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September 4, 1880

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They had a howitzer.

I found this out the hard way when a shell went screaming overhead and crashed into the orchard.

I was in the kitchen, having coffee, when the bastards opened up on the farm and upset the apple trees. Even from the house, I could hear the trees crying out their anger, and so I hastened out of the kitchen, snatching up my Spencer as I left home.

I didn’t bother saddling a horse. I had neither the time nor the inclination, and I knew there was only one place they could have fired from.

The Hollow.

I tied down the Colts as I went, made sure my Bowie knife was secure and set off at a run.

I hate running.

Within a few minutes, I was at North Road and caught the bitter smell of freshly fired artillery.

A northerly wind carried the scent to me, and so I tracked it back, following the curve of the stonewall until I saw a house and a landscape that’d not been there the day before.

From within the depths of the building, I heard laughter and chattering in Russian. A flicker of movement in the upper window of the house revealed a man with a spyglass, evidently attempting to ascertain whether they’d struck my house.

I brought the Spencer to my shoulder, sighed on the bastard’s nose, and put a round through his head.

The laughter changed to shouts of confusion and the unmistakable rattle of a howitzer being reloaded. Someone threw open a pair of shutters, and I caught sight of the howitzer being moved forward. Several men peered around, and beyond them, stacked against the wall, I saw barrels of powder.

What type of fool does that?

Evidently, one who doesn’t expect to be shot at.

Someone called out an order, and the men in the window turned back. There was a flurry of motion, and the men leaped for the gunpowder.

It was too late.

I took aim at a barrel and fired.

The explosion shook the earth and brought most of the house down as well.

Body parts and pieces of the building rained down as I listened for a moment on the off chance that one of them had survived.

They hadn’t.

I shouldered the Spencer and walked home, not looking forward to the mess in the orchard or the cold coffee in the kitchen.

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II, September 3, 1880

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They rode hard down North Road with death in their hearts.

I saw them as they rounded the corner, eight men on horseback and kitted out different than those I’d already killed. That they were part of the same unit, I had no doubt. They’d answered the call of the musician’s horn, and I was waiting for them.

Without a word, the cavalrymen lowered their lances and put spurs to their horses. The animals snarled, lips curling back and revealing steel teeth ground sharp.

These weren’t any sort of horses I’d seen before, and I doubted that they harbored any kind thoughts toward me.

This was confirmed a moment later when one of the horses screamed in Russian, ordering my death.

I put a bullet through its skull and watched it dump the rider.

The others spread out around me, each man stabbing toward me with the grace of a matador. None of them reached for their rifles. They were too intent on skewering me.

In my hands, the Colts thundered and roared.

Men and horses died and were wounded, and I was wounded too.

One man drove his lance into my belly, pushing the pennant all the way through and out of my back.

I pulled him off his horse and brained him with the butt of a Colt.

I snapped the lance in half, left it in my stomach, and reloaded as the survivors came for me.

There were four men and three horses, the horses by far the more dangerous.

They called out the orders, and the men listened.

The rest of the horses died first.

One of the men grabbed the remnants of the lance in my belly and twisted. Furious, I leaned forward, bit down on his throat and tore it out.

As his blood sprayed out over me, another man to free a rifle, and it cost him his life.

I looked at the two survivors and saw the fear growing in them.

One man dropped his lance, and I shot his companion.

The last man whispered, “I surrender.”

I blew his brains out.

As the bodies cooled, I pulled the lance out of me, dropped it to the road and sat down upon the nearest corpse.

It would take some time for my stomach to heal, and I needed to clean the Colts.

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September 3, 1880

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He was quick and true.

It seems that the soldiers who arrived here at the end of August are more than capable. They know their craft, and they practice it well, much to my disappointment.

Oh, I’ve no issue with fighting a man who knows how to fight. Or even a group of them. I do take issue with anyone who hunts in my town. And that is exactly what they’re doing.

Hunting.

They’ve set up camp in the Hollow, of that I’m certain. I’ve tracked them several times to outlying fields and houses, but the Cross Militia has gone out and brought the outlying families in. All except the Coffins’, that is, and the Russians would do well to avoid that family. The Coffins settled here with my father in the late 1620s, and they’ve a definite knack for killing when the spirit moves them.

I was close to Coffin Farm when I heard pleasant whistling. It was a tune I didn’t know, and when I walked round the bend, I found the musician standing off to one side. He was dressed in a uniform and smiling as he watched a pair of blue jays fighting one another in the road. In his hand, he held a trumpet that looked as though it had seen its fair share of war.

