This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. The travelers find their way to a circus, which may have a cursed object in its possession.
Bright colored tents had been constructed against the blue sky. A sun blazed overhead, bearing down on the townstead. It was a poor day to be out, but the carnival tents offered shade, and the Hall of Wonders proclaimed on a large wooden sign looked nice and shady from outside. There was good business to be had today.
It was Gabe who wanted to stop at the traveling show. The smell cresting over the hill was equal parts roasted peanuts and animal dung, which had made Violetta concerned. It wasn’t a large show. Mostly carnival games and objects to wonder at, with only a few performers. The strongman loped by, arms hugging two large barrels of what smelled like beer, and a picture of a tattooed woman promised her appearance at a later time. A woman told fortunes out of a caravan decorated with scarves and lanterns. The pickings were small, but Gabe enjoyed it.
“My parents never let me go,” Violetta complained as the walked around the fairground. “It was too shocking for a lady.”
He grinned. “They must’ve been so worried about you.”
“This one doesn’t have that many shows.” She looked over the signs. There were a few towns within riding distance of the fair, and so a large number of people had shown. The show was sure to make good money today.
“This girl’s got rope tricks,” Gabe said, gesturing to the poster for Lily of the Valley. A blond woman held two lasso loops in her hands.
“Why don’t you ever do rope tricks?”
He shrugged as they walked towards the Hall of Wonders. It was made up of a series of red and yellow colored tents that had been stretched together. The day was hot, and so just about everyone had crammed inside.The sign boasted sights of the unnatural world, and a tall man with dark, greying hair stood outside it.
“We’ve traveled all over this great nation to bring you the greatest sights to marvel at!” he shouted. His coat was shiny and red and no doubt unbearable in the sun, but he grinned widely at a pair of ladies who handed him their tickets, tipping his hat. “Proof that giants roamed the earth! That mermen live in the sea! That mythical beasts can be found here in this very desert!”
Violetta grabbed Gabe’s arm and pulled him towards it. She was given the same treatment by the showman, who took her ticket with a wink.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he said in a conspirator’s whisper. “I’ve had ladies faint at the devils they see inside.”
“I’ll keep my smelling salts handy,” she replied and pushed back the canvas flaps.
The tents were stuffy. The amount of things that had been crammed inside gave little room, but ropes had been set up around them to lead people through. The very first wonder sat right at the entrance, huge and tall with a path around it for everyone to see. The great rock boasted its age on a placard, ten thousand years old it claimed, and a half formed man rose out of it, twice the height of anyone in the room. The features were muddied, but the tree trunk legs of it and wide fat arm reaching helped its claim that it was a giant fossil.
“Giants roamed the earth,” Violetta repeated as she read over the placard. “Found in Arkansas, it says.”
“I can see why they were worried,” Gabe said.
A few children reached out for it, their parents pulling them back. The behemoth man could be viewed from all sides, and to many it was impressive enough. The next item was a jackalope, claimed found and stuffed in Nevada. The antlers weren’t well attached, Gabe noted, and worried they might fall off right in front of them. Beside it was a cactus cat, which looked to be a mountain lion affixed with cactus barbs, a delicate task no doubt. Between them hanging from a plaque was a fur-bearing trout.
“I can see why you might like this as a child,” Violetta said as they wandered away into the next tent. “But it’s a little silly.”
He smiled at the obvious fakes. “You’ve just got no imagination.”
She grimaced at the new row of delights. A twisted mummified pygmy reached up with small hands, half of its body replaced with the bones of a fish. Its mouth pulled back in a twisted howl. Beside it was an alligator with a similar shrunken head on its neck, teeth inserted into its strange grin. The whole room was filled with fabricated monster men, either out on display or kept in glass cases that had been dirtied by fingerprints and dust. Little plaques explained the history of each one, how they were found, and what strange magic brought them into being. A few children looked on in excitement, and a handful of people held handkerchiefs to their mouths.
There was an exit presented to the right of the displays, but to the left was another doorway, whose covering warned against entry. On the tarp someone had painted a column of fiendish devils who covered their eyes in horror. Violetta grabbed Gabe’s arm and dragged him over to it.
“‘Face hellfire and damnation,’” she read aloud. “‘Beyond this door is a gateway to horrors unimaginable.’ Let’s go in.”
“‘Not recommended for ladies and small children,’” he read as well. “You may be too delicate for this.”
She made a face at him as she pushed past the tarp. The room was considerably darker, only a few lanterns offering light, and what passed for an occult symbol was painted on the ground. The few others who were in the room stepped around it, which guided them to the monstrous creations that sat watching from the sides. Little skeletons sprouted second heads and thin horns as well as huge bat-like wings. They led in a circle to the thing at the very end of the room, a huge slab of dirt and stone. A human-like figure was bent within it, one arm reached out. Its dried skin seemed ragged at the edges, and they realized they were rags wrapped around it, its face obscured with no socket for the eyes or nose, but a mouth slightly open, showing teeth. The plaque only read ‘The Mummied Man’.
