~ a short story
Back firmly against the fraying wood below the sill, Leonardo spun the chamber of his revolver with a snarl. Before him, inside their rustic tomb, his colleagues screamed and fired and died behind the bar.
He cried out to them, trying desperately to drown out the unearthly sounds sourcing from outside,
“Fire until every barrel is dry! We can’t let them through the threshold! We can’t let them take this world too!”
The hellfire from their iron deathdealers spit into the moonlit night from out of every orifice of Lovelorn’s Saloon. Some of the shadows went down under their hail. More came on.
The faint sprites of hope that Leo held to at the start of their finale were starting to snuff. The stench of blood, much of it his own, threatened to blur his mind into missing. He shook it off, steeling his hardened nerves, and raised himself again to the exposure of the cold night to fire at his mark.
His last mark?
No, he grumbled to himself. This can’t be it!
“Marty, Lazlo, focus fire on those black wings! We can’t let them have another run at us! Victor, keep up your rifle on those cloaks in the rear. They’ve got the range on us, and they aren’t stopping until you alone put them down!”
Leo kept his sights blasting on the mewling masses of slime, coming ever closer from the furthest sands, their calls resounding in the night…
As Leo looked out onto the battlefield massacre of the burning night, the lurching shadows of tenebrous teeth and amplifying appendage as nothing out of the grizzled bounty hunter’s worst nightmares endlessly beckoning the chambers of their last stand, he reflected without dread or fear. If this was the end, then so be it…
It had all started only a few days before.
No way I figured this job would end up here, in the ninth circle…
Leo sat astride his steed at the edge of town. Behind him, the others watched the community beckon their morning into a rustle.
“Doesn’t look very disturbed to me,” said Lazlo at his back. His horse neighed and resettled. Leo felt a tremor in his own girl, Namira. Doesn’t look it. But … Something is out here. They rested there in the billowing dust of the plains, where the frontier creeped onward to something called manifest.
“Things ain’t always what they seem, Laz. I can feel something comin’ on,” barked Marty.
“This far west of civ. Exactly the type a place a man on the run would hide, you askin’ me,” Victor said.
“Nobody was,” said Lazlo.
“Maybe you shoulda,” returned Vic.
“Enough,” Leo settled in the tone of de factor lead, which he wasn’t. They’d come together for their own collective benefit, and wealth. Mercenaries working together. Harder jobs taken, and less risk in their undertaking. And riding with the boys long enough, Leo found the role comfortable. Least rash of the bunch. But not by much.
Leo spit into the sand below their spurs. “We go down to investigate. Show our numbers. Ask around. Flash the notices. Try to spook ’em out.”
“Sounds good with me,” said Marty. The others grunted their assent.
“Dead or alive, boys,” Leonard reminded, spurring his girl to a trot. “Dead or alive.”
Dead, Leo marked then and there. Not taking any chances. Namira reluctantly cooed under his direction unto the town in the canyon below. Dead.
The sheriff bristled at his approach. Leo raised a hand to indicate their harmlessness, to him.
“We come here on a job. Not lookin’ to start any trouble.”
“All those guns pointin’ me to a different conclusion, sir,” said the sheriff. He was a large man. Youngish, wore his hat firmly gripped upon his head. Long hair spilled out from the back of it. Trust lay nowhere in his eyes. Sees us nothing more than ruffians.
Leo showed him the slip. ‘Wanted: Howard Phillips.’ The sketched face of a middle-aged male weakling frowned back at the lawman.
Leo spoke with sternness, the tone of a professional: calm and undisturbed. “We have reason to believe this fellow may be hiding out here. Or, recently passed through. Have you seen him?”
“I haven’t,” returned the sheriff immediately. Leo narrowed his eyes. Barely looked at him a moment. Thought ‘bout it for even less.
“Hey Leo, look at this guy!” Lazlo shouted to him from just outside the saloon. The boy half-stepped through the swinging doors. Leo tipped his hat to the sheriff and walked outside.
Lazlo pointed out to the thoroughfare of the town. There, walked a man in a stupor. Old but able, he stumbled in a zigzag motion through the dirt of that lane, dodging horses and the occasional carriage. He mumbled and others avoided him. Leo looked closer, he was suntanned, nearly red with exposure. He wore no hat and seemed always on the verge of a fall.
The sheriff was just behind him then, watching the strange man too.
“That’s our town cryer,” he said simply.
“You jest,” Leo said, glancing back.
“What’s he saying,” said Victor, who rocked in a chair on the porch to the side of the group.
“No one knows but him,” said the sheriff. Leo marked his expression. Utterly serious, unmoving. That of a professional.
“Defeats the purpose of a cryer, don’t it?” chuckled Lazlo.
“You let drunkards wander the thoroughfare like that,” Marty asked, returning from inside the saloon with a drink.
