Story by Tim Frayser
Illustration by Chlo’e Camonayan
The snow outside was a foot deep. Mr. Harvey, the owner of the general store in Redstone, Colorado, shivered against the chill. He was glad he brought in firewood the night before. It was just starting to get light outside when he looked up from his books and saw three men trudging into town.
They looked haggard, thin and raw. As they came up alongside the store he pulled the door open. “Come on in, gents!” he called. “Warm yourselves by the fire.”
“Much obliged,” said the first one as the three filed in. The frost was thick on their coats. They stomped the ice off their boots and set them near the fire to dry out. Mr. Harvey got them all hot cups of coffee as they sat around the Franklin stove.
“You boys get lost or something?” Mr. Harvey asked.
The one with the hawk nose shook his head. “We was prospecting up past Huntsman Ridge, and—“
“We got caught in a snowstorm,” said the small one suddenly. “Had to wait it out until we could come on down.”
Mr. Harvey nodded his head. “Been pretty fierce this whole month,” he said. “You boys need a place to hole up, there’s a hotel down the street.”
“Much obliged,” the hawk-nosed one repeated. The third one, who had a nasty burn scar across his left cheek, looked up from his blanket.
“This town got an assay office?” he asked.
Mr. Harvey nodded. “Across the street and around the corner from the hotel. Can’t miss it.” He remembered he was still working on his books and went back to the counter to make a note.
Hawk nose leaned over. “Why you gotta go asking about a assay office?”
“We gotta cash in our stake sometime,” the third one replied with a shrug.
The small one nodded his head. “That’s what we do. We cash in our stake and split up the pot. We’ll all be sitting pretty after that.”
“We split up the stake,” hawk nose repeated, and in a lower voice added, “And we never talk about what happened up on the mountain.”
The third one nodded his head in agreement. “Hey, we did what we had to do,” said the small one. “We didn’t have a choice. That’s all there is to it.”
“Nothin’ to be ashamed of,” said the third one. “We made it out alive, didn’t we?”
Hawk nose held his hands close to the stove and rubbed the palms together. “Be that as it may, gentlemen, after we split up the pot, I’m heading out. California, maybe, or Oregon. Someplace far away from here. Either way, I don’t care if I never see you two sons of bitches again.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Two hundred miles and three years later, playing cards went flying through the air as someone opened the saloon door. “Close the damn door!” a chorus of men cried, and the witless miner sheepishly slammed it behind him.
“Damn wind’s been crazy all day!” said a rugged man in a cheap suit. He and several others were on their knees picking up playing cards. A barrel-chested man with a full mustache ambled up to the dealer’s table.
“Now, boys, no harms’ done,” he said in a genial voice. “Nothing a clean game of faro won’t cure.” The dealer, a bald man with a nicked ear, started pulling together the collected cards. “Count those cards, Felix. The Exchange Club is nothing if not honest.”
“Yes, boss,” Felix said in a Swedish accent.
“There’s no way this place could be anything but honest,” said a man with his back against the wall. “Not with Bat Masterson running the place.”
The barrel-chested man smirked and made a humble bow. At the bar, a young man turned to his friend. “That’s Bat Masterson?” he asked in a loud whisper. “I heard he killed 26 men!”
“I heard it was 27!” said his excited friend. The front door opened again but Felix was ready for the wind, and held the cards down with his broad hands. It was Plunkett, the deputy sheriff, a wiry man with eyes too big for his face.
“Bat! Hey, Bat!” called the deputy. “Sheriff needs to see you!”
Bat frowned. “What’s it about?” he asked. “I paid my taxes this month.”
Plunkett shook his head. “Police business, that’s all Cap said. House down on Capitol. Cap said to come fetch you, all’s I know.”
Bat pulled on his coat, popped his bowler hat on his head and snatched up his cane. “Sheriff Light hears you calling him Cap and you’ll know a lot more, I think.”
“This is serious, Bat. Cap needs your help with something.”
Bat waved his hand flamboyantly towards the door. “Lead on, Macduff.”
Plunkett frowned. “Who’s Macduff?” he asked.
Bat sighed. “Let’s just go.”
