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A Spaghetti Western

Chapter Text

Preface

Summer 1861

 

The bright call of buzzards could be heard from one mountain to the next, idly circling the clear blue sky that soared across dusty fields and sunbaked hillsides. It was a dry summer heat, but mercifully, not one without breeze. A slight sway to the grasses that kept one from stagnating in the shade for what could have been an otherwise unobtainable respite. Still, the roads were quiet, the drone of insects drowning out any evidence for human activity.

The sound of hooves approached a paced, methodical trot of someone who had somewhere to be but not in any hurry. A young chestnut mare ridden by a lanky figure in black, the wide brim of his hat obscured his face in shadow but the wear of his hands suggested, experience, if not age, and kept a loose control on the reins. The rider adjusted his stetson, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. Of course the discomfort of being hot was second to the satisfaction of looking cool, his uniform addressed his profession, he felt, gave an air of intrigue and power. Clothes maketh the man or something of the ilk. They were traveling light, just a bedroll and satchel at the mare’s side, and of course, his pistols, their spark easily spotted from afar, a flash of white, all the warning he needs. But again, the roads were quiet today.

It was a sharp contrast from the siege and turmoil of the past year, and while it seemed things had quieted down, a marked tension still hung in the air, making itself known like a storm cloud on a sunny day. There were the fields that had ran to fallow, homes, to ruin. The train tracks that had been recently abandoned, piles of wood left to rot, twisting metal askew, an effort in vain it seemed. Where north and south clashed, that shifting middle ground laid in waste; it was no wonder so many had turned to violence when their past lives were ripped away from them. Still, there were those who remained, who dutifully tried to continue what remained of their lives for indeed, the world had not ended, and that world still had a job for them to do.

Men worked the soil, sweat gleaning off their backs like polished bronze. Women bowed beside them, tearing the weeds from the company of their crops for the weeds had not heard that the farms of their neighbors had been burned and the granaries plundered, that the hands taking them had suffered enough. It was not considered, it was simply life, and then it was not. As farms gradually overtook the scrub and small houses cropped up coupled with spindly pines, a town welled up from the valley. The man on horseback searched his long shadow and he drove to the center and whatever might await.

The rider passed a number of small houses, dust hanging in the air as he did so, guarded, piecemeal little residences, each pockmarked with bits of one’s identity. Owning little kept one saying much. In middle of the town was an inn, populated in early evening. One might center it around the church or the austere town hall, but economically and socially if not geographically, it was the inn. Posters plastered on the board outside by the posts where he tied his horse gave a suggestion of the fauna in this place. One his eyes lingered over a little longer than the others disappeared into his pocket jostling the gun in its holster. In a place like this, one could make a good living hunting criminals if not as a criminal- It must be said though, the people were very poor, and whatever they could offer in return, a bed, food, water, you left soon after, on the tail of your next bounty.

 

“-THIS IS HIGHWAY ROBBERY, I said 20 eggs, and you give me 10!? What do you think I cannot count, that I’m one of your mutton-headed farmgirls?” A woman bristled shaking an egg at another who sheepishly fought to explain.

“Well you know how Marco’s cattle keep disappearing? The same thieves have been stealing my chickens!”

“Now you think I am foolish enough to believe these excuses! Bring me 20 eggs Lucinda or bring back that lettuce you were content to judge leaf by leaf.”

The weathered wooden floorboards creaked under a pair of heavy boots, the groaning pitch of practice rather than neglect. This obstreperous entry was met with little notice over the commotion of end of day business and carousing for those who didn’t have a family to rush home to- or weren’t terribly concerned of such matters. None would question one’s presence anyways, as long as you didn’t make a nuisance of oneself, glancing around, everyone seemed pretty preoccupied anyways, many huddled together discussing current events: a cattle rustler here, some infidelity there, the army from the north, and the thieves of course. Of all kinds.

Approaching the bar, the rider separated from the crowd alone in manner. He leaned forward on a crooked elbow looking to catch the eye of the barkeep busy toweling glasses. “Say pardner, he began in a loud voice.

“Where can a feller an’ his hoss get some nokum stiff to sluice hism gob?”

“...”

There were several long seconds where you could hear one another’s breathing, in a hushed befuddlement as if an alien had landed and started speaking another language at them. A few of the bar patrons glanced from the stranger to each other whispering. “Di che diavolo sta parlando questo yankee?”

“I said, ken I ah get a strong drink... por favore?” He spoke again a little sharper, a smirk playing at the corner of his mouth.

The barkeep’s eyes flicked up, still cleaning a cup, and neatly set it aside. Taking some pity on him, he offered a glass and sympathy as he spoke, “You’re not from around here, are you.”

“What gave it away?”

“I don’t know, I had a feeling. What can I get you?” The man smiled, creasing the corners of his eyes from behind a pair of spectacles, a gentle welcomeness to him and his gestures. It was his inn afterall, and this strange man was his guest, it paid to be kind, if just in kindness returned.

“I wouldn’t mind a finger of tequila rotgut.”

The man’s expression suggested a lack of familiarity. “We have a plenty good vinos.”

“Ah, right, shoot well I’ll take a glass of your house favorite if you don’t mind filling the ol’ canteen while you’re at it. Grazi.”

The man in black took a long drink of water from the skin and took off his hat to fan himself, an unruly shock of white hair falling across his face. “It’s a hot one today.”

