That’s right! Every few months I’ll upload a free short story to this page simply because I like you.
Really. It’s that simple.
This month’s short story is one which was published about eight years ago in the anthology Terror by Gaslight (Iron Clad Press — 2014). Unfortunately, the founder and editor of the publishing house died (John Manning) and then his widow, De Anna McHarge Manning, passed earlier this year, so Iron Clad is no more.
The man in the gray suit rode into town soon after the sun had set. Despite the smallish size of the town, no one took any notice of his arrival. The townspeople should have, though, as he – more specifically, the quality of his suit – was not a common sight in those parts. The man did notice, however, that there was something amiss in the quiet little town, something which could not be seen with the naked eye. He could feel it in what was left of his tattered soul.
He tied his horse to the hitching post just outside the saloon and splashed the water in the trough to get his hors es’ attention. Satisfied that the beast would not suffer from thirst, he pulled a few of his meager belongings from his saddlebags and looked towards the saloon. Sunset had been an hour before, and now it was his time. First, however, he needed confirmation that he was in the right place.
He entered the saloon and took a seat at the bar. A drink was placed before him by the tired-looking bartender. He glanced down the bar and spotted a peculiar man nursing a drink. He sniffed the air and frowned, before sliding down the bar towards the other. He smelled the air again and realized that the man was stinking drunk. Or else decided to bathe in vinegar, piss and whiskey, he amended as the overwhelming stench of unwashed drunkenness assailed his senses.
“Any good places to stay around town?” the man in the gray suit asked as he settled down next to the drunk. The drunk looked up at him and nodded.
“This here place is as good as it’s gettin’,” the drunk said after a moment. “But… I’d leave, mister. This town be cursed by some creature spawned from the loins of old Scrotch Hisself. Tis be the time of the reapin’.”
“Yessir. When the beast comes down from them hills. They say horrible things about it, that it does things to beasts. Bet you never heard nothin’ like this in yer life, no sir.”
The man in the gray suit swallowed his drink and smiled. He was in the right place.
“No, I haven’t heard of anything like that before,” he allowed with a dry chuckle. “But then, this is only the second time I’ve been this far south myself.”
“Yep,” the grizzled drunk beside him nodded. “Ev’ry year, round this time, it comes down out them hills and eats itself some cattle.”
“You ain’t heard the worse of it,” the drunk continued, unabashed. “Hear it walks like a man, cursed by the Devil Himself to roam them there hills for all time. Attacks the animals and livestock, feeds off them.”
“I do believe you said that already. Three times now?”
“Yessir, ain’t nothing like it in this world,” the drunk grinned, black and ruined teeth breaking through his bushy beard and moustache, ignorant of the ridicule. He leaned closer and whispered theatrically: “We call it the Nightwalker.”
The saloon was quiet despite the time. Light from a few sputtering gas lamps gave the room an eerie gloom about it. Tired working girls sat on chaise lounges, their bodies splayed out as they fanned themselves and stared blankly at the relatively empty main room, waiting for their next customer to come and momentarily fill the void in their soul.
It was the type of place that the man in the gray suit had found himself in more and more lately. It was slowly becoming disheartening.
“Nice bag,” the drunk said, reaching out to touch the intricately laced leather bag which the man in gray had set atop the counter the moment he had taken his place at the dusty bar. The man in gray easily slid the bag away from the drunk’s outstretched reach and smiled politely.
“Indian medicine,” he offered in way of explanation. The drunk snatched his hand back warily, distrusting.
Only the Lord knows what these inbreeds think of herbs and medicinal lore down here.
One of the serving girls moved through the dusty saloon, lighting more oil lamps. Dancing shadows moved along the walls and ceiling, while the first random notes from an old battered piano in the corner began to play, a slim man with abnormally long fingers struggling to create life from it. The bartender approached and looked at him expectantly. The man in gray reached into his pocket. He then laid a heavy gold coin upon the worn wood of the bar, causing the bartender’s weathered face to cringe in shock and shame.
“I, uh, don’t think I can make change for this…” the bartender’s reedy voice trailed off helplessly. “Mister, uh…”
“Fox,” the man in gray offered politely. “Doctor Tobias Fox, late of the First Missouri Volunteers.”
“First Missouri…” the bartended grunted angrily. He looked at the war veteran in a new light as recognition filtered in. “Those bastards… sorry, sorry. War’s over. Young man for a doctor. I mean… Sorry. Shit. Uh, sorry for the language. I forget myself.”
“That’s quite all right. I plan on boarding here for a few days, a week at the most. Will my coin be enough?”
“Yessir!” the bartender exclaimed, unable to keep the excitement from entering his voice. “I can have clean sheets and bedding up in your room right quick now, and if you’re looking for some entertainment… Sadie! Get you powdered derriere in here, right now girl! I’ll tan that girl’s hide if she’s snuck out again…”
“Sadie’s a right-fine girl,” the drunk informed him with a conspiratorial slap on the back. “New to the trade, been doin’ it six months now, but that makes ‘em more tasty, ain’t I right?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Tobias replied. “I don’t plan on being around on most nights in any case. I need the room to refresh only, to be left undisturbed during the daylight.”
“Mister – I mean, Doctor – if old Wheezy is giving you trouble, I can have him tossed out to the street where he belongs.”
“That won’t be necessary, sir.”
“I ain’t done nuthin’ wrong!” the drunk protested.
“So… Wheezy, was it?” Tobias turned slightly and let his eyes drink in the man before him. “Any of these attacks happen recently? The ‘reaping’, as you called it?”
“Yessir, last week. That old, crazy bird out where the May’s farm used to be said somethin’ killed her little dog. Sherriff said it was just coyotes. She don’ believe him.”
“I reckon that’s what it was,” the doctor nodded patiently. “Coyotes like small dogs.”
“That’s what he said,” Wheezy snorted, his breath ripe with decay and alcohol. “Been a rash of horse thievin’ lately too, but that always happens.”
