The road to Wyatt Sinclair’s ranch rambled through the red rocks outside of Thermopolis, a deeply rutted two-track that bumped and bucked over twenty miles of rough country to reach high pasture. The spicy smell of junipers rolled in through the open windows of my truck, a clean smell that replaced the thick musk of sage that had choked me for the first half of my trip. Sinclair had sounded worried, but there wasn’t much hurrying to be done in this country, not if you didn’t want a busted axle. I breathed deep and admired the heavy clusters of tiny purple berries on the junipers as I rolled by.
This was ranch country and there were a lot of large animal vets, but ever since I’d saved Sinclair’s favorite appaloosa and her foal during that long-gone harrowing night, he’d only ever wanted me to work on his animals. But that meant long waits, sometimes, since him and his sheep were way outside of town. He’d called Lucy, my receptionist, while I was out vaccinating Earl Compton’s milk cow, and he’d worried her some with his terse, tense message.
“He didn’t want to talk to me about it at all,” she’d said while I dialed him up. “I hope it’s nothin’ bad.” I nodded. We both remembered that spring ten years ago, when the anthrax rolled through our corner of Wyoming, remembered the burn pits and the quarantines and the families ruined. That disaster had colored everything afterwards. Every sick animal visit I did, there was always the same worry in the back of everyone’s mind – is this it again? Is this the end?
“Hey, Deb,” he’d said. “You think you could come up to my place today, take a look at something?”
“What’re the symptoms Wyatt?”
“None of my sheep are sick,” he said, then paused. “Well, I mean, I don’t think so. They’re just acting funny, some of ‘em at least.”
“What do you mean, ‘funny?’”
“I don’t wanna, well, prejudice you or nuthin’ now,” he said, straining to sound casual. “Just come up if you can and kinda look around, okay? I just want a professional assessment.”
I was pretty busy, but a few reshufflings guided by Lucy’s able hand got me a free afternoon, and so I got my bag and hopped in my old Jeep and started the long drive to the Sinclair spread, south of town.
As I rounded the last curve I saw Sinclair standing on his porch, hands in his pocket, waiting for me. I honked and he waved.
“Saw you comin’ up the hill,” he said, shaking my hand. “A while back.”
“Road’s getting rough,” I laughed.
“Gotta get it graded again, I reckon.”
“So, Wyatt, where are these funny-actin’ sheep at?”
“I put ‘em up in the north pasture,” he said. “Come on inside for a minute, lemme get something, and then we’ll take my truck.” We went into the kitchen where Mary, his wife, was working on supper, chopping onions. While Wyatt was in the back of the house, Mary looked after him and then over at me, her eyes worried.
“Glad you could make it today, Deborah,” she said, shaking her head. She was a sturdy woman, Wyoming stock from way back, tough as they come. Seeing her worried underlined the seriousness of the situation, whatever it was. “I don’t think Wyatt could take another night of worryin’ about it.”
“What’s going on out here, Mary?” I asked. “Wyatt seemed pretty spooked on the phone.”
“It started up about a week ago,” she set down her knife and thought some. “Yeah, a week back, just after that big light show in the sky, that aurora borealis. Never saw it so bright or so clear! The next day Wyatt went out to do a count and came back, well, disturbed.” She wiped her hands on her apron and leaned back against the counter. “He wouldn’t tell me about it! I had to badger him and badger him. And when he did, it did seem kind of silly. But then I went out there, and well, it ain’t right.”
“You Sinclairs always this cryptic?” I laughed.
“See it for yourself, first. It’s better that way.” We heard Wyatt’s heavy tread in the hallway, and he soon reappeared with what he’d gone back to get – his rifle, a big .30-30, well used.
“Expecting trouble?” I asked.
“You never know,” he mused.
“Supper’ll be ready when you get back,” said Mary, kissing her husband on the cheek. “Deborah? You’ll eat with us, won’t you? I won’t accept no!”
It was a half an hour to get to the Sinclair’s north pasture, and for the first ten minutes I let Wyatt nurse whatever worry was eating him. But finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and just started talking.
“Mary says this all started a week ago?”
“What else she tell you?” sighed Wyatt.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “She was like you; didn’t want to spoil my surprise. But if it’s been going on for that long, why’d you only get around to calling me now?” He was quiet for a minute, then let out another long sigh.
