I've been sitting on this one for a while. It's a western... sort of. And seeing as how it's just collecting dust, I figure here's as good a place to put it as anywhere else.
"Gonna have to give up that hogleg, you wanna get into Dry Gulch, mister," the boy says. He waves a sawed off coach gun almost twice his size at Burdette for emphasis. He can't be more than ten. Brave face, but his wide eyes tell Burdette he's nervous as all get out.
The boy's filthy. Covered in streaks of sweat and dirt or something less savory. Jesus wept, but he stinks like he's wallowed in pig shit.
"Son," Burdette says. "You see this?" He hitches himself in the saddle, moving just so to catch the morning sunlight on the tin star pinned to his duster. "That there means I'm a Federal Marshal. Now, you don't want that scattergun shoved up your ass and pokin' out through your teeth, you'll put it down and let me be."
"Son, really. That thing ain't even cocked."
The boy looks down. Burdette kicks out with one foot, knocking the coach gun up where it blows a hole in the sky, draws his own piece. Has it pressed against the boy's forehead before he can so much as look surprised.
"I think you can keep your gun. Sir," the boy says, sighting cross-eyed down Burdette's barrel from the wrong end. He drops the coach gun, carefully, to the ground.
"That's mighty nice of you. You know what that is? That's simpatico. You and me. Seeing each other. You get my meaning?"
"I'm just here to take folks' guns, sir. Return 'em when they leave. Don't mean no harm."
"I'm sure you don't. You got a name?"
"Garry. That's with two R's"
"Well, Garry With Two R's, you tell me where the Sheriff for this shit hole's at?"
"There ain't none. He died. 'Bout a month back."
"Of course he did. How'd he kick?"
Burdette looks past Garry at the boom town of Dry Gulch. Listens to the shudder of blasting rolling in from the mines. Even on the edge of the town he can feel the buzz of chaos. Tents, stacks of lumber, miners hoping to strike it rich on their own claims. Or hoping to steal from one of the larger ones.
Only a smattering of buildings. Saloon, of course. Whores strutting across the top balcony like rag dolls in a toy shop. Livery, general goods, assayer's office, handful of others. All sitting in mud and horse shit.
"In this paradise?" Burdette says, "I can't imagine why." He catches a whiff of bullshit that cuts through the stink of the town. More likely the man took a bullet in the back and anybody who could or would say anything decided the best course was to just keep their heads down.
"Well, then can you direct me to the jail? Man had to have some place to put all them miscreants what drove him to take his own life."
"End of town." Garry shrugs behind him. "I know the feller has the keys. Can get 'em for ya, if you like."
"There we are again," Burdette says. "Simpatico. I like you, Garry. Why don't you go get those keys for me. I'll be checkin' out the hotel. Think they might have rooms?"
"Oh, yes sir," Garry says. "My ma runs it. Best place in town." He doesn't move so much as an eyebrow. "Would ya mind, if it's not too much trouble, takin' your gun off me? Sir?"
"And such good manners, too." Burdette holsters the pistol, laughs to himself as Garry bolts into town.
"God, I hate this fuckin' job."
Burdette drops off his horse at the livery, heads to the hotel. Nicest building of the lot, and that's not saying much. The Edgewood Arms. Paint as fresh as you can keep it in a place like this, with the heavy rains one day, hot, scouring winds the next. Kind of place gets rode hard just by standing.
"Mornin'," he says to a plain faced woman behind the front desk. She's got that same dried out look he's seen in every mining town he's passed through. Tough the way a woman has to be tough out here.
"It is indeed, sir," she says. She smiles and Burdette realizes he's wrong. Tough she may be, but never plain. To see her smile, it's like watching the sun rise.
"You're new in town," she says after an awkward moment of Burdette's silence.
He shakes himself, says, "Yes, ma'am. Just in. Happened upon your son at the edge of town, as a matter of fact. Says you have the best rooms." He eyes the board with row upon row of keys.
She laughs. "Only rooms. So yes, I suppose he's right. You're in luck," she says. "We just happen to have a vacancy." She catches him looking at the key board. "Or two."
"Not much business?"
"It comes and goes. Miners get tents soon enough and as for visitors... Well, Dry Gulch isn’t exactly gay Paris." She sticks her hand out to him. "Abigail Kincaid. Owner and proprietor."
He shakes it. "What's the difference?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, Abigail, if I can call you that. I'm John Burdette. Passing through. Might be here a few days, though. You happen to have a room overlooking the street? I like to watch the traffic pass by."
"I have three." She tosses him a key. "Best room in the house. And no, you may not."
"I'm sorry?" John says, confused.
"Call me Abigail. Hate that name. You can call me Abby." That dazzling smile again, and he sees she has blue eyes that set off her dark features.
