Across the great sun-baked western plains before you hit the sea sat the dead end berg of Gravestone; the last stop on the line. But the train seldom rolled this far up the line nowadays; nobody was coming to this deadbeat town anymore.
It was the sort of place where people go to get forgotten about, the last safe haven for the scum of the great frontier and the overspill of bandits and vagabonds from the good old gold rush days. The town was built on the promise of wealth from the rich veins in the hills but all the settlers found there was dirt and death.
The winds from the high prairie blew fine sand through the as good as deserted streets, only the commotion of fighting from the saloon could be heard now. The last of the forgotten, drowning their sorrows in the old sawdust and whiskey bar; the towns drunk rattles off a tune on the busted up piano in the bar and the cheer following the shatter of glass, the music suddenly stopping.
The sound of the women at the bordello coughing their lungs up, ill from the French pox while their madam, Mrs Wong cracked the calm evening by shooting at bottles she set across the street from her hanging wicker chair.
Some of the local farmers children ran between the deserted buildings; barely recognisable as human from the furs they wore and the liberal coating of dust and horse shit. They scratched at the arid earth for worms to chow down on.
Sheriff Hughes watched all this from the window of his jail home, as he had done for the last ten years; his Winchester rifle griped firmly in his hands; he watched and waited.
He had seen off the notorious cattle rustling ‘Archie gang’ and ran the murdering ‘Chambers brothers’ from the saloon and killed them stone dead in the street. The state marshal had even given him a commendation when he shot down a gang of grave robbers moving from town to town looting the caskets of the dead.
But now he was waiting, just as the last sheriff had done and the sheriff before that and so on and so on. They had all waited since the dark clouds started to form over the town and the livestock started to be slaughtered in the night by an unknown hand.
They all had waited for the evil to come riding into town to claim its next trophy. He waited for the Skin Rider to come down from the hills to take more fighters into the wild and fight them removing their hides for his collection.
Tales of the Rider had started in the days of the early settlers when they traded with local Indians; tales of a dark evil that swept the land searching for worthy opponents. The thing would come in the night accompanied by a stinking black smoke, riding a blood red horse and would take the strongest of the tribes warriors. The braves would be found the next day horribly mutilated, dismembered and always without their skins.
The Indians had long since gone but the story remained. Hughes’ predecessor, a giant square jawed barrel of a man named Jack Horne had been taken. The locals had withheld for some time the tale of the demise of Horne until Hughes had taken in a drunk. That night the old fool spilled his guts over a bottle of the good stuff.
That dirty old drunk told him everything, of how they found skinned parts of Horne all over the prairie. How they found his head impaled on a spike up by the dusty old cemetery minus its bottom jaw. The only way the towns folk could identify his remains was by the sheriff’s badge buried inside one of the eye sockets of the decapitated and peeled skull. Jack Horn had also been boned, filleted, just meat remained. They buried what was left in a coffin no bigger than that of a schoolboy’s; poor old Jack Horne.
Hughes had found the rest of the town quite tight lipped when verifying the drunk’s story but the local preacher told him everything the night he finally quit town. Mostly from up on his wagon as Hughes walked along side, seeing the preacher and his timid daughters away.
The preacher spoke of unholy demonic forces the like not even god could control, the kind that rips a man’s soul to shreds by the mere mention of the thing. He spoke of a mark on the town and to the men that defend it and that every few years on the right mid summer’s eve the evil returns to hunt.
The last thing the preacher said before disappearing into the dark of the plains was “Leave why you can sheriff, you’re a good man but, you can’t kill what doesn’t die.” Hughes drank heavily that night and not one person in the saloon approached him, they knew that he knew the town’s vile secret.
Tonight was mid summers eve, and it was near to dusk; the air was thick with heat, the sort of heat that made everything stick to you. Other than Mrs Wong shooting her bottles and smoking her cigars the town’s folk had all but boarded up their houses and put up their black out curtains.
Even the feral children had gone back to the farms when the smoke started to roll down from the hills and blot out the sky with its thick inky blackness.
This is what Hughes was waiting for.
As the smoke poured into the town the sound of small chips of flint hitting the windows of the rundown buildings echoed through the streets. The rotten egg smell of sulphur filled the sheriff’s nostrils and as he pulled on his brown leather long coat and reached for his hat.
Stepping out onto the wooden boardwalk outside of the small jail house he was immediately battered by a wind that drove the smoke through Main Street and threw the flint chips around like daggers. He winced in pain as one grazed his cheek; it left a line of blood across the back of his hand as he wiped the small cut on his rugged face.
