Clark Reeper and Hell on the Range

Michael Panush

Now I've been in quite a few range wars, and have always found them peculiar conflicts. They normally are fought between two ranches over a bit of land that's contested, and the normal cause is probably a bit of too much strong talk and drink on the side of a cowboys. Before anyone knows what's happened, battle lines have been drawn and the two sides are blowing each other away with six-guns, rifles, and dynamite. Ranchers normally hire all kinds of folk to do the shooting, and I am often one of them. My name is Clark Reeper and I am a bounty hunter.

I don't like fighting range wars, on account of it seems to me that both sides are just variations on the same tweed-clad fat cat who sits at home and drinks whiskey out of a gold cup while folks he paid a half-cent or two go off and die for him. But when times are tight and I'm in the need for money, I'll hire myself and my colt peacemakers out to the highest bidder. And right now, times was tight.

You see, I had a little boy by the name of Charles Green in my care. Saved him from a bunch of flesh-eating corpses in Kansas, and had him along with me ever since. It makes everything I do a heck of a lot harder, but I just ain't got the heart to get rid of him. His father got eaten by the hungry dead, and I figure I'm just about the only person he had, which is why when I got a telegram from the Cormrick Ranch way out in California asking for my help, I got on the first train to Sacramento.

Charles is a nice little fellow, he's got brown curly hair, thick spectacles and he always wears a brown Norfolk suit, a peaked cap. I'm a tall gent and I wear a long khaki duster and a crumbling Stetson. A belt with two Colt Peacemakers on it is never far from my grasp. When we sat together in the lower class compartment of the train to Sacramento, we must have looked as different as can be.

I had been mulling over some thoughts on my head during the long train ride, and just as we were nearing the end of our journey, I reckoned it was the time to let Charles know. He was reading a book, some cheap dime novel I had bought him at the train station, and he was kicking his little legs idly as the train pulled into the station. I put my arm on his shoulder and he looked up.

"What is it, Mr. Reeper?" he asked curiously.

"Well, son, I gotta tell you something." I gulped. I had grown quite fond of Charles lately. He was very polite and shy, and he always seemed eager to help me out and watch my back. In fact, I was wondering if maybe me and him weren't too different from a father and a son.

"Sure, Mr. Reeper."

"It's about this here job I'm about to do. The one for the Cormrick Ranch. There's gonna be a whole lot of shooting and other violence, and I want you to stay clear of it. I'll go out and fight the war, you stay back in the ranch and keep your head low. You understand, son?"

Charles shook his little head. "But I can help, Mr. Reeper! I want to be with you! I've gone on your adventures before!"

I was about the only person in the whole wide world for Charles. Poor kid. But I made myself shake my head. "Sorry, son. Those last times you got hurt, and I couldn't forgive myself if something happened to you. During this job, you get to hang back."

Regretfully, Charles nodded. "Well, I guess so, Mr. Reeper. But it can't be too dangerous, and I'm sure you can keep me safe."

"I wish I shared your confidence, son." I looked out the train window. We had just pulled into the station and passengers were already disembarking. "Well, we'd best get ourselves in the town. I'm sure whoever owns the Cormrick Ranch will be waiting for us."

After getting our luggage, we walked out onto the platform. Sure enough, a portly fellow in a black and white checkered tweed suit ran up to me. He carried a revolver on his waist, and a gray moustache covered most of his face. He grinned at me and held out his hand.

"Jasper Cormrick, owner of Cormrick Ranch. Mr. Reeper, it is a great pleasure to meet you!" He pumped my hand fiercly and then looked down at Charles. "And who is this?"

"My boy, Mr. Cormrick. His name is Charles Green, and he'll be staying back at your ranch while we do the fighting."

Cormrick nodded. "Whatever you say, Mr. Reeper. My, I am glad to have someone of your expertise along with us! We are going to blow those filthy greasers right out of the water!" We walked down the streets of Sacramento to a parked carriage.

"Greasers?" I asked. "You mean, Mexicans, right?"

"Rancheros. I've recently purchased a sizable area of fertile land, perfect my herds, but a pack of greasers is occupying the area. They call themselves the Juevos Rancho. The sombrero-topped stinkers raise a few scraggly head of cattle, and they simply refuse to leave, even after I politely told them to get the hell of my land! The nerve!"

"Any reason why?"

He shrugged. "Something about them having nowhere else to go. A shooting war has just recently broken out, and with my resources, I will surely come out the victor. I've brought in some powerful artillery from San Francisco, and including you, I've hired two master gunfighters to lead the charge against the greasers!"

"Two gunslingers?" I looked up at the carriage. Sure enough, a familiar looking fellow was sitting on top of it. "Whose the other one?"

The man on the stage coach roof dropped down in front of me. He was a tall, thin, fellow, dressed in a black cloak and a wide brimmed black hat with a golden pentagram in the hatband. A long-barreled Colt Buntline Special was at his waist, as well as one of them long knives called an Arkansas Toothpick. His dark eyes stared out at me from a head of tangled black hair.

"Clark, this is Brimstone Brown," Cormrick said, pointing to the other gunslinger.

I drew my colt out and pointed it at him before I knew what was happening, and soon was seriously considering pulling the trigger.

"We've met," I said.

Brimstone Brown held out his hands. "Please, Clark, there's no need for you to bring up old grievances. Let's just forget the past for now." Come now, we can be friends."

"The last time we saw each other, you had tied me to a steamboat heading off the edge of Niagra Falls." I kept my pistol leveled. "We ain't friends."

"Well, honored foes at least." He held out his hand. "Please, Clark, give it a shake."