He returns it with one of his own. "Thank you, Abby. And you can call me John."
He leaves her to her work, glad for the first time in months that he came so far out west.
Burdette's thinking of a bath, maybe check out the whores in the saloon. Or just sleep. Long ride into town, weeks on the trail, he's tired and the room's bed is the first one he's seen in months.
There's a knock. Burdette opens the door to Garry, standing there in his shit covered dungarees, a short, gray haired man with a squint and a cigar alongside him.
"This here's Doc Haskell," Garry says. "He's the one what had the keys."
"You gonna invite us in, or you too good for common folk?" Haskell growls before Burdette can so much as say hello.
"You always this full of piss and vinegar?"
"Only when I can smell a gunfight on the wind. The boy here says you're a Marshal."
"I am. Just passing through."
Haskell pushes his way into the room. "Bullshit," he says, throwing a heavy ring of keys onto the bed. "Just passing through don't ask for the jailhouse keys."
"Obliged, Doctor," Burdette says. "But really, I am just passing through. If I can make a difference during my short stay here, though, I'd like to do what I can."
Haskell laughs. "Fine. Keep it to yourself. That's your business." He pulls a flask from his hip, takes a quick nip, tosses it to Burdette.
"Suppose you're going to want to know a little about this shithole?" Haskell says.
"I got a couple questions," Burdette says, taking a pull from the flask. He winces. Strong stuff.
"Don't drink too deep. Shit will make you go blind."
"I can believe that." His eyes water and he wipes the tears on the back of his hand.
"So, Dry Gulch. Mining town, as I'm sure you've guessed."
"That much I figured," Burdette says. "Heard the blasting all the way on the edge of town. You folks have somebody runs this place?"
"Oh, that'd be Mr. Dugan," Garry says. "He give me the job of collectin' guns. Don't want folks whoopin' it up and causin' trouble. More'n they do normal, at least."
"Dugan. Joey Dugan?"
"Yes, sir. You know him?"
Damn right he knows him. Only through the thick stack of charges against him, but it's just as good. Used to go by the name Joey Diablo, when he was out in Missouri. Dugan's the reason for this whole god-forsaken trip. At least he's finally caught up with the bastard.
"Only heard of him," he says. "In passing. But you say he's a big shot here?"
"He runs the saloon," Haskell says. "Owns the biggest silver stake in a hundred miles, too. Cavern with silver like it's plated on the walls, they're saying. Never seen it, though."
A wave of blasting tears across the town. "That would be them," Haskell says. "I hear they're breaking through into some new chamber today."
"Are they now?"
"Yes, sir," Garry says, clearly excited by the prospect. "Mr. Dugan done put Dry Gulch on the map. If you're gonna be stayin' long, you should check out his poker games and his girls. You a gambler, sir?"
Burdette thinks of the foolhardiness of being here. Of crossing hundreds of miles just for one man. How he could have died on the way. How he might die now.
Haskell gives him a look like he's reading his mind. "Yes, Garry" he says. "I'd say our friend here is quite the gambler."
The saloon has no name. No Golden Nugget. No Can Can Club. Just "Drink, Food - Cheap" painted on a slapped up chunk of board outside the door. In a place where the next closest whiskey is at least a hundred miles, Burdette figures that's the first of Dugan's lies he's seen today.
Burdette stands outside the swinging doors. Not sure how to proceed. Come this far, it's not like he's about to give up, but now that he's actually faced with action, he's not sure what that means. Aside from a bad sketch and a worse description, he doesn't even know what the man looks like. But he knows he's in there. Has to be. He owns the place.
The best course of action is to get the lay of the land, but not to tip his identity too soon. He pulls off his tin star, drops it in a pocket, steps through the doors.
Yellow light filters through bad glass. Makes the air look like smoke. He can smell morning coffee, sweat, dust. And cologne. By all accounts Dugan's a dandy, so that whiff's got to be coming off him.
Only a handful of folk, miners mostly. One at the piano plunking out a quiet tune, a couple hold overs from the night before, each with a bedraggled whore in bloomers and corset sitting in his lap.
The riffling of cards in the back and Burdette knows he's got him. Three men. Two hard and one so bright and clean and clever it can't be anyone but Dugan.
Burdette heads to the back, slides a chair near enough to watch, far enough to not join in.
"This here's a private game," the dandy says. Someone once described Dugan's voice as slick as wet ice on wet ice, and the flow of this man's words just adds confirmation. "But I'm sure if you wanted to place a wager, we could deal you in next hand."
"Obliged," Burdette says, pulling out a few coins. He waits for the game to finish. Five card stud. Pulls himself up to the table as Dugan deals with the smoothness of a machine.
