Halloween is two days away, and today is Part 6 of a short story from my compendium "The Illusion Exotic". I'll run an installment each day leading up to Halloween. If you missed Part 1, you can catch up here.
THE CAVE, Part 6
A former Civil War soldier embarks on a quest on behalf of his former commander. He expects to find outlaws and gunslingers in the high deserts of New Mexico, but instead stumbles upon death incarnate.
"The Cave", & "The Illusion Exotic, "Copyright 2016 Brian L. Braden
Formed by successive floods, heaps of gray scrub oak and rotting pinion formed a wall guarding the cave’s mouth like ragged teeth. Death lurked in there, every bit as grim as Amado and Townsend described.
Josefita’s words came back to him...you will need more than fire and steel.
Knight cocked the Colt’s hammer.
Fire and steel will have to do.
He stepped gingerly over the woodpile looking for the telltale sign where men had repeatedly transversed the heap. Knight quickly found a path of flattened sticks and followed it.
Immediately after clearing the woodpile, Knight spotted the first bones. Covered with tattered flesh, they formed a scattered trail stretching into the dark recesses. Then the hot, putrid reek of rotting flesh assaulted him, along with the deafening buzz of a million flies.
Knight pulled a flask of rye from his coat and took a long pull. He poured some over his bandana and tied it over his face. Returning the flask in his pocket, he knelt down examined the cave floor.
Once again, the tracks told the story. Knight slipped deeper into the cave until the sloping roof forced him to stoop. That’s where he found the pile, exactly as Amado and Townsend described it.
Clouds of black flies ebbed so thick they partially obscured the flesh mound. Arms, legs and bloodstained indian garb poked out from sheets of squirming maggots. Fighting an overpowering urge to vomit, his nostrils rebelled against an unholy stench the bandana did little to curb.
Knight wasn’t familiar with the local savages, but he felt confident these weren’t white men. The corpses weren’t piled as much as stuffed into the back of the cave, new corpses tossed atop the old ones instead of spreading the pile out in the ample cave.
The pile looks compressed. It’s been arranged.
Beyond the scene’s sheer horror, that fact puzzled him.
Knight glanced back at the bright entrance. The bone trail leading to the cave’s mouth obviously came from the older bodies near the bottom.
Four men have been here.
Amado’s, Townsend’s, and perhaps Wellsby’s tracks were several weeks old and easy to spot: straight in, straight out and close to one another like frightened creatures. The fourth set of boot tracks cut fresh and deep and bold across the cave floor, proclaiming the predator’s lair.
The only scavenger tracks were those of the freshly killed coyote, and its tracks only meekly penetrated beyond the woodpile.
It snatched the first scrap it found and high tailed out.
Every critter for miles around should have been in here, feasting and dragging the carcasses up and down the riverbed. The only buzzards he saw were freshly arrived and circling over the dead coyote outside. From First Manassas to Gettysburg, Knight had witnessed fields of blood and carnage. Nature wasted no time feeding on war’s grim bounty, but here only flies reported for duty. The evil that repelled the scavengers began to seep into his bones. As bad as he wanted to run, grim duty kept his boots planted in the cave.
If the bone trail leads from the center of the pile, it means someone needed to make room.
Knight returned to the woodpile, thankful for the fresh air. He removed his drover coat and pulled a pair of leather gloves from its inner pocket. He laid the coat over the pile, rolled up his sleeves, and donned the gloves. That’s when a thought occurred to him.
He looked back at the cave floor, and blew out a long breath of air between his teeth. There weren’t any signs of bodies being dragged, either inside or outside the cave.
That’s why the killer’s tracks are so deep. He carried them, perhaps for miles.
Returning to the corpses, Knight pulled on a rotted leg protruding midway down the pile. At first it didn’t budge, but his efforts released a fresh wave of foulness along with a cloud of flies. Knight coughed and fought for breath as he pulled again. The body slid out with a wet sucking sound.
