Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Grizzled Old Warrior

I strutted into the saloon, pushing the creaking ancient wood-slat swinging doors aside as I came in from the brightness of the outside. Every eye in the place fell on me as my own adjusted to the dimness of the interior. The heavy planks on the floor were unfinished and worn over from all the boots dragging over 'em, but the bar was polished and shone like water. The great mirror over the wall behind it reflected my silhouette backlit by the hazy gray light outside.

It was overcast and chilly in the mid-November day. There was a howlin' wind whippin' tumbleweed and rattlin' shutters through the town. It helped shake the dust from my clothes and hair. My dry lips and parched throat wanted whiskey, and plenty of it. My purse told me maybe one or two shots was about it.

It'd taken me a week to get here from my home in Oklahoma, but I heard he was the best there was. Perched himself in Kansas, just south of Witchita. I'd bested every gun I'd come across, and I was ready to prove that I was the finest around. But he stood in my way.

He was known through the west. Steely nerves, steady hand, quick slappin' and lightning aim. Hadn't had to actually pull the trigger in over a decade, they said. He'd just get the drop on ya, no matter how fast you thought you were. He'd have it there ready, just in case you wanted to push the issue, take it all the way. Some said he wasn't human; too fast to be a man, they said. Must be some wraith, or spectre haunting the prairies. All I know is, without gettin' here to try it, my name'd never be higher than second on that list of the best. I wanted to see if he was everything he's supposed to be for myself, and let the chips fall where they may.

Ol' Stan Lichtner, on one o' his trips through town, told a couple of us down at my local waterin' hole that he'd seen 'im in action, in person. Some young gun come into town lookin' to gun 'im down, and wouldn't take no one's word about his speed. So that young boy found him right here, in this very saloon where I was just now steppin' through the door, sittin' on a corner stool and just watchin'. The madam offered the treats of her girls, the bartender offered booze -- nothin' was going to sway the young 'un from his mission. He just kept at the old man, then started threatenin' everyone else. Said he'd shoot someone everytime the old man told him "no," and when everyone in the bar was dead, he'd start goin' through the streets.

Well, I guess that done it for 'im, 'cause Stan said he got up, fixed 'is hat tighter on his head and strode out the doors behind the kid. They faced off in the street, and the kid got all jacked and edgy, ready for the deed. When the madam said "draw" all the kid heard was a whisp of worn leather and the click of the gun metal. He was staring down the barrel of the old man's cannon before he could get his own rig free from the holster. Old man just eyed him, raised his eyebrows to ask the question. You know, making sure the kid had the belly for it an' all. He didn't. He put up 'is hands and left town with 'is tail 'tween 'is legs like a whipped dog.

Everybody knew Stan Lichtner was a lyin' piece o' shit, and nobody believed nothin' he said, but we all hung on every word of that story. Right then, I knew I was comin' to Kansas to find this man an' see for myself.

I eyed the crowd real careful, lookin' over each face. I didn't have a picture of 'im or nothin', but I figured he'd stand out. I held them doors open for a long while when someone patted me on the shoulder. I about jumped outta my skin but didn't yelp. I had to stay cool.

"'Scuse me," a gravely voiced murmured next to my ear, "you're blocking the door, stranger."

I turned around deliberate and slow, and stared into the coldest, blackest eyes I'd ever seen. They were sparkling and lively, but deep as the night sky in the high prairie. The deep lines webbed his eyes, nestling them softly under his bushy white brow and light, wispy hair that rode across his forehead like those frail, thin clouds in an autumn sky. The heavy lines around his mouth showed me he knew how to laugh, and the creases up and down from his lips told me he knew how to smoke. The strong, firm, gnarled hand on my shoulder conveyed both strength and control. His smile told me he didn't worry, and the badge that winked the light spilling from the deepening clouds piling overhead told me he didn't have to.

It was HIM. I didn't need a picture to know him. His every move, every breath, every heartbeat told me this was the man I'd come lookin' for.

He eyed me for a moment, and as I stared back with as little expression on my face as I could manage, the smile slowly faded from under his mustache and beard. He drew a long sigh and stepped back just a hair, settling his weight when he knew he wasn't goin' into that saloon.

"I guess you come lookin' for me?" he said slowly, and his voice was softer than I thought it'd be. It was gentle, and almost kind. I don't know what I was expectin', exactly, but this wasn't it. He seemed like he might actually be ... I dunno. Nice, maybe. I couldn't put my finger on it.

