Science Fiction & Fantasy

Seasonal Fears

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Fiction

Dance of Bones

By the time Bose Roberds spied the lone, empty wagon, he got the nagging suspicion that he was meant to follow the stranger’s trail easily. The noon sun beat on him like a whip in a heavy hand. He’d followed the tracks across the plains for quite some time. Whoever he tracked could’ve traveled through thickets so dense that neither man nor horse could see for more than a few yards at a time. More than once, Bose feared that the man might lurk in the brush, hiding in the draws and canyons.

The other cowhands lingered a few lengths behind him, more than a mite cranky—fueled by their rumbling stomachs—but Bose couldn’t be both cook and tracker at the same time. He ignored their grumblings until he found the wagon they were meant to find. It slumped to one side, wheels busted, like a hobbled steer. The covering still appeared new, but there were no signs of any of their horses.

The Ninth marched out with splendid cheer,” Bose sang to himself, a bit of a nervous habit. “The Bad Lands to explore.”

“What’s that?” Dirk Ramey loosed a stream of tobacco juice. A big man with cruel, thin lips stained with brown spittle, an unshaven face and hard eyes, Dirk proved a difficult man to like.

“A ditty I used to know from when I marched with the 9th.” Bose never referred to the 9th as Buffalo Soldiers. He had joined the 9th Cavalry at his first opportunity. The Cheyenne nicknamed the 9th and 10th Cavalry the Buffalo Soldiers after the noble, sacred animals they respected. If only the Army held the soldiers in similar regard. Instead, they were given old and worn saddles, blankets, and tents. Their horses often went lame. To his shame, he won a Congressional Medal of Honor for leading an attack on the Cheyenne despite he and his men being severely outnumbered. Protecting whites from Indians, forcing the Indians to move because the government found some new resource of theirs to exploit, filled him with disgust. Rather than huddle close to stoves during another winter, he deserted the Army.

Bose adjusted the gun in his holster, loosening the leather thongs for easy draw. These Circle T boys were one step above useless, carrying only one Colt, usually wrapped in their bedrolls. Mighty handy if they had intentions on dying in their sleep. Bose swung off his horse, studying the wagon for any clue to what happened. The legs of the driver remained in his seat, the rest of his body hidden by the wagon’s canopy. Bose pulled back the tarp. Sprawled out on the seat, a man still clutched his pistol. His wife rotted behind him. Both were dressed in their best Sunday-gone-to-meeting clothes. Too dried out to be done recent. Their empty skulls screamed wordlessly at the noon sky, their dreams of a new life for themselves cut brutally short in the harshness of the West. The presentation of the bodies, so carefully staged, tickled something in the recesses of his memory.

Bose’s mother feared such a fate for him when he first told her that he planned to venture to Los Angeles, where the laws against holding blacks as slaves were strongly enforced.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I’ve got to find my own way.”

Funny how memories had a way of sneaking up on a feller at the oddest times. Bose knelt beside the wagon and picked up an arrow. Scattered here and there, too carefully staged, he thought.

“Could be Utes,” Dirk said. “This here’s Ute country.”

“They been killing a lot of folks,” another hand echoed. He scanned their surroundings nervously as if Utes might jump out from the shadows.

“Pile their graves high with rocks. We don’t want the coyotes to get them.” Bose turned his back to them.

“Why?” Dirk challenged him for their benefit. They bristled at being ordered about by a Negro.

This scene played out on occasion as if they needed reminding. Over six feet tall, with bulging muscles like thick metal cords and skin like smoked leather, no man ever struck fear into Bose. If there was an attack, he led the charge. When in doubt, he spoiled for a good fight just for its own sake. He turned to let them see the seriousness in his eyes before returning to his study of the trail. In the end, Bose Roberds was not a man to be trifled with.

“Because I said to. Then we can get back to camp.”

Bose returned his attentions to the ground. The tracks disconcerted him. The other hands thought cattle rustlers worked the trail. If that were the case, the cold thing stirring in his stomach wouldn’t bother him so. No, what disturbed him was that they had been led so far astray from the Goodnight-Loving Trail and whether or not they admitted it, no one knew much about what lay in the wilderness.

