FREE Fiction Friday by David A Hill (pt 2)
Did you miss part one of David A Hill’s creepy western tale? No worries, it’s still FREE and you can read it right here!
Captives of the Spiral Trail
by David A. Hill
Turquoise Will rode into town with the remains of his gang, never even taking note of the name of the place. The setting sun at their backs cast seven long shadows across the hard-packed dirt of the street. Somewhere, a cow lowed in mournful complaint. Somewhere else, a door slammed.
The horses seemed drawn to the lively melody of the big fountain in the square. Since there were water troughs plainly visible along the stone circumference, the animals were given their heads. Amid murmurs of relief the men dismounted for a drink and a stretch.
Carter pulled off his boots and socks then sat on the fountain’s edge with his feet dangling in the water. Suicide Jack lit his pipe and wiped his face and neck with a wet handkerchief. Will threatened to gun Twitch down if he stripped to his skin and took a dip in the fountain. This came as a surprise to none of the other men who knew enough to be on their best behavior.
A steady rhythmic creak from across the street turned out to be a woman in a rocking chair on the porch under a Dry Goods sign. She was one of the oldest women Will had ever laid eyes on but she sat the chair like a queen on her throne, back straight and head high. Her impressive dress would not have been out of place in the salons of Paris forty years back. Will faced the old woman and tipped his hat, receiving a solemn nod in return. At that moment the red evening sun gleamed from what Will had taken for the haft of a broom but turned out to be the polished barrel of a rifle.
“It’s a worthy man what minds his manners in front of a lady,” said a voice deep and smooth as a full bottle of single malt scotch.
The town sheriff, as the badge over the man’s heart proclaimed, wore his middle age well and smiled easily. The smiles were genuine and confident, as was the rest of his manner, and framed by a neat white beard. The hair beneath his bowler hat was also white, just like the ivory handle of his Colt revolver. By way of contrast, his elegant suit was black.
Keeping both empty hands in sight, Will stepped forward. “Evening, sir. Name’s Will Caulfield. These are my associates.” He indicated the rest of the gang with a sweep of one hand.
“Six men. Seven horses,” the sheriff observed.
“Lost a man on the trail,” said Will.
“A good man,” muttered Twitch.
“What brings you to our quiet little hamlet?” asked the sheriff without taking his eyes from Will’s.
“Passing through. Beds and supper tonight. Be off in the morning. Won’t leave nothing behind but our money and gratitude.”
The sheriff looked Will long in the eye. After a while he nodded. “I reckon we can see to your needs.”
“Much obliged,” replied Will.
“If you’re looking to sell that horse, I know a man that’ll make you an offer. Especially if she’s as fine as she looks from here. Strapping lass, that one.”
“We’ll let you know, sir.”
“Call me Ben. Or, if you must, Sheriff Horn. We’re all friends here.”
“Fair enough, Ben. Be pleased if you’d call me Will.”
“Will it is, then.” The sheriff favored them all with a broad grin. “Let’s get you boys set up. Follow me.” He led the way up the street to a large building painted mostly in pale blue and white. The elegant sign read, “Blue Star Hotel and Saloon.” Sure enough, there was a big five-pointed star above the front door. It was covered in a mosaic of turquoise tiles. Will stifled a grin.
The main room hummed with conversation, bubbled with laughter, and clattered with the sounds of dining. Everyone they hadn’t seen on the street seemed to be right here.
“Best behavior now,” murmured Will to the others.
“I’ll be leaving you here,” said Sheriff Horn, “too many chores left undone.”
“Appreciate the warm reception, Ben.” Will shook the sheriff’s hand.
The older man’s grip was firm. “You have any trouble, you see me.”
Will wasn’t sure if that was an invitation or a promise. He decided to take it as both.
Horn stepped out and Will went to catch up with the others. The aromas of food cooking were as a siren’s song to a mariner of the ancient world and he let himself be drawn forth in helpless rapture.
“Damn fine chow,” Carter was barely intelligible around a mouthful of food.
“Good to be eatin’ like home again,” added Digger.
“You must be the only one to miss Grudge,” chided Suicide Jack.
Everyone at the table laughed.
“Must be the only one still scratching my head over what came of him too,” Digger shot back.
Jack glanced over to where Will sat alone. Still hunched over that book he carried around, their leader gave no indication that he was listening.
“Scratch all you want,” Jack said, “but it’s just possible that not knowing is best.”
“Then I’m on top of the world since my head’s like a bag of nails and I don’t even know which way is up anymore.” Digger stabbed his fork into a chunk of something covered in gravy.
