A haggard cowpoke spurred his weary mount to the edge of the small settlement that had been steadily rising from the desert scrub for the last hour. A single, uneven, dirt road ran through town between a smattering of dilapidated wooden buildings. The place seemed as isolated and cut-off as a leper colony; there was no railway, no telegraph, and certainly no electricity. Kerosene street lamps were already burning in the evening dusk to stave off the rapidly approaching darkness.
Dust caked the man’s black beard and face; the trail grit collected on the shoulders of his tan slicker as well as the brim of his brown cattleman hat. The uniform color of his figure made him appear to be an Egyptian mummy that had recently risen from the sand to roam the earth once again. Seeing that the general store was closed for the night, he dismounted his animal and tied it to the hitching post in front of a saloon with a signpost reading: The Lost Shepherd Inn.
He patted down his jacket and stomped his boots as he swung open the batwing doors. His left leg was numb from the waist down, and it was all he could do to remain steady as he approached the empty bar. He tossed his dirty hat on the stool next to him and rubbed his aching head. He glanced around the common room; there was a player piano, two faro tables, and several circular dining tables, but not a soul was present.
The man became impatient. “Bartender!” he hollered, and when nobody answered he added, “Innkeep! You gotta customer!”
A diminutive, middle-aged woman wearing an apron popped up from behind the bar and extended her height by standing on a step stool. “Good evening, sir. I wasn’t expecting any customers tonight, but how can I be of service? If you’d like any stew or fresh biscuits, you’ll have to give me a moment to get them started in the kitchen.”
The cowboy rubbed his belly; for being on the trail for so long he wasn’t at all hungry. In fact, he was quite sated, like he’d just recently eaten a large, home-cooked meal. “No food…just drink…whiskey.” He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a few coins, and flipped them onto the bar top.
The bartender neatly stacked them and slid them back to the man. “Sorry, sir, but your coins are no good here. Just give me your name and I’ll start a tab…you can settle up after you’ve staked your claim at the claim’s office tomorrow.”
“A tab? Staked my claim? What are you talking about, woman? Just give me a double shot of sour mash and a tall glass of water.” The bearded cowpoke demanded as he confoundedly pocketed his money.
The barkeep filled a highball with water, but then, as she placed it on the bar, she said, “Sir, we don’t serve hard liquor at this establishment; we only serve water, wine, and sweet mead.”
The cowboy was incensed, “What? What kind of rinky-dink watering hole doesn’t serve beer or whiskey? Fine, I’ll have the mead.”
The barkeep waited patiently for a moment and then asked, “Your name, sir?”
“My name? Oh yeah, my name…” the stranger trailed off and scratched his scraggly beard; he couldn’t remember his own name! “Funny thing, that…I can’t seem to recall my name…that must be why my head hurts so much…I musta gotten clocked pretty good.”
The innkeeper chuckled, “Okay, I’ll just say your name is Bill.”
Her customer furrowed his brow, “Bill…yes…that’s my name…my name is William…it’s starting to come back to me…but how did ya guess?”
The bartender shrugged and handed William a glass of honey mead, “I don’t know; you just look like a Bill. Anyway, Doctor Peters will get it all settled out in the morning; Doc runs the claims office. It’s on the other side of the road, down the street, next to the jail.”
William emptied his glass in one tip. “Mead isn’t meant to be sipped and savored…and if ya ain’t got any whiskey, I’ll need several refills.”
The bartender reluctantly refilled his glass twice more before William wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket to continue the conversation. “Doc Peters, ya say? Next to the jail, ya say? I’m starting to remember fragments of my past, but I don’t recall ever having any claim to stake.” He took another big draught and continued, “I remember that I was born in the throes of the Civil War. As a child, I was obsessed with the Wild West, but by the time I was of age, modern society had moved on, and the era of the gunslingers was all but over. Instead of living my dream, I wound up in a nightmare.”
He’d polished off his third drink and pointed to the empty glass. The innkeeper took her time getting another refill and asked, “A nightmare Bill? How so?”
“Ya said the claims office was next to the jail…I don’t want any chance of getting mixed up with the law.”
