Here’s a preview of “The Bloodstained Trail” a new Sebastian Red story I’m working on for the SEBASTIAN RED anthology I’ve been promising you guys for a couple of years now. Enjoy and let me know what you think, okay?
The mutilated, gory man sitting on the back of the saddleless horse wept tears of blood as he had no eyes that would cry normal tears. Naked he was and all the hideous tortures he had suffered were plain for all to see. As he rode into the town of McBain’s Bluff, women stifled screams as they turned the fascinated faces of their children away from the horror on horseback. Men dashed over to take the ruined man away, shouting at the women and children to get off the street.
The tortured man screamed as well-meaning hands took him off the horse’s back. Their touch seared his raw nerves with fresh agony. The men took him to Doc Henry’s where they laid him on a cool white bed that soon became stained crimson. Doc Henry got the men out of his operating theater with curses and generous blows of his huge fists. Fists that soon worked at the task of healing they had been trained for.
The cry went up for the sheriff to be summoned and the town drunk scurried to the task. He was no longer drunk. One look at the tortured man sobered him up right quick.
Sheriff Morton reluctantly left his supper and ambled on over to Doc Henry’s. He pushed his way through the crowd gathered outside Doc’s office.
“Who do you reckon he is, Sheriff?”
“Y’think he coulda run across Madman McGee, Sheriff?”
“Mebbe he’s an outlaw, Sheriff?”
“Won’t somebody think of the children, Sheriff?”
Sheriff Morton paused at the door and turned around, glared at the crowd. “Soon as I know what’s going on, you’ll know what’s going on! But right now, the best thing y’all c’n do is go on ‘bout your bidness and let me tend to mine!”
Sheriff Morton went on in the cool interior of Doc Henry’s office. And past that into his operating theater. Doc Henry looked up from his grisly work. His arms were crimson up to the elbows and his white shirt no longer white. But Doc’s face was white. Deathly white with fear. “I’m glad you’re here, Will. He ain’t gonna last long and you need to hear what he got to say.”
Sheriff Morton took off his hat and bent down to look in the man’s face. Doc had cleaned up the ravaged features as much as he could and Sheriff Morton reacted with shock on recognizing the man. “Holy God! Is that Chuck King?”
“It is. And what been done to him turns my stomach in ways I never thought it would be. I done seen my share of outrage out here, Will…but this..”
Sheriff Morton took a quick minute to further examine the man. “I have, Doc. God help us all, I have.” And then he bent to listen to Chuck King’s final words. It took the ruined man three minutes to tell what had happened to him and then he died.
Doc Henry stepped away, making the sign of St. Ford’s Cross. “If any soul deserved God’s blessing, it was him. Who did that to him, Will?”
Sheriff Morton slowly replaced his hat on his head. “You’d best get washed up and come on outside, Doc. Best if I tell ev’rybody at one time so’s we all know what we’re up against.”
Sheriff Morton went back through the office and outside to the street. The faces of the townspeople were a mosaic of fear, outright terror, resolve, hope and in a few, something that he hoped like hell was courage. He waved the excited questions down, saying, “give Doc a chance to come on out so’s he can hear this along with the rest a’you.”
It didn’t take Doc long to join the assembly. Sheriff Morton raised his voice slightly and called out, “Tonnio, Clapper, Little Bill and Jason…y’all come up here to the front where you can hear me good. Once I’m done I’ll want you to ride out to the ranches and settlements and tell everybody what I’m ‘bout to say and tell them they best come into town until this thing is settled.”
“And what thing is this, Sheriff?”
Sheriff Morton took in a deep breath and said, “It’s The Kreota. They’re riding The Bloodstained Trail.”
The ripple of astonished horror that went through the crowd was to be expected. The fainting of a couple of women was also to be expected. They were women who had been blessed enough to survive the last time The Kreota rose up. Some men looked at each other uncertainly. They did not know The Kreota. The men who had the resigned look of prisoners sentenced to hang the next morning did.
“That man just rode in ‘bout an hour ago. I know he didn’t look nothing like him…but that was Chuck King.”
Another ripple of astonishment.
“Chuck’s wife and two kids are dead. He was tortured by The Kreota for fun and then they sent him here on that horse. He said they told him that before they sent him off. Laughing, they were. Chuck said that he was told that the Ocnoi Black Conai himself had done him the honor of torturing him.”