“I don’t know about you Jack,” whispered Carter, “but I have nightmares about that little girl and what she did to Rusty.”
“You didn’t see what she did to Rusty. There was too much fog.”
“Dammit man, you got ice water in your veins?” Carter’s voice rose with indignation.
“Stick around long enough,” quipped Digger, “you might get to see.”
Nobody laughed. Not even Digger.
Suicide Jack turned to face Digger and said in a voice leaden with menace, “How many bloody gold nuggets you willing to bet on that, prospector?”
Sapito swallowed audibly.
“Who is this little chickabiddy anyway?” Twitch asked in a too-bright tone, then mopped up the last of the gravy on his plate with a chunk of bread.
“Weren’t no kid,” insisted Carter, “though she looked like one.”
Carter glanced over to Digger but had no answer.
“Made like a wee lass, pretty dress and all,” said Suicide Jack.
“Kills like the Devil’s Own though,” concluded the Englishman.
“What’s that mean?” Digger leaned forward on his elbows, voice quieter than usual.
Jack glanced sidelong to where Will seemed engrossed in his reading. He paused, hating the sudden little vertiginous sensation of uncertainty.
“You listening to me?” Belligerence was creeping into Digger’s voice again.
“Yeah,” Jack answered, “I hear every damn word you say.” His eyes never left the corner where Will sat.”
All eyes looked to Sapito. Jack’s neck popped from the speed with which he turned his head toward the dark man. Though everyone asked him what he’d said, Sapito just shrugged and ate his pieces of sweet potato one by one. Of them all, only Jack knew what the word meant. Of them all, only Jack now had more questions than when he’d sat down.
Digger pushed violently away from the table and stalked off with rangy strides toward the exit, leaving his chair toppled on the floor.
“Where’s he off to?” Jack asked of no one in particular.
Twitch slid Digger’s plate over and started eating. “Bed house,” he offered between bites.
“How he manages to kiss a woman with that sagebrush on his face is beyond me.” Jack stood, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
“Don’t think he’s there fer kissin’,” commented Carter over the brim of his mug.
Jack patted Carter on the shoulder in passing, settling his charcoal grey “gambler” hat with the other hand. “Just stepping out for the night air, gents.”
“Haw!” The laugh exploded from Twitch after Jack had disappeared outside. “Beard like a startled porkypine, that one.” He bellowed out another laugh.
No one had noticed Will leaving his seat in the corner and Twitch nearly choked on his latest load of food when a couple of coins clattered together on the table. The three remaining outlaws watched quietly as their leader slipped through the crowded room like a lone coyote among a herd of buffalo and then out the door.
In the cool stillness of the evening Turquoise Will closed his eyes and breathed deep of the peace filling the empty street. The perfect calm lasted for the space of four heartbeats. Somewhere, a door slammed again. He opened his eyes, cursed to himself, and strolled out of the broken moment toward the fountain. A figure seemed to materialize from nowhere among the outlines and shadows of the structure.
“Thought I’d find you here.” Will’s voice didn’t carry over the cascading water but Suicide Jack nodded all the same.
“Time for more ghost stories?”
Will smiled at Jack’s wry tone. “Maybe after you explain how you know the ghosts so well already.”
“Maybe I’m not the only one.”
“I don’t follow.”
Jack jerked his head toward the hotel up the street. “Something Sapito mentioned during supper caught my attention. Maybe you didn’t hear.”
Will shook his head, but he thought he knew where this was going anyway.
“Lilin.” Jack waited for a reaction and got none. “Means nothing to you?”
The other man shrugged, unsheathed the gorgeous knife fashioned from a single piece of turquoise, and began to clean under his fingernails with the point. The artwork on the piece reminded Jack of Incan artifacts he’d seen in a Spanish museum.
“Well,” Jack went on, “it probably should by now.”
“‘Endarken’ is more like.”
Will sat at the edge of the fountain, facing one way, and Jack sat opposite him, facing the other. Between the two of them, the entirety of the street fell under their purview.
From a second story window above a feed shop, the scene fell under the intense scrutiny of a hidden figure with a small spyglass. This time, he kept his six-pointed badge covered by a jacket.
“Five lilin have fallen by my hand – and my knife,” admitted the Englishman.
Turquoise Will knew Jack carried more than one knife at all times, but only one was visible. That one was a simple Bowie with a horn handle like most of the gang carried and Jack preferred blades of a more elegant design. More than one member of the gang had been spared lingering hurt through the ministrations of Jack’s deft hands and cunning blades. All that, and a surgeon to boot. What next?
