THE GENTLEMAN'S HOTEL
A little dust devil danced in front of Jebidiah Mercer's horse, twisted up a few leaves in the street, carried them skittering and twisting across the road and through a gap made by a sagging, wide door and into an abandoned livery stable. Inside, the tiny windstorm died out suddenly, dropping the leaves it had hoisted to the ground like scales scraped from a fish. Dust from the devil puffed in all directions and joined the dirt on the livery floor.
Jebidiah rode his horse to the front of the livery, looked inside. The door groaned on the one hinge that held it, moved slightly in the wind, but remained open. The interior of the livery was well lit from sunlight slicing through cracks in the wall like the edges of sharp weapons. Jebidiah saw a blacksmith's anvil, some bellows, a few old, nasty clumps of hay, a pitchfork and some horse tackle gone green with mold draped over a stall. There were no human footprints in the dirt, but it was littered with all manner of animal prints.
Jebidiah dismounted, glanced down the street. Except for an overturned stagecoach near a weathered building that bore a sign that read Gentleman's Hotel, the street was as empty as a wolf's gut in winter. The rest of the buildings looked equally as worn, and one, positioned across the street from the hotel, had burned down, leaving only blackened ruins and a batch of crows that moved about in the wreckage. The only sound was of the wind.
Jebidiah thought, Welcome to the town of Falling Rock.
He led his horse inside the livery, looked about. The animal tracks were what you would expect. Possum. Coon. Squirrel. Dog and cat. There were also some large and odd tracks that Jebidiah did not recognize. He studied them for a while, gave up on their recognition. But he knew one thing for sure. They were not human and they were not truly animal tracks. They were something quite different.
This was the place. Any place where evil lurked was his place. For he was God's messenger, that old celestial sonofabitch. Jebidiah wished he were free of him, and even thought sometimes that being the devil's assistant might be the better deal. But he had once gotten a glance at hell, and it was well short of appealing. The old bad devil was one of God's own, because God liked hell as much as heaven. It was God's game, heaven and hell, good and evil. That's all it was, a game, and Jebidiah despised and feared God because of it. He had been chosen to be God's avenger against evil, and he couldn't give the job back. God didn't work that way. He was mighty mean-spirited. He created man, then gave him a choice, but within the choice was a whore's promise. And instead of making it easy for man, as any truly kind spirit might, he allowed evil and sin and hell and the devil to exist and blamed it all on man. God's choice was simple: Do as I say, even if I make it hard on you to do so. It didn't make sense, but that's how it was.
Jebidiah tied his horse in one of the stalls, took the pitchfork and moved the old hay about. He found some good hay in the middle of the stack, forked it out, shook the dust from it and tossed it to his horse. It wasn't the best there was, but it would do, along with the grain he carried in a bag on his saddle. While the horse ate, Jebidiah put the fork aside, went into the stall and loosened the saddle, slid it off and hung it over the railing. He removed the bridle and reins, briefly interrupting his horse's feed, slung it over the stall, went out and shut the gate. He didn't like leaving his horse here in this bleak, unattended stable, but he had come up on another of life's evils and he had to be about his business. He didn't know the particulars, but he could sense evil. It was the gift, or the curse, that God had given him for his sins. And this sense, this gift, had come alert the minute he had ridden into the ghost town of Falling Rock. His urge was to ride away. But he couldn't. He had to do whatever it was that needed to be done. But for the moment, he needed to find water for his horse and himself, grain the horse, then find a safe place to bed down. Or as safe a place as possible.
Jebidiah walked down the street, and even though it was fall, he felt warm. The air was humid and the wind was hot. He walked until he came to the end of the street, finally walked back toward the Gentleman's Hotel. He paused for a brief look at the overturned stagecoach, then turned and went into the hotel.
He saw immediately from the look of it that it had been a brothel. There was a bar and there were a series of stalls, not too unlike horse stalls. He had seen that sort of thing once before, in a town near Mexico. Women worked the stalls. Once there might have been curtains around the stalls, which would have come to the women's waist. But business would have been done there in each of them, the women hiking up their dresses so that cowboys, at two-bits a pop, could clean their pipes and happy up their spirits, be cheered on by their comrades as they rode the whores like bucking horses. Upstairs, in the beds, the finer girls would work, bringing in five Yankee dollars per roll on the sheets.
Jebidiah slid in behind the bar, saw that on the lower shelf were all manner of whiskey bottles. He chose one, held it up to the light. It was corked and full. He sat it on the bar and found some beer bottles with pry-up pressure caps. He took a couple of those as well. Clutching it all in his arms, he climbed the stairs. He kicked a few doors open, found a room with a large bed covered in dust. He placed the bottles on a night table, pulled the top blanket back, shook the dust onto the floor. After replacing the blanket, he went to the window and pushed it up. There wasn't much air, and it was warm, but it was welcome in comparison to the still humidity of the room.
Jebidiah had found his camp. He sat on the bed and opened one of the beers and took a cautious sip. It was as flat as North Texas. He took it and the other beer, which he didn't bother to open, and tossed them out the window, sent them breaking and splattering into the dry, dirt street below. He wasn't sure what had possessed him to do such a thing, but now it was done and he felt better for having done it.
He went back to the nightstand, tugged the cork from the whisky with his teeth. He took a swig. The whiskey was warm both in temperature and spirit, and he could have cleaned his pistols with it, but it did the trick. He felt a comfortable heat in his throat and his stomach, a wave of relaxation soaking into his brain. It wasn't food, and it wasn't water, but it beat nothing in his stomach at all. After a moment, and a few more swigs, the whisky warmed him from head to toe, set a bit of a fire in his balls.
He sat on the bed and took several sips before returning the cork to the bottle and going downstairs. He went out into the street again, still looking for some place with water. He glanced at the stagecoach lying on its side, horseless, and noted something he had not noted before: the runner to which the horses would be hooked was dark with blood. Jebidiah examined it. Dried gore was all along the runner. And now he noted there were horse hooves, bits of hair, even a gray horse ear, and what looked like a strip of skin lying in the street. Not to mention a hat and a shotgun. There was a smell, too. Not just the smell of dried blood, but a kind of wet stink smell in the air. Jebidiah was sure the source was not from the blood or the horse remains. It was the stink of evil, and the smell of it made him absently push back his long black coat and touch the revolvers in their holsters.
He heard a moan. It was coming from the stagecoach. Jebidiah scampered onto the runner and onto the side of the coach, moved along to the door with its cutaway window, looked down and inside. Lying against the far side door that lay on the ground was a woman. Jebidiah reached through the open gap, grabbed the interior latch, swung the door open and climbed inside. He touched the woman's throat. She moved a little, groaned again. Jebidiah turned her face and looked at it. She was a handsome woman with a big, dark bruise on her forehead. Her hair was as red as a campfire. She wore a tight-fitting green dress, some fancy green shoes. She wore a lot of makeup. He lifted her to a sitting position. She fluttered her eyes open, jumped a little.
Jebidiah tried to give her a smile, but he was no good at it. "It's okay, lady" he said. "I am here to help."
"Thanks. But I need you to let me lift my ass. I'm sitting on my umbrella."
Jebidiah helped her out of the stagecoach, into the hotel and upstairs. He put her on the bed he had shaken the dust from, gave her a snort of the whisky, which she took like a trooper. In fact, she took the bottle from him and took a long deep swig. She slapped the umbrella—which had a loop for her wrist—against the bed.
"Damn, if that don't cut the dust," she said.
