Down the dusty road sand drifted up with the sudden gust. Chill of the night already chased the heat of the hot day. The smell of horses was drowned in hard liquor from the saloon. Soured sweat dragged over the packed earth, between the perfumes of soft women. Fine grain scoured the flesh, made exposed skin raw. It dug into the clothes, clung to the body. Jingle of spurs punctuated every step of worn boots. Beneath the tiger-orange sky, all held a feverish glow. Steep shadows stretched out like streams of the blackest waters. Cassidy had forgotten the taste of civilization, under the assault of the sun.
The saloon, extravagant as the one horse town, had no name. Once it had been Desert Mothers, but through gambling or murder, no one owned it for long. Numerous boards of wood held the building together. A musician played at a drunken, manic pace. Greasy light dripped out through the windows and bat-wing doors. Dark patches of blood had darkened the wood of the porch. Screams, laughter, curses, and oaths beat to the rhythm of raucous drinkers. Just outside the light, an undertaker measured all who entered with keen eyes adept. Cassidy Bullock paused before him, and let him get the casket size.
Two drunken men, brought to rage by a card game, wrestled through the doors to wallow out in the street. Smoke drew in from the hand rolled cigarette, which drifted up from Cassidy’s hard grin. Weary eyes, like the dawn over a desert, swept over them. He brushed his beard down in thought, and dismissed them as fools. Lashed to the post, his horse gave Cassidy a glance, and he rubbed the beast with a hard smile. Ember at the tobacco’s tip brightened, and he dropped it to the hard packed earth. Gaze fell to it for a moment, before a boot extinguished it.
The bat-wing doors squealed on hinges which were badly damaged. Wood of the frame replaced in a shoddy fashion. Cassidy took in the room, from under his battered hat. Through his Caroline was gone, part of him still searched for her killers. Parson’s Raiders left no one to identify them. Thought of the Confederates raised the ghosts of his family. He willed away their faces. It wasn’t like he knew the true identities of the men.
Among the gamblers, pistaleros, whores, drunks, and thieves he passed. Soft women, smiles broad and lascivious, beckoned to him. Hard cases, with eyes that shifted, followed Cassidy across the room, hands on pistols. Cowboys drank away their earnings. Lowest in the territory, they found this nameless locale, where no one cared. They ran from the law, themselves or lovers, but he sought a reckoning. Lost to the world, they sought fortune in low places of the lowest sort.
Cassidy paused. There was a wealth here, but money meant little to him. Information was in abundance. Others places had been fruitless, yet this was his last hope. The endless road had wearied him. Maybe, after a few days, something would turn up.
Nestled in a corner, away from the rest, a table recoiled from the room. It was uneven, covered in splinters. He sat, flicked a tooth off, and caught the eye of one woman. A tall bottle of whiskey was set before him. Inside of the amber liquor he watched them drown.
Silence of the road was filled with the faces of his family. Ruthie-Girl laughed and smiled in her Prussian-blue dress. Bartholomew “Bart” practiced his gunmanship with a stick bent like a dog leg. Caroline had hand sewn a grass-green shirt for the boy. Half the bottle disappeared that only smeared the memories, which assailed him. They laughed and danced through his mind. Ache of his heart deepened, hard grin broadened.
Service to the Union had pulled him from Caroline’s embrace. There was no other, in his heart or life. Every moment away, even when he fought Lance Van Lear’s men, the light of her love called him home. Along with McWhorter and Gregory, they’d been a thorn in the Confederate General’s plan. Parson’s Raiders were sent to make Cassidy pay for all the inconveniences. He could still smell the smoke from his house, his dead boy and girl. Caroline had cut one of them deep. Knuckles popped on the empty bottle.
“Still thirsty, my friend,” he said, and placed a fine, Kentucky bourbon in front of Cassidy. “You shouldn’t drink so heavily on an empty stomach,” he added, as the lady returned with a plate of food.
Cassidy’s hard grin returned, but he pointed the revolver at the man’s heart, under the table. Six men were with the well-dressed man. All were hard cases, and the kind of men, who would die like they lived. “Who are you? And, what do I owe all this hospitality?” he asked, withdrew a cigarette, and it was lit for him. Smoke drifted up, Cassidy’s blue eyes cut through to the man.
“Johnathon Cassian,” he smiled easily, and gestured at the six others, “these are my men. You’re Cassidy Bullock. People say that you’ve kept many undertakers busy.”
