Eternity passing through his mind, the Stranger stared at the pathway to his seemingly obvious freedom before finally accepting it. What had appeared before his eyes was no illusion, for, while he’d been sleeping, someone had unlocked his cell.
He rose from his bunk, ebbing fear still in his subconscious from some forgotten dream—though whatever it was had left behind a dark and sticky residue of uneasiness in his mind. His feet brought him closer, shuffling across the wooden planks, when it hit him: a flash of white tearing through his mind like lightning.
The flash had taken him back—the sharp crack of rifle fire, its cordite fresh in his nostrils. In the wavering heat of midday, he sees a marching infantry advancing toward them across the plain, bayonet at the ready. Behind him, the rapid cannonade of artillery roars defiantly, lessening the enemy front line, hurtling shattered bodies into the air.
He turns to the soldier next to him—another face from his past; another ghost from a time buried in his mind—a green recruit picked up just three weeks prior while his regiment had been on the march. The rookie’s face was pale, stricken with fear, unlike the face of the other soldier he’d seen the day before, which had the look of a predator eyeing its prey.
The Stranger remembered both men quite well, being diametric contradictions of one another. The recruit, with his shock of red hair and crooked mouth, had expelled a certain sense of panic from the first second the Stranger had laid eyes on him. This moment in time, now exhumed from the shifting sands of his memory, was no different.
From the recruit’s throat come the breathlessly spilled words of the 23rd Psalm.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want; He maketh me lay down in green pastures—”
His neck stretched so far, the muscles coiled so tightly, that each vein was clearly visible through the skin—which is exactly where the lead ball fired from a Mexican rifle struck him. His young body hit the ground, bringing with it another flash in the Stranger’s mind—one that returned him to his place in his cell, standing halfway between the bunk and the door.
Just a random visitation to one of the many horrors stored inside the crumbling vault of his mind, the Stranger reckoned. One of those buried away under so many nights of alcoholic anesthesia; one of those that somehow excavated itself time and again.
The Stranger shook off the memory and stepped toward the cell door, curious if that too was some kind of figment of his weary mind. As he swung the door open—listening to the iron hinges creak—an absence became very apparent.
There was not a single sound coming from outside.
Even in a small town such as Sagebrush, there was horses and foot traffic, buckboards and wagons traversing the main thoroughfare with expected frequency. There were children laughing and raised voices of the drunkards stumbling out of one of the town’s saloons.
But not today.
Today there was only the stillness inside the Sheriff’s office. With every step across the wooden floor came a deafening creak that resounded through the prison. Reaching, the Stranger opened the door and stepped outside, taking large droughts of hot, fresh Texas air into his body. And as he filled his lungs, his eyes confirmed his ears: save for the very slight breeze, he was completely alone on the street outside the jail. There wasn’t anyone there to stop the silence anxious silence from closing in on him.
Run, he thought. You’re out. Escape before anybody sees you.
Standing in the dirt behind the town jail was the wooden skeleton of the gallows he’d been sentenced to hang from on this very morning.
Run! His mind yelled at him. Before you hang from the rope!
“Hello!” his voice called out.
“Hello!” he called out again, more urgently.
Again no answer came; he felt a knot of panic squeeze tighter in his chest. Finally, he began his tentative, unprotected steps down the thoroughfare.
Protection from what? his mind asked.
The Stranger had some sense of the answer, but he dismissed it as another figment. He stepped past the edge of the jail toward the livery when he saw them.
Feet. Bare and still, dirty toes down in the dust.
Two years in light infantry trained the Stranger to know what he would find there. Two years had trained him to know what unmoving feet planted on scarred earth meant.
Even before turning the corner, buzzing filled his ears: the silence was broken. Flies had descended upon what was left of the man, lighting upon the tacky surface of his blood-soaked back. What was left of his clothes had been shredded as if—
Attacked, thought the Stranger.
The smell caught his nostrils before he even pushed past the saloon doors into the dank building townies called the “Gulch.” His first step allowed him to catch the expired gaze of a man draped across a nearby table—on his back, arms spread and dangling off the edges. Blood dripped from the mouth of the corpse and ran down its chin, ultimately collecting in a sticky puddle on the floor.
From one end to the other, the Gulch was strewn with bodies—some obviously felled where they had once stood. Others, given the scarlet trail behind them, had been forcibly dragged.
The Stranger turned away, squeezing his eyes shut as his mind flashed back to a Mexican afternoon. He had stumbled upon a similar massacre, unparalleled in its brutality—until now. The scene in his memory populated by young faces—boys, girls...