“It’s hideous,” Violetta said with appreciation.
Gabe nodded. “I wouldn’t say horrors unimaginable, but some good stuff.”
“I think this one is my favorite.” She gestured to the Mummied Man. “Really looks like they put some work into it.”
“I don’t know. I have a fondness for Alligator Boy.”
They walked from the tents, admiring a few more creations on their way out. The crowd was moving as they exited towards the tent marked with the posters for Lily of the Valley. They could hear the hoot and calls of the cowgirl from outside. Violetta nudged Gabe, and he shook his head.
“They’ve got games,” she said. “I’ve never played carnival games before.”
“That is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
They started towards the small booths of ring toss and dart games. Gabe slowed as he saw, half hidden between the shadows, the man who’d gestured them into the Hall of Wonders, talking in a quiet hushed tone with another man who wore a sparkling suit and a tall hat. He touched Violetta’s shoulder, nodding to them.
“It’s going to keep happening,” the man in the tall hat said. “There’s always going to be another one.”
“We don’t know that,” the man said, and he brushed a hand through his dark hair.
“It’s gone after our own people, Rodney.”
“We’ll deal with it tonight. When we can.”
The other man made a face and stormed off. Gabe and Violetta hurried off before they were caught eavesdropping. A cheer sounded from the tent behind them, and Rodney returned to his post in front of the Hall of Wonders.
“That was suspicious,” Violetta murmured.
Gabe considered it as they headed towards the games. “Can’t imagine what they’re talking about.”
“I could if anything in that Hall of Wonders was actually real. But it’s a lot of bunk, isn’t it?”
“You always jump straight to ghost and boogeymen. People have real problems.”
She looked at him. “Those are real problems.”
“Only if you’re us.”
She shoved him along, and they put the strange conversation out of their minds. Whatever passed for problems around here, they couldn’t say, and so the afternoon was spent playing games, enjoying shows, and eating all the carnival food they could. The strongman lifted huge weights over his head to the delight of children, who came up to touch the real iron and try to lift it themselves. Lily of the Valley performed rope tricks in an outfit that would not pass well on the ranch, and the tattooed lady did a dance that was a little too scandalous for the younger audience. The man they’d seen, in the shiny suit and top hat, performed tricks and illusions, sawing a woman in half and releasing doves from his sleeves. By the time the sun was down, they were exhausted, and they hitched in a caravan back to town, where they found room in an inn.
Violetta could still hear the sounds of the carnival as she lay her head down in bed. The sheets were scratchy and the pillow barely there at all, and she felt like a lead weight as she lay there. Music wafted up like from a dream, and people talked and mosied outside like phantoms. She didn’t dream, not really, because her mind wouldn’t rest, and she found herself waking in fits and starts every few hours. She and Gabe had shared a room, two beds, and she watched his chest rise and fall for a while before sitting up and moving to the small square window. The moon was fat and full, spreading light across the rocky landscape, the thin patches of trees casting long shadows. From a patch in the distance she saw the shadow of a hundred birds rise up from the trees, and she felt the echo of a cry. The night was still otherwise, not even clouds in the sky, not even the brush of wind against the treetops. In the distant plain, where the carnival had set itself up, she saw lights. One by one lanterns appeared in the darkness, little dots so far away.
Gabe woke when she touched his arm. He rolled over, eyes bleary, and she gestured him to the window. They watched the lights move for a while until they disappeared into the trees.The night dragged on, and the moon dipped low before they came back out. It was hard to see in the darkness, but the moon cast enough light for them to see the carnival workers carrying something wrapped between them.
“We don’t know what it is,” Gabe said as he sat back on his bed.
Violetta was still at the window. The birds had resettled in town, and their yellow eyes were bright in the moonlight. “Something’s wrong, though.”
“I just got this feeling…”
She couldn’t explain it any more than she could explain her dreams, or the thing about birds, or any of the fantastic things they’d seen. Something had curled in her stomach, and it was heavy and leaden, and it told her something bad was happening.
“We’ll go back tomorrow,” Gabe said, stretching onto his pillow. “You can poke your nose in things, like you like to do.”
She made a face at him as she dropped back onto her bed. Her eyes still watched the window, though, even after Gabe had gone back to sleep, even after the moon fell back into the earth, until morning came to find them.
They hitched a ride and got there as the carnival opened up at noon. The day was hotter than the day before, and the roustabouts and laborers sweated as they walked along the lines. Gabe was counting bodies. He remembered most of the folks from the day before, but he couldn’t see if anything had changed among them. Violetta gestured to the thicket of trees behind the campground, certain that’s where she’d seen them come out of the night before, but Gabe was less certain.
“We don’t even know what we saw last night,” he said. “Or if this is where we seen it.”
“Doesn’t hurt to poke around,” she said. “Would you rather dig around in the woods or talk to some carnies?”
He glanced at the trees. “They’ll take less offense to a pretty face asking intrusive questions.”
