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Of all the men on this red moon, nobody ever put the fear of God into a man’s heart quite so much as him. The man they called Gallows Sullivan.
Gallows and his hardcase coyotes would ride all over Sanguine. A dozen silhouettes in the eternal crimson twilight. Twelve black Stetsons pulled low, twelve engines growling, twelve men prowling like vultures round a dying mule. Most folks who heard them engines never lived to hear anything else. Them that did were the unlucky ones, left only their tongues so they could spread the legend.
There was Eli Stannard, the one they called Cackling Eli, who’d throw back his fetid sprout of hair and giggle as he made his mischief. There was Cold-Eyed Clyde, whose dead albino stare reflected in his knife as he bled his victims dry. But of all them devil’s own dancers, Gallows were the worst.
A gaunt fella, thin, he stood a foot taller than any man who faced him. A grey face hewn and sand-blasted, but with eyes as sharp as a buzzsaw tooth. The old vulture could ride a motor like no man alive, his long coat blowing like a black flag in his wake. He carried a hand-cannon so rusted it could fire only three shots, but the way he told it, he could still outshoot any man what raised a gun. They said Gallows had sent near four-hundred souls on to their maker; he liked to joke that he was the one kept the coffin makers rich since the plague had passed. Under Gallows Sullivan’s iron, Sanguine had run as red as her sun for close to twenty orbits. Every man, woman and child knew the name of their tormentor, and every one feared to speak his name, for fear the engines would come.
It were a warm day, dry and weary, when Gallows Sullivan and his gang rolled into the town of Tranquillity. A small town sucking life off of freeway traffic, she had no means to stop such men. As the motors announced their fear’s coming on, all us folk could do was to sit tight and pray they’d pass by. For what it’s worth, God In The Stars wasn’t listening that day.
No one rightly knows why Gallows came riding into Tranquillity that day. Some say it was to take fuel or water. Others he thought to sack the town for sport, and yet others that he was tired of the road and was sniffing out a rest. Whatever the reason, with his banditos in tow, he powered his desert hog down main street and hitched up right by the saloon. I still remember the moment he walked in. First man through the doors, a silhouette in black and red. A long tall devil come striding to our world. Blind Jem the pianist stopped playing soon as the engines were heard, so when ol’ Gallows entered he did so to graveyard silence. A room full of folks. All you could hear was their breathing, and the insistent ticking of some fella’s timepiece.
Gallows grinned. I remember that clear. He had a mouth of skull-white teeth, cleaner than any rough-rider’s ought to be, “Well now, ain’t that polite of y’all, going hushsome case I gots summit to say.”
His desperados laughed, I’ll remember Cackling Eli’s cackling until I die. But no soul in the saloon were in a laughing mood, you can be sure of that.
Gallows kept on smiling, “Alright folks, this is how it’s gonna work. Y’all do exactly what we tells you. You behave, and I’ll be mighty grateful. Any one of you tries anything agitating like, well then everyone pays the blood price, y’understand?”
The silence in the room seemed to satisfy him. Clapping his hands like a merry-go child, he said all sing-song like, “Alrighty then boys, let’s make ourselves at home.”
“We’ll be taking your drink barkeep,” said Eli, slamming his elbows on the bar, “All of it. I want me some honest whiskey. Pronto-quick.”
Cold-Eyed Clyde scanned the crowd, “I want me some volunteers fancy their chance to escape,” He drew his crusty six-shooter, and flashed a gap-toothed grin, “Been a mite too long since I’ve had any moving targets, see?”
Gallows licked his lips, “And we want all you fine young ladies line up over here, yeah? We’re gonna have ourselves the pick of you gals, we are.”
Cold-Eyed Clyde snatched a barmaid by the arm. She screamed and the bandit yanked her closer, “Hey, not so fast darlin’. You’re gonna stay with old Clyde now, ain’t that right?”
Then this old timer stood up from his table by the piano. Grey of hair, frail of form, but with a brow like a cave roof. He were well past his prime, but there was beaten steel in his voice as he yelled, “You, you unspeakable bastards!”
The bandits only laughed the louder at the poor fella. Gallows drew his three-shooter on the old john, a murderous glint in his eyes, “Lookie here boys. We got us an old timer wants to express an opinion. What say we make a decoration of him, huh?”
His desperados whooped. Some smashed bottles or thumbed their fists on the walls. It was just about then, as they were getting in the lynching mood, that a voice came drifting over the calamity. It was no shout, weren’t aggressive or boisterous by any reckoning. But somehow the bandits all paused as it whispered, “Let the gentleman be.”