Immediately his thoughts rushed to the sound of a bell—one he’d heard every day in that jail, tolling once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
When he turned back toward the door, his eyes fell upon the body of Cherokee Sue–-face down, sprawled across the wooden staircase, her eyes glassy. Her throat laid open from ear to ear, the wound still glistening in the dust-filled rays of sunlight reaching in through the Gulch’s front door. With her body upended, her dress had fallen open, revealing, in death, the knowledge she had withheld from the Stranger in life.
As fast as his feet could carry him, the Stranger ran toward the schoolhouse, remnant carnage marking his flight. Heart pounding, he pushed himself further, though every fiber in his body told him to turn and run the other way—that what he would find would not be pleasant.
Turning the corner past the bell post, his feet caught upon something—a dog lying dead, its face covered in foam, legs splayed unnaturally in separate directions. The Stranger’s hands were skinned from the dirt but he didn’t wane. He sprang back to his feet. With a trembling hand, he pushed open the schoolhouse door.
And found it empty.
Of course, he thought. It must have happened at night. Momentarily, a sense of relief washed over him, for he had expected to find the young bodies of Sagebrush’s children torn and shredded, given to the same horrible end as Cherokee Sue.
But all the children were tucked safely in their beds...
His throat dried to dust. Not a child’s cry or plaintive wail could be heard. And as the Stranger went from house to house, building to building, he found why: bodies, faces, mouths shredded, most rendered unrecognizable as human. The horror that visited under the cover of darkness had come with teeth bared. Its hunger did not discriminate young from old, helpless or innocent.
In the afternoon he found Overton, face down in the livery, sometime after the flies had. The sheriff was sprawled naked across a girl who looked no older than a teenager. Her eyes stared through him, looking past him to the door behind him. She seemed to search for an answer that would never come.
The Stranger took the sheriff’s gun, lifting it carefully from its holster while turning away from the slashes dug into Overton’s back.
No horses remained—not even as carrion. Perhaps all the horses were stolen, the Stranger thought, which led him to the more reasonable idea it had been men—bandits—who had done this. In his experience, there was no question men were capable of such bloodshed and brutality.
But then why was I saved? He wondered yet again. He searched for anybody, any sign of life, but located only corpses. All he found, though, was Kentuck, or at least most of his rail-thin frame.
Even though the deputy had beaten him, the Stranger sat and wept for Kentuck, a naked chill clutching his spine once some kind of finality hit him.
As the Stranger stumbled back to the street, he fell to his knees in the dirt, squeezing his eyes shut and balling his fists, covered in dust. His breath hitching, he could not make a sound—finally arching back his head and letting out a scream concealed in a torment beyond reason. He felt as if his jaw would rip from his face as his mouth stretched open further to let out his anguish for in the entire town of Sagebrush: he was the only one left alive.
Perhaps they left you so there’d be someone to take the blame, he thought.
Immediately his mind raced from one long-forgotten face to another. Enemies from the past—those causing him to live life running and hiding like an animal, traveling only under the cover of night. One of these faces had finally caught up with him; he was certain.
Which was even more reason to get out of Sagebrush as soon as possible.
Even more so than you being surrounded by nothing but dead folks? his mind replied.
The Stranger looked over his shoulder toward the west. The sun had reached its zenith hours ago and was headed back toward the horizon; he had four to five hours of daylight left at best. Having no horse meant limited supplies; and with oceans of sand and scrub between here and everywhere else, he began to think his prospects looked slim.
The air around him began to reek of death, which weighed heavy upon his mind, crushing his sanity.
“Better than staying here,” he said to himself, making the decision to leave Sagebrush as quickly as possible.
Frantically, he searched again for a horse. As he turned the corner past a house on the edge of town, he heard it: tied to a pole was an aged grey and brown burro, its back sagging with a deep curvature. Upon the creature’s face sat the most fixed and blank stare he’d ever seen on an animal—a stare, he remembered, his father had a name for.
He took toward careful steps the animal, although it didn’t even seem to notice his approach. Burros were slow but often ornery, in the Stranger’s experience. As he came up to the beast and ran his hand along its neck, the burro startled and turned its lumbering head toward him slowly. It was at that point the Stranger realized the burro had not heard his approach.
“Great, you’re deaf.” He spoke and the burro didn’t react to his voice. Considering the condition of the scarred animal, the Stranger couldn’t decide if its disability was a product of age or years of abuse. He’d once seen a man take a red-hot poker to the ears of a mule that, after becoming deaf, didn’t startle too easily anymore either.
