Not the Worst of Sins

Issue #133

Staring up at the stars, I hear the footsteps with plenty time to spare. Two sets, trying to sneak around behind, in the dark beyond the glow of my dying fire. Graham Masters shimmers into view and opens his mouth to warn me, but I just nod and slip my pistol from its holster. So many times, desperate people will try their luck on a hapless traveler. It ain’t the first time for me. Won’t be the last.

As the steps crunch softly closer, behind the scrubby chalky-pale Chaparral brush, I turn up onto one knee and fire a shot. There’s a howl and the pounding of one set of feet. Cowardly bastard ran away and left his friend to his fate. Not so much a friend any more. I aimed low; he should only be wounded. Unless he was crouching, I suppose.

His ragged breath and sobbing mark him out easy. I wander over, pistol resting ready along my thigh. Jesus, he’s barely a teenager, not a hint of whiskers on his chin.

“What the fuck you doing?” I ask. Masters stands beside me, shaking his head, unseen by the boy.

The kid’s holding hands to his gut. Must have been crouching after all. “You killed me, mister!”

“What you doing creeping up on honest folk in the dead of night?”

“Just lookin’ for some justice in the world!”

“Is that right?” I turn around and walk away.

“Poor dumb child,” Graham Masters says and I nod.

“You done killed me!” the kid cries out again, but we ignore him and lay down by the fire. I ignore the discomfort deep in my gut too. He gasps and sobs for a good hour before his breath hitches and he bleeds out.

I wake in the darkness with a scream and think I’ve been dreaming, until I see Masters fighting with the spectral figures. He’s shouting and cursing, and I can’t make things out too clearly, what with the sleep in my eyes and mind. Masters is grabbing at the ghosts as they claw and scratch, trying to get past him to me. Waves of coldness waft off them. I can smell] frosty ground, but it ain’t that late in the year yet. My heart hammers and I start to get up.

Masters snarls over his shoulder. “Sleep, boy! Don’t give them the power of your attention!”

They’ve got by him before, and when they claw at me they’re so cold it burns. It’s hard to ignore the fight. Cursing the whimper in my breath, I turn my face to the earth and squeeze my eyes tight shut. Every night now it’s the same, every time getting worse. Pressing my hands over my ears to mask the shouts, I don’t know how long before it’s over, but eventually sleep takes me.

Dawn smudges the horizon pale pink and blue as I kick up the embers and set the pot to boiling for some coffee.

“Again last night,” I say to the flickering form beside me.

“Ain’t nothing for you to worry about.”

“They seemed angry....”

Masters turns a hard face to me. “Ain’t they always, boy? Ain’t I always kept them off you?”

Not always, no. But I let it drop. Masters being mad at me all day can be worse than ghosts trying to take me away at night.

The buildings stand like sentinels in the early sunlight. The town is little more than a crossroads, too small to even have a name, by the look of it. I can relate to that. Two streets mark out the cardinal directions, lined with stores and homes made of roughly cut wood, and more properties spread out behind them. People in dusty clothes walk in the shade of awnings, occasionally casting me suspicious glances. They quickly look away if I catch their eye.

I’ll ask around and see if any of our leads are good ones. My daddy’s had eighteen years of getting lost, having fucked off right before I was born, but a cur like him don’t stay hidden for long. He ain’t dumb, uses a bunch of aliases, but he did business with Graham Masters not so long ago, so we know all of Pa’s fake names. At least the ones he was using before he turned on his own partner. Masters has never told me what their business was, but it can’t have been friendly if it caused my sonofabitch father to leave Graham Masters a ghost. I guess Dad thinks moving from state to state will mean he never crosses paths with his past. We aim to prove him wrong in that assumption and put things to rights. Graham Masters for his own reasons, and me for Momma and myself.

The main street is swirling in dust from wagon wheels and horse’s hooves as I tie up Old Jack by the saloon. He buries his nose in the water trough, sucking and sucking like he’s never had a drink in his life. He’s a damn good horse, honest and gentle, and he means the world to me, even if his chestnut brown hide is scraggy and his ribs show through. My gun and my saddle are pretty much all I have besides Jack. And Graham Masters, I suppose, but he ain’t an actual thing, regardless of how helpful he’s been.

