January 2008 Volume Two Issue One
Ten Days With the Devil - Eric Hermanson
They let all of the townsfolk come by the jail to look at him; to leer, spit, curse, or even pray for him, although there wasn't much of the latter. Clay Ballow was one of those unredeemable men even God probably gave up on at some point during his appalling and gruesome rampage.
"Varmints like him are no longer considered for forgiveness," I heard the Preacher tell Sheriff Trisby shortly after Clay was caught and thrown into the cell right next to mine. They found him hiding out at Graham Dunson's farm about a mile outside of town.
The Sheriff caught Clay in the middle of some bloody debauchery in Dunson's barn, wearing a slaughtered goat's head like a mask while sitting in a circle of blood. Deputy
Hank said Clay lunged at them with a hunting knife and that's when the Sheriff hit him in the head with a piece of lumber.
A short, wiry fellow, Ballow was dragged in by Sheriff Trisby and Hank unconscious, with dried blood matted to his grainy brown hair. The Preacher came in on Trisby's request to bless the jail cell and call on God for help in holding Ballow until the hanging. After five grisly murders and an uncanny skill at avoiding capture, Trisby wasn't going to take any chances now that he finally had the 'Devil of Dell Springs' behind bars. He even enlisted Bobby and Billy Boeringer to help out as interim deputies in order to keep an armed lawman on guard at all times.
I knew the Boeringer boys since my pa and their pa were friends from the early days of Dell Springs, and I knew they both had dreams of being lawmen ever since we was knee-high and played with our wooden guns behind Jackson's stables and livery. The Boeringer boys would always be the good guys, the ones who got to wear the fake tin star. I was always the outlaw. Or Indian. Or Mexican. Even if I won a few of our childish games, I was still the loser, because bad guys just don't get to win.
Now here we were thirteen years later with me on the wrong side of the law once again and Bobby and Billy on the other. Only this time the bars, charges, and guns were real, as real as the gun I used to shoot that drunk miner with.
"Who's that?" A pretty little girl pointing at me asked her pa as they peered through the barred window from the town street. It was a late October afternoon, the sun dipping low as the last bright beams drew across the floor.
"Him?" The man said, looking at me, "I don't know honey. Just some poor miscreant, I reckon."
Bobby Boeringer looked up from his desk with a smile aimed at me. He was almost laughing, although trying to keep a straight face.
"Is he friends with the Devil Man?" The little girl asked, looking again with innocent curiosity at Clay Ballow, who sat in the middle of the floor of his cell cross-legged and eyes closed, the same position he'd stay in for many hours at a time.
"No honey, the Devil Man has no friends," the father told her, "cept for the Devil himself."
"Why does he sit like that daddy?"
"I don't reckon I know, darlin'. Hey Bobby! Bobby why's that fella a sittin' like that?"
Bobby made a face as annoyance replaced his amusement. "It's some kind of ritual he's doing, Earl. And I'd appreciate it if you called me Deputy Boeringer, or just plain Deputy."
The man named Earl rolled his eyes, set his daughter down from holding her up to the window. He took one last uncertain glance at Clay Ballow and left. No other face popped up in the window, and Bobby stretched and stood, happy to see a break in Dell Spring's biggest attraction.
"That makes everyone in this town and all the neighboring counties who've seen ol' Clay sittin' in here at least once," he said.
"Sheriff should charge a fee," I suggested.
"Damn straight, Curtis."
"That way at least some money could be made off 'im. Considering all the misery he been puttin' folks through 'til he got caught."
"You been here with him this last week, Curtis," Bobby asked me, stepping closer to the bars. "He say or do anything strange in all that time?"
Bobby shook his head. "Crazy scoundrel, I got half a mind to throw that pot o'hot coffee on 'im. See if that might loosen his tongue!"
Clay Ballow remained motionless. Sheriff Trisby and Deputy Hank had to dress him in a blue shirt and denim pants after they hauled him in because his own clothes were stained with blood. He was barefoot when he came in, and remained so in his cell. Two plates of untouched food were still on the floor, last night's supper and this morning's breakfast, attracting the attention of several flies.
