Old Habits

cowboy-scifi-old-habits

by Frances Pauli

The cowboy tied his gelding to the old hitching post with hands so dry they'd gone translucent. His skin, like suede worn through from hard use, stretched tight over rough knuckles and sagged in the folds between his tobacco-stained fingers.

He checked the saddle's girth, tugged at the straps so hard the leather should have creaked. When the horse stamped an impatient foot against the ground, dust should have puffed from the impact. Instead, silence answered and the cowboy peered straight through his spectral mount's once-bay hide to spy on the saloon across the street.

"Easy, boy." He spat to one side and ruffled the ghost horse's mane. "I oughtn't be long."

The cowboy crossed in the open, an old habit, not any more necessary than the twin revolvers hanging low around his hips. He only kept them for the memories. One hand still hovered over each polished butt, and he still imagined his spurs jangling as he moved, heard the  faint echo of a lifetime of chink, chink, chink in his steps.

This particular saloon wasn't much. He spat again before pushing through swinging doors that were just a hair off kilter. Even the conversations inside were muted, the voices somehow subdued by the ominous and continuous presence of death. Not too different from the old days to be honest, but the afterlife carried a depressing and lackluster aura with it, a cheap facsimile only simulating real life.

The booze didn't burn, the sex didn't titillate, and the bullets certainly didn't do shit in this place. Not anything that hadn't already been done, that is.

The dead cowboy still stalked to the bar like he might be looking for a fight. His bravado burned off most of the patrons'.

"What'll you have, Cowboy?"

"How can you let that stinking Camel in here, Bud?"

"Whiskey then." The saloon owner reached underneath the bar.

"Whatever." The cowboy shrugged, but he fixed his eyes on the mirror behind the barkeep's back. He watched the shadows that were ghostly reflections and picked out the silhouette of the Camel from the crowd. Watching him too, the bastard. Always watching him.

"Drink up." Bud slammed a shot of worthless whiskey on the bar. "No charge."

"Better not be." The cowboy tossed back the tasteless shot and turned to the side. He rested one hip against a stool and glared at the Camel. "You know dern well this swill ain't what I want."

"I got those too." Bud reached again, slapped a gold-trimmed pack of smokes on the counter top.

"You trying to be funny, Bud?"

"Whoops. Sorry." The barkeep fumbled the offending brand away, replacing it with a proper red-and-white packet. "Better?"

"You know it." The cowboy snagged the smokes, but not before he saw the Camel smirking from behind his drink. No way to hide a grin on that ugly mug. No way to cover up that smell, either. "You outta class up the joint, Bud. Not like folks are coming in for the booze."

"What you got against Joe?" Bud swiped a cloth across the bar as if anything could actually be cleaned here. "He ain't so bad."

"Old feud." The cowboy shrugged. "Bad blood between us, I guess."

"Have another drink," Bud offered. "On the House."

"They're all on the House, Bud." He raised his eyes briefly toward the ceiling and the whole bar followed suit on reflex. Even the damned Camel looked up.

The saloon crowd returned to their whispering. If he focused real hard, the cowboy could make out the subdued music coming off Bud's old player piano. Not worth the effort though. Not much was anymore. He took his pack of ghost smokes in one fist and tried squeezing a crinkle out of it. Nothing. Just not the same.

Even opening a pack of smokes had somehow lost its luster. He still peeled the string and slid out a smoke, even knowing full well it wouldn't be worth his time. Old habits, it turned out, didn't die at all.

Bud offered a light and the cowboy took it. No sense in insisting on a match either. The sulfur didn't stink. The flame had no risk to it. The cowboy hadn't burned his fingers in a hundred years.

"You know those things'll kill you, Cowboy." The saloon owner laughed and put his light away.

"They already did."

The facsimile cigarette did a half-ass job of playing lit. It wafted a trickle of smoke, glowed a pale ember, and didn't do a damn thing for him when he inhaled. He puffed it anyway, eyed the poker game, and gave up. No point in that either.

