I think there is almost two dozen copies of my final draft floating around out there in paper form and word files.
So far, the feedback has been great. But the really tough ones should be coming back soon. I’ve a cousin who was a career editor, and he’s going to pillage and burn my manuscript like vikings descending upon an unsuspecting monastery. Not that I’m a terrible writer, very far from it… but every time I open the document to print it, I’ll skim along and see something that I don’t like or some pesky error.
Yesterday I realized I capitalized Father in the middle of a sentence.
Argh… stupid newbie me.
When asking for honest reviewers who would shred my book apart on Facebook, I also stated that it had only a dozen swear words and nothing risque, because I want my kids to be able to read it eventually. Then, right before I printed it off for my 14 year old nephew, I ran a word search and realized I had 25 shits, 19 damns, and 1 asshole.
Which is kind of funny to say out loud.
It took pretty much zero effort to cut out over half of them without looking like I was intentionally cutting out where a swear word should go.
Instead of, “I don’t give a shit.” I could use, “I don’t care.” Works just as well without the whole, “Oh foyer, I burned the darned muffins’ lameness/obviousness.
Speaking of my 14 year old nephew, my sister-in-law told me this today:
“Micah has already read to page 30, and when I asked him about it, he replied, “it has cowboys, and monsters, and barn burnin’s, and bar fights. It may possibly be the greatest book I’ve ever read.”
So, obviously I’m going to take the Young Adult genre by storm as well as the Fiction/Awesome/Pew Pew genres.
Look out JK Rowling….
Toxic Masculine Cowboys with Colt Peacemakers are going to smoke-check your Prepubescent Wizards with Bent Magic Twigs.
Question – What spells can deflect 250 grain .45 bullets traveling at 1,000 feet per second?
My little brother moved from NC to Minnesota about a year ago. Since it snows year round, I don’t know if he has realized it’s been a year. He’s still waiting on spring…
But within that time span, I think he’s been in at least two fist fights and last week was pulled over three times during a single ten mile drive home.
Because, apparently, in Minnesota it’s illegal to drive while Diabetic unless your doctor has sent in a note to the DMV that you are healthy enough to operate a motor vehicle… which is strange. The doctor didn’t send it the note in, thus he got pulled over, given a ticket, then pulled over twice more for the same thing before making it home. (That’s what he gets for driving home at 2 am in a snow storm when no one but law enforcement is on the road)
After that he took to the buses while waiting on the DMV records being worked out, and some goon tried to snatch and run with his backpack near a bus stop. Except it was strapped across his chest instead of over a shoulder.
Which started fight number two.
I mentioned to our dad that he was on his way to becoming the most wanted Southerner in the Mid-West. And he replied that the wanted posters would say ‘Blue Ridge Kid’.
So, my little brother is going into the sequel with that moniker.
(I’m going to find a humiliating way to red shirt him.)
As for the ‘Beast to Kitten’ part…
I’ve discovered the rowing machine at the gym last week. Once I figured out how to get my uncoordinated 6’3″ frame strapped in and how to operate it without looking like a goon – I started using it to end every workout. (5 minutes = 60 calories. Good stuff.)
And I’ve enjoyed it… I hit 500 meters at 1:59 on the highest setting and pretty much thought I was going to die before I could get my feet unstrapped.
Anyways – On Monday I was four minutes into my rowing, and a lady sat on the machine beside me and started rowing at a slightly faster pace. And rowing isn’t real quiet, especially when you’re three feet apart. You hear the wheel turning inside as the row-handle-thingy is pulled.
The sound created the feeling similar to walking across a parking lot and someone driving by blaring music. You have to force your body to not start diddy-bopping along in rhythm.
That’s how I felt with rowing next to her. And I figured if I started to speed up, she’d think I was being a show off or something by rowing harder than her. (Because I have a penis, and you know how people without penises view people with them….)
Anyways – After a miserable minute, I jokingly told her I was having a hard time not syncing with her speed because she was going faster than me.
“Oh, I’m not going fast. I just thought you were injured.”
P.S. If someone knows how to stretch a 24 hour day into 30 or more, I could get significantly more writing done. And maybe even have enough daylight to put the outside Christmas decorations up.
Anyways – onward we go!
He was an old man with a thick southern accent and relatively steady hands. He had me strip my shirt off, and there was a long, quiet moment as he took in the decades old scar tissue. Most doctors in the west were used to all sorts of scars and disfigurements, but I knew mine were… unusual. Thankfully, he didn’t ask how I got them or the fresh wounds and that suited me fine. One of the best things out west is that people tend to mind their own business.
A foul-smelling medicinal oil was gingerly applied to small burned areas of my skin, then a few neat little stitches were put in my chest. He poked and prodded my nose painfully. I thought it was broken, but it was just bent a little. Luckily for me, the whiskey was kicking in and numbing some of the pain as he went over my various wounds.
With my collection of fresh bruises, cuts, and burns, it probably looked like I tried to cremate a mountain lion alive.
After paying the Doc for doing his best to extend my life, I wandered to the general store and bought some cartridges for the Sharps and a few more sticks of dynamite. Just in case.
The Reverend sought caught me leaving the store.
“Jedidiah,” he said in greeting. That was one of his ways, he always used a man’s formal name, never the shortened version. “Heard you had some trouble and a man was killed,” he clasped his hands before him, the old bible clutched tightly between them, as he took in my bruised and battered face. “Would you like to talk?”
I shrugged. “Not particularly Reverend. The man deserved it and people dying around me is nothing new.”
“I know,” he half-turned away, and watched a carriage roll down the street behind a team of horses. “There’s nothing wrong with killing bad people who are trying to do harm to you or others. But I know how difficult it is for a man to escape a troubled past. Trust me, I wasn’t always a man of faith,” he looked at my face, his eyes searching mine. “I just wanted to make sure your past hadn’t followed you here.”
I nodded, understanding his concern after the things I’d told him. You never knew when your past might catch up to you. That’d be an awful day of reckoning. But so far, I was free and clear of it. “No, sir. He was just an angry, foolish drunk with an itchy trigger finger.”
“Good,” he patted my shoulder. “Let me know if you need anything. In the meantime, I’ve a funeral to prepare for.”
“Will do,” I called after him as he walked away, boots thumping on the boardwalk.
It was well past noon by the time the Sheriff wrapped up his errands, kicked the drunk out of his cell, and was ready to head out.
I was still jumpy. But with the Sheriff traveling with me, I had some peace of mind in our combined firepower. Worst-case scenario, I only had to outrun Dan’s horse drawn wagon. That’s what he gets for choosing slow comfort over a fast saddle.
On the way, I kept the storytelling brief and simple.
He shook his head in disbelief when I described the beast and our fight to the death in the burning barn. He had a lot of questions, but I had few answers.
After he tired of my lack of information to give, he filled me in on the latest news around town. The biggest news was that the town Mayor died, which explained the padlock on his office. A large man, his heart gave out and he dropped dead in the middle of the street in front of a wagon hauling manure. The wheels rolled right over him before the driver could stop the horses. There was irony in that somewhere, I knew it.
Following the trail, we broke free of the forest around my ranch, and the creatures body lay in plain sight by the pile of burnt timbers and ash. Broken, charred bits and pieces of debris still lay strewn across the yard from the explosion. I had some cleaning up to do.
Dan pulled back on the reins to stop the wagon and stared at the body. It took him a long moment to gather his thoughts enough to ask, “Just what is that thing?”
“Something big and mean.”
“Looks like it,” Dan cut his eyes at me sideways. “You know, by all rights, that thing should have ate you.”
“It almost did.” I tapped boot heels to the flanks of my horse and led us into the green field surrounding the house.
When we reached the remains of my barn, Dan pulled the brake on the wagon while I dismounted and tied Carbine to the few posts still standing for the corral.
We walked to the dead beast. The body was fresh enough to not smell yet. Its mouth lay open, exposing jagged blood-stained teeth. Other than the mangled rear legs and tail, and the arm I chopped off, the rest of its body was in reasonably good condition except for all the bullet holes.
I kicked its head with the toe of my boot for good measure and was rewarded with a thud. “I doubt there’s just one of these. But folks will need to know about it. I barely killed this one and the next man won’t be so lucky.”
“You’re right. We’ve got to figure on there being more of them. But, it’s going to be hard to convince them that a creature like this exists, even with the claw.”
That had occurred to me as well, but I already had an idea. “We won’t be able to fit the entire body in your wagon, but the head will. If that doesn’t convince folks, nothing will.”
Dan shrugged. “Works for me,” he pointed towards my ash heap of a barn. “You got any tools left?”
“Not really,” I said, thinking of the small kindling axe and Bowie on my hip. “This is going to be messy.”
“Yes…It is,” he seemed distracted as he tugged on his beard thoughtfully and walked around the corpse. After walking back to the head, he stared at it in silence.
I walked over to the pitchfork that almost impaled me. The handle was burnt away, leaving only a charred end sticking out of the twisted metal fork. Pulling it loose from the ground, I tossed the ruined tool towards the remains of the barns where it landed with a soft thud amongst the wet ash.
“I’ve seen something like this before,” the Sheriff called out as he cut a plug of tobacco with a pocket knife and began chewing.
That got my attention. “What? Where?”
“Old newspaper. It had something about digging up giant bones in Montana and Colorado. Said they were from dinosaurs or something. Big extinct animals that have been dead so long their bones turned to rock. There was a sketch of what they looked like when they were alive. One of them was like this one. Except it had a bigger head, small worthless-looking arms, and walked on its back two legs. Yours is similar, but smaller and with longer front legs. Anyways, I remember thinking it was ridiculous.”
