The following short story is my Christmas gift to you. We’ve all had a tough year, and I hope this little parody will make you laugh and forget for a brief time the troubles of our mixed-up world. It’s not exactly a Christmas story, but it’s what I’ve got. Sorry about the zombies, too.
The Lady Sheriff of Gristle Creak
The first thing I noticed about Lili Darkling was that she was alive. Now, no woman, be she ever so homely, rides through the Territory all by her lonesome. Apart from it not being proper behavior for a woman, she’d wind up raped and dead within the day even if she weighed 400 pounds and had bearded warts all over. Not only did Lili ride into town alone, she rode a shiny black horse almost as pretty as she was. If I’m any judge of horseflesh—and I am—that steed of hers was a purebred Arabian, about as common as diamonds in these parts.
To be honest, I would have noticed her anyhow, being a man in the prime of life and kind of hankering after a wife. Lili was a mighty striking woman. Tall and slender, with that whippy look. Black hair, done up under a hat that was more suited to a cowhand than a woman. And blue, blazing blue eyes. A sweet sight, for all she was dressed a bit mannish.
Later I heard she was applying for sheriff. We’d never had a female sheriff before—nobody had—but there wasn’t any real doubt about hiring Lili. We desperately needed a sheriff, and if some woman wanted the job, I guess that made her about the only human being that did. The town council voted before Lili said a single word, and it was unanimous.
But I have been forgetting my manners and have not introduced myself. I am Doctor William Cantrell. Call me Doc. I am the only physician here in Gristle Creak. (That’s pronounced “Grizzly Creek.” Our founder was a great man, but he could neither spell nor abide any criticism.) Despite the town’s small size and our remote and undesirable location here in the Territory, there is more than enough work for a sawbones, alas. More than ever lately, what with the vampires and zombies.
Which is why we needed a sheriff. We went through about one sheriff per month for a while. But I guess the word got out, and the stream of applicants dried up like spit on a griddle. It turns out the techniques that succeed pretty regularly with bandits and bar brawlers aren’t near as effective when dealing with the undead. Townspeople had taken to betting how many days it would take for each new sheriff to wind up either drained of blood or missing his brains. The one before Lili held the record, I think. Fifty-eight days before they found him hanging from a meat hook down at Hanson’s Butchery.
The trouble started about three years back. I was riding back from Jed Holstrup’s place outside of town. Jed didn’t live out there, but he had some cowpokes running cattle on his land, and one of them had turned up dead. Brainless, in fact. I’d been called out there to certify the death, but I was stumped, never having seen a man without his brains before. In the normal way of things when a man’s brainpan gets opened up, the brains might spill out, but they don’t disappear. In this case, the man’s skull was smashed open and the inside of his head was as innocent of gray matter as my pipe was of tobacco, me having run out some time before and Smith’s General Emporium not expecting any for another fortnight.
So I was ambling back to town on my old horse, puzzling over the brainless cowboy, when I saw the zombie. At first, I thought it was Jake, the town drunk—one of them, anyway. He was a real skinny man, staggering along like Jake on a Saturday night after he’d caged a few drinks down at the Gristle Creak Saloon. I rode up to him, intending to say howdy and make sure he was all right out there on his own, drunk as I thought he was. But I got a little closer and saw the gray-green, peeling flesh, the bones showing through, and the lipless mouth exposing brown, broken teeth. Jake ain’t the prettiest thing you ever saw, but he’s a sight better than the thing that was stumbling along the dusty road into town. I wheeled my mount around and lit out for town as fast as poor Jupiter could gallop.
That’s when we lost the first sheriff to the zombies. All it took was one. I thundered into town and swung down in front of the sheriff’s office, screaming my head off. Sheriff Yurnameer must’ve thought I’d gone off the rails, but he mounted his horse and went down the road to investigate.
When the zombie finally slouched into town, he had fresh sheriff all over him. A bunch of us surrounded the zombie and tried to kill it, but it wasn’t easy. He was perfectly comfortable losing a few limbs or his innards so long as he could smell human flesh. It was Miss Prinkett from the upstairs part of the saloon—you know what I mean—who brought a bucket of kerosene, doused the zombie, and set him on fire with someone’s stogie. That seemed to solve the problem, and we all went to the saloon to toast Miss Prinkett and congratulate her on her quick thinking. The congratulations went on all night as I recall.
