Brimstone Brown and the Blood Red Rose of Texas
The sun rose red over the tan hills of Texas, shining the small of town of Villa Bueno, or what was left of it. The small adobe and wooden border town lay quiet except for gently smoldering fires in the ruined husks of buildings, its residents slain by fire, bullet or blade down to the last crying child. Smoke billowed out of the remains as the sunrise shown over the mangled corpses, men holding their weapons, desperate to protect their families, mother sheltering the blasted bodies of their babes, all frozen in charred tableaux.
In the center of the town, the burned corpse of an old priest stretched before him, stood Bartholomew 'Brimstone' Brown. Unkempt black hair tumble down from his head and fell over his shoulder, a black Stetson rested on his head with a silver pentagram in the brim, and long black cloak was draped over his shoulders. He wore a long bladed knife, recently bloodied, known as an Arkansas toothpick, on his shoulder, and he held a long barreled Colt Buntline Special loosely in his gun hand. His eyes were blood red. He stared at the carnage of his making and emitted a wistful sigh.
"This didn't have to happen," he whispered, almost to himself. "There must have been another way." He reached down to his belt and withdrew a hand rolled cigarette. Brimstone brought it to his lips and placed it between his teeth. "Show yourself, Meph. I'm tired of waiting."
Suddenly Brimstone was not alone with the corpses of the villagers. An old man stood next to him, a kindly looking fellow with a thick white beard, dingy work clothes and a red bandanna wrapped around his neck. The old man grinned at the carnage.
"Shucks, Brimstone. You was only doing what you had to. Them villagers knew stuff you had to know. If a few got hurt in the learning of that stuff, well that ain't your concern."
"I didn't call you here for your damned equivocation," Brimstone said, biting down on the cigar. "I want out. I've had it with this killing, this ceaseless murder for a master who would betray me in an instant."
"You mean that colored girl from New Orleans?" Meph grinned. "I already told you. I'm mighty sorry-"
"Well, pardon me, but ain't that something you should expect me to do now?" Meph grinned. "I got a mouth on me, I'll say that. But then again, you gotta admit there's certain benefits of working for us."
Brimstone snapped his fingers and his hand burst into crimson flame. The fire did not burn him, and the gunslinger brought it to his cigarette, lit the tobacco, and then extinguished the blaze with another grasp of his hand. "I won't argue with you there."
Meph put his hand on Brimstone's shoulder, and the gaunt gunslinger stepped forward, away from the old man's kindly hand. "Well, I gotta tell, son. We been having a little loss of confidence of in
you, downstairs that is. That bit in New Orleans got some folks real pissed off. We got a lot riding on you."
"Maybe you picked the wrong man," Brimstone answered.
"I doubt that, Brimstone. Most of your life, you've been begging for a chance to do the Devil's work. Now we got you're one of our top soldiers. Havn't we been more than fair?"
"What about them?" Brimstone gestured to the burning village.
"Oh, them. Well they got in the way. I tell you Brimstone, no one ever said your job was gonna be easy."
"You're a bastard." Brimstone turned on Meph, his hand raised to strike. "No more of this! I want to live my own life, free of Gods or devils!"
Meph sighed. "Brimstone, ain't you got it figured out by now? We got you were we want you. You do what we say, you get all them nifty powers. You refuse, and all I gotta say is-" Meph narrowed his eyes-"Burn."
Brimstone burned. The fire was around him, inside his chest, inside his head. He fell to his knees, screaming out loud as his flesh was scorched to blackness by impossible heat. Brimstone curled up on the dusty ground, wailing like a baby as he was burned alive. He couldn't stop the words coming from his mouth. "Stop! Stop it! I give up! I'll stop!"
The fire stopped. Meph stood over Brimstone and slowly shook his head. "Boy, ain't you learned your lesson by now? That little discipline was only a taste of the tortures we got back downstairs. You know that, don't you? That's why you signed on."
"The Inferno, changed me." Brimstone came shakily to his feet. "It made me realize the kind of sorrow I caused. I don't want to go back."
"And you won't have to." Meph grinned. "Oh, by the way, sonny boy, we done got you a partner. You'll meet up tomorrow, and then just follow the old padre's words. Should lead you right to the City of Pillars."
"City of Pillars." Brimstone spat. "Some stupid old Mohammedean legends. If Irem existed, we're not even in the right continent."
"Then what was the padre speaking about, before you roasted him like a Christmas goose?" Meph chuckled. "And I told you about the wrong continent thing. Rogue Egyptians that built Irem, they sailed over here. Qur'an got it wrong, like it did so many other things."
"Iblis losing to God." Meph shook his head. "That's a long story. Best get a move on, boy. Gonna meet with your partner tomorrow, and I promised you'd be on time."
"Is he like me?"
"She. And yeah, I'd wager you'll make a cute couple."
Brimstone Brown whistled, a charcoal black horse trotted to him from the edge of the town. Brimstone hopped on the horse and set the steed moving in the direction the Padre had told him. Meph stayed behind, watching until Brimstone was a dot on the low hills of Texas, and then the demon vanished in a rush of air.
The dirty saloon in San Antonio, not too far from the relics of the Alamo, was practically empty when Texas Ranger Conway Turner strode in with his boys. Turner was a middle-aged man in a fine tan suit and bolo tie, a Stetson with a yellow lanyard on his head. He had a large white moustache and a hard look in his eye that matched the two revolvers he wore on his belt. Behind him came four other Texas Rangers, all armed and ready, along with a stoop-shouldered, thin fellow who looked quite out of place. This was the British occultist Ignatius Strangeworth, and his pale corpse-like complexion, macabre countenance and ragged black hair, as well as the book bound in human skin he held clasped to his chest marked him as a strange man. They all wore the golden star of Texas on their breasts, except for Strangeworth.
Conway Turner stared around the bar, and then let a string of chewing tobacco juice splash on the ground from his mouth. "What a dump," he muttered. The place was empty, save for the bartender and three weary prospector sucking back brews at the bar. "Well, Ignatius. Which one is the one that found it?"
