"There's something you should know about your jewelry, Miss. It's haunted."
The redskin moved close to my lady, his dirt-stained fingers reaching for the silver pendant that hung from her ivory neck and shoulders. She quickly pulled back, clasping the pendant and stepping backwards, taking a momentary stumble as I stepped in front of her and swatted away the Indian's fingers.
"What in the hell do you think yer grabbin' at there?!" I held his wrist tight, knuckles losing color. He was motionless, a statue-man, looking me in the eyes and humming under his breath, the guttural noises emitting quietly up from his diaphragm, from his whole body. I loosened my grip but he made no move to take my hand away. He simply continued chanting, gaining volume, until his mouth dropped open wide and a high-frequency squeal leapt at me, knocking me down.
"You're sorry for what was done, I'm sure. Sorry, but still guilty. The man who owns those trinkets will come back for them. He speaks through the sky and the earth and has made me his herald. I tell you now so that you have a chance to repent. I'll leave you be now," he said. Then walked away. I remained on my back, in the dusty shadow of a wagon. Molly, my New England girl, stood gaping over my form for a moment before she dropped and put her hand against my head, pulling my face to meet hers.
"Charles! What- what was that about? Are you okay?" she asked. I looked up at her wavy hair, dripping over her shoulders, rolling down to me like ephemeral waves.
"S-sure, Molly, yeah, yeah... I'm fine. But I don't know anything about- about whatever that red man were talkin' about." It was a lie. I couldn't tell her where those things had come from, but I knew. At least, I thought I knew. There wasn't a man alive on the trail who hadn't heard the tale that only I knew for sure to be truth. The story of Luke Ironside, which of course wasn't his given name, who'd made a deal with the devil.
Molly helped me to my feet and took my hand, smiling at me. "Well, let's unpack our things, Charles. We have something to take care of, don't we..." And I couldn't have agreed more. There were wedding vows to be made before sundown, before someone back east could figure out what had happened and track Molly down in order to drag her back to the life she didn't want to live. I was her Romeo, only our story turned out a lot better than the old one.
We went to a preacher and had a hitchin', invited the local Sheriff and a few degenerates for a drink apiece to be our witnesses. They witnessed, gave affirmation and even shook my hand as we walked back to the hotel room we'd rented for the evening. Our plan was to keep moving, toward the coast, where we'd be able to settle down. I was pretty good with numbers. I'd be accounting for some back in no time. Or working my old position, 'fore I headed east to face trial; rustling cattle. Either way I'd be able to support Molly and myself with ease. All she had to do was give me a couple of kids and help out around the house. Which, it seemed, Molly was more than willing to do for me.
That night Molly and I consecrated our marriage. She slept, her arms bent over my body, warm, beautiful, breathing against my flesh. I couldn't bring myself to sleep that night. Nor could I bring the wide, scathing smile to come down from it's elation. Even knowing what I knew, about the pendant and the bracelet and the two rings and that Indian who'd made such a fuss over my arrival, there was nothing to block my joy from rising to boil and cascading over the edges of it's container.
A few weeks passed, Molly and I went down the trail, off west to our new life. We were stopped one evening in Nevada, a day or so from the border of California and another couple days from the ocean that Molly had never seen. There was a sunset, which Molly watched, almost weeping when the purple rays spread over the skyline and I held her, whispering into her ear the future I'd planned out for us. The sun dropped away from our existences and I went to light a fire, starting up a small dot of warmth on the desert's breezy, desolate face. We were there, insignificant specks in this mass of nature, together, hoping and dreaming. It was poetry, really, when I think back about it now. I always see it from above, from the clouds, when I consider us then. I pretend to look down and see the tiny, tiny point of fire, the flame of man's own aspiration against the world itself, the ant that makes it's mark irrevocably in the universe. I relish that memory. It's the only thing I like to think of anymore. Our last night.
Sometime before morning came, before the flowering dawn stripped the moon of it's relevance, I woke up. This, in itself, was not unusual in the least. I woke up often, worries or scared, relieved to be out of some nightmare or sad to leave the pillow-soft dreamworld I'd been inhabiting. What made this unusual was the high-pitched noise filling my head. And Molly was gone. I got to my knees, crawling to the opening in the wagon. Molly was standing ahead of me, facing east, nude, her back to me.
"Molly!" I said, yelling over the noise and the wind. "Come back here!"
Molly was still, staring off to nowhere. I leapt from the wagon, my heart palpitations loud and strong, and ran to her. Something was wrong, seriously wrong, and I could see my plans slowly fragmenting. What I wanted to build for us would disappear forever in this terrible noise if I didn't do something to stop it.
I reached Molly and spun her around. She was expressionless, wasted, empty visage covering his face in funeral pall fashion. No blinking, no twisting of the lips. Suddenly I realized, 'No breathing.' I pulled Molly back to the wagon. She was still wearing the pendant and rings. I dragged her body, it's weight like coal-black iron, heavy and remorseless, into the opening and laid her down. She was cold, but that wasn't surprising. It was freezing outside and our fire had long been ashes.
