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November 15, 1891

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The schnapps was good.

We drank clear through the night, and Horatio drank a few men under the table, although none of us could quite figure out how the monkey did it.

The lot of us were still drunk when we stumbled out into the light, singing in German and talking about the finer points of different rifles and angry German women. The latter, we agreed, was the more dangerous.

We’d persuaded Ernst to part with several bottles of his own personal stock of schnapps, and we were more than halfway through them when we reached the Hollow. It was there, standing by the stonewall along that runs between North Road and the Hollow, that we came to a somber stop.

Rolfe, the group’s commander, looked into the Hollow, shook his head and turned to face me.

“There is an ambush prepared for you,” he stated.

“Usually is,” I observed.

A good-natured chuckle ran through the group.

“Yes,” Rolfe continued. “We were to be one. There was a second, established should we fail. It seems we have.”

He was silent for a moment, then he added, “I think, Duncan, we should like to help to prevent this ambush from taking place. If you would be amicable to assistance.”

“I’d appreciate it greatly,” I replied.

It is a good and true thing to walk with soldiers. It’d been almost thirty years since I’d last done so, and there are times when I remember how much I miss it.

Today was such a day.

We went over the wall easily, Horatio darting ahead. While our heavy boots punched through the snow and the thin crust of ice that coated it, he raced across it. Soon, as is the way of the Hollow, the snow melted, vanished, and left us in the comforting warmth of an autumn day.

We were silent, and soon Horatio could no longer be seen.

Within a few minutes, though, we heard him.

A litany of foul words streamed from his mouth, and someone yelled for the monkey to leave.

In a short time, we stood behind a group of men gathered around a large gun, the likes of which I’d not seen before.

The men’s eyes were focused on Horatio when we gunned them down.

We left the bodies where they lay, and when Horatio joined us, we drank the last of the schnapps.

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November 14, 1891

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We went into town for a drink.

Horatio and I decided we had no desire to drink at home. We’d spent most of the day cleaning up glass and cursing the Hollow. By the time the sun set, there was a fine coating of snow on the ground and more following behind it. We had a few nips of the brandy, then we put on some winter gear. Mine was old and well worn, his had once decorated a soldier doll. Either way, they did what they were meant to do, keep out the worst of Old Man Winter’s bite.

Since none of the horses were particularly fond of Horatio, and since he wasn’t particularly fond of them, I walked the few miles into town with the monkey on my shoulder. We talked of war and love and various sins. He’d been in the prime of his youth when he was snatched, and he’d left a wife and several children behind.

When we reached town, I headed for Edelweiss Tavern. Ernst, the tavern keeper, served a fine beer and even better schnapps. Horatio and I had every intention of drinking the night and most of the following day away. Ernst was an old Austrian, a man who’d done his killing on the blood-soaked fields of Europe, and he had the damnedest sense of humor.

At the door to the tavern, we could hear men singing in German and Horatio, and I enjoyed a good chuckle. We would, it seemed, have good company for our drinking.

As we entered the tavern, the singing stopped.

Ernst stood behind his register, unmistakable in his broadbrimmed hat. The other men I didn’t know, but I knew they were from the Hollow. Their eyes fixed on me as I reached for the Colts.

“They’ll be no gunplay in my home, Duncan,” Ernst snapped, and everyone – myself included – looked at him in surprise. “That goes for the rest of you too. You come into Ernst’s for two reasons, to make merry and to drink. You can die under his guns tomorrow if you so choose,” he told them, and to me, he added, “and you can put more weight upon your shoulders. Tonight, you will drink or find some other place to wet your lips.”

I looked to Horatio, and the monkey shrugged. “You said the schnapps is good.”

“So I did,” I agreed and ordered a round for everyone.

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November 13, 1891

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They broke all the windows in the house.

It wasn’t yet dawn when the glass shattered throughout the house, launching me out of bed and sending the ghosts howling through the halls. The sound of horns faded into the distance, and I held my head in my hands, my brains vibrating in my skull from the attack.

I managed to climb out of bed and pull on my clothes, buckling on my gun-belts as I staggered out of the room. Horatio appeared from his, the simian’s teeth red with his own blood and tears of the same laid clotted trails down his cheeks.

“I’ll find the sons of bitches,” he spat and hurried down the hall.

I paused long enough at a mirror to wipe my own blood from my face, and then I went down the stairs, holding tight to the banister as though I was in a small ship on rough seas.

When I reached the first floor, I found the front door open and a cold wind blowing in. I left it the way I found it and went to the kitchen to retrieve my broom. By the time Horatio returned, the blood on his face had the shape and cast of war paint, and he helped himself to the brandy as I cleaned up the last of the glass in the parlor.