“It might be apparent that lilin sounds much like Lilith and so it should. They are the daughters of that mythical woman and they are monsters in fetching human form. If you know nothing else of the ancient evil named Lilith, know at least that she is the mother of demons and an immortal foe of humanity. Biblical hints and mythical records aside, Lilith is a manifestation of cruelty, hunger, chaos, and death. She spawns horror and takes the lives of newborn human children in exchange. She would overrun the world with her hellish offspring.”
Will glanced up into Jack’s hard eyes and nodded his understanding.
“A few years back,” continued Jack, “I was in a position to remove a number of particularly dangerous lilin from the world. Five of them, to be precise, in London. When my work was done, I was forced to flee. The first available ship was bound for America.”
“Think I read about that,” commented Will, sheathing the gleaming blue knife. Finding himself suddenly nervous, he wanted to keep it drawn and ready. Something told him that from behind a knife would not be the way he’d want to face this man in a fight.
The faintest ghost of a smile passed across Jack’s features before the usual grim set of his jaw and eyes reclaimed all expression. “Do quite a bit of reading, I’ve noticed.”
From the worn satchel at his side Will produced the Field Journal that never left his keeping.
“Belonged to the Professor, did it?”
“Does it help?”
“Not enough,” added Will.
“Well,” Jack eased back into his lecturing tone, “Lilith, as I said, is immortal, but her body does get worn out from all the birthing she goes through. From time to time she will give forth a beautiful girl child that suits her fancy. When the babe is able to open its eyes, Lilith will leave her own body and pass into that of the newborn. Left behind, the empty shell that was once the mother will fall into a deep sleep to eventually die. The new body matures with impossible rapidity and Lilith is set loose upon the world once more.”
“Sounds like you’ve witnessed all this yourself.”
“Doesn’t matter what I’ve seen. Nor does what I’ve done mean much now. Your giggling little murderess has changed everything.”
Will’s startling blue eyes, exactly the same hue as the knife at his hip, widened and he made a sound in his throat.
Jack held up a hand. “You’re going to have to try to trust two things. One is that I know what I know and that will have to be enough. The second is that I am on your side in this particular fight.”
It was a long unblinking stretch of time before Will jerked his head once in a perfunctory nod.
“First, I thought it was Lilith not yet grown. But it’s been too long for that now and I’ve had a glimpse or two at the girl since.”
“Just a name,” insisted Will, “that’s all I ask.”
Jack glanced back over Will’s shoulder as he said, “Pandora.”
Now that was a name Will knew from his reading.
The sound of footsteps approaching at an uncertain pace brought the exchange to a sure and sudden halt. Both men stood and faced the woman who approached. She was pretty enough, after a fashion, but showed a haggard tarnish of care and hardship around the eyes and mouth. In her gloved hands she carried a familiar hat.
“Digger,” whispered Will. He hadn’t meant to speak the word aloud and was startled by the sound of his own voice.
About five feet from Will, the woman stopped and held the brown slouch hat close, as if deciding whether to give it up or keep it for herself. She held the crown in her palms, with the inside of the thing open to the sky. Part of it seemed darker than Will remembered.
Behind him, Jack sniffed once. The woman had been looking down the entire time, seemingly fascinated by what she held, or perhaps unwilling to meet the gaze of either man before her. Suddenly, her eyelids lifted to reveal irises of vibrant green. Will took an involuntary step back, one hand resting on the hilt of his knife. Jack placed a steadying hand between his shoulder blades.
She raised her arms, offering forth the hat. The corner of her mouth twitched once, as if fighting a smile.
Will took the hat, unable to pull his gaze from those terrible, beautiful eyes. It was almost warm, as if it had just left Digger’s grizzled head.
The prostitute, for that’s what she was, dropped a quick curtsey and turned to go.
Will thought to ask if Digger ever kissed any of them, but was distracted by the sudden realization that the hat in his hands was damp. It also had more weight than he thought it should. He looked down into it. Jack bent to look over his shoulder. Time seemed to stop.
“We kept his biggest organs for ourselves. You understand.” The merry female voice echoed in the open square before fading away into malice-filled laughter that tinkled like tiny bells of arsenic.
The thing inside pulsed once, very slowly. Dark blood trickled out of it, adding to the glistening stain already spreading across the bottom of the hat. Will’s mind refused to identify what he was looking at. After a few seconds, the thing pulsed again. It seemed weaker this time and nothing flowed out of the tubular openings. Turquoise Will waited but no more pulses ever came and the bloody heart that once belonged to Digger McGraw lay quiet and still.
