A sheriff with a harsh brand of justice discovers the meaning of regret.
Flames licked the night sky and morphed the natural purple to a demon red. Tufts of smoke swirled with malevolent fury; a bloated, savage darkness that encompassed all. The mirage of buildings flickered beneath the murderous fire. Bodies littered the ground in scattered heaps; the innocent as well as the sinners. A crumpled dirigible lay helpless beneath a deflated, smoldering gasbag.
The town of Washburn crumbled in the chaos.
The scaffolding of the gallows sparked as fingers of the blaze caressed them. Popping gunshots echoed. A figure staggered before the stage and clutched his stomach. His hat tumbled from his head. His char-stained face contorted in agony as he fell in the shadow of the gallows. The burning light reflected off of the tin badge on his chest.
The scorched air spawned coughs in the sheriff’s lungs. Soundless screams echoed in his mind alone. His tears glowed on his leathery cheeks.
He tried to sit up and collapsed onto his side. A dark stain spread across his shirt; it accompanied the stabbing pain in his guts. His fingers dug crooked trenches in the dry earth. He stared at the row of nooses as they trembled in the heated wind.
The gallows brought him fame. Some of the worst criminals known dangled from these very ropes over the years. In his dreams he heard the thud of the trapdoor as it dropped, the groan of the stretched rope, and the crack of the occasional snapped neck. The sheriff considered these sounds his symphony, his art.
Outlaws feared and hated him. Outsiders correlated Washburn with harsh justice and quick hangings. Travelers steered clear. Fear drove them away. The sheriff relished this knowledge.
Yet now, as he trembled in the last moments of his life, he felt judgment from those loops of hemp. He swallowed hard and stifled a cry at fresh pain.
Stray people passed him. They offered him nothing more than a glance. He reached for help and found no hands in return. I protected you! his mind raged after them. I drove out the killers and rapists! I sent the thieves packing! His heroics for them over the years drifted from them like the veil of smoke. They abandoned him.
My town, he thought. My home.
A flicker of darkness emerged from the chaos. It trembled in the heated air, moving with ethereal and savage grace. The darkness solidified as it neared. It merged from a formless obscurity to a man-shaped shade. It bore familiarity. His burning lungs failed to thaw his suddenly frozen heart.
The shadow form loped forward, a ravenous wolf cornering a wounded hare. The man wore only faded jeans and boots. His muscles bulged despite the emaciation, trembling beneath skin the color of ink. Mismatched eyes seemed to glow from the dark skin. A revolver dangled in his grasp.
“Sheriff,” the Indigo Man growled.
“You were to hang,” the sheriff rasped; the words crumbled in his ashen throat. He floundered in the smoke and dust. His vacant gun belt offered no solace. He stared with hazy disbelief at the specter before him. The gallows, now ablaze, pulsed heat upon the two of them. “You were to hang.”
“You crossed me,” spat the Indigo Man, his features twisted with rage. “It didn’t have to happen in such a way. You all killed her. You all chose this path.”
He raised the gun. The sheriff stared into the barrel; it depths were limitless and brimming with despair. For the first time in years, his body quaked with fear.
The click of the hammer echoed amidst the roaring fire.
“She killed them boys,” the sheriff croaked. “You’n her both. She was an outlaw.” He trembled before the impending fit of coughs could escape him and shook with each horrible hack. Blood trickled onto his soot-drenched chin. “Outlaws get hung. Even the pretty ones. You reap what you sow.”
The flames raged behind him, crackling and hissing as they persisted in their feast of all. The moon winked from behind the wall of smoke, small and pale and alone. The sheriff’s eyes closed in silent prayer, and when they reopened, he found that nothing had changed.
“I’ve done many a good thing and many a bad in my time,” intoned the Indigo Man. “I’ve robbed and I’ve killed and I’ve bullied my way to where I am. Truth is, that’s the only way to live in this place. But I know of you. Everyone knows of you. The only difference between us is I don’t wear a star on my chest.”
The sheriff said nothing. He looked away from the gun and cast his eyes upon the gallows, his solace. A gasp choked in his throat.
A crowd shimmered upon the flaming stage. Their cadaverous forms leered at him with empty eye sockets. They grinned from lipless mouths. The crowd of figures pointed at him with bony hands. He recognized them all. The recipients of his art returned to see his final moments. No, he pleaded.
“Welcome to the reaping,” snarled the Indigo Man; there was a sound like the world splitting apart, and then darkness.