The Stranger’s Trail, by Tom Lynch

The Strangers Trail - illustration by Stjepan Lukac - click to enlarge - http://stjepanlukac.wordpress.com

The Strangers Trail – illustration by Stjepan Lukac – click to enlarge – http://stjepanlukac.wordpress.com

Marshal Sam Branson’s office door crashed open and a small boy burst into the room. “Marshal, Marshal! Doc Hubert says to come quick!”

“Hold on, Bobby. What’s the matter now?”

“He didn’t say, Marshal. He just said to come quick,” the boy crowed, tugging on Sam’s hand.

“Okay now. I’m coming.” Sam closed the book he was reading, and tossed it on the desk. He snatched his hat off the peg by the door and trotted after Bobby who’d already disappeared around the corner and down the road.

He tapped on Doc Hubert’s front door and waited. A minute later, the door opened and the dentist’s tall, gaunt form grinned at him from the doorway. “Hey, Sam! Thanks for comin’. Damnedest thing, lemme tell ya. Come in, come in!”

Sam stepped into the cool of the small living room. The woman’s touch was still visible in the room, even though Doc’s wife had passed away three years earlier. Doilies still decorated the backs of the wingback chairs, and the ashtrays were emptied.

“Pour ya a drink, Sam?” Doc asked.

Sam saw a slight unsteadiness in his friend, and knew he’d already been at the bottle. “Little early, isn’t it?”

“You say so,” Doc said into his glass as he tossed it back.

“So what happened?”

“Right! So it was the middle of the night, and I hear a crash outside. Pitch black outside, cuz, y’know, I’m on the edge of town here. So I grab my gun and a lamp and go to the door, right? Nothin’ there! So I put my gun down and open the door, holding up the lamp so I can see, and somethin’ hits me in the legs. Right in the shins. I jumped outta my skin, I tell ya. Dropped the lamp, too. Broke. Happily didn’t start a fire.

Anyways, I look down and there’s this guy leaning on my leg. He musta fallen against the door and when I opened it, he fell onto me. Still scared me shitless. Pissed myself a little. So there was this guy lyin’ on me. So I dragged him over to the couch and propped him up. Still had a pulse. Still breathin’. So what am I going to do with him? It’s the middle of the night, and I have an unconscious man in my living room. I did what I could do: I cleaned him up and put him to bed.”

“That’s it? That’s why Bobby had me run over here?”

“Not hardly, Sam. As I moved him to the bed, he came to. Started raving. Shouting. Surprised he didn’t rouse the neighbors, as far away as they are. Started going on and on about something on the other side of the ridgeline. He swore he’d never go back. Nothing’d make him go back. I managed to get some laudanum down his throat so he’d sleep.

“This morning, I figured I’d shave him. He had a big, matted red beard. Red hair, too. Darker red than his beard, though. So anyway, I shave him off and damned if he doesn’t look familiar. I can’t place it though, you know? So I start flipping through old magazines and books, and it hits me, and I nearly pass out.”

“What? What was it?”

“Here, Sam. You look.” Doc handed the marshal an open book.

Marshal Branson took it and looked at the entry. It was about a murderer in Edinburgh in the 20s. His partner in crime was hanged, but the other one escaped, and no one ever found out where he went.

“What’re you doing with books like this, eh Doc? A little morbid now, isn’t it?”

“A fascination I’ve always had, Sam. Now what do you think?”

“You’re kidding, right? You’re telling me you’ve got William Hare passed out in your spare bedroom right now?”

Doc Hubert’s face was a cold mask. “It gets worse. Come see.”

Sam followed Doc Hubert up the stairs to the spare bedroom. There, lying in the bed, was a middle-aged man. “Doc, he’d have to be much older than that. Says here he was born over 70 years ago.”

“Sure. Read the description. The part about scars.”

Sam turned back to the book, and looked up. Doc pointed to two spots on the prone figure in the bed. There was the white, linear scar along the jaw line, and the other jagged one on the left forearm, but the man lying in front of them was thirty years too young to be that man.

“Doc? I’ll take that drink now.”

“Thought as much.”

