What follows (no pun intended) is the first piece of short fiction that I ever sold. I had been paid money to write before. My first paid writing gigs were articles for Fangoria and White Wolf Magazine. But this was the first time I’d been paid money for one of my short stories!
“Followers of the Serpent” was a Lovecraftian/western mash-up slated to appear in Eldritch Tales Magazine. The tale is an obvious homage to Joe R. Lansdale’s “Dead in the West,” a story I read (and still read) over and over again.
The magazine folded not too long after this story was accepted, and twenty years have passed since it saw the light of day. I used to say it was a good thing this story never saw print. As excited about it as I was when I first wrote it, it’s not very good.
So why share it now? Why air this particular piece of dirty laundry?
First of all, it’s kind of fun to share where I started as a writer. Even though I’m not proud of the story these days, I was proud as Hell of it when that editor sent me an acceptance letter.
Secondly, if you’re a fan of THE SIXTH GUN, my fantasy/western comic book series, you’ll see a lot of bits and pieces in this story that made their way into the world of the Six.
Snake men, anyone?
So… here’s the story. I haven’t changed so much as a typo since I first printed it out, stuffed it in an envelope, and sent it off with a SASE to an editor long ago.
Hope ya dig it! And if it inspires you to check out some of my other (better) short stories, take a look at CREEPING STONES & OTHER STORIES.
Followers of the Serpent
As Ed sat himself down to supper, he felt scornful stares following him, crawling over his body like snakes seeking prey. He focused his own tired eyes on the cracked, splintery wood of the corner table. He refused to return the threatening gazes of the other patrons of the Crescent Junction Hotel and Café.
Ed wore faded and frayed dungarees, a white shirt gone yellow with improper care, a coat that had been patched and stitched in several places, and an aged but well-kept hat. Trail grit soiled his clothing, and dirt had settled into the deep lines creasing his face. At his sides, a matched pair of nicked and scratched Colt hammerless revolvers hung from a belt studded with shells. The pistols rested in the well-oiled holsters as silent as the shade of Old Man Death . . . ready . . . waiting . . . for a chance to speak.
The chair creaked as Ed settled into it. He placed his hands atop the table and flexed his aching fingers.
“Want something to eat?” a too-skinny girl in a gray dress asked him timidly. She worked her way through to the lunch crowd and stood by his table. “We got stew and cornbread.”
“That’s fine.” His voice was as dry and scratchy as sandpaper. He shivered with hunger. “And whiskey.”
The girl nodded, turned, and walked away. Ed Ripley glanced up as she went to fetch the food and saw that most of the other patrons had returned to business as usual, paying little attention to the old man who had stumbled off the trail to choke down some food. Only a few burly men who shared a nearby table still watched him with a mixture of curiosity and malice. Within minutes, though, they decided Ed was not worthy of the interest and they returned to more pressing matters of stuffing their faces and drinking their rotgut.
The girl brought out a bowl of thick, clotted stew and the bottle of whiskey, which Ed quickly uncapped to take a long drink to wet his mouth. The liquid burned as it slid down his gullet. He drew a rattling gasp and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. As the girl turned to walk away, Ed shot and arm out and grabbed her at the wrist.
“Hey!” she squeaked.
The men at the nearby table looked up from their drinking and eating, met Ed’s cold glare, and then looked away again.
“I’m looking for somebody,” he said, realizing that his grip was too tight and releasing her. “Fella by the name of Larry Ripley.”
The girl rubbed her wrist, as if trying to wipe away a brand left by Ed’s touch.
“You know him?” Ed asked.
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you looking for him?”
He understood her hesitation. People came to a town like Crescent Junction to vanish. The townsfolk respected each other’s privacy.
“He’s my . . . brother,” Ed said. “I haven’t seen him in a long while.”
The smell of the stew made Ed’s stomach kick.
“Well, I hope you didn’t come a long way to find him,” the girl said, “because he ain’t here no more.”
Ed clenched his hands into fists and ground his teeth. He didn’t want to believe he had come so far for nothing.
“You know where he went?”
“No, sir. He just up and disappeared one night.”
The girl waited for a second or two, looking Ed over to see if he had further questions, then hustled away to take care of the other customers, but mainly to remove herself from the old man’s presence.
With a grimace of disgust, Ed spooned some of the salty stew into his mouth and chewed the tough meat–pork, he thought. He ate a bite of the stale cornbread and washed the grainy paste down with a mouthful of whiskey.
Looking across the room, he saw a grinning, elderly man leaning in a chair at a corner table. The man grinned, and his teeth looked like tombstones, each dotted with tiny lettering—R.I.P.—and glittering with spittle as if a rainstorm had just swept through the graveyard of his mouth. The man nodded, tipped his midnight black hat, and winked devilishly.
