The Town

The Gabriel Hound

Something stalks the town at night

A spritely young woman swings open the door of the flophouse and steps out into the morning sun. At first glance her clothing seems as ratty as any traveler’s might in these parts but, on closer inspection, it’s hard not to notice she’s actually in some fairly fine clothing that’s been dusted up on purpose. If she’s trying to maintain an humble aspect, the $500 pistol on her hip certainly isn’t helping – nor is the fact she rented out the whole bunkhouse last night to sleep in.

Across the street, the porch of Haskin’s Saloon is crowded with men, most of them still sleeping on the boards. Wild Anne Munny, back to full strength after the ordeal of the heat and the meat, is taking her morning coffee. The young woman from the flophouse comes over and introduces herself as Sam Flam, just a normal young lady thank you very much. Flustered at seeing the number of people she turfed out of the Flop House, she begins distributing coins by way of recompense for their discomfort.

While Ms Flam is remunerating the sleepers on Haskin’s porch, something catches Wild Anne’s eye. A huge dog, a mastiff from the looks of things, shambles slowly round the corner. It sways, almost as if drunk, its front legs rigid and faltering. Little by little, it makes its way over to the railing at Haskin’s. It raises its head slowly and stares right into Wild Anne Munny with blood red eyes. Anne falls to the deck, convulsing.

Anne has a violent vision of teeth and claws. She sees blood, flesh, tendon and bone and then, suddenly, ablaze amidst the gore, she sees the town chapel engulfed in flame. The vision lasts only a few seconds; the dog sits by the rail, still watching Wild Anne.

Munny sits bolt upright, slapping leather and letting fly with a shout of ‘mad dog’. She puts two rounds into the dog and it doesn’t even flinch; resuming its shambling gait, it turns and lopes back the way it came. Chasing it with a hail of bullets, one of Anne’s guns malfunctions and explodes into two pieces. Drawn by the noise, Orius Cain boots open the door to Haskin’s with a leg as thick as a redwood, clutching a bread roll in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Anne draws fresh iron and fails to wrest the coffee from Orius’ grasp, even as the scalding liquid starts to spill over his knuckles. Munny lets go of the cup and fires one last time at the dog. The shot goes wide and it disappears. Sam Flam pushes a coin into Orius’ palm, apologetically.

Eager to get the word out about the mad dog, Wild Anne and Sam Flam head over the livery stable, sharing the news of Munny’s vision with Roy Goodwin. Roy insists they go tell Father Henry Kelly up at the chapel, entrusting the business to one of his employees.

Up at the chapel, Father Kelly has spent much of the morning offering coffee to those who stayed in the Chapel last night (given that the bunkhouse was indisposed and all). Among their number was a Sioux woman who had, seemingly, been around since time immemorial. Though reluctant to converse with Father Kelly (who, as it happens, speaks Sioux perfectly), she at least accepted a cup of coffee before repairing to parts unknown. His flock tended to, Kelly is now just about finishing the unpleasant task of shovelling earth into a grave.

Pressed on the matter, Kelly reveals he is not so much conducting a burial as repeating one; the unfortunate in the coffin is none other than Steven Jenks, the man shot dead by Atticus Huxtable some days past. Something dug him up in the night and had itself a fine old banquet which, truth be told, has the holy man a little shaken.

His nerves are not quieted by news of Anne’s vision and the strange dog seen in town – he guesses the breed of the dog before anyone can tell it to him, the colour draining from his face. This dog, he insists, is a portent of much greater evil. The people are in danger, of that he is sure, and it’s his solemn duty to warn them at his afternoon service. Remembering something from her time spent in study, Flam realises she, too, has heard of a beast such as this. It’s a Gabriel Hound.

Whatever it was, Goodwin suggests they stake out the graveyard that night in case it comes back to feed again; that way they can track it and put an end to this business. Father Kelly agrees, asking everyone to spread the word about the service as they make ready for the stakeout.

Tidying up nervously, Kelly finds an empty coffee cup on the porch, washed clean. Inside is a handwritten note in Sioux; ‘Thank you for the coffee. This is a dangerous place’. Sam Flam takes a rubbing from one of the headstones in the graveyard, indulging her strange penchant for history.

