Three days – end

0
1324

By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor

The town is deserted.

The noon sun blazes down as MacIntyre and I face each other in the hot, dusty street. The leather hat with its silver trim shades my eyes, and I can feel the energy of its curse humming in my bones.

I want to take it off and toss it away, let Zeke have it. But I can’t. That ain’t how it works.

One of us is going to die. I just need to make sure it ain’t me.

We don’t talk. I let my arm relax a little, my hand ready near my gun. Zeke shifts his stance, ever so slightly. A dry breeze kicks up a dust devil behind him.

He moves first. He’s fast, I’ll give him that. As his gun clears his holster, I dodge left and draw. Our shots rip the silence like dynamite in a mineshaft; shock and pain explode in my chest as his bullet rips through me.

The hat tumbles off my head, and as I fall, I see Zeke twist and crumple to the ground; I’ve hit him in the hip.

I struggle against the pain, remembering what Sally said. I need to kill him with my last bullet.

I raise my gun, aiming through blurred vision…

   * * * * *

A crow is watching me. It sits on the street a few feet away from my face. I’d shoo it away, but I can’t move. Can’t even breathe. Zeke’s bullet has taken that from me.

It hops toward me, and I think, not the eyes. They always go for the eyes…

   * * * * *

I woke as the early light of morning broke through the windows.

My gun was on a table beside the bed. On a bedpost beside me hung the hat, the silver trim gleaming dully in the light. Sally’s black dress was draped over the back of a chair on the other side of the room.

I got up as quietly as I could, pulled on my pants. Beside me, Sally stirred, rolled over and muttered, then went back to sleep. Fine with me; I didn’t want her awake yet. I put my shirt on and picked up my gun, sat by the window to watch the sun rise.

The hat called to me; I felt a strange magic telling me to put it on. I left it where it was. It was a beautiful hat, but there was something not quite right about it. It wasn’t easy. The harder I resisted, the stronger it got.

The sounds of the town stirring woke Sally. She propped herself up on her elbow and looked over at me. I had my gun resting on my lap and pointing in her direction.

“Had some weird dreams last night,” I said.

She didn’t reply, just lay there watching me.

“You were in one. Told me I was dead. Then Zeke shot me and crows plucked out my eyes.” I hoped for a response but got none.

I looked at the hat, and she did too. “You said it’s cursed. What’s that mean? Did someone steal it from an Indian burial ground or something?”

She sat up, pulled a sheet up to cover her nakedness, and I kept the gun on her. “Almost, Clay. Look at it. Pick it up.”

I reached for it without thinking, stopped myself just before my hand touched it. I felt its call pulling at me. Sally laughed, and I glared at her.

“Ever seen leather like that, Clay? See how fine and soft it is?”

I looked at the hat. The leather shone softly in the sunlight, soft and smooth and brown, the silver trim bright against the dark brown. Bits of ivory were woven on a braid between the silver pieces.

It was a fine hat. I reached up and took it from the bedpost and caressed the leather.

“That’s human skin, Clay.”

My hand shook, and I nearly dropped the hat.

“No.”

She went on. “See the trim? See the ivory beads between the silver?” I felt bile rising in my throat and had a bad feeling about where she was going. Fighting disgust, I studied the trim with its yellowing polished ivory and braided banding. “Teeth. And the cord holding the trim together is human hair.”

My stomach did a side-flip, and I jumped to my feet and threw the hat across the room. My gun thumped to the floor.

“It wasn’t taken from an Indian burial ground. It is a burial ground.” She said it so clear and serious I knew she wasn’t lying.

I choked out something like a question.

“I don’t know how old it is, but there’s stories. Some years back, some bandits massacred a tribe. Killed the men, women and children and made the chief watch. Then they skinned him alive, took out his teeth and made that -” she waved toward the hat, “- out of the hide.” She stood and wrapped herself in the sheet, picked up the hat and my gun. “With his dying breath he cursed the bandits. As the story goes, anyone who wears the hat gets the curse.”

She handed me my gun. I took it and shoved it into my holster. The infernal hat dangled from her other hand.

We stared at each other in silence for a long time. I didn’t want to believe any of it. The story was such a cockamamie pile of bullshit. Sometime today, I’d face MacIntyre, put a bullet in him and shake the dust from my boots and never come back. He was the only curse I had, and I’d be ending it once and for all.

On cue, a shout echoed up from the street.

“Clay! Joe Clayborne!”

MacIntyre. I looked at Sally. She looked worried and a little fearful.

Zeke shouted again. “Come out, Clayborne!”

I reached for the hat.

Sally twisted away, just a little, enough to put the hat out of reach.

“You don’t have to do this.”

I checked my pistol. Two cartridges left.

I holstered the gun and reached around her to take the hat. She didn’t pull away this time.

“Actually, I really think I do.” I started toward the door. As I put the hat on, I felt a chill go down my spine. I shrugged it off.

MacIntyre was waiting in the empty street, relaxing against a hitching rail several yards away. Renfroe was there too, watching from the corner of a nearby shop. He bared his teeth in a mockery of a grin, then shrank back into the shadows.

“Nice hat, Clay,” Zeke called out mockingly as I stepped out.

“You like it?” I touched the brim. “It’s yours if you can take it.”

He pushed away from the rail and stepped into the street. “Fine by me.”

I let my arm relax a little, my hand ready near my gun. Zeke shifted his stance, ever so slightly. A dry breeze kicked up a dust devil behind him.

He moved first. As his gun cleared his holster, I dodged left and drew. Our shots shattered the silence. I felt Zeke’s bullet split the air near my head and saw him jerk once; I fired again and shock and pain exploded in my chest as his second bullet ripped through me. I felt the lead smash my collarbone and shoulder.

I fell and the hat flew from my head. Zeke twisted on his feet and crumpled to the ground. The hat rolled across the street and came to rest near the building where Renfroe was hiding. Through bleary eyes I saw him step out and pick it up, then disappear into the shadows.

And then there’s Sally, tall and beautiful in her black dress, striding toward Zeke’s body, and she kneels by his head and takes a knife from her bodice and she looks at me and I think, they always go for the eyes…

 

Comments

comments