Wild

This is the kind of old West campfire tale that raises the dead! Literally!

-John Everson

Wild

By
Lincoln Crisler

Damnation Books, LLC.
P.O. Box 3931
Santa Rosa, CA 95402-9998

www.damnationbooks.com

Wild
by Lincoln Crisler

Digital ISBN: 978-1-61572-322-5

Print ISBN: 978-1-61572-323-2

Cover art by: Ash Arceneaux
Edited by: Tim Marquitz

Copyright 2011 Lincoln Crisler

Printed in the United States of America
Worldwide Electronic & Digital Rights
1st North American and UK Print Rights

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any form, including digital and electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the Publisher, except for brief quotes for use in reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

“An exciting and unique mash-up of cowboys, magic, and the walking dead —
Wild
is a dark and mysterious take on the Old West that will keep you reading straight through the night.”

—Ronald Malfi, author of
Snow
and
The Ascent

 


Wild
feels like the cast of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly somehow ended up working on an old Karloff film. It’s good, gritty fun.”

— Peter Clines, Author of
Ex-Heroes

 

You just don’t hear enough about the dark wizards and bloodthirsty zombies of the 1800s. This story is
Wild
!

—John Everson, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of
Covenant
and
Siren

For Liam, who’ll no doubt enjoy a good zombie movie when he’s just a little bit older, and who is almost ready for Westerns right now.

Author’s Note

If it takes a village to raise a child, I’d wager it at least takes the happy hour crowd at a reasonably popular drinking establishment to bring a book to fruition. The best way to test this theory would be to gather all of the following people in one place and buy them a few rounds; Lord knows they all deserve it.

My wife Connie is at the top of the list, as always. Some day I’m going to write an article tracking the chronological evolution of her temperance and coping skills. It takes a special woman to raise a family while her husband is off playing G.I. Joe most of the time
and
share him with a writing career when he does manage to stay home for a while. Her latest strategy involves monetizing my skills as one-half of a virtual assistant business venture. You gotta love a woman like that.

My children, Cheyann, Abigail, and Liam, constantly impress me and everyone else around them. I’m almost afraid to take over the world at this point, because as any fan of ancient mythology knows, my spawn are destined to kill me and take my place. Damned if they couldn’t do it if they put their minds to it. I’m still looking for the perfect stories to write for the girls. This one right here might be Liam’s.

Steve Lowe, Kevin Wallis, Sean Grigsby, and myself have formed the nucleus of a critique group for over a year now, and that short association has helped bring into being not just my own, but three other books. I’ve read many quotes about the solitary life of the writer and such, but in my case that’s a load of hooey. I completed
Wild
quicker than I otherwise would have because I knew those guys were waiting to read the rest. Their critiques, plus the time I spent analyzing their work and giving my right brain a rest, were essential.

Rhonda Wilson and Tim Marquitz were the first people to read the finished product. Both of them gave me a great reader’s perspective, and Tim ended up editing the book when Damnation picked it up. As the saying goes, if you loved the story, thank me; if you hated it, blame Tim. I think I got that right.

Last but not least, thanks to my readers and fans, several of whom are directly to blame for the existence of this book.
Wild
came about, for those not in the know, as the result of a Facebook post I made one night during my deployment to Qatar. I was ready to write something new, and offered readers the choice between a western/detective/horror story and something else. Western/detective/horror won by a decent margin. I really wish I could remember what the other idea was. Special thanks to everyone who came to see me during my 2010 book signings, and to the twenty-six lucky bastards that picked themselves up a copy of the limited-edition hardcover of this bad boy right here. Apologies to anyone I may have forgotten to mention; if you think that’s bad, imagine how the stories I’ve forgotten to write feel!

Until next time,

—L .

Augusta, Georgia

November 3rd, 2010

Part One

1886, El Paso, Texas

The knocking woke Matthias up; loud and impatient-sounding, it was. He kicked back his rough linen sheet and rolled over and out.
Boy must have been standing out there for a minute,
he thought as he reached for the door handle.
Good to see he’s worked a bit of the shyness out after a week of running my wash water and coffee in the mornings.

