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Western Horror Speculative

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Dusty Sangria went down on one knee by the first corpse.  Leaning over it, Dusty motioned to remove his hat, but stopped before touching it.  Something in the corpse’s face made reverence and respect seem unnecessary—gnarled and swirled up into a smile the facial muscles shouldn’t have made possible.  Dusty could feel the corpse staring down into his soul, even though it had no eyes.

“Howsit then?”

“Eh.”

“Dead?”

“Yeeuuup.”

“How it goes.  All of em?”

“Yes”

“Hm?”

“Christ, Marlo.  Yes.  They’re all dead.”  Craning his neck, Dusty looked over his shoulder.  Behind him stood his partner, Marlo Garnet, his body silhouetted in the burning glare of a drooping sun.  The endless desert provided little more than a flatline for the burning orb to sink under.  In such a place—with no mountains or hills, and dead trees and cacti making up the only flora—the sunsets could last decades.  Seemingly, at least.  In the dying light, Marlo’s shape was given depth only by the dust which swam fluidly about his legs.  He stood nodding, watching something on the cracked ground, kicking it with the tip end of his boot.

Dusty clenched his jaw.  “You hear me?”

“Bout what?”

“Jesus H Christ.”

Standing, Dusty removed his ten-gallon hat and ran his knobby fingers through his hair.  Beads of sweat rolled off his head and caught the light of the sun.  They became vivid, bright things in that light—pools of crystalline starlight, glittering and alive, if but for a moment, before bursting on the ground.  Placing his hat back on his head, Dusty turned to look at Marlo.  The thing he was kicking was some kind of rodent skull.  He toyed innocently and with ignorance. Something hot bubbled in Dusty’s gut.  Something hot with teeth made of glass.  Dusty, reeling back, kicked the skull.  It flew off into the glaze of the sun where all was too hazed in orange to be anything more than shadows in color.

Marlo’s shoulders sank.  “Damnit, Dusty, I was plannin on keepin that.”  

“And do what with it exactly?”

“Make a brooch out it.”

“‘Make a brooch out it’?  Well, that’s just swell.”  Dusty got closer to his partner.  Neither was taller than the other, but something unspoken in the belly of Dusty’s soul made him shrink like some sort of desperate thing.  “Why don’t you go get it then?”

“Not gonna find it now, man.  Sun’s beamin in my eyes that way.  Whatcha gettin so worked up about anyhow?”

“I told you they’re dead.”  Dusty pointed at the first corpse.

Marlo shrugged.  “Reckoned they’d be like that anyway.  Ain’t no good when some’r still kickin.  They’re just how I reckoned.”

“You ain’t seein things right, Marlo.  You see how many there are?”

“What’s your point?”

“What’s my point?” Dusty raised his hands into the air.  “My damn point, Malo, is that I don’t remember bein told there’d be so many GOD DAMNED stiffs.”

“It don’t matter none.”

“Don’t matter none?”

“Nome.  It don’t.  A job’s a job.”  Marlo whistled.  A moment later a pack mule trotted towards them from under the shadow of a dead tree.  Patting the beast on its head, Marlo pulled two old shovels off loops on its pack.  Taking one, he extended the other to Dusty.  Dusty stood, mute anger frozen to his face.  Despite the heavy shadows, the dull-blue of Marlo’s eyes was apparent from under his heavy, uneven brow.  They were not unintelligent eyes.  The man’s chin—crooked, fuzzy, strong—supported sunburnt lips that always seemed to be softly masticating.  His nose was shaped like an eagle’s beak; his cheeks deep and gaunt.  The lighting hid some of Marlo’s harsher features—the scars, the sunspots—but Dusty had them memorized well enough to know where each one of those features lay.  

Grabbing the shovel, Dusty gave a nod.  Something warm and with duller teeth lay in his gut still, but it was an anger he could hide well enough.  He turned to the smiling corpse; it seemed as if its head had moved to follow where Dusty went.  Shaking the thought from his mind, Dusty gripped the shovel.  He could already feel the blisters and splinters.  

By the smiling corpse lay well over a hundred bodies, some spread out so far into the desert that the evening sun no longer touched them.  All of them were smiling.  All were without skin.  Dusty could feel their fleshy warmth—the desert sun had preserved their rotting body heat and had caused their degloved forms to go especially soft.  

