Sometimes things do not go as planned. The heist certainly did not. I meant it to be a simple job — masks, a few guns, fast horses, a big score at the end.
The big dumb deputy got Jim in the back, about a minute in. By then, there was smoke in the air, screaming, lots of noise. I always knew Jim would die of a bullet, most likely in the back. I think he knew the same. I should have known that the sheriff would post a deputy at the bank. It made no sense. We had spent the previous night torching the Canaveras Ranch, shot old man Canaveras, shot his ranch hands, shot the wife and children. Let one run to town with a hole in her arm, in her bloody nightgown, so as to attract attention back to the ranch. Then we rode hard around the Gap to town, and waited until the kid rode up, nearly dead, screaming and hollering about murder.
The sheriff. I thought he was stupid. At least more stupid than me, and I fear I won't make that mistake again. We saw thirty men mount up and ride off towards the Canaveras Ranch. We waited a quarter hour, and then moved in on the bank. It was Friday, and I had paid well and more to be certain that there was gold in the vault. We had ten men, including myself. Crusk and Jeffers kept the horses and the wagon, Ned and Wash watched the back, and Lou, Roy, Mace, Perce, Jim and I slammed through the front doors. I paid a certain whore to ask certain post-coital questions of a certain bank manager, and true to the whore's word, the vault was wide open.
Lou blasted the ceiling once, declaring the robbery. Roy and Mace fanned out toward the back, and Perce, Jim and I moved toward the center of the bank. That goddamned deputy — we didn't see him at first. He had been sitting just inside the front doors, to the left. If he had been on the right, it would have been me dead, instead of Jim. Ultimately, the better deal. The second shot was the deputy's, punching through Jim's back and out his belly, splattering two fine gentlewomen with his blood and bile. Jim spun and looked at me, blinked at me, and then he died.
Perce turned around and gawped at the deputy, gun held limply in his hand, cocked but unused. I spun and put a bullet through the deputy's eye before Perce could complete the thought of what had happened. My blood was up, by that point, the red rage hazing across my vision. Tap. Tap. Two fine gentlewomen, both dead. Perce's mouth gaped. Tap. Perce was dead. With us for only two weeks, hired for a fractional share, he had proven himself to be the weak link. Named Perce or not, fools are born to die. The men looked at Perce, and Jim, and at me. "GENTLEMEN. Now that I have your attention, may we proceed with this robbery?" They jumped to it.
Roy's head exploded backwards the moment he stepped into the vault. His corpse collapsed to the floor, bootheels jittering against the floor. "There's another one in the vault!" Mace yelled. I shot the bank manager in the face. His glasses flew off onto a desk beside him. It made me feel a little better, but not much.
"I'll take care of it. Cover me." I walked purposefully to the vault. Fired two shots at the steel floor and ceiling. Reloaded, faster than most. Fired another shot at another angle and heard a yelp of pain. Got you, fucker. Dropped and rolled, twitched slightly left and shot the second deputy in the chest. Stupid bastard was aiming up, as if I would have made the same mistake as Roy.
"We are running late, gentlemen. Load it up," Mace yelled out the back for Ned and Wash, and we loaded the bullion into waiting crates in the back of the wagon. The street was empty. "There's a lot of eyes on us. Clear out!" We mounted up and began to move down the main street. A hunter's instinct made me twist in my saddle for a look over my shoulder. The third deputy, the man on the roof of the warehouse across the street, took his shot then. The bullet caught me twisted around, high up on my shoulder blade, instead of through my heart. It didn't hurt at first, and then it hurt a lot.
I awoke with a bad headache, made worse by the bouncing wagon. "Where are we?" I asked. Wash handed me a flask, and I drank deeply. Water. Wash was no fool. Neither was he a talker, but at some point I had gathered that he had served as a medic in some army or another. He was a miserable shot, but he could take a leg off faster than any sawbones I had ever met.
"Dug a bullet out your shoulder. You'll live. Will hurt like a bastard. Don't move it." For Wash, that was quite a speech.
Mace rode alongside the wagon. "We're on schedule, sir. Ned took the decoy wagon north, ditched it at the river, and met back up with us last night." If anyone could evade the trackers, it was Ned. The boy's mother was Paiute, and though he was young, he seemed to be half-ghost when in the wilds.
"Last night?" I asked.
Mace scowled and spat a brown stream of tobacco onto the ground. "You been out a day and a half, sir. Wash says you'll live."
"We have just over five hundred thousand dollars in gold bullion, jostling around in the back of this wagon. We have murdered men, women, children, and horses. We are being hunted by every lawman this side of the Mississippi. I do not think those hunting us will be fooled for very long. Get the men. Change of plans."