He finished his first glass, poured another for himself and then one for me. I nodded my thanks and held it as he proposed a toast.

“To you killing the bastards,” he said, and we drank to it. “You’ll find them on your side of the Hollow, Duncan. ‘Bout half a mile to the east. They’re quite pleased with themselves.”

“Locals?”

“They’ve the stink of the Hollow on them,” he replied.

I set the empty glass down, double-checked the loads, and slid my knife into the small of my back. If twelve rounds weren’t enough to take care of whoever they were, then I’d use the knife on ‘em.

I found them exactly where Horatio said they’d be, and they sure as hell weren’t expecting company.

Six of them sat around their camp. When they saw me, the men froze, their eyes flickering to their instruments.

They didn’t have time to reach them or anything else for that matter.

I killed them all.

When I finished, I took their instruments and their hands with me.

I left the bodies as a warning.

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November 12, 1891

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They tended to their wounded, and it cost them.

They opened fire from the Hollow when I went past it this morning, and it was a poor decision on their part.

I was in none too good a mood, and the audacity of the attack irked me further.

Hunkering down behind the stonewall, I drew the Colts and opened fire. It didn’t take long for the sound of gunfire to roll and reverberate across the land. I could hear men yelling, some calling out orders while their comrades screamed for their mothers.

Death had told me there was a storm coming and that Fate would not be kind to me.

I was more worried about the storm than I was of Fate. She would do what she wanted.

She always had before.

The bastards in the Hollow, though, they were stopping me from getting in some supplies. According to Death, a nor’easter was fixing to blow, and I had an order of brandy waiting for me in town. Oh, I had a goodly amount set in, but one can never have too much.

Especially since Horatio could drink his weight in brandy.

After half an hour, the fight slowed down some, and I took a few minutes to reload and get my bearings. From what I could see, the better part of a platoon was down. A few men crawled here and there, but they’d be dead soon enough. As I watched, a pair of Red Cross men stole out from behind a boulder, and when I didn’t shoot them, they hastened on to a nearby fighting hole. They slipped in and helped a wounded man sit up, and with furtive glances toward North Road, they set about treating his wounds.

They did solid work, from what I could see, and they treated their patient with a kindness that comes from a depth of emotion and consideration.

I killed the Red Cross man on the left first.

The .44 slug tore through his neck and buried itself in the wounded man’s belly, knocking him backward.

As the remaining Red Cross man panicked and scrambled out of the fighting hole, I put a round in the small of his back. Then, as his cries of pain filled the Hollow, I waited to see if anyone would come and assist him.

When none did, I stood up and headed into town.

There was brandy to fetch.

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November 11, 1891

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Horatio appeared ill.

I was sitting in the parlor, reading when the monkey came into the room. He doffed his cap, set it on the small table I’d put by the door for him, and moved at a slow, concerned pace to stand in front of the fire. He held his hands up, rubbed them, and then glanced down at the small jacket he wore.

“Alright?” I asked, setting the book down.

The monkey shook his head. “No. Not at all.

“Why’s that?”

“There’s someone out by the grain barn,” Horatio answered. “He wants to speak with you.”

I stood up and reached for the Colts.

“No,” Horatio stated. “I don’t think you’ll need those.”

I looked at the monkey, but he kept his eyes fixed on the fire. Leaving the Colts where they lay, I exited the room and made my way outside.

Around the corner of the grain barn, I found the stranger. He was a tall man, at least a head taller than me. He smoked a pipe and gazed at me with something akin to amusement. The stranger smelled of tobacco and the sea. With a nod, he took the stem of the pipe from his mouth and greeted me in a language I’d learned at my father’s knee.

I cleared my throat, and the knowledge of old Norse rose up from the past.

“Mornin’.”

The man chuckled. “Are you well, Duncan Blood?”

“Tolerable,” I answered.

“You’ve an interesting companion,” he observed.

“Horatio?”

The stranger nodded. “Is he pleasant?”

“More than most, less than some.”

The man laughed, drew long on his pipe and exhaled through his nose. “Do you know who I am?”

I peered at the man. “There’s a stamp of the familiar about you, but I’ll be damned if I remember why.”

“Oh, you’re damned for a great many things other than that,” the stranger winked. “My name is Andlát.”

I stiffened.

“Oh, no, not for you, Duncan,” he winked. “For others in the Hollow, but not for any here in Cross. I came across the water to sit and speak with you.”

“And the knife?”

His smile broadened. “This is for any who might interrupt me on my travels.”

I snorted. “Have any been so foolish?”

His smile became cold. “I have slain worlds with this dagger.”

