Devil sits by a burnt-up stump. Waiting. Got all the time in the world. And more.
Got deals and schemes too.
Plenty to go ‘round.
Got a pot of proportions simmerin’. Filled it with scars and substanceless in-betweens, and poppies of colorless amnesia. Dash of blue eyes willing, mixed in some easy, and a big slice of good as a luxury Memphis hotel. Lot of yesterdays in his stew.
Uncorks a bottle of whiskey. Takes a swig. Laughs low when he thinks of the dances this brings to men. Sets the bottle on a fallen log.
Long ride. Hard one too. Ate a mess of dust in the last twelve days. Burned in the sun, half-froze in the darkness, they might be thirsty.
Want. Need. Closer.
Devil smiles. Got emphasis ready.
No sky-watcher, bitter fire migrates from his eyes to the path.
Closer. The riders. Slower. Weary. Guns not drawn, but ready.
Horses pulled up.
Bart looked down on the man. Looked like a man. One not from these parts, mind you. His robes looked foreign, Egyptian. I’d seen pharaohs in books. He was wearing robes like a pharaoh. Wearing diamonds and rubies too. A lot of them.
A black man. Black as midnight pitch. Had dark glasses on. The eyepieces so dark you could not see his eyes.
Long limbs. Thin, fitting for a skeleton, or bones stripped of their meat. Fingers unnaturally long. Black hair, braided. Slung o’er his shoulder, hung to his belly. Looked like rock, that hair.
Sat there. Like an old woman on her porch Sunday afternoon. Out in the middle of sun-burnt nowhere in a rocking chair. Had a bottle of whiskey sittin’ on a blasted stump by his hand. Glasses too. Like he was waiting for us to just come along.
I looked over his wagon. Old. Well-kept. New canvas covering. Said Mister E. Phoenix’s Traveling Emporium of Marvels. Goods bought and sold.
Bart looked at him. Figured he could smell the trouble comin’ of him.
I could. Could feel it too.
Took in his cats too. Five of ‘em. Purring and licking his hand. Rubbing. Unnatural.
He spoke to one of ‘em. Something hard. “Kiya.” Sounded foreign. Waved at another. Said, “Messa.” Both sat like statues. Messa, if that were its name, sat like The Sphinx.
Bart saw ‘em too. Bart would tolerate a dog, but he was not of a mind to let a cat come ‘round.
-You do not like cats, do you?
-Nope. Sneaky little things.
-Yes, straight on. You have that look to you, Mister Rossevelt.
Bart’s hand was on the walnut butt of his equalizer. Didn’t pull it. Sat there ready, hammer loop off.
I had my Colt half out of leather. One of the cats hissed at me. The temptation to shoot it was powerful, but most often I follow Bart’s lead and he warn’t drawin’, so neither did I.
-Yes, Gentlemen, your much-heralded exploits precede you. Do you find that surprising? One so famous should not be disarmed to learn strangers know your countenance and the tales told of your deeds.
Bart and me had seen it many times. Rode into places where near everyone knew us on sight. It warn’t being recognized that had Bart and me cocked, it was the man. Had some of the hoodoo about him. Seen it in The War when I was deep in Dixie.
I was wounded and had been taken in by some kindly black folk. One night as they cared for me, an old woman, a conjuror, came and worked her remedies on me. Gris-gris and such they called it. I learned there was good hoodoo to aid the sick and there were plenty of dark practices too. Black magic. Trouble.
This one reeked of it. You could smell brimstone and the graveyard coming off him. That old woman would have called him a Devil Man.
And by my reckonin’, she would have been right.
He rose sudden-like.
Will and Traveller stood their ground, but I could feel the shudder pass through Traveller. Our pack mule, Iron, stood hard as a post.
-Gentlemen, please forgive me. Welcome. It would be my great and distinct pleasure to offer you a drink. After such a long and dusty journey, I am certain you could use one.
Bart just sat there. Stared. Didn’t offer a word.
-I do hope you will forgive me for being so rude. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mister Phoenix. His hand pointing to the sign painted on the wagon.
-Eshu Phoenix. His smile widened.
-You might say I am a bit of a horse trader. A dealer in things old and rare, and things needed. Books and relics mostly. Other articles on occasion. If I am so inclined. Smiled a cold smile. Venom in it.
-One should leave oneself open to willing opportunities.
Smile got wider. Colder too.
-You are an educated man, are you not, Mister Caldwell?
He knew me too. I was not shocked by it. Most know Bart, they know of me.
-You know a lot about us, Mister Phoenix, Bart said. Hand still on his Peacemaker.
-As I stated, you are quite famous as lawmen and you, or so the tales speak, have been doomfaring more than a few times. You were marshals in places like Abilene and Tombstone, were you not? And it is said, you have had dealings with unnatural creatures.
-Dealt with a lot of things.
The black man smiled. Air about us changed. Got cold as Hell. January cold, Helena or Butte when the winds begin to blow.
-Yes, so the tales they tell of you say. I’ve heard the tale of your encounter with the Gil Sisters. Nasty business, that matter. And the Apache speak of you. They tell of a brujo with a wild black mind you encountered. A shape-shifter who walked beyond the fields men know, they say. It is said you dispatched him with ease.
