Saturday, December 31, 2016

MYTHS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Ghost Train No. 19


Stories of ghost trains abound in the weird west. Spiraling into canyons, plunging off bridges, their spectral engineers wail their whistles as they blast though this world and into the next. Charles Skinner’s Myths & Legends of Our Own Land tells of one such, The Phantom Train of Marshall Pass, on dark winter’s night in the wilds of Colorado.

But, like mending the Salt Witch’s pointy hat a few posts ago, I’m gonna take this particular tale and lay a few more miles of track underneath.

   For months, Nelson Edwards had been driving No. 19 through a stretch in the Marshall Pass without incident. He sat each run at his wall of levers and gauges, small windows at each elbow, peering ahead to make sure the way was clear, then behind to know the same.
   The passengers were always calm and stately, his route was clear of bandits and even now, in the deep of winter, the weather was brisk and fresh. This evening particularly so, with the softest shake of snow from tattered silk clouds across the bruised blue sky.
   The stewards were kind and smart, serving the coffee and sandwiches and paying every compliment. The porters were brisk and smart, hauling up the luggage and squaring away the berths. The brakemen were soldiers, hands at the ready, the fireman a strong, solid back, slaving hard at the coal tanks. His conductor oversaw it all, striding the cars with his chain and whistle and assuring the world was as it should be. Coffee and tea, fresh sheets and safe travels, while shovel after shovel of coal went into that roiling inferno and they rode straight and true into the Colorado night.
   It was strange then, that such a feeling of apprehension should overtake Edwards as he propped an elbow on the open window to relieve some heat from the pulsing furnace. He wiped his brow with a bandanna and tucked it away, then poked his head outside. Nothing ahead or behind. He closed his eyes against the fat flakes of snow pattering his cheeks and told himself he was tired.
   But there was no shaking it. The train held fast, the cars rocked their slow rhythm, but something had changed. Some shift in the air, a tingling along his spine.
   Then the conductor burst in, visibly shaken.
   “Pull her wide open! There's a train climbing behind us!"
   A great whistle sounded then, the droning wail of hot breath down a long, metal pipe.
   “There it is!” the conductor cried.
   Edwards stuck his head out the window, a hand clapped to his hat. Indeed, bearing down upon them was a huge locomotive, bigger than anything Edwards had ever seen. It was a darker black against the night, visible only around the front where its huge firebox glowed from the vents. A storm of sooty smoke poured from its stack, gusts of embers coughed forth as though from the rim of some deep volcano.
   Edwards cranked the throttle and braced a hand on the window sill as they tore around a curve. A snowbank sat tufted across their way, crashing in a blast of powder to either side.
   He called to the fireman, who doubled, then tripled his throws, heaving pile after pile into the tanks. Despite the heat, the cab began to grow chill and the conductor drew his coat around himself.
   “What the devil is he up to?” he asked, his breath casting drifts of vapor.
   Edwards had no idea. Never in his life had he known such a thing. Trains crossing their signals certainly, but in engines driven by sane men. No one ever looked to run his fellows off the road!
   The conductor fought off another shiver and turned back. The alarm of the passengers had reached his ears as they no doubt heard the terrible cry of the unknown train. They would have their faces pressed to the windows, anxious about what was to be done.
   They rocketed into a tunnel then and Edwards steeled himself for the crash to come. There in the darkness beneath a mountain, they would twisted and bloody for all time.
   Suddenly, the world flashed past the windows once more and the engineer let out a breath. It was almost as though ice crystals floated within it, the cab had become so cold. Edwards pulled his collar closed and chanced another look outside. They were along the lip of a canyon now, dark as a cauldron. Snow whipped furiously and the moon was gone.
   Behind them, the black train was ever closer, a figure now visible hanging from the cab. His head was a bare skull, wrapped in a teardrop of blue flame. Other figures stood atop the engine, flinging shovels of orange cinders over their shoulders. Their laughter was a glassy cackle, cutting through even another shrill cry of that hellish whistle.
   The sound rattled through every car in the train, shattering cups and cracking the windows. The passengers cupped their ears or fainted dead in their seats. Edwards gritted his teeth, holding the throttle wide open. Surely the demon train would soon overtake them, dashing No. 19 off the tracks into the canyon below.
   Then the fiendish machine was indeed upon them. Cries of horror rose up from the passengers as the engine appeared within their own cars, the maniacal engineer leering from his cab. His fearsome stokers breathed spectral flames from their gaping mouths. Their shovels cast coals onto backs and laps, which melted away the instant they touched.
   Edwards turned at the noise, sweat pouring from his brow despite the freezing cold. Then the evil engine burst forth, the flaming blue skull laughing past Edwards' face as it roared past. The engineer screamed, his face a blown mask of sheer and uncomprehending horror.
   Outside his window, the shimmering locomotive veered toward the canyon, rumbling down the side with a blast of shattered cars and spurting coals. Edwards shot his head out to follow, seeing only a dim pulse at the far bottom as it detonated on the rocks below.
   He’d have dismissed it all as madness on the instant, if not for one thing. As he slammed the window shut, he gave a startled cry. For there, streaked on the frost as though by a skeletal finger, were the words:
   "A frate train was recked as yu saw. If yu ever run on this road again YU will be recked."
   Edwards took heed. Upon arrival in Denver the next morning, he found suitable employment on another line far, far from Marshall Pass.

