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Worms! Part 3 - Hilton Springs and the Missing Homesteaders

Max_Writer

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* * *

 

 

 

They left Midnight on June 30, 1875, bearing north once again and heading for Nevada. They traveled for a little over a week. En route, Professor Stalloid practiced with the lightning gun. Dunspar asked him to see it but he was reluctant. He told Dunspar to ask Terwilliger about it.

 

It was late afternoon of Thursday, July 8, 1875, when they reached the tiny town of Hilton Springs, Nevada, a tiny town of a dozen or so buildings in the desert. It made Midnight look like a bustling metropolis. They saw a general store, a jail, a church, a barn, and a saloon and hotel.

 

Gemma, Otto, and Dunspar went to the saloon while Professor Stalloid took the wagon and horses to the barn.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Daly’s Saloon was run by a tall, slender man with graying hair. He was the only one in the saloon when they got there and, as they approached him, another man came in from behind them. He had blonde hair, a mustache and muttonchops, and wore an apron. A marshal’s star was pinned to the front of the apron.

 

“Good day to you folks!†the man with the apron said. “I’m Frank Parsons. I’m what passes for the law around here. Well, when I’m not tending the store that is.â€

 

He laughed at his own joke.

 

“We don’t get too many visitors here in Hilton Springs,†he went on. “Let me be the first to welcome you to our little community.â€

 

“Well, thank you,†Dunspar said.

 

“Since we are a little off the beaten path, I hope you don’t mind me asking what brings you to town?†Parsons said.

 

“We’re heading to Devil’s Gulch,†Otto said.

 

“Yes,†Gemma said. “My sister has just relocated there. She’s made a life for herself. She has her own saloon now.â€

 

“Oh,†Parsons said. “Oh. Could I talk to you folks in the marshal’s office for a minute?â€

 

“We’re not in trouble, are we?†Otto asked.

 

“No no,†Parsons said. “I just … I just want to ask you a couple questions.â€

 

“Sure,†Otto said.

 

“I wouldn’t mind,†Dunspar said.

 

Parsons led them next door to the Marshal’s office. It was a tiny stone building with barely enough room for the small office and a single cell. A gun rack next to the door held three Winchester ’73 rifles, a double-barreled shotgun, and a small assortment of pistols. There was also a small desk with paperwork atop it. Parsons sat down behind the desk.

 

“Look, um … we got a problem here,†Parsons said. “If Mr. Webster were still with us, I’d ask him for help but … I know it’s none of your folks’ business, but I’d appreciate any help you could see fit to give.â€

 

He looked at Otto, who carried his rifle and had a pistol on his holster.

 

“We’ve had a bunch of kidnappings lately,†Parsons went on. “Well, that might not be the right word for it. Let’s just say folks are starting to disappear. If I had my way, I’d stick to tending my store over there, but I up and got elected marshal. Honestly, I’m over my head here. I need some help, a lot of help really. You folks look like the type to provide it.

 

“I can’t offer much, just room and board at Bufont’s and a dollar a week. I’d give you more but all that’s comin’ out of my own pocket already. I pretty much marshal for free myself. The town doesn’t have much of a treasury left.â€

 

“Well, I’ll help you just if you give me room and board,†Otto said. “I don’t need the dollar.â€

 

“Well, that’s mighty generous of you,†Parsons said.

 

“You seem like you need it more than I do,†Otto said.

 

Parsons looked at the other two.

 

“I’d be more than happy to do some investigating,†Dunspar said. “Do you know who particularly disappeared and potentially where they were last seen?â€

 

“Well, I can tell you how to get to several of the outlying houses,†Parsons said. “People there are just gone. Very strange. It’s … uh … my prime suspects are Mahoney’s Red Rock Ridge Gang. They’re camped out of town. There’s a couple of gunmen of theirs staying at the saloon, but I don’t know anything about tracking.â€

 

He told them of where eight of the homesteads were that had been hit. The only witness he had found was a girl by the name of Cindy Tuller, a little girl.

 

“Okay, I might start by talking to Cindy and do I have permission to look in the homes of the missing people?†Dunspar said.

 

“Yeah, of course,†Parsons said. “If y’all can help me, I’d be greatly appreciative.â€

 

“How about I go out to the homes and start looking around there and I’ll go talk to Cindy,†Otto said.

