The Crooked Mile

Issue #127

No way, Rosco knew, that Sheriff Dylan would let a killer walk the town loose for no good reason. But Sheriff Dylan weren’t around when the stranger rode up with two bodies slung over his saddle all shot to pieces, just Rosco; Rosco, with his shiny new deputy’s badge and his Pappy’s six-shooter that his Momma had given him after Pappy hadn’t come back from down the Mile, all that was left just his gun and his boots and what little pieces the sheriff could find.

Rosco guessed he’d have to handle the situation, what with the sheriff being away down the Mile and all. He stepped out into the main road that ran down the middle of Gutshank, population one-hundred-fifty-three, and rested a hand on the pearly handle of his revolver. Tried to look mean, like his Pappy would’ve done.

“Trouble, partner?” Rosco hailed the stranger.

The man’s cold eyes settled on him from a-ways off. “Yup,” he growled around a mouthful of tobacco, “I got me some wizard trouble.”

Rosco swallowed hard. Anything to do with wizards was trouble of the worst sort.

The man dragged at one of the corpses, letting it flop over. “Dead wizard trouble. I’m here for the bounty.”

“Bounty?” Rosco was just a deputy, after all. He didn’t know nothing about bounties. But he knew well enough to be shit-scared of anything involving wizards.

“The federal bounty. Don’t be messing about, Deputy. I killed me some wizards, and I come for my coin.”

“Well,” Rosco said, trying to sound like he wasn’t trying to sound brave, “that’s the sheriff’s business. He’s down the Mile. You’ll have to wait ‘til he gets back.”

The stranger stared at him for a long minute, chewing slowly. “Down the Mile, you say.”

“Yup. He’s got business.”

“Then I guess I’ll go down the Mile and find him. Got a cell? I want my dead ‘uns locked up.”

Rosco chuckled, shuddered. Last thing he wanted or needed was a couple dead wizards in his cells. “You’re scared someone might steal ‘em?”

The stranger’s salt-pepper beard crinkled into a ghost of a smile. “More worried they might walk away on their own. You don’t want dead wizards wandering around your pretty little town now, do you, Deputy?”

Rosco’s stomach tightened. “Sure don’t. But I don’t much see as how a jail cell’s going to hold ‘em back, neither.”

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to take ‘em along, when you and me head down the Mile to find your sheriff and get me my bounty.”

Rosco’s breath hitched in his throat. “Me and you? Sorry mister, but I can’t leave my post. Sheriff’s orders. I’m here to watch for trouble, see.”

The man leaned forward and hawked a gob of black spit into the sand at Rosco’s feet. “You see any trouble, Deputy?”

Rosco saw it all right. And he didn’t want nothing to do with it. “You just keep on riding, mister. You head on down the Mile. You go find the sheriff.”

“So now you and your badge are driving me out of town, me with my rightful claim to the president’s good gold?”

“Now don’t be talking like that, mister. We’re just a small town, and we ain’t got no cells fit for wizards. If you want the sheriff you’ll have to go find him, and take your wizards with you. They’re your concern, and you won’t be making ‘em mine.”

Rosco wondered if Pappy would’ve been proud to hear him talking so tough to this dangerous, mean-faced varmint. The stranger stared, long and hard, and truth was it took all the iron in Rosco’s blood to keep his chin up and his eyes straight as that gaze bore him down. Yep, Pappy’d’ve been proud.

The stranger nudged his horse into a walk. “I’ll find your sheriff and bring him back here for my coin. Then, depending how I feel, we just might have to settle this here disagreement.”

Rosco could’ve let it go; he could’ve just let the stranger ride off. But no man with any pride could let a challenge like that hang over his head. He thrust his jaw out, the way he’d seen Sheriff Dylan do. “You threatening me, mister? Because I can lock you up if you’re threatening a deputy, and I can confiscate your bounties, too. That’s the law, that is.”

