The Stagecoach and the Thing on the Plains
Wyoming – March 4, 1874

The mid afternoon was growing long when the hard packed ground began to be mottled with the strange patches of smooth, black stone.  A spot here, a larger spot there ... each patch poking through the land around it like the ground was trying to give birth to a dark sore ... and then the trail faded away to be replaced by what looked like four wide, unbroken ribbons of flat black stone stretching into the distance as far as the eye could see.

A road, of some strange kind! 

A road, a manufactured road, appearing out of the surroundings and coming into focus now for the first time.

The Cowboy stopped his horse and took a drink from his canteen, considering his options.  This was a road of some kind though how the road had come to be here or who had built the road, he had no idea.  He put his canteen back on his saddle and gently eased his horse back into a slow walk.  The sound of his horse's shoes on the black road louder now.

Up ahead the black road seemed to flower off to each side ... there were four separate curving loops that merged to the left and right into another wide black road that ran perpendicular to the black road that the Cowboy was traveling upon.  There was a gentle rise ahead where the black road flowered off to each side, other roads looping in wide curves back down to the other black ribbon, crossed over by a bridge of some kind, where the second black road flowed under it ... a bridge, he realized, that was simply built over the other black road but who would build a bridge over a trail or over the point where one trail crossed another?

Over this side of the bridge and on the far side were massive metal constructs ... like warped steel rails, looking like they couldn't be as strong as they evidently were.  Atop those metal constructs were large, well-worn and rusty metal signs, some faded green with white borders, white lettering and numbers ... smaller signs with faded yellow or orange backgrounds and black bordering, lettering and numbers.  The Cowboy stopped his horse again, pushed his hat up a bit and leaned forward slightly in his saddle, resting his gloved hands together on the saddle horn, looking up at the metal signs suspended above him on the metal construct.  The signs held strange letters though the numbers were recognizable.  Whoever had made this road, whoever had made the signs, hadn't spoken the same language that the Cowboy did.  After a minute or so of trying to make sense out of all the symbols, letters and numbers on the signs he simply gave up, shaking his head slowly in amazement then nudging his horse back into a slow walk forward.

Thirteen months ago had been the day of The White; when The White came and went, when things changed ...  The White always brought a lot of strange things from ... somewhere else, and sometimes the White took things from here to somewhere else.  Things.  Livestock.  People.  Places.

Even entire towns and cities ... 

The Cowboy had never seen anyone taken by The White ever come back.  Sometimes The White didn't take things, rather The White changed those things and not for the better.  Memories ... not good memories, either.

The Cowboy shook his dark thoughts away and looked around in muted amazement as he rode.  All of this, this road, these metal constructs, these signs ... must all be from somewhere else ... somewhere, maybe somewhen else, maybe not even of this Earth, the Cowboy mused.  As he slowly rode along the black road, he noticed markings on the black road itself and then realized that the black road had been marked all the way back the way that he had come ... only he had been too lost in his own thoughts to notice the stripes and dashes that decorated the middle and sides of the black road.  Sometimes there were strange symbols in the middle of the road, strange writing in what looked like white and yellow paint.  A long white painted line highlighted the edge of the black road on each side and a dashed line down the middle of the black road divided the black road into two smaller ribbons.  Sometimes the line in the center was solid, other times it doubled itself and ran parallel for a while.  Sometimes it was solid on one side and dashed on the other.  The pattern sometimes alternated.  The Cowboy quickly lost interest in trying to make sense of the markings since none of them seemed to warn of any kind of danger.

Every now and then a rusty or bent metal pole, more often than not with some kind of odd faded or rusty metal sign attached, would be driven into the ground on the side of the black road ...  sometimes the odd metal signs were too rusted or covered in years of elemental exposure to be seen clearly.  Other times the sign would have numbers displayed, none of which made any more sense than the stripes and paint lines on the surface of the black road.  As the Cowboy rode, larger metal supports appeared ... one crossing the road completely with large, rusty and faded signs mounted atop the metal supports.  Strange words ... in a strange language.  Almost all of the signs showed evidence of having been used for target practice ... bullet holes, shotgun pellet patterns ... a few that looked like they had holes melted all the way through the sign.

Maybe others had passed this way ... maybe they had tried to figure out the strange markings and what the signs meant.  Maybe those who came this way before the Cowboy had simply grown tired of the mystery and instead took our their frustration on the strange metal signs using whatever firepower they had at their disposal.

The thought of that made the Cowboy give a soft chuckle, barley louder than the hot breeze that blew over him.

The White had come and gone ... again ... and who knew what it had taken or what it had brought with it and left behind here where such things shouldn't be.  The Cowboy directed his horse over to one of the nearer signs ... something had caught his eye ... fine strands, like spiderweb, wafted gently in the breeze.  The more the Cowboy rode along the black road, the more the signs showed evidence of the fine, almost invisible spiderweb-like strands.

Fifteen minutes later the road once again began to disappear, slowly at first, then in an ever increasing amount.  A patch of dirt here, sometimes with grass or weeds growing out of it, then more patches, then entire sections of the road had been covered.  A few minutes more and the blafck surface of the road was vanishing slowly into the surroundings until all trace of it was gone from sight and the Cowboy was once again travelling on a well used dirt road through scenery that was recognizable for what it was, if not familiar in passing.

The Cowboy had been following the hard beaten dirt road for about an hour now.  Gone were all traces of the strange road, the metal signs, the strange paint markings ... but now there was something new.  A
faint trace of a sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh, a smell that tickled his nose and brought back memories, not good memories, of another place, another time.  Shiloh, where he had worn Confederate gray in stark contrast to the Union blue.  A time when the thunder of crew served artillery made the air scream and the ground shake and took men to glory in an orange and black blossom of fire and fury and a shower of shattered metal filling the air like angry rain.  He remembered the fading cries of those who had existed one instant and ceased to exist the next.  Always the scream of the wounded and the silence of the dead ... and always that smell ... that sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh.