 

“All right,†Parsons said. “Unfortunately, I think Cindy’s a little touched, if you know what I mean. My wife’s taking care of her but she spends most of her time over at the church. If you want to talk to her.â€

 

Otto went to get his horse to head for the homesteads outside of town.

 

“Would you potentially come talk to Cindy with me?†Dunspar asked Gemma.

 

“Well …†Gemma said.

 

“I don’t think I could potentially persuade her to give me the information.â€

 

“Okay.â€

 

“I think a feminine touch for a little girl would help a lot.â€

 

“Okay.â€

 

She seemed nervous and antsy. She didn’t want to stop for long.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Professor Stalloid met Harlan Jessup in the barn. The man was older, probably nearly 50, and balding. He had odious personal habits of belching and nose picking, and burdened Professor Stalloid with personal stories of how he never married.

 

“You wanna stable your horses here?†Jessup asked. “Nickel a day!â€

 

Professor Stalloid also bought some feed.

 

“All right!†Jessup said. “I’ll take good care of ‘em!â€

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Dunspar and Gemma went to the church. The steeple of the building clearly identified it as the right structure. The interior was clean and there were benches enough to probably hold about 50 people with an altar at the front. A little dark-haired girl sat in a pew with her legs curled under and hugged a dirty rag doll.

 

“Cindy, is that you?†Dunspar said.

 

Cindy looked at them and then looked away.

 

“Hello Cindy,†Gemma said softly. “Uh … my name is … my name is Gemma.â€

 

Cindy just looked at the woman with big, sad, scared eyes.

 

“We have heard that … you might have … you might have seen something that … uh … that … wasn’t too nice,†Gemma said. “Do you think you could … tell us about it?â€

 

She smiled at the little girl and eventually drew her out.

 

“The wormses got my mommy and daddy,†Cindy eventually said. “They climbed all over them and pulled them down in the ground. If you stay on the dirt too long, the wormses will get you, too.â€

 

With that, she leapt up off the pew and ran to another on the other side of the room and pulled her legs up off the floor once again. Gemma walked over to her.

 

“Oh dear,†she said to the little girl. “I’m so sorry.â€

 

Cindy didn’t look at her.

 

“When did this happen?†Gemma said.

 

The little girl just shrugged, still not meeting her eyes.

 

“How-how big are these worms?†Dunspar asked.

 

The girl shrugged again.

 

“Do you know about where you saw this?†Dunspar asked.

 

“Home, stupid!†Cindy said, still not meeting his eyes.

 

“Well, where is home for you?†Gemma asked.

 

“I don’t know,†Cindy said.

 

“Can you point in the direction?†Gemma said.

 

The girl didn’t say anything.

 

“We’re not going to get anything else,†Gemma said.

 

“We could potentially ask the sheriff where her home is,†Dunspar said.

 

“We’ll leave you now, okay?†Gemma said.

 

“Hm,†Cindy said, a haunted look in her eyes.

 

Gemma reached towards the girl to comfort her but then thought better of it.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Otto rode southwest of town to the nearest homestead. He found the abandoned place empty of any life larger than a housecat and saw no evidence of robbery or damage to the house. All of the owners’ possessions still seemed to be on hand. Upon looking around the grounds around the house, he found a couple of patches of disturbed earth about 10 feet in diameter. Near one of them, he found signs of a body being drug into the area o the broken earth.

 

He headed back to town immediately.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Professor Stalloid entered the saloon after seeing his horses taken care of and his wagon secured near the corral. He found the saloon-keeper behind the bar and three rugged men at one of the tables, talking quietly. They eyed him warily as he entered the room. He went to the bar and ordered a whiskey.

 

“You a stranger here?†the saloon keeper said. “Well, you must be. I ain’t never seen yer face before.â€

 

Professor Stalloid nodded.

 

“Yer friends went over to the marshal’s office,†the barkeep said.

 

Stalloid downed his whiskey and headed to the marshal’s office. He found the tiny little building empty. He crossed to the general store and saw the proprietor appeared to have a marshal’s badge on his apron.

 

“Howdy,†the man said to him. “You’re not from around here.â€

 

“No, I just rolled into town,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Did you come with those other three?â€

 

“Maybe.â€

 

“Well, did ya or didn’t ya? Y’all showed up at the same time.â€

 

“Are they in trouble?â€

 

“No! They’re helping me out!â€

 

“Oh. Okay. Yeah, I’m with them.

