By Franklin E. Wales
Carlson Pass was a perfect place for an ambush. So perfect, in fact, that Dramos nearly didn’t use it. It was a simple narrow path barely thirty feet in width that ran a quarter mile from end to end. Flagged on each side by jagged rock walls some fifty feet high, it was dangerous, but it did save a good two days ride going around the mountain. If the information he’d picked up was true, a stagecoach was due to pass through the area any day now, carrying a very important passenger. Considering his source for the information, Dramos believed that could only mean Monsieur Pierre Durie. There was no reason for him to doubt its factuality; he’d promised to let the Saddle Tramps who had provided it live if they had information he wanted. Unfortunately he’d shown them his inner self, and so, he’d lied about that part. If it was true, the Pass would be the best place to wait, if he was careful. Dramos hadn’t lived as long as he had by being reckless.
When he’d secured himself in the position two days ago, he’d brought along some smoked venison and a canteen of water, but now supplies were running low. Dramos knew if it didn’t happen today, he’d have to go back to his horse. The mare was hidden away nicely near a small stream with plenty of green grass to eat at the far end of the Pass, but she’d be getting antsy soon. Hell, he was getting antsy. Reaching into his pocket, Dramos found his tobacco pouch and fixings, hoping a smoke would calm his nerves. It was already past five in the evening and he was stiff, tired and miserable with the late day sun shining straight into his eyes.
With a freshly rolled cigarette between his lips, Dramos reached for a match, but before he could strike it, his senses peaked. A few moments later a single rider came trotting into view, his head turning as he scanned the rock walls surrounding him on both sides. From his viewpoint Dramos located the Circled Star brand on the horse’s flank.
When the rider had passed his location, Dramos lit his cigarette. It would take the man a good ten to fifteen minutes for the rider to reach the other end of the pass and return. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but wait. Dramos thought about the two Saddle Tramps. It did seem that the rumors of an important man heading West were correct. Monsieur Pierre Durie would be along shortly, Dramos was sure of it.
Nearly fifteen minutes later the sounds of the rider returning hell bent for leather reached his ears and Dramos slid back, unnoticed, allowing the man to cross through to the other end of the pass. It wasn’t long before he heard commotion heading his way again. Keeping himself hidden, Dramos watched as the rider came galloping past, followed by a black funeral coach pulled by two horses and behind that a second rider. All the horses bore the Circled Star brand.
Just as the second rider passed, Dramos leaned out with his Winchester and sent a bullet crashing through the back of his skull. Before the body even hit the ground Dramos swung the rifle up and squeezed a second shot into the lead man, knocking him from his horse. The Coachman yanked back on the reins and forced the horses to halt. From his seat he raised his hands.
“I ain’t armed!” he yelled, his voice echoing off the rock walls.
“Good,” Dramos yelled back, “then step on down from the coach!”
The Coachman stared straight ahead, as if not seeing the shooter might save his life. “I’d like to, Mister, I surely would, but they got me chained to this here seat.”
“Then keep looking ahead and keep your hands where I can see em!” He slung the Winchester over his shoulder and climbed down the rock wall with animal like gracefulness, the stiffness his body had felt earlier was now lost in the adrenaline of the hunt. The Coachman never moved a muscle.
The rider at the rear was dead. The hole in the back of his head oozing a mixture of blood and brains, that much was assured. Dramos removed the bandana the man had tied around his neck and examined the two small puncture marks in his flesh. A quick search of his pockets brought nothing of interest.
“Let me see those chains,” he called out as he approached the coach.
“Can’t, Mister. They chained my feet. You come have a look.”
As he stepped towards the coach, Dramos pulled the pistol from his right holster and asked, “How did you come to be chained to a funeral coach anyway?”
“Don’t rightly remember. I was in a saloon in Purgatory Junction when these two men came in saying they were looking for a Coachman and I spoke up. We started drinking and the next thing I remember was waking up chained to this coach.”
Standing to the side of the coach, Dramos could see the shackles secured around the ankles of a man in his well worn sixties. “Turn and look at me. I won’t shoot ya.”
Cautiously the Coachman turned to look at the strong European features on the man who held a pistol pointed at him. The gunman had an unruly mop of shoulder length black hair, three days or better of stubble on his chin, the darkest eyes he’d ever seen and a sinfully bright row of teeth. “Howdy Mister,” he said. “Name’s Colby.”
