Well, ya’ll certainly rose to the challenge. We really enjoyed reading your Pony Express Flash fiction. In the end there were two we just couldn’t chose between so both are being printed here. In no particular order, we give you Riding into Legend by David M. Hoenig and Dirtslinger by Anton Kukal. We hope you enjoy these offerings and if you’d like more weird western goodness, keep an eye out for The Weird Wild West edited by Misty Massey, Emily Lavin Leverett, and Margaret S. McGraw.
Also, we had so much fun with this contest that we are fixing to hold another one. Keep your eye out for further details later today.
Ride Into Legend
Copyright © 2015 David M. Hoenig
“Hey, Dusty! Get over here, you’re up next,” bellowed the dispatcher of Alkali Lake Station, Nebraska.
Rory McDaniels broke off his story to Shaky Alves to shout over his shoulder. “That’s ‘Dust Devil’, Fat Tom. I’m fourteen and don’t answer to whatever your fancy of the day is.”
“You want to make it to fifteen, you damn puppy, you’ll get your ass over here now. Got us a special client, wants to speak to her rider before she contracts.”
“Her?” asked Shaky with a hopeful leer.
“I’ll tell you ’bout it when I get back,” McDaniels told him with a wink and sauntered over to where the dispatcher waited impatiently.
“She and her ‘manservant’ are in my office,” Fat Tom said, and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “And you watch your damn manners,” he practically spit out. “She’s like liquid gold and worth a thousand of you, so you watch ’em proper!”
McDaniels nodded, moved around the desk, and opened the door.
“Ah! You must be the rider,” a thin Chinese man with a sweaty face said to him. “Allow me to introduce my Mistress,” he added, and turned to gesture behind him. “This is Madame Yi.”
McDaniels looked past the man to see the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She was dressed in black and white robes, which seemed to move as if stirred by a breeze. Her face was painted like those small porcelain dolls they sold on the docks in ’Frisco at the other end of the trail; almond-shaped eyes in a pale face, with lips the color of freshly spilled blood. Against the almost non-color of the office, she stood out like a full moon over desert scrub, and it almost made him gasp for breath. “Ma’am,” he choked out.
She made eye contact with him, but said nothing.
“My Mistress,” the Chinese explained,” has a package which needs to get to San Francisco as quickly as possible.”
Distracted from Madame Yi’s beauty, McDaniels turned to the Chinese man. “St. Joseph to ’Frisco takes about ten days,” he said. “From here, it’s about eight.”
The painted lady made a minute shake of her head, though her expression didn’t change. “It must be there in four,” said the Chinese.
“Impossible,” McDaniels snorted. “Mountains and distance make it so.”
“Madame Yi needs it to be possible.”
“Then she can ride it herself.”
“Ah, now that is impossible, my young friend.”
“Call me Dust Devil.”
“Ah, so. Madame Yi is quite an important person in Texas, Mr. Devil…”
“Just Dust Devil.”
“… And what she needs she can make possible.”
“Just how does she expect me to make eight day hard riding into four?”
The Chinese turned to glance at the painted lady. Her fingers, tipped by what looked like sharp, black-lacquered nails, moved in a quick dance, and he turned back. “You will take a, how you say? Short cut.”
“There ain’t no short cuts across the Overland Trail,” McDaniels said.
“Ah, so! But there is: through the Devil’s Gate.”
“That’s Wyoming,” the boy said. “Been through that station—no short cut.”
“Not the station, but through the Gate itself.”
“The Shoshone and Arapahoe tell of a legend,” Madame Yi said, unexpectedly. Her voice carried overtones that made McDaniels feel like he was in Church. “Of a great beast which once ravaged the Sweetwater valley, preventing them from hunting. One holy man prophesied that they must attack, so they did. The beast was driven from there, using its tusks to gouge out the mountain to flee. The Indians named it ‘Devil’s Gate’, because they explored through it but found no trace of the beast itself.”
“That’s a great bedtime story, and you tell it well, ma’am,” McDaniels said to her, minding his manners. “But that don’t tell me how to halve the time from here to ’Frisco.”
“Madame Yi knows the secret of how the beast fled through the mountain, and she will share it with you,” the Chinese told him.
“But that’s just a legend…” McDaniels began.
“It is not,” the lady said softly.
“We will pay the standard rate to the Pony Express for the package,” the Chinese said. “Plus, Madame Yi offers you the sum of fifty dollars to make the attempt as she directs. If you reach San Francisco in four days, you will receive an additional one hundred dollars from her agent there.” The Chinese took out a small purse, and shook out several coins which he handed over to the rider.
McDaniels licked suddenly dry lips and stared at the coronet head coins in his palm—two twenties and one ten dollar—and swallowed. He carefully tucked them into a small leather poke he wore around his neck. “Well, alright then. What do I do when I go through the Gate?”
Madame Yi reached one hand into a fold of her robes, and brought out a small vial and tossed it to him. He caught it and looked at it—brownish dirt with jade-like flecks of green in it.
“Rub that on your horse’s hooves just before you ride through the Gate. It is of the same essence as the Godbeast of the legend, and will allow you to follow its path until you reach the western coast north of San Francisco. Then turn south to the city.”
