This week’s flash fiction is a first for me. It tops 1,000 words. I’ve written stories much longer than 1,000 words, but this is the first I’ve published here of that length, and the first time I’ve run so long with a flash fiction prompt. But the prompt for this week (from Flash Fiction Friday) was just too much fun to play with and I found myself wanting to stretch the story out. As has been true for many of my flash fiction pieces, this feels like the beginning of something longer, and may well lead to that.
The prompt was this:
Write a western short story (1,500 word limit) using these words: Rope, Dust, Whiskey, Medicine, and Ceremony.
I listened to the Red Dead Redemption Soundtrack while writing it, which was wonderful inspiration. The feel of the songs matched the tone I was shooting for so perfectly that it made the experience fuller for me as a writer.
And one more quick word on that–I fully admit that use of the phrase “red dead” in the story probably came from the fact that I was listening to the Red Dead Redemption CD. It’s not original on my part at all, but it evokes such a compelling feeling. It’s the alliteration, in part, and the simplicity of the basic rhyme. At first, I felt like I should think of another phrase even though I really wanted to use that one, and then I thought, “No. I’m using the phrase I like.” So, with compliments to the writers and programmers of Red Dead Redemption, I freely admit I’m borrowing their phrase.
I hope you enjoy the story.
Roy spit on the ground. Nat elbow him in the ribs. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and muttered a quick apology to Belle. They were, after all, in her parlor room.
Belle, ever the gracious hostess, made no mention of the brown spittle splayed across her Victorian rug. One of her girls would wash it out. They’d done it many times before. Rather, she looked to the two men and, flashing her well-known smile, said, “I take it you two gentlemen aren’t here for companionship this evening.”
Roy looked to Nat.
“Whores,” Nat said.
Nat turned to Belle. “No, ma’am. We ain’t here for the companionship. Maybe ‘nother time. We’re here about Robert Pickett.”
Belle’s smile evaporated like dew under a summer sun. She eyed the two men gravely and then made a slight motion with one hand. It was hardly anything, but a blonde wearing a corset bodice scurried across the room to her side and knelt. Her ringlets flowed past her shoulders, cascading down her back. There was no pleasantry in what Belle said to her. “Molly, please see all our gentlemen callers out. Give them back their money and gather the girls. You’re to go to town, to the medicine man. Tell him he’s needed here urgently. I want you and the others to stay there. These two gentlemen and I have some unsavory business to attend to and I’ll not have any girl in my employ hurt in the process.”
Molly nodded her understanding and, hips swinging, walked to the stairs. Roy’s eyes were fixed on her ass all the way to the top step. When he looked back to Belle, she rolled her eyes and addressed Nat. He’d never taken his eyes off Belle.
“We knew the ceremony wouldn’t work,” she said. “The medicine man and I, that is. We knew it was just a temporary measure against Pickett. His kind always come back. It will be the same way this time, if we can stop him. It’s been four years since his last appearance, but putting him back in the grave tonight won’t stop him from climbing right back out of it in another few years.”
Upstairs there was a commotion. A man raised his voice. It was matched in volume and intensity by a female voice that spoke only two words: first “Rope!” and then “Silent!” There was a thud and some muffled screams and after that little more than the sounds of footsteps. Shortly, ten or twelve men came down the stairs in a single file line. Each man stared at the back of the head of the man in front of him. They walked quietly and quickly, right out the door. At the end of this procession came Molly with two other girls holding a final man by his feet and shoulders. He was bound, head to toe, in rope. The girls held him as though he were weightless, as though he floated. They moved down the stairs and toward the front door.
Nat watched as the man appeared to levitate past. His eyes were wide as his pupils darted back and forth. It was disconcerting, but not nearly as disturbing as his mouth. Where his lips should have been there was only a smooth, flat stretch of skin. The muted man worked his jaws beneath the flesh, but the only way to open his mouth would have been to rip the skin.
It gave Nat the chills.
