"Last thing I remember, I was running for the door.
I had to find a passage back to the place I was before.
'Relax,' said the night man, 'We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.'"
-The Eagles "Hotel California" (Felder/Henley/Frey)
"Did you feel that, Hickok?" Cody asked as they ambled their horses into the town, which according to a sign they had passed was called Norman Springs.
"You didn't just feel a chill?" Cody knew it was strange as they were having an unseasonably warm spell for late October but he had felt chilled though he couldn't tell if it was from a breeze or if the sensation had come from inside himself.
"Cody," Jimmy said thoroughly exasperated with his colleague. "It feels like mid-August today. I most certainly did not feel a chill."
Jimmy was lying because he had felt something but he was sure it was the result of a bit of shade or sudden breeze across his skin which had been in direct sun for too long. But he didn't feel like getting into a debate with Cody who had been on some ghost story kick lately. Jimmy was sure Cody was trying to turn this into one of his tales. Sure they had never heard of Norman Springs and they didn't recall ever seeing the town on any other run before but perhaps they had gotten farther from the trail than they at first had thought. And this wasn't a regular run anyway. Neither of them had been this way in months and a town could spring up fast in these parts.
Jimmy nodded toward the saloon and Cody nodded his reply. They could both use something to drink, preferably if that something was cooler than the air.
Walking up to the bar Jimmy looked around and he could read the unsettled look on Cody's face. He was sure he had a similar look on his own and he tried to hide it. On the surface this place looked like every other saloon he'd ever been in. There were a few tables occupied by men engaged in poker games and there were women carrying trays and wearing clothes designed to encourage tips and heavy drinking and maybe a partaking of the other services offered in the establishment. There was a weary looking man with a mustache wiping glasses behind the bar. There was even a piano jangling out some indiscernible tune from the corner of the room. Jimmy couldn't put his finger on why he was unsettled and opted for his own fatigue. He couldn't help but feel that something was just a hair off in this place but nothing looked at all wrong. He and Cody leaned on the bar and ordered two sarsaparillas and asked about a room. They typically wouldn't be seeking lodging this early in the day but this hadn't been a typical ride. Neither had been able to sleep the previous night and they'd had to keep riding. Things kept getting less and less typical as the war got closer.
They finished their drinks and headed back out into the unrelenting sun of the Indian Summer. The hotel was exactly where the bartender who had introduced himself as Paul told them it would be. It seemed odd he had introduced himself. As many bars, taverns and saloons as the boys had been in, they hadn't ever had a barkeep formally introduce himself to them. They knew the one back home and in some places they frequented on oft traveled runs. Cody was getting more and more a feeling of something crawling under his skin and Jimmy shook his head to clear the crazy thoughts he was getting. He sort of wanted to punch Cody for getting him spooked with those stories but that would require admitting that he was spooked and he sure the heck wasn't about to do that.
The hotel seemed strange too but again it wasn't anything that either of them could truly get a bead on. Perhaps it was the way everyone looked at them. Sure, the other patrons smiled and seemed friendly enough but there was something wrong with those smiles. They were too big or too insincere. In fact the only word Jimmy could think of to describe them was hungry and that did give him a shudder which he camouflaged into a yawn.
Cody openly shuddered having the same unsettled reaction to the hotel patrons. He thought at first to ask if they could share a room but knew he couldn't handle the teasing Hickok would shower on him. Heading up the stairs to their rooms which Cody thanked the heavens to see were side by side, Cody noticed something else.
"Do you smell smoke?" he asked Hickok.
Jimmy paused and smelled the air and sure there was a real faint smell of smoke.
"They probably had the fireplaces going good when we got that frost last week," he explained away,
"Smells hang around when the air is this heavy. You know that."
"Yeah," Cody said unsure, "I guess you're right."
