It had been a few weeks since I last spoke to him, but A.K. was just as hateful to me as any other time. The nurses have let him go topless in the Texas heat, and his leathery skin pulled tight over his skeleton reminds me of emaciated denizens of desert tombs – harshly abused.
“Tell me about your Westerns,” I asked, not letting him start the conversation.
“You mean their Westerns,” he croaked. “You mean the stuff the took from me, and left me with–”
“Cut the shit.” Sometimes you just need to slap the old man. He’s brilliant, yes, but he whines more than I know he needs to. He’s the old tiger faking wild for the audience, when he knows he’s going to jump through the hoop, and he’s never going to hurt anyone.
“The Old West was cliché even when it was real,” he said before spooning grits into his grizzled maw. “I don’t write Westerns. I write Easterns. It’s not the movement of man out west, it’s the movement of the unknown into the East. Seepage. Shadow against the light. All that shit.”
“So its horror?”
“It’s garbage. Even the ones they stole were trimmed of the real meat I put into them. Always cowboys versus indians, ranchers versus farmers, outlaws versus marshals. Cli-fuckin’-ché.”
“Give me an example,” I pushed, interested.
“I’ll have to tell it to you,” he grumbled. “So you’ll have to wait until after my morning loaf-pinchin’.”
I waited, gagged a bit, and then wrote his words to me as he spoke them.
“I wrote this on a Junior Ranger excursion. I had poison ivy at the time,” he began.
On the Bones of False Oaths
The dark man rode into Cayuga like a revenant summoned by the Furies themselves.
A good many folk of the town suffered from parched throats at that moment, though no one would notice the strange coincidence until a group of state leaders, including several federal lawmen from up north, gathered to discuss the massacre that followed and were able to interview the few remaining survivors before they died.
Later that evening, after the specter of death had disapparated it was discovered that all the horses in the livery had died. The workmen that operated the livery reckoned the horses had been hit by lightning, but Doc Granger kept silent about the black fluid he saw filling their lungs after cutting one of them open.
It was never rightly determined what the Uteridge brothers had done to bring down so merciless a force of vengeance, but vengeance came that night and all Cayuga suffered for their sins.
The dark man alit from his shadowy steed and tethered the beast to a post outside the saloon. A cigarette appeared in his hand and it remained a point of debate among townsfolk for days whether or not the end of that cigarette suddenly burned red by magic or by the blinding speed of the dark man’s hands. His spurs jangled with an odd tone, and on closer inspection, Billy Freeman noticed the spurs were warped and barbed evilly – a point he continued to demand was God’s honest truth until the day he crushed to death when the chapel collapsed on the handful of townsfolk praying for their souls after the massacre.
Of the fifty inhabitants of Cayuga, twelve were in the saloon that night, plus two travelers passing through to locales further west. Those fourteen people died unnatural deaths with five days of the incident at Cayuga Duck Falls.
Ori Hitoshi, the oriental servant Hud Wainesborough hired to clean up the bar and play the old Rickes & Sons pianoforte in the corner, felt his fingers seize up as the dark man pushed through the swinging doors and entered the Jade Star Saloon. The pause in music caused everyone to look up from their drinks and cards and God himself would have audibly gulped in the silence.
When Ori began to play again, the tone of his piece was somber. At Hitoshi’s funeral, two days later, his mother asked the same piece be played by the bagpiper, Jamie McRery, who worked at the livery. Hud Wainesborough, barely able to stand up due to a sudden illness sweeping through his body, was the only townsperson, besides Jamie, that attended the funeral. He recognized the song and asked Hitoshi’s mother what the song was. In broken English, the woman told him it was a piece that people played for the dying, not the dead.
The dark man strode boldly up to the bar and spoke the first of two sentences he would utter that night.
“I’m looking for Jacob Uteridge,” he said in a deep, hollow voice, blowing smoke from his nostrils and mouth as he spoke.
Hud Wainesborough inadvertently inhaled some of that smoke and doubled over in a fit of coughing, much like the one that finally killed him two days after Ori Hitoshi’s funeral. This time, however, he recovered and in a sudden lapse of his usual miserly spirit, poured the dark man a tall glass of whiskey.
