I've Been Through the Desert on a Horse with No Name
rating: +18+x

Killian "Cosmic" Kremer walked into the Nameless Saloon (oddly enough, that was its name) in the middle of some nameless town (that wasn't). Actually, in the center of town was a well, so the saloon must have been somewhere a little off to the side of the center of the town. Either way, the inside was dry, and just about as sandy as the outside. A few patrons sat around the place, drinking and playing spades. Cosmic had seen this scene one too many times to find it interesting anymore. They just wanted water and some kind of meat.

These western saloons were never held to any real high standards, but Cosmic had been craving beef jerky for the last thirty miles.

Cosmic walked up to the bar, and smiled at the bartender.

"Thirsty?"

"I am, but also, d'you serve jerky perhaps?"

The bartender nodded and smiled. "Perhaps we do. Coming right up."

Cosmic fondled their cross necklace, and waited patiently for the bartender to ring up their drink. Soon enough, the bartender slid a water onto the bar in front of Cosmic, followed shortly after by a small plate of jerky. They picked up the water, and swigged the whole thing down in one gulp. After experiencing the immense satisfaction of such an action, they were ready for the dry, salty jerky.

Cosmic ripped off a piece of jerky, and…

Uh…

It wasn't salted, as was usual. But that was alright, Cosmic could get a salt shaker and…

Well that wasn't around either.

"Hey, bartender," Cosmic cautiously called. The bartender edged his way over. "I don't mean to be rude or nothing, but d'you have any salt?"

The bartender's smile slowly faded.

Cosmic immediately felt sorry they asked. "Didn't mean to intrude or nothin', I just usually have a pinch of salt on my jerky." The silence only grew, as Cosmic imagined that the other patrons had tuned into their conversation. Cosmic tried to chuckle and lighten the mood, and followed it with, "what, there some kind of salt shortage?"

"No, there ain't." A little guy, no more than 5'8", set down his hand of cards and turned to the bar. "We just can't afford to have salt around these parts."

Some of the men around the bar grunted in agreement, or else silently and slowly nodded.

"Can't afford it? What kind of answer is that?"

"That's the only answer we got." A woman sitting at the bar, next to who was clearly her man, chimed in. "Salt never done us any good around here. We got rid of it all. Tossed it to the wind. Don't want nothing to do with it anymore."

Two men sitting by one of the glassless windows got up and silently made their way out the door.

Cosmic eyed the room, feeling the fear and discomfort excreting from every pore of every person. "I'm afraid to ask. What misfortune did it bring?"

"Val," the boy at the cards game nodded to the bartender, "tell it like it is."

Cosmic did a double take. "Wait, before we proceed, Val? What's your last name?"

Val took a deep breath. "LaFerrier. Val LaFerrier. We've met. The stargazing Killian Cosmic?"

"Heavens to Betsy, I met you down in San Diego! We were on the same boat when old Ryan caught that massive fish from just off the pier! You remember that?"

"I do, all too well." The Frenchman curled his lips up. "In fact, it happened right after that… I was riding back up here, to deliver, let's say, something precious that I had gotten from San Diego. Here was the meeting place, and I was headed this way from down south. The third day on the open road, I noticed it following me some miles back."

"It?"

"It. I couldn't figure out what it was. Didn't walk like any animal I've ever seen. Had fingers for legs, that much I could tell from far away. Big, oval head. Nothing but trouble. Tried to scare it off with blanks. Thought it worked at first. Kept on my path." Val looked out the window, and put down the mug he was holding. "Arrived here, delivered the thing, got my money, and was prepared to leave. When I saw it. The thing, up on the hillside over there."

Val pointed to a hilltop, southwest.

Val: "It had followed me here all the way from San Diego. But this time, I saw. It had friends. A whole pack of them. Disappeared behind that hillside just as I saw them. Maybe they thought they were being sneaky. I figured I couldn't leave town, so I stayed." Val bowed his head. "I didn't know the pain I was bringing to this town. I should have left and died myself."

"Hey hey hey," the kid leaped from his seat to a position right beside Cosmic, "you couldn't have known. Wasn't your fault." The kid attempted to comfort Val with a hand on the shoulder, but Val shrugged it off.

"Thank you, Jamie, but I know full well what I did, and I can live with my regrets without sinking into depression and mania. If I were a braver man, I would have gone out there instead of shacking up with one of y'all."

Cosmic: "Where did you shack up?"