Ignatius stepped forward and held out his long, thing finger, a thing almost fleshless. He pointed to the prospector on the left, then the one on the right, like he was playing Eeny-meeny-miny-moe, before settling on the middle man. "It's him, my lord," Ignatius whispered, his accent thick. "He's got the smell on him."
The Texas Ranger nodded. He stepped forward, drawing both of his revolvers from their holsters as he went and then placing them at the heads of the prospectors on the right and left. The three men stopped drinking.
"You boys know that feeling?" Conway asked. "Good." He fired, splattering the brains of the two men across the front of the bar as their bodies slumped forward. Then he aimed both of his revolvers at the middle prospector, a bearded man in overalls and an old bowler hat. "Hold him," Conway ordered, and a pair of burly Texas Rangers grabbed the Prospector's arms and held him fast. The bartender, soaked in his patron's brains, ducked under the bar and waited for the business to be over.
"W-what do you want with me?" he asked.
"You're Zeke Abrams, ain't you?" Conway asked. "I'm Captain Conway Turner, late of the Texas Rangers. I got some questions for you regarding your claim around the Llano. I hear you stumbled on something, some old ruins, but not Indian ones. Egyptian." Conway's eyes narrowed. "Irem."
"That place was awful!" Abrams cried. "You don't want to go there!"
"I know what I want, and want my boys want." Cownay drew a long-bladed skinning knife from his belt. "I want a little recognition for the blood I am my men have shed for this great state! I've killed Mexicans, Yankees, Outlaw and every kind of Indian there is for Texas, just so I can watch a pack of Oil Barons and land-owners slice it up like a cake! Finding Irem, and its treasures, gives us a fighting chance.
Now you tell me where it is." He pressed the flat of the blade to Zeke's throat, and the prospector's breathing sped up.
"I'll talk! I swear! Don't hurt me!" Tears sprung from his eyes. "Please!"
"You'll talk, but you won't give me what I need until you know I'm not just blowing smoke." Conway grabbed Abrams's collar and pulled him close, and then held the knife back. "I fought Apache for a long time. Dealing with devils like them can change a man's perspective on a whole lot of things. I've seen a lot of tortures and such done with fancy tools and fires and things. But Apache can bring more pain that anyone else, just by using their bare hands and a sharp knife."
"No!" Zeke screamed as Conway brought the blade down. He gurgled and begged as Conway worked, and then finally he broke and told everything. How he had stumbled over Irem while looking for new gold sites, how he had spent a horrible night in the ruins before running away, and its exact location.
"Thanks." Conway slashed Zeke's throat and the two Texas Ranger released his arms and let him drop to the ground. Turner spat out another red orange stream of chewing tobacco. "Okay, boys. Let's get a move on."
They headed for the door, but the bartender stood up from his hiding place, a sawed-off shotgun held in both hands. He aimed it at Conway's back. "Don't move, you counterfeit rangers!" the bar keep shouted. "I'll kill you, I swear I will!"
Conway spat again, and then turned around faster then anyone could see, a revolver already in his hand. He fired, the bullet taking the bartender right between the eyes and throwing the poor man back against the bottle-covered wall of his own saloon. Conway spat a final time and then headed for the exit.
Brimstone Brown had ridden north for most of the day, not stopping for food or rest. He didn't really need those things anyway, another benefit of serving Hell. Still, the devilish desperado thought about what he had experienced in Hell, the terror and sadness he had caused for countless innocents. He had never felt the way they had before, but the Inferno had showed him.
He remembered Clark Reeper, a good man if ever there was one, who had adopted a little boy named Charles Green and loved him dearly. Brimstone had nearly killed Charles, gutted the boy with a knife, in a mad attempt to summon the Devil. That had led to Brimstone's imprisonment in hell, and it was only then that Brimstone understood how Clark had felt. Then the Devil had given him a chance to return to earth and expected him to kill women and children like he had before, all without a single care.
"That's why they lost, I bet," Brimstone said. Devils and Demons just didn't understand the way people worked. They were simple creatures, but damned clever. He had worked for them in several places, and even staved off the doom of the world in the South Seas, but the things had done were unforgivable.
And now he was supposed to be given a partner, some woman who had been roped into the same deal he had. Brimstone wondered what she would be like as he urged his horse up a steep incline. As he gazed out on the vast open desert below him, Brimstone spotted a lazy column of white smoke wafting up.
"Must be her," Brimstone reasoned, and he urged his horse into a gallop as he headed down the hillside. Soon enough, he came to a small camp neatly laid out in the desert. There was a cooking fire, a bedroll, and a brown horse with ribbons in its hair lounging near the fire. Brimstone dismounted and drew his Buntline Special as he approached.
"Anyone there?" he called. "I'm Brimstone Brown. I've been sent to-"
A spinning kick took him in the back, knocking Brimstone to the ground. He spun around, his pistol raised, and there was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen staring down on him. She wore a tight bodice of red leather over her blouse, wrapped by two bandoleers, men's trousers, a plug hat, and a bright smile. Her hair was red, the color of blood of sunsets and her face matched the paradise of her body.
"Howdy," she said, still smiling. Her accent was pure Southern belle, and Brimstone could imagine the old plantations and oak trees of the South when she spoke. "I think I surprised you."
"Yeah," Brimstone agreed. He stared down at the two pistols she was aiming at him, a pair of beautiful pearl-handled and inlaid revolvers, the tips ending in thin stiletto blades. "Um, ma'am, you want to holster those cannons?"
"Whatever you say." She returned them to the holsters hugging her hips, and then reached out a hand to help Brimstone Brown to his feet. He was almost afraid to take it. "Well, I declare you should know better than to go sneaking up on a girl like that! I was frightened half to death by this tall stranger poking around in my camp!"
"I'm sorry," Brimstone put his hat back on his head. "My name I Barhtolo-uh, Brimstone Brown." He had almost said his real name! Brimstone cursed himself silently. He had buried that name long ago.
"Lillian McCoy." Lillian held out her hand, and it felt as clean and dainty as it looked when Brimstone kneeled down and kissed it.
