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author: baba yaga ([livejournal.com profile] hellboy)
e-mail: bozaloshtsh [ at ] gmail [ dot ] com


Diego is using his saddle blanket all wadded up in a bundle as a pillow, and he's got drool leaking out the corner of his mouth. The drool mixes with the dirt on the blanket, turns it muddy and thick.

The saloon doors slam open and four feet belonging to two men, each one carrying on their shoulders the huge weight of importance, stomp out onto the wood walkway right over Diego's head.

Naturally, he startles awake.

Unfortunately, he snorts and says "What?" as he does.

Luckily, the men don't hear him because they're too busy lighting cigars and talking about oil prices.

"The crude levels are rising--"

"Yah, but not enough for my peace o' mind--"

"Yer piece of mind ain't worth two bits in the mud--"

"Themz fightin' words, Tucker, best believe it--"

The two men stomp off down the walk into the dark dirt of the road. Diego turns his head to watch the glint of their spurs against the light spreading from the Saloon's windows as they head to their horses.

Migrant workers. Two land barons in town and a lumber mill, he'd bet they work for the cattle man to the North.

Their argument fades away. There's still plenty of men getting drunk inside the Saloon, shouting along with the piano, asking for more beer from the proprietor and cheating at cards.

Diego's not allowed inside, so he's only had glimpses of what goes on in there. Either way he's not got what he came here for, so he folds the muddy part of his blanket away from his face, settles down again, and goes right back to dozing.

---

He crosses off a name on the list. They're getting down it, almost half gone now. He rubs at the corner of the paper with his thumb and contemplates the universe and his place in it.

Veit is cooking something on the stove. The metal spoon he's using to stir clinks heavily against the tin pan.

"I maintain that it is most likely the school teacher," Veit says.

Diego shakes his head, shoves the paper and the crude pencil away from himself, across the table to the opposite edge.

"It ain't ever the schoolteacher."

"Assumptions make a man, for better or worse," Veit sighs.

The word for Diego's reaction is annoyance. He remembers Father Ysleta telling him to stop being so annoyed, miho, it's no the end of the world. He hears that cadence in his ears right now as he chews on the inside of his cheek and stares at the grain of the tabletop.

He breathes in, then breathes out.

"What did it do today?" he asks after two more breaths.

Veit takes the tin pan off the heat and closes the top of the stove using a cloth and his bare hand. He grimaces as he fits the lid over the flame.

"Enticed a group of children to throw stones at an old horse," he answers, absently.

"The nag out by the mill?"

Viet puts the saucepan on the table, produces a second spoon and hands it to Diego.

"Yes." He nods.

Diego takes a bite of the meat soup and grimaces. "Should just kill the thing. Nice meal of horsemeat and its suffering is over with."

"Do you really eat horse where you're from?" Veit asks. He looks interested, at least.

It's Diego's turn to nod.

"You eat anything when you got nothing."

---

It's not a rule or anything, but demons like to get children instead of adults. Young boys and girls are more like to pick something up because it interests them, not consider it for a while and then pass it by.

Diego once had a cousin who was got. She went from sweet and quiet to rowdy and blowing up all over the place. If Diego noticed, at age ten and a half a year gone, then the Parish noticed too.

She was exorcised on a Saturday night so she'd be ready for church the next morning. Diego's mama helped, so he had to wait outside and listen to the harsh screams that dipped down into hell to pull up the thunder, then swam up into the air as little Lucila tried to breathe through what they were doing to her.

---

They've got a rickety corral set up for their horses to be in at night. Diego gets back to the shack as the sun goes down, hurries to remove the saddle and bridle and smack the horse's rear to get him inside before full dark hits.

There are two voices going on inside all the while, but he recognises both of them and it's too much to hope that the irritating, loud one will leave while he's out there, taking care of the animals.

It doesn't work. The Preacher is still in there, a-wailing and a-weeping.

"Sir, it takes time for these things," Veit says to Preacher as Diego slides in through the door.

The Preacher jerks his head to eyeball Diego, then dismisses him like the usual. He's gonna rail at the white man in the respectable clothing, not bother with the savage from the South, no sir.

Diego clenches his teeth and leans against the wall with his arms crossed.

