The rider was tall and sat, high in the saddle on his Palomino; he was tanned by the southern sun but his eyes were light, he wore a planters hat with a white shirt and tan riding breeches, a pistol was belted at his waist and a pair sat in scabbards ahead of the saddle. A pack horse trailed behind him at the end of a long bridle. The few residents of the pueblo, old men along with some young children and a few women, stared as he rode in. The rider drew the Palomino to a halt. An old man with a shock of white hair and a thick beard stood and walked over to the stranger.
The rider nodded.
“You have ridden from the south?”
“Down near Veracruz.”
“Guns and death I suppose.”
“A whole heap of that.”
“Senor, if you want money Maximilliano’s men took it, if you want animals the Juaristas took them and if you want women the bandits took them. But we can offer you tortillas, beans and perhaps a little pulque.”
The tall rider held down his fist and the old man reached to shake it only to find himself with a handful of silver coins.
“I’m William Gatlin, late of the army of the Confederate states and before that Front Royal, Virginia.”
“They call me, Paco.”
“Paco, from the wagons tracks running along that road yonder I’m reckoning that a party came down that road a few days back. Would I be right?”
“Si, four wagons and a few horses came from the south like you. Americans who said they were from Carlota.”
Gatlin nodded and slid down from the saddle.
“How many days?”
“My horse needs water and I could go for a jug of that pulque myself.”
Paco clapped Gatlin on the shoulder and led him to a table beneath a canopy which hung from an adobe building that had seen better days. Flies buzzed around the table.
“No tables inside?”
A look of worry slid over Paco’s features.
“Senor Gatlin there are two men inside, they are not good men. It is best you stay out here I think.”
Two scabby horses, a flea bitten grey and a worn down dun were tied to post outside, and Gatlin looked at them while Paco patted the chair.
“Paco, I never did like flies in my tortillas.”
He pushed open the door and stepped into the dark.
The cantina was dirt floored and the only light came a few candles scattered around on the tables. Two men sat at a table with clay cups of milky pulque in front of them. They looked over their shoulders as Gatlin stepped inside. The two men wore straw sombreros with wide brims; one was pock marked with a wall eye, the other rat featured with a thin moustache – both wore large horse pistols on their waists.
“Hola.” Offered Gatlin.
The men turned in their seats and sneered.
Gatlin took a seat at an empty table across the room from the two men. A girl appeared, she was young but Gatlin could see the swellings of womanhood beneath her cheap dress. The shoulder of her dress was torn and the two men laughed as she stayed as far away from them as the tables would allow. She placed a clay cup before Gatlin. Her eyes showed fear. Gatlin took a mouthful from the cup and then put it back on the table. The man with the pockmarked face rose and walked across the rooms, spurs jangling with each step.
“You didn’t finish it, senor.”
“I know the custom.”
“So why didn’t you finish it, gringo?”
“Perhaps I didn’t consider the company worthy of the custom.”
The man’s hand jerked towards the Colt Dragoon at his waist. Gatlin raised his hand.
“Could be I spoke a little hastily allow me a chance to finish it.”
Gatlin upended the clay cup into his mouth watching all the time as the man closed his hand around the grip of his pistol. The first bullet took the man through his wall eye the second through his chest. Gatlin stood up with the cup still pressed to his lips his Beaumont-Adams revolver aimed straight, and shot the second man through his mouth. Placing the cup on the table he crossed the dirt floor and fired a shot through the man’s heart.
“I’ll take those tortillas and beans now.”
When he was finished Gatlin remounted the Palomino and rode out following the deep ruts in the road from the wagons that had passed by the pueblo. As the sun began to wane Gatlin found that the tracks cut away from the road.
“Now why would they do that, horse?”
Gatlin touched his heels to the horse and rode further down the road where he soon found the reason for the wagons turning off; tracks from two dozen horses crossed the trail half a mile from where the wagons had cut off. He stared at the hoof prints for a moment and then wheeled the Palomino around to follow the wagons.
The track led down into a deep arroyo, the river long dried up, the dust that lined the depression was loose and kicked up with each step of the horse. The wagon tracks were fainter in the thin dirt. Nothing grew inside the arroyo and even the ridge line around it was devoid of a bush of mesquite or a bark-stripped tree. Gatlin rode slowly through the arroyo, his hand close to the butt of the Beaumont-Adams, and the Palomino felt nervous beneath him.
The trail finally took the horse and rider up a track out of the arroyo and up to a low mesa. At the top of the track sat a monastery with thick walls of sand coloured stone and high windows. Gatlin rode slowly up to the imposing wooden gates that were studded with heads of heavy nails. He stayed in the saddle and tugged on the thick rope that hung down next to the gate. Somewhere inside he heard the toll of a bell. Minutes passed and a Judas hole opened in the gate and Gatlin found himself surveyed by hidden eyes. A small door set within the main gate opened and a short man in a brown monk’s habit emerged; his hair was iron grey and tonsured, his face lined like the cracked bed of a dried out river. When he spoke his voice was a low whisper.
“Senor, I am Francisco the abbot of this place.”
Gatlin nodded to the abbot and removed his planter’s hat.
“I’m in need of shelter for the night, willing to pay.”
“We have no need of your money, my son. You may share what little we have willingly.”