The Cowboy closed his eyes for the count of five, then for five more and felt his eyes burn behind his eye lids.  He would need sleep, soon, and more sleep than he'd like to admit that he really needed.  A good meal and a hot bath might not be a bad idea, either, if he could find a town or someone who could put him up for the night and was willing to do a little trade in return.  There was a time in his life, years ago, no, a lifetime ago, when there were no good memories ... when everything but his mind had been shattered and lost and burned to ash and swept to the four winds and now this smell, this scent in the air, reminded the Cowboy of that dark, miserable time.  A time of war, of a nation divided, and a time he thought he could forget with the passage of years and a bottle of whiskey in front of him but even that hope had faded.  The Cowboy shook himself out of his memories and gently prodded his horse on, riding and thinking and against his better judgment ... still remembering.

Men did things in war ... things that they needed to do but should never have to do.  Doing those things didn't mean that men were proud of those things that they had done ... but you did those things just the same, especially if you wanted to survive, and it was those memories that the Cowboy remembered.  It was those memories that caused the Cowboy to come awake with a loud cry on some nights and it was those memories that came back to haunt him when he closed his eyes and prayed for rest.

The Cowboy took out his flask of whiskey and took a long pull from it, was about to put it back up in his vest pocket, then decided different and took another long pull from it.  He shook the flask ... still about a third left.  He'd need more when he could find it but until then the whiskey was like holy water ... it kept his demons at bay, especially at times like now when those demons decided to gang up on him and haunt him for no better reason than they could.

"Sing." the Cowboy whispered.

And his enchanted Colt started to sing there in its holster as thread thin lines glowed pale blue and moved like living things across the etched surface of his revolver, no two lines ever the same and the weapon shrouded in a pale blue luminence of its own making.  Sometimes the Colt talked to him, in whispers, but not now ... Now it just sang.  The Colt sang tirelessly in a softly undulating, decidedly feminine voice that was as etheral as it was now long familiar to him.  The voice was ancient, soothing, reaching through him to touch his soul, to touch his troubled spirit and ease his heavy heart.  The songs the Colt sang he couldn’t ever understand but the songs that the weapon sang never failed to calm him, songs that called to him across the span of time with a voice that made him long for the woman who had given him the gift of the enchantment that now lived in his Colt.

So many memories.

Some good, some bad ... but most of them bad.

Half an hour later
, the Colt still singing softly there in the holster on his hip, the Cowboy came upon the stagecoach.  It was easy to recognize the stagecoach for what it was as its familiar outline was illuminated by the bright orange glow of the late afternoon sun.  It was odd that a stagecoach would be stopped here like this, seemingly abandoned.  He stopped his horse a hundred feet away from the stagecoach and checked out the situation, patting his horse and looking for any sign of the coach team or passengers.


Nothing moved around the stagecoach and yet that
sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh had grown stronger, more noticeable, in the last few minutes.


"Stop singing." the Cowboy said softly.

The Colt stopped singing.

The Cowboy took his canteen, shook it, took a long drink, paused in thought, then put the canteen back on his saddle and took out his flask of whiskey from his duster's inside pocket, taking a long pull and sizing up the situation.  At first glance, the coach looked like it had simply been abandoned but then he noticed the luggage still tied securely to the top and rear racks and that struck him as rather strange if not just damn odd.  Perhaps the stagecoach had been abandoned by the coach team and the passengers but the Cowboy thought that unlikely since the luggage was still present.  He urged his horse to move closer, his reins in his left gloved hand, his right gloved hand resting on his right hip, near his holstered Colt revolver.

Memories ... bad memories ... whispered to him as old instincts that he had kept sharp guided his hand now, so much so that it took him a second or two to even realize where his hand was ... ready ... out of habit and training and experience.  Something wasn't right, just a feeling, but it was the same kind of feeling that had kept him alive at Vicksburg, Shiloh, and Chickamauga.  The Cowboy used a finger to gently push his hat higher off his forehead and he leaned forward in his saddle, sizing up the situation in front of him.

And there it was again, the
sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh, stronger but seemingly carried aloft on the breeze of the wind.

The coach looked abandoned; there were no signs of violence, no visible damage to suggest that the drivers and passengers, if there had been any passengers, had come to a bad end.  Surely there had been passengers because the luggage on top of the stagecoach suggested the presence of paying fare.  The stagecoach was upright; there was no damage to any of the wheels that he could see.  For all practical purposes, the stagecoach looked like it had simply been abandoned, which was itself odd.  The Cowboy moved closer still with his curiosity overcoming his caution ...

... and ... 

... his horse snorted and took a step back, drawing the reins taught in his gloved hand as it pulled its head hard to the side.  His horse took another step back ... and another.

"Whoa.  Easy.  Easy!" the Cowboy whispered, patting the horse with his gloved hand, realzing only after the fact that he had whispered.

Maybe the horse sensed something that the Cowboy didn't ... or couldn't.  The Cowboy had long ago come to understand that animals knew things before men did and it was an ignorant man who ignored the signs of an animal starting to spook when the man's own God given senses refused to show him what the animal clearly saw.  The Cowboy tugged the reins but the horse would go no further towards the stagecoach, so the Cowboy slipped out of his saddle, taking the reins in his hand and walking
the horse back away from the stagecoach, about 20 steps until the animal seemed calmer.   The Cowboy reached up to his saddle pack, took out a piece of metal, heat bent into a loop at the top and sharpened to a point on the other end, threaded the reins through the loop like thread through a needle, tied them off then drove the metal stake into the ground, tethering the animal in place with enough slack to keep it comfortable.  The Cowboy patted the horse with his gloved hand, reassuring the animal and that's when the hair on the back of the Cowboy's neck started to stand up.  He rubbed his gloved hand over his neck ... and found nothing.

His horse snorted again, almost softly, and moved back to the limit of the slack of its staked reins which the Cowboy still held tight in his gloved hand.

"Easy." the Cowboy whispered, patting his horse.  "What's gotten into you?"

The horse didn't reply and the Cowboy didn't expect the horse to; after all, the world hadn't gotten that strange ... yet.

