I’ve become somewhat enamored of the old west and old west style story telling since starting Deadlands. Initially I used it to mimic a serial style, but I liked its ‘roaming the earth’ aesthetic and enjoyed the desert imagery, the vast lands filled with mystery. I started this story when I had the clear image of a man in all black, with long black hair, face hidden beneath a black hat, on a black horse. Because of its similarities to Deadlands, I never really intended to make it a full length story, so this is the first and last we will ever hear of Esther Cobb and Grisham. If you’re also interested, I made a playlist specific to this story over at 8tracks you can listen to here. If this story gives you a desire for more old west horror, there’s a bonus story for Deadlands up for Halloween that you can read here.
Sunset bled the sky red as the riders returned to their camp. It’d been a long day for the Kingston boys, who’d been seeing to a settlement a few miles down the plain. The summer heat had turned the grass an ugly brown that crunched beneath their feet, and some of the boys hauled up water barrels to let the horses drink. There were twenty in all in company, a small number for the amount of towns they had to see to. Dominic Kingston was trying to incorporate, a big word for most of the men here, but they were not paid for their intelligence.
Beer was brought out, and a fire was started in the center of the camp. They were surrounded on all sides by the quickly pulled together caravans. Food was supplied from the stores at Kingston’s current encampment, and last month they’d been brought a little extra to share with the struggling townsteads, since the nasty drought had laid out most of their crops. The private army had kept it for themselves. That was the point of their job, wasn’t it? Pave the way. Push a few people around. Let them know what happens when they say no.
Out here it was mostly flat and grassland, with the few bursts of scraggly trees. With nothing to look at, the men had drunk themselves deep. The sun disappeared without a sound, leaving only a canvas of stars. The land around them rose enough, and directly to their east was a collection of stones that pushed up through the earth, allowing a little cover. There’d been fighting with the natives in the north, and fighting for the republic down south, and it was making everyone nervous. It was probably why one of the younger boys pointed up the hillside, over which the moon was rising.
“There’s a rider,” he said.
Abram was the leader of their little pack. He stood up, rifle in hand, only a little woozy from the beer. On the shelf nature had created, there was in fact a rider, hard to see from this point. He didn’t look Indian. Abram could make out the shape of the heavy coat despite the heat, and the wide brimmed hat hiding the rider’s face. It stood, watching them, the horse moving slightly as though nervous. He waved over a few of the boys.
“Could be nothing,” he said. “We’ll go up, real casual like, tell him to shove off, yeah?”
The other men agreed, and five of them walked away from the safety and warmth of the camp, each holding a gun, and one or two holding a bottle of whiskey. The light of the fire cooled away as they crunched across the dead grass. As they came to the hillside, the figure had disappeared. Abram held out a had.
“Should we keep going?” one of the boys asked.
He considered. On one hand, he was tired and wanted to be drunker than this, and the night had turned a lot colder since seeing that shadow on the hill. On the other hand, if anything happened and he went to Dominic Kingston with his hands turned up and his shoulders shrugged, he may as well tie the noose himself.
“We’ll just look around,” he said nervously. “Like I said, it’s nothing.”
The hill turned out steeper to climb than expected. Rocks stuck out of the ground like stepping stones, poorly placed and sharp, and Abram found when his shin skinned against one. He cursed and spat and was ready to tell the boys to turn around when they all heard the telltale sound of a gun being moved into firing position.
“Evening boys!” a voice called up above them.
Abram blinked as he looked up. There were two figures now, much easier to see as the moon spread its light across the plain. The figure that spoke was a woman, her red hair tied messily back and tucked beneath a hat, her small face and sharp nose looking far too young to be holding a shotgun. She sat aside a grey mare, one arm holding the shotgun, the other the saddle. What drew his eyes, though, was the person just behind her. His black coat and black pants made him a shadow in the moonlight, a hat pulled down over his face with long dirty black hair that fell over his shoulders made it hard to see his face. Abram felt two black eyes, shining like an animal’s in the moonlight, staring straight at him. Underneath him was a black horse that looked as though it could charge at any second.
