On the morning of Wednesday, September 24, 1879, I awoke in a prison in Montana.
I did not imagine that evening might find me sprawled beneath a great and ferocious sand crab on a rancid beach, deep in the Hell of the Innocent Dead.
But that is indeed where I wound up.
The moral, if there is one: never plan your day too inflexibly.
THE WAIT IS OVER: THE CLASSIC ADVENTURE CONCLUDES….
In this, the final book of the trilogy, Watt O'Hugh, the dead/not-dead, time Roaming Western gunman, travels the length and breadth of the sixth level of Hell, recruiting a shadowy army that might storm the borders of the Underworld, free humanity and the inscapes from the clutches of the Falsturm and his Sidonian hordes, and stave off the Coming Storm.
He'll need a little luck.
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About two years later, on the morning of Wednesday, September 24, 1879, I awoke in a Sidonian prison in Montana, and I did not imagine that evening might find me sprawled beneath a great and ferocious sand crab on a rancid beach under a cloudy and dim dome of a sky in a landscape that felt not-of-this-world.
But that is indeed where I wound up.
The moral, if there is one: never plan your day too inflexibly.
The gigantic sand crab, the first creature I met in this strange land, was fully nine feet long and weighed three-hundred pounds. Immediately upon my arrival, she quickly burrowed up from under the spongy sand and quite completely surprised me. She knocked me off my feet with her fan-tail, then, as she lurched forward to cast a dark shadow over me, her extractable pincers shot out of her upper body and pinned me to the dank ground with a terrific and terrifying squelch.
Had this happened to you, you would have thought this was a nightmare, or a hallucination. I had just exited a blue-bloody hole that had ferried me through Space and Time, after all, and I was consequently dizzy and dazed and "not all there," to use a perhaps-familiar 20-century turn of phrase. You would have said, "Someone must have slipped me a mickey." Or: "I've been working too hard." Or: "Sleep deprivation can at times cause hallucinations. I will knock off the coffee."
Evil has two names: first, the Falsturm. Second, coffee. (Ah, coffee, that excuse-for-anything.)
But this was not that much more unusual than many other incidents that had stupefied me since that day in 1874, bagged in the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie, when I first met the immensely honorable Madame Tang and the perplexingly dishonorable Billy Golden, thus inexorably and incorrectibly setting my life on this discomfiting miscourse. And so, unfortunately, I had no reason to doubt my eyes.
The monstrous crab-creature hovered above me, her pink-blue mouth grinding a mass of near-dead flesh, eyeballs and arms and big toes, popping and melting and draining into its cavernous throat. I mustered some sort of half-scream, but I could barely move a muscle; my mouth misfired. My scream came out of my lungs as a weak gurgle.
Her drool paralyzed me, slopped over my face and dribbled into the sand. Her pincers pinned my shoulders to the damp ground, her antennae danced about more than joyfully in the foul, always-night air, her watchful eyes perched on long bobbing stalks.
She had five pairs of legs and three pairs of flippers; her swooping and muscular tail fan batted me back and forth playfully. Periodically, she lifted her pincers, which might allow me a route to escape, then caught me with her tail, and grunted out a squeal that sounded like a high-pitched laugh.
A pouch under her abdomen swelled and stretched with her spawn, who squawked hungrily. She and her progeny apparently planned to eat me alive, as you might eat a squirming clam, and so I awaited a slow and painful death.
The second creature I met was Master Yu, a ragged and wiry one-eyed Chinaman and terrible poet, who saved my life, and whom I had been expecting, thanks to Skinny and Burly, and the Yellow Emperor's magic scroll.
He rode a fearsome steed, emerging lopsided on the flat horizon out of a blanket of fog. He shot the sand crab with four precious bullets, and I soon fell unconscious. Crab-spit numbness flowed through my veins and into my brain, and then deep into my sweaty dreams.
I dreamt that I was back in New York, at the Great Roman Hippodrome theater at Madison and 26th Street, on July 17, 1874, performing my miraculous Wild West Extravaganza. The Hippodrome was a grand castle of a performance hall that stretched across several city blocks around Madison and 26th Street, and which held an audience of ten thousand. After my brilliant but short-lived performance, the Hippodrome went through a few quick name changes before its demolition and historical oblivion, but I will always remember it, and now maybe you will, too.
In this dream, I could see them, my audience, my audience, an audience who worshiped Watt O'Hugh the Third, the hero as he once was, the audience, real as real, red faces thrilling to scenes of Watt O'Hugh the Third battling an entire band of outlaws, single-handedly shooting them all dead, saving a stagecoach from ferocious bandits, riding on horseback across a lonely prairie town street and sweeping a little orphan girl (actually, a midget in drag) into my arms moments before a stampede thundered around the bend, and rescuing hysterical passengers from an exploding locomotive. I saw my sharp-shooter, the magnificent and immortal Emelina, standing on a galloping stallion, smiling, the wind in her blazing red hair. In my show, buffalo pounded across the open plains; cowboys rode wild broncos and lassoed bulls; and natives roamed the land as though the white man had never set anchor off the coast.
