Gunslinger Ridge Experiment [Flash Fiction]
The small convoy rolled up to the foot of Gunslinger Ridge as the stars winked their way across the darkening sky. A half-dozen cars and trucks were already parked haphazardly among the scrub. The newcomers joined them, abandoning their vehicles with little care for locking doors and enabling alarms.
Wilbur Blake pocketed his keys and tagged onto the back of the chain of people hiking up to the summit. As the sun finally gave up its claim on the sky, Wilbur dug into the inside pocket of his Eisenhower jacket and pulled out a small flashlight. Others followed suit, and soon a small group of yellow and white beams danced their way up the mountainside.
Shadowed faces nodded at him, not all of them familiar. Wilbur nodded back in silence. Words would come later.
He climbed up, towards a night sky so perfectly clear that it seemed he was joining the stars themselves. He could almost reach out and pluck those sparkling diamonds from the inky darkness. Almost.
Thoughts of Wendy and the diamond ring he’d bought her eight years ago danced through his mind, a smile birthing across his face as he recalled the shine of her blue eyes as she slipped the rock onto her finger. He’d done good for himself this time around. Wendy, the kids, his consultancy business, and enough money in savings to see them well into the future long after he shuffled loose the mortal coil and was spun back into the world anew.
Halfway up the mountain, he lifted his gaze and saw the soft, welcoming glow of firelight. Not long after that, music filled the air. The songs were quick, jaunty, their haunting melodies brought back from long ago, when the West had truly been Wild, when life was a constant struggle and the good folk knew how to appreciate quiet moments. Not with VR-verse or Twittz, but with music and dancing.
The firelight embraced Wilbur and his fellow travellers as they reached they campsite. He smiled when he spotted Theodore on the fiddle and Alva puffing on his harmonica. He didn’t recognise their faces, but he knew them by their songs.
“Well well, ol’ Midnight Blake.”
Wilbur snorted. He hadn’t heard his old nickname in twenty years—not since the last time the group had met here.
“Otis Lyons,” he said, turning and offering his hand. The last time he’d seen Otis, the guy’d been slick in a well-tailored suit. He was still slick, the suit was now Armani, but there was a smattering of grey in his coiffed black hair. Time was catching up with him. That was one thing Wilbur had learnt during his second life; no matter how fast you lived, you couldn’t outrun time. “Oil industry’s treating you well, I see.”
“Oil treats everybody well,” Otis grinned. From Mayor of a flyspeck, tumbleweed town, to oil tycoon. Otis had done good for himself, too.
Before Wilbur could ask the question that’d been eating him all day, Theo and Alva picked up the tempo and launched into a raunchy ditty that Wilbur hadn’t heard for over a century. A pretty young blonde—Lydia, he thought, but it was hard to tell—grabbed Otis by the hand and whirled him around on the spot before taking the lead.
“Howdy, stranger,” a silken voice purred in Wilbur’s ear. As he spun, the scent of Cora’s musky perfume hit him hard, memories flooding back with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Her hair was pixie-cut and bleached platinum-blonde above a youthfully plump face, a far cry from the pigtails she’d sported whilst they’d been married in their first and original lives. But then, she’d always been unconventional—inherited Fairfax Saloon from her drunken father at twenty-one and run it successfully until the day she died. “Long time no see.”
Wilbur swallowed the lump in his throat. Four lifetimes, and he still hadn’t truly gotten over his first love. “Hey, Cora. Missed you last time.”
She laughed, and a shiver ran down his spine. “Well, twenty years ago I was still in diapers, so you didn’t miss that much.”
“I guess not. It’s nice to see you, though.”
Her gaze lingered over his wedding band before she offered her hand. “Wanna dance? For ol’ times’ sake?”
“Sure.” Across the campfire, the maybe-Lydia released Otis. “But gimme a second. I wanna word with the chief.” She nodded, allowing him a short grace period, and he caught up to Otis before he could rejoin the rest of the group.
Lowering his voice, Wilbur asked, “Why aren’t you a nervous wreck? This is your last life.”
“Because being a nervous wreck wouldn’t achieve anything.” And that was Otis all over. He never did a damn thing unless he got something out of it. That was how almost all of Fairfax town’s original inhabitants had ended up here every twenty years.
“Aren’t you worried about what’s going to happen to your soul when he finally comes to claim it?”
The only response was a withering stare. After a moment, Otis pulled a pack of smokes from his pocket, sparked up, and offered one to Wilbur.
Wilbur shook his head. “I thought you gave up after your brush with cancer, last life?”
“What’s that phrase that keeps coming around every few years?” A macabre smile tugged at Otis’s lips. “YOLO.”
There was little talking after that. Theo called for Otis to pick the next song, and Cora captured Wilbur for that dance.
Midnight approached. They moved into position. Spoke the same eldritch words Wilbur and Otis had spoken before they’d become the Sheriff and Mayor of Fairfax respectively. Wilbur didn’t know why the demon they’d summoned that day made them promise to come here and perform this ritual every twenty years in exchange for a limited number of additional lifetimes, but he sure as hell wasn’t about to tempt fate.
They turned their gazes skyward, and chanted their unholy melody to the stars.
Today’s flash fiction is the love-child of two different prompt challenges. The first prompt is #BlogBattle 7, with a theme word of Melody and a genre setting of Western. The second prompt is one of the ten titles chosen by Mr. Chuck “The Force Is With You” Wendig. My story cheats a little by featuring Western genre characters in a non-Western genre setting (the near future).
It was very hard to keep this story to the 1k limit. I had so many ideas for further elaboration on the demonic pact, reveals for the fates of other characters who chose not to honour the pact, and plenty more history-building. Even writing frugally, I had to cut a lot of words, so I hope this story doesn’t come across feeling a little rushed and disjointed!
If you like flash fiction, and being challenged, check out Battle Blog and maybe join the fun.