“She’s lying, you know,” the familiar old man hissed, but no one else in the room heard him.
“I know, you old bastard.” Ed tossed back another shot of whiskey. “God damn you, I know.”
When he looked again, the figure was gone.
Old Man Death had gotten there ahead of him this time.
* * * *
Later, Ed stood on the wooden boardwalk running along either side of the narrow dirt street. He set the half-drained whiskey bottle on the boards, dug the last of his tobacco from his shirt pocket, and rolled himself a smoke.
The warm air was heavy with the smell of manure from the livery where he had boarded his half-dead horse. The sounds of the local blacksmith hammering away at metal echoed along the street. A coach clambered by, jostled upon the rough earthen tracks. Bright flashes of heat lightning tore streaks through the twilit sky.
Crescent Junction, Utah.
Ed didn’t think much of the town. His brother always said it would be the perfect place to settle down, but Larry had never been known for being too particular. As long as the place had a saloon and a brothel, maybe a bartender who gave him free drinks or a girl who liked him enough to knock a few dollars off her asking price, Larry would be happy.
Ed struck a match and lit the cigarette. A curl of smoke drifted into the air, and he breathed deep.
He had booked a room at the hotel for the night, and, with nothing to keep him, he figured he would leave town in the morning. He couldn’t say where he would be going. He didn’t know that it mattered. He would ride straight on—
“To Hell,” he muttered.
His sister, God rest her soul, had always told him that if he didn’t stop his wicked ways he would one day find himself galloping “straight on through the fires of Hell with Old Man Death as a riding companion.”
A sound from behind caught his attention. He turned. An alley between the feed store and the Expeditioner’s Supply led into shadow. Something shuffled in the darkness. Ed peered into the alley.
He flicked the smoldering cigarette into the shadows, grabbed the bottle, and strode back towards the cafe, the heavy tread of his boots resounding from the planks. He couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching him—following him.
He glanced at the bottle in his hand and saw a warped form reflected in the glass.
A figure approached from behind, closing in, reaching out.
Muscles tensed. His right hand slid towards the handle of one revolver. He spun on his heels. But he didn’t see anyone. The street was empty.
He shook his head at his own foolishness.
He needed sleep. He had been riding for too long. His mind was playing tricks on him.
Still, as he walked away, he could have sworn he heard a soft whispering–or maybe a hissing–from the shadows.
* * * *
The dream again . . . .
Larry stood before Ed, just like always, speaking in a voice so deep and slow that it could not be understood.
But this time–
Ed recognized the sickening stink of the man. He had smelled it when he rode through areas where vultures picked at the pulpy eye sockets of dead soldiers, where the gallows hung taut with the weight of criminals left to rot in the sun.
He had smelled it when Old Man Death leaned in close to whisper in his ear and blow his graveyard breath upon his face.
The empty room creaked and groaned. Light seeped in through cracks between the bare floorboards. The air was hot, rancid, and smothering, pressing down upon him like a shroud.
Ed couldn’t move.
In the dim, shifting light, Larry’s skin looked dry, flaky, and gray as cold cinders. His hair was matted to his scalp. His wet eyes bulged in the sockets. His mouth opened and closed, working in the same way that a bass might gasp when pulled from the water. Snakes slithered over his body, crawling into dark holes in his skin. Ed saw blood-slickened snake eggs burrowed beneath his skin
They’ve hollowed him out, Ed thought, turned him into a nest.
The snakes, each of which had a boney, crescent shaped ridge upon its head, spat and rattled a warning.
* * * *
In the silence of the room, Ed stood over the washbasin, staring at his warped reflection in the water. He had cleaned the sweat from his face and wet his thinning hair. Droplets fell to the floor, onto the counter, and into the bowl, sending shockwaves through the water.
“Just a dream,” he whispered to himself. “That’s all.”
As he stared into the rippling water, he saw his face changing again and again into the visages of others—faces Ed recognized as readily as he would his own.
“I’m awake now,” he told himself, closing his eyes, shaking his head, and looking again. “Awake.”
He saw his mother, who spent more time with strange men than with her children, lying on a bed stained dark red, her throat slashed open by the last of her customers.
He saw his sister, Ester, who always scolded him for his wicked ways, dangling from the end of a rope, her face purple, her stomach swollen with the weight of an unborn bastard.
He saw Old Man Death, his tombstone teeth showing behind grinning lips.
He saw . . .
“Enough!” Ed knocked the bowl to the floor, shattering it into a dozen ceramic bits.
