Story: Michael DiBaggio | Illustrations: Shell Presto
It was the ninth day of Oak Creek’s captivity when Lobo and his
bandits led a new prisoner into the canyon. Those few citizens of the
small Arizona mining town still around to talk about it were in a
commotion, their eyes gawking and their voices full of fear and
anticipation. As he squinted over the heads of the small crowd,
Clarence Gibson didn’t see much to fuss over, and when he replaced
his eyeglasses he thought the newcomer looked even less remarkable.
The prisoner looked as hollow and bedraggled as everyone else, and
quite as helpless, too, as the fat bearded Mexican buffeted him with
the butt of his rifle. The stranger was chained at the wrists and at
the ankles so he couldn’t balance himself; he fell over limply in the
dirt and then slowly wormed his way to the smooth face of the rock
wall and sat, his shoulders slumped and head bowed against his knees.
him, I tell you!” Joshua Cobb whispered excitedly to a younger boy.
“Harken to that long black coat and the black blindfold!”
hadn’t noticed the blindfold. He took off his glasses and tried to
wipe the dust away, but his white shirt was yellowing with a week’s
worth of sweat and dirt, and he only succeeded in smudging them. He
hobbled toward the small gathering, leaning hard on the cane in his
speak as if you haven’t seen a man in a frock coat before, Joshua,”
said Clarence. “Who do you think he is?”
the Devil Rider, Mr. Gibson! It’s more than just the coat, sir, it’s
the way he wears it, and that fancy gun belt I saw the Mexicans take
from him.” Joshua replied.
Devil Rider,” sniffed Clarence. “Frontier superstition!”
sir!” The young man took off his hat and held it in front of him,
hands crossed, the way he used to stand at recitation in Clarence’s
schoolroom. “Ain’t no normal man that walks around blind-folded,
yet can see!”
Joshua. The word is isn’t.” Clarence corrected him with a
twinge of irritation.
does he wear such a thing?” asked the younger boy, Joshua’s
say that he was captured by Apaches and staked out to die in the
desert, and the savages cut off his eyelids so he couldn’t shield his
eyes from the sun. He died and went to Hell, but he was too wild for
the Devil and so he was sent back, but his eyes were burnt and
useless, so he uses the blindfold to walk unnoticed among normal
word!” exclaimed the younger boy’s mother.
how does he see without eyes?” pressed the lad.
the Devil put a ghostly red fire in his eye sockets, which he can see
through by some form of witchcraft – or so it is said. Also that he
has the keenest hearing and the strength of ten men, and never misses
when he fires. And some folks call him the Cyclone Ranger, for the
Devil set a terrible storm to follow wherever he goes, and it carries
the souls of the damned to Hell. But those flaming eyes are only
visible at night when they shine through the blindfold. That much is
smiled condescendingly at the youth. “My, my! You’re certain about
a lot of things you’ve never seen yourself, aren’t you? Even Satan’s
heard enough. You must have too, though I know you don’t have truck
with such talk,” said Joshua sheepishly.
have, indeed. I have heard that he was sent back to punish the wicked
– isn’t that right? Now why would the Devil want to do that?”
shucks, Mr. Gibson, what else does the Devil do but just that?”
rejoined Joshua, to the murmuring approval of others.
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frowned, chagrined that what he had thought to be a decisive blow was
so deftly turned round on him.
Rider’s bound duty is to hunt down all the murderers and thieves and
rascals in the west and hasten them to Hell,” Joshua went on,
encouraged. “And that’s exactly what he’s done – to the Glancy
boys, and the Stirling gang, and they say it was he that last year
found mean George Coney in a saloon and shot him crippled and then
left him to strangle from the ceiling fan until his eyeballs
popped out of his head!”
do, Joshua Cobb!” the younger boy’s mother interjected, clamping
her hands over her son’s ears. “Ethan’s got enough to worry about
without you filling his head with tales of devils and popped-out
right sorry, Mrs. Gray,” Joshua apologized, but his voice was
cheerful, almost exuberant. “But I reckon that’s just what he’s
doing here! Come to bring justice to these bandits and send those
other wretched things back to Hell – or Mars, or wherever it is
they come from!”
