Solomon Banks stood gasping in the mire, it smelled like something died. It was a shunned place, a sunless, sunken landscape of withered reeds, jagged deadheads, and dark mud that sucked at his boots with each labored step. The road that led him there presently dissolved into an ambiguous plain of oozing earth, obscuring his path forward. Behind him, a channel, wide as a coffin, marked his wake through the mud where he dragged the crude liter with his saddlebags, bursting with stolen gold. The slate sky growled menacingly with creeping thunder and heavy drops of rain began to fall. He grabbed up the makeshift yoke of wood and rope and trudged on, plowing the mud at his hind.
At last reckoning, he was northwest of Natchez on the Louisiana side of the river. That was before he cut the throat of Captain Leathers, set a fire in the engine room, and wrecked his steamer up on a bar. Countless died in the blaze or went drowning down the river. He shot the few survivors he encountered and fed them to the current as to leave no record of his escape. Sol was of the opinion that this was the kind of thing one should expect when you sail from Under the Hill.
Before the carnage at the river, he had left a trail of corpses along the Trace from Nashville to Natchez. None of them memorable or cause for any remorse, with the notable exception of Rufus Chambers, the only son and heir of old Caswell Chambers, whom he had introduced to his maker a week prior on Saint Valentine’s Day. Killing Rufus was a mistake. The Chambers family roots ran deep in Nashville, with ties from the Freemasons to the Knights of the Golden Circle and every secret handshaking cult of grifters in between. If it were a simple issue of the stolen gold, Caswell would have resigned the matter to Pinkerton hands, but this was personal. Instead, he called upon a monster, the vile and degenerate Frenchman, Claude Décembre.
If there existed a more sadistic and ruthless hunter of men than Décembre, their name was unknown to virtuous purveyors of justice. To put a contract in his hands invoked the certainty of death and the man whose name was inked upon it could expect great suffering before that covenant was complete. Much to his misfortune, it was Sol’s name on that mark and, somewhere, out in the thunder, the Frenchman was coming.
The rough and uneven branch of the yoke turned and jerked with every snag in the February mud. Looking back over his shoulder, he could barely see the top of the saddlebags behind the mound of seeping earth. The rain came in sheets of hissing nails, filling the craters of his footprints and threatening to turn the entire flat into a pond. He pulled on, though it was clear his plow and sled approach to moving the gold was rapidly becoming untenable.
Sol dropped the yoke and knelt down in the mud at the primitive sled. He imagined himself in California, on some sunny shore, with a pair of big legged women doing their best to drown him in champagne. He shouldered the bags, sinking deeper into the mud. The vision of California faded; now it was Rufus hanging around his neck with all his dead weight, cackling softly in his ear.
The rain covered everything like an angry, boiling sea, crawling up over his knees and lapping at his thighs in muddy waves. Somewhere, carried by the wind, there was a mournful caterwauling, pained, yet threatening. It swelled and faded, swirling directionless through the teeth of the rain. He lurched through the muck, making peace with the certainty of death, secure in the knowledge that whatever howled out in the swampy wild would soon feast on his corpse. The mud was so soft and the rain was so hard; all he need do is lay down. The weight of the gold would take care of the rest.
Something stood in the distance, harsh and foreboding against the rising flood. Sol wiped the mud from his eyes and squinted against the rain at the ominous shape. At first, it appeared as some massive spider, upturned in the muck with only its shredded and uneven legs stabbing at the merciless sky. As he pressed closer, it’s true form was revealed. Before him stood the remains of an ancient pier, now derelict and ruined.
It occurred to him that the road he had been traveling was, in fact, a vanished tributary whose course had either been diverted or ceased entirely and, judging by the condition of the pier, it had been a very long time. With renewed vigor, Sol pushed toward the ruins, hoping to find solid ground where the structure began.
He moved parallel to the rotting pilons, summoning the last of his strength. The gold pressed down on his shoulders like old Caswell was dancing on his grave. The rise was slight, but detectable, enough to give him hope that drier earth waited. The mud that had clung to his thighs was now at his shins; just a little further. He fell to his knees and crawled, fighting to keep his head above the surface. The rain raged around him and the wind howled like a sick, dying beast. He fell headlong into the ooze.
He awoke shivering, chilled through to his bones. He was laying on the bare wood slats of a child’s bed, his naked calves hanging over the end. His clothes were gone, replaced by a ratty, unbleached cotton nightshirt that itched wherever it touched his skin. A dim orange flame writhed from the greasy wick of an oil lamp sitting upon a short stool near the bed. It sputtered and hissed, giving off equal parts smoke and light. Sol sat up to survey the room, every muscle stiff and reluctant.