It only takes about a half a minute in the saloon to know the barkeep there ain’t going to be any use. He’s never heard the names I give him. As I step back outside, a man walks towards me, jaw working as he chews tobacco, and I see the sun glinting off his badge, attitude drifting out from under the brim of his dirty grey hat.

“New in town, eh?” he says, voice like gravel. He seems nervous.

I nod, choosing not to answer such a dumb question with words.

Masters beside me says, “Fuck him.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence that I get the impression I ought to fill. “I ain’t planning on starting any trouble here, Sheriff.”

He looks me up and down, tips his hat back a little. “You after something specific?”

“Just passin’ through.”

“That right?”

I smile at him, try to ease his tension some. “I’m on the trail of a man, as it happens, so maybe you could help me out.”

 “Is that so?  Who you looking for?”

“The man uses different names. Danny Calhoun, sometimes. Or Seth Cooper. Maybe Frank Gates?”

The Sheriff’s chewing stops dead. He sniffs and spits. “Pretty damn bold, I gotta say. Pretty goddamn bold.” He slips his gun from his hip and gestures with it. “This way, kid.”

“What the hell? I ain’t done nothing.”

The Sheriff barks a laugh. “That right?”

“There’s some kinda mistake here. I ain’t done nothing wrong.”

“Why don’t you come along quietly and we’ll sort all this out.”

I cast a desperate glance at Masters, and his face is pure fury. “Do as he says,” he hisses. “He’ll shoot you down in an instant out here. Go with him and we’ll find a way free.”

I follow the Sheriff towards the jailhouse, my gut churning as I wonder just what the hell Masters can do to get me out.

The tiny cell smells of mildew and something less pleasant. It’s dim inside, with sacking over the one small barred window high in the wall, blocking out the fresh air and sunlight. The shackles hang heavy against my wrists, a length of chain swinging between them. I keep hearing talk of a gallows and how they finally got someone they’d been after, and I can’t believe they think that’s me.

Masters keeps assuring me he’ll sort it out, and I have to trust him. I never had anyone to trust before, and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. But I’m doubting him more by the second. The cell door is heavy and new-looking.

A priest comes walking along beside the Sheriff, grinning like a fox. His hair is lank and streaked grey, hanging in rat tails over his ears and brow.

“I suggest you have a chat with this man,” the Sheriff says to me. He pulls out a bunch of keys and opens my cell door. The priest steps in, still grinning, his cheeks sallow flaps over a sagging mouth of broken yellow teeth. What the hell is he so damn happy about?

“I don’t need no priest!” I say.

The Sheriff ignores me. “You gonna be okay with him, Father?”

“Oh, yes, don’t worry about me.”

“I’d much rather keep the cell locked and you outside it.”

The preacher shakes his head, still smiling. “We’ll be fine.”

The Sheriff nods. “I won’t lock you in with him, but that door there will stay bolted.” He points down the hall to the heavy wooden door between the cells and the front office. The only way out. “You knock on that door when you need to come out.” He hands the holy man a six-shooter. “If he tries to follow you, even puts one toe outta that cell, don’t say anything. Just shoot him dead.”

The priest looks like he’s going to protest, but the expression on the Sheriff’s face brooks no argument. “He’s vicious, Father, left two innocent corpses in his wake. And he ain’t as clever as he thinks he is, leaving a trail of questions and murder. It was always going to catch up with him eventually.”

Two corpses in my wake? I look across at Graham Masters, but he won’t meet my eye. His face is a mix of embarrassment and rage. There’s more than two corpses in my past, but I think I know the ones this Sheriff is talking about. Masters knows ‘em too.

With a shrug, the priest takes the gun and tucks it into the belt holding his black robes closed. “He’s just a boy,” the holy man says. “But I’m sure this gun will keep him calm while we talk.”

“This is your last chance for any kind of redemption,” the Sheriff says to me. “Don’t fuck it up now.”

He walks away before I can protest, and I’m left in an unlocked cell with an armed preacher. The wooden door to the office closes with a heavy thunk and I hear the bolt turn.

Masters moves close to me, whispers, “This is your chance. I’ll make a distraction, you get past this maggot.”

Before I can answer or ask any questions, he’s gone.

“What would you like to talk about?” the priest says.