The men went into their respective rooms. Cody felt like an idiot but he went around the room looking under the bed and behind all the furniture before he finally stretched out on the bed. He was tired and probably that was the entire cause if his unease. The bed was comfortable and sleep claimed him quickly. So fast asleep was he that he didn't take any note of the locked door slowly opening and the shadowy figure standing there watching his chest slowly rise and fall. He didn't even stir at the bashful yet wicked giggle that came from the figure before the door closed and the man on the bed was left to his slumber.
Jimmy wasted no time with checking the room out to make sure he was alone. It was a room and he was so tired that the only thing he cared about was that there was a bed in the middle of it. He still couldn't shake that strange feeling about this place but he shrugged it off as a lack of sleep and the lasting effects of the excitement that had occurred during this errand. Getting shot at and chased sometimes made one a little edgy for a while. It was only natural after all. He tried to fall asleep and found himself tossing and turning and wondering over ever tiny noise. There seemed to be a banging coming from somewhere. He told himself that there would be more sounds than usual. It was the middle of the day after all and people were up and around and not sleeping. Finally he fell into a fitful sleep.
His dreams were vague but disquieting all the same. Always something was chasing him. It was something he never got a good look at and he wasn't sure why he was so scared of it. He had his guns on and surely he could have just turned and fired at any time but for some reason his dream self just knew that wasn't going to help.
Next door, Cody was having a bad dream or two as well. In one of them he walked into the very same saloon they had stood in just a short while before but there was no jangling piano and no poker games. There were no enticingly dressed ladies serving whiskey and no Paul behind the bar. Cody looked around until he saw them all. Bodies randomly strewn about, blood pooling beneath their lifeless forms; it was a scene of utter carnage and while Cody had seen the results of a massacre before, he felt the bile rise in his throat at the sight before him. There was something evil in what he saw. Any other scene of mass murder he'd come upon had resulted from fear or politics or even acts of outright war. This was just evil and Cody wondered at the face of the monster that would produce such horrors. There were wounds on these bodies he didn't even understand. Sure some were from knives and some from guns but others; he couldn't tell what weapon might have been used. If he lived to a thousand he'd never get the looks of terror on their faces out of his mind. Every face was familiar in some way but even in his dream he thought he must be imagining it until he walked behind the bar and found Paul. A scream pulled him from his fixation on the carnage in the saloon.
He walked out onto the street to see a woman running in the opposite direction. Her long blonde hair had come loose from the bun it had been wound into and was streaked with blood. She ran as if the very devil was on her tail and he could see the glint of metal on her back. He tried to run toward her when he realized it to be a knife stuck there. His feet seemed rooted to the spot but he wouldn't have reached her anyway as two steps later she fell dead in the street. There was more screaming as he saw people run by him some trying unsuccessfully to put out the flames covering their clothes. It didn't take long to see that they'd all come from the hotel which was an inferno.
Cody woke up with a start and looked out the window to see the chaos-free street below. The position of the sun in the sky along with a rumble from his stomach told him that it must be around supper time. He was still disturbed by the dream but then decided it was just how tired he had been when he went to sleep and the excitement he and Jimmy'd had before they got to Norman Springs. He walked to the room next door and knocked to see if Jimmy wanted to come find something to eat with him.
"Yeah, yeah," he heard from inside the room, "Just keep your shirt on."
The door opened and there stood Hickok scowling and looking like he'd been awake for days on end.
"Hickok, you look like hell," Cody said and then braced himself and prepared to duck if the need arose.
"You don't exactly look like a basket of flowers yourself, Cody," Jimmy replied dryly, "Didn't you get any sleep?"
"I did," Cody answered, "Just had some bad dreams is all. I was about to go down and see if I could get something to eat. You want to come too?"
"Nah," Jimmy said looking much more tired than angry. "I had a couple strange dreams too. I think I'm going to try to get a little more sleep. You go on, God forbid you miss a meal."
Cody smiled. There was something bothering Jimmy too, he just knew it. The words were exactly what Jimmy would typically say to him but the tone was just not right at all. He turned and headed downstairs and to the restaurant.
