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Are you a fan of westerns?  Mr. Sager likes to sugar a little horror into his…

Hand to Mouth


JK Sager

            No train tracks led to Fortune and the stage only ran when old man Red decided to sober up. Despite these barriers people found their way into town if their need was high enough. Some came looking for new opportunities while others sought the benefits of the warm dry air. Others? Because they simply had no choice.

            The young man walked in after dawn. Saddlebags slung over his shoulder and a stained cap hid his eyes. Few of the sleepy townspeople gave this new arrival a moment's interest, quickly moving on to more important tasks. If this offended the traveler he gave no indication as he walked down the main street, right hand stuffed into his pocket while his left steadied his burden.

            At the sheriff's office the stranger paused. He was reaching for the handle when a score of voices intruded into his thoughts.

            "Tell us the story Sheriff!"

            "Yeah please? You promised you would tell us this morning!

            "Alright, I figure I did promise." A pause. "So there I was me against a mess of injuns with just my six-gun and no bullets to reload. Now, I don't want to make myself sound like some dime-novel hero or nothing but lets just suffice it to say that I'm standing here, and you don't see no injuns do ya?"

            The stranger smiled as he came up behind the speaker, cocking his head as the man opened his jacket to better show off the star upon his lapel.

            "Not that I'm a barbarian though. I made sure those injuns got themselves back to their place right quick." He smiled, oblivious to the growing looks of concern on the faces of the boys as they saw the big man looming.

            "Funny. Way I heard it told was that two Indians stumbled upon you after you got lost out by the Red Rocks, and the only reason no one got shot was that you dropped your pistol when they popped up." The young sheriff turned, an angry response on his lips. "Well, least that's the way pa wrote it in his letter."

            "Hugh?" Tommy gasped out as the boys beat a hasty retreat. "What the hell you doing here?"

            Hugh frowned. "I got your letter about Pa." He nodded towards the departing kids. "Didn't mean to interrupt your story. Don't worry; I won't be in town long. Be seeing you Tommy."

            He left, strides eating up the distance as Tommy struggled to keep up with him.

            "Wait! For God's sake Hugh, slow the hell down will you?" The sheriff tugged at Hugh's arm, causing the big man to stop. Tommy whispered as Hugh glared at him, eyes searching the town. "I didn't send you that letter to bring you home Hugh."

            "What did you expect me to do Tommy?" He shrugged off the hand. "Pa's dead. Course I came back!"

            Tommy held up his hands. "Alright, I'm sorry. Just do me one favor alright?" At his friend's nod, the Sheriff walked off. "Come see something."


            The tombstones had been chiseled from heavy stone, jutting proudly from the sandy earth. The hill they sat on held a number of these small graves, but Hugh only had eyes for two of them.

            "I figured he would want to be buried next to your ma." Tommy whispered, hat against his chest. "Just seemed right."

            Hugh nodded, saddlebags slipping off his shoulder to the ground below. "I appreciate it."

            "How's the rails?"

            Hugh smirked. "Straight and long, except where they need them bent." He held up his calloused hands. "That's when they call me."

            Tommy looked up. "Is it hard work?"

            "Hard enough. Man ain't careful; he can lose a leg or find a nail driven through his foot." Hugh exhaled, looking up into the noon sky. "Fess up Tommy, you're acting too queer even for you. What happened?"

            Tommy stared down at his boots. "You don't want to hear this Hugh."    

            "Yes I do."

            Tommy sighed. "You won't enjoy it."


The sand storm had struck hard, giving little warning as it exploded from the desert. It was only by luck and experience that any managed to make it to shelter. The unlucky ones could only be thankful that their ends came quickly.

After the storm two men stood over the corpse of a horse, silver stars on their chests and looks of disgust on their faces.

            "I can understand a man getting caught by surprise, a storm like that boiling up so late in the season." The bigger man frowned. "Still, he shouldn't have left his horse out while saving himself. Nostrils are full of sand, mouth too. Bad way to die."

            "Might be one of the greenhorns." Tommy wiped grit from his face. "Mae was saying a couple of new hands showed up night before last. Want me to go find out if either of them left their horse?" No answer. "Kurt?"

            "Well, I'll be damned! You two ok?"