 

“Are you a gunslinger?â€

 

“No!â€

 

“What do you do?â€

 

“I travel around and I help out.â€

 

“Well, we need some help here.â€

 

“Is it gun slinging?â€

 

“Well, I don’t know.â€

 

“I can’t really help with gun slinging.â€

 

“I can’t either.â€

 

“I can heal. You got any broken water pumps? You got any broken wells you need fixed?â€

 

“We got some people disappeared.â€

 

“That seems to be happening a lot more these days. Everywhere I go.â€

 

“All right.â€

 

Professor Stalloid bought some beef jerky and other supplies. Then Parsons told him what he had told the others.

 

“We’ve got a problem here,†he said. “If Mr. Webster were still with us, I’d ask him for help. I know it’s none of your business, but I’d appreciate any help you can give.â€

 

“Mr. Webster?†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Mr. Webster was something of a local celebrity. He was an officer in the Union army, a regular war hero, I hear tell. Anyway, he retired and came west to be a hunter. Let me tell you, he brought some of the weirdest trophies you ever did see. Kept them up in his house over near the river. Loved to show them off, he did.

 

“Well, about a while ago, he went off on another hunt - he had friends in Denver who were always arranging these big hunting trips for him. It’s been a year since he left. He’s never been gone near that long, so, honestly, we’ve kind of given up on him coming back. Like to broke old Wormy’s heart, it did.â€

 

“Who’s old Wormy?â€

 

“Old Wormy? Well, he was a miner went bust years ago, but he never left town. He’d taken a strong liking to the drink - tequila in particular.â€

 

“Is he over at the saloon?â€

 

“No. Well … no. No. I haven’t seen him in a while. He had a real taste for them worms in the bottom of the bottle. Spent most of his time sleeping off his binges in the town’s jail cell, across the street there.â€

 

“He wasn’t there.â€

 

“Well, I haven’t seen him in a while. Mr. Webster took a liking to him. Maybe he felt sorry for the old coot, I don’t know, but he always left Wormy in charge of his house when he went on a trip.â€

 

“Where’s is Mr. Webster’s house?â€

 

“It’s up by the river.â€

 

He gave the man directions on getting to the house.

 

“Wormy’s not going to be there,†Parsons said. “He ran afoul of Black River Mahoney. Smudged his boots or something. Whatever the reason, Mahoney dragged him outta town. Nobody’s seen him since.â€

 

“Wait,†Professor Stalloid said. “Where?â€

 

“Don’t know. The Red Rock Ridge Gang, that’s who Mahoney’s in charge of. They’re southwest of here but it’s several hours ride.â€

 

Professor Stalloid sighed.

 

“Shouldn’t have stopped,†he muttered to himself.

 

When he left the general store he saw Dunspar and Gemma leave the church. They met in the street.

 

“Did the marshal ask for your help as well?†Dunspar said.

 

“No, I’ve been looking for you,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Well, uh, we just went to talk to a … witness,†Dunspar said. “She said something about worms.â€

 

“Witness of what?†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“She said that worms took her parents,†Gemma said.

 

“Yes,†Dunspar said.

 

“Itty bitty worms?†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“We don’t think so,†Gemma said.

 

“We’re not sure,†Dunspar said.

 

“More of like the demon,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“I suppose,†Dunspar said. “We were about to go ask the marshal where Cindy’s house was.â€

 

“We keep running into strange things,†Gemma said.

 

“I’m going to go look at Webster’s house,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

They returned to Parson’s General Store and he gave them instructions on where the Tullers lived. It was a homestead southwest of town. They kept cows and crops like most of the homesteaders. When Professor Stalloid asked about the cattle, they learned they had disappeared as well. Everything larger than a housecat was gone.

 

They left town and ran into Otto returning, rifle in hand, looking around very nervously.

 

“Otto, what’s going on?†Dunspar said.

 

“I found signs of a struggle and something that pulled someone into the ground,†Otto said.

 

“Huh,†Dunspar said.

 

“Around the house,†Otto said.

 

“So that matches what Cindy was saying …†Dunspar said.

 

“What?†Otto said.

 

“Oh, she said worms took people,†Dunspar said.

 

“Worms …†Otto said. “Wonderful.â€

 

“Did she say anything else?†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Not really,†Dunspar said.

 

“Something from beneath the ground,†Gemma said.