Immediately on entering the place he felt silly for his worries earlier. Nothing at all seemed out of place and the faces of the people looked like the faces of people anywhere you might go. 'Or like the ones in your dream, Cody,' he thought to himself, 'In fact, exactly like those faces. Just imagine them frozen in terror and dead.' He shook his head trying to clear that nagging voice but then now that he did look more closely, the faces did look so familiar. 'Stop it Cody!' he admonished himself, 'You're just spooked by those dreams.'
Back upstairs Jimmy was tossing and turning and still having no luck at all in sleeping. He just couldn't get past that feeling he had in the dream as if being pursued.
"You're going crazy, Hickok," he said out loud to himself and half jumped as his own voice cut the silence of the room. "Too many of Cody's stupid stories and you've got yourself imagining all sorts of silly things."
Cody was trying to enjoy his meal downstairs but couldn't shake the unease of earlier that day when it seemed the smiles were too big and well, to put it simply, these people sort of looked at him like he was a roast chicken on a platter. He knew that was crazy but still it was how he felt. He found himself, possibly for the first time ever, with no more appetite so he decided to go outside for a bit and clear his head. The porch of the hotel had a couple of chairs out front and he chose one and just looked out into the clear night sky. As it had been during the day, the sky was cloudless and so there was nothing to obscure the stars or the full moon. This was exactly what he needed, he thought, just to sit and relax and have some fresh air. For all the heat of the day, once the sun set, it was quite pleasant.
He looked over and noticed a young lady had taken a seat in the other chair. She wore a simple blue dress that looked familiar to him somehow though he wasn't sure how since he rarely paid much attention to a woman's clothes. He was much more interested in whatever they showed off of what was beneath. Her blonde hair was pulled back and she tightened her shawl around her shoulders as if warding off a winter chill when really it was not even all that cool that night. Or hadn't been until she said down, suddenly Cody did feel a shudder go though him.
"Evening Miss," he said amiably, "Sure is a pretty night, isn't it?"
She looked startled by him momentarily and then her features softened into a smile.
"Why yes it is lovely," she replied, "I don't believe I've seen you around here before. Are you visiting?"
"Just passing through," he told her, "My friend and I are anyway. We ride for the Pony Express. My name's Cody, William F. Cody."
He extended his hand to her and she shook it demurely, "Clarissa Shea."
Her dark brown eyes shone in the moonlight and Cody was truly thinking he had imagined everything and that their luck from the earlier part of their trip was changing, at least for him.
"If you're riders," Clarissa was saying, "Then I suppose you'll be leaving quickly."
"I would imagine we'll be off at first light," he answered, "Otherwise the folks in Rock Creek are going to be missing us."
"Of course," she said, looking at her hands in her lap.
"But the night is still young, Clarissa," he said, "There's nothing that says two people can't sit and enjoy a nice evening looking at the stars."
The two sat and talked for a while, Cody doing most of the talking and Clarissa hanging on his every word. He wished he could get past the unease he felt but he chalked it up to those jitters you get when you meet someone who catches your fancy. The nerves started getting to him even more so he decided to ask her on a walk through the town. She blushed and looked at the ground before agreeing and resting her hand on his offered arm. As they walked she rested her head against him and sighed contentedly.
"This town isn't too far out of the way for a couple of runs," he offered, "I could maybe stop back by to see you from time to time."
"Or," she countered, "You could send your friend on along and stay right here with me. My daddy owns half the town; he could surely find work for you."
Cody felt his throat constricting. Sure, he had wanted to see her more and possibly even court her but to decide over a single conversation on a hotel porch and a short walk to get married, well, that was just too much of a leap, even for him.
Before he could speak to argue the point, Clarissa pulled him into an alley where shadows were their only witnesses. She backed herself up to a wall and pulled him to her running her fingers through his hair.
"I'm afraid I've fallen in love with you," she said, "I can tell you feel it too."
Her eyes stared up at him wide and innocent as a doe caught unaware grazing in a meadow.
"I'm feeling something alright," he agreed, "I'm not sure it's love though."