            Tommy squinted as Kurt walked towards the two men who had appeared from the swirling dust. The duo was a study in opposites; one fat and the other whip-thin. The fat one carried a huge pack that wobbled with each step; threatening to topple into the sand. The other walked without burden, cloaked in a black robe like a monk. Long gloves covered his spider-like fingers, vanishing into the sleeves. Tommy shivered at the sight, a silent observer of what was about to take place.

            The sheriff extended his hand as he approached. "Damndest thing I ever saw, making it through a storm like that unscathed! You two are either the toughest hombres I've ever met or the luckiest. Name's Kurt, Kurt Hommler. I'm the sheriff around these parts. Well sheriff and blacksmith, Fortune ain't really big enough to allow every one a job apiece. You strangers looking for something?"

            No answer came. Kurt gazed at the thin man, searching the depths of the hood before turning to his partner. "Your friend here don't seem to be too talkative. Everything alright son?" The fat man nervously looked to his companion before scratching at his face with an open hand. Tommy started as he saw him mouth a pair of words behind his hand.

            "Help me."

            Kurt reached for his gun, spinning to face the tall stranger. Tommy found himself unable to speak much less move to help. The stranger had pulled off the gloves, revealing hands as white as the underbelly of a trout. Before Kurt could draw the stranger slapped his hands against the old man's temples. The sheriff dropped his revolver.

And screamed.


            "He walked right past me after it was done Hugh. Like nothing had happened. Kept right on walking till he got to the shop and went on in. He's been there ever since." Tommy shivered. "Except when he comes out." 

Birds called from the gaunt trees above the graves while Hugh stared through Tommy.

            "And you didn't do nothing?"

            Tommy's face twisted. "You weren't there Hugh! You didn't see it alright? I went for my gun when your Pa fell but, the stranger he just... Looked at me." He paled. "Just looked at me from inside that hood and, and I couldn't do a thing." Tommy shuddered. "None of us can do anything around him. No matter what he does or who he takes back in with him, we just let him."

            Hugh picked up his pack. "Sounds like an excuse Tommy, and excuses ain't answers." His eyes were cold. "Would have thought Pa would have told you that, told me it all the time."

            "Where you going?"

            "You said this stranger is holed up in Pa's old shop." Hugh clenched his hands. "Figure I'd go pay him a visit."

            Tommy's eyes went wide, moving to cut Hugh off before he could go any further. "No! You can't!"

            Hugh eyed the smaller man. "Plan on telling me why?"

            "Listen Hugh, I know how you are feeling. You're angry, and you have every right to be. But if you go after the stranger there ain't going to be anything any of us can do for you." He looked around. "Listen; there is a bunch of us that are trying to find a way to stop him. The fat man I told you about, the one that the stranger keeps like a slave? He says he can help us plan something. He's gonna to sneak away tonight to meet with us. Least listen to what he has to say before you go off like a fool and get yourself killed alright?"

            "Why should I listen to you?"

            "Your pa wouldn't have wanted you to throw your life away, no matter how angry you were at him."

            Hugh frowned. "I'll give you one day."


            The interior of the church was cool and dark just as Hugh remembered. Faces swam before him, some nodding in recognition and others giving him the briefest glance before hurrying off. Different and familiar, they all shared one thing; they were all terrified.

            "I don't see Father Opresko."

            Tommy whispered as a pair of young men passed. "Father Opresko was one of the first that the stranger took. Came out of the smithy at nightfall and stood outside the church grounds until the Father came out to see him." Tommy sighed. "I was sending the letter off to you with the last rider that made it out, but I heard his screams all the way across town." Hugh made to answer, but was cut off as Tommy whispered sharply. "There he is!"

            The rail worker turned and watched as a man so fat that he could only waddle approached. Some nodded to the newcomer, who responded with a nervous twitch that set his jowls bouncing.

            "That's who you made me wait for?"

            "Shhh! Listen!"

            The man made his way to the front of the group. Nervously running his hands through his hair, the egg-shaped man spoke up.

            "Hello everyone. Th... Thank you for having me" A few murmured responses gave him courage, and he continued on. "My name is Wilhelm Dooney and I am - well, was - a professor at Cambridge college. That's in England." He licked his thick lips. "Are any of you familiar?"

