way out west

You grow up in Adam County and sooner or later you hear some chaw-sucking old-timer spinning about “them hellbound critchers up on the ridge.” That kind of talk bores into the skulls of some your softer types, like Kenny. As for me, superstition was the least of my worries. The horses got splints half way up. I would have shot both of them and had us go the rest of the way on foot had I not been afraid of the noise disclosing our location. Not to mention we had to save our bullets. Not to mention there was always the chance we could use one of beasts for meat if we needed.

And then there was the salient fact that we were tired. There’s a kind of tired that gets into the center of your bones and fists up till your muscles just stop moving, and your mind starts telling you things you can’t bear to hear: like you need to drop and sleep—now—even though a posse of ten or twelve men not more than a mile behind you would like nothing better than to string you up and watch you kick, because you left the deputy sheriff gasping in a pool of it. One day, I thought, one sweet day Kenny and I would get a chance to argue about which one of us actually shot the man. All I know’s there was suddenly shouting, and Kenny took a dame by the hair, and a child screamed—I can’t shoot children—but there was a crowd of men and I blasted into that crowd. And then a holy blaze of gunfire and screaming that sounded like all twelve angels had come down to show us a new destruction of Jericho. Kenny let go of the dame and we blasted, and good men fell, and there were sprays of blood and someone shouted that the deputy was down. And that’s when we took off with about a pound of gold each.

We dropped in a cave in the rocks on the ridge. There was a pool of still water about ten feet across. Don’t know if you ever smelled a cave with such a pool. It’s a cold smell, and harder than pine, but it practically begs you to close your eyes and breathe deep until you go unconscious. It was quiet as tombs up there too, which was advantageous. We’d gotten a good mile jump on the posse, and in the dead quiet we’d hear their approach for sure.

“We gotta move, Hathorne,” Kenny said suddenly.

I leaned up on my knees. “And just where you reckon we gotta move to?”

“Anywhere but here. Sun’s going down.”

“You don’t say.”

“I reckon you ain’t afeared o’ no critchers?”

“Mountain lions?”

“Spider folk,” he said weakly.

I don’t think he saw my grin. I closed my eyes and leaned back. “Never hearda them.”

“Didn’t no one ever tell you about the nekkid lady who floats?”

“Do tell.”

He licked his lips, and he kinda shivered and looked around. “Well, it goes that there was this Shawnee girl, went by the name of…” He stopped and licked his lips again. “Chikcheeree.”

“That don’t sound like no Shawnee name.”

“Shet up and let me tell it. It’s an old name. They don’t use it no more. Chikcheeree, she fell in love with a brave, see? But he was already betrothed to another. So she prayed to the gods and they turned the other girl into a spider and sent her up here into the rocks to live out her years. Now because them gods did as Chikcheeree asked, they demanded a sacrifice from her. But Chikcheeree refused, because she figgered the gods musta sent that other squaw to torment her in the first place. Well, the gods ain’t too crazy when us humans demonstrate our prideful nature and lack of humility in any fashion. So you know what they did?”

“I’m itchin’ like a weasel in the hay to hear the rest of this.”

“Well then, they went and turned the lover into a spider too, see, and sent him into the rocks to live with the other girl. When Chikcheeree found this out, she wept and wept, and they say that’s how the creek in the valley was formed, and that’s why they call it Weeping Creek, you hear?”

“Fascinating,” I said.

“Well, damn it, it is fascinating. Well, day came when Chikcheeree had enough weeping, and that’s when she went up into the rocks to kill the lovers. She searched high and low, searched every damned cave up in this here ridge and couldn’t find them. She searched until she dropped and drowned in one of the cave pools. But because of her prideful and jealous nature, the gods doomed her spirit to haunt these pools. They say on the full moon she rises out of the water and floats there, nekkid as ol’ Eve. And that’s when the spider folk, the descendants of those two cursed lovers, they come out of the rocks and git you, cuz you’re too busy looking at the nekkid girl in the water you don’t see ‘em comin’. The spider folk drink your blood and steal your bones away to build their temple. And they leave your skin on the cave floor to rot.”

