The Cowboys

The Cowboys

A Story by ChinAllen

“Them cowboys are a dangerous bunch, they are. They’ll tear ye to pieces if ye let’m.” That was the first time I had ever heard of cowboys. I was barely nine years old and seeing a super-hero like my grandfather talk about them like they were the Devil incarnate, well, you can only imagine how I felt about them.

            How I still feel about them.

            We lived in a tiny place called Oasis and it was the year 172 of the New World. There were about 43 people living there at the time, including myself. There was, back then, one street that had been fairly intact, a few pits in the black top and it had cracked almost everywhere from the heat, flanked on both sides by housing, a few shops, and The Frisky Devil Saloon. It wasn’t anything worthy of the extravagant word ‘saloon’. It was only a short bar table with a few stools in front of it and a wall of black whiskey behind it. The owner, McHurty, made his own whiskey by hand and was damn proud of it and it was the best kind I’ve ever tasted, and I can say that because it’s the only kind I’ve tasted.

            Not when I was just a baby nine years old of course. I was living a few doors down around then, with my grandfather and my mother. I had a few other siblings and we were all b*****d children of a ruthless man who ran off and hopefully died of something horrible, like being stewed by a pack of muties.

            But we got on just fine without him. I looked after two of my siblings and was then looked after by an older one. Our grandfather fed us and our mother clothed us and when he told us about the cowboys, he was nearly full of the Black Scuz that had been filling up his lungs. But he didn’t care. He told me later on his deathbed, when I asked him how he did it every morning, he said it was for Maria, our youngest sister. Jealousy had filled me, but only briefly, because I had idolized him so much and his clear favorite was Maria. He must have seen his wife and daughter in her.

            I apologize, I’m getting off tangent. When you’re stuck in a desolate place such as this, where the only time the population goes up is when a passer-by’s mule or ox dies when they are halfway down the street, you tend to talk a lot about the past.

            Like I said, I was nine and he was dying when he told us about the cowboys. We were all sitting around his wooden rocker, the two little ones up on his lap, my elder was sitting across from my grandfather cleaning his pistol, and I was sitting at his feet, completely mesmerized by the soothing gruff of his voice and the smell of his stale tobacco.

            He rocked back and forth in a steady motion, casting shadows across the wall against the lantern light. “What are cowboys, Grampa?” I asked eagerly. I remember hearing my elder snicker as I asked.

            “They’re hounds that was born through the fires the Devil had left over, they are. I swear it!” He swore a lot. “They are beasts with a torso longer than three men and bones stronger then steel. They’re limbs stretched over seven feet high,” he raised his arms as high as his knobby joints would stretch them, “they chased after you on all fours with claws that could rip off your leg so cleanly, you wouldn’t even feel it.” He coughed up a black wad of scuz and spat it in an old pot that sat between his legs. “And I swear to this young ones, they can even open doors with those claws.”

            I learned a long time later that they didn’t necessarily open doors, but they could slash through them. My grandfather was right about the claws, you can just asked my own leg.

            “And their eyes.” He shuddered, letting out a short gasp that seemed to chill the air. I could feel it reach my face and race down my spine. “They have eyes that only the Devil can stand. They are so black, even the blackest of darks hide from it and the most evil men will cower. They have teeth filled with such a potion that one drop could put this entire s**t hole of a town in a very deep sleep.” He said those last words with an anticipatory pause between each one. You could tell he enjoyed telling stories. “Just asked Burgens at the meat cutters. Says you can’t even scavenge a piece of meat that’s been murdered by one of those wretched cowboys, says the second-hand poison will kill you as soon as the juices savor your lips.” He made a smacking noise at the young ones, making them giggle.

            “Have you ever seen one, Grampa? One a these cowboys, I mean,” I asked, speaking through a glob of drying sand that felt like it was sitting on top of my esophagus. I think I was the only one that really got into his stories. My elder was too old to believe in such stories and my younger siblings weren’t old enough to understand.

            He seemed to darken. “Oh, only twice, my dear son. Once did I see those terrible eyes and that wretched grin, me and McReely was sitting guard, I was barely old than you, boy.” He stretched out his leg and kicked my elder. “See, that year we were getting a lot of folk accusing each other on stealing they’re mutie goats and Bessies. People were riling each other up like two c***s in a hen’s coop. So the lawmen, one of them being McReely, set up watches. That night had been my first watch and I ain’t seen anything like what I seen that night. Or at least until I met the wretch later on.” He spat another bit of black scuz into the pot and started rolling another roach for his tobacco.

