This story is by Paige Vest and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
It was long past dusk when the old prospector rode into town on a broken-down mule. Tin pans clinked together where they hung from stuffed saddlebags and the noise joined with the slow, deliberate drumming of the mule’s hooves to create a jarring, jangling melody that nobody heard.
Decent folk had long since sought their beds but the saloon had a reasonable crowd. Laughter and music floated out of the building into the cool night air. The mule stopped at a hitching post in front of the saloon.
The dusty man atop the scrawny animal drew a breath and lifted his head, his eyes reflected golden light as would a cat’s in the night. He dismounted and stood beside the mule, which grew antsy after a few moments. It began to step away but when the old man placed a weathered, misshapen hand on the animal’s neck, it froze, its eyes rolling as it released a stream of hot urine.
The prospector retrieved a pack from the bundles tied behind the saddle before he turned and ascended the steps to the saloon. He stood on the darkened wooden sidewalk and paused a moment, listening to the music and laughter emanating from the building before him. He lurched into motion and pushed through the swinging doors. The murmur of voices lulled momentarily as patrons glanced toward the newcomer before resuming their conversations.
The prospector approached the long bar and waited, holding his pack as the bartender approached. “Thirsty,” he said, his voice a rasping croak.
The bartender fetched a bottle. “Whiskey, old timer?” He eyed the man. “I’ll need ta see coin before you get ta drink.” The prospector rummaged a hand in his back and tossed a small nugget of gold onto the bar. The bartender picked it up to inspect it and gave the prospector an appraising look. “Ain’t no coin but it’ll do, I s’pose!” He poured whiskey into a chipped glass and set the bottle beside it on the bar.
The worn-down old man eyed the glass of whiskey from beneath the brim of his dusty, misshapen hat. He cocked his head as a man would do while listening to somebody whispering in his ear. “Hungry,” he said roughly.
The bartender squinted. “I might have a bit of chow if’n you have more’a that coin.”
Several men had taken note of the prospector’s patched canvas pants and coat, his tattered hat. His old boots with worn-down heels and stiff, cracked leather. His bulging pack, held within protective arms. They exchanged knowing glances.
Another man at the bar tapped his empty glass on the scarred wood surface. “Git the old fella supper, Lyle. Put it on my tab.”
The bartender snorted. “This man’s pretty rock mightn’t cover your tab neither, Henry,”
“Go on now, Lyle. Be about it and let me converse with my new friend here.”
The prospector’s head swung toward Henry, who approached and lifted the man’s bottle. “May I?” The prospector didn’t respond so Henry filled his own glass and clinked it against the prospector’s, which sat untouched on the bar before him. “To new friends,” he said, and he knocked back the whiskey.
“What’s in the pack, old timer? Did you find yerself some gold up there?”
The prospector didn’t speak so Henry continued as the music stopped and conversations around the room quieted, all eyes on Henry and the old man. “I happen to have a claim up that’a way, clearly marked. Where was you digging? You got yer papers?” The prospector remained silent, his shadowed eyes watching Henry as he reached for the pack. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”
Quicker than Henry could see, the old man’s hand whipped out and grabbed his wrist. His hand was cold and his grip was surprisingly strong. Henry yelped in pain. “What’s got you so twitchy, old timer? I just wanna know what ya found and whereabouts you found it.”
The prospector raised his head and Henry recoiled at the lumpy skin of his face, at the golden shimmer in his eyes. “Cave,” the man croaked through dry, cracked lips. A black tongue flitted from between his crooked teeth to swipe across his lips and the whiskey roiled in Henry’s belly. “Dark,” the prospector said, his grip tightening on Henry’s wrist. His head cocked for a moment before he spoke once more. “Trapped.”
“I don’t want no trouble, old man,” Henry said, his voice reedy with fear. He’d forgotten about claims and papers, he’d forgotten about what the prospector’s pack might contain. He’d forgotten about gold.
Henry didn’t notice that the piano music had stopped or that Lyle had returned with the prospector’s supper and stood with his mouth agape as Henry struggled to free his arm. He only watched with disgust as the skin on the prospector’s face shifted. It rose and fell as if there was something beneath, moving around. Something trying to get out.
His eyes widened and his breath escaped in a keening moan as an arachnid appendage crept from the corner of the prospector’s eye. He thought he must be dreaming, he was having a nightmare and he would wake up any minute.
When the skin began to split and inky black spiders erupted from the gap in the old man’s face, Henry’s bladder let go. A large, hairy spider emerged from beneath the prospector’s coat sleeve and crawled onto Henry’s wrist from the prospector’s strong grip. Pinpricks of blood bloomed where it touched him as it scampered up his arm. Several more followed and when Henry began to scream, they found their way into his mouth.
“Hungry,” the prospector said as he yanked Henry toward him and sank his teeth into the choking man’s throat.
People scattered as more spiders began to pour from beneath the prospector’s clothing. The man’s figure shrank in stature as the creatures burst from him, stripping away clothes and skin alike. The torn skin flapped like paper as the old man, still attached to Henry’s throat, rode the dying man’s twitching body to the floor.
Lyle gawked as a bottleneck formed at the door and fleeing patrons were overrun with spiders. Hundreds of spiders… thousands. Fear immobilized him and the men’s screaming filled the bar as Henry’s choking faded to a gurgle. Soon, the only sounds were the rustling of the spiders and a wet slurping that sounded as if it were coming from everywhere at once.
The prospector was gone and in his place crouched a creature the size of a child, black as night. It raised its head and surveyed the saloon with large, golden eyes, watching the spiders that covered the men on the ground.
Everyone else had made it out and Lyle jerked as he realized he was the only one left alive in the saloon. He dropped the plate and before the clatter had ceased, the nightmare creature had leapt atop the
bar, its sparkling eyes on Lyle.
Its teeth were impossibly long, too long to fit into its mouth, and Henry’s blood dripped from them onto the scarred surface of the bar. Lyle stood rooted to the floor, incapable of moving, of fleeing.
He spoke to the creature, his voice shaky and thin. “Am I dreamin’? Is this a nightmare?”
It cocked its head first one way and then the other.
“Gold,” it hissed. “Nightmare.”
“Gold nightmare?” Lyle said with a squeak. “What does that mean?
I don’t understand, do ya want ye gold back?” He dug in a pocket and tossed the small gold nugget onto the bar beside the creature. “Here, take it… jus’ don’t hurt me none!”
The nightmare creature trained its golden eyes on the nugget and then plucked it from the bar, tilting its head this way and that to inspect the rock’s dull glow. It lifted the nugget and shoved the nugget into its own eye, which absorbed the nugget and remained whole.
“Wh-what are you?” Lyle rasped. “A nightmare? A devil? Just what are you?”
“Hungry,” the creature snarled as it leaped.