The Devil's Outhouse
No one knew much about the man known as Professor Orestes Coyle. In fact, there was much doubt as to whether or not that was even his real name at all. Some say that he was little more than a charlatan, a rogue, a bunco-artist, and one of the most lowdown scoundrels to ever swindle a penny from a poverty-stricken widow. If this was all that was known about Coyle, then his story would be much simpler. But there are many who say that Coyle was a hero of his time, someone who took with one hand and gave infinitely more with the other. Perhaps there is truth in both accounts.
But there is one thing that is known for certain of Professor Coyle – the strangest elements of the Old West, those bits and pieces that seemed situated between cold hard fact and the wildness of legend, rested around him like a constant cloak.
Perhaps that is to be expected. Professor Coyle traveled the countryside, selling his doubtlessly counterfeit cures, at a time when civilization was light on the ground. Savagery was common in those days and many of the most brutal men – the gunslingers, Indian killers and bounty hunters - were swathed in legend until they became heroes to the growing American nation. That is not the case with Coyle. However, Coyle may deserve a hero's reputation. After all, he was a quintessential American, in all things he did. His heroism is evident in many accounts of his actions, particularly the events in the small North Texas town of Crucifix Flats, concerning the establishment known as the Devil's Outhouse.
Lies and truth seem bundled up together in every account of Professor Coyle. Doubtlessly, Professor Orestes Coyle himself is the only person who knew which was which.
From Frontier Hagiography, by Professor Wesley Thistlebottom, 1952
The sun beat down like an overseer's whip on Orestes Coyle's back when he rode into the town square of Crucifix Flats. Coyle could feel the sweat beading on the back of his neck and in his neatly combed moustache. He didn't mind. He'd risk the heat of Hell itself, if it meant he could make a sail.
"Looks a fine town. Plenty of nice people. Plenty of business." Coyle had a strange accent, utterly untraceable to anyone in the American West that had ever heard him speak. They'd judge it was European, and more east than west, and leave it at that. Coyle held tightly to the reins of the mule pulling his wagon, a bowlegged beast with the name of Trustworthy. Professor Coyle had traded a bottle half full of whiskey for the animal and considered it a poor purchase.
Coyle gave the reins a yank. Trustworthy trotted to a slow stop, causing the rickety wagon containing all of Coyle's wares to shake like a rattlesnake's tail. Professor Coyle sprang up from the seat and stepped nimbly onto the ground, already doffing his hat as he raised his voice. It was the late afternoon in Crucifix Flat. Church was out, the shopping and chores were finished and people were looking for something to occupy themselves. Professor Coyle would give them that.
"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen of this refined and pleasant township!" Coyle removed his bowler hat. His hair was raven black and slick with Maccassar oil. It was parted exactly down the middle. Coyle's suit was black and his vest was crushed velvet red, matching his hatband. His tie was neatly knotted. "I have traveled many miles, faced countless perils and endured endless hardships to present to you the absolutely finest tonics, elixirs, potions and libations absolutely guaranteed to boost vitality! All this – and more – from Professor Orestes Coyle's Miraculous Oils!"
A few of the citizens extended interested eyes in his general direction. They were walking on the boardwalk beside the orderly row of business. Luckily, Coyle had just the thing to distract them from the general store or the post office. He walked to the side of his cart, gaudily painted in faded reds and blacks, and gave the side a pat.
The wooden side tumbled over, slamming open to reveal a rack of various vials, each full of a different colored liquid. But the real attention getter rested next to the stands, resting on two red velvet cushions. They were raccoons, what Coyle considered his coup in the traveling medicine show business. The raccoons leapt from their perches and hit the ground, both standing on their legs and beginning a complicated jig, like participants of a square dance.
The raccoons were orphans, found near their dead mother in the woods long ago. An orphan himself, Professor Coyle could very much relate with their plight. He had taken them in, trained them, and now they danced together, with frilly collars around their necks, and caught the eye of everyone in the town square.
The crowd began to grow. Coyle watched them and noticed their wide eyes and the way they carried themselves, all in a nervous, shivering manner. There was something odd about Crucifix Flats, but Coyle wouldn't let that interfere with his work.
"Behold!" Professor Coyle cried. "Cain and Abel, two brother raccoons with a penchant for fancy footwork! Watch their alacrity and dexterity and consider how you could get yourself a dose – all for the price of an old pair of shoes!" He looked up at the crowd. They were families mostly, the settled type that was trickling into the West. Coyle had dealt with them as much as he dealt with rough-and-tumble frontiersman one step from outlawry. He knew just what to say.
"You there!" Professor Coyle pointed a thin finger to a gray-haired matronly woman in a worn gingham gown in the back. "You seem like a pillar of the community, madam. A good woman, with hair gone white from ensuring domestic bliss in her household? How would you like to turn that cobwebbed coiffure into locks of spun gold?"
She frowned at him. "My hair was black, sir," she said. "And I don't do business with snake oil salesmen."
He didn't let his smile fade. He pointed instead to a small towheaded boy in the front row. The child was awkward, just entering adolescence, with big ears and a smattering of freckles. "You there, young master! How would you like to gain the strength of the gods and the admiration of every young lady in the territories?"
The boy stared around, unsure that Coyle was pointing at him. "Well, golly, sir, I suppose I would."
"Excellent." Coyle clapped his hands. Cain and Abel ceased their dancing and bounced to the boy's side. They both grabbed his hands in their delicate claws and dragged him closer. The boy wore a faded collared shirt and suspenders. There was something mournful in his wide eyes, like he was afraid of receiving a sudden blow.
