Edited by John Joseph Adams, Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West has just been published by Titan Books. The anthology includes short stories written by Orson Scott Card, Hugh Howey, Kelley Armstrong, Joe R. Lansdale, Elizabeth Bear, Alastair Reynolds, Seanan McGuire, Jonathan Maberry, Ken Liu, Ben H. Winters, David Farland, Mike Resnick, Charles Yu, Alan Dean Foster, Beth Revis, Rajan Khanna, Tobias S. Buckell, Jeffrey Ford, Laura Anne Gilman, Walter Jon Williams, Fred Van Lente, Christie Yant, and Tad Williams. In all, the collection includes 23 stories.
Tad Williams’ story, “Strong Medicine”, fits in nicely with this collection of weird tales from the Old West. Taking place on June 20th and 21st, 1899, the short story recounts the bizarre events that took place in Medicine Dance, Arizona, when dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are suddenly spotted in the community.
While the community of Medicine Dance is fictional, Tad Williams may or may not have known of a real-life report of a living pterodactyl supposedly shot by ranchers, made in the Tombstone Epitaph on April 26, 1890:
A winged monster, resembling a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings, was found on the desert between the Whetstone and Huachuca mountains last Sunday by two ranchers who were returning home from the Huachucas. The creature was evidently greatly exhausted by a long flight and when discovered was able to fly but a short distance at a time.
After the first shock of wild amazement had passed the two men, who were on horseback and armed with Winchester rifles, regained sufficient courage to pursue the monster and after an exciting chase of several miles succeeded in getting near enough to open fire with their rifles and wounding it.
The creature then turned on the men, but owing to its exhausted condition they were able to keep out of its way and after a few well directed shots the monster partly rolled over and remained motionless. The men cautiously approached, their horses snorting with terror, and found that the creature was dead.
They then proceeded to make an examination and found that it measured about ninety-two feet in length and the greatest diameter was about fifty inches. The monster had only two feet, these being situated a short distance in front of where the wings were joined to the body. The head, as near as they could judge, was about eight feet long, the jaws being thickly set with strong, sharp teeth. Its eyes were as large as a dinner plate and protruded about halfway from the head.
They had some difficulty in measuring the wings as they were partly folded under the body, but finally got one straightened out sufficiently to get a measurement of seventy-eight feet, making the total length from tip to tip about 160 feet. The wings were composed of a thick and nearly transparent membrane and were devoid of feathers or hair, as was the entire body. The skin of the body was comparatively smooth and easily penetrated by a bullet.
The men cut off a small portion of the tip of one wing and took it home with them. Late last night one of them arrived in this city for supplies and to make the necessary preparations to skin the creature, when the hide will be sent east for examination by the eminent scientists of the day.
The finder returned early this morning accompanied by several prominent men who will endeavor to bring the strange creature to this city before it is mutilated.
Williams begins with a similar element in his tale, with two men shooting at a pterodactyl in 1890s Arizona, but the story quickly diverges from there. He also weaves a mystery surrounding one of the men, but the reader isn’t able to ponder this enigma for very long, as Medicine Dance is quickly transformed to Jurassic Park:
We left the rest of the citizens arguing about why exactly the Devil had brought the sea to Medicine Dance and made our way back along the shore on the edge of town, reptile-birds wheeling and croaking high above us.
We paused for a moment to watch a bunch of boys — Clay Hopyard’s sons, Billinger told me — who had made themselves a raft out of stripped saplings and were wading out into the water. The young sailors were being watched by a half a dozen men taking some rest, who said they’d been chasing the springy little lizards out of nearby houses for the last hour, but I was concerned. I shouted to the boys to come in, but we were still too far away for them to hear. As they listened to me, the men watching seemed to realize that this new ocean might contain things bigger than the fish they were used to pulling from the local streams, but before they could do more than look thoughtful, a long neck suddenly came coiling up out of the water near the children, silver in color and as long as a horseshoe pitch. The boys screamed when they saw it, and all of them ran to one end of their raft, which promptly capsized.
This is a satisfying tale with some similarities to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), which only receives two minor demerits from me. One demerit for setting the story so close to monsoon without mention of the heavy seasonal rains, which would have been on the minds of the settlers in 1890s southern Arizona. And one nit-picking demerit for having a prehistoric animal eat grass, which did not exist until near the end of the Cretaceous Period.