"Hank says he ain't eaten nothin' since his third day in," Bobby said.
"Maybe he'll starve to death b'fore you get a chance to hang 'im."
"He'd like that, wouldn't he?" Bobby said, stepping away from me and closer to Clay's cell. Both Clay and I were in our own eight by eight foot cells, with bars split down the middle. A lot of folks coming by to see Clay would ask me if I hated being so close to such a horrible varmint, and whether or not I feared him. I always said no, Clay was just a troubled man and I paid no mind to all that superstitious talk. Deep down I was a bit uneasy at first, seeing as how I heard the Preacher and Sheriff talking about him and describing his crimes, but Clay spent those first six days either asleep or sitting in some kind of trance. It was almost as if Clay wasn't even there at all.
"He ain't in his right mind, is all." I told Bobby. "Yet he seems to sense Death knockin' at his door, knows he'll be swingin' soon, and he ain't gonna fight it."
Bobby leaned in even closer, watching Clay's closed eyes like one would watch a coiled snake. In a careful voice, he asked, "you believe any of them stories, Curtis? I mean the ones about the black dog with the glowing eyes spotted in these parts shortly b'fore ol' Clay here went bad?"
"I didn't see no black dog," I said, "but then again I was drinkin' too much in them weeks leading up to all this. Stu Shenk said he saw the mongrel amblin' 'round Clay's place the night b'fore Clay killed his wife an' mother-in-law. Now Stu Shenk is one of the most honorable men in Dell Springs, so if he said he saw that big black dog I believe him, but whether or not the dog was the devil and ol' Clay's been consortin' with him I ain't too sure. What about you, Bobby?"
He moved away from the front of Clay's cell and sidled up close to me. He kept his eyes on Clay as he whispered, "I dunno, Curtis. But weird things have been happenin' since Stu an' them others started talkin' 'bout black dogs and Clay began his bloody killin' spree."
Bobby made a queasy face, spitting a glob of chew towards Clay. I watched it splat on the hardwood a few inches from Clay's left foot. "Killed three women an' two men without firing a gun. Used knives, razors, and in poor Mr. Dunson's case, an axe. And Curtis, that ain't nothin' compared to what he did to the livestock. If he ain't consortin' with the devil, than he's doing a damned fine job upstagin' him."
Bobby sighed, casting another weary sideways glance at Clay before adding, "Billy believes it all. Says he's been havin' nightmares. A lotta folks been havin' nightmares."
There was nothing I could say to that. After the first night they brought in Clay I had a bad dream of my own, but it was more strange than scary. What's funny is I seemed to have forgotten all about it until Bobby said something. Fleeting images of it popped up in the back of my mind. I don't remember much, other than I dreamt I was here in my cell and Clay was standing near the bars looking at me with a wicked grin. I remember looking at his feet and noticing they were not human feet. What they were exactly, I'm not sure. You know how dreams can get.
"I just wondered since you've been around him the most, is all." Bobby continued, then he went back to sit at the desk as a couple of grimy faced miners poked their heads in the window to look at Clay. The second one also spit a glob of chew in Clay's direction, hitting him on the side of his ear, adding a dark blotch to the dried blood from the head wound the Sheriff gave him. Clay's face never moved nor did his closed eyes even flutter. When he sat like that, it was hard to tell if the man was even breathing.
Fire and brimstone talk aside, I just wanted to do my time. I regret shooting that miner from Jerome, even though he was drunk and started the fight, pulled for his gun first. I shot him in the leg on purpose, which the judge said was the only good judgement I showed. My fine was ten dollars or ten days in jail and since I only had about six dollars in my town bank account and needed to sober up, I gladly took the ten days.
It was later that night on my seventh day, long after Billy replaced Bobby on watch that I began to second guess the decision.
