R. S. Belcher's debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was enthusiastically greeted by critics and readers, who praised its wildly inventive mixture of dark fantasy, steampunk, and the Wild West. Now Belcher returns to Golgotha, Nevada, a bustling frontier town that hides more than its fair share of unnatural secrets.
1870. A haven for the blessed and the damned, including a fallen angel, a mad scientist, a pirate queen, and a deputy who is kin to coyotes, Golgotha has come through many nightmarish trials, but now an army of thirty-two outlaws, lunatics, serial killers, and cannibals are converging on the town, drawn by a grisly relic that dates back to the Donner Party...and the dawn of humanity.
Sheriff Jon Highfather and his deputies already have their hands full dealing with train robbers, a mysterious series of brutal murders, and the usual outbreaks of weirdness. But with thirty-two of the most vicious killers on Earth riding into Golgotha in just a few day's time, the town and its people will be tested as never before-and some of them will never be the same.
The Shotgun Arcana is even more spectacularly ambitious and imaginative than The Six-Gun Tarot, and confirms R. S. Belcher's status as a rising star.
R. S. BELCHER won the Grand Prize in the Strange New Worlds SF writing contest. He has been an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter, and the author of The Six-Gun Tarot.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
February 18, 1847
Bloody footprints in the snow greeted the rescue party from Bear Valley. They approached the camp from the direction of frozen Truckee Lake. The stained tracks veered, looped and crossed themselves—a drunken, demonic scrawl, an artist signing an infernal work in crimson. They ended at a mound of snow and ice roughly the size of a man.
“John, go check out that drift,” Reason Tucker said to one of the Rhoads brothers. Tucker was a big man, broad, with a plain face and kind eyes. He wrapped his exhausted horse’s reins around a low-hanging tree branch, trembling with fresh snow, and patted her shivering neck. “Rest of y’all start making a noise, call out. See if anyone is alive.”
Mr. Eddy had told them where they would find the cabins, but all Tucker could see were misshapen hills of snow. So much snow, like the Almighty had grown tired of creating and had just decided to white it all out.
On the way up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Ned Coffeemeyer had opined over their puny campfire, likening the snow and the violence of the blizzards to the Great Flood of Noah’s time, swallowing up the wicked.
“That’s a myth,” the dark stranger said as he rolled a cigarette. The stranger had joined the party after they set out from Fort Sutter. Knowing what dire and ugly work was likely afoot once they reached the camp, if they reached the camp, the remaining seven members of the rescue party had taken the stranger up on his offer to join them.
They had lost so many men. Some dead, due to the weather and the treachery of the climb, others deserting due to fear of certain death. The somber-garbed stranger’s appearance, with his black hair, goatee and mustache, his fine ebony horse and his eyes the color of sin, stark against the snow, had seemed like providence. “The flood wasn’t God’s doing,” the stranger said.
“You don’t believe in the holy word of the Lord, sir, the Bible?” Daniel Rhoads said across the campfire, rising slightly in agitation at what he perceived as blasphemy. The stranger narrowed his eyes and regarded Rhoads. The gaze was enough to knock all the righteous anger and the surly irritation of the trail out of Rhoads and freeze him in his tracks. His brother, John, took his arm and pulled him back to his seat on the fallen log.
“Let him be, Danny,” John said softly. “Sumbitch got eyes like a rattler. Nothing good gonna come from riling him.”
“To answer your question, sir,” the stranger said, and then licked his rolling paper. “I do believe in the Almighty, more than most, I’d wager. I just don’t believe everything I read.”
“You have some queer views on the Good Book, Mr.…,” Septimous Moutrey said, sipping his cold, bitter black coffee.
“Bick,” the dark stranger said, lighting his quirley. “Malachi Bick.”
Now, seeing the massive mountains of snow where the cabins should be, Tucker had visions of women and children, still, cold, buried in tombs of ice. Frozen, dried up, like the pharaohs of old, some leaning with blood-caked fingernails against doors sealed by tons of snow and ice. Unmoving in the frozen darkness.
Joseph Sels’s shout, frantic and muffled by the eerie, silent weight of the winter tableau, snapped Tucker back to his senses.
“Captain Tucker! Up here! It’s bodies, sir!”
Tucker and the others shuffled-waddled-ran as best they could to avoid the sudden trap of falling into a thirty-foot snowdrift, which didn’t support their weight. All of the party were shouting now, hollering out greetings and calls for any survivors to come into the washed-out daylight. Sels had climbed a narrow path behind one of the drifts that should have concealed a cabin. Tucker and John and Daniel Rhoads joined him. Daniel was still ill from the rarity of the air this high up in the Sierra, fighting for each breath.
Piled obscenely, like firewood, were human bodies: dozens of bodies, all frozen stiff and partly clothed. They were covered by a few inches of newly fallen snow. Near the bodies was a wide, low tree stump with a rusted axe, its blade buried in the wood. Blood had seeped into the wood grain of the frozen stump
“Children,” Sels said in a whisper. “So many children. They’re so tiny…”
Sels was a coarse man. He had been a sailor; he had lived a harsh life on and off the sea, and was only a few steps ahead of a deserter’s noose. He had seen much ugliness in this world, but the tiny stiff forms, the sunken faces, brought him to his knees. He crossed himself and muttered the Lord’s Prayer to the cold children.
