Buford saw no sign other than some boot prints in the hefty grain of desert sand.
Buford turned in circles, but the dusk was fading. He approached the dead horse. Scrawny, withered. Its viscous, blank eyes bulged. Hornsby’s trusted quarter horse, gone to rot and worse. The living horse—a paint, patterned in brown and white—didn’t care to be lashed off to it; that much was apparent. It was constantly making small steps like a beginning tap dancer. Tugging at its lead. Buford continued to steal glances over his shoulder. That bounty had to be here somewhere. He considered this might be a trap, but there was nowhere for another man to be.
He circled the paint. It looked half-dead as well. No gun slings, a single knapsack and a single satchel, distended like a swollen belly. The fire spit up a yellow tongue and the light danced along a hilt of some kind behind the knapsack. Buford nudged the sack and saw the blade of a sword.
Buford removed it slowly like King Arthur pulling Excalibur out of the stone. The sword glowed in the camping light. Its hilt was short and wooden; nearly featureless. Practical. It’s blade was equally short but curvaceous like a woman. It’s base was wide and tapered with the curve of a dancer’s hips, but then flared back out towards the tip where it had a long taper to the apex.
Buford froze. Something out of his peripheral. A man. Flickering in the firelight like heat snakes at noon on the desert floor. Buford spun, dropped the sword and unloaded two rounds. Moved.
Obsidian sidestepped and felt the hot lead travel along his shoulder.
Gasped, nearly lost his breath. Can’t be seen. Not yet. He stood bolt still, the dust he kicked up a marginal thing. The other man was moving like he meant to kill. Moving the way Obsidian moved.
The deputy came to a halt, confused but determined. Blood would be had here. Obsidian’s hand crept to his lower back, felt the bone handle of his knife.
Blood would be had, all right. The deputy forced his nerves to unwind. Minutes unfurled, played out in the slow creep of the elongating shadows. It played out along the deputy’s face. Convinced himself it was a spook, nothing more. Couldn’t be. Went back to the satchel.
The man’s back was to him. And blood would be had.
Buford felt his hairs tingle, the skin of his neck crawl.
Whatever demon or black magic this was, or conversely whatever simple criminal this Obsidian would turn out to be, if this was something sinister as The Devil himself or as easy as a lucky bastard, Buford would kill him.
“Hornsby didn’t leave his horse,” Buford said. “Ain’t his way.” The living horse paid no mind. Up close Buford could see it sway on its feet. Weak.
Buford threw back the fold of the satchel and was met by a bundle of worms as thick as a child’s forearm.
He dropped back, guns up. His fingers quivered but didn’t shoot. The angle would have put the bullets through the horse behind the satchel. And the horse didn’t seem bothered by the things. The horse should be bucking and thrashing, losing its mind with a bag full of what must have appeared as writhing snakes.
“Are you that ill?” Buford asked. The horse chuffed and licked its snout. Nothing more. Buford reached out and caressed its snout. The horse welcomed the attention. Buford grew up around horses; his parents raised them. To see one being used up, pushed too far and neglected like this tore at him.
The horse was already dead. He knew that. It might take a minute to finally keel over, but it’s fate was written and signed. He gave it a loving rub along it’s nose and let go.
Buford looked around, had been his entire time, then walked over near the campfire, found a dead branch and pushed up on the bottom of the satchel.
The worms fell out in a ball. Tangled, they undulated and wove inside themselves and out. Their whole mass bobbed and trembled, rolled. As it came around in the light of the campfire, Buford’s nerve trembled.
The worms were attached to a severed head. The rest of the world fell away from Buford.
The face was obviously a woman’s. All her hair was slithering, living worms. Her eyes, wide open, all at once were as detached as the dead’s, as peaceful as a mother holding her newborn and as wrathful as the bullet which kills a man.
She was hairless and her flesh was peeling in layers like sunbaked paint. Buford got nearer and squatted down to a knee. The cut that separated her head from her body was clean but looked like the crusted, tarred end of a stump. How were the worms alive?
Her eyes like jewels plucked from the fires of hell. Luxurious and stunning, but the kind of fire that would burn a man for all eternity if he admired it too long. Buford took in her every facial curve, the trajectory of her nose, the slant of her eyebrows, how her ears were still gracefully shaped like shells.
“Besides the horror in you,” Buford stood, rolled his head on his shoulders. Just glad it was still attached. “You’d be gorgeous.”
“She was,” came from behind. Before Buford could turn, his thigh came alive with the fierce agonizing sizzle of a deep knife cut.
