Authors: Michael P. Spradlin
Michael P. Spradlin
For thirty more years.
Eastern Wyoming Territory
t wasn’t right, that’s all Captain Jonas Hollister could tell. Three hundred yards away, two wagons were overturned and smoldering with arrow-riddled bodies strewn about. Not far away from a still smoking campfire, a horse lay dead in the dust. He couldn’t tell if the dead people had been shot or scalped from this distance, but something was wrong.
The dead horse.
Lakota raiders would go to any lengths to avoid killing a horse. An animal they could use.
And there were no birds.
Buzzards should be everywhere, but there wasn’t a one in sight.
It was just before dawn and in the low light the camp looked like it had been attacked a while ago. Jonas Hollister returned the small spyglass to his saddlebag and raised himself up in his stirrups to stretch.
He and his eleven troopers had been riding patrol for nearly forty-eight hours with little rest.
Three days ago a young girl had wandered into Camp Sturgis, not far from Deadwood in the western South Dakota Territory. She was delirious and nearly dead.
She had cried and screamed and wailed nonsense, until she finally fell into a deep, fitful sleep in which, the regimental surgeon told the colonel, she had fretted over “blood devils.”
The colonel had sent Hollister into Deadwood to look into it. He’d learned a party of settlers had left Deadwood heading west toward Devil’s Tower, over in Wyoming Territory, a few days before the girl had stumbled into the fort. Some of the town folks remembered a young girl, about nine or ten years old, who had been with them. Maybe it was this girl, maybe it wasn’t. No one could say for sure. No one remembered their exact destination. Deadwood was booming after all; wagons and people were moving in and out all the time. So the colonel told Hollister to pick a sergeant and take a platoon and check it out. And it seemed they’d found what they were looking for.
“Cap’n?” Hollister heard Sergeant Lemaire ask him. Lemaire had silently ridden his horse right up next to him without his noticing. The man moved like a ghost, one of the reasons Hollister had wanted him in his company.
“Sergeant?” Hollister replied.
“Shouldn’t we see to them, sir?” Lemaire asked.
“Yes, Sergeant, I suppose we should.”
“Is there something wrong, Cap’n?” Lemaire swiveled in the saddle to look at Hollister.
“Can’t say for sure, Sergeant. But yes, something feels wrong,” Hollister replied. He drew his Colt from his holster, snapped open the cylinder and checked the load.
“Sir?” the sergeant asked, his voice indicating concern over Captain Hollister’s mood. “Your orders, sir?”
Hollister let out a long, slow breath and stared down at the ruined camp. His heart was pounding. In truth, every instinct was telling him to turn his horse and ride like hell for Camp Sturgis without looking back.
“Tell the men to advance carbines. You ride with me toward the center of the camp. Tell Corporal Rogg to take the left with four men and, have Private . . . what’s the new kid’s name . . . Hawkins?”
“Harker, sir. Private Harker,” Lemaire answered.
“Harker. He’s green, but seems steady. Have him take the other four and approach the camp from the right.”
“Begging the Cap’n’s pardon, sir. But . . .”
“I know, Sergeant, something isn’t right down there. Tell the men to stay sharp. Order them to wait until you and I start forward before moving out.”
“Yes, sir.” Sergeant Lemaire deftly turned his horse and gave the command quickly, efficiently, and with zero wasted effort. Just like always.
It was getting lighter. Yellow and red had started to fill the dark eastern sky as the wind picked up. Hollister didn’t usually believe in what his mother had always referred to as “blasphemous nonsense,” but for just an instant he thought the wind carried whispers: a quiet moaning, like a lost soul crying out for mercy. Hollister shuddered, worried that he was losing his mind.
He heard the squeak of leather as the platoon spurred their horses, moving along the ridge and into position. He checked his load again, rolling the cylinder along the blue sleeve of his cavalry blouse, and snapped it shut.
“Ready, sir,” the sergeant reported. He didn’t wait for the captain, but spurred his horse and trotted gently down the slope toward the camp. Lemaire knew Hollister was no shavetail. If he said be careful, then careful Lemaire would be.
The prairie grass was burned off to knee height in the late, dry summer. If it had been spring, when the rains came, the grass would have been ten to twelve feet tall and an entire company of soldiers could have ridden past this camp a dozen times and never even noticed it, if not for the smoke.