His companion grinned in acceptance, “It always is. If you do not mind me asking, where are you traveling to?”

“Wherever the road takes me, I’m a wandering lawman of sorts, when I come cross some folks having a spot of trouble, I try to step in ‘n help ‘em.”

“You do this out of duty, or altruism? That is awfully generous of you.”

“Wellll not exactly. I still gotta eat and sleep somewhere, but I never charge more for my services than a customer can afford.”

“I see… I know of a farmer in town who might be in need of assistance if that is your kind of work, Marco, to the west past the church. -But given his troubles I doubt your kind of assistance he could afford. I however would be willing to give you somewhere to stay if you extended yourself to him.”

The rider raised an eyebrow at exactly what this entailed before he decided to uncross his arms to shake on it. “And you are?”

“Vittorio. Casa di Cosma, it is my business and home and I offer it to you in thanks for defending the defenseless. These are my services, a bed and bread for the traveler, whatever that distance may be.”

“It’s appreciated I promise, I’ll pay ‘em a visit in the morning.” He tipped his hat placing it back on his head as rose from the bar.

Vittorio rapped the glass against the top twice to get his attention, staring expectantly as he twisted around. “I too do not charge any more than my customers can afford.”

He stared for a second caught off guard by the innkeeper using his words in kind, “...Ah.”

Somewhat begrudgingly, he reached into his sturdy jeans and produced a coin.

“And the vino?”

...Two more coins.

“Enjoy your stay Signore.”

 

It was nice sleeping in a proper bed for once, for once not waking up with the sunrise but the polite knock of Vittorio at the door wondering when his nester was going to join the living. “Jus’ just give me a second,” he fumbled with the sheets should his host decide to permit him a little privacy. Rolling up the sleeves of his black linen shirt, worn green bandana peeking out from under the collar, the rider adjusted his hat in the dusty mirror once more and made his way towards what trouble awaited him.

“Whoa there Castagnette, whoa girl,” he tugged at the reins bringing them to a halt as someone waved him down from up the road. Eying the figure ahead he called out, “Are you Marco?”

“No,” they replied coming closer, “But I was told you’d be coming, the farm isn’t much further from here.”

The man beamed up at him on his horse extending a hand, “Adrian.”

He shook it firmly. “A pleasure. Come va?”

Adrian shrugged. You couldn’t simply say good with everything that had been happening but he’d hesitate before repining to a total stranger. “We can talk about it when we get there.”

A red-faced man with wispy hair stood by the gate, six or so animals milling about the pasture, speaking circumspect with a handful of other workers. As Adrian and his guest approached they turned their heads quickly cutting off their conversation. One broke off from the others stepping forward arms crossed as he surveyed just what they’d sent to ‘fix their problem’. “Hmph. So you’re the desperado selling himself as law for hire?”

“That I am.”

There was a smattering of snickers from the crowd which he made effort to ignore. “Not to offend signore but why should we trust you? If you’re not just another brigante then prove it, who are you anyways?”

There was a moment of silence amongst the men, as Vittorio had not introduced him nor had the drifter offered when they met. To Adrian’s knowledge, he had simply shown up in town the evening before and proclaimed himself a traveling vigilante, man of mystery. The others’ skepticism was not unfounded, to this point the stranger didn’t even have a name to trust in.

Raising his sharp chin he squinted wistfully onto the horizon, “They call me, il Cavaliere Solitario.”

“... ...No they don’t,” one of the farmhands interrupted.

“You’re just un poliziotto a cavallo with a big ego if that,” another gave an an unimpressed scowl motioning to the others to not waste any more time with this uppity foreigner.

He merely threw back his head and laughed, “Potrei sembrare un contadino, ma sono un amante. Non puoi giudicare un libro solo guardando la fronte.”

While most of the crew had lost interest in him already, this impromptu little number managed to bring a nearly imperceptible smirk to the first man’s face. Finally, the older buttero, Marco, spoke, “I do appreciate the offer, but I don’t know how much help you can give after last night.”

Il Cavaliere cocked his head. “-They struck again, these cows you see right here, this is all I have left,” he admitted gravely, “I cannot afford to lose any more, but I cannot afford to pay yet another man little better than those he claims to fight. So maybe you are smarter than the others, you profess a moral compass, but at the end of the day both prey on the purses of decent men who do the honest work this land is built upon.”

“There is no justice when it comes at a price,” the farmer shook his head, holding steadfast onto the lock.

Adrian, sensing the growing tension coiling up inside Cavaliere, sprung to Marco’s defense, “He’s been through a lot- please understand, he doesn’t mean to insult you.”

He dismounted and strode up to the farmer pointing at his chest confrontationally. “Forget about the payment. I’m not looking to be paid to watch cattle, I’m going to catch the bandits that did this and everything they took. I can promise you that.”

The remaining cowhand shot Marco a look. He merely sighed and looked up at the man boasting this wager. One only had their life to lose. “Alright,” he shook his hand, “I hope for your soul’s sake you do.”

“Like hell I will, I’m the hero in this story.”

Chapter Text

Joe paced the length of the field, dog trailing behind him tail wagging high, his brother Albert perched on the fence smoking with Allen. Eric glanced back at them from tracking Joe’s progression. “He’s been doing this for the good part of an hour.”

“Che due palle?” Buck cocked his head stepping behind him.

