They followed the first bandit, the others trailing behind, guns still out, to a tent under an outcropping of rock, the front flap open. Black River Mahoney had black hair and a thick black mustache. He wore black clothing and loosened his pistol in his holster as they approached. He glared at them as the first man handed him off some beef jerky and a canteen.
â€œWhat do you people want?â€ he asked.
â€œUm â€¦ we-we heard that you potentially had a bell to summon a worm or two?â€ Dunspar said.
â€œThree or four or five?â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œWhatchu gonna give me for it?â€ Mahoney said.
â€œYour lives?â€ Gemma said.
â€œThatâ€™s a good start,â€ Mahoney said. â€œYou gotta help me and the gang get away from Red Rock.â€
â€œWell, of course,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œThe worms ainâ€™t let us leave for two weeks.â€
â€œHow many men are left here?â€
â€œIâ€™m just trying to figure out how many weâ€™re transporting.â€
â€œThereâ€™s almost a dozen of us. You seen â€˜em all outside.â€
â€œWe ran outta water yesterday. We ainâ€™t had food in a week.â€
He looked them over.
â€œGet us off this ridge and yeah â€¦ yeah, Iâ€™ll help you,â€ Mahoney said.
â€œThatâ€™s our plan,â€ Gemma said.
â€œWe have to leave to so weâ€™ll take you with us,â€ Otto said.
â€œI donâ€™t give a damn what happens to you!â€ Mahoney said. â€œYou could die for all I care!â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m just sayingâ”€â€
â€œI donâ€™t care what you â€˜just say!â€™â€
â€œWeâ€™re going to take us all with us when we leave.â€
Mahoney just glared at the man. Then he turned back to Gemma.
â€œWell, Missy, youâ€™re gonna let us go,â€ he said. â€œGet us away from here. Isnâ€™t that what you said? Before your boyfriend started interrupting?â€
â€œIf we are able to kill this thing â€¦ we will assure your safety,â€ Gemma said.
â€œFair enough,â€ Mahoney said. â€œThe rest of you on board with that?â€
The other three gave their affirmation.
â€œYou got any horses or are they all gone?â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œTheyâ€™re gone!â€ Mahoney growled.
â€œThatâ€™s what I thought.â€
â€œWhat do you want to know?â€
â€œHow do you summon the worms?â€ Dunspar said.
â€œOut there near the stake out where we stake people down,â€ Mahoney said. â€œOld Wormy was the last. Son of a bitch. Got vomit on my boots. Dragged his hide out there and staked him out for the worms. When I tied him down there, rang the dinner bell â€¦ something strange happened. The worm came like normal. But instead of eatinâ€™ him, it stood over him for a minute. Itâ€™s tentacles were quivering, almost like it could sniff the old coot! We all got a laugh outta that at first. But when it bent down and pulled him loose, real gentle-like, well, it wasnâ€™t so funny anymore, was it? It carried him screaming back into the tunnel and we never saw him again.
â€œAbout two days later, them monsters started grabbing anybody trying to leave the ridge! Lost four men to â€˜em before we just gave up. Now weâ€™re stuck here, arenâ€™t we?â€
He looked them over.
â€œI can show you where we stake â€˜em out,â€ he finally said. â€œWhere the dinner bell is. You wanna see?â€
â€œThat would be useful,â€ Dunspar said. â€œYes.â€
Mahoney got up and led them down to the edge of the ridge the opposite end from town. There were four stakes in the ground there with leather thongs. A large hole about 30 feet in diameter was in the ground some 15 feet from that. Mahoney explained the worms came up through the hole and noted since they used it so much, it was permanent.
He also showed them the dinner bell, which was little more than a wheel mounted on a small frame with a handle attached. Several rocks hung from ropes tied along the rim of the wheel. It looked like when the handle would be turned, it would slam the rocks against the ground.
â€œWe do that for a couple seconds, we can hear â€˜em coming,â€ he said.
â€œAnd thatâ€™s â€¦ thatâ€™s how â€¦â€ Gemma said.
â€œTook â€˜em right down there,â€ Mahoney said, pointing at the hole in the ground.
â€œâ€¦ so thatâ€™s how weâ€™ll â€¦â€ Gemma said.
â€œSo you said the worms have tentacles?â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œâ€¦ poison them â€¦â€ Gemma said.
â€œYep,â€ Mahoney said.
