Cormac had been travelling the plane for days, set adrift by conflict on an ocean of pale dust. The bullet wound in his left shoulder still ached despite the blood running down his arm being long since dry. The sun, which had been the one ubiquitous constant since his gang had been massacred in a firefight with the apaches, was perched mockingly on the distant horizon, painting the western sky with hues of burning red.
The intense heat felt almost palpable, as though you could reach out and caress it with calloused fingertips. He pictured his mama's baking pot from when he was just a kid, and imagined this was very much like being trapped inside. His mind suddenly flooded with fond thoughts of home, fond thoughts of simply not being here.
He'd have shot his mama ten times to escape this hell, without a moment's hesitation.
Leicester, his horse, was beginning to falter - it was the only creature on this desolate plane more wretched than him. Five days of galloping without food or water had taken its toll on the animal, now little more than a pelt nailed to a set of creaking bones. The saddle felt too big for the horse's emaciated back, and with every stride Cormac could feel the sickly prod of Leicester's ribcage jutting into his ankles, masked by a thin layer of furry skin the quality of tissue paper.
To see a beast, so mighty and proud, reduced into such a pitiful state was a sobering reminder of his own mortality; his own foolish, arrogant mistake.
He turned his head to all sides and realised that this godforsaken desert was devoid even of plant life, nary a cactus nor a blade of parched grass emerging from a crack in the ground could be seen for a hundred miles in any direction. When he coughed he coughed dust, and something in his chest rattled, like his body wanted to give up on him.
The Marston Gang (now deceased) were the most vicious band of outlaws this side of the Mexican border, with a string of murders, rapes, and robberies that they wore like a pearl necklace with irreverence. They basked in their cruelty, ransacking villages, both European and Native, and slaughtering to their heart's content until the streets were awash with blood, and smoke from burning buildings blotted out the sun's judgemental gaze.
Lawmen had taken to calling them "The Grey Ruin", as towns that fell into their clutches were little more than burnt husks and ash upon their departure.
Judgement, Cormac thought, though the word never passed his cracked lips. Is that what this is now, me being judged?
He crossed the scorched landscape, covered in long, dark cracks like a network of veins on the skin of a dead god, and bore forward towards the horizon as though it held some promise of redemption. Occasional blasts of gritty wind had coated both thin rider and thin steed in a layer of pale dust, like a ghostly warrior, a pale horseman, galloping from the pages of Revelations to this genuine End Times wasteland. The desert seemed almost like a world unto itself, brought into existence to punish Cormac for his misdeeds.
Wherever they rode at whatever speed, Cormac got the impression that death rode just behind them: invisible, unstoppable, inevitable. That word was perhaps the scariest in the world, inevitable. Death was inevitable, escape was merely conditional.
This temperature often leant itself to mirages, where trembling heat in the distance gave the desert terrain the reflective qualities of blown glass. Sometimes it played tricks with your head, made you catch glimmers of things that weren't there, like a lush, green oasis on the horizon, beckoning you like the call of a siren.
In that regard, the sight that assailed Cormac's weary eyes was no mirage.
It looked like claws of some great and ancient monster protruding from the ground to form a perfect circle, where spires made from bleached-white animal bones rose from their subterranean palms. He'd never seen quite so many bones of so many varieties of animal arranged to form what looked almost like a tiny settlement. Femurs made tripods for erect spines that led to clustered skull peaks, and ribcages formed the bases for spider-like bone arrangements with a plethora of arms and legs jutting at unnatural angles. It was an oasis of bones filled with nightmarish ivory totems, and in the very heart of the circle sat the skull of an African elephant, on top of which perched a figure, sitting cross-legged with his head bowed, dressed completely in white.
Cormac was shaken from his tired equanimity by the sight of the bone oasis. There were no other settlements for miles, and unless the bones of the white-clothed stranger's horse lay among the copious others, there was no telling how he got there, let alone how he managed to transport all the carcasses.
He spurred his horse and rode forward, watching the bone oasis grow larger on the horizon. The great claws that encircled the mandala were in fact the ribs of a whale, curving inwards so that their points all aimed towards the elephant skull in the centre. As he and Leicester grew closer Cormac began to comprehend the sheer size of the stranger, a great man garbed in a long, white suit - four feet across the shoulders, at the very least - with a white, wide-brimmed hat that obscured his features entirely.
The rider drew his Colt double-action revolver from the leather holster at his hip and pulled back the hammer with his thumb. He felt justified in exercising caution around a giant living amongst bones, and curled his index finger around the trigger, ready to fill him with burning lead at a moment's notice.
