said “We’ll give it what-for.”
“Now get us inside, Boy, it’s cold,” continued Ma. “And be sure you check over that contraption for anything bent or broke. They see anything busted on their precious machine, you can bet your buck teeth they’ll charge us for it!”
Ed started the Chevy and turned back toward the dark house. The tires crunch-grumbled over dry weeds and brush. Kind of sad Ma couldn’t give half a compliment without stomping it flat with a new barrage of complaints. Maybe, he thought blasphemously, maybe he did need the company of other folks—a new lady friend, at least.
Maybe that hardware store woman wasn’t so bad after all. She was handsome, if not pretty, and she had to have some savvy to run a business by herself.
He’d have to show her the farm.
Copyright 2021 by Michael D. Winkle