The stranger pulled his horse up hard and twisted in the saddle, them cold dead eyes freezing Rosco stiff. “You know about laws, boy? Then you know that these scum here, they break ‘em all, not just the ones writ by men in their warm offices way back east, but the laws of nature and physics and even god. Men like me, we have to do the same, as best we can, to protect weaklings like you who hide behind your badges and your laws. So don’t you be lecturing me, son. I’ve been killing wizards longer’n you’ve been alive. Maybe you’re brave, maybe you’re trying to prove something, but me, I think you’re a fool. Don’t you be crossing my path again, Deputy. Ain’t worth your while.”

Rosco watched him go, his fingers tight around the grip of Pappy’s revolver secure in its holster. He hadn’t never wanted to shoot a man more than he wanted to shoot this wizard hunter right now, but the law was the law. Until a man did something amiss, he was free to go.

The townsfolk began to drift away once it was clear that the spectacle was over. Rosco stood for a long while looking down Gutshank’s dusty main road, wondering if he had just done the town a service by moving the vagrant on, or if he’d angered a dangerous man enough that he’d bring them back nothing but grief.

Not to worry. The stranger was riding into the Crooked Mile. Oft times folks didn’t come back from the Crooked Mile. It was what kept Sheriff Dylan so busy down that twisting road so many days and nights in the month. Whatever the stranger thought he knew on account of his years hunting wizards, he ain’t never seen the likes of what lay down the Crooked Mile.

When Rosco couldn’t see the stranger’s back no more, he retreated to the cool shade of the awning and his mug of ice tea. Carefully, he unloaded his revolver and began to clean it. Chances were good he’d need it before this was all over.   

Rosco woke with a start. Summer lightning, and thunder, that was all. Not a gunshot. Sleep had been a long time coming, him jumping at every sound, worrying the wizard hunter would steal back in the dead of night to put a bullet in him while he slept.

The night was hot, the crickets whirring up a storm, and Rosco wasn’t getting back to sleep. He got up, shrugged into his clothes and gunbelt, and stepped out into the muggy night to cast an eye over Gutshank.

What a fool he’d been to say the things he’d said. Damned hothead. Who’d dare stand up to a man who made a life killing himself wizards for coin? Sheriff Dylan maybe, but not many others. Most honest folk, sensible folk, they’d hide themselves away from that sort of trouble.

A riderless horse came limping up the street. Rosco thought it was a paint, white with brown or black patches, but something about the way it stumped closer sent a shiver through him. Thing was hurt, for sure, but where was its rider?

Summer lightning crackled, leaving Rosco with flickering after-images of white and red. He stumbled back, fumbling for his gun. Horse weren’t no paint. It was covered in blood. And Rosco knew that horse, knew her like he’d know his own Momma by the smell of her biscuits.

He reached out and gently took her reins, suddenly feeling a fool, holding his revolver like an idiot frightened of thunder. He holstered it and looked to the horse, checking her over to see what injury she’d done herself. “Martha? Hey girl, where’s your master? Where’s the sheriff?”

Despite all that blood, it weren’t Martha’s, which could only mean one thing. One awful, awful thing.

Rosco thought about Sheriff Dylan, thought about bringing him back in little bits and pieces, scraps of meat and bone and buckskin, like they’d brought back his Pappy. His stomach churned, and only a voice from behind stopped him from keeling over there and then and baptizing the road with the beans and beef and pumpernickel he’d eaten for his supper.

“Hey, Deputy,” the voice sang, deliciously high, “there’s sweeter company inside than out there with that old nag. Discount for lawmen, you know?”

Rosco felt his face flush, refused to turn and look; refused to let the whores see his shame. Momma didn’t hold with whores, and Rosco was a good boy. Loving between a man and a woman was for married folks; that was the law. He gripped Martha’s saddle and swung up onto her back. “Sorry ladies,” he grunted, without looking to where they hung over the rails of the brothel on the far side of the street, their bosoms struggling to burst free of their thin tight dresses, “duty calls.” He urged Martha into an awkward trot.

