“...and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”

—Qu’ran 5:32

The toughest man I ever met? That’s an easy answer to give, but a tricky tale to tell.

Mister Hadj was from the same place as my rattlesnake of a Pa. Araby, or someplace like, though I don’t rightly know the name since neither him nor my Pa ever said a blasted word about the Old Country. You’d ask and ask, and all you’d get back was a look as hard as rocks. No use digging after that.

I’ve ridden with good men and bad men, but I never rode with a man like Mister Hadj. That wasn’t his proper name. Just a way of calling the old man respectful-like. My Pa taught me that, if I ever met a man from the Old Country, to call him ‘Hadj.’ Damn near the only thing that sonuvabitch ever taught me.

Anyhow, a good few years back now, when I was a young, full-of-hisself bounty hunter, I fell in with Mister Hadj in the Black Hills. We rode together about a year. He was a little leather-brown knot of a man with a moonlight-white beard, and he took an immediate and powerful shine to me on account of my Pa’s being from Araby.

Now, understand, I’m a bastard. I carry my momma’s name—O’Connor. But the way I look—little darker than the average man, I know, and you can see the hatchet nose—well, I get taken for a lot of things. South of the border, I’ve fibbed that I was half-Mexican. Lived a summer trading with the Cheyenne, claiming to be part redman. Even got chased outta town once when I winked at the wrong girl—they was sure as could be that I was a mulatto!

It can be hell, sometimes, being different things to different folks. But it can be right useful, too.

Well, Mister Hadj musta smelled the Old Country in my blood, somehow. Like I say, he took a shine to me. And my knowing how to call him respectfully seemed to seal it for him. I can’t say I ever understood it, but Mister Hadj was the kind of man you wanted on your side, so I wasn’t about to complain.

For what it’s worth, I was the last man ever saw him alive.

♦ ♦ ♦

The last time I rode with Mister Hadj, we was in a little shit town in Texas, trailing Parson Lucifer’s gang. Old Parson Lucifer was an ex-preacher, mad as a rabid dog. Said he took the name ‘cause he was “part blessed and part damned, like any man.” Can’t say I ever saw the blessed part, though.

Like I said, the man was out of his blasted mind. Anything ruthless or nasty you might have heard about his gang was probably the plain truth. That three-day-slow murder of the blacksmith and his wife in Deadwood, done with their own smithing tools? That weren’t no tale. The widower sheriff of Redemption and his baby boys getting their ears chopped off and force-fed to them? Parson Lucifer’d done that, too.

We were in the employ of the town of Crossblood, where even the old Sunday school teacher was foaming at the mouth to see Parson Lucifer and his boys strung up. They’d lost a lot to that gang. Most of the gang had been caught before we ever got hired—and what got done to ‘em wasn’t none too pretty, neither.

But Parson Lucifer and his two sons were still out there.

Well, one and a half of his sons, anyway. To hear it told, two sheriff’s deputies had fired three shots each into his youngest, Shambles. Wasn’t nothing left but a bloody pulp shaped like a man. But Parson Lucifer and his eldest, James, went through the trouble of killing two more men just in order to haul the younger boy’s body away.

Now, Mister Hadj and me wasn’t the only hunters hunting these dogs, but it was us that found ‘em. Rather, it was him that did. By serenading the rocks.

See, that old man could sing. I don’t think he knew what half the words meant. But when Mister Hadj started in on them cowboy songs—well, as sure as I’m standing here, when that man got to crooning a tune he made the earth itself cry. This ain’t just me tale-telling, you hear? I seen tears fall from big red rocks when the old man hummed. Heard stones weep as they parted before him.

So when Mister Hadj said that a stone in the road told him where to find Parson Lucifer, I didn’t doubt it. And though it still spooked me, I didn’t flinch when he sang softly to a great big cliff-face until it wept and opened us a passage to a perfect ambush perch.

Y’all ain’t got to believe me for it to be truth.

♦ ♦ ♦

I never learned Mister Hadj’s Christian name, but tell the truth I don’t think he was a Christian. Not to say he wasn’t living Christianly, you hear—when we were down Mexico way, that man’d toss his last peso at the first beggar what asked. But I don’t think he’d ever touched a Bible in his life. And Sunday to him was just another day.

