“You sure we got the right place?” I asked, taking care to not drop my rifle as we rode our horses up the rocky slope. My horse dislodged a rock, and sent it clacking down the roughshod cliffside. I gripped my rifle—and my reins—tighter. “Be mighty embarrassing if we bust down this door and there ain’t no smugglers here.”
“You ask me that again,” Bill shot back, “and them smugglers ain’t gonna be your only problem!” I smiled at that. He was right, of course—he always was. Truth be told, I’d come to rely on Bill nowadays as more than just a partner. He was my best friend.
“Apologies,” I said. “Think I’m just nervous. We got a lot riding on this.”
If we did this bust right, then I’d be Grant’s first pick for Special Deputy.
Bill nodded and grunted an affirmative. “It’s gonna be easy, Gabe, trust me. Get in, bust these fellas, and be back home with our families in time for supper.”
He and I both knew it was true. For six months, the three gangs of smugglers had evaded us. Bill had finally caught wind of a meeting between the leaders at one of their hidey holes.
Surprisingly enough, it was almost in plain sight: a grain warehouse a little bit outside of Angels Camp. As I stared at the unassuming metal tower that housed our quarry, I steeled myself for the coming commotion.
“Alright,” I whispered as we snuck up to the front door. “Just cover me, and I’ll let ol’ Betsy do all the talking.”
I hefted the black powder rifle into a ready position and Bill immediately gave me a wide berth. Betsy cost me a pretty penny, but she often times ended confrontations before they began.
Without another word, I kicked open the door to the warehouse and charged in.
Inside was just as I suspected. Rows and rows of barrels of illegal goods and arms. I rushed past them into the clearing in the middle of the warehouse.
“U.S. Marshals! Hands in the air or I will shoot!”
The two finely dressed gentlemen did not lift even so much as a finger. They continued talking, drinking, and playing poker.
I heard slow footsteps behind me; Bill was covering me. I snarled, “Maybe you gentlemen didn’t hear me, but I will fill your skulls with 54 grams of lead if you don’t raise those hands right now!”
Something dawned on me. I recognized the two gentlemen. The man on the left, Wentworth Davis, Judge of the 44th District court. The man on the right, Henry Williams, the current Special Deputy. I was in shock. These two lawmen were the notorious leaders of these gangs? But, wasn’t there a third leader as well?
Judge Davis finally put down his cards and turned slowly to face me. “Ah, there you are! Come, sit down with us. We saved you a seat.”
“I ain’t sitting nowhere near you, you slimy piece of shi-”
“I do apologize, but I wasn’t talking to you.”
Before I could respond, Bill spoke from behind me. “Don’t mind if I do. Just gotta take care of the spare.”
A shot rang out and my body went numb, hitting the ground with a fleshy thud. Wet, ragged breath wheezed out of lungs that were on fire as my eyes frantically scanned for answers in the ceiling above. Bill appeared, smiling.
“Couldn’t be helped, Gabriel,” he said, sneering. “Turns out smuggling pays better than good old Uncle Sam. I would ask you to understand, but we both know you wouldn’t.”
I tried to scream, but no sound passed my lips. I felt my blood pooling around me and soaking into my duster. I forced myself into an upright position on my elbows.
“Tell you what, why don’t we take this little parlay to a cleaner venue,” Bill said.
I heard the scraping of wooden chairs against concrete as the men got up and walked away. After a few seconds, only Bill and I remained.
“Don’t worry, Gabriel. I’ll tell your family you died a hero’s death. You know, send them a nice letter from Ontario.”
“I’m … gonna kill you.”
He laughed. “No you won’t.”
And with that, Bill picked up my rifle and hat and sauntered out of the warehouse.
As I lay dying on the cold cement floor, my world gradually faded into darkness.
Then, something moved in the darkness just outside my vision. Raspy breathing punctuated the otherwise quiet atmosphere. My heart raced.
“Hey! Who’s there?!” I screamed. My lungs ached; I didn’t have much time left.
The breathing got closer and closer, until finally like the parting of a curtain, the intruder made themselves visible through the darkness. This, thing, stood over 20 ft tall. Rows and rows of tendrils hung from its mottled brown body. Its face reminded me of an elephant, but instead of a trunk, a beard of tooth encrusted tendrils matted its face. It craned its neck to get a better look at me and planted two emaciated, too human arms on the floor just in front of me, claws digging into the concrete. It stared at me, with eyes like two pinpoints of burning coal.
Now, I’d like to say that I kept my courage in the face of this monster, I would like to say that I didn’t scream and immediately relieve myself. I’d like to say this, but I can’t.
“Poor thing,” it said. Its voice was filled with such contempt, thankfully not directed at me. I likened it to the feeling of being just missed by a bullet. You knew enough about it from your experience that you knew it was terrible and horrific and just by some strange twist of fate you avoided experiencing it directly.
“What do you want?!”
“Only to help.” The creature stared at me, waiting to answer. I didn’t. “We are kindred. Both betrayed. Perhaps we can help each other?”
“You the devil? Or a demon?” I said. Hope quickly filled me. My parents weren’t particularly religious people, but I was at least familiar with the tales of crossroads demons and deals with the lord of air. It’s the devil I knew, so to speak.
The sound of thousands of nails on chalkboards assaulted my ears. I realized it was coming from the creature. Laughter, maybe? If such a thing could even laugh.
“No. I am older than those charlatans. Much older.” A renewed sense of terror gripped me.
“What’s your,” I swallowed, my throat dry from fear and from blood loss, “deal? What’s in it for me?”
Images flooded my mind. I saw myself rising from the floor of the silo, filled with fire and strength. I saw myself shrugging off wounds that would kill a man.
I saw myself with my hands around Bill’s neck. He was powerless to stop me from squeezing the life out of him; I was too strong for him, he’d have better luck moving a mountain.
I would become a monster.
“And what do you get out of this?”
“Does it matter?”
I groaned as convulsions wracked my body. It was right, I was dying. My family danced across my mind. Memories of Sunday brunches, of picnics at the beach. There would be no more of those. Even if I took the deal, I would still be a monster. Would my family even recognize me? Would I even recognize myself? This is all thanks to him. It didn’t matter anymore, if it’s the last thing I do, I was going to kill that son of a bitch and rejoin my family.
My last breath left my body as I spoke, “Deal.”
I screamed as my body transformed. My muscles and bones grew stronger, like steel. I opened my eyes, and I was staring at the creature, who was eyeing me hungrily. This hate that filled me was old and stagnant.
I was a jack o’ lantern, all hollowed out and insides filled with fire.
In an instant it was over, the monster was gone. I was standing in the warehouse. My soul ached, both with the burden of this newfound power and the implications of my deal. I walked over to the makeshift table and grabbed the silver dish that held the drinks.
I didn’t recognize the person in the reflective surface. It was me alright, but something was … off. I looked closer, and I spotted two pinpoints of burning coal staring back at me, in the darkness of my pupils. It had left its mark on me. With a sigh, I grabbed Bill’s discarded revolver and began to make my way out the warehouse.
It was time to get to work.
Jackson Lewis is a senior political science major at Georgia Southern University. Jackson’s primary goal is to become a published author and is, in fact, working on a novel at the moment. But as someone wise once told him, minor in what you love and major in what you can make money on. That being said, Jackson is receiving his degree in Political Science to become a teacher, or even work on a research project while he pursues his dream.