Story by John Grover
Illustration by John Waltrip
John Makepeace rode across the plains in western South Dakota. The horse squealed with exhaustion, but John knew he was almost there. He slung the rifle from his saddle and gritted his teeth. Sand and dust whipped at his face, and the wind hit him hard as if trying to slow him down. There was no way he was losing it this time. He hadn’t tracked it all this way just to lose it.
“Hold on, girl, almost there!” He clicked his spurs against the beast once more.
Finally, the Black Hills came into view and the first of the trees popped up on the horizon. By all accounts and all of his tracking, the thing was in the hills, hiding. This time John would find it and kill it once and for all.
He raced across the prairie and splashed through a creek. Cold water sprayed his face, but he paid it no mind. Spruce and pine flashed by him. He was in a forest now, and shadows of the trees dimmed the light around him.
The horse slowed down to nearly a crawl. John spotted what he thought were footprints. His grip on his rifle tightened. His heart fluttered.
A scream almost spooked his horse. John clicked his spurs, but the horse refused to move.
“It’s okay, girl.” He clicked again, but the horse was having none of it. John rolled his eyes and hopped off the horse to the ground. He rushed deeper into the forest, rifle in hand.
John jumped over another creek and climbed higher, growing tired, catching his breath. Another scream pulled him forward. He climbed over a small ridge and stopped when he saw a Lakota woman writhing on the ground. She was with child and not alone.
There it was, standing over her, long black hair hiding both of its faces. A tall, gaunt body with sun-burnt flesh hunched over its prey. The woman could not get away from it. It growled as John took aim and fired.
The Two Face jumped into the air with a screech. It came down beside John and lunged at him. Long, sharp bones slipped out of the creature’s arms and slashed at him. His rifle let off a shot before he tumbled to the ground, its sharp bone piercing one of his arms. The creature took another swing, but John ducked and rolled to the ground, tasting blood in his mouth.
The creature howled and bolted for him. The woman screamed, and the creature halted, looking at her. Its black, matted hair whipped both forward and back. John glimpsed both of its faces, the humanoid one in the front and the hideous one in the back. He turned away sharply, avoiding looking directly at it. He reached for the Bowie knife in his belt and stabbed blindly.
The strike caught the creature in the ribs. Hot blood spilled, and it wailed, jumping out of sight and into the trees. John rolled to his knees and looked around. It was gone. He stood and went to the woman’s side.
“Can you move?”
She shook her head.
“You looked at its second face, didn’t you?”
She nodded, then pointed down at her belly. He saw a gash, bleeding profusely.
“Lord, it already stabbed you. Your child?”
She moaned with pain then looked up at him with frantic eyes. The baby was coming. John fell to his knees and took her hand. “Oh, Lord, I am not ready for this. Not nearly.”
She screamed and parted her legs. The child was coming whether he liked it or not.
John maneuvered himself between her legs. Her breathing was fast and furious. Sweat soaked her face. She screamed again, and a small head emerged.
A boy entered the world. John cradled him as best he could, a smile on his hard face. He looked up at the child’s mother, now motionless. She had passed the moment her son was born. Another motherless child.
John thought of his son James and knew there was no other choice. He was about to bring James a new baby brother.
— ♦♦♦ —
—Twenty-two years later. —
James Makepeace watched his father John work the plow, guiding it with some effort across the field. His father struggled with most things these days. He was often sick, and his strength was failing. All of this weighed on James’s mind as he hauled bales of hay with his brother, Maka.
Maka wasn’t his born brother, but James thought of him that way. The day his father brought him Maka, it felt like Christmas. James had always wanted a brother.
Maka’s people, the Lakota, had named him. They trusted James’ father John unlike other white men. John was different. He respected the land and the Lakota, and his lips were not filled with lies. When he rescued the child, the Lakota praised him. They wanted John to raise the child. Chief Red Sky chose the name Maka. It meant earth. It was if the earth itself had given Maka to John.
“You’re worried about him, aren’t you?” Maka asked.
James picked up another bale of hay. “Can’t help it. I see how tired he is all the time.”