No one made a sound as the men approached the camp. Hollister hadn’t spotted any movement, but he knew the Lakota wouldn’t leave anyone alive. How the girl had managed to escape was a mystery. Perhaps she’d been able to hide somehow. But whatever happened here, it was clear the girl had witnessed it. And what she’d seen had been two counties past horrible.
Lemaire and Hollister reined up at the edge of the camp, not far from one of the overturned wagons, when Hollister spotted another thing that bothered him. The two wagons had been tipped over, and a few articles of clothing scattered about, but most of the supplies and tools were still lashed to the sides of them. A Lakota raiding party would have torn through everything, looking for food, whiskey, ammunition, and anything of value. Something must have spooked them. But what? And one of the two was burned but not completely—it was just smoldering. It was almost like someone wanted them to be spotted. And the one wagon remaining upright? Jonas couldn’t get a handle on it. Nothing added up.
He looked closely at the two arrows protruding from the nearest body, a woman who lay sprawled facedown in the dirt about ten yards away. Even in the dim light of predawn he recognized the markings on the shaft: definitely Lakota arrows. The woman had been shot in the lower back and in the leg. From where he stood, he still couldn’t tell if she’d been scalped, but the arrows hadn’t killed her, unless she had bled to death from the wounds.
Every instinct in Hollister’s mind and body was telling him to pull back. To run. The wind howled louder and in his imagination he thought it called out a warning to him. He stepped slowly and gently toward the woman, kneeling when he reached her side. She wasn’t breathing and there was a dark red stain where her face lay buried in the grass and dirt.
“She’s dead,” he said to Lemaire.
“Yasser,” the sergeant replied. “Looks like all of them are, sir.”
“If this is Lakota work, it could be Fool’s Elk and his bunch. Instruct the men to surround the camp, and tell them to keep a sharp eye out. Wouldn’t be the first time he’s tried to ambush a rescue party. You and I will check the victims.”
“Yasser!” Lemaire shouted out orders. Hollister studied the bodies. It would be sunrise in a few minutes, and the thought of sunlight made Hollister feel safer for a reason he couldn’t identify. He stood, making his way toward the center of the camp. Another body lay near the fire. This one was a young man, maybe in his late teens or early twenties. He wore wool pants and a white poplin shirt with black suspenders. Like the woman, he was facedown. A single arrow protruded from his back. Again, most of the shaft remained sticking out of his body. It had not gone in deep enough to kill him, and there were no signs of gunshot wounds. But he had the same dark red stain, seeping into the grass and dirt near his face. And he still had his hair.
Hollister started thinking maybe it
Lakota at all who had done this. It might have been somebody else trying to make it look like a Lakota raiding party. Ever since gold had been found in the Black Hills, hordes of men had rushed in and there weren’t enough legitimate claims to go around. Some just packed up and went home. Some turned to thieving. A few did worse.
Hollister looked to the east. The sky was getting lighter by the minute. He counted six on the ground, plus the girl who had staggered into the fort. And who knew how many captives had been hauled off if it was Lakota? Why not burn the other wagon? Who ever did this took the horses or cut them loose, but why leave a perfectly good wagon for someone to scavenge?
Hollister couldn’t really blame the Lakota for being angry. They’d been promised this land forever and had been lied to every day for the past forty years. You push a man far enough, he either breaks or he starts pushing back. The Lakota were far from broken. So why leave a perfectly good wagon for some other white person to come along and use, to tear up more of their land with cattle and plows? Why, indeed?
“Sergeant? Anything?” Hollister asked.
“No, sir. All dead, sir,” Lemaire replied. Hollister waited, hoping and praying for Lemaire to speak, to confirm his suspicions and recommend leaving immediately. But if the sergeant noticed anything, he didn’t say it.
Hollister was about to order the sergeant to begin a burial detail when he noticed movement out of the corner of his right eye. His four troopers were spread out, dismounted and grasping the reins of their horses. Each man held his carbine at port arms and stood with their backs to him, following his orders to keep an eye on the horizon.
But the ambush didn’t come from the horizon. It came from inside the camp.
