Better Start Running (by Eric S. Brown)
In which Dodger spins a yarn.
“Fold,” Dodger said, and chucked his poor hand onto the table.
A pair of Queens was only good if there wasn’t a wild card in the deck. But the way Lelanea played, half the damned deck was wild, which meant he couldn’t manage the odds as well as a Dodger preferred. Which was irritating as all get out. Which was probably why she called the game in such a manner.
“Too rich for your blood?” Lelanea asked.
“Not at all,” Dodger said. “I just know when I’ve been beat.”
“That’s news to me. I guess I learn something new every day.”
“And I still have a lot to teach you.”
“You two gonna flirt all night?” Ched asked. “Or are we gonna play shome cardsh?”
“We aren’t flirting!” Dodger and Lelanea yelled together.
They looked to one another for a heartbeat, then looked away. Dodger wondered if the heat on her face was as warm as his. Maybe warmer.
“I’ll see your fifty,” Lelanea said. “And raise you another sixty seconds. A whole minute. What do you think of that?”
Ched raised an eyebrow, a difficult feat for the not-dead man to pull off. “That sho? You think you got me shushed, huh?”
“If you mean do I think you’re bluffing, then yes. I do. Now cough up the minute or fold.”
“Okay, little misshy. I’ll shee your shixty shecondsh. Whacha got?”
Lelanea laid down Aces and eights—both wilds when she called the strange game of Dead Man’s Hand—which put her King of hearts kicker slap dab in the middle of a royal flush. “And you have …?”
Ched made a non-committal grunt before he tossed his cards onto the table, face down.
Lelanea giggled as she pulled the piles of papers toward herself, and the already thick stacks of similar scraps of paper to her left and right. Stacks that were way larger than either Dodger’s or Ched’s. “Look at that! I have over four hours in servitude from both of you. What will I do with so much time on my hands?”
“Who’s idea was it to bet with seconds of service?” Dodger asked. “Why not cash?”
“Mine,” Ched said. “Money don’t do me no good. What am I gonna buy?” He grinned, or at least tried to. “But if I can get her to drive the line for an hour while I tell her what she’sh doin’ wrong? Hell, that’sh worth a hundred dollarsh if it’sh worth a dime!”
“You be quite and just deal the cards,” Lelanea commanded.
“I still don’t know if I’m playing right,” Dodger said. “That Feng of yours knows some strange hand combinations. Why are Aces and eights a dead man’s hand?”
“He didn’t shay,” Ched said as he shuffled the deck.
Dodger made a note to ask about it. Among other things. “What now?”
“Chashe the Queen,” Ched said. “Sheven card shtud. Queensh wild, along with the firsht card dealt fashe up after a Queen appearsh fashe up. Wild card chagesh every time Queen appearsh fashe up.”
Between Ched’s slur and the strange instructions, Dodger wasn’t sure he understood. But there was no way he was about to admit it. What ever happened to good ole five card draw, nothing wild, winner takes all? Ah well, at least it wasn’t Dirty Shultz. Dodger reckoned if Ched called that game again, he’d have to punch the man in the nose.
“So, Mr. Dodger,” Lelanea said. “Do you know any good tales?”
“Tales?” Dodger asked as he picked up his cards.
“You know, stories? Legends? Tales you care to share?”
“Ah. I see. Why? You in for a good story?”
“Shure, sharge,” Ched said. “Shpin ush a yarn.”
Dodger spread his cards out in his hand, the pair of Queens that returned to him bringing a smile to his lips. Queens were wild, that much he had understood. Perhaps his luck was changing after all. “Sure, I have a story for ya. If you think you can take a gory one.”
“The gorier the better,” Lelanea said.
And for some reason, Dodger almost expected her to say that.
Better Start Running
by Eric S. Brown
Private Jessie Morgan of the Union Army held his position in the trees above the road and prayed the Rebs passed by without noticing him or any of the other remaining members of his unit. His hands were shaking so bad, he was terrified his Springfield rifle might go off accidentally and doom them all. He wasn’t new at this. Jessie had seen plenty of action in the last few days but at the moment he felt like one.
Robert, Wes, himself, and the Colonel were the only survivors that he knew of from the engagement two days earlier when the Rebs sprang their trap. With all the fighting going on to the north in Virginia, no one expected the Rebs to have such a large force, over a thousand strong, on patrol in this part of North Carolina.
