Ed Gorman has been an astonishingly prolific writer since he turned full-time in 1984 after 20 years in advertising. Since then he has produced two to three books a year, several pseudonymously, written over a hundred short stories, edited many anthologies, and co-founded and edited the news magazine of the Mystery field, Mystery Scene. He has been dubbed the ‘Poet of Dark Suspense’ and much of his work haunts that ill-defined land between horror and mystery where the emphasis is as much on fear and shock as it is on crime and detection. Even his western fiction trespasses into this darkly psychological territory. His best known horror novel is Cage of Night, his collection Cages won the International Horror award, and one his stories was nominated for a Bram Stoker award. His novel The Poker Club has now been filmed and is available through Netflix and Sony. To find out more about Ed Gorman visit http://www.newimprovedgorman.com/
The night rain didn’t slow them down any. Sheriff Dan Gray had his lantern, and his breed deputy had his own lantern, too.
They had gone through the house, and now they were searching the outbuildings: barn, silo, chicken house. In the barn, you could hear the restless horses above the hiss of cold November rain.
Joel Baxter and his wife Emma stood on the porch of the farmhouse, just beneath the dripping overhang, watching the lawmen set about their work.
Joel was a scrawny man in his late twenties. He shaved only once a week, which left him with a heavy growth of dark, gristly stubble. He had guilty, frightened blue eyes and more of a tic than a smile. He wore bibs and a flannel shirt, and a corncob pipe was stuck in the corner of his mouth.
Emma was twenty-five. She’d been pretty but went early to fat. Her prettiness was hidden now in her fleshy cheeks. She wore a gingham dress, a soiled apron, and a red woolen shawl. The temperature could be no more than thirty. When they talked, their breath was silver.
The Baxter farm was on the outskirts of Dade Township, which was a small community of merchants that served the surrounding agricultural areas. The sheriff and the breed worked out of there.
Joel watched as the sheriff and the breed came together in front of the silo. They were talking, their words lost in the sibilance of the rain. There being no moonlight, their expressions were hard to read. They both wore ponchos heavily oiled for just such a downpour, ponchos and wide-brimmed Texas hats.
Emma said, “Maybe they’ll want to search the house again.”
“It’ll be all right.”
“But what if they do?”
“They won’t, Emma. Don’t get all excited now.” Emma had a tendency to do that, to get all excited whenever the root cellar was threatened. Nobody knew about the root cellar but her and her husband. She meant to keep it that way. She had lost two babies to miscarriage. She didn’t plan to lose this one to anything.
The sheriff and the breed came over and stood below them on the ground.
“You wouldn’t have any coffee, would you, Emma?” the sheriff said.
Joel looked at her. He knew what she was thinking. Let them in for coffee, they just might start searching the house again. This time, they might just find the trapdoor to the root cellar.
“Sure we do.” Joel said. It would look funny, turning the sheriff down.
A few minutes later, the three men sat at the kitchen table, the large kerosene lamp casting off smoky illumination. On the counter beneath the three-shelved cupboard, a large piece of pork soaked in brine. Also on the counter was a bottle of New England rum, which Joel had bought for Emma in town earlier that day. She used it to wash her hair with, which kept it clean and free of prairie mites. The pride she’d once had in her face and body, she now had in her auburn tresses.
She brought them steaming hot coffee.
The breed said, “Thank you very much, ma’am.” The breed was always polite. The priests had educated him. He was clean, too, and never looked insolent the way most breeds did.
She went into the bedroom to sew. Women were not welcome when men were talking. She kept the door open, though, so she could hear them.
“There’s a child out here, somewhere,” the sheriff said. “I don’t see no reason to keep bullshittin’ us about it, Joel. You’ve got a kid of some kind on these premises.” The sheriff was a fleshy white-haired man whose white beard was stained a chestnut color around the mouth from chewing tobacco. He had a bad pair of store-boughts that clicked and clattered when he talked too fast, so he made a point of speaking slowly and distinctly, which strangers mistook for him being wise and deliberate in his words.
