27 comments

Western Adventure Horror

•───────•∞•Ж•∞•───────•


Then the storm broke and was replaced the next morning with a frozen 1880s blue sky, the kind when after the clouds clear the world shuts down with a blinding but heartless sun, no wind, and dead quiet. Jason and Bill huddled around the cabin's only wood burner. Above them, the pine timbers groaned and complained with the weight of the storm’s snow, over twenty feet on the roof; but what dropped their stomach into a mine shaft was the sharp crack about every ten minutes, a sound like a double barrel going off in the rafters. The cold clenched down on the roof beams, the cabin held in a merciless ice-cold fist. It was not unknown for a collapsed cabin to be found in the spring, the dead still frozen under the rubble.

“A beast with a blood-froze beard”, Bill mumbled out loud to himself, feeding logs to the wood burner. He’d almost lost Jason the night before. The storm outside had been ghost-white and howling a blow. He had worried Jason would lose the rope he’d strung to the outhouse, sixty feet from the cabin. He knew from experience men lose their way, only to be found in the spring thaw. So when Jason had slammed the pine door and come back in, shaking and terrified, saying he barely made it back, and talking about his lungs seared out from the cold, he had sighed in relief. But when he'd calmed down later, Jason said, “There’s something out there, Bill. I could feel it looking at me. I swear I saw eyes in the dark, red eyes… and…and… a growl.”

Provisions were low, so for supper, the only meal that day, Bill dished out steaming black beans, only a sourdough biscuit on the side. Bill, Chicken Bill they called him, liked to talk when he was serving food and fancied himself a philosopher, a cowboy philosopher, although his ranching days were well over. He was fifty, which is old in the mountains, but a lot about Bill was still adventurous with his red kerchief, leather chaps he wore like skin, and his Stetson, which he rarely took off. As he dished out the food, he declared, “The Shoshone have a hundred words for snow, Jason; snow that grows out of the ground, a hoary frost sparkling with tiny ice fingers reaching for the sun; snow that forms a crust when the top melts some and then freezes back up, which might break your leg in a post hole; and snow that lives in the worst cold and wraps itself in the body of a wolf and steals your soul, like now.”

“Bill, it’s sixty below and I don’t feel much like talking about the cold.”

“I understand, son,” Bill said, and took Jason’s empty tin plate away.

Later that night, Bill sat by the burner, the flame reflected on his weathered face, high cheekbones, and full lips, a handsome man his wife had said. He stroked the scar from the edge of his eye to the back of his chin, a scuffle with Texas-rough Civil War vets in ’72, calling him half-breed in the street.

But I know this cold is different, he thought. It’s tougher with Jason.

The fire held his eyes on the yellow-blue flame for a long while, the wood humming and spitting, the smoke smelling of pine sap. Did you swear you wouldn’t take on caring about another, he asked himself. Did you?

Yes, after the sickness, I did.

And now you’re caring about this Jason, and that’s why you’re scared? You’re getting soft.

Bill kept feeding the fire, but couldn’t help thinking about death, for him a white wolf in his dreams with a blooded snout, a red-eyed beast scratching to get in.

****

The next morning the Olsen party beat on the door; finding the cabin must have taken some luck. Dick Olsen, his wife Martha, their daughter Susan, and their young boy, Joey. They filled the cabin once inside.

Mr. Olsen was near done living with his feet black from the frostbite. He could still hobble, but Bill had him put one foot in cold water. It began bleeding and he wrapped it up. Jason asked Bill about the feet in the kitchen and Bill talked low, so the party wouldn’t hear. “You can tell from his sagging eyes the West has whipped him, Jason. If you notice, his eyeballs are skittering like a mare beat too much. Once broke like that, too broke, a horse won’t come back to anything worth working. Mr. Olsen has the no-blinks and I’ve seen it in the mines. You best stay clear when you run up on a man like that. Next thing you know, you’ll be staring too far away yourself.