Professor Coyle gave him a warm smile. "Don't mind the raccoons. They have the manners of Prussian nobility."
"Are you Prussian nobility, sir?" the boy wondered.
"Hardly." Coyle kept his smile. "But what is your name?"
"Jonathan Crispin Ogelby Sparks." The boy recounted it carefully.
"Excellent! A magnificent moniker." Coyle spun around, his fingers racing alongside his bottles. "Now, which potion would you care to sample? Perhaps a Javanese Gigantism serum, or a dollop or two of wine, once placed in the Holy Grail? Or maybe something to lessen the size of your ears or add a little color to your cheeks?"
A gunshot cracked through the air. It blasted into Professor Coyle's bowler hat, flipping it from his head. The hat fell to the ground, landing in the dust. Coyle stared at it, as Abel – the kinder of the two raccoons – grabbed it in his teeth, clambered onto his master's shoulder and set it back. Professor Coyle felt a shiver run through him, his sweat going cold in the day's heat. He held Abel close and turned around.
A party of horseman had ridden into the ground. The rider in front had a wiry gray beard and a gold star on his duster. He dismounted, glaring at Coyle as he worked the lever on his rifle. "Howdy," he said, walking forward. He still kept his gun on Coyle and his deputies did the same. "So you're Professor Ernest Coyle, huh?"
"Orestes Coyle, actually. Names have great power. Please be kind enough to get it correct."
"Well, Mr. Orestes Coyle, my name is Sheriff Calhoun." He walked through the crowd and stepped over to Coyle, pointing the rifle at his chest. Cain stood up on his haunches and snarled. "You'd best take care of that varmint, less I put a bullet through it."
Orestes swept up Cain, until he held both raccoons. "Now, sheriff, Cain means you, or these people, no ill will. And neither do I. I merely wish to peddle my wares and be on my way." The guns stayed trained on Coyle. Young Jonathan Crispin Ogelby Sparks stared around in terror.
"Be on your way?" Calhoun asked, repeating the words slowly. "Well, that's what you do, ain't it? Come on in, swindle a town, leave them with your poison and then go on your way. I just came here from Whistling Springs. They just bought a whole mess of your wares. And now they're overcome by an epidemic of puking. They filled up only street with their vomit. That what you gonna do here, professor?"
"The potions may have different effects on different people." Coyle's smile grew. He looked at the audience. None of them seemed interested in dancing raccoons any more. "What exact punishment does the law specify for those accused of my crime, may I ask, purely out of the sake of curiosity?"
"Hanging." Sheriff Calhoun said the word with a smile. "And I think you deserve one."
Before Orestes could stop them, the deputies had grabbed his arms and hauled him away from his cart. They pulled him roughly along, and the two raccoons tumbled from his hands, Cain snapping at whatever came near. The audience kept watching, parting only to let the deputies through. Lynching or a medicine show – both were a good afternoon's entertainment to them. Professor Coyle struggled and kicked, until the noose was set around his neck. He closed his eyes. He had to think fast.
"Hold on!" he cried. "In the name of God, wait for but a moment! Let me make an offer!"
Sheriff Calhoun nodded. He raised a fist and his deputies stopped trying to string Orestes up. "What's your offer?" Calhoun asked.
"There is a great weight hanging over this town," Professor Coyle replied. "Something is troubling all of you. I can see that, quite easily." He let some of the brass return to his voice. "Spare my life and I'll remove this trouble."
Silence followed his offer. Sheriff Calhoun removed his Stetson, revealing his bald head. "You're talking about what's in the Devil's Outhouse?" he asked. "You're saying you can run him out of town?"
"Yes!" Coyle cried. "I'd be delighted to and I'm certain it's in my power – provided of course, that my neck remains at its present size."
Slowly, Sheriff Calhoun nodded again. Orestes Coyle grinned as the noose was pulled away from his throat and the deputies stepped back. "Thank you!" Coyle cried, falling to his knees. "You have my undying gratitude, good sir!" His joy lessened a little, as he remembered what he had promised to do. "Um, what exactly is in the Devil's Outhouse that I'll be, well, running out of this fair township?"
"The Devil," Calhoun replied. He pointed down the city's single street, to the other side of town. "Best get moving. We'll show it to you."
The crowd started down the street. Orestes Coyle was stuck in the middle of them, with Sheriff Calhoun's deputies all around. Cain and Abel followed him, pawing over the ground. Coyle looked down at them, finally letting his smile fade. He couldn't slip away. He'd have to face whatever was in there. If it didn't kill him, the townspeople sure would.
As they walked across the dirt street, Coyle looked around frantically for a friendly face. He found one in Jonathan Crispin Ogelby Sparks. The little boy was walking a little bit behind him, his face very pale and frightened now. Professor Coyle slowed his pace to join the boy. "Master Sparks!" he cried. "My young friend, perhaps you could enlighten me as to who really is in the Devil's Outhouse. Surely it's not the Prince of Lies, old Beelzebub himself, is it?"
"Oh, he don't go by that name, sir," Jonathan explained. "Like you said, names are powerful, so he don't use his real one. He goes by Mr. Ash. That's what everyone calls him." Jonathan's voice softened, dropping to a whisper. "They say Mr. Ash come from Gettysburg, during the war. Walked himself right out of the gunsmoke after Picket's Charge. Stepped over all them bodies like they was daises in a field. Then he come out here."