“Sorry about the wait,” Matthias muttered as he opened the door. He squinted against the harsh El Paso sunrise. Instead of the baker’s boy, he lit upon a brightly-polished brass star, which bounced the light right into his eyes. It was pinned to the shirt of a tall and lanky man with freshly shaven cheeks and chin and a fierce, bristling mustache. Sheriff’s deputy, according to the engraving. Matthias took a step back into the healing dim of his small room.

“I really need to negotiate a discount on this place,” he said, motioning the deputy to join him. “Damned inhospitable of the man, keeping the western-facing rooms to himself. You’re not here with my hot water and coffee, are you?”

“No, can’t say that I am,” the deputy said, holding out his empty hands and sitting down in the rough-hewn chair beside Matthias’ bed. “Sorry about that, too. This would go over easier after a cup or two.”

“We’ll just have to go with the next best thing, then.” Matthias reached under a pile of clothes on the floor and dug up a half-f glass bottle. He tipped back a gulp of amber-colored liquid, coughed, and held the bottle out. The deputy waved it off.

“Too early, Mister Jacoby. I’m Deputy Kearney, by the way. Call me Kurt.” The deputy held out his hand.

“Seems like you already know me,” Matthias said, shaking Kearney’s hand. “Call me Matt.”

“Your reputation precedes you, Matt. It’s why I’m here, actually.”

Matt reached for his shirt and pulled two thick cigarettes and matches from the breast pocket. “Smoke?”

“Now
that
I will accept,” Kearney said, taking one of the cigarettes. Matt struck a match against his thumbnail, lit the deputy’s cigarette and then his own.

“So what do you think you know about me?”

“I know you solved the Holcomb train robbery after the local law gave the whole thing up,” Kearney said, “and you caught the fellas that robbed that bank in Chicago. No one really seems to know much else.”

“No one really needs to, either. I do a little bit of investigating because it’s exciting; fun. What wouldn’t be fun is someone trying to dig up something on me. Get my meaning?”

“I reckon I do,” Kearney replied. While he puffed on his cigarette, another knock came at the door. The deputy gestured toward it, and Matt nodded. Kearney reached behind him and opened the door. The baker’s boy stood there with a towel and washcloth and a large pan of hot water in which sat a tin carafe. Matt took the things from the boy, set them on the floor, dug a few coins out of his jeans and handed them over.

“Deputy, I know you didn’t just come over for a smoke and a chat, but could I meet you downstairs in about fifteen minutes?”

“Certainly,” Kearney said, and followed the baker’s boy outside.

* * * *

Matt sipped a cup of coffee while he shaved and bathed. Dressed in a clean pair of denims and a cotton shirt, he left a note for the baker’s boy to take his dirty clothes to be washed, pulled on his boots, grabbed his bandana and hat, and tore down the warped wooden steps that ran up the back wall of the bakery. Deputy Kearney seemed pleasant enough, but a bit disturbed beneath it all. To Matt, that meant the chance at a bit of sport he’d been waiting for since getting off the train last Sunday.

Kearney was waiting around front, watching the people go about their business and sipping a tin cup of the baker’s coffee. Matt liked the man already; he seemed to be an attentive lawman that kept his finger on the pulse of the town. From what little he’d seen since setting foot in El Paso that seemed to be a necessary survival skill.

“So what seems to be the trouble, officer?” Matt grinned as he stepped up beside the deputy.

“Just you wait and see, partner.” Kearney chuckled nervously. They stood there for a few minutes, Matt smoking a cigarette and Kearney finishing his coffee. They watched a few men on horseback stirring up small clouds of dust, children running along to school, and women bustling along to the market. Then the deputy drained his cup and took it inside to set it on the baker’s counter. He tapped Matt on the shoulder on his way out, and took off across the open square. Matt stubbed out his cigarette and fell into step beside him.

