Based on the ballad 'Big Iron', written by Marty Robbins
'Agua Fria' the town sign said, Spanish for cold water. From the looks of it, you would have thought they hadn't seen any water for a hundred years and certainly none that was cold. Dirt covered everything in sight and the wind created small dust devils that whipped through the town. The main street was lined with a dozen or so buildings on each side and a few homes, they appeared to be nothing more than hovels, had been erected behind them. Just beyond the buildings to the left could be seen the steeple of a dilapidated church. If paint had ever been applied to any of the structures, it had long since eroded away and several buildings had wood slats missing from the roofs and walls.
The sun had barely risen over the horizon when a lone figure, equally covered in dust, rode past the weather-worn sign and turned his horse down the street. The black stubs of a beard covered the man's cheeks, chin and neck and dark circles ringed his eyes, but he sat straight in the saddle and showed not the least sign of fatigue. His stallion was brown with white splotches and walked as if every step was a laborious endeavor which took every ounce of strength the creature had to perform it. Some of the townspeople were watching and knew the pair must have come a long way. But no one approached him or called out a greeting. Holstered on his side was a long-barreled .44 Colt revolver. He seemed to carry himself in such a way as to discourage any type of familiarity. But that didn't prevent whispered rumors from being passed around.
"Outlaw. Must be. No call to come here otherwise."
"Tain't no need to think that of him. Could be he's just a cowpuncher."
"No cowpuncher carries an iron like that one. That's a fightin' weapon and if'n he's carryin' it, he means to use it."
The stranger pulled his horse up in front of the hotel which also served as restaurant, bar, and casino for the small town. He wrapped the leather reins loosely around the hitching post to allow his tired mount to drink at the water trough. He then allowed himself the luxury of splashing his face and wiping away some of the caked trail dust. The water was almost as warm as the air but if that bothered him, he didn't show it. He then unsaddled his horse and walked through the hotels swinging double doors.
The interior of the hotel was not in much better condition. Dirt and grime covered nearly everything. The bar was along the left wall, the stairway to the hotel rooms straight ahead, and a few tables and chairs were on the right near several large windows. Two men sat at one of them, a deck of cards between them, but they were not playing. A third man was sleeping with his head on the bar.
A young Mexican girl was futilely trying to sweep the floor but as fast as she cleared a space, the wind would set at naught all her effort. When she saw the stranger, she dropped the broom and ran through a door at the far side of the bar. He heard her yell for her father in Spanish. After a few moments, her father, a thin man with rolled up shirt sleeves and an apron wrapped around him came in and stepped behind the bar.
"Buenos Dias, Senhor. I am Esteban Ramirez, the owner of this hotel. Can I get you a drink?"
The man dropped his saddle next to the door and walked up to stand opposite Ramirez. " No thank you. But I will have coffee and some breakfast if there is any."
"Si Senhor. My wife is preparing breakfast right now. It will be ready in a few minutes. Please take a seat and I will bring the coffee."
Ramirez, obviously excited at having a new guest at last, rushed out as quickly as he came in. The man walked over to the array of tables paying no attention to the small crowd that had followed him in. Deliberately choosing a seat that allowed him to see the entire room without exposing his back to the door or a window, he removed his coat, hung it over the back of his chair and sat down. He had not been facing the onlookers when he took his coat off. As he sat, he turned around and everyone there caught sight of the small metal badge which identified him as a Ranger for the Territory of Arizona.
* * *
For twenty minutes, while the ranger ate his breakfast, no one said a word. When he had finished, he took a piece of paper out of his vest pocket, unfolded it, and laid it on the table. A name and the sketch of a man's face were on it but no one bothered to look. They knew who it would be.
"I've come for him."
The people looked at one another as if silently debating who would speak for them. At last, the general store owner, a gray-haired man, stepped forward. "He won't let you take him alive."
"It doesn't matter to me."
One of the men sitting at the table with the deck of cards slowly got up and moved towards the door. The ranger saw him but pretended not to. Once outside, he unhitched his horse, very clumsily, leaped into the saddle and galloped down the road towards the far end of town.
The store keeper spoke again, "He's going to warn him." The man was noticeably uncomfortable.
"You haven't a chance against him. Texas Red is the fastest gun north of the Bravo."
A gasp came from the top of the stairs. The ranger looked up and saw a woman, her eyes wide with fear but he showed no interest in her arrival. Instead, he returned his attention to the store keeper.
"That's my worry." He spoke without the slightest hint of concern. An inexplicable desire to get away from the man at the table passed through the crowd. Silently, they filed out and hurried away. The only ones who remained were the ranger, Ramirez, the woman, and the drunk who still lay asleep on the bar counter.
