Almost in unison, all eyes turned toward the swinging saloon doors. The loud creaking acting as a warning to some, an annoyance to others. The bar owner kept it loud so no one would be able to sneak up on him when his back was turned. Throughout the establishment, hardened men sized up the newcomer as he slow-walked his way to the worn mahogany bar. A few instinctively moved their hands beneath the tables to rest on pistol triggers or sharpened blades. The piano player paused, but only for a note or two, before resuming his incessant pounding on the faded ivory keys. Scantily clad working girls peered down from the thin open balcony that offered access to the four upstairs “hourly rooms.” Necks craning as they shifted position, leaning over the railing to the point of almost falling over it, just trying to get a glimpse of his face.
In the back corner, half-drunk ranch-hands placed their wagers in the center of the table. Their nervous eyes peering between each other, the stranger, and their greasy playing cards. Each man wondering if this outsider brought his own brand of trouble, and if so, how soon it would be known. Along the bar, serious men raised their glasses, smoked thick stubs of rolled tobacco leaves, and stared at their sad reflection in the dirty wall mirror. The few unmarked bottles reminding them that alcohol was scarce in these parts and getting their fill was more important than the newly arrived patron. All the while, the burly lone bartender, accustomed to this routine, continued to dry the stack of glass mugs with a stained towel. His gaze stoic, but mixed with a mild irritation; perhaps caused by the noise of the card game or the oppressive heat rolling in through the swinging doors. Either way, no one paid much attention to him; he was merely a fixture unless someone needed another drink or an engagement with one of the ladies upstairs.
The moment of happening came and went. No blazing pistols, no broken glass, and no blood was spilled. Everyone resumed their drinking, gambling, and whoring while the stranger slowly made his way across the room. His boots made a hollow sound as he moved across the hardwood. His wide brimmed hat was pulled down tight upon his brow, shading his eyes. Likewise, the collar of his worn leather duster, was turned up, hiding pretty much the rest of his face. Yet, as the perceived threat had already passed, no one seemed to care what he looked like anymore; that is except for the girls upstairs and one lone cowboy who sat alone in the far corner of the saloon.
The frontier was a dangerous place. Even the hardest of men could easily be bested by a surprise attack or by sheer numbers of armed men. Yet, the lone cowboy sat with his back facing the door; seemingly at ease no matter what the situation. He lifted the small glass of whiskey to his parched lips and tossed the contents back without blinking. He adjusted his hat and rolled his shoulders in a moment of preparation; but for what no one knew. One of the card playing ranch-hands was the first to notice, and he subtly kicked the older man next to him, to catch his attention. He raised his chin, almost trying to point at the table where the lone cowboy say, but also trying to keep as inconspicuous as possible. A few other patrons sitting in the rear of the bar also began to pay attention to the cowboy. Even as the piano played and the girls above giggled, there was a strange tension starting to build up.
The stranger, now looking more like a bounty hunter, turned in the direction of the sitting cowboy; who still sat with his back facing the door. He purposefully stepped loudly as he closed on the table. By now, the entire place was watching to see what would happen. Lesser men shrunk away from the area and took positions along the walls or close to the door; just in case bullets started flying. The giggling working girls had the best vantage point and they whispered to one another as the stranger continued to close on the sitting man. Each step seemed to have a silencing effect on the crowd; fewer words were spoken and if it wasn’t for the piano player looking the other direction, things would be deathly silent.
With only the length of a man separating the two, the newcomer stopped; his last step echoing throughout the establishment. He lifted his head, ever so slightly, as if he was about to speak, when like a flash of lightning, the cowboy spun his chair around. As he turned, the long barreled Colt in his left hand loudly barked with a volley of hot lead. The crowd scattered as the stranger returned fire. His gloved hands now holding matching Starr double action army .44 pistols. He squeezed off round after round at the now-sprinting cowboy; the lead chewing violent gouges into the chairs, tables, and walls of the saloon. He pivoted as the cowboy made his way to the corner of the long bar, where he could find some cover. The place was emptying out as quickly as the two combatants continued peppering the bar with bullets; neither yet to make a clean hit on the other.
Both men had uncanny speed, and afterwards those who saw part of the battle would say they moved faster than any man they’d ever seen. Behind the bar, the owner sat on the floor amidst he shattered glass and debris. Not comfortable with the damage being done to his place, he reached under the bar and pulled out a shortened, lever-action single barrel shotgun. He waited for a lull in the action and made his move. He stood quickly, scanning the now-destroyed seating area for either of the two men. Spotting the stranger crouched beside a table reloading, he pulled the trigger and a sea of buckshot erupted from the smoking barrel. He ducked back down behind the bar to reload without ever seeing whether the first shot did its’ job. He silently counted to ten, waiting and wondering.
While trying to slow his breath, he heard the familiar creaking of the double doors; meaning someone had just walked out or maybe walked in. The latter was highly unlikely with the unfettered violence inside the saloon. He raised his head to take a quick peek at the spot where the stranger should be lying in a pool of his own blood, but was instead met with a table riddled with holes and nothing else. Thoughts raced through his mind, incoherent and unsettling as he pivoted toward the other end of the bar where the cowboy had taken temporary refuge. The quiet was making him more nervous than the earlier gunfight did. He tried stepping over the piles of glass, so as to not spook the cowboy; if he was even still there. He peered over the end of the bar, not sure what to expect.
