We caught the scent as we topped the ridge. The others found the odor repulsive because of what it represented. For me, it exuded a sweet, metallic tang I could taste on my tongue, but no matter how you described it, it meant trouble.
I motioned to Jim and Bonnie. They fanned out to the north. Sam moved to take the south flank without waiting for a sign. I watched them for a few seconds and then stepped into the waist-deep grass, unslinging my rifle as I went.
The Workman homestead lay just beyond the trees. I shuddered to think of the danger for Molly, Ernest, and their newborn baby. A girl, the letter had said. I had known Molly for most of my life. Her quick, lively nature drew men by the score. I once thought we might become lovers, but that was before she met Ernest. He had plans to establish a home in the free lands on the border. Molly embraced his purpose with her infectious enthusiasm. Both were looking for an escape from the dirty, overcrowded city. Now they were out, but at what cost?
A hint of snow hung in the chilly air as I picked my way down the slope. I usually loved cold mornings when the air was just dry enough to keep it from being raw. However, on this day, I found no joy in the weather.
Scattered pebbles and dried leaves crunched softly beneath my boots. The grass and weeds were taller now, nearly reaching my shoulder. A low rustling caught my attention. A rabbit hurried through the sward. Overhead, a large, black bird circled, a worrisome sign.
The landscape gradually leveled off. Ahead, I could see a space where the tall grass had been flattened. The scent was strong. I advanced slowly. The soft, yellow underbelly of a scaler came into sight. From its size, I guessed it to be a male, though it was often hard to tell. He was dead with a large hole in his chest. Dozens of the green-gray scales from his back littered the ground—the work of a shotgun at close range. Molly’s body lay nearby, her right arm missing.
I brushed away the tears as quickly as they came. No luxury for mourning. Scalers almost never traveled alone, and there were questions to consider. Why was Molly so far from the cabin, and where were Ernest and the child? Ernest must have shot the scaler, but what had happened to him? He must have been in desperate straits, otherwise he would not have left Molly’s body. Later, there would be time for a sad burial. I focused on finding Ernest and the child.
I stood listening, though I didn’t expect to hear anything. Jim, Bonnie, and Sam were too experienced to make any noise. Scalers were silent until it was too late. They moved with surprising speed, considering their bulk and short legs. Their relentless, predatory nature made them a formidable enemy.
When settlers moved into the borderlands, conflicts became inevitable. Eighteen months ago, I joined the border patrol to hunt down the creatures and provide settlers with some degree of safety. It gave me a way to escape the squalor and density of the city without surrendering to the hard, monotonous life of homesteading.
With caution, I moved toward a stand of barren trees, their limbs forming jagged patterns against the sky. High, reedy grass gave way to a short, scruffy variety. I relaxed a little. Scalers were not climbers and preferred taller flora. I paused and listened once more. No sounds reached my ears. With a summoning of determination, I moved on.
Beyond the trees, a clearing led up to the house. Actually, it was little more than a cabin. The Free Lands Authority had helped to add a second story. Even at a distance, I could spot their shoddy construction. Their poor workmanship must have galled Ernest. He had always been handy and efficient with tools.
The Authority’s crews cobbled together houses and barns for settlers in the border regions, usually accompanied by a small unit of troops for protection. When the job was done, the builders moved on, as did the troops. The settlers were left to make a go of it alone. Most survived through tenacity, constant vigilance, and a little luck. Some did not.
I gave a shout when I reached the porch, where I felt a measure of security. No answer came. I tried the door, which opened easily. Chances were good that the house was empty. If Ernest and the child had been at home, the door surely would have been barred.
Inside the cabin, everything was in order, as if its inhabitants had just stepped out and would soon return. I moved through the house, calling out a few times. I didn’t expect a response.
Upstairs in the bedroom, I touched one of Molly’s dresses, trying to remember if I had seen her in it. I jerked my hand away, angry that my emotions were betraying me and my responsibilities.
A sturdy cradle sat beside the bed. An engraving of a finely detailed rose decorated the headboard. The delicate, pink shading of its petals and contrasting thorny, green stem had the look of Ernest’s deft touch. Surprisingly, deep scratches scored its interior sides. How unlike Ernest to leave it unfinished. I returned to the front room.
A scuffling from the porch caught my attention. I swung open the door and caught a flash of movement. Dashing outside, I surveyed the yard. A few wild snowflakes swirled in the air. Horses stirred restlessly in the barn. I crept cautiously across the yard.
Inside the barn, the scaler scent was absent—just the stink of the stable. Two scruffy workhorses fussed nervously in their stalls. I whispered softly to them. Their breath steamed in the wintery air.
