Read my short story THE BUZZARD originally published in Weird Tales Magazine. Ellen Datlow gave it Honorable Mention as one of the best horror stories of 2009.
The shadow of the buzzard circling overhead fell over the cowboy’s hat, horse and saddle soaked with blood from the hole in his belly. He slumped in his stirrups. All around, the brutal Arizona desert faded into watery waves of heat. His gun was empty. He was out of bullets and almost out of blood. The vulture knew. It had been tailing him for hours. Just that one stupid bird. Waiting for him to die. Reminding him he would soon be dead. Real soon. His bloodshot eyes glared up at the ugly carrion bird, slowly circling. The man’s parched lips twisted in a defiant sneer. “Damn you, bird, you ain’t gonna get me!” The vulture didn’t answer, just circled. Then it disappeared from view. God, his stomach hurt. The cowboy looked around. Only endless desert badlands, scorching white sun and pounding oven heat. At least the bird was gone. He felt he had a chance again.
Just then the vulture struck in a beat of huge, fetid wings that stunk of decay in the flapping wind they blew as the bird swooped down and ripped a piece out of his shoulder. The cowboy hollered and punched blindly at the buzzard, his fingers sinking into the mottled rubbery flesh of its scrawny neck. “Oh you miserable varmint!” He shrieked. The vulture flew away with a caw of victory, a scrap of him in its cracked beak. The struggle pitched the cowboy out of his saddle and when he hit the hard ground the searing agony from the bullet in his belly sent his screams echoing across the horizon. The man lay in the dirt catching his breath. High above, the vulture circled in its grim circumference of death.
It was mocking him. The damn bird was mocking him.
The cowboy swore he would kill it before it ate him. His whole life on the range came down to one single-minded goal. It was to survive long enough to kill this buzzard. He hated it more than any man he had ever killed, and he had killed plenty.
He’d gotten the draw on those two rustlers who’d ambushed him at the creek and dropped them before the one got off that lucky shot that punched like a fist into his intestines. The cowboy managed to crawl back into his saddle and ride off, but had used up his ammo during the gunfight. His horse had trod down the stream for a half-mile, its hooves treading through water bright with the blood of the two dead men upstream.
That was this morning. Now he lay on the ground, mortally wounded, blinking up into the sun and the black wingspan circling above him. All he had to do was get back on his horse, he told himself. The tired nag he fell off when the buzzard attacked stood but a few yards away, head slunk in the heat. The cowboy had to get to his feet. He stumbled upright in appalling pain, warm wetness from his gut wound gushing down his leather chaps onto his boots soaked with gore and sand. He staggered in a figure eight to his saddle and got there just as the horse took off, but he had a good grip on the bridle and cussing and screaming he dragged and slumped himself back on the mount.
The cowboy rode again.
The vulture still circled.
The man gave it the stink eye, keeping the buzzard in sight so it couldn’t ambush him anymore. The carrion bird had been flying directly overhead as the sun rose, but now it circled at one o’clock, just out of the way from blocking the burning sun so he had to stare straight into the fiery orb to spot the bird. He couldn’t do it for more than a second without looking away else he would go blind, so he had to take his eye off the vulture again and again. The buzzard knew that. It was flying near the sun on purpose so it could swoop down from the sky and attack him bleeding to death on his exhausted horse. That is what vultures did. They waited out their dying prey before the feast.
He still had some life left. The cowboy figured it was a two-day ride to Yuma. The town was due west. He could make it. In town, there would be doctors and medical supplies and they’d get the bullet out of him. There would be the bite and warmth of good whisky, the smooth touch of a woman’s skin, the fragrant smell of her hair, and the clean sheets after a cool bath with the gentle water against his skin. For a few precious moments, his senses strengthened with anticipation of those simple pleasures of life.
Then his horse’s hoof loudly shattered a bleached dry grinning cow skull in the dirt. It was a sound like breaking pottery that grimly reminding the cowboy of his dire situation and how his time was running out. Above, the vulture cawed, like a death rattle. “I’m still here, bird, you hear me? “ The man laughed manically but he felt no humor, only doom. “You ain’t gonna beat me, you ugly buzzard, nossir! I’ll live long enough to spit on your grave!”
The cowboy wondered what made him hate this bird so much. It was just another mangy buzzard. He’s used them for target practice. But this vulture was different. It was playing a game with him. Toying with him. The man feared it because it had his number. The cowboy had been in six gunfights and never been shot until today, and while the pain was bad, the sickening fear that his luck had run out was worse. He could die. He was dying. The bird kept reminding him of that fact, a feathered harbinger of doom that tracked him with the inescapability of death. That, or maybe he was just paranoid from loss of blood. Either way, he would kill it before it killed him. No way the cowboy was going to let the revolting scavenger eat him. He would get a proper burial when he went, yes sir. But the real reason he had to beat that bird was because it reminded him of his pending demise. Buzzards only kept company with things about to die. He was going to prove it wrong. “Damn you, bird, you ain’t gonna get me!” He rasped through a raw parched throat.
