Welcome back all.
Looks like it’s short story time again.
Before you get too excited for a second installment of Captain Van Zandt, I’ll be straight up with you: I’ve got some stuff in mind, but she’s not quite yet ready for her second act.
But don’t you worry. She will be. You can’t keep a good Marine down.
In the meantime, I’ve got something a little different.
This one’s called Spoons. It’s about an aging gunslinger, wrongs that require righting, and the need for vengeance against a dark and powerful enemy. This story was originally published as part of a cool anthology called Scribes of Nyota: Mystics.
Lots of great authors in the anthology, including the likes of J.C. Cannon, Michelle Moses, Nicole Givens-Curtis, and Maurice Williams. You can get a copy of that anthology here, if you’re interested.
I’m sharing this in conjunction with my June 4th newsletter (Ok. Pause-you know the drill. If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter for some reason, please do so now. Just click on the handy link to the right 😉). I wanted to mention the short story in my newsletter (then share here in its entirety) because the blog format allows me to be a little more expansive than what I can include in an email.
This is a fairly fast read-it weighs in at about twelve pages or so. As with last time I had a short story, I’ve added a few images in here to augment the experience. I’ve also credited those images where I could find the creator.
When you’re done reading the story, I’d love it if you would let me know what you thought of it. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: good feedback from sharp, savvy readers is eternally welcome.
Okay. Enough preamble.
Now, without further ado, I present to you. . .
The gunslinger smelled the campfire smoke before he rounded the bend. A ranch hand lounged near the fire, poking it with a stick. He barely turned when the gunslinger rode up.
“Evenin’ young pard,” the gunslinger said. “Mind if I share your campfire?”
“Sure thing old timer.” The kid on the ground shrugged. “Help yourself. It's a free country now.” He did a bad job of hiding the hunger in his eyes.
The gunslinger patted his horse’s withers and dismounted with a groan and a creaking of joints. He tethered the stallion to a tree and pulled his saddle. The gunslinger took a look around, noticed the ranch hand didn’t have a horse.
The old man took coffee, dried beef, and bread from his saddle bag, put it all on to cook, then rested his bones on a log near the fire. He offered to share, but the young ranch hand declined.
“Suit yourself,” the gunslinger said. He stirred the coffee and leaned back, enjoying the aroma.
“Mmm-hmmm!” the gunslinger said. “Nothin’ like a good cup of fresh-brewed.” He gazed up at the sky-night was only a little ways off.
“No offense old-timer,” the ranch hand said.
“About what, young pard?”
“What I said about it bein’ a free country and all.” He glanced at the gunslinger’s hand-as brown and weathered as the roasted coffee beans he’d brewed his drink from.
The gunslinger smiled.“None taken.” He held his tin cup aloft in a toast. “It is a free country. And here’s to it.” He took a sip.
The sat together in silence for a while. Finally the gunslinger spoke up.
“Looks like it’ll be a long evening.”
“Looks like,” the ranch hand replied, sounding disinterested.
“Been on the trail for some days now,” the gunslinger said, unbidden. “Ain’t spoke to a soul the whole time. I find I’m in a talking mood. How’s about a story?”
The ranch hand laughed. “Sure, old timer. Why the hell not?”
The gunslinger smiled. “I do love me a good yarn. And I know a fine one. Goes something like this:
Some years back, a soldier figured he’d had enough of killin’. So he used the last of his wages from the war and bought a plot to settle on.
“You mean the War of Northern Aggression?” the ranch hand asked. “What side did this here soldier in the story fight on?”
The gunslinger shook his head. “Now there you go-asking questions. I ain’t even hardly started my yarn. Don’t matter what side he fought on. That ain’t important.” Properly scolded, the ranch hand grew quiet. “Now listen:
This soldier, call him ‘John’ if you like, finds himself a wife and marries. He hangs his six-gun above the fireplace, never to use it no more. They have a daughter. Live a good, God-fearing life, working the land and raising their child together. Long about seven years later, a travelin’ preacher comes to town. Being the salt-of-the-earth folks they were, they attended his noon revival.
