The Stage Coach
Wyoming – March 4, 1874


The mid afternoon was growing long when the hard packed ground began to be mottled with the strange patches of black stone.  A spot here, a larger spot there ... and then the trail faded away to be replaced by what looked like four unbroken ribbons of black stone stretching into the distance as far as the eye could see.


A road, of some kind! 

A road, a manufactured road, appearing out of the surroundings and coming into focus!

The Cowboy stopped his horse and took a drink from his canteen, considering his options.  This was a road of some kind though how the road had come to be here or who had built the road, he had no idea.  He put his canteen back on his saddle and gently eased his horse back into a slow walk.  The sound of his horse's shoes on the black road louder now.

Up ahead the black road seemed to flower off to each side ... there were four separate curving loops that merged to the left and right into another wide black road that ran perpendicular to the black road that the Cowboy was traveling upon.  There was a gentle rise ahead where the black road flowered off to each side, other roads looping in wide curves back down to the other black ribbon, crossed over by a bridge of some kind, where the second black road flowed under it ... a bridge, he realized, that was simply built over the other black road but who would build a bridge over a trail or over the point where one trail crossed another?

Over this side of the bridge and on the far side were massive metal constructs ... like warped steel rails, looking like they couldn't be as strong as they evidently were.  Atop those metal constructs were large, well-worn and rusty metal signs, some faded green with white borders, white lettering and numbers ... smaller signs with faded yellow or orange backgrounds and black bordering, lettering and numbers.  The Cowboy stopped his horse again, pushed his hat up a bit and leaned forward slightly in his saddle, resting his gloved hands together on the saddle horn, looking up at the metal signs suspended above him on the metal construct.  The signs held strange letters though the numbers were recognizable.  Whoever had made this road, whoever had made the signs, hadn't spoken the same language that the Cowboy did.  After a minute or so of trying to make sense out of all the symbols, letters and numbers on the signs he simply gave up, shaking his head slowly in amazement then nudging his horse back into a slow walk forward.

Thirteen days ago had been the day of The White; when The White came and went, when things changed ...  The White always brought a lot of strange things from ... somewhere else, and sometimes the White took things from here to somewhere else.  Things.  Livestock.  People.  Places.

Even entire towns and cities ... 

The Cowboy had never seen anyone taken by The White ever come back.  Sometimes The White didn't take things, rather The White changed those things and not for the better.  Memories ... not good memories, either.

The Cowboy shook his dark thoughts away and looked around in muted amazement as he rode.  All of this, this road, these metal constructs, these signs ... must all be from somewhere else ... somewhere, maybe somewhen else, maybe not even of this Earth, the Cowboy mused.  As he slowly rode along the black road, he noticed markings on the black road itself and then realized that the black road had been marked all the way back the way that he had come ... only he had been too lost in his own thoughts to notice the stripes and dashes that decorated the middle and sides of the black road.  Sometimes there were strange symbols in the middle of the road, strange writing in what looked like white and yellow paint.  A long white painted line highlighted the edge of the black road on each side and a dashed line down the middle of the black road divided the black road into two smaller ribbons.  Sometimes the line in the center was solid, other times it doubled itself and ran parallel for a while.  Sometimes it was solid on one side and dashed on the other.  The pattern sometimes alternated.  The Cowboy quickly lost interest in trying to make sense of the markings since none of them seemed to warn of any kind of danger.

Every now and then a rusty or bent metal pole, more often than not with some kind of odd faded or rusty metal sign attached, would be driven into the ground on the side of the black road ...  sometimes the odd metal signs were too rusted or covered in years of elemental exposure to be seen clearly.  Other times the sign would have numbers displayed, none of which made any more sense than the stripes and paint lines on the surface of the black road.  As the Cowboy rode, larger metal supports appeared ... one crossing the road completely with large, rusty and faded signs mounted atop the metal supports.  Strange words ... in a strange language.  Almost all of the signs showed evidence of having been used for target practice ... bullet holes, shotgun pellet patterns ... a few that looked like they had holes melted all the way through the sign.