The horse stood there, at the limit of its reins, staring at the stagecoach.  The horses nostrals flared once and it snorted then accepted its situation.  The Cowboy patted the horse, offering reassurance and calming the animal ... and there was that feeling again, the tickling on his neck when nothing was there.

And still there was the stagecoach ... itself a mystery, now more so than ever.

His horse seemed calmer now, almost tranquil so he thought it best to leave the animal there.  
The Cowboy reached up to his sadddle and  took his lever action Winchester repeating rifle out of its saddle bag.  He checked that the rifle was loaded, worked the lever to chamber a round, then approached the stagecoach cautiously, his Winchester held in both hands in a manner that would allow him either to bring the weapon to bear quickly or put it up in a show of faith and trust should he find anyone in need ... or fear ... around the stagecoach. 

And there it was again.

There was the faint trace of that sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh.  The smell was more of a taint than an odor and seemed to be coming strongest from the stagecoach, getting stronger the closer he approached.  He stopped, clutched his Winchester, looking around, listening for … something.



All of his instincts that had allowed him to survive Chicamauga and Vicksburg and Shiloh ... now those instincts, now that experience, told him to walk backwards, to untie his horse, to climb into the saddle and ride ... ride as hard and fast as he could away from here.  But that was the fear talking and fear was what got you killed, quick, because fear clouded your mind, muddled your thoughts, and spoke for you when you didn't need it to do so.

Nothing moved, not even the air ... and it was then that the Cowboy noticed that the usual annoying insects were missing from the arealeaving behind nothing but silence.  The Cowboy squatted on his heels and looked at the ruts left by the passage of the stagecoach; they were deep and wide.  The coach had not only been loaded heavily but it had also been moving fast, way too fast for caution.  The distance between the hoof prints of the horses indicated that the horse team had been moving at a pace hard enough to get them lathered.  The fact that the wheel ruts and the hoof prints meandered somewhat meant that whoever had been driving the coach had been paying attention to something other than the road ahead … perhaps to … something … following behind the stagecoach?

The hair on the Cowboy’s neck went straight as he spun in place, turning on his boot heels and looking back the way that the coach had come.  The path the stagecoach had taken along the trail was as evident as it was wild.  The coach and its coach driver had been running from … something … but whatever it was that had been chasing the coach, its team and its passengers, had not left a trace.

No trace of pursuit yet something had been chasing the stagecoach … something that was ugly enough to frighten a stagecoach driver into whipping his horses almost to death in order to get away from whatever it was.

The sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh became stronger the closer he approached, and his nose wrinkled in distaste.  The Cowboy was twenty feet away from the coach when he managed to catch another recognizable shape over the top of the luggage and travel cases on the top of the coach.  It was a man, leaning and bent forward on the buck board.  

“Hello?!” the Cowboy shouted as he walked slowly up from behind, moving to the side… and that peculiar sickly-sweet smell came on strong, as if the stagecoach itself was somehow producing the foul odor.  

The Cowboy covered his nose and mouth with the left sleeve of his duster and tried to breathe through the thick fabric, but the smell was there just the same.  He looked at the luggage, tied securely, but the luggage had been jostled about enough to toss it around in its strapping and roping.  The stagecoach had been driven hard.

The side curtains in the coach were drawn tight and he stepped back, letting his eyes travel to the front of the stagecoach.  What he saw made his mind scream within his skull, the kind of scream he had heard years before at Vicksburg when he wore the uniform of the Confederacy and had seen the horrors of the Civil War first hand …  

The Cowboy’s legs went weak, failed him and he stumbled in place before catching himself.  

The Cowboy’s wide staring eyes took in what his mind could not comprehend, what his mind refused to acknowledge as being even possible.  He found that his breath had escaped him; his heart pounded in his chest pushing blood colder than ice through his veins at a rate that caused his ears to roar.

The Cowboy wanted to run away, to scream but he could not.  He was paralyzed with fear and all that he could do was stand there and stare, open mouthed and unblinking, unable to turn away from the sight before him.  His soul fought desperately to form a sound in his throat but even that simple sound came out as little more than a strained whimper, so paralyzed with fear was he because the stagecoach hadn’t been abandoned after all … No, the coach team was still here, with the coach … or what was left of them.

There, on the buckboard, illuminated by the shifting light from the auroras, was both the coach driver and the coach rider, or at least both of their still fully clothed skeletal remains were there on the buckboard, both the coach driver and the coach rider were looking back over their shoulder, looking back behind the stagecoach itself but at what the Cowboy knew not.  

The skeletal remains seemed to be frozen in time; the empty sockets of the coach rider’s skull stared at the Cowboy as if mocking him.  The coach rider had been sitting on the buckboard beside the coach driver; a shortened double barrel shotgun, a coach gun, still held in his skeletal hands appeared to be in the act of reloading.  The shotgun’s breach was open and long, skeletal fingers were drawing a shell out of the coach rider’s vest pocket.  His bare skull looked over his right shoulder, looking at something that was … or had been … behind the stagecoach.  Now the empty sockets of the coach rider’s skull were staring almost directly at the Cowboy, the coach rider’s jawbone open as wide as it could be … seemingly frozen in a silent, ear splitting, soul halting scream.

The Cowboy didn’t know how long he had stood there, staring at the macabre sight, but he reckoned that some time had passed before he could recover his ability to regain his senses, to reacquire his straight-thinking faculties and even then it was against his better, hard earned experience to do so.  The Cowboy stood there, rifle in hand and at the ready as he walked slowly toward the stagecoach; the Cowboy’s legs were weak, his heart still pounding, and each step echoed a silent plea from his soul not to go one bit further.  The sickly-sweet smell grew strong enough to almost gag him and perhaps it was the taint of the smell that worked to arouse his senses and snap him out of his mental dullness.  

The Cowboy looked at the coach driver and the coach rider with morbid fascination … whatever had killed the two men had killed them almost instantly, stripping every bit of meat and muscle and fat and viscera from their bones in the process, a process that had barely allowed the two men one last, seemingly shared scream.

