Jon Levendusky: You Were Always One of Us or Ghouls Garden: A Vampyre Tale in the American West

  1. Tuscon 1859

The tall man sat in the back, alone, away from the raucous crowd that was packing the inn’s saloon. He produced a bottle from a sack and poured a dark, syrupy liquid into an ornate flagon and drank. Braxton had to stop himself from staring at the man, though there was something intoxicating about him. The tall man seemed so different from the others Braxton had met in the territory. The man was dressed like many of them: long duster coat and wide-brimmed hat, spurs on his long boots, but he had a regal look about him, as if he were a king masquerading as a trail-rider. He caught Braxton looking and raised his flagon in salute. Braxton found himself nervously turning away, pretending that he hadn’t been staring, and went back to writing his correspondence.

Braxton Kennsington was writing to his mother, though the loud ramblings of the men and the occasional bumping of the table by drunken passers-by had made it laborious. It was also difficult because Braxton was lying to his mother, something he hated to do, but there was no other way to describe his journey without causing her distress. It had been long and miserable, and not a day went by that he hadn’t wanted to return to Boston and forget the whole thing. He had been tasked with seeing about a potential silver mining operation in Southeast Arizona Territory and was to meet with a family friend who would serve as assayer of the claim. He was given this endeavor because he was the youngest and least involved in family affairs, and was, in the eyes of his seven siblings, a layabout and playboy, spending the family fortune and contributing little. Even his older sisters were seen as more prominent, they having married well and expanded the family’s influence.

No, let’s send little Braxton. He imagined them laughing at him, thinking of him covered in dust and trotting through horseshit and climbing a mountain to survey a few flecks of silver in the middle of a desert. How they must have laughed and laughed.

But not mother. She had tried to talk him out of it. Mother had always doted on him, as the youngest, and had protected him from the jabs of his siblings. Pride intervened, however, and Braxton could not let his mother get him out of it. He would never hear the end of their japes and name-calling. He had to go.

He had tried to paint it as an exciting adventure, something for his journals, but it was an absolute nightmare. Weeks spent on trains and in train stations, endless waiting, running as far as the rails would take them, to Arkansas. From there it was in wagons, bumpy shaking wagons from Arkansas through the entire with of Texas, which made him feel like Dante navigating the Circles of Hell. His Virgil for this journey was another friend of the family, Captain Clehane, who had married some aunt or other and was made a widower but was still allowed around the estate for his ribald tales of his Calvary days and for his masculine qualities. Braxton felt no kinship with Clehane, he was simply the driver and navigator, and he had found himself questioning the man’s capabilities. Clehane seemed more a drunk and braggart than true rough rider, which made Clehane fit right in with most of the other men in the West, leaving Braxton as the odd man out yet again.

A hard fist banging his table broke Braxton from his thoughts, as he was trying to finish a letter telling his mother of what a delightful adventure he had embarked on. The fist belonged to a haggard man in a decaying bowler hat, who growled at Braxton.

“What’chu writing there, pretty boy?” said the man.

“Why, that’s none of your business, stranger,” said Braxton, in false bravado.

The man snatched the letter from the table and held it up close to read it aloud. “To…my…dearest mother!” He laughed and held the letter up to show his friends at the faro table. “This dude is writing back to his mama!”

The men laughed. Braxton got up out of his chair and looked around for Captain Clehane, who had fallen in with the drunken crowd discussing the coming war and was nowhere to be seen. “Give that back, you animal!” said Braxton.

The man struck Braxton with a backhand and went back to the letter. “I cannot wait to again be next to your loving bosom!”

Braxton did not see, nor hear, the tall man rise from his seat and walk up to the haggard man. It was as if he suddenly appeared, like the snap of a finger.

The men at the table stopped laughing. The haggard man turned to the tall man and put a hand on his holstered pistol. “What the hell you want, this ain’t none of your business?”

The tall man snatched the letter from the haggard man and placed it back on Braxton’s table. “You don’t want to be starting trouble with me,” said the haggard man.

“Shutup, Jimmy,” said one of the haggard man’s friends. “That’s Francisco. He runs the Free Riders, killing Apaches. I wouldn’t be messing with him.”

The haggard man looked up at the smirking tall man. “Well, Jimmy Braddock backs down from no man,” said Jimmy. The tall man slugged him in the nose, sending Jimmy flying back against the bar. The chatter in the bar had stopped, and everyone was looking. Jimmy tried to pull his gun and Francisco already had his out and aimed straight at Jimmy’s heart.

