FREE Fiction Friday by David A Hill (pt 1)
We are once again thrilled to bring you the beginning of a series for FREE Fiction Friday. This creepy tale by David A Hill will be presented in three parts, so check back for the next installments.
Captives of the Spiral Trail
by David A Hill
Turquoise Will kicked the hat into the fire, then spat after it. There followed a moment of tense silence broken only by Digger stifling a laugh. Big Twitch, acting more on instinct than intellect, took a few sidelong steps away from Digger. Little Twitch, smaller than his ox-like brother, tried to disappear into Big Twitch’s massive shadow. The rest of the “Turquoise Gang” stood still and quiet as headstones. The smell of burning leather tainted the night air.
“Tell me plain,” said Will in an even tone that barely carried over the crackling flames, “why this hat was the only part of Rusty you brought back from town.”
Skewered by Will’s glare, Carter held his own treasured cavalry hat in front of his chest, like some kind of pathetic shield. He glanced at Suicide Jack, but the quiet Englishman who’d made the trip back with him just shrugged and smiled a halfhearted apology that said he wasn’t quite as crazy as his name implied.
“Like I said before,” Carter swallowed, then coughed until his breath rattled.
One foot on a hollow log, Will leaned forward on his knee. The polished blue turquoise of his twin revolver grips gleamed in the firelight. They matched his eyes.
“He don’t want it like you said before, Carter,” offered Jack helpfully, his tone mocking and his posh English accent less pronounced than usual.
Will said nothing, just leaned and stared without blinking – like a snake. The evening deepened.
“A girl killed him,” Carter’s words came quick, forced through a wheeze.
Hard blue eyes disappeared behind lowered lids, “Rusty was taken down by a woman?”
“Nossir. A girl – um, a shaver.” Carter held one hand out, palm down, at about waist height. “If you take my meaning,” he finished without much hope in his voice.
Will opened his eyes and looked over to Jack. The other man nodded.
“Sure thing he’s dead, then?”
Realizing Will’s question was addressed to him, Carter said after a pause, “Man’s head goes off on its own, that’d be my bet.”
“Fair odds,” agreed Will.
Carter let out a nervous laugh.
“And the hat?” Will’s question cut the laugh short.
A sigh. “How did the hat come to you?”
“It rolled,” replied Carter as quick as he could. “Head went one way, hat t’other.”
“Always wanted that hat,” the new guy called Grudge whispered to Digger, who ignored him.
“What were you up to while these rolls went on?” Will asked.
Carter shifted his feet, as if marking his own burial plot. “Trying like hell not to piss myself,” he finally admitted. Something in the fire popped loud enough to make him jump.
“Want me to fetch you that hat, Grudge?” Will asked, staring back at Carter while he picked the question out of the dark.
“Naw, Mister Turquoise Will,” answered the heavyset man, scratching at the stubble on his cheek and showing at least two missing teeth as he flashed a jack o’ lantern grin.
“What was that you told me Carter, about why they call him Grudge?”
Covering his sandy hair with the cavalry hat, Carter replied with a lopsided smile, “Cause he holds one better’n he does any gun.”
“And why do those who know me call me Turq, Carter?”
“Turquoise sounds too pretty and wills are for those with something to leave behind when they die.” After a long pause Carter let loose a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Will was joking now and that was almost always a good sign.
“Right both times,” said Will, winking at the man.
Carter let himself relax a little more. Grudge took a couple of steps back and stopped smiling.
No one else in the gang believed the new guy was going to last. Every outlaw under Turquoise Will’s command was a lean, hard sumbitch with some kind of talent or expertise, but Grudge was just Rusty’s addle-headed cousin with a little extra around the middle. Good cook though.
Suicide Jack cleared his throat. Will swung his gaze over.
“The girl was an odd duck, and no mistake.”
Will picked at the frayed patch on the knee of his pants. “Do tell,” he urged.
Someone giggled, high-pitched and crazy.
Will threw a glare toward Digger, but the bearded man was looking for the source of the sound. The entire gang soon formed a ragged half-circle and faced out into the darkness, guns at the ready.
Suicide Jack muttered, “No-no-no-no-no…” over and over and no one thought he was ever going to stop.
Carter whimpered in his throat but no words would come.
Something flashed for just a moment in the near gloom and four shots responded with desperate fury. Wood snapped and splintered somewhere near the horses. Another shot – an animal screamed.
“Grudge – you idiot!” No one could say who yelled the words but they all knew it was Will who shot the gun right out of the pudgy hand.