He was the last of his family. All the others were dead. Except, he had believed, for Larry. He had come to say goodbye, after all this time, to his only remaining relative, someone he hadn’t seen face to face in over ten years. Now, with Larry gone, Ed would feel more alone than ever when he died.
Beside the bed sat the bottle of whiskey he had bought at dinner. The liquid was almost gone, and Ed, shaking, reached for it.
He lay back, clutching the bottle, on the lumpy bed. He felt exhausted and, even though the idea of sleep and the dreams it would bring frightened him, he took a swig, letting some of the whiskey spill down his chin, and closed his eyes.
At the urging of a dream, he had come to Crescent Junction to find his brother. He almost laughed. If Larry knew he had followed a dream to Crescent Junction—a dream!—he would have whooped Ed within an inch of his life, just like when they were boys. Whenever anyone mentioned Ed’s “gifts,” Larry flew into a spitting, cussing rage. And now his brother was gone, possibly dead, and the dream had become a nightmare.
He heard a cry from outside. He rose and looked out the window. Only a few flickering lights showed from some of the doorways and shuttered windows along the street. Shadows loomed and danced across the dirt track.
“Somebody help me!” the voice cried.
A man frantically stumbled from left to right across the street, stooping over and grabbing at the ground as if snatching up invisible creatures.
“Help!” the man called as he darted back and forth. “Somebody help me! Don’t let them get away!”
If anybody else heard the man, they ignored him, for he received no answer to his cries as he chased after his illusionary quarry. Ed shook his head. He had enough of his own delusions to burden himself with another’s.
As he crawled back into bed, he could still hear the man yelling on the street below. So he covered his head with his pillow, muffling the racket.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” the man cried. “Somebody help me catch these snakes!”
Throwing the sheets and pillow aside, Ed jumped from bed, rushed out of the room, and ran downstairs two steps at a time. When he reached the street, however, the screaming man was gone.
* * * *
“You look like you clawed your way out of the grave,” the skinny waitress said when Ed stumbled downstairs. She wore the same gray dress, the same dull expression, and she still absently rubbed her wrist where Ed had grabbed her. “How’d you sleep?”
“Bad dreams?” she asked, pouring a cup of dark coffee. “Sometimes I have bad dreams.”
Ed shook his head and downed the coffee in two swallows, searing his lips, tongue, and throat.
The girl poured another cup. “Want breakfast?” she asked.
Ed shook his head and sipped his coffee. A man at a table behind him muttered a blessing—“As above, so below.”—and started carving at his food. The knife scraped against the plate.
“Last night there was a man on the street,” Ed said. “Who would that be?”
The girl blinked at him, but offered no answer.
“He was making a hell of a racket,” Ed said.
“Must’ve been Reverend Duncan,” a bearded man at a nearby table answered. He eyed Ed’s pistols as one might eye a naked woman. “Don’t know how anybody sleeps with him hollerin’ like a crazy man.”
“Why don’t you shut your trap?” The waitress glared at the bearded man.
“That was the preacher?” Ed asked.
“If that’s what you want to call him.” The bearded man offered a gap-toothed smile as he absently used a biscuit to sop up gravy. Bits of food lay suspended in thw wiry hair of his beard. “Not too many people take him seriously anymore, seein’ how’s he’s crazy as Hell.”
“I told you to shush up.” The waitress turned towards Ed and shrugged. “Reverend Duncan, he tries to take care of us is all.”
Harve hooted with laughter. Gravy mixed with black tobacco juice oozed from the corner of his mouth and soaked into his beard. “Some folks say how’s he’s got wicked powers, like the devil, and he keeps dead bodies tied up in his basement.”
“What do you know?” the waitress snapped. “Why would he keep dead bodies?”
“Maybe he calls on them to do the devil’s business.”
“You sure you don’t want nothing to eat?” the girl asked.
“Not today.” He tossed enough money to settle his tab onto the table. “But why don’t you tell me where I can find that preacher?”
* * * *
The front door to the preacher’s house–which was located behind a small, one-room church–creaked open about an inch.
“What do you want?” Reverend Duncan asked from the other side of the door. His skin sagged loosely over his skull. His eyes were bloodshot. His arms were as thin as broomhandles.
“My name’s Ed Ripley. I was wondering if I might talk with you for a minute.”
“Talk about what?”
“My brother,” Ed answered. “Larry. Larry Ripley.”
The preacher’s reddened eyes widened then narrowed again. The answer trembled from his lips, and he started to close the door. “Nothing to talk about.”
With a sudden movement, Ed slammed his shoulder against the door. He winced in pain, but knocked the preacher back, forcing his way inside.