The bird cawed as if in answer.
The cowboy pulled a bottle of rotgut whisky from his chaps and bit the cork out. He took a deep swig and felt the rank liquor numb his system. It helped a little. Seeing he had less than half a bottle left, he figured he better save it, so put the cork back in and pocketed the bottle.
And on they rode, man and bird, until sunset.
At dusk he made camp.
Tying off the horse in a small arroyo, the cowboy managed to build a fire before darkness fell. As the sun dropped like a red knife slash below the horizon, he spotted the circling vulture swallowed into the gathering gloom. Then it was just night and moon and glow of fire. As painfully hot as the desert was during the day, it was just as painfully cold at night, and he shivered for warmth under his blanket. He lay with his head against a log in the glimmering glow of the campfire perimeter, staring into the flames, hypnotized by the fire licks and dancing sparks, and his thoughts wandered.
The cowboy was not a religious man. He wondered if he would go to Hell. The fire made him think of Hell, if there was a Hell. Was he a bad man? He didn’t know. No worse than most, he supposed. He flashed back on his early years roping cattle and breaking horses on ranches and spreads throughout Wyoming and Idaho. He should have married his sweetheart who was pretty and loved him and he could have been in her arms right now in a warm bed with a roof over his head rather than cold and alone and close to death out here in the desert. He wondered why left her and then he remembered. He’d left because those cattlemen had beat him up and he’d ridden off to settle the score with them. When he’d found them in a corral in the next state, he had purchased his first Remington Peacemaker and drew first and they died in the dirt. It was his way; he had to get even, when he would have been better off just turning the other cheek. The cowboy realized he was looking back on his life. Isn’t that what dying men did? He wanted to live, he knew that. The cowboy would change his ways. If got out of this, when he healed up, he’d ride back to Idaho and find his sweetheart. And never leave.
The man was so tired. He couldn’t keep his eyes open. He couldn’t see the bird but he sure felt it. Near. Waiting for him to sleep, to lower his guard. Yeah, it was out there, alright. The fire crackled and popped, showering sparks. So tired. If only he could shut his eyes for a few minutes. No, he told himself, that what the bird wanted. He rubbed dirt in his eyes to stay awake. It hurt like hell, and five minutes later his eyelids were drooping again. He stuck his fingers in his festering belly wound. His screams echoed across the plains. Ten minutes later sleep overcame pain and he was nodding again. He pulled out his bottle of whisky and took a long pull. The horse stood tethered to a small dead tree that looked like a stripped bone, a weary shape standing in the shadows at the edge of the meager firelight. Wood popped and crackled in the dying flames.
The cowboy heard wings. Then the sound of something landing in the darkened perimeter of the camp. His fist closed tightly on a thick, heavy branch of wood in the sand beside him. Gripping it like a club, the man carefully eased himself on his side, hugging the branch to him. He closed his eyes to narrow slits, adrenaline pumping and waking his senses. He pretended to sleep, made a snoring sound, not moving a muscle, and watched through slitted eyelids the impenetrable gloom at the edge of the campfire.
He smelled it before he saw it.
It took a long time for the vulture to appear.
But it did. Bigger than he thought it was. A giant, hulking black feathered stinking creature with a hideous disfigured and scarred rotten red face and globular yellow eyes, its hairy jagged beak cracked and razor sharp. A death bird. Death itself.
The buzzard approached him one step at a time on huge talons waddling across the sand.
Firelight gleamed demonically in its eyes.
The bird came on slowly, step by step, watching him all the time.
The cowboy feigned slumber, completely motionless, waiting until his nemesis got within reach.
It was a foot away, silhouetted in the dying firelight.
With a caw, it pecked his hand.
And the cowboy struck.
Swinging the wooden branch in both hands with all his might against the vulture’s body and head, he felt bones and cartilage crack. The buzzard shrieked in a horrible high-pitched squealing agony, eyes bulging in terror and betrayal and alarm. The man hit it again and again with the bat, trying to beat it to death. Sand and dirt flew as the bird flapped its wings violently, unable to get up or get away. Its beak gaped and a grisly tongue jutted as it cawed and yelped. The horse reared in fear, pawing the air with its hooves. The cowboy was possessed with mania as he got to his knees and brutally beat the bird, hearing its body shatter as he was splattered with its blood. The pummeled buzzard met his gaze with a feral, primal hatred that matched his own. The horse was in a panic as it jumped and whinnied, straining against its bridle and reins tethering it to the tree. Suddenly, the vulture sheared its talon savagely across his belly bullet wound and the cowboy fell back, howling.
