Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Twisted Tumbleweed Tales Audio

My short story collection, Twisted Tumbleweed Tales, is now available as an audio book from Crossroad Press. It contains eighteen stories--including two selected by Ellen Datlow as Honorable Mentions in the annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies--read by the talented Mark Huff.

Click on the link for a sample--and a special offer:


Friday, June 17, 2011

Comic Book Review: Weird Western Tales (2001) #'s 3 & 4

Weird Western Tales
by Various
Vertigo Comics 2001
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Thriller)

Vertigo proves that there’s more to Old West yarns than meets the eye with the six more stories of Weird Western Tales.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

The cover of issue three by Fastner and Larson is the most humorous of the four issues. The expressions on the characters’ faces are priceless.

Scott Cunningham’s and Danijel Zezelj’s “Settlers” concerns a family who have been seeking gold for so long, the son doesn’t know any homestead but the open sky. The father stumbles upon a claim being mined by “Indians” of a tribe never before encountered, and his attempt to jump it. A bittersweet tale highlighted by Zezelji’s art which is reminiscent of Mike Mignola’s especially in his depiction of the “Indians” and their mining equipment.

“The Confession of Gabriel Winters” written by Nicholas Burns and beautifully illustrated by Doug Wheatley features a dying bounty hunter desperate to clear his notorious reputation by confessing to a priest. The atrocities Gabriel Winter has committed are brutal and many, and his belief that he has been blessed with this work is all the more appalling. Wheatley creates both horrific and tender imagery from a vulture-eaten corpse to a tearful eyed child. Burns’ dialogue was so well-written, I could hear the desperation in Gabriel’s voice and the disgust in the priest’s.

The setting is October 1963 in Texas in “Once Upon a Time in the Future” by Brett Lewis and Eduardo Risso. For more than one-hundred years the Union and Confederate States of America have maintained a bitter cease-fire between them. A flaming red-haired female marshal who hasn’t aged since the war began is working behind enemy lines on a secret mission. This is by far the weirdest of the weird westerns in this series. Lewis’ ambiguous story is intriguing nonetheless and Risso illustrated a unique desolate environment. I would like to see this story continue.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

On the cover of issue four is a gambler caught cheating. This is a fun design by Jordi Bernet and colored by Mark Chiarello.

Owen is a browbeaten husband in Peter Milligan’s and Duncan Fegredo’s “What a Man’s Gotta Do.” A fan of the Duke, Clint, Coop, Shane, and other mythic Hollywood cowboys, Owen decides he’s not going to take it anymore and recapture man’s true pioneering spirit. He dresses up in cowboy gear and fights back against his female oppressors—his wife and boss. But he’s not the only male looking to find his roots. Milligan’s story is hilarious and Fegredo perfectly captures Owen’s transformation from henpecked husband to trail boss.

“Savaged” is the harshest tale in this issue. Bruce Jones’ story follows a homesteader’s degradation as his family is captured by a Cree tribe. The chief takes his wife and son as his own, and he is relegated to a camp joke—feeding with dogs and sharing a teepee with a large woman who beats him. The years of abuse take their toll, but he never surrenders hope for revenge. Cully Hammer provides comic and terrifying illustrations in rendering the homesteader’s humiliation and making the reader feel both sympathy and fear for him. Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh deserves mention for her use of color throughout—fiery orange and reds as the Cree attempt to destroy the homesteader to cool blues and blacks as he takes back his dignity.

Ending the series on a light note is “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” written by Jen Van Meter and illustrated by Dave Taylor. Three cowboys transporting cattle—and their dead friend—to market discover its not easy keeping a body from falling prey to various natural and unnatural hazards. Van Meter keeps you smiling as you travel alongside these cowpokes, but manages to slap you in the face by the end. Taylor’s vistas that the cowboys travel through are particularly good.