A fine layer of dust covered the cluttered interior of the house. Lit candles dripped wax in the corners. Books were scattered across the table and furniture. Papers, decorated with strange drawings and chicken scratch handwriting, littered the floor. Several empty whiskey bottles were scattered under a table.
“Like I said, I’m looking for my brother.” Ed stomped towards the preacher, who cowered on the floor. “I reckon you can help me find him.”
“You stay away from me!” Duncan scrambled to his feet. “Don’t you touch me.”
Ed stepped closer.
“All right. All right. I’ll help you if I can.” The preacher licked his dry lips, glanced around the dark room, and rubbed his hands together nervously. “What good does that do you? He’s gone . . . dead.”
Ed knocked some books from one of the chairs to the floor. “Sit.”
Reverend Duncan slouched into the seat. Ed sat down opposite of him, throwing more books to the floor.
“Your brother was a friend of the Church,” Duncan said. He straightened in his chair, suddenly regaining his composure. “Did you know that, Mr. Ripley? No, I can see that you did not. You should be proud of Larry. He was a credit to this community, and he will be dearly missed.”
“What happened to him?” Ed asked, leaning forward.
Reverend Duncan sighed and shivered, as if chilled by the words he spoke.
“Long time back, Indians haunted the hills around Crescent Junction. There’s a lake near town that, as near as I can figure, was some sort of sacred ground for them, a place touched by their heathen snake god, and they communicated with him through the waters. They were savages for sure, and come every spring, they started beating on their drums day and night, night and day, without stopping.
“After a while, some folks started thinking those Indians were up to something unholy, and talk started to spread that maybe we should just run them off once and for all, before our livestock or one of our children came up missing.
“We chased them off, all right, just to be safe. Killed a few of them, too. I didn’t want to hurt nobody. I just took my daddy’s old hunting rifle for protection. But this woman grabbed hold of me, and I accidentally pulled the trigger. I’ll never forget the look on her face as she fell dead at my feet.
“Once it was all said and done, we tried to forget about the Indians altogether. But I could still hear that woman’s screams whenever I closed my eyes.”
“What’s any of this got to do with my brother?”
Duncan looked like he didn’t know how to answer.
“Not too long ago, Larry came to me and said he’d seen . . . devils near Crescent Junction. At first, I thought he might have been seeing things. He sure liked the bottle, your brother. I asked where he had seen these devils, and he told me the lake.
“I followed him out there, right where he said the devils came every night, and we waited in the brush for the sun to set . . .”
Duncan’s voice quivered and the words caught in his throat.
“What is it?” Ed asked. “What happened?”
“They took him,” Duncan said. “God help me, they took your brother.”
The Reverend sobbed and curled up in the chair, tears rolled down his cheeks. “The snakes … get them … off me. Please. Get them off me.”
Ed knew that he would get no more answers from Duncan. He wondered if the preacher really was mad … or did he suffer visions similar to things Ed, himself, saw from time to time. And if those visions could drive a man of god insane, what chance did an aging outlaw like himself stand? He stood and strode out the door, intent on finding the lake the preacher had mentioned.
* * * *
Kneeling on the dried, cracked bank of the lake, Ed wiped sweat from his forehead. Even though an outcropping of rock provided a little shade, the heat was almost unbearable. He cupped his hands and splashed a little of the cold, dark water on his face.
“Damn!” he said, shaking his head. “That stinks!”
He sat down in the shade and waited for the sun to finally set. Those devils came at night, the preacher had said, and Ed would be waiting for them. He doubted he would see any devils. Reverend Duncan, he thought, was, like the man in the café had said, crazier than Hell. Still, he crouched near the lake with his pistols close at hand, just in case.
Distantly, he heard a whistled tune. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Old Man Death strolling along without a care in the world.
Ed pulled one of his pistols, checked it, tested its weight.
Would bullets kill a devil? Ed wondered.
The afternoon wore on and eventually the sun started to melt out of the sky, which was painted the color of blood. A haze rose from the earth. Looking through the vapor was like looking through warped glass. Through the haze, Ed saw figures moving around him. They wore, as near as he could tell, buckskin leathers and necklaces of feather and bone. Their black hair hung in braids along their red-skinned chests.
Their faces were grinning death masks.
Snakes crawled through their flesh.
Ed whipped a pistol towards them, but blinding sweat ran into his eyes, and when he looked again, the apparitions had faded into nothingness.
He might have left right then, scurried back to the town of Crescent Junction before he got himself killed, but he knew, deep down, that he would never rest, not in a bed and not in a box, until he found out what had happened to his brother.
