Retribution

Originally published in MUSE Literary Magazine, Spring 2013.

          There is a knock at the door. Two scoundrels sit on stools beside a table within the small room. One glances in the direction of the report, beads of sweat gathered on his jutting brow. The other simply nods, eyes half-closed, a gnarled wooden pipe clenched between his yellow teeth. The first stands, grabs his pistol, and walks to the door, spurs clanking. Light streams through gaps in the wooden shutters placed over the room’s four glassless windows, illuminating an exhalation of smoke from betwixt the seated rogue’s chapped lips, heating air that smells of alcohol and excrement. Faint music and laughter waft up through the floorboards from the saloon below.

          “Who’s there?” the first inquires, reaching for the tarnished doorknob.

          There is no answer. He shrugs and opens the door. The full blaze of the afternoon sun floods through the empty doorway.

          “What the hell?” the seated man grumbles, shielding his eyes with both hands, dropping his pipe and knocking over an empty glass. He looks to a third, unoccupied stool. “Where’s Parker?”

          “Not back yet,” the standing man replies.

          He peers out, shadow firm on the wall opposite the door, and finds no one. Unnoticed by the scoundrels, an uncast shadow rises beside that of the upright, bewildered bandit. The new shadow reaches within itself and, in one fluid motion, thrusts its hands towards the two-dimensional throat of the standing man’s shadow.

          Blood spurts from the rogue’s true flesh, soaking the dusty fabric of his travel garbs and splashing upon the room’s rough floorboards. He attempts to cry out, but manages only a garbled grunt of surprised anguish. The seated man removes his revolver from its holster and leaps to his feet as the other collapses in a writhing heap.

          “Show yourself,” the remaining scoundrel calls, mustering some semblance of his innate audacity.

          Microscopic debris punctuates the sun’s unrelenting rays. Again, there is no answer. The outlaw looks about and spots the uncast shadow as it jumps from one wall to another, slipping through patches of darkness untouched by daylight. He cocks his pistol and fires. A flash of sunlight bursts through the fresh bullet hole. The outlaw whirls, frantic.

          “You should have never come to these lands,” a booming, disembodied voice declares.

          On the wall behind the remaining scoundrel, the shadow reappears. It crouches low, flicks one hand out to strip him of his pistol, and sweeps the other along both of his ankles. Crimson seeps into the denim of his jeans and the leather of his boots. He hollers and drops to his knees.

          The shadow stands up straight, diffuses from upon the wall into a thick cloud, and coalesces, forming a featureless three-dimensional being. Blackness becomes sun-reddened skin encased in dyed rough-spun garments adorned with raven feathers. Beneath a cloth cowl, the stern, cunning eyes of a young man glare down at the outlaw. In his calloused hands, the shadow-become-man grips two stone daggers. He sheathes one in a coyote-hide cover hanging from his belt.

          The scoundrel twists around, unable to rise, and looks upon the face of his assailant.

          “You,” he sputters, recognition swimming in his eyes. “What are you?”

          “Retribution.”

          The shadow-become-man seizes the scoundrel’s matted hair and slits his throat with the serrated edge of his dagger, unleashing a scarlet torrent. Silent, he wipes his blade on the outlaw’s shirt and tips him face-first into a rapidly expanding pool of blood. He pauses and listens. At the sound of footsteps trudging up the staircase to the small second-story room, he grins and dissipates, becoming a mere shadow once more.