Savage, p.42
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       Savage, p.42

           Richard Laymon
 

  “Whittle did this,” I said.

  I knew for sure, and it had to do with a sight more than the shod horse. The killer had done more than slay the men and horses. He’d mucked about with them.

  He’d dismembered a good many of them. The head of a horse had been placed between the legs of a naked man, its mouth on his private parts. All the men were naked. Some had been disemboweled, their entrails strewn about. (The buzzards had likely played a role in that.) Two fellows had been stacked up and arranged in such a way as to suggest they were busy at an unnatural act. The heads of four had been removed and set atop various rocks. The privates had been cut off some of the bodies. The severed arm of one chap had been thrust up the hindquarters of a dead horse.

  The clothing and weapons of the dead men were nowhere to be seen. Except for four boots. Those were on the feet of a dead horse.

  The atrocities were unspeakably savage, but showed a vile sense of humor.

  Only Whittle, I judged, could’ve committed such acts.

  Was he inside the cave? Was he skulking about, sneaking toward us?”

  “Let’s take cover,” I whispered.

  Backing off, we ducked behind a low boulder and leaned forward against it. Jesse slipped the saddlebags off her shoulder. She slung the Henry off her back.

  We both cocked our rifles and rested them atop the rock, aiming toward the cave entrance.

  “You were right about monsters,” Jesse whispered.

  “The man’s a fiend,” I said.

  “But how’d he manage to kill them all?”

  “He’s quite clever, really,” I told her. “And they were here looking for an Indian. He likely tricked them somehow.”

  “Maybe he ain’t alone.”

  “I don’t know.” I glanced behind us. Nothing back there except the maze of rocks. So I turned to Jesse and said, “Whittle by himself is enough to worry about. There’s only one horse, though.”

  “If he don’t know we’re here, we can bushwhack him when he goes to ride off.”

  I gave Jesse a nod. She bumped me gently with her shoulder.

  Soon, night was upon us.

  The dark was kind, actually, as it shrouded the scene of the massacre. We could still see the dim shapes out there, but not all the ghastly particulars. The buzzards were nowhere in sight. Whittle’s horse was a light enough color so we could keep our eyes on it. The mouth of the cave looked like a patch of black in the gray wall of the mountain.

  I couldn’t figure any way for Whittle to get from the cave to his horse without us spotting him.

  The trick was simply to wait him out.

  Then shoot him down.

  “Keep your eyes open,” Jesse whispered after a spell. She rested her rifle on the boulder, then crept backward. I glanced at her a couple of times to see what she was about. She pulled our bottle from the saddle bag and shook it. “Thirsty?” she asked.

  “We haven’t much left.”

  She popped the cork and took a few drinks. Holding the bottle out to me, she said, “Water’s no problem. Did you see all the canteens and water bags on them nags out there?”

  “They might be empty,” I said, and took the bottle.

  “They ain’t empty, Trevor.” She sounded a bit annoyed. “Landsakes, but you worry.”

  “They may have quite a lot of water in them,” I admitted. “But I shouldn’t care to venture over and fetch any.”

  “I will.”

  “No, you won’t.”

  “You can keep me covered. Not as he’s out there, anyhow.”

  “We still have water,” I pointed out, and shook the bottle at her.

  “Well, there ain’t much. We oughta get more now, before the trouble starts.”

  “What trouble? We’ll simply ventilate him when he goes for his horse.”

  “You never know. Anyhow, it’s good and dark right now. Moon ain’t even up, yet. This’d be the best time to go out there.”

  “We needn’t go out there at all.”

  “You just stay here,” Jesse said. “Make sure I don’t get jumped. Maybe I can find us some good food and smokes while I’m at it.”

  “Jesse.”

  She popped up. I reached, grabbed hold of her sleeve and tugged it hard. With a ripping sound, the sleeve tore off at her shoulder. It came sliding down empty, so I snatched her wrist and yanked her to the ground.

  “You’re not going out there!” I gasped.

  “Look what you done to my shirt!”

  “Stay here.”

