Surging back to consciousness, he attempted to draw a breath, but couldn’t manage more than a thin choking wheeze; there was something cinched around his neck. He started to panic, wriggling, kicking his feet, his hands, his hands were tied his back.
Thrashing about like a madman, he didn’t hear the creaking sound. The creaking turned to cracking, and then a loud snap. He hit the ground hard enough to have the wind knocked out of him, if he’d had any in him to knock out. As it was, he just lay, groaning and trying to compose his thoughts.
It was a noose around his neck; he’d been hung, that much was obvious. Who had done it though? More importantly, why wasn’t he dead? He was a hard man to kill, in fact he had a reputation for it, but no man could survive a hanging, so how was he still with the living.
He was hooded with a sack of some sort, and that just wouldn’t do, if he wanted to get free and go on living; so, after about five minutes, a lot of biting at the musty tasting fabric, and a not inconsiderable amount of luck, he managed to pull off the improvised hood.
Next, he needed his hands free. The noose was still restricting his breathing, but he was able to get enough air into his lungs to remain calm. He looked about, squinting and blinking at the bright sunlight, and could see nothing of use.
How was he going to get free? He began to despair. Surely the impossibility of his survival couldn’t end with him being baked alive by the midday sun, because he couldn’t free himself. Managing, with some difficulty to haul himself into a sitting position, he awkwardly shuffled himself around on his backside, taking in his surroundings, to find something to cut the rope around his wrists.
He’d just started wondering how far he’d get if he levered himself to his feet by leaning on the tree, before silently cursing himself as an idiot; the tree, he might be able to use the roughness of the tree bark to abrade his bindings. It would hurt, no doubt about that, but there were no other options that he could see.
It had worked, eventually. His forearms and wrists were a bloody mess and as he had predicted, it had hurt, a lot, but he was free. He’d wrenched the noose from around his neck as soon as he’d been able. His throat was raw from the constriction of the rope, and even though it pained him mightily, he was glad of the pain, because it told him he was still alive.
He was sitting now, under the meagre shade of his would-be gibbet, and he started to call to mind the events that had led him here; that and the faces of the men that had attempted to lynch him.
Townsfolk from one of the dead-end settlements in the area had formed themselves a posse and had been out for blood. He’d never actually found out what it was he’d been blamed for, they were more concerned with meting out what passed for justice in these parts. They didn’t concern themselves with explaining anything to him while they were beating him senseless and tying a rope around his neck; he was at least fairly sure he wasn’t guilty of whatever they were blaming him for though. He’d only came up from Mexico a couple of weeks ago and he was sure he hadn’t done anything worth a hanging.
It was likely that the only thing he was guilty of, was being either a Mexican, or a lonesome drifter. A lot of people were none to choosy about were they found their justice, and an outsider was always a soft target; of course, it hadn’t been much different back home. He’d had a lot of bad luck and been blamed for a lot of things.
What to do now? He wasn’t too far from the where they’d run him down, but that still didn’t help, because not knowing the area, he had no idea how far away the nearest town was. After sitting and thinking for a while, he resolved to follow the hoof prints of the posse, and hope they were going back to town. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the only one he had that stood a decent chance of getting him back to civilisation.
If he was fortunate enough to make it to town, he was going to need a gun, because he certainly didn’t intend to report to the Sherriff; for all he knew the lawman was the one who had rounded the posse up. He intended to get his own brand of justice, and it was the kind people didn’t recover from.
He started walking.
He had guns. This was a state of affairs that made him feel much better; he’d felt vulnerable without them. Although he was a dangerous man, a feller could only be so dangerous without some iron in his hand.
It had been a tough walk in the relentless afternoon sun, particularly without a hat. He didn’t know what had happened to his own, but he’d looked around the immediate area of his ‘execution’ and it was nowhere to be seen.
He’d been on the move for a couple of hours and was just starting to feel the effects of the unrelenting heat and sunlight, when he saw the first sign of life since his unfortunate run in with the posse.
It was a covered wagon that, judging by the writing stencilled on the side of it, belonged to some sort of snake-oil salesman. The type of guy who travelled from town to town, selling his miraculous cure-alls to gullible townsfolk; staying on the move through necessity, rather than choice. The concoctions they peddled were usually harmless enough, but certainly didn’t provide any of the remedies that the smooth-talking salesman evangelised about.
The wagon had got one of its wheels stuck in a rut on the badly pitted track and the salesman, along with another man, who appeared to be protection had been trying, unsuccessfully to get it moving again.
He’d announced his presence with a shout, not wanting to be taken for a threat and get a bullet for his trouble. Deciding, in the moment that it wasn’t such a good idea to tell the whole truth, he’d made up a tale in which he was bush-wacked by horse thieves who’d taken everything he’d had and left him for dead. Not a million miles from the truth, but revised enough to avoid any mistrust, or so he’d hoped.
It had gone well initially. Having helped the men right their wagon, he’d been offered a lift, which he’d gratefully accepted. As was often the case when he met someone new, he’d got the suspicion that the men were up to something. With self-preservation foremost in his mind, he’d resolved in that moment to do for the men, before they did for him.
The muscle being the biggest threat, he’d decided to deal with this man first. Halfway through a sentence and without warning he’d pivoted in his seat and punched the unsuspecting man hard in the throat. Although the man hadn’t fallen from the wagon, he’d at least been put temporarily out of commission.
Dealing with the salesman had been child’s play. The man hadn’t even had time to process what was going on before he’d been grabbed in a headlock and suffered a broken neck. Before stopping the wagon, he’d made to finish off the hired gun, but took a meaty fist to the face as he’d turned his head.
