The stranger entered the dusty, creaky saloon, letting the doors swing back and forth wildly behind him. Some of the saloon’s occupants turned to acknowledge the stranger’s presence, more out of nervous fear than curiosity or etiquette. These hairy-necked and bush-mustachioed men always knew when a stranger with anonymously handsome features, an unclear, mysterious origin, and a ten-gallon hat was entering through the doors. It was easy to tell. The conversations would halt, the billiard balls would no longer clink against each other, and the pianist playing old-timey music would cease dancing his dirty fingers over the black and white keys. All eyes would fall on the stranger entering, as if awaiting some kind of reaction, like a stirring speech, a deathly threat, or maybe some spontaneous combustion. There never was, though, but at this point, the act of momentarily halting one’s own life had become old hat.
Plus tumbleweed would blow by in the background, because it was the Old West, and in the Old West, tumbleweed is constantly blowing around.
The stranger, decked out in a flowing dark-brown trench coat and with spinning, clinking spurs on his boots, approached the bar. He pulled the stool slowly out, the whine of wood against wood emanating in the still-quiet saloon. The idle chatter previously wafting through the bar slowly returned, as did the clinking of billiard balls, and the old-timey tunes from the piano.
The bartender walked over to him, wiping the bar with a bar rag, because that’s what bartenders do pretty much all the time – they wipe things with their bar rags. It helps you to know who the bartender is, if you can’t see their apron, that is.
“Whaddya have?” asked he bartender, still wiping.
“Whiskey,” muttered the stranger, his dark, beady eyes looking deep into the bartender’s soul, excavating every nook and cranny with just his tiny pupils.
Maybe he was just an asshole.
“Sure thing, stranger,” said the bartender, acknowledging that this stranger was unknown, mysterious – and hence – instantly intriguing.
The bartender withdrew a shot glass from the mirrored wall shelf behind him and poured the stranger a finger of whiskey. He absent-mindedly shook his head as he watched the thick booze dribble into the glass. He hated it there in that stupid bar that he didn’t even own. Hated his job, hated his wife, hated the fact that he was forced to pay off the debt racked up by his no-good dead brother-in-law, which when he counted on his fingers, would apparently take him the rest of his life plus twenty years.
And the stranger’s presence wasn’t helping.
The bartender was sick of it: another day, another mysterious stranger with an appropriately exciting and awe-inspiring life; whether running from the law or seeking justice, it was always hard to tell. It was always different, but it was always the same. Sometimes heroes were antiheroes, and sometimes villains were all you could count on, but all the strangers, no matter their origin, proved to be popular and domineering figures who fisted mugs of ale as men chanted their name, and who at the end of the night would go to bed with the town’s most beautiful virginal lady, whose first name was usually hyphenated, like Mary-Pat, or April-May. After all, this was the Old West— the reign of the cowboy and the six-shooter. Bullets, beer, and broads. Oh, and jovial piano music. That’s pretty much all there was.
And while one would think that the arrival of such an interesting character—those of the variety with the black eyes that contained a life’s worth of misery and pain—would perhaps add a bit of excitement to the otherwise mundane life the bartender was living, they’d be wrong. Living vicariously through his patron’s own lives the bartender was not. And if he had a bag of gold for every time a mysterious stranger entered the bar and temporarily interrupted the bar’s events with his mystique, well, he’d have a lot of gold. A lot of gold. He’d have so much fucking gold that he could give some gold away for every time some other luckless soul dealt with a series of monotonously repetitive events that would lead him to use that same trite expression.
“Hey, old timer—you’re not gonna charge me for a double, are ya?” the stranger asked, mysteriously, and with great, unshaven brood.
The bartender stood a moment more, still holding the bottle of whiskey over the shot glass as it continued to dribble within, and the stranger could only watch as the booze rose to the top and began spilling out over the lip of the glass. The stranger cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. The bartender’s eyes darted to him wildly, finally breaking out of his brief daydream, and he then realized he was dripping whiskey in thick rivers onto his shoes.
“Consarnet!” he said and grabbed the wipe rag he wiped with and began wiping at his spill. He finished picking up the spilled booze from the floor and tossed the rag in a box under the bar marked “dirty rags.” He pulled from the box on the floor next to it marked “clean rags” and began wiping the bar again, because it had been several seconds since he’d done a good wiping.
As the bartender wiped, he could feel the stranger’s eyes on him. He met his hard gaze and for a moment, no one spoke.
“Might I trouble you for the shot you poured that I can’t reach?” the stranger asked, briefly sniveling his mustache. The bartender exhaled in disgust at his own idiocy and grabbed the shot from the shelf behind him. He clanked it on the bar in front of the stranger.
