26 Sep The Ballad of Jakob Grey
“The Ballad of Jakob Grey”Written by Hank Belbin Edited by N.M. Brown Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Paul J. McSorley
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 44 minutes
— Loren Eiseley
Chapter I — The Saloon
Laying in the thoroughfare outside the saloon was a pile of twenty smouldering bodies stacked on top of each other like logs. The gang of bandits that had just rode into the twilight town trotted silently past the aftermath of the funeral pyre and no man had any words to say beyond smirks. The charred bodies laying in the dust before them twinkled and the embers rose up from their smoking remains like lost stars. Black Oaks was supposed to be their next target for a great robbery, but instead, it was an empty skeleton of a town with only a handful of lowly residents standing alone on the various decks and balconies, all observing them quietly. A few oil lamps glowed in darkened windows and on the perimeters of the town a pack of sickly dogs yapped and barked at each other.
The Moss gang hitched up their horses and turned and surveyed the empty shell. Clouds of dust blew languidly across the dim thoroughfare and there was no movement. In the wake of death, they fitted right in. They were a rag-tag group of bandits whose order of business was to ambush families out on the prairie and steal whatever they had before selling them onto a fence in whichever border town they’d found themselves in.
Their saddlebags were already loaded with trinkets, ornaments, and stolen gold and jewellery from all the misfortunate families who’d had the bad luck to come across them. They never left anyone alive and would take great pleasure in torturing them before killing them.
Moss dismounted his horse first and landed in the dust with a thud. He then stood and spat into the dust. “I need me a drink,” he growled.
He turned and headed for the saloon. His gang followed.
“What’s with the bodies, you reckon Moss?” Jesse asked with a snigger in his voice as he gestured to the pile of ash and skulls.
“Scarlet fever,” Luke answered. “Disease that can take out a whole outpost. Seen it before. They’re trying to contain it by burning the sick.”
Luke was a runaway who was found by the gang on a long stretch of road. They took him in and he quickly proved himself to be good in a fight. Jesse was a weedy rat of a man with dirty blonde hair and a sharp grin who always had a problem with folk bigger than himself.
They entered the saloon in series and the wrinkled bartender standing behind the faded wooden bar looked across at them all wearily. “Buenas noches caballeros,” he said.
The gang didn’t reply. They each headed for the bar.
Whiskey?” The bartender then asked apologetically.
“Si si señor, whisky,” Moss rasped and leaned against the bar with his arms huddled as if he was trying to protect something within his hug.
“Do I look like some bean eater to you? Gimmie a drink.”
There was a pause before the bartender replied. “And your friends?”
“Say mister, what happened here? Place looks like a fuckin’ graveyard!” Jesse chuckled while leaning in.
The bartender looked sideways at Jesse as if aggrieved and muttered, “Plague… Taken out near on the whole town. If I were you folk, I’d have these here drinks and ride on. Lest you get sick too.”
“Then why you still here?” Jesse challenged the bartender.
“… My family mister. They’re amongst the dead outside. In the morning I aim to bury them proper. This here saloon is mine in addition. I cain’t turn and leave ‘cause I’ve got nowhere to leave too.”
“My broken heart,” Jesse then mocked. “How you gonna know which ones are yours amongst that pile of cinder?”
The bartender gritted his teeth at the comment and faced Moss with hollow eyes. “$5 mister,” he said whilst almost looking at the floor.
Both Luke and Jesse chuckled and turned away.
“You know what? Gimmie a bottle instead,” Moss said lowly.
“$15 mister,” the bartender replied, as if ashamed to ask.
Moss nodded and reached into his pocket and produced a coin and flicked it so it wined off over the bar and clanged amongst the crate of dirtied glasses on the floor behind.
“Muchas gracias, mi amor,” Moss winked and turned and found an empty table on which to situate himself upon. His gang followed him like a litter of puppies and each one sat down. The room was dim and cramped and smelled of sawdust and their table sat in the middle of it like an exhibition. In various corners around it, there were, illuminated only by faint candlelight, one or two tattered and lonely drinkers huddling over tables and whiskey kegs for tables who seemed alien in the light. Their faces etched in bizarre lost portraits. The room was quiet. There was a piano by the stairs but it was covered in dust and hadn’t been played in a long time. It was a sad old thing; the same as everything else in the saloon. Everyone about looked ragged and beaten down, glum and sullen, and the town itself stank of death. Moss could still smell the acrid stench of the burnt corpses outside, even when he covered his nose with his sleeve. He took a shot of whiskey in a vague effort to numb his senses to the smell.
The humour soon left the gang and none spoke for a while. Without words, the gang all sighed, surveying the scene, and faced each other and exchanged disappointed glances and realised there was no score to be had greater than robbing someone for a few dollars or pesos. After almost a week of travelling across the prairie, Moss was hoping for somewhere with a few more amenities to offer than a plague and a barn disguised as a saloon.
“It’s a dead end, Moss,” Eli said eventually. Eli was a stunted and pale fat man with a child’s face and a bald head. His innocent gaze often disguised his depraved mind. His penchant was rape and torture.
“Agreed,” Moss grunted.
Luke looked around absently at the dilapidated old bar and almost slammed his fist into the table at the frustration of it all.
“There ain’t no score here, Amos. I thought you said there was a bank?” He said turning to face the man.
“There was,” Amos yapped back. “I believe it’s that there building burned to rubble across the street from us. Ain’t my fault it’s gone.”
Amos was cross-eyed and always reeked of urine. His slack jaw revealed only two canines and one front tooth.
“Goddammit. Rode all this way for this fuckin’ dustbowl of a town. Ain’t nothin’ but a bowl of piss here,” Luke said as he scratched his eyebrow. Flakes of ash from the dead bodies outside fell from his brow line and onto the table. The gang sat in silence for the better part of an hour. Each man had his fill of whiskey and brooded. The bartender had brought another bottle over and the men drank from it greedily.
“We gotta make some money, Moss. I mean, them federales are on our heels. We need to go north and quick,” Luke announced, breaking the heavy quiet.
“You think I don’t know that?” Moss said.
“So what we gonna do?”
“We just need money.”
“But from where?”
“Just gimmie a goddamn minute…”
Eli lifted his head and looked around at all the other patrons in the bar. He analysed each one and evaluated their perceived wealth. As his gaze vacillated between them all, he saw in the corner of the room… something. His stare fell upon a strangely shaped man huddled alone at a table. A man everyone had somehow not noticed. Eli stared at him some more and noticed the man’s hands. When he caught a glimpse of the sight, his eyes glowed slightly.
“What about him?” Eli announced whilst pointing to a lone man sitting in the corner of the saloon.
They all turned casually and saw sitting underneath the stairs a great shadow of a man sitting motionless, staring down at his glass. It was the first time anyone had noticed him. He appeared at first like a great dark bat squatting in the eves of an attic, shrouded in the gloom and darkness, unmoving. Only his pale and sharp face gave the blur in the corner any kind of definition that could be named a man.
“Him?” Luke questioned with bemusement. “Looks like some down n’ out drifter to me.”
“I didn’t even see him,” Amos said.
“That’s ‘cause your eyes don’t work too good,” Luke jibbed and Amos frowned at him.
“He ain’t no drifter. He’s a dude,” Moss said lowly, as his stare fell upon the man.
“A dude?” Luke asked.
“A dumb rich man from out Californi’ way. Probably came here lookin’ for more gold,” Moss said whilst staring at the shadow in the corner.
“I doubt it,” Amos dismissed and threw a shot of whiskey down his throat.
“You really that blind, Amos? Look at his hands,” Eli said and pointed across at the man. Amos followed his finger and looked upon the stranger’s pale hands. “He’s got a gold ring on each finger and I’m willing to bet that he’s got more about his person. That amount of gold alone would make this here ride worth it,” Eli said.