If you'd like to grab a free e-copy of Skinner's entire book, click HERE.

Monday, December 26, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Steampunk and the Weird Western



   This is one I feel like could just run on and on if I'm not careful so let's lay it out quick. Weird West, to me, is the weirdness beneath the surface. Our own world, rife with the unknown. Magic, devils, the Beyond scrapin' claws at the curtain-type things.
   I think at the end of the Weird Western story, you revert to your status quo like an X-Files or something. The case is solved, but the world at large is none the wiser. It's not a whole universe you have with the principles of magic running around making the rules. Weird West, you have soft spots in the space and time and okay, things come through. If the world gets a glimpse, it's just a few folks and anyone with a mind to talk about it isn't believed or don't believe it themselves, after a time.
   So there that is.
   Now, Steampunk (and I mention these two because I see Steampunk classified Weird Western and I see Weird Westerns with Steampunk in 'em go by the name Weird Western) Steampunk to me, way I see it is like I said above. A whole world with new rules. Not Our World with some visitations of spectral or alien things but Another World where things went a little different than they did here.
    First one I remember (not Steampunk but it did a popular thing Steampunk uses here and there) was a comic called What If and the cover up there says it all. (Man, I love that thing, wish I had a poster of it. What a hoot.)
    Anyway, in it, they say Leonardo DaVinci did more with his inventions than in our own timeline and the Renaissance happened early as a result, or lasted longer or we had atom bombs in the 1800's, I don't recall. The timeline change is the point, here. Steampunk uses that device a lot and so the Victorian Era (the setting of choice) is advanced enough for zeppelins and goofy goggles and whatnot. And leather bustiers, for some reason. Any rate, in this case, the universe is changed and that's not something that's part of the Weird West genre.
   Sometimes though, Steampunk just has certain devices and things available. The TV show Wild Wild West went that route and James and Artie had access to things that seemed to operate on contemporary 19th century principles. It wasn't that the universe was changed so much as Artie was ahead of his time. Loveless too, but what's a good hero-type show without a great villain? So that's the other side of the Steampunk approach but still, it's not Weird Western.
    Weird Western wants horror. Other dimensions, magic rocks, meteors from space with goo in 'em. Werewolves and mummies and those classics. Some science too, but the inexplicable kind. If aliens arrive you don't get a full picture of their plans or they maybe just want to invade or snatch someone up and move on. There's no discussion of scientific principles with any such villain. No one cares how the mad scientist's Transfogomator Ray works. No one wonders aloud what kind of warp drive a UFO has.
    See, Steampunk is all about the science. How the whole world has changed or is changing. And I've found those stories often hopeful and they paint a fine picture of progress and enlightenment. The good ones, anyway. And yeah, their stuff is plenty weird and can take place smack in the Old West, but it ain't Weird Western.
   That mean we can't have zombie cowboys flying a zeppelin to the moon to fight aliens? It certainly does not. I may write that myself, in fact. And not a damn one of those undead fools is gonna have a pair of goggles on.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Elmer McCurdy, the Bionic Mummy



