The sunrise was a fruit bowl of colors: lemony-yellow, orange and cherry-red. However, beneath this beautiful dawning, the country was cruel and forbidding; miles upon miles of arid, cactus-studded land, the color of a biscuit, stretching for as far as the eye could see toward the hazy peaks of the Huachuca Mountains. Even the snakes, rabbits and deer had taken on their protective colorations, blending in perfectly with their surroundings. Water was scarce; the little that existed was tainted with alkali and the bleached bones of long-dead animals.
A rider appeared from the direction of the mountains, the hooves of his stallion kicking up clouds of swirling dust. His clothes — a broad brimmed Stetson, Wellington coat and trousers — closely matched the coal-black color of his mount, his deathly pallor stark against the somber hues. A long, gaunt face with hooded eyes held not a trace of emotion, as though it had been fashioned from rock with a hammer and chisel. He was tall for the era, perhaps six-three or four, his limbs long and gangly, hands as coarse and twisted as the talons of a bird. The air was strangely frigid around him, with a terrible stench, like putrefying vegetables in a long-forgotten root cellar.
As he drew abreast of a shaley escarpment, twinkling with mica, a startled rattler uncoiled itself and lunged, striking him squarely in the neck. Undaunted, the rider grabbed hold of the snake and bit off its head, chewing and savoring, before spitting it out like a mushy wad of tobacco. He held the body high for a few moments, watching it wriggle and squirm, then flung it idly aside and continued on his way.
* * *
Caleb Rice peered across the table at his old friend, Newt Cummings, wondering what in the hell could be eating at the man. In the twenty-odd years that he had known the gunfighter, he could never remember seeing him so pale and edgy and haggard-looking. With his mane of russet hair streaked with gray and purplish bags puffing beneath his eyes, Newton seemed to be wrestling with some old demons, or quite possibly, a considerable batch of new ones. Even his once majestic handlebar was hanging as limp as a soggy dishrag. Caleb watched, perplexed, as his friend raised a whiskey glass, his hand shaking so badly that some of the liquor sloshed over its sides onto the table.
“Newt, what in the be-Jesus is wrong with you? It looks like you’re one step ahead of the Devil and losing ground mighty quickly.”
“Whether you know it or not, you’ve hit the nail pretty much on the head.”
“I don’t get what you’re telling me.”
Cummings snatched up the whiskey bottle, his quivering hand causing him to miss the shot glass as much as he hit it.
“Here, let me do that for you. No sense wasting good whiskey.”
Cursing and swatting Caleb’s hand aside, Newt took a long gulp straight from the bottle, plunking it down hard on the table.
“How long have we known each other, Newton?”
“I dunno. What... maybe twenty years or so?”
“Yup. And I can rightly say that I’ve never seen you in such sad shape. Hell, it looks as though you haven’t had a decent sleep in a week.”
“It’s more like a month.”
“Why for Christsakes? Tell me, what’s wrong.”
Newton squinted, his pale blue eyes watery and listless. “You ain’t gonna believe a word that I say.”
“You laugh, I’ll whup your ass.”
There came a tinkle of glasses from the direction of the bar and Cummings jerked, his hand darting for his Colt. After a long moment, he chuckled at his own foolishness, shoulders narrowing as he slumped a little lower in the chair.
“You don’t know how right you were when you said, a little earlier, that I was one step ahead of the Devil. Hell, I don’t rightly know what the proper word is for the man.” Newt gave a wry laugh. “Maybe ‘Mister Death’ would be closer to it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“This gunfighter has been stalking me for the past month, maybe a tad longer. White as a sheet, dressed entirely in black. He smells something fearful, like some dead animal lying in the sun . He first called me out in Tucson and I beat him to the draw, placing a bullet right through his heart. He went down and I thought that was the end of it.” Newt took of his Stetson with a groan, running his fingers through his hair. “But oh no; a week later, the same man catches up to me in Las Cruces, and, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t call me out again.”
Caleb tried hard not to grin.
“This time, I put a bullet clean between his eyes and he goes down like a big sack of potatoes. I swear to God, right ’tween his eyes! I’m getting to old for this shit, Caleb, I swear to Christ.”
“You sure it was the same dude? Sounds kind of — you know — a bit far- fetched.”
“That’s hardly the word for it.” Newt grabbed the whiskey bottle and took a long gulp, the liquor spilling out and soaking his moustache. “If someone else told me this story, I’d be calling him a darnright liar.”
“It doesn’t end there, does it?”
“Wish to hell it did, but nope. A week later, the same — whatever you could call him — searches me out in the Lucky Nugget Saloon over in Contention and calls me out for a third damn time. He has these empty eyes and a hollow voice as if he’s talking from the middle of some empty room. The air is cold all around him — damn right frigid — and the same terrible stench. This time I put two slugs in his chest, and, when he hits the floor, I give him three more for good measure. So I left him there, just like the other times. Shit, an elephant would have been dead.”
A chill coursed down the length of Caleb’s spine, nestling in that little hollow just above his rump. “And?”
“What do you think?”
“He... he’s still on your tail.”
“Oh yeah; bird-dogging me every mile of the way. Sometimes I rein in and watch, spotting him far off in the distance. Those black clothes stick out like a sore thumb, even miles away.”
Caleb scrubbed his face with his hands, listening to the scraping of his whiskers.
“You believe me, don’t you? I mean; why in the world would I concoct such a tale?” When the question was greeted with silence, Newt leaned over the table, raising a brow. “Caleb? I’m asking you; do you believe me?”
“Yeah, Newt, I do. Just that sound of fear in your voice is enough to convince me. I have never known you to be afraid of anything or anyone.”
