THERE WERE SEVEN OF THEM LEFT—eyes bloodshot, worn thin. They waited for the sun to spill over the emptied saloon of the dust blown town. Montgomery and Tallboy had pulled a bunch together—mostly drifters—shiftless types. None of the bona fide men could be convinced to stay behind.
“It’s daybreak that brings ‘em,” Montgomery said from his usurped position behind the bar. He slapped his Schofield down and held a locket to the lamplight, admiring a grainy photo. “Not sure why it’s each year on this singular day. Faces painted all over—stone-dead flesh.
Not a body knows where they come from. Not a body knows how they get painted gleam-like in that morning sun: Whites. Reds. Yellas. All colored. Them teeth—”
Tallboy’s glass clinked and rolled over the floor. “I ain’t afeared a no clown!” He stared off.
Montgomery slapped out a whisky bottle. “Take another, Tallboy. Just to steady that hand—get these dealings behind us.”
“You heard it?” Tallboy stammered. “I ain’t afeared.”
He patted Tallboy’s trembling hand. “I heard.”
Franklin got up and braced his Spencer rifle behind his broad shoulders to stretch and look out to the stirring doors. “Been in plenty scrapes. Figure it don’t come to much who takes offense to who. All I need to know is: how much me and my boys stand to collect?”
“There’s a payment coming,” Montgomery said.
“I says: how much, old man? We ain’t staying up all night—spinning yarns—talking ghost legends a marauding painted-face ghouls for our betterment. Me and mine, we came up north outta Kansas City and Cheyenne. We’s known men. We been all over these parts. We been to Big Whiskey, Horse Hoof Whiskey… Ahh…? Lemme see: Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey. We know how things work ‘round here in these upper-middle territories. We know there’s fools running loose in these towns. Fabricating stretchers. Wasting a feller’s time. We ain’t got patience for treachery.”
“Fifty dollars cash!” Montgomery said. “I told it before. That’s my word.”
“A body?” Soup Spoon asked from the corner of the room.
“A body,” Montgomery nodded agreement.
Footsteps creaked over the boardwalk outside. Tallboy stopped drinking. “It’s just—just near daybreak, I reckon.”
Horse Sense and Post Notch shimmied their chairs and set their hands on their pistols.
The doors stirred.
White Lip and Post Notch drew, squinting into the dim light.
“Ledbrush!” Montgomery cried at the figure standing in the threshold. “Ledbrush what you doing here?”
He stomped out a thin cigar under his boot. “Howdy boys. Thought I’d find some fools held up in this saloon.”
“You almost got shot’s what ya did.”
The tall man looked over the men. “Ya’ll look like smart men…mostly.” He pointed to Montgomery and Tallboy. “What these fools told ya? Told ya there’s dead clowns a-comin’; did they?”
“That’s what they’s saying, mister,” Franklin said. He slit his eyes and took a step toward him and looked around. “We’s just about had enough, I s’pose.”
“As elucidated prior, name’s Ledbrush.” He looked over at the two by the bar. “And let me save ya’ll the trouble. No clowns a-comin’. Ain’t never been no clowns a-comin’. But I’m guessin’ there’s something these two don’t want ya’ll to know—”
“You shut your trap, Ledbrush,” Tallboy hollered with his back to him.
“You see, this here town—Medium Whisky—like most towns in these parts ain’t so old and venerable. Sprung up real quick. Like most towns sprung up quick.
“Ya tell ‘em how it sprung?” Ledbrush asked Montgomery.
“Not another word, Ledbrush.”
“There was a group a travelling entertainers,” Ledbrush said, “carnival types fixing to make a settlement right here on this spot. And they was here first—”
“We had fair rights to this land,” Tallboy said into the bar. “They was gypsies—interlopers. Given to foolishness. We was decent, settling folk.”
“Lynched every last one of them for the land,” Ledbrush said, “Even women and children, on this very day. And all those clowns ever wanted was make some laughter in this world. But the good folks a Medium Whisky—no, they ain’t much for laughing—”
“Shut your trap, I says,” Montgomery hollered. “We laugh at what suits us. We did right by them clowns!”
“Yessir,” Ledbrush said. “Dead clowns is coming home this morning. But not from out there.” He pointed outside. “Clowns is coming home from right inside here”—he pointed to his chest—“from the heart. Mass Hysteria’s what them doctors call it. But I didn’t come here to get wrapped up in foolishness. I came with a business opportunity for you fine, young men.”
“What that be?” Franklin asked.
“Full on wages is what,” Ledbrush said. “Up in Whisky Whisky Whisky—”
“Doing what?” Soup Spoon asked.
“Lettering signs,” Franklin said. “Lettering signs says ‘Whisky’ on ‘em. Full on wages is what ya get.”
“Full on?” White Lip asked. “Not part none, neither?”
“Full on is what,” Ledbrush repeated. “That’s good, honest work up in Whisky Whisky Whisky.”
“Wait,” Horse Sense asked, “what’s it come to, a body—leastways—full-on or part?”
Ledbrush snorted. He laughed. He looked around to the other men and exchanged a knowing smile. “Boy, you—you ain’t from around here; is you? First off—first off now what ya gotta understand is—aack!”
