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Bubba Shackleford got off the train in Wyoming, eager to find some cannibals to shoot. He loved his job.

The town was bigger than he’d expected. With the hard scrabble frontier behind them, Cheyenne had turned into another bustling center of American commerce. The platform was crowded with folks coming and going, giving the place an industrious feel. It took a hardy people, tough as nails, to civilize this rugged a land, but they’d still be scared to death if they knew what manner of evil was breathing down their necks.

Then Bubba noticed the signs. Weary eyes from staying up all night keeping watch. Nervous glances sent in the direction of every stranger. No children running about. And an unusual number of cheap wooden coffins stacked in front of the undertaker’s. Yes, sir, Cheyenne had itself a monster problem.

This was his company’s first monster killing contract in the West, and the furthest he’d ever been from home. He was a southern man, born and bred, so he didn’t care for the way the air here was dry and sharp enough to make his nose bleed, or the way everything as far as the eye could see was so unrelentingly brown. It was March, and there was still dirty snow piled in the shade. Wyoming struck him as a harsh and unforgiving land, nothing like his blessed green home in Alabama. For the life of him he couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to live in such a godforsaken waste.

“Wyoming sure is pretty!” Mortimer McKillington exclaimed as he lumbered down the train’s metal steps.

“You say so, Skirmish.” He’d hired the big Irish strongman because he’d figured anyone tough enough to be a New York bare-knuckle fighting champ might be hard enough to be a good monster hunter. He was, and then some. Over the last year Skirmish—as his friends called the freckled giant—had proven not only to be good with monster killing, but also an obnoxiously optimistic traveling companion.

“I do.” Skirmish took a deep breath, expanding his barrel chest. “Ah, smell that fresh air.”

It smelled like horseshit and coal smoke to him. “Have the boys unload the animals and wagons. I’ll look for our client.”

“Cheer up, boss. This is an adventure.”

“I’ll be cheery once we put these man-eating bastards in the ground.”

“And we get paid.”

And we get paid.” Because battling the forces of evil was rewarding and all, but on its own paid for shit. Now having a big company like the Union Pacific give them a sack full of gold coins to kill the monsters damaging their tracks? That was much nicer.

He didn’t have to search for long, because his new clients immediately sought him out. They’d known which train he was on, and Bubba Shackleford did tend to stand out in a crowd. They must have been given his description, which was usually some variation of tall, broad shoulders, narrow waist, long mustache, probably looks like he’s ready to shoot somebody. The words short-tempered and pragmatic often made it in there too, but Bubba didn’t mind. Establishing a proper reputation went a long way in the monster killing business.

Two men were pushing through the crowd, heading his way, one fat, one thin, both in tailored suits remarkably free of grime. The round fellow in the bowler hat had the look of a businessman. He pegged the one that looked like a tubercular rat as a government man. They all tended to have that same disapproving air about them.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you the monster killer, Bubba Shackleford?” the plump one asked. Before Bubba could so much as nod, he was already getting his hand vigorously shaken. The businessman’s hand was very soft. “I can’t believe an actual monster killer, here!”

“Keep it down about the monster business, Reginald,” the thin one hissed as he glanced around.

“I’m Reginald Landon of the Union Pacific. Welcome to Wyoming, Mr. Shackleford. We’re so glad you made it on time! This is Mr. Percival from the governor’s office.”

Whenever a hunter got this warm of a welcome in civilized society, it meant things had gotten desperate. “From your harried demeanor, gentlemen, I assume there’s been another event since our last telegram?”

The company man gave him a grave nod. “People have been disappearing after dark. They hit one of our depots west of town last night. Four men dead, ripped limb from limb and their flesh consumed by the ice-hearted beasts.”

“Perhaps we should retire to someplace more private to discuss the matter,” Mr. Percival stated, as he watched Bubba’s men unloading crates of ammunition from the train. “Washington was very specific that this needs to be dealt with discreetly.

“Discretion is the general rule for this sort of affair,” Bubba agreed.

The McKinley administration was adamant that monster problems be kept from the general public’s knowledge. Good thing too, because otherwise the quiet handlers of said problems, such as himself, would be out of business.

“The Army sent a patrol from Fort Russell in reprisal, but the soldiers never returned.” Landon looked around at the crowd, then leaned in conspiratorially, presumably so as to not cause a panic. “The Indians are saying the poison woman has come back from the dead to curse us. This is the handiwork of Plague of Crows.

He’d heard that name. A legendary evil back from the grave? Bubba pondered on that new fact for a moment. “Gentlemen, we may need to revisit the amount of my fee.”

* * *

Whenever some foul abomination started eating folks the common response was to gather up a bunch of brave men to track the beast down. That often worked, but killing monsters was dangerous work and too many of those brave men didn’t come home. A vigilante mob could usually get the job done, but often at a terrible cost. That was how Bubba Shackleford had first been exposed to the supernatural, and it was only through luck and pluck that it hadn’t culminated in a massacre.