Gutshank seemed to fade from around him as he realized what he was doing. He was leaving his post. He was disobeying the sheriff. He was riding into the Crooked Mile, where dead wizards would be the least of a man’s troubles. He was going to find the sheriff, because the sheriff might be shot up, or cut up, or worse, and Rosco was the only one who knew. He was heading into the Crooked Mile, where Pappy’s ghost was waiting for him.

At least he had Pappy’s gun. Not that it had done Pappy a whit of good.

Gutshank didn’t disappear around a corner or into the distance. The town just vanished with a hiss. There one second, gone the next, now nothing but stunted acacia clinging to wind-howl ravines at Rosco’s back. Even the moon above the canyon walls was different here, her visage twisted into something that Rosco thought more wolf, or maybe rat.

He resisted the urge to pull his gun, knowing he needed both hands on the reins. He didn’t want to have Martha fall lame under him. She knew the way out, and Rosco didn’t. All he knew was that the way out of the Mile weren’t never the same as the way in, and you never arrived in the Crooked Mile at the same place twice. He scanned the barren rock for signs of passage, traces of blood, but it was no use. He was as much a tracker as he was a marksman, which is to say he could as well find his way in the dark in unfamiliar territory as he could hit the moon with a rifleshot.

“Come on Martha,” he patted the mare’s neck, “take me to Sheriff Dylan.”

Rosco found trouble before he found the sheriff. Water cackled over a dark ford and Martha slipped, skidded, threw him, hard. By the time Rosco staggered out of the narrow creek she was off down the gully, favoring a leg but still scarpering into the twisting canyons of the Mile faster than Rosco might hope to catch her up on foot. “Martha!” he shouted, but she was gone, gone like she ain’t never been there.

“Martha!”

“Well, look what we have here.”

Rosco spun, fumbling for his gun. Always with the fumbling.

The wizard hunter’s cold eyes glistened manic in the broken moonlight, his revolver already raised. Rosco put his hands up, wondering where the wizard hunter’s horse was and why he was leaning so heavy on that boulder at his back, why his shirt looked wet and slick, why he held one arm real close to his side. Like Martha, hiding her hurt.

“Guess you found the sheriff then, and he weren’t too pleased to see you?” Rosco’s knees might’ve been weak under him, but he had bluff and bluster. When a man’s got you dead to rights and all you got is your tongue ‘cause your hands are thick as treacle, then your tongue best be quick on the draw.

“You didn’t warn me your sheriff was a necro.”

“A what?”

“I seen lots of sour things in my time, Deputy, but you know what I ain’t never had the mighty bad luck to come across? I ain’t never before tonight come across a necromancer right in the middle of casting a witching what for to raise the dead, right when I happened to be in the unfortunate possession of two dead wizards.

“Now, suddenly, I find myself outnumbered by two wizards, them all angry as hell on account of my having shot ‘em all up to pieces, and one necromancer posing as a sheriff so’s he can carry on with his gruesome deeds out here where no-one dares come looking for him, not to mention whatever the hell it was that he was pulling up from the ground.” He wheezed, like his speaking was an effort. “So yeah, I might’ve been caught a bit off my guard and got on the wrong end of a load of buckshot, but I gave back pretty good too. Way I figure it, Deputy, is you gotta ask yourself this: whose side am I really on?”

Rosco dropped his eyes. It couldn’t be true. Sheriff Dylan weren’t no wizard, sure weren’t no wizard what brought the dead back to life. At least Rosco didn’t think he was. Mind you, he sure did spend a lot of nights down here in the Mile. Down here among the dead.

He lifted his face to the wizard hunter’s. “You say there’s a bounty for wizards, then?”

The old man cracked a smile that glinted silver in the starlight. “That’s my boy. See, I knew you had gumption, way you stood up to me back in that hole of a town. You know what’s right from what’s wrong, and that’s what matters, ain’t it?”

Rosco nodded. “You show me that Sheriff Dylan’s breaking the law, and I’ll help you bring him in, dead or alive. That’s the law.”

The wizard hunter holstered his revolver and extended his hand, not moving from the rock, as if he expected Rosco to come on up to him and shake it but he wasn’t up to the walking needed to meet him halfway. “Call me Garth.”