Buford was covered in all manner of snakes and scorpions. Desert lizards and even some mammal vermin were about. His hands trembled for his cold steel. Two guns alive and willing, mere inches from his hands. Screaming to be fired.
“Respect will win the day with them,” Obsidian said, walking in a slow circle around Buford. “Do you practice such a thing?”
Buford laid still and let his leg burn like someone had poured alcohol on a scratch and set it on fire.
“Hornsby?” Buford tried to focus on the one thing grounding him in this nightmare.
And though he knew he would hear that word, know its weight and truth, to actually have it dropped upon him—especially in the state he was in—it shattered.
“Ain’t right. Killing a father.”
“I have slain countless fathers.” As Obsidian moved, Buford watched. The man inhaled through his nose, out his mouth. Calm. But when Obsidian inhaled, he grew dim. Translucent.
“Don’t make it okay.”
Buford flipped a scorpion off the back of his hand. Obsidian’s eyes followed it. When it landed Buford could see the blip of concentration across the outlaw’s face as it re-oriented itself and scurried back to Buford. Buford let it crawl back up his arm. Now he knew.
“What evil is this?” Buford asked, watching the scorpion.
“Our curse.” Obsidian strolled over to the satchel. As he did Buford carefully picked four scorpions off his body and flung them as far back as he could.
He gripped one snake by the head and snapped its neck between his thumb and palm, just the way his pa had taught him long ago. Practiced on the range in his younger days when he helped him herd horses and cattle. Very gently, Buford laid down the limp snake as if it were just being still. Tucked it along the curve of his leg. In plain sight, and therefore out of sight.
Hopefully this cursed man couldn’t know when these things died or moved when he wasn’t looking. Soon find out.
Obsidian paused at the horse, turned just enough over his shoulder to show Buford his eyes. “Are you ill?”
In a situation of compete un-reality, that question struck Buford as even more bizarre still. “No.”
“Unique.” Obsidian turned back around. He opened the satchel and lovingly removed Lydia. The worms undulating wildly as the flap moved, calmed down the instant his hands touched them.
The display of affection reviled Buford. “Love her, do you?”
Obsidian could not hide it. “With everything I have.”
“How much you got left?”
“I want his family,” the head spoke. Buford scrambled up to one knee and his blanket of wildlife came alive in fury. Obsidian hollered in authority and the vermin held still, tails poised to sting and fangs bared, dripping poisons.
“That thing can talk?” Buford asked. “It … the head … lives?”
“I do so much more than speak, mortal.” Lydia smiled. Obsidian casually walked over to Buford. The dangling head was animated as any person’s would be; muscles flexing under the skin’s surface. Eyes darting back and forth. The crown of worms curling and folding, swaying in the breeze.
Lydia smiled and her tongue crawled out of her mouth. It ran up her face as if she were orgasm-ing, tasting her own flesh. The thick muscle passed through her worm-hair and caressed Obsidian’s arm. Buford could see small suckers along the surface of the thing as if it were a octopus’s tendril.
As the tip reached Obsidian’s elbow the tongue’s tip, fat and rounded, split into four sections like separating the wedges of an orange. The sections were long and much thinner, revealing wrinkles of pink flesh. She made a horrific and sexual display of licking the outlaw before swallowing the grotesque appendage. Where she fit all that mass inside her severed head Buford could not fathom.
“Wipe away your disgust, mortal.” Lydia said. “He tastes so delicious I cannot resist whetting my appetite.”
“Family?” Buford stammered. Black edged at his vision. It was all too much. “My family? You want my family?”
“Not your family,” Lydia said. “That bounty hunter’s.”
“Maddie?” Buford could not help but speak her name aloud. At the sound of it, Lydia began to laugh.
“What does that mean?”
For the first time, Obsidian smiled. “In time, friend. In time.”
“You’ve done enough to— leave her be. Leave her be.” Somewhere deep inside Buford he could hear the pleading tone of his voice. It disgusted him, but he felt naked before this hellish apparition.
Obsidian knew to play this just so. “She and her sons will succumb to us before dawn. Love her, do you?”
Buford could not hide it. “With everything I have.”
Mocking, taunting. “How much you got left?”
Buford wanted to say everything. He wanted to grit his teeth and jump up. Open fire. But his skin crawled with certain death and his head began to pound with aches. He needed to swim to the surface. He needed to shake off the yoke of this nightmare. He needed—
“Fight for her better than her own husband did.” Satisfied, Obsidian replaced Lydia’s head into the satchel and began to ride towards Red Clay River. Buford watched as he left, and with every gallop the scorpions and snakes seemed less under the outlaw’s spell. They began meandering away, and all Buford could think about was getting back to Red Clay River.
