Obsidian

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.

Buford moved.

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.


Obsidian

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.

Nothing there.

***

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.

“Dead.”

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?”

“Everything.”

“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.


Obsidian

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.”

“Feed us.”

“In due time.”

Now.

“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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

“Done?”

“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.


Obsidian

Deputy Buford threw a haymaker across the drunk’s jaw. The man spun on his heels like he was one of those French dancers—and a trail of spit, whiskey and blood slung out from between his teeth. He dropped cold on the sawdust, the whole bar shook but the pianist never missed a beat.

Two travelers at the bar stared at Buford, tipped their beers. “That the law in this town, deputy?”

Buford let the sting of the punch evaporate from his knuckles, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. Calming technique he learned from a Chinaman who would lay a desert scorpion on Buford’s naked arm to learn the tranquility. He took in both travelers. Scuzzy and dirty from the road, half-liquored up. And at this hour in the morning.

“Yes it is.” Buford said. He bent over and grabbed the drunk, lifted him by his collar. Drug him out, the man’s boot heels carving tracks through the sawdust.

Daniel the barkeep leaned over to the two strangers, said, “Deputy Buford was born and raised in this here his town. Worn a badge eight years. As you can plainly see, he only asks once.”

“Man lets his fist do the talkin’, I reckon.” Said one traveler. His tremendous mustache moved more than his lips did as he spoke.

“That he does.” Daniel said. Turned and looked at Missy, one of the whores. She just stood off to the side, gathering up the strips of her dress that the fighting drunk had torn off when he decided it was time to treat her like an animal. “And he keeps the working girls safe in ways I never could. Hell, he defends any woman like she was his mother.”

The other traveler barked a dry laugh. Wet his throat with the rest of his beer. “Probably got a family full ‘o whores. Only reason a man would slug another man over a woman who’d take anyone to bed for a fistful of dollars.”

“May be,” Daniel said in a tone reserved for warnings. “But either way, I want your business as long as I can get it and Buford’ll kick your wanderin’ ass across this saloon next if he hears that talk. So, my advice is to avoid insultin’ Buford’s mama—God rest her soul—or anyone else, ‘cuz I’m tired of scrubbin’ blood off this here counter.”

Neither stranger said anything. The bottoms of their glasses did all the talking from then on.

***

“You seen Hornsby ‘round?” Sheriff Cross asked as Buford slammed the jail door on the fighting drunk.

“No.”

“You know where he went last?”

“Hunting a bounty.”

“Just what I need … one of my deputies goin’ off on his own. Again. How many times this make it, him huntin’ outlaws?”

“Number four.”

“Four damn trips without notifyin’ me. Him and me are goin’ have a talk when he comes back.”

Buford raised an eyebrow. “You got me.”

Sheriff Cross smiled. “Yes, that’s true. But I hired Hornsby first, not that it matters I guess.” The Sheriff used his knife to tap a wanted poster. “This fella? He the bounty?”

Buford gave a single glance. Nodded.

“Ugly bastard,” Sheriff Cross said. “They’s all ugly bastards, though.” He studied it closer. “What you think he did to earn this knife scar down his face and neck like this?”

“Crime, I reckon.”

“Smart ass.” The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, mulled it over. “A man should die from that kind of cut. And such an odd name as well.”

“Hey! What’s his name?” Came from the other cell. Sheriff Cross turned and saw Amos, an old timer who spent his days in the bar and his nights wherever he thought he could sleep it off. The Sheriff himself found Amos in a stable the night before, so drunk he pissed himself and so furious about it he was yelling at the horses. Better to sleep it off in a cell than to get trampled under hoof.

“Why you care?”

“Because, Sheriff … what else I got now?” Amos laughed just a little. Shrugged.

Sheriff Cross showed him the poster. “Name is Obsidian.”

Amos went white as ivory. “That’s a load of malarkey. And don’t think yer funny teasin’ me neither.” His lip twitched; a quiver. His eyes crawled along the opposite wall, searching for anything besides what the name Obsidian meant to him.

Buford walked forward. Looked to the poster, then at Amos with eyes that started to burn like he needed to punch another man. “You know him?”

“Now Deputy, I saw a man once that was named some such thing, and he had a scar as I’ve said, but he ain’t comin’ ‘round here. The man I knew was in Virginia. He shot a lot of men the day I knew him. Burnt down the town.”

“But not you? He didn’t shoot you?”

“No. He shot other—I hid.”

“Explain that.” Buford said. Amos caught himself swallowing hard, jiggling his Adam’s apple like a yo-yo. He shuffled his feet and suddenly they became very interesting to old drunk Amos. That deputy was harder to read than an old back trail and harder to break than a mesa, but when he told someone to explain that, then that someone knew they weren’t stepping right with Deputy Buford.

And an ass-kicking was aimed their way if they didn’t get back on them tracks.

“That can’t be the same Obsidian I’m talkin’ ‘bout, Deputy, cuz the one I met was back in 1820. When I was ‘bout knee-high to a June bug.”

Buford leaned over to a copy of the poster hung on a wall and tore it off like he was field dressing a deer. One quick downward yank. He went to Amos, shoved the poster forward a scant inch off of the old man’s face. “Look.”