“We haven’t the slightest idea where to start with this one,” Kearney began as he walked. “Ever hear of Colonel Albert Waters?”

“Can’t say as I have,” Matt said. “I’m not exactly from around here.”

“Couldn’t tell it by the look of you, but your record seems to support that.” Kearney grinned. “The colonel’s been ‘round these parts since the States’ War. Served some time in the Texas Senate, practiced a bit of law, even got back in the saddle ‘gainst the Apaches fifteen years back. Made quite a name for himself. Lots of enemies, too. That’s what makes it hard.”

They had reached the far side of the square, and Matt saw the beginning of several rows of houses and fences. Women swept their front stoops and men saddled up horses for their morning ride to work.

“Sounds like my kind of man,” Matt said. “Let me guess; he forgot to duck?”

“Wish it were that simple. We don’t even know for sure if he’s dead. Or his son, Henry, for that matter.”

Matt whistled. “That ought to narrow it down a bit, deputy. Takes a certain sort of miscreant to involve a man’s family in personal business.”

“Well, in addition to the Confederates he pissed off in his younger days, there’s Indian sympathizers, the cattle rustlers and bandits he’s helped prosecute, the survivors of a few men he killed in duels.” Kearney held up a closed fist and poked fingers up as he ticked off his list. “Not to mention various opponents of the laws he helped make. He also served as a tax collector up until… well, this morning, it seems. And there’s the usual assortment of guns for hire that could have been contracted by any or all of the injured parties.”

“When you put it that way,” Matt laughed, “Who’s not on the list?”

“I think we can discount the children, and some of the women, and that’s pretty much it,” Kearney said. “Even you’re a suspect, to tell you the truth, though I don’t much believe you’re involved. Looking into your record is what led me to think you might be able to help, actually.” Kearney managed to look a little embarrassed.

“No hard feelings, Kurt.” Matt patted the deputy on the back. “I’ve looked into a few of these things, as you’ve managed to suss out. Man blows into town, keeps to himself, no one knows much about him and then, BANG! a prominent citizen shows up dead. I could be a hired gun.”

“You seem a mite too comfortable around me for that to be true, though,” Kearney said, grinning. “And, more to the point,
I’m
comfortable around
you
.”

“That’s good to know I try to make a good first impression. Even made a point of leaving my irons behind.”

“Well, thanks for that,” the deputy answered. “Waters’ sister-in-law is going to be nervous enough as it is, right now.” Kearney led them up a thin, weed-trimmed dirt path to a large, well maintained home. A beautiful black horse was tethered to a rail beside the porch and a tall, lanky youth was brushing its coat.

“John, would you be so kind as to announce us to your mother?” Kearney asked the boy. John looked up from his work, glanced at Matt and went in. “Waters married a younger woman, and moved in with his wife’s sister after his wife died of cholera. Her husband died last year in a mining accident. John and the colonel’s boy are both around the same age and one household’s easier to manage than two, right?”

John returned and waved them in, then went back to his horse. The men walked inside. The parlor was simply decorated with a comfortable sofa, a couple of small tables, some pictures, and an arrangement of fresh flowers. As Matt and Kearney walked in, a tired-looking woman bustled out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel.

“Say you’ve come to tell me I can clean up,” she said.

Waters’ sister-in-law was tall and beautiful despite her red-rimmed eyes and hastily done-up hair. Her feet were bare beneath her light, ankle-length dress and her apron was clean and white.

“Don’t even worry about that, ma’am,” Kearney said, doffing his hat. “I’ll send my boys along to do that bit of business. Your brother meant a lot to us, you know. Before I send them ‘round, though,” he gestured to Matt, who also removed his hat, “This gentleman’s going to take a look at things. His name is Matthias Jacoby, and I think he’ll be able to help us bring Al’s killer to justice.”

“Alright, then,” she answered. “I’m Rose.” She offered her hand to Matt, who took it lightly in his own. “Would you gentlemen care for some coffee?”

