The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|Sally Calico Burnley clutched her necklace as she looked at the man Heath had brought home. Lily had said she’d know the locket’s rightful owner when she saw him, but she wasn’t sure. They had been here drinking coffee and visiting for nearly an hour, and she was no closer to knowing what to do.
Little Pete liked him right off; Heath had a cock-eyed smile on his face as he watched the stranger bouncing their son on his knee.
“Little Pete rides his pony,” the stranger sang as he bounced the toddler, “rides it into town; little Pete rides his pony, rides that pony all around. Little Pete rides his pony, rides it oh, so fast; little Pete rides his pony, tips his hat as he goes past. Howdy, Pete!” Pete laughed like he never had so much fun. The stranger smiled like the boy was his favorite nephew, but Sally thought the look of death was in his eyes the whole time. If it was, though, it didn’t bother Pete any. He sang another verse, and then, with a final big bounce, lifted Pete from his knee and set him down on his bare feet. Pete trotted off, laughing and trying to sing the song himself.
“A fine boy you have there, Ma’am,” Trevor Ambrosius said, and gave her a smile that she had to admit was charming. His eyes, though, were too cold for charm. They were eyes that had seen too much, she thought.
“Thank you, Mister Ambrosias.”
“I can tell from your voice that you doubt my claim to be Lily’s brother.”
“I understand. I have a less than reputable look about me, not totally undeserved, I admit. But, perhaps I can ease your mind a bit.” He inserted two fingers between his collar and throat, and pulled out a locket that looked to be the twin of the one she wore. The moment she saw it, her own locket grew warm in her hand, and light glowed red through the flesh of her fingers. She dropped the necklace to her chest, where it hung from its chain, shining with argent brilliance. Its twin, dangling from Ambrosius’s fingers, shone with the same radiance.
“That’s… amazing,” she mumbled.
“Sheriff, Mrs. Burnley,” Ambrosius said, “Despite appearances, Lily did not die of consumption. Her death was caused by the same individual who ordered the murder of your brother, Sheriff.”
“What are you talking about, Trevor?” Heath said. Sally’s heart sped up. She had known that there was something strange about Lily’s death, but Lily had claimed it was consumption, so who was she to argue?
“In Lily’s last letter to me, she told me that our family’s ancient enemy had arrived. She begged me to come, but I wouldn’t believe it. God help me, I wanted a new life, to be free of the old struggle. It was over, I thought. In their last battle with him, our father and mother sacrificed their lives and our family’s ancestral home in the mountains of Germany. The entire place was wiped from the face of the earth. I thought they had succeeded in destroying him at last. Lily was not so sure. When we came to America, she insisted upon finding a new place to make a stand. When the first attack on me came, I knew she was right.”
“But…” Sally hesitated; she wasn’t sure that she really wanted to know the answers to the questions on her lips, but this was what Lily had entrusted to her. “Who is this enemy? What does he want?”
“You’ll find it hard to credit, but…”
At that moment, the window shattered with a crash, and a fire arrow embedded itself in the wall. Flames immediately, unnaturally, spread out in all directions from the point of impact. In a moment, the entire wall was ablaze. Little Pete screamed in terror.
“That ain’t possible,” said Heath. “No fire catches that fast!”
Ambrosius was up at the window before Sally even saw him move. “Get your son!” He began shooting out the gaping hole where her parlor window used to be. “We have to get back to the saloon!”
Sally scooped up Pete and Heath’s spare gun-belt and Bowie knife, while Heath snatched his Winchester from its place by the door. He poured a box of extra shells into a leather pouch and slung it over one shoulder. With no time to change into split riding skirts, Sally set Pete down, pulled the knife from its sheath and slit her long skirt front and back. She then slid the knife back into its sheath and buckled the gun-belt around her waist.
Ambrosius looked at their weapons for an instant, as if he were going to say something, then shook his head and said, “Out the door; get to the stables, quickly!”