These last two issues of Weird Western Tales equal the first in quality.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Comic Book Review: Weird Western Tales (2001) #'s 1 & 2

Weird Western Tales
by Various
Vertigo Comics 2001
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Thriller)

The Tall Tale came out of the period of United States western expansion in the 1800s, and is considered a legitimate American literary form. Told around campfires, passed down by word of mouth, these tales gave birth to such recognizable fictional figures as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Deadwood Dick. Thanks to dime novels, real-life frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid were depicted as superhuman. The wild exploits of both the real and unreal people of the Old West have become legendary. These myths—combined with the superstitions derived from European forefathers—resulted in a genuine folklore that could only come from an American identity.

DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint acknowledged this with the publication of Weird Western Tales. Originally a series that ran in the 1970s (featuring gunslinger Jonah Hex), the stories were action-packed adventures without any hint of the fantastic. Each issue of Vertigo’s series demonstrates that the possibilities inherent in the Western genre are endless.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

The cover art of the first issue by Darwyn Cooke is a definite eye-grabber, informing the reader that this ain’t no pony ride ‘bout Cowboys and Indians they may be used to seeing. Covered in black widow spiders with a tentacle emerging from the ground beneath her, wrapping itself around her, stands a rather busty gunslinger. Five holstered six guns drape off her hips, and pinned to her flowing duster is an array of sheriff’s and marshal’s badges. Instead of a revolver, she’s firing from a machine pistol while the frontier town behind her (and some fleeing horses) are engulfed in flames. Cooke’s style reminds me of Bruce Timm (who I thought was the artist of this cover), and it’s easy to imagine this animated.

Unfortunately, there is no story in this issue relating to the cover, but “Tall Tale” by Paul Pope, “Serial Hero” by Dave Gibbons, and “This Gun for Hire” by Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett lead off this series with many entertaining surprises.

In “Tall Tale”, writer/illustrator Paul Pope sets the tone and background of the series in a great introduction by referring to those legendary names mentioned above as “the original American superheroes.” Some, like Wild Bill Hickok, drew his share of enemies as well as admirers thanks to the exaggeration of his skills by dime novelists. A mangy badman by the name of Charles E. Bowles arrives in a frontier town screaming for Hickok’s head. He believes Hickok faked his death and has been hiding out as a saloon owner. Sure enough, his target looks like Hickok, goes by the name of Bill Hickson, and insists Bowles is mistaken. And in finding out his true identity, Bowles gets more than he bargained for.

This is a good story with the most unexpected twist of the three in this issue. Pope’s illustrations are gritty—appropriate for the Old West setting, and it’s obvious he referenced pictures of Hickok. However, the coloring by Lee Loughridge was too dark (black, gray, and dark red) and muted some interesting details Pope drew. For example, Bowles’ cowboy hat is made out of an animal, and I couldn’t tell if it was a raccoon, beaver, fox, or skunk. It’s a minor complaint, but it’s these unique touches that stand out and deserve a little notice.

Dave Gibbons’ “Serial Hero” concerns a Lone Ranger-type silver screen vigilante by the name of “Jeff Justice.” Too much booze and an affair with the wrong woman ended his career. Now, Arnold Janowski makes his living doing odd jobs for a Wild West Rodeo. But when the daughter of the show’s owner is kidnapped, and Arnold becomes a suspect, he decides to don the mask and become “Jeff Justice” for real. In his search to find the girl and clear his name, the path he follows takes a dark turn.

A prose story heightened by Gibbons’ realistic illustrations (rendered in movie-tone black and white), “Serial Hero” is a great character study. Justice/Janowski is a combination of Hollywood’s stereotypical cowboys—the white-hatted lawman, and the anti-heroic gun-for-hire—but revealing a humanity rarely portrayed in western films.

Winfred Bartlett heads west to realize his dream of becoming a self-sufficient farmer in “This Gun for Hire.” Writer Greg Rucka puts his meek protagonist in conflict with ranchers determined to run him off his land. With the law unwilling to protect him, Winfred mail-orders a six gun, and despite practice, remains a lousy shot. But when the inevitable showdown occurs, Winfred has more of an edge than he imagined. Illustrator

Rick Burchett has some fine work here, especially his mountain landscape at the start of the story, and his use of silhouettes throughout.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

Issue two cover art by Dave Taylor looks like it could have come from the brush of Old West painter C.M. Russell. A lone, long-mustached cowboy sits astride a white horse in a desert under a blue sky. It took me a moment to notice the two dozen arrows sticking out of the horse.

