Alan Peschke

Should one always accept an inheritance?

My family hadn't heard from my Uncle Jonas in several months. He was the brother of my grandfather, and he had always lived on his plot of land near the edge of that swamp -- the land that he had inherited from his father. I hadn't seen him in several years myself, not since he had come to a family reunion that we held in Gonzales. He didn't like to travel, and that was the only time the reunion had been held near his home. He looked like an old farmer from the early years of this century -- which I guess he was, in fact, wearing overalls and a floppy straw hat, the thin hair that fringed the sides of his head the color of clean sand. My dad had once mentioned that his old house didn't originally have electricity or indoor plumbing, but that both had been installed about the time I was born. However, he had never had a phone installed. My dad had asked him to move several times, even offered to help him pay for such a move, but he insisted that that was his home, and that's where he would stay. He usually wrote to us once or twice a year, just to let us know he was still alive and kicking, he always said. I had taken a few days vacation from work with no particular plans, so my dad asked me to go check on Uncle Jonas. It was only a few hours drive, and I thought a drive into the country would be a nice break from my usual habits, so I agreed.

I left my home in the sandhills east of San Antonio, cutting across a few state highways and narrow farm roads until I reached Gonzales. Once there, I turned off on Highway 183, angling back to the northwest toward Ottine and Luling. The highway almost perfectly parallels the San Marcos River as it runs back to the southeast past Gonzales to its intersection with the Guadalupe. The San Marcos River itself is the demarcation of the Balcones fault line -- to the south the plains roll away toward the Gulf of Mexico, to the north the hills rise steeply, and the roads are full of twists and turns and ever-changing vistas. As I drove along the winding highway, houses became more and more scarce, traffic became sparse and the landscape grew increasingly wild. When I passed Warm Springs I knew I was getting close, and on the next hilltop saw the slightly eerie panorama of Ottine Swamp spread out below me. In spite of the summer heat and the sun high up in the sky, there were still pockets of mist lying quietly mysterious along the low places, where darkness seemed to cling in mute defiance of the clear blue sky above and the hot Texas mid-afternoon It was somewhere down along the edge of that swamp that I knew Uncle Jonas lived. I pulled off to the side of the road and consulted the map my dad had drawn for me. After fixing a picture of the map in my mind as well as I could, I drove on more slowly looking for the unpaved county road that would take me to Uncle Jonas' house.

Once I found it and turned off the highway it was all downhill, a dirt road with scattered, rough gravel and deep washboard ruts that made me slow down to keep from tearing my pickup apart. It twisted like a snake almost back on itself several times, all the while descending toward the river and the swamp. After several minutes of this, I found the tiny bare dirt lane that went to Uncle Jonas' house. It went straight for a hundred yards or so, then made a sharp turn, and another fifty yards away I could see the old house, next to it a 50's-era Chevrolet truck, and the old man standing out in front. As I approached more closely I realized that he was cradling a weapon -- either a rifle or shotgun -- in the crook of one arm. I kept both hands in plain view on the top of the steering wheel as I rolled slowly to a stop and then stepped out.

I said "howdy" and it only took a few seconds for him to recognize me. A grin replaced the scowl as he said, "Well, if it ain't little Davy. You done some growin' since last I saw you." No one had called me "Davy" for years. I grinned back. At least the old fellow's memory was still clear, if he could recognize me after all this time. We shook hands, and he invited me up to the house.

A few minutes later we were sitting at his kitchen table. Upon entering the kitchen I had noticed with some relief that he did have an old refrigerator-freezer, and though it looked like something from a 1950's TV show, it still worked. He had poured us each a quart jar full of iced tea and now we sat, sipping the cool brown liquid as I caught him up on the family news.

"Guess you're dad sent you out here to see if I was still alive," he suddenly said bluntly.

"Well," I answered, "he had written you several times, and since you never answered ..." I let the sentence trail away unfinished.

"Yep," he replied, "well ... didn't rightly know what I should say, the way things been goin'. Seemed like a waste of a stamp just to say 'yep, I'm still here.' Been tryin' to think of how to explain things without soundin' like a crazy old man."

