He leaned in again and told his horse, “You gain on that dark stallion – and a filly you'll have come autumn. I swear it, Paint.”
The horse could go just fast enough. The shamblers were out of luck. The paint and its passengers blew past their gore-laden finger tips and, at last, Yule broke free of the horde.
At the crossroads Yule steered west and stole a quick glance back. The thoroughfare behind them was already choked by black clouds. Save for Rex Westman, the quarantine was firmly in place.
Turning back to the road, he saw that Rex was becoming but a dark speck off yonder. The Appaloosa and the Sheriff were far off, too. Up ahead, Dude had stopped in the center of the road to wait patiently for the poor paint. His tail swept to and fro.
“He's gonna get away,” said Misty.
“No,” Yule whispered. “It does not end this way.”
But it was undeniable – the chase was getting away from them all. The black stallion was too much horse. Yule Sherwin knew a thing or two about agony – and he reckoned watching Westman escape justice was agony distilled to its purest form. He didn't want to see any more. He'd rather have dragged grit-paper across his eye-balls. He squeezed them shut.
“Westman!” the Sheriff shouted up yonder.
Yule opened his eyes.
The Sheriff had his gun drawn. Had he finally come to reason and decided shooting Westman in the back was justified?
Yule said a quick prayer – though he was not sure it was said to the Lord above.
It went something like, “please, Lord. Mine soul for his murder.”
He heard nothing then but the pistol's report – not the horses; not Dude's excited yips; not even his own loud heart. The Lord granted Yule such acuity that he could trace the bullet's path as it left the Sheriff's gun. He followed it from the muzzle and saw it all the way through, well up the mountainside – till it found its mark. A pale, slithering plume of gunsmoke twisted up from between Rex Westman's shoulders.
“Amen,” Yule whispered. He leaned in, pressing his Paint to catch up.
For a moment Westman slumped to the side, inadvertently steering his stallion off the road. The chase began to slow down. Off the beaten path, the stallion strained along the loose-gravel face of the mountain. Pebbles and earth cascaded downhill after every clop of the hoof. The Appaloosa churned up the hillside in pursuit. Yule's paint struggled, threatening to buckle under the strain.
And the Sheriff took a second shot.
Far up yonder, Rex ducked and jerked the reins. The stallion was unnerved beneath him and reared. Its balance was lost and it thumped sideways there upon the steep-pitched mountain face. Westman was spilled suddenly and unceremoniously. He reached to retake the stallion's reins and the horse had already bolted uphill, eluding his grip and galloping away. Torrential gravel, unearthed in the stallion's wake, poured down the hillside. Rex hugged his own head to shield himself from the stones.
That vision of Rex Westman disheveled, tossed by his horse and pelted by dirt – the whole scene made Yule shamefully giddy. Justice was suddenly imminent. Pistol in hand, he leapt down from his paint. At that juncture he reckoned it was faster to go by boot.
Misty pleaded, “Yule! No!"
But he was already off and running up the loose mountainside. He was leaving his woman behind to chase fate. Déjà vu; repeating again.
Yule suddenly recognized his surroundings. This was the place where the alpha maggot had been buried – there was its still-damp grave. The authentic Sterling Penrose had been claimed by the mountain here – beneath the avalanche.
Another hundred yards uphill, the Sheriff was arriving at the point where Rex had fallen. Yule scrambled toward the confrontation on all-fours. He heard his own blood thumping. He heard himself growling.
Then his growling was interrupted by an explosion.
The forty-five is a gun smithed for killing not only the individual, but rather whole droves of fellers. It kills the souls of men who merely hear its brutal discharge.
Just one shot from Westman's revolver sent the Appaloosa down in a dusty heap. The slug burrowed clean through-and-through her throat. The Sheriff was thrown.
Rex rose up to his full height and loomed over the horse he’d gunned. The tables had been turned.
Yule found he wasn't growling, any more. Nor did he detect a hint of rhythm in his blood. His heart was leaden. All he could hear was Misty screaming behind him. Yet he kept ascending, never looking back, crawling on hands-and-knees toward the failed execution, even as it went ever worse awry.
The Sheriff sprawled in the dirt. He had come separated from his pistol. His right boot looked to be on backward. That leg had been busted in the fall. He dragged himself on his elbows. The pistol glinted on the mountain face, just out of reach – and then it shined no longer. Rex's shadow swallowed the sun and et the Sheriff's pistol right up.
“Junior!” Rex roared. “You of all cocksuckers ought know a mite fuckin' better!”
He booted the Sheriff's gun just a few feet away, but the gulf between man-and-pistola might as well have been the Grand Canyon. The Sheriff kept dragging himself toward it, anyway. Rex stood over him and laughed. Then he took the Sheriff up by the back of the collar and hung him with one-hand, effortlessly as snatching a puppy by the scruff. With his other hand he cracked him hard on the crown with the butt of the forty-five. The Sheriff went slack.