A door creaked shut on worn hinges, and I woke in the shaded stench of Master Yu's little hovel. I felt a grip around my neck, a tightness in my throat, but it eased as I gained consciousness, and I disregarded it. Still, I was sure that this life in this strange world must be the dream, and my performance in the Great Roman Hippodrome, those cheering hordes, the reality of my life.
What was more likely? A performance before adoring crowds, or a gigantic and rabid sand crab?
Unfortunately, in the life of Watt O'Hugh the Third, the giant sand crab was not only more likely, she was more real.
"You will live."
Master Yu smiled.
"Welcome to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the Chinese Hell of the Innocent Dead."
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] sounded like this: Wang-szu-ch'eng, and when Master Yu said it, it sounded sing-songy and almost cheerful.
I could now see him more clearly, his friendly, lined and worried face, his dashing black eyepatch. An arrogance, an honesty, an unearthliness and an innocent ingenuousness all mixed up into one mystifying puzzle. (His arrogance was very specific, a sort of arrogant intellect that could exist only within a terrible Chinese poet who was once very wealthy, speaks fluent French, and who has made passionate love to many many women, but not for quite a while.)
"Why do innocent people go to Hell?" I asked.
"If you die before your time," he said, "through some sort of cruel miscarriage of justice, or horrible crime, and you are unable to leave it behind you and ascend to your next life, or extinction, as the case may be, then you descend to the Hell of the Innocent Dead until your death is avenged."
This seemed unfair. Life is unfair, as the fella said; so is Death, I suppose.
His shack was filled with the aroma of medicinal tea, but I didn't know that it was medicinal tea. His home was empty; four bare bamboo walls, a slate ceiling and a dirt floor. An ammo belt. A rifle. A small travel bag in the corner. An air of intended and hopeful impermanence.
"The great Watt O'Hugh," he laughed. "The great Western hero, turned ignoble miscreant! Why are you here?"
"I don't know how to answer that." My voice was a rumble of drool, my mouth still numb and my words still slurry and indistinct from the sand crab spittle. This made Master Yu laugh more. His laughter didn't make me angry. He had saved me. I gathered there was not much cause for merriment in the Underworld. I was glad to provide him with some merriment.
"What brought you," he whispered, "to my humble and broken-down shack? I wonder."
I jumped into a ragged, bloody hole that opened up in the kitchen of my childhood home, as silly as that sounds, but it seemed the correct decision at the moment. After a bit of flitting through Time, but after the passage of no actual "time" at all, I arrived in the Hell of the Innocent Dead, where an immense sand crab poleaxed me with anesthetic spittle.
"I don't think the story would make much sense," I told him after a moment, and Master Yu said he supposed that my story would make as much sense as anything. I said that he was probably right, but that more nonsense right about now wouldn't do either of us much benefit.
"[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," he nodded. To my surprise, I understood him, although at the time I thought it was probably from context. (The word sounded like "How?" and it literally meant "Good," but all right, then seemed to be Master Yu's general meaning.) "You should rest, my friend," he added. "Forget all the nonsenses down here, and up there. Altogether too many nonsenses in this universe of ours."
He put a clay cup to my lips, and he told me to drink. I did, and it tasted wretched, and I cringed.
"In the Hell of the Innocent Dead, our tea tastes bad," he lamented. "Everything tastes bad, as a matter of fact, come to think of it. And everything smells bad. And everything doesn't look so goddam beautiful, either, down here in Hell."
"And everyone has lice in his hair and bed bugs in his clothing," he added.
"That sounds itchy," I said, unnecessarily.
"This particular town, so to speak, is called Hallitanud. It is a relatively peaceful spot here in Hell. Bay-side property, for what that is worth. It is a bit of a banlieu of Rency, our comparatively cosmopolitan neighbor to the North. But our politics is very different, here in Hallitanud. We're different from folk in Rency."
I fell asleep again, and when I woke up it was darker outside, and Monsieur Rasháh was sitting on the edge of my bed, his hands around my neck.
A few words about Monsieur Rasháh:
He always dresses in a flowing black coat, snow-white skin pulled taut over a thin and bony face, which is young and near-pretty, in the worst possible way, like a child's mangled doll. His hair is streaked with grey, his legs are thin like sticks, his eyes are small and round, his lips are full and blood-red, and when he smiles, your heart stops.
I first saw him in the Great Roman Hippodrome, on July 17, 1874, on what would turn out to be my last performance of the tour. That night at the Hippodrome, M. Rasháh tried to kill me, shooting at me from the theater's enormous and unfinished arch ceiling. I chased him across the thin scaffold that ran around the uppermost periphery of the theater, but when I'd cornered him at a great stone column, he dived from the rafters, drifted in the air for a moment as his robes rose around him like wings, and then, plunging, seemed to evaporate on the long fall to the ground. I met him again in Weedville, where he tried to kill me, and kidnaped my friend, Madame Tang. I saw him in to-morrow's Death Valley, in 1981, where he tried to kill me, and where he sucked some children into his lungs like tobacco smoke. We saved the children, but I fear that, even now, in 1936, I still have not seen the last of M. Rasháh.
