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The Slam Bang Chronicles of Buckshot Chapter 2: The Ozark Flyer

 

 

 

Hayfoot! Stawfoot! Where you be a-marchin’?
I’m marching off to General Lee!
Hayfoot! Strawfoot! What you marchin’ for now?
I’m marching for the glory of Old Dixie!
For the Georgia pine and the Bama sunshine
and the cause of Liberty!
Hayfoot! Strawfoot! When you comin’ home boy?
Nobody knows! Won’t you pray for me?

Buck sang the tune as he walked down the mountain trail leading the mule laden with guns and ammo. When the word had reached the hills that the country had split in two and was having a Civil War, Preacher John had thought it over and said “Civil or not, it’s all wickedness.” That spoke for most of the hill folk, who were a people apart from the rest of the country and who had no dog in that fight. Buck’s folks had carried on as they always had and eventually the word came that the war had ended. But Buck liked the tune, it was a fine walking song, and he sang it with a glad heart.
Buck had never been to Little Rock, but he knew well enough how to get there. He had a cousin that ran a pharmacy and did a little doctorin’. That gave him a place to stay and a bit of pleasure to mix in with his business. Buck had some time to get there and he took it, enjoying his journey and sleeping out under the stars. He knew that the beast Natosha spoke of was traveling even as he was, and his instinct told him they would arrive in Little Rock more or less at the same time, although Buck would not expect to know him until he shed the human disguise.
Folks from the South are generally friendly, especially when they observe a fellow with enough armament to wage a campaign. So it was that Buck had no difficulty in getting sound directions to his cousin’s place of business. The building was a narrow, brick affair of two stories sandwiched amongst many similar stretching up and down a long boulevard. Buck walked in and Cousin Earl looked up and smiled, all ears and gapped teeth. “Cousin!” Buck and his cousin got started catching up on old times, and eventually down to his business in Little Rock. The hour was not yet lunchtime, but the evening would bring the first night of the full moon. Buck was glad for the fellowship and levity, for he knew what the night would bring.
The little man spent some time wandering the countryside. He wasn’t calling himself Patrick Lynch anymore. He adopted the name Clarence Mulford, but for the most part he had no human contact. He stayed off the roads, straying only to murder a farmer and his family while they slept. Even in his weaker form, he was a beast and was enslaved to his bloodlust. He was also happily conjoined with a legion of evil spirits, and these sometimes spoke to him in dreams or in cryptic whispers. They spoke to him of a man who would do battle with him, having no silver and bearing none of the tokens of his weakness. This confused him. Why mention such a thing at all? He was immortal, mostly invulnerable, and had slain more foes than he could recall. Why would yet another be significant? Without silver or the other items of power that could harm him or hold him at bay, the fight would be short. He smiled. And the meat all the sweeter for the victory. He walked into Little Rock shortly before lunchtime, tipping his hat to the ladies and smiling at everyone he saw.
Little Rock was well into the day. Citizens swarmed in and out of the businesses, and business was good. The sun was out and the day was warm. Union soldiers wandered in the street, relaxed and aware that there would be no trouble on the day. Buck and Earl caught up as well as they could, Buck lounging in the back of the shop while Earl tended to his clientele. The creature calling itself Mulford took refuge in an alley, down behind some empty and broken barrels. Even by day and out of his form, he could smell the hunter and fix his location amongst the babel of scents the city wafted. He closed his eyes and went dormant. The battlefield would be his choose, and he would meditate upon it. And thus the day passed, and the shadows began to grow long.
When the afternoon hours came, Buck examined his weapons, making certain that everything was proper. He sharpened his knives to razor edges. He strapped an oversized leather pouch, constructed as a holster for a stick of dynamite, under his arm. By the time the sun went down, Buck was weighted down with enough weaponry and ammuntion to drop most men to the earth. It slowed him down some, but enough to worry him. The sun went down and Buck stepped out into the street. Folks got out of the way. People were still out and about, although the saints were winding down and the sinners were beginning to stir. Buck looked toward the rising moon and attempted to get into the mind of his prey. After a few moments, his gut told him to move. Buck did.
Mulford’s heart leaped as the moon began its ascent. His sense of smell magnified and became precise. He jumped from his hiding place in the shadows of the alley onto the roof of a third story building with a bound, silently and unseen. The hunter was coming, drawn or lured to him by some invisible hand. He was armed, mightily armed, but he bore no scent of anything that could harm him. This would be a grand time, indeed. This was no ordinary foe. Once in a very great while, the race of men would produce a champion. He had fought several, and had killed them all. None of those had been foolish enough to come to him without the right weapons. He began springing over rooftops, looking for a nice quiet place to deal with the fool.
The beast was moving. Buck trailed it easily. His instinct hadn’t betrayed him, he saw it leaping across the rooftops in the distance. The night was had grown dark, the gas street lamps sputtered to life. The people vanished off the street, and the blue-coated soldiers stood guard in knots of two and three, smoking and talking, paying no heed to anything. A few of them looked Buck over carefully, but there was no law against going armed, no matter how heavily. And even if there were, the big hillbilly with the arsenal and the ferocious scowl did not invite provocation.