Joe Pruett and Marcelo Frusin’s “First Among Men” features a gang of outlaws whose crimes are planned by a greenhorn they barely tolerate. To go into further detail would spoil the story, but the greenhorn is the key to the outlaws’ livelihood more than they know. Pruett’s dialogue between the bandits is full of deadly humor (including a funny reference to Time Life’s Old West series of books), and the blend of Frusin’s illustrations with Nathan Eyring’s colors is a wide-screen spectacle featuring blood-splatters worthy of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

In “Palomino” a young journalist from the east is assigned to find the west’s legendary heroes. Instead he finds himself surrounded by a group of men who’ve seen too many sunsets, but have some good stories to tell. An ex-outlaw reveals how a horse he loved saved his life—under very unusual circumstances. Darko Macon writes a solid tale, and Paul Gulacy’s illustrations are exceptional, especially in panels without dialogue balloons where the expressions of the characters speak volumes.

An almost completely dialogue free story, the surreal “Devil’s Sombrero” by Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman [they collaborated on such weird western comics as Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo, Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such, Jonah Hex: Shadow’s West, and Red Range] presents an unnamed Mexican, dying of heat exhaustion and thirst in the desert. From out of a cave sails a sombrero that lands on his head, transforming him into a handsome and healthy bandito, endowed with skills Clint Eastwood would envy. Even with minimal dialogue, Lansdale is able to combine both humor and pathos. What can be said about Glanzman’s art? He is a consummate western illustrator and its easy to hear the creak of batwing doors, the jingling of spurs, and the clatter of poker chips just by gazing at his work.

For those seeking something different from the spandex-clad majority cluttering up the racks at your comic store, look no further. Weird Western Tales is full of mucho talent and mucho fun.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Comic Book Review: El Diablo

El Diablo
by Brian Azzarello, Daniel Zezelj, and Kevin Somers
Vertigo Comics 2001
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Thriller)

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

After the success of Vertigo’s three limited series featuring DC Comics’ Western gunfighter Jonah Hex, it was inevitable that the company would sift through its roster of frontier figures and see if gold could be struck again.

The nugget found is El Diablo. Originally a backup feature in the original Jonah Hex series from the 1970s and 1980s (and possibly some other DC Western titles), El Diablo was a supernatural Zorro. Clad in black with a red mask, he wielded a bullwhip and a six gun in the cause of justice. His alter ego was Lazarus Lane, the comatose victim of a lightning strike under the care of a Shaman named Wise Owl (think Alfred, Batman’s loyal butler). Using his magic, Wise Owl could bring Lane out of his coma, but only as El Diablo.

In this new incarnation of El Diablo, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Daniel Zezelj have put together a great character study wrapped in a mystery. What they failed to do was write a story about El Diablo.

Moses Stone is the Sheriff of Bollas Raton. Once a bounty hunter, he’s now looking to forget his past notoriety and start raising a family. He knows how to keep the peace in his town and is not above allowing outlaws to stay in town for some drinking and whoring as long as they stay out of trouble.

Stone’s law and order is disrupted when a band of outlaws are gunned down, and Stone himself is tortured by the perpetrator believed to be the mythical El Diablo, a hissing specter who wanders the lawless land dispensing justice. Spirit or not, there is a $10,000 price on his head (from a wanted poster sanctioned by one Lazarus Lane), enough for Stone to draft a posse to pursue the vigilante. El Diablo made sure Stone knew where he’d be heading: the town of Halo, where the sheriff says he was born.

It isn’t long before the hunters become the hunted as El Diablo begins to dispatch the posse. Those members who do survive to arrive in Halo suspect that Stone is hiding something from them, especially as the body count rises and only Stone is present at every murder blaming El Diablo.

Once Stone’s mysterious past is revealed, it catches up with him in an unexpected double twist finale where justice is served not by a spirit of vengeance, but by the very same law and order Stone claimed to represent.