“What’ll we say about him?” Dirk gestured at the waiting trail of the stranger for Bose’s benefit.

“Don’t worry about him.” Bose stared at the puff of dust that rose in the distance. “We’ll catch him sooner or later. He ain’t trying to cover his trail none.”

Things hadn’t been right since they left Abaddon three days earlier.

• • • •

Taking one gander at the string of makeshift buildings that dared call itself a town, Bose had decided against going in. Abaddon was still as a corpse’s whisper. He’d been in this kind of place before: a town deceptively dead, yet the wrong word to the wrong person could cause the place to explode. A cemetery set the boundary on the west. Cow custom made the more respectable north side of town off limits to cattle herders. The seven buildings on the south side included a general store and a bank that begrudgingly catered to them. The saloon and gambling house that thrived on them. The building at the end of the row—the one that all the decent folk seemed to take special pains to avoid—housed girls who waited for the trail herds.

That night, preparing to go off gal hooting, the Circle T boys cleaned their guns, washed their necks, and dusted their hats. All duded up, they hollered and carried on like young bucks in need of wrangling. When they returned, though, they avoided Bose’s eyes. He didn’t press them. Whiskey-loosened tongues allowed him to piece together a general picture of what had happened. A mean argument had erupted at the brothel, ending with the Circle T boys hightailing it out of Abaddon.

Soon after, Bose noticed that they were being followed. Hunted.

• • • •

The Circle T bunch was a simple contingent who took Bose on without much complaint or question. Theirs was a pretty salty outfit, reduced to a sullen, hard-bitten crew. Bose rose earliest to prepare coffee and biscuits. Years of privation at the Army’s hands trained him to go without much sleep. Most nights he stretched out on an old horse blanket when he wasn’t off stalking about in the night. Bose preferred the honesty of the range. Cow custom, the common law of the range, defined people. The trail crew needed a marksman, a handy trait in the cook. He liked the work so he settled into it first thing. It was hard, hard work, but Bose could settle into the illusion that competence, not skin color, mattered on a drive. It paid a solid $125 per month, second only to the trail boss. He didn’t mind the work, but every job had its bosses and its problem children.

Henry McCormick, the first to arrive for chow, handled their herd of horses. Other than that, the wrangler spent too much time in a bottle, always ailing when there was work to be done. He was good with the men, though. Like a gruff mother hen.

The relief hands ate next before relieving the night guard. Not a spine among the lot of them. A pack of wild dogs ready to piss all over everything, always in search of someone to follow.

The son of the cattle owner, Will Grimes fancied himself the trail boss, but was more of an arrogant windbag who couldn’t stomach men who wouldn’t kowtow to him. Under the tutelage of his father, Will insured that the trail was passable for the wagon and the herd, acting as a buffer between theirs and other cattle drives. His deep-set coal eyes often peered right at Bose. He believed that the men turned to Bose when trouble arose and resented it. Bose didn’t cotton to him right away. He wasn’t much by way of good judgment. Rash the way the young and privileged could be.

“Hand me the coffee,” Will said. Bose didn’t move or acknowledge him. “What?”

“If you want me to do something for you, you say ‘please.’”

“My ‘please’ is implicit,” Will said, self-impressed with what book learning he had.

“I’m an explicit sort of cuss.” Used to all manner of gun trouble, Bose didn’t bat an eye.

“You got a lot of sand in you, boy.”

“Sand has a way of toughening you up.” Bose handed him a cup of strong, black, cowpuncher coffee. He waited for the boy to take a swig. Will gagged and spat, throwing the rest of the cup on to the fire. He stormed off in a snit, his back to the snorts at his expense.

“Seems he right can’t handle the coffee,” Henry said between sobs of laughter. He tipped the contents of his metal flask into his coffee mug.

“You tell him that you mix chili juice in it?” Dirk asked.

“He didn’t ask.” Bose tucked away a wry smile.

“Don’t mind my boy.” Wiry, with rust-colored hair and eyes like steel, Bradford Grimes ambled toward the camp in his wide-brimmed planter’s hat and his black, broadcloth suit.

“I don’t.” Bose beat the dust from his chaps.

“He means well, just comes on a little strong trying to earn the men’s respect,” Mr. Grimes said.