Burdette's first hand is crap and he folds right away. His second is a pair of twos and he rides it out only to lose to a full boat of Aces and Sixes. He wins a hand here, loses a hand there. The whole time he's watching Dugan make small talk. Like he can't keep his mouth shut. A man talks like that, a dandy who keeps his shoes polished in a place like this, that's a man making up for something. He's got a weakness there, and if Burdette's going to bring him in without having to kill every goddamn jackass working for him, he's going to have to figure out what it is.
"You're a quiet one," Dugan says, six hands in. "And you have an interesting style of play."
"Do I now?" Burdette says.
"You do. I've been watching you watch me," he says. "Now that's unusual, don't you think?"
"Can't see why. Can't tell if a man's bluffing, you don't look at him."
"Oh, I agree," Dugan says. "One hundred percent. Only, you're not looking at anyone else."
That catches him. "That right?" Burdette's thrown a little, and he knows his pause telegraphs it louder than if he'd shouted it across town.
"It is. And you know what else?"
Burdette doesn't. He doesn't like where this is going, either.
Dugan shuffles, slides cards across the table. "You're playing less like you're looking to win, and more like you're looking to not lose. Which says to me that you're more interested in staying in the game as long as possible. And keep watching me."
Burdette shifts his weight a little to make his gun and Bowie knife a touch more accessible. He can see by Dugan's face that it hasn't gone unnoticed.
"I-" Burdette starts, but Dugan stops him with a raised finger.
"Gentlemen," he says. "I do believe I will fold. My cards are atrocious and as my father once said to me, don't go into a game if you haven't got shit to back you up." He places his cards on the table. "Sound advice, wouldn't you say, Marshal?"
Half a dozen pistols cock at Burdette's back.
"It is Marshal, isn't it?" Dugan says. "You've got the stink of the law on you."
"It is," Burdette says. "John Burdette. I ain't here for you."
"Oh, please," Dugan says. "You're very much here for me. I imagine it's the judge I shot in Missouri."
Burdette says nothing. Knows it's gone from bad to worse and can't see any way out of this that doesn't end with his being punched full of holes.
A gun pokes Burdette's back. He'd like to think he's had worse times, but can't come up with a one. He gets ready to kick the chair back, swing his arm over the gunman's and yank him down. Done right, he can have the man's pistol in a heartbeat.
He never gets the chance to make his move.
Another blast from the mine, louder and duller than the rest, rolls in like thunder. A low, threatening grumble he can feel in his feet.
And chaos blows across the room.
The ground lurches, throwing everyone to the floor. A gun goes off. Screams mix with the crashing and splintering of wood. Burdette hits the ground and rolls. Tries to stand, but the saloon's not cooperating. It bucks once, twice, a third time.
Then it all tilts like it's sliding down a hole.
Floors turn to walls. Chairs, tables, bottles all rain down around him, crashing with a sound like a train wreck. Burdette slides, scrabbling for a hand hold that isn't there, only to slam into the saloon's upended staircase.
The shock cracks the banister, but it holds. Barely. From the look of what's below him that's good enough.
Shattered furniture lies amid the pile of Dugan's men. A quivering hand peeks out from underneath the piano, blood mixing with dust and splinters. One man impaled on a table leg.
"The good lord himself must take a shine to you, Marshal," Dugan says above him. "Seein' as you're not dead and all." Dugan peers over the bar turned on its side, hair disheveled, a nasty bruise welling up on his cheek. Lucky for Burdette the bar was bolted to the floor or it would have flattened him sure. As it is, the wood's creaking like it could give at any moment.
Burdette coughs through the dust. "The Almighty lends us all a hand a time or two," he says. Though he's not sure this is necessarily one of them. He's got nowhere to go but down and it's a long drop.
"Be that as it may," Dugan says, "I don't think it would be prudent of me to let you simply hang out there all exposed as it were."
"If you got yourself a rope up there, I'd be mighty obliged."
"Not quite what I had in mind," Dugan says, producing a pistol and aiming it at the hapless Marshal.
Burdette goes for his own gun, but he's got to reach across with his left hand to do it and he knows he won't get to it in time.
It doesn't matter, anyway. The ground beneath the saloon gives one final, gut wrenching heave, throws the floor back from vertical to horizontal. Dugan's shot goes wild as he pitches into the air.
Burdette finds himself in flight, hurtling like he's been thrown from the mother of all broncos. Hits the fractured floorboards with a skull cracking thud, his vision spinning through all the colors before finally settling on black.
Burdette picks himself up from the warped floorboards, his bearings shifting this way and that. His head throbs, a large goose egg on the back of it. Cracked ribs burn in his chest when he breathes.
He looks around at the disaster. A dull, purple glow filters through the broken windows. But it's wrong for sunset. The color's too rich, too vibrant. And could he possibly have been out that long?