The more civilized a place was, the more likely monsters became the law’s problem to deal with. Only there was a heap of difference between dispensing justice to some run of the mill murdering outlaw and something like a foul nosferatu, or a flying murderer bat, or a tentacle bear. There were a handful of sheriffs and marshals of his acquaintance who were worth a damn against the hell spawn forces of evil, but most were sadly lacking.

The Army? They had the bravery and the guns, but they were the most hidebound and hamstrung bunch of all. Every monster was different, and if you wanted to beat them, you needed to learn fast and adapt faster. Soldiers were always useful, but best when led by an officer with the wit to grasp the inconceivable, and the freedom to get the job done. Good luck with that!

The first time Bubba had killed a monster, he’d made a bit of a name for himself, and strangely enough job offers had begun to arrive. It turned out there was always some critter causing trouble somewhere. The work suited him, not to mention it was far better money than farming. It was a fine job, provided you didn’t mind extreme violence, physical discomfort, and the constant looming threat of death. Those early years had been more miss than hit, but he’d survived while the things he was chasing usually didn’t.

In time he had joined forces with other men uniquely suited to the monster killing arts. Bubba had never aspired to leadership, but they all looked to him for guidance. Until one day he’d found himself the official boss and owner of a real company.

It was purely by accident that Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers had become the most successful—albeit possibly only—company of its kind. His operation was above the rest because of knowledge, dedication, and preparation, but above all else, it was because they possessed an adaptability of the mind. The supernatural could neither surprise nor confound them. They could not be shaken.

Their attention was undivided.

Killing was their business.

* * *

Rooms had been provided at a hotel near the station, but most of his men were at the local saloons, and would probably drag themselves in sometime before dawn. There would be drinking, gambling, whoring, and possibly some fighting, but hopefully no hanging offenses committed because he couldn’t spare the manpower.

Bubba Shackleford sat alone at the hotel bar, in front of the same glass of whiskey that had been sitting untouched for the last hour. In his hands were the telegrams that had been waiting for him at the Western Union office. They were all from his secret weapon, the Scholar.

He still didn’t know the Scholar’s identity, just where to send messages to reach him. Hell, the name Scholar had come about because the only signature on the letters he had received had been the letter S, and the name fit. The notes had arrived shortly after Bubba’s reputation as a monster killer had spread among those in the know. Whoever S was, he wanted to keep his identity secret, and he seemed to know damn near everything there was to know about certain kinds of monsters. Bubba figured that S was probably an employee of the government who would be jailed if word got out he was telling secrets. One of McKinley’s agents had confided in him that the reason they kept monsters secret was something about how the more folks believed, the stronger monsters got. Bubba didn’t know about that. It sounded like horseshit to him, but as long as the government contracts paid on time, he didn’t care.

Repeatedly he had tried to pay for the information provided, but Scholar would have none of it. His reasons for helping remained his own. Regardless of his mysterious motivations, Scholar was right more often than not, and some of his clues had proven vitally helpful in the past.

The first telegram had been sent a couple of days into their train ride.


Chenoo was a new term for him, but Bubba wasn’t familiar with the legends of this region. He’d need to remedy that. There was nothing quite as unpleasant as coming across a new beastie and having it suddenly squirt flaming blood out its eyes at you, or discover that bullets just bounced off its hide. Though Scholar seemed to know a lot, many critters still remained complete unknowns.

The most recent telegram had arrived yesterday.


Strangely enough, Scholar was about the only person around who still used Bubba’s birth name. Even his sainted mother had given up on Raymond years ago. Bubba paused to drink his whiskey, which wasn’t half bad since it had been imported all the way from Tennessee. The Union Pacific rep had made no mention of any knowledgeable types in town, so he could only assume the man hadn’t arrived yet. Sometimes the so-called experts were right about monster vulnerabilities, and sometimes they were wrong, but it usually beat flipping a coin.

He heard boots on wood, and turned to see that one of his men had returned to the hotel. Balthazar Abrams had been one of the first of the professional killers, hired because he’d been quick enough with a knife to leave a ghoul in pieces in a New Orleans alley, and proven indispensable ever since.

“Telegrams? You heard from the Scholar, Boss?”

Bubba motioned for him to take the stool next to him. “Things we’re hunting are called Chenoo. Used to be men, but their hearts turn to ice. I doubt that’s a metaphor.”

“Things used to be men, they’re the worst. So these Chenoo alive, dead, or atwixt the two?”

“I don’t rightly know, but Scholar’s sending us an expert.” The proprietor had heard the conversation and come wandering back in from the kitchen. “Bartender, another whiskey, and one for my friend here.”

The bartender paused when he saw Abrams, and a look of surprise came over his face. “This is an upscale establishment, Mr. Shackleford. We don’t cater to his kind here.”

Abrams had been born a slave, but he’d been a free man for over three decades, and was as good at killing monsters as his best white man—who happened to be Irish—and frankly Bubba didn’t care what some pencil dick thought about any of his crew.