“He is getting old,” Maka said. “But Father is a strong man, and he raised strong sons to care for him.”
“Yeah. Doesn’t stop the worrying.”
That night, James served the three of them a thick stew with skillet bread. He watched John eat it with a trembling hand.
James eyed Maka, who tried to show no concern as he ate. James asked, “Dad, what happened the day you found Maka? Was it the same thing that happened to Mom?”
John glowered at his son. “I have never spoken of it, James, and I won’t with your brother sitting right at our table.”
Maka looked up. “It’s okay, Father. I want to know, too. I should know what happened to my mother.”
“Dad, please, we never knew our mothers. Tell us something.”
“All these years I have tried to forget it, but I cannot. I wanted to protect you from nightmares, but I suppose you’re both old enough now. You must promise me you won’t do anything foolish. It hasn’t been seen in years. It may even be dead.”
“It?” James said.
John nodded. “Maka’s people call it Two Face. That’s exactly what the thing was or is. It has two faces. One normal, one…evil. You cannot look at its evil face. It will paralyze you, then tear you apart and eat you alive.”
“That’s what it did to my mother?” Maka asked. The horror in his eyes was something James had never seen in his brother before. Maka feared nothing.
“It hadn’t gotten that far. I ran it off before it could finish, but it had wounded your mother, and she was about to give birth to you. She lost her life delivering you.”
Maka’s face went pale. His eyes welled. James felt sorry for him, even regretted bringing the question up.
“And my mother?” James asked.
John sighed. “Your mother was an angel.” He opened a desk drawer and pulled an old photograph of his wife from an envelope, brushing his fingers across it. “I was in town, getting tools and supplies. When I got back, it was already too late. She was in pieces on the floor. The creature was heading for your crib. I never moved so fast nor jumped so high, by God. I crashed into the thing. It tried to get me to look at it, but I knew better. I pounded the thing until I got a hold of my rifle. By then it had jumped through the window and was gone.
“I left you in the care of a Lakota family. Then I went after it, tracking it almost two years until I found it in the Black Hills. That was the day I found Maka’s mother. After delivering Maka, I took him to his people, who were looking after you. They gave him his name. I asked if they felt they should raise him. They refused, saying they could not take him from his real father and brother.”
James looked over at Maka again and smiled. Their father stopped there, forgetting his meal and staring intently at the photograph of his wife.
“So, you didn’t kill the Two Face?” Maka asked.
John shook his head. “I’m afraid it got away.”
“We need to destroy it!” James roared.
“No!” John pounded a fist on the table. James and Maka both jumped. “It nearly destroyed two families already. Do not let it finish. It’s gone. It hasn’t been seen in over 20 years. I’ve asked Maka’s people. The Lakota watch everything in their Hills. They have seen nothing.”
Maka lowered his head. “I’m sorry, Father.”
“That’s settled,” John said. “I’m going to bed early. It’s been a long day. Don’t forget to say your prayers before bed.”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison, and John closed the bedroom door behind him.
— ♦♦♦ —
James tossed and turned. His eyes opened again and again during the night. Sleep came in short bursts. He was just drifting off when the moan startled him.
One of the cows howled outside. Something was wrong. It was a beast in pain, a distinct call of agony. James sprang up in bed as the cries grew louder. He jumped out of bed as another animal bellowed.
James listened at the window. The cries dwindled. Then the horses shrieked. James ran from his bedroom and pounded on his father’s door.
“Dad, Dad! Something is after the animals!”
He pushed opened his father’s bedroom door and discovered the room empty. His heart sank. James rushed from the room. Maka appeared in the hallway.
“Maka, Dad is out there. Something’s wrong.”
“Let’s see if he needs help!”
James lit a lantern before the brothers rushed to the stables and opened their doors. Inside, the horses screamed, kicking at their gates. Moonlight set their eyes aflame.
“Something’s spooking them,” James said. “Watch out they might throw you.”
“You’re talking to a Lakota, my brother.”