The saloon's ceiling, cocked at an angle that can't possibly hold it for long, creaks like a ship at sea. Reminds him of his danger.
He's never been in an earthquake before, and he'd like to not feel another one. He remembers hearing how they come in waves. One hits, then another and another. No time to dally.
He looks around for Dugan, finds him wrapped in the ropes of the wagon wheel chandelier, torn from its moorings and lying on its side. He's bruised and battered to hell, but breathing.
Pity. Dead would have been easier.
A quick look around and Burdette's not worried about Dugan's men. The smell of shit, blood and spilled hooch hangs heavy in the air. If they're not all dead, they're too broken to be a threat.
Burdette takes advantage of Dugan's unconsciousness and ties his hands together. Finds an unbroken bottle of something that smells like kerosene, takes a swig, pours the rest on Dugan's head. He comes to, sputtering.
"Joey Dugan," Burdette says. "You're under arrest for the murder of Judge Herbert Wilkins of Missouri, and I aim to bring you to justice."
Dugan looks around at the shattered remains of his saloon, the bodies of his men. "I was right," he says, spitting out a tooth. "The good Lord has taken a shine to you."
If this is the Almighty's idea of a shine, Burdette doesn't want to see Perdition.
It's not bad enough that the town is a wreck, buildings little more than sticks and rubble. No, it's the fact of where it is that has Burdette standing on the saloon's porch in shock.
The quake didn't just shake the town to pieces. It opened up the earth and sucked the whole place down.
Dry Gulch sits at the bottom of a cavern. The pit the town has fallen through only a thin line of sunlight too far above to reach.
Thick layers of moss line the walls and ceiling giving off the purple glow Burdette mistook for sunset.
"Like the walls were plated with silver," he says, remembering Garry's words.
Beside him Dugan stands equally awestruck. "Good lord," he says.
"Well, Mr. Dugan," Burdette says, "seems we have ourselves a bit of a pickle."
Dugan turns an incredulous look on him. "A pickle? Marshal, you certainly have a facility for understatement."
A cry for help reaches them. Burdette turns on Dugan, the tip of his Bowie knife at his throat.
"Would have been easier for me if you'd died. But since you ain't dead, you're gonna help me with these people. I've got no reason to kill you." He swipes at the ropes tying Dugan's hands, slicing clean through. "Don't give me one."
Dugan rubs his wrists, nods.
"All right, then," Burdette says. "Go do a good deed for once in your life."
Of the sixty or so people they find, less than two dozen still live. Abby, Garry and Doc Haskell among them, giving Burdette a bit of hope. Friends are few and far between in the world. Shame to lose them before they're made.
"We've got busted bones, a concussion or two," Haskell says. "Nothing too serious. Exceptin' the dead ones, of course."
"You're a bright ray of sunshine, Doc."
"Don't patronize me," Haskell says. He's sporting a goose egg of his own on his brow. "If these people can't move, they can't get out. No way we're going up the way we came down."
"My apologies, Doc. Like all of us, I'm feelin' a bit touchy."
Haskell waves it away, moves onto a woman nursing a broken arm.
"He's a good man," Abby says, coming up from behind Burdette. "Just a bit gruff."
"Good men often are."
He looks at the bodies dragged out and lined along the shattered street. Sheets, burlap, in some cases a broken board or two to cover them up. So many dead.
"We have to bury these folk."
Abby lays a gentle hand on his shoulder. "John," she says, looking toward the cavern walls. "They're already buried."
Her unspoken, "just like us," hangs in the air. She's right. There's nothing more they can do for them. They're gone.
"Then let's round everyone up," he says, "and figure out how to get out of this hole."
"I'm telling you, Marshal, your guess is as good as mine." Dugan sits on an upturned barrel, picking dirt from beneath his fingernails.
"You know these caverns better'n these folks," Burdette says. "This is part of your mine, ain't it? That cavern your boys were blasting into. Walls like they were plated with silver? That's this glowin' moss. It's your mine, you should know it."
"Do I honestly look like a miner? I've got foremen to do that. I've been underground a total of five times."
"Bullshit." Burdette's getting ready to beat some sense into him when one of the survivors limps up.
"He's tellin' the truth," the man says. "I used to work the mine, and Mr. Dugan ain't never stepped more'n a few feet inside." He cracks a toothless grin. "He got lost too."
"Then maybe you can help us. Know where the mine entrance is? If they blasted into this one, might be a hole we can get through."
He shakes his head. "I ain't never been this far in. I know it's roughly that way, though." He points into the distance.
"Well, let's get to walkin', then." Burdette pulls some rope. "Stick out your hands," he says to Dugan.
"I helped save these people."
"And they're mighty grateful, I'm sure. Now stick out your hands 'fore I cut 'em off."