“Now don’t move,” the woman said, gesturing at the man who’d reached for his pistol. “You can’t draw any faster than I can shoot, and all I’ve got is a few questions for y’all. You work for Dominic Kingston.”
Abram realized all the men’s eyes had drawn to him. He stood a little straighter, clearing his throat, but he couldn’t take his gaze away from the stranger on the black horse.
“No supposing here,” he said. It wasn’t a secret after all. He’d wanted them to wear uniforms, but the men had refused. “You’re looking to stage a complaint, I take it.”
She grinned in a nasty way. “You’ve been looking after those settlements. What did Kingston tell you to do if they said no to his offer? The one where he tells them they can join up under his protection?”
“We take care of it, don’t we?”
Her eyes narrowed in on him, a hazy blue that held little kindness. “Tell me what you always do.”
“To hell with this,” one of the men said behind Abram, and he raised his gun.
Abram had braced himself for the sound of the shotgun going off and was surprised when, instead, the figure in black leapt forward. There was a sound like silk, and then the man shouted as he fell backward. At once the other men turned their guns to the man in black, and when his face came up to snarl at them, it was like a wolf’s, covered in bright red blood. A bevy of bullets shot off, and Abram was close enough to see the bullets strike his skin and clothes, but the man in black only stood, grinning widely with a maw of sharp teeth. The bullets stopped in a sudden fearful moment, and he moved too fast to see. One hand scratched a man, spraying blood against the rock, and his other hand gripped the throat a man who’d pulled his pistol up to the stranger’s head. The shot didn’t even phase him as the man in black dug his teeth into his neck, tearing away skin and muscle and spitting it onto the ground. The last man was grabbed by the throat as well and squeezed until blood burst out. He dropped silent to the stone floor.
Abram had been frozen the whole time. His four compatriots all lay on he ground, their death rattles gurgling out of their open wounds. the man in black stood directly behind him, and Abram held his breath as the woman shifted, resting her shotgun on her arm so that it was pointed directly at him.
“He’d tell you to burn the towns,” she said in a voice so low he almost didn’t hear. “You’d take the women for yourselves, however long you needed them, and then you’d kill them too. You’d let their children die, deaf to their screams.”
“Put the rifle on the ground,” the man in black said, his voice raspy and low like a man starved for water.
Slowly, Abram did what he said. This woman was looking for justice, and his mind flashed to every town hall on fire, every crop burned, every woman grabbed by the hair and dragged out kicking and screaming. He looked back up at her, eyes narrowing. He could almost remember a farm, and a young girl with red hair.
She stared him down. “Dominic Kingston has been building himself a palace for the past year, and I’d like to burn it to the ground, but not without him in it. When will he be there next?”
He held up his hands. “I don’t know. He don’t tell us those things.”
Her eyes moved to the figure behind him, who gave an imperceptible nod.
“Where is he now, then?” she asked. “I’ll settle for killing him there.”
“I don’t know.”
She looked again at her partner and sighed. “If you’re only going to tell us lies, there’s no reason to keep you around.”
The shotgun went off. Abram hit the dirt.
Grisham wiped the blood splatter from his jacket and gave the body a kick.
“Waste of blood,” he muttered.
“There’s fifteen more men down there,” Esther said. She hopped down to collect their guns. “You’ll have your fill.”
She glanced away as he grinned. His tongue was black and the inside of his mouth smelled rotted, but his teeth were a shining pearly white.
“We’ll collect the food when we’re done,” she said as she loaded everything onto her horse. “Take it to town before we move on.”
“Waste of time,” he said.
“You don’t have to help.”
He returned to his horse. It had a wild look in its eyes as it tried to pull away from him, but he only patted its neck and was able to climb up. Sometimes that scared Esther more than his teeth, the way animals feared him but did what he said anyway. It reminded her too much of the man she wanted to kill.
“Alright,” she said, climbing back onto her own horse. “Make sure to leave one alive. We do need to know where he’s at.”
They rode towards camp.