The House always won.

The cowboy had just decided to take his crappy smokes and his soundless nag and ride back into the nothing for another week when the saloon doors burst inward without even the decency of a clatter.

"Come quick, Bud." A stout lady in petticoats that should have rustled filled the doorway. Her bosoms heaved from running, from exertion that had to be an act.

Don't bother, lady. It won't satisfy you anyway.

"What you on about, Pat?" Bud drawled, looking at the bosoms as if he'd forgotten they were all dead.

"Mattson's back from the well."

"What?"

"He's out of it and nattering on about possession again."

The silence that fell over the saloon echoed far louder than the patron's noises had. Possession. This Mattson had to be full-on mad. Then again, what else was there to be here? The cowboy shot a look at the Camel, already on his flat feet and halfway across the bar. They all got up eventually, shuffling, lackluster even in their enthusiasm.

A saloon full of lost souls moved toward the doors to hear the madman's tale, or maybe just to get a closer look at those bosoms.

The cowboy dragged on his worthless smoke and shrugged. He tossed back the second shot of whiskey and made a face as if it actually burned.

"There you go," Bud nodded at his effort. "That's the spirit."

"Sure is." He kept his eyes on the Camel and waited until after the hairy bastard had left before he followed the crowd out.

#

They milled in the street, a cluster of bored idiots clinging to a hope none of them would have the courage to follow. Nobody got possessed anymore. Nobody.

"I found it!" A voice from the center of the crowd shouted. Actually produced enough sound to catch the cowboy's attention.

The mob tightened. They surged together and pooled their whisper voices into a low thrum of questions. He'd have to get closer to hear anything, but he made certain to stand as far from the Camel as possible.

"Let the man speak," Pat's dull voice washed the crowd silent so that Mattson's brighter one might continue.

"I found it, Pat. I done got me one!" That sound and the power to make it lent this Mattson's claim some weight. If he'd found the well... maybe. Maybe it could still be done.

"Easy, Bill." Pat soothed. "You relax now and jus' tell us where it is."

The mob pushed together, held a breath it didn't need to take anyway.

"It's... It's not far off." Mattson's words faded. Either he'd gone cold or whatever strength he'd gained on the other side had already dispersed.

"Where?" Pat echoed the thoughts of them all. "Where, Bill. Where's the well?"

"Come closer. Closer." Mattson's voice dimmed. "It's just, it's just..."

A silent wind drifted down the street. It raised no dust, but the cowboy felt it in his translucent bones.

"It's gone," Mattson breathed. "Gone."

The crowd moaned in unison. Feet shuffled noiselessly and the saloon goers turned away from their sport and trudged one by one back toward the bar. All except three of them.

When the rest of the idiots moved aside, the cowboy caught a clear view of three figures. Pat, her face twisted into a visage of desperate fury, cradled the man who had to be Mattson across her lap. She pushed him off, now that his story hadn't served her, and let his limp body roll onto the street. Wiping her hands on her skirt, she stood and stormed away from the saloon.

Her departure left only Mattson and the Camel, who still stood as if rooted in place. It was his expression, not Pat's, that mattered. The Camel's eyes had a new light in them. His stupid, flappy lips had twisted into a bow smile, and his ears, his overlarge and over-able ears, twitched.

That son-of-a-bitch had heard it. The cowboy spat and narrowed his gaze, took in the stance of his lifelong, death-long rival. The Camel's cartoonish ears had heard where the well could be found.

#

Tracking a rider that made no dust, a horse that left no footprints, might have deterred a lesser man. The cowboy followed the Camel's trail for three days by smell alone. He kept the bastard in sight when he could, when Hell's canyons offered enough cover to keep his spying covert.

When the land flattened into a sallow yellow desert, however, he just followed his gut, and his nose, and occasionally the stirring of dark desert birds too stupid to realize that everything in their territory was already dead.