I nodded slowly, never takin' my eyes off him. I half-smiled at him. "You'd guess right about that, then," I said. "I come up from Oklahoma to find you. I heard you're the best."

"Lemme guess," he said, sneering into the distance between us, not really focusing on me, "YOU wanna be the best, right?"

I snorted and shook my head. "No," I said, "I reckon I AM the best, and I'm here to prove that."

He burst out laughing then, and I could hear the shuffle of feet over that dry, dusty wood floor inside the bar as curiousity overcame their distance and distrust. They were startin' to crowd inside so they could see us just on the boardwalk outside under the eaves, the wind just kissing us cold.

"Kid," he said, "I ain't the best. Best at what? What's there to be the best at?" He shook his head again, then leveled his eyes at me. "The best at what YOU want is the Reaper, and none of us get away from him for long. Eventually, he comes for us all. I got mine comin' same as you an' everyone else."

I looked down, adjusting my worn and weathered old hat on my head, keeping my long hair out of my eyes. "Well," I said slow and soft, tryin' to convey calm, "until I beat you, I can't be counted where I wanna be. I figure you and I had a date with destiny from the beginning, and today's that day."

He just shook his head again, slower, and turned his mouth up snidely.

"Well," he said at length, "I guess I can stand here all day and debate this with you, but seems to me your mind is set. Do you want a whiskey first? You look like the road's still on you."

I felt the cracking of my throat when I swallowed. "If it means you ain't gonna try and wiggle outta this thing, then yeah, I'd like a whiskey. Otherwise we can do this right now." I wanted to make sure he knew he wasn't getting away from me.

"All right, then," he said, "let's get a shot first. I ain't run from a man in all my years. I don't reckon I'll run from you either."

I nodded and he gestured like a genteel southern man for me to step inside. I did, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight on end. I was tight and listening for ANY indication that he'd draw on me with my back turned.

He didn't. I figured out later, he wouldn't've. Never.

We stepped up to the bar, and every eye was on us. I was used to it by now. The man behind the bar, with his long waxed mustache and tight vest, thinning hair slicked back against his scalp, came up when we leaned against that polished surface, thumping our soles on the brass foot brace running under the stools.

"Whiskey, Jed," he said smoothly to the barkeep, "for both of us."

"On the tab, Will?" the barkeep said, and he nodded.

I learned two things right then: his name was Will, which didn't seem to sit right on him somehow, and he was confident he was comin' back to pay that tab. I nodded approvingly; the surer he was, the more he'd be surprised.

The barkeep slid two shots at us from down the end of the bar, and I snatched one as it passed and let the second go on. He caught it smooth as silk and never spilled a drop.

I turned to face him when I caught his motion out of the corner of my eye. He raised the tiny glass to me.

"To life," he said. "May it be long and happy."

I dipped my head in acknowledgement of his toast, and we threw back the shots together. It went down slick and warm, and spread through my empty belly and lit the life fire back in me. I'd been on the road lean and hard, and the liquid washed down like I'd swallowed a beam of sunlight. It soothed every nerve in me as it settled into me sound.

He licked his lips politely, tasting the last of the droplets, then stared at the bottom of the glass for a moment.

"Well, then," he said softly again, "I guess you'll be wanting to get this over with."

I didn't reply. He drew a long breath in through his nose and hitched his gunbelt up, pushing his coat tails back at the same time, expanding his chest with air. Then he looked at me dead in the eye, and those laughing, dancing eyes I'd seen before were now as cold as a grave in winter.

"Let's go," he said, his voice emotionless and stony.

I dipped my head again, and he turned and walked without hurrying out those swinging, creaky doors, with me a step behind him. He paced in a practiced, rehearsed stride out from under the common eaves that ran in front of the street front buildings, and into the dusty dirt road that spanned through the town. He continued to walk toward one end of the street, and I instinctively went the other way. Eventually, we stood squared off from each other in the center of that powdery road, tiny dust devils playing up from our heels as we strode, the jangling gear of our gunbelts rattling in time with our steps.

He pushed his coat tail behind the heavy wooden handle that gleamed in what sunlight was left under the dense overcast, and he rested his hand in a habitual way on it.

"You sure you want this, son?" he said, and even though he spoke softly, it was like the wind carried the breath of his words to me. I thought about it, just then -- and only then -- for a second. No more.

