By: Andrew Thomas Prenger
I whistled a song I couldn’t remember the words to as I shoveled another pile of horse shit into the wheelbarrow. It was nearly full so soon enough I would have ta’ pick it up and wheel it out of the stable to be dumped. Me and horses never got along too well before this point. Being the one ta’ have to deal with their waste was not endearing themselves to me. Once I made enough money with this job ta’ get out of town I was gonna’ go somewhere, a big city, where I wouldn’t have ta’ rely on a horse for a while.
All in all I had ta’ say that this was one of the lower parts of my career. If I didn’t need the money so bad I’d be doin’ something else. It wasn’t as though when people asked me ta’ kill a vampire they were impressed by how much horse shit I was able ta’ shovel in a day. I wouldn’t be in this position if some madman hadn’t decided ta’ go on a rampage. Or if I had any valuable skills ta’ rebuild the town. As it was the actual stable boy was more of a carpenter than I was so a few weeks ago a deal was struck where we would switch jobs. I was the only one who objected to it.
Someone coughed behind me, startling me. I spun around and reached for a gun I no longer owned. Force of habit. The man who wanted my attention was a skinny, short man dressed in a fancy charcoal suit with a matching bowler hat. When he removed his hat I could smell the pomade in his nicely cut hair over the smell of the stables. I didn’t recognize him at all. I figured he was just passing through. I thumbed towards an empty stall.
“Feel free ta’ put your horse in that one.”
“I’m not interested in stabling my horse here. I have need…of you.”
“Oh, that sonnuvabitch! Look, Ed the bartender played a joke on you. The local whore died a month ago and he’s been tellin’ everyone passing through that I’m taking her place. It ain’t gonna’ happen.”
“Don’t be vulgar. I’m looking for you specifically, Abacus Jones. You are him, are you not?”
“Depends on who’s asking.”
“My name is John Casey and I represent the J&D Railroad Company.”
“I know even less about railroading than I do about whorin’.”
“You are a very frustrating man to talk to.”
“I been told that. I’m sorry, I’ve been shovelin’ shit for too long. It’s playing havoc with my manners. What can I do for you, Mr. Casey?”
“I am here because of a man named Ulysses William Vanhoorhiss.”
“Sorry ta’ interrupt, but that is a God damned mouthful of a name. It’s like his mama was trying ta’ win a contest for longest name.”
“That aside we would like to hire you to retrieve this man, dead or alive. Preferably alive.”
“You want me to do some bounty hunting?”
“I don’t know what you heard or what you believe, but generally I go after…supernatural things. I mainly kill monsters.”
“We are aware of your reputation. We believe this falls under your purview.”
“Oh, yeah? Tell me more.”
“Can we sort out the details in a…less…rustic environment?” Over the course of the conversation I noticed Mr. Casey becoming a bit green.
“That depends on what your job pays. I ain’t exactly shoveling shit as a past time.”
“Mr. Jones, the J&D Railroad Company is prepared to make it well worth your while.”
“Excellent! Nick!” I shouted to the stable master, “I quit! Give me my money!”
Once Nick and I hashed out what my half-assed stable work was worth I set off to the saloon where I had agreed to meet Mr. Casey. The town was still in the midst of rebuilding. Most of the major buildings were already back up and running, while a few still had boards over the windows. One or two were still rubble.
The saloon was already rebuilt and in full working order. Since it had the most rooms that’s where the workers slept while their own houses got fixed up. I had a room here, too, before I lost all my money.
I found Casey sitting at the center table facing the door. I walked past him and sat down at a corner table so I could have my back against the wall. I didn’t get the sense that he was out to fuck me over, which was rare, but it was in my nature ta’ be distrustful.
Mr. Casey eventually picked up his drink and joined me.
“Tell me about the job.”
“I believe you already know who the target is.”
“I think I would remember Listless Whorekiss.”
“Ulysses Vanhoorhiss. He is responsible for the carnage in this town.”
“That crazy? The guy who blew up all my stuff? My horse? My guns? My whore?”
“Lovely, but yes that is the man we would like you to capture.”
Hearing this immediately made me interested in what Mr. Casey had to say. Every day since Vanhoorhiss had come through town I spent most of my time cursing the man. He was a mad man who strolled through town throwing dynamite at anyone and everything. He threw a stick through my window and sent all my possessions into the street and killing the whore I hired for the night. I hadn’t been there at the time. I had been in the local jail for public drunkenness. I slept through the whole damned thing, didn’t find out about what happened until the deputy let me free in the afternoon.
