𝗠𝗶𝘀𝘀 𝗞𝗶𝘁𝘁𝘆 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗠𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗟𝗲𝗴𝘀
𝘣𝘺 𝘙𝘰𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘵 𝘗𝘰𝘱𝘦
Sam and I waited in a tree near the river, around the bend where the boys would come if they managed to chase that thing between the river and the rise of land off the bank where we had secreted ourselves, waiting to get a bead on it. I had the Winchester propped on a branch, watching for any movement, while Sam trusted two six shooters, as usual, and he was better than most to give him credit due. I had climbed higher than Sam, and as a result the branch I sat on was thinner than optimally desired. I sat quite still so I didn’t make a lot of unnecessary noise shaking the leaves.
Sam was nearer the base on a thick branch broken off in a fairly recent storm, astride it the way he sat his horse, leaning back, guns at the ready. I could see the top of his white hat, banged up and dirty as it was, but not his expression—though I would have bet it was the same idiotic look he gave everyone, the one that reminded you he would shoot you if you had the bad judgment to confront him, shoot to kill.
Still, he was my companion at arms, and a better one I could not have chosen myself—a good shot, a pair of fast and effective fists, and a loyal heart since I saved him from being strung up by desperados who got the drop on him. Of course, Sam and I operate under the auspices and protection of the law at all times since I was at the time a sworn and signed Federal Marshal. Though born and raised across the Pond, I am as proud an American as Sam, who hails from the wilds of Oklahoma.
I had not yet seen the thing being driven toward us, but Sam had, and he swore it was the damnedest thing he had ever seen. It took him so much by surprise as he came out of the saloon that he completely forgot to set his guns blazing, as he might have with a clear head.
Now the others said they had seen it too, though the three of them were liars from the moment I first saw them. I had given Sam clear instructions to hold his fire until I said, “Now!” It seemed incumbent upon me to actually see the thing before we killed it, and to ascertain if it was the sort of creature that required killing. I had seen my share of creatures worth shooting in recent years, but most had two legs and two arms.
Phineas Attenborough, I will admit, had lost a leg at sea.
Sam also had a knife in a holster with a blade the length of a baby’s arm which he called Miss Kitty, as capable of inflicting harm as his pistols; if at all possible, he preferred the close-up work to long range. I could see his legs jutting over either side of his branch, spurs ready to dig in its sides if need be. And though I was ready and able, I had my doubts. Still, Sam and I and the boys had ridden two days to get here, and we were not about to shirk our duty, not when it promised any fun.
The boys were three fellows who stuck with us because I paid them by the week, and an unrulier batch I have never seen. They had full use of their sidearms and came in handy in a pinch, and if I lost one or two of them in the process of herding in this creature, well, I could replace them in town with a couple layabouts at the local pub. It occurred to me the last time I used them that I might have to shoot the one named Slim if he went as crazy as the last time he had drink, but then I knew I’d have to shoot them all. Thick as thieves, those three.
When I heard the hooting and hollering, I knew the boys had something on the run or found a case of whiskey and drunk it off. Pretty soon, I heard the snapping and cracking of branches and set my eye a bit closer to the site of the Winchester for readiness. Here it came, backing up, as it turned out, a grayish beast with clear segments, four or five of them, like gray polyps one on top of the other, with two arms or legs jutting out each segment up to the head and yet standing on the bottom pair like a dog on its hind legs.
It might have resembled an insect if it had lain on its belly and crawled about like one, but it appeared that those hands or feet each had the ability to maneuver as necessary in a pinch. I noted that he was completely unarmed—except of course for all those actual arms. With the upper pair, I saw he was shoving one of the boys into an accessible hole I took to be his mouth. I saw it had several rows of ugly teeth that made me shiver just looking at them.
And yet, I saw no blood, just the shoving and the going in. As for which scoundrel got shoved in his gullet, at this juncture, I could not tell. All I saw was the kicking legs. One of his boots had gone missing. When the creature turned to move into range of Sam, I saw one of the other boys, Pete, creeping around the trees with his gun at the ready.
When Pete saw the last of his buddy pushed into the maw of the beast, he held up one pistol and fired, and then here came the other, taking absolutely no time at all to aim—one of his bullets whistled past my knee and stuck firmly in the trunk against which I supported my back.
The creature did look a bit unsteady on his lowest feet, so I figured he was more used to running on a pair or more, and I was proved right when he dropped down to the last two segments and continued fleeing with the first three still erect. I must have been somewhat dumbstruck myself. Just as I remembered to give the signal to Sam, he dropped from the tree onto the back—I say back when I actually mean the back of his first two segments—of the creature as it moved swiftly past, screaming, “Yahoo,” as he did so.