Getting back to Maddie.
But when he tried to stand, his façade cracked and he fell over. What no scum, no outlaw, no evil-doer could ever have done, Obsidian did with barely speaking a word. Buford coughed that shook loose a powerless tear and he coughed again and that shook loose a torrent of them and Buford had never felt so feeble, so impotent, his entire life.
“The scorpion is an embodiment of evil, but also a protective force which counters evil … dynamic, is it not?” Echoing from decades ago, the Chinaman said to a young Buford.
Buford allowed the man to lay a small brown and black scorpion on his forearm. Buford was nervous; not only that the thing would sting and kill him but that his parents would find him.
Through his veil of tears, Buford allowed for the memory.
“In my home, they make wine out of this creature. It heals.”
Buford remembered his arm trembling, shuddering like a youthful tree branch in a storm.
“Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Be calm. They flex their stingers, but know this: your boot heel is always bigger.”
The adult Buford looked up, saw the plume of Obsidian’s dust settling back down. He strained his eyes to watch the man along the horizon, but something drew his focus. A lonely scorpion clambered onto his forearm, aimless. A remnant from his living blanket. His jail cell made of fangs and poison. The thing was black and sharp. Fearsome.
“Stung? You might be,” The Chinaman said from decades ago, “But no matter how much pain you have, you can always make it feel regret. Just stay calm.”
The adult Buford felt shame. And from that shame, a rage. That rage boiled like a bad meal in his gut, pressing upwards. Needing to escape. Buford could feel his blood pump and strain his veins. His heart kicking. His teeth hurt from clenching them as hard as he was.
He roared in fury. The scorpion’s tail came alive. Buford thrust out, fist enveloping the thing. His grip turned his fingers white as he crushed it. Oozed out through his clench.
Buford stood. Determined now. Breathing through his nose, out through his mouth. He allowed that fury; wiped the guts off on his pant leg. But then he collected himself. His leg was cut deep. Got to his horse.
“Make him regret it?” Buford said, swinging a leg up onto the animal and spurring it into a gallop. “Fine by me.”
Obsidian reached town and his horse whinnied once, slowed.
Got down on a front leg. The Death swirled around in a feeding frenzy as the failing horse trembled and shut down. Obsidian got off just as the thing collapsed dead. He could stave off its demise no longer. As it had happened a thousand times a thousand to whatever animal he rode, Obsidian simply took it as it was and left it there.
He reached in through the throngs of mist unabashedly draining the last vestiges of life from the horse and took the satchel. Threw it over his shoulder, checked his ammunition, set off on foot.
Before him was the main street, running like an artery through the place. Small wooden shacks adorned it right and left. People asleep, people filling their bellies with whiskey and warm beer, people who didn’t know he had rode into their town.
Obsidian knew what his dreams told him. Striding forward, he held out his arms as swarms of scorpions and snakes and all manner of desert lizards flooded from the shadows. Burrows erupted and they poured forth like black magic oil.
He knelt, snapping his fingers. Brilliant flames caught on his fingertips. As every scorpion passed by him he set them alight. Their legs pumped and skittered forward, strange heralds carrying forth a torch of doom. They never burned up, they never died. The fires never extinguished.
Each snake received a blazing halo. Every lizard’s spine was outlined in near-white flame. And they ran forward, along the main street.
Under every building. In one continuous driving line, they found the very roots and foundation of the wooden town.
Amos came stumbling out of the bar and into the road.
He had been out of the jail just long enough to try to wash away his visions of all the fire which had consumed his home back when he was just a boy. He blinked hard, then squeezed shut his eyes, tight against what he saw.
A tidal wave of living reds, oranges and yellows was coming to to scoop him up like outstretching arms, to wash over him. All over again.
In the center of the flaming embrace, Amos saw Obsidian. Even through bleary eyes, Amos knew who it was. Hadn’t aged a day. Not an hour. The man who shot Amos’s mammy dead was striding towards him as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and was on an easy Sunday stroll to burn down another town.
“Ya varmint bastard!” Amos shouted, throwing up a shaky fist. “Ya came ta the wrong damn town now that I’m a grown man!”
In his drunken rage, Amos charged. The world spun, the fires creeping along. Amos thought he saw a smile on Obsidian’s face. Amos felt like a hero taking his war charge to the enemy, but Obsidian just watched a feeble drunken man stumble forward several steps. He was amused but undeterred.
Obsidian looked at the swarming heralds of death and had them move as one, as easy as a school of fish, flowing off to the side and avoiding Amos, who was already stumbling to a knee.
