The time of the Beast began not with the fanfare of trumpets but with the buzzing of flies. Carcasses rotting in the sun-two goats on the Murphy farm and one calf at the Peterson’s. No one in Macon Hollow thought much about them at the time. Animals die, especially when the temperature swells as it had during the long Indian summer that had blanketed the area.
Only after more livestock were found dead the following week, and then more after that, did people began to talk. Most of the townspeople still blamed the weather even though the crisp temperatures of fall had arrived for good by then. Some of the farmers speculated that some new disease had emerged. But the old-timers knew right away that something else was going on. They had seen it happen before.
They talked in hushed whispers of the animal deaths that had occurred one summer when they were just boys. The events of that summer had started much the same way things were happening now. But they had ended with a missing girl.
They talked about the curfews, the hunting parties, and the fear that had circulated through Macon Hollow like a sickness. It had all been centered on one thing-a mysterious creature they had called the Beast. Though some had claimed to have seen it, it had remained for all practical purposes as elusive as a frightful dream. It had come, claimed its victim, and disappeared into legend.
Now it seemed that the Beast had returned.
But not even the old-timers could imagine the full measure of terror that the Beast would bring with it this time. Surely not a fifteen-year-old boy named Will Shepard who, on his first night in Macon Hollow, was completely unaware that the Beast was but a few miles away from his bedroom window. Neither did he realize that what occurred on that September night would forever intertwine their fates.
Dark clouds had rolled in over the mountains, blanketing the countryside with gloom. Rufus Jackson was ambling toward his home in Macon Village along the narrow dusty road that led from Eddie Parnell’s shack. With him was Duck Taylor, one of his oldest friends. They had spent the better part of the day at Eddie’s, playing cards and drinking moonshine.
“Ol’ man Tucker was a fine ol’ man, washed his face with the fryin’ pan…” Duck sang softly to himself as he wobbled beside Rufus.
“That ain’t how it goes, Ducky,” bellowed Rufus. “Sing it like this.” His scratchy voice went up an octave. “Ol’ man Duck-y was a fine ol’ man, drinks his whis-key when he can, a mighty fine feller but he’s touched in the head, ev’rybody knows he’s better off dead!”
Duck hung his head. “That ain’t very nice, Rufus.”
Rufus roared with laughter, a harsh raucous sound that deteriorated into a raspy cough. He spit on the ground when he had recovered. “That ain’t very – …you’re a sad case, ain’t you Ducky?” He started to laugh but ended up coughing again. “Oh, boy. That’s why I’ve looked after you all these years…you’re too stupid to stand up for yourself!”
“Why’re you being so mean?” Duck kicked a pebble down the path.
“Aaahh, don’t be so sensitive! And give me that bottle!” Rufus slapped him on the chest with his open hand. “I need another drink.”
Rufus was well known in Macon Hollow for his tendency to drink. And drink heavily. He didn’t make any bones about it either. He liked to drink and he did. Every day. But on this day even his harshest critics would admit he had a good reason to tie one on. He had buried his father in a lonely grave in the Macon Hollow cemetery that very morning.
It was not that he felt any sorrow for his old man’s passing. Quite the opposite. As a child, Rufus had cursed his father more times than he could count. He’d been wishing for him to die since he was old enough to realize that other kids weren’t beaten with the spruce saplings from the hollow every night. And other kids didn’t watch their daddy beat their mama until she lay unconscious on the kitchen floor.
He had hated Horace Jackson ever since he could remember. He had hated him for what he had done to his family. And he still hated Horace because he-Rufus McQueen Jackson-had turned out to be just like him. A no-good drunk.
He cursed and wiped his grizzled face as a misty rain began to fall, his left eye looking cockeyed in the wrong direction. Rufus was not a handsome man by any means; forty-odd years of daily drinking had taken their toll. But he didn’t need to impress anyone; his wife left him long ago and his son Mule just came and went as he pleased.