“Why me? I mean, I am glad you’re willing ta’ pay me enough that I don’t have ta’ shovel shit the rest a’ my life, but when he rolled through I didn’t get a sense off a’ him. You know who I am, you believe me, obviously, since you searched me out, so believe me when I tell you that I can sense supernatural things. I didn’t get anything off him.”
“I talked to the sheriff while locating you. According to him you had been in the drunk tank all that morning.”
“That is true. I did miss the whole thing, still he would’ve left an essence for me to pick up on. Tell me why you think this is the job for me.”
Mr. Casey looked around the saloon ta’ make sure no one was listening in. Except for us the place was deserted. The only other person was Ed the bartender. He had no interest in listening ta’ any business I had.
“Mr. Vanhoorhiss was the demolitions expert on a track we were constructing. We were in the middle of excavating a tunnel when he had an accident. I would like to make this very clear: before the accident Ulysses Vanhoorhiss was one of the most dependable, trustworthy men that I have ever worked with.”
“Then one day decided ta’ blow up people instead of mountains. Weird.”
Mr. Casey slammed his glass on the table, “This is not a matter of levity, sir! People have died!”
“Sorry, I sometimes forget that people haven’t seen as much death as I have. After a while ya’ get kind of numb to it. Go on.”
“One day at the site, one of his workers, some lazy chink, was not paying attention. You would think those people would understand how dangerous that stuff is. While preparing a blast this worker dropped a lit stick of dynamite which rolled towards a case and set off a gigantic blast.”
I tried ta’ figure out where this was going. First thought was zombie. Living dead causing mayhem in a corpse except that didn’t fit. Zombies were shit for motor functions. No complex thoughts in their rotten skulls. I was stumped. Figured I should listen to what Mr. Casey was saying rather than play at being a detective.
“Mr. Vanhoorhiss was some distance from the blast. He was on a hill talking to a foreman when it occurred. The foreman told me that he thought they’d both been knocked down by the force. It was only when he investigated that he found that Mr. Vanhoorhiss had a nail lodged in his skull.
“By the time they got him to his house Mr. Vanhoorhiss had regained consciousness. Already he showed signs of changes. Reports describe a much terser person than what Mr. Vanhoorhiss was known for.”
“He had a nail stuck in his brain. Doubt anyone’s singing a happy song after that.”
Casey glared at me. “His demeanor only changed for the worse in the following days. He refused to let anyone examine his injury. While he claimed to be fine, and seemingly in perfect health despite the nail, he started having seizures. Small ones at first. Then he would be seen jerking around, limbs flailing uncontrollably. He screamed at anyone who helped him.
“Two weeks after his injury is when it all came to a head.
“He showed up at the site, ostensibly to resume his duties. Instead he killed his assistant and made off with a large supply of dynamite. Since then he’s been cutting a swathe of terror in this part of the country. I’ve been following him, but I cannot predict where he will strike next. I’ve tried heading to towns where I believe he will strike, but not once have I been able to guess right. There have been a few occasions where he has gone back to a town and destroyed it while they were in the midst of re-building.”
I sipped my beer then scratched at my patchy beard while I took in all of what Mr. Casey said. “Your company put you in charge of tracking him down. Obviously they think that you have some detective skills. I’m curious why you came ta’ me. So far from your story I can’t see anything that needs my skill set. All I see is a guy got bonked on the head and went crazy. No ghosts or monsters. For straight jobs there are better bounty killers out there.”
Mr. Casey opened his briefcase and pulled out a handful of papers and put them on the table. They seemed to be progress reports all written on J&D Railroad Company stationary. All of it was written in small precise handwriting I took ta’ be Mr. Casey’s. “I have been interviewing people who have gotten close to him during his reign of terror. They say that he’s been claiming that he is an agent of chaos; he is a demon made flesh dedicated to spread anarchy and death over the world of man. That is a direct quote from a now legless teacher from Amhurst.”
“Still don’t destroy my ‘he’s just crazy now’ theory.”
“If you don’t want the job, Mr. Jones, I am sure I can find someone else, ‘better bounty killers’ as you put it, who would be more than happy to hunt down Mr. Vanhoorhiss. The J&D Railroad Company thought that with your unique specialties you would be better suited. Seeing what he has reduced you to personally I thought you would jump at the chance for revenge, but if you prefer to go back to shoveling shit that’s your choice,” he gathered up all the papers and was hurriedly filing them into his briefcase.
The idea of goin’ back ta’ mucking out stables was not a very pleasant thought. On the other hand neither was hunting down a maniac who had a hard-on for blowin’ people up.
