Copyright @ J. A. Campbell. “Serpent’s Rest” was originally published in Heat of the Midday Sun: Stories From the Weird, Weird West (October 2015). This story may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission.
by J. A. Campbell
A noose swayed gently above my head, borne by a breeze which only offered more debilitating heat. It hung from a large tree full of leaves that branched out and cast glorious, wonderful shade. Shade that ended feet from where I lay.
Sunlight pounded me. I felt my skin drying up and crisping. Even where the remains of my shredded clothing covered me, my body broiled. My lips parched and water lay so close I could smell it. So close, yet so out of reach.
Desperate, I shifted my hand, but stilled at chilling buzz. Shifting my gaze down from the tree and its shade, I stared at my stomach. Or rather I stared at the coiled snake sunning on my stomach. Black soulless eyes stared at my face as its tongue flicked in and out of its angular mouth. I moaned softly, and a sound like the rustle of dry leaves answered.
The snake slithered closer to my face. Its flesh, the first coolness I’d experienced in hours, raised chilblains on my bared bosom. Every sinew of my body tightened like plucked bowstrings. I struggled not to shiver knowing the slightest movement would bring a venomous death.
Certain death at the hands of a rattlesnake or the possibility of a slower death by dehydration. If I survived the day, well, I still had to survive the night.
“Juniper Rue, you are hereby charged with witchcraft and will be taken by prison cart to Philadelphia to stand trial.”
I couldn’t believe the hunter’s words. Witchcraft? This wasn’t the 1600’s anymore. Did people still get persecuted for witchcraft? Why didn’t my neighbors standing for me? The ones I’d healed with a bit of innocent herbal knowledge. Sure, I really was a witch, but no one knew that. Sheriff Clancy leaned against a post not twenty feet from where I stood, bound by the hunter’s strong-arm man. Meeting his eyes, I entreated him to interfere. This was beyond ridiculous. He looked away, kicked the ground with his boot, then walked back toward the saloon.
They couldn’t do this to me!
Wracking my brain, I tried to think of a way to escape. I wasn’t the type of witch who could cast spells and fry people with lightning. I wasn’t sure witches like that existed, though it would be handy right about now. Before I could do much than voice a wordless protest, the strong-arm tossed me in the back of a prison cart with two other women and we clattered away from my hard-won life. I hoped someone would go out and feed the chickens.
After two torturous days, I finally dared to talk to my traveling companions. One, a woman with skin dark as oak bark I’d met once from a town not to far from where I’d lived was an herbalist, like me, but she wasn’t a witch. Rumor was that she’d failed to save a sick child and that brought the witch hunter down on her. Even I, with my magic, couldn’t save everyone. The other woman, pale-skinned like me, but dark haired where I was blond, I didn’t know. She knelt for hours at a time, eyes shut, hands clasped in front of her, as if she prayed but at times she muttered a quiet word and I could feel magic rolling off of her, prickling against my skin like the sting from a nettle.
Shortly after she sank back into a cross-legged position, and opened her eyes, I told them my name.
“Sarah,” the dark woman whispered back.
“Constance,” the other witch said after a moment.
“Quiet back there!” Our jailor pounded on the wooden roof of our prison.
Wincing, I fell silent.
“It won’t be long,” Constance breathed, a feral gleam in her eyes.
The rolling cage imprisoning us had nothing to ease the ride, though the hunter and his strong arm didn’t seem to mind the bouncing. Shackled hand and foot, with nothing to brace myself except the bars of the cage, I felt every bounce and jolt. At the beginning of the journey I had thought it would be nice to have sides on our cage to protect us from the weather. Now I was glad for the open construction. The heat was unbearable and though no breeze blew, at least we weren’t baking in a wooden box. I was certain we all smelled horrible, but I couldn’t tell at this point.
“Where are you taking us?” I couldn’t remain silent any longer.
“There’s a bounty for witches,” the strong-arm cackled. “They’ll burn you good.”
“Quiet,” the hunter snarled. “We’re doing God’s work.” His voice took on a pious quality that make me think he actually believed that.
“God’s work or the devil’s, don’t matter to me… just as long as I get paid, and I like to see’em burn.”
“Burn?” Sarah gasped. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Witches area an abomination. You’ll be put to the death, as is proper,” the hunter answered. He spoke as if he talked of the weather, not our lives. “Now, be quiet.”
“I’m not a witch!” Sarah wailed.
He pounded on the roof of the jail box.
Dust, bitter with the sweat of countless prisoners, sprinkled from cracks in the boards, making me cough.
Tears streamed from Sarah’s eyes. Constance winked when I glanced at her. I felt too numb to react. The heat dragging everything out of me.
I prayed for rain.
The sun beat down on us.
“It’s time.” Constance smiled before closing her eyes, as if in prayer again.
Sarah and I shared a glance before looking out of our cage. We saw more of the same. Miles and miles of endless grasslands. The sun hovered in the eastern sky, not quite past morning yet.
I pressed my head against the bars and tried to see what lay in front of us. I thought I saw trees. Trees meant water. Maybe there was a river. If they let us out, I would try to drown myself.