“Aw.” She patted his shoulder. “You think I’m pretty.”
He gestured her on, and she entered the fairgrounds again. The heat made the day lazy, and there were fewer people around. No one paid her any mind as she stepped around the workers who pushed heavy crates of food and prizes, and several of the acts were walking around to give those who’d braved the sun a preview. She saw Lily of the Valley come out from a small tent closed off from the public, walk up to the strongman, and whisper something in his ear. A concerned look came over his face, but he turned back to the crowd with a large smile on his face, letting a child grab her arms around his bicep and lifting her into the air. Lily walked across the fairground towards another tent, where she lifted the side and slipped underneath. She saw no sign of the magic man, but Rodney was standing in front of the Hall of Wonders, surreptitiously wiping sweat from his face. He lit up when he saw her, putting on his showman’s charms.
“She’s returned!” he said. “You didn’t find the hall too frightful?”
Violetta put on her own face, letting an eager grin stretch across her face and tugging her hair over her shoulders. She wasn’t used to doing this in her work clothes, which she imagined detracted some from the ingenue she tried to embody. Gabe was right, though, a pretty face could open a lot more doors.
“I found it delightful,” she said. It was easier to start with a lie that was almost the truth. “They were practically gruesome! I had to come back today to learn more about them.”
He was appraising her, and she worried for a moment a con man might have some practice at spotting a con. But he kept his smile and extended a hand to the hall behind him. “Each item is unique and found all over this great land. Each one has a story with it.”
She’d worried about that. Most of them were probably large fabrications as well. “There’s no way I could hear those stories, is there?” she asked anyway.
“We-ell.” He was looking at the fairground now. Fewer people were out, and the ones that were had huddled into the show tents. “I don’t usually give tours, you know.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to make an exception,” she said.
He was thinking about the price of her ticket. “A little extra luxury for the lady, sure.”
He pushed back the opening for her and allowed her through. The crowd was much smaller today, and a few children ran around the Giant towards their parents. The man turned with a flourish and outstretched a hand.
“Rodney Silverton,” he said. “This is my carnival. I wear the top hat around here.”
“Violetta Talbot. It’s an impressive display, sir.”
He smiled. Age had started to sink into his skin, wrinkling the corners of his mouth, but his blue eyes were vivid and bright. “I put my whole life into this work! I’ve always enjoyed entertaining, you know, and I have an appetite for the weird.”
“It’s built you quite the collection.” She waved to the Giant. “I can’t imagine where you find these things.”
Rodney had the imagination for it. The moment he opened his mouth to tell her the history of the hideous wonders in front of her, it did not stop. A continuous stream of lies, misinformation, and elaborate storytelling poured out, and she had to admit that he had the showmanship for it. The others who’d stepped into the Hall of Wonders began to gather around as well, listening in rapt attention as he explained each and every mystifying step towards gaining a creature like this. He was led to the Giant by a tribe of Indians, who had worshipped it for many years, and nearly killed the whole crew when they tried to pull it from the earth. Gator Boy was the strange offspring of a Louisiana woman and her God-fearing husband, who threw the child back into the river, where it lived for a few days before dying. The Feejee Mermaid had been pulled from a fishing village in the east, promptly killed and mounted, and had been lost in three poker games until it made its way to the west, where Rodney himself bought it off a Japanese fisherman. Each story was as fake as it was elaborate and exciting. Even Violetta found herself a bit thrilled as he mimicked the fear they had stealing from the Indian tribe, and the excitement of the mermaid being placed in his hands.
The crowd dispersed a little as they went to the final room, where Hell itself lay waiting. He gave the usual spiel to the two-headed bats and long clawed demons, and told them the symbol in the center of the room was the name of a Tibetan demon, meant to ward away any evil that would remain in these items. He went around the whole room and stopped at the Mummied Man.
“An expedition in Egypt uncovered him,” he said without missing a beat, and Violetta half wondered if he was making these up off the top of his head. “A poor commoner who was buried alive! When he was pulled from the ground, a curse was put on those who discovered him, and one by one they died. He was passed from museum to museum until a rich man bought him up and was found dead several days later!”
There was a gasp from those around her. Violetta tried to look impressed.
“You can see how he is crying out.” Rodney gestured to the open mouth of the man. “Trying to crawl from his prison. We keep him here, where he can’t harm anyone.”
Rodney had started out boisterous and overeager, but his energy had turned nervous, and he once again wiped sweat from his brow. Violetta studied the creature again. It was certainly horrifying. There was something about its bone thin limbs that seemed stretched wrong, the marred face taking away anything but the opened jaw, but it was so slathered with mud and dirt it was hard to tell what sculpted beneath it.
Violetta walked away, thanking Rodney for the tour, and she kicked around the fairgrounds for a while as she considered things. She wasn’t even sure what she’d seen last night, if it was even connected to the fair, but she’d felt certain. It might be worth it to flirt around the workers, ask if they’d seen anything spooky, but it seemed likely it was nothing at all. She shouldn’t have worried Gabe about it.