â€œWe â€¦ went into Websterâ€™s house â€¦ in town â€¦ and there wasâ”€â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œItâ€™s a person in town. Heâ€™s a â€¦ not a bounty hunter. Whatâ€™s the word? Big game hunter!â€
â€œHe had a bottle in his basement mounted with something â€¦ I donâ€™t know â€¦ tentacle. And I believe Wormy had drank the contents and the tentacle as well, thinking it was tequila.â€
â€œWhich might explain why they took him instead of eating him. Just â€¦ passing information.â€
â€œAre you looking for Wormy?â€
â€œBecause heâ€™s in there.â€
â€œHeâ€™s in the hole?â€
â€œThatâ€™s where they took him.â€
â€œI donâ€™t wanna go in there.â€
â€œYou and me both, brother.â€
â€œWeâ€™re just looking to poison theseâ”€â€ Gemma said.
â€œThat looks like a bad place,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
Mahoney just put his hands in the air.
â€œThe worms come when you ring the dinner bell,â€ he said. â€œI reckon the solution to yâ€™allâ€™s problem lies somewhere down that hole. If you got the guts, I bet youâ€™ll find your answers down there.â€
â€œHow about you lead us?â€ Gemma said, whipping out a dagger and putting it to Mahoneyâ€™s neck.
He didnâ€™t seem fazed at all by that.
â€œThey ainâ€™t letting you leave,â€ Mahoney said. â€œThey ainâ€™t let us leave in two weeks. You start to ride down; they show up. You can see the sand moving. They want us to know that theyâ€™re gonna stop us. So, I think itâ€™s a good idea if you go down the hole.â€
Professor Stalloid moved to the edge of the rock and saw the sand move nearby.
â€œOh yeah, weâ€™re stuck here,â€ he said. â€œShoulda brought the cow.â€
Professor Stalloid did a little experimenting with moving around to see if the sand moved. The sand didnâ€™t move unless he seemed to be heading off the rock. He moved back and forth and took three steps and walked backwards.
â€œWhat the hell?â€ Mahoney said to the others. â€œIs your friend dancing? They wonâ€™t let us leave. They ainâ€™t letting yâ€™all leave.â€
â€œWeâ€™re probably your only hope,â€ Gemma said.
â€œAnd weâ€™re probably yours,â€ Mahoney said. â€œStab me right now and kill me. Better than being taken by those things.â€
Professor Stalloid picked up a large rock and poured the poison onto it. Then he ran to the edge of the rock and tossed it into the sand as if he had jumped. Nothing happened.
â€œTheyâ€™re smart,â€ Mahoney said. â€œTheyâ€™re damned smart. Why do you think we used to use â€˜em. Used ta. Now they seem to want us too. You can put that away, girlie-girl. Or stab me with it. You should do one or the other.â€
â€œWhat do you mean use them?â€ she asked.
Mahoney pointed to the stakes and the thongs.
â€œUsed to feed â€˜em!â€ he said. â€œPeople that made us angry. But they took Wormy and all the sudden theyâ€™re acting all weird.â€
â€œYour own men?â€ she asked.
â€œOh no,â€ he said. â€œHell, no. People we didnâ€™t like. People that offended our delicate nature. Never fed it no women.â€
â€œWould you be willing to come with us?â€ Dunspar asked.
â€œHell no, Iâ€™m not going in that hole!â€ Mahoney said.
Professor Stalloid was peering at the hole. It didnâ€™t look like a pit but seemed to slope down at a steep angle. He was unsure if they could make it to the hole before something grabbed them. He wondered if they took the dinner bell to the other side of the ridge, it would attract the worms long enough for them to get down the hole. He suggested that possibility to the rest of them.
â€œI think it might be the best choice,â€ Gemma said.
â€œDo you have weapons we could use if weâ€™re unarmed?â€ Dunspar said.
â€œNo,â€ Mahoney said.
In the end, they decided they would have the bandits take the dinner bell to the other side of the ridge and then use it to try to draw the worms away. Mahoney set up his men to signal across the ridge when they started using it. He said heâ€™d keep banging it as long as they could.
After they got the signal, they saw some of the sand move and gave it a minute or so before they were ready to get back down on the ground. Then they all looked at each other, seeing who would go first.
â€œYou first,â€ Gemma said to Otto. â€œAnd then me.â€
She pointed at Dunspar and Professor Stalloid.
â€œAnd then you and you,â€ she said.