Dugan does as he's told. "Best watch your back, Marshal. It gets awful dark down here."
Dugan isn't kidding. Burdette's tied everyone together to keep them from being separated, Dugan in front where he can keep an eye on him. They've got lanterns to supplement the glow, but when they hit a patch where the moss has disappeared the darkness swallows them up.
When they hit the cavern wall a half hour later, it doesn't take long to find a tunnel. Cramped, claustrophobic, but a path. Hopefully to freedom.
"Marshal?" comes a call from behind. "Marshal, I think I found somethin'." Burdette unties himself from the line, heads to the back.
The woman who called him points it out as he steps up. He doesn’t know how he missed it as he was walking past. A pickaxe head lies propped against the wall sitting in a pool of thick, black oil.
"This is a good sign, right?" the woman asks. "Miners been down this way."
He gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "It is. Means we're on the right path." He makes to pick up the axe head in hopes of returning it to the owner.
"No," the woman says. "Let me. You've got a lot to do up ahead, watchin' Mr. Dugan and all." Word has spread fast among the small group, and now everyone knows Dugan's crimes. Even should something happen to Burdette, they'll see he gets taken care of.
She picks up the pickaxe, Burdette thinking how kind, how nice a woman this is, to help out.
Just as everything explodes in a blur of motion. The black pool beneath the pickaxe rears itself up. A thick, viscous liquid reaching the cave roof. The woman screams, Burdette yells in surprise.
But it's nothing to the sound the oil makes. Like a baby shrieking, being torn apart and burned alive. It echoes off the walls.
Burdette goes for his pistol, but it's blindingly fast. It swoops down on the hapless woman, engulfs her face in its thick, black jets, muffles her screaming.
She tears at it. With every touch it sticks. And wherever it hits, her skin begins to melt. Fingers liquefy to bone. Muscles fray into bloody threads. Her bowels let go and the smell of shit, blood and a stink like kerosene flashes through the air.
She falls, thrashing like she's being struck by lightning over and over again. In the overturned lantern light, he can see blood running out from beneath the black goo on her face. He thinks it's his imagination. Hopes it is. As the woman's skull collapses on itself, the thing gets bigger.
All of this in the blink of an eye.
Burdette cuts the rope holding her to the rest of the group, slaps at the next man in line, screams at him to for god's sake run. Everything a blur, everything panic and pandemonium.
She whips back and forth, legs and arms flailing. He can hear her muffled screams through the black mass eating her face, her hands, crawling up her arms. He wants to help, but God help him, he's afraid to touch her.
He begs forgiveness, puts a bullet in her head. Runs like a coward.
The lantern lights ahead bounce and weave. He can hear the panicked screaming of the herd. No one sure what's happened, only knowing they have to run.
He slows as he catches up with them. The unearthly screeching behind them has faded.
"What in the hell was that?" Haskell says amid a din of questions. "And where the hell is Nancy?"
Now Burdette has a name to put to her. Wishes he didn't.
"She's dead. We’ve gotta keep—"
The creature's shriek cuts him off, ripping through the dark passageway.
Another joins it. And another. The sounds blurring into a mad melody. The keening echoes surround them.
Burdette catches a flash of glistening black in the light, draws and fires, his bullets ripping through it like it was nothing. His holes merely seal back up as it spreads across the ceiling at lightning speed, crawling and sliding like water.
A tendril shoots from the darkness. Knocks flat a man at the end of the rope, engulfs his chest. He screams, skin melting off his bones.
Another drops from the ceiling to cling to a woman next to him. But instead of simply feasting on her, it sends a tendril for the line, travels along like fire.
"Cut the rope," Burdette yells. He saws away at a length, jumps back as the oil comes too close, moves up the line. Everyone's trying to untie themselves, mad in their desperation to get away. Panic runs through the group faster than the killing oil.
The ones who cut loose bolt like spooked cattle. Each running off into god only knows what direction. Burdette runs, too. Grabbing whoever he can, herding them along past the screams.
There's nothing he can do for them but pray and run.
Five left. Burdette, Dugan, Haskell, Abby and a shaking and nearly comatose Garry. The boy who stood up to him earlier that morning is gone. Nothing but a shell rocking back and forth.
They ran. For how long Burdette couldn't say. Lost almost twenty people to those things. Didn't stop until they'd found a new cavern with more of that glowing moss on the walls.
"Any idea what those things were?" Dugan asks. Burdette's untied him. No one should have to go the way those people went. Not even Dugan.
"Ain't never seen anything like 'em," Burdette says. "Doc?"
Haskell glares at him. "The hell should I know? I saw less than you did."
"They're the devil," Garry says, his voice barely a whisper. "They're the devil and they come to kill us for our sins."