It was time to go.
Twitch had cheated a banker and a land speculator out of a considerable amount of cash over cards without either figuring out how he did it. Carter and Sapito were well on their way to a serious, yet quiet, drunk over a little chess board the former carried with him. It was difficult to tell who was winning as some of the pieces looked to be represented by shot glasses.
“Pack it up, you varmints.” Will’s voice cracked across the room in clipped tones like the report of a bullwhip. It took the combined force of his fierce glare and Suicide Jack’s stubborn head shakes to silence the eruption of questions and griping.
“Sleep in the saddle or sleep in shallow graves,” snapped Will with even less sympathy than usual. “Any man that sleeps here gets left here.”
“Carter,” Jack whispered over the man’s shoulder, “are you well enough to find that sheriff and sell a couple of horses?”
Carter thought he was but professed some bafflement over the number of animals available for sale. Jack cut off half-voiced questions and sent him off in a hurry.
Even Turquoise Will had to admit his remaining men weren’t short on sand. They were collected, kitted, and mounted inside of twenty minutes. Fifteen minutes later Carter came trotting up with a small bag in hand.
“The take from Big Twitch’s horse goes to Little Twitch. Divide anything left amongst yourselves. Let’s set a pace now.” Turquoise Will led the way out of town, then turned his mount off the road and made for the hills.
* * *
Still damp from the bath and flecked with shaving soap, Marshal Talbot lit out after the Turquoise Gang, trusting his trail-wise palomino to keep up with the others in the darkness. A chill settled in the middle of his chest and would not leave him be. The end was coming.
* * *
“Smells like law to me.”
Suicide Jack agreed with Will. Of the other three, only Sapito seemed to know they were being followed. Will had pondered sending the trusty Indian back to see about cutting off their tail, but could not risk losing even one more man to chance. Their shadow was slick as goose grease but the terrain wound in labyrinthine ways that made it hard to keep sight of something you wanted to hide from yourself. And Turquoise Will pushed his remaining men hard, stopping only for collecting water and for passing water.
Descending now into the lowlands, the wooded heights seemed like looming storm clouds to those looking up from below. It wasn’t long before fog, cool and damp, covered them all in a heavy shroud to smother what remained of their enthusiasm. From here, there was nothing but to follow the stream and take care. From his maps, Will knew this minor tributary of the greater Ohio River cut straight through this notch and emptied into a small lake beyond. Overlooking that lake was – well, there it was in plain sight.
What the fort was called, Will had no idea. In fact, he was almost sure it had never been named in the public record. Any purpose the stern blocky structure once served paled now in comparison to its current service as a discreet U.S. Government depository. Though Will had let his gang believe they were here for silver and gold, he truly had no idea whether such treasure could be found. He was out for something else entirely.
The Professor’s field journal contained notes and records for a startling number of Mississippian mounds, but Will had been near buffaloed by the sketches and vague details of an Army fort built right up against one of those big piles of earth. Most everything he knew of the secret depository came from the journal and the Professor’s notes within. While there was no real indication of what had been deposited inside the thick stone walls, aside from one curious artifact, Will had found precise layouts and surveys of the mound itself. That was gonna be their way in.
But there was the rider following them. If he was a lawman, that stirred things up some. Still, Turquoise Will had all the permits and papers allowing the bearer access to certain Mississippian cultural sites. Those had come with the journal. Either way, he’d come too far and lost too much to turn back. After the confounding and nightmarish things his eyes had seen, Will truly feared no man on earth. Not even Suicide Jack.
“What made a slicked-up gent such as yourself sign up with this pack of bandits and miscreants?”
Jack turned one of his rare smiles upon Will as he considered the question. “The truth of it lies in that knife of yours. I suppose it was an urge to see if the legends were true.”
“Yeah,” agreed Will, “I aim to find that out myself. And soon.”
“Before dawn?” Sapito looked up from tending his rifle. Urgency burned in his eyes.
“Before the fates catch us up.”
Lamps and open fires set the walls of the fort aglow in front and on the sides. The back wall abutting the mound stood in relative darkness. Will was glad not to be daring those sheer surfaces. With hand gestures and silently mouthed words, he led his pitifully small gang through the scrub and sparse rocky cover behind the raised earthen shape. To his relief, the grass here was dry and brown instead of the disturbing viridian hue surrounding the fateful mound that had claimed his peace of mind. This one seemed smaller than the other and part of the top looked to have collapsed a little, just at the spot where he thought to make his entrance.