â€œNo, Iâ€™ll give - Iâ€™ll give my pistol to someone else,â€ Otto said, taking the pistol out of his holster. â€œBut Iâ€™m not going first. Iâ€™ll go second.â€
Gemma rolled her eyes, grabbed the second pistol, and walked off the ridge onto the dirt, heading for the hole first. The other men were all a little ashamed at their cowardice and being shown up by a woman.
The tunnel sloped steeply downward. The walls of the tunnel were covered in a hard, transparent substance. Light filtered from the opening for only a short distance and then Professor Stalloid quickly lit a lantern and handed it off to Dunspar. He took out the lightning gun.
Though the tunnel was 30 feet across, it felt claustrophobic and the deeper they went, the tighter it seemed be. Dirt constantly sifted down through cracks in the dry varnish-like substance that covered all the surfaces.
After a half hour of or so of walking, the tunnel emerged into a large cavern nearly a hundred feet across and as high. The walls, floor, and ceiling were covered in more of the hardened varnish-like substance. Passages ended the room not all of them at floor level but from every imaginable angle. The floor was littered with bones, some of them obviously human, and other vile substances.
Just visible from the tunnel they entered from was a column of stone. An old man seemed to have his hands and feet attached to it. The manâ€™s skin was leathery with a pale yellowish cast. Over a dozen half-healed puncture wounds an inch across dotted his distended stomach. Large dark splotches stained the ground in front of the man. His arms and legs were deeply imbedded in the rock-like column. His lips were chapped and he looked like he hadnâ€™t eaten in days.
â€œHelp me!â€ he grunted. â€œHelp me!â€
â€œOh my goodness!â€ Gemma said.
She ran across the room to the older gentleman and he muttered for water. Someone gave the man the last couple swallows from a canteen.
â€œI sure am glad to see you folks,â€ the trapped man said.
â€œIâ€™m so sorry!â€ Gemma said. â€œWhat happened to you?â€
â€œI figured I was a gonner for sure!â€ the man said.
The trapped man nodded at some of the bones lying around.
â€œWormy, I assume,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œYes sir,â€ he said. â€œYes sir. You folks keep an eye out for them other things - them big worms - and them other things that are runninâ€™ around down here.â€
â€œThereâ€™s other things?â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œI donâ€™t know what they are but they sure do move fast!â€ Wormy said. â€œWhen the worm - when the worm carried me down here, it was as gentle as a momma holdinâ€™ her baby, like it didnâ€™t want me to come to no harm. Heh. Thatâ€™s a laugh, after what they done to me since. Itâ€™s been hell, I tell ya!
â€œThey stuck me here in this mud! And they used them snake tongues aâ€™ theirs to suck the blood out of me. They never took too much - I guess they didnâ€™t want to kill me. Them things has brung a whole bunch of folks down here since they caught me - some of â€˜em I recognized from the town, but others I never seen before. They stick them over in that hole until theyâ€™re ready â€¦ thereâ€™s still some folks in there right now, I think.â€
He gestured back and to their right. Just in the light of the lantern was a pit by the wall.
â€œThen they bring â€˜em out here in front of me,â€ Wormy went on. â€œThen they suck out all their blood, not a little like they do with me. They suck it out all out and then they take a little of mine and mix it with some liquid - maybe itâ€™s worm spit or blood - I donâ€™t know but they put it in the body. And then a little while later, it starts to change! I canâ€™t describe it. It comes back to life! I reckon they done a good half dozen or more of these things by now Theyâ€™re like â€¦ worm-men or something but â€¦ I figure weâ€™ll see them right soon anyhow. They live in them smaller caves.â€
He gestured to the caves to the right and left. They were smaller and at the level of the ground.
Dunspar started to try to break Wormy free. Gemma helped as well, using her knives.
Professor Stalloid took the lantern and headed for the pit. Two men and a woman were in the pit. One man and a woman were wearing rough clothing, like homesteaders. The other man had a gun belt and wore clothing like the men on the ridge.
â€œMister, you come to save us?â€ the homesteader man said.
Professor Stalloid pointed the lantern over at others and waited to get one of their attentions. Dunspar went over to the pit and looked down, trying to figure out how to help. The homesteader helped the woman up, giving her a lift up for the two men to pull her out. The fellow who looked like one of Mahoneyâ€™s men wanted to get up next and the homesteader helped him up as well. Getting the last man out was the hardest but they used a shirt and Professor Stalloidâ€™s jacket tied together as a piece of rope.
They learned the homesteader was Robert Altman and the woman was his wife, Tina. They told him that they thought the last man was one of Mahoneyâ€™s gang.