I looked at him in surprise, “Seems it ain’t so ridiculous. You know who wrote the article?”
“Not a clue, I used the paper in the outhouse. But the Smithsonian Institute was mentioned, I recall that. They could probably tell us what we are dealing with,” he spat a stream of tobacco juice. “I bet they’d be real interested to know they’re wrong about them all being dead.”
“Can you wire them? Ask them how worried we ought to be?”
The Sheriff squatted on his haunches beside the corpse and gently touched its blood-stained teeth with his fingertips. “I will. But I got a feeling we ought to be mighty concerned if there are more of them.”
Dan ran his hands over the pebbled hide and peered into the beast’s empty eye socket. I stared at the burnt remains of my barn, alone in my thoughts. Until one struck me.
“After we cut this thing’s head off… you want to stick around for some steaks?” I asked.
I nodded, grinning. “Big ones.”
He looked puzzled, until the realization of what I implied sunk in. “You’re teasing, right?”
“What better way to celebrate my defeat of this horrifying beast than to feast on its roasted flesh?”
He sighed and looked back at the dead monster before spitting again. “Okay.”
It tasted like chicken.
It took a couple hours to get the head loaded onto the wagon and dinner finished before the Sheriff departed.
The next morning, I woke stiff and sore. Today’s plan was to take it easy and try to salvage anything of value from the ruins of my barn. I wasn’t looking forward to digging through the knee-deep ash and debris for any little treasures that may have survived.
I slung the gun belt around my waist and glanced at the Spencer Carbine above the door. It tempted me, but I had my pistol, and I’d keep a careful watch as I worked. I decided to leave it. My new shotgun was freshly cleaned and oiled, laying on a small table between the door and bed with a box of shells. I left that gun as well. It was daylight and with the open fields around the ranch, I’d be able to see any strange beasts well before they reached me.
Pulling the door open, I stepped out into the bright morning sun and arched my back as I stretched.
It was going to be a nice day.
A spear whistled by me and slammed into the log wall next to the rocking chair. It stuck, driven deep, the thick wood shaft quivering.
Instinctively, I drew my pistol and spun to face whoever just tried to kill me.
There were four of them scattered before me.
Big hairy things, wrapped in hides around their waists, easily a foot taller than me, with long arms and hands big enough to beat a horse to death. Their broad, ugly faces and muscular chests were hairless, the exposed black skin marked with colorful swirls and strange patterns.
They reminded me of the jungle apes from my childhood picture books. But instead of carrying bananas, they held weapons and didn’t have any tails.
The smallest of the four knelt beside the dead monster, a bow in hand and quiver of arrows at his waist. Two others stood by the pasture fence, watching Carbine run away again. Meanwhile, the biggest one who’d thrown the spear was sprinting towards me in large strides, a stone axe held high overhead. He let out a ferocious roar as he quickly closed the distance.
Even as the iron sights of the Peacemaker lined up on his broad forehead and I squeezed the trigger, it felt like this was a dream. This couldn’t be real. It was laughable. First a monster and now giant monkey-men.
It was loco.
The recoil from the gun blast shocked me out of my stupor, as the bullet punched through his skull and he dropped at my feet as though his strings were cut.
Behind him, the others began to react. The small ape notched an arrow and drew the bow back.
Ducking, I snapped a quick shot at him as he released. I caught a glimpse of him firing, then spinning away, grasping his side, as I dove into the house. The arrow zipped through the open doorway, narrowly missing me, before thunking into the far wall.
Slamming the door shut, I shoved my pistol into its holster. As heavy feet stomped across the porch, I grabbed the shotgun off the table. Gripping it tightly with both hands, I thumbed the double hammers back, just in time for the door to be kicked open violently.
It bashed into me, knocking me backward onto the floor, and sending the box of shotgun shells flying off the small table. The cardboard box burst on impact, thick cased shells rolling in every direction.
The giant ape’s painted bulk filled the doorway, a stone club held low. Pounding a clenched fist against his broad chest, he roared, revealing large yellowed canines.
I let the shotgun roar back.
The twin large bore barrels spewed a cloud of white smoke, and double rounds of buckshot punched through the ape’s painted lower chest and out his upper back. At this range, the mass of packed lead balls didn’t spread, they simply blew a hole in the big monkey large enough to put my fist through. The hairy bastard flew backward in a spray of blood and pulverized flesh. The stench of burning hair filled the air.
Breaking the shotgun open, I plucked out the empty shells as fast as I could, before grabbing a pair off the floor. I dropped them in and snapped the gun shut, just in time for another ape to come through the door and swing its club.
The big stone on the end of the club hit the floor as I dodged aside. Splinters stung my face as it smashed through the floor boards.
I struggled to maneuver the shortened shotgun for a shot and managed to thumb one of the hammers back.
The ape grasped the barrels and ripped the gun away, inadvertently making me pull the trigger and discharging a round of buckshot past his head into the ceiling. A spray of wood debris rained down on us. Roaring, he dropped the club and clutched his ear as he flung the shotgun across the room.
From the ground, I drew my pistol, but lost it, as the ape grabbed me by the shirt and leg with an iron grip and hurled me across the room. Slamming into a pair of bookshelves near the wood stove, I let out a cry of pain and fell amongst a shower of books.
A colorfully painted Wyatt Earp glared at me from the cover of a fallen dime novel, his face stern under his tilted hat. Below in large blue words, it said, “CAN HE SURVIVE?”
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Wyatt.
Floorboards creaked in protest as the great ape lunged across the room after me. Neither gun was within reach, but a cast iron frying pan was. I grabbed it and swung hard at the ape’s knee. He easily dodged the blow, and the heavy pan flew from my grip.
Screaming in anger, I kicked at him in desperation.
He smacked my boot aside effortlessly and grabbed me by the throat. Single handed, the ape lifted me off the floor. Fighting for air, I pounded at his hand and arm, kicking futilely, struggling to draw breath.
The monkey watched me twist and fail, a thin trickle of red dribbling from his ruptured ear drum. His face twisted in a snarl, and his intelligent brown eyes glared.
As my vision began to fade, I realized I still had a weapon. Drawing the large Bowie knife from the sheath on my belt, I began stabbing whatever I could reach. Which was mainly the soft belly below his rib cage. The knife drove deep, slicing through muscle and fat and into organs.
The ape screamed, dropping me before toppling onto his back, clutching the gaping wounds. The heavy knife fell and stuck point first in the floor as I crawled to my hands and knees, gasping.
My attacker said something in a rough, guttural language through clenched teeth as he writhed back and forth painfully. Bright red blood poured through his clasped hands and pooled underneath him.
I didn’t understand what he said, and I didn’t bother asking him to repeat it. Instead, I added insult to injury by punching him in the face. It was like punching a hair covered rock, but I was rewarded with a small spray of blood from his wide nostrils. That was for trashing my house.
The ape may have been dying, but it wasn’t fast enough to please me. I jerked the Bowie knife from the floorboards. Wrapping both hands around the handle, I brought it down repeatedly with all the force and violence as I could muster. Blood sprayed on me and splashed across the floor as his body shuddered and went limp. That was for him and his buddies trying to kill me for no reason.
Breathing hard from the exertion, I stared at the mangled bloodied mess I had made. Then I suddenly recalled there’d been four apes and the small one was unaccounted for. Diving across the floor, I grabbed the dropped pistol. Sliding against the doorway, I peeked cautiously, waiting for the fourth one to pop around the corner to plug me.
Instead, the small one with the bow lay motionless in the yard and didn’t look to be breathing. He’d made it several steps before collapsing. I’d gotten lucky with that snapped shot and hit something vital.
They were all dead.
Doc had done a proper job on my stitches. Only one tore loose during the brawl and it looked like I’d survive without it. But I desperately needed a week or two without violence to heal up. Satisfied that I would survive this assault, I inspected my latest kill.
The dead ape in my house lay gashed open from painted chest to throat. I pulled the knife out of him, wiped it off on his fur, and slid it back into its sheath while looking the corpse over.
Simply put, he was large, hairy, and ugly.
His face was a bald patch of wrinkled black skin covering his mouth, lips, and wide flat nose. The rest of his head was covered with the same thick, dark brown hair as his body, leaving only his chest, palms, and bottoms of his feet hair-free.
His chest was thick with muscle and painted with red, green, and white swirls and strange patterns. I scraped off a little of the green paint with my fingers and rubbed it between them. It was clotted with small bits of plant fiber and what looked like what might have been smashed bugs.
What gave me the greatest concern was the skins he wore. I picked up an edge of the hides and ran the leather between my fingers. The pebbled hide was like nothing I had ever seen before. Except on the monster I killed last night. That was foreboding.
A small leather pouch was stitched into the hides he wore. I opened it. Inside were thin strips of leather, a sharp chipped stone knife with leather-bound handle, what looked like flint and pyrite for making fires, and several bright purple fern leaves tightly roiled. I tossed the pouch aside.
The corpse left a long smear of blood across the floor as I dragged him out of the house and rolled him off the side of the porch into a heap with his dead buddies.
I knew the ape was strong. He’d lifted my entire hundred and eighty-five-pound body with a single hand and almost choked me to death. But as I picked up the club and struggled to swing it, I realized just how strong he really was. The handle was smooth dark wood with a reddish tint and small grooves cut to help the bearer keep a grip. The large gray stone at the end had been chipped into shape and bound tightly in place with strips of leather. And it weighed probably forty pounds. Getting hit with one of these would end a man’s life quick, or leave him permanently crippled.