I looked down at the large old black and tan hound that lay sprawled across the floor. It had followed us into the house when we came in. I thought that my uncle's behavior was a little odd, and didn't know what to think about his last statement at all.

"I just been waitin' and watchin'," and he touched the old hound gently with the toe of his boot, getting a few lazy tail wags in response. "Ain't that right, Zeke?"

Watching? For what? I wondered. I was afraid maybe his mind was slipping after all, though by the way he kept his house and by the brief conversation we'd had, I had every reason to think he was still in full control of his faculties. So I asked him, "Watching for what?"

He didn't answer right away. First he took another sip of tea, then grunted softly to himself and took another larger swallow. Finally he gave me a calculating look and asked, "You ever hear of a fellow named Newley Meriwether?"

Though the family name of Meriwether sounded vaguely familiar, the name Newley didn't ring a bell at all. I said as much.

"Well," said Uncle Jonas, "when I was a young'un Newley was a friend of mine. Back then times was hard, not much cash money. Me an' Newley did lots of huntin', between us we helped keep both our families fed. Lots of wild animals down in the swamp, plenty of deer, even when deer was hard to find we could still get plenty of squirrel or rabbit, we ate pretty good most of the time. Course, we also did some trappin'. Even durin' the Great Depression there was still a market for hides, and we took in a little cash from 'coons an' ringtails, maybe a 'possum or two. Just enough to keep our heads above water. I usually let Newley have most of the cash, seein' as how he didn't have a pa no more, his family was havin' a harder time an' needed it worse'n ours did."

"Newley didn't have a pa no more," he repeated. "That's another thing that always struck us as kinda strange. One night he just up and walked into the swamp, and that was it. Newley's ma thought he was just goin' out to check on the chickens, or somethin'. She asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'It's too dark,' just like that, and walked outside. They never seen him again."

"Me and Newley was pretty good trackers back then, we looked around the next day 'cause of course everyone was gettin' pretty worried, we thought we found a trail and we followed it maybe a mile into the swamp before we lost it. Newley's ma never was quite right after that, neither was Newley for that matter, but he seemed to take it better than his ma ... maybe just because that made him the man of the family after his pa disappeared, and he had to be strong for her."

"Everybody had their opinions about what had happened, of course. Only thing is, nobody talked about it when any of the Meriwethers was around. Everybody pretty much thought the same thing ... the Thing got him."

This particular turn of phrase caught my attention more closely. The Thing? Somehow this phrase set off memories in my mind that had been forgotten for at least 20 years. The Thing ... ? I must have heard my dad or grandpa mention it long ago.

"Don't reckon you're old enough to remember any of those stories," Uncle Jonas continued. "People don't talk about it much anymore. They still believe it, I guarantee you, they just don't say much. Folks who ain't from around here joke about it, because they don't believe. But folks who are from around here don't make jokes because they believe, and they don't talk serious about it neither, because they're scared." He turned his head to look out the front window. "And I don't blame 'em," he added.

"Just a minute," he said, got up with a grunt and walked slowly into the next room, and soon came back with a large book. He thumbed through its thick pages for a few seconds before he found what he was looking for, placed it on the table before me and resumed his seat. It was an old photo album. The picture he pointed to was an old, faded black and white photo with scalloped edges. Two young men sat on the open tailgate of a pickup, and between them sat two hounds. I immediately recognized one of them as my uncle, and guessed he must have been about 17 or 18.

"That's me on the right," Uncle Jonas explained, "Newley on the left, and those two hounds was Blue and Pete. Blue was Newley's, and Pete was mine. We was real proud of them hounds, caught lots of 'coons with 'em. Pete was ol' Zeke's great-great-grand-daddy, many times over I reckon." He leaned back and took another swallow of tea. "Your grandpa took that picture the day ..." His voice trailed off and he took another long swallow, cleared his throat and started over again.