“Kill him,” Lydia demanded.
“He is as frail as a baby,” Obsidian said. “A slobbering drunk.”
“So why the pity?”
“Because I choose to allow him his life. And beyond that—”
“And nothing! Kill him and feed us!”
Obsidian swallowed his bile, muttered, “Engulf him.” He spit on the ground.
And this time, Amos, as an old man and as drunk as he was, with no dead mammy to form a protective cocoon over him as death rode by, his charge ended as abruptly as it began. The tidal wave hit Amos, knocked him over with its might.
It was warmer than his mammy had been, but not as comforting.
Every hoof-fall shot electric pain through Buford’s leg wound.
His face stoic, his concentration on one thing: Maddie’s sister’s house. It was at the opposite end of town from the Sheriff’s Office.
“Damn you,” Buford uttered. The horse banked around a large rock outcropping and he smelled it first. The breeze carried the woodsmoke on its back. A tease. A harbinger of what he had failed to prevent.
He crested a hill and there it was. A horizon of flame.
Obsidian strolled along with his purpose.
For every burning building, there were people inside. Ran out their doors. As their feet met the dirt, Obsidian’s bullets met them.
Feet hammering down front steps. A stranger’s guns barking lead. The townsfolk of Red Clay River blossomed with blood and empty holes, collapsing along the street as they fled their burning homes.
One by one, Obsidian drew a bead and found a victim. Spent casings dropped in steaming groups of six. New rounds spun in the cylinders and waited their turn.
Behind him fire-filled buildings caved in. bodies laid face down in the bloodied earth. Obsidian’s face never changing from a placid, detached look. The mist gnawing at his feet. Feed me more it demanded. But he was running out of targets.
The mist was surging towards one singular house, and Obsidian knew Buford’s unrequited love was inside.
“There! There! Get her!” Lydia shrieked with a furious excitement. “Yes! Yes!”
Obsidian knew there were children and another woman as well, but they were as meaningless to him as handwriting was to an ant. But Buford’s unrequited love, the sorrowful woman who still stank of the first deputy, she needed to die. To fulfill what he had deciphered in his memory’s journal. She needed to die as Buford approached.
“Stop dragging your ass along the ground, slow as a slug! Damn you! Get in there!”
Obsidian snarled, calmed himself with the thought of an end. Buford. He needed to be turned. Changed. Called into the fold. Driven to his totem so that Obsidian may rest.
He was two burning buildings away from Maddie when Sheriff Cross stepped out from behind. Winchester rifle in his hand, he thrust it forward and shot Obsidian in the back. Obsidian fell, turned. Saw the tin star, saw the face above it. Not Buford.
“Just kill him and get me the woman! I can taste it! So sweet!” Lydia screamed and in her feral excitement began biting at Obsidian.
Obsidian kept his eyes on the Sheriff. Ignored his lover. He smiled through his bloody teeth and stood. The mist forced the bullet out of his back and began running its tongues along the wound channel. Spinning new threads of flesh like a web, yanking each strand taut as a cable and closing the hole. His blood refused to seep out, disobedient to the laws of nature. In a bare moment Obsidian was healed.
The Sheriff stood there baffled. He saw the scar which ran down Obsidian’s face, recognized him from the wanted poster.
“You no good sonofabitch!” The Sheriff shouted, taking aim and stepping forward. “A plague like you needs a round between the eyes!” He fired again, but this time faded in and out of sight as the flames cast orange and black shadows around him.
“Show yourself, yellabelly!” Sheriff Cross reloaded what he had spent, began emptying shells into thin air. A single scorpion chittered at his foot, fire riding it like it was the most natural pairing in the world. Sheriff Cross saw the thing and jumped away even as his pant leg caught alight. He stomped out the flame, shot at the scorpion. It snapped open into a million segments of shell and sparks. But the next one just took its place. The Sheriff shot at the new scorpion, and then a rattler.
Sheriff Cross spun in circles and saw a ring of low-crawling blaze closing in. The outlaw’s swarm of flaming heralds had him surrounded. Choking.
“Sonsabitches! Sonsabitches! I’ll be damned!” Sheriff Cross began emptying his weapon.
“That makes two of us,” Obsidian said. He reappeared with the utterance. Outside the mounding ring, the outlaw watched as the sheriff fired off every bullet he had, then went to work swinging with the rifle’s butt end until it broke. All the while fire danced as high as his hat, higher until it was well over his hopes of getting out alive. He batted with the shattered pieces of the Winchester, fell to his knees and was painted red, orange and yellow.
Obsidian turned and walked towards the house as the slithering funeral pyre towered behind him.