Authors: Chris Barili
Tags: #Dark Fantasy, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Literature & Fiction, #Westerns
“Get that blanket!” the man shouted.
The bright sun muted itself, and Frank ventured to open his eyes. A moment later, the dog licked his face, its breath smelling like something not long dead. Frank batted away the cold, wet nose and struggled to sit upright. Hands under his arms helped him, and again, the smell of perfume tickled his nose. Flies buzzed all around him and he raised a sluggish arm to swipe at them.
“Don’t be stupid.” The woman’s voice came from behind him now. “You’ll break something off. You’ve been dead longer than we have, so your body still needs time to rebuild.”
He turned his head toward her voice. She was dressed like a man, only her long, blond curls bobbing in the sun identifying her as female. Her gray button shirt and black vest hid any hint of her figure, and under her worn, gray hat, her face seemed plain, unadorned by makeup, though the blue of her eyes rivaled that of the sky behind her. At her side lay a Winchester lever action rifle, and in her belt, she’d tucked a Bowie knife.
Still, she seemed familiar somehow. “Do I know you?”
His eyes adjusted and he noticed a pair of meaty hands holding a rough, gray blanket over their heads.
“Once, long ago,” she answered, voice harsh as broken glass. “I’m Camille. We met in a saloon. The night you shot…a horse thief.”
Shards of memories raced back to him. Clangy piano music. Pipe smoke and bad whiskey mixing with the smell of the same cheap perfume he smelled now. This woman—dressed in lace and lipstick and finery—sitting on his lap, her face painted so she looked like someone different. He remembered a mole tucked deep down in her ample cleavage but could not see it now with her shirt buttoned to her neck. She’d caught his fancy that night, but events had gotten out of hand.
He’d taken Camille to his room, but before anything could happen, a scrawny half-Indian boy had tried to steal his horse. Frank had put a bullet right between his shoulder blades and left him to die in the street.
Only after his own death, during his time in the underworld, had Frank learned that boy had been his son. He’d committed an unforgivable sin.
“Ron…” He shook the cobwebbed memories from his head.
“Ahem, can I put down this damned blanket now?”
This voice Frank knew the moment he heard it and he confirmed it by looking back at the sausage-like fingers holding the blanket.
Frank’s hand drifted toward the reassuring cold steel of the six shooter on his right hip. He wrapped his fingers around the handle, wondering when he’d gotten the pistol back. At his feet lay the lasso, cuffs, and whiskey bottle Buzzy had given him, arranged in a neat pile.
“Now just simmer down,” Spike said, lowering the blanket until the sun shone right in Frank’s eyes. “I’m here to help you. And you can’t go shooting everyone. Not here.”
The stout bartender knelt in front of Frank, biceps bulging inside his white shirt, block-shaped head sporting a cautious grin, complete with a missing front tooth. His brown eyes looked almost black compared to Camille’s. He held out Frank’s old black hat, its satin band frayed, a new crow’s feather stuck in the side. Frank took the hat and stuffed it on his head.
“Last time I saw you, you were a giant slug with a horn and a pig snout, pointing a shotgun at me,” Frank said. He remembered the run-down saloon in the underworld’s version of Tombstone like he’d been there yesterday. “And now you’re here to help me?”
Camille’s hand found Frank’s forearm and her finger paused on the lattice of scars under his sleeve, her short nails tracing along the line. Then, she eased his hand away from his gun.
“We’re all here to help you, Frank. Spike, me, and Batcho.”
She pointed to the right, where the dog sat, scruffy tail sweeping the desert sand into tiny clouds. No, not a dog, Frank realized…a coyote, with matted brown-and-gray fur, golden eyes, and a collar of beads around his neck. His pink tongue lolled out of his mouth, dripping slobber into the hard-packed earth.
Frank looked at the one-time Indian guide, his mind working. Then, without warning, he started to laugh.
They didn’t have a prayer.
“What’s that smell?” Frank asked.