A thin trickle of sweat beaded down Amos’s cheek. His eyes darted away. Like seeing a ghost.

“Same man?” Buford said. Amos said nothing. “Bullshit.”

Amos’ jaw trembled. “Can’t be. Can’t be.”

“Isn’t.” Buford went to his chair. Lit up a cigar and checked his guns.

The Sheriff leaned up. “Now Amos, we wasn’t teasin’ ya about this here outlaw. I had no idea you know him … but you say he was from your childhood? You can understand why we’re askin’ for an explanation.”

Buford looked up. “Hornsby is out hunting him.”

Amos leaned his head against the bars; fear drew lines through his forehead and under his eyes. His head filled with bewilderment, screams, sizzling blood and fire.

“I was young. Somewhere between grass and hay, I reckon. That Obsidian fella, he strolled into town for God knows what and the locals didn’t care for ‘em. They said so. I reckon he was just passin’ through, but people— they testified that man made them ill just bein’ there. Like he put off somethin’ … somethin’ vile. I dunno. Mammy kept me away from the worst of it.

“The biggest, meanest drunkest man we had came and messed with that Obsidian the very night he strolled into town. Name was James Smith. He was built like a prized ox, stubborn as one too. Wanted to fight the stranger. And the stranger obliged. But Obsidian’s punch, it killed James. I swear on my mammy’s grave. That I did see. James’s head … as funny as it sounds, it spun ‘round on his neck. Almost a full turn. Obsidian, he just kept on strollin’ through.

“Some of James’s partners, well, they staged a shootout. Was gonna surprise Obsidian with lead. Only, ain’t no surprisin’. Cuz Obsidian, even though they was all hidden, he knew where they was. And he killed ‘em.”

Sheriff Cross raised an eyebrow. “The outlaw knew where a surprise posse was hidden? How could it be? He pay off an tattle tell or somethin’?”

“Nah,” Amos looked like he needed a fresh drink. “Said he saw it in a dream.”

“He killed children?” Buford asked. A thick curtain of smoke gushed up from the cigar, mixing with the unnerving glow of gray from his eyes. Sharp black flecks floated in that gray, cutting whoever looked too deeply. “Answer me. He killed children?”

“Yeah. Bunches.”

Sheriff Cross raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t see your hiding place?”

“Don’t know.” Amos rubbed his eyes, scrubbing away the recollection. “Just … don’t know.”

“Where’d you hide?”

Amos rolled his head along the cell bars, as if to massage out some poisoned memory. “Under my mammy’s dead body.”

The Sheriff coughed. “Well—”

“I still smell her perfume, feel her leechin’ heat sometimes. I go on the big drunks to rid myself of that. Hell, I go to the bar—”

The doors slammed opened, and three shadows spilled across the room. Everyone looked up to where Mrs. Maggie Hornsby stood with her two little boys. “Sheriff,” she said, trying to keep her eyes from tearing up. “Have you seen my husband?”

Amos, Red Clay River’s old codger, town drunk and nervous hoot, he looked away. He remembered when his own mammy asked that question. Amos remembered how it turned out.

***

Stones crunched underfoot as Obsidian climbed up a jagged outcropping.

When Obsidian reached the summit he had a view of the cactus patches and scrub, smattered about like lichen on the sea floor. His horse was content to wait at the bottom, chewing on a handful of oats. The wind played with his duster’s tails, flipped his bangs like a snapping banner. His eyes scanned the flat pan of the desert expanse, seeing lifelessness an feeling at home.

The newborn sun was still fat and pink on the horizon, yellow spilling into its belly just a little more each moment on serpentine fingers. Gold stained its edges, shot orange runners out into the further sky. Feeling its way out. Almost as if the sun were nervous to illuminate a landscape where Obsidian had been for fear of what it would be revealing to the world.

“The blood tasted better at sunrise on the beaches of the Ottoman Empire,” Lydia said. She always sounded so near her tongue could lick his earlobe. Obsidian raised an eyebrow but did not turn. They rarely spoke anymore.

He cleared his throat, churning like ash and rock. “I found it best on Hadrian’s Wall, peering north into Caledonia.”

“I was never satisfied there.”

“Nor anywhere.” Obsidian said, a sneer.

A scorpion skittered out from underneath a rock and ran across his boot. Soon came a second, and a third. He watched them mindless flit around, and turned his eyes skyward to look for a circling vulture.

In Missouri he had seen veritable seas of field mice rushing in like tides, as well as the solitary brown spiders that men had been afraid to touch. The spiders dwelt in the old folds of clothing and forgotten woodpiles, killing men with a single bite when disturbed. In the southeast it had been all manner of insects. The further into slave territory he was, the more of those things had wings and stingers. But the bugs down there …

In England it had been beady-eyed rats. Too many for an army of men with clubs to pound into extinction. And forever across the expanse of Europe it was some other rodent or bird of prey or crawling thing.

Behind him coyotes howled. Maybe a mile away.

“They’ve found him,” she said. “That bounty hunter.”

“He was a deputy. And he’s long dead.” Obsidian said. “I spared him the indignity of being eaten alive.”

“Soft,” she said and clucked. Her voice was like serpents. “I want his family.”

“You always want more.”

We always want more.”