I shook my head. "That last time I shook your hand, you reached around and tried to stab me in the back. I've still got the scar."

Jasper Cormrick quickly intervened, stepping between us. "Now, Mr. Reeper, Brimstone Brown has been a very good employ to me! In fact, it was he who pointed out the patch of fertile ground that we're fighting over. You're under my pay, Mr. Reeper, and I won't have you starting fights."

I stared at Brimstone for a long time before holstering my six-gun with a practiced spin. Brimstone was a bastard of the first degree, a cultist always on the lookout for arcane power, and willing to do almost anything to get it. Ignoring him would be tough, but I reckoned I needed the money more than I needed to settle a score.

We got into the stagecoach. Charles was a mite tuckered out from the train ride, so he went inside and tried to get some shuteye while me and Brimstone sat on the roof and Jasper Cormrick drove. Cormrick cracked the whip and we started off down the road, soon leaving Sacramento behind and heading out into the country.

"So, Clark," Brimstone said after a while. "I didn't know you had a son."

"He ain't mine," I explained. "I've been taking care of the boy after his parents were both killed. Charles is near and dear to me, so don't you got hurting him in anyway or you'll answer to me."

Brimstone shook his head and laughed. 'Please, Clark. Are you making me out to be some kind of monster? I love children. Always good to have a little lad running about. Makes everything a little bit easier."

That was a queer thing to say, but I didn't comment on it. Apparently, Jasper Cormrick really trusted Brimstone Brown, and valued his advice. But Brimstone would rather look for occult knowledge than take sides in a petty range war. Something was amiss, and Cormrick and Brown weren't telling me the whole story.

By and by, we came to Cormrick Ranch. It was a nice place, with a large number of barns and houses, some crops growing, and herds of cattle grazing peacefully away. A large number of ranch-hands and cowboys were waiting for us, and I saw that they was all armed with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Guess they had been waiting for their boss to come back before they made their move.

"Hello boy,s" Jasper Cormrick said when he saw his men. "I'd like you all to meet Clark Reeper, one of the best guns in the West, and my new top shooter!" He stood up and pointed a pudgy finger at me.

I touched the brim of my hat and they all cheered like I was a hero or something. "We'll be attacking the greasers in a little while, so don't get lazy, and don't get too drunk!" Jasper commanded.

The men grumbled, but agreed. They were in good spirits and were spoiling for a scrape. Jasper took me, Brimstone and Charles to the range house to get out bearings and prepare for the attack.

He had a nice little cabin, well adorned with furniture and bull's horns on the walls. A number of maps of the surrounding area had been spread out on a few tables, and Cormrick bent over one like he was Napoleon or something. Charles was snoozing away, so I carried him inside and laid him down on a comfortable looking chesterfield.

"Very well!" Cormrick said, plucking his white moustache. "Lets see how things lie. Here is the Cormrich ranch." He pointed a thick finger at a large brown square on one side of the map. "Here is the Juevos Rancho." He pointed at another, much smaller square. There was a small amount of land between them, and I noticed a small white square filling some of that up.

"What about that one?" I asked, pointing at it.

"Oh that," Jasper said, as if it weren't of any importance. "That's San Diablo, an old Mission from the Spanish days. It's just a ruin. We may use it as cover or something, but probably won't have cause too."

"It's nothing to get excited about," Brimstone Brown put in, staring at me with hard black eyes. I shrugged and said no more about it.

"Everything understood?" Jasper said. Brimstone and me nodded. "Excellent. Get your guns ready, and we'll ride out. The greasers might send an advance force to head us off, but we can cut through them with ease. Those lazy Mexicans are good at one thing that that's taking siestas. Consider this an evening in the park, shooting very lazy deer."

I checked my weapons. My trusty Colt Peacemakers, my bowie knife in my boot, and for long range work, I borrowed a Winchester Repeating Rifle from one of the ranch hands. After getting everything ready, I headed for the door, but a small hand grabbed my duster.

I turned around and saw Charles tugging at my jacket. "Mr. Reeper?" he asked plaintively. "Can I come with you?"

"No, son, you stay here. I won't be that long."

"Are you going to fight?"

"Reckon I am." I didn't see no point in lying to Charles.

"Well, then be careful. Please." He looked up at me with big eyes and I couldn't help smile.

"Son of a gun, Charles, I'll just be fighting some stuck-up Rancheros. No need to be careful." I couldn't have been more wrong about anything.

Jasper Cormrick and Brimstone Brown had the cowboys assembled outside. Whooping and hollering, they got on their horses and rode out to battle. I rode next to Cormrick, and Brimstone was near by.

"We'll get the outskirts of the Rancho," Jasper said as we rode towards the horizon. The landscape was mostly fields of tall grass, perfect for grazing. "Soon as we get close enough, we'll dismount and proceed on foot. I've brought some surprises for the greasers."

The surprises were four honest-to-god Hotchkiss Guns, the kind that would be used by Federal Troopers. Jasper Cormrick must have had even more money than he let on. A wagon carrying the machine guns brought up the rear.

After a couple minutes of hard riding,, we came to a bunch of hills. It was typical California ground, short grass that was good for feeding cattle, and the occasional tree and hill, fine land for ranching. I could see the Juevos Rancho in the distance. It was like a mouse compared to the monster of Cormick Ranch, made of only one barn and a few sparse looking fields of crop. We got off of our horses and some of the ranch-hands set up the Hotchkiss guns. It didn't take long for the Rancheros to come.

"There they are," Brimstone said, pointing to the Juevos Ranch. Sure enough, a small army of folks on horses with big sombreros were riding straight for us us.