“Pour or I’ll come over that bar and pistol whip you to within an inch of your life.” He used the coldly casual tone he normally reserved for contract negotiations or ordering executions.

“What? I’ll get the sheriff!”

“Tell him he’d best bring friends.”

The way Bubba stated that must have made it abundantly clear that he meant every word. The bartender swallowed hard, fetched a bottle and another glass, poured them both a—very shaky—shot, and then fled to the back room.

Bubba took another drink. “I cannot abide a man lacking in hospitality.”

“I swear, you’re going to pick a fight that gets us killed one of these days,” Abrams muttered.

“More than likely.” He passed the telegrams over so that Abrams could read them. Every man in his crew was literate, and if they weren’t when he hired them, they were expected to learn fast. Abrams was a sharp one and, since he was good at ciphering, even trusted to balance the company books. For the rest, he didn’t care if they could read the Bible, but they’d at least be able to decipher the instruction manual for an unfamiliar explosive device and retain their fingers.

“When the Scholar is warning you to be careful, you know it’s bad.”

“The fat man from the railroad told me some stories about what happened to their workers. Something’s been prying up track to derail trains. A work crew went out, got attacked. Only a few made it back alive, but the town doc never seen the like of what happened to those. The curse starts with a chill they just can’t shake, then it crawled in them, deeper and deeper. Settles in the heart, they say. The afflicted act like they’re freezing to death, always shivering, like they needed to get something warm in their belly. They tried hot soup, whiskey, but they only got crazier and meaner, insisting that the only thing would make them warm again was drinking hot blood, and then most couldn’t talk at all. They became nothing but animals.”

“Unfortunate,” Abrams said as he unconsciously shifted his stool a little closer toward the fire.

“By the time they get the look of a man froze to death, they’d turned pure evil. Most of them lost their minds, killed some folks, and fled. They’re still out there. One barely kept his mind, saw what he’d done, got down on his knees and begged for death. They put nearly forty bullets in him ’fore he expired.”

“And that one asked for it. Imagine what the ones who don’t want to die are like.”

“From the way that whole Army patrol disappeared, I’d say they’re stridently opposed to the idea. Locals think this is Plague of Crows’ doing.”

Abrams gave a low whistle at that name. Everybody in their field had heard of her. She’d raised unholy terror in this region when the railroad had first come through. It had taken a lot of blood and treasure to stop her the last time. “You renegotiated our pay, right?”

“Damn right I did.”

A young lady walked into the room. It was a bit odd to see a girl of such an age, probably not even twenty, out at this late hour of the night, unescorted. However, from the way she was openly and brazenly wearing a gun belt and matching Colts over her skirts, she didn’t seem the type inclined to be chaperoned.

She spotted Bubba, took a moment to compose herself, and walked toward them wearing a look of intense concentration. She was a dark haired, big boned, solid country girl. Bubba nodded politely. “Ma’am.”

“Mr. Shackleford, sir.” Apparently she had done her research. She stopped before them, cleared her throat and spoke loudly, as if she was giving a prepared presentation. “I’m Hannah Stone.”

“Are you our regional folklore expert?” Abrams asked.

“Huh? No.” That question seemed to throw her off of her prepared remarks. “What?” The poor girl looked rather nervous. “I don’t know what that is.”

“Drink?” Bubba offered, because that seemed the gentlemanly thing to say, and Southerners had a reputation to keep up.

“No thanks. Makes the hands shake, can’t shoot as good.” She took a deep breath before blurting out, “I’m applying to join your gang.”

Bubba shared a look with his perplexed associate. “Gang makes it sound like we’re here to rob the bank.”

“I know what you do! I’ve seen monsters. I know they’re real.”

He had entertained variations of this conversation a hundred times. Would-be monster hunters were constantly knocking on his door looking for work—he turned most of them away, probably doing them a favor—but he always kept an eye out for talent. Only this was his first ever employment petition from a lady.

It was inconceivable. It was one thing having a man’s death on his conscience, but he couldn’t imagine sending a girl to her doom. “I’m sorry. We ain’t hiring now.”

But she was a determined sort. “Word is that you’re always looking for sharpshooters. I’m the best shot you’ll find in this state and I need the work. I figure a man who’ll hire Negroes, Mexicans, and Irish might hire a woman.” She looked at Abrams. “No offense.”

“None taken.” Abrams seemed rather amused by the whole thing. “Our Irishman’s not so bad.”

“I’ve done men’s work before. I used to work for Buffalo Bill Cody. Mr. Cody said if a woman could do the same work as a man, no reason she couldn’t, and get paid for it too.”

“Buffalo Bill? Wait…Hannah Stone. I’ve heard of you!” Abrams clapped his hands with glee. “We’re in the presence of a celebrity, boss. Annie Oakley taught her to shoot.”

