Copyright 2017 by Christopher Davis
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Disclaimer: The persons, places, things, and otherwise animate or inanimate objects mentioned in this story are figments of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to anything or anyone living (or dead) is unintentional. The author humbly begs your pardon. This is fiction, people.
After a hot day under an unforgiving desert sun, the lawman drew rein just paces from the rusting iron gate that was the Mission de la Cantua.
The headless statue of Saint Bartholomew kept a silent watch over the churchyard, as silent as old Bart himself. One of his open palms was raised, while the other arm had been carried off ages ago. Bullets from three wars could be found in the pockmarked pedestal where he stood.
A scorpion watched as the weary Sacramento lawman fell from his saddle to the hot sand where his mount stood with twitching ears. There was no use expending the energy in leaving the little shade offered from the sparse vegetation that clung to life here in the no man’s land.
Blowing sand traced eddies around the prostrate lawman as Saint Bartholomew looked on. Daytime temperatures were known to climb to 49-50 degrees Celsius or better here in the borderlands. There was little the unconscious lawman could do in his present state.
The saddled mare stood close to shade him from an unrelenting daystar, while the unsaddled spare kept watch over the barren desert prairie, where not even a song bird dared.
Overhead, buzzards circled silently. The scavengers would keep their distance for a time. One bird landed on a hewn wooden cross atop the church steeple. Another looked to rest on an iron bell. The bell protested with its clapper striking the hot iron and sending the scavengers away to a safe distance with the bell continuing to toll. They’d be back in time, but were content for now to ride the warm thermal breeze above.
Dark clouds boiled over the range of low mountains to the west. The clouds threatened rain which the dry valley floor would never see. It hadn’t rained here in a generation or more.
With his lead rope dragging in the sand, the unsaddled spare could do as he pleased. The white-footed sorrel kept an eye on a mutant coyote that paced in the distance. From time to time the horse would charge, sending the timid animal out into the desert.
Blood clotted and dried in the lawman’s torn clothing. Its scent carried on the dry wind. In an hour, every animal within five miles would come to see about the dying man with a five-pointed tin star pinned to his shirt.
A solitary raven cawed its arrival as it swooped over the forgotten mission. Both horses continued to shade the unconscious man while the bird landed and stood watch from the cantle.
Bardwell lifted himself onto an elbow. A feeble Indian gentleman sat across a small fire with one black feather in his gray hair.
The lawman smiled. “Ahote,” he said. “It is good to see you, friend.”
Stoking the coals of the fire with a few dry sticks, the Indian returned the gesture. His smile exposed gums the color of clay mud. “It is good to see you also, Dan Bardwell, who rides with the coyote.”
Bardwell had a look around their desert camp. His blued Navy Colts and time worn leather saddlebags rested within arm’s reach. The lawman removed his tobacco and bit off a good chew.
“You are not well, Dan Bardwell,” the Indian continued. “The great Father has sent me to see about you.”
“I’ve been worse,” the lawman replied, spitting in the fire.
The Indian nodded his agreement, reluctantly. “Two warriors travel to the border town as we speak.”
“Tulare?” Bardwell asked. “That’s three days on a good horse.”
The old Indian chuckled. “Did I not say spirit warriors?”
Bardwell understood the meaning of the old man’s arrival. Ahote only made his appearance under the most trying of circumstances.
Diverting the conversation for the moment, Bardwell asked. “What does it mean your name?”
The old man chuckled. “Ahote means, the restless one. How could my mother have known?”
It was Bardwell’s turn to laugh. “She named you well, friend.”
Pausing to look into the fire, the Indian continued. “I have been thinking of giving you my name.”
“Why would you do that?’
“It fits you, Dan Bardwell, the restless one?”
“You keep it.”
Silence settled over the desert camp. Coyotes yipped in the distance now that the daystar had settled into a dirty western sky behind the range.
Bardwell flinched in pain. One of the timid desert animals howled a mournful song.
“Your brother knows that you are not well,” the Indian said in a low voice. “He calls to his brothers to let them know also.”
The lawman shook his head to clear his mind. “It was the cantina.”
Ahote nodded from his side of the fire as flames licked the dry wood.
“I had trailed two men south from the city,” Bardwell started. “We met up at the cantina along the macadam highway, Duane Frances and Hector Sanchez. There was gunfight and I led Frances away, tied over my horse. The Mexican I left for the locals to deal with. My orders were to bring Frances in.”