The jays took flight when I appeared, and the musician’s demeanor shifted as he noticed me. His smile faded away, replaced by a broad grin. He was unarmed, from what I could see, but I wasn’t looking properly.

This man didn’t need a weapon.

Not in the sense one might think.

It took me but a moment to realize my ascertainment of the situation was off, and by then, well, it was too late.

The horn was already up to his lips by the time my Colts cleared leather, and before the hammers rose, the musician was calling out to his comrades.

The .44 caliber slugs tore into him. One round took the horn out of his hands, the other ripped out his throat.

But the horn had been sounded, and its note rang clear and proud through Cross.

I walked over to the instrument, nodded to the dying man, and slung the bent horn over my shoulder. In the distance, I heard the thunder of hooves, and I knew the cavalry was coming.

It was too late for the musician.  

Smiling, I reloaded the Colts, and I waited.

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September 1, 1880

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They made a trip into town.

We were lucky this morning. The soldiers misjudged us.

The Cross militia take their job seriously. Many of them served in the war of the rebellion, and they are well aware of how to fight.

More importantly, though, they understand when it’s time to retreat.

According to Captain Pritchard of the militia, a patrol caught sight of at least twenty men, all of them heavily armed. A scout slipped forward, ascertained that the Danforth Building on East Road was the enemy’s target, and so the scout returned to his sergeant, and his sergeant saved the families in the Danforth Building.

Without alerting the Russians, the sergeant managed to sneak everyone out a side window while the enemy continued to prepare for their assault. When it finally came, no one was left in the house.

The rattle of gunfire reached me all the way at home, and within a few moments, I was riding hard into town. More sporadic gunfire rang out, and I passed through the militia’s line at a gallop.

I had both Colts drawn, and I made a hell of a target.

The Russians’ rifles weren’t worth a damn. Not for hitting a moving target.

I’ve no such problem.

Men turned and twisted, trying to follow me, to draw a bead.

They died with their rifles in their hands, as any good soldier should.

A pair of them tried to stop me by jumping out front, but the old stallion I was on had been trained in war, and he had no problem caving in the skulls of both men.

It was then, as the Russians died beneath the hooves of my horse, that their comrades broke and ran.

This was the moment the Cross Militia had been waiting for.

Rifles erupted behind me, and men who’d been hunting squirrels since they were old enough to hold a gun picked off the Russians as they ran.

I rode through the battlefield, my horse picking a path between the bodies.

Those Russians who hadn’t been killed in the initial volley tried to crawl away.

But there was no place for them to crawl to. No refuge or place of safety.

There was only me and my Colts, which thundered in the morning air.

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Evening, August 30, 1880

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They knew their business.

It didn’t take me long to find another target, but these weren’t as foolish nor as prideful as the first two.

These men were soldiers. Hard and weathered. They had their rifles with them, the bayonets as long as any I’d seen before, and I had no doubt that they knew how to use them.

We were gathered on North Road close to my lands when we stumbled upon one another. They saw the guns on my hips, and they spread out.

Killers can always recognize one another.

A quick glance at the rifles told me the weapons were primed and that the fight was going to be a painful one if I wasn’t careful.

They kept their rifles at their hips, the bayonets pointed unwaveringly at me.

I put my hands on my Colts and nodded by way of greeting.

“You best be getting into the Hollow,” I said.

“What we do is none of your business,” the one in the center remarked, his coat a good deal paler than his companions.

“It is.”

“Who are you?” the man asked.

“Duncan Blood.”

They brought their rifles up to their shoulders, and I drew the Colts as I dropped low.

All three rifles fired, and the bullets tore through the air over me as the Colts roared. I shot one of them in the belly, knocking him down, but the other two were moving. Neither bothered reloading.

Instead, they sought to pin me to the road.

I snapped a pair of shots into the closest one, his leg crumpling beneath him. From the corner of my eye, I saw the man I’d gutshot reloading, and I put a round in his chest.

The last man, the one in the pale coat, drove his bayonet toward me, and I twisted my head at the last moment. As the blade drove into the road, I put both pistols against his chest and pulled the trigger.

The force threw him back, where he landed hard on the road, blood splashing spraying out over the last of the trio, the man I’d shot in the leg.

He was clawing at his bayonet, trying to free it as I stood and walked towards him. His face was pale, his wound fatal.

I stepped on his hand, crushing his fingers beneath my heel.

He beat at my boot with his free hand until he died.

They had known their business, but not as well as I know mine.

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August 30, 1880

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They weren’t all sailors.

Hell, not even most of them were sailors. The burglar told me that they’d been transporting soldiers when they met some version of my mother and struck a deal with her. They could rape and kill to their content, so long as they did it in Cross. If they met me, well, they were to try and kill me.

