Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Sheriff Thomas Lang rode out of the tent-city of South Fork and headed north along the river. A full April moon peered over his right shoulder and made the shrub and willows that bordered the slow moving Cottonmouth glow with reflected light in the darkness. The lively sound of a piano, arguing voices and laughter coming from the Gold Dust Saloon, one of only two lumber-built structures in the fast growing mining town, gradually faded and was replaced by the chirping of crickets. Tom’s horse settled into an easy gait. The wild mare, caught and halter-broke by the sheriff as a boy, always preferred the cool of evening, most likely because of the insufferable heat of her former west Texas home. Tom let Comanche pick her way through the clumped briars and thistle patches that lined the slow moving water. A screech owl swooped down from a broken branch high in a popular tree; its gliding moon-shadow hunted the dirt path and the surrounding grass for mice.
Tom considered the implausible yet alarming report that he had received from the easterner gold seeker. If Jim Coots and Ryan O’Borne were indeed raised from the dead and working at the congenial black woman’s homestead, then there must be vile dark magic at work in his county. He had witnessed Ryan O’Borne murder an unarmed Jim Coots outside the saloon and had in turn killed O’Borne when the lumber man resisted arrest. Both ice-packed bodies had lain for almost a week in the basement under his jail.
Tom remembered Rose Brown, the darkest skinned African woman he’d ever seen, telling him about the Indians who had attacked and destroyed her family. According to her, they had fled screaming Un-kah-gah which means demon or devil in the Crow language when she caught up to the burning wagon. Bear Who Laughs and his murderous war party must have been exceptionally terrified to leave the ragged old woman with her hair intact. Tom might have to seek assistance from Jesska Descombey, the gypsy fortune teller if the rumors of dead men coming to life proved true. Right now his job was to find out what was really going on at the woman’s newly established cemetery. The moon drifted behind some clouds and Tom heard a branch snap. Comanche twitched her ears forward and nickered softly, a sure sign that a non-animal was lurking in the vicinity. The sheriff moved his coat away from his holstered Peacemaker and urged the horse carefully through a willow thicket. His eyes strained the darkness for any sign of movement. Tom had made lots of enemies and this was a perfect place to be ambushed.
The sheriff caught the delightfully intoxicating scent of pepper and cinnamon a moment before a dark silhouetted figure appeared next to him on horseback. “Damn-it Elisabeth!” the sheriff gasped. “I need to find out who your blacksmith is. The horseshoes he bends must be made of daisies and milkweed petals! I don’t know of anyone west of anywhere that can gallop a horse through a crowded saloon or a church woodpile without making a sound.”
“Pegasus doesn’t have real wings,” Elisabeth patted the black stallion’s neck. The purebred horse snorted and looked at Tom with dark eyes that suggested you hurt the woman on my back and I’ll show you my hooves aren’t made of air. “At least not ones you can see, but you give him a little rein on the prairie … and he can move like an unrepentant bat flying out of a church sermon. They say in Arabia and other desert hell-holes that the sand gets so hot the horses learn to run without their hooves touching the ground.” She looked at Tom and smiled, subconsciously covering her chipped tooth with her tongue. “As to riding my horse through a saloon, I’ve only done that twice … that you know of, and the second time was to rescue you from the Johnson Rustlers. Them cow-stealing, out-of-work carpenters were hammering nails in the floor with your head.”
“And the first time, was right after you realized the gold under your ranch was…” Tom quoted words he’d read in the town’s only newspaper the fledgling Vanishing River Tribune: “… a European king’s ransom of dazzling-ore growing in size and volume as you dig into the rich gentleman-creating earth.”
“That newspaper-writer talks like a canary trapped in a cat’s mouth, don’t he?” Elisabeth grinned and then thrust her face within kissing distance from Tom’s. “I recall it was you that bought those bottles of gypsy champagne from Jesska Descombey. Your magic bubbles got me so sick, the next morning the creek behind my house was brown. After I recovered, I realized I had enough money to buy every ranch and brush-farm that bordered that weed patch you call home and eventually humiliate you into crawling to me with a marriage proposal. So what did you do?”