            "Tell us about the man!"


            Wilhelm flinched. "Of course, of course. Yes, yes. You wouldn't want to know about me. I'm sorry, so sorry." Smoothing his hair again, he continued. "I met the Stranger when I was on expedition to Russia around ten years ago doing research work on my lithograph on -"

            "We don't care!"

            "Russia? Where's that?"

            "How do we kill it?"

            Tommy said the last. As people stared he repeated his question. "How do we kill it? I can't even draw my gun when I see it. It... It's like I can't even move."

            The fat man nodded as murmurs of agreement filled the church. "I've seen brave men fall sobbing before the Stranger my friend, don't feel weak. We discovered him in an ancient crypt buried deep in the ice floes of Siberia. My companion and I were researching an ancient Russian tome when we found him encased in the glacial ice. Oliver wanted to thaw him out, which we did against my better judgment." His eyes fell to the ground. "His was the first life I saw the Stranger take."

            Whispers ran around the room, cut short when Hugh barked out a question.

            "What is it?"

            The fat man closed his eyes. "It is Hunger. Pure and unadulterated Hunger. It lives only to feed, moving from place to place in search of sustenance. It does not know fear, but it uses it all the same." The eyes opened and stared upon Tommy. "That is why you cannot draw your weapon Sheriff. The Stranger shows you your fear, your failings, your nightmares." He shivered. "I know. Every day I live with it."

            "Then how do we kill it." Hugh asked again.

            "You can't, or at least not in any way I know of. The only reason it ever leaves a feeding ground is because there are too many that know about it. This town and all of its inhabitants it can keep under its power, but if you were to somehow bring more people here..."

            "The military!" Tommy struck the pew. "Fort Churchill is just fifteen or twenty miles due east of here right? A rider could get there within a day if the weather holds."

            "You forget about Reggie?" The woman who spoke was finely dressed and Hugh recognized her as Mae, the owner of the hotel. "I sent my man into Christina to get supplies and see about bringing the law into town when Tommy didn't go after the stranger for killing old sheriff Hommler." She bit her bottom lip. "That cloaked bastard snuck up behind him like a shadow as he was loading the wagon. Reggie died not even knowing what was happening."

            "Maybe it only knew because Reggie was packing." Tommy looked around the room for support. "It would have to be fast. Not even using a horse this time. A man could run to the Fort, it would be tough but it could be done."

            The fat man nodded eagerly. "Yes, runners! Fast ones with no planning. It, it could work. If the Stranger doesn't know about it and they go fast enough, he won't be able to stop them!"

            Tommy's idea was quickly picked up and the two young men who had earlier passed them eagerly accepted the responsibility. Hugh watched as the mood in the room lightened, as if all their problems had been solved. Glowering under his cap, the rail worker stared at Wilhelm as he quickly made excuses about the Stranger looking for him before scurrying out the door as fast as his chubby legs could propel him. Ignoring Tommy's repeated pounding of his back Hugh merely frowned. It all seemed too easy.


            Morning found Hugh and Tommy standing atop the general store, a handful of the men from the meeting arraigned around them.

            "Jethro's boy is a born runner. Fall before last he raced against my horse on a bet and damn near came close to holding his own. Was a sight to see I tell you."

            "Kelly's kid ain't no slouch either. Bet you a nickel they are at the Fort before sundown."


            Hugh accepted the tin cup from Tommy without comment, eyes locked on the blacksmiths shop as he sipped the brew.

            "He hasn't been out in awhile. Took one of the drunkards out of Mae's a week ago." He laughed. "So far it was the only one nobody cried for."

            "And you just let it take him?" Hugh tossed the coffee over the side of the roof. "Just like you let it take Pa?"

            "Hugh, you don't under-"

            "Shut up! They're going!"

            The front door to the store opened, creaking in the morning air. Peeking around for any sign of the Stranger, the young men stepped into view. Hugh kept his eyes on the curtained windows of the smith shop, dreading any moment to see the door fly open and reveal the enigmatic figure that he had heard so much of but had yet to see.

            "There they go!"

            Tommy's muted exclamation made them all lean forward. The boy's boots thumped against the packed earth as they went, breath loud in the stillness of the morning. Everyone on the roof held theirs in turn, watching as they ran on.