But she told them I was unkillable, which was exactly the right statement to make to a group of Russian soldiers.

Come to think of it, it’s spot-on for any group of soldiers.

They took her up on the deal, and she sweetened it, saying that if they killed me, they’d find a way to a land of milk and honey. From the burglar’s description, she meant North Road and the Hollow.

Some of the soldiers would wait me out, of that I was certain. Others would come looking for me.

I was worried about a third group, those who would try and take what they wanted from the people of Cross.

But Cross is under my protection. My father had founded it, and I’ll be damned before I see it razed to the ground.

If the town ever needs to be put to the torch, it’ll be my hand holding it.

I was in a bit of a temper when I left the burglar’s corpse draped over the stonewall that runs the length of the Hollow’s border with North Road. My temper hadn’t improved any by the time I reached Martin Ill’s house a mile up the road. Martin was off on some fool trip to Hartford, and he was lucky.

I found one of the Russian soldiers seated in the yard, his eyes fixed on me. There was no weapon that I could see, but the stench of death lingered about him.

A smile spread across his face, rotten teeth revealed behind cracked lips. He winked at me and beckoned me forward.

Instead, I drew a Colt and put a round in his head, which he turned at the last moment. It should have been a clean kill, but his eyes were blown out, and his nose exploded as he tumbled off the chair.

He was too shocked to do much more than lay on the ground, panting, his hands held up and trembling.

I cocked the hammer again and finished him.

According to the dead burglar, I had 78 left to kill.

Whistling, I reloaded the Colt and went hunting for my new friends.

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August 29, 1880

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We’ve scuttled the ship.

There was naught else I could have the Cross militia do than help me scuttle the black-hulled ship the men had sailed in on. The last thing I wanted was for the strangers to seize captives and escape the way they’d come.

I set the charges, and we opened the seacocks, and in no small amount of time, all that remained above the waterline was its masts. I’d need to strike a deal with dryads and perhaps even the merfolk, but I’d worry about that bridge when I came to it.

As the militia set up roving patrols, I went hunting for the strangers.

The next one I saw would have to be taken alive.

I needed information.

As luck would have it, I found one of them in my kitchen.

I opened the back door and surprised him at my table. He put a bullet through my belly, and I broke his nose with his own pistol.

The fight was short and sweet, and it left him dazed and me a bit angrier than I like to be.

Still, I kept a tight rein on it.

I stripped him down and tied him to a chair, and as he watched, cursing me in Russian until I dug my fingers into my wound and dug the bullet out. His eyes widened as I held up the bullet, and then I threw it onto the table.

With my wound healing, I set the kettle to boil, took out a paring knife, and sat down across from him.

“How many of you are there?”

He smiled with bloody teeth, and I punched him in the face again. His head lolled back, and I grabbed it, forcing his mouth open and using the paring knife to pry out one of his teeth. As he screamed, I shoved the tooth into his mouth and forced him to swallow it.

I waited as he coughed, choked, and finally managed to keep it down. There was caution and fear in his eyes, but not enough to make him talk.

I could see that plain as day.

“How many of you are there?”

He shook his head and grinned.

I shrugged, saw that the water was boiling, and leaned over to drive the paring knife into his knee. He howled as I twisted it around, an impressive litany of vulgarities spilling from his lips.

Standing, I took up the kettle and poured some of the boiling water into his wounded knee.

He told me how many there were.

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August 28, 1880

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He killed the first person he saw.

I found the strange sailor in the middle of Main Street, a long knife in one hand and a woman’s head in the other. I don’t know who she was, only that she had come into town on the mid-morning train from Boston and chose to get off so she might see the town a bit before continuing her journey.

It was an unfortunate decision on her part.

The man called out in Russian, and he threw the head at me. It rolled forward, struck my boot, and came to an awkward stop.

“Have you a knife?” he asked. “Or only those guns on your hips?”

“I’ve a knife,” I answered in Russian.

He smiled. “And you speak a Godly tongue. She did not bow to me.”

“And that’s why you killed her?”

He shook his head. “I would have killed her either way. Perhaps quicker if she had been polite.” He glanced at the corpse a short distance away. “No, no, that’s a lie. I still would have sawed her head off.”

“Where’s the rest of the crew?” I inquired.

“Looking for friends,” the man answered. “Where is your knife?”

I drew my Bowie knife out of its sheath, and he nodded with approval.

I kicked the severed head aside as he advanced toward me, playfully tossing his knife from one hand to the other. He carried himself with poise, moving with an undeniable grace. He was a predator, and I was his prey.