When he turned back to Belle, she smiled at him. Not a smile of charm or of threat. It was a smile of pride.
“We come to the right place, then,” he said.
She laughed. “I should hope so, Mr. Gentry. I should hope so. I doubt anyone else in this dust bowl of a town is prepared to deal with the likes of Pickett.”
Roy started to spit and caught himself. Instead, he swallowed and immediately regretted it. His face showed panic.
“Out the door,” Nat said. Nodding, Roy rose to make a quick exit. He was retching before he made it off the porch.
Belle restrained her satisfaction so that only a slight smile curled the edge of her lips upward. She rose. Her brown hair shone in the parlor light. She sashayed to the bar and plucked up two glasses. “We have a long night ahead of us. Can I offer you some refreshment, Mr. Gentry?”
“Whiskey,” he said. “Thank you, ma’am.”
She rejoined him with two glasses of whiskey and the bottle. He downed his in one gulp. She refilled his glass and sipped on her own. “What do you know of Pickett?” she asked.
“Bad man,” he said.
“Indeed.” Roy could be heard vomiting in the yard.
“Ma’am, I ‘pologize for Roy. He ain’t too bright and neither of us is cultured as yourself, but he’s from good stock. Stupid but brave. He’ll stand his ground against Pickett if it comes to it.”
Belle smiled graciously. “I know. I’ve seen his aura. Yours, as well, Mr. Gentry. Quite a lot of subdued anger, but it will serve us well in the coming hours, I should think.”
She finished her whiskey, drinking the remainder with grace, and poured herself a second. “I rarely drink,” she said, “but it helps the magic.”
Nat nodded, though he couldn’t imagine how being drunk could possible help. He had a much harder time shooting when drunk, but the stories of Pickett and his band of red-dead riders was enough to leave him in need of all the courage he could find, liquid or otherwise.
Sensing his thoughts, Belle continued: “Pickett was half Apache, it’s said. His mother was full-blood. His father was dark-skinned, too, but from another land. He taught Pickett to use dark magic. He worked with dolls and needles and potions of all kinds. He mixed his father’s magic with his mother’s tribal beliefs. He wanted to harness the power of the moon, the might of the wolf, the speed of the river and the sight of the hawk. Some say he learned to wield death and darkness, charming the devil’s demons to do his bidding much like my girls charm our gentlemen callers.”
Belle finished off her second glass and poured a third. She shook her head. “I don’t know what he learned, entirely. Mr. Gentry, you must understand, so much of it is myth and legend. But I know this: he mastered death. I know because he keeps coming back.”
Roy re-emerged from the darkness without and clomped into the foyer. “Medicine man’s here,” he said.
Belle had not yet began her third drink, but she threw her head back and downed it all at once. “We drinkin’?” Roy asked hopefully.
Nat scowled at him and shook his head.
Belle stood and wrapped a shawl around herself. It wasn’t cool out, but Nat noticed that the shawl had runes and symbols stitched into the hem. She held her head high and squared her shoulders. “Let me speak to the medicine man. He’s not terribly cordial, but he and I have worked together before. When the time comes, we need your guns and your courage, not your mouths.”
Her tone was firm, but not unkind. Nat nodded his assent and Roy shrugged.
“Very well, gentleman. We march into hell’s breech.”
She walked to the door. Roy’s face was a question mark. He looked to Nat. “What’re we doin’?” he asked.
“We’re goin’ to put Pickett back in the grave and shoot down his red-dead riders,” Nat said. “To hell with ’em all.”
Roy understood that. To his credit, he didn’t even look scared. Instead, he followed Nat right out the door. In the distance, thunder rumbled across the plains. The sky swirled with clouds and a strange scent carried on the night wind. It smelled like incense and wet dog. It smelled like sex and blood. It smelled like funeral clothes and flowers. It smelled like death.
Somewhere beyond the ridge, Pickett could be heard laughing. He and his red-dead riders were mounting up. Soon, they would come.