An old man and a young man step down from their stirrups. They are pursued, but lost their pursuers the day before by sending a pair of riderless horses south-west as they turned north. The spurs of their boots rattle as they step towards a tree where they tie up their horses for the night.
They say a few words. The young man wanders off towards a cluster of dead trees a short distance away, picking up branches and sticks as he moves along whistling a tune. The old man wipes his hands together a few times and finishes off with a loud clap, a cloud of dust and sand puffing out from his hands like from pages of an old, forgotten book.
He gathers stones and places them in a circle for the fire. He lashes a rope around two dead trees. The young man comes back with a big bundle of branches and sticks and lays them down with a crash to the side. The old man says, "We're gonna need more than that," so the young man turns right back around, picking up the tune where he had left off.
The sky in the west threatens rain. The old man walks over to his horse and takes down a bundled blanket of canvas from his saddle and throws it over the rope to make a sort of lean-to, to cover them as they sleep. He secures the corners to the ground with more rope and some wooden stakes that he hammers into the dry, cracked earth.
He walks back to the horses, reaching into a leather sack strung onto the side of his saddle, and pulls out two handfuls of grain that he feeds to them. He wraps his arm around their thick necks and rubs their long noses.
Later that night the old man and the young man sit by a fire. They pass back and forth a flask now half-filled with whisky that the old man had been saving, that he pulled out from deep within a pocket hidden inside of his duster. They carefully roll cigarettes with their big, calloused hands. They smoke them half way and stick them into the ground and roll more moments later.
The old man turns his stare from the stars into the fire, squinting, his whole face cracking with deep wrinkles from a lifetime of squinting into fires.
He talks once. It's the first thing he's said all day longer than just a few words, and from the length and the sound of it he's been mulling it over in his head the whole time.
"If you live out here, know this land, then I reckon you know a good deal more about yourself than most others." He pauses, takes another swig of whiskey.
"It's the same here as it is anywhere else, when it comes down to it. But more direct. Closer, somehow. Out here is the desert, the deadlands. This is what lies beneath all our towns, our cities, beneath nature itself even. Beneath your own flesh. It's been here longer than any of it.
"It's the end of the world, the inevitability. It's a fight for life, for yourself, and for whatever's inside you that's so stubborn as to keep you going on in a place like this. You've no more right to live than the rattlesnakes and the scorpions that'll kill you in your sleep, than any other man, outlaw or saint."
The old man takes a stick and stirs the fire. Sparks leap into the air, the flames rise and roar.
"But the ones that stay alive out here for as long as me—they know something the others don't. They understand the cruel truth that is law in this land."
The old man takes a big puff on his cigarette and holds it in. He turns his head in the direction from which they came, staring long and hard and carefully as smoke streams from his nose and from between his lips.
Each thinks to himself the same thing: "Your day will come, old man, like it does for anyone else. There's nothing on your side but your own quick draw, sharp eye, and steady aim if you can keep them up to snuff. Any day now someone could put a bullet through your heart from behind and no amount of talent for gun-slinging could do a thing about that. No, your days are numbered. And each time that sun rises to wake you from your sleep, the odds get a little slimmer. The close calls get a little closer. Don't they, old man."
The old man takes a long drink from the flask. He looks at the young man from the corner of his eye and his mouth curls into a smile. He laughs under his breath. He wipes his lips with his sleeve and passes the flask with a nod.
All the while the young man just sits and stares at the old man's face, takes another swig of whisky, and tries hard not to find himself somewhere deep underneath all those wrinkles, all those scars.
* * *
The young man sets out at dawn. The wind is quick and has a certain bite to it. It whistles in his ears, bringing with it the faint rustle of dry grass and a tumbleweed that slowly passes and eventually disappears across the plain. He looks back and sees the old man's brown duster on the ground, and his old hat on top of that with what just looks like a big dark stain on it from where the young man sits on his horse.
He continues on, the horses slowly plodding forward with their heads bowed down low. He keeps looking back until the dark speck has disappeared far behind him, and a few more times after that.
