by Owen Lean
“Yep. Had no problem punching folks… but them things he made me fight… well, I tell you Mister Essex, they weren’t natural.” Lewis “Grizzly” Evans stared off into the middle distance as he reiterated the reasons he was ‘retiring’ as a prize fighter.
“You don’t say?” I pretended to care, all the time keeping my eye on Jacc who I swear had been leading us round in circles for the past few hours.
“Yeah… all kinds of stuff, fangs, and claws, and extra heads, and barbed wire that came to life. That ain’t sport. No sir, not sport. And certainly not worth the piddly ghost rock offered.”
“And yet you beat them all?” Christine said, with a wry smile as she sniffed in the direction of his biceps.
“Yes Ma’am. But I knew I couldn’t carry on like that. Luckily that’s when I ran into Lady Evangeline.” The pugilist returned his gaze back towards my direction. “She’s a mighty gracious lady sir, and she clearly wanted to make sure you was safe.”
“Indeed,” I said more to myself than anyone. My Horse was pulling back, and I didn’t know if that meant we were heading into danger, or not heading there fast enough.
“And since no guns work in these lands, well – I like to think I’ll do you proud sir.”
“Yessum.” Jacc interjected before I could reassure the strongman, “Sounds like you was in them Agent run monster ceremonies.”
“I was?” The prizefighter said.
“Uh-huh. See that’s how they getcha. Train you up agin-em until youse are ready, then they make ya one of ‘em!”
“Golly.” Lewis looked shocked. “I never knew.”
“And then they send you again more people and the cycle just continues!”
“JACC!” I interrupted before he converted Lewis into another paranoid fool. “Are you sure we’re going in the right direction for this tunnel? I can’t help but feel we have gotten lost.”
“Oh, yeah Jonah. We already passed it a ways back. I’m just circling us rounds a bit to throw off the black autogyros.”
We all came to a halt at once. I stared at Jacc.
“We can’t be letting ourselves get tracked now cans we?” He said.
Christine growled at him.
“Err… maybe just make this the last circle then?” He said more timidly.
Then my horse stared at him, and staring into its equine eyes he gulped.
“Ok. It’s been enough circles.”Half an hour later we stood in front of a large metal door cut into the side of the trail. A strange padlock that I can only assume was once powered by ghost rock hung across a riveted latch. Whatever mechanism it once utilized had long since stopped working. Instead of having the good grace to just fall apart like every other contraption in these lands – it had shut firmly and clearly wasn’t moving for love nor money.
“I assume you have a plan to get us in?” I asked Jacc.
“Yessir, wese just gotta use enough dynamite to…”
“Yup! I gots some with me o’course”
“Except for the fact the stuff doesn’t work in the Sioux Territories.”
Jacc was silent. Then eventually said a simple “Oh.”
I hung my head in my hands. It was all I could do from not murdering the cretin outright.
“I ain’t the best.” Allie said, looking at the lock. “But surely there must be some ways to pick…”
She was cut off by an alternative solution swiftly presenting itself in the form of Lewis’ foot crashing into the metal and ripping it clean away from the long rusted hinges.
“Or that.” She said, “We could always do that.”
As the dust cleared, my horse moved forward and began trotting happily down into the tunnel, but everyone else’s steeds dug their hooves into the ground. I had to agree with them that the stench coming from the darkness was hardly inviting, but I was quite adamant that we were not going to be making a 250 mile trip underground without horses, and I was not letting my steed’s impeccable homing sense drag me off alone. I motioned to my posse to come and for want of a better phrase ‘not spare the horses.’
Christine of course, had little trouble in convincing her mount to obey her, along with her wolves who after a chorus of pitiful baying obeyed her growl and followed tails between legs. Jacc’s ran around in several circles before eventually Lewis, having already sent his horse in, dragged it behind him. Allie’s horse, on the other hand, refused to budge.
“We are goin’ in there. You hear me.” She said,
The horse didn’t reply
Again. The horse remained silent.
“Sonny, you don’t make a move this instant, I swear to gods I’m gonna ginger you.”
I’m not sure if the horse understood what she meant, or just the tone of voice was enough but it began to slowly plod in.