Dusty and Marlo worked in the light that seemed to last a decade.  None of the heat passed away as night drew near.  

#

“Seem’s like night’s comin.”  Dusty looked up to the sky, a deep crease in his brow.

“How it goes.”

“Cept I kinda remember sayin that hours ago too.”

“Night’s always comin.  How it goes.  Sides, your memory ain’t worth shit, Dusty.  Shouldn’t trust it.”

Dusty looked back over his shoulder.  Countless little crosses, framed by the burning evening sun, sat in the distance, wavering in the haze.  Beside him, Marlo and the mule walked with an irritatingly cheery swagger.  Marlo was kicking up dirt as he jaunted along, all of it floating back onto Dusty’s jeans.  The thing in Dusty’s stomach was getting hotter again.

“Hell, Dusty,” said Marlo, “I think I got some gristle on me.”

“Shut up.”

“Hey, relax there, pardner.  We’re almost back.  I’ll pour you a drink.”

Dusty sighed and unclenched his fists.  Despite all his flaws, Marlo was a good man.  Using the grey bandana he usually kept around his neck, Dusty wiped sweat from his forehead.  Dusty observed his bandana—crusty with age, ragged with use.  “I’d like that.”

“You got it, pardner.  We’ll get drunk come hell or high water.”

“Shouldin talk so lightly bout hell, Marlo.”

“Hey, it ain’t so bad.”

“Oh yeah?  You been there?”

“Ooohhh yeah.  Livin it, pardner.”

“Hm.  Thought you weren’t one for complainin.”

“Bout what?”

“Nothing, Marlo.”

#

It went down burning, clinging to the sides of his throat, and seeped out through sugary breaths.  The evening sun passed through the saloon windows like firelight through shards of smoked glass.  Oil lamps—dusty and cracked—helped even out the ethereal light.  Dusty’s sight hadn’t fully adjusted to images not cast in intense shadow or diffuse sunlight, and the increase in sharpness made his eyes ache.  It almost made him miss the desert’s surreal lighting.  Almost.  

Being able to see the woman behind the bar in detail made the ache worth it and filled his gut with a light tingle.  A familiar kind.  It lingered like the smoke of a campfire—sweet, savory, hickory scented.  The feeling was a far more powerful drug than the whiskey.  She had eyes a deeper brown than the richest, wettest dirt.  Her hair looked as if someone had lit a log on fire, cut it open, pulled out all the orange, burning strands, and bunched them up in long, messy curls.  Her skin, dark and freckled, was scarred by time and the sun—the wrinkles under her eyes were soft and kindly.  

“Not gonna try sayin anything to her tonight?”

Dusty sighed heavily and took another drink of whiskey.  “I forgot you were here.”    Marlo—on his fifth glass—was sitting on the stool over.  A guitar of dark grey wood was leaning beside him.  

Marlo chuckled.  “Might as well try.  Never hurt.”

“No point.”

“Fair nough.  Ain’t stopped you before.”

“Pardon?”

“Just give it a few drinks.”

“Don’t you got better things to do than pester me, Marlo?”

“Nome.”  Marlo brushed his hand through his brown hair and scratched behind his right ear.  It was a simple action, and Dusty would have ignored it, had the movement not revealed something he hadn’t seen before under his partner’s hair.

“What’s that?” Dusty pointed out a shaky finger to the spot, his right eyebrow cocked high.

“Hm?”

“That?  The scar above your ear.”

“Ain’t got none.”

“I just saw it.”  

“Ain’t a scar.  Scars is closed wounds.”

“What?”

“Scars is clo-”

The doors to the saloon swung open with a clatter; Marlo and Dusty looked back.  A ragged-looking old shit had wandered into the place, his boots soaked in slick ichor, his spurs caked in something slightly darker.  Thin, cracked lips quivered from under his white mustache.  His hat was the only thing that Dusty could claim to envy, for it seemed to be of a slightly nicer leather than his own. 

The man looked around with sharp, beady eyes.  After a moment, he spat and sighed.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to slam the door.” 