* * *
He reaches the next town by sunset. He slouches on his horse, tired from the day's ride. Gusts of wind carrying sand whip at his face and his hands that hold tightly to the reins. Far away across the endless plain of desert the sun begins to descend below the horizon. A blood red miasma breaks over the land and into the sky. The horses continue inevitably forward, lumbering at the same steady pace they've kept up all day without protest. The road empty, a row of wooden buildings on either side. The sound of sweeping, the sharp scrape a steady metronome coming from some shadow far down the road. An empty rocking chair creeks on an old man's front porch.
This, the desert, the deadlands. Wind howls through these wooden structures, already beginning to rot. A rickety outpost that waits to be reclaimed by the faceless timeless sands. Wood will rot, and all that will remain—silver coins, broken glass and rusted nails, dried bones bleached in desert sun—will tell little of what was. And the sand shall take them too. Blood will leave no stain. An old man's words turn to stone and they too will crumble in time.
The horses' hooves mark deep scars in the sand that the wind is quick to erase. The young man rides over to a railing and ties up the horses' reins. Obliging, they stand still. The young man feeds them and strokes their long noses and looks into their dark eyes, his lips parted as if to speak as they return blank stares and swat flies with their tails.
Dusk settles like smoke, creeping out from the distant mountain ranges that darkly cradle the setting sun, a golden pearl floating atop a sea of light and darkness. Shadows creep out from the woodwork, gathering in clusters upon the ground.
The young man walks toward a pair of swinging doors, through which the sound of voices and a piano float out into the dying day, the descending night, his footsteps heavy as he thinks to himself he does not feel so young. He hears the thud, scrape and rattle of his steps, the steady beet of the broom's stroke from down the road, and thinks to himself that it is a lonesome sound, and also that he might find a place, inside, a bar stool or a bed, where he might rest his bones. In the warm glow of lantern light with a warm heart of whiskey among the music and voices.
He pushes open the swinging doors and walks in. The hinges creek and the music of the piano stops. The voices lower and he can feel their eyes all turn to him. He stands there for a moment then walks forward, his head bowed to the ground as he follows the rough grain of the floorboards to an empty barstool. He sits down and orders a drink, glances in the direction of the others and tips his hat. He takes a sip and savors the burn and lets out a sigh.
Shadows flank the spaces outside the reach of lanterns hung from the ceiling. Soot flows from their flickering flames and mixes with the smoke of cheap cigars and cigarettes like darkness gathering in the rafters.
Slowly, after a few stray notes, the piano continues its gay song that now seems somehow artificial to the young man, out of place and unnatural inside the dark dingy bar with flickering lanterns, gruff, brutish men, cheap women with cheap virtues and homely faces. Voices rise to their previous clamor and they all continue on as before like he wasn't there.
From the corner of the bar he looks around him and sees the same people, the same faces he has seen in all the towns he has ever been, familiar yet unknown to him. A legion of eternal strangers that haunt the saloons and the streets he walks, that have followed him all his life, his only respite from them found in the wilderness in between, old cattle paths and open fields, the unnamed places where even at night the creatures of the dark do not disturb him and he is completely alone. Where he longs for them, the ghosts from which he fled, for the presence of any creature who could turn his thoughts from within. And yet when they return to him, here, he sees that they are not what he sought. To him they seem mere phantoms of men, with nothing more in them than actions and words, incomprehensible and impenetrable to his understanding, as if they came from a world from which he is apart and one he will never know.
Strangers all, to whom he is strange.
And he forever fugitive. Once escaped, longing again for their company. Once attained, longing again for escape.
His stare fixes upon the bar top. He hums tunes from his childhood, improvising forgotten words in his head.
Warm burn of whiskey soothe my soul, the day is hot but the nights are cold, I once knew a man but now I'm alone, take me back take me back to where old souls go.
Drink me down deep, deep, drink me down, fire of whiskey and comfort of sound. Oh I would sleep, sleep, I've not found, since my old lady left me and daddy skipped town.
He takes another drink, and another. The bartender avoids his eyes by feigning a deep concentration on the glass bottle that he pours into the young man's tumbler, again and again until the caramel-colored liquid is gone and he brings out another bottle from underneath the bar.
A tarnished silver mirror the young man hadn't noticed at first hangs before him behind the bar. For a moment he thinks he sees the old tired eyes of an old man he once knew staring back at him, grey as if drained of the color they may once have possessed. His heart quickens and he takes another drink. He realizes it is his own image in the mirror.