“Mr. Cody made that up for the show. I already knew how to shoot when I got there and I was a much better shot than her.” It was obvious Hannah was not fond of her supposed mentor. “But she was more famous and popular because she was better at the talking part…and show business…and generally liking people.”

Well, she certainly wasn’t a cup of sunshine. Bubba remembered her story now. It had been in the papers all over the place.

“Way I heard it told is you got fired from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show because there was an accident and your partner got hurt.”

Hannah thought about how to phrase her response for a long moment. “The events which occurred could be described in such a manner.”

“You were supposed to quick draw, shoot from the hip, and knock a cigarette from out of this fella’s mouth at ten paces.”

“Twenty. The crowd always loved that trick. We did it plenty of times. Last show there was some…extenuating complications.”

“That’s some mighty big words to say you blew his lips off.”

“Well, in my defense, Mr. Shackleford, Bob was being awful shaky that day. I’d warned him not to skip breakfast.”

Bubba didn’t know what to say. Hannah remained standing there, awkwardly. She tried to smile. It looked painful. He felt bad for her. But not bad enough to give her a job that would just get her killed. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Stone, but truly, you’ve been misinformed as to my company’s intentions. Good luck in your endeavors and good night.”

Hannah’s eyes narrowed to a determined squint. “Well fine then.” She stomped away.

Abrams waited until the surly young woman was gone before he picked up his whiskey and chuckled. “Women hunting monsters? Imagine that. Next thing you know they’ll want to vote!”

* * *

When Bubba finally retired to his hotel room, he nearly shot the Scholar’s expert on regional folklore.

He’d used a key to open the door, walked into the darkened room, paused…and immediately drew his Colt and leveled it at the shadows in the corner. He thumbed back the hammer. He couldn’t see her, but it was a woman’s voice that came out of the darkness.

“How’d you sense I was here?”

Bubba never knew. It was just instinct, but it seldom led him astray. And right now his instinct was telling him whatever was in the shadows of his room was very dangerous. “Come out where I can see you.”

“I don’t belong in the light. You pull that trigger and you won’t live long enough to regret it.”

“Lady, if you think I’m the one who’ll be regretting matters, you must be unfamiliar with how bullets operate.”

“Do not test my patience, Raymond Shackleford. I have been asked to help guide you. I am not your enemy. The one you call Scholar and I have made a deal.”

“Well, ain’t that something?” Any monster hunter worth his salt learned not to make deals with voices in the dark. His eyes were adjusting, and now he could barely make out a narrow female shape, but his gut was telling him this wasn’t no normal woman. Only Scholar hadn’t let him down yet, so he held his fire. “Who are you?”

“Mohtahe Okohke. The white man calls me by a different name.”

“Plague of Crows,” Bubba muttered. Witch. Necromancer. She’d sacrificed the living, raised the dead, scourged the plains, and terrorized both settlers and Indians both. “Plague of Crows died.”

“Briefly. Only do not fear. My war is over. I’ve made peace with your kind for now. The death that’s upon this people is not my doing. Not too far from Granite Springs there is a new mine dug. Inside, a Stonecoat slept, until they blasted into his home. He made the ice hearts, and their curse will spread until his anger is spent.”

He kept the Colt on her. “What’s a Stonecoat?”

“A spirit of deep earth and cold streams, with skin like rock and slush for blood. Bad medicine, Raymond Shackleford.”

“How do I kill him?”

“Even if you make it through his Chenoo, you can’t kill a spirit. And you will probably die in the attempt.”

“If it was easy, they wouldn’t need someone like me.”

“There have always been warriors like you, Raymond. The Stonecoat may no longer recognize this world, but he will recognize you, if you are brave enough. If he sees there is still worthy strength in this world, the spirit can return to his rest.” Two glowing white orbs appeared in the shadows. Her eyes were too unblinking and round.

“That’s all?”

“It is enough. Now my part of the bargain is done. I go to collect what is mine.”

Suddenly there weren’t just two lights, but dozens of glowing eyes from head to toe. A terrible screech filled his ears, a rush of air, and then he was surrounded in beating wings. Talons scratched him as the stream of thrashing birds poured past, through the open door, into the hall, and down the stairs. Bubba heard the proprietor scream incoherently as the flock of crows burst out the front door and into the night.

Damn it, Scholar. What have you gotten me into?

Bubba Shackleford lowered the hammer, holstered his gun, brushed the black feathers off his bed, and went to sleep.

* * *

The professional monster killers set out early the following morning.

It wasn’t until Bubba got dressed that he realized Plague of Crows had scratched two words into the hotel room’s wall for him. The proprietor was going to love that. The witch had also left him a present. It was a stick. It had been colorfully painted and had some beads and feathers on it, but it was still just a stick. He pondered on the short message for a bit, took up his fancy new stick, and went downstairs to get some coffee.