Wormy was finally free and seemed very relieved to be so. He thanked Gemma profusely and seemed to be badly injured. Gemma gestured for them all to come back to where she stood.
â€œOkay,â€ she said. â€œOkay. Everyone, weâ€™ve established that â€¦ these things, these worms â€¦ wonâ€™t kill him. After he drank what he did, they - they - theyâ€™re not going to-toâ€¦â€
â€œMe?â€ Wormy said.
â€œThey love you,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œâ”€theyâ€™re not going to kill you,â€ Gemma said. â€œSoâ”€â€
â€œYou drank something at Websterâ€™s,â€ Dunspar said.
â€œWhatever you had, wasnâ€™tâ”€â€ Gemma said.
â€œYeah, I was on a bender,â€ Wormy muttered. â€œYeah.â€
â€œWhatever you hadâ”€â€ Gemma said.
â€œTequila,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œWhatever you had, it wasnâ€™t tequila,â€ Gemma said.
â€œI know that,â€ Wormy said. â€œIt was horrible.â€
â€œBut, this is - this - is - is a plan that I have, okay?â€ Gemma said. â€œTheyâ€™re not going to kill you, so weâ€™ll use you as bait.â€
â€œI donâ€™t wanna come back here.â€
â€œYou wonâ€™t. We have a poison that, when the worm comes up, weâ€™ll be able to poison it, and hopefully kill it.â€
â€œThereâ€™s more than one. Thereâ€™s like half a dozen. I just wanna go home.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what Iâ€™ve got,â€ Gemma said.
Otto frowned. He thought he heard digging.
â€œI heard something move,â€ he said. â€œWe should probably start moving.â€
â€œThis is the best plan weâ€™ve got right now!â€ Gemma said. â€œWeâ€™ve got to get going.â€
They headed for the cave entrance theyâ€™d come in and the gunfighter, the man theyâ€™d been told was probably in Mahoneyâ€™s gang, took the lead, obviously wanting to get out of the place. Professor Stalloid noticed the ground just inside that tunnel looked strange, almost as if it was drier. It looked like dust covered it. He quickly pointed it out to the rest of them.
â€œMaybe the worms can come in through there,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œAs long as we can get out,â€ the bandit said.
He had slowed when Professor Stalloid had given the warning but then headed for the tunnel again. Otto told them it looked something like the holes he had seen before and called for him to stop.
â€œHow about we let Wormy go first?â€ Otto said.
Professor Stalloid shoved the canteen filled with poison into Wormyâ€™s hand.
â€œWhy am I going first?â€ Wormy said, obviously terrified.
â€œWeâ€™ll be right behind you, okay?â€ Gemma said. â€œWeâ€™ll be right behind you.â€
Wormy moved forward slowly, obviously terrified, his whole body shaking. When he reached the spot Otto had pointed out, he stopped, looked back over his shoulder, and then turned and took a couple of steps. The ground collapsed under him and he fell with a cry.
â€œOh God!â€ Wormy screamed. â€œWhat are they!?!â€
The things that climbed out of the pit were humanoid in shape with long, distended arms and legs that looked segmented like the body of a worm. Their bodies were impossibly and horribly slim and their faces had two milky-white eyes and a large mouth with four tentacles whipping out of it. There were great claws on their hands and their feet had five toes that pointed out in different directions from their ankle. Each creature seemed wet, covered with some kind of greenish slime that dripped from it, and a darker slime dripped from the thingsâ€™ mouths.
Four of the horrors scrambled up out of the hole and faced them. Dunspar and Professor Stalloid heard digging behind them and saw two more of the things dig up and out of the ground behind them.
â€œBack you beasts!â€ Professor Stalloid shouted. â€œTheyâ€™re behind us!â€
He activated the lightning gun in his hand, the blast of electricity arcing to one of the horrible things and striking it in the chest. The blast arced away from the thing, striking another of the terrors. Both of them exploded, bursting and splattering everyone. Otto fired his rifle at one of the nearby things which fell back into the pit. Below, Wormy screamed.
Gemma pulled a pistol from her belt, holding it with both hands, cocked it, and shot the last thing by the pit, hitting it in the chest. Black ichor spewed from the wound and it screeched, the tentacles from its mouth whipping around.
The worm creatures advanced. One of them attacked Tina Altman, clawing the woman. She screamed and fell to the ground. Another attacked Nick Altman but he fought it off. The last, from the pit, attacked Dunspar and clawed him, tearing his clothing and cutting his chest. He tried to push the thing back into the pit as it tore at him, knocking it back into the pit where it slid to the bottom and hissed at him.