Their daughter Susan did not have the no-blinks, Jason thought. Just with a sneak peek, he could see she was the most beautiful creature he’d ever put eyes on. Once she unwrapped from the weather, her long hair alone shone like some kind of goddess he guessed; the blonde let loose, soft and shimmering. She made him think of a gazelle he saw once up in the high country. It stood with its white belly and golden hide, then ran off as light as air. The God’s creature moved like grace itself. But Susan just sitting there was better. No sirYou cannot chance more than a sneak peek when you run into a sight like that. He kept his eyes on the burner and was glad when the Olsen Party carved out a private area off to the side, blankets making a wall of sorts.

Bill made some supper for all six including himself, the last of the salt ham, hardtack, and black beans, everyone silent around the pine table. Bill didn’t talk much around strangers at first; some said likely due to him being a half-Bannock Indian.

But once the diners settled in, the boy Joey couldn’t get enough and threw questions at Bill like a scattergun, “How long you been up here?”, “Why do they call you Chicken Bill?”, and “Where’d you get that scar on your cheek?”.

Bill gave short answers but his eyes smiled talking to the boy. He explained the Galena cabin was the way station for the Stanley to Ketchum route, an overnight mid-point on the sixty-mile run. Jason was a Postal Officer and would ski the sixty miles on eight-foot board skis, the trail too narrow for a wagon and too steep for a horse. Jason listened in, but also knew Bill had lost both his wife and son to cholera and sparked up around children.

The boy asked, “Why don’t you wear a gun?”

Bill said, “I’m done with guns young man, guns mostly don’t ever work out like you expect.”

Joey’s eyes grew into silver dollars, “Did you ever kill anybody?”

The table went quiet and Bill said, “Excuse me. Jason and I have to clean up. Come on Jason.” As he rose, his eyes were glistening and Jason remembered Bill didn’t like to talk about guns and killing.

Bill and Jason were in the kitchen when Mr. Olsen came limping in. He was dodging around like he had something to say but couldn’t. Finally, he said, “Joe’s mother feels…well…don’t talk to our son she says.”

Bill said, “Sure. No problem.” He took a deep breath and let it out. You’ll always be an outsider, looked at as an outcast by your own people, a savage Indian by the other.

Jason felt bad for Bill, but the truth was he thought there was nothing he could do about it anyway.

****

The next day, the Dawson brothers pounded on the door. After coming in, they spread out like it was natural to position themselves for a gunfight. The one in the middle was Cliff, the oldest brother. He scanned the room, his eyes not missing a thing, running over Jason and Bill like bacon greasy fingers, assessing if they were a threat. He then stopped on Mrs. Olsen.

“You get lost out of Pocatello? Standing me up in Ketchum seem right to you?”

Slumped down at the table like a man giving up, Mr. Olsen stared at his foot wrapped in the bloody rag. He glanced at his wife, but she saddled up to Cliff, put her face close to his, and with a sweet voice Jason hadn’t heard before brushed her lips up against his right ear. “I’d come back for you, Cliff, you know that.”

Cliff shoved her off rough and put his head back and laughed, a mean sound, more coyote bark than laugh. He said, “I guess I know when I been had, you viper.” He nodded to Mr. Olsen at the table. “Sorry Dick. You can have her back now.” Mrs. Olsen shot a look at her husband. He was slumped at the table; his hands shaking while covering his face, his elbows on the yellow pine planks.

The smaller brother came out from behind the blankets. He threw a black carpetbag down on the floor. Cliff kneeled and opened it up. The bag was full of money, bundles of cash.

Mr. Olsen looked up, his eyes misted, yellow-red. “Our future Martha. You wanted Oregon. There it lies. You didn’t count on the snow…,” and looking at his feet, “much less this damn freeze.” Grabbing the bloody rag off his dead foot, he threw it at his wife, which she knocked away just before it hit her face.

Mrs. Olsen hesitated, then lunged toward her husband, her eyes harsh, her face tight. With a harsh whisper, she spit each word like venom. “Yes, the storm, and the damn freeze you fool. You’re an old fool, the worst kind, you know that? You only see what you want.” Mr. Olsen glared back at her, but she stared him down.