The wind hit them the moment they stepped outside. It had been building all day. A pleasant diversion for a sunny, June day, after dark it simply became annoying. Behind them, to the north, the last rays of sunset illuminated the thousand-foot cliffs that loomed over the town. Locals called them the Pillars of Hercules.
“What do you mean, police business?” Bat asked, holding onto his hat. “Somebody in trouble?”
“Somebody dead,” Plunkett replied. It was a five block walk down to Capitol Street. Light spilled out onto the street from saloons on the way. Gas-lit streetlights lit the way until they got off the main road through town. It had been a dry spring, so the streets were hard-packed and dusty. “Feller named Guthrie. Pete Guthrie. You know him?”
Bat thought for a moment. “Doesn’t ring a bell. What’s Cap want with me?”
“Dunno. Cap says; go get Bat, so here we are.”
“Here” was Pop Brown’s boarding house on Capitol. Pop had flourished in dry goods, and he built a five bedroom house for him and his family, but he was a bastard to his family, so as soon as everyone was old enough they moved out– including Ma Brown, who took off with a Lutheran carpetbagger. Pop rented out the remaining bedrooms on a weekly basis. It was cheap because he provided no meals with the rooms. It was just as well. Pop Brown was a notoriously bad cook, a fact that no doubt encouraged Ma Brown’s recent departure.
“Hello, Bat,” said the sheriff, standing on the front stoop. Sidney “Cap” Light was a round man with a round face who obviously liked his custard. He held onto his hat against the wind. “Thanks for coming out.”
“What’s this about, Cap?” Bat asked. “I’m not a lawman anymore.”
“No, but I’m gonna need your help with this,” Cap said, cocking his head towards the open door. “Upstairs, second door on the right.”
Intrigued, Bat went inside and started up the creaky stairs. The second door on the right hung loosely on its hinges. Bat peered around the corner. A single candle flickered on the dresser. Furniture was scattered across the room. What used to be Pete Guthrie laid spread across the floor, at the foot of the feather bed.
There was Pete, and then there was Pete’s head, the two only loosely associated. The floorboards between were a gory puddle of blood. Bat stepped around the puddle of blood. Broken glass across the floor glittered in the candlelight. Beyond the bed, a dark rug billowed over the window frame.
The sheriff came up behind Bat. “What do you think?”
Bat snorted at the stench of death. “I take it you’re ruling out suicide?”
The usually cordial Cap Light had a grave look on his face. “I’m serious, Bat. What the hell happened here? You ever see anything like this before?”
Bat stepped into the small room. His shoes crunched on the broken glass. “This is how you found him?”
“The window was smashed in,” Cap said. “We had to hang up the rug so the wind wouldn’t blow out the candle.” Bat picked up the candle and carried it over to the dead man. Pete Guthrie’s head lay on the floor, eyes wide and staring, mouth gaping, lips peeled back in horror. His hands lay across his chest, the fingers gnarled and claw-like. There was an old burn scar on the dead man’s cheek. Bat noticed the dead man’s fingernails were clean. Besides the blood and broken glass, the floor was bare.
Bat walked to the window and looked under the carpet. He blinked as the breeze caught him in the face. The glass was smashed in, the broken edges clean. Below, a line of short bushes skirted the house.
“Where’s the landlord?” Bat asked.
Downstairs, Pop Brown sat in his study, surrounded by a bourbon-scented cloud. “It was right after sunset,” Pop said, taking a swig from his flask. “Right when the wind picked up, you know? It made one of the neighbor dogs howl. That’s when I heard a crash upstairs. And then the screams. Awful, awful screams.”
He started to take another swig, but Bat snatched the flask from his hands. “What happened then?” Bat asked, shoving the cork back in the flask.
“I called out, hey, what’s going on up there, you know?” Pop said. “’Cause, these miners, sometimes, they get a little rough with Soapy’s girls, you know? Some of them, it’s their thing, not my thing. So I comes out of my room and I hear these screams…” Pop shuddered. “I ain’t never heard screams like that before.”
Cap took a step forward. “Soapy’s girls come here sometimes? They’re not supposed to work off the clock…”
Bat waved him off. “One thing at a time, Cap. So, you heard screams–?”