See a pattern here?
What does he have against me? and who is he?
Well. I have my theories.
"Hark: (p|q)(q|p) = (-1)^((p-1)(q-1)/4), where p and q are distinct odd primes," Monsieur Rasháh croaked, his dark fingernails digging into my jugular veins. "The nth coefficient in the power series of a univalent function should be no greater than n."
His small eyes narrowed to mere slits, with a flash of grey underneath, and his fingers were like claws.
Master Yu asked if I thought I could sit, and his voice broke the spell. Monsieur Rasháh's grip loosened, and he fell, lost, into the dark dancing shadows in Master Yu's hut. I said I thought I could sit, and Master Yu helped me up. I wondered if Rasháh had been a dream.
"You are healing fast," Master Yu said. "Dime novel heroes heal fast. Action action action. No time to take a breath."
I nodded, and I tried to smile back.
"Don't believe what you read in the dime novels and the yellow papers," I said. "Everything hurts." I thought of Rasháh and his fingernails in my neck, and so I added, "And the brain, I think, is not yet all better."
"Let's take a walk," he said. "You strong enough for a walk, O'Hugh?" Absently, thinking of something else: "Go sit by the water, the Bay. Not much else to do around here.
"And," he added, "there are people I'd like you to meet. And a mission at which I think you might excel."CHAPTER 2
I staggered up off the dirt, stood on my wobbly legs. I brushed myself off, and dust unspooled across the room. Master Yu pushed through the door, which creaked and cracked.
"Let's get you a little bit of fresh such-as-it-is 'air,'" he said.
A surly wind blew in. I collected my guns, and I followed Master Yu out of the hut and into a night thick and pungent as an abandoned outhouse.
"Down here," Master Yu said, "everything is 'such-as-it-is.' The best things here are never better than such-as-they-are."
I replied, "Even up there, everything was already 'such-as-it-was,' for me."
Most of the landscape was flat, with wispy tufts of grey-yellow grass cracking up through the hardened and fleshy soil. In the distance, I could just make out the dark shadow of what seemed to be a great black sea. My feet sank, and I extracted them with a little suck and a pop.
"This is a bad place," Master Yu said with a deep frown, as we walked east to the Bay. Master Yu held a torch, which crackled and spat in the damp air. "You think, at first, how bad could it be? I am alive! I am myself, more or less. You won't realize that you miss something until you realize it isn't here, and there's no way to get it. You will be surprised at what you will miss."
The torch sputtered loudly and seemed at risk of dying out; Master Yu slowed, let the dim flame recover.
"Like feeling warm," he said, "and dry. You see what I mean? You are a little damp now, and just five degrees too cold, and you will be ever-so. Welcome to eternal damnation."
I could hear something squawking in the night, some kind of night bird.
I wondered how animals landed in Hell.
Had they done something wrong, the animals in Hell? Had they been wronged?
Or were they just here to torment us with their terrible noises?
Now an unseen night rodent seemed to join the tormented night bird, and the animals screamed, a loud horriging wail. I wondered if these were creatures at all, or just bad noises.
Master Yu squinted through the fog, caught sight of the Bay, and trudged onward.
As we continued to head northeast, small groupings of dead brown trees sprouted here and there, to the left and right of us, haphazardly, and the terrain rose and fell without warning. The torch-flames of towns were behind us; to the west, villagers settled in to do whatever it was that villagers did in towns in Hell.
"The old man who showed me the way here, the way to Hell," he said. "I think of him from time to time. He was an old man with a portal in his basement. This old man told me that down in this level of Hell, there is good bean cake at New Year, a passable dragon parade, a pretty maiden or two. That was fine. It does not take much to dance like a dragon. And pretty maidens, I assume, go to Hell just like everyone else. They could be pretty and nevertheless filled inside with terrible sorrow. And bean cakes ... well, I love bean cakes. Who does not love a flaky, dense and sweet bean cake, with a lovely caramelized egg yolk in its center? Not a man alive! If I never saw another bean cake, I suppose I would survive. But then he said that there are good pork buns down here in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. This worried me. Because what if he were lying about this? What if there were no pork buns in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] I did not know, before that moment, how much I needed my pork buns."
He sighed, and this was a terrible and piteous sigh.
"I thought we might have wild boars, and perhaps this would be the source of our pork buns. Oh, there is a strange pig-like animal in the West, but its meat is poison, a creature who exists just to taunt the Chinese who crave pork buns."
We passed out of the scraggy forest and into a clearing. Before us lay the Bay in the Near East.
"Thus: No pork buns," Master Yu continued. "None."
The immediate landscape was flat and sandy, with occasional scrub-brush. In the far North, impossibly massive mountains rose up precipitously to the dark sky; much farther away, to the very distant West, the plains fell away to a forbidding, seemingly infinite forest. I wondered which direction offered an escape: over the mountains, across the ocean, through the forest.
I figured that nothing offered an escape.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Watt O'Hugh and the Innocent Dead"
Copyright © 2019 Steven S. Drachman.
Excerpted by permission of Chickadee Prince Books.
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