Western Short Story
Tunnel of the Dead
Darren Travers

Western Short Story

Standing on the top of the hill, Buck Henry had a great view of the land below. He could see for miles over the sprawling cavernous landscape. The sun-scorched ground was lit up by the beaming sun above. Small mountains, caverns and boulders filled the area. The figure in the distance was still on his trail. Knowing that life has few real coincidences, he felt that he was being followed. Could it be someone from Big City was coming for the diamond?

The thought had crossed his mind. Tumblers Hill was only twenty miles away so he could reach it in a few hours. After one last look at the figure that followed, he hopped back on his horse and turned back towards his destination. Then he went on his way.

Murphy was beginning to feel the heat. All day he had rode as fast as he could.

The idea of catching up with Buck Henry before he reached Tumblers Hill was appealing. The last thing he needed was interfering town folk. Past experience told him to stay away from crowds.

One thing he knew was, you never run a horse into the ground. Red was getting tired. Up ahead, he could see some rocky mountains. If he could reach there soon, then he would stop for a break. Riding along, his mind kept thinking of the diamond. Was it really worth as much as Jim Gardner said? His thoughts drifted back to their conversation of three days ago.

‘Tom, I’ve a nice little job for you, a real humdinger,’ Gardner had told his loyal friend, the brilliant gun-for-hire.

Murphy said nothing but listened attentively.

‘Have you ever heard of “The Star of Cordrye?”’ inquired Gardner.

A smile of knowledge flooded across Thomas Murphy’s face. ‘Yep, I’ve heard this ancient fable,’ he replied. ‘Supposedly “The Star of Cordrye” is in fact a very large, very beautiful and very pricey diamond. It’s said that when you put this jewel before your eyes, it shines brighter than the brightest star, giving it its aptly titled name. It was first discovered in Asia by Shaolin Monks around the 14th Century. Then went from owner to owner until a rich American family, the Drakes, brought it to Cincinnati five years ago. After that who knows.’

‘Well, I know,’ replied Gardner confidently. ‘The Drakes were passing through Big City on their way to the Mississippi when Buck Henry, a fearful hot shot, held them up and departed with their prized possession. They figure he intends to sell it on in Tumblers Hill.’

‘What’s it worth?’ quipped Murphy, his attention raised.

‘Twenty grand,’ answered Gardner smiling. ‘The deal is this: you’ll get a grand now and another grand when you retrieve the diamond. Here’s a description of the villain,’ stated the old man as he passed a small writing pad to his handsome accomplice.

Murphy glanced at the pages and then was pensive for a few moments before he answered firmly ‘Okay, I’ll do it. Bring the money over tomorrow and I’ll be on my way.’

And on his way, in pursuit of Buck Henry, he certainly was. So Murphy’s mind left the past now and flickered back to the diamond’s worth. Twenty grand, eh? Twenty grand was a hell of a lot of money. Surely he had heard wrong? Two grand payout wasn’t really a lot in the bigger scheme of things. No wonder Buck Henry had robbed this jewel, he thought. Sometimes doing bad was worth the risk. A guilty conscience, what was that all about? If there was a God, he didn't seem to care. Robbers, murderers and scum seemed to thrive while good folk seemed to flounder.

He tried as best he could to block these thoughts. All he had, apart from Red, was his conscience. Just surviving life was never good enough for him. This was an adventure and he was the main player. All eyes were on him.

His right thigh still ached from a previous exploit but the blood was flowing better. If he was going to take Buck Henry, then he needed strong legs. Quick hands and a calm mind were also essential in a shootout. They say one of the things that goes in a duel is the legs. Bearing that in mind, Murphy pulled Red up early. The mountains weren't that far away now, but he needed to stretch his limbs.

When his right leg hit the ground, he could feel the muscles tightening. He shook his legs from side to side. Then he stretched and flexed them. While he gave Red some water, all he thought of was Buck Henry. Gardner had said that he was a feared gunslinger. How good could he be? Murphy knew of some trouble shooters, but his name was a mystery. Only time would tell.