Finally, twilight yielded to night, stripping away some of the heat, and the sky went dark, except for the dim, shimmering stars and the skull-like moon. Ed silently watched the water . . . ready . . . waiting.
Loose rocks skittered across the ground.
Ed turned to see four silhouetted figures looking down on him from the rocky outcropping.
“You should have left when you had the chance, Mr. Ripley,” Reverend Duncan called from above. The wind carried his voice. “You can’t do anything for Larry–not now.”
Anger flared inside Ed like a fire spreading through dry scrubland. Reverend Duncan had killed Larry. The realization hit him like a fist. There weren’t any murdering Indians–no devils. Just some crazy preacher.
The whistle of Old Man Death trailed off, replaced now by a whisper Ed had heard many times.
“Kill him. Kill that bastard.”
You ain’t no damn preacher.” Ed spat.
” I am indeed a man of God,” Duncan answered, “a shepherd, and I have to protect my flock . . . just as the snake god protects his children. A curse fell upon us when we killed those Indians. Now we must pay retribution to the … thing that lurks below.”
“As above, so below,” called the reverend’s companions.
“Yig!” another screeched. “Yig!”
Two of the three men scurried down the hill. Ed’s hands tightened around the handles of his Colt hammerless revolvers. In unison, the guns fired, tearing great, gaping wounds into the stomachs of the two closest men. One fell dead. The other stumbled to his knees, dropped his gun, but still lived. Ed fired again, and the fallen man’s face blossomed into an explosion of blood, bone, and brain.
Reverend Duncan and the other man ducked for cover.
Another figure, wielding a heavy wood ax, lunged at Ed from out of nowhere. The twin guns fired again. In the muzzle flash, Ed saw the deformed features of the man–the flattened nose, lipless mouth, yellow and slitted eyes.
The man who had ducked along with the preacher rose and fired his pistol. Ed threw himself out of the way, and the bullet only grazed his shoulder. He forced back the pain, swallowed the urge to cry out, and fired twice more. The bullets caught the man in the neck, nearly tearing his head from his body.
The act of aiming and firing, aiming and firing, flooded back into Ed’s muscles as memories floods into one’s mind. Second nature–he didn’t need to think about what he was doing.
Even Old Man Death—Ed saw him out of the corner of his eyes—ran for cover through the mist of gunsmoke and hail of bullets. He waved his stick-thin arms over his head.
“Run!” Ed cried. “I get you in my sights, I’ll kill even you!”
Then he heard a hiss, looked to the ground and, saw dozens of snakes slithering across the dry earth. The snakes, just like the ones in his dream, had crescents upon their heads.
But these were real snakes.
He jumped to his feet, fired at a woman who ran at him from the darkness. She spun in her tracks and fell. He recognized her gray dress as she sprawled backwards.
More rattlesnakes slithered across the dusty ground, hissing, spitting, striking at Ed’s hard boots. He emptied one of the guns at the snakes, scattering them. Another man, this one with skin that looked scaled, attacked, and Ed whipped him with the empty gun, then shot him in the gut with the other.
“Stop!” Reverend Duncan cried. He scrambled down the slope, waving his arms, to face Ed. “No more!”
All around him, Ed saw shadowy figures.
“That’s enough!” Duncan cried. “There don’t need to be no more killing! Just get out of here and we’ll let you live. This is done!”
Ed’s gun barked once more.
The top portion of the preacher’s head vaporized into red mist. He staggered, more like a drunk than a man with most of his brains missing, and fell back into the lake.
And Ed screamed.
Because a massive, coiling form, glistening blackly in the moonlight, surged out of the water and constricted around Reverend Duncan’s body. It looked like dozens of huge, bloated serpents wrapped around rotting flesh and broken bones. And slime-coated faces–the faces of the dead Indians–leered from the mess of curling flesh as it drug the squirming and screeching preacher underwater.
Ed recognized one of the faces before he fell into unconsciousness.
* * * *
He never figured out why the people of Crescent Junction hadn’t killed him while he was unconscious. He supposed that, with Duncan gone, they had scattered like . . . .
Would they continue their rituals, he wondered, now that Duncan was dead, or would the curse, whatever that might be, run its course? He didn’t care. He just wanted to get away from Crescent Junction, away from the lake, away from the memory of what he had seen.
Standing, Ed craned his neck. There was something odd about the shape of the lake. He couldn’t quite place it. It just didn’t look natural. He scrambled as best he could up the outcropping of rock that overlooked the lake.
When he reached the top, Ed caught his breath, stood, and looked down at the lake. What he saw almost made his legs buckle.
The outline of the lake–if not for the immense size– resembled nothing more closely than a grotesque hand print.
* * * *