An ear-piercing scream shattered Samuel’s sleep.
Alarmed, he sat straight up, glancing to his friend and fellow prospector, Orville. There was enough starlight filtering through their tent that he could see him, as peaceful as Samuel had been moments ago. Still asleep.
Had he imagined it? Samuel closed his eyes, trying to recall the sound. No, he hadn’t been dreaming. It was a high, unearthly wail. Almost… feminine?
They were still well before sunrise, with cicadas chirping slowly some distance away.
A large clomp sounded outside, followed almost immediately by two more. It sounded almost like large horse. But the way it shook the earth, traveling through the ground, through Samuel’s palms, then up to clutch his increasingly pounding heart – that was no simple animal.
He should do something. Samuel’s first instinct was to reach for his gun, which was cold despite his own hot breath. A little dew – they must be near morning – but the powder was dry enough. Hopefully.
Should he wake Orville?
Probably. He could only hope that the man would do the same for him, were their roles reversed.
Samuel flipped and rose onto his knees, letting the blankets fall away, mercifully silent.
Another thunderous clomp stole the cool night air from his lungs. What was it doing out there?
He only had time to shift his gun to his right hand before the ground started moving beneath the bedroll. Something was crawling its way up, like the fastest growing seedlings ever. Samuel shook the sleep from his eyes, but it wasn’t until his foot nudged the tent flap that there was enough starlight to see what it was.
It was as if Orville had chosen to put his bedroll on the fresh grave of an Irish woman, and the hair itself was ascending to heaven first. The hair would’ve been quite beautiful – long and flowing and red – if not for the horror of the situation.
All Samuel could do is stare as it slowly crept up, around his friend. He wanted to help, really. To tear the hair away and get out of the tent, even if it meant running into that thunderous beast outside. But his body wasn’t doing anything more than shaking.
Outside. What was it? Bone breaking?
Either way, the simple gesture of his head following the sound broke Samuel’s paralysis of fear. He didn’t know what it was. Didn’t want to know. He just wanted to get out of there.
Without it noticing.
The hair had wound its way up and over Orville’s arms and partially across his torso. It struck Samuel as vaguely romantic, if not for the existential horror of it all.
He needed a third hand. One to shake his friend, one to cover Orville’s mouth so he didn’t make noise as he woke up, and another to hold the gun. He wasn’t giving up his gun. Calculating as quickly as he could, Samuel decided to hope Orville wouldn’t make a sound.
He shook, moving as swiftly as he could to lift a finger to his own lips.
Orville did a double take on waking. “Samuel?”
“What the –” It took too much effort for Orville to break his arms free of the long red hair. “Samuel –”
Another wail sounded from the monster outside, locking Samuel in another supernatural paralysis.
But it didn’t stop there. The heavy footfalls rushed toward them, not unlike the rapid beating of his own heart.
Heavy hooves the size of dinner plates crashed into the side of the tent, breaking the wood poles they’d erected as if they little more than children’s toys. Landing where Samuel had been sleeping moments before.
Looking back, Samuel couldn’t be sure who screamed. It could have been any one of them, monster included.
All he remembered was himself and Orville scrambling out from under the collapsed tent, tripping over the cold campfire, then struggling to stand and point his gun at whatever it was.
Not just a single monster. Mount and rider, both.
The mount was unlike anything he’d ever seen before: larger than a horse by half, red fur, not unlike the hair that had grown up around Orville. And a huge hump on its back, as if its sole purpose was to make its rider as tall and fearsome as possible.
Not that the rider needed any help. It – she – had crumbling skin, as if she’d been left in the desert too long. She’d been a wearing man’s clothes when she died, but her hair still clung stubbornly to her skull, almost long enough to blend with her mount’s fur.
Samuel pulled the trigger on his revolver, only loosely aiming in that general direction.
The rider’s chin jutted sideways – looking like something between snapping her own neck and a curious puppy – hair falling out of her face to see him directly.
There were no eyes. Only the faint glow of coals burning from deep within her body, red light reflected in the inside of her skull.
Samuel knew nothing about the supernatural, but he did know he didn’t want to be near that thing anymore. Where were the horses? On the ground, behind the beast. The bone snap earlier replayed itself in his mind.