There was a house on the horizon, small and undistinguished. The prairie stretched out around it, small hills to the east, and crops growing tall out of the ground to the west behind it. The large stalks had turned brown and dry. It hadn’t rained in so long. The ground was hard cracked dirt, and the grass was tinder, which was why when the fire started it took everything so fast. Esther stood outside her home, feet like stone, barely able to breathe because of the smoke and fear. She could see her sister’s face pressed against the window, screaming and slamming her palms to break the glass. She could see her parents huddled inside, holding her baby brother between them. She could see the men who surrounded the building like a ring of toy soldiers. The sky turned red with fire, and that’s when Esther started to scream.
She woke screaming, and a hand against her shoulder. Grisham stood over her, and in the dark evening, he was a shadow against the sky. She gasped in a breath of air, the phantom smoke still in her lungs, and rolled over, pushing him away. Another day had already passed, and the moon was on its climb over the flat landscape. She shook away her nightmare and wiped her face. She felt Grisham looking at her in his animal way. The small, lean face was starved to the bone, hat pulled down to create a shadow across his eyes. He didn’t move quite like a man, crouched like that. He didn’t ask about her dreams, but he didn’t need to.
“How’re you feeling?” she called over her shoulder as she stood slowly, pulling the canteen from her pack. The water splashed over her hands and she wiped them across her face. “It’s been a while since you’ve had a decent meal.”
He let out a low grunt. His sleeping conditions were a lot less cozy than hers, and the thick tarp he wrapped himself in to keep the sun out was undone on the ground. He always had the same grimace on his face, but this evening he seemed in thought. She could guess why.
“Dominic Kingston is already on the move,” she said, standing over him. She was slight for seventeen, red hair pulled into two thick braids. A wide hat covered her freckled face,and the clothes were mostly stolen, fitting her thin frame poorly. “He’ll be at his manor in three days.”
“Not enough time to ride,” Grisham said.
“So we let him get comfy.”
His eyes flickered up to her. “More than twenty men there.”
That gave her some pause. He was amassing an army, and had been calling his vie for land a consolidation. Dominic Kingston had terrorized the small territory for years now. They were too far from any state for law enforcement to try to stop him. The small communities had heard of houses going up in flames, children being dragged out of their homes, and crops destroyed in an attempt to pull them all under his form of protection. The men had started wearing uniforms with Dominic Kingston’s name written across them.
“They’re calling it the governor’s mansion,” she said. “He’s building himself a state.”
“He wants to wear a crown.” Grisham’s horse took a startled step back as he walked towards, but he only took the reins delicately in his hands, and it moved no further.
“I’d rather him wear a noose.” She picked up her shotgun. “It’ll take more than three days to ride to him.”
“And then you’ll kill him,” he said.
She looked at him. The first time she’d met Grisham, she’d broken into Dominic Kingston’s last encampment, where he’d built underground tunnels. In a dark room covered in filth and grime, she’d seen him sitting there, his body limp and held down by silver chains around his neck and arms. It’d taken an axe to break the chains, and he’d crawled toward her. Burns still marked his neck and wrists, bright red on his grey skin. He’d shown his true nature to her when a private soldier had pointed a gun at her during their escape. She was never sure if it was gratitude that kept Grisham at her side, or a shared desire for revenge, or merely the river of red she’d left in her wake. He only looked at her with eyes that made her skin itch.
“He’s ours to share,” she said.
He grinned with all his teeth. A long row of fangs looked at her. “I’ll have my fill.”
They rode until the sunrise threatened the sky. Grisham was the first to stop and dismount. She’d asked him the first time he scrambled beneath the dark rocks as the sun rose into the sky what would happen if he was caught in its rays, and he’d murmured of pain and burning. It’d only then dawned on her that he was not so much a man as some kind of devil. She’d grown used to riding by night and found it easier to her purposes. She considered strapping Grisham to his horse and continuing to ride as the sky turned gold, but her bones ached, and exhaustion pulled her down. A town was not far away, and she could see an inn from where they settled, but she couldn’t drag Grisham up without question, and questions would only get her killed at this point.
