In the morning she could see her breath on the air and the cave was frigid enough to make her guess she’d have been warmer in the creek. Misty snuggled against Sherwin’s jacket and inhaled its dusty scent. For the first time since she was fourteen and her family was murdered on the trail by the dirt-worshippers, she wasn’t a practicing whore. She and Yule had been on the run for ten or twelve hours and she had not fucked even once—a personal best in times when she wasn’t hot with gonorrhea or infested with lice. The jacket was denim and thinly lined in wool, and she curled her knees up to her belly and laid her head upon it. Something scratched and crinkled within. It startled her and she sat upright and held the jacket at arm’s length, but no scorpions nor bats fell out. She reached in the pocket, and recovered from it a folded piece of pink parchment. Her nose stung, full of a familiar perfume—and she blushed upon realizing it was that which she wore when peddling herself for the Madame. She opened the letter carefully, and at the folds its seams were flimsy from use. The page was packed with looping, mysterious symbols.
“A day may come when these runes have meaning,” She said. “But at this juncture my illiteracy impedes me once a-fucking-gain.”
Outside the cave, the dog barked and the echo poured into the still cave the way whiskey pours into a thirsty man—all at once and then some. She folded the letter, stuffed it from whence it came and got to her feet, hunched under the cave’s short ceiling, feeling too alone and exposed. She wanted for Sherwin, right then.
“Hush Dude! Quiet now!” She whispered at the top of her lungs. The dog’s barking only intensified. Its feral protestations spoke fear into her arms and legs and they became weak as her instincts told her to ready for violence. It was the feeling she’d get when a trick would give Madame an extra dollar and then proceed to bind Misty to the bed-frame. She crouched down, till her wobbly knees almost touched the cave’s floor and her trembling fingers just did. She looked around the cave at what Sherwin had left her, and the rifle was nowhere in sight—just the bedroll, the blanket and the canteen. The dog snarled and she saw his hind-quarters come backing into view at the mouth of the cave. Dude’s hackles were raised from neck to croup and his muscular torso was tight and stretched. As he retreated and drew nearer she saw his fangs bared and there was a threat in his growl she would not have before believed he could produce. She heard dirt kicked up outside the cave, and something like a man choking—she thought—and then Dude shot out of the tunnel. The dog’s growling became muffled and the choking sound drew out and grew louder and became a kind of groaning—like a man clearing his throat at the top his lungs, she thought—and the dog was upon her then, and past her even—into the deeper recess of the cave. Misty skirted on her rear backward and into the darker place. She listened to the scurrying, tapping sound of her protective companion’s paws as he fled from danger and disappeared into the depths where she could not follow.
The ring of light at the cave’s mouth was interrupted by the silhouette of a man. He fell against the cave’s wall and braced himself. He was hunch-backed—a grotesque gimp or some other cursed, deformed feeb, Misty supposed. He wore overalls and a red-checkered flannel beneath them. His fingers clicked and clenched in an attempt to snatch something invisible from the air. He craned his neck and stuck his nose straight up toward the ceiling, and she saw for a moment the veins in his throat were thick and black like eels beneath his cobalt-tinged skin. The Gimp snapped his jaw open and shut once and she heard the sucking sound as he inhaled to a man’s fullest extent—the opposite of blowing a wad of snot in the thoroughfare. Then his whole body seized and she sensed it in her gut as much as she saw it with her eyes when he fixated upon her. Misty screamed and in her ears it rang like a pig in slaughter. The man dropped to all-four and lumbered forward—his gait twisted and hitching, like a horse with an old, unhealed fracture. She saw for a moment his face and his eyes bulging or the skin around them receding till she feared they would leap from his skull and splatter on the cave’s floor. His cheeks were bruised and sooty or maybe even rotten—she thought. She saw his teeth bared, broken in places and clenched and his gums glossy black and oozing the same. Misty scooted herself backward and the ominous gimp shrieked and in its excitement crashed to its belly and scrambled forward like a scorpion. Its elbows and knees stuck out at impossible angles and operated mechanically—like a sinister, insectile marionette—and he again craned his neck to present his snapping, gnashing maw.
Behind him Misty saw another shadow cross the cave’s mouth, and it stumbled and smacked the wall. It stood in the light and she saw that it held in its skeletal claws a heavy pick-ax, wringing its hands on the handle in the same way she sensed it desired to choke the life out of her. Misty scraped her palms on the cave floor and pushed herself backward, deeper into the cave. She heard the dog bark from within and below, and her head struck the ceiling as the passage became more constricting. Then her shoulders butted up against the ceiling and she was crumpled at the middle and wedged in her panic, and the Creeping Gimp’s claw fell hard on her calf and squeezed, seeking purchase. He pulled himself forward and she felt his fingertips digging into her, worming between her tendons and musculature like hot, bony maggots till she feared her skin would tear. From just behind her Dude snarled with renewed enthusiasm and Misty felt him in the dark, pressed against her and vibrating with protective instincts.