The distant blast of a shotgun startled me. Out into the yard, I ran. The shot must have come from the south, where Sam had been covering our flank. He could be quick on the trigger, especially when on his own.
I raced into the brown, shoulder-high grass. Almost immediately, a fast-moving shape knocked me off my feet. Cursing my carelessness, I struggled to rise. Too late. The scaler was on me. The blow knocked my rifle away, clattering out of reach. The creature sank his sharp teeth into my shoulder and dragged me down. We rolled over and over, coming to a stop with me awkwardly astride him, but his bite remained firm. Hot breath hissed in my ear. I tried to force his jaws apart without success. He shook his head fiercely, sending spasms of pain through my body. Claws scrapped at my side. A sudden explosion, inches from my ear, blotted out all sound, and the scaler’s bite slackened. With my last ounce of strength, I pried his jaws open and fell into darkness.
Pain woke me. Bonnie knelt by my side, pouring a stinging liquid into my wound. “Quiet,” she whispered.
I wasn’t aware I had made a sound, but I clenched my teeth and closed my eyes. Bonnie applied a salve that soothed the stinging. She proceeded to fashion a bandage and tied a length of cloth into a sling. When I could sit up, I nodded my thanks and glanced around. Jim squatted by the scaler’s body.
“Have you seen Sam?” I asked.
Bonnie looked up from packing her medical supplies. “No. We had been circling the homestead when we heard your shot. Luckily, you ran right towards us. We saw the scaler jump you.”
“It wasn’t me. I didn’t fire. It must have been Sam.” Bonnie and Jim exchanged anxious looks.
Jim stood. “Let’s get over there.” He disappeared into the tall grass. Bonnie helped me to my feet, taking my pack and hers. We stumbled after him.
After a slow, awkward effort, we heard the murmur of low voices and soon came upon Sam and Jim. Sam sat on the ground, his right foot propped up on a rock, his boot off. He nursed a swollen ankle. Jim knelt by a dead scaler. Sam’s shotgun had nearly decapitated him.
My shoulder had begun to ache again in spite of Bonnie’s salve. Sam grimaced in silence as Bonnie constructed a splint for his ankle. Jim rose and fashioned a makeshift crutch from a tree branch.
“We’re a fine-looking lot,” I said. No one acknowledged my attempt at levity. Then I told them about Molly. A stunned silence stretched for a minute or so. Finally, I spoke. “We should look for Ernest and the child.”
Sam shook his unruly mane of thick, black hair. “That will be kinda hard, won’t it?”
“We should give it a try. That’s what we do, isn’t it? And we need to bury Molly.” I glanced at Jim, and he gave an affirming nod.
Sam leaned unsteadily on his crutch. “I’m no good for a search with this ankle.”
“I can help,” I said.
Sam waved off my offer. “You can’t carry a rifle or shoot with your arm in a sling.”
I shared his feeling of helplessness. “Then it’s up to Jim and Bonnie.”
Bonnie took a deep breath and exhaled. “We can stay in the cabin tonight. It’ll be safe there. After the burial, Jim and I can have a look around. If we don’t find them nearby, the odds aren’t good.”
We had begun to gather our gear when a faint squeaking caught our attention. We froze, then heard it again.
“Over there.” Sam indicated a fallen tree trunk nearly obscured by the brown winter grasses.
Bonnie eased toward the sound, her rifle ready. She stepped over the trunk and pushed the grass aside with her foot. Putting her weapon down, she picked up a small bundle. “It’s the baby!”
She brought the infant over, and we gathered around. Jim lifted a corner of the blanket.
Sam grabbed at the bundle. “It’s a monster!”
“No!” Bonnie jerked it away. “It’s a baby!”
“It’s a scaler!” Sam reached for it again.
Bonnie stepped back. Sam stumbled and fell. When he tried to rise, Jim put a hand on his shoulder.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let’s have a closer look.”
The baby girl’s mishappen face had a greenish tint, and her round eyes sparkled with eerie alertness. The fingernails were long and unnaturally well-developed, yet its tiny mouth and ears were recognizably human. It cooed softly in Bonnie’s arms.
My words came slowly. “I don’t know. It’s like a human and a scaler. How could that be?”
“Bring it here,” grunted Sam, his temper cooling a bit. Bonnie brought the infant over. Sam took a long look and scowled. “It’s more scaler than human. No doubt about it.”
Bonnie recoiled at Sam’s insistence. “I’ve seen baby scalers. When I was with Mason and Wheeler, we wiped out a nest of them. This isn’t one.”
“Well, I know for damn sure it isn’t human.”
“What is it then?”
“Half-breed. Can’t let it live.”
Bonnie glared. “I think it’s a deformed child, Molly’s most likely.”