I tugged the arrow out of the wall. It was almost a foot longer than an Indian arrow and twice as thick. The fletching was made of strange greenish-yellow feathers, and the point was of crafted obsidian. The bow that the small ape carried was six feet tall and made from what seemed like a type of carved horn and finely braided gut string. I tried to draw the bow back and gave up after moving the string only a few inches.
The spear was sunk deep into the outside log wall, but with effort, I wiggled it free. Like the club, it was much larger than anything a human could easily wield. The shaft was almost nine feet long and several inches in diameter. Big enough that I could jab with it two handed, but impossible for me to throw. The tip was the same glossy black volcanic rock as used on the arrow.
I dumped the weapons in a pile and stood on the porch with rifle in hand, looking around in bewilderment. Once again, I found myself confused and trying to wrap my head around the notion that not only had I killed a creature that should have been extinct, but also several giant monkey-men.
Just what in the hell was going on?
The breeze ruffled the hair of the apes in the yard and sent small dust devils spinning. Buzzards noticed my new lawn decorations and circled lazily overhead. A sure signal for miles around that something was dead. I’d provided quite the feast for them lately.
I looked at the forest edge and wondered what else was out there. There was no telling anymore.
As I watched Carbine trot back towards the ranch, I knew one thing for certain, I needed to know where these apes came from. Wherever that was, based on the hides they wore, there were more of these dinosaurs. Going without help didn’t appeal to me. But neither did spending most of a day fetching the Sheriff while the trail went cold.
I’d go alone and cautiously. If things went south, I’d ride like hell for town. I glanced at my saddle bags that rested beside the table. Just in case, I’d bring the dynamite along.
I tracked the apes easily enough. The hairy men had followed the dinosaur, which explained how they ended up in my front yard. And that big creature left an easy trail to follow as it stomped through everything, leaving deep clawed tracks, broken branches, and crushed foliage in its wake. Regretfully, the dinosaur’s tracks did like most wild things, they meandered all over the place instead of in a convenient straight line. Eventually the markings broke free of the forest, and out into the open rolling hills of the plains.
I had no idea why the apes would follow the beast. If they were hunting it, then they were more badass than I originally thought and that much more dangerous. But it appeared I was attacked by the apes simply because I had the bad luck of the beast ending up dead at my place.
After a couple hours, I came across the bloody, grisly carcass of one of my steers. All that remained was broken horns attached to a shattered skull, punctured by teeth, and some crunched-up bones amongst shredded scraps of meat and hide. The area was painted with blood and gore for a good ten feet.
Eventually, the beast’s tracks led me to an area of the Granite mountain range further than I’d ever wandered before. The tall prairie grass ended abruptly against the base of cliffs jutting up from the plains and merging into the mountains behind it. Before me, the cliff face rose fifty or sixty feet into the air, complete with tumbled rocks and debris at the bottom and a few scraggly pines striving to survive tucked into small cracks and crevices.
Both the ape and beast tracks led right through a massive tunnel that stretched almost forty feet wide at the bottom and at its highest point, arched twenty feet above me.
But, somehow, impossibly, the tunnel was only eight feet long, and defied everything I knew was possible.
In a daze, I dismounted and squatted on my heels, staring at it, trying to understand how such a thing could exist.
Not only should the mountain range have been miles and miles long, each end of the tunnel was… different.
My side was normal, the other side… not.
What I saw wasn’t possible. It didn’t just break the laws of nature, it shattered them.
There was a clear line of division inside near the center of the tunnel. A line that showed where my side ended and the other began. Nothing in nature is perfectly straight, but this was. The grass on my side, small and thin, ended abruptly where large thick blades of grass and big green and red tinged ferns suddenly began and continued down a small rise where my view ended, showing only a blue sky with several puffy white clouds.
The unseen line continued up edges of the tunnel and along the ceiling, splitting two different types of rock. On my side, it was gray and marbled granite, then it suddenly became limestone. Cracks that began in one side or the other, ended abruptly when they reached the line.
I couldn’t explain it. There should have been a solid mountain right there. But it wasn’t.
The only thing I knew for sure was that apes and the beast came from the other side. The dinosaur appeared to have walked right through it, and wandered off to find a rancher to terrorize. Then the apes, their tracks were muddled together as they crossed through and wandered around the area, apparently as baffled as I was.
I gave up trying to figure it out. To hell with it. I was starting to get a headache. It was simpler just to accept it.
Frustrated and disgusted, I stood and kicked a fist sized rock into the tunnel. As the rock bounced across the unseen line and into the other side, for a brief moment, the air shimmered and tiny ripples spread in every direction.
At that moment, I said a lot of things my mother wouldn’t have wanted me to say. But, in my defense, I was really getting sick of all this strangeness.
Unsure of what I was dealing with, I did what everyone does when confronted with something so strange and bizarre that it challenges your belief in what is real.
Cresting a hill, I slowed Carbine. The town lay exposed in the center of a vast valley below me. It was a beautiful place for a town. Scenic, dotted with small stands of trees, lots of knee-high prairie grass and a gradual incline to the hills that surrounded it.
Personally, I always wondered why western towns never seemed to pick the high ground. It’s as though town founders always desired beauty over a nice hill with an elevation advantage in case of an Indian attack.
Regardless of the lack of a tactical advantage, the location was beautiful.
The town was laid out with the main street running north to south. A half mile to the west a wide river flowed. Cold and fresh, the water ran over a large fall that the town got its name from, and was fed from melting snows and ice in the distant north. Train tracks came into the valley from that direction as well, running on thick log ties and steel rails across the river on a framed bridge to the southern far end of town where the train station and corralled stockyards stood.
I hadn’t been here in over a month, and the place was growing.
In addition to the church finally getting its steeple and bell installed, two more buildings had gone up since my last visit. All nice and neat beside each other in the center of town, with a few more outlying buildings in varying stages of construction.
The single, wide street between the buildings ran over a quarter mile past them, through rows of mismatched tents used for temporary housing and small businesses, and ending at the train station where a locomotive huffed steam as it prepared to depart with a load full of cattle and wool.
Probably five hundred people lived and worked in the town.
It was far too crowded for me, and I preferred to keep a low profile.
Watching the busy town, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the calm before the storm, and something terrible was headed this way. Pushing the dark thoughts away, I touched my heels to Carbine’s flanks to urge him forward.
As I rode into the northern entrance to town, I noticed peoples questioning looks when they saw my battered face. I pulled my Stetson lower over my blackened eyes to avoid the attention.
Passing the newly steepled church, the Reverend stepped out from the shadows of its interior and gave me a friendly wave. A tall, thin man, he wore a flat brimmed black hat, white shirt with suspenders, and a dusty black frock coat. As usual, he carried a dog-eared Bible tucked under an arm.
I gave him a wave in return, but kept moving. He was a good man of the cloth. I got drunk once and found myself in his church one dark night, confessing to him about my sins. He was a good listener who gave even better advice, and was nice enough to not have me arrested. Ever since then, I’d become part of his flock, and he kept an eye out for me.
As for the Sheriff, I wasn’t overly concerned about him. I tried quitting outlawing once before and tried soldiering instead. It didn’t take, but we fought together in the Nez Perce War and the strange twists of fate brought us to the same town years later. But just because we trusted each other with our lives, didn’t mean I trusted him with my past. The less he knew, the better.
After tying Carbine to the hitching post in front of the Sheriffs, I pulled a wrapped bundle from the saddlebags. Stepping onto the boardwalk, I noted the Mayor’s Office had curtains pulled across the windows and a padlock on the door. Strange.
Walking past the locked building, I entered the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Dan was leaned back in his chair, feet propped on the desk, cup of coffee in hand. The polished silver star on his chest shone from the early afternoon light that poured through the open windows. A gun belt was strapped around his waist, and a Winchester repeating shotgun rested on hooks above his head. Old and stern, with a gray beard and bald head, he was the sort of man who would help a fellow out, or fill him full of lead.
He was a great Sheriff like that.
“Afternoon, Jed.” Squinting, he took in my black eyes as I removed my Stetson. “Rough night?”
I waved off his concern with the hat and a half smile. “Don’t worry. It was a fight against overwhelming odds, but I won.”
He shrugged and gestured towards the coffee pot. “As long as I don’t have to arrest you or anyone else. So far, it’s been a pretty good day.”
Taking the battered tin cup beside the pot, I glanced inside. It looked clean, mostly. Ignoring the small dark spot in the bottom, I poured. “Actually… we may have something of a rather large problem,” I took a small sip and grimaced. The coffee was strong enough to float a horseshoe.
He raised an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
“It’s easier to show you,” I tossed the wrapped bundle at him.
Dan spilled coffee as he attempted a one-handed catch. “Dammit, Jed!” He looked at the awkwardly shaped bundle that landed in his lap. “What’s this?”
“A small part of a big problem. Go ahead and look. You wouldn’t believe me otherwise,” I dropped into the chair opposite him and tossed my hat on his desk.
He kicked his feet down and sat upright. Setting his cup on the cluttered desk, he began to unwrap the bundle. My eyes flicked to the board on the wall beside the cells with the Wanted Posters tacked haphazardly over each other. It was an old habit. I never knew if I might see myself or some old buddies on there.
I didn’t see anyone I knew, but there was a couple that I’d heard of before.