A storm ambled in from nowhere and settle over the hillside and valley, smothering Dell Springs in a turbulent fog. After sundown the folks stopped coming by the jail, and Bobby served supper before leaving us to Billy. Billy Boeringer was two years younger than Bobby. He was skinnier than Bobby, shorter than Bobby, and overall not quite as sharp as Bobby. More prone to nerves, Billy paced the floor of the jailhouse while keeping one eye on Clay Ballow and the other on his brother as Bobby unlocked my cell door and handed me my plate.
Bobby unlocked Clay's cell, watching the quiet man who was still sitting cross-legged in the middle of the cell, although now his eyes were open, and none of us was really sure when exactly they had opened. Either way, Clay's dark brown eyes weren't looking at any particular thing, just kind of staring at a space in the air a few feet in front of him.
Bobby slid the plate of meat and potato stew towards Clay, then quickly closed and locked the cage door.
"That son of bitch still ain't eatin'?" Billy asked, his voice a little shaky.
"Nope." Bobby said. "That's the first I seen his eyes open all day, too. If he wants to kill 'imself the Sheriff said so be it. We ain't about to force-feed the bastard. Take that plate out if it starts gatherin' ants. Hank'll be in at dawn so try an' be awake when he shows up, alright Billy?"
Billy flushed. "I told you I was restin' my eyes the other day is all, and now I'll never hear the end of it!"
Bobby laughed and left the jailhouse. A cold breeze sneaked in behind him before the door could close, mixing in with the cooler air coming in from the windows.
"Gettin' a tad chilly, tonight," Billy remarked as he sat down behind the desk and took a sip of his coffee. "Reckon winter's comin' early this year."
Maybe Billy was right. Or maybe something else was at work. The temperature dropped dramatically that night, enough to where Billy had to light the wood furnace and give me a second blanket. Each night since Clay arrived they kept all the lamps in the jailhouse burning as ordered by the Sheriff so it was as bright as day in the cells.
Clay remained as rigid as ever. A couple hours after supper he rose from his spot on the floor. I would never have known if I hadn't heard Billy's startled gasp. I looked over and saw Clay standing, his head bowed as if looking at his bare toes. Slowly, he lifted his head and looked around the jailhouse, then he turned and walked two steps towards his bunk and sat down on the edge. His head and eyes remained straight, fixed on the main door.
I turned back at Billy, who's nerves had been riled once again by Clay's silent movement, making him bolt into a stiff, upright position in his chair. I wished Bobby or Hank would do the nightshifts, because Billy's apprehension was beginning to make even me nervous. I didn't like the way he watched Clay with wide-eyed fear. I thought my ten days would go a long way in bettering up my health, being sober for that much time and all, but right then I wanted a stiff drink more than ever.
"Hey Clay!" Billy suddenly blurted, his voice cutting through the night silence, making me flinch. When Clay made no sign of acknowledgement, Billy slid his chair back violently and jumped to his feet.
"Clay! Hey, I'm talkin' to you!"
Maybe the cold, the silence, the superstitious talk, or all of those things combined was making Billy frantic, but I could tell he was tired of being confused, just like I was tired of being sober. He wanted some answers. He wanted to hear them from Clay's mouth.
Boots scuffing the floorboards, Billy carefully walked up to Clay's cell. He stood a couple feet away from the bars, blocking Clay's view of the main door, but Clay's eyes never shifted. Sitting up in my bed, I noticed Clay's face had changed. His mouth was now open, and the faint crinkle of a smile seemed to have formed on the corners of his lips. It wasn't a happy smile. It wasn't even a fool's smile. It was more like a serpent's smile.
"Clay?!" Billy fidgeted, waved his arms. "Clay, you either answer me, show me some sign you're hearin' me, or so help me I'll whoop your ass where you sit!" Billy stomped over to the desk and pulled the ring of keys from the wall, then walked back to Clay's cell with them held high to show he wasn't bluffing. Fully awake now, I swung my legs over the side of my bed and sat upright.