“You got good instincts for this, Eli,” Moss said without looking at him. “He’s right. This lonesome poor bastard is a literal gold mine who don’t even know he’s about to get mined.”
The men smirked and nodded at the task. Luke rubbed his hands together at the excitement of the bloodletting to come.
“… What’s the play, Moss?” Luke snarled as his enthusiasm perked.
“Let’s go say ‘hi’ to him shall we? Figure out his fuckin’ story. If we get him outside we can knife him and take what he’s got.”
Moss had another shot of whiskey and then bolted up. His posse followed. They all turned and headed towards the table under the stairs.
Moss came upon it first. The shadow of his form crawled across it and the stranger noticed, yet made it vague whether he had indeed noticed the presence of the men standing over him like an ancient debt waiting to collect.
“Evening,” Moss said, wearing a shark’s grin.
The man barely moved and simply smiled without looking up. “Evening, gentlemen,” he said in a soft and clean voice.
Moss grinned more and tried to posture himself taller. “You, uh, live around here do ya?”
His gang crowded around the table like vultures around a carcass.
The stranger also grinned wider. “You could say that, yes…”
Moss nodded and looked to his boys, then back at the mysterious man. Usually, when Moss comes upon people, they quake and shudder and give up all their secrets, but not this man… Moss wondered why. Moss was a huge man with wide shoulders and a thick beard, so why wasn’t his presence intimidating this loner?
“It’s just… you don’t look like you’re from ‘round here,” he said, doing his best to appear agreeable.
The stranger chuckled lightly. “And where is ‘here’ exactly?”
“This town. Mind if we join you?” Moss announced and sat down opposite the stranger before waiting for a response.
The stranger didn’t appear insulted. Instead, he looked pleased to be accompanied now. “By all means. I have plenty of whiskey for you all. Tell your friends to sit down also.”
Moss squinted and looked across at the man. Why is he not scared of me? Moss thought to himself. He then gestured for his gang to join him around the table. Suddenly, Moss felt exposed. What was it about this man’s unmoving aspects that alarmed him so much?
“What’s your name, friend?” Moss asked.
“Jakob. Jakob Gray,” the tall stranger replied and poured each man before him a shot of whiskey with bizarre hospitality.
Moss looked across at the darkened form and studied him curiously. Jakob was a freakishly tall and lean man, wearing a huge green waxed duster that draped over his frame like a collapsed tent. The duster held various repairs and stitch works along its sleeves and across the chest that were clearly earned from conflict. Even whilst sitting down, it was apparent that Jakob was a massive man. His limbs were elongated and his thin wiry hands poking out from the sleeves looked like two hawk’s talons that clawed and gripped at his whiskey glass as if it were indeed his prey about to be consumed. Jakob’s hair was long and black and parted down the middle of his skull like two black proscenium curtains on the stage of his chiselled face. He wore a pair of sunglasses that were two black disks that looked like stones obscuring his eyes. They sat perfectly on the bridge of his nose as if they were indeed an extension of his body. His face was sharp and angular and had the distinct avian quality of a raven with his high cheekbones and long pointed nose. His cheeks were gaunt and hollow and swooped down unnaturally into an incredibly pointed chin shaped like the pommel of a sword.
“And yours?” Jakob asked.
“Moss. These here are my fellers,” he said as he gestured around the table to his men.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” Jakob said.
“You a veteran or somethin’?” Eli asked.
“A veteran of what?” Jakob turned.
Eli looked across at his gang puzzled. “… Of the war?”
“Which one?” Jakob smiled broadly with a veneer of malice.
Moss shuffled in his rickety chair and spoke. “I believe what my friend is attempting to ask you is, what are you doing here alone?”
“I’m here by the commission of Archibald Titus. Have you heard of the name?”
“… Yeah. He’s the oil man. Set up them oil fields across New Mexico. An industrious man who found the oil on his own and then went on to set up the empire,” Amos said.
“Correct. A learned man you are. Alas, I believed this town to be stocked with nothing more than dullards and ranchers. It has gone to Hell recently, I must profess.”
“Most folk appear to be dead ‘round here so I’m guessing the conversation has been somewhat lacking?” Luke said and sipped his whiskey politely.
“Indeed. But the ordeal is almost and mercifully at its terminus. For I am to depart in the morn. I am here to transport the wages of those poor dogs who work the fields. I have many a bag of coin for them workers that I needs must transport through canyons and upward to their coffers in Bartlesville.”
The gang shared a glance. The corners of their eyes lit up each, and every man saw that the ultimate score was razor close.
Moss cleared his throat and leaned forward towards Jakob. “And where are these bags of coins at this present junction?”
“Outside. In the wagon behind this establishment,” Jakob smiled.
“You trust leaving it unattended like that?” Luke asked.
“As you announced earlier, friend, everyone in this town is dead…”
“Not everyone,” Eli chimed in.
Jakob smiled even more and revealed his stark and lurid grin. Jakob raised his glass towards that grin and rifled down a great shot of whiskey yet seemed not to wince.
“Dead, either literally or figuratively. It’s the same thing,” he said calmly as he set his glass back down.
“I’m not following you, partner,” Moss said.
“Look around that those standing here with us. Take him for example,” Jakob said as he pointed out a lone husk of a man leaning against the bar behind the gang. “Do you see glints of life in his eyes? Or is he merely wandering aimlessly through the pantomime of his own life? No purpose. Same as the others. Nowhere to go, because the aspects and existence of their lives are so meaningless and ineffectual and abhorrently apparent that one could argue the point of whether they are indeed alive to begin with. Does a human with emptiness have any more position or gravity in the world than that of air, or water, or ash? What pray I ask is the metaphorical line in which things that do not exist or are dead, crossover and do become existent and live. How best to define life? Is it noise? Is it space? Is it marks left in the dust? If that is the case, then one could argue that almost everything here is ‘alive’. But we all know that is not the case. Things exist in this world without life. Sticks flow down rivers yet just because they are moving, it does not render them alive. The folks in this town move, but none of them are alive.”
“… That’s quite an outlook on life you have there, friend.”
“Please, call me Jakob…”
“You know, that gold you’re carting around, you’re asking for trouble in an area like this. I mean, we’d done just rode past several homesteaders who’d been all scalped and flayed. Good people tryin’ to make a livin’ who’d been cut down,” Moss said without irony. “You don’t have anyone with you? No one riding’ shotgun?”
“No,” he said with a cavalier attitude. “I’ve never required backup.”
“It’s dangerous out there in the dust. What do ya reckon to, um, me and my boys escorting you through the canyons?”
“The canyons?” Jakob replied coyly, as if flirting with the man.
“There’s the Muertos Vivientes gang roaming this area. You ain’t heard of them?”
“Bad folk who dismember and cook anyone they come across,” Luke interjected. “Bodies have been found all torn up…”
“If they find you—I don’t want to ruin your night—but they will scalp you, skin you, and take the coins from you like it was nothing. If you’re on your own at night, you gotta get your head down, ain’t ya? We could watch your back. Right, boys?”
“That’s right,” Eli said.
“Damn straight,” Amos then said.
Moss turned and grinned at Jakob. “So what’d ya say, friend? You give us a small cut—say, five per cent—and we’ll get you there.”
Jakob nodded. “Sounds hospitable.”
“It’s better than hospitable, Jakob. It’s peace of mind.”
“And what are your credentials?”
“Do not take it as an insult, but I have learned not to take a stranger on their word alone. I’d like to know your and your men’s combat and defence experience.”
Moss chuckled and leaned in as if about to confide the secrets of the universe.
“Well, here’s the thing amigo, we’re fuckin’ degenerates is what we are. Shit, I’ve killed more people than you’ve probably met. If there’s anyone you’d want on your side in a fight, it’s me and my boys,” Moss slurred as the whiskey finally took a hold of him. “We will massacre anyone you want us to. We will wage war on everyone for the right price.”