Rosco lowered his hands. “You got a last name?”

“Naw. Sold it long ago.”

Rosco frowned. He was used to the folk about town jesting at him, but with a wizard hunter, who knew what was hot air and what was God’s own truth? “You’re hurt pretty bad.”

“This? Just a scratch. Nothing a hot bath won’t fix.”

“Can you shoot?”

“You’re gonna need me for more than just shooting when we find this little clutch of hellspawn. You ever fought a wizard before?”

Rosco ain’t never seen wizards before today, and they were a couple dead ones. Apart from Sheriff Dylan, of course, if what Garth said was true. But he just said, “Sure. Plenty.”

“Course you have,” Garth slapped him on the shoulder and staggered forward. “Now, why the hell’d you let that horse get away?”

The Crooked Mile bent and twisted away from them as they rode down one canyon, then up another. Finding Martha had turned out to be easy enough, her trail of wet hoofprints leading Rosco to a patch of clover she’d been chewing on. The blood on her coat was drying to a crust, all crackling and crinkled like the faces of the dead wizards. She didn’t complain when Rosco hefted Garth into the saddle and then led her by the reins down the gulch. He was glad to be wearing his good boots.

“So how’d you find me, then?”

The question took Rosco by surprise. “How’d you mean?”

“Well, I saw your sheriff after I shot him, bleeding like a stuck pig all over his horse as it spooked away, and then up comes his deputy on that same horse, from a completely different direction, like he’s a-come looking for me. Don’t it seem odd to you?”

Rosco didn’t look back. He could almost feel the steely gaze of Garth’s revolver at his back. “I didn’t come looking for you. I came for Sheriff Dylan.”

“Still don’t explain how you got around behind me.”

“These canyons is haunted. You ain’t figured that yet?”

Garth fell silent for a while. Then: “That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said all day.”

“It don’t seem strange to you?”

“Son, I spent my life hunting wizards. Ain’t much surprises me.” Garth sat up awkwardly, and Rosco thought he was mighty stiff for a man who ought be ready for fighting. “Up there. What’s that?”

Rosco looked where he was pointing. Ghostly lights shifted and danced on the canyon walls. “Wizards?”

Garth frowned, his face collapsing into crags and shadow. “Nope. It’s a lure cast by wizards to draw in greenhorns like you. Like as not they’re behind us already.” He twisted, gun raised, scanning the darkness. He winced.

Rosco peered between the black slashes cast by the windblasted upthrusts, trying to pretend that his legs weren’t shaking as bad as they were.

Something huge and equally dark slid through the night, an indistinct shape rasping its bulk across dust and stone, sharp edges scraping rock with an eerie squeal. Rosco thought of his Pappy, how he’d ridden into the Mile and come back nothing more than a few scraps of blood and bone. He thought of the teeth, the claws that must have done that to his Pappy. Thought how the thing must have smelled his blood, blood it had a taste for, a hunger for.

“Don’t you shoot at that now. It’s only as real as you let it be.”

Rosco realized he had his Pappy’s gun drawn, was aiming into the dark where there was nothing to shoot at, nothing but the memory of the thing that had taken his Pappy. He hadn’t even known he’d pulled it.

“Don’t let them wizards get to you,” Garth warned. “We’re in their spellcrafting now, to be sure. You let ‘em, they’ll try to put one of your own bullets in me, or in you. Easier that way. Course, if you waste all your ammo shooting at shadows, well, that’s just about as good.”

Rosco nodded and holstered the revolver. Its grip was warm in his hand, like his blood was running hot. What if, he wondered, it weren’t a spell? Something had killed Pappy, after all. Something lived down here, down here in the twisting maze, down here among the dead.

“Just you watch,” Garth muttered, “they’ll bring up the wind next. Wind so hot and sharp it rips the air from your lungs and fills your eyes with sand ‘til you want to lie down and curl up until it’s done, or until you’re dead.”

But it weren’t wind that came up, just a cool evening breeze, chilling the sweat on his spine. Rosco managed a chuckle. “Maybe the wizards are getting tired. They’re dead, after all.”