Jimmy just sat there for a moment, bleeding from his caved in nose. “You boys should get him out of here, and sober him up,” said Francisco. Jimmy’s friends obliged and dragged out the haggard man as he continued to scream threats.

The scene ended, and the men went back to drinking and hollering about succession and the tyrant Lincoln and the Apache and whatever else. Francisco asked if he could sit at Braxton’s table, and Braxton said yes.

“Sorry about that,” said Francisco. “Some men just don’t have manners. I’ve long ago dispensed with the idea that they can be taught. It’s in the blood, lower standing. In such cases, a hard approach is the only option.”

“I appreciate it,” said Braxton. “I wonder, how is it a man like you is in a place like this?”

“I could ask you the same thing. And what kind of man do you think I am, exactly?”

“I’m not sure how to put it into words, just, you don’t seem like these other rough types.”

Francisco held up a finger to pause the conversation so he could get his drink and bring it back to Braxton’s table. “And I have to ask, what is in that goblet?”

“Oh, just a concoction of my own making,” said Francisco. “I’d offer you some, but it is quite an acquired taste.”

So, they got to talking and Braxton found himself opening up completely, telling Francisco all about his family, his mother, the journey, Captain Clehane, and everything else. Francisco, on the other hand, was quite reserved about personal details, only talking about his mission as a Free Rider and about the opportunities of the West.

“You see, more than even the great Founders, we have a chance to build a perfect society, to leave a lasting imprint on this land for thousands of years to come. With all due respect to your particular task, looking at Western expansion as merely an acquisition of resources is short-sighted. This is where the real founding of America begins. This, and the results of the coming war, will decide who we are as a people. Are we a unified nation of white, European men, who are committed to building the greatest and most powerful society the world has ever known, or will we give in to our lesser emotions, and allow us to mongrelize the country, to debase ourselves, and to give in to petty in-fighting and squabbles over those who we know to be inferior, out of some misguiding sense of guilt?”

Braxton was fascinated. He was himself a Democrat, and though he opposed succession he could not imagine that a great war would come over the rights of Negroes, nor could he find it in himself to consider the Native tribes as anything less than savages who have been left behind by the innovations of the European white.

“I see it, in some ways, in the way we look at animals,” said Braxton. “Some can be domesticated, and made useful, like cattle or horses or sheep, or even house pets to provide comfort and companionship, and some are wild and unwilling to be tamed, and need to be dealt with accordingly. Yet, either way, I would not allow any of them to sit at my table for dinner, because that is simply not where they belong. My point is, we need not be cruel, but we do need to be honest about the nature of things.”

“Wonderfully said. I must say, Mr. Kennsington, it was quite a treat to find a real intellect out here.”

“I agree, Francisco. It is curious then, how it is someone with a mind such as yourself is riding out with a gun at your hip doing this kind of dangerous work?”

“We all have our parts to play, and I have other endeavors. I have a proposition for you.”

“I cannot wait to hear it.”

“You and your Captain came here to Tuscon to meet with an assayer of a silver claim, a Mister…”

“Mr. Roberston.”

“Ah yes, Mr. Robertson. Yet, he has yet to appear. I know the area of your potential claim. I have built a stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, a place I call my Garden. I must show it to you, I must know what you think. And, in doing so I can deliver you to the claim.”

“Too late for that,” interrupted Captain Clehane. “Braxton, I’ve already secured us a guide to the claim. We’ll leave in the morning, giving Mr. Robertson time to show. And, if he’s not here by dawn, we leave for those mountains.”

“But, Francisco here has…”

“It’s already done, Braxton. I suggest you get some rest.” said Captain Clehane. He walked to the bar to secure one more drink for the evening.

“Well, so it is,” said Francisco. He rose, tall and imposing, and place a hand on Braxton’s shoulder. “I do not believe this is the last we’ll see of each other.”

Braxton felt himself stiffen but chose not to pursue the origin of that peculiar reaction further.

2. Francisco’s Free Riders

The dusty endlessness would drive a man insane, though Braxton had thoughts of Francisco to hold back the looming dread of the desert expanse. He could not help it, those brown eyes of Francisco seemed to still be looking at him, and he felt a rush of excitement just picturing the man slugging that outlaw Jimmy Braddock with no fear, no hesitation.

He had wished Francisco were with him. The men Captain Clehane had hired seemed like more of the loudmouth fake toughs that Braxton had grown to loathe. He stayed in the back of the wagon for much of the time, sipping on gin laced with droplets of laudanum and thinking of Francisco, and of finally finishing this foolish trip and being back in Boston, telling his mother all about his courage in the face of the unsettled West.

