An ancient evil in the Old West.
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Brobdnignagian (51 ft. to 100 ft.)Shrink:
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Female Self-Gigantism Through The Ages
July 05 2009 Updated:
December 30 2009
1. Chapter 1 by Carycomic
2. Chapter 2 by Carycomic
3. Chapter 3 by Carycomic
4. Chapter 4 by Carycomic
5. Chapter 5 by Carycomic
6. Chapter 6 by Carycomic
7. Chapter 7 by Carycomic
8. Chapter 8 by Carycomic
9. Chapter 9 by Carycomic
10. Chapter 10 by Carycomic
11. Chapter 11 by Carycomic
12. Chapter 12 by Carycomic
13. Chapter 13 by Carycomic
14. Chapter 14 by Carycomic
15. Chapter 15 by Carycomic
16. Chapter 16 by Carycomic
17. Chapter 17 by Carycomic
18. Chapter 18 by Carycomic
19. Chapter 19 by Carycomic
20. Chapter 20 by Carycomic
21. Chapter 21 by Carycomic
22. Chapter 22 by Carycomic
23. Chapter 23 by Carycomic
24. Chapter 24 by Carycomic
25. Chapter 25 by Carycomic
26. Chapter 26 by Carycomic
27. Chapter 27 by Carycomic
28. Chapter 28 by Carycomic
* * * * *
WEST TEXAS, JUNE 21, 1865
The five men rode through the ever-decreasing darkness in silence. Their destination: French-occupied Mexico. Their objective: to fight for the Juaristas as "free-lance military advisors." Their leader: Captain Lewis Cross; formerly with the 43rd Batallion, Virginia Cavalry, Confederate States Army.
A twenty-five year-old magna cum laude graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, he had initially been a first lieutenant with the 4th Virginia Cavalry ("Black Horse Regiment"). But, after distinguishing himself in the notorious "Ride Around McClellan," he was personally recruited by Colonel John S. Mosby, himself.
Guarding the captain's right flank was Sgt. Konrad "Dutch" Fleischer; formerly a battery sergeant with Stuart's Horse Artillery.
A professional mercenary, in his mid-forties, this habitually half-shaven Hessian had originally scouted for the Prussian army in Denmark, during the First Schleswig War; served with the Foreign Legion, in the Crimean War; and just barely survived both of William Walker's ill-advised expeditions to Central America.
Riding point was Corporal Tom Bigby; formerly with the 1st North Carolina Cavalry. A mixed-blood Cherokee, in his late thirties, he had previously scouted for the U.S. Army during the Mexican War. Following which, he had hunted buffalo meat for wagon trains headed west during the California Gold Rush.
Bringing up the rear were Privates Barlow and Peters; formerly with the 7th Virginia Cavalry ("Ashby's Mountain Rangers"). Hiram Barlow was a "galvanized Confederate," roughly the same age as Bigby. An ex-muleskinner for the Erie Canal, he had no military experience prior to serving with the First New York Dragoons, at the time of his capture, during the Battle of the Wilderness. He then switched sides...after six months as a P.O.W. at Andersonville!
John Paul Peters, on the other hand, was an amiable jack-of-all trades, whose silvery-white hair and goatee made him look far older than his early sixties. Nicknamed "Salty" by his younger comrades-in-arms, he was an ex-marine veteran of the Second Seminole War (originally from Cumberland, Maryland) who had first seen action as a nine year-old powder monkey aboard a privateering Baltimore clipper during the War of 1812! He thereafter worked as a muleskinner for the Dismal Swamp Canal; as a flat-boater on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; as a keel-boater along the Arkansas River; and as a scout for Sam Houston's Provisional Army of Texas during the revolt against Santa Anna. All before eventually joining the U.S. Marine Corps. He then spent the fifteen years preceding his enlistment in the Confederate Army as a whaler, a prospector, a stage coach guard, and a horse trader!
All four men had been hand-picked by Lewis, the previous autumn, to serve under him as an elite squad of Mosby's Rangers. But, now that General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, all they had left were the gray uniforms on their backs; and their own portable arsenals. The latter consisting of five Spencer repeating rifles (.56-56 caliber); ten Colt Army revolvers (Model 1860/.44 caliber); and two boxes of Ketchum grenades on a pack mule.
All of which--including the mule--had been stolen from the Yankees.
It was ten minutes past sunrise when they reached their next bivouac; a small waterhole encircled by weeping willow trees. It was this oasis from which Lewis' nearby hometown of Tonkawa Springs had partly derived its name. And, they had detoured here because he was anxious to learn news of his twin brother, Clark.
As he had explained it to his men, weeks earlier:
"We got shipped off to the Kemper Military Academy, in Missouri, when we were twelve. After graduation, Clark went on to West Point, while I attended VMI. I've haven't seen or heard from him since the opening salvo against Fort Sumter!"
"Mit all due respect, mein hauptmann," Fleischer had replied: "How do you know anyone in dies town even has dies information?"
"Well, for starters, there's my stepdad. He's the town marshal. Then, there's the O'Reilly Brothers, who manage the local churchyard. What the rest of the townfolk talk about right after church, on Sunday morn, they finally overhear at the local saloon the ensuing Friday night. So, I figure I'll question them first, and work my way up the chain-of-communication from there!"
"You want me to stand first watch, Cap?" Hiram now asked.
"Nah! I'll do it. I'm too keyed up to sleep. Dutch can spell me in three hours. Followed by Tom, you, and Salty. In that order."
The other men saluted and unfurled their bedrolls.
Two hours later, they were awakened by the sound of gunfire.
"Hiram; Salty! Guard the camp! Dutch; Tom, with me!"
The latter pair of soldiers ran at a half-crouch, just as Lewis did. Their Spencers held at a ready ninety-degree angle. Thirty seconds later, they were at the crest of a small hill overlooking a cemetary surrounded by a white picket fence. Just behind the rear-most section of this fence was a weathered gray shack.
And, from what they could see through their spy-glasses, it was being attacked by half-naked women with pierced breasts!
Lewis could not believe his eyes.
The women attacking the O'Reilly Brothers' shack seemed to be American Indians. But, of what tribe he could not tell. They were more barrel-chested than any male Apache. They were war-painted like Wichitas. And, they were three feet taller than the tallest Osage he had ever seen.
These women were virtually Amazons!
"Dutch; Tom. Follow me."
The two men indicated followed their captain down the hill, and over the northward-facing side of the white picket fence. Using the tombstones as cover, they continued to run at a crouch, one pair always covering the third.
Once they were finally opposite the shack's front door, they were better able to see that the gunfire was coming from several open windows. Most of it, twelve-gauge shotgun blasts that already claimed a few of the attackers. The rest, however, were playing a waiting game. Running up to just within maximum firing range of the shotguns, and then jumping back.
Making the defenders waste precious ammunition.
"OK, men," whispered Lewis: "On 'three,' open fire at will. Aiming for the heads and throats. Understand?"
Tom and Fleischer nodded. Whereupon, Lewis counted to three with his right hand.
Three of the topless viragos suddenly developed rigid posture, before falling to the ground, face-first. The initial shock and amazement of their comrades resulted in four more casualties. Three with bullet holes where their ears had been. And, one clutching at her throat in pain, as she choked to death on her own blood!
The rest finally determined where the new source of gunfire was coming from, and split up.
"Looks they're trying to flank us, Cap," declared Bigby.
"Get the others down here. Pronto!" Lewis ordered.
The former nodded, and cupped his hands.
He had shouted the Cherokee word for "We stand alone." A phrase that Lewis had adopted as a signal for immediate reinforcement, during the war, anytime any of his men had found themselves outnumbered by enemy patrols.
Moments later, Hiram and Salty came galloping down the hill. They split up, in order to catch the left-flanking viragos between them. The old horse marine, blazing away with his Colts from ahead of them, while simultaneously driving them into a fusillade from Hiram's Spencer.
This allowed Lewis, Fleischer, and Bigby to split up, themselves. Switching over to their Colts, they caught the right-flanking viragos in a triangular cross-fire as the latter came running through the cemetary towards their attackers' previous position!
When the last one fell dead, Lewis immediately ordered a cease-fire.
"Salty! Hiram! I'm going up to the shack. Meet me, there. Tom? Dutch? Keep a close eye on the bodies. Make sure none of these gals are playing 'possum."
His men did as instructed. As Lewis climbed over the stretch of fence parallel to the front door, he shouted out his name and rank, so as not to be mistakenly fired upon as a new enemy.
"I just want to see how many you of might be wounded," he added: "So we can ride to town and get Doc Kramer, up here, fast as possible."
"No need," came a strangely hoarse reply: "He's already in here."
The next sound Lewis heard was a wooden bolt being removed from behind the front door, followed by the door itself being reopened. Out of it stepped Leif O'Reilly, looking just as Lewis remembered him. Shorter than the young captain, but twice his age. Wearing blue jeans and suspenders over the lower half of his dingy white long-Johns. And, with an increasingly gray beard on his face while walking on a wooden prosthetic that had replaced the lower portion of his right leg (lost to a cannonball during the Mexican War).
"It's good to see you again, Lew."
"Likewise, Leif. But, what's been going on, here? And, where's Big Sam?"
Lewis was referring to Leif's younger brother. A Mongolistic giant of a man with a mental age of five.*
"This is all that's left of him."
Lewis gaped in open-mouthed astonishment as the grizzled old caretaker lifted up what the younger man initially thought was a doll carved from an apple core.
Except for the fact that its arms and legs were moving.
Lewis bent down a little further to see if he had been imagining things. Or, if Leif might be playing tricks on him with some kind of sophisticated hand puppet. But, neither was true, here.
What Leif was holding in his right hand had once been Samuel Adams O'Reilly; the tallest and strongest man in Tonkawa Springs!
"Come on inside, Lew. You'd best be sittin' down for this."
The good captain did as instructed. As he entered the caretaker's shack, he saw that Leif had been telling the truth about something else. Doctor George Kramer was indeed present. So, too, was a stranger with a crew-cut and moustache of matching white; a light, buckskin jacket; and the gold-striped blue pants of the U.S. Army.
Out of pure reflex, Lewis aimed his Spencer rifle towards the latter. But, the stranger was just as swift in aiming his shotgun at Lewis!
"Lew!" shouted Kramer: "It's alright! He's on our side. In fact, if not for him, the O'Reillys and I never would've made it back here, alive."
"Still doesn't tell me who he is," growled Lewis.
"The name is Charles Stagg Skinner," replied the older man: "My friends call me 'Buck.' "
"As in, 'Buck' Skinner, the Rogue River Indian-fighter?"
The latter nodded: "The last five years, though, I've been stationed at Fort Union, New Mexico, as a cavalry scout. Under your brother's command."
Lewis gasped: "Clark is here? In town?"
"Yep," replied Leif: "And, that's why I think you should take me up on sittin' down. What happened to Big Sam just might've happened to Clark, too."
