By the time we reached Widow’s Gorge, my fingers were numb, my breathing was labored, and it was all I could do to fend off thoughts of giving in to the White Sleep. My bandana barely kept the snow from chilling my nose, mouth, and jaw, and my hat was soaked through. The sight of the tiny cabin nestled into the side of the embankment—like a solitary tooth in a rotten mouth—had me dangerously close to becoming a God-fearing man once more. I held my sidearm secure, summoned my last scrap of strength, and kicked the front door into splinters. A quick scan of the shotgun shack revealed no inhabitants and I yanked the rope trailing behind me until my new acquaintance appeared.
‘Easy there, big fella!’ he said.
‘Anytime you got something to say... Don’t,’ I replied.
‘Let’s get inside and start the fire. If we can.’
‘The smoke will attract unwanted attention.’
‘You have got to be kidding me!’
I was not kidding. There were all manner of undesirables in the gorge; it was common knowledge. Folks more than willing to steal a man’s bounty right out from under him. I had Marlene at home waiting for me. Sweet little Marlene, with a laugh like blue jays at play. Pearl was five-years-old and had the Devil in her; I loved that about my eldest daughter. Belle was only three and given to frequent bouts of illness. It was her that had me bounty hunting again and I would have brought down every last maggot, from one side of the county to the other, if it meant slightly better health for Belle.
‘Can you at least untie me so we can look for some food?’
'You think I came down in the last shower?’
‘Brock! My name is Brock!’
‘Okay... Brock. Can we please look for food?’
Bobby Hite: a tall drink of water with eyes like a muskrat and the smell of one too. He was wiry but strong with it, and a more mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch you’d never want to meet. Not only was he a known raper and killer of women, he’d burnt down the church down in South Temperance not three months passed. Worst thing was, the parishioners were all inside a-worshippin' at the time.
‘Brock! Where do you go, man? You just sorta’ zone out sometimes, like you’re listening to voices in your head or something.’
I tied Hite to an armchair beside the damp-looking fireplace and gave him a backhanded smack for good measure. ‘Sit here and shut up!’
‘Okay, that’s going too far, Alex!’
‘No! We’re not doing this anymore!’
I came in close. ‘Your goose is cooked, Hite. You will act as befits a man brought to his knees by the likes of Brock Duggan or you’ll taste my hand again... or my steel.’
‘David James! My name’s David James!’
Poor crazy bastard. He’d been holed up in that cave for far too long—devoid of the warmth of civilized humanity. He’d forgotten who he was and what he’d done too I expect. Given enough time, solitude will fan the Hell-fire in a man’s head and give rise to the worst of his demons.
‘You’ll be at peace once your neck is good and stretched out.’
‘YOU-FUCKING-MENTAL-CASE!’ Hite spat and swore and blasphemed. Once he’d exhausted his rage, he spoke once more, but a mite more rational. ‘Okay, look... You do a stressful job and you’ve got issues at home. Live-Action Role-Play is your escape... I get that. You’ve just gone a little too deep this time, buddy.’
I sat beside the maniac; tried to put us on equal footing so maybe I could work at earning his trust and possibly discover where he’d buried his victims. ‘You trying to bamboozle me, Hite? You don’t need to do that. Let’s speak as friends awhile. See if we can’t clear some of the dense forest in your head.’
‘Alex, we’ve been out here for three days. I was meant to be home over twenty-four-hours ago. Just... Just fish my phone outta’ my back pocket and message Lindsay. Let her know I’m okay and that I’ll be home soon. And I WILL be home soon, Alex.’
‘Phone?’ I indulged the man temporarily, fishing the small keepsake box from the back pocket of his trousers. It suddenly glowed like a lantern and my heart skipped a beat.
‘Is there signal? Surely this cabin has wifi? Send an email!’ he yelled.
‘You can keep your insane ramblings down to a minimum, Hite. This here is some kind of thin lamp? And the mail don’t come this far out.’
‘You’re killin’ me here, Alex!’
I stared at Bobby Hite with contempt I could scarcely mask. ‘Not yet, I ‘aint.’
The crunch of snow underfoot outside caught my attention and I sprang to my feet.
‘We expecting the other guys? I thought they’d all gone home,’ said Bobby.
‘Shut up. I didn’t invite nobody.’
I drew my guns and approached the doorway. I suddenly wished I’d taken it easier on the door on our way in. One figure appeared, then another. Before long, there were five of them, just standing there, swaying in the icy breeze. They were thin and clad only in torn coveralls or patched breeches that had seen better days. ‘This here cabin’s on our land. Whatchoo doing out here?’ drawled the largest of them.
‘I’m just here with my friend,’ I lied. ‘Sorry, I didn’t know this place belonged to anybody. We’ll be on our way.’
‘I don’t think so, long-shank.’
‘What’s going on, Alex?’ yelled Bobby from his chair. ‘I don’t recognize these assholes. Did you set this up?’
‘Quiet down! I didn’t set anything up. These good folks and I are just conversing.’
‘Is that what we’re doing?’ said the leader. ‘Now, once we’re finished jawin’, you’re gonna’ give up your highfalutin ideas and accept the fact that you and your friend are ‘bout to feed the McPyle family.’
‘Well, I’m just not that good a cook,’ I answered.
‘No matter,’ said the leader. He pointed a bloodstained thumb at the gnarled boy beside him. ‘Lumpy here is. He’ll make y’all taste better n’ squirrel n’ taters.’
That’s when they all came at me at once. A mess of bony limbs and open mouths.
I could hear the blood coursing through my veins and pure instinct kicked in. I fired my weapons into the fray, yet, some evil gave extraordinary resilience to these wraiths. Not a single one fell. The noise of my irons gave them pause, however. Sufficient pause for me to escape into the snowy landscape with the speed of a man on a mission. I was not going to bring Bobby Hite to justice, I was going to get home to my family—to Marlene, Pearl, and dear little Belle. I just had to block out the sound of Bobby’s screams coming from way behind me.
I’m sorry Bobby. You deserved the measured hand of justice, not the horrors you faced in that cabin. I failed you.
But I will never fail my family.