“It’s empty, Rufus,” said Duck, handing him the empty bottle. “You’ve drunk it all.”
“Well, then,” he said with a sly grin. “Looks like we need to make a detour.”
“You mean…oh, no! I ain’t goin’ in there! It’s almost midnight!” Duck shook his head earnestly, his battered hat flipping to the ground. He quickly retrieved it and plopped it back on his head.
Rufus looked at the floppy hat with disgust; Duck had worn it for as long as he could remember, its once white cloth now grimy and sweat-stained. “You coward! What’re you afraid of? The Beast? There ain’t nothin’ in that hollow but snakes and coons.”
Duck just needed a little coaxing. He had never been as smart as everyone else, and Rufus had learned long ago how to talk him into anything. “You want people to know you were too scared to go in there and get yourself a drink?”
Duck hesitated. “N-no…”
“All right then. What’re we waitin’ for?”
“But, Rufus…that ol’ Beast ain’t like a man. You can’t kill it.”
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. First, there ain’t no such thing as that Beast. And second, how do you know you can’t kill it?” He pulled out a rusty revolver from his britches pocket and held it in the moonlight. “We can find out, you know.”
“You ain’t kiddin’, are you? You’re going to go in that hollow.”
“Heck, yeah, I’m going in there. We’re out of shine, ain’t we? And we got more at the still, right?”
“Well, nothin’. I’m goin’ to get some and you’re comin’ with me. Or you can walk on back to the Village by yourself.”
Rufus began to walk, deviating from the road to strike off into a nearby pine thicket. Duck gritted his teeth and groaned before running to join him.
Rufus chuckled. “I knew you couldn’t resist, Ducky ‘ol boy. Now give me a smoke.”
They both lit up as they walked toward the edge of the great expanse of forest.
“Do you reckon it’s really the Beast killin’ those animals, Rufus?”
“Naw. I told you…there ain’t no such thing.”
“Well, what do you suppose is doin’ it?”
“I don’t know…a bear? A wolf? Could be one of those big cats, too. Somethin’ like a cougar. Could be rabid, too.”
“Well, that’s what they say the Beast is…a big ‘ol bloodthirsty cat. With red eyes and vampire teeth.”
Rufus laughed. “You believe that, don’t you? You’ve always been a gullible one, Ducky.”
“You ain’t scared, Rufus?”
“No, I ain’t scared. I lived with Horace Jackson for sixteen years, ‘till I was old enough to lie to the army and get out. Now he was a real monster. You know, I think he enjoyed them beatings he gave me.” He threw his cigarette butt in the dusty soil and stomped it. “I’ll take the Beast any day.”
“You know, I was scared of him, too. I’d hide from him if I saw him comin’. I mean, if you weren’t around.”
“I weren’t scared of him,” Rufus lied. “I just hated him. I would’ve killed him myself if I’d had the guts.”
He stopped. They had reached the edge of the hollow, its dark borders standing in stark contrast to the neatly kept homes they had passed earlier along the road. Giant oaks and spindly pines had grown tightly together and stood like a great wall around its perimeter.
His stomach burned as he looked at it. All of his big talk about the Beast seemed a little silly now that he was staring into its dark interior. He was no different than anyone else, even though he wouldn’t admit it; he was scared. Fear of the hollow ran deep in these parts, as if it were as much a part of you as your skin and bones. Too many strange things had happened over the years. He wondered how long it had been since someone had dared to journey into its heart, to the very center itself.
Rufus swallowed hard and cleared his throat. He couldn’t let Ducky see that it was getting to him. He was a just a simpleton. And the poor guy needed him to be strong. A leader.
He looked up into the sky. The moon was full somewhere behind the clouds, but for now only a fraction of its light made it to earth. A small trail, barely large enough to squeeze through, led to his moonshine still. He had made it himself by hacking the small branches and brush between the trees. Now, in the near total darkness, the trail was nothing but a black opening in a dark barrier of trees. To Rufus, it looked like the entrance to hell itself. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to step forward.
