Howdy, friends. Today is a very special day here at Rancho Whalen, in theVirginia suburbs ofWashington,D.C.It’s the Memorial Day weekend, the holiday that honors our fallen heroes, the men and women who made the supreme sacrifice in service to their country. I lost an uncle in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. I only got to meet Uncle George through black and white pictures saved by the family. I was too young to remember him at all. In the pictures I’ve seen he sort of looks like me a little.
But anyway, here at the Rancho we’re kind of laying back for the holiday. The swimming pool is open, the barbecues are smoking, the beer is flowing, and we’re watching Rolling Thunder move into town, as it does every year. Veterans on motorcycles come here from all over the country. You can see them everywhere in the area out on the roads, as they head for their various motels, camping grounds or possibly homes of friends they can stay with.
And in honor of this weekend, we’re going to hold a special event on the blog here. As some of you know by now, my Mordecai Slate novel, “Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto,” was axed by publisher David B. Riley, who runs a one-man publishing operation called Science Fiction Trails. Riley threw a snit fit when I wanted to make some changes to the book before publishing it and he simply canceled the project in a rage and told me to “go to hell.” Riley, who in his own words says Captain Bligh is a hero to him, not only canceled the book but also pulled one of my short stories from the ebook version of an anthology called “Showdown at Midnight.” He discontinued the paperback version as well, so that he wouldn’t have to pay me any more royalties on it. I collected one quarter’s worth already.
Now I could turn around and self publish the story on Amazon’s Createspace and sell it for 99 cents, but I decided instead to post the story here on the blog over the holiday weekend, and let you read it for free. There are two reasons for doing this. One is to do something in honor of the day that pays tribute to our fallen soldiers. The story you’re about to read, “Samurai Blade,” centers around the mysterious demise of a young soldier stationed at Fort Dodge, just outside Dodge City, Kansas, in 1886.
The protagonist of the tale is Mordecai Slate, Monster Hunter of the Old West, who has appeared in seven published stories to date. And that brings me to my second reason for giving this story away. All seven of the Slate stories have been published in print anthologies and ebooks. None of them have appeared anywhere online. Up to now, if you wanted to read on them, you had to pay for them. I’ve been wanting to give readers who haven’t yet read one of the Slate stories a chance to get an idea of what they’re all about. They’re different from most anything you’ve probably read, at least I think they are. They are being called weird western stories. People like to label things. I’m not sure it’s an entirely appropriate label for the Slate stories. There are elements of horror, and the supernatural in most of them, but there’s something else, too. It’s hard to say what it is, but maybe if you to read this one yourself, you’ll see what I mean.
Let’s quit the folderol and get the show on the road. Here in the first of three parts, is the beginning of “Samurai Blade.”
The China Doll was off limits to the soldiers of Fort Dodge, but Private Harlan Wilkins didn’t give a damn about that. He climbed down the stairs from the second floor entrance, buttoning the brass buttons on his tunic with a drunken smile on his face. He’d had a hell of a night. All the booze and all the poon tang a 20-year old man could want. He’d probably pay hell for it later. He was already six hours AWOL and if they found out he’d been to the whore house he’d get time in the brig. And who knew what diseases that little lotus blossom had given him. But he’d worry about that later. At the moment he felt no pain, and no regret. Not yet anyway. He’d face the consequences as they came.
They came sooner than he expected when his foot suddenly shot out from under him and he slid and bumped all the way down the wooden steps. He sat there for a minute, cursing himself and slowly got to his feet. Nothing broken. He picked up his half-crushed hat and put it on and staggered up the street to where he’d tied his horse up in front of the Blue Canary saloon. He’d started the night there. It was one of the new places on Front Street south of the railroad tracks that everyone in Dodge called “the deadline.” South of the deadline was where “anything goes.”
The young soldier got to his horse, and hung on to the saddle horn to steady himself. A noise behind him startled him. It was like the sound of something flying through the air. He turned and stared into the darkness but didn’t see anything.
Piano noise and laughter from inside the Blue Canary came out through the bat wings invitingly. It was late, but the saloon was still open. It’d be dawn anyway by the time he got back to the fort. “What the hell,” Harlan muttered. “One for the road.”
He staggered into the saloon and pushed his way up to the bar. “Rye whiskey,” he told the bartender. The barkeep, a thin man with a patch over one eye, set a glass down on the bar and poured the rye. Harlan reached into his pants pocket and found two bits. It was all that was left after the China Doll. He placed the money on the bar and he heard that rushing sound again. He turned to the entrance and thought he saw something fly in through the doorway. It was more like a shadow than anything else. He’d seen it in the corner of his eye, but when he tried to see it directly, there was nothing there.
