At the foot of Black Mountain, eighty klicks north of the only place on the map, the land was a patchwork of pastures and fields. On a heat-singed day with barely a breeze, a lizard skittered into the undergrowth as a boy on a bike careened down a hillside. Junior Heffernen peddled as fast as his legs could manage, skidding and bucking, taking every shortcut he knew. He lurched to a stop outside a homestead barn where his father’s beat-up truck was parked.
The boy dropped his bike, shook off his bookbag, and ran toward the barn shouting.
“Papa! I seen a real-life mountain demon! Killed a yearling! In the pasture!”
Tom, Junior’s eldest brother, emerged from the barn. He pulled his baseball cap down to shield his eyes and squinted in the fading afternoon light.
“Get ahold of yourself!” Tom said, catching Junior by the shoulders.
Mason, the middle brother, followed from the barn in dirty jeans and a pit-stained white shirt.
“A mountain demon? Nah, you’re seeing things,” Mason said, rubbing grease off of his fingers one by one with a rag.
“Mason’s right,” said Tom. “Ain’t nobody seen one of those things, especially during the day.”
“A cougar, maybe?” Mason added.
“Shoot,” Tom laughed. “Probably just an owl in a knothole.”
“No, it’s like they say,” Junior said, “solid as a rock. Like a … like a statue.”
“How far back?”
“Half mile or so.”
Tom thought for a moment.
“Aw, hell. Get the gun,” he said. “If a yearling’s been killed, we need have a look and make sure the rest of the herd’s OK. Besides, a cougar pelt’ll get me some beer money at the Fall Fair.”
“I don’t know,” Mason said, shaking his head. “Papa’ll be mad if we don’t get the tractor running by tonight.”
“Then stay and keep wrenching,” Tom chirped as he walked to the truck.
The door squawked and the whole thing rocked when he got in. He reached across the bench seat to pop open the passenger door. Junior returned from the barn with a scoped thirty-aught-six rifle.
“Come on, Junior. Let’s go get a look at your mountain demon,” Tom said.
Junior clambered into the truck gripping the gun nervously.
“Aren’t we going to get Papa?” he asked.
“Nope. Papa’s busy and I ain’t gonna bother him until I get an eye on this thing myself.”
“We should leave it,” Mason said.
“Suit yourself,” Tom said and started the truck.
Mason balled his fists and dragged his feet. He got in and pushed Junior to the middle. The truck’s back tires spun and bounced through the crusty ruts of long-gone mud. The truck jostled and broken boards, bailing wire, and clumps of hay slid around its gouged and rusted bed.
They followed the road up the foot of the mountain around a little knoll that opened into a meadow with a gnarled apricot tree in the middle. On the horizon, grazing cows swished their tails and flicked their ears.
Tom eased off the gas and let the truck coast. Gravel crunched beneath the tires. Suddenly, he jammed the brakes. The truck slid to halt. His head snapped back and forth like a bird’s.
“The hell is that?” he exclaimed.
“I told you!” Junior said.
Tom turned off the engine. Its fan-belt screeched and the V8 bass were replaced by chirping birds, grass swishing in the wind and a belly-low moo from one of the far-away cows.
“Gimme the rifle,” Tom said, but Mason fought him for it. “Go on, give it!”
Tom yanked the gun away from his brother. He poked its barrel through the window, put the butt into his shoulder, and pressed his eye to the scope. The zoomed-in image made him jerk his head back.
“By golly, it is a mountain demon!”
He pulled the rifle bolt and snapped a round into the chamber. He steadied himself, and started to squeeze the trigger. Mason yelled for him to stop, but the warning was lost in the clap of the shot that rang out and rolled along the fields into the hills.
The birds scattered.
The cows stirred.
Tom kept still; his eye to the scope. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered.
“I told you! It’s rock hard like they say in the stories,” Junior shouted.
Tom got out and commanded his brothers to do the same. Together they stood at the edge of the meadow. Junior hid behind Tom.
“Ah, don’t be a chicken,” Tom said, grabbing Junior’s arm and pulling him in line with Mason. “The thing can’t hurt you.” He looked at the sky, which was starting to bleed orange. “At least not until the sun’s all the way down. Let’s get a closer look.”
Tom slung the rifle over his shoulder and led his brothers through the knee-high meadow grass. When they got close, the buzzing of swarming flies overpowered every other sound.
The monster was like a marble carving. It had broad feet and powerful legs. Its torso was lean and veined, and its arms were long and muscled. There was a vague human form to it, if not for a thick tapered tail and bat’s wings tucked neatly on its back. It was crouched over a dead calf. Thin ribs stuck out of the carcass like pink fingers and its mangled guts looked like pulped snakes.
“Looks like sunrise interrupted his dinner,” said Tom.
He rubbed his thumb between the monster’s reptile eyes where the bullet had struck. A faint scuff rubbed away from the smooth surface without a trace.
