Horla Fiction (February 2021)

 

THE GUNS OF A DESPERATE MAN

by MICHAEL SUMMERLEIGH

IN the grand tradition of his profession Jack Jameson rode leisurely into Chambersville at high noon, with a pair of pearl-handled Colt revolvers slung around his hips and spurs glinting in the light of the midday sun. It was a slow carefully premeditated entrance, with very little dust involved…saddle trappings and the black mustang beneath him sharp and shiny, to give the lie to anyone who might say he was running; that the posse on his trail was anything more than a slight inconvenience. He figured he’d gained a day’s grace on that score, thanks to the stubborn nature of the mustang.

To lend further credence to the fabric of his deception, he purposely reined the horse to a slow walk and ignored the incredulous stare of Hiram Townshend, who left off pitching hay into the loft of his stable as Jameson went by.  He grinned as more of the townspeople caught sight of him, took a grim satisfaction as their blank-faced surprise turned to nervousness and, in the younger men who lounged on the porch of the general store, to looks of undisguised amazement. He laughed softly to himself and his pale eyes narrowed.

“Welcome home, Jackie boy,” he drawled to himself. “Ain’t it grand how everyone’s so glad t’see you?”

His horse’s hooves clip-clopped against the dry hard-packed earth of the thoroughfare as he moved into the shade of a stand of post-oaks in front of the saloon, flung one leg over the pommel of his saddle and slipped to the ground.  He tied the horse to a low-hanging bough and walked back into the sunlight, taking his time, putting on a show for the boys on the porch, and turned to face the doors of the saloon.

“Caroline!” he shouted, making sure everyone on the street could hear him.  “Caroline Lloyd you get your pretty little ass out here now!”

A raucous cry answered him from the stand of post-oaks, where a big black crow perched in the topmost branches of the tallest tree and shrieked at him defiantly.

“Caroline I’m gonna count t’three.  If you ain’t out here by then I’m comin’ in t’get you.”

This time two figures came in response to his call–a slender dark-haired young woman in a calico dress and a broad-shouldered middle-aged man–stepping quietly through the doors of the saloon to stand on the shaded boardwalk.

“My name’s Caroline Townshend,” said the young woman through clenched teeth.  “I married Harry Townshend two years ago, and you killed him three days later.”

“Turn round and go back the way you came, Jackie,” said her father, staring down at Jameson.  He undid the apron around his waist and dropped it behind him.  “You’re not welcome here and you know it.”   

Jameson grinned again, dug into the pocket of his vest for a half-smoked cigarette and a match.

“Don’t need no welcome, Mister Saloon-keeper,” he said slowly, derisively.  He flicked the match-head with a thumbnail and lit the cigarette.  “And I don’t take any crap from people like you, either.  You go on back inside and lay me down a bourbon and a beer while Caroline gets her things t’gether…or I can lay you down where you stand and do it myself.  Your choice, Mister Lloyd…”

He stood smiling amiably, hands loose at his sides, to let them all know he was faster than any five of them could handle, with smoke curling into the shock of pale hair beneath the brim of his Stetson hat.

“I’m not gettin’ any of my things together,” said Caroline, “and I’m not goin’ anywhere with you, Jackie.”  She took three steps down from the boardwalk in front of the saloon and spat at his feet. The sun struck coppery sparks from her hair; her black eyes flashed with anger and hate.  “Even if you hadn’t stung Harry into standin’ up against you, I’d’ve killed myself before I ever even thought of walkin’ in your company.”  

Jameson’s smile never wavered.

“Oh Caroline that’s not what you said the night you let me put my hand up your dress,” he said wickedly.  “Did you know that, Mister Lloyd? Your precious daughter couldn’t hardly stand up she was so excited–“

“You shut your damned mouth!”

“Or what, Mister Lloyd?  You in that big a hurry to say Hey! to that sorry-ass runt you called a son-in-law?”

Lloyd’s hand clenched convulsively into fists as he followed his daughter into the thoroughfare.

“You murdered my daughter’s husband,” he growled through his teeth.  “Shot him down knowin’ all the while he had no idea what t’do with the Colt you threw at him.  And from what we hear you gone and done murder  one too many times; that you got dogged right across the Panhandle and were still runnin’ like a coward when they caught you outside of Amarillo and strung you up!”

“Then you heard wrong, Mister Saloon-keeper,” grinned Jameson, “Cause here I am.”

“Then I’d say you don’t have time for a bourbon and beer, Jack…that you’d best serve yourself and everyone else in this town by leavin’ now.”

Jameson sneered.

“I don’t plan on stayin’ too long, Mister Lloyd.   Just long enough t’collect your daughter and a few other things belong t’me.”     

Lloyd took three steps forward and swung his right fist up hard against Jameson’s mouth, knocked the cigarette from his lips and sprawled him flat in the dust.

“There ain’t nothin’ in this town belongs to you, scum!” he shouted down at the younger man. “Not one blessed thing. You bought nothin’ with all the years you spent growin’ up here, tormentin’ the hell out of each and every one of us…so nothin’s what you’re gonna take with you when you leave.”

Jameson got up slowly, rubbing at his jaw and the thin trickle of blood at one corner of his mouth.