"I said before that folks didn't talk about it much, but me an' Newley, we talked about it some. 'Cause we had seen it, or seen where it shoulda been, anyways. All the huntin' we did out in that swamp, 'specially at night when we was trackin' 'coons, we run into it twice. First time, the dogs'd been runnin' somethin' for over an hour, goin' this way an' that but always gettin' deeper into the swamp. We figured it was prob'ly a lion, the way it was runnin', didn't never tree, just kept goin' futher and futher in." I knew when he said "lion" he really meant the mountain lion, or cougar, which back then was still ranging all across central Texas, and was not an uncommon encounter for night hunters. "Well, sir," he went on, "the dogs finally treed it in a big ol' cypress down on the river bottom. We heard it scream when they treed it, so we got down there to 'em fast as we could. A lion like that coulda torn those old hounds apart if it was feeling brave, but we figured maybe if we got down there with our lights we could keep it scared enough so's it wouldn't attack us until we could pull the dogs off and get our tails outta there."

"I'll tell you what ... it was dark down in that river bottom. It hadn't seemed so bad when we started out, but gettin' down into that swamp was like goin' down into a cave or somethin'. We were walkin' through all kinda muck and brambles and what-not, I don't know 'bout Newley but I was prayin' I wouldn't step on a cottonmouth or somethin' even worse. I'd heard about patches of quicksand down in that swamp that could suck a cow under in no time. Anyways, we got down there fast as we could and sure 'nough, those two hounds'd treed a lion up in that big ol' cypress. We shined our carbide lights up in there and could see 'im, his eyes glowin' green and yellow while he was snarlin' down at us. The dogs was goin' crazy by this time, itchin' for a fight that I knew would get 'em both killed. The only gun we had was my single-shot .22, it was a good gun for knockin' 'coons out of a tree but was kinda small for somethin' like a lion. Newley grabbed his Blue by the collar, and I grabbed Pete, and there we were draggin' them dogs away, them bawlin' like all hell the whole time, us tryin' to keep our lights shined up in that tree, watchin' that damn lion runnin' back an' forth on that one big limb he was on, screamin' down at us while we was hollerin' at the dogs to shut up and get the hell out ..."

"Then all of a sudden the lion shut up, the dogs shut up, an' me an' Newley both looked around wonderin' what was goin' on. There was a sound like a ... well, you know how much racket a armadillo can make pushin' its nose around rummagin' for grubs and what-not. It was that kinda sound, like somethin' pushin' its way through the brush, only if it was a armadillo doin' it he musta been big as a Brahma bull. That lion come down outta that tree like his tail was on fire, I saw him comin' down and just about had a heart attack 'cause I thought I was gonna have to try and shoot 'im, but he high-tailed it the other way and we never saw 'im again."

"Durin' all this confusion with the lion and all, me an' Newley had got separated, we was standin' 30, 35 yards apart. By this time the dogs had turned around and were facin' away from the river, back toward where we had come from. I'll tell you what, I thought those dogs had been bristlin' for a fight with that lion, but now they were damn sure bristlin' up for somethin'. You can tell how a dog's feelin' when you get to know 'em. When a dog is ready to fight, he acts fierce and all, barkin' and carryin' on like he's not afraid of nothin' in the world, but what these dogs was doin' now was somethin' different. Ol' Pete, his hair was standin' on end like I hadn't ever seen before, an' he was crouched down behind me, growlin' real low in his throat, and tryin' to pull away from me backwards like he was tryin' to get away from somethin', instead of tryin' to get to somethin'. I could still hear whatever it was crashin' through the brush out there, me an' Newley was both shinin' our lights out there but we couldn't see nothin'. I heard Newley say, 'What in hell is that?' but I didn't answer, didn't have no answer. That crashin' through the brush sound was gettin' louder, like whatever it was was gettin' closer, and then finally I could see the brush movin', but there wasn't nothing there to make it move. Just the underbrush movin' aside like when a boat pushes through water, and sometimes the trees'd shiver like somethin' real big had slammed up against 'em."

"Like I said, me an' Newley was standin' maybe 30 yards apart. I looked over at Newley, an' he looked right back at me. You know, our lights were in these headbands, like those ol' doctor's headlights, so they'd shine in whatever direction we turned our heads. So my light was shinin' right on Newley, and his was shinin' right on me, and that's when that damn thing went right between us."