Outside the men prepared. Despite the governor’s admonition to keep things quiet, their two armored war wagons always attracted some attention. The odd-looking combinations of wood and sheet metal were far lighter than they looked, mostly because—to the contrary of what most bystanders assumed—they weren’t designed for stopping bullets, but rather were to provide emergency shelter from tooth and claw. He had built a war wagon heavy enough to stop rifle bullets once, but it had been such a pain in his ass on the one hunt they’d tried it on—they’d spent so much time getting it stuck in the mud and exhausting horses—Bubba had abandoned it in a Mississippi field to rust.

Each wagon was pulled by a full hitch of sturdy Clydesdales. It appeared that they’d made the long trip just fine, and were eager to get to work. Bubba always used his own horses, and never counted on local stock. Most horses weren’t worth spit when monsters started howling and blood started flying, so he stuck to animals of a proven calm nature. The rest of the men were on horseback, of various breeds, but all of sound temperament. Bubba hated losing animals almost as much as he hated losing men.

In addition to the small crowd who had gathered around to poke at the war wagons and ask questions his men weren’t likely to answer truthfully, he spied the young sharpshooter, Hannah Stone. She was down the street, sitting on a horse and watching them. She was wearing a big hat, a duster, men’s trousers—no awkward side saddle for her—and appeared outfitted for a long journey, which immediately gave Bubba a bad feeling. So he wandered over.

“Good morning, Ms. Stone.”

“Mr. Shackleford.”

She was wearing at least two revolvers he could see, there appeared to be a whippet gun hung from a rope beneath her coat, a Winchester repeater in a scabbard on one side, and a longer buffalo rifle in a scabbard on the other. There were shells poking out of every pocket. On the balance it was enough lead and steel that he felt bad for her horse.

“That’s an awful lot of firearms upon your person this morning, Ms. Stone.”

“Well, I wasn’t sure which ones I’d be requiring today, Mr. Shackleford, so I brought an assortment. I’m going for a ride.”

“To where?”

“Wherever the wind carries me.”

More like wherever the Chenoo carried her off to eat her. The obstinate little girl intended to follow them looking for monsters. “There’s dangerous things out there right now, Ms. Stone. I wouldn’t advise such a course.”

“I’ve killed a monster before.”

“I don’t doubt that, but did you go looking for it?”

“Well…” That gave her pause. “No. It was self-defense. But I’m still going out today.”

“I ought to make you stay.”

“And how do you think you’re going to do that, Johnny Reb? I’m sure the good folks of Cheyenne would love to watch some stranger try and carry off a local girl on his back like some manner of barbarian. Or you going to have me arrested for riding my horse on a public street?”

She had him there. “You are remarkably stubborn.”

“I prefer the term steadfast. Like a rock.”

Like a pain in my ass. “Suit yourself.” He went back to the wagons, wondering how guilty he was going to feel when she got herself eaten by Chenoo.

* * *

Garlick was driving the lead wagon, and Pangle was manning its potato digger. Hagberg and Abrams were on the second wagon and its gun respectively. Bubba, Skirmish McKillington, Hub Bryan, and Mexican George were on horseback. Two always ahead of the wagons, and two behind, taking turns eating trail dust. Four trained hunting dogs ranged about, chasing rabbits, happy to not be on a train. One sharp whistle would bring the dogs back and put them to work. They had spare horses, spare guns, enough ammunition to hold a small war, and every totem, trinket, and supposedly magical whatsit you could think of, from half a dozen faiths, some of which might even be helpful.

As the wagons rumbled along the dirt road, Bubba pondered on using his growing wealth to purchase one of those newfangled “automobiles” with a gasoline engine that he’d been reading about, just to see what kind of weapons and armor he could mount on one to see if it was any good for monster hunting. He was an innovative sort like that.

He had a map, the directions were clear, and there was easy road the whole way. Even with the lumbering war wagons, Granite Springs was a leisurely day’s ride. They would arrive a few hours before sundown. Taking their time would ensure the horses were recovered from the train ride, and his men from their hangovers.

So they rode until the afternoon, found an abandoned homestead that made for a good defensible position, and parked the wagons in front of it. From the dried blood and scraps of clothing inside the cabin, the Chenoo had already taken the previous residents.

They mounted the potato diggers on the war wagons’ roofs, rolled out their cannon, and made camp. Bubba set watches, then ordered the construction of a bonfire sufficient to be seen for miles. It would drive off the lingering chill and also hopefully attract some Chenoo. Plague of Crows had made the Stonecoat sound territorial, so maybe it would show itself. If that didn’t work, they’d hit the mine early in the morning.

While his men worked, Bubba climbed atop a war wagon and scanned the horizon with his telescope. There was one rider in the tall grass behind them. Hannah Stone really had followed them. “Aw, damn it.”

“What is it, boss?” Skirmish shouted at him. “We got Chenoo?”

“Worse. Job applicant.” He’d been hoping she would get a little bit out of civilization and get cold feet, because it took guts to ride through the wilderness quiet and alone while you knew monsters were lurking about, but no. She was too hard headed for that. It would be dark soon. It was one thing to brave Chenoo in his fortified encampment, but one girl alone on the plains would be easy pickings.