Every evening, he’d roll out this funny little rug. Then he’d turn his back to the setting sun, bow down and say some’a his words. Heathen praying, far as I could tell.

“You gonna do that every night?” I’d asked him early on.

“Should be more,” he’d said in that rocks-and-honey voice. And that was all he’d ever say on the matter.

No, it wasn’t nothing Christian. But my momma taught me that another man’s religion was like another man’s wife—none of my goddamn business. That old gal taught me a lot of lessons, but sticking to my own business was just about the best of ‘em.

Granted, he ain’t seemed to like words a whole lot. Never said much more than “Yup,” “Nope,” “I reckon,” and “Good, huh?” Once in a while, when he’d get real mad, he’d start to talking his Old Country talk, sounding like... like a man clearing his throat with flowers.

I suppose it would have drove a lot of men mad, riding with a man as quiet as that. And I can’t say that, once in a while, I didn’t wish Mister Hadj a bit more social. But I’ve always liked my quiet. Ain’t nothing in this world drives me up the wall like riding with a man who keeps on talking when there ain’t nothing to say.

I always knew Mister Hadj was there, and that was all I needed to know. By my hope of being saved, I’ll tell you I never saw a man as good with a gun. It wasn’t natural, the things that old man could do with a Navy Colt or a Winchester. You’ll think I’m talking tall, but I’d swear it before the Almighty hisself: I seen Mister Hadj shoot the buck teeth off a jumping jackrabbit. Seen him shoot another man’s bullets out the air. Seen him shoot more than a couple men, too. We made a over a dozen bounties in our year together. And not all of ‘em were alive. Not by a clean sight.

♦ ♦ ♦

We was spying on Parson Lucifer and his son from our hiding place high in the cliff-face when Mister Hadj, for reasons knowed only to him at the time, insisted we wait till the next day to nab the bastards. Well, I didn’t want to hear that. I was a foolish young man in those days. Hot and headstrong, with even more to prove than your average prairie boy.

“Tummarah,” he said, making the word sound like his Old Country talk. He was loading his Colt with funny-looking bullets. Silver, if I didn’t miss my guess.

“Tomorrow!? We’ve got ‘em dead to rights right now! With them powers you got—”

Mister Hadj looked up from his gun and ran a hand over his beard. “Powers? Shut up, you. Just a knack.”

“A knack?! You can—”

I stopped, knowing I’d flapped my gums too much. The old man didn’t like it when I brought up the things he could do. His eyes narrowed like I’d just called his momma a whore. Somewhere out there in the purple early evening, a coyote howled.

Mister Hadj spit at my feet and jabbed a tree-branch trigger finger at me. “Talk too much. Just heed, huh? Tummarah.”

“Now look here,” I said. “You know I respect your experience. And I do try to heed you, but—”

“Should be more,” the old man said, and turned his back to me.

Now, if I’d had half a head on my shoulders, that woulda been the end of it. But I was young, a little fired up, and a lot of stupid. I thought I could make Mister Hadj respect me. And half a whisky flask later I just knew I could do it by bushwhackin’ two outlaws singlehanded. So after Mister Hadj’d turned his back to the sunset, said his ‘Should be more’ rug-prayer to his heathen god and gone to sleep, I snuck down the cliff.

Like I said, young and stupid. If I hadn’t been drunk on top of that, I might have given a second thought to those silver bullets Mister Hadj’d been fiddling with.

Them boys was too smart to set a campfire. But the moon was big and bright and by its light I could see Parson Lucifer’s white preacher’s collar. He was snoring away, but his son James was on watch. I crept up behind James, close and quiet.

Now, even a boy as brash as I was knows that taking on two men at once—even if one of ‘em is sleeping—requires getting underhanded. And when it comes to a gang of killers like Parson Lucifer’s, well, I got no problem shooting a man in the back. So that’s what I done. Three shots right up that boy James’s spine.

Excepting it wasn’t James that I shot. It wasn’t James that turned around. It was the other boy. The dead one. I swear it by God and my momma’s grave.

