Authors: Chris Barili
Tags: #Dark Fantasy, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Literature & Fiction, #Westerns
The sun sliced through the thick morning air like a golden knife blade, carving the street outside into slices of dark and light. Frank had slept only a little, returning to the window an hour or so before dawn, but his body felt restored a bit. Certainly not alive, not in the truest sense of the word, but well enough to attack their morning tasks with some vigor.
The old man with the milky eyes brought them a breakfast of eggs and bacon, with cold milk to wash it down. Curtis attacked the food like a ravenous wolf, keeping watch out the window while his friends exchanged confused glances.
“You sure we can’t eat?” Spike asked, licking his lips.
Frank had to admit, the crisp smell of bacon taunted him, as if it knew a man in Hell felt hungry every minute of every day.
“I’m sure,” Frank said. “Buzzy was very specific.”
Curtis choked on a piece of bacon, spitting the fatty meat out the window and pointing, holding his throat with the other hand. The three rushed to his side, Spike thumping him between the shoulder blades.
“That’s one of ‘em,” the boy choked. “One of the new James gang. The man in the black vest.”
Frank should have noticed the man right away, with his confident swagger, darting eyes, and one hand always poised near the pistol on his hip. He’d faced many men like him in life, killed most.
The man strolled across the dusty street, trying too hard to look casual, but glanced at the Scriver building with the regularity of a Swiss watch. He climbed the steps to the front door of a drug store down the street from the hotel and stepped inside, flashing one last too-cautious glance at the bank as he went.
“I know a casing when I see one,” Spike said. “Men like that used to stake out my bar in Tombstone, trying to figure if I was worth robbing.”
“You weren’t,” Frank said. Spike looked hurt for a moment, then shrugged.
A few minutes later, the man left the store and strolled north across the square, still trying to look nonchalant while he studied the Scriver building. Then he turned right and disappeared.
“West on Fourth Street,” Spike said.
Frank looked at Curtis. “Is he…dead, like us?”
The boy shook his head.
“Okay, then let’s see where he’s going.” Frank loosened his pistol in its holster and started for the door before Camille stopped him with a hand on his elbow.
“Find out where he goes, then meet me back here.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
She pulled her purse from her belt and jingled the coins inside. “Shopping. A girl can’t exactly flirt with a man while she’s dressed like one.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Frank grumbled, but she didn’t let him finish.
“Then you know I’m right. This is the best way to find out what’s going on. Spike, I could use a man to carry things, and I suspect Frank needs our young friend’s special vision.”
She wheeled and marched out, leaning her rifle against the wall. The barkeep gave Frank a helpless expression and followed her, lugging his shotgun.
“Watch her back,” Frank told him.
“She can watch mine,” he replied as he left.
Frank told Batcho to stay in the room, not needing the attention a coyote would draw, and left with Curtis in tow.
By the time Frank and Curtis found the man again, he was a good hundred yards down Fourth Street, moving like he had somewhere to be. Frank pretended to shop with Curtis, pausing to look in store windows periodically. Curtis played his part well, pointing and smiling a lot, but saying nothing.
Finally, the gang member stopped in front of a ramshackle two-story, glanced around, and slipped inside. Frank read the sign over the door, then set a brisk pace back to the hotel, Curtis jogging to keep up.
* * *
Just before noon, Camille and Spike returned, Spike looking exhausted and Camille looking like she had the first time Frank met her. She wore a striking blue dress that made her eyes shine so bright they eclipsed the summer sky outside their window. Her ample cleavage gleamed, and her golden curls bounced like the sun had poured itself in liquid form over her head and shoulders.
“So,” she said, her voice bawdy and inviting now, its harshness gone, “where’s a girl gotta go to find some action in this town?”
Frank suppressed a chuckle and looked her over from top to bottom. She twirled for him, her dress lifting enough to show off her black fishnet stockings. He caught a whiff of sticky-sweet perfume.
“You look darn nice,” Frank said. “For a dead woman.”