Their unit had stopped near a creek they’d come across for their midday meal—and for the officers to plot their next move—when the Rebs had caught them off guard, silently taking out their sentries. No one saw or heard the bastards coming. The first volley of fire from the Rebs cut their numbers just about in half. The Colonel rallied the men as best he could and they tried to make a stand but it was futile and hopeless. Most of the men were dead before they got to fire more than a single shot. The Colonel gave the order to retreat but there was no organization to it. By that time, it was every man for himself, and everyone knew it. Most of the men were gunned down, shot in the back, as they made a break for it. Jessie had narrowly escaped with his life. There were a couple of rounds that came so close, whizzing past him as he ran, that he’d nearly wet his pants.
Jessie felt no shame in running though. His wife and son were waiting on him back home. Dying in a battle that was already lost wouldn’t help them, or serve to do anything except get him a fast fall into Hell. He’d fled into the trees and kept moving until the sounds of screams and gunfire were far behind him. For a long time, he’d merely wandered about trying to decide what he should do. Jessie was alone, lost behind enemy lines. When the Colonel and the others found him, he nearly wept at the sight of them. After that, the four of them headed north. The Colonel assured them all their best hope was to stay low and keep moving. Eventually, he told them, they’d reach safety or stumble across another battle group that had fought their way through the Rebs’ lines and could join up with them.
None of them had any real rations to speak of and their weapons were limited. In the chaos of the Rebs’ surprise attack and their frantic retreat, Wes left his rifle behind and Robert had nothing more than his Springfield and the uniform he wore. Between them, they had two rifles and the Colonel’s revolver—which had just three bullets in its chamber.
By the second day of their flight northward, they were exhausted and starving. Random chance and bad luck conspired to stick them in their current predicament. They’d heard the Rebs coming and taken cover in the trees on the hillside. On the road below them, a wagon carrying supplies bounced along the dirt and gravel on rickety, wooden wheels. Jessie counted sixteen rebels in shoddy looking gray jackets and tattered pants. An officer rode shotgun beside the driver of the wagon. The rest of the Rebs were on foot, fanned around it.
Sweat beaded on Jessie’s forehead. If the Rebs noticed them, they were dead. He glanced over at the Colonel who crouched in the brush a few feet away. The Colonel scowled at him.
Someone started screaming in the distance. Even the Colonel jumped from the sound of the bloodcurdling wail. Something was happening on the road. The Rebs had stopped. Jessie risked a peek about the tree he cowered behind to see what was going on. The Rebs stood with their rifles ready as an Indian woman with long, flowing midnight hair came running down the hill opposite from where he hid towards them. She was yelling the same word over and over again. Her dress was torn and spotted with blood. Jessie half expected the trigger happy southern troops to gun her down before she reached them but the officer on the wagon shouted, “Hold your fire!” as the woman stumbled into their ranks.
Jessie used the moment to move closer to the Colonel, knowing the Rebs’ attention was fixed on the woman. “What’s she saying sir?” he whispered. Jessie knew the Colonel spoke Cherokee and handful of other Indian dialects.
The older man carefully leaned over to him. “I don’t know. Now, will you keep quiet?”
“But I thought you spoke . . .”
“I do private but the word she keeps saying is not one I know . . . Sasquatch” The Colonel quoted the woman as if musing over its meaning and trying make sense of it.
“Well, whatever it is,” Jessie said, “it’s got the Rebs spooked. Should we try to take them?”
The Colonel shook his head, motioning for Wes and Robert to keep their cover as well. “No, distracted or not, there’s too many of them. Let’s see how this plays out.”
One of the Rebs shrugged his jacket from his shoulders and tried to wrap it around the woman. She broke free of him and slashed his cheek with her fingernails leaving trails of red. The man backed off, stunned, pressing a hand over his wound. A second Reb offered her the canteen he carried. Slapping it from his grasp, the woman howled the word Sasquatch once more and pointed into the woods. The Rebs poor attempts at comforting her turned to mockery and flat out anger.
Together, the Colonel and Jessie watched as one of the Rebs hauled back a hand and smashed a fist into the woman’s mouth to get her to shut up. She fell backwards onto her butt. Jessie could see the blood leaking from her lower lip as she sat there, eyes wide and finally silent.