That damn thing ... something about that phrase struck a chord in my memory, reminding me of an old horror story I'd once read. "Did you see it?" By this time I was convinced that my uncle had seen something, something that, under the circumstances, had seemed horrible at the time but which they had later on, laughed about.

"Nope," he answered shortly. He rubbed his hand over his mouth and lower jaw in agitation, and fingered his tea glass nervously. "Like I said, we was shinin' our lights right at each other, and when it went between us there wasn't nothin' but dark. Just dark. Like somethin' big had gone through there and blocked out the light, but what it was, we couldn't see."

"Whatever it was," he continued, "it kept right on goin', 'bout as fast as you could walk if you was in a hurry. It went on past, so me an' Newley could see each other again, an' we swung our lights on down to the river where we could hear it still goin'. We shined our lights down there in them reeds along the riverbank, and I could see 'em movin' aside like somethin' big was just plowin' through 'em, but there wasn't nothin' there to see. Just a big spot of darkness down there that was somehow darker than the night."

"Well, sir, we high-tailed it outta there, and them dogs was glad to go, they didn't want no part of it. We could still hear it crashin' around through the brush, like it was followin' us but not so fast as it would really catch us. When we finally cleared the swamp and got up onto some solid ground, we heard it call. Now of course, I'd heard lions scream, I'd heard buzzards cackle at each other when they were fightin' over their meal, that can kinda make your hair stand on end. But this was somethin' different. Wasn't like no animal I'd ever heard, and it wasn't like nothin' human, neither."

"After that, me an' Newley took to callin' it the Darker, 'cause that was how it looked to us, darker than anything else."

For a second my memory flashed back to my late grandpa, who had been convinced that his house was haunted by its previous owner. I must have smiled slightly at the memory.

"What's so funny?" asked Uncle Jonas.

"I was just thinking about Grandpa," I answered, "how he thought his house was haunted."

"Well ..." replied Uncle Jonas, "he was my little brother, and I loved him dearly, but I never could see how he could believe that nonsense. Nope, whatever the Darker is, it ain't a ghost. It's ..." he hesitated as he seemed to be fumbling for the right words, "it's ... outside ... of ... things we know about."

It was getting late in the afternoon and I looked out through the window, wondering if I should get started going back home. "You're welcome to stay the night," said Uncle Jonas. "Still got a spare bedroom, prob'ly a little dusty but you're welcome to it."

"Okay, I'll do that." I didn't really feel like driving all the way back home already.

"How long's it been since you had deer meat for supper?" he asked.

"Way too long," I said, grinning.

"Well, we'll see what we can do about that."

Even though Uncle Jonas' house had electricity, he had never bothered to have air conditioning installed, not even a simple window unit. So after a supper consisting of venison, green beans and mashed potatoes, Uncle Jonas suggested we sit out on the back porch where it was cooler. At that time of the summer it wouldn't get dark until nearly nine o'clock, so we still had a few hours before darkness gave us some slight relief from the summer heat. As we went through the house to the back porch, I noticed with just a little trepidation that Uncle Jonas brought the gun with him that he had been holding when I first saw him, and which was never too far from his side. Earlier in the kitchen I had managed to get a close enough look at it to figure out that it was a pump action shotgun. As we walked through his small living room I took a quick look around. There was an easy chair in one corner, and next to it a small stack of newspapers. On a small table nearby was an old radio, and against the outside wall was a big stone fireplace. Above the fireplace was a gun rack holding three more weapons, one bolt action with a scope, one side-by-side double-barreled shotgun, and a smaller rifle that I guessed was probably a .22. The gun rack was nothing unusual itself, I owned a few firearms myself and was quite familiar with their use. However, him carrying around that shotgun all the time had me just a little worried.