            “That night we stole a bit of hayweed from McReely’s old man, just to pass the time. The night was warm for a waste such as we live in.  We sat up on the empty the empty water tower, shootin’ the s**t, and watching everyone else sleep.”

            “What’s ‘shootin’ the s**t’, Grampa?” Again, me.

            He laughed at this, startling the younger ones who had started to doze in his arms. He spat some more scuz and that was the first one I saw that had red in it.

            “It’s when good, old friends talk.” He smiled thickly at me. “Anyways, we were on our third roach when we saw something run across the blacktop.” He slapped his knee. “Damn, did it go by us fast! We put out the hayweed and jumped off the tower. We ran down the street, McReely was a bit ahead of me, and about halfway down we heard this high cry. It sounded like broken glass scratching up a plate of steel. I said to McReely, I said, ‘Hey that sounds like one a those broken Bessies.’ He agreed and we ran to over to the end of the street. When we turned at that end corner, we were looking at all the broken Bessies this town had been able to manage then. In the middle of the lot, there stood the thing that has always scared me turdless in my sleep. I can still see those black eyes hiding behind a pair of gray lids.” He took a long drag on his tobacco and just stared ahead of him. I looked at my elder and even he had gotten dragged into the story.

            Finally, he blew out the smoke and continued on his tale. “The beast did indeed have a broken Bessie in his mouth. The poor wretch had its head clamped between giant jaws and the gigantic beast was shaking it, up and down, left and right, all around it’s horrible head.

            “McReely started throwing up his supper and the retching sounds had gotten the beast’s attention. It dropped that poor Bessie, now a mass of white fur and bloody muscle.” My grandfather spat and made a disgusted sound in his throat, the black scuz devoid of blood that time. “That’s when I made the worst mistake of my life. The moment I regret most of all and I still cry over some nights after you little ones are so far in sleep, not even a pistol could wake you up. I shot at the great beast… and I hit it. I hit the b*****d right in the muzzle. It let out a yelp and then just stood there, and stared at me.” He slowed down, his words becoming smooth and clear. “It stared me down and sent a chill that even God Himself can’t warm up again. It was like the beast had tasted my soul with a freezing tongue and a I could tell it wanted more.”

            My grandfather gently got up and put the younger ones to bed. He came back with a bottle of McHurty’s black whiskey and sat back down. “You see, boy. The worst thing about cowboys, the most horrible and wretched trait that they inherited from Devil is that they are extremely smart.” He took a gulp and almost breathed out fire. “And when they want to remember, they will never forget.” He chased that gulp with a second. “The beast, that night, ran away. We didn’t see another for an entire decade. Again, it was me and McReely. But that night, we were leaving The Devil and walking back home. We were singing merrily, the cool breeze creating tiny thunderstorms on our hot faces.

            “Near the end of the street, we heard that horrible whining sound again. We walked around the building across from mine to see what was making that horrible racket.” He looked at me and into my young eyes. I saw things that I shouldn’t have seen for many more years. I saw horrible depression behind petrified eyes. “There stood the beast, just as it was ten years ago. Except now it had a small bald patch just before its dark nose. That small place where I had hit it.”

            I could start to feel the heat coming off of his skin. That black whiskey was working into him just like the Black Scuz had.

            “It looked at me, scaring me sober, grinning at me like an old friend. It let out one bark and charged at us with incredible speed. We barely made it to the street when that beast was upon us. Its bony head knocked me damn near a quarter the way down the blacktop, tearing up my face and my hands. But I got onto my a*s and looked back through a curtain of blood and saw the beast grinning at me again, with yellow jaws and a huge paw crushing down on McReely. He chilled my soul again and then it started to tear into McReely like a f****n’ hound with a piece of meat.”

            I could tell that he had fallen into that black vat of memories where only he can be allowed in. The big wooden barrel that once you fell in, it hurt to swim through all of those memories just to get out and fall in again. I should know; that barrel is hereditary.

            “It tore poor McReely’s limbs right off him and dug its jaws into the poor man’s stomach and tore out everything. I all I could do was watch him scream, ha, the poor b*****d.” He seemed to clear up, pulling himself out of that barrel just a bit. “The thing about cowboys is that they truly are wretched beasts. They kill for fun. The beast we encountered that night, left everything for the town to clean up. Didn’t even take a morsel for himself. I know, because when the beast was done with the poor b*****d, it looked back at me, its face was dripping in blood, and it was grinning back at me, almost saying, ‘a bullet for a mate, friend.’ He smiled at me for a long time before running off into the waste again.” He let out a choked little laugh. “I never saw the beast again nor did I see McReely. I think I cried for the next week or two, blaming myself.”

