NEW FICTION BY THOMAS R CLARK
A Grave Apart
By Thomas R Clark
Blood flowed through the streets of Wrath Creek, and the shootist rode upon its wake. Above him, the high noon sun shined. Spread under its rays lay a dozen dead or dying sons of bitches, each baptized with the tears of their sins and the hellfire of hot lead.
The man’s thin frame, covered by a long duster and tall hat, cast forth a long shadow before him. Smoke and steam still leaked from his twin nickel-plated revolvers held in leather-gloved hands, leaving a dissipating trail behind him. Spurs, attached to the heels of his boots, jingled with each step. The half dozen scalps hanging around his neck marked the shootist as a bounty hunter. Dripping in bloody mucus, the morbid trophies fetched him a small fortune.
A murder of ravens watched and cried from their perch atop the church’s spire, grim heralds warning of things to come. He ignored the omen, staying the course laid out before him. In doing so, he made himself a slave to their predetermining. He knew to change anything about it fought for a moot cause. If death awaited him, then so be it.
He didn’t give a fuck. Things worse than death existed in this world.
His horse, a giant, black gelding tethered to the railing of the church, acknowledged him with a grunt. Seth tugged at the red cotton bandana tied about his neck, then slapped the beast on its rump. The animal snorted in response. He placed the spoils in his saddlebag.
“Let’s get out of here, we should be back at the fort by sundown.” He said, grabbing the saddle post and pulling himself onto the beast’s back. He settled on the saddle and pulled the horse’s reins, urging the animal on. But the horse didn’t move until the rider whistled, and with a turn of its black head, galloped off into the wilds surrounding the ghost town of Wrath Creek.
Halfway home, the mankiller’s trail took him through a dried out gulch lined with tall grasses. The tiger stalking him didn’t roar before attacking. They usually did, it filled their prey with fear and added to the chaos of the moment. Confused prey meant easy prey. But this one didn’t. The hunter jumped out of the brush, an orange and black blur. It grabbed the ass of the horse with its powerful jaws, bringing both the rider and mount to the ground.
The horse cried in pain as it went down. Seth landed and rolled over and onto one knee before his forward momentum stopped. His right hand grasped one of his pistols, and the left brandished a steel and wood tomahawk. The former might stop the tiger, but the latter would be needed for close quarters if Plan A failed to bring the predator down.
The horse squirmed on its long, slender legs, attempting to get back up, but the lion held it down. A swipe of its great, clawed paw captured the gelding’s neck. Three-inch long curved daggers tore through the flesh, opening veins and arteries.
The shootist cocked the pistol’s hammer, aimed the weapon at the big cat’s head, and fired all six shots. The first bullet struck the lion between the eyes and ricocheted off the thick bone. The second followed the first. The third slammed into a rock, the fourth hit the cat in the shoulder. The tiger pounced as the fifth round left the pistol’s barrel. It found a home in the predator’s chest, along with the sixth. The dead animal landed in the rocks next to him. He sighed in relief. He wouldn’t need to use plan B.
The horse writhed in agony from its wounds. The shootist shook his head in disappointment. He stood and limped to the dying animal. Sighing, he withdrew his loaded pistol and shot the horse in the head. It stopped kicking, but the blood still flowed, creating a muddy, coagulated mess around the animal’s body.
“Fuck,” he declared. Then, without any further words, the mankiller threw his saddlebag over one shoulder and hung his canteen on the other. Alone and unabated, he continued on his way, heading to his room at Ft. Summerwell.
3: FORT SUMMERWELL
His legs burned and his parched throat ached by the time the mankiller reached the settlement. His mind swum from the near delirium brought on by his endeavor. The sun set on the horizon as he entered the Fort. Built after the war between the states to maintain order, a small town grew up around the palisades and walls. No one offered to help him. The few miserable souls milling about the streets remained a grave apart and feared the bounty hunter. Shuffling around, they kept their distance from one another and him. You could say his profession preceded him.
He arrived at the broker’s booth as the man prepared to close for the night. He pulled his bandana up, covering his face from the nose down. His eyes hid in the shadow of the brim of his hat.