“They’s holed up at the Falls,” he said to the dark man. “Go west outta town ’til you hear the water runnin'”
The dark man took the glass and as he drank the whiskey, it turned black in the glass briefly before sliding down his throat and out of site.
Hud Wainesborough gulped at that moment and dismissed the sudden searing pain in his throat as the result of to many jalapenos in his dinner.
The dark man left the saloon in silence and remounted his steed.
As the patrons of the saloon watched him go, they didn’t notice the dark clouds rolling in overhead, too swiftly to be natural.
At the west end of town, Father Jeffrey O’Brien suddenly rose from his whiskey-soaked cot screaming. In the nightmare that had just ended, he saw himself burning alive for his sins. The whore sharing the narrow cot with him tried to comfort him by sliding her hand into his pajamas, but he fiercely grabbed her arm and tossed her roughly out of the cot.
“Get yer sinnin’ arse back to Diamond City, ye feckin’ whore,” he shouted at her. “I’m done with ye.”
“You said you’d bless my baby and protect him, Father,” she said to him from the floor. For a moment she caressed her slightly swollen belly and looked pleadingly up at him.
The first crack of lightning sounded at that moment, close enough that the boom matched the burst of light. Father O’Brien’s craggy visage was suddenly cast in the light, and the sneer on his face was less than pious.
“Fine then, lass,” he said sweetly to her. “Stand up then.”
Her speed in rising was not satisfactory to him, and he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her to her feet. He placed his hand on her stomach and begin to pray.
“Dear Precious Lord of ours, please bless this feckin’ whore’s baby so that he grows up to be a sorry son of a bitch instead of a worthless piece o’ shite like his mother,” he said.
“Or a drunken, lecherous priest like his father,” the whore whispered in O’Brien’s ear.
“Get ye out of my church lest I crucify ye!” the priest screamed, showering the cowering girl with flecks of spittle.
Grabbing her by the neck, he opened the door leading out of his quarters which were built next to the small chapel. He tossed her roughly to the ground and a cloud of dust rose around her crumpled body.
At that very moment, the dark man rode up and stopped. He slowly turned his face to the chapel, and then to the girl lying in the dust … then finally, his red eyes fell on Father O’Brien.
“Church’s closed ’til Sunday, lad,” O’Brien shouted at the dark man. “Best find salvation at the saloon.”
“Are you a man of God?” the dark man asked the priest.
“That I am, son,” O’Brien replied. “But only on Sundays, eh?”
Lightning struck the rod atop the sheriff’s office across from the chapel at that moment and everyone except the dark man visibly cowered in shock.
The dark man continued to ride out of town, softly chuckling so it seemed to O’Brien, though it could have been the sound of the rain that had just started to fall.
By the time the sheriff, Nate Carson, came out of his office to see what had happened, the few drops had become a downpour.
“What was that, Father?” he yelled out to O’Brien as he walked across the street.
“Looks like the Lord wanted to wake ye up,” the priest replied. “That man looks like trouble.”
O’Brien gestured to the dark man riding slowly away.
At that moment, Hud Wainesborough ran up splattering mud as he trod through the quickly forming puddles.
“He asked about Uteridge,” he said to the sheriff before collapsing in a coughing fit.
“Bounty hunter,” Carson surmised.
The three men stood in the rain watching the dark man follow the trail leading up to the falls.
“Uteridge is a bad man and so are his brothers, there’s no doubt,” the sheriff said. “But they’re not wanted men – not after serving their time in jail last week.”
“They deserved a lot worse, if ye ask me,” O’Brien offered.
“The law’s not askin’ you, Father,” Carson said evenly. “I serve justice. That bounty hunter serves greed. I can’t allow law’s governing power to be usurped by vigilantes out for fame and fortune … there’s a right way to do this.”
“You’re going after him then?” Hud asked.
Carson was already checking his Schofields, and after verifying the revolvers were fully loaded, he nodded to the two other men.
“I’m coming with ye,” O’Brien and started back for his bunk. “God hates a vigilante too, ye know.”
“This is no fight for a man of the cloth, Father,” Carson said without conviction.
A few moments passed and O’Brien emerged wearing a filthy robe and armed with a Remington Double-Barreled Shotgun.