He came to his feet, with his hat in hands. "Well, ma'am. I got sort of a deadline I have to keep. I know where Irem is, and Meph, um, this devil they got watching me, he told me I was supposed to meet up with you and-"
"I know about Meph," Lillian said. "He's a mean little snot, isn't he? Telling you what to do and everything."
"So, you're like me then?" Brimstone asked. "One of the Devil's Agents?"
"Yeah. That's my job, all right." Lillian McCoy doused the fire with her canteen and went about folding up her bedroll. "I've been serving him a right long time."
"Well, what I mean to ask, is, um. You're human, right?"
"Of course I am? What else would I be?" Lillian loaded the bedroll onto the horse and then mounted up. "Listen, Brimstone, Meph told me a little about you. I know you're having some doubts about serving the Devil, and I gotta tell you, he looks after his own. I've served all sorts of masters during my life, and there ain't a single one as kind or as gentlemanly as old Satan."
"Is that so?" Brimstone mounted his own horse and the two rode off together. "Well, for me at least, it ain't a question of who I'm serving. I know God doesn't give a damn about the world he made, and placing your trust in your fellow man just leads to trouble. But it's the things Satan orders to me do that I don't like."
"Now why would you say a thing like that?" Lillian laughed, a golden, musical sound. "He's done just fine by me. Sure, there's some nasty bits, but I've always found morality to be a hindrance rather than a help. Besides, its not like you hurt people any more than God or other men do. If you think any of the sorry fools you kill would get anything better from anyone else, you're not too bright."
"Never thought of it that way," Brimstone admitted. "Villa Bueno didn't really have that much going for it. The fact that they're meat for buzzards rather than toiling for their next meal doesn't change much."
"You keep those thoughts up, Brimstone." Lillian smiled. "I like you more already."
They rode on, heading north with great speed. Brimstone found his eyes lingering on Lillian McCoy's shapely form. Her red hair was blowing behind her as she rode, and Brimstone loved staring at the barren plains through the curtain of red locks. Lillian stared back, but she just laughed and kept on riding. Finally, as they watered their horses at a small oasis, she struck up a conversation.
"So, Mr. Brown. How'd you come by the devil, anyway? Life must have treated you pretty rough."
"It's not a story I like telling," Brimstone said.
"I want to hear it. Please?" She leaned forward on her horse and reached out one of her hands, placing it on his. Swiftly, Brimstone relented. He felt comfortable about Lillian, and he knew that she wouldn't think his story odd or repellant.
"Well, all right, if you insist. I grew up around here, small town in the rear end of Texas. I had a good father and mother, and they loved me and raised me well. Pa always told me that a man had a duty to his fellows to help them out, that kindness and bravery weren't always repaid, but they had worth just the same. When the war came around, he enlisted. I had just turned twelve, and though I wanted to go with him, he told me I had to stay home and look after Ma."
"So what happened to him?"
"Came down with typhoid two days after his unit shipped out. They buried him in a ditch somewhere outside Austin." Brimstone gripped the reins of his horse tightly. "Pa was a good man, but he was a damn fool. My Ma weren't much better. Times got real hard as the war wore on, and every bit of food we could get, she gave to me. Poor woman wasted away. When the war ended, a rich, fat Yankee preacher moved in next to us, eager to save souls."
"I know the type." Lillian shook her head. "Lousy self-righteous bastards."
"Yeah." Brimstone's eyes narrowed. "My Ma married him a week after he moved in. It was for me more than anything, a way to make sure I would be taken care of, but I didn't understand at the time and never forgave her. The Preacher talked about God and Jesus a lot, and then he would come home and drink and beat my Ma and me. He did some other things to me that I've spent my whole life trying to forget."
"Oh, Brimstone." Lillian McCoy leaned off of her horse and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "Oh. You poor boy."
"Yeah." Brimstone placed his own hand on Lillian's shoulder. Even though he had just met her, he felt like he could trust her with everything. "I ran in with a bad crowd, learned the wrong sorts of things. Eventually, this fellow called the Judge came into town. Big, bald man, not a judge in a legal sense, but he knew justice. He gave me a book, an old witch text from Europe. I memorized it." Brimstone closed his eyes. "One night, the Preacher went a little too far with my Ma. He killed her. I killed him with one of the book's spells. I been fighting a war alone ever since."
"Brimstone." Lillian pulled him to close. "You don't have to be alone any more."
Brimstone stared into her deep eyes and felt his passions rise. He forgot all about Irem and his job, but then a familiar laughter came from behind. Brimstone pulled himself back to his horse and turned around. There was Meph, standing on the watering hole of the oasis.
"Knew you'd get along!" Meph touched his hat to Lillian. "Good afternoon, ma'am."
"Meph, why'd you have to go and spoil such a nice moment?" Lillian asked, her lips pouted.
"Ah, I didn't want to. But I got some bad news for you." Meph walked out of the watering hole, his feet causing no ripples on the water. "Texas Rangers, a whole platoon, riding hard in this direction. I got a feeling they're heading for Irem."
"Why'd you suppose that?" Brimstone asked.
"They got a fellow with them knows something about the occult. A spindly little Limey fellow. You watch him, now." Meph shaded his eyes and looked behind Brimstone. "Yes, sir, should be coming on you any second now. Best get ready."
Brimstone Brown angled his horse around and looked. Sure enough, a cloud of dust was heading their way, moving fast and steady. Brimstone cursed and turned back to Meph, but the demon was already gone.
"Texas Rangers." Brimstone shook his head. "What would they want with Irem?"
"Who knows, honey." Lillian dismounted from her horse and set her hands to the revolvers at her waist. "But what do you say we go out and welcome them? I know you got that fire inside you."
"Yeah." Brimstone hopped off of his horse and joined Lillian McCoy. He looked up in the sky and spotted a vulture lazily circling overhead. He grinned. Even the birds knew what to expect from him. "Let's show them the fire."