“Respect comes to a man if he does his job well.” Collecting the cups and plates, Bose washed and stored away dishes.

“Well, he can check the herd. I heard tell that one or two might’ve taken sick. Let’s see how he handles that before anyone thinks too harsh on him.”

Mr. Grimes spoiled his boy, Bose guessed, not having anything to measure it against since he had no children of his own. Mr. Grimes gave Bose a measure of latitude since Bose saved the man’s life once. The hands were cutting cattle when a steer charged after Mr. Grimes. Without hesitation, Bose tossed the bridle over his horse’s head, and jumped in the saddle. When the steer tucked its head to hook himself a white man, Bose roped it, bringing it down with the flourish of a holler. Mr. Grimes promoted him on the spot, on the condition that he never talk about it. After all, it “didn’t look good to owe your life to a nigger.”

A mood settled over the men. They gathered in clusters. They whispered but kept a nervous eye on each other, like watchmen waiting for a crack in a dam. By nine a.m. the Circle T boys coaxed the cattle into a moving column about a mile long. The elder and junior Grimes rode point with four others at swing and flank. The cattle moved, bawling and frisking, making the occasional stop to crop with disinterest at some grass. Skittish and more jumpy than usual, Dirk and Henry lingered at the drag to prod the sluggish, footsore, or weak cattle. Riding ahead of the herd in the chuck wagon, Bose followed the tracks of the lone rider who dogged their trail, but stayed just out of reach.

Henry rode to catch up to him, stale whisky heavy on his breath. “Y’ don’t strike me as much of a talkin’ man.”

“Reckon not, lessen I got something to say,” Bose said.

“Y’ don’t take much guff, even from Mr. Grimes. Or his no-good son.”

Bose recognized a man fishing for information when he smelled one and, right then, Henry stank of the Mississippi at low flow. He kept silent, his eyes fixed on the horizon. Like men, terrain had to be seen in more than one light. Shadows distorted the silhouette of the land and the early morning or late evening showed things sun-blurred by day.

“Don’t mind Will,” Henry continued, “he’s still fumin’ cause he had to ask his pappy to make him trail boss. He couldn’t stand starting at the lowest cow ranch job: cuttin’ wood for the cook.”

“Not just any cook, but a drifting Negro cowhand riding the grub line,” Bose said with deliberate caution. He didn’t want his tongue wagging too much.

“Probably got used t’ his pappy bein’ the sole power ‘round these parts. Used t’ be that . . .” Henry coughed like a hound baying at a possum. At first Bose took it as a holdover from his time as a miner, but there was something else. A nervousness, the weight of no sleep, crept about his eyes. He had the look of a man haunted by a secret, a burden he wished to share. Henry reached into his vest for his metal flask.

“Henry!” Mr. Grimes barked.

Henry cursed under his breath.

“Come back here. A couple of these steer look sick.”

• • • •

The men made camp in the lee of the cliff while Bose studied the terrain searching for any sign of the rider. Maybe that was what troubled him so much. After he informed Mr. Grimes that someone had been hounding their trail since Abaddon, he’d been ordered to track the stranger. Fear of rustlers was one thing, but it struck Bose that only men with secrets or guilty consciences feared a single man following them.

The rider’s path hadn’t crossed his back trail. The route became dusty. Like a man on the dodge, Bose held to the grassy side to raise no dust. Watching Will ride up reminded him of his theory about horses and partners. Both had to have staying power such that they could ride all day and all night and still be with him at sun up. Both needed to be scrappy, savvy, and, most of all, loyal. Showy was a distraction, a trap to cover a poor horse. Will Grimes was showy.

“We got a problem with the steers,” Will said.

“That’s too bad, but them animals are your business.”

“The men ain’t feeling none too good either.”

“You blaming me?” Bose sat up straighter in his saddle.

“We’d all just feel more comfortable if you stayed in camp with us from now on.” Will smiled, a painful and pitiful thing, not disguising the insinuation that the situation was somehow Bose’s fault. The tacit implication that Bose must’ve purposely sought out a sick steer to serve for dinner.