That boy Shambles just stared at me, something like a smile on his rotten, chopped-steak half-a-face. I put another slug right through his eyeball, but the boy didn’t even bleed. Now I’d heard that when he was a natural living man, they called him Shambles on account of his funny walk. But when I shot that boy four times and he ain’t stopped coming at me, well, that name wasn’t so funny no more.

My mouth dried up, my heart hammered hard, and I screamed and ran back the way I’d come. But there was Parson Lucifer cut right across my path, wide awake and a revolver in his gray-gloved hand. His boy James was beside him.

They didn’t shoot me. Just laughed and told me to drop my gun or they’d give me to Shambles. I heard the dead boy laughing through his opened throat and—I won’t lie—I wet myself. Then I dropped my gun.

♦ ♦ ♦

A half hour later I found myself lying trussed up on the ground with two teeth knocked out. Parson Lucifer’s boot-heel was digging into my cheek, and I was wishing I’d listened to Mister Hadj ‘stead of letting my hot blood send me off half-cocked.

“Don’t look so worried, boy,” the old bandito laughed. “I ain’t going to kill you yet. No, you got to die in a special way. A slow way. That hex what raised my boy Shambles is constantly calling for fresh blood. Having you here, well, it saves me dangerous raidin’ on a town.” He took his boot from my face and strutted slowly into view. He smiled a nasty little smile and looked up at the night sky. “The spilling, though, has to happen at sunrise, when Shambles sleeps. So you got yourself another few hours to live.”

Tears started to burn in my eyes. It’s one thing to get shot, but it’s another thing entire to have your blood spilled for black magic. I swallowed and foolishly tried to play on the guilty conscience of a man who didn’t know what conscience was.

“You know you killed a little girl during that last robbery? Eight years old and you—” I felt fear filling me, but I still wasn’t ready to make the man shoot me premature for naming him for the monster he was. I switched up to make like I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. “Now, could be it was an accident...,” I started.

But Parson Lucifer just frowned at me like a disappointed uncle. “Boy, ain’t nothing involving a pistol and Parson Lucifer ever an accident.”

A better man would have called Parson Lucifer a devilish, dog-faced son of a whore just then. But it wasn’t a better man lying there with his face in the dirt. It was just me, and I kept my peace as that devilish, dog-faced son of a whore went on.

“The girl died for a purpose, boy—more than most folk these days can claim. Every man and every child must play his part. I ravage so that our Lord Christ can heal.”

“And I guess you make a nice living doing it, don’t you?”

The old bastard smiled. “There’s a Caesar in all of us, boy, and we must render unto him what is his. But the girl’s was just one life. Even way the hell out here, there’s a lot of lives to go around. Ain’t any one of ‘em any more sacred than another, far as God’s concerned. You think our savior cares more about some snot-nosed child than about a sinner like me? You must not read your Bible then, boy. Ain’t no man ever kept Jesus’ love busier than I have.”

That thing he called his son shambled into my view and gibbered something. Whoever it used to be, right then it just looked like a plate of bloody meat walking on two legs. My breath caught in my chest.

“And what about that creature there?” I said, trying to make the bold in me cover up the scared pissless.

“My hex brought my boy Shambles back alive, even after what them snaky deputies done to him. That’s the Lord’s work, boy. Same thing our savior did with Lazarus. This here’s a Christian hex I put on my beautiful baby boy.”

I couldn’t hardly help myself. “Mister, I don’t know what to call that, ‘cept to say that it’s about as Christian as pissin’ in the pulpit on a Sunday morning.”

And at that moment Mister Hadj appeared from I-don’t-know-where, looking to my frightened eyes like an avenging angel of the Lord.

He sang a quick string of words in his talk—sounded similar to his sunset prayers, best as I could tell. The rocks around us wailed right back, and Parson Lucifer looked all around, frantic-like. Then Mister Hadj shot five of them silver bullets into Shambles.

That thing what used to be a living man stopped and dropped to the ground. There wasn’t no blood coming from where Mister Hadj had shot him, but the way he started to moaning, well, it was like all them bullets that he oughtn’t have been able to walk away from had all caught up with him.