She slugged him and turned away.
“Remember, gunfighter, I still have the knife under all this finery.”
Frank looked at Spike, but the bartender glanced at the ceiling. Curtis had moved to the window, but stood, shaking his head at Frank.
“Ah, just keep an eye on that bank,” Frank grumbled.
“So, where am I going?” Camille said, “I want to get out of this ridiculous dress.”
Frank grunted. “Place called The Exchange. Supposed to look like an eatery, but it’s a saloon.”
She nodded and stomped out, her dress swishing behind her.
Frank looked at Curtis. “Follow her. Stay outta sight, but come get me if she needs help.”
The boy gave a curt nod and ran from the room.
“Boy’s got grit,” Spike muttered. “I’ll give him that much.”
“Hope it don’t get him killed.”
Spike paused a moment, fumbling with words.
“Come out and ask it,” Frank said, “whatever it is. I won’t get mad.”
Spike looked away, the corners of his eyes wrinkling. “You got a thing for Camille?”
Frank studied the thick bartender. “Why? You got eyes for her?”
Spike nudged at the rug with the toe of his boot.
“No, but I tend to…well, I have a weakness for women-folk. Especially ones that are spoken for. It’s gotten me in some trouble.”
Frank laughed and clapped his old friend on the shoulder.
“So the ninth commandment sent you to Hell, eh?” Spike nodded, making Frank chuckle again. “Well, don’t fret. She was a hooker in life. Only men speakin’ for her were the ones on paper money.”
Spike didn’t seem comforted, and Frank wondered if he’d seen something between them.
The next two hours crawled by like snails on a hot street. The bank was quiet, occasional customers entering or leaving, but none even a little suspicious. Neither Camille nor Curtis showed up, and eventually, Frank’s patience wore out.
“Let’s go,” he told Spike.
They positioned themselves outside the hidden saloon, Frank leaning against a pole in front of a drug store, smoking a cigar he’d bought inside. Spike made small talk with a woman across the street—a married one, of course—both men keeping one eye on the saloon.
Frank was so focused on the door that he jumped when an older boy—maybe twelve or thirteen, with pistols on each hip—marched up the steps and shoved into the store, tossing the door aside like it offended him. The boy carried himself with an arrogance uncommon in one so young, and it made Frank’s skin tingle. As soon as he entered The Exchange, the feeling passed and Frank shook himself.
“Now my mind’s playing games with me.”
That mindset lasted about a minute, until Curtis sprinted out of an alley beside the saloon, skidding to a stop in front of Frank. Spike heaved himself across the street to join them.
“They’re gone,” Curtis spouted, his words tumbling out, tripping on one another. “The whole gang just slipped out the back door, mounted up, and headed west.”
“Camille?” Frank asked.
“Took her with ‘em. She looked right at me, Frank, but her eyes were all blank, like she didn’t see me.”
“The bank,” Spike muttered.
Without hesitation, they sprinted back the way they’d come.
Frank burst into Bridge Square as the first shots split the muggy afternoon air and the sound of horses thundered through the street. A group of men on horseback galloped around the square in front of the bank, firing pistols at the sky and shouting the old rebel yell. Spike slid to a stop beside him, with Curtis panting up behind.
Bystanders were scattering like mice before a cat, ducking for cover or locking themselves inside.
“Get under cover,” Frank told them both, loosening his Colt in the holster. “Use the Winchester and cover me. Time to end this little square dance.”
Spike took off at a run, but the boy remained, staring up at Frank.
“Go on, son!” Frank yelled. “You’re not dead yet, so let’s try to keep it that way.” A bullet whizzed past his ear as if to drive home his point.
“I can help! Just watch me!”
Before Frank could protest, the boy ran off down a side street and out of sight.
“Frank Butcher!” The voice sounded high-pitched and reedy, but that was just the thin layer of ice over a frigid river of power that lurked underneath. Frank turned and found himself looking up at a boy on horseback, the same boy he’d seen at the saloon. Only this time, his eyes were black as death and he pointed his revolvers at Frank.