Unsure what else to do, I start by asking him the names.

“No one I can remember,” he says, kinda high-pitched.

“You sure?” I say, deliberately loud, like my voice can push away the creep this guy gives me.

“Maybe I can check my donations book. I keep a note of all the generous souls who help the church. But really, you shouldn’t be worrying about any of that stuff now.” The preacher’s eyes linger on me, slide up and down, and he smiles kinda crooked. “Would you like to give something to the church, young man? Before you move on to the next life? It might go down well with... you know.” He nods upwards.

“I ain’t got two pennies to rub together.”

“Maybe you could give something else, fine-looking young boy like you?” He steps up, too close, his breath sweet-smelling, like rotten fruit. “A horse or a pig is all well and good, but it’s not  the same. Oh no, not the same at all.” His eyes become suddenly hard, cold. “Besides, you’re already damned.”

I hear a commotion out front and the Sheriff yelling. There’s a gunshot somewhere and the sound of pounding feet. My fists drive the preacher’s head back and he staggers away, scrabbling for the gun at his waist.

I hit him again, two-handed, using the metal around my wrists instead of my knuckles.

The preacher doesn’t make a sound as blood floods his mouth and chin, rushing from his crushed nostrils. Then he laughs, the unbelievable son of a bitch. “Is that what you like?” he says, high-pitched and breathless.

He draws the gun from his belt, but I’m ready and slap it aside with the chain of the cuffs. The report is loud, and the bullet bites splinters from the side of the cot. Now he looks concerned.

I hit him again and he goes down, tumbling over in a mess of blood and black robes. He comes up onto hands and knees; the gun wavers out in front of him. I grab it and twist it from his grip, hear his fingers snap.

My ragged boot fetches him up under the chin, and his rotten teeth crack and spin across the floor. I drop down on him and keep punching until my knuckles bleed, and his twitching stops.

Masters is right there. “Come on, boy!”

The door at the end of the corridor is unlocked, and I don’t have time to ask how. People are screaming in the street and the Sheriff is firing shots into the air, yelling for calm. Whatever Masters did out here has the townsfolk well and truly spooked. Running outside I see Old Jack down the street, the only horse standing calm. I jump on, drag his reins off the rail, and pound out of town before the Sheriff can realize I’m gone.

There’s a whole lot of nothing except wide open space and tumbleweeds between that last town and the next. I figured I’d do well to move along quickly, but I meant to buy food and fill my water back there. Now I’m pretty much out of both.. The nights are getting colder and a low fire does little to keep me warm, hungry as I am. My shirt is thick but my denims are ragged. Masters has always worn his fancy suit and shiny shoes, but I guess a ghost has no concerns for weather and seasons. I’m going to need to find a coat and a lot more to eat.

“Quit yer whinin’,” Masters says, even though I haven’t complained. “You can always eat your horse and walk.”

“I ain’t eating Jack. He’s about the only friend I ever had.”

Masters’ anger is instant. “That right? And what the fuck am I, boy?” His hand whips out in a slap across my cheek. It’s icy cold and stings something fierce, even as it passes right through. Only when he’s really angry, he told me before, can he affect physical things. I guess he was mad as hell in that Sheriff’s office. “No wonder your daddy walked away from you,” he says. “He could see your weakness even before you were born.”

“Fuck you, Graham Masters! I ain’t weak.”

He sneers at me. “Didn’t I find you in the depths of your despair, boy? Cradling your crazy Momma while she gibbered in her madness, holding a gun and sobbing your heart up? About to end it all?”

“Fuck you,” I say again. I can’t meet his eye, so I stare at the shackles hanging off my skinny wrists instead. “I was only sixteen. I was lost. My Momma was....”

“You’re eighteen now, boy,” Masters shouts. “And you got me to thank for that!”

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing, thinking about Momma wasting away like a dead horse by the side of the road, eaten from the inside out by maggots. Except Momma is being eaten up by memories. My good for nothing daddy left her pregnant, no money or family nearby. Dragged her out to the middle of nowhere to start a new life that fell apart before it began. When I swelled her belly, and my daddy’s dumbass dream had turned to shit, he just walked away, and she had to beg for everything. I was born in the dirt of the street, and my Momma was reviled by everyone around her. She was too fragile to exist like that, and it slowly drove her mad.

