Thomas Kleaton

The May Editor's Pick Writer is Thomas Kleaton

Feel free to email Thomas at: thomaskleaton@centurytel.net

thomas kleaton

by Thomas Kleaton

Black Vultures circled lazily overhead, riding the currents, unaware of the malady spreading through their clammy guts. They looked contented there, drifting below the cumulus clouds of their domain.

“Something’s dead here, you can bet on it,” John set his beer in the Jeep’s console. “Gimme that .22.”

Roy obliged, retrieving an old bolt-action rifle from the back seat. They were deer hunting on John’s uncle’s hundred acres of prime timberland with Osnippa creek meandering through its center. John chambered a round. He opened the door, cold November wind whipping around them as he pointed the barrel skyward and squeezed off a shot. A vulture plunged toward the ground.

“Got im,” John slapped his knee.

John was like an older brother, but this was one trait of his that always got under Roy’s skin. You can’t stand it, can you? If you can’t shoot a deer, then you have to shoot something. A bobcat. Or a possum. Or, in this case, a vulture.

He scowled at John, wishing half-heartedly that he’d stayed home. John, snickering,dropped the Jeep down into first gear and started rolling. They jostled along the creek bank, sweet gum saplings scratching at the Jeep’s sides as they went.


John parked the Jeep in the midst of a small grove of pine trees. Water burbled over rocks in the creek. They walked deeper along the deer trail into the woods. The odor of rotting flesh greeted them as they stepped under a gigantic black walnut tree and came upon the carcass of a doe, bloated and gaseous with decay. Two vultures huddled on the far side of it, digging their beaks into its stomach. Fresh venison, thought Roy. Lunch, anyone?

“Now that’s just disgusting,” John pulled the bolt back, ejecting a spent shell. Brass gleamed as he chambered another .22 long cartridge. A shadow flickered at the edge of his vision  and he hesitated. Roy’s eyes followed John’s to a twisted limb three feet above their heads. Six or seven vultures were perched there, black silhouettes against the darkening sky. John, startled, brought the barrel up. Two of the birds panicked and vomited on them. The sky was a flurry of flapping black wings.

“Aaugh,” said John, rubbing his burning eyes. “Ugh. That’s got to be the most disgusting thing I’ve ever smelled.”

Roy had his jacket off and was wiping his face with it. He sidled off and puked all over a cedar tree. His eyes were watering and the stench made it difficult to breathe. He wailed involuntarily and trotted toward the water. Half-blinded, tree branches scratching at his face, John tagged along. They waded down into the creek, cold water splashing over their faces. Roy looked up with stinging eyes at the first white stars beginning to materialize in the evening twilight. In the distance, an owl hooted, mournful. Shivering, they crawled back into the Jeep. John cranked the engine and turned the heater on full hot. Warm air blew around their ankles, dispelling the chill, and Roy grabbed two beers from the cooler. He cracked one and handed the other to John, who took a long gulp.

“Man, now that’s disgusting,” John rotated his head from left to right, sniffing at his jacket. “Logan isn’t going to let me back in the house for a week! I believe if I had to sleep with the dog tonight, I’d run him off.”

Something about John’s remark tickled Roy and he burst out in a high, braying laugh.


John closed the rickety gate to his uncle’s property and followed the dirt road back toward the highway. Bright headlights came up fast behind them.

“Roy, finish your beer. We’ve got company,” John peered into the rearview mirror.

“What is it?”

“Dunno. Looks like a pickup following us.”

“You think it’s a cop?”

“We’ll see,” John dropped it into second gear and accelerated. The windshield and grille of the pickup came alive with flashing blue and red lights.  John pulled onto the shoulder and killed the engine. Roy watched the side view mirror as a spotlight lit up the Jeep and a shadow climbed out of the pickup and started toward the driver’s side.

“Let me handle this,” John unzipped his window as the figure walked up. Brisk cold air poured over them. “Good evening, officer.”

“Evening. You boys  been doing a little hunting?” The officer played his Stinger flashlight beam over their camouflage jackets and over their rifles in the back seat. He looked to be in his early forties, standing about five-foot-ten, dressed almost informally in tan pants, chambray shirt and leather jacket. A game warden badge gleamed at the front of his gun belt.

“Yes, sir. We gave it up a couple of hours ago, though. Haven’t seen many deer.”

“Have you boys been drinking?” he shined the beam on Roy, whose ashen face suggested he might be on the verge of puking again. “I smell alcohol. And what’s that? Smells like you boys have been rolling in something dead.”

“Some vultures upchucked on us,” John grimaced. “We were walking through the woods and some vultures were roosting on a limb. I guess we scared them.”

“How many have you had to drink?” The game warden, eyed the Igloo cooler in the back seat. His blue eyes appraised them levelly.


Roy chimed in. “We just parked after we were through hunting and had a few beers, sir.”