Professor Stalloid turned and fired the lightning gun at the horror standing over Tina Altmanâ€™s form. The blast struck the worm man in the chest and it stumbled backwards, badly burned.
â€œGet that man a gun!â€ he shouted, pointing at the outlaw.
Gemma pulled a second pistol out of her belt and handed it off to the outlaw, then she turned and shot at the creature that threatened Altman. Otto turned and shot the creature that had been struck by Professor Stalloidâ€™s lightning. It shrieked and fell backwards.
The last two suddenly crouched and dug down out of sight into the earth.
â€œHelp the woman!â€ Otto said to Professor Stalloid.
The man tried to tend to Mrs. Altman, as did Gemma. They couldnâ€™t awaken her
â€œI got her,â€ Altman said.
He picked up his wife.
The bandit made his way around the pit while Professor Stalloid tried to tend to the injured Dunspar.
â€œGive me a knife!â€ Dunspar said to Gemma.
She handed off the pistol.
They helped Wormy out and then headed back out the tunnel the way theyâ€™d come. As they ran, they sometimes heard a rumbling in the distance or felt the ground move under them in a small tremor. Sometimes dust or dirt trickled down from the roof of the terrible tunnel but they made it to the opening above.
Their horses were still up on the ridge.
They sent Wormy out of the hole first and he ran across the dirt and up the ridge. The rest of them followed him and found their horses up there. They saw no sign of the Red Rock Ridge Gang.
â€œThey used our distraction as a distraction â€¦ to run,â€ Professor Stalloid said. â€œWhy did they leave my horses? Or they all got eaten at the dinner bell.â€
They could see the dinner bell on the other side of the ridge.
They discussed how to get back to town. There was talk of using the dinner bell and how to get everyone off the ridge. Gemma thought they should just go. They mounted up, two on each horse and Wormy and the bandit walking. They made their way towards Hilton Springs.
* * *
It was nearing dinnertime when they got back to town. Theyâ€™d seen no sign of the worms. Otto actually arrived first, trying to get Mrs. Altman to the town as quickly as he could without killing Blaze. When he arrived, Parsons helped him get her to a place of relative safety. They carried her to Bufontâ€™s boarding house for the time being.
Once the others arrived, Professor Stalloid ran to the medicine wagon and made something to help Wormy vomit. He was certain there was something in his stomach. They got Wormy some water before taking him out to the street and giving him the medicine. Gemma told the man it was going to be okay. Professor Stalloid warned him it might make him a little queasy. Moments after drinking the potion, he started puking and puking and puking, ending with dry heaves. There was nothing but water and bile. It made both Gemma and Professor Stalloid got sick as well, mostly from the smell. Dunspar looked through the puke but found nothing in it.
Parsons wanted to know what happened and they told him everything, Dunspar suggesting they evacuate the town. That seemed extreme but he said he would try. Professor Stalloid told him to at least be on alert to evacuate the town if they needed to.
â€œWhat do we do if they come here?â€ Parsons said. â€œThey sound like theyâ€™re huge.â€
The bandit just nodded desperately, terrified. Otto asked the bandit for his pistol back.
â€œUh â€¦ no,â€ the man said.
â€œThatâ€™s my gun,â€ Otto said.
â€œItâ€™s fine. You can give me some bullets.â€
â€œIn case them damned things come around here!â€
â€œBut I want my weapon back.â€
â€œWell too bad!â€
â€œCâ€™mon, man, weâ€™ve already saved your life,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œThatâ€™s right, but if them things come around here, I might need this to save it,â€ the bandit said. â€œOr at least one bullet at the end.â€
â€œI can give you poison instead,â€ Professor Stalloid said. â€œItâ€™s quick.â€
Otto turned to Parsons and asked about weaponry. He said he had rifles and a shotgun but no pistols he could spare. Gemma tried to talk the man into selling her the gun back but he was convinced he had to keep the weapon to save his life. She batted her eyelashes some more and gave him the big, puppy dog eyes. He finally succumbed and was willing to sell her his gun. Otto got one of the rifles from the marshalâ€™s office and offered it to the man who told him to fill it full of bullets. He did so and the man gave him the pistol back.
Professor Stalloid got his stethoscope and listed to Wormyâ€™s stomach but didnâ€™t hear anything unusual. They got him some food after that. Professor Stalloid told the marshal to keep an eye on Wormy.
â€œWhy?â€ Parsons asked.