There was no sight or trace of blood … anywhere.  If it weren’t for the smell and the residue on their clothes the Cowboy thought that he might have believed that he was looking at some kind of macabre display in a museum.

His nose wrinkled … again … and itched with the acrid tingle of something not of this world.  The strange sickly-sweet smell was strongest now this close to the stagecoach …

The Cowboy looked up at the coach driver … The coach driver’s skull was turned backwards, looking over his right shoulder, at whatever it was that had been chasing them.  The coach driver’s jawbone was like that of the coach rider … open as wide as it possibly could be, like the coach driver had been screaming as loud as he could … in abject fear … or in total and complete pain when whatever it was that had overtaken them had killed him.  

The Cowboy reached out a gloved finger to touch the coach driver’s hand … it was like the bones had been glued together … strong glue, keeping the two skeletons in the pose that they had died in and the Cowboy noticed that the bones were also covered with that curious iridescent sheen that covered the clothes and leather; the same dried … whatever it was … easily discernible at the edges and joints of the bones, almost like fine thread … almost like spider web in the early morning on the still dew wet grass.  The Cowboy brought his gloved finger back cautiously, sniffing it, and getting a full whiff of the sickly-sweet odor, much stronger now.  The Cowboy was glad that he was still wearing his heavy leather gloves, thinking that the residue might indeed be caustic or at least unpleasant to the touch of bare skin.

The Cowboy stepped back and looked around the stagecoach again … his rifle now laid more or less casually over his right shoulder.  It made no sense from what the Cowboy could discern.  Whatever had killed the coach driver and coach rider had done so horrifically and almost instantly, or in such a short time that the two men had barely had time to scream before whatever had been chasing them was upon them, stripping their flesh and bodies while reducing them to bare bones.

The Cowboy looked closer at the clothes on the skeletons.  The cloth was glistening slightly, coated in what looked like the residue left behind after a large slug had passed across a wooden step on a porch.  Both the coach driver and the coach rider looked like they were covered in some kind of very fine cobwebs, stretched across the bare surfaces of the bones, some of the cobwebs which wafted back and forth softly in the late afternoon breeze.  The cobwebs were very fine, almost ethereal, and it had taken the Cowboy getting this close to the bones to even be able to see the cobwebs.

The Cowboy stuck the barrel of his Winchester lever action rifle up near the coach driver, using the barrel to slowly pull away a small bit of the cobwebs.  He held the rifle barrel close, looking at the cobwebs.  No … not cobwebs … because whatever these fine fibers were they had that strange glistening sheen … the same strange iridescent sheen that the clothes and bones had to them.  

The Cowboy looked around the stagecoach.

The coach driver’s stance indicated that he had been driving his team hard and fast.  The coach driver’s arms and hands were outstretched, holding the reins to the team.  The Cowboy followed the tight drawn reins all the way to the bridle and tackle that still was attached to the skeletons of the four horses, hitched to the yoke of the stagecoach.  His disbelieving eyes saw the stance of the skeletal horses, captured in motion, frozen at full gallop, necks stretched, mouths open in heavy breathing despite the bit, some of the horse’s legs were on the ground, others stretched out in the air.

There … the feeling that something was out there … watching … waiting.  The Cowboy looked around … nothing.

Nothing but … silence.

Complete silence.

Complete silence where complete silence should not have been.

The Cowboy took a few steps away from the stagecoach and walked towards the horses.  The leather of the harnesses was also covered in that same iridescent sheen, and the sickly strange smell was stronger here, much stronger.  The horses had died like the coach driver and coach rider … horribly, painfully, and almost instantaneously.  The bones of the horses, their muscles, skin, hair … everything was gone.  The bones picked clean, coated in that iridescent sheen and covered in the fine wrapping of the cobwebs that were not cobwebs.  The Cowboy looked at the large, vacant, empty eye sockets of the lead horse, staring straight ahead, hell bent on running away from whatever it was that had finally done this to them.

No trace of blood around the horses … just all flesh and meat picked clean.

The Cowboy squatted again near the lead horse, leaning slightly, noticing that the horses were all still shod proper.  He started to rub his chin with his gloved hand, remembered that he had touched the iridescent residue just a moment or two before, and rubbed his chin with his other gloved hand.

He squatted there, lost in thought, and then he noticed something … the bones.

The bones of the horse in front of him were covered in tiny holes, holes so small that he hadn’t even noticed them until he had gotten this close to the skeletonized horses.  He looked again … dozens of tiny holes, like the holes had been drilled at random, in each bone and joint of the skeletonized horse, and from each hole there seemed to flow those strange spiderweb like filaments.  The Cowboy stood and went to look at the skull of the lead horse … the skull was covered in dozens of tiny holes drilled right into the bone, wrapped in the fine thread-like filaments.

The Cowboy walked around to the other three horses, each of their skeletons had those strange tiny holes drilled in each of the bones, all at random locations, all around the bone and from every angle … almost like the skeletons were covered in a tiny case of black measles, holes almost too small to see from more than a few steps away, those curious spiderweb-like filaments impossible to see a few steps farther back from that.

The Cowboy turned and walked back to the coach driver and coach rider, climbing a rung on the side of the coach and looking at the exposed bones of the two men … tiny holes.  Tiny holes in each of the bones, in the joints, and in the skull … all perfectly drilled, all at random, and dozens of the same size holes on each bone … like … something had not only stripped the men and the horses to their bare skeletons but had also drilled into and sucked out every last bit of marrow from the bones.

The Cowboy stepped down and back from the coach … doubting that removing the marrow from the bones of the men and the horses had been as quick as removing the meat and skin from the men and horses had seemed to imply.  No … the two men and horses had died instantly and whatever had killed them had not only stripped them to the bone but had also stayed around to suck their bones dry from the inside out afterward.

The Cowboy looked around again … still, nothing moved.  He slowly walked back towards his horse, still tied where he had left it, when one of the side curtains of the stagecoach wafted in the breeze, causing him to stop.


The stagecoach might have been carrying passengers as well … the luggage on top seemed to suggest that.