I could never break him of that habit of yahoos though I had tried repeatedly. In the pitch of action, he would let one loose as if he could not help himself and barely knew he had announced his arrival in such a manner. At the same time, he was effective, preferring once again the proximity of the blade to the certainty of the bullet. He held onto the beast, plunging Miss Kitty into the third segment—the one he could reach—repeatedly with a varied assortment of yahoos bursting forth in his enthusiasm. Pete had stopped firing when he saw Sam drop from the tree, and Billy ran up beside Pete and watched Sam go at it with the blade. I could now tell, due to the appearance of Billy and Pete, that it had been Slim—so designated because of his copious belly—that the creature had eaten. He would not be hungry for a while.
In all this time, I had seen no need for the Winchester, as Sam had things under control as he climbed the back of the caterpillar finding purchase for his boots on the greenish knobs protruding from the sides and backs of each segment. The whole spectacle struck my funny bone, and as a result, I commenced laughing, which sound had the unexpected effect of drawing the insectivore’s attention, as he stopped his progress and looked directly up at me.
I noted several things in rapid succession, the first of which was that several of Pete’s bullets had passed through the creature and come out the other side, and that the slicing of Miss Kitty seemed to have no effect at all on the forward motion of the beast, who I suddenly saw looking up at me through the branches with six sets of big round eyes in a bunch on what I might have called his forehead had I still wished to compare him to a human being.
Here he came, Sam climbing his back with Miss Kitty doing her part, and now the activated Pete and Billy firing as they came, without once aiming at anything in particular, narrowly missing Sam on two occasions I could see. And here it came crawling up at me with the patient assurance of reaching its destination and no doubt consuming me as well. I wondered what the best tack to take might be in the face of an impending confrontation.
But, as I have discovered, most human conclusions are deeply flawed whatever the subject, and this was no different. I watched the creature crawl right up the tree past me, and, as it did, I saw the outline of Slim stuck slantwise in the third segment, on its way out. What happened then struck me as just what it was, an object lesson on human stupidity and lack of attention to detail, something of that nature. For as I followed the creature’s passage higher, I now noticed that the tree I had chosen was clotted with four more of the creatures, none as big as the original but no slouches either, all of them dripping mucus from various orifices.
A disgusting sight, no doubt about that, but what did it mean? Well, being something of a naturalist myself, I quickly deduced that these smaller boys were males awaiting the approach of a female of the species with reproduction on their minds, if they could be said to possess minds. And she, with the brute determination of the thoughtless beast, had come in spite of the obstacles we provided or imposed.
A funny thing: as her entire length passed me by, Slim fell out of her and dropped below to the ground after striking every branch on the way down. Of course, he was dead at the initial squirt, smothered or poisoned by internal secretions intended to break down the body to provide nourishment.
In no time at all, she was among them, cavorting with a dull frolicsomeness that was awful to see. Now, I have failed to mention that Sam had gotten off the creature on the branches below mine and had seen as much as I had when she passed. When we exchanged glances, he shoved a chaw in his teeth and started in on it. We both heard Pete and Billy mourning their fallen comrade where he lay at the base of the tree. We had nothing to fear from them as neither one could climb a tree or would exert themselves to do so even for revenge.
Well, when Sam and I finally made it to the ground—in many ways, it is more difficult to descend than to ascend a tree—we buried Slim near the river with many a look at the top of that tree and making observations and comparison with the trees round about. It became clear to me that I had chosen the only tree containing oversized man-eating caterpillars, and this should have been obvious from even a swift assessment. For this, I gave myself a sharp lecture.
So, once we had Slim planted, as they liked to call it, Pete and Billy still wanted revenge on the beast without actually climbing the tree after her. So, of course, their solution is to set the tree on fire, which I counseled against as the timber thereabouts was dry as tinder and liable to go up at the slightest encouragement. But they would not have it otherwise, and I gave up my warnings against my better judgment. Sam grinned at me the whole time they tried to catch that tree on fire.
They were a decent clown act, and when I too broke, we both laughed our fool heads off, Sam slapping at his knees and shouting Yahoo. This did nothing but egg on the boys who gave us many an angry glance while attempting to make an enormous error of judgment. Each failed attempt set us off again, until, lo and behold, the spark took hold, and the tree went up like a flaming sword.
I am not sure about Sam, but I stopped laughing immediately and took a step back toward the river. “Sam,” I shouted. “Sam, follow me.”
