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©Demon Wind

A short story by James Gilbreath (copyright 1993)

 

            Jim Star watched the red-haired man closely. He had only seen pictures of long ago and the man was much older now, but Jim was sure it was him. The half-breed gunfighter known as Red Wind was sitting alone at a barroom table having a drink waiting for his dinner to be served, just like a regular person.

            Jim was excited. This was his chance to take out the most famous gunfighter in the country. It was said Red Wind had killed fifty men in fair fights. That wasn’t counting the men killed in combat. That number alone was in the hundreds. He wasn’t prejudice either, he would kill anyone. Caucasian, Indian, Mexican, Negro, he had even killed one Oriental. The old man was truly worthy of Jim’s respect and he got it.

            At seventeen Jim was starting to get a reputation of his own. He hadn’t been in combat, but he killed three men in fair fights and had gained the nick name; Shooting Star.

            He watched the old man and he waited. He didn’t like the saloon smell of stale beer, whiskey and urine, but that didn’t even cross his mind this night. He was about the face the greatest and when it was over Shooting Star would be the name on everyone’s lips; the man who killed Red Wind.

           

            Nearly an hour passed before the old gunfighter stood up to leave. He took his black coat off the back of the empty chair and calmly put it on. His eyes caught those of the young at the bar.

            Jim got a good look at the legendary, pearl-handled .44 tied down low on Red’s right leg. The young gunfighter was in awe as he watched his adversary put on his black hat, drop a silver dollar on the table and walk into the night.

            Jim paid for his beer and slowly moved away from the bar drawing no attention from the others in the room. He tried to walk quietly, yet every step seemed to thunder and echo on the worn, wood floor. No one seemed to notice him, though, as he stepped outside into the cool darkness.

 

            “Red Wind!” Jim shouted at the man walking across the street. Red had heard the challenge many times in his life. He stopped but didn’t turn around or answer. “Turn around and face your final gunfight,” Jim spoke as he stepped into the street about forty feet from his foe.

            “I’ve already faced my final gunfight, boy,” Red replied without turning around.

            People were starting to gather along the boardwalk and at the open doors of the saloon. “Turn around!” Jim shouted.

            “I’ll not fight you, boy.”

            “Stop calling me boy. I’m a man.”

            “You’re a green-horn kid who foolishly puts notches on your gun-handle.” Red spoke calmly, his back still facing Jim.

            “You’re a yella coward,” Jim goaded. A thin grin formed across his lips.

            “You can call me what you want, kid. It don’t change a thing.” Red started walking away.

            “Don’t walk away from me, coward!” Jim’s anger was boiling over. Red continued to walk away without a word.

            “You can’t walk away from me!” Jim continued to shout. “Stop!” In his blind rage at being ignored, Jim jerked his gun from the holster and without a second thought shot Red Wind in the back.

            The old gunfighter spun around as he fell to his knees, then onto his side in the dirt street.

            Jim just stared at the fallen man. The kid’s face had turned ghastly pale. He had shot a man in the back. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He was the coward here not Red Wind.

            As people began to slowly step out into the street, Jim finally walked toward the body. He still held his gun in his hand and the people stayed back. He knelt down beside the old man, who was still breathing sporadically. He had been lung shot and wasn’t long for this world.

            “Why wouldn’t you turn around, old man?” Jim spoke softly now.

            “If I had, kid, you’d be dead now.” Red started coughing up blood.

            “I could have killed you in a fair fight, old man.”

            “What difference does it make?”

            “It makes all the difference. I could have been know as the best.”

            “Well, you’re the one, kid.” More coughing. “You did it. You killed Red Wind.”

            “I wanted it to be face to face, not like this.”

            “It don’t matter. You’ll have the reputation you wanted. Every two-bit punk, just like yourself, will be looking for you. Enjoy it, kid. It’s what you wanted. You inherit my demons, boy.”

            “What demons?”

            “You’ll find out soon enough, boy, when the demons of the men you kill begin to haunt your sleep. They’ll torment you until you fight going to sleep. The they’ll begin to torment you even when you’re awake. You’ll…” Red began to cough up more blood. “You’ll be alone,” he continued, “because you won’t allow yourself to trust anyone. But you won’t be lonesome. The demons will be with you. You’ll hear them in the wind. You’ll always be looking over your shoulder, waiting for the day you can finally lay down and rest.”

            This time the coughing ended with wheezing. There was a bloody froth on Red Wind’s lips as he looked up at Jim Star with a smile. Red stopped breathing, but continued to smile and stare at Jim through dead man’s eyes. Jim just stared back for what seemed like an eternity.

            Suddenly reality struck him as people began to mill closer to the body. Jim wasn’t stupid. He knew what could happen to a back shooter. He had to get far away from here.

            With his gun still in hand he stood up and headed for his horse. People moved out of his way. No one spoke or tried to stop him. They just watched the killer ride out of town.

