For this weeks Fiction Friday, inspired by our Deadlands game, I wanted to write something Weird Western, à la Ambrose Bierce. I want it to be the kind of story that can act as an idea seed for somebody running something in a Deadlands style setting, which means a more external horror to the sort I usually write, and I actually don't know that much about the American western history, so this might not be the best plan, but meh.
Don't forget to check out Icarus's blog for her offering to the day, and please add a comment with a link to your own!
Mary 'May' Louise Albery led Titus the donkey back towards her family's camp. Drowning in the heat of the Californian sun, she was less irritable than when she'd left to collect the supplies, grateful to be getting back to her family.
They'd reached the area early enough to have a large, remote claim to work in, and had had a fair amount of success panning for gold in the streams that criss-crossed their claim, but their father's dream, the reason he'd uprooted them from their ranch and dragged them halfway across the country, was to find a real mine that would keep them for generations. And now maybe they had. Her sister Elsa had traced a stream to a cave that looked promising, following whispers, she claimed. Heat, the rest of them blamed.
Yesterday, as the eldest child, May was sent back to town to get supplies so they could start mining. She'd argued, wanting to take at least Tom with her - so he'd learn the way for future, she'd said, but really because having Titus as her only company was wearying. But her father had wanted Tom with him, exploring - and was called strong-willed and other names. She felt a small prickling of pride and gratitude to be in California then, where the influx of people meant women - girls - were allowed to be strong-willed. So armed with the two guns - the rocksalt rifle to scare off animals without damaging their own livestock (and how she missed them sometimes), and the pistol for last resort against real threats to her life or virtue - she packed up Titus with enough raw gold to trade for what they needed.
And now she was on her way back to them, still cross from the heat, scratched by the clawing trees, and far less steady-footed than Titus. Slithering along the scree, she was close enough she should be able to hear them and couldn't: they'd escaped the heat exploring the cave, then. As she reached their camp, it was indeed tidy and empty. She unloaded Titus, rubbed him down while feeding and watering him, washed and changed herself, ate a little. They still weren't back; she wasn't particularly worried, knowing her father was sensible enough that if there had been a cave-in they wouldn't all be inside.
She checked the boundaries of their claim, then as a peace offering for her temper the day before, she prepared a meal for them. She packed it up, checked the guns, slung one of the new pickaxes across her back and grabbed a lantern in case it was dark coming back, and carried the food to the cave mouth.
She could see signs they'd been working hard - but no sign of them being there now. No sounds, no lights flickering inside. Her breath caught as she felt tendrils of fear for the first time. There had been no sign of them on the route she'd taken, no sound of them.
Falling into habits of practicality to calm herself, she dug a shallow hole and stashed the food in it, covering with a cairn to protect against wild animals. It helped a little.
She checked the guns again, tested the weight of the pickaxe before lighting the lantern and stepping into the cave. She didn't like that it meant she was one handed, but she needed the light.
Her family had been busy: ropes marked the path they'd taken, which made it easier to face the cool darkness. She'd hated the heat, but in the dark found she missed it.
The passage wound round and her feet were quickly soaked by the stream. Her splashes and stumbles echoed until she felt swallowed by another world, a dreamscape of shadows and reflections. She followed the guide ropes as the route twisted, rose and fell. Had she been less afraid, she'd have thought it a strange route to have taken. Had her own breathing been calmer, she might have noticed the other breathing sooner.
The passage narrowed until she could barely squeeze through - too narrow for her parents to fit, but when it opened into a large chamber she saw them, all her family. Each was pressed against the walls as though held up by some invisible force, and she could see them clearly, lit up in gold. Lit up by the gold. She held the lantern up, to begin with, in awe, but placed it down when she realised the gold was itself glowing.
Her mother was closest to her, then her siblings with little Elsa centre and highest, and her father the other side, his eyes fury. They were all pinned high enough she wasn't sure she could reach, but scrambled at the wall to try. Her mother watched, fear across her face, but unable to move. May couldn't reach; she hefted the pickaxe to strike the wall, try and create some purchase. Her mother's eyes widened, and a fearful howl echoed through the chamber. She dropped the pickaxe and covered her ears as she stared round, seeking the source. The howl dropped to laughter and faded. She wanted to run, couldn't think over the rabbit-fast beating of her heart, but seeing her family she knew she couldn't leave them, had to fight down her flight instinct and try again.
She reached down for the pickaxe and ignored the howl as she swung it again, again, drowning it out with her own grunts and howls. Her mother started to writhe above her; she didn't trust herself to look around at the rest of her family. Swung again.
A hand on her shoulder. She swung around as she wet herself, and nearly embedded her pickaxe in her father's body. She ducked beneath his arm, stumbled away as he swung at her, clumsy, reddish black smoke in his eyes. He came towards her again, grabbing at the pickaxe. She let him take it, using the motion to twist further from him, to the centre of the room. He flung the pickaxe away, drawing her attention to the pile of equipment it landed by - everything her family had brought with them, apart from the rope that had guided her.
She didn't want to hurt her father, but he turned to her, walking forward with jerking menace. She fumbled to release the rocksalt rifle. They'd used them on the ranch to scare off wildlife, because the lightweight shells wouldn't pierce the hide of their cattle, but the guns still made a good bang to frighten. She hoped it would help here, as she pointed it at her father and screamed as she fired.
Her father staggered back, blinked, the smoke clearing from around his eyes. Blinked, and reformed. He started moving again: she fired again. He was closer, this time, and the shell fractured, embedding the salt in him. He fell back, and the smoke dissipated.
The howl returned, screaming, but she'd already turned to the rest of her family. Whatever spirit was keeping them here seemed to have weakened and they were sliding, falling to the floor, but with enough freedom of movement to soften their landings. Tom caught Elsa in his arms, while Bridie ran for their mother, who in turn reached their father - unconscious, but alive. May stood at the centre, reloading the rocksalt rifle, looking round as a thick smoke billowed.
May yelled for Tom to get the others out, as she raced for the equipment pile, seeking lamp oil. She stood the bottle up as Tom returned to her - the others had run back down to the tunnel, Bridie and Elsa squirming through. She and her brother shared a look of terror - how would they get their parents out - as the smoke-being continued to solidify, developing ruby-red eyes and an uncannily human form.
Tom helped her hack her skirts to create a wick. They dipped one end in the lamp oil, lit the other and threw it at the creature. The skirt remnant wrapped around it, encasing it, as they ran back to that narrow entrance.
The howling rose behind them, but the horror of it shifted to pain and the whole room seemed to swell and contract, swell and contract around them. The motion gave their mother space to pull their father through the passage, May and Tom following closely behind.
They emerged into a cool, blessed moonlight. May immediately swung back around, rifle raised, but no smoke billowed out from the entrance. Tom and Bridie pulled stones over the entrance, and they made their way back to the camp.
Their mother nursed their father through the night. In the morning, May led her younger siblings back to the cave entrance, where they laced it with dynamite to cave it in. They returned to the camp to find their father finally conscious again, but blind.
They left California the next day.