"They say you can recognize your true love by their kiss," she whispered shyly.
Cody bent his head and kissed her deeply and passionately. If there was truth to what she had said then he had just found his one true love. There were fireworks going off in his head and chest and other parts of his body it was probably best not to mention in front of a lady.
"Does this mean you'll stay?" she asked hopefully once they had separated from each other.
"This has happened awful fast," he said still unsure, "Can you give me the night to think on it?"
She pouted and looked as if she might cry but then forced a smile and nodded. Her near tears made Cody want to relent right then and say he'd stay and marry her but something held him back. The couple walked quietly back to the hotel where Cody saw Jimmy leaning against one of the beams holding the roof of the porch up. Introductions were made and Jimmy tipped his hat at the woman who frankly unsettled him. He then turned his attention back to the night sky and whatever musings he'd been turning over in his head before his fellow rider walked up with his lady friend. He could still hear their conversation although it was hardly the forefront of his mind. He was much more concerned with the dreams he'd had. After Cody had left him earlier he'd succeeded in another short nap which was no more restful than his earlier attempts at sleep had been. He was still being chased by someone or something he could not see. There were flames all around him though and he was crawling through corpses. He'd thought at first they were not dead and were merely unconscious from the smoke until he'd put aside his fear of whatever was chasing him enough to try to help one and then he saw the blood and knew these folks had been dead before the fire began.
"Would you like to sit a while more, Clarissa?" Cody asked hoping to glean a little more information before he made such a hefty commitment to her.
"As much as I would like that, and I really would," she said, "I simply cannot stay. I must be getting along home. But soon that won't be a problem, will it?"
As she said the last, she gave him a look that would have made a saloon girl blush and, discreetly to those around them but not to Cody, ran her hand across the front of his trousers. He blinked at looked at her again to see her same sweet innocent smile and decided his own fantasies of marital bliss must have clouded his sight for that moment.
"Then I guess this is goodnight," he said still studying those dark brown eyes and still seeing all the worldly experience of a newborn calf. "You'll come by to see me first thing tomorrow?"
"Of course I will," she replied, "We can see your friend off together."
She offered a quick chaste kiss and bustled off presumably in the direction of her home.
"I think I'm going to take a walk and see if I can clear my head," Jimmy said as he pushed himself away from the post. He looked to Cody who appeared to need some clarity as well.
"You go on ahead," came the answer to the unasked question. "I think I'm just going to head up to my room."
Jimmy caught Cody's arm as the other man tried to walk past.
"Is there something going on I should know about?" he asked.
"Just," Cody thought for a moment and then decided to open up. As much as Hickok teased him, he knew his friend would never steer him wrong. When it came down to it, they lived as brothers and none of them would intentionally harm another or let harm come to another. "Clarissa and I are in love."
Jimmy grunted having heard those words escape Cody's lips more times than he could count, though this was the first Clarissa. There had been Elizabeths, Janes, Marys, and Lord only knew who all else. Surely Jimmy couldn't be accountable for remembering all of them.
"I mean it this time Jimmy," Cody argued, "You might just be heading back to Rock Creek on your own tomorrow."
"You can't be serious, Cody," Jimmy fired back, "You've known the girl, what, two hours?"
"Ever hear of love at first sight?"
"Well, that works great if you plan on just looking at her for the rest of your life," Jimmy replied with a bite to his tone. He wasn't sure of this girl before anyway but now that his friend was thinking about staying with her, well, that just sealed his distrust of her. "Seems to me there's more to being married and living with someone than just looking at them."
"Well, of course you're suspicious," Cody spat back, "Just because every woman you fall for tries to get you killed."
That hurt and Cody knew he had impacted his friend and felt bad about it but it was the truth. Of course he didn't know that the real hurt wasn't from Jimmy thinking of Sarah or that saloon girl whose name he couldn't remember. Jimmy's involvement with Alice was hardly common knowledge among the riders and Cody was not in the know. Alice was different and the reminder for Jimmy that the women who tried to get him killed were hardly the point. What would always keep him from love was the knowledge that he didn't need help nearly getting killed and anyone close to him was in danger.