"And what exactly has he done to Crucifix Flats?" Coyle wondered.
"He just about runs it now. Opened up all these saloons and gambling halls. Hired up an army of gunhands, in case anyone wants trouble with him. He wants to make this town all like him – full of evil and vice."
They were progressing into the part of town that must have belonged firmly to Mr. Ash. Professor Coyle looked at the dingy, cluttered alleys. Saloons and gambling joints were packed closely together, with drunks in the gutter and gunslingers lounging against open doors, fingering their revolvers. Everything was seemed covered in shadows, like they had been draped across the street from above. Even the sun seemed to shine a little less brightly.
"And has anyone moved to stop him?" Coyle asked . "Surely, someone must have stood up to him!"
"Well, Sheriff Calhoun's too scared – and for good reason. Mr. Ash kills anyone who goes against him." Jonathan lowered his eyes. "The mayor did. Soon as Mr. Ash showed up. He went unarmed to the Devil's Outhouse and tried to make Mr. Ash leave. Mr. Ash killed him right there." The boy turned away. "H-he was my father, sir."
"I'm very sorry, Jonathan." Coyle patted the boy's shoulder. "I am very sorry."
"But you'll stop him, won't you? You must have all kinds of powers, with those raccoons that you command. You'll run him right out of town, won't you?"
Before Coyle could answer, they had reached the end of the long street. The Devil's Outhouse stood at the end, looming over them like a cliff about to crumble in an avalanche. It was a tall building, shaped like a tomb stone, all of dark black wood. The sign hung askew in the doorway, swinging slightly even though no wind blew. All of the Crucifix Flats townsfolk came to a stop. Professor Coyle looked back at them. None of them wanted to go in, not even Sheriff Calhoun.
Coyle doffed his hat, ignoring the hole in the middle. "If you'll excuse me," he said, and stepped inside. He walked past the batwing doors, letting them swing behind him. The main room was completely empty. Coyle approached the long bar, stepping over dusty planks. He looked up, as bits of sunlight filtered in through numerous cracks in the roof. His raccoons padded after him, Cain and Abel both staying close to his feet.
A crow's sudden, piercing cry made Coyle jump. He spun around, gasping as a flock of cawing crows swept out from a corner of the room, fluttering around him. Orestes gasped, covering his face as the crows flew past, a hurricane of black feathers. When Coyle turned around, he saw that there was somebody behind the bar. He knew it was Mr. Ash.
"Care for a drink?" Mr. Ash asked. He was gaunt and pale, a dark coat hanging loosely over his thin form. His long black hair reached down to his shoulders, while his eyes were hidden behind a pair of smoked spectacles. A top hat was perched on his head, making him seem even taller.
"I don't believe so, my good man." Coyle looked over Mr. Ash's shoulder. The shelves were completely empty. "And you don't seem to have any drinks available for sale, if you don't mind me saying so."
"I got plenty." Mr. Ash's voice was cold, lacking any emotion or inflection. He was like a dull teacher, giving a lecture an uninterested class. Coyle watched as he pulled a bottle and a pair of shot glasses from behind the bar. He set the glasses down and started to pour. "You got a name, stranger?"
"Orestes Coyle, sir. Professor Orestes Coyle. Do you have one, besides the charming moniker of 'Ash'?"
"Plenty." Mr. Ash raised his glass. "As many as there are god-fearing folk, as a matter of fact. Now, you care for a drink, Mr. Coyle? Won't cost you much."
"No thank you. I'm here for an entirely different sort of transaction." Both raccoons started clambering up Coyle's legs, and allowed them to reach his shoulders, trying not to wince as their little claws dug into him. "Now, I'd like it very much if you left his town and stopped trying to turn it into a center of corruption of vice. You are clearly not welcome here and your influence is a malign one. Kindly leave, immediately and with a minimum of fuss."
Mr. Ash listened carefully. "What do I get in return?"
"Ah. Well." Professor Coyle smiled nervously, as he pulled Cain away from his head and held the raccoon tightly. "What would you like in return?"
"Hmmm." Mr. Ash made a show of pursing his lips and thinking. "That is quite the question, Mr. Coyle. Tell me, are you a gambling man?"
"Oh yes. I consider myself an expert on all games of chance." Coyle smiled. "What sort of gamble will we make? A card game? Horseshoes?"
"Something like that. I give you three challenges – three little games you gotta play – and if you do complete them, I will leave this town behind and never come here again." Mr. Ash looked through the batwing door, out at the crowd. "All these kind and good people can go about their business, just like I was never there. Of course, if you lose, you gotta me give me something of yours."
"Money?" Coyle asked, though he knew that wasn't the answer.
"Your soul, Mr. Coyle. I want to have me your soul. I want to have it as a plaything. I want to put it on a rope and bounce it up and down, or lash it real tight and take a knife to it, if I got a mind to. I want your soul and if you don't succeed in these three tasks, I will have it." Mr. Ash held out his hand. "Now, are we agreed?"
Orestes Coyle didn't quite know what to say to that. "Is there some other arrangement we could make? Or perhaps I could hear the challenges before I agreed. Is that possible?"
"No. You agree and then I tell you. It's as simple as that." Mr. Ash leaned forward, putting his face closer and closer to Coyle's head. Abel let out a nervous squeak and clambered down the length of Coyle, reaching the ground. "So, do you agree?"
"Yes." Coyle heard himself whisper the answer. "I suppose I must."
