No Justice for Dead Horses
Gibson bolted awake, and the woman’s screams followed him all the way back from the nightlands to the Arizona Territory; became one with the terrified, pain-wracked scream of his horse. A great black shadow clung to the gray mare like a half-starved tick, dressed in trade cloth and hide, lapping at a ragged, ugly wound. The horse was on the ground, sides heaving and in a sweat, blood trickled from her neck, foam speckled the corner of its mouth, and the old girl had shat herself—Gibson didn’t much blame her, he was fit to cack his own breeches as he reached for his Springfield, but the black shadow detached itself and loped west toward the mesa, lost in the scrub before he could get a shot off.
By the light of the dying stars and moon, as the sky turned into the deep purple of pre-dawn, Gibson surveyed the damage. The mare had a hole in her neck as wide as his hand, blood dried black and sticky on the edges, the painful scream down to a whisper, and her kicks had grown feeble as the life fled from her in a crimson trickle. More worrisome, there was a new cast to her head he didn’t like, the shape of her skull more pronounced as if the flesh had shrunk back against the bone, lips curled and peeled back to reveal teeth longer and sharper than he remembered. Gibson moved behind her, to where she couldn’t see him, and lifted the rifle at an awkward angle, aiming for a point near the back of the top of the skull. Old Comanche had taught him a prayer to say, for the spirit of the animal that gave its life to the hunter. Gibson didn’t try to say it, since he wasn’t a praying man, but as he fired he thought of it.
The man who had sold Gibson his knife claimed it had been owned by Colonel Bowie himself, though Gibson rather doubted it. Still, it was fourteen inches long and had a blade three fingers wide, good for cutting brush and stripping hides. Now he set it to task cutting off the grey mare’s head, starting at that nasty wound and sawing at the muscles, slipping the edge down in the space between the vertebrae to get through the gristle there. By the time the work was done and he had wiped the blade clean on the horse’s flank, the heat of the morning was on and he looked a butcher, but there was no help for that. Gibson toted the saddlebags up on his shoulder and, rifle in hand, set out west.
If the town ever had a name, Gibson never knew it, and there were none in it now that might tell him. He crossed a wood plank bridge over a dry creek, made note of a great, twisted acacia tree that spread its shade over a handful of human bones, the fragments of a rope still clinging to one stout, thorny branch. Beyond it lay a boot hill that ran right up against the side of the mesa, and turned his steps toward the old lopsided adobe brick church.
The doors were solid, but unlocked, the air cool and still, and Gibson moved inside to avoid being caught with the sun at his back in the doorway, moving carefully while his eyes set to adjust. The altar, if there had ever been one besides some wooden table, had obviously been sacked, the chairs in the nave that served instead of pews in disarray, and there was a gaping hole in one wall of the sanctum where the instruments had been removed—Gibson took this all in at a glance, then moved with a purpose to the tower. A thin, strong manila rope hung in the darkness of a spiraling wooden stair. Gibson climbed the steps carefully, kicking aside small mounds of pale grey-speckled bat-shit and brushing his way through fine, invisible filmy webs, hoping the attercops weren’t too nasty a breed in these parts. The stair gave way to a platform and a small forest of hanging, furry bodies, the air alive with their stench, and the space where the churchbell might have been was empty. Gibson slid out the knife and cut the rope, letting it fall back down, then turned back down the stairs to follow it.
The sky burned blue as Gibson squeezed a few more drops of blood onto the tin plate, then bound the cut with a scrap of cloth. The day at the cemetery had been mostly wasted, as any ghouls had got tired of competing with the coyotes and gone on to richer pickings. Near afternoon, as he set to lunch, Gibson had finally found it—a black hole, just big enough for a corpse to be laid in, up the sheer side of the mesa. Some of the Indians used to bury their dead that way, or so Gibson had heard, though he’d no idea how they’d gone up and down it since there were no hand or foot holds he could see. So he finished eating and set to wait.
As dusk settled into night, the plate of still-liquid blood sat a few feet away from the base of the mound, and Gibson’s legs were cramped. The crickets and bats were singing, and the darkness separated into its different colors as Gibson’s night-eyes took hold, muted blues and deeper blacks of shadows-on-shadows. One of those shadows crawled forth from the lip of the hole and crawled lizard-like down the earthen face of the mesa. It continued to crawl, belly to ground, face forward toward the plate of blood, and began to lap it up, teeth scratching at the tin. Gibson gave a pull, muscles in his arms and back bunching, cramped legs screaming as he gave it everything.
The loop of rope buried in the dirt around the plate caught on the forearms, then drew tight as the rope slipped through the knot. It screeched, and thrashed, and pulled, but Gibson kept it up as the rope drew tighter, and then he started walking, dragging the thing behind him, fighting all the way, digging its feet in the earth, grasping at every rock and bit of shrub, rolling around to jerk the rope as it burned a furrow in Gibson’s shoulder. It was a short walk from the boneyard to the dry creek, but it took an awful long time. Gibson remembered that old Comanche as he bent arm and back to the task, how the weathered brown man had taught him to tap a little blood from the horse, just enough for a man to survive when he’s out in the world and food and water are scarce, and warned him never to do it too often, or too much. A man without a horse, away from people, was a dead man.
Getting the noose around its neck was a little harder. Gibson had to hit it a few times, not that he much minded, and when the damn thing tried to bite him he sat on its chest and broke its teeth in with the butt of his knife. Then he slipped the noose around its neck and cinched it, the big knot right at he base of the skull, and tossed the loose rope over the limb of the acacia, next to the rotted remnants of the last hanging.
If it had been justice Gibson were after, it were a poor hanging. No sudden drop and lights out for this thing, but a long drawn-out strangling as Gibson strung the thing up so its feet dangled off the ground and kicked at empty air. It were cruel to do that to a man or dog, but Gibson tied off the rope, then set back from his labors at the edge of the creek, to wait for morning.