Not everyone could see the Death Hunter, but Martha had the gift. When the clouds first gathered on the low desert horizon that year, she knew:
He was close.
Her mother would have called it her ‘ghost-notion’, and crossed herself three times whilst reciting Hail Marys. But Momma had been buried more than thirty years ago, so all Martha heard was the deep undercurrent of approaching storm winds. To the west, billowing black clouds grew taller and taller in the sky, and the towhees were silent, hidden under scrub and weeds.
The shutters were still there, lodged underneath the shack. Martha had to use all her strength to pull them out, her arms so much skinnier this year, wiry and brown, like her flesh had shrunk. Was she seventy, or seventy-one this fall? Damned if she could remember right now.
She huffed out thin cheeks, dust and sandy earth speckling grey hair as she hammered the shutters in place. Fixed with hooks, nails, and improvised batten boards, there wasn’t a perfect fit among them, but then nothing round here had ever fit perfectly.
Martha paused to wipe her face on her rolled-up sleeve and looked beyond the ridge. Hope’s Crossing lay over there, the town no more than a dull speck in the distance. Squinting, she followed the horizon’s curve to where it melted into the dark morass of cloud and deep turbulence. No sign of Him yet anyways. Then she stopped: A lone rider was heading down the rise towards her shack, cloudy dust pluming at his horse’s hooves, a murky wake behind him. He sat hunched, hat thrust forward, but he was a young man as far as she could tell, someone green and stupid who didn’t know any better. He must’ve left Hope’s Crossing right before the storm warnings hit, or maybe figured he’d be able to outpace it. Every now and then the horse raised its head exhaustedly to object, but he’d yank back the reins with a desperation she could almost feel. Or was that just her own imagination?
Hers was the only place for miles. There was no question of turning him away with the wind pressing down and darkness closing in. As he drew close, she noted the worn boots and weathered clothes, the round face and clear eyes. The wind tugged on him hard, merciless, as he pulled alongside the shack, and flapped his jacket wide open. But Martha’s eye was drawn beyond him, up to the ridge once more, where the Death Hunter himself finally stood, arms outstretched, as if he was the only thing holding back the storm now.
She turned back to the boy quickly, nodded and pointed:
“Get your horse back there and shut her in the stable.” The wind threatened to steal her words: “There’s water in there. Close it up tight, though!”
He was already dismounting.
The air temperature must have dropped by a couple more degrees as the shadow on the ridge disappeared.
Martha secured the door firmly behind the boy as he came in from the stable. A scant few minutes had passed, but the day was gone, swallowed by the black hole of the squalling storm. The shutters clattered against their frames, while the shack’s foundations creaked and trembled like an old ship. She poured them both coffee, as an oil lamp flickered over the table. There was meagre fare: a heel of bread, hardened cheese, dried fruit.
“Thank you, Ma’am.” His cheeks looked red and wind-chapped. “The name’s Nathan. I know you’re Martha.”
She nodded. “You from Hope’s Crossing?”
“Just passing through. They said, head for Martha’s, she’ll help…. Others,” he hesitated: “Others said, don’t stop, ride on…”
Martha’s eye twitched; she could guess which of the respectable townsfolk had said the latter.
The house shifted in the relentless gale. Impulsively she fetched out a half-bottle of Scotch, pouring them both a finger.
“You old enough for this?”
He nodded thanks, drank greedily.
“So, why didn’t you just wait it out?”
“I’m trailing my buddy. He came here in the vanguard of last year’s storms. Never seen him since.”
She shook her head. There was nothing she could say to ease his mind.
“Ma’am, why d’you stay here? It can’t be easy, all alone.”
Martha felt the accumulated weariness in her bones, and sighed. “It’s my home,” she said. “Don’t expect you’ll understand, boy, but that’s how it is.”
They could hear the horse in the stable, her whinnies rising above the wind’s howl, her futile kicking of hooves.
As the lamp’s unsteady shadows licked at the walls, a whisky-dulled calm overtook them, but Martha knew it wouldn’t last.
She handed Nathan a blanket, pointing to the bench by the stove. “Sleep. Whatever you do, don’t go outside ‘til morning. Promise?”
“Ever hear of the Death Hunter? He’s out there now. Waiting.”
He jerked his head to look at her, his eyes steady, measuring: “Well… okay, Ma’am. I promise.”
He thinks I’m just an old fool, she thought, turning down the lamp.
“And Ma’am?” he paused. “In the morning, I promise I’ll fix those goddamned shutters too.”
“Language, boy,” she said, but smiled at him, settling in her chair.
No sleep. Better to listen to the storm, to feel her ‘ghost-notion’ prickle down her spine and wait for the Death Hunter’s steps.
The draught from the door crept in and pulled at her ankles. Her eyes were heavy, her body leaden, her head ached, but this was how it always went. And she didn’t even know if she’d have strength enough this time either, but she had to try.
His friend had been easy prey for the Hunter — too taken by the devil’s smile and sweet, false cunning — that poor kid. But perhaps Nathan.… Martha watched his steady breathing, and prayed for the sound of towhees at dawn.
A.L. Bradshaw is a poet and fiction writer, a general dogsbody for Freeze Frame Fiction, and chief bottle-washer for a family of five. In her spare time, she walks the dog and watches the grass grow tall.