“Come on,” he whispered as he motioned to Duck. Duck’s eyes were as big as saucers as he followed Rufus into the shadows.
Immediately, they were plunged into darkness by the canopy of trees overhanging the path. Rufus felt his way ahead as the uneven ground began to slope downward toward the heart of the hollow, Duck’s hand clamped firmly to the back of his shirt. He cursed at the branches that slapped at him from the foliage along the borders of the trail. He cursed at himself for not bringing a flashlight.
The crickets answered in unison, their shrill chirps echoing back and forth from all around him. Other creatures joined the rhythm of the night, their sounds growing louder as the path sloped steadily downward.
Luckily, his moonshine still wasn’t too far in. Just to the old hermit’s shack. He didn’t know who had built the old house, or when, but he, Duck, and Eddie had found it when they were boys. When they had ventured in one fall day on a dare.
More curses, more struggles against the forest, and then their journey in the dark was over. They broke free from the heavy brush and emerged in a small clearing. A dilapidated house stood silhouetted in a sliver of moonlight, a welcome sight despite its dreary appearance. The sound of the night creatures dominated the air and it felt as if their noise filled every nuance of his body.
Rufus walked onto the porch and lit an oil lantern hanging from its rotted beams, illuminating the rain that drifted down in a fine spray. “See Ducky boy, we made it. Nothin’ to worry ‘bout. No beast. Just tasty, corn whiskey.”
He walked into the house and hung the lantern on a hook in the ceiling. A large kettle stood in the corner surrounded by mason jars. Rufus poured some clear liquid into a jar and handed it to Duck.
“Bottoms up.” He drained his own glass and sat it down hard on a wooden crate. “Ahhh…that was worth the walk, eh? How about another smoke before we head back to the Village?”
Duck handed him the crumpled pack and Rufus walked back onto the porch, its rotted floorboards sagging under his weight. His eyes adjusted to the dimly lit clearing, eventually coming to rest on a thicket of small spruce saplings. Immediately, Rufus thought about finding Horace dead.
He had stopped by to fetch his favorite coon dog from the kennels. He found the whole pack half starved, their ribs protruding from their sides like they had swallowed birdcages. He knew something was wrong right then and there. Horace would feed his dogs before he would feed his own sons. He knew that from experience.
He had searched the house, moving through the litter-strewn rooms methodically, calling out his name. No Horace. He searched around the yard and the fields, thinking maybe he had fallen and gotten hurt. No Horace.
He was about to leave when it hit him-the smell of death. The smell of a dead animal that’s been left for the buzzards. He followed his nose to the one place he had failed to look earlier-the outhouse.
He jerked open the door and out fell Horace, all black and bloated, stinking to high heaven. He heard himself scream shrilly as he ran back to his truck and threw up violently. He heaved over and over again as the black, lifeless face of Horace Jackson swam in his mind’s eye. Doc Thompson said later that his old man died from spider bites. Black widows, a whole nest of them under the outhouse seat.
That was three days and a bunch of moonshine ago. He wiped his face with his handkerchief, wishing he could wipe the images from his mind so easily. Don’t need to be thinkin’ of such stuff in this place. It’s much too dark...
“Hey, Rufus! You got more of them peanuts? You know, the ones you picked up in old man Cren – “
“Shut up, Ducky!” he whispered, looking into the darkness. It was anything but quiet in the clearing, the insects filling the night air with their steady chatter. Their music, like the pulsing of a mighty heartbeat, seemed to echo throughout the hollow. But, somehow, it just didn’t seem right to pollute the air with their voices. Their human voices. Besides, he was scared of what they might attract.
Rufus stood leaning on a porch post, gathering the strength to start the uphill climb back out of the hollow, when the earsplitting sounds suddenly stopped. The abrupt silence startled him so much that he dropped his cigarette into the darkness below.