"You think we're in for a tough fight?" I said, crouching down and taking my Winchester off of the sling on my back.

"No problem, no problem at all." Cormrick grinned. "They're lazy greasers! They can't even ride right!"

Suddenly a lariat snaked out from one of the oncoming Rancheros, wrapped around my Winchester, and pulled it right out of my hands. The Ranchero was standing on his horse like a professional rodeo star, expertly avoiding the bullets the ranch-hands were blasting at him. Then, he grabbed the Winchester and blew a hole in the head of the ranch-hand next to me, all while avoiding catching a single shot.

Before I could register my surprise, the Rancheros rode straight into us, and the battle was on. Those Mexicans may have been a lot of things, but they sure as hell weren't lazy. They used old breech-loaders that wouldn't have been out of place during the Mexican War, but guns weren't the only weapon they, brought, no sir. Those lariats they carried lashed out and fastened around the cowboy's necks, strangling some of them where they stood, or dragging them behind the Ranchero's horses, and crashing them into rocks and such.

The Rancheros also wielded lances, impaling some ranch-hands on them, or throwing the lances like javelins. Cormrick's men tried to blast them with our guns, but the fighting was up close and bloody, with not enough time to aim carefully or reload. Horses were kicking around, trampling everybody, lances were flying into people, and the occasional gunshot going off, and I felt like I was inside Bedlam itself.

My peacemakers came in handy, and I fanned them off at the oncoming Rancheros as fast as I could. A couple of the horsemen went down, but not enough. Soon my revolvers were empty. I didn't really have time to reload, and I found myself drawing the bowie knife out from my boot, but I knew that it wasn't going to help me much. As I was hiding behind a dead horse and reloading my revolvers, Jasper Cormrick crawled over to me. His hat was gone, but he didn't look too beaten up.

"Goddamn greasers!" he cursed. "This wasn't what was supposed to happen!"

"Well, what do you propose?" I asked, but before Cormrick could answer, I stood up, and shot a charging Ranchero off of his horse, but not before the lance he threw landed in the dirt a few feet from us.

"The Hotchkiss!" Jasper Cormrick cried, pointing to a hill that might as well have been miles away, what with all the Rancheros riding around it. "The greasers killed the crew, but if you can get to it and set it up, we can mow down these lazy Mexicans!"

"I don't think I'd call them lazy," I said, ducking back down. "And I'll tell you something else. It takes too to fire a Hotchkiss, and I'm just one."

"I'll help," Brimstone's eerie voice echoed in my ear. I spun around and found him staring at me. His Arkansas Toothpick was out and bloodied, as was his buntline special. "That's what friends do. Isn't it?"

"I reckon so," I muttered. Without giving Jasper Cormrick a backwards look, I started running for the downed Hotchkiss. Brimstone Brown was running right next to me, and our pistols seemed to shoot out lead almost in tandem. A group of Ranchero horsemen started stampeding towards us, but we gunned them down quick enough. After a time that seemed longer than all of creation and a half, we reached the hill.

A couple of Rancheros were riding around it, and I stood back and fired at them while Brimstone Brown charged in for the kill. He leapt into the air like some kind of mountain cat and drove his long Arkansas toothpick straight into the skull of the unlucky Rancerho, then pulled it out and neatly slit the throat of another. I wouldn't want be the opposite side of Brimstone in a knife fight, that was for sure.

After the Rancheros were dispatched, we set the Hotchkiss up and put a string of bullets inside. "You want to fire?" I asked Brimstone.

"It would be…an pleasure," he whispered slowly. I started threading the ammo belt and Brimstone began to work the crank of the Hotchkiss. Soon a stream of bullets was flying out, tearing apart the Rancheros and their horses. The poor Mexicans didn't stand a chance, and the bullets tore them all apart in seconds. It was a miserable way to fight, and I didn't like it one bit, but I still kept the bullets coming. I looked at Brimstone Brown and saw him grinning ear to ear.

The Rancheros soon tried to retreat, but even then the Hotchkiss gutted them as they rode away. It wasn't long before the ground was covered with the bodies of men and horses, and there weren't nothing left to shoot. Brimstone stopped working the crank and stood up, and I did too.

Jasper Cormrick and the surviving cowboys raised a ragged cheer. Cormrick ran to our side. "We sure showed them!" he exclaimed.

I looked at the dead bodies, cowboy and ranchero, that littered the ground. Something had been shown today, that was for sure. "What now?" I asked.

"Well, I'd suggest repairing to my ranch for some victory drinks." Jasper Cormrick put a hand around Brimstone's shoulder. "A congratulations for a job well done."

Brimstone Brown shrugged off Jasper's hand. "The job's not done yet. More Rancheros must be out there, waiting to attack again. With most of our men dead, we won't be able to hold them off, even with the Hotchkiss."

"More?" Cormrick looked surprised. "But the Juevos Rancho is just a small place! We might have killed all of the men and boys there just now!"

"But the Mexicans breed like rats." Brimstone clasped his hands together. "You know that, Jasper. Perhaps even as we speak, an army of horsemen even bigger than the one we slaughtered here is coming towards us."

Something wasn't right here. I didn't know the situation too well, but I figured Brimstone was spitting out hogwash and Cormrick was buying it.

"What should we do?" asked Cormrick, sound scared.

"The Mission El Diablo." Brimstone Brown jabbed a thumb behind him. "We can fortify it, mount the Hotchkiss guns and take up firing positions along the walls. No Rancheros will be able to get close."

Jasper nodded. "A decent idea." He raised his voice, ordering his men. "Come on, boys! Let's head on down to the Mission San Diablo!"

