“The Watchers”

Author’s Note: This still requires revisions, but I feel comfortable sharing this, and since it’s Halloween AND it’s a horror story, then I figured, why not? Plus, after my serious, angry post about Halloween ya’ll deserve something fun for your trouble. Bonus note: This will be featured in an upcoming short horror anthology that a friend and I are collaborating on which will be available via Amazon Kindle. More details to come. Enjoy!

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In the distance, metal strands protruded from the earth; half-melted, rusted, and choked with vines. Sand dunes obscured the base of these towers, and the occasional gust of wind kicked up dust and made the towers disappear. From over one of the dunes, a trio of figures appeared. Each one clad in rags, goggles, and hooded jackets. They slogged through the sand with worn boots, pulling wooden sleds behind them. The sleds carried boxes and cans of food as well as other precious cargo. The men did not speak, and seemed to take no notice of the person in front of him.

No plants dotted the landscape, and no animals joined the travelers. They were alone in this dead place, the only upright creatures around. They moved farther away from the dead city, and the sun moved across the sky toward the horizon. The group didn’t stop walking until the one at the front stopped. He didn’t raise his hand, or issue a command, he just froze, and the group froze along with him. This was their sign that it was time to set up camp and rest for the night.

They set up a flimsy tent without conversation, and went inside as night fell. One of the men lit a small, gas lantern inside the tent casting shadows on the cloth walls; spectral versions of each member. They removed their hoods, their goggles, and the scarves covering the rest of their faces. Their faces possessed a pair of tired eyes, hollow cheek bones, and a scraggly beard surrounding thin, pale lips. One of the men opened a can of food and passed it around as each of them dug into the can with their fingers and pulled the extraction toward their mouth. As with everything else, they ate without speaking, and never looked at each other. Their hands moved mechanically: pull out some food, eat the food, and pass it to the next man. After dinner they passed around a canteen of water, each taking small, slow pulls from the container. Conscious not to drink too fast and risk any water escaping their mouth. They sat on their sleds around the lantern and listened to the wind outside their tent.

The leader of the group broke the silence, “We’re running low on food and water, and the next settlement is at least three days away.”

The two other men nodded, not out of agreement, but more in recognition of the truth.

“If we don’t meet any traders, we’re likely to die out here.”

The men nodded again.

“Did either of you find anything in the ruins? Anything worth trading?”

The man sitting to the left of the leader said, “Just some food. Nothing worthwhile.”

“I found a couple shirts, and a pair of old sunglasses,” the man to the right added.

“The shirts might be of help, but I don’t know about the sunglasses. Goggles would have been better, but those are a rare find,” the leader responded.

The man to the right nodded.

The leader reached into his jacket and rummaged around for a bit, then pulled out a silver rod, connected to metal body with a scarred wooden handle. The men gazed at the object, captivated by its foreign nature.

“I found this in the ruins. Don’t know if it still works, but it has five rounds. We may not have much worth trading, but at least we have this for some…negotiation.” He said the words without malice or glee, just as a statement of fact.

Although the men knew of guns, and had used them on occasion, they still possessed a certain strangeness. They used knives, rocks, bits of metal to settle disputes and defend themselves. A gun seemed like it didn’t belong in their time. It belonged before their time, or perhaps ahead of their time, in a time when people had the luxury of killing from a distance.

The leader returned the gun to his jacket, “Hopefully we won’t need it, at least not yet.”

The men nodded, and with that they turned off the lantern and went to sleep.

The sun’s light radiated from behind the dunes and the men rose. They broke camp, gathered their things, and continued walking. The miles of desert gave way to an old road, wide and made of concrete. Piles of sand dotted the highway, along with the occasional pile of bones; both human and animal. The men dragged their sleds behind them, the metal runners screeching as they ground against the road. They passed the remains of civilization. The few scattered belongings of a people in flight away from the city during the Fall. None of these things mattered to the men. None of it worth the trouble of stopping to pick through the detritus in hopes of finding something to add to their collection. A few pictures and scraps of papers blew around them; left behind memories that nobody cared about.