We sat in a couple of old chairs on the back porch with our quart jars once again filled with iced tea, looking out across the shadowy swamp. Uncle Jonas leaned his shotgun against the wall. I mentioned that the supper had been very good, and he told me that he'd grown the beans and potatoes himself, and that he'd "shot the deer just a couple hundred yards down that way," he said as he pointed vaguely away down the edge of the swamp. He mentioned that getting a propane oven put in was the best thing he'd ever done, and gestured toward the big propane tank that sat several yards away and to one side of the porch. "Sure beats cookin' on a pot-bellied stove," he added. I had come to admire my old uncle quite a lot in the past few hours that we had become reacquainted, and I was musing that I hoped I would be as spry and active as he when I reached his age, when he brought up the subject of the Darker again.

"Let's see now, I told you that me an' Newley had seen the Darker twice, but I only told you about the first time. That second time ... it was the day your grandpa took that picture I showed you." He paused and took a swallow or two of tea before continuing.

"That night me an' Newley went huntin' again. I reckon it was 'bout a year or so after that first time. The 'coons had been runnin' somethin' fierce that night, and we had trailed a few of 'em pretty deep into the swamp. We was gettin' kinda tuckered and figured it was time to pack it in for the night. Well, we got the dogs and started back to the truck, an' that's when I thought I noticed somethin' movin' back down there in the brush. Didn't say nothin' about it though, just figured we'd better get outta there and kept on goin'. We was gettin' pretty close to where we'd left the truck when Newley said, 'It's followin' us, ain't it?' I told him I reckon so. We stopped for a minute and shined our lights back behind us, and sure 'nough, the brush back down in there was movin' around like there was a wind blowin' through it, only it was a still night an' I couldn't feel no wind where we were standin'. So we turned around and hurried on up, tryin' to get back to the truck soon as we could. We made it, and I loaded up Pete and chained him in where he couldn't jump out. Right about then those dogs got to bristlin' all up and growlin' again, and Newley's old Blue just busted loose and took off back into the brush."

"Newley took off after him, cussin' at ol' Blue for bein' such a cantankerous old hound. Pete was chained in tight, so he couldn't jump out, so I figured I should get down there an' help Newley catch ol' Blue. I could hear Blue bawlin' like all hell again, like this time he'd decided he wasn't gonna be scared of whatever that damn thing was down there. I could see Newley's light flashin' in there amongst the trees and started down there toward it. All of a sudden his light blinked on and off, just like it did that first time when that thing had went between us, and then ol' Blue's bawl got cut off sharp and I heard Newley holler ... it wasn't no mad holler like he was still cussin' at Blue, it was a scared holler, more like a scream I guess. He come tearin' up out of that brush like he'd gone plumb crazy, his eyes all big and white like he'd seen somethin' terrible. He run right on past me to the truck, like I wasn't even there. I cussed a little and looked back down in there, tryin' to see what happened to ol' Blue, but I couldn't see him. Only thing I saw was this big patch of somethin', somethin' big and dark, swellin' up out of the trees. I decided ol' Blue was a goner and I high-tailed it back to the truck, Newley was standin' there yellin' at me to come on and get the hell outta there, and I did just that. I tore out of there fast as that ol' truck would go. There was a fog comin' in, faster than I had ever seen a fog come in, even down in the swamp, but I didn't care. I just drove like I was crazy tryin' to get outta there. Wasn't 'til we'd got back up on the road that I slowed down and looked over at Newley."

"He was sittin' there shiverin' like he was freezin' to death, his arms all wrapped around himself like he couldn't get warm, even though it must've been damn near 90 degrees. I asked him what had happened down in there. 'It touched me, the damn thing touched me,' he said. Then he looked right at me, all his color gone like I hadn't ever seen before, and he said, 'I seen it, Jonas, I seen the Darker. Big and dark, just big and dark, the damn thing touched me.' took him on home, didn't know what else to do, him shiverin' the whole time like he was freezin' or somethin'. I wasn't feelin' too brave myself, I hadn't seen it as clear as Newley must have, but the Darker had still scared me pretty bad."

As the sun was setting, a mist had seemed to rise up in the swamp, and shadows from the trees along its edge were weak and thin as the sun was partially obscured by the eerie miasma. I was thinking to myself that there was really no reason to feel spooked, that my uncle had indeed become just a little unhinged in his old age, when he began speaking again.