The two men thumped back down stairs and sat in the small wallpapered dining room with a bottle of whiskey between them. Not much later, the glasses stood empty, and the bottle would soon join them. The two men just sat and looked at each other.

“I’m still hoping this is a mistake.”

“Sure, Sam.”

“Because it could be. We could be wrong about this. He could be his son, and through crazy coincidence, have two of the same scars.”

“Of course he could, Sam. And you believe that bullshit as much as I do. Git back to yer office, and I’ll send word when he wakes up and calms down. We’ll talk to him to see what happened.”

“Yeah,” Sam sighed, standing. “Good plan. I’ll see if I have anything more on the Burke and Hare case. What year was Burke strung up?”

“’29, Sam.”

“Over forty years ago. Yeah…not sure how much information I’ll be able to get on that. One thing if I were in Washington, but, well, this ain’t Washington.” Sam winked and smiled at the dentist still sitting at his table and headed out.

Sam paused on the dirt road outside. Even in the streaming sunlight, he felt a chill. The smile died, and he looked out from the dentist’s house to see where the stranger might have come from. There was nothing but hard packed earth, scrub grass, and rock as far as the eye could see. Sam liked it that way. Sure, he could be back East in DC driving a desk, but out here, what he still considered the frontier, life was worth living. You didn’t just watch it go by. You could be a part of it out here under the broad sky, with snow-capped mountains in the distance.

True, not much usually happened around here. The town sprang up around the Coach House Inn since this was a coach stop, but that was really it. People who liked living out under the sky gathered here for a quiet life.

He shoved his hands into his pockets and stalked back to his office. This stranger would make noise. So much for the quiet life. Reporters would inevitably come. Doc liked to drink when he played cards, and when he was losing at cards, he talked. People would hear. That’s just how it would be.

Once back in his office, Sam went through the records he had, but found nothing, as he expected. He was going to have to wire Washington to get information, and they’d need to know why he wanted it. This one was not going to be easy. He supposed they’d have to try to figure out where he wandered into town from. Sam had several towns in the area under his jurisdiction, but stayed here for the coach access. It tended to speed up the mail service.

Sam knew he’d have to get a move on if he wanted to avoid making this into a circus. He hoped this wouldn’t stir his little town into a lynch mob. He had to do something, so he headed out to wire headquarters requesting documentation, and then look for Old Harley.

Old Harley had become something of a legend in the area. He lived with his wife and son, and whenever anyone from all the nearby towns wanted anything tracked, they pulled in Old Harley. No one knew where he got his skills but he had the uncanny ability to find things people were looking for, be they lost cattle, runaway children, or horse thieves. Sam had even seen him track a couple of shady gambling types over a solid rock canyon. No idea how he managed that, but they caught up to the two men, and the money box they’d stolen.

Again, he stepped outside, looking toward the horizon. Somehow, this town didn’t feel as safe as it used to. Something had happened, and now Marshal Sam Branson was on edge. He sent his telegram, and happily the telegraph operator didn’t appear to be paying attention to the message he was sending. Easier that way.

Next, he headed over to the Coach House to see if Old Harley was there. He pushed through the swinging double doors and scanned the room. “Mornin’ Marshal,” Ed called from behind the bar. Ed owned the Coach House Inn and tended to the day-to-day business of the inn. He was also the best source of information and gossip in the town. Everyone told Ed everything, even when they shouldn’t.

“Howdy, Ed,” Sam replied. “Wonderin’ if you can help me out.”

“Aw, Marshal, you know me. I’ll always help if I can,” oozed Ed.

“Yeah, Ed…I know. I’m lookin’ for Old Harley. Seen him today?”

“Not just yet, but what’s it, Tuesday? Sure…he’ll be here in a bit. He turns in early Mondays, so he’s in early on Tuesdays.”

“Is that so?”

Ed lowered his voice and leaned in to the marshal. “Private time with the little woman.”

Sam’s eyebrows shot up. “People really do tell you everything, don’t they?”

“Well, I don’t like to boast Marshal, but…”

“I see,” Sam said. “Well, I’d be obliged if you’d pour me a cup of coffee while I wait for him.”

“My pleasure, Marshal. On the house, as always.”