Screw the horses.
It charged, careless or unnoticing of their tent, straight at them.
Samuel scrambled back as he fired again. It didn’t help.
At first he thought it was his own heart trying to burst through his rib cage, but it was Orville, slapping above Samuel’s chest twice before grabbing his shirt and spinning him. Helping him run. “Time to go!”
A wise plan.
No one believed them. Why would they?
Orville got a fresh horse and booked it out of town as soon as possible. Samuel didn’t blame him.
But, slowly, rumors were spreading about the beast. The monster. The ghost. Whatever it was. Some claimed to have seen it. One said it vanished into thin air. The town drunk said it was 30 feet tall. Another said he saw it eating a grizzly bear. After what it did to the horses, Samuel almost believed that one.
But something was definitely out there.
Everything changed when Cyrus Hamblin came into town. He was renowned for being a level-headed, logical man. Everyone had a healthy – if distant – respect for him. He was the personification of the cowboy: sturdy on his feet and wanting little more than to be left alone.
So it was a surprise when he came into town, and again when he started talking about seeing a strange creature while collecting his stray cattle.
“It’s a camel,” he told the bartender. They had the length of the bar between them, but Samuel could hear every word.
“It’s a monster,” the barkeep countered.
“I saw it. It’s a camel, with a corpse still attached to its back. More than likely some poor sod clung to it, hoping it would lead him to water.” He put a bullet on the counter and the bartender traded it for an ounce of whiskey. “That, or someone with a spare camel, a corpse, and an ill sense of humor is enjoying watching the county panic.”
“You’re wrong,” Samuel responded before he could stop himself.
The barkeep came around and underfilled Samuel’s glass again.
“Pardon me for saying, sir, but I’m not. There’s no other explanation.”
Samuel had seen it. That monster of a mount. That snapping head tilt. That red, red hair. Now, almost a month later, the memory still gave him nightmares.
He took a sip of his lukewarm whiskey, hissing the alcohol through his teeth as he set it down. “I saw it. It’s not a corpse. It has…” he couldn’t find the right word for it, “a will.”
Cyrus turned on his stool to face Samuel fully. “I saw it too. Chased it off my land.” Brave man. “I’m telling you, it’s nothing to be all aflutter about.”
Samuel examined his whiskey at eye level this time, spotting something floating within. Meh. If the alcohol didn’t kill it, it’d certainly sterilize it. “Why are you here, then?”
“Need a posse to hunt it down. Put the poor beast out of its misery.”
“If it’s just an animal, what do you care?”
“It’s terrorizing my cattle.” Cyrus paused, and for that moment Samuel thought the man might punch him. “Want to join me?”
That caused Samuel to look at him. “Huh?”
“You heard me. If you’ve seen it, and you’re still around here, you must want it gone as much as I do.”
Samuel had faced the monster with a man at his side, and considered himself fortunate he’d only peed himself. Still, that monster had killed his horse. Maybe it was his wounded pride talking, maybe the alcohol. Samuel didn’t care. “You’re going to need more than just two of us.”
Cyrus smiled. “That’s the spirit.”
Samuel had forgotten the bartender was even there. “You’re insane.” Maybe they were.
The smile faded as Cyrus turned back to the man, who was polishing a glass with a dirty rag. “Know anyone else as insane as I am, then?” he asked calmly.
“Like ol’ Cletus there?” the bartender retorted, lifting his chin to the dark corner near the front of the saloon. The town drunk. The gentle snoring from that area confirmed Samuel’s theory.
If Cyrus understood the underhanded insult, he didn’t acknowledge it. “Sober, preferably.”
The barkeep shrugged. “Crazy Jose is out looking for it now, if you can find him.”
Cyrus nodded slowly, eyes closing to a glare as his mind whirred.
Samuel wanted to make part clear. “We’ll need more information on it if we’re going to go after it.” No way he was facing that thing unprepared again.
The bartender seemed remarkably more helpful in that regard. “The Nelsons were the first to spot it. Might ask them.”
“How do you know that?”
The man shrugged as he continued to polish the glass. “Read it in the paper.”
Cyrus rejoined the conversation. “Where are they?”
“’Round Eagle Creek, I figure.” Apache territory. Not exactly a pleasant place.