"Good. First challenge is simple – you bring me a dust devil. They spin around in the plains outside of Crucifix Flats. Go on and bring me one back, however you can. Wrestle it maybe. I'll be waiting." Mr. Ash walked away, as crows started to flutter up from around the saloon. They soared around Mr. Ash's form, hiding him away in a curtain of dark, shifting feathers.
But Orestes Coyle wasn't watching, he grabbed up Cain and Abel, held both raccoons close and darted out of the Devil's Outhouse.
When he got outside, Orestes Coyle stood and stared at the townspeople. He looked at the sea of faces, each one a mask of curiosity and finally settled on Sheriff Calhoun. "I have to capture a dust devil," he explained. "And I think I can. Follow me, please."
With that, Coyle started heading back to his cart. He set down Cain and Abel, who scurried alongside him. Orestes strode quickly down the street, the flabbergasted sheriff and the rest of the townsfolk trying to match his pace. Jonathan Crispin Ogebly Sparks broke into a run and caught up with Coyle, just as they headed back into the town square.
"Sir? Mr. Coyle? Professor Coyle?" Jonathan asked. "How are you going to capture a dust devil?"
"My miraculous oils, of course." Professor Coyle walked over to the cart, where Trustworthy was still waiting for him. The mule seemed like it had fallen asleep on its feet. Coyle slammed the back shut and pulled himself into the driver's seat. He took the reins as Cain and Abel scrambled inside. "I just use the ones in the back of the cases."
"So they're real?" Jonathan smiled. "I knew they were real! I never doubted you for a moment!"
Coyle looked down at the boy from his wagon. "Some of them are…" he admitted. "The ones I sell, usually, are a little…ah, less potent." He found himself trying to not let Jonathan down. "But they'll provide me with the means to save your town, young master Jonathan Ogelbly Crispin Sparks. So do not worry."
Orestes Coyle gave the whip a crack. Trustworthy gave him an annoyed look and began to trot forward. Coyle spun the buckboard wagon around, riding towards the edge of Crucifix Flats and the wide expanse of the open plains. The townsfolk hurried after him, keeping their distance from his rattling cart.
Outside of Crucifix Flats, the plains stretched out flat as a table. It was open land, dotted with the occasional clump of scrub, dying tree or bulging formation of red rock. Coyle looked out at the open expanse, narrowing his eyes as he stared into the distance. He looked over his shoulder. The townsfolk stood behind him, in a large crowd. None of them quite believed Mr. Ash's request. Coyle wasn't sure he did. But he'd see those folk through – it was that or get lynched.
The wind whipped across the open plains, a constant whisper that seemed to grow louder and louder. In the distance, moving past the shadow of a large chunk of rusty rocks, was a trio of dust devils. They were wispy gusts of dust, speeding across the plains like dark stains on the landscape. Coyle looked down at Cain and Abel. He gave them both a tiny nod.
"We'll need the Mongolian worm extract. Go and fetch it." The two raccoons hurried to the back of the wagon, slipping under the lid to find what he needed. Orestes Coyle looked back at the dust devils and then at Trustworthy. He gave the mule a crack with the whip.
Trustworthy doubled his pace, moving from a slothful shuffle to a quick trot. "Come on!" Coyle cried. "A little faster!" He cracked the reins again. Trustworthy moved to a gallop. The buckboard wagon rose and fell under Coyle, rocking back and forth as it bounced over uneven plains. They built up speed. The dust devils drew nearer and nearer.
They got closer and Coyle looked back, holding out his hand. Abel's tiny claws placed a vial in Coyle's palm. The vial was full of ruby red liquid, taken from the crushed bodies of Mongolian death worms purchased in a dingy Chinatown apothecary in San Francisco. He pulled off the cork with his teeth and drank deeply. The liquid steamed down his throat like fire, burning its way into his lungs. The lungs grew stronger, making each breath deeper and more powerful. Coyle felt them pushing up in his chest. He wondered if they'd pop out. His jaws tightened, forcing open his mouth. The dust devils drew nearer.
Before Coyle knew it, he was right in the middle of them. The dust swirled around him, whipping at his skin hard enough to sting. He slammed a hand onto his bowler hat, struggling to keep it on. Cain and Abel were lifted off of the wagon, both clutching onto the weathered wood with their claws to keep from flying away. Trustworthy rose to his hind legs, kicking his hooves into the air.
Coyle began to breathe. He pulled in all the air he could – as well as the wind. It went down his throat, hot and dry and tasting of dirt and the desert. Before he realized it, the dust devil had gone into his mouth. Coyle slammed his mouth closed, his cheeks bugling as the wind was trapped.
He grunted as he held out his hand, feeling like his head would explode. He turned to Abel and Cain and gestured wildly, grunting like a beast. Cain darted back into the wagon and came up holding an empty glass bottle. Quickly, the raccoon handed the bottle to Orestes Coyle, who pulled off the cork and held to his mouth.
Slowly, Coyle breathed out. The dust devil seethed out of his lungs, through his throat, past his mouth and went into the bottle. Coyle pulled his mouth away and slammed in the cork. The dust devil was trying to get out. It buzzed around inside the bottle, scratching the glass with grains of sand. The bottle jumped and shook in Coyle's hands and he struggled to hold onto it. But the dust devil was trapped.
"There." Coyle spat a bit, trying to get the taste of dirt from his mouth. "Not so hard. Not so difficult at all, once the proper miraculous oils are applied." He looked back at the townspeople and held the bottle high. He could hear their cheers echo across the plains.