“People say lots of things,” he countered with a rigid, wide grin, “But I’ve sent many a man to judgment.”
“Oh yes,” Johnathon smiled, “you’ve certainly done so, and earned money by your trade.” The men with him laughed, “All in pursuit of Parson’s Raiders.”
Cassidy hesitated, glass of bourbon in hand, “You’ve been talking to people. They leave no one alive, so it makes them hard to track.”
The men with Johnathon laughed, but he glanced at them, “Well, we’re aware of where they can be found, though we know how dangerous they can be. I gathered shooters, who can take care of those bandits. And, I would like to hire you.”
“You know their location?”
“The problem with such men is they’ve made lots of enemies. All across the territory Parson’s Raiders have destroyed towns and lives.”
Cassidy drank, looked at him, “I know all this.”
“Yes, but what you don’t know is they were disbanded,” Johnathon hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “The General went back to his little fiefdom.”
“I know that too,” Cassidy looked at his drink.
“Do you know that they’ve done jobs for Lady Nuit?”
“The Iron Monger,” his eyes rose to them.
“Yes, the very one,” he leaned on the table with a broad smile, and while on a raid, they left a man alive. He told me, where to find them, or at least, where to start.”
He nodded, “How much does it pay?”
Johnathon’s eyebrow raised, but his grin grew, “Ten percent of the total, for the combined bounty.”
“As long as I get to kill their leader,” he countered.
“He is worth more alive—”
“He is worth more to me dead,” his hard grin was stony, eyes flat.
Johnathon considered, looked at his men, and then back, “Deal, we ride now; however, so we can catch them. These are my men Basil, Izzy, Isaac, Benjamin, Stephon, and Rufinus.” He spoke with a flourish, but his men smiled like wolves.
“Long as they don’t get in my way,” he relaxed the hammer on his revolver.
Johnathon bought supplies, while Cassidy finished the meal. They left the nameless town as it was found, only a stop. The Painted Desert nipped at the edges, and swallowed up the travelers. Above them hung a full moon, bloated and bright, with silver moonlight. Star dappled sky shimmered with constellations, each twinkled. No clouds marred the beauty, and let the world become ethereal in the glow. Tall cacti rose up, like hands thrust up to the boundless heavens. Unease crept through the riders, as if they crossed over some ethereal line. This imperfect heaven was the closest to paradise Cassidy had seen, since the loss of his family. Abundance of life held darkness deeper than the night. All the dusty red hues of the distant mountains became a gritty hue of blood. Cluster of vibrant green brush turned into blots, and he imagined men humped over like beasts.
Johnathon rode up to an old busted sign, which had been half eaten by time and the desert. Almost illegible, he seemed to recognize it. Back to his horse, he retrieved a lever action rifle, and motioned for Cassidy to dismount.
Cassidy’s hand went to his revolver, “There a problem?”
“I have to see my men shoot,” he smiled as a man, who just recalled a crucial chore, “pistol and rifle.”
He looked at the others, who appeared bored, “If you know my reputation, then you know my skill already.”
“Talk is just that…talk,” he looked at him for a long moment, “or you can take your horse, turn around, and leave Parson’s Raiders to me, your choice.”
Eyes like the dawn over the desert flicked between them. “What do you want me to shoot?” Cassidy asked, hand on the butt of the revolver.
“Yonder cactus,” he gestured, “See if your reputation is accurate.”
Cassidy dismounted. He turned, drew, and fanned the hammer. Gun smoke drifted from the barrel, and hung in the air. All turned to see the hole, where a man’s heart would be, on the cactus.
“Ha,” Rufinus pointed with an annoyed chuckle, “one hit out of six, we have a dead eye here!”
The men laughed, except Stephon Damascene. Face covered, scars were visible on what little skin was visible. Flat, black eyes flicked from the cactus to Rufinus, then back. “No, you fool,” he managed in a labored tone, “all six shots went through the same hole.” None dared counter this assertion from the man.
Cassidy reloaded the revolver with a smile, as the men took stock of his speed and accuracy. He watched Stephon, who had his throat badly cut one, he was sure. A man ends up with scars like those for a reason. “Is that good enough, or do you require another demonstration?” He asked, but holstered the revolver.
“Yes,” Johnathon said a little impressed, and held out a hand for Cassidy’s pistol, but also to give the rifle. He studied him, so he turned, fired, and put a bullet through Cassidy’s.