James nodded and mounted his steed, struggling to control him. He checked the pistol in his holster. Maka was already riding across the yard ahead of him. The horizon was full of purple shadows and strange movement. They saw a shape on the ground.
It was one of their cows, dead, torn and gutted. Its corpse was mutilated. James looked around and saw the body of another cow, then another. “Dad!” he cried, panic setting in. They rode on, coming upon one last cow, its blood still flowing. The kill was fresh.
“Father!” Maka called.
Shots rang out, echoing across the plains. The brothers galloped off at top speed. They heard a scream. James’s heart slammed against his chest. Adrenaline surged through him. His arms and legs tensed. And he knew. James knew the next body they would find would be…
“Dad!” James screamed. He spotted his father struggling to move on the ground. Something bent over him. Long black hair flowed in the wind. A gaunt, pale body straightened. The thing howled.
“Son of a bitch!” James drew his pistol and fired. Maka followed suit, taking aim with his rifle, but it was too late. The creature leapt from the body and darted up the hillside, vanishing into the distance.
James dismounted and rushed to his father’s side, taking his hand. “Dad, no…no…”
“I’m sorry, Jimmy. I looked at its evil face. It tricked me. I couldn’t run from it this time. It went for the animals to lure me out here. It knew I would come. It …knew.”
Maka joined his brother and father on the ground, taking his other hand. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
“My boys,” John said, his entire body twitching. He gasped for air. “I am proud of you both. Take care of the home. It’s yours now.”
“Please, Dad.” James lowered his head onto his father’s chest. “Don’t leave us. We can’t lose you now. We need you.”
John smiled. He reached a jittery hand to his son James and touched his cheek. “You don’t need me. You are men now. You are ready.” He sighed his last breath and went still.
James wept louder than he ever had before. He let go of his father’s hand and stood up. He looked up at the moon and its orange glow. “I’m going to kill that thing.” James cocked his pistol and started for his horse.
“No.” Maka ran to him. “Not now.”
“When, Maka, when? When it kills you? Me? It’s time for it to die. Are you going to help me or not?”
Maka nodded. “We will kill it together. First, we need help.”
“No one will help us. No one will even believe us.”
“My people will, and we need their help. This is a creature from long ago, from the legends of my people. We need their spiritual guidance. Yes, we will find and kill it, but we cannot do it alone.”
“We go tomorrow, or I go alone. Those are the choices.”
Maka nodded. “Let us bury our father.”
James cried again and Maka put his arm around him as they turned to lift their fallen father.
— ♦♦♦ —
In the morning sun, two brothers rode toward the Black Hills. James and Maka rode for hours over and through the hills until they reached the lands of Maka’s people.
Teepees rose proud against the horizon, smoke trickling from their tops. Dogs barked at the brothers’ approach. The smell of cooked meat hung in the air. Women and warriors turned to welcome Maka.
Small fires crackled, fish dried, tools chopped vegetables, and children played in groups. Old women laughed, drums thumped, horses whinnied.
Red Sky, Chief of the Lakota, rose from his teepee. Some of the oldest tribal members flanked him. Red Sky put up his hand as James and Maka rode up to him. “Welcome, brothers. I know what brings you. Two Face has returned.”
Maka nodded and dismounted. “Yes, Grandfather, it has killed our father.” Maka had called Chief Red Sky Grandfather ever since he could speak. He knew he wasn’t his real grandfather, but it made his heart feel good to call him by that name. Red Sky liked it too, having no grandchildren of his own. He was happy to call Maka his grandson.
“An honorable and noble man has joined the Great Spirit,” Red Sky said.
“We need your help, Grandfather,” Maka said as James joined his side.
“You are not ready.”
“Please,” James said, a desperate tone in his voice. “This creature must pay a price.”
Red Sky looked at them both, up and down, then glanced at the old men beside him. “You must become warriors and seek the help of the white buffalo. Only then will he give you his guidance. Both of you must begin your vision quest.”
“I understand.” Maka nodded.
James put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Are you sure about this? What does he mean?”
Maka turned to him and smiled. “Don’t worry, my brother. We will take this journey together.”