 

“That would match what I think I saw,†Otto said.

 

“Approximately how big was the hole in the ground?†Dunspar said.

 

“Ten feet across,†Otto said. “Disturbed earth more so. So, the little girl said she saw worms, right?â€

 

“Yes,†Gemma said.

 

“I would say we have 10-foot across worms to deal with, if we want to worry about this problem,†Otto said.

 

Gemma gasped nervously.

 

They continued to the Tully homestead. It was not the same one that Otto had looked at previously and they reached the place as the sun neared the horizon. Otto suggested not staying out there too long.

 

They searched the house and found it in the same condition of the first homestead Otto had searched. In addition to the undisturbed house, they found some money in a cigar box on the mantle. There was $14 in hard currency, which seemed to support the theory it wasn’t bandits that had attacked the homestead. Otto looked outside and found more patches of disturbed earth about 10 feet across. He pointed out that and the disturbed dirt that looked like someone had been dragged towards the spot.

 

Professor Stalloid had found one of the surviving housecats and petted it and fed it some beef jerky. He named the female Milo and decided to take the cat with him. It was a grayish brown and black.

 

Otto suggested they get back to town quickly.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Gemma and Professor Stalloid went to Daly’s Saloon and learned there was a single room left above. It would cost a dollar a night.

 

“The other three are occupied by those gentlemen,†the proprietor said.

 

He nodded to three rugged men sitting at a table, talking quietly amongst themselves. They were all armed with pistols on their belts. Professor Stalloid overheard the men talking about leaving town instead of going back.

 

“Could they be members of the Red Rock Ridge Gang?†Professor Stalloid whispered to Gemma.

 

They left and found Parsons, telling him what they’d learned, including the money they found at the homestead and the strange, disturbed earth. Professor Stalloid also asked Parsons about the three men at the saloon. He wanted to know how long they’d been in town. Parsons looked embarrassed.

 

“They’re probably some of Mahoney’s Red Rock Ridge Gang,†he said. “The three men have been staying at the hotel for a couple weeks. I’m a shop keep that was elected to become marshal. So this …â€

 

He touched his badge.

 

“Mostly I handle Wormy,†he said. “And his binges. I certainly can’t go up against three gunslingers.â€

 

“Yeah, yeah,†Professor Stalloid said. “Just wondering.â€

 

“Mahoney was the last one,†Parsons said. “He got angry at Wormy and dragged him out of town. Nobody’s seen him since. We’re in the middle of nowhere here.â€

 

Professor Stalloid mentioned they had said something about missing men.

 

“Well, the less of them the better, I suppose,†Parsons said.

 

Otto told him about the disturbed earth.

 

“What could have caused that?†Parsons said.

 

“Worms,†Otto said.

 

“Ten-foot worms?â€

 

“Maybe?â€

 

All four of them got their rooms at Bufont’s Boarding House, a two story wood building. Widow Bufont was a prudish widow of about 60 who noted that men and women couldn’t share rooms. She told them she did not tolerate rowdy or inappropriate behavior.

 

“There’ll be none of that happening,†Gemma told her.

 

Widow Bufont warned her that she couldn’t trust any men.

 

“Men will take advantage of a woman,†she said. “Be careful. Dinner is at six.â€

 

“What a character,†Gemma said after she left the woman.

 

Otto kept an eye out of his window for some time once it got dark.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Friday, July 9, 1875 was another blistering hot day in southern Nevada. They had a large breakfast at Bufont’s before heading out. Otto and Gemma went to the location of the most recent attack on foot. The homestead was similar to the first one they had examined. Gemma found more money in the house in a very obvious place, a change purse on the mantle. It didn’t look like the house was robbed or ransacked. Outside, Otto found another spot of disturbed earth like at the other homestead. Otto looked under the house for disturbed earth but found nothing.

 

“I think it’s one worm because it was only one spot,†Otto said.

 

“One spot?†Gemma said. “What do you mean?â€

 

He pointed out the disturbed earth near the house.

 

“How can you say for certain?†Gemma said. “How are you so sure? That it’s just one.â€

 

“Well, I’ve only found one spot,†Otto said. “So, it’s a single mass or it’s always one giant worm doing this, that comes out of the ground … and then drags them down with it.â€

 

“Why?†Gemma said. “Why would it be here?â€

 

“It might be carnivorous,†Otto said.