Francisco clapped his hands three times and the monastery gates were opened. Gatlin guided the Palomino through and into the courtyard beyond. A pair of monk stood by the open gates and began to push them shut once Gatlin was inside; one was tall and completely bald, the other had his features hidden in the cowl of his habit. Gatlin looked around the courtyard and although it was mostly empty the ground was criss-crossed with wagon tracks.
“You’ve had other visitors recently?”
“They stayed a few hours and then continued on their way.”
Gatlin wiped his face and neck with a handkerchief.
“You can put your animals in there.” Francisco gestured towards a lean to in one corner of the courtyard.
“My brothers and I must now attend to our evening prayers. I trust that you will rest easy”
“And I thank you for the hospitality.”
The monks filed away through one of the many doors that dotted the walls around the courtyard. Gatlin watered his horses and then set himself down under a blanket in a bed of straw. He left his boots on.
Something moved in the darkness and Gatlin was instantly awake. He made no sign of movement and stayed beneath his blanket. A shape moved as silently as a spectre as it crossed the hard dirt of the courtyard. Gatlin waited until shadowy figure reared over him before he rolled to the side. A club thudded against the straw where Gatlin’s head had lain a moment before. A kick to the mid-section threw the figure out into the moonlight. Gatlin circled with his fists at the ready. The tall bald monk pulled himself out of the dust and hissed a few words in Spanish before moving forward, swinging his stave in a wide arc. Gatlin stepped inside the swing, caught the monks arm and crashed a fist into his gut. The monk dropped to his knees and Gatlin rapped the butt of the Beaumont-Adams on his bald head twice in quick succession. Once the monk laid motionless in the dirt Gatlin hog tied him with his own cord belt and gagged him with a piece of rough cloth torn from his cassock. With his nocturnal visitor secured Gatlin moved off towards the door through which the monks had headed to prayer.
The corridor beyond the door was dark and unlit. Gatlin worked his way along the wall by fingertip touch – one hand of the rough stonework while the other held his pistol loose by his side. Gradually as he moved through the dark Gatlin heard the whisper of a multitude voices locked together in unison. A flicker of light touched the walls the further that Gatlin crept forward. Crouching lower Gatlin stayed tight to the wall and moved around the corners towards the source of both the light and the voices.
Peeking around the edge of a doorway Gatlin blinked his eyes against the light from the two dozen candles and took in the scene; half a score of monks were knelt around a roughly hewn wooden altar, half covered by a piece of stained cloth. In the centre of the filthy coverlet stood a statue carved from a wet looking stone, the icon showed a naked woman in the embrace of a thick worm with a maw filled with shard like teeth, the coil of the worms body laid obscenely between the woman’s legs. The monks prostrated themselves before the terrible icon and whispered unspeakable litanies to it.
Gatlin backed away from the door and padded silently back down the corridor the way he had come. He checked another door of the courtyard and found it locked. Gatlin rapped his fist against and was surprised when a muffled knock came back in response. Tapping twice Gatlin received two knocks back from the other side of the door. Three hard kicks put the door through and in the moonlight Gatlin could make out the figures of more than a dozen people hunkered down on the floor with chains linked through their legs. The room in which the prisoners sat was little better than a dungeon. Even in the moonlight a familiar face caught Gatlin’s eye.
“Bill? Bill Endsleigh? What the hell happened to you?”
“William Gatlin! I’ll be… Hell’s about right for what we’ve been through. After we ran the gauntlet out of Carlota we got up here. Saw maybe fifty riders and figured them for bandits or Juarsitas. Thought we’d get shelter in this here monastery but I guess they drugged the food.”
“Where’re the rest of you?”
Bill Endsleigh turned his bearded face away for a moment and then spoke.
“There were another eight of us when we started out from New Virginia. After they took us they’ve been picking us out like one or two at a time.”
“What they doing with the ones they take?”
Endsleigh shrugged and looked away.
“Don’t rightly know, heard the screams though.”
Gatlin looked at the chains that held the prisoners to thick rungs which hung from the stone walls and could see no way to turn them loose.
Bill Endsleigh jerked his head to the side.
“Young Jimmy-Lee’s only held by a piece of rope.”
Gatlin turned and looked around at a boy who looked to be around eleven. Gatlin slid an Arkansas toothpick from the top of his boot and let the razor sharp steel kiss the ropes that held the boys wrists.
“Thank you, mister.” The boy rubbed is wrists.
“Go and get the pistols from my saddle, carbine as well.”
Fear showed in the boy’s eyes. Gatlin grinned at the boy reversed the Arkansas toothpick handing it to the boy handle first.
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.
“Take that, boy and if you see any of those snakes in dresses you just stick that in ‘em and holler.”
The boy crept out of the door. Gatlin turned to Bill Endsleigh.
“Bill, I’m going to have to shoot those there chains off of you. On the first shot they’re going to come running. So we’ll wait for the boy and then once you’re free you take up one of my horse pistols and you hold the door. Three pistols and a carbine ought to be enough to deal with a bunch of monks.”
A young woman in chains with hair as dark as a crows wing leant forward. Gatlin turned and could not help but stare at the angle of her features and was enamoured by the way the shadows played across her face.
“That’s my sister Sarah.” Stated Bill Endsleigh.
“Miss Endsleigh.” Gatlin tipped his hat.
“How come Jimmy-Lee hasn’t come back yet?”
“Let me see.” Replied Gatlin.
The courtyard was pitch black, moon behind clouds, and Gatlin stepped out to catch a better look for the boy. A club cracked against his temple and the night turned to a flood of stars before it faded to black.