— ♦♦♦ —
As the moon rose full over the Black Hills, James and Maka joined the tribe’s medicine men inside the Lakota ceremonial lodge. The hot air inside was filled with thick smoke. A sweet and pungent odor wafted in the air.
James and his brother were stripped to loincloths, and already they’d begun to sweat. Their bare chests were painted red in the tribe’s sacred symbols of the sun, the moon, the hills, and the Great Spirit.
One of the medicine men stepped up to James and Maka. He looked into the brothers’ eyes and handed Maka a smoldering pipe.
Maka inhaled the perfumed smoke and let it fill his senses. James took it and did the same. His head felt fuzzy, the sound around him vibrated. Drums began beating softly. A flute trilled in the distance.
The brothers sat crossed-legged on the floor and Maka took James’s hand. The medicine man placed a knife in Maka’s other hand. Maka showed James the blade and nodded. James did not pull away, even as Maka drew the blade across the palm of his hand, drawing blood. Maka did the same to his own hand. He took his bloody palm and pressed it into James’s.
“We are blood brothers now,” Maka said. “Nothing can come between us. We will never let the other fall in battle.”
“I swear,” James said. “You can always count on me.” He looked up and saw the two medicine men standing together, their palms up. He saw the scars on their hands, just like the ones he and Maka would have. Beside them, he saw someone else standing. The white, misty form of a man took shape.
“Dad?” James reached out for him, but the form melted into the smoke. “We will avenge you.”
James felt sights and sounds filling his head. He still felt Maka’s hand as the room spun. His eyes closed, and when he reopened them—
He and Maka stood in a grassy field full of yellow flowers. A crystal blue river flowed alongside them. James noticed his hair was long, flowing down to his chest, and braided with feathers. He discovered a tomahawk in his hand. Maka had one in his hand, too.
They stepped over the river together, walking through the field. The field suddenly burst into flames, black smoke billowed into a gray sky, and the flowers turned black and wilted, eaten by the fire. The fire surrounded the brothers.
The fire roared, growing higher, thicker, and from inside the flames, creatures appeared, jumping out of the fire and attacking the brothers. Mutated, deformed faces leered at them, sharp, tusk-like teeth gnashed, drool fell from black lips, and eyes flared with the color of fire as the monsters lunged.
James and his brother launched into action, wielding their tomahawks with fury, slashing and swinging hard. Blades chopped, severing limbs, crushing skulls, and hacking chests. Black blood spurted, raining over the men, covering their flesh, matting their hair.
The fire vanished as quickly as it came. The skies turned dark and thunder rumbled. James saw a form in the distance, a great animal storming toward them.
James turned to Maka, who was yelling something at him, but James couldn’t understand him. Maka’s mouth moved but no sound came out. He pointed frantically, and James followed his finger and saw it…the white buffalo.
Flowing white hair danced around the beast, white horns curled proud around its head, and white hooves thundered on the ground as fire spat from its every step. It raced toward them. James braced himself, he wasn’t sure what to do. Maka danced beside him, a tribal celebration, a spiritual ecstasy, a joyous reverence.
The buffalo was right upon them, gigantic, bigger than anything in the living world. Maka dropped to his knees and raised his arms to the sky. James looked at him in disbelief, frightened and puzzled.
The white buffalo roared and lunged into the air. A great black shadow fell upon the brothers, snuffing out the sky, swallowing the clouds, and darkening the field.
“Take in my spirit.” James heard a booming voice. “Trust your brother. You are of two worlds. Only you can defeat the scourge.”
James screamed, and his eyes opened… He found himself suspended in midair by ropes entwined to horns slivered through his bare chest. Blood streamed over his chest and belly. James looked down at himself and the spinning floor. He screamed again.
He heard laughter and turned to see Maka staring at him. “It’s all right, my brother.” Maka said to him. “I was there with you. The White Buffalo came to us… and we are ready.”
The ropes released. James dropped to the ground. His chest felt like it was on fire. Maka fell beside him, they locked hands, and Maka whispered to him: “Blood brothers.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Chief Red Sky stood before the two brothers. They’d been washed and wrapped in soft blankets.
