Buford hit the town at a dead sprint.
The horse lathered and snorted in the greatest exertion of its life. Buford worried the thing would just give up, exhausted, and buck him off. Leave him to his own feet to carry him further.
The heat emanating from the town baked him he was so close. The shattering crack of support beams giving, a roof swallowing inside itself and another building lost. Buford had seen glimpses and snatches of the dead between structures as he raced past it all. Getting to Maddie.
He saw the end of the row of buildings. Round that corner and Maddie should be there. Her sister Adele would surely be packing them into her carriage or racing them away on foot.
Just round that corner.
The Black surrounded the house, choking off the air.
The Stygian tendrils amassed like storm clouds and heaved inward, changing the air pressure and making it thick, humid. Obsidian took each step up the porch like an earthquake. Boards cracked and splintered. He took hold of the door and The Black disintegrated it.
The tarnished metal of the clasp fell into the ankle-high pile of wood ash. Rusted into flakes. Obsidian stepped inside, met with a gun blast to the chest.
Maddie snarled all her own, lit by the firelight from the windows outside as she jacked in another cartridge. Behind her, Maddie’s sister Adele was shoving the boys out a shattered back window.
“There you are,” Obsidian said. Relief. Stepped forward.
“Where’s my damn husband?” Maddie bellowed over the roar of the second round. She put the sights square up to his facial scar.
Obsidian inhaled and felt the firelight pass through him. He stepped to the side and the cartridge snapped a hole in the door frame. The woman looked confounded. Obsidian came at her from the side, grabbed her by a handful of her hair and heaved her out the door to the sounds of Adele screaming.
Round that corner, Buford thought.
Round that corner. He did, and Buford saw her. Maddie violently hit the dirt of the main street, throwing up a circle of dust. Through it all the calm footfalls of Obsidian strode forward. Buford charged the horse forward. The dirty fingers of The Black shoot around each side of the horse, driving into its nostrils, its mouth. Gripping. Yanking. Digging. The animal thrashed and seized. Eyes blowing out, blood red. Its great muscles spasmed. Pitched forward on dead forelegs.
Buford launched with it, leaping off the seat in a searingly painful dive. He landed in a spin, shoulder rolling along the dirt as his hands found his iron. He skimmed across his back and came up in a sliding crouch. Took aim not ten feet from his enemy and blared his hand cannons to life.
Obsidian gleefully stood still as the fusillade tore towards him. The bullets peppered his chest and shoulders and neck with bloody fury. Buford saw Maddie lying face down in the road, a horde of skittering and slithering things flowing over her like a writhing blanket. Their flames puffing away in an unseen breeze; they wanted her but not burnt.
Fire everywhere; red and orange painting the night with hues of annihilation. He could smell the death carried like tar smoke on the wind. Every footfall he made was getting heavier. His lungs burned but not from exertion. Rather, from hopelessness. It was rowing in his gut. Spreading like cancer.
Obsidian saw Buford enter the street, and he knelt. On one knee he withdrew his short sword and carved into the dirt. Buford felt the air change immediately.
The Black snaked around, a fat trailing line of darkness. It rode along the ground, encircling them. Slow at first, timid. Confused even. As if following a beckoning call, it began to rotate. Faster and faster; a locomotive picking up steam. As it spun, forming a loop around them in the street, it grew tall. Immense. It formed walls higher than the buildings and scraped the lower limits of the sky itself.
The Black spun a vortex. It drowned out the summer noises, the crackling fires, the straining light from the town burning, the dead and dying, their screams echoing like death peals across endless bone yards.
The Black’s walls were like being inside the eye of a hurricane. They had relative peace though the winds spiraling around outside them were furious. The main street was whipped and buffeted by the surge; little dust devils spun up at The Black’s circular edge. Their hairs tussled in the wind.
Inside the eye was very little else besides the people. The horse’s corpse, some damaged lumber collapsed off a building, a merchant’s cart filled with crumbling salt licks, the greasy stink of death and spent powder.
Calm and yet tumultuous.
“Deputy, let us end this.”
Buford reloaded, his eyes never leaving his enemy.
Buford looked over to Maddie. Her form was cocooned in a shell of those scorpions and snakes. It stood up; like some hellacious stalagmite formed from the carapaces of a thousand creepy-crawlies. The whole form began to pull back at the peak, the creatures melting down like candle wax. It exposed Maddie’s face and shoulders. She was crying; a rattler exploring her cheeks and swimming through her hair.
“Yes, deputy. You can save her.” Obsidian’s smile trembled and became a sneer. “It is a simple thing.” He strode over to his leather satchel and opened it. Took the slug-headed woman out and held her like Perseus held Medusa’s head to kill the Kraken.
Buford’s fingers froze on his triggers. What is happening?
The Black was whispering and screaming and pleading and demanding in a million different voices, all pouring inside her ears through a thousand different tongues in a hundred languages.
Lydia felt disassociated; drugged. This was so … foreign to their experiences. How was Obsidian manipulating her benefactor like he was? Possessing The Black and—
In the dirt near his feet. Runes. His fist holding her hair was so tight. Fierce. She bobbed around as he walked; swinging from side to side like a water pail. She snarled, barked.