"Time enough!" The Preacher shouts at Veit. "You can confirm, why can't you take care of it? I have a demon running rampant in my congregation!"

Diego notices that the coffee's on. Glaring's got nothing on coffee. He finds his cup on the table and goes to fill it.

The stuff is old, has gone lukewarm and has a thickness to it like mud.

"You want an exorcism, call a Catholic. We go for the "no harm" approach, which means time," Diego drawls, then takes a sip.

The Preacher stands up and roars, "Catholics are sinners!"

Veit says nothing. He looks at Diego sideways, has a hand over his damn book placed closed on the table.

"You want the kid to stay alive after, let us do our job," Diego sighs.

---

He's got coil after coil of newly bought rope over his saddle and wrapped around his belt. The stuff is rough weave, good for cowhands and little else. Diego bought it on the cheap because the Owner wanted to get rid of it.

He rides down the main road through town, heading to the outskirts to the East where the shack he and Veit are putting themselves up. The Sheriff flags him down before he gets past the Saloon.

"You got a lot of rope there, boy," the Sheriff says.

Diego carefully adjusts the main bundle on his saddle so it won't fall off. It was starting to slip a little. "We're miners. Resting before heading out to the next... mine."

Sheriff's eyes narrow into snake-slits. He's inspecting Diego and he don't like what he sees.

"I ain't known any mines that hire dogs. Old Slant-eyes, mebbe. Not dogs."

Diego can't clench his teeth because the Sheriff will see; but he can tighten his grip on the reins. His gloves are new enough they creak loudly as he flexes his fingers in them.

"I got a white man sponsor. Maybe you've seen him? Mister Veit?"

"Yeah, the learned feller," Sheriff sniffs.

The Sheriff steps back onto the wooden walkway, a good two paces away from Diego and his horse. He gives them both a good looking over. He still ain't impressed, judging by the set of his mouth.

"You get on, now," he says, then jerks his head.

Diego clicks his tongue twice, his horse starts to walk slowly the way he was always going.

The door to the trading post swings open and a woman done up in full Widowhood Regalia stomps out trailing a small boy of six or seven. Diego turns his head to look, he doesn't think about it just does it, and right after he takes in the boy's face and deep set eyes both mother and son hightail it down the walk.

The Sheriff watches him watch them, mouth twisted ugly and eyebrows angled low.

"Don't you be oversteppin' now, boy!" he shouts at Diego.

Diego turns back to face the saddle, hunches his shoulders, and rides on.

---

"I'm just saying here, all right? We should let the demon run through the town a bit."

Diego is slamming shit around in his fury, though because of sparse living conditions there's not a lot of shit to slam. Veit is reading a book entitled The Wild Hunt and making notes on a scrap of paper, sitting at the table with a cup of tea steeping next to the paper.

"That will surely destroy the host and you know it," Veit says. He doesn't look up from his book.

Diego stops slamming and slumps into the chair across the table from Veit.

"Saw the kid at the store," he mumbles. "He looked me in the eye."

Veit puts his book down onto the table and gathers his paper scraps into a stack.

"Then we ought to hurry up."

Veit puts his papers into his hard-sided travelling case and withdraws an old leather-bound book that's fraying at the edges. There are pressed blades of ancient grass peeking out from the pages to serve as markers.

"At the V's now, I believe?"

---

Boy walks out of church trailing his mama. He's got his head down, watching the ground, mouth set unfriendly. It's always been a fallacy, as Veit is fond of putting it, that demons cannot step foot in a church. They can go in and do whatever they want. They just get damn bored if they've got to stay still, is all.

Diego and Veit are sitting on the steps outside the Saloon. It's closed until nightfall on Sundays, so it's a safe place to perch. If it were open, someone would be outside trying to talk Veit into leaving the dog out in the sun and come in for a spell, drink whiskey, spend some money.

Across the street and down the opposite direction from the Church is the Jail. Right outside the open door stands the Sheriff, watching Diego with his arms crossed and spitting out chaw wetly into the dirt every so often.

"Every damn town..." Diego mutters, trying not to glare at the Law and failing.