“You want that I should scare her off?” Skirmish offered helpfully.

“She’s likely to shoot you. I’ve got this.” Bubba climbed off the wagon, whistled for a dog, and walked to where he’d tied his horse. “I leave her out there alone and she’s gonna die.”

“Well, that would certainly learn her,” Skirmish shouted after him.

As he rode, there was an awful screech on the wind, a sound so angry and hungry that it caused all the hair on his arms to stand up. His hunting dog, Beaux, began to whimper. There were Chenoo near and hunting. If he sent Stone away, she’d never make it back to town before dark, and some of the nearer homesteads might not be much safer abodes. He reached her a few minutes later. Stone was riding, wary, with her repeating rifle in her hand. She’d heard the scream too.

As Bubba drew near, he loudly hailed her, so as to avoid ending up like poor lipless Bob. “Damn your obstinate hide, girl. I can’t believe you’re going through with this.”

“Yep.” She was scared—probably regretting her choice now that the Chenoo were making a bunch of racket nearby—but on the balance, mostly smug. “You want another gun hand yet?”

“Well, you ain’t hired, that’s for damn sure. But come on. You’re at least staying close for safety.”

Bubba Shackleford really couldn’t abide a failure of hospitality.

* * *

The shrieks had increased in intensity, and they were much closer now. The sounds were blood curdling. Abrams and McKillington already had everyone in position and the bonfire was raging as Bubba and Hannah came tearing in at a full gallop.

Bubba pointed out the men for Hannah. “You’ve met Balthazar Abrams already. The big one with the freckles is Skirmish McKillington. The real ugly fella with one eye is Sid Hagberg, loves himself some dynamite. The scarecrow-looking one is Orson K. Pangle, esquire, solid with a gun. Harvey Garlick is the little one that used to be a preacher, pay him no mind if he gets spun up. Hub Bryan was a good cowboy but better monster killer. And Mexican George is over there on lookout, but he’s our best rider and a crack shot.”

“Why do you call him Mexican George?”

“Because nobody in Alabama would call him Whore Hay. We had two Georges at first, though White George got his hand bit off and quit, so I suppose it could be just George now, but it stuck.”

Hannah took in the roaring bonfire, and the position of the wagons. “You want the monsters to see you. You’re trying to draw them in.”

Perceptive. “More I can draw off tonight, less I have to fight tomorrow inside a mineshaft. The dogs will warn us if they get close, and then we turn their ambush back on them.”

“The doc told me they had to shoot that one cursed ice heart forty times,” Hannah pointed out.

One of Scholar’s telegrams told of an Indian legend where you had to shoot a Chenoo in the heart with seven arrows for it to die, but he was a man of the modern industrial age. Bubba gestured at the machine gun mounted atop the nearest war wagon. “That’s what those are for.”

Hanna looked at the Colt-Browning M1895 suspiciously. “Heard of these things. Seems wasteful, spraying all those bullets over the countryside.”

Of course a sharpshooter would feel threatened by the idea of being replaced by volume. “Bullets are cheaper than men and I’d rather spend brass than blood. They’ll probably attack in the middle of the night. We let the Chenoo come to us through a wall of hot lead, and then you can do your thing. Try to listen for once, and you might live ’til morning.” He began to walk away.

It appeared that it was beginning to sink in that she’d gotten herself into some dire circumstances. He had to admit he was enjoying her discomfort. It was one thing to talk about hunting monsters, but it was entirely different when you could actually hear them.

“Wait, Mr. Shackleford, where are you going?”

“To eat supper and get some sleep before my watch.”

A Chenoo screeched. She jumped. This one had to be less than a quarter mile away. The hunting dogs began barking in response. “You can sleep through that?”

“Well they ain’t going to get this over with any faster if I’m tired with a growling stomach. Sleep well, Ms. Stone.”

* * *

The Chenoo struck in the darkest hour.

The shrieking had stopped after midnight. Since the monster killers knew they were still out there watching, the quiet was worse than the noise. Only their dogs were well trained, so when the monsters tried to sneak up, rather than barking, they pointed. Hub Bryan and Orson Pangle were on watch, and they’d immediately gone to waking everyone else up.

The men got out of their bedrolls without a sound, guns already in hand. Bubba had slept in his boots and the thick leather coat that served as armor against claws and teeth. He signaled everyone to move into position. Low and slow, his killers got ready. The last person he woke up was Hannah, because he didn’t want her startled and making enough noise to warn the Chenoo. Only by the time he crawled over, she was already sitting up, next to a wheel on a war wagon, eyes wide, watching the swaying underbrush and shadows cast by their huge fire.

“Couldn’t sleep,” she whispered.

Bubba was perfectly well rested, but he’d done this sort of thing a lot.