"Yeah," I said firmly, and it was only then that I noticed the crowd that had spilled onto the street under the eaves on both sides of the road. They stood safely away and out of the weather, the cool air wet with rain that hadn't fallen but would.

He sighed again, and I heard him as well as if he'd been right next to me. "Maddy," he called, and one of the whores from the bar stepped to the front of the crowd from the saloon. She was short, but her bosoms spilled nearly out of the tight bustier, the big feather on her head whipped in the breeze, and her skirt was cut up the front so that her milky, rich thigh showed.

"Yeah, Will?" she yelled back.

"You start it off, hon," he said quietly, and she nodded.

I spread my legs, pushing my coat back behind my holster and out of the way of my hand, and my fingers instinctively twitched over the familiar cold handle of my piece. I felt my heart racing and willed it to slow down, settle into a rhythm. I felt my breathing get controlled and deliberate. My ears were ringin' with the adrenaline in my veins. I hunched down just a touch, cat-like and ready to spring.

He just stood there calmly, his face completely blank and his hand hovering over the handle of his own shinin' silver unit. He never twitched, and I swore he didn't even BLINK.

"Ready?" Maddy called.

We both dipped our heads slightly to acknowledge her.

"DRAW!!" she screamed.

What I thought I saw was impossible. I was moving FAST -- faster than I'd EVER moved. I pulled the gun free and my arm swung in the same smooth motion as it raised the barrel toward him. Watching in slow motion, like time was standin' still, his hand snatched his piece out of the holster and his arm bent and locked dead on me before I'd finished getting my weapon in position.

But I wasn't going to make the mistake the kid that came to town before me made. I wasn't goin' home with my tail 'tween MY legs.

I squeezed the trigger.

I knew I'd missed the instant I fired. It was too soon, but he was on me already, impossibly, incredibly fast, blindingly fast, like lightning from a summer storm. The bullet whizzed by and tore the fabric of his coat just next to his ribs, but I didn't kill anything but the coat. The INSTANT I fired he squeezed one off too, and he was ON target.

It hit me in the side, barely above my gunbelt, and I felt the hot metal burn through me like fire, the force of the lead spinnin' me on my heel and takin' me down. It didn't hurt as bad as I figured, and I wondered for just a second why he didn't hit the head or the heart -- he could've had his pick of targets.

I felt my mouth filling with dust and realize I'd fallen onto the road. Embarrassed, I struggled to stand, but only realized then that my body wasn't workin' right. I couldn't heft my weight up off the ground. My hands went under my shoulders but I couldn't muster the strength to push myself up. My head was still laying on the dirt, and just then, drops of rain started hittin' around me. There was an odd sound, through the ringin' in my head, and I realized it was the rain beatin' down on my coat back. I couldn't get up.

I heard his footfalls comin', and the crowd goin' back to whatever they were doin' before I got here. I knew then he was goin' to finish the job. I turned my face to one side and with everything I had in me, I rolled over, the fire rippin' through my side again like I'd been shot a second time. I lay there, pantin' like a horse for water, mouth dry and full of dust, and stared at the gray sky and the rain falling right into my face.

Then he stood over me and shielded my waterin' eyes from the light, his outline distinct and his black, shinin' eyes staring at me from under his hat, through that web of wrinkles in his face.

I couldn't speak, and he settled just beside me there, and lowered onto his haunches.

"Nah, I ain't gonna kill ya while you're down, young blood," he said softly. "In fact, I ain't gonna kill ya at all."

I was confused, and tried to form words, but he shushed me quietly. "Don't try to talk, now. I'll get Doc and he'll fix ya up. It ain't bad. I made sure it wouldn't be."

I shook my head, narrowing my eyes at him.

"We're all going to face the Reaper, son," he said. "You're good. You're as fast as I've ever seen, and with just a hair more time, it'd be me down there 'stead of you. You're going to take my place here someday, and you'll have to face the endless line of young bucks that want to make a name for THEMselves comin' after YOU."

I was fading, slipping toward what I thought was death, and he put his hand gently on my shoulder and squeezed.

"You did fine," he said, "and you'll have your day. It will come one day soon, and you'll be sorry you had it. Just like me. There is no joy in sending a young man to see the Reaper before the Reaper comes looking for HIM."

I slipped into sleep then, with his words echoing through my head.


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