Almost faster than Hollister could see, two of the bodies he hadn’t inspected yet rose from the ground and launched themselves at his troops. The bodies moved impossibly fast for a human being—not the least dead guys—and each one snapped the neck of the trooper closest to him with a wicked cracking sound.
Hollister couldn’t speak. Couldn’t shout out a warning in time. For some reason his brain kept telling him that these people were dead bodies. They grabbed the next troopers and snapped their necks as well, but this time, instead of letting them slump to the ground, each one took a dead trooper by the shoulders and bit into his neck. Hollister watched in horror as these dead things ripped the flesh from the throats of his men with their teeth.
“Sergeant, open fi . . .” Hollister raised his Colt, pointing at the corpse attacking one of his men. But there came a sharp blow to his arm as someone grabbed him and attempted to twist his gun from his grasp. It was the woman who had lain dead on the ground only moments before.
“Sergeant! Retreat! Get out of here!” he cried, struggling to free his arm from the grip of this shockingly strong woman. Off to his left he could see Sergeant Lemaire, locked in a struggle with the young man in suspenders who, also, had definitely been dead.
A shot went off somewhere, and Hollister heard a scream. He struggled with the woman, not understanding her incredible power. How was it possible? She held his arm with one hand and he thought she might break it if he wasn’t careful. He then looked—really looked at her—and knew why he had been right to feel afraid.
Her throat was a mass of twisted, bleeding flesh that appeared to be healing itself. Something was wrong with her face and eyes, which had turned bright red, and her mouth grew to an alarming size as she opened it and fangs descended from her gums.
He couldn’t move his gun arm. He heard more shouts and the sounds of muffled struggles. For some reason it struck him as odd. Hollister had seen his share of hand-to-hand combat in the war years earlier. He’d killed men up close and he knew he should be hearing the screams and wails of fighting and dying men. Grunts and groans at least. But it was eerily silent.
A quick glance to his left showed Sergeant Lemaire had been pummeled to the ground. Hollister tried to shake the woman loose but couldn’t, he was going to lose his grip on the Colt and die if he didn’t do something fast. With desperation he reached down, feeling for the arrow stuck in the flesh of her thigh. With all of his strength he pulled hard on the shaft and jerked it free.
Momentarily confused, his attacker loosened her grip on his gun arm and tried to stop his other arm; but before she could prevent it, Hollister had hit her straight in the chest. He pushed with every ounce of his strength and finally felt it pass her ribs and enter her heart. The woman—body, creature or whatever she was—shrieked in agony and let go of him immediately. She staggered backward, her hands suddenly like talons, clawing at the wooden shaft piercing her flesh. Hollister watched in disbelief as she threw back her head, howling a death scream like none he’d ever heard. Then she disappeared.
It took him a moment to realize the woman’s body was gone. On the ground where she had stood an instant before was a pile of ashes, the clothes she had been wearing, and two Lakota arrows.
Hollister looked at the four troopers to his right. They were dead; he knew it already. The creatures continued feeding, ripping flesh and lapping up the blood as it still flowed from the veins of his men.
He raised the Colt and took aim. His bullet took one of the creatures square in the back, knocking it and the trooper in its grasp to the ground. He fired again, missing the second creature as it dropped the body it held and dived behind the closest wagon for protection.
“Cap’n.” He heard a mournful groan from behind. He turned to see Lemaire, on his knees in the clutches of the boy wearing suspenders, the boy’s arm around the sergeant’s neck and throat.
“You killed Caroline,” it said to him. But it wasn’t a human voice; it was a strange whispering sound, from deep in its throat. Hollister didn’t answer, he raised his Colt and fired a bullet into the center of the boy’s forehead, and he flew backward, his grip on Lemaire relinquished.
As Hollister staggered toward Lemaire, he saw the same thing had happened to his troopers stationed on the other side of the camp. Two of them were dead on the ground and the others were being attacked by whatever these things were. Hollister nearly tripped as he bent to pull Lemaire to his feet.
“Cap’n!” Lemaire shouted, pointing behind Hollister.
Hollister whirled about to see another one of the creatures nearly upon him. He lifted his gun and pulled the trigger. The bullet took the thing square in the chest, knocking it off its feet.