"Me an' your grandpa went back the next mornin', took our shotguns with us and thought we'd try to find ol' Blue. But he was gone. Wasn't no trace of him, 'cept for a few footprints in the mud down in the brush. But there was other footprints, like nothin' I'd ever seen. Looked sorta like a small person's hand, only the heel come back to a real sharp point, not like normal folk's hands are. And they was deep, like whatever had made 'em was heavy, heavy as a full-grown cow or somethin'."

"Newley wasn't the same after that. We never did go huntin' together again, and I didn't do much huntin' myself, only along the outside edges of the swamp where I felt safer. Not long after that I got called up to the Service. Newley got called up too, but he didn't pass the physical or somethin', he never did get into the Service. They sent me over to Europe. I spent nigh onto four years there, and I seen some mighty awful things. Things that made me throw up, things that made me cry, and things that made me so mad I wanted to kill every damn Nazi I saw. But at least over there you knew what it was that could kill you. Bomb, or bullet, or gas, least it was somethin' you could understand. Nothin' over there ever scared me like the Darker did."

"When I got back I found out that ol' Newley was gone, disappeared just like his pa. He'd left a note, said, 'It's getting too dark,' just like that. Nobody ever seen him again. His ma had a stroke right after that, and died. That meant his family was plumb gone, and not even nothin' left of Newley or his pa to put in a grave."

"That's why I stayed here, never moved away. I been waitin' and watchin' my whole life, waitin' for the Darker to come. I seen it, so I figure whatever it was, it seen me too, and sooner or later it'd come after me. Lately I heard it a few times too, I reckon over the years it's gettin' braver and comin' out to the edges of the swamp more, not stayin' so deep inside like it used to. But I'm gonna be ready for it. Even went into town and got me this new 12-gauge, figured I needed a little more firepower than the old side-by. Pulled out the plug, so she'll hold six shots, got 'er loaded with the heaviest damn buckshot I could find too."

We sat there in silence for several minutes after that, watching the sun sink deeper into the mist that was rising over the swamp until it was just an obscure, fuzzy ball fading away beyond the trees. Already down along the borders of the swamp I could see the darkness gathering in the low places, misty and mysterious away in the distance.

"A while back," Uncle Jonas said suddenly, "I even made a couple of trips into Austin and San Marcos, visited the libraries they got there at the universities. Got one of them young fellows there to show me how to look up books an' such on those computers they got. I did me a heap of readin'. Didn't find much, though, nothing that'd really tell me anything about what the Darker might be. Kept runnin' into all kindsa Bigfoot an' U.F.O. nonsense, buncha bull is what I think."

"Kinda funny, best thing I found was a whole buncha stories, weren't even supposed to be true, that a few fellows wrote a long time ago. Don't know if you ever heard of 'em, fellows like ol' Algernon Blackwood, another name of H.P. Lovecraft, and one damn strange ol' boy name of Ambrose ... Ambrose Bierce. 'Specially that Lovecraft fellow. I never did read about nothin' just like the Darker in none of his stories, but he had the right idea ... 'bout things that maybe weren't meant to be here, or maybe how they are meant to be here, and we're the ones that don't belong. Things that come from someplace else, someplace ... outside ... don't know exactly how to say it."

At this point Uncle Jonas looked at me sharply. "You ever hear of this word ... eldritch?"

"Yes, in fact I have," I answered.

"Well, that's a good word," replied Uncle Jonas. "Good word for the Darker ... eldritch. Pretty damn eldritch if you ask me."

By this time the swamp had swallowed the last vestiges of the sunlight and the rising moon had cast an eerie pallor over the swirling mist. Uncle Jonas said he guessed it was time to turn in and wished me good night.

I lay in bed a few minutes later, listening to the dull roar the of countless chirruping frogs that made the swamp their home. The last thing I thought about before sleep claimed me was how I would tell my dad that Uncle Jonas just wasn't quite right anymore.

