In 1891, in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre, awful nightmares and bizarre killing sprees shake the uneasy peace between a frontier town of White Pine and the Lakota on the nearby reservation.
A pioneer doctor named Charles Zimmerman finds himself at the forefront of the investigation and uncovers a crawling horror the likes of which he could not imagine.
With the help an orphaned farm girl, a smart-mouth stage robber, a beaten down Lakota warrior, a beautiful medicine woman, and Charles' estranged father, the aging town marshal, Charles must save not only the town of White Pine but also the starving Lakota from an ancient, hungry evil.
Travis Heermann is a Colorado-based author I've known for years. His innovation and drive on his own works really impressed me. When he suggested that WordFire Press release his gritty Western dark fantasy DEATH WIND with Jim Pinto, we knew we had to take a look. This book is edgy and engrossing, and you'll be glad you read it. – Kevin J. Anderson
"Death Wind is a story that will keep you up well into the night. Highly recommend this title."– Amazon Review
Oliver McCoy scraped the remainder of his beans back into the now-cooling pot. He knew he couldn't cook. His ability to reheat beans was somewhere near the capabilities of the blind village idiot; he would rather starve than take another bite of his own burnt paste. Besides, his guts had been cramped up all day like a boot-stomped snake. "Better in the morning," he muttered, only half-believing it.
He spared a little water from his canteen to rinse the plate. Unlike some men, he could not abide a dirty plate come morning. He had learned long ago to clean it now lest you be eating bugs in the morning with your breakfast. Reclaiming his spot by the fire, he huddled close for some warmth against the relentless wind. What a long day. He was too young to feel this damn old. Felt like he'd been riding for thirty years continuous.
"That was some piss-shit supper, Oliver," Reese said. "You better have some of that booze left." He fixed his rheumy eyes on Oliver and scratched his grizzled stubble.
Oliver tried to grin, but Reese's inscrutable eyes made it impossible to tell if he was joking. Emmett Reese had spent more time in the saddle than Oliver had been alive. Even though Oliver was supposed to be in charge, since the herd belonged to his pa, most of the time he just felt like a fool around Reese.
"Yeah, booze or whores!" Dawson grinned and spat a tobacco-brown stream into the fire. Dawson's teeth looked like an unpainted picket fence, and he had a scar across his lip that made children cry—the result of a close shave with a newly shod hoof. "How do you bugger up beans anyhow? They practically cook themselves."
Reese laughed at this too.
Oliver's ears burned, but he shrugged and allowed himself to share in the laugh with the other two.
Dawson called into the encroaching darkness toward the horses. "Hey, Ferrell! What are you doing out there, nuzzling up to your horse?"
The three of them laughed. When Oliver had announced that the beans were ready, Ferrell had passed, saying that he was going to check his tack. Strange, Oliver thought, because Ferrell had been grumbling all day about how hungry he was. But he had said something that Oliver was still trying to wrap his ears around. "There's a black _________ coming." Oliver had not been able to make out that word. Mouth? Mouse? Mount? Ferrell's accent gave him fits sometimes. Couldn't fellers just talk normal English? None of the words made much sense, and Ferrell had been quiet out in the darkness for a long time.
Oliver pulled a half-finished bottle of Tennessee bourbon out of his jacket and tossed it to Reese. "Make it last."
The wind grew chill and cut through his wool jacket like it was kerchief.
Reese grunted, yanked out the cork, and took a pull while Dawson held out his hand expectantly.
The fire guttered as a gust of wind washed over their campsite, rustling the sea of grass surrounding their camp. Not far away, one of the herd released a tremendous fart.
Dawson laughed. "Sounds like you in the morning, Reese."
Reese gestured toward the pot of beans. "That'll be you in about an hour. On second thought, give me that bottle back. I need to pass out before it starts."
Oliver relaxed a little. His shitty cooking had already been forgotten.
Dawson leaned back against his saddle with a groan of relaxation, then called into the night. "Come on now, Ferrell. Don't be no New York Nancy. Join us for a drink now. Since when does an Irishman forego whiskey?"
Oliver could hear Ferrell somewhere just outside the firelight fussing with leather and buckles.
Reese took another long sip. "That's some smooth whiskey. Where you been hiding that?"
"Pa likes the best," Oliver said.
Reese nodded in appreciation.
Dawson said, "I like the best, too. Too bad you ain't got a sister."
Oliver laughed with them, until a sudden chill gust laid the flame sidewise for a moment.
Dawson said, "Goddamn wind is like to carry you off."
Twelve hours in the saddle watching Pa's herd for late calves didn't make much opportunity for conversation, but Oliver still noticed that, except for the grumbling, Ferrell had been quiet and withdrawn all day. After all the trouble with the Indians over the winter, he was jumpy enough to be grazing the herd so near the reservation. Word was that Sioux were practically starving, and Pa had admonished him to be on the lookout for Indian cattle rustlers. Stories of their abilities at sneaking around like ghosts were well known. And it wouldn't be unheard of for some wild, young buck, itching at being cooped up on the reservation, to sneak up to camp and count coup on the white man.