            He drained a bit more black whiskey and spat out a ball of scuz. “But one gets over misfortunes like that on the surface, he does. Never on the inside, maybe, but the surface just as well.” He got up and kicked my elder. “Now off to bed with ye, both of ya. And don’t you dare tell your mother I told that story, she’ll have a fit to scare the Devil!” We both went to bed and that night, I swear it, was the first time I had ever heard my grandfather cry.

            I cried myself. But that was for the night terrors I had caught from the old man’s story. The morning after, I expected to see a depressed old man, drowning in his rocker and I intended to console him, looked forward to it, even. But when I went outside after eating breakfast, he was the fine old man I had always known, laughing and throwing Maria up in the air and catching her on the way down. I was kind of disappointed, actually.

            That old fool died about seven years later. It was a painful death and was without mercy. The Black Scuz had almost filled up his lungs. He was always coughing and spitting up red and black balls of scuz. He could barely eat and I doubt that he ever slept. He lied in his bed; the sheets were covered with black mucous that was dribbling off his chin. The few elderly people he knew came and bid him a short farewell and my family gathered around to watch him die.

            I never liked that tradition our family held. It was horrible to watch him go. It seemed like he coughed out the little life in him, his poor soul trapped in black masses.

            And the pain that had crept into those eyes. They still scare me every time I think about them. He finally passed through a fit of coughs that left a blackened grin on his face. We buried him out in the waste and was done with the old man.

            A year or so after that, I joined a caravan whose route went from Oasis to the Gorge, down to the wonders of Egas and back up home. I labored as a guard more than anything. Sometimes I hunted meat for the other men when it was my turn, but mostly I sat on a wagon and smoked hayweed.

            Four years went by. They were boring years where I got paid to do nothing. I got to know the other men and the couple of women that I camped with. There was Sagan, the man who owned the caravan and paid me, Harriet was the woman that cooked our meals and was mighty fine with a Stump-Shooter, and then was Yerling. Yerling became my closest friend on that caravan. We always paired together (unless one of us wished to try our luck with Harriet or Polly) and he never let me down, nor I to him.

            My fourth year into the caravan and his sixth, the caravan was headed to Egas. We had about fifteen or so miles to go when we got hit by a pack of ugly muties. From what Sagan said, it was an unnaturally large pack.

            The muties attacked us at night, under a night where the night’s eyes were covered by a dark veil of thunderclouds, making it a very dark night to be in the waste. I was on watch that night with Polly. I decided to try my luck for a more eventful evening, so Yerling took the night off.

            We were sitting on top of the wagon when we both heard one of the oxen moan. I looked at Polly, a little irritated by the interruption in my progress, and walked over to the disgusting thing. I had to get really close to it just to see an outline of the thing. As I got closer, I could hear this awful chewing noise that sounded like it was chewing through bone. A few more paces and I could see that the poor beast was surrounded by muties. Two of them sat at the head, one was chewing on its twisted horn and another was cracking the skull open with a rock. Another was sitting by its rump, chewing through the flesh of its leg and a fourth was nearly sitting inside of the ox, seeming to play with its insides.

            I looked at them, enjoying their raw feast, with my jaw falling to the dust. I was horrified, to say the least. I raised my Stump-Shooter and pulled the trigger for the first time in my life. The kick surprised me and bruised my shoulder. I managed to hit the boil infested being sitting near the rump with a cloud of pebbles that pitted its head and took off a small portion of its jaw. The other three muties raised their heads and a guttural sound came out of their throats, carrying pieces of the ox with it.

            Another scream came from my back. I felt my heart leap into my throat and ran back to Polly, fumbling with the plastic casings as I did. I could hear the other muties chasing after me. When I made it back to the wagon, Polly’s screaming had been degraded to a weak-choking noise, and all around me, I could hear the deafening explosions of the Stump-Shooters fill the air; the atmosphere was thick with the smell of black powder.

            Everything seemed to slow after I reached Polly. The muties behind me seemed to drag though a cube of water and the yelling of my caravan dropped an octave or two and became elongated. And poor Polly; the girl was lying on her back, her head tilted towards me and her eyes bored into mine. She tried to tell me something, but her mouth had filled up with blood. A mutie was crouched over her legs. It had a lame arm sticking out of its back and its forehead was covered in swiveling eyes. It had dug into the soft part of her torso, just below her navel, and had a handful of her insides.