The ranger sipped his coffee and leaned back to rest his neck and eyes. When he opened them a few minutes later, he discovered that the woman had come down and was sitting at the bar staring at him. Her look was not of pure fear anymore but was now mixed with an equal part of malice. The ranger was not perturbed. He stared back, as if daring her to confront him. Their eyes seemed to be locked for an eternity but it was really only a few moments before she was unable to endure his gaze and turned around.
"Give me a whiskey will you, Esteban?" Her voice was strained and uneasy.
"You should not drink so early, Danielle." But despite his disapproval, he poured the drink for her. Her life had not been easy and it was going to get much harder today.
Two miles north of town, stood a white adobe house. That house belonged to twenty-four-year-old Texas Red and he stayed there whenever he was in town. No one in Agua Fria knew exactly where he'd come from. He had simply arrived three years ago and stayed. Perhaps it was because there was no sheriff and no jail there. Everyone knew what Red did, but he caused no trouble in Agua Fria so no one bothered him.
The man who had left the hotel so quickly came cantering up on his exhausted horse. He had run it near to death getting there then jumped to the ground and sprinted to the back of the house. Three men were sprawled on the back porch of the house in various poses of relaxation. Red, his bright hair resembling a forest fire out of control, was standing under a large pepper tree looking up at a young Mexican boy who was sitting on a branch about halfway up the tree.
Red tossed a large silver dollar up to the boy. "All right Pepe, drop it whenever you're ready." Pepe grinned. This was the game Red always played with him. Forty feet away, three empty bottles sat on the upright poles of a fence. If the coin reached the ground before Red shot the bottles, Pepe would get it. If not, Red took it back. Pepe had learned not to drop it right away by to try and catch Red when he was distracted. Red liked that: it made the game more challenging.
The man from the hotel ran up out of breath and barely gasped out Red's name. Red shifted towards him but kept his eyes on Pepe in the tree.
"Late to catch a train, Lem?"
Lem was doubled over, panting for breath. It took several minutes for him to finally get out his warning. "There's a ranger in Agua Fria."
The men on the porch were suddenly all alert and on their feet. One picked up his gun belt which was lying on the table next to him and began strapping it on. They stood waiting for Red's orders. They all looked worried.
Red chuckled to himself, amused by how excited his men got over little things. "Stop panickin' and have a drink." He tossed a whiskey bottle to Lem who gulped it down and coughed half of it back out.
"What are we gonna do, Red?"
Red thought for a moment. "Lem, go on back and give our visitor a message. Tell him I'm comin' to . . . " Just then Pepe dropped the coin. Red's hand flew to the holster of his .45. One after another, the three bottles burst and showered glass onto the ground. Just after the third gunshot, the coin thumped into the dirt at the base of the tree. Red picked it up and pocketed it while Pepe crossed his arms and frowned. He hadn't beat Red in over a year.
"Tell him I'm comin' to town around eleven-thirty. If he ain't gone by then, I'll send him back layin' 'cross his horse, belly side down."
The ranger watched a group of townspeople gently push a nervous looking man through the hotel doors and up to his table. The man was neither tall nor short, fat nor thin. His head was bald except for some small tufts around his ears and he wore large spectacles over red rimmed eyes. The store keeper was back and introduced him as the mayor. Upon hearing his title spoken, the man drew himself up a little straighter, took several audible breaths and began to speak. "Sir, our town was founded in the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and four. We have been a small but thriving community, priding ourselves on the fact that we have built for ourselves a peaceful, harmonious society—
The ranger stopped him there, "I am sure you speak very well mayor, but right now I am not in the mood for oration. Please say what you have to say."
The mayor stood silent for a moment. Then he coughed and spoke again. "We do not like violence. We have never had any killings here and we would appreciate it if you left Mr . . . "
"Trayburn. And I am Mayor Arnstein."
"Is that all?"
"Very well. No."
"What . . . what do you mean no?" The mayor was suddenly very afraid of Treyburn.
"I mean I am not leaving until my work is complete."
"But . . . but we . . . we are a peaceful town. There is no violence here."
"But there is a man who revels in violence."
"He hasn't done anything to us."
"I am not interested in what he has or hasn't done to you. There are twenty graves littering the Arizona and New Mexico territories and twenty dead men are in them. I intend to make sure there will not be twenty-one." Arnstein tried to speak but Trayburn cut him off. "I am neither asking your permission nor concerned with your approval. I have a job to do. Stay out of my way and let me do it."
Arnstein sputtered and coughed but couldn't think of anything to say. The storekeeper spoke while the flustered mayor collected himself. "You will get no help from us. Red has four men who ride with him and you'll have to face all of them alone."
"Have I asked for help?"
"Killing him won't bring those other men back."
"It will prevent any more from joining them."
"Justice is not created with a gun."
"It can only be enforced with it."
"But if you talk to him? Promise him a fair trial."
"A fair trial would hang him. You said yourself he'll never come willingly."