Oliver called out, "What are you playing at, Ferrell? Get your ass warm before it's too cold to thaw."
Dawson took a long pull of whiskey.
Oliver said, "Hey, easy! It gots to last us."
Ferrell emerged from the darkness, firelight glowing in his ash-gray eyes. He was perhaps twenty-five, the same age as Oliver, but bigger, with a wild shock of red hair when his eagle-feathered bowler was not clamped tight over it. He was Pa's newest hire, had only been working at the Bar-M since the drive last fall. Ferrell once said he always counted himself lucky to get a job at all, being Irish. He spoke little of his past except to say that he came from some New York Irish slum.
Dawson shoved the whiskey bottle toward Ferrell. "Drink it while it's still hot."
Ferrell sat down, ignoring the bottle, staring into the fire.
Dawson gave him a long look, then shrugged. "That look on your face reminds me of that madam back in Valentine. One too many miles of dick come her way."
Reese laughed, but Ferrell did not react, as if he had not even heard.
Oliver had heard the story a dozen times. As Dawson's voice droned on, he found himself transfixed by the strange look in Ferrell's eyes, like he had just danced on his own grave. Ferrell licked his lips.
Then a frigid slash of wind through his jacket made Oliver shiver, and Dawson's voice reached him again. "So then she says, you broke it, you bought it."
Oliver laughed like he was supposed to, but it felt hollow. He could not take his eyes off Ferrell. Ferrell just stared off into the night, one hand locked around his other quivering wrist.
The wind moaned, and the grass rustled again. The cowhands' small fire was an island in a vast sea of dark, rustling grass.
Reese took another swig of bourbon. "I hope she tasted better than those beans."
Ferrell mumbled something, his eyes flicking out into the darkness. For a moment, Oliver thought he had not understood because of Ferrell's Irish accent.
Dawson sniffed. "For all I know she tasted like a dirty horse's ass, but by that time I—"
"Don't it never stop?" Ferrell voice rose just above a whisper. "Don't you all hear it?"
Reese was quick to get a jab in on Dawson. "Hell, Bill, that night you'd a fucked your horse if'n she winked at you."
"Maybe if I was tall enough—"
The sound of the wind grew, and embers leaped from the campfire. They all pulled their jackets tighter and edged closer to the pit, except for Ferrell.
His voice quavered, body rigid. "Last night I saw a face so black, I thought the sky was turning to ash."
They stared at him.
Oliver said, "What did you say?"
"My mouth was as hot as the sun, and as dry as this Godforsaken land."
The laughter subsided. All they could hear was wind now. Wind and Ferrell's voice.
Dawson looked sideways at Ferrell. "You gonna come to sense anytime soon?"
"I tell you, death was in me mouth. I swallowed it whole. And now it's in me belly."
Dawson said, "Hell, I swallowed death just a little while ago, and pretty soon you'll be smelling it!" He laughed, but just a little too long.
Oliver could not take his eyes from Ferrell's taut face.
Reese took the bourbon bottle and tried to hand it to Ferrell. "Maybe you need this more than I do." Ferrell stared off at nothing, as if they weren't even there.
Oliver tried to follow Ferrell's gaze, but there was nothing out there except darkness and grass and wind.
"Maybe that Injun witch put a spell on him back in Valentine." Dawson said. "He don't look right."
Ferrell doubled over, clutching his belly.
The three cowboys traded worried looks. Ferrell curled up like a dry leaf, groaning like a wounded animal.
"Christ!" Dawson said. "You all right?"
Oliver and Reese jumped up. Oliver froze in place, a chill that was not from the wind washing up his back.
In the darkness, the horses began to fuss and whicker.
All of them stared, transfixed as Ferrell's body spasmed and twitched. His mouth opened wide and unleashed a primal, incomprehensible string of nonsense.
"Holy Mary's Tits!" Dawson said.
Ferrell screamed. "It's got me! It wants to breathe! Oh, God! Oh, God!"
Oliver wanted to reach for him, to help him, but his entire body felt like it was made of dry cottonwood.
Ferrell tore at his clothes. "It wants to breathe!"
Reese snatched up a firebrand, raising it like a club. A tongue of flame licked the wood.
Ferrell spewed a deluge of black vomit that splatted across Dawson's chest and face.
"Ah, fuck! Fuck! Jesus Christ!" Dawson threw up his arms.
The wind moaned louder around them. The fire threatened to go out. A rhythmic susurration followed, sounding almost like speech.
Dawson wiped the black puke from his eyes, spitting and gagging. "Goddamn, Ferrell! What is going on?"
