As the sun shone down onto the earth and against Kristoffsen's face, he slowly opened his eyes. Another night over, another day to come. "Hope you slept tight," Tom warily said. "We got a big day ahead of us and least one of us should be fully alert."
Kristoffsen used his arms to lift his back off from the ground and support his body in the air. "Well," he lowly mumbled, reeling from the groggy, half-awake feeling he had in addition to the less than exquisite morning taste in his mouth, "I promise that tonight I'll be the one watching him." He slowly moved his eyes from the shotgun, which Tom was holding, to the captive it was aimed at. Always silent, always expressionless, in a pitiful sort of way that captive was. What was he always thinking about that left him in such a state?
Kristoffsen groaned as he stood up, scraping the dusty ground underneath him as he did. He looked at the mountains to the south of them that they were to head to and said to Tom, "They're like the Walls of Babylon. Those mountains I mean. They're an impossible obstacle to scale for a treasure and civilization that rivals no other."
"Well, don't worry," replied Tom. "We'll get to Phoenix soon enough. And think of the money we'll get too after this son of a bitch hangs. A whole 300 dollars! Imagine, just for the two of us!" he continued excitedly.
"Yeah. I guess so," Kristoffsen simply replied.
Tom then threw him the shotgun he was pointing to their prisoner and said, "Come on let's get a move on. We waste enough time and it'll be night before we know it." He then lifted their bound prisoner from the large rock, who was sitting in a way that seemed as if he was impatient to go to their destination, despite his impendent doom. Tom then put the prisoner on one of the horses as Kristoffsen was holding the shotgun. Tom then got on his own horse which was tied to the prisoner's horse with a rope, connecting the two, while Kristoffsen mounted the third one, always keeping his eyes and gun on the prisoner. The horses then began trotting slowly but surely towards the mountains and the Babylon that lay beyond them.
* * *
The sun shone hard as they rode, yet the air was bitterly cold. Kristoffsen could hear the clacking of the horse's hooves against the rock, red as if it was a newborn's tender skin caught and burned under the sun. Whenever he momentarily allowed his gaze to drift away from the men in front of him he would observe and admire the beautiful rock formations the mountains had to offer, jagged and pointing up yet at the same time strangely soothing to look at. The trees too were very beautiful. Unlike the great conifer trees of the north or the mighty oak trees of the east, they were small yet sturdy, rebellious in a way, particularly how thorny they were, despite their beauty. The cold wind blew against Kristoffsen's face feeling like a million little cuts made by a madman wielding a knife that held him hostage, much like how he himself held his prisoner hostage.
It would be a fine day when he would see his prisoner die, Kristoffsen thought. Maybe. Maybe.
A nagging feeling was in Kristoffsen's head, how perhaps he and Tom may go their separate ways after this adventure. Tom was older than Kristoffsen by a few years and had recently talked of settling down with a wife and kids. This worried Kristoffsen, the aftermath of this event. Goodbyes had always been hard for him.
Doubt remained in his mind. Bounty-hunting was the only job Kristoffsen knew, yet at the same time he had always done it with Tom. His departure would mark great distress in the routine of Kristoffsen's life. Perhaps, he would consult Tom later about these sentiments he had. Perhaps.
Tom halted his horse, saying as he looked at the dimming sun, "I reckon it would be best if we start setting up camp now. It's getting mighty dark."
Kristoffsen nodded. Another day over, another night to come.
* * *
As the days and nights drifted away in the routine of waking up, riding the horses and guarding the prisoner, the three men happened upon a town in the later hours of one such day. It was a small town, homely and with only a few small buildings. "From the look of things, seems to be a mining town," Tom observed.
The men then made their slow descent down from the peak in which they first observed the small town, and entered it, attracting attention from the gruff-looking minor inhabitants. A man with a large gut came out of the saloon, followed by a large muscular man that had a hat covering his eyes. "Evening," the fat man said. "Name's Clark, mayor of this here town, Jerome. This fella right by me is the sheriff, Eugene. What brings y'all down here?"
Tom was quick to reply. "Well mayor," he began, "we're bounty-hunters bringing in this prisoner to Phoenix so he can hang. He be the Phoenix Ripper."
"The Phoenix Ripper?" the large man asked in surprise.
"Yep, killed 5 women he did. Tried to make a run by going north but we were able to catch him. Ain't that right Kris?" Tom said with a grim sort of pride.