All was as the witch had said it would be. The beast was seeking to draw him into a good spot for an ambush. According to Granny, the beast would seek to drop down from cover and hit him from up high. He turned down a narrow street with no lights to illumine it. He knew that the prey was nearby, and he supposed that he was looking at a very good place to be ambushed. He scanned the rooftops and walked into the darkness. The quiet was completely unnatural. No insect sounds. No animals. Nothing at all. An ordinary man would not have been mindful of the sound of the beast on the rooftop above, since the sound was very faint, but Buck was listening for it.
The wolf was gleeful. His prey was directly below, staring dead ahead of him and completely oblivious. He climbed up onto the false front of the building as clouds passed over the moon and plunged the alley into darkness, and leaped down. Buck heard the click of the wolf’s claws on the brick as it gripped the edge and heard the silence as they released. He counted one mississippi two mississippi and sidestepped, bringing a pistol up as the wolf landed right where he’d been standing. He had a second to assess the creature. Larger than man sized, eight feet in height, a good 350 pounds of animal. Claws as long skinning knives, teeth not much smaller. Buck jumped back, firing the pistol and observing with interest as the slug bounced off the skull with no effect and lodged itself in a wooden post.
The wolf charged forward, clawed feet throwing sparks off the brick street. Buck dropped down low and turned sideways. He let the charge bring him into the monster’s center of gravity and grappled, using the momentum to hurl it away down the street. Buck reached across his back, pulled out a shotgun, and fired it at the wolf’s exposed rear. The pellets stung and the monster let out a scream of rage. “Good evenin’ friend”, he said. Buck saw a narrow space in between two buildings and ran in with the wolf right behind him. There was a window at ground level and Buck threw his body sideways and busted through it, rolling across the floor. He stood up and saw the wolf straining to get his bulk through the open frame.
Buck realized he had broken into some manner of General Mercantile. He was elated at his luck but felt a deep twinge of guilt for even being in there. All sorts of things were on the oak shelves floor to ceiling, with the bottom row fully occupied with huge tin cans of Marvel Mystery Oil. Buck shrugged, grabbed one and opened it, and threw it onto the floor. The wolf pulled itself through and found no purchase on the slippery liquid. As it scrabbled and tried to gain footing, Buck slipped on a pair of spiked brass knuckles. He jumped up and onto the back of the monster slipping his left arm into a chokehold and pulling him back as he dug both knees into his spine, an attack that would have broken both neck and back of even a bear. Buck roared, a war cry of the hills that rattled the windows, and began a savage beating of the skull with the cruel knuckles, the blows coming down in a staccato frenzy.
All of this served no purpose. The wolf was not discomforted in the least, merely inconvenienced and surprised. This man fought like the barbarians of the cold wastes he had battled in a long-vanished age in the morning of the world. He had thought men of this sort were long in the past, but it would avail him naught. He would fall before him as his barbarian predecessors had, ripped beneath the fang and claw. The wolf threw itself backwards, forcing Buck into the wall with enough force to crater the plaster and lath beneath him. Buck held on. The wolf spun around hard, and slipped again on the oily floor, pancaking onto his belly with Buck still on his back. Buck pulled a long knife and attempted to slit the throat, dulling the blade and confirming what the witch had told him about the singular efficacy of silver weapons. He was poor. He didn’t have any silver.
Buck released his hold, jumped up and drove the wolf’s face down into the floor as he shot out the plate glass window that fronted the street and made an exit. The wolf peered out of the darkness and growled, eyes narrowed to slits. Buck stared back, crouching down low and bracing himself. To Buck’s eye, the movement looked like a blur. Buck’s instinct took over and he dropped down low and he swept his leg out to trip the beast. The impact was equal to a blow with a steel bar, and Buck snarled as he felt his leg snap. Huge claws grabbed him around the wrists, and the wolf howled with bloodlust as he threw Buck thru a wall of oak planks.
The noise had not gone unnoticed, even in the relatively empty part of town the battle was being fought in. Union soldiers, accustomed to quiet duty and the well-mannered and friendly citizens of Little Rock, noted the clamor with some alarm. As the small patrol sprinted around the corner toward the sounds of shooting and battle, they were stunned into by what they saw. They knelt down and readied their rifles, and began firing, and the wolf turned to face them. He grinned as the bullets bounced off. He walked toward them slowly, relishing the fear rising in them as the bluecoats lost faith in their weapons. He wanted them to run. The fool hillbilly was surely dead, and he needed new toys.
Buck lay in the darkness. Blood streamed down his face. He felt pain when he drew breath in a couple of places. His back was numb from the impact. He heard the sound of gunfire and thought, “sounds like a Springfield.” He forced his eyes open and looked around. Dust hung in the air and the full moon shed enough light to see by. A pawnbrokers shop of some sort. He fought the grogginess. A trap door in the middle of the floor, glass cases full of merchandise. Buck knew he didn’t have another round of hand to hand with that monster in him. Time for desperate measures. He grasped the ring of the trapdoor with slick, bloodied fingers and pried it open, and then he sat down on the floor with his legs hanging down in the darkenss.
