The grimy, ancient old boy was carefully maneuvered into the saloon and dropped with relative care into a solid wingback chair nearest the smouldering fire. He’d been found wandering outside the town limits, ragged and raving, plainly exhausted. That was also stank was unspoken in all but the distance immediately claimed by the two brothers who had brought him in.
“He was out past Darvell’s farm, in the fell,” said Ben, the taller of the two brothers, “I barely saw him, but Jesse spotted that shaggy head of hair.”
“Like a lost lamb, dancing on past the weeds,” added Jesse.
“When we got to him he just screamed, all wordless in our face. If he hadn’t looked so terrified, reckon I’d have knocked him down and left him there.” Ben was making a vain attempt to wipe the encrusted stench off his denim shirt.
“You did well lads,” the saloon owner congratulated them, “why not have yourselves a drink on me.”
The two brothers vanished for the bar without a second thought, leaving the saloon owner, one Barley Smith, myself and the sawbones, Doctor Murkell in a ring around the old man. Barley snapped his fingers and was brought tea and a whiskey to bring some life back to the ragged fellow. He took them without looking and swallowed without a care for the heat of the tea. His eyes kept falling closed but would flicker back open after less than a second, eyeballs rolling all around.
“He needs to eat too, before he does sleep. And I can help him along with that,” murmured Murkell who was peering into the old man’s face.
“That can wait. I want to know what brought him to our town in a condition so plainly unfit for travel,” I said, rolling a cigarette and jerking my chin at him, “nearest township is Mother’s Lake, some twenty miles north, near enough in the direction the boys found him wandering. I’ll send riders, but I want to know what they’ll be riding into first.”
“Well let’s be about it,” Barley agreed, and took the old fellow by the shoulders and spoke directly into his face, “hey, old timer. What’s your story?”
Apparently, being addressed was the thing he’d been waiting for, because his ancient gums flapped apart, treating Barley to atrocious breath that he visibly wilted under. The jaws open, he ground his teeth together inn a disturbing wet sound and began to speak. Not all of it made sense, not all of it was English, but for the sake of a proper record I’ve transcribed what I could here.
“I always liked animals. Kept a goat, dogs. Had a horse. Two sheep and a house of chickens. Liked the squirrels when they came in spring. Funny little things, always busy. Never stopping. The cat hated them, like they were some mortal foe. Didn’t get that many though, never mind how hard he tried. You know where you are with animals. They either need you or don’t, and they’ll let you know which. No doubts, no mistakes. I always sat on the porch at night, drinking Jenny Fenship’s moonshine with my pipe. Just the one lantern, seeing what it’d draw forth from the woods and grass. Ever seen a moth, sheriff? Course you have. We’ve all seen em. I liked to see them up close – you can catch em with a light if you put up a sheet in front of it. They’ll all just crawl over the sheet and you can get a good look. Funny little things, got little faces, and all furry and feathery – not what you’d expect when they’re just bottling around your light. Well, I did that sometimes too. Put up a sheet and see what I’d get. Sometimes drew them too, swapped them for Jenny’s moonshine, I did. She said she liked their little ears. One night, couldn’t have been more than a week ago I had my sheet up and light shining behind it. Got the usual horde of little bugs and moths when whoomph something bigger whacked into the sheet. I’ve had bats come down because they’re smart and know the light will draw out their dinner, but this wasn’t a bat. It had hit the sheet and apparently confused itself because when I shook the sheet it feel right off, didn’t even try to hang on like a moth would. Not that it was a moth, not really. Too big, but I called it a moth because it had a face like one, big triangle eyes and all these waving feelers on its head. Like a moth but the size of a squirrel. Heavy too. It seemed to have stunned itself so I popped it on the table next to my chair and let it gather itself. Wings were unusual too – not all delicate like a moth. You mostly can’t even touch those without getting their wing dust everywhere, and then they’ll not be flying again and you may as well feed them to the bats. This feller had solid wings, like a bat I guess, but feathered like a bird. Shimmered like paraffin poured in a puddle. Pretty, except for the teeth. You don’t really see moth teeth, though I suppose they have them somewhere in that little mess of jaws. This one had proper teeth, thin and sharp. Gave it a hungry aspect. Don’t know what I was thinking, but along with my moonshine that night I’d been chewing on a little sausage, and since we were sitting side by side I offered it a bite, half joking, but like I say you just need to find out whether an animal needs you or not. This one did, and it near took off my finger in its hunger. After a bit it flew off, and I didn’t think no more about it till the next night when it came back. Flew straight past the lantern and landed on the table, all friendly and hungry. Even let me pat it a little. Then it gnawed straight down a sausage I gave it. Stuck around a bit, vanished by the time I