They emerged onto the front porch and bullets began to slam into the clapboards all around. They hunched over and ran across the yard toward the stables. The blackness of the cloudy night was illuminated only by the orange flames that raced across the walls of the house from a dozen fire arrows. Ahead, the screams of horses filled the night from the stables, which were similarly engulfed. As they approached, the stable doors were blasted off of their hinges by the rear hooves of a giant black stallion. The horse, Ambrosius’s Jet, was still saddled from their ride out from town. He led out Heath’s roan, Faron, and Sally’s bay mare, Claret. By some miracle, both of them were saddled, too. The miracle was clinging to Claret’s saddle: their stable boy, Benny O’Meara. Benny’s screams blended with those of the horses.
“Oh, my dear God,” Sally gasped, and hid Pete’s face.
From the stable boy’s left calf muscle protruded a flaming arrow. Benny lost his grip as the fire engulfed him. He rolled around on the ground, as if trying to smother the flames, but they would not be snuffed. By the time the horses reached them, Benny lay still.
“Oh, Benny… thank you,” Sally whispered, tears in her eyes. The boy’s valiant effort had most likely saved their lives, if they could be saved. They mounted. Sally looked around, and a scream escaped her throat before she could choke it off. Out of the darkness, Indians crept into the light of their burning home. They were monstrous– decaying corpses, the very flesh falling from their rotten bodies as they moved toward them. The monsters were armed with brand new Winchesters, and they shot often, though their aim, luckily, left something to be desired.
The gunslinger drew both of his sidearms and began to blast the walking cadavers. Wherever he aimed, dead bodies died again. Heath was shooting, too, but he didn’t seem to be hitting anything.
Trevor Ambrosius shouted, “Follow me!” and raced into the darkness. They wasted no time in following.
“That was too easy,” Heath yelled as they raced down the dark road toward Rattler’s Fang. “We’re being herded.”
“Quite right, Sheriff,” Ambrosius yelled back. “He’s herded me all the way from St. Louis. Fool that I am, I thought I could escape my destiny. I refused to believe Lily until it was too late. I gave him the time he needed to prepare, while she spent herself resisting him. It’s my fault that she’s gone!”
Behind them, Heath could hear gunshots and the war cries of Comanche braves. Like most everybody else around these parts, Heath remembered the Comanche War. Those sounds sent a chill through him. He couldn’t believe what he thought he’d seen. They must have been made up somehow, to scare them. They were not dead men. Hell, they probably weren’t even Comanches. Still… he could have sworn he had put .45 slugs through a couple of them, and they hadn’t even slowed.
“Hey, Trevor! How the hell did he get Comanches on our trail?”
“He’ll make use of whatever tool comes to hand, Sheriff.”
“Yeah, but…” The Comanches had been relocated to a reservation far from there. Was this some rogue band he had somehow enlisted?
Though he loved his country, and would fight or die for it, Heath always thought that those Indians had been treated poorly by the USA. It wasn’t right, but Heath’s ranch sat on land that had once been Comanche territory.
Then he remembered that his ranch was, right at that moment, burning to the ground. He remembered Benny’s burning body, and hoped the rest of the hands had gotten out of there all right. He looked over at Sally; her eyes were locked straight ahead, her reins were in one hand, and she had Pete clamped to her belly with the other.
As they rode into town, it was late, and the streets were deserted. Hell, thought Heath, the streets were damned near deserted at high noon, any day of the week.
They reined in at the Frisky Piebald, and Heath dismounted. He went to Sally and took Pete from her so she could dismount more easily. Trevor swung down from Jet and lifted his saddlebags from the horse’s rump. Heath gave a yell and a pair of stable boys ran out and led the animals away to the stables behind the building to be groomed, watered and fed.
Heath led the way into the saloon and started giving orders before the batwings had swung closed behind them.
“Mel! There’s a Comanche attack heading our way, right on our tail. They’ve got some kind of fire arrows that’ll burn down the place in no time at all. The only hope we’ve got is to keep ‘em from getting into town at all.”
He turned to the three regulars sitting at their table playing poker, Huey Breaf, Dave Dudey and Gordy Wenn. “Huey, Dave, Gordy, you boys are hereby deputized. Round up as many men as you can find. Tell ‘em they’re all deputies, too, and get ‘em out to the north edge of town with whatever they’ve got to shoot with.”
The three men just sat there, staring at him.
“Well? What the hell’re you waitin’ for? Git!”
They scrambled to their feet.