“And I goes upstairs,” Pop continued, “but I can’t get the door open, so I break it down, and inside it’s all dark, but I can see the window’s smashed open, and … this guy…”
“All right, all right,” Bat said in a soothing tone. He handed the flask back to Pop. “You take it easy, now. It’s all right. Did you know this guy, Guthrie?”
Pop took a swig and shook his head. “Never seen him before. He checked in yesterday. Seemed like an affable feller. He liked the room. Said he was from California. Asked if I knew anybody named Woolman. Never heard of that before. What kind of name is Woolman?”
Bat nodded and glanced at Cap. He leaned forward. “He have any visitors?” Pop shook his head. “What else did he talk about?”
“Nothin’ good about that Woolman feller, I can tell you that,” Pop said. “Called him a worthless sumbitch. Him and somebody named Shinn.” Pop took another swig. “Said he was in town lookin’ to settle a score, get what was comin’ to him. Figured he musta settled something, ‘cause I didn’t hear anything out of him at all today. ”
Bat nodded his head. Cap caught his eye and motioned him over to the side.
“What do you think, Bat?”
Bat thought for a moment. “Most peculiar. The man talked about evening a score. Almost sounds like he was gunning for someone, or someone gunning for him. Any footprints outside, under the window?”
Cap shook his head. “Don’t know. Haven’t been around that side.”
“Let’s take a walk,” Bat said. He led the sheriff outside and walked around the corner of the house. The two stopped under the broken window. Light from nearby houses illuminated the yard. A stiff breeze buffeted them from all sides.
“It’s a good ten feet up to the second-floor window,” Bat said. “If it was right after sunset, there still would’ve been light. Somebody would’ve seen someone putting up a ladder.”
“Wait a minute,” Cap said. “Ladder? You saw what was up in that room. No man could’ve done what we saw.”
“And yet, something did,” Bat pointed out. “Something came in through the window and killed this Guthrie fellow. Smashed through the window. Whatever it was should’ve cut itself on the broken glass. If it was a bird, where are the feathers? If it was a polecat, where’s the fur? It didn’t come out the door, or Pop would’ve seen it, so it must’ve gone back out the window. What was it?” Bat looked up at the broken window. “What unholy creature did this?”
Cap sighed and scratched the back of his head. “We’re at eight thousand feet elevation here in Creede. Summer just started. Who knows what might’ve wandered down from the mountains after a long winter? I’m gonna call this an animal attack and be done with it.”
He started to leave. Bat followed. “Truly? An animal attack? That’s your explanation?” The two men circled back around to the front porch. “Some animal of unknown origin and motive broke through a second story window, killed a man, but didn’t even stick around to eat its prey?”
Cap waved off the challenge. “Whatever it was might’ve heard Pop coming up the stairs and got spooked off. Yeah, that sounds like what happened. Wild animals. It’s Colorado. Happens all the time. Thanks for your help, Bat. I’ll buy you a drink sometime.”
The sheriff waved to a pair of men who rode up to the house on a wagon. “Bishop and Sons, Undertakers” read the sign on the back. Ignored and dismissed, Bat tapped his cane against the sidewalk. He looked over his shoulder at the open front door.
In the foyer, Pop was rubbing his eyes. It was past his bedtime, Bat assumed. “One more question, Pop,” Bat said. “You said this Guthrie arrived yesterday. You don’t serve meals here. Where did this fellow go for supper last night?”
Pop thought for a moment. “He mentioned a place that served mutton stew and sourdough bread, down near Second.” Bat cocked his head to one side.
“That’ll be Bob Ford’s place,” Bat said. Pop nodded his head.
“That was my impression.”
Every establishment in Creede sold whiskey, but Bob Ford’s place also had a hot pot of coffee brewing around back. Sometimes he cooked up a pot of stew. It was a narrow shack a block from Main Street, an old storehouse held together with tar and spit. There were a handful of people lounging at the tables when Bat walked in. Bob was wiping down the bar.
“Hello, Bat,” Bob said. “How are things at the Exchange?”
“Getting by, Bob, getting by,” Bat said, resting against the bar. “You heard about that business over at Pop Brown’s place?”
“Heard somebody died, that’s all I know,” Bob said. “Who was it?”
