Dead Man's Town

Last night at the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers Circle, we got to critter a horror western by Cameron Johnston, which reminded me of this story which appeared in issue 13 of "Dementia 13" and had a cracking full-page illustration by Kenny Earl.

DEAD MAN'S TOWN                    

BY IAN HUNTER                       

 

            "We are all cursed," were among the last words uttered by the Hapochee chief as he raised a trembling hand and pointed.

            "You are the most cursed of all." 

            ***

            McGrooter wasn't surprised to see a big saloon when he rode into town, although it was obviously that the glory days were over and no amount of paint would improve the appearance of the building. He had been in countless towns like this, all raised on the back of a wave of activity, in the mines or in the fields or forests, and then the activity stopped, suddenly, but the town didn't have the sense to notice, or maybe didn't want to know, and slowly it dwindled down and died.

            What was unusual were the three bodies swinging in the middle of the street, the middle one as fat as a judge. A big crow was perched on top of the corpse's bald head, trying to get a good enough hold to allow it to reach an eye, but the body kept turning, twisting on the end of the rope which bit deeper into the dark, diseased looking skin, and the crow was having no luck. McGrooter watched the bird for a while, thinking that it would be better to peck through the noose, and then feast at leisure. Hell, he felt tempted to draw and shoot the bodies down, but this wasn't his town, although it seemed mighty strange that the locals had let these bodies swing to the point where the air was kinda ripe and the flies were thrivin'.

            He didn't even think about tethering the roan to the post, but slipped off the saddle and dusted down his stiff legs. The canteen was almost empty, and he let the horse finish the water, while wiping his lips in anticipation of a cold beer inside.

            Not surprisingly "The Spinning Wheel" had been a gambling joint with tables laid out for roulette, blackjack and poker. Now the gamblers were gone, as restless as gunfighters trying to make their mark, and any marks left on the tables were long obscured by dust.

            Only the barman saw McGrooter enter.

            "You the marshall?"

            That made the gunslinger pause, then smile.

            "'Fraid not."

            "Pity," said the barman, uncorking some whiskey.

            "Got any cold beer?"

            "'Fraid not."

            "Figures."

            The barman snorted and shoved a glass across the counter, his fleshy hand jerked slightly at the sound of gunfire.

            Sounds like trouble for somebody," McGrooter muttered before downing the whiskey.

            The barman followed his example. "Trouble for the whole town, you mean. That's the sheriff's gun, probably shooting someone in the back."

            McGrooter's heart jumped, but he looked calm as he took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a dust sleeve.

            "Who's your sheriff?"

            "Jud Porter."

            "I've heard of him. Fair and honest."

            "Used to be. Now he's gone bad."

            Bad. That was another word to make his heart jump.

            "What happened?"

            The barman shrugged. "Who knows? This whole valley seems to be going crazy these days. Did you hear what those redskins got up to at the trappers' settlement?"

            McGrooter helped himself to the bottle. "Wasn't redskins, it was just one redskin, the meanest of the lot."

            With a grunt the barman pushed his belly away from the bar. "The hell you say. No savage could kill all those people."

            "I was there," the gunslinger said softly. "I know what I saw."

            The barman stared at him, measuring the truth in his eyes. "But one man? I mean all those folks were skinned or cooked. One man couldn't butcher an entire settlement."

            "He didn't, there was a little girl left alive, if that's what you want to call it."

            "I've heard stories," the barman whispered.

            McGrooter nodded and sniffed, and was surprised to find he was weeping. He gazed past the uncomfortable looking barman and into the large mirror that dominated the wall. He couldn't see his reflection, only smoke.

            "We are all cursed."

             The gunslinger licked his lips, fingers tightening around the little glass.

            "You are most cursed of all."

            Dammit, but it wasn't his fault, it wasn't.

            "This is our law, white man, our punishment."

            He just didn't know what he'd stumbled across, and tried to prevent.

            McGrooter slammed the glass down on the bar again and again, pounding until the mist in the mirror faded. When he looked up the barman's eyes were twisted with fear.

            "Have you heard of "The Warrior's Tracks"?"

            "No."

            "It's something the Indians do to their young braves. They cut their faces in such a way that the cuts never heal so that they bleed each time they laugh or cry or even smile. It's the mark of those who will be the fiercest warriors, the defenders of the totem. Except there's a little white girl over by the mountains with blonde hair and scars that weep when she weeps and believe me she's got good reason to."

            "Jesus," said the barman, shakily pouring himself another jolt. "At least they got the redskins that did it."

            "Ah, but they didn't."

            "I heard that - "

            "You heard wrong," McGrooter said firmly, and his hand snaked to the colt at the sound of more gunfire.

            "There goes the sheriff again."

            "Ain't you got a judge to take away his badge?"

            The barman pointed. "You passed the judge coming in. he's the one dangling in the middle."

            McGrooter licked his lips. "Well, I'd better do what I came here for, I suppose." He flicked some coins on to the counter and turned away.