 

Gemma gasped.

 

“That’s the only logical reason I can think of,†Otto said.

 

“Well, I guess we should … look around more,†Gemma said.

 

They headed to the next homestead. On the way, he handed Gemma one of his Colt peacemakers.

 

“I doubt stabbing it will do much,†he said.

 

“Well, you … you might be right,†she said.

 

“It’s better than nothing,†Otto said.

 

She tucked the pistol in her belt.

 

They found similar signs in the next two homesteads. They headed back to town around noon.

 

“We need bait,†Otto said on the way.

 

He realized most of the homesteads that had been hit were on the southwest side of town.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Professor Stalloid first took the cat he’d brought back to town to Cindy Tully in the church. She petted it and cried over it. Then he and Dunspar went to the medicine wagon and worked on making a large amount of sedative. After that, they decided to go to Webster’s house.

 

The house was quite nice and two stories tall. The front door was ajar and they found the interior well-kept but a couple weeks of dust had accumulated. The only area that had been disturbed was a once well-stocked liquor cabinet. It’s contents were emptied and the bodies lay in a heap in front of it. The rest of the house was nicely furnished. Apparently Mr. Webster was a man of wealth. In spite of the other lavishly rich furnishings, there was a trophy room downstairs.

 

The largest single item in the trophy room was a stuffed, eight-foot tall polar bear. A number of other stuffed animals adorned the walls and shelves, but one shelf held a few unusual displays, each with a numbered tag upon it. There was a piece of barbed wire, a single, enormous claw, and a nasty-looking jack-o-lantern. Professor Stalloid examined the tag on the great claw but found it had a code number of some kind on it. He pocketed the claw.

 

They looked around the room and soon found a piece of paper with numbers corresponding to the tags.

 

Barbed wire was a relatively new invention and only starting to be used in the west. The description for the tag that was on it marked it as “Bloodwire―Wyoming Territory.†The mark that matched the huge claw Professor Stalloid had taken read “Chinook claw―Montana Territory.†The third code was not on any of the items on the shelf and read “Piece of Chthonian tentacle―Deadwood, Dakota Territory.†The last, matching the jack-o-lantern marked it as “Scarecrow―Wichita, Kansas.â€

 

Under the couch, they found an empty tequila bottle with the tag that corresponded to the third code. There wasn’t much liquid left in it but, from the smell, it obviously wasn’t tequila.

 

“I believe we found our worm,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“I-I-I would probably say so,†Dunspar said.

 

“We’re going to need to look around the area for a smaller hole, because I feel like that thing grew.â€

 

“Probably. I presume you wanted to use that sedative on the worm?â€

 

“Yeah, I don’t know if it will work though.â€

 

“Perhaps─â€

 

“I was also thinking about using it on those three men.â€

 

“Huh? We would need a fairly large dose.â€

 

“I’m thinking about some kind of poison but now I don’t know if that would work.â€

 

They searched the rest of the house and yard but didn’t find anything else around of interest or import. They searched near the empty bottles as well, but found nothing out of the ordinary. There were a few empty gun racks and gun cases, but no weapons.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

All four of them had returned to Hilton Springs by noon and had lunch.

 

Otto went to the stable in town.

 

“Hey, how can I help ya?†Jessup said, picking his nose.

 

“Do you have any livestock?†Otto said.

 

“I got these four horses here. They’re not mine.â€

 

“Besides that?â€

 

“Nope. That’s it.â€

 

“No donkeys? No cows? No … large animals?â€

 

Jessup turned to Gemma.

 

“Does he know what the word ‘no’ means?†he asked.

 

“We’re just … we just wanted to know,†she said.

 

“Does anyone?†Otto said.

 

“Well, there’s some homesteaders,†Jessup said. “I suppose somebody has some.â€

 

He dug into his nose again.

 

“Well, thank you for your time,†Otto said.

 

Jessup belched and they left.

 

Otto asked Parsons who might have cows and he told the man the locations of some other homesteads that might have livestock. He asked what they’d found. They said they thought it was a worm and thought it important they bait it to a trap.

 

They rode out to another homestead and purchased a cow for $40, bringing it back to town.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Professor Stalloid got to work making a terribly strong poison, filling up a mason jar with the most vile substances he could. He put half of it into a canteen.

 

The discussed testing the poison. They poisoned some cheese and put it near the barn until a rat ate it and died very quickly.