Jebidiah pulled a chair beside the bed and sat. "What's your name?" he said.
"Mary," she said, disengaging herself from the umbrella, tossing it onto the end of the bed.
"I'm Jebidiah. What happened? Where are the stage horses?"
"Eat up," she said. "Them, the driver, and the shotgunner too."
"Tell me about it."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"You might be surprised."
And then, after another shot of whisky, she told it.
"I'm a working girl, as you may have already noticed. I am late of Austin, Texas, and Miss Mattie Jane's establishment. But Mattie met a man, got married, sold her place, made a deal with the madam here in Falling Rock for my services, as well as the remaining girls. I was the only one that took her up on the deal. The others spread out across Texas like prairie chickens.
"Must say, I thought there would be more to Falling Rock than this. Thought it would be a sizable town. And maybe it was. I figure whatever got the driver and shotgunner, as well as a whisky drummer in the coach with me, got most of the town too. Hadn't been for my umbrella, I'd be dead. I was surprised at how well I was able to protect myself with it.
"We came into town late last night, me ready to start my job here at the Gentleman's Hotel, ready to buck pussy, when a strange thing occurred. No sooner had the stage entered the town than a shadow, heavy as if it had weight, fell across the place, and sort of lay there. You could see the moon, you could see the town, but the shadow flowed between buildings and into the stagecoach. It became hard to breathe. It was like trying to suck down flannel instead of air.
"Then the stage shadow flowed away and the stage rolled on, stopped in front of the hotel. The stage shook real hard and then I heard a noise. A kind of screech, unlike anything I had ever heard. Then I remembered one of my old johns telling about being in an Indian fight, and that it had been close and hand to hand, and the horses had been wounded, and there had been a fire in a barn that the Indians set, and the horses inside burned alive. He said the horses screamed. Somehow, I knew that was what I was hearing. Screaming horses. Except there wasn't any fire to burn them. But something was scaring them, causing them pain.
"The stage coach shook and tumbled over. I heard the shotgun go off a couple of times, and next thing I knew the driver and the shotgunner were yelling. The whisky drummer stuck his head out of the overturned window, jerked it back again. He turned and looked at me. His face, even in the night, was as white as the hairs on an albino's ass. He pulled a derringer, then there was a face at the window. I ain't never seen a face like it. I couldn't place it. My mind wouldn't wrap around it.
"The drummer fired his derringer, and the face jerked back, then it filled the window again. An arm—a hairy arm with what looked like hooks on it—snapped through the window and caught the drummer in the face, peeled him from his left ear to the side of his lip. I remember seeing his teeth exposed through a gap in his jaw. Then the hairy, hooked hand had him by the throat. The drummer fought, slamming the derringer into the thing's face, pounding on its hands with the butt of the gun. He was snatched through the window in a spray of blood.
"I didn't know nothing but to grab up my
umbrella. It's all I had. Then the face was there again, tugging at the door,
about to pull it off, I figured, so I jumped forward
"I don't think I scared them, I just think they sort of, well, got bored or something. Or more likely. . . full. 'Cause I could hear them prowling around and around the stage, and I could hear other things, snapping sounds, gnawing sounds, a kind of excitement that sounded like miners at a free lunch.
"They climbed up on the stage and looked in the window a few times, and I struck at one of them, missed. The thing almost swatted me with that hairy arm, those big claws, then there was pink light through the window, and it went silent outside. I considered coming out, but couldn't. I was too frightened. I was exhausted too. More than I realized. I dreamed I was awake. I had no idea I had fallen asleep until you came. Good thing I dropped my umbrella while I slept, otherwise you would have found it in your ribs, your eye, someplace."
Jebidiah picked up the umbrella and looked at it. It was ragged and broken in spots, tipped with wood. He touched it with his fingers. Oak. He gave it to her. "The tip is sharp," he said.
"I broke it off some time ago. Never did get another."
"Good thing," Jebidiah said. "The broken tip made a good weapon."
Mary looked at the window. "It's growing dark. We need to leave this town."
Jebidiah shook his head. "No. I have to be here. But you should leave. I'll even give you my horse to do it."
"I don't know why you have to stay, that's your business, but I won't lie. I'm ready to go. And I'll tell you, I was just lucky. I think the daylight ran them. Had it been earlier in the night, I wouldn't be here right now. I'd be some turd, digested and dropped on a hill somewhere, maybe drawing flies in an alley. I'll take you up on that horse, mister. But I'd like to do it now. And I'm telling you, you damn sure don't need to be here afoot. Or on horseback, or in a stage, or no kind of way. You need to ride on out with me."
"I'll leave when my job is done."
"His job . . . God."
"You some kind of preacher?"
"Well, sir, that's your business if you say so. I don't pray to God much. He ain't never answered any of my prayers."
"I don't know that he's answered anyone's," Jebidiah said.
Darkness was edging into the street when Jebidiah and Mary left the hotel, began to walk briskly toward the barn. The oppressive humidity was gone, and now there was a chill in the air. By the time they reached the livery and Jebidiah had saddled his horse, the night had slipped in smooth and solid.
Outside the livery, leading the horse, Jebidiah looked toward the woods that lay beyond the town, saw that they were holding thick shadows between leaves and limbs.
"I'm not going anywhere," Mary said. "I've waited too long. Bad enough it's dark, but me out there without anyone to help, damn if I will. I'd rather stay here till morning. Provided I'm here in the morning."
"You are probably right," Jebidiah said. "It wouldn't be good for you to go now. It's best to go back to the hotel."
They started back down the street, Jebidiah leading his horse, and as they went, a kind of dark cloud fled out of the woods and covered the quarter moon and fell on the town and came apart, shadows skittering in all directions.
"What in hell is that?" Mary said.
"The mantle of darkness," Jebidiah said, and picked up his pace. "It sometimes comes when a place is full of evil."
"Odd, isn't it? Something from the devil, from the bowels of Hell, and it's cold."
"I'm scared," Mary said. "I don't normally scare up easy, but this shit is making my asshole pucker."
"Best not to think about being scared," Jebidiah said. "Best to think about survival. Let's get back to the hotel."
When they got to the hotel it was full of ghosts.
Jebidiah tried to lead his horse inside. It pulled at the reins, not wanting to enter.
"Easy, boy," Jebidiah said to the horse, stroked its nose, and the horse settled down slightly. Jebidiah continued to soothe the horse as he and Mary watched the ghosts move about. There were many ghosts and they seemed not to notice Jebidiah and Mary at all. They were white and thin as clean smoke, but were identifiable shapes of cowboys and whores, and they moved across the floor and into the stalls. Women hiked their ghostly dresses, and ghostly men dropped their trousers and entered them. The bartender behind the bar walked up and down its length. He reached and took hold of bottles that were not bottles, but shapes of bottles that could be seen through. At a piano a ghostly presence sat, hatless, in striped shirt and suspenders, all of which could be seen through. The ghost moved his hands over the keys but the keys didn't move, but the player seemed to move as if he heard the music. A few cowboys and whores were dancing about to the lively tune that was heard to them, but not the living.
"My God," Mary said.
"Funny how he always gets mentioned," Jebidiah said.
"Nothing. Don't fear these. They can't hurt you. Most of them don't even know you're here."
"They are spirits of habit. They do this over and over. It was what they were doing, or wanted to do before they died. But that one—"
Jebidiah pointed to a ghostly but much more distinct shape sitting in a chair against the far wall. He was a stubby cowboy in a big ghostly hat. He was almost solid, but the wall and the furniture could be seen through him. "He knows we're here. He sees us as we see him. He has been here a while. He has begun to accept his death."