“Sorry, fella,” he said, nodding at the stranger. “Havin’ an off day. This one’s on me.” The stranger returned the nod, albeit very slightly, and he threw the shot back.
“Another,” he said. “Drinking whiskey makes me feel like a tough man. And when you throw in my sun-crackled leather attire, my hairy face, and my deep, penetrating eyes, I make quite the ominous, mysterious character, don’t I?”
The bartender nodded in agreement – granted, the stranger’s visage and brood was nothing new, but still – he had a good point.
“Yes, very mysterious. You did stop the show when you came in here, I’ll give you that. But I gotta be honest, mister—we get mysterious strangers like you in here all the time. Some of them got stories, some don’t, but it’s always the same show.”
“Oh yeah?” asked the stranger. “Do they do this?” He withdrew a match from the band on his hat and flicked the red tip across the back of his front teeth, igniting it. He withdrew a single black cigarette from somewhere deep in his beard and stuck it in his mouth. He danced the flame across the tip until it glowed red and then he ate the match.
“Yes, sir,” said the bartender. “That’s usually the next thing they do. And some of them even put the cigarette out on their tongues.”
“Hmm, yes,” agreed the stranger, flicking his tongue out in response and showing the bartender a series of black dots from the previous times he had done just the same.
“Yes, sir, cut from the same cloth, it seems,” said the bartender.
“These men you say come in where…what do they tell you they do?” the stranger asked, watching the bartender pour his second shot. “You know, for a living or whatever?”
“Oh, this and that. Some of the previous strangers shot men, and some killed men. Some would just shoot the sheriff, or the deputy, while others would go one step further and kill them. Sometimes these strangers would get shot by some men, or the sheriff, or deputy—and sometimes killed. And one of them I think was a school teacher.”
The stranger nodded along with his assessment. It was true: most mysterious strangers were usually in town to shoot a man (or several), get shot by a man (or several), and were either there to cause chaos or defeat it.
And other times, teach.
“Ya wanna know what I do?” asked the stranger, throwing back the shot.
“If you wanna tell me, mister.”
The stranger growled at the burning of the whiskey going down as he slammed the shot glass down on the bar. He tipped the front of his hat up slightly with his gloved finger and looked at the bartender.
“I kill the undead.”
The bartender stopped cleaning the beer mug he held in his hands, mid-wipe, and narrowed his eyes at the stranger.
“I beg your pardon? I am in such disbelief at what you’ve told me that I stopped wiping this here glass. What do you mean you kill the undead?”
“Just what I said, mister. And another shot, please.”
The bartender was still a moment, his eyes boring into the stranger’s own, trying to determine if he was for real. He then quickly grabbed the shot glass from the stranger’s fingers, as if there was some physical danger in doing so.
“What do you mean ‘undead’? Like, Mormons?”
The stranger shook his head. “No, old timer. The undead is just how it sounds: people die, stay that way for a bit, but then they come back to life.”
“I ain’t never heard of such a thing!” the bartender stated emphatically, pouring another shot of whiskey.
“It happens, old-timer. More often then you know,” the stranger grumbled.
“But why? Why do they come back? Unfinished business? Or out of love for those they left behind? Perhaps to spread the word of God and to convey the meaning of life?”
“They eat us,” the stranger responded. “They try to eat our heads and skin and stuff. So I come around and I shoot ‘em.”
“You shoot ‘em? And it kills ‘em, you know, for good?”
“If you shoot ‘em in the head, it does.”
The bartender briefly held the shot of whiskey out in front of him, and when the stranger reached for the glass, the bartender threw it back himself. He wiped his sleeve sloppily across his mouth to sop up what little booze didn’t make it in, which is what people did in the Old West.
“How long have you been doing this?” asked the bartender, his quivering hand still holding the empty shot that held the attention of the stranger’s eyes.
“Dunno. Forget. Can tell you how many of the undead I’ve killed, though: 217.”
“How’d you get started in this line of work?” the bartender asked.
“Didn’t plan on this life. Just fell in my lap, I reckon.”
“My goodness,” said the bartender. “Well, you’re right, mister. Ain’t no one ever come in here spinning stories like the one you got.”
The stranger nodded.
“Ain’t you got a family somewhere? Or friends?”
“Can’t tell you that. It’d ruin the mysterious aura that I’ve established.”
The bartender silently agreed, but with his face. He made his face look a certain way or something that showed he agreed. Without saying he did.
“So what brings you to this town? We ain’t got no dead people runnin’ around, do we?” the bartender asked.
