Thursday, May 19, 2016

Short Story: The Worms Crawl In

A man and a saddle emerged from the warm spring sunrise. Fifty miles or so back into the prairie lay what might qualify as a horse, if horses consisted of skin, bone, and bloodshot eyes. The Walking Fella treated horseflesh like his own body: As a tool. His bullets lasted longer than his horses. Some cowhands named their favorite horse. The Walking Fella struggled to remember his own name anymore. At night, he lay reciting “Ethan Walker, your name is Ethan Walker” until he could grasp his vanishing identity.

Three years awake in the darkness and dirt while maggots chewed his flesh. If the gang had finished their work, he wouldn’t be hunting them now. But they’d left him alone, alive, half-hung and gut-shot and worm-gnawed, with only fading memories to keep him company. So he would chase them down.

From Nevada desert to Minnesota prairie he’d ridden in search of his gang. They’d scattered with the four winds after piling the last rocks on his living grave. Tracking eleven criminals up and down the country took time. He didn’t have time. Sooner or later civilization’s smoky grinding progress would chain the frontier with railroads and farms. He’d seen the woodcuts—Columbia with her torch driving back darkness and savagery. And enough of his mother’s gift tainted his veins for him to know what happened to outlaws and gunslingers when real law arrived in a land. So that left him one chance. Kill the Ethan Walker Gang. His gang. Enter the history books as a last gasp of the age of “elbow room” and “westward ho!”

Whitey Grenig would know. Hadn’t that blind old coot provided detailed stage routes and range patterns plenty of times? What kept him from finding a few backshooting traitors?

Besides, if his two years hunting Whitey was any indication, Ethan would need help finding the gang. Forty-seven telegrams to almost as many old friends before Whitey popped up in Walnut Creek, Minnesota. Telegrams cost money. The gang had taken that, too. And sure, a devil or a spirit could find all twelve—eleven, now—of the gang in seconds, but Ethan Walker intended to avoid the hot place for a little longer if he could.

So he dragged his saddle across the prairie toward the little town of Walnut Creek. It shone a bit with spring dew and good cheer, a happy place of apple pies and colorful quilts. Farms spread to the north, south, and west of town, patches of black, fresh-plowed earth standing out from the prairie’s young green. To the east lay Walnut Creek itself, a small oxbowing river butted up against a thinning oak forest.

He came upon a rutted dirt trail that led past clapboard farmhouses. Women and children stopped their chores to stare; men in the fields raised friendly hands from their work. Haggard men in bullet-torn and bloodstained white dusters weren’t common in these parts, it seemed. Ethan ignored the farmers. Whitey was his goal.

Something tickled his throat. He raised his hand and retched. The tickling ceased. A red wriggling gob sat in his palm. Maggots and blood. Whatever he did, nothing could dislodge them all from his lungs and sinus. He wiped off his hand on a fencepost.

A half-mile of muddy road remained to trudge when a creaking wagon drew up beside him. Ethan slowed. The wagon slowed. Gingerly, he reached for his rifle.

“Hallo dere, frand! Need a lift?” A broad, ruddy Swede smiled down from a buckboard.

Ethan glowered. The Swede beamed.

“Fine.” With a huff, Ethan hefted his saddle into the Swede’s wagon. Still grinning, the Swede patted the wagon’s broad wooden seat. Ethan mumbled a slur as he climbed aboard.

With a click of his tongue and a flick of the reins, the Swede started his horses back into motion. “So vat are ya doing in beautiful Walnut Creek? Yiminy, ve don’t get many travelers tru here.” The Swede’s booming, jovial voice rattled Ethan’s lungs and aggravated his maggot farm.

Ethan told the truth. “Looking for someone who tried to kill me.”

“Uff da! Vell, dere are no killers in Walnut Creek, friend. Unless you count neighbor Rosicky’s lumber prices! They’ll stop your heart beating! Ha ha! No killers here! No sir! No killers here! We’re a God-fearing town!” The Swede laughed and slapped Ethan’s back. A gob of maggots in his sinus dislodged and choked Ethan. “Today I go buy lumber for a privy. The missus, she doesn’t vant to squat over hole any more. Is good for the constitution, I tell her, but vill she listen? No! Vimmenfolk... Dey are a mystery.”

Ethan grunted and swallowed back maggots. Oblivious, the Swede continued on in his rumbling bass. “Spring festival’s soon. Ve had a hard first few years. Lots of death. Volf pack, Injun raids, some accidents. But the last decade is fruitful. So we celebrate now. Is good to be alive on a spring morning, ya?”