The pall of a funeral settled on the camp. Mr. Grimes stalked the corral a pale ghost of himself. By the best counts, some four hundred head of whiteface cattle had been struck with disease. Out of a nearly three thousand count herd, the cattle run was closing in on becoming a bust. The disease had the flesh rotting from their bones. The cows lumbered about, languidly chewing cud with half of the flesh from their mouths falling off in gangrenous chunks. The herd smelled of rancid meat. The men decided to camp upwind. Henry and Dirk stood at the edge of camp as if on guard duty. Dirk slipped a clump of chaw into his mouth.

“Drift over here a minute,” Henry waved Bose over. “How’s it going?”

Bose walked with the easy step of a woodsman. “Mostly quiet night. Except . . .”

“‘Ceptin’ what?” Henry perked up with renewed interest.

“Except for the rider,” Bose said. “I can’t tell if we’re following him or if he’s following us.”

“I ain’t even convinced there’s even a rider out there.” Dirk spat a yellow stream at Bose’s feet. “Just a rumor some folks started to spook the boys.”

“Seems like all our trouble started after leaving Abaddon,” Bose said to Henry, not bothering to acknowledge Dirk.

“You buttin’ your nose into things that don’t concern you none,” Dirk said.

“And you sound like a man who needs to clear his conscience.” The men seemed ready to bolt, distrust made them turn on one another. On him. Bose leveled his steady gaze on Henry. “Now I’m not a holy man or nothing, but I’m the best you got if you need to confess something.”

“You having the dreams?” Henry asked Dirk.

“I got t’ thinkin’ it was only me.” Dirk’s tobacco juice sizzled in the campfire.

“What dreams?” Bose asked. Neither of them met his eyes. “What dreams?”

“It . . .” Henry’s voice trailed. He wasn’t going to be able to tell it, perhaps too embarrassed at the telling, at least not under Bose’s steady gaze. Understanding this, Bose moved closer toward the fire, stoking its gentle flames, and giving him a measure of privacy. “Nightmares not fit for a man t’ rightly have. She comes t’ me every night, naked as a sunrise. We start t’ know each other, in the Biblical sense, then, while we’re still . . .”

“Knowing?” Bose offered. Henry turned away, but nodded.

“She starts t’ rot underneath me. Her skin just slides off like she was wearing a costume of flesh, becomin’ little more than a skeleton. Worms winding their way through the fleshy bits of what remained of her ribs and such. When I wake up, I can still smell her perfume. An’ I have a few additions to my collection.”

Before Bose could ask, Henry turned around and raised his shirt. Scratches crisscrossed his back, many scars not quite healed over.

“Damn,” Bose said.

Dirk trembled in the reflected amber light of the campfire, tugging his shirt tighter as if afraid the wind might catch it just right and reveal his own nail-scarred back.

Henry seemed to weigh his options for a minute. He coughed up a wad of blood onto the ground. Sweat beaded along his forehead, making him look even more pale and haggard. “You ever hear of a soiled dove?”

“A prostitute that gets . . . hurt in the line of duty,” Bose said.

“Henry . . .” Dirk cautioned.

“It’s all right, Dirk, he might as well know. We were heading into Abaddon, t’ have a few to cut the dust. Well, soon as we got there, we knew something was right peculiar. All eyes were on us, the people not saying a word. When we approached the end building, people made themselves scarce, steppin’ inside or shutterin’ their windows. Made us no nevermind. Didn’t want a bunch of pryin’ noses in our business no way. The bartender lined up a few without meetin’ our eyes, but the women . . . the women were angels. The most fetchin’ collection o’ gals I ever did see.”

“Been my experience that the prettier the gal, the bigger the passel of trouble that follows,” Bose said.

“You ain’t lyin’. It was all we could do t’ keep our tongues from fallin’ out o’ our fool mouths. Each o’ the women picked a man an’ made a bee line right for him. This gal saunters up t’ me askin’ what brings us to town.

“‘Jest an old cowhand, ma’am. Lookin’ t’ take a break from the trail,’ I tell her.

“‘You must be very good at your job,’ she said.” Henry affected a female voice. He wasn’t very convincing.

“‘Ain’t much on which t’ court a woman.’

