Strength (Bell Donner Gives Her Word)
That fall a number of people in Chesterville were mauled to death by some kind of wild dog or wolf—the kind that apparently wasn’t too afraid to go right up to people as they took out their trash at night, or went to get their paper not too long after dawn. But it was a small town out in the sticks, verging on farm territory: quiet. Not like a wild animal was marauding up and down Times Square or anything; not like it was in plain view. So people started being more careful—not venturing out alone until midday, or not venturing out at all without a loaded shotgun—and things were all right for a while. Then, in late October, the animal came back, and this time, someone survived. An old lady by the name of Edna Mayhew—well, yes, she lost her arm from the elbow down, but she came out of it a damn sight better than any of those who’d come before her. And she said that it was definitely a wolf, but that it had come at her on two legs, and when she had smacked it in the face with a veiny little fist it had held her down with two arms and bitten her forearm clean off. The only thing that saved her, she declared, was her neighbor Bill “Thursday” Thurston, who had heard her screaming and come out with both barrels blazing. He claimed that the thing he saw ran away on four legs, but that it was, in fact, Goddamn Huge. This was about the time that that new photo of Bigfoot lumbering around on all fours came out, which several professors and scientists swore up and down was just a bear with mange. Eddie at the Red Brick saved it out of the paper and the next time Thursday came in for a beer, he said, yeah, the thing he chased off Mrs. Mayhew kinda looked like that. Maybe it was a wolf with mange. Mange was a terrible thing, after all. He’d managed to hit it with at least one shot, though, so he didn’t think it’d trouble people too much after that.
So, going into November, that was where things stood. Whatever it was, it had mange, and it had probably gone off and died quiet somewhere. Bell Donner wasn’t terribly worried about it when she went outside that morning a couple of weeks later to get more wood for her kiln. She threw artisan pottery out on a little farm a few miles to the west of Chesterville anyway; whatever it was, it and its mange were not likely to bother her. Or so she thought, until that morning when she was piling kindling into the crook of her arm, looked up, and saw it standing at the edge of the yard.
It didn’t have a human face, but it was standing—on two long, lanky legs that curved back into a point like a dog’s, not forward into a human knee. One—arm?—was held close to its belly. Probably protecting wherever that man Thurston shot it, thought Bell stupidly. She was trying to dredge up an appropriate reaction, but her brains felt thick and logy. It didn’t have a human face, but it did have a very human expression—desperate, she thought, and cranky, maybe resentful, even. And hungry.
Bell put down her armful of kindling and picked the axe back up. The thing staggered forward a step or two. It was still a good twenty feet away. “Go on, now,” she said. “Get. Ain’t nothin’ here you want.” The thing gazed at her, its eyes watching the axe; it almost seemed to calculate. She’d seen it, after all, and it was hungry. A human criminal wouldn’t have let her live, and this wasn’t even human. She hardened her voice and rode over a quaver like it was a speedbump: “Go on now. I won’t tell nobody if you just go.” It was on the tip of her tongue to offer it some food—she had a pot roast from the other night, and she was still knee-deep in leftovers—and then she thought, You dumbass, you feed it once and you’ll never get rid of it. “G’on now,” she said, her hands tight on the axehandle. “Just get. You got my word. I won’t tell nobody.”
It was still standing there, calculating. And then it stepped back, making a tactical withdrawal into the brush at the back of the yard. She saw it drop back down on four legs and lope away awkwardly towards the thicket out behind the farm, a scrubby bit of forest that led into some of the foothills. Probably some good caves in there, she thought. The wolf-thing wasn’t the only one out there who could calculate. And when the attacks started in Chesterville again, and then moved a bit north—northeast of Bell’s farm, and then back down to Chesterville, and then southeast of her farm, and then back to town again—she knew it was being careful. It knows better than to shit where it eats, she thought to herself. Or eat where it slept, more precisely, but the saying held the same. There were some people at the sheriff’s office who probably would have given a lot to know about a thicket in the foothills west of Chesterville, particularly since Edna Mayhew was still the only survivor. But Bell Donner had given her word, and she valued her word almost as much as she valued her life, and they were pretty much the same thing in this case, she decided. After all, it’s one thing to know where something lives; it’s another when something knows where you live, and a deal was a deal where Bell Donner came from.
P.S. Regarding the previous story: I like the tension of open endings better than resolving things in stories this short, but if you go back to the previous story, I did actually use a word, a single word, that should give you an idea of exactly what the woman found in her house. The story isn't really about "Ooo, guess what it really was"; it's more about, "Okay, so that's what it really is, and there's nothing she can do about it."