 

            Jim Shooting Star had covered his back trail as he headed for the wild country. He knew he would be a wanted man, not only as a murderer, but also by those looking to kill the man who killed The Man. It didn’t matter which, Jim just wanted to get lost and stay lost and New Mexico’s bisti badlands was the place to do it.

            Red Wind had been right. Jim was alone. Anytime he met someone on the trail he was suspicious. He had overreacted at one such meeting and killed a man who was just trying to wipe the sweat from his face. The man had jerked his neckerchief from his hip pocket too suddenly. Now, he was dead and buried never to be found.

            Each time he wandered into a town with his gun tied low some gun slick would call him out. He was still alive.

            Jim would make camp and eat, then move on several miles and sleep without a fire. As Red had predicted, Jim was always looking over his shoulder. The wind in the trees was unsettling.

            The few times he was around people he heard talk about a demon wind. People camping out in the high lonesome had heard strange, hideous sounds like screams from some tortured and tormented soul. It was a sound described as ancient and primeval like something from the beginning of time.

            Jim had tried to laugh it off, but Red’s words would return to haunt him. He couldn’t sleep at night. He would lie awake at night listening.

            The lack of sleep linked with suspicion and unmentioned fear made him dangerous even to himself. He would draw and shoot at something he thought he saw, but it was nothing, except perhaps a ghost; a ghost of one of the men he had killed; maybe even Red Wind, himself.

            Then came the night in camp his imagination played its greatest trick. He had finally fallen off to sleep only to awaken suddenly to the distant sounds of screams. They were human screams, but there was something unnatural about them.

            When the screams stopped he wondered if he had really heard them at all. They were so faint. Perhaps it had only been the wind. As the breeze rattled the cottonwood leaves and whistled through the pine needles, Jim knew he was not going back to sleep. He stood and restlessly walked around his cold camp alert to every noise and they were many.

            He stood by his horse, partly for the company, but mostly because the animal could pick out the unnatural sounds and warn him. Jim’s imagination was so overwhelming his senses he had to rely on an animal to respond.

            He had never welcomed anything like he welcomed the sunrise that morning. The scary shadows slowly disappeared and Jim’s bravery returned. Once again he was a man and not a child longing the comfort of his mother’s arms. He was Shooting Star, the feared gunfighter, at least for the next twelve hours.

            He built a fire and made coffee and cooked bacon. He ate hardily sopping up the bacon grease with stale bread from the last town he was in. It wasn’t Ma’s cooking, but it was filling. It sustained life and that was all that was important at the moment.

            What lie ahead he didn’t know, but he was soon in the saddle heading toward it.

 

            He had put several miles behind him when he came upon the most gruesome sight of his life. As a kid he had heard tales of Indian massacres and this was the image his imagination had produced. But he hadn’t heard of any Indian uprisings in his lifetime.

            Four or five bodies (he wasn’t sure) were ripped and strewn around a campsite. Clothes, shredded canvas, tools and cooking utensils were scattered like they had been in an explosion. The ground and the bodies, which were indiscernible, looked like they had been trampled by a thousand hooves.

            The bodies were laid open from pit to pole, but no by clean cuts as from a knife. These bodies looked like they were stomped open, beaten until the gut burst out.

            Jim figured it had to have been a stampede. The only problem was a stampede crosses the land like a dry river. This stampede began and ended in this small campsite. One set of large, strange hoof prints came into the sight and those same tracks left the area. The only other tracks Jim found were of two cloven hoofed animals, probably oxen owned by the campers. They had apparently bolted when the camp was attacked.

            Jim heard a barely audible moan from outside the devastated camp. He pulled his gun and slowly walked toward the sound. What he found was another badly ripped and battered body about thirty yards away from the campsite. I was a woman hardily clinging to life. She had dragged herself away from the carnage.

            Her eyes were open and staring, but she wasn’t seeing Jim. Her mouth was moving as she moaned and mumbled. Jim slowly and cautiously knelt down and put his ear closer. Among the jumble of mumbled words she spoke were these: Demon Wind. But words that grabbed Jim’s attention were, “Red-Haired Devil.”

            Suddenly the woman began to scream; a guttural sound that rose from deep inside and heightened to a blood curdling pitch. Her eyes and mouth were both wide open.

            Jim jumped to his feet, the hair standing up on his arms and the back of his neck. He looked all around to find what the woman was seeing, but whatever it was it was inside her mind.

            Jim shouted at her to stop, but she continued to scream in pain and fear. So Jim did the best thing he could for her. He shot her between those wide, frightened eyes. Her head snapped back on the now bloody, gory ground. Her scream echoed with the gunshot off the distant mountains.

            She was out of her misery, but he wasn’t out of his. He had to get out of there. He replaced the spent shell in his gun as he climbed into his saddle. He kept his gun in hand as he put miles between himself and the camp ravaged by the demon wind.

            He shuddered when he remember the woman’s words, Red-haired devil. Jim shook his head to clear his mind. “It couldn’t be,” he spoke out loud. He did not believe in ghosts. He didn’t, did he?

