Outskirts of Poho County
The sound of hooves pounding the ground echoed across the night sky. The rider could see the flickering embers of candles and lanterns reflected under the moonlight from his perch atop the rough leather saddle as the majestic creature beneath him pumped its legs, muscles contracting as it moved at full speed across the open prairie, kicking up dust in its wake.
The rider swore he could almost hear the sound of flapping leathery wings mingle with the whistling wind in his ears. But he knew he must be imagining things. He hadn't seen it in nearly a whole day. He must have outrun it, at least for now. He hoped that he might find relative safety in the tiny settlement up ahead.
Or was he simply condemning the simple townsfolk ahead to a horrible, grisly fate? He knew he couldn't think like that. He had to believe that there would be strength in numbers. One man alone couldn't stop this terrible tale from unraveling into a twisted, bloody ending.
With a renewed sense of vigor, the rider kicked his heels into the horse's side, spurring the animal forward even faster than before. The horse let out a shrill whinny of exertion, its breath coming in short, sporadic gasps of cloudy mist emanating from its flared nostrils. The rider knew that he had been pushing the beast far too hard for far too long, but he had to insist on moving at this pace. He knew that the horse would be fine once it got the chance to eat, drink and rest.
The settlement ahead began to grow larger in the rider's view as he drew nearer. The rider pulled tightly on the reins, signaling the horse to slow its pace ever so slightly, reducing their gait to a quick trot rather than full-on galloping. The horse and its rider passed a couple of small ramshackle, nondescript buildings on the outskirts of the town, their uses unknown. For all the rider knew, they were long-since abandoned when the town began to colonize further inward within the settlement.
The uneven clumps of dirt and grass began to give way to a poorly carved dirt road, but it was far easier to maneuver than the hills and gullies he had been traveling across since leaving Kistle County several days earlier. The cloud of dust behind the horse began to shrink, the hooves now simply kicking up tiny mounds of dirt and dust as it clomped into the town.
The rider's beaten up old leather trench coat flapped listlessly in a slight breeze as its stead yet again reduced its speed to a slow, ambling walk. Its rhythmic hoof beats reverberated across the town, signaling the rider's approach. A couple of curious townsfolk poked their heads out of windows or doors, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger entering their land at such a late hour of the night.
They passed a few small houses as they reached the center of town, a tiny strip of dilapidated old wooden structures consisting of a general store, a towering inn that jutted up into the night sky like a poorly lit beacon, a tiny saloon and not much else. A deep rumbling within the rider's stomach reminded him that it had been over two days since his food rations had disappeared, and he hadn't had anything to drink in almost half that time.
He steered the horse towards a couple of posts dug into the earth and hopped off, his boots shifting slightly in the crumbling dirt. He tethered the horse to the post, noticing that a trough sat before it, half-filled with water. The horse began to greedily slurp up what was available, not caring that a thin layer of scum had begun to creep across its surface. The rider gently patted the horse's flank, silently thanking the beast for guiding him this far safely.
His spurs clicked against the old wooden steps as the rider mounted the porch that stretched across the entire front of the saloon. The lantern hanging by the swinging double doors in a rusted iron sconce was lit, its flames flickering and dancing weakly in the slightly cool night air. A distant thunderhead roiled across the black sky to the East, threatening a storm. The rider was distantly aware of the fact that the entire township would become nothing more than a giant mud bowl should the storm hit hard enough.
He pushed through the doors, his leather coat stretching and squeaking at the seams from the effort. He was aware of what a sight he must be, after riding for so many days through the open wilderness. His face was marked with a dozen tiny scratches from bramble and stray branches. His hands, rough and calloused, clenched and unclenched with jittery, unspent nerves. His coat and pants were smeared with dirt, mud and in more than one place, caked with a much darker liquid that had grown crusty and dry, flaking off as he moved, floating in his wake like macabre dust motes.
The inside of the saloon was poorly lit, a few haphazardly placed lanterns and a candelabra or two, casting withering shafts of firelight across the place. The rider noted that there were a few patrons within, each one accompanied by little more than their own private thoughts and their liquor.
One or two of them cast the newcomer with sidelong glances but didn't dare greet him or question his appearance. This place had seen more than its share of fights, most of them ending in a funeral and a widow or two left in their wake. Blood had been shed in this place, and it wouldn't be long before it happened again.
The rider slowly approached the bar, the sounds of his boot heels clicking against the wooden floorboards drowning out the muffled whispers that began to circulate around the tavern. Ignoring them, the rider took a seat at one of the rough-hewn chairs situated in front of the old bar counter, never removing his long leather trench coat. He did, however, take off the dusty old hat perched atop his head, revealing a long, straggly mane of dark, inky black hair that spilled down around his neck like a polluted waterfall.