A figure stepped out from behind the rocks. It was Mr. Ash. Orestes hadn't seen him approach, but he somehow wasn't surprised. He tossed the bottle to Mr. Ash, who caught it neatly in one hand. Mr. Ash pulled out the cork and raised the bottle to his lips. He drunk deeply, inhaling all of the dust devil. When he finished, he breathed out twin ribbons of curling gray smoke from his nostrils, then tossed the bottle away.
"Nicely done," Mr. Ash said. "Looks like you made some people happy."
Coyle smiled at the cheers coming from across the desert. "I do my best," he replied.
"Yeah. Won't ever be good enough, though." Mr. Ash walked over to Coyle, hands on his hips. "Not for the likes of them. Cause they're Americans, Mr. Coyle, civilized folk with their own set of values. And at the end of the day, you ain't. You're just some swindler come in off the prairie. Bit odd, isn't it? You doing all this for them?"
"It is odd indeed," Coyle said. "But there are death threats involved."
"You just swallowed a dust devil. You could escape a necktie party with ease." Mr. Ash shook his head. "But you haven't. You're still here. What exactly are you trying to prove? That you ain't the lie you know you are?"
Professor Coyle leaned back on his seat, holding the reins tightly. "What is the second challenge? I'm afraid I don't have time for talking."
"The second challenge is simple. Similar to the first. You go and get me a Thunderbird egg." Mr. Ash pointed into the distance, to a tall mountain that reared up from the plains, like a spear being thrust into the sky. Darkness seemed to hug the sheer cliffs, and Coyle could make out dark clouds clustered around the peaks. "There's a flock of them over yonder. Best get going." Mr. Ash smiled. "Something to think about, while you're heading over there – when this is all over, what exactly are you gonna do regarding Crucifix Flats? Put down stakes? Take up residence? Maybe find yourself a wife and start raising some little ones? Just how long do you think they'll tolerate you?"
Before Orestes could respond, Mr. Ash had walked away, stepping around the rock formations. Orestes watched him go and shuddered. A flock of crows set off into the air, cawing together as they flapped their shining wings.
Slowly, Coyle turned away. He looked towards the mountains in the distance. "I shouldn't be surprised that he taunts me," Coyle said, as Trustworthy, Abel and Cain listened. "The Devil always has a sharp tongue. There is nothing wrong with the open road, the well-practiced pitch, the carefully made sale. That's my lot in life. I'm happy with it."
He gave the reins a crack. Trustworthy began trudging towards the mountains in the distance. Orestes Coyle slumped forward as the wagon rolled over uneven terrain. He'd always been an outsider, always used to the road and what lay on it. He didn't want anything else – and if he did, he knew he would never get it.
By the time Orestes Coyle reached the mountains, it was in the early evening. Coyle stopped the wagon and looked up at the darkening sky. The black clouds, clustered around the mountain top, seemed even darker than the sky around them. Lightning suddenly flashed through the clouds, making even Trustworthy flinch. Coyle shivered in his saddle and looked at his raccoons.
"Well?" he asked. "Do you think we can handle this?"
Cain and Abel exchanged a glance. Neither seemed particularly confident. Coyle smiled at his raccoons as he turned around and reached into the back of the wagon. His fingers moved between glass vials, jars and paper packages, finally settling on a small beaker. He pulled it out, upended it and drank all of its contents. Coyle wasn't sure where he had picked up that particular potion. It may have been taken originally from a medieval crypt, locked away for centuries with monastic mummies, until it was brought to a museum in New York. Whatever it was, it would have to work.
As soon as Orestes drank the potion, his felt his body go limp. He tumbled off the carriage and struck the ground, his arms falling to the side. The bones in his limbs seemed to have disappeared. His arm flopped backwards, twisting around at an impossible angle. It felt numb, like Coyle had slammed his arms into ice water.
Abel ran to him and nuzzled his face. "Easy, easy," Coyle said. "I'm all right. I'm all right." He closed his eyes and forced himself to stand.
Then he began to swing his arms. They shifted, the skin stretched and growing as he made them like a windmill, spinning them around and around. The arms stretched out, growing like stretched rubber. They became ropes, reaching far from his sleeves and stretching out into the sky. Coyle gritted his teeth and finally let them go.
Both arms shot out into the air, reaching for the mountain. Orestes looked up and saw them disappear in the darkness of the clouds. They gripped the top of the cliff. Orestes could feel his fingers touching rock. He walked them forward, feeling his way over gravel and sheer stone. Above him, the lightning came again, providing sudden illumination to the desert. A roll of thunder followed.
Something moved in the dark clouds, piercing through the darkness with gleaming light. Orestes looked up as it came again. A second later, it was joined by another powerful glow. He realized what they were, as they neared his hidden hands – a set of great wings. The Thunderbirds were coming.
Cain and Abel both began to squeak in terror. Trustworthy pricked his ears up. Coyle closed his eyes as the thunder came again, a deep rumble that he felt in the depths of his guts. He kept his fingers going, moving them over stone and then he felt spiky branches and twigs. It was the nest.
"Come on," Coyle whispered. "A wee bit further…" He kept his fingers moving, his long arms straining at his shoulders. He maneuvered through the scratchy nest and then he felt something else. It was smooth and round and hard – but too warm to be just a stone. Coyle smiled as his fingers closed around the egg. He pulled it back.