Cliff packed up the bag and threw it to the third brother near the window, then turned to Mrs. Olsen. He pointed his gloved finger at her and narrowed his eyes, laughing through his sneer. “It’s true. He don’t see you Martha, but I do.” And then he cocked his face at Mr. Olsen like he remembered something. “But being Indian Agent at Pocatello has its advantages for you and Martha, don’t it Dick? I guess the tribes will miss it none, not knowing it was theirs to begin with.”

Mr. Olsen reared up at the table, wincing when he stood on his bare black foot. His face twisted up, like being covered with fire. He stumbled out a derringer from his inside vest pocket and aimed it at Cliff, but Cliff was fast, quick with his gun. In the tight cabin, the shot rang out like the screaming wrath of God; Mr. Olsen thrown near off both feet, his back smacking hard against the pine wall with his chest a bloody hole. He slid to the floor and his boy Joey ran to the body and Susan held her brother; the son, daughter, and dead man lying together.

The Dawson men soon grouped everyone to the side of the cabin while one brother held a gun. They searched for weapons and collected both the derringer and a shotgun found in the kitchen. The smaller brother filled a sack with the remaining food.

Mrs. Olsen grabbed Cliff’s arm, holding him from turning away, and said, “Please forgive me, baby.” Cliff threw her off and laughed, shoving her toward the table.

Leaning into the table, Mrs. Olsen stayed dead still as she stared at the wall. Cliff, behind her, spoke firm, like he wanted the pain to sink in. “You ain’t worth much, hardly worth feeding Martha. But I’ll be taking you, the boy, and especially Susan up north to the renegades. They’ll make use of you in the camps, but your daughter and boy Martha? They’ll bring prime dollar.” Mrs. Olsen’s hands gripped white on the table. The other two brothers drew their guns after hearing Cliff.

In a short time Jason and Bill stood at the cabin door while mounted up in front of them in the bright sun and the dry pine air were the three brothers, but also Mrs. Olsen, the boy Joey, and Susan on the last remaining horses, all tied to saddle horns.

The Dawson brothers turned and broke trail, the snow pushing up above the horse’s bellies; the hooves rising high to punch through the clean white, the pine hanging heavy with fresh snow. They were soon out of sight.

Without a word, Bill pushed through the deep snow to the shed. He dragged the door open, hitting it with his shoulder, finally making his way in. After the sound of rummaging, he came out. Strapped on his side was a Colt 45 rig, low on his hip, outlaw style. He said, “I got the weapon, but not the means. We need a horse, Jason.”

The shed door was still open, and Jason stuck his head in. “You’re right, we don’t have a horse. I’ve got an idea though for something else!”

Jason and Bill took two pairs of board skis and pushed through the snow a hundred yards to the top of Galena Ridge. The near cliff fell off the side of the mountain. If they could ski it, and Jason couldn’t guess how, but if they could, they’d cut off the Dawsons two miles away where they came out the bottom of the switchbacks. They had to take the chance.

Jason strapped both himself and Bill into the skis where they needed to drop off. Bill stared off the edge wide-eyed. He grabbed Jason’s arm, nervous as all get out. Jason had never seen him panicked like that, gaping over the edge like a little boy. He choked it out. “I need to tell you; I could a had your postman job Jason, but it required me to ski. Turned it down, and… and hell… that’s why they started calling me Chicken Bill.”

Jason laughed to look at him. “Hell yourself Bill. No chicken about it. It ain’t nothing,” he lied. “Let’s go!”

They pushed off. The skis fell through air and Jason sidestepped to turn as he hit the bank. The snow flowed like a heaven’s mist over their heads, Jason’s skis swooping back and forth, a fine curve on the fresh snow, the cold flakes stinging his face. They weren’t skiing but flying. Bill just closed his eyes and took a straight shot. Together, they leveled out on the basin.