  She reached a hand toward me. I shoved the bottle into it, then leaped out of range. I rushed around to the front of the boulder, filled my right hand with a Colt, then halted and looked back. I waited till Jesse showed herself and hefted her Henry. She shook her head at me.

  I turned away and walked into the massacre. Even though the moon wasn’t up yet, there was enough starlight to see by. Not that I knew quite where to look. I wanted to keep my eyes on the cave, but feared what I might step on.

  I walked toward the nearest horse. It had no head. Two of the posse men blocked my way—those that were sprawled one atop the other, feet at both ends, heads between each other’s legs. I tried not to look at them, and gave them a wide berth. When I crouched over the horse, I found that it had fallen onto the canteen that hung from its saddle horn. But I pulled hard, and worked it free. I gave it a shake. Water sloshed about inside. There didn’t sound like much, though.

  Slinging that canteen over my shoulder, I set off for another horse. This was the horse wearing boots. Just behind it, one of the severed heads sat atop a stack of rocks. I couldn’t see whether or not the eyes were open, but seemed to recall that all the heads had open eyes.

  I glanced about at the other three heads. Every last one of them seemed to be staring at me.

  I quit looking at them, and circled around to the far side of the horse. This one hadn’t fallen onto its water bag. Crouching, I lifted the strap off the saddle horn. And heard a low grumble. Shivers raced up my back. I looked around quick. Another grumble. From the head just behind me. Well, it couldn’t have made such a noise. It had no body attached, but simply rested atop a waist-high pile of rock.

  As I gazed at the head, my skin all aprickle, it suddenly rolled forward. It did an odd bit of a somersault, face first, the ragged stump of its neck swinging toward the sky. I let out a gasp and sprang up as it dropped off the edge. It clomped the ground. It rolled straight at me.

  I was in such a state that I dang near shot it. But I held fire and danced out of the way. Just as the head was about to bump into the horse’s saddle, a coyote dashed out from behind the rocks, snatched it up by the face and scampered off with it.

  Well, I’d had enough, and raced for our hiding place. I dropped down behind the boulder, all breathless.

  “Good job,” Jesse whispered.

  “Bloody hell.”

  She rubbed the back of my neck. After a while, she took the canteen and water bag from me and shook them. “We’re all set, now. All we gotta do is bide our time.”

  She resumed her position, leaning forward against the boulder with her rifle at her shoulder. Once I was able to breathe right, I picked up my Winchester and joined her.

  Nothing seemed to be moving, in among the dead. The coyote must’ve skedaddled.

  Now that the sun had been down for a spell, the night was taking on a chill. There were likely a passel of bedrolls and blankets on the horses. I judged I’d rather freeze, though, than go out and fetch any such thing. So I kept still about them.

  By and by, Jesse whispered, “Maybe he ain’t in that cave. He mighta rode off before we ever got here.”

  “Why’s the horse there, then?”

  “Could be he just didn’t kill it. No telling why.”

  “It might not be his,” I admitted.

  “What we oughta do is take a look in the cave.”

  “Are you daft?”

  “Beats waiting. If he’s inside, that’s where he’s lik
ely gonna stay. Least till morning. If he aimed to ride off tonight, he woulda done it by now.”

  “No reason we can’t wait till morning,” I said. “Whenever he pops out’s fine with me. In fact, it would be considerably easier to pick him off come daylight.”

  “It’d be easier if he’s asleep.”

  “He might not be asleep,” I pointed out.

  “Well, he might not be in there at all. But if he is, he ain’t likely to stay awake all night. We oughta go and sneak in, see if we can’t catch him snoozing. We can fill him with lead before he gets his eyes open.”

  I gazed off at the cave’s black opening. It was a narrow slot, not much wider than my shoulders, too low to walk through upright. We’d need to duck down and go in one at a time.

  If we went in at all.

  Spite of Jesse’s logic, I wasn’t at all eager to embark on such a venture.

  “What do you say?” she asked.

  “I say we wait him out. We go walking into that cave, we’re likely to get ourselves killed. Whittle might have his eyes on us right now. He might just be hoping we’ll try such a thing, so he can get his hands on us. And his knife.”