The Cowboy cautiously reached his gloved hand for the door handle of the stagecoach, twisted it, and then stepped back.


The door hung there, slightly open, and the Cowboy used the end of the barrel of his Winchester to slowly open the door to the coach wider.


Inside the coach were four skeletons … a well-dressed man, a well-dressed woman, a little boy by the cut and style of the clothes on the small skeleton, and what appeared to be a traveling salesman clutching a suitcase to his chest.  The Cowboy looked in closer, cautiously.  The sickly-sweet smell was strong in here as well, much stronger, and the Cowboy did a cursory inspection of the four skeletons finding they were in the same condition as the stagecoach driver and coach rider as well as the horse team.

All were frozen in poses of sheer, abject terror.  All were skeletonized, their jawbones slammed open in screams of pain, their empty sockets of the skulls staring blankly in different directions, like what had come for them had come in every window and through every curtain at the same time.  Each of the skeletons were bracing their selves, probably against the wild ride.  Each of the skeletons were still dressed, their clothes covered in that strange iridescent sheen, their bones showing the same tiny holes, dozens of holes, all bored into the bones that the Cowboy could see … and the bones covered in that same fine iridescent cobweb-like material, so fine that there in the dark of the coach interior he almost didn’t see it.

A mother.

A father.

Their son.

A traveling salesman ... maybe a Yankee carpet-bagger trying to get rich off the misery and gulibility of others.

Whatever had killed them had done so in the exact same manner and at the exact same time as it had killed the stagecoach operators and the horse team.  Suddenly the Cowboy didn’t feel like remaining anywhere near the stagecoach.  He did a cursory inspection of the interior, of the passengers, and with some effort managed to pry the salesman’s suitcase from his skeletal hands.  He searched the rest of the bodies, the man, the woman, the child, as well as the driver and the rider, all the while throwing frequent glances over each of his shoulders to make sure that he and his horse were still alone.  After five minutes he had the belongings of the men, woman and child on the ground in front of him.  The usual fair … some jewelry, a necklace, a pocket watch (still keeping time), a few rings, some money and coins, a smoke case with tobacco and paper and matches.  The well-dressed man had a small pistol in his pocket, a gentleman’s pistol that was more useful in threatening rather than of actually carrying out that threat.

If anything that the Cowboy found had value in basic trade, he took it.  The dead no longer needed their possessions.

The Cowboy felt no qualm about doing so … his life had come down to basic survival and the dead would have no use anymore for what he took from them.  He put the jewelry, money, pocket watch and coins in a cloth bag he kept in the right-side pocket of his duster.  He stuck the smoke case in the left pocket along with the small pistol … maybe he could trade that to someone.  He climbed up the side of the coach and quickly used his knife to cut the straps on the luggage on top, pulling down the suitcases and the trunk and carefully opening them on the ground.

Nothing but clothes and some old letters.  He scanned through the letters quickly then not bothering to put the letters back in the envelopes they came in he stuck the letters back on top of the clothes in the case and shut the case again, not bothering to return the ransacked through luggage to the top of the coach.  The traveling salesman’s suitcase held clothes, a half full bottle of some cheap looking rot gut that the Cowboy didn’t recognize the label on, and … nothing else which surprised the Cowboy and made him take a second or two to scowl.  Maybe the man hadn’t been a traveling salesman, but his clothes sure said different.

Having finished searching the interior and top of the stagecoach, the Cowboy walked to the front of the stagecoach and checked the two skeletons there.  Three minutes time with patting down the two skeletons found some more folding money, a few coins, a small almost full bottle of whiskey with a label that the Cowboy recognized, a cheaply made pocket watch and the double barrel twelve-gauge coach gun with ten spare shells scattered between the two large pockets of the coach rider’s vest.

The Cowboy left the coach gun but took the shells as they would feed his own shotgun strapped to his bedroll on the saddle of his horse.  On second thought, the Cowboy took the coach gun as well … thinking it might be worth something in trade when he next needed to lay in for some provisions.

Five minutes later, the Cowboy was back in the saddle, gently walking his horse on into the late afternoon while the grisly visage of the stagecoach got smaller as it receded in the distance behind him.



Half an hour later, according to the time kept by the pocket watch that the Cowboy  reined his horse to a stop, sitting up in his saddle and staring at the setting sun.  There was already a chill in the air as night inevitably approached from behind and he watched in fascination as The White danced along the horizon.  There, at the end of the world as far as the eye could see in either direction The White dodged and weaved a bright glowing golden white line. The blazingly bright streak ran like quicksilver, a hot river of molten liquid glass right out of Hell itself, taller than the highest mountain in height, a seething mass of rolling brightness that slowly but surely made its way over the horizon, hugging tightly the very curve of this world.  


The White would soon be gone again, until the sixth day of the next month … always the sixth day of each month when The White would return in all of its glory, bathing the world in its harsh glow, taking a little more from here and bringing a little more from there … where ever or whenever there may be.


The Cowboy pulled his canteen from his saddle and took a quick drink, rinsing the dust and grit out of his mouth before spitting.  A second, longer drink went far in quenching his thirst.  He shook his canteen, about a third full; he’d have to find water soon, good water, not the kind where The White had left things behind … things not of this world, things that didn’t agree with or get along with mankind.  His horse neighed softly and took a step forward, then another.  The Cowboy tugged on the reigns to keep the suddenly nervous animal placed.  He offered soothing words and a gentle pat on the neck that seemed to placate the animal.


He returned his canteen to his saddle and stretched his neck.  Above him, purple clouds were tinged with silver and orange, shot through like the tired veins in an old woman’s legs.  Lightning flashed through the clouds, never appearing as bright forks, instead illuminating the clouds every now and then from within with pale green light.  The clouds were high and moving impossibly fast, seemingly racing towards The White.  The veins in the clouds pulsed and shimmered, keeping his attention, as if the clouds held a spirit or spirits of their own.


Old spirits.


Powerful spirits.  