At that statement, the ghostly figure Jebidiah referred to rose and crossed the room toward them, walking, but not quite touching the floor.
Mary moved toward the door.
Jebidiah grabbed her arm. "Best not. The street will be a far less welcome place shortly, perhaps already. There's more out there than an oppressive cloud."
"Will he hurt us?" Mary asked.
"I don't think so."
The ghost sauntered toward them, and as he neared, he showed a lopsided grin, stopped, stood directly in front of Jebidiah. Beside him, Mary shook like a leaf in a high wind. Jebidiah's horse tugged at the reins. Jebidiah pulled the horse forward slightly, glanced at it. Its visible eye rolled in its head. "Easy, boy," Jebidiah said to the horse, then turned to the ghost, said, "Can you speak?"
"I can," said the spirit, and the voice was odd, as if it were climbing up to them from the bottom of a deep, dark well.
"How did you die?"
"Must I answer that?"
"You are bound to answer nothing at all, or anything you wish," Jebidiah said. "I have no control over you."
"I want to pass on," the ghost said, "but for some reason, I cannot. I am here alone, because the others, they don't know they're dead. This town, it holds us. But I seem to be the only one that knows what has happened."
"Evil has claimed it," Jebidiah said. "When that happens, all manner of things can occur. Not always the same, but always evil. You have decided to embrace the truth, they have not. But in time, they must."
"I'm not evil. I'm just a cowpoke that got dead."
"The evil is what's holding you," Jebidiah said.
The cowboy nodded. "Them."
"The hairy ones," Mary said.
"Yes, the hairy ones," the ghost said. "What they did left me in this place. There are other places, places I would like to move to, but I can't, and it's because of them—who they are and what they are."
"It's the way you died," Jebidiah said. "You are caught in one of God's little jokes."
The ghost twisted its head to the side like a curious dog.
"What kind of joke?" the cowboy said. "Because I assure you, I don't find it all that funny."
"And, in time, you will find it less and less humorous, and then you will get angry, and then you will react, and your reactions will not be of the best nature."
"I have no intent of haunting anyone," said the ghost.
"Time and frustration turns the spirit dark," Jebidiah said. "But I can help you pass on."
"Then do it, for Christ's sake."
"The evil must be destroyed."
"I would ask a small favor of you, first."
"Tell me about this town. What happened to you. If I know about it, I can fight what's here, and I can help you pass on. That is my promise."
"Oh, you can't fight what's here. Soon, you and her will be like me."
"Perhaps," Jebidiah said.
"I don't like the sound of that," Mary said.
"First things first," Jebidiah said. "I don't want to stand here with my horse and my back against the door."
"Understood," said the ghost.
Jebidiah found a big room, a kind of sitting room, and that was where he put his horse, fed it grain that he poured out onto the hardwood floor. Then, as the ghost watched, he pushed a long cabinet across the doorway and pulled the curtains on the window. He and Mary took a seat on a kind of settee that was before the large window with the pulled curtains. There was no light inside, and Jebidiah did nothing to find one, though an oil lamp stood out from the wall in brass fixtures. They sat in the dark, it being nothing to the ghost. Jebidiah's and Mary's eyes adjusted in time, enough to make out shapes, and of course the ghost was forever constant, white and firm.
Once seated, the Reverend pulled both his revolvers and laid them on his thighs. Mary sat tight against him. The ghost took a chair as he might have in real life. He pulled a ghostly chaw from his pocket and put it in his jaw. The room grew darker and the night grew more still.
"There's no taste," the ghost said after a few jaw movements. "It's just the idea of a chaw. It's there, and I can put it in my mouth, but it's like the liquor the bartender serves, it's not really there. Thing that makes me feel a bit better about that is the fact the money I pay him, it ain't there either. Ain't nothing really there but my urges."
"So the bartender knows you're here?" Jebidiah said.
"Sometimes. Sometimes not."
"I'm sure it is a misery," Jebidiah said. "But now, if I'm to help you, help us. I feel that we are short of time. Already the street is full of the night, and the great shadow lays heavy on the town. I can taste it when I breathe."
"You talk funny."
"I was educated funny."
The ghost nodded. "That shadow comes down on the town before they do. It comes, they are not far behind. When they show up, and that's at the beat of twelve," and with that the ghost nodded toward a big grandfather clock in the near corner of the room, "that's when things get hairy, so to speak."
Jebidiah struck a match and leaned it in the direction of the clock. It said seven p.m.
"Then we have some time," Jebidiah said, shaking out the match.
"So maybe we can and should get out of town now," Mary said.
The ghost shook its head. "Nope. You don't want to go out there. They don't get serious until midnight, but being out in the street, under that big ole shadow, that ain't the place to be. The things to worry about the most ain't gonna be here for awhile, but, still, there's things out there under and in that shadow, and you don't want no part of that. I'm dead, and I don't want no part of it. And besides, time ain't the same here. Take a look at the clock."
Jebidiah struck another match, held it up. The clock had moved a full fifteen minutes. Jebidiah shook out his match.
"It's messed up," Mary said.
The ghost shook its head.
Jebidiah said, "The devil's time is different from mine and yours." Jebidiah turned to the ghost. "Do you have some helpful advice for us? I believe we could use any you might possess, and considering your situation, you are bound to have experiences that we do not."
"And if you're lucky," said the ghost, "you'll never have them. Let me tell you, this ain't no dosey-doe, being dead, being hung up between here and wherever."
The ghost paused for a moment, as if gathering his energies, and in fact, he seemed to become brighter, more solid, and as he did, he leaned forward and told his story.
"My name was Dolber Gold, but everyone called be Dol when I was alive. Me and all these cowboys and whores once lived in, or worked in, or passed through this town. And this here establishment, which could be called a kind of house of pleasure, a sure-enough gentleman's hotel, minus the goddamn gentleman, was always packed and full of piano music and dancing, and if you'll pardon me, ma'am, the riding of asses and the drinking of liquor."
"Mine has been ridden plenty," Mary said. "I'm a working girl. So no begging your pardon is necessary."
"I thought as much," Dol said, "and I mean that with no disrespect. My favorite women were always of the loose nature, and I respect the job they do and the pleasure they give. And if I were able, I'd be glad to lay coins down to buck a bit with you."
"Tell your story," Jebidiah said.
"The hairy ones," Dol said. "That's your problem."
Dol nodded at the grandfather clock. "Go outside now you'll be covered in a kind of sickness, a feeling that will make you weak. It's them a'comin'. There's bad things in that shadow in the street, but it ain't nothing to what's gonna be here when that clock hits high midnight."
"You've said as much," Jebidiah said, throwing a glance at the clock. His eyes had adjusted enough he could make out the fact that the hands had moved again. Another fifteen minutes. There was still time, but it was best to be prepared, and have time to do it. Dol was as chatty as a squirrel, and nowhere near on point.
"Me and some of the boys got liquored up and rode out to the old graveyard for some fun. I didn't have no respect, 'cause I was full of rotgut to the gills. We rode out there with bad intentions. Graveyard there is what used to be for all them folks settled here, but there was graves older than that on top of the hill, lost in amongst the trees. And it was said Conquistadores come through here, gave trouble to the Indians. Story went that they come through this part of East Texas, up the Sabine River, searching for gold. Course, wasn't none. But they searched anyway. These woods, deep as they are now, were deeper then, and there was things in there from times before we know'd about time.