“Deb,” he said, “I thought I was going crazy. Honest to God, when I first saw it, I thought ‘this is it, this is how it must’ve felt when it happened to Dad.’” Wyatt’s father had gotten dementia in his 60s, pretty bad. He’d talk to people who weren’t there, try and do choirs in the middle of the night, would get real confused and angry. He’d wandered off into the hills for two days once, near the end, got dehydrated and sick, trying to head to town. Ended up having to put him in a home in Casper, but those years of worry and sadness while he lived with them must’ve still haunted Wyatt.
“Well,” I said, sympathizing. “Mary seems to think whatever all this is about is pretty weird too, so, I mean…at least you’re both goin’ nuts together, right?” Wyatt laughed and spat out his window.
We passed his sheep in the lower South pastures, fat fleecy clouds drifting over the fields, munching and bleating at one another. They looked up at the truck, hazel-eyed and woolly, waiting to see if there would be feed. In the back of the truck, Wyatt’s sheepdog Harry wagged, appraising his charges with the keen eyes of an expert.
“They’re lookin’ good,” I said, nodding. “Fat and happy, wool coming in nice. Have some work for the shearers when they come through in the spring.”
“Yep,” said Wyatt. “Those ones look alright.”
The North Pasture was a high meadow between two long ridges of sandstone, a few hundred feet higher up but sheltered and, even in the Fall, stayed livable for the animals. There was running water from a little spring that bubbled up out of the rocks, and the sun was warm and cheerful. It was prime pasture, some of the best in the region, and Wyatt was lucky to have it.
But he didn’t look happy as we drove up to the pens. There were several of them, steel circles about fifty feet wide, churned and muddied by sheep hooves. There were two groups, in two adjacent pens. We pulled up to the nearest one, Harry wriggling with excitement, Wyatt taciturn and with the rifle slung over his shoulder. I hopped out and followed him, hauling my bag.
“Well, Wyatt?” I said.
“Just look, for a minute,” he said, quietly.
In the first pen, there were ten sheep, bunched together like sheep like to do. They called and nuzzled and stamped, following the boldest of their numbers near the fence, eager for feed. Harry wagged and looked up to Wyatt. He wanted to work, herd the critters he was in charge of. I scanned them; they looked like any of Wyatt’s sheep to me, green ear tags all in their right ears, indicating they were all ewes.
“Should I be looking for anything in particular, Wyatt?” I said, doubtfully. He shook his head.
“S01, S12, S23,” he said, pointing at one then another, naming their tags. “I know ‘em all by sight, don’t even have to look at the tags. These are normal looking sheep, right?” I nodded. “Okay, come on.” We walked to the other pen, about a hundred feet off, towards another cluster of sheep. “Now,” he said, pointing at them. “Look at them.”
Ten sheep, green tagged ewes from his herd, stood in the center of the circle, staring. Woolly, and they looked hearty enough from here. But they were silent, completely silent, which was odd; we could still hear the calls from the first group behind us, and these sheep weren’t even replying. They also didn’t seem interested in us, just holding together in the middle of field.
“They seem kinda spooked, or something,” I said, looking back towards Wyatt behind me. Then I noticed Harry.
Harry was a working dog – I’d known his mother, LuLu, as much a sheep rancher as the Sinclairs were, and her pup Harry was the same, born and bred to herd animals. He was good, and Wyatt was rightly proud of his champion sheep dog. But what I saw now, I’d never seen before.
Harry wasn’t wagging anymore; he wasn’t holding his head low either, in the way collies do when they were eager to get to work, ready to drive or separate or round ‘em up. He was behind Wyatt, whites of his showing, staring hard at the cluster of animals, a snarl curling his lips. He was scared. Scared of sheep.
“What’s wrong with Harry?” I asked, shocked.
“He takes after me,” said Wyatt, simply. “C’mon, lets get you a closer look. Harry, stay.” The dog whimpered, but followed orders.
We hopped the fence. As we walked, Wyatt pointed at the sheep. “S12,” he said, scanning the flock which stood, bizarrely, completely still and silent as we approached. “S01, S23 there in the back.”
“Wait,” I said. “Those are the numbers from the other pen.”
“Yep,” he nodded. “All the same, each identical to the others in the pen.” He pursed his lips. “Identical lookin’ I mean.”
“These’re someone else’s sheep then,” I said, slightly annoyed at having made the trip just to ID someone’s lost lambs. “Who’s nearby, Hutchinson? Wannamaker?” Wyatt shook his head. “Hutchinson uses yellow tags, and Wannamaker, when he had sheep, used red. I’m green in these parts Deb.”