“Dramos,” the gunman replied with a nod as he moved toward the body of the lead rider lying face down in the dirt.
“Pretty sure he’s dead,” Colby said.
“Can’t be too sure.” Dramos looked down at the back of the man’s neck where the bullet had entered. He rolled the body over with his boot. Blood bubbled from the exit wound right above the man’s Adam’s apple. His eyes, though glassy, were still open. He coughed up blood once and tried to speak, without success.
Dramos reached down and removed the blood soaked bandana from around the man’s neck and looked at the two puncture wounds similar to those he’d found on the other rider. He dropped the bandana and aimed his pistol at the injured man’s face. “Sorry, Amigo, you threw in with the wrong side.” With one squeeze of his finger, Dramos ended the fellow’s suffering. A quick search of the man’s clothing yielded a small key, which he quickly placed in his own pocket.
“So,” Dramos said turning back to Colby, “do you have any idea what is in the coach?”
“Coffin, I’d reckon. It is a funeral coach.”
Pointing his pistols at the ankle chains, Dramos grinned.
“Don’t go anywhere,” he said, before moving to the rear of the coach and opening its doors. Inside the darkened compartment was a mahogany coffin with engraved silver handles and a golden inlay. After pulling on his gloves, Dramos yanked the exquisite burial box out and let it drop unceremoniously to the ground.
The sound of the coffin slamming against the hard-packed earth startled Colby. “Maybe ‘taint none of my business, but you might want to have a tad more respect for the dead.”
Dramos scoffed. He dragged the box into the view of the Coachman. “And maybe you might oughta see what’s in the box before you pass judgment, fella.”
Colby didn’t care what the stranger said; he had no desire to know whoever was in that coffin. Whoever it had been, they’d had money. It was a fine box to be stickin’ in the ground. Maybe too fine. That was probably why there were two armed gunmen accompanying him. The gold and silver alone was probably worth a fortune. “That’s okay, Mister, I don’t need to see.”
“Look!” Dramos demanded. “And don’t let me catch you blinking.”
Colby sat unmoving, unblinking as Dramos threw the lid open. For the briefest of moments a well dressed man in death’s sleep appeared inside. In the instant the lid came back and sunlight hit the corpse’s face, the man opened his eyes and Colby knew what pure hatred looked like. The shrill scream of Hell’s own Damned filled the air, but only for a moment. It was quickly replaced by a loud whoosh, as a flash bright as the sun itself appeared from within the coffin. A moment later the box was empty, only its silk lining burned with the flames of Hell.
During the split second of exposure, before the sun brought inferno, Dramos had just enough time to realize the creature in the box was not Durie. One of his minions to be sure, but not the Vampire King himself.
“Was that a man?” Colby asked.
“It was once,” Dramos replied. “A very long time ago.” Given that the corpse ignited like paper in fire, Dramos knew it was most likely a hundred years or better since that thing had drawn a breath of air.
“What was it?”
Colby blinked, swallowed hard and finally said, “A vampire?”
“Yes.” Dramos motioned to where Colby sat. “I’d wager the wood where you sit is stained dark. Am I right?”
“Yes. I did notice that.”
“Most likely the blood of previous Coachmen, I imagine. That’s why they had you chained there.”
“You were to be that creature’s dinner when the sun set.”
Colby’s jaw dropped. “Come again?”
Dramos looked into the man’s eyes.
“That,” he said, pointing into the flaming coffin, “was a vampire. They live on human blood.” He pointed to the two fallen gunmen. “They were vampire slaves leading you to slaughter.”
Before Colby could question, Dramos continued, “They’d been bitten but not turned. They lived to serve their master, in hopes he would turn them.”
“They wanted to be vampires?”
“Eternal life and nearly unstoppable power is a strong motivation for some men, even if it means living their lives in servitude to a greater power.”
“I heared about Vampires, Mister. But I always thought they was just spook stories for the young’uns.”
“A lot of spook stories are real, Old Timer. Trust me; if it wasn’t for me you would have been dead before dawn.”
“But why me?” Colby asked. “Why not one of them if they wanted to be vampires.”
“The creature needed them to keep an eye on his coffin during the daylight.” Dramos paused to make sure that his next sentence would be understood. “And to bring him food out here on the trail.”