By the time I was five, I’d already had to grow up enough to look after her instead of the other way around, and that was all my daddy’s fault. By the time I was sixteen my Momma had pretty much no mind left, and I was sick of it all. Masters is right that he found me in the depths of my despair. And he convinced me to put Momma with the nuns and help him track down my daddy, seeing as we both had a score to settle.

My daddy had killed Graham Masters over a business deal gone bad, so Masters told me, whatever their business might have been. He’d as good as killed my Momma, and he’d ruined my life since before I even entered this unforgiving world. I took the chances Masters offered me, so I oughtta be grateful. It’s true he’s teaching me to be strong, and I wonder if this is maybe what it’s like to have a father.

I’m trembling, but I tell myself it’s the cold and the hunger, not fear or hatred.

“I was drawn to you, boy, because we share a common enemy. Your daddy ruined everything for me, fucking killed me, and I’m burning with a vengeance. And didn’t I light that fire in you?”

I nod, not looking at him. I can feel that furnace churning in my belly every second of every day. It only gets hotter when I think of poor Momma. I look out across the low fire, towards the distant mesas standing like guardians of this desolate land. I’m one tiny person in a harsh and barren world. What chance do I really have of ever finding my hateful father?

“Now shoot the chain between those cuffs, boy,” Masters says. “There’s room to angle your pistol in there, and I’m about mad enough that I can probably help. Just be careful you don’t blow your stupid hand off.”

I wake in the pitch dark, and something moves over me. A light of a sort; a glow. The fire has burned away to nothing but a gentle smear of orange in the night, and the cold is in my bones. As I blink awake, rubbing sleep from my eyes, the glow resolves into a face. Then two. They lean over me, eyes wide and terrifying, mouths stretched in silent screams.

My heart races, my stomach turns to water. Fingers rake like icicles across my face and throat, clutching at me, grasping. They drag a tiny sliver of my soul away with each touch. I see it like silvery smoke stretching out of me in ribbons; feel myself lessen every time. A distant wheezing howl escapes their wide mouths, like cries of pain but somehow triumphant.

With a screech, Masters swoops in. He grabs the things and hauls them off, and the fighting starts. Biting down on my fear I scramble away and load more wood to the fire, blowing through numb lips to bring the flames up again. I squint away as Masters brawls with the things that tried to take me while I slept.

A distant howl drags my attention, and I look into the screaming face of one ghost, not distant at all. Masters is grappling with the other, throwing panicked looks at me over his shoulder.

“Don’t you let it in, boy!” he screams. “Don’t you give it form!”

The ghost reaches for me, its frosty hands dragging the very essence out of me. My mind slides, my vision blurs. I hear the far-off cries of Masters as he’s dragged away, fading as he goes.

Swatting at the ghost, my hands slapping through frozen air, I get dizzy. “Graham Masters!” I cry, but there’s no answer.

I turn and stagger away, running and stumbling, no idea where I’m heading, just away, away into the morning. Surely it’s only minutes now before they’ve finally got me. Masters is gone, I’m alone in the night.

Don’t you let it in, boy!

“You can’t have me!” I scream as I run. Icy claws rake my soul through my back; my spine arches like it’s going to pop in a dozen places. “You cannot have me!” I howl again and keep running and running until my vision blurs and I fall, blackness sweeping in before I hit the ground.

I wake shivering as the soft glow of dawn begins to brighten the horizon. Grey, lifeless scrub stretches away from me in every direction, as empty as my soul. As lifeless as my existence. I might be alive, but I ain’t living, not really.

I see movement in the velvet sky above me and squint on the circling black shape of a vulture, looping around like an angel of death. It spirals slowly downwards, joined by another. They land not twenty feet from me and hop from side to side, squawking at each other. I want to scare them away, but a part of me wonders why I should bother. What’s the point?

There’s the sound of hooves on the stony ground, and the big ugly birds flap angrily up and away. It’s Old Jack, and Masters walks beside him.

“They’re gone.” Masters sits beside me, his face unreadable even in the low light.

“I thought they got you.”

“I’m a ghost, you fucking idiot. I’m already dead.”

“They nearly got me!”