Another grunt. One maggot had wound up in his nostril. Discreetly, Ethan hocked the grub out onto the road. Some idle part of his hindbrain rolled around the Swede’s comment about deaths, but was overwhelmed by a bawdy anecdote involving a hayloft and the hired hand.

Half a mile with the Swede lasted longer than three years in a living grave. Ethan restrained himself from murder. “No judge would convict,” he muttered.

After an eternity of bad jokes and backslapping, they rolled into town. The Swede greeted passer-by, waving and mock-flirting. Passing the jail, the Swede called out to a skinny man in a bowler. “Sheriff Yonson! How’s da rheumatism today?”

Johnson waved and gave a thumbs up.

Motion blurred in Ethan’s peripheral vision. He turned in time to catch an axe-handle to the temple.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

First Ethan noticed the maggots. They seemed to have knocked loose from his sinuses and now wriggled aimlessly in the back of his throat. Grimacing, he spat out clots of larvae. Sooner or later he’d take a swig of tobacco, garlic, and whiskey, clean the critters out for a bit.

He opened his eyes. Well, eye. His left eyelid seemed glued shut by some crusty substance. When he probed upward, a stabbing pain jolted him upright. The Swede had put some weight into that blow. Exploring the damage, Ethan found a long gash running down the side of his face. At least he wasn’t missing any teeth. Teeth were hard to replace. The rest would heal.

Something about his last thought seemed odd. He repeated himself out loud. “The Swede sure put his weight into that…”

A sudden awareness of surroundings flooded Ethan. Barred window, grated door, bucket in the corner… He’d seen the inside of a few jail cells, and this could have been any of them. Even the same carvings in the wall—“I buggered the sheriff” “This ain’t my bedroom…” “Buck Harkness wuz heer.” Buck Harkness must have toured every jail in the country and a few down Mexico way.

So he was in lockup. What did that mean? Had the Swede recognized him? Ethan didn’t figure his fame had spread so far east. Sure, thirty-seven courts had warrants or bounties on him, but no Minnesota clodhopper would know that.

Maybe Whitey had ratted. Maybe the gang found Whitey first. Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe. None of that mattered. No outlaw still cutting mustard sat around worrying ‘bout maybes. They did things.

“What would Billy the Kid do?” He scratched his leg. “Besides get shot in the dark cuz he asked questions first and shot later.”

Break out of jail. That’s what outlaws did. First he checked the obvious places. Flipping over the thin straw-tick mattress in hopes of discovering a file or skeleton key, he dislodged a yellowing scrap of paper. Curious, Ethan picked it up and puzzled over the cross-written note: “My dearest Emelia. I am imprisoned here for a crime of which I am totally innocent. The Sheriff, one lean-shanked fellow named Johnson, intends to hang me by the neck until death. This town, Emelia... This cursed town will take my life. I had hoped to see you for Easter, but instead we must meet again in the great beyond. Give my love to Rose, Emelia, and know that I will forever love you. George.”

Well. A sad little story, there. But nothing to do with Ethan. So he stood up from the slat bunk and sauntered for his cell door to have a look around. The rest of the jail fit the mold as well—racks of rifles and shotguns on the wall, yellowing wanted posters, a snoozing sheriff tipped back in his chair.

As if on cue, Sheriff Johnson stirred and faced Ethan. Like a cat stretching after a long fireside nap, Johnson stood and strolled over to Ethan’s cell. “I see you’re awake. So, what brings you to Walnut Creek, my friend?”

This time, Ethan lied. No need to give the sheriff more reasons to lock him away. “I’m looking for an old pal. Whitey Grenig. Short little fella, can’t see good, talks about the war too much. You seen him?”

Johnson nodded meditatively. “I know the man. He expecting you?”

“Nah. Figured on surprising him. It’s been years since we rode together.” Ethan watched Johnson. The gaunt man’s eyes had a famished, unblinking look. Occasionally, Johnson gnawed his lower lip, which bore layers of scabbed, half-healed skin.

A broad smile from Johnson. “Well, friend, you won’t be seeing Whitey Grenig. Not after you robbed Lars Bergstrom. Armed robbery is a hanging offense in these parts.”

Panic blossomed in Ethan’s chest. Getting shot was common enough. He’d got shot forty or fifty times in the course of his career. A bullet hurt when it hit, and hurt long after, but nothing compared to hanging. Burning lungs, the rope tearing into your neck, your heart pounding faster and faster until SNAP it stopped and a veil of blackness dropped over your vision and you were dead. And then you woke up gasping for air and the first breath ripped raw through your throat and you screamed and that tore your throat up worse and you felt the dirt pressing down on you—

He jolted back to reality with a long gasp. Sweat drenched his shirt and his hands shook like a rattlesnake’s tail.