Elisabeth slapped Tom with her reins so hard Comanche began to buck. She was so close he could feel her minty breath tickle his neck. “You took that damn do-it-for-nothin’ job as the sheriff of this cruel and lawless waste-hole! Do you know how many nights I’ve lain awake wondering if some wet-eared Mexican bandit, who happens to be just a we bit faster with a pistol than you are, has come hat-dancing out of some stagecoach filled with outlaws and made the sole purpose of the rest of my life to plant red roses on your ungrateful grave … and try to turn them Texas-yellow with my tears?”
The darkness hid her expression, but Tom was almost certain she teased and he got the conversation back on track: “Elisabeth! Why are you out here riding alone at night?” He nudged Comanche and the horse moved ever so slightly to the side.
“I was looking for you,” Elisabeth said with a pout. “But it’s not what you think. I wasn’t planning on compromising your virtue …” She held her head high, “at least while you’re so pitifully poor!”
She cleared her throat and then she was all business. “Juan Garcia, one of the wranglers that I sent to recover Rose’s family bodies, said they saw a large group of buzzards circling in the distance while they were loading the mutilated corpses onto my wagon. He didn’t have a chance to investigate at the time. It was spring round-up and my crews were in the middle of branding calves. Three days ago he went back to the crime-scene with a dozen men looking to catch up with the Crow war party. They got back last night. Juan said they found Bear Who Laughs and the rest of his murderous bunch of redskins dead around what could have been my grandma’s campfire. They weren’t shot or stabbed, and they didn’t have any arrows in them. The other wranglers all swore that every single body had been burned like a cow-drive steak is cooked … from the inside out … about like an eagle perched on a cliff tree who gets hit by lightning. The look of horror on the dead, charred and murdering Indian faces had them superstitious vaqueros still catching their jumping-beans when they got back to my ranch.”
“Bear Who Laughs’ scalp-stealing ways, has made him and lots of other Indians plenty of enemies in these parts … it could have been a posse from Butte or Bannock …”
“Juan checked for tracks around their scalpin’ camp,” Elisabeth whispered. “It wasn’t no posse that killed them. The only prints they found were ones made by a barefoot woman or a child.” Elisabeth gasped. “Tom, the bodies of Rose’s family my men recovered were rotten. Even walking barefoot and resting frequently, that old black woman should have reached South Fork at least a week before she did.”
“I’ve got reports of some mighty strange things going on at Rose’s place,’ Tom said. “It might all be just a lot of whiskey talk … or southern cornbread-prejudice left over from Lincoln’s war but I aim to look it over.”
“Want a little company?” Elisabeth cooed. “From what I understand, I’m now a legend for mining gold with a pistol in these parts.”
Tom remembered the wanted poster that had arrived for a female fugitive named Elisabeth Hughes. She was sought by federal authorities in Missouri and three other states for complicity in a string of train and bank robberies. The wanted woman, worth two-thousand dollars dead or alive, was said to be the only female member of the notorious James Gang. The resemblance on the woodcut poster illustration had been uncanny. He also knew Elisabeth Walker’s apparent inexperience with a gun was a phony stage drama.
He had technically broke the law when he burned the poster in the jail’s pot-belly stove and then sent a letter to Missouri officials informing them that a naked-for-a-dollar woman of that same description had been found traded-for-and-slain by drunken fort Indians. Tom figured Montana was a new start for everyone … and he planned to keep it that way … besides, he liked seeing her chipped-tooth smile flash in the sunlight.
“Not tonight,” he told her. “If anything happened to you … who would water those roses on my dern grave?”
Elisabeth looked at him with ice-storms in both eyes, then whirled her horse and vanished, without sound, into the Rocky Mountain moonlight.
There was only one light on in Rose Brown’s partially-built home. A soft oil-lamp glowed beyond a kitchen? window. The building loomed as a shadow in the moonlight; Tom craned his neck and tilted his head right back, but still couldn’t quite make out where the roof ended and the night began. He could only tell that the building was large. Tom dismounted and tied Comanche to the iron railing that had partially been erected around Rose’s cemetery. The west Texas mare, a veteran of countless Indian and outlaw fights snorted, her nostrils enlarged as she inhaled and exhaled noisily while standing stock still as she tasted the air for danger. With her ears laid flat against her neck, she backed away until her hitching rope was stretched tighter than a fat woman’s bloomers. But thankfully, though she rolled her eyes and continued to snort, she didn’t try to break free.
