My Weird West Creature Feature. An attempt at a Chuck Wendig terribleminds flash fiction challenge I mentioned earlier.
The corpse of the land whale lay on her side, her head craned back with a look of terror still on her wide, protruding face. Her eyes bulged. Her four nostril flaps flared open. Her lips grimaced revealing the stubby teeth she used to grind the grasses and plants of Homestead’s southern plains region.
The evolutionary result of an ancient creature getting curious, crawling out of Homestead’s sea, liking what he found and adapting, the land whale would have stood seven feet tall at the shoulder, had her belly not been ripped open from throat to pelvis, bisecting several pairs of udders along the way.
Long, ropy organs spilled from the canyon of a wound, steaming on the grass in the cool morning air, attracting flies. Blood spattered the orange tabby fur that would have fetched a handsome price after next month’s shearing.
“Why? Why Connie, Sheriff?” Josie Yoder asks, her voice shaking with grief, yet quiet, as if afraid she may wake Connie. She leans on her whaleherd staff for support, her cloak gently flapping in the breeze.
Crouching near Connie’s corpse, Sheriff Corbin McElroy is silent, considering how to answer Josie. The lawman looks around the scene one more time, trying to find a clue as to why, or who, or what could bring down such a large animal without the slightest sign of a struggle. Or without making enough noise to wake the surrounding ranches.
Corbin removes his hat and runs a hand through his brownish blonde hair, rubbing his scalp a few times before replacing his hat. He stands. His shoulders heave with a sigh as he turns to Josie.
“I’m sorry, Josie, but I can’t rightly say. We’ll find out. I can promise you that.”
“I hope so, Sheriff. I’m afraid this mightn’t be a one-time occurrence. Just the start of something, ya know?”
“The possibility has crossed my mind. This is top priority now. Connie will be the last victim, if I have anything to say about it.”
At the word ‘victim,’ Josie drops her whaleherd staff and falls in a heap near Connie’s head. She throws her arms around as much of the head as she can, and buries her face into the fur, sobbing. Allowing herself only a few moments of grief, Josie reaches over and pulls Connie’s eyelid shut before standing.
“I just hope you catch them before I do, Sheriff.”
Before Corbin can reply, a large dog barks in the distance. Josie quickly scans the area while throwing back her whaleherd’s cloak to draw a large knife from a belt sheath fastened around her calf length jeans.
“Whoa! Stand down, Josie. That’s just Hutch. He’s with me.”
What looks like a large coyote with shaggy black fur gallops toward Corbin and Josie. The closer he gets, the larger he gets, until Josie realizes he is not a coyote.
“We usually don’t have any trouble with the wild dogs,” Josie says. “What the whaleherds don’t drive off, the whales usually take care of. Its good exercise for them.”
The dog sits in front of Corbin, his head still almost as high as Corbin’s shoulder, and begins to nibble at Corbin’s elbow.
“Hutch ain’t a wild dog much anymore. I think he’s found something. What is it, boy? What you find?”
Hutch trots in the direction he came from, circling occasionally t make sure Corbin follows. Josie follows as well. Once sure his humans are in tow, Hutch puts his nose lower to the ground as he trots. After leading a few dozen yards away from Connie’s remains, Hutch stops. He circles a small patch of ground and then sits, waiting for his humans.
“What did he find,” Josie asks. “I don’t see anything.”
“He found a scent trail, but it stops here.”
“He lost the scent?”
“No. There’s no more scent to track.”
“So whatever killed Connie came this far and disappeared?” Josie asks.
“More likely it flew away. We best get back to the horses. Suddenly, I feel a little exposed out here. It’s time to call the cavalry.”
Back at the horses, Corbin takes a case out of a saddlebag and opens it, revealing a small quad-prop drone and a remote. After a few drop down selections on the remote’s screen, the drone silently take off and positions itself above Connie’s remains. The drone projects a holographic dome around the scene, with the message “Crime Scene – Do Not Cross” scrolling around the surface.
“That should let us know if anybody tampers with… the scene,” Corbin says, catching himself before saying “the body.” “Should do some basic analysis, as well.”
Josie is not interested, preparing her horse for the ride back to the dairy. She feeds him an apple while keeping an eye on Hutch.
Corbin swipes a few screens on his watch to make a call. Deputy Jayden Lassiter’s voice comes through the watch.
“Good morning, Sheriff. Here I thought I beat you in today, but you’re already out on a call.”
“G’mornin’ Jay. Sorry to spoil your achievement. I need you to get the veterinarian. Tell her to clear her schedule. I’ve got a land whale out at Yoder’s Dairy I need her to take a look at. Tell her she’s been deputized.
“Round up a few of the townsfolk. We need to protect a herd of land whales tonight, and there may even be a manhunt involved.”
“No!” Josie interrupts. “All those towns-people will just upset the whales with all of their unfamiliar sounds and smells. We’ve got plenty of people here to take care of the whales.”
“Did you hear the lady, Jay? Forget the posse, just send the overnight kit with Dr. Kim. And remind her to ride her horse. The whales are spooked already, they don’t need her cycle irritating them more.”
“Understood, Sheriff. Anything you need me to do?”
“Looks like the town is yours for a few days. Don’t break anything before I get back.” Corbin ends the transmission.
Corbin swings himself up into his saddle and the two ride for the dairy with Hutch keeping pace.
Back at the dairy, Corbin and Josie stable their horses. Josie goes to the living quarters to gather the family members and workers. Corbin stays to take the call from Dr. Kim.
“Sheriff,” Dr. Kim cuts him off. “I’m on my way. I’ve been getting the readings from your drone. I’m flattered by your assumptions of my abilities, Sheriff, but there’s nothing I can do to help a dead land whale.”