She left the carnival and looked up at the thicket of trees not too far off, surprised to see the shiny suit of the magic man trudging towards it. Glancing back at the fairground, where Rodney was entertaining another excited group, and that tattooed woman paraded past the crowd in a scandalously low dress, and the strongman listened with some concern to a few of the roustabouts who’d taken a break from hefting around items, it was like a ripple on the surface.
She started towards the trees.
Gabe didn’t really know what he was looking for. He’d learned to trust Violetta’s intuition just like she trusted his, but it’d be nice to look for more than just a feeling. If only they’d seen the thing they’d carried back. The way it was wrapped and carried, it looked an awful lot like a person, though most things did with a strong enough imagination. It’s gone after our own people, the magician had said. ‘It’ could mean a lot of awful things.
The dirt around here was hard and packed but had some life to it, at least. Only the thin trees with wide outstretched branches could grow in it, and dry, spindly brush touched him as he passed. The ground here had been traversed, the crushed plants and heavy bootprints an indication of that, and further up it looked like someone had been running. The low branches had been snapped and scattered a distance away. The ground was clear though. He didn’t know what to expect. People who were covering up a thing usually were good about not leaving any obvious evidence around.
His fingers itched for a gun, but they’d left it behind in their packs since there’d been no use. Something about these trees was off. Something about the shadows jutting out on such a bright day, something about the leaves curling back in the gentle breeze, something like an echo left behind.
There was the sound, not too far away, like a herd of birds, tweeting loudly and madly. He’d heard them since he’d stepped behind the tree, but he hadn’t realized how loud they were. He followed the sound as best he could, raising his hands to his ears when it got too loud. He could see the mass of them not too far off, what looked like a thousand black wings beating in the shadows of the trees. They were in the trees, and they were on the ground, fighting over each other for something that was lying there. He picked up a good sized rock and chucked it. The ones on the ground scattered, and the whole forest seemed to explode as they burst from the trees into the air. They resettled, distant now, but he could see them watching him from the branches. He walked forward, inspecting what they’d been so intent to get.
He stepped back. His eyes were up on the trees, where the birds stared at him. They were silent now. Not so much as a caw.
Someone was walking in the trees behind him, and he quickly moved back out of any easy line of sight.
“Hell on earth,” he heard someone mutter, and Merlin the magician stumbled through the brush. He looked out of place out here in his shiny suit and tall hat, using his long cane to stop tripping over the landscape. He inspected the ground.
Gabe stood back, hoping he was hidden enough in the trees. Merlin walked around, kicking up dirt and leaves. He took his hat off, holding it in front of him and shaking his head.
“Poor bastard,” he muttered.
There was the sound of more people coming, and Gabe turned around. It was hard to tell what had happened here last night, but if the sideshow folks were hiding it, he wasn’t interested in getting caught. He strolled back towards the fairground. Someone had died last night, and since no one in town had noticed anyone missing, he was willing to bet that person came from right down there. He ducked his head down and saw Violetta creeping through the forest. He caught her eye and waved her over.
“Find anything good?” she asked.
“Someone certainly died last night,” he said. “I don’t know from what.”
She glanced around. “I saw Merlin come this way.”
“He’s cleaning up the scene right now. What’d you learn at the circus?”
“I don’t know.” She pushed her hands through her hair. “I got a tour of the Hall of Wonders but it’s all lies as far as I can tell.”
They hurried through the trees. They were not the only ones making a sound out in the thicket, and they stopped short as they saw the strongman come through. He lumbered in the gentle way of a man who was uncomfortable with taking up so much space, and his feet crashed against the underbrush. He stopped, looking around. The bird calls had not returned, and the empty silence of the forest was unsettling. Violetta shoved Gabe along another path, following the slow slope of the hill down.
They hurried along in case more came from the fairground, and behind them they could hear the slow, plodding steps of the strongman. Gabe wondered if the man had seen them, because they did not seem to go away. He glanced behind them, but he couldn’t see the man. Violetta must’ve picked up on his nervousness, making her stride longer until she was nearly sprinting. All at once the birds in the trees screeched as they took off into the sky, a great cloud of black, and she stumbled as she raised her arms over her face. Gabe jumped as a hand grabbed his arm, and he turned to see the strongman with a grim expression. He took Violetta’s arm as well and stood there as Merlin the Magician chased after them, holding onto his top hat as he ran.
“Honest, Ernie,” he said, out of breath. “I don’t know how you move so fast, you great big beast.”
“I tol’ you I saw someone snooping,” the strongman said. He let go of the both of them, patting them on the shoulders. He was taller than even Gabe, who usually had the luxury of towering over just about everyone else.
“No one’s snooping.” Merlin grinned at the two of them. “Folks don’t snoop when nothing’s been done wrong, ain’t that right?”
“An awful lot of mess back there for nothing to have gone wrong,” Gabe said.
