Authors: Chris Barili
Tags: #Dark Fantasy, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Literature & Fiction, #Westerns
Frank nodded, his hand twitching by his gun.
“Did you stop to wonder,” James asked, “why there was only one in the box?”
For an instant, he pointed his pistol at Frank, just long enough for a greenish glow to show from each slot in the cylinder. Then he pressed it back against Camille’s temple.
“So, we’ll just take your saloon princess here and be on our way.”
Frank tensed. “I can’t let you do that, either. I’m taking you back to Hell one way or another, Jesse James.”
He had to hope the Holy-whiskey-coated bullets would be enough. He was too far for the cuffs, and was no good with a lasso. He readied himself, forcing his body to relax, to smooth his draw. His heart ached at the thought of losing Camille, but she was already dead, after all. He’d see her in Hell.
Across from him, James cocked back the hammer on his gun. Camille looked Frank in the eye, fear and rage smoldering behind her gaze.
But his hand wouldn’t move, wouldn’t even touch the ivory handle of the six-shooter.
“What’s the matter, Butcher?” James taunted, sounding very much like the child whose body he possessed. “Can’t decide between duty and the whore?”
Frank lowered his hand. He couldn’t take the shot. No matter what happened to Camille, Frank couldn’t shoot another boy.
Movement stirred behind the gang again, and Curtis slipped out the door, reaching for the back pocket of his one-time friend. Frank looked away, but too late.
“Back off, you little shit!” James backhanded Curtis in the face, sending the smaller boy tumbling back inside the lobby.
That was all it took. The street exploded in gunfire.
The first shot came from Spike’s Winchester as he took down a gang member reaching inside the lobby for Curtis. Frank drew and dove behind a watering trough, hitting the dirt just as bullets tore into the wood and zinged through the water inside. He peeked over the trough and took down a second bad guy, but had to get back under cover after that, as a storm of bullets tore through the air around him.
The gun fire drove Spike back until he hid behind the corner of the hotel. Frank managed to peer around the trough and check on his other two companions. Camille still stood in the grasp of James, though he’d dragged her to the right edge of the porch. Curtis remained out of sight, inside the hotel lobby.
A rider thundered around the corner near Spike, nearly knocking the barkeep off his feet, pulling five more horses and their wagon full of supplies behind him. James and his men jumped into the saddles, him pulling Camille up behind him, and turned to leave. Before galloping away, though, James looked back over his shoulder, grinning Jeb’s slimy grin.
“Y’all know my friend, I believe,” he taunted in his wispy, too-young voice. “He means to keep you from following me.”
Frank jumped to his feet, taking aim at the boy’s galloping horse, but then the doors exploded off the Dampier House, peppering Frank with shards and splinters. Standing where the doors had been, towering to the top of the door frame, the prospector glared out at them, his eyes obsidian in the noon sun. His face was contorted now, like a second, hideous face had pushed its way to the surface, demonic and mad with rage.
He held a shotgun in one hand, braced against his hip, and his old revolver in the other.
Spike dove back behind the corner as the shotgun blasted away part of the siding. Frank rolled behind the trough again as forty-five caliber lead ripped and pinged around him.
The prospector laughed, the sound of a hundred demons rejoicing in death, reveling in the destruction of good. The shotgun roared again, and bullets ricocheted off the ground near Frank’s head. The old man never seemed to run out of rounds, no matter how often he fired.
Then a voice, high and squeaky, hollered over the gunshots, making the prospector pause.
“Hey, old timer!” Curtis yelled from the exploded doorway. “You smell like a corpse!”
The delay gave Frank the moment he needed. Rising to one knee, he fired a Holy-whiskey-coated round, striking the prospector in the shoulder. The old man rocked, bellowing in agony as smoke rose from the wound. Frank fired again and again, hitting him in the chest and leg. Spike let loose from the corner, too, and in an instant, smoke rose from all over the old man’s body, leaking from a half-dozen bullet holes.
He shrank, then, his body shriveling from its eight-foot height back to the crumpled, bent old man they’d seen in the pass outside Creede. His face remained grotesque, but he looked weak now. Decimated. His eyes opened wide with something Frank didn’t expect: fear.
Dropping the shotgun, the old man took off running down Division Street, not looking back.
Frank rushed to the porch to find Curtis unharmed, panting but grinning from ear to ear.
“That was right stupid, boy,” Frank scolded. “You could’ve been killed.”
“But I wasn’t.” He held up a folded piece of paper for Frank. “And I know where they’re going next. We can get Camille back.”
The paper—yellowed from smoke and age, like an old rancher’s teeth—turned out to be a map of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad, with a red circle drawn around Adair, Iowa.
Citizens had filed back into the street now, milling and whispering, and Frank could feel their eyes on him. Not needing any more attention, he folded the map and stuffed it in the pocket of his duster.
“All right, boys,” Frank said, striding up the hotel steps. “Gather up your things and let’s get some horses. We’ve got ground to cover.”
Horses turned out to be a bad idea. Frank had already paid for three and found out the hard way they dislike the smell of death, especially when it’s climbing on their backs. They’d just started getting the horses calmed down when Batcho showed up and decided to scare them more, barking and yipping and growling until the mounts were uncontrollable. Then the coyote trotted off with what Frank swore was a smile on his face.