“And this is what you’re afeared of?”

“Listen, stories develop for a reason. Even old wives’ tales got reasons behind them.”

I stood up and stretched. “This all makes for good campfire talk, but it don’t seem plausible. No girl can cry that many tears. And besides, tears are salty and that there crick is freshwater. And it just don’t make any sense anyway. Turning folks into spiders.”

“Spider folk. Not regular spiders.”

“And I’m telling you it ain’t plausible. Like Navajos dancing to make rain. Ain’t no god or gods up there watching over us, let alone watching us dance. It just ain’t plausible.”

“You go on talking like that,” he said, turning his head toward the pool like he was avoiding my breath. “Just go on, and you’ll see what happens to you.”

“Listen,” I said, and I wasn’t feeling even a ghost of my patience anymore. “I once seen a family of cougars tear apart a pack of coyote pups, all except the runt. And you know why? Because the runt was all white, and his brothers and sisters weren’t, and so he was able to hide in the snow. And I got to thinking that it could just as well start a family and have pups like itself, all good at hiding and surviving in the snow. Now if that pup can do it, then it don’t matter if any other creature is born with two heads or five legs or what have you. If two heads suits it, it’ll survive to breed. I reckon there’s some pretty strange things out there, but ain’t nothing magical about any of them. So you keep a-wardin’ off spider folk and other goblins. You know what I’m worried about? I’m worried that there’s someone in that posse that thinks the same way I do and ain’t afeared to come on up in the dead of night, track us to this very cave, and blow us to hell in our sleep. I’m afeared they’ll have kids that’ll grow up and think like they do, ‘cause I intend on outliving them no matter what. Get it?”

“I git it.”

“Now, way I see it, if there’s a chance of even one of them coming up here after nightfall, it’s good sense for us to sleep in shifts. We ain’t outta this yet.”

“Ok,” he said, “but I still reckon your ideas are a tad wanting.”

I walked up and hovered over him. “Listen to me, you crawlin’ mouse, I ain’t a-takin’ any sleep if I know you’re keeping lookout for some nekkid Shawnee girl instead of real threats to our safety. I swear on my life I’ll blacken your whole face afore the night’s done if you give me reason. Goddamn you, boy, look at you. Not twenty-three years on this earth and already y’like an old, fartin’ granpappy tellin’ tall tales for to keep his boney jaw from a-flappin’ all by itself. Now buck up afore I whup your chin with the grip of my knife.”

Without another word between us, I settled down. It was still early June, not yet time enough for the day haze to gather up and choke off the chill of night. Moonlight the color of lightning splashed all around us, and splashed across the water, and its reflection was a fat, dull jewel right in the center of the pool.

I wrapped myself in a skin and sat down with my back against the wall, and everything in me just let go to the fast-falling night and the sweet smell of the rocks. The last thing I saw afore my lids closed was Kenny all wrapped up in a mangy skin, chuffing hot breath into his hands.

When I opened my eyes, the moon was brighter than ever, and there was something that wasn’t quite right about the air. I don’t know what, but something unwholesome had crept through our little camp while I slept, and it left behind a wake fulla dread. How can I describe it other than that it was thick and warm, and that it wormed through the chill night air, and that it was vaguely like gun oil. Then I saw Kenny a-sleepin’ like a little baby doll on the other side of the pool. I damned him once, and all the blood in me boiled up to my eyes, and I was just about ready to leap across’n’ thrash him awake with my belt, when the dull jewel in the center of the pool dissolved like a mist, and something rose to the surface.

Nekkid and a-spreadeagle she was, her arms resting behind her head. I musta made a sound, I don’t know, but I know I wanted Kenny to wake up, cuz I tore my eyes away from the girl and looked over at him.

