Chuck’s challenge this week: The Subgenre Blender. I drew Cryptozoology and the Wild West.
We kind of laugh nowadays at the stories of monsters often glimpsed but never seen, of creatures that seem to defy nature and terrorize people and animals in the dwindling remote parts of the world. But there was a time (before the internet) when stories like these might have been taken much more seriously. People still believe in Bigfoot, not because the evidence is so compelling and widespread, but because nobody was around to debunk it on a widespread scale before the myth could take hold in people’s minds and hearts.
Imagine what it would have been like in the old west, when there was no internet and barely any newspapers, and you could come to a town and hear stories — believed by an entire town — of a mythical monster that lives out in the mountains.
You might believe it. You might even be willing to spend a lot of money to get famous proving it.
Here’s “The Crater Devil”.
The Crater Devil
“The Crater Devil?” Luke spoke through a bushy mustache in a voice like honey poured over gravel. “Sure, I’ve heard of it.”
The barkeep set down two shotglasses of whiskey in front of the unlikely pair. The mahogany liquid steamed as it sloshed over onto the lacquered bar. Luke tossed his shot back in one great gulp.
Leonard sipped at his whiskey, wincing mightily at every taste. The liquor made him sweat, though the afternoon was quite cool. “Heard of it, of course. But you’ve never seen it.”
“I don’t think anybody around these parts has seen it.” Luke chuckled. “But we know the stories. And I’ve heard it. That was enough.”
Everybody had heard the stories. Way off in the mountains, past parts unreachable by wagon and only barely traversible on foot, in a great crater two miles wide if it was a foot, was a lake filled with crystal blue water. Nothing green grew for miles around the crater, no animals would drink from its waters. And in that crater, lurking in those waters or prowling the peaks all around, was the Devil. Elverton MacLeod had set out to explore the crater decades ago, and was widely spoken of as the first human victim of the beast.
Depending on who was doing the telling, the Devil looked something like a man, but stood three times as tall, all red-skinned and covered with coarse black hair. Or it had the body of a man and the head of a bull. Or it was a great lizard with legs thick as tree trunks and razor sharp teeth. Or it was an albino coyote with haunting red eyes that howled like a starving child. Nobody telling stories about the Crater Devil seemed to be particularly reliable, so the details were always changing as the stories got passed from one ear to the next. What didn’t change, though, were the Devil’s horrible, piercing, bone-chilling red eyes. The devil could fix you with its gaze from two hundred yards away, and once you were caught, you were stuck. Couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, couldn’t even think until the Devil either took you or left you. Those who were left would stumble back into town days later, delirious and panicked; hence the varying reports on the creature’s appearance. Those who were taken were never seen again.
Leonard licked his lips and leaned in to whisper in Luke’s ear, too low to be overheard by anybody eavesdropping — which nobody was — “I’m going to find it.”
Luke measured Leonard with a pass of his heavily lidded brown eyes. The man was thinner than a railway line, with an eager face and an untidy mass of blonde hair pulled back and tied with twine. He might have been the nuttiest son of a bitch Luke had ever laid eyes on. A scientist, he claimed. “And you want me to … do what, exactly?”
“Look at me,” Leonard said. “I’m a scientist, not a frontiersman. I wouldn’t last the night out there by myself. You, on the other hand… Besides. Your friends told me you’d know where to find it.”
Sucking his teeth and eyeing the bottom of his empty glass, Luke blew out a heavy sigh. Leonard signaled the barkeep for another round. In silence, Luke pondered while the portly man brought the drinks around. Then he lifted his glass and eyed Leonard over its gleaming rim. “And what’s in it for me?”
This time it was Leonard, a grin splitting his face, who threw back his shot of whiskey. In him, it caused a terrible fit of coughing and wheezing. Finally he gave his response in a hoarse whisper. “If we can document the Devil, we’ll both be rich beyond our wildest dreams.”
Luke sneered and showed Leonard his back, so Leonard added in a noncommittal voice, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars in advance.”
Elverton MacLeod turned his face skyward, letting the cooling drizzle smear the grime embedded in the deep crevices of his forehead and cheeks. Full moon coming on behind the clouds. Monster hunters and fame seekers would be out and about. Time to hitch up the wagon.
The horses had been abandoned when they started tugging against their harnesses halfway up an unnamed trail that cut between two mountains. The trail itself tapered off to bare rocks and weeds not a hundred yards on, so Luke and Leonard trudged up the craggy face of the mountain one behind the other. Leonard kept tossing nervous glances at the cliff faces around them while Luke chuckled, his broad shoulders trembling silently.
“Nothing to be afraid of ’round these parts,” he said. “‘Cept the Devil, of course.”
On the ridge off to their left was an outcropping of rock that jutted toward the sky like a great angry finger. A darkness under one of its stones seemed to shrink with sudden movement.
“Did you see that?” Leonard said, pointing wildly. He produced a dusty pair of binoculars and mashed them against his face.
