He ambled into the light of the campfire, leading his horse by its reins. The three men by the fire reached for the pistols they wore on their hips, but the man made no move to draw the pair of revolvers he wore. “Relax gentlemen, I just wanted to share your fire on this chilly night.”
The men relaxed slightly and with a slight wave showed he could join them. He unsaddled his horse and hobbled it before joining the men by the fire. “A warm fire and friendly company are good on a night like this,” the cowboy said as he rolled a smoke. “It is on nights like this that the Devil’s bounty hunter rides out to collect souls.”
“That is just a story, amigo. No such man exists.”
“So, you have heard it?”
“We’ve heard the name, that is all.”
“In return for the comfort of your fire and your company, I’ll tell you the story.”
The three men quickly nodded indicating he should continue.
“As the story goes, Willie Venue was a card cheat and gunfighter. He was a hard man with hands as fast as lightning. He had an impressive thirty-seven notches on his belt when he rode into the small town in the middle of nowhere.”
The tall, dusty cowboy swung down from his horse in front of the saloon. He slowly looked the dusty main street over as the corners of his mouth gradually pulled up. He had been on the run for weeks, but this sleepy town looked like the perfect place he could take a break-in.
The saloon was as shabby on the inside as the outside, and the one working girl looked like she had been ridden hard and put away wet too many times. His spurs jingled softly as he walked up to the bar and waved the old man behind it over.
“Whiskey and leave the bottle.”
As the barman sat the bottle down Willie flipped him a coin. “Could do with a game.”
“There is usually one at night, but that won’t be for a few hours.”
Willie waved the whore away as she approached and looked around. He wanted company, but not from that disease-ridden woman. His eyes latched onto a young girl peeking out of the back room. His lips parted, showing his teeth as he winked at her. The girl blushed and pulled back, but reappeared a minute later.
“Who is the girl?”
“That is my granddaughter.”
“Bring her on out here, I want to have a look.”
“She is just a child.”
Willie pulled one of the pistols on his hips and pointed it at the man. “Then it wouldn’t be right for her to see her grandfather shot down, now would it?”
Willie had sized the man up already and knew the man was a coward. He hung his head as he turned to the door. “Mary, come out and meet this nice man.”
Willie’s grin got bigger as he saw the young girl come out the door. “Hi there. Come sit with me, Mary.”
The old man kept his head down as the young girl came over and sat beside Willie. Willie slid the glass in front of the girl. “Drink up.”
The girl looked at her grandfather. “Papa?”
Willie gave the old man a hard look, and the old man slowly nodded to the girl. “Do as he says.”
Willie took a drink from the bottle before pulling another coin from his pocket and slapping it down on the bar. “I’ll be needing a room.”
The old man looked up, anger distorting his features for only a fraction of a second before nodding and handing the cowboy a key. “Top of the stairs.”
“Come on, Mary. We are going to have some fun.”
The girl looked at her grandfather, but he could not meet her gaze as the cowboy pulled her up to the room.
The saloon was getting packed when the cowboy came downstairs. He walked over to a table where some men were preparing for a game of cards. He gave one a look, and the man moved on, allowing the cowboy to join them.
An old cowpoke dealt out the cards, and Willie lifted his. He wasn’t a very superstitious man, but looking at a pair of black aces and eights made his handshake. He looked at the men around the table as his hand drifted to his pistol. “We need a new deal.”
“You have to play the cards you are dealt, mister,” the old cowpoke sitting across from Willie said.
Willie pulled his pistol and laid it on the table, pointing the barrel at the old man. “I said we need a new deal.”
The other three men nodded as the cards were gathered up and shuffled. The cards were dealt out again as Willie kept his hand near his pistol. He reached out and slowly lifted the cards and saw the same cards as before. As the cards fell to the table, he snatched up his gun and pointed it at the dealer’s head.
“You are a cheat.”
“I-I-I ain’t no cheat, mister, I swear.”
“I’ll deal,” Willie said, fighting to keep his hand from shaking.
They slid the cards to him and Willie quickly shuffled them and dealt them out. He watched the faces of the other men as he slowly scooped his cards up and looked down on them. He grabbed up his gun as he stood, kicking the chair back.
“What the hell is this?” Willie waved his gun at the cards lying face up on the table. It was the third time he had held the Deadman’s hand.
“Seems you are a dead man,” the old cowpoke said with a soft chuckle.
Willie’s pistol roared, and the old cowpoke fell over backward, a hole appearing in his forehead. Willie pulled his other pistol, and he shot the other two players as he backed away from the table. Sweat ran down his face and his hands shook as the town’s people watched him.
“They were no good card cheats and had it coming.”
Nobody said anything to that as he backed towards the door. He had just about reached it when the old cowpoke stood up and dusted himself off. Willie’s guns roared again as he put two into the old man’s head, but the old man just smiled.
“I wasn’t the one holding the cards, you were, Willie Venue.”
Like a wave, the townspeople came at him, and Willie emptied his guns into them. The townspeople grabbed him, dragging him to the bar they forced him to kneel. The old bartender hopped onto the bar with the agility of a much younger man. “Willie Venue, you are damned, and Lucifer owns your soul. He has decided that he wants to collect it now.”
“I made no deal with the devil, I have done some bad things, but I can change, I can still be saved.”
“Willie you will never change, but the devil is willing to make you a bargain. Collect the souls of a thousand men and he will not claim yours.”
“Kill a thousand men, I can do that.”
“Not just any men will do, they have to be specific men, men like you. Just so happens he has a list of sorts.” The old man dropped a stack of wanted posters on the floor in front of Willie. “Do this and you will not burn in Hellfire for eternity.”
Willie nodded. “I’ll do it. I’ll hunt these men as the Devil’s bounty hunter.”
“Willie was true to his word, hunting down the Devil’s bounties one by one.” The cowboy looked up at the three men and smiled. “You are the last three.”
His pistols were out before the men understood what was happening. Willie Venue gunned down the last three of his bounties and with a quick spin of his guns holstered them. He dug in his saddlebags and pulled out the last three of the wanted posters and dropped them into the fire. As the posters hit the flames, they burst into green flames and the old bartender appeared.
“I did my part, that is the last of the souls I was to collect.”
“The deal was for a thousand souls and I have kept count, you are one soul short.”
“I got them all. I have no posters left so if your count is off you made a mistake.”
“Willie, the deal was you collect the souls. Leonard Baptist, you didn’t collect his soul a hangman in El Paso got that one, but there is a simple solution to this bookkeeping problem.”
“What is that? Do I have to collect one more than just tell me the name and I will?”
“It is your soul the devil wants.”