He handed over the pistol for Johnathon to inspect, and took the rifle. “The head, this time,” he announced, and put the bullets through where a man’s brain would be.
“Army, well,” Johnathon said as he examined the revolver. He looked where he had fired, casually, “you’re better than your reputation.” He handed the gun over butt first, and Cassidy returned his rifle.
“Satisfied,” he said, holstered the revolver.
“Yes,” Johnathon patted his pocket, looked around to check the sign one more time, and then mounted his horse. “I think the raiders have met their match,” he smiled, and the others laughed.
The men traveled with Cassidy in back. Whispered across the still air, voices called to him. Quicksilver light of the moon made shadows mercurial. Below the smell of Johnathon’s men, a perfume played, which tugged at the heart, Caroline’s own. Grin faded. His eyes wondered about this silver bathed, lesser heaven. Thin silhouettes, feminine in form, flew between rocks’ shadow, made deeper by the moon. Cassidy hand went to a clammy brow. Dry heat still baked up from the hard pan, but a shiver coursed a trail down his back. Mouth dry, he swallowed, but tasted only the liquor. A hand slipped down to his gun, though the others noticed nothing.
The lights of the town ahead burned in the night. Johnathon slowed, and his men muttered to each other. Like the last settlement, there was once a sign that proclaimed its name, but time had scoured it clean. All but Cassidy recognized the church, though it felt a passing recollection. Dark haired women came to see the strangers of all manner of shape and size, yet all had locks of blackest night. Cassidy looked around for the men folk, saw none. Each carried two candles with colored flame. Basil leered at one of immodest dress, who appeared to appreciate his gaze.
At the town’s center, the Scetes Church of Desert Fathers was the only shabby structure. Poured through the open door, candle light danced out to greet them. “Scetes,” Johnathon said slow, looked at the town, “must have missed the road.” For a long moment he looked about, but motioned to his men to dismount. Cassidy lingered, eyes caught a broad shadow that faded away.
Dance of light fell about the church. It shivered with them, as they entered the church. Abashed they stood in awe. Old, roughhewn pews had parishioners, but none moved. Clothes stuffed with straw, they were mockups of the townsfolk. Entire families were set, as if they were attending service. Chilled air rolled down from a cross like a hollow star, held by a robed angel. Its gaze promised contrition. They shifted under the eyes. Cassidy felt ice crept up his spire. Each breath drew in the taste of the desert, yet underneath, a tinge of blood stung the throat. Broken mutters whispered a cross the stillness.
“OUT, get out, you DEVILS,” the priest screamed in a heartbroken warble that rose to a tiny whine. Around he dais, he charged, fists shaking. Knock knees, knobby and swollen, collided to send him to the ground. Blind man glasses slid over the wood. A couple of Johnathon’s men laughed, and Stephon holstered his revolver in disappointment.
“Calm yourself,” Johnathon commanded, though it was hopeful but resigned.
“You’re VILE! YOU”RE EVIL!” he scrabbled up to his hands and knees. The priest patted the floor for the glasses, and Cassidy handed it to him. Quick, he donned them, though tears slipped out. “Why do you torment me?” he asked with a forlorn sigh.
“What is your name?” Cassidy inquired in a gentle tone.
“Anthony,” he searched the eternal darkness, but the rest escaped him.
“Where is Scetes?” Johnathon asked.
“Your sins cry out to the heavens for vengeance!” the old man wailed. He stood, but fell back in Cassidy’s arms. Without a second glance Johnathon turned away.
Cassidy opened his canteen, “Here, Anthony, take a drink. Maybe, you should lie down, until you settle.”
He took it, sipped long with a meager sigh. Like a child, he held it to his lips, and Cassidy saw the ring with a hollow star cross. Anthony leaned forward, “Let your heart not be darkened, my son. You must step away from the darkness.” He handed the canteen back, lower lip quivered, and tears squeezed out from under the blind man glasses.
“I’m afraid it is too late for that,” he replied, “I’m sorry.” To that the old man gently wept, and seemed to collapse inward.
“I guess we’ll stay in Scetes, for the night,” Johnathon said, though with a thread of annoyance.
“You’ve picked a special night,” a sweet voice added, just beyond the church door. Raven black hair, pinned up, was a stark contrast to the pure-white dress that ran to the ground. Though delicate hands dangled, both held a candle with colored flame, one blue and one green. “Tis a festival, and a day for the spirits to rise,” she smiled.
