Title: In Sheep's Clothing
Author: Terry Lloyd Vinson
Excerpt Heat Level: 1
Book Heat Level: 1
1880’s, Utah territory: an entire unit of U.S. Calvary soldiers has vanished from between the walls of Fort Drake, a remote site surrounded on all sides by warring Indian tribes and whose lone mission had been to protect the local gold-miners of nearby South Pass City. A trio of snow-crested mountain ranges away at Fort Lagrange, Wyoming, golden-boy Lieutenant Drew Barron and three hand-picked subordinates are tasked with solving the mysterious disappearances, their laborious quest littered with assorted dangers; roaming marauders, bloodthirsty wolves and a blizzard of epic proportions. At trek’s end, Fort Drake is found to be deserted until a trio of unlikely allies crawl forth from hiding just as the frigid grounds fall under attack yet again, the survivors forced to barricade themselves within the cramped confines of the post armory. Faced with dwindling supplies, bone-chilling temperatures and a relentless enemy poised just outside their rickety safe-haven, Lieutenant Barron and those within his care will soon discover they have yet to confront the worst that the newly dubbed ‘Fort Dread’ has to offer.
A moonless night accentuated the meandering headlights of a moving vehicle along a winding lakeside road near the city limits of Gainesville, Florida. "Can't believe, how easy it was to break into that home, Carl," Eddy said to his passenger excitedly. "The owners were definitely sound sleepers. They hardly resisted when we tied them up in their bed."
"It's got to be our easiest home invasion yet, Eddy." He pulled out a flask from his pants' pocket and took a sip of whiskey from it. He then handed it to his cohort in crime.
"I figure we should get a few thousand bucks for everything. The jewelry looks expensive."
"Their laptops are high-grade. We should probably get a good price for them too."
"Look out, Eddy," Carl shouted. The road made a sharp turn to the left but their vehicle continued straight ahead. The car shook violently as it sped down a wooded terrain's uneven incline toward a lake.
Eddy, squeezing the steering wheel for dear life, pushed down on the brake pedal as hard as he could. Nothing happened. "Holy shit." The break lining obviously ruptured. His head struck the steering wheel, followed by blood cascading down his forehead.
Carl's body lunged forward as his face slammed into the dashboard. A cracking sound came from his neck.
They flew by sparsely spaced pine trees, coming within inches of them. The car's headlights now lit up the water in front of them. Neither of them saw it, for their unconscious bodies bounced around in the front seat of the car like rag dolls. It took less than a minute for the car to submerge into the deep lake. Unless someone saw the vehicle enter the watery grave, no one would discover these two unhallowed residents.
Something in the back seat emitted a faint, yellow glow as the car sank to the bottom of the lake.
A man who appeared to be in his mid-fifties and moderately overweight sat behind the steering wheel of a tour bus. He said into a microphone, "It's me again, Frank Murphy. I wanted to let you know we're about thirty minutes to our destination, the Gulf of Mexico and Port Hawk."
Some people on the capacity-filled bus exclaimed enthusiastically, "Hallelujah." Others commented with less exuberance. Most of the passengers were couples between fifty and seventy years old.
Frank continued, "The casino ship's shuttle boats will be leaving a little over an hour once we stop. There'll be time to visit several little quaint novelty shops along the boardwalk."
The blacktopped two-lane road started at I-75, south of Gainesville. Frank had been making the ninety-minute casino bus trip for the past ten years. He knew every bump and curve in the road. There were several other bus trips to casino ships on the Gulf and Atlantic side of Florida, and to the Indian casinos. Frank couldn't figure out why residents of Florida hadn't voted for casino gambling at hi jai facilities, dog and horse tracks in Florida. There would be a tremendous increase in tax revenue for the state. The irony in all of this, Frank didn't gamble.
"How often have you been on the casino ship?" asked a passenger sitting behind Frank.
Frank chuckled. "Only once. I got severe sea sickness."
"Was it a rough sea?"
"No. Hardly a ripple. I should've known better, since I get motion sickness on airplanes and even some elevators. I've been like this since I was a kid. I couldn't go on merry-go-rounds or any other rides at carnivals."
"What a shame. Not able to enjoy the rides."
"No big thing. I became extremely efficient at those carnival games. I always walked away with an armful of prizes."
The bus suddenly veered to the right and onto the shoulder of the road, its tires running over the ribbed warning strips causing a whining sound to alert drivers their vehicle left the highway. The low mumbling sound of passengers talking stopped, their attention diverted toward Frank Murphy, who sat erect, his hands tightly grasping onto the steering wheel.
"Is everything all right?" Panic engulfed the passenger's words as he waited anxiously for an answer.
"I can't see." Frank cried out as he applied the brakes. Within seconds, the bus jerked to the right as it headed down a slight embankment toward a row of pine trees. A moment later, the front of the bus crashed into them, killing Frank instantly.
As swirling plumes of smoke began a rapid descent downward within the room's confined space, the man dug frantically through the opened drawers of a large oak desk. Over the sound of his own grunts of desperation, he noted the outer regions of the cabin walls had seen human screams gradually replaced by decidedly inhuman growls, a rather garish trend that served to fuel his frenzied search.