* * *

I awakened later to a strange silence, but I wasn't sure about what had awakened me. I thought I could hear soft movement somewhere in the house and guessed that Uncle Jonas was up puttering around again. After the steady roar of the chirruping frogs that I had gone to sleep with, the silence was somehow ominous. Then I heard it, the sound that I knew had awakened me, and now made me shrink beneath the thin sheet in a plain and simple reflex of sudden fear.

It was like some kind of ungodly siren, beginning with a throaty growl and rising to a high ululation, then back down to end in a sort of roaring cough that echoed in the still, humid night air. I heard the screen door on the back porch slam shut and guessed that Uncle Jonas had gone back outside. Not knowing exactly what I should do, I scrambled into my clothes and began to walk toward the back of the house. I reached the back door and could see my uncle and his hound Zeke standing in the back yard. I heard Uncle Jonas speak.

"Yep, it's gettin' mighty dark, ain't it, Zeke?" he said. "I reckon it's time."

I hesitated a few seconds, trying to decide if I should intervene or not, half afraid for my uncle and half afraid he might mistakenly shoot me if I startled him. Suddenly there was a muted crash from the front of the house, a sound like glass breaking, then that high, ululating cry and another crash. I stumbled hurriedly through the darkened house toward the front door, trying to see what was making all the noise, when I heard my uncle shout, heard Zeke began bawling a deep coonhound bawl -- that sound that is neither a bark nor a howl but is somewhere in between -- and then a series of thunderous blasts that I knew could only be my uncle's shotgun.

I tripped over something, banging my shin painfully and limping a little more slowly to the front door. That was it, I decided. I'd get in my pickup and get the hell out of here. I'd head for the nearest town and call my dad, let him decide what to do. I got halfway down the steps when I realized I wouldn't be going anywhere.

My pickup had been overturned. It was lying wheels up, a sight that stopped me in my tracks and made me doubt my senses for a few seconds. But there it was. I glanced to the side and saw the same thing had happened to my uncle's old Chevrolet, the top crushed and splintered windshield glass sparkling dimly in the thin moonlight. I backed through the front door, back into the house. Zeke's barking suddenly cut off with a high-pitched yelp and there were no more gun shots. Now what?

Protection. Something was out there and I needed protection. A bear? I had never heard of a bear big enough to flip over a pickup, at least not in Texas. Besides, the black bears that used to live out in East Texas were now all but extinct. So what the hell was it?

I went back into the living room and took down the bolt-action rifle from above the fireplace. It was an old .30-06, and I racked the bolt back to see that the clip had indeed -- as I expected -- been left loaded. I shot the bolt home and it scooped a cartridge up into the chamber. Then I tried to go out the front door again.

I actually had my hand on the door and was about to push it open when I saw it. The dim moonlight wasn't bright enough to offer any clear illumination, but there was something ... something huge and dark just at the end of the porch steps. I didn't wait around. I crashed back through the house, nearly ripping the back door from its hinges as I tore through it, and ran. Ran like hell.

I wasn't about to go out into that swamp, so I ran at an angle up the hill between it and my uncle's house. I didn't know how far I had run before I caught my foot on something and went down, my ankle twisting beneath me. I fell heavily, curling under to protect the rifle that I still carried as if it were some protective talisman, and crawled painfully behind a nearby fallen tree trunk.

I peered over the top of the log back down the hill toward the house -- I had run about 50 yards. The weak light from the waning moon threw just enough light on the scene to let me see that there was something down there. Something big and dark, like my uncle had said, somehow darker than the night itself. Something that seemed to absorb what little light the moon gave into its shapeless immensity. From the way Zeke's bawling had ended, from the way I had never heard my uncle fire another shot after that first fusillade, I guessed they were gone. Gone just like Newley, and Newley's pa, gone just like poor old Blue. It seemed to be moving around the house, crashing into it and smashing everything. I could hear the sounds of glass smashing and wood crunching, then one corner of the roof caved in. All I could see was that big dark shapeless thing smashing the house to pieces, the vague hulks of the two overturned trucks in the front yard, and the dull glint of the big silvery propane tank in the back yard.

