Tucky puffed another breath into the smoldering tinder beneath his cone of busted branches and twigs. A healthy flame engulfed the wood, illuminating the cowpoke's soiled face. The past few days' worth of trail grime did little to hide the dried blood spatters on his cheek and lofty forehead. He righted his squat, muscular torso and scooted back from the snapping fire. A pair of deerskin chaps and trail spurs lumbered into his ring of solace and plopped down on rock protruding out of the desert sands.
"Whatdaya reckon?" the figure asked, dropping a bulging cloth sack in between them.
Tucky's bewildered brown gaze never faltered from the fire. "I ain't never seen the like, Creek. Never."
Creek slid down off his perch and strode closer to his stoic compadre. He drew a thin cigarette from the pocket of his black vest and placed it in his mouth. "We got what we wanted, didn't we?"
Tucky followed his senior partner's every move as Creek bent into the flames and lit his tobacco. A cloud of fragrant smoke wafted into the young man's face as Creek's black hat and matching duster receded into the shadows. "You look like you've seen the devil himself."
Tucky turned in time to see the burning eye of Creek's smoke pierce the dark ahead of a hearty chuckle.
"I'm still not sure what it was I saw," Tucky said in a weak tone.
His buddy's spurs clinked up next to him while the wood snapped and crackled. Creek dragged the heavy sack across the dirt and took a seat across the flames from him. Moments thereafter, a thin bar of pure gold glimmered just beneath his pal's soulless blue eyes.
"See that?" Creek waved the bar back and forth in slow strokes.
Tucky glanced up from the dancing light, his eyelids narrowed.
"Exactly," Creek said, holding the gold upright. "That's what we went in for, and that's what we got outa there with. A whole damned bagful of it, to be more precise." The gold clanked into the bag in the dark as the outlaw took another hit off his tobacco.
Tucky wiped a tear on the cuff of his black and white flannel shirt. "At what cost?"
"Ah, shit." Creek groaned, easing back against a tree trunk. "So, we killed a few people, Tuck. What of it?"
"A few?" Tucky spat out the words in a venomous hiss.
Creek laughed once more at his protege's expense. "I know that you probably didn't see much killin' back in Lexington, but it kinda comes with the territory."
Tucky's eyes bounced around their makeshift camp. "Th-they're gonna be comin' for us. Ya know that, right?"
Again, the lone demonic eye of his companion's smoke burned in the arid darkness.
"Maybe," Creek said, "maybe not." The desperado's black boot heel crept out of the wavering light. "What I know for sure is that we'll be able to live off this loot for the rest of our lives."
Tuck's head shook back and forth in slow deliberate swaths. "Nuh uh. We took somethin' sacred, Creek."
"What?" his mentor asked. The loot sack rustled on the far side of the fire pit. "You mean this?"
A small golden statue plopped in the dust at Tucky's left knee. The idol's diamond eyes twinkled in the firelight. The young, inexperienced gunman scooted back from the artifact.
"It's just a statue, Tuck."
The idol's eyes pulled Tucky into their hypnotic depths. Visions of his escape from the hallowed temple percolated in his imagination. Wild-eyed followers of the priest had ripped and clawed at Tuck's back as he ran up the gentle incline within the pyramid's underbelly. They hissed and howled for the revenge of their fallen master.
"It's more than that," Tucky said, snapping out of his daydream. "These things gave them some sort of power."
Creek scoffed and flicked his spent butt into the glowing embers. "Come on. Don't tell me you buy into that mess."
"You had the loot on your back." Tucky rocked back and forth on his haunches. "You ran ahead of me. You didn't see what I saw."
Creek slid into the flames' luminance. "Perhaps, but I heard the same things you heard. People will do some crazy stuff when they're good and mad."
"Their eyes, Creek. Burning like the end of your cigarette." He stopped and turned his emotionless glare up to his pal. "Crazy ain't the half of it."
One of the logs deep in the fire let out a long hiss, startling the two men. Creek slid his gun out of its holster and held it sideways toward the fire.
"If any o' them natives wanna try something," he said, closing one eye, "let 'em come."
Tucky sat his hat on a smaller stone to his right and ran a shaky hand through his damp, brown curls. "That won't stop 'em." He removed a crumpled packet from his left hip pocket and unfurled it. Tucky pinched off a bit of his aromatic chew and sat it in his right cheek. "I shot one square 'tween the eyes and he kept on comin'."
A look of concern consumed his buddy's face on the opposite side.
"That's what I've been tryin' to explain, Creek." Tuck spat a line of tobacco juice into the flames. "We've got Pat Garrett and his posse huntin' us on one side, and who knows what on the other."