“I ain’t sure I buy all of that, ma’am,” McDaniels said, putting the small glass also into his poke. “But your coin is good, and for twice more than that in ’Frisco, reckon I’ll buy at least a measure of it.”
Madame Yi glided over to the young rider from where she stood, and held his gaze with hers. She leaned forward and kissed his forehead with infinitely cool lips, making him think of a waterfall at the end of a week’s ride. She moved past him, and the thin Chinese opened the door for her and she went through. He turned and bowed to McDaniels, then followed her out.
Dust Devil let out a low whistle and touched the spot on his forehead she’d kissed, then followed them out into the station, only to find them already gone. Fat Tom saw him and tossed him his mochila, which he caught. “Get gone, Express Rider,” he said. “Clock’s ticking.”
He was out the door in a flash, then in the stable, mounted, and riding out within two minutes.
The trail flew past as Dust Devil lost himself in the solitary miles, changing horses at each station. He didn’t stop but to grab some jerky and water and do his necessaries. He rode through the night, too, though slower, and didn’t stop until he reached Devil’s Gate Station, Wyoming.
He had a real, sit-down breakfast with eggs, taters, and sausage as he eyed the cleft in the mountains through the small side window. He left before the food had fully settled in his stomach, and took the trail westward until he turned a small bend.
Out of sight of the station, Dust Devil took a small dirt path to the right, and headed up the valley. He dismounted and took Madame Yi’s vial out, and rubbed the stuff from it onto his horse’s hooves while it drank from the Sweetwater. “This is some kind of weird,” he muttered, but was reassured by the weight of the fifty dollars in his poke.
He remounted and rode up the defile and through the Devil’s Gate.
The other side was darker, like twilight had come early, and the music of the Sweetwater sounded hushed. He rode on, and though the gallop felt the same as usual, the terrain seemed to be flashing past spectacularly fast.
As he came around a jumble of rocks, he caught the sudden impression of something improbably huge in the middle of the trail which bellowed as it saw him. His horse whinnied and reared, desperately trying to stop, and the whatever-it-was sprang forward and batted at his mount with sharp tusks. Dust Devil went flying out of the saddle into the rocks he’d just passed, and felt a deep crack as his back and head hit. Then everything went fully dark.
When he woke seconds later, he found he could open his eyes and do nothing else save pant for breath. He saw the thing Madame Yi had called the Godbeast; twelve feet at the shoulder, with flesh like raw meat and freshly turned earth with flecks of jade-green through it. It was at the corpse of his horse, and nuzzling at the mochila slung there.
Dust Devil saw it fall open, and the painted lady’s small package slipped out. The creature tapped it with its foot, and Madame Yi’s insubstantial figure rose to the height of the beast.
“Greetings Th’rygh. Too long have you been banished from the Earth; those who injured you have been scattered by the brethren of the sacrifice I have sent you, but they are fragmented and weak. I, Yidhra, invite you to return and seek me out to ally, yoking our strength for mutual benefit.”
The beast glanced at the young rider and began to pad over to him.
“Not gonna make fifteen, I reckon,” Dust Devil coughed, and then the thing was upon him.
It was over frightfully quick.
Copyright © 2015 Anton Kukal
As he rode his half-wild mustang those final miles toward the town, the silvery mist hung low to the ground, curling around the prickly cactus plants and swirling deep into the dry desert gullies. There was a feeling on the air, an eerie stillness in the night, and he could sense it, deep in his bones, someone was going to die tonight.
He didn’t know the name of the town. To him it really didn’t matter, because these places were all the same. Cow towns, boomtowns, or border towns, they sprung up on the prairie, ramshackle buildings full of hopefuls who would never realize their dreams. Fools who would be battered down by this world, pushed around by petty tyrants, forced to fight, to kill and to die, just as he had been.
There was only one street in the whole town. It ran east to west with buildings built against each other, tall false fronts reaching up and silhouetted against the starry sky. He passed a stable, a blacksmith’s shop, a general store, and then a telegraph office. A lifetime ago, he’d come out west to ride for the Pony Express, but the invention of the telegraph had ended those dreams. He was a kid on the frontier, alone, unemployed, and the only possession to his name was a Colt .45. Was it any wonder that he’d turned out so bad?
Ahead, in the center of the town, people gathered in the street. Three saloons and a whorehouse were the heart of this town keeping rowdy cowboys in liquor and love all though the night. There was no Marshall’s office to be seen. This place, like so many in the West, was a lawless haven for men like him.
As he rode down the center of the street, people gave way, moving to the side, then stopping to stare and whisper. One fear-filled voice spoke louder than the rest, “It’s him. It’s Bloody Blake.” Another voice exclaimed in awe, “Badman Blake the Butcher of Beddington.”
He knew what they were thinking as they stared with wide, darting eyes. Almost everything he wore was the color of evil. Hat, holster, leather duster, shirt and pants, even his boots were black as pitch, but not the silver spurs. And not the silver-etched Colt .45 with its pearl pistol grip that hung low on his hip within easy reach, or the bullets slipped into loops all along his gun belt.
