Nancy A. Collins is best known for the female punk vampire and vampire slayer Sonja Blue and as a founding pioneer of the Urban Fantasy genre. 

She has published over 25 novels and collections since 1989 and is the first woman to have written Swamp Thing for DCComics, as well as Vampirella and the Army of Darkness comic franchises. She is a recipient of the HWA’s Bram Stoker Award, The British Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers’ Scribe Award, as well as a past nominee for the World Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the comics industry’s Eisner Award.

She currently resides in Macon, Georgia.


by Nancy A. Collins


When they first rode up on the town, it looked as if the streets were full of hanged men.

As they drew closer, what had at first been mistaken for bleached bones turned out to be paper-mâché mannequins painted to resemble skeletons, grinning an idiot’s welcome to all comers.

“What in hell is this shit?” growled Big Luther.

Dia de los Muertos,” Alvarez replied, gesturing to the locals in the town square, busy buying and selling fruits, flowers, and gaily colored masks. “Day of the Dead,” he added, when it became clear the others still did not understand.

“Sounds Meskin to me,” Clell replied, eyeing the macabre decorations uneasily.

“Not surprisin’, Clell, seein’ how we’re fifty miles into Mexico,” Hop chuckled.

Big Luther turned in his saddle to fix Hop with a baleful glare. He sniffed the air and his eyes narrowed. “You ain’t been smokin’ that Chinaman molasses again, have you?”

“No, Luther,” Hop said, shaking his head for emphasis. “I left my pipe back at the camp, like you said.”

“Good thing. Last thing I need is you with your head in a cloud when Dixie Jim and his boys come ridin’ in.” Big Luther turned back around in his saddle to address Alvarez. “Where’s this cantina the Wolf Pack is so fond of?”

“Over there,” Alvarez replied, pointing to a squat adobe structure with a porch nearly twice as large as the building itself. A few rough-hewn tables and chairs were scattered in its dusty shade, along with a yellow dog with ribs like barrel staves sprawled under a bench made from planks. Across the side of the cantina that faced the square was plastered a broadsheet depicting a skeleton—sombrero crowning its skull and serape draped over one bony shoulder—eagerly chugging a jug of tequila.

“Again with the damn bones,” Luther grunted. “What is it with you Meskins, Alvarez?”

“It is as I said my friend—it is the Festival of the Dead.”

Big Luther looked thoughtful. “Fiesta, huh?” He glanced at the cantina then back at the marketplace. “You think Dixie Jim and the mare likely to show up for it?”

Si. It is a big party, with singing and fireworks—like you Yanquis have for Fourth of July.”

“It ain’t likely Dixie Jim’s one to celebrate the Fourth of July,” Clell snorted, “him bein’ a Vicksburg boy and all.”

“How long this bare-bones carnival of y’all’s go on?”

“Couple of days. Tonight is La Noche de Duelo—the Night of Mourning. Tomorrow begins the big celebration in the square.”

“Well, this seems as good a place to wait for them as any. Better than some. Let’s go get us a drink.”

As Hop tied his horse to the hitching posts outside the cantina he wondered—not for the first time—what exactly he had gotten himself into. He didn’t particularly enjoy Big Luther’s company—or  Clell’s, for that matter. Alvarez was friendly enough, but hard to know, just like the coolies back at the camp. Not that there was much in the way of chatting in the opium racks.

They had come to this nameless little town to kill the bandits called the Wolf Pack, led by a former Confederate soldier who went by the name Dixie Jim. The Wolf Pack had managed to become enough of a nuisance to the Golden Rule Mining Company that the head office had seen fit to hire bounty hunters. And in Big Luther Tatum and Clell Yoakum they found the kind of men needed for bloody business. Alvarez was the one who knew someone who knew someone who heard that Dixie Jim was sweet on some little mamacita in this flyspeck village and was familiar with the territory.

As for himself, he had been drafted into the posse more-or-less against his will. Tatum had recognized him from his wanted poster and knew he didn’t have any problems with killing. Even less for doing it for money. Hop tried to tell him that the man who had done those things wasn’t him anymore—that’s why he was working in a mining camp. He didn’t want that part of his old life anymore. It was also why he was hitting the pipe—so he could forget the faces that came to him in the night. But Luther didn’t care about that, and threatened to put the marshal on him if he didn’t agree to the job. In the end he agreed to ride with them because it meant he would finally be able to buy himself enough opium to make himself forget who he was and what he had done. But it seemed no matter how hard he tried to run away, his past always seemed to catch up with him, somehow.

