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Oats For Lucifer

His mother had died before he was old enough to form much of a reliable memory of her. She was kicked in the head by a horse she spooked early one winter morning while bringing it oats.

His father went looking for her when she hadn’t returned in a reasonable amount of time, and found her face-down in the yard. Somehow, she’d managed to crawl almost halfway back to the house.

The rusty-red river of her life was matted and freeze-dried in her hair, and had painted her face a gruesome, demonic red. Her hands and knees were caked with muddy snow, and a chaotic combination of smeared and spattered blood stained the frozen ground behind her as it disappeared around the corner of the barn, like a marker leading to the scene of a crime.

 

Her name had been Marion.

His father killed that horse with an axe, buried his mother in the hard ground, drank all the whiskey in the house, and did what he could to raise a son. Which wasn’t much to speak of.

The boy had been too young at the time to fully understand what had happened. He only knew that his mother was gone, and that all the comforts he’d ever known departed with her.

His youth after her passing was not an enviable one, consisting not so much of violence or fear, but of loneliness and neglect. He spent nearly all of his time alone, or with the few animals his father could manage to provide for. But, until he no longer depended on the old bastard for his survival, he had no better option that he was aware of.

When he did figure he had a fighting chance beyond the fences of the only world he’d ever known, he took what few belongings he’d managed to acquire during his short life and set out to try his luck elsewhere.

He rode off one starry night on the old man’s only good horse, toward an unknown for which he harboured few hopeful expectations.

During those first few years away from home, life showed him that he was right to assume that most everything about living was difficult, because, for him, it was.

He was tricked, used, robbed, beaten, and perpetually hungry. But, by fifteen, he was tough as nails, jaded as hell, and experienced well beyond his years. He’d become cold, capable, and indifferent to whether he lived or died, but was well-armed with the skills to stay alive if he so chose.

Sometimes a difficult upbringing brings out the best in people, and crafts hard men that lean toward moral righteousness and a desire to make the world a better place. Or at least not a worse one. He wasn't one of those men.

When he realized he could hurt people, he did. And when hurting people wasn’t enough, he began killing them. And there were always plenty of opportunities to hone his craft within the circles he moved, so it didn’t take long for him to become an exceptionally proficient killer.

With a consistent demand for violent men, he rarely had far to go to find someone willing to pay for his particular set of skills. And pay they did, for all manner of evils they had neither the fortitude nor the freedom to commit themselves. He tortured and killed men, murdered women and children, and burned down churches, homes, and entire towns. And he took the money paid to him for his wickedness without a noticeable shred of remorse.

He spent eight brutal years as an evil man, an unrepentant sinner, paving his way to hell with stolen souls.

But for all of the painful things inside him he may have found reason to hide from, he never fell slave to booze, nor drugs, nor gambling. He figured it was probably better to avoid adding strength to the legions of demons already lurking within the dark places of his heart, and he knew that no matter how hard he might try, there was nothing money could buy that would hide him from his wrongdoings.

So he spent nothing on such vices, and quietly tucked away most of his ill-gotten gains.

For a short time, there was a woman who may have had a chance of softening his heart, and as far as he knew, she did: one of the working girls he visited as often as the circumstances of his dangerous life permitted.

But what may have been was never to be when she had her throat slit one night by a drunk preacher.

The preacher wasn’t much with a knife, though, and she managed to scream for help and deflect his first few unskilled attempts with her arms. By the time he opened up her throat and jumped out of a window into the alley below, there were ten vigilantes after him.

He didn’t make it far.

A handful of men brought the preacher back to the brothel after beating him near to death, and dragged him down a hidden set of stairs leading well below the building. The stairs led to a cellar that had been specifically designed for committing acts that were best hidden from prying eyes and ears.

Somehow, the priest managed to survive for two horrific days.

What they carried out afterwards barely even resembled a man. The broken body was hung beside the road near the eastern entrance to town as a warning.

What remained of him swayed in the wind for a time, bloody, tattered frock and all, until the birds, the bugs, time, and tall creatures patiently stacked his skeleton beneath the frayed rope that had once held him.

The priest’s bones were left where they fell, and as far as anyone would later recall, nobody ever harmed a prostitute in that town again.

After the only women he'd ever been close to were both killed shortly after he was introduced into their lives, the sinner figured it was a providential sign that there was to be no love in his life, so he gave up the notion for good. But following the last unfortunate event, whatever sinister and bloodthirsty entity he had within him became quiet, and all desire to dispense suffering and death left his soul.