The game warden took this in. “You boys got your hunting licenses? I need to see them one at a time, starting with you. I also need to see your driver’s license.” He pointed the flashlight at John. “And take them out slowly, please. Fast movements make me nervous.”

John obliged, removing his wallet while his other hand rested on the steering wheel. Roy studied a chilly moon through his window. John handed the two licenses to the game warden, who then shined his flashlight at Roy. “Now you.”

Roy eased his wallet out and passed his hunting license to the warden, who looked it over for a second and then spotlighted John again. “Step out of the vehicle please.” John glanced at Roy, foreboding etched into his features. He got out and stood in the red clay roadway, breathing the frigid air.

“Lean up against the vehicle, please. You don’t have any weapons in your jacket, do you?” The game warden patted him down, and then cuffed him.

“No, sir. Why am I being arrested?” John saw a DUI in his very near future.

“Did I say you were under arrest? I’m just detaining you for my own safety. Now lean against the back of the Jeep.” He bounced the flashlight beam off the side mirror. “Now you. Get out slowly and walk back here.”

Roy stepped down and sauntering to the rear, his hands splayed upwards. The game warden searched and cuffed him as well, standing before them in the pickup’s headlights as they leaned against the bumper, trembling.

Great. What is Logan going to say when I call her from jail? John frowned, nudging a rock with the toe of his boot.

“We’ve had some reports of people shooting at vultures in the last few weeks in this area,” said the warden. “It’s a federal offense. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“No, sir,” John stared at his feet. “Like Roy said, we gave up on hunting and drove down to the creek to drink a few cold ones.” The warden seemed to take this morsel of information and chew on it. He nodded his head up and down, a slight frown on his lips. “Well, I’m sorry, boys, but I’m going to have to take you in for questioning.”

The game warden set John in the front seat of his Chevy K-2500 HD. He removed a pair of Plasticuffs from the console and cinched John’s cuff chain to the seatbelt post. After easing Roy into the back seat, he performed the same procedure on him. 

“Answer me a question, sir,” Roy gawped at an AR15 locked in the ceiling rack above his head.

“If I can.”

“When you arrest someone, do you usually transport them in your pickup?”

“A game warden will take his prisoner out of the woods on an ATV or even by dog sled, if necessary. Heck, I could even stuff you in one of the cages in the truck bed if I wanted to. Like I said, I’m just taking you in for questioning.”

Roy watched the flashers reflect off the Jeep. He swallowed and felt a lump in his throat.


The pickup jolted as the front tire hit a rut in the road. “You boys from around here?” said the game warden.

“No, sir,” John said as he watched the roadside grasses come up in the pickup’s headlights.  “Millville. We only come down here to hunt on my Uncle Mike’s land.”

“Mike Umpton?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard of Mike Umpton. Caught a few poachers on his land. My name’s Bill Alton.”
John and Roy breathed a small sigh of relief.

“What about you?” The game warden eyeballed Roy in the mirror. “What’re you doing riding around with John on his uncle’s land?”

“John and I grew up together, sir. We’ve hunted together since we were kids.”

“You married?”

“No, sir, not yet.” He did have a girlfriend, Sabrina, whom he’d been going steady with for about six months.

“What about you, John, are you married?”

“Yes, sir. Three years now. My wife’s name is Logan.”

“Do you love your wife?”

John felt uneasy. “Well, yes sir, I suppose.”

“Me, too,” The game warden’s voice sounded sad, and both John and Roy sensed this. “Nothing like the married life. Don’t ever forget that, boys.” He reached into his center console and retrieved a bottle in the darkness. He twisted the cap off and took a long swallow. The scent of Wild Turkey bourbon permeated the cab.

Roy’s heart rate escalated. “Sir, are you drinking?

“Don’t usually drink. I was saving it for tomorrow. I take a little nip once in awhile. Especially when I’m celebrating.”

“Uh, what are you celebrating?”

“Our anniversary. Tomorrow makes twenty-two years me and the little woman have been together.” He took another long hit from the bottle. “Twenty-two years, boys.”

Roy peeked at John, silent. Bill came to the end of the dirt road, drove about half a mile on the asphalt, and then turned onto another dirt road. Roy felt his stomach cramping. Oh, no, not here. I won’t throw up in the back seat. Not here.

“Just imagine, John,” said the game warden. “How would you take it if something happened to your wife? Say, she died of a sudden brain aneurysm or was killed in a freak car accident? Or you, Roy, how would you feel if you found out your parents died suddenly in a plane crash?”

Roy was getting the creeps. “I don’t think I’d like it very much at all, sir.”

John mused about it. He couldn’t imagine his life without Logan. He’d plunged into her deep blue eyes and never quite managed to crawl back out.

“Now turn the tables.” said the game warden. “How do you think your wife would like it if you never came home, John? Think about it.”