When the Camel camped he built sad little fires that marked his stopping just as surely as his musty aroma gave away the direction he took each morning. The cowboy pissed on the dead fires, smoked a cigarette over the remains of the Camel's breakfast each morning, and flicked pale ashes at the shed fur where the bastard had slept the night before.

The third time he rode out of the Camel's vacant campsite, however, the cowboy found his quarry waiting for him.

The Camel sat his horse like a floppy mountain atop a stone. "Go back to town, Cowboy."

"My desert as much as any man's."

The Camel spat a spray that watered half a mile. "Yer following me. No sense lying about it."

"And what if I am?" The cowboy puffed his chest out and squinted at his rival. "You gonna shoot me or something?"

"Shit." The Camel sagged, flapped his soft lips. "Why you gotta spoil everything?"

"You ain't keeping this thing to yourself."

"I might." The Camel looked toward the horizon. "I might just wait you out."

"You ain't waiting any more than I am."

"How can you be sure?"

"'Cause we both want the same thing," The cowboy smiled, a slow stretching of dead lips. "And ain't neither one of us can resist chasing it."

"Maybe so."

"It's so." He stared at the Camel, locked gazes with ridiculously large brown eyes. The horses stamped silently, and overhead a trio of desert birds circled.

"Tarnation." The Camel broke first, banged an angry fist against his saddle horn and sent his mount stumbling sideways.

"Which way we heading?" The cowboy asked.

"I still don't like you."

"There's a newsflash."

The Camel spun his horse toward the horizon and waved an over-large fist in the air. "Keep up if ya can, an' we can make the well before dark."

The cowboy nudged his once-bay horse's flanks and trotted after his rival. Reach the well before dark. He stifled a stirring of hope, a pale reflection of reality, and shook his head. Not like it ever got really dark. Not here anyway. But if they actually found the well?  Maybe, just maybe, they'd get a taste of real life again.

He let out the reins, leaned into the gelding's canter. Even if it meant working with the Camel, even then, one taste would be worth it.

western-scifi-cowboy

"Looks like a dern shitter." The cowboy squinted at the cylinder. It stuck up through the yellow crust like the stump of the afterworld's last tree.

"That's just 'cause it's so white," the Camel said. "This is it."

"It's a damn joke," the cowboy snarled. "You dragged me out here just to trick me into sticking my head in that thing."

"Why the hell do I care where you stick your head, you stubborn son of a bitch?"

"I ain't gonna do it."

"Suit yourself." The Camel shrugged and waltzed up to the gleaming well, the only structure for miles, the only shape to break the perpetual flatness. When the Camel leaned over the cylinder, shitter or not, the cowboy ran to catch him.

"Nice try." He elbowed in beside the furred mountain and peered closer.

"Whatever."

They both stared down the shaft and into the mirror-still water.

"About four feet down." The cowboy told nobody specific.

"I'd say five," the Camel argued.

"Well?"

"Yup."

"No, idjit. Well? Like, well, what do we do now?"

"Derned if I know."

"Tarnation!" The cowboy kicked the side of the well.

"Mattson didn't give me no instructions."

"Shut up." The cowboy waved an arm in the Camel's face. "I'm thinking."

"Thought I smelled something."

"You should talk. A blind, deaf greenhorn could track your smelly ass clear to the living and back... wait."

"I'll have you know..."

"Wait! I got it." The cowboy whooped and slapped a fist against the side of the well.

"What? What, dern it?"

"We gotta make an offering, see?"

"What do you mean?" The Camel gave the toilet well a disgusted look.

"Not that, stupid. We gotta toss in something like..."

"Like what?"

"Like I dunno. The thing we love most, or something."

"Well if we had that, we wouldn't need to do this at all."

"Not the real one." The cowboy rubbed his chin. "Like an effigit."

"You ain't saying that right."

"Never mind. I got it." He fished in his pocket and retrieved the pack of smokes. Only one left. A good thing he hadn't lit up afore they checked out the magic potty.

"We s'posed to say anything?" The Camel asked when the cowboy held the pack out over the rim.

