Jefferson Lake threw himself down behind the dry-stone wall, his breath coming in short, laboured gasps. The wind had picked up, rattling the bare branches like the clatter of dry bones, obscuring the sounds of his pursuers. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and began to thumb cartridges into the empty chambers of his revolver, the harsh reek of cordite stinging his nostrils. Six bullets. Six bullets left – all that stood between him and a potentially grisly end. He prayed it would be enough.
On the surface, it had seemed like a simple ‘job’ – some flyspeck township in upstate New York, apparently plagued by ‘demons’. Nine times out of ten, this sort of thing had a more prosaic explanation, usually a bunch of enterprising locals using a bit of ‘supernatural’ mummery to conceal their illegal activities. The trick with that kind of job was to go in loud, making enough of a show that it became more profitable for the perpetrators to buy his silence, thus allowing them to continue their activities after he had left, pocketbook more healthy than when he had arrived. Of course, there were occasions when they felt his permanent removal was a better option and that was when they found that his guns were not just for show.
But there was always that slim chance that whatever superstitious claptrap the townsfolk had been peddling was all too real. Whilst he had managed to pick up enough lore over the years to escape with his hide mostly intact, he knew it was just a matter of time before he was out-matched. He just prayed that this was not that time.
He risked a glance over the top of the wall. Luckily for him, his pursuers had no concept of the art of stealth. But then again, he reckoned they had no real concept of anything – other than hunting him down and cutting him into chunks. As he scanned the moon-lit pumpkin patch, the first of his pursuers lurched into sight.
An emaciated frame, whether a moss-encrusted skeleton or a body conjured from the vines of the patch, was unclear at this distance. However, the grinning Jack O’Lantern the creature bore as a head was, sickly green light spilling from its eye holes and falling on the rusty scythe grasped in what passed for its hands. It was joined by a second figure, then a third, all armed with farming implements that had seen better days, scavenged from where they had bern abandoned by their previous owners.
Lake stood, raising his Colt and sighting carefully at the nearest of the pumpkin-headed apparitions. At his sudden appearance, each grinning visage had swivelled in his direction, accompanied by the creak of joints put under unnatural pressure.
“Eat lead, yer grinnin’ freak,” spat Lake and fired.
The Colt bucked in his hand, shattering the silent approach of his pursuers, followed by the sound of the bullet richocheting off the raised scythe blade, scoring a silver streak in the rusty metal. Lake cursed and lined up his next shot. The Colt boomed once more and he was rewarded by the sight of his assailant’s head exploding, chunks of gourd pattering to the ground, followed by the slow fall of its body.
Four bullets left.
Lake watched the jerky approach of the two remaining scarecrows, then calmly raised and fired his pistol once more, grinning savagely as a second went down in a shower of pumpkin shards.
Three bullets left.
With a rustling of vegeatation, a fourth pumpkin creature tore itself free from the ground, joining its unnatural brethren in their implacable pursuit of the beleaguered Lake.
Shaken by its appearance, Lake’s next shot went wide…
Two bullets left.
The two remaining figures lurched forward and Lake could hear the pounding of his heart growing louder in his ears. Or was it his heart? No…it was the sound of hoofbeats, increasing in volume as the rider drew closer.
The rider burst from the treeline on the far side of the pumpkin patch, the flanks of the coal-black steed steaming in the moonlight.
“Holy mother of God…” swore Lake.
The Horseman was here.
Spurred on by the appearance of their master, the unholy constructs surged forward. Lake fired convulsively, taking down the nearest scarecrow with a lucky shot.
One bullet left…
The Horseman cantered forward, sword raised high. Lake considered his options – two enemies, one bullet.
“It was a good run…” he muttered, then pressed the barrel of his Colt to his temple, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger…
“Goddamn it!” He swore. Casting the now useless revolver to the ground, he reached for his Bowie knife, ready to sell his life dearly. The sound of furtive movement behind him caused him to glance over his shoulder. Two further scarecrows had used the approach of the Horseman to creep up behind him, their grinning faces inches from his own.
Sinewy arms whipped forward, avoiding the frantic slahes of his knife, pinioning his arms and forcing him to his knees.
The Horseman dismounted and strode forward, unnatural light spilling from its empty collar and rested the razor-sharp edge of its blade against the back of Lake’s neck.
“It would be a simple thing to take your head,” the deep, sepulchral voice echoed around the pumpkin patch, reverberating through Lake’s bones, “and who would mourn the great ‘Jefferson Lake’?”
The Horseman slid its sword across the back of his neck, drawing blood.
“No-one,” continued the Horseman, “for there is no such person…’Jefferson Lake’ does not exist – it is an artifice, a facade – but what does it conceal?” Rough fingers encased in leather gauntlets grasped his chin, forcing his face upwards untl he regarded the empty collar of the Horseman.
“I know all your secrets, ‘Jefferson’, and just what depths you are prepared to sink to…” The Horseman thrust Lake’s head away. “I am inclined to let you live, on this occasion. However, there will be certain…conditions.”
The Horseman pulled a roll of parchment from the folds of its cloak.
“How much is your life worth?”