 

“I’d say that’s quite effective,†Dunspar said.

 

“That’s some good poison,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

Gemma and Otto returned with a cow a short time later. When Otto asked what they were doing with the rat, they noted they were testing some poison for the worms. Otto said they had bait and nodded at the cow. Gemma asked if they could put the poison on the cow’s skin. Dunspar dipped the dead rat in the poison and saw no reaction so assumed it would be safe to put on the cow. Professor Stalloid wondered if it might irritate the cow’s skin.

 

They discussed going to one of the ranches that had already been attacked. Professor Stalloid wondered if the worm would come back to a ranch it had already hit if it were intelligent.

 

Worried about his horses, Professor Stalloid talked to Daly and asked how much it would cost to keep horses in his room. Daly told him it would be $10 a night jokingly and the man paid him and took the horses upstairs, much to the man’s disgust.

 

Professor Stalloid got Parsons to write them out a note that they were deputies. Then they went to one of the homesteads that had not yet been attacked, tying a water skin filled with poison with the cap off to the cow’s neck and making sure she had a big cowbell. They waited in the house, watching it until it got dark. They realized they should have put a lantern near the cow.

 

It was a few hours later, well into the night, when they heard the cow making a ruckus out there. Otto fired a shot into the darkness and they heard a yelp. They headed out with a lantern and found a dead coyote next to the cow. They left one of the lanterns next to the cow.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Nothing else occurred by the morning of Saturday, July 10, 1875. Gemma was very anxious to continue on to Devil’s Gulch. They returned to town with the cow and learned there had not been any other attacks anywhere that night. Parsons did note the attacks had started after Wormy disappeared, taking by Black Water Mahoney of the Red Rock Ridge Gang.

 

Otto went to the saloon and saw the three men were still downstairs, talking. They had their kits as well, as if they were ready to head out. Otto returned to fetch the others and suggested they talk to them about what was happening.

 

The three men were rough-looking and eyed them as they entered that late morning. Otto went to the bar and bought a bottle of whiskey, bringing it to their table.

 

“Who the hell are you?†one of them grunted at him.

 

“Name’s Otto,†he said.

 

“What do you want?â€

 

“I was wondering if you knew anything about the attacks out of town to the southwest.â€

 

“No.â€

 

“Sure?â€

 

“Yes.â€

 

“Well, I hear that yer boss took Wormy.â€

 

“My boss?â€

 

“He said Wormy!†one of the other bandits muttered.

 

“Shut up!†the first said to him.

 

He turned back to Otto.

 

“Shut the hell up!†he said.

 

“Why?†Otto said.

 

Professor Stalloid, seeing the bandits tense up rushed over.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry about the possible inclinations of accusation that my associate has!†he said.

 

“Inclinations?†one of the bandits said. “What’re you talking about, buddy?â€

 

“We know that you have nothing to do with the ranches,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Gemma, can you help me?†Otto hissed at the girl.

 

“That it’s something else,†Professor Stalloid said. “Some kind of creature.â€

 

One of the bandits had his hand on his gun. They all looked very nervous and tense.

 

Gemma walked over, smiled, and batted her eyes at the men.

 

“We were just concerned for the well-being of this community,†she said.

 

The men softened a little towards the pretty woman.

 

“I was worried that my … my sister had gotten in touch with some … ruffians along the road,†she said. “We were just trying to … to maybe … we just wanted to know of his possible whereabouts to see if she might be with him. It was a long shot.â€

 

“She’s awful purty,†one of the men said.

 

“Shut up!†the one who had done most of the talking said. “Mahoney did take Wormy out to Red Rock Ridge a couple of weeks ago. His temper snapped after that drunk threw up on him in front of the saloon.â€

 

“We gotta leave town,†a second said. “Mahoney staked him out there and fed him to the worms. He did that several times. The gang had a special place out at the end of the ridge for just that sort of thing. But we weren’t there for that. Yeah. We weren’t there for that. We made a break from ‘em. Yeah. Today. Right.â€

 

“Yeah, we’re getting out of here before everybody dies,†the third muttered.

 

“Big worms or little worms?†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Worms!†the first said. “Who the hell are you?â€

 

They glared at the medicine man and put their hands back on their pistols.

 

“You a lawman?†one of them asked him.

 

“I’m a pharmacist,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Pharmacist?†one of the bandits said.

