La Lechuza

One’s eminent demise was the only thing that soured a bottle of black label whiskey. Sam was too much a gentleman to wrap his lips around the neck and toss it back, so instead he fumbled with the dusty glass he’d been making love to for the last hour.

A sweaty palm pinched at the nape of his neck. The bandito pulled his sombrero to his chest in a mock display of reverence for a fallen comrade. His breath stank of rotten meat and stale cerveza. The few teeth sticking out of his swollen gums stuck out at odd angles like fence posts in the mud.

“Amigo, I pray for you,” he said. “Make peace with your God, because Black Sebastian makes peace with no man. And please, don’t cry. Fight him like a man.”

Sam dragged his glass across the bar, but it shattered on the floor. These men had burst into his office three hours ago, and they laid down their terms.

The sweaty bandito reached into Sam’s jacket, and removed his tin star. He held it in his face mockingly.

“Black Sebastian don’t care about no sheriff nowhere,” his tequila breath burned Sam’s eyes.

Lightning quick, his hand was wrapped around the bandit’s, crushing his fingers around the badge’s sharp edges. The bandit cried out. Droplets of blood ran from his clenched fist.

“The Sheriff’s a wendigo!”

The bandit’s partner was pulling a gun on Sam, who stared back at him with furiously glowing red eyes. The sheriff had his Colt trained on him as his friend was reduced to his knees.

Mattie threw her rag on the bar in disgust, fed up with everyone gunning for her best customer. She was a handful of years past her prime, but as the proprietor of the Dusky Lady, the only place in Pecos where the drink was worth as much as the grub, she was respected well enough around town.

“Sheriff ain’t no wendigo and he don’t eat no people,” she said. “Sam, stop bleeding that dusty’s hand all over my floor and you over there? Put down that peashooter before I have to clean your brains off my walls.”

The drink never stayed with Sam. When it did it never did for long. The sting of it gave him the mettle to dish out what needed doing. The flames in his eyes died down, leaving them cold and determined.

“Do you want to keep your fingers, amigo, or do you want me to squeeze?”

The bandit was shaking his head, grasping his steely wrist, crying unable to open his iron grip. The tin star had cut halfway through his fingers. He was begging for mercy.

“Your friend wants his fingers,” he was speaking to the bandit across the room. “Do you want him to keep his fingers?”

The barrel of Sam’s gun followed the two of them to the door. He growled at them, “Black Sebastian has his deal. Tell him.”

“Sam, why do you drink when you can’t get drunk?” Mattie asked as she swept up the broken glass. He was carrying the bottle like club.

He shrugged, wiping the edges of his mouth with his fingers. The taste never lingered for long.

“As long as I’m paying for bottles, why do you ask such stupid questions?”

“Goddam your cursed eyes,” she snapped. All heads turned to listen in, until Mattie scolded them to get back to drinking or pay double. “Seven damn years and you never did tell me where you got them eyes.”

He was leaning on the door of the saloon, studying the street. The sun was beating down on the dry dirt like Satan’s bloody whip. The streets were quiet, deserted. Many had left. Before the day was out Pecos was going to get a lot hotter.

“La Lechuza.”

Mattie’s eyes widened.

“The Owl Witch? What’d she do to you?”

He snorted, “She told me I was going to die today.”

The sheriff walked slowly down the boardwalk. The jingle of his spurs and clop of his boots was the only sound above the howl of the wind. Tumbleweeds were gathered outside of his office, barring him from getting through the door.

“That there’s a bad omen.”

He whipped around at the voice.

“Doc, you shouldn’t be here.”

Doc checked out his gold pocket watch, raised an eyebrow, and tucked it back in the small pocket in his gray and purple striped vest. His white shirt was blemished red from the dust in the streets.

“To some tribes the tumbleweeds symbolize a death where one isn’t allowed peace in the afterlife.”

Sam cursed as one stuck him. He flung the dead bush into the street. “You going to sermonize me or help?”

“Don’t return his man, Sam. It ain’t right what that fella did, and that girl needs justice.”

“And let the town burn?” he asked. “That’s justice?”