Tom was astonished to see long rows of white tombstones. There had to be more than two hundred graves each marked with polished and engraved stone. For twenty dollars per burial, the amount the territory of Montana paid for all indigent funerals, he had expected a simple wooden cross.
The mansion the former slave woman was erecting, was even more astonishing. A tiered pathway constructed with tiny river pebbles, led to a two story mortised-stone building that was replacing an earlier wooden-structure. The finely chiseled rock looked like white granite and each two-by-one-foot block fit together so snugly no knife blade could slide between them. A railroad flatcar obviously used to carry the heavy building materials and fitted with reinforced wagon wheels for overland travel, sat unhitched next to a large barn.
Tom had just lifted his hand to knock on the heavy oak door … when it opened. Rose Brown’s eyes popped from a face buried in darkness. “Sheriff Walker! I was spectin’ yall to be stoppin’ in!”
“Sorry for the late call, mam,” The sheriff took off his hat. “I happened to be riding past … and I saw your light.”
“You seem half-honest for a lawman.” Rose smiled. “But you can’t lie no better dan a fat wolf selling sheep-pelts, best come on in … and I’ll fix us some tea.”
In direct contrast to the mansion’s extravagant exterior, the rooms inside were Spartan. In the kitchen, a crude plank table with stump-chairs stood next to a battered woodstove. The only fancy thing in the room was a Boston Floor-Clock with a snoring pendulum. “You’ve done wonders with this place in just three months,” Tom said as the old woman filled a pot with water and placed it on the stove to heat.
“Ain’t none o my doin’,” Rose replied as she crumbled dry leaves into the water. “Dees here high-falootin nayboors you gots … always comes after I is asleeps. When I wakes me up, it look like an army of dem wish-pixies been workin’ the place ober.” An aroma like jasmine mixed with burnt almonds saturated the air.
“That’s strange smelling tea,” Tom said. “How did you come by it?”
“Da only darky lady I ever knowed, gib us dis-here bag-o-teas when we done works her fine cotton fields whilst we was passin’ through Mississippi.”
“A black woman owning a plantation? She must have been one smart gal!” the sheriff began to roll himself a cigarette.
“She had her a fine house widt ten white columns and enough stairs ta climb right up ta heaben,” Rose said. “but she be as dumb as a slow raccoon sleepin’ in a dog house. Black folks packin’ gifts say she be carrying in her what dey called da seed … an him not eben born from her yet … already had dem magik doins.”
“People brought her gifts because they guessed she was pregnant with a boy child?” The sheriff finished his rolling and fumbled for a match.
“No guessin’ bout it,” Rose said opening the stove door. “Dey knowed … same as I did. Dat seed be passed from man to boy-child through some lucky gal … since before day was monkeys an trees in Africas.”
“What is the seed?” Tom asked, and patted yet another pocket in vain for a match.
Rose pulled a piece of burning kindling from the stove and lit his cigarette. Tom dragged deeply and then slowly exhaled the smoke so that it surrounded him. The overpowering smell of the brewing tea was making him strangely dreamy and also a bit nauseous.
Rose waved the burning stick in the air and Tom was sure that the smoke formed itself into pictures that moved. “Dat seed gib a man eber little thing he want till he lay widt a woman and den it go to his boy-child through her. Day be hundreds of darky women dancing bath-day-naked around da house a whoeber gots da seed hopin’ he be choosin’ her ta lay widt fo his first time … and den she hab her a fine ol-time wishin’ an gettin’ … till dat baby be born and start his own magik doins.”
Tom felt like he was absorbing too much information. He strained to change the subject. “What brought you to this part of Montana?”
“Dat woman dat be carryin’ da seed is what done it,” Rose said. “Her be showin’ Jim a map o homestedin’ places when a drop o blood fall out a his nose and land on dis very spot. Dat woman say da seed want us here in Montana fo no damn reason dat she know of.”
