“Have you ever heard about the curse of Snake McQuinn?”
I switched the beam from my flashlight off. It was Halloween night, and sure enough, there were some kids trespassing in Farmer Huxley’s old hay barn. I’m the sheriff in Walnut Brook, and it wasn’t the first time the old farmer had called for me to chase off unwanted youngsters. Once upon a time he would have been happy to go charging down the hill, shotgun in hand, shouting all kinds of terrible threats. In recent years he’d mellowed out, though, and preferred to maintain a positive reputation with the youth of Walnut Brook. Still, he had his boundaries.
I was ready to give the kids a stern talking-to about trespassing, maybe even take them to the station just to give them a scare, when I heard one of them mention Snake McQuinn. It’s an old piece of lore around these parts, and I never tire of a good ghost story, especially on Halloween night. I turned off my light to keep from spooking them and got as close as I could.
Peeking through a hole in the boards, I could see three boys sitting in a circle around a lantern. I recognized the two red-headed boys in overalls as the Sanderson twins, Barry and Jared, and the dark-skinned boy with glasses as Elliot Walker. They were well-behaved middle schoolers, I knew. Sneaking into Farmer Huxley’s hay barn was almost a rite of passage, so it was never shocking to see even the most upright youths lurking about in there.
Elliot, the one who had spoken, looked expectantly at the Sanderson twins, who looked at him blankly and shook their heads.
“It happened back on October 31, 1881,” continued Elliot, lifting the lantern with one hand, “just five days after the gunfight at the O. K. Corral. You know about the gunfight at the O. K. Corral, right?”
“Uhhh. . .” stammered Barry.
“Maybe?” answered Jared. Elliot looked unimpressed.
“You don’t know about the legendary gunfight between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, and the Clanton and McLaury brothers? The climax of the feud between Virgil Earp and the Cochise County Cowboys?”
“Is that a football team?” asked Jared. Elliot sighed.
“Anyway,” he continued, “Clancy McQuinn was an Irishman. He was a skilled blacksmith, but no one wanted to pay for his work. He turned to cattle rustling to make a living, and ended up running with the Cowboys. After the big gunfight, some of the Cowboys scattered. They were hunted down, one by one. Some were shot. . .”
Elliot held the lantern a little closer to his face.
“. . . some hanged.”
The Sanderson twins shivered. I felt something brush against the back of my neck, and swatted at it. Pesky horseflies should have died off already.
“Clancy laid low for the next few days. He planned to live off what remained of his rustling money and what little he could scrape together for his blacksmith work. He settled down in a quiet little town where he thought the Law would never catch up with him. . .
I stifled a chuckle as Elliot once again used his lantern for dramatic effect.
“. . . a place called Walnut Brook.”
The Sanderson twins’ eyes widened.
“Walnut Brook?” asked Barry. “But-“
“We live in Walnut Brook,” finished Jared. “A famous outlaw lived here, in our town?”
“That’s right,” nodded Elliot, “now hush up and listen. Clancy ran to Walnut Brook. Evidently he was sweet on the sheriff’s daughter. He was sure the Earp brothers would never find him, and he was right. Someone else found him, instead.”
I was listening intently now. I was familiar with the legend of Clancy McQuinn, however the history behind the legend was new to me. That may seem odd, given that I’m the sheriff of Walnut Brook and was born and raised here, but it’s true. As such, Elliot’s story had my undivided attention. I was so absorbed, I didn’t even notice the cold breeze blowing against my neck.
“Who found him?” demanded Barry. Elliot grinned, pleased that the Sanderson twins were getting invested.
“He may have hidden from the Earps, but he couldn’t hide from Kwallon Kayde.”
“Who?” asked Barry.
“You mean like in the video game?” asked Jared.
“No, not a video game,” hissed Elliot, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Kwallon Kayde, the lawman. He was famous for his gun, Catacomb. They say it had a tally mark on it for each of the one hundred and sixty-four men he’d killed. When Kwallon heard that one of the Cochise County Cowboys was hiding out in Walnut Brook, he vowed to make it a hundred sixty-five.
“Kwallon rode into town and demanded that McQuinn show himself, but McQuinn ignored him. He’d locked himself in the sheriff’s office with his sweetheart, and he refused to come out until Kwallon left. The lawman was willing to offer himself as a hostage if McQuinn would let the girl go.
“That wasn’t going to happen. The town was already worked into a lynching mob, and against the lawman’s warnings, they stormed the sheriff’s office. They chopped the door down with an ax and went in with guns blazing. When the smoke cleared, McQuinn was badly wounded. . .” Elliot’s voice trailed off, flickering lantern light dancing across his features.