She hadn’t gotten a true night’s sleep in a year. Every time she closed her eyes, Esther saw the farmhouse, her parents, her siblings, the men, the fire. Dominic Kingston had been there that day, giving a dour look over the work as though it were an inconvenience. He’d come to her father a month before, and she remembered listening with her sister Mary as he evangelized to them in the kitchen. He was a tall man, a swath of blond hair greying at the temples. His suit was well fitted, his hands soft, his nails clean. They’d been enamored with him at first, this rich gentleman who took an interest in the family, but when he came back a few weeks later with thugs and rifles, they’d become afraid. Dominic Kingston did not take no for an answer.
She’d attacked him that night, as her family burned. He’d been standing there, bored disinterest on his clean face, and she’d run at him, swearing and spitting. She’d dug her nails into his face, and the men had grabbed her, lifting her off the ground. He gave her a look like a man would a fly, and she’d never felt so much hatred in that moment. Her dreams were filled with ghosts, her breath filled with fire, and yet when she thought about killing him, her hands shook. She’d killed a hundred men just by pointing Grisham at them, but this is where, just for a moment, she hesitated.
Esther woke again from her dreams, suddenly, like a drowning man gasping for air. Grisham was already up, stalking their small encampment like a cage wolf. Her eyes swam as she watched him reach for the horse, and she rose slowly.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“Men on the horizon,” he growled. “Kingston.”
She grappled for her gun. “Which way are they riding?”
She was on her feet, staring down across the plain. A company of maybe fifteen men rode by like shadow puppets. The moon had stolen the light from the sky, and the town was a distant lantern in the cooling night.
“Don’t,” she said, grabbing his arm, and then stepped back when he looked at her. “We can follow them.”
His lip pulled back into an ugly sneer, but he let go of the horse. “What then?”
She threw her things onto her horse. “We follow at a distance. They’ll take us straight to the manor.”
The plain offered little cover, but the night was dark, and the men were riding fast. Grisham seemed angry at being denied a slaughter, but Esther felt a queasiness in her stomach. They were so close. In a few more days they’d be at Dominic Kingston’s manor, and she would tear apart his doors and let him know the fear he’d inflicted on every town he burned. The only thing she’d wanted for a year was to see his blood in the dirt.
The men rode for hours, until sunrise threatened the pair. Esther pointed to a town ahead of them, where they’d no doubt stop, and she and Grisham took shelter from the sun. She lay down in the dirt, eyes on the town ahead, and sleep did not come. It wasn’t the ghosts that haunted her. Her heart pounded in her chest like a rabbit’s, and her mind raced. They were so close, and it scared her. Dominic Kingston had brought her nothing but misery in her life, and he spread it across the territory like a plague. but here she was, a frightened girl, suddenly unsure.
She did sleep, eventually, in fits. By the next night, the men had started their ride again, and they followed. It was several days, stopping and starting, following the crew until they came to a number of caravans and, in the distance, a large manor with a wooden wall constructed around it. The crew and the caravans entered into the wall, and Esther and Grisham found a covered area far enough to not be seen but close enough to spy.
Mansion was not quite the word for what they saw. A large white house did gleam in the center of it, but a number of buildings had been constructed around it, clearly meant to house arms and supplies and men. Barracks was more the word that came to mind. They spent the rest of the night watching armed men go in and out, lanterns burning on every edge of the wall, men with rifles standing outside, looking mostly bored. Late enough, the movement stopped, and sleepy guards were the only thing left.
“We’ve no idea how many people,” she said.
Grisham was crouched at the edge of their encampment, animal eyes watching every movement like a cat watches a gnat. “Heartbeats,” he said. “Too many.”
She sat beside him. Her poor sleep was getting worse, and her fingers twitched in anticipation. “He’s inside.”
He gave a nod.
“Tomorrow we’ll kill him,” she said. Her voice shook, and why? She’d said it a thousand times, but now he was right in front of her.
Grisham looked at her. “And then?”
“When the man is dead, what will you do?”
She turned to him. There was an expression on his face she’d never seen on him before. “It won’t matter. He’ll be dead.”
He gave an unsatisfied grunt.
“Well we’ll go somewhere,” she said. “Maybe go west. Somewhere far away. What did you want to do?”
“No life for me,” he said. “Not for monsters, anyway.”
“There are places we can go. There’s a lot of territory between here and civilization. Even murderers get their piece of land.”