“We need lodging,” Johnathon said.
“Who are you—” Anthony squirmed.
“My God,” Cassidy’s breathless words flew. However, the longer he looked at the beauty, the less of Caroline he saw. The men looked at him, but he turned away. No matter how much her face haunted his dreams, she was gone. One day, after Parson’s Raiders danced out the last steps of their lives, God should call him home.
“I’m sorry, stranger,” she said to Cassidy with gentleness. The raven haired beauty turned to Johnathon, “I’m sure the saloon has enough rooms for you and your men.” She left as quickly as she’d appeared.
“You heard that,” he said, eyes surveyed the room, “maybe in the sun, things will be a lot clearer.”
“What about the festival?” Izzy asked, and rubbed an ample gut.
Johnathon looked at him for a long moment, “Just be able to ride in the morning, which goes for all of you.”
Cassidy stepped out of the church, hard grin faltered. All the women had the same dark hair. Heck, he thought, they could all be sisters or maybe cousins. Striking a match, he withdrew a rolled cigarette. Its flame was tinged black. Shadows moved just beyond the light, but he watched out of the periphery. Whispers lingered, tugged at the ear, just below intelligibility. Tobacco caressed the air, as the tip caught fire. Out came smoke in a lazy fog, but a hand rested on his revolver. Only for an instant, a tall figure approached, though proved to be another beauty. With a tip of the hat, he averted his gaze.
Johnathon’s men moved over to the saloon to get rooms for the night. Cassidy stepped out onto the porch, after renting a room. Another dark haired beauty greeted him, yet his eyes failed to meet hers. Women of the town favored his Caroline, and it tore at this heart.
One of the women in seductive dress walked past Cassidy, who tipped his hat. Of lavender was her perfume, like his late wife, and cut of the blade went deeper in the heart. Basil walked past in pursuit of the fair lady, leer less than gentlemanly. He sneered at Cassidy, who focused on his cigarette. An innocent smile was cast back at Basil, before she disappeared into the alley. Basil strutted past in pursuit.
The pace of her step was measured, unconcerned. Roll of her hips was smooth. Basil turned the corner to see her throw a grin back to him. Lust in his gaze frightened most women, which he liked. Unafraid, she waited for him, and beamed at his lustful grin.
“Dangerous to be all alone,” he grinned, “especially with such a man as me around.” Basil looked at her, grin now wolfish.
“Oh,” she blinked eyes so innocent, “what do you mean?”
He caressed her face, dove white skin soft, “I think you remind me of my first.” Spilled blood the first girl had lingered, even after all the others.
A clock chimed the hour of two, and shadows grew deep. “Do I,” she said, and lovely, full lips split to her ears in a hellish grin.
Back he staggered from the woman, who laughed at his terror. A solid chest stopped his retreat. Basil turned. Lady of the night faded into the shadow, dead laugh withered. He saw the man, tall and broad, but narrow at the hips. Scarred knuckles dangled at his sides, head tilted downward. The simple clothes of a cowboy were soiled, as if they had been buried, or the man had crawled up from the earth. About his eyes were filthy bandages. On one hand he wore a ring with a hollow cross on a skull.
The Shootist drew a huge revolver, speed preternatural. Boom of the report like artillery, it punched a hole in Basil’s chest. To the hard earth his body drove, dead before he hit the ground. Gray smoke drifted up from the barrel.
Cassidy jumped. He bolted around the corner, gun in hand. The Shootist turned to him, but stepped back into the shadows to fade away. He blinked, swallowed. Over the alley his eyes roamed, till they came to Basil. Dead, he knew, even at this distance it was obvious. Whatever had made the wound, it had burned a hole through him, and the smell of burned pork hung in the air. Disgusted by the stench, Cassidy covered his mouth, stomach lurched.
Back to the town’s main thoroughfare he ran. No one had come to the sound of the shot. Cassidy frowned, for when a gun went off, screams or shouts always followed. He blinked, swallowed, but felt ice run through him, and shivered in spite of the warmth.
Alarm raised in the small town took little time to spread. All the dark haired women stood at the edges. Johnathon’s men came, armed and ready to fight. Cassidy saw the lust for blood in their eyes, but hid his contempt. To the alley he led them, but Basil’s body was gone. Astonished by this he searched. Nothing, no blood had stained the greedy earth.