“What about the girl?” asked Barry.
“Yeah, what about her?” seconded Jared.
“Dead on the floor,” answered Elliot grimly. “Whether from a stray bullet or killed by McQuinn, nobody knew. They sure blamed him for it though. Kwallon demanded that McQuinn be turned over to him, but the townsfolk refused. They planned to mete out their own justice.”
“So what did they do to him?” asked the Sanderson twins in unison. I smiled in macabre satisfaction. From here, I knew how the story went.
“Are you sure you want to know?” asked Elliot ominously. The twins nodded. I flinched as a sharp hissing sound hit my right ear. The breeze must have picked up a little.
“They took the ax and cut off his arms, right at the shoulders,” continued Elliot, “then they took a scalpel and cut off his nose, then gouged out his eyes. Then they went outside the town and dug a big hole, and they filled it with all kinds of venomous snakes: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, coral snakes, and anything else they could find. Then they poured burning oil over McQuinn’s body and threw him in the hole. He howled and kicked, and one after another the snakes sank their deadly fangs into him. The crowd jeered and called him Snake McQuinn. It was a horrifying sight, they say. They threw him into the pit at about 10:45, but he didn’t stop screaming and writhing until 12:00.”
Elliot held up the lantern once more.
“Snake McQuinn died on October 31st, 1881, at the stroke of midnight. The snakes all died too, burned up in the fire. Nothing was still alive in the pit, so they buried him there. They didn’t mark the grave, just shoved all the dirt back on top of him.”
The twins were silent. Barry’s mouth was hanging open in horror. Jared was staring intently at the barn floor. I could feel hairs standing up at the back of my neck.
“He didn’t stay dead, though,” whispered Elliot. “Every thirteen years since, he gets back up on Halloween night, at the stroke of midnight, and goes after those he blames for what happened to him. Sometimes it’s the descendants of the townsfolk, sometimes it’s the sheriff of Walnut Brook. The stories don’t all agree.
“What they do all agree on is this. His presence is heralded by cold wind, much colder than normal for October. Then, a hissing on the wind, the voices of the snakes that bit him to death. Then, the apparition, an armless cowboy, pale as death with a bandana drawn up over his face. If you see him on his wicked vigil, you’ll see two reptilian eyes, green and glowing, looking back at you with a venomous hate. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you live. If you aren’t. . . he’ll STRIKE!”
The twins and I jumped as Elliot slapped his open hand against the wall of the barn. The twins quickly fixed him with angry glares, but he was too busy laughing to care.
“That wasn’t funny, Elliot,” snarled Jared.
“No,” agreed Elliot, wiping his eyes. “It was hysterical.”
I made my move.
“Hysterical, indeed,” I announced, pushing open the barn door and switching on my flashlight. “But not nearly as hysterical as a bunch of kids thinking Farmer Huxley wouldn’t notice trespassers in his barn. What are you kids doing out? It’s almost midnight.”
“Sheriff Swanson? Oh, gee,” said Barry, jumping to his feet.
“Double gee,” added Jared.
“Sheriff Swanson,” said Elliot, shielding his eyes from my beam, “good to see you. We, uh, were doing a little harmless storytelling.”
“I see that,” I said, faking a gruff attitude. “How about you do a little harmless getting-your-butts-home-before-we-take-a-trip-down-to-the-station?”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” chuckled Elliot, standing to his feet and brushing the hay off his face. “These fools are no fun anyway.”
“Hey!” objected the twins.
“March,” I commanded, holding the barn door open. One by one, the boys filed out. Barry was the last one to exit, but before I could close the door, he gasped.
“What’s the matter with you?” I demanded. Barry didn’t answer right away, just raised a trembling hand and pointed. His face was drained of color.
“It’s him,” he croaked. “Snake McQuinn.”
I looked to where Barry was pointing and froze. There in the darkness of the barn, a pair of shimmering green eyes stared back at me, watching me intently. I almost went for my weapon. Then, the eyes blinked, and a telltale mewing sound brought me back to my senses.
“It’s a cat, Barry,” I said in annoyance. “This barn is full of cats. Now get moving.”
“But-” protested Barry.
“Right now,” I insisted. Soon, the boys were on their way. I had threatened to see them all home via my car. None of them were keen on that idea at all, so they didn’t take much convincing before they started homeward.