"Ma-major! Major Hawkes!" a shrill voice rang out just as the office door flung open to allow access to a fresh wave of blackish fog. It was a young private whose name the major was unable to immediately produce, his face as beet red as his carrot-top shaded noggin. Bug-eyed and convulsing, the private appeared every ounce the frightened teenager he most certainly was.
"The-they've broken over the wa-wall, s-sir, an-and we're-the m-men I m-mean, a-are…"
"The men are what, Private? My god, spit it out, boy! This is certainly no time to develop the stutters!" Hawkes shouted angrily, instantly regretting the act but utterly powerless to control the slowly building rage behind it.
"The-they…we're out of…almost out of ammo, s-sir! W-Watkins, Butler an-and Sergeant Weems…he's-they're g-gone, sir," the private cried between coughs while crouching to the floor with his sidearm tucked to his chest, "t-they've dug 'neath the south wall and the fi-fires are spreading."
"Well, son, Weems tossing those lamps into the cabin walls wasn't the brightest move I've witnessed in terms of combat effectiveness," Hawkes berated, flinging a handful of assorted forms and paper tablets airborne before giving the drawer of their origin a similar toss against a nearby wall and thus shattering it into strips of jagged kindling.
"I'm distressed to announce a rather upsetting lack of ammunition myself."
Laying his forty-four Colt atop the desk amid wildly scattered papers, Hawkes inhaled deeply while running splayed fingers though his sweat-saturated, gray-tinted coif and coughed forcefully to exhale.
"Looks as though we'll have to adapt to survive then, boy, now doesn't it?" he continued, stepping over to retrieve a sheathed sword from the hook attaching it to a nearby bookcase, "many a red savage have I sliced into submission with this trusty carbon-steel blade."
"I-it ain't the injuns that took 'em, s-sir."
Falling to one knee directly in front of his whimpering subordinate, the senior officer reached over with both hands and obtained a firm grip atop trembling shoulders.
"Man or beast, Private? Private Sullivan isn't it?"
The young man nodded feverishly.
"Well, man or beast, Sullivan, the blade shows no prejudice, nor does its user."
"How c-can this be, sir? I mean, I ain't never s-seen the likes."
"Quiet, private," the major commanded sternly, tilting his head slightly to the right.
Gradually engulfed in a swirling fog despite the close proximity to the hardwood flooring, man and man-boy sat wordlessly, sharing a moment in stark, unrelenting terror that showed no favoritism in terms of rank or combat experience. The brief respite, though mere seconds in duration, was sufficient to note all human cries outside the cabin walls had halted in favor of a sudden barrage of blood-curdling howls—canine shrieks delivered in almost perfect unison that fell eerily silent in the same abrupt manner.
"Oh, sh-sheeeeet, s-sir. What a-are w-we gon-gonna do?" the private had whispered between muffled coughs as he'd tucked the back of a hand against his lips in a fruitless attempt to mute.
After coughing into the crock of his bare elbow, Major Henry 'The Hammer' Hawkes, renowned as much for his excessively dour demeanor as a battlefield fearlessness that had overseen countless victories, stood stiffly with his trusty blade held defensively at chest level.
"Private Sullivan, on your way in, did you secure the front door to this cabin?"
The young man's bottom lip quivered uncontrollably even as his brow creased in thought. Tears streamed down both freckled cheeks as he strained mightily for the correct response.
"I'm n-not...su-sure, sir. I was, well, kinda…pa-panicked," he finally blurted, staring down at the pistol in his left hand as if it were some strange, unrecognizable artifact, "I t-think I booted her shut, but the roof is…burn-on fire, sir. We can't stay. Once the sergeant and the lamps exploded like they did, I, um…"
The major bristled at the mere mention.
"Understood, Sullivan. Damn Weems and his panic attacks. Idiot must've decided dying by fire would be preferable to the alternative you and I now face. Dwelling upon it at this moment, the sergeant might well have had something there."
From the front room came the unmistakable sound of shattered glass, followed by a series of shuffling sounds and a chorus of low, guttural growls.
"Ah, thick oaken doors mean little when there are flimsy plate windows present," Hawkes replied at full volume, stepping past the cowering man-child and fronting the office door in a defensive side-pose. "Private, I have a dreadful feeling the subject of a proper escape route is going to be woefully moot any moment now."
"Sir?" the private sobbed as a flurry of frenzied scratching and thumping ensued from the other side of the door from which the words 'Officer in Charge-Captain Lance Boles' had been so expertly etched.
"You need to procure a weapon, Private," Hawkes remarked calmly, having casually loosened the top two buttons of his dark blue frock, "any weapon will do."
Utterly speechless with fear, the private checked the chambers of his pistol with shaky hands and found two bullets still tucked neatly inside. He re-secured the cylinder just as the lower portion of the door fractured, birthing a tight-lipped grin of begrudging respect from his commanding officer.
"Take a moment to pray to your maker, son," he announced as the door creased dramatically at the center, "as I am about to do."
As to comply with a final verbal order, the young private briefly bowed his head before joining his superior in watching their surviving barricade being systematically pulled apart from the bottom up. Aiming the pistol at the fast-spreading chasm and overcome by an abrupt wave of calm, his gun-hand no longer shook.
Just as the door folded in on itself and a shapeless, grayish blur shot forth from the ample space provided, the two men, separated by over three decades in age and a world apart in rank, spat out almost precisely the same shrill, panic-stricken curse.