Hell Fire by Chuck Caruso

“You ever have a woman get you in the God way?”

“I ain’t sure I follow you there, mister,” Sam said, annoyed that this stranger had yet again trespassed against the peace of his mealtime.  Shoulda knowed from that damn preacher hat, Sam thought, tall and rounded up top with its wide, flat brim.  Shoulda figured this lonesome traveler was lousy with religion and told him, “Horseman, you pass on by,” while the man was still mounted and searching for a place to bed down for the night.

“You know,” the stranger said.  “Have you pledge your everlasting soul to the Lord.”

“You want more of these beans?” Sam asked, trying to let the subject drop.  He didn’t know this fella from Adam and didn’t give a good goddamn about his soul one way or t’other.

The stranger shook his head.  “Et my fill already.  Thank ye kindly.”

Sam said, “I reckon I’ll finish them up.”

“You do that,” the man said.  “Feed your belly.”

Sam grabbed the pan and scraped the last of the beans onto his plate.

“I had me a god-fearing woman name of Loretta.  She taught me the error of my ways and set me right with the Lord.”

“Where’s she at?”

The stranger looked at him with untearing eyes.  “Gone to her eternal reward now in heaven, God rest her soul.  Now I am left to wander the earth alone.”

“Sorry to hear that, mister.”  Sam returned his attention to his plate of beans.

The stranger watched him eat.  “You’ve been evading my question, but you can’t avoid it forever,” he said.  “Are you just feeding your belly or are you feeding your everlasting soul.”  Under the wide brim of his dark hat, the stranger’s eyes danced alight with the flickering orange flames of the campfire.

Hell_Fire_gray_900Sam spooned his mouth full of beans and chewed, thinking of places he’d rather be and excuses for taking his sudden leave from this damn zealot.  But he’d already unsaddled his horse and hobbled it for the night.  Already unpacked his bedroll and taken off his gun belt.  It lay over yonder with his saddle.  Not that he was afraid of this fella exactly.  Just annoyed was all.  He tried reason, talking as he continued to shovel beans into his mouth.  “Listen, mister,” he said.  “I don’t mind some conversation but I’d rather not have the preacher talk, if it’s all the same to you.”

Unspeaking, the man regarded Sam steadily in the firelight.

Sam said, “It’s just I don’t care for no Jesus sermons.”

“Well, I apologize,” the stranger said.  “I didn’t mean to trouble you, friend.”

“No bother.  It’s just I ain’t got no truck with God,” Sam said.  “But I’m sure we can find something else to talk about.”

“Such as what?” the man asked.

Sam shrugged.  “Anything that comes to mind.  The weather.  Our travels.  Whyn’t you tell me where all you been the last year.”  He licked his spoon clean and set it aside, clattering onto the empty tin plate.  “Listen,” he said.  “I’ve got some whiskey in my saddlebags that I’m willing to share if you’d like a pull or two.”

“I don’t take no strong drink,” the stranger said.  “There’s the devil in it.”

“Well, I’ll take some,” Sam said.  He started to stand, but the man’s hand came down on his shoulder.

“No, you better not neither.”

Sam sat back down but he shook off the man’s touch.  “Get your damn hand offa me,” he said.  “You got no business grabbing hold of me there, mister.  That’s how people get themselves shot around these parts.”

The man took his hand away and held up his open palm.  “I apologize if I gave offense,” he said.

The two men looked at each other steadily in the flickering firelight.

“This is humbug,” Sam said finally. “I’m done talking to you now, mister. Let’s just bed down and go our separate ways in the morning. I’m plumb exhausted tonight. Reckon I’ll sleep like the dead tonight.”

“This is humbug,” Sam said finally.  “I’m done talking to you now, mister.  Let’s just bed down and go our separate ways in the morning.  I’m plumb exhausted tonight.  Reckon I’ll sleep like the dead tonight.”

The stranger’s eyes flashed.  “I reckon you will.”

Sam blinked and saw the man standing over him with a big revolver in his hand, its barrel gaping like the mouth of an open grave.  The man said, “Zephaniah 1:12.  And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil.”

Sam held up his hands.  “I’m unarmed.”

“Well, I ain’t,” the man said.  “And I’m talking about your salvation, friend.”

“I ain’t got much money,” Sam said.

“Do not tempt me with your filthy lucre.  It is written man cannot serve both God and Mammon.”

“I ain’t got nothing else to offer.”

“You’re wrong,” the man said.  “You’ve got your soul.”

“You want me to find Jesus at gunpoint?”

“If that’s how you’ll learn to fear God.  Now get on your knees.”

Sam said, “This is some goddamn foolishness, mister.”

“Do not blaspheme.”  The man gestured with his gun.  “Now get down on your knees, sinner, or I’ll finish you where you sit.”

Sam shifted onto his knees in the soft dirt beside the campfire.

“Now what?” Sam asked.