Will held up three fingers and then pointed to himself. Then he held up one finger and stabbed it toward the ground at the base of the artificial hill. He looked at Sapito over this last gesture. The dark man nodded and settled himself out of sight. Carter, Suicide Jack, and Only Twitch crept up the slope after their leader.
Near the top, Jack turned abruptly on a whim and stared out over the surrounding landscape. “Bugger,” he whispered to himself. The earthwork stood at the center of a spiraling serpent mound and Jack had the sudden and sinking feeling of a fly that has just been brought up short by hitherto invisible strands of spider’s webbing.
Will crouched down and motioned the others over to him. From an inner pocket he produced a trio of statuettes small enough to be concealed in a closed fist. One was indigo streaked with a caustic green – this he gave to Jack. The second was a burnt tangerine in hue and speckled with white – this went to Twitch, who looked up and shrugged at his leader. Finally, he handed Carter a piece patterned in bands of olive and black.
“Sapito says,” whispered Will, “they’re…” he trailed off and paused in thought, glancing at Carter, then to Twitch. Finally, he added, “good luck charms.” Will tossed a quick wink at Jack then patted himself as if for reassurance that one still remained.
Jack noted how warm the ugly little figurine was, probably from being so close to Will’s body for so long. The human-shaped figure crouched and stared straight ahead with bulging eyes. It had a starved look to it. Jack hated it. Looking over to Twitch, he could see the same reaction on his narrow face. Carter’s head was bowed, seemingly in silent prayer.
Then, Will was climbing the last ten-or-so feet to the top of the mound and the collapsed notch visible there. With a quick intake of breath he stopped and nearly stumbled backwards down the slope. Twitch braced himself, arresting the possible fall. When the three of them were settled, they stared at the giant stone head half-buried in dirt and scree. The exposure looked recent and deliberate.
It was about six feet high and almost as wide. Big as an Olmec monument but with a distinctly leaner look. Lacking the thick, heavy features of the colossal Olmec heads Will had glimpsed in passing when he and Sapito fled through Tabasco on the way back to the States, this enormous sculpture had nearly closed eyes and a slit of a mouth filled with jagged teeth. The nose was small and upturned while the surface of the face was deeply carved with angry-looking curvilinear patterns.
“Dang,” said Twitch in an awed half-whisper.
“Yeah,” agreed Jack in the same tone.
For its part, the head stared toward the men as if daring them to continue on their chosen path. With a noncommittal grunt, Will obliged. The others followed with visible reluctance, unable to see how their leader’s knees trembled with each step. With much slipping, stumbling, and stifled cursing, they came to stand before a towering dolmen formed of two thick upright logs supporting a horizontal third.
One hand flat against the surface of the nearest log, Jack murmured, “Petrified.”
“M-me too,” stammered Twitch, missing the reference.
Releasing months of built up reluctance in one long exhalation, Will drew a revolver with one hand, his blue knife with the other, and stepped into the hungering dark.
* * *
Two men stood apart from the others, the only ones not in uniform. They spoke in low tones to avoid being overheard.
“You made even better time than I’d hoped.” This from the one wearing a visible six-pointed badge upon a worn leather duster.
“Helps to know where the fox is running to before the hunt begins.” The other’s easy manner a fragile veneer barely concealing the urgent tension in his frame.
“Do you know how the little bushwhacker found the fort?”
“He must have picked up Professor Anderson’s field journal.”
“Surprised he can read.” This was followed by a snort of derision.
“You don’t have to be like that,” admonished the other.
“You didn’t have to follow him across four states.
“Thought you Masonic types were supposed to have more patience.”
“Thought you Government types were supposed to have more sense.”
A heavy silence fell, one that even the nearby soldiers felt. Finally, the man without a badge spoke. “You know my orders specified discovering the target’s objective. Taking him in before now would accomplish nothing. I figure that’s why you followed him across four states instead of just gunning him down.”
“Until I find proof of his involvement in the massacre at the Kincaid Site, there’s no call to gun the man down. I’d still rather take him in.”
“I know.” The other man brushed trail dust from his bowler.
“It isn’t so much the man I want, but what he’s suspected of carrying. Besides, we marshals don’t work like that.”
“You’re as much a marshal as I am a sheriff.”
This brought a dark glower and a familiar tension about the leather-clad shoulders. The two men stared hard into one another’s eyes. A few soldiers found a sudden need to patrol another part of the wall. The man who wasn’t a marshal broke first. He grinned, then chuckled. The man who wasn’t a sheriff slid his palm surreptitiously from the ivory grip of his Colt revolver, demeanor placid and silent.
Conclusion, coming soon!
Thanks, David A Hill