At the mention of we a single tendril of black smoke curled around the base of the boulder. Thick enough to be a horse. Lydia smiled; coquettishly ingesting its movements with her eyes. She had grown t love it like a loyal pet. And it came when she called.

The Black felt along the earth and stone, undulating as it was, bulging here, recessing there, alive and yet a mist. Malevolence pulsed through it like lightning through storm clouds. It stalked in fog patterns; scheming. It depressed and form a mouth, a thousand mouths, all wanting to be fed.

Obsidian cocked his head just enough to follow the The Black’s tentacle around the outcropping. From every crevice and cranny, anywhere a shadow laid, The Black poured forth. It merged into a great pulsing cloud, low-lying and expansive. As the hills and valleys of its mass churned like roiling fire smoke new folds appeared. It was endless, and yet it could compact its mass into nothing.

“You always want more,” Obsidian said and jumped down to the desert floor. His boots struck and the dry earth shot out a multitude of cracks.

We always want more,” she said. She giggled, and it was like an echo through Obsidian’s mind. Dried seeds falling along the length of a rain stick, deafening and insane.

He walked around to his horse. Tied off to it was Hornsby’s horse, pus leaking from its weakening eyes. Flies darting about. Its small muscles tremored; ill with Obsidian’s pestilence. Adjusting his pack, he looked at the path he had ridden. Cacti withered and twisted into shriveled mockeries. A dead courser bird was already putrefying, lying near a small stone it had been perched upon as Obsidian rode by. A healthy mesquite tree browned and shed its leaves, forming a dead halo skirting its base. Only its thorns were left.

Widening out into a V, a wake of death. Cutting him off from any new life, leaving him only with Lydia. Why it spared his pack animals he never asked, but the effect—the steady drain of life—always slowed down on his horses. Obsidian considered it the one grace he received along with all his punishments. He should suffer eternally, but at least he wouldn’t have to walk everywhere.

He mounted and from inside his satchel, her voice came again.

“The deputy’s town is due north. We want more. We want his family.”

He scratched at his stubble, lit some tobacco. “Stop with your annoyances.”

“We want—”

But Obsidian spurred his horse into a gallop and her voice was drowned out by the rush of air.

Soon they met a river. Obsidian looked up and down the length of it that he could see, and figured they were at one of its widest points. They were at a deep bend, and the water rushed around it. Foaming, churning over a cluster of rocks collected in the crook of it. Obsidian dismounted and took the animals by their reins. Walked to the edge, which was little more than a slop of clay and dead wash-brush.

He stepped inside, sinking to his ankle. His own horse trotted behind him, lazily chewing on another handful of oats as he led it through the tumolt. Hornsby’s horse advanced with more trepidation. Because Obsidian stepped directly into the whitecaps of the river.

Hornsby’s mount snorted and tried to buck at the shock of it all. Instinct reared its head. But even as the water rushed at them, it separated down a seam. He slogged through the silt, drawing the animals behind him. The river carved up into two walls, and not a single bead of overspray came inside the cone it formed around him. Refused to touch them. Refused to touch Obsidian.

They emerged onto the dry bank and Obsidian allowed the horses a moment to calm down and then they left.

***

Hornsby’s wife paced back and forth in the office like an animal does when it knows a thunderhead is coming. She was elegant, even under her worry. Her boys sat obediently, both stuffed into the Sheriff’s own chair and were scared for their mother.

Sheriff Cross had left. Business with the mayor. He had full faith Buford could handle this. There’d be no way Hornsby would be foolish enough to get into so much trouble that he’d be in real danger. Probably just went too far without water for his horse or got lost chasing ghosts. Buford would sniff ‘em out, give him a good lashing and tow him home.

Buford watched Maddie pace in silence. He sent smoke rings to the ceiling, saw her run an unsteady hand through the thick hair on both her boys’ heads. Saw her eyeball the wanted poster and give a shudder.

“When’d he leave?” Buford asked, tapping ash from his cigar into an empty boot he’d taken off a dead man. He traded it for three bullets to the man’s chest. The dead man seemed fine with the arrangement.

“Day before yesterday, after supper,” Maddie Hornsby stopped her pacing, shook her head as if to shrug off the foreboding feeling her husband had met his end. She reached out and snatched the cigar from Buford’s hand. Began smoking.

“Want your own?”

“This’ll do just fine, thank you much.”

“After him?” Buford motioned to the poster.

“Yes. He wanted that bounty. Thought it would—thought it would help us.”

“Travelin’ west money.” Buford set his eyes upon her even as she refused to look at him. “He told me so.”

A confession as bold as any he’d ever gotten. “Yes, yes it was. Traveling money. No one wants to live and die in this town.”

“I understand.” Buford didn’t wince at the comment.

“I’m sorry, Buford. I know your own kin settled this here town. Died here.” Maddie ashed into the boot, sniffed away a tear. “I’m sorry if my tone ain’t congenial. I really am.”

“Tone’s fine.”

“No. I … insulted you. I know you love this town. I just want to hear the ocean, feel the sea breeze. Maybe—”

“Tone’s fine.” Buford checked his guns. Maddie smoked in silence. Finally Buford asked, “What’d he say about the outlaw?”

