by ROB ROSEN
-Strange – 3 Pages –
“Think we lost ’em, Cletus?”
“Yep, Jeb. Think so. They ain’t never gonna find us up here. Countryside’s too dense and thick.”
“Kinda like you, Cletus, huh?” His brother jabbed him in the ribs as they maneuvered their way through the prickly underbrush.
“Oh, you’re a funny one, Jeb. Keep it up and you’re gonna find yourself like that there Sheriff Carter.
Jeb shut up quick as a wink. His brother had a short fuse and it was no fun setting if off. In fact, it was downright dangerous. The sheriff learned that the hard way – hard like a hammer across the skull. The bloody image streaked across Jeb’s already addled brain.
“Anyway,” Jeb said, changing the subject. “we got the money, and with winter setting in they’ll call off the search once the first hard snow falls. Ain’t nobody liked that sheriff no how.”
“You got that right, little brother; least of all us. Man was crookeder than your front teeth and just as yellow.”
The two cackled in the frigid, cold air as they lumbered up the side of the hill. Their heavy backpacks slowed them down some, but lightening the load wasn’t a possibility. They were rich men now, and they fully intended on staying that way.
An hour or so into their hike, Jeb thought to ask, “Um, I don’t suppose you know where we’s headed, do you, Cletus?”
“You suppose wrong, little brother. I know exactly where we’s headed. Daddy told me about a cabin up here. Said the miners used it before they realized there wasn’t nothing worth digging for.”
“Oh yeah, I plumb forgot about that place. But how we ever gonna find it? We don’t even know where to look”
“Don’t gotta look, Jeb. It’s right there.” Cletus pointed his thick, stubby finger up the hill. Lo and behold, a squat, wood cabin sat directly above them.
“Man, Cletus, today sure is our lucky day.” Jeb smiled a crooked, mischievous smile and took off running. Cletus followed in hot pursuit. They were up the hill in no time flat.
“Home sweet home, little brother,” Cletus said as he pushed on the door. It creaked and groaned, and eventually gave way under his mighty, callused fists.
“Well, it’s better than the cell waiting for us back in town.”
“You got that right, little brother. Least here we can come and go.”
“But where we gonna go to?” Jeb looked to his brother for a sage response, but none was forthcoming. Jeb wasn’t at all surprised. Cletus was all brawns and no brains. For Jeb, the reverse was true. It was a deadly combination. Jeb was the mastermind behind their robberies. Cletus was the power. Thus far, it had been a successful pairing; and they had two backpacks full of cash to prove it.
Closing the door behind them, the brothers had a look around. There were two rusty cots, each containing a thin, moldy mattress. There was one nearly rotten table and two equally decrepit chairs. There were even some plates and cups for them to use, once they were sufficiently cleaned. But best of all, there was a small fireplace in the cobwebbed corner.
“At least we ain’t gonna freeze,” Jeb said.
“Freeze, no, little brother, but starve is a different matter entirely. We got money and nowhere to spend it. And I’d kill for a Big Mac right about now.”
“You forget, big brother, you done killed once already today. Sheriff Carter didn’t even know what hit him.”
Again the two laughed their sinister laughs. They stopped in an instant, however, when they both heard a scratching noise to their right.
“What was that, Cletus?” Jeb asked in a whisper.
“Dunno. Probably just the wind.”
“The wind ain’t got claws, big brother.”
“Well, we is in the woods. Probably just a coon outside.”
Again they heard the noise, only this time it sounded like two animals scurrying nearby.
“Hush, Cletus,” Jeb said, cupping his hand to his ear. “Sounds like it’s coming from inside, not out. Maybe we ain’t alone in here.”
“And maybe we’ll have some dinner, after all.”
Cletus rubbed his ample belly and tiptoed around the small cabin, searching for the source of the noise. Soon enough, they heard it again. Cletus pointed to the corner of the cabin where a large pile of leaves had amassed. Slowly, he made his way to the spot where the sound was coming from. And then, out of the pile sprung the largest rat the two of them had ever laid eyes on. Both men jumped and screamed, but it was Cletus who quickly regained his composure and, with a giant leap in the air, came crashing down on the massive rodent.
His steel-tipped boots pierced the gray rat directly through its heart, sending streams of gooey, thick blood across the dusty floor. The sound of a sickening squish and a dying squeal permeated the cabin, as did the instant stench of death. It was all Jeb could do to not toss his cookies on the spot. Even Cletus stifled a retch, but then finally said, with a nervous twitter, “It ain’t a Big Mac, but it’ll do in a pinch.”
Jeb, who’d been sucking in his breath during the spectacle, managed to add, “I hate to see what we substitute for a side of fries.”