Then came the smell. It might have started in the bottom of a potato sack, where a bad spot had grown soft and moist and white and turned first to spoil and then to rot but then it had rolled through an open latrine trench, gaining the hot stench of human waste. More foulness followed, the stink of dead bodies, like when the cattle pox had taken Pappy’s goats and he’d dragged them down the gulch and left them to rot, and the vultures had come down and ripped open the dead things’ guts, strewing them about in the sun, dragging them across the sand with those claws of theirs. Rosco gagged, reaching for a kerchief to wrap around his face.

Garth chuckled. “Looks like your beasty just did itself a good old-fashioned dump. Eyes forward, soldier, they want you looking at the ground.”

Through watering eyes, Rosco scanned the trail, saw nothing, and wanted to vomit.

“Enough with the parlor tricks,” Garth muttered, and when Rosco glanced back, he was still talking, low and to himself, his fingers twitching oddly where they hugged his bloody chest. “Time to finish this.”

As if on cue, Garth was suddenly hurled backwards off Martha in a spray of dark blood. The sound of the gunshot rang around the canyon a sharp breath later. Martha bucked, and Rosco with his hand still looped in the reins could barely think about getting to his own gun or running for cover until he had calmed the horse. Garth was lying somewhere in the shadows, scraping across the rock. Not dead then, not crying out, just shot. Hiding his hurt.

Martha reared, her hoofs thrashing at air. Rosco abandoned his valiant attempt to rein her in and let her clatter away into the night. Then he scrambled for cover, wondering why the gunman hadn’t shot him down already.

“Don’t you worry about bringing this one in, Deputy,” came Sheriff Dylan’s voice from the darkness. “Hanging’s too good for ‘im.”

“Sheriff?” Rosco scanned the shadows, trying to spot Dylan among the boulders along the canyon floor. “What’s going on? Garth here tells me you’re a wizard or some such, down here messing with the dead.”

“You believe a wizard hunter, Deputy? Only wizard down here is him. Don’t know who those two dead fellers were he brought with him, but I’d guess his game is crossing this land killing innocents and falsely claiming wizard bounties for ‘em.”

“Don’t you believe him, lad,” Garth wheezed from behind a boulder. Rosco could only see his boots.

He realized he was the only one here who hadn’t been shot. Whoever he decided to trust, they’d need him to get them back to the doc’s in Gutshank. If they made it that far.

“You’ve known me since you were a boy, Deputy. Who was it took your Momma in when your Pappy died? Who was it taught you how to clean your gun and shoot it straight? Who was it gave you a good job? This feller, he’s nothing but a murdering trickster, and he’s done gone and shot up a sheriff, and who knows how many innocent folk.” Dylan’s voice was bouncing around the rocks, making it hard for Rosco to guess at where he might be. “Do your job, Deputy. I’d say dead or alive, but as long as he’s alive he’ll be trying to trick you into letting him go.”

“I dunno, Sheriff. Why don’t you come on out so’s I can see you.”

Beyond him, something moved. Something that scraped and rasped and vanished into the gloom. Something hungry.

“You’re wondering why I come down here, boy? Why I come down the Mile, nights at a time? Someone been filling your head with nonsense about me being a wizard? Well, Deputy, it’s time for the truth. I come down here on account of your Momma, and your Pappy. I come looking for answers. If you want to try and take me in for that, that’s your right. But if you do, we’ll never know what happened to your Pappy. You want to know what happened, don’t you? What killed him?”

Rosco’s hands shook. The shifting shadows in the back of his eyes, in the back of his mind, took on a more menacing shape. “What about my Pappy?”

“Ask your friend there. Ask him why your Pappy came down here.”

“He’s lying, Deputy,” Garth called. “I ain’t never been down here before.”

Rosco swallowed hard. He knew the law, and he knew how guilty men talked, their tongues shivering like rattlers. “The sheriff didn’t say you had been, but you denying it like that makes me think you got a case of the guilts, mister.”

