The Crimson Pact Volume 4 (2012)
Darkness of the Sun
by Patrick M. Tracy
Part One: Dogs and Preachers
I put my boot against the preacher’s neck and held him down. His claws reached up, scratching at my chaps, his needle-sharp teeth gnawing against my heel. He gave out a hellish growl that would put a cougar to shame, but I wouldn’t let him up. Not after all the nonsense he’d got himself up to—poisoning wells, swindling folks out of their life savings . . . shoot, he’d even stolen a few horses. In the Arizona Territory, such behavior was not tolerated. I unholstered my .58 Buxton and pointed it into his scarlet demonic face. We both knew what he was by then. There was no sense in trickery and pretense.
“You ain’t got the salt to do me in, law man,” he hissed. “I got friends all over these parts, and they’ll kill you like a coyote. You let me up this instant, and I’ll think about forgiveness. You get all brave and heroic-like, my boys’ll skin you alive and eat your liver.”
The Buxton gave out a roar and coughed up its blue-white smoke. Demon filth splashed all over my leg as the huge iron shell made a mineshaft through the preacher’s head. I started walking back to my horse before he began to burn away and turn to tar.
“Guess we’ll find out,” I said as I swung a leg over and touched my heels against Casserlie’s side. The big paint mare responded, trotting down the arroyo and back to the trail. Trusting her enough to drop the reigns, I set the Buxton to half cock and poked out the spent shell, dropping it into a pocket. The fresh shell from my bandoleer had the crooked Eastern Orthodox cross stamped on its broad, flat nose, and the powder was doped with ground eagle feather and carp scales, just like the Hopi Medicine Man had said. If the preacher’s demonic cohorts came for me, I’d be ready. It’d save me the trouble of hunting the motherless bastards down.
I put away the Buxton and got my feet well set in the stirrups, urging Casserlie to a loping gallop. It was a damn long ways back to the Oatman gold and silver mine, and a pretty lady was waitin’ for me. So was a bottle of whiskey. I was in no mood to take it slow, as you may imagine.
The name’s Calico Black. I’m a U.S. Territorial Marshal, and I patrol from along the Colorado all the way east to the Rio Grande. In my day, I’ve locked doors on killers, thieves, and ornery drunks. I killed a werewolf and traded its pelt for a bow and arrow up in Carson City once. I shot dice and drank Mescal with a Havasupai vampire under the light of the moon and came back whole. I done my share of braggin’ but most of what I say is true. This here’s one of my demon hunting stories.
* * * * *
Casserlie had a heart as big as all outdoors, and she could generally keep on a gallop just about as long as my thighs and rump could stand it, but come dark of that day, we was both about spent. I poured the last of the water from our skins and let her drink it out of my hat. For me, I used the dull side of my knife to take the spines off of a pear cactus and chewed it slow by a small fire of mesquite and gathered brush. Heavy scented smoke lay against the ground, and I sat back, watching the stars as they danced their slow promenade above me.
There’s a lot said about being a lawman, and the bulk of it’s nonsense. Here’s what’s true: you live a life of boredom, loneliness, and discomfort. You have a whole lot of opportunities to go wrong and take things the easy way, and precious few seconds to decide what the righteous path might be. When things get hot, you have to make the right choice. You don’t stand and deliver when the time comes, someone gets hurt, maybe someone dies. Trick is, you never know when those times are gonna come, and no matter how tired or bored or lonesome you might be, you have to be ready to act. Things seem to get hot for me more often than the average fella, and I sometimes do okay when the heat comes down. That’s why I’m still around. Sometimes I fail, and that’s why a few people I tried to save aren’t. On account of my name, a bunch of my friends have taken to calling me “the lucky man,” but I don’t see as how being named after a cat has done much for me thus far. If the Lord Above’s takin’ it easy on me, I’d sure hate to see it when he bears down.
Thinking these thoughts, I fished a blunt ironwood pipe out of my saddle bags and filled it with a little of the peace weed that I sometimes rely upon when I come up maudlin. I lit up and the skunkish fumes mixed in with the mesquite smoke. I watched as Casserlie wandered down the little wrinkle in the desert, snipping off any tender shoots that she could find. I didn’t hobble her. I’d never had to. She wasn’t the type to run off, even if there was trouble. I started to whistle a song, but my chapped lips threatened to bust up, so I just sat back and thought about the women I’ve known, that being a topic that can ease a man’s mind.
I must have dozed off, because it was a lot later, and clouds had come across the sky. It had fallen chill, as the desert sometimes does. I blinked, looking at my boots standing upright next to the fire. The bed had fallen down to barely-glowing embers. It was real quiet, the air hanging strange and slack against my face.
My horse made a sudden, sharp sound, almost like a scream, and I heard her hooves come up from the hardpan at a full gallop. I was on my feet, my right hand on the Buxton, left on the Schofield .44, before she thundered by. I was ready for man or beast, teeth gritted.
