There’s a reason the cannibals didn’t come a-looking at the sound of gunfire in the valley.
An awful reason.
Directly, we spotted the cave Boone Friedricks and his men had been using as a hideout. It was a gaping maw in the rock wall, and bits of bone and clothing–cast offs from their victims–littered the ground leading up to the cave.
The horrid odor of decay came from within, but I didn’t see sign of a sentry or lookout.
The stranger motioned for me to drop back a step or two. He pulled one of his revolvers and inched closer to the warren. The idea of walking into that pitch-black hole in the ground didn’t appeal to me one bit. The stranger must’ve had the same notion. After peering into the cave for a few seconds, he turned to me.
“Fetch one of those bones and some scraps of cloth,” he whispered. “Make a torch.”
As I set about the grim task, I wondered just whose clothes… whose bones… would be lighting our way.
“Stay a couple of steps behind me with that fire.” The gunslinger drew his second pistol. “Don’t get close enough to blind me. Hold it off to the side a bit, too. I don’t want to be back-lit. The light’ll make us both easier targets as it is.”
The cave was a lot deeper than I expected. The tunnel wound down and off to the side, like a giant serpent had burrowed its way through the stone. The torch guttered in the wind.
We hadn’t taken more than a dozen steps when a gunshot rang out from somewhere up ahead.
I flinched. The stranger didn’t.
Another gunshot thundered in the dark, and I thought I saw a muzzle flash chase shadows across the tunnel walls.
Time passed slowly as we waited… watching… listening…
A figure staggered into view–tall and bulky with shaggy hair. He held a gun, and he was aiming at something low to the ground behind him. He pulled the trigger, and in the flash I saw his face was a mask of fright. He clutched his stomach with his free hand. Blood covered his lips and chin.
He spotted us, too, and his bloody mouth gaped open in surprise. His teeth were razor sharp.
His gun hand hung limply at this side now, the smoking pistol pointed at the floor. He stumbled towards us, a couple of steps, no more.
“Sinclair,” he muttered. “You–”
The stranger–I reckon his name was Sinclair–snapped his own gun up in the blink of an eye and blew the cannibal to Kingdom Come before he could finish his sentence.
He moved quick now, dropping down next to the dead man and searching the body. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t find, and he spat out a curse. “Come on,” he said, and he sprang to his feet and plunged into the darkness.
“What do you think he was shooting at?” I asked, but I had my answer soon enough.
I heard something.
That’s the only way to describe it.
As the torchlight flooded through the tunnel, I gasped.
I won’t one to blaspheme, but no other exclamation seemed quite right.
This … thing squirmed on the ground. It was about the size of a large dog, hairless, skinless, without any distinguishable face. It was a mass of twitching muscle and bone, flopping about of its own accord. It had been shot a couple of times, and from the bullet holes pumped blood. But it kept on moving, wriggling, like it was trying to unfold itself like the petals of a flower.
It smelled like rotten eggs and bacon grease.
“What is it? I asked.
Sinclair didn’t answer. He just looked at it for a moment, then moved along.
It was worse up ahead. Much worse.
We entered a sprawling chamber. The torchlight licked at the rough-hewn walls, the columns of stone. Scattered around the room were some of the “gifts” the folks from Newcomb’s Wild West Extravaganza had given Friedricks and his men.
Among the debris were dozens of empty green bottles.
“This’ll cure them what ails ya,” Ezra had said.
Three cannibals were sprawled on the floor. I knew they were dead right away. They were too pale, too still. Blood covered their mouths. Their bellies were swollen and distended.
“It’ll drive the foul spirits from your body like your granny chasing cats from the kitchen!”
In the deep crevices and pockets of dark the torch couldn’t touch, something flapped and flopped, a gristled, meaty kind of noise. I thought of stepping closer, taking a look, but I was too scared to force my legs to work. The hair stood on end on the backs of my arms. My nostrils burned at the overwhelming smell of Old Ezra’s medicine.
My first thought was that the cannibals had drunk down Ezra’s tonic, and it had driven the hungry spirits from their bodies. Only the spirits, they hadn’t died. I found no comfort in the notion, though, as it meant the vile things lurking outside my field of vision were demons made flesh.
One of the dead men had something sticking out of his mouth.
I stepped closer, shoving the torch towards the cannibal’s face.
Fingers–human fingers–jutted out from between his lips, and the way his throat was swollen up and bruised, I knew those fingers were attached to an arm pushing its way up from the man’s gullet.
The fingers twitched.
The flopping, flapping creatures in the darkness moved closer. I heard them slithering on the stone, heard their nails scraping the rock. Their shapes became more distinct. Some were formless masses like the thing we’d seen in the tunnel. Others were vaguely human in size and shape. Their blood-soaked flesh glistened.
I knew they weren’t demons at all.