* * * * *
Where Lewis had fought for the Confederacy, out of a general sense of states' rights patriotism, Clark had stood by the Union. And, as he had been stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco when the Civil War broke out, he had been part of the California Column that had been sent into Arizona and New Mexico to protect the gold mining interests in those territories from the secessionist forces under Confederate Gen. Sibley, from Texas.
After Sibley's withdrawal, the California Column spent the remainder of the war dealing with the Chiricauha Apaches led by the great Cochise. And, in between skirmishes with them, Clark would write letters to his childhood sweetheart back home. Letters that he knew would never get through until after the war's end, when he could personally hand them over to Miss Lauren Findlay, herself.
"He finally managed to do that around May Day. Him and his cavalry troop come ridin' into Tonkawa Springs, big as life. And, the first thing he did, after dismountin' from his horse, was head right on over to Findlay's Dry Goods. Lauren was right behind the cash register when he entered. But, I swear, she all but flew over the counter top when she laid eyes on him! And, her pa had to half-seriously threaten 'em with a bucketful of water from the horse trough if they didn't ease up on the kissin'!"
Lewis smiled. He had used to tease Clark about all the time he and Lauren had spent under the mistletoe, that last Christmas before their departure to Missouri. It had partly been out of jealousy, of course. Even at age eleven, Luther Findlay's only daughter had been a heart-breaker!
But, it had been obvious, right from the start, that Clark and Lauren only had eyes for each other.
"He proposed to her, right there, in front of all her pa's customers. And, sure enough, she said 'yes!' They set the weddin' date for yesterday. And, it was a right beautiful ceremony...up until the preacher reached the part about anyone havin' objections. That's when all hell broke loose!"
A small army of raiders hit the town, from two different directions at once. With most of the raiders appearing to be white men.
"But, they was dressed really strange. Breechclouts and thigh-high moccasins, like Apaches. Only, with vests and headdresses made out of jaguar hides, as well! That didn't stop Clark, though. He immediately ran outside to rally his troop! Unfortunately, those raiders was just a diversion."
While the town's people were watching the battle from one set of stained glass windows, there came the sound of breaking glass from the other side of the church.
"We all turned around and---as God's my witness, this is the truth---there was a bunch of black panthers perched atop all the right-hand pews! Spittin' and roarin' to beat the band!"
Having been pre-conditioned by years of Comanche raids into staying armed, during church services, most of the male parishioners immediately went for their handguns. That was when it happened.
"Every single one of them panthers turned into a topless woman! Just like the ones outside, only shorter!! And, we was so shocked, we just froze. Only for a moment, mind you. But, it was long enough for them women to charge forward and...and..."
Leif could not finish the sentence. He took a look at Little Sam, and broke down crying. Burying his face on top of the square table occupying the center of the one-room dwelling.
While Dr. Kramer crouched down to consolingly pat the caretaker's back, Skinner took up the tale.
"The men who had their guns half-drawn were leapt and bitten on, first, as if they were bein' attacked by rabid bobcats. And, every man that got bit started to shrink like over-dried wetwash! While the women biting 'em started to grow taller and taller!!"
That had done it. All the church-goers ran outside. As being hit by stray bullets, there, could not possibly pose a greater danger than the devilish evil being done inside!
"Only trouble was, there were more of them females waiting just outside the front doors. And, when they weren't shrinking the men-folk, they were making off with all the young women-folk. Lauren, included."
Skinner could not honestly recall how he, the O'Reillys, and Dr. Kramer had made it to Leif's buckboard unscathed. He only knew that they had.
"Leif whipped his team into a frenzy. Yet, those half-giant Amazons ran after us, bare-foot, all the way. Just barely out-distanced by us! We had just enough time to barricade the door, and load up these shotguns as well as my Henry, before we heard the horses scream like banshees."
Skinner had thought their pursuers were killing the horses. But, it was a mixed blessing, to say the least, to see that the viragos were interested only in the four men. Letting the team run off in fright, after smashing the buckboard into kindling.
"We've been here, ever since. Listening to them over-grown she-devils doing...Lord knows what to the men in town, all last night. And, then, finally having them attack us this morning."
Lewis looked at the doll-sized figure of Sam O'Reilly and asked how he had been shrunk.
"One of them she-devils either bit or scratched him on the left cheek of his butt. And, it appears as if that's the slower way they have of doing it. Because, up until an hour ago, he was still as big as a two-year old!"
Lewis paused as he pondered everything he had just heard. But, he was interrupted by a sudden shout from outside.
"Cap! Cap'n Cross! Get out here, sir. You gotta see this!"
Recognizing Salty's voice, Lewis ran back out on the double, Skinner close behind him. And, what they saw stopped them dead in their tracks.
The bodies of the half-giant viragos had vanished! In their place were the corpses of much-more petite women!!
"What in blazes...?" he began.
"They shrank," replied Salty: "Right before our very eyes!"
"He's right," added Tom: "One moment, they're built like dead grizzlies. The next moment, they were all shorter than my sister, back when she was still in her teens!"
"How on Earth is any of this possible?" muttered Lewis (mostly to himself).
The other men could only shake their heads in mutual puzzlement. Then, Tom knelt down and took a closer look at the bodies.
"Cap? You're gonna think I'm loco. But, the way these women are dressed; reed skirts and pierced nipples? I think they're...Karankawa!"
"Karankawa?!" echoed Skinner and Salty, in astounded unison.
"What's...Karankawa?" asked Hiram.
"Gulf Coast cannibal tribe," replied Lewis: "Supposedly wiped out before I was even born."
"Back in Germany," replied Fleischer: "...there are tales of nocturnal creatures called 'vampiren.' Undead corpses that drain the blood of the living! Maybe these are similar?"
"I don't know," shrugged Lewis: "All I'm sure about, at this moment, is that we've got to get to town. The buckboard is ruined. So, Skinner? You, Doc, and Leif will have to ride bareback on Leif's Shires. Tom? You take Hiram and round up those horses. Salty? You help me bring down the rest of our remuda.* Dutch? You stay on guard, down here."
"Ja wohl, mein hauptmann."
Five minutes later, Tom and Hiram found what was left of the wooden hitch that had kept the two draft horses together.
"Drat it!" cursed the former: "They've split up. Looks like we'll have to do the same. The hoofprints on the right side head southward. So, you go that way, Hiram. I'll follow the tracks headed north."
Hiram nodded, making sure his Spencer rifle was out and ready for trouble as he rode off.
After another five minutes, he found something totally unexpected. A young woman, with long dark hair, wearing what appeared to be the torn and tattered remnants of a white dress!
Thinking it might be the missing Lauren Findlay (he and Salty had heard the tale of the attack through the shack's open windows), Hiram hurriedly rode up and dismounted.
"Miss? Miss Findlay? Are you all right?"
The face that smiled up at him revealed fangs like those of a cat.
* * * * *
Tom was halfway back to where they had split up, when he heard the blood-curlding scream. He swiftly dropped the lead on the Shire he had found, and kicked his palomino into full gallop. In less time than it takes to tell, he came across Hiram's horse running back towards the O'Reilly Brothers' shack. And, looking back in the direction it had come from, he saw a bone-chilling sight.
A raven the size of a golden eagle was feeding on something in the prairie grass.
Tom immediately unsheathed his Spencer and began firing at it. The giant bird croaked in pain, but that was about it. It otherwise appeared able to fly off in total retreat.
Tom rode up and dismounted, finding his worst fears confirmed: Hiram had been shrunk to the size of an ear of corn. And, worse still? The bird had been disemboweling him alive!
"T-Tom? Is that...y-y-you?"
"Shhhh! Save your strength; lie still."
"No! No...t-time. Tell the cap...her name. He needs...to know...her name!"
"Whose name? Who are you talking about?"
And, with that, the little man died.
Lewis and the others ate a long-overdue breakfast while waiting for Tom and Hiram to get back. Salty lit a fire in Leif O'Reilly's pot-bellied stove, to boil coffee, while Fleischer rationed out what was left of their beef jerky to Leif and the other two civilians.
When Hiram's horse came galloping up to the shack, completely riderless, their slightly-improved mood reverted to one of grim concern. And, when Tom came riding up with was left of Hiram's body, it naturally changed to one of horrified astonishment!
Lewis asked how it had happened, and Tom relayed what little he knew.
"Hairy Clitoris?!" exclaimed Salty, shaking his head: "Poor boy must've been delirious with pain."
"He sounded right lucid, to me, Cap. And, he said it as one word. Like it was somebody's name!"
"It sounds Greek to me," declared Fleischer: "I mean that, literally, mein hauptmann. There were many Corsican-born Greeks in my Foreign Legion regiment, during the Crimean War. Their names sounded just as tongue-twisting as this one."
"We'll table this discussion for another time," ordered Lewis: "Right now, we got to bury our dead."
It was not much of a funeral. Only one or two shovelfuls of earth had to be turned to dig a hole the right size for Hiram's body. And, the only grave marker they could fashion, that was of equal size, was a cross made of knotted-together willow twigs.
It was as if they had buried a beloved childhood pet, rather than a fellow soldier.
"Buck? You might as well take Hiram's horse and weapons. Doc? You ride up on the Shire, behind Leif and Sam. It's time we rode into town."
Twenty minutes later, they were riding down the main street of Tonkawas Springs at a slow walk. With Lewis on point; Dr. Kramer and the O'Reillys behind him; and the others flanking him in a V-formation.
They reined to a stop before the town marshal's office.
"Dalton?" Lewis called out: "Tennessee Joe Dalton! Where are you, viejo?"
"Close enough to blow your fool head off, if I hadn't recognized your voice."
All the riders turned their heads as one. Directly behind them was a funeral parlor. And, coming out of its main entrance was a group of men roughly intermediate in age between Salty and Fleischer. All of them armed with either double-barrel shotguns, Hall breech-loading carbines, or Hawken rifles.
Lewis was blunt and concise: "I already got the gist of what happened from Leif and Skinner. Where's Clark?"
"At the Oxbow Saloon. Your ma and the doc's wife are treatin' the...casualties, there."
Two minutes later, Lewis had dismounted and walked through the batwing doors. Amelia Cross looked up, purely out of reflex, and gasped.
Every sound uttered thereafter was an incoherent sob for joy as she hugged her first-born twin. When she had finally managed to calm down, Lewis broke up their embrace to tell her how he had already been made aware of the diabolical attack on the town.
"Where's Clark? I want to find out more from him."
His mother nodded and took him to one of the saloon's second-floor boarding rooms. She gently rapped on one of the doors before opening it. Lewis followed her inside, where it quickly became his turn to gasp.
The bed in that room had six or seven doll-sized men resting on top of its quilt. Every single one of them wearing what appeared to be choir robes made out of white silk handkerchiefs!
And, one of those dolls looked like a clean-shaven version of Lewis.
Lewis could not believe his eyes, as he knelt down at the foot of the bed. It was like looking at a miniature doppleganger of himself! The face was smoother; the mud-brown hair was shorter and better combed; and, of course, the body was much smaller than his.