Sam muttered his thanks and made his way over to a table by the back corner of the room. Sam hated sitting with his back to anything but a wall. It was an occupational hazard as the highest law in the area. He watched the door and took a sip of his coffee. He wished he could have a drink at this point. Anything, really, other than this terrible coffee. Sam didn’t have the heart to tell Ed the coffee was awful. Maybe it was out of guilt that Ed never charged him for it. He made a mental note to see if he served others from the same coffee pot.

True to Ed’s word, Old Harley wandered in within a few minutes. His son “Little” Harley was with him. Little Harley was the biggest man in the town, towering over the rest of the population at over six and a half feet tall, and half that wide. Little Harley was the proverbial brick shithouse.

Old Harley started toward the bar, but his son tapped his shoulder and mutely pointed in Sam’s direction. Little Harley, the quiet mountain that missed nothing. Old Harley dropped into the seat across from Sam, “Whatcha need, Marshal?”

Little Harley sat down between them, waiting.

“Need to find where someone came from.”

“When?”

“Last night.”

“Where?”

“Starting from Doc Hubert’s.”

“When do we leave?”

“As soon as we can gather a bit more information.”

“Right,” Old Harley said, and turned to his son. “Harl, go get supplies from Ed, and we’ll head back to pack up.”

“Obliged, Harley,” Sam said. “I’ll be over to get you as soon as I can.”

Old Harley stood, and met his son on the way to the door. In Little Harley’s hands were two bottles of whiskey. Sam shook his head. Old Harley drank like a fish, but was as dependable as ever, no matter how much booze was in his system. It didn’t hurt that his son was an imposing presence who never left his father’s side. That came in handy more often than not on these expeditions.

His business here complete, Sam stood and downed the rest of his coffee, swallowing his gorge to avoid embarrassing himself or Ed, the brewer of the atrocious swill. He thanked Ed and headed out into the badly needed fresh air. He sucked in the fresh air and tried to work the taste out of his mouth. He walked by his office to see if anyone was looking for him, and then headed back to Doc Hubert’s.

He rapped on the door, and peered in the nearby window, suddenly nervous. He again became aware of how tense this whole situation was making him. There was no more routine; there was only this problem, and hopefully some solution.

Doc opened the door, and stared at Sam. “What is it, Doc? What’s the matter?”

“Come in, Sam.” Doc sounded as if his tongue were swollen.

Sam stepped past him into the room and saw the whiskey bottle from earlier on its side on the table, and another standing open. A third hung from Doc’s right hand.

“Hav’ drink?”

“Uh, no thanks…but what’s happened? I’ve only been gone, what, two hours, tops?”

“Psssh! Long enough!” Doc said, and started to chuckle. “He woke up, Sam.”

“He did? What did he say?”

“He told me his name. No prompting from me. William Hare, born in 1792. Derry, Ireland.”

“Doc, that’s just not possible. The man upstairs isn’t 80 years old!”

“DON’T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT SAM?” Doc shouted. He took a breath. “Sorry. Little shook up.”

“What else did he say?”

“Fled here after escaping to London in 1829. Stowed away on a ship to start over, and headed West after making port in New York. Worked odd jobs. Made his way. Finally stayed in one place long enough to buy himself a decent horse, and headed further West. He was riding over a bluff…and came to outside my door. He thinks the year is 1835.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Nothing. Telling me that much wore him out. He fell back to sleep.”

“Shit.”

“I’ll say. Now what? We could call Dr. Branney. Have him do a full examination.”

“I wanna keep this quiet, Doc. This will get out eventually, but I don’t want panic on our hands. There’s no way news of this is taken well around here. Old Harley and his boy are gonna help me track him back out of town. Hopefully we can find where he came from and get some more answers.”

“Okay, yeah. Just be careful, okay?”

“Yup. I’m gonna go pack up and get the Harleys. We’ll stop by here in case he wakes up again before we head out.”

Sam went back to his office and went into the back room. He grabbed his larger saddle bags, and put in blankets, hardtack, smoked meat, and two extra cases of bullets for his .45. He was heading to get his horse, when he thought the better of it, and went back to get one more case of .45 bullets and two cases for his Henry rifle. He truly did not know what he was up against, and the more he thought about it, the more uneasy he became.