When he and Leicester were separated from the skull throne by mere feet he finally spoke out.
"What in the hell is all this shit, mister?" he called out, cupping his left hand to the side of his mouth, "and what the hell are you doing up there?"
There was a pause when all was silent save for the wind warbling as it passed through the bones. Leicester whinnied nervously, but Cormac ran his bony fingers through the animal's sparse, black mane to silence him.
"I am waiting," said the stranger atop the elephant skull, his cadence deep and measured, as though he were standing right next to you.
"Waiting..." Cormac said to himself, his voice a dry croak, rattling around the dusty walls of his throat, "what are you doing waiting in a place like this?"
The stranger gave a low, earthy chuckle.
"Anticipating some entertainment, Mr Marston, like all gentlemen of taste."
Cormac gasped and clenched his fist around the handle of the pistol, raising it to shoulder height in shock.
"How do you know my name?"
"Everyone knows your name, Mr Marston, are you not the best marksman in Arizona? Or does that apply more to the myth than to the man that inspired it?"
He gave a frustrated grunt and drew a bead on the stranger's head, still obscured by the hat. Cormac Marston had fired many shots in his day, and nine out of ten of these shots always found their way to someone's forehead, particularly when that someone wasn't showing him the proper respect.
"What you heard is true, no man can gun a bastard down like me, but what of it, stranger? I can't shoot my way out of having a dry throat and an empty belly, as much as I can't shoot my way home from this hellhole. This gun might as well be a goddamn paperweight."
The stranger had clearly heard what he wanted to hear, and lifted his head to face Marston. Under the brim of his hat Marston could see a pair of black eyes, eyes that seemed to be hewn from coal, staring at him from a grey face. The man was aged but not wrinkled, and had a strangely leonine dignity about him. His lips were drawn in a thin, malevolent smile. The stranger seemed pleased.
"Ah, but Marston, my boy, what if I told you that you could?"
Cormac lowered his gun. The stranger's cryptic words appealed more to his desperation than his curiosity, his resolve weakened by hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. In his glory days Marston would have shot this joker, stole his fancy white hat and jacket, and left his corpse amongst all the others. Now, however, no such thought even occurred to him.
"Keep talking," Cormac said, his voice quiet and strained.
With agility that Cormac thought impossible for a man of his size, the stranger dismounted and landed deftly on his feet. He was wearing a pair of expensive-looking spats - not your usual desert fare, Cormac thought - then stood at his full height. The man was truly monstrous, like one of those old Greek legends Cormac had read as a boy, a Titan in flesh. He was perhaps eight feet tall at the very least, with arms and legs like the shafts of trees, yet he was clothed like a dandy, with suit jacket, waistcoat, shirt, and pleated trousers that seemed fresh from the laundromat.
The stranger was another preposterous enigma of the endless desert.
"Are you a betting man, Cormac?" the stranger said, sliding a gloved hand into his jacket and retrieving a standard deck of cards, "Most of you lot tend to be, in my experience. Poker, blackjack, pontoon. All sorts of little games on which to wager chips and money and cigarettes. Great fun, don't you think?"
While talking the stranger drew four cards from the deck, two black eights and two black aces, which he casually threw onto the ground between himself and Cormac.
"Myself, I find the concept of the wager to be quite exciting," the stranger continued while shuffling the deck in one hand and gesticulating artfully with the other, as though he were conducting an orchestra, "However, it goes without saying that the excitement is truly proportional to that which is at stake. A game of poker played for mere money is a fool's errand, but a game of poker played for one's life has true gravitas. There is no room for levity in wagers, Mr Marston."
During this long-winded speech Cormac felt as though the stranger was talking at him rather than to him, with a speech that he no doubt rehearsed to his audience of skeletons while awaiting the arrival of a hapless traveler. That being said, the important elements transcended the wordiness of the stranger's delivery.
"You want to play cards with me?" Cormac asked in a state of wide-eyed exasperation.
The stranger scoffed, "Goodness, no, I see no fun in cards - they were merely to illustrate my point. The game I wish to play with you involves your skills with that six shooter, my boy, we'll put to the test whether you're really the greatest gunman in the state."
Cormac nodded, his energy depleted, forming words when unnecessary seemed pointless.
The stranger saw this, and though his face didn't betray it, he felt a pang of irritation at Cormac's lack of enthusiasm for his little game. Meanwhile, Leicester remained silent and static. Cormac had tied his reins to one of the stranger's bone spires.
