The outlaw was alone.
"$200 cash!! What kinda jewels ya gimme?" He held up a ring in the firelight, "A diamond! AAAhaha! A goddamn diamond."
His laughter roared like his fire, reverberating through the canyon, sending coyotes fleeing in terror and setting mountain lions on edge. He recounted the cash from the plundered stage coach, and the scalps he took to throw off anyone stupid enough to come looking for him. He was an outlaw—a good one at that—and a bandit couldn't live to be his age making greenhorn mistakes. He'd made one, and he had the missing fingers, ear and powder burns to show it. He clumsily piled the cash to one side and took another long drag on his cigarette. He made a note to himself that his tobacco was getting low, he'd have to re-up soon.
"A diamond. I musta got it offa that ol' bitch with the shotgun. Ha! Looked like she was aimin' fer a cloud!"
He was a real highwayman and though the drivers all knew his name, that Well Fargo coach never saw him coming. He had got the drop on them, keeping behind them and just below the ridge line. Always trailing that cloud of dust the driver loathed to kick up, but which the coaches couldn't avoid. He knew the Indians were just as hungry for them as he was, and he knew that the drivers and passengers were more afraid of those savages than even the grizzliest yarn that had been spun about him. So he had let them hit the bottleneck of the canyon, scurry through cautiously and quickly, and, with the ease of mind that comes with comfort and false security, he came in hell's bells, shooting up a storm the Devil himself would shy from.
He shot the leading left horse first, and watched the back left one topple over the dying beast. That sent the other two crashing down, their jaws making a smacking sound that must've raised a rattler from slumber. Tipping the coach wasn't hard after that, especially after taking out a wheel with his Winchester. The passengers were terrified. He laughed when he saw a woman in a Buffalo Robe let a shot from the Sharps go. She looked like she was aiming for a cloud. After he took out the driver and the conductor, the rest of the job was pretty much over. It was a blood bath from there on out. He let a woman run a hundred yards into the empty desert before he calmly took her down like he was hunting a fleeing deer. The six passengers and two coachmen lay mangled in the wreckage. He scalped them all.
As he collected his earnings a wild feeling of rage overcame him. But it wasn't of anger. It was of joy. The joy of his deed. His eyes widened. A smile crept across his face. He found that stupid old lady that tried to take aim at him. Standing over her, he pulled out his Colt and let off all six into that damned lady's head. He howled in horrible happiness, beneath the circling shadows of the carrion birds. That lady's head looked like a smashed melon. He packed up and lit out till his horse nearly dropped.
That was how he ended up where he was. Underneath a rising 3rd quarter moon, somewhere northwest of Horsethief Basin. He meant to lay low there, before he headed to Whisky Row up in Prescott.
He recalled the gore of before. He wondered at that joyful rage. The memory didn't stay with him but for a minute, and he laughed as he thought of that bitch's blood splattering his face. The fire reflected off his teeth.
He pulled his hat low, and leaned back against his saddle, and put his hands behind his head. He'd find another coach. And another. Until he could afford to buy a ranch and live a new life under a new name.
He chuckled again at his handiwork. It was one for the ages. The one that would put him in the books. He'd even make the Phoenix Gazette. Smiling, he stared up at the starry canopy and closed his eyes.
He didn't hear the report of the Marlin until the bullet ripped though the back of his neck and spat out of his throat. His blood sprayed out and sizzled on a hot rock near the fire. His upper body was propelled forward but with his legs straight out, he didn't go anywhere. He slumped forward at an awkward angle. From his neck down, he couldn't feel a thing. The ringing in his ears though, he felt acutely.
A man stepped into the orange glow of his dying fire. It was a man he recognized, but couldn't remember where from. The man chuckled. With his foot, the man shoved the paralyzed bandit back up against the saddle. His head rolled back, his eyes to the sky.
"Ain't this some shit," the man said. "It's Hayes."
"Who?" another voice replied.
The man searched Hayes' pockets and grabbed his saddle bags. He heard the shuffling of his horse as it was hastily haltered and led away.
"We did that sorry sack of shit a favor. Camping alone, with no cover? A damned cocky, greenhorn son of a bitch. Grab his cash, his horse and let's light outta here."
Hayes heard the rumble of horses' feet and the steady beat of their galloping into the night. He sat there, slowly dying an agonizing death. If he could, he'd cry. All alone like this. In the middle of nowhere. Not even a grave or marker. The coyote would get him first. Then the birds. He'd seen it before. He knew that this time tomorrow he'd be bones, bleached white by the steady burn of the sun, until the wind-driven dirt slowly ground his last earthly remains into powder. An ugly, unnoticed reminder of his ugly, unnoticed existence.
He had never done anything beautiful. He had never added anything to the world but fear and pain. He had only taken. And men like himself, men he must have pulled jobs with, took from him what he had taken from so many others. He couldn't even summon the anger, it wasn't worth it anyway. He knew that by high noon, he'd be forgotten in the dust devil of time.
He couldn't speak but, as he stared up at the blanket of stars, the comforting glow of the fire warmed his face against the cool desert night, and he mouthed these words:
As I lay beside the dying fire
Smoke, like my spirit, billows skyward
On its long trek toward dissipation
Slowly swirling and spiraling as if
Remembering the solid earth and
Longing for the heat of the flame.
It is as it should be,
That I die alone in the dark.
Let this be my contribution to beauty,
Let my evil deeds highlight what is good
In this world.
From my back I watch the smoke
Veil the moon, like heavy eye lids
The stars flickering like a dying . .
A dying . .
Dying fire . .