The propane tank ... the propane tank, I thought to myself. I still had the rifle. I eased it up and braced it across the log, searching for several feverish seconds before I caught the dim glint of the big tank in the scope. I squeezed the trigger.

I can't tell you what I saw in the split second before a piece of flying debris knocked me unconscious. The doctor says the concussion I received robbed me of my short-term memory, and it may be so. Or it may be that I refuse to remember any specific details. The fireball from the exploding gas tank erupted over the moonlit glade, exposing everything in a single, ghastly revelation, and I did see the Darker. A dark, dense, shapeless mass that could have been 10 or 20 feet tall, and just as big around -- or two or four times that big. I say could have been, because its form was a constantly shifting, amorphous blot upon the landscape. I vaguely remember hideous, blasphemous shapes horribly suffused with more familiar shapes. Along its outer skin -- if skin it was -- drifted faces, obscenely large caricatures of faces now bloated and dead and staring, and mute with the terrible knowledge that such a death had brought them. Faces animal and human -- Uncle Jonas, and Zeke, and others who I didn't recognize -- all who had been claimed by the Darker.

* * *

A sheriff's deputy found me there soon after daylight, unconscious, my hair encrusted with blood from the wound in my scalp where something had struck me a glancing blow, probably a piece of shrapnel from the exploding gas tank, I was later told. I awakened with the sharp fumes of an ammonia capsule in my nostrils and the deputy helped me down the hill, half carrying me as I staggered under the dizziness brought on by the head wound and the pain shooting up from my twisted ankle, back toward the smoldering ruins of Uncle Jonas' house. The sheriff himself was standing there surveying the scene. He glanced at the crater where the propane tank had once been. "No wonder they could see it from town," I heard him mutter.

"What's your name, son?" he asked, looking at me.

"David Anderson." My head ached and it was difficult to see clearly.

"You any kin to old Jonas?"

"Yes, he was my uncle." The vibrations from my voice made my head throb.

"Look here, son, you ever see anything like this before?" The sheriff squatted and pointed to something on the ground.

I looked down, almost pitched over as the ground swirled beneath me. The deputy caught me and helped me sit.

"No sir," I answered, "but Uncle Jonas had. He described them to me." The track was deep in the earth, as if something very heavy had walked there. Shaped like a small hand with fingers and thumb splayed out, but the heel tapering back to a much sharper point than a human hand. The ground all around us was covered with them.

"Now look here, son." The sheriff rested his hand on my shoulder and I tried to focus on his face. "You know what happened here, and I can see it myself plain enough. Trouble is, there's no way I could get away with reporting what really happened. So this is how it goes ... you were having trouble sleeping 'cause it was so hot in the house, so you went for a walk. Something happened ... don't know what, just one of them accidents ... and the house caught fire. The heat from the fire made the tank explode. You understand?"


The sheriff stood and looked around again. "Yep, I reckon that's a pretty fair description of what happened."

"I reckon so," agreed the deputy.

* * *

My wounds healed eventually, though I still have some trouble sleeping at night, especially when the waning moon has reached that particular phase on the downside of full that is technically known as "gibbous," and the thin shadows and flickering moonlight remind me strongly of that terrible night on the edge of Ottine Swamp. Uncle Jonas' old .30-06 now hangs from a rack in my own house, the only thing there was left to remember him by.

I will never travel that particular track of highway again -- that strand of State Highway 183 that skirts along the boundary of Ottine Swamp between Gonzales and Luling, where a wild elder darkness pools in the hollows and mists cling shroudlike to the trees for hours after sunrise. Because I know that somewhere out there in the dim recesses of that swamp, there is a much darker place where the sunrise doesn't make any difference.

Author's Note: This story was inspired by legends of a strange, enigmatic entity that is said to dwell in Ottine Swamp, and is referred to simply as "the Thing." Ottine Swamp lies between the forks of the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers, about 50 miles south of Austin, Texas.


© 1997 Edward P. Berglund
"Darker": © 1997 Alan Peschke. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: December 2, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004