"Do what you want Cody," Jimmy said walking away, "Just do whatever the hell you want."
Cody pushed away the sting that tone caused him and made his way up the stairs. He really should have handled that different instead of pushing away the only friend he had handy to talk to. Of course, how good could it be to talk to Jimmy, a man who obviously did not understand the first thing about women or love?
Jimmy stalked off seeing the sights of the town, such as they were though this town was no different than every other town that sprang up in the territories and he wasn't actually seeing anything anyway. He was far too lost in images of the past, of Alice and of his disconcerting dreams. The dreams had him looking behind him periodically as he walked. Every noise made him jump and the movement of shadows nearly had him drawing his guns on a tree. The evening had settled in and the farther he got from the saloon, the less noise and activity there was and the calmer he felt. As his head cleared he was able to laugh at his own jumpiness. He thought that he'd have no more problems with the readers of the Wild Bill books if some writer had chosen to document his behavior on this walk. As he approached the stables at the edge of town, he was struck by a light coming from inside. Everywhere else in town had grown dark with the exceptions of the saloon and the hotel. He wondered if there was some trouble or at least what would cause someone to still be there and working at this late hour.
He approached the stables and heard sounds he recognized readily. Normally he wouldn't have kept moving toward these noises as they were of people who believed themselves to be alone but he just couldn't stop his feet from moving toward the sounds. He knew it was wrong to spy on people in this situation.
He was able to pause outside the door and he peered around to see two completely unclothed people writhing together in a pile of straw. The woman was straddling the man and both were in the throes of passion. Jimmy was no prude but he felt a need to look away yet an inability to do so. As she arched her back he saw a black mark just to one side of her spine and when she moved again, he was horrified to see it was in fact a gaping hole to an empty dark inside. He stifled a scream that would have not only been unworthy of Wild Bill but would have been unmanly as well. The sudden movement of his hands going to his mouth caught her attention and she turned her head to look at him. It was Clarissa Shea. She smiled at him as the women working the saloons often smiled at men.
"Why Mr. Hickok," she said and the innocence of her earlier tone was long gone and replaced with a sultry and seductive one. "Are you next? I'm sure I'll be with you shortly." Then she continued moving against the man beneath her. "Isn't that right, Jonathan?"
If Jonathan answered or Clarissa was in fact ready for whatever she thought Jimmy was there for, Jimmy wasn't there to know. He took off for the hotel. Creepy hole in her back aside, he could not let his friend stay here with this woman. Cody maybe a giant pain in the neck most times but Jimmy couldn't see him hurt and he knew Cody would do the same.
In minutes, Jimmy was banging on Cody's door.
"Cody," he hollered, "Open the door!"
The door flew open with enough sudden force that Jimmy almost fell into the room.
"What do you want?" Cody glowered, "Got a few more pearls of wisdom about love for me since you're such an expert?"
Jimmy barreled his way into the room not giving Cody a chance to slam the door in his face.
"Would it do any good to tell you to leave?" Cody asked.
"No," Jimmy admitted, "I know you're mad at me and I guess I'd be pretty steamed at you if I was in your shoes."
Cody sighed and lowered himself into a chair.
"I wouldn't have gotten so mad if I wasn't already so unsure about it myself," he confessed, "It just happened so sudden. I was so sure out there when I was with her that it was love and now I wonder. I still think I love her but then I think what would it hurt if I went back with you and courted her for a while? She just seemed to need me to stay so bad and I just don't want to see her that upset."
"Yeah, you love her alright," Jimmy said, "You're right that I'm no expert but I know what it is and that's it."
"I would've thought being in love would be a happy thing," Cody said, "But the look on your face is the same as when Sam put that noose around your neck."
"Any other girl in the world and I'd be real happy for you," Jimmy sighed, "I'd be the first to shake your hand and wish you both well. I'd stand up for you at the wedding. Just not her and not now and not here; it's all wrong."