But, in all other respects, this was still his identical twin brother, Clark.
The latter smiled up at him, as he shouted: "Howdy, big brother! You look like you've seen better days."
It was not a funny joke. The irony of it, however, was too much for Lewis, after everything else he had been through so far. He sat down, completely, and started laughing. The kind of laughter that sounds more like crying.
Amelia, naturally concerned, knelt down beside him and returned the comforting hug he had given her, minutes earlier. Eventually, he managed to calm down
"I'm dreaming. Any moment, now, I'm gonna wake up back at the waterhole and find out this has all been a bad dream!"
"Afraid not, Lew. You're as wide awake as I am."
"B-But,...half-naked giantesses that can turn into black panthers? And, shrink able-bodied men just by sucking their blood, or whatever? How, in God's name, is any of that possible?"
"I don't know, Lew. All I _do_ know is that it's happened to me, and every other man in town below the age of fifty."
"Leif O'Reilly told me you brought some Yankee cavalry with you, when you first came home. Weren't they of any help at the time of the attack?"
"The troop I brought here, from Fort Union, was meant strictly to hold Fort Pecos for U.S. re-occupation. We learned from Skinner and other scouts that the Rebs (No offense!) had abandoned it, in order to head south of the border with Kirby-Smith's boys.* And, we didn't want any other die-hard stragglers from your army taking it over."
Clark went on to add that he had not brought the whole troop to town, the day of the wedding. He had left half of them on duty at the fort. The rest were to serve as his nuptial honor guard.
"I figure I lost one or two percent of them during the first couple minutes of the surprise attack. The rest rallied pretty quickly against those desperadoes. Then, _they_ butted in."
The stained glass windows of the town's church shattered from within as the burly bodies of the Amazonian viragos came flying out. Each one of them ten feet tall, with fangs!
"Tennessee managed to rally most of the men-folk around my men. Helping us fight a delaying action so Reverend Shepard could lead the women-folk here, to the Oxbow. Seeing as it's the most structurally-reinforced building in town (what will all the drunken brawls it's had to survive)!"
"How many men did you lose?"
"Shrunken, like me? About a couple dozen, including three or four of my men. The rest? Well, let's just say that our stepdad is the only surviving member of the town council, and leave it at that."
"What about Lauren? When did they make off with her?"
"During the initial confusion. I think they also made off with her bride's-maids."
The Cross brothers were silent for a moment. Then, Lewis spoke up, swearing he would get Lauren back for Clark, if it was the last thing he ever did. The latter was very dubious, though.
"I appreciate the thought. But, you don't even know who--or what--you're up against!"
"Perhaps, I can answer that, senores."
The Colt from his right-hand holster was in Lewis' hand before his tiny twin could even blink. Its business end was now trained on a middle-aged man who was dressed like a Vatican priest (including a domed, round-brimmed black hat). And, yet, he sported a moustache-free beard, just like a Quaker or one of the Amish.
Fleischer was standing right behind the man, one of his own Colts pointed at the back of the stranger's head.
"He insisted on seeing you, mein hauptmann."
Lewis stood up: "Como te llamos usted, padre?"
"Hola, senor capitan," bowed the priest: "Yo soy Padre Cypriano de La Sociedad San Umberto. At your service."
Lewis and his mother looked at each other.
"The Saint Hubert Society?" echoed the former.
"Si! We are an...esoteric branch of La Iglesia Santa Madre. Named for the patron saint of hunters."
With his free hand, Fleischer held up a crossbow. Indicating, with a slight nod of his head, that it belonged to the strange clerygman!
"I see," muttered Lewis: "And, what is you hunt, exactly?"
Father Cypriano smiled: "At the moment, senor? The same prey as you."
This one's for all my fellow mytho-philes, out there.
* * * * *
They all met back downstairs in the saloon, with everyone else drinking beer and Father Cypriano ordering sarsparilla. When this comfortable little ritual was over, the clergyman cleared his throat to speak.
"Digame, capitan. What do you know of Greek mythology?"
"I've read translations of 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' by Homer," replied Lewis: "But, only as they pertain to military history."
"Likewise, mein hauptmann," added Fleischer: "That is why I searched the gut vater's covered donkey-cart when first he arrived. To determine whether or not he was a latter-day Trojan Horse. No offense, mein herr!"
The priest grinned: "No problema, mi hijo."
Just as quickly, however, he became deadly serious
"What I am about to tell you is based mostly on ancient records that were found--and translated--by the Knights Hospitallers, during their brief exile on the Greek island of Rhodes. These records concern a she-demon who has been known by many names, in many lands. To the pre-Roman Iberians, she was Xana of Asturias. To the Phoenicians, Ishtar; to the Mayans, Ix-chel; and, to the Aztec, Coatlicue Yaocihuatl. But, to the ancient Greeks? She was Heraclitoris! Either the daughter of Echidna and Proteus; or, of Lamia and Priapus. Whatever her parentage, she was worshipped by the Gorgonian Amazons of Libya, even after the suppression of their cannibalistic cult by (and their forcible marriages to) the Argive army of Perseus."
According to Father Cypriano, the records stated that Heraclitoris, herself, tried to intervene on her worshippers' behalf. Forcing the goddess Athena to confront her, directly.
"Their battle is said to have ranged from Libya to Santorini to Lesbos. Resulting in a volcanic eruption on the former, and the petrification of an entire forest on the latter! But, at last, Heraclitoris was defeated. And, for her anthropophagic crimes, she was sealed in Hyperborean amber, shrunken to the size of a sprig of amaranth, and, then, hidden away in a land far beyond the Garden of the Hesperides."
"That's a right pretty story, padre," said Lewis: "But, I still don't see what that's got to do with what happened here."
Father Cypriano looked straight into Lewis' eyes: "It has been said that the sins of the fathers are visited on to their children unto the third or fourth generation. And, it is your abuelo, mi capitan, that released Heraclitoris into the 19th century!"
In which further illumination is provided; tempers flare; and another flame of life is extinguished.
* * * * *
There was a moment of stunned silence at Father Cypriano's pronouncement. Then, suddenly, Lewis sprang to his feet, once more brandishing his right-hand Colt at the priest!
"I don't care who you are," he growled: "My grandfather died at the Alamo. And, nobody is gonna slander his good name. Not even you!"
Just then, Lewis heard the click of a hammer being pulled back. He slowly looked to his right, and saw Marshal Dalton aiming his Hawken rifle at him.
"Reholster that hog-leg, Lew. Or, by God, stepson or not, I'll blow your head off!"
"Do so, mein herr? Und, you die un-manned."
Dalton looked to his left, and saw that Fleischer (who was still seated) had drawn a Bowie knife from someplace on his person. With the business end of it aimed right at the town marshal's groin.
Father Cypriano was genuinely shocked by what he had unintentionally provoked.
"Senores! Senores!! Tranquilo, por favor! Capitan Cross; I did not mean to disparage your abuelo. I know that, in battle, he was un hombre bravo and, to his compadres, mui leal. But, he was also as prone to temptation as any mortal. And, if you let me resume my story from where I left off, you will see what I mean."
Lewis thought this over for a second, then nodded. As soon as he had resumed his seat, Marshal Dalton stood down, and Fleischer resheathed his Arkansas Toothpick inside the left-hand lining of his jacket.
Whereupon, the priest continued.
"The Greek legend concludes by stating how Mother Earth herself opened the side of a great mountain, in this land beyond the Hesperides. And, therein Athena placed the shrunken, amber-encased Heraclitoris. To insure that the latter never escaped, the cave mouth was sealed with a vast boulder of white agate, sewn into a shroud of serpentine, and coated with mother-of-pearl to prevent weathering."
Father Cypriano added how one of the Hospitallers, who had translated this legend from the Greek, was a former Knight Templar from Oxfordshire. And, that it was he who eventually brought the legend home with him to the famed university of that name.
"It was discovered there, in 1759, by a Masonic physician and alchemist named Doctor Steel. Further research on his part showed that the great mountain referred to, in the legend, was located in the British colony of Connecticut. And, that the local indios referred to it as...Mackimoodus. The Place of Bad Noises!"
Somehow, Dr. Steel got the idea that Athena's door seal was actually a giant pearl! Albeit, left behind by the decomposition of a giant oyster deposited on the mountain by Noah's Flood.
"In 1765, Dr. Steel came to Mackimoodus, and told the local anglos that he had been sent by their King George III to take away the giant 'carbuncle' (as he called it). So that the underground gases trapped by it could finally escape into the open air. Thus, quieting the mountain once and for all."
In this endeavor, Dr. Steel apparently succeeded. However, he was never seen in Great Britain, again.
"It is my belief, senores, that Dr. Steel not only removed the doorseal. But, what he perceived to be an amber figurine, as well! And, that the ship on which he was returning to Inglaterra, was attacked (and all hands aboard massacred) by Barbary corsairs. One of whom kept the 'amber figurine' as un memento. For, how else can one explain it coming into the possession of an Egyptian Mameluke, serving with Napoleon's hussars during El Guerro Peninsular? A Mameluke who was ultimately killed--and stripped of all valuables--by Don Constantino De La Garduna. A Sardinian-born soldier-of-fortune who served with the loyalist guerrillas en Espana; with the independentistas en Mejico; and the separatistas en Tejas."
Father Cypriano concluded his recitation by stating how it was the Mexican artillery bombardment, preceding the final storming of the Alamo, that had released Heraclitoris from her amber prison.
* * * * *
Salty Peters rode a clockwise circle around Tonkawa Springs, while Buck Skinner rode counter-clockwise. They were keeping an eye out for black panthers and giant ravens. Yet, so far, nothing.
The day had remained deceptively peaceful since Hiram Barlow's death. Then, it happened.
Suddenly, a copperhead snake the size of a python reared up out of the grass, right in front of Salty's chestnut! Causing the horse to rear, and his rider to be thrown from the saddle, landing flat on his back.
In the process, the old horse marine's Spencer rifle went flying away from him. And, with the wind knocked out of him, the best he could do was awkwardly claw for either one of his Colt revolvers.
He had the one in his left holster half-drawn when the upper half of the copperhead transformed into the face and upper torso of a naked woman. More specifically; the blonde-haired beauty who had helped him cross the border from virginity to manhood!
"Issssss that anyway to treat a lady, handsssssssome?
"N-N-Nellie?" he stammered, irresistibly transfixed by the blue eyes now gazing at him.
They were the last things he ever saw in this world, before her bite shrank him to the size of a mouse.
* * * * *
Fleischer and Lewis mounted their horses, as it was their turn to relieve Salty and Buck at patrolling the perimeter. And, as they headed for the pre-arranged rendezvous, the Hessian finally decided to voice his curiosity.
"Forgive me, mein hauptmann. But, vas ist between you und your step-vater? You seem unusually acrimonious toward each other."
Lewis half-smiled: "You might say he dislikes the way I idolize my forebears."