            "Go... Go... Go!" Tommy gripped the wood, nails biting deep. Hugh looked over, daring to believe that they would actually make it.

            "They did it!" Tommy's eyes glazed with emotion as the two broke free of the town. "They made it! The army will be here soon and everything will be ok. See Hugh? Your pa will be avenged!"

            Hugh was about to answer when motion caught his eye. Ignoring the celebration of his fellow watchers the rail worker searched the distant hills as the boys ran on.

            "Oh no..."

            The words were barely a whisper, but it was enough to draw everyone's attention. Tommy was at his side in a heartbeat, pushing his hat back to get a better view.

            "What is it?"


            They were low to the ground, slinking evilly behind the boys like shadows. So quiet was their approach that the two did not hear them, and so far away were they that Tommy's halting attempt at a warning echoed out uselessly as the beasts leapt into the air with fearsome fangs bared.

            Hugh looked away at the last moment, throwing his cup against the wall. The rest of the group watched morbidly, some retching at the sight. Soon only Tommy was watching, tears streaming down his cheeks.

            "How... That's not possible!"

            "Many are the Strangers servants it seems, each more wicked than the last."

            Hugh looked up, face contorting as he saw the fat man leaning against the stairway. Sweat stained his clothes and he gasped for air as if he himself had just run a long distance.

            "And just how wicked are you?"

            The professor blanched at Hugh's words, looking wildly from him to Tommy and back. "Me? I just want to help! I've seen the awful things the Stranger can do, what he is capable of. I just awoke and found him gone and was coming to warn everyone. I... I think I was too late."

            Tommy placed a hand on Hugh's shoulder. "Wilhelm is just as scared as us Hugh. This ain't no time to be picking fights amongst ourselves."

            His jowls bounced as he nodded. "Yes, Yes! A thousand times yes! I would never send such young men to their deaths, it is pointless!" He looked terrified and sad at once. "There has to be a way to stop him, there just has to!" He teetered and fell, tears running down his cheeks. Tommy gave Hugh a look and went to his side. Hugh turned away from the crying man to look upon the smithy. Whatever else happened the fat man was right about one thing. There had to be a way to stop it.


            Tommy awoke to chaos.

             Hurriedly dressing as screams echoed outside the window, the Sheriff banged on Hugh's door. "Something's going on Hugh! Get up!" Not waiting, he barreled out the front door and grabbed the first person he saw running past.

            "What's going on?"

            "It's the church!" The man's face was familiar, and Tommy recognized him as Mae's oldest son. "It's on fire!"

            Tommy let go of the boy with nerveless fingers. "We have to get a water line going; it's too close to the general store to let burn on much longer. Tell Kelly to bring his wagon around, maybe we can use the rain barrels to." He trailed off, ignoring the young man's confusion as he looked back over his shoulder. His eyes widened and he took off running. "Tell Kelly he's gonna have to take care of this!"

            "Where you going Sheriff?"

            Tommy called back. "The smithy!"



            The door burst into splinters as Hugh kicked it. Knocking away the few fragments that remained he stepped in, peering at the darkness.

            The windows were blacked out, covered in cloth that allowed only the dimmest light in. The air swam with dust and perfumed smoke, making his eyes water and mouth taste odd. Blinking his eyes, the rail worker pulled back the hammers on the shotgun and yelled out.

            "Where you at? I've come for my due!"

            There was a creak. Hugh spun, seeking out the source of the sound. A tall and lean shape, like a shadow given form, rose from behind his father's desk. No features were evident, only a deep hooded darkness. A pair of leather gloves peeked out from huge sleeves and the robes brushed against the wood as the shadow-form moved.

            "Kurt Hommler was my father." Hugh raised the shotgun. "Die."


            The blast rocked Hugh, shoulder aching from the explosion. He waved his hand, coughing violently as he sought to disperse the smoke.

            Only to stagger back as the lean black shape floated through the smoke towards him!

            "No... It can't be!" The rail worker shook. "No way in Hell!" He fumbled with the weapon, struggling to break it open. He heard hurried footsteps, and a familiar voice rang out.

            "Run you fool! Run!" The fat professor gasped. "You can't stop him! Nothing can! Run!"