â€œHeâ€™s been through a lot,â€ Gemma said.
â€œOkay,â€ Parsons said.
â€œJust in case,â€ Professor Stalloid said.
â€œStalloid,â€ Dunspar whispered to the man. â€œWormy did say they were taking his blood while he was down there, so it might be in his blood, not in his stomach.â€
â€œNo,â€ Professor Stalloid said. â€œWorms couldnâ€™t be in his blood.â€
Parsons wanted to know what was going on and what they thought was going to happen. Dunspar thought the worms would continue taking people until there were none left. Professor Stalloid noted the outlaws were gone when they got out of the hole, and they hadnâ€™t seen a worm since and got off the rock by themselves so possibly the worms ate the outlaws and were satisfied, or they might be chasing the outlaws. Or they could still be there and the townsfolk needed to leave. Parsons asked what killed them but no one knew. He didnâ€™tâ€™ think guns would help.
â€œThe mines played out back in â€˜68,â€ Parsons said. â€œBut thereâ€™s â€¦ still got a case of dynamite back in the storeroom in the general store. Would that help?â€
They didnâ€™t know. Professor Stalloid noted the things had been there for a while, it looked like, and were probably there to stay. He didnâ€™t know if dynamite would help. He also explained that the things were really smart. Parsons wanted to know what to do and they suggested they evacuate the town. He started to spread the word.
* * *
About a half hour after they got back to town, perhaps an hour until sunset, the ground shook. It was enough that it set the church bell ringing slightly. Professor Stalloid and Dunspar ran for the general store. They hadnâ€™t seen any sign of the bandit. Otto ran to the marshalâ€™s office for a shotgun. He found Parsons in there, pulling one of the rifles from the rack.
Professor Stalloid and Dunspar found 13 sticks of dynamite. They were sweaty and obviously very dangerous. There were also blasting caps and fuses.
A crash came from inside the saloon.
* * *
Gemma, who was out on the street, saw a huge mass crash up through the floor. of the saloon Daly started screaming behind the bar. Then there was the sound of crashing from inside as the horror tore Daly apart. Gemma turned and ran towards the general store.
â€œStalloid!â€ she yelled. â€œWhereâ€™s the poison!?!â€
She noticed that the ground outside the town moved as if something moved underneath it.
* * *
Otto and Parsons peeked out the window but Otto couldnâ€™t make out anything inside the saloon.
â€œOh my God!â€ Parsons shouted. â€œWhat is that!?!â€
He fired through the window towards the saloon. The terrible thing within the building screeched with a sound that hurt their teeth and their ears and then was suddenly gone, disappearing back into the ground.
* * *
Dunspar ran out of the back of the general store and climbed up onto the back porch, sweaty dynamite stuffed into his pockets. He tried to help Professor Stalloid up but the man struggled to climb. Gemma ran out of the back door a few moments later. She was surprised to see sticks of dynamite sticking out of Dunsparâ€™s belt and pockets. It didnâ€™t fill her with confidence.
â€œYou going to blow up that thing?â€ she said.
â€œMaybe!â€ Professor Stalloid said. â€œIf it comes to it. Give me a leg up!â€
They manhandled Professor Stalloid up onto the roof and then helped Gemma up onto the roof as well.
* * *
A commotion came from the barn. They heard rending wood and the screams of horses. Otto ran out of the marshalâ€™s office, heading for the general store, Parsons close behind him.
â€œItâ€™s in the barn,â€ he yelled. â€œOne of â€˜ems in the barn! What the hellâ€™s that!â€
He pointed towards the edge of town where the ground rippled.
* * *
As they got Gemma up off the ground, they saw Otto and Parsons run around the side of the building.
â€œHelp me up!â€ Otto yelled.
They helped him and Parsonâ€™s up as the horses screamed and screamed and screamed in the stables.
A man came out of the house next door with a crate of his stuff.
â€œThe worms are here!â€ Professor Stalloid screamed.
The man dropped the crate and they heard a crash from towards the front of the store. Dirt fly up into the air as one of the horrible creatures burst up out of the dirt street in the middle of town. It was huge and towered probably 20 feet in the air. Parsons screamed. The man ran back into the house next door.
â€œWhat the hell is that!?!â€ he cried out.
Flowing tentacles and pulpy, gray-black, elongated sack of a body seemed to reach for the sky before bending and tearing at the stone marshalâ€™s office. It had no distinguishing features at all other than the reaching, groping tentacles. A lump was upon the upper body of the thing.