"My grandfather was born 'Constantino De La Cruz!' But, he adopted an alias when he fought alongside the Brits, in the Peninsular War, because his father--a Spanish Basque named Gaspar De La Cruz--privateered against 'em during and after the Revolutionary War. He revived that alias when he emigrated to Mexico, and ran guns for the indepenentistas. Yet, after his death at the Alamo, his widow reverted to the true family name. While her son anglicized it after marrying Miss Amelia Bennett-Fisher from Savannah, Georgia."
"Your mutter, ja?"
Lewis nodded: "When he first met her, he was following in Great-granddad's footsteps. Privateering for the Texas Republic Navy. Eight years later, he was a captain in the U.S. Navy, killed during an exchange of cannon-fire at the Siege of Veracruz. I found that heroic. Joseph Winthrop Dalton didn't."
Lewis' stepfather, an ex-army engineer of Massachusetts Pilgrim descent (and one of the founding fathers of Tonkawa Springs), felt that his wife's twin sons should take more pride in building and creating. Not revel in what he considered wanton destruction.
To use his words:
"Violence in defense of one's self and loved ones might be unavoidable, on certain occasions. But, that does not mean it has to be a lethal first resort."
It was his persistence in reciting that, after being appointed town marshal in 1850 (two years after his mother's remarriage to the man), that Lewis had found hypocritical.
"Back then, Comanche raids on the town were more than occasional and more than certain. They were practically guaranteed! And, Tennessee Joe Dalton had no trouble resorting to lethal violence, at those times. I told him so, to his face, after mine and Clark's eleventh birthday. He slapped me across the face for it. Clark stood up for me by kicking him in his right shin. And, I tackled him to the ground and started pummeling him! You know what happened to us a year later."
"Well, mit all due respect, mein hauptmann" replied Fleischer: "I think der two of you should call a truce until dies...bizzare crisis is resolved."
No sooner had he said this than the frightened whinnying of a horse came to their ears. Followed a moment later by the appearance of the riderless saddle mount, itself.
"Good Lord Almighty!" exclaimed Lewis: "That's Salty's horse!!"
* * * * *
Buck Skinner had been approaching his next intersection with Peters, in their polar-opposite circlings of the town, when he heard the other horse scream. Whipping out his telescope he trained it ahead of him...and gasped in horror at the thing he beheld through it. But, he quickly shook his head, to mentally rally himself, and put the scope away with his left hand while simultaneously withdrawing his Henry rifle with his right.
"Hey, yahhhh!" he yelled, urging his horse to full gallop.
* * * * *
Heraclitoris' mouth opened wide, just like the snake her lower half currently resembled. Pausing, all-too briefly, to sadistically savor the little man's terror as he dangled over her mouth.
Then, she let him go.
Heraclitoris now closed her eyes as she absorbed Salty's penultimate memories. By this necromantic process, she learned that the old horse marine had not exaggerated the campfire tale he had told Hiram Barlow concerning his loss of virginity.
In this fashion, she also learned a little more about Captain Lewis Cross.
"Oh, yessssss!" she mused half-aloud: "Thissssss one will make a perfect conssssssssort."
* * * * *
Heraclitoris was still savoring the taste of Salty Peters when she felt it. The first in a series of painful stings, followed by the almost-simultaneous sound of bullets being fired at her.
BLAM! BLAM-BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
She spun about, and saw the one called Buck Skinner charging towards her, firing his Henry rifle at her from horseback.
"Uhnnnnnnn!" she grunted, as another bullet found its mark: "I grow tired of thesssse ssssstrange projecticlesssss that hurt me. It isssss time to hurt their ownersssss back."
No sooner had she said this than she changed into a twenty-foot tall, ape-like ogre with straggly black hair and turquoise skin!
Her subsequent roar was not only half-deafening. It also caused Buck's horse to stop short and rear in fright. This, in turn, kept him so busy trying not to get thrown from the saddle, that he was too distracted to notice Heraclitoris stomping ever closer until she snatched him up from his saddle!
Buck gazed upon the giant-sized canine teeth as she drew him ever closer to her mouth. A moment later, he could feel her breath wafting up to him. The stench was like that of a slaughterhouse during the dog days of August. So powerfully fetid, it literally made his eyes water.
Determined to deny her any pleasure, Buck drew his .36 caliber Colt Navy revolver (Model 1851), and pointed it towards his mouth.
"I hope I give you heartburn, bitch!"
Yet, it was not gastric pain that Heraclitoris suddenly started feeling. It was a recurrence of those cursed stings! Only, this time, from behind her left knee.
As she involuntarily knelt on the ground, she turned her head ninety degrees to her left. And, there, they were. Lewis Cross and Dutch Fleischer, firing their Spencer rifles as if there were no tomorrow!
This time, however, she lost the feeling in her right leg behind the knee.
To end the pain, if only temporarily, Heraclitoris threw Buck Skinner at the two ex-Confederates like a baseball!
"Look out, Dutch!" exclaimed Lewis, urging his black stallion out of the way. Fleischer, though, was knocked from the saddle of his Oldenburger like a bottle from a backyard fence during target practice!
The two men landed flat on their backs; the wind knocked out of them with a collective "ummmph."
Heraclitoris, meanwhile, had changed form once again. This time, into a winged creature that resembled a giant, featherless vulture with a large bony headcrest and leathery, bat-like wings.
Wings that it now used to pursue Lewis.
"Oh, shit," he muttered: "Giddap!"
The black stallion did not need to be told twice. It took off at full gallop, Heraclitoris just narrowly missing both horse and rider on her first pass. Screaming shrilly in frustration, she flew high into the sky.
"She probably wants to gain altitude for a second try," he thought to himself: "Just like a chicken hawk! But, as long as she's focused on me, the other two will be safe."
"AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWRK" came the scream, again. This time, louder and closer. A fact confirmed by the increasingly bigger shadow suddenly being cast over his horse.
I was, of course, describing a pteranodon, a few paragraphs back. But, I don't think that word even existed, yet, at that point of the 19th century.
An unexpected development.
* * * * *
The giant flying lizard (or whatever it was) was gradually gaining on him and his horse. And, this time, it was not likely to miss. Lewis had to time his counter-move just right.
He initiated that counter-move just as the creatures's shadow had almost reached its maximum size.
Swiftly, he withdrew his right leg from its corresponding stirrup and swung it over his saddle! At the same time, he had drawn the Colt Army revolver in his right-hand holster while crooking his left arm around the saddle horn.
It was not easy, by any means. But, he thumbed and fired that revolver three times. And, three times, he hit his target. Wounding it in its left wing!
With a roar of pain, it crashed to the ground, where it once more changed shape. This time, assuming the form of a ten-foot tall giantess with golden-brown skin; long, fine black hair; and a wounded left arm that she tightly clutched with her right hand.
The ex-partisan ranger captain (having resumed his normal position in the saddle) was momentarily taken aback by the sight of this woman's height and beauty. He snapped back to reality, however, when she transformed yet again. This time, into a bumblebee the size of a small dog, while retaining the head of a human woman!
"ZZZZZZZecond round to you, Lewizzzzzzz. But, I shall claim you yet...for my zzzisterzzzzzzzzz!"
With that, she made a beeline for the northwest just as Tom Bigby came riding up from almost the same direction.
"Cap! Did I just see what I thought I saw?"
Lewis nodded. He then ordered Tom to help him check on Buck and Dutch. The latter pair turned out to be just fine. They had merely been winded.
Whereupon, he ordered them all back to town.
"I got some more questions for Father Cypriano."
The mysterious priest was saying a rosary in the town's nondenominational church when Lewis and the others burst in on him.
"On your feet, padre!"
The rest of his question was cut off by the leveling of four revolvers upon him.
"I forgot about it, at the time, because of my reaction to my brother getting shrunk. But, when Tom, here, found Hiram in the same condition, he was told this she-demon's name at least half an hour afore you showed up. And, now, she not only knows _my_ name. She claims she's got a sister! Now, what didn't you tell us during your oral report at the Oxbow?"
Father Cypriano stood up.
"Forgive me, senores! I did not mean to lie by omission. Yet, time was of the essence in my need to acquaint you with the basic facts concerning our immediate foe."
"Which is just another way of saying there are additional facts," countered Lewis: "So, I say it's time to disclose 'em!"
The good padre nodded: "Primero; there is considerably more to that Greek myth I told you about. Heraclitoris was not an only child. She was one of a set of triplets! Her sisters being known as Labia and Ovaria."
Collectively, these triplets had been called "the Melissae," by their native Rhodian worshippers (who had depicted them on their pottery as anthropocephalous bees).
"Individually?" the padre continued: "Heraclitoris was the warrior-high priestess of the trio; responsible for gathering female disciples for them. Labia was the personal bodyguard of the other two; responsible for training and leading their elite warrior-eunuchs. And, Ovaria? Their fertile queen; responsible for expanding their numbers through what the Bible calls...fruitful multiplication. She could not mate with just anyone, however. She could only mate with the perfect warrior."
He paused, before adding: "And, you, mi capitan, seem to have been deemed worthy of that title!"
A council of war.
* * * * *
Lewis was silent for a few moments, as he pondered this information.
"In other words," he finally said: "This she-demon and her sisters operated like a beehive. The queen bee mated with the strongest male drone, who died of sexual exhaustion. And, their children got wet-nursed by lower-rankin' females."
Father Cypriano nodded.
"Fortunately," he added: "Heraclitoris has had difficulty in re-establishing the ancient cult. Mostly, because she has spent the past thirty years trying to locate and free her sisters. You see, following their overthrow, they were imprisoned far apart from each other! Far to the north, south, and west of their ancient homeland."
"Well, that's one thing in our favor," replied Lewis: "But, what are her strengths and weaknesses?"
"Like her sisters, Heraclitoris is an empusa. A she-demon who feeds on the life-force of the young men she seduces and kills. The more life-force she absorbs, the smaller the corpses of her victims...and the more knowledge she amasses of their loved ones."
The padre also revealed that Heraclitoris could use her stolen vitality to shapeshift.
"She can transform into any manner of predatory beast she wishes. Including the form of a beautiful humanoid giantess! But, the taller the giantess, the more energy she must expend to prolong the duration of that size! Hence, her prefererred range of ten to fifty feet in height."
Another potential weakness was an apparent vulnerability to weapons made of cold iron.
"For some reason, she--like her sisters--can be severly injured by such. Her injuries, however, heal much faster than those of a mortal. More similar, in fact, to a lizard regenerating a broken tail! That is why, in previous hunts of lesser empusae, I have used crossbow quarrels made of iron that had been cooled in holy water. It is as fatal to them as a poisoned blowgun dart would be to you or I."
"That's all well and good," said Skinner: "But, even if we was to custom-make our ammo, the same way, we'd first have to find her afore we could shoot her with it!"
"That's why I came ridin' back from Fort Pecos, alone," replied Tom: "Your hunch was right, Cap. The rest of your brother's troop appears to have been killed by those jaguar-men. There are blue-bellies walkin' the parapets, alright. But, from what I could see of 'em, through my spy-glass? They were all Otomi."