“If we were meeting under different circumstances,” Matt told her, “I’d marry you myself, likely as not.” Rose offered a weak smile and returned to the kitchen.

Kearney led Matt to a room on the opposite end of the parlor from the kitchen. It appeared to be an office. There was a large oak desk against one wall and a comfortable leather chair behind it. A pot of ink and neat piles of notes and correspondence sat upon its face. The curtains were open, letting in a bright clot of sunlight. Several bullet casings littered the floor near the doorway, and two small puddles of blood stained the polished wood in the center of the floor. Matt knelt beside them. The blood was still bright red. A blue bandanna lay nearby, one corner sopping up the crimson liquid. There were boot prints and loose dirt on the floor under the desk.

“Whatever happened, happened last night,” Matt said, looking up at the deputy. “Unless the colonel typically got dressed and did a bit of walking in his fields before doing his morning correspondence.” He looked back at the puddles of blood. A few small coins were scattered in the midst of the second one. He picked one up, and blood and soot came off on his thumb as he rubbed it clean. “Now this is odd.”

“How so?”

“These coins have been in a fire. Normally, I’d assume they fell from the boy’s hand, or something of the sort,” Matt answered. “Being burnt, though? I think these were left by the person we’re looking for. No idea why, though.” He moved across to the far side of the room. A small hole marred the otherwise pristine wall. “Casings tell me there were three shots fired. One of those gunshots missed, or at least passed through the colonel or his boy.”

“We figured as much.”

“One thing we do know,” Matt continued, picking up the bandanna, wrapping it around the burnt coins and stuffing it in his pocket. “The colonel’s sister is a heavy sleeper.”

“As a matter of fact,” Rose said, standing in the doorway holding a silver tray with two steaming ceramic mugs, “I sometimes have trouble getting to sleep, and I took a little laudanum last night.” Kearney took the mugs, passed one to Matt and sipped from the other.

“It’s good, Rose. Thank you.” Rose retreated from the room as silently as she came, and the deputy turned back to Matt.

“I think we should question the boy,” Matt said.

John was outside again, leading the horse to the barn around the back of the house. Kearney hailed him, and he turned around and waved them towards the barn.

“Got to get Francis fed and watered, if you don’t mind,” he said, “Then I got to get to school.” He passed the reins to Kearney and dragged the heavy wooden door open. The smell of hay and animal poured out of the barn.

“Just a couple of questions,” Matt assured. “You hear any gunshots last night?”

“Can’t say as I did, deputy. I stayed at a friend’s house until this morning, when his pa came around to send me back to Ma. After she found…” the boy trailed off.

“Alright. Do you know anyone who might have had it in for your uncle? Seen him arguing with anyone recently?”

“No,” the boy shook his head. “He broke up a gunfight at the tavern a few nights ago, and he’s always throwing drunks in lockup for the night. That’s about all I know, sir. Uncle Al pretty much keeps his work to himself.”

“Well, you seem like a bright boy,” Matt said. “Keep your ears and eyes open. People say things around children they won’t say to the law, you understand?”

John nodded.

“Give our regards to your mother,” Kearney said.

John turned back to the horse, and the two men walked off.

“So what do we do now, deputy?” Kearney looked up at the sky, shading his eyes against the sun.

“Let’s get ourselves a bit of early lunch.”

* * * *

The taproom was dimly lit and quiet except for a bit of muffled conversation and the crunch of peanut shells beneath the men’s boots as they stepped through the door. It was empty except for the barkeep, a serving girl and three patrons at a table near the far wall. They’d stopped to pick up Matt’s guns on the way, and when Matt saw the men, he knew why. He had seen their faces on wanted posters ever since crossing the Ohio state line.

“That’s Black Tom Catch and his boys over there,” Kearney said as he made a beeline for the counter. The bartender, a tall, grizzled old man, wandered over. Kearney spoke briefly with him, set some money on the counter, and gestured toward a table. The bartender walked off, and Kearney led Matt over to the table.

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