“-Lascialo divertire,” he waved his hand and continued watching.

Joe’s dog barked and ran ahead catching sight of the tall man in black walking back from the barn on his survey of the property. A pair of dirty feet jumped on him smearing paw prints all over the front of his pants. It was too late to hold out his hands or shoo the animal away so he simply let the guard dog do its worst, yipping and wagging all the while. Cavaliere sighed and raised his head, the dog’s owner still plodding around the same path he’d been carving out for most of the day. “Hey!” he beckoned the man to no response. “Pronto, stunad! Sto parlando a voi, questo è il tuo cagna?”

Throwing his hands to his sides, he went after him, the dog still noisily attacking his heels with about as much ferocity as any other pup strapped for attention. A few cows dopily looked towards it and lumbered out of the way but no one seemed to pay it any mind, not that it was a very good watchdog in the first place if this performance was anything to go by. Castagnette eyed it warily still, shuffling its hooves in place, less accustomed to this routine.

“Sei sordo? Fai stare zitto il tuo chiacchierone, non li sentiremo mai arrivare se non smetterà. Mai. Di. Abbaiare.”

“Oh it’s not my dog,” he finally spoke up.

“I- then whose dog is it!?” Cavaliere pinched the bridge of his nose. It had been a long day before this and it would be a long night afterwards, not that he’d woken up with the rest of the farm but then again he wasn’t as young as yesterday and they hadn’t been traveling with one eye over one’s shoulder the whole time.

“I dunno, yours?”

The other simply glared, of course, the dog was still barking its head off throughout this exchange, and the man continued to trace his path in the grasses. “Can you just stop and deal with it for just a second. What are you even doing?”

“Drawing crop circles,” he stated plainly, “I’m leaving a message.”

“A message? Dare I ask for whom, I shant.” This was absurd. SHOULD the bandits even read, should they even be able to read, unlikely, it would be too dark, and far too large for anyone to possibly make out whatever it said. Many of the people around here were illiterate- he did not mention his own fancy education or upbringing; cool vigilantes didn’t read people’s letters for them, well unless they were paid, or asked nicely. He could work pro bono, his big dumb mouth and his big soft heart made sure of it, but it did nothing for his reputation.

From the vantage on the hill the paths in the grass didn’t even necessarily say anything, looked like a big target. Here, rrrright here. Rob this farm here. Easy target, overstaffed with idiots. Beware of noisy dog.

Il Cavaliere followed the farmhand and nobody’s dog around the width of the circle, trying to get more information out of him as so far he’d been friendlier than the others who he could spy gossiping about him from the distance, but it quickly proved to not go very far. A lot of people had various superstitions and old wives’ tales about stregonaria to protect the home and so on and while he himself typically lived by ‘god helping those who helped themselves’. Not everyone took kindly to his advice, unsurprisingly.

The mustached man who’d introduced himself as Joe the circle drawer’s brother, Albert, grinned and called out to them as they drew closer once more making another revolution around the meandering livestock. “Hey Joe! Is Il Fantino Autoritario bothering you?” He flipped his coat aside revealing the handle of his gun; there may have been a playful smile on his face but his eyes locked with il Cavaliere’s were hard and dead serious. For what he knew, this interloper was nothing but trouble and while they all had a job to do, his own morals took priority.

He held his hands up to the other man puffing away, “Mea culpa. We’re all friends here, no need to get frisky. If you could see it in your heart to help a brother out though I’d kill for a smoke.”

“I bet you would mercenario,” Eric chuffed taking a long exhale.

“We’re not friends,” Albert replied stubbing out his butt on the rail of the fence before hopping down to face him eye to e- eye to chest.

“How unfortunate,” the larger man crossed his arms rocking back on his heels, reeling himself in. “Why... is it that you all don’t like me, I’m trying to help you for chrissakes. What is it you want, what’s the problem here- and don’t say ‘me’ I’ve already gathered that much.”

“Aren’t you astute. Say I waltzed into your home with my funny clothes and silly accent and started telling you how to do your job. What are you anyways, who are you? A cop out of work? Don Quixote off chasing windmills? Or just a miserable old bastard looking for some way to feel like a big man Signore Cavaliere? I didn’t chose this, but don’t think I’m ungrateful.”

“I am a big man I’ve got like a solid foot on you. You know my name not my story.”

Normally Albert would have laughed, they would have gotten along, trading jokes and stories of high adventure and exploit, but you couldn’t blame him for being in a mood. To this comment he merely raised his brows and conceded. “I don’t want to think it’s only been a few months… I fought against Garibaldi’s Mille in the sack of Napoli, we lost the battle, and anyone has yet to win the war by the look of things. We fled the city after there wasn’t really anything left keeping us there any more, found work and a place to stay with some friends here, for now at least. But from the events of the past few days our time may be up again. I don’t know where we’ll go from here,” he recounted, shrugging, “Maybe we’ll become brigante too, who knows. I don’t really care whether Italy gains its independence whatever that means, I just want a future with me in it.”

“New boss, same as the old boss.” Joe shrugged.

After a pensive pause, his tight shoulders slumped, acquiescing to the reality. “I suppose we shouldn’t be so hard on you, I don’t know your story. For all I know we’re all in the same cazzate. You’re just an opportunist too, wherever it is you’re from.”