Maddie thought for a moment. “He said … well, the man was wanted for murder. I forget where. Back east, I think. Expressman rode through, brought these posters. You know, put ‘em up everywhere, this side of the Mississippi is what my husband said. Heard something about the outlaw havin’ warrants all about, in the territories and in the states. Big fish. Maybe one of the biggest.”

“Why’d he go alone?”

Maddie just shrugged. Buford knew. Hornsby was a good man; a good provider. But if he asked Buford or the Sheriff to go with him, or even if he formed a posse, well, Hornsby would be sharing his traveling money. The cash that bought his wife her ticket to the ocean. It might’ve been too lean a catch if he had to share.

“How’d he know where’d look?”

“Rumors, I guess.” Maddie said. “I know he talked to some strangers passin’ by. They stopped him, said they were lookin’ for a lawman. The way my husband said it, these strangers passed Obsidian on the road and recognized him from a poster. Came into town and told my husband. I—I didn’t ask much. I didn’t want to know.”

“No shame in it.” Buford said. He felt Maddie’s sorrow drift over to him. He hated how it tasted.

She looked at him with plain eyes, welling with tears. “I love him dearly, but you know … he ain’t … you when it comes to dealin’ with bad men.”

“Your husband’s a good man.” Buford looked away. He stared down plenty of fools who challenged him with bullets, stared down death itself and never flinched. But this frail woman, a woman he still held a candle for, talking about her husband, he couldn’t face her just then. They both knew it. Something invisible sat in the room with them, a quiescence, a palatable knowing that somehow the man in the wanted poster had plucked the deputy from this earth. Hornsby was dead.

Buford rubbed his face. Breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. Watching Maddie suffer unwound the coils of his soul. “Maybe if I had made one decision different, I woulda been an outlaw. Just one. Maybe. I might not be such a good man but I hold the law. Your husband, it woulda taken a lot more than one different decision for him to be a bad man. He ain’t got evil in him.”

Maddie, removed from her sorrow, said, “It’s rare to hear you say so much.”

“That’s because I don’t say much.”

“I need him back, Buford. I do.”

“I know.”

“Please.”

“I’ll saddle up.” Buford stood, looked at Maddie. Snatches of memory careened back to him, from far away when they were kids.

Buford scratched away those memories like dried mud on his boots. Maybe if he hadn’t had all the grit that he did, maybe if he could smile and charm the way Hornsby did, Maddie would’ve been his. But as it was, while he stared at the woman he never fought for back when they were kids, he knew damn good and well she was fretting over the man she did love. The man who gave her children. Married her, gave a solid roof and food on the table. Listened to her hopes and dreams, fought to make them real.

Buford never married, except to his badge. Only thing I could love, Buford would say. Hell, only thing’d love me back.

In the Sheriff’s office, in the here and now, heat from the day rising up and dust from the road with it, Buford cleared his throat.

“Strangers found him, eh?” he asked, making sure his throat was clear. “Same strangers in the bar?” Buford rolled his head, popped his neck. Flexed his hands. Made sure his belt hung just right. Picked up his hat, turned to the door.

Maddie exhaled long and hollow, smoke drifting like tendrils up into the ceiling. “Don’t know. Maybe. One was short with a dark leather overcoat; the other was your height with a fairly grand mustache.”

“I know ‘em. Where will you be?” Buford asked, back to Maddie but looking over his shoulder just enough to take her in one last time.

“My sister’s. Over yonder.” Maddie jerked her chin northward, at the far end of the main street. The Sheriff’s office was at the very south end. “Just before the eastern road to the rail road platform.”

“I know the one.” Buford opened the door to the outside world. “I’ll find you there.”

“Please Buford, bring him back.”

“I will.”

Buford left, and Maddie took her boys into her arms and cried.


The Last Shot

Frank Dunne sat on his gray mare, watching out over the hillside as Dirks Andersen and his boys wrangled nearly a 100 head of cattle down from the ridge. He had to get them corralled by suppertime; else he feared he might lose more to the wolves that ventured out at night.

He saw a rider tearing up over the ridge about a quarter mile from the west. Frank knew the horse, a chestnut with a large splash of white on its rear, well before the rider. Dirks also saw, waved to get cattleman’s attention and hollered, “Winston.”

Frank waved to Dirks to come along and turned his horse up the hill towards his brother.

The closer they got, they could see the chestnut foaming, and Winston hunkered close to the horse’s main and kicked at its sides.

“What do you suppose it is, boss?” Dirks asked.

Trouble, was the only answer that came to mind.

“I can’t imagine? He’s been over to Cheyenne, with that jackboot Tom Hanny. He probably rustled up some trouble with ol’ Junior. Not that that is much of a change?” He tried to assure himself.

“Junior Bill wouldn’t chase him all the way home, would he?”

Frank laughed. “Not if he knows what’s good for him.”

The three men converged. Then Frank realized that Tom wasn’t with Winston.

Frank grabbed the younger Dunn’s reins . “Why you running your horse to ground like that? Where’s Tom?”

“Junior shot him. Tom’s dead. Shot dead for nothing.”

Frank pulled him close. “What do you mean? Junior shot him?”

“Tom and I came out of the Sapphire and there he stood Frank,” Winston stammered. “As clear as I am to you, he was standing in front of me. Tom couldn’t believe it, but you know me Frank? I never forget a face…”

Frank felt the burn on his hand before he realized he had slapped Winston. “Who? Who did you see?”