He could hardly see through the smoke and detritus in the air and squinted as he fought his way through the storm of death smelling black hell.
But then he saw it; through the swirling smoke and debris, atop of the twitching, raw muscle mass of a giant blood red skinned horse of at least nineteen hands high, the dark shape of the Skin Rider.
The dark shape on the demon horse came into view and the steed stamped its hoof down with a sound like a thunder clap. He seemed huge, twice the size of a normal man with skinless fists gripping the reins like cannon balls.
He wore a black leather cape and cowl that covered his face in shadow with a silver crown like the antlers of a roe deer. The polished, square jaw bone of a human hung around his neck tied with bloody string held the cowl shut tight; at a guess the sheriff reckoned that it could only be that of Jack Horne.
The sight of the horseman sent the chill of death through Hughes and he let an inch of urine out in sheer terror at the evil thing looming over him as the steed snorted smoke and stamped again at the desert floor.
The rider dismounted without a sound and stood in front of the trembling sheriff. The giant swept back his cape to reveal a bare chest of scar tissue, raw flesh and flaps of crudely stitched together skins like a patchwork of different animal hide. A huge silver revolver hung from a gun belt around the demon rider’s waist.
From under the cowl two fierce eyes multicolor eyes pulsed and burned through the sheriff as if he was reading his very soul and a hollow sounding word spat from the monsters lipless mouth.
Before Hughes could even cock and raise his trusty Winchester a lump of lead the size of a walnut spat with a trail of fire from the barrel of the demons massive silver revolver. With a slam that nearly sent the sheriff flying back to town it tore a hole the size of a fist straight though the soft flesh of his throat.
The round burst through the back of the sheriff’s neck sending blood and shattered spine to the ground several feet behind him leaving just a crescent of flesh where his neck once was. The rifle fell to the ground and the sheriff’s face turned to one of complete surprise as his head tipped to the left and rolled around to his chest.
His last breath hissed and gargled from his gaping windpipe followed by jets of steaming blood and spinal fluid that sprayed up the rider as he approached to finish the kill. Hughes’ head would have fallen to the ground if it wasn’t for the strands of skin, tendon and flesh that just held it on.
The sheriff slumped to his knees with his head, virtually decapitated hanging on by a thread down the front of him, his life spilling out of him onto the ground, soaked up by the dry sand.
He held out his hands to try and catch the warm blood in some vein attempt to put it back into his body but it was far too late for that. Hughes felt the rider’s huge hand stroke the side of his flopping head and he knew it was over.
The last thing Hughes saw was the shining tin star of the state pinned to his own coat. He felt himself smile through all the pain as the rider stepped over him, pulling the lolling head free from his body like uprooting a vegetable in one last fanned spurt of rich red life.
Deep in the disused mines across the plains from the dilapidated township of Gravestone, a glow of unholy fire burned. The evil of the mountain had returned and sat in its pit gently sewing the last pale strip of Sheriff Hughes to its side.
Long, thin lines of butcher’s string soaked with blood knitted the folds of skin to the pulsating flesh of the demon.
The beast stood in front of a huge wall of polished black stone and saw the face of the good sheriff looking back at him. A deformed husk of a face crudely stitched to the vast skull of the Skin Rider, its silver crown catching light from the fire as the riders hand caressed his new covering.
Its claws dragging across and catching at the tightly stitched patchwork on the things chest and its multi-coloured eyes burned once again as it admired its handy work.
But it would only be a matter of time before its new skin would deteriorate, before it would start to break down, dry-out and flake away into dust. It was only a matter of time before it lost a patch or two by tearing it against the jagged rock of the deeper parts of the mine.
It was only a matter of time before he would have to call up the black smoke, the flint storm and ride once again on his skinless steed back into the town or whatever settlement had replaced it by then to take its champion, to take their skin.
The next time the air was thick with the heat of the desert; the next time the moon was its fattest in the heavens he will ride once again. To stalk the plains for his next gun fight, for the next brave that would square up to him. The rider knew that time would come, but until then he would enjoy his new skin.
Greg Cole works out of the south east of England and studies at the LSJ. A frantic blogger and writer of short horror his flash work can be found on the Feverish Fiction website and in their recent printed anthology.
He has been printed on several sites and publications including Curiosity Quills and Blood Moon Rising magazine. This is his second submission with us.
He is just starting out on the long road to eventually retiring to the old town of Hastings to make jams and pickles in a dusty old shed by day and write gory horror in an even dustier drawing room by night.
You can find his blog here