“You know; it’s just the matter of time before this walking dead man will beat me to the draw. The odds are in his favor. And when he does, I won’t be getting up and walking around.” Newt cackled like a demented chicken. “And you know something: right now I can hardly wait until that happens.”
“Don’t talk crazy.”
“What’s so crazy about it? I’m tired, Caleb; just plain, bony-weary tired. Enough is enough, already.”
“Maybe we can rustle up some men and ambush this — this — whatever you call him. Use Winchesters. Riddle the bastard from head to-foot.”
“No. It’s best you stay clear of this mess.”
Just, then, the batwing doors creaked and the two looked over to see a young man strut in, a pair of Colts slung low on his hips. He was eighteen, possibly younger, his baby face smooth and hairless, with a rosy flush to the cheeks. There was no mistaking it; he was another budding shootist just hankering to make a name for himself. It was there; in his eyes; the firm set of his lips; the very way he carried himself.
Newt sighed and buried his face in his hands. “Ah, Jesus,” he mumbled faintly. “Not now. Not again.”
“I’ll send him packing.”
Newton’s head snapped up. “No, no. Just keep out of this, all right. You’re a dang-blamed farmer, Caleb, and you’re not even packing.”
The kid strutted closer, his boots thudding on the rough pine floor, hands hanging close to a pair of pearl-handled Colts. “You’re Newton Cummings, ain’t’cha.?”
“Why ask? You know damn well who I am.”
“Yeah, I do.” The kid uttered a giddy, little laugh. “Mister Newton Cummings, the fastest gun in the whole, wide West.”
“And all points North and South and East. Give it a rest. Head on home and milk the cows or something.”
“I don’t like your tone, Cummings. Why don’t you stand up and repeat that.”
“Not now, son; I have a headache.”
“Get on your feet, old man! And your friend, there, can count to three.”
Newt winked at Caleb, slowly easing back his chair, wood scraping against wood. “Can you count that high?”
“On a good day, I reckon I can make it all the way to seven.”
“You think you’re funny, old man?” The kid took a few steps back and positioned himself, slowly flexing his fingers to nimble them up. “Maybe you can joke your way past the pearly gates.”
“More like fire and brimstone, kid,” said Newt, standing and kicking back the chair with his foot. “Are you ready for that three-count, Caleb?”
“There has to be another way.”
“There doesn’t appear to be.”
Everyone in the saloon leapt to their feet and hustled out of the way, collecting into a tight knot in the far corner. They were going to witness history in the making, their eyes as big as saucers, mouths eagerly hanging open. You could have heard the dust rustling.
“Count!” shouted the kid.
Caleb looked to Newt, who offered a barely perceptible nod. Strange: his face looked so calm and serene, as though he had finally come to terms with his demons. An inner peace would be a good way of putting it.
“Hey, old man; you had better start counting, or I’ll plug you first!”
Caleb nervously wetted his lips.
He shuffled his feet, eyes darting from Newt to the kid.
“Uh... uh... God dang it... three!”
The kid drew with surprisingly lightening speed, the shot shattering the stillness of the saloon. Caleb watched with shock as Newt staggered, blood blossoming across his shirt. Christ, he hadn’t even tried for his gun! A crash followed the dying repercussion of the Colt, as Newt dropped to the floor, dragging over his chair as he went.
“Damn you, you little bastard; he never reached for his weapon!”
The kid gave his Colt a fancy twirl and returned it to its holster. “He knew it,” he said, a smug grin parting his face. “He knew he didn’t have a chance, so he didn’t even bother”
Caleb started for the kid, but the Colt was out again in a flash. “Don’t give me a reason, old man!”
At the click of the Colt’s hammer, Caleb retreated a few steps, staring, before rushing to his dying friend’s side. Newt twitched a few times, releasing a rumbling fart, then grew still. Sweet Jesus, there was a smile on his lips; faint, hardly noticeable, but nonetheless, it was there! In that instant of understanding, Caleb sighed, resting a gentle hand on Newton’s shoulder.
The kid strutted like a peacock for a few moments then headed for the street, shoving through the batwing door. He had killed the famous Newton Bryant Cummings! Men in every state and territory, west of the Mississippi, would know the name of Billy Ray Sturgis! Just to think, his daddy, that miserable, know-nothing bastard, had once said that he would never amount to anything. Well, he sure enough had and he would give his hind teeth if the old man could see him now! Billy Ray Sturgis, the fastest six gun alive!
Midway across the street, he felt a sudden chill and stopped dead in his tracks, shivering. Then a God-awful stench reached his nostrils and he gagged, trying to quell an overwhelming urge to vomit. Shit, there must be a dead dog nearby, festering in the sun. Then hearing the thud-thud thud of hooves, he turned to see a tall man, dressed entirely in black, cantering his horse down the center of the street; a glorious-looking stallion, as black as its rider’s clothes, as black or blacker than the dead of night. Jesus, the man was pale! He looked like death warmed over!
The stranger reined in his horse, bending over and leaning his arms on the pommel. His empty eyes were fixed on Billy, impaling him, piercing all the way, it seemed, to his very soul.
“You know Newton Cummings by sight?” came a voice, chilling hollow, as though it was spoken from the very bottom of a well.
“Sure do. The late Newton Cummings, if I might make a correction.”
The man merely cocked his head.
“I just beat Cummings to the draw, shooting him dead in his tracks,” added Billy, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Back there, in that saloon. And, I’ll tell you; he was nowhere as fast as his reputation.”
The rider’s bloodless lips curled into a smile that Billy could only describe as “scary.” In those few seconds, the short hairs at the back of his neck started to prickle.
“Well, now,” said the stranger, easing straight in the saddle. “I guess, then, I’ll have to deal with you.”
Copyright © 2003 by Gerald Sheagren