But the zombies kept turning up. We could handle the singles pretty effectively—we started calling it the “Prinkett Fix”—but if someone encountered a zombie on their own, or if there were more than a couple of them, we were in deep trouble. We soon ran dangerously low on kerosene.
We could’ve held our own, though, if it hadn’t been for the vampires. It started on a fine spring day so bright and sweet I almost didn’t mind that that the mud in the main street was halfway up my shins. I was talking with Jed Holstrup, the ranch owner whose cowpoke started the whole thing. Jed was doing awfully well for a rancher, and we were all proud of him, because everyone else was pretty much scrabbling just to get by. But Jed—he was our golden boy. He’d acquired some mighty pretty suits all the way from San Francisco and I heard tell he was planning to build a big new house now that he and his pretty bride—she that had been Annie Whitethorn—had produced one beautiful little girl, with another on the way.
Anyhow, Jed and I were talking about the zombie problem. Jed was saying he thought they wandered in from the badlands. Nobody really knew what was out there, Jed pointed out. I was arguing that someone must bring them here a-purpose. Why anyone would do that was beyond me, but a man’s got to have a point of view, or there’s nothing to argue about. That was when Pearline came pelting down the street from the saloon, shrieking like the devil was snapping at her heels.
Pearline under full sail is a sight to behold. She is a woman of enormous and abundant charms, if I may say so, and most of those charms were fully evident now because Pearline had departed her place of employment without pausing to dress. She had a few filmy tatters streaming behind her like a wake, but that was all. Jed found a tarpaulin to cover her while she sobbed out her story.
“It’s Miss Prinkett!” she wailed. “She’s dead! Somebody musta kilt her!”
“Does she still have her brains?” I enquired, fearing another zombie attack.
“Yes! But, but, but …” and Pearline was off again like a siren and I couldn’t get one more sensible word from her. Nothing for it but to examine the body, so I trotted down to the Gristle Creak Saloon to take a look.
Sure enough, Miss Prinkett still had all of her quick-thinking brains. She wasn’t going to be using them anymore because she no longer possessed any blood. Cause of death was straightforward: complete exsanguination via two puncture wounds in the carotid artery. On the surface, it was a classic case of vampirism, but I was reluctant to note this on the death certificate. Adding vampires to zombies as the leading causes of death in Gristle Creak could completely discredit my reputation as a man of science. I noted cause of death as “vam-pyric attack,” hoping if the papers were ever audited this might be taken for some sort of systemic failure.
After the vampires started showing up, the town was under siege. Turns out a lot of the things we thought we knew about vampires and zombies just weren’t so. Garlic, for instance. Vampires appear to appreciate a good garlicky blood feed, judging by their preference for those who turned to the stinking rose for protection. Crosses and silver were useless—I told everybody that, but no one believed me until it was too late. You couldn’t shoot, stab or bludgeon a vampire or a zombie to death. We began to bury exsanguinated townspeople with stakes through their hearts, and that was wonderfully effective—I never saw another one of them again once they’d been planted. Of course, the brainless ones never posed a problem, but each new corpse meant one less person to help us fight against the forces of darkness.
So I was happy to see Lili Darkling step out of the sheriff’s office her first day on the job, six-shooter on each womanly hip, brass star twinkling in the sun. I walked over, stuck my hand out, and said, “Sheriff, we all wish you the best of luck. Let me know if there’s anything a-tall I can do to help.”
I was only trying to be polite—I was already up to my elbows in doctoring. But she fixed those mesmerizing blue eyes on me and said, “Why thanks, Doc. I could use your help, now you mention it. I deputize you in the name of the law.”
I spluttered a bit, but she paid me no mind. In the end, I saddled up Jupiter and drifted glumly over to the sheriff’s office. Turned out she wanted me to help her get the lay of the land. Maybe if we rode around outside town we’d see something useful. I had my doubts, but followed her obediently.
We had plenty of time to talk as we rode. Lili wanted to know how it got started, so I told her about the first victim, that cowpoke out at Holstrup’s place. She nodded and said, “Let’s start there.”