Maybe others had passed this way ... maybe they had tried to figure out the strange markings and what the signs meant.  Maybe those who came this way before the Cowboy had simply grown tired of the mystery and instead took our their frustration on the strange metal signs using whatever firepower they had at their disposal.

The thought of that made the Cowboy give a soft chuckle, barley louder than the hot breeze that blew over him.

The White had come and gone ... again ... and who knew what it had taken or what it had brought with it and left behind here where such things shouldn't be.  The Cowboy directed his horse over to one of the nearer signs ... something had caught his eye ... fine strands, like spiderweb, wafted gently in the breeze.  The more the Cowboy rode along the black road, the more the signs showed evidence of the fine, almost invisible spiderweb-like strands.

Fifteen minutes later the road once again began to disappear, slowly at first, then in an ever increasing amount.  A patch of dirt here, sometimes with grass or weeds growing out of it, then more patches, then entire sections of the road had been covered.  A few minutes more and the blafck surface of the road was vanishing slowly into the surroundings until all trace of it was gone from sight and the Cowboy was once again travelling on a well used dirt road through scenery that was recognizable for what it was, if not familiar in passing.


The Cowboy had been following the hard beaten dirt road for about an hour now.  Gone were all traces of the strange road, the metal signs, the strange paint markings ... but now there was something new.  A
faint trace of a sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh, a smell that tickled his nose and brought back memories, not good memories, of another place, another time.  Shiloh, where he had worn Confederate gray in stark contrast to the Union blue.  A time when the thunder of crew served artillery made the air scream and the ground shake and took men to glory in an orange and black blossom of fire and fury and a shower of shattered metal filling the air like angry rain.  He remembered the fading cries of those who had existed one instant and ceased to exist the next.  Always the scream of the wounded and the silence of the dead ... and always that smell ... that sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh.

The Cowboy closed his eyes for the count of five, then for five more and felt his eyes burn behind his eye lids.  He would need sleep, soon, and more sleep than he'd like to admit that he really needed.  A good meal and a hot bath might not be a bad idea, either, if he could find a town or someone who could put him up for the night and was willing to do a little trade in return.  There was a time in his life, years ago, no, a lifetime ago, when there were no good memories ... when everything but his mind had been shattered and lost and burned to ash and swept to the four winds and now this smell, this scent in the air, reminded the Cowboy of that dark, miserable time.  A time of war, of a nation divided, and a time he thought he could forget with the passage of years and a bottle of whiskey in front of him but even that hope had faded.  The Cowboy shook himself out of his memories and gently prodded his horse on, riding and thinking and against his better judgment ... still remembering.

Men did things in war ... things that they needed to do but should never have to do.  Doing those things didn't mean that men were proud of those things that they had done ... but you did those things just the same, especially if you wanted to survive, and it was those memories that the Cowboy remembered.  It was those memories that caused the Cowboy to come awake with a loud cry on some nights and it was those memories that came back to haunt him when he closed his eyes and prayed for rest.

The Cowboy took out his flask of whiskey and took a long pull from it, was about to put it back up in his vest pocket, then decided different and took another long pull from it.  He shook the flask ... still about a third left.  He'd need more when he could find it but until then the whiskey was like holy water ... it kept his demons at bay, especially at times like now when those demons decided to gang up on him and haunt him for no better reason than they could.

"Sing." the Cowboy whispered.

And his enchanted Colt started to sing there in its holster as thread thin lines glowed pale blue and moved like living things across the etched surface of his revolver, no two lines ever the same and the weapon shrouded in a pale blue luminence of its own making.  Sometimes the Colt talked to him, in whispers, but not now ... Now it just sang.  The Colt sang tirelessly in a softly undulating, decidedly feminine voice that was as etheral as it was now long familiar to him.  The voice was ancient, soothing, reaching through him to touch his soul, to touch his troubled spirit and ease his heavy heart.  The songs the Colt sang he couldn’t ever understand but the songs that the weapon sang never failed to calm him, songs that called to him across the span of time with a voice that made him long for the woman who had given him the gift of the enchantment that now lived in his Colt.