“Feller named Guthrie. Pop had the impression he visited here last night.”
“Maybe,” Bob shrugged. “We had stew on the back stove last night, so a bunch of people came through.”
“This fellow had an old burn across his face,” Bat said, running his finger across his left cheek. “Might’ve been looking for someone.”
Bob nodded his head. “Found him, too. I remember now.” Bob leaned over and looked past Bat’s shoulder. “He sat with those two in the corner.”
Bat slowly turned, his eyes surveying the room. The walls of the tumbledown saloon buckled and strained against the high winds. Flickering kerosene lanterns began to sway from the forces all around.
“Wind’s picked up,” Bob observed. “Been getting worse since the sun went down. You ever see it like this before?”
Bat shook his head. “Excuse me for a minute, Bob.” Bat ambled across the room towards the two men in the corner, his cane tapping along the wooden plank floor. Bob nodded silently and went back to cleaning. The men were playing cards, and sitting as far apart as the table allowed, a dark bottle between them. Both looked up as Bat arrived.
“Evening, gentlemen,” said Bat with a smile. “Either of you fellows Mr. Woolman?”
The one with the hawk nose put his cards down. Bat noticed a slight bulge under one armpit of his coat. “Who wants to know?”
“Name’s Masterson,” Bat said. “I met up with an acquaintance of yours earlier this evening, a Mr. Guthrie. Who might you gents be?”
“He’s Dave Woolman,” said the other man, a shorter fellow, in stature. He wore a striped shirt. “I’m Eugene Shinn. Where is Pete? We been waiting on him.”
“I do not think he will be joining you tonight,” Bat said. “Are you fellows friends?”
“Business associates,” said Woolman, the taller of the two. Lamplight rolled across his face as the lamps swayed from the creaking walls. “We’re here to settle some accounts.”
“I see,” said Bat. “What kind of business?”
The two men exchanged a glance. “Investments,” Shinn, the shorter man said. “What’s your interest -— wait, Masterson? As in Bat Masterson, the lawman?” He laid his cards down on the table.
The one called Woolman sat upright and gave Bat a fierce look. “Now, now,” said Bat calmly, holding up his hand, “I’m not a lawman anymore. I run a saloon these days. But… I’m afraid I have some bad news. Your friend Mr. Guthrie is dead.”
The two men stared for a moment, then Woolman burst out laughing. “Well,” he said, pushing his chair out from the table, “one less thing to worry about.” He rose to leave and scooped up his hat. “Gentlemen,” he said with a bow, and left the establishment, brushing past Bob at the entrance. A gust of wind through the door blew out one of the kerosene lanterns, dimming the room.
Bat watched the tall man leave. “He certainly takes bad news well,” he said to himself. He turned to Shinn, who sat with a stunned expression. “Business associates, huh?” Bat pulled a chair over from the next table and sat down, placing his bowler hat next to the bottle.
Shinn nodded and reached for the bottle. “We had us a little enterprise going up north, back in ‘89. Found us a vein up on Huntsman Ridge. Figured we’d struck it rich.” He poured himself a stiff drink and knocked it back.
Bat thought for a moment. “That’s some pretty hairy country up that way,” he said. “How’d you boys find it?”
“We had us an Indian guide, name of Tall Shoes. He knew the mountains like nobody’s business,” Shinn said. They could hear the wind picking up outside. “We were so excited, we stayed up there longer than we should’ve. Winter came early and socked us in for months.” Bat leaned forward.
“Must have been tough up there, waiting for spring,” he said. “Guess you boys got to know each other pretty well.”
Shinn took a sip and nodded his head. “At first, but by the time the frost broke none of us could stand each other. We split our stake and headed our separate ways. We hadn’t seen each other for three years before last night.”
“You boys met up last night to …settle accounts?”
Shinn nodded. “Both me and Woolman have been lucky, but Pete didn’t do so well with his share. He wanted to meet up to …discuss options.”
“You mean to get money from you,” Bat interjected. “Guthrie spent his share, and he was looking to get some money from you gents?”
“I was willing to help a feller out,” Shinn insisted. “You know, to a point. Woolman didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Or me, for that matter.”