I stopped Mr. Casey from leaving. I agreed on the condition that he had ta’ outfit me with the proper tools ta’ do the job. Casey hemmed and hawed at first until I explained that Vanhoorhiss blew up all my worldly possessions and it wouldn’t do me much good ta’ hunt him down then only be able ta’ wave my dick at him. While it often brought the ladies to their knees I weren’t sure of the power it held over men.
An hour later I stepped outta’ the livery with a whole new kit. Gray pants, gray shirt, gray duster and a ten-gallon hat. My black leather boots were brand new and squeaked when I walked. They matched my gun belt. I had a brand new Colt revolver that was a bit too shiny for my liking, but it wasn’t like I planned on using it that much. I was counting on the sawed off double barrel shotgun ta’ do my work for me. The merchant tried ta’ sell me on a pump-action, but I liked simpler guns. With my bad luck it was better ta’ have less moving parts.
Mr. Casey also sprung for a horse, though he took it outta’ my fee. It was a white horse with gray speckles, much healthier than any horse I ever owned before. As I mounted up Mr. Casey bid me farewell with the encouraging words of: “Mr. Jones, if you do not stop Mr. Vanhoorhiss, or die trying, then the next person I hire will be coming after you.”
Vanhoorhiss had a month’s lead on me, but he weren’t exactly being conspicuous. He was like a tornado that never quit. All I had ta’ do was follow the destruction in his wake.
A few weeks on his trail and I started ta’ suspect that maybe there was something unnatural about him. It didn’t seem likely that a normal man could go on for so long, killing so many folk, without being put down. There was no way in hell I was the only bounty hunter after him. Most a’ the folk killed by him were lawmen. Made sense since they were the likeliest ta’ try and stop Vanhoorhiss. Killing lawmen meant a pretty good bounty. I started getting dollar signs in my eyes. There was a possibility that I’d be able to really cash in on Vanhoorhiss.
The closer I got to him the more I’d have ta’ be careful. I was pretty sure I still had a few outstanding bounties on my own head. I weren’t sure about the prices. Could be that they’d be big enough for another hunter to cut their losses on Vanhoorhiss and turn me in instead. I made sure ta’ keep an eye out.
Mr. Casey was right about something. While it was damned easy to figure out where Vanhoorhiss had been it was near impossible ta’ figure out where he was going ta’ strike next. I had a map Mr. Casey gave me, the only thing I kept outta’ the bushel a’ papers he insisted I take, which had all the cities Vanhoorhiss struck circled and numbered. As I tracked him down I added more circles and numbers. It was all random. With all the circles on the map it looked like someone shot it with buckshot. It was nearly worthless.
Rather than waste more a’ my time following him through the desert I made base at one of the towns in the area he hadn’t attacked. My plan was ta’ wait there until he decided that that particular town needed ta’ be reduced ta’ rubble. I spent my time in the saloon playing poker. Contrary ta’ how my luck tended to run I won more than I lost.
I paid a kid at the post office ta’ keep me informed if anything about Vanhoorhiss came across the wire. After a few updates it became clear Vanhoorhiss was headed my way. Since then I’d stayed sharp. That’s when I started losing money since I focused on the door more than my cards.
No sign a’ Vanhoorhiss, but a stranger strolled into town who caught my eye. He was a rich fella’ in a sharp black suit and hat. He had hair to match his suit and a tightly trimmed goatee. He seemed affable enough. The ladies on the staff loved him and all the guys in the saloon were soon his best buddy. He turned out ta’ be generous with his cash and laughed off any insults or losses. He said his name was Jared Addison, not a name I recognized. In short time he put everyone at ease…’cept for me.
I caught him a few times staring at me from across the room. His normally happy face replaced with something snake-like. Even when his smile returned his eyes stayed cold. It was obvious that I was the only one who noticed. Except for a few hands a’ poker I made it my business ta’ stay away from him.
It was a week before he started something. I finished a good steak and a bad game a’ cards so I felt a bit sleepy. I decided ta’ retire to my room for a little siesta.
As soon as I stepped into my room I knew something was wrong. There was a tension in the air I could feel. Before I could do anything the door slammed shut behind me. I felt a sharp pain in the back a’ my head that pitched me forward. I managed ta’ stay on my feet. From all the years a’ being smashed on the head I figured I’d built up a decent immunity to being knocked out.
My attacked didn’t hit me again. I spun around ta’ see Addison, which weren’t much of a surprise. He had a wooden mallet in his hand that he tapped twice into his left hand then tossed over his shoulder. From his belt he pulled out a large, sinister looking knife with a curved edge.
“Truth be told, I was never one fer blunt objects. I just tried it fer variety purposes, I’m sure you understand. I tend ta’ favor Eva here.”