“Well, now,” I said, “so they’re from older herds? Lost last year, found again.” We stopped, ten feet from the silent clutch of sheep, there big wet eyes gazing up at us.
“That’s what I thought, at first,” he said. “Here it is, the story; I was doing the count for the Fall last week, and noticed I had three more than I should’ve. Recounted, still three off, plus three. Every one of ‘em had my tags, and I hadn’t lost any sheep last year or the year before that, in the sense of them being unaccountable, I mean, so I go through ‘em, all hundred and fifty plus three, and find out I got duplicates.” He snorted and spat. “Could’ve saved myself some trouble if I’d just gone to the three standing off by themselves. Sheep ain’t geniuses, Deb,” he said, “but they got brains enough to know themselves from other things. The whole herd was down in a corner, keeping off from those three, right there.
“Well, I didn’t know what to figure. It was getting dark, so I just noted the numbers and figured I’d come back and then deal with it. Rain the next day and some trouble installing the heater in the barn, so I couldn’t get back up till the day after that. And when I did? Well, this time I was plus seven sheep, all duplicates.
“This time,” continued Wyatt, his voice quiet. “I got a chance to look at ‘em closer. That’s when I thought I was going crazy, like I said in the truck.”
I walked up to the sheep, slowly, so as to not spook them, although there wasn’t any sign of that. In fact, they stood stock still, just watching. They still hadn’t made any noise, and now that I was on top of them, I noticed there was no smell, none of the oily stink you get with sheep.
I picked one on the end and reached out to pat its head, scratch its ears, and then pulled my hand back. I crouched down and held its cold muzzle, looking into its eyes, its nostrils, its ears. I looked over my shoulder at Wyatt.
“This animal is freezing, Wyatt,” I said, shocked. I put my hand in the wool, reaching for the skin below. It was cool to the touch, no warmth.
“Take a temp, Doc,” said Wyatt. I stuck a quick read thermometer in the animal’s left ear and it beeped.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Seventy point five. That can’t be right.” I turned the thermometer off and on, and tried again. The same reading glowed up at me in bright, clinical green. I crab walked over to next animal, grabbed its right ear, prepared to stick the probe into it, and then stopped. I squinted closer at the tag. “What the fuck?” I said.
“Yeah,” said Wyatt, coming up to stand over me. “That’s what I said, too.”
The tag wasn’t the hard plastic that it should’ve been. It looked like the real thing, had the same black printed numbers and letters, hung in the right place, but it was pliable, soft almost, and when I got close, I saw that it wasn’t sitting in a hole that had been clipped in the ear – it was growing out of the ear. The green tag with the writing on it was a part of the animal’s ear.
“When Mary finally got the truth out of me,” he said, loading the rifle, “she came up with me to see ‘em. By that point we had eleven duplicates.”
“Eleven?” I said, looking at the ten standing before us.
“Yep,” he said. He aimed and fired, the shot ringing in our ears, the .30-30 blasting the sheep on the end’s head to pieces. The body slumped to the ground. The other sheep didn’t even flinch, didn’t run or anything, just kept watching us.
“Goddammit Wyatt,” I said, grimacing. I’d never seen him be callous about animals before.
“Take a look, Doc,” he said, pointing.
There wasn’t any blood. I crouched down. The fragments of the head that I could find were soft and spongy and the color of cream inside. I held them up, got out my hand lens and looked at them under magnification. There were tiny vesicles or holes all through the tissue. I squished it between my fingers; it crumbled, like stale bread.
Next I examined the wound in the neck – more of the white crumbly tissue, uniform all the way through, pin-pricked with the tiny pores. I stuck my finger in, pressing hard, and it sunk in all the way to the knuckle. It wasn’t any warmer in there than the outside of the animal was, but it was damp, sticky, like sap. I wiped my fingers on my pants and shivered.
I ran my hands along the belly. No teats, and when I went around behind there were no genitalia, no anus under the tail. I split the belly with a scalpel. The “skin” was about a quarter inch thick, tougher than the spongy stuff but similar in appearance. Inside, the soft porous tissue went all the way through, completely undifferentiated, no change in structure or function or anything, except for a central zone that seemed denser and slightly hard. I cut into one of the legs and found a similar column of this denser tissue in the center there. Instead of bones, it had an internal armature of this slightly stiffer stuff, still spongy and crumbly, but a bit sturdier. I stood up, and I felt a little dizzy.