“Most of the adults were lost when Graves’ party tried to make it to Bear Valley,” Tucker said, putting his hand on the former sailor’s shoulder. “Say your peace, but be quick. It’s getting dark, and we need to keep looking.”
There were more shouts from the other men of the party, but Tucker didn’t hear Bick’s powerful, controlled baritone among them. Looking at the bodies, Tucker allowed a grim fantasy to cross his weary mind—that Bick, the stranger, garbed in black and astride a stallion the color of coal, was Death himself, come for an accounting.
“You were right about that drift with the bloody tracks, Captain,” John Rhoads said. “Dead man. Been that way a long time—almost looks like some kind of a ghoul. He didn’t have any shoes, but he was dragging a leg bone; looked the right size to be a man’s too.”
“Lord preserve us, the stories are true; they’ve degraded to man-eaters, cannibals,” Sel said, rising off the snow and fumbling for his pistol under his coats and cloak.
“Steady,” Tucker said. “We have nothing but scandalous rumor, gents. Let’s not fly off the—”
“Captain!” It was the teamster, Sept Moutrey, shouting. “Look, they are coming out of the ground! The dead rising!”
In the feeble, struggling twilight, Tucker and the others began to see sections of the large and small snow mounds shudder and the snow fall away. Figures—skeletal, dirty, and pale—began to crawl, to rise, from the drifts. For a second, even Tucker felt fear clutch his stomach and balls. It was as if the snow itself had given up its corpses and animated them with a cruel mockery of life.
Bick appeared from a tangle of trees off to the left of the cluster of buried cabins. He walked quickly toward a shriveled, dark-haired creature that may have once been a human. She had appeared out of a hole in a drift near the center of the camp, and even in her pathetic state, she moved as if she were in charge. There was a nobility, a scrap of will in her that had not been devoured in the long frozen horror.
She stood and regarded Bick, while the other rescuers struggled to approach her as well. One of her small hands covered her mouth, the other hung limply at her side. She looked at the dark stranger with the last of the tears she could muster from the well of her soul. “Are you men from California, or do you come from Heaven?” the woman asked. Her voice was a dry rasp.
Tucker and the others had arrived now. Tucker noticed the rescue party was looking at the woman with revulsion and more than a little fear. She was like a bleached corpse, still moving, barely. Her face was a skull with pale, blotchy skin pulled too tight over it, like a drum. Tucker was surprised at how Bick regarded the woman, though. It was the first time since Tucker had met him that Bick had compassion in his eyes.
“These men are from California,” Bick said. “They have come to help you, take you home.”
“I’m Levianh Murphy,” the woman said. She faltered, her eyes rolling back as she began to fall. Tucker and several of the men rushed forward to catch her, but Mrs. Murphy regained herself and stayed on her feet.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Mrs. Murphy said. “The Lord God has sent you to us, as providence. I’m sorry we can’t offer you better hospitality.”
Tucker heard Bick mutter under his breath as more of the cadaverous survivors crawled from their holes and gathered around Mrs. Murphy and the rescue party. “Remarkable,” Bick said softly. “You people never cease to amaze me.”
* * *
Darkness fell over Truckee Lake and the razor wind howled through the survivor camp, vicious and brazen, ripping into the makeshift shelters and rattling the collapsing cabins the survivors and rescuers huddled in. The full moon, bright and accusing like a vengeful queen, burned cold, silent light onto the camp.
The man out in the snow with the human leg bone was identified by Mrs. Murphy as a Mr. Wolfinger. She implied that he had met his fate at the hands of another member of the party. When Tucker inquired about the leg bone, a queer look crossed Mrs. Murphy’s face.
“It makes my soul sick,” she said. “No one can sit in judgment of us, though, save the Good Lord above. That’s what Leanna told us.”
“Leanna?” Tucker said.
“Leanna Donner,” Murphy said. “George’s little girl.”
“Why in God’s name are you people listening to a child?” Tucker asked.
“Because it talks to her,” Mrs. Murphy said. “She is its High Priestess.”
“The little girl?” Tucker said. “Whose high priestess?”
“The God,” Mrs. Murphy said, her eyes glazing over. “The God in the Pot.”
She would speak no more and went to her bed, turned to face the wall like an errant child, and hummed herself to sleep.
Many of the children, despite their lethargic condition from starvation and the life-sapping cold, were too excited by the prospect of rescue to sleep. A little girl named Naomi, who was about two years old, fidgeted in Tucker’s lap, under the horse blanket he had with him.
“You intendin’ to settle on a spot, Little Miss?” Tucker said. The girl’s face was scabbed with patches of frostbite and dark from soot. Her cracked lips spread into a big smile.
“’Ventually…,” Naomi muttered.
“Well you better hurry that process up, directly,” Tucker said gruffly, although there was a smile in his tired eyes. “The cot you’re jumping on intends to get a spot of shut-eye. You hear me?”