I squinted into the darkness and dust Casserlie left in her wake, seeing eyes. Three sets, glowing in the night, moving in that loping run of a predator. It was hard to gauge their speed and size, but I knew they were big, and coming fast. I knew they were more than coyotes, as Casserlie was generally of a mind to deal with simple varmints herself.
Now, a whole passel of animals have eyes that glow. Dogs, wolves, cat-a-mounts, even deer. It’s always yellow or green with natural animals though. These . . . these looked like the color of the coals in a locomotive’s firebox, orange red and brighter than any reflection could make them.
I said a pretty potent string of curse words in Spanish, Navajo, and my own rough English. None of what I said is fit for decent folk, but when hell hounds come at you in the dead of night, you don’t always act as you ought to. It shakes a man’s soul, the knowledge that beasts from all them dark realms beyond walk your world, that they breathe your air. To a man of some kinda principle, it claws right at your heart to consider.
Things just ain’t been the same in this country since the demons walked out of a rolling ball of acid green fire during the Battle of Chickamauga. That was a good sixty years ago, well before my time, but it don’t take a Medicine Man to know that things ain’t the way they’re supposed to be. The interlopers, all the nightmare creatures that they talk about in the old and leather-bound books, have crowded in on our claim, and we have yet to round up a posse able to chase ‘em off for good.
But that’s why they pay me. To put things to rights.
I twitched the huge Buxton out of the holster, taking a bead on the lead hell hound. I timed my shot to its stride and touched one off. The revolver kicked like holding your hand up and trying to stop a falling sledgehammer. It was something you never quite got used to. The sound of it, perhaps blasphemously, had always brought to mind the thought of God’s voice, claimin’ vengeance on the unrighteous.
The first set of eyes blinked out, and I saw a puff of dust rise as it tumbled, already dying, across the desert’s surface. One hell hound veered toward me, running even harder. The other broke left and crested a ridge, out of sight but still running fast on Casserlie’s hoof beats.
My next shot went high as I misjudged the cadence of the hound’s loping gait. The third slammed directly into a big saltbush I hadn’t seen through the gloom. The hound was within ten paces of me as I tried to steady myself. I clenched my teeth and fought to keep the Buxton from shaking, although I knew that my hand and wrist would scream in protest if I fired the big revolver again.
Still, it wasn’t half so bad as dying. I dropped my chin, let out half a breath, and pressed the trigger. The hound, stinking of sulfur and ash, came to a skidding stop right on top of my little fire. Its upper jaw and the top of its head were gone. The putrid smell of its hair catching flame just about brought up my gorge, but there was no time.
Barefoot, I ran up the ridge to try and get a shot against the other hound. Casserlie was the best horse I’d ever had. My hand screamed with every rapid pulse, my feet soon bleeding from the sharp rocks and rough sand of the desert.
I made the top of the ridge, heart pounding, breath coming like a bellows. The remnants of the peace weed in my system caused everything to bulge and twist like carnival glass. I shook my head to clear it. The moon, gibbous, had come free of the clouds. I could see the mottled hide of the hell hound, gaining on my mare, who was still tuckered out from the hard day’s ride.
The Buxton only held four shells, and I’d shot through all of ‘em. Normal lead bullets wouldn’t kill a hell hound, but they’d damn sure slow one down. The Schofield was a fine revolver, and I was a fair shot with my left hand. I squeezed my right eye shut, cleared leather, and pounded all six shells in the hound’s direction. Next to the Buxton, a .44 is like a child’s toy. Plenty to do a man to death, but not enough for demons. I think four shots drove into the hound, and it staggered after the fourth hit it in the rear flank, deadening its back legs for a moment.
Hating to, I took the time to reload the Buxton before running down off the ridge. I couldn’t see the hound, but Casserlie stood, high against the moon, on a little mesa off to the north. I could tell by her stance that she was spent out. She’d turned around to make a stand, and though she was a fine horse, the hound would kill her inside of a minute.
By the time I got to the hound, it was up again, though it couldn’t run, and seemed confused by the .44 in its brain pan. Its slavering jaws snapped, the big talons on its feet scraping furrows in the stone of the slick rock where it had fallen. It took a run at me just as I stepped down on a barrel cactus and fell on my backside. I raised the huge revolver before me like a talisman, looking up into sure death.
The Buxton went off once more, this time close enough to smell the hound’s rancid breath. I’ll admit to giving out a little yelp as the gun twisted in my hand so hard that I thought my wrist would break. All that power saved me, though, slamming into the hound’s rib girdle so hard that the bullet traveled the full length of the beast’s body and kept going.
It flopped to the side, snapping and making the five voiced howls of hell before finally going quiet.
I lay back, bleeding, half deaf, and feeling like I’d gotten my hand caught in a threshing machine. I had time to wish that hell hounds turned to smoke and tar like human-shaped demons, as the stink of its blood hung in the air, ruining the outdoors.
Casserlie, good horse that she was, came up to me despite the stench and let me ride her, bareback, over to our camp again. It was near to dawn before I’d bandaged up my feet proper and wrapped my wrist so that the pain wasn’t so bad. I was needing that whiskey more and more all the time.