“Really?” Tobias asked, leaning forward on the bar top. He waved for the bartender to bring him two more drinks. “Horse thieving, in this day?”
“That’s what I said!” Wheezy contradicted himself, looking at his newfound friend as he realized that one of the ordered drinks was meant for him. “Nobody round here horse trades no more. Too easy to find.”
“Well, I don’t right know, not bein’ in the horse-tradin’ business myself, but I know a fella…”
“No, I meant the farm from where the horses were stolen.”
“Oh. Outside o’ town, bout a mile or so. Northerly. McCready’s farm. Irish, so they prolly sold them horses for food.” The drunk had himself a good laugh at that.
“A lot of horses?”
“McCready says forty, but I’ll be damned if he had more’n six or seven.”
Tobias patted Wheezy’s arm and looked around the bar. Most of the patrons, who were few and far between, had studiously ignored his dealings with the drunk, which was just as well. He glanced back at the bartender, who was beginning to pour the horrible mash whiskey into two small, stained glasses.
“Let Wheezy here have my drink,” Tobias declared, surprising the bartender. He grabbed his leather bag from the countertop and slipped away from the grasping hands of Wheezy, who was already attacking his drink with a vengeance. “I have to see a man about a horse.”
“Want me to clean your room and prep it anyways for you, sir?”
Tobias began to head towards the exit. “Of course. As I said before, I plan on staying a few days.”
With that, the man in gray slung his leather bag over his shoulder, pushed through the saloon doors and walked out into the night.
He had six bullets in his gun, a handful more in his satchel and a very nasty surprise packed inside the lead slugs of his shotgun. He figured it would be enough for a job like this.
He pulled his wide brimmed hat back from his eyes as the full moon began to peek out from behind the clouds above, watchful as he rode towards the McCready farm. He wasn’t afraid of thieves or bandits, but the thought of an Irishman armed to the teeth and terrified of being robbed again made him a little more cautious. The Irish, he recalled with a sly smile, had mercurial temperaments.
And that was when they were sober.
His horse nickered softly. He reached down and patted the beast’s neck. The gelding had been fairly quiet for most of the journey out of town, which suited his tastes. A gentle horse meant a smooth ride, which meant he was not nearly as sore as he would have been on a more spirited animal. He had ridden the beast all the way from San Antonio weeks before, where he had first gotten wind of the legend of the creature which had plagued the tiny town of Durango’s Bluff.
It was intended to be frightening. Tobias merely found it to be comical. The creature was newly created or very arrogant – or both, he allowed. It was too obvious, too careless in its feedings. One thing he knew for certain: it had far outlived its welcome on the earth.
He had seen something very similar the year before, up near the Red River. A tired old Kiowa seer had told him of a skinwalker attacking white settlers in and around the old Army forts. The seer, whose Apache cousins had been hunting the skinwalkers for hundreds of years, was worried about the attacks and thought that his tribe might be blamed for them. The last thing that this particular tribe of Kiowas wanted was to attract the attention of the Army. Tobias had tracked the creature down, killed it without too much trouble and collected his large bounty from the locals.
It had been a fairly profitable kill. It had also made for some suspicious Indians. Soon after, it was time to move on once more. He could not linger long, lest people grow suspicious about how such a slight man could defeat something that a posse could not. His meandering journey had eventually brought him to San Antonio, and then Durango’s Bluff.
Nightwalker. Skinwalker. Hell-damned creature of the night.
It did not matter. It would die like all the rest.
He smelled the blood long before he saw anything else. He stopped and looked around, the full moon overhead providing more than enough light for him to see. Nothing on the farm made a sound, and there was but a single light on inside the small farmhouse. A barn, black and bereft, stood off to the side of the main house. He scanned the barn for any sign of movement or life. Nothing.
He slid off of the gelding and grabbed his leather satchel. Slinging it over his shoulder, he pulled his shotgun from beneath his saddlebag. He checked the chambers, ensuring that the dual chamber was filled with buckshot. He closed the breach of the shotgun and began to move cautiously towards the house, his eyes and ears alert for anything, one hand clutching the shotgun, the other the reins for the horse.
The front door was broken down and ruined beyond repair. Light from inside spilled out on the small porch, revealing a small rocking chair which had been haphazardly cast aside. A small doll, well-used and bearing the mark of a loving owner, was torn asunder beneath it, the head separated from the body. He quickly wrapped the reins of the gelding’s bridle around one of the hitching posts before he reached the house. Tobias took a cautious step onto the creaky wooden floorboards of the porch, paused, then took another. He heard nothing, felt nothing.
Dead house, dead inhabitants, the dark voice inside hissed, bloodlust welling from the depths of his soul. A strong desire for vengeance crashed over him and he fought for control of his senses. He did not know these people. It doesn’t matter, the darkness argued. Tobias felt his mind drifting to memories of a sword, wielded in hate and rage, smiting his enemies upon an ancient and forgotten battlefield. He could taste the smoky ruin about him, hear the lamentations of his defeated enemies, taste sweet death upon his tongue. He strove for the kill. He lived for the slaughter. He was…
He shook his head, cleared his mind. He was in Texas. He was Doctor Tobias Fox. He was a hunter. He willed the darkness away with some effort before he took another step. Control. It was always about controlling the darkness within. It gave him power, but ever did it desire more of him. And, oftentimes, he of it.
He saw the child first, her nightgown ripped to shreds, her body mutilated almost beyond recognition. She was arranged upon a small chair, a gross parody of a child patiently waiting for… what, he wondered. She was too young to be welcoming Death, too innocent to be used in such a way. It was telling, but not helpful. He sniffed and turned away, the sight an affront to the vows he swore as a doctor, and as a man.
The child’s parents were sitting on the wooden bench in front of the fireplace, their corpses cooling as blood pooled beneath the weathered and worn wood. The man’s arm was torn from his body and draped over the shoulder of the woman, who Tobias could only assume was the late child’s mother. Their flaming red hair matched perfectly.