“What are you doing? What?”
No answer. Instead he walked over to the living woman, drew his sword. The very xiphos he used to cleave Lydia’s head clean off, and he raised the sword to his own face. Slowly, methodically, pressed the keen edge to his flesh and dug a trench through it.
“Impossible,” she muttered. The worms whipped back and forth in a frenzy. Her skin fluttered and tingled with absolute fear. “No …”
Buford watched in horror as Obsidian gouged himself, parallel to his scar.
Cut from his forehead down his chin and neck, Obsidian grinned and slowly, deliberately, turned his head, leaning this way and that. The cut opened wider. Gushed forth red. He shook his head violently, spraying everywhere.
The head was livid; shrieking. Blood everywhere. Obsidian knelt, bled onto the dirt as he wrote more into the ground. Whatever it was he drew, it was like a map. Blood flowed into canals formed by his fingertip, began to spread in thick lines as if they had a life of their own.
“I defied my gods over a woman. I longed for her. But my gods desired her as well, and one courted her. It was a mockery. I decided that if I should not have her, no one will.”
Buford’s eyes strolled along the cut line adorning Lydia’s neck, and he began reloading. Fast.
“My punishment was irony. A never-ending life with her. All whom I encounter become ill with impending death, and thusly I could never replace her. My Lydia.”
Obsidian stood, soaked, and regarded the once-beautiful woman. “Such a cruel whore, you are.”
He turned to Buford, who was advancing quickly. “And now, I offer you that same life with the woman you desire but could never have.”
Obsidian darted to his left, adjusting the angle of Buford’s approach. The deputy was fixated on getting his lead inside Obsidian’s bleeding face when the outlaw stopped, laughed.
“Become the new vessel.”
Buford looked down, saw he had been herded into a circle that Obsidian had drawn. Lines filled with his devil-blood. Those channels of split blood suddenly moved, slithered. They reared back like serpents, and struck Buford.
He fell back, opening fire. The lead harmlessly passed through the blood as the tendrils soaked into Buford’s clothes. A rising saturation swarmed up his legs and into his shirt, his skin. Buford thrashed as the blood rushed up his neck, down his throat and into his nostrils. Under his eyelids and deep into his skull. Found his heart. His veins.
He screamed, rolled around on the ground. The Black increased its speed a thousand fold and Obsidian watched with such relief it seemed impossible any one man could feel so satisfied.
Buford struck the merchant’s cart, spilling it over. He tasted the granules of shattered salt licks, felt the living blood recoil just a little from it. Salt. Something inside his head told him how important salt was against warding off evil and he rolled through the spill. The grains clung to him like wet snow.
Inside his body, Buford heard a million screams. The blood spit itself out through his pores; little trickles like flowing silk scrabbled away and pooled into the dirt again. Buford felt un-possessed. More clean than moments before. He stood, and saw Obsidian clapping. Lydia’s head was at his feet, face down. Tired of her yelling.
“It changes nothing,” Obsidian said. He threw his sword at Buford’s feet and backed up. “The conditions are met. You are the new vessel for my curse.”
Obsidian scooped up a fistful of dirt and began to let it slip from his fingers like an hour glass. “The countdown. Kill the woman to bind yourself to her for eternity. Or do nothing and be bound to Lydia. I don’t care.”
Too fast. It was all happening too fast. The dirt was nearly gone. Maddie was screaming and struggling even against her beastly confines. The deafening roar of The Black’s tornado. So much evil.
Grabbed the sword, hurled it. Grabbed Lydia’s head, hurled it. And as the last few grains of dirt skidded along Obsidian’s palm and out into the hard world, the sword met him head on.
Lydia screamed and damned her pining lover as she careened through the air. She saw Buford, the dirt falling out, the blood and the vortex. Lightning streaking across the sky and how everything had been ruined. Her eyes wide and shouting, she hit face-first into the spilt salt, burying her face in it.
Buford watched Obsidian fall. Lydia slap into the salt. Maddie cocooned in the low-crawling things. And again, the air changed.
The Black cavorted like angry children in a thick circle around him. They shrieked in his ears and barked in a thousand different animal voices. They lunged at him, tearing snatches of his clothes. They whipped and spiraled into a tornado, picking up scraps of dust, fire and rocks as they went.
The flaming scorpions, lizards and snakes formed a ring of fire, climbing higher than sanity allowed one to comprehend. The spiraling flame was outside of The Black, twisting in the opposite direction. Disorientating. Throwing light through the vast darkness of The Black, dancing shadows up and down Buford’s body. Their fires growing ever higher until the sky was blocked out with their haze. Buford was sweating so bad his mouth turned sand and grit.
Buford’s hair buffeted in the tumult. His clothes snapped and flew in the vortex. Lightning bolts exploded past, up and down, scorching black marks in the earth. Echoing huge cracking noises. The apocalypse unleashed.
A bolt wide as an ox hit Buford. An uppercut from God. Lifted him off his feet, grasped every nerve and every muscle and yanked them with violence unknown before now towards a single point in Buford’s twisting gut. He yelled out; his breath stolen by the energy.