Both men laughed at that, concealing the sound of a second pair of claws that slunk down a well-concealed hole beneath the pile of leaves.
Cletus bent down and picked up the dead animal by its tail. He had to hold his nose, as the thing stank to high heaven. Jeb ran to the front door and flung it open. The temperature was dropping rapidly outside, but at least the winter air smelled fresh and clean. Cletus flung the rat outside, where it would sit until they could start a fire.
Both men were experienced outdoorsmen, so that was an easy enough task to accomplish. In a few minutes, the tiny cabin and two pairs of ice-cold hands were warming nicely.
“That’s better,” Jeb sighed.
“Yep, a fire in the stove and dinner in the freezer. Just like home.”
Jeb looked around the filthy, fetid cabin and merely nodded his head back and forth. There was no use in stating the obvious: it wasn’t anything like home. Still, when his eyes spotted the nearly full backpacks, his spirits picked up considerably. The money would afford them an even bigger and better home. One without rats.
“Okay, Cletus. You skewer the varmint and I’ll cook the damn thing. But let’s make it quick. It might taste like chicken, but it ain’t.”
“Deal, little brother,” he said as he got up and retrieved the nearly frozen rat. He found a large enough stick outside and stuck it through the hole his boot had created in the animal. He then handed it to Jeb. “Shish-kee-bob,” he said, with a forced smile. Jeb’s stomach lurched, but he knew it was either eat it or starve, so he cooked it without looking or commenting.
The meal, at least, was filling if not completely repugnant, and with the fire newly stoked, the brothers settled in for the night. The day’s activities had completely exhausted them, so, not surprisingly, they fell asleep almost as soon as their heads hit the moldy mattresses. Their solitude was not to last for very long.
From deep within their troubled sleep they were suddenly and simultaneously awakened by a scurrying noise beneath their cots.
“Sounds like our dinner had a mate,” Cletus said with a stifled yawn.
“Or mates,” Jeb replied, for clearly there were more than one pair of claws scampering across the floorboards.
“Breakfast,” Cletus said. “And lunch. This here cabin is better than the Piggly Wiggly. One stop shopping.”
His brother’s humor did little to relax Jeb. Sleep was now out of the question. Instead, he lay rigidly in bed and kept his hands tucked safely inside his pants. Each claw scratch he heard sent a chill up his spine. He was, therefore, amazed when he heard his brother’s raspy snore.
“How can anyone sleep through this?” he said, in a whisper. Then again, Cletus wasn’t just anyone. Jeb knew full well that very little riled his older brother. “Pleasant dreams,” he said as he stared into the blackness.
Unfortunately, the darkness did nothing to blanket the noise. Jeb’s astute hearing heard every scratch, every squeak, every whisker that rubbed against wood, and every moan and groan from the floorboards as the rats darted about. Clearly, the cabin had prior tenants that weren’t moving out anytime soon.
By the time dawn spread it’s rays through the cracks in the walls, Jed had barely slept for more than a minute straight. Cletus, on the other hand, woke with a loud snort and a massive, satisfied yawn.
“Morning, little brother,” he said. “Sleep well?”
“Not hardly, Cletus. We got ourselves a bit of an infestation problem. Seems the Orkin man missed this place.”
“Off his route, I suppose.”
The brothers rose from their shaky beds. Each stretched and scratched before responding to their gurgling stomachs. “I’m starvin’, Cletus. And I ain’t about to eat no rat pancakes for breakfast. Maybe we can rustle us up some wild berries or something.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Cletus replied as he walked across the floor to the front door. He wasn’t prepared for what he found when he opened it. “Um, Jeb?”
“You catch the weather forecast yesterday?”
“When? Before we robbed that bank or after you smashed that sheriff’s brains in?”
“Nope, big brother. Why you ask?”
“‘Cause I think we was hit with a snow storm last night.”
Jeb ran to the door and was temporarily blinded by the glaring snowdrifts. The entire landscape was utterly blanketed in pure, white snow. Had the consequences not been so dire, it might have been a beautiful sight to behold. Instead, it terrified him to the core.
“Look on the bright side, little brother: rats are high in protein and low in fat.”
“That ain’t no bright side, Cletus. There ain’t nothing but dark sides here.”
Cletus reached into the backpack to his immediate left. “How about this for a bright side then?” he asked as he retrieved a stack of bills a half a foot thick and then shoved it under his brother’s nose.
“I done seen the light, big brother,” Jeb replied.
“Amen,” Cletus said, and then stuffed the wad of cash back inside. “Now let’s go hunt us up some breakfast.”
Breakfast, as it turned out, wasn’t too difficult to come by. Neither was lunch or dinner, for that matter. The rats, it seemed, were everywhere they looked, and each one was larger than the first. If they could stomach it for a week or two, they figured, they’d be in the clear. Their prey, after all, was big and meaty, and, when they closed their eyes and tried to imagine it, did indeed taste like chicken. Wingless, featherless, beakless chicken.
