Lonely Trail

A decorated wagon crept across the desert with a peculiar slothfulness rarely seen during June, as though whoever dwelled beneath the brilliant crimson-and-violet canopy had no heed of the intense heat. Mr. Hall, who most certainly was aware of the intense heat, walked alongside the pair of dusty oxen hitched to the front of the cart. “Is everythin’ comfortable for ya’, Doctor?” He called in-between commands to the great beasts.

A clattering of glass erupted from the wagon shortly after his call. “Damnation! No! Drive them slower, you imbecile!” The passenger was irritable, as always, but Mr. Hall was compensated well enough to overlook the man’s prickly nature. However, no salary could prevent him from muttering a few choice blasphemies about his employer. These words went unheard, as usual.

“Yes-sir, Doctor, I’ll slow ‘em steadier, no problem!” Mr. Hall much preferred talking to his oxen than to his passenger. Given a choice between the two, he would always choose the well-mannered beasts over the inflammatory scholar. Always clinking away with those strange apparatus  beneath that ghastly-colored cover at all hours of the night, and yelling for a slower pace during the day – by Mr. Hall’s reckoning, they’d have been in California a month ago if he had kept pace with the train he’d set out with. As it was, their colorful wagon was very much alone on a long, stretching trail.

So it had gone for nearly five months, and so it continued- Long walks for Mr. Hall and his oxen, a boredom interrupted only by the occasional breakdown and repair of some element of the wagon, or of the occasions when some furtive creature of the frontier caught his eye before it scurried away over the sands. When they made camp at night, he found himself equally alone. Throughout the whole trek, it seemed the Doctor only emerged to oblige human necessities when he surmised Mr. Hall had taken to slumber – and he had not been mistaken yet. Mr. Hall was not a man prone to curiosity, and afforded his employer the privacy he desired.

It was on the second Tuesday of July that the Doctor finally made contact with his teamster.It was an altogether still night; the stars hung distantly in the sky, alert to the baying and scurrying of coyotes. Mr. Hall was preparing his dinner, a simple meal of canned beans and an unfortunate rattler that failed to outrun the wagon. The Doctor moved behind him as only an effortlessly silent man can, unseen despite his vibrant crimson-and-purple apothecary coat. “How much longer to California?”

Mr. Hall sputtered his surprise, “Oh, uh, I reck’n we’re ‘bout two weeks off still.”

The Doctor gave a strained hum.

“If’n we hustled, could probably be in San Francisco in a week.”

He sighed, “Mr. Hall, there’s an old saying where I’m from – Haste brings us more swiftly to doom. That’s especially true for you.”

“What?”

“Well, you’ll be dying once this trail reaches its terminus. A stabbing, I believe. It won’t be quick.”

There was a long pause between the two men, unbroken silence save for the distant coyotes’ call.

“Now lis’sen here you God-damn madman, I’ll suffer through all yer’ yelling and sloth and strangeness, but if you think you can just say somethin’ like that and have nothing come of it-“

“I did not mean to offend, Mr. Hall, but it is fate. You should be grateful, really. Very few men have known with such certainty the manner of their death.” His tone was disconcertingly matter-of-fact, as always.

“And why th’ Hell would I believe a word of that nonsense?”

“Well- Hrm. Perhaps a demonstration will prove the point.” The Doctor drew a pearl-handled revolver of some recent design from a pocket of his coat, and had it to the teamster’s head before he comprehended the action. He cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger.

Click. Mr. Hall’s eyes bulged at the misfire, while the Doctor turned the revolver away from his driver directing it aimlessly into the desert. Again, he cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger; a distant cholla exploded in a mess of spiny shrapnel. There was yet another oppressive silence as Mr. Hall considered his odds of survival against this well-armed lunatic. They were not ideal.

“What d’ya want from me, mister? You know I ain’t got much aside from what you’re paying me but y’ can have it back, honest. Just don’t hurt me.”

The Doctor sighed heavily, “Mr. Hall – James – I cannot hurt you. Nobody can hurt you, not until you are off this trail. That is why I found you, and hired you to be my driver. You are in the unique position to be of a tremendous service to this world, and all you need to do is not die until the universe says you can.” A practiced motion returned the revolver to his coat as a cold smile spread across his hawkish features.

“What? I don’t understan’ – Are you gon’ try to shoot me again? What d’ya’ want me to do?”

“It is quite simple, really. Two miles north of here a trio of rustlers are bedding down for the night. They are violent men, and you are to sneak into their cave and end their spree of terror-“

“I ain’t ever killed a man before, mister, I don’t know if I ca-“

“You can, James, because you have already done this before. I would not be here if you had taken any other path; my existence, and the existence of the society I come from hinges on your removal of these three men. It must happen, because it has happened, and it will continue to happen. So it must be.”

James agreed to undertake his task with only the slightest further prompting. The Doctor retrieved a second revolver from his strange wagon, a weathered old Colt with a splintering handle, and sent the assassin on his way.

Twenty minutes of terse trudging later, James quietly approached the small camp of rustlers. There were three worn bedrolls, arranged in a circle around a dying fire pit. James saw no weapons, nor any particular signs that the three men were anything other than common travelers. Regardless, he snuck to the first bedroll with his pistol drawn.

Men do some things without a true comprehension of their actions. James was a prime example of this; as he fired a slug into the skull of a sleeping man, he considered what he was doing, and why he was doing it. He had no internal reason, only the assertion of a mysterious stranger that this must be. He drew up the pistol towards the next rustler, fired twice. The man’s chest spurt red as it was punctured. It was far too late to reconsider this endeavor. James turned to the last man and sent two final rounds downrange. The first shot missed outright, bringing forth a cloud of sand; the second found purchase in the straggler’s neck. The rustler went down, screaming and desperately clinging at a spurting wound for a minute – then a minute longer, until he was undone.

James considered the carnage with a detached, cynical eye. So it must be, and that knowledge comforted him a measure. He turned from the bloodbath and began the return to his wagon.

When Mr. Hall returned there was no sign of his passenger in their small camp. The covered wagon, too, seemed different – though in his current state he could not entirely decipher what had changed. Weary and drained by violence, the murderer laid down to rest the remainder of the night.

On the morrow he found that the wagon’s cover was white, not the vibrant hue of his recollection. The Doctor, too, seemed little more than an aberration of the mind. James glimpsed into the wagon; there were no strange apparatus or clinking glass vessels, only half-emptied crates of rations and dusty clothes. Perhaps it was all a hallucination. He searched for his pistol, and found it with a single cartridge remaining in the cylinder. He wept, though for what reason he was not sure. After his tears dried, he resumed leading the oxen down the lonely trail.

A week later, he arrived in San Francisco. Two days after, he was dead – stabbed by a drunken man over a handful of gold. It was not a quick death.

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