The wolf was amused. Walking into gunfire and watching the panic set in was a favorite activity. He would advance slowly, giving them time for their minds to accept what they were seeing. And when they threw down their useless weapons and ran, oh! what sweet joy it would be. The first of the bluecoats was throwing his rifle away and turning to run when a high, piercing whistle sounded out, the sound of a man summoning a dog. “Heeeeeere booyyy!” The wolf stopped and his long ears twitched. Who dared? “Dog dog dog! Come on, pooch! Got somethin’ for you!” So the imbecile from the hills wasn’t dead yet. The soldiers were running, and the monster had to fight the urge to chase. Pride and instinct fought for a moment, and pride won out. No one would attempt to summon him like a mere cur and live to boast of the insult.
When the wolf climbed in through the hole that Buck had made with his body, he saw Buck sitting on the floor, bruised and bloody, fighting to stay conscious. Buck looked up and grinned and the blood poured down his face, and he slid down into the cellar, losing consciousness as he did. There was a brief instant where the beast saw light flickering from the fuse of a lit stick of dynamite in a display case. As the sputtering flame of the fuse went down into the stick, the truth dawned on him. The display case was full of silver. Rings, forks, spoons, knives, lockets, watches. And then the blast, and the whole building was blown apart and the monster blown into the street in a red-orange flash of light and deafening sound.
Agony upon agony, such pain as the wolf had not known in all of its long ages of living. Hundreds of fragments of silver driven into his flesh, burning him like acid. A dinner fork stuck out of his bleeding abdomen with just the last inch of the handle sticking out. He pulled it out, gritting his fangs. And the pain overcame him, and he howled.
The wolf howled, and the children awoke from their beds and cried.
The wolf howled, and folks made the sign of the cross.
The wolf howled, and the whole city knew that the horror of Fort Smith had come among them.
He spun in circles like a mad dog and snapped at the air in frustration. He rolled in the dust, over and over, but nothing stopped the anguish. And he knew fear, for the first time in so long that he could not recall at first what it was.
He fled, then, heedless of who saw. He ran through the streets faster than a racehorse could follow, and sought for the desolate countryside beyond where he could den up and hide. He was wounded, body and soul, robbed of his pride. He did not know if the hateful man that had done this to him still lived, but whether or not he did mattered not. He would hide, and he would heal, and he would return with the rise of the moon, and he would kill. Little Rock would know a slaughter like no other, and he made the vow in his heart to Satan, and implored his aid in making it so.
Buck lay down in the darkness, pinned beneath a mountain of rubble and near death. He felt no pain. His body had been punished beyond that. The flame of his life force had been dimmed to a tiny spark, and his soul stirred within his body and was ready to depart. He was not aware of his surroundings. His battle with the werewolf and his last, self-destructive attempt to defeat it were not in his mind. Instead, he began to hear the sound of a trumpet, off in the distance, and this brought his thoughts into focus. The sound was unearthly in its beauty and perfection. His heart yearned to go to the sound, his whole being responded to it. He saw a light, then, like light seen through blurry eyes upon awakening in the morning. He focused.
He looked down upon a vast and radiant plain, a place too vivid and too lovely to be on earth. He saw an army marching, a bright shining host of winged warriors with swords drawn, the armies of heaven in full battle dress. The horn sounded a charge, and the angelic host surged forward. In the front was St. Michael, moving like greased lighting, his army forming a perfect wedge behind him. Facing them was a boiling cloud of darkness, full of bizarre shapes and flame. Buck longed to go down and join them, to battle alongside them, to drive the darkness which defiled Heaven with its presence out. He could not, sinful man that he was, and his heart sank and he wanted to weep, for he had heard the Archangel summon the righteous to war and he could not go. He heard a voice then, saying, “Do not weep. You have been called to war in the earth.” Buck awoke, pinned down with his belly to the dirt floor and unable to move, but much comforted.
He took stock. The leg was broken, but it could be worse and he thought he might be able to move on it. He had broken ribs, at least two. He had lost some blood. His whole body was bruised and aching. The darkness was total. He was not being crushed, but he was pinned down and did not have room to move. He could not hear any of the carnage the wolf would cause if it were near, nor did he feel the unpleasant crawl up his spine he experienced when such evils lurked. Buck braced his palms against the floor and tried to push upward and free himself. The weight was unimaginable. He could not move it. His head swam and his thoughts were a blurry jumble of sleepy nonsense. He had a moment to wonder if he was dying, and then the darkness swallowed him up.
Buck wasn’t aware that the whole town was awake, and that people had begun to gather around the site of the battle. He wasn’t aware that men and boys had begun to dig the rubble away, looking for the man that had driven the horror out. He didn’t hear the prayers that began to be said by the crowd, or hear the hymns they sang. Amidst the smoke and the destruction, a revival had broken out. Impromptu sermons were preached, the Holy Ghost came in strong, and repentance followed. They dug Buck out, and hauled him up to the street with a rope harness. They called for the faith healer, and the faith healer came, white haired and wearing a purple sash.
Buck lay in the street. The healer knelt down and examined him. Broken ribs, broken leg. His breathing was too shallow and sounded bad. The heartbeat was faint and too slow. Death was near. The healer laid his hands alongside either side of Buck’s head and began to pray. His eyes rolled up in the back of head and he gazed heavenward. He began to speak in tongues known only to the heavenly host. Buck’s bleeding slowed, and then stopped. His breathing deepened and became regular. His bones fused back together with audible pops. He opened his eyes and stood up, groggy and unsteady, but whole. The crowd erupted into praise Gods and hallelujahs, and Buck walked back to his cousin’s place to rest up, with many pats on the back and hand shakings along the way.