I looked back to the eastern horizon and saw the sun slowly rising up. I pulled the pendant off of her, the rings. I jumped out of the wagon and kneeled to the upcoming dawn, chanting the things I'd found in Ironside's book. I screamed out to the approaching cosmic body to slow it's progression until I'd finished the incantation.
There was a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw the Indian from before.
"She's too far from you to reach now," he said. Stripping off his vest and accoutrements, I saw there were symbols covering his body. One of them was the engraving on the back of the pendant, an upside-down Y with Cs at every point. The Indian pointed to the symbol. "This is where she is."
I stood up, pushing back the Indian. He caught my arms and held me, stared me down, immobilizing me. "Why did it happen?! Who- what's going on?"
"You read the book. You should know. You asked for the opportunity to escape your prison sentence. And he gave it to you. Now you're paying for it," he told me. I sobbed against his words, shaking my head.
"No, no! This, I didn't agree to THIS!"
"You agreed. You said anything was his if he'd let you live through the ordeal. And so you met her, the girl who could help you escape. The Governor's daughter could pardon almost as easily as he could. Just had to walk in, tell a story, and walk out with you. He'd arranged the whole thing."
It was true. The thing I'd done was to raise up something, maybe the devil, maybe not. It called itself Azsrthng, some inhuman thing that lived in Hell. The book, Ironside's great secret, the treasure that was buried with him, had held the incantation. I'd found it because it called to me. I don't know why, perhaps because I was a murderer or destined for this fate or because it was pure, demonic retribution for a life lived in opposition to what preachers called Holy Word. I found the gravesite, unmarked, and dug up the devil's servant in order to make my fortune. All I found was that book, done up in leather with flaking pages and print almost worn away. Almost.
And then there was my arrest. Even out west they'd been after me. Wanted, Alive. Reward for any Sheriff or bounty hunter who'd get me. And then, up in Wyoming, cornered and captured and hauled back east to face the charge of seven murders, one of them being a child. So I called to Azsrthng in the night and offered him anything he wanted for my freedom. Give her these gifts and tell her you love her, I was told. And there were gifts, the pendant and the bracelet and the rings. I hadn't counted on actually being in love.
And here was his herald, come to take things away from me. I'd never dreamed it would be her. I always thought I'd lose my soul, what I already believed lost. Maybe that was it. I couldn't have lost my soul because it didn't even belong to me then. So it done took everything else I had.
"Jesus, that's some damn story," the boy said. His blue eyes were wide and he'd nearly lost hold of the whisky in his hand. A moment passed and he shook his head, tipped back the remainder of the whisky and swallowed hard, grimacing. He was nervous, looking left and right, searching the room for something.
"Well, I gotta go, uh, Mister. Th-thanks, I guess, for the story. Maybe you ought'a get inna' the bisness of tellin' tales ta' kids," he said, standing up and knocking the chair over. The bar was dark, nobody in the place but myself, the kid, and a bartender looking to close up. The kid stumbled back, nearly tripping and headed out the door. The bartender stood, polishing a glass with a dirty rag, behind the bar, eyeing me and giving me a look that asked me to leave. I tipped my hat to him and smiled, exiting the bar and following the kid back toward his resting spot for the evening.
He moved into an alley, looking back at me, making sure I wasn't giving him any trouble. I followed closely, deliberately, giving him no room to breathe, chasing after him. He started running shortly, and I followed him through the night air in this tiny western town, with it's mud streets and plank sidewalks, trigger-happy Sheriff and well-armed bank manager.
The kid stopped. He turned and drew his gun, a long, silver barreled six-shooter. "I'll shoot! I've shot men, I've never missed! I don't wanna kill you, but I will if I have to, Mister!" Without warning a shot flew out and slammed into the empty space he'd seen me in a moment before. I put a hand on his shoulder, standing tall from right behind him, and opened up my jacket to show him my bare torso.
There was an engraving on the grip of his gun, I knew, with a circle split in two by a wide line. That was one of the symbols already affixed to my flesh. I looked him in the eye as he stood before me, explaining to him the dilemma. "See, with no soul myself I have an option or two, but not one of them is a regular life, like you or me'd figure it. Walk the Earth ad infitum, go into the mystery beyond or maybe, just maybe, get into the business of repossessing what's been traded."
The kid was terrified. It was clear on his face. I continued, "I know what the Indian was wearing on his skin, now. See, a body starts out filled with spirit, animus or whatever you want to call it. And, slowly, it dwindles away, especially in the evil people. It's like a desert, the body. Wide, expansive. And if it's not full already, it can hold a good number of desiccated spirits. Like the kind you might have if you'd made a deal to have the best shot this side of the Mississippi. You get me?"