The air was getting cool and a slight breeze was blowing. He grabbed Red by the reins and slowly walked beside him. It felt good to be out of the saddle. But looking up he noticed that the evening was rapidly trickling in so he hopped back onto his horse. Then they galloped quickly towards the hills.

The rise was gentle but continuous. As they climbed, the mountains got bigger and bigger while the walls got closer and closer. A tunnel was coming up. It was fifteen feet high and twelve feet wide. It was known as the Cappala Ridge, a two-mile passage that cut a swath through the Cappala Mountain. He had never gone through it before, but had heard of its reputation. Folklore claimed that it had a living spirit. A place the natives called "Juwa Chowa" - Tunnel of the Dead.

Murphy stopped just before the entrance. A chill was picking up so he hopped off Red. Beside him stood the last remains of a decrepit ash tree that seemed to defy gravity by its upright pose. Even if the vultures don’t desire you, thought Murphy, I can use your gifts. His strong hands broke a two foot long branch off the nearest overhanging arm. Then he winked in thanks to the elderly plant and walked back to his friend. Murphy took a small cloth from his saddlebag which he wrapped and tied to one end of the stick. Then he lit the cloth and held it aloft as a guiding light. A creepy, howling sound came from inside the tunnel. It made the hairs on the back of his head, stand. Murphy slowly but purposely pulled Red into the darkness. As they walked into the abyss, the burning cloth illuminated the walls in front. It was going to take a while to pass through, he figured, but it was still quicker than going over the mountain.

They took their time as they manoeuvred along the rocky path. With each passing stride they could hear a collage of sounds. Crunching, squealing and crying noises filled the air. Murphy had never feared the dark, but there was something eerie about the unknown. Turning around he could just about see the entrance that he had entered. It was merely a faint light in the distance. The air wrapped a cold blanket around his body while his fingers felt the condensation in the air. Red gave a slight holler. Murphy stopped and spoke encouraging words in his ear.

They continued on using the burning cloth with precise care. The squealing sounds made Murphy curious. What was he stepping on? Carefully he held the burning light near the ground. The scene below made him jump suddenly. Staring up at him were dozens of small lizards, about six inches long. They ran quickly over each other. Desperately they tried to evade the steps of the intruders. His heart began to pound and his hands began to sweat. What scared him wasn’t the shape of the lizards but the amount of them.

The speed at which the creatures moved was a sight to behold. They crawled, dashed, jumped and trampled amongst each other like a charging train of moulding flesh. Always fighting to stay on their chosen path of scaly tracks. Murphy told himself to keep his calm. This was nature in retreat and not attack. But, as if to quell those good intentions, Murphy felt some movement on his right leg. Putting his left hand down towards it, he tried to scratch away the feeling. His senses told him something was wrong. His fingers brushed and grabbed his kneecap. Suddenly a jolt of pain ran through his index finger and up his arm. He screamed as teeth gnawed at his defenceless digit. Then he swung his hand from side to side, but his tormentor held firmly on. Inflicting intense pain.

Quickly he put the burning cloth near the focus of his torture. Hanging from his suffering finger was a vampire bat. Its wings flapped horrendously quick. Each movement sent another stinging feeling through his tiny limb. As the teeth dug in deeper, blood flowed like a gushing stream. Murphy banged and bashed the bat against his leg but the devil wouldn't let go. Food was all the creature thought of. Pain was a mere necessity of life. He put the burning cloth on a large rock and grabbed the end of the bat with his free hand. Then he pulled at the vampire's wings. Little bastard, thought Murphy, don't you ever let go?

What he did next didn't make him proud but it was a necessary evil. He picked up the burning cloth and put it on the bat. It immediately let go of his finger. A scream so horrendous that it almost made Murphy faint, flew from the vampire’s mouth. The body of the beast burned right in front of his eyes. Falling to the ground, the bat let go of life. As it touched some lizards, it burnt the bodies of the unlucky. Murphy had had enough of being gentle. Getting out of the tunnel was only on his mind.