“It was he who brought this upon you,” the old Indian said.
The lawman took inventory of the damage to his torso and the torn clothing. “I should have known,” he replied. “It was the ruined, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Dan Bardwell.”
“No,” the Indian said, lighting his pipe with a stick from the fire. The old man drew hard on the stem, exhaling smoke that shrouded his features in a veil of blue. “But the scent of blood will bring the undead.”
“Well, fuck,” Bardwell said, spitting in the fire. “Did I at least come out on top?”
The old Indian laughed. “Yes, Dan Bardwell, with the help of your brothers. A great fire was set. The smoke could be seen by the tribes that live in the hills.”
Bardwell shook his head in trying to remember the ordeal. Cold sweat beaded from his skin, saturating an already damp shirt.
Staring into the flames, Bardwell tried to remember the events leading up till now. As he had told the Indian, he had ridden hard to cut off the escape of the Sacramento outlaws who had killed a man in the streets for no reason other than the shoes he wore.
There was a cantina along the highway where the elders had once traveled. The lawman wasn’t the kind to tie the horses and sneak up on his prey. Instead he rode closer knowing all eyes were upon him. He took his time in tying the horses and seeing about their well-being, before starting inside.
Policia, gringo and diablo, was heard in hushed whispers around the room.
“Hola, señor,” the bar maiden greeted, in a tone she would have reserved for the devil himself, if he had walked in.
The lawman smiled, hanging his black hat on a peg near the door. “Whiskey, por favor?”
“What the fuck brings you down here, Marshal?” Frances asked from his seat at the bar.
Sanchez—under a big sombrero—chose to hold his tongue, a wise choice for the Mexican. He too would die before the sun was fully down, but he didn’t know it yet.
“Oh,” the lawman said walking closer. “They’ve got me riding after a couple of no good sons of bitches.”
“My mother,” the Mexican said with a thick accent. “She was no bitch, señor.” He continued to look into a nearly empty glass.
“No,” Frances said, slapping his partner on the back, “But she sure could fuck.”
Sanchez said something in reply as the lawman had a look around the tiny cantina. Men played cards at two tables in the back room. The bar maiden had left a bottle of whiskey and one of tequila on the bar in front of where Bardwell, Frances and Sanchez sat. She herded those nearby to the safety of a back door.
Frances held his ground as the Lawman turned up his glass. The Mexican stood with one of his pistolas in hand. Bardwell got to his faster, ending the man’s life there on the dusty boards of the cantina floor.
“Don’t do it,” Bardwell said to Frances, who was in the process of reaching for a six-shooter at his side.
Steel flashed from the back room. The room was abuzz with flying lead that splintered and tore at the dry boards.
Men in big hats fell to the floor as the tired lawman alternated firing his Colts.
“Not bad, Marshal,” Frances said from across the room. The outlaw stood near one of the tables with a group of armed men.
“You tell your boys to put away those pistolas,” the lawman said. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, your choice, Duane?”
The outlaw laughed. “I never was one much for taking the easy way out,” he said reaching for a gun.
Bardwell drew one of the saddle guns that hung over his shoulder, fanning the hammer as his opponents fell like a needed rain.
No one stirred in the tine cantina as the lawman retrieved his hat and drug the outlaw to the door. There was no one left, other than whores and old men.
With Frances tied over the spare horse, Bardwell continued two hours into the twilight as a blood red moon rose over the ancient mountain range the elders had called the Sierra’s. The mountains were ten rods across the dry valley. He continued south from the cantina, expecting to be followed as soon as a band of outlaws could be gathered. The lawman would give the forgotten place a wide berth in turning for Sacramento, but that would all be on the morrow. Once the sun had climbed into a nuclear morning sky, he and the dead man would travel north for the city and some needed rest.
The horses were unsaddled and hobbled for the night. The dead man was left atop the sand as Bardwell gathered sticks for a small fire that would boil coffee in a dented tin can. He’d sleep with one eye open and he knew it. The lawman wasn’t superstitious, but he didn’t care much for camping with the dead either.
Coyotes yipped and howled closer to the range of low mountains that separated the dry valley from the nearby ocean. A black-tailed rabbit made the mistake of scurrying for cover in the moonlight. One shot was fired and the coyotes quieted for the time.
As the red moon rose higher into the nighttime sky, Bardwell sipped coffee with his back against a low rock outcropping. The desert winds had settled some. The lawman figured he’d be getting his rest seated against the rock like he was.