"Conquistadores began to die out, and the six that was left, they camped here a'bouts, and in the night, a hairy one came. Maybe he was an Indian. Who knows? The Indians tell the story. But he was hairy and he came into the center of them and killed the lot of them, tore them up. Their bones were left to rot on the hill. But Indians said them Conquistadores, every full moon, gathered flesh and hair on their bones, and come into camp searching for food and fun killin'. It was said this thing that killed them had passed along a piece of himself to them, making them like him. Wolves that walked like men.
"Indians finally captured these six and even the original hairy one, who they claimed came from some hole in the ground, came up to plague man and spread evil. But they captured them somehow, and buried them deep and pinned them to the ground."
"Pinned them?" Jebidiah said.
"Comin' to that," Dol said. "So me and my buddies, we thought it might be fun to dig up them old graves. We wasn't worried about no curse, but we figured there might be something inside them graves worth somethin', if it was no more than just a look. Armor, maybe. Swords. Might even have been something in there worth a few dollars. Truth is, we didn't figure there really was no Conquistadores buried there. But, you get bottle smart when you've drunk enough, and we'd drunk enough, and we rode up there and found some old, unmarked mounds at the top of the hill, trees and vines grown up on and around them. There was a big old stick, like a limb, stuck down in one of the mounds. It looked fresh, like it had just been put there."
"What kind of limb?" Jebidiah asked.
"What sort of wood was it?"
"Hell, I don't know. I think it was hickory or something like that."
"Could have been," Dol said. "I ain't for certain, but I sure wish I could remember, and maybe figure on what kind of trees grew around there and the name of all the plants and birds and such. What is wrong with you, fella? Who gives a shit?"
"My guess is it was oak," Jebidiah said. "Like the tip of Mary's umbrella."
The ghost just looked at him.
"Never mind," Jedidiah said. "Go on with your story."
"Tim, he'd brought some shovels and he passed them out, and we started digging. I remember we come to this stick in the ground, a stick carved on with symbols and such, and I pulled it out and tossed it, and, well, drunk like we was, we didn't last too long. But before we passed out, we did make some progress on one of them mounds, enough to open it. But I don't remember much about that.
"Next thing I knowed, I was on my back looking up at the full moon shining down through the trees. I got up on one elbow, and that's when I seen it. It was the grave we had dug into. There was a hairy arm pushing up out of the ground, and then this long snout sheddin' dirt, and then this thing pulled its way out of the hole and wobbled up there on the edge of the grave. It was about seven feet tall. It was like a wolf, only it had a long snout and ten times the teeth. Them teeth hung out and twisted ever which way, and tall as it was, it was still bent some, and its paws was tipped out with long, shiny claws. But the eyes, that was the worst. They was as yellow as old custard, except when they rolled, cause then they showed a kind of bloody white around them.
"I tried to get up. But I couldn't move at first. Drunk and scared like I was, kind of going in and out of being awake. This thing bent over and started digging in the ground, and pretty soon it was tearing at the dirt and tossing it all over the place. It didn't seem to take no time at all before it had dug into a hole and pulled out another stick like that one I pulled, and then up come another of them things, and he went on to do this time and again, and I tried to get up, tried to shake one of my buddies awake, but he wouldn't budge. Got my gun out and shot at it, but it ignored me. It just went on getting them others out of the ground until there were six. Well, even drunk like I was, by this time I knew I wasn't having no dream, and I was scared sober.
"One of them things picked up one of my buddies by the ankle, held him up high and bit into his head, started slurping at the brain. Well, I'll tell you, I was up then and running. I heard one of my buddies scream up there on the hill, then after that I was running so fast through the trees, getting hit in the face by limbs and such, I didn't hear nor notice nothing. It come to me that I might have been better to have grabbed up my horse, but I don't remember if it was even around no more. Good as it was about being trained to stand, I had either forgotten it, or it had run off first sight of that thing comin' out of the ground.
"I ran and I ran, thought I was making pretty good time and doing well, then I seen a shadow moving through the woods, and pretty soon it was everywhere. It made me feel sick and weak, like I'd walked into a cloud of poison. Then there was these other shadows that come out of the darker shadow, and they moved, and they changed, took shape. It was them hairy things, kind of wolf-like, they were. I got my brains back for a moment, started firing my six-gun, but it wasn't doing no good. I'd have done about as much good to try and stop them by peeing on them. But I didn't even have that kind of ammunition, having already peed all over myself from being so scared. And I guess, since I've gone this far, got to say I messed myself, too. I was so scared my goose bumps had goose bumps.
I ran and ran, then come to a break in the woods, climbed to the top of a hill, and then I heard them growl, and they was on me. It happened faster than you can skin your foreskin back for a soapin'.
"But they didn't kill me. Not right off. They slapped me around, bit on me some. Finally one of them threw me over his shoulder like I was a sack of taters, carried me off. I tell you, I was one scared cowpoke. Didn't know if they was gonna eat me or stick their pecker's in my asshole. What they did was carry me to the woods and they brought me back to where we had been, up the top of the graveyard. As they carried me I tried to take note of things, see where I was goin', thinking maybe I stayed alert I had a chance. But there wasn't no chance. They got to the graveyard they threw me down and one of them stood there with his big paw on my chest, the claws cutting into me like knives, and the others took to digging. Down on their knees, digging like dogs, or wolves, or whatever they was, and soon they had a big hole dug out and they pulled this big run of bones out of the ground, and yanked a long, carved stick out of between its forehead, which wasn't nothin' but a skull, and while I'm lookin', I seen the moonlight come down on that head and I seen that hole in the head seal up, then I seen flesh start to run over them bones, and then I seen it get pink with blood and the chest start to breathe, and then hair started to grow, in patches at first, then finally all over, and when it was thick as wild prairie grass, the thing sat up, and finally stood up. It was a male, that was obvious. Male like all the others, 'cause the thing that let me know they was all male was hanging out for all to see, long as a razor strap, thick as my ankle. And then it looked right at me.
"Well now, this is the ugly part, and I start to almost feel humanly sick when I think about it, even though I'm deader than Custer and his whole outfit. Still feel the fear, dead or not, thinking back on it. This thing, it come at me slow and easy, pulled its lips back on that long old snout and showed me all them teeth, and I went to screamin', just like a little girl who's seen a spider. And boy, that thing liked that. It pulled those lips back even more and spit started dripping off its teeth, and then it crouched like, and finally I realized I was screamin', 'cause at first I was just doin' it, not knowing I was, you know, and I heard the quality of it, and I thought, well, 'You go to hell, I ain't screamin' another sound.' And I shut my mouth and went quiet and made to go like a man . . . only, I didn't.
"He started to move fast then, a funny kind of move, like some of the moves was left out, and then just before he had me his pecker got stiff, like he was gonna do some business, and maybe he was, I thought, and I screamed again. Big and loud and I couldn't stop till he stopped me, his teeth in my throat. I don't remember much after that, but the next thing I knowed I was here in this hotel, and thinkin' I'd dreamed. But I couldn't get nobody to see me. And then gradually, there was more spirits like me, 'cause that cloud come through the street every night, and then them wolves would come. Kind of folded out of the shadows. Caught everyone here eventually. Before they did, they once got trapped in the old hotel across the street. The real hotel. And the folks in the town burned it down. And them things, they come out of there afire, their hair and flesh growing back fast as bullets fly. They went on a rampage, and then there wasn't no one left in this town but ghosts, like me. They took to eating horses and cats and rats and dogs, whatever stray animal might wander in. After that, there wasn't nothing. And then they kept coming around. Kept waiting for something. More meat, I guess. I don't know why they didn't go off somewhere else, but they didn't. Maybe far as the trees where me and my poor pals found them was as far as they could go, 'cause I know one night I seen the big one up there on the hill, howling at the moon. I figure it was 'cause he was so hungry his stomach thought its throat was cut."