The cantina owner was tending a small table decorated by a faded tintype of an older woman dressed in a mantilla surrounded by bouquets of marigolds, sweet breads, and fruit. “Tequila or whisky, señor?” he asked as he lit the votive candles that framed the picture.

“Tequila,” Big Luther replied, tossing a silver coin onto the bar and holding up two fingers.

The cantina owner nodded and went behind the bar and produced a stone crock. Big Luther picked up the container and ambled back out to the porch, where Clell and the others were waiting. A second later the cantina owner followed with a pair of smudged shot glasses, which he placed in front of Big Luther.

“I figger we got until nightfall before they show,” Tatum grunted, slopping the clear liquor into the shots.

Hop knew better to ask where his glass was. Big Luther had made it clear from the start that while he was willing to ride with him and Alvarez—and even split the bounty—he drew the line at drinking with them. Alvarez fell silently in step alongside Hop as he ambled over to the marketplace. He seemed a bit uneasy, as if he was trying to decide to speak up or not.

“Something bothering you, Alvarez ? Looks to me like you want to ask me something.”

“Is it true?” The Mexican spoke very fast, as if rushing out the words were the only way they could be said.

“Is what true?”

“That you have killed many men?”


“How many?”

“As you have teeth in your head. By the way—how many teeth you got, Alvarez?”


“That sounds about right.”

A gnarled old man was selling paper-mâché masks tha resembled leering devils and snarling animals arranged on a blanket spread over the cobblestones. Hop wandered over to another vendor, who had circular breads that smelled of cinnamon and anise, and a selection of elaborately decorated skulls made from sugar paste.

As he paused to study the macabre treats, a crocodile of children—each outfitted in a skull mask—wound its way through the crowd, laughing and singing merrily, toy wands tipped with brightly painted eggshells held in their hands. As Hop watched, one of the children smashed his wand against the head of a playmate, setting free a shower of confetti.

Alvarez smiled and nodded at the youngsters. “It begins already. There will be much calaverada the next few days.”

“Beg pardon?”

Calaverada. It is what you call—” Alvarez trailed off, wrinkling his brow to try and find a proper translation. “High spirits. This is the one time of the year where the Dead are given back their former lives and are welcomed home by their friends and family. That is why they are selling pan delos Muertos and marigolds--so the living may build ofrendas—altars where they make gifts of food, drink and flowers to the Dead.”

Hop scratched his head. “Do the spooks or what have you, do they actually eat the food folks set out for them?”

Alvarez laughed and shook his head. “No, they can only consume the spirit of the ofrendas. It is up to the living to dispose of the physical food and drink.”

Hop nodded. “Sounds reasonable to me.” He stuck his hand into his pocket and withdrew a handful of coins. “I reckon I better get started. I got a hell of a lot of Dead to remember.”


Big Luther didn’t have much use for Mexicans, save for tequila and tamales. Then again, he didn’t have much use for anyone besides himself. The one exception being Clell, to a point. If it had been up to him, it would just be the two of them riding after the Wolf Pack. They’d been through hell and high water together for going on three years and had gotten used to watching one another’s backs. But the President of Golden Rule has insisted that they take a couple of men from the camp with them.

He'd been against it at first, but when he saw there was no budging the old man, he agreed—but only if he got to choose the men he rode with. He’d been surprised to find Amos Hopper listed on the camp’s roles, and even more so to find him smoking opium with the coolies. He didn’t see any things like the gunfighter he’d heard tell about, but you didn’t get a reputation like that without just cause.

It was now twilight, and the vendors gathered up their wares and went home. As Big Luther and Clell watched, the villagers left their houses carrying lighted candles, bundles of food, and flowers and made their way to the cemetery at the edge of town.

“Damn fool Meskins,” Big Luther muttered aloud between mouthfuls of tamale. “Don’t they know they’ll be in the grave soon enough?”

Clell shrugged and helped himself to another shot of tequila. That was another thing he liked about Clell: he didn’t talk much.


Tatum looked up to see Alvarez and Hopper high tailing it across the square towards the cantina. “What is it?” he asked, wiping the tamale sauce from his mouth onto his sleeve.

“They’re here!”

Luther exchanged a look with Clell before returning his attention to the others. “Where are they?”