            "I thought you weren't a marshall?"

            "I'm not."

            ***

            There were two bodies lying in the rutted street outside the jail which McGrooter noticed was made of stone, a fact that pained him greatly. If only he could have burned the jail down with the sheriff inside, and burn the thing inside the sheriff, that would have given him the first real satisfaction he'd had in months.

            One of the bodies in the street was still alive and trying to crawl. "Trick bastard," muttered the gunslinger, knowing that the gun shot was fatal, but the crawling man would entice others on to the street and into the range of the sheriff's gun.

            "Hey, in the jail."

            The dying man gasped and raised his head to look at McGrooter, sweat and dirt stained his face.

            "Come on out!"

            The dying man exhaled for the last time and his head thumped against the dried mud.

            Laughter came from the jail.

            McGrooter shuddered, cold fingers were dancing down his limbs, tugging at his fingers and toes.

            "Come on out!"

            "Why should I?"

            "To face me!"

            "Are you in a hurry to die, McGrooter?"

            Ah. McGrooter sighed. He was known by a man he had never met. Of course he was known.

            "Come out and kill me then!"

            Laughter chilled him again. "Not this time," was the reply.

            ***

            It took a night of persuading until the grizzled old shopkeeper agreed to part with the dynamite. You'll never sell it, McGrooter had argued. The mines were scraped clean, and the shopkeeper wasn't going to sell anything else while the sheriff shot down everyone in the streets. Even worse, Porter might get fed up taking pot shots out a window and go looking for trouble, unless someone dealt him first.

            Finally, after a mammoth sigh, the shopkeeper bent down and produced six sticks of sticky-looking dynamite.

            McGrooter grinned and said thank you.

            Then went off to find some boys.

            ***

            Hiring help was going to take all his money, but he needed a diversion, even if the street was in darkness. So he paid two boys to take two sticks each and wait until the agreed time.

            Then he started crawling.

            Bullets wouldn't do the trick, he had learned that back in Tombstone when he'd faced the last victim of the Hapochee medicine man. Six times he'd fired and it was like shooting water. Only the lantern had finished it that time, turning the possessed man into a writhing mass of fire.

            He flinched as the first stick of dynamite went off, closely followed by gunfire. Keep your head down, boys, he thought as he wriggled across the street, counting the seconds down in his head.

            Three.

            Two.

            One.

            The second stick of dynamite went off.

            McGrooter produced his knife and started digging. He had a whole made before the third explosion, and planted the first of his two sticks in the ground. Wait'll you see, he thought, some darn fool will come along with a wagon and set this off.

           The last of the boy's dynamite exploded. The diversion was over. McGrooter pushed his second stick into the ground, and turned. He was sweating. He fully expected to be shot in the back.

           ***

           Daylight revealed the damage to the jail. The back wall was destroyed, the cells were exposed, but the prisoners were long gone, released days before McGrooter rode into town.

           "Hey in the jail!"

           Silence, then: "Good morning, McGrooter."

           Had he really hoped the blasts had killed Porter?

           "Come out!"

           "Why?"

           "Because if you don't I'll blow up the rest of the jail!"

           "Go ahead!"

           "You'll die!" the gunslinger shouted, but his words were greeted with laughter.

           "Do you think so?" asked Porter.

           McGrooter swallowed. "No, but I thought you'd want to take a crack at me."

           And just when he thought his ruse had failed the door of the jail opened and Porter sauntered on to the street. McGrooter nodded to himself. He had never seen the sheriff before, but he recognised the grin and the gleam in the eyes that stared at him from too many other towns, too many other madmen, although there was really only one madman at work here.

            The gunslinger backed away.

            "Don't run McGrooter. I'll let you draw first."

            Porter advanced.

            The gunslinger's hand lingered by his side, his eyes stared at the sheriff's boots.

            Porter took another step, and another, then stopped when his foot struck something. He looked down.

            McGrooter drew and fired.

            The dynamite exploded. The blast severed both of the sheriff's legs. One of them landed so close to McGrooter that he almost shot it. He kept his colt out. Nothing human could have survived that blast, but he knew he wasn't dealing with anything human.

            The dust settled.

            McGrooter peered at the remains of Porter's torso. Something rose from the sheriff's chest, something distorted like a rippling reflection. It hovered in the air then raced towards McGrooter, slowing slightly to caress his face.

            The gunslinger jerked back, skin crawling, and the thing flitted out of town.

            People started to appear on the street. McGrooter put two fingers to his mouth and whistled.

            The barman ran up to him about the same time as the roan trotted around the corner.

            McGrooter holstered his gun. "Where does that road lead?"

            "To Yellowrock," the barman told him. "It's another mining town."

            "Well I guess that's where I'm heading," he said, climbing on his horse.

            "Hold on a minute," said the barman. "You can't just make a mess like this and then just leave. Who are you?"

             "Just someone who made a mistake once," said McGrooter, while tightening the reins, and slowly he picked his way around the pieces of the dead man and headed out of town.