“Sheriff,” Trevor said, opening the flap of his saddlebag and pulling out boxes of shells. “You had better give them some special ammunition. I’ve a feeling that plain lead will not suffice to hurt these Indians.”
“What are you talking about, Trevor? Nothing that lives can stop a bullet and not be hurt.”
“Trust me, Sheriff. Use these bullets.” He pulled one out of its box and held it up. It was solid silver. “You see; these Indians have undoubtedly been killed once already. Killing them a second time will take a little something extra.”
“Well, I’ll be a bucket of horse-apple cider,” Heath said, marveling at the shining slug. “You ain’t kidding, are you?”
“No, I’m quite serious. After all, why else would I make such expensive ammunition?”
“Damnation.” Heath hadn’t been seeing things back at the ranch. Them Injuns really were dead men, raised up from the grave. He forced himself to move. He couldn’t afford to get seized up, no matter how crazy things were getting. The whole town was in danger. He passed the ammo out to Mel, Huey, Dave and Gordy.
“Make every shot count,” he cautioned them, and then sent them off on their mission. He then emptied his own weapons, reloaded with the silver slugs, and switched out the spare cartridges in his belt loops. Sally handed Pete off to Millie, who took the boy upstairs, and did the same. When they were done, they turned to Trevor.
“Now, while your friends face the revenants, we shall walk the labyrinth.” He drew the locket from within his shirt; Sally did the same. They stood facing each other, maybe ten feet apart. Trevor began to chant words in some language Heath had never heard before, and his hands started to glow blue. He waved them around, drawing lines with the blue light, weaving them together like a big, complicated knot. He gave a little push motion, and the knot of light sank into Sally’s locket. Right off, the locket flared with white fire. Heath squinted, as the light grew as bright as the sun, and an almost solid-looking beam flashed like lightning from it to its twin on Trevor’s chest, connecting them like a taut wire between two telegraph poles.
Then, they vanished.
Heath was left standing alone in the middle of the Frisky Piebald. Suddenly scared spitless, he called for Sally at the top of his lungs, but she and the gunslinger were gone.
A moment later, the bat-wing doors slapped open and Mel Sampras limped in at his top speed, his Winchester gripped tight in both hands. He looked like a man who had seen Hell open up right in front of him. He was.
“Heath! You gotta come! It just ain’t possible!” Mel was gasping for breath; his eyes were wide as silver dollars.
“Calm down, Mel,” he told his friend, although he was having a hell of a lot of trouble calming down his own self. “What ain’t possible?”
“The whole damn Comanche Nation has crawled outa their graves! There ain’t no way we can hold ‘em off with the couple dozen men we’ve got! And you ain’t gonna believe it, but…” His throat seemed to close up and choke off his next words. Though he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to hear it, Heath gave him a little nudge.
“They’re bein’ led by a chief in full war gear, big feathered bonnet and all. His eyes burn like red fire, and he throws flames from the tip of his war lance that can turn a man to cinders in the blink of an eye. The whole north end of town is already burnin’! He ain’t like the rest of ‘em, Heath. Most of ‘em don’t seem to have a brain in their heads, but him… He gives orders, and the braves all follow ‘em quick, like he was whisperin’ them right into every damned ear! I’d swear it’s old Ten Bears himself!”
“Oh, hell…” Ten Bears had been the hardest-working peacemaker the Comanches had, and the USA had betrayed every agreement it had made with him. As good a negotiator as he had been, he wouldn’t have been able to influence the lowest brave if he hadn’t also been a damn good war leader, too.
“All right. Mel, you stay here in case Sally and Trevor come back. I’ll go see what can be done to slow the varmints down.” Reluctantly leaving Sally to her fate, Heath Burnley ran out into the darkness to face his own.
The bat-wing doors had hardly stopped flapping when Millie rushed down the stairs. “Sally! Heath!” She stopped dead, halfway down the staircase, when she saw that Mel was the only one in the room. “Mel! What’s happenin’? Where’d they go?”
“I don’t rightly know what’s happenin’, Millie, or even where everybody’s run off to, ‘cept for Heath. What’s the matter?”
“It’s little Pete… he just fell down, and…” Millie burst into tears. In her arms, little Pete Burnley lay senseless, his blue eyes rolled up into his head.