“Jeb Fisher, I presume?” Frank fingered the lasso under his duster, knowing he was nowhere close enough to use it. His heart climbed into his throat.
The boy’s laugh slithered through the now-empty street like a sidewinder.
“Jeb’s all tied up right now, so you’ll have to deal with me.”
“Jesse James,” Frank spat, as two more gang members rode up beside the boy, guns still smoking as they reloaded. “And I suppose you know why I’m here, too.”
“Might as well let me see it,” Jesse James ordered. “Show me the badge you think gives you authority to take me back.”
Frank peeled back his shirt to show the pink, swollen badge the judges had branded on him. It seemed to react to the presence of the spirit, glowing a dark blue, like steel under his skin.
“That’s real pretty,” said the soul of Jesse James, holstering his guns. “But it don’t mean squat to me, and it shouldn’t to you, either.”
James and his men dismounted, the leader handing his reins to one of his men. He strode up the steps to the hotel porch, two cronies flanking him.
“How ya figure?” Frank asked, keeping the men in front of him.
Jeb-Jesse grinned, a slick, oily expression that seeped onto his face. “Because you know as well as I do those judges are lying. They want something, and you’re just a tool to help them get it. What’d they promise you? Relief from the eternal agony of Hell?”
“Nope,” Frank said. His hand hesitated near the handle of his Colt. Curtis had neglected to mention that Jeb Fisher was just a boy. “But my demands ain’t your business. You can come along with me, or this can get real ugly, real quick.”
The laugh slithered through the street again, and the boy’s body straightened. His shoulders pulled back, and his eyes widened, turning blue as a mountain lake. For a moment, Jesse James was gone, and the scrawny Jeb Fisher stood before him.
“Please, mister, save me. Don’t let him take me—”
A swirling cloud of inky purple-black mist shrouded the boy, hiding him from sight. A moment later, it was gone, and Jesse James stood, eyes black, between his two men.
“You still want this to get ugly?” Came Jeb’s wispy voice. “Just you against me and my boys?”
Frank’s hand fell away from his pistol. He knew in his heart that this specter was even more powerful than the prospector, and his Holy-whiskey-filled bullets wouldn’t even slow it down. The only bullet that would remained in his duster pocket, its green glow hidden from sight. He thought briefly about the lariat and cuffs, but knew he’d die before getting either close to Jeb.
And he realized at that moment how badly he wanted—needed—to take Jesse James’ spirit without harming Jeb. He didn’t have it in him to kill another child, to make another father mourn his son.
“Seems like you’re undecided here, Mr. Butcher, so let me help you make up your mind.”
He whistled and one of his men stepped out the hotel’s front door with Camille hostage before him. She’d been gagged and bound, the rope slicing into the flesh of her wrists. Her eyes darted from Frank to Jeb and back again, no longer blank or empty.
“Now, looks to me like you and this…lady are quite fond of one another,” Jesse hissed. He took Camille from his compatriot and pressed the muzzle of his gun to her head. “I’d hate to have to end a love affair between two corpses, but if you force my hand, I’ll do it.”
James moved back behind his gang on the steps to the hotel.
So, he was nervous, maybe even scared. Behind the gang, a shadow shifted in the hotel door.
“Seems like a Mexican standoff, then,” Frank said. “I can’t let you rob that bank, and you can’t let me take you back to Hell.”
James laughed again, keeping the gun to Camille’s head. “You’re too late to stop the robbery, Marshal. We just withdrew forty-thousand. None of it was ours, of course…”
“Then I can’t let you get away.”
“You’re outgunned five to one, gun fighter,” James said. “That’s hardly a standoff. It’s a slaughter.”
Spike fired, bouncing a bullet off the dusty street at one crook’s feet.
“Five to two,” Frank growled.
James only shrugged. “Either way, she still dies, and likely both of you. Oh, and before things go too far here, you know that special bullet they gave you? The one with the right pretty green glow?”