A horse trotted up and stopped outside the hotel. Lem came through the swinging doors. He was still nervous but tried not to show it, "Red's goin' to be here at eleven-thirty. He says if'n you don't go under yer own power; he'll send you back layin' cross your horse."
A thin smile crept across Trayburn's face. "Tell Red I'll be leaving just after eleven-thirty." Lem understood what he meant. Red would understand too. He left as quickly as he'd come and for the second time that day, spurred his horse north and out of town.
No one spoke anymore. Slowly, the crowd left the hotel and broke up. This time, only Trayburn and the woman remained. Ramirez was busy upstairs and the drunk had finally woken up and headed home to go to sleep again.
The clock was striking when a priest walked into the hotel and sat down across from Trayburn.
"Good morning, my son. I am Father Samuels."
"Good morning, Father. To what do I owe this honor?"
"I have been asked to come and talk to about your presence in Agua Fria. The people are agitated by it."
"I am aware of that. Are you here to tell me to get out as well?"
"I am not an officer of the law and wouldn't presume to give commands to one. But I am responsible for the welfare of human souls and I would be neglecting my duty if I did not express my concern about what you are preparing to do."
"I am preparing to uphold the law."
"By taking the life of one of God's children."
"Would you care to visit the graves of some of God's other children? Red has violated the law and he shall answer to that same law."
"But surely you believe the law must be tempered with mercy?"
"Only when mercy has been earned. I'm surprised at your attitude Father; I would have thought you would understand. Even the Lord's mercy is not a free gift. It must be earned with repentance and contrition."
"By killing this young man, you will be taking away his opportunity to repent."
"Just as he took away the opportunities of twenty other men. Shall I allow him to continue to destroy the hope for heaven others carry? Of itself, that would be an act of evil, but to do so in the name of mercy would be sacrilege."
Father Samuels paused for a moment. He had underestimated this ranger. He was no simple-minded bully who could only see the quick and easy path of killing.
"The Bible clearly states, 'Thou shalt not kill'. Yet you came here fully prepared to do just that. Sin does not justify sin. If you kill as he kills, what makes you different from him?"
"The motivation. He kills for the pleasure of it. I kill to allow others to live in peace. There is another scripture I suggest you read, Father. It comes from the Book of Ezekiel, thirty-third chapter and sixth verse, 'But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.' I have been hired as a watchman and I will not let the sword come without warning."
"We are supposed to love our fellow man and be forgiving of their faults. Christ turned no one away from him. We are not the judges of other men's sins. It is not for us to bring about their deaths."
"When was the last time you told him that?"
Father Samuels was caught off guard. "Wh . . . what?"
"When did you last deliver this sermon of love and brotherhood to Texas Red?"
"But . . . but he wouldn't listen . . . "
"That's right, he wouldn't listen and he would continue to kill and he will continue until he's stopped by a bullet. I'm sorry Father, it's no use trying to preach pacifism to me. Pacifism only works when everyone agrees to it. As long as the Texas Reds of this world exist, men like me will have to do this unpleasant job."
The priest, visibly shaken by the ranger's unorthodox defense of his purposes, made one last attempt to dissuade him, "Our Lord taught us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us."
Trayburn was ready for it, "And as Red has done unto others, so shall it be done unto him."
There was nothing left to be said. The priest stared at him for a few moments more, then stood up and quietly left.
Texas Red swung effortlessly into the saddle of his Appaloosa and took a long, satisfying breath of air. His men shifted nervously in their saddles. They were all uneasy about what was coming but Red had already dismissed their warnings and so they kept silent. The young outlaw gripped the handle of his pistol reassuringly, then turned the head of his horse south towards the town.
Trayburn stood up, walked to the door, picked up his saddle, and walked out. A minute later he returned without it and sat down again. Ramirez came out and handed him a small piece of paper. "Your bill is three dollars in gold or eight dollars in paper." Trayburn handed him three large gold coins.
"Tell your wife the food was excellent."
"Gracias, Senhor. I hope you visit us again."
"You are probably the only one in town who does hope that."
"That is probably true, but I hope so anyway. This hotel is my business, catching outlaws is yours. You do not interfere with me; I see no reason to interfere with you. You are courteous and you pay your bills. Guests like that are always welcome here." Ramirez went through the kitchen door once again.
Danielle turned around and stared at the ranger. "I wish you'd never come here."
Trayburn sipped the last of his coffee and said nothing.
"Did you hear me? I said I wish you'd never come."
He still said nothing.
"All those fancy answers you had for Arnstein and the Father. But none of you bothered to actually find out about Red. You talked as if he was some specimen to be examined and dissected according to your particular views. But he's not! He's a man! He took care of me when I first got here. Gave me money so I wouldn't starve, helped me to get a job and a place to live that wasn't filled with rats. He's the only person who was ever kind to me and he doesn't deserve to get shot down like some mad dog."
