Extract from Dead Man’s Hand

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

Death rode out of the desert on a pale horse. He came on the fifth day of the rains, and although his mount was caked in mud and his clothes were sodden, I could still smell the sweet stench of death. It takes more than water to wash all that away.

“Looking for someone,” he said, pausing at the outskirts of Deadwood as if waiting for permission to enter. He did not look down as he spoke. Rain dripped heavily from his wide hat, making much of his face difficult to see. He stared on into the town, the quagmire streets and timber buildings a uniform shade of grey as if the rains had washed all colour into the ground.

“That someone got a name?” I asked. Still he did not look, but his hand moved up and rested gently on his thigh, a hand’s width nearer to his revolver.

“Looking for Temple.”

I pressed back against the wall of my store, wishing the timber would give way and let me retreat some more. I felt myself at the confluence of all this stranger’s senses. If I breathed the wrong way, twitched at the wrong moment, he would put a bullet through my head.

“Temple,” he said again. His voice was quieter now, barely audible above the downpour.

“I don’t know any Temple,” I said.

The man rose slightly in his saddle and looked up at the sky, sniffing, and that was when I saw his face. The shadows moved away from beneath his hat and rain struck his nose, his cheeks, his forehead, running in rivulets along the deep scars etching his visage with unknown histories. One eye socket filled quickly with water, a liquid memory of its absent occupant. He opened his mouth and flicked out his tongue, catching rain, gulping it down, sighing and slumping in his saddle.

Then he turned and looked at me with his one good eye, and his threat faded away into sadness.

“He’s here,” the man said, and suddenly I wanted to leave, flee the town to let the future have its way.

He kicked his heels, and death rode into Deadwood on a pale horse.

I stood for a few minutes watching the horse, the man, and wondering how I knew that a change had come. I was not a man immune to change – in my short life I had already been a farmer, a grave digger and now a shop owner – but its influence usually cast over my life without me inviting it in. One day I worked the fields and the next I dug graves, and the transition had never been something I dwelled upon. It was unimportant because it was merely a part of existence. But in this disfigured man’s shadow there dwelled the promise of chaos. I saw it pecking at his horse’s hooves, heard it in the sound of his coat moving on the horse’s hair, smelled it in his wake. Deadwood would not sleep easy tonight.

I waited outside my shop for a few minutes after the stranger had passed by. There was no one else out in the street. It was almost dusk, and the rains had been keeping people indoors most of the past few days. I felt suddenly alone, abandoned by my friends and neighbours, left in Deadwood to face whatever the next day would bring. But I saw lights on in the barbershop across the street, and vague sounds of drunken revelry came from the saloon a few buildings down from my own. Suddenly feeling the need for company I locked my store and made my way there. I kept to the timber walkways as much as possible, but at one point when I crossed a stretch of waterlogged muck I glanced down and saw strange footprints still filling with water. The rains would eventually wash them away, the light was fading, and perhaps I had only imagined it — but for a second or two I could have sworn that those prints held echoes, like ghost shadows with a life of their own.

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