“The posse your Pappy was in,” Dylan continued, “we came hunting some feller, way back. Rumor was he was a wizard what wanted to use the haunting in the Mile to bring demons across from Hell’s own fires so that he could use them for himself, but he didn’t know how to control ‘em. Fool went and let ‘em loose instead. Can’t you hear ‘em out there? Sniffing you out? That’s how your Pappy died. That’s why there weren’t nothing left of him.”

“Pappy?” Rosco squeezed his eyes shut, blinked them open. Damn dust in the air, making them go all watery like that.

“He’s playing you like a fiddle, Deputy,” Garth growled. “The only monsters out there are in your mind.”

“Stop it!” Rosco screamed. “Both of you!” He clutched his hands to his ears, felt the cold press of his Pappy’s gun against his face. Again, he had the revolver in hand. Again, he hadn’t known it.

“Glad to see you kept it clean for me,” came a new voice, a soothing presence at his shoulder. A voice he knew. A voice he had longed to hear for more years than he cared to remember. “Pappy?” Rosco was too afraid to move, to turn and look. Afraid what he might see. There were too many ghosts down here, too many beasts, too many crooked roads and broken memories.

“How’s your Momma doing?”

Rosco’s voice was barely a creak in the night. “She’s doing good, Pa. She’s happy. Sheriff Dylan looks after her real good.”

“Son, I know you were always a special kid, always good with rules but never so good with people. That weren’t your fault. None of us can help how we were born. But you made good choices. You learned your law, and you know what it means. But there’s more to people and what they do than just laws. You understand? People and laws, they don’t really go together real well. The worst of ‘em, they just don’t fit inside of laws, right? Cattle rustlers and the like, outlaws, wizards. Some of ‘em break laws because they figure they’re too good for ‘em, some just because they need to know how far they can push a law before it breaks. You know what I’m saying, son?”

Rosco nodded, like he understood, even though he really didn’t. Dimly he could hear Garth and Dylan shouting at him, shouting at each other, but he let their voices roll over him. He was talking to his Pappy. It was against the rules to talk while Pappy was talking. “I think so.”

“Even the good folk, they can’t follow the law all the time. Sometimes more important things come along.”

“What’s more important than the law, Pappy? Can’t have folks breaking the law just a-cause it suits them.”

“See, I always said you’d make a good lawman, you with your sense of right and wrong. But folks ain’t so black and white. Sometimes they can hate real bad, and that makes ‘em dangerous. Sometimes they love too hard, and that ain’t no better.”

“Pappy, what are you trying to tell me?”

“You say you’re Momma’s good? She’s happy?”

“Yes, Pappy.”

“Do you remember, before I went away? Was she happy then?”

Rosco choked a little. He wanted to say yes, but it was wrong to lie. Momma had never really been happy. Only sometimes, those times when Pappy was out working the range and Sheriff Dylan used to come by the homestead to check up on her, to check she was OK out there on the ranch all alone. Those times when they used to give Rosco a nickel to ride into town and buy himself an ice while they talked like grown-ups. Rosco caught a sob in his throat, like all the pain he had been hiding from ever since they’d brought back Pappy’s boots and gun was creeping up on him, huge dark wings spreading out, ready to open up its jaws and devour him.

The voice at his shoulder softened. “Ask the sheriff about the stray shot, son. Ask him how we got split up from the rest of the posse that night, how we were lost in the Mile, how I rode on ahead a-ways. Ask him how he kept my boots and my gun and said how a demon took the rest. Ask him about the bullet that killed your Pa.”

Rosco’s eyes were squeezed shut, but he felt something press into his hand. When he opened his eyes, Pappy was gone, if he had ever been there at all. A cold weight sat heavy in his palm. The same leaden chill hung on his heart.

The moon lanced across the canyon, her feral eyes yellow, fever-touched. Rosco held the revolver close. His hands no longer shook. One held Pappy’s gun. The other, a shattered metal slug.

Rosco pushed himself to his feet. His legs were steady. In the yellowed cast of the moon he could see a hunched figure in the gully, sighting down a polished rifle barrel. To his left, Garth had pulled himself tighter behind his rock.