“You’re awake,” a tiny voice spoke from the hazy gloom.
The girl’s eyes caught the flame, glinting up at him from the muddy floor of the cabin. Her face was gray and streaked with earthy stains, her lips cleft and scabby. She sat in a pool of her tattered dress, needle and thread clutched in her grimy fingers. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he guessed her age at about twelve years.
“Yes, I am,” Sol croaked. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Not long, just through the night,” she said.
He took the lantern from the stool and lifted it up to better see the room. Something else glimmered in the darkness. The girl was surrounded by gold coins, piled in uneven stacks and laid out like the phalanxes of a toy army. Beyond her, Sol’s saddlebags sat empty on the floor.
“Child, you ought not touch that which does not belong to you,” he said.
“Isn’t that what you did?” she giggled.
“How I came about it is none of your concern.”
“Don’t worry, I only need a few,” she held up the object she had been sewing. It was a doll, crafted from a flour sack and stuffed with what seemed to be loose earth and rocks. The face of the doll was crude, having only a wide swath of a mouth ground into it with charcoal. The eyes, however, were golden coins, sewn in place with a multitude of wild, demented stiches.
“What the hell, girl?”
“The Ferryman is fond of gold coins. Do you think this will please him?” The child held up several more dolls, similar in construction, with golden eyes already in place.
“I don’t know nothin about no Ferryman, but that is my gold and you had best return it to my bag.”
“Ferryman ain’t coming back,” said a short, stout man, looming at the doorway. “River’s gone and so is the boatman.”
“Is this your child, sir?” Sol asked. “Respectfully, I’m going to have to ask that she return that gold to my pack.”
“You heard the man, Isabel, pack up those coins,” said the man, stepping into the frail circle of lantern light. “Name’s Coleman Rideau, Jr.”
He wore what once was a fine suit but now was threadbare and filthy. His vest was stained and moth-eaten, his shirt more brown than white. Mud caked his trousers from the ankles to his shredded leather shoes and a wide silk bowtie ornamented his neck, lending an awkward formality to his disheveled ensemble.
“I’ll need those eyes back too,” Sol added.
“But Pa!” Isabel complained.
“Isabel,” he asserted.
The girl began scooping the coins up and dumping them into the filthy saddlebag.
“Actually, keep the eyes, I don’t want to seem ungrateful. I suppose I should thank you for extracting me from my muddy grave.”
“That’s mighty Christian of you, mister, but we have no use for gold here.”
“No use for gold?” Sol stretched his legs to stand. “Never heard of a place that don’t need gold, must be Heaven.”
“If by Heaven you mean Blackmud…”
“That what this place is called, Blackmud? Seems appropriate.”
Sol looked around the filthy room for his clothes. Beyond the bed and stool, it was devoid of furniture. The entire floor looked as if it had recently flooded, a thick layer of sediment covering the floorboards, leaving a silty residue nearly a foot up the walls.
Outside, a warbling, wet cry broke the silence. It was violent and suffering, though distant, as if the swamp itself had manifested itself into a voice of rage and sorrow. The sound of it brought the cold memory of the rain back to Sol’s flesh, invoking shivers.
“What the devil is the source of that howling?” he asked. “Someone ought to put that creature out of its misery!”
Rideau ignored the statement.
“Your clothes are hanging by the fire, should be about dry by now. I’ll fetch them for you,” he said, turning back toward the doorway.
“I’d appreciate that,” said Sol. “Say, perhaps you have some food you can spare? I can’t recall the last time I ate.”
“Food?” Rideau paused, his brow furling as if the meaning of the word eluded him.
He shuffled down the hall, his footsteps crunching on the gritty floor.
Isabel finished scooping the gold into the saddlebags and began pulling the stitching out of her dolls’ eyes to free the remaining coins. Each tug came with a tiny grunt or sigh to emphasize her disappointment. A few meandering tears cut dirty tracks down her cheeks and vanished into the gloom.
“Sorry kid, but I need those coins more than any Ferryman,” said Sol.
“What do you know about it?” Isabel turned to him with hateful eyes. “Ferryman is the only way out of Blackmud! You’ll find out.”
A twenty-dollar gold coin popped free of its stitching and rolled across the floor, coming to a rest at his feet. Sol bent down to pick it up, noting that the charcoal mouth of the doll in Isabel’s hand was decidedly frowning.
“You got a name, mister?” Rideau asked returning with Sol’s boots, guns, and clothes.