“I thank all of Lakota,” Maka said.
Red Sky nodded. He placed his hands on both of their heads. “You are of two worlds, both of you.” His words were familiar to James, as if he’d heard them in a dream. “That’s why only you can defeat this scourge. Trust in your brother.”
Maka smiled and James couldn’t help but smile back. Out beyond the village, he saw his father watching from the thick of the trees. In the blink of an eye he was gone.
“The Great Spirit visited us,” Maka said.
James looked over to him. “Yes, he did.”
“You are ready now,” Red Sky said, lifting his hands from their heads and raising them to the sky. “Two Face is waiting for you.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The brothers rode on their horses by day, crossing the plains and heading deep into the Black Hills. A vulture circled above them. Maka hadn’t spoken all day.
“Maka, I know you’re angry. I am too.”
“It has taken everything from us. Everything.”
“It has. And we will find it and kill it. It will not escape us.”
“But it does. Every time.”
“Its time is coming. We must not turn on each other. Not now.”
“I’m not turning on you, my brother. We are blood. I only feel the anger of my failure.”
“Time, Maka, time. It cannot hide from us. Not any more. It has made one mistake.”
“It made it personal. It should have stuck to the weak and the old.”
Another day and night of tracking and traveling more false leads, dead ends and animal carcasses. It was still out there. They just didn’t know where. James watched Maka sniff the air again.
“Maybe we should head for the Rocky Mountains,” James called to his brother. “It’s had time to leave the Black Hills. It knows we’re looking for it. It might head far away.”
“It’s still here.”
“How can you know that?”
“I know. There are signs everywhere. We just have to look.”
Maka said nothing more as he led James higher into the hills. They climbed the ridge of one of the tallest peaks and entered a sea of grass.
A shriek echoed above. Both of them looked to the sky and watched the vulture that followed them circle again and again. An eagle swooped down on the vulture and attacked it. Razor talons ripped into the vulture, sending it down. The eagle swooped across the sky. James couldn’t take his eyes off it.
The eagle dove down to land, skimming the grass. It soared over James and Maka’s heads and perched atop the entrance to a small cave.
“It’s a sign,” Maka said.
James looked over and saw the small opening nearly hidden in the hillside. He felt sick to his stomach. His heart pounded in his chest, and his palms dampened. He knew that was where Two Face was.
“We need to go inside, don’t we?” James asked.
Maka nodded and they started for the cave. The brothers dismounted and tied the horses to a tree. They walked slowly to the cave opening. The eagle pecked at the rocks at the top of the threshold, then took flight.
Maka made a small fire and fashioned a torch. He moved close to the opening. James stuck right to his side. He readied his rifle and glanced at his father’s Bowie knife tucked into his belt. For you, Dad.
A rank smell hit James as they entered the cave. He fought the urge to vomit. He saw Maka grip his tomahawk.
The cave led to a tunnel that burrowed deeper into the ground. The sound of water dripping echoed in the distance. They descended further and found themselves in a subterranean chamber. A pond rippled in the center of it.
James walked carefully toward the pond, his boot crunching on something. He looked down and saw a small ribcage. He guessed it might have belonged to a child. There were scores of other bones and hollow skulls littering the chamber. His mind reeled. Rage bubbled inside of him. He had bolted toward the water when a scurrying sound stopped him. He looked up at the ceiling.
Maka’s torch illuminated the rocky ceiling above them, but James saw nothing. He turned back to the black water of the pond and caught a pale reflection in it. The light danced across the pond’s surface. James watched a human form shimmer. He blinked, clearing his eyes. Dad? It looked just like his father.
James stepped closer, and the reflection vanished.
Maka now stood beside him. James looked up, past Maka, and in the tunnel doorway he saw his father standing and staring. He rushed toward him, pushing his way past his brother.
“What are you doing?” Maka called after him.
“Dad?” The apparition vanished. James froze. A rush of cold air shot through him. He turned around and saw the creature rising out of the pond behind Maka. Long, wet black hair hid both of its faces, a crooked, gaunt body stretched in slow motion, pale flesh glistened in the torchlight. The sharp bones like swords slid from its arms.