Billy's face was part pink with anger and part white with fright. I didn't like where this was going. As a shiver galloped down my spine I had a troubling thought; maybe Clay Ballow was playing Billy all this time. Maybe it was part of some sinister plan to rile the excitable boy up into unlocking his cell.
Billy fingered the key ring in his left hand, glancing down to pick the right one. His right hand went to the butt of his holstered Colt, gripping it hard enough to turn his knuckles pale.
The whole time Clay never moved a muscle, just kept staring towards Billy with that crooked smile.
"I ain't bluffin'" Billy said. "An' I ain't a'scared of you."
He lowered the key down to the keyhole. I could hear the other keys on the ring jingling from Billy's trembling hand. Billy looked down as he inched the key a hair's distance from the hole.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Clay move. It was very slight, but it seemed to me he leaned forward, his arms and hands resting on the bed at his sides no longer appeared to be full of slack.
He whirled at the sound of the Sheriff's voice. Trisby's meaty face was looking in from the street window, his red cheeks and push-broom mustache touching the bars. Trisby's eyes bulged with bloodshot anger, and his face dropped away as he went around to the front. Diana, the Sheriff's wife, peeked in the window after him, her sparkling eyes wide with curiosity.
I let out the air I'd been holding, and relaxed a bit back on my bed.
The Sheriff came in just as Billy was shambling back to put the keys away. Diana followed him, wearing a lovely blue dress.
"What in Sam Hell you doin' boy?" Trisby demanded, looking at Billy, then Clay, a quick glance at me, and then back at Billy again.
"I was, uh...Clay was actin' strange and I uh...I...I'm sorry Sheriff."
Trisby scowled at Billy, then took a long look at Clay, who was still sitting on his bed, although much less taunt then a moment before, and his crooked smile not quite as prominent. Diana came to the Sheriff's side.
"Evenin' Mrs. Trisby," Billy said with embarrassment as he tipped his hat and avoided her pretty blue eyes. Diana Trisby was an attractive woman, a bit on the big side in both height and girth, but blonde and pretty nonetheless. Her perfume filled the jailhouse with a pleasant scent, and as she looked at me I smiled.
"Hiya Diana," I said, able to use her first name on account I was friends with her family when we went to the schoolhouse and used to dip her younger sister's pigtails in the inkwell.
"Hello Curtis," she said. The Sheriff wasn't in the mood to exchange greetings.
"Me an' the missus was comin' back from a nice meal at the Bull and Bear and I had a hunch to check up on things," Trisby growled at Billy, backing him up against the desk, "an' come to find you about to unlock that bastard's cell!"
"I'm sorry, sir, he was, well, he was makin' me mad, playin' his silent games like he does, I wouldn'ta roughed him up too bad but..."
"But nothing! I can't go home an' sleep if I'm worried about that sonofabitch playin' mind tricks on you, Billy. That's it! Give me the key to his cell, I'm taking it with me."
"But what if there's a fire?" Diana Trisby asked.
As the Sheriff turned to answer, a sudden, dry laugh came out of Clay Ballow's mouth. It wasn't a hearty laugh, more like a pervasive chuckle.
All of us instantly stopped what we were doing. The Sheriff stopped waving his finger at Billy, Billy stopped cringing away from the Sheriff, and I stopped undressing the Sheriff's wife with my eyes.
The smile was back on Clay's sallow face, but this time there was intelligent lucidity in his expression. An odd moment of time elapsed before the Sheriff shook off the shock.
"If there's a fire?" He asked, changing the tone of his voice towards his wife but not the volume. "If there's a fire than Billy'll let Curtis out, but as for you," the Sheriff said, leering at Clay, "you can get that head start to Hell you been achin' for!"
Clay said nothing, but the smile grew slightly. I noticed Clay was only looking at Diana Trisby, looking right into her eyes, and she was caught looking into his, as if in a hypnotic stare. The Sheriff noticed this too, and he quickly turned her away from the cells.
"Don't give that varmint the satisfaction, Diana." He warned her. Then back to Billy, "snow's fallin' out there tonight, Billy. If you want to be a deputy for Dell Springs you better show me some responsibility, y'hear? Don't let that cunning bastard get to you."
