Ah bet to an outside observer the four of us made an interestin’ sight. Me, the dead mule I was shackled to, the stumbler and the vulture pecking at his rottin’ flesh. Just my brand of luck. Not only did I get run out of town I had to deal with a flesh-eating monster while my hands were tied and I had no gun. The sun was at high noon. Being both close to the mule and downwind from the stumbler meant that I could smell nothing but decay. I’d have puked if there was anything in my belly. After a day’s ride and a day spent dragging the mule my body was completely empty. If I could’ve died, I would’ve.
I looked behind me and saw that, sure enough, the stumbler was still frantically crawlin’ after me. We’d been at this all mornin’. It was only sheer luck that I had woke up before he started chewin’ on me. There was no way to outrun it, hampered as I was, and it could follow me since it was following a trail of blood from a cut on the mule. Everybody knew that stumblers hunted by smell since the first things to go from the disease was vision. The stumbler had no eyes anyway. The vulture had eaten ‘em. The stumbler had a ragged wound on his neck that was blackening. His left leg was twisted up bad at the knee, bending at the wrong place. That was the only thing that had kept me alive. If he were functional I’d have been breakfast.
I felt kind of sorry for him. He was fallin’ apart and that was hastened by the vulture pecking at him. He was so determined to eat me that he didn’t mind when the bird came up and ripped off his ear. On his chest I caught glimpses of a star. Before he got bit he was a lawman of some sorts. I wondered if he’d killed anyone yet. He had blood around his mouth, but that could be just from chewing on his own tongue. Stumbling sickness had been going around for a while now. So far there wasn’t a real cure, most people simplified medicine down to shooting all stumblers and anyone they bit in the head. Lots of drunks accidentally killed that way.
I pulled hard on the shackles, but they held tight against my wrists. For whatever reason those townspeople really hated me. Wasn’t enough to run me out of town, so they put me in a situation that should’ve killed me. I blamed the preacher. His ilk were always leading the charge to get rid of me after I did their dirty work. Maybe the town wasn’t as innocent as I’d thought. They already had this saddle rigged up special so that there were shackles attached to the pommel. The chains were strong enough that they didn’t break against any rocks. The whole rig was too well made to have fashioned it in the time it took to perform the exorcism. That was the other thing: moral towns didn’t have demonic possessions. Or so I thought. So far I hadn’t seen one. At least the towns that didn’t pretend to be upstanding were less vindictive when they wanted me to leave.
Flies flittered from the mule to my face and back. An added annoyance that I didn’t need. ‘Fore the stumbler I was wishin’ to find a helpful stranger that would free me from my predicament. Now I was really worried. My head pounded something fierce. I couldn’t die ‘cause lack of water, but I damn well could suffer from it. My knees buckled and I took a tumble. Try as I might I couldn’t get my body to work. I needed to keep moving, but I couldn’t. The only lucky break I got was that the stumbler hadn’t been able to see me fall, but he continued at the same pace. When I was standing that pace was alright, now it seemed frightfully quick.
The vulture hopped forward and took off the stumbler’s other ear. It swallowed then cocked an eye at me. I could only imagine what was going on in its tiny brain. Probably had the idea to eat my eyeballs. It had already gone after the mule’s. It was probably just waitin’ for me to lie still long enough. I was close enough to death as it was. Hell, I wasn’t even breathing no more. The stumbler, dragging itself forward, taking choking breaths for air it didn’t need, seemed more alive than me. The vulture hopped towards me. Consciously I took in air to try and make noise to scare it off. Pecking at the stumbler made it bold and unless I could kick at the bird it wasn’t going to fly. It hopped around in a circle trying to figure out the best angle to get at me.
The stumbler caught up. It managed to get a hold of my boot. It ran its dusty tongue over what remained of its lips and then took a big bite. It got a mouthful of heel. A few of its teeth either broke or completely fell out of its mouth. With all my might I was able to muster a feeble kick which did nothing at all. Now that it had found what it had been tracking all day it wasn’t going to let go.