“Christ, it’s no place for a shotgun either,” Hud remarked.
“Shut yer blaspheming mouth, Hud,” O’Brien shouted at the bartender.
“Coming with us?” Carson asked the third man.
Hud shook his head and began to walk away. “I’ll leave it to you two. I reckon between the law and God, y’all can sort this out.” He began coughing violently on his way back to the saloon.
The two armed men nodded to each other and mounted up on the two horse’s the sheriff kept behind the jail.
They followed the trail for a good ways before gunfire echoing off the cliff walls caused them to spur their horses to a gallop. When they arrived at the Uteridge cabin on a flat outcropping that overlooked the falls about halfway up, the massacre was just ending.
Three of the youngest Uteridge brothers were missing heads and lay sprawled in quickly forming lakes of their own blood. Kenny Uteridge, the second oldest brother was hanging impaled from a broken rafter on what was once the awning of the cabin’s porch, now obliterated by some violent force.
Carson and O’Brien both readied their guns and quickly searched for Jacob Uteridge and the dark man with the roar of the falls masking any audible clues of the men’s whereabouts.
They dismounted and crept stealthily around the yard, ready for whatever came. O’Brien pulled a flask from his robes and tossed back a few swallows of whiskey from it before returning it back to its home.
Carson found the two men first.
“Hold it right there, mister,” Carson said loud enough to be heard over the falls and to alert O’Brien, who came running up after a few seconds had passed.
The dark man was standing on the edge of the cliff and was holding Jacob Uteridge by the neck over the long drop to the rocks that broke up the falls below. Jacob was struggling and desperately trying to cry out for help, but the dark man’s grip was too tight and no sound escaped.
“Back up and put Jacob down,” shouted Carson with both Schofield’s leveled at the dark man’s back. “Now!”
The dark man turned and looked over his shoulder at the two armed men. He smiled at them and turned back to Jacob.
Carson thought he heard a sinister whisper on the wind and his bones froze suddenly in his body, causing him to shake uncontrollably.
The dark man squeezed Jacob’s neck tighter, but the condemned man didn’t die by strangulation. Jacob’s features turned ashen as his body began to age, wither, and decompose before them.
“Holy Mary Mother of God!” O’Brien screamed and leveled his shotgun. The first blast passed right through the dark man and hit Jacob, whose body suddenly dispersed in a could of dust which then floated away on the winds coming up from the falls. O’Brien’s second shot exploded in the barrel and blew a hole in O’Brien’s side the size of a grapefruit.
Carson followed O’Brien’s shots with six of his own before he realized the dark man was not a corporeal being of flesh.
The dark man turned silently and smiled at the sheriff who was now frozen in terror at what he had witnessed. He tipped his hat at the lawman and walked over to the priest bleeding to death on the ground.
O’Brien spat blood on the dark man’s boots and managed to spout, “May God damn thee to …” before he choked on his blood and began to convulse.
With the dark man standing over him silently, O’Brien burst into flames.
The dark man mounted his dark horse and rode away, leaving his finished work to bake in tomorrow’s sun.
It took Hud Wainesborough a full day to work up enough courage to ride up to the falls with Doc Granger to look for O’Brien and Sheriff Carson. The townsfolk had witnessed the blood-spattered dark man ride slowly back through town before riding off into the night. They had assumed the worst.
Once Hud’s rifle shots had cleared away the vultures swarming over the scene of the massacre, they found Carson still standing frozen to the spot, his face locked in terror, his Schofields gripped so tight it took Doc Granger three syringes of sedative to get the sheriff to release them.
Carson never recovered and died with that same frozen look of fear on his face the next day. By that time, animals and townsfolk alike that lived in or near the town started dying. Federal investigators were sent to the quickly emptying town and began recording a death toll that finally reached fifty-eight. All inhabitants of the town died, plus the two travelers. The last body found was that of a whore from Diamond City who had been visiting. Her body was located just outside of town and a vile black liquid was running out from between her legs.
Cayuga became a ghost town, and not just because everyone left. No, those ghosts never left. That part of the country never forgot the dark man.
And one day, if you find yourself shadowed by the darkness of a life less than honorable, neither will you.