A sand dune covered the highway and the men walked over it, undeterred by its presence. Once night fell, they repeated the same routine from before. Except now they had less food, less water, and the need to find those things became more pressing. They went to sleep, their stomachs mostly empty, and they tried to ignore the pain as their bodies protested the rationing.

At daybreak they continued on their way, still far from the settlement. With nightfall they set up camp again and ate. When it came time to pass around the water the leader opened the canteen, but he paused before taking a drink. He gave the container a shake and heard only a little water sloshing against the sides of the canteen.

“I thought we had more than this.”

He shook the canteen again, perhaps believing that water was trapped in the metal and would come out if he prompted it. The leader sighed and screwed the cap back onto the canteen and set it aside. “There’s no point in passing it around. You’d barely get a taste before it was gone.”

The man to his left asked, “Now what?”

“We try to get to the settlement without going thirsty. I don’t see how it’s possible in this heat, but we’ll try.”

“Unless we meet traders,” the man to the right suggested.

The leader nodded, “Yeah, but we haven’t seen any tracks, so unless they’re covering ’em there’s no chance of that happening.”

The man to the left accepted this as the leader did, but the man to the right tensed at the observation. He had been starving when the other two found him, and he didn’t intend to starve again. He remembered the feeling of a shrunken stomach, the weakness starvation brought, the helplessness. Without his friends he would’ve died a long time ago, or worse.

“Maybe there’s one just behind us?” he said.

“Don’t get your hopes up. Optimism is too dangerous out here,” the leader retorted.

Without another word, the leader extinguished the lantern and the men went to sleep. There was no use in suppositions, or hopeful theories about possibilities. These men had learned to temper optimism, if not kill it entirely, for the sake of their sanity. It was better to accept things as they were than to believe in things as they might be.

Sometime in the night the man to the right woke with a start. He heard the sound of wheels squeaking and men talking in low voices. Their voices carried across the empty space making it seem like the desert whispered. The man sat up for a moment, listening to the noise outside the tent. The squeaking wheels passed and the voices passed with it, then grew fainter. He shook his head, chastising himself for letting his mind get the better of him, and he went back to sleep.

Outside, the moon bathed the landscape in white light. A wagon, fashioned out of an old car chassis and planks of wood pulled by a sickly bull, passed the tent. The beast huffed with each step, its eyes half-closed as it marched forward. Two men walked alongside the animal, both dressed the same as the travelers asleep in the tent. Their wagon carried a small mountain of supplies: food, water, clothing, a few boxes of ammunition, and even the odd luxury item like a half-empty pack of cigarettes or a dirty bottle of liquor. They traveled without weapons, because everyone knew what happened if you attacked traders. The men looked at the tent, then at each other, falling silent as they passed. One of the traders prodded the bull with a stick to make it move faster. As the campsite receded behind them they cast one final look over their shoulders then continued on into the night.

In the morning, the travelers woke and left their tent. The leader of the group looked down and saw tracks in the fine dust that covered the highway. Two parallel lines of wheel tracks, two roughly parallel lines of foot tracks, and hoof prints that started far before their campsite and went far beyond it. The other men looked at the tracks, then looked to their leader.

“When do you think they passed?” asked one of the men.

“They passed in the night. I thought it’d been a dream, so I didn’t think to go outside,” confessed the other man, “I couldn’t tell if they were traders or…something else. I didn’t want to take any risks.” After a pause he asked the leader, “How far ahead do you think they are?”

“Maybe a couple hours. They’re definitely moving slower if they’ve got an animal and it’s pulling a wagon. We’d probably be able to catch up to them.”

The men nodded and proceeded to take apart the tent and load up their sleds. They moved faster than usual, but with the same diligence as any other morning. After all, it would be fatal to forget some crucial supplies if they couldn’t catch the traders. Once they had packed, they formed a line and began walking down the highway following the tracks before them.

Sometime around midday the three men caught up with the traders. At least enough that they could look down the road and see them in the distance. The leader stopped and turned to address the other men.