He went around back, and tossed the stable boy a 3-cent nickel, and put the saddle bags onto his horse Two-Gun. He slid his rifle into the case in front of the right stirrup, slipped Two-Gun a carrot, and walked around to mount up.

“Hey Timmy,” he called to the stable boy. “Clean the stall out till it shines, and I’ll give you two nickels when I get back.”

Somehow, voicing the certainty of his return only made the growing pit in his stomach that much worse. He turned his horse and trotted over to Old Harley’s place. As he got there, little Harley was tying the saddle bags into place on their horses. The pack mule was already loaded. It looked like the father and son team were ready for this to take a while, and Sam was glad of it. While he only packed the minimum, if he were caught in the wild without food or water, he’d be a goner for sure. His two companions would make sure he wouldn’t starve anyway.

With a mumbled good bye to his missus from Old Harley and a silent wave to her from Little Harley, the three set out. They would stop in at Doc Hubert’s for any final information and hopefully track down some answers.

They got to the dentists’ house and the Harleys volunteered to stay outside. Old Harley took the opportunity to dismount and find the trail and a general direction. Sam tapped on the door. There was no answer. Sam backed up and looked at the upstairs windows. Not seeing anything he knocked louder this time, with no response.

“Doc!” he called out. “It’s Marshal Branson! You there?”

His nerves began to get the better of him. Little Harley nudged his horse closer, silently offering assistance. Sam waved him back, and pounded on the door. “Doc! Open up!” he shouted.

Finally, it crept open. A stooped and bleary dentist squinted out into the daylight. “Hey, Sam.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Musta passed out. Tired. Oh, I see you have the Harleys with you. Well c’mon in, there are some last bits to share with ya.”

Sam followed the dentist into the cool dark of his house, and waited. Doc turned to the marshal and began slowly. “It’s as if he was dreamin’. He seems to only remember bits and pieces. He’s sleeping again, but he wakes up and shouts nonsense, calms down, talks a bit, wears himself out, and falls back to sleep.”

“What’s he said?”

“Remember that ridgeline he mentioned? Well, he keeps going on about it, looking over his shoulder in a blind panic. I tell ya Sam, this ain’t normal fear. This is shit-yer-pants, nightmare-for-life fear that’s in him. Whatever he saw, whatever’s out there is Bad, with a capital b.”

Sam heaved a sigh. “Right. Well, I guess we’ll just have to see what we can find, and make sure to protect our own here in town.”

Doc started to look uncomfortable. “There’s…there’s more, I think, Sam.”

Sam knit his brow. “What is it, Doc?”

“He mentioned being chased. Running away, and the things almost got him. He didn’t say what, at one point he started squirming as if his back bothered him, so I looked. There, on his back, were what looked like three enormous claw scratches. Parallel wounds from his right shoulder blade to the middle of his back on the left, but each line is almost four inches apart.”

“Mountain lion?”

“Sam, I never want to see a mountain lion with a paw eighteen inches across!”

“Hell, Doc, I don’t wanna see anything with a paw eighteen inches apart! Can I see him? Why didn’t you mention this before?”

Doc shifted from foot to foot, and rubbed his hand over his bald head. “They’re uh…gone, Sam.”

“He’s gone?”

“No, they’re gone. The marks. They faded as he woke. It was as if…as if…”

“As if what, Doc?”

“As if he were dreaming it, Sam, but somehow it was affecting him after he was awake, too. I can’t explain it, but I had to have a few more drinks to get myself to sleep. This shit is crazy, and I hope to hell you can find some answers out there, because it seems to get weirder and weirder.”

Sam stood, silent. He started to speak a few times, but stopped. Finally, all he could do was pat his friend on the shoulder, and turn, and walk out of the house. Outside, he found Old Harley two hundred yards beyond the edge of town waiting for them. Judging by his posture, he’d found the trail. Little Harley sat on his horse, quiet, patient, ready. Sam mounted up, and the two rode out to join Little Harley’s father.

True to form, Old Harley found the trail and followed it like a blood hound till it got too dark to see. Rather than risking an injury to their horses, they bedded down for the night about ten yards from the trail to avoid fouling it. Little Harley sat silently by the fire while his father regaled them with stories of his past. True or not, they would have been amusing but for Sam’s preoccupation with Doc’s description of the stranger’s disappearing wounds. They bedded down shortly after eating since all attempts at conversation died quickly.