“You saw that did you?” The magician glanced at Ernie, who offered him a shrug. “No telling what it might’ve been though.”
“Not unless you saw someone carrying it away in a tarp.” Violetta was staring him down.
“Alright, alright, alright.” He waved his hands at them. “‘Fore we go accusing anybody of anything, we oughtta talk to Rodney.”
“What’s he gonna say?” Ernie asked.
Merlin gave a sigh. “Maybe the truth for once. One of us oughtta.”
“We’ll head back with you,” Gabe said. “Supposing we get an actual explanation out of it.”
“Lilian’s gonna have a fit over this one.” He waved a hand. “Come on then. We got a show to put on.”
They sat in one of the long caravans so filled with things it was impossible to sit. There was a mass of blankets and pillows that might’ve hinted at a bed if it weren’t sitting on top of a mess of barbells and someone hadn’t leaned long planks of wood over it. Costumes were tossed aside, some glittering with sequins and sparkle, others bursting with color in more subtle ways. Torches for juggling sat in a bucket beside a pile of twisted rope. Ernie the strongman remained in there with them, stooping a bit, and Merlin ran off. Ernie had been pleasant all the while, smiling a show smile hidden beneath an auburn colored beard. The door clattered open, and Lily of the Valley poked her head through, pulling her cowgirl hat off her blond braids. She gave a grimace at the two and looked at Ernie, patting his face as she stepped in.
“Rodney’s coming,” she said as she quickly undid her braids. “Davie says you folks think we murdered a man.”
“We saw a lot of mysterious shapes and some blood on the ground,” Gabe said. “We’re not the type to jump to conclusions.”
“Doesn’t seem so much a jump to me. Seems a perfectly reasonable thought after all that.” She shook out her hair and tossed her rope onto the pile. “Darling, you ain’t holding these folks prisoner, are you?”
“Davie thinks Rodney oughtta explain himself,” he said.
“That’d be be a treat.” Hands on her hips, she looked over them. “Rodney thinks he’s the brain behind this operation but he’s full of hot air. What’s it to you folks what we carnies get up to in the middle of the night?”
“We don’t think it’s a murder,” Violetta said. “We think it’s something else.”
“What else could it be?”
“We’re in the business of uncovering the strange and the unusual.”
Both of the sideshow folk gave her a strange look.
“She means monsters,” Gabe said. “And ghosts. The like.”
Most people laughed here, but Lily gave them a once over and then turned back to the strongman.
“I’ll tell Rodney to hurry,” she said.
It didn’t take much longer. Rodney, Merlin, and the cowgirl all piled into the cramped space, shutting the door behind them, not that it did much good. The caravan had turned stuffy and hot, and Rodney was still sweating.
“I should’ve known,” he said, gesturing at Violetta. “No one comes back twice.”
“I thought you might have something real in there,” she said. “Something that might be causing this.”
“You don’t even know what this is yet! How long we been on this tour, Davie?”
Merlin considered for a moment. “About six months, I’d say.”
“I’d say. It’s since we left Arkansas, that’s it.” He wiped his brow and collapsed on the makeshift bed. “Bought a whole new bevy of gaffs for the show, thought we’d up the scare factor. Folks like to be scared. Wake up in the middle of the night to find a roustabout dead.”
They looked white at the memory. Ernie dipped his head, and Merlin removed his hat.
“We should’ve known then,” Merlin said. “It didn’t seem like a man had done it.”
“We told ourselves it was an animal.” Rodney shook his head. “Buried the poor son of a bitch and left the next day. And then, a week later, we’re setting up again, and Ernie finds the body of a vagrant in the woods. We bury him too. It’s all we can do.”
“It doesn’t happen everywhere,” Lily said, “but it mostly happens to us. We had no idea what was doing it.”
“You think you know now?” Violetta asked.
Rodney’s face sagged, and he looked a beaten man. “No, but we suspected it might not be natural. Not with the way it was following us.”
“You two are experts, huh?” Lily was a beauty, blond and blue-eyed, but those eyes were sharp. She was a woman fed bullshit all day and had learned to discern. “If you think you know, now’d be the time to say.”
“We don’t think we know, actually,” Violetta said. “You lot have so much stuff around here that’s fake, it makes it hard to tell what’s real.”
“You said you bought a whole lot of gaffs,” Gabe said.
“Sure.” Rodney waved a hand. “You’ve seen half of them.”
“Maybe they oughtta see all of them,” Merlin said.
“Yeah. Yeah alright. We don’t got time for this now. Lilian, you’ve got a show.”
“It can wait, Rodney.”
“No, it can’t.” He stood slowly. “We live or die on ticket sales, you know that. Go do some tricks. Smooch on Ernie a little, they love that. Merlin’s gotta pull a rabbit out of his hat.”
“What about us?” Gabe asked.
He looked them over. “Come back around sunset. We can close down the most of it then, and you two can get a good long look at what’s bothering us. Sound fair?”
He made his way out the caravan, and the performers followed behind, except for Lily, who stared them down one more time.