Buford fell hard to the ground. On his knees. Un-scorched. Alive. His brain could only understand he had just been smacked by the cosmos when a second bolt pummeled him. And a third. And a forth, driving through his guts and soul without making a mark.
The Black reached a fever pitch, drawing out every morsel of tension in the world. Suddenly it exploded out like shattering glass. The rotating wall of fire blew into tatters with The Black as the scorpions, lizards and snakes puffed away as a great wall of ash. A sandstorm of burnt everything; roof shingles and shattered bits of windows and dead bodies still on fire and thick ribbons of dirt and entire trees and building timbers splintered and wrecked at both ends and intact yokes and vanities and dressers and wash basins and children’s toys and all the demolished remains of the destroyed lives in Red Clay River. It was a tide reaching high as a mountain.
And then it was gone. Let go of by the cyclone and flung to the world outside. Everything collapsed in a great heave that shook the earth and sent concussive thunderclaps up into the sky.
Buford fell down onto his face. The world slipped away in the agony of his life and he did not fight it.
Buford awoke inhaling dirt.
He coughed, sending up a veil of dust and grit. He tried to push himself up. No good. Just laid back down instead. Wait for it to pass, whatever this was. All was quiet. Eerie. His body ached with a dull burn and his bones were stiff.
“Buford … wh— what happened?” It was Maddie’s voice.
Buford turned his head in the direction. Eye out of focus, but there she was. She clambered forward, lifted him up into her lap. The first thing Buford saw was a scorpion’s tail dangling from her matted hair. Missing its body. He gently plucked it out.
Adele came rushing over. Maddie’s boys came near, hesitant. Buford tried to speak but his throat was raw.
“Don’t,” Maddie said. “We’ll get it worked out.”
“Maddie …” Adele said, motioned to the merchant’s cart. They looked over to it and saw Lydia’s face staring at them. Buford tore through the pain and drew his revolver. He fired one round and it punched through Lydia’s forehead.
Her face rocked in the salt spill, looking odd. It was devoid of even her reviled life from before. What was left of Lydia was ashen, crumbly.
“She ain’t dead?” One of the boys asked.
“Dead before I shot her.” Buford said. “That fireworks show … I didn’t bind to her.”
“So she’s … gone?” Maddie asked.
Buford looked again at Lydia, and watched as the hole’s lining flaked off into dust. The flaking spread like ink on water and her forehead drifted off into oblivion, her eyes, cheeks, hairline, the fat worms, down to her jaw. Trickling down into ash. Mixed with the salt. Blew away in the breeze.
“Are we bound then?” Maddie asked, hands instinctively going to her hair.
Buford smiled. “No worms there, Maddie.” Buford sat up, working out the pains. “Something’s different though.”
He rose to his feet, saw Obsidian’s dead body laying off to the side. The mound of dead low-crawling things which had entrapped Maddie before the ritual was disrupted now lay as a heap in the road.
“What happened?” Maddie asked.
“No idea.” Buford said. He walked nearer to Obsidian’s corpse, saw the sword covered in blood, jabbed into the ground. Buford walked around the body, careful to avoid the runes and gore.
Buford looked at Obsidian’s face, grimaced. He turned away, looked back at Maddie and Adele. The boys, both spitting images of Hornsby. He looked down at himself, and whatever fleeting hope he had of putting this behind him died.
“What’s wrong?” Maddie called.
“I know what happened,” Buford said, turned around. The sword made a perfect cut from Obsidian’s neck, and nearby the outlaw’s worm-haired head laid licking its lips and keeping Buford’s gaze.
“What have you done?” Obsidian asked.
Buford walked away, swallowing hard as the gravity of his new life weighed down. “I did right, even though it cost me.”
Buford packed his horse with the short sword, his guns and as many bullets as he could find.
The ancient leather satchel dangled off to the side, a carpet of worms writhing underneath the flap. Buford shrugged on his duster and lit a cigar.
“What are you gonna do now?” Maddie asked, handing Buford some food for the road.
“Find some answers.”
“What does that head say?”
“Two things. He’s glad to be rid of the woman,” Buford mounted the horse, turned it towards the road leading out of town. “And the rules have changed now.”
“What does that mean?”
“He thinks we’re in danger.” Buford exhaled a long line of smoke. “I’ll find out when I find out.”
“Will you come back?” Maddie asked.
Buford regarded The Black, which even then while it was timid and cowering, it was engorging itself, growing in size. It did not bode well. “Probably not.”
Maddie shook her head in acknowledgement. A single tear cut through the dust settled on her cheeks and she looked away. She grabbed him and leaned him down to her. She kissed his lips quickly and let go. “Thank you for saving me.”
Buford turned away and began to ride. Buford looked behind him once, and saw The Black followed at a safe distance. Its undulating formlessness contorting, making hands to reach out and grab him. He could smell its fear, however. However many eternities this curse had gone on, however many men it had pulled down with it, Buford knew he was the first to defy it. It was confused, and furious.
He had spit in its face. Whatever this curse was, whatever ancient god had commanded it, Obsidian had played along. Buford had not. There must be a price.
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.