On the other side of the hitching rail, where Billy's father stood smoking and looking up at the sun again, the horses' tails flickered like frayed ropes, swatting away black lethargic flies that hovered around them like tiny carrion birds.
"Come on. Let's get inside," the old man said.
Billy followed his father over the hardpan between the porch and the hitching rails, on which wires of horsehair were caught in the splintered wood and twitched in the breeze. Then they went up the wooden stairs, the loose planks creaking under their boots, and then on into the saloon, where just beneath the high ceilings and jutting down from the exposed wooden beams, several slow-moving fans uselessly whispered into the stagnant air above them. The place was mostly empty, the few customers who were sitting at the counter had cups of hour-old coffee or perhaps whiskey in front of them, a small local newspaper—three or four days old most likely—folded in their laps as they talked to the barman or otherwise to each other.
Billy and his father went over to an empty table and sat down in two wooden ladder-backed chairs, the creak of their weight sounding much like sitting in a freshly-oiled saddle. It was a sound the boy loved to hear: the creaking of old, well-worn leather or the protestations of wood as it took on weight it wasn't meant to hold. The barman approached them. Without asking, he placed an empty ceramic cup in front of the boy's father and then tilted the decanter he was holding until Thomas Ketchum's cup was filled with dark and steaming coffee.
"Looked like you could use that," the barman said.
"I thank you for it," Thomas said back.
Then the barman looked over at Billy. "Can I get you something, young man?" he said.
"Yes, sir. I'll have one of them birch beers, if y'all got 'em, please."
"We do. Y'all gonna need a menu?"
"Two," the boy's father said.
"All right then. Be right back."
Thomas Ketchum sipped from his coffee and smoked the rest of his cigarette, tipping the gray ashes off into a little tin coffee can in the center of the table. You could see the black and brown saucers where the tips of countless cigarettes had burned the wooden tabletop as they made their careless descent toward the coffee can, ultimately missing. Billy just looked around. Took everything in like he always did. He thought he might sketch the inside of this place later when they were sitting out by the fire and when he had nothing else better to do.
The barman made his way back behind the counter and poured Billy's drink as Billy listened at the sounds of forks scraping against plates, the old men scooping up the last of their beans onto a piece of white soggy bread, some of it dripping back down onto their plates like thick candle wax.
As the barman started to make his way back to the table where Billy and his father were sitting, grabbing two stained menus off the counter on his way, the slatted batwing doors creaked loudly on their gudgeons and everyone's heads turned to see who was coming in now. Billy looked too. He saw the outline of what seemed to be the tallest man he had ever seen. It was the same man who had been watching them from the other side of the train tracks just a minute ago, but Billy nor his father knew this. How could they? Billy had been busy watching his father roll a cigarette. And then his father had been busy smoking said cigarette and looking up at the sun, contemplating something Billy would never fathom for as long as he would live.
The man who had just walked into the saloon had an outline that nearly filled the threshold of the doorway, eclipsing what little sun was leaning in from where it sat poised in the uppermost part of the sky. It was high noon, as they said around here. And now the older men at the counter stopped talking and you could hear their coffee cups clink into their saucers as they put them down and turned toward the opening to see who had just come in. The batwing doors creaked shut and tapped the tall man's back, but he didn't budge. He stood still against the glare behind him, affording no look at his otherwise featureless appearance.
"I need everyone to stay put," his voice said, emanating low and heavy from his shadow, which continued to fill the doorway as though it were the bole of a large tree suddenly sprouted up from the wooden porch outside. It was as if the voice and the figure were two separate things—the figure outlined in the door like a black cardboard cutout of some giant man. Billy couldn't make out the man's face or what he was wearing even. Just that large black outline. Then the shadow started to move farther in toward the inside of the saloon, the door still slowly swinging in and out behind him, the rusted-out little bell tinkering just beside his shoulder one last time as he passed it. As Billy's vision adjusted to the change in light, he could see that the man who had just come in was holding a gun, pointing it in the general vicinity of the barman now.
The boy looked across the table at his father, whose back had been facing the shadowed man when he first came in, but now his father had his head craned in such a way so that he could see him, too, this stranger. This shadowman. This was suddenly how the boy thought of him now. Billy caught his father's eye for a second and then he too looked back toward the man with the gun.
"I need all y'all to stay put," the shadowman said, cleaving the silence with his low bass voice.
The barman with the two menus and the boy's birch beer stood between a couple of tables, holding the drink but letting the menus slip from his fingers. When the menus hit the wooden floor, they stirred up the wood shavings that were sprinkled there to catch the tobacco juice that didn't make it into the brass spittoons at either end of the bar, and the shadowman looked down for a moment but then he turned and pointed the gun back at the bartender.
"I done told you to stay put," he said.
"I'm sorry," said the barman. "I ain't movin no more. Let's just calm down now."
At this Billy could sense his father tense up. Thomas Ketchum's elbow had moved the faintest bit, bumping the table, and the boy could see his father's coffee twitch in the ceramic cup as a result. And now the shadowman was moving again, this time toward the cash register. And Billy watched as the robber scanned the room with his gun, yet Billy could still barely make him out, see who he was.