“Your bedside manner is top notch, too,” Corbin says. “I know you ain’t a miracle worker, but I need you to take a look at the body. Something about the whole thing doesn’t seem right.”
“That’s pretty much a symptom of just about everything. I’m almost there. I’ll let you know when I find anything,” and the call ends.
Most of the dairy staff is in the dining room finishing breakfast. Corbin thinks the room is more of a dining hall, considering the size of the area. The room contains at least a dozen long wooden tables surrounded by occupied chairs. Josie takes Corbin to introduce him to the different groups of workers. Corbin gets the impression that most of the workers are related to the Yoder family, if not already Yoders themselves.
Corbin gets breakfast from the serving line: three fried eggs, biscuits with creamy, peppery gravy, a few wedges of whale cheese and some stone fruits from a local orchard. Josie invites him to sit with the whaleherds.
“I’m sorry about Connie. I will get to the bottom of this,” Corbin tells the whaleherds, a group of about a dozen and then some, both sexes and various ages and skin colors. They all share the last name Yoder.
As they eat, they share stories with Corbin about whaleherding, the usual work stories that are funny now, but were terrifying when they happened. They all tend to agree Josie is the best of them.
As Corbin finishes his cheese and fruit, Mal Yoder, a male with silky black hair and light brown skin prematurely aged by the sun, asks, “How was your breakfast, Sheriff?”
Corbin takes a sip of coffee and wipes his mouth with a napkin. “The best I’ve had in a long time. That’s the beauty of Homestead. Most of the food we produce here gets shipped across the galaxy, yet the best tends to stay right here.”
Corbin notices more than the whaleherds’ table agrees with him. Most of the tables in the hall are listening to their conversation. His watch vibrates on his wrist. Dr. Kim.
“If you will excuse me,” Corbin says, “I’ll take this call, and then we can talk about tonight.”
Outside, Corbin answers the call knowing not to try to say anything.
“Compliments on your instincts, Sheriff,” Dr. Kim says, “Something wasn’t right. Cause of death: exsanguinations.”
“Really? It seemed like there was plenty of blood at the scene.”
“It takes a lot of blood to keep an animal that size upright. Most of it was missing. I found a few puncture wounds under Connie’s fur, near her major arteries.”
“What about the gutting?” Corbin asks.
“Post mortem. And since you brought it up, did the Yoders know Connie was pregnant?”
“Pregnant? She was slit wide open. Where was…” Corbin let the thought hang.
“Exactly. I only knew from the blood tests I ran. You have a mystery on your hands, Corbin.”
“Looks that way. Thank you, Doc. That’s some good work.”
“That’s Deputy Doc,” and the com went silent.
Night is falling. The whaleherds have their charges gathered in a pasture close to the dairy. Most were down for the night, but Corbin could hear the worry in the songs they sang to each other.
Josie, wrapped in her tan cloak, makes her way through a sea of calico, various shades of tabby, and every solid color of whale fur you can imagine. A large grey extends a leg at Josie’s signal, allowing her to climb up and sit on his back.
Josie throws back her hood, freeing a long, brown ponytail from her cloak. She takes her whaleherd staff and separates the curled end from the main body, revealing a mouthpiece. She blows into the mouthpiece, playing long, low notes of whale song, soothing the giant animals.
If that don’t beat all, Corbin thinks. He calls to the dairy workers on the communicator. “By the numbers, check in if you’re in position.”
As the dairy workers check in, Corbin adjusts his goggles, flipping through the status transmissions from the four quad drones patrolling outside the perimeter.
Everyone is in position and ready. Corbin is impressed by the amount of fire power the dairy had. Not their first rodeo.
“Everybody hold your position until I say otherwise.”
Corbin rides his horse around the perimeter, checking on the dairy workers. Some are nervous. Nobody is happy about the prospect of facing something huge that can drain a land whale. Corbin tries to keep their spirits up, but thinks Josie’s playing is affecting them more.
The whales begin to stir as an alert from Rotor 3 pops up in Corbin’s goggle display. An eye blink and a nose twitch bring up Rotor 3’s display. Ultrasonic sensor and thermal imaging indicate a target in the East.
Josie plays louder as the other whaleherds join in, adding harmonies and counter melodies to Josie’s lead to fend off the restlessness.
Corbin sets his horse to a gallop toward the Eastern section of the perimeter. “We have an airborne target coming in fast from the East. Four and Six, meet me at Five’s position. Everyone else stay put.”
Corbin dismounts at Five just before Four and Six arrive. He brings up Rotor 3’s display in his goggles just in time to see a large set of teeth before Rotor 3 goes dark. He pulls his goggles off and sees the remains of a shower of sparks where Rotor 3 was.
The sound of bed sheets flapping in a strong wind and a loud, rodent-like chirping fill the night.
Corbin fires a flare to light the Eastern sky. “There’s out target. Fire. Seven and Three be ready to assist,” Corbin barks over the communicator before aiming his own rifle and firing.
Corbin puts his goggles back on to assist with targeting. The target, the biggest bat Corbin had ever seen, was silhouetted in the flare light. The gunfire isn’t stopping the bat, but, it slows him down enough that he dives down and circles back the way he came.
A few cheers rise from the dairy workers, but the night is now filled with the music of the whaleherds. One by one, they stop playing, until only Josie is left.
Corbin’s communicator is vibrating. Deputy Lassiter is calling.
“Jay,” Corbin cut him off, “I don’t know what you’re still doing at the station, but good. Get on the horn to Sackett Station. Wake the Marshal if you have to. Wake the damn Governor, but don’t stop until you can find someone who can tell me why the hell there is a giant bat on Homestead.”