So many memories.

Some good, some bad ... but most of them bad.
 

Half an hour later
, the Colt still singing softly there in the holster on his hip, the Cowboy came upon the stage coach.  It was easy to recognize the stage coach for what it was as its familiar outline was illuminated by the bright orange glow of the late afternoon sun.  It was odd that a stage coach would be stopped here like this, seemingly abandoned.  He stopped his horse a hundred feet away from the stage coach and checked out the situation, patting his horse and looking for any sign of the coach team or passengers.

Nothing.

Nothing moved around the stage coach and yet that
sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh had grown stronger, more noticeable, in the last few minutes.

Strange.

"Stop singing." the Cowboy said softly.

The Colt stopped singing.

The Cowboy took his canteen, shook it, took a long drink, paused in thought, then put the canteen back on his saddle and took out his flask of whiskey from his duster's inside pocket, taking a long pull and sizing up the situation.  At first glance, the coach looked like it had simply been abandoned but then he noticed the luggage still tied securely to the top and rear racks and that struck him as rather strange if not just damn odd.  Perhaps the stage coach had been abandoned by the coach team and the passengers but the Cowboy thought that unlikely since the luggage was still present.  He urged his horse to move closer, his reins in his left gloved hand, his right gloved hand resting on his right hip, near his holstered Colt revolver.

Memories ... bad memories ... whispered to him as old instincts that he had kept sharp guided his hand now, so much so that it took him a second or two to even realize where his hand was ... ready ... out of habit and training and experience.  Something wasn't right, just a feeling, but it was the same kind of feeling that had kept him alive at Vicksburg, Shiloh, and Chickamauga.  The Cowboy used a finger to gently push his hat higher off his forehead and he leaned forward in his saddle, sizing up the situation in front of him.

And there it was again, the
sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh, stronger but seemingly carried aloft on the breeze of the wind.

The coach looked abandoned; there were no signs of violence, no visible damage to suggest that the drivers and passengers, if there had been any passengers, had come to a bad end.  Surely there had been passengers because the luggage on top of the stage coach suggested the presence of paying fare.  The stage coach was upright; there was no damage to any of the wheels that he could see.  For all practical purposes, the stage coach looked like it had simply been abandoned, which was itself odd.  The Cowboy moved closer still with his curiosity overcoming his caution ...

... and ... 

his horse snorted and took a step back, drawing the reins taught in his gloved hand as it pulled its head hard to the side.  His horse took another step back ... and another.

"Whoa.  Easy.  Easy!" the Cowboy whispered, patting the horse with his gloved hand, realzing only after the fact that he had whispered.

Maybe the horse sensed something that the Cowboy didn't ... or couldn't.  The Cowboy had long ago come to understand that animals knew things before men did and it was an ignorant man who ignored the signs of an animal starting to spook when the man's own God given senses refused to show him what the animal clearly saw.  The Cowboy tugged the reins but the horse would go no further towards the stage coach, so the Cowboy slipped out of his saddle, taking the reins in his hand and walking
the horse back away from the stage coach, about 20 steps until the animal seemed calmer.   The Cowboy reached up to his saddle pack, took out a piece of metal, heat bent into a loop at the top and sharpened to a point on the other end, threaded the reins through the loop like thread through a needle, tied them off then drove the metal stake into the ground, tethering the animal in place with enough slack to keep it comfortable.  The Cowboy patted the horse with his gloved hand, reassuring the animal and that's when the hair on the back of the Cowboy's neck started to stand up.  He rubbed his gloved hand over his neck ... and found nothing.

His horse snorted again, almost softly, and moved back to the limit of the slack of its staked reins which the Cowboy still held tight in his gloved hand.

"Easy." the Cowboy whispered, patting his horse.  "What's gotten into you?"

The horse didn't reply and the Cowboy didn't expect the horse to; after all, the world hadn't gotten that strange ... yet.

The horse stood there, at the limit of its reins, staring at the stage coach.  The horses nostrals flared once and it snorted then accepted its situation.  The Cowboy patted the horse, offering reassurance and calming the animal ... and there was that feeling again, the tickling on his neck when nothing was there.

