Obsidian woke from a dream and stared at the cool desert sky.
Something sleek and black skittered across his nude chest. Its tail formed a drooping C; a single teardrop of venom dangling from the stinger tip. Obsidian looked down and saw the coal black scorpion halt mid-stride as a rattler’s head wove up along his chest. Obsidian could feel the thing’s dry scales run along the flesh of his ribcage and inner arm; rising from its coiled nest in his body heat. The rattler’s tongue flicked in staccato whips, inspecting the head of the scorpion. It was an odd sight, but Obsidian had seen stranger things.
Obsidian stirred and dozens more scorpions scattered outward from under him as if they were cockroaches dispelled by light. Tails lashed in all directions around him; more snakes disturbed by him rousing and taking away their warmth. Desert spiders and fat lizards dismounted his legs, arms.
Blankets of low-crawling beasts were strewn across his naked form, nestled under his chin, slithering between his fingers and folded around his groin.
Obsidian turned over the palm of one hand and a yet another rattler laid its head there. He stroked its head with his thumb, feeling the sharp tickle of its flicking tongue trying to repay his attention.
A small sand-colored scorpion flitted along his nose, his lip. Its stinger hovering over his eye. Obsidian held his mouth open and the thing scampered inside. He shut his jaw and began to chew as he sat up. The desert creatures scampered away.
He rose and saw the easy morning in the east. A speck on the horizon, the morning silhouetted Red Clay River, as if the sun itself wanted Obsidian to travel there and shoot it. Shoot all of Red Clay River.
That part of his dream was clear. The town in smoldering ruins; lashes of flame still trying to rub the sky. A silhouette of a damned man with his satchel and guns strolling off, the heat from the town pushing him away.
Around him was a dilapidated outpost. Long abandoned, it was nothing more than sun-bleached timbers collapsed in a broken circle. Obsidian slept under an old hanging tree. He put his hand to its twisting bark, deeply creviced with a century’s worth of living.
He had pushed a railroad spike into the trunk. Dangled a satchel from it. He opened the top flap, gently laying the old leather off to the side. A carnival of impossibly fat, worm-like appendages slithered inside it, wagging up as the crisp rays of morning touched down. Obsidian ran his hand through it the way he would a woman’s hair. They all played under his palm like supple skin.
He gripped the things as he would the hair of that woman he was taking from behind and twisted the pile. Under them was a disembodied head, a face, which he rotated up until his empty, soulless eyes met its dead and glazed ones.
“Empower me,” he said. The eyes in the face blinked, and looked up to meet his gaze. She smiled around skin that was withered and hung in half-peeled sheets like river birch bark. Her whole face was a gray mask of what was once absolute beauty, but now was so decayed it was void of anything besides corruption in the most rancid form.
“Where is his family?” She asked, a coy smile over teeth which had rotted so long ago Obsidian replaced them with small polished stones.
“Cease your pestering, woman. There will be time for death.”
“And the time is now,” she said.
“I grow weary of this same conversation. You have said nothing of value in centur—”
“Feed us,” Lydia said. The Black’s tendrils crawled out of the crooks and shadows, encircling them. They undulated and pulsed with hunger.
“I grow weary of many things, really.” Obsidian said, staring into her eyes and seeing The Black’s presence in there, deep. He spoke to that presence, “and another thing is how you order me through the mouth of my lover.”
The Black disappeared from her gaze, and then the woman was back, as if her headspace and soul where her own. Lydia smiled again, this one too carnivorous for Obsidian’s liking. “I speak for myself, and I say feed us.”
Obsidian sneered, yanked Lydia’s head from the satchel and held her up, face to face. The worm-like appendages she had instead of hair tensed and slashed about; glistening with an inner moisture that made them look all the more alien and organic. She scowled.
The Black rushed in. Foamed up into a wall as dark and ominous as an approaching storm front, a half-mile high and mere feet away from the pair. Fury surged through it and the wall rippled with mounting tension. The outer walls of it spread like cancer, swallowing up the desert for endless miles to each side.
“It follows me too closely, Lydia. I have warned you about your pet.” Obsidian nodded to the storm front of The Black, buzzing with potential so close to Obsidian’s nude skin that his small hairs were tickled by its quivering.