As he removed the canvas wrapping, a set of three large black claws and a short length of forearm was exposed. The end was hacked off and bone jutted from the stump.
He stared at it, mouth tight in a grim frown. “What in the hell is this from?”
“I don’t know. But I need you to come out and look at the rest of it,” I looked him in the eye. “If there are more of these… things… that those claws came from, and I suspect there are, folks are going to die.”
I had been worried he wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe what attacked my ranch. But the severed clawed hand seemed to do the trick for piquing his curiosity.
He nodded, gently touching his finger to one of the claw points. “I want to see this thing. Today. Where’s the body?”
“It’s back at my place,” I grimaced. “What’s left of it that is.”
“What do you mean, what’s left of it?”
“Well… I used some dynamite. It’s a long story,” I took another sip of the strong brew.
He shook his head. “Alright, fill me in on the way. But give me an hour or two to wrap a couple of things up and for the deputies to get back from their rounds.” He jerked his thumb towards a man snoring softly in one of the cells behind him. “I’ve also got a drunk with a busted head to kick out when he wakes. You weren’t the only one who had an eventful night.”
I snorted. The deputies were his nephews. “You still using those two buffoons?” I couldn’t stand them. The feeling was mutual.
He glared. “Good help is hard to find. I offered you a badge, remember? You turned it down.”
I did remember, and my concern was that it might burst into flames the moment I pinned it on. Standing, I downed the last mouthful of coffee and sent the cup on his desk. “See you in a bit. I’ve got a couple errands to run.”
“Hey, Jed? Try not to blow anything up while you’re in town.”
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep, Dan,” I gave him a sly wink.
With a disapproving grunt, he wrapped the canvas back around the severed limb and tossed it to me.
Since I had time to kill, I put the severed claw back in the saddlebags and crossed the street to the Bucket O’ Blood. The name was misleading. It wasn’t that violent of a place, but the owner was something of a joker who figured the name would spur interest.
Personally, I thought people tended to stay away from establishments where they might get shot. But I could use a drink, time of the day be damned. Hopefully, it would take away some of the dull aches throbbing through my body.
I pushed through the batwing doors and paused, blinking rapidly to allow my eyes to adjust to the dim interior. I hated this moment. It always seemed like a good time for a man with a grudge to plug you with a bullet.
After a few seconds and no gunshots, I could see well enough to make my way to the bar.
Being midday, there wasn’t much going on. A few rough-looking characters at the end of the bar stared at me. One said something, and his friends laughed in response. They looked like miners blowing off some steam and probably pissing away whatever gold they’d scraped out of a claim. At least one had a pistol tucked into his waistband that I could see. A sawed-off shotgun rested on the bar amongst their bottles.
A couple of working girls lounged by the piano, talking in low tones and most likely, nursing hangovers. One raven haired beauty smiled at me, showing a wide gap between her front teeth.
Giving her a big grin, I tipped my hat in return. I didn’t partake in working girls, but I didn’t disrespect them either. My mother raised me right like that.
In the far corner, a man sat with his back to the wall, idly shuffling cards. His tan flat-brimmed hat was tipped low, obscuring the top half of his face. An empty bottle and several glasses were scattered on the table before him from a game long finished.
Other than that, it was dead in here.
For a moment, I considered telling them I’d been attacked by a giant beast. But I didn’t want the reputation of being the local crazy who went around shouting about monsters in the darkness.
I’d let the Sheriff do that.
The bartender put down the glass he was cleaning with a filthy rag and walked over as I gingerly leaned against the polished bar. He took in my face.
“You look like you could use some whiskey.”
“Yeah, the cheap stuff,” I didn’t think I’d be able to afford anything nice for a while. Not until I made the long ride to the last of the loot I had cached. Stupid monster.
Reaching under the bar, he pulled out a brown unmarked bottle and shot glass. He poured a slug and started to put the bottle away, before looking at my face again and appearing to think better of it. He lifted the bottle questioningly.
I knew I couldn’t drink an entire bottle and make the ride back home without falling out of the saddle. But I could always cork it and take it home for later. I gave him a nod, and he pushed them both towards me.
I dug a couple coins out and slid them over.
Scooping them up, he gestured at my face. “That’s pretty fresh. How does the other guy look?”
I decided to be vague instead of crazy. “A little rougher than me.”
The bartender must have decided he didn’t care to dig any deeper, and simply nodded. If I’d broken the law, my money was good up until the moment I was arrested. Why hurry things along with a paying customer?
“Where’s Left Arm?” I asked.
Left Arm O’Malley was the jokester who owned the bar. A veteran of the War Between the States, he was missing his right arm. Hence, the name. Rumor was a cannon ball took it off at the Siege of Vicksburg, but the man himself always came up with new amusing stories as to how it happened. Last one I heard involved him being shanghaied onto a ship and a mermaid gnawing it off after a copulation of sorts. He was kind of an odd fellow like that.
“Went to Rock Springs for a few days. Family troubles,” he nodded at the bottle. “Let me know if you need another.”
“Thanks.” I wouldn’t.
The far end of the room was getting noisy. One of the miners looked down the bar before turning back and thumbing over his shoulder towards me with a laugh. They looked like trouble, and weren’t even trying to be subtle about it.
I picked up the bottle and glass and moved to a table where I could keep an eye on the door and the miners, but also look out the window at the scenery. Right now, that consisted of Carbine across the street, lifting his tail and dropping a pile of manure.
Dropping my hat on the table, I settled into a rickety chair that wobbled from uneven legs.
The gambler in the corner rose from his seat and walked over. “Mind some company?”
He wore a dark suit with silver vest and had a fair complexion and bright blue eyes. For such a well-dressed, casual-looking fellow, there was something about him that I couldn’t put my finger on. But gave off the impression that he wasn’t someone who shouldn’t be trifled with.
Even though drinking in silence appealed to me, I figured I might get some local gossip out of him. With a short nod, I pointed towards the chair beside him. “Suit yourself.”
He dropped the deck of cards on the table and shifted the seat slightly, moving to keep the door in view. As he sat, his coat flared open for a moment, revealing twin pistol butts sticking out of his vest.
Apparently, my impression was correct. He wasn’t a gambler, he was a gunman.
Waving a hand, he caught the bartender’s attention and gestured at my bottle and glass and then himself. The bartender brought another pair over and wordlessly set them on the table. My new drinking companion peeled a bill off a tightly folded wad of cash, handed it to him, and accepted his change in return.
Looking at me, he smiled. Bright white, straight teeth flashed as he poured a shot, then downed it in a single swallow. He slapped the glass onto the table and picked up the deck. Idly shuffling the cards between his hands, he squinted at me from under the brim of his hat. “Care for some poker?”
“No thanks. I never was any good at cards.”
He re-shuffled and pushed the stack to the side of the table, before straightening them into a neat stack with his fingers. “Me neither, but it passes the time.”
I doubted that, I knew a hustle when I heard one.
“Maybe we both just need more practice,” he offered, still trying.
“Oh, I’ve had enough practice losing to know when I should stop.”
He chuckled. “No offense intended, but that’s a little funny coming from a man with two black eyes and a busted scalp.”
“The only game I’ve won at so far is staying alive.” I took a sip of the rotgut whiskey. It was awful. I fought to keep my face from pinching up at the taste. “But eventually, the house will win.”
“I’ll certainly drink to that.”
“Please do.” We both topped off our glasses.
Loud, raucous laughter drifted over from the miners. One of them leaned back against the bar and stared in our direction. He was a big man with chubby red cheeks and crossed arms over a belly hanging over his belt. He looked like the sort of bully who’d always been big and became accustomed to getting their way out of fear and intimidation based on size alone.
I immediately disliked him.
He smirked. The other miners remained hunched over the bar, their backs convulsing with laughter and occasionally glancing at our table.
My drinking companion watched them before meeting my eyes. “I think they’re making fun of you.”
“I believe you’re right.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
I shrugged. “Sure, it does. But I also don’t feel like brawling. My face hurts, along with everything else.”
“The lady by the piano seemed to think you were handsome enough all busted up. Women like scars. This might be a good chance for some more.”
I laughed, a bit too loudly. If only he knew the scars I carried. There was such a thing as too many. “I’m even better-looking without these bruises,” I joked as I reached across the table and introduced myself, “Jedidiah Smith.”
He looked at my hand for a moment before shaking it firmly. “Jedidiah Smith…” he said the name slowly, as though suspecting it was fake. “I’m Wesley Clemmons.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Wesley.”
“Hey, YOU!” The yell came from one of the miners.
I sighed and turned towards the obnoxious group.
“Yeah, you. With the ugly face,” the big man staggered away from his snickering companions, a malicious grin stretching across his reddened face. He was looking for trouble, and who better to pick on than someone already wounded. The bartender edged away from the miners as the working ladies turned to watch.
Wesley winked at me with a sideways grin. “Trouble seems to follow you.”
Ignoring him, I took a heavy slug, this time straight from the bottle. If this went badly, I might as well dull the inevitable pain beforehand.
The drunk man stopped in front of us, rocking back on his heels slightly as he swayed. He laughed harshly. Spit flecked out of his mouth and landed on the table. Wesley raised an eyebrow at him in disdain.
The drunk turned to me, his words slurring. “Yeah, you,” he snorted. “With a face like that, you remind me of the last squaw I had.”
Oh lovely, an abuser of Indian women. I sized him up.
