The Wrong End Of A Bullet
Let me start right off by telling you I'm not a righteous man. I've done my share of cheating and stealing, lying for sure, and a time or two regretted it. For the most part, I didn't repent, nor cared much about the people I've hurt along the way.
But I sure as hell didn't deserve this.
The sun's so hot you could fry an egg on top of my head. The notion runs through my mind as I'm standing in a hole, buried in sand up to my neck. I can't move, except turn my head from side to side, or stare up at the sky. When I was a boy, my mother told me angels lived up there behind the clouds. But not now. The sky's as blue as a whore's petticoat. There's nothing between it and me but vultures circling above, waiting to feast on my face.
The dirt is slowly crushing my chest, robbing me of breath. I'm praying to pass out soon, so I miss my death entirely. Tears trickle down my cheeks and dry before they reach my lips, though I try to catch them with my tongue. I need to bare my soul, before the sun steals it away.
I was born in the sleepy part of Texas, on a piece of land that carried a grudge. My father stepped outside our shack that April morning and told his three daughters their brother Burke was born. That meant a little less food on each plate, so I doubt they jumped with joy.
I grew up an ordinary boy in a dusty town, with a shock of red hair like a lit candle, skinny legs, and deep green eyes that folks said were my best feature. I think of these eyes now, a morsel in a buzzard's beak, and cry again.
It was Tansy Clark who changed the course of my life, the way a rainstorm turns a dry creek bed into a flash flood. I couldn't help but notice the sway of her skirt, or how her breasts pressed against a hand-me-down dress, leaving little to a fevered imagination. Tansy had eyes the color of a Texas Bluebonnet, and a smile that lifted my heart. She lived near a field of sunflowers, in a white house surrounded by Sycamore trees. Her daddy was the local undertaker, his barn lined with pine boxes, a silent reminder of the Hereafter.
I courted Tansy's favor, fetched flowers from my mother's garden, took her for picnics in our old buckboard. We stole time together as often as we could.
It wasn't long before I was fondling those breasts in that faded dress. Tansy's heart beat like a wild thing beneath my hand. I longed to unlace her, reach in, capture the warmth, bring her to my mouth. What we were doing wasn't right, but there was just no stoppin' it.
Tansy and I were going at it one afternoon in her father's barn when we got caught. I was lifted straight up off her and thrown against the wall. Landed in a heap. Tansy pulled her skirt down and cried.
"You'll look at the wrong end of a bullet someday, Burke Hays," her daddy said. Flecks of spittle ran down his chin, face flushed with rage. He reached for the pistol on his hip. When he took aim, I covered my privates with trembling hands, looked at all those empty coffins. "But for now, you're gonna marry my daughter. Then we'll figure out if you deserve to live or not. Get the hell out of here, go home, and tell your folks you're gettin' married tomorrow." His boot found my naked leg. There was a painful crack like a bone wantin' to give up. I limped home, sat on the back stoop, and pondered what to do.
To be fair here, I wasn't the first young man to find himself in Tansy's arms. Just had the bad luck of being the last one. Plenty of other fellas knew their way around her barn. I felt a prickle of resentment. I'd be tied down with a wife and stuck in this goodbye town forever.
I didn't want to do that.
So to my shame, but also my relief, I saddled my father's horse, Hank, and left right then and there. I had nowhere to go, so we traveled west until the next village bloomed out of the plains. I stopped, looked for work.
Now, ten years later, I'm buried up to my neck, waitin' to die.
A while ago, a diamondback wound its way across the sand and slithered right up to my face, tongue flicking in and out as it approached. My heart lurched and sputtered. I held my breath. Didn't blink. Piss ran down my leg, soaked into the dirt. After what seemed like an eternity, it continued on its way to somewhere else, weaving a trail in the dirt, rattle brushing against my cheek in farewell.
I know you think I got in this mess because I couldn't keep my hands off some Indian gal, and you're partly right. Only it wasn't me who found her down by the creek and tore her clothes off. I swear on all that's holy I didn't do it. How many red-headed men are out here in the middle of the desert? I'm telling you there's more than one, and I'm innocent. But maybe God doesn't care, because I sure as hell did enough in my life to get banished from Heaven. I'm scared that no amount of prayin' is gonna change God's mind. The Lord might see this as a good way to rid Himself of one of his sinners.
You might as well know I've killed a man. So I guess I've sinned in the worst possible way.
Just like me, he wasn't worth much. He was a mean old bastard, a card cheat, and damned good at it too. Not until I lost all my wages, did I realize he was getting help from the big bosomed woman at the table behind me.
I noticed her when I walked into the saloon. Blond hair flowed down her back like a waterfall. Eyes so brown men dive into them, but can't swim out. She wore a tight red dress, and her breasts rose out the top like dough on a kitchen table. She smiled, said hello, fluttered a feather fan in the evening heat.