Veit concentrates on fixing the broken strap of his saddlebag. It's never been fixed, there's a loop on the inside that he uses to affix it to his saddle instead, but it's good cover for when they need to stop and watch things.

"Western prejudice will take quite a while to abate. We live with it, or we won't."

Diego snorts. "It's not you who gets run out of town."

The Boy and his mother stop outside the schoolhouse. She adjusts the collar on his natty jacket. He says something, she smacks him across the face calm as you please.

The Boy turns on his heels and walks into the building, joins the other kids for Sunday School. The mother watches him get inside, then turns and heads down the street. Diego assumes she's heading home, but he's not certain.

Diego sighs, adjusts his hat.

"Tonight will probably be a bad night to try," Veit says. He pretends to give up on the strap. Diego holds his hands out to take it from him.

The saddlebag is full of canned goods and wrapped bread from the store. Diego hooks the broken seam of the strap together with the hidden hook behind the leather and gets up to sling it, apparently fixed, back onto Veit's saddle.

Gotta look like a good working Mexican, after all.

"What choice we have?" he asks, grunting a little as he settles the bag on the saddle.

Veit looks right at the sheriff in meditation. Diego doesn't stop him, but despairs inside.

"What, you wanna make me feel less alone by gettin' yourself run out too?" he harshly whispers.

"I never leave you alone, you know that," Veit answers, then stands up from the wooden walkway to tip his hat at the Sheriff.

The Sheriff doesn't respond in kind, just spits a hock of tobacco into the street and stares.

---

The coyotes keep their distance when a demon is around. Diego hasn't seen or heard one in years. This moon filling the sky with half-light would be the perfect time for them to hunt a rabbit if they were around.

The butcher won't open until sunup, and the Funeral Director isn't in town this week. Veit and Diego settle between the two shops, down in the shadows.

Diego's taking the chance to doze a bit. Veit is reading his damn book in the dark.

Even though his eyes are closed, it annoys the hell out of Diego. "You can't read in the dark, quit it."

"The glow from the windows is enough for me." A page turns slowly.

Hooting and hollering is going on inside the church. This town's idea of a barnstomp with food on the bar. They do this on a monthly turn, according to the paper posted to the billboard outside the Trading Post.

Tonight's theme is Our Lord in Joy, and it calls for telling jokes.

Veit kicks Diego in the knee, making him jack-knife up and grab at his leg in pain. He stays silent though, because Veit's putting away his book, eyes set down the street.

Diego turns to look too, and the mother to The Boy is coming down to the church, escorted by the Head Banker in town.

Veit cranes his neck to look down the other way of the street. "Sheriff is looking out for us, we best be going widdershins."

Diego slings his pack of rope over his back and leads the way back, further into the alley between the buildings.

"God damn educated language, can't you just say the word left?"

Together they creep through the shadows to get to a row of houses that border the town. The layout is unique in that way, meaning most other people have land but these people got security. And as far as Diego could tell when reading a newspaper about the place once, there's no reason to want that security except for some craziness that spreads from family to family, like a plague.

The mother is letting rooms from her older sister in one of those border houses. The sister isn't going to the party, she's staying in to keep an eye on the boy. They can see her slumped form in front of the fire as she sleeps in her rocker. A cat is curled up by her feet, sprawled flat and sleeping like the dead.

Veit peers around them for the Sheriff, or one of his deputies, or anyone really. Diego lets him check things out as he pulls the coils of rope from his back, unravels hanks of it into a tangled mess at his feet.

People leave their windows open in this town. Diego peers up into the dark to see one right above his head. The trellis will do for climbing, but how will they get back down in a rush?

"You got a plan?" Diego asks Veit.

Veit looks at the rope, at Diego, at the window.

"Jump out," he answers. Then he puts the toe of his boot into a slice of space between the slats of the house siding and begins to climb.

Diego watches him go. Man's pants are too tight, he can't move easy in this line of work.

Veit disappears inside the window. It's quiet for a moment, then he sticks his head out to say to Diego, "Boy's in here, come on."

Diego climbs faster than Veit does. He's up in the room with the mess of rope dangling around his neck quicker than a blink, and the Boy is sleeping sound, flat on his back, with the lizard wrapped around his throat like a noose.