By late afternoon, Buck was rested up and readying his guns. He broke them down, cleaned them, loaded them. He stocked his ammo up. He cleaned and sharpened his knives. He readied his dynamite. As he did all this, he began to meditate on where he would fight the beast. He knew that he had been exceptionally lucky, and but for the witch’s second sight he would surely have died. In spite of the fact that he found being indebted to a witch onerous, he was grateful for the help. Earl made conversation and helped out as best he could, gazing out the window as if the wolf was going to arrive at the door in full daylight. Earl was good people, and he was glad to see his cousin, but he was looking forward to saying goodbye. He hoped goodbye would come considerably before sundown.
Buck could sense his cousin’s mood and understood. If Buck tarried or played his cards wrong, Earl could end up dead. He valued his family and took a lot of comfort in them, but he also knew the value of a well timed exit. The sun was just settling down onto the horizon when Buck stood up and offered his hand. “Been good seeing you, Earl. Won’t be taking the mule. You can keep him or sell him.” Earl was both embarrassed by his elation at his cousin’s departure and baffled by the gift. “You walkin’ home? You don’t have to do that. You don’t owe me nothin’ for hospitality.” Buck smiled. “I’ll be traveling by rail this evening.”
Buck walked through the city to the rail yard as the shadows lengthened. The streets were crowded, but Buck had a clear path all the way. People gawked, and whispered. Some tipped their hats, ladies blushed. Buck had a polite smile or a kind word for all. After all, but for the good folk of Little Rock, he would have died. He passed out of the main part of town into the no man’s land of the yards. Scrub trees and brush grew up along the railroad right of way, and the smoke of the hobo fires within drifted up. The ground was hard red clay and not much grew but scraggly crabgrass. Large pieces of the irregular rail bed gravel got underfoot every other step. Cicadas and peeper frogs raised a serenade as the heat of the day began to abate. The air smelled of coal smoke and grease, of weeds and stale water. A huge steam locomotive with coal tender chuffed backward at a snail’s pace and coupled onto a long row of freight cars.
A young boy, no more than six or seven years old, walked down the row of freight cars carrying a wooden bucket full of grease. A wooden handled bristle brush stood out of the top. “Afternoon, son.” The child looked up and marveled. He knew about the big hillbilly that had chased out the werewolf. For his money, seeing the wolf fighter beat meeting the Queen of England. Buck reached down and took the bucket by the handle. “I hope you don’t mind. I have a use for this, and I’m getting short on time.”
“All yours, sir!” He stood straight up, as if he were a private addressing a general.
“What’s the fastest train on this line? Northbound, anyhow.”
The boy grinned. “You’re lookin’ at her. This is the Ozark Flyer. She runs all the way to St. Louis, and she don’t go slow.”
Buck nodded. “Son, you need to git home to your momma. Do it before the sun sets, and don’t do it slow. Bad things are going to be happening out here. Thank you for your help. Now git!”
The boy got.
Buck walked up to the locomotive. He had some news for the engineer. Mostly it was bad.
The blast and the silver had hurt. There had been pain, unlike any he had known, and fear. He supposed there had been fear before, somewhere down the long ages of his life. He just couldn’t recall when. Being cowered and forced to run had filled him with shame and humiliation. He hadn’t even been able to eat. He had healed up as soon as he changed back into his human form, but the anger had stayed with him. His belly growled and demanded satisfaction, and when the moon rose again he would be nearly mad from hunger, but that would wait. His enemy had to die, he and all of his kin, and all of his friends. That would be first. His senses grew keen and he could smell him, not just his person but his location and movement. He could smell him down at the rail yards. He could smell him as he climbed up on top of the caboose of the freight train. Mulford smiled. The big hillbilly had decided to flee. Let him. He would chase, and delight in doing so.
Buck was humming. He had greased the roof of the caboose from one side to the other and down ten feet of the car’s length before he ran out. He was satisfied and tossed the bucket over the side. Far ahead, the engineer looked out into the gathering gloom and urged his fireman to shovel hard. He needed a full head of steam, and he needed it before the moon rose. They were going to make some time this evening. “Run this train like the Devil is chasing you”, the big man had said,” because he’s gonna be.” The fire was going so hot the metal was beginning to glow, and he gave her some throttle. The locomotive started to pull the slack out of the boxcars with a series of booms and the Ozark Flyer started to roll. Black smoke puffed out of the stack, slowly at first like Indian smoke signals, and then faster until the plume was continuous.
The train started getting up to speed. The moon rose red and huge behind Buck, siluhetting him as the wind blew his long hair forward. His guns were loaded and ready. He smiled. Nothing made him happier than being on the hunt by the light of the moon.
The moon rose, and Mulford changed. No matter how many times the change came, the thrill and elation were always there. He felt alive, and exultant, and hungry. The events of the previous night mattered not. His prey was close, close! He ran swiftly and noiselessly through the brush and trees that grew beside the rails. He heard and smelled the stupid hillbilly and his slimy grease. That parlor trick had worked-once. The train was building up speed, but he kept pace with no effort. He would run ahead, jump aboard, and stalk his prey from behind. Nothing made him happier than being on the hunt by the light of the moon.