“Brookes Randall. He ain’t dead,” pleaded Winston.

He pushed his simpering brother away, causing Winston to fall off the horse.

Frank slid of his mare and pulled his brother up, cinching the collar tight in his hand.

“Brooks is dead. You told me this. You told me you saw him shot, didn’t you?”

Winston didn’t answer, and Frank released his grip seeing his brother’s face redden.

Slipping to his knees, Winston coughed, tears burned along his eyelids. “I did. Shot by a train detective, like I told you. He was dead, but I saw Brookes Randall there in Cheyenne. And he called me out on the street. That’s when the shooting started. I just ducked and ran.”

Winston was no stranger to a lie, but he trembled before Frank. It was fear.

“And Junior shot Tom?” Frank pulled his brother up again.

“I don’t know? I mean I do, but I don’t. Junior and I were just fine—thick as thieves the night before. But you know, maybe…I just…seen Junior shoot Tom. That’s when I knew things weren’t going my side and I cut out.”

Frank helped Winston up onto his horse.

“Get yourself back to the house. We’ll be down shortly.” He smacked the horses flank and his rode on down the valley.

“Who’s Brookes Randall?” Dirks asked.

“My friend, once upon a time after the war, we rode together.” There was melancholy in his voice.

Dirks nodded. He’d worked for Frank Dunne for a better part of ten years since the cattleman pounded in his first fencepost. He’d been a hard boss, but he never came down on a man he deserved it, except for Winston. Those two were as good together as oil and water. He couldn’t ever imagine the man having a friend.

“And he supposed to be dead?”

 

“Yep. He and several others shot down,” Frank said staring down the short distance to his house, watching as Winston disappears into the barn with the painted chestnut. “That’s what I was told. Killed for my greed, if I have to be honest.”

He’d never really spoke to Dirks about his past, the robbing and the killing. Frank figured most knew, and those curious enough knew well not to ask. The past was an means to an end, and to him it was meant to be as dead as the men left behind.

Frank let out huff, “Go finish up. I need those steers off this ridge and with the rest of the herd before nightfall.”

He watched Dirks head off toward his men without question. There weren’t many he could trust, not even his own brother, but he knew that Dirks Andersen could be trusted with his life. This life he’d spent a decade to build.

Why didn’t you just stay dead? he thought.

***

“Back so soon, sheriff?” Markum asked.

Sheriff Junior Bill stood in the doorway of the jailhouse. It had been several years since the two men had seen each other, and from what Hank could see Junior had become comfortable.

“Hank!” the sheriff acting surprised to see his old protégé sitting behind his desk. “I half expected you’d chase after us, push us across that border.”

“Well the doc suggested I wait. Make sure the cobwebs were all cleared out, before I tried to inflict more harm upon myself. I figured I’d listen.”

“Doc does pretty good for a retired tooth puller, and between that bump on your head and that knick in your shoulder, it’s not bad advice. To take a little time, clear your head before you go and do something stupid.”

Markum stood, allowing the sheriff to take his own seat. Junior Bill settled behind his desk, adjusting his weight around his shifting belt.

“Seeing how things turned out today,” Markum said sat on the corner of the sheriff’s desk, “maybe, I was stupid for not going after the Winston fifteen years ago. That boy would be alive…”

“And dead tomorrow,” Junior added. “Pendleton had long decided the fate of Caleb Monroe. The boy was already dead before you even knew his name.”

“Doesn’t make it right, Junior. Besides, it was me the bullet was for.” Markum growled.

“Count your luck that Winston ain’t a better shot since the last time you seen him.” Junior insisted, “You need to let me deal with this, Hank. No good will come of you chasing after Winston.”

The marshal pushed away from the desk. “I suppose I should let him take another shot? Third time’s the charm. I don’t have that much luck left on my ledger.”

“Let me talk to Frank…”

“I suppose you’ll have your hand out when you do?”

“It’s not like that,” Junior said unable to look at Markum.

“Well, whatever it’s like, I guess it’s something I’m going to have to find out for myself. I should have known you hadn’t changed when I saw Winston Dunne on your streets.”

Junior Bill blustered as Markum turned toward the door, “You can’t do this on your own.”

Turning at the door, Hank stared down the older lawman, “I ain’t got no one else.”

***

The belt strap cracked against Winston’s arm as he attempt to block his brother’s relentless anger.

“Tell me again, Win!” Frank said allowing the belt to dangle at his side, “Why did Junior shoot Tom? Why would that fat sheriff raise a hand, let alone a gun, to you? It doesn’t add up.”

“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “Maybe they was in cahoots? Maybe Randall paid him off? You know that money was lost. Maybe it wasn’t? Maybe…”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe is all you can say? You’re always giving all the possibilities possibilities and never the truth.” Frank’s face reddened, temples throbbed. The years of watching after his brother eroded his temperament towards Winston, layering disappointment on disappointment. He contemplated taking another shot with the belt, but dropped the belt instead. Winston was curled like a hound, expectant; Frank wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.

A rap came to the door.

“Frank,” Dirks Andersen hollered from the other side, “A man is coming down the ridge.”