I didn’t have to turn to know Sam would be hard on my heels as I plunged into the river, moving as fast as I could and as far as legs would carry me into the current, swimming as I had been taught as a lad beside the Thames. And with Sam behind me, though he had been raised on the drought plains of Oklahoma. Anyhow, we made it across, sputtering a while before we could head into the bush. I did not care to see whether or not the boys had taken our lead, but I guessed they did not, as I never saw them again.
When we got back to town, washed the soot off, and had a drink, I sent a telegram back that we confronted the ‘foreign element’ and not only turned it back but had destroyed it in pitched battle. No arrests made. Stop.
The reply came several days later: mission not completed.
Our agent reported further incursions. Our instructions were to head back to the burned-out region for a second consult with Johnson, the old prospector who functioned as field agent; our first consult predated the destruction of the lair of the worms by fire. Johnson had informed us of the sighting of the gigantic worm which we had dispatched with fire.
He should know since he let them out.
Well-fed and well-provisioned, fully serviced, fully rested, Sam and I took to horse early the next morning. You may have gathered that my partner is a laconic fellow, but sometimes out on the range, he opens up on some topic on which he has expended prodigious thought. Such was the case on the way back to the Johnson Claim.
Curiously enough, this had nothing to do with our recent adventures with worms. He had been thinking about how I saved him from hanging. We had just about decimated the Attenborough Gang that had once plagued the region, and we took some time off, resting on our laurels, so to speak. You will recall, I have mentioned old Peg-leg. At this time, Sam courted a young lady whose father owned a large parcel of land by the river, down at the base before it runs along the town, on which he raised cattle and a few horses.
When Sam went visiting one day, this Daniel Smithers set him at a piece of work so they could talk. He got Sam out in a field repairing fences while he talked about what he expected of any man stupid enough to hitch up with Sally Smithers. So, for Sam, the outing lacked in the baser satisfactions. Smithers was a teetotaler, no drink, his daughter untainted, according to the father, no mischief.
Worn out with working and talking, Sam set out for home on the back of his roan mare with an air of defeat, droopy in the saddle, when he was set upon by the remainders of the scattered Attenborough Gang, three fellows I knew well, who would have eventually killed old Phineas themselves if we hadn’t done it. I believe the locals would have called them varmints.
Why do I say they surely would have killed him had I not done so first? It was in their nature. They were proud of the idea that they could not be ruled—not even by reason. The Spanish influence in the neighborhood referred to them as Bad Hombres. But, distracted as he was, and as forlorn as an old dog suffering the pangs of Blue Balls, they set upon him.
Mind you, they did not even recognize him as one of the two most well-known lawmen in the Western Territory, at least not at first. They had nothing more in mind than taking everything he had and humiliating him as a token of their own magnificence. Unfortunately for Sam, one of them saw the butt of his Colt stuck out the holster on his left hip and recognized it and then Sam, as my partner. “Hey, wasn’t you with that English skunk that killed old Phineas?”
Sam did not answer—I mentioned he is laconic—and didn’t even look in their faces, not right away. He didn’t want to see them. They humiliated him something terrible, calling him nasty names and laughing at their cleverness. But, at last, one of them went too far, not a promising idea where Sam is concerned. We only get along so well because I respect his spirit-ball, as he calls it, by which he means the ball of protoplasm or ectoplasm or something not yet imagined that surrounds the Solitary Man, which he considered himself. Solitary Man. He used to say to me that the mark of his freedom was that he liked what he liked and would let no man tell him different. We had been discussing a sexual act which seems to me nothing short of barbaric.
Back to the showdown. Sam dispirited, astride his horse.
“Pussy-lips,” one of the scoundrels shouted at him.
For some reason, this was the exact phrase that would set him on a slow burn. Because while slow to fury, Sam had more than once proven the endurance of his fury over time and had demonstrated as well something like the patience of a god before unleashing this fury on its first cause. He would whip my ass right along with all the asses of all the preachers in Kansas and all the asses of a regiment of cavalry, if they tried to stop him. In the end, someone’s ass always got whipped, and soundly, by this Sam, my partner, a man I am proud to call my friend.
A man whose ass I have both whipped and saved.
So, we left Sam traversing the prairie the shell of the man he used to be, undergoing humiliation by leftovers of the Attenborough Gang; he had become infuriated when called “pussy-lips.” I don’t think the man who spoke it knew what he was saying. It makes no sense when you come right down to it, both why this idiot would call a man “pussy-lips” in the first place, and why “pussy-lips”?
I see no reason to explain this any further. It made Sam mad.