Cold morning came, and the three men shook themselves awake as the sky paled. Sam grasped as disappearing wisps of dream as he came awake. Something about chasing and fleeing. A warning. Forbidden entry into a forest that was not. And then it was gone. Troubled, but determined, he roused the other two and they picked up the trail and pressed on. As the ride began, he wondered how Little Harley could manage to make such great coffee with a small pot, a little water, and some course grounds, while the coffee Ed served back at the inn that was little better than week-old trough-water.

The day wore on, and by mid afternoon, Sam realized he had no idea where he was. The landscape was now totally unfamiliar.

“Hey Harley,” he called to the tracker.

“Yep?”

“You know where we are?”

Old Harley stopped and looked back at Sam, about to make some kind of joke. But he stopped. He looked around, and pushed his hat back on his head, rubbing his forehead. Little Harley stopped, too, looking all around them.

“Sam,” started Old Harley. “I have no fucking clue.”

Sam swallowed. “Well, you’ll be able to get us back, right?”

“Oh yeah…just follow his trail right back to Doc’s door.”

“Okay,” Sam said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Let’s press on then.”

“It’s just that…” Old Harley started.

“What, Harley?”

“Well, I been all over area, Sam. I should know it all by now, and I do. Or I thought I did. A little weird finding a spot I never been.”

“I’d think that’s kinda impossible, Harley.”

“I…uh…I dunno, Sam. Trail goes on in this direction though.”

“Let’s keep following it then.”

The trio pressed on through the unknown landscape, down through a ravine, across a shallow river, and out onto a grassy plain at the base of a modest ridge. The sun had dropped to the top of the ridge, and Old Harly recommended stopping there since the tracks looked to climb strait up the bluff.

Sam stared at the path ahead, trying to mask his tension from his companions. The hill in front of them certainly fit the bill for the feared ridgeline. He hoped whatever was beyond it would stay there while they tried to sleep, but he wasn’t willing to bet on it. “I think we should rotate through watch tonight. I just have a feeling.”

“No problem, Sam,” Old Harley said. “I’ll take first, and since my boy rises early, he’ll take third, yeah?”

Little Harley gave a terse nod.

“I’ll take second then,” Sam said. “That’s fine. Now let’s get that fire started.”

Later, fed and under his blanket, with one eye on Old Harley keeping an eye out with his Sharps rifle across his knees, and his bottle in his fist, Sam drifted off to sleep. Something horrible was behind him, chasing him. He had to get away. Beyond the ridge was safety, the border of this place, but he couldn’t get away. Something kept pulling on his shoulder. Every time he pulled forward, it pulled back.

Sam woke with a start. “You dreaming, Sam?” Old Harley asked, grinning. “It’s your turn to watch. G’night.”

Sam readily sat up. He remembered running from something in his nightmare, but had no idea what. It was frustrating, because he knew that in his dream he’d known what scared him. He shook it off and stood, walking over to Two-Gun, and pulling out his Henry rifle. He flipped it across his shoulders and wrapped his arms over it, and walked around their campsite. The fire was burning low, and the stars were blazing in the sky.

After a few minutes, he sat down, still looking up at the stars. He quickly realized what was bothering him. He couldn’t find the North Star. The big dipper was nowhere to be seen. None of the constellations were right. He looked back down a the fire and took a few long, slow breaths, and checked again.

They were still wrong.

The landscape was unfamiliar, despite being within two days’ ride from town, and now the stars were wrong. He hoped to God a wind storm wouldn’t come through and obliterate the stranger’s tracks, or they’d have no way to get home.

He started to hyperventilate, and see flashes behind his eyes. He needed to calm down. He stumbled over to Old Harley’s prone form and pulled the bottle from next to the older man’s cheek, and took a long pull.

“Hey!” barked Old Harley. “Geez, Sam! What gives?”

“Sorry. Just really needed a drink.”

“But Sam,” Harley started. “You don’t drink.”

“Harley,” Sam said. “Look at the stars. Tell me they’re okay.”