“Ocnoi?” Somebody asked.
“It’s the Kreota word for ‘leader’ or ‘chief’. And Black Conai is the worst of ‘em. It was him what led the Kreota clans the last time they rode The Bloodstained Trail. More’n a couple hundred folks got killed in that one.”
“But why?” a woman wailed. “We don’t bother The Kreota! I’ve never even seen a Kreota! Why do they want to kill us?”
Sheriff Morton took off his hat and wiped his forehead clean of sweat with an already soaked forearm. “Ma’am, I wish I could tell you. I stick to my kind and that’s that. But I was one’a those at Lancaster Canyon during the last great Kreota uprising and I can tell you that it don’t make a difference to them if they seen you or not.”
A calm, strong voice said, “So what can we do, Will?”
“I want every able man to go on home and secure his house and make sure his family is okay. Then report to me. I’ll assign reg’lar patrols of the town and we’ll barricade all ways in and out of town. And as of now, all women and children are under curfew. We’ll set up lookouts on the rooftops. If we keep our heads, don’t go off past th’ town limits, we should be okay. Leastways until we can get some help from Fort Bronson. Okay, y’all go on and do what I told ya. But I want all you family men back here in three hours! All single men report right now to my office.”
As Sheriff Morton headed for his office, his way was blocked by two earnest young men with anxious looks on their faces. He tried to get past them, saying, “Boys, you’re single men. I expect you to volunteer for patrol duty.”
“Sheriff, we need to talk to you.”
Sheriff Morton stopped and took stock of the Horn brothers. John was the older and looked at Morton with wide brown eyes. On the short side he had a wiry build and from working out in the field his skin had tanned almost as dark as a Tonatore. Yancy was the younger with a slighter taller, more graceful build. One could tell they were brothers by their shared thick lemon yellow hair, hollow cheeks and full lips.
“Boys, I got a lot to do so if you-“
“Sheriff, you do know there’s a wagon train out there, right?” John said. “Coming in from Fort Bronson. Claudia’s on that wagon train.”
“Oh. I see.” And Sheriff Morton did see. “Look, fellas-“
It was Yancy who spoke now; “if we could just take three or four men with us-“
“I cain’t spare anybody, boys. And you know that full well. Matter of fact, I cain’t spare the two of you. But I know better than to try and hold you back. If you wanna go_”
Yancy spoke again; “Sheriff, you can’t expect us not to go!”
Sheriff Morton sighed. “No, I can’t. And I can’t stop you from going either. I wish you would stay but if you got it in your heads to go-“
“We’d just need two men!”
And now Sheriff Morton’s face turned hard. “Looky, boys…I ain’t gonna ask the married men to go. I got a wife to look after myself. And I need all the single men here to help defend the town. That means you two as well.”
“Sherriff, Claudia’s out there,” and Yancy couldn't have been more solid than a Sequoia when he said that. “Now, me an’m’brother are goin’ out there to get her and bring her back here safe. You gonna help or not?”
“You heard what I said and I meant it. I got a whole town to look after, boys. If the Kreota decide to attack McBain’s Bluff I’m going to need every gun right here. An’ not to put the bad mouth on them but you got to know that the Kreota might have attacked that wagon train and wiped it out.”
Yancy’s voice wasn't pleasant as he said, “I oughta knock your teeth down your throat for even thinking that, Sheriff.”
“Never mind, Yance,” John said. “We’ll go ourselves.”
“Now, just wait a minnit, boys. Mayhap I can help, sorta. There’s a fella been in town a couple of days passing through on his way to Kelly Gap. You heard a’ Sebastian Red?”
John nodded. “Gunfighter, isn’t he?”
“Done his share. He hunts bounty, done some scoutin’ for the Army. He’s even supposed to be something of a spellslinger if the stories can be believed. If you got enough money I daresay he’ll hire on to keep the two of you alive out there long enough to get to that wagon train.”
“He know anything about the Kreota?”
“I dunno. You can ask him, though. He’s most likely over to the saloon.”
John swapped looks with his brother, who nodded. “We’ll go on over right now and talk to him, Sheriff. And thanks.”
The brothers headed toward the saloon. All around them, the town of McBain’s Bluff seemed to have galvanized into a sort of ordered chaos as men and women dashed to and fro. Many were lined up outside of the town’s three general stores, buying supplies.