He raised the glass to his lips, a little unnerved. His hand shook a bit. He’d never been so drunk that he’d started seeing things before. His eyes lifted as drank, and came to rest on the sword hanging up above the mirror behind the bar. He’d noticed it before, when he’d been in earlier. It was a Japanese Samurai sword. The blade was covered by a dark lacquered wood scabbard and the handle looked like it was made of either ivory or bone. A tassel made of red and black silk hung from the handle. There was Japanese calligraphy on the side of the scabbard in red paint. Harlan knew it was a samurai sword because he had seen one like it once back in Philadelphia when he was a boy. He tossed the drink down and set the glass on the bar.
“Hey, barkeep,” he said. “I meant to ask you before. Where’d that sword come from?”
“That there’s a genu-wine Samurai sword, all the way from Japan, son.”
“I know that. But what’s it doing here in Dodge City. Whose is it?”
“Mr. Courtland’s,” the barkeep said.
“It’s mine,” a voice next to him said.
Harlan turned. The voice belonged to a heavy-set man in his mid-forties, who was dressed in city clothes. His dark brown hair was liberally sprinkled with grey, and his face was fleshy and pale.
“Nate Courtland,” the man said. “I own this place. You interested in swords, soldier?”
“Not particularly,” Harlan said. “It’s just that I remember seeing one like that in a museum back home when I was a boy. It always fascinated me.”
“Like to see it closer? Take it down, Jake,” Courtland told the bartender.
The one-eyed man took it down and handed it to Harlan. Harlan held it with both hands.
“Take it out of the scabbard,” Courtland said.
Harlan slid the blade out. The shiny steel gleamed in the light from the lanterns over the bar. He gazed in fascination at the long length of gleaming steel. He set the scabbard down on the bar and gripped the ivory handle with two hands.
“Damn!” he muttered. “Almost feels like it’s alive.”
“Careful, soldier,” Courtland said. “It’s mighty sharp.”
Harlan stepped away from the bar. He felt an inexplicable excitement, holding the sword.
“Where’d you get it?” he asked.
“That’s a long story,” Courtland said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Harlan noticed that the shadowy thing that had flown into the saloon was now hovering in the corner next to the piano.
“Mind if I give it a swing?” he asked Courtland.
“Just be careful.”
Harlan swung the blade and it made a whooshing sound as it cut through the air. Harlan froze. It was the same sound he had heard out on the street. He looked over at the dark shadow in the corner. Nobody seemed to notice the thing hovering there. Harlan swung the blade again. It was strange how he seemed to know how to hold it. It was like he’d always known how to use it. Suddenly the shadow flew up to the ceiling, and circled around the room above everybody’s heads. It swooped down on him and made Harlan cold and he shivered. And all at once he felt different inside.
“That’s enough, soldier,” Courtland said. “Give it back.”
But Harlan wasn’t listening to the saloonkeeper. He was listening to the voice inside that had started speaking inside his head. Suddenly he felt a deep, burning, murderous rage. He saw a cowboy staring at him. He raised the sword and with a loud scream, lunged forward. It was just one quick stroke and the cowboy’s body was split from shoulder to crotch. The two halves split apart and fell to the floor. Women screamed. Men shouted, and Harlan stood there staring in disbelief at what he had done. But then the voice inside spoke again and now Harlan realized the voice was speaking Japanese! He turned on the saloon owner. He screamed again and raised the sword and charged Courtland. Courtland stepped back, a .45 in his hand, drawn from a shoulder holster inside his jacket. He fired. Harlan felt the bullet tear into his chest. He stood with the sword raised over his head. He started to scream again but blood choked him and spurted from his mouth. He took half a step forward and Courtland, a look of terror on his face, fired three more rounds.
Harlan dropped the sword. He fell backwards and the dark shadow flew away from him. The voice inside was gone. Harlan stared up and saw Courtland, his eyes still wide with horror looking down at him and then everything went white.
Mordecai Slate stepped down from his horse and tied the animal up in front of the clapboard and brick structure on Front St. that was the sheriff’s office. He looked up and down the street, busier than the last time he was here. With the coming of the railroad and the cattle drives that were coming to Dodge, it wouldn’t be long before the place became unlivable, in his opinion. He opened the door to the sheriff’s office and went inside.
A clean-shaven man in his late twenties sat at a desk that stood before a wall covered in wanted posters. There was a chair, a fold-up card table, a stove and little else in the room. Slate saw a door with a barred window off to the right that led to the jail cells. The man in the chair looked up when he walked in and frowned.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“Nice to see you too, Tilghman,” Slate said.