As he brought the fire towards the ground a clear path was made before him. Lizards in there hundreds jumped out of the burning light. Murphy pulled Red along swiftly. Their feet stamped on the ground below. Hundreds of screams filled the air as the lizards hid from the murdering light. They climbed up the walls and over rocks. They scarpered for their lives.

After five minutes of following a twisting, turning path the two adventurers stopped. They were finally alone and the isolation felt good. Murphy looked down at his bleeding finger. Blood still poured from the wound. A vampire bat bite wasn't a good thing. He knew that bats, like many rodents, sometimes carried disease. Gangrene was a killer he didn't want to meet. He had heard enough tales of severed limbs and rotten bodies. He was lucky that the wound was at the tip of his finger. Only fractional feeling would be lost.

Taking a piece of leather from his bag, he put it into his mouth. The taste was strong but that's what he needed, something else to focus on. He thought about waiting until he was out of the tunnel but felt he had little time to waste. So he bent down on his knees and held the fire in his right hand. Red stopped beside him and looked down. He gave a caring nod to Murphy, who looked back determinedly. It was best to do this quick, he thought.

Closing all his fingers except the tortured one, he moved his hand towards the fire. He stopped his limb about six inches from the light. His fingertip could feel the power of the flame. Tiny shards of skin melted with the heat.

Thomas Murphy was nervous as hell. His whole body perspired with fearful anticipation. He took one last gulp of air before fiercely putting his finger into the fire. The shockwaves flew all around his body. He let out a huge roar before falling quickly back. The burning cloth and stick fell to the floor. Murphy's hand had never ever felt such horrible pain. His eyes flooded tears while his stomach turned and rolled. Falling forward, he vomited.

His hand felt numb with the pain, but he hadn't quite finished the job yet. His finger badly needed water to cool it down. With his right hand he tried desperately to get the water can from his saddlebag. Stupid fool, thought Murphy, I should've had it by my side. He grabbed furiously at the bag but his attempts were futile. The water can was in view but he just didn't have the power to get it.

Lowering his head, he looked at his torched finger. The skin was black and melting. He thought he could hear the sound of the bat laughing at his turmoil. That's what you get for burning me, it said.

Magically, the water can dropped beside his feet. He turned and looked up. Red was shaking his head in encouragement. Thanks pal, thought Murphy, you’re a lifesaver. He quickly opened the top of the can and poured water over his pain. As the liquid touched his skin, his soul came back to life. Every drop gave Murphy an extra ounce of strength. Never before had he ever felt so good. Forget sex, he thought, healing pain was premium.

Murphy used half of the can and then put the cap back on. Then he fell back onto his knees. He rested there until his body felt refreshed. Then he clamoured to his feet. Clear sight started to come back to his eyes. The fuzzy feeling in his head started to evaporate. After putting the can back in the pouch, Murphy put his right arm around Red. He patted his side and held him firm. This was his best friend and God did he know it.

They were just about to move when he remembered the burning cloth. He carefully bent down and picked it up. The rest of the tunnel journey was going to be slow and hopefully uneventful, thought Murphy. For the next twenty minutes, his wish came true. The peaceful interlude allowed his strength and awareness to come back. He felt a hell of a lot better. Images of food were flooding back to his mind. Always a good sign, he thought.

Up ahead, he could see some natural light. It must be the end of the tunnel, he thought. With that in mind he started to pick up speed. Pulling Red along, he felt closer and closer to the exit.

Only one hundred yards left and disaster struck. Because of the speed they went, Murphy hadn't noticed the tunnel getting wider. It got so wide that they came upon a large drop in the blackness. His feet pushed falling stones and rubble into the dark and he tried desperately to keep his balance. Retaining his composure he started to make out the challenge that now lay ahead. In front of him was a very narrow bridge of rock about three feet in width. It travelled over a hole of thirty feet in length by twenty feet in breadth. Either side of the rocky bridge was a death-trap of black air.