“Now that I put my mind to it, seems to me I heard tell some stories of this Sebastian Red,” Yancy said. “Wasn’t he the one put down that range war over to Bickford County? Killed himself a mess a’folks over there.”
John nodded in agreement. “I heard a’ him some. Heard he don’t come cheap. They paid him a thousand gold sovereigns for that job. There was some talk of him huntin’ down and killing all a’ Bloody Neil Singer’s bunch. Don’t know if I’m comfortable with going out there with a killer.”
“Where the Kreota is concerned, a killer is ‘zactly what we need, John. In any case, it won’t hurt to talk to the man.”
They reached the saloon and pushed their way through the batwing doors. Most of the saloon had emptied out once word had passed. The bartender busied himself with washing glasses, nodded in greeting at the Horn brothers.
“Lookin’ for a man name’a Red, Harry,” John said. “He here?”
Harry gestured at a table near a window. A lean bullwhip of a man sat there, dressed all in buckskin and leather. A broad-brimmed sombrero hung from its cord on the back of his chair. Sunlight twinkled on the charms woven into his dreadlocks. He played Liar’s Solitaire with a deck of oversized hand-painted cards.
The brothers walked over. “Sebastian Red?”
The man looked up, expertly sizing up the brothers with just a glance. “Howdy.”
“I’m John Horn and this here’s m’brother Yancy. Can we sit and talk with you a minute?”
Sebastian Red gestured at the nearly empty bottle of tequila. “Talkin’ is thirsty business.”
John raised his voice. “Harry, bring us a bottle of tequila and a couple of glasses, wouldja?”
“Be right over.”
Sebastian Red indicated that they should sit down. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
Yancy said, “I ‘spect by now you heard about the Kreota risin’ up again.”
Sebastian nodded. “Some fool idjit come runnin’ in here yelling that everybody in town best to get ready to get slaughtered by the Kreota so most that were here went pilin’ out to run home and hide under their beds.”
“You don’t think they got reason?”
“Best thing to do is barricade every street in an’ outta town, arm every man and put them either on the rooftops or at the barricades. An’ don’t leave town.”
“Sheriff Morton is doin’ just that thing.”
Sebastian nodded in approval. “Smart man. Sounds like he’s had some experience with the Kreota.”
“He was at Lancaster Pass.”
“Yeah. He’s got experience then.”
“But how about you, Mr. Red? You know anythin’ ‘bout the Kreota?”
Harry brought over the fresh bottle and shot glasses for the Horns. Sebastian poured himself a drink and tossed it back before answering the question. “I’ve dealt some with the Kreota. Got into some scraps with them. They ain’t a people to be taken lightly. They know how to kill and once they got their blood hot, the best thing to do is stay right where you are until they cool off.
"The last time they rode The Bloodstained Trail was four years ago. They rode it for about five days. Time before that they rode it for five weeks.” Sebastian poured himself another drink. “Nobody knows why the Kreota take to The Bloodstained Trail or why they stop or how long it’s gonna last. All anybody knows is that they’re gonna kill everything in their path until they’re satisfied and then go on back to their cliffs and mountains.”
“You speak any Kreota, Mr. Red?”
“Depends on the clan. I know Bighand and Wormbone good. I can get by with Eyefire and Shadowyell. What’s all this ‘bout?”
John toyed with his glass. He’d poured himself a drink but he hadn’t taken it yet. “My brother and I want to hire you to help us get to a wagon train. It’s coming here from Fort Bronson. That’s five days ride west of here.”
“I know where Fort Bronson is. I worked for the Army some a few years back.”
“So you know this region, then?”
Sebastian Red shrugged. “Well, enough, I reckon. But why you gentlemen want to throw away your lives riding out to catch a wagon train that’s on its way here anyway?”
“Because there’s no way they can know the Kreota rose up again and they need to be warned.”
Sebastian Red shook his head. “Chances are the Kreota done killed them already. You’d be wasting your lives. You’d best hunker down right here in town.”
“You don’t understand!” Yancy snarled. “Claudia’s with that wagon!”
“You gonna get yourself killed over a girl, boy?”
John placed a calming hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Claudia’s not just a girl, Mr. Red. She’s a woman I’m hoping will consent to be my wife.”
