Authors: Chris Barili
Tags: #Dark Fantasy, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Literature & Fiction, #Westerns
“That’s not fair,” Curtis pouted. “You promised to take me with you, not dump me like an unneeded burden…”
“We never said how far—”
“…just like my uncle did!”
Tears welled in the boy’s eyes, glistening like flakes of silver, or in this case, fool’s silver, if there was such a thing. Spike looked ready to brim over, too, but Camille wasn’t fooled, crossing her own arms across her chest and glaring at the boy. Frank grunted and tried to keep a grin from spreading across his face. He failed.
Curtis realized his trick wasn’t working and changed tactics, dropping his arms and looking Frank in the eye.
“Besides,” he said, “I’m the only who knows what Jeb looks like. And I can see the dead people walking before most folks, like I spotted that prospector-thing before you did. You need me.”
Camille’s expression didn’t change, but Spike nodded.
“He’s right, Frank.”
Frank fought down a groan, but relented with a nod. “So, how do you see them, anyway?”
The boy shrugged. “Dunno. I just see this shimmering glow around them, like they’re shining. Saw it the minute one moved into Jeb’s body. Been seeing it all my life. Used to scare me, but not anymore.”
“Do you see it around all of us?”
He seemed to study Frank for a moment, squinting his eyes. “It’s different around you. Barely visible. More like a shadow than a shine. Makes me shiver, honestly.”
“Adds up,” Spike told them. “We’re all using our old, dead bodies. Jesse’s using living ones. Interaction between life and death is bound to be a little different.”
That made Frank’s head hurt, so he changed the subject.
“How much dynamite did you say the gang took with ‘em?”
“A whole buckboard full,” Curtis said, settling back in his seat with a satisfied smile. “I counted six crates.”
“What are you thinking, Frank?” asked Camille. She still hadn’t moved away from him, and he tried not to think about the firm brush of her fingers against his thigh. Dead or not, she stirred something in him. He cleared his throat.
“Seems a bit much for a simple bank robbery, don’t you think?”
“Agreed,” she said, finally sliding away from him, breaking contact with his leg. He missed it instantly. “Shouldn’t need more than one crate to blow a vault, less if you’re going in through a side wall.”
Frank scratched the stubble on his chin. It hadn’t grown a bit since he’d woken up outside Creede.
“Looks like the new James gang is robbing something big,” he said. “Question is, what?”
Trains didn’t run direct between Creede and Northfield, or as far as Frank could tell, between Creede and just about anywhere. So his group changed trains in Alamosa, Denver, and again in Minneapolis, all the while looking over their shoulders for the prospector.
They ran into no trouble, even when forced to spend a night in a hotel in Denver, just outside the depot. But even in their cramped, smoke-stained hotel room, the ever-needed vigilance chased sleep away. Spike polished his shotgun, Camille sharpened her knife for hours, and Frank paced, anxious to be on their way again.
So, when their train pulled up next to the small, brick station in Northfield at noon two days later, his group looked like they were slowly returning to the world of the dead. Camille had developed streaks of blue around her lips, while the flesh on Spike’s neck had rotted and started to slough off, requiring the big barkeep to cover his neck with a kerchief despite the baking heat and smothering humidity. Frank could smell his own flesh rotting again, and he didn’t dare look under his sleeves for fear of exposing the damage there. He had his own personal cloud of flies buzzing around him again, too, driving people away.
Only Curtis and the coyote seemed unblemished, but neither had struggled with sleep as the others had.
As they disembarked, Frank pulled them aside, away from the crowd, beside the scorching hot surface of the depot’s bricks.
“We need someplace safe to hole up and get some sleep. Apparently dead bodies don’t do well without some resting in peace.”
The others nodded in silence, too tired to expend the energy to speak.
“I’ll find us a place,” Curtis promised, and he disappeared into the milling throng of people without waiting for permission.
They found a wooden bench in the shade of the depot’s north side and sat, sluggish and despondent, Batcho flopped out in the dirt at their feet. Frank paid for a newspaper from a passing boy and checked the date.
“July twelfth, 1892.” He handed the paper to Camille. “See if you can find any clues in here about what our escaped spirit could be up to here in Northfield.”
Camille nodded, but a moment later, Curtis returned, beaming.
“I found us a place. It’s in a great spot and cheap. And I think I know why Jesse James is here.”
They stood to follow him, but Batcho froze, his hackles rising and his lips peeling back in a low, guttural growl. The coyote stared at the train platform, and as Frank followed his gaze, the feeling of being watched crept across his skin, like a snake brushing against him. No, not just watched—hunted.
The moment passed, Batcho relaxed, and Frank’s stomach un-knotted. He sighed and followed the boy. Curtis led them out of the depot and down a wide dirt road to an iron bridge. Still on foot, they crossed the bridge, dodging wagons and riders on horseback, the river making a smooth, rushing sound under their feet. Frank hurried across—his last experience with rivers had been in the underworld, and had been unpleasant. Once on the other side, they found themselves in a large square, looking north at a stone two-story building with arched windows on both levels. The left side bore a sign saying, “Lee & Hitchcock,” while the right sign read, “W. Scriver.”
“Remember that building,” Curtis said. Then he hurried down the street in front of it, slipping to the side of a three-story brick building with canvas awnings and a sign reading, “Dampier House” out front. A stooped old man with milky blue eyes and hair the color of snow waited at the bottom of a set of iron stairs leading to the second floor.
“Give him a dollar,” Curtis told Frank. “He has a room for us on the second floor with a fire escape out the back door.”
