The crow sat perched on the branch above, head cocked to the side, as if listening and watching in curiosity as the two men below sat on their horses, staring up at the mutilated man whose body swung from the noose. The crow fluffed its wings and stepped sideways, standing directly on the rope, its attention even more firmly fixed upon the figures on the ground. The first man took off his gloves and dusted them off on his chaps, then tilted his wide-brimmed hat back on his head. He sighed deeply, staring up at the hanging body.
“Good lord, what in the sam hell happened to him?”
The hanging man in question was a horrific sight to see. The hung heavily by the neck from the tree, his neck clearly broken, his face splotchy shades of blue and purple. It appeared as if he had been thoroughly beaten before his demise, and as the cowhand looked closer, he could see scratches, cuts, and scuff marks hidden by the dark bruises. Below the neck, his body was even more gruesome. His shirt had been torn open, revealing his bare chest…or at least what was left of it. His skin had been peeled open at the sternum, and several of his ribs had been cracked and removed, the broken bits of bone lying on the ground beneath him. His heart had been removed. It had not been cut out, but the torn lungs and shredded flesh indicated that it had been forcibly, brutally pulled out by hand. The peeled skin hung down to his waist, flapping slightly in the breeze, smearing cold blood over his belt and the top of his pants. His shoulders and his thighs appeared to have been slashed repeatedly by talons or claws, cutting him nearly to the bone. His knees and his ankles had been snapped and repositioned at unnerving angles.
The second cowhand pulled his hat further down over his brow, casting scarce glances at the body hanging before him, fighting the sick that was forcing its way up. He had disposed of dead animals before, so the acrid smell no longer bothered him, but the image swaying gently before him turned his stomach like nothing ever had before. He spat to the side, and took a shaky breath.
“Whoever did this is one hell of a hateful being. I’ve seen men killed in anger before, but this…this is a whole new level of sinfulness I ain’t ever seen.”
The first man shook his head in amazement, unable to tear his eyes away from the disgusting sight. It chilled him, and where his friend could not look at the hanging man, he felt a strange fear, a tingling at the base of his spine, superstitiously telling him that if he looked away, he might meet the same fate. He coughed and shifted in the saddle.
“We better cut him down, Levi. Not even the devil himself deserves to be strung up and put on display like this.”
Levi nodded, still not looking at the body, averting his gaze for as long as he could. The first cowhand, James, dropped to the ground, his spurs lightly clinking as he pulled the tomahawk from his saddlebag and walked towards the hanging man. The spurs went silent as James swung his weapon, cutting the rope that held the man aloft. The body fell limply to the ground, folded uncomfortably over itself. The man’s innards spilled out, splattering across James’ boots. The crow squawked angrily as the rope beneath it gave way, staring down disapprovingly at the man who had disturbed its rest.
“Aw, damn it all!” James swore quietly. He put his gloves back on as he wiped the bloody mess off his boots into the grass. He sniffed and dragged the hanging man’s body to a dry patch of dirt nearby and whistled to Levi.
“Toss me that kerosene, wouldja?” he barked.
Levi turned and ruffled through his saddlebag and James pulled his bandana up over his mouth and nose. Levi found what he was looking for and tossed the jar to James, who quickly unscrewed it and dumped its contents all over the body.
“Wish we could give you a proper burial, friend, but we ain’t got the time nor the means. Forgive us; we did all we could.”
James struck a match and lit the hanging man’s body ablaze, and Levi said a silent, timid prayer. James walked back to his horse and the two cowhands watched the body burn. Within an hour, the flesh had been consumed, and the two men turned their horses back towards the ranch.
The crow watched them leave, tutting and squawking in apparent laughter. IT fluffed its wings once more and flew down to the ground, landing near the body. A thick black mist surrounded the bird, and suddenly, in its place stood a black wolf, which paced over to the burned corpse. It sniffed the smoldering body, licking the blackened meat with quiet interest.
After a short time, it lifted its head and looked in the direction the cowhands had ridden. At first glance, it appeared as if the canine was…grinning. It began to cough…no, not cough…the wolf was…chuckling. The black mist returned, and a humanoid figure appeared as the mist dissipated. It appeared to be a man, with broad shoulders and a strong yet slender build. Despite it being midday, its face was darkened by deep shadow, with only its eyes being visible. Eyes that would make a man’s blood run cold. Eyes that were not human, but most closely resembled those of a spider. Unlidded, with dozens of small eyes clustered within each socket, it stared out towards the ranch. Its black duster swayed in the wind, with dust rising softly from the base. The creature raised a hand and ran its fingers along the brim of its hat. It wore leather gloves, with two-inch talons poking out through the tip of every finger. It raised its other hand to where its mouth would be found, and it licked its fingertips. It moaned in satisfaction.
It leaned its head back and sniffed the air. The smell of the kill still hung steadily in the air around the tree, and it excited the creature. It sighed. It could feel its strength growing. The ritual had begun. There would be many more nights like the one before, and every feast would bring it closer to its goal. But it must be patient. As much as the thrill and the feast brought the creature untold excitement, it must wait. It must plan its moments, plan its kills, and plan the steps of the ritual carefully. This was a delicate process, one to be savored and respected. It narrowed its vision to the ranch which lay on the slow-rolling mountainside across the canyon and if its face could be seen, it was surely grinning. Its time would come soon enough. The ritual had begun, and there were none left alive who could stop it. There was no hurry, no rush, no need to race to the end. It had all the time in the world to get everything just right. Its time had come, and these quiet green hills would be covered in blood by the time it was finished.