“It’s a strange business you folks run,” she said.
“We could say the same about you,” Violetta countered.
“Sure. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
She hopped out, and the travelers followed suit. The sun was already pitching towards evening, and the warmest part of the day was drawing to a close.
“Do we know what we’re doing?” Gabe asked.
Violetta shrugged. “There’s a first time for everything.”
They watched the carnival people work, waiting for sunset.
The gaffs that weren’t out on display were kept in another caravan, all piled up together with no clear classification. Rodney was still selling tickets even as the day came to a close, but Merlin–real name David–was all too happy to show them what they had. Like the ones in the Hall of Wonders, it was mostly taxidermied animals pieced together with other animal parts. A few real legends were plaqued in some way, though the likelihood of it being an honest relic was rare. Violetta noted the thunderbird feather, more likely that of a large eagle, and the scalp of a wild man from the north, as well as some mystic things thrown in from China and Africa for added allure.
“Rodney buys ‘em cheap,” Merlin said. He’d changed out of his sparkly tux to a more casual jacket and long pants. “Most of the people we buy ‘em from make ‘em for fun. There’s a man out in Santa Fe who claims Rodney’s his best costumer. He did the jackalope over there.”
“Who did the giant?” Violetta asked.
“Oh that? Some impressions an Indian did in the dirt. Rodney paid him twenty dollars for it, which Lilian complained about for days, but Rodney said it made it authentic. He’ll pay anything for a good enough story.”
“I could tell.” She picked at some of the items, but it was impossible to discern anything in the chaos.
“You don’t have any of those–” Gabe snapped his fingers as he tried to remember. “What’re they? The fetuses in a jar?”
“Pickled punks? Nah. I found them way too creepy, and after some trouble a year back, we tossed ‘em all.”
“You run into trouble often?”
Merlin let out a breath. “Sure. Traveling folks always do, don’t they? A few towns accused Rodney of witchcraft, and a few more accused us of philandering, which is only occasionally true. Sometimes I wish we’d go back to the medicine shows, but Rodney likes to entertain.”
“How’d you start running with him?” Gabe asked.
Merlin stretched out his arms. “Rodney used to sell Barnaby’s Miracle Cure out of briefcase on busy streets. He started putting together a show for it. I always had fast fingers and decided to try my luck as a magician rather than a pursethief. The thing about Rodney is, he’ll take on anyone. Half the guys here were too drunk for a real job until they joined up, and now they’re working for a place to rest their head, some food, and a little spending money once we get into town. Ernie was doing all sorts of heavy labor, and Rodney sees him there and says, that’s a strongman. He was already married to Lilian at that point, and she’s smarter than just about everyone when it comes to numbers, so she learns some rope tricks too and does both. Rodney says he wants to do a show, we put it on. There’s none of us here that wouldn’t die for the man, and now some of us have.”
They combed through the piles, but couldn’t find much that even looked real. Violetta gave up after a time and started flipping through her journal, comparing the symbols she’d drawn on the pages.
“What about the Hall of Horrors?” she asked.
Merlin shrugged. “What about it? It’s all made up.”
“Well there’s got to be something!” She threw her hands up. “What stands out?”
Gabe had found a string of werewolf teeth and was playing with it. “We followed this whole thing on your instinct. What’s the creepiest thing around here?”
She thwapped her journal against the ground as she considered. “Where’d you get the Mummied Man from?”
“We got him in Arkansas,” Merlin said. “Rodney assumed someone had built him, but the man we bought him from claimed they drudged him up from the river. No one knows where he came from, according to him. We figured he was just trying to sell us a scary story.”
“Not from Egypt?”
He laughed. “Rodney told you that? He must’ve been trying to impress you. Nah, all we knew about it was that there was something bubbling up from the river one day, and a group of men went and dug it out. It probably is real mud and and river gunk. No use wasting resources.”
“You want to go take a look at him?” Gabe asked.
Violetta stood. “Might as well.”
They trudged out to the Hall. The carnival had been here several days, and it was in the process of tearing down to move on. The items that needed boxing were being boxed, but most things could be thrown into one of the caravans. Tents were going down. Night had settled in properly, the bright moon overhead. Most of the packing would be done tomorrow, but whatever could be done tonight was getting done.
Merlin walked among the workers, waving at some of them, patting the shoulders of a few carrying particularly heavy items. Rodney had finally switched the showman off and was walking around, shouting orders at folks. The Hall of Wonders was still up, and they walked through it again. Removed of its atmosphere, it was not quite as eerie, though the small glass eyes of the taxidermied animals still stared. Someone had scratched out the occult sign in the horrors section, leaving only the fake creatures. The Mummied Man was not there.
“They must’ve moved it already.” Merlin waved a hand. “Let me grab Ernie.”
It seemed the Mummied Man had been put away, since he was heavier and wider and needed a bit of protection to keep his dirt shell. Which caravan he’d been tossed into was something of a mystery, but as the night drew on, they gave up. Everything was fake in the circus.