He was wearing a black bandanna—Billy could make that out at least—and it was wrapped across the lower half of the shadowman's face, the top half eclipsed by the brim of a yellowed Stetson. His white but slightly-dingy shirt was tight fitting and tucked into his pants so that you could see his thick leather belt and the silver-plated buckle that held it shut around his waist, scrimshawed and with little turquoise stones outlining some scene from this man's life perhaps. Or maybe from someone else's.
And it was as though everything were moving through a scrim of gauze now and the boy was able to see and record each tiny detail so that later that night, when he sat among the chaparral in the shadow of his father's campfire, holding his father's gun as the old man slept in a deep whiskey fog, he would recall all of this as though seeing it flicker across a piece of stretched canvas, a magic lantern reeling out strips of film and clicking out the story like a picture show in an empty theater. But at this moment, it wasn't a show. It was all really happening.
"Now I'm gonna need you to open that register," the shadowman said.
"Okay, just put the gun down first. We can talk about this. Like gentlemen, can't we?"
"I don't think so, hoss."
And then Thomas Ketchum twitched again. Just a twitch. Barely noticeable. His son looked at him, and then the old man moved, just a little bit more, finally standing and then reaching for his gun in what seemed a single motion and then pointing it at the other, much taller man. Time had started to collapse now and sink in on itself as though everything were being sucked into a dark mine shaft and the boy watched as his father rushed the shadowman, knocking over a chair, then a table, and then the shadowman aiming his gun at the boy's father and squeezing the trigger but the gun only clicking and then clicking again and then again and then the boy's father now on top of the shadowman, hitting him with the butt of his gun right near the temple and everyone else not moving as all of this happened, the passage of time unfurling slow and river-like. Like it does in dreams.
Then it had all stopped. Everything. The filmstrip clicked across the final frame and now spun around the reel, the last bit of film like a tail flapping against the machinery of the camera, the light and the dust spackled throughout it the only thing left to see, for the situation had seemingly been diffused. And it was the boy's father who had stopped it. Just like when Billy had stood before that anonymous window, looking in at that beautiful woman as she dressed and powdered herself and his father had struck Billy with his leather belt. But this time was different. This time the old man had used his gun.
Billy watched from where he was still sitting at the table as his father took the pistol from the shadowman's hand and kicked it across the wooden floor, leaving a crooked trail in the aspersion of sawdust that coated the oiled planks like snow. Then the old man put his knee in the shadowman's throat and pulled down his bandanna. His hat had already come off during his fall but from where Billy was sitting, he still couldn't get a good look at the shadowman's face. If he had, Billy would've seen the grizzled cheeks and the scarred chin, the milky right eye, the sun-dried nose as though it had been baked in a clay-hewn stove. Squarish, gapped teeth stained dark brown by tobacco.
The barman had put the boy's drink down on one of the tables and had started to make his way back behind the counter—presumably for his own gun—when Thomas Ketchum told him to stop.
"Ain't nobody told you to move, old timer," he said, his knee still pressing down hard on the shadowman's throat, his gun hand slowly rising until the barman was now standing at the wrong end of Thomas Ketchum's Colt .45. This was a place you did not want to be.
The barman turned and looked down at Ketchum. Then he looked back up at Billy, who was still sitting in the ladder-backed chair. Watching. Billy was just as confused by all of this as the bartender seemed to be. The boy watched then as his father stood, releasing the pressure on the shadowman's neck, checking with his ungloved hand to make sure the other man was still unconscious and then getting up and moving slowly toward the bartender, the Colt still pointed at his head.
"Now I know you have a smokewagon under that bar there, but I ain't gonna let you get to it. What I want you to do, old timer, is real slow-like open that register and then move around to the front of the bar where I can see you. Keep your hands in front of you and I ain't gonna hurt no one."
Then to the other men in the saloon: "All you old timers just put your hands on the bar so I can see you ain't gonna do nothin' stupid neither. I promise you ain't no amount of money is worth gettin' kilt over."
This was probably the most the boy had ever heard his father say in one sitting. It really was as if he were watching another man do these things, the boy squinting incomprehensibly as his father choreographed the room with his gun. No one moved. A fly landed next to Billy's arm on the table. He didn't even flick it away.
Eventually Billy's father took all of the money from the cash register, the bartender tightlipped and hardfaced as he handed it over, and then Ketchum made his way down the length of the bar and took what money he could from each of the old men perched there. They handed over dull gray coins and folded bills. Pesos even from a couple of them. Billy watched his father's reflection in the greasy backbar mirror now as he took the money and stuffed his tight pockets with it. And he could see the old men and their eyes watching his father too. Angry, but they all kept their hands on the countertop as instructed. No one moved for their weapons. There were apparently no heroes here.
On the wooden and sawdust sprinkled floor still lay the shadowman, breathing deeply and unconscious, a dark bruise blooming just in the place where Ketchum had hit him. Billy watched to see if the shadowman would rise but he never did.