They didn't have to wait long. Soon the platoon of Rangers reached the oasis, the horsemen spread out and covered them with a variety of weapons. Brimstone stared at the Rangers, hard men dressed in dusty traveling clothes and armed with the finest rifles, revolvers, and Walker Colts the great state of Texas could afford, now all leveled at Brimstone and Lillian. The ranks parted, admitting a white-mustachioed ranger with a bolo tie and a stooped thin fellow in a black cloak.
"Howdy," Lillian said, a slight smile on her face.
"Howdy, sir, ma'am." The Texas Ranger tipped his hat. "Name if Turner, Conway Turner. I reckon you folks are lost."
"No, sir." Brimstone doffed his own hat. "We're right where we want to be. Problem is, you folks seem to think we're in your way."
"You ain't?" Turner asked. His hands dropped to his revolvers. "Way I see it, I raise an eyebrow and you get perforated with a dozen different kinds of lead. What do you think of that?"
Brimstone whistled. "I'm impressed, mister. I'm real impressed." No matter how much the slaughter of innocents repelled him, Brimstone lived for battle. He felt that peculiar joy that comes from killing a human once before, when he stood over the blasted corpse of the Yankee Preacher, and he had longed for it ever since. "Gotta tell you though, I appreciate your generosity."
"How's that?" There was a quiver in Turner's voice and his men shuffled uneasily. Only the pale Englishman remained calm, his book nestled under his arm.
"You giving the vultures such a feast. Not many people would throw away their lives just to feed a flock of carrion birds, but you seem keen on it. I'll oblige you." Brimstone raised both of his fists, each one bursting into crimson flame.
"Take him!" Conway shouted, and rifles and pistols cracked at Brimstone, trying to bring him down. The bullets zoomed towards Brimstone, only to fall clattering to the ground in a great wave of useless lead, each one melted into a pathetic lumps. Brimstone breathed in deeply and let the flames fly, sending streams of red fire into the Ranger Ranks. Men and horses were burned alive as more bullets were pumped at Brimstone. The fire scorched the flesh from the bones of the lucky, leaving behind only skeletons. Others just caught ablaze and ran screaming before finally succumbing to the flames and falling to the ground.
"Jesus Christ!" Turner shouted, jumping off of his horse seconds before a blast of flame reduced the animal to slag.
"Not even close!" Brimstone slowly walked forward, bullets falling away from him as he scorched the very earth into a charred surface with his gouts of flame. Lillian stood back and watched, nodding happily. Brimstone's face was a mask of rage as pillars of sheer flames radiated outward from his body, the wind of the inferno making is coat fly.
Slowly, Brimstone approached the only person who wasn't panicking-the pale Englishman. The greasy-haired fellow was calmly turning the dog-eared pages in his book, wincing each time his thin and fleshless fingers touched the harsh paper.
Brimstone stopped in front of him, and let the fires in his hands go out. The bullets continued to pour at him, but he ignored them as if they were raindrops. "Good book, you ugly Limey puss?" he asked tauntingly.
"The best." Ignatius Strangeworth did not look up from the tome. "The Necronomicon. I'd think you'd have heard of it. In the South Seas, I believe you came into contact with an entity described in its pages. One of the Old Ones, I believe."
"The Old Ones?" Brimstone had heard that name before, spoken in a frightened whisper by Meph.
"Yes." Strangeworth shrugged his shoulders. "I heard a great deal about you before the Devil dragged you under. You were quite the occultist, if I recall. But you must admit the Cloven Footed path is a weaker one compared to The Things That Should Not Be. Satan and his ilk have power, of a sort, but they are terrestrial creatures. True power comes from other, older sources."
Brimstone could stand it no longer. He summoned up a great fireball in each of his hands and prepared to blast Ignatius Strangeworth to dust. But then Strangeworth started reading, and the fires in Brimstone's arms winked out. With every strange syllable that echoed from Ignatius's mouth a spark seemed to burn inside of Brimstone's chest. He fell to his knees, a smoke-laced gasp erupting from his mouth as the power vanished from him.
"The fire bit is a neat parlor trick, Mr. Brown." Ignatius hopped off his horse and approached Brimstone. "But this is not a child's party any more." He kicked Brimstone, his boot colliding with the gunslinger's chin and knocking Brimstone flat on his back. Ignatius Strangeworth raised his boot to strike again, but a blow connected with his chest and sent him sprawling. Lillian McCoy stepped back and examined her knuckles. She had moved faster than anyone could see.
"Lillian?" Brimstone asked, catching his breath. "Was that you?"
"Hold on a sec, dear." Lillian drew both of her revolvers and looked at the Texas Rangers. "I'll be right with you." She jumped into the air, her revolvers held out parallel to her body, and then she let out twelve shots faster than anyone could imagine. Twelve Rangers leaned in their saddles, each one shot right between the eye. Lillian McCoy ran towards them, jumping and dancing through their ranks while the stiletto blades mounted on her revolvers slashed throats and arteries.
Conway Turner came to his feet, cracking at her with one of his revolvers. "Bring her down!" he shouted. "Kill that redheaded she-devil!"
Lillian danced towards him, slashed him across the chest and then leapt backwards and slit the throat of another ranger. The streams of blood had soaked her clothes, and she looked more demonic than human as she danced through the carnage. Brimstone Brown stared up at her from the ground, and he managed to come to his feet and make it to his horse. He stopped the fires in his hand, and soon a feeling of some normalcy returned.
Ignatius reached out a hand and grabbed the Necronomicon. Ignoring his own pain, his flipped through the pages and soon began to read from the ancient and unholy volume. Lillian felt it immediately. She let out a piercing cry that tore at Brimstone's heart and then she sank to her knees as tears streamed from her eyes.
The surviving Texas Rangers surrounded her, their guns drawn and smiles on their dirty faces. Turner came to the front, clutching his chest. He drew the skinning knife from his belt and held it high.
"You must have heard stories about how honorable Rangers are. How kind they are to women and how they're like knights errant of old set loose in Texas." He grabbed her hair and pulled her forward. "I gotta tell you, girl. Them stories are lies."