It was a mockery of a family, one set up for a painting or one of those new camera portraits. He blinked at the thought of a camera capturing this indelible image for all to be horrified with and continued his inspection, wondering just what he was dealing with.
The air held a distinctly musky smell, ripe and overpowering. He did not think the bodies could make that smell, not yet in any case. Putrefaction would require several days of exposure before the stench of the deceased would be this strong. No, he decided as he approached the dead man and woman, rot has not set in. The smell was something else. Something familiar.
Urine. It was pungent, almost as overpowering as the smell of spilled blood. He gagged but contained himself. He did not want to defile the house any more than it already had been by the wretched beast. He scanned the small bedroom to his right but did not see anything. He frowned. He had half-expected it to be hiding in the shadows, waiting for him to turn his back before it attacked.
He sensed it before he saw it. Something lurked in the shadows of the small kitchen to his left. He turned slowly towards it and raised his shotgun to his shoulder. He squinted his eyes, peering into the darkness. The being was blacker than death, however, and all he could discern in the dark was a pair of eyes which glinted in the dim lighting. He felt a sliver of ice pierce his spine as the being did not budge. He cocked the hammer back on his shotgun, his aim steady. The unblinking eyes stared back. He pulled the trigger and the shotgun roared.
The bright flash illuminated the small house for a moment, blinding Tobias as the lead slug buried itself into the wooden counter, destroying it and the dinner plates stacked haphazardly upon it. He moved closer and realized that a pair of eyes, human, were hanging by a thread on a cabinet. There was nothing else there.
Something powerful and heavy slammed into his back, knocking him down and through the small table where the cold supper had been lain out but uneaten. A mess of food, broken dinnerware and table splinters landed atop him as he crashed to the floor. Claws raked his back, but once more did his stiffened leather vest save him from certain death. He struggled to turn over and lashed out with the heel of his boot, striking the creature in the thigh. It howled and bounded away, giving Tobias a moment to breathe and pick himself up off of the floor. He grabbed his shotgun, popped the breach open and ejected the spent shell before loading another. He snapped it closed and took aim, but the creature recognized the shotgun for what it was and ducked behind the bodies of the man and woman. Tobias swore for a moment as he looked at the beast, seeing it for the first time.
It was lanky, lean like a wolf and as hairy as one. As Wheezy had told him, the creature walked on two legs, and was vaguely human shaped. Instead of hands, it had claws and a distinctive, wolf-like appearance about its head. It was a peculiar shade of brown, almost honey colored.
Werewolf, the voice said. A weak-willed creature which serves evil, but still dangerous. You must kill it.
“No shit,” Tobias muttered in reply.
It snarled at him but did not expose itself, and Tobias was loathe to desecrate the bodies of the deceased. However, letting such a creature live was against everything he fought, bled and killed for. He wondered if it understood English.
“I’m going to kill you, either now or eventually,” Tobias stated, his voice soft and calm, similar in tone to one he would use on an angry dog. “Just make it easy for me and stand up. I am a good shot, and I will make it qui–”
The head of the woman came hurtling towards him and struck him squarely in the chest, knocking his shotgun aside long enough for the beast to move.
The beast flew at him in a rage, blood-stained claws reaching for his soft and pliable throat. Fox dodged with inhuman speed, the creature missing him by scant inches. It slammed heavily into the wall and knocked a good amount of dust from the overhead beams supporting the roof. It shook its head. It turned and snarled at him, then paused. It sniffed and looked back up at the ceiling before glancing back at him.
Tobias aimed his shotgun at the creature but again did not have a shot. He scowled and watched the beast.
“What are you up to?” he muttered as the beast jumped up, sunk a claw into a thick crossbeam and began to batter the support beams of the roof. More dust began to fall and the beams, not designed to take such an abuse, began to shiver and groan as the beast beat on them. One of the more massive wooden beams began to splinter, and another responded with a loud snap!.
The nightwalker stopped for a moment and actually grinned down at him.
“Well, aren’t you the smart one,” Tobias grunted and sprinted for the ruined front doorway as the ceiling collapsed around the nightwalker.
A voluminous cloud of dust and debris followed him as he dove out the front door. The rest of the house collapsed in on itself, casting ruined wood and adobe brick about haphazardly. He hit the ground hard and rolled to his feet, momentarily unsteady. He tossed the shotgun aside and pulled his revolver from the holster as he regained his balance. He cocked the hammer back and aimed at the house, waiting for the nightwalker to appear.
He waited longer, his gun arm never wavering.
The gun was heavy in his hand. He refused to lower it, sheer willpower holding it steady.
A cow, far in the distance, mooed into the otherwise silent night.
He swore under his breath.
The nightwalker had disappeared.
“This is an inauspicious start to the hunt,” he muttered as he picked up his hat and began to dust it off on his leg. A moment later it was securely back atop his head. He lowered his gun slowly and it went back into his holster.
He looked back up at the sky and frowned. The full moon loomed.
But the creature had been fully in control of itself.
“Well, now we’re fairly certain it’s not a werewolf… so what else could it be?”
His dreams were torments, designed to let him sleep but never to escape his past.
For him, there would never be any respite.
His eyes snapped open the moment the sun had set, his body covered with a thin sheen of sweat. He sat up and rubbed his hand across his chest, feeling, as he did every single sunset, the deep scar that had been carved into his chest, the sigil of an ancient and thought-to-be-dead Babylonian god. It never fully healed, yet did not pain him in any way nor did it set with gangrene. It was a mystery, one he never really felt the urge to investigate. He sighed and swung his legs over the side of the bed, his shoulders slumped with a mixture of the weight of the world and old-fashioned weariness. He ran his fingers through his long, curly brown hair and tried to make himself look presentable as he pulled himself to his feet.
He grabbed his spare shirt and pulled it on, the color not quite matching the shade of gray of his suit. His other shirt had been torn in the fracas with the nightwalker, a most distressing event which caused him no small amount of grief: it had been a two dollar shirt. He slipped into his pants and wondered what his pa would have said if he found out about the ruined shirt. He snorted and tucked the shirt into his pants, then pulled up his suspenders. The Reverend Absalom Fox had been deceased for over fifty years, and his concern for his dead father’s opinion ranked up there with the bunions on his feet.