Demons like to blend in, but they also like to look special. This one is being special by having red streaks down its sides not found in nature, and black lines over its eyes like it's a human with eyebrows.

Veit pulls out a satchel made out of cowhide and full of a particular sort of ash. He stands on the opposite side of the bed from Diego, sprinkles a pinch of that ash right over the Demon, murmurs a prayer in Latin that Diego never learnt as a boy.

The Demon's eyes snap open and glow a bright red in the gloom of the room. Its claws dig into the bare flesh of the Boy's neck, and he wakes with a soft cry.

"Shush now," Diego tells the kid. No use trying to calm him completely or tell him whats going on. Little ones never understand what's happening to them, just that it hurts.

Veit reaches down and nudges the lizard's tail with his finger. It doesn't move.

"It's stopped. Let's go."

Diego pulls out a piece of paper with a list of possible demonic names to run through. They gathered it from church records -- only certain demons appear where certain Saints and Angels are routinely mentioned -- and from listening to what the townsfolk swear to when making an oath.

When they say it takes time to do this without screaming exorcisms, this is what they mean.

Diego starts with, "Democritus."

The Demon doesn't move, so Veit continues with "Friedwardt."

Back and forth like this, for a bit.

"Helmholtz."

"Lagrange."

"Mosharafa."

"Sciama ."

All the while the Demon blinks and stays stock still on the quietly crying boy's throat.

Diego rubs at his mouth with his free hand. "There's gotta be a way to do this quicker," he says.

Veit raises an eyebrow. "Vesperbild."

Steam flashes from the Demon's head, and it slithers off the boy's throat down to his chest, growing as it goes.

"I DON' LIKE YEW," it roars with its pit-of-hell voice.

Diego grabs a loop out of the rope he tied and throws it over the Demon's head before it grows too big for it. The thing rears back and tries to jump at Diego's head, but can't get enough footing to make a sure leap.

It hits the floor in a heap. Diego sidesteps around it, pulls the rope taut. It coughs twice, then a lick of flame eeks out from its nostrils.

"That's a new bit," Diego feels the need to comment.

Vesperbild blinks at Diego, snarls, then lunges out the window. Diego by virtue of holding onto the rope currently looped around its neck, is dragged out after it.

He doesn't shout or make a noise as he hits thin air. This isn't the first time this has happened, and assuming he lives, it won't be the last.

The Demon is trying to grow wings but can't because of the rope. Its shoulders heave and writhe under its scales as it runs on all fours down the shadowy sidestreets of the town. Diego is dragged the whole way.

He leaves a plume of a dust cloud in his wake just from the heels of his boots dragging in the dirt. Flashes of white house siding and rough wood planks that make up the buildings glow in the moonlight as they move past, the flashes more like bursts of light than glimpses of architecture for Diego on account of his rolling around from the momentum of the rope jerking.

Vesperbild stops; Diego keeps going. He skids underneath the Demon's four scalloped legs and rolls to a shuddering halt in the dirt two feet in front of it.

"YER ANNOYING ME," Vesperbild shouts.

Diego raises his head and has a look around. He's flat on his back and has a good view of the back of the church with the bars crossed over the windows and the holy crosses etched everywhere it's possible to etch crosses.

If his heart wasn't hammering in his ears so bad, he'd probably hear laughing from inside the church.

"HEY, HEY." Vesperbild reaches out and pokes Diego in the kneecap. It makes his leg jerk from the scalding heat of the touch.

He shoves himself up on his hands, draws his legs up to his chest and tries to settle on his rear so he can at least face the thing. Shadows seem to radiate outward from its back. The thing outright leaks an oily soot cloud with every breath.

"What?" Diego snarls.

The Demon's lips curl back, showing razors for teeth and a long thick black tongue.

"I BE KILLING ALL," Vesperbild roars.

Diego rolls onto his hands and knees. He hurts all over, his skin is throbbing.

"Doubt you can, but you're welcome to try," he coughs.

The Demon stops, straightens, looks human for a moment despite the angled legs of a lizard and canted eyes blazing red hot.

"No, yew don't get it," Vesperbild explains. "I'll kill everyone."

