(This is a sequel of sorts to A Meeting On the Trail to Hot Iron — Editor)
WAR speaks, chorus it sends up burns. Wracks. Hyena comes. Laughs. Drools, muzzle of fever at the river, rips until every pen and column, every drummer and beggar trying to carry an afternoon to his rooms of coffeebeans and wedding-veil curtains, is gone.
thick and red and blind
the holes in them drinking
There were trees.
There was a river.
West –days that just passed by –blood –hot air –doors –murder –lot of nowhere and empty –smoke and filth thick as swamp vines
wind… rock… Spanish spoke … niggers… and pistols…
heat and whores, one barefoot, skulls smokin’ in her eyes
two tall men laugh
others -drunk –afraid –raw . . . nothing fine
a lean dead gambler
got a bottle
drank it all
entered the void
left here . . .
On his horse by the creek. Looked at his ammunition, at the town. Spent a moment on likelihood and condition.
There were some birds measuring the morning light. Two were small. They sat on a branch of a tree the color of ashes. For near an hour they just watched. Neither spoke.
Rode toward the cluster of small houses.
He was dry as the trail. Knew there’d be a bar. A glass of whiskey. Wanted some beans. Didn’t spend time hoping for a beefsteak.
Met up with Grady and his little brother Al. Jed Allen and the Mexican half-breed with the silent knives too.
“All the gold just sittin’ there.”
He sure liked the sound of that.
There were trees.
There was a river.
He thought about dusty days being gone.
Mountains with veins of snow.
Nothing to make one with.
The sound of a horse . . . Maybe two or more.
he did too
more than once
They’re coming slow.
try to breathe
No mystery in the cards dealt.
Run. Carry the pain. Pine. Slide. Trip. Stumble. Run. And keep moving. You can outrun a horse in this terrain. Snow. Cold. No camp. Maybe later. Maybe take to the water. Pay for it downstream. Decides to double back and camp over them. 8. 16 guns. 2 pack mules. They have fire. They have whiskey. Got coffee too. Only two are hard, death took all the searchin’ out of ‘em. He can see that. War hard. Hate hard. Dangerous as his desperation. They have fire. They have beans.
He’s got wind.
And he’s bleeing.
He camps above and just behind them. No Fire. And night will not shut up.
Waitin’ on sun-up. Wishin’ he had a rifle. Got a pistol and 9 bullets. Got a knife.
Odds say fall.
Least he’s a got a heavy coat.
And the animal behind his eyes.
There’s some say this out here is a church. Lord made all this. Grand and graceful and there’s beauty. Some. Some prayers didn’t help when hard hit inta ‘em.
Cold chewing him he don’t see no mercy.
Coat pulled tight about him, hidin’ in a tight stand of pine, he don’t feel no mercy.
2 on watch.
Knife and 6 shots would take 7. If he got lucky. Ain’t no luck up here. Grab a gun or reload, might be he could kill them first? Animal wants to. He don’t. Not really. Ain’t ready to go under snakes. Hungry, angry, weak. He ain’t gonna kill 7 and get lucky too. Don’t spend time wishing on it.
They break camp. Follow the river downstream. Follow his tracks. Right to the river.
He follows their tracks in the other direction. Let’s the fast wind cover his trail.
Don’t figure they’ll follow that track long.
Moves all day.
Don’t hear or see them.
Lotta men throwing their lives around down there under the snowline. Speaking of death and born and suffering. They drink but don’t cross the distance of a prayer. All they carry bleeding in their eyes. Whores see it. They sing and take what they can from the raw vulture sinew. Fear the landfall of hate and drunkenness. The lantern of a cock puttin’ its axe to ‘em they don’t pray much either. Ain’t a question of indifference. It’s all function. Try to stay connected to breathing, try even when the sky unravels its 40 of uttered rain.
He’s hidden away again. Blackness helps. Wishes for fire. Wishes for whiskey. And a whore. Got nuthin’.
‘cept the hard. War put it there. Maybe other things before too? Maybe.
Hard ‘ill keep a man. Don’t cure, but it will conjure sometimes. Some nights you can breathe it all night long.
He’s hopin’ this is one.
Hopin’ for things down below that treeline.