The speed at which they came to the bridge, had almost sent them crashing to their extinction. Only for Red stopping quickly, Murphy would've been dead. They slowly pulled away from the drop and stood still. Holding the torch forward, Murphy tried to find out how deep it was. No bottom was in sight. This was too much hassle for one adventure, he thought, and this way was supposed to be easier. What a joke!

He chucked a rock into the black abyss and waited for the noise. Second after second passed and still no sound. Finally a slight thud could be heard. Must be at least one hundred feet, he thought. Great, if I fall I'm finished! No coming back. Nice way to spend the day.

Then his mind strengthened like the warrior he was. To hell with that, he thought, no stinking cave is going to take me. Using every ounce of concentration he could call from his inner self, he walked carefully to the rocky bridge. At the foot of the bridge, he stopped and checked his bearings. His finger still ached with pain but the rest of his battle-weary frame felt better. He was determined to cross the bridge. Determined to beat this test. Determined to survive. With the burning cloth now in his left hand, he took Red carefully with his right. One step at a time, that's all, he thought. One careful step.

As they left the safety of the ledge behind them, Murphy felt the loneliness of the bridge. Stones and earth fell from either side to the black below. Each step was a death waiting to happen so he carefully planned every movement. Moving further and further into the darkness, the wind hollered and screamed. It was crying out for contact. Come and stay with me, it said. Murphy wasn't interested. He had a diamond to get and a reward with it. With his eyes focused only ahead, he walked slowly, step by step. The ground was shaky and Red murmured slightly.

‘It's okay pal,’ said Murphy, trying to calm down Red. ‘We're nearly there.’

He could see the other side of the ledge. It was only ten feet away. Every little step brought them closer and closer to salvation. The wind started to cry out again. Only this time it was louder and more eerie. Murphy could feel a great gust of wind enveloping his whole body. It blew stronger and harder, hitting every nerve in his framework. Only five feet to go, hang in there, he thought.

He was just about to reach the other side when a storm of bats flew right into his path. The force at which they struck took Murphy totally by surprise. His left foot gave way and he lost his balance. He tumbled terrifyingly towards the big black hole. As he fell, the burning cloth dropped from his grasp. It lit up the black abyss as it fell towards its maker. Murphy's right hand held desperately to Red's reins. The power of his fall sent arrows of pain through his burnt finger. He screamed out in agony. The noise filled the cavern of the cave and an echo quickly followed.

Red felt the brunt of his pal’s weight as he lost his footing. The horse twisted from side to side, trying to keep the two of them afloat. With no light to help, Murphy felt totally secluded. Using all the guts that he could muster, he regained his balance. If he could only keep his direction then maybe he could get to safety.

The two warriors moved cautiously forward using the exit light of the tunnel as a guide. Once more the wind blew strongly and the howling cries followed. The bats were coming back. Another flock of devils came once more into their path. They crashed savagely into the two of them. Some of the creatures took hold, biting viciously into their prey. Murphy could feel their wings flapping rapidly against his face. Their claws dug deep into his clothes. Their mouths sucked evilly, pulling forth any blood they could find.

He could almost see their evil eyes peering at him in the dark. Red was covered completely with the flying menace. He kicked out and hollered loudly. Murphy reached with his right hand for the six-shooter. Even in the dark he was torpedo fast. His middle finger guided the gun into the air like a surgeon with a scalpel. All was silent for a second and then the roar of gunfire filled the air. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Went the powerful noise. Murphy shot out round after round of glorious light.

He could feel his body becoming lighter and lighter, free of the deadly parasites. He grabbed Red and quickly leapt for the other side. As he hit the ground, clouds of dust filled the air. For once it was a godsend. The rocky particles filled his nostrils and his ears became enwrapped. Red kept his balance and with conviction kept moving onwards. His strength and determination pulled his friend to his feet. They picked up speed and the exit was within touching distance. Crashing from wall to wall, they rode joyously out of the vicious grave.

