What an Awful Day
Warm air brushes his face. It stings his hot skin, bringing with it neither relief nor aid. It plucks the wide brimmed leather hat from his head and drops it to a cracked floor of blasted earth. Lifeless gray eyes watch as his singular comfort from high-noon tumbles to join the brush and weeds. Damn, he thinks. He would speak it if his lips were not dry and cracked, or better yet – if the draw of coarse hemp did not tighten around his neck.
Below him his horse stomps a shoed hoof and snorts. He feels the mare’s fear, her unease. He shares her desire to bolt, but maybe not just yet. The noose hangs from a barren branch of a lone joshua tree where he sits, back straight, posture perfect for the scene of his imminent execution. His gaze flicks from his forlorn headware to the trio that hounds him. What villains are these, he thinks. Maybe none at all.
The leader; Ugly, he names him, a lanky bastard in a cavalry uniform – some prop pilfered from a dollar store, ripped and patched too many times so that it reveals the cheap polyester stitched by an unpracticed hand. Ugly brings truth to his namesake. A face laden with boils. One eye lidless, bulging, the other squinting and too-small with a hawkish nose broken too many times. He wears a self satisfied grin. Why wouldn’t he? He got lucky.
On either side a lackey stands in triumph. One, a fat woman with a face rounder than her considerable waist licks her lips at the promise of an early supper. Cannibals. He doesn’t blame them for this. The animals of the desert are too clever to be caught by these fools. Not often did he wish to be one of them.
“Why’n d-didn’t we jus’ shoot’em?”
The second man speaks with a stutter. He grips his decrepit rifle with white knuckles to still the rattle in his fingers. His eyes, pale green engulfed in sickly yellow, flick from the soon-to-be-corpse to Ugly then back again. Ah. This one is punching out soon. One way or another.
“You want lead in your meat?” Ugly speaks, resigned. “We do it proper. As the law declares. He suffers before hell reaps its due.”
HIs eyes drift to the furled poster on Ugly’s belt, the one beside the six-shooter. Wanted, it said. The Stranger. Dead. Reward? Salvation of the soul. Who was he to argue with divine providence? At least the render did his jaw line justice – sharp, like any good hero. Too bad the crimes cut off at the bottom from lack of space.
“I’m hungry!” Oh-ye-rotund one joins with predictable commentary. “Git on with it!”
“Now now. We owe the heathen his last rights.”
Ugly slips a stained book out from his back pocket. A bible, revised after the first apocalypse, of course. Next come the spectacles. Small lenses sit ill on that bent nose and for little purpose. Ugly can’t read. He cracks the spine to an ear marked page and extends an open palm to the heavens, fingers curled out to a purple sky as if to grasp for divinity. Up there the sun sits in a haze. Once, long ago, one could see forever, but now? Look too long and you lose your eyes.
The Stranger looks. He remembers blue. He remembers white. Now, he sees only a fog that traps heat within. Always too hot.
“Oh ye poor soul!” Ugly pretends to read. The others know no better. “Blessed be thee that kneels before us this day in holy retribution-”
“He ain’t k-kneelin’.”
“I know! Shut up!” Ugly clears his throat. “...that thee may repent! With such grace may thine soul be saved and lifted up to the heavens to rejoin the host of angels! What say you, Heathen? Will you repent?”
Silence. A horse brays. Three starved mounts stand behind the gaggle of bounty hunters. They froth from the mouth and stomp, too laden with saddles and bags to withstand the heat for long. Once the stillness becomes uncomfortable Ugly snaps the book closed. Out here, in the blasted lands, the dying preside over the dead.
“Fine. It’s more fun when they beg. Have it your way.” He shrugs. “Do it.”
The shot resounds across the beaten earth of the desert in a thunderous roar. The Stranger’s mare does not take kindly to this. She bolts, the fear too much, expecting the weight of her companion to assure her to safety, to guide her onward as he has for years. She is disappointed.
To his dismay The Stranger’s neck does not snap. His body drops then stops only a foot from the ground where the noose claims its prize. He fights, if not by will then by instinct. He thrashes, jerks, spasms. All the inglorious gestures one expects from a dying man. He gasps in vain attempts to fill his lungs. Despite the struggle his eyes remain calm. After all, who was he to argue against divine providence? Surely, and to the glee of a trio of soon-to-be-saved souls, his gulps wane. His body stills. The Stranger exhales for the last time. He dies.
“Well. Shit.” The Stranger spits, his mouth no longer dry. Here in the land between life and death he stands beside his freshly minted corpse in whirling shadows. Only gray lives where once color ruled the world. He watches the trio cheer. They whoop and holler in stunted time, motion slowed to a mere crawl. They disperse once they finish their celebrations. Ugly retreats to fetch the forlorn mare while the other two get to work, with Fatty tasked with the retrieval of fresh meat.
Nothing to do for now. He folds his arms over his chest where he can no longer feel the pressure of his own weight; neither the pull of his leather duster on his torso, nor the soft linens of his stained shirt. Only emptiness. Better than the sweltering heat, he supposes. And the company couldn’t be friendlier.
He meets the eyeless gaze of the Reaper of Souls. A tall, endless void of black robes with hands of bone. He offers his old friend a nod.
“Got a light?” The Stranger asks, with hope.
