Home > Blood Moon (Kate Burkholder #13.5)

Blood Moon (Kate Burkholder #13.5)
Author: Linda Castillo

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Merle Beachy was late. The Strawberry Festival ended at 9:00 P.M., but he’d stayed to help Deacon Yoder load pallets into his wagon. By the time they finished it was after ten and he still had an hour’s drive. Now, not only was Merle going to get an earful from his wife, but he’d likely miss out on a hot dinner and that piece of pie he’d been pining for all afternoon.

Thinking about pie, he jiggled the leather lines against the gelding’s rump and clucked, sending the horse into a long trot. “Kumma druff!” Come on now.

Merle didn’t like being on the highway this time of night; there were too many cars and the Englishers were always in a hurry. Tonight, he’d opted for the back roads. It would add a few miles to his drive, but at least he wouldn’t have to worry about getting run over.

The one thing he hadn’t counted on was the fog. It had rolled in about an hour ago and settled in thick as peanut butter. Visibility was down to less than a quarter mile and getting worse by the minute. Merle was glad he’d installed the battery-powered headlights last month. Not that they helped much, but at least an approaching driver would see him and have time to slow down.

The gelding’s steel shoes clicked sharply against the oak span as the buggy entered the old covered bridge. Chilled by the damp, Merle reached into the back seat for the afghan and draped it over his legs. As the buggy exited the bridge, the trees closed over the narrow road like giant, arthritic fingers, creating a tunnel-like ambiance. Overhead, a blood moon gave the fog an eerie reddish glow.

He was thinking about that piece of pie when he heard something crash through the undergrowth to his left. He caught a glimpse of movement and then the horse bolted.

“Whoa!” Merle tugged on the lines.

The gelding lunged into a gallop, head high, steel shoes sliding on asphalt.

“Whoa! Easy, boy!”

The horse left the road and plunged into the ditch, out of control and moving fast. The buggy bounced over the rough terrain, headlights playing wildly over the fog and trees. The gelding charged up the opposite side of the ditch, mud sucking at its hooves, barreling toward the trees, not enough room for the buggy to squeeze through …

“Whoa! Whoa!”

The right front panel of the buggy slammed into a tree trunk. Wood crunched. The momentum of the impact threw Merle across the seat. His shoulder struck the panel, spinning him, and he was flung out the door.

He hit the ground hard, rolled, and came to rest against a sapling. He lay still for a second, taking physical inventory. He was aware of wet grass against his cheek. Mud soaking into his trousers where his hip was against the ground. Nothing broken, but he was definitely going to have a bruise or two.

Groaning, Merle sat up and looked around. A few yards away, the horse had stopped. The old boy was unhurt, nibbling at the tall grass. A single headlight still burned, illuminating billowing fog in an ocean of trees. Hopefully, the buggy wasn’t damaged and he could be on his way.

Using a sapling for support, Merle struggled to his feet. He stood, brushing twigs and leaves from his trousers, and looked around. Fog hovered among the trees. There was no movement or sound. No indication that anything was there. His buggy horse, Biscuit, was experienced and calm. What in the world had frightened him?

The crunch of something moving through the brush sounded scant feet away. Startled, Merle swung around, saw a bush quiver. He stared, listening, the hairs at his nape standing on end.

“Hello?” he called out, his voice sounding strange in the hushed silence of the woods. “Who’s there?”

An instant later, the silhouette of a large animal burst from the undergrowth. It was dark in color, low to the ground, and coming straight for him. Merle stumbled back, arms flailing. Adrenaline stabbed his gut.

“What the—”

A sound that was part growl, part scream rent the air.

Merle didn’t need to hear more. He pivoted, launched himself into a run for the buggy. Arms outstretched. He’d only taken two strides when his boot caught an exposed tree root. He went down. Even as he fell, he heard the beast behind him. Feet pounding. Twigs snapping. Snarling with each breath.

What in the name of God?

Merle scrabbled, breaths hissing. He got a leg under him and was nearly to his feet when something sharp tore into his right calf. He cried out at the shock of pain. He felt teeth clamp down on his ankle, and the thing shook him with so much force that his foot was yanked out from beneath him and he was hurled to the ground.

“Greeya vekk!” he screamed. Get away!

The creature kept coming. Merle twisted, caught sight of a massive black head and glowing yellow eyes. Jutting teeth the size of knives, the kind that could gut a man in seconds. Drawing up his left foot, he kicked the beast hard. Once. Twice.

“Get away! Go!”

The animal released him and backed off.

Panicked gasps tearing from his throat, Merle scrambled to his feet and stumbled headlong into a run. No time to look back. Too dark to see.

Da deivel, he thought. The devil.

And he ran for his life.

 

* * *

 

I’m in that hazy place between wakefulness and sleep when my cell phone rattles against the night table. I reach for the phone, see DISPATCH on the display, telling me it’s Margaret, my graveyard shift dispatcher.

“Burkholder.” Despite my efforts, I don’t quite succeed in sounding fully awake.

“Sorry to wake you, Chief, but I just took a call from Levi Miller out on Dog Leg Road. He says a man in a buggy showed up at his farm a few minutes ago, bleeding and scared. The man claims he was mauled by an animal.”

I sit up, set my feet on the floor. I’ve known Levi Miller since I was a kid. He’s Amish. A solid citizen who leads a quiet life. He wouldn’t be calling the police if it wasn’t serious.

“What kind of animal?” I ask.

“Well, that’s the thing. The victim wasn’t sure, but thought it might be a bear.”

“A bear? How badly is he injured?”

“Miller said the guy’s got a gash on his leg that’s going to need stitches.”

Rising, I go to the closet, aware that my significant other, John Tomasetti, has overheard the exchange and is doing the same. “Who’s on duty tonight?” I ask.

“Skid,” she replies, referring to Officer Chuck “Skid” Skidmore. “He’s ten-seventy-six”—which is the ten code for “en route” to the scene—“but Mr. Miller asked for you.”

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