“Why? That was three years ago.”
“Just show me the way, Deputy,” she replied, so I did.
As we neared the Holstrup place, I asked, “Why’d you want to be sheriff of Gristle Creak?”
She was silent for a bit, head bowed and the creak of saddle leather and the clop of our horses’ hooves the only sounds. “I don’t rightly know,” she said at last. “I saw the advertisement in the paper. Gristle Creak sounded like my kind of place. I sort of felt I had to come.”
I was satisfied with that, and by now we had reached the little ranch house. We swung off the horses, tied them to the corral railing and hailed the house. Out here in the Territory—especially these days—you don’t just walk up to someone’s door and knock—not unless you want to get shot, that is. The polite and safe thing to do is to stand well away from the door in plain sight and halloo. That way they can take a moment to decide whether to shoot, so the odds of surviving your visit are a deal better.
A head poked cautiously out the door. It was Petey, one of Holstrup’s boys. I greeted him, and he said, “Hi, Doc. Who’s the little lady?”
“I’m Sheriff Lili Darkling,” Lili said, her face stern. “Doc here’s my deputy now. We’re investigating these … murders, and I understand the first one was right here.”
“That’s so,” Petey said. “C’mon in. We got some coffee going and it ain’t too burnt yet. What can we do for you?”
So we drank strong black coffee out of blue-enameled mugs and asked Petey, Eb and Zeke a lot of questions. They didn’t mind. Truth to tell, they were pleased as bull-pups with a marrowbone to have some company out there. Then the sheriff asked Eb if he had seen any zombies on the ranch since his partner had been killed.
Eb, a long, dried-out string of a man, bobbed his Adam’s apple and nodded. “Yes’m, I sure have,” he replied, fear at the back of his worried eyes. “Every now and again I have to go looking for strays up in the box canyon. That’s where I seen ‘em, mostly. Zombies, I mean.”
Lili’s eyes lit up, making her beauty nearly lethal. She’s going to have to learn to tone that down, I thought, or there’s going to be mayhem in the streets. Then I recalled there was already mayhem in the streets. “You ever see them anywhere else on the spread?” she asked eagerly, leaning forward. I reflected that she probably shouldn’t lean forward, either.
Eb looked like someone had just clobbered him on the head with a branding iron, but he replied, “No’m. Yes’m. I mean, no, I don’t see them anyplace else, Ma’am.”
Lili patted Eb’s knee, nearly causing him to lose consciousness. “You’re a good man, Eb! C’mon, Doc. Let’s go explore that box canyon.” We got directions from Petey, who could still talk, and we set off. Three heads poked out of the little house’s windows, staring after us.
“Y’all be careful now,” Petey called, but the other two just gawked. They don’t see womenfolk out there too much, and Lili was good for a couple hundred of the usual kind.
The ride up to the box canyon took maybe an hour or two, but the sheriff and I didn’t talk much. I guess we were both pondering what we would do if we got there and encountered zombies. I didn’t know what Lili had in mind, and she wasn’t saying. For my own part, I had brung along a bottle of kerosene and some lucifers—the Prinkett Fix. I wasn’t worried about vampires—they always attacked at night. We hadn’t figured out why, because they could walk around in broad daylight just like regular citizens, but night was the only time they ever attacked.
It was a mighty pretty day for a ride. Birds were singing their little hearts out, and there were buckets of wildflowers. The air was warm and sweet, for the scorching heat of summer hadn’t gotten its feet under itself yet. I watched a pair of butterflies courting and thought what a grand day this would be for a picnic with my sweetheart. If I had a sweetheart. If I weren’t riding around looking for brain-gobbling ambulatory corpses.
Weathered pillars of pink sandstone, layered like a cake, concealed the entrance to the box canyon. But Petey had told us the way, and we had no trouble winding through the narrow passage into a lush little canyon. There was a stream flowing through it, fed from a waterfall spilling down the cliffs at the back of the canyon. Cottonwoods and willows grew thickly by the water, and there was plenty of pasturage. I could see why some of those strays wound up in this canyon; it was a tiny paradise.
Except possibly for the zombie. This one was female, but that makes no nevermind when you’re talking about the walking dead—they’re all bad eggs. Anyhow, this one was standing under a cottonwood tree, staring at us. Well, her one remaining eye was staring at us, though from what I’d seen, they didn’t really need eyes. She wasn’t moving.