"Lillian!" Brimstone drew his Buntline Special and aimed it with one hand, the other pulling the Arkansas toothpick from its slot on his back. "Don't you bastards touch her!"
"Go on, Brimstone!" Lillian shouted. "I've been taken by worse!"
"I ain't leaving you!" Brimstone urged his horse forward, charging the Rangers. A Texas Ranger stepped forward, his rifle leveled at the gunslinger's chest. Brimstone reared his horse up, swinging a hoof forward and shattering the rifleman's chest. The Buntline Special was in Brimstone's hand, the long barrel giving the pistol the power it needed to slay each man it hit. The Arkansas toothpick was in the other, each blow drawing streams of blood from its victims.
Brimstone hacked his way to Lillian, pulled her from her captors, and then, with his pistol blazing and the madness of dead men in his eyes, he leapt on the horse, Lillian behind him, and then turned the animal around and kicked in the spurs. Lead whizzed passed him as he ran, and Brimstone spun around and fired the remaining shots of his revolver, the last bullet knocking the hat off of Conway Turner.
The old Texas Ranger snorted and spat. "Damn it all to hell!" He quickly bandaged his chest wound as he looked at the dead and wounded. "Well, if they're looking for Irem, and I don't know why'd else folks that can move faster than you can see or flick fire out of their hands would be doing on the Llano, at least we know we're on the right track."
Ignatius came to his feet and walked to Conway's side. The Texas Ranger grabbed his collar and hauled him off of his feet. "What the hell have you been doing?" Turner asked.
"I-oh, uh, my lord, I-" Ignatius stammered. "They were agents of the devil, sir. I stopped their powers. Why are you angry with me?"
"Your iron ain't left its holster." Conway pointed to the revolver at Strangeworth's waist. "Well, I know you're a coward. Shouldn't be getting riled up because of it." He let Ignatius fall the ground.
"My Lord, they only have one horse. We could catch up with them, take them down from behind."
"We're doing nothing of the sort." Conway Turner pointed to the corpses, some charred, some bled, lying on the ground. "These men need dirt and crosses above them. They're good men, and we owe them the respect the fat cats in Houston don't show. We bury the dead and tend to the wounded then we ride." Conway stared at the horizon. "Besides, you pale Limey, Irem isn't going anywhere."
Brimstone Brown and Lillian McCoy rode for hours. The sun moved ahead of them, disappearing over the horizon and painting the desert a kaleidoscope of deep colors as it set. The last vestiges of light shined above them, and that's when Brimstone saw it, nestled right in the center of the wilderness like some forgotten plaything of a mad god.
"That Irem?" Brimstone whistled.
"What else, darling?" Lillian wrapped her arms around Brimstone's waist as they stared at the Atlantis of the Sands. It was massive, a forest of pillars behind tall walls, a large pyramid-shaped temple right in the center. Everything had been hand carved from pure red rock and it glowed as if enchanted in the sunset. Hieroglyphics covered every flat and rounded surface, and armies of stone statues, strange animal headed Gods in Egyptian dress, leered from every corner and pedestal. Time had done little to damage the ancient structure.
"Satan in Hell," Brimstone muttered, urging his horse up the steep ramp way that lead to the gates. "Would you look at this place? It's amazing." They rode into the main chamber, and dismounted, tying the horse to some of the ruins and staring at the ruins.
"It's not that impressive." Lillian smirked. The moon was slowly rising, bathing the entire complex in eerie light. "I've seen better."
"Where, exactly?" Brimstone turned to her with a raised eyebrow. "I told you all about my origins, but you never mentioned yours. What made you join up with this outfit?"
"I declare, boys and there questions!" Lillian sighed. "It's a complicated story, Brimstone. Long and complicated, and a boy like you wouldn't understand."
Lillian shook her head in frustration. "Well, I was spurned by a lover."
"A fellow would have to be some kind of an idiot to do that." Brimstone withdrew a lantern from his horse and lit it, shedding some needed light on the ruins. There were strange figures hunched against the walls, like piles of old, misshapen rags.
"He was an idiot. Biggest in the world." Lillian crossed her arms. "But I loved him."
"Why?" Brimstone asked the obvious question as he went to examine one of the queer bundles.
"Again, very complicated. Let's just say that, at the time, he was the only man for me."
Brimstone turned to Lillian, illuminating her against the hieroglyphic etched wall. "Have things changed?"
Lillian McCoy just smiled. Then her grin vanished as she stared at the bundles stacked up against the wall. "Is that thing supposed to be human?" She bent down and examined it as Brimstone swung the lantern round to better light the object. It was indeed a human, or what was left of it, and after several modifications had been made. The withered shape was a mummy, a corpse wrapped and bound in yards of cloth, but the human head and arms had been removed to be replaced by the grinning snout of a crocodile.
They stared down the hallway, seeing that each one of the husks was a similar composite mummy. Hippopotamus bodies with human heads, ibis beaks and wings sprouting from the chests of men, monkey tails, cat faces and jackal paws glowered out at them from every nook and cranny in Irem. Despite the horrible things he had seen, the sight chilled Brimstone to the bone.
"Composite mummies," he whispered. "I had heard that the builders of Irem were exiled from Egypt because of their heretical practices, but I never imagined this." He looked away from the awful creations. "You know, Meph never got around to telling me what we're supposed to be doing here."
Lillian grinned and reached into her bodice. She pulled out a large red candle, glimmering with an inward light. "This here dynamite was made by the devil's best powder-smiths. We light this up in the center, and it blows the whole place apart."
"Let's get on that tomorrow, when we've got some daylight," Brimstone reasoned. "I'll get the bedrolls out and we can get some rest. Not that we need it or anything, but I've had a hard day."
"Fair enough, honey. I wouldn't mind a little shuteye myself." They found a pair of bedrolls on Brimstone's horse and prepared them. Brimstone prepared a small fire in a corner of Irem where no mummies rested, and then the two servants of Satan laid themselves down. Brimstone tried to sleep, and he was suitably fatigued, but every time his eyes closed, they would open again to stare at Lillian. It wasn't long before she noticed.
