It’s hard to feel like a hero when you’ve shit your pants. It’s even harder when you know you’ve abandoned your friends. When you’ve done nothing but run away from whatever chased you. So I guess, technically I’m not a hero. Technically I’m more of a dick.

Dick or hero, a live dick beats a dead hero any damn day. Alive for now, at least. Lost in the woods with a Ritz Cracker-sized hole in my gut and blood stewing with the crap in my shorts, this dick might not make it to morning. Half-Dead Dick, that’s me.

Being lost might actually be the upside of my current dilemma. The trees, the animals, nature: I can handle. My survival is dependent on my ability to adapt to my surroundings. Not good odds, but at least there’s an outside chance. Not like being in that town. The town that introduced me to my current world of shit and blood.

I’ll take nature. I’ll take the wolves or cougars or whatever hell else is out here. Nothing natural about that town. Even its name. What kind of son of a bitch names a town Bloodshovel?

It was Chuck’s idea to explore the ghost towns of Eastern Oregon. At least I remember him being the one that said, “Zach, we got to go to Antelope. That’s the town that the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his cult and stuff were at. For a while it was even called Rajneesh.” He loves that kitschy shit. Either way, I know it wasn’t Terry’s or my idea. Not to say that what happened was Chuck’s fault. There’s no point in laying any blame. I’m just saying it was Chuck’s idea.

I’ve known Chuck and Terry since high school. We all went to different colleges, but every summer we had our ritual road trip. Even five years after we graduated college (or rather, after they did), we always found time for our reunion. We’ve driven to Baja, hit Arches in Utah, and had a gloriously failed roadie to the Kenai peninsula in Alaska.

Terry and I are close. We talk at least once a week. We commiserate about our shit jobs and our shit relationships in the shit cities we live in. Even if everything is going great. I don’t know when it started, maybe an attempt at cheering the other person up. We always described our lives as awful, regardless of the truth. The worse the story, the better the other person felt about their own lives. It became a competition to describe our lives a day away from poverty and suicide, thus affording the other person optimism about his essentially inadequate situation.

Chuck, on the other hand, moved to Portland after graduation and went hipster overnight. If you don’t know what a hipster is, it’s like having a degree in Teen Jeopardy with a Minor in Sarcasm. You can still play Dungeons & Dragons, but you have to do it ironically. You probably collect Chick tracts, Pogs, and/or Mexican prayer candles. Chuck got the thick black frames for his fake glasses, covered his body in the future regret of tattoos, bought shirts with obscure bands or pop culture references on them, and adopted a snarky attitude that made every film, book or song sound like a direct attempt at idiocy. It was all costume (a tie with a T-shirt) and character (or lack of). He worked at a bank, for Christ’s sake. He isn’t in a band, he doesn’t make anything resembling art, he doesn’t write. The only hip thing he’s actually done is buy Patton Oswalt a drink, but he thought Patton was a lesbian friend of ours. Chuck and I are friends, but that doesn’t mean I have to like him.

Although we didn’t know its name at the time, we drove into Bloodshovel on the fourth (and what ended up being the final) day of our adventure.

The dirt trail that led to the town was barely visible from the slightly wider trail that we were on. We were lost, but that was nothing new and not a matter of concern. Lost was a common state for us. As long as we were on stretches that looked like trail, we were confident that they would lead us in or out somewhere. After all, we had gotten there by that trail, how hard could it be to find our way back?

If you haven’t guessed yet, none of us were that bright.

As the Jeep rolled through brush and scrub, the light of day dimmed. Coming over the rise and looking into the small valley, we saw the first building of Bloodshovel. Unlike the ghost towns that we had already visited, which had consisted of a half of a falling down building, Bloodshovel was exactly what a child pictured when he heard “ghost town”. It was like an Old West movie set. There were maybe a dozen buildings with horse troughs, a wooden walk and even a gallows sans rope at the far end of town.

“It looks like the town at the beginning of Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo”, Chuck said.

“Dude. Acting all smart and shit? Couldn’t you just say The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly?” Terry said. He inched the Jeep forward toward the town.

“See, that’s what’s interesting. The Italian actually translates to The Good, The Ugly…”

I couldn’t take it. “You obviously don’t know what ‘interesting’ means. Nobody fucking cares.”

Chuck gave me one of those snide laughs that you give to a fourteen year-old that’s never heard of Led Zeppelin. “I think Sergio Leone would care.”

“Dead dudes don’t care,” Terry said. “Let’s check this place out.”

The Jeep had reached the edge of town.

GPS would have been smart. But I can’t overstate it enough, smarts weren’t really our thing. Even if we went to three different schools, we all majored in the same things: beer bong engineering, hangover remedies, and vomiting for distance (as opposed to accuracy).

