He roasted the horned moon over the billowing tongues of his little campfire, burning the crescent unto a sullen orange— hot as a cattle brand—to sear the purple Western twilight. Shadows hung heavy over the mesas, recalling a parlor where a casket had been draped in heavy black cloth long before Sherman marched through Savannah’s streets. The emptiness of the dead lands echoed within him. It was cold, and yet he did not feel it.
A pale horse nibbled at wispy, dying shoots of grass sprouting here and there from the rough throated pass. Coyotes yipped laughter from among the hills. Winds whispered along the capstoned brows of the mesas. A man laid next to the fire, unmindful of the flickering light that stretched and shrank shadows across his still, silent face. To the man tending the fire this silent man was the most precious thing left to him in this darkening world. Yet, now having him in his possession, he felt neither peace or relief or even that hateful joy of a wrong avenged. Instead, he looked out upon the stars and thought of his wife’s eyes— darkling and sparkling in a tearful agony between life and death. He felt the reach of yesterday’s shades plunging the night itself into a deeper gulf wherein it drowned. All the world was a hollow victory.
Night arced overhead, from horizon to horizon, and embers flitted up like dying fireflies in a futile quest for stars. The last drip of the bleeding blackened scabrously at the outer edge of the world. Numb, he unsheathed his bowie knife and sliced the nose from the still man’s face, all with a quick sawing motion. The latter did not flinch or cry out. The man with the knife then threw the cartilage and skin into the crackling flame, dissatisfied with the measure of his revenge.
“You should have lived longer,” he admonished the corpse.
His voice was a hoarse croak; a halting, stiff thing risen from the dead. He had not eaten or drank or slept in three days. Such things were for the living and he did not think himself alive.
“Should have lasted as long as my wife did,” he continued. “But you was ever a coward. One little gunshot to the leg and you bleed out with your pleas and your fears. No fight in you. Just wickedness and sin and prayers to Christ. As if Christ’d do anything for someone like you. He did nothing for Jolene, did he? Jolene, now…she had goodness and fight to spare. Even after what you did to her, she fought on to try to live. She had more fight in her than Robert E Lee and the whole of the Confederacy combined. Was that why you did it, you maggot-bellied bastard? Envy of her strength?” He sneered without feeling. “Told you I wanted no part in your war. The South could lose the war well enough without my help. And what did you do? Brought the war to my doorstep…and to my marriage bed. You couldn’t even have the decency to die in Savannah. Had to shed your pride and run off, like a salamander without its tail. And after all you done…”
He broke off into a choking silence, holding back the grief and knowing the futility of words given to the dead, as well as to the living. The priest had tried to offer him words. The Word, in fact. But what good was the Word to him? He had healed the best he could, though. His gunhand was a mangled mess after the hammers had their say, but his peacehand learned the ways of the gun aptly. Meanwhile, he had plotted, and he had hated, and he had asked around, contemplating the hungry, unsatisfied graves of the earth. When it was time, he aimed for the Devil’s horns, eventually uncrowning him to wear those horns himself. Many he killed, and here was the second to the last bounty he had left to seek. And while wearing the Devil’s horns was a burden, it was lighter than the most lightsome halo any saint ever wore. His conscience had been clear, and still was after all this bloody harvest.
The third man sat cross-legged beneath the horned moon, across the fire from the vengeful man. He had a headdress of Raven feathers and was shirtless and without pants, his loins covered with a limp blackbird. He grinned like the grinning dead who know the terrible secret which awaits us all.
“A good Hunt,” he said, gesturing toward the dead man without a nose. His eyes did not leave the living man, nor blink in the firelight.
The living man nodded. He felt the eyes of the Raven-headed man peering past his face, and deeper. He did not care.
“But not the Hunt you desired,” the Indian said.
The living man shook his head slowly, slightly— shook it only once.
“We have the Hunts we come upon,” the black-feathered man said. “We find what joys we can in them. They are all we have. Nothing else matters.”
The fourth man squatted down next to the fire, on the living man’s left. He was an Indian too. He wore a cloth of rabbit skin over his shoulders, and a loincloth of prairie grasses. He did not smile. He seemed troubled.
“We should seek out only needful prey,” he said. “Hunting one’s own shadow brings no good to anyone.”
The black-feathered Indian continued to grin, and did not look at the other Indian. “We Hunt whatever we find,” he said. “And if we can find nothing, we Hunt for Nothingness.”
The hare-cloaked Indian kept his eyes on the living man as well. He did not blink, his eyes a dark black. “Sometimes it is best not to Hunt at all.”
“But the Hunt is all that matters,” said the Raven.
“Only to those who cannot forage for a better life,” said the Hare.
“There is no fun in foraging,” said the Raven. “No Game. Games are important. They are all that matter. And when the Game is over, what does it matter? Enjoy the Game until the very end.”
“Sometimes the Game can only be won by not playing,” Hare said.
Raven cawed with laughter. “Remember what happened last time you chose to forage among the Hunters? Remember when you refused to play? They found Prey of their own, and your wife was that Prey. They were Hunters, for what is War but a big Hunt? What is the Hunt but a Game? Choosing not to play is the same as playing, only you are playing to forfeit. There is no escape from the Hunt. You must Hunt. There is no other Game in this world.”
Hare’s nose twitched as if he might sneeze. He did not sneeze. “Sometimes peace is when the Prey escapes the Hunt.”
“No escape,” said the living man. “No escape for any Prey. The guilty must eat the bullet.”
Taking his revolver from his holster, the living man aimed the barrel at his final mark and pulled the trigger, ending the Hunt at last. In the echo of the gunshot could be heard the cawing laughter of a Raven, and the mournful hop of a Hare.
The little fire flickered out beneath the endless dark. The burning brand of the moon lowered upon the body of the man who had taken his own life. His Hunt was now finished.