“Mrs. Calherne drove by up on the hill in her buggy the other day,” the sheriff went on, “and she seen Emma and a kid playin’ in the yard here. She was too far away to see what the kid looked like. But it was a kid, all right.”
“She must have bad eyesight, Sheriff, that’s all I can figure.”
“Bad eyesight?” the lawman said. The breed never talked except to say thank you. “Then we must have a lot of people around Dade Township with bad eyesight, because this is about the tenth, eleventh party to see a kid in your yard.”
Emma had to be more careful about where she takes the kid out. He’d have to remind her of that again.
“One of the other ones who saw the kid, saw him a couple of times, matter of fact,” the sheriff said, “was my deputy, Frank Sullivan. He was real curious about why somebody would want to keep their kid hidden the way you folks do.”
The sheriff looked over at the breed. “Then one day Sullivan, he told me he was going to come out here and look around when he knew you folks was in town. Well, he did that, Joel, two weeks ago it was, and nobody’s seen him since. He come out here and then he disappeared. Now what the hell’s that all about, and why are you keepin’ this kid of yours a secret, anyway?”
Joel said, “I don’t know what happened to your deputy, Sheriff.”
The sheriff looked at the breed again, then back at Joel. “Where’s the kid, Joel?”
“You know what kid. The kid a whole lot of people have seen from a distance, but you won’t admit to.”
“There isn’t any kid,” Emma said, as she entered the kitchen.
She stood next to the stove, watching the men. “I don’t know what those folks think they’re seeing but it isn’t a kid. I guess I’d know if I had a kid or not, wouldn’t I?”
The sheriff sighed. “He’s here somewhere. I’m sure of it.”
“You looked everywhere,” Joel said.
“Maybe not everywhere,” the sheriff said. “Maybe you’ve got a secret place, something like that.”
“No secret place,” Joel said. “Where would there be a secret place?”
Thunder rattled the farmhouse windows. In the lightning that followed, Sheriff Gray’s face looked lined, old, dead.
“Guess we have searched it pretty good,” he said. He sounded too tired to move. He sighed. “Maybe we’ll push on back to town,” he said to the breed. The breed nodded. “I appreciate the coffee, Emma.”
“Yes, thank you,” the breed said. The priests on the reservation had done a good job of educating him. He sounded a lot whiter than most white men.
They stood up and shrugged into their ponchos and shoved their hats down heavy on their heads and said a few more goodnights, and then pushed on into the cold, slashing rain.
When they were sixty seconds gone, Emma said softly, “My heart was in my throat. The breed, he kept looking over there by the stove.”
“I think you’re imagining things, Emma. I didn’t see him looking over there once.”
Her reaction was immediate, angry. “You don’t give a damn about your own son, do you? You want them to find him, don’t you? You know what they’d do to him, don’t you? They’d kill him. They’d take one look at him and then they’d kill him, and you wouldn’t give a damn, would you, Joel? Your own son and you wouldn’t give a damn at all.”
“They’re not gonna quit lookin’ for their deputy,” he said quietly. “They’re gonna come back here, and they’re gonna keep comin’ back.”
“That all you got to say?”
“That’s all I got to say.”
“I don’t suppose you’re gonna go down there with me and say goodnight to him and say his goodnight prayers with me. That’d be askin’ too much, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it would.”
She took the lamp and walked over by the stove and lifted up the small hooked rug and bent down and lifted the metal ring on the trapdoor.
The root cellar stank of dirt and cold. They’d kept vegetables fresh down there, but the coldness muted all the other odors. His grave would smell like that, Joel knew, dirt and cold. This was the smell of eternity. Darkness, rot, nothingness.
She went down the steps quickly, pulling the trapdoor closed behind her.
Joel stood there, listening to the noises the child in the cellar always made. He had never heard anything like these noises, a very low keening followed by a kind of sucking sound.
Without the lamp, the house was dark now, a lonely, empty dark.