As soon as the egg left the nest, the Thunderbirds came swooping down from the sky. They were massive creatures, eagles big enough to clutch coaches in their shining talons. From their feathers to their beaks, they crackled with living lightning, the electricity radiating from their bodies in showers of sparks. Coyle pulled back the egg, wrapping it up in his arms as he ran for his coach.
He leapt up, clambering into the seat just as the Thunderbirds came down. "Go!" he cried, gasping as his arms started to shorten. A Thunderbird swooped down for his wagon, talons poised. It could have smashed his wagon to bits and caught him up. He'd have been gutted by the long nails or fried by the electricity.
Trustworthy pounded across the plains. Coyle held on, gasping as his arms began to shrink. The feeling came back, with a rush of pain as bones snapped into place and muscles shrank. He saw his thin arms grow fatter and then looked at the Thunderbird egg, a gleaming orb of shining obsidian. Coyle tucked it under his arm as the Thunderbirds fluttered closer.
A twisting tongue of lightning reached out from one of the Thunderbirds. The lightning blasted near the edge of the wagon, burning several spokes from a wagon wheel. The whole wagon lurched to the side. Coyle thought he'd be thrown free. The ground blackened where the lightning struck it, smoke rising from the mark. Professor Coyle looked back at the Thunderbird. It was preparing to attack again. Another blast would cut straight through him. He had one chance.
"Cain! Abel!" Coyle shouted to his raccoons. "Bottled smoke! Quickly!"
The raccoons launched themselves into the back. They dug through the vials and bottles, their claws clicking against class containers. Finally, they found what they were looking for. Cain tossed a tiny thimble full of dark black liquid to Coyle.
He hurled it over his shoulder. It shattered on the ground, and a great cloud of pure black smoke erupted around it, covering everything. Coyle kept driving forward, as the smoke covered the Thunderbirds. They'd be lost in the stuff. It would linger in that portion of the desert for exactly seven years before it faded away.
Orestes looked back at the growing cloud of smoke, fractured now with lightning. The Thunderbirds would find their way out of it eventually, but he'd be long gone by then. He tugged on the reins, slowing his mule. The bouncing and pain of his ride made his body ache. He felt like he'd spill from his saddle and hit the ground as liquid.
The wagon finally came to a stop. Orestes Coyle looked up and saw that they were on the edge of Crucifix Flats. He hopped down from the wagon, wincing as his boots hit the ground. None of the town's citizens were there to see him. They must have lost interest, or figured him for dead. Somehow, he wasn't surprised that they didn't care.
Coyle looked around and soon saw Mr. Ash, leaning against one of the white-washed buildings. Mr. Ash walked over, his eye on the egg in Professor Coyle's hands. "Thunderbird egg?" he asked.
"Yes." Coyle tossed it to him.
Mr. Ash cracked it open and held it over his mouth. He let the sparkling yolk drip down into his opened mouth. A long, pale tongue snaked out, wiping his lips and chin clean. He looked up at Coyle and smiled. "No one here to welcome you. That a surprise? It shouldn't be. You're a two-bit snake oil peddler with a good voice and some fancy pets. Nothing worth cheering—"
"What is the third challenge?" Coyle had had enough of Mr. Ash. "I don't want to bandy words with you!"
"My, my. Something making you testy?" Mr. Ash laughed. "Come now, Mr. Coyle—"
"You ain't never been to no college. You're a bigger liar than I am. The people here know about it. No wonder they've turned away from you." Mr. Ash looked into distance, down the single street. Darkness swathed Crucifix Flats now, spilling out into the dirt road and making everything look gray and dead. "But you don't want no jawing. You want to get right down to the third challenge. I'll oblige you. It ain't a matter of getting me anything. All you gotta do is go to where I say and spend the rest of the night. Nice and easy."
"Where?" Coyle demanded.
"Where?" Mr. Ash laughed. It was a slow, hacking cough of a laugh, that came up from the base of his belly and erupted from his mouth. "Where? Boot hill." He pointed into the distance, down the block, to the outskirts of town. Coyle followed his finger. He could see boot hill, rising out of the earth, full of crumbling wooden graves for all the men who had died by the gun.
When Coyle looked back at Mr. Ash, he found that he was alone on the street. Mr. Ash had disappeared, and this time there wasn't even a crow to herald his passing. Coyle shivered at the thought of what he'd have to do. He'd spend the night over graves, with dead men underneath, probably made hungry by some dark power of Mr. Ash.
But Coyle still pulled himself back onto the wagon. He took the reins and ignored his fatigue. Cain and Abel scampered to his side, piling onto his lap as he turned hi buckboard wagon around and rode to boot hill.
The ride to boot hill was surprisingly short. Professor Orestes Coyle rode Trustworthy to the broad clump of dirt and then up through the forest of graves. When he figured he was far enough in, he tugged on the reins and stopped the mule. Coyle stepped down and sank to his haunches, looking at the unmarked wooden crosses and tombstones, leaning at odd angles along the sides of the hill.
He looked up at Cain, Abel and Trustworthy. "You can go, if you'd like," Coyle muttered. He pulled his coat around himself, shivering in the cold night wind. "I won't stop you. All of you have proven your loyalty to a fellow like me." He waited for the reaction. None of the animals moved.
Suddenly, Coyle heard a foot crunch on the gravel of boot hill. He froze as the steps drew closer. Coyle reached a hand back, snaking it into his buckboard wagon. There was no need for a special brew. A vial of burning green acid would do the trick this time. Orestes grabbed a hold of it and pulled it out. He held it close, waiting as the footsteps drew nearer.