“Cassidy,” Johnathon said with a scowl, “what is the meaning of this?”
“I saw Basil,” he looked at him, “a Shootist had got him. He was dead as ever was. Didn’t you guys hear the shot?!”
“Well,” Johnathon looked at them, but all shook their head. He looked at him, and then at the alley, “It seems you’re the only one, who heard the shot.”
“You know Basil,” Rufinus shook his head, “he probably chasing some pretty little thing.” The words brought laughter from the rest, who already walked away. Johnathon studied Cassidy, edges tinged in confusion.
Alone, he cast about the alley for any clues. The smell, where the Shootist had disappeared, was familiar. “Frankincense and myrrh,” he muttered to the dark.
Izzy left Cassidy in the alley though was the slowest. The man patted his belly, which rumbled. Pulled by the smell, the gluttonous craving bit deep into the gut. For the festival the townsfolk had gathered supplies for the unfortunate of the area. Before him, it brought back memories. Once he was stuck out in the snow, and the supplies had disappeared. He had still been able to find food, and he had developed a taste for long pork. Though his middle had swelled, he never grew ashamed of his new taste.
As he studied the feast before him, the smell of that sweet meat grew heady. The young ones, sweet veal, had been the finest meal of his life. Izzy, Isidore, grabbed food from the table, knocked meat to the floor. Hearty laughter bubbled out of him between enormous bites.
Nubby teeth tore at a piece of meat, which conjured the image of a child’s leg. With a grunt, he chuckled, but a long shadow fell over the table. Izzy paused, mouth wide. The Shootist stood over him. He went for the revolver, but grease from the food caused the hand to slip. Darkness in the Shootist’s pistol grew before his eyes. Boom, the shot resounded to disintegrate his head between the nose and neck. So clean was the blast, the man’s massive body still sat. Fat arms and legs drummed on the wood in an energetic little dance.
Cassidy’s hand went to the revolver’s hilt. Still in the alley, he ducked instinctively. Into the saloon he rushed. Again, the silence of the town was untouched. The body of Izzy had stilled. A few feet from the warm corpse the top of his head had landed. Unmoved was the Shootist, though he seemed far away from the deed just done. Cassidy put his hand on the revolver, but a violent gust doused the lights. Velvet shadows swallowed the Shootist. Candles reignited.
Eyes like the dawn surveyed the dark, but Cassidy saw nothing. There was a rational explanation, he was sure, though none came to the clamor in his mind. He swallowed. Since the death of his family, fear had been beyond him, until now. Upon the bloody battlefield, under extreme conditions, one would heart strange stories. The ghosts of fallen brethren, strange creatures of abominable form, or loved ones called to them. Lots of stories filled the lonely land. Winged people like angels, men who drank blood, and even tales of women who turned into dark beasts had reached Cassidy. Until now, he had never seen anything unnatural, so had dismissed such tales.
To the batwing doors he rushed, yet at the entrance, he turned back. Izzy was gone. No trace of blood or flesh betrayed the murder. Cassidy lowered his hand, which shook. Suddenly, he could hear each meager breath, and felt the beat of his heart, rush of blood in his veins. Even the smell of gun smoke had disappeared to leave the aroma of fine food. He licked dried lips, brushed down his beard, and tried to order the world. Around the room, the light of oil lamps moved in languid sweeps.
No, he thought, and shook his head in negation of this trick. There is someone here of flesh and blood. Through some devilry the Shootist had managed to kill and take the body. Just because it was beyond his kin, at this moment, there was an answer. Only the smell of frankincense and myrrh marked the Shootist’s reality.
“Is everything okay?” Johnathon said from behind Cassidy, who jumped with a hand on the pistol.
“Yes,” Cassidy’s grin was hard but the word held a tremor. “I was looking for Izzy.”
Past him his eyes slid, “Looks like he has been here. Isidore is probably somewhere eating.” Back the cautious gaze returned.
“I suppose,” he glanced back, “but he left a mess.”
He nodded, “I’m headed to my room to read.” Johnathon stood, studied the sweat on Cassidy’s brow.
The street in front of the saloon was empty, and the moonlight bathed all in its glow. Cassidy felt his heart race. Over the skin his perspiration had turned to ice. Unbroken silence filled the town. About the buildings his eyes flew, though caught nothing and no one. Blowing wind rolled some tumble weed a few feet, before it came to a halt.
