Dry Hollow Arizona doesn't seem like much, and really, it isn't.
About a dozen wooden structures line the only street in town. Most of them are vacant. The Sheriff's office definitely is. So is the clinic, the church, and the grocer. No one in Dry Hollow needs anything from those places.
They are all dead.
Most of them, anyway.
The saloon is open, it is the honey to draw the fly into the trap. And it works well. Over the last six months, five of the West's top gunslingers have come to Dry Hollow to test their mettle against the man claiming to be the fastest gun that ever walked the earth.
None have ever left.
But they all started in the same place, the saloon. So that is where he starts. He walks up to the bar, sits on the stool and orders. "Whiskey." His voice is raspy and dry from miles of desert riding.
The bartender casts a side eye at him and then looks down. "We don't serve your kind in here."
Hezekiah Romer is used to this kind of dismissal. A black man in the United States in the 1880's gets used to being ignored for the color of his skin. But this is different. There was a look of fear- not disdain- in the barkeep's eye. There was a look of pity, sorrow, and resignation. He is merely playing a part, speaking his lines, Hezekiah realizes. The trap is sprung.
"My kind?" Hezekiah asks, knowing the answer will not be the usual, but instead the shocking, the usually unexpected. But Hezekiah Romer expects it. He came looking for it.
With a dead and defeated voice, the barkeep responds. "The living."
There is a creak, then a thump, thump, thump from the swinging doors at the entrance. The sound of wood on wood is heard as the doors bang back together. Thump, thump thump. Then the entrant is at the bar. Hezekiah has not looked yet. He won't look. It is his part of the script. To be distant, to play the role of a gunslinger looking for the ultimate challenge. A cold remorseless killer looking to lay claim to a title.
"I can help make him the kind you do serve, Al." The new arrival drawls. Not in a stupefied, dumb southerner drawl, but in an educated, affluent, and well kept southern royalty kind of voice. Like a plantation owner in the deep parts of Georgia. Hezekiah knows it is for his benefit alone that that is the voice that speaks. Hezekiah had been born in Georgia, before Emancipation. He was a teenager when Lincoln freed the slaves. But he was old enough to know that the gentlemanly southern voice was meant to mask the cruelty of the hands that would lay upon any young black boy that dared defy.
Hezekiah did not look around. He merely stared ahead. "That's mighty presumptuous of you, sir." Hezekiah would not let this trick of the tongue shake him. He had come too far in life, faced too many demons- figurative and real- to let this demon (and yes, there was no doubt that that is what this was) shake him. "What makes you think you've got the faster draw, Mr. Black?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Hezekiah saw an almost imperceptible twitch. "You know my name. Do you know what I can do?"
"Other than talk a good game, I hear you have laid claim to killing a half dozen or so of the fastest guns out west."
The demon leans in close to Hezekiah. "You heard wrong. It's way more than that, boy." Hezekiah smells a sweetness in the breath that issued from the demon. After a moment, the sweetness gives way to a bitter, rotten smell.
The smell of sulfur and death.
For the first time, Hezekiah turns to face Mr. Black.
He is tall, skeletal in frame and face. There are deep indentations in his cheeks, and hollow, deep set eyes. He wears all black- just as the name suggests- except for a kerchief around his neck that is blood red. A pencil thin mustache rides his upper lip and a triangular patch of hair sits just beneath the lower. There are twin guns on his hips, large Colts by the look of it. And they were silver- pristine and gleaming as if they were almost mirrored. Hezekiah thinks he might be able to see his reflection in them.
"Don't ever call me 'boy.' I don't take kindly to it," rasps Hezekiah.
He knew it was a trick of the light, but at times, Hezekiah almost thought he could see Mr. Black's actual skeleton through his extremely pale, almost translucent skin.
Mr. Black has been leaning against the bar, but now he stands. He had seemed tall before, but standing up straight, the man seems almost gigantic. For the first time, Hezekiah notices just how large his hands are, as well. They too are skeletal, but their reach from smallest finger to thumb seems almost a full foot. Hezekiah imagines a ludicrous image of him holding the normally large Colt revolvers in each hand, but the hand covered all but the barrel. "Tell you what. Since I have offended your delicate sensibilities, I will offer you a chance to avenge them." He walks over to the entrance, his feet thumping loudly with each step. He points to the street. "A duel. Like two gentlemen. You win- you lay claim to killing the fastest gun in the West and no one will call you 'boy' ever again."
Hezekiah knows this part of the script well before he asks the question. "And if I lose?"
Mr. Black smiles. It is a toothy grin- giant teeth filling a mouth stretched obscenely wide. He cocks his head slightly to the side, and with one gargantuan hand tilts his hat back just a bit. "Why, I get your soul. Boy."
"Don't do it- its rigged!" yells the barkeep, before a cutting glance from Mr. Black silences him.
"Now Al, out of the kindness of my heart I allow you keep bar in my town, and you try to scare off any diversion that comes my way. I think I have given enough. Boy- you win, and you save Al's soul, too. But lose and I get both your lives and both your souls. That is non-negotiable."