"Hah!" Coyle came to his feet, vial of acid glowing in his hand. He prepared to throw, but stayed his hand at the last moment. There was no ghoul or long dead outlaw walking towards him, but only Jonathan Crispin Ogelby Sparks, the youngster from the town, with a tray held in shaking hands. "Oh," Coyle said. "Terrible sorry. Please accept my most heartfelt apologies. You induced a moment of pure terror into my stalwart heart."
"Yes, you, um, did too, sir." Jonathan held out the tray. "My mother made you some soup and I brought it to you. Figured it might keep you warm, on this cold night."
"Thank you." Coyle gratefully took the tray. He sat down next to his car, grabbed the spoon and began to sip the soup. It warmed his neck and throat and seemed to trickle to every part of his body. Jonathan Sparks remained standing, looking around as the cold night wind rustled his hair. Orestes realized how scared the boy must be. Coyle himself was frightened by the quiet of the graves. What would a mere child think?
"You can sit with me, if you'd like to, young sir," Coyle said quickly. "I'll begrudge no one some company, especially up here." He looked back up the sweep of the hill. "This is Mr. Ash's third task. I'm well on my way to completing it and then he will leave your town in peace."
Jonathan nodded, like he expected nothing less. "And what will you do? Will you stay?"
Coyle touched his throat, where the noose had so recently rested. "I do not believe I will. The open road calls to me, young Jonathan, and it is a siren's call, which must be heeded. I think I'll be on my way when this is finished. There are many other towns where I must sell Professor Coyle's Miraculous Oils and I have a duty to visit them."
"Oh." Jonathan nodded. "That makes a lot of sense, sir."
Before Coyle could agree, he heard a slight creaking from somewhere near the top of boot hill. He set down the soup bowl and motioned for Jonathan to fall silent. Cain and Abel scurried away from the shadow of the wagon, running close to him.
Orestes reached his hand into his coat and grabbed the vial of acid. He turned back to Jonathan. "Um, Jonathan Crispin Ogelby Sparks, there's no one else coming to deliver me a tasty morsel or midnight snack, is there?"
"No, sir," Jonathan whispered.
The ground under them split open, skeletal hands rearing out of the earth. They were crooked, skeletal limbs, covered in grave dust, the bones visible through moldy sleeves. Coyle scrambled to his feet. He grabbed Jonathan's shoulder and hauled the boy back, just before a skeleton's Bowie knife plunged into his chest.
All along boot hill, the dead were rising. They smashed through their flimsy coffin, or just reared out of the gray dust. They carried the weapons that they were buried with - six-guns, tomahawks, rifles and knives gone rusty from their time in the ground. The dead moaned slightly, a low groan that matched the whistle of the wind. The living corpses started marching slowly down the hill, moving like a shuffling military unit, as they closed in around Coyle and Jonathan.
"Run!" Coyle cried, pointing to the bottom of hill. "I'll hold them off! You must flee!"
"Never mind me! Never mind me at all!" Coyle faced the cadavers as they approached. Dust rose in clouds from their collapsing faces and their worm-eaten bodies. Even though their hands were falling apart, the dead fingers still clutched their weapons. Coyle reached back into his wagon. He had to hurry, if he wanted to survive. "I have to spend the night here, but you do not! Get out of here!"
Jonathan turned to run. He pounded down boot hill, looking back at Coyle as the dead closed in. Orestes saw him hurry back into town. He smiled. At least the boy would be safe. He pawed through the vials, as Cain growled and snapped at the approaching corpses. Finally, he found what he was looking for – a round orb of gleaming silver. This would give the dead pause.
He grabbed it, just as something grabbed him. Coyle turned around and saw a corpse standing over him, pulling back a tomahawk to slash open his skull. He looked into the molding face of the dead man, seeing where the skin was peeled back to reveal rotting flesh and yellow bone. Coyle still had the vial of acid. He hurled it into the corpse's face.
The corpse's moan rose to a strangled groan as it tripped back, the acid burning through its skull. The body thudded into the dirt, a black soup leaking away from its skull and trickling towards Coyle's shoes. He quickly stepped out of the way.
"Well, that was not so difficult. Who knew battling the dead could be so simple?" Coyle turned back and grabbed the silver orb. Just as his fingers fastened around it, a bullet took him in the shoulder. He felt the impact of the blow before he felt the burn, like a sledge hammer had knocked him back.
The silver orb fell from his hands. It hit the dirt and rolled away, gaining speed as it headed down boot hill. Coyle grasped his shoulder. He felt blood trickling out, sticky and hot under his fingers. Coyle turned over and came to his feet. The corpses surrounded him now, raising their rifle butts and dead fingers to tear him apart.
He didn't have time to scream before a dead outlaw grabbed his arm and pulled him close. The corpse was trying to aim a revolver. The dead hands with their decaying fingers could barely hold the gun, so they just pressed it tightly against Coyle's chest. Even a dead man couldn't miss at that range. Coyle felt that he was finished.
Before the outlaw could fire, Trustworthy's hoof shot out and kicked into the corpse's crumbling face. The dead man rocked backwards, his shattered skull spilling into the dirt. His pistol hit the ground and he let go of Coyle.