At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter who liked you or who hated you, he’d known, but il Cavaliere took some comfort in the fleeting friendship of others. Meno male he could finally take his hand off his gun. “I’m glad you understand.”

“I don’t but that’s okay.”

 

Being a cowboy wasn’t quite the excitement some stories advertised, what did cows even do most of the time, cow things. If Marshal Matt Dillon wanted to go ahead and prowl around the countryside leave no stone unturned, they’d let him. What the hell, why not. He wasn’t going to find anything but it kept him out of their hair til evening. When Marco came down to the field to string a spool of barbed wire, he had to ask the same question as the rest of them as to what the tall stranger with the little white dog were doing with his chickens, then decided it was better not to ask. “The scientific method,” he’d reply as if it meant something, then got back down on his belly to investigate for footprints in the hay and shit.

“Find anything?” the older farmer called to Il Cavaliere coming down from the coops dirty and henpecked, looking like something that the cat dragged in. “Well It’s the strangest thing-”

“So no,” Eric folded.

“Well I was thinking we should maybe go ‘n scout the area for more clues…” he trailed dusting straw and feathers from his clothes.

“There’s no point in going looking for them, I know they’re going to come again tonight, they have every night.” Marco cut him off before he got the chance to go on some other tangent.

“Yet you still haven’t caught them-” he plainly commented in his defense.

Eric huffed. “We haven’t seen them! How are we supposed to catch someone we can’t even find? What’s your plan?”

Buck explained their arrangement, “We sleep in shifts, keep one man posted at each entrance and another with the cattle and the dog-”

“Wait so is it your dog?”

“It’s its own dog,” Allen shrugged.

“So who was in the field last night then?”

“Allen,” several of them replied at once, the man in question shirking back.

He strained for a moment then hurriedly attested, “I never saw anyone! It’s true! I was there one moment, watching the hills and then the next, they were gone!”

“Because you fell asleep,” one of them muttered not quite under his breath. Allen shot him a look.

“Either way it doesn’t matter, a herd of cows doesn’t just disappear. Never saw a hole in the fence, no secret tunnel, no Trojan horse- like they vanished into thin air,” Marco gestured and turned his full attention reproachfully towards il Cavaliere, “Now how do you expect to not only catch these invisible criminals but an entire herd we’ve not seen hide nor hair of?”

He shrugged. “We’ll just have to keep everyone together, one pair of eyes per what you see obviously isn’t enough if you don’t know what you’re seeing. One person per cow is a bit much to ask, but I believe you’ll find it hard working as cowboys without any cows, I’d take any measure you could at this point if I were you… As for finding the rest, simple, lay a trap- let them take one of the cattle and follow them back to wherever they take it, POW fight ‘em off ‘n make sure they learn not t’ come messin’ around here no more, herd ‘em back,” he clapped his hands together roughly.

“And how do you propose you fight them off? Have us stay here on guard while you go get your ass handed to you? How can you even trust they’ll lead you in the right direction?” Buck began poking holes in his plan unmoved by the other man’s enthusiasm for it, “Suppose all of us came across their camp, everything right there, manage to get the drop on them- chances are we’ll still be outnumbered, outgunned, but if you want to assume that risk yourself, be my guest. We don’t know what we’re dealing with but we can handle ourselves, I’m afraid you’re on your own.”

“I think, you underestimate me. I am a seasoned ambidexter,” he fluidly withdrew his guns crossing one arm over the other aiming, then tossed them up in the air before cleanly catching them in the opposite hands and gave ‘em a spin if that wasn’t enough- he’d been a performer, rather than any actual police man. Not that any of that mattered, only the final solution had to be real. No one knew what really happened between a question and an answer. You figured all that mattered was that he was the kind of person who could do both. “And a damn good shot!”

Albert chuffed at his display daring him to prove it. “Then you can be our forlorn hope going up against evidently Carmine fucking Crocco, he’s all yours hawk eye. Just remember he owes me.”

“Crocco? These are a bunch of cattle rustlers, nothing more than that-”

“We don’t know that for sure, I mean, it might not be brigante at all,” Joe raised another question, still dutifully drawing circles in the soil, a warding sign of curious interlocking rings visible from quite some distance like the massive petroglyphs only gods could see. “You’ll be thanking me when the magic invisible witches get all stuck like fly paper and they have to grant us 3 wishes if we free ‘em.” He tapped his temple, “Always two steps ahead.”

Eric spoke up again, “Joe’s right we can’t rule out witchcraft, none of you have a better explanation. It looks walks and quacks like witchcraft, no simple bandits could have done this every night without ever being seen.” he eyed Cavaliere, “You ever fight a witch? It’s a good way to make a powerful enemy, if not die.”

He physically restrained himself from rolling his eyes, “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”

“I dated a witch once,” Allen offered looking around, “She turned me into a newt!”

“A newt?”

“... … … I got better…”

“Well, I’ve lived long enough. I’ll take my chances with the witch.”

 

In the fading light of sunset, the tips of the long grass catching the last of it like candle wicks before winking out as it sunk below the horizon. Overhead the sky filled with other stars and the new moon rose unseen into its place, black as night inside of a cat. Cavaliere strained to keep watch across the hills like a hawk with sub par vision. Their bandits might as well be invisible, even his hands were black on black on black on black right in front of him.