He was an ugly, mean looking fellow. A front tooth was missing, others were yellowed and rotten. Black stubble decorated his large jowls. He outweighed me by a good thirty pounds and reeked of booze and stale sweat.
With his friends watching, I knew I wasn’t getting out of this without a fight. And since making him angry might work out to my advantage, I figured I may as well go all in. “Was she blind or dumb?”
“Blind… what?” He looked baffled at my unexpected response and squinted, trying to focus on me then he swayed and staggered back a step, almost losing his balance. He grabbed the top of a chair to steady himself.
Wesley laughed and sipped his drink.
The drunk’s confusion turned to anger at the confrontation not going the way he thought it would. “Listen here, you-”
I cut him off, my temper flaring at the man who was bothering me with the intent of impressing his obnoxious friends. “Because any woman who would willingly have a fat, nasty slug like you must be blind, dumb, or both.”
His face flushed crimson, veins bulged at his temples as he reached for me.
I stood swiftly. A flash of surprise crossed his face as I knocked his arms aside, stepped close, and swung as hard and fast as I could. The uppercut connected beneath his chin with a meaty thud that sent a bolt of pain shooting down my wrist as my knuckles connected.
I’ll give him credit.
I put everything I had behind that blow, and he didn’t have a glass jaw.
Instead of dropping, he staggered back several paces, rubbed the stubble on his chin, and looked a whole lot angrier and soberer.
Wesley chuckled and refilled his glass.
The miner bent and lunged forward, his shoulder driving into my waist and pushing me backward as we fell together. Our combined weight was more than a match for my rickety chair. It shattered, broken boards dug and jabbed into my back as we grappled on the floor.
Gasping from the miner’s heavy weight pressing down on my chest, I punched him in the side repeatedly with no noticeable effect as he drunkenly threw haymakers at my face. I took several glancing blows along the skull before he hit me solidly in the face. My nose bore the brunt of his fist. The pain was excruciating. My eyes watered. The next punch busted my lips, and the taste of blood filled my mouth.
Anger burned through me. Giving up on striking him, I grabbed the sides of his head with both hands and dug my thumbs into his eyes. I was going to gouge them out of his skull for his transgressions.
He screamed and shoved himself backward, jerking his head out of my grip and rising unsteadily on his feet.
Scrambling to my feet, I spat blood on the floor.
He swayed drunkenly, rubbing his eyes and squinting through the tears.
Behind him, I saw his friends straighten. One grabbed the shotgun off the bar. They didn’t look happy.
I didn’t care. I was too pissed off now to stop.
Closing in, I grabbed the big drunk by his collar and belt buckle. With a sharp pivot, I felt stitches tear across my chest as I hurled the heavier man over a hip onto the table. Wesley jerked his glass out of the way as the table shattered, scattering bottles and playing cards across the floor.
The drunk grunted on impact, gasping for breath, eyes wide with the sudden shock and pain.
My face and chest hurt something fierce. Dropping to a knee, I grabbed him by the front of his dirty shirt and jerked up as I slammed my fist down. His head snapped backwards as blood splattered from smashed lips.
He gurgled something through shattered teeth that didn’t sound like an apology.
I smashed my fist down again. His nose crunched beneath my knuckles, and his eyes rolled back into his skull. I dropped him on the shattered remains of the table and chair. My breath came in ragged gasps, and all my previous injuries hurt anew. But compared to last night’s monster, this guy wasn’t squat.
Reaching across his unconscious body, I grabbed a bottle that lay gurgling as it poured out cheap booze and took a healthy swig through busted lips. The whiskey burned like a red-hot poker. It felt wonderful.
“Get offa him!”
His friends had reached us.
The two other miners stopped a handful of feet away and they weren’t laughing anymore. One was young and wore a derby hat cocked at a foolish angle, exposing greasy hair underneath. He carried the shotgun, and had a wild, drunken look in his eyes. The other one appeared a little soberer and eyed me warily as I noted the revolver stuffed down the front of his trousers.
“Look what that sumbitch did to Timmy!” The man with the shotgun shouted as he pointed the short barrels towards his friend on the floor.
I slowly pushed myself to my feet and looked for the bartender. O’Malley kept a shotgun under the bar for stopping things just like this from going too far in his establishment. But the bartender wasn’t in sight. That was just peachy.
The ladies had disappeared as well. Fist fights were considered good, wholesome entertainment. Gunfights, not so much, and no one wanted to take a stray round from a shootout that didn’t involve them.
The sober one looked me up and down before putting a hand on the hothead’s shoulder. “Let it go, it was just a bar fight. He didn’t start it and he took his licks.”
The one with the shotgun shrugged off the hand. “Don’t matter. He almost killed him!” His small beady eyes glared from under his ridiculous hat. “You’ll pay for that.”
I flexed my hands to loosen them up, they trembled from excitement, and my knuckles were skinned raw. Drawing was going to be difficult. But I couldn’t help myself and shoved the unconscious man with the toe of my boot. He moaned. “Pay for this, huh? What’s the sorry turd worth to you?” I grinned at my own joke painfully.
The wild eyed drunk jerked the shotgun up and shoved it in my face.
I stared down the large double barrels. The shotgun was a ten gauge by the looks of them. Things were about to get very western.
“How about I blow you through that window?” he sneered.
None of my options were good, especially with a drunk wild card behind the trigger. The best I could hope for was his inebriated state would slow down his reflexes. I braced myself to slap the barrel away and draw. Maybe I’d get lucky. If I didn’t it’d be a quick, if messy, death.
“Easy gents. It’s over. No need to for this to get any uglier,” Wesley spoke up, his voice calm and even. He still sat in his chair, his body turned slightly to face them. He gave an easy smile, before knocking back his drink without taking his eyes off them. He rested the empty shot glass on his leg.
The shotgun hammer cocked loudly, as the hot-headed miner swung the barrels towards Wesley. “Try and stop me, you pretty boy dandy-”
Wesley’s first shot caught the miner in the throat, a split-second before the second burst through the bridge of his nose and blew his derby hat along with a spray of blood, brains, and bits of bone a good six feet behind him. The shotgun clattered to the floor as the dead man collapsed in a heap.
If it hadn’t been for the sudden appearance of two holes, I’d have sworn it was one shot. The Colt Lightning that magically appeared in Wesley’s hand turned, unwavering, at the last man standing.
The dead man’s partner froze in shock. Droplets of gore splattered his face and shirt. A wet patch spread from his thigh, running down a pant leg and into his boot. He slowly raised his hands, eyes large and frightened as he stammered, “No! No! No trouble.”
“Keep your hand off that pistol, and there won’t be any,” Wesley said, his voice suddenly hard and the easy-going attitude gone.
The miner carefully kept his hand away from the gun as he slowly gestured towards the unconscious man. “Just… Just let me get Timmy, and we’ll go,” his voice trembled and quavered.
“Go ahead. Then git.” Wesley twitched his pistol barrel slightly towards the door in emphasis.
I put my hands on my hips and tried to breathe around the blood clogging my nose. I suddenly felt tired and out of breath.
The man roused his friend enough to pull him to his feet. The drunk managed a couple steps before a leg buckled and they both almost collapsed to the floor. The unwounded miner shot us a glare, before steadying his semi-conscience friend and half carrying him out the bat wing doors.
Wesley kept his pistol pointed at the double doors until they stopped swinging, then twirled the gun before smoothly sliding it into a holster hidden under his vest.
“It appears we made some enemies,” I said flatly, probing my teeth with my tongue. None felt loose, thank goodness.
“Anyone worth a hoot has them. You just got to outlive them is all,” he patted his concealed pistols to emphasize his point. “But you were right, Jed. You do seem to win the ones that matter, if only by a slight margin.”
I nodded slowly and unbuttoned the top of my checkered shirt to look at my chest. Several stitches had torn through the skin, small droplets of blood beaded and trickled down my stomach. I was going to have to get myself sewn back up again. “This time, you were that slight margin. It might have gone differently without your help.”
“I’d rather have kept out of it, but I do detest people shooting my drinking partner.”
Leaning forward, he carefully shifting his boots to avoid the growing pool of blood as he rifled through the dead man’s pocket. He pulled out three gold eagles and several folded bank notes. Keeping one coin for himself with the paper money, he handed the other two shiny gold eagles to me with a conspiring wink. “This is for our emotional distress over this sad matter.”
I shrugged and accepted the coins. Looting the dead was nothing new for me, and most likely they’d be snatched up by one of the working girls, or that cowardly bartender.
The working girls carefully walked down the stairs to see the results of the shooting as I shook the gunman’s hand.
“Really, Jed?” Wesley held his hand up to show that I’d smeared blood on it.
I laughed and rebuttoned my shirt.
Since Wesley wasn’t interested in the shotgun, I scooped it off the floor on the way out. It was an old Stoeger Coach shotgun with exposed hammers. My guess on the gauge was correct, it was a big ten. The barrels were cut down and the stock shortened into a rounded grip. A handy size, with a helluva kick and the ability to make big holes in a man. And it was mine now. To the victors go the spoils.
I stepped into the sunlight just in time for the bartender to step onto the boardwalk with the Sheriff.
Dan took in my freshly bloodied face and sighed angrily as he shifted from one foot to the other. “Jed, what did I tell you?”
“I didn’t blow anything up,” I growled. “The other guys started it. We were minding our own business, sipping whiskey, and one of them started a brawl. After I beat his ass, another one threw down on us with this scatter gun,” I raised my new shotgun for emphasis before jerking my head towards the bar. “The fellow in there shot him in self-defense.” I didn’t mention that I started the brawl by throwing the first punch. But I’m not the sort of man who gives anyone a free swing at me before I fight back.