Then the bird was gone.
The man lay on the ground, curled up in pain, listening to the fading flap of wings into the sky and the wounded buzzard’s cries of hurt.
He’d all but killed the thing
It wasn’t coming back tonight.
The cowboy awoke with a jolt.
Daylight burned his eyes. It was morning. Shocked he had carelessly fallen asleep, the man took quick inventory of his limbs but found himself intact except for the inflamed bullet hole. Rising up painfully, he looked around the camp.
His horse lay on his side.
Dread gripped the cowboy like a nausea in his stomach. Crawling on his hands and knees, he dragged himself through the dirt to the big animal lying prone and still in the dust, saddle askew and stirrups dangling. The sound of flies became louder. The cowboy lifted his head to look over the horse’s haunches, trying to spot the rising of his animal’s chest with respiration. Instead, he saw the horse’s blood-covered face and tongue lolling from its gaping mouth.
Its eyes had been pecked out.
With a sickening caw, the vulture leaped up. The buzzard fixed the man in a triumphant, evil, almost human gaze. It flapped its black, rotted wings and swooped up into the sky.
The bird resumed its daily circle.
The cowboy covered his head with his hands and screamed in rage, frustration and despair in the heat and the dust, pulling out hunks of his hair at the roots. “Damn you, you miserable devil, I’m gonna kill you, you dirty filthy buzzard, I’m gonna kill you if it’s the last thing I do!” He staggered to his feet, unmindful of the pain of his wound, and shook his fists at the relentlessly circling vulture. It cawed loudly in response, beating its wings.
Now on foot, the cowboy headed out into the desert wastes. He knew his hour was at hand. He could make it a mile at best, before the sun was at its height and would burn like hellfire. The man knew it would be the end of him. His legs felt like cement blocks he could barely lift. His throat was raw and constricted from thirst. Delirium embraced him and white flashes flared in front of his eyes. The buzzard had won. It would eat him.
Then the cowboy had a thought. He had matches. He could drag together some brush and scrub and light it and douse himself with the last of the whisky and set himself on fire. There would be nothing left of his roasted carcass to eat and the buzzard would go away hungry. He almost did it. He had the whisky and the matches out. Then the sun began to sear his burnt skin and he realized the long pain of immolation would be an agony too great to bear. And what if he didn’t die?
So the cowboy kept walking. The shadow of the vulture swept the ground ceaselessly like the second hand of a watch. His boots churned the sand. His tired eyes met the horizon. It was blurry with heat and blank and dry as a bone. He didn’t want to die like this.
Far off, something metallic glinted. He stopped walking. The gleam again. When the cowboy saw the distorted figure of the man in the distance riding towards him and heard the hoof beats knew he wouldn’t have to die today. Giving an upraised middle finger to the buzzard overhead, the man’s eyes rolled up in their sockets and he passed out.
The cowboy slept for three days the doctor told him.
When he awoke on the straw mattress in the wagon, the bullet had been removed and he had been stitched up. The kindly medical man had been in the desert collecting flowers for medicinal purposes and it had been dumb luck he had been in the right place and the right time and found the injured man suffering from loss of blood, exposure and infection. Fortunately, the doctor was skilled and saved the cowboy’s life.
The cowboy expressed his gratitude and offered money, which was refused.
He accepted food and water.
He felt better.
Then he asked for the bullets.
The doctor told the cowboy that he was in no condition to go back out in the desert to settle scores.
The cowboy thanked him for everything he’d done.
He paid the doctor cash for the .45’s.
By noon, he had headed out on foot into the desert, fully armed.
The buzzard wasn’t hard to find.
It was just sitting there.
Like it was waiting for him.
They faced one another the way adversaries did out west.
The cowboy’s hand hovered at the stock of the pistol jutting in his holster.
He fixed the vulture square in the eye.
“Draw,” he chuckled, grinning.
The buzzard just watched him with its sickly yellow unblinking eyes.
The man went for his gun, grabbing the stock and sliding it out of his holster in one smooth motion with his right hand while the palm of his left hand dropped down and pressed the top of his pistol sliding it under so the quick draw movement cocked the hammer back and he pulled the trigger with the lightest touch but the gun misfired. The .45 bullet lodged in the clogged dirt in the barrel and when it exploded the whole entire pistol flew apart in jagged shrapnel in his hand.
When he regained consciousness on his back on the ground, the last thing the cowboy saw were the yellow eyes of the vulture perched on his chest, feeding and fixing him in its victorious gaze.
It wasn’t about to hurry this meal.