Out of a shadow Isaac emerged, paused. His furtive gaze went around the street. Cassidy stepped back into a shadow with a frown. With a quick, furtive step Isaac moved across the hard pan. Beside the church, someone had set up a donation box for widows and orphans of the area. The slight man scurried from shadow to shadow to slink up to the building. Amused, he saw no one had bothered to install a lock on the lip. An ugly laugh escaped him. He cast back a glance, and then opened it.
Cassidy frowned, hard smile full of cold rage. Fury set his hand upon the revolver. Like all such low men, Isaac stilled, before he turned back. Small, beady eyes found Cassidy, who stopped, eyes widened.
From the shadow of the church, the Shootist emerged. Blind eyes fell upon the ratty man. Isaac recoiled, eyes like tar grew big. Color drained from his face. Mouth agape, he drew in breath to shriek. In a clean draw, the Shootist brought up the knife. Through the lower jaw into the brain, it sheared off the tip of Isaac’s tongue. It fell to the dirt.
Cassidy drew the pistol, yet the Shootist held Isaac off the ground between them. The blind man faded away with the newest victim. So deep the terror struck him, Cassidy felt the world gray at the edges. He holstered the revolver, numb. Mouth dry, he wiped at it, and stroked his beard. Again, no one noticed the murder. As the fear relaxed, his eyes returned to the saloon.
Johnathon stood at the bar with a bottle of whiskey. When the batwing doors opened, his eyes flicked to the glass. Cassidy strode across the room, yet looked about the deep shadows. The ghosts of blood, whiskey, and tobacco hung in the air, like memories of the patrons. Light shivered at him, excited and playful.
“Someone is taking out your men,” he said.
“Pardon,” Johnathon looked at him.
“I saw Izzy and Isaac get killed by the Shootist,” he confessed, “and I don’t know how no one heard it!”
He studied his eyes, “There are only women and that mad priest here. You aren’t suggesting that feeble old man is killing my men, are you? They are very good at what they do.”
“Call your men, I’ll help you.”
“Alright,” he said slowly, “but you’ll be unhappy, if this is some sort of joke or trick.”
“I’ll be relieved,” he retorted, for he felt the world had gone mad.
They set about the saloon, and retrieved what remained of Johnathon’s men. Basil, Izzy, Isaac, and Benjamin were gone. Cassidy helped them search the town, but even the women were gone. Anthony, the priest was asleep on a pew. He muttered of sins and justice.
“What is happening?” Johnathon tapped the revolver’s butt.
“I told you,” he grinned, “that Shootist is killing your men.”
“You said nothing of Benjamin,” he countered.
Atop the saloon, he sat against the facade. Benjamin had left all his possessions on the horse. This whole deal seemed a bit much for revenge, in his opinion. Why go to such lengths? It was better to just get some dynamite, and just blow them up. A lot lesser effort, it put on a good show. He particularly enjoyed the rain of blood and chunks. They wanted everyone to see them, so all would think them tough. Benjamin preferred to just wait, be patient, even if they thought him slothful.
Below, to him they called, but he ignored them. Cassidy had wasted his time already. Basil was with a girl, or the remains of one. He shuddered. Odd smell drifted over the air of frankincense and myrrh. This earned a shrug, and he went back to the dynamite. Moonlight made the work easier, yet a shadow passed over him. Dismissed it as a cloud above, he looked up.
The blind man looked at him, large revolver dangled in one hand. Benjamin scrambled backward, but struck the facade. In the darkness of the barrel, he saw all those who he murdered. Pistol boomed like a cannon. Past him the bullet flew to the dynamite with a scream.
A flash, like lightning from a clear sky, dazzled from above the saloon, yet it was untouched. All turned towards the light, though no sound came to them. Johnathon dashed for the saloon, others followed. For a moment Cassidy paused, felt ice trail down his back. Part of him wanted to take his horse, and ride until the light of the sun saved him from the dark. The woman at the church, who had the likeness of Caroline, lingered in his heart. Thought of the Shootist harming her or one of the other ladies steeled his resolve.
Atop the saloon they found nothing of Benjamin. Cassidy caught the frankincense and myrrh that lingered upon the air.
“That was Ben Palladius’s dynamite,” Johnathon said to the night, “we should have felt the explosion. Silent as the angel of death,” he looked over the street.
“I told you,” Cassidy looked at the others, “there is a Shootist after us!”