 

            At dusk Jim stopped and built a fire many miles from the death camp that was still so vivid in his mind and would be for the rest of his life ever how long that might be.

            He didn’t unpack his horse for he would only be here long enough to eat, then, as was his habit, he would move on a few more miles to sleep in a cold camp.

            He built his fire and unpacked his frying pan, bacon, a potato and his coffee pot and coffee. He put the water on to boil, sliced the bacon and potato into the hot pan then sat back against a pine tree.

            With the smell and sound of the frying bacon filling his senses he looked up through the pine needles at the darkening sky. A few stars were just beginning to appear. Jim smiled. Everything seemed to be alright.

            He squatted beside the fire and dumped the coffee into the pot of boiling water. Then he heard it. Something was moving through the trees out there and it wasn’t the wind.

            He heard a pounding. Was it his heartbeat? Was it the blood rushing past his eardrums? Whatever it was, it was getting louder.

           

            He held his gun in his hand. He didn't even remember pulling it from the holster. He aimed it toward the noise which was now coming straight for his camp.

            Suddenly there was a sickening screech is a huge, dark thing crashed out of the trees. It appeared to be some kind of animal over 7 feet tall, a monster. Red eyes glowed. The campfire highlighted red hair.

            Jim fired his gun at the red-haired monster. He fired again and again until the gun was clicking on empty cartridges. He threw the now useless chunk of steel at the slowing creature. Something pitched from the darkness and rolled to Jim's feet.

            The monster seem to falter just outside the fireglow. It stood wheezing and making a sound like a demon wind. It's eyes still glowed red. The fire still flitted on red hair.

            Fear gripped Jim like nothing had ever affected him before. His chest constricted as the red-haired thing slowly moved away.

            After several moments of paralysis, Jim finally looked down at the object at his feet. His eyes widened as a scream was caught forever in his throat. Staring up at Jim were the hollow, black eye sockets of a human skull.

 

            The two old miners leading to equally old pack mules wandered into Jim's camp after they got no answer to their greeting. They found the body lying next to the cold ashes of a day-old campfire. There was a bleached white skull near the body.

            One of the old men picked up the skull. It was nothing unusual to them. They had seen many bleached skeletons and parts of skeletons. It was a lonely and ruthless country and the next of kin were rarely notified.

            They had just buried five bodies the day before at a camp several miles down their back trail. Even though the bodies had been brutally mangled it didn't affect the old miners. They had seen worse in their thirty plus years out here.

What's you suppose happened to him?" One of the miners asked as he inspected the stiff body. "No signs of no wounds." The old man search the dead man's pockets. He took out a roll of bills and a jackknife. He gave half of the money to his friend and put the other half and the knife in his own pocket.

"Looks like he were sceered to death," the other man replied, pocketing his half of the money. "That there must've been his saddle horse we tried to catch this morning."

            "That animal was plump skittish. Something sure sceert him bad to have jerked that long picket pin out of this here hard ground."

            "What’s you suppose could have sceered a man to die?"

            The question went unanswered as the two looked off into the trees around the dead man's camp. The ground was torn up about 20 feet away and strange tracks led away into the trees. The same tracks they had seen at the death camp the day before.

            "Let's go have us a look." Both men with rifles cocked and ready walked silently across the bed of pine needles.

 

                      "What is that thing?" Both miners stared at the huge body that was covered with red hair. A headless skeleton was tied to its back. One of the men poked the body with his rfle. "It's sure enough dead."

                      The other miner walked around the body. "It's hard to tell with it lyin’ down, but that there's sure enough a camel. There was a bunch of ‘em brought out here back in the 60s by the U.S. cavalry."

                      The other miner got a light in his eyes. "By golly those stories are true. I never believed it when I heard about them Indians tied a tortured and dyin’ man to the back one of them critters brought over here from that Asia country." He paused and scratched his head. "I've been hearing that story for over thirty years. Surely this ain’t that same creature."

            "Well if it is, it's sure no wonder that thing moaned to where folks said it sounded like a demon wind. It must've been out of its head."

            "To the point of killing folks?"

            "Well, how would you have felt carryin’ a dead man on your back for thirty  years?"

            The old miner scratched his head. "I wouldn't like that at all, not at all." They stood there a few minutes contemplating the unbelievable.

            Finally, one of them broke the silence. "Well let's go bury that poor soul back there. He'll be needin some words said over him."

            "If he had only known it was just a camel he probably wouldn't have got sceered and died."

            "Just a poor old sceered camel and everybody called him a demon. Kind of sad ain’t it?"

            "Yup. He didn't have no choice. He had to be what humans made him to be. He didn't get to pick his life like you and me."

            They looked at each other's filthy, worn-out clothes and their dirty unshaven faces and smiled. "It's sure sad alright."

            "Yes sir. Shore enough sad." They slapped their arms around each other's shoulders and walked away laughing. They knew the first one to die would be buried in an unmarked grave. The second one probably wouldn't be that lucky. But that didn't bother them at all. Theirs was a good life, free of worry. They had no trouble at all sleeping at night.

 

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