“But they didn’t. Fuck ‘em. You’re haunted, boy, you know that. It’s how I found you, after all. You let me in and gave me strength. Don’t you let them in too, and they’ll stay weak.”

“I guess.” I don’t believe a word of it. Next time, the time after. How much more is in me for them to take?

“Finish this business,” Masters says. “Get some peace of mind for you and your momma. And for me. They’ll have less to hang onto.”

“Really?”

Masters stands over me, eyes dark and foreboding. “Get up, you weak prick.”

“I don’t care any more.”

“Yes you fucking do. Look.”

I follow his pointing finger and see a jack-rabbit sitting on a mound of prairie not thirty yards away.

“Slow and quiet,” Masters says.

The boom of my pistol in the cold air is staggering, and the jack-rabbit’s head is gone.

It’s well past noon when the silhouettes of a small town appear on the horizon. It gives me renewed strength, and I’m smiling as I ride down the main street that’s lined with wooden buildings, brightly painted awnings, and fancy sign-writing in the windows. I can see homesteads spreading out beyond the town, people working, wagons rolling. Hills swell up into mountains to the west.

I tie Old Jack to a post outside a saloon, give him a pat on his hot neck. I pull the heavy sleeves of my baggy shirt down to hide my new iron bracelets and walk in through the double swing doors. It’s dim and cool inside, quiet and still. Dust motes dance in the early sunlight shafting in between the slats of the shutters. A bald guy with a belly like a full sail is polishing glasses behind the bar, and a pretty young thing is sweeping up. I nod to the barman and watch the girl awhile. She’s young and slim, with a cascade of blonde hair and a glint in her eye. She holds my gaze for a second or two before looking back to her broom.

What I would give to find a town someplace, settle down and get some work, woo a pretty girl like that and maybe get married, have some kids of my own. Just normal stuff. But this fire burns in me, and I can’t do anything normal until it’s out, and that’s only going to happen when my daddy is brought to account for what he did to Momma and me. She’d have liked to live in a small town like this, I reckon. Far better than the nuns’ sanatorium where she’s lying now, mind broken and body withering away to sticks and dust.

“Help you?” the barman calls out.

I smile at him, friendly-like. “I could use a good meal. Or even a bad one,” I add with a laugh.

He pushes his chin at the girl sweeping up, and she sets her broom aside and disappears out back. I pull up a stool, sit down and put my ragged black hat on the bar beside me. There’s a moment’s uncomfortable silence as the barkeep measures me up and down.

The girl returns with a tin plate holding some kind of stew and a hunk of bread. She hands it to me with a soft smile, almost like a secret. The gravy is thick like mud and cold, from last night’s cooking, but it smells fantastic. The meat is mostly gristle and the bread’s stale, but I swallow it down like it’s the food of God, my belly aching at the sudden pressure it hasn’t felt for too long. That jack-rabbit kept me alive, but he was near as skinny as me. It feels like the first time I’ve eaten properly in weeks.

“I’m looking for someone,” I tell the barkeep as I mop up with the last of the bread.

He’s immediately suspicious. “That right?”

“Give me a whisky. Just the cheap stuff.”

He nods, puts a glass on the counter and fills it from a bottle without a label. I’m only drinking to be friendly, trade for the information he might have, but the sour burns nicely all the same. I put a couple of coins on the scratched bar.

Graham Masters stands beside me, unseen by the others. He tilts his head at the barman. Impatient fucking ghost. “I’m looking for a fella goes by several names. Mind if I run ‘em by you?”

The barman shrugs.

“All right then. Danny Calhoun?”

He shakes his head.

 “Seth Cooper?”

Shake.

“Frank Gates?”

This time there’s a slight pause, and his eyes narrow just a bit before he shakes his head.

“Frank Gates?” I ask again, one eyebrow raised.

“I said no, dammit. I ain’t ever heard of no Frank Gates.”

The pretty young girl has stopped sweeping, watches us with a strange expression. Masters is virtually dancing on the spot. “He’s lying!” he says to me, like it ain’t obvious, even to the tables and chairs. Truth be told, I’m getting damned tired of this game, but my excitement rises too at this reaction.

I nod and stand up, tip my hat. “Much obliged, sir. Guess I’ll move along and keep looking.”

The barman seems relieved and smiles at me. “Good luck finding him.”