Word spreads fast, and Kelly’s service attracts the vast majority of townsfolk; the only people absent, it seems, are those who support Alicia Moreau in the upcoming election. Clearly they have no desire to engage with anything Wild Anne Munny says, prime candidate for town sheriff that she is. Even the Sioux woman, whose name is Ukaleq, is drawn in by the crowd. Sam Flam studies her intently.

The townsfolk go back to their homes, heeding the warnings of Father Kelly closely. One man from their number volunteers to stay up in the rafters of the chapel and ring the bell should anything go wrong. Atticus Huxtable, well used to standing hip to hip with Anne Munny, also offers his services to the town. Roy Goodwin has to get back to the livery stable but leaves Tobias Wade, his best tracker, in his stead. Ukaleq corners Kelly and speaks of a rite she can perform in order to make the church safe. While initially interested, the realisation it would take several days puts the priest off the idea – whatever it is plaguing his churchyard, it’s not going to wait a week. It’s coming tonight.

The sun dips lazily below the horizon and the stakeout begins. The posse takes up different positions around the graveyard and settles in for a long wait. The hours wear on and a couple of the group begin to get bleary eyed, when a low shuffling noise brings them to attention. Shambling its way between the graves, the Gabriel Hound is back. Sam Flam is busy roasting sausages over a fire and doesn’t notice it for some time, but eventually the whole group is brought to bear and begins to stalk the hound.

Ukaleq, an arrow nocked to her bow, begins to close the gap between her and the hound. Suddenly, a great scrabbling starts behind her, followed by a prodigious crack. She changes course and begins to creep toward the new disturbance.

The racket also reaches the ears of Wild Anne Munny and Atticus Huxtable, who are keeping watch near the back door of the chapel. Edging forward carefully they see that another grave has been disturbed, the coffin wrenched forcefully from the earth. A litany of snapping, rending, slurping noises emanate from the shadowy form hunched over the pine box.

Wild Anne creeps ever closer to the grave; the man is too engrossed in his meal to notice. She raises a pistol. Hold it right there, mister.

With a hiss, the man’s head snaps round. Sour, putrid blood coats his chin and drips from the ends of his walrus-like moustache. As he stares with wild, hateful eyes, Anne’s stomach lurches. She knows this man. It’s Lorne Caulfield.

All hell breaks loose. Before she can get a shot off, Anne’s stomach is torn open with a slash from Lorne’s clawed hand. She falls down, clutching her gut. Atticus, ever at her back, draws both guns and lets fly with a pair of magnum rounds. They catch Caulfield in the chest and he spins, falling onto his face.

Wild Anne fights through the pain and manages to find her feet again, while Ukaleq and Huxtable close in on the downed trapper. The three get close enough for a killshot when suddenly the man wheels in the dirt, flipping crab-like onto his hands and feet. In one leap, he bounds onto the roof of the chapel and away.

The Gabriel Hound continues to snuffle around the graves, seemingly unaware of the firefight unfolding around it. WIth a couple of shots from Wild Anne and a well-placed arrow from Ukaleq, the hell-herald is dispatched. Anne quickly moves off to get herself patched up by Mattox, the town barber. Father Kelly drops a tomahawk and stares at his hands, filled with an energy hitherto unfelt by the man of god.

Wild Anne, now sporting a brace of stitches on her stomach, rejoins the group as they set to discussing what should be done next. Ukaleq, speaking in Sioux with Father Kelly, insists that Lorne Caulfield is an unman. He has become a being of pure evil and must be killed. Kelly disagrees, insisting there’s something of Lorne Caulfield that can be saved. He speaks with newfound purpose, insisting that they must find Lorne and attempt an exorcism. Huxtable suggests they set off toward Lorne’s house. He helps Ukaleq onto his horse and they all set out together.

For a man laden with pelts traveling at a pace, it’s a seven hour ride between town and Lorne Caulfield’s house. The posse makes it in three. The sides of the horses foam with sweat and steam rises from their flanks in the early morning chill as they finally arrive at the path to Lorne’s abode. Cautiously approaching the squat building, they find the door locked tight. A note is pinned to the front – ‘Out checking traps’. Wild Anne hammers the door open with a swift kick, but finds nothing out of place inside the house.