"Otomi?" echoed Fleischer.
"Mexican tribe," explained Skinner: "Used to scout and fight for the Aztecs afore Cortez come along."
"Then, that must be where she's holed up," declared Lewis: "Along with Lauren and the other hostages."
Tom nodded: "That fort's built pretty solid, though. It'll take more than the four of us to storm it!"
Lewis half-smiled: "Then, maybe it's time I called a truce with a certain ex-army engineer I know."
It was nearing two o'clock when the four cavalrymen rode back to the Oxbow Saloon. Making it hard for Lewis to believe that everything he had seen and heard had taken place in just eight short hours.
But, that was nothing compared to the sight of Yankee cavalry horses hitched to nearly every post in town!
Lewis, Fleischer, and Tom warily entered the saloon behind Skinner. The commanding officer of the troops looked up at the sound of the batwing doors, and immediately sprang to his feet.
"You must be Captain Cross! I'm Brevet Major Lancer; 6th U.S. Cavalry; 4th Squadron (Provisional). Formerly, with the 1st Vermont Cavalry."
Lancer extended his right hand. Lewis grasped it, out of professional courtesy. Noting, as he did so, that the man was roughly the same age as him. Albeit, a tad more clean-shaven.
"Forgive me for being blunt, Major. But, what are you doing here? And, do you know what you might be up against?"
Lancer nodded: "Your stepfather and Rev. Shephard have briefed me. Frankly, I would have thought them mad, if not for your brother. His condition being such...unique confirmation!"
Lewis could not help smiling.
"As to my presence, here?" continued Lancer: "I was dispatched from New Orleans, with three troops of cavalry, to reinforce your brother's re-occupation of Fort Pecos. The bulk of these men being 'galvanized Yankees,' who had previously served with the Third Louisiana Cavalry!"
"Then, you've got more men headed here?"
Lancer nodded, again: "They'll arrive by sundown. Although, I can't, for the life of me, think of what good they'll be able to do against such...unusual foes!"
As if in reply, a voice called to them from outside. A thunderous, and clearly female, voice.
"LEWIS! LEWIS OF THE CROSS! SHOW YOURSELF!"
The ex-Confederate raced back to the batwing doors, with Lancer right on his heels. Both emerged on to the wooden sidewalk and looked up. Their jaws dropping, and their eyes bulging.
Gazing down at them, from above and behind the buildings on the opposite side of the street, was the wickedly smiling face of Heraclitoris, herself.
Completely topless...and thirty feet tall.
It naturally took a moment, or two. But, Lewis finally got over his amazement enough to reply to the giantess.
"OK! I'm here. What do you want?"
Her smile became a feral grin.
"YOU, LITTLE HANDSOME ONE. FROM WHAT I HAVE DIVINED, IN CONSUMING YOUR FRIENDS, I KNOW YOU ARE A GREAT WARRIOR. SHREWD, BRAVE, AND FIERCELY DETERMINED TO COMPLETE WHATEVER YOUR OBJECTIVES BE. SO AM I! THAT IS WHY I WISH YOU FOR MY CONSORT."
"I got a pretty good idea of what that ultimately means me for me, witch! So, why should I agree to your insane proposal?"
"YOU COULD FINALLY HAVE YOUR HEART'S DESIRE."
Whereupon, Heraclitoris took on the semblance...of Lauren Findlay! Albeit, still thirty feet tall, and topless.
"DOES THIS FORM NOT PLEASE YOU?" she asked, standing arms akimbo.
"It's mighty tempting, I got to admit."
Lancer looked at him, horrified.
"THEN, YOU ACCEPT?"
"I said it was tempting. Not irresistible!"
Heraclitoris lost her smile.
"I _WILL_ HAVE YOU, LITTLE ONE. ONE WAY, OR ANOTHER! AND, IF YOU DO NOT COME TO ME, BY THE TIME THE MOON HAS REACHED ITS ZENITH, THIS MIDSUMMER'S EVE, YOUR BROTHER'S INTENDED SHALL SUFFER THE SAME FATE AS HER FATHER."
Whereupon, she held up Luther Findlay in her left hand!
Once more, Lewis became drop-jawed with shock. The storekeeper had insisted on going out, with Tom Bigby, to spy on Fort Pecos. But, there was a huge difference between lying in wait for grouse, and military reconnoitering. And, now he was about to pay the price.
Luther Findlay screamed in pain as he was forced into a fetal ball, and secured in that position by a long lock of hair plucked, by the giantess (who still wore Lauren's likeness), from her own head.
Following which, she proceeded to swallow him whole.
Lewis looked at Dutch, and nodded. The Hessian mercenary nodded back, and barged his way out between Lewis and Lancer. He raised his Spencer rifle; cocked it; and fired.
Putting Luther Findlay out of his screaming misery.
Heraclitoris snarled, her anger at the robbery of her sadistic pleasure driving away the illusion of being Lauren. This did not stop her, however, from swallowing the storekeeper's corpse in spite.
After which, she repeated her threat.
"BY THE LUNAR ZENITH, LITTLE ONE! OR, LIKE FATHER/LIKE DAUGHTER."
Whereupon, she stomped back toward the fort.
A scheme is hatched.
* * * * *
Lewis went over to the table where Lancer had been sitting, and helped himself to a glass of whiskey. Reverend Shepard, sitting to Lewis' left, patted the ex-Confederate partisan on the shoulder.
"Don't be too hard on yourself, my son. It was the right thing to do. The only merciful thing you could have done!"
"Somehow, I don't think Lauren will see it that way. Assuming we can even rescue her!"
"We must, senor capitan."
Everyone looked up to see Padre Cypriano coming from the saloon's back store room.
"How'd you get here?"
"I felt the vibrations from Heraclitoris' giant footsteps, and followed her from the church, as best as I could, riding my burro bareback. When I saw where she had stopped, I circled around to the rear of this building, so I could eavesdrop on her conversation with you."
"Sound tactical thinking. Your knowledge of her is our main advantage over her. Like this 'lunar zenith' business. What's that in reference to?"
Padre Cypriano frowned as he explained that there were three times of year when (according to the pagan folklore of Europe) evil magic could be practiced most effectively: All Hallows' Eve, in the autumn; Walpurgis Night, in the spring; and the summer solstice.
"That is today, senores. And, it is my suspicion that Senorita Findlay is to be a virgin sacrifice to Selene! The Lunar Titaness of Greek mythology, whom some scholars regard as being an alias of Hecate...goddess of witchcraft."
"Good Lord in Heaven!" exclaimed the reverend, closing his eyes and clutching his Bible to his heart.
"If we are to prevent this," continued the priest: "...we must formulate a plan of rescue, now."
"Easier said than done," replied Marshal Dalton: "That fort was constructed of the hardest wood timbers from East Texas. It would take a howitzer to blow open those gates, alone!"
Lewis looked at Lancer: "I don't suppose one of those other two troops is horse artillery."
The brevet major shook his head.
Just then, Fleischer remembered the Ketchum grenades they had brought with them.*
"If the gut vater has an extra crossbow, Tom und I could sneak up to the gates and shoot them at the hinges, as well as their intersection. Leaving Herr Major Lancer free to charge in, und retake the fort! Mit you accompanying them to rescue the fraulein."
"It'd be suicide, Dutch," replied Tom: "That fort's got a mighty clear view in all directions."
"Not if they were concentrating on something else," declared Lewis: "Like me, pretending to give myself up, in exchange for Lauren and the other hostages' release."
"There's no guarantee that would distract _all_ her sentries," observed Dalton: "You'll need a much bigger diversion. Like an artillery barrage from the rear of the fort."
Lewis reminded his stepfather that they lacked anything bigger than the Ketchum grenades. To which, the older man smiled.
"Before my retirement from the Corps of Engineers, I remember reading some accounts of Commodore Parry's visit to Japan. There was one anecdote concerning Japanese military history. Specifically, an attempted invasion of Korea that was thwarted primarily by a weapon called a 'hwacha.' It essentially launched a hundred skyrocket-propelled fire arrows, at once! And, the drawing that was included in this anecdote bore a strong resemblance to the rear end of the padre's donkey cart."
Lewis and Dalton smirked at each other.
"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?" asked the former. The latter nodded.
"I will materially contribute whatever I can to your cause, senores," remarked the priest: "But, how do you plan to make these grenados airborne?"
Lewis smirked again: "Ever hear of the 4th of July?"
SEVEN HOURS LATER
* * * * *
The western horizon still showed a tinge of pink as Lewis rode up to the gates of Fort Pecos atop his black Kentucky Thoroughbred stallion.
"Hello, the fort! It's me; Lew Cross."
"We know who you are, senor" replied a jaguar-headed figure atop the parapets: "Dismount, turn your horse around, and slap its rump."
The ex-Confederate smiled. He had anticipated some such precaution against his bringing his Spencer repeater into the fort. So, he complied without dispute.
Only when his horse began galloping back, in the direction of town, did the gates open. He immediately began walking towards them, his hands raised in the air, parallel to his shoulders.
By the time he had reached the center of the parade ground, he was surrounded by several other "jaguar-men." Apparently, they had seen no further need to masquerade as the remainder of Clark's troops, and had dressed back up in their ritual costumes.
The one Lewis perceived to be their commanding officer came down from the parapets to join him and the two riflemen guarding him.
"I see you came in full dress uniform, senor. Very gallant of you...and very transparent. Remove the long coat, por favor. And, hold the lining towards me."
Lewis did as instructed, thereby revealing the "hammerless" Pettingill revolvers inside.* Each resting in a holster sewn into the lining. El Jefe smiled, as he confiscated the long coat and threw it to the ground.
"Now, your main gunbelt, por favor."
Lewis unbuckled his double-holster rig, and gently let it fall to his feet.
"And, finally? Please, to remove the Bowie knife from your right boot."
Lewis arched his eyebrows, causing El Jefe to chuckle.
"My Mistress has the gift of gastronomancy. Those she consumes pass all their knowledge on to her as they digest! In that sense, Privates Barlow and Peters proved most...informative."
Lewis glared at the man, as he removed his right boot, in order to untie the sheath containg his knife from around his lower leg. Only then was he permitted to put the boot back on.
"Now, we shall meet your esposa-to-be."
"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Lewis: "I don't go anywhere until I see Lauren Findlay. Alive and unharmed."
"Su pardon! I completely forgot."
El Jefe barked an order in Spanish. Following which, two more riflemen came out from the livery stable. Behind them marched the young woman in question. And, behind her, in turn, marched her four bride's-maids.
The latter, all ten feet tall.
* * * * *
The Sillitoe sisters--Alison, Bertha, Charlotte, and Deirdre--took after their mother in their hair color (auburn). While they took after their father, the mayor, in their eye color (blue).
Alison, the twenty-one year-old first-born, had been Lauren Findlay's best friend since they were both five. Bertha, the eighteen year-old middle sister, was a little bit stockier than Alison. While Charlotte and Deirdre--the seventeen year-old twins--had Alison's slenderness. But, most definitely, _not_ her chest size!