Big Twitch grunted and doubled over. Little Twitch rushed to his brother’s aid. The large man’s hands were pressed hard against his gut and his throat convulsed in wretched spasms. He vomited on the smaller man, then lost his hold. Intestines uncoiled in gleaming ropes from a yawning gash in the man’s belly. Little Twitch screamed and fell back on his saddle sores. He kept screaming as he tried to scuttle away like a crab.
Someone shot Big Twitch in the head, dropping the poor brute hard to the dirt.
A volley of gunfire flared in the flickering gloom with a sound like popping corn in a big kettle.
Empty-handed, Grudge spun and ran for all he was worth toward the horses. In seconds he was swallowed by the night and everyone else fell silent, even Little Twitch, straining to see or hear even the smallest hint of –
“What?” Grudge’s voice carried sharp and clear from somewhere in the middle dark.
Again, the giggle.
No one dared shoot, for fear of hitting Grudge. Though each man privately worried more about wounding another one of the horses.
Grudge started to laugh, as if he was being tickled. Somehow the sound was more terrible than Little Twitch’s screams had been. The laughs turned to liquid gurgles and kept going, finally descending into deep coughs that sputtered off into silence.
The girlish giggle receded into the furthest black.
Digger cursed until he ran out of words. Stabbing the night air with a smoking pistol, he snapped, “What’s he grinning at?”
Everyone looked over at the dark bowlegged man they all called “The Mexican.” Will knew him as Sapito and that he wasn’t from Mexico. He was supposed to be from some nearly extinct Indian tribe deep down in South America somewhere. For his part, the frog-faced man didn’t care what anyone called him and his placid face was almost always split in a great big batrachian smile.
Before Will could say anything, Sapito kicked a spent shotgun shell into the fire and replied, “Still alive, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Will’s voice echoed the sentiment.
“Momma told me to keep an eye on you, big dummy.” Little Twitch knelt by the mutilated body of his younger brother. Tears and snot dampened his face but his red eyes shone with more fury than despair. “Won’t be you gets the whoopin’. That’s for me to take.” He choked. “You done your share,” Twitch finished before breaking down entirely.
Will stepped over and put a firm hand on Little Twitch’s shoulder. The others, those who still lived, bowed their heads in silence.
Later, when the others had given up looking for Grudge and finally settled down to fitful sleep among the pebbles and sand of the arroyo, Will and Jack sat atop a low ridge overlooking the camp and talked in low voices.
“You going to tell someone what this is all about, Turq?”
Will sat on a boulder with a Lee-Metford rifle upright between his knees, given to him by Suicide Jack who held an identical one of his own. He didn’t answer. Jack stood against a dead tree, almost blending with the outline of the trunk.
“We’re down to six now, but you already know that. I’m thinking it might not be enough. One man with his head taken off and another lying in his own trolleybobs. Now that rattles me a bit but we don’t even know what happened to the other, and that’s almost worse.” Jack’s voice held a tone he reserved for lectures and debates, level and calm.
Will’s long sigh brought the lecture up short. Jack listened with care to what his leader had to say.
“Man like you don’t voice his thoughts just to see how the cat jumps and I sure do want to tell somebody the tale before I die. But I’m not telling this to the wind, if you follow me.”
“I follow you,” replied Jack, “but not with my eyes closed.”
Will nodded, then began to speak in the voice of a man recalling history. “Wasn’t riding with any of you until the start of this year, except for Sapito. Met him a few years ago in Peru, right after the civil war broke out in Chile. Think he was involved in the fighting. Don’t know on which side and didn’t much care at the time. Helped him escape some men with guns and he helped me – well, that’s another story.”
Suicide Jack felt sure that other story was worth hearing but he didn’t interrupt.
“You’re probably wondering what I was doing in Peru,” said Will, looking over toward the tree.
“Truth be told, I was looking for gods – old ones.” Not noticing how the other man stiffened against the silhouette of the tree, Will continued. “Even found some, too. Still regretting that, but not so much as the grave robbing in Illinois – Peru came later and that’s still another story. Done some bad things in my time, but it took a lot to get to desecrating the dead. Still, it was an Indian mound and that didn’t seem to count for much at the time. Besides, it was all for science and led by a smart Professin’ fella from the Smithsonian Institution, no less. He needed someone who knew the Ohio River Valley and I had nothing else going on. Won’t bore you with the false trails and piddly failures, but we eventually came to a flat-topped mound the Professor said was built by Mississippi Indians.”
“Mississippian?” countered Jack.