            Hugh ignored the advice and slammed in a final shell, straightening the weapon with a snap. "I ain't gonna... Run." The last was barely whispered as Hugh's eyes fell upon the creature. The lead had caught the Stranger full in the chest, a deathly strike on any mortal creature. To this fearsome entity, however, the shot had done nothing more than tear its robe and blow back the cowl. Nothing hid the patchwork face of the creature, all jagged stitches and ragged slits for eyes. Hair fell in little bundles and the flesh was the color of a fish's belly. Yet this was not the worst. Instead, it was the sight of the bare hands that stopped him. Bare hands that were home to a pair of round mouths, suction-cupped tongues lapping at the air while pointed teeth loomed. Bare hands that he managed to stop a bare inch from his head as the Stranger crashed into him, sending them tumbling to the ground!


            Outside the sounds of the townsfolk struggling to calm the church fire ruled, but inside the smithy Hugh heard only his own gasping breath as he struggled to hold off his demise.

            "I told you to run! I told you!" The fat man whimpered. "And now you are going to die!"

            Hugh grunted in response, bringing his knee up once, twice, three times into the Stranger's side. Even as the effort weakened him, the hideous creature grew stronger, ignoring the blows as the hands pushed ever lower. Sweat poured from his forehead, arms quivering as the strength escaped them. He closed his eyes, whispering through grit teeth.

            "I'm sorry pa."


            Hugh's eyes opened as the weight of the Stranger left him. Tools clattered to the ground as he pulled himself up, struggling to see the new form the creature was grappling with. Hugh gasped, crying out the name of his savior.


            But he was too late. With languid motions, the Stranger shrugged off Tommy's ineffectual assault; slapping its long fingered hands firmly against the young sheriff's skull.


            Tommy screamed, body going taut as the creature threw back its head; veins pulsing as the hideous mouths assaulted his friend. The rail worker let out a wordless cry and prepared to throw his life away in a vain attempt at revenge.

            When, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the fat man... Smiling.

            Why he did what he did next, Hugh could never explain. What gave him the strength or the conviction he would go to his grave pondering. But when he looked fully upon the fat man, something told him the truth. Perhaps it was the smile, or the way that the muscles in his jaw moved as if chewing. Perhaps it was the way that his stomach swelled as the creature fed. Perhaps it was all of these things or none of them. All that Hugh knew as he pulled a heavy hammer off the wall and hurled it was that what he was doing was right. What was needed.

            The hammer struck the professor square in the forehead, forever erasing that hideous smile from the world. As the fat man fell dead to the floor like a brained steer a shriek filled the air, and Hugh turned back with visions of those awful hands closing upon him. Yet no pain came.

            The Stranger was on its knees; hands removed from Tommy's broken body and held up straight into the air. The horrific keening bellowed forth not from the Stranger, but from those opened mouths on its hands; teeth slamming together and cutting the tongues to pieces. Hugh fell as the sound grew, threatening his sanity as the windows shattered. It ended as quickly as it began, and the Stranger fell to the floor; nothing but dust and straw balled within a long cloak.

            Leaving Hugh alone with two dead men.


            "Mae's kid came back from Christina a couple days past, brought us a new sheriff along with the army. Can't say they believe what happened here though." Hugh toyed with his cap, big fingers twisting the fabric this way and that. "The army boys looked for those coyotes and the bodies, but couldn't find nothing. Asked a couple questions about those that are missing too but the townsfolk didn't say much." The big man sighed.

            "I'm heading out tomorrow morning actually, so I just wanted to stop by and thank you again Tommy." A pause. "If it wasn't for you, I'd be dead now and that thing would still be ruling this town. You did a good thing, a damn good thing." Hugh blinked. "I don't blame you for Pa either, I know now what that thing was like so... Yeah."

            Tugging out a square of paper, the rail worker looked down at it before placing it atop the marker, weighing it down with a stone. Stepping away from the grave, Hugh put on his cap and wiped at his eyes. "I best be going Tommy. I'm sorry I never said it but, thank you. I'll be seeing you."

            Hugh turned back towards the town. The wind ruffled the paper, pulling it away from its perch to flutter to the grave below. Upon that faded paper two familiar boys stood, arms on each others shoulders, smiling towards an unseen photographer.