It was said to be a bad omen to sleep near the dead.
The fire burned down to orange coals as Bardwell wrapped in a canvas slicker for the night. If the temperatures dropped too much, he’d unroll a tattered wool blanket that he carried behind his saddle. Out here in the desert it could drop down to two or three degrees, but he didn’t expect it to get that cold.
If he could get by until three or four, he’d saddle up and be well on his way before the renegade Mexicans from the cantina would be on the road.
An hour passed with the lawman sleeping against the rock, another and another. At just after midnight, the incessant hum became too much to sleep through. It was as if the earth vibrated to its very core.
Bardwell stoked the small fire to life. It was too early to think about riding north with the dead man, even with the light from the red moon high overhead.
The desert was deadly silent as stars crossed the heavens above. Other than the low hum, there was nothing. Even the sand shivered on the rocks where he sat.
A dry stick—dead for a century—broke as if stepped on. The lawman drew one of his Colts, listening for the uninvited guest.
Downwind and just paces from the light cast by the fire stood three of the ruined, the undead some called them. Bardwell fired into the dark forms with no soul in their eyes. The bodies twitched in the sand but remained where they had fallen.
Turning to toss more wood onto the fire, he fired again as two worked at dragging the—very—dead, Duane Frances off behind the rocks.
It had been some time since the lawman had seen their kind, maybe five hundred years or better. At one time in his history, he had been known as the zombie assassin as plagues and illness struck down both the affluent and those not so on another continent.
Black powder smoke wafted on unseen currents of desert wind. Flames licked the dry sticks in the fire. The lawman fired his Colt pistols empty, reloaded and had another go of it. Bodies of the ruined lie about the desert sand where a bullet found them.
They came in disorganized groups of three or four of five. Nothing the Sacramento lawman couldn’t handle, although he wished for his partner Franklin Curtis. Curtis was as good as any man with a Winchester in his young hands, but the boy didn’t have a horse in this race.
Two o’clock, it was too early to try to ride out alone. Hell, it would be difficult at best to locate the horses and get them saddled in the dark with the undead swarming like they were.
The witching hour came with a blur of soulless wanderers stalking closer and closer to the lawman and his little fire.
An hour before daybreak and the bullets ran out. The lawman clubbed his Winchester in an effort to beat back the never-ending progression of zombie wanderers. If he could last another hour, the sun would be up over the mountain range to the north.
He didn’t remember saddling the mare or riding south toward the mission. There was little left of the outlaw—Duane Frances. That much he could remember.
“It is time for you to sleep, Dan Bardwell,” the old Indian said from across the fire. “If the great Father wills it, you will live to see the sun rise again.”
Bardwell was tired. He couldn’t remember ever being this tired in his life. The lawman rested his head against his saddle and closed his eyes.
The Indian and the fire were no more. There was only sand and wind and heat.
The lawman stood before the iron gates of the mission. Rusting hinges protested as he pushed his way in. There was little need to hobble the horses. It was three days to the nearest settlement. The horses wouldn’t stray.
Inside of the compound where the faithful once gathered, shade from the adobe walls and tiled roof was welcomed. Now most of those faithful lie in the church yard with sand swirling around their headstones, the only reminder they were ever there.
With the approach of the lawman, a mutant coyote skittered across the compound, its tail between its legs. Bardwell drew one of the blued Colt pistols at the unexpected movement. The lawman smiled seeing the animal and holstered the weapon. This was a sanctuary for God’s sake.
Bardwell continued to the decaying door of rotting timbers. The only semblance of the building’s past was the wooden cross and rusting iron bell high above. Bardwell made the sign of the cross and stepped inside, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. The place smelled of booze and piss and sex. Graffiti had been hastily sprayed across the walls for three generations. A wooden crucifix sat askew in a far corner.
Bardwell continued between simple wood benches where the congregation had once sat quietly during mass. Discarded Styrofoam food containers, dirty magazines and foil condom wrappers littered the dusty floor. No one had been here in ages.
A small wooden door with wicker windows invited the weary traveler. The lawman smiled, brushing away a century’s worth of dust from the narrow bench inside.
“Welcome, my son,” a somewhat familiar voice said from the other side of the thin paneled wall separating the confessional.
Bardwell fumbled with a string of beads given by King Phillip of Spain in a time long forgotten. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…”
“Yes, yes,” the feeble voice replied. “And haven’t we all?”