"This have to do with why you came pounding on my door?"
Jimmy nodded sadly not knowing how he'd find the words but somehow he did find them and he explained what he had seen in the stables although he left out the strange and frightening mark on her back and what she had said to him when she noticed his presence.
Cody sat still and silent for what seemed like forever to Jimmy and he thought that someday it might seem funny to him that for all the times he wished Cody would just shut up that when he finally did, all Jimmy wanted was to hear his friend's voice. He hoped he'd be laughing about it someday. Really he hoped they would be but he wasn't sure they would still be friends after what he had told Cody. Jimmy'd only said anything because of their friendship. Finally Cody shifted in his chair causing Jimmy to look up from where he had perched himself on the edge of the bed.
"Jimmy," he choked out, pleading with his friend, this man who'd become like a brother to him. "Tell me you're just pulling my leg."
It nearly killed him to do it but Jimmy stared into Cody's wounded eyes, "Do I look like I'm joking with you, Cody?"
Cody shot out of the chair and Jimmy wondered if he was going to need to duck but Cody just began pacing madly around the room.
"Maybe it wasn't what you think," he offered desperately, "Maybe you heard wrong maybe what you saw wasn't what you thought."
"I know what I heard and I know what I saw," Jimmy said plainly trying to keep the frustration from his voice. He knew that he'd be in worse shape if roles were reversed and tried to keep that in mind. "You just have to face facts."
"Maybe I should go see for myself," Cody said grabbing his hat but Jimmy caught his arm before he could leave the room.
"Now that ain't going to change anything," he said gently before adding, "And it sure ain't going to make you feel any better."
Cody slumped back into the chair as the air seemed to go all out of him and Jimmy dropped back onto the edge of the bed.
Just as Jimmy was beginning to relax, Cody's head shot up.
"Maybe he was forcing himself on her," he said still trying to rationalize what he'd just heard. "Maybe she was made to do it."
Jimmy sighed, "They was both naked as the day they was born and he was flat on his back."
He still would never tell Cody about what she had said to him but the temptation was strong because it would end the speculation once and for all. Of course it would also probably end their friendship and Jimmy's ability to take solid food.
"No one looked forced at all," he said, "But if anyone was being forced then it was him."
Cody looked around the room hoping for something to appear out of thin air to tell him that this wasn't happening. As much as he had been nervous of making the commitment to Clarissa, in the time he'd been upstairs he'd convinced himself staying was the right thing to do and started dreaming of a simple life of the two of them and maybe a couple of children in time. Now there was nothing.
"I think I'd like to be alone now, Jimmy," he said to his friend. He didn't want to admit that they were friends because surely a friend never brought news like this but then he looked at Jimmy and saw the man hadn't wanted to have to tell him any of it. And it surely wasn't Jimmy's fault that this was the message to be delivered. Still he sort of wanted to punch his colleague just for being there right then.
"Are you going to be alright?" Jimmy asked and his voice held real concern the likes of which Cody'd rarely heard from his hotheaded friend and surely he'd never heard it directed at him. That concern made him almost want to cry and he knew full well that he could not cry in front of James Hickok.
"I need to think," Cody said softly, "And I'm real tired."
"You ain't going to go running off looking for her are you?"
"No," Cody assured him, "I don't think I've got the energy to get down the stairs much less go roaming around the town."
Jimmy got up and headed for the door but paused next to the chair where the other man still sat.
"I really am sorry, Cody," he said, "I don't think you know how much."
He put a hand on his friend's shoulder before leaving the room.
Cody sat motionless for a while and finally dragged himself to the bed and laid there looking up at the ceiling pondering how quickly his life had gone from such joy to such sadness in the span of only a few hours. At least he thought he understood the unease he had felt for surely that had all been a premonition of something going badly and this was the something.