****

The riders slowly came out of the trees, the horses were struggling to lift their hooves in the deep snow, tired, and pushed too hard. The younger brother was the first to notice Bill standing fifty yards ahead. Jason could tell Cliff then saw Bill also and was moving in position, turning side-saddle so he could draw. As Cliff angled, Bill crouched in the snow, and when the two brothers pulled their sidearms, Bill drew in response, his gun light in his hand like he was flicking his finger. He knocked the two younger brothers off their horses like nothing, ducks in a shoot. Bill then took aim at Cliff with both hands, holding the revolver for the distance, but stopped; Mrs. Olsen’s horse crossed the path. The more Bill moved to get an aim, the more Mrs. Olsen got in the way. Shoot dammit, just shoot! Bill blew air exasperated, he raised his gun straight up and fired into the sky. This was the break Cliff was looking for. He leaned out, drew on Bill, and took him down with a blast of three shots. Cliff could shoot. Bill fell in front of Jason in the cold.

As death approached, Bill didn’t feel scared, but settled. A peace came over him. But you’re leaving Jason, he thought. You need to tell him before you go. 

Leaning close, Jason said, “What Bill? What is it?” He knew Bill was dying.

“You can do it, Jason. You’re a far better man than you think, son.” Bill then closed his eyes.

A warmth moved over Jason that he couldn’t explain. He suddenly realized Bill was the closest thing to a father he’d ever had and it was right then Jason knew he was done with ‘can’t do anything about it anyway’ and it was right then he was done with the holding back and he had to try.

Feeling the heavy weight of the cold steel Colt in his hand he stood up slowly and held the weapon down by his side. Cliff flanked him staying side-saddled with a broad grin on his face in the bright cold, moving to get the sun behind him. “Give it a try, boy,” he said, and holstered his weapon. “When you’re ready,” and he angled his horse as he moved, his hand hovering on the gun handle.

Jason lifted his arm and Cliff’s gun exploded in his hand. Jason never saw him draw; he was so fast. The slug hit him in the shoulder and threw Jason’s aim. He fell to the ground and Cliff was soon above him, dismounted, and kicking the Colt away. Jason looked down Cliff’s gun barrel and felt his chest pounding. He knew the bullet was coming and his only thought was hoping it didn’t hurt, a quick ending.

A snarling cut the cold air before Jason saw a white-shaped animal leap for Cliff, who fought the snapping jaws while he writhed on the snow, holding the white wolf-like thing off his face. Cliff then screamed in terror. The animal slashed at him and dug in, ripping his throat out, then stuck its snout into the wound.

Jason turned away thinking he was next, but soon caught sight of the wolf flashing in the trees. An albino, pure white. He lost sight of the animal in the green pine, the needles covered in ice, crystals on the trees.

December 04, 2023 01:18

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

27 comments

Marty B
05:26 Dec 08, 2023

Great descriptions of the cold, and of the deep snow. A cold blooded shoot out! Chicken Bill is a great name! thanks-

Reply

Jack Kimball
07:16 Dec 08, 2023

Thank you Marty!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
02:44 Dec 08, 2023

Great writing! Amazing descriptions about the cold of winter. Having lived through 20 years of wisconsin cold, I could really feel the chill. I really liked the sprinkling of western sayings sprinkled throughout this, and enjoyed the buildup and the descriptions of the new people walking through the door. "but what dropped their stomach into a mine shaft was the sharp crack about every ten minutes," haha " The three Dawsons came in the cabin and spread out like it was natural to position themselves for a gunfight." I had to smile at the "al...

Reply

Jack Kimball
03:08 Dec 08, 2023

Thank you Scott! Now we need to write one about the Russian winter! Historical fiction!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michał Przywara
21:47 Dec 06, 2023

This definitely drew me in as it went along, and eventually I forgot I was reading. The trouble just keeps building: first a hard job, then being stuck in a snowstorm, then hosting ungrateful racist thieves, then a shooting and a robbing, and *then* we even get a frontier justice story! Lots happening here. The growth in the narrator is nice, particularly his shift in attitude from “can't do” to “gotta try”. A real shame it took Bill dying to get there, but so it goes sometimes. “Worse, the beams would crack like a .30 cal shot as the co...