We rode down in a grim silence. I was wrapped up in my own thoughts about what Brimstone Brown could be planning. He had some sort of hold over poor Jasper Cormrick, but I still couldn't figure out his purpose. The Mission San Diablo seemed to play some role in it.

Now, I ain't exactly a Spanish speaker, but I know that San normally means Saint, and Diablo is Devil. Missions, being Christian institutions would not be named after no devil. The name sounded like there was some sort of story behind it, maybe explaining why it had been abandoned. But none of the cowboys, ranch hands, or Cormrick seemed to know anything about it.

As soon as we got to the Mission, Brimstone Brown's plan seemed to unfold before me. The place was just wrong, and there ain't exactly a way of describing it to get the feeling across. A certain heaviness in the air, a stale, rotten scent filling up your nose, the sun burning a little less bright over here. The Mission looked all wrong too. Odd stains covering the walls, chains and such dangling every which way, and the big cross on the main entrance was turned completely upside down.

I weren't the only one who felt it. The ranch hands fidgeted in their saddles and even Jasper looked a mite flustered. But not Brimstone Brown. He smiled wide as an alligator as he looked San Diablo over.

"Brimstone?" Cormrick asked. "Are you sure this is really necessary?"

"Oh yes. Absolutely." Brimstone turned to Cormrick. "Come on, Mr. Cormrick, or do you want to let the Mexicans win?"

"I-I don't!" Cormrick stammered. "Those greasy greasers! Come on boys, let's fortify the place!" He urged his horse forward and rode in through the open doors. I followed him, and then the rest of the ranch hands. Brimstone went last, and after he trotted his steed into the Mission, the doors slowly slammed shut.

"W-what was that?" Cormrick demanded. "Brimstone?"

But Brimstone Brown was busy. He was bent low over his horse, whispering something very low and very fast. I couldn't make the words out, but something about them syllables was just wrong, and I felt a shiver pass through me. The walls of the mission seemed to get a little bit closer, and a deep rumbling sound came from somewhere deep below our horse's hooves.

"What's going on?" Jasper asked, as the horses began to whinny in panic. The cowboys seemed equally scared, and I had an urge to turn tail and flee.

"What is this?" Cormrick cried again. "Judgment Day?"

Brimstone Brown grinned rakishly. He was the only one not wetting their pants with fear. "Close," he said, and then whispered a few more words in that strange language. A red mist-like specter came out of the ground, seeping out like smoke. It floated upwards towards an unlucky ranch hand, and then forced itself into the poor fellow's mouth. The rotten egg stench of sulfur was in the air, and the ranch hand went into spasms and fell off his horse.

When he stood up, his eyes weren't his own. They was blood red and bulging out of his skull. His skin looked different too, like it was getting a bit melted from the inside.

Jasper seemed to have recovered some of his wits. "Brimstone!" he shouted, rage in his voice. "I demand you to stop this at once! If this is some kind of trick or practical joke, rest assured that I am not amused that you are not in my employ!"

"Thanks for accepting my resignation." Brimstone leaned forward on his horse. "Matter of fact, you'll have to accept the resignation of all your other cowboys as well. They've got a new master." With that, Brimstone snapped his fingers, and more of that red midst filtered out of the ground. It flew into the other ranch hand's mouths. The poor fellows tried to stop it, some of them firing into the crimson clouds, other trying to run away. One man managed to blow his own brains out before the fog got him, but no such luck for the others.

Soon each one of the ranch hands had red glowing eyes and slightly melting skin. They all aimed their weapons at Cormrick and me.

"Stop it! Stop it, please!" Jasper was pleading with Brimstone Brown, waving his arms around and even crying a little. "I'll give you my ranch, my fortune, just please make it stop!"

"You fat little puss." Brimstone drew out his long-barreled pistol and aimed it leisurely at Jasper Cormrick. "And Clark Reeper, idiot amongst idiots. It's been a pleasure."

They opened up like a firing squad, cracking away in unison with military discipline. Poor old Jasper caught most of the slugs. He was soon shot full of holes and leaning backwards on his horse as his blood dripped out of him. Luckily, I had been on edge this whole time, and my instincts had me like a deer that's caught the scent of a hunter.

I jumped off of my horse and hit the dirt, covering my head as the bullets whizzed by. Then I came up firing. I shot one of the possessed ranch hands off of his horse as I ran backwards, distracting them long enough for me to reach the walls. Some of them big chains were hanging down like the limbs of a tree, and I scrambled up them nimble as a monkey.

"Kill him!" Brimstone ordered, and ranch hands opened fire on me with everything they had. But the Good Lord seemed to have me on his mind, or maybe the ranch hands just had bad aim. Whatever the case, I avoided the shots and climbed to the top of the Mission.

"Missed me, you dumb demon-lover!" I shouted down as I jumped up to the parapets of the Mission. It was a big jump, but I figured I could make it.

"You fool, Clark, you damn fool." Brimstone snapped his figures. "A death from a bullet would be a mercy considering what your asking for now. Hell hath no fury like my own, and you've gone and pissed us both off." The ground rumbled again as he spoke, and then odd looking critters started burrowing out of the dirt.

They were short and spindly little beasts, with long pointed noses and tiny sharp fangs, each one was vaguely bipedal, and they were all dressed in neat little sailor suits, and they were an electric blue. I knew that they were imps, and that they would be lapdogs from Brimstone and his demonic masters.

"Go, my minions!" Brimstone commanded. "Bring me him alive, but feel free to have a little fun with him, if you wish."