In the knowledge that he was alone in the room, Cody wept freely. He cried in part for his own broken heart but as much for the relief of understanding what had spooked him. He knew a little of his tears were in gratitude for having a friend who would risk bodily harm to save him from himself in this way. He tried to get to sleep with little success. The hotel should have been near silent and yet he heard banging and thumping and doors creaking. It was all enough to keep him unsettled and far from rest. He clamped the pillow over his head to try to muffle the disquieting noises but they just seemed to get louder. Then one noise was nearly on top of him and he realized it was his own door that was coming open slowly and with a whine of the hinges. He almost dared not look into the darkness as he racked his brain making certain once again that he had checked the door lock before he hauled his weary self to bed. He knew that he had. Even in the worst of circumstances and even at his most bone tired, it was just a force of habit when he stayed in hotels. Yet he looked up and as his eyes adjusted to the lack of light and learned to use the full moon's glow, he saw clearly his door standing open. He strained his eyes and saw no one there but he just couldn't stay in the room anymore and certainly there'd be no sleep. He fully believed someone had a spare key and was using it but even so, he knew he couldn't sleep in a room alone when just anyone could wander in. It just wasn't safe. He made his decision and got out of bed.
For his part, Jimmy hadn't been getting much rest either though he wasn't hearing noises or having his door opened. He was actually sleeping with both guns in easy reach even with the locked door so had his door come swinging open, he would have woken the entire hotel with gunfire. But the dreams were still dogging him and interspersed with the nagging feeling of being chased and gained upon by the elusive someone or something he had the visions of Clarissa. Under any other circumstances those visions would have been pleasing and led to a deeper, more contented sleep even if she was a girl Cody was sweet on but in his vision he could not tear himself away from the wound on her back. The wound that should have caused her pain but did not seem to, the wound that ought to have been bleeding but gave way only to empty blackness, he just couldn't get it out of his mind. Beyond that was the man under her, Jonathan, Jimmy had first guessed his legs to be half buried in the straw, perhaps a result of their movements but in his visions he looked more closely and saw they were gone from about the knees down and what remained was charred.
Jimmy was brought from that horrifying discovery by a banging on his door. He might have been upset at the disturbance if the knocking hadn't been so significantly less disturbing than his sleep had been. He rose and padded over to the door and opened it to find Cody wild-eyed before him. He wasn't sure what to think of his friend's appearance but he let him in since he couldn't very well leave the man standing in the hall in his long johns. Jimmy couldn't help being a little afraid of Cody at that moment thinking the man might have thought about things and decided to come and shoot the messenger as the old saying went.
"You okay, Cody?" he ventured tentatively.
"No," Cody said sounding much more afraid than mad. "Someone just opened to door to my room. I figure they have a key but still I didn't see who it was and sleeping alone with someone opening doors, well, that just sounds stupid to me."
Jimmy looked over and gestured at the double bed. As long as Cody didn't turn out to be an unconscious cuddler it would probably be alright. Within minutes, both men were tucked into bed and asleep each thinking that the comfort of knowing there was someone there was just what he had needed. After all, they usually slept in a room with the sounds of other sleeping men.
At first their sleep was undisturbed but the dreams came back as if they had been stalking and waiting for just the right moment to pounce.
Cody found himself once again in the saloon taking stock of the dead before hearing that scream. He once again followed the noise into the street and saw the woman running with the knife in her back. The dress, that simple blue dress, it was Clarissa. He saw her fall and called for her and then saw her rise but no longer was the knife in her back. He could see where it had been but there was no blood and it was like no wound he had ever seen. He could look into it even at his distance from her and the darkness it led to left him feeling cold and, well, there was no other word for it but sad. But this wasn't like any sadness he had ever felt. It was the kind of all consuming sadness that left him without memory of joy and with no hope of ever feeling such a positive thing. It was a darkness that gripped at his heart and squeezed it until he felt he might die.