"You oughta clean that," he says, indicating the mirror with the empty glass he holds loosely in his hand as he continues to stare into his own distorted reflection. The bartender looks at him for a moment and then at the mirror, then walks to the other end of the bar, absentmindedly polishing a glass in his hand over and over.
He doesn't come back, so the young man leaves some money beside his empty glass and gets up to leave. He reaches the door and pauses, and looks to his right up at a staircase to the second floor, darkly lit by crimson candles held by wrought-iron fixtures.
He walks up the steps and hands a few silver coins to a well-dressed man who leads him to a door. He enters a small room and closes the door behind him.
The room is barely big enough for the bed, the only piece of furniture except for a side table and a lamp crammed against the opposite wall. On the bed lays a girl, stripped to her undergarments, staring up at him with vacant eyes like she wasn't looking at him at all but a point on the door behind him.
She is a girl but she has grown old and tired. Her skin has lost its tightness. Her eyelids droop, half open, and her mouth sags into a disinterested semi-frown. Her eyes are glazed and dim.
The young man walks around the bed to a window that looks out onto the street in front of the saloon. Night has fallen. Lanterns hang in front of the houses and stores, lighting the street at intervals. He follows them with his eyes to the land that lies outside of their light.
The young man turns back around to her empty stare that silently followed him to the other side of the room. She blinks her eyes with a kind of indifferent consent. He takes off all of his clothes, gets on to the bed, and places himself over her.
She doesn't get into it much. She just stares away from him out the window with all expression gone from her face, clawing at the sheets with her hands. He finds himself aloof, distracted like he was somewhere else.
He doesn't finish. He pulls on his trousers and sits at the side of the bed and looks out the window. She agrees in silence. Soon there is a knock at the door. The young man yells "Alright" and puts on the rest of his clothes. Before walking out the door he turns to the girl and tips his hat.
"Pleasure," he says.
He doesn't realize his drunkenness until he stumbles through the hallway and down the dark stares. The world tips and turns around him, and it is only through a belligerent concentration that he is able to keep it level enough for him to walk. He pushes the bouncer to the side and walks out the doors. He hears the doors open again behind him and the heavy footsteps of two men. He stops. The footsteps go the other way. It is only after that he notices his hand at his revolver.
On the wall to his right there is a board with advertisements and notices posted across its face. As he walks by he rips off a wanted poster with a vague drawing of an old man and a reward promised at the bottom printed in red letters. He crumples it up in both hands and stuffs it into his jacket pocket. He doesn't take down his own.
He unties the horses and rides out of town under a sky radiant with stars. When the sun begins to rise he comes to a crossroad. He pulls on the reins and brings the horses to a standstill. He looks ahead at the road that shoots straight towards the horizon until it disappears beneath the curve of the earth. He looks behind at the road by which he came, then north and south respectively.
A short time later dawn has lit into day. The horses stand idly and huff and whinny and kick at the dirt. The young man sits on the ground beside the road smoking a cigarette, biting his lip, occasionally turning his squinty-eyed stare in another direction, looking long and hard and far then returning his gaze to the ground before his lap or the sky above him. He's been at it for a while now. He's lost track of time if he ever had it. Beside him there is a small pile of cigarette butts. He coughs a few times, clears his throat and spits, and adds one more to the monument of his lingering. In front of him there is a large spiral with close-nit equidistant lines, carefully carved into the earth with a stick.
The old man's horse whinnies and shakes its head.
"Alright, alright," the young man says.
He gets up slowly and brushes himself off. He takes one last look down each of the four roads.
"Guess those aren't our only choices," he says under his breath.
He walks the horses to where the road north meets the road going west. He mounts and sets out on the wild land in between. The land opens up the further he rides, as the roads grow further away. He brings the horse to full gallop. A cloud of dust billows from beneath the horses' feet. Ahead, far away, he can see ranges of green hills that rise into mountains.
He rides hard all through the day. Once he looks behind him and thinks he sees the black figure of another rider in the distance, but when he looks back again it is gone. For the rest of the day he finds himself looking over his shoulder expecting to see someone riding at his back, but there never is and he never finds any comfort in it.
He sets up camp in the shade of a large rock. There is no wood for a fire. When night comes the moon and the stars are bright and turn the earth silver. He feeds the horses and chews on a piece of leather-like jerky.