Normally when animals get that upset, there’s a harrowed fellow or an abomination just around the corner. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when all we encountered at the bottom of the maintenance access was a stash of torches and mining equipment. Along with a fairly sturdy looking pickaxe which Lewis happily picked up and strapped to his saddle.
“I got the impression you were more of a ‘hands on’ kind of chap.” Christine gave a cursory sniff and a flirtatious wink as she sidled closer to Lewis.
“Not sure I follow you ma’am,” said the fighter. “But I figure we might need a good tool down the line.”
“Quite right. I’m sure your ‘tool’ is fine indeed.”
“Thanks ma’am” he smiled. “It’s called a pick-ax.”
I stifled a chuckle at Christine’s frustration and instead did my best to let the horse take charge. It knew where it was going, and I knew I was very well only one big excision away from the curse resurfacing again. I’d best conserve my energy as much as I could.
The lack of light underground was insipid and somehow it became worse by night. The further we went into the tunnel the longer the shadows grew, and the closer the walls felt like they were closing down on us. Beneath our horses hooves the railway twisted unevenly, making the journey all the more treacherous as drops of water dripped from stalactites that couldn’t have possibly formed in the time this tunnel had been abandoned, yet threatened us all the time like so many damoclean blades, waiting to fall and end everybody.
Two days riding through the subterranean stench would have been enough to put anyone on edge. The reluctance of our horses and the constant jabbering from Jacc did help in that regard.
On the second night I awakened in the middle of a nightmare. Eight white horses ate at my flesh as Mr Baird looked on gleefully with hellfire burning in his eyes. Lucky for me that I came to my senses quick enough to realize the face in front of mine was Lewis and not my dream-tormentor before I lashed out. That would not have ended well for me. I’m quite sure Lewis is the kind who snaps necks first and then apologizes profusely later.
“Sorry to wake ya, sir. But it’s your turn at watch”
“Yes. Yes of course it is. Thank you Lewis. You may rest.”
“Thank you kindly.” He nodded and settled in, which left me alone in the darkness.
I took out my copy of Hoyle’s, hoping to make some progress in my study of it by torchlight. The wind down the tunnel rang in my ears and flickered the torch causing Shadows to dance across the book’s pages like so many demons clutching at my soul.
Doing my best to ignore the whistling wind screaming my name, I studied the diagrams of Racing Demon variations and tried to see the codes in the text. Dreamlike thoughts wavered through my mind. Conceptual images of places and things I didn’t recognise. An emaciated man holding a black diamond aloft in front of a sitting portal, a woman dying alone in a tent crying for her absent husband, an undead Indian brave riding atop a colossal rattler in a scorched world. When I regained my focus and looked up from the book, I was no longer in the tunnel.
The expensive hotel room in Laramie crashed into my consciousness so rapidly that for a moment I wondered if I had genuinely fallen asleep at the card table whilst posting against Lady Evangeline. But I’d been a guest at a manitou’s table enough times to know otherwise.
The hotel walls dripped slowly like paint applied over enthusiastically to a rough canvas. Outside the window, the streets were not filled with bustling pedestrians but damned souls silently screaming in suffering. The opponent sitting next to me may have taken the appearance of Lady Evangeline, but she wore an outfit generally reserved for the more expensive staff at a New Orleans cathouse.
I taunted the demon. “If that was supposed to be a distraction. Then you are clearly something of an amateur at this.”
“Oh Darling. Who’s to say I’m not just lulling you into false security?”
A deck of cards shimmering with a pale blue light materialized in her hands and she began deftly shuffling them.
Many young hucksters get consumed in the game, relying on their gambling skills to best their “Joker.” I learned a long time ago that the true advantage lies in focusing on what’s really happening. It’s a battle of wills. My mind against the manitou’s, with my soul as the stakes. The cards are just details.
“You don’t even know what we’re playing for, do you darling?” The demonic Evangeline cooed. An attempt to dislodge my resolve.
“You say that as if it’s a disadvantage, my dear.” I screwed my courage to the sticking place, as Lady MacBeth once advised and nonchalantly picked up my cards. It was, of course, a trash hand. One might accuse the manitou of cheating, but that was after all – the entire point of the game.
“You remember how to play triple draw, don’t you darling?”