It’s said the Old West ended in 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico became states. No more West to be had. Well, still plenty of unexplored ground to cover, but the ‘frontier’ was conquered. No more swaggering ranchers, fierce miners, vicious robbers and bold lawmen blazing our path through a great wilderness. It was over.
For everyone that is, except Elmer McCurdy. He didn't intend to, but he saved a piece of the Old West and dragged it with him right on into the present day. Along with a hell of a lot of weird.
Elmer was born in 1880 and had a hard life that, coupled with his own nature, kept him from getting out in front of anything. He liked to make trouble and vex folks and pretty much kept that up to the day he was finally buried in 1979.
Maybe Elmer saw the West ending in 1911 when he took up robbing banks and trains. Maybe he thought himself one of those hard types that could make a name for himself. Maybe he was just greedy. He certainly wasn’t bright so I doubt he gave either much thought. Elmer liked explosives so that was his calling card when he worked a job. A little nitroglycerine, some terrible luck and a career was born.
He blew up more than he ever took, that is, when he was even in the right place. Last job he did he was on the wrong damn train altogether. October 4, 1911 he wasn’t on a Katy holding 400 grand, he was on a passenger deal with about 46 bucks. Elmer snatched it up though, along with 2 jugs of hooch and off he went, the law on his tail.
Most folks, that’d be the end of it. Hands up and come quietly.
Not for Elmer. Like I said, he liked to make trouble.
Two days later he got himself killed in a shootout and even then, wouldn’t let up. The man who embalmed him used a concoction full of arsenic that turned him into a mummy. Such a fine job it was, the man charged folks a nickel a gander, as they say. His own kids put Elmer on roller skates and chased each other around. Why not? No one ever came to claim ol’ Elmer, he might as well serve a purpose.
That is, until 1916, when two gents showed up with a wad of cash and stuck Elmer in their carnival. Elmer ended up in a tent as “The Outlaw Who Would Not Be Captured Alive.” From there, it was carnival to carnival, sideshow to sideshow. He sat in someone’s “Museum of Crime” alongside wax mannequins of Jesse James and Bill Doolin. He was the “Thousand Year Old Man” in a spookhouse, hanging there to give you a jolt as your little cart went by. “Dead Dope Fiend” was another honorific, sitting out in movie theater lobbies to accompany the run of an exploitation film.
Elmer saw one of the first cross-country marathons in the U.S., the set of the movie She Freaks, Mount Rushmore and ever more sideshows and carnivals as a zombie, ghoul or “Real Egyptian Mummy” until he wound up covered in a gloss of bright orange paint, hanging in another spookhouse in The Pikes, a Long Beach, CA amusement park.
It was 1976 by then and Elmer had so many titles on his roster, they’d forgotten who he was. Or even that he was. Far as anyone knew - he’d been so traveled and traded - he was just another wax mannequin. But he had two more titles to rack up. One was "Guest Star on an Episode of the Six Million Dollar Man" that was shooting at the park, and the other was "The Body of Former Outlaw and Nitroglycerine Enthusiast Elmer McCurdy".
The first would've gone off fine if a crewman on the shoot hadn't knocked poor Elmer's arm off between scenes. This led to the second. Because the crew saw bone there in that broken dummy and this led to cops, forensics and a whole big shebang about who he'd been and how in holy hell he'd wound up hanging in some fun park.
They worked it out, finding carnival ticket stubs and old coins in Elmer's mouth, then got on with the science and gave the ol' boy a ride back to Oklahoma. There, they held a nice procession with a few hundred folks in attendance and, just to be sure Elmer didn't get up to his old ways, dropped two feet of concrete on his grave. He's there still.
Or should be.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

MYTHS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Bride of the Demonslayer



Salt Witch of Nebraska is a hell of a thing. One of those legends to explain a given phenomena. Some rock formation or a twisted tree. Or, this case, a pillar of salt out on the plains. It's gone now, so no need to tell about where it came from. But, this being the Weird West, we should try and remember it. Charles Skinner told the story in his book Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, 1896. Good story, but it needs a little something.

I'm gonna take it for a spin.