They were stopped at dusk, setting up camp, when one of the men got to talking about the Apache threat. They had been moving up in elevation, and the man warned that they were closer to danger, closer to Cochise, a leader of the Apache and a feared man throughout the Southwest. The man spoke of the Apache as a people that have been fighting for their existence for hundreds of years and meant to put everyone on edge going forward.

“I almost feel like you have admiration for these people,” said Braxton.

“Ain’t no sense in being unprepared,” said the man. “You may think yourself superior to the Apache, fancy lad, but you’ll be saying different if we run afoul of Cochise and his men.”

Braxton resented the man’s implication. He was a man of intelligence and reason, and he would not be intimidated by stories of Indian cunning. He knew Francisco would not give in to such tales. Braxton had secured himself a gun prior to leaving Tuscon, a little one-shot derringer that he kept in his breast pocket. He had visions of seeing this Cochise recoil in fear as Braxton produced the gun and blew the savage into the dirt.

It was just before midnight when the attack came. Braxton was in a laudanum induced haze and lay dumbfounded as shots rang out and men screamed, and the smell of gun smoke wafted through the air. After the shooting stopped two men grabbed Braxton and lifted him to his feet. He was brought before the waning campfire, and in the flickering light could see the face of the man with the busted nose.

“Well, you don’t feel so tough now, do ya,” spat Jimmy Braddock.

Jimmy punched Braxton and he went down, tripping over a corpse beside him. It was Captain Clehane, with a hole in his head.

“Get packing up their stuff, we’re taking the wagon and the horses,” said Jimmy, who laid in a few kicks to the ribs on Braxton. Jimmy pulled his pistol and placed the barrel to Braxton’s head. Braxton’s bladder let loose and Jimmy stepped back and laughed. He re-holstered his pistol.

“Tell you what, sissy. I’m going to leave you out here, all alone with the dead. If you survive, you can tell mama all about it.”

He kicked Braxton a few more times and then rallied his boys and they rode off with the wagon and the horses.

Braxton shivered in the cold desert night and wept.


Several hours passed, and Braxton had not moved. He had forgotten all about his derringer, but at that moment, he thought of using it on himself. Finding his way back to Tuscon, or anywhere, was impossible. He lamented his cowardice, his inabilities, and he thought of how easy it would be to just pull that trigger once.

He broke from this dreadful fantasy when the sound of hooves in stride sent a shock of fear through him. He could feel the vibrations of their steps, and knew they were close. He resolved not to do himself in, but to fight, goddammit fight for once. If they killed you, which they most certainly would, then you will die a man. He pulled himself off, ignoring the rank smell of piss from his soiled trousers, and drew his tiny gun.

“Hold up there, Braxton,” said an unfamiliar voice.

“How do you know who I am?”

“Francisco sent us. He’s out chasing the men who did this to you. We’re his Free Riders.”


The man had scooped up Braxton and they rode together with four other men in the deep black dark. After a few hours, with the light of the sun threatening to break the darkness, they came upon a torchlit camp where Braxton’s wagon was, along with the heads of Jimmy Braddock and his men, skewered on wooden spikes.

Francisco was there, and Braxton flung himself off the horse and embraced the tall man, as if he were a long-lost friend. When he pulled back, he saw the blood smeared on Francisco’s cheek, and his teeth turned long and sharp, with two massive fangs protruding. There were three other men with Francisco, also with faces hideous and monstrous, chewing on the flesh of the bandits and draining the blood from their headless corpses into bottles and jugs. Braxton tried to run but the man he rode with drew a rifle and levelled it at Braxton.

“Now, now, our friend is simply distressed. He will understand in due course. For now, we must finish up and move on. The sun is rising,” said Francisco.

“You’re…you’re…” stammered Braxton.

“Yes. Brutality is required to face brutality. Now, sleep.”

Braxton was transfixed by Francisco’s gaze, and without warning he closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.


It was midday when he awoke, tied to the back of a horse. From his vantage he could only see the five men who first saved him, no sign of Francisco or the others.

“Let me down at once!” he screeched.

“Not until we set up camp. Boss’s orders. You just relax. It’s gonna be a spell,” said the rider.

It was impossible to fathom. Vampyres. Silly monsters printed in cheap publications for half-literates. Creatures of superstition and myth to scare housewives and children. Yet, there they were, Francisco and the three others, having drank from Jimmy Braddock and his outlaws. He was disgusted and afraid, worried that he’d gone mad, wondering if his rescue hadn’t been any rescue at all, that he’d been taken captive, and that he should’ve pulled the trigger on that derringer when he had the chance.