“What the fuck is happening here, Deb?” asked Wyatt, his voice pleading, his eyes wide and scared.
When we got back, Mary was waiting on the porch drinking a beer, and she had a cooler of them ready.
“You look like you need one,” said Mary. “So you saw ‘em? What are they?”
“I don’t know, Mary,” I said, drinking deep. She had been right, I needed a beer. “Never seen, never even heard of anything like it before.” I took another drink, tipped the bottle up, drained it. Wyatt handed me another one. “Just crazy, I mean, they look just like sheep but the insides?” I shook my head.
“How many more will there be?” said Mary, wide-eyed.
“And where are they coming from?” asked Wyatt, rubbing Harry’s head.
“Where are they coming from,” I echoed, looking at Wyatt. “You said they’d just show up each time you went up there? You never saw them appear?” Wyatt shook his head.
“They were always off on the side, away from the main herd. They stuck together,” he said with a shrug.
“Like sheep,” I added. “They’re pretty good copies of sheep, on the outside at least, or from afar. I mean, I had to get my hands on one to see something was off, and if you hadn’t been keeping good records, hadn’t known how many sheep you were supposed to have had, you’d never know about them.” I sipped my second beer.
“It’s just so weird,” said Mary.
“But you’ve got the sheep things penned in up there, that’s good. That’s proof. Get one on a dissection table and that’ll be enough to convince anybody. But how are they getting into your pasture? Where are they coming from?” I said, tapping the bottle against my knee.
“Maybe they sprout up, like mushrooms,” said Mary.
“That’s what they look like,” I agreed. “On the inside, I mean. All soft and spongy.” I shivered. “Listen,” I said, “I hate to impose, but how about this: I’ll stay here tonight, and then in the morning, let’s go and poke around the place where you saw them appear. We can spend all day Saturday hunting around. Maybe we can find something interesting then. Then we’ll load up a couple of these sheep things and bring ‘em down into town, to the vet hospital, and we’ll do a proper dissection of them, filmed and with witnesses. This is something big here, something new, and we’ve got to figure it out.”
They nodded, and we went in for supper, Mary’s famous meatloaf, and then they made up a bed for me in their spare room. I lay there for most of the night, thinking over what I’d seen and wondering what we’d find tomorrow. I had a hard time going to sleep, and I refused to count sheep.
The next morning Wyatt and I drove out in his truck to the North pasture. I half expected to see a little cluster of silent staring sheep things, but everything seemed normal and Harry wasn’t worried. Wyatt stood tall in the bed of his truck, counting.
“Hunnert n’ forty,” he said, nodding. “That’s all that should be here.” He hopped down and the three of us, Wyatt, me, and Harry the dog, walked to the far edge of the meadow, pushing through scrubby juniper sapling and straggling weedy grasses.
“Right here,” said Wyatt. “This is where they always were, just standing here, all three times I found them.”
We were standing at the break in slope, near a shaley scree pile that lead up, through the junipers, towards the red sandstones that capped the hills in that part of the country. Harry was sniffing around, unperturbed. I kicked some shale slats over, looking around. There wasn’t much to see, really, just an open patch in the countryside.
“Not quite sure what I expected,” I said, hands on my hips, looking around. “Some kind of bubbly pit, fake sheep crawling out of the goop? Nothing too strange here, is there?” I looked up, saw Wyatt walking a little way into the juniper, bent at the waist, looking towards the ground and walking slowly up hill.
“Here’s something, Deb,” he said. I jogged over to join him. There wasn’t much to my eye, but then again I hadn’t been crawling around these hills since I was a kid, hunting mulies.
“What’ve you got?” I asked. He pointed, and I saw what was interesting him – overturned bits of shale, the thin soil and long dead juniper needles churned and exposed, a track of them, leading up the slope.
We followed it as best we could. We stopped near the top of the ridge, a hundred feet above the meadow, puffball sheep wobbling to-and-fro below. At the ridge Wyatt had to spend some time hunting around, but he found the trail, gouged sand and little pockmarks in the soft sediment under an overhang. “Sure looks like sheep tracks,” he said.
We were an hour tracing the ridge before the trail vanished. We had to spend another hour, walking in widening circles on either side of the ridgeline before he found it again, on the other side of the hill.
“They covered some ground,” I said, wiping my forehead.