Tom spat in the grass and reached into his back pocket for a cigarette. He lit his smoke and took a drag. “Brothers get yourself a good look at this here son of a bitch. He’s tormented our herd for generations and taken a lot of food off our table.” He sucked the cigarette.
“So what are we gonna do?” Junior asked.
Tom exhaled a blue-white cloud of smoke and butted the cigarette out on the monster’s head.
“We’re gonna kill it.”
“You can’t,” Mason said, wiping sweat from his brow.
“Hell I can’t.”
Mason grabbed Tom’s sleeve. “We got to talk to Papa first.”
Tom wrenched his sleeve away. “Mason, quit it! We only got a few minutes before the sun goes down and this thing comes back to life. There’s no time to fuss with Papa.” He turned to Junior and ordered him to get a sledgehammer from the truck.
Junior hesitated, looking back and forth between his brothers.
“Now!” Tom shouted and Junior ran off.
Tom gave the rifle to Mason and watched Junior rummage around the truck bed. Eventually, Junior jumped down with a heavy thud and carry-dragged the sledgehammer back to the statue.
“Don’t do it,” Mason said.
“Zip it,” Tom barked. He spat in his palms and rubbed them together slowly before taking the sledgehammer. His back and shoulders tensed as he lifted it high over his head. “Adiós, amigo,” he said.
With this, Tom brought the sledgehammer down on the back of the monster’s neck with the force of someone who’d pounded thousands of fence posts and chopped a forest of firewood.
The steel hammer head bounced off the stone in a flicker of sparks.
“Stop!” Mason shouted, pointing the rifle at Tom. “I seen it before.”
Mason’s voice trembled. “Remember when we lost them hens last month?”
“Yeah, a fox did it. You said yourself.”
“It wasn’t no fox. It was that thing.”
The brothers stood silent.
“In the hen house, it had me cornered or I had it cornered, I don’t know,” Mason stuttered. “There was a shovel leaned up on the wall. I grabbed it without thinking, gave that thing a helluva wallop. I could tell that hurt it, it cried out, and I tried for another hit. I mean, what else was I supposed to do? But, before I got it again, the shovel was yanked out of my hand with a God-awful force.”
“Nah,” Tom twisted his mouth.
“Yeah, it spoke clear as you and I are now.”
“Hell, what’d it say?”
“It said, ‘Leave my youngin’ be.’ Then it broke the shovel handle in two and flew off with the little one.”
“Why didn’t you tell anybody?” Tom asked.
“I did. I told Papa.” Mason replied.
“He said to forget what I saw and stay clear of them.”
The cows were settling back in after being startled by the gun shots. One mooed plaintively.
“Well fiddle-dee-dee,” Tom finally said. “I mean here it is ripe for the picking. And I promise on high, it’d be a pile of rubble if I had my way.”
“But we’re not gonna do it your way,” Mason said. “We’re gonna leave it be, go home, and finish up with the tractor like Papa asked.”
“Wait,” Junior interrupted. “You said the big one—the momma—was smart?”
“Yeah, it could speak.”
“So why don’t we make the big one know we showed mercy on its baby? You know, while it was stone, when we coulda hurt it.”
Tom scoffed. “How do you figure we do that?”
“Your hat, Tom. We’ll put it on its head so when it comes back to life tonight, it’ll know we were close enough to touch it, close enough to kill it, but we didn’t.”
Tom held the bill of his hat. “But I like this hat.”
“Junior’s right, that could be a good thing,” Mason said. “Give it over.”
“Just do it so we can get the heck outta here.” Mason snatched the hat and stepped over the calf carcass to put it on the monster’s head. They stood for a moment staring at the strange sight until Tom broke the silence.
“It’s going to get dark soon. We’d best get going.”
“Wait, I got another idea,” Junior said. He found a stick and started carving into the dirt, revealing the moist soil underneath. “You know how Mama always says if something scares you, give it a name and it won’t seem so scary.”
“Yeah, that’s why she named every mouse in our house Mickey,” Mason said.
Junior continued scratching until the words YOU ARE BRUTUS were deep and dark on the ground before the statue.
Tom tilted his head to read the words. “Brutus?”
Junior nodded and said, “Yeah. Baby Brutus.”
As the sunlight dimmed, the ground under the boys’ feet start to tremble. “You feel that?” Tom said.
“I think Brutus is fixing to wake up,” Mason said. As if to confirm, Brutus began to shake.
“Let’s go!” Mason slung the rifle over his shoulder and dashed towards the truck, the others sprinting behind him.
Tom got in the driver’s seat. Junior scrambled to the passenger side. Mason hopped in the bed and braced his back against the rear window as Tom fired up the engine. Clods of earth kicked up from the rear tires.
As Brutus faded away in the distance, Mason lifted the rifle and put his eye to the scope. He watched fissures form in Brutus’s stone shell and a soft red glow bleed through the cracks. Suddenly, Mason pulled the rifle away, closed his eyes and banged his fist on the back window.
“What?” Tom yelled.
“Step on it,” Mason replied. “We need to get back to the house fast.”
“Brutus,” Mason said. “His head just fell off.”