   There was a tribe long past who lived at the junction of two rivers, a fearsome clan of lean warriors and dark-eyed beauties. Their children were playful and bright, learning at the knee or yelping among the tents and fires. Game was plentiful and tall crops yielded a lush bounty. The world was a vibrant place then and life was simple.
   The Chief of this tribe was a bloody and storied warrior. Much loved, despite his furious and savage nature. None among his people could withstand these tempers save his wife, his every equal in whim and will. Upon her death, the world might have ended, such was the Chief's sorrow. His soul was the deepest pit, into which he cast all good things.
   So he shut himself within his lodge and refused to be seen. In day, his people could scarcely bear the roaring of his vile curses. At night, though none would ever speak of it, the sounds of their mighty leader's weeping was unmistakable. There came talk among the elders that a new chief must be chosen.
   This, the Chief must have learned, for a morning soon after he filled the entrance of his lodge once more, a great war bonnet of eagle feathers upon his head. His broad chest was slashed in paint and his eyes glinted behind the stripes on his cheeks and jaw. With his spear and tomahawk, he strode from the camp and set out across the plain.
   Several nights into his travels, the Chief lay upon the ground, staring at the moon. He mused upon its rifts and craters and imagined he saw his wife there, smiling within the faded blue lines of its bright surface. Then a scream and the warrior sprang boldly up, weapons at the ready. There, awash in pale moonlight was a young maiden upon her knees, gripping the wrist of a hellish old woman strangling her with one withered claw. The other was held high above, ready to strike with a tomahawk.
   The Chief charged forward and hurled his spear. It grazed the hag's arm with a spray of blood and thudded deep into the ground behind. She released her grip on the maiden, though she wound her other hand in the girl's hair and twisted her toward the bold warrior. Tears streaming down her cheeks, eyes flashing in fear, it was none other than his beloved.
   With a bellow, he closed the distance and leapt high, his stone tomahawk clashing against the witch's own blade. As the ground began to tremble, they fought, sparks singing with blow after blow. But the War Chief was crazed and without a mind for his many cuts or the blood that spattered upon the shivering grass. Seeing his chance, he struck, and cleaved the skull of that horrible fiend.
   Then the ground itself split and threw the Chief to his knees. The witch was but a phantom now, swirling in tatters about his wife until she too, became indistinct. With a wail of sorrow, the pair of specters fled within the fissure. When the ragged seam slammed shut once more, a spray of stinging salt went up and covered the mighty champion. He shut his eyes for the pain and seethed, silently, letting each grain eat its way into his wounds.
   When he opened his eyes, there loomed a pillar of salt, the only testament to what he'd witnessed. The Chief gathered up his spear and tomahawk and set out into the darkness. For years afterward he led his tribe to the pillar, this place of the Salt Witch, where they would chop off pieces for use with their bread and hides. Then they would chant and beat their warclubs upon the ground, that she might never rise and work her evil again.

Anyone interested in reading the original story, click HERE.
If you'd like to grab a free e-copy of Skinner's entire book, click HERE.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

WEIRD WEST FICTION: Night of the Six-Gun Gorilla


I adapted this from the original story (by an anonymous author) which first appeared in The Wizard magazine in 1939. It's in the public domain now and we're free to do as we please with it. First order of business was changing the ape's name from O'Neil to O'Shea. Also had to figure a way to make the gorilla smart as a man, and give him know-how on guns. Once done, it was just a matter of taking Anonymous' 80K words about a rundown gundown and tightening that up something fierce. As a result, several months in the original piece is now one night. 

One hell of a night.
   