“I do not,” said Sol, stepping into his pants.
“You have nothing to fear here in Blackmud but, if you prefer to remain anonymous, that’s no concern of mine.”
“I appreciate that. Where we standing on that food?”
“Apologies, we ain’t fixed for visitors. I’ll see what I can muster.”
“Don’t bother, I’m pressed for time. I need to be moving along. You know where I can buy a horse? I’ll pay thrice its cost.”
“Like I said, we have no need of coin round here. Besides, no horses in town, I’m afraid.”
“Remarkable town, Blackmud,” Sol groused.
“I told you”, said Isabel. “Ferryman is the only way.”
“The river is dry, child. Ain’t no ferry, ain’t no man.”
“Well, you have me at a loss, Mr. Rideau. I aim to go west, what would you suggest?”
“My advice? Go back the way you came, ain’t no road west out of here, just wetlands, alligators, and… other, unmentionable hardships.”
“Can’t do that, Mr. Rideau. Hardships be damned, I’m going west.”
“Does the name Claude Décembre mean anything to you?” Sol asked.
“Claude Décembre is as cold a killer as any lizard in that swamp, except he has a sadistic streak. Killing ain’t enough for him, he’s got to savor death in all its painful flavors. And just like death, he’s slow, patient, and always gets what he came for. It so happens, it’s me he’s after and he’ll kill every last person in this town until he finds me. So, you see, it’s in the interest of your own salvation that you spirit me away from this place as quickly as you may, lest the Frenchman find you in my company.”
“You must have done some wicked deeds to incur the wrath of such a man,” said Rideau.
“Brother, you ain’t lying.”
“Perhaps it’s time you cast an eye toward your own salvation and become bathed in the blood of the Lamb. The river may have gone dry, but the Lord’s love still flows through Blackmud. Join us in our humble chapel and allow your sins to be washed clean.”
“Didn’t peg you for a Bible thumper, Rideau. Thank you, but not even the Lord will stand between Claude Décembre and his prize.”
“Who do you fear more?” asked Rideau.
“The Frenchman, and it’s not even close.”
“That’s your choice,” he smiled. “I’ll see what I can do about that food. Come, Isabel, let our guest get dressed and collect himself.”
The two exited the room, leaving Sol alone in the flickering lamp light. After pulling his boots on, he knelt down and collected the remaining few coins from among the sooty dolls and slid them into his pocket.
Sol slung the gold laden bags over his shoulder and stepped off the slanted porch into what qualified as the main road of Blackmud. His boots sank to the ankle, sucking every step without relent as he made his way toward a cluster of buildings that represented the town’s center. Even in its prime, the town must have been a modest settlement, though now, in its derelict and mud-enshrouded condition, it appeared all but abandoned.
There were a few homes, battered and collapsing, like that of Coleman Rideau’s, though most of the buildings seemed commercial in nature. The most striking, and only structure boasting brick and stonework, was a Masonic lodge. It leaned ominously forward, its foundation was compromised and sunken in the eroded earth. A faded sign declared, “First Harmony Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.”
“Afraid there ain’t no help for your widow’s son, I done laid him low and took his gold!” Sol sneered up at the empty windows.
Further down the street was what remained of the livery and general store, both burned to the ground and reduced to blackened charcoal bones. The only construction that seemed sound and habitable was that of the Blackmud Church. Though its whitewashed facade showed the stains of mud and water damage, they were scrubbed clean of all debris, as was the approach to its great red double doors. Nowhere among these pathetic properties did Sol observe a living creature, man or beast.
A distant melody drifted aimlessly in the dead, humid air. He struggled to locate it, wandering closer to the church. From his perspective, the little cemetery behind the church presented a peculiar and unsettling sight. He drew closer to the rusted iron gate and pondered the strange scene.
The graves were in a state of upheaval, markers overturned, and earth mounded in strange piles. It wasn’t uncommon for the earth to reject the dead and push them out in times of great flooding, though Sol could see no caskets protruding from the ground. Instead, there were only holes surrounded by mounded dirt. Each was two to three feet across, though the depth was impossible to gauge as they had filled with water to about a foot or two below the surface. To Sol, it looked like the work of some giant, burrowing rodent.
Disembodied voices joined the floating piano notes and betrayed the song’s location as emanating from within church. He strained his ears to hear the words.
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide
Somewhere to the west, the distant howling returned, lending a discordant harmony to the hymn. He shivered and shifted the gold over to his other shoulder as he approached the blood red doors. The music came to a peak and then stopped suddenly as he stood at the entrance. A new voice pieced the putrid silence of Blackmud, familiar and terrible.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Banks!” said Claude Décembre, standing in the muddy street.