I turn to leave and walk slowly to the door, giving the barman plenty of time to pluck up the courage to ask the question that must be burning his lips to get out.

“Say, stranger.”

There it is. I turn back. “Yeah?”

“Why you looking for this fella anyway? You mean him harm?”

I laugh. “Shit, no. We have history. We go way back. I’m just looking up an old friend.”

His brow creases, eyes narrowed again. He doesn’t know what to make of that. I’m too young to be a pal of someone my daddy’s age. Eventually he shrugs once more. “Well, like I said, good luck.”

“Thanks.”

The sun is beating down outside, making me squint. “Back door or front?” I ask Masters, almost invisible in the brightness.

“Surely the back,” he says, vengeance clear in his tone. He’s at least as hungry for that now as he was for money in his life, I reckon.

“That’s what I thought.”

We stroll casually around the saloon, keeping to the shadows near the building walls, and peek around behind. Sure enough, the fat barkeep comes hurrying out, rolling up his apron and dropping it by the door as he waddles behind the other shops and slips away between them. I’m sure we’re close. I’m so near the quarry I think I can almost smell the bastard.

“Don’t lose him!” Masters barks.

I trot back around the front and turn the corner. It’s easy to see the fat barman, hurrying up the street. There’s not that many people yet in a frontier town like this, but you can see the potential of the place. It’s only going to get bigger, like so many others we’ve seen. Masters says San Francisco is a city that takes hours to walk across, with huge buildings of rock and brick. I can’t imagine a place like that.

The barman shouts and waves and a young boy runs across the street to him. There’s some frantic chatter and something changes hands, probably a coin, and the boy takes off north out of town like a rabbit running from a gunshot.

Old Jack trots along happily and I can see the young boy up ahead. There’s a property on the hill, just a small farmhouse, and I think that’s where he’s headed until he jumps bareback onto a horse out front and takes off again. He gallops north and I keep Old Jack in check, tailing him at a distance. There’s no point in giving myself away now I’m this close.

The kid rides hard for a good hour, grubby white shirt billowing in the wind of his gallop as his bare feet swing at the horse’s flanks. He heads into the hills and down a ravine with a river running along it. Masters is getting more agitated all the time, popping up and shouting at me about losing the kid, but it’s hard to keep up and not give myself away when there’s fuck-all but the two of us out here.

Sure enough, before we’re a half-mile into the narrow valley, I’ve lost all sight of the boy and his horse. I sit on Old Jack and curse. Masters is furious.

“You are one useless fucking idiot!” he yells. “What now?”

“I don’t know,” I say in a broken voice. It’s going to be dark soon, and the ghosts are coming back. Masters is getting worse at holding them away, and I can’t see the fucking point any more.

“Don’t you sink into some useless funk, you prissy child,” Masters says, his face an inch from mine even though I’m on horseback. “You start searching.”

The ravine doesn’t branch out, and it’s getting deeper. If the kid came through, it’s likely I can carry on and hopefully stumble across wherever he was headed. Follow the river and pray I find something before dark.

It’s slow going, picking along through the rock and scrub. Often we have to climb a steep bank and keep the river in mind by listening more than watching. We could go right by wherever that kid was headed and not even know it, but I don’t tell Masters that. He’s irate as hell all the time and only getting madder.

I’m tired, hungry and kinda scared, sagging in the saddle, when something pulls me up. Voices, drifting from somewhere. I hold Jack in a clump of trees and let him drink at the river. Once he’s safely tied, I have a drink myself. It’s at least as cold and fresh as it looks.  Going quiet and careful on foot, it’s not long before a crackle of fire and the smell of cooking rumbles my stomach. There are men talking, not far away.

I can see down into the camp, six canvas tents and a big cookfire. Somewhere in here is Frank Gates. AKA Danny Calhoun and Seth Cooper. I settle down to wait for night. Time to finish this.

It’s nice to sit by the river until the dusk turns dark. Graham Masters is impatient to get moving. But it’s taken this long, so it can wait a little longer. Caution is the key here, or I’m liable to blow it and waste everything. Masters has ever been eager to get on with it and, if I’m honest, he’s often been a fairly unreliable companion. He’s caused me trouble more than once.

