Out of the shimmering heat of the Arizona desert, el Juez appeared on his mount. He crossed a trickle of water where a knee-deep stream once flowed and followed the well-traveled road up the valley, past an abandoned homestead and mine, trailing four men wanted for murder.
When he reached Silver Rock City's outskirts, Juez paused at the windmill. Its broken wheel rotated in the wind, click-clacking a steady rhythm. The dry-scraping sound of its pump echoed the town's plight: no water.
The dangling sign above the vacant Silver Rock Mine office was evidence that hard times had come to stay. Accumulating sand and debris painted a grim epitaph for this once thriving municipality.
Juez rode past sun-bleached sidewalks, boarded-up businesses, and deserted dusty streets. Fading placards for the 1889 territorial elections flapped in the breeze. A stray dog approached and barked, but cowered and scurried down an alley with its tail between its legs.
Juez stopped at the livery stable and watched the blacksmith pound a white-hot horseshoe. His horse reared its head and snorted from the clamor of hammer striking anvil.
The blacksmith, a muscular, graying man of forty-eight, looked up. "Howdy, mister. Can I help you?"
"How much to feed and water my horse?" asked Juez as he dismounted.
The blacksmith sized up his horse. "Don't look so he'd eat much. Want him rubbed down and brushed?"
"Just feed and water."
The blacksmith reinserted the horseshoe deep inside the forge, sending sparks and flames whirling above the hot coals. "How many days?"
Juez loosened the cinch and slid the saddle off. "A few hours."
A wad of tobacco in his mouth, the blacksmith puckered and spit on the hot bed of coals, raising a burst of steam. "Minimum of six bits for the whole day and night. Pay when you ride out."
Juez nodded. "Town got a sheriff?"
"What you mean?" Juez slung the saddle over the side of a stall to face the blacksmith.
The blacksmith repositioned the horseshoe in the hot coals, releasing more flames. "Four men rode into town yesterday afternoon, went straight over to the sheriff's office. Called him out, shot him dead in the doorway. Never even drew his gun."
"Where these men, now?"
"After they killed him, they went over to the saloon. Been holed up, drinking and busting up the place ever since. Never seen nothing like it before, mister." The blacksmith shook his head. "Didn't care much for the sheriff, still that's no way to gun a man down."
Juez took a wanted poster from his breast pocket. "These the men?"
"Can't say for sure." The blacksmith rubbed his chin. "Couldn't see them close up. What they do?"
Juez folded the poster to slide it in his pocket. "Murdered a family up north a ways . . . with young ones . . . and a baby too."
The blacksmith pulled a white-hot horseshoe out of the forge. "Hope you get them, mister. Sure hope you do." He pointed at the saloon. "Them horses been tied up with no food, no water since they rode in. Never did come here for me to look after them, neither. Who does that to a horse?"
Juez took a long, slender cigar from a breast pocket, bit the tip off, and leaned down to light it on the yellow-hot horseshoe. After a few puffs, he glanced at the town hall's clock tower. Its hands read five minutes till four.
Juez unholstered his bone-handled Colt .45, checked its rounds, and slid it into its cradle. He nodded to the blacksmith, turned, and walked toward the saloon.
When he was in earshot, the drunken laughter of the men amused Juez. He stepped on the wooden sidewalk, checked the streets, discarded the cigar, and paused. On the fourth clang of the clock tower's bell, he pushed through the doors.
* * *
No one was in the saloon except the four men. John was at the bar with a glass in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, Ben was watching the player piano's keys plunking out a tune, and Earl and Jake were talking and laughing across from Ben.
John saw Juez's reflection in the mirror. "Looky here, we got us a visitor."
The laughter stopped, and the men pivoted toward Juez.
"Get him, Ben," yelled John, dropping the bottle and going for his gun.
Ben, to Juez's left side, pulled his revolver to fire. Juez drew and dropped him before he was able to shoot. Juez whirled to face the others and let loose another round, killing John. He rolled to the floor and shot at the other two, missing Earl and nicking Jake. Juez took aim for another attempt. It was too late. Earl and Jake returned fire, and while one man's bullet missed and struck the wall, one bullet pierced Juez's chest.