“You’re the last person I ever wanted to see walk through that door,” the deputy said.
“I’m here on business,” Slate said. “Where’s Bat?”
“Hays City,” Tilghman said. “Be there rest of the week. What do you want with him? You know he hates your guts.”
“It’s about a young soldier that was killed in a saloon south of the deadline about a month back.”
Tilghman’s frown got deeper. “What about it?”
“I’ve been hired to find out what happened to him.”
“His mother hire you?” Tilghman asked. “She been here a week now, asking questions.”
“I’m meeting with her in a few minutes. I wanted to check with you first.”
“I told her what happened.” Tilghman gave Slate the account of the eye witnesses who were in the Blue Canary that night. “Courtland’s pretty much a slime bucket. The kid would have done the town a favor if he’d taken Harcourt’s head off with that sword. Harcourt’s got gambling tables, a wheel. Probably all crooked. Not the first time somebody got killed in the Blue Canary. As far as we can tell, this time it was self-defense.”
“As far as you can tell,” Slate said. “From what I hear the law doesn’t care much what happens south of deadline. I don’t imagine you spent too much time on the case.”
“Enough to satisfy the grand jury,” Tilghman said. “No charges were brought. The Army was satisfied.”
“And that’s the law in Dodge.”
“As far as I’m concerned, Slate, I don’t give a shit what happens south of the deadline,” Tilghman said. “Bat has a different view, but I figure those who go south of the line are just looking for trouble, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody when they find it. Anyhow, things have a way of working themselves out on their own down there. People like Courtland and his bunch have a way of doing themselves in eventually. If I were you, I’d tell Mrs. Wilkins to get on the next train and go back to Philadelphia. And after that, I’d hightail it out of here myself, if I were you. Before Bat gets back.”
“Don’t be so hospitable, Bill.”
“I know you, Slate. I even like you, sort of. But I know what you do, and the kind of things that happen when you’re around. I don’t want any of that in Dodge.”
Slate nodded. “Thanks for the information. I’ll go have a talk with her.”
“You do that,” Tilghman got up. He folded his hands over his chest. “You still carrying that revolving rifle with the silver bullets?”
Tilghman shook his head. “You’re something, Slate. I don’t know what, but something.”
“I’m no ordinary woman, Mr. Slate,” Emma Wilkins said. “No grieving mother.”
Slate sat in a drawing room on the second floor of Dodge House, across a low coffee table from a blue-eyed middle-aged woman, whose still thick blond hair was mixed with grey. She had a strong chin and a clean, smooth forehead that creased only a little as she talked. There were crow’s feet in the corners of her eyes but not many and, she carried herself like a much younger woman.
“I sense things. I know things before they happen. I knew the day Harlan left Philadelphia to join the Army, that I’d never see him again.”
She put the tea cup down on the table. Slate pulled a Meerschaum pipe out of the side pocket of his suit coat. He took out a pouch of tobacco and filled the pipe
“After receiving the telegram informing me of his death, I took the first train out here. I spoke to Colonel Macklin, his commanding officer. And I spoke with Deputy Sheriff Tilghman, who seems to be the law, such as it is, in Dodge City. They both gave me the same story of how Harlan was killed, and I have to say I am not satisfied at all with their version of what happened.”
Slate blew a cloud of blue smoke up to the ceiling. “I spoke with Tilghman before I came over here,” he said. “I know him. He’s a pretty competent lawman. He told me what happened.”
Emma Wilkins set her teacup and saucer down on the table. “They’ve got their their story,” she said.
“I have to admit, it’s unusual. But sometimes unusual things just happen. For no reason.”
The woman frowned. “You disappoint me, Mr. Slate,” she said. “I wired you, and asked you to come here, because I’d heard you were a man who deals in the unusual. A man who can handle things most people either don’t want or are too afraid to confront.”
“That’s true, Mrs. Wilkins,” Slate said. “But I just want you to be aware that sometimes, after a loss, we’re not willing to accept reasonable explanations.”
“There is an evil here, Mr. Slate.” Emma Wilkins face tightened. Her eyes glinted with a grim light. “An evil that killed my son. I felt it the moment I stepped off the train. There’s something here in this town that shouldn’t be here. Maybe my son did the things they said he did, but if he did, it was not of his own volition. Harlan was not a killer. And he was not insane and he could never have gotten so drunk that he could have done something like that on his own.”
“What do you think it was that happened?” Slate asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s what I’m paying you $1,000 to discover. Find out what happened to Harlan, Mr. Slate. Find out who or what is responsible and destroy it.”
Copyright 2011 by John M. Whalen
End of Part One