So when there was a rustling in the bushes it was by this fortune that his shot narrowly missed. “You nearly shot me!” Adrian spilled out clutching the tip of his head.

“Adrian?” Buck scrambled off his horse to help him. Their sharpshooter put away his revolver- Quick Draw McGraw lucky it hadn’t been a bandit either or actually hit the poor man. “We’ll you’re a good shot I’ll give you that, but I appreciate you missing.”

“What are you doing sneaking around?” Buck fussed over his free haircut, Adrian still covering his scalp in one hand. “I wanted see what you were doing,” he replied innocently staring up at il Cavaliere.

“Huh. Well. Fuck. We’ve just been sitting around in a field not gonna lie partner… Sorry for winging ya… Thought you were one of them bandits-”

“Or witches!” Eric interjected.

“-Or witches. Well welcome to the party,” he affirmed, sitting a little taller in his saddle. Couldn’t help feeling a little on edge what with his adrenaline getting teased like that but he pushed the feeling to the back of his mind. Until of course, Adrian sowed that seed of doubt, “Hey, does anyone like, feel really strange?”

“How do you mean strange?” Buck posed.

“Like I’m floating.”

It wasn’t euphoric but they could all agree they felt it too- yet it still came as quite a surprise when given further investigation they found themselves not exactly on solid ground, rising quickly into the air. “YES! Finally!” Joe cheered unexpectedly, the cattle less than happy about their similar arrangement.

“Joe, che cosa hai fatto!?” Albert shouted pawing futilely towards him now several meters into the air.

“Oh my god it was witches,” Allen swore, right for once.

And Il Cavaliere held onto what he could falling out of the saddle, up, thinking about that old rumor in the sky. Yep, he was dead, or soon would be dead. Well it was a good life, a full life at least, he thought. Never got to run with the bulls, climb mount Everest, never married- but hey there was always the next one. No regrets. It wasn’t as if anything could have prepared him for being abducted by aliens.

At least they found out where all the cows had been going, but Marco wasn't going to like it.

Chapter Text

Sto sognando. Che strano sogno… Dovrei svegliarmi, le piastrelle sono così piacevole sotto di me, e le mie membra sono così pesanti…

The floor felt cold against his cheek like marble, didn’t remember falling asleep. Maybe he’d blacked out just a moment then- no he couldn’t remember. They’d been in the fields, night all around them, looking for brigante, bighellonando, and then he shot somebody- Dio boia.

Il Cavaliere started violently, vision swirling as he jeered his head around trying to take account of his unfamiliar surroundings. The cowboys he’d been with previous were in a similar state on the smooth featureless floor which stretched dizzyingly on all sides, black overhead, starless unlike their sky. Some kind of cell? Castagnette was nowhere to be found nor were the cattle yet his pistols were still on him and he seemed to be unmolested if a bit green ‘round the gills.

“Wake up,” he ordered gruffly nudging a figure with his boot. “I’m not asleep! Wait where- where are we I was just-” the taller one he believed was Allen sat up, a look of familiarity crossing his face. “It’s just like before…”

A few more of the huddled masses came too, looking about fruitlessly in the darkness, only the immediate area around them illuminated by a soft untraceable white light. “Before?” Buck grumbled standing as if he hadn’t just been lying on the ground himself.

“Yeah, it’s weird, all these memories coming back to me- last night when I was on watch in the field while you guys decided to have a smoke without me. I was there one moment and the next I woke up in a place just like this, alone, and then a… person showed up and started saying all these things at me that I couldn’t understand. It was all very strange. Something happened where they left and then,” he held his palms in front of him for lack of a better explanation, “I was back where I’d been, except no cows. The rest is hazy but we’ve definitely got our cattle thief, if they’re still here.”

“The witch-”

“Yeah the Witch. But what would a witch need with so many cows?”

Before Cavaliere could lose any more brain cells listening to these two’s theories, where there definitely hadn’t been a wall there a moment before, a door slide open. Bathed in a searing light like that of a midday sun, Joe’s witch emerged like a figment flitting across his cornea from the aftershock of the brightness.

What it actually became was far worse- a pale, emaciated creature like that of a body that had been long submerged underwater, and were it an animated corpse, it wasn’t a fully human one. Its asymmetrical eyes stared at, or through him in their grey sockets for a long moment, unblinking. When it spoke, a jumble of sounds spilled from its raw mouth that cracked when it opened exposing a graveyard of long uneven teeth.

They felt an uncomfortable silence waiting to react to whatever this incomprehensible monster did next. More words- noises, it lurched closer. Albert leaned over to Joe and hissed conspiratorially, “Fucking French I knew it.”

The creature gestured with a bony diaphanous hand towards Allen who shrank behind Joe and Eric, each entranced by the witch-spectre. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter, Il Cavaliere stepped forward, resting a hand on his holster. “I don’t know what yer saying, but I know you can understand me or you’re gonna start prrrretty soon, capiche? I hear you’ve been jayhawkin’ property that ain’t yours and if you think you’re gonna keep any us prisoner I don’t care who or what you are, you’ve got another thing comin’.”

It failed to respond to this ultimatum, only moving closer and continuing to make strained anoidal sounds as it reached out for the defiant captive. He quickly pulled his guns- then vanished before he could even complete the motion. Both weapons clattered to the ground, the sound resonating loudly, and echoes fading far into the distance. All eyes stared mortified at the humble spot where their bulwark had just been vaporized and began to regret certain life decisions. “Well,” Allen in a hushed voice finally spoke for everyone, “I’m glad that wasn’t me.”