The body was riddled with gunshot wounds. Blood covered his clothes and was pooling in several places on the floor. His hand still gripped the Colt pistol and spent cartridges littered the area. With the cowboy deceased, the barkeep returned his attention to the spot where the stranger had last been seen. He walked around the bar, closed on the upturned table and scanned the ground. A trail of blood, not heavy, but steady, beckoned him to follow. Men yelling outside quickened his pace and he covered the space between the table and the swinging door in record time. As he emerged into the sunshine, he saw the stranger’s body lying in the middle of the street; guns still in his hand, just like the cowboy.
His hat had fallen back and his lifeless eyes seemed to be staring at something high in the sky. Townspeople slowly emerged from their hiding places to gather around the lifeless body; small groups of two or three quickly assembled and the gossiping soon followed. The barkeep inquired but no one seemed to know who this stranger was. In fact, no one knew who the cowboy in the bar was either. It was like the two chose this small frontier town to settle their dispute but their reasons were unknown.
The barkeep quickly lost interest in a dead man lying on the road, as did most of the town. People simply walked away and left the corpse to bake in the sun. He took one last look at the dead man and then abruptly turned his attention back to his place of business, still wondering who these two were. Mentally assessing the damage and the time it would take to repair the bar, quickly consumed his thoughts. Also he had a body to deal with. He passed through the swinging doors and began to inspect the damage. Broken chairs, broken tables, bullet holes in the walls, a broken banister, and glass everywhere was only the beginning of his woes. Most of the liquor bottles behind the bar were gone; he assumed in shattered heaps along the rail. The upstairs appeared intact from down below, but as of yet, all of the girls were still in hiding.
Sighing, he turned his attention to the end of the bar. He would likely need help in getting the body out of his place, but under the circumstances help wasn’t readily available. He turned the corner and for the umpteenth time today was again surprised. The cowboys’ body had vanished. Puddles of brackish-brown dried and drying blood left a surreal outline of where the man had died, but somehow his body had disappeared. Panic set in and the barkeep again picked up the shotgun. His hands, normally steady as a rock, were shaking as he started checking the bar for signs of life or anything else. Using the barrel to lead, he opened each door, each storage area, and finally the trap door on the floor. Nothing was out of place, aside from the recent damage. There was no blood trail leading to the upstairs or anywhere else. The cowboy had simply vanished, without a trace.
His mind was working overtime and with every possible scenario he imagined, quickly came five reasons why it wasn’t possible. At last he settled on trying to identify the dead man in the street, in hopes of solving the mystery. He headed back toward the door, hoping to get a chance to go through the strangers belongings before anyone else had already done so. The normal noises of the town were silent as he strode closer to the door; no horses braying, no wagon wheel noise, no laughing, no nothing. His stomach was tied in knots as he pushed open the door, only to be met with nothing. The strangers’ body was gone, just like the cowboy. The blood trail from the shootout was still there, but it ended exactly where the dead man was lying just minutes ago.
Two dead men simply disappeared without a trace. Two strangers with a score to settle met in mortal combat, killed one another, died, and now vanished. The barkeeper stood staring at the site of the second man’s death for a long time; perhaps too long. The sun sinking on the horizon pulled him back to reality. He looked long and hard at the grey and crimson striped sky. The black branches of a tall oak tree, the only obstruction. The streets were still empty and he assumed that fear was working overtime in keeping everyone locked up in their houses. In fact, he was the only living thing as far as his eyes could see. For the second time today, his hands began to shake. The scatter gun felt heavier than ever before, reminding him that he still had it clenched in his hands.
High above, the sky went from striped to total crimson. A sudden icy wind blew in from the south, whipping up dust and shaking shutters. All around him strange shadows spilled forth from the crevices and hidden spaces. The branches of the oak tree seemed to come alive and reach for him. A long and painful sounding howl echoed in from the canyons outside of town. The landscape turned hostile and the hardened bartender felt flushed with fear. He tried to run, to escape the impending doom, but his feet were riveted to the ground. Panic filled his every thought as his eyes darted in each and every direction. He tried to focus, but everything seemed blurry and distorted. Darkness suddenly swept the land, consuming the last bits of light. He fell to his knees, knowing that this night would likely be his last.
Cowering in fear with an arm across his face and his knees in the dirt, he waited and prayed. Back and forth he rocked in near silence; somehow hoping for a miracle. Minutes passed, seemed like hours, the wind continued, the darkness not relenting, and fear filling his every pore. And in the distance, the familiar clip-clop of a horse was heard. This splinter of reality was just enough to pull him back from the brink. He squinted in the direction of the hooves sounding. His eyes focusing on a dark rider atop a pale horse. Within seconds, the fear returned and he again tried to flee. And again, his feet stayed anchored to the earth as the rider came closer and closer.
Another stranger approached on a day filled with strangeness. As he approached, the bartender was transfixed by his eyes. The rider had death in his eyes. The type of death that men avoid, but the kind that some men deserve. His black pupils hypnotic and horrifying at the same time, told tales of pain and suffering; blood, fire, and violence. But more than anything, they projected terror. The pale horse was a ghostly-white with an angry mane and eyes that blazed with the fires of hell itself. As the pair closed on the man, the bartender stood frozen as black smoke rose up from the earth. The smell of brimstone filled his nostrils, a searing heat blasted his flesh, he was suffocating, succumbing to the evil that confronted him. The horse stopped three paces in front of him.
The rider never spoke, but the bar owner heard him all the same. He came to collect the souls of the wicked. He came to take them to hell, to burn for all eternity. And he wanted to know what the bar owner had done with them….
I’m a poet, but decided to explore some different writing styles. This piece was inspired by a poem I recently penned called Death In His Eyes and the two works have some literary connections. Love to hear thoughts on this work.