I sat on my horse, my right arm in a sling, the reins wrapped around my fist. The pain was at times quite bad, slicing down my arm in waves, but I would be damned if I would let my men know that I felt it. Damned more. Mace stood near me, next to his own horse. Jeffers was meticulously cleaning his two revolvers by lamplight. Ned curried his own horse, removing brambles and checking hooves for rocks. Wash and Crusk leaned against the wagon, and Lou sat on a rock, idly whittling with that wickedly sharp blade of his. He picked up each wood sliver and placed it into a pocket, to be burned later. My men were no fools.
"Time for the second part of the plan, gentlemen. I did not tell you about this part, and I do apologize for that. I could not risk the lives of all of you if one of you had been captured and made to talk. I owe all of you my deepest thanks, for following the plan so perfectly, and for saving my life after I had been shot." The men had the grace to look slightly embarrassed, and Crusk might have blushed. It was hard to tell through the deep, stratified layers of grime on his deeply-tanned face.
"I told you all that we would head east to the river, and hire riverboat there. That was a lie. We have committed monstrous crimes, and our faces will be widely circulated at every town and port along our path. No, we will ride south and west, then due south, and cross the border. It will be several weeks of hard riding, and it will be hot. We are a day's ride from a cache of provisions, and we will need them, as we will not venture near any towns or farms. We will shoot anyone that sees us, for we cannot have tale of our travel reach wrong ears. When we cross the border, we will angle east to the sea, and hire ship there. I hear the tropical beaches are beautiful this time of year, and with your shares, you will each and every one of you live like kings. Any questions?"
Ned moved, then spoke, flicking a nervous gaze to me, and then away, as if his eyes touched something hot. "That's Indian territory. Some of those tribes... haven't seen white men since the Spanish. Since they killed the Spanish."
"Quite right. We will be traveling severe and inhospitable paths, and as you will see, we will be quite heavily armed." Roy knew about the second part of the plan, not that it helped him any in the end. Two weeks before, he had parked two wagons laden with provisions in a small, scrubby arroyo several miles from town, covering them with brush to hide them from any passersby. "Move the gold to these two larger wagons, and split it evenly. I want that wagon destroyed and its parts scattered in the brush. Our friend the sheriff might have a bead on its tracks, and I don't want to leave anything behind. It is getting late, and we need miles between us and our crimes."
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Even in these dry lands, it rained, and those storms were often fierce. "Crusk, prepare yourself," I said, as my men and I rode in the darkness. Crusk glanced at me, puzzled. "You may be about to receive your first bath." Thunder boomed again, and the first coin-sized drops began to fall. Crusk boomed his harsh laughter to match the thunder, and the men laughed along with him. We had been riding for several days, almost a week, stopping only to rest the horses, or for one of the men to take a turn sleeping in a wagon. We had successfully avoided the few small settlements and farmsteads scattered across the arid countryside, and were steadily approaching the border. The rain would hinder our pace, but could provide other benefits, including wiping out any tracks.
"Mace, wake up," I said, riding next to the wagon in which Mace was sleeping. Mace opened his eyes immediately, and sat up. "Rain's coming. Crack these barrels for fresh water." Mace crouched in the bed of the wagon, and set to his task. Rain was coming faster then, and the men began to shrug into leather coats and hats.
Later, the rain was falling, as it had for hours, in thick furious sheets that made it hard to breathe, much less ride. One of the two large wagons was stuck, heavy from its own weight and hundreds of pounds of gold, mired in the mud at the bottom of a once dry creek bed. Jeffers, Lou and Crusk were silently swearing and grunting, slowly levering the wagon out of the muck with sideboard planks and brute force. "This ain't a good spot, sir," Ned said to me in a low voice. "Too much water coming down, and it needs to go somewhere." He shook water from his eyes. The rain hammered down onto the raw, exposed landscape, trickles merging into streams that merged into creeks where hours before lay only pebbles and raw rock.
The flash flood came only a few minutes later, a black wall six feet high, studded with debris that included small trees and brush. It moved with a deadly, patient kind of slowness, stealing distance when not watched. The men and I abandoned the stuck wagon, Lou and Crusk dragging the crates of gold bullion high up on the opposite bank to rest near the second wagon, and tossing bales and casks of supplies one to another up and away from the flood. Jeffers stood between the oxen and the wagon, fumbling with the rain-swollen leather of the hitches. He cursed as an ox kicked nervously at the rising black flow.