The officer in charge climbed down from his seat on the wagon to the road and walked over to her where she sat.
“You’re scaring my men, little missy,” the officer said. “Ain’t no such thing as a Sasquatch, and we all know it. Ain‘t that right boys?”
Several of the men shouted, “Yes, sir!”
Others bent over in laughter.
“You scared the devil’s gonna get ya, squaw?” one of them taunted the woman.
The officer leaned closer to her. “You ready to behave now?”
The woman spat a mouthful of red tinted saliva into the silver hairs of his beard. “Sasquatch!” she howled again at the top of her lungs.
The officer jerked his revolver free of the holster on his hip and put a bullet into her forehead. The point-blank shot blew open the back of her skull, spraying the gravel with hot, red liquid and bits of brain matter. As her corpse flopped over, the officer wiped at his beard with the backside of his hand. “Get her out of the way boys. We got some Yankees to go and kill. Time’s a wasting.”
Two of the Rebs picked up her still twitching body and tossed it into the grass at the side of the road. Jessie ground his teeth in anger at the sight. How could any one be so cold? His hatred for the South and their ways grew hotter within him. They would lose this war and he swore to himself he would be there when it happened. If men like these were the best the South had to offer, maybe the Union was better without them but even so, they couldn’t be left to their own. The evils they committed from slavery to the cold-blooded murder he’d just witnessed were too great to ignore.
The officer started to return to his seat on the wagon as a roar that sounded like fifty dogs barking together at once in perfect chorus thundered through the woods. A tree toppled over, as if something shoved it to the ground. The Rebs looked as if they were about to break.
“Stand your ground!” the officer yelled as a beast emerged from the woods.
It stood at least eight feet tall. Thick, shaggy, brown hair covered its body from head to toe. Jessie’s breath caught in his throat as he stared at it. The thing looked strong enough to rip a grizzly apart with its bare hands.
Burning yellow eyes filled with a feral, primal rage took in the men as they raised their rifles. The trees echoed with the cracks of the southerners’ shots as they unleashed a volley of fire at the monster. Jessie saw the rounds hitting the beast but they didn’t look to be having an real affect on it. A few tiny dots of red blossomed in its hair but that was all. The thing stood as still as a stone statue.
“Oh Lord,” Jessie muttered aloud as the beast sprang forward.
It closed the distance between it and the Rebs so fast it was almost a blur to Jessie’s eyes. Reaching out, it folded the first Reb it came to backwards, snapping his spine where he stood. It backhanded another with such brutal power the man’s head left his shoulders in a bloody spray and went rolling through the dirt. A few of the Rebs were attempting to reload their Springfields, but most of them were scattering and making a run for it.
The horses were squealing, straining against their reigns. The driver lost control, and they pulled him and the wagon away as they tried to flee. The beasts blocked their path. Its huge hands ended the horses’ lives with quick blows to their heads. The wagon turned over, crushing the driver beneath it.
The beast roared again as the officer, who was either too brave for his own good or very stupid, advanced on it emptying his revolver into the thing’s chest. He got so close that the barrel of his weapon was nearly touching the monster’s brown hair when he fired his final bullet. The beast grunted as the round ripped into its flesh from the close range shot. The officer looked up at the beast in disbelief that it was still very much alive as its hands closed on him and hefted him into the air above it. With an angry grunt, it tore him in half. The beast threw his two halves in different directions as the officer’s shredded intestines flopped in the wind.
Jessie thought his heart stop beating as the beast looked straight into his eyes. He had no idea how it knew he was there but it did. There was no question of that. Maybe it had smelt his fear. It didn’t matter. All the Rebs who hadn’t taken off were dead now.
It would be coming for them next.
“Run!” he heard the Colonel shout next to him.
Wes and Robert were already moving, their legs pumping under them as they scurried further up the hill. The Colonel took off after them.
Fighting Rebs was one thing.
Fighting a demon beast straight from the depths of Hell itself was another altogether.
Jessie couldn’t move. He was frozen with terror as the beast stepped over the bodies of the dead rebels and charged towards him. His Springfield slipped from his trembling hands as the beast towered above him.
“Oh Lord, please no,” he managed to pray aloud before two, large, hairy hands slapped together on the sides of his skull.
His brain matter burst into the air.
Eric S Brown is the author of the popular Bigfoot War
series as well as numerous other books including titles like
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