“Thought you said this was cheap,” Frank complained as he fished a silver dollar from his inside pocket. The old man snatched it from his hand lightning fast, then stood aside so Curtis could lead them up the stairs.
Their room had a bed large enough for two adults, and a sofa big enough for a third.
“I’ll take first watch,” Frank offered. “You three get some sleep, so Spike and Camille’s bodies can repair themselves.”
“Don’t you wanna know why he’s here?” Curtis begged.
“Of course we do,” Camille told him, stretching out on the couch with a gaping yawn. “Just be quick before we fall asleep.”
The boy perked up, his face glowing with pride. He paced the room, making quite the presentation.
“That building I told you to remember?” They all nodded sleepily. “Well, on the right side of it—across Division Street from our room—is the First National Bank of Northfield, the bank the James-Younger gang tried to rob in 1876. Tried and failed.”
Frank leaned out their only window and studied the front of the bank. Nothing unusual caught his eye.
“I remember now,” said Spike. “Locals fought back. Killed a couple of the gang members and stopped the robbery.”
Curtis beamed as he nodded. “Looks like he’s tying up loose ends in the living world.”
Frank nodded, but something didn’t feel right, like he was seeing just one or two trees in a vast forest. As the boy lay down beside Spike and Batcho curled up on the floor, Frank gazed out the window. Across the street, a shadow shifted in front of the Scriver building, little more than a shimmer in the hot summer air, but for an instant, Frank thought it took on the shape of some massive beast, a shimmering waver of light with glowing yellow eyes that sent a chill down his spine. His right hand strayed to his pistol, while the left clasped around the steel cuffs.
He shook himself, and the feeling passed. Nearby, Camille started to snore.
Sometime later—with the sun dipping into the orange and red colors of its evening paint palette—she joined him at the window, leaning against the opposite frame and staring into the street in silence. The crowd had thinned, and even though he’d watched non-stop, the shimmer had not reappeared. During his time in the underworld, he’d learned that such shimmers happened when the denizens of the underworld ventured too close to the world of the living. Not a good sign, he decided.
Still, the unmistakable feeling of being watched clung to him like fog to a gravestone.
After a few minutes, Camille brushed her finger across the scar on his cheek.
“You need sleep.” Her half-whisper was throaty and soft. “Your body needs to rebuild.”
“Do I smell that bad?”
“Worse,” she replied. “Your stench woke me up and I think it’s giving the coyote nightmares.”
On the floor, Batcho twitched and yipped like he was chasing rabbits. Or prospectors.
Frank looked at her, and this time she met his gaze.
“So, if it wasn’t your…job, what landed you in Hell?”
She straightened and her hand dropped to the knife riding her hip. She gazed out the window into the darkness beyond the glass.
Her words came like icicles dropping on stones. “I stabbed a…client.”
Frank thought about that. “Doesn’t seem like sticking a John would be quite enough to earn your soul’s eternal damnation.”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “Two?”
“I stabbed two Johns. And a Steve. Pair of Bobs. At least three Mikes. I left a trail of dead solicitors from San Fran to Saint Louis before one finally got the knife out of my hands and turned it on me. Twenty-four kills. Probably more than you.”
She stole a look in his direction, and Frank made sure to hide his shock at her confession. So much made sense now—her dislike of men, the knife, even her sour demeanor.
“Twenty-seven,” he mumbled. “I got you by three.”
She stared at him a moment longer, then looked out the window again.
“They deserved it,” she said, her voice distant. “Everyone of ‘em hurt me. Paying for my body like it was a horse.”
“So, that night you and I met…”
He let it dangle there between them.
“I would have killed you, too. You’d have been number thirteen, but then you…well, you know.”
She looked at the floor.
“Well, I’d take you stabbing me over me shooting my son,” he told her, looking out into the darkened street. “Maybe then I could…”
Her fingers lighted on his shoulder, skating down the back of his arm and lingering on his elbow. She turned him to face her, looking up into his eyes, lips parted. The handle of the Bowie dug into his hip as she pressed herself against him.
“I don’t much want to stab you now. I’d rather—”
“We’re both dead,” he said, cutting her off.
“Exactly,” she breathed. “We’re both condemned to Hell already, so what more can they do to us?”
Frank took in the scent of her hair, a mix of lilac and powder, and felt himself stirring inside. It would have been easy to let her have her way, to give her what she wanted. Or at least he thought it would. After all, she was right. What more could the judges do?
That was the problem with losing restraints, he thought. Without consequences, knowing right from wrong didn’t matter, most people would still choose wrong. Her lips brushed his, and for a moment he almost gave in. But something in his gut screamed at him, warning him this was wrong. Unnatural.
Putting both hands on her shoulders, he eased her back.
“And when this is over,” he said, “I’ll go back to Hell where I belong, but you’ll remain here.”
She looked away, turning her back to him and crossing her arms over her chest.
“He knew we were coming,” he muttered. She turned back around, head cocked to one side. “O’Kelley slipped into a kind of trance and told me James knows we’re coming for him.”
She shrugged. “Lucky guess. He had to know the judges would send someone.”
“I don’t think so. I think he knew who was coming and where we’d come from. The prospector met us in that pass, after all.”
“Why didn’t he kill us there?” she asked, sliding close and leaning her shoulder on his chest. “Would’ve caught us with our petticoats up around our bellybuttons.”
Frank pondered that, but couldn’t come up with anything that made sense.
“Maybe he wasn’t ready or needed time to gain more power. Or maybe, at that point, he was still just an old man. But I know one thing, damn straight.”
“Someone tipped him off,” Frank answered, returning his gaze to the street. “Hell has a mole.”