-Seen some things. Did what needed to be done.
I thought the black man was going to laugh.
Just sat back down and began petting one of his cats. Big mean-looking thing. Prone to hellacious scraps by its looks.
-Whiskey, Gentlemen? Waving his hand at the open bottle.
-It is a very good bottle.
-Or I could make up a pot of coffee if you are of a mind. Sun will die soon and something warm might be good to stave off the chill of coming night.
I warn’t looking forward to spending time at his campfire. Didn’t trust him. Knew Bart felt the same.
-Kind of you to offer, but we have things need be tended to. Cannot spare the time to stop just now.
-Then allow me to come straight to the point. You are in possession of an item I wish to own. A book.
We had a book in our saddlebags. An old, old book. I knew enough Latin from my studies back East to read the few words inscribed upon its cover. Didn’t care to look inside. I’ll leave the mysteries of the worm to undertakers.
That’s what the black man wanted. Wanted book we carried.
Said so. Spoke it right out plain.
-I will pay well for it.
Pulled out a bag of gold pieces. Said they were ours for the taking. The whole bag.
He could wait all the way to next Sunday, Bart had taken a man’s money to retrieve it, so the book was not for sale, or barter. You take a man’s money, you ride for the brand. That was law Bart would not break. His soul on the edge of Hell’s rimrock and ‘bout to fall into The Pit, he would not deal away his honor. Man’s word is his bond. Long as you are above snakes you stick to it, deep water, thunder, or bullets flying. City, or on the trail, honor is honor. You don’t peel it off, or scrub it away in a tub of soapy water.
-Not mine to trade.
-Ah. But who would know?
Quick as anger.
Mr. Phoenix smiled, poison festering in it, and he nodded.
-Hired on and a deal is a deal. Am I correct?
-You understand, I am not as soft as I might appear, and I am not without means. I could take it.
-Comes to it, you might. Might not.
-And if it were two bags of gold sitting before you?
-Two or twelve, finest ranch house and herd either side of the Chisholm, won’t change my direction.
He laughed and the thunder rolled. His cats scurried ‘neath his robes and took to crouchin’.
I could see them quiver.
His hand was a fist, smoke came off it like it were hissing kilnin’. His smile soured to a frown.
Seen things. Damn strange and things out of bad dreams, never seen a man’s hands smoke. If he was a man.
Bart saw it. Didn’t move. Played the hand he held. Still had not drawn his Peacemaker.
-You care nothing for this book. Selling it would harm no one.
I could see Bart thinking about the book and the man who sent us to get it.
Doctor A. Jennings Platt of The Forward Mission Foundation, some institution for inquiries, funded by a university in New England, sent for us. Paid his good gold to meet us and hand us his proposition.
Talked of things darker than Satan’s handiwork, cults of men driven to evil things, and black pagan rites, old long before Atlantis sank beneath the waves. Spoke on legends of demons that walked in the black pastures between the stars and evil men that wanted to summon them up.
-My colleagues and I believe there are warnings and workings in Prinn’s grimoire that may allow us to combat this evil.
Bart listened, face dark as a thunderhead. When Doctor Platt finished his balesome exposition, Bart looked at me. I nodded my firm okay.
Hands were shook.
Two hours later Bart sat atop Will and smoked his segar. Looked down the draw and said, -Might be some trouble comin’.
-Won’t be our first dance.
I nodded in agreement. Didn’t settle on it being our last. If it came we’d wrangle with it.
Finding the Indian mounds and the cabin North of Hard Rock warn’t no problem. Dealing with the cold-hearted son-a-bitch who possessed the book was put to rest quick. He drew on Bart and that was that. Ain’t been a man can pull faster than Bart. Might not be one. To-morrow might change facts. But tomorrow is a might off and a man never knows if he rises in the morning to face it, so best not fret over things might never come to pass.
Bart stowed the book on Iron and we rode. Rode hard. No timber. No rolling grass. Not a bird or an echo on the trail. Burning sand. Saddle and bridle and sun, an animal no breeze would come ‘round. Bart said he felt like the book was trouble and he didn’t want to be ‘round it longer than he had to be. And he wanted to be out of the sun.
-Fucking thing is The Devil’s handiwork, I said.
-Time for it to be in Platt’s hands.
Platt was back in Hot Iron and that was two days ride. Two days of dust and a sun that would brand hombre and the affable alike.
-Hand Platt his book and maybe head to Spirit or Levi. Could wander over to Harley in a week or two. Ain’t of a mind to stay in Hot Iron.
Hot Iron was still a day’s ride. So we rode. Ate dust and chewed heat. Every inch of that sand was a hammer.
Phoenix looked hard at Bart. Judgin’. Warn’t anger yet, but could twist that way.
-Harm. Bart darkened. -I told a man I’d bring it to him.
-And a man is only as good as his word. N’est-ce pas? Phoenix looked to me to translate.
Ain’t it so, I told Bart.
-As I thought.