“Ain’t hurtin’ nobody,” said the sheriff, practically in a whisper, as he retreated inside, leaving them.
With head cocked, Leo stepped out into the thoroughfare. In his hand, he held the flapping parchment of the ‘Wanted’ notice.
“Excuse me, feller, could I uh… ask you a question?”
The man stumbled to and fro, Leo struggled to stay by his side. His head was down. The poncho he wore was shredded and falling apart. He left a small trail of its tatters in the thoroughfare behind him. Leo noticed that in spite of the mud and muck of the well-traveled dirt, the man’s steps were light and left no markings there.
“Pal-” Leo finally grabbed him to stop his tottering. His arm trembled, it was nothing but bone under his garment. Goose flesh prickled on the back of Leo’s neck.
Stopped, the man flashed his head up and Leo stared into his face.
Into the holes in his head where his eyes used to me, nothing stared back. Blood trickled from those sockets, and Leo stifled a scream. He let him go and the man kept going forward, then fell to his left, then caught himself and turned back right in a perfect gather.
“What happened to his eyes…” Leo mumbled to himself. He shook his head and angled his glance for another look at the man’s face. But he didn’t try hard.
Away now and hunched, Leo was surprised to hear the man’s response, coherent. And chilling.
“Where we are going … we won’t need eyes…”
Leo stumbled back to the others. Loosed from his grasp, the wanted poster drifted on the summer wind.
Been too long without sleep is all. Too long.
Leo awoke from a scream in the night. The four of his crew decided to shack up in Lovelorn’s, the town saloon and centerpiece. They’d stay at least another night as they continued their hunt. He rubbed his eyes. Nothing arose from the other beds. Strange. Leo rose up and grabbed his gun belt on the way to the door. Another scream resounded from below. Leo quickened his pace. Outside, the few other rooms’ doors were closed. He didn’t know if they were occupied or not. The sound came from below, at the bar. The scream of a woman. It came on again. Leo was running now, bare feet slapping against the steps and revolver out of the holster.
At the ground floor, the room was empty of patrons. Only the barmaid could be seen, lit by the slow burning lantern behind the bar. She trembled and pointed to the entryway. The small doors still swung. Leo rushed to her.
“It … It took him,” the woman whimpered.
“Who did?” Leo asked, eyes scanning.
“But … but he … let it…”
“Who? Who was taken?”
Leo checked her for any injuries. Then, he ran around the bar, gun leading the way. On the wood panelling was a trail. It led to the swinging doors, which swung no longer. Leo bent down to inspect. The ‘trail’ was a made up of a kind of translucent liquid. He ran his finger across its surface. Sticky. A slime. It led the way and Leo followed it. He rushed outside and scanned from horizon to horizon of the small establishment. The night was quiet. There was no movement, no people. Above in the cloudless sky was a crescent moon. Leo struggled to see in the dark. The trail of slime led to the center of the thoroughfare, where it abruptly ended. Leo ran to its end. There, as if cut with a blade, was a line in the sand where it halted. A chill wind dusted the sand there a moment while Leo tried to work it out.
Stranger than strange.
When Leo returned to the room, the other three were all up. Lazlo paced and Marty was breathing hard, anxiously. Victor was sweating, head in his hands in the corner.
“Boys, what the hell is goin’ on?” Leo asked with hesitance.
They all looked up to him. Lazlo breathed a sigh of relief. Marty stared expressionless. Victor didn’t look up at all.
“Thank the lord, boss. We gotta talk. Something is wrong. Way wrong,” Lazlo ran his mouth.
“I don’t … remember why we are here,” Lazlo enunciated the words with arms raised.
“And them two… Marty doesn’t remember me.”
Leo watched him. Marty shrugged and shook his head without recognition in his eyes.
“And him,” Lazlo waved his hand in the direction of Victor. “I don’t think he can talk at all…”
Leo held his breath. He put a hand on Marty’s shoulder and nodded to him, feigning command.
“We’re gonna get this figured out. I promise, boys.”
Leo looked to all three of them, and scratched his head. He felt a wetness. When he held his hand up to the lantern, he saw crimson. Blood. No pain. Only the blood.
Stranger and stranger yet.
Leo hunched over the bar and tried to wash away the confusion with liquid fire. Behind the bar was an extended mirror. Looking into it, Leo watched Marty sleep in the corner, surrounded by bottles of his own. Where was the barmaid? Did it matter anymore? Was anyone left in town at all? How many unexplained disappearances had there been in the last three sunsets? How many deaths? Leo had stopped asking questions days ago. And he’d started drinking. Again. Demons long past due were roosting once more in his heart and soul, and liver. Victor was asleep back in the room. Lazlo was still ‘investigating’ about town. The fool…
What had the barmaid said yesterday morning? It was happening ‘again.’ They were coming for this place ’too.’ She was so familiar with the plague of strange things, and just when they needed her to answer most, she’s gone. No specifics, no resolution to quell whatever it was that was coming. Convenient. And Philips, nowhere to be found. Might that ratfuck have something to do with all this? No doubt in my mind… Leo took another swig and groaned. He stared into his own eyes in the reflection across from him.