Val: "Here, actually. I had always had an affinity for bartending. Me and the previous bartender had actually met before, in Austin. Apparently he had a room to rent out, but he refused to be paid when I asked to pay. I stayed there many nights. Each day, I saw them on the hillside. I was too afraid to leave town. I was too afraid to point them out to others. Each day, their numbers grew. I knew a ride out into the desert would be my last. Maybe I thought they were only after me. Maybe that's why I told no one, and just tried to stay and get a job. A day or two turned into a week, but one day, the pattern changed."

Val took a deep breath.

Val: "At first I was relieved. They were gone. None of them. I had been lucky enough — or, lucky isn't the word, but, the previous bartender had fallen ill and I had taken up his job. It gave me something to do, and took my mind off of the… things. But they were gone. Well and truly gone. But that's when…" Val's mouth hung open, and he looked to a nonexistent object somewhere in the middle of the room. "That's when The Cowboy arrived."

Cosmic: "The cowboy? Which one?"

"No, honey," the woman interjected, "you don't get it. Not a cowboy, The Cowboy."

"Well, that's not so helpful. He must have had some other name you caught?"

Val just shook his head. "It's not that I didn't catch his name. That was his name. And he wandered into our saloon here, looking like he had just crawled out of the sand. His skin was dry and flaking, his mouth wasn't much better, his eyes were sunken and he was caked sand head to toe. He sat at the bar, and said a single word. 'Water'. Without hesitation, I whipped him up a glass of the coolest water we have, thinking this man was going to die in minutes without it. I shouldn't have given him anything."

Val furrowed his brow.

Val: "He smiled at me, and said, 'thank you, mister, now tell me, are you in need of steeds around here?'. I asked him what he meant, and he just said, 'that's all I needed to hear', and walked out. Didn't even finish his water. Outside, I… I…"

Val went wide-eyed.

Val: "I have no clue how I didn't notice it before. That thing. One of them that was following me, he climbed onto its back and rode away. I seized up, then and there, and breathed deeper than hell's canyons. I tried to hold back a scream but it just wriggled its way out of me. I couldn't keep myself from hollering, and soon enough the whole saloon was on me, asking what had happened. Well, I just couldn't keep it inside any longer."

Jamie nodded, knowingly, offering physical consolation which Val turned down once more.

Val: "I had to tell them what those things were, and I asked if they saw it, riding out. Nobody had. They hadn't seen no Cowboy either. It was like I hallucinated it all. Some bad dream. No Cowboy, no steeds, no nothing. All in my head. It was almost comforting."

Cosmic: "How d'you know you didn't just hallucinate the whole thing?"

Val swallowed, and began taking shallower breaths. Jamie, presumably feeling the need to let Val recover, took over the conversation.

Jamie: "Ahh, well, I was here around this time, and I can finish it in stead of our blessed barkeep. I had just arrived, y'see, big dispute with my brother Ardan pushed me west and away from family and I ended up here. Hadn't thought of settling down but it seemed I was destined to call this place home for at least a few days. Val here's incident had scared the town half out of their wits, and nobody wanted to venture out. Everyone prepared guns and watched the hillside. After a day or two of nothing, someone got the wise idea to convince everyone our dear Val was crazy. People believed it. Bad decision."

The woman and her man nodded.

Jamie: "It happened less than a year ago. I only heard about it. It was a quiet night, not much happening in town central, and… I just… I was up late, making love to my girl at the time, when I happened to glance out the window. My girl yelped, I had dug my nails into her shoulder too hard, and she asked 'what's wrong?', and all I could do was point out the window. They were almost too dark to make out. At first I thought they might be large dogs, 'cause of the snout and all, but with brief glimpses of light, I could see the things were some — something that crawled straight out of the throat of Satan himself."

Jamie hurriedly downed a shot that Val had wordlessly set in front of him.

Jamie: "They were coming right up the center of town, the lot of them, and one came into view around the corner there, carrying some man on its back. Looked like your everyday cowboy, 'cept he was hunched over and something came out of him with every wretched, crow-ish cough. Could barely see it in the dark, but you could hear it hit the ground. Like a bunch uh sand. I got off the bed and rushed to my clothes, rummaging through to find my pistol, but when I went back to the window they were gone. Girl still asked 'what's wrong', like she hadn't heard that unholy hacking and wheezing. I couldn't explain it to her. I know I'd sound crazy. I didn't know what to do. But that's not the only thing that happened that night." Jamie emphatically shook his head. "No, no it wasn't. But I ain't the one to tell it. That's a story for our resident candy shop owner Percy and her husband Thomas."

Percy had already made her way out of her darling's arms and towards the bar crew, seemingly expecting this hand off, like this story had been rehearsed a hundred times before.