“Looks like they came up the hill here,” he pointed down the slope, then turned to face the ridgeline we’d crossed. “Probably climbed up that break in the rocks there, then followed the line down to where we found it.”
“They made pretty straight progress,” I said, quietly.
“Like they knew where they was going,” nodded Wyatt. He shifted his rifle from one shoulder to the other, and we kept walking.
In the next valley over there was a dry creek bed, full of loose stones, and the trail followed it for a while upslope, before it broke out and went into the sage thickets clustering along the banks. At first I figured we were done for – the sage was thick, and it’d take us a long time to follow a trail hidden under the woody branches and heavy leaves of sagebrush. But, almost immediately, Wyatt found something. A fleecy wad of wool stuck to the branches of one of the plants, and attached to the wool, a thin strip of tissue, dry and leathery and full of tiny holes and pores. A chunk of the sheep things.
Now the trail was easy to follow. There were little woolen bits all through the undergrowth, leading up the gentle slope towards a saddle. We were up on the tablelands now, broad high-elevation flats on sloping limestone beds.
“How far did these things travel!?” I said, exasperated. We’d been walking for a good half the day. Wyatt shook his head and gave Harry some water.
“Maybe another hour or two, but then we’ll have to head back. We can make good time on the return, but we’re not equipped for an overnight here –” As he spoke, Harry suddenly looked up, alert, ears forward. He stared. Wyatt stood up and unslung the rifle from his shoulder. We waited.
Harry growled, and we heard something moving through the thick sagebrush in front of us. Wyatt raised his gun. The hackles on Harry’s back were raised. “Steady, steady,” hissed Wyatt to Harry.
Through the brush stepped a sheep. It looked at us. It had a green tag in its ear.
Wyatt fired and it collapsed, white spongy matter exposed in wound.
“Goddamn,” he growled. “Another one.”
I poked at it. Its tissues were even softer, more marshmallowy than the firmer stuff I’d seen yesterday. Almost like this one was fresher. I looked up in the direction it came. There was a lot of wool stuck on branches and hanging off sage, and you could even see where it had blundered along; there was a break in the plants that even I could recognize as a trail. We hurried up it, almost jogging in some places. We were close to the source, we both felt it. Harry ran along ahead, serious and focused. We travelled quick and quiet for about ten minutes, then came across a little hollow in the hill, a patch of ground sheltered by a big chunk of limestone that jutted up and out of the ground, a piece that had rolled down from higher up who knows how many thousands of years ago. Harry stopped short, and whined, and wouldn’t go into the clearing. I didn’t blame him.
Sprouting up from the ground was a fat, pale stalk, big as a barrel and white as milk. A handful of deflated looking branches or arms, brown and rotten, drooped limply from its lower portions, four of them right near the ground and three more a little ways up. But higher on, at about head height, there were two big healthy branches, thick and cream-colored, and on their tapered ends, attached at the belly, hung two fully grown sheep, pivoting their heads towards us to stare, upside down, in our direction.
“Goddamn,” said Wyatt. I agreed. We approached. I touched the stalk. It was cool and soft, and I could gouge out little chunks of it with my finger nail. “Look up,” whispered Wyatt, pointing. Higher up there were thin willowy branches, and on their tips were tiny white fetal sheep, big as my fist, hung from their ends, small blind eye buds swiveling in our direction. We stumbled back out of the clearing. Wyatt looked pale, and I felt cold all over.
“Should’ve brought some gasoline,” he said, grim faced. Harry whined sympathetically at his feet.
“No, we gotta save this thing,” I said, getting my breathing back under control. “It’s pretty unpleasant to look at, I’ll admit.” I turned back towards it and shuddered. “Alright, it’s fucking disgusting. But it’s like nothing I can imagine. It’s like a fungus, a mushroom or something, and it makes these,” I waved at the sheep, all of which still watched us. “Sheep things. That’s, well, I don’t know. Smarter people than us have to see this, have to be able to study it.” Wyatt looked skeptical, but he finally agreed, although only after I let him blast the two ripest sheep off the stalks.
“Don’t want anymore wandering into my herds,” he said, and I could appreciate his position. It was strange, set your teeth on edge, and seeing them hanging there…made me shiver.
We walked back to the pasture, moving pretty fast without having to hunt up the trail. We didn’t talk much, too much on our minds, I guess. Where the hell had something like that come from? And why was it copying Wyatt’s sheep, specifically, complete with green ear tags? That was troubling. Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I began to agree with Wyatt that maybe we should’ve brought some gasoline with us.