And still there was the stage coach ... itself a mystery, now more so than ever.

His horse seemed calmer now, almost tranquil so he thought it best to leave the animal there.  
The Cowboy reached up to his sadddle and  took his lever action Winchester repeating rifle out of its saddle bag.  He checked that the rifle was loaded, worked the lever to chamber a round, then approached the stage coach cautiously, his Winchester held in both hands in a manner that would allow him either to bring the weapon to bear quickly or put it up in a show of faith and trust should he find anyone in need ... or fear ... around the stage coach. 

And there it was again.

There was the faint trace of that sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh.  The smell was more of a taint than an odor and seemed to be coming strongest from the stage coach, getting stronger the closer he approached.  He stopped, clutched his Winchester, looking around, listening for … something.


Anything.

Nothing.

All of his instincts that had allowed him to survive Chicamauga and Vicksburg and Shiloh ... now those instincts, now that experience, told him to walk backwards, to untie his horse, to climb into the saddle and ride ... ride as hard and fast as he could away from here.  But that was the fear talking and fear was what got you killed, quick, because fear clouded your mind, muddled your thoughts, and spoke for you when you didn't need it to do so.

Nothing moved, not even the air ... and it was then that the Cowboy noticed that the usual annoying insects were missing from the arealeaving behind nothing but silence.  The Cowboy squatted on his heels and looked at the ruts left by the passage of the stage coach; they were deep and wide.  The coach had not only been loaded heavily but it had also been moving fast, way too fast for caution.  The distance between the hoof prints of the horses indicated that the horse team had been moving at a pace hard enough to get them lathered.  The fact that the wheel ruts and the hoof prints meandered somewhat meant that whoever had been driving the coach had been paying attention to something other than the road ahead … perhaps to … something … following behind the stage coach?

The hair on the Cowboy’s neck went straight as he spun in place, turning on his boot heels and looking back the way that the coach had come.  The path the stage coach had taken along the trail was as evident as it was wild.  The coach and its coach driver had been running from … something … but whatever it was that had been chasing the coach, its team and its passengers, had not left a trace.

No trace of pursuit yet something had been chasing the stage coach … something that was ugly enough to frighten a stage coach driver into whipping his horses almost to death in order to get away from whatever it was.

The sickly sweet and strange smell that wasn’t quite hickory and not quite burned flesh became stronger the closer he approached, and his nose wrinkled in distaste.  The Cowboy was twenty feet away from the coach when he managed to catch another recognizable shape over the top of the luggage and travel cases on the top of the coach.  It was a man, leaning and bent forward on the buck board.  

“Hello?!” the Cowboy shouted as he walked slowly up from behind, moving to the side… and that peculiar sickly-sweet smell came on strong, as if the stage coach itself was somehow producing the foul odor.  

The Cowboy covered his nose and mouth with the left sleeve of his duster and tried to breathe through the thick fabric, but the smell was there just the same.  He looked at the luggage, tied securely, but the luggage had been jostled about enough to toss it around in its strapping and roping.  The stage coach had been driven hard.

The side curtains in the coach were drawn tight and he stepped back, letting his eyes travel to the front of the stage coach.  What he saw made his mind scream within his skull, the kind of scream he had heard years before at Vicksburg when he wore the uniform of the Confederacy and had seen the horrors of the Civil War first hand …  

The Cowboy’s legs went weak, failed him and he stumbled in place before catching himself.  

The Cowboy’s wide staring eyes took in what his mind could not comprehend, what his mind refused to acknowledge as being even possible.  He found that his breath had escaped him; his heart pounded in his chest pushing blood colder than ice through his veins at a rate that caused his ears to roar.

The Cowboy wanted to run away, to scream but he could not.  He was paralyzed with fear and all that he could do was stand there and stare, open mouthed and unblinking, unable to turn away from the sight before him.  His soul fought desperately to form a sound in his throat but even that simple sound came out as little more than a strained whimper, so paralyzed with fear was he because the stage coach hadn’t been abandoned after all … No, the coach team was still here, with the coach … or what was left of them.