There was a moment of silence as reality sunk in. Finally Colby asked, “What now, Mister? You gonna set me free or kill me?”
“Neither, right now,” Dramos said as he climbed up next to Colby. “Now you’re gonna take us through the pass. My horse is hidden on the other side.”
“Then you’ll set me free?”
Ignoring the question, Dramos asked, “Where did the men say they wanted you to take the coach?”
“To Sage, why?”
“We get my horse, and head on to Sage, then.”
“To where they wanted me to deliver a vampire?”
“Why? How do you know they told me the truth?”
“Truth is easier to remember than a lie. Besides, they knew you’d never make it there.”
“What if there are more vampires in Sage?”
“There probably are,” Dramos replied. “I’m counting on it.” Grabbing his fixings, Dramos rolled himself a smoke. As he worked his voice dropped softer. “Before we get to Sage, we’re going to pass the cutoff to Jagged Rock. I reckon that is where they planned to replace you.”
Colby visibly shuddered at the possibility.
“When we get near the cutoff I’m going to unchain you, take my horse and ride on into Sage alone.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Ride on into town. Every town needs an undertaker and you already got the funeral coach. Hire on, sell the coach, I don’t care, but you’re free. I do think I’d lay some paint over the blood stains on that seat, though.”
“Why not now?” Colby protested. “Why not unchain me now?”
“Because you’d try to run and then I’d have to kill you.”
Colby had taken them through the pass without further objection. Evidently he’d decided a few more hours chained to the coach was preferable to the vampire’s meal he’d nearly become. When they’d reached the end of the pass, Dramos showed Colby where to wait while he went to get his horse.
“Don’t be trying to escape with the coach,” Dramos said, sliding the Winchester off his shoulder.
“No sir, I won’t,” Colby said, eyeing the Winchester. “I seen how good you were with that thing.”
Dramos worked his way silently down the path towards the grassy cutout at the edge of a stream where he’d left his horse. Just before he broke into the clearing he veered right, attempting to come up on the mare from the side. With practiced ease he slipped through the brush silently. No human ear would have ever heard him, of that he was positive. The horse however was looking right at him when he entered the clearing. She huffed once and stamped her left hoof. It was a game they played, and she had yet to lose.
“I know, Girl,” he said softly as the horse approached him and offered her head for a scratch between her ears. “You win again.”
The area looked as he’d left it. The few small branches he had placed at the path’s opening were still in place. Had anyone approached the horse, he knew, it would be another story completely. His saddle and gear were still sitting on a rock to the far side, under a tree. It was as if he’d left only moments ago and not days.
“Miss me, Girl?” he asked as he threw the saddle over her back. Dramos had never named the mare. A name implied ownership and he did not believe animals could be owned. Their spirits could be broken and they could be forced into a life of servitude without a doubt, but never owned. The mare and he were equal partners in the life they shared. She remained by his side because she chose to, not because her spirit was broken, and that’s the only way he would have it.
Reaching into his saddlebags Dramos removed two sugar cubes and gave them to the mare. “Come on, Girl, we got traveling to do.” That said, Dramos turned and walked down the path, the mare following his lead.
Colby had been alternating between watching the path’s opening for Dramos to return, and watching the sky turn a darkened charcoal color. The sun would be setting soon and after what he’d seen today he wasn’t sure he would ever look at the approaching night with the same innocence he’d had for his sixty-three years.
Finally the gunslinger exited the scrub followed by the most exquisite animal Colby had ever seen. The mare was solid black and her muscles so defined they looked carved from fine marble.
“You hungry?” Dramos asked.
“I’d sure ‘preciate something to eat,” Colby said. “Them fellas didn’t feed me nothing but whiskey the night before.”
“You don’t feed the lamb before you lead it to slaughter.”
Dramos grinned. “Never mind.” He reached into his saddlebags, removed a pouch of smoked venison and climbed up beside Colby.
“Ain’t you gonna tie your horse?”
“No need. She’ll keep pace okay.”
“That must be one tame animal.”
That actually brought a laugh from the gunslinger. “Think so? Don’t try and ride her. Last fella that did that won’t be fathering any children.”