Buck stood on the caboose, facing the south. The sound of the wheels, the locomotive, and the night relaxed him. The train pulled him away from the city, and Buck watched as the lights began to appear in the windows. The stars were bright, and seemed to be closer than usual. Far ahead, the wolf jumped from cover onto the top of the train. He got down low and began belly crawling along, watching Buck’s exposed back. He leaped from boxcar to boxcar, until only one last gap remained between him and the prey. As Buck arched his back and stretched, the wolf pounced, savoring the moment of the kill. There would be no drawn out melee this time, only a swift and thorough slaying and devouring.
The wolf sprung, and as he did Buck dropped down onto his back. The beast overshot Buck and landed on the greasy wood, sliding around the elevated cab on the roof and off the side of the caboose. The claws dug in, and as he pulled himself back up, Buck cut loose with both barrels of a sawed off shotgun. The concussive force of the blast hit the monster like a mallet swung by a giant, and knocked him off the rear of the train. He hit the track, howling with rage and bouncing. Buck stood, and scurried down the ladder on the back of the car. He jumped across the brief gap to a boxcar, and pulled the coupling between the two cars free. The caboose began to lose ground to the speeding train. As it began to slow and the gap grew, Buck saw the werewolf leap back onto the car, looking around in momentary confusion for his prey. Buck waved.
The beast jumped and fell short of the back of the train by a score of feet. He ran at a full sprint, slowly closing the gap. Buck turned and ran up the train, jumping ahead to the next boxcar. A trapdoor in the roof of the car gave access, and Buck dropped down and in. He opened the door on the side of the car, allowing the moonlight to illuminate things a bit. The car was loaded with miscellaneous tools and items. Mauls, sledges, railroad spikes and a few lengths of steel track lay on the floor. A length of chain with huge, heavy links lay in a pile. Buck was pleased. The chain he could use. The weight of the chain would have pulled any two normal men to the ground, but Buck lifted it with ease and ascended the iron ladder back to the roof of the car as if he were completely unburdened.
Buck dropped back down between the two boxcars and hung from the iron rungs on the rear. He wrapped one end of the great rusty chain around the rung above his head to secure it, and waited. He could hear the huge beast running over the sound of the huge wheels and the rocking of the cars. He could hear the angry snarls coming almost in time with the whining of the steel rails. The noises stopped, and he knew his prey was airborne and coming for him. He braced himself and made ready to fight.
At the front of the train, up in the locomotive, the engineer was shaking his fireman. He had ordered the boy to shovel coal as if his life depended on it, and he had, with a desperation he had never seen. Now he had to be cautious. They were coming up to a bend. It was long and gradual, and you could take with some speed, but they were already considerably faster than he had tried before. He thought they could make it, but he wanted no more speed, no more fire. For now. The engineer uncorked a bottle of rye and took a slug, handing it over to his blackened and greasy fireman. He looked out the window of the cabin and down the length of the train, wreathed in smoke and darkness. He began to pray.
A shadow fell over Buck, and then the wolf dropped onto him from above. Buck braced against the rung and brought his fist up, wrapped with chain and trailing metal, throwing the haymaker from down below the hip and striking the huge, hairy jaw. To Buck it felt like punching the stout oaken plank of a barn wall, but he drove the beast back and into the front of the opposite car. Buck crouched low as a claw moving so fast he could barely follow it whistled through the air a half inch above his head. Buck swang the chain like a whip and wrapped around the throat of his foe. He pulled with all his strength, bellowing and red-faced, throwing the wolf down between the cars to drag along the track.
The train moved over the howling monster, and the chain caught. Buck smiled with satisfaction as the car behind him bucked rapidly and violently as the wolf smacked against the ties of the rail line and the floor of the boxcar. The night became a symphony of tortured metal, snapping wood, and animal screams. Buck liked the sound of it. It made him feel tranquil. He climbed atop the car. The night was beautiful, and for a brief second Buck could take it all in. The smell of the coal smoke mixed with the green smell of summer, the clacking of the wheels and the huge and gorgeous moon. The moon, a speeding freight train, the tormented screams of a hated foe–this was happiness. He stood atop the Ozark Flyer and drank it all in.
The locomotive went into the turn and the steel wheels screamed in protest. The fireman was thrown to the side of the cabin, and the engineer held onto the huge brake lever and pulled. He knew that he had gone into the turn too fast. He held his breath, hoping that he hadn’t caused a derailment and maybe killed himself and his fireman. His heart pounded in his chest like blows from a caulking mallet. The locomotive and coal tender looked like they were going to stay on the rails, but only the Good Lord knew if the rest of the train was going to make it around that bend. He felt like he could use another drink, and was rueful that the empty bottle clattering around on the floor had no more succor to offer.
Buck heard the noise of complaining steel up ahead and saw the front of the train up in the distance swing to the left. He got down flat on his belly and held on. He fought to keep himself from sliding forward as the brakes jolted the train and then the curve, and the whole train lurched, wheels on the right side coming up off the track and causing Buck’s stomach to flip. The car came back down with a bang. The sounds of the wind, the train, and the werewolf hammered Buck’s ears and made them ring. Buck held on and hoped for the best.