Diego hates it when they get human.

"Nah," he snarls and shoves himself up to his feet in such a smooth motion, he could be oiled.

Veit steps out of the shadows behind the Demon. He has both hands out before himself, palms facing out with streaks of blood smeared across the palm. He's also lost his bowler hat and glasses somewhere, there's a cut over his eye that's accounting for the blood.

He says something conversationally in Latin, and Vesperbild shrieks, knocks his own head back and roars into the sky.

Diego's heart isn't pounding so much in his ears anymore. Now he can hear the people scream inside the church.

He scrambles back a couple steps to get out of the way of Vesperbild's thrashing limbs. It roars again and again. Something cracks somewhere else, and the sound of glass shattering echoes everywhere.

Diego grabs at a loose end of a rope and tugs it. The Demon doesn't look like he's about to lunge at Veit, but if he does, Diego's weight will slow it down enough that it won't make it.
Veit doesn't stop chanting. The screaming inside the church is getting higher-pitched, makes Diego's ears hurt.

Vesperbild coughs and roars and thrashes, claws at the ground, howls out for "MOMMA, MOMMA NO."

Diego really hates it when they get human.

Then Vesperbild coughs out a plume of fire right into the sky. Bits of it land on the roof of the church and settle on the tar paper up there.

It thrashes around a bit more, then goes still, eyes bright and looking at the sky. A shudder, a little whine, and poof, the demon winks out into nothing and they're left with a bare patch of dirt with ragged ropes strewn all over the place.

Screams are still coming from inside the church. A woman is chanting "Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus" louder than everyone else.

Veit and Diego stand there for a moment, staring at the empty space. Then a muscle twinges in Diego's leg and he remembers stagger down to scoop up the rope. It's hot, sticks to the grain of his gloves, probably burning the leather into nothing. He wads it up as fast as he can, shoves it under his arm, and uses his free hand to grab Veit and haul him into the shadows, out and away and in a round-about-fashion back to their shack where they can await the Sheriff to stomp in and ask questions.

Veit's feet stumble as he lets himself be dragged along.

"I didn't jump down," he slurs. Banishing demons from memory always addles him for a bit, and it's worse that he doesn't have his glasses with him to help him focus.

"Of course you didn't," Diego snaps at him. "You would've broke your fool neck if you did."

---

Small bag of gold coin and a fold of banknotes is what the Preacher hands over to Veit in the light of day, hours later. There's a decent amount, as far as Diego can tell without counting it himself.

"Coulda done without you taking out the windows," Preacher says, sullen.

"Do you ever stop moanin'?" Diego asks. He hurts everywhere and is completely tired of being the silent brown savage standing to the side this week.

Veit hurries to take the money and puts it in his travelling case, snaps it closed and slings the handle over the pommel of his saddle. He says, "Thank you kindly, we'll be going now."

Preacher nods. His wrinkled sunburned forehead smooths a bit, like he's glad to see the back of them and just can't wait to rejoice. "Yes, of course."

Diego never got off his horse, but he waits for Veit to mount his own and then they aim towards the side street that runs along the back of the schoolyard, comes out the end of the town in the North and if one were to keep going in that direction, they'd eventually hit one of the land baron's estates.

They could go down the main street like normal folks, but the Sheriff is probably watching for them.

When they clear the school and are cantering along between a narrow street with houses facing it on one side, Veit looks Diego in the eye and speaks.

"If we get stopped, we're on our way further into Texas. Their oil field is yielding enough to draw workers from all over."

Diego nods. Sounds real enough. "Right. I picked here, your turn."

"I want to go down into Mexico for the hidden cities."

"We ain't gonna find that hunt you want in a city we can't find in the first place," Diego sneers.

Veit smiles, looks away. His jacket's collar is folded down for once, exposes the pinkish burn of his bare neck, dusted down partway with black hair that is cropped short.

Diego watches as out the back of Veit's collar the head of a lizard with blue streaks rippling down its scales like water peeks out and flicks its tongue at him.

He stares at it, watches it scope around the area behind them, blink its red eyes three times, then dart back down into the back of Veit's coat.

Diego looks down at his hands and lets his horse follow Veit's out of town.
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