Johnson loomed above him. “Don’t take it so hard—I’ve gotten quite good at hanging over the years. A nice long drop, you won’t feel a thing. I’m not a mean man. An’ there’s worse ways to die.”

Then Johnson grinned, displaying rows of sharp yellow teeth. Bile churned in Ethan’s stomach. “I don’t know what you’re up to but you’ll get yours.”

“No, I won’t. The town and I have an…understanding.” Johnson reached through the bars and patted Ethan’s shoulder. “I suggest you get some sleep tonight. Spring festival’s in two days, and we’ll have to get the gallows down by then.”
Turning on his heel, the sheriff strode out. Where he had stood a small puddle of blood soaked into the split-wood floor. Ethan crouched to get a closer look. A hoodoo aura prickled his palms. Johnson wasn’t natural. Plain right-living folks didn’t leave barefoot prints in blood when they were boot-shod. Right-living folks didn’t hang men for crimes they didn’t commit, either. Not that Ethan didn’t deserve to die, he just didn’t deserve to die here in this particular jurisdiction. Yet.

For a while, he sat in the cell. Plan—he needed a plan. But planning an escape turned out to be difficult when you were going to hang next morning. Funny how all the dime novels omitted that detail. The dime novels didn’t warn about your gang leaving you for dead in a shallow grave, either. Gold and glory, those were the rewards young Ethan dreamed of while he read. There’d been little enough of either, all told. Newspapers just glossed right over him and his gang, and bank-robbing and horse-thieving weren’t as lucrative anymore, now that the land was getting fenced in and divvied up. America wasn’t the same as she’d been twenty years ago. The War Between the States changed things.

Too late to switch careers now, he figured. Horses and streams and all. So he’d better work on getting out. The window’s bars resisted all his weight. Just in case, he tested the cell door—Johnson hadn’t forgotten to lock it. Whatever Johnson was, he wasn’t a fool.

Johnson had left the keys on a chair near the outer door. They were far from Ethan’s reach and twinkled gold in the early evening glow.

Barring help from the townsfolk, Ethan was trapped. Ethan looked down at his arm and back up at the keys. An idea—a painful idea—began to form. His mother’s mojo would let him pull it off. Her magic’d saved him before lots of times, and from stranger things. Twenty minutes of sawing and cursing went by, and Ethan stared down at a severed and immobile left hand. “Well.”

Experimentally, he shoved the two bloody stumps together. Nothing happened. No squelching noises as flesh knitted back together, no burst of dark magic knotting his limbs in place. He’d broken something his momma’s spells couldn’t fix. His whole life that web of magic protected him from harm. The old woman’d spun big plans for him. Plans he didn’t get a say in. So as far he figured, the magic was fair repayment for his childhood. It’d stitched up wounds that should have killed him a hundred times over. And now, the hoodoo seemed to be running out. Growling, he shoved his severed hand into his duster pocket. It’d keep until he got a chance to make repairs of his own. He’d got good at stitching over the years.

Outside, dinner bells clanged and children laughed as they washed up. Ethan sat despondent in his cell. So much for being a big hero. Caught by a two-bit crooked sheriff in some two-bit crooked town. What a way to end a distinguished career of robbery, murder, and attempted folk-heroism.

The street door screeched open. Ethan didn’t look up. Whatever Johnson was, Ethan didn’t figure on giving the critter any joy.

“Vat are you doing down dere?” The Swede beamed down at Ethan. “Vell? Come on then!”

Cursing, Ethan lunged at the Swede through his cell bars. “You bohunk sheeplover!”

With a laugh, the Swede danced back, nimble for his bulk. Ethan spotted several other men loitering near the door—all carried hunting rifles. “Is dot any vay to velcome us,” the Swede queried, unlocking Ethan’s cell. “The sheriff is lording over our town ten years, we hide him, he don’t kill us. But he kill many travelers he says are criminals. No graves ever. Dot is bad enuf, but why should I help him? I want no blood on my hands. We are no fighters, but you look like a gunman. Now git on! Git! Is time to elect new sheriff, ya?”

Ethan shoved past the Swede and retrieved his guns. Johnson had left Ethan’s guns loaded, for which Ethan gave thanks. It was enough of a struggle merely fastening the gunbelts with one hand. Reloading would not be a possibility. Bullets might not even work on the sheriff, whatever he—or it—was. Ethan’d tangled with uncanny things before. He’d rather a gunfight any day.