There, on the buckboard, illuminated by the shifting light from the auroras, was both the coach driver and the coach rider, or at least both of their still fully clothed skeletal remains were there on the buckboard, both the coach driver and the coach rider were looking back over their shoulder, looking back behind the stage coach itself but at what the Cowboy knew not.  

The skeletal remains seemed to be frozen in time; the empty sockets of the coach rider’s skull stared at the Cowboy as if mocking him.  The coach rider had been sitting on the buckboard beside the coach driver; a shortened double barrel shotgun, a coach gun, still held in his skeletal hands appeared to be in the act of reloading.  The shotgun’s breach was open and long, skeletal fingers were drawing a shell out of the coach rider’s vest pocket.  His bare skull looked over his right shoulder, looking at something that was … or had been … behind the stage coach.  Now the empty sockets of the coach rider’s skull were staring almost directly at the Cowboy, the coach rider’s jawbone open as wide as it could be … seemingly frozen in a silent, ear splitting, soul halting scream.


The Cowboy didn’t know how long he had stood there, staring at the macabre sight, but he reckoned that some time had passed before he could recover his ability to regain his senses, to reacquire his straight-thinking faculties and even then it was against his better, hard earned experience to do so.  The Cowboy stood there, rifle in hand and at the ready as he walked slowly toward the stage coach; the Cowboy’s legs were weak, his heart still pounding, and each step echoed a silent plea from his soul not to go one bit further.  The sickly-sweet smell grew strong enough to almost gag him and perhaps it was the taint of the smell that worked to arouse his senses and snap him out of his mental dullness.  

The Cowboy looked at the coach driver and the coach rider with morbid fascination … whatever had killed the two men had killed them almost instantly, stripping every bit of meat and muscle and fat and viscera from their bones in the process, a process that had barely allowed the two men one last, seemingly shared scream.

There was no sight or trace of blood … anywhere.  If it weren’t for the smell and the residue on their clothes the Cowboy thought that he might have believed that he was looking at some kind of macabre display in a museum.

His nose wrinkled … again … and itched with the acrid tingle of something not of this world.  The strange sickly-sweet smell was strongest now this close to the stage coach …

The Cowboy looked up at the coach driver … The coach driver’s skull was turned backwards, looking over his right shoulder, at whatever it was that had been chasing them.  The coach driver’s jawbone was like that of the coach rider … open as wide as it possibly could be, like the coach driver had been screaming as loud as he could … in abject fear … or in total and complete pain when whatever it was that had overtaken them had killed him.  

The Cowboy reached out a gloved finger to touch the coach driver’s hand … it was like the bones had been glued together … strong glue, keeping the two skeletons in the pose that they had died in and the Cowboy noticed that the bones were also covered with that curious iridescent sheen that covered the clothes and leather; the same dried … whatever it was … easily discernible at the edges and joints of the bones, almost like fine thread … almost like spider web in the early morning on the still dew wet grass.  The Cowboy brought his gloved finger back cautiously, sniffing it, and getting a full whiff of the sickly-sweet odor, much stronger now.  The Cowboy was glad that he was still wearing his heavy leather gloves, thinking that the residue might indeed be caustic or at least unpleasant to the touch of bare skin.

The Cowboy stepped back and looked around the stage coach again … his rifle now laid more or less casually over his right shoulder.  It made no sense from what the Cowboy could discern.  Whatever had killed the coach driver and coach rider had done so horrifically and almost instantly, or in such a short time that the two men had barely had time to scream before whatever had been chasing them was upon them, stripping their flesh and bodies while reducing them to bare bones.

The Cowboy looked closer at the clothes on the skeletons.  The cloth was glistening slightly, coated in what looked like the residue left behind after a large slug had passed across a wooden step on a porch.  Both the coach driver and the coach rider looked like they were covered in some kind of very fine cobwebs, stretched across the bare surfaces of the bones, some of the cobwebs which wafted back and forth softly in the late afternoon breeze.  The cobwebs were very fine, almost ethereal, and it had taken the Cowboy getting this close to the bones to even be able to see the cobwebs.