Otto ran towards the front of the store, rifle in hand. He shot the thing but didnâ€™t seem to hurt it. Dunspar flung a lit stick of dynamite at the thing but it fell short, exploding between the general store and the thing. It turned in their direction and Professor Stalloid flung a lit stick of dynamite which went into the mass of tentacles at the front of the horror. There was a thump as the explosion inside of the thing rocked it but didnâ€™t kill it.
Otto shot the thing again and Professor Stalloid and Dunspar flung more dynamite. Professor Stalloidâ€™s went long and exploded near the Marshalâ€™s office, damaging the building further. Dunsparâ€™s exploded right next to the horror, blasting it in the side. The thing made a gut-wrenching and terrifying noise and then collapsed in the street, unmoving.
Two of the horrible worm people climbed up out of the ground nearby and ran for the general store from the area of the marshalâ€™s office. Horses screamed in the stables as Otto put his rifle to his shoulder.
â€œDonâ€™t waste the dynamite on them!â€ he shouted.
He pulled the trigger and his Winchester jammed. Parsons fired at one of the things and missed. Gemma had grabbed some dynamite and blasting cap from Stalloidâ€™s bag and got a fuse in one of them. Dunspar fired at the horrors rushing towards them but missed. Professor Stalloid pulled out his lightning gun and fired. Thunder clapped and lightning flew, missing the horrors.
â€œWhat the hell!?!â€ Parsons cried out.
The barn collapsed and they saw another of the terrible worms in there, swallowing a horse. Otto dropped his jammed rifle and drew his pistol, shooting one of the things. Professor Stalloid dropped the lightning gun, which hung from the strap, and pulled out his shotgun, firing and missing. Gemma lit and chucked the dynamite in her hand. It landed between the two worm creatures and blasted both of them to pieces.
The thing in the barn disappeared into the ground and they saw the ground rippling towards the general store.
â€œCâ€™mon!â€ she cried out.
Gemma ran to the other side of the general store and quickly climbed down to the ground. Otto followed her, sliding down the side of the building. Professor Stalloid followed, leaping off the roof and landing solidly on the ground, following Gemma. Dunspar finally decided to follow but hurt himself when he hit the ground.
Gemma ran for the church, where she heard Cindy screaming. She ran by a large rock about five yards across on the ground between the general store and the church. The barn collapsed somewhere behind her. The men followed behind her as quickly as they could.
Parsons was still on the roof, looking around. He stumbled as the thing passed under the grocery store and rattled the entire building.
Dunspar, in the rear of the column, felt like the horror was directly behind him.
Gemma ran into the church, followed by Professor Stalloid, who stopped in the doorway.
The horror tore up and out of the ground between the general store and the large rock where Otto and Dunspar cowered. It was larger than the other two. Otto fled, running in terror as Professor Stalloid aimed the lightning gun at the terrible thing. Dunspar leapt from the rock and tried to hide on the other side of it.
The terrible thing came over the rock and two of its many, many tentacles rippled down at Dunspar. He tried to dodge out of the way of one but the other one wrapped around his arm and then the end of it wormed its way into his arm. He felt a drain on his arm and was suddenly weak.
Professor Stalloid blasted at the horrible thing holding Dunspar. Thunder crashed and lightning flew by the terrible thing and into the sky. Dunspar, meanwhile, put the gun right up against the tentacle and fired, blasting a big chunk of it away. It didnâ€™t let go.
â€œYouâ€™ll be with us soon,â€ he thought he heard it whisper. â€œSoon youâ€™ll be with us.â€
Dunspar screamed and struggled to pull free and felt himself getting weaker and weaker as his vital fluids were drained.
* * *
Gemma ran up the aisle in the church to find Cindy Tuller in the fetal position on one of the pews, screaming and screaming.
â€œWe gotta go!â€ she said.
â€œThe wormses!â€ Cindy screamed. â€œThe wormses! The wormses!â€
Gemma picked the girl up and put her head to her chest, covering her eyes. She ran towards the door where she saw Professor Stalloid standing.
* * *
Professor Stalloid moved closer to the horrible worm, stopping about 15 feet away from the terrible thing. Otto had turned and was running towards the saloon.
Dunspar noticed that the tentacle that held him seemed to be healing. He fired another bullet through the tentacle. He could see his own blood pouring out of the wounds he had created, pumping hard every time his heart beat. Screaming, he pulled on the horrible thing.
Two more tentacles grabbed him and inserted themselves into the man, lifting him bodily up off the ground.