But it’s night, and I have a job to do. My heart’s beating fast at the thought. I could finally be here, at that point in my life where I can make my bastard of a father pay and shuck this burden from my shoulders. Tell my Momma he’s dead and buried; let her find some peace. Then maybe I’ll go back to that last town and talk to the pretty girl in the bar.

I creep down towards the tents. All prospector camps are like this; I’ve seen a few before. I hide in the shadows and watch as the men sit around the fire, eating and drinking and laughing too loud. I wonder if it’s to stem the disappointment of turning up nothing, or in celebration of the fact they’ve struck yella and know they’re going to be rich. Either way doesn’t bother me. I’m going to kill my daddy whether he’s rich or poor. Although pulling a few nuggets from the pockets of his corpse wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

The kid is curled up asleep under a big coat near the fire. There are four men, so I need to be careful. I don’t want to end up in a fight with them all. I’ve honed some skills these recent years, but even I can’t be sure I’d manage four on one.

Masters is clear beside me in the darkness. He squints into the gloom and a smile splits his face. “There he is!” He points to one fella and my chest tightens.

“You sure,” I ask.

Masters nods without looking at me. “Oh yeah.”

“Really sure?” I ask again, staring hard at him.

He turns his glare to me. “That’s Frank Gates.”

We watch a while longer. Nothing happens except more eating and drinking and then the men start heading for their tents, to bed early to get up with the dawn.

I keep an eye on Gates, staring hard at the man who seeded me for this world, who ruined my Momma’s life. He’s a rangy bastard, tall and skinny like me, but his hair is dark black where mine is sandy brown. He’s got a nose like an eagle’s beak, and that ain’t nothing like mine either. Nice to know I take after my Momma more than this sack of shit. He wears good clothes, though they’re dirty from prospecting, and his boots are finer than any I’ve ever owned. Son of a bitch. I start preparing for what I’m going to say to him, and I brace myself for the possibility that I won’t have a chance to say anything. Ending him is the only important part of this.

And he starts heading straight for us. I catch my breath, shuffle back against the rocks and scrub where I’m hiding. No time to move anywhere else. He walks right past me in the shadows and I see his mean face, eyes set close together, black stubble making his cheeks dark in the night. He seems in decent shape, but I don’t reckon he’s close to as strong as I am. He walks between some trees into the gloom, and I can’t believe my luck.

Creeping like a cat, I follow. Franks Gates, as he’s calling himself, grunts and undoes his braces. He kicks a hole in the sandy ground, drops his britches, and squats, elbows on his knees.

“Don’t make a sound,” I whisper, as the cold steel of that Sheriff’s Colt presses against the skin of his neck.

He stiffens, but doesn’t move. A muffled cry of fright escapes his lips, bitten off as soon as it starts.

“Pull up your britches and move forward.”

He complies. I can see his hands shaking as he buttons his fly. He stumbles ahead of me, my gun barrel pressed to the middle of his spine.

“What do you want?” he whispers, his voice trembling with fear. “You want money? Gold?”

“Shut the fuck up, Frank Gates,” I say quietly, pushing him away from the camp. “That’s what you’re calling yourself now, right?”

“That... that’s my name, right enough. Who are you?”

“I’m the son you abandoned, you slimy piece of shit.”

“What?”

“The son of the woman you left, pregnant, poverty-stricken and a pariah. She couldn’t take it, the ridicule, the rejection. She’s a fragile bird, and you broke her mind, Frank Gates! Our lives, too!”

His shaking is visible all over, his knees knocking together, hands flapping by his sides. “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t have a son. I have a wife and two daughters in San Francisco!”

That just makes me furious. “Is that right?” I almost yell. “Treat them a lot better than you did Momma and me, do you?”

His voice is hitched with tears, sobbing like a little girl. “I don’t know what you mean!”

“Turn around and face me, Gates.”

He stands there, back to me, shaking and sobbing.

“Turn your face to me, Pa!”

He turns slowly, hands raised. His face is twisted in fear, tears and snot shining in the darkness. I look around for Graham Masters, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Surely he wants to see this. My own hand starts to shake, the excitement of the situation is getting to me. Fuck it, I can’t put this off.

“Here and now you pay for what you did to us!” The flash and bark of the pistol is massive in the silent darkness, and a rush rips through me.