Dan pointed at the shotgun. “You know that’s evidence, right?”
I shrugged as innocently as I could manage.
“Fine, I know where you live anyways,” he looked at me sideways. “Do I need to get one of my deputies to escort you around town? You seem like you’re having a hard time staying out of trouble.”
The last thing I wanted was one of those clowns following me around, and he knew it. I also knew it wasn’t an idle threat. “I’ll try harder. Promise.”
Dan shook his head in disgust, rested his rifle on a shoulder and walked past me into the saloon with the unhappy looking bartender in tow.
Final editing just isn’t fun… But it’s going well. Like shooting, where trigger time equates to increased skill and accuracy, time on a keyboard equates to increased writing skill. So we are getting there, slowly, painfully… word by word…edit by edit…
Anywho – here’s the intro to ‘The Greatest Magnificent Seven/Planet of the Apes/Jurassic Park Combo you will ever read’.
Enjoy the violence.
And give feedback. I don’t give a hoot about my feelings, what’s more important is to churn out a solid, good quality, and entertaining product.
PS – WordPress has a new blog editor, and it stinks. So there may be some funny spacing and whatnot. (But any grammar errors are mine unfortunately.)
Circling buzzards made the killing field easy enough to find.
The soldier’s bodies were scattered for a half mile across the open prairie. Mangled, crushed, gnawed on. They’d made a running fight of it, but were slaughtered anyway.
A dozen men. Armed with the finest weapons and equipment since the War Between the States. Trained and experienced in fighting Indians, rustlers, and outlaws.
For all the good that did them.
All I could find was a couple of dead apes and a single wounded triceratops.
Sending the squad out had been the Lieutenants decision. I didn’t blame him. He didn’t have a choice. But with the loss of these men, our low chances of survival dropped even further.
Turning my horse around, I touched heels to his flanks, leaving the weapons and gear for the Indians to find. They were going to need them.
As for me?
My name is Jedidiah Huckleberry Smith.
And I’m probably going to die as well.
Two weeks earlier.
Smith Ranch, Wyoming Territory
The wedge on the heavy axe burst through the wood with a satisfying thunk, sending splinters flying as the log split apart. The twin chunks toppled off the large stump. Picking one of the pieces, I set it to be split again, then rested on the axe handle.
With a gloved hand, I pushed my soaked mop of unruly black hair out of my eyes and blinked as a drop of sweat trickled into my eye. My shoulders ached, and my stomach growled. It was almost quitting time.
My horse Carbine, a beautiful dun gelding, stomped his hooves, impatient that he had to stay harnessed to the wagon while waiting for me to finish my work. Ignoring him, I stretched. As my back arched, I felt the familiar tugging from the large mass of decades old scar tissue.
The scars were a constant reminder of the singular day that changed the course of my life, and ultimately led me to where I was now. Living in isolation on a small cattle ranch, a fugitive from justice, a former outlaw… a damaged man. And somewhere out there, someone owed me a debt of blood for the scars. Someone who’d eluded me almost my entire life. Someone who may very well already be dead, but not by my hand. I wasn’t sure which was worse, him still breathing, or someone else stealing the pleasure of taking his life.
The angry thoughts shifted my mood darker, and I quickly swung the axe over my shoulders and slammed the angular blade down with far more force than necessary. The explosion of splinters as the fractioned log burst apart did nothing to ease the hot anger that boiled up from within.
It was the sort of rage that made me want to stop this foolish charade of being a law-abiding citizen and go back to hunting him down. But that was pointless, there were no trails left to follow. They’d all gone cold years ago.
I swallowed hard and forced myself to take deep breaths. That was an old story. That wasn’t me anymore. For two years now, I’d begun to put down roots. And for once in my life, I was actually invested in something good and solid. Something that wouldn’t shoot back at me.
Putting my hands on my hips, I looked around the pasture and was pleased with the amount of work I’d accomplished today. It was hard work, but rewarding. Felling trees then sawing and chopping them into firewood was the hard part, the rewarding part was blowing the stumps up with dynamite. My ears still rang.
In the distance, storm clouds were gathering above the Granite Mountains and making their way towards me. It looked like a real dozy, but I was done for the day anyways. Tossing the axe and saws into the wagon, I threw a few more pieces of split wood into the back to top the load off.
Taking the gun belt down that rested on the seat of the wagon, I buckled it around my waist and climbed aboard. Call it a natural impulse, but I had a very rational fear of being unarmed. Without my Colt Peacemaker on one side, balanced by a nine-and-a-half-inch Bowie on the other, I may as well have been naked.
Carbine looked over his shoulder, and I could tell he was displeased. He was pulling double duty today as my mare, Elsa, was lamed in the barn. Slapping the reins on his back, the tan gelding leaned into his harness and the heavily laden wagon began to roll.
Relaxing as much as possible on the bumpy ride, I watched nearby cattle move into the trees to avoid the storm. My spread wasn’t that big, but if my small herd kept growing, I’d need to hire some ranch hands on. That would be a hassle all on its own. In the meantime, being alone suited me just fine.
Once we reached the house, I stopped my horse and lashed a canvas sheet over the firewood, before turning him loose in the fenced corral beside the barn.
As I bent over to lock the gate behind him, Carbine snatched the hat off my head and trotted off, the black battered Stetson dangling from between his lips. He dropped it a dozen yards away and pranced in a circle, flipping his black mane and tail happily.
Swearing, I crawled through the creaking rails of the corral and picked the hat up. I considered smacking him with it, but he kept his distance, as if knowing my intentions. Instead, I slapped it against my leg a few times to knock the fresh dirt and slobber off.
It figures. I’ve two horses, one is lame and the other is an asshole.
I watched him happily trot into the pole shed built against the barn. That was his favorite spot to stand in the shade and spend the night. Even with the big storm coming in, I wasn’t concerned, the walled sides and shingled roof would protect him from the worst of it.
As a light rain began to fall and the distant rumble of thunder grew louder, I pulled the axe, saw, and leftover dynamite from the wagon and hauled them to the barn. The doors were closed, and as usual, stuck shut. I kicked, swore, jerked, and tugged on them before I finally got one open. They were wretched things, big and stout, as all things in the west needed to be. But they were a constant aggravation and I was certain they were going to be the death of me. One of these days, I’d split a gut forcing them open, and die writhing in the dirt as they towered over me, locked shut in their mockery.
But the barn itself was a great big thing. A story and a half tall, with a wide opening down the center and several stalls along the side. It was big enough to hold over a dozen cattle or horses with room to spare. Hay was kept in the loft, gradually added to through the short summer in preparation for keeping my critters alive in case of a long, hard winter.
Dropping the tools at the end of the barn by the small back door, I stopped by Elsa’s stall to feed her an apple. It’d only been two days since I noticed her favoring her right leg. The swelling had gone done, but she still favored it and needed more rest.
Unlike Carbine, she was a good horse.
I gave her a good scratch on her withers before jogging through the rain and onto the porch of my one room ranch house. Stopping at the door, I turned and watched the swirling gray clouds grow nearer. It looked like we were in for a big one. The toe of my boot hit something as I opened the door. My saddle sat next to the rocking chair where I’d mended some stitching this morning. It needed to be put away still, but I wasn’t about to lug it through the rain to the barn now. It’d be fine here for the night.
Lightning split the distant sky, and I counted the seconds before the boom reached me. It’d be here soon, and it was just getting warmed up. Knocking mud clumps from my boots, I stepped inside to settle in for the night.
The terrified scream of a horse jerked me awake and out of bed.
Two long strides and I was peeking through the cross shaped firing port in the closed shutter.
With the storm blocking most of the moonlight, visibility was limited. I couldn’t see much of anything, and all I heard was the drumming of rain and wind.
It was times like this when I was thankful that I didn’t sleep naked.
I jerked boots on over bare feet and slung the thick leather gun belt around my cotton threaded drawers. From above the door, I took down a well-worn Winchester 1873 rifle, I worked the lever, jacking a cartridge into the chamber. Immediately, I felt the reassuring comfort that only ample amounts of firepower can give a man when he faces unknown things that go bump in the night.
I waited, standing still, listening for any noises. Still nothing but the gentle patter of falling rain on the roof and wind whistling by.
Lighting a lantern, I stepped into the storm.
The rain was falling at a slant, cutting underneath the roof on the porch and soaking me. I regretted not grabbing my slicker.
The rain plastered my hair to my scalp and I shuddered as the cold water ran down my bare chest and back before soaking into my underwear. The lantern gave off a low glow, fighting to penetrate through the rain and darkness.
I moved across the yard to the corral as the open barn door squeaked on its hinges. Lightning flashed across the sky and several long moments later the rumbling thunder washed over me.
Holding the lantern out, I saw the top rail of the corral was knocked off while the one underneath lay splintered and broken on the ground.
I inspected the damage and area around it. No sign of blood or struggle, just a single set of hoof tracks leading away towards the forest at a run. It was obvious Carbine broke through the fence, but why? This storm was bad, but it wasn’t the worse we’d been through, and it wasn’t like him to leave shelter.
Lightning flashed again, illuminating the empty corral and splitting a tree at the edge of the forest. The boom of thunder hit me a split second later. I felt that through my bones as the wind picked up, and the heavy barn door thumped as it bounced against the board siding.