 

For a second time today the weary world-wise ranger found himself woken up on a cold hard floor somewhere he didn’t know somehow he didn’t understand and it was getting mighty old. Reflexively, he reached for his guns, patting empty air, pulse quickening. Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit! He bolted upright too abruptly and immediately felt ill. It was as if all of his insides had been rearranged by some fussy house guest with very different very strong ideas about how things should be organized, still he kept his head and stomach and shakily rose to his feet in another space altogether.

This room in contrast was very well lit, like the incandescent brightness that had backlit the unearthly being which washed out everything in a sterile whiteness that burned to look at. He covered his face with a veiny forearm, squinting until he could manage surveying his conditions. From what he could tell, he was in the surgery, going off of the numerous unidentifiable tools and devices swarming the tables and cages lining the wall. One of the cows mooed forlornly at him from one, deeply odd regarding everything, but relieving- one down…. What was it a hundred to go? It was one of those situations where every time you managed to get a question answered, a dozen more sprung up in its place.

Here there were at least walls, but still no doors, and no windows to speak of whatsoever so any kind of escape was implausible if not impossible. He’d have to wait for the creature to come back to get that opportunity, and seeing how it dealt with him previously, he’d have to be fast. He was fast, faster than that. But how does one anticipate the motions of someone- something you couldn’t see. Glancing around for something to defend himself with he picked up a scalpel, weighing it in his hand and making a sharp jab, then cuffing it in the flat of his hand. Eric’s word of warning was as good as any apocrypha when you already had your fights picked for you. A mali estremi, estremi rimedi.

Bracing himself to make his move, the air began to shimmer, a form coalescing out of nowhere, and he felt his muscles jolt for him to run but couldn’t. Luck would have it that his invisible door was too far away to make it in time and still have the upperhand in overpowering the intruder. He still had time however, to duck behind one of the operating tables piled high with some draped form, one of the cattle, being butchered for some arcane obscenity. Hearing footsteps, Il Cavaliere attempted to get a peek from around the corner, holding a hand against the top of his head careful not to let his fluffy mop give him away- shit! Where was his hat? Hopefully sitting in a field many miles away, he just seemed to be losing everything today… Wait, Adrian… Porca miseria! This stupid little knife wasn’t gonna cut it.

There was more of them; similarly gaunt creatures with flaming red hair and no brows, blue veins easily visible under an almost translucent skin, all speaking some code unlike anything he’d ever heard in his travels in Nihilon and the lands beyond. And in their envoy, the cowboys shuffled in, looking uptight and worse for wear as they were herded into the cages, their captors unsure of what to do with them yet. Il Cavaliere’s eyes widened as they matched with theirs, one slowly mouthing ‘Watch. Out’ and flicking his gaze to the encroaching crew. He had to move, rolling under a gurney in probably a way a man his age shouldn’t. Belly flat against the ground his positioning was now less than ideal and his angle obscured whatever the creatures were doing.

The two on the left by the cages were definitely guards, weapons discernible as guns of some sort, two more in the rear, preparing instruments and tapping glowing panes of glass which danced with shapes and lines, a fifth stepped deliberately to the spot where he’d just absconded. He sucked in a sharp breath. It removed the tarpaulin, and while hard to see, whatever was on the table, it was human. Male, maybe 50s? Light skinned, balding- oh, there’s Adrian.

Jabbing him with some needle, he seemed to come to, looking dazed more than anything as a number of faces loomed over him. “Oh, well hello there,” he attempted to remain affable struggling against his restraints. “Could you loosen these a little bit, they kinda chafe.” “...” “O-kaaaay well I tried- Ooh that’s cold! I think I liked it better with the blanket over me, you know I was having the strangest dream…” he craned his neck over towards the boys in the cages, “You were there, and you were there… And I was there…”

Despite the manhandling he found himself on the receiving end of, he seemed to be relaxed, or rather sedated, idly musing. “-And you were there, and you were there and- The tall man, the vigilante, where is he?”

Il Cavaliere tensed in his hiding spot while the cowboys merely looked amongst each other with clenched teeth. After a succession of non invasive procedurals, the knives came out and everybody got rowdy. The boys rattled their mesh bars, screaming and shouting but unable to do anything else to stop them, he had to make a move.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you-”

As the fifth creature made its incision, the motion was cut off by a sudden jab from behind, the blade not long enough to exit the flesh from the otherside, but more than enough to puncture some internal organ before being removed with a grisly twist. Il Cavaliere held its wounded body to himself as a shield, threatening the four remaining ones with his little knife to this one’s throat as it began gurgling, hemocyanic blood bubbling from its throat. Both guns cocked towards him, pulsing with energy but the two guards held their fire, more concerned with the state of their captured comrade. Feeling the others attempting to flank him, with the other hand, he snatched this one’s scalpel and slashed Adrian’s bonds, freeing up one bargaining chip of his own.

While disoriented and notably nude, the man got behind the only armed humanoid on his side and his best chance of survival. Accepting one of the improvised weapons from him, they stood back to back sizing up the enemy. “I appreciate you showing up when you did handsome stranger but what’s the plan here?” They were slowly circling them and while the armed two didn’t have a clear shot at the one who’d mortally wounded their lead officer, the fleshy specimen had no such armor and not nearly the experience with dirty tricks and cheap shots. It was almost endearing how it held the tiny instrument in both hands in front of its genitalia, as if anyone cared about that sort of thing.