The little girl giggled and hugged Tucker’s arm. Her laugh was the best sound Reason Tucker had ever heard. Children were a mystery to him still. He hoped to have a mess of them someday. Children could endure disasters, madness, and evil far better than grown men. Perhaps, he thought as he was drifting off, it was because the world had not yet fully beaten out of them the notion that anything was possible, that people were good, and that God answered prayers. Tucker was so tired, even with the numbing, painful cold, the stench of death and the constantly squirming, occasionally kicking, little bundle of life on his lap; he fell into a hard, dreamless sleep.
There was noise in the darkness, a blast of sub-zero wind. Tucker awoke with a start, raising his rifle to protect the slumbering charges all around him. It was Ned Coffeemeyer, opening the door to the Murphy cabin and stepping inside.
“Colder than a witch’s tit, Captain,” Ned said as he shook the snow and ice off him. Several of the sleeping forms on the floor groaned. In the darkness, a child coughed.
“Mind your language,” Tucker said. “Got children in here.”
Tucker blinked a few times as Coffeemeyer adjusted the wick and the hood on the lantern the rescue party had brought with them and held his hands near the lamp to warm them. Tucker looked around the room.
“Where’s Bick?” Tucker asked. Coffeemeyer shrugged as he laid his blanket down on the cold, damp, earthen floor of the cabin. He used his pack as a pillow.
“Blazes, far as I’m concerned,” Ned said. “I relieved him couple hours ago.”
Tucker carefully lifted the little girl and covered her under his still-warm blanket as he stood. He buckled on his gun belt and picked his rifle up again.
“He ain’t here,” Tucker said, “and I’ll wager that mudsill is up to no good somewhere.”
“Well,” Coffeemeyer said as he dimmed the lantern and pulled his hat over his eyes. “He’s got to be over in the Breen family cabin, next door, Captain. Nobody’s fool enough to walk miles to get to the cabin the Graves and Reed families are supposed to be holed up in, and Mrs. Murphy said it’s about seven miles down to the Donner family camp.”
Tucker stepped carefully over the sleeping forms to reach the cabin door.
“I’m checking the cabins,” Tucker said. “All of them.”
“Want me to come with you?” Ned asked, sitting up and pushing his hat back.
“Nah,” Tucker said. “You get a few winks. If I’m not back by the time you wake up, come looking. If you can’t find me and Bick shows up, you restrain him or shoot him. Understand?”
“Will do, Captain.” Coffeemeyer said. “Be careful. I don’t trust that sumbitch.”
Tucker picked up one of the torches they had made from oiled cloth and tree branches. Once outside, he turned his back to the screeching wind and used his body to cover the match as he lit it and then the torch. The flame shot up the oiled rags and crackled and fluttered like a banner in the relentless maelstrom. He trudged toward the drift that held the cabin the Breen family had staked claim to when the party of pioneers had been forced to ford here at Truckee Lake for the winter. It took a few minutes of checking with Aquilla Glover, the current sentry on third watch, to ascertain that Bick was not in the Breen cabin.
“Why not wait to morning, Captain?” Glover asked. “Sun will be up, it will be warmer. We were headed out there anyway.”
“Not waiting,” Tucker said. “I’m not sure who or what Malachi Bick is, but he’s up to no good and I can’t wait to see what he’s about. These people are already crazier than a pack of dogs in the sun; can’t blame the poor bastards. Bick might take advantage of them. You gather a crew and follow me out in the morning. You hear a racket tonight, you shake a leg and come on out quick as you can.”
Taking a few extra torches and a spare flask of oil, Tucker set out on the narrow walking path worn into the frozen packed snow. It was a little over a mile to the Graves family’s cabin, and then about six more miles to the tents and shelters the Donners had quickly assembled to hold about twenty people near the bank of Adler Creek.
The torchlight jumped and shifted. Making a feeble, faltering circle of light in the dark, skeletal wood. Tucker’s boots crunched and slid on the packed snow and ice every few steps, making him lurch and stagger like an infant learning to walk. The woods and the snow ate the noise of his passing, his panting breath, making him feel claustrophobic and watched. He clutched his rifle tightly, waiting for shrieking, pallid cannibals to spill from the dead woods to rip and bite his flesh. Tucker was not a religious man, but he quietly began to mutter the Lord’s Prayer as he struggled through the all-devouring darkness.
As he neared the Graves’ buried cabin, he began to imagine knocking on the cabin door, it flying open and dozens of scab-covered, talon-like hands tearing at him and pulling him into the putrid-smelling shadows of the cabin interior. He imagined being forced to participate in alien rituals to ravenous, inhuman gods. He imagined the sensation of teeth sinking into his flesh everywhere, a bloody morsel of impure meat being forced between his lips as obscene chants and prayers drummed into his brain.
Tucker had no desire to knock on that door and no idea what waited on the other side. If it were daylight, with his fellow rescuers at his back, he knew that the buried cabin held starving men women and children. But here and now, alone on the stage of his fears and imagination, he saw only snapping, stained teeth and madness.
A fear settled into ...
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