“Cutting it close, ain’tcha?” The broker, a balding man with round spectacles poking out above his surgical mask, said. The straps of his mask pulled the man’s ears forward, giving him a comical, mousey appearance. The shootist shrugged his shoulders while the broker inspected the scalps, “Six Mary scalps. That’s some good pay. You got all of them on the contract, I see. Wow. You’re going to put us out of business if you keep this work up. Coughing Marries, they’re like the buffalo. One day they’re everywhere, then one day, poof,” he clenched a fist and expanded the hands to mimic an explosion, “you killed them all.” The man spoke truths. The number of Marries dwindled with each one he, and every other bounty hunter, shot and scalped. He’d deal with it when the time came until then, his only cares revolved around the cash these scalps earned him.
“Just pay me,” the shootist said, the words soft in volume yet firm in their authority.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s all about the money with you guys. Always ‘just pay me’ with no gratitude for posting the bounties you’re making a living off. You’re nothing but glorified big game hunters,” the broker counted bills from a drawer wearing white cotton gloves. The shootist couldn’t argue with the man. He did indeed hunt the most dangerous of game. The broker handed him the stack of cash. He took it and left without so much as a thank you.
Night fell by the time he reached his quarters. Closing the door behind him, he finally felt some semblance of relief after the day’s events. His room stood stoic with the amenities required to live. This included the glyphs covering each and every inch of the walls. A colorful menagerie of occult and religious symbols, from the myths and religions of men.
The decorations on the walls served a purpose. At night, this Elysium gave him the confidence to sleep. Otherwise, he would have passed away from sleep deprivation years ago. The collage repelled the supernatural from entering and protected his dreams from the nightmares of his experiences.
He felt gratitude for the glyphs silencing his dreams. The good ones stopped after his first bounty, a decade before. Bearing witness to atrocities outside the scope of man’s perspectives will change you. You’re never prepared for the unexplained and its consequences. The monsters, no other word could describe the things, made damn sure he remembered them. The first one in particular. Always tender, the wound itches and tries to bring him back to the day the creature gored him. One always accompanied the Marries, their token preternatural thing guiding them like a Greek Oracle.
Solemn, he hung his long coat, then his hat, on a post sticking out from the wall. He pulled down his bandana and removed his gloves, stuffing the leather and cotton garments in the pocket of his coat. He washed his hands and face with soap in a steel basin, then uncorked a tall bottle of wine, and drank it down with a gasp. With his free hand, he unbuckled his gunbelt and placed it on a small table next to his bed. Still grasping the empty bottle, the shootist sighed and rubbed his waist before sitting on the edge of his bunk. The old wound lingered and called to his memories once again. He closed his eyes for a moment and laid down on the straw mattress. It comforted him and within moments sleep overtook the man.
The shootist rose with the rising sun. His first order of business sent him to the Fort’s livery stables to commission a replacement mount. He watched his profit margin on the job drop when the tiger killed his horse and he abandoned the saddle. The more he thought about it, the decision to ride back to the scene and clean up the profits made sense. The tiger’s pelt could fetch him a few hundred bucks for the skin, alone.
Fucking tigers, he thought as he handed money to the yardman in exchange for a mare and tackle. He haggled a return clause into the tackle. After all, what could he do with two saddles, bridles, and stirrups-and one horse? The yardman agreed to a deal based on pure logic.
Before the morning dew dried, the shootist rode out of Ft. Summerwell on a nameless horse. During these times he spent awake and alone, outside the safety of his lair, the memories flooded his mind.
6: ONE DOWN
By noon they arrived at the gulch. He saw the lone stagecoach wagon parked outside the tall grass and knew they’d have company. He hoped the squatters stealing his tiger hide and saddle could be reasoned with. Rational people understood circumstances such as this. Provided he didn’t come upon Marries. There is no reasoning with Marries, any discussion is tantamount to playing chess with a pigeon. And one other thing, they’ll kill you without a second thought.
Unless you put them in the ground first.
He mosied up to the wagon. The four-horse team ignored the shootist, their eyes blinded by covers. He dismounted and tied the mare’s reins off on a branch. His hands shook in anticipation as he diligently sought out any other person who might be nearby. His hope turned to gloom when he saw the Bloody Banner, a saltire of thirteen white mullets on a red canvas, hanging off a small flag pole on the back of the wagon. This meant only one thing.
So much for an easy day. More killing needed to be done. He pulled his bandanna up over his mouth and nose.