The more intuitive onlookers with a far more curious eye could just barely make out a couple of strange dark markings that trailed across the man's neck, seemingly stretching all the way down past the collar of his thin cotton shirt.
Partially hidden by sweat-stained bangs that hung across the man's forehead were a pair of eyes that had seen their fair share of pain and suffering, betraying a lifetime of horror better saved for battlefields and nightmares. The soft brown of his corneas seemed to glow like gold beneath the weak white-orange flames of the lantern hanging just behind the bar, causing the various bottles beneath it to sparkle and glow with a surreal sheen.
A grizzled old man who was probably only in his forties but had been hardened by too many years of alcohol, gunfights and hard work approached the rider from the other side of the bar, clutching a water-marked glass in one hand a dirty old bar rag in the other. Les absentmindedly wiped the inside of the glass with the rag, despite the fact that neither one of them were going to help the other get any cleaner. His graying hair had once been a lustrous hazelnut brown, but years and years of stress and sun had caused him to loose the shine it once had, leaving behind a balding mess of gray and white tufts. His eyes darted to and fro in their sockets nervously, and he licked his dry, cracked lips. The tiny valleys and craters if his skin were cast into shadows, giving the man a rather sinister and aged look.
"Help you, sir?" the old bartender asked.
These were the first words that had been spoken to the rider since…He honestly couldn't remember the last time he had spoken with another human. It took him a few moments to process the sounds and to realize that he had been directly asked a question. The bartender stared at him with slightly hooded eyes, awaiting a response. He began to wonder if the strange, battered man was a mute.
"Water," the rider finally responded, his voice raspy and crackling.
"This here's a saloon, my friend," Les explained, sitting the dirty glass and rag down on the bar in front of him. "We only serve the good stuff 'round here."
The rider met his gaze with eyes of steel. The bartender watched with mounting horror as the man reached into the folds of his trench coat, knowing that he may have just made the last mistake of his life. There was no time to reach the shotgun mounted under the bar on the far side. He should've known this stranger was a gunslinger…
With an echoing slam, the rider pounded his fist against the bar, opening his palm to reveal several dirty coins and a couple of crumpled, rolled up bills. It was more money than the old man had seen one person carry in a long time.
"Water." The rider spoke more clearly this time, his tone unmistakable. Bring me what I want and there won't be any trouble.
"Comin' right up," Les mumbled, leaving the money laying on the bar. He moved instinctively, his years of experience taking over as he let his body move on autopilot. He was much too preoccupied with trying to figure out who this man might be and why had chosen tonight to come carousing into Poho.
He sat a glass of filmy water before the stranger who greedily scooped it up and poured the liquid down his gullet, a couple of small streams leaking through his dry lips, sluicing down his chin, tracing the odd symbols that trailed down his neck, glistening like trails of sweat.
The man finished his water, quietly sitting the glass back down next to the small pile of money in front of him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and seemed to visibly relax for the first time in what looked like days. His entire body just shrugged in on itself, shuddering slightly. His eyes, once permanently fixed into tiny slits of concentration, slid open further, softening.
"Thank you," the rider said softly, nodding a couple of times in gratitude.
"Lester," the bartender said, pointing at himself. "Call me Les. Everybody else does. Don't bother me, none. Welcome to Poho County."
The man in the trench coat did not respond. He simply stared down at his hands, inspecting the cracks and lacerations with great interest. Les followed the man's gaze and began an inspection of his own. He whistled lowly.
"You been ridin' a long ways, feller?" he asked.
"Kistle County," the rider replied despondently. He rubbed his face, as if he were trying to stay awake, though it seemed to be a losing battle. His eyes, now that they were loose and relaxed, fluttered a few times, and for once, he looked about as vulnerable as a stray cat, finally seeking shelter from a storm.
"That's more 'n a week's journey," Les exclaimed, leaning his weight against his arms as he propped himself upon the bar with his palms outstretched. "It's a wonder you weren't skinned alive by some injuns."
"I ain't afraid of them," the man replied. "They ain't what'll get you in the dark."
Les felt a tingle run up and down his spine. Something about the way this man spoke sent tiny shivers of fear through his body. What could be worse than a swarm of injuns coming out of the night and dragging you off to God knows where to have their way with you?
"Who are you?" Les asked.
The rider looked up at him, wrapped his hands around the empty glass before him, gripping it so tight Les was afraid it might shatter within his grasp. His eyes seemed to shake with a deep, primordial fear. Eyes that had seen something so horrific, so unrelentingly terrible, that words could not express how chilling it must have been.
"A man on the run," the rider replied carefully, his voice dropping low.
Les swallowed, hard. The lump in his throat traveled down, deep down, and he could almost feel it nestle in his chest, latching onto his heart, never letting go, filling him with a sense of dread.
"On the run from what?"
"The devil," the mysterious rider said, and in his eyes, Les saw the truth.