"Like what?" The cowboy's fingers tightened around the cellophane that didn't crinkle.

"On the House," the Camel said.

"On the House."

They both rolled their eyes up, and the cowboy dropped his last smoke into the well. The pack hit the water and sat there for a breath, just long enough for the impact ripples to reach the shiny walls. Then it sank. The surface darkened, turned black and then, slowly, began to glow.

"Stop breathing on my neck," the cowboy said.

"Move over. I can't see proper."

"Look." The cowboy eased around the rim and dropped to his knees. He leaned out, watched the surface of the water shift and brighten. A scene replaced the mirror now, a scene of life. Sound bounced out of the well, too, the real, full sound of two idiots laughing.

"That ain't the kind of smoking we're after," the Camel said.

"Relax, stupid."

"Who you calling stupid?"

"Stoners always got smokes on 'em somewhere. Look at that mess. They gotta have a pack lying around."

"Well what if they don't?"

"Then we'll smoke that."

"No way." The Camel stepped back a pace, shook his impossible head. "Nope."

"Suit yourself." The cowboy grinned. "But I'd trade a single breath of being real for all of Bud's contraband in eternity."

"Point." The Camel nodded. "But you go first."

"My pleasure." The cowboy spat, whooped once, and then hopped clean over the well's side to fall, down, down into the scene.

#

The cowboy leaned back against the flowered sofa and lifted the joint to his lips with young hands. He inhaled, rolled his eyes, and pressed his lips into a tight smile. He had no idea how long a possession lasted, but he didn't plan to waste a single second of it.

His feet kicked up on a coffee table that overflowed with snack wrappers. Using his toe to shift the mess aside, he let the weed out slowly. Real smoke. Dense and powerful enough to kill a skunk.

Something clattered behind him. A stranger's voice cursed.

"This shit smells like you, Camel."

"You'd better be right about those smokes, Cowboy."

The cowboy turned, caught sight of a skinny, pimple faced kid in a t-shirt frantically ransacking anything in reach.

"Relax." The cowboy certainly felt relaxed. More importantly, he felt. He felt warm, and solid, and all sorts of good. "Ain't you never been high, Joe?"

He stuck a hand under the couch cushions, fished around and latched onto something just the right shape.

"I'm a purist," the Camel-possessed kid snapped. He kicked over a lamp and turned his fury on a bookshelf.

"A purist, huh." The cowboy chuckled and took another toke. "Then, I'm guessing you won't want one of these."

He stretched his arm up, held the red-and-white cigarette pack over his head.

"Ah, shit." The kid stumbled, caught himself on the back of the couch. "Kids got no dern taste these days."

"Come on round." The cowboy squeezed the pack.

"Gol dern I love that sound." The Camel scooted around the heap of furniture and garbage.

"Me too." The cowboy pulled the string as slowly as he could. He waited for his rival to crawl up beside him on the couch before sliding out two perfect white cylinders.

"You already pulled the string? Jackass."

"Here." The cowboy handed over a cigarette and the celo top with string still dangling. "Crinkle away."

"Shit."

"What?"

"You got a light?"

A wave of panic seized through the cowboy, a delicious overpowering tensing of muscle paired with an electric jolt to his borrowed nervous system.

"Ah, wait." The Camel laughed. "You got that thing already lit."

The cowboy eyed the joint in his fingers. Soft fingers. Hot joint. He giggled. "Yeah. I got this."

"Well light me up, dummy." The kid-camel leaned over, waited while the cowboy pressed the tip of the joint to the cigarette and then puffed on it. His eyes rolled back in his head. Long eyelashes lowered, fluttered open again.

"I can see every one of your hairs," the cowboy said.

"Shit, man. You gonna light up or propose?"

"Tarnation." How long did they have anyway? How long had it been? What if he didn't have time?

"Here." The Camel stuffed a lit cigarette between the cowboy's lips, grabbed the joint from his fingers, and lit up a fresh one for himself.

