I have some news.
The next Dead West book is only weeks away! In celebration, you get a sneak peek at the cover for Hallows of Decay, as well as its opening chapters. I could begin to gush about how hard this book was to write and how proud of it I am. I could talk about all the amazing people who helped make it work when I was certain it just wouldn't.
This is also your reminder that West of Pale and Bond of Blood's ebooks are still on sale for $0.99!
But I know you guys are excited about the chapters, so without further ado...
Horn, Nickel, and Silver
Safety and trust are such rare commodities in our business. Back then I was so naive, willing to believe anybody, but there were things on the horizon that would sorely temper my credulity. On that picturesque summer day there was no doubt in my mind the peace and calm I felt would last forever.
The sky was the kind of blue you see on fine silk dresses, with little shining pearls of clouds sewn sparsely across the heavens’ bosom. It was late in the summer now, and we were in the high country. The air was the pleasant, toasty warm of a swallow of smooth bourbon. Grasshoppers played their fiddles, hidden by the knee-high grass on either side of the trail, and the world smelled like a fruitful summer.
Even Samuel, my mentor, was in a good mood. He rode beside me instead of ahead of me, streaming a thin banner of spicy smelling smoke from the long, thin cigar he favored. He would chew on the cigar’s end, whistle to himself, and mutter encouragement to his nameless horse.
“Alright, kid. Difference between a goblin and a kobold.”
I was apprenticed to Samuel to learn the harsh ways of monster hunting. During long rides like this, the game would go on for hours. Without turning an eye on me, he would tell me to put my books away, for I was always in the habit of reading in the saddle, and would begin to quiz me on our trade. It had been this way ever since we’d fallen into this arrangement in 1871.
I answered without hesitation. “Same thing. Goblin is derived from the same root word as kobold. It is just that they are named different things in different countries, like how our horses would be caballos in Mexico.”
He lifted a brow, giving me the side eye. “Didn’t ask for a grammar lesson.”
My cheeks heated. “Sorry.”
Shaking his head, Samuel chuckled. “Daniel should have been the one to find you, not me. Ok, smart guy, how can you tell a kobold or goblin from a kobalos.”
“Kobalos are from Greece, aren’t they? Do you think we’ll run into them?”
“And Nix are German, mummies are Egyptian, rougarou are French. But here we are. Kobalos and kobolds, kid.”
I sighed. He was right, of course. He was always right. Casting back in my mind, I rummaged around until I finally found the answer. “Kobolds have a darker, forest green hide. Kobalos’ hides are mottled gray and white to match the coastal rocks they favor as hiding places. Kobolds are pot-bellied, while Kobalos are scrawny. Also, kobalos can have as many as three irises in a single eyeball.”
“But like as not, you won’t stop and say, ‘gosh, that monster sure has a lot of eye-holes, don’t he?’ when it’s bearing down on you.”
“Well, no…” My cheeks heated again, and I hunched my shoulders.
“You did good, kid. You’re soaking up those books like a rag soaks up water. New question: What do you do in case of danger?”
“Besides shoot at it?” My mouth twisted a wry smile. Every time Samuel quizzed me he finished with this question. “I meet you at the place we talked about.”
“We meet at the place we talked about,” he agreed. “Go to ground in the hiding place. Failing that, get to a town.”
At length the trail connected to a broader road. It ran alongside a flashing stream of water a good thirty or forty feet wide, but perhaps only four feet deep in the middle. Its banks were flush with green grasses and short trees. The water had an almost emerald quality when it caught the sunlight just so. The Green River. Which meant we were nearing our next stop.
Buttes—immense rock teeth, banded in red and gold—gnawed at the horizon. Resting at base of their slopes, only a few miles off now, was the town which shared the river’s name.
“So, we turn north when we reach Green River, is that right?”
“After a stop for supplies,” he said.
“What do you suppose they meant when they said Silverton ‘vanished off the map?’”
A month past, we sat at a table in a little Kansas saloon, drinking to a hard-won victory with two other of Samuel’s brothers of the Charlotte Knights. The undying train robber Barker Raleigh’s reign of blood and fear had been brought to its grisly conclusion. Through a questionable deal with a duke of Hell, we had discovered the means of ending his unearthly boon and laying him in the ground forever.
As we raised a toast to the fallen we were approached by two men in neat black suits—Mr. Heywood and Mr. Lodge, gentlemen claiming to represent a government agency called the Culper Ring. They claimed to have been following the Knights for some time, displaying a remarkable depth of information regarding our work and travel. Then they diffused the tension by offering to pay us for work we were already doing…with the stipulation that they would occasionally direct us toward situations that needed handling.