The werewolf was in a red mist of anger. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t gain any purchase to get loose, and the damnable chain was too strong to snap without any leverage. He was being bounced mercilessly against the ties of the rail line and the underside of the boxcar with a violence that would have proven mortal to nearly any other creature. The train went into the turn, and the chain whipped him directly under the wheels as they came up off the rails. He was flung half off the rails, half under the car when it came back down on top of him, front wheels and then back, snapping bones and crushing flesh, forcing a huge geyser of blood to erupt from mouth and nose and eyes. He was not dead, even such trauma could not kill him. But he was insensate and out of the fight.
The train made it through the curve, and Buck noted that it slowed down a little after. They were into the hill country, and fast in the hills was a relative term. He pulled a small pouch and a clay pipe from his overalls. The pouch was nearly empty, and Buck pulled the last of the tobacco Natosha Noba had brought him as a gift. The old indian had spoke with him at length about the manitou people. All of them had two forms. One of them was always a lie. Sometimes, a good man was harnessed to something evil. Such men always bitterly hated the deeds the evil creature within would do. Sometimes, there was no good in them. The man was a lie. There was only a beast. Buck wondered which was the case here. He suspected that the monster was the truth, and that being reduced to the form of man merely incovenienced it. If there were a man inside, Buck would spare him. If there were no man within, Buck would have no mercy. He would take the hide. He tamped down the tobacco, inhaled the sweet savor of it, and lit it.
Buck wondered how long it would take the wolf to recover and chase the train down. He had no doubt that it would. He had hurt and humiliated the beast severely, and the most galling wound of all was to his pride. Pride grew on the heart of the wolf like lard on a hog. Buck sat cross-legged indian style and enjoyed the night and his pipe, scanning the track behind for movement. The train rolled on through the hills, over a track that lay like a moving serpent.
The wolf had been wounded as badly as he could ever recall. The wheels had come down, and all had been darkness. He had rolled down the embankment into the low lying cattails and stagnant water that pooled along the rail bed. Even in his wounded state, he still frightened every natural creature away. He recovered swiftly. The shattered bones mended, the crushed organs regenerated. A dozen blows from the angel of death were deftly brushed aside by his uncanny recuperative powers. The body mended itself, and the wolf opened his eyes. He was confused. All was still, he could smell his enemy, but he was distant, and then he remembered everything and was consumed by a towering and unholy bloodlust. He would chase, and he would torture, and he would kill. And he would haunt these hills that his foe called home, haunt them and hunt them, until no man lived here and no man dared to set foot in them. His prey was clever, but parlor tricks would not suffice when they stood face to face at last.
Buck saw something jump way off in the distance, far enough back that it appeared no larger than a flea. He saw it again, and again, bounding with a regular cadence and starting to gain. “Nice of him to give me time for a smoke break,” Buck thought, and he unslung a huge rifle off his back. The train was climbing, slowly going up the rocky side of the mountain. Tree branches batted against the side of the boxcars, and the taller trees sent branches over the train in a semi arch that made Buck feel like he was in a half tunnel. Down below, a small river ran swollen along the bottom. Buck knew that a trestle bridge was coming up in a little while. Beyond that a little piece there was a small village, Rothwell. Buck meant to be shut of the train before he could lead that monster into civilized territory again.
Only a few moments seemed to pass, and the flea-speck became a ravening werewolf that ran on all fours faster than a horse at full gallop. The Ozark Flyer was a fast train, meaning she didn’t stop except to take on coal and water, but she didn’t fly through the hills. The wolf was faster and when he got into range, Buck drew down on it. He put a round directly between two great, hairy toes on the left foot and watched with satisfaction as the .50 caliber ball knocked him off his footing and sent him tumbling. Buck was a marksman’s marksman. While the beast scrabbled and climbed back up to the rail bed, Buck was reloading. When the wolf came back into sight, Buck decided to go for the right foot, instead. A mighty report, and the result was obtained again.
Buck marveled at the stupidity of the creature. Whatever human capacity for reason was in that noggin was completely overwhelmed by animal rage. Providential, he felt, since his whole plan depended on it. The bridge was near at hand. He slung his rifle up over his shoulder, and turning his back on his foe, ran back up the train toward the locomotive, leaping the gaps between the cars as he went. The werewolf ran on behind the train, rapidly closing the distance. As the locomotive went over the bridge, the engineer sounded the whistle. Short….short….long…short….Q for “Queen”, the railroaders code. Make way! Make way for the Queen of the Rails!
Buck leaped into the coal tender and crouched down inside. Black smoke passed overhead. He coated his hands, arms, face, and hair with coal dust until he was satisfied that even a bloodhound would be uncertain whether he was in that tender or not. His sweat mixed with the dust and made Buck as slippery as a greased pig at a county fair. He slipped out of the overalls, and finished the job over his entire body. He let the guns lay. If he lived, he would claim them later. The engineer would know what to do. He wore only a ragged pair of shorts beneath to cover himself, and kept only a long skinning knife that was nearly a short sword. This he wore on his hip, secured by a leather belt and scabbard. Coal black, scowling, and full of anger, Buckshot waited. Live or die, the end was very near.
Granny Stevens had been watching. Her eyes were milk-white with cataracts, but she still saw, near and far. Buck had surprised her. She didn’t reckon he would survive the first battle, never mind going for a rematch. She sat before a small fire and to an observer she would have seemed to be staring into it. She was watching Buck as he prepared for his final winner-take-all bout with a monster that could not be harmed by any strength of his body nor weapon he wielded. She had indeed foreseen a defeat for Buck, him lying dead in the streets of Little Rock after a short and savage tussle. She had given him enough to defeat that fate, but she knew not what would happen next. She had not foreseen the battle on the train, nor could she read Buck’s mind.