A couple of soft thuds came from inside the building and I took a few steps towards the barn, uncertain of what I’d heard. There was another thud, followed by a crunching, like branches being stepped on. Then what sounded like a snort and a tearing noise, then more crunching.
I shook my head, it was hard to make out. Rain was pounding my body, trees were groaning and cracking in the heavy wind, and the rumble of thunder rolled over me. I tried to listen again and could make out nothing in the noises of the storm and repeated thumping of the door.
Puzzled, I figured I may as well check on Elsa.
Rain poured heavily down from the angled roof, putting a sheet of falling water between myself and the inside of the barn. A hard wind gust hit me, and I staggered before leaning into it.
Frustrated with the pounding wind and cold rain, I raised the lantern and ducked through the sheet of water and into the barn. It covered me, soaking whatever tiny bits of my body that had remained dry so far.
I took two steps inside, blinking rapidly to clear the water from my eyes, and then I skidded to a sudden stop.
There was a monster in the barn.
Facing away from me, the giant beast swung its head over a shoulder and glared.
The creature had a thick, heavy head, almost reptilian in appearance. Something dangled from clenched teeth. Dark liquid dripped from jaws and onto the dirt floor. Black eyes reflected lantern light, giving off a sinister appearance. Two bony ridges started above the slanted nostrils, growing larger as they ran along its head and flared out above the eyes before ending at the top of its skull. Small bumps and ridges ran down the back of its neck along its spine.
A large, thick tail was raised slightly into the air, tapering to a point, close enough I could have reached out and touched it. Muscular and powerful hind legs held the rear end up, while the front arms dug claws into Elsa’s body.
My sweet, injured horse lay ripped open, entrails and ribbons of torn flesh strewn amongst the shattered boards of her stall.
Shocked, I realized it was a hind leg that dangled from the beast’s mouth. Broken shards of bone glistened palely from the lantern light amongst the darkened flesh.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. My mind couldn’t comprehend what was in front of me.
The barn door thumped behind me in the wind.
The severed limb was dropped with a sickly wet thud and the monster snorted softly, tilting its head to the side. It sniffed, as though trying to figure out what small creature would dare approach so boldly.
We stared at each other in the glow of the lantern, the moments stretching, then a strong gust of wind slammed the door shut behind me with a boom that shook the building.
That broke the magical moment.
I flinched as the monster roared, the noise assaulting my ears and revealing rows of large curved teeth coated with blood and bits of flesh. The stench was overpowering and nauseating. Droplets of blood and pieces of Elsa flew from its mouth, splattering against my chest and face.
Forgetting the rifle in my hands, I turned and ran face first into the door.
It didn’t budge. It was stuck. It was always stuck.
I shoved with a shoulder, throwing all my weight against the rough boards.
Screaming in rage, I stepped back and kicked in a last-ditch attempt to force it open.
The creature turned in the confines of the hallway to face me, its tail slamming into stalls and the center beam with an audible crack.
The second-floor joists creaked and groaned as the heavy weight of hay shifted on the broken post.
I quickly looked for a way out. The large double doors were jammed shut. The windows in the stalls were too narrow to fit through. That left only the small door at the far end of the barn. But the beast stood between myself and my escape.
The creature lunged, mouth agape and teeth bared.
Diving to the side, I dropped the lantern and it burst, spewing flaming oil as I rolled away.
The monster’s mouth snapped shut where I’d been a moment before, then the creature jerked back, hissing, as it recoiled from the explosion of flames.
Kneeling, I gripped the rifle tighter.
It was time to fight back.
Jerking the smooth wood stock against my shoulder, I squeezed the trigger, sending a 200-grain bullet into the beast’s chest.
Instinctively, I shucked the lever and fired again without waiting to see its reaction. Because I had ten rounds and I intended to use them all to send this creature back to the hell it came from. I worked the rifle quickly, peppering the beast with bullet after bullet.
Roaring in pain and anger, the creature lunged.
I flung myself aside, stumbling as I tried to avoid the spreading flames and slamming my face into the roughhewn boards of a stall.
Pain shot through my skull and tears welled as the rifle flew from my grasp.
Blinking, I rolled desperately as a clawed arm swiped at me. A sharp line of pain flashed hot across my chest. But the stall saved me by taking the brunt of the blow, shards of wood showered down on me.
I scrambled backwards, trying to put more distance between us. Blood trickled down my chest, but I ignored the wound. If I didn’t die in the immediate future, I’d worry about it later.
The beast turned after me, its tail slashing through the smoke and slamming the stuck door open. Storm winds fanned the flames higher.
The interior of the barn became a flickering smoke-filled haze as the fire spread, licking the sides of the stalls and along the door jam.
Smoke wafted around the monster, illuminating it with dancing shadows. Dark fluid oozed from puckered holes where my bullets had found their target.
I stood carefully, bracing myself to move for another sudden attack.
The monster watched, eyes following my movements. It slowly rose on hind legs, the thick tail dropping to the floor, front arms spread with claws extended. The gaping maw of bloodied jagged teeth was open.
I could taste its rotten breath in the air.
The beast reared back slightly, its mouth opening impossibly wide as it prepared to strike.
This time, I was ready.
Drawing my pistol, I fired from the hip.
Retreating, I shot all five rounds from the Peacemaker. Each bullet hit a little higher than the last as I rode the recoil and worked my shots up its large body. The final bullet skimmed along the beast’s snout, slicing open a flap of skin, exposing bone, and blowing out one of the creature’s eye sockets.
The monster roared and thrashed its arms, pawing at the wound that partially blinded it.
Damn thing just wouldn’t die.
Turning to run, I tripped over Elsa’s remains. Blood, organs, and rendered flesh squished under my weight. My hand went into her stomach. Gagging, I slipped off her corpse into a stall.
The boards gave me a moment of concealment, but I had no illusion about their usefulness as protection. The strength of the beast would make short work of my hiding spot.
Flipping the barrel of the revolver up, I rotated the cylinder and quickly dumped the empty shells. With gore covered fingers, I began to reload, carefully feeding cartridges into the empty chambers, one by one. Each turn of the cylinder made a quiet snick that I prayed the monster didn’t hear.
Lightning struck nearby, temporarily overwhelming my senses with the painful crack of electricity.
Wincing, I froze.
The barn was silent, except for the crackle of growing flames, and a low rhythmic hissing.
Smoke drifted into the stall, burning my eyes and lungs. I fought to stifle a cough.
Black claws gripped the wood rail above me suddenly and I cringed lower as it splintered and broke. The beast leaned forward, searching the barn with its good eye. Blood trickled slowly off the creatures pebbled hide and splattered onto my bare shoulders.
I only had two cartridges loaded. Fearful of making a noise, I eased the loading gate on the pistol shut over the cylinder, wincing at the tiny click it gave. Tilting the barrel upwards, I pointed it under the monster’s jaw and began taking up the slack on the trigger.
The beast suddenly jerked back out of sight.
I gave a small sigh of relief.
Violently, I was catapulted forward onto my face as the damaged reptilian head slammed through the wall of the stall I’d been leaning against.
Teeth snapped shut as I scrambled away and rolled onto my back. The beasts head jutted through the shattered boards, snarling and snapping as it strained to get me. Nails shrieked as the wall threatened to tear away form the posts at any moment.
Firmly gripping the pistol tightly with both hands, I raised my head and fired between my knees.
The bullet hit and skimmed along the thick skull like the last, gashing open another flap of thick skin and exposing bone. The monster jerked at the pain and my remaining shot punched into a shoulder.
Screaming in rage, I resisted the temptation to hurl my empty pistol at its bloodied face.
The beast wrenched its head back and forth, struggling to pull back through the jagged broken wall. Boards, bent inward from the creature’s intrusion, pushed against the back of the monster’s skull. The boards tightened and dug into flesh as it fought to free itself. The foul creature hissed and snapped forward at me again.
I shoved my pistol into its holster, crawled into the open room and around Elsa’s mutilated remains.
The smoke was harsh and with nowhere to go, was filling the barn. I coughed and hacked as it threatened to suffocate me. Looking past the thrashing beasts tail, I saw my rifle near the entrance with flames licking around the barrel. Desperate for a loaded weapon, I slid across the packed dirt floor and scooped up the rifle. The barrel was hot, the stock singed in places, but thankfully the rounds hadn’t cooked off from the heat yet.
The beast roared, grabbing and ripping at the broken boards trapping its head with its claws. Splayed feet dug into the ground as it leveraged its thick hind quarters to break through the wood. The tail thrashed back and forth, flinging tools and equipment across the floor and into the flames.
Bits of burning hay from the rafters above fell between us as the flames reached the top level.
The large front door was still open, but a raging inferno stood between me and my escape.
The only option was still the small door in the far end. And in my desperation for a loaded weapon, I foolishly made the horrible mistake of putting the monster back between me and my exit.
With a mighty jerk, the creature pulled itself free and backed into the cracked center post.
The center of the barn crashed down, dropping burning debris, and stopping a mere handful of feet above the beast, supported by broken and creaking joists that threatened to snap at any moment. Flames whooshed higher from the air entering through the shattered roof, fanning them to towering heights as rain poured in and fought to quench them. The air cleared slightly as the smoke rose and billowed out above us.
Amidst the flames and smoke, I looked at the bloodied harbinger of death and terror before me.
Blood oozed from the monster’s wounds, bits of splintered wood embedded in its flesh, and one eye was a gaping ruin seeping blood from the mangled socket. A front arm hung low, the bullet I fired into its shoulder having done damage to some tendons.