El Diablo is a well-written mystery set in the Old West. The story would have worked even without using El Diablo. Here, he’s more of an intrusion than anything else. He appears, kills some people, hisses, and disappears. His purpose here is to guide Stone back into his past—a past he thought buried, and a past he never imagined existed.

Azzarello’s unveiling of Stone’s true colors is well done. His other characters had great potential (specifically Paw Paw—a half white, half Apache bounty hunter) and I was disappointed when they became merely cannon fodder.

Zezelj’s art with shaded coloring by Kevin Somers wasn’t very clear in many ways. I had difficulty telling some of the characters apart, but I give them credit for creating a unique look and each issue contains memorable imagery.

Tim Sale’s covers are very impressive. The silhouette of El Diablo, pistols drawn hovers over Old West landscapes with newspaper clippings behind him are all great montages.

All Covers
Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl
By Tim Pratt
Bantam/Spectra Books 2005

Copyright © Bantam/Spectra Books

I love wandering through bookstores, always have, always will (sadly, it’s a habit the industry can no longer support as stores close in the age of e-books). Whether it’s a used bookstore full of dusty yellowed paperbacks and ex-library copy hardcovers or a superstore with shelves and tables overflowing with the newest books and repackaged reprints, I can easily get lost for a couple of hours if I’m not looking for anything specific.

Browsing through bookstores is like panning for gold. Some days you come up with nothing but dirt, other days you find something that turns out to be pyrite. If you’re tenacious, one day you just might find yourself shouting “Eureka!” And like those forty-niners of days gone by, there’s a personal triumph in striking gold—a thrill in the discovery of finding a book you’ve never heard of before, a book that wasn’t recommended to you by a friend or force fed to you through the hyperbole machine.

That’s what happened to me with The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. Weird Westerns are hard to come by to begin with, so when I saw the title on the spine, I was sold even before I looked at the cover and read the synopsis, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In modern-day Santa Cruz, California, Marzi McCarty is an art-school dropout, mixing lattes and espressos at the hip coffeehouse Genius Loci for her former classmates. Decorated with murals by the famous artist Garamond Ray, the café has become the nexus of the art student community. Ray himself disappeared in 1989 after a great earthquake, and the murals represent his last works and legacy.

Although she’s given up on the books and academia, Marzi is still very much the artist. Her comic book, “The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl,” has a small yet loyal following. The series chronicles the title character’s adventures in a mystical western landscape, and her encounters with her deadliest adversary, the shadowy sorcerer bent on desolation known simply as The Outlaw.

It was one of Ray’s murals, a desert motif sadly unavailable for patron viewing in the café’s storage room, which inspired Marzi to create her comic—and subconsciously tapped into her much deeper than she could ever imagine.

While her job keeps her among art student circles, Marzi’s only true friend is Lindsay, a flighty, party-loving girl who would love nothing more to see Marzi return to school, and to see her hooked up with Santa Cruz’s newest resident, an art grad student named Jonathan who’s writing a thesis on the works of Garamond Ray.

Romance is the last thing on Marzi’s mind between keeping café and comic book running, both of which become the focal point of some of the students’ sudden and inexplicable bizarre behavior. Beej believes that the coffeehouse is imprisoning an earthquake god, and he’s been charged with releasing it. Jane Canarray (a nod to Calamity Jane perhaps?), exhibiting the strange appearance and powers of a mud ghost (like one of Marzi’s comic book characters), is also convinced she must free an almighty being, but in her case it is a nature goddess. Denis Reardon, an obsessive-compulsive sculptor, who once dated Jane, finds himself dragged into her insanity against his will in order to protect a secret of his own.

Then The Outlaw starts appearing to Marzi, heralding his inevitable arrival in the real world. Marzi learns that by producing her “Rangergirl” comics, she has become the unwitting and unwilling warden of a malevolent entity determined to scourge the planet of its human infestation and return Earth’s natural landscapes. Trapped by Marzi’s imagination in the persona of The Outlaw, the entity only possesses enough influence to recruit Beej, Jane, and Denis as a gang to free him. Now, Marzi finds herself in the role of Rangergirl and with her posse comprised of Lindsay and Jonathan, the stage is set for a classic western style showdown with the fate of the world riding on the outcome.