Outside the sun descended in a golden blaze, tinting the surrounding sky with shades of pink. A beautiful night for a jailbreak. Now he needed to find Whitey. So Ethan headed for the darkest, most run-down house he could find. Whitey had a penchant for drama. For a house no more than ten years old, it would have fit into any ghost town.

Ethan kicked open the door and entered, rifle low. Cobwebs and dust drifted around him like snowflakes. He sneezed three times, dislodging a maggot. “Whitey? Whitey Grenig? It’s Walker! Where you at?”

Faint scufflings echoed from upstairs. Moving slow, his back to the wall, Ethan climbed the staircase to a little attic garret. A corn husk doll sat in one corner, near a dry puddle of blood. In the shadows, on an old cot, lay Whitey Grenig, huddled under a thin Indian blanket. The old seer had shriveled up since Ethan met him last. In the old days Whitey had jiggled with fat and good cheer; now he was just a bag of bones. Ethan scuffed the plank floor with his boot—Whitey snapped upright, blank eyes scanning the room in a panic.

The cataracts had worsened. Way back when, Whitey’s eyes had only begun to show signs of clouding. Now they were two balls of milky white in a face brown and tough as jerky. Ethan took a step toward the cot.

“Ethan? I heard you was dead!” Whitey scrabbled himself back on the cot, away from Ethan.

Another step closer. “Yeah, the gang killed me. Or tried, at least. And you’re gonna help me find them. They left me to rot in a shallow grave, alive and screaming. They’re gonna pay. So come on, Whitey. Use those cloudy eyes of yours for something worthwhile.”

Whitey cussed. Whitey always did have a penchant for cussing. Get him started and he’d string together phrases venomous enough to blister your ears. It was his second most-popular skill. Ethan let Whitey run down a list of imprecations for a few minutes before interrupting. “You done?”

A deep breath in and out. Whitey sighed. “Fine. You want to know what your precious little gang of snakes been and done while you got ate by worms? Reg Driscoll you shot in Nevada. John Campbell and Lucy Marston struck off on their own. Botched a robbery down near Santa Fe. Campbell’s dead and Marston’s doing time. Wayne Lafayette went legit, got married. Him and his family run a little general store back east a piece, place called Wood’s Bluff. Angelina Shooting Horse went back to the Comanch reservation. Starved to death last winter.”
A flurry of coughs halted Whitey for a moment. “Sean Cassidy got the syph. He’s in a mental ward now. The rest are the same. Dead or locked up or gone legit. You get the picture? You’re the only one, Ethan. The others moved on. Ain’t much room for outlaws anymore. Not our kind. Give it up. Go home.”

“You idjits helped burn my home. We were supposed to be a family, not like them other gangs that backstabbed first chance they got.” Ethan raised his rifle one-handed. The rifle’s hammer made a sound like cracking ice as Ethan cocked it. “I trusted you. Ya’ll were more family than my ma ever was. An’ you shot me for nothin’.”

The rifle barrel wavered and sank. He’d shot Reg Driscoll in a white rage, fresh from three years of worm-eaten confinement. Instinct and anger had pulled the trigger. But this wouldn’t be the same. He’d be shooting a dried-up old man he used to call “Gramps.” Same went for Wayne Lafayette or any of the ones still living. Revenge sounded sweet in the gravedark, but not so much in the light of day.

Still. What else was he going to do with his time on this earth? He raised the gun once again.

Whitey tensed up. “You hear that?”

Shouting in the streets. It seemed Johnson had discovered the empty cell. Ethan spun, duster fanning out behind him with a rustle. “Whitey, your loco sheriff’s gonna hang me and eat me. Got any ideas?”

“Yep. Shoot ‘im. He’s a real beast, but far’s I know he’s human, or ridin’ one.” Whitey coughed, spasming with pain. Fresh blood spattered over the dried puddle around the corn-husk doll. “One way or another, won’t be both of us alive come sundown.”

They shook hands and parted.

Outside the sun had gone down. Only a few straggling shreds of light still illuminated the muddy street. In a detached way, Ethan wondered what it would take to clean his boots. Johnson waited, rifle held in a low ready carry. Walnut Creek’s citizens lined the boardwalks, watching, eyes hooded. The Swede nodded shortly to Ethan, gaze subdued. When it came down to it, maybe the man was regretting his decision. If Ethan failed, Johnson might want payback for the jailbreak.