But what was once Kenny was now nothing but an empty burlap sack of a man, one that resembled my friend some far-off way. He looked like a dried-up dog that lay in the sun for weeks on end. The vision brought a kinda crazy laugh into my head, a cacklin’ old witch of a laugh that had gotten trapped beneath my scalp and wanted out. I turned my gaze back at the girl in the water, and a gust of a breath came out of my lungs that almost burst my throat. She had no face. And all her body underneath it, all that nekkid reddish brown flesh, it was all a blank stamp, with a dark patch between the legs that was just that and nothing more, and nothing revealed there except for more shadow, like who or whatever made her didn’t know what a real human woman was supposed to look like and was working offa some picture in a medical man’s notebook. Her flesh rippled and puffed, like’n she used her whole body to breathe.

That’s when the smell in that cave suddenly became something that called to me. It was old, and warm, and it made me want to be there inside it. It filled my head with the lightest, sweetest air I’d ever known. And it was the deepest hunger and the rawest lust whatever roared inside a man when she floated over to me, and floated up over the water, her legs above me. Then she came down a bit, hovering there, and that patchy shadow between her legs settled before my eyes.

That’s when she blotted out a patch of moonlight. And that’s when I saw what was around her.

No mistakin’ the haloed form of a giant spider.

But what should have been a discernible critter’s body was nothing but a mass of jellied glass. The only thing that had any visible substance were the guts. I shudder when I think of the forces that forged this thing over the ages, how over tens of thousands, maybe millions of years, a slow and silent hand sculpted those innards to resemble a nekkid woman. But the thing that haunts me to this day was the fact that she smelled so nice. That frightened me even more than the sound she made in the hollows of that ridge: a clicking of the fangs, and then a spurt of venom that went sizzling toward the ground: chk-cheee-reeee…

I screamed then, I think, I must have, because the thing reared its hindquarters and the faceless girl sat up.

All I know’s I had one option, the one that got me here in the first place: I drew my piece and emptied it into the face of that monster. It spurted blood and venom in a hateful hiss.

I didn’t kill it, but I wounded it pretty bad. I seized the opportunity to escape.

I saw torches speckling the landscape like some herd of vengeful ghosts marauding through the night. There was folks in that posse did think like me after all.

“I know I take my chances coming up here.”

I swung around and pointed my piece toward the voice. The holy man stopped where he was and reached for his Heaven. His black vestments were dappled with dried mud and bits of bramble weed, like’n he’d taken a tumble or two on the way up. He had that soft, pink look that all Reverends have. Even where his scalp was exposed was unweathered.

“Any man who fires on women and children probably has no compunction in regards to firing on a Reverend,” he said.

I didn’t answer this accusation.

He lowered a hand to wipe his brow, then raised it again. “Word was sent by wire to Arkansas. They’s a-waitin’ for you there.”

I hadn’t even thought of that possibility. Gold blinds a man to his own fortune. And somehow this new hopelessness didn’t weigh very much.

“You know what’s in that there cave, Reverend?”

“I’ve heard things,” he said, his voice like an old fiddle.

“Well then, I got a choice: Either stay up here and git eaten alive or go down there and hang.”

“There’s always salvation.”

“For you, Reverend. Not for me.”

“Are you going to kill me, son?”

I laughed, because it suddenly struck me how, holy man or heathen, in the end all our priorities are the same. It took a minute for me to wipe the tears from my eyes, and to stop my whole body from shaking, and to chase every bad thought I ever had outta my soul.

“The Lord’s got a terrible vengeance, son, but also the most loving embrace for those who accept him.”

The holy man waited patiently while I pressed my fingers into my eyes and took a breath to steel myself up. “Reverend, the reason why I don’t want to go back to that beloved of Hell in there is because if’n I go, I just might want to stay. You see, there’s a call of lust about it. You being a man of what they call moral fortitude, I figure if there’s anyone who’ll be able to stand it…well, Reverend, I need you to shoot that thing when I drag it out.” I held out my piece, barrel first.

“I cain’t shoot one of God’s creatures.”

I laughed in his old, pious face. “One o’ God’s critchers, Reverend, and I’m a-gonna rope it. Besides, it ain’t just the critcher. I want you to shoot me too if’n that thing gets the best of me. Understand?”