A pointed steel cap burst through his chest. It pushed through him until it opened, unfolding in a circle. The ratty, worn hues of the calico umbrella whirled and dripped blood. A corpulent, rotting whiteface peaked over his shoulder—teeth all overgrown—curled inward with green drool dripping. Bulging, orange and red-iris eyes dilated like bullseyes:
“Your little ones may enter, freely.”
Ledbrush grabbed the umbrella. “Clowns!” He gasped. It sunk its curled teeth into his shoulder.
Montgomery was out from behind the bar, pistol drawn. He stepped toward it in its dirt-soiled hobo suite as it buried itself in the neck of Ledbrush and Ledbrush laughed manically.
“I knowed where you come from,” Montgomery said.
He fired, missing high.
“And I know where I’m sendin’ ya.”
He fired and winged the clown’s shoulder.
It hissed. It danced its eyes childishly then tossed Ledbrush to the floor.
He laughed as blood gushed from his neck, “Them distant, luminous beams…” He giggled and slowed.
It slinked. Its wet eyes begged.
Montgomery aimed. He cocked the hammer. The Schofield backfired and exploded in a red flash and he dropped what was left of the pistol to the floor. He doubled over and squeezed his bleeding hand between his knees, “TURNIPS!”
“Blast it boys!” Montgomery cried. “Them six-shooters is what gets it.”
The men drew and fired.
The bullets passed dryly through its dead flesh.
“It ain’t mortal none!” Soup Spoon cried.
“Suppose’en these is Last Days a-comin’?” Post Notch asked. He fired.
It fell down and chomped into Montgomery’s thigh.
Montgomery drew his other Schofield from his holster, pushed its head up, smearing the white paint over its grey skin and fired a shot between its eyes. It fell to the floor planks.
It lay still.
“Got you! Got you!” Montgomery cried. He limped to the bar and supported himself.
“You’s bit bad, Montgomery,” Tallboy said. “You’s bit bad.”
“Ain’t nothing,” He looked to the clown and sneered. “I got you! I got you clown! And I’ll get you each year, you keep coming back.
“Wouldn’t pass on. Wouldn’t let it lay. Had to wise off. Had to try and get humorous in front a our wives and kin. I got you. I got you, again.”
Franklin walked over to it. “Why’s its face so unnatural-like. Them teeth. Just like you said.”
“Yessir, boys,” Montgomery said, “That’s how we handle affairs in Medium Whisky. We may not put on airs like they do up in Big Whisky. Or have tradesmen and industry like they’s got in Whisky Whisky Whisky or make trumped up claims to drink a body under the table like they do down in Help! Can’t Feel My Toes None, Whisky. Here in Medium Whisky, we takes care a things, straight-ways.”
“Some of them in Help! is good folks,” White Lip said. He poked the prostrate clown with his pistol. “Except’en they’s given over to drink, most-times.”
“That’s just the first of ‘em,” Montgomery said. He lurched from the bar and chuckled. “They’s a-comin’. Not two-by-two. No. Not single file. Not in no mob:
“Clown-like. They’s coming on this town, clown-like.” He turned back to them. “They always do.”
Ledbrush’es blood crept up to Montgomery’s boots.
He pointed with his pistol. “Look at you, Ledbrush. Coming over here. Pretending there weren’t no clowns. Trying to steal my boys. Look at you.” He laughed. “NOW LOOK AT YA!” He shot Ledbrush’es chest. “Hope the led didn’t inconvenience ya!” He cackled.
“Wait.” Tallboy moved closer. “You feeling alright, Montgomery?”
“Yessir,” Montgomery said. “Yessir, feelin’ mighty fine.”
Green slime dripped from the wound on his leg.
“Ohhh, that might be septic some,”—he cackled—“fiddlesticks and fine china.”
“You sure? That ain’t like you, Montgomery—joshing over a corpse.” He stepped. “Some folks what knowed you better might find that a little peculiar—strange you laughing over what you did to a corpse.”
“Ohhh,” Montgomery grinned. “That so, Tallboy.” He waved his pistol around, erratically. “What else might’en they say?”
“They might say,” he palmed the back of his pistol. “They might say you was—you was clowning!”
Both men locked eyes.
“You think you knows what I knows, Tallboy. You think you sees what I sees. Well, can ya? Can ya see all them times I wanted to laugh at ya but held back cause it weren’t the decent, God-fearing thing to do? You think I’m laughing now cause a what the clown did.” He bit his lip and his eyes watered, trying to hold back the laughter. “Maybe, I’s laughing at you, Tallboy? A—a here I go—!”
They exchanged fire, hitting each other and each collapsing to the floor, dead.
White Lip stood and looked to Franklin. “Three dead. Three dead and this thing lying here.”
The men exchanged glances.
“You figure we fixin’ to stay in Medium Whisky?” White Lip asked.
“Let’s make tracks.”
They walked out onto the dusty promenade.
“Where’d you tie off them horses, Soup Spoon?” Franklin asked.
“Over there, apiece,” Soup Spoon said, “round that bend.”
“What you looking at, Post Notch?” Franklin asked.
“All these here tracks,” he said. “They ain’t normal, like’en a normal foot would make. They ain’t small none. They’s big—they’s…”
“Where they lead, Post Notch?”
“Over there, apiece. Round that bend.”
The men looked at each other.
“Boss?” Soup Spoon asked. “You reckon them things… You reckon they tore off with our horses? What they need horses for, boss? They’s dead clowns. Where they got to go?”