“Remember?” I replied, “ I was raised on it.” I discarded the single Ace in my hand – ‘accidentally’ letting it fall face up and enjoying the slight confusion on her face. As I said, the cards don’t matter, getting moments like that from the manitou is the real game here. The queen of spades I drew that paired with the heart I had already proved my point.
She recovered herself quick enough and passed completely on the second round of drawing, staring me directly in the eye the whole time. I casually discarded and redrew my entire hand.
She tried to hide her tell, but I knew she was trying to figure out my plan. This was ideal. As far as I was concerned the game hadn’t even begun yet.
“You seem very sure of yourself, Darling.” She leaned over, trying to distract me by painfully obvious means. “Do you really think you have what it takes to win this?” She slid one card face up into the discard pile and took one. She grinned looking at it, feeling my tenacity falter for a second as I drew two cards and looked at the triple sevens I had ended up with. I could feel her soul battering at my will. As far as she considered, the game was over. I let her in as far as I could. Her hubris would make me her nemesis.
“Well.” I said. “Ladies first.”
She grinned triumphantly and laid down her hand. “Four Eights.”
And that was the moment I needed. That moment of victory made her vulnerable and I felt my will surge ahead to take the manitou by surprise. The gestalt of the card game represented this with a holdout shooting out my sleeve and exchanging the cards in my hands. Without her noticing of course.
“Four Jacks.” I said and revealed my winning hand. The false Evangeline scowled and the glamor faded away, revealing the creature’s true hideous visage. It screeched at me in meaningless anger and the world shattered like an hourglass – the sands of its false reality flying at me.
I found my consciousness returned to the present moment in the tunnel, as I had expected. This time though, something was different. The world had turned strangely grey, the sound of the wind held in a single hissing note, and then in front of me a single drop of water hung frozen in the air.
I reached out to touch the drop and at the precise moment my hand touched the water, time crashed back into existence.
Disappointing. But still, plenty of uses for such an interesting Hex I was sure.
“NO! Bill!” Allie woke up with a scream. Not one of us could escape the nightmares in this tunnel, it seemed.
“You ok there Allie?” I asked without turning around.
“I hate this goddam’ tunnel.” she said.
“I don’t blame you. Remind me why we listened to Jacc again?”
“Because you have days left before that curse starts again, and going on horseback across Indian Lands is a suicide mission.”
“That was… a reasonably good reason. Though I’m happy to report that there does seem to be very little in the way of actual horrors down here.”
“Until we meet that vampire train.”
“There isn’t a vampire train. It is physically impossible for a train to turn into a Vampire as Jacc said.”
“I don’t know… I’ve seen some pretty weird things out there. And there were these stories I heard about…”
I interrupted her with a sigh. “Well I’m sure if there is an undead train, Lewis will handle it. Maybe he can suplex it.”
We sat in silence for a moment, trying to ignore the shadows grasping at us in the torchlight.
“You really think we’ll find what we need in Deadwood?” Allie broke the silence.
“Well, every attempt I’ve made not to go there has failed.” I took a sip from my hip flask and offered it to Allie who gratefully accepted. “And this horse seems to know where it’s going.”
“Yeah, but that don’t fill me with confidence. For all we know it’s leading us right into a trap.”
“It’s a horse.” I said.
“It’s a freaky horse.”
Asif in response, my horse grunted in its sleep.
“Go back to sleep, Allie. You’ve had your shift already. I promise I will wake you if a vampire train appears.”
She nodded, and taking another, larger swig of my whisky settled down again.
An old poker opponent once warned me “Be careful, the light at the end of the tunnel might just be an oncoming train.” – and indeed when, the next day, we first saw the light that’s exactly what Jacc declared it was. I assured Lewis that we couldn’t be more than halfway through the journey before he raced off after him.
As the light grew closer the horses, including mine. became more reluctant to continue, which in retrospect should have made us more alert than it did. Dismounting and approaching it, however, we found Jacc almost dancing around jubilantly as he pointed at the bizarre Locomotive.
“Vampire Train! I told youse there was a Vampire Train! Didn’t I? Didn’t I tells y’all. And here ‘tis – A VAMPIRE TRAIN!”
