Two of the train robbers lay dying in the dust, their blood leaking out and horses scattered. A third robber was riding hard, whipping his lathered horse, trying to get away from the famous lawman and his Native-American partner. The Legend sat tall in the saddle and drew his gun, his white hat and iconic black mask steady as a rock. The gun barked twice but the robber wheeled his horse and charged back towards them. The Legend had missed! After all these years, he had missed! The robber fired and three bullets tore into the trusted partner. Buckskin fringe shook wildly as the partner flew backward off his horse, leather headband sailing away in the wind.
* * *
The young deputy banged on the door three times, shaking the walls of the lonely shack. There was no answer, so he backed away into the dusty yard to look for the owner's horse. The famous white horse waited patiently for him there. The thoroughbred was fine-looking and tall, over seventeen hands high, but was neglected, the careless saddle still clinging to his back. The deputy took the time to remove the saddle and rub the horse down with sweetgrass. For his efforts, he received a grateful nuzzle and a soft whinny of thanks.
"Okay now, Silver. Good horse." The deputy went to the front door and banged away again. There was still no answer. Consarn it!
"Hello the house! Howwwwdyyy!" It didn't pay to go bargin' into a man's home round these parts. You were just as likely to be shot as welcomed.
He cracked the door and peeked inside. An unwashed sour smell hit his nostrils like stale beer on the dirty floor of an after-hours saloon. The one-room house looked like a mini-tornado had descended and hung around for a spell. Empty liquor bottles, a tattered shirt, and broken dishes were scattered on the bare wood floor. Bullet molds and a cartridge press surrounded the small silver foundry in one corner. The kitchen table was empty, save for a single blood-soaked leather headband. The deputy frowned at the grim reminder of Friday's events.
The famous man who owned the shack was lying passed out on the bed, naked except for his boots and a red bandana tied around his neck. The boots were worn and cracked and in need of a good polish. They hugged his legs tight, almost to the knee. One boot touched the floor, and the other rested on the bed's headboard. The Legend's uneven snoring filled the cabin, starting and stopping like a prairie chicken going after a June bug.
So, this was the man, the big man. Lying there buck naked, he shore didn't look like much. He had a slight paunch and his hair was grey and thinning, topping a wrinkled face that had seen better days. His three-day-old grey beard was not helping, and neither was the pool of drying vomit he was lying in.
The deputy bent over and shook him hard by the shoulder. On the far side of the bed, he saw the man's white cowboy hat, now a bit stained and crumpled. Was this really the hero that Wild Ridge needed? This hombre had saved many a town, but that seemed to be all in the past.
The deputy moseyed outside to the well pump and gave the handle several up and down cranks. The bucket filled with cool water, he came back inside and unceremoniously dumped it on the famous man's head. The man sputtered once . . . twice . . . and by reflex grabbed for a gun that was nowhere to be found on his naked body.
"D-d-dad blame it. What in all tarnation are you doin' up in here, you low down bushwacker!"
"Well sir, we're in trouble and reckon you're the onliest one can help us."
The Legend shook his head and said, "Well . . . why didn't you say so, boy? Stop drownin' me and we'll talk." After three tries, the Legend stood up, water still streaming off his wispy hair, and seemed to take in the room for the first time.
"Look at this god-awful mess!" he said. "What the hell you been doin' in here boy?" He looked down at his naked self. "Sweet suffering Jesus . . . Get me some damn britches! This is my domicile and not some peep show, you flannel-mouthed chucklehead."
The great man got dressed, buttoning a powder-blue long-sleeve shirt with a rawhide laced placket. He sucked in his gut and tugged up a matching pair of pants, looping a black western belt around himself. Clothed, he started to look a little more like the Legend and less like the town drunk.
They went and sat down at the table to talk, the Legend limping badly, but were stalled by the sight of the bloodied headband in the table's center. The deputy recovered and began to speak.
"Wild Ridge is under siege by Bert McCabe and his gang. McCabe is as mean as a rattlesnake caught on a saguaro cactus. Those varmints have taken over the saloon and the general store both. Marshall Bodine is dead as dirt, the hotel is burnt to the ground, and half the town is shot up. If'n you don't come today, they'll be nothing left but lizards and tumbleweeds!" It was a long speech for him and impassioned, the deputy's hands gyrating around like an unbroke bronco. He got an uncertain nod from the Legend, so the deputy left to get back to his dying town.
The Legend sat and pondered the deputy's words, leather headband in hand. He had never done this heroing business by himself, despite the infernal "Lone" moniker he'd been saddled with. He held his six-shooter hand straight in front of him, just to check again the shakes which seemed to be getting worse by the day. Reasons to quit were all he could get his head round. His eye strayed, startin' to hunt for a whiskey bottle with something in it, when the big white horse whinnied from outside. It roused something in him, got him moving, got him back to business . . . people savin' business.