There was one last howl, like a demon getting his tooth yanked by the meanest barber in the world. Then Shambles stopped moving, stopped kicking, and died an honest death.

Mister Hadj already had his gun on Parson Lucifer, and now he was whistling “Bright River Valley.” The rocks kept a-wailing. And I swear to y’all that a little piece of flint jumped up and cut my bonds.

But by then the boy James, who’d been off shaking a sagebrush when Mister Hadj showed up, had his gun on me.

James gestured toward me with the gun and growled at Mister Hadj. “Looks like we’re all of us in a fix here. But my Daddy can’t see no hangman.” He said it in that fast-slow Kansas City way that drives a prairie boy like me clean out my mind, and his Pa finally wore a look of real fear. “Now, I don’t know what kind of Injun magic you got hold of here, but my Daddy can’t see no hangman. You hear, old man? Whatever kind of red devilishness you done worked against my Daddy’s hex, you’d best hope you can lift it and bring back my baby brother. I got a clean shot here at your–”

There was no movement that I saw. But there was a shot, and there was smoke coming from Mister Hadj’s gun. And a boy with a hole in his head was lying where a fast-talking murderer had just stood.

“Hurt alotta people. Price to pay. Should be more.” Nine words. For Mister Hadj it was like a whole sermon. He looked up at a patch of moonlit cloud in the eastern sky and nodded, like he’d been arguing with the Almighty but was granting God a point.

He didn’t even flinch when Parson Lucifer spun around and shot him twice in the chest.

I tried to stop it—fumbled James’s dropped gun into my hands and fired in Parson Lucifer’s direction, feeling like my anger alone could push the bullet through his skull.

I’m proud to say I killed that hex-casting sonuvabitch.

But I wasn’t fast enough. Parson Lucifer and both his boys were dead. But that didn’t change Mister Hadj’s lying there with two holes in him, and it didn’t stop the little red rivers that seeped into the dirt around his old oak root of a body.

♦ ♦ ♦

As I say, I was still half-green back then, but I’d already come to know by sight which wounds a man might walk away from. One look told me Mister Hadj wasn’t going nowhere else in this life.

Any other man would have been screaming hisself silly. But Mister Hadj was so quiet I could hear the wind whispering in the brush. He grit his teeth and refused the rum and laudanum I offered him. “Tufusahal,” he said, and I thought he was speaking his Old Country talk. I wished my Pa—or anyone from the Old Country—was there, just to hear him say his peace. Hell of a thing to have to speak your last word to a man who can’t understand you.

But he said it again and I realized I did understand. “Tough as all Hell,” the old man was saying, the first time I ever heard him talk proud.

“Yeah. You are that, Mister Hadj,” I said to him, “Ain’t no man anywhere can begrudge you that.”

That man bought my life with his, God as my witness. I ain’t seen what I’d done to deserve it, to tell the truth. I told him as much, as he lay there dying.

The old coot spit out some blood and smiled real mean-like. “For you?” he said, and shook his head. He pointed his long brown trigger finger up at the sky, like he was naming a target. “For him. Hurt alotta people. Price to pay. Should be more.” And that was the last thing he said.

I watched the light go slowly out of his eyes, saw that smile go slack. I smelled crushed roses in the air, though I can’t say where the scent came from. For a long time I just sat there, my thoughts mingling with the moonshadows.

I spent that sleepless night burying him with a short-handled shovel, his guns and his little heathen rug beside him. Come morning I was wore out as man could be, but it was time to leave.

“Ashes to ashes,” I said, by way of goodbye to the old man, “dust to dust.” Then I dragged myself eastward, my eyes half-blinded by the rising sun.

Read Comments on this Story (10 Comments)

Saladin Ahmed’s first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, featuring the same characters as his story “Where Virtue Lives” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #15, was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Crawford, Gemmell, and British Fantasy Awards and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. He was nominated twice for the Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction/Fantasy Writer for his short stories, which have appeared in Year’s Best Science Fiction and have been translated into a half-dozen languages. He has also written nonfiction for NPR Books, Salon, and The Escapist. He holds an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, an MA in English from Rutgers, and lives near Detroit with his wife and twin children.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
Return to Issue #43