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by Seuzz
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Western · #2246860
There's no rest for the wicked, they say. Neither now or after, for those twice-damned.
"Oh, but for you, William Henry Fokke," she hissed, "a special curse!"

Once he would have stopped to listen to the girl, for at twenty she'd been pretty. But five years of Kansas wind and dust had blighted and blurred her face, so—

"Aw, button it, Molly," Fokke growled. He kicked over the spindly pinewood bureau where Duke Winslow was used to keeping his money. Papers and pens and a gold watch on a chain scattered across the warped cabin floor. "You already cussed me once," he said as he picked through the mess.

"The first was that you and Reno and the rest of you ... rascals!" Molly gulped down a breath. "Meet the law and have justice done you!"

Reno, a lean cowboy with a bristly black beard, sniggered. "Yeah, that's us 'n the boys," he agreed. "Jes' a coupl'a rascals!"

"I wouldn' 'spect different from buzzard leavings like you and Homer!" Molly sneered at him. "But you, William! You was Duke's best friend! He tore you out'a jail twice hisself when he coulda ridden back to Missouri and left you to hang!"

"Justice be hanged," Fokke retorted. He was carefully thumbing through a sheaf of bills inside a bulging paper envelope; when he finished, he chucked it to Reno. "You'll get more out'a Duke thisaways too, than you'd of otherwise," Fokke went on. "Fifteen thousand, dead or alive, that's what the territory's offering for your brother. It's yours to collect, soon as me and the boys clear out. Provided, of course," he added with a sour grin, "you 'fess it was you that made that mess over there."

He jerked his chin at the body that sprawled face down in the corner, with the back of its head blown off.

Reno laughed. "Tell the sheriff Duke was always trackin' in the mud," he called back as he and Fokke sauntered out. "That's how come you did it!"

"Ride you on till God Himself in judgement calls you home, William Henry Fokke!" Molly Winslow screamed as he and Reno swung onto their horses. "Neither faithless friend nor kindly foe give you rest nor succor, but let saddle be your bed and sky your ceiling"—still she shouted as the men rode off—"till with sound of trumpet He rolls the heavens back!"

*

Fokke squinted into the sun and found himself wondering why, at that moment—perched atop his horse, under a tree, with his hands tied behind him and a noose chafing his throat— his mind chose to wander back to that afternoon two years before when, almost casually, he'd put two slugs into Duke Winslow's face.

Maybe because that's when it had all begun to go wrong.

It was easy, afterward, to appreciate how there'd been plenty of takings and hardly any fuss when it was Duke running the gang. Oh, sure, sometimes it was months between jobs, time to be filled with nought but the driving of fence-posts and the stringing of wire and other innocent-seeming play as the law chased fruitlessly hither and fro, even as Duke cased and plotted and dallied thoughtfully over the next bank raid or stagecoach robbery. But it was safe and profitable, even with nothing but drink and cards and whores to relieve the tedium. Afterward, though—

Well, Reno had promised action, and he'd delivered, though more of it and more desperate than Fokke in truth had liked. Worse was the sense he got that Reno and the others didn't exactly trust him after what he'd done to Duke. And when Fokke ran out of the bank in Elko, only to get his ear shot off by Reno as he and the rest of the gang wheeled and rode away, he'd found himself some other pals.

Not that any of the others he joined up with—Johnny Hodges, the Ford boys, the Lincoln County Riders—proved much friendlier. Somehow, their talk always circled back to that day in the cabin in the willows by Shoal Creek. The day Fokke had talked the trusting Duke into a corner, then blown his head off.

But it wasn't the memory of the gun that day—hot and heavy though it had been in his hand—or the thunder loosed by the trigger, or the spray of blood and brain and bone, that preoccupied William Henry Fokke as the sheriff read out the list of robberies, hold-ups, and murders he'd committed since. No, it was—

"You have anything to say before we finish this business?" the sheriff asked Fokke.

"You can't kill me," Fokke replied.

The sheriff snorted. "Like hell."

"Take it up with Molly Winslow."

His objection was followed by a puzzled silence. Then: "That was Duke Winslow's kid sister," one of the posse quietly said.

"Well, we'll be sure to give her an account of the afternoon's festivities," the sheriff drawled. "She'll be pleased."

"Maybe not," Fokke said. "She had other ideas for me, and they didn't include me getting packed off.

The sheriff snorted again. "Okay, let's get along," he said. "H'yah!" He kicked Dutchie in the haunch.

The horse jumped, and Fokke grimaced as the slack in the rope ran out. He felt a momentary jerk— something snapped—

And suddenly he was away. Dutchie sprang forward beneath him as though touched by a hot coal.

Branch broke! Fokke thought, and he laughed aloud. Not a hundred yards away flowed the river, where the sheriff's writ ran out. He bent over Dutchie's mane and coiled the trailing rope about his arm as he ran for freedom.

*

He bent in the saddle, bowing over his horse's drooping head, as though dragged forward by the weight of his skull. His broken hat fell over hollow eyes, and he felt his bones grinding against each other within the ragged great coat that wrapped about his narrow shoulders. The glaring sun beat down, but he shivered yet, and felt he had no more substance than a stain on the wavering summer air.

Reno and his pals were holed up at the old shack in the willows. How he knew this he couldn't guess, but the thought of it filled him with a grim certainty, and with an unslakable desire to confront them with the fact of his continued—though haggard—existence.

Thrice before he had caught up to Reno, only for the traitor to bolt. The first time, the bristle-headed outlaw had thrown lead while galloping away; the other two times he'd merely run. The last time he'd caught Reno was in the dark outside Elko, and he'd had come close to running the louse down, but the squealing coward had fled into town and flung himself inside a church, sniveling there while his pursuer prowled about until dawn, rattling at the windows and prying at the door. Homer Ford, too, he'd nearly caught, but the fool broke his head open trying to escape down a cliff.

Once, riding after sundown in the Wyoming chaparral, he had lingered on the ridge overlooking a dell and listened to a clutch of cowboys talking around the fire.

"Like to a scarecrow tied atop a starving horse," said one. Another corrected: "A dead horse."

A third swore in a rough voice. "Scarecrow? What's the fear in a thing like that?"

"None, they say, if you ain't one that crossed him in life. Though one feller I heard tell looked him in the face and ain't been right in the head since."

"What's wrong with his face?"

"What do you think's wrong? But I've heard it was worse when there were more bits of him still hanging off the cheek bones."

"It's the neck being broke I can't abide the thinking of," said a fourth. "You reckon his head's wobbling funny, like it might fall off?"

"In that case," laughed the rough-voiced skeptic, "one good shot'd put an end to his riding."

There was a cold silence. "I don't reckon I'd want to cross the Dutchman. He was a bad 'un then, but I reckon he's a lot worse now." He was answered only by a rough, rude laugh.

"He still got the rope on him?"

"So it's reported. He carries it coiled like a lariat, though it's half rotted away. They say he tried roping Hoss Johnson with it at full gallop ... with the other end cinched around his neck still!"

How many miles was he from the shack where he'd gunned Duke down? He didn't know, but it didn't matter. When he got these premonitions he always arrived in time.

He paused at an abandoned homestead, to refresh himself at a rain barrel. The flesh had long since fallen from the grinning face that rippled and wavered back at him in the dark surface of the water; the hair that poked from under the hat brim was like old straw. But the water dribbled vainly through the bony fingers he dipped into the barrel, and the withered hand had no strength to lift the tin cup that hung on a nearby nail.

-30-
Submitted for "SCREAMS!!! for 3-22-21
Prompt: Living death

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