More of the corpses were coming in. Cain leapt into their midst, growling and snarling as his little claws and teeth slashed at them. Orestes stared in disbelief as his raccoon took on an army of the dead. He clutched his bleeding shoulder as he felt a tugging on his pants leg. He looked down and saw it was Abel. The raccoon was sending him a message.
"Right," Coyle agreed. "Time to finish this." He darted down the hill, looking everywhere for the silver orb. Dead hands poked out of the ground, one latching onto his leg. He kicked it off and kept running and then he saw the shine of the silver case, resting next to a wooden cross.
He leapt for the cross, rolling in graveyard as his hands reached out. His fingers scraped the sleek silver sides of the orb and then he closed his fingers around it. Coyle pulled it close, unscrewing the cap as the zombies came for him. Cain and Abel ran in his direction, scampering over the gray dirt. The walking dead gunslingers were close behind.
Coyle upended the orb and drank deeply. The liquid was sour and pungent. He felt it in the back of his brain and in his nostrils. He swirled the juice around in his mouth and came to his feet. Then he breathed deeply and spat it out.
A stream of liquid flame left his mouth. The darkness turned to light as living flame fell onto the crowd of corpses. It stuck to their skin, fire rising and falling as it melted through their bodies. The burning dead kept coming, managing a few more steps before they collapsed. Shadows danced on the graves as the flames burned.
"Instant Greek fire," Coyle whispered, pocketing the empty silver case. "Endlessly useful." He turned away as the corpses collapsed, sending black smoke into the sky.
Coyle walked back to his wagon, stepping past the burning bodies. He felt a bit of warmth on the back of his neck as he tore at his coat, trying to make a quick bandage for the wound in his shoulder. Dawn was coming. He wouldn't have to wait much longer.
When the sun rose on Crucifix Flats, Professor Orestes Coyle rode his wagon back to the town square, where everything had started. A few of the townspeople were around and they noticed him. The call rang out, crying that Coyle was still alive and still had a chance. As Coyle waited, a bigger crowd arrived. He looked up and down the street, waiting as the crowd grew. Jonathan Sparks appeared and waved to Coyle. Professor Coyle returned it. People talked amongst themselves. Despite all his wounds and tiredness, Coyle felt a little elation to see them all.
Then their chatter ended. A lone finger was walking down the street. Coyle reached back into his wagon. He moved quickly and grabbed the vial he wanted, which he tucked into his coat. Coyle hopped down from the wagon and stepped into the dirt. He swayed a little on his feet, but waited as Mr. Ash approached.
"Hello there!" Coyle cried. "I've beaten your challenges, sir. I believe it's time to fulfill your end of the bargain and take the road!"
Mr. Ash looked up. Dust swirled around his high boots. "Yeah," Mr. Ash replied. "I'll be going all right. But you're coming with me." He pointed his finger at Coyle. "Orestes Coyle, I damn your soul! I'm taking you straight to Hell!" Mr. Ash's lips pulled back, revealing his teeth. He snarled like an animal, his hands reaching out like he could grab Coyle's soul and pull it away.
There was no response. The crowd was silent, staring at Mr. Ash and Orestes Coyle. Cain let out a squeaking growl at Mr. Ash, but nothing else happened.
Coyle smiled. "There are a few rules that should be followed when dealing with the devil. The foremost is never to use your real name. Orestes Coyle is not my real name." He reached into his coat as Mr. Ash roared in pure rage.
"Then I'll hear your name, screaming out from your own mouth!" Mr. Ash shouted. "As you beg for the relief that death brings!" He pounded down the street, both hands stretched out to reach Coyle.
But Orestes was ready. He pulled a vial of holy water from his coat. It had been blessed by the Pope himself. "The second rule of dealing with the devil is equally simple – always be prepared!" He hurled the vial into the face of Mr. Ash.
The glass shattered. Holy water seethed across Ash's face. Mr. Ash turned away, howling as steam rose from his body. Crows fluttered down from the sky, swooping out of alleys and descending on Mr. Ash. They landed on his shoulders, waving their wings to try and beat off the smoke. Soon a great cloud of them surrounded Mr. Ash, flapping and screeching like they had been burned.
They lifted off all at once, taking wing and speeding into the sky. Coyle watched them go. When the crows had vanished, there was no sign of Mr. Ash. The Devil was gone from Crucifix Flats.
After the victory, the townspeople cheered and celebrated. Bottles were brought out of the saloon and cracked open on the boardwalks. Sheriff Calhoun drunk and sang as a few people even set off fireworks, which cracked and rattled in the still air. Nobody noticed Orestes Coyle riding off on his wagon, for the edge of town – except for Jonathan Crispin Ogelby Sparks.
The boy ran after the wagon, waving his hands. Coyle turned around and looked at him. "Jonathan?" he asked. "What do you want?" He tugged on the reins, slowing Trustworthy.
"We're all celebrating your victory, sir!" Jonathan cried. "Don't you want to stay?"
Coyle looked back at the town. "I'm afraid not. There's no place for me there. No matter what I have done."
"Well, could you tell me your name, then?"
"What?" Coyle asked. "My name? Whatever for?"
"Your real name, sir. I know Orestes Coyle is just a nickname and I'd to know your real one, so I can remember it, and the hero you are."
"My real name…" Coyle repeated. He shrugged. "It is Oscar Klein. I changed it at Ellis Island, when I came here as a poor orphan from the cold wastes of Europe. That's all it is. Everything else is just a little show business." He cracked the reins over Trustworthy. The mule doubled its pace and headed down the road, leaving Crucifix Flats behind.