â€œGive him back!â€ a voice said loudly in his head.
â€œHeâ€™s in the saloon!â€ Dunspar shrieked at the horrible thing.
* * *
Gemma ran out of the church and saw the worm was holding Dunspar up and off the ground. He seemed to be yelling at it or talking to it. Ignoring that, she raced across the road towards Bufontâ€™s boarding house.
Professor Stalloid dropped the lightning gun and it hung from the strap. He pulled the shotgun from his shoulder and fired both barrels at the horror. The blast missed the horrible thing, only a few pellets hitting it and bouncing off.
Gemma ran into the boarding house as the girl wailed.
* * *
Otto reached the door to the saloon. There was a massive hole in the floor and the dirt under it was disturbed as he had seen the dirt near the homesteads disturbed. He ran around the edge of the room to the stairs and headed up.
* * *
The huge worm turned away from the church and headed for the saloon, carrying Dunspar with it. Stalloid dropped the shotgun and pulled a piece of dynamite out of his satchel. He flung the dynamite, hoping the impact would be enough to set it off. It was and the stick exploded near the rear of the horrible worm. It ignored Professor Stalloid.
* * *
Gemma put Cindy down on the floor in the boarding house foyer. The girl lay down, going fetal position, and put her hands over her ears. Her eyes were closed.
â€œItâ€™s okay,â€ Gemma said to the girl, rubbing her shoulder to comfort her. â€œIâ€™ll be back.â€
She turned and ran back out the door. She saw the horrible worm heading towards the saloon and noticed the wound seemed to be slowly closing. She whipped out her knives.
Professor Stalloid had noticed the wound was closing as well.
* * *
Otto ran up the stairs and flung open the first door. He found Wormy laying in the bed, the covers up to his neck, looking around, terrified. He also heard a very loud rumbling noise almost as if a stampede of cattle were running towards the building.
â€œGet out!â€ he yelled.
He ran towards the front of the hotel but when he got to Professor Stalloidâ€™s room, he found the door locked. The rumbling noise stopped and the horses started stirring in Professor Stalloidâ€™s room.
* * *
â€œPlease let me go,â€ Dunspar whispered to the horrible thing that had him helpless.
There was no response.
* * *
Stalloid ran to the horrible worm and underhand flung another stick of dynamite at it. The stick arced through the air and fell right into the horrible wound that was healing and closing on the back of the worm. The unstable explosives exploded inside the horrible thing and blew it to pieces. The explosion knocked Professor Stalloid off his feet and Dunspar screamed as the tentacles ripped out of his arms and he fell to the porch of the saloon, rolling off it and crashing to the ground.
The worm crashed to the ground in the middle of the street.
Professor Stalloid went to Dunspar and tended to his wounds. They heard the crash of wood from inside the saloon upstairs as Otto broke into Professor Stalloidâ€™s room to free his horses. Then Professor Stalloid helped Dunspar up to the second floor to one of the rooms.
* * *
The worms outside of town seemed to have disappeared. Otto escorted the horses down to the street. Professor Stalloid started to hitch up the horses to the medicine wagon.
Otto found that his horse, Blaze, was dead. Harlan Jessup, who ran the stable was also dead. He had been in the barn when it was attacked.
* * *
They found Wormy in the saloon as they prepared to leave town. They were unsure what to do with the man. They suspected the horrible creatures could still use him to create more of the worm people and worried about that.
Professor Stalloid sat at the bar with the man and explained to him that he was cursed. He said there was probably nothing going to be good in his life for the rest of it. He left the water skin filled with poison and told the old man if they got him again, they would make more of the creatures that were outside.
â€œDrink that,â€ Dunspar said, pointing to the poison.
â€œNo â€¦â€ Wormy said.
â€œI cannot bring myself to kill you,â€ Professor Stalloid said. â€œBut if you want to help the rest of the world â€¦ drink your last drinks here in this saloon. There is plenty of liquor for you. And finish it with the poison. If we take you with us, they are going to follow. Theyâ€™re going to come to every other town and itâ€™s just going to be the same thing. If you want, you could try to start living on Red Rock Ridge or someplace made of stone.â€
Professor Stalloid apologized to Wormy, knowing the man had a tough life ahead of him.
He, Gemma, and Dunspar went out to the medicine wagon.
They heard a shot from inside the building.
* * *
Otto had waited until the others had left and then put a bullet into the back of Wormyâ€™s head. He knew the act would haunt him the rest of his life.
He walked out to the medicine wagon and they left Hilton Springs.