There wasn't enough wind in Yule to even muster the word, “No!”
Westman hoisted the Sheriff above his head like a strong-man lifting a dumb-bell. He chucked the limp lawman downhill. The Sheriff tumbled topsy-turvy, scoring the mountainside with each and every impact. He came to rest broken and scrambled, silver star a brilliant spark drowning in a quicksand of gore.
Yule kept coming along despite himself.
“Hoo-whee!” Rex howled. Wiping his brow, he stomped downhill to meet him.
Yule could go no further. He stopped in his tracks and his dog pressed against him. The pistol hung lamely at his side.
“You next?” Rex asked. “You think you're gonna gun me? Doc Sanders would tell ye himself. He'd say, 'Ain't no use. Rex's harder than any ol' bullet.' He'd say, 'Rex can't be killed by no man.'”
“I am not a man.” The Sheriff's croaking voice took Yule and Rex both by surprise. He said, “I am Junior Darby. I am a ghost. Have been for goin' on two years now.”
Where he had come to finally rest, in a divot carved by his own tumbling, Junior lay stretched on his belly. In his trembling hand he held a tiny pistol.
Yule recognized that pistol. He remembered it from the legend of Sterling Penrose: the mother-of-pearl-handled two-shooter bestowed upon Junior Darby by the constable of Buena Vista. The pistola had been buried there, all along, ever since the avalanche. It was only unearthed after Rex opted to toss the Sheriff headlong down the pass.
To Yule, this was the inescapable architecture of destiny. The impulse to genuflect was mighty powerful.
It was the last time he'd let fate fool him.
The petite pistol popped meekly, hardly loud as a knuckle cracking. The shot went badly astray. It disappeared in a puff upon the mountainside, lethal as a drop of piss. Yule and his dog both whined. Junior Darby was done-in by his injuries; better aim was had by wet-dreamers. His equilibrium had been shattered right along with his skull. Blood poured over his brow and into his eyes. He coughed once and the wee mother-of-pearl pistola fired its last bullet point-blank against the mountain. He coughed again and collapsed face-down in the dirt.
Rex slapped his own knee. He bent over and belted out whole-body guffaws.
Armed with a lone bullet, Yule Sherwin didn't hold out an iota of hope. Fate was a goddamned lie. He drew his pistol level upon Rex. His dog nipped at his ankle and tugged at the cuff of his trousers. He stole a peek back down to where he'd left Misty and she had dismounted. She led the paint by its reins. She was screaming for him then, waving her one arm while cradling the babe in the other.
She was a prostitute, and that babe was likely a ghoul or becoming one.
They were not his wife and son reincarnated.
Nothing was meant to be. Fate was a goddamned lie and he'd told it to himself.
Yule pulled the trigger and nothing happened. The pistol was junk. The barrel was jammed full of dirt. He himself had ruined it by crawling up the hillside on all-fours, desperate as a starving dog in his quest to kill Rex. He let it fall at his feet.
Down yonder, Misty kept shouting – but Yule couldn't decipher her phrases. Rex was laughing loud enough to be heard clear in Durango. Yule turned his back to Westman and had a last gander down the pass. Misty gestured wildly. She was trying to tell him something but it was too late – Rex was done laughing.
The hammer on the forty-five rocked back into position.
Dude bit Yule hard on the boot and yanked him that-a-way.
“Not your day,” he heard Rex say – and Yule swiveled back about to stare down the barrel of the big gun.
“You go on ahead and fucking do it if you're gonna.”
Yule ascended a step up the mountain – toward Rex, toward the sky, the heavens, toward a meeting with his Maker. He spread his arms, crucifying himself in empty space.
He said, “Adios.”
And then – BOOM – the forty-five detonated right in Yule's face, blasting him into darkness. Sulfur-sparks singed his cheeks and lips.
Yule caught a whiff of something distinctive – burnt hair.
He opened his eyes and everything had changed. The hillside had shifted – the whole face of the mountain was rippling like the many folds of a theater's grand drape.
Up yonder where the Sheriff's last shot – Junior Darby's last shot – had pierced the soft earth, it split some underground seam and the mountain was crumbling. Dude growled and kept pulling his master's leg. Down below Misty hollered ever-more-frantically.
He could finally suss what she had been shouting all along:
“Yule! Run Yule! The mountain's sliding down! It's an avalanche!”
The earth had come out from under Rex's boots and ruined his shot. The avalanche struck him from behind, jerking him ass-backward like a lassoed calf. The mountain slurped and swallowed him whole. Yule was washed out by a gush of dirt. Then the landslide swept up the Appaloosa's carcass and Junior's remains. It churned out the blood of man, beast and demon alike and that was their Color then, seeping red out between the drifts of the Rocky Mountains.