‘round the edges of his dark eyeglasses red light started into glowing, knew his eyes had turned to hellfire. From shoulder to flank, the horses quivered.
Devil’s eyes. Warn’t no other way to put it. And the hand that was smoking shook. Powerful and angry, way I took. Figured wind was about to blow. Thunder, or worse to follow.
I was sure glad he was wearing those eyepieces. Seen bad things, but didn’t care to look The Devil his-self in the eye.
-You have been considering shooting me, I believe.
-Leanin’ that way.
-But I have yet to threaten you, nor have I harmed you. It goes against your code to shoot an unarmed man.
-And you know I can take the book, if I so decide.
Seemed plain enough.
-Yet you have still not pulled your firearm.
Heart of stone facing the plow. Someone had to lose. In the past I always bet on Bart. This time was looking different. I was about to change the way it was drifting and pull my Colt. ‘Cept Bart made his play. He took his hand off his Colt and put it on the saddle horn. Sat back, square shoulders.
Mister Phoenix nodded. Smiled.
-You sit believing you face The Devil risen from the Pit and your scruples will not allow you to bend. There are those who might consider your act admirable.
-Might be some.
-Most, understanding how fragile their souls are, would simply give me what I want, take the gold and run. But not you.
I removed my hand from my Colt. Eased back in the saddle. Hell and damnation might be coming, but I would stand by Bart like I always had. Wished I had time for a drink before it played out, but I didn’t think one would be coming.
-And you, Mister Caldwell, where your partner leads you follow. Is that correct?
He put the side of his thumb to his lips, stared. Nodded like he answered his own question. Took off his eyewear. His eyes were white-hot, campfire coals.
He was The Devil. Cold fact. And he could do whatever he wanted.
-You really are no fun, Mister Rossevelt. Has anyone ever mentioned that fact to you?
-Not as I recollect.
He laughed and slapped his leg. Eyes went black. Not the center part, the whole damn thing. Then he slapped his leg again, twice.
Hell, I thought he was going to fall to the ground and roll around.
-You are willing to go under snakes for a book you cannot even read. I have read Prinn’s scribbling. I can quote it chapter and verse. ‘Tibi, magnum Innominandum, signa stellarum nigrarum et bufaniformis Sadoquae sigillum.’
Devil looked at me.
I got black stars. Remembered the stars back East, the hollow black space between them. Didn’t care to hear more. Signs and seals be damned. Let hellish secrets stay in old books and away from the eyes and ears of simple men. Could burn the load they carried. Might be fitting. Had half a thought I maybe shoulda been a knot-herder, never heard a sober cow-puncher tell of meetin’ The Devil, except in that damn song.
-Killed dead. Spurs to never jingle again. Over a book? Shook his head and laughed. Laughed.
Sudden-like I got it. He didn’t really care about the book. He was just in a mood to test a man. And there we were. Dance went ‘round and he tired of it. Wind changed, this way t’went the other. Plain as that.
Might be he figured our souls warn’t worth the bother. Can’t rightly say.
Coulda left our bones for the buzzards, but without a tip of the hat or a goodnight, he danced off crazy-like, hoppin’ from one foot to the other. Laughing. His cats and phantoms of smoke at his heels, followin’ their shepherd. ‘fore the darkness swallowed him I heard him blowin’ a screech from an bent, old wooden pipe. Sounded like souls burnin’ in Hell.
Whatever thing was driving his ghost-wagon followed along. Not sure what that worm-thing was. Shaped like a man, but color of something dead. And it looked slimy.
My hand shook a bit.
-Devil. Heard he can change how he looks.
-Not sure that was him. Something as bad, but not him.
Bart took his hand off the saddle horn, pulled his Colt and stared at it.
I wondered if it was tellin’ him stories.
-Let’s get this Devil’s book to that Platt fella . . . And I’m intendin’ on finding me a little whiskey. After I drink half the bottle, planning on gettin’ a nice fat whore who’s lively.
He spurred Will. Traveller and me followed.
Hadn’t gone far when Bart pulled up and turned to me. –I ever hear another son-a-bitch tell ‘bout tyin’ knots in the Devil’s tail again, I’m gonna shoot ‘im.
He got quiet. Looked up at the stars.
I smiled best I could.
-Tristan, God and Holy matters come to yer mind back there?
Didn’t turn to face him. -Didn’t.
He pursed his lips. Nodded. Spurred Will.
[Michael Martin Murphey “Tyin’ Knots in The Devil’s Tail”]
(C) 2011 Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., is the author of the Lovecraftian novel Nightmare’s Disciple, and he has written many short stories that have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror and S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings and Spawn of the Green Abyss and many anthologies edited by Robert M. Price. His highly–acclaimed short story collections, Blood Will Have Its Season and SIN & ashes were published by Hippocampus Press in 2009 and 2010 respectively and as E-Books by Speaking Volumes in 2011.
Joe is currently editing 2 anthologies for Miskatonic River Press. A Season in Carcosa and The Grimscribe’s Puppets will be released by MRP in 2012.
If you enjoyed his story, let him know by commenting below!