The imps chattered in high-pitched voices like laughing children, and then they began to climb the walls of San Diablo. I fired downward with my colt, picking the little critters off, but they were just too many of them. One of them leapt up and scratched my knee with its claws, and the cuts burned like I had been branded.

"Son of a gun!" I cursed. I toppled over backwards, teetering over the edge of the wall, and then I fell. I fired upward and killed the imp, but soon I crashed down hard on the ground below. A couple of desert bushes broke my fall, but I was still pretty banged up. As I tried to get the strength together to stand, I could here Brimstone talking inside the Mission's walls.

"He fell? How poetic. Oh well, I'll have a time nonetheless."

I finally got to my feet. I wanted to kick those big wooden double doors open and send Brimstone to meet his maker, whoever that was, but I knew I couldn't win against the Hosts of Hell all by my lonesome. I needed help, and I was too weak to go far to find it.

I turned around and spotted the Juevos Rancho in the distance. The Mexicans had know love for Brimstone Brown, and I reckoned maybe they could lend a helping hand. Wincing with every step, I started to walk to the rancho.

By the time I got there, the sun was already setting. I stumbled into the outskirts of the Rancho, leaning against one of the adobe building to rest a little. There weren't a single guard patrolling the perimeter of the Juevos Rancho. Not a single Ranchero in a guard tower, or even a guard dog on a chain. With the Juevos Rancho in the middle of a range war, the lack of any guards was mighty peculiar.

The biggest building in the place was a stone church right in the middle of the Rancho. There were lights in the building, and the sounds of voices as well. I figured that's where the people were, and I ought to go there.

I walked over to the door, and I was about to push it open and walk on through when I noticed something. The voices coming from the Church weren't the voices of men. They were speaking Spanish, and some of them seemed to be crying, and they were all high-pitched. I stood on tiptoe and glanced in through a nearby window. Just as I had thought, there weren't a single man of fighting age in there, just little boys, girls and women.

Then I heard some footsteps behind me. I spun around, a revolver already in my hand, and there was a little dark-haired boy a year or two younger than Charles. He was dressed in a shiny dark suit with silver embroidery on it, and had a small sombrero on. We stared at each other for a while, and then he spoke.

"Are you here to kill us, mister?" he asked, his little voice high and nervous.

I shook my head. "I'm looking for help. Any men around here, like them tough fellows that went out to battle."

Tears welled up in the kid's eyes, and I felt worse than the devil himself. "My father and my older brothers died today, and we're crying over them. I don't like it very much."

Suddenly, I realized that there weren't no men in the Juevos Rancho, on account of Brimstone Brown, and me, had killed every one of them. Now I normally try not to regret the lives I've taken, but this was too much. Brimstone had made me shed innocent blood, and I was really aching to shed some of his.

Sanchito?" a woman's voice called, interrupting my thoughts. "Where did you get to?" A young woman with short brown hair in pants and a vest came walking out of the church, probably looking for the little boy in front of me. She had an old Schofeild revolver in her belt, and pulled it out lightning quick when she spotted me. "Gringo! Trying to kill us while we pray!"

"Now ain't quite true-" I started to say, but the woman stepped forward and shoved the revolver in my face.

"Dirty, rotten gringo! The fat one from the ranch must have sent you! Murdering our family's is not enough, eh? You must kill the women and children too! Well, I am Valentina Valdez, and I shall enjoy killing you!" She was full of anger and fury, and I guess she had a right to be.

"Wait, before you kill me let me just you something," I begged. I'm a hired gun, I just do what I've been paid to do, and I never wanted to hurt any women or kids. I reckon I'm a decent fellow, and most of the time I try to act like one."

"A mercenary!" Valintina spat. "Oh, we will bury your head in the sand and let the fire ants feast on your eyeballs! We shall tie you to four horses and sent them all off in different directions so you are torn apart! We shall burn you alive and step on the ashes!"

While she was saying all of this, a few more people came out of the church. Most of them were women in shawls, but one of them was aged preacher, bent over and dressed in a black robe. They all came out and looked at Valintina Valdez and me. I smiled sheepishly at them, wondering how I was going to get out of this alive.

"Well, at least we can some information out of you before we kill you!" Elena snarled, shoving her revolver nearly up my nose. "Tell me, what are the gringos doing now?"

"Nothing much, and that's on account of there ain't none of them left." I gulped as I thought about the horrible events that had gone on in the Mission. "Brimstone Brown done tricked us! Led us right into the Mission, and then-"

"The Mission?" Valintina asked. "You mean-"

"Yeah," I said. "San Diablo."

As soon as I mentioned the name, the old priest let out a cry and Spanish and fell backwards. Some of the women caught him, and all eyes turned to him. I had a sinking feeling in my chest.

"San Diablo!" The old priest cried. "No, not San Diablo!"

"Sorry, sir, but that's what it is. Now, you mind letting me know what in heaven, or hell's name was going on back there?" I was a bit rude maybe, but I was still aching from my fall, and mad as could be about Brimstone's manipulating.

"Follow me, all of you!" the priest said, suddenly standing up and walking inside the church. Not knowing what else to do, I followed him, and so did Valintina, Sanchito, and the other Rancheros. He walked into one of the backrooms of the Church and came out with a book the side of a small mountain, and plopped it down on the podium. We all gathered round to look at it. Valintina seemed to be less focused on torturing me, though she did glare at me menacingly.

"Alright, padre, what is San Diablo?" I asked.

"Do you no know the name of it? In English, I think is St. Devil. Do you not know the meaning of that?"

"I thought it was just a colorful name."

