A scorpion with a death wish skittered onto my boot. I stomped the ground until it fell off and squashed it flat. Orange goop oozed from its body like nothing I’d witnessed before in my entire sixty years. Thousands of the darn pests had emerged since the mine collapse, filled with slime and running around like crazy. They seemed to be fleeing Winthrop like everyone else. With the silver long gone, the mine was as good as dead to everyone. It was the reason we’d all come to the middle of nowhere. Although most men packed up and rode off, some just disappeared. Those who remained had been acting as mad as hatters. Many nights, I regretted not leaving, too, before the horses ran off.
I wasn’t a hundred yards from the mine tunnel entrance when folks commenced to running and shouting toward Main Street. All the hubbub was over two horses thundering into Winthrop at a full gallop, spurred on by their riders. The swift-moving figures could be spotted a mile away on the desolate plain. The dusty cloud behind them spun high in the breeze like a swirling dirt devil and seemed to swallow up the sparse vegetation in its wake.
The riders were silhouetted against the sunset, so I hobbled down the road as fast as I could to get a better look. When they stormed past Winthrop’s welcome sign, the mayor’s squat form was easy to identify. The other man, a stranger, sat tall in the saddle. White foam bubbled from his horse’s mouth. With each snort, clumps of the gooey substance splattered on the animal’s sweaty coat.
The riders slowed their horses to a trot on Winthrop’s only street, gathering the few remaining residents. I hoped the mayor brought good news because our town was in trouble. They dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office, but before they tied the horses down, the crazed animals reared up. The crowd, me included, gasped in surprise. The whites of the horses’ eyes were as wide as could be, and they screamed like a horse fight had broken out. Before anyone could calm the animals, they galloped away as if a pack of hungry coyotes was after them.
It sent a shiver down my spine that Mayor Stout didn’t have more of a reaction to losing the last horses in town. We were stranded now without any way to get help. He stepped up on the boardwalk and removed his dusty hat, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. “Residents of Winthrop. In the wake of the tragedy that befell Sheriff Reading, I have appointed a new sheriff. Boyd Blue will be taking over immediately.”
Winthrop didn’t need a sheriff or a mayor to contain the twenty residents, we needed a means to leave. The broad-shouldered stranger opened his fancy coat to reveal the sheriff’s badge. Raising the brim of his hat, he stared over the crowd. He had dark pits for eyes. Trouble always followed men with eyes that cold. When his hollow gaze found mine, my mouth turned as dry as the desert wasteland beneath my boots. I could tell he didn’t plan on helping us leave.
The mayor motioned toward the square-jawed man. “Sheriff Blue’s priority is the mine collapse.” Townsfolk shouted out questions, but the mayor waved them off. “We will have answers for you later. We’ve had a long ride as was apparent from the behavior of our horses. Please, just go home.”
With all the strange happenings in town over the last month, Mayor Stout looked like he was breathing his last. His fingers gnarled like claws, and the skin on his cheeks drooped. His weathered face had changed from tan to ashen gray. He hadn’t been acting like himself neither. He used to bid everyone the time of day, but of late, he hadn’t given townsfolk more than an empty glance. It was like a stranger wore his face.
As the lawmen closed the office door behind them, the crowd broke up and headed about their business. Townsfolk grumbled, but I didn’t blame them. I was afraid, too. Without more than a shovel for a weapon, I took refuge in the mine after dark. Something was released when the ground cracked open and spread evil over Winthrop. It couldn’t be seen, but it lurked about and left death in its wake.
The faint orange glow was sinking behind the mountains. I lit my lantern and limped down the hill to the wooden door that led to the southernmost tunnel entrance. I yanked it open, and a painful tingling shot through my finger. I flicked a scorpion off my knuckle. Darn it. Third sting in a week.
The lantern illuminated a glistening trail of blood dotted across the rodent feces, roaches, and guano on the ground. I followed the red drops, which led to long smudges farther up.
Whirring and buzzing echoed through the tunnel like a million bees swarmed about. My first instinct was to run, but the blood made me pause. Someone could’ve been hurt up there and needed help. The whirring grew louder and mixed with cracking and popping. My body stiffened at the noise, and goose bumps raised across my bony arms. I’d never heard such commotion when the mine was active.
My heart raced with each step. My boot skidded in something slick. I shined the light on the sole. Pieces of flesh were ground into it. A rancid odor pierced my nostrils. My head spun, and the stench made me heave. I should’ve turned back, but I pressed on, needing to know what made the horrid noise.
Up ahead, light flickered off the reddish walls and cast shadows of two figures. I dimmed my lantern and peered around a protruding boulder. A naked woman was balanced upright by her arm. Little remained of her. Her legs were gone and part of her torso. I shuddered, almost dropping my lantern. Bile rose in my throat, but I couldn’t stop watching. A creature that resembled a woman but had a mouth larger than a carp was eating the corpse. The creature’s cavernous mouth, lined with rows of sharp teeth, ground through the woman’s flesh and bones, making the awful sounds. The whirring continued. When the woman’s arm snapped off, blood splattered everywhere. I turned away, but just for a second.
The whirring pulsed in my head, and my knees buckled, but I dared another look. I cupped a hand over my mouth to hold back upchucking. The creature ground up the arm in its giant mouth while blood gurgled over its bloated lips. I turned and ran.
I had to warn the others. We needed to leave Winthrop by foot and take our chances. I struggled on, stumbling over the cacti and scrub brush that tore through my trousers. I gulped breaths of dust and creosote hanging in the hot air, but the rancid stench of death remained in my nostrils.
The general store’s lantern glowed in the window. The owners were good people. They’d believe me. They’d help. I rushed inside. The shop was empty. “Cal, Emma! Are you here? It’s Willie!” My body quivered in pain. Sweat burned into my scratches, and the scorpion venom pulsed through my finger. I thrust open the back door. “Emma!” My heart was relieved. Emma gazed out over the desert. “Emma, where’s Cal?”
She turned to face me, clutching a rat’s lifeless body in her bloody hands. Her lips glistened red in the moonlight. The rat had chunks missing, and its innards hung in a long, stringy mass. Clumps of crimson fur stuck to the front of her dress. She gazed at me with foggy eyes, and the breath was sucked from my lungs. I stumbled through the doorway and ran through town.
Screams erupted from every building and poured into the street. My escape from Winthrop became more urgent, but each labored step seemed to take me nowhere. My chest heaved with pain, and I crumpled to the dust. I lay in a heap, unable to move. Boots crunched into the gravel next to my head.
“You can never leave.” His voice chilled me to the bone.
I raised my head with my last bit of strength. Sheriff Blue stared down at me with orange flames flickering in his eyes. Coldness swept through my body until I was numb. Since that night, the summer sun hadn’t burned my skin, nor had the winter breeze numbed my nose. It seemed like ages that I’d wanted to leave but couldn’t. The evil in Winthrop had a face, and he never left anyone leave town again.
By T.W. Kirchner
Although writing is her passion, her first loves are her husband, two children, and furry menagerie known as the Kirchner Zoo. She wishes she had more time to paint, draw and play tennis. If she could, she’d spend all my time outdoors. Anything wolf, pirate, or zombie-related will grab her attention.
Her latest published series is the YA supernatural horror Dagger & Brimstone. She also has two middle grade series published through Short on Time Books.