Tim Pratt has a gift for description that brings his surreal fantasy to life, depicting a mystical western realm where you can feel the heat beating down on you, and teasing about plots and characters from a non-existent comic book you wish you could read. From the fun-loving frivolity of college students having a night out on the town to the slow-burning madness of those losing their grip on reality, Mr. Pratt gives readers a glimpse into each of his character’s psyches, bringing them into sharp focus as fully breathing human beings we either love or hate.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Marzi, the heroes turn out to be less likable—and certainly less interesting—than the villains. Lindsay in particular is rather annoying. She’s a pushy personality who comes across as more intrusive than supportive in her friendship with Marzi, such as when she invited herself along on Marzi and Jonathan’s date to cheer herself up. As a character, she just tries too hard to be liked. Sure, she has a couple of lines that make you grin, but if Lindsay is meant to be a comic relief sidekick, then she shouldn’t be upstaging the protagonist at every opportunity.

Jonathan doesn’t fare much better. He’s your typical tall, dark, and handsome stranger with an aura of mystery, and the implied romance between him and Marzi never really clicks. Maybe that’s because they’re rarely alone as Lindsay always seems to be hanging around like a third wheel.

However, the novel’s villains really get to shine. It’s fun watching Beej’s sanity disintegrate chapter by chapter, and Denis’ perfectly ordered (and imagined) sense of reality come apart at the seams. And despite its clichéd appearance, The Outlaw entity is a unique creation, a force of nature with malicious intent, possessing a hatred of humanity that is understandable from the natural world’s point of view.

Marzi is a believable heroine, whose heroism is hard won. The catalyst that fueled her imagination to create “Rangergirl” also exposed her vulnerabilities. Her journey to overcome her personal crisis and develop the strength to surpass her own creation and become a warrior in her own right is more heroic than her final confrontation against The Outlaw.

Now of course, I want to see an actual Rangergirl comic book. I believe there’s a lot of potential for an ongoing series. Mr. Pratt has created a world worth exploring with Rangergirl and her ghost horse Abacus (with a talent for arithmetic) facing down the likes of Comanche demons riding monstrous beasts, giant dung beetles, skeleton buffalo stampedes, rain barrel sea serpents, mad scientific rainmakers, and the ever present threat of The Outlaw wielding his Colt .45 Warmakers. Hopefully some comic book publisher will agree with me.

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is a fun, fantastic read that’s definitely a keeper on the shelves of my book corral.

Kudos must also be given to cover designer Jamie S. Warren Youll, cover illustrator Michael Koelsch, and book designer Helene Berinksy. From the Sergio Leone inspired visual close-up of Rangergirl’s hand hovering over her holstered gun with The Outlaw standing in the desert-colored distance and the Western-styled fonts to the faux creases and tears across the cover and the cowboy paraphernalia pictured throughout the book at the beginning of each chapter, this great looking novel was obviously put together with a lot of thought, care, and faith in the quality of Mr. Pratt’s story.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Film Review: Curse of the Undead

Curse of the Undead (aka Mark of the West)
Written by Edward and Mildred Dein
Directed by Edward Dein
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Homepage)

Copyright © Universal Pictures

If you’re willing to overlook the extreme acting performances ranging from wooden to melodramatic, you’ll find Curse of the Undead to be a fun and unique weird western.

In an unnamed common 19th century frontier town, an epidemic has stricken several young girls. Doc Carter (John Hoyt), his daughter Dolores (Kathleen Crowley), and her beau Preacher Dan Young (Eric Fleming, the wooden performer I referred to in the first paragraph) have their hands full healing the infirm, both physically and spiritually. When a girl who appears to be making a recovery suddenly dies, Preacher Dan notices two puncture marks on her neck.

After this teaser, the film drifts into a typical western tale. Doc, his sensible daughter, and his hothead son Tim (Jimmy Murphy, the melodramatic performer) refuse to sell their land to greedy rancher Buffer (Bruce Gordon), whose men have been harassing the Carters by damning up the brook and rustling their cattle. Without proof, Bill, the town Sheriff (Edward Binns) can only strut around and warn Buffer to back off.