We got back to the truck a little after one in the afternoon, hungry and tired and on edge. Wyatt did another count, just in case, and when he came up with 140 again he seemed relieved. I pat Harry on the head; he seemed happier to be back too.
“You want to go get one of them things?” asked Wyatt.
“I could probably use some food, first,” I answered.
We drove back to the ranch, making our plans. We’d grab a couple of the sheep-things, tie off their legs and then bring them down in Wyatt’s truck. The thought of those silent things under the same roof as me in my jeep was a little too much to handle. We’d get Dr. Brandt, the senior surgeon, to do the dissection. They had a teaching theater with overhead cameras, good lighting, just the sort of thing to record the strangest discovery in human history.
We pulled up and Wyatt honked the horn in greeting. Mary came out onto the porch, a quizzical look in her face.
“Oh, you’re here!” she said. “I was worried something was wrong with the truck.”
“We aren’t that late,” said Wyatt, checking his watch.
“No,” said Mary, shaking her head. “I mean, when I saw you walk back up the road and go into the barn. I thought something had busted in the truck and you needed to come get the tools. I was about to go and see if you needed help. How’d you get back by here from the barn, anyway, without me seeing you?”
A sick feeling started buzzing, deep down in my guts. Wyatt looked at his wife, then at me, and the blood drained from his face. He gripped the rifle tighter.
“Get back inside, Mary, and lock all the doors, all the windows, okay?” She opened her mouth, but he shook his head once, and she nodded and ran inside. Wyatt turned to look at me. I shook my head, and he nodded.
We ran to the barn, Harry following along. He seemed to have read the mood in his human’s face. He was quiet and serious, his nose going, his ears up. We got to the barn and Wyatt slide the door open. Dust glittered in drifting constellations in the light. There, at the back of the barn, was a figure. Wyatt raised the gun.
“Come out,” he croaked, his voice harsh with fear. The figure stepped forward, into the light, and we both gasped.
We were both looking at Wyatt, same face, same height, same red striped shirt, same stained and faded work jeans, same boots. The Wyatt in the barn had a strange expression through, blank, dead, but with something just below the surface, more an absence of anything than a distinct attribute. The Wyatt-thing paused, looking at us. Wyatt, the real Wyatt, I mean, looked stunned, terrified.
The Wyatt-thing started towards us, walking quickly. Wyatt muttered “Oh God,” and fired, and his doppelganger’s torso burst in a bloodless explosion, the body flopping to the ground. Wyatt slumped over, fell to his knees, and was sick. I ran over to the body.
“It’s the same,” I said, reeling. “The same as the sheep!” The white, spongy tissue had been scattered all over the barn, torn to pieces by the rifle shot.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Wyatt.
“This is,” I shook my head. “This changes everything.”
“It made me,” he said, looking at his hands. “Why’d it make me?” I leaned down and gripped his shoulders, shaking him slightly.
“Wyatt Sinclair,” I said. He looked up into my face. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get Mary, and then you and I and Harry are going to go into town. We will get the sheriff, and we will show him this, show him the tree, the sheep, everything. Then, he and his men can cordon off the area, make sure none of these things are wandering around. We’ll get this under control, okay Wyatt? Everything will be under control.” He swallowed and nodded, and I helped him to his feet. We started back towards the house, slowly. Mary came around the corner towards us.
“It’s nothing,” shouted Wyatt. “Don’t worry about the shot, everything is okay!”
Harry started to growl.
“Oh God, no,” muttered Wyatt as Mary started to run towards us. Harry yelped and growled, bearing his fangs. I grabbed the rifle from Wyatt, slid the bolt home, and aimed it.
“Stop,” I shouted, clearly. “Stop if you’re Mary!” The thing kept running, its face placid and empty. I pulled the trigger, missed, bolted the action, fired again and hit, white foamy matter spraying from the Mary-thing’s neck stump. “Fucking Christ,” I said. I was shaking all over.
We ran to the house, both of us calling for Mary, pounding on the door. She opened it, and Wyatt grabbed her and held her.
“What’s happening? What’s all the shooting?” She asked, and we explained about the thing in the barn, the thing in the yard, and our plan to leave. She ran to get her purse, and Wyatt went to splash some water on his face. I sat on the porch steps, rubbing my temples, Harry whining and nudging me with his nose.