Well maybe he is the Devil Rider, but he ain’t done much good so far,
has he?” put in a dried-up old timer. “No guns, tied up like a
hog and led around by them banditos! The Devil sure picks ’em
was a cluck of grim laughter and “hear, hears” of agreement as
the gaggle broke up. But Clarence, still standing near, noted a
different expression on many of their faces. Though they outwardly
scoffed at Joshua’s ghost story, they wanted to believe it.
phantom hope was hard to hold onto. The day wore on in oppressive
heat and then came the chill of the night air beneath the cloudless
sky, bringing neither food nor a return of the men who had been taken
as forced labor into the caves. The newcomer hardly stirred, not even
to take their meager offerings food and water. Not once did he speak.
then the next morning, Lobo returned.
Mexican staggered toward them, hardly daring to pick his feet up off
the dirt for fear of falling. He was stone drunk, but not from the
rowdy carousing his band had often troubled the town with in better
days. Since he returned to Oak Creek alongside the invaders, Lobo was
in the bag every hour of the day, and he had the stink and look of a
man who drank for numbness rather than celebration. Such skin as was
visible on his hairy face was pallid and beaded with sweat and his
left hand trembled visibly. The eyes that had once been in a
perpetual squint of wild, boisterous mirth were now little glassy
ovals floating on a fat pillow of sagging skin, always staring
straight ahead. Every lively thing about him seemed to have been
drowned, even his temper and lechery. Now when Lobo killed it was
dispassionate, perfunctory, and Clarence no longer troubled with
fears of the brute forcing himself on a lady, for he seemed to show
no interest in them. The Mexican outlaw was still to be feared, but
he had become so pathetic that Clarence now found it impossible to
remnants of Oak Creek stood up and bunched together as their jailers
neared. Clarence felt his neighbors’ eyes on him. He squared his
shoulders and swallowed his fear to do the manful thing that they
expected of him as their spokesman.
you brought food and clean water with you? We’re running out of it.
And we want news of the men that were led off from here,” he called
out, his voice shaky at the first.
shook his head, and his body wobbled precariously with it. “No food
cannot starve us to death! If you are not going to provide us the
food and water, then as a Christian man, as a human being, you must
shrugged his shoulders with great effort. “Soon this trouble will
be over. But now, the conquerors have need of another man.”
groaning went up from the captives.
men?” Clarence shouted, looking around frantically. “Most of the
men had gone with the army before you got here, what remains you’ve
already taken! All that is left are the old and infirm, and women and
children! What has happened to the others?”
was not going to discuss it. His trembling arm shot out, a pudgy
finger pointed at Joshua. “You, boy! Come!”
men with Winchester repeaters and shotguns muscled into the group to
lay hands on the young man, and Clarence bravely stepped in front of
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he said, his voice low, but clear. “No. If the conquerors must have
another man, then I will-” Clarence’s declaration ended in a cry as
a sallow-faced Mexican roughly grabbed him by the collar, kicked his
cane out from under him and hurled him to the ground.
not cripples!” Lobo shouted viciously. “Vamanos!”
you worry, Mr. Gibson. I’ll go, I ain’t afraid of these rats!” said
Joshua Cobb, struggling under the tight grip of his captors.
women and the children were sobbing as they led him off, and
Clarence’s eyes also began to fill with tears as his thoughts filled
with dread. In a dry and shaky voice, he called out: “For God’s
sake, why do you need more men? What happened to the others?”
the bandits there was no answer, but heaven, perhaps, replied. The
wind gusted and the sky turned suddenly drab and gray, the way that
storms break in the desert. Somewhere yet far off there was a peal of
thunder and it echoed off the canyon walls. The world now darkened
the way Clarence’s hopes had. He lay where he fell, injured and
humiliated, and silently cursed his infirmities.
better take me, too,” someone said, once the echo of the thunder
head rose and looked in the direction of the voice. It was clear and
deep and steady. It reminded him of his older brother, Caleb, so much
alike that he had to remind himself that Caleb had been dead for
eight years. Where Clarence was weak, Caleb was strong, and where
Clarence was timid, Caleb was brave. For years he told himself that
he had forgotten his brother’s face, but the image returned to him,
and it buoyed him, gave him enough strength to grab his cane and pull
himself back onto his feet.
saw that the words had come from the prisoner they’d brought in
yesterday. The stranger was still shackled, his head still bowed, but
now he was standing and his shoulders were not hunched but spread as
broadly as the chains allowed. The blindfolded figure seemed to
Clarence like a statue by one of the great renaissance sculptors:
still, but poised with explosive potential. His physical presence was
dominating, and it held Lobo and his henchmen rapt.