Enter Drake Robey (Michael Pate) a gunslinger watching the growing Carter/Buffer feud and waiting for a chance to ply his trade. When he does get into a gunfight, he’s always outdrawn—and even shot—yet he’s always able to defeat his opponent unscathed. Later we learn that Robey has an aversion to crucifixes, likes to sleep in coffins, and that he cannot tolerate sunlight.

Preacher Dan, none to happy that Dolores is interested in employing this shootist, uncovers his true identity as a vampire. Unable to convince Dolores, Dan can only watch as Robey mesmerizes her, but Robey cannot hurt her because he has fallen in love with her. Eventually this love triangle, and the fate of the town, is decided in a showdown between preacher and bloodsucker.

Although they employ the usual western movie clichés, co-writers Edward and Mildred Dein break some vampire ones with their unique creation of Drake Robey. Instead of being bitten by a vampire, Robey committed suicide and this original sin caused his soul to return as a nosferatu. Despite his stated aversion to sunlight, Robey is out by day quite a bit. He also enjoys cigars and whiskey (remember Bela Lugosi’s Dracula? “I never drink…wine.”)

Michael Pate gives an understated performance compared to the rest of the cast, and probably the best. His Robey is a sympathetic, tortured soul, rather than the demon Eric Fleming’s preacher will have us believe he is. In a scene where the antagonists argue faith and morality, Robey pleads his case: he never wanted to be a vampire, but he must drink blood in order to survive. To redeem his soul, he’s willing to put down his guns and become a ranch hand to win Dolores’s love. Robey is an early example of the anti-hero—out for himself, yet willing to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

Filmed in black and white, director Edward Dein effectively plays with shadows during night scenes (ala Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu). With minimal gore (some bloody necks) and no visual supernatural effects (Robey doesn’t even sprout fangs), Curse of the Undead is far from horrifying, but it is entertaining. Universal Pictures deserves credit for attempting something new rather than revisiting their classic movie monsters in more sequels.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"The Ballad of Adam Rib, Bony Express Rider": A Twisted Tumbleweed Tale

     The desert sun blazed down on a man who couldn’t sweat. The sand beneath his steed’s hooves shifted and sank, swaying his ride and shaking his bones with the sound of an Indian’s turtle shell rattle. He straightened his spine, cracked his neck, and tried to wipe the dust from his upper arm with a clack of his hand. His eye sockets scanned the horizon and found the way station. Knocking his heels against the rib cage of his mount, Adam Rib, Bony Express Rider, spurred Scratch, his skeletal horse, onward.
     Dismounting, Adam plodded to the water trough, untied the black bandanna from his spinal column and dipped it beneath the surface. Removing his battered Stetson, he swabbed the top of his skull with a flourish, rubbing away the dust that had settled there, checking his progress in his reflection.
     When he felt he looked presentable, Adam strolled into the station office. Dust floated in the air, curling around him like cigarette smoke as he approached the desk and the creature playing solitaire behind it. He hitched a thumb between his holster buckle and pelvic bone and waited for the Baron to address him.
     Fnap. The three of clubs. Fnap. The seven of diamonds. Fnap. The five of hearts. The Baron picked up the last card and placed it atop the four of hearts next to the ace of clubs. Without raising his head, red eyes peeked up beneath bushy eyebrows. “Adam.”
     “Baron,” greeted Adam. “Pick up or delivery?”
     “Pick up.”
     Fnap. A joker. Black suit.
     “Tsk. Tsk,” The Baron licked his lips and steam rose from them as he smiled. “Now how did that get in there?”
     Adam cracked his neck.
     The Baron laughed. “Have a seat Adam. I got a special assignment for you.” He put down the deck of cards and placed a buckskin pouch on the desk with his other hand. “Pick up’s in injun territory.”
     Adam paused before sitting. “We got no jurisdiction there.”
     “We do now. Fella’s a white man. Raised by injuns, and now they’re burying him like he was one of them.”
     “Well,” Adam shrugged. “Ain’t he?”
     “Boy was baptized and branded. That makes him ours.”
     Adam shifted in his chair. “They ain’t gonna just let me take ’im.”
     The Baron handed Adam a cigar. “Light up Adam.”
     “You know I ain’t got no lungs.”
     “Humor me.”
     Adam reached for the lucifers on the desk and lit the cigar. He placed it in his mouth and shuddered as the smoke flowed down, coiling around his neck bone, slithering along his spine and caressing his ribs.
     The Baron exhaled black smoke from his own cigar towards the ceiling, “You’re not afraid of some little ol’ injun spirits are you?”
     Adam took the cigar from his mouth and tapped off some ashes. “Fear’s got nothin’ to do wit it.”
     “That’s good to hear.” The Baron sucked on his cigar for a long moment. “Red man’s day is comin’ to an end. Their spirits are weakening with each piece o’ land we grab.” He pointed to the pouch. “That’ll get you through the fence line safe enough.”
     “Mind tellin’ me what it is and where it came from?” asked Adam.
     “Matter o’ fact, I do,” smirked the Baron. “But I’m willin’ to be generous. It belonged to a shaman who found Christ. Both he and this pouch were blessed by a priest. So now this thing can open the fence lines between our territory and the red man’s.”
     Adam picked it up. “How’s it work?”
     “Just head toward injun territory, it’ll do the rest. Use it to collect our boy the way you would your saddle bags.” The Baron handed him a piece of parchment. “This here’s our boy’s brand.”
     Adam unfurled the scroll. On it was a black blotch, which looked like a squished tarantula.
     Fnap. Jack of spades. The Baron continued his game. Adam knew he was dismissed.
     He extinguished his cigar.