“Nonsense,” Stephon snapped in a harsh rasp, “there is no ghosts, no God, no Shootist, but I haven’t seen any of those women! Where are they?! No way one man, spirit or not, could do all this!” Darkness crept into his eyes, moonlight glittered in them.
“So great for you to lead us into a trap, Johnathon,” Rufinus laughed, sneered. Their fearless leader was so much like his father.
“I’m taking care of this,” Stephon turned away. “There is no God, and I’m the only Devil!”
Johnathon turned with a curse. Dark laughter escaped Rufinus, like the night he had killed his father. Cassidy took after the scarred man with death in his eyes. The look had been in his eyes, when after an outlaw of particular villainy.
Hung in the star dappled sky, the moon made the town alive. Lanterns hung, twin candles with colored flame set, but moonlight turned all shadows beyond their light into an abyss. Adrift in this Stygian night, the town was alone. Stephon Damascene emerged onto the street. Never had he shot a man, woman, or child in the back. He wanted them to see it coming. Assassins were cowards to him. Before day broke, all of the town would be laid to rest, heads on spikes. Beneath the bandanna, the ruined mouth drew up in a smile.
A savage gust flew across the hard pan. Flame of the lanterns darkened, before lights reignited. The Shootist stood across from Stephon, head tilted down. Both regarded the other. Stephon’s hand hovered over the revolver. Whispers came to them of all the scarred man’s victims. Shades at the edges were the memories of them, ready to greet their slayer in death.
His hand dipped for the revolver, grin wide. Boom of the Shootist’s shot eclipsed Stephon’s grunt of pain. The scarred man snarled, raised the pistol, but a bullet tore another chunk of flesh from him.
“Curse you,” Stephon barked, “I’ll kill you!” Though the gun shook in his hand, it rose.
The third boom struck his heart, but the scarred man’s fierce grimace of absolute hate never faltered, even in death. Cassidy stood at the saloon’s batwing doors. He felt the Shootist’s gaze upon him. Away into the darkness the blind man faded.
Atop the saloon, Johnathon stood. Stephon died in the street like he lived, in pure rage. Now, he was certain the others were gone, and saw that the scarred man’s body disappeared. Curious such ill fates befell his men, when Cassidy joined their gang.
“I knew you lead us to our deaths,” Rufinus cursed, but he saw the proud face of his father surprised in death, pride gone. His mother’s eyes were there, wide and terrified. Envious of their love, he was a better man than his father. A hand withdrew the pistol, “We wanted no part of this. All so you could have your revenge.”
“The problem with you, Rufinus,” he held the holdout gun, but listened for the hammer on his gun to cock, “you talk too much, and think too little. You run your mouth, but assume no on repeats your words.”
“Sure,” he let out a nasty laugh, “and I know when a man is talking to buy time.” Eyes of his mother cursed him, full of tears and shame. He had taken what he wanted from her, but love was denied. The hammer cocked.
Johnathon whirled, but his heart dropped, hand numb. Rufinus blinked at his speed, and frowned at the sudden lenience. Over his shoulder his gaze lingered, so Rufinus turned as the aroma of frankincense and myrrh came to him. The Shootist seized his shoulder, rammed the long blade in his guts. Blind eyes went to Johnathon, as the knife went from the envious man’s gut to heart. Upon the floor all his entrails poured out. Johnathon turned, jumped to the front porch roof, and slide off to the street below.
Cassidy watched top of the saloon for the Shootist, “He got Rufinus?”
“Gutted him,” Johnathon said, but kept his eyes on him. He walked backward.
“What do we do?” he asked, but looked about the street.
“I’m afraid that there is a change of plans.”
“I think we’ll be lucky to get out of here alive!”
“I don’t know how you done it,” he said, confused yet impressed. “No one has ever been left alive to give a description.”
“What are you talking about?” he scowled, turned.
“Come on,” he smiled, “I don’t know how you planned all this, or who you hired to perform such tricks.”
Cassidy saw his hand on the revolver, “I had nothing to do with it.”
“Ah,” he grinned, “so, all of this is just coincidence? You’ve been looking for Parson’s Raiders, and when you find them, they just start dying?”
“What,” he blinked, but a dull rage built, “you’re Parson’s Raiders?!” The question fell to a mad whisper.
Johnathon’s brow furrowed, “Well, I guess you’re too dull to have plotted this.” His eyes grew distant, but returned. “After I make you pay for what she did,” hand went below the belt, but he moved it to the buckle instead.