He’d first noticed the foul stench just after waking up. Sticky and rotten, the stink had assailed his nostrils like an army of corpses left in the sun too long. Now, after an hour’s walk, the smell clung to him like a shroud, drawing flies that swarmed around them no matter what they did.
Batcho sniffed at Frank’s hand, whimpered, and trotted ahead to walk closer to Camille.
“What’s your problem?” Frank muttered.
All around them, the Rocky Mountains stood grim and silent, gravestones in a giant granite cemetery. The only sounds came from the wind slipping through pine and spruce and the incessant buzzing of the flies. No birds chirped. No squirrels chattered.
“Uh, Marshal,” Spike said, “that there ripeness, well, that’s you.”
Frank stopped and sniffed at his armpit, and sure enough, the stench nearly knocked him over.
“You stink, Frank,” Camille said, offering him a crystal bottle of her own perfume, which he waved off. “You were dead for two years and your body still isn’t done rebuilding yet.”
“Now, don’t worry, Marshal—”
“Don’t call me that, Spike. I’m no marshal.”
The badge burned into the flesh of his chest screamed in pain as if to contradict him.
“All right then, Frank,” the bartender said, “don’t worry too much. You look fine from a distance, and in a day or two you’ll be okay up close, too.”
Frank shook his head. “How bad am I? You three look pretty normal to me.”
Camille and Spike exchanged a glance, and then both looked at the coyote. Batcho tucked his tail and whined.
Sighing, Frank tugged off his left glove and sucked in his breath. His skin was a deathly pallor, blue veins running under it like underground rivers. He yanked off his other glove to find his right hand—his shooting hand—much more normal.
Camille cleared her throat, and Frank found his companions looking at him, varying degrees of doubt on their faces. He held out his hand to the woman.
“Let me see,” he said.
She produced a hand mirror from a pouch at her waist, flipped it open, and handed it to Frank.
It was worse than he’d expected. His skin had rotted through under his left eye, exposing pink flesh and sagging away from the bloodshot eye. The scar running down his cheek lay open, caked with dried blood and pus, and his teeth shone yellow and rotting in the mid-morning sun. He didn’t even want to think what the bullet hole in his ribcage probably looked like. The hole that had killed him.
“You were dead much longer than us,” said Camille. “There was a lot more damage to repair, so it’ll take longer. Be patient. And stand downwind from me.”
She winked and gave him the slightest of grins, as if unsure of herself.
Frank handed back her mirror and pulled his gloves back on. At least his tattered, tan duster hid most of him from view. It also hid the lasso and cuffs looped through his belt, and held the holy-whiskey bottle in its pocket.
Spike handed him a bandanna. “In the meantime, Mar…I mean Frank, we probably shouldn’t let people see you that way. It would alert the James boy to our coming.”
Frank wrapped the bandanna around his face, leaving just his eyes exposed. He’d have to make sure he didn’t get close enough for anyone to see.
They started out again, hiking south along a rutted dirt road that meandered down the ravine, a frowning Camille and the coyote in the lead, followed by Frank and then Spike bringing up the rear, shotgun in hand. Several times, the hooker and the coyote stopped, Batcho wanting to go one direction, Camille another. Frank went with Camille’s instincts every time. He still didn’t trust the former Indian guide.
“Damned coyote is trying to get us lost.”
After a few minutes of walking in silence, Spike asked, “What did they offer you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was it absolution? Less suffering in the pit? They offered me and Camille life.”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “That was an option?”
,” Camille clarified. “Even The Boss can’t do that. But if we succeed and don’t get our bodies killed again, we can stay here as long as we want. Maybe settle old business.”
Her blue eyes flashed.
“No more Hell for me,” Spike muttered. “No more damned pit of fire, either.”
Frank changed the subject. “So, I understand how Camille ended up in Hell. Prostitution’s always been a sin. But what about you, Spike? I always thought you a decent man in life.”
Camille barked a harsh laugh. “You thinking my job got me sent to Hell?”
But she offered no further explanation, and Spike just looked off into the pines, his gaze distant. “We all have our vices.”