“Or mine!” Yancy shrugged his brother’s hand off. “Claudia’s coming out here with her pap to settle. John an’ me, we both courted Claudia back in Jenning Falls before coming out here to ranch. We got us a pretty good spread outside of town. Couple hundred acres, some good cattle, horses. We ain’t big and we ain’t fancy but we’re doing all right.”
“So what are we talkin’ about here? You boys are gonna have this young lady decide between the two of you?”
John nodded. “We’ve agreed to abide by Claudia’s decision.”
“What if it’s you?” Sebastian gestured at Yancy. “You gonna be able to live with your brother marryin’ a woman you love?”
“If that happens, I ‘spect I’ll be leaving for a while to get over it. But I’ll be just as happy for my brother as I would be for myself.”
Privately, Sebastian wasn’t so sure about that. He’d know brothers to cut each other’s throats over a woman but that wasn’t his lookout. He shook his head. “I appreciate what you wanna do, boys. An’ you’re right. Somebody should ride out and warn the wagon train and push ‘em until they get here safely. But just the three of us…” again he shook his head. “And you boys are city born and bred. I can tell. I need men I can count on when we run into trouble.”
“We may not be big shot gunfighters or bounty hunters but we can carry our own water when we have to,” Yancy said.
Sebastian looked at him with approval. “I believe you can. But still…”
“If it’s money we can put two thousand in your hand in an hour.” John said. “If you want more than that you’ll have to wait until we can wire Hayes City and our bank there.”
“That’s not it. Not everything is ‘bout money. I just don’t believe in throwing away my life or that of other folks if’n there ain’t no need.”
“But we’ve just got to go help them, Mr. Red. There’s a small force of Army soldiers with the wagon train but-“
That caught Sebastian’s attention. “You know any of the soldiers with that wagon? Any mention made of a Lt. Finney with them?”
Yancy shrugged. “Claudia’s last letter only made mention of a Captain McAllister in charge. That all. Why?”
“When I worked for the Army I got to be pards with this Lt. Jim Finney. He saved my life when we were out on patrol. We got surprised by a wild minotaur. Critter would have tore me to pieces if Finney hadn’t got him with the first shot.” Sebastian Red looked out the window. “I’d sure hate to think of Finney out there with no idea the Kreota done rose up. I owe him.” Sebastian took another drink and sat in silence, still looking out the window.
“So does this mean you’ll take us?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll take you. I can pretty much guess which route the wagon train will take. We’ll ride out to meet them and push ‘em back here. Hopefully we can do it without runnin’ into the Kreota but that ain’t much chance at all.” Sebastian looked hard at John. “And looky here…we find ‘em dead, I still expect to be paid.”
“Two thousand is yours just for going. That’s agreed.”
Sebastian grunted in satisfaction. “You boys got horses?”
Yancy looked offended by the question. “Of course we got horses.”
“I mean real animals with strength and endurance you can depend on, not them nags you use on your ranch to pull plows. Out there, a good horse may make the difference between you keeping your liver or not.”
“What do you mean, ‘keeping your liver’” Yancy asked.
“Kreota cut out the livers of their kills. That’s where they think the soul is. They take livers, cook ‘em up in a tasty stew and eat ‘em. Believes it gives them the power and smarts of whoever it belonged to. We may have to run. An’ more than once. You want a horse what ain’t gonna drop dead on you after a mile or two.”
“We’ll get good horses. Ben Rollins raises some fine horses on his spread. We’ll get a couple from him.” John said.
“Make sure your guns and rifles are clean. Bring dried meat, airtights, bread. We won’t be making a fire out there. We leave at first light.”
“Why can’t we leave today? There’s still five hours of daylight!”
“One, because I been drinkin’ all day and I ain’t fool enough to go out there without a good night’s sleep to get sober. Two; you boys need a solid night of sleep yourselves because once we get on the road, you ain’t gonna get another one until you get back here to town. That’s if you get back.”
John frowned. “I’m not sure I like your attitude, Mr. Red. You’re supposed to be keeping us alive but you act like you’re expecting us to get killed.”
“What you don’t understand is that once we leave this town there’s a mighty good chance that we will get killed.”
“Then why are you going?”
“I told you why. There’s a man out there I owe my life to and he don’t have no idea of what’s going on. He deserves an even chance.” Sebastian Red poured himself another drink. “Now the both of you best be about your business. Meet me back here at sunup. And if either one of you are particularly religious, y’might wanna get your prayin’ done now.”