Summary: In the middle of Germany's Black Forest, Solomon Kane meets Gaston l'Armon inside the Cleft Skull Tavern. The two men struggle to place where they might have met before. As their host, a man who claims false imprisonment in the Karlsruhe dungeons, guides them to their beds, a practiced paranoia compels the two men to search for means to secure their room. After wandering through the empty tavern, they find a bar for a door in the last room. Gaston tries to remove it from its setting, but instead opens a passage to a secret room. Inside is a skeleton of a man with a cleft skull shackled to the floor. Gaston cuts the chain, mocking the bones.
Solomon Kane leaves the secret room to confront the tavern keeper about the body, but stops as a pistol is pressed against his head. Kane and Gaston finally recognize each other. Gaston is the Butcher, and intends to relieve Solomon Kane of his gold and his life. A blade falls from behind the bandit, cleaving his skull. The tavern owner then takes his place holding Kane at gunpoint. Kane tries to talk his way free, but the host wants revenge on all men for his false imprisonment and will not settle for less than Kane's blood. The tavern owner boasts of killing a sorcerer and chaining his body to the floor. Kane will soon join the dead man. However, the tavern owner falls backward as the candlelight in the room is snuffed out.
When Solomon Kane finds light once more, he discovers that the tavern owner is now dead, with the skeleton's fingers deep in his throat.
This story serves as a poor introduction to Solomon Kane. But then, he is neither hero nor protagonist of this story. Instead, he is the viewpoint character through which the reader observes a tale of Gaston's death and resulting vengeance against his murderer. In other stories, he is not passive, proving to be a Puritan hero comparable in skill and cunning to Conan. Here, however, he is replaceable.
"Rattle of Bones" is built on repetition. In musical terms, it is a story of theme and variation - with cleaved skulls and mugging. The phrase "cleft skull" repeats in the name of the tavern and the cleft skulls of the sorcerer and Gaston. Conventional wisdom would have forced new ways of describing the lethal head wound, as writers are taught to avoid using phrases in a short story. Here, repetition of a key phrase is used as a clue to the murder of the sorcerer, pointing back to the tavern owner. The men who attempted to mug Solomon Kane were both dispatched from behind by unseen attackers. Finally, the two death curses of the sorcerer and Gaston combine to kill the man who killed them both: the tavern owner. Here, the repetition of plot elements is used to strengthen the parallels between the sorcerer and Gaston to drive home the point that the vengeance of both dead men was enabled and fulfilled in the actions of the other man. For all the claims of the pulps' hackneyed writing and cliches, what becomes apparent upon critical reading is the craftmanship of the pulps.