 

“That’s a drug man,†another said. “He makes the drugs for the doctor to give ya.â€

 

Professor Stalloid showed them some bottles and vials he kept in his pockets.

 

“You’re a medicine man!†one of them said. “You got cure-alls.â€

 

“He’s a medicine man,†another said.

 

Otto nodded at Gemma. She looked at him, confused as to what he wanted. Professor Stalloid whispered to her to ask if they were big or small worms.

 

“I don’t think they were garden worms,†she said to him.

 

“We’re trying to figure out if it’s an expression. ‘Feed him to the worms?’ Kill him and bury him.â€

 

“No. I think they mean that quite literally.â€

 

The three men got up and Otto cleared his throat again. They all put their hands on their guns again.

 

“I was just wondering how you summon the worm?†he said.

 

“We’re talking to her!†one of them said. “Why don’t you make yourself scarce?â€

 

“We were all … we were all very concerned about the community and, like I said, the well-being─†Gemma said.

 

“Hell with the community!†one of them said to her.

 

“I have money,†Otto said.

 

“How much?†one of the bandits said.

 

“I’ll give you $100 if─â€

 

“Two hundred dollars!â€

 

“Three hundred dollars!†said another of them.

 

“Five hundred dollars!†said the third.

 

“Two hundred dollars,†the first man said once again, glaring at Otto.

 

He handed over $200 in cash. The man seemed surprised to see the money.

 

“Them worms are big,†he said to Otto. “Big. That’s why we’re getting out of town.â€

 

“How do you summon one?†Otto asked.

 

“There’s a bell!â€

 

“A bell?â€

 

“Yeah.â€

 

“What type of bell?â€

 

“Why don’t you go ask Mahoney. Go ask Mahoney. He’ll tell you. There up on the ridge. And we can’t get to him, can we? No, we can’t. We were at town. We been waiting for days. They’re probably all dead. You best take them food and water, if you want. I bet they’re out by now.â€

 

They backed towards the door.

 

“A few days later, the worms started grabbing anybody that tried to leave the ridge!†the bandit said. “We been unable to make it back.â€

 

“They’re trapped by the worms on the ridge,†Professor Stalloid muttered.

 

“Do they come at night or during the day?†Otto asked.

 

“Whenever they damn well please!†the bandit said. “They’re huge! Terrifying! I’m glad to get out of it!â€

 

“Me too!†the second bandit said.

 

“I kind of liked ‘em,†the third said.

 

“Shut up, boy!†the first said. “Nobody gives a damn what you think!â€

 

“I know but I wanted to talk,†the third man said.

 

The three bandits fled the saloon.

 

“I guess we should go up there,†Gemma said.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

After lunch, they headed to the southwest, making for Red Rock Ridge. Otto and Gemma rode on one horse and Professor Stalloid and Dunspar rode on two others. It was about a three hour ride out to Red Rock Ridge. As they approached, Dunspar noticed a number of disturbed patches of ground, similar to those at the abandoned homesteads.

 

The ridge rose about a hundred and fifty feet above the surrounding land. It sloped steeply down towards the desert end. It was a spine of rock with a few trails leading up. They rode up the ridge and found almost a dozen men at the top. They approached the riders as if they knew they were coming, guns in hand.

 

“Who are you?†one said. “What do you want?â€

 

Otto looked towards Gemma.

 

“We know the situation and we’re here to help,†Professor Stalloid said. “We’re here to stop the─â€

 

“They got food?†someone said.

 

“You got food?†the man who talked to them asked.

 

“I brought some jerky,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“Why don’t you hand it over then. You got water?â€

 

“Of course!â€

 

Most of the men had chapped lips and looked at them with bloodshot eyes.

 

“Yes, we have a few canteens,†Dunspar said.

 

“Holster your guns and we can …†Professor Stalloid said.

 

The bandits ignored him but took the canteens and the beef jerky. They handed them around, everyone wanting food and water.

 

“What do you want?†the first man finally said again.

 

“We’re here to deal with the worm,†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“We believe we may have … concocted a poison to … to kill it,†Gemma said.

 

“Worm?†the man said.

 

“Are there worms?†Professor Stalloid said.

 

“They should go see Mahoney,†another man said.

 

“Let’s go,†the first man said. “We’ll go see Mahoney.â€

 

They realized the bandits had probably not had food or water up on the ridge for a little while.


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