“‘You are very handsome.’ Now I’m used t’ women lyin’ about such things when business was at hand. Heck, that’s what I paid ‘em for. Still, to hear her say it, I near got t’ believin’ it myself. What did I know? I was no hand with women. Never could read their signs.

“She led me t’ one o’ the upstairs rooms. She put her hands on me, wantin’ me to draw her near. Something in the way her hands reached along my back made me uneasy, but . . .”

“But what?” Bose asked.

“But she was so pretty. An’ it had been so long. I ignored that little voice in the back o’ my head, the one that says y’ oughten not be doin’ something. I kissed her, hard an’ long. She was as soft an’ as pretty smellin’ as any woman I’ve been with.”

“Then what happened?” Bose wanted him to skip ahead before Henry got too caught up in details he didn’t want to picture.

“We kept kissin’. I started feeling along her back t’ try an’ get her out o’ her outfit when I ketched a glimpse o’ her mirror. I thought something was out o’ place about the room. I may not know much about women, but I know that their mirrors are the center o’ their rooms. This one was in the corner, out o’ the way. I reckon it would have been too odd t’ not have one in the room at all. Maybe I was meant t’ see her, jest not right away. Anyway, I ketched her reflection in the mirror an’ what I saw didn’t match what I was holdin’. She looked like she stepped right from a grave, all rotted an’ foul.”

“Like the cattle?” Bose studied Dirk to see if he was being put on, but Dirk turned from him and spit into the fire.

“Kinda. ‘Ceptin’ worse, cause her skin was black as pitch, an’ her flesh peeled back straight t’ the bone in spots. I ain’t ashamed to tell y’ that I screamed an’ pushed her away from me. I reckon whatever it was that kept her lookin’ pretty may have tricked my eyes, but mirrors couldn’t hold illusions.

“‘What’s the matter?’ she had the nerve t’ ask. I would’ve chalked it up t’ bein’ in the sun too long, iffen she hadn’t smiled at me. Smiled. A knowin’ grin, even as a maggot crawled out o’ her arm in the reflection. Like it was some grand joke. That was when I heard the gun shot.”

“Will,” Bose said with the certainty of him having been there.

“I reckon it didn’t take too much figurin’ on who had the itchy trigger finger. He was never one for jokes.”

“I didn’t think anyone took their guns into town.”

“He carried a derringer with him. Blew a hole clean through her face, breakin’ whatever spell kept them all pretty. Or leastways not looking like a grave spit them out. A howl came from downstairs. All the men had the same thought, skedaddlin’ out the windows an’ out o’ that God-forsaken place.”

“You thinking that it might be the . . . proprietor that’s trailing us?” Bose asked.

“Reckon so. Makes sense anyway, what sense there is t’ be had.”

Bose studied the sickly face of the men. He found himself prejudiced in favor of Henry, realizing the dilemma of not wanting to go against the man who paid his salary. Dirk stared at the fire, caught up in his own shame. Lips set in a grim line, Bose stood, ready to quit. He wanted no part of the vendetta, or whatever was after them. And he damn sure wasn’t gearing up to defend Will Grimes. He needed some time to get his thoughts together.

During his time as a soldier, he’d been in some horrible places and seen some awful things, and heard tales of a strange brand of magicians. The stories sounded too much like something he’d hear at his mother’s knee to scare him into good behavior, never believing them because he knew how tales got exaggerated around a campfire.

A desert judge.

The cold feeling coiled in his belly again.

• • • •

With the creeping of night, talk died down. Still putting the pieces into place, the first shift of night duty allowed him the peace to gather his wandering thoughts. The second shift was the least desirable since the cattle often stretched and were prone to wandering. Bose watched the desert. A coyote yipped in the distance, complaining about the sudden cool. Dirk and another of the Circle T boys relieved him.

“Don’t stray too far from camp. The moon will be full and things happen out here that no white people have seen.”

“Since when does a nigger talk so uppity to whites?” Dirk turned back to his fellow hand, wanting to save face.

Slow and deliberate, Bose turned to him, allowing the drape of his shirt to reveal his undulating muscles with each movement. “Since your lives depend on it.”

Dirk took a step backward like a small dog determined to bark louder in retreat. “We’ll do as we please, without any say from you.”