“They’re probably headed to the same settlement we are, which means they might not be in any mood to trade.” He pulled the revolver from his jacket and let it hang limp at his side, “But we need water at the very least, and food if they have any to spare. I’m not planning on killing anyone, but if they need a little encouragement…” He shook the gun at his side and the men nodded in understanding.

The leader nodded and they kept walking, eager to catch up to their salvation. They took even breaths and paced themselves so they didn’t work up a sweat. The caravan grew closer to them. One thousand feet, five hundred feet, three hundred feet, one hundred feet, then it stopped and the leader stopped with it. His men moved into positions on each side of their leader. The two traders turned around and stared at the ragged trio behind them.

The leader called out to the two men, “You traders?”

One of the men responded, “Depends, you looking to trade?”

“We just need some water is all,” the leader shouted back.

The two caravan men looked at each other, then the first man responded, “Alright, come on over.”

The travelers approached the traders, the leader gripping the revolver and the other two men ready to attack if the traders turned hostile. When they got up to the traders the trio looked at the wagon piled high with goods, trying hard not to make it too apparent.

The trader that had spoken before said to the leader, “So, what you got to trade?”

The leader looked to the wagon then to the trader, “All we need is some water. We were planning on saving anything we had for when we got to the settlement.”

The second trader scoffed and the first trader laughed, “That’s not how this works.”

“I understand that, I do, but all we need is a canteen’s worth of water and we’ll be on our way. We’d even be happy to let you go on ahead of us, give you the rest of the day to travel without us behind you.”

The trader shook his head, “No trade, no water. This ain’t a charity, and we can’t just hand out water and food to every starving drifter that crosses our path.”

The two men watched their leader, waiting for a signal, waiting for his next move. He looked at the wagon and said, “You two have plenty of stuff to barter with, I don’t think we’d be putting you out of business over a single canteen of water.”

“Even so, we collected our goods, dug through the ruins just like anyone else. Look around, do you think the world has room for people like you and your men? There’s barely enough to go around for survivors, much less beggars like yourselves. It’s the law of the wild out here: survive, or perish. Now either ante up, or leave.”

“Please, all we need-”

The trader waved his hand dismissively, “Fuck off, beggars.” He turned to his partner, “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

The traders walked away from the group of men, and the two men watched their leader expecting him to say something more. The man to the right clenched his fists and waited for his leader to act. A growling voice in his head said, Come on, do something about this! His arm shot out and he seized the gun from the leader. Before either man could stop him he raised his arm and pulled the trigger. The gun roared and kicked back, the sound exploding across the empty highway. The trader’s head ruptured spraying brains, blood, and bone on the sand and the concrete. He dropped to the ground, his body making an audible thump as it landed. The other trader stood for a moment, staring at his dead partner, then took off running away from the group of men.

The man took aim and fired. The bullet hit the trader in his back and he stumbled, slamming into the ground. They heard him groaning and bleeding out in the sun. As the smoke curled from the end of the barrel the leader snatched the revolver from the man and glared at him for a moment. He surveyed the scene before him then looked at the wagon.

He turned to the two men, and in a low voice said, “Load up your sleds with as much as you can carry.”

“What if someone heard the gunshot? Won’t they come looking?” asked one of the men.

“We’ll move fast then get off the road. We can wait a couple days in the desert then circle back. We’ll eat a little extra, so it doesn’t look suspicious when we reach the settlement.”

“What about the other trader?”

“Leave him.”

“The bull?”

“Leave it be. It’ll either wander off into the desert or make its way to the settlement. Either way it’s not our problem.”

As the leader and one of the men loaded their sled with supplies, the shooter looked at the cooling body of the trader lying face down, the sand turning dark red around his head. In the distance he looked at the dying man and tried not to listen to his pleads for help and mercy. There’s no room for beggars in this world, he thought to himself, but another thought replaced it, We are the Watchers, and we see all. Punishment awaits the wicked. Even in the desert his body went cold and he felt like vomiting. The leader looked up and saw the man staring at the dying trader.

“There’s nothing you can do about it. Now help us get the supplies so we can get the hell out of here.”