They provided us each with contracts for work, then as a measure of good faith they granted us a bounty for the already-dead Barker Raleigh. Ours involved an upstart mining town, Silverton, somewhere in Yellowstone country. Word was, the town had mysteriously vanished. Anyone who went looking for it, likewise, disappeared.
That was three weeks back, late in the summer of 1872, and I was fourteen years old and living in the saddle. We traveled by train and on horseback; stopping only briefly to listen to rumors, pick up supplies, and once to rescue an honest-to-god unicorn from a traveling circus. I pulled a little notebook from the pocket inside my jacket. Daniel Garner, another Charlotte Knight had given it to me. He had advised me to keep notes on everything I observed regarding a job. Flipping past dozens of pages about Raleigh and his gang, I settled on the scant two pages I had regarding our current job. Most of it was conjecture or rumor. Indians, bears, one man said everyone packed it in and looked for other claims.
“Hell if I know,” Samuel said. “Maybe it really was just Indians.”
Sensing his tension, his horse picked up pace. To keep up I nudged my ash-hued quarter horse, Dasher, up to speed with him. I bit my lip. I almost worried about asking the next question again.
“Do you think those two Culper men were honest?”
“Their money was honest enough,” he said. “And that brand of honesty’s kept both of us in ammunition and grub for the last few weeks.”
“They just know so much about us. We know almost nothing about them.”
“I’d wager Daniel and Franklin are working on that, even as we talk. Franklin’s pals in Washington could more than like tell him a thing or two.”
A chill ran up my spine just remembering the gaze of those two. Misters Hayward and Lodge. Something about the look of them made me feel uneasy, even six months after our meeting in Hays.
Green River was drawing closer now. The detail of its wood houses and false-fronted stores began to stand out. A rill of traffic flowed along the trail as the morning wore on. Men, shady and honest alike, rode horses or drove wagons into town. Farmers hauled carts, either full of goods to sell or empty in anticipation of bought sundries. The most interesting of our fellow travelers to my eye was a man, younger than Samuel, in a smart suit driving a garish yellow wagon, the side of which proclaimed:
DOCTOR QUILLBURN’S MIRACLE PANACEA
Conquer Cholera ~ Bushwhack Buboes ~ War upon Wasting!
I waved my hat to the man, presumably Dr. Quillburn as we rode around him. He gave a friendly tip of his bowler, and I turned beaming to Samuel. He scowled in the direction of town, saying nothing.
“What?” I asked.
“Those men are a menace, is all.”
I sank a little, and we rode in silence until we reached town.
Weeks past any decent sized community, Green River delighted me. Wives gossiped over laundry while children dashed around horses and chased hoops. Cowboys, cattlemen, and gun fighters shared the dirt packed streets, eyeballing enemies and saluting friends. Most of the buildings were new-built and freshly painted, and many of the stores and restaurants even had glass windows.
Samuel took us along the main drag, eyeing dry goods stores, general stores, and tailors. This was his ritual whenever we entered town. Samuel would ride up and down the street sizing up each of the shops until he found the right place to spend his gold: a place poor enough to haggle a good price, but not so hard-up as to carry bad goods or try to cheat a man.
We moved past regal false fronts with freshly painted scrollwork signs, and past mean little canvas-flap operations where the proprietors sweated at their work under a dry Wyoming summer.
As we rode through Green River’s streets, we came upon a small crowd gathered around an old Conestoga wagon. A man in a shiny stovepipe hat stood before it, shilling whiskey bottles filled with something inky black and viscous.
“Cures a sore throat! Deadens pain! Seals over bullet wounds! Why it will even reverse God’s curse upon Eve and ease your childbirth!” He righteously pointed a bottle at a pregnant woman sweating through her bonnet.
“Plague of locusts,” Samuel muttered.
At last Samuel reined his horse up in front of a simple one-story building with a glass in the windows and the door.
Paint in the window declared Walton’s General Store — fairest shake this side of the Missisipi! If Samuel noticed the misspelled sign, he said nothing of it. We hitched the horses at a post outside the plank walk running this side of the street. Thick road mud sucked at my boots as I scrambled for the safety of the planks. He was already through the door while I still scraped mud off my boot soles against the planks.