The preacher stared at me and shook his head. "There are no colorful names out here. San Diablo started out as just another mission. It had a small number of devoted priests in charge of converting the Indians to Christianity, and a small band of soldiers to protect them." As he spoke he flipped through the large book and showed a few stiff-looking woodcut pictures. They showed Indians working while a few bald priests in brown robes looked on. "The priests believed in total discipline from the Indians, and there was much punishment and persuasion." He showed a rather terrifying picture of a few Indians being burned at the stake, while others were whipped.

"So what makes it St. Devil?" I wondered.

"An earthquake occurred, cutting off the mission from the supply routes. The same year, a drought came and the crops were very low. The priests became more and more violent towards the Indians as the food supplies dwindled. Then utter savagery occurred." The padre turned the page and showed me a picture straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. The priests had apparently resorted to cannibalism, and were munching on the Indians, and some of the things the priests and the soldiers were doing to the Indian women and children, well, I can't mention it even now. The woodcuts made shivers run down my spine just looking at them.

"And that is only the half of it!" the padre explained. "The priests believed that God had forsaken them and began to worship El Diablo! They made sacrifices of human flesh to him, forever binding human suffering into that cursed Mission. One soldier managed to escape before the final orgy destroyed all-even the Fallen Priests! He made these woodcuts to warn other priests never to venture into San Diablo, and no one has entered that mission for centuries."

"This connection to Satan," I said, thinking about Brimstone Brown, "could someone, say a devoted servant of the occult, set it up again?"

The Padre looked at me, pure horror in his old eyes and said, "Si." Everything fell into place. Brimstone Brown had come here to access the demonic power in San Diablo, and finding it owned by the Juevos Rancho, had sided with Jasper Cormrick to take the mission over. He had known that the Comrick's men had killed every able-bodied man in working for Juevos Rancho, and exploited Cormrick's hatred of Mexicans to get him and his men into the Mission, where he could access its dark power.

"What exactly would making the connection work do?" I asked, not sure if I wanted to know.

"Open a portal to Hell itself and unleash the demonic hosts upon our world."

"Hell? Ah hell," I muttered. I came to my feet and headed for the door. "I better go shut Brimstone Brown down. Maybe I should get some rest before hand, but I don't reckon I got much time."

As I started for the door, a horrible thought entered my mind. There was one thing that hadn't been accounted for: Brown's pleasure at seeing Charles Green. "Say, Padre, what kind of ritual needs to be done to open the portal?"

"A sacrifice, blood of a someone as innocent as those poor Indians to touch the stones of San Diablo?"

"Would a child's blood work?"

"That would be perhaps the only thing that would work." That was all I needed to here. I ran out of there as fast as I could, leapt on the first horse I could find and pounded off towards Cormrick ranch. Charles Green had stayed at the ranch because I wanted him to be safe, and now it seemed that he was going to be sacrificed.

Whatever was gonna happen, I knew that all hell was break loose, maybe literally.

But the Priest ran after me. The old Padre nearly knocked himself over charging after me, but he kept on running. He was holding something in his hands and urging me to stop. I forced myself to obey.

"Gringo!" he cried, pushing a small cluster of prayer beads at me, "Take this! Wear it, and the evil spirits will not be able to take you!"

I grabbed the beads and put them around my wrist without thinking, than continued pounding forward.

It was dark when I got back to the Cormrick Ranch, and I let out every curse word I knew as I realized I was too damn late. I leapt off of the horse and ran into the ranch house, looking for Charles. I could tell there had been some kind of a struggle. There were windows was broken, and the body of a ranch hand lay on the floor, with cuts that could only have come from Brimstone Brown's Arkansas Toothpick. Most of the furniture was overturned, and worst of all, there was no Charles.

Brimstone Brown must have captured my boy, and even now he could be carving up poor innocent Charles and feeding the bits and pieces to Satan himself. Charles was such a good kid, not an ounce of malice anywhere is his body, and it made me sick just to think about the lad in the clutches of a man like Brimstone Brown. Right there I resolved to get him back.

It didn't take long for me to find the armory of the Cormrick Ranch. The place had all kinds of weapons ripe for the taking. I loaded up with a couple more pistols, including a few quick-firing Colt Lightnings, two repeating rifles, a coach gun, and as much dynamite as I could stuff in my pocket.

I walked out of the armory armed to the teeth, and then it hit me like a punch to the jaw. Brimstone must have been summoning little demons all night long. He probably had an army of them there, not counting the possessed ranch hands. No matter how well armed I was, I couldn't win.

"Son of a gun," I cursed. "There's no way one fellow can win against everything Brimstone's brought up from Hell!"

What about two?" a woman's voice asked. I looked up and saw none other than Valentina Valdez smiling at me. She was holding the reins of a train of three mules. I took a closer look at the mules and found that each one had a sack of dynamite stuck on their back. "Cormrick had these mules loaded up with explosives," she explained. "The fat gringo was planning to demolish the ranchero. Maybe we can use these to our advantage."

I smiled at her and doffed my hat. "I thought you were trying to kill me?"

"That can wait until El Diablo is back in Hell," the fiery Latina answered. "I can kill you then, and maybe I won't. You don't seem that bad for a gringo."

"I guess that's the only complement I'll get outta you," I said. "Well, lets load up and head on out. We've got a long day ahead of us."

We decided to risk it all on a frontal assault, not wanting to waste any time that Brimstone Brown could be using to spill more blood and summon more demons. Valentina and I were all hunkered down behind a large rock and staring at the San Diablo Mission. It was built like a fortress, armored doors, high walls, and small narrow windows. The muzzle of the Hotchkiss gun stuck out of the window above the main double doors.