I don’t think your conquerors will much care for the type of man I
am,” the stranger spoke again.
spat. “You should thank God they’ve no use for the blind, fool!”
blindfolded man stepped forward to the edge of the fence. “Is it
that you don’t know who I am, or that you don’t believe?” He cocked
his head toward Joshua. “The boy knows. He’ll tell you.”
took two halting steps backward as thunder again echoed in the
distance and the sky grew darker. In the gathering gloom, the
stranger’s head rose for the first time, and a soft red glow as if
from cooling embers shone beneath the blindfold.
Lobo could finish his blasphemous exclamation, the prisoner had burst
his chains with a mighty heave of his arms and swung the broken links
in a circle around his head, knocking one of the bandits senseless.
The chain wrapped around the barrel of another’s rifle and tore it
from his hands. The stranger’s trigger hand moved on the lever-action
like a musician fretting a guitar, producing five deafening reports
in quick succession. All of the bandits lay sprawled in the dirt,
Lobo rolling around in the dust, eyes gawping, trying to press his
fingers over the ragged hole torn through his throat.
happened so quickly that Clarence, watching from a few yards distant,
barely realized what had happened before the stranger was beside him,
thrusting the rifle into his hand. The echo of the gunfire was still
ringing in his ears as were the shocked cries of his fellow
townsfolk. One voice in particular stood out from the cacophony.
is the Devil Rider! The Cyclone Ranger!” young Ethan Gray screamed.
looked up numbly into the fiery orbs that shined through the black
blindfold. His mouth dropped open with a flash of unexpected
been a long time, Clarence,” said Caleb Gibson.
Caleb! Thank Jesus! I was told you were dead!” Clarence threw
himself onto his brother, showing the sort of affection he’d never
shown before but vowed that he would if ever God were so good as to
give him the chance again.
were told right, brother,” Caleb said as he broke off their
embrace. He gestured to the dead bandits. “Take their guns and lead
everyone back to town, and whatever you do, don’t look back.”
are still some men in the mines,” Clarence suggested.
beyond anyone’s help or hurt now, Clarence,” Caleb replied. “Most
of them are dead already, worked to death. Lobo’s men have been
burning them on the far ridge, along with the invaders who’ve fallen
from sickness. The Martians fear the dead, ours and their own.”
Almighty! Then where are you going? We all have to leave now, before
those monsters come down here! They’ll have heard the gunfire!”
blindfolded man grinned. “Leave the monsters to me. They’re dying,
Clarence. They think there’s a way home somewhere in this canyon, or
maybe a way to bring more of their kind here. That’s what they’re
digging for, but they won’t find it.”
be foolish, Caleb!” Clarence objected. “You’ll be killed! You
can’t stop them with rifles!”
he agreed. “Rifle cartridge isn’t much good against those milking
stools. But all I have to do is linger here, and my shadow’ll take
care of the rest.” A brilliant streak of lightning lit the canyon.
The rain came down in a torrent.
storm, Mr. Gibson!” Joshua was tugging at Clarence’s shirt,
desperate to get him to understand. “It’s the twister that follows
him, snatching up the souls of the damned to Hell! We have to run!”
shoved Joshua off angrily and turned to plead with his brother.
“Caleb, for God’s sake!”
be thick now, Clarence. You saw what I did. You see what I’m doing
now. I ain’t Caleb no more. Listen to young Mr. Cobb and get the
folks out of here.”
The wind whipped furiously and a steady cannonade of thunderbolts shook the walls of the canyon. The man who was Caleb Gibson looked behind him to the black sky and grinned. “It was good to see you again, brother, but it’s time to go. My shadow’s here.”