"Hush, boy," Abby says, smooths his hair, rocks him to and fro. "Ain't no devils here. We're gonna get ourselves to sunlight soon." She looks at Burdette, eyes pleading. "Ain't that right, Marshal?"
"We will," he says. "Promise." He puts a hand on Garry's shoulder who flinches at the touch.
"That's a fine sentiment, Marshal," Dugan says, "but that doesn't change the fact that we still don't know where we're going."
"We're headed the right path." He tells them about the pickaxe the woman found right before that creature jumped her.
"Anyone seen anything else like that? Signs of miners?" They shake their heads.
"I wasn't exactly looking," Haskell says. A long moment of silence follows.
"All right," Burdette says, finally. "We been here long enough. Need to get moving before those things catch our scent."
"Seems kind of odd they'd lose interest, doesn’t it, Marshal?" Dugan asks.
"That's 'cause they're enjoyin' their meals," says a voice from the darkness.
Burdette's gun is in his hand before the sentence is done.
"Come on out," he says. "I don't want to have to shoot ya." Only one bullet left after all.
A burly, soot covered man steps out, a pick gripped hard in his hand. A nasty gash runs across his forehead and his eyes have the lazy tilt of concussion. "You'd be doin' me a favor," he says. "Beat getting' et by them blob monsters."
"No doubt," Haskell says, hurrying over to look at the man and waving the Marshal back. "But seein' as you're still alive, it'd be a shame to waste the bullets." He leads the man to a wide rock to sit.
Haskell looks over the miner, raising his lantern to see better. He grunts at each laceration he finds. "What's your name, son?"
"Leon Franks. You're the doctor in town." His eyes seem to search for the name, as though he can pull it out of the air. "Haskell?"
"That's right. You got yourself a nasty bump here, Leon."
"I was runnin'. Those things they— They got everyone else. I think. Melted 'em. I was headin' back to the entrance." He stands abruptly, eyes wild. "The dynamite. We gotta set it off."
"Whoa there, son," Burdette says, his voice soothing, like he's talking down a frightened horse. "We're safe. For the moment. You want to tell us what happened?"
Leon calms a bit, panic still sitting in his eyes. "We blew into this cavern this mornin'," he says. "Went in to clear the rubble. Got in deep. Deeper than we've ever been. And then..."
"And then?" Burdette asks.
"Then them things came oozin' after us. Leapin' from the shadows. Hundreds of 'em. We panicked and ran, back the way we come. When we got back to the entrance there weren't much of the crew left. But the foreman, he made us come back. To set the charges. Gonna blow the mine closed. Seal it back up."
Burdette steals a glance back at Dugan, who seems to take the thought of his mine closed forever in stride.
"These charges already set?" he asks.
"Yes sir," Leon says. "On a rock bridge over the cavern. Was about to set it off when them things jumped us. I fell and hit my head."
"Think you could lead us back the way out?" Burdette says.
Leon shrugs. "Maybe. Maybe not. I'm a little turned around. But I can give it a shot."
A shrieking howl cuts through the cavern, echoes against the walls.
"Better than nothin'," Burdette says, pushing Leon ahead of him. "Best we get a move on."
An hour later they come to a chamber the size and shape of a roundhouse, the whole place lit from a thick covering of the glowing fungus. Tunnels stretch off from the room. So many directions, Burdette loses count.
Leon looks at each tunnel in turn, his brow furrowing deeper with every one.
"I don't know which to take" he says.
"That's all right," Burdette says. "Take your time. It'll come to ya." He steps away, gives Leon some room.
"This is a problem," Dugan says.
"That's awful helpful," Burdette says. "Got any other insights you'd like to share?"
"I mean it. He's our only hope out of this hole and he's more addled than my syphilitic grandmother."
"You got another idea?"
"As a matter of fact I do." He looks around, leans in. Says something Burdette can't hear.
Burdette moves in closer. "The hell you whisperin' for? Come again?"
"I said, 'I kill you and leave the lot of you to rot.'" Dugan's hands are fast. He snakes Burdette's pistol from his holster, whips it across the Marshal's face. The metal hits bone with a loud crack, knocking Burdette to the ground.
Burdette's vision swims. Wetness pools beneath his head where he's struck the hard stone floor. One knock too many. He sees Dugan standing blurrily over him. Aiming the pistol.
His vision goes dark and he fades into unconsciousness. But not before he hears the gun go off.
Burdette comes to with a hot pain in his skull. He remembers Dugan and the pistol, checks himself for holes.
"You're fine," Haskell says nearby. "Glass jawed sonofabitch." He gives a low groan. "Dammit, woman. I'm gutshot, not made out of goddamn china. Just prop me up, already."
Abby pulls Haskell up against a stalagmite, blood flowing from a wound in his stomach. She's desperately trying to staunch the flow. Not making much progress.