The venison was tough enough to keep Colby’s jaws working for nearly an hour and that was fine with Dramos. His blood still sizzled from the earlier confrontation with the vampire. The bouncing of the coach on the rutted trail and the rising of the moon did little to help him stay focused. Without warning the coach would catch a dip and send them jostling back and forth. It wasn’t Colby’s fault, but it was all Dramos could do to keep from complaining every time it happened. Only watching the mare as she plodded alongside the coach helped him keep himself centered. The mare, perhaps sensing what he was going through, kept herself at arm’s reach from his seat beside the Coachman.
Eventually Colby had either tired of fighting the toughened dried meat, or had gotten his fill. It didn’t take long after that before the silence over took him.
“Where are you from, Mister?” Colby asked, finally breaking the silence.
“Italy,” Dramos said. “A small village in the Apennine Mountains.”
Colby seemed to consider this. “Funny, you ain’t got no accent.”
“I’ve been here a long time.”
There was a long pause as Colby worked up the courage to ask the real question on his mind. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, how do you know so much about vampires?”
“A long time ago a vampire named Tarczali caused a lot of damage in my home village. When America opened up as a new world he and many others of his kind came here to spread their disease. That’s how I came to America; I followed him.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Took me thirty years, but yes.”
Colby looked at the man seated next to him. “But you don’t look more than forty years old.”
Dramos smiled. “I’m closer to a hundred. Like I said earlier, some spook stories are more true than you know. Do you want to know why?”
“No, I don’t think I do. I know more than I want to now.”
The front wheels of the coach hit a deep dip in the road and bounced it angrily from side to side. The sounds of cracking wood echoed out into the night air, startling the horses and causing them to bolt down the trail.
“You reckon it’s falling apart on us?” Colby asked, excitedly, as another screech of cracking wood filled the air.
“I don’t know,” Dramos said. He looked to the mare. Her nostrils flared, her eyes were widened. It was more than the coach falling apart. A moment later Dramos felt it too. Standing, he turned and crawled onto the top of the coach, sliding his way toward the back.
“Get those horses under control!” he shouted over his back.
As he inched his way toward the rear of the coach another crack of splitting wood filled the air, louder this time. A wooden plank appeared on the ground behind the now racing coach. Too late, Dramos realized what had happened. He looked to the mare, despite her obvious alarm, she still kept pace with the coach. She would stay by his side until she drew her last breath.
“Go!” he shouted to the horse and pointed away. The mare looked at him, torn between loyalty and obedience. Obedience won and she pulled away from the coach as another board was torn loose from under the funeral coach. “Quiet those damned horses!”
“I’m tryin!” Colby shouted.
Beneath the coach, unseen to the eye, a hidden compartment made to look like the undercarriage, was torn open by elongated fingers until the creature within had freed itself. Before it fell to the ground its wings took over and it flew out between the coach’s wheels and into the night air.
Still crawling on his stomach Dramos saw movement to his right as a winged creature sailed upward. The beast resembled a man somewhat, if that man had nearly ivory white hairless skin, long claws instead of finger and toe nails, and if he had a long snakelike tail behind him. It also resembled a giant bat with its bald head, yellow eyes, pointed ears and vicious gnashing teeth, if that bat was six feet tall. It flapped its massive wings of white membrane stretched over a visible bone structure. The wings stretched nearly eight feet tip to tip. It was not just a vampire, it was a Changeling… Monsieur Pierre Durie the Vampire King!
The creature flew straight up with a few strokes of its mighty wings, then bent at the knees, pulling itself into a sitting position and drove down toward Colby. The talons on the beast tore into the wood of the Coachman’s seat as it wrapped its arms around Colby. The Vampire King tore into the shackled man’s throat and ripped away the soft flesh before burying his mouth into the wound and feasting as Colby screamed the last of his breath away.
The horses, already panicked, picked up the scent of the vampire and whinnied in fear, dragging the coach madly down the old trail. Dramos tried to pull himself up to his feet, lost his balance, corrected it, and pulled his pistols. The bullets were ordinary lead loads. They wouldn’t do any real harm on body shots, but he hoped he might break open the vampire’s skull.
Spreading his legs to keep balanced as the coach continued to bounce at manic pace, Dramos fired a half dozen shots. At least three connected with the vampire’s skull and merely ricocheted off. It was Durie. He was an elder, as old as time itself, a King among vampires. Bullets were not going to penetrate his hardened skull. Dramos dropped his pistols back into their holsters, awaiting the inevitable.