Jakob’s grin at the statement then became so pronounced that the edges of his mouth were practically underneath the corners of his eyes.
“Well then, I assess that to be satisfying enough! What better predator to accompany me through the valley of the shadow of death than that but death itself? Hyenas are formidable foes, yet powerful allies. Tomorrow at sunrise we shall all dispatch together! Now, let’s drink! Drink, man!” Jakob chanted and then men cheered with him. “For tonight deeper bonds shall be forged.”
The night was long and the men drank a lot. At some point, the ancient piano was revived and one of the gang sat in front of it and banged the keys rhythmically until they made no note at all. The rest of them danced along as if they knew the tune and they sang merry lyrics that no one seemed to understand nor document.
Before sunrise, someone—a patron of the bar, or a resident of the town maybe— was stabbed to death in the interim. Although no one within the gang can remember who exactly did it. As they all rolled around on the floor together in the middle of the saloon, the bartender stood over them and announced that a man was dead down the side of the building. The gang laughed with Jakob and they all stood up and stumbled out the doors and swayed to the side of the building to find a corpse laying on his back in the dust. His eyes were wide open, staring upward at the cloudless moonlit sky—as if searching for something—and his throat was slashed apart as if it’d been delivered with a broken bottle. The crusted blood bubbled out of the nameless man’s opened neck and all the gang laughed again with Jakob.
Soon after, they all fell down into the dirt together and slept and dreamt of blackness.
The morning was cold and vacuous. Sunrise came apologetically and carved its way through the thick milky clouds about and created dark streaks of purple and blue across the yawning early sky. Dawn rose strangely. And its rays seemed to cast queer shadows all about the landscape and the town and the shadows of the cacti on its perimeter seemed sickly or demented. Somewhere near the stables, a cockerel sounded off.
The Moss gang had found a disused barn on the edge of town to bed down in. Each man had suited themselves in one of the opened stalls in the small hours and had collapsed down into the hay from the night before in a drunken slumber. They all slept and dreamt of whirlpools. All but Jakob. He sat on one of the eve brackets in the loft, kicking his legs giddily, like a child, as he watched them all snooze in the soiled hay.
He could already see what he was going to do to them all. Out of everyone he’d met, these few deserved it more than what was quantifiable. But how best to order it? Would it be favourable to dispatch the leader first? Or maybe last? A painter often toys with which stroke to take first upon the canvas. A sculpture is always hesitant about which corner of marble to strike initially. Perhaps it is better to let the rhythm take over and go with the flow. The only question he’d needed to ask himself was who deserved it the most.
A few minutes later, they all awoke to the sound of horrific shrieking. A banshee-like cry emanated from outside the barn. The wife of the murdered man from down the back of the saloon had found him. She’d let out this ghastly anguished wailing that—coupled with the cockerel’s cawing— seemed to rouse the whole town.
One by one they’d come shuffling out of their faded wooden houses, all half-dressed and tattered, towards the barn, and one by one, the gang rose and tried to shake the whiskey from their brains.
“Goddamn. Where am I?” Luke said, coughing out wads of phlegm.
“In a barn, you stupid fool,” Jesse replied.
“I can see that. I mean, where in the world?”
“New Mexico,” Moss grumbled. “You not remember last night?”
“What’s all that hollerin’?” Jesse then said.
“There’s somethin’ goin’ on out there, Moss,” Eli said as he spat into the hay and looked out through the cracks in the door. “Seems the whole town ain’t too happy with us.”
“What’d ya mean, boy?” Moss said. His head was heavy and his gaze couldn’t seem to focus on anything.
Eli stood watch and his eyes widened at the situation. “Ain’t sure at this present junction. There sure is a lot of them. And they’re coming straight for us.”
Eli shuddered and looked down at his groggy gang all laying in the hay like pregnant cows. He then peered back through the slat in the dried wood and saw that the townsfolk were dragging something behind them in a kind of funeral procession. Something black and wrapped in faded tarps. It was being dragged along through the dried mud on wooden skids and it rocked as if the thing under the tarps was trembling.
Ceremoniously, as if the last rites of a funeral dirge, the cortege conducted a semi-circle and then came to a stop in front of the barn doors. Everyone outside the barn then stood as motionless as the cacti that surrounded the town. The silence widened and Eli watched on curiously. Swells of dust blew across the thoroughfare in seemingly random directions around the unmoving townsfolk. Then, through the middle of the ranks of men came a lone woman dressed in a faded and ripped floral dress. She marched out in front of the people and stood facing the barn.
“You, in there! You! You murdered my husband!” She bellowed. “You killed us all! Who’s gonna farm now?”
Eli watched through the crack as the woman in the tattered dress broke down and started crying and wailing in the dust. Her dead husband lay next to her like a cart full of kindling.
“Dammit. That’s right. Someone was killed last night,” Luke said.
“Who done it?”
“Cain’t remember, Moss…”
“You’ll be glad to know the wagon has been loaded and is ready for transportation,” Jakob said giddily as he seemingly appeared in the middle of them all. The gang yelped and each bolted around to face him.
“Goddammit! Where have you been?” Luke asked, almost panting.
“Same as you. Right here.”
“We’ve got a problem. Looks like we’re about to get run outta town.”
“Where is the wagon?” Moss asked as he tried to rattle his thoughts into motion.
“The same place it’s always been,” Jakob replied.
“Come out here now! Look at what you did!” The woman outside shrieked.
“I do believe that is our cue to leave,” Luke said.
“Seconded,” Eli said.
The men gathered their things and put on their hats.
“Yep,” Amos said lowly and went for the back door first as if embarrassed by something.
But, as he did, Jakob came and stood in front of him like some obscene block of stone in his waxed green coat. Jakob’s long arm barred across it like a brace and it stopped his escape. Jakob looked down at him with a vague smile. Amos couldn’t see behind his sunglasses, but he could feel that Jakob was looking straight at him, straight into his eyes.
“T’was ye who murdered the man, was it not? Don’t ye think ye oughta take the achievement? Go and parley with them, man,” Jakob said and grinned. “See if you can negotiate us out of this affair.”
Amos frowned. “Why you speaking’ like that?”
“Like what, my dear boy?” Jakob smiled deeper.
“Like, that, ‘Ye olde English type ways O’ speakin’. I don’t much care for it.”
“What manner of way I exchange dialogue is irrelevant. You earned the scalp, did ye not? If we are to depart this town on good terms, I believe it is your moral duty to stand by the kill and take that dead man’s scalp for your own.”
“I ain’t scalping no dead man.”
“Then why make him dead in the first place? If you do not have the compunction to see the task through then why start it to begin with?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your ability to comprehend the situation is trivial and predictable. You killed him last night with your empty bottle. You know you did. Why, the blood is still wet on your collar! And now your first instinct—as the dawn sun rises and your head is clear—is to turn tail and run? I find that reprehensible. To not even acknowledge the kill? What hunter worth his salt would dare slay a dear and then turn and leave the carcass for the bugs and the earth?”
“So what are you asking?”
“I want you to go out there and apologise.”
“I cain’t do that!”
“Then you are a coward and a fraud, and I will not ride with you through the canyons. Your man gave me his solemn word that your rabble is the best in the area. Judging by this performance of cowardice, I’d say you are not. If you’re not up to the task, then I’ll assume that the deal is in fact off. And I shall find another.”
“I cain’t! I was drunk. It was an accident,” Amos pleaded.
The comment seemed to aggravate Jakob. He sighed and tensed up for just a beat as he looked down at Amos. The silence fell heavy in the barn and each man stood there, not knowing what to do next, not knowing whether to draw their guns and fight the town, each other, or Jakob.
