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The horse had died two days ago. A man who believed he had the whole world at his fingertips, now stranded in an ocean of sand, his steed nothing more than a motionless pile of meat and his newfound riches useless. He had found it strange at the time once the sheriffs stopped following him, but money was at the forefront of his mind then, the thought of escape and wealth overwhelming the outlaw’s sense of direction.
There had not even been train tracks for him to follow since his joyful escape, and now he was at the mercy of the blistering Chihuahuan desert, a man all but dead reclining against the corpse of the mount that had once promised such freedom. He struggled to even lay his hand against the bullet wound in his gut, much less press against it, his own blood dry and caked onto his dusty clothes. Tired, brown eyes pointed towards the sun and blue sky above, following a circling turkey vulture overhead, fat, bearded jaw slack as the outlaw waited for eventual dehydration to set in, his lips dry and cracked.
It took him nearly a full minute to register the stranger standing not two feet in front of him, struggling to lift his head even an inch to face what he suddenly had hoped was salvation. New dreams of rescue were dashed just as fast as they came, the outlaw dropping his head back to look at the sky once more upon noticing that the figure before him clearly had no intention of bringing him out of his current predicament.
“Mind if I join you for a few moments?”
The voice was soft-spoken, distinguished. It was the kind of voice one would expect from a businessman, and educator. It was comforting.
The outlaw gave a weak gurgle in reply, obviously in no condition to do anything about it in the first place. The stranger took his place up against the carcass, long fingers lifting a cigarette to his thin, wrinkled lips and taking a deep drag before exhaling, foul-smelling smoke filling the air around them. With some effort, the outlaw spoke, not even making the effort to face his new companion as he did so.
“Are you going to kill me?”
The stranger’s glassy, fishy eye blinked, his lips pursing, as if considering it for a moment.
“I don’t think so, no. I don’t believe it’s my call to make.”
The holes in his face flexed as the newcomer took in another long inhale, the second cloud smelling far sweeter than the first. Delirious, the outlaw managed to urge out a response, his own mind hardly even aware of what he was saying.
“Am I in hell?”
“You think you’re important enough for hell?”
The vulture turned and turned.
The stranger brought his cigarette to his neck a third time.
The stranger shook his head, holes opening to pass another gust of smoke.
“No such thing.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, the outlaw’s tongue making an effort to reach his lips to wet them but to no avail. The stranger finished his smoke and immediately dug around in his jacket pocket for another, holding it out to his near-comatose companion with an expectant look in his eye, leathery purple skin clutching the stick tight between his fingers.
The outlaw shifted his gaze beside him, then, with great effort, lifted up his arm to take it. He raised the stick to his mouth, but just before asking for a match, he noticed the dried finger within the tobacco paper, so small it must have belonged to a child. With a frown, he dropped the grotesque item to the ground, curly black locks thumping onto the horse’s foul-smelling flesh once again.
The stranger had already lit another, and if one listened close on the air, they would hear the sounds of the flesh bubbling under the heat. In silence, they rested, years seeming to pass them by despite mere moments being exchanged between the two.
The vulture cawed.
“What happens to me, then?”
The stranger’s lips pursed again at the question, his many orifices blinking.
The outlaw coughed weakly, dust escaping his lungs as the stranger polluted the air with the scent of chrysanthemums.
“No heaven, no hell, then where?”
The dying man’s voice grew weaker with every word. The stranger twirled the burning cigarette in his grip, his glassy eye blinking on his forehead as he sank deep in thought. After a few moments of consideration, he shook his head once more, dismissing the subject.
"Best not to trouble you."
His vision fading, the outlaw traced the circling of the vulture across the sky, over and over, round and round, opening his mouth to speak once more.
“At least it will be over soon.”
The stranger took a deep breath beside him, turning the stick between his dagger-sharp teeth to ash. Dozens of tiny holes belched smoke that smelled unmistakably like apple pie.
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
The stranger stood without saying another word, and left as easily as he had come. The outlaw watched him light another match before shutting his eyes, resting his head on the bleached-white bones of his long dead mount, the skeleton picked clean.
Written by SkullMunch