Published on Sunday, June 23, 2013
The Far Rider
By Benedict. J. Jones
The four men rode along the dusty ridge; they were a mess of sweat stained clothes, un-kept beards and old scars sitting in the saddles of travel strained horses. One of them led a mule on which was tied a woman, her head wrapped in a shawl. Noonan, the youngest of the bunch, wheeled his horse and looked back down into the depression they had just ridden out of.
"Well, he's still a'coming!"
"Randolph, if we cut the mule loose we can outpace that peckerwood and lose him by nightfall."
Hector spat again.
"We cut loose the mule and we cut loose the pretty little thing I got tied to it and that, well that just ain't about to happen, Cole."Hector let his fingers trail across the walnut handle of the Navy Colt he wore tucked in a sash that had once been scarlet. Cole looked again to Randolph Todd who continued to watch the progress of the distant horseman.
"He's just strolling that pony like he's on a Sunday jaunt." Muttered Noonan.
"Then one of us ought'a just sit up a spell with a long gun and wait for him to jaunt on up here. I'm happy to provide the piece." Randolph slid an Enfield musketoon half clear of its scabbard. "If you wanna cut straws or just decide between yourselves that's fine with me."
The other three men stared at Randolph.
"What? We'll all meet up again to the west and divide up like we agreed. No takers?"
Randolph's crew stayed silent.
"Then you get your hand away from that Colt, Hector. Cole, we ain't cutting that mule loose and Noonan stop looking over your shoulder else you gonna fall into some chasm and meet Ol' Nick. Now ride! We still got daylight and a little hard riding'll leave him in the dust."
Before darkness fell the men found themselves a sheltered area carved by the wind in the side of a large mesa. Randolph Todd sat, cavalry coat around his shoulders, in front of the fire with his back to his saddle. Hector had skewered a skinned prairie dog and was slowly cooking it over the flames while Cole sat with a cut down shotgun in his hands looking out to where Noonan had first watch. The woman who had been on the mule sat by the fire with her hands bound in front of her.
"You're a dead man, Randolph Todd. I can see the skull beneath your skin."
Randolph didn't look up at her but simply reached for his coffee cup."You shut your mouth now, Esmeralda." Hissed Hector Hayes.
The woman turned and hair as black as blood in the moonlight spilled from beneath her shawl.
"You want to try and stick it in me again, Hector? Or maybe use your belt on me again? Go ahead because you're as dead as the rest. When he comes you know what he'll do."
Cole's attention was now drawn to the conversation.
"Who's that rider, Essie?"
"Who you think? Could you see the horse?"
"It was white, kinda ambled along."Esmeralda nodded back at Cole.
"Si, a white Chickasaw Pony. Only one man back in Trenton's Crossing rode a horse like this."
Hector stood up and punched his fist into the side of Esmeralda's head then grunted and sat back down.
"Hector, didn't put it quite the way I would have but you need to hold your mouth now. Your gypsy play acting might impress those carpet baggers, immigrants and good for nothin' northern city boys but you're in company who knows you here. It ain't Patrick Gomez on that horse. Hector put three shots into that man and I put one more through his head."
"That man would do anything for me and if that meant he had to ride back through the gates of hell then that is what he would do. You can call it an act if you wish but I have the sight like my mother before me and hers before that and all I see around this fire are the skulls of dead men."
"Say the word, Randolph and I'll fix that smart mouth of hers."
"No need, Hector. She says one more word and I'll cut myself a switch and make sure she can't walk let alone talk."
A scream split the night air. Randolph was the first to move; he stood, his army coat dropped and he strode forth with a pistol in each hand. Hector dropped the half cooked prairie dog and pulled his Navy Colt. Silence reigned over the night once more.
"You see anything, Cole?"
Cole nodded stayed crouched with the barrels of his shortened shotgun pointing out into the night.
"Had to be Noonan." Hissed Hector.
Randolph moved out into the night. Hector swore and then followed, motioning as he did for Cole to hold his position. Randolph moved silently but quickly through the black of the night. He reached the area close to where he had placed Noonan, stopped and listened - apart from the usual nocturnal sounds of the desert Randolph could not hear anything unusual. Easing himself forward he moved until he found a discarded blanket. Noonan's Tarpley carbine, with a broken stock bound tight with wire, lay beside his blankets cocked but unfired. Randolph picked up the weapon and backed away towards where Hector waited.
"No sign of him. Back to the camp and wait for dawn, nothing else to do."
Hector grunted and they headed back to the fire.
They broke camp and rode west two hours after dawn. They found Noonan soon after. He had been strung up on a huge mesquite; his clothes gone, body caked in half-dried blood, but eyes that still showed white in his, rust streaked, tanned face.
"Shit!" Muttered Hector as he pulled his own mount and the mule to a stop.
The colour drained from Cole's face as he stared at the tattered, naked, body of a man that he had been his friend.
"What are those white things on him?" He asked.
Randolph was watching Esmeralda as he spoke.
"They're mesquite thorns - looks like someone has pushed three score of them through the poor bastard's flesh."