“Thank you, kindly.” Cyrus put some coins on the bar and stood up, watching Samuel expectantly.
Why not? Samuel finished his liquid courage with a hiss and stood to join his new companion. He didn’t need to put money down; he’d racked up a tab in the last few weeks. The barkeep would wait for it. “Ready when you are.”
“You’re going to want to talk to Sally.”
Cyrus tipped his hat and proceeded the way the rancher had pointed, toward the main homestead. Samuel was content to follow him, for the time being.
The woman who opened the door was about Samuel’s own age. She looked a little frazzled, as if she’d just regained her composure before opening the door.
“Yes?” she asked. A strand of hair had escaped her high bun, and she absently tucked it away behind her ear.
“Cyrus Hamblin, ma’am.” The cowboy pulled his hat off entirely this time. “Friends call me Cy.”
“What can I do for you, Mister Hamblin?”
“Might you be miss Sally?”
Her stance shifted, but she didn’t move or open the door. “I might be.”
“We heard you’d be the one to talk to about a certain animal sighting ‘round these parts?” Cyrus tried again.
“It wasn’t an animal. It was the devil.”
Cyrus visibly clenched his jaw, but Samuel was inclined to agree with her assessment. “What can you tell us?”
Sally’s eyes flicked over his shoulder to where the children played not far away. “You’d better come in for some tea.”
“I was standing about where you are now,” Sally told them, nodding to where Cyrus stood by the window. “Heard Annabeth scream.”
“Where?” Cyrus asked, gaze shifting around the landscape as they listened to her story.
“She’d gone to fetch some water.”
“How did she die?” Samuel asked. The monster, he could assume. But he didn’t recall seeing a weapon when he’d encountered it.
“Trampled to death.”
That sounded about right.
Sally took another sip from her sweet tea before setting it down on the table between them. “They even investigated Jethro for it. But those were no horse tracks.”
Samuel couldn’t help his shudder as he recalled the gigantic hooves.
Sally eyed him with new respect. “You’ve seen it too, haven’t you?”
Samuel could only nod.
“What other evidence did it leave behind?” Cyrus asked.
Sally eyed him suspiciously. “Hair. More than one strand of it.”
“Could it have been Annabeth’s?”
“No. She has – had – black hair, after her father. The hair they found there was –”
“Red,” Samuel finished for her without thinking.
“Camels have reddish hair.”
Sally stood, as if offended. “Have you ever seen a camel, Mister Hamblin?”
Cyrus’s gaze left the window, landing on her without searching. “As a matter of fact, I have. During the war.” Of northern aggression, as Samuel understood it. “They’re taller than horses, with hooves broader than my hand.” He held his large, calloused hand between them. “But they’re just animals.”
“It’s the devil.” Sally held no doubt in her tone or posture. “I know my bible, sir. I know what camels are, even if I ain’t never seen one before. They’re beasts of burden.” She jammed a finger out the window, getting close to Cyrus. “This thing hunted.”
Cyrus was as calm as ever. “The devil doesn’t exist, ma’am.”
Sally slapped him.
Samuel was suddenly standing too, ready to break up any potential fight.
Cyrus straightened his beard calmly before continuing. “Hitting me doesn’t change the facts.”
Fury poured off her like a generously applied perfume. “You want to know how I survived? How my children survived?” Her voice dropped to a whisper, though every word was clear and intentionally chosen. “I prayed. I fell to my knees right where you’re standing. Hearing Annabeth scream. Weeping. Praying.” Her words now more closely resembled a snarl.
“Do you know your bible, Mister Hamblin?”
Cyrus grunted. “Enough of it, anyway.”
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Samuel couldn’t help be reminded that the thing had eaten his horse.
Cyrus started to speak again, patient as a schoolteacher. “The devil –”
“Lions have red fur, do they not?”
“Then I advise you pray, Mister Hamblin.”
“That sent it away?” Samuel had to ask. They’d come here for information that might help fight this thing. A supernatural monster being warded off by supernatural weapons? Made sense to him.
Sally rotated where she stood before nodding curtly to him. “It did. And it hasn’t come back.”
Cyrus stood erect from his leaning. “I think I’ve heard enough foolishness for one day.”