The old black mask was hung on a peg by the front door. It looked a bit frayed and sweat-stained. He put it on his face as he knew no other way. It was a part of the man he was. It only covered his eyes, but for years it had been his disguise. He put on his white cowboy hat and looked into the cracked mirror. Once more, the ranger who always got his man stared back at him. His chest puffed out and he straightened, ready to kick some no-account behinds. He marched outside into the bright Sunday sun.
The Legend grabbed up the saddle that the deputy had draped over the hitching rail and cinched it onto the white quarter horse. He mounted, and with the slightest encouragement from his spurs, prodded the stallion into a healthy trot. "Hi-yo, old boy," he said quietly as they left his tumbledown shack behind. In his pocket, the leather headband pushed against his thigh.
Before setting off for Wild Ridge, there was a stop he had to make. Half an hour later, he reined the big white horse up next to a bunch of rocks strewn across a patch of sun-parched sand. This was not how he'd left the place on Friday. These were stones left carefully piled on top of his partner's grave, in order to protect him from the vile predations of coyotes and other vermin. Someone and only God knew who, had opened up the grave and uprooted the crude wooden marker he'd placed at its head. It lay some feet away, broken in two. You could still read the letters "Ton_ _" on it, but that was all.
He shook his head in sorrow as he stared into the empty grave. Then he turned the horse toward the town, his weary heart saddened with yet one more blow.
The sun was setting by the time he reached Wild Ridge. This place wasn't much to look at on its best day, and it was shore a grim sight now what with smolderin' fires and shot-out windows. Riding through town he noticed some faces peeking out from behind curtains, watching his every move. It was a good sign that they had not run. Perhaps the town could be saved, after he did his duty once more.
He dismounted in front of the saloon, gave the horse a quick nuzzle, and raised a hand to the deputy hiding behind the horse trough. Despite the hip pains, he strode confidently toward the saloon's swinging doors. The limp he could disguise, and nobody had to know about the broken-down shoulder and shaking hands that came with it. Experience and grit were going to get him through this, like they had hundreds of times before.
His heart wishing more for a drink than a gunfight, the man with the mask took a deep breath. He pushed through the swingin' doors and saw first the bartender. This mustachioed barkeep was quite a sight, shirtless with a red paisley tie around his neck and a woman's cotton bonnet on his head. His eyes looked wide and blank, an overloaded pair of peepers.
Another man sat well down the bar in the shadows. He wore fringed buckskins that seemed to glow white. He looked familiar somehow, but the hero had no time to think about that, because Bert McCabe himself sat at a card table in the middle of the room, as large as life.
The outlaw was surrounded by four of his men and several bottles of whiskey. He was wearing all black, his wild red hair somewhat tamed by a tall Stetson hat. The hat's band was adorned with a bright feather that shot skywards confidently. The two men's eyes locked.
"You're too late by a longshot, ol' man. Maybe twenty years too late," laughed the outlaw.
"You boys've played your last hand in Wild Ridge," the Legend said. He always liked to indulge in a little charged repartee before a gunfight. Despite his jitters, his voice sounded steady, thank the Lord.
"Would ya like a drink a'fore we kill ya?" McCabe offered up a half-full bottle of whiskey to the masked hero.
Unconsciously, the Legend took a step forward towards the bottle. He was betrayed by his own damn foot and looked down at it stupidly. He quickly drew it back, but it was too late. McCabe's men pointed at the retreating boot and laughed loudly at the hero's dancing.
Boot back under him, his anger rose. Pain was forgotten and the old energy surged through his body. These yellow-bellied sidewinders were laughing at him . . . at him! His gunfighter instincts took over. He was well-known not for killing, but for wounding his victims to take them out of action, so he sighted without thought their shoulders and hands. Eyes narrowing, it was time to give these boys what fer.
His guns were lovingly loaded with silver bullets, ready for this moment. In a flash the guns were in his hands, pointed and ready to fire. Five men and six shots, one extra for luck. That was how he always did it. He started to pull the triggers . . .
But it was too late. McCabe was already standing, a double-barreled shotgun smoking in his hands. For the first time in any gunfight, the famous man found himself flying backward, landing just in front of the swinging doors. He stared up at the ceiling, hearing more gunshots but feeling no pain, and feeling nothing at all as the gang blasted their weapons into him.
Still staring upward, the hero saw a face and finally recognized the shadowy man who'd sat at the bar. The loyal face of his partner was as familiar to him as his own. The glowing Native American reached down and put on the headband from the Legend's pocket, the circlet now a radiant white. The Legend felt his friend's hand firmly grasp his own as he was helped to his feet. He adjusted his mask, making sure it was secure over his eyes, and they walked arm-in-arm out of the saloon.
McCabe and his outlaws went back to their drinking and cards, happy to leave the lawman bleeding to death on the floor. Meanwhile, the two friends mounted their horses and were ready to ride.
As the big white horse reared up, the Legend in the black mask shouted, "Hi-yo Silver, away!" With that, the shining pair rode out of town together and into the beautiful purple and red sunset.