Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of short fiction based on Dark Trails RPG classes by Pete Spahn. As part of separate project Pete and his partner Brandon Goeringer stat out the story.
Gunslinger: Sometimes, a poor soul is cut down before their time, and when that person is a law-dog or hardened soldier even death isn’t enough to discourage them from staying in the fight. These restless spirits possess the guns they died with and send out a call to those deemed worthy of carrying them. Gunslingers find their uncanny skill at gunplay supernaturally elevated by the spirits of vengeance that choose them.1
Utah Territory, Millican’s Blight, 1870.
Millican’s Blight was what the locals called the dense growth of jungle that had sprouted up five years ago when the world had gone to Hell. Its name came from the rancher Jed Millican who, along with his family and lands, had been swallowed up by the tangle of overgrowth, gnarled trees, and fetid ponds, never to be seen again. Dark things lived in the jungle, and they didn’t always stay put.
Today, three filthy, merciless men lay belly-down in a tangle of vines, watching the trail below along the barrels of their rifles. They’d been waiting for their prey for over an hour. Drenched in sweat and covered in insect bites, their patience was finally about to pay off.
A lone man on horseback suddenly appeared upon the trail, picking his way slowly, searching for signs. He was lean and hard, and sat the saddle with ease, one hand never far from the dual pistol rig at his belt.
“That’s him,” Red Childers whispered. “That’s Graff!”
“Shut up!” Chance hissed. “We got one shot to do this right. If he hears us, we’re done fer.”
Lemmy Malone shook his greasy head. “You shouldna shot that sheriff, Chance. You knew his deputy was one o’ Them.”
Chance Hollander resisted the urge to cuff him, fearing the movement might betray their position. He’d had no choice. They’d planned to kill everyone on the Eatonton Stage and then set it up to look like the work of nightmares from the jungle. There was no way they could have known Sheriff Sam Dyers was riding shotgun that day, or that his wife had been inside that coach. Nor that his deputy, Jonah Graff, would pick up their trail so fast.
Eight hardened outlaws had ridden out of the hideout in Apaula Canyon to do the job. Sheriff Dyers had done for one during the robbery, shooting Bill Hackinaw in the face with a scattergun at point blank range. A few days later, Graff had accounted for the other four. Four men! And him all by himself.
The deputy had caught up with them at the trading post in Thompson and gave them one chance to surrender. The boys had laughed and drew down, and he had killed them where they stood, calm as you please. No ambush, no scattergun, no posse. Just him and those damnable shooting irons. No man could draw and shoot that fast without help from the Other. Sure, they’d all heard the rumors and knew his reputation, but to see the man in action . . .
Chance shuddered at the memory. The survivors had fled to Millican’s Blight, the deadliest place in this part of the Territory, hoping he wouldn’t follow. They should have known better.
Still, Lemmy’s bullet had winged him at the post. That’s the only thing that had allowed them to get away. If Graff could be hurt, he could be killed. Then they’d leave his body in this cursed jungle and make for California.
Chance shouldered his rifle and sighted in on Graff’s chest. He was only a fair shot at best, but there was no missing at this range. He just needed to focus on the front sight, be steady on the trigger.
Then Lemmy started coughing and thrashing next to him, spoiling his shot. Chance squeezed the trigger anyway, and the gun boomed. Missed him! Graff reacted immediately, disappearing into the growth.
“Damn you!” Chance cursed and leapt to his feet. “That’s done it. Now run!”
He caught Red’s look of horror and then stopped as Lemmy awkwardly rose to his feet. It took Chance a moment to grasp what he was seeing.
Lemmy’s eyes bulged, blood streaming from his mouth and down the front of his shirt. A thick, oily vine covered with black leaves had torn through the bottom of his trousers, inserting itself into the nether regions between his legs. The vine lifted Lemmy into the air, propping him up like one of those marionettes Chance had seen in a San Francisco puppet show. Lemmy coughed up a final gout of blood as the end of the blood-slick vine erupted from his mouth and then slithered out to coil around his neck.