Convinced that the boys were leaving, I headed back to my car. As I did, I took one last look over my shoulder. I froze. Those haunting green eyes were watching me again, about six feet off the ground. I shone my flashlight towards them, sure the same cat was sitting on a tree branch or something. The moment the beam illuminated the spot, the eyes vanished. There was nothing there.
Saturated with Halloween chills for the evening, I swung open the door to my patrol car and took a seat. The moment my butt touched the seat, my radio buzzed.
“Dispatch to Sheriff Swanson,” said a feminine voice. I smiled. Laura, my wife, had a unique sense of humor.
“Go for Sheriff Swanson,” I replied. “You are aware that it is illegal to impersonate a police officer, correct? Over.”
“Uh-oh,” replied Laura. “Does this mean I’m under arrest?”
“It means you’re a handful, over,” I answered. There was laughter on the other end.
“Will you be coming home soon, Sheriff? Lawbreakers shouldn’t be left alone for too long. Especially not with children.”
I was about to give Laura some silly remark when I heard the hiss. I looked over to the passenger side door. The window was down a crack, and the wind was coming through. It had picked up a lot in the last few minutes. I reached over and rolled the window up. The hissing, to my confusion, didn’t stop.
“Honey, are you there?”
I held the radio to my lips.
“Copy that. I’ll be home-“
I froze, my blood curdling in my veins. I could see the source of the hissing, and of the sound that had joined it. There, on the dashboard, was a diamondback.
If you have ever looked into the eyes of a rattlesnake poised to strike, then you understand what I saw in that moment. If you haven’t, no description will do it justice. I will, however, do the best that I can.
The snake’s gaze was mesmerizing in a way that parched my throat and raised every hair on me. The snake’s body was almost completely still, save for the shaking of its tail rattle and a nearly undetectable bobbing of its head. Its eyes, two vacant green orbs with midnight-black slits for pupils, stared me down like a Western gunslinger about to pull the trigger. Those eyes held no mercy, nor did they ever blink. In them, there was an unspoken warning: “If you move, so will I. Pray you’re faster.”
I didn’t know what to do. I’d come face to face with rattlers before, but never this literally. If I went for my gun, the snake would strike. If I went for the door, the snake would strike. I knew I only had one option: I had to get a hand around the snake’s neck. It wouldn’t be easy, and I would have to move very fast.
Fortubately for me, the snake was on an elevated surface. I was already inching my hand up the steering wheel. It was within six inches of the viper’s neck now. Sweat dripped down my forehead as I held the venomous reptile’s gaze. It wasn’t going to wait much longer.
I swung. The snake’s head darted forward, and I closed my eyes as I waited for the sting of fangs in my cheek. It didn’t come. I opened my eyes to see the viper’s mouth wide open, deadly fangs protruding from the ugly pink maw. My hand clasped tightly around its throat.
I gasped for air, breathing heavily as my instincts took over. I put my other hand around the snake’s neck and began to squeeze. The scaly body writhed and flopped in my lap as I crushed the viper’s windpipe. Soon, it fell limp in my hands. Keeping one hand around its neck, I rolled down the window and tossed the carcass headfirst out the window. The snake lay there, motionless.
“Honey?” asked the radio in alarm. “Stephen, are you there?”
I caught my breath and wiped my forehead, then grabbed the radio and held it to my face.
“I’m here,” I said, still gasping. “I’m here. Laura, there was a-“
“Stephen, someone is in the house.”
My heart beat even faster.
“What?” I croaked. My wife’s hushed voice came through the radio again.
“Someone is in Trevor’s room. . . oh Lord. . . Stephen, his eyes-“
Silence. I spoke back.
“Laura? Laura, you need to hide. I’m on my wa-“
A wind like a freight train tore through the open window, knocking the radio from my grasp. It was ice cold, and I hugged myself for warmth. As I looked up, I saw that my windshield has frosted over. This was strange enough. My blood turned to ice at what happened next.
Something – some invisible, supernatural force – was writing on the frosted windshield. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I even tried closing my eyes and giving them a good rub, but it didn’t change anything. My eyes were telling, and a message – “Come home, Stephen, come home,” – was scrawled in the frost on my windshield.
The journey home was a blur. I don’t remember details, except for the fact that I ignored every stop sign and every red light. I turned on my siren to make sure I had a clear path. I called for backup, too. Someone or something otherworldly was in my house, with my wife and baby. It was a lot like the eyes of the rattlesnake, I guess. If you haven’t been there, then you have no idea.
When I pulled into my driveway, there was nothing. The lights in the house were off. Any other night, I might have just assumed that Laura was asleep. Tonight, I was greeted by the chilling sight of my own front door, hanging open. . . with one hinge ripped free.