     Adam reached the end of the desert and the beginning of the grassy plains that marked Indian Territory. Scratch’s front hooves pawed at the sand and his hind legs shifted from side to side. Adam patted his mount on the skull, and took the pouch from the saddlebags.
     To his surprise, the drawstrings untied themselves as the air above the grass blurred, creating a hole in the fence line. Adam cracked his neck, gritted his teeth with an audible clack, and squeezed Scratch between his knees, urging the steed forward.
     The grass cried out as Scratch stepped upon it, and a gust of wind flowed through Adam, flapping his neckerchief. The grass tugged away from them, trying to pull free of their roots as Scratch walked further along the field, scorching the ground with every step. There was grass as far as the eye could see, stretching far into the distance where the sky met the earth. The sun shone directly above.
     Hours passed, and the sun remained overhead. Adam tilted his hat so the brim shielded his eye sockets, then tightened his grip on the saddle horn.
     A whinny from Scratch made him look up. It could’ve been minutes or hours later. In the distance was a tier with a body lying atop it.
     He halted a couple of hundred feet from the tier when Scratch started to quiver. He dismounted.
     The body was naked save for the wolf fur covering its extremities, and a beaded headband. Four open-mouthed rattler heads adorned the tops of the tier’s posts in fanged snarls.
     Adam lifted the pouch.
     Something grabbed his shinbone, yanking him off his feet. Twisting onto his spine, he could see a rattlesnake’s head rising above him as its body tightened its grip on his leg. Behind it, he could see three other rattlers, shedding their wooden skin from the posts that held them, and the burial platform fell flat to the ground.
     The snake clutching his leg leaned its head down, hissed into Adam’s face, and snapped his leg off. Adam jerked away, leaving his left shin and foot bones in the rattler’s embrace, drew his revolver and blasted the snake’s head off with a bone bullet.
     Before he could aim at the second closest rattler, Scratch appeared and trampled it beneath his hooves. Then the skeletal horse lunged towards the third snake and bit its head off.
     The fourth snake slithered toward the pouch. Adam pulled his shinbone free from the dead rattler and bludgeoned the live one with the heel like a club.
     Scratch walked to his side. Adam grabbed hold of the stirrups, and managed to pull himself up onto his one foot. He placed his broken leg bone in his saddlebag.
     Adam hopped over to the body of the white Indian, and pulled the wolf skin off. The legs of the flattened tarantula, which was the Baron’s brand, peeked out from the body’s back like a spider in hiding.
     He placed the pouch atop the corpse’s chest, and leaned back. The bag opened.
     The body twitched once. Twice. It arched its back and trembled. Its head flopped from side to side, slapping against the ground. Then it collapsed--the skin shriveling around it, tightening until its skeleton burst free from the flesh, which clung to the bones like tattered clothing.
     The drawstrings tied and the pouch rolled itself off the body.
     If Adam could smile, he would have. He reached for the pouch when the snout of a wolf clamped its jaws around it.
     He grabbed at the animal, but it slipped through his finger bones, fluid as water. It was the wolf skin, gliding away from him, and sailing above the plain like a kite.
     Adam drew his revolver and fired. The bone bullets punched holes through the wolf skin, billowing it like a flag in a strong breeze, but didn’t even slow it down. He reloaded, and raised the pistol in both hands, aiming for the wolf’s head. His shot took out the lower jaw. The pouch dropped and the skin tumbled along the grass like a desert tumbleweed.
     Wasting no time, Adam remounted Scratch and pounded after the fallen pouch. Scooping it up, he raced back towards white man’s territory. Adam secured his prize to his rib bones with a double knot.
     He looked behind him, revolver drawn, expecting hell knew what animal or injun spirit, but only saw the sun falling.
     Up ahead, Adam could make out the fence line and the desert beyond. From out of the grass before them rose a three-headed totem pole. It charged Adam, lowering its top head, a buffalo bearing horns.
     Scratch reared up as the totem just missed taking Adam’s head off. Claws from the mountain lion head on the pole’s bottom swatted out as they veered to the left of the behemoth. It spun towards them, snapping at them from the beak of the eagle in the middle of the totem.
     In a cacophony of howls and screeches, the totem raced after them. As Scratch crossed the fence line, the sky erupted from night into day, blinding Adam. Scratch stumbled as the grass became sand, spilling Adam out of the saddle with a jarring fall, his revolver spinning out of reach.
     The totem tore through the fence line with a roar, then shrieked as it touched the sand. Unprotected in the white man’s realm, its wooden faces started to crack and splinter. It retreated back over the line and sank into the grass as if it had stepped into quicksand.