Lewis thought nothing about this day could astound him, anymore. But, he was wrong. Lauren's bride's-maids were all ten feet tall! The skirts of their lavender-pink dresses stopping an inch above their pantalettes (which now came only to their knees).
"How on Earth...?" he half-muttered.
"I partially transformed them, My Consort."
Lewis spun around and saw El Jefe and the four riflemen kneeling on one knee apiece. He then looked upward and saw why. Heraclitoris--all fifteen feet of her--was gazing down at him, a triumphant smile on her face.
She was still as topless as when she had delivered her ultimatum, earlier that afternoon. But, now, with no buildings to hide behind, her barefoot legs were relatively clear to see. Only partially hidden by a skirt of white transluscent silk with a jaguar-skin belt.
"What did you do to them?" Lewis growled.
"I needed new acolytes, My Consort. After all, you killed the ones I had rescued from slavery in Mexico."
"Lew?" interrupted Lauren: "Th-They killed them. All the Yankee soldiers who were stationed, here. She bit Alison and her sisters in their necks. Forced them to do the same to her. A-And, then, they...shrank 'em and ate 'em! Every--single--soldier!!"
"Well, not quite all of 'em," replied Alison. With a nod to her sisters, she pulled a four-inch tall cavalryman from out of her cleavage! Bertha, Charlotte, and Deirdre matching her movements in perfect unison.
Lewis just could not avert his eyes as the shrunken cavalrymen screamed in abject terror, their semi-vampiric captors opening wide in shameless, malicious glee.
Followed by their letting go of the little men.
The screams were cut off as each of the semi-giantesses gulped their food down whole. Whereupon, they each proceeded to grow another two feet taller.
FOUR HOURS EARLIER
* * * * *
The rest of Lancer's troops arrived ahead of schedule; between five and six-of-the-clock. Consequently, there were a lot more hands to help get things done before sunset (circa eight o'clock).
Like the troops that had arrived with Lancer, himself, they were mostly "galvanized Yankees" (ex-3rd Louisiana Cavalry), working together with veterans of the now-disbanded 1st Alabama Cavalry (U.S. Volunteers).* And, like their commanding officer, they had to be shown proof of what they were told.
All doubt was removed once they saw Little Clark Cross practicing archery with a sprig of willow, a fragment of fiddle string, and some sewing pins.
His twin brother marveled at the shrunken man's skill.
"Where and when did you learn to do that?"
"Dutch taught me. Said he learned it from a deer-poaching English gypsy he met in the Foreign Legion."
Fleischer nodded: "He preferred military service mit der French to permanent exile in Australia."
By half-past-seven, everything was as ready as it was going to be. The master plan called for Tom, Buck, and Fleischer to ride with Lewis halfway to the fort. After that, they would split off and ride wide to the right of the fort. So, they could creep in from the right flank.
Meanwhile, Troop C of Squadron 4 would circle wide to the left of the fort. Dismounting on the shores of the Pecos River, and proceeding toward the fort's rear wall on foot. Pushing their improvised hwacha before them.
As the moon was in its waning crescent phase, and just beginning to rise, they would have near-total darkness in their favor.
The moon was halfway towards its zenith when Lewis finally arrived at the fort. According to Father Cypriano, it was when it was directly overhead that the sacrifice would most likely occur. So, at five-past-nine, the dismounted cavalrymen--under Marshal Dalton's direction--began setting up the modified rain gutters. Both on the floor of the tilted-up donkey cart, and flanking it. Four minutes later, he ordered the fuses to be lit.
And, one minute after that, the first of the Congreve rockets (with Ketchum grenades securely tied on to them) launched itself at Fort Pecos.
EIGHT MINUTES EARLIER
* * * * *
At two minutes past nine, Little Clark Cross stealthily emerged from the right-hand pocket of his brother's dress gray long coat.
Father Cypriano had told them about Heraclitoris' gruesome form of necromancy. So, the twins and their stepfather had planned around that. As Lewis had put it:
"Give 'em what they expect. And, they'll never expect what they get."
Clark now assumed a half-kneeling firing position. From a quiver made of cigarette-rolling paper, he withdrew a toothpick to which a jumping cholla needle had been bonded with sealing wax. Only the barbed tip of it left exposed. He then pulled back on the string of his willow-sprig bow...and released.
With an almost-inaudible "twang," the makeshift arrow went sailing upward in a semi-circular arc. Ultimately landing...behind the knee of one of the jaguar-cultists guarding his brother.
"Que paso?" demanded the rifleman to his right. To which the jaguar-man replied that he felt like he had just been bitten by a overgrown mosquito!
By the time the jaguar-man's comrade had bent down to examine the area of the "bite," Clark had run diagonally to his right. So, as to get closer to their immediate leader.
He ran hunched over, fervently hoping it was enough to keep him unnoticed. He then skidded to a stop, and prepared to fire a second arrow.
This time, the barbed shaft landed in the big toe of El Jefe's sandaled left foot!!
"Hijo de perra!!!"
El Jefe started dancing up and down on his good right leg. Prompting Lewis to decide that he would never have a better chance. He hastily lifted his own left leg, and withdrew the spring-bladed D'Estaing dirk Fleischer had loaned him.
With a slight click, the blade flicked up and out. Whereupon, Lewis made a left-handed throw with it. Straight towards the third rifleman, behind El Jefe's shoulder!
The latter clutched at his throat with both hands, a sickening gurgle emerging from it. But, Lewis did not stop to admire his handiwork. In less time than it takes to tell, he was already carrying out his pre-planned follow-through. Namely, tackling the first pair of riflemen to the ground.
From the holster of the one Clark had "wounded," his brother withdrew a .44-caliber Allen & Wheelock revolver. Spinning about, clockwise, he fanned the gun with his right hand. Downing the second rifleman with the first two shots. Followed by two more for the fourth rifleman. And, one apiece for El Jefe and the third rifleman!
Alison Sillitoe, initially as surprised as the others, quickly overcame her astonishment, and started to charge at Lewis. Which--as Fate would have it--was also the precise moment that the jaguar-men, walking sentry on the parapet of the rear wall, started shouting:
The ensuing explosions that occurred, just below where they were standing, made those the last words they ever uttered as they fell to the ground, dead.
JUNE 21, 1865 (9:11 PM)
* * * * *
At least half the Congreve rockets launched, from behind the fort, landed short of their target. The other half--particularly the three launched from Father Cypriano's donkey cart--detonated on impact with the fort's rear wall.
There was not much damage done; even with the added explosive power of the Ketchum grendades tied on to the rockets! For, as predicted, the timbers comprising each palisade had been fashioned from pretty sturdy oaks.
Yet, it had never been anyone's intention to breach the rear wall. Merely to distract the new occupants of the fort from the three men who had finally snuck up to its main gate on foot. One of them--Dutch Fleischer--carrying the other box of Ketchum grenades. While Tom Bigby and Buck Skinner stood guard.
"You all set?" whispered the former. Fleischer nodded. Whereupon, all three men backed away about twenty-five paces.
"Here you go," said Tom, handing over the crossbow he had been toting (very carefully!) in his right hand.
"Danke," replied the Hessian. Following which, he got down on one knee and aimed the crossbow skyward.
The Ketchum grenade that had been resting in it went sailing upward, at a ninety-degree angle, before peaking and descending...right smack-dab amidst the other grenades.
The main gate, bolt and all, blew inward. Allowing the three scouts to go racing into it on foot. Buck levering his Henry rifle at the guards on the front parapet. While Tom and Fleischer used their Colts to hold off the guards on the ground. Long enough for Lancer and his men to come charging in, anyway.
"Doot! Doot-doot-doot-doot! Doo-DOO-doot!
Doot! Doot-doot-doot-doot! Doo-DOOT-doot!"
Heraclitoris, being taller than everyone else, heard the tell-tale bugle call first. And, she knew she had to act before things got beyond her control.
"Alison! You and your sisters recapture these trouble-makers. I shall deal with their reinforcements."
Whereupon, she shot up to a hundred feet in height, and bounded over the front wall to meet the Sixth Cavalry, head on.
Alison Sillitoe was distracted, by the first wave of explosions, long enough for Lewis to dive forward, somersault, and grab up his discarded gunbelt, all in one smooth motion!
By the time her sisters had called this to her attention, he had already buckled it back on. Allowing him to draw both Colts, simultaneously, and fire. The twins, Charlotte and Deirdre, wound up losing each of their big left toes. Followed by Bertha losing her big right toe!
Lewis did not waste time after that. If Father Cypriano was right, even newly-created empusae had accelerated healing powers. Meaning that these three semi-giantesses would not be impeded for long.
He swiftly reholstered his revolvers, scooping up his confiscated Sharps carbine with his left hand...and Little Clark with his right.
Lauren stared in disbelief at the shrunken man clinging to the bodice of her bridal gown.
"Howdy, honey. I'm home."
"Shut up and run!" barked Lewis, pushing his prospective sister-in-law towards the now-open gate.
"Alison!" shouted Heraclitoris: "You and your sisters recapture these trouble-makers. I shall deal with their reinforcements."
So saying, the self-styled goddess became a hundred feet tall, before going off to confront the rapidly approaching Sixth Cavalry.
Alison did her best to carry out her orders. And, other circumstances, she might have. As she could fast-walk, at her twelve-foot height, faster than her quarry could run at normal size. Lewis, spotting this over his shoulder, skidded to a stop and fired the Sharps.
Alison started jumping up and down on her left leg, howling in pain from her small right toe having just been blown in half. This, in turn, allowed Lauren and her precious cargo to reach the relative saftey of the three men holding off the jaguar-cultists at the ruined gate.
"Schnell, mein hauptmann!" exclaimed Fleischer: "We are running low on reloads."
"Then, yell for the horses, dang it!" came the retort. Whereupon, Tom put his left hand to his cheek, creating a semi-funnel around his upper and lower lips.
Meanwhile, Brevet Major Lancer and his remaining troops were halfway toward the ruined gate when they saw titanic Heraclitoris striding towards them. So, at the top of his lungs, he yelled for his column to fan out in a pincer movement. Half of them veering diagonally to the right; the rest, following him to the left.
When they were exactly parallel to her, they wheeled their horses about, and charged her from both sides, at the same time. Then, upon reaching maximum range for their Colt revolvers, Lancer shouted the order to open fire at will.
Heraclitoris winced as the first wave of bullets assaulted her lower legs. At her present size, the impact was more like a series of insect bites. More maddening than painful. But, after a whole day of such "stings," her patience was exhausted.
"Now, ye shalt all taste thine own medicine!"
JUNE 21, 1865 (5:30 PM)
* * * * *
Lewis glared half-accusingly at Lancer.
"I thought you said you lacked any horse artillery."
Lancer shamelessly grinned: "This isn't artillery, per se. This is technically a light infantry weapon."