“I have traveled far, Father.”
“And killed many?”
“You are the hand of God, Daniel,” the priest continued, “The dealer of fate. There are no longer any like you, my son.”
A smile touched the corner of the Sacramento lawman’s mouth. “Yes, I am aware of this, Father and I am tired.”
“As I expect a man of your nature should be,” the priest replied. “How long has it been, my son?”
“Five hundred, seven hundred years, it could be a thousand for all I know,” Bardwell said in a low voice. “I seem to have lost track of time?”
The black robbed clergyman chuckled. “Time stands still for no man, Daniel, as we both know well.”
Other than sand blowing against the crumbling adobe walls, there was no sound in the dark sanctuary.
“You came for the undead?”
“Not originally,” Bardwell replied from his side of the partition. He fumbled with a scrap of folded paper taken from his pocket. “I was sent here in search of two outlaws that had killed a man in the city.”
“Shot him in the street for a pair of shoes?”
“And in turn, they each paid for their sins?”
“Yes, Father, they did.”
“Ah, yes,” the priest said. “You have your orders. Dead or alive, I believe?”
“Surely you remember, London, thirteen, forty-eight?”
“Yes, I remember it too well.”
“The black death, they called it. It was a terrible time in our history, Daniel.”
“Nazi Germany in the thirties,” the priest added. “Where you there, when…”
“No, Father,” Bardwell replied. “The Russians got there first.”
“And so they did,” the robbed priest chuckled again, breaking into a terrible coughing fit.
Silence settled over the sanctuary as the lawman and the priest pondered what had been said.
“SARS, HIV, Ebola?”
“Yes, Father,” the lawman continued. “And then…”
“And so it was?”
“And so it was,” Bardwell agreed.
“What of the men you killed along the highway?”
“Hector Sanchez,” Bardwell started. “I left for his people to bury. Duane Francis rode with me until…”
“Until your meeting with the unholy?”
“Yes,” the lawman said. “I tried, Father. I tried, but there were too many at one time?”
“It will spread from the settlements along the border.”
“I’m afraid that it will.”
“You do His work, my son.”
“I am no more than a zombie assassin, Father.”
“Yes, Daniel, you are,” the priest said. “But it is honest work, am I not right?”
The lawman nodded, but said nothing. For centuries, he had traveled, searching out the infected, the ruined and the undead. He was there at the battle of Verdun, Passchendaele and Luxembourg.
“You will rest here, my son,” the priest said, getting to his feet and shuffling from the sanctuary.
“Yes, yes, Daniel,” the priest replied. “Idle hands are the tools of the devil and all that.”
“I believe that I’ve heard something like that?”
“You are tired and you will rest here. On the morrow or the next, you will be returned to us as you have always been.” The clergyman chanted his prayer as he closed the door behind. “O, our heavenly Father…”
Bardwell didn’t bother to reply to the fading voice of the man who had listened for an hour or more. Broken glass and spent brass from cartridges fired an eon ago littered the dust covered sanctuary floor.
Outside a towering dust cloud kicked up to the west. A lone buzzard circled down to land atop the forgotten mission where the faithful had once gathered to pray. Was it a sign of what was yet to come?
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Other Stories by Christopher Davis
Ain’t No Law in California
Walking to Babylon
Meet Me in Tulsa
Going Back to Dallas
Scratches starts as the Sacramento lawman—Dan Bardwell—falls from his saddle in front of the mission gates at Arroyo de la Cantua. After safely getting his man—or men rather—and riding away into the night, the lawman is awakened by a terrible buzzing which can’t be explained. With a blood moon rising across the range, he is confronted by the undead as he stands next to a little fire with a blued Navy Colt in each hand. The zombies continue to pile through the long nighttime hours until the bullets are no more. As he lies prostrate under an unforgiving desert sun, sand blows around his form and he has a series of delirious visions, where he meets Ahote—an old Indian friend—and Father John who may or may not really be there? Scratches is the first of a planned series of short stories written in support of the novel, Ain’t No Law in California—from Solstice Publishing, in which the Sacramento lawman, Dan Bardwell, rides through hell and high water on the trail of some outlaw or another. The short collects various bits from the rewrite of a follow-up novel which I hope to submit soon. If you enjoy the old west with a twist, cowboy lawmen with guns blazing and outlaws, always on the take and of course dope, zombies and the strange flying machines of the elders….this one might be for you?