“Fuckin’ unhand me!” Misty screamed and for a moment she kicked herself free but the hand caught her again, this time by the ankle. She twisted and rolled to her side and then her stomach, and she squirmed forward, deeper into the pitch-black. The passage narrowed and she was rapidly losing the ability to maneuver or fight, and the cave took on a tomb-like demeanor in her mind. Her breath stuck in her chest and she heard herself sob once, but before she could mourn herself further the gimp’s other hand snagged her free ankle.
“Sherwin!” She screamed into the abyss. The dog growled. The Gimp pulled her into him like a snake consuming its meal, and then he was holding her with both arms wrapped entirely about her knees—pinning them together. She felt his chest through soaked flannel, sweaty and hot on the back of her calves. He wriggled like a worm in reverse and twisted to pull her further back toward the light and himself. Misty’s dress snagged as he dragged her and in lifting exposed her thighs and bare ass. She hadn’t owned drawers since she was a child, back before her family was hacked up and sent to hell by the savages.
His teeth were cracked from some prior neglect or abuse, and felt jaggedly serrated as they slid into the meaty back of her thigh. She screamed and bucked, pushed to her hands and knees and in doing so scraped her back raw on the cave’s ceiling. She found herself straddling the Gimp’s head while he hissed at the cave floor and his claws scratched and scrambled for some traction. Misty rocked back and drove her ass down onto the back of his head, the Gimp’s face grinding against the stone. It was not a totally unfamiliar position—squatting with the sweaty head of a strange man beneath her openings—but she felt woefully unprepared for the day’s physicality. Beneath her the Gimp struggled, and she tried to smash his face against the floor but didn’t sense he was injured by it. His feverish sheen made it impossible for her to restrain him, and he slithered from beneath her just enough to turn his body and she knew then that those snapping teeth could be pointing up at her most delicate parts—the tool of her trade. She became too aware of the bite-wound on the back of her thigh, how it was pulsing and she felt the warmth of her blood pooling some behind her knee and further coursing down her calf. She felt blind in the cave, able to see only a vision of the wickedly cracked and jagged teeth scissoring into her soft opening, tearing and pulling at her like a vulture with a taste for vulva.
He rolled further onto his side, slipping out from under her control and his arms hooked around her right thigh and held it like a rope. His mouth was hot—from her blood, she knew—and she felt it vice-like on her rear then, searing as a branding iron. She screamed again into the darkness and the dog barked back at her. She could feel Dude pressing eagerly against her from the dark, but he was unable to get past in the claustrophobic tunnel. The Gimp severed a mouthful of her ass and she could hear his tongue smacking and jaws chomping. A morsel of her flesh fell out of his mouth and slapped the back her blood-smeared thigh on its way from his lips to the floor. Misty jerked like a bunny caught in a snare or a man at the end of his noose and flopped backward, her legs coming free and her body coming to rest atop the Gimp’s. Her shrieking was constant now, and she was aware she might hyperventilate but she was totally powerless against the compulsion to voice her terror.
She struggled to extricate herself, scooting over the Gimp and toward the mouth of the cave as best she could—and her panicked spasms opened the passage enough for Dude to reemerge. She felt the dog’s head between her ankles, and then the violent to-and-fro as Dude set his jaws on the Gimp’s throat and tried to overcome generations of domesticity. The Gimp was sufficiently distracted, at least, and Misty stopped screaming, pushed and scrambled off him and even crouched and turned fully around toward the cave’s opening before she remembered his accomplice.
The pick-ax came whistling down and planted itself through her hand and into the cave’s floor. From what suddenly seemed like leagues away she watched the pinkie and ring-fingers severed and sent tumbling away in the dirt like dice on a craps table. She knew the hand would never job again. Her voice was lost to her and her vision became blurry with tears. The dog’s snarling was muted as was the grunting of the wielder as he attempted to extricate his stuck pick-ax from the cave-floor.
Then thunder rolled in the cave, and the pick-ax was buried beneath the collapse of its headless wielder. He sprayed like a geyser from the bullet-torn crater ripped open in his too-soft skull and Misty could do nothing but hold fast there like a statue while the warm fluids showered upon her. The dog yipped and Misty felt him flee past her. Yule had returned, and he pulled her by the bicep out of the quagmire and toward the mouth of the cave.
“Misty!” Yule’s voice echoed in the cave. The dog barked wildly, informing his master of all that had passed. “Oh-Misty-my-God-Misty!”
“Sherwin,” She whispered from what seemed to her a long ways off—a world’s ways off. The dog reported still, diligently and into the cavern.
Yule squinted into the cave, his eyes slow to adjust and the air swirling with sulfur-laden gun-smoke. He heard the gurgling groan of the Gimp as it turned and righted itself. He could see the lumpy shadow then as it crawled forward and sucked air into its nose like a bloodhound. He waited for the light reflected in its protruding eyes, and then Yule Sherwin raised the rifle again and squeezed the trigger.