“So, what would you speak of?”

“The weather.”

I sat across from him, for who am I to argue with Death?

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November 10, 1891

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The unmistakable whistle of a Whitworth rifle cut through the air.

The bullet smashed into the tree beside my head, cutting the tree and shaking dead leaves from the branches as I dropped to the ground.

I lay where I was, pressed against the earth, listening.

Neither bird nor animal called out, and I waited to hear what the sniper would do.

Minutes passed by, and then the silence was broken by the whisper of a boot against brush. The copse to my left shuddered as another round from the Whitworth was fired.

The shot had come from my front, perhaps fifty yards, no more than sixty. Beyond that, the shots wouldn’t reach me. The forest was too crowded. I drew one of my Colts and brought it up. Beneath my coat, I eased the hammer back, the fabric silencing the telltale click of the weapon being primed.

I kept my eyes forward, searching, and soon I saw it. A faint bit of movement. A second after, another hiss of shoe leather against wood, and then the sniper fired again.

The sound of the discharge reverberated off the trees, the ill-used copse of pine trees on my left trembled, and I saw the muzzle flash.

The wind shifted and carried the smell of tobacco and gunpowder to me, even as I saw the sniper take a knee. The fellow’s uniform had once been Federal blue, but it was faded from long years of use. I could hear him, ever so faintly, as he reloaded the Whitworth.

I took my shot.

A single round from the Colt smashed into the knee on the ground, passing through the joint and traveling along his shin before blowing his shoe off his foot.

The man’s scream of pain was utterly satisfying.

I saw him fall onto his side, the Whitworth tumbling from his hand, and I took a moment to put another round into the weapon. The stock shattered, and the firing mechanism exploded backward, the metal burying itself in the man’s hand.

Standing up, I approached him in a wide semi-circle, keeping an eye on him.

For a moment, I considered questioning him.

But only for a moment.

Instead, I blew his brains out, reloaded the Colt, and went back about my business.

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November 9, 1891

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They came in by way of the lake.

Now, the naiads and merfolk who live in Blood Lake have no love for me.

However, they have even less for strangers. Especially strangers from the Hollow.

I was in the eastern orchard with Horatio, for that was the monkey’s name, and showing him which apple trees to avoid. Some of the older ones have a tendency to eat whatever they can catch, and I didn’t want the fellow to end up as an appetizer.

We were actively engaged in arguing with one of them when a dryad appeared to inform me of some unwanted visitors on Boar Island.

I returned to the house long enough to put Horatio in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a drop of brandy and to grab a 12 gauge. I loaded it with birdshot rather than solid slugs since I had a mind to have a chat with the strangers.

It didn’t take long to reach the island, and when I arrived, I could hear some men arguing. In short order, I came upon them.

There were three of them, each with their own canoes, and their bickering had reached a crescendo. They were fighting, over all things, about who would shoot at me first. As far as I could tell, that was putting the cart before the horse before the damned horse had been foaled.

I brought the shotgun up to my shoulder, took aim at the one fool standing on the island by his canoe, and shot him.

Then the damnedest thing happened.

The man on the island pulled his sidearm halfway out and tugged on the trigger, shooting a fellow standing in his own canoe. That one fell back, dropped his rifle, and the rifle fired. The bullet passed straight through the head of the man sitting in his canoe. This man had managed to draw his own revolver, and as he pitched off to the side, he pulled the trigger on that, killing the fellow I’d hit with birdshot.

I stood there for a moment, the sounds of gunfire rolling out across the lake, and wondered if I could believe what I had witnessed.

Shaking my head, I pushed the bodies into the water, kicked holes in the canoes, and went back to my own canoe.

There was coffee and brandy waiting at home and a monkey who’d want to know how it went.

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November 8, 1891

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They were waiting for me.

I stepped outside of the Cross Train Station and saw a curiosity. An organ-grinder and his monkey. They both stared at me, the organ-grinder keeping his hand on the monkey’s leash.

As we gazed upon one another, the man’s right hand moved ever so slightly. He pushed back his coat to reveal the butt of a pistol in a cross-draw holster. From where I stood, I could see the worn pattern on the revolver’s wood grip.

The organ-grinder gazed at me, calm and confident.

I looked at him, judged his speed, and decided he could definitely let go of the monkey’s leash and draw that pistol quick enough to get off at least one shot before my own Colts cleared leather.

That made the situation tricky.

Not to mention we were in the middle of town, where any stray round could kill or maim.

A smile spread across his face.

“I’d as soon put a round in your head, Duncan Blood,” the organ-grinder said, breaking the silence between us. “But I’ve been told to bring you to the Hollow. There are some who wish to speak to you before you die.”