Or so he assumed.

“You should protect yourself,” he offered, smiling, knife flickering as it caught the sun’s light.

“I will.”

He shrugged, then dashed the last few feet, his blade a blur.

But I’ve been fighting an awfully long time, and the first of those fights were with knife and ax.

I didn’t try to block the blow. Instead, I threw my left hand up and let the blade punch through my hand.

His mouth widened into a sneer until I closed my fist around his and pulled him close.

The man’s sternum broke as I drove the Bowie knife up to its hilt into his chest. He coughed blood onto me, sagged, and sank to the road. I knelt with him and twisted the blade as we went. Had he air enough to scream, he would have.

“I could have killed you quick,” I whispered in his ear. “But you didn’t deserve it. Neither will your shipmates.”

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August 27, 1880

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The ship arrived off-shore today.

I’d been keeping an eye out for the ship ever since speaking with the reaper at Aldritch’s studio. I’d not been able to stay and camp out, but word got back to me quick enough when the dark hulled ship came into view.

By the time it was steaming in toward the mouth of the Cross River, I was in the tower of the Cross Lighthouse. There was a good wind at my back and a clear sky. As the ship turned and slowed, I opened up the package I had brought with me.

During the War of the Rebellion, when the secesh had decided it was necessary to try and break up the Union, I’d managed to get my hands on a Whitworth rifle. It was a thing of beauty, to be sure, with a hexagon barrel and scope mounted on top. I’d taken it from a sniper who put a round through my leg at 1,000 yards.

I put a round through his head at about two inches in return.

I’d been impressed enough with the weapon to send it home, along with the strange bullets that whistled in flight. Since the end of the war, I’d only fired it a handful of times. Mostly to shoot at what looked like my mother prowling around the tree-line of the Hollow.

Pushing thoughts of my mother aside, I loaded the powder, then the bullet, and when I was set, I brought the rifle up to my shoulder and rested it on the railing of the walkway. Through the scope, I could see the ship, and I breathed slow and easy as she broke through the waves. Here and there, I saw men moving about the deck, none of them in a hurry. None of them seeking cover.

A handful of them gathered at the bow, watching and gesturing. The man at the fore seemed to be in charge, or at least respected, for his shipmates gave him a bit of space.

Sighting on the respected man, I inhaled, held my breath for a heartbeat, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet shrieked as it left the barrel, and a moment later, my target staggered, stumbled, and collapsed to the deck.

I watched the sailors drag the body away, and soon, the deck was cleared.

Smiling, I straightened up.

I always enjoy welcoming strangers to Cross.

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August 15, 1880

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I was summoned.

John Harwich showed up at my door around evening, pounding on it as though his life depended on my answering. Who knows, perhaps it did.

With a Colt in hand, I answered the door, prepared to shoot whoever had taken me away from my whiskey.

The fear in John’s eyes told me he wasn’t to blame.

“Come in, John. What’s the problem?”

He shook his head, words tumbling out of his mouth as he did so. “No time, Duncan. I was sent to get you. I’ve my buckboard out on the road. Horses wouldn’t come down your drive.”

“’Course not,” I snorted. “They’ve sense. Who the hell sent for me?”

His face paled. “Don’t know for sure. She said to tell you her name’s Sensenmann.”

“Let me get my gunbelt on, John.”

He stood on the porch, and in a few minutes, the two of us hurried down the drive to his buckboard. The horses were skittish, eyes rolling and foam gathering about their mouths. I didn’t blame them. There was a rank hint of a bear on the wind. A fair few had drifted out of the Hollow of late, and they weren’t above taking down a dray horse.

I climbed into the buckboard, took my seat on the bench and held on as John snapped the reins and let the horses have their way. I wasn’t sure that the buckboard was going to make it all the way into town, but it did, and I wasn’t surprised when John stopped outside Thomas Aldritch’s photography studio.

When I entered the building, Thomas nodded, picked up a bottle of whiskey and motioned towards a private room off to the left.

I found her sitting in a tall chair, a smile on her face.

“Duncan, how are you?” she asked in High German.

“Well enough,” I replied.

She gestured for me to sit, and I did so.

“I have a favor to ask of you.”

I blinked, and her smile broadened.

“A ship is coming to Cross,” she continued. “It is not of this place. We have been asked to reap those aboard it, but they are not ours to claim.”

“Everyone?”

She nodded.

“Why?”

The smile on her face faded. “I cannot tell you why, Duncan, only that your mother would be pleased to see them here.”

“When does the ship come in?”

“Soon.”

I stood up, said my goodbye, and left.

It was time to watch for the ship.

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