Hurrying the process along, I started to scoot for the door. As I mud-slid past the window a sliver of sunlight snagged on something in the window. Within there was a wide array of goods displayed for sale. Fine hats, men’s jewelry, boxes of tobacco. None of that mattered a whit next to the centerpiece of the display—a fine nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 3 with ivory colored horn grips. My eyes widened over the way the daylight danced over its mirrored surface.
That was a professional’s gun. That was a gunfighter’s gun. In my mind I saw Hickok’s famous duel in Springfield. In Hickok’s place I stood with the S&W at my hip. Across from me stood Barker Raleigh, the once-immortal bandit king I had watched Samuel slay only a month before. In my imagination we drew, but I was a hair faster.
My hands were lightning incarnate. Invisible lead shot the gun from Raleigh’s hand, cracked the buckle from his belt, dropping his britches, and split the cigar in his lips.
“Kid, you coming in here or what?”
I jerked, startled out of my reverie. Beaming at him, I pointed at the Smith & Wesson. “Sam, get a look at this.”
He stepped out of the doorway and settled in beside me. After a moment’s pause he said, “That’s a dandy’s smoke wagon. A revolver’s for killin’ a man, not preening yourself. It don’t have to be pretty, it just has to shoot straight.”
“But we came here to get another pistol for me, didn’t we? Tom Bonehill or Wild Bill would love to have this.”
“You just named two of the most insufferable self-indulged men I ever met.” He looked down at me, his brows knitting together and I stared back up at him.
“Come on, Sam.”
He sighed and looked away, feigning staring out at the street. “Fine. It’s your money anyway.”
“Thank you!” Before he could walk away I hugged him.
Samuel grunted, his face paling. For a moment he squirmed, and finally he patted me on the shoulder. “It’s fine. You’re welcome kid. Just make sure you have enough left over for new clothes. I swear you’re growing faster than a weed.”
It was my money, after all.
Some time later I walked out again with Samuel, helping to carry the supplies for the trail—coffee, hard tack, jerky, a little bit of salt, and as many boxes of ammunition as we could afford.
We resumed packing up. After I found room for my new clothes among the books of lore, the jars of dark substances, and bundles of rare dried herbs, I took the holster containing the S&W and donned it with a gentle reverence. The weight of it felt safe, even as its stopping power sent a worm of unease in my heart.
“S’that look for?” Samuel asked as he glanced at me over the saddle of his horse.
I looked up from tying the end of the holster to my leg. “It’s beautiful. It feels good to wear a gun again…”
In my head I saw the man lying in the mud. “What if I have to kill a man again? It’s not like shooting monsters.”
“Life happens when we ain’t looking. Best you can do is hang on to that discomfort with killing. It’s best that way.” He finished cinching the bags on the packhorse. He gave me another glance-over. “Look, kid. A man who enjoys killing should be afraid for his soul. You don’t have that in you. Once you reconcile that with the need to not get shot your own self, you’ll be all right.”
I nodded, absently rubbing at my hands. Samuel climbed into his saddle and I followed suit. No more was said on the subject. The weight was reassuring, and it was a very fine six-gun.
We took a wide road leading north and started up. I eyed a passing cafe and another lunch counter, but I knew better than to ask.
Samuel would say, “I’ve a mind we chew up the miles ‘tween us and Silverton than sit and stay.” So it would likely be biscuits and jerky eaten in the saddle and washed down from my canteen.
I was so caught up in my visions of a hot lunch, I didn’t notice the crowd until Samuel drew to a stop beside me.
“Huh?” I looked up, coming back to the world around me. A crowd was gathering at the behest of a man calling out to them. The crowd pulsed and throbbed with interest over it as he held aloft an amber glass bottle. I glanced at Samuel. He rolled his eyes and leaned an elbow on the horn of his saddle.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Use your eyes.” He gestured, reins still in his hands, at the man.
The fellow with the bottle stood on a crate. Welldressed in a dark suit with a bowler hat. Something about his sharp, patrician face tugged at my recollection. And then I realized Samuel was gesturing to the garish wagon behind him.
“Doctor Quillburn’s,” I said. “That’s the man from the road.”
“And now he’s the man in the road.”
“Yes, that’s right!” Doctor Quillburn called from his perch. “This is my patent-pending, easy-does-it, once-a-day, miracle Panacea! The Panacea can cure a cold, mangle the mumps, and—unfortunately for jealous lovers—stop strychnine in its tracks.”