He did not reveal it, though if Hank Ridges, the bloke who said it, had caught the glint in the eye of Sam, and felt the coldness of the blade that would sever his life-cord in that glinting eye, he would have turned his pistol to his own mouth and pulled the trigger to get it over with. They had the rope; one of the knuckleheads figured out how to tie a noose, or so he thought. Sam could see at a glance the noose would slip out at the slightest tug, much less the full weight of a descending body.
It might not look like it, but Sam had been watching all the time, and he saw that noose and knew it would not hold, and he understood the man who tied it had no brains at all, and this would be that same man’s weakness. Hank Ridges didn’t think. He couldn’t predict outcomes. He barely knew why the words emerged from his mouth. A stupid man.
Sam wanted to laugh, and that lifted his spirits.
One mistake these desperados made was two of them approaching Sam on foot while the third held the horses as they made threats of bloody murder. Sam feigned resignation as they came closer, searching his horse and his body for whatever either might be carrying. Sam, however, sat high on his roan mare, and at the perfect moment, he tapped Hank Ridges’ throat with the toe of his boot, killing him instantly. Alas, poor Hank, he was with us far too long.
That, in essence, piqued the last two members of the Attenborough Gang, so that the other one still standing grabbed Sam’s leg and pulled him off the horse. One dead highwayman on the ground, another kicking Sam harder because he wouldn’t stop laughing. That kicker soon found himself beneath the knees of the man kicked, and faster than you can say, “Whoopsie-daisy!”
I don’t want to describe what it’s like to be punched by this man. Think of a comparison, then think of a worse. It stops you in your tracks. I saw him knock a mule unconscious, just to get its attention. That second fellow out of commission, still breathing.
Aware of the horseman bearing down on him while he pounded number two, he rolled under his own horse, jumped up the other side, took his rifle from the saddle-holster and came around directly in front of the man who by this time stood on his own two feet long enough to feel the butt of the rifle under his chin. Evidently, this is a delicate area on a cowboy.
In the turmoil of men and horses, Sam emerged unscathed, putting the rifle to good purpose by putting a bullet through the heart of each felled man. Now, how do you say, did I save him from hanging? I didn’t. I came along just at that moment, looking for Sam, and he embraced me as his long lost brother, an angel come to save him in the struggle. Sam took me by the shoulders, looked directly in my eyes, and said, “You are my savior!”
Since then I’ve been golden.
This is the tale he reported on our journey to the Johnson Claim but I told it to you with a somewhat different slant. I can’t remember what he thought happened—too ridiculous to hold in my mind for any length of time. If I think of it, I’ll tell you. If I don’t, I won’t.
By the end of his story, we had arrived at the place where the portal had been seen. I may have forgotten to mention the portal. It’s like a hole between two dimensions, a weak spot where you stick your head through. We got off our horses and walked the rest of the way.
No one else around but the man in a red union suit beside a stout mule, looking down into the prairie grasses and prairie dirt. That was the professor, so called. Our agent. A weird bird, living out there by himself. He didn’t seem quite human.
That was my impression, right away.
As it turns out, he wasn’t. So, I have a perfect score.
He had a huge fuzzball of white hair instead of a head. I did see eyes in there, and the bulb of a nose, but I did not trust him right from the start. For one thing, he had a tail which I longed to pull to see what it actually was—some loose fabric gotten smooshed in there?
But, no, you should not pull the tail of the Agent. I think he looked at me. His head seemed to point in my direction. And then he looked into the gaping wound in the earth. Sam and I stood right beside it and looked in it together, and then we looked at the professor, and it dawned on both of us at the same time: he was not human!
I did not know what he was, but this much I did: not human. A moment before I could even think the thought, Sam had plugged him through various organs with his Colt sidearm, no questions asked. As he died, or as I thought he died, he leaped directly into the pit, inside of which so many awful things squirmed like those enormous worms.
The thought grew and grew, until I said to Sam, “This is the stink-hole where all that shit I told you about gets into our world.”
You might not understand that sentence because I wrote it out in cowboy talk. Let me speak plainly. This was a portal to another world, one worse than this one. I took a look at Sam, who had trouble turning away from the pit. It made me laugh, which got his attention.
“You look like you never peeked in a shithole before.”
And then, of course, I laughed some more. Sam looked perplexed, so I explained it in clearer terms. “Get the dynamite. Blow the fucker closed, for the love of God.”
And that is what we did. Bang! We shoved in six or eight lit sticks and ran like hell. And when it blew, it knocked us on our bellies. After we regained our senses, we looked at each other, still flat on the ground, and by God if we didn’t laugh.
We laughed our asses off. ✦