He followed her and thought he was keeping up but suddenly she wasn't there in front of him anymore. He continued the way she had been heading and found the stables where Jimmy had claimed to have seen her. She was there and her dress had been shed. He stood frozen as she danced around a man on the ground, a man growing more aroused by the second. She then straddled the man and began what might have in another time and place been making love but this was something else entirely and Cody didn't even know how to describe this particular joining of the flesh. His anger flared as he saw the face of the man enjoying the ministrations of the woman he had thought to marry. It was Jimmy. Cody stood stock still not sure if he felt sick or furious but both of those feelings lost to horror as she descended on the man beneath her and began to rip him apart. He could hear every sinew snap as one arm and then the other was disengaged from Jimmy's body. Bones snapped like branches under a horse's hooves. He saw Clarissa, once so innocent and fragile, take a bite out of his friend's shoulder and then turn to him with blood dripping from her mouth, that mouth he had kissed so willingly and passionately, that mouth that had set fireworks off in every corner of his being. He could hear Jimmy crying out in pain and screamed himself and jolted awake.
At first he thought the shock of his dream visions had woken him but then the next blow came and he looked to see Jimmy thrashing next to him alternating between flailing wildly and pulling at his throat. Cody yelled for Jimmy to wake up and shook him nearly violently but became more panicked as he saw Jimmy's face beginning to darken and saw the man's eyes bug out. Frantically Cody looked around and spotted a pitcher of water and without thinking a great deal he grabbed it and hurled its contents into Jimmy's face. The scream that escaped James Hickok would never be mentioned by either man but it was more becoming of a schoolgirl than a fearsome pistoleer. Cody watched the other man paw helplessly at his neck while he lit a lamp and held it close between them.
"Jimmy," he said and tried his hardest to keep the fear from shaking his voice. It didn't work as there was more fear in him than try. "What happened?"
"Someone was choking me," Jimmy answered, "You didn't need to do that Cody. You know I didn't want to have to tell you."
"It wasn't me, I swear," Cody said though he knew that if he had woken before his dream turned to some horrifying feeding frenzy he might have been tempted. "I didn't see anyone at all. You sure it wasn't just a dream?"
"Felt real," Jimmy said and Cody held the lamp closer to inspect his friend.
"There's marks on your neck for sure," Cody said, "But I swear there wasn't anybody here."
Jimmy was up and out of bed frantically dressing and collecting his things.
"I don't know what's going on here," he said, "But I ain't sticking around any longer. Don't you ever tell another soul I said this but there's something not right here and I'm leaving before it comes after me."
Cody was dressing also by this time but slower and thinking while he did it.
"You coming or what?" Jimmy demanded, "I like you Cody and you're a good friend but I ain't sticking around to get strangled."
"I'm right behind you," Cody said.
The two made their way to the stables housing their horses and quickly readied as the sun was rising to another day of unseasonable heat. In Rock Creek the Indian Summer would be a lovely last hurrah of warmth and summer fun before the chill of fall and soon winter would set in. But here in Norman Springs it was just another thing that felt far too out of place.
Riding out of town they passed the churchyard and Cody called for Jimmy to look at something written on a grave marker there. It was a marker for Paul the barkeep. Jimmy saw it but thought for sure there must be another man with that name until he saw he one reading 'Clarissa Shea'. The two looked back once more at the town to see that it wasn't actually there anymore. There were the weathered remains of a few burnt out buildings poking out among overgrown weeds but no other indication of the town. Both men found themselves fighting back near hysteria and it was Jimmy who composed himself first to speak.
"We never speak of this," he said sternly, "Not ever. Do you understand me?"
This was originally published at the wonderful Writer's Ranch. I wrote it last year and then by the time I realized I hadn't posted it here, it seemed weird. So I thought I would wait for closer to Halloween time. Which it is. Fall weather, changing leaves and bags and bags of fun sized chocolate bars on grocery store shelves. Perfect time for a little ghostie story. For those of you familiar with the Bills...this is NOT actually part of the Bills-verse. But it did play a very big part of the progression of events that brought about their twu wuv...and I believe it IS twu wuv...no one can tell me different! So, anyway...like I said, this is not the Bills. Just two buddies having a scary old time in a ghost town.-J