"Jeffers, leave them!" I shouted through the downpour. The floodwaters were at his knees, and the wall of debris was bearing down upon him. "Yes sir! Almost have it, sir!" The four oxen surged up the bank out of the roiling black flow, and Jeffers shouted his triumph. He walked away from the drowned wagon, through now chest deep water, towards us, and as he looked at me and grinned, a tumbling log hit him in the side of the head, and he vanished into the soup. The men shouted for him, but I did not. We waited, and watched the boiling, tarry black surface of the flood, as mud-covered trees tumbled end over end downstream. Lou probed several areas along the bank with long flood-stripped limbs, but he knew as well as I that Jeffers was gone.
We rode for several hours through slackening rainfall to stop at the edge of a freshly-carved cliff. "This is new," I said. Far below, floodwaters rumbled and roared. "There is no way to cross here. We will ride downstream to find a ford." We traveled alongside the cliff until dusk, and I called a halt. "Set camp here, men. We all need the rest. Ned, this is unknown territory. Please scout our perimeter. Mace, you have first watch." I busied myself with setting up a small oiled canvas tent, placed my cloak onto the slick, bare rock, and fell asleep almost instantly.
Ned woke me at some small hour of the night. I rolled my shoulder, which was almost healed, but still stiff and viciously sore. The desert air had a chill, and the stars shone down like hard cold eyes in the dark. "Sir, I've found something." I rose, and shrugged into my cloak.
"Do tell, Ned."
"It's a town, sir. A whole town over there, just above the bluff."
"Did they see you, Ned?"
"No, sir. I meant that there's a town, but there ain't no people in it. I weren't sure at first, so I snuck up on it. I peeked in some windows. Folks' stuff is still there, but there's no people."
"Rouse the men," I said. "Tell them we go in hot."
We approached the town as if it were hostile, guns drawn, wagon left on the outskirts. The town looked like any number of small mining towns that dotted the desert countryside, huddled against the slope of the mountain. There was a small strip of weathered buildings standing on both sides of the dirt track that served as the town's main street, leading to the entrance to the town's mine. Ned was correct. The place was empty. There were goods in the small store, and even bottles of whiskey in the saloon. The buildings were in good condition, with unbroken glass in a few of the windows.
"What happened here?" breathed Mace.
"I do not know," I said. "Whatever did happen, it seemed to have happened fast. These people left in a hurry."
"Injuns?" asked Crusk.
"I do not believe so," I said. "We have seen no evidence of a struggle. Besides, most of the tribes in this area were rounded up for reservations a few years ago. Even if there were some holdouts in the area, I doubt they would want to draw attention to themselves by making trouble."
Wash sat up straight in his saddle. "Smells like death here, boss." I frowned, and inhaled. Something. Underneath the desert scent of creosote, and the local stink of men unwashed from days of hard travel, there was the faintest tracery of rot and decay.
"Weapons at the ready, gentlemen. Death is near us; best not to let him too close."
We found the livestock in a slaughter pit on the far end of the town, near the mine entrance. Cattle, oxen, horses, even a few dogs, each with a slit throat and stacked in a rotting pile that crawled with swarms of insects. Our horses whinnied and stamped, nervous at the scent of their dead kin. "That's a lot of livestock, sir," Mace said. He was spooked. I could hear it in his voice. "It looks like they killed all their stock. Why would they do that?" He twisted his reins in his hands, as his horse sidestepped.
"Might be plague," Wash said. "Never heard of one that'd get livestock and people both. Could happen though."
"In that case, move back to the other end of town. It might spread by bad air," I said, and cantered down the road. The men followed. "We hole up until dawn. Search the town for provisions. Then we ride."
At the other end of the town stood a small, weatherbeaten grey church. We hobbled and tied the horses, and Crusk fetched the wagon closer. Mace and I entered the church first, guns drawn, torches in hand. My men and I had seen many horrors, through war and years together. Had inflicted some of those horrors. The sum of those events was a tiny thing, compared to what we saw in that church, in the flickering red sputter of torchlight.
None of my men, nor I, were religious, chiefly because most religions would have damned us all to Hell for any one of our countless crimes. It was, however, disturbing to see a place that people once thought was holy to be so defiled, so utterly desecrated. The altar was bashed and broken, covered in filth. The crucifix was torn from the wall and lay on the floor, smashed into several pieces. The pews were pushed against the wall in a splintered heap. In the rough center of the floor were the townspeople, or what was left of them. The rotting, blood-slick pile glimmered wetly in the dim light, the bones and red raw meat ripped apart and mashed together such that it was impossible to tell where one body ended and another began. The low whispering sound I had heard as I entered was the sound of millions of maggots and corpse worms and beetles expending their furious energy feeding upon their feast. That was not the worst sight, however, in that church.