Perhaps the clouds were being drawn in the direction of The White by some irresistible force that failed to make its presence known on the ground other than the fact that the prairie grass itself seemed to be gently leaning towards The White, almost like a wind was pushing it down as it flowed quietly over the tall blades yet the Cowboy felt no wind on his face, on the back of his neck or across his cheeks.  The early night air was calm and dry with just a hint of …


His horse must have smelled it too because he saw his horse raise its head and sniff the air, nostrils and eyes wide.  The Cowboy sniffed again … There!  A sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh.  It was a smell that was both pleasant and unpleasant at the same time, you wanted to smell it but when you did you regretted having smelled it.  The scent reminded him, strangely enough, of Shiloh, the ever-present smell of the countless dead after battle, a smell that you couldn’t escape no matter where you turned. 


“Same smell … the Cowboy mused out loud, remembering the stagecoach.


Stronger now … much stronger.


Much closer.


His horse neighed softly as if in agreement or perhaps the horse had come to its own conclusion regarding the scent and was just vocalizing its own opinion much the way that the Cowboy had done.  The Cowboy made a face and realized that the strange scent was getting slightly stronger.  It wasn’t the smell that The White left behind when it came; that was a brimstone and gunpowder and fresh rain smell with the smell of winter air split by lightning that was strongest just before and then just after the passing of The White … a smell that would have mostly dissipated by the fall of dark and certainly been gone by midnight.


No, this smell was different and different often meant bad, different often meant danger in the passing of The White.  Different meant that The White had left something behind …


The Cowboy looked from the gently bent prairie grass back to the darkening sky and noticed that the far edges of the clouds were being pulled apart the nearer they drew to The White, being stretched from big fluffy patches into ever narrower and narrower streams that gained speed and vanished at the horizon, vanished into The White like lazy cyclones.  The cloud overhead flashed green from within, lightning he would surmise yet what would normally be the sound of thunder instead sounded like giant rocks rolling down a metal mountain, a sound that played for a short while, never losing in intensity or distance, and then was quiet again.


Behind the Cowboy night was quickly catching up and he turned his attention back to the trail that lay ahead.  The open plains were not the best place to be after pitch dark and his late start this morning may have put him in the kind of danger that he knew far better to avoid but after five days of hard riding he had taken the time to let him and his horse rest up while he was hunkered down in an old abandoned mine shaft, riding out the coming of The White.  Now, he needed a place to stop for the night; riding on in the dark was as foolish as it was dangerous.  After all, who really knew what The White had taken away and what it had left behind today in its passing?  Then, almost as if to punctuate his concern, his horse whinnied softly and took two hesitant steps to the side and three steps back. 

The Cowboy had learned a long time ago that animals could sense things that man could not and it was a fool who didn’t trust the added senses of his horse in times like this.


“What’s wrong?” the Cowboy asked in a voice he found carried only a little louder than a whisper.


The smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh grew even stronger.


His horse pranced and high stepped first to the left then backwards and to the right, trying to turn as if trying to run back the direction that they had come.


“Whoa!  Easy!  Easy.” he commanded, leaning down towards the neck of his horse as he carefully scanned the plains around him, left gloved hand tight on the reins and natural instinct moving his right gloved hand down to his thigh where his low-slung Model 1851 Colt Navy .44 revolver rode in a quick draw leather rig tied off at the knee.


His hand hovered over the Colt’s well worn wooden grip, almost touching, almost drawing the pistol from its holster.  Somewhere inside him an argument was taking place … some part of him wanted to feel the grip of the Colt in his hand, to thumb the hammer back and let the cylinder rotate one full click, to know that if something came for him that whatever it was would be met by black powder, fire and lead ball.  Another part of him kept his hand from grabbing metal and clearing leather … that part of him knew that whatever it was that was spooking him and his horse, knew deep down inside that the Colt wasn’t going to be anything more in his hand than a favorite blanket in the hand of a baby in a crib.


Slap leather and clear his iron … or …


The Cowboy’s hand moved back away from his Colt as every hair on his body began to stand up.  He felt something, something bearing down on him and his horse and there came a sound, in the far distance, a sound like the Cowboy had never heard before, a sound certainly not familiar to this part of the flat country or, as far as he could tell, not familiar to this world for that matter.  It was an undulating whistling shriek, a terrible sound that rose and fell in pitch yet never lowered in volume.  His mind showed him a picture from his imagination; it was the unholy sound of the steam pressure tank rupturing on the biggest and ugliest train wreck in Hell itself.


The Cowboy shuddered, felt an unnatural chill run up his spine and his horse took another two steps to the side and four or five steps backwards, whining softly, snorting loudly, before the Cowboy could get his hand tightened on the reins and his horse back under control.


The sound came again, louder.


Closer, but still a good piece in the distance.


Whatever it was, the sound made the hairs on the Cowboy’s neck and arms stand on end and his blood run colder than a mountain brook.  The unearthly whistling seemed to echo of its own accord, sounding near then repeating farther away again only a heartbeat later.


His horse whinnied again, shook its head against the bridle and took another two steps to the left, urging his coach rider that what lay in that direction was a far better choice to follow than waiting on whatever it was to find them here, out in the open.


And then he saw the thing.


This time, the Cowboy didn’t try to stop the horse because he saw the thing that was coming for them just as surely as the horse must have sensed it.  It had been hard to spot the thing at first since what was coming for him was between the Cowboy and The White, lost in the shimmer that had held his attention at sundown and he realized with a cold, personal terror that if he hadn’t stopped to admire the sunset and the fading energies of The White then he would have surely trotted right dumbly into his own waiting death.


There came the sound again, that undulating whistle and his hand went back to his Colt, this time gripping it firmly yet again not drawing it from his holster.  His other hand held the reins of his horse tight as the animal became more and more spooked, moving listlessly this way and that, as if trying to decide which direction was best to break into a gallop.  The Cowboy let go of his Colt, squared up in his saddle and took up the reins tight in his left hand, raising his right arm and hand to shield his eyes against the fading glare on the horizon, trying to get a better look.