We were maybe a quarter of a mile away from the zombie when we saw it, and our horses’ nostrils caught the stink of deliquescing rotten flesh. They began to crow-hop and whinny. “Maybe we should stop here, Sheriff,” I said. “The horses ain’t hankering to get any closer.”
She agreed, and we sat in our saddles, regarding the motionless zombie. “Looks harmless from here,” Lili said.
“I got some kerosene with me,” I told her.
“Naw. Not yet. Let’s see if there’s any more around,” Lili said.
I was disinclined to seek out more of the walking dead, but I kept my peace. We waited for a good half-hour, the zombie standing there like a war monument, and us on our skittish horses. Then there was movement in the trees behind that unmoving figure. A line of zombies emerged from the undergrowth along a well-worn trail. They were hefting burlap sacks, like the kind you store potatoes in. When they sighted us, they set the sacks down on the ground all at the same time like they were rehearsing a dance-hall routine, and began shuffling toward us in the now-familiar zombie attack mode: arms extended, heads lolling, feet stumbling.
“Boss, I don’t have enough kerosene for that mob,” I said, but Lili was already wheeling her horse around.
“Hyah! Back to town!” she yelled, and her fancy black horse sped off toward the canyon entrance. Jupiter needed no encouragement, and I caught up with her easily. Once we left the canyon, we stopped to see if the zombies were following. We waited maybe an hour because zombies are powerful slow, but nothing ever emerged from the canyon.
We rode back to town in the late afternoon, the shadows of the mountains stretching purple across the chaparral. Lil was thoughtful and quiet for a while, but finally she asked, “Doc, what d’you reckon those things are carrying around in those sacks? Even more interesting, why are they carrying whatever it is? And all those zombies together. You ever seen that many in one place before?”
I shook my head. “No, Sheriff, I surely have not. As to the sacks—well, I kinda hate to speculate on that.” I repressed a shudder. I was afraid to imagine what might be in those burlap bags.
“I’m thinking maybe we ought to call on Mr. Holstrup. That box canyon is on his property, so might be he has some notion of what’s happening,” said Lili.
I turned in Jupiter’s saddle to face her. “You’re a brave woman, and that’s a fact. You haven’t been in Gristle Creak very long, Ma’am, but you should know right now that Jed Holstrup is the richest man in this town. He pretty much runs this town, for all he ain’t an elected official. I’d advise caution.”
Her delicate black brows frowned, looking somehow enchantingly like a moth’s antennae. “Well, I’ll take that under advisement, Deputy. Night’s coming on and we’d best leave it to morning. Good night.”
I went home and blocked all the doors and windows, as usual. I even had the chimney blocked off. I had run a narrow stovepipe from my cast-iron wood stove out through the wall, making sure that there were steel mesh blockages several places along the pipe just in case someone tried to get clever and enter as a bat. We had discovered that while vampires were greedy and vicious, they were also lazy. If you made it really hard to get at you, you had a better than average chance of waking up in the morning and still seeing your reflection in the mirror. Yes, that particular bit of lore is true; vampires have no reflections. Of course, that was no good to us. All it meant is that the females always looked like sinister circus clowns; they wore a lot of cosmetics but couldn’t use a mirror to apply them properly.
Next morning Lili was still hell-bent on seeing Holstrup, so we both called at his home. Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, opened the door to us after peeking cautiously through the curtains, her thick blonde hair piled high atop her head like a proper matron (though I recalled it used to tumble down her back in a waterfall of gold). I introduced the sheriff and asked if Jed was to home. He was, and Mrs. Holstrup showed us into the sitting room.
Jed strode in, wearing one of his pretty suits. He had a shirt of whitest linen, set off with a Chinese silk cravat, and a yellow brocade vest under a black frockcoat. His black kid boots gleamed like wet tar. He shook my big paw, but stooped over Lili’s little white hand and kissed it like he was Sir Water Raleigh. I snorted audibly, but Lili didn’t react at all. She just said calmly, “Mr. Holstrup, we want to ask you a few questions about those zombies on your ranch.”