The man nodded and went about loading up his own sled with food, water, and anything else worthwhile. Once they had as much as they could pull they made their way off the road back into the desert leaving the wagon behind them. The bull watched them leave then turned its attention away from the men. As they moved farther away from the highway the dying man’s cries faded until they could be heard no more.

At night they set up camp like they always did, but this time they each had a bottle of water and a can of food. For the first time in a while they talked during dinner, discussing barter strategies for when they reached the settlement and other plans.

“Tomorrow we’ll take account of what we have. Like always we’ll pool our supplies, see what’s worth trading and what’s worth keeping. After that we can rest for a while, maybe enjoy ourselves if the settlement’s any good then keep making our way to the coast,” the leader said to the other two men.

The men nodded.

“Now, speaking of sharing. Since we have plenty of water, and plenty of food, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to treat ourselves a little bit.” He pulled out a dusty fifth of whiskey about three-quarters full. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to dig into our supplies. Besides, we have plenty of other things to trade.”

The man to the left laughed, “Hell, sounds good to me. I haven’t had a drink since the last settlement, and this one’s free!”

The leader looked to the man to his right. He hadn’t spoken as much during dinner, and didn’t seem to be in the same celebratory mood as the other two men. “You want any?”

The man didn’t respond.

“Hey, I asked if you wanted any?”

The man to the right stayed quiet then spoke, “I heard a voice say, ‘Punishment awaits the wicked,’ after I killed those traders. I just didn’t want to starve again, and they wouldn’t trade with us.” The leader sighed and said, “It was just your conscience. Don’t get weird on us because you killed those traders. It was stupid, but it’s over, and killing that runner made sense. If he got to the settlement he would’ve called us raiders, and you know what they’d do to us.”

The man nodded. He had seen the mutilated bodies, broken boned, impaled or crucified on the side of the road usually not too far from an outpost or settlement.

“Survive, or perish,” he said, but in his head he heard the voice again, Punishment awaits the wicked.

He grabbed the bottle from the leader and took a long drink. The leader clapped him on the back, and the men continued to pass the bottle back and forth until it went dry. The men talked, joked, and ate some more food. It had been a while since they had had a chance to relax like this. Outside no wind blew and it seemed the men were the only living things for miles around. The men grew tired, and the leader turned off the lantern.

Sometime in the night, the man to right woke up and stumbled outside to use the bathroom. While he fumbled with his pants he listened to the winds blow over the sand, kicking up dust devils that disappeared as soon as they formed. No moon provided light and darkness surrounded him. Only the pinpricks of starlight above him separated the land from the sky. After he finished he fastened his pants and turned around to return to the tent.

Behind him, he heard the faint squeaking of wheels and the wind carried a wheezing, groaning noise as if from something wounded. He paused for a moment and listened, trying to focus on the sound. The squeaking wheels grew closer, and the labored breathing became louder. He stared into the night and in the distance he saw a figure on the horizon. Then that one figure became three, then five, then one again. His heart rate increased, his breaths became short and panicked. He looked at the ground closest to their campsite and noticed that, despite the wind, most of their tracks remained. His eyes widened and he looked again and the figures had gotten closer than before. His blood pounded in his ears and he dove into the tent.

“Wake up!” he said in a tense whisper, “Wake up! They’ve found us!”

The man to the left stirred in his sleep, but didn’t wake.

“Please, you two have to wake up, there’s someone coming. Dammit you have to wake up!”

He remembered the dead raiders on the side of the road. Their limbs at strange angles and their hands cut off. Large wooden stakes driven through their bodies and exiting through their abdomens. Other raiders had their arms and feet tied to old telephone poles left to die of exposure. Left as gruesome reminders that the wasteland forgave criminals, but not raiders.

He shook the leader until he woke up. The man blinked a few times, rubbed his head then sat up, “The hell’s wrong with you?”

“Keep your voice down, I don’t know how close they are.”

“How close who is?” the leader half-muttered and half-slurred.