Terry pulled out the fifty year-old thrift store book, “Ghost Towns of the Pacific Northwest”, that we had been using as our guide. Way we figured, nothing had changed way out here. A quarter well spent. That’s how we found out the name of the place.

“Bloodshovel. Here.” Terry said, pointing at a map in the book.

“Bloodshovel? Seriously?” I said.

“Sounds like one of Roger Corman’s Pirahna-era films. You know, John Sayles…”

“Sounds more like ‘Shut The Fuck Up’ to me.”

Terry looked up from the book. “I don’t know exactly where we are, but I know kind of where we are, and I think this is where we are, so this is where we are. Welcome to Bloodshovel, Oregon.”

We got out of the car. After a full minute of stretching, back cracking, and courteously held-in farts, we grabbed our sleeping bags, flashlights, and backpacks. I popped open the glove compartment and grabbed my gun. It was only a .22, and was just there to make me feel not unarmed. On the off-chance some backward ass country fucks decided to get all Deliverance on us, I could give them a flesh wound.

Even in the little remaining light, it was unnerving to see that Bloodshovel showed no signs of age. It was obviously old, but it wasn’t anywhere near as weathered as the other ghost towns. Hell, it wasn’t nearly as weathered as most of the populated towns we had driven through in Eastern Oregon. Everything was clean and polished. The paint on the side of the first building looked fresh. Yesterday fresh. Even the dirt that acted as a Main Street between buildings appeared raked and even.

Terry and I looked at each other. He gave me a shrug, but I could tell he was thinking the same thing. Chuck was probably thinking about the postmodern implications of Mr. Whipple or that episode of “Good Times” when Willona became a security guard.

The sign on the front of the first building we passed read VANDERFORD GRAIN. The olde-timey painted letters were bright as were all the other signs we passed: VANDERFORD BANK, VANDERFORD SUNDRIES, VANDERFORD HOTEL, and THE MAJESTIC.

“Just like the Capra-esque Jim Carrey vehicle.”

“Yeah, Chuck. I’m sure that’s what it was named after,” I said.

“Maybe they’re shooting a movie here or something,” Terry added.

“Or they just did. Else there’d be cars or equipment or something, right?” I said.

Terry pointed to the saloon. “Let’s crash in there. We can look around in the AM. New moon’s going to make it country dark real soon.”

“Why not crash in the hotel?” Chuck said.

“It’s not like there’s going to be beds or nothing. And you never know. Maybe there’s an old bottle of rotgut hiding in there.”

While the Majestic saloon wasn’t furnished, it was surprisingly clean. No cobwebs or thick layers of dust. The bar fixtures were intact, but no bottles or glasses to be found. Behind the bar, a clouded mirror sent our bent flashlight beams through the room and reflected distorted images of the three of us.

“This is weird,” I said, stating the obvious.

Terry nodded. “Yeah. Everything looks like it’s been kept up. Clean, fixed, creepy.”

“It has to be a movie thing. Maybe we wake up tomorrow morning and there’s a crew out there filming a shootout,” Chuck said

I ran my hand along the bar. “Seems a little off the beaten path. Besides, the wood’s old. Everything is old, it’s just kept up. Like someone has made sure that nothing got too bad.”

“Probably the Vanderfords,” Terry said.

Chuck and I wandered over to Terry who stood against the wall. His flashlight pointed to a sepia photo. A big family portrait. Big not just in numbers, but in physical size. Enormous really, with disturbingly small heads, big ears, and massive lower lips. From a distance, it looked like a varsity football front line: wide shoulders, thick necks, massive thighs. And that was just the women. Up close, it looked like there was only one side of the Vanderford family. On a noticeably untarnished placard in a swoopy font it read, VANDERFORD FAMILY – SUMMER, 1880.

The dark, beady eyes of the long-dead, inbred family stared at us from the photo. They were car accident hypnotic. Terry snapped us out of the moment.

“I’m going to lie down,” Terry said. “We’ll figure out this crazy ass place tomorrow.”

No such luck.

I couldn’t tell you what time we heard the sound. The time didn’t matter. It was the dark that mattered. Hand in front of your face dark. Not even vague shapes dark. Nothing to describe but blackness and sound.

“Did you hear that?” Terry’s voice, a little shaky.

Chuck’s snoring was the only thing I could hear at the moment, but I knew what he was talking about. Somewhere close we had both heard an animal-like purring sound, like that sound a lion makes before it roars.

I was ready to blame it on the wind, but then the sound rose and moved. Back and forth, the floorboards creaking. Like it was pacing, pausing for breath, then more purring deep from within. The sound a dragon in a cave might make.

“What the fuck is that?” I said, trying to whisper but ending up squeaking.

“Maybe a bear. Sounds like it’s got some weight.”

“A fucking bear?”