Amos quaked as he stood in the shadow of Jakob. Finally, Moss interjected.
“He’s right, Amos,” he said. “You need to do it. You need to go out there and either apologize—try talk your fuckin’ way out of it—or fight ‘em.”
“If I go out there now, they’re gone kill me!”
“So be it,” Jakob growled. “You earned it.”
When no protest came from any of the gang, Amos realised he had no choice. The gang watched him with cold flat eyes as he stood there before them like a scorned child.
He turned, and he walked towards the creaking barn doors like a man being led up the steps towards the noose. He allowed himself a small whimper and shut his eyes for a second before he resigned himself to the task.
Amos reluctantly kicked the barn doors opened and strutted out towards the mob. He came to the edge of the sledge and saw hanging lifelessly from underneath the tarp, the cold grey hand of the dead man. The dress shirt was covered in dried black blood and his palm faced upward to the sky as if attempting to catch something. All the townsfolk, with their rifles trained upon him, watched sharply. Amos decided he was not about to apologize. Instead, he reached for his knife and unsheathed it.
Goddamit, they call me a coward, but I’m anything but! I’ll show them!
But, before he could make it to the corpse and take his prize, a lone bullet from an anonymous rifle hit him square in the chest and he stood stunned for a pause. The silence that followed the shot was deafening. He looked down and saw that his shirt was wet now. He dipped his hands into the wound and saw that there was blood on his fingers. He looked back up at the town in startled amazement.
Who the hell shot me?
And then the shooting started.
The deafening crack of their repeaters echoed across the ashen landscape. Amos managed to take ten rounds before he fell into the dirt silently. He sunk down in a hail of bullets and—afterwards—the townsfolk soon came about his desecrated corpse and started hacking at his dead limbs with their farming tools. His gun and his clothing was divided amongst the rabble and his body was splintered and hewed alike amongst the people.
Before long, Amos was nothing more than a pile of cutlets that the residents soon dragged away and then threw to the pigs for feeding.
Jakob watched the whole thing from the edge of town. In the interim, he and the rest of the gang had crept out of the back doors of the barn and had stole away to the wagon. The gang looked on appalled as their friend was hacked to pieces in front of them. But not Jakob. He sat with his arms crossed in the driver’s box of the wagon and smoked a thin black cigarette, watching them all slash away at the corpse laying in the dust.
And when it was done, he tossed the butt and snarled with joy and cracked the whips of the wagon, as if the show was indeed over. As if the metaphorical theatre curtains had dropped over the whole thing. The horses neighed and bucked into motion and the wagon went on past the smouldering bodies and the blood-stained thoroughfare and the dilapidated saloon and the ghoulish townsfolk all holding their rifles absently as they looked down at the blood and the body parts of the dead man who killed one of their own.
And, soon, the wagon left it all behind. The town disappeared behind them in a shimmering haze of heat and the desert before them took over. They rode on. Jakob sat at the helm and grinned to himself the whole time. Eli rode shotgun and noticed. The rest of the gang followed on horseback.
“Why do ye smile all the time?” Eli clamoured.
“… It’s all just a big pantomime, isn’t it,” Jakob replied without looking across at him. His grin became even more prominent.
“He was my friend, ye know?”
They rode on across the plateau in a long file and no one spoke for a while. The dry wood wagon in the middle was already moaning under the heat and the terrain. Everything was bare and absent of life. Only the constant lazy thumping of hooves and clanking of pots and gear gave any definition to the emptiness. There was a series of stunted mountains to the south. Westward, flat like the ocean, lay the horizon, and that was where they were riding to.
Those first two days no one spoke beyond agreeing towards setting up camp and what direction was best to take. The tension of Amos’ death hung over the convoy like a suffocating cloud and Moss wondered whether it was a good move to go with Jakob after all. No one wanted to address it directly, but they all wanted to kill Jakob more than ever previously. The prospect of stealing the gold became a bonus to the mission instead of its focus now.
That night, they set up camp around the wagon and each man took sentry throughout the night and in the morning they dispatched without breakfast. The ride across the plateau was long and uneventful and they saw nothing but buzzards following their convoy.
In the afternoon, they saw the rugged edges of the canyon looming up from the flat white horizon in dust-shrouded benediction. As if the shelter of which would provide salvation for the rogue men from the burning heat of their sins. The wagon creaked and rocked gently from side to side as it made its way over across the gastine and then into those canyons. The immense yellow orb in the cloudless sky glowed and the shine of it desiccated everything underneath it.
“Why’d you send him out to die?” Eli finally asked Jakob. It was the first time anyone had spoken all day.
“Why do you think I did?” Jakob retorted.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”
“If there’s one thing I despise the most about humanity it’s unaccountability. If your man back there choose to acknowledge his faults and sought to make reparations, then I would have gladly helped him when the time came. But instead, he chose irresponsibility. His actions were reprehensible. He deserved to suffer…”
Eli didn’t reply. Instead, he sagged down and looked forward absently at the unending tunnel of the canyon before them. In a peculiar way, he knew Jakob was right.
Jesse rode alongside the wagon and had heard the whole exchange. For an answer, he spat aggressively off the side of his horse and then rode on past the wagon to meet Moss at the front of the cavalcade. He came alongside and looked across at Moss as the pair of horses trotted slowly across the craggy road.
“You gonna allow this, Moss?” Jesse challenged. “He done got Amos killed.”
“No, I ain’t. When the time is right and we’re clear of New Mexico, we’ll take him then.”
“I could’a put an end to it last night, Moss!”
“Keep your fuckin’ voice down,” Moss growled.
“I could’a stuck him with the knife in his sleep and we’d be on our way with that there wagon by now! Instead, we’re ridin’ through this dustbowl! Why don’t we just turn ‘round and shoot him now?”
“Have you seen the gold yet?”
“… No,” Jesse said.
“Neither have I. We don’t know if he’s bluffing yet or not. He may still have to pick up the coins. Or they could be locked in safes.”
“What about them rings he’s wearing? That’ll be enough, surely?”
“You ain’t thinkin’ right, boy. Don’t do anything until we know he’s got the gold about his person!”
“If you won’t, then I will,” Jesse snarled and rode ahead of the posse.
“You won’t!” Moss called after him.
They rode on and Moss had instructed his men to keep their rifles at the ready and scan the tops of the canyons. If there was to be an ambush on the convey, then it would be here.
But, bizarrely, nothing happened. The day was slow and hard and they bedded down at dusk in a small crevasse in the canyon. The meagre fire flickered in the middle of them all and they shared a bottle of whiskey as a form of memorial for Amos. Moss poured three fingers’ worth of the stuff into the dented tin cups that each man held out before him.
“To Amos,” Moss said and lifted his cup. The gang did also.
“To Amos,” they all sounded off lowly like a miserable choir. All but Jakob. Instead, he drank his drink while they were eulogising the dead man and guffawed, but the gang ignored it.
Later in the night, when they climbed into their sleeping rolls and drifted off each, Jakob stood above them all and watched inquisitively as they snored, like an ornithologist studying the habits of birds. Several times he had to push his hand to his mouth to stop himself from giggling like a big child and awakening them.
The moon was full and its alabaster shine illuminated the dried and dead canyon in a strange shade of blue. Things that were ordinarily red or green in the day were now all a luminescent azure. He toyed with the idea of doing it now. He produced his giant Bowie knife and slid it gently across each man’s sleeping throat. But, the notion of doing it now seemed ignominious and anti-climactic. He wanted them to suffer first. Only then would he carve out their hearts and grant them passage to the next plain. He only required one or two. The rest he could do what he wished with.