“Sheriff,” Rosco called, his fingers easy on the six-shooter, “I say we take this criminal in.”

“You fool!” Garth swung around the rock, gun sweeping into view, but Pappy’s gun barked, true, like another hand was guiding Rosco’s. Like he was hanging outside himself, just watching. Garth howled, dropping his revolver. Another shot, a spray of bone and blood and brain, and he collapsed, still. Rosco stared at Garth’s shattered skull, suddenly bright in the moonlight, and felt nothing. “The only good wizard’s a dead wizard,” he mumbled, numbness seeping through him.

“You made a good choice,” Sheriff Dylan called, rising brokenly from the shadows, his rifle dropping as he limped forwards. Grinning, grimacing, hiding his pain. So many people, so many faces, hiding their hurt, their shame, their guilt.

Rosco nodded slowly. “You came down here looking for ghosts, Sheriff. You find any?”

“There ain’t no ghosts, Deputy. Only the voices in your head.”

“Maybe.”

Dylan was bent nearly double, blood staining his buckskins from his hat to his boots. He stumbled forward to lean on the boulder where Garth lay sprawled and regarded the corpse. “Wizards, eh? Can’t trust ‘em.”

“They just want to change the world, that’s all,” Rosco said. “Not as bad as cheats. Not as bad as murderers.”

Dylan turned, real slow. “Rosco?”

Rosco held up the slug. “I found me a ghost, Sheriff.”

Dylan went for his six-shooter. Pappy’s gun cracked, twice, three times. This time, Rosco didn’t feel distant. He only felt the bleak seeping warmth of bloody justice.

He looked at the body splayed across the boulder, how the bullet had pierced the sheriff’s badge shattering the star. Thought how there were laws, and how some folks would never be able to follow them. Thought how even the ones who wear their faces of goodness still hide their rot on the inside, hide their hurt, and steal love away from others to fill the holes in their own lives.

“So,” came a voice at his shoulder, “now what?” As if someone was easing his arm down, the revolver dipped, slid into the holster. Like a puppet’s.

“Well,” Rosco said, “I figure I’ve got me a couple wizards to take in for a bounty, for starters.”

“You gonna tell your Momma what you know? About the sheriff?”

He turned his face to the moon, to the dark shapes that crawled along the canyon walls, hungry for carrion. “That’d break her heart, I reckon.”

“No doubt. But it’s wrong to lie, ain’t it?”

“I think,” Rosco said, turning to face the empty night where his Pappy’s ghost should’ve been but wasn’t, “that sometimes, it’s better if we do.”

“She was a cheat too, remember? She broke a law, the law between a man and his wife.”

Rosco shrugged. “At least she didn’t kill no-one.”

“You don’t think it was part her doing that killed me down here? You think she’s innocent?”

“I reckon I don’t know, and I ain’t one to judge. I reckon Sheriff Dylan pulled the trigger, and for that he’s paid his due. And I reckon that you can’t talk me into killing no-one else, no matter how you try. I done enough of that, right here.” It was a hurt he’d have to hide, he knew, forever. “Because at first, I thought you were just a wizard’s trick, thought the way you were talking at me about the sheriff, you must’ve been something Garth had conjured up, like he brought up that awful stench, and tried to pretend like he weren’t the one magicking it. But then he was dead, and I could still feel you there. If you were his magic, you should’ve died with him. But the slug. When the sheriff saw it, I saw the guilt in him. He would’ve shot me down, so I knew it was true, what you said he did.”

The shadows hissed and surged around him, creatures swarming closer, silvered shadows under yellow moonlight.

“And maybe I wanted to shoot that wizard hunter, ‘cause of how he shamed me in the street. Maybe I wanted to shoot the sheriff, because he killed my Pa, and there ain’t no law as right as vengeance. If the Good Book taught me anything, it’s that revenge is right and lawful. So long as you only look at the old book.