“That a fact?”

He nodded and let go of the monkey’s leash, his hand free and held close to his waist.

The monkey looked from me to the organ-grinder, and then it took hold of its leash.

Before I could speak again, the monkey flicked its wrist, and the leash snapped up and out, looping around the organ-grinder’s head. With a shriek, the monkey pulled the leash tight and jumped off the man’s shoulder.

The sudden shift in weight and the loss of air sent the man to his knees. The instrument on his back slid to the left and carried him down to the road. His hands reached up to the leash, fingers seeking purchase, but the monkey tightened its grip.

I drew the Colts and crossed the street as the man struggled to free himself. He saw me from the corner of his eye, and he grasped for his pistol. I stomped on his hand, shattering the fingers as the monkey strangled him to death.

The monkey freed himself from the leash and looked up at me.

“Are you taking in strays, Blood?”

“Most days.”

The monkey scrambled up to my shoulder, and we left the organ-grinder where he lay.

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November 7, 1891

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She sat and stared.

I was taken aback when I entered the barn this morning to feed the horses. At the far end of the building was a door that hadn’t been there when I’d left the barn the night before.

The weathered door had age writ large across its surface, and there was a pull of rough leather rather than a doorknob.

With a sigh, I loosened the Colts in their holsters and walked down the center of the barn to the door. The horses, I saw, had been fed already. They kept their noses down, ears twitching as they occasionally pawed at the fresh hay someone had put down for them.

The sight of the feed and the bedding didn’t put my mind at ease. Far from it. I’d known plenty of men and women who were kinder to animals than to any person they’d ever met. Myself included.

When I reached the door, I took hold of the leather – which was colder ‘n hell – and gave it a solid tug.

The door swung out easily, and the smell of whale blubber and the ocean flowed out into the barn. Some of the horses complained, but someone hissed in the new room and silenced them.

I entered the room and saw a trio of totems standing in a room whose roof was impossibly tall. A pair of wax paper windows, the paper tacked up and to the side, let in the smell of the ocean and the sound of crashing waves. A glance out the windows showed an ocean I’d never seen before and a multitude of small fishing craft. Men and women moved about them, calling and singing out in a lilting language.

On the smallest of the three totems sat a girl, no more than five, and she peered at me with ageless eyes.

She did not bid me sit, nor would I have been inclined to. I doubt I could have run from her, but I at least wanted the chance if it was needed.

“Blood.” Her voice was little more than a whisper.

“Aye.”

“There are more coming,” she stated.

“From the Hollow?”

“From everywhere. From everywhen.”

“Why the warning?”

“You look like my father. He was a Duncan too.”

“I’m sorry.”

 “Promise me you’ll kill them all?”

“Aye, that I will.”

The girl smiled, and I was alone outside my barn.

I headed to the house. It was time to clean the guns and get ready for killing.

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November 6, 1891

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I’m a great many things. Stupid isn’t one of them.

The house stood out like a sore thumb. Mostly because it wasn’t supposed to be there. And it wasn’t supposed to be there because there are never houses in Gods’ Hollow.

Never.

Not unless the place has shifted, and when that happens, well, it’s rarely a good thing.

I suspect the house was exactly where it was supposed to be in whatever Hollow they came from. And I suspect they believed it to be completely natural and inconspicuous, which just shows the level of their failure.

I stood on North Road, smoking my pipe and looking at the house for a terribly long time. Longer than I should have. Eventually, someone inside realized who I was, and they began to take potshots at me.

Not a damned one came close.

There’s always the chance they weren’t part of my relatives’ effort to drive me away from the Hollow, but these fools shot at me, so it was time to take them to task.

I went home, gathered up some supplies, and then returned to North Road, where I was greeted by a volley of shots from the house.

That was fine with me. It made the work all the easier.

The approach to the house from the road didn’t offer much cover, but that wasn’t a real issue. None of those inside could shoot worth a damn, which made me wonder how it was they planned on killing me.

By the time I got up close to the house, their aim got better. So much so that I had to draw one of the Colts and shoot into some of the windows to keep their heads down. Upon occasion, one of them would stick a rifle out and shoot blindly, but that wasn’t anything for me to fret about.

I worked my way around the building, and when I finished, I fired a few more shots into the house before I left my mark and made my way back to the road. From the building came laughter and insults, a few more random shots, and then, once I reached North Road, the first shouts of fear.

When they realized I’d set the house afire, they tried to get out the back, but that’s where I started the fire.

As the flames devoured the building, I took my time shooting down those who tried to run.

Unlike those men, I can shoot.

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