It was then that he decided to see if it wasn’t too late for him to alter his course and redeem what he could of any years he had remaining.

He gathered together his considerable savings and said his few goodbyes before boarding a train west, intending to fashion an unassuming life for himself in a land where he was familiar to no one. He wanted nothing more than to be just another stranger from some faraway place.

When the train reached where his heart told him it felt like remaining, he disembarked, set himself up in a respectable hotel, procured himself a well-bred mount, and set out to find himself a suitable piece of land.

It took a full month of tirelessly riding and re-riding the countryside before he found what he was looking for. But once his decision was made and the ownership of the land he’d chosen was finalized, he immediately dedicated himself to building a new life in the swaying grass of the foothills he now called home.

Within two years there stood a modest but comfortable house; a barn that met all the needs of him and his few animals; a woodshed with a small forge; and a few comforts and curios set about the yard. A water-well and the small shack covering it sat unassumingly off the corner of the house nearest the kitchen door.

It was a pleasant, solitary existence, something he wasn't sure he deserved, considering the evil he'd brought to so many over the years. But he didn’t squander this peace with fears of divine justice or potential revenge. He guessed that hell would be waiting for him when he died, and if revenge came calling, he was prepared to meet it just as he'd met it every time before.

This short interlude was the first time he could remember when not every morning greeted him with the promise of either violence, fear, hopelessness, or anger. It took some getting used to.

He felt no need for companionship or distraction in his little paradise; it gave him all he needed, and he'd long ago grown accustomed to loneliness. It was his most reliable friend. It was his only friend. He did, however, make some new acquaintances during his few visits to town.

A barman, a barber, an undertaker, and a card-playing woman were people who looked forward to his arrival. And he looked forward to them in some manner as well.

Having people to simply sit and talk with, or play cards with, or go fishing with, seemed odd to him. People with no expectations other than the pleasure of his company. People that could disagree with one another now and again without resorting to hitting, shooting, or stabbing. That too seemed odd, but he liked it.

He enjoyed almost two-and-a-half years of this life. It was something he'd never believed he'd have.

At some point during that time, he developed a health condition he initially chose to ignore, thinking it would pass. But after recent months of an obvious and rapid decline in his physical well-being, he had to admit the cough wasn’t going away. Hell, it was probably too late to address it now anyway. The night sweats, the bloody coughing, and the incessant chest pain told him all he needed to know to be sure.

He wryly supposed that divine justice had finally found him, and he was glad he'd not bothered to concern himself with such things while they’d been absent. He was as happy as he'd ever been for the blink of an eye, and now was no time for sorrow. Everything dies, he knew, and so must he.

He'd be damned, however, if he went to the devil without settling one final account. It was something he'd been putting off since first entertaining the notion some years back, when youth was still a friend.

But youth tends to paint a future with more tomorrows than a person could ever possibly spend, and, due to a lack of experience, is never accompanied by perspective. Impending mortality, on the other hand, is accompanied by nothing but. And that was what he now faced, so he decided to clear his last order of business while he still had time.

 

He led a horse called Lucifer out of the barn and into the early morning light a few days after he’d committed to his decision, and aimed him west.

Before they rounded the last bend in the trail that offered him a view of his home, the man turned back for a moment to express something of a thank-you. It was the only place where he'd found any real measure of happiness. He didn’t expect to return, and he regretted that. It was probably the first sincere sense of regret he'd felt since childhood.

After silently expressing his appreciation, he turned and rode off towards the mountains.

The play of his short life had often run through his mind over the years, and on this first stop of his latest, and probably last, journey, he again reflected upon his story. He concluded that most people are born only to suffer and die, and he was just one of those. The thought didn’t anger him like it used to; it just made him wonder if there was a reason for any of it.

 

He didn’t figure so.

He leaned back slowly and looked up at the darkening sky as the first twinkling stars began tearing tiny holes through the thin fabric of evening. He pushed the fire around with the toe of his boot as a light breeze whispered through the trees and the grass and the hills, and prepared for what he knew was to follow the terrible itching in his lungs.

Ten minutes later, he wiped the blood from his lips and lay down on his bedroll for the night, exhausted.

Not far down the trail, the horse injured himself while running from a bear.