The moon kept rolling, and by midnight most of the workers were in their bunks getting some rest, or stretched out under the stars getting drunk. Gabe and Violetta sat together, increasingly frustrated at what looked like an awful lot of fakery and very little progress.
“I thought y’all were experts,” Lily said, hands on her hips, as she stared them down.
“Experts in not getting killed by hocus pocus,” Gabe said.
Violetta looked up at her. “Your magician said you learned rope tricks to join up.”
“Sure.” She nodded to where Ernie was talking with some of the men. “Rodney liked that Ernie could pick up heavy barrels and that I can add numbers. Everyone has an act, though, and Rodney insisted I was too pretty to hide behind a desk.”
Violetta gave an appreciative glance. “That means you weren’t a cowgirl before, then.”
“Nah. Daughter of a fisherman, actually.”
“Gabe here’s the real deal.” She grabbed her partner and shook his shoulders.
He shrugged her off. “I don’t do rope tricks though.”
“Nah, and I bet you didn’t dress pretty as this.” Lily tipped her hat at him. “Know any gun tricks though? Rodney’s always looking.”
“Best I can do is line up and shoot,” he said.
She walked off, patting her husband on the chest and leading him off to bed. The whole camp settled in, and soon it was just Gabe and Violetta awake, walking the length of the fair.
“What happens if we don’t see it tonight?” Gabe asked.
Violetta glanced up at the nearly full moon that cast light across the landscape. “I don’t know.”
“You think it’s strange, the feelings you get?”
She paused her step and glanced at him. “You don’t?”
“Don’t know.” He gave a shrug. “You’ve been strange since the moment I met you.”
Her mouth twisted up. “I’ve been having the same dream since I was thirteen, and I always wondered if it was some foretelling of me coming here, but now I’m here, and it just keeps getting worse.”
Gabe was the first person she’d ever told her dreams to, and the only person she thought might understand, but she wasn’t quite sure if she could explain. “I think there are people watching me sometimes. In the dream. I can’t see them, but they’re there.”
“It’s not so unusual in a dream.”
“In a reocurring one though?”
“I don’t know much about dreams,” he said, “but I know the kind of life you lead. You come across a lot of spooky stuff in a day. Maybe some of it follows you.”
“Does it ever follow you?”
He shook his head. “When I do dream, I’m back at the ranch, usually. Sometimes the house I grew up in.”
“I wish sometimes I knew what it meant.”
“Probably that you’re in the right place.” He placed a hand on her shoulder and gestured up the hill, towards the trees. “I suspect we are too.”
A cloud of black birds rose up from the trees and staggered off into the night. After their fluttering was done, the woods were still and quiet. They looked at each other and then started up the hill.
In the moonlight, the woods were far more treacherous. The trees gave little passage, and they stumbled as they walked. Gabe couldn’t quite tell if they were following the way he’d gone sneaking around earlier, but it felt familiar. The moon couldn’t illuminate too much, and they held onto each other as they tried to find what had caused the disturbance. Violetta stopped suddenly, and he waited with her, straining his ears to listen. There was something moving, and if it were any other night, he’d suspect a rabbit or possum. Something scratched against the dirt, softly, as though crawling along. The darkness of the trees made it hard to find its source, but Gabe took a few careful steps forward. It stopped.
“What is it?” Violetta whispered.
He raised a hand, unsure. Another sound, like a roach moving in the dirt. Shadows swam in the darkness. He took a few more steps forward. Faintly, he could hear something like strained breathing, little gasps buried beneath something perhaps, and his hand scraped something. He felt bone grip his wrist, and he was dragged down with a shout. The darkness made it hard to see what had grabbed him, but he could feel paper-like skin covered in dirt, long limbs that bent against his throat, sick breath against his skin. Teeth scraped his shoulder. He hadn’t expected the strength behind it. It didn’t weigh very much, but it pressed down on him, jabbing in its knees and fingers and every limb. Gabe struggled against it, but the creature grabbed the front of his shirt and raised a clawed hand.
A shot rang out in the quiet of the trees, and Gabe felt the bullet hit the dirt near his head. The creature turned, and Violetta ran at it, swiping the creature with the butt of her gun. It knocked into the dirt, and Gabe scrambled away. The watched as the Mummied Man raised up, stooped forward, arms bent and in like an ancient lizard. It jerked and shook, mud stained wrappings hanging down, mouth open and filled with wide, flat teeth, and its eyes and nose completely worn away. It could have once been human. It was human-shaped, but the way it staggered on its limbs was more like a creature discovering for the first time how to walk. It shuddered, limbs moving of their own accord, and then it launched at Violetta, grabbing her face in its long fingers and opening its mouth wide as if to swallow her whole. She struck it, Gabe grabbed it, and together they pried it off and threw it onto the ground. Like a cockroach it skittered away on hands and knees, falling back into the foliage.