He gave a dry laugh. “Men who walk in daylight. Men who eat and drink. And I am worse than a murderer.”
“Far as I’m concerned, so long as you keep your meals to men like that, you’re doing this world a service.”
His eyes remained on her. “What kind of man do you think I was?”
She shrugged. “You said you didn’t remember.”
“I remember enough. It’s not kind men that become devils.”
“Well, why can’t they?” She gestured to him. “You don’t bleed, you don’t die. Why do evil men get to live forever, and the innocent are put in the ground?”
“You would want your sister to live this life?”
“If she got to live? Yes!” She rose to her feet. “You have no idea–no idea–what it feels like to miss them like this. If my sister, or my mother, or even my brother had remained as–as–as this, I would feed them my own blood to keep them alive. I would murder a thousand more men to keep them fat and happy. And I would still track down Dominic Kingston, and I’d let them feed from his neck directly.”
His dark eyes followed her. Her chest rose and fell, and she swallowed thickly, returning to her supplies.
“It doesn’t matter what happens after this,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where we go or what we do. All I want in this world is to decorate Dominic Kingston’s walls with the inside of his skull, and anything that happens after that is up to fate.”
She curled up in her sleeping roll, burying her face. Sleep didn’t come easily, and in her dreams, her family waited.
At night there were a few guards posted. News of the slaughtered troops had reached here, but everyone said it had to be a wild animal. What else could tear apart men like that? The guard on the east wall wasn’t worried. There were any number of Dominic Kingston’s soldiers behind this wall, and no wolf or bear would bother with the manor. He tried to hold in a yawn and failed. The moon had already started its descent behind the hills, and the night was always dull. He slumped against the wall, propping his rifle up beside him. He must’ve dozed, because when he opened his eyes again, the moon was further on, and someone was standing in front of him. He jumped, grabbing his rifle, but it was only a girl, young with large eyes.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “We’ve been traveling a long way, and we’re all out of food. Surely you have some to spare.”
He eyed her. “Go away, kid. There’s a town a few days down the road.”
“At least some water,” she insisted. “For the horses.”
He looked around. “Who else–”
He didn’t finish his sentence. Grisham descended on him like a shadow. Blood splattered against the wall, and when he pulled his fanged mouth away, he held up the key. Gently they pushed open the gate and looked around. At least four other men were sitting out in the large courtyard in front, lanterns around them as they enjoyed a late night meal. Behind them was a small shack that no doubt held equipment for the men. The mansion spread out in front of them, white stone and tall windows, the Grecian columns attempting towards class and moving towards garish. Some shrubs had been planted in the front and were already wilting in the summer heat. Huge curtains covered the windows, and there were a few lights on inside, but they couldn’t see how many people. More men on the other side of the wall, but no one had heard their compatriot’s death.
There was a small shed close by, and they entered it. Inside were rifles and ammunition, along with bayonets and a handful of crossbows. She reached for one but noticed Grisham inspecting the floor. There was a cellar door there, and when they pulled it up, grey stone stairs descended into darkness. Grisham closed his eyes as he listened.
“No one,” he murmured.
“Fantastic.” She readied her pistol anyway. “Let’s go.”
The tunnel was almost exactly like the one she’d found in his last compound. Grey stone walls grew skinny as they walked through, not meant for more than two people to pass at a time. It opened up as they came to another long hallway that branched out. Grisham stood still a moment, raising a hand.
“What is it?” she whispered.
Someone screamed somewhere within the tunnels, what sounded like a woman. Esther froze. What else would she have found there, she wondered, if she hadn’t been so distracted by Grisham’s state? What other monsters did Dominic Kingston bury beneath him? A door slamming stirred her from her horror, and there was a blue uniformed guard standing in front of them. He let out a shout, fumbling with his lantern so he could reach for his rifle. Esther reacted fastest, the pistol going off in her hand. The man staggered back, and then he fell to his knees.
Another door slammed somewhere. Boots moving on the stone floor. Rifles being raised.
“You said there wasn’t anyone there,” she hissed.
“Heartbeats everywhere. The tunnel was clear.”