"But first, my dear Marston, I have but one request of you," the stranger said, his saccharine tone a guise for bitterness, "I wish to know why the self-professed greatest marksman in the state of Arizona, and leader of The Grey Ruin, has fallen upon such hard times? You're wounded, exhausted, starving, and alone. How did this come to be? I thought fortune smiled on you and your roving gang of criminals."
Marston gave an indignant grunt, for two reasons. The first was the spitefulness behind the stranger's words that he made no real effort to hide. The second was the fact he got the distinct impression that the stranger already knew the answer to this question.
"Oh, I'll tell you," Cormac said, his brow arched in tired fury, "story ain't long and it ain't pretty neither, but I'll tell you... after I hear your name, that is. I don't do dealings with no man who I don't know the name of."
The stranger grinned. Smart boy, the smile seemed to whisper.
"Herman Furlong, Marston, I doubt you've heard of me. I suppose you could say I'm a traveler from an antique land, not unlike your own," said Herman Furlong, removing his wide-brimmed hat to reveal a slicked-back head of silver hair, "now, if you please, the story."
Cormac bowed his head in what almost seemed like a bizarre parody of benediction, closed his eyes and exhaled a dusty breath.
"Alright, Herman Furlong, I'll tell you," Cormac replied, his voice seeming slow and considerate, "we was out in Texas when it happened, came across a few tents fulla sleeping injuns. We figured it'd be fun to shoot the lot of 'em, they were just squaws and kids, anyway, wouldn't put up much of a fight."
Furlong's eyes seemed to light up at the prospect of violence, of conflict and bloodshed. His thin smile began to cut further into his cheeks as the story unfolded.
"I put 'em up to it, after all, them dumb sons of bitches did whatever I said, cause they knew I'd take their goddamn heads off if they said any different," Cormac said, seeming almost nostalgic for his fallen brothers, though his voice was tinged with inflections of sadness, "so me and the boys killed the whole lot of 'em, left none alive, and we rode off having a high old time."
"Indeed, Mr Marston, indeed. What happened after that?"
"We rode on the next day, not thinking nothin' of it, and especially not expecting any retribution over it. But around mid day, and this is, what, maybe a week ago now? A whole buncha screaming, wailing Apaches come down on us with the wrath of God in their hearts. Jesus, it was thirty against three hundred, we never stood a goddamn chance. They shot the hell outta the boys, killed every last one of 'em, and one of the cheeky sum bitches put a bullet in my shoulder while I was high tailing it outta there."
While telling this part of the tale Cormac pointed towards the wound in his shoulder for emphasis. Furlong merely smiled and nodded.
"Since then I've been riding day and night, no food, no water, no nothin. And now I'm here, talking to some big fuckin' freak of nature in a desert boneyard. That extensive enough for you, Furlong?"
The soft-spoken giant that was Herman Furlong gave a polite golf clap and a single, peptic chuckle that seemed to jangle insultingly in Marston's ear canals. This was his response to Cormac's tale of tragedy, the tale of the massacre of apache women and children and every last one of Marston's gang. It was like little more than some roadside puppet show to him.
"I have three wagers for you, Cormac, not one less, not one more. I will present them to you one by one, with the accompanying stakes. I shall offer you what I stand to lose in each instance, as well as stating my demands of you should I win the given wager. Is that clear, Mr Marston?"
"Good, my boy, very good indeed. We'll have a grand old time."
Cormac felt a chill like cold sweat trickle down his back, the kind only a fella like Herman Furlong, in all his bizarre, monstrous glory, could instil in a man. He had no reason to trust the strange giant who sat among bones and laughed at stories of violence and misery, but the alternative was certain death in a seemingly endless desert. This was, at worst, at least a distraction from the inevitability of it all.
Without speaking Furlong pointed to one of his bone spires about forty feet away, one made from the skull of an antelope sitting atop the straightened spine of a crocodile, propped up at the collective elbow of four skeletal horse legs.
"My first wager, Mr Marston, is an easy one. You have one shot, and with that shot you must topple the skull of the antelope from that bone totem in the distance."
Marston squinted until it became more defined in his vision. He could see cavernous eye sockets and two slender horns protruding from the skull, and for a moment considered why he shouldn't simply turn the gun on Furlong instead. He realised that perhaps Furlong's true value wasn't something that could be looted from his corpse, perhaps - as a man who looked composed and well-groomed in the centre of a desert - he knew a quick way out of this hell.
"I accept your wager," Cormac said, his voice unwavering.