Reply

Jack Kimball
03:11 Dec 08, 2023

Thank you Michal. I’m voting you critique of the year. The Reedsy monthly payments start in January! Watch your mailbox…

Reply

Michał Przywara
21:57 Dec 08, 2023

Ha, thanks Jack! I wish :) Glad it's useful though!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
00:44 Dec 06, 2023

What a chilly story! A picture worth a thousand words.

Reply

Jack Kimball
03:12 Dec 08, 2023

I just didn’t want my muse to go cold Mary! Thank you for reading and commenting.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Aidan Romo
15:14 Jan 24, 2024

Strong western vibes with an equal amount of strong scenery to boot. Great dialogue work here as well. I would have to say this is my favorite story of yours here so far. I'm eager to read more from you.

Reply

Jack Kimball
16:52 Jan 24, 2024

Thank you Aidan! 'Eager to read more from you' makes my day. I really appreciate it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Jack Kimball
17:45 Jan 24, 2024

Hey Aidan, My plan is to re-write 'Cabin Fever' to clean it up and build on the horror (with the wolf stealing souls), then submit it to both western and horror anthologies. Then cross my fingers. If you like the western genre, I have also written 'Hope on the Mescalero' https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/8g5t2u/ and was also fortunate enough to have it published both online and in print as 'Last Hope on the High Sonoran' at Frontier Tales Magazine: https://frontiertales.com/2023/12Dec/hope.php. The updated version is on my website at: htt...

Reply

Aidan Romo
21:36 Jan 24, 2024

Well I wish you the best of luck with that rewrite! Hope it gets accepted! I'll be sure to get to those other stories as well soon enough! I'll provide as much feedback as I can for you. Also, no problem at all.

Reply

Jack Kimball
23:51 Jan 24, 2024

Again, thanks Aidan. I also look forward to reading more of YOUR postings and offering input.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 2 replies
Christy Morgan
01:30 Jan 04, 2024

Some of the very best writing that I've come across in a while, especially enjoyed the following lines: Above them, the pine timbers groaned and complained with the weight of the storm’s snow, over twenty feet on the roof; but what dropped their stomach into a mine shaft was the sharp crack about every ten minutes, a sound like a double barrel going off in the rafters. The cold clenched down on the roof beams, the cabin held in a merciless ice-cold fist. “The Shoshone have a hundred words for snow, Jason; snow that grows out of the ground...

Reply

Jack Kimball
16:56 Jan 24, 2024

Hey Christy, 'very best writing that I've come across in a while' is quite complement, especially from someone who writes as well as you do. Thank you.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rudy Greene
00:22 Dec 14, 2023

You captured the old west lingo and feel well. Sensory descriptions were well done. You might have shortened so,e of the sentences to keep it crisper. Over all, well done.

Reply

Jack Kimball
17:47 Dec 15, 2023

Thanks Rudy! I appreciate you reading and commenting. I especially appreciate your helpful criticism. I'm working on those sentences!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rudy Greene
21:47 Dec 13, 2023

You capture the essence of the old west well, even the lingo. Good description of sensory input, such as smells, sights and sounds. There were paragraphs where you might have used shorter sentences for better effect. Over all, good work .

Reply

Jack Kimball
23:45 Dec 14, 2023

Thank you Rudy! Yes. I’m working on my sentences do I appreciate the input more than you know.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rabab Zaidi
10:07 Dec 10, 2023

Good descriptions but too much violence.

Reply

Jack Kimball
12:41 Dec 10, 2023

Hi Rabab. I changed the category to add "horror" to address that. Thanks for your input!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
J. D. Lair
04:17 Dec 09, 2023

Man, this was such a good one Jack! I know the places you speak of, so it sounded like I was reading up on history. Very fun and well done!

Reply

Jack Kimball
17:14 Dec 09, 2023

Thank you J.D.! I appreciate you reading and commenting more than you know.

Reply

J. D. Lair
17:38 Dec 09, 2023

Anytime my friend. Always enjoy your stories. :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Rabab Zaidi
10:05 Dec 10, 2023

Good descriptions but too much violence.

Reply

Jack Kimball
17:48 Dec 15, 2023

Hi Rabab. I changed the category to add "horror" to address that. Thanks for your input!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.