Frank unlatched the door, pulling it open. Dirks stood in the doorway, sweating and out of breath. “Is he alone?”

“I think so.” Dirks panted, “I saw him approach and raced down as…”

Before Dirks could finish the ranch hand’s chest blew out red, followed by a distant rapport. Frank caught the falling man, his words and his breath silenced. Pulling him inward, he kicked the door shut. Two more shots splintered at the door.

“What have you done, Winston?” huffed Frank.

The window blew out, and Winston curled tight in a fetal ball, while Frank shuffled himself over towards his gun cabinet. He fumbled with his revolver, loading rounds with the occasional falling with a tink on the wooden floorboards.

Winston had his gun still strapped around his waist, but Frank doubted his brother could find the courage needed to fight off Brookes Randall.

He tried to suss out his current circumstance. Why Brookes, if he survived, wouldn’t have found him before now. And now why it appeared the man was bent on killing. Brookes had been a killer during the war, and during their time with Quantrill he’d seen what happened to men on the wrong side the gun.

Frank’s eyes were drawn over to the lifeless Dirks, his foreman, the job he wanted Brookes to have once he had the seed money for the ranch. The two men had talked often on that future, all they needed was one big score. A train full of government money.

For the second time, Frank heard his name through the door.

“Frank Dunne!” It felt as if the dead stepped on his grave, panic raced along his spine as his skin spread with goose bumps. He knew that voice, even choked with age and anger.

“Brookes?”

The ghost called out again, “I’m a marshal out of Denver. Your brother Winston shot a man a man in cold blood. A man I was duty bound.”

“It was an accident. I swear. I was trying to defend myself from Brookes. I swear, he was going to kill me,” Winston pleaded.

“Frank? You still in there? All I want is your brother. No more blood needs to be spilled today.”

“He says you fired on him first, swears it was self-defense.”

Frank inches toward the window, hoping to get a look at the marshal.

“He’s lying, Frank. You know it. The sheriff will vouch for my words. You know Junior Bill, Frank. He wouldn’t lie to you.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Frank agreed sliding up the wall between the window and the door. “Then why isn’t Junior here?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just give me Winston and we can put this behind us.”

Frank motioned to Winston, hoping his brother would rise to the occasion.

“Okay, marshal, I’m going to come out. So’s my brother.”

“Take it slow and steady. I’ll be waiting.”

The door opened.

Hank Markum, the very image of Brookes Randall, stood on the other side, a rifle in one arm and his hand firmly on his holstered colt, its thumb strap already dangling.

“Frank, sorry about your man. I needed to make a point and I didn’t need any more guns pointed my way than necessary.”

Frank looked bewildered “I was told you were dead. The papers said so, too. Winston said you weren’t, but you know how that boy leans towards less than the truth, whatever he can conjure to get out of trouble.”

“Lies or not, I’m only here for Winston. Dead or alive, either would suite me just fine.” Markum unconsciously shifted his left shoulder, with a grimace.

“That ain’t going to happen,” finding defiance the only reason to stand for his brother.

Frank lifted his pistol.

“You going to mourn after me again, Frank?”

Frank shook, confused, hearing whispers of deceit coming from Winston, standing behind in the doorway. Shoot him. Shoot him.

“I don’t know what game you’re playing, Brookes. I did mourn over you—you and the others that were killed—or I thought were killed by those murderous train detectives.”

Shoot him.

“I let Brookes Randall die a long time ago, when your greedy brother decided he wanted a large cut of the money. Did you get your fill of whores and whiskey with that money, Winston?”

Markum saw Winston behind Frank still whispering into his ear.

Shoot him.

“What money?” Frank answered for his brother, “We got nothing out of that robbery but dead men. Why would Winston shoot you?”

Markum shrugged, sliding his colt from its holster. “I wondered about that for a long time, but I wondered more why I let you get away with the money. It served you well.” He lifted the gun, waving it about suggesting the property they stood. “I even suspected he was following your orders, or maybe it was just about the money. I guess I was wrong on both.”

The two were silent. Shoot him.

“Frank, give me Winston.”

“I…” A gun fired.

Frank’s eyes bulged, and he slipped to his knees. The revolver clanked on the wooden porch. And behind him Winston stood, his gun smoking in his hand. Instinctively Markum fired two shots, both hit propelling the younger brother flew back into the house.

Frank lifted his hand, a motion, and Hank holstered his colt to kneel by his old friend.

“I never knew,” sputtered Frank. “I…I’m sorry…”

From behind there was a snap, Hank turned.

“Junior?”

“Yep.”

Hank Markum never heard the shotgun blast.

The rotund sheriff stood over Markum. “You were supposed to kill Winston in Cheyenne, Hank. Untie that albatross from my neck, our necks. Set us free.”

***

“I’m not causing no trouble, Junior.” Winston said as the old sheriff rousted him out of bed. “I’m just trying to spend some quality time here with…” He looked mournfully back at the bed, the woman’s name he’d already forgotten.

“I know you ain’t, Win. You and Tom have been good. I just need to tell you about Brookes.”

“What about Brookes? He dead, ain’t he?” Winston rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“If he were, we wouldn’t be having this talk.” He poked a thick finger against Winston’s skull.  “So listen to me. He’s coming to Cheyenne, and he’s wearing a badge.”