As he pulled Diana away she kept glancing back at Clay, who seemed to have captured her attention. Billy wished them a goodnight as she stole one last look over her shoulder on the way out.
"Snow in October," Billy said as he shut the door after looking out at the small wisps of white flakes coming down. "Can't remember it ever snowin' this early, can you Curtis?"
"Can't say I do," I said.
Most folks don't think of snow when they think of Arizona, but it happens in high elevations like Dell Springs and Flagstaff. It seemed this year the snow was coming a good two months early. Maybe it had something to do with the chills I'd been feeling after all, and not Clay Ballow.
It took a long while for me to get to sleep that night. I kept hearing sounds, kept wanting to attribute them to Clay, but every time I looked over he wasn't doing anything. He sat on the middle edge of his bed, staring out his cell, first at Billy, then later on when I heard him move I looked to see him lying down, his head cocked towards the open street window. Eventually, I must have nodded off.
The next morning was day eight and there was a lot of commotion coming from the street. It started as early as dawn, when I was wakened by excited shouting. More voices added to the din as the morning light grew. It disturbed Billy enough to cause him to open the door and holler out to a passerby, then he ran out of the jailhouse altogether. I looked over at Clay, but he was still lying on his bed, eyes closed.
"Jesus," a man said outside the street window, "they go right up to the jailhouse window!"
"Would you look at that!" Another man gasped. "Billy, hey Billy, there's more over here!"
I heard Billy's voice then, once again full of nerves, "someone go get Sheriff Trisby! And get Preacher Hartsock out here too!"
I quickly slipped my clothes over my overalls and tried to crane my neck as best I could to see outside the window, but it was closer to Clay's cell than mine and all I could make out was the white covered rooftops and snowy hills beyond them. An hour later, the people out in the street tripled in number. Trisby burst in looking like he saw a ghost and wasn't even upset that Billy left us alone. Preacher Hartsock was with him. They glanced around at the walls, then at the motionless Clay, then ran back outside. It wasn't until Bobby came in a while later that I found out what happened.
Apparently during the night or early morning, something had visited Dell Springs. I say something because it left tracks in the fresh snow, but these were no ordinary footprints. In fact, they were cloven, as if made by an animal with hooves. The part I found hardest to swallow was that Bobby said these tracks went up walls and on top of roofs, and whatever made them walked on two legs.
"That don't make no sense," I told Bobby. "Ain't no such thing as a hoofed animal that walks two legged."
Bobby swallowed and jutted his chin at Clay. Both of us looked at the motionless man on his bed and then back at each other.
"The Devil has cloven feet," Bobby whispered. "And all them prints are exactly the same size, and the same length apart, and they walk right up walls, Curtis! Dan Fletcher just found some more down by the river, leadin' to the water's edge an startin' up again at the same spot on the other side!"
"I don't believe it," I said.
Bobby looked at Clay one more time, then hurried over to the front wall and grabbed the wrist shackles off the hook and tossed them to me.
"Put those on an' I'll take you out there an' show you," he said. We won't have to go far. Whatever made them seemed awfully interested in this here jail."
It was my first time outside the jailhouse since going in, and the morning air kissed my face like a loving woman. The snow was beautiful, and people were everywhere, most of them looking at the ground and scratching their heads. Bobby lead me around the building to the window near Clay's cell.
The good feelings vanished when I saw the odd tracks. They were cloven alright, and made from a biped. What really got to me was they came from the outskirts of town, walking in a straight line between the shops in the middle of the street, not stopping until they reached the window. After that they showed up on top of the jailhouse in a zigzag formation, as if whatever made them walked right up the wall and paced back and forth on the roof, then down the other side, circling the jail a couple of times.
The prints then led all throughout town, some of them stopping in front of stores or the doorsteps of homes. The prints circled the church, Bobby told me, and were all over the graveyard.