It takes him a long time to get to sleep. He finds it hard to keep his eyes closed. Throughout the night he wakes up suddenly with a start, not knowing where he is or why, lying there until it comes back to him and he closes his eyes to return to sleep.
He awakes just as the sun tips above the horizon, an orange burning ember glowing a radiant gold that spreads its touch over the land like a warm breeze. The night was cold. His joints feel as if they had frozen over, and a tiredness still weighs on his mind like frost. He feeds the horses again and sips on a canteen of water, then, stiffly, he mounts his horse and rides ahead.
The same black specter from the first day lurks out of sight behind him and disappears each time he turns around. He can feel its presence behind him, and sometimes he even thinks he can hear the faint rumble of another horse's hooves, but only for a moment and he can never tell from where they came.
It is as if he has been in a trance, like something has been burning at the back of his heals driving him foreword. He stares straight ahead with a concentration that leaves him unconscious of everything but his flight.
Night comes and goes. This time he gets no sleep, just stares up at the sky mulling something over in his head that even he is not wholly conscious of.
On the third day he comes to a riverbed, dried up mostly except for a few dark, stagnant pools, and though the water doesn't flow the earth is soft and rich. Here the grass waves in the breeze like green fire. Leaves cackle on the branches of trees and here and there a few flowers bloom pink and sweet. He has only been riding for a few hours but he decides to make camp at the small oasis where his horses can feed on the grass and where he feels the urgent need to run lessened, if only slightly. He feels looser, somehow, more present.
He whistles as he sets up camp at a dry spot by the riverbed where a large rock rises from the earth, flanked by a wiry bush and a few trees. He strings up a blanket of canvas for shade from the burning sun.
A rattlesnake nearly bites him as he gathers wood for a fire but he pulls himself back just as the white slivers of its fangs fly through the air. He pins its head to the ground with a long stick then gets in close to cut off its head with his knife. Its body lashes like a whip, its eyes wide with inhuman fury. He pushes the blade through. The body continues to rage and the fangs still drip with poison. He stomps the head into the dirt and puts the rest in his jacket pocket. He can feel it writhe for a moment longer before finally giving in to death.
The night comes with a chill but his fire is warm. Its heat warms the wall of the rock and bounces back to him. Storm clouds gather in the distance blotting out an expanse of sky, but above him it is open and starry. He drinks whisky from a flask and leans up against the rock to ease the burden of his own weight. The horses grazed all day and now stand silent and content, eyes glimmering in the firelight like stars. The snake is skewered, splayed open and crackling over the fire.
As he sleeps he has nightmares, while thunderous black clouds roll out across the sky above him. They rumble and brood, white fires burst within their darkness.
He awakes to the peel of thunder and the flash of lightning. The fire beside him has burned down to smoldering embers. The air is still, lightning scorched with the acid smell of vaporized space. The heavens crack and thunder, lightning scurries across the sky, briefly lighting the earth like the first sputtering blinks of a struck match.
For a moment—just a moment—the lightning stops and the thunder is hushed. There is absolute silence and darkness except for the jewel-like embers glowing beside him. The stillness is something palpable; it cradles the earth in its trembling grip. Time seems frozen in place as the dark silence pours into him.
Perhaps he heard something in the brief silence, or saw something out of place in the illumination of a lightning bolt.
Some would call it luck, others instinct. He does not have time to think which it is.
The darkness is immense around him. Something pulls his senses ahead, over the embers out to a point in the black distance. Without knowing what or why he draws his gun from its holster and aims it ahead of him.
The boom and flash of his revolver are swallowed by the storm. He fires again, thunder and lightning exploding above him, sundering open the sky and unleashing a wave of rain.
Recoil shudders down his arm. A segment of the boulder at his back bursts into shards that bite into the side of his face. He fires a third time as a single streak of lightning strikes out like a snake and cuts the sky down the center, lighting up all the world and burning out, leaving the earth in darkness.
He lies still for a moment, propped on his elbow with his other arm extended, aiming his revolver into the darkness ahead of him. Rain pours down. The wind swirls around him. The dark red embers sizzle and hiss.
He gets up and walks through the darkness. It is as if all the earth had split open and fallen away beneath him. He does not feel his footsteps. The sky and the earth are black, a deep roaring rumble sounds from the blackness and fills him.