The dirt road climbed steeply upward.

John fidgeted. He glanced back at Roy, who was leaning forward, watching the game warden’s movements in the dull green light from the dash display.

The game warden parked the pickup at the edge of a ravine and killed the engine. The keys tinkled to the carpet below. He lowered his window and lit a cigarette. Frosty wind enveloped them, and he took another lengthy pull on the bourbon.

John’s knees shook slightly with the cold, his stomach in knots. Moonlight poured over the pine trees. What’s he going to do to us?

“It’s a really bad idea to lie to a game warden,” the game warden said. “Or any police officer, for that matter.” He slurred slightly. A coyote barked nearby, and he removed his service pistol from its holster and set it on the seat beside him. “Why did you lie to me, John?”

Paranoia settled on John, smothering him. He’s insane. He’s going to march us right over to that cliff, shoot us in the head and over the edge we’ll go. His breath came in sharp rasps. Roy gaped at the game warden, saying nothing.

“Ever heard of e-coli?” the game warden’s features contorted  in pain. “There’s a new breed of it out there, boys. It got started with vultures eating the intestines of dead cattle. Grain-fed cattle. Bacteria already resistant to antibiotics. It mutated in the vultures’ stomachs. Immune to their stomach acid. Spread to their hides.”

He took another swig, emptying the bottle. He pitched it to the floorboard. “Carry it in their mouths, worse’n a Gila monster. Stays on the carcass for awhile. Other vultures eatin’ on the carcass get the bacteria in their system. Or crows. Or possums.”

He took a drag on the cigarette, a red eye in the darkness.

“Vultures spread it to cows by ganging up on a newborn calf and nipping its nose. I’ve seen ’em attack cows like that. When the newborn gets its milk, the stuff is passed onto the cow. Grows on their hides, too. Gets in the meat. And the milk. Genuine global threat right here in this little backwards hole in the wall town. Damn!”

He paused. Cigarette smoke drifted with the breeze.

“Hasn’t spread yet. Doesn’t hurt the animals, only humans. All the vultures trapped in this area by CDC teams have tested one-hundred-percent positive. There’s a contingency plan. Coordinated effort between the CDC and Game and Fish. They’ll have this whole place locked down within the next twelve hours. I was trackin’ vulture activity when I spotted you two. I stood right there and watched you gun down that vulture in my binoculars, John.”

John was silenced by this new insight. A cold understanding crept into his awareness. “So when those vultures vomited on us…”

“You were infected. The bacteria is quick. You feel stomach pain. Thirty-two hours later, you’re dead. Kidney failure. This stuff makes 0157:H7 look like the sniffles. How’s yourstomach, Roy?”

Kind of upset Mister Game Warden, like the feeling you get when you pull your ripcord and look up just in time to realize your main parachute didn’t deploy.

John trembled. “Is anyone working on a treatment yet?”

“No known treatment. If I take you in, they’ll quarantine all of us. Special CDC accommodations. I’m sorry, boys, but we’d be dead and cremated before Monday rolls around.”

John settled back in his seat. “Then why did you pick us up knowing we could infect you?”

“Already infected,” he slurred. “Walked up on a cow yesterday backside of the Fullman property. Stupidest thing. Saw vultures eating on it. Tried shooing ’em away. CDC teams come in, shoot ’em with tranquilizer guns, quarantine them until they know more about this stuff. Vultures are protected, you know. Kicked the cow’s hoof when I went to call in my position. A fat possum lit out of that cow’s insides and bit me. Only got a few hours left.”

Roy’s thoughts roamed toward Sabrina again, her pretty blond hair, her tinkling laugh. He thought about how ravishing she looked out at the lake last summer, sitting there in her shorts and halter top as he floated in the water, the smooth blue water lapping at the dock, reflecting the rays of late afternoon sun. And hamburgers, the smell of grilled hamburgers their constant companion…

“What’re you going to do now, officer?” said John.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Aren’t you going to take us in? Report to the CDC? I have to see my wife again. Can’t you understand that?”

“Can’t do that,” said the game warden. “CDC regulations. It’d start a panic. They’re keeping it under wraps for now. They’ll inform your wife, you know, after.”

John banged against the seat back, defeated. A film unreeled in his mind, slowly. A hesitant knocking. Logan opening the door, still in her nightgown, staggering backwards as two police officers, maybe even the Men in Black, delivered the news. He saw all too clearly her beautiful blue eyes fill with tears, the funeral, the long, dragging months, maybe years of chronic depression that lay ahead.

“Hear that?” said the game warden. They listened. Wind sighed in the treetops and water splashed in the creek far below, echoing through the ravine. Another coyote barked. The moon encased everything in a coating of silvery light. “Tranquility, solitude and peace. It’s why I became a game warden, boys. We’re going to sit right here and wait it out.” His features contorted in pain. “Already feeling weaker.”