At first, he couldn’t be sure of exactly what he was seeing; a half mile to the west a strange luminous mist had quickly appeared, seeping out from some of the surrounding terrain, flowing over the few boulders on the plain and rapidly spreading into a wide flat shape and then stopping as suddenly as it had appeared.  The quickness of its appearance wasn’t as disturbing as the fact that once it seemed to have collected itself in one large area, pooled in upon itself until it seemed to rise up, wavering in the air as if searching, leaning back and forth, swaying this way and that until it turned and leaned in the direction that the Cowboy and his horse were.  Then with a new whistling bellow, the softly glowing mist grew even brighter, easy to see now against its surroundings.  The mist collapsed back down to the ground, spreading out like a giant sheet and began moving through the prairie grass at a speed that the Cowboy found as unnatural as it was unnerving.

The horse whinnied and took three steps back, almost rising up on its rear legs but the Cowboy fought it back down.  The now brightly glowing mist was moving rapidly in their direction.  It bobbed up and down as it moved, bobbed in a way that reminded the Cowboy of a bed sheet flapping in the wind on a clothesline, sometimes rising above the prairie grass and completely hiding the grass from view, sometimes slinking down below the height of the prairie grass and almost vanishing from sight as it moved beneath it.  It moved like a hundred gallons of whipped butter spilled on a dairy floor yet no matter how the brightly glowing mist moved it didn’t seem to disturb the prairie grass beneath it in the least, it seemed to flow around each and every single stalk of grass.


The undulating whistle came again, louder, closer and it seemed to come from the brightly glowing mist itself. 


His earlier observation that the prairie grass and the clouds were all moving towards the horizon, being drawn towards The White conflicted with how the brightly glowing mist was behaving.  The mist, if it really was a mist, was moving with ease against the unnatural current.  This fact would have been disturbing enough but now that the Cowboy was certain that the brightly glowing mist was moving towards him and his horse, he was even more certain that it was moving with a purpose, even with a need and that could be none the good for either him or his horse. 


The Cowboy watched the curiously aggressive movement of the brightly glowing mist because while it was in motion, different parts of it behaved in different ways.  Some parts glowed brighter than others while some parts faded almost to darkness in color, forming areas like skin spots on an old person.  Sometimes, part of the strange glowing mist was above the grass lurching or flowing forward while other parts were below, moving sideways like a snake.  How some strange mist could move like this when there was no wind he didn’t know but moving it was and moving towards him and the horse in little more than a straight line and as fast as it could go.  What he did know, deep down in his soul, was that if he and his horse stayed in this spot a little while longer that he would die here as well when the mist or whatever it was overtook them where they stood.


There was something familiar about the mist and how it moved towards them, something that kept reminding him of an animal with a hunger on the prowl.  His understanding that the brightly glowing mist was coming for him and the horse was never a conclusion in doubt and that meant that not only did the brightly glowing mist have some form of intelligence but that it was dangerous as well.


There came the sound of the train wreck again, the steam venting from a ruptured pressure cylinder, Hell’s own whistle, metal being torn asunder and the Cowboy realized that the sound was coming from the mist! 


“What the hell …?”  he asked out loud.


His horse didn’t answer him, not that he expected it to.  The White may have brought a whole hell of a lot of strange things to this old world but talking horses still weren’t one of them … yet.  


It was then that his horse shook its head and whinnied loudly, moving backwards and threatening to drop him from its saddle.  The horse wanted to get away from the fast approaching mist.  The Cowboy tried desperately to calm his horse but he felt it as well, an undeniable pressure of dread and fear that sought to smother him, to bury his mind in its choking weight.  The closer the mist got, the harder he found it to think clearly, his mind was dulling.


The Cowboy felt a faint presence touch his soul, to lay a dirty hand on his spirit; a dark, unnatural touch that seemed to curdle that part of him that God had tucked away in his skull.  He felt desperation, hunger, malice and a sinister longing.  He felt a lack of direction, of being lost, of unfamiliarity … and fear.  He grimaced, shook his head free of the cobwebs that had been drawn across his mind and took a deep breath.


And there it was again, the smell of not quite hickory and not quite burned flesh, stronger now, the strongest that it had ever been so far and with that smell came the sound of the undulating whistle, a scream of a twenty-car train slamming on the brakes and sliding along the rails in a terrible shower of sparks and superheated steel track. 


Whatever this thing was that The White had left behind on this world today, here and now, it was roaming the plains.  The thing was hungry and its hunger was driving it to desperation … that much the Cowboy could feel in his mind.  Suddenly, the Cowboy felt an undeniable urge to flee, to run blindly as fast as he could but he knew that was madness, he knew in that decision lay nothing more than a path to a quick and probably horribly painful death.


Move! He thought to himself!




Move, damn it!




He looked around, quickly, spinning in the saddle to get his bearings and a lay of his surroundings.  There!


“Go.  Go!  Yee-ha!” he shouted, digging his spurs into his horse, pulling the reins hard in the direction he wanted to go and holding tight.


The horse shied away again and broke into a half trot and then a full run away from the glowing mist.  Overhead, the clouds continued to race towards The White.  The sun was sinking into the very end of day, casting last light upon the darkening plains and the strange glowing mist was getting closer now, having covered half of its original distance in the time that it took for the Cowboy to clear his mind and shake the fear off.  The Cowboy spurred his horse into an even faster run, using his reins like a whip to coax his horse ever faster.  In the fading light, he could make out some broken hills to the West, not too far from the path he had come, not too far from the path he was taking.  He might find shelter there, or at least a place he could put his back to a wall and make a stand … if he could.  Given a little bit of breathing space he might be able to draw his lever action Winchester from its saddle bag.


Behind him the glowing mist flowed fast, slithering, rising, falling … and whistling its undulating train wreck of a sound.  The dark touch to his mind came again, but softer and less invasive.  His horse whinnied and shook its head. 


“So, it’s in your head too, eh?” the Cowboy thought and why wouldn’t it be, he asked himself. 


Perhaps the thing was surprised that he would turn and run rather than remain where he stood, frozen in place through his natural fear, waiting, shocked mindless by its invisible touch, staring blank eyed as it flowed over him to slake its ravenous hunger. 