“The bawdy house on the other side of the village,” Hop said. “We saw them ride up not five minutes ago. Ain’t that right, Alvarez?”

Sí! The girls came out to greet them—I heard one call the leader Jim.”

“That’ll be the Wolf Pack, all right,” Luther grunted.

“What now?” Clell asked.

Tatum fished a pocket watch out of his vest and studied its face. “We wait a little longer. Give ‘em time to get comfortable, drink some mescal and some pulque, may beget themselves a little cunny. Give ‘em time to get drunk and careless. Then we hit ‘em fast and we hit ‘em hard.”

Clell pointed at the sack Hop was carrying. “What you got there?”

Hop untied the bag and emptied its contents for the others to see. Several sugar skulls and a couple of braided loaves of bread with skulls and crossed bones emblazoned on them rolled out onto the tabletop.

Big Luther stared at the candied skulls for a moment, then glanced back up at Hop. “I don’t like candy.”

“Good, Cause they ain’t for you,” Hop replied, sweeping the Calaveras and pan de la Muertos back into the bag.


They couldn’t have gotten better conditions for an ambush if they’d set it up that way. Nearly everyone in the village was out at the cemetery, weaving garlands to adorn the graves of their dead, leaving the town practically deserted. The only living souls left were the outlaws whooping it up at the brothel on the edge of town and the men sent to kill them.

Hop and the others were hiding in the shadows near a small group of trees, listening to the sound of their prey carousing. There was a great deal of raucous shouting and the laughter of women. A man’s voice could be heard lustily singing ‘Dixie’ at the top of his lungs. Bored, Hop fished one of the candied skulls out of the sack and bit into it. His mouth was instantly filled with sugar and saliva, and for some reason his mind flashed to the story of Samson and the carcass full of honey. He turned his eyes towards the cemetery. There were scores of candles flickering like fireflies in the cool autumn evening, and the wind blowing from the graveyard was redolent of marigold and copal incense. He could hear the music of a mariachi band as they moved from grave to grave, singing the favorite songs of the deceased.

When Big Luther gave the sign they went in through the front door easy as you please—since no one had bothered to bar it—and caught the Wolf Pack with their pants literally down around their ankles. Except for the distinct image of a swearing man dressed in a tattered Confederate jacket standing in the door of one of the rooms—Navy Colts blazing—and the sound of a woman screaming, Hop didn’t remember a whole lot about the attack. When he came back to himself, he was staring down at a bandit sprawled half-in and half-out of a bed, his bare chest punctured by bullets, an unfired pistol clutched in his dead hand. Then Hop noticed the naked female body lying face-down in the same blood-soaked bed.

Big Luther stood in the doorway behind him, looking like he’d been dipped in a slaughtered pig. In one hand he held a machete, in the other he gripped Dixie Jim’s head by its bloody hair. “What are you waitin’ for? It’s a thousand in gold per head.”

Hop licked his lips, fighting to keep the sick down. His mouth still tasted of sugar skull. “The woman—what about the woman?”

“Meskin whore-heads ain’t worth a plug nickel,” Big Luther snorted. “Leave ‘er be.”

Hop nodded dumbly and reached for the machete sheathed at his side. It took three good chops to completely sever the outlaw’s head from his shoulders. He stuffed it into his saddlebag without looking at it. He kept telling himself that when this was all over and done with, when he died and they cut him open all they would find inside him would be opium smoke.

Hop stepped out of the bloodied bedroom and was surprised to see the others still standing in the main room. He was even more surprised to see Alvarez shouting at Big Luther.

“Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“Couldn’t be helped. They was in the way.”

“Shooting up a bunch of gringo outlaws is one thing but killing the only whores in town—and before a big fiesta! They’ll have the Federales on us!”

“That won’t matter once we’re back over the border.”

“Crazy gringo!”

Alvarez spat on the floor, narrowly missing Big Luther’s boot. Big Luther, however, did not miss Alvarez’s head. His machete blade buried itself in the other man’s skull, parting him between the eyes.

“Damn Meskin,” Big Luther growled. “You would have thunk he’d know better than to do that.”

Hop had to agree.


They rode off through the hills and into the desert to throw off pursuit, saddlebags stained and bulging with their grisly trophies. Now that the deed was done and all that stood in their way was sand and rock, Big Luther and Clell became more relaxed—or as relaxed as Hop could remember seeing them. They did not seem terribly concerned about the possibility of pursuit from the Mexican authorities. Nor, for that matter, was Hop. But he kept looking over his shoulder anyway.

