The Devil's Bowl

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"Told ya we'd get lost," Eli Norris said. He spat a black stream of tobacco juice onto the cracked ground and shifted nervously in his saddle.

Eli looked over at his comrade in thievery, Dalton McCoy, riding beside him in that easy way he had. McCoy was studying the bleached canyon walls, for what was probably the fifth time, as if he somehow expected the answer to be magically printed on them in bold letters.

Shoot, probably just say: You're lost and gonna die! Stay out of the Devil's Bowl. Eli thought. Then he remembered that sweet little whore back in Flat River, Nebraska. She had about two teeth left and her eyes were crooked as a skunk's hind leg, but Lord, could that girl do things in bed. Eli blushed when he thought about his last visit two days ago then immediately cursed himself for following McCoy on this damn wild goose chase.

"There's that worrying again, Eli. How many times do I have to tell you? Relax. How you expect to join up with Colonel Kane if you're acting like some nervous school ninny," McCoy said.

Eli looked at the lengthening shadows on the canyon walls. Dusk was coming. Everyone knew that dusk in the Riftlands brought out some nasty shit: packs of Terror Wolves, Death Grizzlies, Vampire Cave Bats. Shoot, even the Wraith Hares were getting bold these days. One time, he and McCoy found a dead mountain man with a huge gash in his neck, his hands locked around a Wraith Hare the size of a small dog. McCoy figured the mountain man had strangled the hare before he bled out.

Eli remembered the size of the teeth on the hare and shuddered. Thirty more minutes on this fool's errand and he was turning around, riding hard for FlatRiver while he still had his skin; Dalton McCoy and his lost stagecoach full of Confederate Gold be damned.

"There she is!" McCoy cried. He pointed into a dark side gully.

Eli squinted. Finally, he made out the armored stagecoach, a ghostly shadow sitting between the two canyon walls. How does he do that, he thought. His partner had a talent for sniffing out money, even in the dark. Put Dalton McCoy in a dark bedroom with a loose quarter and in no time flat, he'd be twenty five cents richer.

"Damn, you know how rich we gonna be?" McCoy said with a wide grin.

Eli looked at the distant stagecoach. A feeling of supreme unease ran through him. He'd had this feeling before. Right before Chancellorsville, he'd been sitting with his evening coffee, readying himself for a much needed hot dinner, when suddenly thirty thousand of StoneWall's Johnnies had come screaming out of the woods like the hounds of hell. He'd run like the dickens that day and hadn't looked back. Now that same feeling was back. It was screaming to do the same thing – Run.

"Say, Dalton, let's head back. It's getting late. We can come back tomorrow morning."

"Hold on just a second. I want to check this out." McCoy spurred his horse and rode into the gully.

Eli cursed under his breath and tapped his horse. He followed his partner into the dark reaches of the canyon.

The armored stage coach sat at the center of the gully. Dust covered its squat ugly body and patches of rust creased the dull iron plating.

Eli and McCoy galloped up and circled around the stage. Both their horses gave nervous whinnies, looking around the murky confined space as if sensing an unseen presence.

"Sparky don't like it here. Something's got him spooked," Eli said and patted his horse, trying to calm the animal down.

"Jack, too," said McCoy and dismounted. He stroked his horse. For a second, he looked unnerved. Jack had carried him though a dozen shootouts with lead flying through the air like enraged bees and had never batted so much as an eyelash. Now he was more nervous than a virgin on her wedding night.

"Just give me a second. Want to make sure the gold's still here," McCoy said, approaching the stage coach.

"All right, but then let's skedaddle, all right?"

"Eli, there's that worrying, again."

McCoy approached the stage coach, reached out for the handle then yanked his hand back like it was on fire.

"Jesus, Christ, and Joseph," he said.

Eli craned forward in the saddle, straining to see what had startled McCoy.

"What. What is it?"

"A goddamned hand."

Eli jumped off Sparky and approached the stagecoach. Dalton stepped back and pointed at the door. There clasped tightly to the brass door handle was a large beefy hand severed at the wrist as neatly as if a butcher had cleaved it in two.

"Holy hell, Dalton. This looks like it happened just a few hours ago," said McCoy.

Dalton swallowed and turned white as a cue ball; his dreams of gold and glory vanishing, replaced by something more immediate and primal.

"Let's get the hell out of here," McCoy said.

"I hear that," Eli said.

The two men leaped on their horses, wheeled them around, but suddenly, the walls of the canyon shook violently. Dust rose around them. Rocks and pebbles fell from above. Eli coughed and strained to see through the heavy dust.

Just then, McCoy's horse uttered a high pitch scream and crashed to the ground. McCoy flew off and vanished.

Sparky reared up, kicking at the air, frantic and terrified. Eli fell off, hit the ground, knocking the air out of him. He rolled clear. Something immense and long grabbed Sparky, yanked the horse off of his feet and dragged the poor animal further into the canyon.

Eli looked around in a panic. What the hell was going on? He couldn't see anything. Just then, the shaking of the canyon ceased. It was deathly quiet. Eli swallowed. Fought to keep the cold grip of fear at bay.

"Dalton? Where are you? For Godsakes, say something," he shouted.

Only the quiet whisper of the wind answered him.

Suddenly, he heard something. It sounded large and heavy, thudding through the canyon, coming closer with every second. The sound of whipping and snapping filled the air.

Eli drew his pistol with shaking hands and pointed it at the corner of the gulley where the sound was coming from.

"Well, come on out if you're coming!" he shouted, filled with a surge of bravado.

He immediately regretted it.

The Grimm Cactus slithered around the corner, a trail of slime oozing out behind its massive bulk. A dozen thorny tentacled arms sliced the air, waving and probing for food. Rows of teeth filled an immense mouth which snapped open and closed. Two eye stalks jutted out of the slug like body. They quivered and vibrated, searching out fresh prey.

Eli screamed and emptied his pistol. The bullets thumped into the pulpy skin, tearing off chunks of green and brown flesh.

The Grimm Cactus roared in pain. Two tentacles whipped out in a flash and grabbed Eli around the left leg. He felt a fire burst of agony as the tentacles ripped his leg off and shoveled it into the snapping mouth.

A curious warm numbness spread through Eli's body, flooding into his brain. He smiled and remembered that Grimm Cactus venom possessed a powerful opiate. A few survivors that had escaped its clutches talked about how the sensation was next to heaven.

Tentacles wrapped around Eli's body and dragged him across the rough canyon ground toward the creature's waiting maw, but he was long past caring. He closed his eyes and imagined himself with that sweet little whore in FlatRiver, wrapped in her cozy embrace in a warm bath, sinking under the water into a place where nothing would ever bother him again.


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