“Yew must think ye’r so damn smart,” the felon known as Crimson Clay said, then spat a thin stream of blood to the dirt. He glared at the burly U.S Marshal who sat on the other side of a modest campfire, stirring a pot of beans.
“Reckon I must.” The Marshal stated over the sound of the wooden spoon scraping against the iron pot. The night was damp and frigid, and the steam from the pot danced high enough to make the stars hungry. Big Jim Rook pulled the spoon from the pot and gave its contents a cooling blow.
“Don’t burn ya tongue now, Marshal. You ain’t much of a conversationalist in the first place.” Clay said, fidgeting with the shackles around his wrists and ankles. They didn’t budge, but they itched like all get out. “Say, these chains are bothersome like fire ants, boss. Since we in the middle of no-man’s land, what say we loosen ’em up a mite? Ain’t like there’s anyplace to run to.”
“I put some pork fat ‘n herbs in these beans. Smellin’ mighty good ’bout now. Care for a taste?”
“Hell, I don’t want any goddamn beans! I want outta these cursed chains, you good-for-nothin’ ni–” Clay caught himself. Rook sucked his teeth and tasted the contents of the spoon.
“You can say it. Coming from you, it don’t mean shit.”
“Sorry, boss. It’s the chains.” Clay lifted the chain that connected the wrist shackles to the ankle shackles, then let it drop.
“Givin’ you grief, huh?”
“Chaffing something wicked, truth be told. Say, how about some rabbit? You got any rabbit? Maybe a squirrel? I can’t bother with food that got no grit.”
“Only got beans and more ass-whuppin’. Your choice.”
“Never mind, then…” Clay said defeated. “Wish I could mosey on back to town for a proper meal. Got an…experiment I’d like to peek in on too…”
“You took all you were gonna from there, Clay.”
“Night’s still young, Marshal.” Clay dropped the chain again, creating a plume of parched desert dirt. “These’re slave shackles, ain’t they? Kinda…ironic?”
“Could be.” Rook filled his tin cup with the food then settled against his bedroll. “Just because they were part of one of the most reprehensible times in American history doesn’t make them any less effective.”
“Can’t argue with that. I wanna, but I can’t. Figure a darkie using slave chains to imprison a cracker like me is ironic, though. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Can’t say I rightly give a shit.” Rook scooped some beans and blew on them. “You sure you don’t want some? Last time I’m gonna ask. Got carrots and onions in it too—real hearty.”
“You can shove that straight up your ass, Marshal!” Clay hissed. “If a whore ain’t pourin’ it, I ain’t interested!”
“Had yourself one too many, I suspect. Now shut up and let me eat in peace.” Rook pulled his canteen from his satchel and took a few gulps.
Somewhere in the distance a coyote called. Somewhere else another answered. Then there was silence save for an errant crackle from the fire. Rook watched his restless prisoner scratch at the skin under the shackles while staring at the mountain ridge at the horizon. Clay was naked and bloody, but none of that seemed to make a difference in the growing chill of night.
“I can’t believe you got the drop on me. Me!” Clay broke the tranquility. Rook sighed.
“You just can’t help yourself, can you?” Rook stated more than asked.
“Indulge me, O’ Master of Fate. How’d you track me down?”
“Wasn’t terribly hard. You leave a signature every place you go.”
“Total goddamn carnage.” Rook said. He set his cup down then produced a small packet of cigarettes. He put one between his lips then lit it. Clay stared at the cherry red glow.
“Way I see it, by killin’ folks, I’m doin’ them a kindness. They ain’t have’ta suffer in such a cruel world. Say, seeing as I’m a dead man…how about you toss me one of those?”
“Fine…” Rook pulled out another and flicked it across the fire. Clay snatched it from the air with more finesse than a shackled fella ought to have. “But you light it your damn self.”
“Fair enough…” Clay rose to his knees and bent close to the flames. Once the cigarette was lit he sat back down and puffed. “Sorry to interrupt. You were about to tell me a story?”
“Ain’t much of one. Started seeing a pattern in Boston that resembled the string of murders in New York.”
“Which is a credit to your skills, Marshal. Ain’t nothin’ but a putrid shithole of murderers and tosspots in both them cities.”
“You gonna keep yappin’ while I talk?”
“Thought this was a conversation, what with you being such a conversationalist an’ all.” Clay smiled, and worked a piece of tobacco from his teeth with his tongue. “A thousand pardons, Sahib.”
“Plainly put: You have habits. You leave trails. One only has to follow the bodies. You got the name ‘Crimson Clay’ after the San Antonio incident. You got sloppy. You left one alive.”
“Everyone has a bad day, Marshal. I’m supposed to check the pulse on every dead whore in the brothel? I had a train to catch. Truth be told, I did enjoy the headlines. You think they’ll write me into one of them Penny Dreadfuls?”
“You ain’t even gonna have an obituary…” Rook scoffed. “Also, your British is showing. Don’t wanna break character, now do ya?”
Clay exhaled heavily and looked to the mountain ridge. “Suppose at this point it’s all academic…” Clay said with a clear English accent. “On with the story.”
“Nothin’ more to tell,” Rook said and tossed the last bit of cigarette into the fire. “You came to town and sucked it dry. By the time I got there, nothin’ but the bartender was left. He pointed the two fingers he still had attached towards the stairs. I made sure my Peacemaker had six nails for your coffin, and made the slow walk up.