It was well after midnight when they finally pitched camp. The sky above was clear and cold and full of stars, like jewels poured from a burglar’s bag. Hop made a fire from dead wood and brush while Big Luther and Clell unsaddled the horses. As they settled down for the night, neither bounty hunter seemed to care, or even notice, that Hop had moved away from the flickering ring of light cast by the campfire until it was time to draw lots for the first watch.

“Where did that sum bitch get off to?” snarled Big Luther, squinting into the dark. “Hop! Where are you? Answer me, damn your eyes!”

“I’m over here, Luther.”

Hop’s voice came from behind a collection of small rocks thirty yards away. The two bounty hunters exchanged looks and got to their feet. As Big Luther and Clell drew closer, they could see Hop hunkered down on his haunches, his attention focused on something before him on the desert floor.

“What you doing behind them rocks?” Clell sneered. “Having a shit?”

“Why don’t you see for yourself?” replied Hop, moving aside to reveal his handiwork.

An ofrenda made from a loaf of pan de la Muertos, a couple of sugar skulls, and the wanted poster for Dixie Jim—held in place by a small flat stone—was lit by the flickering flame from a candle stub taken from the cantina.

Big Luther’s eyes widened until they looked like they would pop right out of his head. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Hop looked up at the bounty hunter with eyes the color of smoke. “Alvarez told me that tonight The Dead walk among the living—and if you want to keep from being dragged back to Hell with ‘em, you gotta honor ‘em.”

“You’re out of you cotton-pickin’ mind! Now pack that shit up and take the first watch!”

Hop looked down at the makeshift altar, then back up at Big Luther, but did not offer to move. “What are you afraid of, Tatum? You, of all people, should come to terms with The Dead.”

“What th’—? Are you threatening me, Hopper?”

Hop did not answer, but instead turned his attention back to the altar and began to hum ‘Dixie’.

Big Luther stepped forward, throwing back his duster so the holster was clear. “Fill your hand, Hopper!”

Hop glanced up at the man towering over him and began to slowly rise, still humming ‘Dixie’ to himself.

“Fill your hand or I’ll shoot you like the dog you are!”

Hop suddenly feinted with his right hand. That’s all Big Luther needed to open fire. His Colt took off the top of the gunfighter’s head like it was a hat, sending brains, blood, and bone flying across the desert floor. The body hit the dirt like a bag of feed thrown off the back of a wagon. Hop’s right hand opened as he struck the ground and a sugar skull rolled out, grinning sweetly up at Big Luther and Clell.

“Shit,” Tatum whispered, licking his lips with a dry tongue. “I could’ve swore he was drawin’ down.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Clell said, nodding in agreement.

“Crazy damn fool,” Big Luther said, holstering his gun. “Shoulda known better than to do that. Man was clean out of his mind, that much is for certain.” The bounty hunter stepped forward and with one kick of his boot obliterated the ofrenda. “Going on about The Dead walkin’ and all that Meskin hogwash.” He shrugged and turned back to face Clell. “I guess it just means more for us, don’t it?’

Clell tilted his head to one side and frowned. “Luther—do you hear that?”

“Hear what?” The moment Tatum said the words, he caught the sound of horses headed their way. Whoever it was, they were riding hard and fast from the direction they had come. There was also something else mixed in with the drumbeat of the riders, something that began more distinct the closer they came. Someone was singing. Singing in English.

Big Luther turned to face the oncoming riders, choking on the scream rising from his guts—the sound of hooves and ‘Dixie’ thundering in his ears.


They found the bounty hunters sprawled in the cold ashes of their campfire like broken dolls. There was no doubt in the authorities’ minds that these were, indeed, the men responsible for the massacre at the brothel. However, there was no evidence to point as to who was responsible for the slaughter in the desert. All three had been decapitated, but a quick search of the bounty hunters’ saddlebags revealed their owners’ heads and nothing more.

The Federales who discovered the bodies had their own opinions as to who or what was responsible, but they were not given credence by the higher ups. However, all concerned agreed that it was odd that there were no signs of the missing heads of Dixie Jim and the other members of the Wolf Pack. Stranger still, they had found a sugar skull resting atop the chest of one of the bodies.

It was missing a bite.

sonja blue monsters wild blood