Tom was beginning to feel sleepy. The Boston floor-clock chimed eleven times. The smoke swirled around on the floor and looked like mice dancing. Tom was thirsty. Rose was removing his coat and the front of his shirt was wet. Something moved in the darkness outside the house … then lots of some-things. Chanting and singing arose from simple cricket sounds as hundreds of naked black women held hands and danced around the house.
Tom Lang resisted the urge to close his eyes. When he did and quickly opened them, morning light was coming through the kitchen window. An empty tin cup lay upended on the table next to him. “You snore like a hungry bear,” Rose told him as she kneaded dough for biscuits.
“I’ve never been so tired. I don’t know what came over me!” Tom stood-up … he actually felt better than fine.
“I spect it was dat tea,” the old woman said. “After dat first cup, yall wants just more and more … I fear my well done run-dry … before yall falls ta sleeps.”
“I shouldn’t be here …” Tom reached for his hat. The sun was high in the sky. It had to be mid-morning.
“No harm,” Black Rose said. “But I wouldn’t go bragging to dat Elisabeth you be so sweet on. She might thinks we be havin’ us a sportin’ time last night instead of being just good church folks.”
Tom was ashamed, he didn’t know what had come over him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re a lady and I acted like a dern stray dog.” He reached for his coat.
“If’n yall leave befo yo tastes ma biscuits-an-ham yall be a sorry stray dog,” Rose scolded.
Thomas Lang was suddenly hungrier than he’d even been in his life. He sat back down.
It was after lunch when Tom finally fled the old woman’s hospitality. The house and the cemetery looked strangely different. The railroad flat-car converted to a wagon had been moved across the yard and all the heavy cut stone had been unloaded. At least four-dozen mortised stones had been added to Rose’s growing mansion. Several graves showed signs of being freshly filled-in with moist brown soil drying in the warm sunlight. On closer inspection, he discovered they all looked that way.
Tom found Comanche tethered to a willow branch down by the creek. A flour sack draped over the mare’s head covered her eyes but she was unharmed and ready to ride. The sheriff gave his horse rein and they became wind as they blew away from Black Rose Cemetery.
Tom didn’t know what exactly was going on at this strange homestead, but he knew it all happened after midnight. He decided to track down a cave he knew about and get a lot more sleep. Comanche could graze in a meadow. The rowdy tent-town of South Fork could do their own shooting and hanging for one more day and night. He’d ride back to Rose’s when the moon was low in the west but not go in the house or enjoy any more of her special tea. Tom wanted to know precisely who the black woman’s very industrious new workers were.
Sheriff Lang waited in a clump of Mulberry bushes overlooking Black Rose’s Cemetery. He had left Comanche tied to a willow tree about a mile down-river. Tom had learned much as a boy growing up in Texas. When fighting overwhelming odds next to any river, sometimes your only hope of escape, if you were severely wounded, might be by submerging and floating down to a waiting horse or hideout. He didn’t know how many enemies he would come up against on this night, but instinct whispered it would be more than a few. Tom had no doubt that the half-broke mare would have accompanied him on this adventure but he could sense her muscles tightening as she trotted within a mile of the strange homestead. Better to face a devil alone than to endanger a friend.
Tom could tell by the position of the moon that it had to be close to midnight. No light glowed in the windows of Rose’s house but the full moon crossed a cloudless sky casting its ethereal light on the bone-yard like a lamp wielding ghoul looking for fresh graves to open. He thought at first the sound was rain, a steady patter-patter-patter sound but the air was dry. Mounds of dirt being thrust upward from below, caused tiny rocks and bits of soil to tumble down the sides of the graves with the low, downy sounds of water. The boney fingers of a hand appeared and started digging followed by another. Within moments the entire graveyard churned as the dead came to life.