* * * * *
3 HOURS/45 MINUTES LATER
The two columns of cavalry were just about to converge and surround Heraclitoris, when she shapeshifted once more. This time, transforming into a giant queen bee roughly the size of a railroad boxcar!
Lancer immediately ordered his men to rein in and dismount. For he could tell, just by the way she was darting about above them, that she was looking for opportunities to dive at them. The same way a falcon dives for its prey!
"Hold your fire, until I say otherwise! Hold it. Hold...it! OPEN FIRE!! FIRE AT WILL!!!"
Her first dive was thwarted by the opening fusillade. As was the second. The third, however, resulted in the capture of two enlisted men. One in each of her hindmost legs.
Each of these men wound up being run through her by her enormous stinger. She then dropped them back to Earth, like a child who has become dissatisfied with a toy. After which, she started diving at her enemies, again.
So preoccupied was she, with her sadistic game of aerial cat-and-mouse, that she failed to notice the rapidly approaching conveyance in black.
It was--somewhat appropriately--a hearse!
More specifically, the horse-drawn hearse owned by Mort Jacobs, the town mortician. And, cracking the whip over the heads of the Cleveland Bays drawing it was Leif O'Reilly!
"Yeeeeeeeeeeee-HA!! Come on, boys. Keep it movin'!"
Sitting in the glass-paneled rear of the hearse was Father Cypriano, unable to resist smiling at Leif's vengeful glee. Moments later, though, that smile vanished when he heard the horses being reined in by Leif.
"Stand by, padre. I'm turnin' us around for a good view of that bee-itch!"
A minute later, the monster-hunting clergymen was gazing out through the hearse's right-hand panel. And, sure enough, there was Heraclitoris. Still descending upon the beleagured cavalrymen. And, still ascending with two to four captives at a time, every second or third dive.
Father Cypriano knew there was no delaying any longer. He whipped the cover off the Gatling gun, and aimed it towards where the roof of the hearse had been removed.
Father Cypriano waited until Heraclitoris (still in her giant apid form) was once more hovering, looking for her next targets. Then, he cranked the handle.
The rapid-fire salvo destroyed some of the glass paneling at the top. Yet, that was nothing compared to what it did to Heraclitoris! With the help of Marshal Dalton, Oscar Humboldt--the town blacksmith--had melted down all of Father Cypriano's blessed iron quarrels. Recasting them in the shape of bullets compatible with the Gatling gun. And, to doubly insure their effectiveness, the good padre had poured an entire bottle of holy water into Oscar's cooling trough.
In short; the trail of bullets that threaded their way across Heraclitoris' tail end, from left to right, felt like Greek fire to her! And, in the process, they also amputated her stinger.
She swerved about, counter-clockwise, and spotted the hearse.
"Hola, puta! We meet, again."
Whereupon, the good padre resumed his cranking.
* * * * *
As soon as he heard the main gate explode, Marshal Dalton had ordered the troops Lancer had loaned to him to mount up and charge. As their compatriots had done against Heraclitoris, herself, this detachment performed a pincer movement. Half of it, circling the fort from the right; the other half, from the left.
Dalton accompanied the latter. Riding atop the late Salty Peters' horse, while leading the other four. Both halves reassembled at the ruins of the gate, charging through the gap as one. They instantly opened fire at anyone armed and wearing a jaguar costume. They had not anticipated, however, the possibility of Heraclitoris turning four-fifths of her hostages into partial empusae.
Consequently, they were not expecting a pair of twelve-foot tall twins to attack them!
Lewis and Lauren (still clutching shrunken Clark to her bosom) had run up one of the two staircases flanking the ruined gate. They had joined Fleischer in the look-out box at the top of the staircase, while Tom and Skinner had provided decreasingly frequent cover fire from the other box, parallel to them.
It was at that moment that Alison Sillitoe had ordered the jaguar-men to step back. She and Bertha then scaled the front wall of the fort, to the left of Lewis and the others. While Charlotte and Deirdre mimicked their actions from the right. The wooden catwalk might not be able to support the weight of their semi-gigantic bodies. But, they could cling to the top of the wall like monkeys, and inch toward their intended victims, thereby.
"Yoo-hoo!" sang out Alison: "Lauren! Come out, come out, wherever you are."
Lauren could not help responding.
"Alison! Why are you doing this? We've been best friends from childhood."
"All good things must come to an end, Laurel-leaf. In drinking Heraclitoris' blood, I had a vision. A glimpse of the world as it used to be. The Gorgonian Empire! A matriarchy where men served women, and not the other way round. The thought of that appeals to me. Especially, in light of how Daddy has always treated me and my sisters. As two-legged cows to be married off only to the highest-bidding bull who shows serious interest in us!"
As she uttered that last sentence, she sprang upward, and literally raised the roof off the look-out box with her right hand!
"Peek-a-boo; I see you! You're it, Lauren."
Father Cypriano resumed cranking the Gatling gun, trying to keep Heraclitoris in his sights. But, all he did was fragment more of the hearse's glass panels. For the she-demon, while still in her giant queen bee form, was able to just keep ahead of his line of fire. Making him waste valuable ammunition as a result.
Then, she noticed that he did not swing the Gatling gun in the direction of the driver's seat. Obviously, for fear of hitting Leif O'Reilly. So, she proceeded to dive at the latter!
But, the peg-legged Mexican War veteran was far from helpless. He had brought one of his double-barreled shotguns with him. Only, now, it had been sawed off to the same length as a Colt revolver. And, its ammunition consisted of rock salt mixed with ground-up holy wafers!
Heraclitoris spun around and around, in mid-air, completely disoriented. Allowing Leif to employ the horse whip to even further disorient her.
"And, this..." BANG!
"...is for..." BANG!
Each crack of the whip struck true. And, each one caused the she-demon immense pain where she had already been wounded by the blessed iron bullets. Consequently, she found it increasingly difficult to stay aloft.
So, she did not even try. Instead, she resumed the form of a hundred-foot tall giantess and lifted up the hearse with her right hand, while severing the team of horses from it with her left!
The matched pair of Cleveland Bays quite sensibly galloped off. But, neither Leif nor the padre were any position to follow them. And, it was the former whom Heraclitoris chose to snack on first.
In snake-like fashion, her lower jaw elongated until her entire mouth resembled an inverted triangle. She then dropped the ill-fated gravedigger into it. Father Cypriano did not even watch her gulp before he closed his eyes and muttered a quick prayer on Leif's behalf.
He stopped when he felt the hearse beginning to tilt.
"What is the matter, little priest? Didst thou run out of sanctified projectiles?"
"Si y no," whispered the monster-hunter. He then put the remaining ammo clip for the Gatling gun on to his spare crossbow. Preparing to fire it literally straight down her throat!
JUNE 21, 1865 (9:17 PM)
* * * * *
"Charlotte! Deirdre!" exclaimed Alison: "Get those damn Yankee insects! Bertha and I can handle these two."
No sooner had she said this than the towering twin terrors were in the middle of the U.S. Cavalrymen. Picking them up by ones and twos; breaking each of their backs with one bite; and, then, throwing them at the surviving horse soldiers in the hope of knocking the latter from their saddles.
They missed for the most part, however, as the troopers zig-zagged their mounts back and forth.
Meanwhile, Bertha Sillitoe had vaulted over the front wall of Fort Pecos. Then, like an overgrown monkey, she used her hands to half-leap/half-creep towards her sister, until she was parallel to her. Whereupon, she grabbed up Lewis with her left hand, while Alison (tossing away the roof of the look-out box) snatched up Lauren with her right.
"Got you!" she crowed: "Now, all we have to do is wait for the Mistress to get back. And, we can perform the sacrifice, on schedule."
"Hey, wait a minute!" shouted Lewis: "I thought I was to be the sacrifice. That was the deal! Me, for Lauren's release."
"The Mistress lied," gloated Bertha: "She's going to devour Lauren. That way, she'll learn everything Lauren knows. And, use that to make your fertilization of her that much easier. It'll be as if you really _are_ consummating Lauren!"
"Well, I hate to break it to you," Lewis replied: "But, there's not going to _be_ any sacrifice! Take a gander, skywards."
The two titanesses reluctantly did as instructed. Sure enough; the crescent moon was now past its zenith.
Alison looked back down at her captive, snarling in frustration. And, Lauren cringed, anticipating a most horrifying spiteful death. In her fright, however, she had completely forgotten her shrunken fiance'!
As if he were the handsome prince in "Rapunzel," Clark Cross had used Lauren's long brown hair to ascend to the top of her head. There, he had drawn the last of his cholla-needle arrows; nocked it to his willow-sprig bow; and, then, let it fly.
The needle hit its intended target. The bottom of Alison's right eye! And, instinctively, her right hand went to that eye, causing her to drop Lauren. Giving Lewis the opportunity to do the same thing to his captor with his one remaining Colt (having lost the other when he was grabbed).
He landed right beside Lauren, who was busy showering Little Clark with grateful kisses.
"Now, Dutch! Now!!!"
The Hessian mercenary had been "playing possum;" pretending to have been knocked out by a stray piece of falling debris, following Alison's decapitation of the look-out box. Now, though, he sprang to his feet and threw his Bowie knife towards Alison's neck!
It imbedded itself in the middle of her throat, causing her to lose her grip on the top of the palisade and fall to the ground. Consequently, she landed flat on her back, the wind knocked out of her. At the same time, Lewis had recovered the other Colt Army revolver, and fanned all six of its shots into Bertha's throat!
She, too, landed flat on her back, and with the same result. Her landing, however, occurred outside the remains of the breached gate...just as Marshal Dalton came galloping up. Still leading the four riderless horses.
Bertha, desperate for fresh meat to accelerate her supernatural healing powers, rolled over and started crawling towards the ex-army engineer. Dalton was ready for her, though.
He jumped from the saddle, an attachable carbine stock already fixed to the butt of his Third Model Colt Dragoon. He knelt down on his right knee, and immediately began firing towards her still-regenerating left eye.
The fifth and sixth bullets found their marks (Bertha's brain), and she collapsed to the ground, face-first. Whereupon, the aging town marshal remounted, and resumed his charge into the fort.
As Leif O'Reilly's body slowly began to dissolve, his spiritual essence was absorbed by Heraclitoris' mind. And, consequently, so was all the knowledge he had acquired throughout his life.
Such was the power she called "gastronomancy."
But, as the absorption proceeded, the look in her eyes gradually changed from triumph to shock. A change indicated by the shifting of her open mouth from a triangle to a capital "o." And, Father Cypriano knew he could wait no longer. With a "twang" and a "whoosh," the blessed ammo clip was on its way. And, it found its mark!
Prompting the giant she-demon to involuntarily close her mouth and swallow.
Heraclitoris' right hand immediately went to her stomach. Causing the almost-ruined hearse to dangerously teeter back and forth in the palm of her left.
"Bastardito!" she swore: "You will NOT outlive me!"