He continued to smile, but somehow, it was no longer flirtatious. “I know nothing about them, Miss Darkling.”
“Sheriff Darkling,” Lili corrected.
“Sheriff. Nonetheless, I can tell you nothing. I go out there only a few times a year, and I have never personally seen any zombies on my property.”
“Me and Doc were out there yesterday. We saw a whole passel of ‘em in that box canyon north of the ranch house,” Lili said, her eyes fixed intently on his. “Any idea what they were doing out there?”
“I haven’t any notion, Sheriff.”
“Do you know what’s in those bags?”
For the first time, Jed looked nonplussed. “Bags? What bags? No, I haven’t the slightest idea. Wish I could help—I’d love to see those devils gone for good myself, you know.”
Lili looked at him for a full minute. Then she said, “Thanks for your time. Let’s be going, Doc.”
Lili didn’t say anything about this conversation, but she told me we were going back to the box canyon. That very day, no less. I filled several canteens with what kerosene I could find. I checked to make sure I had my lucifers. Lili brought her supply of kerosene as well, so I figured we were probably in for some action.
I tried talking to Lili on the way to the canyon, but she wasn’t much inclined. Finally I asked, “Why’d you pick me as deputy, Sheriff? Seems to me there’s other men better qualified, but I’m the town’s only doctor.”
She looked round at me from atop her pretty horse. “Took one look at you and I knew you were the man for the job. Knew you wouldn’t let me down in a tight spot. Think I’m right about that, Doc?”
Well, there wasn’t but one answer I could make to that, so I nodded and we continued on, the clopping of our horses’ hooves the only conversation between us. When we reached the entrance to the canyon, Lili silently dismounted and secured her horse’s reins to a cottonwood. I did likewise. Taking our canteens of kerosene along with our pistols, we walked the rest of the way, careful to tread quietly and keep to available cover.
Once inside the canyon, we moved cautiously through the trees along the little stream, heading for the back of the valley. We made slow progress, as we had no desire to inform the zombies we were on the way. The path the zombies used seemed too risky, so we moved through the underbrush, making it rough going. At one point, an impenetrable thicket forced us back to the path, which was fortunate, because otherwise we never would‘ve seen the gold.
Lucky that Lili had such sharp eyes. It was just a little chunk, lying to one side of the trodden dirt trail. She picked it up and it shone like pure sunlight in the palm of her hand. We stood there for some minutes, gaping at it.
“Fool’s gold, d’you think?” I asked.
“Naw,” Lili said, and pointed a slender forefinger at the rounded shape. “If it was fool’s gold, there’d be sharp crystals, maybe layers. This here’s rounded. It’s a real bright color, too. It’s gold.”
I didn’t think to ask how she knew, but I was sure she was right. “Think that’s what the zombies are hauling around in those bags?”
Lili gave the gold nugget a last, loving look and tucked it into her pocket. “I sure do, Doc. Let’s take a closer look at the back of this canyon.”
It took a long time to get back there because we knew if we were sighted by the zombie gang, we’d have a hard time getting out of there alive. We crawled on our bellies and snuck through the bushes and tiptoed like little girls playing at hide and seek. When we finally arrived at the back of the canyon, we saw a line of zombies staggering in and out of a cleft in the cliff wall. Further observation revealed the cleft to be the opening of a cave. The zombies would shuffle in with limp, empty bags. Then they’d shuffle out again, each with a laden bag.
I felt a deep sense of revulsion, watching these things go about their strange business. The only sound they made was a slow dragging as their feet shuffled along over the earth, with an occasional nauseating splat when a random part fell off and hit the ground. The smell was beyond anything a civilized man would’ve encountered, unless maybe he was a grave robber. Being a doctor I am no stranger to bad smells, but this lot had it beat all to Kingdom Come for pure, unadulterated stench.
“Follow,” Lili hissed softly, nudging me. I deduced she meant follow the zombies with the gold, and began edging away from the scene. We did a lot more belly crawling as we tracked the undead, but they didn’t go to the entrance of the little box canyon. About halfway to the entrance, they veered sharply off, following another trail. They shambled in silence toward the west wall of the canyon, coming finally to a small, windowless shack hidden among some piñon trees. Each zombie entered the shack laden with a full sack and exited a moment later with an empty one.