“Time for what?” Sarah asked.
“Quiet!” More pounding on our jail.
I stared out the side of the wagon, wondering what would happen. I’d felt her magic, and wondered what she’d done.
“Boss, ain’t this Gaol? What’er we doing here?”
The hunter swore. “Wasn’t on our route.”
My blood chilled. Gaol. The execution town. Many people had died, some rightfully, many wrongfully, in this wretched place. They said none living survived the night in the abandoned town. Vengeful spirits stalked the darkness, howling like cyclones stealing souls with the very sound.
They first chose this place to hang cattle rustlers because it had strong, tall trees—a rarity on the plains. As the crude cemetery filled, it just seemed to be a good spot to continue the killing. No one lived in Gaol. No one came here anymore. I’d thought the place a legend, like so many other dark tales whispered at night. I’d thought wrong.
I wanted to sleep, wanted to move, wanted to crawl to the shade mere feet away, but the rattler on my stomach prevented all of that. I had to breathe. It was the only movement I dared make. At some point, madness would drive me to reach for the water container that lay near me, but not yet. For the moment, I retained control.
Again, I wished for the type of magic that would let me call the water to me. Magic that would allow me to ask the snake to kindly remove itself from my stomach so I could get out of the sun. Unfortunately, all I could do was heal. Turning that power inward, I tried to relieve some of my suffering. I wasn’t sure how well it worked.
Trying to keep myself from passing out, and potentially angering the rattler, I turned my eyes back to the noose swinging from the hanging tree. As I stared my eyes blurred and the ground lurched underneath me though there was no possible way it actually moved. I shut my eyes and tried not to vomit. Mustn’t disturb the serpent.
Part of Gaol’s legend was the noose. Always ready, always swinging, as it did today, even in still air. So many had died in this place. Some of them earlier today.
While the hunter and his strong-arm argued over how best to go around town, Constance again gathered magical energy to her and chanted quietly.
“Turn the cart!” the hunter snarled at his strong-arm.
“I’m trying,” he whined.
“Give me that.”
Reins smacked against horseflesh. One of the horses neighed nervously but the cart didn’t turn.
“Damn it,” the hunter shouted.
Leather cracked against flesh.
The horses squealed.
The cart lurched as the horses screamed. I pictured them rearing in their traces, eyes rolling, foam lathering where leather rubbed flesh.
The hunter snapped his whip.
Wood cracked as hooves struck the cart. The wagon lurched again and the horses bolted.
I couldn’t prevent myself from striking the hot, sweaty bodies of my fellow captives as we bounced around in the lurching cart. Blood flowed from a wound on Sarah’s shoulder. Constance’s magic prickled over me, stinging anytime I touched her. A jolt threw me into the bars, and I cracked my head. Dazed, I heard a massive crack and then it seemed like I flew through the air before everything went dark.
I didn’t truly sleep. Though I was unconscious, I thought I felt what went on around me. Wild magic screamed around me, tearing at everything in its path. I felt the chaotic energy interact with the auras of the horses. One managed to free itself from its traces and bolt. The other, trapped by the heavy cart, thrashed until it lay exhausted.
The hunter was dead, buried under the cart as was Sarah. Briefly, I mourned her death. The strong-arm lay unconscious like me and Constance had vanished. A miasma of putrescent colors seeped from the ground, riled up by whatever Constance had done to wreck the cart. It snaked counter-clockwise around the tree, caressing its bark, before pulsating toward the graveyard, and sinking into the ground.
With that, my extra awareness fled and I slept. Sometime later, not knowing how much time passed, I cracked open my eyes.
Bared fangs and a heart-stopping buzz greeted me.
Slowly the sun crept across the sky. Apparently not understanding that his perch required water and shade, the snake barely moved, except when I tried to. Desperate for liquid, my hand inched toward the container, chains clinking and pulling slightly across my chest. It was just visible at the edge of my vision. I made it an inch, two, before the snake buzzed its rattles.
Exhausted and defeated, I gave up. I would dehydrate to death, all the while praying the snake would move.
At first, I had hoped the sun would go behind the big hanging tree and provide me with relief, but I’d fallen on the wrong side, and the heat only grew more intense as the afternoon wore on.
I felt like my skin had turned black, seared to a crisp and about to flake away like charred bacon. Unable to move my head to see, I had to believe that my meager healing energy kept it from burning completely.
My eyes burned. Dry, no moisture available for tears. I wanted to keep them shut and protect them from the sun, but if I left them closed for too long, I started to drift off to sleep. Fearing the snake more than sun blindness, I alternated between briefly resting them and blearily staring at the hanging noose.
To occupy my mind, I tried to think of the legends of the town. Mostly stories of people entering and not returning. I’d join their number if the snake didn’t remove itself from its perch soon.
As the shadows lengthened, I lost my battle with sleep. When I woke next, it was full dark, though by the weight on my abdomen, the serpent still nestled there. For a while the cool air relieved my sun-baked skin, but as the air continued to chill, goosebumps broke out, and I feared what would happen if I started to shiver. The snake dealt with my breathing, it would have to deal with the shivering, too. Or so I told myself.