But, for all those thoughts and feelings buzzing through his head, what he felt most was intrigue. How could someone like Francisco be one of these things? He had gotten a good feel for the man that night in Tuscon, it wasn’t an act, Francisco wasn’t a fake. So, how could someone as interesting, as thoughtful, as sophisticated as Francisco also be some kind of demon that sucked the blood of men? For all his fear and terror, he needed to know more. He needed to hear from Francisco. So, he relented, and spent the uncomfortable ride in the hot sun without so much as a wiggle. He had to see Francisco again.

They were moving higher up now, traversing the mountains, which the previous guide had said would be the most worrying part of the journey, not for the height, but for the Apache. However, that aspect no longer concerned Braxton. How could he fear Cochise and his Apache when in the company of bloodsucking monsters? In a way, there was comfort to be in that bizarre posse.

They finally made camp on a cliff overlooking the ragged dusty plains left behind, and when the sun went down, Francisco and his three vampyre cohorts appeared.

“Do you fear me?” he asked Braxton.

“Yes…and no. If you were to kill me you would have done so already.”

“Hmm, I a bit presumptuous, but in this case true. Walk with me. I have much to explain.”

They walked in the dark along a narrow ridge and Francisco answered Braxton’s questions. Yes, they need to drink blood. Yes, a vampyre is made by drinking the blood of another vampyre, given as a gift, though more on that will be revealed later. No, sunlight won’t kill them, but it is uncomfortable, and they prefer to stay out of it if possible. No, he is not frightened by religious symbols of any kind.

“My three companions, Martin, Dandridge, and Barlow are men from good stock and worthy of conversion. Those other five are useful staying as humans, helping us while we sleep in the day. I have led them on in thinking they will become like us someday, as long as they remain loyal. The truth is, and I’m telling you in confidence believing you trust me more than them, is that they will never become ascended. They are standard men, born of low birth, and will be disposed of when they are no longer useful. So, as it is, the natural order maintained.”

“But you wish to make me one of you?”

“Ha! Yes, very perceptive, Braxton. It’s rare to find someone from good stock who understands the world as you do. I knew the moment I saw you that you were a worthy candidate.”

“And what of my family? My mission out here?”

“Do you really care anymore? What was the name of that assayer you were meant to join up with?”

“Mr. Robertson.”

“Yes, well I believe Barlow ate your Mr. Robertson sometime last week. There is no silver in these mountains, and if there were it would be a waste of your time. I’m offering you a chance to do something bigger, create something much more substantial, and live lifetimes.”

Braxton was confused, so much of his perception of the world having changed in the previous few days, yet he knew deep down the answer was “yes.”

“First things first,” said Francisco. “I must show you my Garden.”

(To Be Continued Elsewhere)

I had envisioned this story after first reading Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” imagining a young man taking a vampire as a travel companion, and having the vampire be an alluring and corrupting force, and ultimately returning to the protagonist’s home to destroy his family. It was after reading Uriah Derrick d’Arcy’s “The Black Vampyre” that I knew I wanted to include elements of racial strife, and I wanted a reversal of the ending of “The Black Vampyre,” where the vampires are defeated by the army. In this case, the Apache get some measure of revenge, and destroy the slavers.

There’s a little bit of “Varney the Vampyre,” just in the form of Captain Clehane as the family friend who helps the weaker family member, and while I had the concept for the ghouls prior to rewatching Get Out, I can’t help but see some similarities in the ghouls essentially being trapped in their own bodies.

There is also an idea of the vampire as an aristocrat or capitalist, someone of means who sustains itself by drawing from others, the ruling class forever holding down those deemed inferior, whether it’s because of race, gender, or economic standing. In my research I found several that cited Karl Marx using the allegory of vampires in his critique of capitalism, which follows along with my idea.

The American West also served as a perfect setting for a vampire story. A time of change, genocide, slavery, lawlessness, how could a vampire resist such a place?

More than anything I wanted to use the monstrous elements of the vampire. I didn’t want him to be misunderstood or tragic, but to rather use the early works of vampire literature to show the vampire as the predator, the corruptor, the user, the thief, and the manipulator.

I’m about as subtle as a jackhammer in my messaging, and the idea is far from unique, but I do think I successfully pulled together several themes from vampire literature and combined them with my own ideas into something resembling a point. I leave it up to the reader to decide how entertaining or relevant it is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *