Jeb Walker was the first to see the stranger as he came into town on a dry, sunny afternoon when the blazing Texas sun sat high in the blue sky and the air was hot enough to fry a rattlesnake. It made sense that Jeb Walker would be the first to greet the stranger when he strode into town on a dry, sunny afternoon; Jeb’s general store was among the first buildings one met on the very edge of town. Assorted colorful candies crammed its windows in wicker baskets, and beyond them his store sat aglow with the golden radiance of an overhead gaslamp. It shed its soft light upon a wide variety of furs, pelts, guns (though it really wasn’t his business to sell them), tobacco, and pipes; a good general store, one that he had inherited from his father. Across the dirt street so heavily scarred with wagon wheel tracks, Goldman’s postal service stood empty and silent like a watchful skull in the sunshine. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and Paul Goldman would be over at the saloon instead of stopping to greet the stranger alongside Jeb. He didn’t mind; it was easier to lure these people in when you were alone and unassuming. Jeb came to stand in the general store’s doorway, and watched with mild interest as the stranger approached.
Heralded by the chime of his silver spurs as he sauntered into town, the newcomer made for a grand enough entrance with his brown woven poncho draped over his broad shoulders and chest like a cape of royalty. Or a shroud. Jeb had to shield his eyes for a moment as the stranger’s big golden belt buckle caught the sunlight, a well-crafted product of metalwork inlaid with some design he could not see from that distance. Jeb’s eyes moved instinctively back to that buckle, where two cowskin holsters crisscrossed over its shiny surface. The polished grips of twin revolvers poked out shyly from their leather depths.
He tipped his hat to the stranger as he passed the general store. The gesture was not returned, but the stranger stopped and turned to him, slowly and deliberately. His face was a mask of unshaven stubble that ended beneath the brim of his own hat, the front of it angled down over his eyes. Jeb was used to the cold greeting from men like him, and it didn’t bother him at all. Few things could nowadays, and besides, the job ahead was too delicate to be ruined by petty squabbles over politeness. Jeb briefly considered extending his hand, but thought better of it after another look at the six-guns lodged at the stranger’s waist.
“Where’re you coming from, boy?” Jeb asked the question without truly caring for an answer; he knew approximately where the stranger hailed from. Every settlement beyond theirs was the same, full to bursting with fur traders and whiskey and chilling stories about a settlement on the other side of the horizon that killed thrillseekers and heroes alike. It gobbled up outsiders as greedily as children coming after school for the general store’s candy, and spit out the bones for the rest of the fools to see.
“Springton,” the stranger replied, “next settlement over.” Ah, yeah, Jeb thought, good place. Good business, good people, good way to get stories around. “I was drifting through there when I heard about your little settlement all the way out here. Y’all are a bit famous with the rustlers and ranchers, or so I’ve heard. I heard talk about a town that folks keep away from, because they don’t take too kindly to strangers. In fact,” he raised his head and met Jeb’s gaze with eyes as black and dark as a shark’s, “I heard that the last drifter to make it out of here was twenty years ago, in 1857. Rambling like a lunatic, and twice as dangerous. Now, what’s a town like that doing all the way out here, anyway?”
Jeb looked the stranger up and down. He wasn’t one of the rustlers he’d mentioned; no criminal would wear something so flashy as those pretty little guns hanging from his waist. And he certainly wasn’t a rancher, not dressed like that, anyway. A stranger is a stranger, Jeb decided, and he didn’t care to know any more than that. But he didn’t like the man’s curiosity, nor his intuition or depth of research he had evidently done. Not one bit.
“Well, we do get a few odd things in these parts. High winds, mostly; a few more coyotes than we’d like sometimes come through and raise a bit of hell. Comes from being so far from the trains and the other towns, you understand. But most everything else here is just as fine as bread and butter, wouldn’t you believe it.”
It did not look like he believed it. “I’ve heard things. You folks are hiding something, and I want to know what it is. I want to know why nobody but the postmaster has had a thing to say about this town since before the war.”
Jeb detected the slightest hint of impatience behind the stranger’s words, and he knew that he had him. The man would not leave until he had found and exterminated the problem by some sacred, unspoken rule followed to the letter by every foolish cowboy ever to die in the West. Jeb took advantage of this suspicion and looked around nervously, as if he were afraid of being overheard. This was all part of the act, of course, but the stranger couldn’t know that.
“Fine. You wanna know the truth, boy?” Jeb motioned to the stranger to lean in. He complied silently, but Jeb saw the man’s right hand rest casually on one of his guns. This one wasn’t messing around.
“I’ll tell you then. There is a rat here, an evil soul named George Holloway. He comes down to this place saying all this fine stuff about being a banker, about saving our little town from the tax collectors, but he’s just a crook with a big wad of cash and a Gatling gun he just about treats like his only child. Used to be a slave owner before the war. He’s got us holed up here for the oil we got underneath the ground, and he doesn’t like no outsiders interfering with his work, oh no.” Jeb could see the stranger’s face better now beneath his hat; it shone with interest and the prospect of adventure. He was believing the usual lie without a hitch. Jeb almost felt sorry for him, but he plowed ahead nonetheless.
“The bastard just goes ahead and puts a couple rounds of bullets into the brains of any outsiders who catch on to what he’s doing, then puts down two or three of us local folk to teach a lesson. Man’s a tyrant to his dying day, and whatever decent bones exist in his evil body broke long ago.” Jeb was not a Christian, but he crossed himself all the same. For the effect of the story.
“Hasn’t anyone tried to stop him? Where’s the law in this town?”
“Come with me if you really want to know. And be quiet about it.”
The stranger dropped his hand from his firearm and followed Jeb away from the general store. As they walked into the heart of the rambling one-street town, the stranger wondered aloud at the lack of people outside. Jeb smiled to himself.
“Nobody comes out anymore unless Holloway wants us to. He got some lowlife bandits as some fashion of soldiers keeping the “peace” through intimidation. He’s a slippery bastard; I give him that.”
Actually, the reason nobody was out on the street was due to the fact that everyone was indoors making preparations for the Feeding, but of course Jeb didn’t tell him that. That would have gotten him asking about what the Feeding was, and that would have spurred the question as to why there were little silver pentagrams (Devil stars, the northerners called them) hanging like so many malevolent windchimes in the windows and doorways of every building in town. And they couldn’t have that just yet.
“He rules by fear,” muttered the stranger, glancing at a dismally boarded up shack to the side of the road as they passed. “I’ve seen his kind before. But I ain’t giving him a day more of that power. What’d you want to show me?”
“Just this way, stranger—there, do you see him? In front of the saloon.”
The stranger walked ahead, then stopped. His boot tracks ended abruptly at a body lying forgotten and dusty in the dirt, a pot-bellied man wearing a black suit jacket and bowler hat thrown askew near his salt-and-pepper hair. The body was alive with flies; it was not fresh. A halo of blood, scarlet as sunset, had pooled and dried around his belly and chest. His vest was soaked black with the stuff, but the stranger bent down and plucked something from the corpse. It was a gold star.
“This fellow here was the sheriff?”
“And a dear friend.” Jeb took off his hat and held it against his chest as he looked into the man’s glossy eyes. Lester Sullivan really had been his friend, but the stubborn old ass had been the only voice of rebellion after the last Feeding. Jeb had volunteered to shoot the sheriff himself, executing him with six consecutive shots to the belly and chest (he found it improper to leave a man’s face desecrated at his own funeral). It had pained him immensely to do it, but you didn’t defy the Vast One. You couldn’t, Jeb had insisted to his friend of twenty-five years, but Lester had been foolhardy and steadfast. And case in point, Jeb thought, and not without a feeling of satisfied finality, he is now dead.
“When do y’all plan on burying him?”
“Can’t,” said Jeb. “That scumbag Holloway won’t even let us bury our dead. He just leaves ’em out to let nature take its course, and we have to watch.”
The stranger’s face was hard to read beneath his hat, but he pinned the star to his poncho without a word. Then he bent down again and closed Lester’s eyelids with grim finality. When he straightened up, his face was hard-set with bitter anger.
“I’m the law now. Where is this Holloway critter? Seems to me he’s long overdue for a bullet in the teeth.”
Jeb put a hand on the stranger’s shoulder, trying his best to summon tears on command. He got his eyes to mist up. “Bless you, stranger, bless you. Let’s get you rested and ready, then.” He pointed to the batwing saloon doors. “There are a few decent folks in there I reckon would like to meet you.”
The next few hours were a smoky mix of tobacco, whiskey, and celebration all around inside the saloon. The townsfolk knew their lines and kept them to the letter. Jeb had hardly finished explaining the situation and what the stranger aimed to do before their new guest was swept away in a sea of thank yous and God bless yous. Jeb kept close by and steered the stranger through it all, noticing with a grim little smile that the false praise was starting to get to their new savior. He brushed most of it off with his own quiet modesty, but Jeb saw the cracks. The stranger enjoyed the love and attention and was silently basking in the chance to feel wanted. Jeb had seen people like him drunk with that kind of popularity before, and it never ceased to amaze him. If everyone in the country would just give in to the Vast One, there would be no need for such newfangled ideas of heroism! But that was all it came down to for men like the stranger, wasn’t it? Kill this bandit, stop those cattle rustlers, and you will be accepted by the people you met the day before. For the life of him, Jeb could never see the appeal of a profession like that.
Then again, he supposed it must feel good to be so wanted. The Old West was decaying rapidly in the wake of cities and fast-evolving civilization in the North, and cowpokes with it. The romanticism that enshrouded the stranger’s kind wouldn’t be around much longer, either; industrialization, that smoggy hand stretching over the nation, was a true killer of the American mythos.
He watched as the stranger tried and failed to verbally bat away the mountains of praise Ms. Annie from the shoe shop was piling on him. Amateur cowboy.Jeb reckoned that if the stranger wanted to have a purpose in the town, he was apt to serve one very soon.
The stranger’s humbleness was strong. In fact, it only crumbled completely after Jeb had sat him down at the bar with the raucous cheers of the townsfolk at their backs and proceeded to get him so drunk (“You won’t do no killin’ without some fire in your veins,” Jeb had said when he’d protested.) that the stranger had even gone so far as to remove his hat. Jeb had found a kid beneath it, a thin-faced young man hardly out of his twenties, and he offered a silent prayer to the Vast One for being so understanding with what they had to work with. When Jeb left the stranger’s side and returned a second later with Betsy, the local whore, he thought the stranger’s eyes just might pop out of his skull. She thanked him quietly with her dark eyes, then led him upstairs to bed even though it was still only late afternoon. The last Jeb had seen of him, he was being led by his big belt buckle and looking like the happiest man from Dallas to Denver.
Jeb and the other townsfolk watched them leave, still cheering. Then they sat and waited for the steady thumping from upstairs to cease. When it finally did, Jeb instructed them to wait another ten minutes in silence. Then he led the way upstairs. The stranger had passed out, shamelessly nude, amid the tangled bedsheets in the first room. Betsy was sitting at the foot of the bed, smoking one of those newfangled cigarettes and looking extremely pleased with herself. Everyone else had formed a neat line snaking around the entire second level; they knew the plan. Jeb sent them in one by one, looking back around to see what each person had brought—that was always an interesting part of the Pre-Feeding ritual.
Mrs. Eagleton from the bakery came in with a handful of breadcrumbs that she carefully lined the stranger’s pants pockets with. Mr. Shaw from the coat shop entered bearing a little shred of cow fat, which he proceeded to stuff down the mouth of one of the stranger’s leather boots. Mr. Addison’s choice was the riskiest; he sprinkled fresh chili powder over the stranger’s form as he slept, making sure to intersperse it thinly so as to not arouse suspicion when he awoke. This one was a daring move, but a necessary one; the Vast One liked its Feeding with a touch of spice in it. Jeb had seen Mr. Addison’s shoulders deflate in relief as he left, and he quietly patted him on the back before conducting the next resident inside.
Jeb was the last. Betsy waited for him outside the door as he entered with his own special ingredient. Hiding it was a dilemma, but in the end he decided to put the little silver pentagram in the breast pocket of the stranger’s discarded shirt. Then he left the room and lay with Betsy until the sun dipped behind the horizon and Mrs. Perkins from the barber shop came to inform them, red-faced, that it was time.
The townsfolk met the stranger in the town square at eight o’clock sharp. Jeb took care to melt into the center of the crowd instead of the front; if the stranger saw him leading the people on more than one occasion, he might start to wonder if something was up. The trick was to keep pretending to be his friend at the same time.
He made his way over to the stranger, who was testing the cylinder of his revolver by snapping it open, spinning it twice, and jerking it back with a click and a flick of his wrist. Jeb knew the purpose of the test. If the cylinder squeaked or caught upon being spun, it was unoiled and needed to be removed and cleaned before further use. The gun was as silent as the grave.
“Are you ready, son?”
The stranger spun the cylinder one last time, holstered it again, and nodded. He had regained his mysterious appearance with his hat back on his head. With the sheriff’s star at his breast, a proud sign of leadership obscuring its evil twin beneath, the stranger probably looked and felt mean enough to take on five George Holloways. Jeb was more than happy to let him think that.
“See that big ol’ tower house, right down the street? That’s the church. Holloway took it over after he arrived ’cause it looks out on the whole land for miles around. Never leaves it, just sits up on the second floor sending telegrams and making dirty money while his little Gatling gun stays pointed on the door. If you go up all quiet-like, and take out his men before they take out you, you justmight pull it off.”
“All right. Now, you get everyone to stand back a bit, y’hear? I won’t be a hero if lovely Betsy is still here when the bullets start to fly,” said the stranger. Looking back on it, Jeb realized just how lucky he had been for the stranger being too smitten to inquire how Jeb knew exactly where Holloway would be in the Church. Jeb had made up the whole thing on the spot.
“Sure thing, friend. Just do this town and its fine folks proud, and in our eyes you’ll do no wrong. Give Holloway what’s coming to him, and then some, all right?”
“I’ll do more than that. I’m going to fill this bastard with so much lead he’ll get draggedright on down back to hell.”
Jeb clapped the stranger on the back one last time, adjusted the sheriff star to catch the dwindling light, and stepped back to join the rest of the town. They watched the stranger together, men and women Jeb had known his entire life with their eyes trained hungrily on the cowboy’s back. The stranger turned slightly, as if to say one last thing to them, perhaps to Betsy, but apparently thought better of it, for he squared his shoulders, unslung his guns, and began to walk towards the building without looking back.
The people had gone deathly silent. Far away, a lost coyote cried to the rising moon, the same moon bathing the steeple in milky brilliance. Jeb had taken part in the Feeding ritual for nine years, exactly as long as the Vast One had taken up residence in their humble little town, but the holiness and finality of the whole thing always amazed him. As if the entire world had stopped its spinning for one second, just to see what would come next.
It was only when the stranger reached the brick steps leading to the large wooden entrance doors that the chanting was allowed to start. It was the voluptuous Ms. Oakley, who ran that stuffy little women’s clothing shop on the west end of town that always smelled like perfume and roses, who began it, speaking the ancient words so quietly that they were lost in the wind to any who weren’t listening for them. Soon the chant was taken up by others, eighty-seven pairs of dry lips whispering in a tongue taught to them by a dark god, or what they took for a god when it had first descended from the starry heavens. Jeb had recited the chant hundreds, if not thousands, of times throughout his life, from the moment the Vast One had breathed the language down his throat up until now, but he would never understand what it meant, never. It simply wasn’t his place as a frail, insignificant man to understand something of that magnitude. All he knew for sure was that whenever he spoke the words, his tongue and mouth would begin to heat up and itch, as if crammed with a thousand invisible fire ants. This was true power in its rawest form, or as close as humans would ever come to such a thing.