Chapter 1: An Association of Apes

Bart Masters threw down his pick with a grunt of relief. It was almost dark now at the bottom of the shaft. Bent and scarred by a lifetime of toil, sixty-two years felt like two hundred. If he was ever going to spend all the gold he’d torn from the earth the last couple years, he’d have to quit for civilization. Today’s haul and everything stashed under the floor of the cabin, it was more than enough.
It was time.
He finished packing the last bucket and tugged the rope. Foot on the rim, he shouted, “Hoist ‘er on, O’Shea!”
Simple as slick, up he went. Breaking into the crisp air of early evening, Masters grabbed the crosspiece above and stepped out.
“Thanks, son.”
The gorilla shuffled away from the winch handle.
“Hoo,” he grunted. “Heh.”
A tremendous creature and Masters was still taken aback at times. Hunched but huge, at least six foot. Glossy black as a coal broom with a face like a nightmare. Cold weather creature, from what Masters could discern – from its love of daytime shade and evening frolics in the brisk desert – but New Mexico had treated it well enough. ‘Least up in the Cristobals this time of year. Spring was always kind.
The old man had never up and asked where the thing had come from, though part of him figured if he did, it might answer.
It had to do with the scar above its eye, certainly. Oh, there were others. The creature contained an entire history of some terrible practice head to foot. Rakes along its skull, its chest. Long scrapes and trails visible when the breeze moved the fur on its arms and legs. But the one on its head was the thing. A puckered hole in, with a pink, hairless exit around back.
Which had to be a bullet. There was no other explanation. Something had creased its brain and cinched up the years Mr. Darwin said held the apes and men apart.
When Masters had found the beast shuffling dust on the horizon as he’d dragged his wagon to the claim, there was no denying the craft in its eyes. The grunts when Masters had leaned in the saddle to coo at it like some pet. No words, but the ape had gestured back the way it came and even gave some small shrugs, as if to say:
I got real problems back there. What’s going on up this way?
Did it understand like a man? Masters had decided it did. At the very least, the animal seemed to understand Masters, little as it could tell of itself. He’d named it for his own wife Maggie, gone to the fever years back and since, found something of comfort in the thing’s company, if not outright friendship.
Now, the old man directed the bucket into a few sacks and got them loaded on the horse. O’Shea knuckled beside, long arms out front to tuck its legs and do his hop-gallop down the edge of the mountain toward the cabin below. The last bit of sun winkled on the creek flowing beside it and Masters had to smile.
Dragonfly Mine, he called his piece of the world, and there’d been no better stroke of luck around it. Either in the gold itself, or chancing upon O’Shea to help him turn it out. The beast had fallen right to work, easy as pie.
Even got down in the shaft at times with the pick and shovel. Masters felt foolish speaking like he did to the animal, spouting odd thoughts throughout the day, but damned if it wasn’t easy. He just knew there were notions in that creature’s mind. Thoughts of loves and hates, pasts and futures.
Everything was in them eyes, the way they looked right at him. Felt shameful to consider, but Masters often wished that bullet had gone deep enough to knock some words loose.
“’Bout time, I think,” he said, swinging a leg off the horse. Without being told, the ape grunted over and helped unload the sacks.
“How ‘bout you?”
O’Shea snuffled, cradling one of the sacks like an infant.
“Civilization? Y’all got one o’ those?” Masters untied the other sack and let it drop, to give the horse some relief. “Some ape society?”
O’Shea grunted again ‘hoo, ho-ho’ and waddled up the porch, shaking his head.
‘Ape Society.’ You’re a card, old man.
Masters led the horse to its corral around back, a horizontal post next to the outhouse and tool shack. Charity was a fine Appaloosa, quick and strong and made stronger for all her work hauling out the mine. He went in the shack for a blanket and feedbag, tying oats on and heaving the saddle off. He draped the blanket in its place and gave her a pat. Wiping his hands on his front, he took in the sunset one more time with a deep, satisfying breath.
It was just touching the top of the woods at the end of the grassy field. This, just past the creek. The woods carpeted another slope, steeper than his mine was and continued down toward town. From just above the mine, it was easy enough to see the place out there.
Copper Drop was built on the paraje Fray, the last hospitable land on the Royal Road, the Camino Real just before Jornada Basin. The Royal itself ran 1500 miles, Mexico City to Santa Fe and oh, dangers abounded. But that southern piece through the basin, 100 miles to the border, was considered the worst of it. They called it Jornada Del Muerto, or Dead Man’s Route.
A powerful hell, made worse for the fact the mountains followed you the whole way, hiding the Rio Grande behind ‘em. ‘Least ’til Fort Selden, but most were dead by then.
Powerful hell. Only seemed right a shitty minin’ burg like Copper Drop sat at the head of it.
Be good to finally leave. Good to be back in the world with telephones and canned fish and that new kinda water closet. Shit, Yale gone and give some nigger a goddamn degree! Oh, they could do anything back in the world. A man met it head-on or got to runnin’. And no man ran that damn fast.
The old man sighed.
Inside, the gorilla had already pried up the loose boards and stowed their day’s take. While he sat beside the black-belly stove picking burrs from his coat, the old man set about some supper.
They chatted over it, or, Masters did, spooning stew at his little table while the ape retired to the corner. Here, he fed up on some grass and flowers from the wooden bin. O’Shea and the old man went out of a morning or night, picking flowers and thistles and tying them in bundles for the beast to eat.
The ape mostly grazed the land on his own – eating as much as he did everyday – but their picking expeditions were a way to relax. And the little bundles were like bites of food at a man’s table, when Masters was taking his own evening meal. O’Shea could use a chair and sometimes sat across, but seemed to prefer his corner.
“So, you ain’t said much,” Masters said, licking out his bowl and setting it on the shelf. He stared at the Territory map on the wall, then took up a log from beside the stove. He cleared his throat and creaked open the front to toss it in.
“So, then.”
O’Shea grunted.
“Back to town ‘fore long? No?”
The ape munched and snorted and waved a hand.
Foolishness. I can’t be among Men.
“What’s that?” Masters imitated the gesture. “You sayin’ no? Why the hell not?”
O’Shea held out his foot, that brand burned into the heel. The number 9 in peculiar script, inside a circle.
Where do you think this came from?
“Well –”
He let it go and whapped a palm over his eye, at the hole there.
And this?!
“C’mon now, not all’re bad. We’ll take it slow, maybe –”
O’Shea stood with a snarl. It wasn’t aggressive as such. Masters had never feared for himself around the gorilla. But he knew when enough was enough. He held up his hands and looked at the floor with a sigh.
“Conve’sation over.”
The gorilla stared at him.
“Don’t have to go nowhere y’don’t want.”
O’Shea snorted again.
Uh huh.
  He knuckled to the door and pushed outside.

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