“The law? Oh I don’t think you should worry, Bill…the Marshal won’t be back to town until mid-to-late morning. That’s plenty enough time to get your claim settled…that is, if you don’t get drunk and sleep too late,” the innkeeper knowingly warned. “But…you mentioned a nightmare?”
William was getting drunk, but he was relieved to know that the Marshal was out patrolling the territory, so he drank down another half-pint and continued his tale. “Yes, well, I ended up taking odd jobs to earn a living and shacked up with a woman named Tillie…Matilda…you know…to share the rent. Anyway, we lived together long enough, slept together long enough, and fought together long enough, for her to become my common-law wife. Tillie liked her mead, and she was a real feisty old bird, so that night I killed her with a hatchet, it wasn’t so easy to hide the murder…” William trailed off, and a twisted wince appeared upon his dusty visage implying that he remembered everything.
The cowpoke drew a stout hunting knife and wildly cut a long slash in his jeans to examine his leg. He wasn’t careful, but when the blade slashed his leg and drew blood he didn’t even feel it. His crippled limb was seared and blackened like a Sunday hog roast. Jumping off the chair onto his good leg, he limped behind the bar and over to a long mirror on the wall. His reflection was grotesque; he was missing clumps of hair in several places and the skin on his forehead bore the same scorched scar tissue as his burnt leg!
“NOooo!” The man’s outcry was as much an exclamation of fear, as a shout of recognition, and a howl of hopelessness.
The panicked cowboy turned to grab ahold of the woman in an attempt to ground himself, but when he did he saw her in the same shape that he’d left her two years earlier! Blood covered her apron and seeped from the multiple axe wounds on her head and chest. A flap of skin had been torn loose from her scalp and was draped over her shattered eye socket. The other eye glared into William’s soul unforgivingly, as the player piano clamored out a song titled, “Down in the Willow Garden,” a ballad about a man facing the gallows for poisoning, stabbing, and throwing his lover’s body in a river.
“Tillie?” he sputtered. The cowboy swooned and lost his balance, landing chin first on the bar top. The watering hole vanished and William was semiconscious and back in the darkness of his true horrific reality. He couldn’t see his surroundings; he could only sit idly and listen to his end.
“My God, Ed…he’s still breathing!”
“Have the current turned on again…quickly…no delay!”
“The generator needs to recharge!”
“Double the voltage!”
Two thousand volts ran through the man confined to a chair for the first, somewhat botched, execution by electrocution. The smell of burnt flesh permeated the room as the doctors unstrapped him. After the awful spectacle, William was pronounced dead and immediately found himself back upon the same horse outside the same town on the fringe of forever. This time, blood ran down his forehead and into his eyes distorting his vision as he approached the Lost Shepherd Inn.
He spurred his mount and galloped into town shouting, “Doc! Doc Peters! I gotta stake my claim!”
Unfortunately, when he reached the claims office, there was a posse of five gaunt riders already waiting for him. Their faces were emaciated, with portions completely rotted away to their sun-bleached skulls. One was holding the reigns on his equally decomposed horse with a decayed skeletal arm, while another’s ribs were exposed with half his chest disintegrated. Point blank, that one had met his end at the barrel of a shotgun. Yet another, with a crooked neck, clearly had faced a death by hanging, as a frayed rope still dangled from his collar. Their leader wore a tin star on his black vest, and his black gambler hat had a leather band adorned with silver coins. His face was a cleanly polished skull with eyes like ruby flames.
The Marshal pointed a bony finger at his new deputy. “William Francis Kemmler…I have settled your claim with Doc Peters. You’re going to get your Wild West wish serving for eternity on the Devil’s Hacienda!” The demon snickered quietly as he looked over his new recruit’s electrocution wounds, and then he added, “An axe would’ve done a better job.”
Shouts rose, and the skeleton riders kicked their mounts into action; the dead man grudgingly joined them as they rode through town and out into the shallow dunes beyond. The condemned man looked back one last time at the watering hole on the fringe of forever, but it was gone…like a deceitful mirage. Reluctantly he turned forward to face his inexorable and final reality.