Dusty and Marlo, shrugging, turned back around.  No one else in the place seemed to care.  The woman behind the bar had momentarily flittered her eyes to the door, but nothing more.  Pretending to listen to Marlo ramble on about the best whiskey he’d ever had, Dusty went back to watching the woman.  She cleaned dirtied glasses crudely with little more than spit and a quick polish.  Her green dress was dusty, her boots dustier.  The only clean thing on her was the polished opal set in a dark choker about her neck.  She was as beautiful as-

“Yessss sir, none better.  Gotta kick to it I tell you.”

Dusty, who’d slouched down in the stool, turned his head slowly to the left, his face frozen in mute disgruntledness.  Sitting beside him was the old man, deep in conversation with Marlo.  The two were talking over Dusty’s back as if he were a card table.  

“Well, hell,” Marlo said, “I ain’t got none of that, but you’re free to what I got.”  He raised the bottle of whiskey he had and poured some into a glass for the old man.  “Gotta carry your own supply these days.”

“Well,” said the old man, “ain’t that the truth.”

“How it goes.” Marlo clicked his tongue, chuckled, and shook his head.  “How bout you, pardner, you want any more?”

“Jesus…” Dusty sat upright, clenching his fists.  “Don’t that damn thing ever go empty, Marlo?”

“Well shoot, Dusty,” Marlo looked into the bottle.  “I sure hope not.”  The old man and Marlo burst out in laughter—laughter which Dusty couldn’t understand.  As their laughter grew louder, Dusty closed his fists tighter.

“Shit, son,” said the old man, “lookin like a rattle snake bit your Johnson.  Rough day?”

“Go to hell.”

“Don’t mind him,” Marlo said through a chuckle.  “He’s just tired is all.  Was a big haul today.”

“You boys out there grave-diggin?”

“Yeees sir.”

“That’s good, that’s good.”  The old man nodded as Dusty sunk back into a slump.  The bar woman was gone for the moment, leaving him to suffer alone.   

Marlo nodded.  “Needs getting done.”

“You bet your ass it does.”

“What about you?  Running cattle?”

“Nome, got me out cleanin the rivers.  Yes sir, out there doin the lords work.”  There was a pause, then the men burst into another round of laughter.

The woman returned to her spot behind the bar; Dusty perked up.  Downing his whiskey—and deciding he’d had enough of Marlo and his new friend—Dusty leaned across the bar.

“Got anything better than this behind that bar, ma’am?” Dusty smiled.  The woman said nothing.  She didn’t even look at him.  Clearing his throat, Dusty tried again.  “Scuse me, ma’am, but I was wondering if you’d have anything else on that side of the bar.”  Again, the woman said nothing.  Confused, Dusty leaned back down.  Both men were now quietly staring at him.

“Shoot, Dusty,” said Marlo, “didn’t actually think you’d try.”

“Shut up, Marlo.”

The old man smiled sadly.  “Happens to the best of us.” 

Dusty rolled his glass from palm to palm, its corners glittering.  He watched the woman out of the corner of his eyes.  She moved about the bar, busy with her work.  Maybe she didn’t speak English?

Another person walked up to the bar—this time a young man.  Dusty had not heard him enter the saloon or approach.  The young man had hair like the girl’s, only shorter, but he was too old to be her son.  Siblings then.  They certainly looked the part.  Dusty watched the pair for a second, listening closely, curious about what language they spoke.  Their lips moved, rhythmically making shapes Dusty knew, but no words came out.  A dull humming was all there was.  A dull humming which beat into Dusty’s brain.  He slipped off his bar stool, his grey matter suddenly twitching in his skull.

“Christ sake, son…” said the old man.  “Tonight is not your night.  This usually happen?”

Marlo answered for Dusty with a shake of the head.  “He’s been gettin worse.  Forgets stuff a whole lot.”

“That ain’t good.”

“How it goes.  Not much to do bout it.  Long as he digs alright there ain’t a problem.”

Clutching his head with one hand, Dusty grabbed the lip of the bar with the other.  Pulling himself up, he glared at Marlo.

“Coulda used a hand, pardner.”

“You ain’t never taken a hand I ever gave you, Dusty.  Sit on down and take it easy.”