“But you boys all met up, anyway. What about this Indian Tall Shoes? Didn’t he get a share?” Bat asked. “I only ask because you said ‘the three of us.’”
Shinn shrugged his shoulders. “Tall Shoes… died. During the long winter. He—“ The howling wind suddenly got louder, and the frames of Bob’s place shook violently. The howl became a scream, and something struck the flimsy wall to Bat’s right. The boards creaked and shook as something struck from the outside. Glass crashed on the floor, and the remaining patrons scattered.
Shinn screamed and tripped over himself trying to get up. Bat stood and retreated as the howling reverberated through the flimsy building. Shinn was pushing himself backward across the floor when the thing smashed through the wooden boards and emerged into the room, taking a section of wall with it.
Bat gasped at the sight. It was a skull —- a human skull. It hovered in midair over the tables, borne on thin, leathery wings that slapped against the rafters as they flapped. A hideous moan filled the air and paralyzed Bat for a moment. Wind whipped through the room. The thing turned, searching the room with empty eye sockets. The teeth clacked together as the fleshless jaw opened and closed, chomping at the air. Shinn, hidden under the table, inched his way around the wall to the big break in the wall. Bat saw Shinn rise to his feet and make a leap for the tear just as the thing spotted him. Shinn screamed and disappeared into the hole. The skull thing let out another howl and sailed across the room disappearing into the darkness beyond.
The wind died down slightly. The howling stopped. “Good holy God!” Bat exclaimed.
Bob looked up from the bar. “The hell? Bat, what the hell was that?”
Bat hands leaned on the nearest table as he collected his thoughts. “There’s a story, among the Iroquois, the kind of story mothers tell their kids to scare them into going to bed…”
“A bedtime story?” Bob asked quietly.
“A monster story,” Bat replied. “About a demon head that flies around. It kills people, eating them as it goes, but it’s already dead, see? So it never gets full. It never stops.” Bat squinted, trying to remember. “Kanontsistonties… that’s what they’re called. They come from folks that did something terrible when they were alive, but they also come to get back at somebody that done them wrong.” He looked up at Bob. “To get revenge.”
“Revenge?” Bob said as he picked up a chair. “Revenge for what?”
Bat was searching for an answer when they both heard a gurgling scream out in the darkness. Hatless, Bat dropped his cane and hurried out the hole in the wall into the dark street. A crowd was already starting to gather at the next intersection. The stiff breeze blew through Bat’s hair as he came up to the body, spread out across the ground. Everyone’s clothes flapped in the wind like flags as Bat knelt next to the body.
It was Shinn, his head and one shoulder sitting at an angle next to the remains of his body. Blood pooled in the darkness. Someone ran up behind Bat. It was Deputy Plunkett. “Lord almighty, what happened here?” he gasped, out of breath.
“Another ‘animal attack’ for your boss,” Bat said, standing. A woman walking by gasped at the sight. A man ran past, ignoring the scene as he chased his hat. “Two down, one to go…”
“What?” said Plunkett. He grabbed at his own hat as it tried to blow away. When he got it back on his head and looked around, Bat was gone.
Dust was blowing in through the hole in Bob’s place when he looked up to see Bat coming in the entrance. “What’s going on, Bat?”
“There’s an accounting going on,” Bat replied, stepping behind the bar. “A settling of debts, though not what those three men had anticipated.” He opened the lid of a small trunk and closed it again.
“What are you looking for?” Bob asked.
“You have a gun?”
Bob pointed. “Second shelf down.” Bat found it in the dim, flickering light: a Smith & Wesson 44 caliber six-shooter. Bat checked the bullets in the cylinder.
“Bob,” he said suddenly, “This isn’t the gun you–?”
“No, no, no,” Bob said, shaking his head. “I sold that years ago. What did you mean an accounting?”
“That fellow Guthrie didn’t come here to arrange a loan,” Bat said. He checked the weapon’s weight and sights. “He was blackmailing those other two. Why else would they come all the way to the Pillars of Hercules to meet up with him? Guthrie knew something the others we willing to pay dearly for him to forget. I think the same unfinished business caught up with them all.” Bat shoved the gun in his coat pocket and started out the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Where this affair has to end,” Bat said, scooping up his hat. “The only place in town where a man with money like Woolman would spend the night: the Oriental.”