The cowboy inhaled. "Mother of god."

"Good, right?"

"Hell yes." The cowboy giggled, dropped a hot ember on his thigh and watched it burn through his leather pants. "Ouch, that feels good."

The Camel laughed. "Check this shit out."

He had the joint hanging from one side of his mouth and the cigarette from the other.

"You are so weird," the cowboy said.

"Shut up and smoke."

"Amen."

They puffed together until the joint died and the edges of the room darkened. Smoke curled like a ghostly dragon around them, filling the room, their borrowed lungs, and burning glorious tears from their eyes.

"I'm going to miss this smell," The Camel said.

"And the sound!" The cowboy shouted, cringed, and then grinned when the Camel added a mighty whoop.

Their laughter carried them into the darkness. It boomed for the space of six heartbeats, echoed up from inside a potty-shaped well, and deposited them in an ungraceful heap on the flat, yellow ground. Two stoned idiots alone in the middle of the afterlife.

The Camel's sides heaved, a tawny mountain blocking the cowboy's vision. His fingers, leather again, his own again, plucked about his lips for the cigarette that wasn't there.

"Tarnation!" The Camel howled, actually howled. "What a ride."

"Yup."

"Whoop!"

"Shh." The cowboy pushed himself up from the dust. "Don't waste it, ya greenhorn."

"S'right," the Camel whispered. "You remember Mattson."

"I remember."

"We're gonna be twice as dead tomorrow." The Camel didn't quite manage to stifle the laugh, though he clamped humongous fingers over his mouth.

"Worth it." The cowboy nodded and eyed the vast plain. They were lost, no doubt.

"Yup." The Camel clapped him on the back. "Worth it."

"You still stink."

"And I still don't like you."

They stared at the distance. No well in sight. Had to find the town again to get their bearings.

"We're still gonna do this again, though. Right?" The Camel's lips tightened. He lowered his gaze.

"Again?" The cowboy tilted his head to one side and sighed. "Yup."

"Yup."

They laughed together, laughed loud and real like two stoner kids on an ugly couch. They laughed at the desert, and at the House. They laughed at death.

"Again?"

"Hell yes."

~~~

About the Creator

Frances Pauli writes books about animals, hybrids, aliens, shifters, and occasionally ordinary humans. She tends to cross genre boundaries, but hovers around fantasy and science fiction with romantic tendencies.
She lives in Washington State with her family, a small menagerie, and far too many houseplants.

World's Shortest Creator Interview

Due to a bureaucratic mixup, you have just been appointed Czar of All Mammalian Nutrition. What is your first edict?

My first edict as Czar of All Mammalian Nutrition would be the Mandatory Herbivorous Act restricting the consumption of meat and dairy by any except obligate carnivores (snakes and cats get a free pass) and includes a sub-clause against "milk beyond weaning." The motivation for which has nothing at all to do with the obvious ethical, physiological or environmental factors and rests solely on the observation of a viral Facebook video entitled "Blind Cow So Happy To Have Her Sister Back," which implies a level of sentience that I'm uncomfortable with putting in my mouth and chewing.

The Queen of Saturn has commissioned you to design for her a new pet that will fit in her handbag, to replace Skittles, the late royal pet who made the mistake of pooping on the royal phone. What would be the notable characteristics of your pet?

First let's observe a brief moment of silence in honor of Skittles, faithful if flatulent companion to Her Highness... As to the replacement, may I recommend the mildly venomous and fully-feathered lap serpents of Angelica VII. Loyal to a fault, the pleasantly-plumed lap snake is highly trainable and could easily be conditioned to defecate solely on rival dignitaries' phones. Though the rear-fanged species might turn any casual perusal on one's handbag into a classic game of Russian Roulette, the venom's side-effects include: fits of uncontrollable laughter, social blurting, and restless nose syndrome, and should prove less dangerous and far more fun at parties.

About the Artists

Arttower is a visual artist on Pixabay.

Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and he has a janky retro JRPG on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.

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