The man had still been gasping for breath but seemed to be made of some pretty tough stuff. Unwilling to go down without a fight, he’d attacked like an injured bear. Realising that he wasn’t the physical match of the hired gun in a close-up brawl, he’d lunged in with a sharp headbutt and tackled the man right out of the wagon. Stunned by the fall, the hired gun had been defenceless just long enough to lose the upper hand.
He’d straddled the man and started punching and hadn’t stopped until long after the man had stopped moving. His face had been destroyed; a mess of blood and broken bones, and the Mexican was covered in the hired gun’s blood.
He’d been unable to catch up with the wagon, but everything he’d needed had been on the dead man. Two six-shooters, plenty of bullets, a nice, big knife, and most important of all, a hat.
The snake-oil salesman and his protection weren’t the first men he’d ever killed, and he knew they wouldn’t be the last, but he only killed if left with no other option. They were up to something and it had been them, or him, and he hadn’t come this far to fall foul of a couple of travelling miscreants like those two. Besides, they were heading into town, so they could very well have been in league with the posse.
He came upon the town not long before dusk, and deciding it was a bad idea to just go strolling in there during the hours of daylight, he settled down for a while, off the track into town and out of sight.
Not knowing were the group that had hung him were likely to be, he decided he was going to have to take a blanket approach to this. Sneaking into Town, he located the Sherriff’s office. Even if the Sherriff and any deputies present weren’t involved with the posse, they were likely to provide the biggest threat, and as such, they needed to be dealt with, whether he wanted to, or not.
There would be innocent victims tonight, but that couldn’t be helped; he took comfort in the knowledge that even those not directly responsible shared a measure of the guilt, through their inaction. Not ideal, but it was necessary.
Cautiously peering through the window, he found that the only occupants of the office were two sleeping men. Even the two cells were empty. This was going to be easier than he’d expected, he thought, with a smile.
Quietly opening the door, he moved soundlessly to the first man and coldly slit his throat, restraining him as he woke to the horror of a looming, unstoppable death. As the man stopped struggling, the Mexican eased him to the floor and did the same to his clueless companion. Without any need to restrain the second man, he just watched as the lifeblood of the Sherriff’s Deputy ebbed away and the man collapsed onto the floor, clutching at his throat with a look of horror on his face.
The Mexican felt nothing. Maybe they hadn’t been there, but he didn’t really care; he had no choice. His chances of success increased with every armed man he took out of the picture.
There didn’t seem to be a brothel, or a separate hotel, so the chances were good that he’d find anyone else that he had an axe to grind with, or indeed posed a threat to him, in the Saloon. He loaded up on more bullets and took a rifle from a gun rack; he was likely to need all the firepower he could get his hands on.
It was one of those old-style saloon’s, the type with the swing doors, a man could make an entrance with doors like that. He checked his pistols; everything was fine. One was holstered in a gun belt hung over his shoulder, like a bandolier, and one at his waist. It was an unusual way to carry, he knew, but firepower was key, and this way he could carry more of it.
He pushed open the doors and slowly strode in, letting them swing shut behind him of their own accord.
There were about a dozen people inside; more than he’d expected, given the lateness of the hour and although they hadn’t paid any attention to his entrance, they would soon enough. He’d have his revenge on these failed hangmen.
He didn’t speak; didn’t give them a chance to explain themselves or beg for mercy; he had none to give. Besides, what excuse could there be for unprovoked killing, even though they had failed. Instead, he pulled his pistols, and let them do the talking.
Two men sat at the table nearest to him were the first to die, followed by the barman; he knew from experience that they could be trouble, then he just started taking pot-shots. Half a dozen of them were dead before they even knew what was happening, and most of the rest were drunk enough that those who managed to return fire weren’t much of a threat.
A woman was screaming, and she just wouldn’t shut up. A high-pitched scream that set his teeth on edge. He was a gentleman and not normally the type of man to kill unarmed women, but she was distracting him, and he couldn’t have that. He shook his head at the woman in disapproval, then shut her up with a bullet to the head.
He wasn’t quick enough though. While he was distracted, two men came hurtling into the saloon, and they came in shooting. Most of their shots went wide, likely only intended to wrong foot him and send him scurrying for cover; which is exactly what would have happened if a couple of the bullets hadn’t hit him. One high in the chest, and another in his left shoulder.
This wasn’t how his story was supposed to end. He’d got some of the posse that was responsible for trying to hang him, but there were probably others, including, no doubt, the cowards that had just burst in unannounced and started shooting without warning.
He was going to die. He hit the floor, raging at the injustice of it. He lay, bleeding away his last few moments into the dirty sawdust of the saloon, the pain already fading to a disconcerting numbness. He tried to raise one of his pistols, but it was no good, his mind was willing, but his body was not.
The room started fading around the edges, getting darker; then blackness, and nothing.
The Mexican’s eyes slowly opened. He wasn’t dead. He knew he should’ve been dead this time. Slowly moving his head, he saw the two men that had shot him. They were slowly walking around the room, taking in the carnage that had been wrought. It looked like he hadn’t been dead more than a minute. He gave no more thought to the strangeness of it, there would be time for that later, and clambered to his feet.
The two men turned, expecting to see a survivor, or perhaps someone else entering the saloon, as there undoubtedly would be very soon. Instead they saw a grinning, blood-soaked apparition of death.
“Who, who are you?” One of the men managed to ask, through his fear.
The Mexican thought about this for a moment, before his smile grew wider.
“El Diablo,” he told the man, then shot them both dead.
He reloaded his pistols, turned, walked out of the saloon, and gunfire began again.