Once back in my cell, Bobby left me alone with Clay as the Mayor called an emergency town meeting. Folks were riled and scared, and I couldn't blame them. I saw the prints with my own eyes. I don't know exactly what was said at that meeting, but when it was over Deputy Hank assembled a posse loaded with guns and dogs to follow the tracks and try and find their owner. Bobby, The Sheriff, and Preacher Hartsock came in after that with an angry mob shouting behind them.
Bobby set down the plywood, hammer, and nails he carried in and locked the main door once the three men were inside.
"Crowd's gettin' a bit ornery, Sheriff." Bobby said, sooner or later they'll be aimin' to lynch Clay."
"I got the Judge workin' on gettin' his hangin' date bumped up to Saturday," Trisby said. He was looking at Clay along with the Preacher. Clay had risen when they walked in, and now stared back at them, standing in the middle of his cell.
"Better go an' board that window up, Bobby."
As Bobby got to work nailing up the boards, the Preacher said, "this kind of thing has happened b'fore, o'er in England in '55. It remains a mystery to this day."
"Look Preacher," Trisby said in a rare, reasoning voice, "you an' I know who made them tracks. Folks are leavin' Dell Springs in droves who've lived her all their lives, others are afraid to leave their homes. Do whatever you must."
For the rest of the morning I watched and listened to Preacher Hartsock quote Bible passages, and direct prayers at Clay. The posse turned up nothing but more tracks, some of which ended in the middle of fields, as if the owner simply vanished. Trisby spent the better part of the afternoon calming folks down and keeping those away who wanted to lynch Clay, who resumed his cross-legged sitting position in the middle of his cell. He showed no emotion at the Preacher's words, although a strong stench like burnt flesh began to emanate from him or his cell, a smell so unbearable it drove us all to the point of gagging.
The Preacher was sweating by the time he finished. Sheriff Trisby looked exhausted, and Bobby was sent home to rest. By day's end, the judge rescheduled Clay's public hanging to the day I was to be released, less than forty-eight hours away. The town grew quiet at sundown, and Trisby made sure Bobby was on the nightshift from now on, terminating Billy's interim deputy status. Billy didn't even protest. He complained he was hearing voices in his head when he was around Clay. Guess he had one too many nightmares and seeing those tracks sent him over the edge.
That night, with the weak-willed Billy gone, the nightmares came to focus on me.
I was asleep in my bunk, but then awake. It felt too real to be a dream. My five senses were as sharp as they were while awake. I could smell the coffee Bobby had on the stove, could feel the crisp night air. I heard Bobby's light snoring as even he couldn't keep from falling asleep at his desk in the middle of a game of solitaire.
But it had to be a dream, because when I woke up Clay Ballow was inside my cell.
He stood over me, as if watching me sleep. My cell door was closed, as was his. The bars separating the cells weren't bent or broken. Yet there he was, grinning at me with unholy eyes.
"What do you want?" I asked him aloud, hoping to wake Bobby, but Bobby continued to snooze through it.
Clay's smile widened, showing his yellow teeth. His teeth were sharper than normal, as if filed downed to points.
"I want many things," he said, although it wasn't exactly Clay's voice that spoke. "Things you can't even imagine, Curtis."
I started to get up, but Clay held up his hand and something pressed down on my chest with the weight of a giant, fallen tree. Beginning to panic, I looked over at Bobby.
"He can't help you," Clay said. "I have him under a spell." His nostrils expanded as he inhaled. "Your fear smells sweet, but it sours your blood."
"You...you're not Clay, are you?"
The smile grew even wider, cracking and splitting the skin as it stretched across the lower half of Clay's face. I felt a terrible coldness coming from him, and the darkness behind his eyes rippled.
"Clay is barely here anymore. He comes and goes, but I have taken over his mind and body since he surrendered his soul to me."
I shivered uncontrollably. The Devil behind Clay's flesh seemed to enjoy it, inhaling and exhaling with menacing pleasure.