“Shit!” Sol pulled the door open and entered the church, rushing down the center aisle, between the pews.
Coleman and Isabel Rideau were there among the splintered pews, as were about a dozen other Blackmud residents. A malnourished preacher occupied the pulpit, clothed in mud-streaked vestments, a waterlogged Bible clenched in his skeletal hands.
“Welcome, brother!” the preacher called to him, pausing his sermon.
“Is there a back door to this place?” Sol asked, lurching up to the pulpit, saddlebags slipping from his shoulder.
“There is only one door that opens to God’s grace,” smiled the preacher.
Sol explored the back of the church, finding nothing but a toothless piano player hunched over his filthy keys. There were two small windows on each side of the church, offering the only possible egress beyond the front doors.
“He’s coming,” said Sol positioning himself behind the altar and drawing his pistol.
The preacher placed a bony hand on his head, petting him like a child.
“Rise my son, there is nothing to fear in God’s house.”
The doors to the church flung open. Sol trained his pistol on the open space and fired twice. He cursed himself for his lack of discipline, eyeing the entrance for any further sign of movement. The parishioners of the Blackmud Church rose from their pews and moved calmly toward the door as if they were greeting an expected guest.
Claude Décembre stepped through the threshold.
“Sois calme, I only wish to speak.”
He wore filthy buckskin ornamented with pieces of fur and a beaver pelt hat. A hideous band of cured human thumbs hung morbidly from his neck, enumerating the souls he had snuffed from the world. There was a long rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol in his hand.
Sol aimed his pistol, though he had no clear shot through the massing congregation.
“Welcome, brother,” and “Please, join us!” they said as they invited Décembre into the church.
“All are welcome,” said the preacher. “Even a black soul such as yours can find grace in the arms of the Lord.”
“I will make this simple.” Décembre fired a shot through the pulpit, striking the preacher in the stomach. “You pious people go away from here and leave me to my work and you have my promise I will not harm you.”
There was a strange pause as Décembre’s words trailed off. The gut-shot preacher made no reaction to his wound, instead standing tall with his arms outstretched, holding his Bible. The room was silent. Then a tiny pattering sound caught Sol’s attention, it sounded like heavy drops of blood splashing on floor of the church at the preacher’s feet. He looked down to find something entirely different. Maggots were falling from the man’s muddy vestments, hitting the floor in twos and threes, squirming in an ever-growing pile.
Claude Décembre took immense pleasure in causing his victims to suffer, the gut shot being one of his signature tactics. Thinking he had somehow failed to hit his mark, he fired again, shooting the preacher through the heart.
The shot passed clean through the frail man, though he still did not waver. A new stream of meaty maggots began writhing forth through the perforated robe and falling upon the pulpit.
“Why must you hide your love from God?” he gestured skyward with the Bible.
“Ask him yourself,” said the Frenchman, unloading his pistol.
The preacher only smiled.
Décembre swung the rifle off his shoulder as the congregation moved in on him. The repeating rifle roared, belching lead into the citizens of Blackmud. A bullet caught Isabel in her cheek and exited out the back of her skull, leaving a gaping hole from which only mud flowed.
A foul stench filled the air, increasing in potency with every wound inflicted by Décembre. Sol recalled a time from his youth when he found the hairless and leathery corpse of a wolf in the wilderness. He used a stick to flip the body over, finding it swarming with maggots. It was the smell he remembered the most, that putrid stink of death that nearly caused him to wretch. Presently, the church smelled as if ten such wolves had been exposed.
Décembre screamed from within the crowd as they ripped and tore at him, and his beaver pelt hat went sailing into the pews. Sol observed in horror as blood pooled around the dirt-caked feet of the townsfolk, coagulating into a crimson mud.
The preacher raised his voice in song as he stepped down from the pulpit and walked between the pews to join the others in ending Claude Décembre.
Where is death’s sting, where grave thy victory
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Sol lifted up the heavy bags of gold and swung them around, tossing them through the window glass. Not bothering to clear the remaining shards, he followed the gold out into the turned-up churchyard. Décembre’s screams echoed behind him as he shouldered the gold and set out west as fast as he could hobble.
He followed a narrow trail through the cypress and black gum, only stopping when his burning lungs and quivering legs could carry him no further. The trail wound through the boggy wetlands in a meandering series of switchbacks and loop arounds. With the sun obscured and no compass to guide him, he couldn’t even be sure if he were still moving west or how far he had traveled from Blackmud. He caught his breath and pushed on.