Sitting a ways off hidden by trees and brush, I whispered to Lili, “Want to use the Prinkett Fix on ‘em now?”
She shook her dark head. “I’m more interested in who’s gonna come and pick up the gold. I never heard tell of a zombie that cared anything for gold. Or money. Or anything. ‘Cept maybe brains.”
I had to admit she had a point there, so we waited all that blessed afternoon, as the walking dead marched painfully along, depositing their precious burdens in the shack and then departing. As the shadows lengthened and the canyon began to darken, shaded by its walls, no more zombies appeared. Apparently, production had ceased for the day. But we waited, still hidden nearby, making as little noise as possible.
To amuse myself during the long wait, I tried to identify birdcalls. I identified quail, scrub jay, roadrunner, mourning dove, and pygmy owl, but I was having trouble with a new one. The call reminded me of the squeak of new leather boots, a sort of constant creak creak creak like a cricket. By the time I felt the rifle barrel poke me in the back, I had just about figured out that it actually was the creak of a pair of new boots and that someone had been stealthily creeping up behind us.
“Afternoon, Sheriff, Doc,” said Jed Holstrup. “I can’t say as how I’m too happy to see you, though. Get up, now, and let’s move on back to the mine. ‘Bout suppertime for my … men. Throw your pieces on the ground.” He grinned. We complied.
Lili looked up at him. “Thought it might be you, Holstrup,” she said. “So would I be right in thinking that you brought the zombies here? That’s a pretty sweet berth you found yourself here—gold mine, free labor, no losses. Run some cattle to pretend you got a legitimate operation out here. Am I right?”
“That’s about the size of it,” Holstrup agreed. “They’re hard working, too. Feedin’ ‘em has been my most pressing problem. Only reason they wander away and bother folks is if they’re hungry. Otherwise you’d a never known they was here.”
“Bothering folks.” That’s what he called cracking people’s skulls and sucking their brains out.
“So how do you feed them, Jed?” Lili asked sweetly, for all the world like she was taking tea back in town and making polite chitchat.
“Well, now, that’s where the vampires come in,” Holstrup said, puffing his chest out like he was a proud daddy. “I ain’t really had too many runaways since I invited the vampires in—yes, that’s true, you really do have to invite them. Anyhow, the vampires provide a regular supply of fresh brains. Zombies don’t mind rustling up their own dinner.” I pictured the newly turned graves in the cemetery outside town and shuddered.
After a bit Lili pipes up again, “I know you’re gonna kill us, Holstrup. But we might as well go in comfort. I need a drink, and I bet Doc here does, too.” She hefted one of her canteens and looked at me.
“I could use one last smoke,” I responded. “Jed, you’d let a condemned man have his last pipe, wouldn’t you?”
Holstrup didn’t even look annoyed or impatient. “Sure,” he said. “I got all the time in the world.” He kept his rifle pointed at us, but leaned comfortably against a cottonwood.
I pulled out my pipe and filled it. As Lili pretended to take a swig of water from a canteen, I lit a lucifer.
“This water tastes terrible,” Lili commented as she poured the canteen’s contents on the dusty earth near Jed’s feet. I flicked the match before Jed had the opportunity to react to the smell of kerosene. The resulting fireball would’ve startled a man with better nerves than Jed; he dropped his rifle and leaped away, cursing and shouting. Of course, by that time I had the rifle and Jed was on the wrong end of the argument. Once he’d put out the flames I examined him and he wasn’t hardly burned a-tall.
Which is more than I can say for the zombies. Lili and I pretty much Prinketted the lot of them right there in the mine. We gathered up all the loose pieces and burned them, too, just in case.
So that was all right and satisfactory, except that now it was well past sunset. We decided not to attempt the ride into town at this hour, as there was too much risk of vampire attack. Also, we wanted to make sure there was nothing left of the zombies but ashes. So we decided to camp in the box canyon for the night.
I fetched the horses, our two and Jed’s handsome bay. There were enough emergency rations in the saddlebags to feed three people, plus more lucifers and canteens filled with actual water. We tied Jed up to a tree, built a campfire and commenced to jawing about the day’s events.