My eyes, dry and feeling full of sand, wouldn’t focus in the starlight. I could still make out the darker patch of the hanging tree, but the pinprick stars in the sky blurred to my tired eyes.
While I couldn’t see well, I could hear, and smell. The water container was still close. I wanted to wet my tongue, which currently stuck to my mouth, and dribble cool moisture on my cracked lips.
An owl hooted nearby, and the leaves of the hanging tree rustled.
The slight breeze grew stronger and the owl stopped making noise, either gone or quiet, I didn’t know. A low moan, at first blending with the wind, then rising above its quiet noise filled the night.
My heart raced, and I shut my eyes, willing it all to go away. With my eyes shut, I could feel the magical energies pulsed around me. The strong-arm, still lying near the wagon, stirred. The downed horse thrashed once before going still again.
Restless spirits grabbed at the energy of the wind combined with the magic. They used it to pull themselves from the ground.
Terrified of what I sensed with my eyes shut, I snapped them open and stifled a scream. A man stood over me, shotgun in hand, nasty sneer on his face. My tired eyes must have been worse than I thought, because he glowed in the darkness, the only reason I could make out his features.
The snake buzzed urgently, but the man didn’t react, as if he couldn’t see the creature. This time the serpent wasn’t looking at me when it rattled and I was too terrified of what the man would do, to worry about the snake. It was a known danger.
Where had he come from?
I heard someone grunt and shuffle before collapsing to the ground.
The man above me stepped over me as if I weren’t there.
“Hey, who are you?” The strong-arm slurred.
I heard no answer until the strong-arm squealed in fear. I thought I smelled urine, and the man screamed before falling silent.
This was too much for the horse, and it tried again to free itself. Thrashing violently in the tangle of its harness and the wagon, it too screamed before falling silent.
The moan grew in strength until the wind whipped around me, stinging me with dust from the ground and making the giant tree bend and sway.
Clenching my eyes shut to keep the grit out of them, I didn’t see what happened next, but I smelled and heard everything.
Voices laughed, though I couldn’t make out any words. Cracking timbers made me think of something tearing the wagon to bits. After a time I heard crackling flames and smelled roasting meat. Stew?
More laughter, though anytime the laughter drifted near, the snake buzzed. Wind continued to whip around me, and I worried about the fire setting the grasslands aflame. I wondered who cooked and who laughed and why they didn’t see me on the ground and help me.
The moaning wind grew louder and the laughter more boisterous and fear chilled me as I remembered the story of one man hung at Gaol.
He’d had a gang. All human eaters.
I seemed to recall that burnt human flesh smelled like pork or sometimes beef.
My stomach turned and I wanted to heave.
As I moved, the snake buzzed and I felt its attention return to me. What would be worse, being eaten or dying from snakebite? I didn’t want to find out, so I lay still again.
My heart raced against my chest, and I prayed for daylight.
At some point, exhausted from the heat of the day, and the tension of the evening, I fell into a deep sleep, despite the sounds of laughter and the smell of cooked food.
When I woke again, the snake had gone and the first rays of dawn lightened the eastern sky.
Hardly able to believe what happened, I twisted my head, looking for the snake. It was nowhere to be seen.
Struggling to my feet, I grasped for the water container laying nearby. Gulping the stale liquid, I hoped I wouldn’t make myself sick as I sucked it all down. Once my thirst abated, I noticed the first real miracle I’d ever experienced. My chains had vanished. Elated, I clutched the empty container as I struggled to my feet. There might be a well, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to drink any water that came from Gaol.
The events of the night before flashed through my mind as I staggered, trying to find my balance.
A small campfire lay nearby and lying next to it, burnt bones.
The poor horse, dead, still lay in its traces, untouched. The wagon contributed to the fire. I saw no other bodies, though I had sensed Sarah and the hunter crushed beneath the wagon’s weight.
Not sure where I was going, I staggered away from town. I might die on the plains, but I wasn’t about to spend another night in Gaol.
When Julie is not writing she’s often out riding horses, or working sheep with her dogs. She lives in Colorado with a handful of cats, some sheep, Kira and Bran her border collies, her Arabian endurance horses Triska and Cavalier, and her Irish Sailor. She is the author of many Vampire and Ghost-Hunting Dog stories, the Tales of the Travelers series, and many other young adult books. Her passions include horses, writing about horses, dogs and writing about dogs. She writes fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and all related genres. She’s a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Science Fiction Writers of America. Find more at www.writerjacampbell.com.
This anthology features deadly romances that cross-examine the nature and meaning of love.
One story examines emotions through an extraterrestrial’s eyes as an alien meets humans for the first time. The darkest aspects of humanity are revealed when the fantasy of their love is threatened. In contrast, we witness a man haunted by the memory of his flame, yearning to connect with her—even if it’s only a delusion. We also discover a woman who is prepared to die over and over again for an immature infatuation, but is her lover devoted enough to follow?
Let your mind wander to the dark places and share your horror love stories about relationships gone wrong.
Purchase Dark Dispatch Issue #2: Deadly Love HERE.