  Jesse looked at me and shook her head. “Well,” she finally said. “All right.”

  “I just don’t see any call to rush into danger when we might simply wait here and shoot him from ambush.”

  “Okay. If that’s how we’re gonna play it, though, we might as well get some shut-eye. You wanta go first? I’ll keep watch.”

  “And have you dodge off to the cave without me?”

  Jesse’s teeth showed, gray in the darkness. “I don’t aim to do that.”

  “It’s not at all funny.”

  “I’m scared half witless, Trevor. I wanta get this done, and it won’t be done till Whittle’s dead. But I sure ain’t so dim as to go after him by my lonesome. What do you take me for, an addle-head?”

  I couldn’t be sure whether or not she was having me on. But I saw no advantage to arguing. “I’m not at all sleepy, anyhow,” I told her.

  “You don’t trust me, do you?”

  “It’s not that. How do you expect a person to sleep when…”

  The words died halfway out as somebody heaved a scream.

  CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

  Whittle’s Lair

  Jesse clutched my arm.

  We gaped at each other through the darkness as the scream shivered through the night and died.

  “My God,” Jesse murmured.

  “It came from the cave, didn’t it?” I asked.

  “He’s got a gal in there.”

  “Where’d he get a gal?”

  “Who knows? It don’t matter.”

  A cave was no place for a rifle, so I left it resting atop the boulder. I shoved myself away and got to my feet. Jesse did the same. “Stay here,” I snapped at her. “I mean it! You stay here!”

  She pulled her six-gun. “Let’s go.”

  “Jesse!”

  “Go! That gal ain’t gonna last forever.”

  I took off running for the cave entrance, but Jesse was on my heels. So I made a sudden stop. As she bumped me from behind, I brought my arm forward, all set to drive my elbow into her. That was bound to let her wind out, and I figured to follow up my elbow with a blow to the face and put her out of action.

  Couldn’t do it, though.

  Much as I wanted to stop Jesse from following me into the cave, the notion of causing hurt to her made me hold off.

  She gave me a shove. “Hurry!”

  So I dashed toward the cave, Jesse at my back. And wondered if I was doing her any favor by not bashing her senseless. Then I judged that leaving her alone out here might be worse than letting her stick with me. This way, at least she’d be where I could watch over and protect her.

  We reached the mouth of the cave. I went in first and hunkered down. Much as I wanted Jesse to be shut of this business, it was mighty good to hear her breathing hard behind me.

  I expected to see nothing. But away off in the distance was a fluttery glow such as might come from a small fire out of sight beyond a bend.

  Only dark between us and that glow.

  Needing the use of both hands, I holstered my Colt. When I commenced to make my way forward, Jesse grabbed hold of my shirt collar. I crouched low to spare my head, and walked slow and careful, keeping my arms stretched out in front of me.

  I hadn’t taken more than five steps when another scream came. It tore through the darkness. It seemed to make the air tremble as it passed over me. A scream of horrid pain.

  “What’s he doing to her?” Jesse whispered.

  Well, my mind filled in plenty of pictures. “God only knows,” I whispered. I judged he was likely skinning her alive.

  But she’s not dead yet, I told myself. We might be in time to save her.

  It was slow going, though. Every few steps, the cave tricked me. It either put a barrier up to send me stumbling, or dropped its floor out from under me. Sometimes, Jesse’s grip on my collar stopped me from falling. Other times, we both went down in a jumble. I banged myself up again and again, but neither of us let out a peep, and we kept moving.

  The cool air of the cave now held a faint odor of corruption. I recalled what Barney Dire had told us about the stink, and judged we must be getting near to Whittle’s collection of dead women. With each step I took, the odor grew worse.

  The shimmery orange glow of light wasn’t more than maybe twenty feet away when a third scream came along. Though it made my teeth ache, I was glad to hear it.

  Hang on, lady!

  The source of the light was still out of sight around a twist in the cave, but I could now see well enough to watch my step. I drew both my Colts. Jesse let go of my collar.