“The stars, Sam? Really, now. C’mon, this is cra—” Harley stopped.

“Well?” Sam wheezed.

“Sam, I…I can’t find anything I know. Where the fuck have you taken us, Sam? If we lose the trail, how the Hell are we gonna get back? I got my missus to worry about, and my pride and joy is sleepin’ right over there! WHAT THE HELL’S GOIN’ ON SAM?”

Sam saw Little Harley sit up, hearing his father shout. By the time Sam focused on Little Harley, he was standing with his revolver out. Clearly, this was a good man to have watching your back. “Easy, Harley. Shit’s getting weird, and we need to work together. Calm down. Easy…easy.”

Old Harley slowly brought his breathing under control. Little Harley holstered his massive Colt Peacemaker.

Sam started again, “The landscape was strange to us, so I looked up at the stars after Harley woke me for my turn on watch. That’s when I noticed. I don’t know what’s happened, and I don’t know how.”

“What are we gonna do, Sam? This has me weirded out.” Old Harley moaned.

“What we’re gonna do now, Harley, is stay alert. I’ll keep watch till first light. If you can sleep, do that. If you can’t try to rest. We’ll figure out the rest in the morning.”

Sam knew what he had to do, but it scared him. These people relied on him, and he couldn’t endanger them anymore. He couldn’t explain any of what was happening, so he had to do his best to protect his charges. He paced as he watched the surroundings around their camp. The Harleys slouched by the fire, not really able to sleep, but not really able to stay awake either. Sam’s nervous energy kept his nerves firing at this point. There was no way he’d be able to sleep now even if he tried.

Finally, dawn brightened the sky. Both Harleys had drifted into a fitful sleep by the glowing embers of the fire. Sam roused them quietly. “Boys, I want you both to follow the trail back home. Tell Doc what we saw, and tell him I went over the ridge. I want him to hear the story in case I don’t make it back.”

“Yer not comin’,” Old Harley whispered.

“No,” Sam stated. “I need to find some answers, and I hope they lie beyond that bluff, but I don’t know. And if something happens, I want Doc Hubert to get at least some of the answers. Now make me some o’ that excellent coffee, and get back home.”

Half an hour later, Sam kicked sand over the fire and waved farewell to his companions. No words were spoken. The pit was back in his stomach, but he knew he was doing the right thing this time. He then checked the ammunition in his guns, making sure they were fully loaded. He secured the rest of his supplies to his horse Two-Gun.

With a slow, deep breath, he started up the incline. Once at the top, he looked down on a landscape as if through a spyglass. He couldn’t figure it out, but it was as if it was further away than down the hill in front of him. There was a haze to it, too. A slight fog through which he was seeing what was before him. He scanned the landscape trying to place the feeling…

And then he had it. It was as if he were dreaming. He saw this with a gray tint to it as if it were in a dream. He gritted his teeth, and slapped himself in the thigh with his bridle leathers. Hard. His eyes watered, but the view in front of him did not change. He was really there and really seeing it. He looked back over his shoulder, but the Harleys had already disappeared from view.

Just as he was starting down into this alien setting, he heard a distant roar. His gut lurched and grabbed his rifle out of the holster on his saddle and cocked it in one motion, stopping Two-Gun at the same time. Hearing nothing more, he urged his horse forward slowly, carefully.

As he got the bottom of the valley floor, he looked at the thick vegetation all around him. It was as if he’d been transported into one of those South American jungles he’d read about. The colors, though, were wild. Yes, they were mostly green, but some were purple, orange, and other vibrant colors. Eerie lizards darted along branches and alien bird calls pierced the air.

Sam felt light-headed. Again, he felt as if he were traveling in a dream, and had to keep reassuring himself that he was awake. With a sudden thought, he turned around. His trail was gone. The alien jungle had closed in behind him, utterly enclosing him. He could not see his trail, or any disturbed vegetation. He holstered the Henry rifle, dismounted, and checked the ground.

No tracks.

Not a one.

With his eyes glued to the ground, he led Two-Gun back the way he thought he’d come. There was no way for him to be sure, but he wanted to know that he could find his way out again.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose. In one quick motion, he drew and cocked his revolver. Directly in front of him, the jungle came alive with movement. The thick vegetation burst apart and a huge, brown-furred creature burst through. It was a large and human-shaped. Almost.