“But Momma? My Pappy wouldn’t never want my Momma’s heart broken. Wouldn’t never want her shamed. Don’t matter what she did, don’t matter that she weren’t happy, or that she loved another man. Pappy always loved her, better’n any man ever could. Even Pappy’s ghost couldn’t be that bitter. So that’s why I reckon you ain’t no ghost, you’re just a black old spirit trying to do mischief, trying to spread it out of the Crooked Mile. Like the ways you sat at a fire with some cowboy and told him how you was my Pappy, how you didn’t die that day, but you been hiding out here all this time waiting to get back at the man who killed you. Yeah, we all heard that story, but I guess the sheriff believed it more than me.

“See, I came to terms with my Pappy being dead and gone long ago. I knew my Pappy never would’ve left me alone, never would’ve left me thinking he was dead just so’s he could get revenge. That ain’t right. But I guess Sheriff Dylan still had some guilt he’d never quite got past.”

The night swelled around him, darkness billowing upwards to blot out the moon’s lupine gaze, swallowing him in a flurry of wings and claws and teeth, scraping and scratching at his skin. Yet he felt braver now than he ever had, even with Sheriff Dylan dead, even knowing his Pappy was truly, truly gone. He had a peace about him now, because he knew that he’d be making his own way from here on out.

“Martha!” He called through the tearing darkness. The veil broke apart, a mass of white and red surging towards him between the shifting black.

“Don’t you worry about them,” Rosco said as he grabbed Martha’s reins and patted her on the neck, “they can’t hurt us. They’re against the law.” Rosco hauled first one body, then the other, onto Martha’s saddle and lashed them on, oblivious to the spirits swirling around him. Then he calmly let the horse walk, trusting her to take him out of the maze.

“Goodbye, Pappy.”

Shrieking, the darkness tore apart, wispy clouds against the night, drifting towards the coming dawn.

Rosco walked slow, easy, up the canyon. Thought how funny it was that now he’d be the one come walking into town with two dead bodies on his horse, him with his eyes grown cold from the killing, and how if he was sheriff he wouldn’t trust him, neither. But, he guessed, he was the sheriff now. He wondered if his Pappy would be proud to see him, Town Sheriff, hauling away the dead, and him not daring to cry nor quiver.

He rolled the broken hunk of lead between his fingers, thought how strange it was that something so small, just a little piece of metal, could do so much wrong in people’s lives, like rules writ down in a book or the way a man might feel about a woman in the quiet places where no-one could see, in those places where the rules and the laws didn’t make a whit of difference, down in the places where folk hide their hurt. How in places like this, down here among the dead and the crooked ghosts, there were no rules, no laws, only hurt.

He raised his arm and tossed the slug into the darkness. That was a hurt he was done with hiding. It could stay here, with the ghosts, where it belonged.


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Dan Rabarts is a New Zealand writer of fantasy, horror, science fiction and the odd things in between. He has twice been a finalist for New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards, both for fiction and non-fiction. His fiction can be found in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Aurealis, in anthologies including Regeneration - New Zealand Speculative Fiction, and at the Tales from the Archives and Wily Writers’ podcasts. His audio narrations can be heard at StarShipSofa and Tales to Terrify, among others.  Find him lurking on the web at dan.rabarts.com.

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6 Comments on “The Crooked Mile”

6 Responses to “The Crooked Mile”

  1. Darcy Perry says:

    I was moved by this story. I particularly like the ‘rite of passage’ feel to it. Well done, that man.

  2. Kevin Maclean says:

    Nice. A twisted story from the Crooked Mile. And I like the way the story is resolved in Rosco’s mind and not necessarily in “reality”…

  3. I enjoyed not only the story and its resolution but the narrator’s voice. It felt like a blend of first person and third because the narrator spoke as though he was in/from the world of the story. Well done. Good luck with the lightning.

  4. H.E. Roulo says:

    Nice job. This was enjoyable and not something where I could predict what could happen next.

  5. […] it has served as both an inspiration and a goal, so I was absolutely stoked when my short story The Crooked Mile was accepted for the […]

  6. […] Published: August, 2013 in Beneath Ceaseless Skies […]

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