The Cowboy stuck the barrel of his Winchester lever action rifle up near the coach driver, using the barrel to slowly pull away a small bit of the cobwebs.  He held the rifle barrel close, looking at the cobwebs.  No … not cobwebs … because whatever these fine fibers were they had that strange glistening sheen … the same strange iridescent sheen that the clothes and bones had to them.  

The Cowboy looked around the stage coach.

The coach driver’s stance indicated that he had been driving his team hard and fast.  The coach driver’s arms and hands were outstretched, holding the reins to the team.  The Cowboy followed the tight drawn reins all the way to the bridle and tackle that still was attached to the skeletons of the four horses, hitched to the yoke of the stage coach.  His disbelieving eyes saw the stance of the skeletal horses, captured in motion, frozen at full gallop, necks stretched, mouths open in heavy breathing despite the bit, some of the horse’s legs were on the ground, others stretched out in the air.

There … the feeling that something was out there … watching … waiting.  The Cowboy looked around … nothing.

Nothing but … silence.

Complete silence.

Complete silence where complete silence should not have been.

The Cowboy took a few steps away from the stage coach and walked towards the horses.  The leather of the harnesses was also covered in that same iridescent sheen, and the sickly strange smell was stronger here, much stronger.  The horses had died like the coach driver and coach rider … horribly, painfully, and almost instantaneously.  The bones of the horses, their muscles, skin, hair … everything was gone.  The bones picked clean, coated in that iridescent sheen and covered in the fine wrapping of the cobwebs that were not cobwebs.  The Cowboy looked at the large, vacant, empty eye sockets of the lead horse, staring straight ahead, hell bent on running away from whatever it was that had finally done this to them.

No trace of blood around the horses … just all flesh and meat picked clean.

The Cowboy squatted again near the lead horse, leaning slightly, noticing that the horses were all still shod proper.  He started to rub his chin with his gloved hand, remembered that he had touched the iridescent residue just a moment or two before, and rubbed his chin with his other gloved hand.

He squatted there, lost in thought, and then he noticed something … the bones.

The bones of the horse in front of him were covered in tiny holes, holes so small that he hadn’t even noticed them until he had gotten this close to the skeletonized horses.  He looked again … dozens of tiny holes, like the holes had been drilled at random, in each bone and joint of the skeletonized horse, and from each hole there seemed to flow those strange spiderweb like filaments.  The Cowboy stood and went to look at the skull of the lead horse … the skull was covered in dozens of tiny holes drilled right into the bone, wrapped in the fine thread-like filaments.

The Cowboy walked around to the other three horses, each of their skeletons had those strange tiny holes drilled in each of the bones, all at random locations, all around the bone and from every angle … almost like the skeletons were covered in a tiny case of black measles, holes almost too small to see from more than a few steps away, those curious spiderweb-like filaments impossible to see a few steps farther back from that.

The Cowboy turned and walked back to the coach driver and coach rider, climbing a rung on the side of the coach and looking at the exposed bones of the two men … tiny holes.  Tiny holes in each of the bones, in the joints, and in the skull … all perfectly drilled, all at random, and dozens of the same size holes on each bone … like … something had not only stripped the men and the horses to their bare skeletons but had also drilled into and sucked out every last bit of marrow from the bones.

The Cowboy stepped down and back from the coach … doubting that removing the marrow from the bones of the men and the horses had been as quick as removing the meat and skin from the men and horses had seemed to imply.  No … the two men and horses had died instantly and whatever had killed them had not only stripped them to the bone but had also stayed around to suck their bones dry from the inside out afterward.

The Cowboy looked around again … still, nothing moved.  He slowly walked back towards his horse, still tied where he had left it, when one of the side curtains of the stage coach wafted in the breeze, causing him to stop.

Passengers.

The stage coach might have been carrying passengers as well … the luggage on top seemed to suggest that.

The Cowboy cautiously reached his gloved hand for the door handle of the stage coach, twisted it, and then stepped back.