Instead of butchering the men, he turned and went and sat on a large boulder in the canyon and carved strange runes into its rock face with his knife. He smiled and whispered strange passages and stroked the carvings once it was done. Affirmed that his markings would be studied and pondered over for the next millennium, along with all the other works he’d installed across the lands, he then went back to the wagon and pretended to have woken up first in front of the men. As they all rolled out of their beds—blissfully unaware of what could have been—they turned and found Jakob in the middle of them all, perfectly dressed and clean, percolating coffee over a small fire. He sat crosslegged and barely moving, smiling at Moss.
Moss raised up from his mat, rubbed his eyes, and just looked back at Jakob strangely. What is that bastard thinking now?
“Long road ahead, boys,” Jakob grinned. “Have some coffee before we dispatch. It’s nice and hot.”
“How much further?” Luke asked.
“It’s a long road. You can be sure of that,” Jakob said as he went to each man and poured coffee into their awaiting cups like it was an augury. “You’ll need all the fortitude you can muster. Drink,” he laughed. “I heard strange rustlings near our camp last night. I believe we are being followed after all.”
The men looked across at each other queerly and then drank the steaming coffee.
They rode on and the next day, they descended rocky switchbacks, and they found themselves shut of the canyon and into arid brush lands that stretched off boundless and bare in every direction save for that same jagged canyon behind. The islands of bone-white clouds drifted listlessly across the blue sky to the east. The surface of the road ahead rippled in the heat mirages and each man knew it would be an ordeal like no other to cross such’a plane. The horses groaned and snorted as Jakob cracked the whips and forced them to trot on across the searing earth.
The air was dry and abrasive against their exposed faces and each man felt his skin slowly cracking until it almost resembled the parched earth they were riding over.
“This damn heat,” Jesse moaned after a while. “Moss, we should go back Montana way. Least then I can put a damn coat on when it’s cold!”
“You best acquaint yourself with the heat, young man. For there is plenty more heat to come!” Jakob chuckled.
Jesse frowned and took it as a threat. “What you mean?” He hissed.
“You’ll see soon enough…”
Jesse fell back from the wagon and wondered what Jakob meant by such a statement. The more he’d thought about it the more he reckoned he should just shoot Jakob in the back of the head as soon as the opportunity would allow. He laid his hand over his revolver grip and quietly waited for such an opening.
“So how much gold you reckon you got in the back there?” Moss asked Jakob, doing his best to appear amicable.
“I do not know the exact figure, but it is a substantial amount.”
Jakob turned his head slowly like a hawk. “Why?”
“So I know we’re not going to end up with a 5% cut of pottery instead of gold.”
“You’re a cynical man, Moss. Why would I be tasked with the transportation of such meaningless antiquities?”
“So you’ll have no problem showing me then?”
“They’re in lock boxes, my good man. None of which I have the keys for, so you’re just going to have to take my word. But if it’ll settle your apprehension, I shall show you the bill of ladings when we make camp,” Jakob chided.
“Fine. But, it’s dangerous lands out here, so you’re gonna want us on your side. Otherwise, who knows what could happen,” Moss replied and tried to make it sound like a threat, but Jakob seemed not to care.
“Whatever can happen, will happen. Only the vicious survive…”
After they’d made camp, Moss went and took Jakob to one side and demanded to see the inventory of the wagon. Jakob gladly obliged and produced a small piece of expensive paper neatly folded in his duster. He smiled as he handed it to Moss. Moss read it and when he saw the amount of gold listed at the bottom, his mouth dropped and he almost gasped with laughter. It was even more than he’d previously imagined.
“I’m sorry I doubted you,” Moss said and handed the letter back graciously.
Jakob nodded. “You’d have had to have been a fool not to want confirmation of such wealth. No matter.”
Jakob slapped Moss on the shoulder and dipped his head in reverence.
“I shall be unavailable for sentry duty tonight, my good man,” he said. “I aim to paint tonight.”
Moss frowned. “Paint?”
“Indeed. What better use of one’s intermission?”
“I didn’t know you painted. What do you paint with?”
“Everything. Goodnight, and I shall see you in the morning.”
Jakob turned and disappeared into the shroud of night.
Moss turned and watched him pass and thought of how peculiar his statement was. What did he mean by that?
Noon, the next day, and they’d come across a burned-down homestead. In front of the charred skeleton of the wattle and daub mud-house, there was a family. Three men and two women, and several children strewn over the landscape in primitive arrangements. All of them had been scalped and beheaded and their heads had been placed on their torsos and orientated so that they were all looking back towards the burned-down building that was their home. The slack of their dead expressions made them all appear ambivalent to the horror that had taken them.
The wagon didn’t stop. They rode past the massacre and each man simply reviewed this scene with stony ambivalence. The desolate winds howled across the wastes and through the gutted house and over the dead family and the scene disappeared behind them in a shimmering blur.
It was only after another hour did someone finally speak.
“Why would they do that? Put them heads like that?” Luke asked, more to himself than anyone else.
“Must be Rarámuri Indians,” Moss said absently, knowing it wasn’t them.
“… Indians. Goddamn savages,” Jesse replied and spat into the sand with disgust. “If I had it my way, I’d murder the whole broad.”
“But why put the heads like that?” Luke asked again, still not satiated. “That didn’t look like the workings of no Indians to me.”
“Dominance, my good man. Dominance,” Jakob said.
Luke turned to look at him from his horse. “I don’t get you…”
“If you wish to possess something you must first conquer it. This method is applied across all of life,” he averred with portentousness.
Luke shared a glance with Eli and couldn’t find the right words to express his bafflement at Jakob’s callous statement.
“You’re crazy, Jakob. I think the sun has cooked your damn brains!” Eli said instead.
“So it is that life survives through savagery. Those who are weak and weary shall be labelled as prey. And the strong and willing shall feast upon their evanescence and essence. Trees fight for sunlight. Predators kill for rights to the watering holes. And it shall be that only the cold-hearted and the hungry will survive in such an abysmal and unforgiving land. There is no mercy for the incapable. And when there is no more prey to consume they shall turn to each other. The universe shall die eating itself…”
The sentence fell heavy across the gang and each man coiled and retreated in on themselves. They rode on and after a while, all the horses neighed and started looking about wearily as if some unseen force near them was panicking them. The horses pulling the wagon darted their heads about skittishly and kept on trying to break free from the reins.
“What the fuck is wrong with these horses?” Luke exclaimed.
“They’re spooked by something,” Moss answered.
“By what?” There ain’t nothin’ out here!”
“Could be them Muertos Vivientes…” Jakob offered.
Moss grimaced and squinted as he ran his gaze across the landscape. “We ain’t seen no signs of them yet. It’s something else that’s bothering them. Just keep your rifles cocked for now.”
But something was clearly very wrong. Every so often the horses would buck and attempt to rid themselves of their riders and make off alone into the stark and lurid plains that was the interminable desert.
“I’m just relieved I commissioned your services, gentlemen,” Jakob winked.
They rode on.
By nightfall, as they made their way across the plateau, something seemed to answer the horse’s portent. Seemingly rising from the heat, a great churning storm began to swell unnaturally on the horizon ahead of them. Thick black clouds accrued and soon smothered the skyline in inky dark, as if somewhere ahead a great ancient factory was pumping out soot into the iron-grey backdrop. Before long, it was all around them. And then it was over them and the clouds mutated, became gravid with rain, and began to fall. Thick earthy-smelling rains hammered down unnaturally in the desert and the skies cried out with jolts of blue lightning and cracks of unseen thunder, as if the sky itself was wailing or protesting.
They rode and rode through it all as best as they could, but the skies were dark and no one knew which direction they were heading in anymore.
The horses became inconsolable and soon resigned themselves to sprinting manically as one towards an unseen point. No amount of whipping nor reining could contain their terror. They rode through the tremendous downpour as one body. They grouped around the wagon as if trying to extract warmth from its bulk and sprinted desperately through the wall. The storm front loomed large ahead of them and only seemed to grow the more that rode on through it. By midnight, the gales lashed at their exposed skins and the protests of the horses and the shouting of the men were drowned out in the impenetrable wall of rain surrounding them.
