|Image (c) 2007 Jim Emery Photography|
Not sure I managed to pull it off but it was great fun to write all the same.
A Meeting in Desolation
The sky above them was a lurid purple and filled with fading stars when they first caught sight of the town of Desolation, a jagged silhouette framed against the yellow horizon of the dawn. Five days hard riding to reach this, little more than a godforsaken collection of ramshackle houses and barns on the edge of the desert. The name seemed appropriate; Desolation wasn’t much of a town at all. Not much of anything, truth be told.
“How far out are we?” asked Little Jake, wiping hair from his brown eyes as he stared off into the distance.
“I say less than half a day’s ride if we get a wiggle on,” smiled Ike the Knife thinly. “Why, we’ll be all done here in time for lunch.”
All of them apart from Six Finger Bob laughed at this. Not the natural kind of laughter, not the kind you make at a good joke; this was the kind of laughter a man makes when he’s nervous and he’s trying to use it to stoke up his courage some. All the men who laughed were nervous, but not one of them would admit it.
“I’m ready for this,” said Big Jake, eyes hidden beneath the shadow of his hat’s brim. “This day’s been a long time coming.”
“Hell, what we waiting for then?” said Slim Decker, spitting a mouthful of brown tobacco to the dusty ground. “Let’s go do what we came here for.”
“No.” said Six Finger Bob. It was the first word he’d spoken to any of them in hours.
They all turned to look at him as he reined his horse in with his one good hand and slid smoothly from the saddle. They were bad men, all four of them, but they knew better than to speak out of turn around Six Finger Bob. He looked at them each in turn, his cold black eyes boring into them as if seeking a challenge to his command.
“We rest up here a while is what we do.”
There were a few seconds of silence as the men shared glances between themselves before Ike finally spoke up.
“Why rest though, Bob? We can ride down there and finish this right now.”
“That right is it, Ike?” said Bob, taking a drag from his quirly and blowing a cloud of blue smoke into the air, black eyes on Ike. “So, how long is it you been waiting to get your hands on Ringo then, Ike?”
Ike turned his head away, unable to meet his stare for more than second.
“Well I’ll tell you, Ike,” he continued. “You been waiting a long time, just like the rest of these fellas.”
He took a long drag on the quirly, its tip glowing red in the early morning light.
“Now, we all of us here got good reason to be wanting Ringo dead and we all of us been looking to make it happen for some years. But yet none of us ever managed it, have we?”
He threw the remains of the still smoking quirly to the floor.
“I’ll tell you why.”
He placed the heel of his boot over the quirly, watching the tendrils of blue smoke that coiled from it.
“Because we got sloppy.”
He ground his heel hard into the dirt.
“Because we got lazy.”
Ground again, twisting his heel left and right.
“Because we took us the easy path when the path we should have been treading was the path that required us to show patience.”
He looked up at them, pushing the brim of his hat up with the one finger he had remaining on his left hand.
“Now, today we’re gonna do it right. Today, we’re going to rest up and then we’re gonna ride into town and kill Danny Ringo. ”
* * *
The man who once went by the name Danny Ringo was in the saloon, fourth bourbon of the night in his hand, when he heard the horse hooves echoing in the street outside. Five horses walking slow by the sound of it. No one else in the saloon had even noticed, let alone cared, but the man hadn’t lived as long as he had without coming to trust his instincts. Five horses in this town, on this night, felt wrong.
He drained his shot glass in one mouthful and placed it on the bar, eyes fixed on the street outside the saloon door. Five men on horseback cantered slowly by; too dark to see their eyes but he could feel their ill intent as something tangible. He had always known a night like this would come, he just hadn’t expected it to come quite so soon.
“You still got that old shotgun under the counter, Stu?” he asked the barman, gaze flickering to the older man for but a fraction of a second.
“Surely do,” smiled the barman with a grin that exposed his wooden false teeth. “Why you asking, Sheriff?”
“I’m going to need you to make sure you keep it there,” he said, his black eyes glittering in the dimly lit room and, for a moment, the barman saw not Lionel Dobbs, who’d served as town sheriff for the last year, but the face of a man whose name was still spoken in reverent tones in three different states. “You keep it there, no matter what happens.”
He cast his gaze across the room; a couple of prospectors already half roostered and some ranch hands playing out a hand of cards on the far side of the saloon. He stood up and walked to the centre of the room, right hand perched on his hip, fingers dangling close to the Remington 1858 in his holster. He knew he could send them out, make sure they were out of harm’s way, but to do so would tip his hand to the men outside. So, instead he took a seat at a table at the back of the saloon, deep in the shadows, and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Four men entered the bar, swinging the saloon doors open wide and strutting in, kicking up handfuls of sawdust with every step, their coats tucked back behind their holsters to show they were all heeled. The saloon instantly became deathly silent. The card game stopped mid-game, the men shrinking away into the corner. Stu, the barman, stepped further back behind the counter.
“Where you at Danny Ringo?” said the shortest of the four. “We want a word with you.”