I racked the lever and savored the snick of the action closing on a fresh round. I didn’t know how many bullets were left in the tube. Four? Five?
Didn’t matter. If I was going to be eaten, the beast would have to gnaw through my empty guns first.
The creature charged with a roar.
Adrenaline and fear gave speed to my hands. I jerked the barrel up and stroked the action, firing faster than I ever had before.
My aim was true.
The monstrosity twitched and shuddered as it absorbed the rounds, slowing down as massive tissue damage and blood loss weakened the beast. But it still didn’t stop coming.
In desperation, I shoved the rifle in front of me and wedged it horizontally into the creatures open mouth. The large teeth clamped down, narrowly missing my hands. Its gnarled tongue slapped against wood forearm as the stock splintered and broke. Even in its weakened state, its strength far surpassed my own.
Hot, rotten breath bathed me as the beast pushed me backwards towards the raging fire.
I screamed as the heat became unbearable and let go of the gun, diving aside before I was pushed into the blazing hot inferno.
The beast’s head thrust into the flames. It sizzled and popped as skin and raw wounds burned. The creature tried to roar around the rifle jutting out from each side of its mouth. A flailing arm backhanded me and flung me like a rag doll.
I hit the ground with a heavy thud.
Forcing myself up, I ran around the struggling creature to the rear of the barn, dodging bundles of flaming hay raining down.
The monster thrashed, slamming into broken stalls and beams as it tried to dislodge the jammed rifle from its mouth.
The front of the barn shuddered under the impacts. It was a miracle the structure was still standing and hadn’t collapsed already.
The barn had become a hellfire with a demon trapped inside, roaring in pain and anger. Smoke swirled around the beast, while rain dripped through the broken roof and fought the spreading flames.
Reaching the back door, I paused as I saw my tools from earlier. Next to the wedged head of the axe sat a small marked wooden chest with rope handles. Jerking the lid off, I spied the leftover cardboard wrapped sticks of dynamite from earlier.
This was more like it.
I grabbed a blast cap and jammed it onto the explosive. Twisting the fuse around my fingers, I snapped it off short.
The monster had knocked the rifle out of its mouth and began stalking down the aisle. Blood and saliva dripped onto the floor, sizzling in the flames. It jerked its head aside as a bundle of burning hay fell in front of it. The wounded arm dangled lower now, and a hind leg dragged, giving it an uneven gait as it approached.
Rage seemed to be keeping the wretched thing alive.
Using a nearby flame, the fuse ignited in a shower of sparks and burned quickly towards the blasting cap. I tossed the stick back in the box, and kicked the small crate towards the beast before running out the back door into the rain.
The fire rose high into the air behind me as the barn was being consumed by flames.
Slipping in the wet grass, I stumbling to my knees. Pushing up from the rain-soaked ground and ran for the house. Shelter seemed so far away.
Behind me came a bestial roar followed by heavy thuds.
I dared a backwards look.
The monster ripped the small door off its hinges. Claws grabbed the frame and tore pieces away as the creature fought to get through the narrow opening. The wall screeched and shuddered as boards snapped and broke.
Shoving its mangled head and shoulders through the opening, the monster roared at me.
The dynamite blew the barn apart behind it.
A large chunk of debris hit me like a train, driving air from my lungs and slamming me backwards against the ground.
For a moment, everything went dark.
Then I became acutely aware of pain. I blinked rapidly. Everything hurt. The gash across my chest stung. My lungs and throat felt like they were on fire. Dozens of small scrapes and cuts covered my singed body. My long underwear was in tatters.
The pain from the movement almost consumed me.
Bits of flaming debris were scattered throughout the yard. A pitchfork was embedded nearby, its broken handle on fire.
What remained of the barn shuddered then collapsed in on itself in a shower of sparks and flame.
The beast lay near me. Blood ran from its many wounds and mingled with the rain. The rear legs and tail were shredded and mangled from the explosion.
But still, it lived.
The hellish beast’s single remaining dark orb glared, reflecting the dancing flames. Snarling, it weakly stretched a forelimb towards me, sharp claws open and reaching.
My battered body responded sluggishly as I drew my Colt. I pointed the trembling barrel at the beast’s face, and pulled the trigger.
The pistol was empty.
I dropped the useless gun and with thick, fumbling fingers grasped the handle of my Bowie.
The claws that reached for me suddenly clutched at the wet soil and with a violent spasm, the beast shuddered, before giving a final rattling breath and laying still.
It was finally dead.
Lighting danced across the sky as the storm raged on and closing my eyes, I embraced the pain and darkness.
I woke hacking and coughing, with a pounding headache and soaked to the bone as a light rain continued to fall. My empty pistol lay beside me, wet and gleaming in the early rays of the morning sun that peeked through the retreating storm clouds.
The monster still stared at me, its bloodied lips parted in a snarl, the single eye dulled and milky in death.
Beyond the creature, all that remained of my barn was a tumbled mass of burnt timbers and rubble amongst small residual flames that hissed in the rain. A thick gray smoke drifted from the pile of ash.
Bits of smoldering wreckage and charred debris lay scattered around me.
Picking up my gun, I stumbled across the yard to the house. Slamming the door shut, I lowered the door bar and dropped to the floor, leaning back against the wall. If more monsters lurked outside, I didn’t know if a barred door would stop them. But it was comforting, and right now, I felt like a kitten could finish me off with a single blow.
I dumped the spent brass from my pistol onto the floor. Pulling fresh cartridges from my belt, I reloaded. The gun, while smeared with the same sticky blood that coated me, would still function and that’s all that mattered.
Stripping out of my boots and tattered underwear, I left them in a heap in the middle of the room and crawled naked into bed. My pistol I laid within reach on a small table.
Lying there, I stared at the exposed rafters in disbelief.
Elsa was ripped apart, Carbine was missing, and the barn burnt to the ground because of an ungodly creature that appeared amid a storm. My mind tried to convince itself that none of it was real, but the pain proved it was all too real.
I closed my eyes and tried to think happy thoughts.
When I woke several hours later, I felt like I had been shot at, missed, shit at, and hit all over.
My joints were stiff. The cut across my chest was a congealed mass of blood and ash. Small nicks, cuts, and burns covered me. The stench of singed hair and blood filled my nostrils. Moving gingerly, I opened the shutters, squinting at the bright light as my eyes adjusted. The yard was just how I remembered it from last night. Full of burnt debris with a giant mangled corpse near the ruination that had once been my barn.
As for the inside of the house, it looked like someone had been murdered. Blood was smeared from where I’d fumbled my way inside. The trail led from inside the door, up against the wall, and across the floor to the scattered pile of bloodied clothing.
Sighing, I pulled pants and boots on before stepping outside.
Carbine trotted around the side of the house, head and tail held high, as if proud that he’d survived. He snorted and pranced, keeping his distance from the smoldering remains of the barn and the monster’s carcass.
Leaving him to wander around, I began to clean myself up.
I washed away the crusted scab over my chest and got a good look at the cut. The single claw that caught me ripped the flesh deep enough to warrant a few stitches. I got lucky, if all three claws had hit me with their full force, I’d be inside the creature’s belly by now.
Downing a couple slugs of whiskey, I bit down on a piece of folded leather before drizzling some across the wound. Tears rolled from my eyes at the burst of pain. Then I stitched it shut, screaming through clenched teeth as the thin thread pulled the torn flesh back together.
Once I was finished, the stitches looked horrible, but they’d hold.
As I wiped away the rest of the grime, and looked in a small shaving mirror, I realized just how beat up I was. In addition to all my other ailments, I had two black eyes and a nice goose egg bump on my head from slamming into the stall.
I looked like hammered crap.
After cleaning myself up in the freezing cold creek the best I could, I rocked in a chair on the porch, staring at the remains of the beast.
Even dead, it was frightening to behold.
Large and powerful, corded with muscle under its pebbled tan hide. The undamaged eye that had been so menacing last night was now glazed over, but the teeth and claws showed the creature’s lethality. I’d never seen or even heard of anything like it.
Then there was the barn, which was destroyed.
Luckily my saddle survived. Leaving it on the porch last night had been a blessing. But the cost to replace the rest of my gear and tools lost in the fire would be staggering.
Not to mention Elsa. She’d been a good horse.
And somewhere in the ashes were the remains of my rifle.
At least I had a spare, an old Spencer Repeater. Twenty years past its prime, it was something of an outdated oddity now. But it fired a hard-hitting round that could kill a buffalo.
It’d do if more beasts came calling, and right now, it was fully loaded within arm’s reach.
I whistled for Carbine and managed to harness and saddle him without too much swearing at the pain.
The Sheriff needed to know about this. More of these monsters might be lurking around and while I got lucky, anyone else caught in the open, unprepared, would be food. The hard part would be convincing him.
Luckily, I had a big corpse.
Picking up the small axe I used for splitting kindling, I collected my proof.
Afterward, I slid the Spencer into the leather saddle scabbard. My vest pockets were full of loose rounds for the rifle and the loops in my belt were filled with .45 cartridges for the Peacemaker. I wanted to be ready for anything. If I had more dynamite, I would have stuffed it into the saddlebags as well.
Easing myself up in the saddle, we rode the trail towards town.
I was edgy the entire way, watching for anything that might want to eat me. It was an uncomfortable ride. The pain from constantly shifting in the saddle coupled with my high level of alertness was exhausting.
But after several hours, we reached Granite Falls.