"They're confined to this area," Jebidiah said. "The cloud is part of the evil that came out of the graves. They were held there by the sharp ends of the oak. Some evil can't stand oak. And this, obviously, is that evil. Unfortunately, you released them."
"Unless it's hickory," Dol said. "Or some kind of other tree. Ain't nothing says it's oak. I didn't tell you it was oak. I don't remember."
"You have a point," Jebidiah said, "but from my experience, I'm betting on oak."
"It's your bet," Dol said.
"I don't understand," Mary said. "He bit you, like he bit them Spaniards so long ago. They become wolves until the Indians killed them . . . or held them down with the sticks. But you got bit, the others got bit, why ain't you and them wolf-things?"
Dol shook his head. "Ain't got a nugget on that. Nothin'."
"Because," said Jebidiah, "the leader, he is one, and they are six, and together they are seven."
"Well now, that clears it right up," Dol said.
"Satan's minions, that's what they are. And there is one directly from Satan, and there are six that he made. That allows seven. They can kill others, but they can only make so many, and seven is their number. If they were vampires, or ghouls, they could make more, but the hairy things, they can only make seven."
"Who made that rule?" Mary said.
"My guess is the gentleman in charge," Jebidiah said.
"God?" Dol said.
"He likes his little games," the Reverend said. "They have no rhyme or reason to us, or perhaps to him, but, they are his games and they are real and they effect us all. Seven. That is the number for the hairy ones."
"How do you know that?" Mary asked.
"I've seen more than I would like, read tomes that are not that delightful to read."
"So you seen it, or you read about it?" Mary said.
"In this case, I read about it."
"So you ain't had no practical experience on the matter?" Mary said.
"On this, no. On things like it, yes."
"Well, Mary said, "I hope this is some like them other things, or otherwise, we can bend over now and look up between our legs and piss on ourselves."
The night grew heavy and the shadow fled through all parts of the town. In the hotel, and in the other buildings, it was nothing more than a dark, cool fog, a malaise that swept over Jebidiah and Mary. Jebidiah removed the barrier from the setting-room door, and as he did, the clock ticked eight thirty. Dol and the other ghosts returned to what substituted for lives; the limbo of the hotel; the existence of the not-quite-gone and the not-quite-present.
Jebidiah led his horse out of the sitting room, into the saloon. In there they watched the ghosts for a moment, and then Jebidiah took a candle from one of the tables where it was melted to a saucer, broke the saucer free, and put the candle in his pocket. He found two kerosene lamps with kerosene still in them, and gave those to Mary to carry. He and Mary went up the stairs to the hotel room where Jebidiah's whisky resided. Jebidiah led his horse up there with him. The animal was reluctant at first, but then made the stairs easily and finally arrived at the landing, snorting in protest.
When Jebidiah looked down on the hotel, the dark fog had lay down on the floor like a black-velvet carpet, was slowly seeping out of sight into the wood.
"You don't go far without that horse, do you?" Mary said, causing Jebidiah to turn his head and look.
"I'll save him if I can. No use leaving him to be eaten. He's the best horse I ever had. Smart. Brave. Worth more than most humans."
"That may be true, but he just shit on the floor. And it smells like a horse stall now."
"We'll live with it."
They went into the bedroom, Jebidiah leading his horse. He let go of the animal and took Mary's umbrella off the bed and pulled out his pocketknife, and began to whittle pieces off of it.
"I'm glad you got a hobby," Mary said. "Me, I'm scared shitless."
"And so am I. Whittling relaxes me. Especially when it has a purpose."
"These little shards of oak. For it to affect the wolves, it has to bear some of the wood's insides. Oak itself, that doesn't do it. Shaved oak. Sharpened oak. Anything that takes the husk off and shows the meat of the tree."
"What you gonna do, chase them down and poke them with that little stuff? I don't see you're doing no good."
"I'm going to take these little fragments, and I'm going to make them smaller. Then I'm going to take my bullets, use my pocketknife to noodle a small hole in the tips of the loads. I'm going to put wood fragments in those little holes, then, I'm going to take this—" He produced the candle from his pocket. "I'm going to seal the little wood-shaving-stuffed holes with wax. When I shoot these guns, the oak goes into the wolves along with the bullets."
"Ain't you the smart one?" Mary said, and she took a swig from Jebidiah's bottle.
He took it from her. "No more. We had best have our wits about us."
Mary said, "You want, you could knock you off a piece. No charge."
"I would hardly have my wits about me doing that, now would I?"
"Reckon not. Just a friendly offer."
"And a fine one. But I fear I'll have to pass."
Jebidiah went back to whittling, but not before he waved a match under the bottom of the candle and stuck it up on the nightstand and lit the wick. When he finished whittling, the wax was soft. He went to work inserting the miniature wood shavings, sealing them with wax. Mary helped.
Howls came down from the piney hills and filled the streets and filled the Gentleman's Hotel.
"They're coming," Jebidiah said.
Jebidiah went out on the landing, looked down. The ghosts had gone, except Dol, and he had wandered behind the bar and laid down flat on the floor. The wolves couldn't hurt him, but Jebidiah assumed he didn't want to see them. Dead or not, he still knew fear. Jebidiah watched his silent, still, white figure for a while, then returned to the room and closed the door. He hefted the revolvers in their holsters. They were packing his specially prepared bullets. He had done the same for his Winchester ammunition. And he had done it for his gun-belt reloads until the wax ran out. The umbrella he had whittled on was little more now than a thin, sharp stick, as Jebidiah had torn off the umbrella itself, and worked on the shaft with his knife.
Mary sat in the center of the bed. He had given her the rifle.
She said, "You know, I can't hit the back end of an elephant with a tossed shot glass."
"Wait until they're close."
"Jesus," Mary said.
"He'll be of no help," Jebidiah said. "Put your faith in that Winchester."
"Maybe they won't know we're here," Mary said.
"They'll know. They're hungry. They can smell us."
The sound of Mary swallowing was as loud as a cough.
Jebidiah sat in a chair by the window and watched Mary, who had fallen asleep. He was surprised she could sleep. Every nerve in his body was crawling. He lit one of the lanterns and put it on the floor by his chair, then sat back down, took out his pocket watch. He popped the metal cover and looked at it. Even as he watched the hands crawled from eight-thirty to nine. He took a breath, shut his eyes, looked again. It had already moved five minutes past. He went to the window and looked out. Something moved across the street, through the low-hanging shadow that had mostly seeped into the ground, like a dark oil of evil. Jebidiah had gotten only a glance, but it was something big and hairy, and it had moved from the far side of the street to the back of the hotel. His horse stirred in the corner of the room, where it had taken up residence by backing its ass against the wall.
Jebidiah took a breath and moved away from the window. He went over and stroked the horse's nose, then went to the door, opened it, stepped out on the landing.
It was dead dark down there and he couldn't see a thing. Not even Dol lying behind the bar; perhaps he had gone wherever the others had gone, some other part of the town, all scrunched up and wadded together in a mass of white mist in a closet somewhere. He could see that the door to the hotel was partially opened. When they had come into the hotel, he had closed it.