Oliver stood motionless, quivering, his guts wrenching inside him at the sight and stench of the black vomit, not like the smell of regular vomit at all, not unless Ferrell had been eating a week-dead buzzard. Time dragged to a crawl. The wind slowed to a gentle breeze. Ferrell collected himself. Dawson wiped the puke from his eyes. Reese placed his hand on Ferrell's shoulder.
In one swift motion, Ferrell pulled his pistol, planted the barrel against the bridge of Reese's nose, and set loose a fiery explosion of powder and brains. Reese dropped like a puppet with the strings cut.
The horses screamed and jerked their tethers.
Dawson scrambled back. Ferrell's thumb drew the hammer back once again. Dawson rolled onto his hands and knees, scurrying away. Ferrell fired a lead ball squarely between Dawson's shoulder blades. The force drove Dawson against the cold earth.
Oliver's body turned to wood and his heart stampeded. He had never seen a man shot before.
With agonizing slowness, Dawson's arm reached out, trying to crawl away, but it was no use. Ferrell stood over him, cap-and-ball Colt smoking, and fired another shot into the cowboy's body.
Oliver's gorge threatened to spew out of him, but he could not move.
Ferrell stood over Dawson's body. Dawson's last breaths gasped in and out of him, wet and desperate. Ferrell looked at the pistol, counted the loaded cylinders. Then he looked at Dawson's body, and a smirk trickled across his lips. He turned the pistol in his hand, knelt, and hammered Dawson's head like a farmer nailing wire to a fencepost.
The image of crushed melon found its way through the haze of fear into Oliver's mind. A wreckage of bone and blood.
Ferrell lifted the bloody pistol to his mouth and licked blood and brains from the grip. A gentle moan escaped from inside his throat.
Oliver had always thought Ferrell a decent sort, but this gore-spattered thing was not even a man anymore. Oliver didn't know what it was.
Ferrell stood and turned to Oliver, his eyes bleak but full of intelligence. "It wants to share its grace, Oliver. Embrace it."
Suddenly, Oliver's wooden body became water, and his legs threatened to collapse under him. He broke and fled toward the horses. "You stay away from me! Stay away!"
Ferrell's boots came through the grass.
Oliver pulled his Colt .45 from its holster, his hand shaking, and spun to face Ferrell. His father had given it to him on his seventeenth birthday, and he had never had cause to do aught but shoot a few bottles with it.
Ferrell came toward him as calm as a man crossing the street.
Oliver raised his pistol, cocked, squeezed. The shot went wild.
Unfazed, Ferrell came.
Oliver could feel his blood rising up in his throat, as though his heart was rejecting it. He struggled to steady his hand and fired again.
Ferrell smiled. "So hard to shoot with your britches full of shit."
Warmth flooded Oliver's trousers, and he smelled piss. He took the pistol in both hands and fired a third time from six feet away. Another miss.
He was moving quicker now, but still stumbling. His boots felt like they didn't fit, and his hands were heavy. Oliver wanted so bad to be home again.
"Fuck you, Ferrell. Fuck you!"
Ferrell smiled, raised his blood-drenched pistol, and fired.
A lead ball the size of a locomotive slammed into Oliver's belly, knocking him off his feet and tearing deep through soft parts. Breath whooshed out, and blazing white pain ripped in.
Ferrell fell upon him.
The pistol butt slammed into Oliver's head, and bright lights exploded in his vision. He covered his head with his arms. Blows fell upon his arms, glancing off his head. Their arms tangled, but he felt weak as a child against Ferrell's relentless strength. Ferrell's fetid breath flooded his nostrils. Their hands clasped at pistol wrists, struggling, straining. Ferrell's mouth opened, teeth reaching for the soft parts of Oliver's face, bestial white chisels.
Oliver moaned under his breath, then cried out, "Ferrell! Goddammit, don't do this! Ferrell!"
Ferrell pressed the weight of his body against Oliver, pinning him. Oliver's wrist was trapped now, his gun pressed against his own belly. Metal dug into his own stomach, grinding into the wound Ferrell made.
Oliver tried using his free hand to push Ferrell off of him, but the pain stole all of his strength. He could do nothing but count the moments of life he had left before Ferrell killed him too.
But with a sudden twist, Oliver's gun hand came free. He cocked and shoved the barrel up under Ferrell's chin. A .45-caliber explosion, and Ferrell's head fountained brain and gore.
Oliver gasped and moaned for an eternity, then fought back the pain long enough to heave Ferrell's twitching corpse off of him.
The cold, distant blanket of stars glimmered over him. Horses nearby jerked and reared at their tethers, their screams fading with the sound of the shot, all swallowed by the wind. Cold whipped the air, as if seeking him.
Oliver looked down at the dark, wet stain on his belly. "Oh, God. Oh, Goddammit."
Coyotes yipped and howled in the long, cold dark.