He stood stiffly, straining to listen to the silence. He could hear his own labored breathing but nothing else. Not even a breeze ruffled the undergrowth.
Something was out there.
Duck crept onto the porch, his eyes bugging out like a frog’s. He stood silently beside Rufus, peering out into the darkness.
After what seemed like ages, they heard a noise. A slight rustling through the bushes to Rufus’s right, as if the sea of brush was being parted to let something pass. Duck backed up until he was against the wall of the house. Rufus held his breath as fear welled up inside him. He realized that the sweat that covered his body had turned ice cold.
Something was approaching.
He could feel its presence.
Rufus strained his eyes toward the sound.
The bushes parted and a large shape, blacker than the night, emerged into the clearing. Rufus’s heart pounded and his breath caught in his chest. He clutched the post so hard that he felt he was going to snap the bones in his hands.
The form, nothing more than a black shadow, moved toward them. Rufus could smell his own fear hanging thick around him like a fog.
“The Beast…,” whispered Duck, his voice barely a squeak.
Suddenly, as the shadow reached the moonlight, Rufus couldn’t believe his eyes.
A big buck, with antlers a moose would envy, darted into the clearing. It stopped short at the sight of the lantern and stood motionless as it considered the two men who stood within its light. It was a majestic sight. Tall and proud, its powerful muscles glistened in the misty rain. With one flinch of his haunches, it could dart away from their apparent danger. But it stood there, nervously sizing them up.
“Rufus,” hissed Duck, “will you look at that? That’s the biggest deer I’ve ever seen!”
“Yeah, he is a big one. Look at him just standin’ there.”
“You reckon it’s the light?”
“Maybe. But somethin’ must’ve flushed him out.”
“I’m going see if I can get close to him.” Duck eased off the porch before Rufus could stop him, walking delicately across the clearing toward the deer. He had always been a sucker for animals. The buck just stood there as he approached, its eyes darting nervously between Duck and the darkness of the trees.
Something was wrong. Rufus could feel it.
Duck slipped his hand into his pocket and produced a half-eaten apple. “Here, boy. Look at what I’ve got you.”
“Ducky, no!” shouted Rufus. But it was too late.
He was about halfway across the clearing when it happened. A black mass emerged from the trees and engulfed the buck, the high-pitched bleating of the animal blending with the sound of breaking bones and guttural roars. Duck just stood there, frozen.
The buck now reduced to a crushed heap of flesh and fur on the hollow floor, the entity moved toward them, its shape fluctuating wildly as it progressed. As they watched, it transformed. Black strands pulled themselves from the darkness. Bone, sinew, muscles, and fur-all knit together in a matter of seconds to form a terrible shape.
A large creature, its fur as black as the shadow it had once been, stood before them.
A cat! Larger and more menacing than any lion or tiger had ever dared to be.
Yet it wasn’t just a cat. Its eyes, soul-less and slotted like a snake’s, glowed red in the misty light. Its paws, as big as a bear’s, were punctuated by double rows of menacing claws.
Rufus recognized it once, even though he had never laid eyes on it before.
“The Beast,” he muttered.
Despite the immediate danger, a sense of awe overwhelmed him. The legendary Beast of Macon Hollow…it actually existed.
It snarled at Duck, exposing jumbled fangs stained red with deer blood.
Duck stood dumbly in the same spot, staring at the advancing creature as if he were glued to the ground.
Rufus panicked. “Run, Duck, run!”
But he remained motionless.
The Beast crept toward him, its eyes locked firmly onto Duck’s.
Rufus could stand it no longer and darted toward Duck. But before he got more than a few feet, the Beast pounced.
It struck Duck with the force of a hurtling truck, driving him into the mud. With one swift motion, it buried its face into his chest. What Rufus saw then, he would never forget.