A soft knock on his door startled him. His eyes flared as he reached out with his senses and felt… something on the other side of the door. Female. Attractive. Very attractive.
He grabbed his revolver, held it ready, and answered “Yes?”
“Doctor Fox, Paul told me to come wake you up at sunset like you requested.”
“The bartender. He also owns the saloon.”
“Oh. Yes, right. Please inform him that I will be down momentarily.”
He lowered his gun and frowned. That was odd. He had not sensed the girl approaching the door, nor did he hear her when she walked down the short hallway. Not a floorboard had creaked, nor a whisper of fabric on wood had been heard. Even her voice left him puzzled, the light, airy tone a stark difference when compared to the rest of the denizens of the town. Her voice was filled with something unmistakably predatory, and yet an allure so dangerously compelling…
He shoved his firearm back into his holster and slipped into his boots. He checked his hair in the cracked and dirty mirror mounted on the bureau – best room in the saloon, the bartender had claimed – and, reluctantly, went downstairs to socialize with the patrons of the business.
The saloon was far more crowded than it had been the previous night, with the farm hands from out of town filling most of the previously empty tables. He recalled that most of the cattle farmers in the area let their hands have Sundays off. For religious purposes, Tobias knew from past experience, but from the looks of the men in the saloon, only a few would partake of their holy communion the following morning. Most would undoubtedly be in a confessional box.
“Doctor Fox!” the bartender called out to him. Paul, Tobias recalled from his earlier conversation with the girl who had woken him.
“Paul,” he nodded respectfully to the saloon owner. The man flushed red and grinned.
“I sent Sadie up to check on you and wake you up, like you asked.”
“For which I am much obliged, sir.”
“And I waited until sunset, just like you ordered.”
“I would not have answered my door if it had been beforehand.”
“Ah, yes. Hah. Uh, sir, the sheriff wanted me to let you know when you were awake and wanted to speak with you about what happened at the McCready farm last night.”
Tobias nodded. He had been expecting it, ever since he had returned and informed the bartender what he had found. The man had run off to the sheriff and Tobias, weary and beaten from his fight with the nightwalker, had fallen quickly to sleep.
“I’ll see him as soon as I get a plate of whatever you are serving for supper, good sir.”
“No need to come to me,” a grizzled voice said from the end of the bar. Tobias shot Paul a questioning glance before he turned. An older man, with a tin star pinned to his vest, sat at a small table. He had a plate of food before him and was making short work of it. He shoveled another forkful of food into his mouth and motioned for Tobias to join him.
“Paul, can you bring me some supper? I would greatly appreciate it,” Tobias said as he walked over to the sheriff’s table. He pulled out a chair and sat opposite of him. He leaned back and waited.
The sheriff swallowed and wiped his mouth off on his arm sleeve. He took a pull from his tankard to help wash down his dinner before he spoke.
“Seems we had a spot of trouble up at the McCready farm last night,” the sheriff mentioned as he took another bite from his dinner. He waited for Tobias to respond. After a few moments of silence he shrugged, swallowed, and continued. “I don’t usually have that sort of trouble in my town. Some missing horses, a few dead goats and cattle, but not an entire family slaughtered. Odd that it happened within hours of you riding into town.”
“It is odd,” Tobias agreed. “Though not for the reason you think.”
“Oh? Dismembered bodies are not odd? If I had not seen something similar during the war, I would not be able to sleep soundly tonight.”
“During the war, sheriff?”
“The Camp Jackson Affair,” the sheriff grunted after swallowing another mammoth bite. “You might be familiar with it.”
Tobias was intimately familiar with event. It had been his commanding officer’s doing, putting down the clamps on the civilian unrest. Bloody, dreadful business, fighting a potential insurrection in the midst of a war of secession. He thrust the painful memories aside.
“I do not recall such an event involving severed heads, brutally murdered children and a mockery of a family made by some… thing in St. Louis.”
The sheriff looked at him, a gleam in his eye. “You see? Would you have told me that had you not served in the war? I doubt I would have known as much as I do now if I had just asked you what happened out there last night.”
Tobias nodded slowly. He had underestimated the sheriff. It was a mistake he knew he would never make again.
“So our little nightwalker has developed a taste for mortal flesh now. Very odd, very peculiar.”
“None of the McCready’s appeared to have been eaten,” Tobias admitted as Paul set a plate of vegetables with a thick cut of steak before him. The bartender’s eye were wide as he hustled away, horrified at what he had accidently overheard. Fox inhaled the scents of his dinner appreciatively before he continued. “In fact, it almost looked ritualistic.”
“Like something old Marie Laveau would do?”
Again, the sheriff impressed Tobias. “No, nothing to do with New Orleans voodoo or that voodoo queen. This was more bestial.”
“Perhaps it’s time to round up a posse and finally rid ourselves of this creature.”
“Why hadn’t you before?”
“Truth be told, we just thought it was wolves,” the sheriff began as Tobias dug into his meal. “One or two cattle a year, slaughtered, ranging out towards El Paso and all the way down to the Rio Grande. Nothing too much, only people complainin’ were the farmers who lost a head or two. There was so little, though, that we only paid half-attention to everyone who saw it walking like a man. Too much drink, or too much religion. Hard to tell the difference sometimes. But we humored them, searched a bit, realized that the head of cattle were always being taken around fall or so, and figured that it was a bunch of wide-ranging wolves looking for an easy dinner. But rumors abounded, Doctor, and now we got a slaughtered family and you, a stranger to these parts, as our only witness.”
“May I ask you something, sheriff?”
“Sure, go right ahead.”
“Do you believe in skinwalkers?”
“Those accursed Injun medicine men? Well… I don’t right know, to be honest with you. Part of me thinks that they’re hopped up on firewater and bad tobacco, another part of me locks the door at night. You heard about that creature up at Red River?”