 

“Stay ready?” Il Cavaliere offered, eyes flitting back and forth, trying to keep a lookout on everything at once. “I need to get one o’ those guns… if I can just get close enough.” He scanned the room for coverage, meanwhile their opponents decided how expendable the other was. If they shot it, chances were the fellow Earthling would too abandon its captive to tend to the wounded. Pack species were so predictable. A flash of recognition.

“Cover yourself!” he shouted to Adrian before diving towards one of the guards taking aim. Overtaking it and wrestling the weapon away was the easy part, but as it went off, he felt a searing pain streak across his thigh, gouging a path that immediately cauterized from the intense heat. Stumbling to the ground as his vision blazed white, Cavaliere exchanged fire with the remaining guard. “Yippie kay yay motherfuckers.”

Creepy ghost witches or not, he didn’t have the nerve to outright kill any of them, not without absolutely needing to. It wasn’t just soft-heartedness, he’d defend his actions, he had to keep in mind there was a good chance none of them were leaving here without their say-so, he didn’t even know what here constituted, plus they still had to do the job they were originally sent for. One cow, he eyed the poor dumb beast pawing at the tractionless floor, provided he did return, it’d be with his reputation between his legs. Gritting his teeth, he dragged himself to the aid of his trapped companions whose cell conveniently opened to the tune of some thousand degrees of artillery fire, their wounded captors about as articulate as ever not much help in assisting this escape.

“How ya holdin’ up there Ade?” he called over his shoulder to the man incongruously holding one of the rifles they’d commandeered. “Well, I’d like it better if I had some clothes on, but I don’t think this plan of yours has any legs.”

“Yeah yeah yeah, and if ifs and buts were candy and nuts we’d all have a Merry Christmas, how’s it going with the negotiations? Have you tried pantomime yet?”

“This is what I get for sneaking out at night to go play Cowboys and Indians with the boys isn’t it,” he moped, clumsily interpreting their demands in that most famous of lingua francas- dance. Adrian’s dancing, like their plan, unfortunately, also had no legs. “I say we just shoot them,” Albert dusted himself off, “We’ll find our own way out of here, try the panels for any sort of lever- there has to be something.”

“How do we know there’s not more of them?” Joe cut his brother off, “We can’t just kill a witch, it’s bad luck.”

“I hate to inform you, but we already have bad luck.”

Buck sighed and busied himself with the arcane controls, consulting Allen, their resident ‘expert’. Looking up from consoling the lone heifer he shrugged as to what to do, “I really don’t remember how I escaped the first time. I think they just let me go. As for the doors… hell if it beats me, they must have some kind of key that summons them since they draw sort of a box in the air when I’ve seen them leave… or magic. No I don’t know anything about magic, that’s why my ex turned me into a newt.”

The other man shook his head and frisked one of their prisoners, finding what probably equated to a few silver, some candies, and an odd silver disc with a large red circle in the middle. He lifted it to the air to show, “Found it everybody.”

“Grazie a Dio, let’s blow this shit show,” Cavaliere exhaled roughly as their de facto leader confidently began to trace the form of a door in the air, pressing down hard on the center. A door did form but also what felt like every single alarm in the entire place went off at once. “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO!?” One of the boys screamed, pressing his hands tight over his ears as they collectively made a dash for the mystery door.

“I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT IT WOULD DO, WE HAVE AN EXIT, ISN’T THAT ENOUGH? ANDIAMO!”

While the 5 of them rushed out, Cavaliere stood fast by the door, holding his weapon and looking back and forth to Allen, who was struggling to herd the cow through it. “Just- just leave the animal okay? We have to go!”

“I can’t- I, we had a job to do,” he shoved uselessly at the creature’s backside.

“We all have a job to do,” the other man took him by the wrist,and pulling him through the door as it began to shimmer out of sight. “This one’s mine.”

The corridor they found themselves in next was no quieter than the lab they’d just fled, and seemingly endless rooms branched off from its length. “Merda, there’s a whole lot of these… now I know where they’ve been hiding all of them.”

“Well… let’s pick one,” Albert shouted to Eric above the din, and began throwing open the sliding sheets of metal, one after another to no avail.

“This is gonna take us forever! Isn’t there some kind of… sign that says EXIT?” Buck chased him down the hall, the end of which never seemed to get any nearer.

“OH YEAH because I can read FRENCH-” he hollered back.

“Fre- What? French!?”

The sirens too never threatened to grow any louder or softer, seemingly emanating from everywhere at once, however, another sound entered the fray- a loud barking, from nearby. “JE-sus Mary and Joseph- It’s that fucking dog again, does it ever shut up-” Cavaliere clenched his jaw before realizing. Wait. Oh that’s good. Go to the door with the dog. Find… Something. Something was good.

Something also appeared at the end of the corridor they’d just came from, 4 deeply pissed and hellish looking creatures bathed in the red light of the hallway, charging at them, and 4 more up ahead, somehow, even more pissed. “I KNEW we should have just killed them!” Albert cursed, kicking open the door to his left.