Their chanting was beginning to leave a noticeable hum on the previously still air, and the stranger slowed slightly in his gait, looking around as if confused. Jeb knew he should be worried, but he wasn’t. Better anyway for the stranger to notice a faint buzzing in his ear rather than the pentagram in his right breast pocket, which Jeb knew was beginning to heat up like a cooked fish. Much better, indeed.
The chanting continued, rising to an almost audible pitch. Jeb wiped sweat from his brow and mustache as the stranger mounted the steps, holstered his guns for a brief moment, and reached for the ornate door handles. The second his fingers touched the ironwork, the chanting stopped all at once. Jeb felt the last syllable hover on his tongue, then fade away with the magic it possessed. Now the only sound in the town was an eerie desert wind that tickled the shutters and chilled his bones despite the heavy deerskin jacket he wore. Every eye was trained on the stranger as he grasped the handles and threw open the doors.
All that greeted him was impenetrable darkness. Clutching his guns, the stranger took a hesitant step inside, then retreated. When he turned back to the crowd, his face was, for once, very readable beneath his hat. It shone with childish fear.
“It’s cold,” he said. “Why—”
The last sentence the stranger ever uttered was cut short when a billowing black essence snaked out from between the open doors and wrapped itself around his waist. Jeb could have rightly called it a tentacle, like a squid or an octopus might possess, but then again, squid and octopi do not have little wisps of black vapor trailing from their appendages in little licks of midnight. It was an essence in the most primal meaning of the word, and beyond it was Black, unyielding Black that writhed and twisted and filled the place where prayer had once commenced. Nothing there now, no more pews or podiums or holy books. Just the Vast One, and the Vast One’s hunger.
It seemed to take the poor fellow an impossible amount of time to process what was coiling itself around his waist, and when he finally did, he emitted a shrill, piercing shriek that rang and echoed in Jeb’s ears minutes after it had stopped. He wouldn’t have been surprised if a few dead souls down at the cemetery had risen from their graves just to ask what in the hell all the fuss was about. He really didn’t see why the stranger was going so god-awful crazy; the whole business would be over in a few more seconds.
And how right he was. Another appendage detached itself from the squirming blackness of the church’s interior and wrapped itself firmly around the stranger’s upper chest and neck, reducing his screams to dull squeaks. The chanting had started up again, but Jeb was content to simply watch this time. The stranger managed to twist around, one last vain attempt at escaping his fate, and for a split second his terrified eyes locked with Jeb’s. Then the Vast One ripped him in half.
There was no blood. That, like most anything that got too close to the church, was sucked up and dispersed throughout the Vast One’s inner recesses before it could hit the ground—or them. Jeb watched the stranger’s limp form get swallowed up by the darkness, first his legs, then the torso. Really faceless now, ain’tcha? He wondered if the big silver revolvers would take a longer time to digest before the next Feeding rolled around. He doubted it.
Looking around, Jeb saw the crowd beginning to disperse, talking with one another as they went. Some people went back to their shops, some to their beds and homes above those shops, and most headed for the saloon, off to a long night of heavy drinking and laughter in honor of another successful Feeding ceremony. In honor of looking upon the face of death and living to tell the tale, hurrah, hurrah.
Jeb had his own way of celebrating. Taking Betsy by the hand, he began the short walk back to his room above the general store, back to a night with his lover while the blessing of the Feeding rested over their bedpost. Normal work would start up again tomorrow; the townsfolk would go about their daily tasks with patience, all while lying in wait for next month’s ceremony. Tomorrow. Tonight, however, the whole township could stand aglow with dark energy and power.
And back in the church, the Vast One slept, its belly full of tarnished six-gun cylinders and crushed dreams.