It wasn’t much of a run, seeing as the bear was equally surprised and went the opposite direction, but the short distance Lucifer covered was over rough and rocky ground. By the time he was calm enough to be led somewhere suitable to hold up, he had a noticeable limp.

It took four days of rest and hot and cold compresses of tree bark and nearby plants before the horse seemed well enough to carry his own weight. When the two travellers slowly set off again, they were both afoot. And they continued on in that manner for the following week.

A proper recovery regimen for Lucifer would have been ideal, but the summer was becoming autumn now, and the man’s cough wasn’t letting up any. If they were to make the journey in its entirety, unnecessary delays were not an option. So they pushed on at a pace they could both maintain.

As they ventured farther into the mountains, it was clear that summer here was already at its end.

The leaves had not yet turned full fall colours, but were definitely starting to change almost everywhere. The sun was clearly preparing for winter as well, and had perceptibly begun its journey south for another season, taking more and more daylight with it as the nights and the northern shadows grew longer. And the wind, while still lacking the full bite of winter, eagerly nipped at exposed skin, like a puppy tentatively gauging its growing strength before being chased off by the fire.

Autumn had indeed arrived, and winter would be right on its heels.

Eventually, they returned to covering a respectable amount of ground per day, and the sinner figured that if things went relatively well, they would be out the other side of the mountains before the week was out.

Things did go well, and five days later, horse and man descended from the tall mountains into the craggy, rugged foothills that stretched for another two hundred miles ahead of them before rising once again to meet the next range.

Near the summit of the mountain pass, he'd shared camp in the company of a man and his son who were headed east to winter among family and friends. The boy's father thought it was important that the cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents had a chance to meet the boy before he grew into a man. Something the journey itself would certainly contribute to.

The man admitted that it was a perilous mission, for sentimental reasons, but he had faith that the Lord would see them through. The Lord and the well-tended arsenal of firearms they carried.

The sinner had the good fortune to have killed a deer the day before, and he skilfully fashioned somewhat of a gourmet feast that night on the mountaintop. With the few potatoes and onions he still had left from his garden, complemented by some wild morel mushrooms, thyme, and a touch of sage, he earned the respect and gratitude of both the man and his son.

 

The following morning, they all wished one another well and parted company.

If the man and boy were to be believed, their benevolent saviour guided them down one side of the mountain in the golden rays of the morning sun as they began their day, optimistically headed towards a loving family and a bright future. On the other side of the pass a dying sinner and his horde of silent demons led an injured horse named Lucifer downward into slowly waking shadows and probable damnation.

Three slow but steady days later, horse and man entered a town with a decent hotel and a well-maintained stable. It was a welcome discovery following the arduous trek that had brought them this far.

However, as welcome as the comforts of civilization were, they stayed in the town only two nights.

Considering the season, and the propensity for unpredictable weather so close to the mountains, prudence dictated that they had best keep moving. That, and the sinner thought he may have been recognized by a man he was sure he’d encountered somewhere, though he was unable to recall from where. Considering the life he'd led up until fairly recently, being recognized at all was most likely unfavourable.

He had his horse saddled and on the trail well before the sun woke the next morning. By the time it began lighting the tops of the trees through which he rode, he'd been underway for most of three hours.

As far as he could tell, nobody was close enough behind him to detect, but that didn’t mean nobody was back there in pursuit, or possibly ahead, waiting to ambush him. He knew it could be just as likely that there was nobody with any interest in him in either direction, but he hadn’t remained alive this long by disregarding paranoia.

The sinner made sure to ride on the grass verges and rocks beside the trail, rather than on it, when he could do so without compromising his horse’s recent injury. Eventually, where the trail passed by a solid line of scrub-brush leading down to the river, he decided to abandon the beaten track and follow the water until there was a suitable place to cross.

A quarter-mile downstream, the river shallowed into wide, passable rapids, and he forded the channel. Shortly after, he found a blond, grass-covered bluff offering a view of the road leading off in both directions.

He tethered Lucifer behind a juniper bush and sat under the branches of a pine tree with his telescope.

He didn’t have to wait long before two riders came into view on the trail behind, moving faster than men with a long day ahead, but not fast enough that the clatter of hooves would thunder through the valley for miles.

Sitting in the whispering grass atop the knoll, under his tree, the unbearable itching inside his chest overcame his desire to remain silent, and he began to cough. He hoped the riders were still far enough off that the sound of their mounts would mask the short but violent bout of hacking that racked his body.