"L-l-look... up..." Mace stammered, his eyes floating huge and white in cavernous sockets shocked blue and black from fright. His open mouth worked in ways that suggested a scream, or worse, laughter. I looked up. Suspended from the ceiling by chains, and nails, and lengths of wire, and ropes, were what at first I took to be white sheets. Until I saw the stretched and distended face on one of those sheets. A dirty mass of curled blonde hair. The limp flop of shriveled penis, or a sagging, empty breast. Each skin was whole, and glinted with a sickening shine, as some unwholesome wetness coated them, dripping from them in thin threadlike streamers.
"Out, Mace! Back out!" I smashed the door open with my boot, and walked backwards out the door, Mace following. "TORCH THIS TOWN, GENTLEMEN!" I bellowed. Lou looked at me quizzically, as I ran to the wagon for a jug of kerosene. "Something bad happened here, Lou. We burn this place to the ground, and then we ride." I splashed the front of the church with kerosene, and set it alight with my torch. Lou took the other jug of kerosene, and set to work dousing the other buildings. Mace stared at the open door of the church, now licked in flames, and said nothing.
Ned and Crusk rode up from the direction of the general store, saddles packed with supplies. "What's going on, sir?" Ned asked.
"Where's Wash? We burn this place to ash and move out," I said.
"Ain't seen him. Thought he was with you," Crusk said. "Go find him. Torch the buildings as you go. Leave nothing standing," I said, and handed Crusk the kerosene. The buildings lit quickly, even though they had been dampened by the rains. Soon the flames rose tall above the buildings, casting wild red lights and shadows up the mountain slopes. Mace was working furiously, thin lips pressed to the point of invisibility, a flop sweat on his forehead, ashes at his temples making him appear corpselike in the glow of the fires.
"Boss!" yelled Crusk, from near the mine entrance. "I found ... something!" Mace and I hurried down the dusty street, with burning buildings all around. Slumped at the edge of the slaughter pit, sprawled like a child's broken toy, lay a human corpse. Most of, rather — the corpse was missing all of its skin. "Is that–" Crusk began.
"–Wash," I said. "It looks to be his size."
Crusk stared at me with unbelieving eyes, skin below the grime bloodless and bone-white. "Boss... if that's Wash, where's his skin? Who did this to him?" Crusk knelt near the corpse, and held his torch close — only to drop the torch and scramble backwards as the corpse began to shudder and twitch, turning its eyeless face towards the torch flame. "Grargh!" spat the body, in a gout of black blood, splattering Crusk's face. The body jerked hugely once more, and then pitched back, its last breath bubbling from the red wound that had been its mouth. Crusk looked at me with an expression that was pure misery and fear. "He was still alive, boss! That ain't right! Why would they cut him up? Why would they leave him alive?"
Shots rang out from down the burning street. Mace and I spun towards them, guns at the ready. Crusk staggered to his feet. Lou ran towards us, blood on his shirt, long blade in his hand. "Stay clear of Ned!" Lou yelled. "He's gone mad! He came at me with a knife!"
A shot boomed in the night. "LIAR!" Ned shouted, revolver smoking in his wavering hand as he staggered into view. He was limping, clutching his abdomen, and we saw his bowels spilling from between his blood-drenched fingers. Ned screamed again, the splitting howl of a dying man whose only hope was to murder his own killer, and he fired once more, before toppling to the ground. Lou's expression of shock and terror abruptly turned to one of malevolent glee, and he twisted to the side, twisted inside his clothes, inside his skin, the flesh ripping open in long bloody rents, tearing like wet cloth at the joints. Ned's last bullet skimmed through the air where Lou, or the thing wearing Lou's skin, had been a fraction of a moment before.
The thing reached up and pulled Lou's face off of its face, bubbling and chortling with a thick, clotted sound that might have been laughter. Slick black carapace glittered in the firelight, and spiny, twitching legs or arms or tentacles unfurled and felt the air. It flung the flesh away, sloughing off clothing and shredded skin, and in a flicker, buried Lou's long knife into Crusk's chest. Crusk's dying scream shocked Mace and I into movement, backpedaling and stumbling, firing shot after shot at the creature, as we fled into the gaping black mouth of the mine.
I fell long before I heard Mace's dying screams. The fall shattered both of my legs, and possibly my spine. The pain is quite intense, waves of it enough to make me black out. I know I am dying. My torch is burning low now, but I have been able to complete this confession in my journal. A captain always keeps a journal. I hope that others find this record, and understand my warning.
There are things down here in the dark, just out of reach of the torchlight. Sometimes, I can hear them move. Sometimes I can almost see their shapes.
I think they are eggs.