The man followed his shadow; always out of reach, dancing ahead of the rising sun. His back was warming, sweat already trickling down his collar, though the front of his body was still held by the coldness of night. He stopped his horse and turned stiffly to squint at the sun. A high flickering darkness caught his attention; a wheeling speck carried by dawning winds. A searcher like himself, he wondered. Perhaps predator as well. He watched the bird as it wandered north towards the mountains. The man grimaced. Or a scavenger.
He was entering the Deadlands--that stretch of creation left half-finished at the end of God’s sixth day. Hammered flat by time and silence, cracked by sun and wind, a land held hostage by its own desolation. A good place to forget. To be forgotten.
The man guided the roan carefully down a shifting draw and then out among a scattering of prickly brush. A faint trace wandered aimlessly to the west, passing by an adobe hut and its empty corral. He snickered to the horse and gave her a gentle nudge with his knees.
* * *
He came through the door and stood for a moment to adjust his eyes. A long wooden counter ran the length of one side. There were no tables, no chairs, though there was a sagging bed tucked in a corner. The floor was hard-pack dirt and smelled of aged urine. Balding hides and bleached buffalo skulls hung on the crumbling walls.
“Wha ya want?” said the man behind the counter. He was a big man, full beard, crooked and missing teeth, left eye twitching. One of those fur traders gone south when the beaver quit and the Indians got too righteous.
“I’m looking for someone.”
“Well they ain’t here.” The trader eyed the faded yellow cavalry stripe on the man’s pant leg. “How’s the war goin’?”
“Not my war anymore.”
“Showed them Mescan’s a thing or two, I reckon--”
“Looking for a man goes by the name of Somerset Jack.”
“That half-breed sonofabitch? You a friend of his?”
“He has something I want.”
“Ol’ Jack ain’t got the brains God gave a jackrabbit. Heard he went up to The Mussle--”
The thudding of hooves from outside, coarse voices, and then the door thumped opened, flooding the room with sun and wind and dust. Two men, leading a woman--a Comanche squaw by dress and look--came in muttering and laughing, full of sweat and stink.
“Hey Twitchy!” One of them called out; tall, rawboned, eyes of a dead snake, voice full of stones and spit. “Gonna use the bed, hey?”
“Gonna cost ya, Sam,” said Twitchy.
“Yeah, sure, and toss in a bottle,” said the other. Squat, powerful, with a near-sided squint and the large hard hands of a mule-skinner. He had the woman by a leash. She never uttered a sound--head bowed, hair loose, hands bound in front.
“He’s lookin’ for Somerset Jack,” Twitchy said.
Sam took a long look at the man by the counter. “That half-breed sonofabitch? What ya want him fer?” He turned to his partner. “Don’t look like no friend of Jack’s. Wha ya think Nate?”
Nate jerked at the leash and pushed the woman onto the bed. He squinted at the man. “Nope, Jack’s got better taste in friends.”
“You want a piece of this?” Sam asked, nodding at the woman. “Give ya half-price. Comanche bitch ain’t like no other. Ride of yer life!”
He looked at the woman. Not a sound came from her. She’d resigned herself or maybe it was shock, either way she wasn’t even in the room. “Where’d you get her?”
“None of yer fucking business. Hey, I’m offering ya a good time? You ain’t bein’ polite that’s fer sure.”
“Polite would only be a waste,” the man said. “Trash is only good for burning.”
Sam flinched, his forehead creasing deeply, his hand went to the pistol at his belt. “You callin’ me--”
The man drew his Colt Walker smoothly, cocking and firing the big gun, filling the little room with thunder and lightning. The .44 caliber ball took half of Sam’s head and spread it over his friend’s face.
Nate screamed and came up with a double-barreled derringer. The Colt boomed again and a rose appeared on Nate’s throat, sending him gagging and gurgling against a wall.
The man swung around even as Twitchy brought up his shotgun. For one instant their eyes met and Twitchy knew that his time on earth had come to a sharp, quick, and meaningless end.
He had freed the woman’s hands but she was still as stone. He lifted her chin and saw vacant eyes. God knew how long she’d been with those men--a day past too long.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked, but it was like talking to a rag-doll.
He went over to the counter, kicked the body of Twitchy out of the way, and found a bucket of water.
“Looks clean,” he said.
He turned to her and froze. She held Nate’s derringer to her head. “No!”
A single tear crawled down her dust covered cheek. And her eyes . . . her green eyes grew wide and feral, then faded like a light dwindling down a tunnel.
* * *
The man buried her out back of the hut, thinking she deserved better. Said a few words about finding a better world, and he thought about that as well. With a cluck of his tongue, he headed away, turning around only once to watch the smoke rising up from the burning hut. With his shadow no longer leading, he headed north towards the mountains.