From nothing The Reaper produces a thin wrapping of tobacco. He takes it in his own fingers and plucks in between his lips where his deathly companion lights a match for his convenience. Ethereal smoke drifts up to nowhere. A puff brings relief as toxic smoke fills his lungs. Cancer mattered little in the between.
The Reaper does not respond. It only waits.
“Suppose you still want me to come with you?”
A shrill whine of high pitched static fills his mind. In it he hears those that recall another life. A woman’s soft soprano relaxes his otherwise tense shoulders. She calls to him through the din of a thousand other voices. Distinct, clarion, she offers peace. A final confluence.
“Now, that’s rude.” The Stranger inhales another gout of smoke. He holds it for a moment too long then releases. He watches still, determined to ignore the allure of a final end. Two reapers stalk the shadows of the duo that tended to his death. Personal heralds. They graced those not long for the mortal world, unbeknownst to their prey.
In short order the fat one cuts his noose. With a heave she hefts his lifeless body over a shoulder, his arms and legs dangling without design.
“That’d be my cue, friend.”
The Reaper does not respond, but the voices dissipate to nothing. A skeletal hand lifts and extends a finger to touch his forehead.
The world returns in a torrent of blistering heat. In aches, in rope burn on dry skin. In sunburnt cheeks covered by an irregular, stubble beard. The Stranger is discarded onto a rough saddle where he allows himself to be strewn like a sack of meat. Only once the stomping of laden boots drift away does he open his eyes. Light comes in a blur at first as his mind remembers how to see. Cracked earth greets him with little fanfare, though he could do without the rotten scent from his new mount. He scans what he can, careful to keep still. There, holstered for easy access, a snubbed, dual barreled shotgun lay within his reach. Ah. Providence.
Gently now, he tips his body toward the solid rock below. It takes only the lightest push and his assumed corpse falls head first where it plummets with a dull thud. On his trek he liberates his salvation and curls it under his chest. The pain is of little consequence. Add it to the list of broken things that hounds his body.
One head spins, another shoots up. The two turn from their chores to examine a lifeless body.
“H-how did he-”
“It ain’t nothin’.” The Fat one grumbles an irritated interruption. She has no mind for superstition. Her path brings her around the horse where she stands over the immobile body of The Stranger, stubby fingers clasped around a belt threatening to be overwhelmed. “Horses moved is all, don’t you even think’ about mentionin’ spirits.” She shakes her head and reaches to his side, rolling him over.
Her face pales.
“Hey.” The Stranger winks.
A second echo rolls over the dead plain. Her body lifts from the ground for the briefest of moments and lands several feet away, riddled with too many holes to survive. The horses launch into wild gallops to nowhere. Now was no time to dawdle. The Stranger rolls onto his knees and lifts himself from the ground. Alert, he spins to the wide, terrified stare of the second man, his lips parted in awe, his hands shaking as he reaches for the rifle slung over a shoulder. No more than six paces separates them.
It’s The Stranger that acts first.
A single bound brings him halfway. His foe fumbles for his weapon, awkwardly grasping and raising it to bear. Another leap and The Stranger stands at the man’s side where the long-rifle does little. He switches his grip and wraps his calloused fingers around the barrel of his shotgun. The stock whips around and catches Ugly’s follower in the cheek, knocking a gaggle of yellow teeth from his mouth. He collapses in a heap and has no time to scream before another blast rips out from the mouth of the gun.
Not bad. The Stranger drops his weapon and rolls a leather sleeve over his face, wiping a splatter of blood from his brow. He retrieves the discarded rifle and tests its weight, measuring it from one side to another. A makeshift, haphazard construction and bolt action; amateurish in design, but functional, if ugly.
Speaking of Ugly.
The two of them find one another at a distance. Ugly sits atop the black mare, stuck in the throes of inaction. Even from afar the Stranger can read his face. What in holy god happened, it says. There’s nothing holy here.
The Stranger lifts the rifle. The sight is basic, but better than naught. He braces the stock against his shoulder and holds the barrel with a steady hand. Ugly turns the mare and clicks his spurs into the horse’s side, sending her into a hastened gallop toward the horizon. The rifle follows his path. Slow, easy now, The Stranger inhales and squeezes the trigger. A bullet shreds the decorative pauldron of Ugly’s uniform and takes a chunk of a shoulder with it. Black bile and blood spews from the wound. And yet he rides on.
The Stranger lowers the rifle. The sights are off. He watches that son of a bitch ride off on his horse, saddle bags and all. He kept his tobacco in those bags. His water. With a grunt he turns to his new friends, the corpses. Perhaps of greater importance he catches sight of his most valued possession. Cumbersome steps bring him to the base of the joshua tree – the exhaustion of resurrection catching up as the adrenaline wanes from his veins. There, he lowers himself to the trunk, back flush against the dead bark. He grabs his hat from the nearby brush and affixes it snuggly to his head where the brim once more chases the blinding rays of day from his eyes.
Without a horse or supplies what chance does he have of leaving the desert? A man can only deny a reaper its due so many times. He licks his dry lips to no avail. He’d spit if there was any saliva to be had. Instead, he leans his head back and pulls his brim low. Maybe a quick nap first. Death took it out of him.
After? Well. The image of his own face on a wanted poster fills his mind. After, The Stranger had things to do.