The gas lamp hung loosely off the front of the train, swaying eerily in an almost perfect metronome fashion. As it swayed, it illuminated the wrought iron bumpers that curled in round the engine like a spider hugging its web. Painted directly above the lamp was a familiar logo of a white skull with black script writing above it.
“That’s a Bayou Vermilion train…” Christine said, backing off slightly as her wolves growled at it. “I thought you said this was a Wasatch line…”
Allie gulped and her eyes widened, looking at me with the panic of a thousand nightmares creeping into her eyes.
“I remember where I heard it now… Vampire trains…”
“What are you talking about?” I snapped. I confess the fear had got the better of my usual composure.
“I heard Marshal Callerman talk about it once. How she and her posse came across a Bayou Vermilion train on a Black River line…” Allie continued, staring straight ahead without a blink. “Then the whistle blew and they flooded out of it.”
“What?!” I demanded “What flooded out of it.”
“Noseferrets. As far as the eye can see.”
“You mean Nosferatu. It’s a kind of a vampire.” I don’t know why the pedantic need to correct someone’s grammar was what it took to regain my composure.
“Pssh.” Christine snorted. “Nosferatu are to vampires what Jacc is to civilized company!”
“Theys still vampires!” Jacc said gleefully, completely oblivious to the skittering that was coming from the carriages. “Whole train FULLA vampires! I’s right!” Then the dawning realization of what that meant for us must have finally sunk in on Jacc as his face grew pale before he declared. “Oh Prairie Sh..”
His curse was cut off by the train’s whistle blowing a shrill banshee wail.
“Run!” I tried to shout but the horses had already fled. I turned back in time to see a window smash and clawed hands grabbing Lewis around the ankles, yanking him screaming through the glass. I repeated my command but some kind of primal hatred had taken control of Christine as she began pulling the bloodsuckers out of the shadows and beating at them with her fists.
Allie had grabbed a piece of track that had come detached and was doing what she could to hold back the tide as waves of the undead began to swarm out of the train. I threw up a barrier in front of her and grabbed her arm.
“There are too many! We can’t hope to prevail,” I said.
“What about Grizzly! We can’t leave him there!” She cried, just as another window burst open and two of the blighters were thrown out onto the ground where they lay stunned.
“I think he’ll be ok,” I said as Christine thrust her hand into the chest of the one she was fighting and pulled its ichor coated heart clean out. It yelled and immediately vaporized into ashes.
“I ain’t one for the ladies,” Allie said, “But sometimes Christine…”
“LATER!” I insisted and threw a card into the sprawling mass of undead. A bright green explosion sent them flying and momentarily cleared a path for us. Jacc didn’t need to be given any hints and he charged off through the clearing with Allie and I in hot pursuit. As we did, another leapt down from the traintop towards me, but before it could connect, Allie’s rail collided with its head and sent it skittering to the floor.
“How the hells is the train even workin’?” Allie said as the whistle blew again. “Tech don’t work here, or are we so far down that…”
My brain leapt ahead and made some quick connections. “Jacc! Have you still got that Dynamite?”
“Put it under the train! Right here. And set up a fuse. We’ll hold them off.”
One thing Jacc didn’t ever need to be convinced of was a chance to blow things up and he set to work immediately as Allie and I stood in front of him giving Hell to the monstrosities as they emerged. Barriers and Bolts can only go so far though against a horde of undead. Especially ones that can only be slain if their heart is destroyed.
“Almost there!” Jacc yelled.
“Almost isn’t quick enough!” I shouted back as a clawed hand swung at my chest.
A roar and the Nosferatu fighting me was thrown aside as Christine and Lewis came barrelling through.
“Don’t mean to make demands.” Chrstine said, leaping onto another of the fiends and pummeling its face with her fists, “But I don’t suppose you have a plan?”
“Yes! Clear us a path!”
“Yes sir!” Lewis replied and went barreling ahead, trampling the creatures underfoot.
“OK! Lit! Everybody run!” Jacc shouted. Allie and I took the cue and with one last barrier to try and keep the advancing mass at bay we charged through the path that Lewis and Chrstine had made for us. Jacc came pounding behind us yelling in triumph. “I was right! Vampire train!
