“Witness this man fallen to the hot, wicked ground!” Horace Watson said, pointing down at Sheridan Whitmore lying in the middle of the street. “Nobody touch him, he’s been kissed by the Devil.”
Sheridan looked up at Horace’s frightened yet exuberant face. “Give me a hand.”
Horace took a step back. “No way, friend,” he said. “I can’t risk my eternal soul.”
It was a torrid-red July afternoon in the frontier town of Whispering Gulch. Everything wilted in the sweltering heat – buildings drooped, residents fought to sustain their energy in the oppressive, feverish air and the hard-packed ground seemed to sizzle like a skillet.
Sheridan Whitmore, proprietor of the Whitmore General Store, had stumbled while walking from the restaurant at the Whispering Gulch Cosmopolitan to his place of business. He’d tried to lift himself up off of the dirt, but lingering injuries he’d sustained in the war between the states, and the high, dry temperature conspired against him. Now the ground under his fallen body was baking through his clothes.
Horace Watson, owner of Smilin’ Jack’s Saloon, was the first to see Sheridan. Now a crowd was forming and Horace was doing his best to keep them at bay. The stench of their unwashed, perspiring flesh and sodden clothes floated down to assault his sensibilities.
“Somebody want to give me a hand?” Sheridan asked, reaching up for assistance.
“Nobody touch him!” Horace said. “Feel that heat? Feel the burning caress of Hell coming through the ground? That’s the Devil! Lucifer has claimed this fallen soul!”
“Just help me up!”
“See?” Horace continued. “The demands he makes?”
“You’re being an idiot!”
“Already Satan speaks through him!”
Several members of the crowd nodded in agreement. Mumbles of “He’s right” and “That’s not like him” and “Mr. Whitmore’s normally so polite why I buy tooth powder and molasses” reached Sheridan’s ears.
Sheridan could feel the sweat drip down his sides and through his clothes to the ground, he swore he could hear it crackle when perspiration met dirt. “There ain’t no Devil coming through the ground to get me,” he said. “It’s just a hot day and I fell down. Now someone help me back to my damn feet!”
“Blasphemy!” called out one member of the crowd.
“Sacrilege!” shouted another.
“A profaneness straight from the Devil’s tongue!” cried a third.
“You’re all idiots,” Sheridan mumbled to himself. “Superstitious idiots.”
Just as Sheridan was ready to resign himself to spending the rest of his days in the smoldering dirt of the street – his skin blistering, his hair blazing, his bones melting to butter – an angel stepped out of the inferno air.
“I got ya,” said Candace Kane, working girl at the Eternal Rest whorehouse. The sun bounced off of her auburn hair like a halo.
Horace moved to block her progress. “Careful, child. The Devil’s got hold of him.”
Candace leaned close and whispered into Horace’s ear. “Horace Watson,” she said, “You best get out of my way, or I’ll tell your wife about the things you like to do after the sun goes down and the lantern light burns low.”
Horace stepped aside with a blush.
Candace reached down. “Give me your hand, Mr. Whitmore.”
“Don’t do it!” Horace said. “Don’t you do it!”
Sheridan put his hand into the young woman’s, the sweat on his palm mingling with hers. Several of the more delicate members of the crowd turned away, Sheridan assumed they thought one or both of them might burst into flame. With a strong tug Candace pulled Sheridan back to his feet.
Sheridan brushed himself off and gave a slight bow to the young woman. Somehow, in the harsh heat, she smelled like prairie wildflowers. “Many thanks, Miss Kane.”
Candace smiled and curtsied. “Not at all, Mr. Whitmore.”
Since the demonic possession was over, the crowd started to disperse.
“You’re both doomed!” Horace Watson said. “Both of you, bedeviled! You can’t outsmart almighty Lucifer! You’re both damned to the fires of Hell!”
“Excuse me for a moment, won’t you,” Sheridan said to Candace.
“Of course,” the soiled dove acquiesced.
With a smile, Sheridan swung around faster than the lingering injuries he’d sustained in the war, or the high, dry temperature should’ve allowed and slammed his fist into saloon-keeper’s jaw. Horace looked startled for a moment, then crumpled to the cruel earth.
Candace stifled a snicker while the townspeople turned back to the commotion.
“Witness this man fallen to the hot, wicked ground!” Sheridan said, a mischievous fire in his eyes. “Nobody touch him, he’s been kissed by the Devil.”
John Weagly‘s short fiction has been nominated for a Derringer Award 4 times, winning one in 2008, and has been nominated for a Spinetingler Award. His website is www.johnweagly.com.