So saying, she brought her right hand back up, intending to crush the hearse to smithereens. And, Father Cypriano with it! But, the monster-hunting priest had anticipated this, and jumped for it. Aiming for the jaguar-skin belt of her translucent silk skirt.
This required him tossing away the crossbow. The sacrifice was worth it, however, as he managed to land where he had aimed (the area of her belt just above her eponymous zone), and clutch at it with both hands.
"Gracias, Senor O'Reilly," he whispered to himself: "Vaya con Dios!"
* * * * *
OXBOW SALOON, TWO HOURS EARLIER
"Senor O'Reilly. You were un soldado, once. Si?"
"Marine, actually. Lost my lower right leg at Chapultepec."
"My condolences. The reason I inquire is this. I wish to know if you are familiar with the concept of...'contingency plans.' "
Leif nodded. Whereupon, Father Cypriano elaborated.
"If, for any reason, the blessed iron bullets of the Gatling gun are insufficient against this giant puta, I desire to have just such a plan, ready-and-waiting for enactment, at that fateful moment. You love your brother Samuel. Do you not?"
"O'course, I do!" exclaimed the gravedigger: "What kind of question is that?"
"Do you love him enough to die for him?"
Leif paused before answering...with a counter-question.
"What're you gettin' at, padre?"
"I plan to wash down several holy wafers with holy water, before we venture forth. That way, if I am consumed by Heraclitoris, I will poison her unholy system and take her with me. In which event, I bequeath my burro and cart to you. But, what if _you_ are consumed, instead of me? Who will care for Samuel, then?"
"Let me get this straight. You askin' me to chow down some of them Catholic vittles, too? So's I can poison her if'n you can't?"
The priest nodded.
"If I agree," Leif continued: "You swear to look after my brother like he was your own?"
"Mi mano a Dios!" the priest exclaimed, raising his right hand skyward, to emphasize the point.
"Alrighty, then. Let's ger her done."
* * * * *
With Heraclitoris having swallowed the blessed ammo clip, as well, the contingency plan had proven doubly successful. A fact that was subsequently demonstrated by the giant she-demon falling flat on her face!
To Be Concluded
* * * * *
As soon as Marshal Dalton came riding in through the ruined gate, Lewis came bounding down the wooden steps, two at a time, as did Fleischer and Tom. Dalton threw Spencer rifles to each of them. And, then, grabbed up one for himself.
While Skinner remained on the parapet (guarding Lauren and Clark), the others rode up to where the surviving 6th Cavalrymen had finally managed to form a ring around the two remaining Sillitoe sisters. The former were now aiming their Sharps carbines at the semi-giantesses. So, Lewis and the others did likewise with the Spencers.
Dalton called out to them.
"Charlotte! Deirdre! It's over. Alison and Bertha are dead. As is the she-demon who transformed you all! Did you hear that strange pattern of rapid gunfire earlier? It came from something called a Gatling gun. Firing bullets blessed by a Mexican priest! It's on its way here, now. Accompanied by reinforcements for these horse soldiers! Surrender yourselves, to their authority, and we'll get you the best help available. Medical and spiritual. You're only other alternative is to be killed where you stand."
The twin twelve-footers looked at each other.
"You're bluffing, Marshal," declared Charlotte.
Deirdre suddenly tilted her head, while putting her left hand to her left ear.
"I don't think so, Sis. Listen!"
Charlotte did so. And, a moment later, the "little" men surrounding her could hear it, as well. It was an all-too recognizable bugle call.
"Doot! Doot-doot! Doot-doot! Doo-DOO-DOOT!
Doot! Doot-doot! Doot-doot! Doo-DOO-DOOT!"
"We can't fight a whole army, Sis. Not at our present size. And, certainly not without the Mistress. Or, at least, one of _her_ sisters."
Charlotte hated to admit it. But, her twin was right. So, she hurriedly whispered something in Deirdre's right ear. To which Deirdre smilingly nodded, in response.
"Watch it!" warned Lewis: "They're up to something!"
No sooner had he uttered those words than the two semi-giantesses suddenly changed into red-eyed black rats. Each one twice the size of a longhorn steer!
As they had anticipated, all the horses ridden by their would-be captors immediately started rearing and whinnying in fright. Thereby allowing the twin titanesses to leap over the heads of the latter, scale the back wall of the fort, and then vanish into the darkness!
* * * * *
Father Cypriano held on to the belt until Heraclitoris had sunk to her knees. He then jumped for the ground, landing in a crouch with a slight "oof. He then began running until he saw the she-demon's navel was increasingly overhead.
"I pray she has an innie," he thought to himself.
His prayer was answered. As a result, he was spared from being totally crushed into blood-red paste!
"Gracias, Patron Jesus, for this mercy. I pray you will now be equally merciful in letting no witnesses be outside when I emerge."
Whereupon, the monster-hunting priest removed his all his clothing; assumed the likeness of a beast halfway between ape and wolf; and began tunneling his way out from beneath Heraclitoris' upper torso! This time, however, his prayer was only half-answered.
Brevet Major Lancer turned out to be waiting for him.
"Don't worry, padre! I sent the rest of my men on ahead, to Fort Pecos. You're secret is still safe."
"Gracias, Senor Comandante. If anyone should ask, I managed to land on the left side of her belt, facing her left hip."
"Fine. But, this squares us, Benandanti!* "
The lycanthropic priest nodded.
* * * * *
When they got to the fort, they found that Lancer's men had already sorted out the dead bodies, separating the 6th Cavalry from the jaguar cultists who had been serving Heraclitoris. Father Cypriano spotted Lewis, Marshal Dalton, and the others, and went over to keep them occupied with the explanation as to why Leif Ericson O'Reilly was absent.
Lancer spotted one of the jaguar-men being examined by a medical corpsman. The latter sprang to his feet and saluted, only to be told to stand at ease.
"Is this one still alive?"
"Yes, sir! Although, for how much longer is anyone's guess. I patched him up, good as I could, thinkin' you might want to question him. Seein' how he seemed to be the top sergeant of these leopard men."
"Yes, sir. Whatever you say, sir."
"Go double-check our own wounded. I'll see if this traitorous piece of scum has any information worth listening to."
Lancer waited the medic was out of earshot before kneeling down, and whispering:
"Papa? Papa! Es yo."
The jaguar-man that Lewis had mentally referred to as "El Jefe" looked up in evident recognition of the voice.
El Jefe dropped his head back down, and sighed.
"O, mi hijo! I am free. I have free will, again, at last! But, I also remember. Every atrocity I committed in her name. I remember them all! And, that is all the world will remember of me."
"Esta verdad, Papa. The world cannot--and must not--ever learn the truth behind what happened here, today. Take comfort in the knowledge that you will, at least, be reunited with Mama."
Juan Gallegos (nee Sean Gallagher) smiled; nodded;, and, then silently expired.
JUNE 22, 1865 (7:00 AM)
Under Father Cypriano's direction, Heraclitoris' giant corpse was cremated. As were the bodies of Alison and Bertha Sillitoe. Their sisters, however, eluded pursuit. No hunting dog, owned by the civilians of Tonkawa Springs, proved brave enough to track the scent of the two semi-giantesses. Nor could Tom Bigby and Buck Skinner find even the faintest footprint left by same; humanoid or rat-like.
Lewis took it upon himself to tell Lauren Findlay about the mercy-killing of her father. She broke down and cried, as expected. But, much to his surprise, she did not fly into a rage of denial and accuse him of being a murderer!
Little Clark summed it up best: "After seeing what the Sillitoes did to my men, at the fort, she's just glad her Pa didn't have to suffer the same way."
He followed this up by asking his twin brother to be his best man. Lewis was briefly struck speechless.
"You mean; you still intend to marry her?"
Little Clark smiled: "The vows do read '...for better or worse.' Well, considering my present condition, even you'll have to admit; things can only get better."
Lewis laughed so hard and loud, Little Clark's eardrums almost burst! But, the former agreed. Just as Marshal Dalton agreed to give the bride away. The ceremony, however, would be put off for three days. Until after all the men killed in the re-taking of Fort Pecos had been duly buried.
The next morning, Father Cypriano was found hitching his donkey back up to his cart. With Little Sam O'Reilly perched on the donkey's back, and playfully shouting "Giddap," like a little boy on his first rocking horse. Lewis invited him to stay for the festivities. But, the padre declined:
"Do not misunderstand, Capitan Cross. I am truly flattered by this honor! Yet, though my work here is done, I am still needed elsewhere. You see; while Heraclitoris might have failed to re-establish the ancient Melissae cult, as she knew it, she was not entirely unsuccessful in founding various sub-sects. In fact, it was the abolition of one, in New Orleans, that led to Comandante Lancer and I crossing paths!"
Once more, Lewis was at a temporary loss for words. If only because of the myriad of questions it sent running through his mind. Finally, though, he settled on one.
"How many sub-sects are we talking about?"
"Quien sabe?" shrugged the padre: "There are only two things of which I can be certain. Primero; that the sub-sects are mutually unaware of each other's existence. Segundo; that they are united by one goal. The finding and releasing of the other two Melissae. That must never happen! For, if Labia and Ovaria ever re-unite, their collective power would be more than enough to revivify Heraclitoris. And, all our work of last night would be por nada."
Then, in an abrupt change of topic, Father Cypriano remarked how glad he was to see that Lewis and his stepfather had seemingly reconciled. The ex-Confederate smiled.
"Yeah! He's changed a lot since that eleventh birthday party. Or, I have. Or, perhaps, we've both grown to be more similar to each other than we used to be."
"Es posible, senor. I am the first to admit that nothing in life--morality, in particular--is ever as black and white as my own vestments. Yet, neither is it--como se dice?--a uniform gray."
Father Cypriano allowed Lewis to finish chuckling at the pun, before continuing: "Morality is more like...multiple shades of gray. Some, undeniably darker than others. It is part of my calling to insure that the darker shades remain smaller, in terms of both size and quantity. And, as an enforcer of law, your stepfather has to come to see that, as well."
"Good point!" replied the ex-Confederate: "Maybe I'll go see if the Texas Rangers could use three more men in their ranks."
Tom and Fleischer came up and stood to either side of him as he said this.
"It could not hurt," said the priest: "Adios, senores! Vaya con Dios."
"Y tu, tambien, padre. Muchos suerte!"
* * * * *
SOMEWHERE IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC
APRIL 15, 1912 (12:52 PM)
The life preserver ring was made of cork that had been painted white...except for the black lettering that spelled out the name of the ship it had come from.
Three women had climbed aboard, from the life boat moored alongside. Two auburn-haired beauties and a raven-haired brunette who clutched the life ring to her chest like a newborn baby. The fishing boat captain frowned in sympathetic sadness, before introducing himself.
"I'm Ronald Murphy. Captain of the 'Mother Carey's Chicken,' out of Montauk, Long Island. Who might you ladies be?"
"I'm Charlotte Sillitoe," replied the young woman who had boarded first: "This is my twin sister, Deirdre. And, this is our employer; La Contessa Melissa Della Bia of Sicily."
Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night!
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