Never before had sunlight felt so real, so important to one’s life. Murphy could see the shapes of clouds in the sky. Their white forms were like paintings from above, gifts of help from God. The smell of nature and all its grandeur filled the air. Leaves, trees and water could be seen. The torture had ended. Murphy had reached his Eden.

They rode until they were completely gone from all disaster. Murphy held on dearly to his friend who seemed to be rejoicing. Red seemed in such high spirits because he had reached a pinnacle never attained before. Murphy turned his head around and took one last look at the tunnel. Maybe that passage is quicker, he thought, but by God is it painful! He turned back around and rode until they hit salvationing water. A glorious golden waterfall cascaded from above. Fifty feet high and fifteen feet wide, the noisy splashing filled the air. It fell into a small lake of only sixty feet in diameter. Murphy could see his reflection shining back at him as tiny freshwater trout swam in droves through the crystal clear liquid. Slowly getting off Red, his feet hit the grassy bottom.

But a juggernaut hit his happy nerves. For the loud click of a pistol destroyed his cheerful mood.

‘Put ‘em up mister, if you wanna’ live!’ The voice had youthful arrogance. And scores of chilling evil. As if the soul from which it came was from another world.

Murphy knew that he was in a stitch and calmly did as he was told. Red also responded quickly and turned his cautious mind to the sound of trouble. He was ready if the chance arose. But he wouldn’t try anything foolish.

‘Who’s there?’ an exhausted Murphy asked softly.

‘I’ll ask the questions!’ the horrifying voice returned. ‘What’s your name and what are ya’ up to? And keep it simple. I know a liar when I hear ‘im.’

Thomas Murphy paused for a brief second as his inspiration sprang to work. The light was disappearing quickly now as the night was closing in. He handed his vocal answer out as his eyes searched along the cluster of vegetation that housed this evil menace.

‘The name’s Jack Baker. I’m heading for Tumblers Hill to see my newborn baby and loving wife.’

‘So why did you risk all of that by deciding to go through that darned tunnel?’

Murphy exhaled slowly as the waterfall to his right hand side dropped down in perfect tandem. ‘A friend of mine told me it was a lot quicker than goin’ over the mountain. And that he had no trouble passin’ through it. Bastard! Lyin’ to me like that! Hell, that’s one hell of a tunnel. ‘Creepy and scary! Full of leeching lizards and bitin' bats. Never again, I tell ya!’

As he spoke his little playing card, his tired eyes scanned all the trees and plants that lay before his searching soul. But the answer to his whereabouts was still a maze of tortured angst.

‘Ha!’ laughed the vicious voice. ‘You expect me to believe that a friend of yours told you good about that tunnel when your wife an’ baby was waitin’ for you. Not much of a friend. An’ not much of a story.’

Murphy was about to interject some more made-up prose when the invisible man left his dark sanctuary and finally showed his face. Blue piercing eyes and blond flopping hair darted out from the youthful man’s handsome face. A face so charming that it could fool many an unfortunate soul into believing this villain’s lies. A smug sense of superiority grinned wildly across his lips. His blue and sandy coloured attire contrasted sharply with Murphy’s coal-black clothes. He fitted Buck Henry’s description closely.

‘You’ve been followin’ me. All the way from Big City. An’ I don’t like bein’ followed. It makes me itchy. You don’t wanna’ see my hands when they’re itchy. They can do terrible things,’ he said as his right hand slowly brought his six-shooter into view.

‘You got me all wrong,’ interspersed Murphy quickly, but his speech was cut short by his opponents return.

‘Got you all wrong! Have I? Well, then, I’ll just have to deal with the guilt of killing an innocent man. Won’t I?’ His question had a finality and veneer that boasted a Satanic lack of regret.

This was it! Murphy knew it. The next couple of seconds would seal his future. Life or death! Could he outgun a drawn man? And a top gunslinger? Could he do it? Could he? This thought rushed savagely into Murphy’s mind. His heart hopped horribly as the fear of uncertainty and death approached him. A stream of sweat suddenly sprang to life in his hair and cascaded down his forehead. Stinging his tensed eyes as they washed by. Go for it, Murphy! Go for it! He shouted internally.