"You haven't heard the terms yet, my boy," Furlong said, reaching into his suit jacket and producing a metal canteen, "should I win, your boots become mine. If you win, my canteen, and the water inside it, becomes yours. Do you accept my wager?"
Cormac thought at length about the water in Furlong's canteen, when it was on the table he finally became aware of the sheer depth of his own thirst. His throat felt like it was crumbling into dust, his stomach ached, his kidneys throbbed, he hadn't taken a decent piss in days. He nodded frantically, more motivated to win than ever.
With Furlong's smile of approval, Cormac levelled the revolver and lined the antelope skull up between his iron sights. He felt as though he was preparing to assassinate the devil from here, the horns were visible just above the sights.
He exhaled, squeezed the trigger, and a brilliant blast of sound tore through the silence of the desert. In a split second the antelope skull exploded into shards of enamel, a deep cavity tearing through the forehead, and fell in two pieces from the tip of Furlong's totem.
"Well done, my boy, very well done indeed," he said, tossing the small, sloshing canteen into Cormac's eager palms, "there's your prize, you've certainly earned it."
Marston was ferocious, barely even unscrewing the lid before he tore it from the canteen and began drinking from it. To his surprise, no matter how much he drank, water seemed to keep flowing, as though Furlong's canteen was truly bottomless. Though Cormac took no time to question the logic of things, he drank like it was the first time in his life.
"My second wager, Mr Marston, is somewhat higher stakes," Furlong said with pronounced glee, running his gloved hands through his silver mane, "should I win, my prize is your gun. However, if you win, I'll part with the directions back to civilisation."
Cormac's eyes lit up. This seems too good to be true, he thought to himself, though his mind, now flooded with thoughts of escape, quickly washed away any inklings of doubt. What rings will Furlong expect me to jump through in order to achieve that?
"I accept your wager."
"Your challenge is to shoot the four playing cards I placed at our feet, Cormac. I expect to see a bullet hole through every one of them if you wish to win this game."
A lesser man would have assumed that Furlong wanted him to fire into the four cards while they were laid out right in front of him, but Cormac, for all his faults, was far too crafty for that.
In the next instant, Furlong's great foot came swooping down and swept up the cards in a cloud of pale dust, casting them into the air. Without a moment to spare, Cormac raised the barrel of his pistol and fired off four shots at the speed of a typewriter clicking away, and as if by magic every card - two black eights and two black aces - fluttered to the ground with perfect holes in their centres.
Even Furlong seemed impressed.
"Now give me the directions out of this goddamn shitheap, Furlong."
"Don't worry, my boy, I'm a man of my word. There's a settlement two hundred miles East of here, where you can eat and sleep. On a horse you can probably make the journey in approximately two days, perhaps three with your horse. It's likely you'll stay alive until that point with the help of my canteen."
And with that Cormac was sated, he had no further desire to gamble when he finally had the knowledge and the means to escape the desert alive. He began silently untying Leicester from his skeletal stead.
"But what of the third wager, Mr Marston?"
"Not interested. I've played enough of these games."
"Will you at least hear me out?"
"No need. I'm sorry if I wasted your time."
Furlong's black eyes burned in frustration. His firm cadence had grown to be imploring, but he would not be denied.
"Mr Marston, though you may have your small-minded head jammed elsewhere, it has escaped your attention that once you've eaten and slept, you will awake to indigence. You are penniless, your friends and companions are dead and scalped, and though you may have escaped the desert, you will die amidst urban squalor in your poverty."
Cormac paused and looked back at him, his face hard and unkind, but moved by Furlong's depressingly accurate assertions into giving the cruel man his undivided attention for the very last time.
"I, however, can remedy this situation for you, Mr Marston. As you may be able to tell, I am a man of means - a man of great affluence. Should you win my next wager, I will assure that you will be richer than you could even imagine. You could buy and sell all your old compatriots a thousand times over and still be the wealthiest man in the state."
Marston would be lying if he said that it didn't tempt him. It was a drive for wealth that made him form that accursed gang in the first place, when they were government-sanctioned scalp hunters rather than brutish criminals. If he obtained the wealth that Furlong pitched he'd never have to work another day in his life, he could live in comfort until the day he died.
"What do you get if you win?" Cormac asked with a voice almost timid, seduced by Furlong's riches.
"Your horse," replied Furlong, his great arm extended and a thick finger pointed toward Leicester.
"What's the challenge?" Cormac asked, weighing up all the pros and cons, the risks and rewards.
"Look high above you, Marston, to the red sky painted by the setting sun."
He craned his head upwards and saw it circling, a single vulture, around and around in a single arc as though it was manipulated by gravity rather than its own volition.