“We have needs.” She said, her sandpaper dry tongue slithering out of her mouth and dangling down past her severed neck. It curled playfully, probing. Its licking tip fondling around the inside of her open throat where Obsidian cut it off so long ago. Lydia, a ghastly head with a mane of worms for hair, she cast Obsidian a sexual look as she licked herself coyly. “We have so many needs, my lover.”
“We have our curse.” Obsidian looked away. “Nothing more.”
“In due time.”
“And how would you like me to do that?”
But all at once The Black’s storm front was gone. Vanished. The roar ceased. Lydia flickered her eyebrows and smiled, peering over Obsidian’s shoulder.
“Oy! You! Naked boy! Is some circus missin’ it’s man-whore?”
Obsidian turned around, sheathing Lydia inside the satchel as he did so. There, ponying their way off of the dirt road were three riders. All had their rifles out and pointed at him.
Obsidian dropped the satchel and felt satisfied at the thump and grumble from the bag hitting the stony desert floor. He stepped towards them.
“Him’s bold for a nekkin fella, ain’t he?” One asked. The man was greasy and dressed in more coonskin than any single encampment of fur traders.
“Yeah,” the first man said. “I reckon he’s eatin’ that plant them savages eat to see the gods or some such.”
“Peyote they call it.” The third man said. He was so heavy set his horse groaned under his weight. “I call it horseshit.”
“That it,” The first man said. “Hey fella, fancy meetin’ you here. All alone, nude as a baby. You just keep communin’ with the gods and meanwhile we’ll kindly lighten your load.”
“The three of you intend to rob me? I feel a tickle of humor in my belly at the thought.”
“You’ll be feelin’ a tickle ‘o hot lead in yer belly if ya get stupid, now.”
Obsidian raised his hands high and made a show of being nude. “As you can see, I am unarmed.”
The first man slid off his horse, rifle high. “I got this here fixed right ‘tween yer silly eyes, partner. Wanna see how steady I am?”
The three men peered slightly puzzled, shared their looks back and forth. “Can you believe this?” the third man asked. No one answered.
The man approached, his muzzle shortening the distance with every breath. Ten paces away and heat rose up in the man’s intestines. Seven feet away and the man became nauseous. Three feet and he could taste bile. Up close and personal and his vision swam. Ill.
But he kept his rifle steady. It kissed the skin between Obsidian’s nightmare-black eyes, and from this distance the man could see how the surface of those very eyes shimmered with a quality best reserved for haunted memories.
“Fire upon me, or meet death.” Obsidian said.
The man coughed a nervous laugh. A bead of sweat rolled off his forehead, salting the air as it dripped down. Obsidian could smell alcohol in that sweat. The muzzle wavered, then the first man’s trigger finger twitched.
In slow motion Obsidian’s head snapped back, ripples deep enough to carve bone passed from his face through his hair. His brains painted the air behind him and his skull cracked. A portal opened through his forehead, and the killer could see the long-dead hanging tree through it.
But Obsidian stood.
The man lowered his rifle, astonished. Numb. “You … I mean .. what in the sam hell … ?” The man leaned around Obsidian, saw nothing that the corpse might be leaning against to keep him on his feet. Put his muzzle against the top of Obsidian’s chest, pushed. He did not fall. The man looked perplexed, and then saw Obsidian’s eyes blink.
“What in the blue blazes—”
Stitches of flesh darted between Obsidian’s gaping wound, harpooning into the opposite end of his inner skull. Yanked, pulled the ends together. Tiny red threads of blood or flesh or something else wove up and down the tears of his wound, reconnecting the skin and bone. Even with his face only a third reattached, Obsidian smiled. The gunpowder burns and tattered flesh looked like a nightmare reflection of his happiness.
Even his voice was torn in half as he said, “As you can see, I am unarmed.”
The man swung his rifle up, finger on the trigger. As the round blew out of the errantly muzzle, Obsidian swung a low jab. Connected through his guts to his spine.
Obsidian stepped back as powerful as a titan yanking on the string on which every planet in the universe was a strung bead. He tore the man’s spine out of his gut, stripping up and out his chest like he was deboning a fish. His ribcage and finally skull pulled free. A deluge of organs cascaded down onto the dirt, and his hollow flesh collapsed to the ground like discarded laundry.