Mud squelched beneath Ethan’s boots as he reached the center of the street. While he walked, Johnson had stood stock-still, unblinking, unbreathing. The sheriff gnawed his lip until it bled freely, changing his face into a ghoulish mask. Fear roiled in Ethan’s stomach. Or maybe it was maggots.

“You have to die, boy. I like this town too much to leave. One must change with the times, see. It was easier to hide in the old days, and a man must eat. So I changed. Unlike you, it seems.” Johnson licked at his bleeding lip. His tongue was long.

Ethan wished for two working hands or a saddled horse. In the long run, he should have stayed dead. At least underground it was peaceful. Well, he could leave some legend behind. The last gunfight in Minnesota. Maybe the last gunfight in the states. A formerly-deceased outlaw and some supernatural critter. It wasn’t hunting down the Walker Gang, but there wasn’t a Walker Gang left, just scattered shades. Better make it look good. He tossed his coat back with a dramatic swish.

There was a muddy thump behind him. Nervous chuckles ran along the spectators.

Johnson grinned wide. Fresh blood stained his snaggled yellow teeth. “Making my job easier, eh?”

“Shut up.” The first bullet took Johnson square in the mouth, smashing teeth and jaw. Blood sprayed. With only one hand, Ethan had to swing cock the rifle, twirling it back against his elbow and returning. The second shot hit Johnson’s stomach—Ethan had fired too soon.
Somehow Johnson was still standing, snarling through a pulped jaw that would have taken John Henry down. Ethan cursed. “What are you? You’re a bleeding-foot, deal-making, lip-gnawing fiend, but what are you?”

Johnson shot now, three reports in quick succession, targeting Ethan’s left side. Ethan howled—two ribs shattered, one puncturing his lung—and Johnson howled with him. A wolf’s wail. A hungry desperate keen.

And then Ethan knew it. The ravenous note in Johnson’s howl, the disappeared travelers, the bloody footprints, the gnawed lips, the bloodstained doll. “Wendigo!”

The people of Walnut Creek had bargained with the wendigo. One sacrifice a year. Maybe more. Who knew? But the creature wouldn’t prey on them. No more children disappearing from garret rooms, leaving behind blood and corn-husk dolls. Just strangers no one would miss. He’d have made the same deal to save his gang. Lots of folks did ugly things in desperation. The Donners, the native tribes making their last stands or just plain giving up… Life was a Mardi Gras parade of desperate acts.

Ethan could feel blood in his lungs. It would be pink and frothy, full of air and life. The maggots squirmed. Given time, he could heal. But why? Why bother? The frontier had touched the sea. Gunslingers were a dying breed.

All the dime novels had heroic last stands. Maybe it was his turn. He could be the hero. Just once. None of his other boyhood dreams had turned out right. Maybe God or the Devil or the universe at large would let him have this one little thing.

Five more rounds in the rifle. He used them all, cracked the Johnson-thing’s skull open with percussive lead blows. The Johnson-thing fired for body-mass, bullets tearing Ethan’s flesh apart. For a famine spirit riding a dead man’s body, it did a better job killing than the gang had managed. Behind the cacophony of gunshots and ringing ears, Ethan heard his rifle click empty and he dropped it to the mud. The wendigo kept howling. Drawing a pistol, Ethan kept firing. He wasn’t sure how much punishment a wendigo’s host could take. Nor was he certain how much damage his own body could withstand. Mother’s hoodoo was fading fast. He could feel it seeping from his pores like smoke.

A dusky gunpowder haze spread over the street. Wendigo-Johnson and Ethan were mere steps apart now. Ethan had drawn his second pistol, as had the wendigo. By now the wendigo’s howl had tapered off to a choking racking sob; Ethan heard himself chanting dimly.

“Marwolaeth fod nid yn filch, er bod rhai wedi galw chi nerthol ac ofnadwy, am nad ydych yn. Ar gyfer y rhai yr ydych yn meddwl eich bod ddymchwel, yn marw nid, marwolaeth gawel, nac yn y gallwch chi fy lladd.” Welsh. His mother’s tongue. He’d never learned to speak the language; he sang his death song with it. The last bit of magic burning out bright.

Both pistols clicked empty. The wendigo fell. Ethan fell beside it. Mud sopped up his blood.
Citizens of Walnut Creek surrounded them in a murmuring huddle. The Swede looked down on Ethan once again. There was just enough air left in Ethan’s deflating lungs to gasp out, “Bury him deep—and me deeper.”

Ethan Walker died again.