Nothing.

The door hung there, slightly open, and the Cowboy used the end of the barrel of his Winchester to slowly open the door to the coach wider.

Passengers.

Inside the coach were four skeletons … a well-dressed man, a well-dressed woman, a little boy by the cut and style of the clothes on the small skeleton, and what appeared to be a traveling salesman clutching a suitcase to his chest.  The Cowboy looked in closer, cautiously.  The sickly-sweet smell was strong in here as well, much stronger, and the Cowboy did a cursory inspection of the four skeletons finding they were in the same condition as the stage coach driver and coach rider as well as the horse team.

All were frozen in poses of sheer, abject terror.  All were skeletonized, their jawbones slammed open in screams of pain, their empty sockets of the skulls staring blankly in different directions, like what had come for them had come in every window and through every curtain at the same time.  Each of the skeletons were bracing their selves, probably against the wild ride.  Each of the skeletons were still dressed, their clothes covered in that strange iridescent sheen, their bones showing the same tiny holes, dozens of holes, all bored into the bones that the Cowboy could see … and the bones covered in that same fine iridescent cobweb-like material, so fine that there in the dark of the coach interior he almost didn’t see it.

A mother.

A father.

Their son.

A traveling salesman.

Whatever had killed them had done so in the exact same manner and at the exact same time as it had killed the stage coach operators and the horse team.  Suddenly the Cowboy didn’t feel like remaining anywhere near the stage coach.  He did a cursory inspection of the interior, of the passengers, and with some effort managed to pry the salesman’s suitcase from his skeletal hands.  He searched the rest of the bodies, the man, the woman, the child, as well as the driver and the rider, all the while throwing frequent glances over each of his shoulders to make sure that he and his horse were still alone.  After five minutes he had the belongings of the men, woman and child on the ground in front of him.  The usual fair … some jewelry, a necklace, a pocket watch (still keeping time), a few rings, some money and coins, a smoke case with tobacco and paper and matches.  The well-dressed man had a small pistol in his pocket, a gentleman’s pistol that was more useful in threatening rather than of actually carrying out that threat.

If anything that the Cowboy found had value in basic trade, he took it.  The dead no longer needed their possessions.

The Cowboy felt no qualm about doing so … his life had come down to basic survival and the dead would have no use anymore for what he took from them.  He put the jewelry, money, pocket watch and coins in a cloth bag he kept in the right-side pocket of his duster.  He stuck the smoke case in the left pocket along with the small pistol … maybe he could trade that to someone.  He climbed up the side of the coach and quickly used his knife to cut the straps on the luggage on top, pulling down the suitcases and the trunk and carefully opening them on the ground.

Nothing but clothes and some old letters.  He scanned through the letters quickly then not bothering to put the letters back in the envelopes they came in he stuck the letters back on top of the clothes in the case and shut the case again, not bothering to return the ransacked through luggage to the top of the coach.  The traveling salesman’s suitcase held clothes, a half full bottle of some cheap looking rot gut that the Cowboy didn’t recognize the label on, and … nothing else which surprised the Cowboy and made him take a second or two to scowl.  Maybe the man hadn’t been a traveling salesman, but his clothes sure said different.

Having finished searching the interior and top of the stage coach, the Cowboy walked to the front of the stage coach and checked the two skeletons there.  Three minutes time with patting down the two skeletons found some more folding money, a few coins, a small almost full bottle of whiskey with a label that the Cowboy recognized, a cheaply made pocket watch and the double barrel twelve-gauge coach gun with ten spare shells scattered between the two large pockets of the coach rider’s vest.

The Cowboy left the coach gun but took the shells as they would feed his own shotgun strapped to his bedroll on the saddle of his horse.  On second thought, the Cowboy took the coach gun as well … thinking it might be worth something in trade when he next needed to lay in for some provisions.

Five minutes later, the Cowboy was back in the saddle, gently walking his horse on into the late afternoon while the grisly visage of the stage coach got smaller as it receded in the distance behind him.

 

 

 

 

 

BACK