Samuel almost didn’t see Sally spin, she moved so quickly. He definitely didn’t see her hand aloft, ready to strike Cyrus again.
But the cowboy did. His giant hands were remarkably quick, snatching Sally’s slender wrist before the rest of her hand could reconnect. “No one hits me twice, ma’am.”
Samuel believed him.
They faced off, glaring at each other with unfettered fury.
Finally Sally moved first, yanking her wrist free and turning away in a huff. That blonde strand had escaped her ear again. “I wish you boys good fortune on your hunt. But, if you don’t mind, I really must be back to work.” She collected Cyrus’s mostly-full cup and her own, bringing them into the kitchen area.
Still holding his, Samuel thought it only polite to bring his in to her.
He almost didn’t hear her whisper. “You’re hunting this thing too?”
Samuel looked to her to make sure he had heard her correctly. She was looking at him. “Someone has to,” he told her.
“Do you have your gun?”
“May I see it?”
Confused, Samuel pulled the revolver out of the holster in his hip, flipping it around so she could grab it by the grip.
She didn’t. Instead, she put both hands on top of his, so that three hands all stacked on top of the barrel.
“Miss Nelson?” Samuel tried to ask as politely as possible.
She didn’t acknowledge him, but closed her eyes and started murmuring.
The only word Samuel caught was “amen.”
Whether Sally was right, or Cyrus, he was grateful for her efforts. “Thank you.”
“You’d best be off now,” she responded, pushing the weapon back into his hands.
With practiced ease, Samuel switched his grip and slid it back into its holster. “Don’t you worry none, ma’am. We’ll do whatever it takes to get this thing gone.”
“Thank you.” She offered him a small smile. “Go, before he leaves without you.”
That night, Samuel found himself crawling among the tumbleweeds on his stomach. He didn’t particularly want to to be out – at night, in Apache territory, with that monster about – looking for Crazy Jose, but the encounter with Sally had narrowed Cyrus’s focus. He wouldn’t be stopped until the monster was.
“Stay here,” Cyrus whispered beside him. Both his eyes were on the campfire, which warmed three men a little more than twenty yards away.
“Why are you going?” Shouldn’t they stick together?
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“Then stay.” Cyrus pushed himself up off the ground, approaching boldly. “Amigos!”
They turned, surprised but not aggressive.
“Qué están haciendo aquí?”
The sole Mexican in the group stood up, cheery. “Cazando el fantasmo colorado.” He reached his hand from behind his poncho and offered it to Cyrus. “Jose Loco.” Samuel had spent enough time by the border to understand he was introducing himself as Crazy Jose.
The other two by the fire chortled at the name, but the Mexican seemed to take pride in it.
Cyrus slapped his hand into Jose’s, grinning from ear to ear. “Cyrus Hamblin.”
Samuel’s companion sat with Jose and the strangers, one of whom was offering him a gold pan full of beans.
Something skittered to Samuel’s left, distracting him. A lizard.
When he turned back, something dark loomed on the other side of the camp. It looked like a mountain at first, silhouetted against the starry clear sky. But there hadn’t been a mountain there a moment before.
Or had it? Was his imagination getting the better of him? As Samuel stared, eyes as wide as they could get in hopes of getting more light, it seemed to grow larger.
Then it shifted.
That single, simple gesture put it just far enough forward that it reflected the meager campfire, making the red fur glow ominously.
“Cyrus!” Samuel sprang from his hiding spot, shouting his companion’s name as he pulled his gun and charged.
Heads whipped around to him, then back, looking at what his gun was pointing out.
Samuel was still too far away for his revolver to be any good against the monster.
He had no idea if Cyrus had ever entered any quickdraw contests, but with those hands, he was certain to have won. Before Samuel could get more than three steps closer, Cyrus had already drawn and fired two shots.
The beast charged, trampling one of the strangers under its hooves. The other stranger was a little slower to pull his gun, but fired also.
There was no mistaking the red, flowing hair of the rider. She loosed that unearthly wail, staring down the stranger who’d shot at her.
He froze in fear.
Samuel continued his rush toward them, but he was still at least fifteen yards away from being able to hit anything.