Jebidiah stood there for a long time, one hand on the rail, looking down. Gradually his eyes became somewhat more adjusted. He thought he saw something moving near the bar.
There was a shape.
It was still.
Perhaps it was nothing.
All right, Jebidiah thought, it's not like they don't know we're here. He took a small Bible from the inside of his coat pocket and tore off the front page and took out a wooden match, struck it, lit the paper and dropped it.
In the falling light of the paper, which lasted briefly, he saw the shape was not just a shadow, but was in fact a thing. Dark fur was glimpsed, hot, yellow eyes, teeth, and then the beast was moving, darting around the bar, heading for the stairs, climbing two or three steps at a bound. In that brief moment, Jebidiah saw that there was another in the corner. A large beast with even larger, yellow eyes. That would be the King Wolf, he thought, the one who would command the others, the one who would send them on their missions.
Jebidiah stepped to the mouth of the stairway and pulled his revolver, pointed it casually and comfortably at the shape that was bounding up the stairs, its chest covered in a metal Spanish breastplate. In the darkness he could only tell it was there, couldn't make out features, could catch glimpses of that breastplate by the thin moonlight that came through the hotel windows. He aimed a little low, toward the groin, so that when he pulled the trigger on the Colt .45 it bucked and rode up, throwing the bullet into the upper part of the thing's body, clanging the armor, but traveling through it. The beast grunted, twisted slightly, kept coming. White smoke twisted up from its breastplate where the bullet had gone in, and from its back where it had come out.
Jebidiah cocked back the hammer again, thought, My God, I hit it straight on. A .45 slug should have knocked him down the stairs and on his ass, flat, breastplate or no breastplate.
The Colt jumped again, a burst of red flame coughed from the barrel, the bullet struck the beast in the face just as it reached the top of the stairs and was within six inches of Jebidiah's gun barrel. There was a barking sound. The beast twisted and slammed against the wall and rolled down the stairs, smashed through the railing, bounced onto the bar and lay silent and dark in the shadows.
One, thought Jebidiah.
He looked down into the shadows, but couldn't really make out much. He thought he still saw the shape lying there, but he wasn't sure. He glanced toward the corner of the room. The King Wolf moved. And it was like Dol said. It seemed to move with some of the moves torn out. One moment it was in the corner, the next it was consumed by shadows.
Okay. One down. Maybe.
He squinted and looked again. He couldn't be sure what was down there. He had hit it solid, and with the oak in the bullet, so he thought perhaps he had done the old boy in.
The front door of the hotel burst open wider and in came four hairy, black shapes, moving so fast it was hard to realize at first what they were. They leaped about, two hitting the stairs and coming up fast, another striking the wall, moving along the side of it, scuttling there with its claws like a giant, hairy roach. The fifth was running on all fours up the railing.
Jebidiah shot at the one on the railing, hit it in the head and saw it fall, but now the others were coming at top speed. Jebidiah felt his nerves grow taut, about to snap.
Red flames and a loud bark came from his left and one of the wolves on the stairway fell and hit the other and they both went tumbling through the already-damaged railing. One hit the floor and didn't move, the other scrambled, ran in a circle like a frightened dog.
Jebidiah glanced left. It was Mary with the rifle. He grabbed her elbow and twisted her and pushed her through the open doorway and into the room and slammed the door even as the beast running alongside the wall—causing plaster and wood to fly every which way from its claws—climbed to the ceiling, turned upside down and scuttled across that. They heard the creature drop to the floor outside the doorway, heard its breathing, loud as the pumping of blacksmith bellows.
Then it hit the door, knocking a large gap in it. But as it did it screeched and drew back its paw. There was a roar and the sound of something clambering wildly on the landing.
Inside the room, the horse reared and came down hard on the floor with its hooves. Jebidiah feared he had made a mistake bringing the horse up there with them. It could do as much damage to them as the wolves if it became frightened.
Well, maybe not that much.
Mary stood staring at the gap in the door. "What happened?"
"The door is oak. He snagged his arm on it, a sharp piece of wood."
"Then they can't come through?"
"I think they can, just not easily."
"Did I kill the one I shot?"
"I don't know. I think the bullet still has to strike a vital organ, and if it does, the oak splinter in it should act like poison. But maybe it has got to be a solid hit. Not just a leg, a shoulder. But the heart. The brain. Liver. Something like that. Looked to me you had a good shot, right in the head. But it was dark. It happened so fast . . . I can't say for sure."
Jebidiah went over and took his horse's reins and pulled at them gently and stroked the horse's nose. Its eyes rolled wildly and it lifted its nose and dropped it back down, repeated the motion numerous times. Slowly the horse calmed.
They stood for a while, then sat on the edge of the bed, facing the door, guns in hand.
The night crawled on.
Mary said, "It couldn't have been midnight. Not already. My God, did you see those things?"
Jebidiah took out his watch, looked at it in the lantern glow. The hands indicated two a.m.
"I thought it was just after nine," he said. "Advantage to this limbo time is that it will be day soon, and then time will slow. They don't come out in the day."
"You know that for a fact?"
"No," Jebidiah said. "I don't."
They had sat for only a moment when they heard a kind of scratching sound, coming from the street. Jebidiah went to the window to look out, saw nothing. But the sound increased. He leaned against the window glass and looked down. Something was coming up the side of the wall. He opened the window quickly, stuck his head out. A wolf was scratching its way up, moving fast, its head lifted to look up at Jebidiah. It was almost on him.
Jebidiah grabbed up the lantern, flung it out the window and down on the wolf. Flames burst in all directions and rose up on the thing's head like a dunce hat of flame, whipped about and caught the fur on fire. The beast let go with its front paws, slapped at the flames, held itself out from the side of the building with its back claws, then lost purchase. First one foot came loose, then the other, and it fell. It dropped in a twist of fire, hit the ground on its back, rolled on its belly. The flames licked down and along its spine and it screeched and crawled along the street, then went still in the middle of it. The flames lapped its fur clean and cooked the charred meat and the meat fell off in puddles; then there were only the bones, blackened and smoking. The eye sockets in the thick wolf skull chugged out wafts of dark smoke that rose up to the sky and made little black, dissipating mushroom shapes. The skull shifted and cracked and fell apart. Jebidiah blinked. It was the skeleton of a man now. The wolf bones had twisted and changed.
Jebidiah, trembling slightly, pulled his head in. "They don't like fire," he said. "That and oak splinters. Make a note."
Mary had moved to the window to stand beside him. She looked down at the bones in the street. "Noted," she said, but the word sounded as if she were clearing her throat.
Jebidiah reloaded his six-gun. "If I got one with a shot, and you got one, and now there's this dead one in the street, we've done all right so far."
"If? So we either have four left, or six," Mary said.
"That sounds about right," Jebidiah said. "And we haven't even seen the big boy, the pack leader. Least not well. He might be a whole different kettle of fish. One thing is for sure, he lets his boys do the dirty work."
"What time is it?"
Jebidiah looked. "Damn," he said.
"The watch. It's moving backwards. It's midnight again."
Jebidiah thought: If we can last until morning, it won't matter if we stop them all. Perhaps then I can catch them where they sleep, someplace dark and well hidden, most likely. But if I can get them now, I can be sure. I won't have to search for them. Of course, there's the problem of time. It moves forward and backward. It could do that until we are hunted down, eaten, shat out brown and greasy on a distant hill.