He spotted something white and glistening moving through the brown grass. The Chenoo may have lost their human reason, but they were still animal cunning. They were moving toward the homestead’s corral, probably to slaughter their horses, so there could be no escape. But he’d been ready for such a move, and one of the machine guns was already pointed that direction.

It was his first look at the monsters. Some were still shaped like men, only with skin so white they near glowed, and their flesh pulled tight over pointed bones, lips drawn back to show their naked teeth, red eyes bulging from their sockets. Some of those were still wearing scraps of their Army uniforms. The ones who’d been cursed longer, they weren’t men at all anymore, but all twisted up, hands like claws, stooped like apes, speckled with spurs of bone and blue pustules, and giving off so much cold that the dew had frozen to them in shimmering sheets of ice, that cracked and left sparkling dust as they stalked forward.

Shivering despite the bonfire, Bubba knocked on the side of the wagon. “You got company, Balt. Far end of the corral. Get to threshing.” Then using hand signals he told the others to keep watching their appointed fields of fire. “Now!”

Abrams popped his head and shoulders out the hatch on the top of the wagon, and took up the potato digger’s grip. The gun’s nickname came from the reciprocating lever under the barrel, which would dig a hole in the dirt if you were shooting it prone. He’d had to repeatedly assure Skirmish that “potato digger” wasn’t some Yankee insult toward the Irish. Fire blossomed out the end of the potato digger in a continuous roar. Pangle must have seen something on the other side of the homestead, because he opened up with his machine gun too, and now both of them were burning money into noise. Bullet after bullet slammed into Chenoo, ripping off chunks, and flinging them down, jerking and twitching. Their blood flowed like slush.

“Goodness gracious! That was magnificent!” Hannah shouted as both guns ran through their belts. Sharpshooter snobbery only went so far in the face of such magnificent destruction. “I need one of those!”

If only the Chenoo were so easily impressed, but the rest of the monsters sprang up from their hiding places and rushed the homestead. Bubba realized that this wasn’t a raid. This horde was every missing person in the region. Their unearthly screams pierced the night as the spirit-haunted husks rushed across the fields. All of the Hunters started shooting, working levers and bolts as fast as they could.

The monsters were tough to kill, and for each one dropped, others gained ground. Most of his men were shooting new Krag-Jorgenson rifles, which were fast to load, but they couldn’t keep up with this onslaught. Surprisingly, Hannah was as good as her show biz reputation suggested, and she was working her Winchester’s lever as quick as a sewing machine’s needle, methodically putting slugs through hearts and heads. Pangle and Abrams got their potato diggers reloaded, and their volume of fire increased dramatically again.

He saw where several Chenoo had bunched up to climb the fence, and shouted for Skirmish to fire the cannon. It was loaded with grape shot. The big man yanked the cord. There was a deafening boom and when the boiling cloud of smoke cleared out, there was nothing but a pile of splinters and frozen meat where they’d been standing.

Skirmish moved to reload the cannon, but before he could do so, a boulder fell out of the sky and smashed it flat. His man sprang back to his feet, astonished but in one piece. However, their cannon was a goner. Did these damned things have a catapult or something?

No. It was worse. Bubba spotted where the big rock had come from. And it hadn’t been launched. It had been thrown. The being was a hundred yards away, vaguely shaped like a man, only ten feet tall and wide as a wagon.

“What is that?” Hannah Stone shouted.

“Stonecoat,” he answered. And there was no path through the mass of rushing Chenoo to do what Plague of Crow’s message had told him to. “It’s an earth spirit who—”

Only Hannah Stone hadn’t waited long enough to hear the answer, and had instead picked up her buffalo rifle and promptly dropped one heavy round, smack dab into the middle of the Stonecoat’s forehead. Gravel chips flew off, but it didn’t so much as flinch. Instead it began ponderously moving their way.

Bubba was watching and calculating all of this with a mind as cold as a Chenoo’s heart, and he saw exactly how the battle was going to unfold. The monsters weren’t dying easily, they were too numerous, and the swarm was nearly on top of them. “Into the wagons,” Bubba ordered. He didn’t like abandoning valuable horses, but didn’t see much choice.

It was four men per wagon. They clambered through the doors and pulled them shut behind. The inside of his wagon was extra tight, because they had an extra body. It wasn’t exactly lady-like, but Stone crawled over Bubba’s legs so she could stick her sawed-off shotgun through the firing slit in the wall and promptly blew a hole through an old Chenoo’s head. His killers stuck their rifles through the other firing slits and kept up the onslaught. The interior quickly filled with choking fumes. The wagon rocked as the Chenoo crashed against it, like a boat in heavy waves. They began to scratch and tear at the seams.

“Boss, the big one is coming this way!” Abrams shouted down through the hatch.

“Good,” Bubba stated as he pulled the colorful, supposedly magic stick from out of his coat. Then he wouldn’t have to run as far to reach it. He began climbing up. “Move aside, Balthazar, I’m coming up.”