I drew my gun and crept inside, checking every angle for an assailant.
“Laura?” I called. My only answer was a chilling breeze from the open door behind me. I pushed deeper inside, and was greeted by something low and heavy. I listened closely. It was a chorus of sounds, resonating through the floorboards of the house. A hissing choir of imminent danger.
I caught a flicker of movement up ahead, in my son’s room. The door was hanging open. I swore the hissing was coming from there. The lamp in the room flickered dimly, but provided enough light to see.
I crept closer and closer, my service weapon pointed straight ahead. I was ready to blow off whoever’s head I didn’t recognize.
“Laura?” I called as I peaked my head inside the room.
“Laura’s sleeping. She really shouldn’t stay up this late.”
The raspy voice came from my left and nearly made me yelp. My gun was in that direction in a second, but I quickly lowered it. It was Trevor’s crib. There, behind it, was Laura, sprawled across a chair, eyes closed, mouth gaping open. Even from here, I could see the two little pinpricks in her neck, from which ran a clear fluid. There was no blood, just the fluid.
“Laura!” I cried, jumping to my feet. Before I had taken a step, the bedroom door behind me slammed shut.
“Shhhhhh. You don’t want to wake the baby, do you?”
My heart was pulsating just beneath my voicebox. There was acid in my veins. Slowly, gripping my gun with shaky fingers, I turned and pointed it at the intruder.
“What are you gonna do with that thing, Sheriff? Shoot me? That would be a mercy after what the people of this town did to me.”
The figure before me looked like a man. He was dressed in an old-fashioned trench coat, speckled here and there with burned patches. Underneath the open coat was an old riding shirt and Levis. The feet were adorned with gorgeous leather boots, decorated with silver filigree and star-shaped spurs that clinked as the figure took two steps forward. The arms of the coat hung limp at the figure’s sides, and were spattered with blood. Every second, they would twitch and shake, as if something – or a mass of somethings – writhed beneath. The hissing, I noticed, was much more concentrated now. Most of the face was covered up with a red bandana, the upper half of which seemed a little darker. The figure’s head was topped with a dark leather cowboy hat, faded and worn by the onward tick of time. The skin I could see was pale and sickly, and completely speckled with dozens and dozens of the same little pinprick marks that were in Laura’s neck. In the center of that sickly pale skin, two eyes leered at me in the dim light. They were the same eyes I had seen in the face of the rattlesnake, green orbs with horrible, empty, slit-shaped pupils. The only difference was that these eyes glowed with emerald fury as I looked up into them. Fury, and something else: a wicked kind of playfulness.
“Then again, I’m beyond that brand of mercy now.”
The voice was like you’d expect a pit viper to sound if it could speak, gravelly and low. It made my fingers tighten around my gun even more, and I shoved the barrel right in the intruder’s face.
“What did you do to Laura?”
The intruder looked at the gun, then returned his emerald gaze to me.
“Relax. She’ll live.”
Faster than I could process, he reeled back with head, and with his forehead he smacked the gun right out of my hands. My metacarpals exploded with pain. I was sure he had broken a bone or two, but I didn’t cry out. I didn’t want Trevor to wake. If this creep turned his attention to my son. . .
“Wha-who are you? What do you want?”
I’m not superstitious, you have to understand. After what I had seen that night, I was willing to believe that anything was possible. Because of that, I was already certain that I knew the answer to the first question.
“That’s right,” said the intruder, as if reading my thoughts. “You do.”
I set my jaw.
“In the damned flesh.”
I scanned the floor with careful eyes. There it was. My gun had landed under the lamp table in the corner.
“Why are you here?”
The reptilian eyes twinkled.
“I want you to see something.”
With that, McQuinn’s coat-sleeves started to move more noticeably. Things began to protrude from the open ends. At first, I thought they were tentacles, but I realized in horror that they were snakes, twisted together into armlike protrusions. They moved independantly of one another, and yet in perfect unison at the same time, an eerie organized chaos that chilled me to the bone. One snake slithered up along McQuinn’s torso and opened its mouth. It siezed the edge of McQuinn’s bandana and pulled it free.
McQuinn had no nose under the mask. There was only a withered opening where a nose had once been. One side of his face was badly mangled, revealing teeth and jaw muscles beneath torn lips. I tried to look away, to Laura, or Trevor, or even my gun. Laura and Trevor were both still asleep. I wondered if I could get to my gun.