"Sorry," Brimstone whispered. "Just restless."
"That's okay, darling." Lillian crawled out of her bedrolls and lay next to him. "You saved my life today. You deserve some thanks."
"Anyone would have done that."
"No. Not anyone." Lillian's voice lost its softness, and Brimstone's eyes widened when he heard the edge that had never been there before. "I don't deserve any saving. I've done a lot of bad things, far more than you can imagine. I've been around a long time, and sinning all the while."
"It's okay." Brimstone wrapped his arm around her shoulder, to comfort him.
She pulled him closer. "But you showed me I had some worth."
"An idiot could have shown you that."
"Shut up, Brimstone." Lillian stood above him and above her was the full moon. "Goddamn it. You're better than this." She reached down and he reached for her and the two of them kissed deeply as a wild wind raced through the old ruins around them.
The sounds of shuffling awoke Brimstone, making his eyes wink open to stare at the gray etched stones surrounding him. Brimstone looked to his side and found Lillian McCoy next to him, their flesh touching. Brimstone's eared pricked up as the sounds drew closer, a rhythmic shuffling noise that seemed to grow in volume every second. Soon Lillian awoke, and she stood up and slid away from Brimstone.
"What's that?" she asked. "Maybe we should light the lantern and have a-"
There was no need for the lantern as flickering torchlight, glowing from all around the ruins, provided all the light they needed to witness the strange scene before them. The composite mummies, animal parts and all, had arisen from their slumber, and were shambling around Irem in odd patterns. They had produced torches, withered branches of desert wood, and had lit them. They seemed to be assembling in the main corner. Brimstone came to his feet and went for his revolver, but did not fire.
"What are these beasts doing?" he wondered as he gazed into the sightless eyesockets of a crocodile head mounted on a human body. "Some long forgotten ritual, inscribed by dark magic onto their dead minds?"
Lillian shook her head. "I don't think so, Brimstone. Looks like these critters are just kissing up to the king."
Brimstone and Lillian stared as the mummies shambled to the main quarters, none of them making anything louder than a hushed whispering sound of an ancient tongue. They gathered around
the main temple, circling it continuously. Their spectral torches seemed to glow brighter, and then Brimstone spotted him, sitting in the middle of the terrible procession, his visage gazing down from a great carved throne and the crook and flail of his office in his hands. The Pharaoh of Irem had not let the heretics touch his person, and no animal head or limbs grew from his body. But the insects hadn't been so kind, and they swarmed around the placid mummy's faces like mobile blotches and pimples, crawling under and around his skin without disturbing him
The composite mummies began to pray to him in some strange whispering language, ignoring Brimstone and Lillian in their dance. Brimstone stared at them and his eyes grew cold.
"We ought to put them down," he whispered. "This ain't right."
"Brimstone! Are you crazy?" Lillian reached out and pulled him close. "There's too many of them!"
"But we got our powers. That stinking Englishman ain't nowhere in sight." Brimstone flexed his hands and checked his revolver and blade. "Besides, I know we're not gonna lose. I'm never gonna lose again, because I met you and you love me."
"Brimstone…" Lillian shook her head. "No, there's no need to-"
"When this thing is over, I'm gonna marry you. You're like the goddamn Rose of Texas, and it doesn't matter what gets in my way. I love you, Lillian."
"That's not my name." Lillian's comment was almost a whisper.
"That doesn't matter. My real name is Bartholomew." Brimstone Brown turned away from her and walked towards the macabre ritual before them. He leveled his revolver at the pharaoh and fired, the bullet knocking the mummy right off of his throne and sending buzzing flies and maggots tumbling from the wound.
The mummies turned to Brimstone Brown, and he slid his revolver back in his holster and faced them with his hands at his side. "Come on, you ugly heaps of paper," Brimstone whispered. "Let's see how you handle a little fire."
A crocodile-headed mummy lurched forward, its gaping mouth open. Brimstone hurled a fireball down its throat, roasting the mummy instantly. The other bestial dried corpses charged Brimstone in a shambling horde, their claws, and jaws, and grasping hands outstretched. Brimstone drew his Arkansas Toothpick and ran towards them with a cry on his lips. He swung the long knife with one hand while sending out a constant stream of white hot flame with the other. Mummies were torn in half or set alight, and though scratches and cuts grew on Brimstone's body, they could not deal him a powerful wound.
As the sun rose over Irem, the husks of the mummies lay thick on the ground, shivering in the wind. Brimstone continued fighting, his blade and fire unceasing until he stood alone. Lillian watched him from the side, leaning against a pillar and staring at Brimstone with tired eyes.
"Brimstone!" she called out, causing him to stop slashing and wheel around. "They're all dead. You killed the lot of them, honey."
"So I did!" Brimstone grinned and sheathed his toothpick. "I told you, my dear, with your love behind me, I am invincible." He walked towards her, stepping over the corpses of mummies. Even as he walked towards her, the papers and withered bones trembled in the rushing wind. "Now, you mind telling me your real name?"
Lillian stared at her boots. "I…I can't. You don't deserve this, Brimstone."
The smile died on Brimstone's face. "What do you mean?" He grabbed her arm. "Tell me your name!"
"Lilith." The redheaded beauty looked away. "I'm not exactly human either, Brimstone. You know well what I've become."
Brimstone's eyes widened, then narrowed. His lips curled and his hand fell to his revolver. "Succubus!" he shouted. "A seductress of hell, a goddamn demon! That was your damn magic, you were working on me! You wretched strumpet!"
Already the enchantments were falling away from Lilith's face, as soon as Brimstone realized they were there. The red hair turned ash gray, the sparkling eyes became dim milky orbs set in a sea of wrinkles. Lilith's hands curled into inhuman claws and she even seemed to shrink a little.
"I'm sorry, Brimstone! I'm sorry!" Lilith fell to her knees. "I didn't mean to hurt you so, darling. The folks downstairs realized that you were wavering and they wanted me to lure you back in. That's all I've ever been good at that."