“A badge? Who would…” He cut off, realizing he’d known Junior most of his life and never knew a more crooked man.

“You need to get out of town, Tom and you, both. If he catches a hint that you’re here, there’s no telling what Brookes will do.”

Winston laughed, “I don’t see a problem. I’ll keep myself occupied until he’s out of town.”

“We can’t risk it, Win. If you don’t head out, I’ll tell him myself. Let him chase you all the way to Scottsbluff. See what your brother says when he dead friend shows up talking about the shooting? The money? Think he’ll understand?”

“No.” Winston looked back at the inviting bed.

Junior pulled a wad of money. “Look, you best get out of town. No other options”

“Maybe there is another option?” He walked back into the room, pulled his gun from his holster and cracked a smile.

Junior smiled back, knowing this is the last time he’d ever have to indulge Winston Dunne.


The Last Shot

“Marshal? Do you think I’ll hang?”

Hank Markum said nothing at first, taking a sip from his coffee before considering the grave question of his prisoner. He looked across the fire, the flickering light played against the boy’s youthful appearance making him seem younger than his nineteen years. The tremble in Caleb Monroe’s voice only impressed upon the marshal that this was no grown man he was taking to the gallows.

“Son, they already strung up that boy, Oren Canter, and it doesn’t look likely that that judge up in Cheyenne is going to side any different with you,” he replied before taking another sip of his harsh brew. “You and the other killed that man, and took his horses, or perhaps the other ways around. Not that it matters much.”

“I know that man died. I know, but…” the boy began to bluster before falling into silence.

Markum saw the sheen of tears well up along the boy’s eyelids, cresting, capturing the dance of the firelight.

This was the first bit of concern the marshal had seen from the boy since taking him into custody down in Greely two day ago. Any attempt to speak of his crimes or what was to come in Cheyenne was met with silence, sometimes distraction. The boy wasn’t obliged to talk, but Markum was grateful for any conversation on the trail. Most of which leaned toward the boy’s pa, who Markum figured would have been about his own age had he not died when Caleb was eleven, leaving him orphaned, and eventually in the company of Oren Canter.

“Silence isn’t a defense, Caleb,” Markum pressed feeling the boy was ready. “It is not likely to be any help in Cheyenne, but maybe talking will ease your conscience, ease the load, before…before we get there.”

The boy swiped his hand across his eyes, “I didn’t know about Oren.”

The two boys, Caleb had told Markum, had been inseparable since he had found his way to Cheyenne after bouncing from one well-meaning home to another. Canter’s father drove the stage coach, giving the boys more freedom than ought to be had by two so rambunctious. The stories he told of the two reminded the marshal of the carelessness of friendship, and now the hollowness of the boy’s face reminded him of the loss.

“Oren didn’t deserve that, not for that old rancher. They was stubborn, the both of them—the old man for putting up the fight, and Oren for insisting we steal his useless swayback nag from the stable.” The boy balled up his fists and shook his head in frustration.

“Them tugging back and forth spooked an old gray in the next stall. It gave a kick and both got knocked sideways into the mud. Only the rancher didn’t jump back up like Oren. He just moaned, clutching his chest till he didn’t moan no more.”

“Why didn’t you get help,” Markum questioned.

“I wanted to,” Caleb demanded. “Least I might have thought about it if I weren’t scared and Oren weren’t insistent on that horse, and the other two.”

“It were just an accident. An accident,” he pleaded.

“Accident or not, whatever defense you boys had for the rancher’s death was void when you stole those horses.”

Caleb stared across the fire at the marshal, “I didn’t want to steal them.”

“But you did, and they still hang horse thieves.”

The boy’s expression crumpled, and without a word turned away from Markum to lie on the cold unforgiving earth, knowing that was all the comfort he’d enjoy in this life.

***

Cheyenne had grown in the years since Markum had walked its streets as Junior Bill’s deputy. The wooden gangways bustled with townsfolk and grangers on either side of the wide hoof-trodden, wheel-gouged main road. Markum noted the addition of a hotel called Gantry’s, as well as the expansion of the Sapphire, a saloon that sat across the way from where the old pile of lumber Sheriff Bill had called a jail. That too had changed; in its place was two story building with a prominent placard out front, Sheriff: Junior Bill.

Caleb had drawn quieter as the two approached the town. Its streets weren’t novel, and he didn’t appreciate how the town had grown. The streets had been the boy’s home for the last five years that Oren and he ran them wild, and now he found them confining, suffocating—his coffin.

Markum reined the two toward the front of Gantry’s.

“I’m not ready to see the sheriff, either,” Markum said, dismounting his horse. He pulled Caleb’s horse close, tethering it with his own, and then pulled a key from his pocket. The sheriff turned the lock on the boy’s shackles, allowing them to loosen. “How about we get something to eat?”

The marshal thumbed towards the sign promising fresh steak and hot baths.

Caleb attempted a smile, “I guess.”

Markum helped Caleb off his horse, and removed his shackle belt.

The boy brightened as he rubbed the irritation from his wrists, “How do you know I won’t run?”

“I don’t, son. However…” Markum patted the side of his range coat that lay over his colt. The boy blanched and marshal shot him a smile, “You’re not making any plans are you?”