“Wake the fuck up,” Terry loud whispered, followed by a smacking sound.

“What? What the fuck? What?”

“Shut up,” Terry said. “There’s something over there. In here. An animal or something”

The voice that rose from the darkness made my balls shoot into my body. The words were hollow and wet, the volume rising in anger.

“This is not your house,” the voice bellowed.

“Fuck me,” Chuck said softly.

“Who’s there?” I said, shouting in the direction of the voice. I dug around for my flashlight. My hand landed on the pistol and gripping it tightly.

The movement stopped. The high-pitched shriek that followed wasn’t what made me shit my pants, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Unconsciously, I must have clenched. The prolonged sound was like being inside of a tornado, the volume piercing. But it was the smell of rancid breath revealing the person’s proximity that really did me in.

All pretense of manliness was dropped. The three of us screamed like little girls and ran for the saloon doors that were framed by the dim starlight. I couldn’t tell you if the thing followed us or not. I couldn’t hear anything beyond my own shrill voice.

I headed for the Jeep. The footsteps of my friends near me, headed in the same direction. I could hear Chuck repeating, “What the fuck was that?” over and over, a rhetorical mantra.

I had the pistol in my hand. That was good.

“Do either of you have a flashlight?” I asked through the chaos in my brain.


“Not me.”

We neared the Jeep, still at a run. Its outline was visible and all wrong. It rested on its side, as if it had been tipped over.

“What the hell?” Terry’s voice, quiet to himself.

And the shriek came again, but not behind us. In front of us. Loud. Close. A waft of that garbage odor made me wince. Scream.

“How’d it get there so fast?”

“Shit, shit, shit.”

We scattered. Chuck and I headed for the nearest building. I heard Terry’s footsteps head in the opposite direction, maybe toward the woods. I don’t know. I don’t even know if I was following Chuck or he was following me or neither. All I knew was fifteen seconds later, I was huddled in the corner of some building with Chuck, holding my fucking pistol in both hands and praying to a God I didn’t believe in.

“What the fuck is going on?” Chuck whispered.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe it’s just some locals fucking with us.”

“Maybe. Don’t mean I ain’t scared shitless.”

“What are we going to do?

“I don’t know. Wait,” I said.

There was no door. I stared at the opening, the darkness only slightly less outside, anticipating the moment that a silhouette would appear. I aimed my pistol at the open doorway.

When the moment finally arrived it was far more shocking than I had expected.

The sheer mass of the dark figure was astounding. Well over six feet tall and easily three hundred pounds plus. The figure’s head was tiny and pointed. Its arms shockingly long. Imagine a gorilla wearing a baseball cap, but twice as big.

“It’s a Vanderford,” Chuck said, probably not even knowing he was speaking aloud.

“I can hear you.” The words had the same sound of struggle as before, loose enunciation through the sloppy drool of what sounded like a fat lip or missing teeth.

I said nothing.

“This is not your house.” The voice returned to its former shriek, no doubt spraying volumes of spit through the front of the room. I smelled that rotting vegetable odor again. Christ, what was this dude’s diet?

“Oh, fuck. Man, fuck.” Chuck was crying. I couldn’t blame him. I probably was, too.

The hulking figure took three steps inside and stopped. It fiddled with something, which turned out to be a gas lantern that it lit and set on the floor in the center of the room.

The light was a shock, hitting me with conscious vulnerability and the horror of what faced me.

My God, this dude was ugly. Its tiny head was egg-shaped with limited room for a brain. Its oversized lower lip made it so that it couldn’t completely close his mouth. Drool trailed off its chin. It wore overalls and a dirty shirt that was covered in saliva down the front. When it saw me and Chuck it cocked his head.

“Friend,” the Vanderford said and walked back outside.

Chuck stammered, “See he just wants to be friends.”

The Vanderford came right back, dragging something behind him. It took me a second to realize that it was Terry. He appeared to be unconscious. The big thing laid him down next to the lantern and looked at me.

“I don’t think he wants to be friends,” I said.

“Fuck this,” Chuck yelled.

He scrambled to his feet and made a run for the door, trying to loop around the Vanderford. It moved incredibly quick and punched Chuck so hard in the face that it lifted him off the ground. The massive fist completely covered Chuck’s face on contact. It made a wet, smacking sound that made me vomit a little. Chuck landed with a crash. He had no face. His head looked like it had been crushed with a brick. Nothing but bloody meat and bone.

I stood up and pointed the pistol at the Vanderford’s head.

“Gun,” the Vanderford said. Not scared, not concerned, just matter of fact. It clapped its big catcher’s mitt hands together and did a little jump in the air. Some of the blood splashed off one hand. It was supposed to express some emotion: excitement, fear, anger, who knows. It just made me sick.