"I reckon so," said Kristoffsen after a pause. His mind was elsewhere, thinking of life and its downsides. Its despair.
Tom looked over at Clark now with a sort of pleading face. "Now mayor, we're mighty tired and were hopin' for a place to stay the night while you kept our prisoner here."
"Well, we'd be glad to take y'all in for a night!" Clark said with a hefty smile. He then pointed to the lively building across from them and said, "You just hand your prisoner to us and we'll take care of him, while you go to the hotel and wash up."
"Mighty kind of you," Tom said with a smile. Kristoffsen was expressionless.
* * *
Kristoffsen woke up slowly the next morning, feeling that it was impossible for him to leave the bed. When he finally did, he splashed some cold water on his face in the hopes that it would liven him up, but to no avail. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw a battered man and a hole, a hole in his spirit.
Kristoffsen was never an overly-joyful fella, but realized when he looked in the mirror that recently he no longer had any happiness. He was never sociable, but before he could at least sit at the fire and occasionally joke and converse with Tom or another close comrade of his. Now though, he could no longer connect. He felt too different. He could no longer see the light in life. It was a lonely world, a cruel world and he wondered if he could live any longer in it.
* * *
And so, the bounty-hunters said their farewells to the fine inhabitants of Jerome and began their final stretch towards Phoenix. They rode many days and many nights, and slowly the red rock and thorny trees disappeared, gradually replaced by the dusty, barren ground and Saguaro Cactus. It had become warmer as they went further south, and the men were relieved they were able to embark from the mountains before they had the chance of catching snowfall.
It was the final night before they would reach Phoenix, just yonder over the slope and down into the valley. Tom slumbered while Kristoffsen kept watch on the prisoner. It was an eerie scene, the killer just sitting there, staring at Kristoffsen, unblinking and expressionless. At first it disturbed Kristoffsen, but soon the hours took their toll and Kristoffsen felt drowsy. He was losing the fight to keep his eyes open when he heard a cold voice, waking and alerting him. "Are you about to fall asleep?" the voice asked in a breathy and unsettling tone, one could mistake it for the undeads'. It belonged to the prisoner.
Kristoffsen gulped and tried to seem brave and courageous when he responded. "No. Not while you're here. You'd kill us all," he said, though in reality Kristoffsen did not care one way or the other if he was killed.
"Sleep, you know, is a temporary death. You leave the world for several hours, unaware of your surroundings. If we did not return to wake, it would be just like death," the prisoner emotionlessly said.
"So is that what you did to your victims? The ones you cut up? You put them to sleep?" Kristoffsen asked with half disgust, half puzzlement.
"Perhaps," replied the prisoner. "It is up for others to interpret what I did. I will not tell my own reasoning."
"Good. I don't want to know," Kristoffsen lied.
A long time passed before the prisoner continued the conversation. "I see through your eyes, you know. You may act your best to seem like these other men, trying to do good, but I know. I know you've lost your lust for life, your care for the world. You caught so-called 'bad men' because you thought you were bringing safety and respectability to the world, but now it has been too long and you are unsure if you have been any help and if you want to stay on this earth any longer."
Kristoffsen just looked at the prisoner, not saying anything for he knew it was true. The two men did not speak anymore for the rest of the night.
And the fire blazed on through the unending darkness, until it died out.
* * *
"May God have mercy on your soul," said the executioner as the platform beneath the prisoner's feet gave way, causing the prisoner to fall through. Mere feet before he hit the ground, the rope around the prisoner's neck went stiff, creating a huge crack that could be heard by the entire audience that gathered for the hanging.
The crowd dispersed soon after. A fun lively event a hanging was, but too quick. Shamefully too quick. Kristoffsen remained as the crowd left and took a few steps toward the dead killer. Tom had already left Phoenix to saddle up with his girl, going to some small-town which name Kristoffsen could not bother to remember. Tom seemed happy to start his new life but Kristoffsen was melancholic to see him go. Kristoffsen didn't think Tom noticed his melancholia. Now he was alone, alone with a dead man, and unsure of what to do. Maybe he would look for another bounty, the first he would do without Tom. Maybe he would head west to San Francisco, where he heard there were riches to be had. Kristoffsen then looked into the cold dead stare of his former prisoner's eyes and noticed the rope around his neck that trailed up. Maybe. Maybe not.