He squeezed past and onto the roof. It was worse than he’d thought. Chenoo were strong, and they were sticking their claws through the slick sides and pulling themselves up. He turned just in time to witness the Stonecoat reach the other war wagon. The spirit stuck one great hand beneath, and effortlessly flipped the wagon on its side. It crushed a bunch of Chenoo in the process, but the Stonecoat didn’t seem to mind.

It turned its attention toward their wagon, and approached, rumbling and flowing across the ground. Its body was made of millions of moving pieces, it was like watching a rockslide…up. The Chenoo on that side of the wagon were smart enough to get out of the way, leaving Bubba a clear path to follow some very questionable advice.

That witch had better be telling the truth.

Bubba stood atop the war wagon and shouted at the Stonecoat. “I’m Bubba Shackleford, professional monster killer!” He pointed Plague of Crow’s stick at the spirit. He shook it and the beads rattled. “Go back to sleep, you old spirit! I protect this land now!”

“What the hell are you doing, boss?” Abrams shouted as he struggled to clear a jam from the potato digger.

“Establishing dominance.” Bubba replied.

“It’s big as a locomotive!”

“It’s a warrior thing. Yeeee haaaa!” Then Bubba leapt over the side.

The message Plague of Crows had scratched on his hotel room wall had been simple.

Count Coup.

His boots hit the ground hard, and he rolled onto his shoulder, but nothing broke, and there wasn’t time to dither with tons of living gravel coming to crush him. Bubba sprang to his feet. The plains warriors counted coup by touching their foe and getting away, only as it loomed over him, he realized just how suicidal that was. Every sensible man in the world would have turned and run for his life, but sensible men did not become monster hunters. Bubba charged the behemoth.

The Stonecoat ponderously lifted one huge arm overhead. Dirt and bits of rock rained down. It was prepared to deliver a blow that would smash an ox into paste, but Bubba ran right under that fist, still bellowing his war cry.

Reaching up, he whacked the gigantic monster square in the face with a decorative stick.

The spirit paused for just a moment. If it had eyes, it probably would have blinked.

He’d touched his enemy in the middle of battle. Which was good, but the second part of counting coup was getting away alive.

Bubba dived to the side as the fist came down. The impact shook Wyoming. It missed him by a cat’s whisker, but the ground beneath erupted upward in protest, flinging him through the air. He crashed back down to earth, flat on his face, then scrambled on his hands and knees as the monster lifted one epic foot to stomp him like a mouse. But by the time that impact came, he was already sprinting away.

He ran toward the bonfire until he realized it wasn’t following him, so he turned around. Did it work? The Stonecoat was just standing there. It probably didn’t speak English, but Bubba taunted it anyway. “That’s right, Stonecoat. You got touched. So quit your bellyaching and take your ragged ass back to your hole.”

Then he realized that his breath had come out as steam. Despite being twenty feet from a roaring blaze, it was freezing cold. Bubba looked around and realized he was now completely surrounded by ice-hearted Chenoo. They hissed at him through their exposed teeth. The circle was slowly closing in.

Maybe it was time to be diplomatic. Miners had blown up its house after all. He pointed the stick at the Stoneheart. “You leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone. Nobody will trouble your rest again.”

It stood there for a glacially long time. It was obvious that the Chenoo were beholden to its will, because there was absolutely nothing stopping them from rending Bubba limb from limb. The hunters in his wagon had stopped shooting to watch, and the only noise was the crackling of flames, and the shouting coming from the hunters in the rolled over wagon who were now stuck.

There was a rumbling, like an earthquake. Bubba knew that was the spirit talking. There were no words, but pictures formed in his head. Courage was sufficient. It was going back to the depths. Cover it in water and sand, and trouble it no more. The pact is done.

“I’ll inform the governor.” This looked like a good spot to make a reservoir.

The Stonecoat slowly lifted one hand. When it dropped it, every Chenoo soundlessly collapsed, like puppets with their strings cut. Then the Stonecoat itself was gone, the spirit whisked back to its hole. The body remained, but it was no longer animated, and the rocks parted in a shuddering cloud. When the dust cleared all that remained was a tall pile of gravel.

Bubba tossed Plague of Crows’ stick into the bonfire. He didn’t know if it was actually magic or not, but it was best not to trifle with such things. They always came with an unexpected cost…Besides, he had a sneaky suspicion he would run into her again one of these days.

* * *

Other than some bumps and bruises, and Hub Bryan breaking an arm when the wagon flipped, they were unscathed. While they rode back toward Cheyenne, Abrams figured that even once they ate the cost of the ruined wagon and cannon, this was going to be by far their most lucrative job yet. Monster killers loved getting paid.

“Split eight ways, it’s still the most gold any of us have ever seen,” Abrams shouted. The men cheered.

Bubba was riding alongside Hannah Stone. The young woman hadn’t said much since the battle. She’d conducted herself admirably in the fight, and a flexibility of mind need not be limited to the supernatural.

“Make that nine ways, Balthazar.”

She looked over at him and grinned. This time the smile was real.

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