Luckily for him, though this particular fit was of unusual intensity, it was over well before the two pursuers were within earshot.

When he'd recovered sufficiently, he brought the telescope to his eye once more.

Not surprisingly, one of the riders was the vaguely familiar character from the previous settlement; the man who he thought had recognized him.

After the men had passed, he led Lucifer down from the small hill, and they continued on. He kept to the side of the river opposite the main track, stopping regularly to listen for the sounds of what he was sure had been his pursuers, until they were too far ahead for him to hear any longer. He continued on cautiously nonetheless, and planned to do so for some time yet.

Near the end of the day lay another small town. One he intended to avoid regardless of whether or not it offered a real bed and a hot meal.

To eliminate any chance of detection as they approached the village, he and Lucifer kept to the trees, skirting the settlement with little difficulty, only once emerging from cover to cross a road coming in from the south.

They rejoined the track in the light of dusk, some distance on the other side of town, and continued on into the night until the horse occasionally began to stumble. At this point, the sinner led them upward into the safety of some nearby bluffs; not overly far from the trail, but far enough that the sounds of beast and man wouldn’t be overheard by passers-by.

There had been a time not long past when he wouldn’t have hesitated to confront the two men he was fairly certain had been following him, and if their answers to his queries dissatisfied him, he would've killed them both and taken what he might want or need from the saddlebags of their masterless mounts. The decision not to do so now wasn’t influenced by any regret for his past or a desire to repent, owing to some new-found arrival of faith; it was just that solving the problem using violence no longer presented itself as the most viable option.

The consequences of solving problems with gunpowder and lead were generally more problematic than simply avoiding confrontation, so the ailing sinner and his faithful horse spent most of the next day holed up in the hills, waiting for the sun to fall as they prepared for another push through the cover of darkness.

Emerging from the bush with an hour or so of hazy evening light remaining, they consulted their senses for any indications of danger, and once satisfied that there were none, they resumed the journey.

They held to this schedule for one more day and one more night.

 

When the man was sure there was no longer any threat of encountering the two strangers, he and his horse returned to travelling during daylight hours.

Erring well on the side of caution, they entered populated areas on only two occasions for the rest of the journey: once, to get a hot meal, and another time to buy oats for Lucifer.

About a week from their destination, it began to rain.

It started as intermittent showers early one morning, waking the man before he would have otherwise arisen, but by noon it had become a steady drizzle, interrupted by a few occasional downpours.

He'd anticipated the likelihood of this and had secured a heavy rain-slicker behind his saddle before leaving the comfort of home. The horse hadn't had the foresight to equip himself so, and was left to contend with the turn in weather wearing the only coat he had. It seemed to affect his disposition very little. He threw his head a bit more than usual to keep the water from his eyes, but dutifully forged ahead.

It rained every day for the rest of the trip, making for a very long, soggy week, but, despite the discomfort brought about by wet weather and the increasing cold, they eventually completed the trek.


 

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Atop a slight rise, barely high enough to look down on the scene below, he tottered weakly in the saddle, now sicker than ever.

Except for the green trim around the doors and windows of the house, the small ranch looked mostly as he had pictured it in his mind. The outbuildings, corrals, and fences generally fit the profile he had constructed, as did most everything else.

 

He and the horse stood motionlessly under a giant spruce tree, not far off, while water dripped, poured, and was blown all around them in the windy, waning light of evening. He wanted more than anything to go down there now, so he and the horse might have a warm, dry place to sleep, but he didn’t. And he knew he wouldn’t until he had a better idea of what to expect. He intended to watch the goings-on of the ranch from the cover of the shadows for a day or so first.

They reluctantly turned and plodded into the woods to make some sort of camp before daylight faded completely to night.

He barely had the strength that evening to construct a simple frame for supporting the oiled canvas sheet he carried for inclement weather conditions such as assailed them now, but he managed. Keeping most of the rain off of the horse and himself was the best that could be hoped for.

When the sorry little shelter was as complete as it was going to get, he undid the cinches binding Lucifer to his saddle and bags, and let them roll lazily off of the horse’s back to the ground before painstakingly dragging them out of the deluge. Then, after coughing up what to him seemed like an endless supply of blood, he passed out sitting up.

