Blood in the Mud
rating: +9+x

The sky is overcast, and the air is thick. Dominic’s been on this earth long enough to know that means it’s gonna rain. He’s making good time on the ride back to the ranch, but the weather doesn’t care about punctuality. Plus, there are only so many times you can spur a horse before it’s had enough. At least he’d won that bet with Rodrigo and another quarter to his name.

The first droplet pricks at his hand clutching the reins. He swears under his breath, and that in turn is swallowed by the galloping below him. At first the tiny slivers of cold water come in little more than a sprinkle, but the weeping wound in the clouds widens by the second. Soon, he can feel the fat drops drumming on his back and soaking blotches on his loose shirt. His hat keeps the rain out of his face, but that’s small comfort to a man getting soaked everywhere else.

The trees are blurry shapes through the sheets of rain, none substantial enough to provide shelter for the rider. All he can do is hunker down against Henrietta's back and keep his eyes on the road ahead.

It takes about fifteen minutes to reach the outer bounds of the Cottondale Ranch, named after its owner and proprietor, George Cottondale. He had moved down to Texas during Reconstruction on the wings of a generous land purchase, replacing the previous owner, a Confederate who had caught himself a bullet. The land was green and plentiful and the cows were healthy, but he was always in need of more hands to keep the place running smoothly. It was a prime destination for young men looking for honest work and pay that was at least livable. For one, the man riding toward the ranch in the driving rain had once been little more than a scrappy boy from back east.

The first thing Dominic notices is the open gate. A ripple of worry contorts his face. A lost cow would likely be coming out of his pay. Then again, one of the other ranch hands probably forgot to close it when they went out. The possibility of one of them hurrying back in the rain with their tail between their legs forces a guilty chuckle out of him. The irony of him doing the same thing is lost on him in his hurry. Throwing the gate closed with a screech, he thinks nothing of it.

The grass that keeps the grazing land from turning into a sea of mud squelches under the horse’s hooves as Dominic makes a beeline for the stables, blurry as they are through the pounding deluge. In the rain, he can barely hear his own thoughts.

What he does hear, however, is a pained baying from nearby, far too close for his comfort. The low, drawn-out noise dwindles into a pitiful gurgle before starting up again a few seconds later. By then, Dominic has already stopped short, nearly choking Henrietta with his forceful pull of the reins. He winces apologetically to nobody.

“The hell?”

He wipes his eyes and forehead with the back of his hand and surveys the land around him. The rain surrounds him on all sides, leaving him alone in the sprawling wet. Alone, except for Henrietta and the dark lump a few yards away. He squints until the shape resolves itself into something all too familiar.

It’s a cow, lying on its side with its legs curled in. She groans again, and Dominic’s already off the horse and closing the distance to the injured animal.

A round, bloodshot eye looks back at him as he kneels down to see what’s wrong. His dark brown eyes meet her panicked gaze and linger there for a moment. Then, the contact is broken as her eye darts around in the twitchy, stuttering fear of someone that doesn't know what's going on.

Cow eyes are all too good at conveying human expressions. It had always unnerved him.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay. I’m just gonna…”

It doesn’t take him long to see the stream of blood cascading down her shoulder and being washed away by the rain. His first thought is a coyote attack, but coyotes would hang onto a score like this come rain or shine.

As he looks at the hole in her neck, he realizes two things.

The first is that she isn’t going to survive.

The second is that that’s a bullet wound.

He's heard stories of roving outlaws, of course. This far out of town, the arm of the law is short and flimsy. Even if you get caught, no jury's gonna convict someone who hurts the right people. The raw reality clamps its cold claws into Dominic's wet shoulders. There's no way in hell a shot like that is accidental.

Someone's making a point.

His hand flies to his revolver, and he’s already on his feet by the time the dread crystallizes into a knife in his gut. Every step he takes toward the ranch house twists it just a little more. The rain is in the background now, overshadowed by the pounding in his chest and the crawling of his skin. He doesn’t even notice that the cloudburst is letting up.

Creeping around the back of the ranch house winds him tighter and tighter until it feels like his torso is going to burst like a week-old carcass. It takes every iota of willpower in his body to force himself to look in the window once he sidles up to it after an eternity.

He shouldn’t have looked.