went to bed. Kept coming back, I kept feeding it. Nice to have a new friend, and he sat still enough to get drawn too. When I showed my sketch to Jenny Fenship she’d have none of it – just laughed at the mad thing I’d drawn and said she’s never seen it’s like. And that I’d a fine imagination, but she’d much rather have a nice drawing of a ladybug or somesuch. Then she reminded me that we were all set for a dance in the town that Saturday, and I should dig out my dancing boots. I’d forgotten, busy as I was out on the farm. During that day that is, by night I’d be out on my porch. Anyway, my little friend came back a few more times and then I didn’t see him for a few nights. I guessed he’d gone back to whatever animal business he had. We don’t think of animals right you know. Folks figure they’re sort of here for us to do whatever we will with them, but if you watch them, they’ve got their things to do. Ever watched a cat walk around a room, stepping around things you can’t see, taking angles it’d never occur to you to make? They’re all like that, animals. All got their own secret projects, plans and longings. Sometimes that longing is for a bit of sausage, but it seemed like my moth’s plans had changed, or I’d never really known how I fitted into them. Not to worry. I got all dressed up for the dance and let my horse Henry carry me into town. I love a good dance, all the townsfolk looking smart and fancy. The big Carlsson barn all done up with lights and bunting, and the instruments that emerged from wherever folks hid them when there was no dance. I’d never have guessed that young Adrian played – or had – an accordion, but he fit in well with the rest of the players. I did get a dance with Jenny Fenship, which I reckoned was a great honour, but it left me a little out of breath, so I retired to a table for a drink and chat. It was not long after that there was a thud on the roof – loud enough to be heard over the dancing and singing. Folks figured it was a bird confused in the night, but then it was followed by another, and another. Soon enough it was like night hail. The band stopped playing and there was a look of consternation on the faces around me. A sound like a big millipede running over a tin roof, except this roof was wood, and I reckoned there was no millipede big enough but that’s what it sounded like. Jim Danson, the big landowner from across the other side of the valley from me, he caught up a rifle from by the door and pulled it open, stepped quietly outside. He came back in fast enough, something stuck to his face. At first there was nothing but his shrieks and folks came running to help. But the door was open by then, and Jim’s troubles were the least of it. I knew what they were immediately of course, I’d had a moth sharing my porch for weeks. But there were a lot more of them now, a lot more. And they swarmed into the barn, spinning and dropping from the air onto the townsfolk who stood in the dancing square. As yet they’d not fanned out to the tables scattered, and being further scattered as folks stood and ran this way and that. Knowing what they were – the moths – I tried to take Jenny Fenship’s arm and draw her away before they grew tired with feeding on the other folks. And they were hungry still, that same hunger I’d seen in my little friend’s fangs, now buried in the flesh of people I’d known since I was young. I tried to explain to Jenny, and reminded her of the drawing I’d done, but those were the wrong words and she pulled away. One of the moths landed in her hair and bit down. I tried to bat it away, but it turned and hissed at me, frightening enough that I fell on my rear. There were hundreds, maybe more, a black whirlwind in the middle of the barn, and they were all teeth now. There was no escape, or so I thought. Young Adrian (of the accordion) was busy knocking a hole in the far end of the barn and he urged a few of us onward to help and flee. A few of us got through, and we ran. I think we’d all assumed the moths were all inside, engaged in their feast, but they’d left plenty on watch above. Without warning, young Adrian went down, as did the three or four others who’d followed us. I kept waiting for the feel of a moth landing on my clothes or my hair, but none did. Even when I stopped and stood there, dumb with horror. I couldn’t stand it, and I went back to the door of the barn and picked up Jim’s rifle where he’d dropped it outside, racked it and opened the door. I only wish I hadn’t. It was a massacre. There was nothing moving but the moths as they fed. Everything else was just red and still, save where the blood ran. One of the moths’ heads raised as I came in, looked straight at me. I’m not sure how I knew, but I did know that this was the same moth I’d shared my porch with, fed and nurtured. It was all my fault. I didn’t know their scheme, didn’t know what they’d wanted, thought I’d just made a friend. But I’d led them all to a greater harvest than that little one had ever imagined. So I ran, and kept running till I could run no more. Then I walked, walked till I could walk no more. And then I crawled, just kept crawling to be away. Away from that.”
His tale done the old man settled back into dull stupor, staring sightless into the embers of the fire.
“Don’t reckon you should be sending anybody into that, sheriff,” Barley said.
I couldn’t help but agree. Someone would have to go though, and I reckoned that someone was going to have to be me.