Burdette stands, dizzy. No idea Dugan packed such a punch. "What the hell happened?"
"The doctor fouled Dugan's aim," Abby says. "So he turned the pistol on him instead. You're lucky he didn't finish you up, too."
Luck indeed. His final bullet and Dugan used it on the doctor.
Haskell waves a hand. "Bastard went down one of them tunnels. I don't know which one. Took our guide, too."
The hole in Haskell's stomach is bad. He's pale and clammy. "Can you walk?" Burdette asks.
Haskell gives him a look that answers more than his question. Abby catches it, too.
"No," she says. "We are not leaving you down here. Not— not with those things crawling around."
An ear splitting shriek cuts through the cavern. At first Burdette thinks it's the black oil beasts again, reaches for his gun only to remember it's not there.
But it's not the monsters. It's Garry. Been staring at that pool of blood spreading out through Doc Haskell's waistcoat for too long and he's finally gone round the bend.
Abby runs to him, scoops him into her arms. Tells him to shush. But it's too late.
His cries are answered down one dark tunnel. The sound casting out like it's hunting for them. Then the others join in. Two, three, half a dozen tunnels resonate with the sound. The ungodly chorus of a thousand mad pipers.
"Looks like the decision's been made for us," Haskell says. He tries to pull himself up, but his legs barely twitch. The sweat breaking on his forehead shows the burden, though he gives no voice to the pain.
"I'll carry you," Burdette says, reaching for him.
Haskell waves him off. "You'll never make it with an old fart like me round your neck. Get them two out of here. Save them. And save yourself."
"Go, goddammit. They're coming."
He's right. The cries are getting louder. And the floor is shaking like a dry creek before a flash flood.
Burdette pushes Abby toward an empty tunnel, Garry still shrieking in her arms.
"I'm sorry, Doc." He grabs one of the last two lanterns. Seems wrong somehow to leave the old man without a flame.
"You're wastin' breath, dammit," Haskell says. "Now git."
Burdette speeds after Abby, pauses inside the tunnel to give Haskell a final silent prayer.
And sees the walls across the cave burst in a wave of black oil. The individual slicks rear up, flow in and out of each other. They pool around the doctor, circling like a pack of coyotes at wounded cattle.
"Yeah?" Haskell shouts. "You want me? Well, I ain't so goddamn easy you rat whore cock holsters." He picks up his lantern and hurls it deep into the morass. The lantern shatters, throwing up flames. "Burn you sonsabitches. Burn."
They do. Flames spread through the black sea. Pieces break into individual pools, protecting the whole. But it's not enough. Where the flames lick at the glowing fungus it ignites like it's been soaked in kerosene.
Within moments the room is an inferno. Burdette runs from the flames, the sweet stink of burning flesh, enflamed oil, the monsters' dying shrieks.
But it's Haskell's screams that follow him.
They must be getting close. For a while the tunnels were full of smoke and the stink of burning oil, but now Burdette can smell fresh air wafting in from down the tunnel.
And none too soon. Any illusions he suffered that the monsters were killed by Haskell's last stand have been wiped clean. Echoes of their distant cries came down the tunnel not fifteen minutes ago.
"John," Abby says, stopping in front of him. She shifts Garry in her arms. He's worn himself out. Snoring on her shoulder.
Burdette follows her gaze. It's a positive sign to be sure, but a harrowing one nonetheless.
The tunnel widens into a larger chamber with a natural stone arch above it. In the middle, a pile of helmets, pick heads and lamps. On closer look Burdette sees that it's littered with belt buckles, hob nails, all of the metal a man might carry with him.
"Them things can't eat metal?" Abby asks.
Burdette picks up a discarded pistol, checks its chambers. Three bullets left. The wooden grips scoured clean from the frame. "I reckon not," he says, holsters the piece.
Burdette looks up at the stone arch in the middle of the room. In the distance he can see the mine proper. Crossbeams hold up the roof, tracks line the floor. "This must be where they got ambushed," he says.
"Them explosives up there, you think?"
"One way to find out," Burdette says. He climbs up a steep ramp of stone. The rock is slick and with the lantern he's only got the one hand to use. Takes him longer than he'd like, but he finally gets high enough to set the lantern atop the bridge. Hauls himself up.
And comes face to face with a gun barrel.
"Was wondering when you were going to make an appearance, Marshal," Dugan says. "Come on up." He stands aside to make room amid a pile of dynamite and wiring. Cans of kerosene litter the bridge. A reel of wire hooks the whole shebang to a plunger.
Burette can see that Dugan's found more ammunition. The bullets from his gun gleam in the lantern light.
"I was figurin' you'd be dead," Burdette says.
"Close to," Dugan says. "Them blob monsters came at Leon and I a ways back. Sad to say our poor guide didn't quite make it. They were just too fast for him."