Before him, revealed in a split second of pale light, two men lie, their death-masks frozen in a moment of life, unknowing and unsuspecting of death, their guns and badges gleaming silver in the same light that plays in their eyes. Marshals, both of them.
He goes into a fury that rivals the storm. Thunder shakes the earth, wind howls and tears at his rain-drenched clothes. He screams and shouts and curses but his voice is swallowed by the storm, so he rages all the more furiously.
He rushes to where the horses whinny and buck in the rain. He strikes at their flanks with all of the strength he has.
"Get! Get on!"
At first they just whine and buck in protest. He strikes at them again with an open palm.
They run frenzied into the darkness, kicking and crying until they are swallowed into the storm.
He screams to the sky and falls to his knees. He digs at the earth with his fingers and takes a crumpled piece of paper out from the pocket of his jacket, places it in the hole he's dug out, and buries it.
"You bastard. You son of a bitch. You old bitter man you were right. I thought I could kill you, kill that voice in my head that started and didn't stop since I first met you. You were lucky to live as long as you did. You're nothing, you never were. The best you ever became was a few thousand dollars and I'm not interested in that any more. You're dead. Go on, die. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do when you won't die and leave me alone?"
He gets up to his feet and points his revolver at the mound of disturbed earth. One, two, three. Crackle of lightning, quaking thunder.
"I swear, I'll kill you again old man. Once and for all. I swear it."
He reaches into the pocket of his jacket to find a bullet with the tips of his fingers.
He loads the bullet into the revolver. He spins the cylinder. He places the barrel to his head.
The desert, the deadlands, for dead men. No more than the damned and the hand that deals and the steel that sings quickly to sleep. Oh I would sleep, oh sleep I've not found since the sky first touched ground, oh I could weep, weep I would weep till they put me in the ground, oh, in the ground to sleep.
He pulls the trigger.
The steel hammer clucks against steel, unfulfilled.
The young man roars, raises his revolver into the air. The storm pauses its wrath. He pulls the trigger and a bullet explodes from the chamber.
His cries are lost in thunder. His tears are lost in rain.
* * *
A silvery bullet travels blindly, irrevocably through the night, through rain and electric-charged air and black storm clouds. It whistles as it goes, so fast and so far, cutting a path through space. Occasionally it glints silver in the night by way of a renegade shaft of starlight or a bolt of lightning. Most of its flight is spent vaulting through a thick, impenetrable darkness.
* * *
Somewhere, in some house made of hand lathed lumber with dark, clouded glass in the windows, a child stirs in his bed, in the darkness that is interrupted only by the pale lightning-light that strikes into his bedroom, in the silence beneath which a rumbling thunder roars.
The boy's heart jumps with each burst. He is afraid of something monstrous that lurks beyond the walls of his small house. He does not know its name or its shape but he can feel its presence. He lays still, wild-eyed.
The door to his small room opens, letting in a shaft of warm golden light. His mother's face appears lit up in gold, surrounded by shadow. Her face is calm and soothing. She speaks to him softly.
"It's okay, it's just thunder and lightning, go to sleep."
She lingers for a moment, looking at him deeply, silently, then turns away and closes the door.
The boy, soothed, turns on his side and lets out a sigh and closes his eyes for sleep. As if there was any comfort in her words.
The storm settles briefly to rain that whispers across the roof and upon the ground. The faint crack of a gunshot sounds from the distance. The child dismisses it for thunder in his half-sleep.
Do not worry. It is only thunder in the night.
* * *
He awakes somewhere with his face in the dirt. He rises slowly, joints crackling, mud caked to his face and clothes. He is not where he set up camp and the rain from last night has washed away his trail. He checks his pockets to see what he has: his canteen, cigarettes, a couple pieces of dry jerky, his flask, a knife, and the revolver in its holster. No bullets. The horses have run off, perhaps returning to the stables from which they were stolen. He searches the horizon until he finds the hills toward which he had been riding. Far off in the distance that seems to never diminish. The sun beats down hot and fiery, the air trembling with heat. He walks forward, for the hills.
He will never make it. Not that far in this land, with half a canteen, no horse, and no bullet in the chamber.
The wind blows against him, slowing his progress. Vultures soar above, lazily sweeping circles through the air, silently disappointed in the persistence of their prey.
Not that far. Not here.
He walks until sundown.