Franks Gates’ chest gouts blood as he staggers over backwards, my shot right through his heart. He’s dead before he hits the ground, and Masters comes running.

“Stop!” he cries. “It ain’t him!”

I can’t believe it. “Not again!”

“I lost you in the trees,” Masters says. “I tried to catch up, but I couldn’t find you. It ain’t him.”

My euphoria drains away like rainwater on sun-parched earth. I’m shaking all over. “I killed the wrong man!” I yell at Graham Masters. “Again!”

“I’m sorry, it’s so hard to tell. I’m a ghost, I don’t see real things as well as you do.” He sounds altogether too relaxed for my liking.

“You said you were sure. Just like you did when we found Danny Calhoun, and Seth Cooper!”

Something like a smile glimmers across Masters’ face, but it’s hard to see in the shadows.

I can hear voices shouting and people crashing through the brush. Those gossamer spectral haunts that dog me every night are lurking, reaching, groaning mouths wide in supplication. Are there three now?

“You have to go!” Masters says.

Confusion fogs my brain. “I killed another innocent man!”

Masters’ sudden grin is feral. “Part of you likes it!”

“What?”

He grabs at my shirt, dragging icily at my flesh as his hand passes right through me. “Come on! Don’t let them catch you.”

Is he laughing? I stumble over rough ground, heading back to where Old Jack is tethered. My mind reels, my heart hammers.

“Keep looking,” Graham Masters says. “It’s your turn now. You’ll find him next time, I’m sure.” There’s no sincerity in his tone.

I look at the ghost of my mentor in the darkness, and his expression is hard to read. “My turn? Next time?”

He nods as I untie Jack and swing up into the saddle. There’s a self-satisfied look about him, like a man who’s enjoyed his fill of a good meal. His eyes sparkle, and there are creases at the corners as he grins.

“It’s your time, boy,” Masters says. “Now you get to keep moving, keep looking for your damn pa, free as you like! Vengeance is a selfish business. And you better stay ahead of those night-time ghouls.”

“You sound like you ain’t coming,” I say, shivers wracking through me.

Masters just stands in the night, smiling at me. I can hear the other prospectors crashing closer.

“I need you to identify him!” I say, and curse how scared my voice sounds.

Masters leans his head back and laughs. “Boy, I have no fucking idea who your daddy is. Never did.”

His words echo in my mind and his laughter rings through the valley as I gallop away from the river and into the night.


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Alan Baxter is a Ditmar Award-nominated British-Australian author. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He is the author of the dark fantasy thriller novels RealmShift and MageSign, co-author with David Wood of the short horror novel Dark Rite, and has nearly fifty short stories published in journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK, and France, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror. Read extracts from his novels and short fiction at his website--www.alanbaxteronline.com--or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

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10 Comments on “Not the Worst of Sins”

10 Responses to “Not the Worst of Sins”

  1. […] “Not the Worst of Sins” – Beneath Ceaseless Skies #133 (October 31st, 2013) […]

  2. […] Not the Worst of Sins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) […]

  3. […] “Not the Worst of Sins”, Alan Baxter, en Beneath Ceaseless Skies 133 (Firkin Press) […]

  4. […] Planet Press) * “Scarp”, Cat Sparks, in The Bride Price (Ticonderoga Publications) * “Not the Worst of Sins“, Alan Baxter, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies 133 (Firkin Press) * “Cold White Daughter”, […]

  5. […] nominated for a Ditmar Award for his story, “Not the Worst of Sins,” as published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine. The Ditmar Award is “awarded annually since 1969 at the Australian National Science […]

  6. […] Award shortlists have been released, and about the wonderful surprise of seeing that my story, Not the Worst of Sins, published in issue 133 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine, has been noninated in the Best Short […]

  7. Barry says:

    Excellent and well-crafted story. It’s great to see a fantasy/horror story in western genre.

  8. […] Ditmar Award-nominated story, Not the Worst of Sins, from Beneath Ceaseless Skies Magazine, is up at one of my favourite podcasts, Tales To Terrify. I’m so pleased to have a story […]

  9. […] just heard from Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine that my weird west ghost story, “Not the Worst of Sins“, is going to be included in their next e-anthology of favourites. This is the story that was […]

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