The ranch-hands stood on top of the wall like statues, their eyes wide and completely red, with thin streams of spittle hanging off of their mouths. It was quite an eerie sight, and a distinct scent of sulfur floating around them.

But there was one thing that would blast apart those big double doors and give Valintina Valdez, me, and our guns enough time to do what needed to be done, and that was the mule hunched next to us with a bag filled with dynamite on its back.

But there was one problem. "We gotta take out that Hotchkiss," I said. "It will shoot the donkey before it gets even half way to the door, and then we might get caught in the explosion?"

"Could you pull off a shot?" Valintina asked.

I narrowed my eyes, but shook my head. "Nope. Too damn far away."

Valintina stared at the Hotchkiss and her fingers went to the coiled lariat at her hip. "I think I have an idea," she said, a cruel smile on her face. "Give me some covering fire."

Without even waiting for us to agree, she took of running. I stood up and opened fire with both of the Colt Lightnings. The favorite guns of Billy the Kid did their job, shooting out bullets lickety-split and I didn't even need to thumb back the hammer after each shot. . I blasted one of the possessed ranch-hands off of the wall and watched his body tumble over to the ground. Soon as he slammed down on the hard California dirt, the bloody red mist thing came out of his body and disappeared into the walls of the Mission.

Valintina took advantage of our firing and ran forward, her lariat in one hand and her revolver in the other. She fired at the Hotchkiss, spinning and jumping to avoid getting shot, and then, right when she was just under the rapid-firing gun, she lashed out with her lariat. The strong Rancho rope fastened its lasso right on the muzzle of the Hotckiss. Valintina gave it a quick pull and the gun came collapsing down.

Figuring now was as good a time as any I grabbed the mule and pointed it in the direction of the door. Then, I lit the fuse on its back and gave it a quick stab in the rear with my bowie knife. The mule let out a bray of pain and shot forward.

The mule ran screaming towards the gate and the dynamite fuse worked just perfectly, setting off the candy-red candles just in time. The mule exploded in a red fireball and blasted a huge hole in the gate. Some of the defenders got pushed into the air, and fell to the ground with sickening crunches, their misty spirits disappearing into the walls after they died.

It was a cruel thing to do to a harmless animal, but I reckon it was the quickest way inside the Mission, and I don't think I'll regret it. Not wanting the mule to die in vain, I began running towards the opening in the wall, dropping the empty Colt Lightnings and going for my trusty peacemakers. Valentina was right behind me. We blasted a few more ranch-hands and soon found ourselves standing in the courtyard of the Mission San Diablo.

Brimstone?" I asked, spinning around and looking for a sign of him. "Where you hiding? And what have you done with my boy?"

"He's here." Brimstone Brown's cold voice came from nowhere and everywhere at once. "And he's safe. I wouldn't want you to not watch as I kill him before your eyes."

"Mr. Reeper?" Charles's high voice suddenly shouted from the same impossible direction as Brimstone's. "I think he might do it! I'm scared."

That was something I would never allow to happen. "Where are you Brimstone? You yellow-bellied varmint! Come out so I can shoot you!"

"I'll do you one better," Brimstone's voice taunted. "I'll give you some other things to shoot. We have plenty of time to waste. No point in rushing things." Mists started to course out of the walls, and my mind went to the prayer beads that the old Padre had given me.

"Quick!" I shouted, tearing the beads off of my writs, "grab on to these! We don't want no spirits setting up camp in our minds!"

Valintina grabbed onto the beads and we stood together as the mists churned around like waves in a sea. They tried to get into our mouths or sneak up one of our nostrils, but each time stopped like something was holding them back.

Pretty soon, they disappeared all together. "Yeee-haw!" I shouted with joy. "Looks like the old padre was right!"

"I suppose I can't have your minds," Brimstone shouted. "But the imps can at least have your bodies!" Soon as he said the words, a bunch of burrows appeared in the ground, and more of them little creatures that had thrown me off the mission walls came crawling out.

Their sharp claws glinted in the morning sun, and they surrounded us. I drew one of the Winchesters and tossed the other to Valintina. "Shoot them dead as they come," I explained.

Valintina nodded. She fired, worked the lever and fired again. Two imps flopped backwards, dead. "Vaya con dios!" the Rancho girl shouted as both of us started shooting away. Back to back we gunned down the charging imps, and when the little buggers got close enough, we crushed their heads with our rifle butts and stomped them under our boots. Soon the last imp was destroyed.

"The little ones always die first, I suppose," Brimstone said. "But the Hosts of Hell have yet to truly come forth." After he said that, things got considerably more like hell.

Other creatures began to come snarling out of the ground, like giants with bulls heads and cannons for arms, and bigger imps dressed up like Confederate soldiers and armed with rifles, and many other horrors too damned numerous to mention.

"And these are the just the welcoming committee!" Brimstone laughed. "Just wait until I bleed your little boy dry and summon the Lord of Hell himself."

I had to stop Brimstone Brown before he did that, but I just didn't have enough time to do that. The demons let out a thunderous roar, and started firing. Valintina and I just had time to dive for cover before they started crashing down on us.

Luckily, Jasper Cormrick had enough guns in his armory for us to hit the demons back with enough bullets to hurt. Valintina and I stood up and fired together, driving the demons back. One by one, the terrible creatures keeled over and fell into the dirt, but each time one died, another one jumped up and took its place.

"We can't hold forever, I reckon," I said. "Not enough bullets to kill all of them." I dropped the empty Winchester and blasted an incoming demon with peacemaker. "We gotta find out where Brimstone is and shut him down! But his voice just seems to come from everywhere."