  “Careful now,” she whispered.

  “Keep behind me,” I warned, then stepped around the bend.

  What greeted my eyes wasn’t what I’d expected. I was ready to see the grisly array of bodies—and they were there, scattered about the large chamber, dismembered and spoiling, some propped up against the walls, some stacked together in unspeakable arrangements of carnal acts, some simply sprawled on the floor. They were all lighted up by a passel of torches standing here and there among the rocks.

  Whittle hadn’t cut off their heads, but he’d lifted their hair. Likely to make it look like the work of an Indian. Their scalps hung like banners from staves all about the chamber. Other staves held different trophies. Some had hearts stuck on top of them. Some had breasts. Some had parts I couldn’t recognize.

  But what I’d expected to see wasn’t there—Whittle busy at work torturing a live woman.

  Whittle wasn’t in sight. Nor was any woman who wasn’t already quite dead.

  Had he somehow detected our approach and spirited her off? Perhaps the screams hadn’t come from this chamber at all, but from the depths of the cave beyond it.

  I stepped forward, entering the chamber, forgetting about Jesse until she came to my side. I looked her way as she groaned. Her wide eyes were taking in the scene of horrors. Her mouth was shut tight, lips pressed together in a hard line.

  “I wish you’d stayed out,” I whispered. “You shouldn’t be seeing such things.”

  “Where is he?”

  “I don’t know. Perhaps through there.” With one of my guns, I pointed out a dark cavity at the far end of the chamber.

  We started toward it. To get there, we had no choice but to walk through the midst of the bodies, the staves with their hideous prizes, the torches.

  We came upon a great heap of clothing. While I had noticed it before, I’d been too stunned and confused by the rest of the scene to give it much mind.

  As we approached it, however, the notion struck me that Whittle might be buried within the pile. Hiding there, waiting for the proper moment to spring out and have at us. I halted and gave a nod to Jesse.

  We trained three revolvers on the mound of garments. Then I commenced to scatter it, booting things this way
and that. Near the top were men’s duds—no doubt those taken from the posse. Mixed in among the shirts and vests and boots and trousers and long johns were gunbelts, six-guns, rifles and knives. They all flew about as I kicked. Soon, the pile shrank down to dresses and petticoats and such.

  “I don’t reckon he’s in there,” Jesse whispered.

  She was likely right, but I waded in anyhow, stomping and kicking.

  “By Jove, that is you!”

  The merry voice, so familiar though I hadn’t heard it for months, resounded through the chamber.

  “Trevor Wellington Bentley! Is it possible? And in the company of a lovely young damsel! How utterly thoughtful of you to bring me such a gift!”

  Whirling about, I tried to spot him.

  Jesse did the same.

  “Put down your weapons,” he called, sounding quite pleased with himself. “I should hate to shoot either of you and ruin the sport.” A gun blasted, its explosion crashing through my ears.

  The bullet struck neither of us. I didn’t see what it hit, for my eyes were drawn to the muzzle flash.

  “There!” Jesse gasped.

  “Yes, here,” said Whittle. “Now drop your firearms.”

  He was forty paces away, his back to the rock wall, his front all but concealed behind the corpse of a woman. One arm was wrapped across its bare belly, hugging the body against him. I’d spotted this one before. The crown of its head was black and pulpy. The lips were cut away so its bared teeth seemed to grin most hideously. Nothing but holes remained where the eyes belonged. Both breasts were off. The torso was split open from throat to pelvis. I’d glimpsed this maimed horror before and averted my eyes fast, never suspecting that it might be shielding Whittle.

  While one arm clamped it across the belly, the other jutted out straight from above the shoulder, pointing a revolver our way. Whittle’s face showed beyond his gun arm. I couldn’t see much of it, though.

  “What’ve you done with her?” I asked.

  “With whom do you mean?”

  “The one who screamed.”

  “Ah, her. Rushed to her rescue, did you?” With that, he let out a shriek. It sounded for all the world like a woman crying out in the throes of hellish agony.

 
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