“Makes me no nevermind. I’m paid to bring in cattle, not men determined to die.”

“Go to the devil. I worry more about Indians scalping us in our sleep than I do any bedtime monsters.”

Bose wasn’t too worried about Indians. No, something else was definitely at work here. Rumor had it that desert judges sold their souls to become well versed in dark rituals. Some of the rituals supposedly involved eating human flesh, the younger the better, to be granted great power. The evil they communed with had a way of changing a body, transforming a person.

Bose pressed his head into his bedroll for the fitful thing that he called sleep.

• • • •

Though he didn’t remember drawing it, Bose snapped awake with his gun in hand. His trouble reflex stirred him to wakefulness. A horseshoe clicked against stone. Soft-footing it toward the source of the sound, he had to catch himself from humming.

A frail, gaunt figure leaned over the body of a dead coyote. With quick, fluid movements, his body obscured his actions. When the figure stood up, he held a tin cup overflowing with a dark liquid. He turned toward Bose with the truculent stare of hollowed eyes that had stared too long into the sun. Or the darkness of men’s souls. Yellow, broken teeth spread in full reveal approximating a smile. His roan, a black beast that snorted in a fit as the man approached, had the wild bearing of a horse used to long miles of hard riding. His hand patted a small sack which hung from about his neck.

“Only the guilty.” He raised his cup in toast.

Bose took aim, not taking his eyes off the man for an instant, but the man and his horse disappeared, swallowed whole by the night.

“Damn it!” Dirk yelled.

The whole camp scrambled.

“What’s the matter?” Bradford Grimes stormed from his tent, Winchester in hand. Will ran up to settle in at his father’s side.

“The cattle. I went down to check the herd.” Dirk held his hands up like he didn’t want to be splashed with blame. “They all dead. Some look like they’ve been rotting for some weeks even though they were fresh this morning.”

“There nothing for us here.” Bose spoke not from cowardice, but from his pragmatic self. “We should cut our losses and get as far from this country as possible. Skins intact. Because he’ll be back.”

“Who?” Mr. Grimes demanded.

“Go ahead and tell him,” Dirk chided. “Your boy here’s been going on about a fairy tale.”

“A desert judge,” Bose said. The light of recognition flickered in Mr. Grimes’s eyes. “You’ve heard of them, too.”

“Don’t rightly know what you mean,” Mr. Grimes said.

“Your lies will soon find their end,” a voice of an open grave rang out. The men turned to see the gaunt figure step into their midst. If the man had ever been one of those everyday, weather-worn faces Bose had come to expect in frontier life, those days were long behind him. His face a skein of dark scars. He flexed long, gnarled fingers in anticipation.

“Who are you? What do you want?” His Winchester held at his side, Mr. Grimes took a tentative step toward the man. Bose wondered if the rifle might be more useful trained on the man’s heart.

“Revenge. You took my daughter, my life from me at Abaddon. Now I’ve come for yours. You will know the measure of a father’s grief,” the man said. “Bit by bit, I will take away everything you hold dear. Your livelihood. Your men. Your son. Until all you have left is grief enough to turn a man’s soul. And only then might I trouble myself to take what remains of you.”

“She was already dead,” Will protested. All eyes turned to him.

“Not to me. None of them were. We all make our homes in our corners of hell. Abaddon was ours. We had dreams once, of settling the West, until an Apache raid cut them short. Only my power saved me. I couldn’t let the dream die.”

“So you what? Raised them from the dead?” Bose slowly pieced the story together. The man glanced at him with only a fraction of his intense scorn. Hatred emanated from him like waves of heat from desert sands. The death of a child could drive any man insane, twisting him so that any straw to stem the pain was grasped.

“Her death broke my spell that held us together. No matter where they were. All my friends, my family, returned to the grave.” The desert judge spoke softly, with an almost defeated tone.

“You’ll know my torment.” Almost unconsciously, the wizened creature touched the small pouch dangling from his neck. “You’ll watch all you love die.”

Mr. Grimes aimed his Winchester at the man, but before he could fire, the man let loose a soul-piercing scream. The men covered their ears, not that it helped. Bose caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye.

The steers.