The burro stared at the ground as the Stranger untied him. True to its stubborn roots, the animal didn’t initially move. But after a few sharp tugs on its rope, it clomped off, following its new master away from its old home—which it would never return to again.
By mid-afternoon the flies had descended on Sagebrush in thick, ungodly, black-winged clouds of high-pitched buzzed. Scavengers approached from any surface they could use. As he exited the general store carrying an armful of canned goods, he noticed three vultures on the ground standing in a circle, squawking loudly—as if trying to decide where to feast first.
To the burro, the Stranger affixed an old saddlebag—its ends hanging low to the ground, it meant for a large, stout horse. On one side he loaded the satchels with jerky, coffee, and as much food as he dared burden the animal with. On the other he packed as much ammo as he could find—two horns loaded with black powder, a small box of bullets and a can of chamber grease.
Behind the counter of the general store he’d found a pair of brand new Colt Dragoons in their original holsters, the kind meant to be strapped around a horse’s neck. In the service, the Dragoons had been called “Horse Pistols” for this reason. Given the size of his burro, the holster belt hung slack. It would have to do. Finally, the Stranger strapped four canteens of water over the burro’s already overloaded back. He then placed a mostly new hat on his head to protect him from the beating Texas sun.
It was getting late and he itched to put miles between him and this town full of nothing but the dead. He pulled on the burro’s lead but the animal continued to stare at the ground.
“C’mon! Damn you, stupid thing. Let’s go!” He growled, his voice booming against the stillness of the air. Then a chilling thought ran through the Stranger’s mind. If whatever had committed the atrocities overnight was still out there, he’d do best to leave quietly.
He pulled on the burro’s lead but the animal continued to stare at the ground.
“Now!” the Stranger hissed; and when the burro refused to budge, he balled his fist and struck the beast right between the eyes, recoiling from pain after connecting with the burro’s thick nasal bone.
No matter. The burro would not move. Angrily, the Stranger shook the beast by the reins—again to no avail, Frustrated, he struck out at the dirt on the ground with his hand.
The setting sun scorched the Stranger with the immediacy of the coming night. He did not intend to fight the animal to the horizon’s precipice of nightfall. Letting out a long sigh, he got to his feet and unstrapped one of the saddlebags, reaching in for a piece of jerky, which he held out under the nose of the obstinate beast.
The burro first licked, then took the entire piece of jerky into its mouth, chewing in loud wet bites that sounded like a butter churn.
“C’mon,” the Stranger said, leading the burro down the thoroughfare of this, dead town last known as Sagebrush. As night began to fall, the Stranger became worried. He looked over his shoulder across the dry plain—back in the direction of the town he’d left only hours before. The town itself had long vanished in the haze of sun beating down upon the ground, swallowed up by the rippling heat.
He pushed himself but the burro—which he’d taken to calling “Blue,” due to the unchanging glum look on its face—would only go further at the cost of jerky. They kept pace with the setting sun until reaching the slight crest of a shallow ravine—a river run dry, chased away by the brutal Texas summer. It was here on this arid shoal the Stranger decided to stop for the night.
He built a small campfire using scrubwood and shared a meal of jerky with Blue. Briefly, he thought of tying up the burro to prevent him from escaping—but given the nature of the beast, and its sheer stupidity, escape seemed very unlikely. Instead, Blue stood just outside the rim of firelight, closed its ancient eyes, and fell asleep on its feet.
As the fire dimmed and the Stranger laid back to rest, he stared up at the stars—a pitch-black field almost illuminated with millions of glowing pinpricks in space. He was a free man, but again he was on the run—this time not only from the enemies of his past, but from something he couldn’t understand: a fear; one so gripping that it shook his heart with its mighty hand. And though every fiber in his body was worn to exhaustion, he could not bring himself to shut his eyes, as he was truly afraid of what lay behind the closed doors of sleep.
Finally, his will to fight it any longer gave in to his body’s desperate need for rest. His slumber came quickly, pulling him downward into the full depths of unconsciousness.
The respite was brief though, as the Stranger shot bolt upright, eyes open. But this time it was not the hammer-strike of nightmare that awoke him but something that—even asleep—his ears caught.
Slowly, he turned his head to blindly listen again.
He heard it: the dry snap of desert brush under someone’s boot—an unmistakable footstep coming toward him in the darkness.