“It’s gotta be a posse from the settlement. The traders never showed up and I bet they found it and then they saw our their tracks and now-”

“Calm down. There’s nobody out there, and even if there is,” he reached into his jacket and pulled out the revolver, “We have this. If things get ugly a few shots will make ’em scatter. Now go back to sleep.” The leader laid his head down and went back to sleep. His arm went limp and the hand holding the gun fell to his side.

The man peeked outside the tent and the wheels were even closer, A dark figure crested the nearest dune and it rasped as it breathed. He ducked back into the tent and looked at his sleeping comrades. He grabbed the revolver, donned his goggles, and ran outside the tent. The squeaking bore down on him and without a second glance he took off running away from the tent deeper into the desert.

He heard people running behind him and yells of, “Come back here! Come back here you thieving sonofabitch!” Without looking back he fired the gun twice over his shoulder. His pursuers swore and stopped following, but the recoil of the shots threw off his balance and he stumbled a few feet. He took a step out into space, yelped, and rolled down a dune. His head slammed into the ground and he fell unconscious, allowing his body to rest.

“Where the hell is he going?” asked the other man to his leader.

“How should I know?”

Then they heard the squeaking wheels and turned around, ready to follow their friend into the desert. A dark mass approached and the two men froze, steeling themselves for whatever horror approached. Out of the darkness the bull appeared, pulling the wagon behind him. Both men relaxed and the leader walked over to pat the pitiful beast.

He stared into the black desert where his friend had retreated and shook his head, “Poor bastard kills two people and he loses his damn mind.”

The man woke to the feeling of the sun on his back and a mouthful of sand. He spat it out and blew his nose on the ground before standing up and looking around. His last memory was running away from the search party and falling down the dune. Before him was desert, and behind him the dune he fell down. He considered climbing to the top and getting his bearings, but he thought better of it. Maybe the searchers had left behind a few men to see if he returned to camp, or they had followed his tracks and were trying to get the drop on him. Just right over the crest of the dune…

In his head he heard, “Punishment awaits the wicked.”

He snatched up the revolver, pulled his scarf back onto his face and the goggles back over his eyes and started running again. He couldn’t let happen to him what had happened to other raiders. He thought of the other two men and how they were probably dead; tortured and beaten to death by the crazed mob. Coward! He kept running and the sweat poured out of his body. His mouth sucked in the dry air making his tongue stiff and brittle. The words he’d heard earlier ringing in his ears, Punishment awaits the wicked. No time to think, no time to plan, just keep moving and get as far away from the settlement as possible.

The words came louder and angrier, “Punishment awaits the wicked!”

His legs stopped moving and he fell to the ground. He yanked down his scarf and threw up several times, his body heaving and shuddering as punishment for all he had put it through.

Once the nausea paused he stood again and looked around. Nothing but dunes and sand for as far as his eyes could see. He still had the revolver in his hand. He opened the chamber and shook out the spent shells. One bullet fell at his feet and he picked it up and placed it back in the chamber. He took a deep breath and started walking. The sun crossed the sky and the man tried not to think about what had happened to his friends, or the voice, now a whisper saying, “We’re coming for you. We see you. Punishment awaits the wicked.

He focused on what he needed: food, water, and shelter. Obviously, none of those things were around him, and he had left his supplies back at the camp. He had nothing with him. When he retreated from the camp he had left his sled behind along with his portion of supplies.

No matter, he thought, It’s better than…He forbade himself from thinking that and pushed himself to continue. Trying to keep the malicious voice out of his head.

The sun edged toward the horizon and dread set in. He quickened his pace hoping to find some shelter before the sun set. Just as the last rays of light vanished he saw a structure ahead of him. He paused, straining his eyes to look for any signs of life. He decided it was safe and ran toward it. An abandoned gas station appeared and a long forgotten back road ran next to it. None of the windows had glass, and neither of the front doors had any either. In short, a bad shelter, but it would do for the night. He stepped through the metal frame of the door and the shattered glass crunched under his feet. The shelves lay on the floor, and the store had been stripped of anything useful. He cursed his fortune, then reminded himself his fate could be much worse.