On a hundred battlefields Knight had never seen a corpse like this. The indian, perhaps in his late teens, had been here over a week, but wasn’t as stiff and bloated as would be expected. All the dead grow pale, but even a red savage wouldn’t be this eerily white, even after a week. Then he saw how the indian died.
The man’s blood had been drained through a long gash ripped into his neck. Knight looked around, but there was no evidence of mass bloodletting anywhere in the cave.
He wasn’t killed here.
He pulled another corpse from the pile, this time an older man. He died the same way. Another older, badly decomposed body told the same story. He examined their necks more closely, trying to deduce the weapon that inflicted the killing wounds.
“Knight, you alright in there?” came Townsend’s voice from beyond the cave.
“I’m alright,” he yelled back. “But I reckon you won’t be if you don’t high-tail it back to that‘X’.”
“I ain’t moved, Mr. Knight.” Townsend responded a moment later in a fainter, more distant voice.
Knight leaned closer over the dead. No other wounds were apparent, only the gashes which delivered the killing stroke.
Too jagged for a knife...maybe a saw?
He peered closer at the necrotizing flesh, occasionally flicking away a maggot. Knight couldn’t believe what his eyes told him, but the dead don’t lie.
Chew marks. Bites.
As a deputy in Kansas City, he once investigated a prostitute’s murder. Something about these bodies reminded him of that brutal violation.
He examined the rest of the three corpses and discovered bruises around their wrists. Someone very powerful pinned them down, ripped open their necks and drained every ounce of blood from their dying bodies. They didn’t struggle much, and that he didn’t understand. They all looked to have been strong bucks.
Shaking, Knight stood and took several deep breaths. He placed his hand on the holstered Colt until the trembling ceased.
Looking back at the cave entrance, the light slowly dimmed as the day wore on.
The tracks in and around the cave gave Knight confidence Townsend wasn’t responsible for this atrocity. The evil here wasn’t indian handiwork, either. Even the monstrous Comanche had never done anything like this before. Knight battled the urge to bolt, but an unseen force held him. He glanced back at the pile and saw black fabric poking from beneath an indian leg.
Knight shoved the leg aside and discovered a hand and arm wearing a white man’s coat. Knight grabbed the sleeve and tugged at the body buried deep inside the pile. Initially, it wouldn’t budge. Knight dug in his heels and turned his head against the hellish fume rising from the heart of the pile. The body broke free as corpses tumbled right and left, leaving a stinking valley in the death mound.
Knight gasped for air and took a long pull from his flask before examining the new corpse, two holstered pistols strapped to its hips.
He’d never met the man, but felt sure it was him. A tin star topped Wellsby’s black overcoat, his white shirt now stained with rot from his new companions.
Wellsby died differently from the rest. His mustachioed face was purple and bloated, his body stiff with rigor mortis. Bruises encircled the lawman’s throat, but the neck wasn’t ripped open.
Someone snapped Wellsby’s neck with bare hands before the sheriff could even draw, carried the big man here, and then stuffed him deep inside the pile like a rag doll.
Probably a hard man, Knight knew someone like Wellsby didn’t have his neck snapped easily. Still leaning down, Knight caught a faint scent hiding beneath the blanket of rot and decay.
A familiar scent.
Knight pulled down the whisky soaked bandana, closed his eyes, and whiffed the air. At first, the putrid rot overwhelmed his senses, but then he caught it again. Wincing, he filled his lungs again and again, leaning over the pile like a chef taking in the aroma of the day’s soup.
Whisky. This wasn’t the hard-edged old rye soaking his bandana, but a sweeter, more refined aroma of Kentucky sour-mash.
(to be continued tomorrow)
I hope you enjoyed this installment of THE CAVE. It will continue tomorrow on The Illusion Exotic and conclude on Halloween! Can't wait to find out what happens? You can get The Illusion Exotic here, featuring The Cave and other short stories.
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