The crowd clamored, oohed, and awed in tune to the man’s jig. He continued to prattle off a list of diseases and conditions it could either alleviate or outright cure, including but not limited to measles, rubella, warts, heat exhaustion, and melancholy. Samuel chuckled at that one.
“Wonder if some of those hammerheads even know what melancholy is.”
A fellow who had been shading in the overhang of a hotel’s porch stepped off the plank walk and started toward the crowd. By the look on his face, you’d think the man’s horse had thrown a shoe. When I glanced at Samuel beside me I saw him taking in the man with cool interest.
“This should be interesting,” Samuel said. While the man stalked toward the crowd Samuel pulled a slim silver case from his jacket and withdrew a cigar and a lucifer match. By the time a wreath of spicy, silver smoke started to hang about Samuel’s head, the man stopped.
“That man is a liar and a damn fraud!”
A hush fell over the audience, and a bewildered lostness crossed Dr. Quillburn’s face. “Excuse me sir, have we met?”
“You sold two bottles t’me and my brother Jake in Sweetwater a month back.”
“Sir, there must be some mistake. I’ve never been to a town by th—”
“Two bottles! And this shyster claimed it’d fix Jake’s consumption, seein’ as how he was dying of it. You know what the doc told my Jake a’fore we met that huckster?”
He thrust a finger at Quillburn, and continued, “Said Jake might’n have another ten years in him if we got us out to someplace dry, which we did. Within a week and a half of drinking that phony’s swill, though, I found Jake dead on the floor of our cabin. He killed my brother!”
As one, the crowd turned back to hear Quillburn’s rebuttal. They were to be disappointed, though. Already he was shoving the crate he’d been standing on into the back of his garish wagon. The once-rapt audience began to swell around him, buzzing angrily. Above the noise I even caught a fellow shout, “Hang the murderer, boys! Hemp justice!”
“Samuel, you’ve got to do something.” I turned toward him, my throat starting to clench tight.
He rolled his eyes and drew the Remington. He drew back the hammer with a click. Sixty feet away, at the wagon, Quillburn was brandishing a bottle of Panacea at the crowd, trying to fend them off. There was not even a second between the discharge of Samuel’s pistol and when the bottle shattered, scattering glass and golden liquid into the air.
Faces turned to us now, expectant.
“The hell did you do that for?” Someone shouted.
Samuel rested the smoking gun across the pommel of his saddle and drew the cigarillo from his teeth. “If the man’s a murderer, let the sheriff handle it.”
“You gonna stand in the way of justice, mister?” someone else said, coming forward. The new fellow rested a hand on a pistol slung across his waist cross-draw.
Samuel paid the man no mind, instead studying the cherry of his cigarillo as though to make sure it burned properly. “Way I see it, I’m assisting the cause.”
Some men advanced on us, muttering more threats. Beside me, Samuel cleared his throat.
“Good time to draw that lady’s dresser you call a shooting iron, kid,” he muttered. He stuck the cigar back in his mouth and casually held his pistol up. I thumbed the holster thong off my S&W and drew it as well.
“There’s only two of you,” the would-be gunfighter said.
“Sounds like fair odds,” Samuel said, conversationally. He inhaled deeply of the cigar and blew a thick plume of tobacco smoke. I had no idea how Samuel could be so calm about these things. My hands were sweating so hard I had trouble keeping grip of my pistol.
Fortunately, we did not get to find out whether these were indeed fair odds. A sharp call from Quillburn once again drew the crowd’s attention. He was seated in his wagon and already it jerked into motion. With more urging, he had the horses up speeding north and out of town.
Someone raised a gun to shoot but Samuel once more fired into the air.
“Can’t let you do that,” he said. “Go tell the sheriff, and if there’s a bounty on him then go have your little fun. Until then, no one’s killing anyone without my say-so.”
The gunfighter stared at Samuel and me. To help the point I lifted the gun and aimed at him. His eyes bulged.
“You can’t take us all,” he said.
“Don’t need to,” Samuel said, gesturing at the crowd. It had begun to disperse behind the gunfighter without his even knowing. He cursed and spat, and walked off kicking dirt.
Satisfied, Samuel checked the Remington and then stuffed it back into his cavalry holster. “You’re going to get me killed one of these days, kid. C’mon, horse. Git.”
Riding on again, I glanced at the dispersing crowd. As we passed the gap between a saloon and a small gaming house I saw two men standing in the shadows of the alley. One was the brother of the unfortunate Jake. The second was the gun-slick with the cross-draw holster.