Percy: "I was next door. I heard it all going down. The first thing you could hear was the screaming. But it was muffled, like it was far away. Thomas is a heavy sleeper, so I couldn't shake him awake. Not that I think it would have done much good, now that it's all said and done. Nothing on earth or in heaven could have stopped it. We live right next to the big farm where Tommy Two-words lives, but he used to live with his aspiring writer brother, Nelson. I… I almost can't describe what I saw. I don't know if I believe it myself. I just know that in the morning, something must have happened, 'cause Nelson was gone."

Percy looked off to her right.

Percy: "It looked like the house was leaking. Like a big puddle was forming around it. Some black, impenetrable liquid, reflecting all the stars and moon. Then came the neighing."

Cosmic: "There were horses?"

Percy: "It weren't the neigh of any horse I have ever had the displeasure of coming across. No, it was some… indescribable, blood freezing approximation. Like what someone who'd never met a wild animal would think they sounded like. That's the best I can describe it. It caught my eye about then, I think. The crystals forming around the corner of the house that I now know was Nelson's room. They grew faster than anything I had ever seen, not plant nor animal, and they were rocks, just sprouting out of the wall. I was frozen in place."

Percy made her way back to Thomas.

Percy: "That's about when the screaming and neighing stopped. They walked out of that house like it was a parade. The lot of them. The human, dog, fish things. And, like a king, The Cowboy rode atop the front-most one. He was holding up something big and metal, and I can't say I noticed him coughing like Jamie did. From the little the moonlight gave me, he looked plump and healthy, almost chubby. As soon as they were out of sight, I snapped out of it and roused Thomas. I was too scared to go into the house myself, but I figured Thomas was the bravest man I've ever known. I wanted him to check it out."

Percy looked at Thomas, waiting for him to pick up the rest of it.

Thomas: "To be frank, I didn't believe her. But if she was so worried, I was going to make sure nothing bad had happened. Grabbed a rifle, walked out, walked over, and made my way in the door. First thing I noticed was the long line of salt. In fact, it extended out the door quite a ways. In the morning we saw that it headed all the way out of the road, to the hills. But I didn't know that at the time. Now more worried and believing, I followed the trail of salt to the older brother's room. Nelson's. When I got in there, I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at."

Thomas looked as if he was trying to picture it again, to see if there was some other way to look at it.

Thomas: "As best I can figure, the whole room was coated in salt. Some crystals were bigger than others. Got bigger and worse the closer to the far corner. You couldn't barely see Nelson's bed under all the crystals. There were some pieces of something around the room. Looked like fingers, only larger, and with more fingernails. Looked like they had been cut off uh something, but weren't bleeding. Worst of all, there was a hole in the ground. And I mean a hole. Massive, cavernous. The opening wasn't much to look at, but peering down, you could see that it widened, and widened, and… I'll be frank, I couldn't stare into it very long before my very soul started quivering. Thing was covered in salt top to bottom, and I thought I could hear… neighing. From deep within it."

Thomas, still outwardly calm, paused.

Thomas: "My next instinct was to check on Tommy. He wasn't Tommy Two-words yet. He was just Tommy. He had a reputation as an exceptionally quick shot, but he was a recluse until then, no one but his brother Nelson had ever heard him talk. I found him in his room, flaked with salt himself. He looked dry, shriveled even. I picked him up and carried him out. He was too weak, or scared, or both, to resist. I needed to get him to the doctor. When I carried him out the front door, he said the only two words anyone has ever heard him say."

Cosmic leaned in expectantly.

Thomas: "'No salt.' Like a warning. Clearly he got better, but he still hasn't said anything since. In the fallout, we found that all his horses had been replaced with those 'steeds'. We burned the stables and the house. After the rubble was removed, the salt was all there, but the fingers and the hole weren't. For the better, I think. We took his warning to heart. 'No salt'. We cleaned the town of salt the week after. The things haven't been back, and we aren't willing to test if it was clearing out the salt or not that did it. We just know that whatever we're doing right now, it hasn't called those things back."

Val came back into the conversation: "And I know what made them follow me. I had just come from a boating trip. I had fell in the ocean, hadn't changed my clothes. I smelled of the sea." Val swallowed again. "I smelled of salt."

Cosmic was taken aback at the information that had just been loaded onto them. They couldn't think of a good response. They did still wonder one thing, though, and they couldn't help but ask: "What did Tommy Two-words see?"

"Ask him yourself," suggested Jamie, as he motioned to a particularly shaded corner of the saloon.

There, a man wearing only white made eye contact with Cosmic. Soon after, his eyes made their way back to his drink.

All he did was shake his head, but it said all it needed to.

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