Fox shrugged his shoulder noncommittally.
Yes, the darkness responded smugly.
“An old friend of mine who served in Walker’s Greyhounds–”
“Thirty-Third Cavalry? Damn good outfit.”
“Yes. Yes they were. Well, he telegraphed down to me awhile back that a man in a suit – very similar in description to the one you’re wearing at this moment, in fact – rode into the Kiowa camp, made peace with their chief and went out and killed a renegade medicine man they were calling a skinwalker. Their problems dissipated and the Army now reports that attacks on settlers in the area have dropped to almost nothing and the Southern Plains Indians are moving north and west, away from white settlers, rather peaceful-like, as they were told to. So tell me, Doctor Fox: do you believe in coincidences?”
Tobias slowly shook his head.
“No sir, I do not. I must admit, I first heard about your nightwalker out in San Antonio. I felt compelled to investigate and, if there were a bounty available, kill said creature. It is a blight upon our earth and it is my sworn duty to slay such a creature.”
“Duty to who? Country? To God?”
“You could say that.”
To an almost-dead god, said the darkness. Babylonian.
When did you develop a sense of humor? Tobias thought.
“Well sir,” the sheriff continued, oblivious to the internal conversation Tobias was having. “There’s a bounty now. I can authorize up to five hundred dollars for the capture of the murderer of the McCready family and have a note writ by the bank by sundown tomorrow.”
“That’s a reasonable offer, sir. I’d spread that word around town, if I were in your position.”
“What? Why on earth would you do that?”
“To make people more cautious and report anything unsightly. They may be frightened, but they’ll be more aware and cautious. They’ll run for help if they see something.”
“You must not understand Texans. Son, let me explain something to you. If we spread the word that some hell-damned creature is out murdering women and children, the whole town will shoot anything and anyone suspicious. These people won’t run for help, no sir. They’ll simply stop to reload. Then perhaps mount the damned head over their fireplace. Knowing my luck, though, they’d gun down old Wheezy as he stumbles home drunk and try to claim a reward for him. Or worse, they’ll get liquored up and go burn down some Mexican village. Say it’s for the Alamo or something.”
“A posse then, rounded up in the morn. Tell them we’re looking for one or more wolves. Get fifteen, twenty good men and ride out west, then north. See if we can pick up any tracks. Got ourselves a few experienced trackers left over from the war, and one old coot who served with Santa Anna long time ago.”
“That could work.”
“Tell me what I’m looking for, exactly, since everyone else will be looking for wolves.”
So he did. He told the sheriff how it looked like a wolf but walked on two legs, had opposable thumbs like a man but with claws. How the face was both wolfish and human, and the eyes were cunning, smart like a man’s. How it had known how to tear down a roof of a house, how he thought it was dangerously intelligent.
“Oh, and the fur was the color of honey.”
“Honey, you say? That’s odd.”
“Well, everyone else who had ‘seen’ it said it was grey, very grey. Like it was an old wolf or something.”
“That is odd. I could never mistake honey for the color grey, however.”
“I doubt the color of the creature matters that much, so long as we get it. Well Doctor Fox, I wish you good hunting. I’m in need of some company tonight, for I have a terribly rough day ahead of me in the morn. Paul! Hey, Paul!”
“Yes, sheriff?” the bartender poked his head up from behind the counter of his bar.
“Sadie available? I wanted to go home and was wondering if she was up for some company.” He shot a look at Tobias. “My wife’s been dead and gone a long time now. Gets painful lonely sometimes.”
“If she’s willing, sheriff. You know her rules.”
“Yes, yes I do,” the sheriff chuckled softly and pushed his chair back. He rose and Tobias followed suit. He offered the sheriff his hand.
“Thank you for believing me, sheriff.”
“As I said, if I hadn’t heard of something like this before, you’d be in irons in my jail right now. I’m glad you’re not, Doctor Fox. I have a feeling you’ll be of use to our current problem.”
“I’m glad I’m not in a jail cell either,” Tobias admitted. “And I do hope to be of service.”
“Sheriff,” a petite woman with dark blonde hair gushed as she rounded from behind Tobias. He widened his eyes, startled at the realization that a woman had evaded his senses again. She pressed her ripe, full breasts against the sheriff’s arm, the light blue dress almost revealing too much without being indecent, a silver cross on a chain nestled between them. “As it happens, I have tonight completely free. I would love to accompany you to your house and have… tea.”
She looked demurely at Tobias, who looked away, blushing slightly. She laughed, a soft, merry sound much like bells tinkling in a warm summer breeze. Eagles soared and the sun, which he had not seen in ten plus years, burned brightly in his heart. He was alive with feeling and sensation.
“Sadie, this is Doctor Tobias Fox,” the sheriff stated, waving a distracted hand in his general direction.
“We’ve met,” she smiled at him, her eyes shining and inquisitive. My God, those beautiful eyes!
“We have?” Tobias asked, startled, before he shook his head. “Yes. Of course. You woke me up.”
She laughed again. Fox felt like a younger man once more, so enraptured with a woman’s laughter. It was the sweetest sound he had ever heard, and set his heart aflutter. He was in–
Careful, the darkness growled from within. Flames of hate rose, passion died and the fiery thirst of vengeance begged to be slaked once again. He forgot his lust, cast aside his fond youthful remembrances. He was Doctor Tobias Fox, hunter of evil, slayer of the denizens of darkness. He began to look at his would-be succubus in a more critical manner, one nearly devoid of his earlier passions.
Her hair was swept back away from her lean features, her skin completely unblemished by wear or time. She was fresh, as Wheezy had mentioned before, yet there was something distinctly predatory about her, something old and wounded in her eyes. She was a pro, he realized. The young, fresh girl was nothing more than an act. He inhaled her scent. A very good act, he allowed.
Her appeal diminished for him fully, but not for the sheriff, who reached behind and grabbed a handful of dress. She squealed, appropriately enough, but Tobias saw that the glimmer in her eye never returned once he had seen through her facade. He had seen eyes like that before, on an old woman from Mobile who was forced to live in the north during the early stages of Reconstruction. Her eyes had been filled with an unnatural balance of life and death in them as well. The eyes were the window to the soul, someone had once told him.