“Okay, boy,” I said, scratching his ears. I looked up. And then I screamed.
I was walking up the road towards the house. A hundred yards behind me was another me. And behind that me, there were other figures, Wyatts, Marys, and a few more Deborahs for good measure. Ten, twenty, more coming.
Wyatt met me as I locked and bolted the door. The things were already between us and the cars. Mary came running down the stairs. We locked the doors, locked the windows, and Wyatt distributed his guns, a .30-06 for Mary and shotgun for me. Harry whined and barked and cowered in the corner.
“Why are they trying to hurt us?” whispered Mary. “The sheep didn’t try and hurt us!”
“They were trying to mimic sheep,” I answered. “But these are trying to mimic humans.”
There were footsteps on the porch.
A face in the window. My face.
I screamed and fired.
It was a hard afternoon, and a longer night. The first wave of them would walk up to the doors or windows on the first floor and try and get in, rattling against the locks. We let them stay at the door, but if we saw one in the window we’d fire. Soon their spongy remains were drifting in through the broken windows, fine and powdery as snow. The second wave seemed smarter; while some were on the porch, the others went around back, tried different doors, different windows. One smashed its fist through the kitchen window, shredding its arm, strips of white soft tissue flapping loose from the stiffer structure in the center of the limb. I put the shotgun in its face.
Around midnight we heard noises in the ceiling. They’d climbed up and started tearing at the roof. We heard them drop, one by one, into the unfinished attic, their steps steady, measured, unhurried. Eventually they figured out the attic door, and it swung down on its hinges, the ladder clattering out in the hallway. Mary stood at the foot of it and fired repeatedly, one after another, and one after another they died, marching down the steps lazily. Wyatt had manned the front of the house, the living room and the dining, while I took the kitchen and the master bedroom and the backdoor.
I don’t know how many of the things we killed that night. Hundreds maybe? We used a lot of ammunition, that was sure, and the bodies and half-bodies of the things were scattered all around the house. Come dawn, we were all alone and still alive, though very tired.
We crept out once the light was good. Everything was quiet, expect for the distant bleating of sheep from the pastures over the hill.
We loaded up, Mary and Me and Harry in my Jeep, Wyatt in his truck. We decided to go and get one of the sheep-things. We weren’t coming back up here, so we wanted to be able to hand over the proof and leave the rest to someone, anyone, else. We bumped along up to the South pasture.
“Christ,” I muttered, as we rounded the bend.
In the pen where the sheep-things had been was a stand of nine of the fungoid stalks, some tall and loaded, others young and thin. They had, apparently, a complex life cycle. On the tips of the most mature trees there was a half-grown Wyatt.
We didn’t spend much time looking. We siphoned off the gas from Wyatt’s truck into a bucket, dowsed the trees, and set them on fire. They sizzled and popped and oozed, and I swear their limbs wiggled and writhed as the flames consumed them, but I was exhausted, so who knows?
We went back to the house – the remains of last night’s battle were already bubbling, leaving brown oozy smears in the yard, leaving nothing. Seeing that, we had another change of plans. All four of us, Wyatt with a can of gas and Mary and I with guns, hiked to the tree we’d seen on Saturday, planning on burning it to the ground. But when we got there, we saw it had already collapsed in on itself, dead and rotten and oozing. You couldn’t even tell its original shape – it was just a big mess, like a compost heap.
We drove to my place. I gave Mary and Wyatt the bed, and they crashed almost immediately. I had a drink, to steady my nerves, and decided to take Harry for a walk around the block. I felt the weariness in my bones, but I was full of nervous energy. The events of the weekend already felt hazy around the edges, punctuated with bright, clear moments of terror and fear. And without proof, with just the three of us (and Harry, who was no help. I leaned down to rub his big dumb happy head) as witnesses, there wasn’t much we could tell that would be believed.
I walked a few blocks through the neighborhood, trying to get my head sorted, when I heard someone calling my name. I shook the cobwebs out and looked across the street to see Lucy, my assistant, waving. We crossed, and she smiled, crouching to pet Harry.
“Still lost in thought, huh Deb?” she said, smiling up at me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, like yesterday, when I saw you down on Main Street! I wanted to know how things with the Sinclairs turned out. I called and called, but you didn’t even look up, just kept on walking. Hell of a pace! Such a serious look on your face, too. Where were you going, anyway? Looked like you planned to walk to Casper!”