The sun was a hard white nail in the limitless bleached denim of the desert sky. George looked up through slitted lids at the circling birds, wing tips spread like fingers as their silhouettes described lazy curves through the burning light of mid day. He leaned slightly forward and to his left and squirted a noxious black purple jet of tobacco juice and spit into the dust. He judged it to be just past noon and knew they would be here before the evening sun burst against the jagged mountain peaks on the far horizon and spread it’s deep red and orange yolk across the rim of the world.
Well, he would be ready for them. And whatever hand they dealt, he would play. He didn’t enjoy violence. What sane man would? But he knew it to be a necessary evil in this hard and unforgiving land. He had little time for those who held beliefs and strong opinions which they had not tested in the real world. He abhorred the violence he saw and in which he took part but he reasoned, to truly abhor it he had to have experienced it. In the small half dead and dying town behind him there was a slight raised area which men had dignified with the name Hill. Cemetery Hill, to give it its full due. In the meagre soil atop this sorry rise more than a few men had found their final place of repose, and beneath the mounds of earth with their rough wooden crosses there were the bullet torn remnants of men on whom George had tested his hatred of violence to its logical and ultimate conclusion.
He shrugged at the memories, tilted his hat lower for the shade it afforded his eyes and reminded himself that he never shot a man who didn’t deserve it. Or at least he never had killed a man who would not in the fullness of time have killed him, had he allowed the poor fellow to live long enough to fulfil his natural inclinations. The town had boomed and busted itself like so many others in that part of the West. Shabby, peeling monuments to men’s greed. George hadn’t come out here to get rich, but he certainly hadn’t imagined he would end up as the only law for hundreds of miles in any direction, miles of heartless dessicated miserable land stretching through shimmering haze to the broken teeth of the distant mountains.
Badlands. That was about right he thought. And bad men had come and they had brought the badness festering inside them, carried it with them and tried to infect the whole of the town. His town. Well, there were a few more low mounds inside the picket fence on the top of his town’s only hill now. They’d either drawn on him first or at the very least upon one of his friends and he hadn’t lived so long by waiting to see how such situations might unfold. He had achieved what was in these times and in these places a great age by letting the other fellow find out how such situations unfolded. And now they were coming for him. Not the ghosts of the men in the Hill, he wasn’t a superstitious man. Dead was dead. And once he’d perforated them with his single action colt, they were good and dead and so far at least they had tended to stay that way.
No, the men coming for him today were very much alive. For now, he thought and smiled a cold, humourless smile. He turned on his heel and walked slowly back toward the town. They had revenge on their minds and death in their hearts and like others before them they were coming to bring both to him. Although George sometimes saw his town as nothing more than a small backwater clinging with wavering resolution to the meanest of all the mean soil this world had to offer, it was still his home and he loved the people who had chosen to make it their home too and as long as he could hold the weight of his firearm and still point it in the general direction of those who would visit harm upon him and upon those he loved, well, he reckoned he would keep on pointing it and woe betide any man fool enough to stand facing the open end of it.
He heard the hoof-beats behind him as he came alongside the sign which welcomed visitors to his town. It was hand painted, faded and leant away from him casting a slanting shadow over his dusty boots. He turned slowly and saw the plume rising , spinning and falling in a thin mist to cling to the surface of the ground marking a faint line where the horses shoes had disturbed the crust of the earth with their passing. They had come sooner than he had expected. He never ceased to be amazed at the sheer stupidity of his fellow man. Had they arrived at the end of the day he would still have been ready for them, and outlined against the lowering sun they would have been easy targets, but they would have had shadows in which to hide and with a little thought their weight of numbers and greater fire power could have been brought to bear. He shook his head as if disappointed at the folly of these men who would do him harm and yet promised him so little sport. Men who rode, tight bunched towards an armed and dangerous foe with the sun high in the sky and blinding their view, men who threw themselves at their doom without thought, nor it seemed, any grasp of the brutal realities of the world which were about to confront them.
They had slowed their horses as they closed with him. He sighed at the futility of what must happen, at the waste of men’s futures and the scars he would bear on his soul for each life he must now take. But then a change came upon him as if a cold, hard hand had closed about his heart. His mouth tightened to a dry crease in a set and motionless face. A face suddenly drained of all humanity. If these idiots had tired of life and were so filled with the desire to gaze upon the face of their creator and if it fell to him to help usher them through the doors of this world and into the next, then so be it. He had seen many a fool unable to articulate his final thoughts for the blood bubbling in his throat as he stared uncomprehending at the cobalt blue cloudless sky until he saw it no more. These fools would be just like those fools. For they were riding on a fools errand and it would surely be their last because the man who loosened the ties on his holster and eased his hat back from his forehead was not a man to suffer them. Not gladly. Not at all.
They reined in a few yards from where he stood and he could see they’d treated their horses cruelly to get here so soon. Were they in such a hurry to depart this vale of tears, he wondered? He hadn’t moved. His arms hung loosely by his sides and he stared at the prancing, blowing horses they trembled, eyes rolling, foam glazing their heaving flanks. He needed to be certain that these were the men. He ought to let them speak.
“Say your piece” He said, his voice firm and clear in the exsiccated air.
The leader, a brute of a man on a dun coloured mare leaned forward, hands resting on the pommel of his saddle, reins loosely hung around the horn. He walked his horse forward a pace, his two companions each stepping once sideways keeping George in plain sight.
“You know why we’re here?” the brute asked, his voice muffled behind the torn cloth he’d worn to keep the dust from his throat on their long ride.
“I reckon I do. But I’m wondering whether you three know it your own selves”
At this the brute frowned as if he had known the answer to his question all along and was unprepared for this deviation from a prepared dialogue. He began to turn to throw a quizzical glance at one of his associates and in one swift, fluid movement George drew his pistol, cocked and fired. A small hole appeared instantly in the cloth of the neckerchief where it flapped against the man’s throat and the upward trajectory of the bullet caused the opposite side of his head to dissolve into a pink mist. This in turn occasioned the man behind and to his right to close his eyes and turn away as first blood and brain matter then fragments of bone sprayed across his face. George used this opportunity to shoot the third man in his thigh. He regretted the possibility of injury to the horse should the bullet pass through the man and into the beast but the flattened slug tore through the would-be assassin’s femoral artery and really at that moment in time the fact that his enemy would very soon bleed to death was the salient fact and George’s fears for the well being of the horse had to be relegated to a list of concerns for future consideration.
The second man in trying to wipe his leader’s brains from his face had succeeded only in rubbing in dust from his leather gloves. This had created an abrasive paste which burned and scratched his eyes. His ears were however unaffected and the two pistol shots, so close together that his last thoughts in this world were that there must be a second gunmen they had not seen, had alerted him to the danger in which he now found himself. Or at least the fact that there had been no answering volley of fire from his erstwhile compadres suggested that he would be wise to at least attempt to get down from his horse and try to draw his weapon. George was at heart a compassionate man but this blinded, terrified and hapless creature, clawing at his holster and snivelling snot clotted curses had chosen his own path. And this was where his path had led him. He cocked his pistol but as the man slipped from his saddle one foot caught in the stirrup and he swung to earth in a swift parabola, savagely truncated when his head struck the rocky ground, his neck breaking with a crack which echoed up the suddenly silent street.
George slowly shook his head, let out his breath and wondered at the stubborn hopeless stupidity afflicting so much of the human race. He holstered his weapon, spat, turned on his heel and headed back into town.