Obsidian regarded his prize for a moment, the sleeve of blood up his forearm from the punch. Sprayed with gore. Tasting the copper of hot blood. The coils of intestine making sloppy loops at his feet. The rifle round between Obsidian’s eyes, healing even now.
The Black rushed in, ravenously lapping at the act of killing like a starved dog. Though the robbers could not see the frenzy, the vile force behind Obsidian’s curse devoured the act of the slaughter like demons feeding on sin rather than the lie, adultery or wrath itself.
“Feed us,” Lydia said.
“Woman, I should have never spared you the indignity of your fate. Had I known then …”
“I was worth it, my love.”
Obsidian snickered, turned his attention back to the two other robbers who were still frozen at the sight of their gutted compatriot. “Parts of you were worth it,” Obsidian said under his breath and began walking forward. “Not your head, though.”
The men tried to flee. Obsidian held his arms open, the skull and spine of the first man dangling from his fist. “As you can see, I am unarmed.”
Across the desert plains, through the scattering of cacti and thinning brush, across the sea of wind-swept sand grains and stone, their screams echoed off forever.
As Buford stepped out into the sun, the Sheriff come walking back, hands full of paper, head full of the mayor’s piss and vinegar. They stopped, exchanged glances.
“What you think, Deputy? You think Hornsby will be saddlin’ up come next week?”
“Saddlin’ up for you?” Buford asked, squinting in the harsh light. “No, I don’t.”
“Very well. He goin’ ride off to California like he been sayin’? Finally gonna do it?”
“No,” Buford said. Looked at the dirt on his boots. Looked back up. Knew it had to be said because it was true. “I reckon he’s done with this world’s problems.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Can’t help it.”
The Sheriff looked away for a long time. Saw the line of his fellow brothers who had worn the badge and lost it being called home to the feet of the Lord. Didn’t want to see Hornsby join the end of that line.
“I buried only two deputies in my time, you know that, Buford?”
“I do.” Buford began to walk away and Sheriff Cross called out his name. Buford turned around, walked nearer.
Sheriff Cross rubbed his face and spoke low. “You’ve been honorable to Hornsby. I mean that. He was good enough to trust with a badge and for that I thank him. You … you and that badge were meant to be just as he was meant to be with Maddie. I hate sayin’ it but it’s true. I know you wanted Maddie as your wife, but it ain’t the way of this world.”
“All I’m sayin’ is, if he’s alive, bring him back that way.”
“You think I’d leave Hornsby for dead?” Buford adjusted the brim of his hat to make sure the sheriff could see his eyes. “Come back, take her as mine?”
Sheriff Cross shifted from one foot to the next. Cleared his throat twice before Buford felt his lip curl up.
“Now, what I mean is—”
“Stop. Stop ‘fore this goes south.”
“Love does strange things is all I’m sayin’.” The Sheriff finally muttered. “Maybe this all came out wrong, Buford—”
“Doubt it.” Buford began to walk away. “I do right, even if it costs me. You know that.”
Sheriff Cross, ashamed and wishing he’d never stuck his foot in his mouth, he could only nod. “I know, Buford. I’m sorry.”
The saloon doors swung open and both the travelers turned on their stools. They hadn’t moved an inch since the lawman laid out the drunk like a derailed locomotive hitting a canyon wall. This time, the pianist stopped playing.
Buford strode forward with an intimidating gate. One traveler swallowed so hard he coughed. Buford held up the wanted poster. “Where?”
Obsidian’s mind was his last respite.
In it he had trained his memory to organize everything like a scrap book. He imagined the pages opening, the thick, musky scent of the old sun-dulled pages. The creak of the spine flexing. From the privacy of his head he turned page after page, picking up scraps which would fall out of the nook between pages where they were stuffed.
There he kept a journal of all the things revealed to him—no matter how obscure or inconsequential—through his dreams.
His dreams were the only thing he still owned. He opened the front page and saw a sketch he had made millennia ago of how Lydia used to be. When Lydia was his as well. They were each other’s. He had drawn the sun and moon and stars around her, paling in comparison to her.