"Damnation!" Brimstone turned away from her and looked at the floor. "Damnation."
"But you're better than me. I know you are. You saved me when you didn't have to, when I told you not to. You loved me honestly, past my wiles. And I loved you too."
Brimstone stared at his feet and that's when he noticed that there was no wind rustling through Irem. He slowly turned back to the mummies and saw that the shattered pieces were moving on their own volition, cloth and bone reconnecting and growing. The Pharaoh was already on his feet, an imperious sneer on his face, and more mummies were rising.
Lilith spun around and drew her revolvers in a blur. Several of the mummies went down from her bullets, but more of them rose and shambled towards her. But Brimstone's keen ears pricked up as he heard other gunshots whistling through the air. The demonic gunslinger peered through the gates of Irem and spotted the Texas Rangers riding towards the city, firing their pistols into the air as they went.
"Damnation," he whispered. "Lillian, I mean Lilith. You light that dynamite fuse and take this place down. I'll deal with the Rangers."
"What about Strangeworth?" Llith asked, decapitating a hippo-headed mummy with a clawed backhand. "He'll be with them!"
"I'll deal with him." Brimstone touched the pistol in his belt. "And Lilith. This thing between us. We don't talk about it again. You were just doing your job when you seduced me, and I can't fault you for that, seeing as that's my only excuse for all the ill I've done." He walked to the gates and leapt onto his horse, holding his Buntline Special high as he rode out of Irem.
Lilith continued hacking away at the mummified monsters. The stiletto blades on her revolver were two small to do anything besides slashing veins and throats, so she used her claws once both revolvers had been emptied. Lilith pulled the dynamite from her bodice and stepped backwards, using one claw to defend herself.
"Need a light?" Lilith turned around and saw Meph, the kindly old man now sporting two large curling horns and a pair of cloven hoofs. He carried a lit matchstick in her hand. Lilith grabbed the match, lit the long fuse, and then spat in Meph's face.
"I didn't deserve that." Meph said, wiping his face with his dirty hands. "Ain't my fault you broke down and fell in love."
"Go back to Hell, you little bastard!" Lilith tore an incoming mummy in half with one swipe of her claw. "You no-good fiends! Brimstone is a sweet boy, and you only lured him in because God had gone and dealt him a rotten hand." She stopped and a jackal's paw nearly tore off her head before she came to her sense and dodged the blow. "Matter of fact, you did the same thing with me."
"Damn, woman." Meph grinned. "You are too smart for your own good! You got it all figured out how we operate, after spending all of eternity working for us!" He shook his head. "God has dealt us all a rotten hand. But we take pride in it, and we got a hope of fighting back!"
"Stop kidding yourself, Meph." Lilith leapt onto the side of the pillar to escape the grasping hands of mummies. She spun round the pillar and vaulted herself forward, her claws held outward like a phalanx, and hacking right through there ranks. She landed in front of Meph and stood up. "There is not hope of fighting back. All we got is each other and you gone and ruined that. I've had it."
"What are you gonna do? Beg God for forgiveness? You snubbed Adam-"
"He snubbed me, damn it!"
"Whatever the case, God ain't taking you back in. We got a hold on you, woman and there ain't a thing you do about it."
Lilith chuckled. "There you go again. I declare, you devils are so full of yourselves. I'm already working on ways to stop you. I'm in a delicate condition, right now. And its Brimstone's baby."
Meph stared at her. "That can't be true. That ain't even possible! Your not a mortal woman, you can't go and have babies!"
"I was a mortal woman. God created me as the first one, Adam rejected me, and then I moved on to your types. My woman parts are still there, no matter what you think. So is my free will."
Meph snarled at her, the kindly façade vanishing from his bestial face. "The baby is ours. We deserve it."
Lilith stabbed her claws in the wide chest of a crocodile mummy, holding him aloft and then shredding his dusty body and letting the innards rain down on her. She turned to Meph and stared at him. "Come on, and get me, big boy."
Conway Turner narrowed his eyes at Irem, gasping as he urged his horse forward. His normal steed had been reduced to ash, but after half of his boys had been torn apart by that pair of devil-worshippers, it wasn't hard finding a spare ride. Now Conway had almost reached the end of his journey, and there was on of the demonic dastards riding right for him.
"Strangeworth?" Conway motioned for his men to stand down and cease their excited firing. They were almost at the end of their journey and it would be a damn shame if they lost now. Turner rode alongside Ignatius Strangeworth.
"Yes, my lord?" Strangeworth asked, his tone sniveling.
"Work up some of that mojo you did last time. Make sure that Brimstone character doesn't start spitting bonfires at us or anything." Conway drew out both of his pistols. "We'll deal with the rest."
"Of course, my lord." Ignatius opened his book and bent it over, the strange intonations already passing through his thin lips.
Conway looked over his men. After the mauling they had taken earlier several Rangers had called it quits. They had families to take care off, and couldn't go risking their lives against the kind of firepower they were up against. Turner had let them go and promised them a fair share of the payment. Now only about twelve Rangers, his best and most loyal, rode with him. "Jenkins?"
A tall Ranger with a forage cap on his head large Springfield rifle on his back nodded. "Yeah, Conway?"
"See if you can't pick him off with your rifle. I don't want that bastard even getting close to us and he's riding hard."
"Shucks, boss. That's a damn easy shot." Jenkins hopped off his horse and kneeled down, bringing the Springfield up to his eye. On the plain, Brimstone Brown was gaining speed, and he had drawn his Arkansas toothpick from his back. He held the knife by its blade and pulled back his arm.
Jenkins leaned forward. "Okay, I almost got the son of a-" Suddenly, the sharpshooting Ranger stopped and slumped forward, the Arkansas toothpick driven straight through his face. Brimstone Brown continued riding forward, and now he had leveled his Buntline Special. Gunfire cracked through the desert, and two more Texas Rangers fell dead.
"Bring him down!" Turner commanded. "Don't let him get closer!"