Creek shook off the notion and unlocked the chamber of his sidearm. "Garrett's got guns and knows how to use 'em." He peered off into the dark to the flashes of lightning to the south. "These natives ain't got squat."
"I'd rather take my chances with Garrett," Tucky said.
Creek snapped the chamber of his weapon closed and jabbed the barrel at Tucky. "That's not in the plan."
"I think it's time the plan changed."
Creek slapped his gun down on the loot next to the dying flames. "We take this bag, run west to California, and cash ourselves out."
Tucky snatched his hat and sprang to his feet. "Nowhere in this plan did it mention a thing about natives that can't be killed neither!"
His elder partner pulled out a tobacco kit and rolled another smoke. "Calm down, Tuck." He lifted the paper cylinder to his mustached mouth and licked it. "Fear don't suit you."
A rumble of thunder grew from over the southern hills and shook the ground under Tucky's boots. He snapped his head toward the looming natural wrath - his hand went for the Colt out of instinct.
"I don't like the looks of that."
Creek held his cig to the fire and brought the burning tobacco up to his lips. He released a plume of smoke into the growing breeze and sank into his tree. "Me either. We'll have to see if we can rustle up a good canyon soon." A coughing spasm overtook the trail-hardened criminal, bending him over at the hips.
"That ain't what I meant, Creek."
Tucky strode away from the light as more bright bolts darted across the desert skies. His youthful features froze at the illuminated skull taking shape on the leading edge of the storm. "It's them. They're here!"
Creek spat into the sand beside him and eased off the roots of his tree. The seasoned gunslinger sized up the swirling winds as the grainy grit stung his exposed hide. "Meh. It looks like a gully washer to me, Tuck. You're losin' it, amigo." He knelt to the loot sack and tied its rope off around the top. "At any rate, we'd best be movin' on. Toss me that statue over there, would ya?"
Tucky's eyes went back to the golden idol lying in the dust. Its glimmering eyes intensified as he took apprehensive steps forward. Kneeling down, he extended a hand hover over the gold, but let it linger a moment too long.
"Come on, Tuck! We're gonna get drenched soon."
The trinket's glare blinded him as the inexperienced thief lowered his fingers around it. "Nuh uh. No way, Creek." He stammered to his feet and shuffled away from the glowing treasure. "You want it, you come get it."
Creek took another drag off his smoke. "Ah, hell, boy." He stomped to Tucky's side. "What's all the . . . ?" His cig hit the dirt between his black boots and rolled around in the shifting winds.
"I warned ya," Tucky said. He jabbed a quaking index finger at the statue. "It's cursed."
A gust from the impending storm blew Tucky's hat off his head and out into the night. He held up a protective arm, turning southward. One flash after another raked across the dark in quick succession. In between gusts, he scanned the terrain for any signs of their predators. The blowing debris made it hard to discern, but Tucky could have sworn that he saw a fog rolling in among the sagebrush.
A sudden powerful gust bent their feeble fire and threatened to snuff it out. "Let's get to the horses and ride out," Creek said, staggering like a drunk in the winds.
Tucky stood motionless as a soupy mist snaked into their encampment, consuming everything below their kneecaps. "Too late."
He spun around as Creek climbed into saddle of his chestnut mare. "N-no!"
Wisps of the milky cloud slithered up around Creek's legs and jerked him out of the saddle to the ground. Bones snapped amidst enraged shrieks within the fog. The gunman howled to the sounds of his flesh ripping from the bone.
Tucky forced his numb legs to churn through the swirling mists toward his pal's horse. Flashes of red light pulsed here and there underneath the heavy cloud as he neared the garbled pleas for help.
"Creek?" He pulled his gun from its holster and inched the tip of his boot out to nudge whatever was left of his companion. "Cr—"
A bloody stump lunged out of the mists at Tucky's left shin. Its black coat had been shredded just below the elbow joint. He screamed, stumbled over something behind him, and plopped on his rump. "I-I gotta get outa here."
He lumbered to his painted horse and fumbled to get his left boot into the stirrup.
"Come on. Come on," he said as more hisses and feminine laughter engulfed him.
Tucky felt the brace of the foothold hit the front of his boot heel and heaved his bulky frame up into the saddle. Long, sinewy digits clamped around his lower leg. Tucky scrambled to swing his other leg over his horse and make a getaway. "Let loose, damn you!"
Before he could spur his ride, more inhuman claws tugged on his right leg. They had him by either extremity and yanked them hard into the fog. Tucky's horse whimpered as he felt its spine buckle beneath him.
Clusters of glowing red eyes drifted along the cloud's surface as he and his horse plunged into oblivion.