Through the pages, his chronicling of a thousand lifetimes, his renderings of her had become scarcer. The Black was originally their watchdog, the hound at their heels. Their punishment. But slowly it had corrupted her, usurped her. He couldn’t remember when their arrangement had become such. Feed us.
He studied the pages of his own mental handwriting, dissecting the words from AD 1237 as compared to BC 212 then against AD 1788 and back to AD 31. So on and so forth, his journal a veritable tome of snippets and snatches from the fog of his prophetic dreams and—
Obsidian stopped on a page. Scrutinized. Made a connection. Turned back. Jaunted between the two, examined their opposite sides and then referenced something else entirely and then read them out of the sequence he had written them in and made a few notes in the dirt with his fingertip and then …
On a page far back he saw a sketch from so long ago he had forgotten he’d ever made it. Detailed. A man. A single man wearing a long duster and wide-brimmed hat. When Obsidian made the drawing he was on the outskirts of a battlefield where the combatants wore chain mail and did their slaying with blades.
The man had dark features. Rough, as if he were hewn from stone. His angles and snarl were just as Obsidian’s were, but somehow there was a clarity—a purity—in his eyes that Obsidian never noticed, even while he sketched it until he saw it just then.
In the man’s hand was a six-shooter. On his chest, a star. A badge. Like that bounty hunter’s.
Obsidian read clues back and forth, connecting puzzle pieces scattered to him through obscure dreams across the millennia. The final piece rested on the page with the man. The new deputy. The answer.
Obsidian stood. Smiled with a joy he hadn’t felt since he was mortal. He dare not say it out loud, but he knew he had it. An answer.
It seemed even in curses, there could be a divorce.
The road was a never-ending trail of rocks and dirt, scoured over countless times by the hooves and boots of travelers before Obsidian.
Stretches of nowhere, like unfurled tapestries, painting a path to each barren horizon. He had walked these things before, countless the world over. The desert here was the same as the pebbled shores of Greece and the snow-crusted, jagged rock of the European mountains and the tropics of the humid hideaways the pirates used. And thousands of others.
He slid off his own horse and gathered rocks and kindling and made a fire. He had no flint. Never needed it. Knew an old trick. Snapped his fingers and a spark lit bright as his rage.
Obsidian finished his work and took a pull of water, saw the plume of dust coming up from miles away. Even then, Obsidian knew. All that the gods had dumped on him, now they were delivering.
The clues made it all very clear. As the rider approached, his dust plume growing ever greater, Obsidian turned behind himself and saw the tongues of The Black reaching ever nearer to him. They had never come this close. Seems his plume was growing greater as well.
Buford could clearly see a horse as he approached. It was tied to a large mound. Looked like there was another horse, sprawled along the desert floor. A fire. No man. No obstructions, no hiding places. Nothing to duck behind besides the horse itself.
Buford circled and looked for a perch where the rider could lay out and use a sighted rifle. Nothing. This area as wide as one could see was blown level by racing winds. Tumbles of weed would roll here and there, doing cartwheels in the arid expanse. Some felled, dried trees stippled the walk. Rocks here and there. But flat lines dominated, as oppressive as the crushing foot of a giant.
“To hell with it then,” and Buford rode up to the strange horse. He slid down and saw what the mound was. Drew his iron. Felt sick to his stomach.
The mound was Hornsby’s dead horse. A rattler slithered along it, pushing a scorpion out of its way.
“Son of a bitch,” Buford said, snarled. “Hornsby, you shoulda never risked it. What am I to tell Maddie, who even now has the faith in me to find you alive? Damn you.”
Obsidian stood very still, holding his breath. Remained invisible as long as he did.
The stranger, a man much more fierce than the last deputy, combed the area. A few times this man came so close to him that if he’d just’ve budged an inch here or an inch there they’d have touched. And if they touched, it might be too much to resist to take hold of him and kill him.
When the rider turned his back, Obsidian exhaled and quickly sucked in another large breath. He wanted to keep watching for as long as he could.
Because there was something about this deputy in Obsidian’s memory book that made him stand out. For one thing, he wasn’t getting ill.