They’d tried to make camp but the downpour was tremendous and no fire could be lit. The gang soon resigned themselves to huddling in a pile underneath the wagon and waiting eagerly for the clearing of the brooding skies. They hitched their horses on each wheel and climbed under the vehicle’s shield. All, but Jakob. He sat on top of it, having offered to take watch through the night. The men, too weary and enervated of strength simply agreed.
“I’ll not put up with this much longer, Moss,” Jesse moaned. “This ain’t why I chose to ride with you boys!”
“Like it or not, you’re here.”
“Why don’t we just get him now and be shut of it? He’s up there right now. Let’s do it,” Jesse whispered and the gang shared a concerned glance.
“Keep it down. He might hear you,” Luke muttered.
“Shut it, Jesse. Try get some sleep,” Moss barked.
“How the fuck I’m supposed to do that? We don’t even know where we are!”
Eventually, they did sleep and the storm continued on above them all and they each suffered strange dreams.
Moss imagined himself decomposing into the sands, down a long and narrow well of earth brick. When his essence settled at the bottom of that black well, he found himself in a stone room with no doors. It was cavernous and wooden staves burned and flickered in the corners of the chamber. He was laying in the middle of the space, looking up absently at a vaulted masonry ceiling. Palls of sickly-smelling smoke drifted languidly around the torch flames like ancient diseases. Misshapen and shambling mutants stood over him, all peering down and examining his paralysed form. Their waxy featureless and croaked faces all leaned over him on the primordial altar. In the corner of the room was an immense grey shroud, enshadowing them all, watching over the whole operation. Although it had no features, Moss could see that it was smiling. The shadow moved closer until it was over him. It appeared to be bartering with the faceless ghouls as they all examined him.
One of them placed its disgusting clawed bat-like hand over Moss’s eyes and shut them for him.
Moss tossed and wailed in his bedroll as the visions took complete hold of him and he thought of death and decomposition and the finality of it all.
In the morning, the men rose, all haggard and beaten down. The rains and the thunder persisted still and no man could tell dawn from night.
“I just had a very bad dream…” Moss croaked as he sat up. Death in the staggering particular. He looked around blearily and considered the dream. Was it a dream? More like premonitions in the half-life of awakening.
“Me too,” Eli muttered.
Death was only the beginning.
Eli rose from under the wagon and looked about from his roll mat and saw that Jesse was no longer next to him.
“Where’s Jesse?” He grumbled.
The gang paused and surveyed the area and saw that the space which he’d taken up the night before was now vacant and all his possibles had been packed away. Luke pointed out to the gang that Jesse’s horse was no longer hitched.
“Must’ve rode on ahead to scout out the land,” Luke said.
“I reckon so,” Moss retorted.
“So, he took off?”
Jakob was already sitting in the box of the wagon, as if excited to ride on through the rain.
“We’ll find him soon enough,” Jakob said casually. “Let’s get a move on.”
They did. The tired men stuffed away their equipment in their saddle bags and mounted up reluctantly.
By noon the following day, the rains had mercifully ceased. As they came to the edge of the storm and broke free of it, they instinctively stopped where they were and sighed. They slumped down each, all glassy-eyed in their saddles each and they looked at one another with that same haunting greyness across their faces that only dead men seemed to wear. Everyone knew the horses would not last much longer, and when they did go, the gang would perish with them.
The pause was not an attempt to regain their stamina, but instead a silent acknowledgement that they may not make it across the waste after all.
The sun resumed its natural position and the heat returned also. It didn’t take long for everything to dry out once more and the men rode on.
Out across the sun-blanched wastes that lay ahead of them baking and barren, the men recognised nothing of the environment and could see no signs of life anywhere. The only sounds were that of the horrible squeaking wagon and the creaking of leather and the clinking of old metal. The ordeal was endless. Jakob began whistling a nameless and joyful tune to himself and the others sat in their saddles and carved their gaze across the horizon.
“Where are we? I don’t recognise any of this land,” Eli mumbled.
“Ain’t on no map neither,” Luke added.
“Where are we, Jakob?” Moss asked.
“We’re riding in the correct direction. That’s all you need concern yourself with…”
The men shared a glance but did not challenge Jakob.
That evening, the gang made camp in a small pit like a mass grave. They laid down across the rocks within and huddled tight to each other. The nature of their existence had degenerated to such extreme lengths that they now resembled the battered remnants of some neolithic tribe long forgotten. No fire could be made and no food was available. Only the yearning for dawn and the promise of food and water remained.
How did we get here? Eli thought. He remembered once more Jakob’s monologue back at the saloon. ‘At which point does life become existent? Is it presence? Is it the marks left behind? Look at that man there. Behold him. Is he alive? Or, is he merely acting out the pantomime of life? Just because things exist, does not mean they are alive…’
That was how Eli felt. He may have been laying there in rocks, but he did not feel alive. Eli trembled in his bed roll and leaned across to meet Moss.
“Moss, he’s taking us down to Mexico. We ain’t heading east,” he said.
Moss snorted and spat a pitiful amount of spit out at his feet. “How you figure?”
“We’re heading south. If we were heading east, then that there sun would’ve risen in front of us and set behind us today. Instead, it rose to our left and set to our right… South.”
“Yep. And yesterday, it rose behind us but set on our left. So how you figure that?”
“He’s leading us in goddamn circles, Moss.”
“Why would he do that? He’s as just as good as dead as us.”
“I don’t know where we heading for, but it sure ain’t Bartlesville.”
Later the next day, Jesse was found tied to a large boulder in the shape of an X. He had been flayed and the pile of his skin laid in the dust next to his dried body like discarded laundry. His senses had been removed in a primitive fashion. His severed nose, ears, tongue, and eyes had all been placed in a small pile at the boulder’s peak and positioned to vaguely resemble the deceased man’s face when he was alive. Jesse now looked like a long strip of blackened beef jerky curing under the unforgiving sun. His hollow eye sockets faced upward to its rays, and his jaw was opened in aghast as if pleading for mercy.
But no mercy had been given.
The men gasped as their surbated horses came to a stop in front of the scene.
“Is that… is that Jesse?” Luke asked the gang, not entirely sure if he wanted an answer.
“I believe it is…” Jakob replied from the box.
They all looked on stunned at the sheer horror before them and none could think of the right words.
Carved into the boulder around the exhibition in a semi-circular fashion were strange hieroglyphs and markings that looked like they could have been made aeons ago. Primordial symbols that none of the gang seemed to recognise.
“Good God, what in the hell are all those?”
“That weren’t no goddamn Rarámuri Indians! That ain’t no Indian’s work! That’s the Devil! There are Demons out here!” Luke cried hysterically. “I knew broader things were about!”
“Goddammit, shut him up!” Moss commanded.
“The Devil is in these lands. This is wider than we know!”
“Shut up!” Moss snapped.
“We’re in Hell,” Luke then whimpered as he looked upon Jesse’s dried-out husk laying prostrate before them.
“I believe it was indeed these Muertos Vivientes you speak of,” Jakob said calmly.
“How the fuck you figure that?” Luke shouted.
“Your man rode on ahead… alone. He was prey. Muertos Vivientes means ‘The Walking Dead’, in Spanish. These mysterious spectres of the wastes are perhaps just that…”
Jakob turned and faced Moss, “It appears your escort services are required after all,” he said. “We must stick close if we are to make it across these plains. They hunt like hyenas. We must work together like a pride of lions.”
“Goddamn! I’ll have no part of this,” Luke said. “I’ll sooner take my damn chances and ride back to the scarlet town. There’s something very wrong here and I’ll have no damn part of it!”