Now this preacher-he didn’t need no tent. Nor a stage. Not even seats. All he needed was the old mule he rode in on and his voice. Oh, what a powerful voice! That preacher preached a mighty sermon, all thunder from on high and fire and damnation below, unlike anything they’d heard before. When the sermon ended, John and his wife waited long to speak with the traveling preacher. The preacher had many offers of a meal at local homesteads, but it was John and his wife’s offer he accepted.
“I’ll see y’all around six,” the preacher said. “And if the Lord sees fit, I’ll pass supper with you all.”
John and his wife went home to prepare. Their excitement at hosting the preacher for supper grew with each clop of the hoof and creak of the wagon wheel, as did that of their little girl. She had no concept of why-but the excitement of her ma and pa was catchin.'
“Think how the neighbors will look on!” his wife said. He hadn’t seen her beaming like that since their wedding day.
The hours passed and the evening came. The preacher arrived, just as he’d promised. John’s wife outdid herself and put on a table fit for a king. But just before they said grace the preacher took ill, sweating and carrying on a fever. Just as the sun was setting, he excused himself to the outhouse. He’d been gone some time before they began to worry.
“Shouldn’t you go check on him?” John’s wife asked.
John got up from the table, looking out the window and seeing the moon had risen fat and full.
He’d gone two steps when the beast came in. It burst through the front door, rending it to splinters. Its claws tore open John’s side before it tossed him through a window. John banged his head on a rock and knew no more.
When John woke the moon was gone, as was the beast. John drug himself inside what was left of his home. He collapsed when he saw them-wife ripped to pieces, daughter half-eaten. John’s soul died with them that night. But his body pressed on. He bound his wounds and buried what was left of his wife and child. Then he took his six-gun down off the wall and rode away, leaving the ranch house and his old life in flames behind him.
The young ranch hand smirked at the gunslinger. “That’s a powerful bad story, old timer.”
The gunslinger nodded. “That it is,” he said, then held his peace for a time. His horse whinnied and shuffled behind him. The shadows lengthened as the sun dipped below the treetops.
“Well old man,” the ranch hand began, “ain’t you gonna finish the tale?” He pointed at the darkening forest. “Day’s almost gone.”
The gunslinger smiled. “You in some sort of hurry?” The ranch hand didn’t reply, just grinned hungrily.
The gunslinger nodded. “Ok young pard-I’ll finish it up, sure. If you’re willing to hear the end that is?”
The ranch hand indicated he was. The gunslinger continued.
John weren’t no fool-he'd found no remains of the preacher around his shattered homestead. Whatever slayed his wife an' child had, for some reason, left that preacher be. So he started his search for vengeance with the man of God. When he got to the revival site he found it abandoned. John tracked the preacher for two years, each time just missing him, each time hearing of a person or a whole family gone missing. Finally, the third year, John caught up to him.
It was outside of Tulsa, far from where John and his wife had made their home. A Sunday afternoon revival. John stood in the back, his hat low over his face. He waited for the meeting to finish, waited for the preacher to get his invites to dinner, waited for everyone else to leave. The sun hung low in the sky, but at last it was just John, the preacher, and the mule.
John walked up to him. “That was some sermon, preacher.”
“Thank you brother,” the preacher said, already moving toward his mule. ”But if you’ll excuse me, I have to be going.”
John pulled a hassock from his saddlebag. The holy man never even saw the blow coming.
A few minutes later, the preacher woke with start. His eyes went wild, moving left to right, frantic, like a caged animal. “You best let me loose friend,” he said as soon as his senses returned. The sun had just set. The moon, promising full, had not yet risen.
“Don’t remember me, do you?” John asked. The preacher’s face screwed up in confusion. “I thought not,” John said. He took off his hat and leaned in close. “How ‘bout now?”
The preacher laughed. “The soldier-turned-farmer. From Kansas, if I recall.” He shook his head. “You’re the first one’s ever found me.”
“How many have there been?”
The preacher sighed. “Too many to count. Speaking of. . .how’s the wife and daughter?”
John’s fist struck before John could think. A welt rose up on the preacher’s face.
The preacher looked up at the sky and grinned. “You’re going to regret that in a few minutes.”
Soon the moon rose, fat and white. The preacher’s skin began to crawl. Like snakes beneath his skin, the preacher's flesh contorted and twisted. John stood up and backed away.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” the preacher growled, in a demon's voice that was not his own. “For the unwholesome acts I performed on your wife and child. The beast made me do it. I’m tied to it, you see.” The preacher laughed. The laugh became a howl.