Juez lay motionless on the floor.
"I'm hit," yelled Jake, grabbing his arm and wincing from the burning pain.
"How bad?" asked Earl.
"Just winged me." Jake's shirt, torn above the elbow, was blood-stained where Juez's bullet had grazed his shooting arm. He pressed on the wound to stop the bleeding. "I'll be all right."
"We got him good, didn't we? Sure he's dead?"
Jake knelt next to Juez, ear to his chest. "Nuthing. He's dead. Got him plumb where it counts." He checked Juez's pockets.
"Just this here wanted poster of us with bullet holes right through it."
Jake grabbed hold of a chair to steady himself and grimaced as he stood.
"Whoa." He staggered as he moved toward Earl.
"You okay, Jake?"
"Stood too fast, I reckon . . . I'm okay. Here, take it. What we gonna do with Ben and John?"
"Put them in the storeroom, I guess. And this here one?"
"Dump him to the street. I don't wanna be looking at him while we wait."
"Who's got the prayer stick we took from the Hopi shaman?" asked Earl.
"Yeah, the Pahos. Who's got it?"
"I don't. If you don't, must be Ben or John."
"Well, find it. If we lose it, none of us is coming back from the dead, now ain't we?"
"Dang it, Earl, you shot the shaman dead 'cause he wouldn't handover the Pahos. Gonna shoot me too? Besides, you're always trying to boss me 'round, and I'm sick of it. I'll find the gawl darn stick."
Jake searched through Ben's saddlebags but couldn't find it. He then rummaged through John's. "Found it!"
"Gimme here, I'll keep it."
"Why you, Earl? I can keep it just as safe. Concentrate on remembering the chant else the Pahos don't work, and I'll keep the prayer stick."
"Shut your yap, Jake. I remember the chant! Do you?"
"Yeah, I remember it."
"Crap then, the stick ain't worth fighting 'n killing over. Keep the damn thing; just don't lose it, you hear?"
"I kin hear real good. Let's cut the wrangling." Standing near Juez's body, Jake said, "Help me with Ben and John. Then we'll git rid of this here one. Besides, my arm hurts something fierce, and I need a drink."
The two men put Ben and John in the storeroom, next to the beer barrels and whiskey crates. They carried Juez's body to the sidewalk, heaved it into the street, and returned to the bar and resumed drinking and laughing. In the street, the sounds of player piano and laughter were loud enough that fear kept everyone away, and no one dared move him.
The clock in the tower ticked on. Meanwhile, the piano played the same tune over, and over.
"I'm beginning to hate that thar song. Musta heard it a hundred times," said Jake. He pulled out his revolver and shot three rounds into the piano. "Thar. That's better."
Leaning in a chair, Earl's eyes moved from the saloon's doors to the bullet holes in the wanted poster. He tossed it on the table. "They keep coming for us, must be the third time. Each new one's better with a gun; he 'twas the best, yet." He looked at Jake. "They used to come in twos. If one died, the other could revive him. Kinda strange, though, this one coming alone. Wonder what it means? It has me real spooked."
Jake rested against the bar with a whiskey bottle raised for a swig. "No worry. We finished this one good. Maybe he's the last." He looked at his distorted image, ragged contours, and gray hair in the bar's mirror and slammed the bottle on the bar. "Besides, I can't take much more dying . . . robs near ten years off me each time I die and am brought back." The rough stubble and deep creases were unmistakable. "Look at ma face! It's all haggard and wrinkled like an old man's, and I ain't 30 yet."
Earl laughed. "You still look beautiful."
"Earl, you're a real jackass, you know? You look like an old graybeard yourself. How many times you been killed?"
"Well, it's been too many times for me. Soon, I'll be too old, and I might as well stay dead."
"Stop talking thata ways. You're talking nonsense."
"Yeah, maybe I am at that. When can we bring Ben and John back?"
"After five. We gotta wait a full hour or more. You know that! Ben tried reviving me too soon, once. 'Twas the most pain I can remember ever having. Now, shut up and have a drink to pass the time."