Valintina looked at me thoughtfully, after she had warded off a demon's bayonet and blown apart its spongy skull. "What about your boy? Why don't you ask him, stupid gringo?"

That sounded like a good idea, so I took a deep breath and shouted as loud as I could. "Charles! Tell me where you are!"

After I yelled, there was a few seconds of deep the silence when even the demons seemed to stay quiet. Then, just as I was wondering if the boy was ever going to answer, there was a loud squeal that could only come from Charles, followed by a wet slapping sound.

"The tower!" he managed to yell, and I looked directly at a tall bell tower at the opposite side of the Mission. "I'm in the tower, Mr. Reep-" Another wet slap interrupted him.

"I'll be back in a bit," I said, and started running straight into the crowd of demons. They came at me with all sides, raking me with iron claws, firing at me with insane weapons, and snapping at me with teeth.

My peacemakers were out and blazing away, keeping the demons back long enough for me to make it all the way across the courtyard. I got to the entrance of the church-tower just as I fired the last two bullets from my peacemakers. I chucked the empty pistols at the demons and ran inside.

As I ran up the winding steps, I took out my bowie knife. I reckoned there was gonna be some knife music before the day was out.

When I got to the top of the bell tower, I found Brimstone Brown standing next to Charles, who was hogtied and lying on the ground. The satanic snake-in-the-grass had a mad light in his eyes and was holding out his Arkansas toothpick, and had it pointed right at Charles's throat.

"Ah, Clark," he said, "so good of you to join us. I was just about to make the first cut and open up the portal for good."

"You touch him," I said, taking a step forwards, "you die."

"Fool." Brimstone laughed his cold laugh. "You think such pathetic concept as death scares one such as me?"

"Well," I said with a shrug, "maybe not dying. But I bet you think getting carved up like a prize pig is pretty damn scary." I jumped on him. Brimstone tried to stab Charles, but I grabbed his wrist and pulled, dragging the blade away.

We fell to the ground, each one trying to drive his blade into the other's chest. My bowie knife was shorter than Brimstone's long-bladed pig sticker, but I pushed forward with all the strength I had. Brimstone snarled at me and his eyes turned white.

"You have no chance!" he cried. "All I have to do is spill a drop of the child's blood and the Lord of Hell will come forth to claim him!"

"A drop of blood?" I said. "Just a single drop?" I stabbed forward with all of my might, nicking the tip of Brimstone Brown's chin. A single drop of crimson blood fell onto the tip of my blood, and I turned it over.

"Oh no," Brimstone said, fear suddenly very real in his voice. "Not my blood. Not my blood!" The drop fell and Brimstone's blood fell to the cursed stones of the church-tower with a plop. As soon as it fell, the ground itself seemed to shake.

Something exploded outside, and a gigantic figure appeared in the courtyard, crushing all of the smaller demons under its feet. It was dressed in a dark robe and had nothing but a gaping hole for a mouth. It struck out with a claw the size of a horse and grabbed Brimstone Brown.

"Alas," it said, in a voice somewhere between screaming and laughing. "For this blood is not what I desire. Still, it shall suffice." He pulled the screaming Brimstone away and shoved him inside his mouth. Brimstone's horrible cries grew softer and softer as he slowly vanished, and a few seconds after he was gone, the giant Lord of Hell and all of his minions was gone as well, sucked down into whatever netherworld they had come from.

We all hightailed it out of that Mission as fast as we could, and Charles was never more grateful to have me around. I think he understood how dangerous my job was now, and I think I understood how dangerous it was for me to let him out of my sight.

I got paid in full, even though Cormrick Ranch was closing down on account there weren't no one alive to work it. I found Jasper's safe deposit box, blew it open with some of the dynamite, and too my fair share of dollars from it. I figured the poor fellow owed me that at least.

As for Valentina Valdez and her ranchero family, well she ended up taking over not only the land of Juevos Rancho, but also the entire Cormrick Ranch as well. The Juevos Rancho started anew, taking over the Cormrick Ranch's land and herds, as well as their original area. Even with all the men folk dead, they were set to rake in a pretty profit from all the head of cattle they got.

Valintina wanted me to stay and help work the land, but I told her I had other jobs to do. She was a wild one, tough as nails and feisty as could be, but I don't think I was ready to settle down just yet. Maybe, someday way in the future, when I was all old and gray, and I wanted a break from bounty hunting, I would return to the green grass of California and settle down in that ranch. But I am a long way from old age, and as long as I have Charles to support, I will continue my career.

The Mission San Diablo went back to being abandoned for a bit, but soon, thanks to me and Valintina, word got out about the kinds of spirits that were lurking there. Charles Fort, Helena Blavatsky and even the Reverend Doctor John Scudder, a British Missionary from India, came down to San Diablo to do what they could. For a full week they studied and preformed spells and exorcisms, and finally, they all decided to dynamite the place and move on. I had already left down when they blew it up, but I hear some of the surrounding country still ain't all earthly.

But I was already moving on. There were reports of disappearing ships way down in Bermuda, and I had heard that someone was thinking about united all of the gangs of New York and taking over the city. Both of those jobs seemed like they would be something right up my alley, so I returned to Sacramento and boarded the train, not sure where I was gonna end up next.

Charles and I boarded the train, sitting next to each other. Charles smiled up at me. "See, Mr. Reeper, I knew you would always be there to save me."

"Sure, son, I'll always be there." I squeezed Charles's shoulder. I may have been worried about the kid's safety in the long run, but for now, I was just glad to have him safe, sound and by my side.

-The End-

19