"There's your target, Cormac, if you can shoot that vulture then you can return to civilisation wealthier than you ever imagined, and if you lose your horse becomes my property."
There was a moment of complete silence.
"I accept your wager."
If he could shoot the cards then the bird could surely be no problem. Cormac levelled his pistol until the vulture flapped its wings between the iron sights of the Colt double-action revolver. He exhaled, a shot was fired, and the bird squawked in pain as a bullet pierced its torso, and it pitched down to the earth below, perishing upon contact.
Marston felt the breath leave his body, his skin tightened and what little water was in his system began to escape as sweat. His pupils dilated, his muscles tensed painfully.
He hadn't fired his shot.
Cormac turned his head to face Furlong, who was carrying a Smith and Wesson Model 2 revolver in one of his great, gloved hands, with wisps of smoke climbing from the barrel.
"A deal's a deal, Mr Marston," Furlong said with a sickening chuckle, as he levelled his own pistol and fired a round into Leicester's head, splattering ruby-coloured arterial blood onto the bleached bones behind him as the dead horse collapsed into the dust.
Marston's mouth was agape. That bastard cheated, that bastard cheated and he just shot my only way out of this nightmare.
"You lying son of a bitch!" Cormac screamed at the top of his voice and raised his pistol to fire his final shot into Furlong's grinning mug.
Two shots rang out, neither of them of Cormac's.
The first shot crashed into his Colt double-action, destroying the cylinder and tearing it from his hands. The second shot tore into Cormac's knuckles, sending two fingers flying down into the dirt while blood spurted from the stumps on his injured hand.
"I never told you a single lie, Mr Marston, I don't appreciate the slander," Furlong said with a twisted grin while Marston held his injured hand in agony, blood pouring in gouts from between his fingers, "everything I have done has been in accordance with our arrangement."
Cormac looked at his mangled hand, then back at Furlong with true hatred in his eyes.
"You bastard, you sick bastard! I'll kill you!"
Before Cormac could take a single step, Furlong pointed his revolver downwards and fired the two remaining shots. One found their way to each of Cormac's kneecaps, shattering them, and sending him down with a thump to the dusty ground, writhing in crippling pain.
His hand bled, as did both knees, while the excruciating burning sensation that comes part and parcel with getting shot worked its magic.
"Any subsequent punishment has purely been self defence, Mr Marston."
Cormac squirmed but beyond that he couldn't move. The pain was beyond thought, it transcended imagination. His hand was destroyed, his gun was destroyed, his legs were both useless, his horse was dead. The injuries weren't fatal, but Furlong had killed him. With every bullet he'd hammered another nail into his coffin.
"If it's any consolation, Cormac," Furlong said while stepping closer, "you did still win two out of three wagers, it's an impressive testament to your skills as a marksman. Speed, however, you lacked, and if one should pay for anything then it should be a shortcoming of skill, don't you agree?"
Cormac simply breathed the words "fuck you" and continued to squirm.
Furlong, in response, pressed his foot quite slowly down onto Cormac's shattered kneecaps, and gave a smile when his screams tore through the tranquility of the cold, desert night.
"Why did you do this?" Cormac moaned.
"No, all of it. Why did you make this place, why did you give me the wagers, why the canteen, why the directions, why the bird, why all of it?" Cormac had broken down and begun to sob violently in pain and resignation.
"Oh, that's quite simple," Furlong said, dropping to one knee and looking at Cormac, eye to eye, "because you'd lost hope, you were ready to die, you'd accepted it. No man should die without hope, Cormac, don't you agree?"
In stunned silence, Cormac simply looked back at Furlong, as the wind carried those last three words - "don't you agree?" - in an echo that seemed almost eternal.
Furlong grinned, his body and face crumbling into dust and sand, pouring out amongst the bones and blowing away in the wind. The canteen similarly dissolved into nothingness, as did the elephant skull, and every other bone, as though they'd aged a thousand years in mere seconds. Even the body of Leicester crumbled into dust and ash, until all that was left was Cormac, surrounded by a kingdom of dust.
He screamed one more time, though this time there wasn't a soul to hear it. For all he knew he was the last man on earth, screaming into darkness, into emptiness. Then when his voice grew hoarse and the water turned to dust in his throat, he grew silent again, alone with his thoughts.
No more Furlong, no more Leicester, no more wagers, no more oasis of bones.
Just him, and the pain, and his memories to keep him company.
Cormac Marston lay dying in the endless desert, and he'd never felt so alone.