The stink of flesh rotting from their bones rose to a near physical pitch. Most of the bodies huddled near one another, as if knowing that death approached, seeking the comfort of one another in their last moments. The corpses of the fallen steers formed a burial mound of sorts, yet something stirred in the pile. Bones drew to one another like magnetized bits, not caring how they lined up. Flesh knitted together, bits stitched from each steer melting into one another, forming a patchwork quilt of rotted skin over the skeletal creature. A looming longhorn head, larger than the skull of any single steer, topped the monstrosity. It opened its maw, echoing the ear-bleeding shriek of its master.

Moving with terrifying speed, it attacked the Circle T boys. Mr. Grimes stepped between the creature and Will, leaving his men to fend for themselves. It tore into them, trampling some, scattering the rest with its thunderous hooves. Lowering its head, the beast looked on to Henry, who stood his ground. Henry fumbled with his metal flask, downing a quick swig before welcoming the steer’s gouging horns with a grimace of near relief. The horns pierced him in his belly and with a sharp upthrust, ripped him to the top of his ribcage. His insides spilled out while he still stood.

“Dear God,” Mr. Grimes muttered, watching the scene.

“There is no God. Not for you. Not for me.” Fine lines radiated from the desert judge’s dark eyes, a filigree of sun, wind, and hard living. Hate convoluted his brain so deep, his eyes seemed to withdraw in shame. Cruelty etched around his mouth when he turned toward Will Grimes. “Your boy. Such enormous vitality he possesses. It will be a pleasure to drain him.”

“Pa?” Will suddenly looked every bit of his teenage years.

Bradford Grimes stared at his son, the word “no” formed on his lips.

“You’ve had your fill of blood.” Bose loosened the thong holding his gun in place. “Why not leave them with what they’ve seen. They’ve paid enough.”

The desert judge turned to him. “True, this won’t relieve my soul. The burdens that scar it aren’t so easily erased, but it will make them, make her, rest a mite easier.”

“Can’t say that what either of them did was right,” Bose said. “But Mr. Grimes here still owes me for a few days.”

The man waved his broken-nailed hands, summoning the creature. The monster turned, chewing the broken body of Dirk with languid disinterest. Dirk’s shirt exploded in red, slickening the creatures flank. It spat him out with a snort and charged toward Bose. Like a boxer, he moved easy on his feet and let his hand swing to the gun butt, cocking the gun as he grasped it. The tip of his finger squeezed the trigger, a tuneless hum on his lips. Bullets snarled and snapped, chipping rocks like jagged teeth.

The bullets met something solid in the swirling shadows that formed the chest of the desert judge. The man dropped to his knees and collapsed forward. Bose moved in to examine him. The man’s legs spasmed. His arms jerked, regaining life by inches. Beginning to push himself up, the tiny sack dangled by leather thongs from his neck. On instinct, Bose snatched the bag. The desert judge wailed as Bose poured out its contents. Bits of burnt bone, far too small to be an adult, fell to the earth. A glint of metal landed in the ash. A locket fell open, revealing the picture of a young girl. Not quite on his knees, the judge reached toward the locket. All strength fled him and he collapsed.

“Looks like I owe you my life again.” Mr. Grimes nudged the body with the tip of his boots.

“You’re many things, but you’re no welsher.” Bose turned to Mr. Grimes and held out his hand. Without any words, Mr. Grimes counted out Bose’s owed pay. Bose envied the heroes of dime novels, how their exaggerated exploits tickled the fancy of the public. Knowing that no one would tell his tale, his restless heart grew ready to hit the trail. He’d heard that some Exodusters traveled toward Cascade, Kansas. That sounded like it might be a fine town to spend some money.

So he rode.

Maurice Broaddus

A community organizer and teacher, his work has appeared in magazines like Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Uncanny Magazine, with some of his stories having been collected in The Voices of Martyrs. His books include the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court; the steampunk works, Buffalo Soldier and Pimp My Airship; and the middle grade detective novels, The Usual Suspects and Unfadeable. His project, Sorcerers, is being adapted as a television show for AMC. As an editor, he’s worked on Dark Faith, Fireside Magazine, and Apex Magazine. Learn more at MauriceBroaddus.com.