Joel went into the bedroom and stripped to his long johns and lay down and listened to the rain thrum on the roof. He wished he could pray. He wished he still believed. He didn’t know what they were going to do about the root cellar.
He rolled over and went to sleep. There was no sense waiting up for her. Sometimes, she stayed down there till dawn.
Sound woke him.
What kind of sound?
He sat up, listened, reaching for the Navy Colt on the floor next to the bed.
Kitchen. Table. Somebody bumping against it.
Hiss of rain.
It could be Emma, but instinct told him otherwise.
He eased himself out of bed, tiptoed to the bedroom doorway that looked out upon the one large room that was both living space and kitchen. He glanced out the window. A lone horse was ground-tied by the silo.
The trapdoor. Somebody crouching there. Opening the door six inches to peer into the dank darkness below, the keening sound louder suddenly, agitated. Lamplight flickering up from the cellar.
“Joel?” Emma said from the root cellar. “Is that you up there?”
The crouching man heard him then. Started to turn, started to stand.
“Better come up here, Emma,” Joel said.
“What’s wrong?” Emma called.
“The breed came back.”
“The breed? I tole you, Joel. I tole you.”
The keening sound became mournful then, the way it always did when Emma left the root cellar and came back upstairs, mournful and frightened and impossibly lonely.
She came up, bringing light in the form of the lamp.
The breed stood next to the stove.
“You saw it, didn’t you, when you were looking down there, in the lamplight I mean,” Joel said.
“I didn’t see anything,” the breed said in his perfect English. His poncho and his hat stank of rain.
“Maybe he didn’t see, Joel,” Emma said hopefully.
“Oh, he saw, all right,” Joel said. “He saw all right.” Then, “Where’s the sheriff?”
“He’s outside waiting for me. I don’t come out pretty soon, he’ll come in here.”
“Oh, my Lord,” Emma said. “What’re we gonna do, Joel?” In Emma’s voice, he could hear her fears: now her third child would be taken from her, too. Emma Baxter, it seemed, was never to be blessed with a child she could keep.
“You’re lying,” Joel said. “The sheriff ain’t out there.”
“Oh? And how would you know that?”
“Because there’s only one horse out there.”
“That doesn’t prove anything.”
“It proves it to me,” Joel said. Then, “Come over here.”
“Step away from the wall.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because I told you to.”
“I only take orders from the sheriff.”
Joel decided to get it over with. He crossed the floor in three steps and brought the barrel of his gun down hard on the breed’s right temple.
The breed looked startled for a moment. Then he sank to the floor, unconscious.
“Oh, my God, Joel, what’re we gonna do?” Emma said. “What’re we gonna do?”
But Joel didn’t say anything. He just got the rope and tied the breed up, wrists and ankles, then dragged him over to the corner.
“We got to put him down there,” Emma said twenty minutes later.
The trapdoor was shut. She had poured them both coffee. The breed was still unconscious.
“Emma,” Joel said, “you know what we got to do?” He sounded as sad as Emma looked.
“Oh, no, Joel, oh, no. You don’t do that to our son. He’s your own flesh and blood.”
“Part of him is my flesh and blood,” Joel said. “Part of him is somethin’ else.”
He still recalled the night it happened, a steamy August night, him waking to find the bed empty, Emma gone off somewhere. Him scared. Where had she gone? And then her coming back, telling him she’d heard this strange sound in the sky, and then seen this explosion over the hills in the woods, something falling from the sky. And then her going out there to see what it was. And finding the fire and next to the fire the odd bubbling muck—like quicksand, she kept saying, like quicksand—and then her stumbling and falling into it, and grasping and gasping to be free of it, the thing boiling and bubbling and sucking her down, sucking her down, and her free finally, finally free.
She’d vomited several times that night. And run a fever so hot Joel was sure she was going to die right there in their wedding bed. But in the morning, she was not only alive, she rolled over when the rooster crowed and shook him gently and whispered, “I’m going to have a baby again, Joel. I’m going to have a baby again.”