They’d gone just a few minutes more when a lone figure rounded a bend ahead of them. His red flannel shirt looked like it hadn’t been washed in months, and his ratty gray beard was tangled and matted. The old man slowed when he saw them, tipping back his worn, floppy hat and hitching up his suspenders. He kept a few yards of distance, hefting a pickaxe in his left hand.
“Greetings, stranger!” Spike lifted his hand as he called out, lowering his shotgun to show peaceful intent. “Can you tell us where we are? We appear to be lost.”
The old man studied them a moment longer, then shrugged and moved down the hill toward them. A Navy revolver bobbed on his left hip, handle forward, and Frank put his hand on his own pistol. Again, Camille eased it away.
“You’re about thirty minutes north of Creede,” the man said, drawing near Spike and Camille. Batcho trotted up, scruffy tail pumping back and forth, and sniffed the man’s hand. Frank decided to keep his distance. Something seemed off about the old timer. “Or what’s left of Creede. It’s just through this pass a ways, along the trail.”
“What do you mean ‘what’s left of it?’” Camille asked.
The old man eyed Frank sidelong, his hand twitching near the handle of his gun. The blue of his eyes was crisp, clear, and cold as ice. Frank decided the prospector was probably pretty damn quick on the draw, no matter how long his teeth. There was more to him than met the eye, making Frank fight the urge to put his hand on his own pistol.
The prospector looked at Camille, his eyes narrowing. “Burned damn near down four days ago. Folks all livin’ in tents now, hopin’ to rebuild before winter sets in.”
“What date is it now?” Frank asked.
Again the old man locked eyes with him, sending a chill down his spine.
“June ninth, 1892. Where’d you folks say you were from?”
“We didn’t,” Frank answered, squaring his shoulders. “You come from Creede?”
The prospector lowered his hand from his pistol and nodded, anxious to move along.
“You notice anyone acting unusual?” Frank asked. “Unusual violence, strength, that kind of thing?”
The prospector shook his head, but the way his eyes opened told Frank that wasn’t true.
“You’d better ‘fess up.” Camille lowered her voice, fingering the handle of her Bowie. Frank let his hand slip to his holster. Finally.
The old man swallowed hard. “Well, maybe Ed O’Kelley. He shot Bob Ford yesterday, out of nowhere. Just walked into the tent saloon, said ‘howdy,’ and shot him dead.”
Spike and Camille both glanced at Frank. Even the coyote cocked his head to one side.
“Mighty obliged,” Frank said.
Without another word, he trudged up the hill, posse in tow. At the top, he turned to find the old man staring after them. Something about him seemed ominous, like a midnight cloud passing in front of the moon. Frank shivered. But then the old timer moved off down the trail and the feeling passed.
The prospector had told them true, and just over the hill they found the trail. They followed it for thirty minutes and came to a kind of doorway to the ravine. Tall peaks rose three or four hundred feet on either side of the canyon, forming an almost fortress-like barrier to the town. The narrow dirt path marked the only way through.
“We’ll be lined up like ducks in a barrel going through there,” Spike said, straining his neck to stare up at the eastern peak. “Someone could just pick us off.”
Frank spit in the dirt. “We’re dead already. What do we care?”
“Some of us don’t want to go back.” Camille muttered. “Got things to do here.”
Ignoring her, Frank loosened his pistol in the holster and trudged down the trail.
As soon as they cleared the pass, Creede appeared, making them stop and stare.
Tendrils of smoke still wound their way up from the blackened husks that had once been the business district. Tents dotted the valley—stark and white against the charred remains of the town—like maggots on a corpse.
To their left, a mine tunnel gaped, several miners staring at the strangers.
Entering the town didn’t make it any better. People moved sluggishly through the streets, dressed in mourners’ black, heads hung, staring at their feet. Some lifted their eyes to glance at the strangers, but most didn’t seem to notice, their thoughts gone with the smoke. Only the children seemed unfazed by the smoking ruins of their town, running and playing like it was just another summer day.