She hesitated, looking down the hallway the man had come from. More doors like the one that had held Grisham. More people? More monsters? He grabbed her arm, claws digging into her skin, as more soldiers hurried down the hall. Grisham was already moving.
The hall had bottlenecked the arriving soldiers. The first two shot at Grisham, and the bullets harmlessly bounced away. His hands were at their necks before they could get off a second shot, and in a panic the men behind them raised their guns as well. They only succeeded in hitting those in front of them, and Grisham let them drop as he tore into the neck of the man on the right. Esther raised her gun and got a shot off, the spread hitting both of the men still standing. The one closest did not get up again, but the one behind his friends still held his rifle and raised it. The shot went wide, and in a moment Grisham was on him as well. The gun fell to the floor.
“That’s enough to wake the whole mansion,” Esther said. “Come on.”
They hurried through the halls until they found another set of stairs. Above they heard more people running. Esther clutched her shotgun close, and Grisham went first. The stair came to a small closet sized room, with only a door between them and a quickly gathering army.
“Stay low,” he said.
She nodded as she ducked her head back down. He kicked the door open, and a barrage of bullets exploded out of the wall. At least ten men were on the other side, firing wildly at the figure in black that waited in the shadows. Half the bullets decimated the wood wall, pinging off the stone floors, and Esther squeezed her eyes shut as she felt every shot hit the ground around her. Grisham took the rest of the artillery, shredding the long black jacket he wore. The men fired as many shots as they had, and then there were empty clicks as they desperately hoped for one more bullet. Grisham grinned with all his teeth, and then the only thing Esther heard were screams, grunts, and groans, and then several thuds as the men hit the floor.
She staggered out of hiding. The dusty black of Grisham’s coat was now a dirty shade of red, and he licked the blood from his hand as she joined him. The entire courtyard lit up, and behind them she heard more men. They’d likely grabbed the rifles from the wall and were flanking them with the men out front. She returned to her pistol, eying the lamps that were gently burning above them. Her bullet burst one, spilling oil and fire down the wall, and the second shot doubled that. The front door burst open, and there were twelve men, each with guns. On the stairs above them were six, looking down with concern. Esther didn’t wait. She trained her arm on the first man she saw, standing on the landing above them, and the bullet only hit his shoulder. She let off a second shot that hit his hand, causing him to drop his rifle. With her last shot, his neck burst out in blood and bone, and he slumped back.
Grisham had set his sights on the twelve men that’d burst in. Several had noticed the growing fire, but they were all far more concerned with the man in black grinning with a row of fangs. There was a volley of bullets, and then a medley of screams. Esther ignored them as she raced up the stairs, ducking down as she heard their guns fire in her direction. Another lamp was hit, making the fire closer to an inferno. The heat of it was so close, and she scrambled closer. There was no time to reload the pistol. She tossed it at one of the man and used the momentary distraction to raise her shotgun. The shot felled the man closest to her, but the others were staggering up. A bullet tore through her shoulder, and she gasped, staggering forward, but didn’t stop moving. She was within feet now, and she grabbed the rifle out of the hand of one, bringing her knee up and managing to hoist him over edge of the railing. She turned his rifle on the others, shooting one at point blank in the head, and the other in the belly. Another shot hit the railing beside her, and she raised her shotgun one last time, felling the rest.
She jumped at the sound of the gun going off right behind her, but it hit nowhere near her. She saw Grisham below, face now completely red, stagger. With horror, she watched as he turned, pressing a hand against the hole that appeared in his arm. Blood oozed out of it. His eyes went up to the man who’d fired the gun, who had now turned his attention to Esther. She saw in the chamber of his gun a bullet of shining silver. Her eyes focused on the motion behind her, of the three men who pushed a gentleman with cornflower hair into an office with a door of bright blue. Dominic Kingston was here. He was right behind her. Four men stood in her way.
Her arm went out before she realized what she was doing. She punched the man with silver bullets and raised a foot, kicking him down the steps. Grisham moved towards her, but a man grabbed him with a length of silver chain. He screamed, the flesh around his neck sizzling and pouring thick, viscous blood. He snarled and grappled for the man who’d grabbed him. Esther grabbed a rifle, and she was pulled back. A large man stood over her, hand reaching for her neck. Her hands fumbled, and instead she found purchase on her knife. She rose up with all the fury she had and stabbed it into his eyes, sending him reeling back, screaming.
