The stranger rode into town on a horse that was nothing more than dried skin stretched taut over creaking bones, one eye glancing back over his shoulder watching the devil that he knew, the other wandering forward to spy the one that he didn’t. He slid off the horse, a layer of dust and grime coating his torn clothes—lanky and disoriented, his lips chapped, torn and bleeding from riding into the wind, his yellow teeth chewing on them to slow his worried heart. He’d left the shadows in the mountains, their stench still in his bandana—the cloth around his neck damp with sweat, covering the thin slash marks that ran a red line from ear to ear. Peace was all he sought, and perhaps forgiveness for his done deeds. Whether the legs that were roasting on the open spit had two legs or four, a man had to eat, regardless of the cries that echoed through the whispering pines—his eyes twitching, bony hands trembling, his swollen gut twisted in knots.
The town had no name that he knew, but the sign at the crossroads pointed this way, offering work, and maybe a place to rest his head. He closed his eyes for a moment and prayed for forgiveness, and then he prayed for a glass of something dark and hot, a bit of amber to coat his throat, and wash away his sins. The hefty woman in the doorway of the saloon had no hair on her shiny bald head, hands on her hips, apron straining over a faded blue dress, but her smile was as white as bone, beckoning him inside with a nod of her head and a wave. He went to tie his steed to the rail, and wondered what was the point. The mare would be dust soon, drained of its life over the trails these past few months. It was better that the horse should close its eyes and forget what it had seen.
He found his way to the bar, slid onto a stool and exhaled all that he had carried over the hills and dry, empty land. She poured him a short glass, asking for no payment, simply walking back towards the mirror that reflected his shaking hand rising slowly to his lips.
“You come over the mountains, through the pass?” she asked.
“How long, weeks maybe? Did you miss the snow, or catch it?”
“Months, I reckon. No snow when I passed through, just a bitch of a wind, no offense.”
“None taken,” she smiled. “Your horse is dead,” she muttered.
The stranger glanced out the door, “I know,” he said. “She just doesn’t know it yet.”
The empty bar was nothing but tables and chairs, a small piano by the back wall, and rows and rows of shimmering bottles sparkling in the gleam of stray sunlight beams, the woman polishing a tall glass nearly to dust.
“Thanks for the drink,” the stranger said.
“First one’s always on me.,” she said. “I’m Sadie.”
“You looking for work or moving on?” she asked.
“Not sure—just trying to keep breathing, ma’am. But I suppose the work will find me, it always does—one way or another. Can’t seem to shake nothing these days. Must be getting old.”
He grinned in her direction, brown teeth filed down nearly to points, a cough and a hack filling the dusty room, spitting towards the floor, the blood stained mucus holding their attention.
Her smile faltered and she placed the glass on the shelf.
“Well, stranger, maybe there is something you can help me with after all,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of folks here in town, or even on the farms still. Hard to raise much of anything here.”
He nodded, licking his lips. She wandered over and refilled his drink.
“That’s for the work, what I’m about to tell you about,” her eyes turned to steel, and then blinking, back to light brown.
The straw man knocked it back and nodded.
“Go on,” he said.
“Kids wander off,” she sighed. “They run to the hills, wanna get nekkid or maybe just shoot something. Sometimes they come back, sometimes the don’t.”
She rubbed her neck and eyeballed the man. Taking a deep breath, she went on.
“Same with the cattle, the dogs, the chickens, the hogs. Don’t know what draws them up to them damn mountains, but take your eyes off them for a moment, and they gone.”
The double-doors to the saloon slapped open and pale young boy bounced in, took one look at Sadie, and the stranger, and stopped.
“Go on, Jeb, get out of here. We’re talking business.”
The boy turned and fled, eyes wide. The stranger didn’t move, didn’t turn his neck, or blink his fading eyes. Instead he swallowed what liquid was left in his mouth and stared into his mangled hands.
“I got a well out back, and somehow a calf fell down it, just happened before you wandered in here, in fact. If you listen, you can hear it crying out there, broke its legs in the fall I suspect.”
The man craned his neck and listened, and sure enough there was a low bleating moan, drifting on the wind.
“Help me out, stranger? I got rope, the men are all busy harvesting or hunting, some two towns away selling seed and corn, nobody giving a shit about Sadie until they want to wet their whistle.”
The man picked up the glass, licked it clean, what was left of the brown liquid, and stood up straight.
“Sure, Sadie, I’ll help you out. Then we can talk about what other forms of compensation y’all got around here.”
She smiled a wide grin, her face nearly folding in half, running her plump hands over her slick, bald head.
“Deal,” she whispered, and topped off his glass one last time. He knocked it back, hitched up his jeans, and headed for the back door.
Sadie followed him out, the wind picking up, the sun sliding behind the heavy clouds. He could hear the noises seeping up from the bottom of the well, and on the wind, they changed, from bleating calf to crying child to weeping man and back to farm animal, a low guttural moan.
“How deep?” he asked.
“Not far,” she said. “Enough to snap a thin leg, like my calf, but not that far, maybe fifteen feet? Not sure, it’s been here longer than me.
The man stared at the stones that formed a ring around the hole, dust and dirt, a chip here and there—dark stains splattered now and again, water perhaps. There was little fear in him, because there was little life left in his weary bones, so he hopped up on the lip of the well, grabbed hold of the rope, nodded once to Sadie, and down he went.
Above the sun held a fading gray light, his boots on the stone, looking down into the darkness, looking up to the circle of sky. It grew colder the deeper he went, and then it grew colder still. And yet, a sheen of sweat coated his back and neck, the stench from the bottom of the well growing, the fading bleat rising up to meet him.
He landed on the bottom with a wet slap, bones snapping under his feet, the dank mossy smell mixing with copper and rotting flesh. As he knelt to grab the calf his hands found a shoulder and a skull, thin arms and wet denim running down worn out boots. The dying man moaned, took his last breath, and expired. Glancing up to the darkening circle above, the stranger watched as Sadie leaned over the hole, a cast of shadows standing tall beside her, her long arm pointing down the hole towards him, and the shades spilled over the lip, finally catching up to him, and the town of Redemption moved on.