Honcho trotted along beneath me, the tap of his hooves echoing off the walls of the buildings on either side of me. The sound echoed, alone, in the still air of late afternoon.
I frowned, turning in my saddle to peer first left, then right. Where were all the people? Dry Creek was never going to be anything more than a small town, a stop for soldiers headed out towards the Southwest border, but it still felt alive and bustling compared to my home out on the ranch.
I thought back to the last time I’d visited, several months ago. There’d been some big fuss about a big-name bandit being caught, about to go up on the gallows. I wouldn’t have minded seeing that, but I had to get back to the farm, soon as I picked up the supplies for my da.
But there’d been plenty of folks about, then. Where had they all gone?
Honcho advanced down the empty street, slowing to a walk. I peered at the houses on either side, the storefronts closed up, shutters over the windows. Was there any light inside, or was it all darkness?
“Hey! Hey you, boy!”
I spun around, nearly tumbling off of Honcho. Fortunately, the old horse had a calm temperament, and just came to a stop in the empty street. I looked around, trying to see the source of that voice.
A shutter flapped gently, and I caught a glimpse of narrowed, yellowed eyes behind it. “Over here, boy! You insane, or just stupid?”
“Me?” I asked, confused. “What’s going on? Where is everyone?”
“Hiding, just like you oughta, if you’ve got a lick a’ sense to ya! Git over here, now!”
Normally, I might have asked more questions, but the emptiness of the town unnerved me. I dropped off Honcho’s saddle, reaching for the rifle that I carried slung across the back behind me, along with my bags. I mainly carried it in case a coyote jumped out, not for shooting men, but I wanted it near at hand.
The old man behind the shutter sneered. “That ain’t gonna help ya, son. Not with what’s afoot.”
“What is it?”
“Git in here, and I’ll tell ya.” I heard the rasp of a bolt sliding back in the door, and after securing Honcho around the back of the building, I hurried inside.
The inside of the shop smelled of sawdust and stale beer, and I realized that I’d come into the tavern. The old man dragged me aside so he could slam the door. He spun around to look up at me, shaking his head.
“They’re coming, and you hayseed had no idea,” he scowled.
He started to answer, but before he could speak, my ears caught the sound of hooves from outside. This wasn’t a single horse trotting into town – it sounded like multiple steeds, maybe even at a full gallop.
The old man’s eyes went even wider, and he threw himself to the ground. His gnarled hand shot out to grab me by the coat, dragging me down into the sawdust alongside him. “Quiet, now!” he insisted. “Don’t give us away, or we’re as good as dead!”
I still had questions, but I kept my mouth shut as I crept towards the window along with the old man. He looked familiar, and I was fairly certain I’d seen him before. “Garrick,” I whispered, as softly as I could speak. “Isn’t that your name?”
He glared at me, furious for talking, but gave me a short nod. “Yuh. Now shut it, hayseed, ‘fore you get us both killed.”
Still not sure why, I put one eye up towards the crack in the shutters. Garrick tried to hold perfectly still, but then began whispering to me, as if he couldn’t contain the secret inside himself any longer.
“We knew he was up to bad stuff when the deputies dragged him in,” he whispered, talking almost more to himself than to me. “Black magic, the kind a’ stuff that makes a man go crazy just from thinking ’bout it. They caught him in the cave, standing over the body of the Mayor’s daughter. Had her blood smeared all over him.”
I felt a chill run up and down my spine, but I couldn’t close my ears to his words.
“And we hanged him, and that’s better than he deserved,” Garrick went on, shaking his head. “I voted that we draw and quarter him, but nah, they went with the rope. I watched it, though, watched his legs kick until they stopped. Watched them cut down the corpse. And then I put a bullet through his heart, just to be sure.”
The hooves were close, now, and I guessed that the riders would be visible at any second. “So who came after him?”
“No one,” Garrick whispered, as I finally saw the horses appear. They looked too thin, covered in long black strands that blew back from their manes. Their riders also wore black, tattered black that looked like it had been buried for months. Four of them, galloping in formation.
“No one came after them,” Garrick uttered, and my breath froze in my throat as the nearest rider turned to stare at the saloon. “They came back, all on their own. And there’s none left to stop them.”
I just stared out through the crack in the shutters, out at the rider. He stared back at me from wide, unblinking eye sockets in a face that held no flesh, no muscle. A grinning skull, its eye sockets lit with unholy yellow flames, sat beneath that black hat. It stared straight at me, and I could have sworn that it could see me.
“None left,” Garrick repeated. “And we’re all ’bout as good as dead.”