Trayburn looked up. "Perhaps you think we should publish your passionate sentiments in the newspapers? List in great detail, the virtues of your hero? Perhaps we should place a copy on each of his victims' graves. That should comfort the widows and children they left behind."
"Will killing him comfort them?"
"Probably not, but it will give them a measure of justice."
"Maybe he's made some mistakes but the good he's done still counts for something."
"Twenty murders is not a mistake and no amount of supposed good offsets them."
"You just don't understand! You don't know how he suffered growing up. His father was a drunk and beat him. His mother was a religious zealot who thought that starving your children was how you taught them to behave. Did you ever meet them? I did! They came through here still screaming at him about the devil owning him and never once did they admit their fault for what they had done to him. But you don't care about what he went through do you? You don't care about what made him this way. Why don't you go see them sometime?"
"You . . . you have seen them?"
"But if you know what they did to him you must understand why he is the way he is."
"Of course, I understand. It turns my stomach how he was treated. But it doesn't matter."
"How can it not matter?"
"Because the men he killed were not responsible for his pain."
A sudden rustle of noise silenced both of them. Trayburn stood up and looked out the window in time to see the last few people scurry into the nearest building. Five horsemen were coming down the road. They stopped in front of the store, about a hundred yards away, and he saw Red dismount and stare at the hotel, waiting for him to come.
Trayburn turned and began to walk towards the door but Danielle rushed between him and the door. "Please. Please, I beg you don't. Just ride away, he won't stop you."
"Step out of the way."
"I love him! Doesn't that mean anything to you? I love him, can't you understand . . . " She got no further for a look of pure hatred suddenly appeared in Trayburn's face.
"You love him! How dare you say that to me! You ask me to ride out because you love him! You ask me to spare his life because you love him! You dirty the very word 'love' by saying that to me. You tell me I should see his parents but have you ever seen the families of his victims? You talk of his pain, what of their pain? You want compassion for his suffering, where is your compassion for theirs? You tell me you love him; what do I say to those who loved the men he destroyed? That I let him go free because someone loved him? That I permitted him to kill again because someone loved him? I will not do that. He will die today or I will, but I will not do that!"
Trayburn pushed past her and out the hotel door. She did not try to stop him again. Tears welled in her eyes and a grasping fear began to build in her but she did not go after him. She simply stared at the empty doorway and waited.
Their eyes had locked the moment Trayburn stepped into the street. Red was grinning from ear to ear, eager for the kill as he was always eager for it. To see another man drop in front of him, to have control over the fate of another person's life and end it when he wished. There was no feeling like it in the world. He began walking towards the ranger.
Trayburn began to move as well. A slow, steady walk, matching Red step for step and both of them shifting ever so slightly until they stood dead center in the middle of the road with forty feet separating them. There they stopped and waited. Red's grin never faded. Trayburn's face was empty of feeling. At the altar of the church, Father Samuels was on his knees, praying for understanding. Ramirez and his family waited in the kitchen where they were safe from stray bullets. Red's men watched from atop their horses, sure that Red would win but not quite sure. The townsfolk watched as well but none of them had any doubt of the outcome. They all knew how fast Red was.
The seconds ticked by like hours. Nothing moved. The wind was gone. It was as if the whole town had become paralyzed in an instant. Two men stared at each other like immovable statues.
Red's hand moved for his gun faster than a striking rattlesnake.
The spell was shattered by the sound of a gunshot that echoed across the silent desert and seemed loud enough to crack open the mountains themselves. But that was nothing compared to the shock of the townspeople as they watched Texas Red spin completely around and fall to his knees facing the ranger with the smoking .44. Red's hand was gripping the handle of his Colt but it still sat in its holster. He looked down at the bullet hole in his chest as if unable to believe what he saw. He raised his head and looked at Trayburn, then fell forward into the dust. The gun slid from the holster, still clutched in his right hand. The grin had never left his face.
Trayburn lifted his head and looked at the four riders. None of them made a move for their guns. They merely turned their horses and rode out of sight.
When they were gone, he put his gun away. By then, most of the town, including Father Samuels, had gathered around the dead body of the outlaw. Father Samuels knelt down beside him and began to administer the Last Rites. Trayburn walked forward but did not stop to look at the man he'd killed. He continued on to where Red's waiting horse stood. He took the reins and led him over to his dead master. Then, he waited patiently for Father Samuels to finish. When the final amen was spoken, he lifted the outlaw and placed him on the back of his horse, belly side down, and walked him back to his own mount.
She was at the doorway watching him. He met her gaze. Once again, their eyes seemed to be locked in place. Finally, she lowered her head and turned to go inside. Trayburn swung into the saddle, turned his horse south, and rode out of Agua Fria.