“Will you shut up!” I turned to cry at him only to be hit square in the face by a metal door as two Nosferatu reached out of the train and grabbed him by the neck. I tried to send a hex at them but instead I stumbled to the floor. I picked myself up just in time for my eyeline to be brought level with the fuse reaching the end. Instinctively I went for my cards and cast my new hex.
Time rapidly slowed, the color began to drain from the world. I saw the first of the sticks begin to explode just before everything went still. I picked myself up and looked into the door where Jacc had two creatures tearing at his flesh, his face contorted in a moment of frozen agony. I started to reach him and then stopped. Remembering the water drop.
If I tried to save him, I realized, time would restart… pathetically, I tipped my hat at his doomed image and ran from the explosion until I reached the rock the others had taken cover behind. Just as I dived over it, the hex ran out and the train was ripped asunder by the detonation.
Pieces of metal and undead creatures in the process of ashing flew over our heads, and the tunnel shuddered violently but held firm.
“Wasatch engineering” I muttered.
“Jacc?” Christine asked.
I simply shook my head.
“Y’know. It’s kinda how he would’ve wanted to go.” Allie said when the subject of Jacc’s demise came up two days later. We’d managed to get the horses back and were – we hoped – finally reaching the end of our subterranean voyage.
“Do you mean being proved right? Or being blown up?” Christine asked.
“Bitta both?” Allie replied. The whole atmosphere of the tunnel was becoming lighter, the air slightly more breathable, the shadows a little less long. I was almost starting to feel more hopeful, when the apparition appeared.
He melted out of the ceiling and floated at head height with charred skin and a masonic pendant seared into his chest. But even with half his face eaten away by the flames, I easily recognized him from our encounter in Cheyenne.
“Good day travelers.” Mayor Alfred Byrne spoke in a voice of smoke and embers.
“No.” I said simply and the cards in my hand began to glow, but before I could throw the hex at him he stopped me.
“Now now. No need for all of that. I’m only a messenger today. Bound into eternal service of my mistress.”
“Miss Perivale…” I whispered.
“She was very keen for it to be me who relayed her sincere apologies for the way in which you were treated in Cheyenne House. And in particular regrets the curse she gave you when you first met.”
“How very gracious of her” I replied through my teeth.
“She wishes to apologize in person and looks forward to your arrival in Deadwood. Where she will, of course, remove the curse.”
“Just out of the goodness of her heart?”
“Of course.” Byrne replied. “And that book you carry with you.” The grin that spread across his face would have been nauseating even without his entire left jaw on display.
“Well,” Allie chimed in .”You can go tell your mistress she’ll get her book when we stick it right up where the sun don’t shine.”
I raised my hand to stop her. Whatever anyone elses’ reservations, I was fond enough of remaining alive to at least consider the exchange. “Where shall we meet her?”
“Oh don’t worry about that.” He chuckled and indicated my ride. “Her horse knows the way.”
Allie caught my eye. “HER horse” she repeated at me.
The horse snorted in response.
I chose not to remind Allie who it was that brought the horse to me in the first place.
“Also… she wants to…” he paused as if listening, “Help you with… no! Damnation!!” He screamed in pain as his form inflated and burst, scattering the walls with ectoplasm.
Where the goo hit, eight ghostly miners emerged from the walls around us. Christine’s wolves growled but the spectral forms amiably tipped their helmets and bade us to lead the way.
“Much obliged fellas,” Lewis smiled. “Nice to meet someone friendly for a change.”
Those “Fellas” were perhaps somewhat too friendly, by which I mean they were taking full advantage of their return to the material world by chatting amongst themselves. Constantly. This was only added to by the fact one of them had a spectral Jack Russell that would not stop yapping, although Christine seemed to find it hysterical.
I was somewhat grateful therefore, when several hours later the tunnel finally began to slope upwards and we emerged into the moonlight of the abandoned Wasatch depot. It had been less than two years since it had shut down, but it had fallen into a state of disrepair that one might have expected with fifty years of erosion.
Rusted metal sheets hung loosely from the ceiling, dripping foul smelling water into the floor around us. Jagged bits of smashed machinery stuck out around us. Directly in our path rested the colossal ghost steel chimney of a decommissioned train laid prostrate on the ground, its opening contorted into a screaming oval with teeth of iron nails that had somehow got stuck in it.
