Live to Tell
For three days and three nights the boy wandered aimlessly through the desert. Lost, he didn’t know if he was in Texas, New Mexico, or the Arizona territory he remembered from the map over his bed back east. Thirsty, it all looked the same as he studied the nothingness in every direction which clawed at his sun burned eyes. More than once, delirious from the scorching heat with parched lips he prayed what he expected to be his final prayer.
“A man’s got to know his options,” whispered the memory of the man he had followed into this godforsaken wasteland to track down an outlaw. With only one bullet in the pistol he carried, the pistol that had belonged to the whispering memory, the boy’s options were few.
More than once, as he stumbled about the cactus and mesquite, the boy had seen what the desert, with its wind and sun and time, can do. Bones as white and brittle as his mother’s china jeered at him and taunted.
The boy regretted not burying the man whose memory whispered to him, thinking though if he had there would be no whispers, only silence to keep him company on his pilgrimage to death. The ground had been too hard, there was no time to fight against it and the heat. So, instead he covered the bullet bloodied corpse of the lawman with rocks gathered in a hurry. It didn’t seem right but it would keep the buzzards away until something bigger and hungrier came along.
“There’s always something bigger and hungrier coming along,” the lawman told him as the two dug proper graves for those who joined them on the hunt for the outlaw. That had been so many days back the boy couldn’t remember, as through blistered eyes he searched for the outlaw who was still out there, like the buzzards, waiting.
The boy had happened upon a lizard that morning which he ate raw. To save his bullet he killed it with a rock.
“Just keep moving,” the lawman’s whisper came again as soft as when he lay weak and dying and made the boy promise to take his badge and gun to his wife and to get back on the train that brought him west.
“Go home,” was the last thing the closed eyed man said before his soul shivered out of him in the light of the fire the boy built to push back the cold of night.
Now, home was only a dream which he glimpsed as his brain broiled inside his skull and he searched out the tracks for which he prayed. The tracks were the ones made by him and six others riders, who not knowing, had volunteered to die.
There had been seven of them, and one by one the outlaw snuffed out their lives like candles at sunrise.
“The one bullet wonder,” some called him, this outlaw who used only a single shot for each of his victims. Others said he was the devil himself. This scared the boy at first, but not anymore. The devil didn’t bleed. The outlaw did. Tiny traces of drying crimson on the rocks the boy followed was proof.
The lawman had managed one good shot at what was never more than a shadow. As good was, in the end, the shot only slowed the outlaw down and made him angry.
“That was why he gut shot me,” the lawman grimaced, saying it was to make him suffer.
They were all gone now, all six of them, seasoned trackers and the lawman. Only the lawman whispered to him though, and asked him why he had been spared by the outlaw.
It was a question only the outlaw could answer.
Not long after the boy found the trail leading out of the desert, with buzzards already circling, a voice called out to him from inside the shadow a crop of rocks. Gravelly, as the rocks from which it came, the voice called out twice before the boy stopped dead in his tracks. With his blood suddenly cold he waited for the sound he knew he would never live to hear.
But there came no thundering crack of gun fire, no muzzle flash from the shadows he stared into, and no smell of burned powder in the air. There was only an eternal silence which ended when the scorching pistol in his blistered hand roared a deafening roar.
“Shoot,” the whispering memory of the lawman said was all the boy could remember as he continued to stare down the barrel of his gun into the darkness, and for some strange reason remember the smell of lilac water his mother wore on Sunday’s.
Was she there?, his mind crazy making asked itself. No answer came, only sad laughter, from inside the shadow.
“You done and went and killed me,” the outlaw man inside the shadow called out.
The boy answered with silence. It was all he could muster, light headed and dizzy from the blazing ball of fire burning down on him.
“And now I reckon it’s my turn to kill you,” the voice of the outlaw added hoarse and raspy. “I got a bead on your pimply little forehead right now and if it weren’t for the fact that dead men don’t talk, I would squeeze down on this trigger.”
Dead men don’t talk?, the boy thought and too loud.
“You don’t think I let you live because I like you do you?” the outlaw man asked, grisly voice beginning to waver. “You would have been the easiest of to kill. A dozen times I could have busted your skull, and left you plucking around like a city chicken.”
Again the boy answered with silence this time guarding his thoughts. Maybe the voice inside the shadow did belong to the devil himself.
“And then I led you out of the desert with my own blood only to have you kill me?” the outlaw man asked, voice smiling an incredulous twisted smile.
A while later after quiet settled over the two them the outlaw man tossed out a canteen and told the boy he could have it if he didn’t mind drinking after the dead. The boy didn’t answer.
“Want to make sure you live to tell,” the outlaw added his whisper now throaty and weak. Then he told the boy to follow the dusty creek bed and if the desert didn’t get him he might make it back to town.
“There I expect you will tell everybody how you, just a kid, killed me when the best lawman in the territory couldn’t. They might even pin that badge on you,” he added with a laugh.
“No” the boy answered. The man heard him. It was his turn to answer with silence.
The boy knew exactly what he would do if the desert didn’t get him before he got back to town; he would leave the lawman’s badge and gun on his front porch and after that he would drink a horse trough full of water and wait for an eastbound train with an open boxcar.
Go home, was the dying words of the outlaw too. That was after he asked that the boy to cover him with rocks like the lawman. He said that was the least the boy could do to repay him for leading him out of the desert and for the canteen full of water.
When the time came, boy obliged the outlaw and covered his corpse with rocks and he drank his water too, slow and careful.
Then as the boy turned to leave, from under the burning stones, the memory of the outlaw whispered to him again, dead men don’t talk and for him to live to tell.
“No, dead men don’t talk and sometimes live ones don’t either.” the boy whispered back in the scorching silence.
Then he vowed to God and all his angels to never mention any of this, ever, even if the desert didn’t kill him first and he did live to tell.
A work of fiction. Edward Reed 2020