“You…you can’t do that to us,” John said.

“I can. And I will…unless you want to spend your last hours in a white padded box.”

John stared through the windshield, searching for a future that now eluded him.


The game warden lit another cigarette, checking his watch in the glow of the tip. “Eleven o’ clock, boys.” His watch beeped in confirmation, as if tolling the time to a public hanging. He rasped, choking on the words. “I can feel it eating at my stomach like fire.”

“Please,” John said. “You have to call it in. You have to.”

“Don’t worry. CDC will find us before the coyotes do. Excuse me, boys.”

Bill leaned over and heaved out his window. He wiped his mouth with some paper napkins from the console, relaxed in his seat, and stared at Roy in his rearview mirror. His breath came in gasps.

“What about your wife, sir? What’s her name?” said Roy.

“Tammy.” He sat there, unperturbed, thinking about the first time he’d seen her, stunning light brown hair and blue eyes, standing behind the counter of the local Starbucks. Silence permeated the cab for several minutes, a silence as cold and unforgiving as the winter chill surrounding them. The game warden quivered, as if chuckling inwardly at some private joke. His hands pawed at the air, arms dangling like a scarecrow that has come alive to swat vengeance on the cawing crows roosting on its shoulders. Tears tracked down his cheeks. “Convulsions setting in now. Twenty-two years…nothing like a good woman…love you, wife…”

The game warden was lost in thought, oblivious to John and Roy. He jerked one last time, and then his head slumped forward on his chest.

Roy fidgeted, stunned, the cuffs beginning to irritate his wrists. Frost was forming in clear crystal on the windshield. Somewhere in the woods a pack of coyotes was bantering at the swollen moon. Their yips carried easily through the icy night air.

“He’s dead. I ain’t ever seen anything like that,” John’s voice quavered. “Dead.”

Roy tugged at his cuffs. His stomach initiated a series of stabbing pains. He leaned back, dejected. Somewhere out along the creek, a bobcat growled. The sound chilled John. Whoever said bobcats sound like a woman screaming is full of it.

A cell phone chimed from Bill’s jacket pocket. Roy jumped and wet his pants. He envisioned retrieving the phone from Bill’s pocket and pressing the talk button. So close, yet so far. That phone might as well be resting in a crater on the dark side of the moon, for all the good it’s going to do us.

John wondered who was on the other end. It stopped ringing, two shrill beeps signaling a missed call. He twisted in his seat, straining at the flex cuff binding him to the seatbelt post. It held firm. His stomach objected violently. His bladder let go and soaked his pants. Real hurt warped his facial expression. He fell backwards, frustrated.

Roy became aware of a low throbbing sound emanating from the forest out in the distance.

 “Chopper! Hear it?” John listened.  Roy was right. A helicopter was somewhere in the vicinity. John moved around in his seat, scanning the black sky, but saw no red and green navigation lights. The beating sound of the rotors was moving away now, becoming indistinct. John wasn’t so sure rescue was imminent. The trees were intertwined here, forming a thick cover of foliage. Only the windshield area played audience to the spectacular wintry constellations. The game warden’s watch beeped the one o’clock hour, spooking them. Both of them were drowsy, and Roy fell into a light doze. John stayed awake for a few minutes, listening for further helicopter noise. At last, eyelids drooping, he slipped into unconsciousness. Cool air swirled around them like a blanket.


Cheery sunshine awakened John. It poured in the windshield and painted the landscape in lively colors. Only half-awake, John looked over at the game warden, who appeared to be napping. A faint surge of hope blossomed in his mind as he remembered the chopper, but was extinguished as he listened for sounds of rescue. Nothing. Eerie silence greeted him. His stomach felt queasier than ever.

His thoughts rambled. He thought about time. How much time had passed. How much time they had left. He thought about Logan. He grieved as he realized he’d probably never see her again, that he and Roy would spend their final hours here, abandoned and alone, with no anticipation of rescue.

A thump on the hood interrupted his daydream, and he wheeled around in the seat. He hollered. A Black Vulture was planted on the gleaming paint, wings gathered upon its back, its crooked neck lowering its tight-skinned head forward to the windshield. Its beady eyes focused on him through the glass. He gibbered something at Roy, who was glued to his window in disbelief.

John’s final thoughts were not of the dozens of hungry vultures cavorting in the mud around the pickup, waiting, but rather the sheer number of possums and crows that lunched on roadkill on American asphalt every single day.

Thomas Kleaton is a freelance horror writer whose stories have been published in The Horror Zine, Final Masquerade, Pernicious Invaders, Spooky Halloween Drabbles, Alban Lake Drabbles  and What Has Two Heads, Ten Eyes, and Terrifying Table Manners? He lives in the woods near Auburn University, Alabama, with his wife, Sheila.