The house is trashed. Rooms are upended like a tornado went through them, fragile glass is shattered, and nearly everything composed of fabric is slashed with animalistic ferocity. In the center of the room, Mr. Cottondale lies unmoving. His corpulent mass of pallid flesh is paler than it had ever been in life, his clothes gone. The gunshot wound in his chest trickles blood to the pool below him, and his jaw has been broken to fit a fat, juicy apple between his lips. His wife is nowhere to be seen.

The stench of death and feces hits him through the rain-soaked air. Dominic nearly vomits, but his throat is so tight that he can barely breathe. With his loaded six-shooter in a white-knuckle grip, he finally staggers over to look around the corner at the front of the house. He fervently, desperately prays to Providence above for this not to be happening.

When he first sees him, the man on the porch has his back turned. Dominic can only see his faded gray jeans, his stained white shirt, and his long gray hair under a hat of nearly the same color. His gaze doesn’t linger long, because below the man, on soaked-red porch boards, is the body of Rodrigo Pérez.

A million thoughts sear themselves into Dominic’s mind in a fraction of a second. Rodrigo had been his friend for years now. Almost twenty years Dominic’s senior, he had been a mentor in places where Dominic’s parents had failed. He had stood up for Dominic in times of hardship. He had been there when Dominic first took the job, and they had both known that Rodrigo would be there when Dominic moved on to better things.

And now he’s dead.

All Dominic can manage is a choked gasp, and that’s all the man in gray needs to hear. He whips around, but Dominic’s already brought his gun up and pulled the trigger.

He shoots

and misses.

Immediately after the sharp crack fills the air and he doesn’t see a hole appear in the other man’s head, he knows it’s over. He’s barely surprised when his shoulder explodes into a pain unlike anything else he’s felt in his life, and his revolver flies out of his hand and clatters to the ground. He staggers, fails to keep his balance, and falls down onto the hard ground. The white-hot pain overwhelms every single one of his senses.

In a second, Dominic’s already accepted his death.

It doesn’t come.

The man in gray stalks across the floorboards and onto the mud, looking down at Dominic. Now, Dominic can finally see his face.

He looks to be in his late forties or early fifties, and his stubble is as gray as the rest of his hair. His eyes are steely and deep-set in his gaunt face, all stretched skin and unpleasant angles. Looking down, his frame is wiry, the muscle of a man whose body is accustomed to eating little. When he speaks, his voice is gravelly and dripping with contempt.

“I should kill you.”

Nothing coherent escapes Dominic’s lips.

“But I won’t. You wanna know why?”

The man in gray grabs Dominic’s collar and heaves him up. Dominic doesn’t resist. He can’t. He’s barely hanging on to consciousness. The man in gray leans in close, until their noses are inches from touching.

His eyes are hazel. Looking into them, Dominic gazes into another world. It’s a world of hatred, built on hatred, coiling in on itself like a modern day ouroboros. It’s a world of conviction rooted so deep into the ground that it goes straight down to Hell. It’s a world of shame, like liquid metal boiling under ice.

“I want you to remember this.”

And the man in gray raises his other hand, the hand with the gun, and swings it down onto Dominic’s head.

The world is white, and then it is black.

When Dominic wakes up with his ears ringing and stars in his eyes, the rain is gone. All there is is mud. Mud on his clothes, mud on the ground, mud on his head mixing with the blood matting his curls. He lies there for what feels like hours. Maybe it is.

When he gets up, Henrietta is gone. He knows she's never coming back. And when Dominic gathers up the strength to hobble to the nearest ranch he wouldn’t be turned away from on sight, he knows he’s never coming back too.

When he gets to town weeks later, head and shoulder wrapped in bandages, he learns the name of the man: Carter Allen. He's a man with an awful lot of anger, they say. He’s been going around terrorizing people in the name of a war that ended almost thirty years ago. He comes fast, deadly, and without warning, like a rattlesnake with no rattle.

Dominic knows that anger. He saw it. And he can’t help but think that Carter put some of that anger in him, because he can’t work like he used to. Ranch work isn't for him anymore, and Hell would freeze over before he looked for work at a plantation. There's an itch eating at his skin, one that a hard day's sweat won't wash off. He feels the white-hot seed of anger in his chest, and he knows that it’ll never go away. Not as long as men like Carter walk the earth.

So he picks up his revolver.

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