I erred in leading us here. To succumb to false trails and chaos and disease and a silly little town in its death throes. I erred in venturing out with these young men at all. At the edge of the west, I have led them to their tomb…
The doors of the Lovelorn swung wide. Lazlo’s voice, frantic but quite coherent came at him. “Leo, something’s happenin’ out here. Something big!”
Instantly, Leo slammed the empty glass and swung his body into action. He ran outside, stumbling from his buzz, trusty gun in hand.
Marty didn’t have to point it out. The midnight sky was red. Silence permeated the whole of the town. It was in a stillness that thumped Leo’s heart with anxiety.
Da dum. Da dum. DA DUM.
It took a moment for the mercenary gunslinger whose name preceded him all the way from Deadwood to Silver City to notice that the incessant beating, rising in volume and weight, was not coming from out of his own chest. The thooming beat surfaced from all around them. Scanning the sky for its source to no avail, Lazlo took two steps back onto the porch of the saloon, nearly tripping himself. The more the beat resounded, the more accurately Leo believed he could place it. Instinctively, he turned around, to stare into the sky above the saloon’s rooftop. In the sky where the moon might be was instead a hole. A roil of light and smoke and pulsing, electrifying crimson, spiraling and spiraling. It magnified and widened and brightened. As he stared into it, Leo found himself unable to look away. He began to cry. The sounds of marching circled them in the night. Lazlo saw him and grabbed him, pulling him inside.
“We need to block the doors and windows… I’ll go wake up Victor!” Lazlo said frantically, though Leo barely heard him. Just inside the swinging doors, the maddening thoom ceased. In the clarity, Leo touched his cheeks where the tears were still streaming. Crimson. Footsteps slammed up the stairs, then receded away.
Despair washed onto him. He dropped to his knees, revolver fell from his hand in a clatter. On the verge of redoubling his weep, Leo was awoken by another cry in the night. Feral, beastly, otherworldly. It was followed by multitudes, each more inscrutable and unimaginable than the last. Each worse. A crack of lightning and the sound of rain outside were summoned next.
Leo’s lazy gaze fell to the far side of the room, where Marty lay amidst his boozing debauchery. But now his head was up. His eyes were bright and seemingly attentive.
“What are we gonna do, man?” He hiccuped and his head fell back down onto the table with a slam. The bottles clanked and shattered.
A simple question. One he’d heard before… The question of men to their commander. A question he’d asked his general. At Ashford. In the Charge at Bell’s Fort. During the Last stand at Cimmerian’s. Not so true then.
Leo took a deep breath and his eyes fell back to his revolver, its handle bloodied with his own strange tears.
And not so different now…
Outside, the rain poured down harder and the roars in the night drew nearer.
“We fight,” Leo said sternly unto the still silence of the saloon’s interior. He looked at his red palms, dripping onto the wood.
“What?” Marty’s head shot back up. Lazlo and Victor returned to the bottom floor, rifles and ammunition in hand. Leo snatched his gun from the ground and began to issue commands.
Once in position upon the four quadrants of the saloon’s portals into the strange darkness, weapons at the ready, Leo issued to his fellows one last reminder,
“No matter what you see, no matter how dark it gets, or how bloody … Keep fuckin’ shootin’!”
Those four gunners screamed into the night, firing and firing into the ever approaching void. They loosed their earthly infernos into the unearthly mounds shambling toward that final stronghold of Man in the small frontier settlement. In the end, they went for as long as their bullets could be loaded into those chambers. They hollered and pulled their triggers for a long time. ~
“Daddy, what is … ‘Shootout at the … Shoggoth Saloon’?”
The father of the young boy stowed his phone and looked at where he pointed. Above the hotel’s counter hung a long and rounding panoptic painting. It depicted a collection of cowboy gunslingers, battered and weary and with mouths wide. They bled. One could see with clarity the fear and pain in their eyes. The artist did an incredible job with the detail, the layering to every object and body, and the conveyance of motion and of struggle… They made a last stand in a ramshackle saloon, nearly crumbling itself from time. Or from the effects of this singular war. Against? The man looked. Beyond its confines and on the other side of the burning barrels at which the gunfighters pointed, at the edges of the painting’s canvas, emerging from darkness were …
The father screamed and dropped his bags. And he kept screaming, until hotel staff arrived to try and calm him. The boy’s eyes kept staring though. Into that darkness, and into a hole in the sky above the saloon, where the moon should’ve been. The boy smiled as the screaming continued and then receded. ~
~ adapted from a dream