When consciousness returned to Gatlin he found the skin of his face tight from the harsh sun beating down on him. He was tied to a thick wooden post that had been driven into the sun baked dirt outside of the monastery wall while the other prisoners sat around his feet in chains. The older monk, Francisco, approached with a sly grin playing on his creased face.
“Awake at last, gringo.”
Gatlin held the man’s glare and then looked down to see the Beaumont-Adams tucked into the belt of the monk’s cassock.
“I am that.”
“You are just in time to bear witness!”
Chains clanked as the prisoners drew back away from a hooded monk as he approached. The monk held a short pike that looked as though it had belonged to a sergeant in an army fifty years forgotten. He jabbed the dagger like point of the pike at the faces of the younger women among the prisoners, giggling as he did so. Two other monks followed the pike wielder grabbing up several of the prisoners. Bill Endsleigh was among those taken.
“Sarah!” He shouted to his sister who still sat in the dust “You look to Gatlin now! You hear me?”
She nodded, tears streaking her cheeks and Francisco laughed.
“What can he do for you know?”
The prisoners were dragged through the dust in front of Francisco who stared at each and then dismissed them with a flick of his hand. Gatlin watched as they were pushed down the track towards the arroyo at the point of the pike.
Gatlin heard a whisper from behind him and adjusted his position of the stake. Little Jimmy-Lee crouched at the base of the post.
“Got my knife, boy?”
The boy nodded.
“Got one of them big pistols from your saddle too.”
Gatlin’s mouth turned up into a half-smile.
“The cut away, boy. Cut away.”
Gatlin turned to his front and watched the descent of the prisoners down the track as Jimmy-Lee worked at his bonds.
Bill Endsleigh led the prisoners down. The chains he wore forced him to take on the shambling gait of a prisoner jigging towards his final dance on the hangman’s noose. The others followed him in the shuffling two-step to stay one dance step ahead of the rusty pike tip. The monks stopped at the end of the track and pushed the prisoners out onto the loose, churned up dirt beyond. The prisoners moved out further into the arroyo. Gatlin watched as Bill Endsleigh’s head turned from side to side as though he could hear something that Gatlin could not. The earth around the prisoners seemed to shift; subtly at first and then more violently as the dirt began to ripple and finally erupted in a geyser of soil and sand. A woman screamed as the earth was thrown into the air and something burst forth from the ground. Gatlin saw the huge worm, the length of six horses and the thickness of a Conestoga wagon; drag the woman beneath the earth in a mouth that was rimmed by teeth that resembled long shards of bone. Bill Endsleigh grabbed up a rock as silence descended over the arroyo.
The dirt around Endsleigh spun into the air and enveloped him like a shroud and the worm leapt like a salmon heading upstream. Endsleigh pitched the rock but it bounced from the creatures hide. The worm took Endsleigh’s left leg up to the hip before vanishing back beneath the surface. The remaining prisoners hopped back towards the safety of the pathway. The first to reach the path fell as the hooded monks pig sticker dipped in and out of her throat. In the screams and confusion the worm took another of them.
Gatlin felt his bonds give at the same moment.
“Put that pistol in my hand, Jimmy-Lee.”
The weight of the Colt Dragoon in his right hand comforted Gatlin.
“Knife in the other.”
The monks had begun to chant and cavort in the dirt.
“El gusano! El gusano! Gloria de el gusano!”
“Abbot Francisco!” Called Gatlin and the old monk turned.
The .44 calibre bullet caught Francisco in his right eye and punched out the back of his skull. Gatlin wheeled the gun and shot a second monk in the gut. The prisoners shuffled away in the dirt and a monk leapt at Gatlin with a machete. Two bullets sent him sprawling into the dust. A fourth shot rang out and the knee of a fleeing monk was destroyed in a spray of red. Gatlin’s fifth round took a monk in the head. Gatlin held the pistol ready knowing only one round remained. The remaining monks, about half a dozen, massed and then rushed at Gatlin as one. The Colt barked it’s last war cry and then Gatlin rushed to meet the charge reversing the pistol as a club and stabbing out with the Arkansas toothpick. The slash of blades, the clash of bodies, dust kicked up, the thrust of steel and bodies in the dirt. The monks spirit broke and as they tried to flee from the death and pain dealt by the tall Southerner they were pulled to ground by the prisoners and beaten with the heavy chains until they were still.
Gatlin stood, bloodied, and watched the monks on the trail below.
“Bring me my pistols and my horse.”