It squared off in front of Sam and his horse, towering over them both. It opened its arms that split at the elbows into twin forearms on each arm, with each of the four wrists ending in two-foot-wide claws. Its face split open vertically, and the razor-toothed maw opened, letting loose an ear-splitting roar.

Marshal Sam Branson had seen his share of horrors, but he’d never seen anything like this creature. He knew, with every fiber of his being, that this creature was pure evil, and he, as a force of good, had to stop it. If he could.

With his heart thundering in his chest, and his knees knocking like never before, Sam raised his revolver and put six .45 caliber bullets in the thing’s chest. His heart sang praise and glory be as the thing stumbled backwards. Sam spun on his heel and grabbed for Two-Gun’s reigns, but his terrified horse must have bolted the instant the creature appeared.

Knowing the path behind him was not the way he’d come, he cut straight to his left, hoping to go around the creature and escape this valley of nightmares. He had all the flaming answers he’d ever needed. Clearly, anyone stumbling into this place would be lost and terrified for who knew how long.

No wonder the stranger kept waking in terror. If he’d kept himself alive long enough to escape this place, Sam knew his sleep would never again be the same. He reached to the back of his gun belt and pulled out six more bullets to reload his gun, and stopped, sucking air as he dumped spent brass into the wild vegetation. A lizard-like creature with impossibly large eyes scurried out on a leaf to examine him, and scurried back into the cover of the undergrowth.

Sam cut back to his right a bit as he started running again. He had an excellent sense of direction, and while he wasn’t as good as Old Harley, he was pretty certain he knew he was headed in the right direction.

Just then he heard a terrified whinny. Two-Gun! He spun and bolted in that direction, hearing the horse cry out again and again. Sam crashed through the underbrush into a small clearing only to find his poor horse, lying on his side, eyes wild with fear and pain. He knelt by the horse’s head, and stroked the soft nose. He looked down to see a horrible wound along Two-Gun’s belly, pumping out blood.

“How long has it been, Boy, eh? Six years now, right? I got you just after I got the job out here. You’ve been with me ever since, every step of the way. Aw, Two-Gun. I’m sorry, Boy. I can’t help you any more now. No…there’s nothing more I can do, except…except one last thing. I’m sorry, Two-Gun. You were the best horse and partner a marshal could have.”

Sam Branson shot his horse in the head.

Wiping his eyes, he collected his Henry rifle and pocket-fulls of bullets for both his guns, and he set out again, his jaw set.

He cocked his rifle and rested it against his shoulder as he walked back the way he came. He thought. He hoped that thing would come out again. Sam felt it was time for a reckoning.

Suddenly, Sam realized two things: one, he was utterly exhausted, and two, the ground was starting to rise. The only slope he’d experienced so far was the far side of the ridge down into the God-forsaken valley. He trudged forward, despite his exhaustion.

He climbed out of the thick jungle and looked back. He stood, scanning the area for the monstrous giant. Yeah, he wanted to feed that thing some lead, but he also wanted out of this valley. He needed to get a team out here to map the area, so everyone knew to avoid it like the plague. And Washington needed to know there was a situation here that needed some heavy artillery. He had no idea how he was going to explain it, though.

But first, he had to get back to town. He finally crested the hill, and collapsed on the other side, bone tired. Sam slept a deep, dreamless sleep. Nothing disturbed him. He’d gotten enough answers for now.

By the time he woke, it was full dark again, and he was back on the plain with the ridge behind him. Without his horse, he didn’t know how long he’d need to get back, so he figured he’d set out. Happily, there was a light in the distance to guide him. Whatever was there would surely supply a U. S. Marshal with a horse.

He walked in the chill night air with revived purpose, but as he got closer and closer to the light, he felt more and more ill at ease. Something wasn’t right. That light was coming from a town. Not a town, though. A city. A big city.

There were no cities that big out this way, so what could this be?

He spotted lettering at the edge of the city, too.

Lettering made of light: another impossibility.