He shook his head ‘no,’ but I knew if’n it came down to it and that thing had me in its jaws, that preacher’d have no trouble sending us both to our dark sleep in a lizard’s wink. And wouldn’t you know it, he took the piece.

I went back into the ridge and damn near staggered when I saw it. Its rear half—and that woman’s head—was drooping down into the water. I steeled my heart and jumped in behind it.

The freezing water bit through me. I screamed and cursed at the thing as I wrapped a rope around its tree branch legs. There were fine hairs all up and down it that felt like corn silk. Its leg pulsed with life and thrashed out of my grip a couple of times, as the critcher sprayed hisses of milky venom every which way. I got a hold of one rear leg and wrapped a loop around it. Then I pulled in the opposite direction so that the leg swung underneath. I wrapped the rope around one of the legs on the other side and I jumped on top of its back, rope in hand.

I almost passed dead away, smelling that beautiful stink and staring at that gorgeous female form writhing in its bubble of crystal flesh.

Getting a grip on the cave floor, I pulled, and the spider flipped. Underneath was as clear as the rest of it, with the womanly body looking like a dress dummy underneath. The guts twitched as I pulled up and got my bearings. Then I hoisted the rope over my shoulder.

The horses reared and shrieked like they seen the devil hisself being drug behind me. The preacher crossed himself with his free hand.

There in the moonlight, there were shadows flickering around, like when a candlewick gets too long. I looked back and saw the spider, its clear-coated legs dancing in the air, a spray of bloody venom in misty, pink clouds around its head, and that brown nekkid woman twisting in the night.

“For the love of Christ, Reverend!” I screamed.

I ain’t never seen a man’s hand shake like that preacher’s grip on my Colt. Like a fish tail in whitewater.

But he shot that nekkid girl through the heart. Then I took the gun and finished her.

After a breath, I’ll be damned if that preacher didn’t try to convert me still through his tears.

“See here, you blubberin’ old coot,” I said. “I’m a-headin’ on over this here ridge to fields of wild wheat and honeysuckle. I can go in any direction I want and no one’ll see me. ‘Less that posse down there can fly, I say I’m home free. I trust we can keep the sanctity of the confessional up in these rocks, padre?”

He looked around and down over the scramble of boulders below. Then he looked at me. “What posse you talking about?”

I had only noticed then that there were no more lights. Nothing but moon shadows. “Well now, they sure tuckered out early, didn’t they.”

The preacher straightened, and his voice became sermon strong. “That wasn’t a posse, son, that was a funeral camp. We buried three men, including the deputy, and one woman. I left those grieving folk to come up here and persuade you to justice. Once you made your way into this here ridge, they figured that was it. They wired Arkansas just in case.”

“In case, what?”

“In the unlikely event you made it outta here alive. You’re young, son, and have no idea what the older folk’ve seen.”

I let what he said sink in a moment. Even if he was wrong about there being other critchers up here, I knew with the surety of smoke on fire that this here spider, like all critchers on earth, had to mate. Which meant that there had to be others like it. And if’n they’re like all living things, and the cruel forces that drive them work the way they tend to do, well, sooner or later they’ll go lookin’ outside of caves for mates. And on accounna they probably mount each other like dogs, and they got that design to them, well, it’s just a matter of time afore they…

In the name of my mama, I couldn’t finish that thought.

I decided I’d talk to some of the more learned among those who’d sooner see me dead, maybe convince them to let me help them hunt down every last one of these monsters until we’re all safe.

On the way down, I was silent, and so was the Reverend. I wanted to tell him about the cougars and the white pup. But I didn’t. If’n no one bought my sincerity, I’d have to have something to chat about afore my walk to the gallows.

originally published in Way Out West

Paul Lorello is a freelance writer from Ronkonkoma, New York. His fiction has appeared in Big Pulp, Big Pulp’s Kennedy Curse and Black Chaos: Tales of the Zombie antholgoies, Membrane, and Pseudopod. In 2014, the Pseudopod podcast of Paul’s story, “Growth Spurt”, was chosen as the winner of the coveted Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction Story, Short Form. Paul lives with three quadrupeds and one biped and knows very little about everything.