Cyrus wasn’t, though. He loosed another three shots. The first went into the rib cage splintering bone like fireworks into the night. The second missed entirely, at least as best Samuel could tell.
The third struck home.
The bottom of the jaw detached from the rest of the skull, bouncing away from Cyrus, but the rest of the skull righted itself a moment later. Even from his distance, Samuel could see the red light within flare brighter, reflected in the skull where the bullet must have ricocheted before finding its way out.
Then, slowly, it turned its gaze on Cyrus.
Screeching rang across the desert, but the cowboy remarkably didn’t flinch. He just loosed another two shots – the last of his six.
None of the rounds slowed the monster. They enraged it.
Hair sprang up from the ground between Samuel and the monster, snaring every boot within range. Samuel went down, hard and face-first, gun skidding out of his grip and away. Some bramble crunched underneath his gut as he landed, piercing his gut while the rocks rubbed the side of his face raw. Agony coursed through every part of his body.
He was barely done coughing up dry dirt and blood when that hateful hair grew next to his face, trying to pin it down too. It was all Samuel could do just to get up, onto his hands and knees again.
The hooves had no issue with the hair, however. The animal reared against the starlight, rider igniting in full flame. The burning rage that had lit the skull now engulfed the rider, brighter than the campfire.
As if there wasn’t enough hair-raising in the encampment, goosebumps flooded Samuel’s arms at the sight.
Crazy Jose managed to wrangle himself free of the hair, charging straight at the monster with a feral bellow. He collided with it just in time to knock it away from killing Cyrus with those massive hooves. Fist after fist pounded into the side of the beast before the flaming rider backhanded the Mexican.
He collapsed like a sack of rocks, likely unconscious before he even hit the ground.
Samuel had to do something. The blood seeping from his wounds seemed to feed the hair, which was encompassing his lower legs, keeping his knees pinned to the ground.
Where was the gun? His eyes flicked here and there, trying to find it underneath the hair with only starlight and that horrifying, flaming monster to aid him.
He couldn’t tell who screamed from where the monster was bearing down on Cyrus, but didn’t slow his search to look.
There. A hint of metal glinted in the firelight before being fully engulfed in the hair.
Samuel lunged at it, flat on his stomach so his fingertips could claw it back to him. Only there momentarily, the hair didn’t get a chance to grow around him.
The metal felt warm in his palm, more comforting in that moment than a doll to a child. He fumbled only a moment to pull the hammer and aimed. There was no hope of a proper shooting stance, not with both knees pinned to the ground. He’d never successfully made a shot from more than five yards away, but it was now or never.
Saying a little prayer of his own, he fired.
The metal cut through chilly night air and flaming rider, striking home.
That otherworldly shriek nearly deafened them all, blanketing the area. Immediately the flames went out, plunging the area into a sudden and choking darkness. Still, he could see the silhouette of the monster as it turned and started to run the way it had come.
It was all Samuel could do just to gasp and maintain his sanity.
A figure rushed over to him – smaller than the monster, but that didn’t stop Samuel pulling the trigger out of reflex. Fortunately, the hammer was still in the forward position.
“Give it to me!” Cyrus shouted above the wail.
Samuel let go, and in nearly the same instant, the cowboy spun around and shot.
As abruptly as it started, the wail stopped. Something dislodged from the top of the monster as the mount continued its flight from the scene.
Silence swallowed the camp, and for a moment, no one did anything but breathe. The hair went limp, weakened without the will of the monster behind it. Samuel, for his part, would be glad to never see another redhead.
Then laughter started. How on earth could anyone think any part of that was funny? Still, it rolled from the belly and across the desert.
Samuel looked up to see Crazy Jose was the amused one, pulling Cyrus to his feet. “No loco,” he said, pointing to himself, then Cyrus. “Tu eres el loco. Tu!”
Miraculously both the strangers managed to stand, joining in his laughter.
“Cyrus Loco! Cyrus Loco!” The title became a victory chant, until all the night was filled with it.
Even Samuel joined in, happy just to breathe and be alive. One of the strangers wandered a short distance away, returning with an object and lifting it high in rhythm with the chant. “Cyrus Loco Cyrus Loco!”
Samuel got a glimpse of the object when the stranger put it into Cyrus’s hands: the skull.
The monster was slain.