The letters read

WELCOME to Fabulous

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA

EPILOGUE

Sam sat at the counter, enjoying the last of his lunch at his local diner. He jumped as his cell phone chirped and vibrated on his hip. He still didn’t understand why they called it a “cell” phone. The phone part he understood, but to him, a cell was still something you’d use for a criminal in lock-up.

He put down his coffee (again, better than Ed-the-innkeeper’s swill-coffee) answered the call, jotted down some notes to himself, and ended the call. So much for his lunch break: back to work. Thinking back, it had taken some doing to get to this point, though. Local law enforcement had been very interested in him that night a year and a half ago. They’d wanted to know how a guy playing dress-up had gotten his hand on an authentic, mint-condition, loaded Colt .45 and Henry rifle from 150 years ago. As it was, Las Vegas PD had held him until someone from the US Marshals had come in. Sam’d had no earthly idea what a “human resources representative” was at the time, but he’d learned…sort of. Days later, some other gentlemen came to see him, too. They didn’t give their names, but claimed to be with the government, and aware of the kinds of things he’d seen. They had been very helpful.

Within the next few weeks, they’d set Sam up with a place to stay, a modern identity, and a car. The car had been tough. It was a whole new idea to the old-world cowboy. It was no Two-Gun, but it worked. It had taken months of careful training for him to get comfortable with driving. Finally, he’d managed it, and could get around. About half a year after he’d met his “handlers” as they called themselves, he was on his own. He’d had his job as a private investigator explained to him. There were a lot of adjustments former-US-Marshal Sam Branson had to make in adjusting to the 21st century, but the art of investigation was something that hadn’t changed. They’d even been kind enough to set him up with his first few clients. It was a pretty straightforward job, and he liked it. They even allowed him a carry permit, but had to get him trained on an automatic. Another new technology he’d had to get used to!

He’d gone through his first few cases quite quickly and efficiently, and earned himself a good reputation. Most clients were women looking for their husbands, not expecting or accepting the lure that Sin City had for the frustrated middle-aged middle-manager.

This most recent case was something different, however. A frantic mother had called him yesterday, and since it hadn’t been twenty four hours, the police wouldn’t do anything yet. Some teenager on his motor bike had disappeared out in the desert. Easy place to fall and get hurt, but there was more according to another local who was trying to help: there were tracks leading up one side of the hill, but on the other side? Not a trace of him or his bike was found.

Tom Lynch is thrilled and honored to be appearing in the ever-eldritch Lovecraft eZine.  Tom is a longtime devotee of the art of the fine tale, and is descended from a line of family that enjoys a good nightmare, so is it any wonder he writes stories with a darker twist? Tom has a story in Horror for the Holidays, edited by Scott David Aniolowski, and will be appearing in Undead and Unbound, edited by David Conyers and Brian Sammons, Eldritch Chrome, and Atomic Age Cthulhu: Terrifying Tales of the Mythos Menace both edited by Glynn Owen Barass and Brian Sammons. There are others, but the ink is not yet dry enough to share details.  By day, Tom is wrapping up his life as a graduate student, learning to expand young minds as an elementary school teacher and spends the rest of his “spare” time running Miskatonic River Press.

If you enjoyed this story, let Tom know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Stjepan Lukac.

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12 responses to “The Stranger’s Trail, by Tom Lynch

  1. Great story, Tom! Very impressed at the twist. Funny, I just got done watching Justified and then settled back to read, well, your story…
    Stranger than fiction.

    Mark.

  2. Weird westerns have been my favorite genre as of late, and this story is among the best I’ve read. Very well crafted with good pacing, adequate character building, an ever present sense of dread, and an interesting twist at the end that really left me wanting to read about what happens next (hint). I’ll be tracking down more of your stories Tom. Thanks!

    • Yeees, I have a few ideas of what could happen to our pal Sam next. Thank you very much for your kind words. 🙂

  3. A very effective sense of mystery, here — the story growing ever more unsettling and eerie as we realize the veil between realities has been crossed. Nice epilogue…it promises more adventures for our displaced protagonist! How about it?

  4. This is a great story, definitely my favorite from this issue. I am in the midst of writing a Western with a supernatural twist and it’s encouraging to find likeminded authors!

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