Feigning a Fine Fettle

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The Trail Not Taken

Cole could hardly stand to look at Roland Fuller as they attempted to draw him out the back of the covered wagon, covered as he was in vile growths that seemed to jiggle with fluid with every slight jostle. Black webbing grew from his eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears. Mrs. Fuller was wailing from another wagon, incoherent with her grief. The Fuller boys, Ben and Gabe, watched from a distance with the rest of the party.

“Careful now, make sure you don’t touch him,” said Dr. Theodore Miller.

Cole didn’t need medical training to know that touching what was left of Roland would be a very bad idea. Cole, along with Gus and Jeremiah, continued to tug at the rope they’d managed to lasso about Roland’s foot until they eventually pulled him out. He plopped into the dirt with a wet thud, the growths on his back popping with the impact, spraying stinking pus out in all directions.

“Ugh!” they all cried in unison, backing away in disgust.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Dr. Miller from behind the handkerchief over his mouth. “Dead in less than two days.”

“What does Mrs. Fuller know about it? Their boys? Has anyone asked?” said Sgt. Smith. He had his rifle laid across his crossed arms. He hadn’t let it leave his sight ever since they’d lost the trail four days ago.

Jeremiah, checking his boots for splatter, said, “She said Roland had wandered off-”

“Was I talking to you?” snapped Sgt. Smith. “Hell, his death’s on you the way I see it. Whatever got him ill happened after you got us lost. Some guide you are.”

“Now, now, that’s hardly fair, Sergeant,” said Gus. “I’ve worked with Jeremiah before and he knows this trail as good as anyone. He’s told me this is temporary and we’ll be back on the marked trail shortly.” Gus gave Jeremiah a pointed look. “Ain’t that right, Jeremiah?”

Jeremiah regarded the sergeant coolly, seemingly unperturbed. “Yep, just like you say Gus, temporary. Anyway, like I was saying, Mrs. Fuller told me that Roland had gone off to take a leak a few nights back. He’d come back and told her how he’d slipped in some sort of mushroom patch in the dark, got a bunch of it on him.”

“Have you seen this before?” asked Dr. Miller.

Jeremiah shook his head. “No. I’ve been out here a long time. Seen a lot. But I don’t know this.”

The Browns, Reverend Jasper and his wife, Delilah, approached. “May we pray over Mr. Fuller before we bury him?” the Reverend asked, though he was plainly repulsed by the sight of Roland.

“No, I don’t think that would be wise. I’m afraid I can’t even recommend burying him,” said Dr. Miller. “The more we handle his body, the higher risk we have of catching his illness.” The doctor spared a glance at the obviously pregnant Mrs. Brown. “In fact, I’d like you to back away immediately, Mrs. Brown. For the sake of your child.”

Mrs. Brown put her hands on her belly. “Oh. Yes, of course, doctor.”

“But we can’t just leave him in the dirt like this. Mr Fuller was a Christian and needs a burial!” said the reverend.

“I’m with the doc on this,” said Gus.

“Aye, and me,” said Sgt. Smith.

Cole looked into the covered wagon that Roland had died in. There were wispy black threads, tendrils that were now hanging from the canvas roof and trailing from the various boxes inside. “Hey fellas, I think we have a problem.”

***

They left Roland in the dirt like the doctor suggested. The covered wagon was chalked up as a loss after much debate. The supplies inside included weeks worth of food, but the doctor’s respected opinion ended the argument on that too.

The next morning, two things happened: Susannah and Gabriel Fuller woke up covered in sores like Roland and Indians started to shadow the wagons from a distance.

The Indians were just black silhouettes on the horizon, the rising sun outlining them. “What are they doing, Sergeant?” said Cole.

Sgt. Smith spat into the dirt. “Don’t know. Being damned obvious for one, which is strange in itself. They got us outnumbered. Maybe they’re not hostile.” He didn’t sound convinced about that last part.

“I thought they was all hostile?”

“Nah, not all of em. Keep your gun ready though.”

They’d given Susannah and Gabriel another wagon to lay in, though this time they’d removed all the supplies and transferred them to the other remaining wagons beforehand. The older boy, Benjamin, walked alongside the wagon, but didn’t dare to enter it, even to offer his mother and brother comfort.

***

The day progressed slowly as they crawled mile by mile in a land that Jeremiah didn’t recognize. “I ain’t seen a tree like that before,” he whispered to Gus as they sat aboard the lead wagon.

“Damnation, Jeremiah, where are we? How did we lose the trail?”

“Don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense. I swear we were following the trail faithfully until, all of a sudden, we weren’t.”

“Well can you find the way back?”

“Let’s just keep on west. We’re bound to run up on something I recognize eventually.”

***

Ulysses Parks was on second watch that night. It was just past midnight when he heard screams coming from one of the wagons. He ran towards the source, the wagon where the reverend and his family were bedded.

“Reverend, reverend! What’s going-?!” Ulysses stopped in his tracks when he looked inside the wagon. “My God.”