Gallows cast about the bar, three-shooter first, “Hey you? Where are you? Come out where I can see you, huh?”
In a darkened corner, far to the left, a woman stood up. She were alone at her table. Frail like the old timer, wizened and silver-haired. Yet she carried no stick, and was neither shrivelled to look at nor weak in her speech. Dressed in a long black dress, with eyes as wide and wise as an owl. She repeated as calm as the moon, “Let the gentleman be.”
Gallows smirked, “What have we got here then? You wanna go down with the old man do you lady? You all done with living and breathing?”
The old woman didn’t move. She folded her hands in front of her and spoke plain, “Put the gun away, Solomon. You will do no more harm by it.”
Gallows face twitched ever so slightly. A miniscule clench at the cranny of his mouth. He leveled his gun at the woman with a renewed villainy, “You wanna play games with me crone? You have any idea who I am?”
“I do,” she replied, “Do you remember Albert Mills?”
“You opened his throat and watched him bleed to death.”
Gallows gave a slightly-delayed scoff, “I do that to plenty of men, lady. You’re friend Albert ain’t nowt special.”
“Three cycles back, convoy robbery south of Gleason’s Pike. It was raining. Albert Mills was the convoy porter. An elderly gentleman just such as this.”
Gallows cocked his head, eyes narrowed at the old woman. Her tale went on, smooth and steady, “You boarded from the back carriage, there were four of you. You gunned down three train guards, Harris Mason, Jonah Green, Hershel O’Brien, and one bystander who resisted, Howard Starkley. Albert Mills opened the safe at gunpoint upon your command. As you escaped with the money you shot him through the throat and watched as he bled out.”
Gallows gave a dry laugh, “So, you read the papers then lady? Look here boys, we got ourselves a fan.” Another chorus of cackles.
“I know more than the papers tell,” said the crone, “The gun you carried was new. Your usual side arm was having the hammer replaced and so you used a spare you bought in Parker’s Gulch three days previous. Your left boot had a leak and so water from the rains gave you a damp foot. Your hat was old leather, the sound of the rain made a slapping noise against it. Your right thumb…”
“You trying to be funny?” said Gallows, an edge infecting his voice, “Hold your tongue if you wanna keep it.”
“I also know,” she went on, “That the night before you were haunted by a recurring dream of an old man. An old from your past. You were sleep-deprived during that raid and hiked up on stims. Upon seeing Albert Mills that dream returned to you, and you intended to let him go. Only when he jerked sideways unexpectedly did you loose lead. Instinct, that was all. You told no one, but you were consumed by horror as Albert bled out, and knew you could do nought to fix him.”
“Enough nattering,” said Eli, “Chief, she’s some wacko spirit woman is all. Let’s shut her up and get on with this.”
Eli trained his gun on the woman. She remained as a rock face, almost smiling.
Gallows lowered his own gun, “Peace Eli.”
“Huh? Chief she’s…”
“Peace Eli,” Gallows said firm. Gallows took a step closer to the woman, his eyes scanning her close. She stood still, arms hanging at her sides, and met his gaze with a friendly smile. Gallows spoke in a low, oaky voice, “You think you know me woman? Huh? Nobody knows me but me.”
“Do you truly know yourself?”
Gallows growled, “You got a scamp’s nerve, Missy, talking back to Gallows Sullivan.”
She smiled again; a veiled sad smile hiding something much deeper behind, “Do you remember Father Thomas Gulch?”
Gallows said nowt, but eyes betrayed him. They tumbled, fallen into some memory locked deep away.
“You remember the words he said to a young boy once, so very long ago. You remember the advice he gave a mother, the words he spoke to a troubled child. You remember them even now, do you not?”
Gallows eyes darted at the crone, but she remained unreadable, “Do you remember Annabel Williams, do you remember her nameless child? Do you remember the words she spoke to you? Do you remember them even now?”
“That don’t matter now.”
“You do,” she smiled, “You still carry the watch. You remember, you regret, you seek redemption.”
The next voice I remember was Cold-Eyed Clyde, agitated and sharp, “Enough of these damn riddles,” He spat, “You play your mind games with the crone all you want chief. Me, I’m taking this gal with me.” Clyde yanked at the barmaid’s arm, pulling her with him as he made for the doorway.
The barmaid screamed, “Please someone help! Please, don’t do this!”
“Shut your yap, Missy,” said Clyde. He beat her over the crowd with his pistol-butt, throwing her to the floorboards.
Soft as a corpse’s exhale, Gallows spoke “Peace Clyde.”