“You have three deputies who’d lay their lives down for you!”

Doc was chasing Sam into his office trying to talk sense into him when they looked at the three tiny deputy stars on his desk. Each one was an ally lost. No note, only cowardice.

Out of the cell rang maniacal laughter. A thin man in dirty black jeans and a dirty black shirt hung his arms through the iron bars like a psychopathic grinning rag doll. His hair was dirty, hanging from his scalp like oily brown tendrils. The All Seeing Eye was tattooed into his forehead, a common practice of the insane and dimwitted, believing it granted them omniscience.

“Sheriff! They pissed themselves like schoolgirls b’fore leavin’ me all alone.” He traced a false tear down his cheek.

A frown pulled on a corner of Sam’s mouth. He moved over to another cell where a man was passed out on the floor. The psychotic gnashed his teeth as he walked past.

“Whatcha hiring girls for to do a man’s job, Sheriff?”

Ignoring him still, Sam unlocked the adjacent cell. He kicked the young man’s feet.

“Up and at’em, Jake. Need coffee grinds and eggs?”

The kid pulled his hat from his face to his chest and looked up at Sam with bloodshot eyes. He rolled his head in the psychotic’s direction.

“Why’d you room me with this animal?”

Sam threw a star on Jake’s chest, congratulating him.

“You can’t do that!” Doc was growing more vehement. “Jake’s never sober, and when he is he’s hung over. No offense, Jake, but you’re going to get him killed.”

“None taken,” Jake was stretching. “What’s all this going on now?”

The psychotic was grinning back in the sheriff’s face. Neither changed expression in the masochistic contest. Neither man budged.

“Black Sebastian wants this bastard back,” Sam told him. “Isn’t that right Ike?”

“That’s right Sheriff,” Ike sing-songed back, clicking his tongue. “Us Blacks are like glue.”

“Wait, Ike Black?”

Doc was still trying to get their attention.

“Our esteemed Sheriff agreed to hand Black Ike over to his brother. Lord knows why he’d do such a fool thing.” He shook his crooked little finger at Jake. “Don’t you be helping him kill his self. Hear me?”

Cuffing Ike’s hands behind his back, Sam pulled him hard to slam the back of his head against the bars. Ike was held to the bars by a fistful of hair.

“Jake, this worm’s brother has an army that will burn this town to the ground if we don’t turn him over. Doc, another word against me and I’ll finish the life God started for you. You hear?”

The light in his eyes rose to full intensity again. Doc swallowed hard, and kept his mouth shut as they walked back outside. His throat was getting dry, and besides, somebody had to finish the bottle of whiskey Sam left on his desk.

“What a freak!” Ike cackled as he was pushed down the boardwalk. Sam had his pistol out, and Jake was toting an old rusty shotgun.

“That bruja did a sweet number on ya, didn’t she?”

Ike screamed. Sam’s boot had struck him behind the knee, knocking him to the ground.

“All this coming from a pissy little maggot with an eye tattooed in his forehead?”

Jake laid a hand on his shoulder, “Sheriff, maybe we oughtn’t…”

He sneered back, “They didn’t specify how many pieces they wanted him in! I’m tired of your tongue, Ike. Keep it shut or I’ll shut it for you.”

A flat boat was at the bank of the river. It was small, and attached to a rope that connected the east and west banks. It was used to help horses, cattle, and small wagons cross the deep muddy water.

Ike tripped over his own boots stepping into the boat, and fell again, flat on his face. Using his boot, Sam rolled him over on his back, clicking his tongue at the outlaw’s bloody swollen lips and busted nose.

“Looking good down there, Ike,” he said, then pressed him back down with his boot when he attempted to get up. “I like you crawling on the ground with the rest of the vermin. Jake, give me the shotgun.”

While Jake pulled the boat across the river foot by meager foot Sam sat on a sack of flour with the rusty shotgun across his knee. His eyes were smoldering as he imagined what awaited them on the opposite shore.