So they ended up getting their money back, minus a small fee for the inconvenience, and renting a private stage coach to Adair. They’d discussed taking the train, but never would have made it on time, having to stop in Des Moines. Short of changing horses halfway, the stage held their best hope of beating the new James gang to the spot.
Their only obstacle had been the wealthy family who’d already contracted the stage, but they got one whiff of Frank and Spike and decided to wait for the next day. Frank thought his cloud of black flies might have helped them decide, too.
Now the four of them—Frank, Spike, Curtis, and Batcho—sat on the worn leather seats of the stage as it thundered south. To their right, the setting sun drew long, distorted shadows across the prairie, golden grass swaying in the wind. The smells of old leather and dust filled the coach, but at least the horses couldn’t smell the corpses they were hauling.
“Outside Adair’s where the original gang tried their first train heist.” Spike had talked to the stage driver before they left, learning everything he could from the man. “Killed two people—a conductor and the engineer. Only made about a third of what they thought, since the gold shipment they were after went on another train.”
“So, another mistake being rectified,” Frank muttered. “But there’s more to this than just re-doing their fouled up robberies.”
Spike nodded. “They stole forty-thousand dollars from the bank in Northfield. They have enough TNT to blow up a mountain. And they pick up men in every city. That’s not for your average heist.”
“Or no heist at all,” Frank suggested. “Curtis, you got that newspaper I bought?”
The boy nodded and dug the rolled-up paper out from under his seat.
“Good,” Frank told him. “Now look in the letters to the editor section and see what’s there.”
Curtis flipped through the paper, stopping a few pages in. His eyes went wide and his mouth formed an “O.”
“How’d you know?” he asked.
Frank shrugged. “I didn’t know much about Jesse when I was alive, but I recalled he was always writing letters to the papers. Go ahead, then…what’s it say?”
Curtis scanned the page, shaking his head. “Seems like Mr. James thinks the south shoulda won the war. His letter kinda rambles about Union crimes against the south and how only his gang fights for the average southerner now, but he finishes with something strange: ‘July 16th is our Independence Day, rooted in the clay from which we came and to which we will return forever. With the blood of our oppressors and that of innocents shall we rise again.’”
“So, this is all about the south getting what’s theirs?” Spike asked, barely lifting his head from the leather cushion.
“Sure sounds like it,” Frank answered. Batcho’s ears perked up and he sniffed at the newspaper. “Jesse never did accept the south’s defeat, so he probably blames the north for him going to Hell, too. If he robs from the north and gives to the south, he gets some revenge.”
Batcho sniffed the paper again, this time growling and ruffling the fur on his neck. He looked at Frank, whined, then growled at the paper again.
“Damned coyote,” Frank spat. “Other than biting the prospector, you’ve done us no good at all. You almost got us lost, scared those horses, and now you’re growling at a newspaper. You’re as worthless here as you were in the underworld.”
Batcho sighed and put his chin on his paws.
An hour later, Curtis was snoring, his head on Spike’s shoulder while the stout barkeep coated more bullets in what remained of their Holy-whiskey.
“You’d have made a fine father,” Frank murmured.
Spike looked up and studied him through squinted eyes, his brow wrinkled so much the dead, dry skin cracked.
“That’s why you couldn’t shoot him, isn’t it?” Spike asked. “Because he’s in a kid’s body and you…”
Frank looked out the window, into the growing darkness. The stage had slowed to avoid injuring the horses, but he could see little in the shadows.
“Leave it be,” he warned.
“You can’t dwell on that now. We need you.”
Frank sighed and took his hat off long enough to run his fingers through his dead hair. It had started to soften a bit, as if life were slowly returning to his body one strand at a time.
“What would you know about it? You never shot your own boy.”
“You didn’t know,” Spike reassured him. “You couldn’t have—”
“Don’t matter. I know what it’s like to shoot a boy, and to lose one. Jeb Fisher is someone’s boy, and if I can find a way, I’ll capture James’ spirit without killing the body it lives in. I owe his father that much, at least.”
Curtis lifted his head and opened his bleary eyes. “His pa’s dead. Died in the mines. Mom in childbirth. He’s got no one to return to, and the boy I used to know…well, he ain’t in there anymore. Kill him, Frank. You’ll be helping him.”
Spike clapped Frank on the shoulder.
“The judges sent a gunfighter on this mission, Frank. They had plenty of dead lawmen, plenty of bounty hunters, and plenty of other men. But they sent you. They knew your reputation and sent you because of it.
“You don’t send a gunfighter to catch people, Frank. You send ‘em to kill. If we’re gonna win this, you’d better get to killin’.”
They arrived at the train depot in Adair just before nine in the morning of their second day, their third set of horses lathered and huffing, their driver eying his passengers as if they were ghosts. Frank wondered if the man had any idea now close that was to the truth.
The station at Adair was a simple, steep-roofed building with white clapboard sides and no platform. Passengers milled around on the hard-packed dirt surface, their clothes caked in dust. Anvil clouds rose in the far west, though, threatening a soaking later. A single locomotive, gleaming and black, puffed smoke ahead of its mix of passenger and boxcars. Its whistle blew, making Curtis jump and Batcho tuck his tail.
“The robbery happened about a mile and a half west of town,” Spike told the others. “There’s a stone marker, commemorating those who died. I’ll see if I can find a wagon to carry us the rest of the way.”
“We’ll walk,” Frank said, starting down the road away from the depot. The train lurched forward at the same time, chugging west, its cars slow to move behind it, as if they longed to stay and rest at the depot.