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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Desert's End

Head down and heaving with every breath, the nearly fleshless paint horse he led still showed the beauty that had been. Taller by a hand or more than the ponies most western cowhands rode, his spine ridged up, more from lack of water than of food, although there’d been no food for nearly a week.

The man himself, blistered, clothes ragged and boots worn through, staggered just a little, like a man who’d had one whiskey too many. He too walked head down, watching for the tiny stone or ridge that would take his legs and send him to the ground.

The big horse whickered, and the man looked up. He doffed his hat, and rubbed his eyes gently with forefinger and thumb of the other hand. “I see it.” He patted the cheek of the head now resting on his shoulder. “And I’m thinkin’ you smell water.” He looked at the few dusty buildings, still at least a mile away that had appeared abruptly as they rounded the vertical end of an eroded hill.

Hitching the holster up (more a habit than any need), he dropped the old wide-brimmed hat back on his head and walked forward. He watched the town as they walked toward it, the ragged man and sun-beaten horse. The desert behind him had taken the others in a three-cornered firing squad, when the promised spring had turned out to be dry, seven days earlier. Their horses hadn’t lasted much longer. He’d taken their water, but it had run out four days later. He and the horse had drunk only the dew on the cold side of rock spires for the past three days.

They staggered on, the thought of water turning thirst to agony. At the beginning of the street into the town, an old jack-handle pump stood, with bucket, ladle and trough. Holding back the horse with a warning hand and quiet word, he pumped into the bucket, poured most of it into the short trough, and ladled the rest out for himself.

“Smart,” the voice was behind him. He straightened, casually dropping the ladle into the bucket, “drew enough t’ cut th’ dust, but not enough to founder th’ horse.” Gravel crunched.

The ragged man turned toward it… slowly. “Who do I pay for th’ water?” The horse whickered again.

“Water’s free.” The man was tall, skinny as a rail, bald and bareheaded. His scalp shone red-brown in the rising sun. “Two cents apiece rental for th’ bucket, ladle and trough.” He chuckled easily at his own wit. “Nickel for th’ three… volume discount.” He grinned, wide… showing teeth and gaps. The single action revolver on his left hip rode low in a well-worn holster. The hand next to it twitched.

“OK.” The ragged man reached into his left pocket and retrieved a coin; flipped it, flashing in the sun, toward the man’s left shoulder.

The bald man’s left had struck upward like a snake, snaring the coin. The ragged man’s .45 appeared in his hand. The bald man’s left eyebrow rose. “Last time I seen you, I was ridin’ hard and lookin’ back, and you fell off’n y’r horse.” He showed the grin again.

“Might’ve been th’ bullet you put in my ribs made thet happ’n.” The ragged man smiled back. “Have t’ admit… never thought ya c’d hit me at that distance shootin’ backwards off a horse.”

“Me e’ther.” The bald man was still smiling. “Luckiest shot I ev’r made.”

“Got any law here?”

“Naw. I kilt him two weeks ago. He recognized me… called my name.”

“Without the’ mop of flamin’ hair and th’ beard? Hard to believe.”

“Knew my voice ‘n walk, he said… saw me comin’ outa a bank in San Antonio.”

“How many dead in th’ bank?”

“Three, but he didn’t know none of ‘em.”

The ragged man nodded. “Me neither, but we’re both lawmen.”

“Not you. Y’r just a bounty hunter.”

“Where’s ever-body else?” The ragged man changed the subject.

“Just me an’ a saloon girl. Ever-body else rode out three days ago.”

“Got any horses left in th’ liv’ry?”

“Three or four, but if you think you’re takin’ me somewhere t’ hang, y’ need t’do some rethinkin’. I ain’t gonna hang f’r nobody.”

The ragged man ignored him. “Wagons or buggys?”

“Two… a farm wagon and the doctor’s buggy. He didn’t need it n’more.” The grin flashed again.

“Poster sez, 'Dead or alive.’” The pre-cocked .45 spat flame and a small, bluntly rounded piece of lead into the center of the chest of the bald man.

The ragged man looked down at his brother’s body.  "The Old Man says, “Hello.”"

R C Larlham - March 20, 2010 

Copyright R C Larlham, 2010, all rights to author.

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