Ukaleq takes a quiet moment of contemplation, as though tuning in to something the others are unable to hear. Wordlessly, she leads the group off into the treeline and directly to a nearby trap. Caught in the snare lies a dead rabbit, matted with dried blood. Its bloated carcass and sunken eyes indicate it has been there a long time. Moving on, Ukaleq finds another trap, this time containing a dead deer. Unlike the rabbit, there are no signs of injury. On examining the animal, Ukaleq concludes it died of exhaustion or dehydration. Either way, it’s been here a good while.

The third trap she finds in the brush paints an altogether bleaker picture. The grass has been spattered with a vast quantity of blood, some of which trails off into the bushes. A bloody stump remains in the snare. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a paw of prodigious size, with huge dagger-like claws. Father Kelly presses a finger to the paw, which immediately starts to smoke and bubble at his touch.

There’s nothing for it but to follow the trail of blood deeper into the trees. After a couple of minutes, they come across a large tree, at the base of which sits a corpse – or half of one, anyway. Lorne Caulfield’s legs are entirely missing and the vital organs have been torn from his ribcage. Blood covers the ground in front of the dead trapper in a great cone three feet long. Still flung wide open, his glazed eyes stare emptily – unblinking – into the distance.

There is no time to grieve; whatever did this to Lorne Caulfield is still out there and it’s very clearly dangerous. After debating a return to the graveyard to stake it out, they decide it’s best to tackle the beast here, where it’s made a home for itself. All they need is bait.

Dragging all of the dead animals from the traps (and hunting down a few new ones), a great pile of sour meat is assembled in front of Lorne’s house. Wild Anne finds three bear traps inside the house and arranges them around the bait, before finding cover by one of the front windows. Sam Flam joins her, checking that exquisite pistol of hers over first. For the second time in as many days, the posse prepares to stage an ambush.

They don’t have to wait long. From the trees, there is the loud crack of a snapping twig. Then another. And another. Slowly, Lorne Caulfield – or something very much like him – emerges into the clearing and heads automatically for the pile of meat. Sticking an arm in, he pulls out a slick gobbet of matter and begins to feed, chewing vacantly.

Father Kelly thrusts a wooden cross in front of him and shouts to get Lorne’s attention, pouring his concentration into the holy symbol. The Lornething’s head snaps up from its meal. Spellbound by the cross, it begins to stalk round the pile, stepping expertly over the nearest bear trap. About fifteen feet from Father Kelly, it stops and begins to wiggle its feet as if preparing to pounce; its back arches and it hunkers down as its body begins to twist and deform itself. Its limbs lengthen; its ribcage explodes outward in a series of cracks and its skull warps to take on a grossly different shape. In front of their very eyes, this thing transforms into a mountain lion of prodigious size; easily four or six times that of a normal animal. It snarls and prepares to pounce on the poor priest when, suddenly, it slumps down slightly. Sneaking up on the great beast, Ukaleq has grabbed hold of its tail. She chants softly and the beast’s movements slow. By way of a signal, the Sioux woman suddenly springs back and nocks an arrow.

The shooting starts. Munny, Flam and Ukaleq all score good hits on the beast, but it doesn’t even appear to notice. Snarling at the priest, it lashes out with a huge paw – missing by mere inches. The air in the clearing grows thick with gunsmoke as Munny and Flam continue to rain fire down on the beast, but nothing seems to be working.

Suddenly, Father Kelly’s eyes fly wide. He turns to Atticus Huxtable – give me your weapon! Seizing a pistol, he bows his head low to the firearm and whispers a few words into it. He tosses the gun back to Atticus, who flashes his hand out and puts a round square into the beast’s chest. The trees shake as the thing roars and slumps to the ground – down but not out. A second round of blessed ammunition lodges in the beast’s chest and begins to glow with a searing white intensity. The beast burns from inside out; it shudders one last time and crumples in on itself, expiring.

Eddies of gun smoke drift above the treeline, lazily.

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