Come morning he will follow their track down for a time. Let come what may come. Has before.
Mid-day he figures.
Lying there plain.
Can’t say what they behold. Ain’t no heaven.
Fell out of his saddle.
Bullet ’ill do that.
Figures mad argued. Gun flashed. Fell sidewise.
Over ‘bout that fast.
Hard men do that.
Wished he was a man who could get bent by lucky or bought into the land of miracle. Did he might wrap his thoughts ‘round beatin’ 7. Ain’t. But he’s happy for 7. Looks for sign of blood.
Dead man never drew.
7 that will keep comin’.
Knows the two hard ones will come and keep coming till they are dead. Others are just coming for the gold.
Wonders what price they put on him. Dollar a day maybe?
Might be another price.
Figures there’s no maybe ‘bout DEAD or alive.
And they do keep coming.
Ugly and dirty town. So dead it ain’t even dangerous. No singing from its mouth. Groaning. Heartache and pine and heartache. Flies adrift. Sun bleaches. Houses nuthin’ but there.
Had a small bank.
4 went into the bank.
Jed Allen didn’t come out. All his dusty days were gone. Wished it was the Mexican half-breed. Warn’t.
Took the gold. Took that book in the safe too. Book of gibberish and squigglin’s no man could read. Warn’t worth a damn. Threw it in a river.
Left the banker cold. Another man in the bank too.
Half day later Grady died from the gunshot wound.
Warn’t time to. Didn’t bury Grady.
Rode away with Grady’s little brother Al and the Mexican half-breed too.
And the riders came.
No badges. No marshal.
Figured they rode to get the gold back.
But these men warn’t riding to claim back gold.
“We get to injin land we’ll be okay.” That’s what Grady’s little brother Al said.
Grady’s brother met an arrangement with trouble, drained him. No back and forth in the iron. Rifle shot took him right out of this saddle.
Didn’t slow down. Didn’t say a word.
He got grazed too.
But he rode on.
Shot twice. Flesh wounds. Slowed him both times.
He’s trimmed them down to 2. Had help.
Hard one kilt 2.
Just shot them.
Soul in the shape of a knife he rolled the Mexican half-breed out of life. Left ‘im in the trail’s sand. He sure wouldn’t miss him. Sun wouldn’t either.
Month of running and the gold didn’t bring anything high and wide.
Mean takes him. Figures go in the camp. Finish what needs to get finished.
A rush of kill.
The sound of horses—
two in their bed rolls
Down. Rough ground a cold gate to Hell.
Hard one standin’ over Him. Shotgun a fact harder than bad weather.
He swings his eyes from it.
Can’ see the other hard one. Knows he’s there somewhere.
“Where is it?”
Knows what he’s getting asked. “With my dead horse. Couldn’t carry it.”
“Not the gold.”
Uncertain. Blinks. Looks into serious.
“This is about that?”
Smiles. “Threw it in the river night the after you kilt the kid. Warn’t going to do me any good. Weighed ‘bout as much as a sack of beans. No pack horse. Would have slowed me down.”
Hard one cocks his head. Shotgun stays solid.
He can see the question on the hard one’s face. “Kid wanted it. Kept it. Can’t really say why. Fascinated, or figured it might be worth something ‘cause it was locked in that safe. Never asked. He carried it.”
Freezin’ –afraid –raw . . . nothing fine. Not another card to draw.
No last stand. No what have I done? No sudden flash of Mama sayin’, “Man brings sorrow down on himself.” Just dead.
Hard one did not bother to say you can’t get slower than dead. Didn’t even think it. Walks to his horse. Takes the telegram out of his pocket. Crumples it. Throws it down. Looked up at the stars. Wonders why that Platt fellow didn’t take the book straight back East. Put it right in his hands. Looked him in the eyes. Wondered about that a few times now. No words come out.
Other hard one turned to face him. Didn’t ask a question. Figured they had talked about this and the answer, if there was one, was still the same.
Hard one climbed on his horse and gave him the spurs.
The other one didn’t look up at the stars. Just followed his partner into the cold night.
[N.R.P.S. “Henry” and “Dirt Business” and Bob Seger “Still the Same”]
(C) Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. 2011
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.
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