Hezekiah feels a cold sweat break out on his neck, and a trickle down the center of his back. He came to put his own life on the line- not an innocent bystander's as well. He looks at Al and sees a ghastly terror. In a show of unearned confidence, Hezekiah gives him a wink and a nod. "I got you."
Mr. Black laughs a deep and hollow laugh and claps his hands. "Alright- five minutes." And he bursts through the doors, leaving them clacking behind him.
Al grabs Hezekiah by the arm. "He's demon, son! He cheats!"
Hezekiah smiles and gently removes the barkeep's hand. "It's why I came, Al." And he walks out the door.
The sun blinds him for a second, and he puts his arm up to shade his eyes. As the world came back into focus, he sees sand and dry wood buildings.
Then he sees shimmers.
Standing on the balconies, behind the windows, on the steps of the buildings, there must have been two dozen shimmering bystanders. Hezekiah's first thought was that all the townspeople must have come out of hiding, but he quickly realizes that isn't true. He sees in each of these spectral apparitions a deep red spot- the site of their fatal wound. Then he sees that same skeletal shift he had seen in Mr. Black and he knows- these were the ones that Mr. Black had laid claim to. Souls he had swindled or bested. But why- why were the souls here, haunting an empty town?
"Any great duel needs an audience- BOY! Take a long look- they all thought they could best me. At duels, or gambling, or at simply trying to trick me into losing. In fact-" he points at a coupleof specters that were standing by the Sheriff's office- "-you are not even the first exorcist to make a play here. Oh, yes, I tagged you the second you stepped into town. You all have that...smell about you. The smell of death that is waiting to reach out and grab you at any moment. Well, boy, that moment is now."
Mr. Black squares up, and so does Hezekiah. Al had come out onto the porch and stood, wringing his hands in a dishrag. Hezekiah's hands float above his twin revolvers, while Mr. Black stands relaxed and still, arms limp at his sides. Then from behind him, about a dozen specters step up, and each draw twin guns, aimed at Hezekiah.
Mr. Black widens his mouth into that rictus grin, "Should have listened to Al. I do cheat." He begins to laugh an obnoxious, braying laugh.
Hezekiah begins to laugh as well, and Mr. Black stops. Puzzled by this action, he looks quizzically at Hezekiah. Hezekiah meets his gaze. "So do I."
Mr. Black looks down at his chest. A large black hole is over his heart. He looks up at Hezekiah, who had yet to draw his guns, first with confusion, quickly to anger, then to an evil grin. "Bullets cannot kill me- I am Death!"
Hezekiah's smile does not falter. "I knew that. But this one can definitely trap you."
Mr. Black goes to draw his guns, and finds he cannot move his arms. "Wha- what did you do?"
Hezekiah begins to walk toward Mr. Black, whose horde of gunslinging ghosts are as frozen as their master. He pulls a bullet from his pocket and inspects it. "Wrote a little rite on these bullets that makes any demon it enters stand stock still. Even the demon that is the Horseman of Death." He meets Mr. Black's dead eyes.
"But you still can't kill me!"
"Nope. Killing Death- that'd be a trick. No, but I can send you back to Hell. Oh, and free these souls up to go where they really belong. But while I have you- heh- why are you keeping these souls anyway?"
Mr. Black's face squirms. "I won't tell you."
Hezekiah shrugs, then steps to his left.
Another black hole just above the first appears.
"That one has a rite that forces you to comply. So, why the horde of ghost gunslingers?"
Mr. Black screams, and Hezekiah definitely sees the skeleton this time. "Ughh- a war is coming. Lucifer is looking to build any army he can to fight. My job is to acquire spectral forces."
"And other demons, other horsemen?"
"Making monsters, new creatures, hybrids. Aaargh! All manner of Hellish things are coming."
Mr. Black laughs. "Oh, you won't be there to stop it. No, He is playing a long game with you humans. You'll be dead and rotted to dust before his plan comes to fruition. There is no stopping him!"
"Funny, that's what my friend Otto said about you, boy. And the name is Hezekiah Romer." Then Hezekiah recites a Latin rite the expels Mr. Black from the Earth. He dusts away, mingling with the hot sandy air, leaving only his shiny silver Colts. And his army of spirits.
Hezekiah looks around the town at the spirits that have gathered. "You are all released to your final home. Fear not- the demon does not hold your souls." They begin to disappear, one by one. All but the gunslingers, who still stand frozen. "But not you. You he still holds, apparently. Go, go to your place, until such as a time as Death calls you up." With an angry howl, they disappear as well.
Al comes down the steps into the dusty street. "How did you do that? I never saw you even lift your guns!"
Hezekiah smiles. "That's because I didn't. He did." He points down to the end of the long street. A single man strides through the hazy, sandy, windblown horizon. When the man was finally within earshot, Hezekiah boasts. "Told you it would work!"
"You did. But if that wind had picked up even a smidge more, that first shot would have hit him after going through you."
"Come on- the great Otto Schmidt, Exorcist Guild marksman extraordinaire? He never misses." He laughs as he claps the man on the back.
"So there were two of you the whole time?" asks an incredulous Al.
"Of course," smiles Hezekiah. "Exorcist's never hunt alone. Rule number one. There are a lot more, if you want to know them."
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.