Cole gulped on a dry throat as he looked at the three inch thorns that had been pushed into Noonan's limbs, groin, stomach, chest and face.
"We gonna cut him down?"
The white eyes of the torn figure blinked twice. Hector passed the reins of the mule to Cole and reached for the Bowie knife that he wore tucked in the back of his sash. Randolph continued to watch Esmeralda who kept her eyes fixed on a spot between the mule's ears. Hector slid his knife free and spurred his horse towards the mesquite. Before Hector reached Noonan Randolph drew his Colt Dragoon and fired. The shot took Noonan through the head, blowing the back of his skull over the dry branches of the tree to which he was bound.
"Wouldn't have lived no how. You see how deep those thorns were buried, would've killed him just to get half of them out."
Hector shrugged, put his knife away and took the reins of the mule back from Cole.
Esmeralda looked up at Randolph and he could feel the fire that lay behind her dark eyes.
"How long till that is you hanging up in the mesquite, Randolph?"
Randolph pointed the Colt Dragoon at her head. His hand was steady."It'll be after you're lying in the dust with the coyotes feeding on your innards, that's for sure."
She looked away and Randolph lowered the pistol.
"Hector, get her off that mule and tie her to Noonan's horse. Leave the mule here. We're heading for higher ground."
Randolph pushed his horse on ahead so that he was the first to reach the crest of a rise. Cole followed and Hector came behind him pulling Noonan's horse, to which Esmeralda was now tied.
"He still there?" Asked Cole.
"See for yourself." Randolph pointed to the south and Cole could make out a rider on a white horse following a parallel trail to their own.
"How far?" Asked Hector with his hand on the stock of Noonan's Tarpley carbine.
"Too far for that." Replied Randolph looking to the north. "How far to the meet with Yaqi Jack?"
"Following these trails I reckon 'bout three days."
"And across the flats?"
"Across the flats?"
"Am I in a cave? Weren't expecting no echo."
Hector looked away.
"Day and a night across the flats but Randolph..."
"I know, Hector, we haven't got enough water and it'll be a ride through hell but you want to wheel your horse and face that rider?"
"Randolph, between us we killed more bad man than most have seen. So I say we cut across to the south and bushwhack the bastard who killed Noonan."
"And what if it ain't just him? What if he's the one we can see?"
"Oh, you know it is just him, Randolph. You so scared you just want to run out into the desert."
"Shut up, Essie. Well, Hector?"
Cole swayed in the saddle and then opened his eyes, everything was white - the land bone dry, the sun bright and white overhead and the sky seemingly bleached of its blue. He looked back over his shoulder and could make out the silhouette of the rider far behind them. Cole turned back to his front and reached for the water canteen he already knew was empty. Upending the canteen a single drop of water fell onto Cole's parched tongue and, if anything, it made him even thirstier.
Randolph had taken the reins to Esmeralda's horse and was riding ahead. Cole spurred his horse on until he came level with Hector.
"You got any water, Hector?"
"Just what's drying on my forehead."
Cole was silent for a moment.
"You remember how we charged at Centralia?"
The two men's eyes locked for a moment.
"I surely do, Cole, I surely do."
Cole began checking his pistols and the cut down shotgun.
"How far behind us is he?"
Hector checked over his shoulder.
"I'd say 'bout half a mile. I ain't got no water, Cole, but you might appreciate a swig of this."
Hector reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a half filled bottle of whisky. Cole took the proffered bottle and a deep swig before passing it back.
"Well, I'll see you when I drop that rider or I'll see you in hell, Hector!"
With that Cole tucked the reins between his teeth, drew a pair of pistols and spurred his mount towards the distant rider. Hector watched the dust kicked up by his companions mount and then turned away. Randolph looked back once and then turned his face back into the sun.
Pistol shots made Hector turn once again in his saddle. A second volley sounded out but Hector could not catch sight of either Cole or the rider in the dust kicked up from the horses. Hector looked back at Randolph and Esmeralda moving away. He rode on further and looked back again - the dust had settled and the horizon was clear.
Randolph half turned.
Randolph turned fully and then stood in his stirrups to look back. He sat again and shook his head.
"No time, Hector. Got to push on. If we're feeling like this he must be too."
Esmeralda laughed, the sound was harsh and as dry as the landscape around them.
Randolph's horse stumbled and his head snapped up. He realised he must have been asleep in the saddle. The harsh sun was finally dipping below the western horizon. He looked ahead and saw something spread out on the ground of the desert. Looking behind him Randolph saw Esmeralda's horse following with her bowed in the saddle and beyond that Hector, hat down with the look of a beaten man in his sagging shoulders.
"Hector!" Randolph hissed.
The big man's head came up and with it his hand from his sash with his Navy Colt cocked. Randolph nodded at the shape laid out in the dark ahead of them and then slid from the saddle drawing his own pistol as he went.