Caleb shook his head slowly back and forth.

“Then let’s get some grub,” raising a hand to settle on the boy’s back, but before it could land with a pat, he heard a man holler out.

Markum turned to face two men standing midway in the street staring him down.

He heard the one, a wiry man whose clothes hung too loose on his frame, that were raggedy and dust-laden from riding the range, “That ain’t him, Win. That there man is the law.”

The other pushed his friend aside, and turned to the full view of Markum. He was also a slight fellow, with a few days growth of beard and a waft of whiskey that Markum smelled even with the distance between the two men. His clothes weren’t too old, and fit him well. Markum saw his muscles were wound tight beneath the fabric and skin—a rattler ready to strike.

The marshal knew the type, deceptively powerful and completely unpredictable. He pulled back his range coat, exposing his military issued Colt.

“We have a problem, mister?”

The snake hissed, “I don’t know lawman? You’re the one wearing a dead man’s face.”

Markum set his palm on the butt of the revolver, thumbing the strap. “Come again?”

“I’d seen you from across the way,” he motioned over to the Sapphire, “and I say to ol’ Tom here, I know that man. He’s familiar to me. But he didn’t believe me. Did you Tom?”

“No, not sure I do at the present,” Tom said, keeping his eyes focused on the marshal’s hand.

“I understand your being skeptical, Tom,” turning towards his raggedy friend, “But I know this man.”

“I don’t know you, mister,” said Markum.

“That’s what you say, Brookes. Brookes Randall.” The serpent grinned wider than seemed possible and gave the marshal a wink.

Before Markum could pull his Colt free of its holster, a boom crossed the span between the rattler and the lawman, and the marshal’s legs fell out from under him as his body thudded hard against the gangway timbers.

A cacophony of gunfire was all that Marshall Hank Markum heard before his world went black.

***

The light from overhead fingered its way through the throng of townsfolk standing over the fallen marshal. The light brightened and coalesced the more Markum stirred and the folk stepped away. Hank tried to right himself, but a firm, boney hand pressed him back.

“Take it easy there, marshal,” a grizzled voice barked. Markum felt the boney hands examine his scalp. “You took quite a blow to the head.  Ain’t the first one, I see,” noting a long scar hidden in the marshal’s graying hairline above his right temple.

Markum forced his eye to focus, squeezing them tight and opening them again. Kneeling over him was a bespeckled man with gaunt features lost in the forest of a snow-white beard, and bushy eyebrows that flourished beyond the rim of his glasses.

“Then why does my shoulder hurt, old timer?”

“Because, that’s where you were shot.” He pressed a deliberate finger into muscle around the wound and Markum winced, “Technically, we call that the trapezius.”

“I’m going to guess you’re the town sawbones?”

“Guilty as charged,” he held up his hands briefly before fastidiously continuing his examination. “Doctor Martin Wilkins, DDS. At least I’m the closest thing to a practicing doctor. Folks just call me Doc.”

Wilkins offered Markum his boney hand.

Markum extended his good arm and rose to his feet with a surprisingly sturdy arm from the doctor. “So what’s the prognosis?”

 

 

“You’ll live.” Wilkins sighed, looking pass Markum to his left, “I can’t say the same for the boy you brought in.”

Markum followed the elder’s gaze through a wall of townsfolk, a shifting throng, where he saw the boy at his final rest. A plume of red colored his shirt.

“His Honorable Judge Josiah Pendleton’s going to be disappointed,” Doc snorted. “He wanted to see that one dance on the gallows just like the Canter boy.”

Markum walked over to the boy, the crowd parted as he approached.

“I know the boy didn’t have anyone,” Markum said, focusing on his lifeless charge. He realized Caleb had been standing behind him, the shot travelled through the top of his shoulder and lodged in the boy’s throat. “All he talked about, when he talker, were his dead kin. And seeing Canter was the closest he had to family, I want to make sure he gets a proper burial. Not just a sack and a half dug hole.”

He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a few coins, handing them back to the doctor. “You think he can get that?”

“I’ll see to it,” Doc said, sounding choked.

Markum looked as long as he could and turned away, and when he did he spotted the raggedy man sprawled out on the bloodied earth, what decent clothes already stripped.

“Who got that one,” asked the marshal.

“Tom Haddy?” the doctor answered with a question. “I suppose it was Jenkins, Junior’s deputy. He has gone through a passel of them; either they got shot or they were sent running. They sure didn’t graduate to marshal, I tell you that.”

“So you know who I am?”

“The sheriff’s spoke on you. Mostly good, but you seem to be a sore spot for Junior.”

“We all have our sore spots,” Markum shifted his shoulder, and then twisted his neck. “Where is the galoot?”

“Halfway to Nebraska, I suppose?”

“How do you know he’s heading for Nebraska?”

“Chasing after that wound bit of barbed wire you met in the streets, Winston Dunne,” Doc replied and then explained, “Winston, and that Tom Haddy, comes over once or twice a season. At first, he and Junior are all familiar, like old friends, but as sure as the day is long Winston and Tom start getting rowdy.  And Sheriff Bill starts barking at the two, and they go turning tail home to his brother. A rancher out towards Scottsbluff, named…”

“…Frank Dunne,” Markum finished.