Gabe helped Violetta up, and they waited and listened. They could hear it. It shifted in the dirt, rustling brush and leaves. After a minute the forest grew quiet again.
“I think it was going to eat you,” Violetta whispered as they tried to follow the shadows of the trees.
He made a face as he started through the forest again. Now his eyes were on the ground, his own pistol out. A shadow skittered from the brush and then disappeared again. They raced after it, following the sounds and scurries of the creature. For a moment it strange form would be illuminated in the moonlight, and then it disappeared just as quickly. They came to the edge of the trees and saw it crawling down the hill like an animal. Lights had been lit in the fairground. Their shots had not gone unnoticed. And again, as quickly as they’d seen it, the Mummied Man disappeared again.
“What’s going on?” Ernie called as they came back to the tents. Lily was following him blearily, waving at some of the roustabouts who’d gotten up.
“It’s the Mummied Man,” Violetta said. “He’s loose.”
“Loose?” Lily glanced at the others who were waking. “It’s caked in ten pounds of muck.”
“It tried to bite my face off,” Gabe said. “You people got any guns?”
“A handful.” She patted her husband’s arm. “I’ll get Rodney.”
“It came back here?” Ernie asked.
“We think so.” Gabe waved to the general area they saw the creature moving. “Probably trying to go back into hiding.”
“We can suss it out. Alright boys!” He turned, hollering at those still staggering to get up. “We’ve got some kind of monster on our hands!”
Gabe gestured to the caravans on the far end of the fairground, and they headed towards those. People were rising from their tents and bedrolls, following the sound of Ernie’s shouting. They drew away from the far edge of the camp, probably for the better. The Mummied Man had expected them to be surprised. No doubt with the camp lighting up and all the people gathering together, it’d keep away.
Gabe held out a hand, stopping Violetta. They listened past the shouts and hollers and heard something moving low on the ground. They stood between two overstacked caravans, casting long shadows against the dark ground. A door clattered, and a man shouted. They raced forward, shoving open the door, and there was the Mummied Man standing over Rodney, its hands digging into his flesh, jaw open too wide with teeth like tombstones. It snapped and snarled as the man struggled against it. Gabe ran at it, and it knocked him aside with a swing of its arm. Violetta managed to catch him, knocking her pistol to the floor in the process. The Mummied Man snapped its teeth into Rodney’s shoulder, and the man started to howl. Gabe raised an unsteady hand, and the bullet hit into the back of the creature and through it with a puff of dust, leaving a hole in the caravan wall. It whirled, yellowed teeth now red and pounced, slamming into Violetta and knocking her onto the ground. Its fingers gripped her face so tight it felt like it was ripping her jaw free. Her hands tried to push it back, and when that didn’t work, she reached desperately for her gun, finding instead the hilt of a knife. Grabbing it, she brought it up, striking the neck of the creature. The knife folded harmlessly.
“Everything in this damn circus is fake!” she shouted and focused all her strength on pushing up the creature. Gabe grabbed its arms and together they managed to drag it free. It made a sound too hollow for a scream, and then it flew back, disappearing into the night.
Ernie had gotten to his feet, clutching a rag to his bloodied shoulder. Gabe helped Violetta up, and the three of them tramped out to the center of the fair. A handful of guns was the appropriate term. Only six men held them, and the rest bundled together, uncertain what to do. Merlin saw them coming, and he guided Rodney to what passed for a medic out here to get patched up. Gabe and Violetta sat at the edge of the circle, and together they waited out the sunrise.
Dawn broke. The cook had set up breakfast. Someone had handed Rodney a flask of whiskey, and he was in a much better mood than just about everyone else.
It took an hour to find the Mummied Man buried beneath a pile of other gaffs. Four men dragged it out. Gabe and Violetta stood over it as they gathered axes and hammers.
“You think it was a man?” she asked.
“I don’t think it matters anymore,” Gabe said, and they stepped back to let the men work. The Mummied Man was ground to dust, and that dust was collected. A few of the men took it out into the trees with shovels to dig. They wanted to be sure.
Rodney was up and about, at least, the bandage at his shoulder still dripping through, but he seemed unbothered.
“I guess I owe you folks some gratitude,” he said.
“You’re alright?” Gabe asked.
He nodded, looking out to his men. Ernie had kept the crew going, pulling down tents and putting away objects, while Lily and Merlin assessed any damage. Lily saw them, waved Merlin off, and walked towards them.
“Heard you had some trouble with a trick knife,” she said, nodding at Violetta.
“I think I’m done with circuses for a bit,” she murmured.
“Yeah, well, I asked around.” Lily presented a proper knife, leather handle, sharp and sturdy and plain. “For the next time you’re in a jam. No tricks, I promise.”
Violetta accepted it with a thank you, and Rodney patted Lily’s shoulder.
“Best to keep moving,” he said. “Leave all this behind.”
“We were thinking the same,” Gabe said.
They gathered their things and considered watching for a while, but their work had been done. The travelers left. The tents went down. The circus moved on.