What tale do your eyes tell, Tobias Fox? the darkness mocked.
“Damnation,” he whispered his reply as Sadie, led by the sheriff, whisked her way out of the saloon and into the night.
“Doctor,” Paul called out once the sheriff and Sadie had left the saloon. “I had your horse watered and fed earlier, and had one of my girls stable it. You think it’s a good idea to ride out at night?”
“A good idea? No. Necessary? I think so.”
“Well then, I suppose I should wish you luck.”
“Let us hope that I don’t need it.”
“Sheriff!” a drunken cry erupted from the rear of the saloon. A soot-covered man stumbled in through the back service door, his hands and eyes the only uncovered part of his body. Tobias stared at the man for the barest of moments before recognizing the old drunk Wheezy.
“Wheezy? What happened?”
“Where’s the sheriff? Where’d he git to? There’s a fire! Fire!” the drunk howled, his eyes watery and red. “In the stables!”
The two men rushed past the drunk and out the service door, where they came to a sudden stop as the flames of the fire kept them away momentarily. Tobias grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and covered his mouth, his eyes watering from the intense waves of heat which washed over them, and pushed onwards towards the stables. A cry of alarm erupted from behind him but he paid it no heed as he struggled through the inferno.
The stable door was ruined and off the hinges, broken beyond repair. Inside the flames licked the walls, the hay on the floor and dry wood of the stalls feeding the insatiable fire. He pushed through the smoke and sought his horse, the bay gelding somewhere in the madness.
A horse screamed and Tobias smelled blood. It was hot, fresh, spilt very recently. He spotted a shadow rearing at the far end of the stable and recognized his gelding. He ran past the open stalls until he reached his horse. He slammed the bolt upwards and grabbed the halter, pulling the horse out of the stall and into the inferno. The gelding was not pleased and reared up, screaming in terror. Tobias pulled back, using his immense strength, and the gelding came back down. It tossed its head but Tobias ignored its silent protestations. He began to lead it back out of the stables, glancing in each stall as he passed. The few that were occupied contained dead horses, killed by something with claw and fang. Tobias scowled. The nightwalker had been there, and left his horse alive while slaughtering the rest of them.
A line of men had gathered to form a bucket brigade, handing filled pails of water to one another to help with the fire. Tobias doubted that it would be enough, but the men of Durango’s Bluff were stubborn. Texans, he reminded himself.
He pulled his horse away from the ruined stable as it proceeded to burn, the bucket brigade have little affect on the raging flames. More men arrived and Tobias, lacking anything else to do, led his confused and slightly terrified horse to a half-filled trough behind the nearby general store. He scooped water out of the trough and splashed it onto the back of the horse, which was sweating from the heat of the flames. He brushed some of the dust and ash from the horse.
A blinding flash and a sharp sting erupted from the palm of his hand and he flew backwards, away from the horse. He landed on his posterior and yelped, surprised, his hand throbbing painfully. He looked at his horse and saw, buried underneath the layer of soot, the faint outline of a character drawn on the back. Closer inspection revealed that it ran down the entire length of the horse’s spine until it reached the tail, where it mysteriously stopped. He scowled.
“What the hell was that?” he asked aloud.
“You okay, mister?” Wheezy asked, his eyes wide in shock. Tobias nodded and allowed Wheezy to help him to his feet. The drunk, while frail, was surprisingly strong, Tobias noticed as he stood upright.
“Damn. That was a right fine tickle,” Tobias growled as he flexed his hand, trying to regain some of the feeling in his fingers. He looked over at Wheezy. “What happened here, old man?”
“I… I don’ right know, mister.”
Paul came over and looked at the two men, his eyes wide and his pretty collared shirt ruined from smoke and water stains. He shook his head.
“Can’t save the stables, more ‘n likely,” he lamented.
“Come now, Wheezy. Tell me what happened.” Tobias repeated to Wheezy, who was beginning to shake as he realized just how close to dying he had come.
“Well, I was out gittin’ somethin’ for myself – you know how it is, Paul – and I saw Sadie in the stable. I thought to git me some of that, so I came up on her. But she was distracted-like, so I stopped to see what she was doin’. Next thing I know there’s flames ev’rywhere and Sadie’s gone. I tried to put it out but then I ran to git the sheriff.”
“Sadie? My little Sadie?” Paul asked, shocked. “Impossible.”
“Not impossible, sir,” Tobias replied. “Merely undesirable. She started a fire, but why?”
You know why. She wanted you distracted for a reason.
“Damnation! Someone needs to git the sheriff!” Wheezy declared.
“I’ll go get the sheriff,” Tobias stated. “Sadie’s with him. Maybe she can tell him – and all of us – why she saw fit to burn down the stables.”
“Such a sweet young thing,” Wheezy moaned softly. “How could she do this?”
Tobias did not have an answer. He was determined to find out.
He dismounted his horse and stared at the dark home of the sheriff. He had been expecting this, though, and lifted his lantern. The eerie light from the lone gas lamp outside the small house made the shadows dance. He entered the front door without knocking, knowing already that the man charged with protecting the citizens of Durango’s Bluff was already dead at the hands of the most brutal killer Tobias had ever run across.
Nothing challenged him as he walked through the house. He knew where to go somehow, guided by the stench of evil, his dark guardian leading him to the source. He found him easily enough, what parts large enough he could identify at least. The blood from the body decorated the walls more profoundly than the plain paper had. The almost-black color created such an evil feeling that Tobias knew that no amount of paint and cleaning would ever make the home hospitable again.
Tobias stared at the ruins of the man who had been the sheriff. What the nightwalker had done to his body was beyond mortal comprehension. He shifted his gaze and saw Sadie seated comfortably in a small rocking chair. Her hair was slightly mused and her dress ill-fitted. He growled deep in his throat as he raised his lantern higher.