“Sebastian’s going to kill you,” Ike said, but got no response from the sheriff. Not even a twitch. “I said Sebastian’s going to kill you!” He rolled on his back, craning his neck to look past Jake and at the bonfires smoking on the western banks of the river. When he looked back Sam’s smoldering expression hadn’t changed. “I bet that shotgun don’t work neither.”

“That eye of yours tell you all this?” He pressed the gun to Ike’s groin. “Want to see if its right?”

Jake used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

“Sheriff, there’s a lot a guys over there. Hundred at least.”

Ike was chattering, “That bruja gave you them eyes? She gave Sebastian something too.”

“Yea? What did the Owl Woman give him?”

A toothy grin spread across his face, but quickly ended when Sam smiled. It was more of a smirk and looked as unnatural as a third nostril. The sight disturbed Ike enough to shut him up for the rest of the trip across river.

Two bandits towed the boat onto the rocky bank, holding it close enough to let the passengers jump off. Ike did so with glee. Sam pressed a hand against Jake’s chest, holding him back.

“Sheriff, I’m with you. I’m a messed up drunk but I’m with you.”

“Go back home, Jake. Sober up. Be a good man to your wife.”

“Sam…”

He growled, “Go. Now.”

The bandits escorted them up the bank after relieving the sheriff of his weapons. They walked past a hundred of the dirtiest vilest excuses for human beings there ever was. They walked past the bonfires, bright in the fading light of dusk. The growing flames were ready to reduce Pecos to a cinder.

In the shadows beyond, the whites of their eyes could be seen crowning the whites of their toothed maws. There was a hiss and a slither in the shadows of each boulder and bush.

Sitting around a small campfire was a strong man with a graying beard hanging down to his chest. His eyes were those of a man who had seen both wars, and careened through life full of wars he’d started on his own.

He was rolling a cigarette when he noticed their approach, and a third eye, an actual third eye, opened in his forehead. It blinked once, then the red tint was unmistakable.

“Brother!” Ike rushed to embrace him.

Sebastian lit his cigarette on a hot coal.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” He shook his head, the eye scrutinizing Ike. “You know the rules. And over a girl?”

Sam chuckled. Another unnatural smirk.

“Brother, this is the law man done abused me. Chained me. Beat me!”

“This true?” the eye was scrutinizing Sam now.

Sam smirked, “It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?”

“Sheriff,” he was standing now, waving his cigarette around in Sam’s eyes. “You hurt my brother. The law of the land dictates I must hurt you in return. Did you not think I would kill you anyway? That I wouldn’t burn Pecos anyway?”

The air around Black Sebastian smelled like ash and blood. Sam licked his lips, tasting it in the air. The bestial minions in the dark did likewise, their tongues like thirsty red whips.

“The Owl Woman, your bruja? She sent you my way, didn’t she?”

Black Sebastian scratched at an eyebrow. His eye was glowing, peering deeper into Sam’s soul.

“She gave you those eyes, law man. She gave me an army. And tonight you will suffer, and you will die.”

He pressed the burning butt of his cigarette against Sam’s nose. The smell of burning flesh filled the air, but the sheriff didn’t budge. Black Sebastian pressed the cigarette in harder, but still Sam didn’t budge. He only smiled that unnatural smile, and it grew with each passing second.

“Learn her story,” Sam growled. “It was uneducated pieces of shit like you that damned her to the witch she’s become. A crowd of men like yourselves sentenced her to die and burned her at the stake. Now she’s sent you to burn.”

Desperate from his growing fear, Sebastian shouted to his army, “Lights out amigos! No luces!” Hoping it would afford them the advantage.

“No amigo,” Sam leaned in, smoke rising from the hole in his nose. “Lights on.”

Flames rippled from his glowing red eyes. The demonic screams of the beast men filled the night as the white eyes and gnashing teeth retreated. They fled, but the flames encircled them, bursting out from below the sheriff’s skin, peeling the dry earth at their feet. Every creature was incinerated, sentenced to an eternity burning in hell.

La Lechuza, the Owl Woman, had exacted her vengeance as she had so many times before using the sheriff. In the morning he would rise from the ashes with a new skin, sentenced to exact her vengeance when the evils of the West could no longer outrun her hunger.

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