Dusty didn’t care enough to argue.  He looked around the saloon; no one was looking at him.  Everything was calm and unchanged save a group of men playing cards in the back corner.  Their game seemed to be growing heated.  Faces were going red and fingers were being pointed.  Dusty realized he could not hear their words either.  

Sitting down at the bar, Dusty grabbed the bottle of whiskey.  To his surprise, it felt full.  He poured himself another glass and downed it in one gulp.  Marlo nodded his approval, and for a moment, things returned to their dull normalcy. 

“Well, would you take a look at that.”  The old man nodded towards the table where the card players sat.  “Looks like someone’s a sore loser.”

Marlo and Dusty looked.  

In a swift, timeless movement, guns were drawn.  Dusty tensed up at the sight.  Neither Marlo nor the old man seemed to care.  One of the men, holding a gun in each hand, aimed at his fellows and shot, his movements lulled by alcohol.  He missed the two men who’d cheated him at cards.  He missed by a long shot and missed with both guns.  The bullet from the first gun shot through the saloon and into the back of Dusty’s head, through the front of his face, and exploded into the bar woman’s shoulder.  The second bullet whizzed by and tore into the face of the bar woman’s brother.  His face became an incoherent red pulp as hot lead popped through jawbone.  An instant later, the young man fell to the floor.

Screaming, Dusty tumbled out of his stool again and fell on his haunches.  There was some sort of weird shrieking, whistling noise as the bar woman, clutching her mutilated arm, ran to where the young man lay.  A blue thing—wispy and milky—was rising from the young man’s mutilated lips.  It swayed above his body for a second.  The woman either didn’t see it or didn’t care.  She held the young man’s dead body in her arms, cradling it close to her.  The blue thing floated by her for a second and left.

“Shouldn’t stay here much longer, pardner.”

Dusty looked up.  Marlo was standing above him.  Marlo stretched out a hand, and Dusty took it.

“That’s unfortunate that is,” said the old man, standing over the young man’s body.  “Least he’s goin somewhere good.”

“Let’s go, Dusty,” Marlo’s eyes held more pity now than Dusty had ever seen.  “It’s rude to stay, pardner.  Don’t feel too bad, ain’t nothing you coulda done to stop it.  Same thing happened to me a few days back.”  Marlo brushed back the hair by his ear, pointing to a bullet hole there.  “Passed right through and nailed a priest.  If that ain’t irony, I don’t know what is.”

Dusty didn’t get it, but the numb shock in his stomach told him to stay silent.  He followed Marlo and the old man out the front of the saloon.  The other men at the card table had tackled the drunken shooter to the ground.  The man’s eyes were watery—less, it seemed, from remorse and more from the whiskey.

#

“So they couldn’t see us?”

“No.”

“Could they tell we were there?”

“Spose so.  In some way.  Feel it maybe.”

“And then, this is…”

“What it is.”

“And the bodies we burried?”

“Like us at a point, pardner.  Just no longer did what they were supposed to do.  We get rid of their bodies, and the souls move to the next part.”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t know.  Hope I don’t find out.”

Marlo and Dusty walked side by side, their mule lagging slightly behind.  In front of them blazed the semicircle of a fading sun.  Despite it being evening, the desert was scorching hot as ever.  The dust they kicked up clung to them desperately.  The land—flat and endless—spread out before them, punctuated only by the occasional dead tree or cactus.  Dusty fiddled with the buckle of his belt.  A bit of fleshy gore had dried there from their last dig.  

“Hell, Marlo,” Dusty said, “think I got some gristle on me too.”

“How it goes.”

“When we goin back to town?”

“Don’t know, Dusty.  Gotta do the next job first.”

“Think I’ll sit this one out, Marlo.”

“Like hell you will, Dusty.”

Marlo and Dusty laughed together, their dried-out voices floating through the desert.  Their laughter resonated long and echoed longer.  A warm silence fell between them.  Marlo began to walk with more of a pep, kicking up dust.  Despite his flaws, Marlo was okay by Dusty’s standards.  Dusty smiled.  It was a smile just a bit wider than he should have been able to produce.  Marlo saw it and walked slower.

June 30, 2023 21:06

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
19:59 Jul 01, 2023

Gory unending job. Dead dealing with dead.

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