Feeling the bullets bounce off its head, the Vampire King snapped around to see the gunslinger riding the coach behind him. It released its hold on the dead Coachman and flapped its massive wings to take flight, but the mare had raced back to the coach and snapped her teeth toward the vampire’s ankle. Seeing the horse, the creature simply shot skyward, avoiding capture altogether.
Dramos watched the vampire hover a moment before its wings flapped again and the creature came at him. He felt the talons on its feet dig into his legs as it went for the kill. Letting the force of the vampire work against itself, Dramos tumbled down from the coach towards the hardened earth below, twisting as he did so as to force the vampire to hit ground first.
As he pummeled the creature with both hands, Dramos used his feet to kick off his own boots.
The vampire bared its teeth and hissed at Dramos as it tried to claw for his throat. Using its wings the Vampire King pushed against the ground and overcame the weight of the gunslinger. Wrapping his arms around Dramos, the creature pushed upward, taking them into the air.
Finding the moment he’d been waiting for, Dramos allowed the change he’d been fighting all night to take place. He felt his muscles tighten, his skin sprout hair, his face twist, pushing his jaw forward and his teeth outward, all happening at once as he wrapped his own massive arms around the vampire’s torso.
The Vampire King looked into the eyes of the werewolf. Too late it realized its folly. It could not taste the blood of a werewolf; that would be acid in its own veins. The creature twisted, trying to free Dramos’ grip from around him. When that didn’t work it brought up its legs, trying to dig its lower claws into the werewolf.
Dramos brought his right arm around and drove a long clawed finger into Monsieur Pierre Durie’s left eye as he ripped at the hardened flesh around it with the rest. The vampire screamed in torment, releasing its grasp on him. As he fell to the ground, Dramos allowed the change to complete. The werewolf that dropped from the air landed on the ground gracefully as a four legged wolf. Looking up, the wolf watched the vampire, its face now mauled, its left eye socket open and drooling yellow puss, trying to regain its composure. It screeched at Dramos, hatred filled its one eye before it took flight off into the night.
When he was sure the Vampire King was gone, Dramos pushed himself back to his human form and found his fallen clothing. There was no possibility of tracking Durie now. He would fly until near daybreak and crawl off into a cave. It was of no consequence. Dramos knew where the Vampire King was headed and he would surely recognize him in any form with the missing left eye. For now he needed to track down the coach and bury Colby.
He figured he owed the old Coachman a decent burial. Even though he knew the man would have been dead anyway, it still gnawed on him that Colby had died chained to the coach without a chance to run or try to defend himself. In that respect, he might as well not interfered at all. He was still vampire fodder in the end, just as the two gunmen had undoubtedly planned for him.
Colby was not the first nor would he be the last innocent Dramos would have to bury. Once this new land of America had opened up, many of Europe’s ancient bloodsuckers had desired to relocate, much like the vampire Tarczali from his homeland. Dramos had followed Tarczali shortly after. There was a debt he needed to collect, in blood.
Just as the undead had once populated the Eastern United States, they too moved West, following the humans who settled the land. When at last Dramos had sent Tarczali to his grave he realized he had fallen in love with his new country. Rather than return to Italy, he decided to spend the rest of his days hunting down the hellish creatures of the night, lest they be allowed to flourish here as they had in Europe for centuries.
The mare appeared at his side and bowed her head. Dramos swung up into the saddle. “Come on, Girl. We got to find that coach and give the old man his burial. Tomorrow we’ll go looking for the One-eyed Vampire King, Durie.”
The mare whinnied in agreement.
Don't forget to follow the link on the top right side of the blog to contribute to the Smile Train organization.
Help low income kids get the smile they deserve!
Born and raised in Conway, NH, Frank now lives with his beautiful author / photographer wife, Jacki, in the South Florida home they share with their dog named Boo and a cat named Oz (as in Wizard of). He is the author of five published novels and numerous shorter works of fiction and nonfiction. Funeral Coach is his second installment in the Dramos Saga. Currently he is at work on the screenplay adaptation of his novel, Deadheads: Evolution, which is slated to begin shooting this year in Miami Florida, from Stained Vision Pictures in association with New Logic Entertainment. You can find more of Frank’s work at his website or at his Amazon page.