“You just bought a ticket t’see your precious son-in-law, Mister Lloyd,” he said dangerously, hands falling to the guns on his belt.  “I come three hundred miles t’collect your daughter. I killed three horses and took that black devil I’m ridin’ now out from under a full-blood Cheyenne motherfucker t’do it.

“I figure this town owes me, you liquored-up shit…and I was gonna take Caroline and go…real peaceful-like…until just now…”

Jackie drew one revolver and brought it up to where it pointed straight between the saloon-keeper’s eyes. His smile was cold now, with no hint of amusement, and his pale eyes were almost colourless in the midday sun as his finger tightened down on the trigger of the revolver.

Suddenly the sunlight around him seemed to explode with glistening black plumage,

silence shattered by the dull thunder of wing-beats and one more scream from the crow as it come arrowing out of the oaks behind him. His bullet went off its mark and he brought his hands up as the bird battered at his face, driving him backwards into the middle of the street, shrieking wildly as its talons raked once across his cheek. Then it was gone, fast as it had come, and Jackie was on his knees in the thoroughfare with the good citizens of Chambersville in a circle around him.

He struggled to his feet, dazed and trembling with the image of the crow stark in his brain, the night-black arrow of its beak darting at his face, his throat raw and bloody, each breath suddenly like a red-hot iron as his sight cleared he saw the good people of Chambersville closing in on him and Caroline’s face empty of expression as she brought her open hand across his lacerated cheek and back across the other…

The revolver was a lead weight in his hand he tried to reach for the other one and felt a hayfork stab into his hip…Hiram Townshend…turning the hayfork around slamming the handle into his ribs…

“That’s for my son, you goddam sonofabitch!”

He heard his ribs snapping…fell down again but now surrounded by a sea of faces and boots that kept on thudding into his body hands dragging him back up onto his knees…

cursing his name…paying him back for pain and fear and misery.

Jameson moved his head back and forth, strange animal sounds coming from his torn lips as he struggled up onto his feet, fighting the pain in his chest, his brain gone grey and then glaringly bright with mindless roaring hatred.  Through the bloody haze he found the saloon-keeper’s daughter.

“Get your things, Caroline,” he muttered.  “We’re goin’ t’Mexico…you and me…”

She smiled.

“I told you I’m not goin’ anywhere with you, Jackie,” she whispered. “Things are different now.  You can’t take anything from anybody anymore…”

“The hell I can’t!” he screamed.  “Who’s gonna stop me? Which one o’ you gutless shit-eaters is man enough t’stand up with me in this street…alone…with ten paces between us…?”

The townspeople around him moved away and Jameson saw the saloon-keeper with a gun-belt around his waist where the apron had been.

“I’ll stand up with you,” he said.

Jameson laughed wildly.

“You? You stood by while I shot–“

“Yes I did,” said Caroline’s father. “But I’m not standin’ by again.  Let’s have a look at that ticket you was talkin’ about a few minutes ago…”

Jackie forced a grin through the blood on his face.

“You’re goin’ straight t’Hell, saloon-keeper,” he promised.  “I’m gonna cut you apart one bullet at a time and then I’m gonna do your daughter on your corpse.”

He holstered the revolver and started walking slowly towards Lloyd, hands loose at his sides so they’d all know he could take any five of them if chose to, his eyes suddenly clear and bright with anticipation.

Fifteen paces…then twelve…eleven…

The Colts came out and up and Lloyd never even got to his own gun as Jackie emptied both of his into him…raced back to his horse for the Winchester and emptied that into the sea of smiling faces come back to crowd around him…laughing…

Jackie Jameson’s world began to come apart in front of him, breaking into mismatched images that whirled and danced before his eyes. He threw the empty rifle at a large black bird that seemed to get bigger and smaller in front of him all at the same time…tried to dodge away from flailing hooves that seemed to belong to a black mustang with tiny points of crimson that burned in its eyes.

He screamed with pain as tears ran salt into his torn face…stumbled…scrambled forward in dust that suddenly choked him he couldn’t breathe the rope around his neck gone tight

and deathly as he stepped into the half-light of a saloon somewhere between Amarillo and Chambersville…looked into a mirror behind the bar…and saw nothing at all.

 

***

Michael Summerleigh currently lives  west of Kingston in rural Ontario. Canada. He says,’Years ago in my brief “heyday” in the 80’s I wrote fantasy & horror fiction…sold stories pseudonymously to a number of amateur and semi-pro fanzines, as well as professional anthologies edited by Charles Grant, Stephen Jones, Susan Schwartz and a few others. Donald M Grant published a short novel entitled The Black Wolf  in 1979. Prior to that I wrote Sunday features for the Montreal Star, as well as a Bookmans weekly article that became the  introduction to the Citadel Press edition of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus

‘In the last six months I’ve placed stories online with cc&d magazine (Scars.tv), Scarlet Leaf ReviewLiterary Yard, and an excerpt from ‘Wind’ with Lamplit Undergound.

‘I’ve been a bookseller, done late-night public radio, CSR/dispute resolution for the telecom industry, engineered the 10th World Fantasy Convention in Ottawa in 1984,  and recently took a stab at some concert promotion (wherein I was never in any danger of turning a profit)…’

Title photo credit –  Yann Allegre  on Unsplash

Standard Horla disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction