The town was quiet. The smell of gunpowder hung thick in the air, mixed with the irony scent of blood. Bill dropped his piece, scalding to the touch, in his holster and motioned for his men to do the same. The killing was done. The town was theirs.
Dust clung to the bandit’s brow, further mutilating his horrible face. It donned a nose that had been broken one too many times, lips cracked from the dryness in his throat and faint blue, sun-bleached eyes that squinted at all they saw. What little hair was left lay draped to one side of his scalp, covering the parts that had been burned by fire and sun.
“Search the bodies,” he said, kneeling down beside the lifeless shell of a young boy. The dirt surrounding him was colored red, and the smell of blood was particularly strong. It did not affect Bill. He had done worse.
He stripped the boy of all valuables, a cheap watch and a couple coins, then got back up, only to meet the icy gaze of the newcomer. Instinctively, he grasped his gun and began reloading, his eyes remaining fixed on the man.
He seemed out of this world, his skin as white as the rags he wore, his eyes swimming with purple light. He did not seem the least bit horrified by the massacre that had taken place, instead regarding the scene with interest, nodding at empty spaces.
Shots filled the air as Bill’s men opened fire, unleashing a hail of bullets that would have felled the mightiest of men. Each piece of lead, however, came to a stop before reaching its target, dropping onto the dirt. The man did not seem to notice. His gaze had found Bill.
“You carry a great amount of death,” he said.
Bill had his gun raised, but his confidence had left him. “What of it,” he said. His deep voice betrayed a small tremble, and more than a bit of confusion.
“The spirits are vengeful,” the man answered. “They cannot rest. Not while you live.” He turned to Bill’s companions. “Your men carry many dead as well.”
Bill turned white himself. “What are you?”
The white figure smiled. “A reaper, if you will. A wanderer between two worlds.”
“You’re here to take our souls?”
The smile widened. “I’m here to release those already dead.”
He nodded at one of the bandits. In an instant, vague forms materialized around him, figures of men, women, boys and girls. In another instant, the ghosts enveloped him. The air filled with screams. The forms vanished. The bandit, empty-eyed and white-skinned, fell to the dirt.
Bill roared in response, emptying his magazine into the barrier surrounding the man. All bullets were stopped. In response, ghosts appeared all around him and his men. Bill recognized many of the faces as he turned and turned, looking for an escape. He finally froze as two small hands touched his cheeks. His blood ran cold at the sight of the young boy he had just mugged.
Countless ghostly hands closed around him, each one taking a bit more of his life. He felt it draining away, the cold spreading until he noticed no more. Then came the pain, the wounds caused by each bullet he had ever fired. It was agony, seemingly lasting forever. But then came the thoughts, the most horrible punishment of all, the last thoughts of every person he had ended. The dread filled him to the point his heart tore itself to pieces. Bit by bit. And then, when he thought it was all over, he found himself in the town again, the memories and the pain slowly fading. He looked down and saw himself, white and empty. He looked up and saw the reaper. He saw the ghosts surrounding him, his own men among them, all in chains, all thieves and murderers, and understood what had stopped the bullets.
He saw his own chains, and knew he would not rest. He would be punished. He would have to atone.
A firm tug forced the first step, one of a great many on the road to salvation.
Illustration by: Lars de Ruyter