Esmeralda stayed in the saddle beneath her shawl while the two men crept forward. Hector moved to the left, Randolph to the right. They came to the spread out form together. Cole lay spread eagled in the dust, bound hand and wrist to stakes in the ground, and moaned as he heard their approach. Even in the half-light of dusk they could see what had been done to Cole - he had been flayed. The top layers of skin from his whole body had been carefully peeled away, almost to the bone in places. The dirt and dust of the desert now dotted Cole's raw body and he shuddered every few seconds.
"Jesus!" Spat Hector.
Randolph stayed quiet and looked out into the night.
"How'd he get ahead of us, Hector?"
"No way, Rand. No way we've been going in circles. Sun was on my face all the time. We've been heading west just like we should. What the hell we gonna do about Cole?"
"What d'you think?"
Hector looked away and Randolph's Colt roared once more.
They rode slowly through the night and dawn found them within sight of a small adobe building set next to a well. Hector spurred his horse on while Randolph held back. He turned to Esmeralda.
"You think he'll keep coming?"
She spoke from within the dark veil of her shawl.
"You know he will, Randolph. He swore he'd never let me go and the passion ran deep in that man"
Randolph trotted his horse to the well. The water tasted like the best champagne in Savannah and he wolfed it down. He splashed some over his face and then drew a bucket and set his horse to drink. Hector had likewise dealt with his mount and now stood with the Tarpley carbine in his hands looking at the adobe building.
"Got a bad feeling about this, Rand."
"Let me deal with Essie's horse then we'll see."
Randolph lifted Esmeralda clear of her saddle and then dropped her to the ground. He led the horse next to the well and looked to Hector.
"Set some water for the mount. Essie, you best drink now.
While she drank the two men surveyed the house. Nothing stirred.
"Where's Yaqi Jack?"
"He was supposed to be here with fresh horse and provisions."
"Hello the house!" Randolph hollered.
The shout was not answered. Hector looked over to Randolph.
"Do we go in?"
As Randolph thought on it they both heard the creak of the houses door. The pair turned as something bounced through the dirt towards them. Yaqi Jack's head rolled to a stop at their feet. Hector fired, the bullet impacting against the wall of the building. Esmeralda moved away from the well.
"Pat! Pat! I'm out here, I love you!"
Randolph turned and shot her through the knee. Blood coloured the dust as she collapsed to the ground. Hector had reloaded the carbine and dropped to one knee covering the door. They waited. Nothing moved that they could see.
"Water the horses and then we get clear!" Shouted Hector.
Randolph grabbed up the canteens and headed to the well. With half the canteens filled he heard the shot from Hector's carbine. He turned to see a figure emerge from the house. Dust seemed to jump up around the figure as it strode forth and Randolph watched as Hector drew his Navy Colt and fired. The shot vanished into the swirling dust and Hector fired again. And again. And again. And again. Yet the figure continued to come. Hector fired his sixth shot and hurled his pistol at the figure. Randolph stood with his hand on his Colt Dragoon as the dust storm threw itself around Hector.
"Get clear, Essie!" Yelled Randolph.
"He's here for you, Randolph!"
The swirling dust slowed and Randolph watched as Hector stumbled cleared. Blood and gore streaked Hector's cheeks, his eyes gone and the flesh around them ruined. Hector dropped to his knees and clutched at the torn sockets.
"The places he's been, Rand, he showed me."
Hector screamed and Randolph watched as his companions hand scrabbled around at the back of his sash. Although his hand was trembling like a man with palsy Hector managed to draw his Bowie knife and with one stroke drew it across his own throat.
The dust was still now and Randolph stared at the figure that stood a few feet away from him. Esmeralda laughed once, a high nervous sound, and threw herself at the feet of the dust covered man who stood over Hectors corpse. The newcomer was tall but half a head shorter than Randolph, his shirt front was chewed up by bullet holes but no blood showed on the fabric. He raised his head and Randolph recoiled from the knowledge which showed in the dead eyes.
"Patrick." Esmeralda looked up, eyes shining with love. Dusty fingers laced themselves through the black curls of Esmeralda's hair. The fingers gradually tightened their grip until she gasped in pain and tried to pull away.
Randolph's hand skipped to his hip and the sound of the Colt Dragoon shattered the still of the night. The first bullet took the thing that had been Patrick Gomez through the heart and the second blew away the side of his skull. His body crashed into the dust dragging Esmeralda with him.
"No, no, no!" Her hands moved across the Gomez' chest and at her touch he seemed to stir and begin to sit up. Randolph drew the Remington he wore in his second holster and pointed them both towards the figures lying in the dust. Gomez' right hand closed around Esmeralda's throat and even as he backed away Randolph heard the crack and crunch of small bones as they broke.
Randolph made it to his horse, holstered his pistols, grabbed up the half-filled canteens and rode back out into the flats.
When his horse gave out Randolph walked. When the water was gone he tossed the canteen away, he abandoned the Colt Dragoon and kept the lighter Remington. He stopped for a moment and considered sitting down in the dirt. Looking back he saw a figure, also on foot, silhouetted against the horizon. Randolph laughed and started walking again.
Benedict. J. Jones is a writer from London who mainly works in the genres of crime, horror and the western. He has had more than twenty stories published in the small presses since 2008 and can be found at benedictjjones.webs.com.