People shuffled away as he tied his mustang to the hitching post in front of the Lonely Lover Saloon. He stepped up onto the wooded porch that ran the length of the building and everyone stepped back. His boots landed loudly on the planks as he crossed from the street and pushed through the bat-wing doors. He paused for a moment just beyond the swinging panels.
The conversation died away as every eye looked toward him. There were sharp intakes of breath as those inside recognized him, and then the muttering began, low and fearful, but also with a tone of hostility. Someone in the shadows even had the grit to utter, “It’s that bastard, Blake!”
With a grim smile, he walked across the floor, spurs tinkling above the whispers and footfalls echoing like drums, taking his thoughts back across the years. He couldn’t find work after the Pony Express went bust. Starving, he took a job as a gunhand, working for a rancher trying to stop the homesteaders from building fences across the open range. Bloody work that, and when it was over there was no returning to the boy who dreamed of a life delivering mail, so he drifted from gunhand to gunslinger.
There was a time, he considered avoiding places like this, hanging up his guns and settling down with a widow he knew, but that was before Boot Hill. Now he felt compelled to travel from town to town, just to prove that he was still the best. He reached the bar, placed a foot on the kick rail and an elbow on the worn countertop.
“Whiskey,” he told the bartender in a hoarse voice.
The old timer behind the bar took a dusty bottle off the shelf. His hand trembled as he poured the liquor. “It’s on the house.”
The bartender fidgeted. “We don’t want no trouble.”
“I am sure. . .” He spoke loud enough for all in the room to hear, “ . . . there is someone wanting trouble.”
In one motion he drained the shot of whiskey and set the glass down. He turned away from the bartender and studied the room that had grown silent as a tomb save for their heartbeats thundering like the hooves of racing horses. He studied the room, searching for eyes to meet, but every pair of staring eyes looked away quickly when he met their gaze.
He was beginning to think the feeling had been wrong. Perhaps there would be no death tonight, but then a youngster in the back didn’t look away. Instead the baby-faced boy rose and began walking toward him with a swaggering walk displaying all the empty confidence of youth. The lad wore two pistols cross-strapped at his waist, butts forward in the fashion of desperadoes. His hat was black with a wide brim and an ace of spades stuck through the band.
The boy stopped a few feet from him. “I heard you was dead and planted six feet under.”
“Hard to be truly dead and still walking.”
“Why don’t we go outside, old man?” His voice was smooth as silk and brimming with bravado.
He nodded and followed, taking his time as he always did, looking at the faces of the people and noting the anxiety in their eyes. When he was young he was afraid every time someone called him out, but as the years passed he grew less and less concerned, and now there was no feeling at all. No anticipation, no worry and certainly no fear, and after he killed this boy, he would not even experience the joy of victory. He was just an empty shell, killing, killing, and killing again.
Eager to see the fight, people rushed from the saloons to stand along the hitching posts. The balcony of the brothel filled with scantily clad woman whose engagements were forgotten in the excitement of the impending show down. It seemed everyone in the town was watching and whispering amongst themselves, some offering to take bets, but most expressing a desire to see the end of Bloody Blake. He ignored them all as meaningless distractions.
They faced each other in the center of the street with the crescent moon hanging low in the sky. The young man’s gray blue eyes were full of hopeful excitement. He might have felt sorry for the boy, if he could feel. He was like that kid once, full of dreams, seeking renown, so willing to bet his life on the smallest of margins for a chance at fame and glory.
The boy pulled his pistol fast as lightning, but he didn’t even bother to draw. The boy squeezed off two shots. Bam. Bam. Both bullets struck him in the chest, but he did not fall or even stagger under their impact. The bullets just ricocheted off his ribs, peening into the night. Ever since Boot Hill his bones had gained the toughness of iron.
The young man eyes widened. “You’re a dirtslinger!” His voice was high and shrill.
The boy fired another shot. In his fear the bullet went wide striking a water barrel on the side of the street. He fired again and the bullet struck dirt. He squeezed off the last two rounds and then dropped his useless gun. The boy pulled the other and blasted away, three of his shots hit, but his effort was not enough to kill a dirtslinger.
It was his turn now and he drew, faster than lightning his pistol swung up. He fired from the hip, just one shot and the boy’s head snapped back. The bullet struck above the eyes right in the middle of the boy’s forehead ending all his hopes and dreams. The body sagged down to its knees, a lifeless sack of flesh, and then fell forward in the dirt.
With casual ease he blew the smoke from the barrel of his gun, twirled his pistol twice and then smoothly slid it back into his holster. He looked up and down the street, daring anyone to draw against him. No one did, they never did, not once they realized what he was. He walked back to the hitching post and swung up into his saddle.
He heard the people whispering at his back. “Bloody Blake is a dirtslinger.” They were right, of course. He had come to accept the truth. When he crawled out of his grave on Boot Hill he’d thought he’d somehow survived, but soon he’d come to realize that only a part of him had survived, the worst part, and that part was not even alive at all. Sometimes when a gunslinger dies and is buried with his boots on he will rise again as a dirtslinger, to continue killing as a monster from the grave that only exists in death.