“Luke, we need to ride on.”
“Dig your own graves, dammit!” Luke said and spat into the sand and it evaporated before the mark could be made.
With that, he turned and rode off back in the direction they’d all came from.
“Luke! Get back here!” Moss howled after him, but Luke ignored it and continued riding until his form vanished over the horizon of that pulsing white light of the desert.
“Let him go,” Jakob said. “He’ll not make the ride.”
What remained of the party watched him leave and then turned and trotted on in the opposite direction. The cacti forest and the brush lands then flattened and slowly transitioned into vast salt wastes and lakes of gypsum. The white sands all around—as white and glowing as the sun above—had no definition and seemingly stretched on infinitely. The parched broken skulls of coyotes lay discarded at various intervals along the track and the colour of them was as phosphorus as the sun. As if each being staggered on as long as they could before collapsing.
They rode on for days and each day seemed to be longer and longer.
One night, they camped in the ruins of an old Pueblo adobe house. It was full of burnished pots and rotten wooden ladders not yet collapsed. The roof had either caved in or been peeled away by the desolate winds. Now there was just the hollow skeleton of the jack rafters and the infinite tar-coloured sky above, littered with small white star-shaped holes that appeared like piercings in the facade of the night sky, and beyond them must’ve laid everlasting nothingness.
In the blackened fireplace of the house were the charred remains of a small skeleton.
They laid in their bedrolls in front of it and finished the last of the whiskey and tried to light a fire and dreamed of home. Jakob had disappeared soon after dusk. He’d instructed them to keep watch over the wagon in his absence and that he would be back before dawn. Both men had watched him vanish into the twilight haze of the burned-out doorway and then no more noises were heard.
“We ain’t getting out of here alive are we, Moss?” Eli sighed.
“Don’t look like it does it… Horses won’t go much farther. I don’t even know which territory we’re in anymore.”
“I’m telling you this ain’t on no fuckin’ map. This is somewhere else,” Eli whispered, as if too scared to speak the words out loud.
“… We’ll find out in the morning.”
Then neither spoke for a while. The moon rose full above them and there was an alarming silence to the wilderness. Not a single sound save for the pair’s own quiet breathing could be heard. Moss stared up at the swollen alabaster circle up there through the broken roof and thought of his dead men. He thought of death and eternity. Did Luke make it back? I should’ve gone with him, dammit.
Moss slid off into an uncomfortable and dream-filled sleep. He awoke back in the stone room once more, and he saw only the grey shadow above him now. The mutilated and faceless beings were gone. Only the darkness remained. It hovered over him like wet smoke before turning and extinguishing the only candle in the room. Then there was only blackness once more.
Eli heard Moss cry out in his sleep as if being molested by some unseen force. He turned and buried his head in his hands and tried to remember the faces of his parents once more.
Dawn crawled around and the morning air was cold and vacuous. Both men rose. The weary horses by their sides nudged at them desperately, trying to parley water from their owners. But there was none to be had and both men pushed their horses away. Their faces were gaunt and withered and Moss noticed how Eli’s usually pert and fat cheeks had now sagged and appeared wrinkled like the cheeks of an emaciated dog. Soon after the dregs of coffee were made, Jakob appeared from behind the wagon—as if he’d been behind it the entirety of the night—and asked the men to hitch up.
“First, we need words. We need to know where the hell we are,” Eli said.
“Arizona, dear boy…” Jakob replied, passing him by.
“Arizona? But I thought we were makin’ for Oklahoma?” Moss interjected as he followed Jakob to the wagon.
“The storm had ruined that for us, unfortunately. We had to change direction. There is a transit station for Archibald Titus in Tucson,” Jakob said as he climbed up to the box of the wagon. “We may deposit the gold there and be rid of this task.”
“And what about our cut? I’ve lost my men out here—”
Moss’s face tightened. “What did you fuckin’ say?” He snarled. “They’re not easily replaced. They were—”
“—$500 each, plus an additional $50 for replacement of your horses,” Jakob interrupted with a loud booming voice. “Tucson is a mere fifty miles away. Can you stomach it until then?”
Moss looked across at Eli and Eli nodded solemnly. Both men knew it was their best chance of escaping the desert.
“The end is near, friends! The end is near.”
They set out from the ruins and the heat rose to unbearable heights and the horses and men alike swayed drunkenly as they scrabbled over the parched and cracked landscape. The sun’s rays cast their doomed shadows over the land like elongated silhouettes of skeletons shuffling along in single file across the blade’s edge of the horizon. To the east, far off in the distance, a great rolling wall of sand and dust made its way across the flat plateau.
They rode on.
Dusk, and they had come to the vast rim of a great and ancient meteor crater that spanned at least a mile across and just as deep. It sloped down into the earth like a giant stone sink that caught only the cold blue space of the evening emptiness. Bizarre vapours rose from fissures in the ground down there and the crater first appeared like a colossal black lake. Moss stood at the edge of it all and gazed down into its seemingly infinite dread.
“What the hell is this? Where are we?” Moss growled.
“The beginning. The end,” Jakob said as he stood up in the box of the wagon behind Moss and Eli. “All we’ll ever be is dead. The flash of life we enjoy is vastly contrasted by the infinite amount of time we’ll spend dead. It’s all we ever were. It’s all we ever will be. But, I hope you enjoyed the ride whilst it lasted.”
Moss snorted and shook his head, staring down at the dust around his feet. His head began to pulse with rage.
“Goddammit! Stop talking like that!”
“There’s nothing here! Don’t you understand?” Moss screamed, turning to face Jakob up there. “Where are we gonna go? How are we supposed to get ‘round this?”
“… You’re not.”
“This is where your journey ends…”
“What the fuck you talkin’ about?”
Jakob doffed his hat and let it fall to his side. “Welcome to the great American slaughterhouse, as it was always envisioned and designed. And, alas, you are the cattle,” Jakob said as he jumped down from the wagon and landed firmly on the ground.
Moss simply stared at him and thought briefly about which method was the best way to kill him.
“You really are crazy, ain’t ya?” He said. “I thought as much…”
“I would like to show you something,” Jakob replied politely before turning away from Moss.
Moss gritted his teeth. “Hey! Hey, where you going?”
Jakob then navigated to the back of the wagon and dropped the tailgate before dragging a large chest to the rim of the bed. He unlocked it and then produced a small hessian bag that was wet and dark at the bottom. Small drips of purple leaked out and fell into the arid sands. He reached into it and proceeded to pull out a large oval shape from its pit. He then lifted it and showed it to the remnants of the gang. It was Luke’s severed head. It had received the same treatment as Jesse’s before it.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” Moss said. “But he rode in the opposite direction…”
“Not far enough,” Jakob squawked like a child.
Moss glowered “You?”
“Me,” Jakob said as he put the skinless head back into the bag and dropped it.
Moss’s hand fell to his side and Jakob stiffened only for a moment.
For the first time since they’d met him, Jakob Grey shrugged off his waxed duster and threw it to one side. Underneath it, he wore only a pair of black trousers. His body was lean and sinewy and across his torso and limbs were tattoos rendered through scarification. They were esoteric hieroglyphs and depictions of demonic entities upward reaching to some nameless presence. Tied across his bare chest was a bandolier that holstered two great Bowie knives, each a foot long. Sticking out of his trousers was a dirtied Colt Dragoon revolver.
“There was never any gold…” Jakob said slowly as he unsheathed both knives.
“What?” Moss asked, slowly reaching for his revolver. Jakob watched but seemed not to react.
“Like lambs to the slaughter. You were so easy to fool. I will admit, it has been one of my more ignominious efforts to bring you here. I was hoping for so much more…”
Moss jerked down and drew his revolver and tried to raise it to Jakob. But before the action could be completed, Jakob threw those massive blades at Moss in one slick move like it was some carnival trick. Both lengths of metal slammed into his chest with the precision of bullets.