“Yep. That’s them. Weird folks with weird beliefs. Sapito says he’s related to them and I believe it. Probably alive today because of that.” Will paused, nudging a rock with the toe of his boot. Restless fingers played at the hilt of the famous turquoise knife in its beaded sheath on his thigh. “Grass was green like emeralds coming up out of the ground. Like grass you’d see in a dream. Not real. It was beautiful and it scared me some. The south end of the valley was funny like that, just green and alive in a way you don’t normally see. Felt like another time or something. The Professor’s helpers seemed to notice the same thing but the man himself only had eyes for the mound. Maybe twenty feet high, it was, and flat at the top I think I said before. Weren’t the only mound at the site – the Professor called it a site, but it was the only one he cared about. Something about the people there disappearing almost overnight and him wanting to know why. Things he’d find inside would tell him. Records or relics – that kind of thing.”
Suicide Jack was now facing Will as he related his story, obviously interested.
“Was just in it for the money,” continued Will, “that, and maybe a share of whatever might be in the mound. They call the land around there Egypt, you know. Since they got pyramids and all, could be maybe some gold too. Leastways, that’s what I figured. Thought I had it all worked out. Does something to a man when he learns there are monsters in this world with him.”
When Jack chuckled softly to himself, Will didn’t hear. He was lost in the building horror of memory.
“Was sometime during the afternoon of the next day they got the entrance open. There was a door, but I never saw it. The Professor said something about the Seal of Solomon and there was an argument about that for a good long while. An assistant wanted to know what Indians were doing with something like that. Couldn’t blame him there. When it was time to go in, I was one of the last. The walls, floor, and ceiling inside was covered with damp moss – like a living carpet, growing in the dark. Should’ve turned tail and run for it right then. No sense at all, that’s me. Stayed for the gold.”
“There was gold?” Jack interrupted.
“Nope. Not that I ever saw. Pots and bowls of clay. Little statues of colored stone – picked up a few of them. Pretty stuff, but nothing a man can get rich off of. I’d just kicked some pottery thing covered with lines of triangles pointing different ways when the whispering started. Seemed to echo at first, but then you could tell there were a lot of voices making the sound. All of a sudden I regretted breaking the thing.”
His words trailed off and Jack thought there might be tears in his eyes, but it was hard to tell in the dark and it didn’t show in his voice. About the time Jack worried the story might not continue, it did.
“Weren’t no words in that awful murmur, more like the wind through pines or sand through a giant hourglass. And it echoed – but only in your head. Don’t know how else to explain it. The mind tried to find words in that slurry of noise, but mine failed. The first screams came from an inner chamber further in than I’d gone. One of the students, I’d guess. The Professor had brought some along as assistants and for lighter grunt work. Expect they’re all dead now. So many screams. Then came those awful sounds – the wet noises…with the tearing and the snapping. Things you wouldn’t even hear in a damn slaughterhouse. Lantern almost went out, arm was shaking so bad. Something was coming, something I dearly did not want to see. It was wolfish, whatever it was, and I didn’t think it was done yet. But I had my gun in my hand, though I swear I don’t remember pulling it out. Hands seemed to work but my legs and feet was on the dodge. No matter how hard I wanted to light out of that death-hole -”
Will’s voice caught and he took a swig from his canteen. Suicide Jack could almost hear the hellish whispers from somewhere in the dark. His skin prickled with the tension of hyper-awareness. There were tiny beads of sweat on his forehead. It was a cool night. His palms had grown damp. His eyes darted toward every sound or movement – real or imagined.
“What was it?” asked Jack. He needed to hear the sound of his own voice just then.
“A demon of the Pit. A monster from the dark days of the world. A hungry god made in no man’s image. Pick one ’cause I don’t know. There was – oh God, there was mouths. Coming out of the dark. Lamp light shone on the teeth. Big white things, so clean and sharp. Mouths big enough to take a man’s leg off, but no eyes. On the end of giant black worms – always moving, always whispering. Somewhere back in the dark, I’d bet they was all attached to something. Something even bigger. Wanted to shoot it but fingers wouldn’t do the deed. Wanted to scream but throat just closed up. Couldn’t run. Couldn’t piss. Couldn’t pray. Found myself wishing to faint dead away rather than face that nightmare.”
“How did you do it?”
Suicide Jack’s voice jerked Will out of that Stygian tunnel, back to the here and now.
“What?” Will seemed to be hearing the whispers still.
“How did you survive?”