A few of them wondered if they’d have a better chance of survival splitting up, they’d certainly have a better chance of finding the way out, but not so much as actually making it there. They followed Albert instead, ducking into a chamber even more expansive than the one they’d arrived in, or maybe the same, it was hard to tell there the ends met, what they could see however, was that it was balls to the wall PACKED with cattle. Anxiously mooing and shuffling about, a sharp yelp cutting through all the other sounds as a small white dog needled its way through their hooves, running up to the men at the door.

“Well that’s one mystery solved,” their ranger noted, nobody’s dog jumping and scratching at his worn jeans.

“Two mysteries,” Eric corrected, resting his back against the door, sort of a half-hearted barricade.

“Well congratulations you’re both geniuses, but I’m a little more concerned with that third one that kinda makes the other two seem pretty unimportant,” Buck shooed them away walking out into the cavernous space, “And Albert’s right, we have what, a few seconds before we’ve got company. We can move a herd pretty quickly but the whole ‘where’ bit is kind of a key point here.”

Allen took it upon himself to desperately try every available button in sight, hoping one of them did something of the sort without killing them first. The lights and sounds shifted in a chaotic miasma, switching from red to green to blue to magenta and strident klaxons to an uneasy throbbing pulse, like some kind of demonic discotheque. Eric lurched feeling a sudden piercing heat behind him, and a glowing red hot knife began slicing through the space behind him, stumbling forward in a panic just as he glimpsed a different kind of darkness blink open for a second in this unnatural dim. “WAIT WAIT THAT LAST ONE!”

“What?” Allen smacked another switch opening the door that currently was being cut in two revealing a cluster of surprised faces.

“NO THE OTHER ONE!” Buck hollered, reaching over locking the gate again.

Rippling out from what must have been the center of the room, the floor disappeared into an inky puddle, which upon closer inspection, turned out to be the Neapolitan landscape beneath them, coming up to greet them. “Really?”

 

Marco had finally worked himself into a deep sleep when a deafening thunder plowed through his unconscious. In a cold sweat, he scurried outside to discover his barn, obliterated, and massive gouges in the hillside as if a giant had tried to take the top off of it with a massive axe, yet whatever caused this was nowhere to be found. The chickens were scattered all about, clucking and shrieking, the dust not yet settled. Amongst the rubble was also his five farmhands, the hired gun no less covered in chickenshit and filth now than he was last, and, diavolo lo sa, his neighbor Adrian- naked, for some reason? I mean more power to you, live your best self but, again?

Running up to them he gasped, “Oi che cazzo, what happened? You look, terrible! What is- what is all this?!” The older farmer gestured frantically around him at the devastation, clutching his nightgown to himself as roosters skirted between his legs.

Il Cavaliere was the first to sit up coughing, “We… We did it,” and weakly raised a victorious fist into the air. Assessing his compatriots he smiled and started to laugh, the others gradually easing up and joining in. “Look!” he swung his arms wide spinning in a circle, “We did it!”

Through the fields and milling about the road (as the fence too had been thoroughly demolished) were what looked like his cows, several times over. 400 bewildered and frankly very lost cattle hesitant to stay or go anywhere should another thing come out of the night sky and snatch them up again, one small self-appointed drover its piercing bark enough to nudge even these stupefied ground beef into place, and one young mare which looked like this was just another frustration in a long line of inane exploits- to which the lanky foreigner made a giddy dash for. Albert raised his brows and picked a wide black hat from the grass, setting it on his head and smacking the back of his brother’s. “I’m not going to tell the others but I get the feeling this was all your fault.” Joe shrugged innocently.

The ranger patted Castagnette’s saddlebags, corybantic, to see what was still in place. No pistols, he’d have to take that loss unfortunately, although the unusual make of rifle he’d found in the alien fortress helped ameliorate that situation if not the ideal arrangement. As his fingers wrapped around a piece of parchment however, he visibly relaxed, releasing a private sigh of relief that he’d been holding in tightly. “Whassat you got?” Albert stood on his toes to get a peek, some hard-faced man’s smirking glare, a name, a price for his head- The tall man hastily rolled it back up before he could get a better look, turning to him startled, for a second, then slitted his hazel eyes recognizing the hat on his head and snatching it off him. “...Give me that.”

Tucking the poster into his bag he gave a circumlocutory reply. “Wanted poster: Old enemy- old friend actually. Rival I guess,” he shrugged softly raising his brows, “Didn’t think he was actually still around, let alone in my neck o’ the woods... Means I’ve got another bounty to chase, I should ah leave you to your work.”

They certainly had it cut out for them, you didn’t just put a herd of animals into the guest bedroom. “Oh,” Albert spoke an ounce chapfallen, “Well, in bocca al lupo. Which way ya headed?”

“Naples, at least I was, until I stumbled on this little misadventure.”

“Vafanapoli then!”

Il Cavaliere shook his head to himself and climbed into the saddle, leading back down the packed dirt road. Hesitating a moment, Albert caught up with him barking, “Hey, don’t be a stranger, maybe we’ll meet again someday.”

“Maybe. Yeah. I’d like that,” the traveler cocked his head, “Though I wouldn’t count on it.”

The cowboy lowered his shoulders admitting to him. The others in the distance were busy herding their chaos, and probably wouldn’t even notice his departure until he’d already gone.

“Strange things happen.” Albert noted.

“They do.” He was inclined to agree.

“They sure do.”