“I do love how poetic you Yanks are.” Clay sighed with counterfeit affection.
“Room after gore-filled room I searched, until I came upon your blood-covered, narrow ass—laying on top of a bed full’a corpses. You were blood drunk and barely astir enough to notice getting shackled, dragged down a hall, thrown down stairs, then hogtied to my horse.”
“Well, I have to admit, after a bout of what I like to call my red wrath, I tend to blissfully sod off to an orgasmically-comatose Shangri-La. Drunk and drugged victims just go right to my head!” Clay’s eyes scanned the mountain ridge again. There was a glow, red as blood and steady as wine, that ascended to the rim and threatened to spill. Clay felt disappointment more than anything else. The world was full of folks to find, fuck, and filet. It was—he felt—his civic duty to enforce population control. One bite at a time…
“I have to admit,” Rook interrupted Clay’s lament. He pulled a flask out of his satchel and unscrewed the cap. “I am a bit disappointed that you made it so easy…” Rook took three gulps then held the flask aloft. “Want some? It’s whiskey from Kentucky. I helped the distiller with an Agropelter problem. Damn thing kept violating the oak barrels.”
“I’m sure they were so happy you came along…” Clay chided. “Though…who’s to say the whiskey they gave you wasn’t from a buggered barrel?”
“If it is, then they should find another Agropelter and put him on the payroll.” Rook took one last swig then screwed the cap back on.
“Rounding back to your regret…” Clay began. “All you have to do is remove these shackles and we can have a proper dustup. By the look of things, I’d lose even if I won. And I would, of course, win.”
“Tempting…” Rook lit another cigarette and gave it three swift puffs. “But this ain’t about me, Clay—it’s about stopping you. And Stop you I did.”
“Killing me won’t bring them back, Marshall.”
“True enough, but it needs to be done nonetheless.” Rook now looked to the mountains and smiled at the rays of morning as they crested the ridge and stalked across the valley.
“Nnnuuh!” Clay nervously uttered. “You can’t do this to me, you fucking subhuman! I was on this Earth long before your slag of a mother opened her foul quim!”
“This is such a cruel world,” Rook mocked as his smile grew wider, and the sunlight began to touch skin. Clay scrambled away as best he could, which was little more than a stunted inchworm crawl thanks to the shackles. “You shouldn’t have’ta suffer.”
“No! No!” Clay shrieked as the sunlight began thermal decomposition of his feet. Then his calves. Then the rest of the bastard. Rook stood and walked along side Clay as he crawled and burned. Flesh fell from charring muscle in sizzling globs. Clay’s screams were replaced by the hissing of boiling fat and the whistles from rupturing organs. Clay’s eyes popped like boils, and oozed like egg yolks over his exposed skull face. Rook uncapped the flask and took a celebratory sip as what was left of the murderer lay still in ashen gray soil.
“Consider that a kindness,” Rook said. He slid the flask into his pocket and lifted Clay’s skeleton from the smolder. The shackles fell free, and caused ashes to swirl around Rook who took care not to breath any in. He twisted Clay’s skull and pulled it free from the spine. He collected the iron shackles (he himself had adorned with silver filaments) and brought both to his horse. The chains would be cleansed. The skull, pulverized and used as an ingredient for a potent healing salve. Poetic justice, if one subscribed to such notions. Marshal Rook tied Clay’s fanged skull to his saddlebag with a rope woven through the jaw and eye sockets, then rode off in search of the next undead bastard in need of a good killing.
Leon woke startled on the floor behind the bar. He noticed he had bled through the shoddy bandage attempt on his hands (using his two remaining fingers and his teeth). He was still alive though, and far be it for the barkeep to shrug off a bit of good luck. He managed to stand. He managed to uncork a bottle of whiskey. He managed to get a good portion of it in his mouth. More good luck. Leon wondered how long he’d been unconscious and if anyone was still alive. Will that psychopath return? Did the Marshal get the job done? Doesn’t matter, Leon thought. Get to the Doctor before you bleed all the way dead. Then worry about the rest. A creak from the staircase damn-near caused Leon to have another blackout. It was Betty—a working girl—battered and bloody, her corset and skirt faring about the same. She slogged down the stairs like her feet were lead. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Merciful Lord!” Leon exclaimed. He staggered best he could to the bottom of the stairs and caught Betty as she missed the last two steps. “Betty! I can’t believe you’re alive! W-we gotta get to Doctor Penny before we bleed to d-death!”
“Mrrgl…hhhhhuuuunngryyyy…” Betty hissed through a gurgle.
“Now’s no time for that! We have to–”
“Hungry!” Betty roared just before plunging her brand new fangs into Leon’s neck. She took him to the ground in a lurching, sucking mound. Once the meager blood portions ran dry, Betty pulled her wet maw free in a crimson arc. Electricity danced through her veins and under her skin. She shuddered in ecstasy. “Better than sex!” she delighted. She rose to her feet and with increasing grace moved to the saloon door. There, with preternatural eyes, Betty witnessed her town in utter disarray. Fires took most of the buildings and stores. Bodies littered the ground like and overturned toy box. The signature of Crimson Clay was carved six feet deep into the soul of that town. Betty laughed and laughed and laughed.
©Peter Hammarberg 2019