The day stretched endlessly and monotonously on, but even on a full stomach Jeb had a hard time sleeping through the night. Dozens upon dozens of sharp claws scratched and scuttled beneath his bed. And, same as the night before, Cletus was annoyingly oblivious. He snored just as he did when they were in their own home. “God I hate you, big brother,” Jeb whispered, as he lay there wide-awake and miserable.
By morning they had a new problem to contend with.
“Um, little brother?”
“Why’d you take that money I stuffed into my backpack yesterday?”
“Now, Cletus, why would I take your money when I got me a whole satchel full of it myself?”
“Well, it ain’t here no more, and between you and the rats, I’d say you had more use for it.”
“Maybe it blew out the door or something then.”
“Maybe it found its way into your backpack, is what I’m thinkin’.” Cletus lunged for his brother’s pack, but Jeb was too quick. He held it in a vice grip and wouldn’t let go. Eventually, Cletus gave up and stormed back to his cot.
“Fine, Jeb. But if I find out you took my money, you’re a dead man.”
“I didn’t and I ain’t, so cool off, Cletus. The money will turn up.”
The brothers lay down on their respective cots and used their backpacks as pillows. Each felt safer that way, safe enough to close their eyes and take a nap. During the day the rats were, for the most part, quiet, so that Jeb could finally fall asleep. Even his brother’s snoring couldn’t keep him awake. Exhaustion had, at last, consumed him.
Jeb awoke sometime later, though, to the familiar sounds of scurrying, grating claws. The sun had nearly vanished into the horizon, and an eerie orange glow filled the tiny cabin. He was surprised that the rats were up and about. They seemed to lay dormant during the day, hidden from the light. But now Jeb could easily hear dozens upon dozens of sharp claws and shrieking squeaks. What he didn’t hear was his brother’s raucous inhaling and exhaling.
“Cletus, you awake?” he whispered, with his head still resting on the backpack. “Cletus?” There was no response, just the sound of the rats as they came and went. “Cletus?” he tried again, louder this time. Still nothing from his brother’s side of the cabin. Jeb’s heart quickened and he struggled to catch his breath.
He bolted up from his bed and shouted at the very top of his lungs, “Will you rats shut the hell…up.” The last word barely escaped his mouth as he spotted the teaming mass. A brown and gray swirling confusion of fur swarmed over his brother’s backpack. The head that had once rested on it was still there, but gone was the face. Shreds of bills and flesh mixed together in a sickening slurry. Blood-splattered rats ran up and down the side of the cot with bits of currency and meat firmly clenched in their toothy jaws.
Jeb rushed to the door and flung it open. The frigid air blasted his face as he vomited into the pristine winter snow, which had piled several feet at the foot of the cabin since their arrival. The rats looked up at him, twitched their noses and whiskers, and then proceeded to devour what was left of the backpack and Cletus’s homely face.
Jeb ran at them in a mad, frenzied dash. He stomped and kicked and crunched several of them beneath his boots, but they, like him, were fast. They instantly raced to all four corners of the cabin and then promptly vanished down their tiny, little holes. Their nests, it appeared, would be richly bedded that night.
When an ominous quiet once again filled the cabin, Jeb grabbed for his backpack, tightly shut his eyes, sank to the floor, and shivered in terror and despair. “Damn you, Cletus,” he whispered. “You just had to be a sound sleeper, didn’t you?”
As the night turned black and cold, Jeb sat on the musty, wooden floor and would not, or could not, move an achy muscle. He simply trembled and held on to his backpack for dear life. He heard the rats, but they seemed not to approach him. They were, he now knew, waiting. Waiting for him to fall asleep. Waiting for him to relinquish his prize – and his life.
Three nights later, that’s just what he did. Hunger and thirst ravaged him until he finally succumbed to the sleep he’d so desperately been trying to avoid. What flesh remained on his skinny frame was quickly consumed, but in his death-grip the backpack remained, uneaten and whole.
On a beautiful summer day, that’s just how he was found. A heavily scarred man kicked the rickety door in. He quickly scanned the stinking room and snickered as he did so. One bony skeleton lay on a cot, another in the dead center of the cabin.
“Some of us die a bit easier than others, huh boys?” Sheriff Carter said with a laugh. To the figure on the floor he gave one swift kick, sending its bones scattering all about. The backpack fell to the ground, full as it had been six months prior. “Guess you fellers had a rough winter. While the sheriff’s away, the rats will play, I figure.” And with that he took his leave. The backpack and the money, much like Jeb and Cletus, were never seen again.