     Adam used bandages to wrap his shin and knee bones back together, knowing they would heal completely in time. He hopped off of Scratch and limped to the office.
     Fnap was the first sound to greet Adam when he opened the door. The Baron glanced up.
     Adam pulled the pouch loose and dropped it on the desk, scattering the Baron’s cards. He clicked his tongue. “Well done.” He opened the drawstrings, releasing a black mist in the shape of a squashed spider. It floated in the air for a few seconds before twirling into a twister and spinning into the Baron’s open safe. Its door closed with a clang.
     He looked at Adam and sighed. “I’m afraid I got some bad news for you.” He opened the shutters behind his desk. A wooden pole stood directly in front of the window with two wires extended from the top of it to the roof. The wires stretched out from the other side of the pole towards the horizon where it attached to another pole and yet another into eternity. “It’s called a telegraph.”
     “Graph. Some new fangled device that can transport souls quicker than you boys can fetch ‘em.”
     “What about the Bony Express?”
     “Disbanded. Defunct. Dead.” The Baron frowned. “You’ve all been recalled.”
     Adam hobbled over to the window and stared at the pole.
     He remembered what it was like to be buried. Trapped in the box, packed beneath six feet of earth, rotting away, until the Baron appeared offering employment with the Bony Express.
     He was not going back.
     “It’s out of my hands I’m afraid,” the Baron continued. “You got five minutes.” The Baron swept his cards off the desk and left the office.
     Leaving the pouch behind. The key to Adam’s jail cell.
     He brought it outside and climbed aboard Scratch. The Baron was nowhere in sight.
     Without waiting for a kick in the ribs, Scratch started to walk into the desert, away from the telegraph poles.
     The pouch opened in Adam’s hand, and the air shimmered before them like a lake after a stone has skipped across it.
     He looked over his shoulder. The Baron was leaning against the station office, arms crossed. He touched the brim of his hat.
     Adam nodded, clicked his heels against Scratch and entered the portal, the colors of which he thought resembled a setting sun.

Twisted Tumbleweed Tales
18 Stories of the Wild Weird West
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