Christine sniffed the air and looked at me. “Death,” she said.
And she was right, for underneath the piles of discarded machines lay pools of fetid flesh.
“Recent looters maybe. Caught under falling machines?” said Allie.
“Let’s just get out and not investigate,” I replied. Perivale’s horse clearly agreed, pushing onwards through the filth beneath us. Of course, our curiosity didn’t matter to the horror that awaited us.
The flesh pile began to bubble and shift, the machinery on top of it screeching to life and transforming as the loose metal from the ceiling tore itself away.
“Duck!” Christine yelled and pulled Lewis from his horse as a rusted sheet narrowly missed his head, before joining the other sheets to make a layer of steel armor surrounding the monstrosity that grew before us. The remnants of several zombified bodies became the glue that held the metal creation together. Five enormous railroad spikes clung together as a tentacled arm, while the chimney we’d noted earlier mounted itself on its monstrous shoulders and let out a roar of chorusing ghost rock screams, smoke pouring from the gaping maw.
This was a problem.
I looked at my friends, even Christine’s usual bloodlust was cowed by this abomination.
Thankfully, our Ghostly guard knew their time had come.
“Solidarity Forever!!” They cried, raising their weapons and charging towards it. I smiled to myself, it may be fearsome, but I didn’t think it had anything in its arsenal that could deal with phantoms.
Out of its chest a blob of flesh grew into an alternate limb with a strange cannon whirling. A large ball of blue energy grew inside it before launching out a beam that hit the Jack Russell’s owner. Its cry turned to a piercing whine as his form evaporated to be sucked into the creature’s chimney snout. A burst of blue fire shot through it and all its gears and pistols turned and fired harder.
I didn’t need to say anything. Everyone was of one mind. As Lewis leapt back on his horse we spurred ours on and galloped as fast as possible towards the open gate. Another blast vaporized another ghost ,but the miners kept up their barrage, their incorporeal forms somehow striking home and tearing chunks out of the rusted metal surrounding its rotten core.
We tried to avoid it and drove our horses to either side, Christine caught a glancing blow as a shotgun fired out of its hip, and flecks of blood flew from her shoulder. I could see her snarling, presumably trying to keep the beast inside her at bay. A yell came from behind her as Lewis hauled his pickaxe over her head, spinning in an arc until it hit the Glom’s tentacle of spikes, sending it flying off course just before it could impale Allie’s horse.
“Good tool.” I heard him say.
We smashed right through the flimsy bars that still remained on the depot’s gate and for a moment, I allowed myself to feel hopeful. Just as we reached the top of the hill, an explosion rocked the ground behind us and we looked to see the Glom soaring through the air towards us, two autogyro blades spinning at its back.
Cannon blasts fired after it and peppered the ground around us, sending chunks of earth flying.
“We ain’t gonna make it.” Allie yelled.
“Not in this direction.” Christine replied. And reared her horse on its hind legs before turning it around.
“WHAT ARE YOU…” I started, turning my head to watch as she bucked the horse into a leap before jumping off the horse herself. With a fearsome bark she transformed mid flight and crashed into the monster. I would have thought that in this form she was pure rage, but she clearly had some of her wits about her.
We all watched dumbfounded as the werewolf grabbed the autogyro parts and pointed them the other direction sending the creature, with her aboard flying back towards…
A smile grew on my face as I realized what she was doing, shotgun and cannon blasts fired from the thing again and again and then… clicked.
The autogyro blades stopped turning and flew apart, the gears and pistons stopped firing as the aura of the Sioux Nations overruled the technology that the Scrap Glom relied on. It fell apart as Christine crashed with it into the ground.
Silently I turned to the other two. Lewis stared blankly ahead, Allie just turned to me and said “You see what I mean… right?”
“She gonna be ok?” Lewis asked.
He was answered by a howl emerging from where she fell, as her werewolf form held the chimney aloft in triumph. The hills were filled with noise as hundreds of wolves from all around joined in the chorus.
“Yes,” I said. “I believe she will.” And turning my horse, began the descent towards the lights of Deadwood. I felt myself involuntarily coughing eight times for the first time since taking the tincture.
Winona Rein-Breaker had been right. My journey was going to end in Deadwood. One way or another.