“You,” he said, and the world was tinged in red.
“Let us see how fast you are,” Johnathon smiled.
Cassidy drew the gun, click. He scowled, pulled the trigger again, yet only heard another well-oiled click. From Johnathon’s hand tumbled six cartridges.
“You’re fast,” he drew the gun and fired. The bullet struck Cassidy who struggled to stand, but his knees gave out. “You should never hand your gun to a stranger,” he raised the pistol.
Lanterns of the street flickered with a sudden gust of hot wind. Frankincense and myrrh lingered. Johnathon blinked. Sweat turned to ice, though the heat still clung on. Shadows parted to unveil the Shootist, who stood next to Cassidy. Every breath tasted of burial spices. Once again, the Shades returned, although these followed Johnathon. Savage murmurs came to Johnathon’s ear, and heard Caroline’s laugh at his loss of manhood.
“Everyone in this pit dies,” Johnathon’s coolness cracked, “after I end you!”
Before he could raise the revolver, the Shootist drew. Two booms rung out over the street, roars shook the world. The first shot removed Johnathon’s gun hand. Guts spilled from the second wound, and he fell to his knees. A satisfied smile played across the blind man’s lips. By the neck he seized Johnathon, who screamed in terror. Away they faded into shadow.
Cassidy had crawled over to the church, rested against the wall. Though Parson’s Raiders were gone, the emptiness remained. After his family’s death, all he had was revenge. Now, only an empty days stretched out, loved ones gone.
A shimmer rose from the earth, like heat from the midday sun. Ghostly, driest smell of flowers lingered, but also faded. A steel gray ate into the edges of his vision. Ruins of the names town remained. Full moon lit the night. It had been destroyed a long time ago by Parson’s Raiders. Cold spread over him, and his hard grin returned, for soon he would see them again.
Out of the darkness the raven haired beauty walked towards him. Whatever misery she planned, he was sure, Cassidy deserved for failing to protect his family. Lovely features shifted ever so slightly back to Caroline. He smiled. If any should take him home, he was gladdened it was his love. Raised hands meant to embrace her, yet she stood just beyond them.
“Are you taking me to see them?” he dared hope. Maybe, he would see them again.
Caroline smiled, though eyes saddened, “It is not time, yet. You still have life, so must go on.”
“I want to be with you!” he pleaded. “I’m lost! I’m so…lost.”
“I love you,” she nearly stroked face. Ruthie and Bart stood behind her, smiled and waved. “You’ll see us again.”
Cassidy looked at his children, “Come here Ruthie-Girl, I missed you so much!” His daughter grew sad, but would draw no closer. His eyes, like dawn over a desert, turned on his son, “It’s me, your Pa. I missed you boy, please, come here. I can’t…please, just please come here.” Bart stood behind his mother, eyes sad. Never had anyone made Cassidy beg, even with torture or threat of death. “Please,” he hung his head, “don’t leave. When you died…I lost everything. I miss you all so much! I’m nothing. I’m lost.”
“It is okay,” she drew close. “No circle is broken. We are still with you, and we wait for you at the end of your course.” She drew back, as a bell tolled two-thirty in the morning.
“I love you,” he said, gray turned the world listless.
“I love you,” Caroline smiled, though faded with the last toll of the church bell. Cassidy looked down at his palms, gray turned to black.
Brilliance pierced the glass behind the hollow cross, like a star burst. Cassidy blinked. For the first time, since he lost his family, there was no hangover. Hardwood of the pew under him creaked. Tears had dried, but the sorrow of their source had also eased. Blood of the wound gone, he saw he was unharmed. Dream, his mind clamored to explain away the events of the night.
“Awake my son,” Anthony said with good cheer.
“Yes, Sir,” Cassidy sat up, but a cold finger trailed down his neck, “uh, where am I?”
“My church,” he grinned, “you were lost, but now, you’re found.”
No pain greeted Cassidy, when he stood. He froze. Among the life size dolls modeled after former townsfolk, there were seven new ones. The clothes and gear of Parson’s Raiders adorned these strawmen. Wounds wrought by the Shootist marred them. Towards the door Cassidy walked slow, felt the icy caress turn to frozen iron. Frankincense and myrrh came to him to sink into the guts. Beyond the door, he fled the blind man.
“Let your heart never grow dark,” the priest spoke in good cheer, “or you’ll find the vengeance of heaven.”