I was so focused on the stumbler that I hadn’t been paying attention to the vulture until it tried to peck my eye out. It missed and got a good chunk of my cheek. This was a hell I’d never conceived of before. All the ways I expected to be killed being eaten was…well, this was in the middle of the list. It hadn’t seemed likely considerin’ how many people shot at me on a weekly basis. It was the thought of being dinner for these two scavengers that spurred me to action. No damned way was I going to die in the middle of nowhere with no marker. I deserved at least that much.
The vulture moved, then struck. This time I was ready. I forced my body into cooperating so I was able to catch the vulture’s throat between my teeth. It was a last ditch gambit since if I missed the vulture would’ve been gnawin’ at my neck instead. I could feel the vulture trying to nip it, but couldn’t get a hold. Hot blood filled my throat, choking me. If I passed out now it was over for sure. Even as I struggled not to be unexpectedly done in by the vulture I couldn’t help but find it funny that I’d been dreaming about what my first meal would be when I found a town. Let me tell you that carrion bird was not on that menu. Truth be told it didn’t taste too bad. When I had the time I was definitely going to have to look into finding a way to spice it up.
A man could get a taste for it.
The vulture started shakin’ around as much as the stumbler was while it tried to chew through my boot. Finally the bird stopped movin’ and died. Now that was one problem off my mind. That only left the one on my foot. I had no idea how to deal with that. I mean, sure, I knew how to. Everyone did. I just lacked the necessary tools. When they ran me outta’ town they took my gun. I saw some eager, young upstart greedily run off with it. In time I was gonna’ have to settle up with him.
I pulled harder on my leg with more strength than I thought I had. My foot popped out of my boot. The stumbler held it up and looked at it. I got to my feet, still hunched over because of the mule. There was no place to run. I didn’t have the strength to make it up the hills even if I wasn’t weighted down. On the level ground the stumbler could track me anywhere.
The stumbler tired of the boot and tossed it away. I was still trying to figure out what to do when I noticed that the stumbler still had a gun in its belt. Without thinking I dragged the mule on top of the stumbler. That…didn’t help me much. At all. It weren’t like I could smother it. It wasn’t getting any deader. Like me it didn’t need air. I pulled the gun out of the holster with my toe. I almost had it in my hands when it slid off and hit the ground. I lunged for it which allowed the stumbler to twist around. It flailed wildly, clawing and thrashing at the mule in a futile attempt to get at me. How the stumbler could still smell me over the rank stench of the mule was a mystery.
I managed to get a hold of the gun, but found I couldn’t get a good shot at the stumbler. The most I could hit were his feet and it didn’t matter if I put any holes in those. I tried pulling the mule away to get some distance, but it wouldn’t budge. Considerin’ my condition that wasn’t too much of a surprise. I pulled again. The mule moved a little and then lurched back. The stumbler had gotten a hold of the saddle. I pulled again and tripped over a rock. As I fell the force was enough that the buckle broke on the saddle and I landed on my ass.
The saddle was heavy as hell, but without the mule it felt light as a playing card. I walked a broad circle until I could see the head of the stumbler. It was a bit difficult since it had torn open the stomach of the mule and was covered in organs and gore. It made a noise half way between a growl and a moan as it ripped off a large chunk of the mule and shoved it into its mouth.
For a second I thought about walking away, lettin’ the stumbler go. It was a sick man more than anything. It wasn’t as though we put a bullet through every man with tuberculosis we saw even though that sickness had proven to be more deadly, so far. On the other hand, no lung-er had ever tried to eat me. After it finished with the mule there was the chance that it could crawl into a town and infect everyone in it. I was doin’ the world a favor.
I pulled the trigger and the hammer fell on an empty chamber. I tried again. No joy. I opened up the gun to find all six chambers empty. No wonder he got bit. He wasn’t right prepared. Idiot probably deserved it. What the hell was the point of carryin’ around a gun if you weren’t gonna’ load it? At least with him pinned I could get a good enough lead that he might not be able to track me. With any luck the next person it met would have the sense to shoot it before it could gnaw on a little girl. I slung the saddle over my shoulder and continued on my way, safe from the stumbler.
And that’s when the scorpion stung me.