Luke shook his head and kept churning his legs. They were traversing the face sideways now, and the footing was too uncertain to be looking at every little thing the weird little scientist jumped at.
The binoculars fogged over almost immediately in the cool mist that was falling, but Leonard was almost certain there was a dark shape behind the rocks that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
The two specks were picking their way across the south face of the mountain, making slow but steady progress. They’d reach the crater in a few hours. Then the smaller speck stopped and looked in his direction. Elverton shrunk backwards against the rock face, melding with its shadow. He wouldn’t be seen, but he’d lose time while the man kept his eyes turned toward the rocks. The hides had to be secured to the wagons, the lamps had to be lit…
As he watched, the man’s backward glances grew less and less frequent, until the two specks disappeared around a bend in the crags. With unnatural grace, Elverton scrambled away along his secret path back to the crater.
In the twilight, the crater exploded with color. The still water of its surface caught the jagged peaks of the ridge opposite, inverted them and flung them back skyward again over the sickly grey sky. The drizzle had grown into a light rain and turned the stones underfoot into slick little traps, hungry to turn their ankles as they picked their way down toward the crater. The far face of the basin was covered in shadow, and the rock faces that curved down toward the crater’s edge were striated with darkness.
Even in the growing darkness, the scientist’s eyes were alight with fervor. A faint, reverent whisper escaped from him: “This is it!” They had reached the level ground at the bottom of the basin, not fifty feet from the water’s edge. “Keep watch,” he told Luke, as Leonard unshouldered his pack and began to set up a camera on a tripod, unfolding its spindly legs and trying to make it stand level on the loose stones.
Dutifully, Luke swiveled his eyes across the lake, wondering how long the funny little man was going to keep him waiting out here.
The two men had stopped in the perfect place. The darkness would hide him until he was almost upon them. Elverton threw the stitched sheet of red-painted leathers over his head, hoisted his trundle, and wheeled it slowly toward them.
Leonard was dancing around like an unstrung marionette, looking through the camera, testing the flash powder, holding his hands up to frame various aspects of the landscape. A waste, Luke thought. He wouldn’t see a damned thing out here as it was, and the shadows were only getting deeper. Luke found a stone big enough to park his butt and parked it, absently rolling a cigarette.
Then the canyon exploded in noise.
It sounded as if an ox had been shot through the throat and was gurgling and groaning its life out, but loud enough to shake the walls of the basin and reverberate in their bones. Leonard fell over, sending stones clattering. Luke’s cigarette fell from his lip and he froze.
Swaying toward them, a hundred yards off, were a pair of searing orange orbs, bright and terrible against the dark. Leonard had recovered and ran for his camera, but the terrible howl broke loose once more and he crashed into the tripod, pulling it over with him.
“Luke?” Leonard shouted, his voice two octaves higher than normal. “Get your gun!”
The legs of the tripod had tangled in his coat and Leonard kept tripping and stumbling, getting halfway to his feet before thumping to the ground again. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw the Crater Demon lurching toward them, the details of its appearance only suggested in its silhouette; it was the size of a large horse but it moved like a lizard, its crimson hide the color of blood behind its burning eyes. The sudden moisture at Leonard’s thigh did not come from the rain-soaked stones he kept stumbling on.
The Demon was no longer looking at Leonard. It had turned its attention fully on Luke, who still sat, motionless, his hand still curled toward his lip as if he were still holding his cigarette. His eyes were wide and sightless, his face wet with tears, but he did not stir as the beast slithered toward him.
Then the Demon howled again and Leonard’s reason fled faster than he did. He abandoned his camera and his binoculars and bag and ran as fast as his legs could carry him back up the path out of the canyon, and he did not stop running until he was back in the town, dehydrated, delirious, and babbling about a horrible red beast that had devoured his partner whole on the spot.
“Shit, Elvy.” Luke shoved the mass of hides off him, and Elverton collapsed next to him in a cackling fit. He spun the little wooden crank and the beast’s howl echoed from the tiny box, but disconnected from the amplifying horn, it sounded hollow and tiny. “You coulda gone easy when you knocked me off the rock. Damn near twisted my ankle.” Grabbing one of the lanterns off of the mask of the beast, Luke got to his feet and began picking through Leonard’s bag. The binoculars were intact, and there were a handful of gizmos in there whose purpose he could only guess at. More interesting to Luke was the wad of cash at the bottom.
“Did you see his face?” Elverton hooted.
Luke shook his head. He wondered if Elvy wasn’t losing his mind a little bit after all these years living in the wilderness, but the payoff more than made up for it. “Over four hundred dollars in here, man.”
“And that camera’s got to be worth a few hundred more,” Elverton said. “Think he’ll come back?”
Luke shook his head. “He pissed himself. He ain’t coming back. Neither should I, after the stories he’s gonna tell. Not for a while.”
“Next town over?”
Luke grinned. There was a pretty waitress at the saloon in Huskerville. Time to go fishing again. “Next town over.”