Flattered by the attention, I tethered myself to the table in front of her, just to stay close. Perfume drifted over my shoulder. It smelled like roses from the garden back in Texas, and I wondered if after playing cards, I might find a few petals under her skirt. Concentrating on the game was hard. I figure that's why I was so stupid and didn't realize I was being taken until they cleaned me out.
I turned around to give her a quick smile, and caught her waving the fan, once, twice, then six times, matching the cards in my hand. She froze, and I rose, angry as a hornet.
I flipped the table over, grabbed the cheater by his grizzled neck and shook him the way a dog shakes a rat he finds in a haystack. "You crooked scum!" I hollered. He tipped over in his chair, landed on his back. I picked up as much money as I could off the floor and ran.
I heard a click, reached for my gun and spun around as he fired. The slug grazed my leg. In a blind fury, I pulled the trigger. He fell over like an empty bottle and crashed on the sidewalk, half in and half out of the saloon, the doors above his head still swingin'. I dragged myself up on Hank and raced away, shoulders braced for a bullet in my back, but it didn't happen. We rode into the night until the stars faded, then I reined in Hank and dismounted, checked the leg. It hurt like hell, tender and bleeding, but not bad enough to kill me. It was the same leg Tansy's daddy kicked. That would have been funny if it weren't so tragic. Twice now I've run from something and gotten away with it.
But not today.
Now I'm here in this man-made hell, and I'm not alone. Three coyotes trotted loose-limbed towards me in the searing heat, ears pricked, snouts to the ground. I shouted at 'em. They startled, lowered their tails, looped behind me, making little noises in their throats to each other. I kept on yelling and shaking my head in hopes they'd stay away. The thought of them sinking their teeth into my neck or chewing off my ears made me shudder. They backed off, sat on their haunches and watched from a short distance away. We stared at each other as I ruminated about what put me here in the first place.
Two days ago, I rode through the desert on my way to California. I planned to put my past behind me. Open a small outpost in the mountains, make a better life.
Truth be told, I was on the run. I'd robbed a bank.
It was easy as a morning in June. I'd been drifting for months looking for work. A man at the local mercantile told me Four Bars Ranch needed wranglers. I rode out there and talked to the foreman. He hired me on the spot, sent me east to catch up with the herd. I fell in line with the other men, slappin' a rope against my leg, pushing the cattle forward.
On payday I collected my share and rode into town to celebrate. I aimed to trade my paper into coin, gamble at the local saloon. You'd think I'd learned my lesson about card games, but I was itchin' for a little entertainment.
The main street was quiet that sweltering afternoon. Two boys ran by pushing a hoop, kicking up dust that made Hank snort. A scrawny dog trotted along the wooden walk, then crawled under a porch. In the distance was the tinny sound of music from the local saloon. I tied up in front of the bank, glanced around. The whole town appeared to be taking a nap.
An old woman was the only person in the building, standing behind a teller's cage. My footsteps echoed on the wood floor. The sun streamed in from a window, dust motes danced in a shaft of light. The woman was writing, looked up when I walked in. She had white hair piled on top of her head and wore a silver locket around her neck.
"Where is everybody?" I asked.
"Well, Sir, my husband's got the fever, and he's home in bed. There ain't no one else to help out today but me. It's always quiet around here after lunch. Especially in this heat." She fiddled with her hair, smoothed her blouse, looked at me with rheumy eyes. "How can I help you?"
Without even thinking it through, I drew my pistol and said "Give me all your money." I could hardly believe it when she did, trembling like a willow as she cleaned out the safe. "Don't hurt me," she begged over and over as I stuffed handfuls in my saddlebag. I backed away and out the door, just like I was dreamin' the whole thing up.
I was a half day's ride away before I opened the bag and counted it out. Eight hundred dollars. More money than I'd ever seen. As long as I'm confessing, I'll tell you I didn't feel one bit of remorse.
If I'd used my brain, I might have wondered why there wasn't a whole posse behind me as I drifted across the desert alone. It wasn't until I was knocked off Hank as we picked our way through a gully that I realized this was hostile Apache territory. I was surrounded by Indians who didn't look glad to see me. They stared at my head, and I wondered if my hair caught fire. I reached up to touch it, got kicked in the ribs.
An Indian let out a whoop when he looked in my saddlebag, saw all the money. They tied a rope around my neck, forced me to walk behind their horses. I fell twice, the rope tightened, and I struggled to my feet, straggled after them. We traveled through a small canyon and into a village. The Apaches clustered around us, shouting, raising their fists. They brought a young woman out of a wickiup. She pointed at my red hair, nodded, and burst into tears. Through angry words and gestures, I figured out what happened.
I took a step forward, shook my head. "I didn't do it!" I yelled, but they weren't listening. Then neither was I, as someone hit me on the side of the head and my knees buckled.
When I came to, I'd been trussed up on the back of old Hank, surrounded by warriors on their horses. We made our way through the desert until one of them raised his arm, and we stopped. The Indians slid off their mounts and dug in the sand with sticks, lances, and their hands. I didn't figure out what they were doing at first. Then I squirmed and wiggled, tried to get Hank to move, but he was content to just stand there and watch them dig my grave. They dragged me off the horse, shoved me in the hole, filled it with sand and left.