“Open your heart to the Lord,” the man said.  “Romans 6:23.  For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Now pray.”

Choking on his words, Sam prayed, confessing all the sins he could remember.  The man listened silently, holding his tongue in his head and his gun on Sam.

When Sam was finished, the man said, “That’s good.  Now pledge your soul to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior.”

chuckcaruso1012Chuck Caruso lives in an old Oregon farmhouse with a medicine woman and their two cattle dogs. His western noir has been published by Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Fires on the Plain and The Western Online. Find him at http://chuckcaruso.com/

Artwork © 2013 Robert Elrod. http://robertelrodllc.com

Sam said the words slowly, voice shaking.  “I pledge my soul to Jesus and accept his as my Lord and Savior.”

“Now say amen.”

Sam said, “Amen.”

When the stranger said nothing for a few moments, Sam asked him, “Can I stand now?”

The man cleared his throat.  “Do you promise to go your way and sin no more?” he asked.

Sam nodded.  “Yes, I do.  I’ll go my way and sin no more.”

“Liar,” the man said.  “All of us are sinners in the eyes of the Lord.”

The roar of the big pistol filled the darkened woods as a dark blossom appeared in the center of Sam’s forehead and his pulped brains exploded out the back of his shattered skull.  An empty look of horrified surprise hung frozen on Sam’s vacant face as the upper half of his dead body pitched forward into the fire with a spray of bright sparks.  The stranger silently watched Sam lie there unmoving while tiny orange flames licked around the edges of his shirt and climbed up the back of its plaid collar.  As the fire began to take hold, the man said, “May the peace of God be with you.”

His work here done, the stranger saddled up and rode out in search of more sinners he could save from the hell fires of eternal damnation.

Midnight Piss by Chuck Caruso

I was coming back from a midnight piss and the three of them lay sprawled out in the dim light of the campfire, snoring like a pen full of hogs.  I thought to myself what a godforsaken mess is this?  It was humiliating, truthfully.  We weren’t hardly men, properly called.

Me and these three men with whom I rode made our livelihood holding up decent folks, and more often than not we celebrated our evil actions with more wickedness, drinking and whoring, just as church-going citizens might expect of such low characters.  We truly were unrepentant sinners.

It was enough to make a man hang his head in shame, but I fetched me an unopened bottle of hooch instead and sat back down beside the dying orange embers of our fire.

Drawing the cork, I took a stiff pull and found my thoughts turning to other times and places. I’d ridden for a time with a Bible-quoting outlaw, and I heartily hated that sumbitch. Big Jim Doolittle was his name.  I reckon he’s probably been hanged by now, or gunned down somewheres.

I thought of other outlaws I had known, both here in Colorado and back closer to the Big Muddy.

Yes, I was in a mood, and the sour mash just made it worse.

I regarded my three companions as they slept.

Del’s got a gut on him like a pregnant sow.  Hangs down so far over his belt, he probably ain’t seen his own dick in ten years or more, just feels around down there for it when he’s got to take a piss.  But Del ain’t the worst of them.  Sleep or wake, Bridge ain’t nothing but an animal no how, about like a cornered racoon on his nicest days.  And Sten’s a good enough kid but he don’t hardly speak English being as his folk are from Crimea or some such place.  That smirk Sten wears could drive you up a tree, but he’s got them twitchy fingers so’s you can never quite trust him. When we’d play cards, I swear I about wanted to pull out my buck knife and cut them fidgety digits clean off his damn hands.

But truth be told, none of this ruminating could properly be blamed on my travelling companions. Being honest with myself, I wondered what sort of man I had become, creeping back into a midnight campground after a day spent planning and performing a stagecoach robbery, a bold-faced crime in which several persons lost their lives, never to rise again.  The strong box on the coach had carried less cash than expected.  We took under two hundred dollars for our trouble.

It’s a hell of a life we live.

I drank more and tried not to think for a while.

I’m not sure what come over me then, whether it was angel or devil, but I knew that I had no choice but to leave my wicked ways behind me.  I also knew that these three confederates of mine would not take kindly to my departure.  Nor did I have enough to stake myself a proper life on my paltry share of our take from the coach.  I would need more, and I did not need these three coming after me with their evil schemes and malicious designs.

I took another long drink and it was settled in my mind and in my soul.  I would be free of this life.  I dared not draw my pistol nor use my long gun for fear of waking the others before my business was done, but I saw to each of my companions in turn with my buck knife.  I slit each other their throats in turn, muttering prayers for their everlasting souls even as I murdered them in their sleep.

After putting all the shares of cash into my saddlebags, I loaded their weapons and other gear onto Bridge’s horse, which I tied behind my own.  Del’s horse had become sway-backed from carrying that fat bastard from hell and gone, and Sten had abused his horse spitefully.  I gave both these beasts their hard-earned freedom.

Then, mounting up, I rode out in search of an honest life for myself farther west.