"The Sheriff more or less took care of poor Clay," the Devil said. As he spoke he slowly changed. Looking less and less like Clay and more like a creature. Horns appeared above the forehead. Bare feet became dark hooves. "Clay performed the ritual to give himself up to me before the Sheriff struck him," he said, tapping a clawed finger on Clay's head wound. As I looked at it, pieces of hair and rotted flesh dropped to the floor with every tap of that hideous finger.
"You ever been hit in the head by a large piece of wood, Curtis?"
"It's no picnic. I like to think of it as a pop-squish. First, you hear a sudden POP! Then, you hear and feel a SQUISH. The POP is your skull the instant it's crushed. The SQUISH is the sensation of your brains oozing through the cracks."
I swallowed, still unable to move with the invisible weight on my chest and legs.
"Would you like to know how you're going to die, Curtis? Or perhaps when?"
I just stared at him in dismay. It was all I could do.
"Or better yet, maybe you'd like to know where you're headed after you die? Want to get out of here? Want riches? Fame? A pretty whore and a nice steak dinner every night? Just name it, Curtis, and I will give it to you."
"Leave me alone," I pleaded, sounding like a meek child. Then, with a bit of courage, I said, "you are a liar. Oh Lord, please help me."
The Devil in Clay's skin leaned back and laughed long and hard, the most abysmal, inhuman sound I've ever heard, making urine exit my body without my control.
"Don't bother with that 'get behind me, Satan' rubbish, Curtis. We both know you're no man of faith. I can kill you right now, you and Bobby both. Not even the strongest minds can resist me for very long. This Earth belongs to me. We will see each other again, long after Clay's dead body is cut down and burned. I am everywhere I want to be."
"Except with God," I said, and to this day, I don't know why or how I thought to say it, but it seemed to wipe the grin off Clay's face, twisting it into pure anger. He lunged at me and wrapped his claws around my throat, instantly cutting off my air. I blacked out from the pain.
When I woke, my bed was wet and my hands grabbed at my neck, rubbing at the soreness. I bolted upright, then screamed when I saw Clay. He was back to his normal, half-dead appearance and in his own cell, but he was staring at me with a look of pure hate as both hands gripped the bars. Bobby jolted awake when I hollered, almost dropping the shotgun from his lap.
I told Bobby I had a nightmare, and he was kind enough not to make fun of my wet crotch. My neck had red marks and bruises on it, marks that would remain for several days like a reminder that it was much more than a dream.
"I just had a strange dream myself," Bobby said. "I was in this dark place an' couldn't find my way out."
The sky outside was turning purple as the morning light grew, and I refused to go back to sleep. Clay continued to stare at me from the bars, so I turned my back to him. I dropped to my knees as the morning slowly came, praying for forgiveness for my sins and protection from evil. A while later I turned and was relieved to see Clay sitting in the middle of his cell, no longer facing me.
That ninth day and the following night was the longest in my life. Some nagging presence clawed at my mind, stalking my subconscious like a determined bounty hunter. I refused to go to sleep during those last twelve hours. Bobby obliged by playing cards with me and giving me as much coffee as I wanted. It was hard, but I just couldn't let myself go to sleep, not with Clay only a few feet away. Bobby and I helped keep each other awake and in a way, rekindled our old childhood friendship.
Something came around the jailhouse that final night. It sounded like a large animal, scratching at the door like a hungry stray. We both heard it sniffing and snorting at the boarded up window. It even climbed up on the roof and scampered about, as if desperately trying to get in. Clay's body was in short supply of any energy by this point, but his eyes opened and he stood up when the sounds first started.
Whatever it was, I begged Bobby not to open the door to investigate, even though he had that twelve gauge with him.
"Don't do it Bobby," I told him as he poised himself at the door, listening to it snarl and scrape.
He turned to look at me and must have seen something in my eyes, must have had the same thoughts creep into his head. We were both tired and at the end of our wits from the last ten days. After starting past midnight, the thing finally gave up around 2:00 am.
"What do you think it was?" Bobby asked once it was gone.