A black shape lurked over the Browns. Ulysses couldn’t see details in the darkness, but none of them were moving save for Mrs. Brown, who was quietly whimpering. The black shape was making slurping sounds over one of the prone bodies, gurgling wetly.

“Hey there… HEY!” Ulysses shouted as he found his voice. “Get out of there. Show yourself!”

The shape shifted, then lurched out into the moonlight. Ulysses’s eyes widened. “No. That’s not possible.” He pulled the trigger as the thing charged.

***

By the time the rest of the party stirred from sleep and arrived at the wagon, the struggle was over. The putrid bulk of Roland Fuller sat atop Ulysses. Ulysses had managed to jam his knife into Roland’s temple all the way to the hilt. “Oh God, it threw up in my mouth! Get it off me, GET IT OFF ME!” Ulysses pleaded, growing more and more frantic.

Gus and Jeremiah moved to help, but Dr. Miller grabbed them by their arms. “Don’t.”

“What do you mean ‘don’t’?” said Ulysses’s wife, their young daughter clutching at her gown.

“This is beyond my kin,” said Dr. Miller, “but I can advice this much: Ulysses is already dead, the Fullers are dead, and the Browns are dead. Whatever this is, we have to cut the infected and run.”

Cole had come up with a lantern. He peeked inside the reverend’s wagon, then promptly turned around and threw up. Gus came up and took the lantern from him, then looked inside as Ulysses continued to babble incoherently. Inside was hell. The reverend, the daughter, Ava, and the little boy, Isaac, were all covered in tarry black goo. Mrs. Brown sat propped against the wall of the wagon, her head hanging limply. Her belly shifted as something pressed forcefully from the inside.

“We need to burn this. All of this,” said Dr. Miller. His face was drained of color. “Sergeant, would you please end Mr. Parks’ misery?”

“No! You can’t!” screamed Mrs. Parks. Gus moved to restrain her.

Sgt. Smith stepped up to Ulysses. His screams had died down, turning to phlegmy gurgles, and his eyes had lost all focus. “Sorry, Mr. Parks.” The shot rang out in the night.

Gus turned around. “Hey, we have to get Mrs. Brown out of here. I think she’s still alive and she’s pregnant. We can’t-” Just then Mrs. Brown’s belly erupted in a spray of black fluid and gore. Gus’s back was drenched with it. Something black and mucus-covered slid out of the burst belly, gurgling as it did so. Gus dropped the lantern. It burst as it hit the ground, the oil igniting the grass around Gus’s feet. He screamed as the flames engulfed him, falling to the ground at the back wheel of the wagon. The fire caught there too as the rest of the party backed away.

Sgt. Smith had the presence of mind to finish Gus off. Cole stood in shock as he watched his boss burn. Jeremiah looked around. “Where’s Ben Fuller? What about Mrs. Fuller and Gabriel?”

Dr. Miller’s eyes widened as he realized that Ben wasn’t among them. “Cole! Go and check on the Fullers.”

Cole snapped out of his lethargy at the order, running towards the Fuller’s wagon. He rounded the corner of the wagon and almost tripped over the body laying in the dirt. It was Ben, his body threaded with arrows. “What the hell?” Cole peeked inside the wagon. Mrs. Fuller and Gabe each had an arrow dead center in their foreheads.

Cole heard the slightest rustle behind him and turned to see an Indian standing about 15 feet away, an arrow knocked in his bow. The Indian had black tattoos or war paint streaking from his eyes, nose, and mouth. “HEL-” Cole’s cry was cut short as the first arrow hit his lung. More arrows followed.

***

Jeremiah stumbled through the darkness, away from the conflagration behind him, away from the madness. The Indians had descended swiftly and without mercy. He’d watched  Dr. Miller take an arrow through the throat. He’d seen Sgt. Smith manage to kill one before he was turned into a pincushion. Little Abigail Parks, clinging to her mother’s gown, had been killed like the rest. Jeremiah had used the commotion to slip into the darkness, running aimlessly in a desperate bid to survive. By some miracle, he was not followed.

The next morning found Jeremiah sprawled in the dirt where he’d fallen in his exhaustion. He awoke, groggy and sore. Somehow he’d come within sight of Fort Laramie as he’d stumbled blindly through the dark. He stood up, scratched the sores developing on his lower back, and began to hike towards salvation.

***

***

***

You can’t spell Oregon Trail without “gore.” This was a flash fiction writing exercise from terribleminds.com. The rules were to take two subgenres and mash them together with a 1500 word limit. I got Weird West and Body Horror.

The entire ill-fated party, all 16 souls, for reference:

  • Gus Adams, wagon master.
  • Cole Turner, wagon master’s assistant.
  • Sgt. Ambrose Smith, veteran soldier.
  • Jeremiah Wallace, frontiersman and guide.
  • Dr. Theodore Miller, physician.
  • Roland and Susannah Fuller, farmer and wife; Benjamin and Gabriel, their sons.
  • Jasper and Delilah Brown, missionary and wife; Ada, their daughter, and Isaac, their son.
  • Ulysses and Clementine Parks, carpenter and wife; Abigail, their young daughter.
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