“Why’d you want to go and bring a mess of zombies in here, Jed?” asked Lili. “Couldn’t you just work the mine with a few of your ranch hands? You’d have to pay ‘em, of course.”
Jed didn’t seem especially neighborly, but he replied right enough, “Cain’t trust them boys. They’da stole me blind. You can trust zombies. They work hard and they don’t ask nothing in return. ‘Cept brains. The vampires, though, they been a bit of a problem. I can see that.”
“A problem no longer,” said a new voice, and it wasn’t Lili’s. It was a rich, dark, oily voice, and it came from the darkness beyond our circle of firelight.
It was a female vampire, and as she stepped into the light I saw she was a looker, too. Although her cosmetics were apparently applied with a trowel, they weren’t smeared all over her phizog like circus paint; her face was perfect. She was tall, and like all vampires generally, thin as a knife blade. I guess an all-blood diet is what does it, but it doesn’t seem to be catching on with the female population at large. Modern womanhood will smear poison on their faces and smash their innards into mush with corsets, but they won’t drink blood for breakfast. Anyhow, what with the tight, low-cut black dress, eerily floating long, black hair, curved black nails, and eyes that were somehow both black and fiery, this lady was indisputably difficult to overlook.
I broke the silence. “Does this mean you’re clearing out of Gristle Creak? All you vampires?”
She turned her white face and huge eyes to me. Her lips were a bright, fresh, wet-looking red. “Yes. That is exactly what I mean. We came at this man’s invitation,” she looked scornfully at Jed, sitting on the ground, bound to a tree and looking at her with horror. “But it is time to leave. We are very old”—she looked no more than a muslin miss, despite her provocative clothing—“and we can predict how humans will behave. Your little town is dangerously close to the torches and pitchforks stage. And this one”—she nudged Jed with the tip of her dainty black boot—“won’t be paying us in gold anymore, if I’m any judge.”
I stared at her with the fascination of a small bird for a large snake. “But what do you need gold for? You’re immortal, aren’t you?”
Her dark eyes unblinking, she slowly nodded. “Immortal, yes, but we still need money. It’s so much easier to hide from the authorities when one has plenty of money. We do what we can to avoid the torches and the sharp stakes, you know. Well, this has been amusing and profitable, but we have overstayed our welcome, I fear. Farewell.”
And she was gone. She didn’t turn into a bat and fly away. She was there, and then she was not there.
We sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, I turned to look at Jed. I had intended to ask him if he wanted some coffee, but Jed was slumped against his restraining ropes, perfectly limp. I checked all his vitals, but no luck. Jed, host to the undead, was now a potential member of that club himself. And all she’d done was flick at him with her little boot.
We burned Jed’s body, not wanting to take any foolish chances. After we finished up this chore, Lili turned to me and smiled. It was a triumphant smile, stretching from ear to ear in a manner that seemed unnatural to me—the widest smile I’d ever seen, so wide it seemed like she could swallow me if she had a mind. She seemed to gleam and glow in the light of the campfire, so full of some kind of energy that her body could scarcely contain it. She stood straight and tall like the goddess of victory, smiling at me.
“I am Ardat Lili, daughter of Lilith, demoness of the Western Wastes. I have triumphed in battle, and this town is now mine by right of combat,” she said, eyes blazing in the firelight.
I squatted down by the fire and poured myself a cup of coffee. “Yes, I know. Have a seat.”
It’s hard to use a word like “deflated” when you’re talking about Lili, but she did seem taken aback.
“How … how do you know?” Lili asked, puzzlement knitting her fine brows together.
“I am the wizard who summoned you here, Demon,” I replied equably. “By the laws we both obey, you are my servant. Sit.”
As I had commanded, Lili sat, looking like she’d just been kicked by a mule. I went on, “I was weary—weary of dragons and meddlesome priests, weary of kitchen maids wanting love potions. I settled in Gristle Creak as the town sawbones some years back, and everything was just fine. I healed folks and they paid me. Then all these incomers started up—the undead, you know—and I knew we needed a demon. It’s all very well burning the undead and shoving stakes into them, but when you’ve got an all-out infestation, the only satisfactory cure is a demon.” I drew on my pipe and sipped some coffee.