The moon rose over the aging gunslinger and the ranch hand. The ranch hand fell back and began to convulse. The gunslinger poked at the fire, staring into the flames, not making a move to help the boy. The ranch hand shook and seized. His flesh began to crawl. The gunslinger checked his pocket watch.
“That's one helluva story old timer," the young man said in a demon's voice that was not his own. He laughed, the sound an unholy mixture of mirth and primal growl. “Shame you’ll never get to finish it.”
The ranch hand’s body contorted, limbs spreading and twisting, hair sprouting. His face melted into a long snout, teeth lengthening to gnarled, razor-sharp points. His eyes remained the same, but now glowed bright ocher-yellow in the firelight.
The gunslinger stood, brushing dust and twigs from his pants. “That is a shame. 'Specially since I never even got to tell ya’ the best part.”
The gunslinger picked up his saddle bag and dumped out its contents. A river of polished spoons came rushing out, sparkling and tinkling as they collided with one another in the moonlight.
The beast, now fully formed, stood on long hind legs, casting a shadow from the fire behind it. The creature towered above the slim, stooped figure of the gunslinger. It laughed. The sound, echoing through the woods, was terrible to hear.
"I’ve seen people pray, beg, even offer me their fortunes not to rip them limb from limb. I seen some strange ways of resisting in my day, old timer. But spoons?”
The old gunslinger shook his head. The young ones always had to try him. He understood, to a degree. He’d been young once, too. The gunslinger shed his pistol and loaded three rounds into it, calm as Sunday dinner.
"The hell you think you're gon’ do with that?” the beast asked. “You think that’s the first working end of a pistol I ever seen?”
The gunslinger said nothing. He loaded the last three rounds into the chamber, moonlight glinting off the bullets.
“You really think a six-gun can kill the likes of me?” the beast roared. “I’m a damned god, old man!” It laughed again. “You might a’ had better luck had you tried with them spoons."
The snarling ranch hand-turned-beast lunged for the gunslinger’s throat. The gunslinger fired.
The beast let out a surprised yip. Two more shots from the gunslinger’s Colt put the monster on the ground.
The beast’s fangs retracted. Its limbs shrunk. The coarse hair on its body disappeared. Soon, all that was left was the naked ranch hand, bleeding and panting, his eyes glowing bright yellow.
The gunslinger holstered his Colt. "Well young pard. . .you reckon you’re ready for me to finish that story now?”
The holy man, now covered in fur as black as the suit he’d preached in, came at John. John, younger and faster on the draw then, shed his six-gun and emptied it before the thing could blink. It screamed an all-too-human scream and fell. Its body shrunk, until there was just the preacher’s sunken chest over a pot belly full of bullets and a shriveled dick.
The preacher lay on his side in a spreading pool of blood. “H-how?” he managed.
John spat. “I tracked you for three years, preacher. For what you did to my wife and daughter.” He shrugged. “Had to make some kinda livin’ along the way, so I took a bounty here and there. Just so happens an old Creole woman hired me on. I made good on her bounty, and as part of my payment she shared a secret with me. She taught me how to kill your kind.”
“P-please,” the preacher begged. He reached out a hand. “Help me.” He coughed, and blood sprayed the dirt. The preacher shook his head. “Weren’t me. The beast made me do it.”
John drew a silver-edged knife. “So you mentioned before,” he said. “But you could a’ stopped it. You could a’ done the honorable thing.” Then John leaned down, slit the preacher’s throat, and ended it.
The gunslinger holstered his pistol. He drew a silver-edged knife and went to kneel next to the ranch hand, naked and dying on the ground.
“P-please,” the ranch hand begged. “Was the monster what done it! Like the preacher in your story said-I’m tied to it! Help me?”
“There’s a beast in us all, boy,” the gunslinger said. “Just can’t let it have its way. I knew it then, when I finished that preacher all these years past. And I reaffirmed it with every one a’ you hell-spawned sons a’ bitches I’ve put down since. Naw son-you had a choice. You could a’ done the honorable thing.”
“Please,” the ranch hand pleaded.
“Weren’t the spoons you needed to worry on,” John said, easing the knife across the young man’s throat. “Was the silver they’re made of should a’ concerned you.”