Soapy Smith had brought the finest Denver could provide when he built the Oriental. It was the jewel of Creede, the standard by which all other places in the bustling mining town were measured. The miners would work all week, get paid, and spend it on whiskey, gambling, and women, with all the profits going to Soapy. The lobby was loud and crowded when Bat walked in the front doors, still holding onto his bowler.
“Evening, Bat,” said the doorman, a squat fellow named Weed. “Some wind out there, huh?”
Bat nodded in agreement. “Is Soapy here?” he yelled over the loud music.
“Nope,” yelled Weed. “He’s in Denver this week, tending to some business. Something wrong?”
“I need to speak to one of your customers,” Bat said, and waved to Weed as he dove into the crowd.
Bat made his way to the hotel desk. “What room is Mr. Woolman staying in?”
The young clerk started to look it up, but an older man with a bushy mustache down the counter said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Woolman just checked out.”
Bat looked over his shoulder at the mass of people in the room. Did I miss him? He wondered. Bat pointed to the front entrance. “Did he go out the front?”
The older gentleman shook his head and nodded to his right. “Too crowded, sir. Gentleman said he was in a hurry. I recommended the service entrance.”
Bat went around a pair of corners and found himself in the kitchen, loud with sounds and thick with steam. Through the jumble of tables and racks, he spotted the rear exit. His sore hip banged against a counter as he hurried through the room. The dark, quiet alleyway was a stark departure from the bright, bustling kitchen. The wind whistled down the narrow passage. He could smell the stables across the alley from the Oriental. Bat’s eyes were adjusting to the darkness when a voice rang out.
“Do not move if you value your life.”
Bat blinked at the darkness. “It is precisely your life I value, Mr. Woolman.”
A figure appeared in the shadows. Woolman held a revolver in front of him. “You! What do you want?”
“Your friend, Mr. Shinn, is dead, sir,” said Bat. Candlelight from a second story window illuminated the alley in a ghostly haze. “Destroyed by forces, not of this earth. I believe those forces may be coming for you next.”
Woolman lowered the revolver. Bat could see a startled expression on his face. His coat tails flapped in the breeze. “Tall Shoes,” he breathed.
Bat took a cautious step forward. “What happened up on that ridge? Four went up, but only three came down. Did somebody get greedy?”
Woolman shook his head. “Nothing like that. Tall Shoes came to us. He knew about a rich vein but had no way of getting it out. He didn’t trust the mining companies. Figured they’d take everything. Once we started digging, there was plenty of gold for everyone. We were all going to be rich. Then the cold set in. Took us all by surprise.”
Bat was about to reply when a terrible howling filled the air. He reached for Woolman.
“We’ve got to get inside—“ he started, but then he saw it: the horrible skull, swooping down between the buildings on thin leathery wings. Woolman looked up and screamed.
There was no time for Bat to pull the gun from his pocket. He snatched the revolver from Woolman’s hand and managed to fire a wild shot before the thing knocked them both down as it swooped down the narrow lane.
Woolman was up first. Bat saw the skull circling over the end of the alley. “Into the stables!” he cried, pushing Woolman towards the alley gate. Woolman stumbled through the doorway and slipped on some scattered hay. Bat was right behind him. The howling got louder.
“By all that’s holy, what was that?” Woolman gasped.
Bat faced the doorway and walked backward, Woolman’s gun at ready. Two kerosene lanterns lit the barn in a hazy, amber glow. Bat felt a chill in the air. “Tall Shoes didn’t make it through the winter?”
“None of us were prepared for the snow. Avalanche took our pack horse and all our provisions. We had no choice. We were stuck up there for months. We had to survive,” Woolman said. He looked Bat in the eye. “A man will do the unthinkable when he’s hungry enough.”
Bat stared at the gaunt man. “You killed Tall Shoes. The three of you. You killed him, and then …you ate him?”
“We had no choice,” Woolman insisted. The man opened his mouth to speak but all sounds were drowned out by the cascading howl of the skull as it crashed through the stable gates, wings tucked in tight like a diving hawk. Wood splintered in all directions. Woolman fell back against one of the lanterns, knocking it to the floor.