“They don’t run. It’s more of a…shuffling walk. And yeah, you do.”
“I’ll be!” shouted the bartender. “Who?”
The stranger withdrew a piece of wrinkled paper from the inside of his coat and read off a name.
“Baby!” the bartender shouted. “It can’t be!”
“Who was she?” asked the stranger.
“Prostitute, but a nice one. Kind. Good momma to her kids, too.”
“Not no more, she ain’t. Now she eats heads,” the stranger replied.
“So, have you found her?”
“Not yet—I just rolled into town. I always take a drink before getting to work. Helps make the killin’ easier, plus I get to tell the bartender about my life, but in such a way that each answer I give only leads to more questions.”
The bartender poured one more shot into the glass and slid it over to the stranger. “Well, good luck to you, sir. This one’s on me, too. They all are.”
The stranger lifted the shot to the bartender in salute and threw it back. He got up, pulled some coins from his pocket, and dropped them on the bar.
“Man always pays his dues,” he said. He tipped his hat to the bartender, slid his stool out from the bar, and walked to the swinging saloon doors. He stood there a moment, directly in the bright shine of the steaming sun above, his silhouette a jet black shape surrounded by the blinding rays of the day. It was his hero shot. The stranger—this man who stops conversations, pianos, and balls—was there to save them. He was there to do a job he’d done hundreds of times before, and though no one knew his name right then, soon, everyone in the town would.
And then Baby popped up out of nowhere and ate his head.
Just like that, the stranger was dead.
He died pretty quick, especially for a hero. No drawn out final words, no coughing or sputtering blood, no gripping of a loved one’s hands before the final darkness rolled in. Just the crunch of his skull as Baby sank her teeth in, and then the loud collapse into a pile of overwrought manly behavior and steel spurs.
Turns out Baby Brooks had been stumbling down the empty, sandy streets of Retraction, the empty, sandy town where some people managed to keep quiet lives, and it was by sheer coincidence that the head she bit through belonged to none other than her would-be assassin.
As she sloppily chewed the stranger’s brains, the people inside the saloon who had witnessed the act fled, terrified. Some tore through those same saloon doors that the stranger had exited through, jumping clean over the feasting whore, while others threw themselves through windows. And they all did that thing where they jumped right onto their horses and the horses took off immediately with no prodding from the riders, which the bartender thought had only existed in those penny comics.
“Ain’t anyone gonna kill the thing?” the bartender demanded of the people ruining his windows, which no one heard because of all the hooting, hollering, and jumping through windows and onto horses that was going on.
Baby Brooks continued to eat the stranger’s brains, so the bartender rolled his eyes, flung his bar rag over his shoulder, and grabbed his sawed-off shotgun he kept bolted to the bottom of the bar. He approached the blood-splattered exit, swung the saloon doors out slowly, and looked down at the slurping Baby.
“That’s the last time you give head in this town, Baby,” the bartender said, amused with his last-second cutting joke that no one was around to hear. He even turned to collect appreciative smiles or laughs from the people he had hoped were near, but there were none. His only audience was a dead man and an undead woman, who was currently ass-deep in brain matter and not paying him any mind. He wondered if he was even supposed to make jokes. Admittedly, it acted against the whole chilly, gloomy façade that so many of these strangers had exhibited in the past. He would have to think about that one.
The bartender extended his sawed-off shotgun and blew Baby’s brains out all over the OK Corral (which every Old West town has), halting her feast of the stranger’s skull innards. He lifted the shotgun and leaned it on his shoulder. He even tried to stand the way he imagined heroes stood, but he couldn’t quite find the right pose.
The bartender picked up the stranger’s hat from the sandy ground and slapped off some sand before placing it on his head. He then withdrew a match from the hat’s band, held it a moment to the front of his teeth, and then dragged it across.
The flame did not ignite, and it really fucking hurt, too.
“Aw, God,” said the bartender, holding his teeth in pain. He dabbed at the teeth with his tongue a moment before the pain was relieved.
All this leaning, and all this fancy-schmancy match lighting—he had a lot to learn.
He gave one last look to his bar – a prison for most of his life – before grabbing the stranger’s dark brown leather coat, holsters, and guns from his torn body. Now dressed in them, he opened and spun the chambers of both guns before snapping his wrists and closing them shut with a satisfying clink.
A nearby blind man whistled some kind a tune which sounded as ominous as it was hopeful, as the bartender, soon to be a mysterious stranger himself in another Old West town, walked off into the sunset.
Also, later that night, he screwed a local virgin beauty named Katie-Jo.
Because that’s what heroes do.