Now the Cowboy felt something new in his head … an alien touch unlike anything he had ever felt before.  Ice cold cobwebs draped their filaments over his mind and drew tight like a net.  He felt the touch of the thing in his mind … he felt what it felt … surprise, dismay and then hatred and anger … all at once and all dropping on his mind like a heavy sack cloth.  He felt the thing now, clawing at his mind and in that touch he felt hunger and desperation … and pain and desperation and hate and pain. 


Terrible, lonely, ceaseless pain.


Whatever the thing was this world was not to its needs and it couldn’t survive here for long.  Already it was dying, the Cowboy could feel that.  The hunger, the pain, the loneliness … it didn’t belong here yet The White had brought it here.


The Cowboy and his horse ran hard and fast for the hills with all that his horse could muster flat out, hoping to put some distance between them and the whistling, glowing, angry, hungry mist.  The Cowboy tucked himself low in his saddle, his horse running at a right angle to and beating a path through the knee high prairie grass that still leaned towards The White.  The dirty, vulgar alien touch flicked across his mind again but this time it was even fainter and seemed almost an afterthought.  Three hundred yards behind him, the pale glowing mist whistled its unnatural cry again, a cry that the Cowboy and his horse both heard and felt in their minds as well as deep in their bones in a painful sensation like hitting his shin against the sharp edge of a cabinet. 


The mist thing continued to move in his direction, rolling and flowing as fast as it could while it pursued horse and coach rider.  The Cowboy chanced a look back every now and then and noticed that even though they would reach the hills first, the mist thing wouldn’t be far behind and for that, the small distance that separated them from the mist thing was all because the Cowboy had listened to his instincts and had turned his horse to run.


He looked behind a second time and immediately wished that he hadn’t …  Less than a hundred yards lay between the beating hooves of his horse and the edge of the strange glowing mist thing that pursued them.  His hat left his head, held aloft in his wake only by his draw string, now stretched taut, under his chin.  He turned and glanced behind him again.   As he watched, thin whips formed from the mist, each with a large bulb at the end.  Three, seven, easily twice that, and then there were too many to count at a glance. All of the whips were reaching and waving in the air before the mist, waving like wet ropes in a strong storm wind and the sound that those pale, luminous whips made as they reached for the Cowboy and his horse was the sound of strips of wet leather being struck by the shaving razor at a barber.  It spooked him but it did his horse even more so.


Behind him was death, unnatural, horrible, flowing, glowing, whistling death swatting at the air with its whips and ropes of mist.


The Cowboy held on as his horse ran so hard that lather started to form at the edge of its mouth.  He could feel the massive heart of the animal beating under the chest, through his clenched legs as he held tight.  The sound of the misty ropes and whips flailing in the air just behind nearly drove him mad with fear; any moment he expected to be snatched from his horse by one or more of the pale whips, wrapped in a glowing, misty rope and he knew that would be his end and that when his end came it would not be kind or merciful.


The horse bucked as it hit the incline of a steep hill and charged at full speed up and up.  The Cowboy held the reins tightly clenched, praying to a God he had seldom paid much attention to before, as he rode for his very life.  Darkness surrounded him and he found that not only was he clenching his eyes shut but that he was holding his breath as well, prepared for a grisly end that was surely almost upon him but strangely somehow never came.  After a few quick breaths, the Cowboy was more than surprised to learn that the God that he had neglected for so long must have found at least some partial favor with his otherwise more or less useless soul because the mist thing had stopped chasing them.  Either it had simply lost interest in the horse and coach rider or somehow it could not pursue them up the steep hill.


The Cowboy slowed his horse on its ascent and let it cool down, let it catch its breath.  He turned in the saddle, pulled his hat back onto his head and stared at the strange sight below him.  The mist thing was following his slow trod along the ridgeline but only a few whips flailed about, listlessly, dejected.  It whistled, up and down, train wreck after train wreck.  Splotches of black, ribbons of ochre and swirls now of bright red moved across the surface of the mist thing, mottled and spotted, rippling the color.  Two handfuls or more of bright red circles appeared near one edge of the glowing mist and that edge reared up, seemingly with great effort, rising and taking shape as it pointed towards the Cowboy.  The height of the ridge was such that the mist thing could not raise up enough nor could it climb, in whatever fashion it might be able to climb, to reach the coach rider and his horse.


The part of the glowing mist thing that had reared up, the part with the many red circles, seemed to regard the Cowboy and there came the undulating whistle again, this time softer, quieter … sorrowful. 




The mist thing trespassed into his mind again and apparently the horse’s mind as well as his mount shied and moved nervously in a small trot this way and that. 


The Cowboy felt something draw a cold rag across his mind, a cold, damp, dirty rag and in that instant he felt disgust, betrayal and anger and at the bottom of all of that, confusion, hunger and need.  The last two feelings were the strongest, hunger and need and resentment and loss and a host of other basic feelings which ran through his mind like ten penny nails.  The cobwebs filled his skull again, layer over layer, muddling his thoughts.  The Cowboy felt drawn to the mist thing but the horse backed up away from the ridgeline until the mist thing was out of view.  The cobwebs left his mind as he deferred to his senses and spurred his horse on into the broken lands.  Behind him, the desperate sound of slapping wet leather grew desperate for a few seconds and then faded to silence.


Ten minutes later, with his horse walking slowly to cool down, the Cowboy heard the undulating whistle of the thing on the plains once more but it was so distant that it could almost have been mistaken for the wind.  Almost … if your brain was prone to folly and you were dumb enough to follow where such folly took you. 


Above him, the clouds had finally been consumed by The White and in their place were a myriad of twisting, pulsing colors; strange auroras that filled the night with a soft, pale flickering light.  The White, as was its custom, had vanished over the horizon though it would be another hour or so yet before its glow dimmed and night truly ruled the sky and by that time the Cowboy planned on being a good bit of distance away from here before he rested for the night.


Tomorrow, the Cowboy had a good bit of riding to do but he thought that he might stick to the high country rather than making a go of it along the plains.