Bat aimed and fired again, but the sights were off and the shot went wild. The ghastly thing flapped in the open space of the barn, hovering over the prone figure of Woolman. Behind him, the hay-packed floor erupted in flames and spread quickly to the walls of the barn, fed by the wind blowing in through the doorway.
“Aaaah!” screamed Woolman. “Get away from me!” Bat pulled the trigger again but the revolver jammed. Smoke filled the barn as the flames climbed to the rafters. The heat was intense. Bat tossed Woolman’s gun to the side and pulled Bob’s .44 from his coat pocket. Bat aimed and fired, the pistol booming over the moaning howl. The shot got the skull’s attention, and it turned to face Bat, the bony jaws snapping at the air.
Bat aimed to fire again when the rafters creaked, and the whole flaming roof came crashing down on top of them. Bat jumped out of the way as one of the beams came down next to him. Everywhere was smoke and flame, but ahead he could see the entrance to the corral. Bat crawled across the hay-scattered floor and made it outside, coughing and stunned. He stumbled across the corral, dodging screaming horses, and looked up to see the whole barn ablaze. Bat opened the gate to let the horses escape.
The wind blew even harder, and as Bat turned he saw the skull burst through the roof, rising over the town on flaming wings. It circled overhead and howled with anger as fire leapt from its wingtips to the surrounding rooftops. It turned once more before it dove back down, disappearing into the hellish conflagration. Bat rose to his feet. The howling stopped, and just as suddenly the wind died down.
The rest of the night was a blur for Bat. He helped carry water from the Rio Grande to fight the fires, but many of the downtown businesses were destroyed, including Soapy’s prize Oriental. Creede’s crown jewel burned so brightly it could be seen for miles. At sunrise, Bat picked his way through the rubble of the stable. He found what was left of Woolman, the man’s charred head not far away.
Cap Light found Bat sitting on a street corner a block from the ruined Oriental. “Christ, Bat,” Cap said. “Soapy’s gonna be pissed.”
Bat sighed. “Think your cousin will rebuild?”
Cap scratched the stubble on his chin. “He may cut his losses and move operations back to Denver. That’s where the money is. We might’ve lost the whole town last night if that wind didn’t die down when it did.”
“The wind got what it came for,” Bat said. “No more reason for it to stick around.”
Cap frowned. “Huh?”
Bat shook his head. “Never mind,” he said, standing up. “Denver. Maybe that’s the place to head. Like you said, that’s where the money is.”
“Hey, Bat, there you are!” Bob said, emerging from the smoky street. “I think you forgot this.”
Bat smiled as he retrieved his cane. “Much obliged,” Bat said. He handed over the .44. “And this is yours. Did your place get hit by the fire?”
Bob shrugged his shoulders. “It’ll take a while to clean up, but I’ve got a big tent I can put up in the meantime. I’ll be back up and running by tonight.”
Bat leaned on his cane. The remains of downtown were still smoldering around them. Cap walked down the street to survey the damage. Bob leaned closer to Bat. “It was that thing, wasn’t it? That skull thing? It got all three of those guys, didn’t it?” With a sigh, Bat slowly nodded.
“He kept saying they had no choice,” Bat said, stepping over some debris. “But they had a choice. Men have always got choices, for good or bad. It all comes down to finding the choices you can live with.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Bob said. Bat’s eyes wandered down the street, to the rolling hills south of town. The morning fog hung over the land, rising over the hills like thin, ghostly wings before dissipating in the clear morning light.
Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James, ran a saloon in Creede, Colorado, as did retired lawman Bat Masterson. On June 5, 1892, downtown Creede was gutted by a terrible fire. Two days later, Robert Ford was murdered by outlaw Edward O’Kelly.
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Next week be sure to catch Part 1 of “The Ipthian Crystal” by Jon Vassa. This story is a strange mix of pulp noir and fantasy. What happens when Humans discover gateways to other dimensions? What happens when a private dick has to traverse some of the most hostile of these dimensions looking for a very special artifact, known as the Ipthian Crystal? Believe me when I say, he ain’t in Kansas anymore. Question is, will he get back out alive? Read the exciting first part of this story next week!