A voice spoke from the fire. “What folly, old woman, to think that the champion of the hills could do you any good.” She knew well the voice, but she cringed anyway. Her jaw set in anger. “Ain’t for my good. He come to me and agreed to my price. Nothin’ out of the usual.” There was a chuckle. “Lord, yes. Just another poor soul come to Granny for a little somethin’. It just so happened that he was born of high destiny. You wouldn’t see no reason to use that for your own benefit.” Granny held her tongue. “You are dreaming. He won’t see no reason to help you. You did it all to yourself.” Her voice rose and cracked. “But it was all lies. It’s just dust and misery.” The flames crackled and tinged blue. “I never promised you happiness. I promised you the power to curse enemies and bend minds. To brew potions and brew poisons. To call things up and to lay them down, and that you would live until you were thrice plus a dozen the eldest in all the hills. And then you’d be mine. And so you shall be, and soon. And you will fall stone dead on this cabin floor and I’ll stuff your soul into a little box. Mine forever.” The voice in the fire laughed and laughed, and old Granny Stevens wept.
The wolf leaped onto the train and breathed deep. His prey had been here, the smell was so strong that he could taste it in his mouth. The man was hiding, or perhaps he fled. The scent was in the past tense. He could smell no here-and-now smell anywhere up the train or in the wind. The train had slowed to a crawl, the wooden bridge that shot the gap over the river was too feeble to take the Ozark Flyer at even the slower running speed she made in the highlands. She was hardly moving past an idle. He sprinted up the train and stopped short of the coal tender. There were two terrified souls in the locomotive. He could not smell his prey. He looked down over the side. Perhaps the fool had jumped into the water to evade him. He could smell many things down below. If Buck were submerged, that would make him impossible to smell easily.
Buck stood up from the tender, as black as the smoke from the stack that concealed him as he tensed up and made ready. The monster was only a few feet away with his back turned. Buck grinned and leaped out of the tender, driving shoulder first into the wolf’s exposed back. The monster toppled, arms pinwheeling, and fell backwards over the side as he attempted to turn around to face his foe. He fell toward the rushing and flood-swollen river screaming his anger. Buck watched as the wolf hit the water and vanished, reappearing twenty yards down stream amid the flotsam. The river was up and running fast. Buck leaped off in a perfect swandive, one hand holding the knife to his side to keep it secure.
Buck cut into the rushing water and flattened his body out. The water was deep and dark, but he still brushed the rocky bottom. He braced and kicked, forcing himself upward. He broke the surface and saw the wolf still struggling with the mighty current and trying to reach the banks. “Shame it can’t drown”, Buck thought. Buck struck for the bank with powerful strokes, the current sweeping him downstream as he did. The wolf was howling, echoing through the hills, and he saw Buck pulling himself out of the rushing water and standing up. He looked at the monster and grinned. “Come on now! We ain’t got all night!” The hillside was nearly vertical, and Buck went up as easily as walking on a level plain.
The werewolf was not a swimmer. He could not recall the last time he had been forced to do it, but by sheer strength and frenzy he gained the bank. The prey had gone up the side of the hill. The scent was fresh, and he knew the end of the hunt drew near. He began to climb, belly growling with anticipation as he did. The hills were both rocky and overgrown with trees and underbrush. The terrain did not favor him, and he would slide down half again as many feet as he gained. This only fed his anger, which caused him to be careless in his approach, and in turn would lead to another slide. He raged against the mountain, and against his prey.
Buck had no such difficulties. He ascended with practiced skill, chuckling at the angry outbursts that had the hill people barring the windows and doors for miles about. He got up in the lower branches of a dogwood and grabbed ahold of one of the tough, woody vines that grew so thickly in the understory of the hills. He was far from winded, but the respite felt good to his muscles and he took deep, controlled breaths. The wolf was still a ways below in the darkness, fighting the greenbrier that grew so profusely under the canopy provided by the black oaks that covered the lower half of the mountainside. Buck waited for the wolf to draw near.
The climb was maddening. The terrain was nearly vertical, not hard to climb but for the profusion of cursed obstacles. Trees, vines, dense stickerbushes, and loose rocks all conspired to impede his progress. Even so incommoded, the wolf still moved with a swiftness that would have allowed him to run down most men. His prey was close, up in a tree. Perhaps the man was at last the last extremity of his endurance. The wolf narrowed his eyes to slits and climbed. A serene happiness settled over him. The kill was near to hand. A little closer, and he would be able to close the distance with a single unobstructed jump.
Buck waited until he could see the wolf well down below, a distance of perhaps twenty feet. The wolf was tensing for a jump. Buck jumped first, hanging from the vine one handed. The beast saw him coming and leaped to meet him. They met in the air, Buck unloading a two-legged kick and the wolf’s chest, and the wolf attempting to seize his prey and draw him in. The huge claws drew blood and left ragged wounds on Buck’s arms, but Buck’s slippery hide would not allow him to get a good grip, and the wolf fell back down the mountainside. Buck’s grip and the vine both held. Buck slammed into the rocky slope, and scrambled for purchase, regaining his footing as the monster screamed and howled down below. He resumed his ascent. He would not stop until he reached the summit.