“And do what?” snarled McQuinn. “What’s the gun gonna do? Are you gonna kill a dead man, Stephen?” His ruined face curled into a dastardly grin.
“What do you want with us?” I growled, trying and failing to sound intimidating.
“I want you to understand,” replied McQuinn. “Walnut Brook’s a proud little town, with proud little people, and a big, proud sheriff servin’ and protectin’ ’em all. That’s you, Stevie-boy.”
McQuinn took a step closer and leaned into my face. I could feel the chill of his breath, see the black in his eyes. I could smell the old smoke in his clothes.
“There’s a legacy attached to you, Stephen. It became yours the moment you put on that badge.”
The hissing sound became so loud that it rang in my ears, and suddenly McQuinn’s riding shirt burst open. Dozens of snakes came spilling and winding out, mouths gaping and fangs flashing. Every single one of their eyes was on me.
My mouth fell open as I looked closer at the mass of serpents. The snakes had no tails, none of them. Instead, they all sprouted from McQuinn’s own body, a horrible fusion of man and reptile.
“Take a look at your legacy, Sheriff Swanson,” laughed McQuinn as I shrank back, keeping myself between the monster and my baby’s crib.
“You think you can protect your child from me?” hissed McQuinn. “That’s what the Old Sheriff thought about my girl. He thought he was keepin’ her safe from me, as if I would ever hurt her!” McQuinn spat those words as if they tasted like venom on his tongue.
“Instead, it was his bullet that pierced her heart. He took her from me. That wasn’t good enough for him though, him nor this stupid town. No, they had to take more. They had to take it all.”
McQuinn lowered his eyes. The snakes weren’t looking at me, anymore. Each one of them looked back at McQuinn. McQuinn’s eyes softened for a moment. That moment passed quickly, and he fixed me with a new look of hate.
“We been takin’ from this town ever since.”
One by one, the snakes all turned their heads around to look back at me. It was like watching a little wave close around a surfer. Then, one by one, their mouths opened. In front of me were hundreds of vipers’ fangs dripping with enough venom to kill a hundred men. I took one last look at Laura, and at little Trevor. I would do what I had to.
“Don’t do it,” warned McQuinn. I ignored him. In utter desperation, I leapt for my fallen gun. The moment that I did, I felt the sting of several dozen sharp objects piercing through my side, my right arm, my hip, and my thigh.
What happened next is difficult to remember. My face slammed into the floor. My entire right side exploded with warmth, like a subcutaneous hot shower. I couldn’t move. My next conscious realization was that I was being dragged along. I was picked up and shoved into a chair against the wall.
I opened my eyes, and through the haze I could see McQuinn standing over Trevor’s crib. He bent down, until his face and the faces of dozens of snakes hovered over my sleeping baby. McQuinn looked up at me and grinned. He reached out with his substitute arm and caressed my son’s tender forehead. I wanted to scream at him, to run over and protect my son, but I could feel myself fading. My grip on my body was failing, and it wouldn’t be long before I lost it completely.
“I’ll leave him be for now,” said McQuinn. His voice was faraway and distorted, but somehow I could understand him perfectly. “Old Sheriff spent many years regretting what happened to my girl. That’s the legacy you’ve inherited. And I promise you, Sheriff Stephen Swanson, that’s the legacy you’ll leave.”
“Laura,” I muttered. Then I faded away.
I awoke in the Walnut Brooks Rescue Clinic. My backup officers had found me and Laura unconscious in the baby’s room. I was close to dead, and Laura was in a deep sleep.
Laura was waiting for me to wake up, holding Trevor in her arms. When I finally did, she sobbed into my shoulder for a solid twenty minutes. She couldn’t remember anything about the intruder, though. All she could really say was that she was scared stiff that I wouldn’t make it. Evidently, I had been bitten over seventy times by several different species of venomous snake. With no snakes at the scene, there was no way to know for sure what antivenins I would need. The doctor told me it was a miracle that I was still alive.
“I’ve seen a lot in my years, Sheriff Swanson,” he said, “and I’m a firm believer in divine intervention. The Reaper had you dead to rights. Yet, I managed to pull you through. Someone knew it wasn’t your time to go.”
As I sit here next to my wife and son, I realize that the doctor was right. McQuinn wasn’t trying to kill me. He just wanted me to suffer. As I think about his words, what he said about the Old Sheriff mourning his daughter, I can’t help but think that my suffering might have only just begun.
“I promise you, Sheriff Stephen Swanson, that’s the legacy you’ll leave.”
Credit : M. R. Ewoldsen
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