He found the station’s bathroom and checked the cracked, dusty toilet for any water in the bowl, then removed the tank’s lid to see if any remained in there. Nothing. He continued his search for water, but found none. He went into the back office and found an old wooden desk and a plastic office chair behind it. The man opened each drawer hoping to find something, but no treasures awaited him until he got to a locked drawer. He pulled on it, worked it, until his fingers screamed and his arms pleaded. The wood finally gave way and he fell backward holding onto part of the drawer. Nothing remained in the drawer except a few weathered dollars and a pint of vodka. Money meant nothing, but the vodka…

Is there water in liquor? he thought, There has to be at least some water. He recalled that he had been willing to drink toilet water and decided the vodka would do for the night. He sat in the chair, and placed the revolver and the pint on the table. He unscrewed the cap and drank all of the vodka in one pull. The room swam and he laid his head down on the table. His body warmed with the alcohol and he drooled on the wood surface.

Greedy coward!

He burped and stared at the wall, trying not to think too much about the bile rising in his throat or the thoughts dominating the back of his mind.

Best not to think about that. Just focus on the wall, focus on the dark and go to sleep. He closed his eyes and let the night take him.

The wind picked up in the night making the old gas station creak and threaten to collapse. Sand blew in through the open windows and made little piles around the broken shelves. Somewhere nearby, wagon wheels squeaked and voices carried over the desert. The man sleeping at the desk bolted up, his eyes wide and bloodshot. His hands searched the desk for the gun and he knocked over the empty pint, slamming his hand down on it to stop the rattling. He seized the revolver and swung it around waiting for arms to grab his forearm and wrench the gun from his clammy hand.

He heard a voice say, “We are the Watchers, and we see all. Punishment awaits the wicked.”

The man stood and ran over to the office doorway. He peered into the empty gas station listening to the squeaking wheels and the whistling of the wind through the open doors and windows. He clutched the revolver in his hand and shook. He tried to focus his eyes, but he couldn’t sober up.

I’m just tired, hungry, and thirsty.

Despite his attempts to rationalize the sound the squeaking wheels and voices persisted. At first he couldn’t make out what the voices said, but they were low and masculine. As they drew closer he heard out what the men said.

“You thieving pig! You fucking coward!”

“We’ll rip out your guts and hang you with ’em!”

“Come out and face us like you still have some balls!”

The man shuddered and ran over to the gas station’s doorway. He pressed his body against the wall and looked out into the night while trying to keep his head down.

“Where are you? Huh? Come out here and get what you deserve!”

“You think you can get away with what you did?!”

The wind carried the voices toward him, surrounded him, he imagined a group of half a dozen men circling the gas station, ready to storm him from all sides. Blood thirsty, ready for vengeance, ready to make him suffer for killing the traders. Anyone else in his position would’ve done the same thing. Survive, or perish. Live, or die.

Selfish, greedy coward!

“You gonna come out and face your punishment? Or are we gonna have to come and get you?”

The man in the gas station remained silent. The wind howled outside. His legs shook and he tried to find the strength to respond to his pursuers.

Finally, he mustered up the courage to yell back, “I was just trying to save myself,” and after a pause, “I have a gun, you come any closer and I’ll shoot!”

The men outside laughed at his threat. The sound dry, wheezing, barking, like crazed dogs circling wounded prey.

“Oh we know you have a gun,” one of the men said, “You shot at us when you ran. It’s no matter though, ’cause you’re outnumbered.”

Another man said, “Let’s just go in and get the piece of shit.”

The wheels squeaked again and he heard the sound of feet approaching. It sounded like even more men had joined the group and they advanced on the gas station like a noose tightening around the neck of a man condemned to die. Despite not wanting to face the inevitable, the man looked outside and saw a small army of black, shadowy figures surrounding the gas station, far enough away that he couldn’t make out any defining features. Sand blew around the station and further obscured his vision. It worked into his goggles and blinded him. Every time he blinked the figures appeared to be closer. Above the din of the sandstorm he heard the squeaking wheels. The sound went deep into his brain and grated on his mind. They came closer, faster, the wind a frenzy.