The Vanderford picked up Terry from under his arms and held him up facing me. The way he moved the body made Terry appear weightless. It jostled him around like a puppet making him dance. Terry’s arms and legs dangled jointless.

“Stop it,” I said. “Terry, are you okay? Terry? Put him down and get the fuck away from him.” The stutter in my voice gave me away.

Then came that shriek again. That’s probably when I shit my pants. I can’t say for certain, but it most likely happened sometime in that minute. I was too distracted to make a concise note of it.

I fired a shot into the ceiling. Dust and wood trailed down.

“No,” it commanded.

The Vanderford grabbed Terry around the waist with one hulking arm and Terry’s arm at the wrist with the other. Before I could figure out what the Vanderford was doing, it pulled, neck muscles straining. And as Terry’s eyes opened, the Vanderford ripped Terry’s arm completely off. Pulled it completely out of the socket. Bone, skin and muscle. Blood showered everywhere. The sound was indescribable.

I screamed.

Terry screamed.

I fired the gun, two or three shots. I hit the Vanderford in the head, maybe somewhere else. Blood spouted from its forehead. It dropped Terry, who writhed on the ground, reaching for his detached arm with his other arm. The Vanderford spun in circles, grabbing at its head with both hands, blood oozing through its fingers. After forever, it fell on the ground.

By the time I got to Terry, he was passed out, probably in shock. I kicked at the Vanderford’s massive boot, but it didn’t move.

I took my belt off and did my best to tie a tourniquet, but the blood was slick and the giant, open wound was so high on his arm that it was hard to cut off the bleeding. I grabbed the lantern, poured some of the lantern oil on the area and lit it in an attempt to cauterize the wound and stop the bleeding. Terry woke up just enough to punch me in the face and scream. He passed out again.

It smelled like burnt pork and was disgusting as all hell, but the bleeding seemed to have slowed to an ooze at the edges.

“I’m going to go for help,” I said, not really thinking it through, but knowing that I wasn’t going to stay. I thought about leaving the gun with him, but not for long. If we were both going to make it to morning, I needed to survive first.

I grabbed the lantern and headed for the Jeep. If I rocked it back and forth, maybe I could get it on its wheels. Or I could find some boards and get some leverage. All I knew was that I had to flip it back over. It was Terry’s only chance. Lost and on foot would take too long.

Little did I know that that was how I would end up.

I never made it to the Jeep. Standing in my path, right out there in the open, was the Vanderford.

It couldn’t be. The fucker was dead in the saloon. Even if it wasn’t dead, nothing is that fast. I shot the fucker in the head. Is this one of those “Twilight Zone” fucking places where ghosts and unicorns and zombies and shit exist? Only in a fucking town called Bloodshovel.

No fucking way. There were two of them. It was another Vanderford. They were fucking brothers or twins.

Before I could react, it stabbed me in the gut. I don’t know how it closed the gap so fast. Pain shot through my body. When I looked down, there was no weapon in its hand. The fucking thing had stabbed me with two fingers, breaking the skin and stirring my guts. Who stabs someone with their fucking fingers?

I staggered back with one hand to my bleeding stomach. It took me a long second to get it together.

I threw the lantern. The oil spilled, trailing an arc through the air. I had forgotten to screw it closed. The lantern hit the Vanderford square in the chest, fire splashing over the chest of the monster. In the moment before the thing was entirely engulfed in flames, I saw its face.

They were definitely twins, the same bullet head, tiny ears, huge lower lip. As it tried to fan the fire away from its body, those beady eyes stared up at me.

I emptied my pistol into the burning giant. It fell to its knees, then on its face, and smoldered in a heap.

That was three hours ago. Three hours of stumbling through the forest, jamming leaves into my wound, and pitying myself.

Now I’m sitting against a tree, trying to get the energy to head further into the woods, maybe find a road or a trail or something. There’s always hope, right? As long as I’m putting distance between myself and Bloodshovel, I know I’m going in the right direction. As long as I keep moving, I have a slim chance to survive.

I got no water, no food, no bullets. I still got the gun, now just a bludgeon. But I got two working legs and breath in my lungs.


What was that?

Something’s out there.

Fuck me. It can’t fucking be.

That fucking sound. That fucking shriek.

Footsteps stampeding through the brush. Giant footsteps. Broken twigs. And that fucking high pitched shriek.

“This is not your house.”

Just my fucking luck. Triplets.

Johnny Shaw has been a working screenwriter and playwright for the last fifteen years and teaches screenwriting at Santa Barbara City College.  His crime novel, DOVE SEASON, was one of the three Finalists in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. 


Inspired by “Plots With Guns”, BLOODSHOVEL is the first short story he’s written since junior high school.

"Bloodshovel" © Johnny Shaw • Photo features The Cook by Mark Hengst • PLOTS with GUNS © Anthony Neil Smith