Where the Reaper rides a white horse!
|"But that way lies death, señor!"
Hezekiah Grant pointed his six-shooter at the farmer's face.
"Death's dogged me down lots of trails," the outlaw sneered. "But I only ever feared him when he was riding a bullet." He cocked the hammer. "Now finish filling my canteens."
The hard sun beat down on both men, beading their burned faces with sweat, as the farmer complied. Blackie, Hezekiah's coal-dark horse, shook his head, but the tip of Grant's pistol never wavered far off a line aimed at the farmer's head as he filled two battered canteens from a barrel beneath a windmill.
"At least hear my warning," he said as he handed them back to Hezekiah. "Follow the north rim of the mesa as close as you can." He pointed to the crest that loomed westward. "Do not follow the trail."
"Why? The north trail faster?"
"There is no north trail. It is a hard country, of rocks and arroyos. But the main trail, it goes through the Black Sands. On no account go through them!"
"What's wrong with the Black Sands?"
The farmer shook his head.
"No one knows, señor. No one come back to tell. But if you see a horseman, all in white—" The farmer's voice fell to a whisper. "Then fly! Fly like the devil himself was after you!"
Hezekiah Grant laughed.
"Aye!" he shouted as he wheeled Blackie about. "Like as not it'll be the sheriff, bringing the noose and the devil to hold the end of the rope! Adios, muchacho!" He galloped away.
It was late afternoon before the trail brought Hezekiah Grant onto the mesa, where he found a flat country even more desolate than the valley behind. The falling sun smote him full in the face, and he pushed the brim of his hat down over his eyes. Often he looked behind into the spreading valley of the Rio Grande, sometimes for relief from the sun, but more often for sign of pursuit. But as the shadow of the mesa lengthened over the river, he ceased to concern himself with whatever forces the law could marshal in this fringe of civilization.
He cantered along until the sunset was only a purple stain on the horizon, then dropped to a walk, and not until the last light faded did he stop to make camp. It was a hot July night, so lit no fire but bedded down directly with a morsel of biscuit and some water. Only once was he troubled. As he lay down, he saw a gleam of white standing on the horizon. At first he took it for the tip of a crescent moon, but as it failed to rise he raised his own head to glare at it. There was the troublesome impression that whatever it was, it was watching him.
The next day he chose to take the farmer's advice, and turned Blackie's head to the north, and soon the horse's hooves were clopping over stony ground. The bushes and brambles died away, until it was the unburied bones of the earth that he rode over. The ground was scored with many deep gullies, and Hezekiah's progress was slow.
It was mid-morning when he saw the other horseman.
He was sitting on a snow-white horse and was himself seemingly dressed all in white. But the heat was on the ground, and the air wavered, so that Hezekiah could make no details of him. He stood far off, stock still, atop a small hillock.
Hezekiah watched him for a good few minutes, until Blackie stumbled. When he looked back again, the figure was gone.
A sudden fear fell over his heart, and he cursed himself for his complacency. Turning Blackie's head from the badlands, he sent him cantering south and west, and was soon running again between low dunes of sun-baked sand and scraggly bushes of mesquite and yucca.
He was troubled no more that day by the rider, and he began to hope it was only another traveler whom he had passed going the other way. But he feared more it was a scout for a posse, so he never ceased to squint behind him for signs of pursuit, and even after darkness had well and truly fallen he still pushed on into the night.
He camped in a low hollow, and for that reason risked a fire for bacon and some coffee. It was while he was eating that he received a great scare when a coyote leaped without warning into the hollow. It yipped and scrambled back into the darkness after bowling Hezekiah over with the shock of its appearance. Not until he had recovered and thrown heaps of sand over the fire did it come to him that the coyote looked as shocked at his appearance as he at its, and he thought that the animal must have been in great fear, as though fleeing something worse. Blackie was restless all night, and woke Hezekiah with his rumbling neigh more than once.
Hezekiah was all prickling nerves the next day, like he had a skinful of cactus, and he twisted in his saddle, squinting left and right and scanning the ground both near and far, as though fretful of sudden ambush. Maybe he communicated his nerves to the horse, or maybe it was a nervous horse that transmitted them to his rider. But Blackie too whinnied and shook as they crossed the hot wastes.
It was nearing noon when Hezekiah noticed a change in the ground. It became darker and rougher, changing from loose sand and rock to something nearer like gravel. He paid no great mind to it though, until while stopping for rest and a little water he bent to finger the pebbles. They were light, and he decided they must be a kind of pumice. They were spread in a loose skein over the ground, but as he pressed into the mesa, the mass deepened and darkened, until he realized he must have arrived in the "Black Sands" the farmer had warned him against.
The sun was lowering when he glimpsed the white rider again.
He was closer now, standing on a ridge, and Hezekiah glared balefully at him—a bleached-out figure that wavered in the heat. Hezekiah kicked Blackie into a trot. The rider's horse also leaped forward, keeping pace but at a distance.
Hezekiah glanced about. There was no cover, for him or the stranger. Was he a scout for a posse? Should he risk shooting him? Hezekiah saw no other riders, so rather than challenge the stranger, he rested his hand on his holster and rode on.
For the rest of the afternoon the rider kept pace with Hezekiah, until the outlaw was thoroughly unnerved. "Hoy!" he shouted. "Hoy!" But he got no answer.
Then the sun touched the horizon. As it did, the rider passed between Hezekiah and a tall yucca. All at once, two things happened.
Fear shot through the outlaw's heart like a bullet. The rider was transparent! He could see right through him! At the same time, something must have spooked Blackie, for the horse nearly shot out from under Hezekiah, veering off the trail that still ran like a brown stream through the Black Sands, and into the black waste itself.
The pale rider wheeled and pursued, as though himself stung to chase.
Across the black waste the riders galloped. Hezekiah bent low over Blackie as he looked back, aiming his pistol. Six shots he fired, and he knew at least two must have found their mark. But they passed through the pursuer like he was only a stain on the breeze. And as the strange horse closed, Hezekiah saw that its hooves didn't disturb the ground.
The end came quickly. Blackie tripped and fell, screaming. Hezekiah was thrown. He rose in a daze, but quickly sank up to his knees in a rolling, shifting pool of dark pebbles. Blackie flailed and cried and also sank. Quicksand! Hezekiah thought. For though the ground was baked dry, it had the same tendency to pull one down.
Hezekiah was past his hips in the stuff before he could think better of trying to stand, and he threw out a hand to the shimmering silhouette that danced soundlessly in a circle around him. "For God's sake, help me!" he cried, though he knew the faceless thing that watched was no minister sent by the Almighty.
As he turned his face to the darkening sky and took the final plunge, he thought of stories from the Old World, of phantoms that chased the unwary into the depths of deadly marshlands. But he had no time to wonder if he and his kind had brought such phantoms with them to the New World, or if old sins in a new land had recreated the old nemeses as well.
Submitted for the SCREAMS!!! Daily Contest: 3-6-21
Prompt: Black sand