“Fuck me,” he grumbled under his breath and withdrew his pistols. He did the math in his head. At least two on the riding team. Worst case scenario places up to four in the coach, best case, we’re looking at a freight wagon.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, Mistah?” Someone asked before the shootist could open the coach door. The shootist cocked both pistols and spun on his heels. A man stood down the gulch, poking his head out of the tall grass, “that be our wagon. Nuthin’ in there need be of concern for you.”
The shootist saw the man and aimed his guns. Gaunt and balding, with rotted teeth, he wore overalls and a straw hat. The man raised his hands in front of his face, warding off an invisible evil.
“Why you got your irons out, Mistah? I ain’t done you no harm.”
“Yet,” the shootist replied through clenched teeth.
“Don’tcha worry none, I’ll stay a grave away. My mask and gloves, I’m took them off seeing cos it’s just me out here in the wilderness, they be in my back pocket here, I’ll put them on iffin’ you just let-”
“Nope,” the shootist said. Without prejudice, he fired his pistols at the man, one-shot each. The pop of the second echoed off the first, bouncing down the walls of grass. The bullets smacked the unknown man in the chest, throwing him to the ground, leaving a spray of crimson hanging in the air.
He marched forward, keeping his guns at the ready waiting for more Marries to show up. More than one of these idiots would be required to operate machinery as complicated as the wagon. He stopped at the dead Mary’s body, sheathed his pistols, and untied the tomahawk from his belt. He held the Mary upright and placed a hand on top of his head. The man’s flesh hung loose on his underfed, emaciated frame. The shootist pinched together and gripped a few inches of the Mary’s scalp in his fist … and sliced it off with the ax blade. The body collapsed in a clump.
The shootist pulled a length of leather cord out of a satchel on his belt, pierced the fresh scalp with it, tied the ends together, and hung it over his neck.
One down, he thought and pulled his pistols back out.
7: TWO TO GO
“Jimmy Rob-Don where you at boy?” Someone shouted and the shootist dropped into the tall grass, “was you talking to somebody? I heard some gunshots! Jimmy Rob-Don!” The shootist couldn’t tell where it emanated from. He waited for the Mary to expose himself. They didn’t deal well with surprise. Being stupid as fuck didn’t help.
Never trust a man with three first names. The shootist thought, he’s always a Coughing Mary.
“Jimmy Rob-Don! Where are you? I need yer help! This fuckin thing weighs a ton!”
Hiding in the brush, the shootist knew patience and deliberate action would be factors working in his favor as he resolved this conflict. The Mary’s voice came closer and closer with each shout. The sound of something being dragged grew in volume.
The shootist stood, still obscured by the tall yellow grass. His pistols aimed at chest level across the trail. Through the blades and stalks, the shootist watched the Coughing Mary slowly walk by, hacking and drooling as he did. Over one of his shoulders, he grasped the tiger’s tail with both hands. The beast cut a gulley through the dirt behind them.
“Jimmy Rob-Don!” The Coughing Mary stopped walking and screamed. The tiger’s body lay before the shootist, its cold dead eyes stared at him. He heard the Mary wheeze and hack before pulling the tiger along the trail to the wagon. If the Marries weren’t so fucking stupid, they’d bring the wagon to the tiger. The problem with Marries is their brand of stupid is as deadly as the cough they spread.
The shootist stepped out of the grass, aimed, and shot the Coughing Mary in the back. Two bullets ripped into the denim covering his back. The impact blew the man face-first into the ground, ripping the tiger’s tale from his hands. The shootist holstered his pistols and secured the tomahawk by the time he reached the prone man, writhing in pain from two bullet holes in his back.
“Mercy-cough-mercy, please don’t scalp me-cough-Mistah!” The Mary said, blood dripping out his nose and mouth. A full mop of filthy brown hair, the bangs cut straight in a bowl, adorned his head. The shootist ignored the man’s pleas and screams. He put a knee in the small of the man’s back and grabbed a handful of hair.
The Mary screamed and squirmed, too full of gusto for someone who took two forty-four caliber slugs in the back. He fought for his scalp with frantic chaos. He threw his hands to the top of his head and slapped and grabbed at the shootist. For being as stupid as he may be, the shootist hoped the man learned an important lesson at the end of his life.