He awoke, some hours later, shivering uncontrollably, with his knees gathered up to his chest like a hypothermic man-fetus violently miscarrying in the inhospitable womb of that strange forest.

The trees writhed in an uncomfortable dance with the contentious, whipping wind as they spit needles and broken bits of branches down onto the drenched forest floor. Twisting and swaying, they incessantly moaned their protests against the wild manipulations of the tempest. Off in the distance, one of the most unfortunate timbers emitted a painful, rending death-cry as it was executed in the night. Its decapitated head crashed violently through the limbs of its struggling cousins before noisily smashing onto the ground below.

Somehow, the sinner summoned the will to move, and even managed to convince his cadaver-cold fingers to unfasten the leather ties that held his bedroll together. Then, with great effort, he wrapped whatever warmth he could salvage from the damp blankets around his quaking shoulders and waited.

By the time the faint light began stealing through the trees, his bones were no longer in danger of rattling through his skin, and he was fairly certain that it was now safe to rest his tongue against his teeth without fear of losing it. He hadn’t slept a wink since waking, near-dead, hours before.

By mid-morning, the wind had subsided to nothing more than a whisper, and the steady drizzle fell straight down from the heavy, low-hanging clouds. The sullen, much beleaguered forest stooped wearily under the burden, quietly attempting to recover from the trauma of the previous night’s abuse.

It was all the sinner could do to find sufficient strength to crawl the ten feet to his horse and pull himself upright. Sickly sweat drenched his already soaked and shivering body as he struggled to undo the loose knot binding Lucifer to the rail of their feeble shelter. He eventually succeeded in doing so, and after letting the short rope fall to the ground, he slowly folded back to his hands and knees.

When he could next manage to move, he made his way to the saddlebags, fished inside the one farthest from him, and pulled out what remained of the small sack of oats he had procured in what seemed to be another lifetime. He opened it up and placed it on the ground.

His last supper for Lucifer.

A few hours later, when Lucifer was sure that his master wasn’t getting back up, he turned away and started towards the ranch he knew lay only a short distance through the trees.


 

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"A horsey, a horsey!" the little girl cried out from where she stood on the veranda. "Mommy, Daddy, come see the horsey!"

They heard the excited cries of their daughter from the comfort of their sitting-room chairs. They’d both been deeply immersed in whatever they'd been reading during their incarceration by the recent weather, and were intent on finishing before the warm rays of a long-lost sun dried the ground and it was time to get back to work.

Two sets of eyes hesitatingly abandoned their missions and met each other in the space between them.

"Go see what it is, dear," the young wife suggested.

He nodded silently and began making his way to see what the fuss was about. Glancing through a window as he passed it by, he noticed the concerned face of his six-year-old daughter as she stared across the yard.

"Over there, Daddy!"

His gaze followed her finger to the edge of the large, eastern lawn.

The horse didn’t appear to be in any great hurry as it moved steadily toward them.

 

The man began to hesitantly make his way down the stairs, almost as if undecided as to whether this was the course of action he wished to take before his body had started without him.

The man and the horse met in the openness of the small field, neither immediately certain of what to make of the other.

The horse was a fine beast, that was undeniable, but he looked tired and was most likely hungry. The only visible trappings of man about him were an expensive halter and the rope trailing from it. And a brand that the man didn’t recognize. He was clearly no stray, but had strayed from somewhere.

After brief introductions, the horse must have decided the man was of an agreeable disposition. And the man was of a similar mind concerning the horse.

When he was certain he had the man’s attention, the horse turned back toward the forest, ambled a short distance that way, and then cocked his head back to make sure he was being followed. After a few stop-starts, the man determined the horse’s intentions and they had an understanding. The horse didn’t need to stop again.

The little girl sat on the steps back at the house, exactly as she had been instructed to do, bathed in damp, lazy sunbeams. She watched her daddy follow the big black horse from the field toward the trees from where it had emerged. The horse’s head bobbed rhythmically with each step, and her father’s mostly-grey hair waved slightly each time a foot touched the ground.

Before disappearing from view, the man stopped for a moment and turned to wave an arm at his daughter, letting her know that it was acceptable for her to leave her perch. She waved back but didn’t move, so he smiled, waved again, and then spun around to continue following Lucifer into the eerily inviting darkness of the still-dripping woods, each of his footsteps carrying him unwittingly closer to the body of his only son.

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