He thought of California as he went. If he could just push through this Godforsaken swamp, he could get a horse or even catch a train, then it was all sunny shores and women of low moral fiber. Claude Décembre was dead and there wasn’t a Pinkerton alive with the sand to catch him now. Yet, even in his visions of spending Caswell Chambers’ gold, images of Isabel, head leaking mud, still upright and walking, crept into his mind. What happened to those people?
The trail Sol followed abruptly ended at a swollen stream of dark, still water. The path picked up on the other side, wider and on firmer ground, as if becoming a road. Rising from the reeds near the road was an ominous looking outpost. It was built from split logs and covered in rotting deer hide. Bone, antlers, and skulls protruded from it in awkward angles. The front end of the lodge sat almost at the water’s edge, the entrance concealed by deerskin curtains, between which only a sliver of darkness was visible. A silvery froth lined the shore in front of it in a wide arc, within which a multitude of debris floated, all of similar shape and size.
It was a distance of about forty feet from one side to the other. Sol examined where the path entered the water; it had all the characteristics of a road that had been washed away. Testing it with his boot, it gave a bit but still held his weight without sinking too deeply. He gathered his strength and stepped into the rank, dark water.
At the halfway point, the water was at his waist but deepening and the muddy bottom was becoming softer. The gold over his shoulders pushed him deeper in the sludge, bending his neck and head down toward the foul-smelling water. He paused, considering returning while still possible, then pushed on through the muck until it was up to his chest.
The familiar howl, loud as a train whistle, carried across the stream. It was a pained, mournful bellowing, equally as wretched as it was terrifying. The frothy water before him began to boil and he realized that the floating objects were dead and rotting fish yet, somehow, they were animated, slapping against the surface in furious, spasmodic seizures. Behind him, the whole lodge was shaking, the skins flapping as if filled with some unseen wind. Something inside thrashed violently, identifying itself as the source of the dreadful wailing.
Sol tried to attain the far shore but at once sank up to his neck in the stream, now more mud than water. His vision dulled to a muted, golden hue that cast a gravely sheen over everything. The scummy waters splashed over his face as the gold-laden bags pulled him deeper; his only recourse to let them go. His tears were lost in the fetid waters as the bags slid from his grasp and were lost. Rising to the surface and gasping for air, the howling of the beast filled his skull.
The deerskin curtains parted and a monstrous creature appeared. It was like a buck, but stood up on its hind legs, taller than the lodge. Bones and festering meat protruded through its hide from all aspects of its anatomy. Its chest was an open cavity of gnashing rib bones and antlers, fused into some tortured kind of mouth. Rather than one head, it had many, wound together in a crown of antlers. It was from this multitude of congealed faces that the pitiful cries were heard.
The creature stamped and thrashed about the shore as the fish splashed through the frothy sickness of the dead river. Even without the gold weighing him down, the mud was taking him. He turned away from the preternatural spectacle, fighting for each breath above the water.
“Are you the boss here, is that it?” he yelled at the thing. “You come to make me like them?”
It extended a bony, meat-stained appendage, as if offering a lifeline.
In the distance, the unmistakable shape of a steamboat approached at an impressive speed. From port to starboard, the craft easily spanned the stream in such a way as to be impossible for it to navigate the narrow waterway without running aground, yet it did not. The somber shapes of shadowy men haunted its decks, lingering emotionless at their posts. At the helm stood the Ferryman, mirthless and proud. Rufus was there, surrounded by a throng of vaguely familiar faces that Sol had eradicated from the living world.
Clambering from the shore came Claude Décembre, rent of flesh and mangled beyond human recognition save for his iconic necklace of thumbs, now held out as some perverse offering to the grim pilot of the ship. The eviscerated Frenchman scaled the hull with bloodied hands, leaving a viscous trail of filth behind as he made his way to the deck and was welcomed by the shades there.
Thick oily water splashed into Sol’s mouth as the dead fish flapped across his face imparting their slimy scales upon him. He reached into his pockets for the loose coins that Isabel had employed as doll eyes. Mud and small rocks had infiltrated every crevasse of his trousers.
“I ain’t for you, Devil, I got my own hell to answer to!”
The beast screeched in rage, thrashing out with its bony arms and stomping the shore. Its cries were cut short by the whistling of the steamboat, plodding down the stream.
Sol placed the coins over his eyes, sinking deeper.
“I’m here for you, Ferryman! Come and get me!” he yelled as his lungs filled with mud.