Cracked lips like charred corn, I was beyond thirsty. Baking in the hearth of the desert, I looked to the heavens. Black smudges circled in the sky, dancing lazily on the thermals watching for movement. Eternally patient, there was no rush for them, I wasn’t going anywhere, anymore.
I had caught glimpse of him back in Blacklands Folly, a mining town, appropriately named. It chose its place west of Mississippi, squatting where the river meets the mountains. A gold rush town, prosperity promises hidden amidst the muddy walkways. His sharp profile was clear to me, hawkish, black hair, strong widows peak, hooked nose, bringing an onslaught of memories of the night he irrevocably changed my life.
I followed him from that moment, not pausing to return to my hotel, not gathering my duffle, nor canteen, nor provisions. Anger and revenge were to be my fuel. He drank at the bar, short amber liquid, from small stout glasses, downed in a backward tilt of slick black hair. I watched from a corner table, my Stetson tilted, covering the scarred part of my face.
At dusk he pushed his glass aside, adjusted his gun belt and headed outside to his horse. I followed a short distance behind, careful for him not to see me.
West he rode, and west I followed, a mile or so between us. The slight dust from his horses hooves my trail to follow in the faint light. He camped in an old river bed, on a ridge of sandy soil. From up high the grooves in the land ran deep, like the veins on the back of my hand. A small fire burned, where he heated his billycan and made his coffee.
I considered a long while, if that was to be the moment of his ending. Checked and rechecked my six shooter, hands shaking, realising my fear, trying to still my hesitance.
The hiss of him throwing his coffee on the fire reached my ears even from so far away, at least I imagined it did. And like that he was laid down, hat tilted across his eyes, boots crossed.
I slept where I lay, the adrenaline taking me like a thief in the night, pulling me into a black, endless sleep.
I woke with a start, the sun rising from the horizon a burning disc of yellow in a scarlet bruised sky. I tasted the grit of the earth between my teeth. My scarred face was aching from the heat of the morning sun.
A moment passed until I remembered where I lay.
He was gone, as if a mirage, nothing remained below where he had lain so casually. I pushed the panic down and searched the sparse scrubland for a trail.
Not so, to the left a wisp of dust, a slight movement in the shimmer of the morning heat, a man on horseback, headed into the sandy expanse. I immediately followed.
For six hours I followed inching closer, the heat baking the earth and all that walked on it. Crickets, and flies my only companions, my memories my only reality. I closed slowly but surely all the while plotting, my fingers occasionally twitching as my mind travelled the highway of my memories. I imagined the feeling of seeing him writhing in the dirt, his blood mixing with the soil, the smell of his fear free in the air.
I would have my revenge.
I crested a ridge and unexpectedly came upon him lying face down in the soil. His black garb dusty, his head turned awkwardly. I stopped short, taking in the tableau. His horse was a short distance away, gazing into the middle distance, disinterested. I dismounted, drawing my pistol as I closed, its weight reassuring. I had tasted this moment a thousand times over. I approached his back cautiously, looking for signs of life and reached to turn him over.
I pulled feeling the weight of him, realising too late the ruse, his pistol turning with him, the crack loud in the silence of the desert. I felt the punch of the bullet, and dropped to my knees, the surprise I’m sure on my face. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
He stood slowly, a little stiffness in his joints and watched me. His dark features were impassive, his eyes surveying me curiously, trying to place the when and where, in a life of crime and no conscience.
“You’re gut shot.” He paused, “buzzards” A tilt of his head, toward the black smudges.
Then he simply turned, mounted his horse. I smelled fear, but it wasn’t his. It didn’t smell like I had imagined either.
I lay back slowly, leisurely, a man with all the time in the world. All the while the lifeforce slipping from my fingers. I licked my lips, dry and cracked and wished a drink to slake my thirst. Then I watched as the black smudges grew brave and began to tug at my soul.