My head pounded in my skull. Waves a’ pain crashed over it as my heart pumped. It made it hard ta’ focus on what he was saying. It was obvious he didn’t plan on being my friend. I drew my pistol and cocked the hammer back. I stumbled back in forth trying to stay on my feet which made aiming was hard. I was only a few feet away. I figured I only had ta’ aim in his general direction.
I heard a sharp click instead of a loud bang and I cursed the gunsmith at the livery.
“Piece of shit! Why can’t I own a shooter that works worth a damn!?”
Addison laughed out loud, “No, no, it works perfectly. That is actually a very fine piece. I actually plan on taking it when we’re finished. Very fine indeed. You would’ve had no problems if it were loaded.”
I opened the gate and spun the chambers. Sure enough all a’ them were empty. That seemed odd since I distinctly remembered loading it. I looked at Addison who nodded.
“No, you’re right. You ain’t losing your wits. See, what I did was I snuck up here while you were asleep and unloaded your piece. I twigged you on fer bein’ a fella’ who wasn’t to conscientious of his weapon.”
“In my line a’ work I’ve found that more often than not guns don’t really matter. Care ta’ tell me why you just didn’t murder me in my sleep?”
“Where’s the fun in that? If I killed you while you were snoring away then we wouldn’t be able ta’ have a moment like this.”
“That’d be a damn shame.”
I threw my gun at him. He was so surprised he didn’t move. He just stared at it until it hit him in the face. His head snapped back and his nose was already a geyser of blood spraying everywhere. With one hand he held his nose trying to stifle the blood. His other hand gripped tighter on his knife.
I’d been counting on him dropping that thing. I wanted ta’ rush him. Instead I dove across my bed reaching for the double-barrel on the nightstand. I picked it up and broke it open to find that he’d removed the shells from that as well. I pulled two from a pouch on my belt and loaded them into the breach. I rolled over and prepared ta’ fire only to find Addison charging towards me. He backhanded the shotgun as I fired, sending the blast to into a wall instead a’ his chest.
He landed with his knee on my stomach knocking the wind outta’ me. Ta’ keep his advantage he wrapped his free hand around my throat. My vision went dark at the edges. Not a good place ta’ be with a crazy with a knife on top a’ you. It took all my energy ta’ keep a grip on his wrist on his arm holding his knife so he couldn’t stab me.
I was too stupid ta’ realize I still had a weapon handy, just that weren’t meant ta’ be used in that manner. I smashed Addison in the head with my shotgun. He swayed, but otherwise seemed unaffected by the blow. It seemed ta’ spur him on; I felt his hand squeeze tighter around my throat. I hit him again and again. Nothing seemed ta’ faze him. Granted, my hits were getting weaker and weaker.
The knife inched closer to my chest. I could probably survive being strangled. I’d been in countless situations where normal people would of died without air. I wasn’t keen ta’ see where he planned on sticking the knife once I was unconscious.
The door burst open, kicked from the other side by the saloon’s piano player who was a mountain of a man. For all of his size he was surprisingly quick. He grabbed a hold of Addison and yanked him off me. Addison flailed around in the piano player’s grip before he went suddenly slack. When the piano player loosened his grip Addison stabbed him in the leg.
Free again, Addison ran towards me. Through my light-headiness I managed ta’ kick my feet out. I caught him in the stomach. He was goin’ too fast so it didn’t completely stop him. He was almost on top of me when I pushed my legs again. He flew over me, trying one last time ta’ cut me before he crashed through the window. I scrambled offa’ the bed and looked outside. Addison was flat on his back in the middle of the street.
I turned ta’ the piano player. A hooker had joined us and was wrapping a cloth around his wound.
“Thanks for the save. Gonna’ be okay?”
“Should be. It doesn’t feel too bad. Why’d Jasper attack you?”
“Far as I can tell he’s just crazy. Any a’ you care if I go blow his brains out? Seemed like you were pretty friendly earlier.”
“Fine with me. I’ll even buy you a beer afterwards,” the piano player said.
As I walked downstairs I broke open the shotgun and reloaded it. It weren’t until I was nearly out the door when I remembered I should’ve grabbed my revolver. When I kicked open the saloon doors Addison was getting up. I ran and kicked him in the face. He flipped over onto his back. He still had some fight in him since he feebly swiped at me with Eva.
I kicked him over onto his back then I kicked the knife outta’ his hand. I aimed my shotgun at his face. It sounded like he was trying ta’ laugh only it came out as a wet coughing noise. He spat up some blood which ran down his cheek. He smiled at me through bloody teeth.