“Maka! Behind you!” James ran at full speed, but his feet felt as if they were dragging through mud.
The Two Face slashed its bony appendage and ripped through Maka’s leg. The warrior went down and let out a howl.
James aimed and fired his rifle, once, twice, three times. The blasts caught the beast in the chest, and it went down in the water. The water sloshed, and waves rushed across it. Two Face shot out of the pond and up to the ceiling. It scurried across it and slipped into the shadows.
The torch had fallen to the ground beside Maka. James rushed to his side, yanking the torch up and shining its light above them. “Stay down,” he said to Maka.
“I am all right. Find the demon.”
James’s eyes scanned the ceiling, but he saw nothing.
Maka gained his footing with James’s help. Skittering feet resounded in the chamber. Both brothers looked up, and the creature fell out of the dark.
It crashed into both of them, sending them down. James rolled to his knees, his rifle still in his hands, but Two Face was on him. A bone speared James’ right arm and he screamed. Seething pain burned through him and he dropped his gun. The creature grabbed him by the throat.
Maka crashed into the beast, and both slammed to the ground, rolling over a prone James. Grunts and roars echoed. James crawled on his knees, searching for his gun in the dark until he gave up. He pulled out his father’s Bowie knife. He spotted Maka struggling with Two Face and rushed into the fray.
The Bowie knife slashed up then down the creature’s back with lightening quick moves. The thing yelped and turned on James. Clawed hand met face and James soared across the cave, slamming down on the edge of the pond.
Two Face hurled itself at James again. The two slashed, knife against bone. James lunged, but the creature dodged and then kicked James in the gut. He went down again, splashing into the pond.
James gasped for air as he swallowed water. He felt it slither into his lungs, choking him. Two Face stood over him, driving his razor-sharp bone into James’ ribs. He felt the thing scrape the inside of him, and horrifying agony ravaged him. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t get any air. The abomination straddled him, parting its long black hair. Its head shifted on its shoulders, it twisted its body, and its grotesque evil face leered at James.
The sight of the face stopped James cold. He was unable to resist looking at something so foul, so hideous, so insane. He was drawn to its chaos, its madness, its unreality, and he was helpless. James tried to move but could not. He sweated with fear as his heart pounded in his chest. Two Face lifted his bone weapons above the paralyzed James.
James caught a glimpse of something soaring past. The creature howled in deep agony. It arched backward. James saw the tomahawk protruding from its back.
Maka limped out of the shadows. He lunged for the creature and pushed a knife into its guts. The monster roared again, falling to its knees. Maka towered over it, ripping the tomahawk from the thing’s back and lifting it high. He scalped Two Face, taking its long black hair and finishing it for good. The lifeless body twitched momentarily, then crumpled to the ground.
Maka caught his breath, finally letting the air out, and turned to James. He pulled his brother from the pond and thumped his back.
James coughed, gagged, and threw up filthy water. Air came rushing back in. His lungs filled, but he wheezed. Maka held him in his arms. “You looked at its face.”
“I know,” James croaked.
“How many times have you told me?”
James nodded with a smile, then winced suddenly. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“You should have known better. You could have been dead.”
“I knew I could count on my blood brother.”
Maka smiled back and took James’s hand.
— ♦♦♦ —
Chief Red Sky took them in and brought them directly to the tribe’s medicine men. They dressed their wounds and nursed them. The brothers lay side-by-side in the medicine teepee.
“He was there, you know, our father,” James said to Maka, who stared knowingly.
“I know. I saw him too.”
“You never said anything.”
“You never asked. He will always be with us, by our sides in our future battles.”
“Future battles?” James winced.
— ♦♦♦ —
Detective Alan Wescott’s methods for solving a murder case might have been a little unorthodox, but no one could argue with the surprising result. When the body of a stranger at a bus depot is discovered, it seems like the murder might end up in the cold-case file. That is until Wescott grabs hold and doesn’t let go.