Sadie looked at Tobias, her eyes cold and hard in the lantern light. Gone was the flirtatious whore who had been so alluring earlier in the evening. She had been replaced by a killer; a stone hearted, hate filled being. Her lean body, once desirable, was now ready to tear out his throat as she had done to the sheriff. He felt a momentary stab of fear before he quashed it, hard. He did not have time to be afraid. Not here, not now.
“To the blood-stained fields of Hell shall I follow to exact my justice upon thee,” Tobias vowed as he circled the woman, his eyes locked upon her. Sadie smiled sweetly at him, the sheriff’s blood coloring her lips, her dark blonde hair thickening as it began to cover her entire body. The blood of the sheriff began to flake off of her skin, pushed aside by the hair which was beginning to sprout upon her once-beautiful features. Her fangs lengthened and her claws grew. Her eyes were filled with the frightening combination of lust and crazy.
“Why wait then, hunter? Come for your vengeance now.” Her voice, once pleasant and mellifluous, was now deep, grating, harsh upon the ears and soul.
Blood filled his vision and for the first time, Tobias allowed the long-forgotten god of pestilence to come forth fully from his soul. A strange cry of triumph passed through his lips and a thick, acrid taste filled his mouth. Veins on his arms stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. He was no longer just Tobias Fox, but something more. He felt the control of his body fade away as the dark Babylonian god rose from the depths to join him.
Fully transformed, the nightwalker attacked, claw and fang flashing in as it struck. Tobias dodged each attack, his strength and speed enhanced beyond measure. He felt the god’s satisfaction at toying with the mortal creature before him. He twisted slightly as the nightwalker attacked again, throwing the creature off-balance for a fraction of a second. Using the beast’s momentum, Tobias grabbed it by the shoulder and slammed it, face first, into the wall. He pulled it by the elongated ears and battered the nightwalker’s head into the solid wood two more times. It howled in pain and fury. Tobias laughed and danced away, avoiding the retaliatory strike as he released its sensitive ears.
“You were a lot stronger when you were fighting but a man,” Tobias cracked his knuckles and shook arms, loosening the muscles. His eyes glinted. “Let’s see how you do against a god.”
She struck but he blocked it, stopping her claw inches from his face. She roared in rage and frustration as she struggled to free herself from his grip. Tobias laughed in her face, preying upon her anger and helplessness. He pushed her claw away and kicked her in the knee, shattering the bone with the toe of his boot. The nightwalker cried in agony and backed off, a slight limp in her step.
She paused, uncertain, as Tobias waited for her next charge. He could see the intelligence behind those yellow eyes. It unnerved him to see just how human she still was while transformed. He waited as she backed off another step, her body language exuding caution. She reached to her neck and clutched the small crucifix he had seen hanging from a chain earlier. Her eyes glinted as she whispered something in a heathen language, the rolling, guttural growls punctuated with a few barely understandable words in Latin. The hairs on his neck prickled slightly as she finished.
She struck quickly, her claw lancing out low and to his left. He blocked that swing and was startled as she pulled back and countered with her other claw, striking him cleanly in his right shoulder. Light exploded throughout the room, blinding him, as the nightwalker’s claw ripped into his skin. Blood exploded as she pulled back, taking a good chunk of his flesh with her.
“Damn!” he cried out in pain. His energy, strength and confidence waned as the wound flared up painfully. He dug deep for something, anything. He needed to fight, to win this contest. He fell to his knees, exhaustion taking its toll. He needed the dark god.
That was something Tobias did not want to hear. Somehow Sadie had knocked the god out of the fight with some strange power of her own. Tobias’ eyes locked onto the silver cross around her neck and he suddenly realized just what had happened. The silver, it appeared, was poisonous to his dark compatriot, taking away his godly abilities and weakening him greatly. The same had happened after the inferno at the stables, he recalled nervously. He had not been as connected to the darkness then and had not noticed the silence. Tobias rubbed his shoulder, where Sadie had struck him after her whispered words, and winced as he felt the damage she had wrought upon it. He looked at his blood-streaked palm.
“That’s going to leave a mark,” he muttered as he pulled himself to his feet. He eyed Sadie warily as she waited for him, no longer the cowed beast he had been easily batting around the room minutes before. She had changed, become something bigger. Or, he amended as he leaned against the wall, I’ve gotten smaller.
The nightwalker howled loudly, making his ears ache as the piercing sound cut through the emotional wall to his soul. The primal, evil noise was meant to remind him that for millennia men had feared the night, feared it for a very specific reason.
Once upon a time he had sworn to never fear the night. It was his constant companion, the mistress to which he could turn to when all the world rejected him. The moon was his brother, guiding him to his destiny; the stars, his friends. It embraced him, welcomed him. The darkness watched over him.
The creature of night compelled him to taste fear, to feed upon the unholy terror that such a being could cause. He lapped at it, swallowed it, devoured it. Sadie – the nightwalker – forced him to feel what she felt every waking moment of her existence. He hated her for it, more so than he had ever hated anything in his life.
“You worthless whore.” Fox was fighting a mythological creature of untold strength and power and the best he can come up with is to call her a whore? The speed of the nightwalker’s attack must really have jarred something loose in his head.
The nightwalker tackled him, knocking the wind out of him as the weight of the heavy creature fell upon him. He scrabbled to get away but her claws dug into the meaty part of his lower back. He screamed in pain as her nails dug deeper to gain purchase. He blindly kicked out, his heel miraculously catching Sadie’s ruined knee. Her hot breath was on his neck, her fangs inches away. He felt her shift and he kicked out again. This time she yelped in pain, releasing him. He rolled to the side as her fist smashed into the floorboards where his head had been mere heartbeats earlier. Her hand became stuck in the ruined wood and Tobias, quickly running out of options, reached up and grabbed the only thing he could – the chain which held the crucifix around Sadie’s neck.