Chance saw movement all around him, as if the jungle itself was alive! A ring of rotting corpses danced towards them on the end of black, leafy vines, swaying from side to side as they approached. At their center, bits of tattered clothes and broken bones protruded from a towering mass of vines and shambling vegetation. The guttural moan issuing from the monster’s gaping maw pained his ears. The corpses grinned through rotted lips as their vine-woven arms reached for him with skeletal hands.
Red was frozen in terror. Dead hands grabbed and held him as black vines entwined his legs. His inhuman screams pierced the jungle as the vines entered his body. Blood spurted from his open mouth.
Chance backed away, clubbing the closest corpse with his rifle butt. Its face exploded in a hundred pieces of gore. He shook off another’s grasp, stumbled and almost fell. Then a vine coiled around his ankle, tripping him up. The rifle fell from his hands as he hit the ground and he screamed as another vine snaked around his leg and up his thigh.
A gun boomed to his left and the vine exploded to pieces, just below his foot. He was free! The gun boomed again, again, and again. It was Graff, fanning the hammer. His .44 glowed with a strange, ghostly light as bullet after bullet tore into the dancing corpses, shattering them like glass.
Chance scrambled away on all fours and retrieved his rifle. He rolled over onto his butt and chambered a round, then watched with mouth agape as the scene played out.
Graff’s gunfire had taken its toll. Only a handful of dancing corpses remained. Graff had both pistols out now, one in each hand. He switched targets to the shambling mass in the center, pouring lead as he advanced. Bullet after bullet struck the snarling monster, each one driving it further and further back. Chance never saw him reload, but he must have, because the gunfire never ceased.
Finally, the beast had had enough. With a howling moan, it withdrew into the dank safety of the jungle, and then all was quiet. Graff stood waiting, guns trained at the ready in case the monster should return. His back was to Chance. One shot was all it would take. It was now or never.
Chance licked his lips and quietly shouldered his rifle. Without turning, Graff swung one pistol in his direction and fired. Ghostly light blazed. The impact knocked the rifle from Chase’s hands—the bullet had entered the end of the rifle’s barrel, peeling it back like a banana.
Chance had had enough. He scrambled to his feet and started to run away as Graff’s second gun boomed. The bullet caught him behind the knee and shattered the kneecap in front. He screamed in agony and landed face-first on the jungle floor. Rolling onto his back, he clutched at his ruined knee as the blood began to flow.
The pain was overwhelming. Through a haze, he realized Graff was standing over him and had brought both of his hellish guns to bear. Chance threw his bloody hands up and cried out.
“Wait, Deputy! I never shot you! Just wait!”
“No, you wait,” Graff said. Pale green light enveloped the guns as they quivered in his hands. Graff’s fingers tensed on the triggers and Chance closed his eyes, waiting for the shot. It never came.
“No,” Graff said at last. “No! This ain’t the way.”
As his consciousness wavered, Chance realized that Graff was talking to someone else. He opened his eyes and looked around. Although his vision was cloudy, he could see they were still alone.
“Who. . .who’re you talking to, Mister?” Chance gasped.
“Marshal Chip Winters,” Graff said.
“But. . .but, Chip Winters has been dead for three years, now. The Dewby Brothers shot him down near Santa Fe. I was there. I saw him die.”
Graf chuckled. “Don’t you worry none about that,” he said, holstering those cursed pistols. He untied the bandana from around his neck, then squatted next to Chance and put a knee on his thigh. The pressure caused Chance to cry out, but the pain was beginning to fade. The ground beneath him had become soaked with his blood.
“Easy,” Graff said as he tied the bandana tight. The flow of blood stopped.
“You. . . you’re saving my life?” Chance asked.
“Don’t get too misty-eyed about it,” Graff said. “Ida just as soon shot you dead, or let that Hellspawn out there take you, you bushwhackin’ varmint. But there’s a lot of folks in Eatonton that’ll be happy to see you hang for what you did to Sheriff Byers and his missus. I have it on good authority that Marshal Winters would also like to see you hung. I ain’t about to disappoint. Now, let’s git movin’.”
Included for those not familiar with the Class ↩