Lili’s eyes burned a feral green in the firelight. “So now that the undead have cleared out, I suppose you’re going to put me in a lamp for a thousand years? Seal me into that gold mine back there? Or did you have it in mind for me to be your slave, is that it?”
I looked up in surprise. “Oh, no. That would be poor payment for your assistance. You were compelled to come here, and you couldn’t help chasing after the undead because that’s what I brought you here to do. But you did your job, and a mighty fine performance it was, too. No, I have it in mind that you and I should marry. Settle down. Maybe have some children.”
“And be your lawfully wedded slave? No thanks!” she snarled, her dark hair all down around her face like smoke.
“Well, I won’t compel you. I don’t want a slave, I want a wife. Pretty difficult finding a wife when you’re a wizard, you see. It’s just hard to explain certain things that most ladies would find kind of peculiar. A demoness wouldn’t need any explanations, and she’d be right handy at times, too, helping out with a bit of magic here and there. But if it don’t appeal to you, I guess I can’t change your mind. You can go any time. With my sincerest gratitude.”
Lili didn’t say anything. We settled down to sleep. The next morning, she was still there, though I had freed her. We made some coffee, saddled up and rode back to town, stopping at the ranch house to explain to the hands that Mr. Holstrup had a terrible accident and wouldn’t be around no more, but Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, would no doubt want them to stay on with the cattle, so they should just keep on as they were. They didn’t seem any too cut up about Holstrup’s demise.
We reported back to the townspeople about the improved undead situation. Out of respect for Jed’s wife, she that had been Annie Whitethorne, we didn’t tell anyone about Holstrup’s wholesale importation of the undead. I borrowed a leaf from Jed and said they’d wandered in from the badlands, but they were all gone now, and no more were expected from that quarter. We opined the vampires had departed in disgust on account of the poor quality of blood nowadays. As for Jed, he had died gallantly fighting zombies and had gotten himself burnt up on accident. We advised Mrs. Holstrup, she that had been Annie Whitethorn, to put an armed guard out at the gold mine, and to find workers she could pay in actual money.
Lili relieved me of my deputy duties and I went back to doctoring. She didn’t say anything the next week nor the week after. Finally, I went to see her one quiet afternoon. She was in the sheriff’s office, doing paperwork. She looked up when I knocked and walked in.
“Howdy, Doc. Help yourself to some coffee, and I’ll be right with you.” I did so, and then sat at the empty deputy’s desk, waiting patiently. We hadn’t any need for another deputy since the undead skedaddled.
Lili signed her name on one of the documents with a flourish and gave me her attention. “What can I do for you, Doc?”
“Well, Lili, I was wondering if you’d given any more thought to my proposal?”
Lili looked thoughtful. “I have. And it was a fine and generous offer, to be sure, Doc. I like it here in Gristle Creak. I’d like to stay on as sheriff.”
“That wasn’t my offer, Lili. You’ve done an excellent job as sheriff, but you can’t be sheriff if you’re going to be my wife.”
That stumped me. I had thought it obvious. “Ladies aren’t sheriffs, Lili. Especially not married ladies. What would people think?”
“Do you care?”
“I care what folks here in Gristle Creak think of me, yes I do,” I said defensively. “It’s my home.”
“Well, I don’t think we’re especially suited, Doc. Seeing as how I want to be a sheriff, and you want me to be a wife. Why don’t you go ask Mrs. Holstrup, she-that-had-been-Annie-Whitethorn?”
I was positively thunderstruck at this suggestion. Annie was a married woman! Then I remembered that Jed’s ashes were blowing around the chaparral like the memories of youth, and that Annie was indeed a widow. A rich widow. With a gold mine.
Well, I reckon I can talk the hind leg off a donkey and you’re probably itching to be on your way, so I’ll make this short. Me and Annie have got four adorable little ‘uns—if you’re counting Jed’s two, and I am—all with curly blonde hair. Annie’s hair is as beautiful as ever, though there’s more silver in the gold now. I’m doing about the same. Wizards tend to age kind of slow. If they’re careful.
But Lili—well, some in the Territory think it’s a scandal that Gristle Creak employs a pretty lady sheriff. But I’m telling you, when it comes to enforcing the law, why, that woman’s a real demon.
© 2017 K.D. Keenan