“Maybe it’s hers if she was raped.” Sam gestured toward the dead scaler.
“If you’re right, it’s half human. If I’m right, it’s all human. Either way—”
“Damn you, woman! It’s plain to see. One of these things raped Molly, and this godforsaken result should have been destroyed.”
“Okay, if Molly was raped, it seems she chose to have the child and—”
“Don’t call it a child! Maybe she didn’t know how to get rid of it.”
“Maybe she didn’t want to get rid of it.”
Bonnie and Sam locked eyes, neither willing to budge.
I broke the spell. “It’s wrapped in a blanket. Molly and Ernest must have been caring for it.”
Bonnie turned to me. “What about Molly’s letter?”
“It only mentioned a baby girl. It didn’t say she was deformed or anything. I just don’t know….”
Sam softened his tone. “Someone left this creature to die here. I mean, we can’t say it’s even connected to Molly and Ernest.”
“Not enough answers,” I said, stating the obvious. “Let’s get Molly’s body and spend the night in the cabin. We’ll bury her in the morning. If Ernest is anywhere close, he will have heard the shooting and will likely return. With my shoulder and Sam’s ankle, we can’t make a proper search.”
A tired murmur of agreement circulated. Jim retrieved Molly’s body. The rest of us made our way back to the cabin. We laid Molly out on the table and covered her with a sheet. Bonnie and the baby took the bed upstairs. Sam, Jim, and I rolled out our sleeping blankets on the floor downstairs. For a while, pain kept me awake. Eventually, I fell into a thin, restless sleep. I awoke before dawn and slept no more. My mind raged with anxiety over Molly’s horrific final moments. In the darkness, I sensed the wakefulness of the others.
Morning broke cold and gray. Light snow had begun to fall. We found a couple of shovels. Jim and Bonnie dug the grave, fighting the hard, stubborn earth and the numbness in their fingers. I held the baby, and Sam made a show of acting as a lookout, though we felt no danger. Scalers usually sought solitary victims and were unlikely to approach a party of our size. When Molly was in the ground, I spoke a few words in a feeble attempt at a ceremony. Then we retreated to the cabin.
Sam spoke first. “Ernest isn’t coming. He would not have left Molly, so I fear he is dead. His body could be anywhere. Scalers can drag their prey for miles.”
“The snow’s picked up, I said. “There’s a wagon and a couple of workhorses in the barn. We’ll have to take them.”
“Fine,” Sam said. “Once we get back to the city, the Governor’s court will decide if this creature is human or not. I expect they will destroy it and wonder why we didn’t.”
Bonnie stared back with clear, unblinking eyes. “I’m not going. Sam is right. They’ll kill her. There’s the monastery on the Dunny River. They’ll give her a chance.”
“What kind of chance, Bonnie?” I asked. “She’s one of a kind. There’ll be no more like her.”
“How do you know?” she shot back. “If it happened once, it could happen again.”
“Do you seriously think there will be a race of these creatures?” Sam’s anger had returned.
Bonnie drew the baby closer. “I don’t know, and neither do you.”
Sam snorted. “I, for one, doubt we are witnessing the birth of a new species.”
“I don’t have the answers either,” I said, “but I’m inclined to agree with Bonnie.”
When Jim signaled his support, Sam grumbled but conceded he had been outvoted. The trek to the monastery would take two days. Despite our desire to avoid a lengthy detour, we could think of no better options.
Jim hitched the horses to the wagon while the rest of us gathered our belongings. Jim took the reins, and I sat beside him. Riding in back, Sam, Bonnie, and the baby made themselves as comfortable as possible on blankets we took from the cabin. A light breeze sprang up, slanting the feathery snow across our faces.
I turned and glanced at Bonnie. “I’ll go with you to the monastery and help until my shoulder heals.”
“They won’t take you,” she said flatly. They only take women and children.”
“They wouldn’t turn you away if you were dying or unable to travel. I don’t think they will see your wound as that severe.” She drew the baby closer.
The wagon rumbled over the rocky ground, sometimes pitching wildly, causing Sam to groan. It was all I could do to hold on with my one good arm.
Later, when the landscape leveled out, Bonnie spoke. “I wonder what her name is.”
After a moment, I answered. “Rose.”
About the Author
Ken Wetherington lives in Durham, North Carolina. His story “The Brothers Evanger” was the first runner-up for the 2022 Harambee Literary Prize. He is the author of more than twenty published stories, which have appeared in Ginosko Literary Journal, The Remington Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and others. His first collection, Santa Abella and Other Stories, was published in 2020. When not writing, he is an avid film buff and has taught film courses for the OLLI program at Duke University. He may be reached through his website: https://kenwetherington.com or on Twitter: @KenWetherington.