He walked up and down the floor, stopping now and then to soothe the horse that now he wished he had not bothered with. Yet, the thought of leaving a fine animal to the monsters, that wasn't good, couldn't do that. Even God, the old sonofabitch, might appreciate a good horse.
He paced and he thought and he felt his nerves twist around inside of him, his feelings and impressions coming fast like rifle shots, jumping from one thought to another. Mary was sitting dead center in the bed, the rifle across her knees, watching the split in the door, turning her head now and then to look behind her, toward the open window, out into the night which seemed to have gone more dark and bleak than before, leaving only thin silver moonlight.
Jebidiah went to the window and looked out. The bones were still there.
He walked across the room, trying to make himself sit and rest. But he couldn't do it, felt like he had drank two or three pots of coffee. Shit. Coffee. That would be good right now. Some bacon and eggs. Hell, he was hungry enough to eat the ass out of a menstruating mule.
What was that? A flutter?
A moth beat at the window.
Okay. A moth. No problem there. It moved beneath the window and through the gap where Jebidiah had opened it to drop one of the lanterns. The remaining lantern hung from a hook in the ceiling and bled pollen-yellow light all over the place.
Jebidiah watched the moth. It was a big one and dark of wing and fuzzy. It flew into the room over the bed, up against the ceiling where it flittered about, the lantern light causing its shadow to flick and swell and flap along the wall. Jebidiah turned to look at the shadow and the shadow seemed larger than before. Jebidiah felt something move on the back of his neck, like prickly pear needles. It was his hair, standing on end. He turned to look at the moth again, up there on the ceiling, and it was a wolf; it had shifted shape. It clung upside down over the bed and Mary. Jebidiah wheeled, cross drew pistols and fired rapidly. One. Two. Three.
Mary was moving then, off the bed, running across the floor.
The wolf dropped, hit the bed, blew slats and frame in all directions, tossing fur and flesh, scattering dry bones. Then the door was hit, and Jebidiah caught a glimpse of a big yellow eye through the rent in the wood. He jerked off a shot. Mary wheeled toward the door, fired and cocked the rifle and fired and cocked the rifle and fired again, banging holes through the door. Outside the door came a noise like someone sticking a hot branding iron up a bull's ass.
The horse ran around the room, nearly knocking Jebidiah and Mary over. The door banged. Another bang, louder this time, and the frame cracked and the door came flying in. Two of the wolves bounded in.
The horse went wild. It reared. It slammed its hooves down on one of the wolves. The beast was driven beneath it. It latched its teeth into the horse's belly. The horse bolted toward the door, clattered through it, dragging the wolf beneath it as it went. Jebidiah could hear his mount clattering down the stairs, then there was a breaking sound, and Jebidiah knew the horse had lost its step and gone through the railing. He could hear a cracking sound as it fell, the horrible noise of a horse screaming.
He didn't have time to consider it. The other wolf was there. The revolvers bucked in his hands and the wolf took two shots in the teeth and the teeth flew like piano ivory. Mary, who had dropped to her knees, was cocking and firing with amazing accuracy, hitting the staggering beast with shot after shot in the chest. One went low and took off his balls. The wolf fell backwards, skidded, hit the wall, slammed up against it in a sitting position. Immediately it transformed. Its characteristics changed. The snout dove back into its face. The ears shrunk. Hair dropped off. A moment later where the odd version of a wolf had been was a naked Conquistador. Flesh fell off its frame like greasy bacon and its bones clattered to the floor like a handful of dice.
They continued to look toward the gaping doorway.
After a long time Jebidiah picked up the lantern and carried it out on the landing, pistol at the ready. Nothing jumped him.
He walked to the railing and dangled the lantern over it and looked down. His horse lay dead with its back broken across the bar. The wolf was not visible. Without fire or oak splinters, it had survived the fall.
He waved the lantern around, saw the bones of two other wolves. The ones he and Mary had shot on the stairway. All right, he thought, that's good. One in the street. Two in the room. And two out here. That's five. Two left. One of them the big guy.
Jebidiah saw movement. Something white. Or gray. It was Dol. He was gliding up the stairs.
"Why are you hiding?" Jebidiah said. "They can't hurt you now."
"It's a habit," Dol said, more or less standing on the landing beside Jebidiah. "I still think they can hurt me, even though I know they can't. There ain't no reason to it, but that's the way it is."
"So why did you come out now?"
"To tell you the big fella's coming. I can sense it. And he's mad. He ain't got but one wolf left. Thing is, he can make five others. That means you and her or two more. Least that's the way I see it from what you've told me. Long as there's six he can't make no more. But now for fresh meat. Fresh wolves. Put a gun in your mouth. Don't let him take you like he did them Conquistadores. You did them a favor. But don't let the big boy or the last wolf have you, boy. You won't like it."
"Thanks for the warning," Jebidiah said. "So there are just the two? We got the others?"
"Yep." Dol lifted his ghostly hat, slid past Jebidiah, across the floor and melted into the wall.
Jebidiah turned to see Mary in the doorway with the rifle.
"Dol," he said.
"I heard," she said. "Jeb?"
"Yeah," he said, as the two of them moved back inside the room.
"Looks like I ain't gonna make it . . . shoot me."
"We'll make it."
"Promise. You'll shoot me."
"We'll make it."
"It looks bad, you got my word."
"And if I can, I'll do the same for you."
"Well, just do not be in any hurry. I am in no rush. Make damn sure the end is nigh."
No sooner had they ceased speaking than they heard steps on the stairs. The lantern light gave the room a soft glow. A cool wind came through the open window and blew against their backs. Jebidiah said, "You turn, watch the window. See a moth, a bird, a bat, if you can hit it, shoot it."
"I can't hit it," she said. "I have to be standing right in front of it to hit it."
"You've done well enough tonight."
"Once with luck, once because no one could miss, not even a blind man."
"Well, if it's small, swat it."
They went silent again. Boards creaked on the landing.
Jebidiah wiped his hand on his coat, took hold of his revolver again. Then he did the same with the other hand. He pointed both revolvers in the direction of the door.
A slat of darkness fell into the room, but Jebidiah couldn't see its source in the hall. The shadowy slat began to move, a kind of oily thing that took shape, flowed over the floor, rose up large and solid.
It was a wolf thing with barred teeth. Jebidiah had been so amazed, he had done nothing, and now the wolf was on him. It came at him so hard it knocked him across the room, to the window, forcing him through the opening.
He fell. A boot caught on the window frame. The wolf leaned way out and grabbed him, pulled him up by his pants legs. Its mouth opened so wide Jebidiah felt as if he could see all the way to Hell. Its breath was every dead thing and rotten thing that had ever existed. It was about to bite him in the crotch.
Mary's rifle cracked two times and the wolf let him go. Jebidiah fell, twisting to land on his back with a white puff of dust. He hit so hard his breath was knocked out and he was unconscious.
When he awoke, he realized he had only been out for moments. He could hear screaming in the room upstairs. He moved, and it hurt to do so. His back felt as if it were on fire. He eased to a sitting position and tried flexing his legs. They still worked. All of him worked. His head ached as if he had been on a ten-day drunk.
He found his revolvers in the dust. Started back toward the hotel.
The screaming stopped with a loud shot. Jebidiah looked up. The wolf thing was at the window now, its snout dripping blood. It crawled out the window and scuttled down the side of the hotel toward Jebidiah.