Clyde stopped in his tracks and turned to face his leader, “Scuse me?”
“Let the Missy alone Clyde.”
“What the red hell is wrong with you chief? You lost your goddamn thinker?”
Gallows fingers drifted to a rust-edged timepiece chained about his neck, “Just…just let her alone.”
Clyde released the girl and took a stride towards Gallows, “You let that old crone get hold of your rain-soaked mind Gallows? She turning the screws on you?”
Gallows looked away, beyond the here and now, “I’m just…not now Clyde. I gotta think.”
Clyde frowned, “Well boys. Way I sees it, this old bitch made the chief turn turkey guts,” he pulled his own revolver from its holster and aimed it at the old woman, “I got you covered, chief. I’ll shut her yap good ‘n’ proper.”
The woman smiled, “Shooting me will bring you no good, Clyde.”
He laughed, joined late by Eli and a smattering of the others, “Is that so lady? You so high and right-yuss that you don’t fear death? Might be I got a fix for the righteous malady to.”
Clyde moved like a whip. He snatched the nearest figure from the crowd, a young boy no older than nine who had been seated at a table with his mother. A boy who just so happened to be me. He pressed cold gun-barrel to my head and said, “What about this, huh crone? How’d you like to have little boy blue on your conscience? Feeling so holy now, are ye so?”
“You’re not going to hurt the boy,” the old lady said, calm as she ever was.
Clyde fell into a cackle, “Oh you can’t word-twist me, Missy. Because I can do whatever the red hell I want. I can take anything and anyone, and do anything I like. And weak people like you can’t do a blind bit of nowt to stop me.”
Gallows oaky voice rang out firm, “Peace Clyde. Let the boy go.”
Clyde scoffed, “You serious chief?”
Gallows was clutching the timepiece about his neck so tight, his knuckles were flashing white, “Please, Clyde. Just this once.”
Clyde spat at his boots. He snapped the gun from my head, and blasted a shot at the old woman. She never made a sound, but fell silent as a leaf in autumn. A wave of gasps ran round the saloon, and a few sobs rushed on behind.
Clyde turned his gaze to Gallows like a battering ram, “See chief. Ain’t nothing but a meddlesome old shrew. She been messing with your grey matter be all. We kill men, we kill women, we kill old crones and we kill children. We are the devils of the red dunes, and you’re the worst of us chief.”
Gallows said nothing. His gaze was lost where the old woman had been standing. Clyde nodded to himself, satisfied, and pressed his gun back to my head, “Alright. Now then, if any other darn meddler got words to say…”
Gallows drew fast as a desert hog jammed full kilter. Clyde was cut off mid-sentence by a bullet, punching through his crown and sending him clattering off his feet. His gun fell at my feet, and he finished his sentence with a astounded gargle.
What followed was a burst of noise and light the like of which I have never seen or heard since. Five seconds later the saloon was ringing, with gunsmoke dallying in the ceiling fans. Every last bandit lay dead. Gallows Sullivan was among them. The saloon was once more filled with just the frightened town folk. All was funeral silent, save for the ticking of some small pocket watch.
Many years later, when I was a man grown, I sought out the gravestone of Gallows Sullivan. There were few indeed who mourned his passing, sure enough. But the way I see it, the long tall devil stopped Cold-Eyed Clyde from putting a bullet in my skull. No matter what kind of a villain he were before, he had saved my life. For that I owed him a debt of thanks.
I finally found the stone in a small, metal fenced plot, lying over the hill from where Tranquillity once stood. Inside were twelve headstones crafted of motor parts and spacer junk. Unmarked, with a sign at the gate that read only “Banditos”.
I had no way of knowing which grave was his. But I like to think it was the one that stood a little apart from the others, off to the side and cut off by a crop of blackgrass. So, beneath the red sun, I paid my respects to Gallows Sullivan the bandit, and I laid upon his grave the ticking pocket watch that had fallen from his jacket all those years before. I’ll never know the significance, sure. Only that its inscription read, “To baby Joseph. First William born on Sanguine. Love mommy and daddy.” All I know is that it meant something to him, and it were the tipping point between my life and oblivion.
I turned to leave, pulling the collar of my duster up against the gusts. The wind coming off the shadow-side plains can be bitter cold, and chill a fella through to the bone.
That was when I saw it, out on the plains, watching me owl-like as I sat astride my motor. A figure clad in a long black dress, frail of form, smiling sagely as I left the banditos lie. I bowed my head to the old woman, silhouetted black in the eternal crimson twilight. Then I hit the gas, and surged out toward the Sanguine dark side.