I looked over at Clay, who was lying on the dirty floor of his cell, his body spent. "I don't even want to imagine," I said. "Hopefully just a bear. Either way, I'm sure glad you was here tonight an' not Billy."
Bobby made a face. "Billy ain't doin' good, Curtis. I'm worried 'bout 'im. So's ma and pa. He's been bedridden since yesterday. Doc says he's got hysteria 'cause now he's seein' things as well as hearin' things that ain't there."
Remembering what the Devil said in my dream about weak minds and all, I wanted to tell him maybe the things poor Billy was seeing and hearing really are there, but I didn't want to upset Bobby anymore than he was.
I was never happier to see the morning light. The Sheriff let me go when he arrived, and I thanked him when he handed me my gun-belt and hat.
"You ain't gonna miss the hangin' are ya?" He asked on my way out.
"Reckon I might," I told him with a weary smile. "Once I lay down in my own bed."
Outside, the sun stung my eyes, but it was a good kind of pain. The kind that makes you glad you're alive. It only snowed that one night those tracks appeared and now the ground was back to hard-packed dirt and mud from the thaw. I traced the jailhouse before going home. Sure enough, I saw some prints in the soft mud by the south end of the building. They were from a dog, but twice as big as the largest known dog in Dell Springs.
I went home to my loft above the Noble Elk and took a long bath, smoked my pipe, and drank the remaining half of the bottle of rotgut I had on my nightstand. I fell asleep in my bed and slept long and hard, but most of all, dreamless.
It was late in the afternoon when I was awakened by gunshots. It sounded like the Calvary was charging, but when I looked out my window overlooking the center of town I realized it was just all the men whooping and celebrating as the plank had dropped under Clay Ballow and his ragged self hung from the gallows, twitching a few seconds after his neck snapped. Bobby later told me they had to drag the barely conscious Clay all the way from the jailhouse while a few brave folks threw rocks at him.
The next day I withdrew my savings out of the bank, packed up all my belongings, and left Dell Springs. Call it a hunch, but I wasn't too sure the Devil was through with the town just because he was done with Clay Ballow. I moved to Wickenburg and took a job on a ranch punching cattle. It only took a couple months before I got word from Bobby Boeringer by telegram that my hunch had been correct. Soon after, all the local papers were running the stories about the fall of Dell Springs.
Sheriff Trisby was killed in his sleep by his wife Diana when she crushed his skull with a rolling pin. Diana was not arrested because the doctors said she did it while sleepwalking and has no memory of the event.
Billy Boeringer, Bobby's troubled little brother, didn't get off so easy. According to Bobby's letter, Billy went crazy after the whole Clay Ballow thing, and no sooner than a few days after I left started killing cattle and livestock and wearing their skins, much like Clay did. One night, Billy crept into Preacher Hartsock's house and shot him to death, and then wrote blasphemous words on the walls in the Preacher's blood, even identified himself as the killer. In his letter Bobby wrote how hard it was to have to now go out and track down Billy and bring him in, the last thing I ever heard from Bobby.
The papers have many sensational stories after this, but all agreed it was Billy who killed Bobby when Bobby went to arrest him. Billy then single-handedly burnt the entire town of Dell Springs to the ground, to which some folks say needed to be done anyway, because it would always be cursed. The papers claimed Billy died in the fire, although his body has never been found.
I'm thinking of moving again. Wickenburg is just not far enough from the smoking ruins of Dell Springs. Maybe I'll go West to California, but I'm not sure.
I'm starting to see Billy in my dreams now. Sometimes I see him when I'm wide awake, alone in the pasture, riding my roan. He'll step out of the surrounding woods wearing goat's legs and smile that serpent's grin at me and then he's gone.
Of course, the real reason I'm ready to hop the next train out of state is the last letter I received post-marked out of Prescott, only a few days ride from here. Unsigned, it had my name on the envelope and no return address, only this handwritten message:
Hello Curtis,Ever been hit upside the head with a large piece of wood?
- END -