The hooded monk with the halberd was moving quickly up the track. The two remaining monks followed more slowly. When he had ascended to the top of the trail he flipped back the hood of his robe to reveal a fire ravaged face. He gestured at Gatlin to come forward. Gatlin nodded but as he stepped towards the pike-wielder he ducked to the body of Francisco and came up with the Beaumont-Adams. The pistol roared four times in quick succession; two through the chest of the scarred monk and one through the head of each of his fellows. The monk dropped his pike and slumped to his knees. Gatlin stepped forward and looked the man in the eye. The fifth chamber of the Beaumont-Adams hit the man between the eyes and he fell back. Gatlin picked up the pike and leaned on it as he looked down – the arroyo below was now empty but for a few blood-stained patches of earth.
“How are you fixed for powder and shot?” Gatlin asked one of the remaining men.
“Fixed pretty well. Brought the whole stock with us. Powder and shot seemed more important than bringing the furniture.”
The Southerners now free of their chains sat in their wagons looking to the north. Gatlin sat on the Palomino, the rusty pike held like a standard by his side and his unloaded pack horse trailed behind him. Two small sacks were tied to the pommel of the Palomino’s saddle.
“After I ride down you wait and then you follow. Keep the wagons tight over to the left of the arroyo.”
“What are you going to do, Mister Gatlin?” Asked Sarah Endsleigh.
“Why, Miss, I intend to get you back to the pines of Tennessee.”
And with that Gatlin touched his heels to the flanks of his horse and moved off down the trail leading the packhorse behind him.
Gatlin rode across the disturbed earth of the arroyo and let loose the pack horse’s bridle. He then wheeled the Palomino to the right and rode to the edge of the arroyo where he stabbed the pike into the dirt, put the Palomino’s reins between his teeth and unsheathed the pair of Colt Dragoons. He did not have to wait long. Soon the dust began to tremble and shift in the centre of the arroyo. The pack horse stopped stock still and let out a terrible bray. The earth shifted and the worm took the packhorse in the side. Gatlin let out a whooping war cry and spurred the Palomino forward. Four shots punched into the thick flesh of the worm and white fluid leaked forth from the wounds.
The Palomino stood and Gatlin’s pistols roared again and again until they were empty. The worm slid back into the earth taking the packhorse with it. Gatlin rode back to where he had stabbed the pike into the dirt and slid the Colts back into their holsters. That done he waved up to the wagons and watched them begin to roll down the trail. Gatlin drew the carbine that he had taken from a Union trooper at Little Blue River and waited.
The worm burst from the ground to the right of Gatlin and completely left the ground like a whale leaping clear of the ocean. Gatlin had the carbine to his shoulder in an instant and the heavy bullet slammed through the worm’s flesh. He discarded the carbine and grabbed up the pike. The worm had gone back into the ground but Gatlin could see it close to the surface tearing across the arroyo towards the wagons which moved tight to the left hand side near the rocky slope. Women screamed and men lashed the horses as they saw the worm churning a path towards them. Gatlin rode in fast and lanced the pike down through the earth into the flesh of the great worm. He stabbed down again and again until the worm began to the change direction and follow him. Gatlin wheeled the horse and raced back towards the trail.
Benedict J Jones is a writer from South East London who mainly works in the horror and crime veins. He has been influenced by the work of HP Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Graham Greene, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chester Himes, Stephen King, Joel Lane, Paul Meloy, Robert Harris, Erich Maria Remarque and John Christopher. A lot of his fiction deals with London and the oddities that are found in this ancient urban sprawl.
The worm leapt and the terrible shard like teeth sliced through the flesh in the flank of the Palomino. Gatlin grabbed the sacks from the pommel and threw himself clear as the Palomino crashed into the dirt. The horse regained its feet in a moment and, free of Gatlin’s weight, outpaced the worm back to the safety of the trail. Gatlin grabbed up the pike which had spilled from his grasp when he had jumped clear. He watched the ground and waited. A grain of dirt shifted and before Gatlin even had time to turn the worm was upon him. Teeth sliced into flesh and the weight of the worm knocked Gatlin to his knees. He jabbed up with the pike until it was deeply imbedded in the flesh of the worm. Gatlin levered the shaft of the pike until a wound was torn in the creature. Quickly Gatlin snatched the sacks from the dirt and stuffed them into the wound as the worm began to drag itself back beneath the earth. Gatlin ran towards the trail, drawing the Beaumont-Adams as he went. He felt more than saw the worm and threw himself sideways spinning in the air. Gatlin could see the sacks he had stuffed inside the body of the worm. In a single motion Gatlin brought the pistol up and fired all five shots into the area containing the sacks. The gunpowder stuffed inside the sacks ignited and blew the worms was blown into pieces. Gatlin lay in the dirt covered in gore and looked around him at the little that remained of the creature that had almost killed him.
Gatlin rode with the wagons until they sighted the Rio Grande. The wagons rolled down towards a crossing and Gatlin remained in the saddle of the Palomino.
“Come home with us, Mister Gatlin.”
“Miss Endsleigh, that’s not my country anymore much less my home.”
Without another word Gatlin turned his horse and rode away to the south east.