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.
“That’s him, I tell you!” Joshua Cobb whispered excitedly to a younger boy. “Harken to that long black coat and the black blindfold!”
Clarence 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 right hand.
“You speak as if you haven’t seen a man in a frock coat before, Joshua,” said Clarence. “Who do you think he is?”
“It’s 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.
“The Devil Rider,” sniffed Clarence. “Frontier superstition!”
“No 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!”
“Isn’t, Joshua. The word is isn’t.” Clarence corrected him with a twinge of irritation.
“Why does he wear such a thing?” asked the younger boy, Joshua’s interlocutor.
“They 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 people.”
“My word!” exclaimed the younger boy’s mother.
“And how does he see without eyes?” pressed the lad.
“Well, 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 certain.”
Clarence 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 own motives!”
“I’ve heard enough. You must have too, though I know you don’t have truck with such talk,” said Joshua sheepishly.
“I 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?”
“Well shucks, Mr. Gibson, what else does the Devil do but just that?” rejoined Joshua, to the murmuring approval of others.
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Clarence frowned, chagrined that what he had thought to be a decisive blow was so deftly turned round on him.
“The 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!”
“That’ll 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 eyeballs!”
“I’m 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!”
“Huh! 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 poorly!”
There 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.
The 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.
And then the next morning, Lobo returned.
The 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 hate him.
The 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.
“Have 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.
Lobo shook his head, and his body wobbled precariously with it. “No food yet, señor.”
“You 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 release us.”
Lobo shrugged his shoulders with great effort. “Soon this trouble will be over. But now, the conquerors have need of another man.”
Low groaning went up from the captives.
“What 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?”
Lobo was not going to discuss it. His trembling arm shot out, a pudgy finger pointed at Joshua. “You, boy! Come!”
Four men with Winchester repeaters and shotguns muscled into the group to lay hands on the young man, and Clarence bravely stepped in front of them.
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“No,” 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.
“Men, not cripples!” Lobo shouted viciously. “Vamanos!”
“Don’t 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.
The 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?”
From 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.
“You’d better take me, too,” someone said, once the echo of the thunder had died.
Clarence’s 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.
He 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.
“Although I don’t think your conquerors will much care for the type of man I am,” the stranger spoke again.
Lobo spat. “You should thank God they’ve no use for the blind, fool!”
The 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.”
Joshua 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.
Before 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.
It 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.
“He is the Devil Rider! The Cyclone Ranger!” young Ethan Gray screamed.
Clarence looked up numbly into the fiery orbs that shined through the black blindfold. His mouth dropped open with a flash of unexpected recognition. “Ca-Caleb?”
“It’s been a long time, Clarence,” said Caleb Gibson.
“Caleb! 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.
“You 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.”
“There are still some men in the mines,” Clarence suggested.
“They’re 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.”
“God Almighty! Then where are you going? We all have to leave now, before those monsters come down here! They’ll have heard the gunfire!”
The 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.”
“Don’t be foolish, Caleb!” Clarence objected. “You’ll be killed! You can’t stop them with rifles!”
“No,” 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.
“The 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!”
Clarence shoved Joshua off angrily and turned to plead with his brother. “Caleb, for God’s sake!”
“Don’t 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.”