It was round about midnight when I saw the hexslingers, and I not thirteen years old, gigging frogs out at the edge of the swamp. I can’t say as they meant to meet at the crossroads out by Devil’s Fork, the moon all fat and yellow in the clear evening sky. Pa didn’t like the crossroads, with the old dead willow covered with swinging moss, and always made me hold my breath as I walked past it, but it was the quickest way home from the swamp with a heavy load of frogs.
Now the man from the south was dark and swarthy—like as not he had a little color in him—and hairy all over, like he hadn’t shaved since Shiloh, the great mustache merging down into a pair of sideburns that crept back up to his cheekbones, only a bit of stubbly chin to keep from calling it a beard. He wore the faded grey overcoat of the Confederacy, and two great pistols stuck in his belt gleamed black in the moonlight, like they were fresh-oiled. There were no medals struck in the South during the war, but I saw shiny metal buttons stuck on the Southerner’s jacket, dozens of tin stars that a sheriff might wear out west—and each one looked to have something scratched on it, and a hole in the center where a bullet might have passed through—and I knew him then for Black Bart. They said he was a gunsmith’s son who apprenticed under a marquis of hell, and when he’d served his seven years came back to cut a bloody swath through men and beast with hell-forged iron and cursed bullets.
The man from the west now was decked out as a proper soldier of Napoleon, uniform blue and white, and there was a curved cavalry saber at his left, and a heavy pistol in a little leather satchel or somewhat under his right arm. A pale mustache liked spun straw twirled up at the corners, and a braid fell down his back where he had taken off his furry cap, but his lips were cracked and bloody-looking, and when he spoke I saw the mouth of hell open, bordered by long, pointed teeth. I never did see the horse he road in on, or his dismount, but a shadow in the full moonlight pawed at the muddy road, and a glint of a long skull peaked out once as the Frenchman laid his hand where maybe a neck should be. I thought to myself of those companies in Napoleon’s armies, who they say had signed their souls away for terrible weapons, and formed their own orders to master them and train others in their use, and did not doubt I was staring at one of their number.
They didn’t measure out paces, and if there was call or challenge I didn’t catch any of it, but it seemed to me they drew at nearly the same time, Black Bart a little quicker to point. A lance of fire lit the night, and the pale shadow of the Frenchman’s nightmare was limned in the flash; I was near half-blind against the sudden glare and darkness, but heard the bones clatter to the ground. Two claps of thunder seemed to answer, and I guessed that the Frenchman had fired at least the second shot blind, for if either found their mark I did not see it. Black Bart’s arm jerked up as if dragged by the pistol, and his left hand grabbed hold of his wrist to steady the shot, even as the Frenchman took more care with his own aim. This time, lightning and thunder seemed to come at once—or perhaps the thunder followed by an angel’s breath—and the Frenchman’s arm was gone below the shoulder, the stump still clutching his great revolver hanging loose in his sleeve.
Not without apparent difficulty, the hexslinger holstered one gun and drew the other, walking slowly to his defeated foe. The Frenchman said nothing, but stood proud and puffed out his chest as his life ran out from his ruined arm, left hand on the hilt of his saber, wolf-teeth bared.
The final shot, a moment later was a blur of dull grey silver that blew the Frenchman’s brains out behind him, so black droplets spattered on the yellow horseskull and steamed in the moonlight. Pistol still in hand, Black Bart ran his hands over the body, finding small pouches of powder, ammunition, squares of paper inked with dark orisons, and other pieces of the hexslinger’s craft, and hid them about himself. The Frenchman’s pistol he saved for last, and I watched him examine it with a critical eye, checking the sight and the action, taking great interest in the hilt before stuffing it in his own belt.
As he walked away, Black Bart was briefly hidden from the moonlight by the shadow of the old willow tree—and I saw a line of shadows following him on that road, as if a train of unseen people followed him, with only the absence of moonlight to mark their presence. The line seemed to go on for a long while, and I thought about the late hour and wondered when it might ever end, until at last the final form came by—and as it passed the dead Frenchman, a new shadow came, as if a man who had been lying down rose to sitting, then standing, and brought up the rear of the ghostly train.