Jimmy had never held a gun before. The smooth wooden shaft, which had at first been so cold to his touch, had now warmed beneath his grasp, until it was almost an extension of his own arm. It felt as though the blood that coursed in his veins also flowed through the workings of the machine, in a kind a perverse symbiosis that had begun as soon has his pale fingers stretched across the hellish device.
Moonlight glinted off the metalwork as Jimmy stood by the empty house. The scene was a study in shades of grey, as unreal as a black and white movie, in which his own eyes served as shutters. He pushed his eyelids shut, and kept them that way for a long time. The continuing weight in his arms confirmed the reality of the situation.
Unlike most in his position, Jimmy had never felt the need to own a gun. His father had a few shotguns in the house, but those had long since fallen into disrepair. Besides the land on which the herds grazed was so remote that cattle rustlers were seldom seen, and any thief foolish enough to creep by the house would be seen to by the dogs. He had locked them in the house tonight, but they didn't bark and whine like they might ordinarily have done. They were scared too. This was not a night for dogs.
Jimmy moped his brow with the back of his shirt-sleeve, juggling the weight of the shotgun from arm to arm as he did so. The yard was still in the moonlight. Not the calm stillness of a summer's evening, but the tense, expectant silence of a narrative yet to reach completion. Jimmy looked about the yard furtively, the gun poised against his shoulder, muzzle pointed out ahead like an eyeless touch. He knew that she was locked in the barn, but the trip to buy the gun had taken longer than he had anticipated, and there was every chance she might have worked her way loose from her temporary prison.
The madness had descended suddenly upon her that day – like a mist rolling in from across the hills – leaving behind little but a familiar husk, empty like the discarded skin of a rattlesnake. She tore through the yard, hissing and snarling, baring sharp teeth and lashing out at the farm hands as they tried to calm her with gentle words. Jimmy had called to her with infinite softness, and seen her turn from him in confusion and denial. It was then that he realised that he must purchase a gun.
He couldn't buy one from the village. He was too well known there, and folks would like it odd that he had chosen now of all times to suddenly acquire a firearm. No amount of explanation would quell their feverish curiosity. It was better to be secretive, and to end an epidemic before it was given the chance to take root. Jimmy was afraid of prison, but he was more frightened of the suffering that she might endure if he failed to act quickly. She had always been loyal to him. It was only right that he perform this final act for her.
So the gun was sought with quivering hands, purchased at a store two towns over, from a man who didn't ask questions and didn't check his cards. The gun was sought and driven back to the barn, which lay still and silent in the twilight, a sharp contrast to the disturbance of his mind.
As Jimmy stood facing the barn across the yard, he shivered, though the evening air was frustratingly close and warm. The house at his back did not feel like a protective cavalry, as he had hoped it might. It was more like an accusatory jury, peering down at him from the darkened windows, judging him before the crime had even been committed. A nervous cough escaped his lips, as he tried to clear the cotton that choked him. The sharp noise awakened her and the inhuman howling began afresh. The barn door shook in its frame as she threw herself at it again and again, trying in vain to escape, and to bite. Snarling, frustrated and increasingly unhinged, issued from the building, like the howling of a trapped animal hungry for flesh. She threatened him through unseen jaws, her unintelligible ranting making Jimmy's heart thud painfully against his chest, willing him to fly and leave her to starve in solitude like rat in a trap.
The frame of the door buckled and sagged against the barrage and Jimmy could see the whites of her eyes, red and streaming, searching him out through the cracks in the panels. Those eyes that had once looked at him with nothing but obedient affection were now so filled with menace and fear, as if she were drowning in her own maddening rage.
Without warning, Jimmy's knees failed, and his legs collapsed like a folding chair beneath him. He landed face down in the dirt, prostrate before the rising tide. The gun pressed painfully against his ribs, cradled between his body and the earth, as if he were shielding it from the horror of the night. He could still hear the bolt straining to contain her as she heaved against it with all her strength. He could still hear her shrieking and howling, her yelps twisted by fear and malice. These sounds seemed fainter now, as if he were suddenly very far from the scene, and all the time moving further away. The earth smelt familiar and comforting against his face.
He did not know how long he lay there, drinking in the heady scent of earth and slipping in and out of consciousness. When he finally rose, shaking, to his feet, the gun still clutched close to his body like a treasured infant, the barn was quiet. Had she exhausted her passions or had the door been broken in weary persistence whilst he slept? The barn remained intact and he stroked the shaft of the gun absently, relieved that the defences had held during his absence.
Without knowing just how he had achieved it, he found himself at the entrance to the barn, looking back at the dark shadows of the house and the scuff marks in the dirt where he had fallen. Now that he was closer, he could feel a low growl emanating from the building, like the grinding of a rusted engine, painful and pitiful in comparison to the sounds of blind fury which had preceded it. She was entering the final stages now, exhausted from the thrashing terror and consumed inwardly by the disease. There was still a chance that she might lash out when cornered, and an infected bite would draw the madness deep into his own blood. There was not a doctor for miles, and the cure was worse than the disease.
His hand stretched out towards the heavy iron bolt, as he struggled to position the shotgun against his shoulder, which was bruised from the fall. In his youth, he had often seen his brothers shoot tin cans, and tried to remember the correct stance. The bolt in the centre of the door was rusted and creaked as he touched it. The soft growl within grew louder. The breath caught within his chest as he wrenched the bolt sideways and swung open the door.
The growling continued, coming now in laborious, racking bursts, almost like sobbing. Jimmy stood motionless on the threshold, waiting for something to happen. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could see her, stretched out across the bales of hay in the centre of the room. She was panting heavily; her eyes rolled upwards into her skull and her head jerked backwards in painful spasms. Her limbs were contorted beneath her, twitching and flexing in agony as she struggled to breath.
Jimmy steadied the gun against his good shoulder and took aim. He closed his eyes tightly and, conflicted by sin and duty and half hoping to miss, he fired a single shot. All at once, the panting ceased.
He threw the gun aside and ran to her. He couldn't touch her. The fur of her chest was already thick with matted blood and the froth that had blossomed around her nuzzle would still be infected. Vowing to get the rest of the dogs vaccinated first thing tomorrow morning, Jimmy wiped his eyes, and went back into the house.