She stood there, listening to Grisham’s animal like snarls, eyes on the door she’d seen Dominic Kingston go through. More men were running up outside. The fire was growing more and more out of control. She picked her gun up off the ground and fired off at the man who had Grisham by the neck. The first two shots hit the soldiers behind him, but the third landed in his skull. Grisham turned like a caged wolf and dug his black nails into the man’s neck, tearing his head away. He roared as he attacked the rest, but Esther leaned over the railing, shouting down, “He’s here!”
He withdrew from the battle and moved quickly up the stairs. She fired off at the men who followed, threw down her gun, and picked up the pistol full of silver bullets. Grisham was at her side, and blood still came from his wounds, smelling rancid and sour. He placed a hand on the wall to steady himself, leaving a bloody streak as he turned to face her.
“Dominic Kingston is behind this door,” she said, pointing to the door.
“Then step back,” he growled.
The door burst off its hinges, leaving splinters and torn corners hanging there. Dominic Kingston stood behind an oak desk, hurriedly raising a pistol. The first shot missed and hit the frame. The second he didn’t get a chance to make. Grisham was already on top of him, knocking the pistol from his hand, and grabbing his neck.
“I’d wondered where you’d gone,” Dominic Kingston gasped as he was lifted off his feet. “Never too far from home.”
“Don’t kill him yet,” Esther said. How many more men were coming? She could feel the heat of the fire behind her, and she hoped that was enough of a distraction.
Grisham let him back down on the floor, but his clawed hand remained wrapped around his collar, his teeth bared. Dominic Kingston didn’t seem bothered. He wasn’t that old, Esther realized, maybe thirty. He hadn’t been in bed, not unless he slept in a fine suit. The study was small and filled with items. Bookshelves lined the walls full of leatherbound items, and a flag was tacked to the wall behind the desk, blue with gold letters detailing DK. His face was pale, and his nails were clean. The only mar on him was the blood Grisham had left around his neck.
“I wasn’t sure if I believed it,” Dominic Kingston continued as though having a pleasant conversation. “I thought it more likely a small militia was tearing through my forces. But my men were reporting a man in black and a young female companion. I guessed it might be you. I’m sorry, dear. We haven’t been introduced.”
She raised the pistol she’d stolen, four silver bullets still gleaming in the chamber. “My name is Esther Cobb. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“You mean, besides built a new nation?” He raised a hand to the flag. “The fighting in Texas has taught us one thing, and it’s that any man can declare a republic, free of the nation that claimed him. All one needs is a fighting force.”
She pulled back the hammer on the gun. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?”
“I thought you might mean something more personal. Sorry, Miss Cobb, I can’t say I recall your specific complaint.”
“There was a farm,” she said, “thirty miles south of here. My father lived there, and my mother, and my sister, and my brother, who was just a baby. You and your men came trying to get us to sell the land. My father refused.”
“Let me guess.” He sighed. “My men burned the farmhouse to the ground.”
“With my family inside! Trapped! Afraid!”
“I think I do remember now,” he said. “The little farmhouse wasn’t much, but it certainly convinced everyone who heard about it to sell quickly unless they also wanted to see their families die. Are you the one who broke in and stole my prize possession?”
“It has been a very long night,” Grisham growled.
“Yes, it was a shame losing this one. I had such plans for you. Now, I imagine the both of you are wanting to kill me.”
Esther’s hands shook, but she said, “There’s no other way this ends.”
He smiled at her. “I’m afraid, my dear, there is. The only reason you’ve made it this far is because of this monster helping you. It’s alright to admit it. The only reason I’ve made it this far is the large stacks of money I’m able to pay those men you’ve killed with. We all have to admit when we’ve been given help. The problem is, while you were staying with us, I had my men attempt to learn everything about your nature they possibly could.”
Grisham tightened his grip. “I remember.”
“Good, then you already know the effect silver has on you. I notice from the bullet holes dripping on my carpet that you still aren’t guaranteed a death from it.”