"With a little help from your six gun, I take it."
"Well, you know how that old joke goes. I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you."
"You're not stupid, Dugan. What are you waitin' here for? Why didn't you just blow this cave in and get gone?"
"Because I have faith in your tenacity. You're resourceful. And charmed. You'd get out of here, just come at me again. Figured I'd wait a spell in the dark, see if my faith in you is misplaced."
Burdette laughs. "Bullshit. You just want to gloat. Can't do that if'n I'm dead, can ya?"
"John?" Abby calls from below. "What's goin' on up there?"
"Why hello there, Miss Abby," Dugan says, flashing Burdette an ugly look. "The Marshal and I are just having a chat. Why don't you and your boy head on out the tunnel? Entrance is just up yonder. I've got no quarrel with you."
"Go on, Abby," Burdette says. "Dugan and I got some unfinished business."
A long silence from below then, "I'm sorry, John," she says, her voice quiet. Her footsteps fade as she runs to freedom.
So close only to be stopped by this ragweed sonofabitch. Burdette's held his rage in check, but the smirk on the bastard's face is too much. He steels himself to draw. Knows he'll be dead before he even clears leather.
Then he feels it. Barely. A low thrumming in the ground. That flash flood warning running oh so quietly up his legs.
"So what now?" he says. Stall for time. "This where we draw off paces and shoot each other down?" He edges a foot closer to the lantern flickering in the dark. The flames rattle just a bit
Now it's Dugan's turn to laugh. "Marshal, I've had the drop on you three times. And every time the good lord has seen fit to pull you from my grasp. So what makes you think I'm going to give you a fighting chance?"
"So it's just gloat and shoot, is it?"
"Seemed like the prudent course. Now if you'll stand still a moment we can—."
The trembling spikes, slamming the cavern with its force. And finally Burdette understands. There was never any earthquake. It was them. It had always been them.
And with that thought down the tunnel they come.
They dance in and out of each other, flow and ebb like the sea. The kerosene stink strong as they fill the tunnel. They search, sniff out their prey. And as they catch its scent they begin to wail.
The shaking throws Dugan to his knees and he fires. Though the shot goes wide it's not wide enough. Hot pain plows through Burdette's left shoulder, but he ignores it. He doesn't have the time.
With his good hand he scoops the lantern up, flings it dead center at Dugan's face. The glass shatters, dousing him in burning oil. He screams as he erupts into a brilliant torch.
Burdette kicks him over the side, his shrieks mixing with the seething morass below. A moment of silence, a pregnant pause.
The cave turns into hell.
The burning creatures flow back the way they came, desperate to get away from Dugan's flaming body. He flails, throws more fire onto them as he bobs and rolls across the wave. He's stopped screaming. Whether because he's dead or the black oil has just filled his lungs Burdette's not sure.
A clear spot opens up beneath the bridge. Burdette grabs the plunger, the reel of wire and leaps down into it, mere feet from the inferno. As if sensing their prey is escaping them, the creatures flow into the emptiness, chasing after him even as they burn.
Daylight ahead. The sound of his boots on hard rock, the keening of the creatures behind him. Twenty feet, thirty. Wire playing out behind him, the spool getting thinner.
How close is too close? How far is far enough?
He gives the reel another couple spins, says fuck it, pops the plunger.
The blast is a light so bright, it might as well be heaven.
"That's all the supplies," Abby says, hauling a tarp over the buckboard. "You sure you don't want to give it a few more days? This ain't gonna be a comfortable trip."
Burdette sits in the wagon, Garry pressed up against him for support. Abby's set his bones best she could, but he'll probably always have a limp, and it's debatable he'll ever regain use of his shoulder. The rest of his injuries will heal in time. He's had broken bones before. Nothing that time won't mend.
Except his left eye. Those don't grow back.
"Ain't gonna be any more comfortable a fortnight from now much less a day. I'd feel better gettin' as far as we can as soon as we can."
She nods. They've been camped out the better part of a week. Burdette's been mostly useless. Hobbling a bit here and there, getting yelled at when Abby sees him trying to lift supplies scavenged from the mine site.
Abby pulled him from the wreckage. Rock and dust, timber and rail. No sign of Dugan. Or of anyone else for that matter. From the look of things everyone came to help when Dugan's mine collapsed. And none of them made it back out.
"We'll go tomorrow," Abby says. "Rest up another day."
"No," Burdette says forcefully. He breathes deep for control. "No," he says again, more gentle this time. "We need to get on the road."
She hitches herself into the wagon, cracks the reins to get the horses going. They'll be on the road for days. But at least they won't be here.
And maybe when he sleeps he'll stop hearing that mad shrieking coming for him under the ground.