            I didn’t know Polly very well, so I didn’t really feel any sadness for her. I just felt revolted by the way she looked just then, lying helplessly with her bowels hanging at her hips. I had managed to get the casings into the barrel and I pointed my Stump-Shooter at her head.

            She didn’t feel anything after that loud report.

            It brought me up from that slow ocean I was in and I ran over to the camp. There were over two-dozen muties around camp. Some had been put down, but we were still out numbered. I picked out two more casings and made my way over to where Yerling would be.

            I passed Sagan who was easily cutting through two and three muties with his knife, laughing as he did so. Harriet was handling herself, as well, but not without a large bite mark just above her hip. I passed other faces, too. Some of them screamed as they blasted through the next mutie while others cried desperately for God to help them.

            I made it to Yerling, who was lying on the ground and fighting a mutie that was pressing down on his shoulders, but just in time. As I raised the butt of my shooter against my shoulder, the mutie raised an arm devoid of an outer skin and infested with rotten muscle down on Yerling, plunging the horn of the dead ox into his thigh. I heard the muscle rip clearly and the thick femur broke in a loud crack that would make the angels in the sky cringe.

            I felt panicky and pulled the trigger carelessly. Luckily, I missed Yerling and hit the ugly mutie full force, taking off its right shoulder. It wriggled and twisted on the ground in pain, making short yelping sounds. I brought my foot down on its skull and shut the wretch right up.

            Yerling laughed and said, “You didn’t have to ruin the fun, me and the b***h were just getting into it.” He sat up and yelled out in pain. We both looked at his leg and the horn was still stuck into him. He groaned, “be a doll and pull that out of my damn leg wouldjya?”

            The rough horn did not come out cleanly. The ribbed cone ripped up skin and muscle as I pulled it out. Ha, I remember very clearly Yerling punching me in the face right after I pulled it out. He apologized for it, but still, funny way of thanking someone for a good deed.

            No matter, just a funny memory.

            The last one I had of him, in fact.

            We lost the caravan. Everything we were carrying, the wagon at been set a fire and only one ox managed to escape, but I’m sure it found a worse end in the waste. Eleven people died, including Polly. There were only nine of us left and five of the nine were horribly wounded.

            Sagan decided that we should try to make it to Egas before the muties came back. Fifteen miles of walking in a freezing waste.

            Fifteen miles of dragging the poor b*****d that was my friend.

            So we headed west at a very slow pace. I had Yerling hanging on my right shoulder, who was trying to make his situation better with his wits. It never worked, but he sure did like to try. I was in front of the little line we had made, Sagan was behind me with two ladies in a bad way hanging off of his shoulders and the rest of the men dragging a*s behind him. I could hear their moans and their screams. It scared me in a very selfish way.

            It scared me because I knew what was out there at this time of night, hunting the desert. It wasn’t the muties again, I’m sure they had enough for one night. No, the muties weren’t on my mind then. I had the wretched dog on my mind, the beast that had haunted my grandfather until his dying breath.

            I didn’t have that same on he talked about, mind you, but I was sure his successors were out there, smiling their own yellow grin and watching us with their own black eyes. I wasn’t scared because I knew they were dying. I was scared because I knew I was perfectly fine and they were going to get me killed. If it weren’t for Yerling on my shoulder I probably would have left them and ran to Egas. Damn shameful, but it’s true.

            I could easily see the towers the Old World had left behind in Egas, but we were still a good ten miles from its protection. If we made it, it would be nearly daylight by the time we got there.

            Ten became nine and that became six and I started hearing noises running up and down our ranks. Large, galloping footfalls and heavy panting. I felt like it was announcing itself to us, like it enjoyed the fact that we knew it was there. Yerling had noticed them, too. He shut up right quick when he got scared. I could feel his thick nails cutting into me and his body shook against mine.

            Or maybe I was the one shaking.

            One mile. We were one mile away from safe keeping, from Yerling’s life. The cowboy played with us for five miles. I didn’t even hear the man in the back scream when the cowboy took him. It just kind of swooped in like a bird, silent. You just kind of knew he was gone.

            I looked back in time to see Sagan pull out his Stump-Shooter before the two men behind him were taken. It was fast. My grandfather was right, they are faster than anything I had ever heard of. It was just one great blur of gray beast.