His arm came down to Grisham’s chest, making a fist, and there was the small sound of a gun going off. Grisham staggered back, and Esther saw one of the rings Dominic Kingston wore was smoking. The small frame of it contained a single shot, and he removed it quickly, looking at his palm.
“Unless of course you’re shot in the heart.” Dominic Kingston examined the finger and then the tiny gun. “Wasn’t sure if that would work, honestly. I started carrying that the minute you escaped. I don’t make enemies of a monster without a few precautions.”
Esther dropped to her knees, holding her palm over Grisham’s bleeding chest. He gasped desperately, fingers curling and uncurling. The blood bubbled up, thick and rotted. She turned back to Dominic Kingston.
“I don’t like doing these things myself,” he said, retrieving the pistol Grisham had knocked from his hands. “It’s why I pay all those people. But I’ve got a schedule to keep, and by the sounds of it outside, you’re absolutely ruining my mansion.”
She was shaking to her core, gun raised. He gave her a look.
“Miss Cobb,” he said, walking towards her. “You made your bed with this monster. He’s dead, I’m afraid, has been for a long time, and without him you’re not much more than a small girl. What have you got left?
“My family died,” she said slowly, “trapped in a burning building while I watched. You won’t get your republic, Dominic Kingston, and no one will mourn you when you’re gone.”
“It’s a sentiment to be sure.” He raised his own pistol. “But if you were going to shoot me, I imagine I’d be dead by now.”
Her hand shook, but she looked at Grisham growing still on the floor. Her first shot went to his knee, and he cried out as he fell to the floor. She fired again at his hand, and he dropped the gun. The third shot hit his gut, and she kicked him onto his back, leveling the final shot at his head.
“You don’t deserve a quick death,” she said. “I want you to suffer. I want you to feel what I felt.”
Fire crackled behind her, smoke pouring out from the hallway. Blood poured from Grisham’s chest to the floor.
“I’ll settle for this.” She pulled the trigger, and Dominic Kingston fell to the floor.
The gun fell from her hand, and she staggered back. Grisham was still dying, and she put her hands on his face. Blood poured out of his mouth as she helped him onto his feet, resting the most of his weight on her shoulders. The fire had made the front hall stairs impassable. Black smoke and blood splatter covered everything. Outside, she could see men bringing buckets of water, rescuing equipment, riding horses away. Chaos had broken out over the estate. Together they staggered down the hall of the mansion until they found a servant’s staircase. They ran as quickly as they could, and behind them, the mansion burned.
They went a long way from the manor, but the fire blazed brightly as the night started to fade. The sun threatened the horizon, and Esther laid Grisham down.
“I can take the bullet out,” she said uncertainly. “Maybe–”
“No,” he rasped. His eyes looked up at the stars, which had started to fade.
“You can’t face the sun,” she said.
“This is no life.” He closed his eyes. Blood covered the whole of him. How many men had he killed tonight? Dominic Kingston’s forces would scatter, and with no one paying them, his empire would fall apart.
“But–” A heavy lump appeared in her throat. “I’ve lost everything. My family, my home, and now I don’t have anything at all. Dominic Kingston is dead. You’re the only thing I have left.”
“I lied some,” he said. “I don’t remember my name, but I remember other things. I knew what it was like to be a man. I forgot, but with you…”
“What do I do without you?”
“Be a person again.” His hand reached up, touching her cheek. It was the most human he’d ever been.
The first rays of light peered over the hill. The sky bruised purple. Tears fell down Esther’s face.
“What’ll happen to you?”
“I don’t know,” he said and smiled.
She gasped as the sun hit him. He was starker in the light of day, grey and black, like an ink drawing more than a man. He let out one more gasp, and then he was silent and still. The edges of him crumbled away, and when she reached out one last time, he fell apart completely, nothing more than a pile of ash.
She lay there for a long time, mourning the closest thing she had to a friend, and then stood slowly. It felt like years since she had seen the landscape in daylight or enjoyed the blue of the sky. She sucked in a breath and started to walk. The sun rose behind her, and her ghosts began to fade.