The gas station began to fill with sand and he stepped over a miniature dune forming at the base of the shattered doors. He heard the voices beyond the wind say, “We are the Watchers, and we see all. Punishment awaits the wicked!”

Peering beyond the brown wall of dust he thought he saw the two dead traders; one missing a sizable chunk of his head and the other with a gaping exit wound in his stomach. He saw his two friends; mangled and broken. Beside them he saw countless black figures staring at him through the veil of sand. He ripped off his goggles and his scarf and let the sand sting his face. A low sound, a chorus of voices, came from the crowd.

“We are the Watchers, and we see all. Punishment awaits the wicked.”

“We are the Watchers, and we see all. Punishment awaits the wicked!”

“We are the Watchers, and we see all! Punishment awaits the wicked!”

The sentence grew louder and the words ran together, but the man still understood what they said, “Punishment awaits the wicked!”

He screamed into the storm, the particles of rock cutting his face, his eyes, his tongue and gums. A thousand little razors slashing his skin. He knew he deserved whatever punishment awaited him, but the animal part of his brain recoiled at the thought of the agony. The circle of shadows came closer, almost forming a single continuous black line around the station. Their hands reached out, trying to pull him into the maelstrom.

He felt the weight of the gun in his hand, the single bullet in the chamber, and he began to laugh. It rose to a wild, hysterical cackle as he put the barrel of the gun beneath his chin.

“You want me? I won’t give you the satisfaction!” he raged at his captors.

The voices replied, “PUNISHMENT AWAITS THE WICKED!

A cold fingers seized the hand holding the gun while other claws pulled at his jacket. The man made a sound like a wounded animal and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through his jaw, the roof of his mouth, and exited out the top of his head. He fell backward and lied sprawled on the ground, his eyes dull and open, his mouth slack. The wind continued to howl and deposited sand on the dead man, as if the desert had begun to swallow and digest the body.

Two men appeared at the top of one of the dunes that overlooked the abandoned gas station. One man pulled a single sled and the other man pulled two. They had heard the gunshot and retreated over the hill, waiting for daybreak to investigate.

“You think it’s safe to go down there?” asked the man pulling two sleds, “You think he’s still gonna try to kill us?”

The man with the single sled laughed, “Unless he found more ammunition or some new friends I doubt he’s much of a threat.”

They walked down the dune, ready for someone to charge out of the gas station waving a revolver and screaming at them. As they approached the concrete slab where the empty pumps stood, they slowed their pace and called out the man’s name. No one responded and the one man muttered, “Where the hell is he?”

The leader saw a boot sticking out of a pile of sand near the doorway and motioned for the other man to examine it. He moved the sand and found their friend, his eyes and mouth filled with dust, the ground around his head turned a rusty color. His clothing torn and pulled at as if a wild crowd had been trying to tear him apart. The man with two sleds knelt down and picked up the revolver. He swore under his breath when he found the chamber empty and handed over the gun to the leader.

“Shot himself. Why do you think he did it?”

“Either he thought we were a search party, or going to kill him for stealing the gun. I guess it all just drove him crazy.” The leader saw a girder hanging from the covering that shielded the pumps from the sun. He pushed it, and it squeaked as it swung back and forth just like the wheels on the traders’ wagon. He shook his head.

As the girder stopped swinging he heard a faint voice, a calm whisper in the wind say, “We are the Watchers, and we see all. Punishment awaits the wicked.”

He shivered and felt the urge to throw up, “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

The other man didn’t respond. He stared at the land around the gas station and turned to look at the leader. The leader walked over to him, “Hey, you hear me? Let’s get out of here.”

The man pointed to the ground. Footprints, side by side, formed a perimeter around the gas station. Some overlapped each other, and it seemed they had all come at the same time. The footprints looked human, but they scorched the earth leaving behind black, glassy marks. The leader kicked away the sand near his dead friend, and some of the same tracks led up to the corpse. Another set of scorched tracks led to the side of the station. The two men followed the path and read the message dominating the wall: We are the Watchers, and we see all. Punishment awaits the wicked.

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