            Sagan dropped the two women, letting them fall to the dust. One of them screamed for him, reaching out a bloody stump that was her arm. I looked at her eyes when she was taken. The force of the cowboy made her eyes bulge out and become bloodshot almost instantly. Her head whipped to her right, making a sickening crack. I could hear each piece of her back break out of place. It happened so fast, but it seemed so slow to me. Her face seemed to stretch back, distorting her face in a painful grimace that was bordering a grin; worst face I ever saw.

            It didn’t take the other girl, but it hit her hard enough to kill her. It hit her in the right side of her chest, breaking all of her ribs, I’m sure. She lay on her back, gasping for breath, drowning in a broken lung.

            Sagan managed a shot off a little too late. He was taken before he could even get his hands in his pockets for more shells. The great beast landed on him, shattering his legs into nothing but sacks of bruised meat with chips giving it some texture. The cowboy disemboweled him and left him there to choke on his dying words.

            I managed to back up two steps with Yerling still clutching my shoulders. That’s how fast it all happened. The weapons of the Old World turned this beast into something less than a devil.

            The cowboy’s head stood high above mine. It had dark eyes and a yellow grin. There was a large bald patch on its muzzle.

            A scar older than me, but not older than my grandfather.

            It leapt toward us, knocking Yerling off of my shoulder and me on my back. It leapt on Yerling and bit into his side, exposing his kidneys and stomach and intestines. It made sure I could see it.

            I walked over to me, its head low and the short fur on its back up high. It glared at me, glared into me. It plucked out the warmth and fight in me and threw it away, leaving me with just cold, just a freezing cold. It did it all with just its eyes. It knew me. It could smell my grandfather’s blood in me.

            It stood over me, its grin widening. I almost pleaded with it, begged it to leave me with the dead. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to drown in a broken lung or be left to play with my insides. I felt tears stinging the corners of my eyes. It just looked at me with that damned grin. I see it every time I close my eyes.

            The cowboy raised its paw and dropped it on my thigh. The weight of just its leg made a fire race up and down my muscles. It pressed down more and more. I could feel the claws scratching at my skin and my thigh cracking. I felt it splinter once and then twice before breaking. The sick wretch wanted to do it slowly, it wanted to watch me squirm and fight and scream under its strength. The cowboy still wanted revenge for what my grandfather had done to it.

            When my thigh broke, I screamed and I cried. I could feel the splinters cut the muscle it used to hold up. It kept pushing down and down; soon its claws were slowly shearing the skin and then tearing the muscle. They were sharp claws, but it was slow and tearing work. A joyful task for the beast, I suppose.

            Finally, it stepped down hard and the rest of my leg came off. I felt the blood rush out of my face to replace the loss of it in my leg. The cowboy picked up my leg and ran off. I never saw it again. The beast, I mean, but I didn’t see my leg either.

            It left me to die in that freezing cold, with my shorter leg caked in dirt. The bled out fast, but not fast enough. I should have died out there with my friend, when we were so close to safety.

            A small group of men that had been put on watch at Egas had seen the fire from Sagan’s Stump-Shooter. They ran out to help, thinking it was just another mutie raid, but it wasn’t. I don’t remember them carrying me back to the city or the doctors saving my life. All I remember is that awful grin, yellow and getting wider as my dreams grew darker.

            After a week or so, I gained clarity. I learned that the muties had gotten to what was left of Sagan and Yerling. Easy dinner, I guess. I survived an infection in my leg that had threatened my heart for a few days. The Black Flow, he called it. Said I was lucky, damned if I was.

            My grandfather was right about all of it. The cowboys’ perfection as a hunter, its speed and strength. The sharpness of its claws and the way it grinned at you, like it knows you. They are intelligent beasts; I’ll give them that. The only thing he was wrong about, or maybe he forgot to mention it entirely, is their dedication to a kill. It doesn’t sleep until it gets the last laugh. It will wait for generations until it has the last drop of blood. It waits so it can have more. I won’t let it. I’ll die alone in chastity if I have to.

            But who can have a sane life when those two white glares are shining in on you every night? I can’t.

© 2012 ChinAllen

Author's Note

My girlfriend has awesomely creative and vivid dreams and this story came out of one of those dreams. The only thing I pulled out of her dream was the cowboy itself. The setting is different and the story is entirely mine. I didn't proof it or anything, so it may have a lot of grammitical errors, some of them intentional, but I hope you enjoy it none the less.

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Added on December 4, 2012
Last Updated on December 4, 2012
Tags: Horror, short stories, stories, tales




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