Shots whizzed around Brimstone, but he wouldn't stop riding, as if some unseen force was driving him forward and it would not be stopped and neither would he. Brimstone rode his horse forward and fanned his pistol, slaying three more Texas Rangers. He jumped off of his horse and ran for Jenkins' fallen pistol, bullet kicking up the dirt around him. Finally, a shot connected with his leg and Brimstone fell forward in the dust, not far from Jenkins' body.
"Hah!" Conway jumped off his horse and walked over to Brimstone, both revolvers aimed at Brimstone. "I got you now, you demon-worshipping freak!"
"That's devil-worshipping freak to you!" Brimstone reached forward and withdrew his toothpick from the head of the corpse and then slashed Turner's legs and brought the Ranger to the floor. He
picked up the Springfield rifle and aimed it at Ignatius Strangeworth. The other Texas Rangers froze, their weapons poised, and Ignatius shakily closed his copy of the Necronomicon.
"W-what do you want?" Ignatius asked. "Don't kill me."
"Get rid of your binding curse and give me back my power!" Brimstone commanded. "Do it now, or I'll shoot you."
"Don't you dare!" Conway came to his feet and aimed both of his pistols at Ignatious. "You got a pistol, Ignatius, use it!"
Brimstone fired his Springfield. The rifle's bullet tore through the rawhide gun belt and it fell in the dirt. Ignatius moaned. "Next one's in your face," Brimstone threatened. "Now release the binding."
"You do it, you're dead!" Turned now aimed his revolvers at Ignatius Strangeworth. "I'll blow you in half, you measly worm, see if I don't!"
Ignatius turned from Conway Turner to Brimstone Brown, his lips quivering. Slowly, he pissed himself. Once again Brimstone worked the bolt of his Springfield and fired. This time the bullet took Ignatius in his shoulder and tossed him off his horse he lay on the ground, bawling as he clutched his wound.
"You gonna do that, Conway?" Brimstone asked. "You gonna kill a wounded man?"
Conway was silent for a while. "No." He holstered his pistols and turned to his remaining rangers. "You boys ride home now."
"But, boss!" His men protested.
"But nothing! That's a goddamn order, Ranger!" Turner looked at his feet. "I don't want any of you to see me die." The Texas Rangers stared at Turner, and then, one by one, they removed their hats. Turner nodded to them as they turned their horses around and rode off. Meanwhile, Ignatius Strangeworth recited some words in his forbidden dialect. As soon as he was done speaking, he leapt onto his horse and rode off, not bothering to look back.
Brimstone and Conway faced each other. "You got more honor that I gave you credit for," Brimstone said. A fireball appeared in his hand.
"Not really. I've killed women. I've killed little kids. I done bad things." Conway stared at the ground. "No salvation for Conway Turner. Matter of fact, the only thing kept me from sticking pistol in my mouth was providing for my boys. Don't look like that's gonna happen."
Slowly, Brimstone Brown lowered his hand. The fireball went out. "There's not gold or trinkets in Irem anyway. Just a heap of old mummies. Nothing worth sweating over." A twinkle came into his red eyes. "I'll tell you something, though. There's this old mine, not far from Ciudad Juarez. Don't go telling anyone, but it leads right down to Hell and the gold and money of rich men coat the walls. Just tell the guards that Brimstone sent you."
"You serious?" Conway asked. He took off his hat and bowed low. "Well, Brimstone, I thank you kindly. I thank you with all of my heart. But I gotta ask. Why?"
"Because I'd like to think that a fellow ain't all bad, even if he's done some terrible things." Brimstone turned away. "Now get on your way, before I change my mind and burn a hole in your back."
Conway Turner nodded and leapt onto his horse. He rode away, his hat waving to Brimstone as he left. Brimstone Brown sighed and then turned back to Irem. Lilith was running out of the ancient ruins, something held in her hand, and she was heading straight for him.
"Goddamn it! Unhand me! Put me back, you damn strumpet!" Meph's severed head, thick blood dripping from its neck, shouted out insults and spewed profanity. Lilith held the head with both hands, but then dropped it on the ground before Brimstone's feet.
"What'd you do to him?" Brimstone asked, staring at Meph.
"She took them oversized nails of hers and lopped my head off!" Meph screamed. "Goddamn, I got a scratch on my chin I can't get to! This ain't funny at all!"
Brimstone grinned and then kicked Meph's head with all of his might. The severed head flew into the air and landed hard on the ground a few feet away. Brimstone chuckled and turned to Lilith. "How'd you do it to him?"
"It weren't nothing," Lilith shrugged her shoulders. "We started arguing, and, well, I got into a bit of a passion when he commented on my condition." She touched her chest. "I've got a baby in there, Brimstone. I know it. It's yours."
Brimstone gulped. "What? Oh, I don't want to be nobody's father."
"Don't worry. I'll raise your child well. Besides, the Hosts of Hell want him, and that gives you a chance to get away." Lilith pointed to the south. "I'll head that way, southeast to the border. You go north, stop in Missouri or someplace. Stay to small towns and keep a low profile. Maybe someday we'll meet again, but I doubt it. You go find some other girl, Brimstone, a nice one who deserves you."
"Shut up, Brimstone." Lilith reached out and pulled Brimstone close to her. "Shut up and watch the fireworks." They kissed and behind them Irem suddenly went up in a great mushroom cloud that sent pillars of fire high into the desert air and sprayed tiny pebbles every which way. The explosion burned brighter than the sun and left nothing of Irem but a deep crater. But Brimstone and Lilith did not see it.
Finally, Lilith pulled away. She grinned at Brimstone, and the wrinkles on her face seemed to vanish again, and once more, before she turned around and walked off into the desert, Brimstone swore he could see the beautiful face of the Blood Red Rose of Texas, smiling at him as she walked off.
Brimstone set his hat on his head and turned the other way. He took a deep breath, still feeling the burning sensation inside his chest. It would take some time to kick that, but he knew he could do it. In the mean time, he had tracks to make. Brimstone Brown whistled for his horse, and then mounted up, turned northwards, and walked off into the empty desert.