Jebidiah opened fire. Hit the beast in the head the moment it dropped to the ground, a good shot just above the left eye.
The thing charged him. Jebidiah dropped the revolvers and grabbed at the wolf's shoulders, pushing away its head, its snapping teeth. He fell back, placing his boot in the creature's stomach, kicked up, launching the wolf.
When Jebidiah whirled to his feet and snatched up the revolvers, the wolf lay in the dirt. Not moving. Jebidiah realized his shots had been well placed, if slow in having effect.
The wolf lost fur, changed shape, shifted to a naked Conquistador. The flesh fell off, and instantly it was nothing but bones scattered in the street.
When Jebidiah had reloaded his revolvers, he walked around to the front door of the hotel, stood for a moment in the street. The door to the hotel was still wide open. He eased inside, pistols at the ready. He thought about Mary, took a deep breath, started up the stairs. Every step he took made a squeak. He thought he saw a shadow move on the landing. He squinted, saw nothing solid. But the wallpaper appeared darkly stained in one spot, and he had a feeling that his huckleberry was there, part of the shadows, part of the wallpaper.
Easing on up, he paused, turned his head like a curious dog. The spot on the wall moved, and as it did it swelled. It was the great wolf, easily eight feet tall. It clacked its claws as it walked. It bent slightly at the waist and stood at the top of the stairs.
"Could not wait, could you?" Jebididah said. "Too impatient."
The King Wolf's ears flicked, its tongue came out of its mouth and licked at the air and lapped across its own snout.
"You are not tasting me yet," Jebidiah said.
And then the King Wolf bent forward and came down on its front paws in a dive, came down the stairs at a run. Jebidiah's pistols barked, once each, and then the King Wolf hit him and he went tumbling backwards, step by step, landing at the base of the stairs.
He looked up. Smoke was twisting out of the King Wolf's body where the bullets had struck and it seemed frozen on the stairs, and he could see the creature better. It was unlike the others. Not only bigger, but there was a peculiar countenance about the horror that made Jebidiah feel as if he were in the presence of Satan himself.
And unlike the others, the bullets had done damage, but the King Wolf had been able to take it. Jebidiah got to his feet in a kind of shuffle, backed towards the door, the pistols held before him, his back aching, his side on fire. So far he had fallen out of a window and been knocked down a flight of stairs and he could still walk, so he felt he was doing well enough. And he hadn't even added in the werewolves.
When he was in the street, the doorway of the Gentleman's Hotel filled with the King Wolf's shape. It stood on its hind legs and its cock and balls swung about when it moved as if they were a clockwork mechanism. It bent its head to accommodate the doorway and moved out into the street, its teeth dripped saliva in thick strings.
"Guess it's you and me, Mr. Wolf. I know your boss. Both of them. One high, one low. I have not got such a great opinion of either."
The King Wolf charged off the hotel porch and into the street on its hind legs. Jebidiah fired with his revolvers, two shots, and though the shots had effect, they didn't stop the beast.
Jebidiah bolted and ran. He felt pain in every muscle, but fear of what was about to happen was stronger than pain. He ran. He ran fast. He was nearly to the overturned stagecoach when he looked back to find that the King Wolf was loping along rapidly, closing the gap. He could feel its burning breath on the back of his neck.
Jebidiah jumped up on the stage, dove through the open side window, dropped down inside. The King Wolf's face dunked into the open space and it let out with a wild howl that shook Jebidiah's already tormented insides.
Jebidiah let loose with both revolvers. Firing twice.
King Wolf jerked back. Jebidiah quickly began to reload. He had three bullets in one revolver when the thing showed itself again. Jebidiah fired a shot that hit the King Wolf solid in the forehead, made a hole and smoke twisted up from the hole, but the beast took the shot and didn't pull back. It stuck an arm through, caught Jebidiah by the ankle, jerked him up and out of the stage window, banging his head and causing him to drop one of his revolvers as he was pulled free.
King Wolf held Jebidiah high above the ground with one hand, its face easing closer toward him. Slowly. Making the triumphant moment last. The King Wolf's mouth opened wide.
Jebidiah jerked up the loaded revolver he still clutched in his fists, and fired his last shots straight into the King Wolf's open mouth.
The King Wolf snapped its mouth shut. Smoke came out of its nostrils. It stepped back a step. It opened its mouth so wide Jebidiah could hear the bones in its jaws pop. And then the King Wolf dropped Jebidiah on his head. The Reverend rolled and came up with the empty revolver. He supported himself on one knee, began reloading, glad he still had some wax-and-wood-shaving shells left, not happy that it seemed to be taking him forever to fumble the bullets into the gun. He glanced up fearfully as he loaded. The King Wolf was stepping backwards, slowly. Then it paused, its head tilted . . . and fell off, splatting heavily into the street, rolling over and over, losing hair, showing nothing but a skull, white as purity.
The rest of the torso fell over.
Finally, thought Jebidiah, the accumulated bullets, the shavings, have done their duty.
The great cold shadow rose out of the ground and filled the street. Jebidiah stood. The shadow rose thick and to the height of his neck, then the shadow fled, and with its passing came a cool wind, and when the wind was gone, there was nothing in the street, not even the shadow, which was melting into the tree line at the far end of the town.
The King Wolf was gone. There was only a twist of fur flying by. It clung to his cheek for a moment, then was blown away.
Out of the hotel came the white wraiths that had hidden there, among them the more solid Dol. All of the spirits rose up toward the sky, toward the stars, gathered into a fluffy, white formation that fled upward to join the Milky Way. In a moment they were all gone and the stars in the sky winked out like snuffed candles. The sun rose as if out of the ground and took a position at high noon immediately. The sky turned blue. White clouds boiled across it quickly, and then stopped, looking like mounds of mashed potatoes on a shiny blue china plate.
Jebidiah turned his head toward a sound. Birds chirping in a tree on the edge of the north end of the street. Brightly colored birds so thick that at first Jebidiah thought they were fall leaves gone red and yellow and blue and golden. The birds made a sudden burst to the sky, as if confetti had been tossed, and the sunlight behind them made them look strange and otherworldly.
In the hotel room Jebidiah found Mary. She lay on the floor. She had the rifle under her chin. She had managed to pull the trigger, shooting herself. He could see why. She had been bit all over. Maybe she had been in time. He decided to make sure.
He took her body out to the street, then brought the mattress out. He broke up chairs from the hotel and made a bonfire and got it started and put the mattress on that, put Mary's body on top of the mattress. He leaned against the stagecoach and watched her burn. When there was nothing left, he went up the hill to the trees where Dol had said the graveyard was. He saw it and walked among it, went up the hill and into the deeper trees where he found gutted graves. The wolves' graves. He used his pocketknife to shave off pieces of oak, and he made crosses from them, tying them together with strips of cloth from his shirt. One cross for each grave. Just in case. He tore pages out of his Bible and put those in the graves with them. Another just-in-case.
He went back to the hotel and got his saddle and saddlebags off of his dead horse, threw it over his shoulder, went out into the street and started walking south.
A crow followed, flying just above him, casting a shadow.
Saddle up your horse and ride back this way Thursday, July 26, for another totally free short story from Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale!
"The Gentleman's Hotel" originally appeared in The Shadows, Kith and Kin (Subterranean Press, 2007). It later appeared in Curse of the Full Moon: A Werewolf Anthology (Ulysses Press, 2010) and Deadman's Road (Subterranean Press, 2010). "The Gentleman's Hotel" © 2007 Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.