“What’s the point of killin’ me?” he asked.
“Just so we could have a moment like this.”
“It’s not like people are gonna’ stop hunting you, Jones.”
“Now there’s going to be one less. I got that going for me.”
I was just about ta’ pull the trigger when I heard something hit the ground and start hissing. For a moment I had the crazy thought that someone threw a rattlesnake at me.
The shock a’ the blast knocked me high through the air until I landed face down in the dirt. I felt shaken down to my skeleton and sick to my stomach. The ringing in my ears felt like someone stabbed me in each one a’ them. Shakily I got ta’ my feet.
I coughed until the dust cleared. Down at the end a’ the street was a figure had ta’ be Ulysses Vanhoorhiss. He was dressed in dirty coveralls with a wild bush of bright red hair. His face was dirty, sunburned and cracking. The nail, just like Mr. Casey told me, stuck out of his face. The eye next to the wound was black and green and looked horribly infected.
I only gave him a glance, really, even though he was dangerous. I was looking for any sign a’ Addison. He was closer to the blast than me. I expected him ta’ be a red smear in the dirt except I couldn’t find any trace a’ him anywhere. It didn’t seem likely that he survived, but there should’ve been a corpse somewhere if he hadn’t.
Vanhoorhiss stalked towards me. Each leg lifted laboriously as if it took all a’ his strength. At no point did he move his arms. In each hand he held a stick a’ dynamite. Dangling from his mouth was a very large cigar that he puffed on with each step. After bein’ bonked on the head, strangled and blown up my vision was in double. It looked there were two a’ Vanhoorhiss bearing down on me. I felt sick, like I did when I was around evil, but I couldn’t figure out whether it was him or from surviving an explosion. He stopped a ways away from me, held up the stick in his left hand, lit it with his cigar and tossed it towards me.
The blast knocked me sideways while he withstood the blast. I shook my head as he talked, but I heard nothing. All I could hear was a high-pitched whine. I slapped my head until I could hear what he was saying.
“GOD DAMN! YOU DEAFENED ME!” I shouted as I stood up.
“I said! We’re alike! You! And I!”
I shook my head, “We ain’t alike. You’ve fucking crazy!”
“Don’t deny it. Both of us are soulless. Possessed by evil, out to punish the weak.”
“You got the wrong idea. I may be soulless, but I ain’t evil.”
Vanhoorhiss laughed. It was a short barking laugh that was eerily similar ta’ Addison’s. “Abacus, do you really think you’re different? That what anythin’ you do matters? Like me, you are damned! Damned! The longer you walk this plane the more damage you do!”
“Right now the only damage I plan on doing is ta’ you!”
His good eye squinted at me, “I can see that it’s no use trying ta’ talk to you.”
“Only because you ain’t making sense.”
Vanhoorhiss lit the other stick of dynamite on his cigar. The fuse crackled and sparked and we both watched it burn down. He threw it finally. I’d been sort a’ hypnotized.
At the last moment I raised my shotgun. I figured I might try ta’ shoot him as a last act. The barrel a’ my gun hit the dynamite and knocked it back towards Vanhoorhiss. When it exploded I figured it was still more towards me than him.
I was on my back, wishing my head would just crack open if it were pounding so much, when Vanhoorhiss jumped on me and wrapped his hands around my already sore neck. I couldn’t believe that within the span of minutes I was being strangled by another maniac. As he pressed into my windpipe he babbled about something I could understand. Something about heaven, hell, punishment, sin, virtue, angels, demons. I wondered if he knew I couldn’t hear him over the roaring in my ears.
As a last ditch effort I reached out and grabbed the nail sticking out of his face. I pulled on it until, with a wet squelch, it came free. Immediately Vanhoorhiss’ grip went slack around my neck. His good eye brightened.
“Oh, thank God! You have no idea what I’ve seen! What I was forced ta’ do!”
Before he could thank me to death I punch him in the face which knocked him clean out. He woke up while I was hog-tying him.
“Why’d…you do that?”
“Oh, good, you’re awake! I need some help. It’s been some time since I’ve had ta’ tie someone like this. Do I loop this end first or just tie it straight through?”
“You don’t have to do this. I’m fine…really. I’m not going to hurt anybody no more.”
“I don’t doubt that. Just need ta’ bring you ta’ justice for the people you did hurt.”
“But I didn’t do that stuff! It was the…thing inside me! You gotta’ believe me!”
“I do, don’t worry. Ain’t me you gotta’ convince. I just need you so I can get paid.”
“Are you really that callous?”
“You blew up my horse. You tried ta’ blow me up. Yep…I guess I am.”