Eli screamed in horror and could only watch on as Moss gasped and fell to the ground. He heaved and made an abominable groaning sound as he tried to breathe.
The sun was directly behind Jakob now, making him appear like a pillar of stone before Moss’s kneeling body. It was as if Moss was involuntarily worshipping Jakob like he was an ancient monolith.
“Do you realise how many times I have made this journey? How many souls I’ve herded to oblivion?”
Jakob moved forward with slow serene steps and came to stand over Moss. Jakob looked down at his prize and yanked the knives from Moss’s chest like he was trying to retrieve an axe from wet logs. Moss looked up blearily on his knees as the crimson started to pour from his panting mouth. Jakob simply watched with a wry grin smeared across his pale face.
“It was I who killed the unnamed man in Black Oaks. Your boy Amos marched to his death because of me,” Jakob announced then threw back his head and bellowed and laughed. “It would have been more beneficial to bring him along, but alas, watching him be hacked apart like a rabid cow was just too satisfying to pass up!”
“You goddamn bastard,” Moss slurred.
“It was I who saw to Jesse too; and the homesteaders, and everyone else. All of them. There is no Muertos Vivientes. It was all me… In the end, the universe will die eating itself…”
Jakob then stepped forward once more and then lopped off his head. Moss’s head rolled off and came to a stop just in front of the stunned Eli. Eli looked down into the cold flat eyes and saw nothing of the man he’d known as his leader. Eli yelped and jerked away from the head and rose and stepped back.
Moss was still kneeling as he was before, but now headless. He sat there with his arms by his side, the revolver still in his grip, and the blood trickled slowly from the hole and down his shirt to marry in with the rest of the blood.
Jakob stepped over his body and bent over and casually snatched up the head from the dust before heading towards Eli. He held it loosely from the wad of hair at the top and it rocked from side to side in his grip.
Jakob lifted the severed head to meet both their eyelines. “How many miles had your man travelled? A thousand? Ten thousand? Maybe a hundred thousand. For what? In the end, your lives are all meaningless. The existence of life is a mere bolt of lightning against an endless darkened sky. So quick and insignificant that it can barely be labelled as occurring at all.”
“What?” Eli whimpered.
“No matter. Watch this, my boy. We shall have entertainment yet!”
He then turned and tossed the severed head up into the limitless blue sky, and with one deft move, he’d produced his revolver and fired up at it, as if he’d performed that same move a million times previous. Moss’s head exploded like a great gourd up there and the blood and chunks of bone showered back down onto Jakob like a cleansing biblical rain. He squawked with laughter and held his arms outstretched to catch even more of the matter and welcome it all.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jakob cursed upward.
Eli cried out desperately at the sight. “You dirty dog! You scum!”
Eli stood and shakily pulled out his revolver from the holster and tried to point it at Jakob’s back. His hands trembled and he couldn’t get a square aim on him. Moss’s blood trickled down Jakob’s sharp face and he stuck out his pointed reptilian tongue briefly to lick at it and savour the kill. After he sucked at his teeth, he smiled once more and headed towards Eli.
“You point a gun at a man’s back? What kind of man are you?”
“Not one step closer! Or I’ll shoot,” Eli crowed, his voice jittering.
“Then, shoot man. Shoot, for the good of your soul!” Jakob replied and took another step forward.
Eli did. The gunshot rang out and echoed across the valley of the crater. But Jakob still stood there before him. His monolithic vulture-like form cast a shadow over Eli. How is that possible? I was aiming right at his heart? Eli thought.
“It’s possible because I am not one of your kind,” Jakob answered.
Eli lowered his revolver and stood staring at Jakob, dumbfounded, realising Jakob could hear his thoughts also.
“I don’t understand…” Eli yapped.
Jakob lurched forward like a flash of lightning and clasped his bat-like membranous hands around Eli’s podgy face and squeezed it tight. Eli wriggled desperately in his clutches as he felt his skull squirming under the inhuman force of Jakob’s grip as he was lifted off the ground.
“I have ridden you all into the deepest pits of oblivion, and you barely even recognised the downward spiral you were passenger to. Too caught up in the tangle of your own pursuits. And now, you shall stay here will me forever. Not even when the stars have sunken in on themselves and gone black shall you find reprieve,” Jakob shouted and his voice soon morphed into a demonic hiss.
It then turned into a bellowing scream like a vile basilisk. “Not even when the universe collapses under its own cosmic bulk shall you be granted solace! I will always be here with you, in this dusty abyss, and you will never find peace! Look upon my face and know that you have bare-witnessed the end of time.”
Jakob slowly reached up and removed his sunglasses. Eli gazed into his face and saw only utter horror. Eli screeched. Jakob had no eyes. Instead, his vacant and rotting sockets were filled with pulsing worms and maggots that writhed and fell from the two deep holes in the man’s raven skull like waterfalls of slime.
“What are you?” Eli yelped.
With that, Jakob smirked and began compressing Eli’s head even harder until his eyeballs began to bulge out of his skull and pops of blood gargled and bubbled out of his mouth and nose. Eli tried to talk, but the pressure of Jakob’s grip was so immense that he could not focus on anything else other than the distinct internal sounds of his skull cracking. Flashes of red pulsed across his eyesight. As he attempted to plead for mercy, the words became smothered and soon started coming out like the quacks and hissings of a dying swan. Eli slapped and punched desperately at Jakob’s body, but the strikes went unacknowledged.
Jakob’s hands then met in the middle and the red sludge in-between them dripped and fell from his pale palms. Eli’s headless body slumped down into the dust at Jakob’s feet. Thick purple geysers poured from his neck and pooled in the sands below.
“I am all,” Jakob simply replied as he stood over the body.
He stepped over the copse and went and orientated himself at the cliff’s edge that overlooked the hole in the world and sat there for a while, looking on, content with the environment he’d generated. The grand architect musing upon his works.
Jakob then produced an ancient stone pestle and mortar from his satchel. The thing was rough and seemingly carved out of an obsidian block of granite aeons ago. The sun was setting and it began casting streaks of red and purple across the alien plateau. It was no longer New Mexico. It was somewhere else entirely.
After he’d prepared the bodies, he moved down to the centre of the crater, dragging them behind his wagon as he did, and then he started feeding the grinding device parts from the dead gang which he then smashed and mulched into a fine paste. As the sphere of the red sun began to fall below the horizon on the dead landscape, Jakob began applying the rendered paste across his naked body. He massaged the gore and tallow into each crevasse until he was slippery and shining in the moonlight with the puree of the dead men.
He then took up Moss’s snapped femur bone in his hand like a ritual axe and began drawing out strange symbols in the sand around himself that apparently represented some obscure astronomical model to which only he was privy to. Further out, the horses—now beheaded and skinned—laid around him in a circular fashion that seemingly represented the solar system. He sat in the centre of it all—heliocentric and primordial. His greasy elongated form sat crosslegged like a shadowy puppet at the zenith of some great collapse. His upward-facing palms rested neatly on his knees. The slime of that oiled death dripped down from his body and he began to laugh.
With each new sunrise, he adds another soul to the pit. With every setting of the sun, he herds their essence back to the source. Death. Him. Jakob Grey. The alien who fell to earth. He’s been here ever since the world was young and the seas virgin and the cliffs raw and untainted. And he always will be. The perfect agent to marshal and dispense justice. The perfect trade will always have its perfect trapper. Even when only unending void of death remains across the universe, he will still be there, in the middle of that desolation and dust; the great American slaughterhouse. The abattoir for the amoral will always have its specialist flesher. Jakob Grey will never cease.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Narrated by Paul J. McSorley
🔔 More stories from author: Hank BelbinPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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