She struggled to free her hand and push him off her back but Tobias was determined. The chain burned his hand as he wrapped it around his hand and pulled with all his strength. Sadie began to gasp and her claw reflexively went to her throat to loosen the chain. He could not let the nightwalker free herself. If she became free, he would not leave the sheriff’s house alive.
The pain lanced through his hands but he pulled the chain tighter, smoke rising from his flesh as the pure silver burned his naked skin. Sadie clutched for his hands but he hung on, determined, as he felt the strength of his would-be murderer fade. Her claws dug at his wounded hands but he knew that it was certain death to allow her to loosen his hold. He grimaced and pulled tighter, his corded muscles bulging as he strangled the nightwalker. He closed his eyes and prayed for more strength.
A sudden burst of energy filled him. He jerked hard and something gave. Sadie collapsed and Tobias, who had placed his boot into her back for better leverage, suddenly fell backwards as hot blood sprayed his face. He landed solidly on his back, heels in the air, a most awkward position in the best of circumstances, blood splattering onto his suit coat. His eyes flew open as warm blood dripping down the side of his face as the head of the nightwalker rolled to the ground next to him, completely severed from the shoulders of the once-beautiful woman. He glanced at the silver chain, confused for a moment, as it continued to cook the flesh off of his hands. He let go of it quickly and it fell to the floor, landing amidst the pooling blood next to his elbow.
“Ow,” he muttered to nobody in particular as he surveyed his hands, holding them up and struggling to see in the dim lighting of the sheriff’s home. The carnage was hideous, though, he reflected, not nearly as bad as what Sadie had done to the poor sheriff.
“Ow,” he repeated. It seemed as though every joint in his body ached, every square inch of skin flayed by a whip. His stomach wounds burned where Sadie’s claws had torn into him, barely missing his intestines. The wounds, which were healing, still felt raw and open, a telling sign as to how close he had come to death. It had been his toughest fight ever. He had nearly been whipped, but somehow had won. He should not have, though. He should have lost. By all rights, he should be dead.
Perhaps I am dead, he thought. It would be a blessing.
You are most welcome, the Babylonian god said from the deepest, darkest pit in his soul.
Nope, not dead.
As he was returning to the main street, his hands throbbing so painfully that he was unable to grasp the reins, he was stopped by a mob of men and women. They carried pitchforks, rifles, shotguns and torches. He sighed. It would be that they finally get up the courage to fight such a creature of evil after I’ve already slain it.
“Folks, it is very late in the night. Go home. Take care of your children and families,” Tobias told them. He spotted Paul near the front of the mob and offered him a weary grin. “Paul, please tell me that my room is still available. I’m right tired.”
“You ride into town like some avenging angel of death, drink our whiskey and eat our food, and expect to ride on out again without finishing your deed?” the angry bartender growled, his face gaunt and haggard behind the torch. Behind him rose a murmur of assent from the townspeople.
Tobias looked at them, confused. “I killed your nightwalker and now I bring you back proof. It was that whore who worked for you, barkeep. Your little Sadie.”
Tobias reached into his leather pouch, pulled out a small item and tossed the silver cross onto the ground. It burned his hand when his bare flesh touched it. He ignored the pain and looked expectantly at the bartender, who gingerly scooped up the crucifix and brushed the dirt and drying blood off of it.
“Call me a liar again,” Tobias challenged him. The bartender said nothing, his face ashen as he recognized the cross. Tobias scanned the rest of the mob, which had begun to grow uneasy. “I killed it soon after it had finished ripping apart your beloved sheriff. Who, pray tell, was the last person to be seen with the sheriff?”
“That’s impossible,” the bartender whispered.
“Not impossible. Merely fact, sir,” Tobias growled. “Now pay me my bounty so that I may be on my way. I have a note from the sheriff promising me pay for killing your damned nightwalker. Who’s your thrice-damned banker?” The bartender looked up at him and shook his head.
“Dead, you bastard. Someone slaughtered my entire staff – and the patrons inside – tonight while you were out killing Sadie,” the bartender countered, confusion and shock evident upon his face. “Including the banker. While we were out fighting that damned fire in the stables. If Sadie killed the sheriff like you claim, then who killed everyone else?”
“You heard me,” the bartender raised his voice for all to hear. “While you were off killing a young girl you claim to be the nightwalker, the real killer snuck in and slaughtered everyone in my saloon.”
Realization struck Tobias like a thunderbolt on a clear day.
“I’ve been played for a fool,” he growled, his voice low and dangerous. Paul took a step backwards, away from Tobias and rejoining the crowd which had gathered around the gunslinger. Everything suddenly made sense to him.
The markings. The urine stains. The grotesque display of bodies, the way they had been defiled. The fire. The horse mutilations and the legends of the nightwalker. The slaughter in the saloon while he and the sheriff were occupied elsewhere. The helpful clues planted along the way. The rumors that he had heard, who had helped spread them. The odd feeling he had the moment he had set foot into this small and wretched little town.
He had not come to town to kill a nightwalker that was terrorizing innocent people.
He had been lured into the middle of a fight over territory.
He had helped decide the victor by killing Sadie, the younger – and stronger – competition.
He had been used. His pride and arrogance had blinded him from the real threat the whole time.
“Where,” he asked, his eyes colder than ice, “is Wheezy?”
“Dunno,” someone in the crowd admitted after a moment. “Ain’t seen him since the fire.”
“Your nightwalker will no longer be a problem,” Tobias stated, his voice growing hard in the heat of his anger. He turned his horse away from the townspeople. “The girl was one of them, I’m going after the second. Go check the sheriff’s house if you don’t believe me. I’m going to find Wheezy and earn my damned bounty.”
“Try Mexico,” someone else offered helpfully. “He had hisself a girl down there, so I hear tell. He goes down there twice, three times a year.”
Tobias nodded, a curt, brief motion.
He rode out into the night, back to the hunt once more. He was a hunter, and slaying the creatures of darkness was his calling.
He was Tobias Fox, and he had a nightwalker to kill.
And, the dark voice in his soul added, a score to settle.
©2014 “NIGHTWALKER” by Jason Cordova