“Ain’t no one of that name here,” he said from the shadows, “so why don’t you boys save yourselves some trouble and walk on out of here?”
“That’s him,” said Ike, hand twitching at his side, “I recognise that voice.”
“And I recognise you, Ike Stinson. But that is a life I’ve put behind me and I suggest you try and do the same.”
“Listen to this cocksucker,” spat Big Jake, “talking like he’s the one in control. You ain’t in control here Ringo.”
“All I can do is offer you my friendly advice. Now, up until this point, I’ve had no cause to have beef with any one of you four gentleman, any debts we might once have had have been long since settled to my mind.”
“You killed my brother,” said Slim, his face reddening. “You killed him dead up in Abilene. That is a debt you are going to have to repay today.”
He said nothing for a few seconds.
“I killed a lot of men in Abilene.”
He pressed his knees up beneath the rough wooden surface of the table, his left hand motionless on the tabletop, his right on the grip of the Remington.
“Now, I am thinking the talking here between us is at an end. So you boys have a choice. You can turn around and walk away from this or you can continue with a course of action that I am certain will not end well for you.”
A moment, frozen in time. And then chaos reigned.
Little Jake went for his gun first, the movement betrayed by a twitch in his shoulder and in one fluid motion, he was pushing the table up and towards the four of them with his knees while his other hand was sliding the Remington smoothly from its holster, bringing it up in an arc. One shot and Little Jake went stumbling to the floor, his hand never quite managing to reach his gun. Two shots and he took Big Jake in the chest, the big man’s face frozen in a permanent expression of surprise. And then he was moving, leaving the table behind even as Ike and Slim opened up with their pistols, both firing wild and wide. A sidestep and suddenly the angles were all wrong for them both. Third shot tore away half of Ike Stimson’s face. Fourth and fifth shots took Slim Decker in the chest and shoulder, spinning him around and sending him sprawling across a tabletop like some kind of ragdoll. Smoke curled upwards from the barrel of his gun. Less than five seconds gone since Little Jake made his ill-advised move.
Slow clapping echoed in from the street.
He flipped the revolver open and smoothly changed the cylinder out for a fresh one. He knew who was outside waiting for him; the only man who’d ever been faster than him.
“You send them in to try and soften me up. Bob?” he shouted through the saloon door.
“Nah, I just wanted to see if you still had it. See, if that bunch of shave tails had done for you then you weren’t the man I remembered. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t wasting my time here.”
“So you sent these four boys to die for your amusement?”
“Well, listen to old Danny Ringo, preaching to me. Surely not that the same Danny Ringo I rode with for nearly four years? Surely not the same old stone cold son-of-a-bitch that killed more men than I could count? Why you have changed, Danny.”
“I’m a different man.”
“Well, surely that’s a coincidence. Because I’m a changed man too, Danny. Last time I saw you, you did a good job of changing me.
“I guess that means you’ve not forgiven me for what went down in Wichita then?”
“Lost me four fingers that day. A man, he doesn’t tend to forgive a thing like that.”
“Day could have gone a lot worse for you.”
“You know what they call me now, Danny? They call me Six Finger Bob. Not to my face, you understand, because I’d kill them. But I know that’s what they call me behind my back. And that’s on you, Danny. So what say you step on outside and we dance one last time.”
He took a deep breath, holstered the Remington and stepped out through the saloon doors and into the cool night. Bob was standing on the far side of the street. He was clearly the same man he had once known, but he seemed far older, his face haggard and his moustache flecked with grey. He was wearing the same blood-dark waistcoat that he had always favoured, the same mother-of-pearl handled Colt in his right holster. The left holster was conspicuously empty.
“Took a long time to track you down, you know that Danny?”
“I didn’t leave no forwarding address. Wasn’t expecting no visitors.”
“Oh, I’m sure you always knew someone was going to come calling one day.”
“Yep. And I always figured it would be you.”
He took two paces across the street and into the moonlight, hand only inches from the Remington at his side.
“Sheriff?” laughed Bob, seeing the badge on his chest for the first time.
“Times have changed.”
“Surely they have, Danny. But I’ll tell you one thing that hasn’t changed. I’m still faster than you.”
“Guess we’ll just have to find out.”
“Guess we will.”
They stood facing each other at a distance of twenty paces, the pale silvery light illuminating them and casting papery shadows along the length of the street. Hands at their sides, coats swept back from their holsters. Eyes narrowed, neither man blinked.
And then they moved.
The motion was faster than the human eye could follow, little more than a blur as two guns were drawn in tandem and two shots cracked loud in the still night air.
One body hit the ground, hard.
The man that had been left standing touched his right hand gingerly to his left shoulder, where his opponent’s bullet had struck home. Warm blood pulsed from the wound, seeping through the material of his shirt. He winced at the pain that stabbed hotly at him and walked across the street to where his opponent lay, twisted and broken in the dirt amid blood that pooled, black beneath the moonlight.
“You were always faster,” he said through gritted teeth, picking the pearl-handled Colt up from the ground. “Shame you never could aim for shit.”