The skeletal figure of a man well over six foot tall was the first to loom out from the grave. Black rotted skin hung from its bones in tatters and string-like strands of hair glistened yellow in the moonlight. Tom’s heart seemed to beat a warning – get out of here, get out of here, but he couldn’t move – in fact, he almost forgot to breathe. To his horror, the nasal opening in the creature’s skull sucked in air and blew out a green spittle that looked like water-saturated trench-moss. “The damn thing can smell me!” Tom gasped as the creature turned in his direction and sniffed the breeze. By the time the creature took a first lurching step toward him, a dozen others were standing erect … then twenty … and then forty. Each created a vicious popping, gurgling sound from each bone opening … like slippery pond-frogs being gutted with dull knives.
Jagged teeth snapping in the working jaws sounded like bones splitting under a butcher’s saw. The sound jolted him into action. Tom drew his Peacemaker and fired just as one of the demons began to sprint toward him. The bullet shattered the skull but the monster did not slow. The next two bullets severed the femur bones above the knees but the demon still dragged itself forward, albeit slower, through the dirt with ragged fingers. The sheriff managed to slow two others before he stepped back and reloaded. They were coming on faster. Tom pulled his backup pistol, a Colt 45 and began to fire with both hands, retreating a step back with each shot.
Elisabeth Walker was suddenly beside him firing two of her own namesake weapons with deadly accuracy. “You make friends everywhere you go … don’t you?” Her voice was filled with mock annoyance.
“I aim to please,” Tom told her.
“Your aim has got to be a lot better than it is now, or we’re going to have these walking piles of soil-seasoned jerky … chewing on us!” Her next three shots masterly blasted both leg-bones from a half-dozen zombies.
The two were still falling back … there were just too many of the dead marching forward as if they were still living. “If you want to run like a stinking coward I promise I won’t tell anyone that I smelled you,” Elisabeth informed Tom as she fired with increasing recklessness.
“The code of Texas lawmen says I must get any helpless females to safety before I engage in any sport shooting,” Tom quipped. “So if you will be so kind as to run as ladylike as possible … I’ll try to stay right behind you.”
Tom planned to empty both guns before he ran to give them a little bit of distance. He was firing the last four shots when he heard Elisabeth scream. A large Cottonwood tree thrust upward out of the ground with tremendous force. Dozens of arm bones so old they glistened black were doing the pushing. Branching roots ripped from undisturbed rock and soil in all directions as the massive trunk first swayed then crashed to the ground. These long buried bodies coming to life were most likely Indians who had properly died before Columbus had been born. Glistening beads, bits of rotted leather cord, and tiny carved animal bones fell from their rib-bones like drying mud on lodge poles.
As Tom raced over to Elisabeth he realized her leg was trapped under a branch. A savage corpse swiped at her face with nails that were pistol-barrel long. He blasted the skull and then used a broken branch to shatter the walking bones. His last two bullets had to be saved, because now this nightmare could only end in death.
“Now you come courting?” Elisabeth scolded. “It’s too late, cowboy!” She glanced at the oncoming madness. “I’ve got more men than I can count right now wanting to have dinner with me.”
“I won’t leave you,” Tom said. “We might have to take the coward’s trail back to the barn,” he opened the Peacemaker and spun the cylinder to show her the last two bullets, “but I won’t see you go out slow … and in pain.”
Elisabeth had just parted her lips to say something, when the door to Black Rose’s mansion opened with a bang. The old woman stood as a looming shadow in the doorway, now somehow much larger than she had been only months before. Eyes the color of burning embers sought out the humans even as the boney hands of risen-dead dug into their flesh. Elisabeth screamed again as rotted teeth bit into her neck. Rose’s now refined and cultured voice perfectly harmonized with the melodic refrains of religious insanity. “The forbidden fruits of perdition are once more upon the face of the Earth,” she bellowed.
For an instant Tom thought he detected the humble muttering of a poor sharecropper’s voice, but then Rose continued to order her army of dead in a voice as deafening as cannon fire. Fingernails, like broken spurs, dug excruciating trenches in his chest. Time began to slow. In the distance, Tom thought he heard the thundering sound of Comanche’s hooves shrieking over river-stones as she approached. When Black Rose yelled again, he knew it was only his hopeless imagination. “The dark seed is here … and for the glory of Nihasa … it is planting time!”
To be continued …