Flesh and bone do not deflect razor-sharp steel.
The shootist swung the tomahawk, cutting through the Mary’s wrists as it sliced his scalp off. The Mary’s screaming raised in pitch and intensity. The shootist stepped away with his bounty, freeing the man to roll around in the dirt. Blood spurted out of the stumps like errant fire hoses as he thrashed about, painting the tall grasses red.
The shootist added the scalp to his bounty thong and reloaded the empty cylinders in his guns.
8: ZERO HOUR
The stagecoach loomed ahead. Why did they leave the wagon there? They really can’t be that stupid. Unless … someone important resided within the car. But whom? He approached the wagon with the same caution he would with a living threat. Pistols cocked and aimed at center-mass on the door, the shootist took his time reaching his destination. He feared what he might find behind the door. His hands shook, the pistols jittered in his grasp. The old wound ached.
One of them. The Goddamned things they worshipped. Some of the bounty hunters called them Zeros. These things spread the Coughing Sickness but never came down with it themselves. The shootist called them monsters. He stood to the side of the wagon’s door and pushed the latch up with the barrel of his gun. The hinges squeaked as the door opened of its own volition, tugged on by gravity from the slight angle the wagon sat on.
A great bellowing laugh erupted from inside the coach. The shootist stepped back to view what he hoped he wouldn’t see. The Zero. Thoughts of facing another of these creatures made him shake in fear. The first Zero the shootist encountered ten some odd years ago attacked him and sent him to an infirmary for three months. The nightmares didn’t stop until he found the remedies carved into his apartment in Fort Summerwell. The beast, at one time it may have been an elk, broke free in its stable and stabbed the shootist in his side with an antler. The wound ached to this day.
Relief overcame him when he saw the locked cage setting within the coach. Behind the bars of the cage, an obese, orange-haired orangutan sat on a swing, hooting and hollering away. The Bloody Banner hung behind the primate, covering the wall. The stench of bleach and ammonia filled the air. The ape wore a large ring on its left paw. It extended this ‘hand’ through the bars to the shootist. The other paw mimicked removing a mask. It wanted him to kiss the ring, to join the Coughing Marries.
“That’s not going to happen,” the shootist said.
Instead, he aimed both guns at the primate’s head.
It screeched at him in defiance and grasped its perch with its feet. The animal reached behind its massive body with its free paw and came back with a handful of shit. Before the beast could throw the excrement, the shootist shook his head and squeezed the triggers of his pistols, emptying both into the shit-ape’s face.
The first few rounds didn’t do much, in fact, it reminded him of the thick-skulled tiger. They bounced off. But by the time a dozen bullets hit it at point-blank range, the remains of the monster’s face resembled well-tenderized meat. Bits of brain matter remained in the beast’s cranial cavity. The exit wounds splattered blood and grey matter across the Confederate flag. The giant orangutan slumped over, dead. The shootist reached through the bars, grabbed what little remained of the animal’s scalp, and cut it off with his ax blade. The trophy joined its brethren around the shootist’s neck.
He opened the back door of the stagecoach and tied a length of rope to the cage, and pulled it out. The metal slammed into the dry earth of the gulch. A strong wind built and captured some of the newspapers making up the bedding and litter at the bottom of the cage, blowing them through the gulch. The tiger weighed a half-ton, but the shootist managed to load its carcass into the coach.
The shootist took the brakes off the stagecoach, loosened the team, and mounted his own mare. The wind caught one of the larger sheets of newspaper and blew it at the shootist. It stuck to the side of the shootist’s mare.
He pulled it off. Large letters across the headline declared: “Coronavirus National Quarantine Day 367.” He crumpled the antique paper into a ball. Some forty years old, judging from the paper’s date of 2021, it dated back to the days before the Second Civil War devastated America.
The new Confederate States of America didn’t last long, the war ended after a few years, but by then the damage to America and the world set civilization back centuries. Now bounty hunters spent their days hunting down the last remnants of a people who didn’t, and still don’t, believe in washing their hands or covering their face. The shootist urged his horse on, and the team pulling the stagecoach followed. He’d return to Fort Summerwell today, then retire to his quarters and wait to put down the next motherfucking Coughing Mary who couldn’t stand a grave apart …