Buck stood on top of the mountain. The summit was covered with irregular orange rocks, from pebbles to boulders, all of which seemed to have been shaped by some act of calamitous violence. Huge stones, tall and misshapen, stood like the tines of a crown with a symmetry that suggested purpose and an aspect that shewed unfathomable antiquity. The mighty chinquapin tree held court here, soaring up and over the summit. Here, then, he would meet the wicked thing that he had led on the long chase. Probably he would die. His plan was desperation and madness in equal measure, dangerous in the extreme and prone to failure. Buck was satisfied that he had fought the whole fight and would not be shamed in defeat. Still, the damned thing had better fight like hell. Buck could hear it tearing up the mountain. This would not take long.
The prey was not moving. The wolf could smell him, standing stock-still on the mountaintop. He bore no silver, no belladonna, no wolfsbane. He could not harm him or drive him off, and therefore he was dead. Perhaps he had simply fled to the place so that he might at least choose his place of dying. The wolf had seen that before. He drew himself up over the last outcrop of rock and onto the summit. Buck stood waiting, slick with blood and sweat, blackened with coal dust. He held a large, jagged rock in one hand. “Bout’ time. Now you’re going to die.”
Buck screamed his challenge and sprinted forward with a ferocity that surprised his foe. Before the wolf could react, Buck drove the jagged stone up and into his jaw. The stone shattered, exploding into knife-sharp fragments the left a myriad of little cuts across Buck’s face, chest, and arms. The wolf brought a thunderbolt right to bear, driving his claws into the side of Buck’s chest. Ribs snapped and blood flew, and Buck was flung through the air as if weightless. He slammed into the side of a tree, and immediately rolled sideways and sprung to his feet. Buck charged again, and the wolf charged at him. The two of them were silouhetted against the moon on the mountaintop, two screaming shadows rushing together across the rocky ground.
Buck lay down and slid between the wolf’s legs like a ballplayer coming into a base. He took terrible wounds to his back and side as the razor sharp claws found him in his passage. Buck leaped up, and sprinted east into the densest of the trees that grew on the summit. The wolf howled, a scream of rage and hunger and triumph, and rushed to follow. The meat was nearly off the bone at last. Buck stood facing him, no weapons, hands balled into fists in a pugilist stance. The wolf nearly laughed aloud. So this is how the man chose to die. Buck moved forward and threw an uppercut, putting his whole body and all of his strength into it. He felt bones crack in his hand as it connected with a sickening crunch.
And the monster’s head snapped back, jaws slamming together, blood flying.
Buck ducked down, the moon visible behind him and the first glow of the rising sun beginning to illuminate the two of them in the east. As the weak and ghostly rays of the dawn struck the beast, he immediately began to change, shrinking in form and becoming more human than beast in aspect. His face, still covered with hair and inhuman, had changed enough to speak. “No!”
Buck drove in, pummeling him with a hailstorm of merciless blows that would nearly suffice to fell trees. The monster staggered backwards, stunned and losing his savage power, going back to his weak and inefficacious human form. At last he dropped backwards, bleeding and dazed onto the rocky ground. Buck stood across him and regarded him. Buck observed that where the sunlight could shine on him he was all the way human. The portions that fell into the shadow remained hairy and monstrous. The face was bruised and battered, eyes swollen shut from the beating Buck had handed him. He was terrified and angry. He tried to get away, pulling himself backwards, looking around in confusion as the sun began to rise.
“Master!” he cried. “Satan!” He looked about for deliverance, but the wind and the sun bore no reply. He met Buck’s gaze and his features contorted with a demonic hatred. “May the curse of Lord Satan ride your back. May the joy of your life become a leaden weight upon your soul. May your days be barren and hopeless. No light for you, only the darkest dark of all. Satan! Hear your servant’s last prayer!” No cloud marred the dawn sky, but Buck thought he heard a sound like distant thunder.
There was no man, then. Only a bestial and hateful thing that mocked the handiwork of the Almighty by its very existence. Buck had thought as much. A monster only. No mercy. Buck reached down and grabbed him, flipping him over onto his belly. He tried to fight, but his strength had fled. There was no longer any contest. Buck pulled him into the shadows where the full moon still shone through the branches, and he began to change, the hair sprouting from his body as soon as the darkness hit it. Buck drove his knee into the small of his back. “Your lord may do everything you ask of him.” Buck’s teeth were gritted in anger. He slammed him face first into the broken and pointy rocks, shattering his teeth and nose. “And maybe some more besides. Wouldn’t surprise me none, he’s a worthless son-of-a-bitch.” Buck drew the skinning knife and bent low, whispering into his ear. “But first, I’m gonna have to get me some of that hide.”
The screams were deafening, now human, now beastly, utterly unearthly, and they went on for a good little while. The screams echoed off the hilltops and down through the hollers, they traveled down the creek beds and sent flocks of birds up out of the trees. The screams stopped every living soul that heard them, and they looked toward the mountain where Buck had fought and bested one the Devil’s own champions.
And all the hill folk for miles around knew that old Buck was bringing in the hide.

 

 

 

 

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