* * *
On the fifth clang of the clock tower's bell, the saloon doors swung open, and Juez stepped inside. Jake dropped the whiskey bottle and went for his gun, but Juez nailed him before Jake lifted it out of his holster. Jake fell to the floor, dead.
Juez turned to face Earl and fired twice, planting a slug deep in his belly and one in his leg. Earl shot too, sending a bullet to its target. Reeling backward, Juez fell into the street. Earl zig-zagged to the window. Juez was lying in the hot sunshine. Earl held his belly wound, stumbled out the door, stood over Juez, and put two more rounds into his body.
"You the last one, mister? Will there be more?"
Earl's hands shook yet managed to holster his gun. Limping into the saloon, he knelt over Jake's saddlebags, searching for the Pahos. After his trembling fingers retrieved it, he stood and staggered into the storeroom. Kneeling and waving the prayer stick over each body, he recited the Hopi shaman's chant.
John was the first to awaken, push himself to a sitting position, and rub his forehead. He felt the wrinkles in his face. "If I keep dying, before long, 'twill be too old to bother."
Ben took a deep breath and coughed. "Yeah, and it don't get any easier, either," said Ben, spitting on the floor.
Earl struggled to his feet and wobbled to the bar. "Come on boys, we gotta ride outta town."
"Why the hurry?" said John, hobbling after Earl. "Need to steady my legs a bit. Feeling ain't in my toes, yet."
"Thought you were never gonna revive us. Something keep you?" Ben asked, following close behind.
"Yeah, what kept you?" echoed John. He turned to see Jake's crumpled body on the floor. "Guess you were kinda busy."
"Before, they came in twos. If one was killed, the other could help him come back. This one's different: he don't need no help." Earl slumped in a chair, holding his belly wound. "He got both of you, then Jake, and was near close to getting me too. If he kills all four of us at once, 'tweren't be no one to restore us, and we stay dead. I fear our days are numbered. Let's git outta town before the clock strikes six, and he comes gunning for us again."
"What 'bout Jake?" asked Ben.
"Strap him to his horse," said John. "Ain't yet the time."
"He got me pretty good," Earl said. "Die, soon, for sure. When I do, wait the set time. Here's the Pahos for safe keeping. Until then, let's ride."
* * *
As the bell in the clock tower clanged six times, Juez stood, stretched his arms, checked his Colt, and reloaded. Four lead slugs marked the spot where he lay in the street.
The blacksmith watched him get up and turn toward the livery stable. Trembling, he grabbed the saddle, blanket, and bridle, and readied Juez's horse for travel as fast as he could.
Juez walked to the forge and paused. He reached into his breast pocket, took out a cigar, and bit off the tip. The blacksmith took a couple of steps backward. Juez retrieved the tongs, lit the cigar on the hot metal, and took a few puffs. The smoke billowed above his head.
"Your horse's been watered and fed, mister. He's saddled and ready to ride. No need to pay; this here's on me." The blacksmith's hands were shaking as he handed him the reins.
Juez nodded, mounted his horse, looked up and down the deserted street, and rode to the outskirts of town. When he reached the windmill, he stopped. A trickle, then a gush of water flowed from its pump. His horse bent to the trough for a drink. His mount satisfied, he continued west, following the four men's trail to the next town and the next shootout. Juez and his mount disappeared into the last rays of the setting sun.
* * *
The men stopped for the night and waited for the set time to revive Earl. They were drinking, talking, and laughing around a campfire.
Earl, there will be no others. There is no need for others for I am Pavoroso Juez, the first and the last. The Day of Reckoning is coming soon. Until then, enjoy the time you have left.
"Whoa, look at Earl," said Ben. "His body is jerking and shaking. None of us ever did that after we died!"
"Should we revive him early?" asked John.
"Tried it once, and it was mighty painful for him," said Ben.
"Told me 'bout the time," said Jake. "We better wait."
The men returned to drinking and laughing, unaware of Earl's encounter with Juez in the Skeleton House.