A light, white with tinges of blue, emerged from Duck and permeated the air around the Beast’s upper body. For a moment, Rufus thought he saw the ghostly image of his friend in the light. But in an instant, the Beast raised its head, opened its mouth, and the light was gone.
It then turned its attention to Rufus.
Fear rippled through his body like it never had before.
They seemed to stare through him, to see deep within his soul.
The Beast snarled and began to jitter and contort, black shadows flowing around its body like a heavy mist. In seconds it was completely enveloped in darkness. Then, just as quickly, the shadows were gone.
And what remained was more terrifying to Rufus than a thousand Beasts.
“No! It can’t be…you’re dead!”
Horace Jackson, his dead father, stood before him!
He gave him a wicked smile, a smile that Rufus recognized from many years ago. A smile that meant he wasn’t finished with him yet. Oh, no. He had plenty more beatings to give him.
Rufus heard himself screaming as he began to step backwards, his voice sounding like it did when he was a small boy. Horace grinned and held up a spruce sapling, a trickle of blood running down its shaft. His face, blackened by death, wore the same hollow expression it had when he had been drinking, the same expression it had worn as he would beat him mercilessly.
“Get away! You can’t hurt me anymore!”
Rufus pulled out his revolver and fired. Round after round he shot into Horace.
But he kept coming.
Kept holding up the spruce sapling.
Rufus fired until the chambers were empty, the hammer of his revolver clicking uselessly.
As much as he wanted to run away, Rufus stood paralyzed as Horace advanced. In only a few brief seconds, the thing that looked like Horace was nose to nose with him, the smell of death filling his nostrils the same way it had three days ago.
Rufus collapsed at its feet, screaming and begging, his mind on the verge of snapping into madness.
Suddenly, hands grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him up. A gruff voice called out to him in the darkness.
“Come with me if you want to live!”
The next thing he knew, he was being pulled into the shack and shoved downward into darkness. Like a nightmare, he was pushed blindly along until he blacked out, Horace’s grinning face still haunting his mind.
Miles away, in the heart of Macon Hollow, on the second floor of his comfortable new house, Will Shepard jerked upright in his bed, gasping for air. His hands clutched frantically at his sheets as his heart raced. He felt his pajamas; they were drenched with sweat.
For a moment, he didn’t know where he was. Then he remembered. This was the first night in his new home, in his own bedroom. He turned his face to the moonlight and felt the breeze blowing softly through his window.
A nightmare. It was just a nightmare.
But it was more than that. He knew it. He had seen them. Two men, alone in the woods. What’s more, he had felt them. Felt their fear. Rising from them like a sweet fragrance that sent power surging through him. The more they were afraid, the stronger he became.
He was scared. Disoriented. He longed to be back in his family’s tiny apartment. But he was here now, in Macon Hollow.
He forced himself to breathe deeply until his heart resumed its normal rhythmic pace. He lay back down and stared at the ceiling. Waited for sleep.
Help us, William Shepard! The Beast…is rising!
He sat up again with a gasp. The Beast! He remembered it all now.
He could see the terrified face of the man, the man in the funny hat. He remembered his fear. And the sweet taste of his soul.
Then the older man. With the unshaven face and the funny eye. He had been screaming. Pleading.
He remembered the man’s fear. It had erupted around him like a flame.
And he had wanted him. To feed on his soul.
Then a light-a beautiful, white light-seemed to engulf him, to shield him from the horrors. A voice from the within the light had said something important. Help us, William Shepard! The Beast is rising. A plea for help! And a warning. A warning meant for him.
He realized he was gripping the covers again, his fists clenched tight. He forced his hands to open. Forced his lungs to breathe deeply.
Just a nightmare. That’s all it was. Just a nightmare.
Will looked at his hands in the moonlight. They were trembling.
Just a nightmare.
But he knew it was something more.
He pulled his knees to his chest, held the covers tightly around him, and waited for daylight.