Her fever was gone, and no more vomiting.
Joel himself went over the hill to the woods that morning. He could see where a fire had burned an area of the forest, a scorched black circle as if a fiery disk had fallen from the sky, but there was no evidence of the bubbling hole she’d described, no evidence at all, though on her dress he could see strange mauve stains, and knew she was telling the truth.
Winter came, and the child was born, and when the midwife delivered it, she screamed and tried to run from the room. But it was too late. Joel buried what was left of her, her flesh so shredded and torn, up in the hills by the deep stand of hardwoods. She was the first person to die because of what had been birthed between Emma’s legs. If they killed the breed, he would be the fourth.
“I got to, Emma,” he said. “I got to. We just can’t go on killing people this way. They’ll figure it out and they’ll hang us. They’ll hang us right down in Tompkins Square the way they did those two breeds last spring.”
“He’s our son.”
“No he ain’t, Emma,” Joel said gently, “and I think deep down you know that.”
“He come from my womb.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t me that put him there, and you know it.”
She looked at him. He’d expected tears, argument. All she said was, “Then I’ll do it, the breed I mean.”
He shook his head. “Emma, listen, the breed wakes up, I’m gonna take him into town, and we’re gonna talk to the sheriff, and I’m gonna explain everything, how none of this was our fault, and how we want to stop it now before it gets any worse. That’s the only thing we can do, Emma. The only thing.”
No reaction this time either. She just watched him. She didn’t even look angry any more. Just watched him.
The breed moaned. He was coming around.
“I love you, Emma,” Joel said. “I want a good life for us. It wasn’t our fault what happened. I think Sheriff Gray’ll understand that. He seems to be a good man.”
“What is that thing, anyway?” the breed said. You could hear pain in his voice. Joel had cracked him pretty darned good on the side of the head.
“You shut up, breed,” Emma said. “That’s our son is what that thing is. And we’re proud he’s our son. Very proud.”
Now she was crying, crying hard. “You don’t call him a ‘thing,’ either, you understand that?” Emma said.
“C’mon, Emma,” Joel said gently, touching her hand. “I’m gonna let the breed go and then we’ll ride into town, all right?”
But all she did was weep. Weep.
Joel, more tired suddenly than he’d ever been in his life, stood up and walked over to Emma on the other side of the table and kissed the top of her head, the way he’d do with a child. “It’ll be better once we tell the sheriff, Emma. It really will.”
Then he went over and crouched down and started undoing the ropes binding the breed.
And that was when the breed shouted, “Watch out, Joel!”
All Joel had time to see was the carving knife coming down in an arc, the huge and terrible blade gleaming in the lamplight, coming down, down, down. And then the pain in his shoulder, then the pain all over the upper part of his body.
When she was all finished with the knife, Emma dragged Joel over to the trapdoor and pushed him down into the root cellar. His body made a big noise when it collided with the dirt floor.
She did the breed the same way. He was even bloodier than Joel had been. She’d gotten the breed to admit that he’d been lying. He’d come back here after riding back to town with the sheriff.
She gave the breed an extra hard push through the opening.
Then she closed the trapdoor and left her son to his business.
An hour later, Emma hefted the large metal trunk on to the back of the buckboard. Her son would be safe and dry in there, especially after she threw the blanket over it and fastened it down with rope.
Then she climbed abroad and took the reins and set off. The roads were muddy, but at least the rain had let up. She wasn’t quite sure where she was going. She just needed to get to another part of the Territory as fast as possible.
She thought about Joel, and that first spring she’d met him, and how he’d courted her with his big, wide, country-boy grin. He’d been so nice back then, nice all the time right up to the night when their son was born. And then he hadn’t been nice at all. Then he’d changed so much he wasn’t like Joel at all.
By sunrise, they had reached the stage road. The rain hadn’t been so bad over here. The going was easier, much easier.
(C) Ed Gorman 2009
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.