The sun beat down on my head right away. A bead of sweat rolled off my chin and trickled down my neck. It's surprising how a person can pray for the simplest things, after a lifetime of wishin' for something more. All I wanted right then was to scratch the itch on my neck, or move my legs. The blazing heat scalded my face, blistered the tips of my ears. I soon learned if I put up a fuss and tried to stretch my neck, or shoulder my way out of the hole, the sand poured in even tighter. The hours dragged by. I prayed for the sun to go down, even though I wouldn't live past dawn.
A stifling wind blew along the desert floor, picked up sand and tumbleweeds, dust devils that twirled like dancers. The grit hit my face, stung my eyes. A small bird flapped by, taken hostage by the whim of the wind, and I guess that's me, too. Picked up by Fate and set in this damned hole.
I heard hoofbeats from behind, stiffened in my smoldering grave. A horse came up alongside, then stopped in front of me. He reached out his neck, warm breath on my scalded cheek.
I looked up at a red-headed man. He was about my age, fiery hair, eyes green and cool as a lake. There was a dark mole on his cheek the size of a Bluebottle fly. His hands were scratched and oozing, like he'd fought a wildcat. He spit a wad of tobacco juice through broken, yellowed teeth, and I wished like hell I could work up enough spit in my own mouth to even swallow.
That alone made me hate him.
"You raped that Apache gal!" I hollered, quivering with rage. Tiny grains of sand shifted, hugged me closer. I yearned to climb out of this hole, knock him off the horse, strangle him.
His eyes were flat, the green lake frozen over. There was a hint of cruelty at the corner of his mouth, coiled like a sleeping snake. He cocked his head, squinted at me.
"Could be. But it looks like you've taken the fall." He spit into the dust again, reached for a canteen, took a swig. I nearly swooned.
"Look," I said, "I wasn't there, and I don't know what happened. But what I know DID happen is that I'm here in this wretched hole because of you! Dig me out of here and we're both free."
He gazed into the distance like he was weighing his options. I held what little breath I had left.
"Sorry, I can't do that," he said, tightened the reins on his gelding, backed up a little. The horse pawed at the ground. "I've been hidin' out for days, waiting for a chance to escape this valley, and now's the time. I won't waste daylight digging in the dirt. Besides, I can't trust you not to turn the tables on me." He rubbed his chin like he was thinking. Those green eyes got colder. "But, I guess I can help you out." He pulled his gun out of the holster.
This will be a mercy, I told myself, bracing for the wrong end of the bullet that Tansy's father said I'd see one day.
Something flew over my head like a wasp. The red-headed stranger looked surprised, fell straight off his horse and landed in front of me. I stared into his face, inches from my own. An arrow poked out his back. Blood pooled on top of the desert, seeped into the sand.
An Apache walked up, lifted the dead man's head, stared long at his face. Then he let go, and it hit the ground with a thud.
"There's the man that hurt your woman!" I said, my voice barely a whisper now. "He's the one who did it!"
The Indian scowled. I didn't know if he spoke English. If I still had Hank, or my eight hundred dollars, maybe I could bribe him, but now it felt hopeless. I babbled then. What was left of my tears leaked out and ran down my face. "Look at the scratches on his hands and arms!" I pointed with my nose and chin. "There's your man!"
The Apache took a step back. Stared at the body, then at me. He leaned down, lifted the head again, studied the stranger's mole, the scratches on his arms. Pursed his lips. Walked over to the horse.
He reached for the canteen, held it to my mouth, then let it flow over my head, cheeks, down my neck, me gasping and choking, swallowing hard. It hit my stomach like a lead ball. He emptied the last drop, tossed it on the ground.
Then he vaulted on to his pony, wheeled around and galloped away. The dead man's horse took off after him, kicking up its heels. I listened until the last hoofbeat, then closed my eyes, weary and spent. A fly landed on my face, explored an ear. I tossed my head and it lifted off, flew over to the corpse, crawled up his nose.
The Apache left a long time ago. It's deathly quiet here. Even the birds wheeling above are solemn. All I hear is the impatient rustle of their wings as they bank and turn, come back around. The coyotes are sprawled in the shade of a Joshua tree, waiting for the sun to go down.
I'm prayin' the Indian rode back to the others, told them what happened. I hope the water he gave me was a good sign, that he'll bring help so I might climb out of this hole and continue with my sorry life.
Every hour that goes by, I get weaker. I'm fading like the sun as it slips behind a knoll in the distance. There's nothing to do but wait and pray. I hope God hears me, even though I'm already halfway to Hell in my blistering grave.
A wispy cloud rises from the edge of the horizon, makes its way across the desert. I stare up at the sky, and wonder if the vultures above my head are the angels my mother told me about, coming to take me home.