“Don’t know. Probably never know. It just…just…let me go. From the – them heads without eyes, there came a mess of smaller worms…like fingers tearing out of old gloves. But these had mouths too. Still no eyes. They came at me, a mess of wriggling black maggots from the Devil’s own midden, heads almost big as a horse’s. Nudged me about. Rubbed up against me. Cold and damp, with breath like rotted apples. And meat. Rotted apples and meat. They was smelling me or tasting me – or both. Damned if I know what was going on. Closed my eyes and tried to remember a prayer. Somehow, I ended up alone. Not a scratch. Threw my lantern down the tunnel and leg bailed as best I could on shaky stemps.”
Wiping his forehead with a kerchief, Suicide Jack said nothing. In the camp below, the fire was dying down. An ethereal wedge of false dawn shone on the eastern horizon. He looked at his leader with new eyes. On first meeting, over a hand of tiger-backs during a game of faro, Jack had taken the lean, clean-shaven man for someone almost his own age. Now it was plain that horror and not a little madness had etched a few false years into the face and hands. At a guess, Turquoise Will was probably little more than thirty.
The man himself was giving him a level stare and Jack felt his thoughts exposed to the gang leader’s scrutiny. He quickly composed his features and returned the stare.
“Man hearing what I just told would, by rights, call humbug on me before the tale was half done. But not you. You look at me like a man who not only buys into it all, but just might have an understanding to boot.”
“You still have the figurines, don’t you?” Jack asked as if they were discussing the dig site in a quiet college classroom.
Will nodded. At a sudden movement they both turned to watch the figure of Digger loping over to tend to the horses. He was always an early riser and a fair hand with animals.
“Maybe you should catch a few winks before we hit the trail,” said Will to Jack.
“Good idea,” replied the Englishman. “Getting too close to morning for ghost stories anyway.”
Will saw the smile in the man’s normally cold gray eyes and found himself grateful for it.
At full light, they’d seen Big Twitch buried. Digger, with uncharacteristic solemnity, said some words over the grave. Though he liked to pretend his nickname came from a former career as a gravedigger, Will knew the sardonic bastard had earned the moniker during his years as a prospector. A habit of ruthless claim-jumping made Digger unpopular with his neighbors and the authorities. Finally, he’d made a run for it and sought a new life far from the mining towns. That’s when he’d met Turquoise Will and his gang.
“I’m sorry, little brother,” was all Little Twitch could be heard to say when it was all over.
Every man standing said his “amens” at the end of the service. Big Twitch had been dumb as a stump and came across as chuffy to those that didn’t know him, but he was a man to count on when there was counting to be done. Of course, Big Twitch couldn’t have counted to ten with both hands, but that wasn’t much in demand on the trail and certainly not under the ground.
Will fretted a little that Little Twitch (now only Twitch) would leave the gang after the death of his brother. To his surprise, the ferret-like man seemed to replace his usual nervous energy with a grim, hard fatalism. It was a driving force seemingly focused on avenging his loss by finding and killing the giggling little girl.
She had something to do with the monster in the mound, Will knew – or felt. She even had some connection to the object of their next heist. Of that, he had no doubt. Wished he knew just how the little creature was involved. There would be another private talk with Suicide Jack ere long. When the time came, Will would see what the man knew. Jack was an educated man, that much was obvious. It was also plain that he was more familiar than most with the ugly underside of God’s Creation. He’d heard what Will had to say and still kept coming. What kind of man was this fancy English gent with his fine togs and high-falutin talk? And why was he riding with a bunch of lowdown owl hoots like them? Misery and mystery were starting to shape Will’s life like pickets in a fence and he never had liked being fenced in.
When there was time enough for reading, Will reached to the bottom of his trusty “war bag” and rummaged around until he felt a familiar cracked leather surface beneath his fingers. He pulled the thing out, looked around to see that no one was watching, opened the cover stamped “Field Journal – Smithsonian Institution” as he had countless times before, and began to scan the cluttered pages.
* * *
Later, when the last of the “Turquoise Gang” disappeared around the bend of the long-dry stream bed, a figure stepped out from behind a curtain of tangled roots, leading a saddled horse. Though as barren and dead as the old watercourse, the lone alder had reached high and delved deep. Its exposed roots dangled like the tentacles of a gigantic squid perished by cruel fate within reach of water exhausted long since. The riot of wood covered a deep cavity worn into the steep bank by the current that once flowed where man and mount now stood.
With dark hair starting to show streaks of white, deep-set frown lines, and a neat Van Dyke beard terminating in a narrow point, the figure presented a rather saturnine facade. He set his broad-brimmed hat and swung up into the saddle. Ensuring that the ornate silver six-pointed star of his badge was prominently displayed upon his riding duster, the man calling himself Marshal Talbot began the slow ride upstream in the wake of his quarry.
Join us in two weeks for the next installment by David A Hill.