The two leering duellists were about to unleash their assassins when an uninvited guest had thrown himself into the equation. Or uninvited guests to be more exact. The haunting sound of a few moments ago which had tortured and teased the two adventurers in the cave, once more came rushing back. In the tunnel, the flock of beasts, maybe, numbered fifty. But here now, in the lovely moonlit splendour of beautiful, sturdy oak trees, and a heavenly lake and waterfall, the number was far, far greater. A swarm of three hundred screaming, howling and starving vampire bats whirled into their path.

Murphy reacted first and dived down quickly onto the precious ground, shooting out as he dropped. A scream of devastating horror quickly followed. Succeeded rapidly by further howls of anguish. Murphy’s eardrums cried for the noise to finish. But their request was flatly denied. A screeching, despicable tornado of blisteringly evil, demonic noise showered over the landscape. Vicious little fangs and claws grabbed and scrapped at the three unfortunates in their midst. Red howled and cried as he tried desperately to deter the evil, flying vixens. But his kicks and shakes did little to scare away the nocturnal nightmare.

Back and forth, up and down, the collective predators flew savagely through the air. Another awful scream of pain destroyed the cool night breeze. Desperately, Murphy lifted his head up off the ground and tried to see the torrential terror. He could just about make out the image of his opponent, still standing ominously a few metres away. Buck Henry was at the epicentre of the evil bat tornado. Round and round the flying, vicious rodents travelled. Tearing lumps of skin, muscle and hair as they passed. Shredding his clothes to tatters. Ploughing his flesh to open up rivers of gushing blood. Teasing, taunting and torturing the frightened villain.

BANG! BANG! BANG! Exploded into the night from Murphy’s smokin’ gun. Quickly followed by another melody of BANG! BANG! BANG! From the enemy’s pistol. But the choir of singing vampires hadn’t quite finished their evening hymn. They stormed and bashed across their prey with one final horrendous charge. Barely, through his half shut eyes, Murphy could see his human foe trying hopelessly to knock off the relentless vipers.

And then, magically, the demonic vision from the depths of hell whished and whirled away. Away from the three defenders. Away from the scene of nature. And back to the place they bore from. The Tunnel of the Dead.

The world felt lighter now and Murphy lifted his head. As he did, a searing sight ventured in. The cocky youth of minutes ago stood still and upright. Like a solid statue of peace. And then, his efforts fully exhausted, he collapsed back onto the grass behind him. A destroyed, shattered soul.

Bloodied and broken, but still alive, Murphy crawled to his feet. Then he looked at his precious horse. Red nodded as if to say, ‘Don’t worry Tom, I’m okay, just go and check on Blondie.’ With that in mind, Thomas Murphy brought his fragile frame over to the fallen man. As he got closer and closer to this villain, the horror increased in volume. The lying, outstretched carcass was a twig of diminished remains. Naked, except for a few tiny shreds of skin and garments, the blood painted individual was a shell of lost desires. His soul, that evil, chilling tone, had been wrenched free from his distraught vessel. And brought back on the wings of the wretched bats to the evil hole they all came from. The Satanic depths of hell.

Yet more was still to come. From this time of pain and anguish, a minute ray of hope appeared. It shone out into the solemn night like a star that had sprung from earth. Beaming, from the opened remains of the fallen man’s trouser pocket, a brilliant sparkling jewel eclipsed the newly serene setting. It winked mischievously up at Murphy who was startled by its glory. The stolen possession lay now before him, leaving the slain Buck Henry to the waste.

Murphy bent down carefully and softly picked the marvellous prize up. Its majesty caressed his sweaty palm and deftly massaged his weary soul. He could almost not believe the vision before him. But the vision was real and the torturous task was now completed. Smiling deliriously and ignorant of his painful wounds, a triumphant Murphy rejoiced in the fact that he had recovered the precious diamond. The Star of Cordrye.