“You’ve done come too late.”
The voice came from the other side of the chamber, and even though it was no more than a whisper, it shocked me like cannon fire. Boone Friedricks stepped into our light. If his men had been large, Boone himself was massive–big the way things from Biblical times were big. He was hunched over, though, and every couple of seconds he hacked up a mouthful of blood. Despite the cold, he wore no shirt. His stomach was swollen and something boney moved inside his gut.
Sinclair’s twin pistols snapped towards him like a compass needle pointing north.
“If you’ve come to kill me,” Friedricks said, “you’re too late.”
“Killing you is fairly high on my list.” Sinclair stepped towards the man. “But I didn’t track you down for just that purpose.”
“You still after this?” Friedricks dug in his pants pocket, pulled an ugly necklace out. It was no more than a hideous clay totem on a strip of old leather. “You’ve come a long way for this old thing.”
“I know someone who’ll pay good money for that,” Sinclair said. “And I knew one of you no-counts must’ve taken it after what you did to that shaman.”
The shapes in the darkness inched closer. They were closing in around us, slowly. I could hear them breathing, a rattling noise from their throats … or what passed for throats.
“I don’t have no use for this.” Friedricks looked at the necklace. “Supposed to be good luck, but looks like that’s a bunch of bunk.”
He eyed his dead companions. His tongue snaked out, slithered across his razor-like teeth. He turned his gaze towards the numerous bottles, glinting in the torchlight.
“Those people from the camp… they poisoned us… passed that bilge on to us…”
Sinclair kept one gun trained on Friedricks. He dropped the other into the holster. He reached out towards the cannibal.
“Just give me the necklace,” he said, “and we’ll leave you be.”
“What?” I asked.
“Look at him, boy. Look around you. He’s as good as dead.”
The misshapen figures moved closer. Some of them had faces-slavering, hideous faces, but faces just the same. I recognized some of them. People from camp. People who’d been tied to the sacrificial pole. Emily… Samuel
I shuddered, and a sob escaped my throat.
“They came back up,” Friedrick said. “We ate them, by God, and we drank that tonic-water down, and it brought them back to life… It brought what was left of them back to life inside us…”
He groaned and clutched his stomach. The thing inside him pushed against the walls of his belly, stretching the skin tight, trying to force its way out.
And I knew what… who… was growing in his stomach.
“The necklace,” Sinclair urged.
“Take it.” Friedricks tossed the totem at Sinclair, and the gunslinger snatched it out of the air. “Take it and go.”
Tucking the necklace in his vest pocket, Sinclair turned away from the cannibal. He eyes the squirming, shambling figures cautiously, then looked towards me.
“He’s finished,” he said. “Let’s go while we still can.”
I watched the hideous, twisted faces of my friends… my family… all around me. I hadn’t done a thing to save them. I hadn’t done a thing to avenge them.
I may not have been quick on the draw like Sinclair. There might not have been any magic in Colt McGregor’s pistol.
But I put a hole right between Boone Friedricks’ eyes.
And he died without any trouble at all.
* * *
He left without much of a goodbye, not that I expected one.
The fleshy, bloody things gathered around me. At first, I thought they might kill me. There was a kind of malice in their eyes. They might have ripped me to shreds, too, if not for me killing Friedricks the way I did. Maybe they saw that as an act of atonement.
The thing in Friedricks’ belly continued to squirm and kick. Eventually I used a knife to slice the cannibal open. A fleshy mass spilled out, and over the next few hours, it uncurled and grew into something resembling my friend
Ezra. At first it wobbled on its legs like a newborn colt, and it mewled with a voice that was as much beast as it was infant. Soon enough, it found its footing and it settled into a solemn, grim silence.
And then they started to shamble out into the night.
Maybe they were the hunger spirits made flesh… Maybe they were the people from camp brought back from the dead. More than likely, they were a little of both, conjured up by the potion and all mixed up to the point I couldn’t tell where the evil spirit ended and the living dead began.
I knew where they were heading, of course, with their hearts full of anger and malice. They were slow, especially in the cold, and I could’ve outdistanced them without problem. I could have slipped past them and raced back to camp and warned those folks sitting around the Christmas tree hoping for a miracle to save them.
But I didn’t.
Ezra and Jessie and all the rest, they walked again, and that was miracle enough on a cold night like tonight.
I felt a stab of guilt for the camp. Not everyone deserved what was coming for them. They were just cowards, like me. But I’d made my peace, paid my penance. I’d been judged under the eyes of those twisted creatures, and I’d been left to live another day for the trouble. The others–down in the valley praying for a Christmas miracle–they’d have to do the same.
I followed the creatures to the foot of the hills, watched them march in the direction of camp. Their bloody footprints trailed off into what may as well have been forever.
I walked the other way.