Fantasy Historical weird western duelling gunfighters High noon

The Same Old Showdown, All Over Again

By Dan Micklethwaite
Oct 19, 2020 · 1,070 words · 4 minutes

Abandoned Desert Home

Photo by Sarah Lachise via Unsplash.

From the author: A gunfighter duels an implacable foe.


High summer, almost high noon; the season for vultures. Buffalo bones, sun-bleached, picket the scrub. The heat so intense it’s developed a texture, as harsh and abrasive as drowning in sand. Even the cacti seem ready to sweat.

The gunfighter loops his reins over one’s arm, pulling it tight on the ridges and spines. He dismounts unsteadily; cusses under his breath at a twinge in his knee. He pats his palomino on its flank and it whickers. He strokes from its mane to the tip of its nose; it nuzzles his palm. Another whinny, and a breath weighted with distance breezes his face.

He whispers something then slaps its haunches, and it totters away. He turns and starts off in the opposite direction. Towards the town that squats crooked in the shimmer and haze.

His spurs were once wind chimes, the jangle of jewellery on a bordello queen’s neck, but like plough coulters now they just drag in the dust. Trailing dark furrows like dynamite fuses.

The crowd up ahead cannot help but take note.

Since the telegram came, they’ve been waiting for this. Every shack on the main street – the only street – has more than its share of malingering dregs. Observing as keenly as Pinkerton agents, pressing their eyes between balcony rails. All of them taking this gunfighter in. This challenge to the menace that won’t leave them be.

They can’t deny he looks impressive.

The business.

The part.

He ought to. They didn’t just pass the hat, the passed the horse-trough to pay him. From the lowliest gravedigger to the fanciest whores, everyone had pitched in. Pulling banknotes, daintily, from the depths of stained underwear; from raggedy flaps in the ass of their longjohns, wincing as nuggets escaped from their grip. The sheriff, recently come from more peaceable territory, had smelted his star into a fistful of coins.

They had been under this tyranny long enough, they’d decided. They would make another stand – a last stand – and this man, about whose exploits they’d read, or had read to them, from dog-eared dime novels, presented himself as the likeliest hope.

He is older than just about any of them, they can see that now. But in a grizzled, worldly way. And you don’t get old as a gunfighter without being good. Great. Better. The best. Think of the roster of those who have passed – Wild Bill, Billy the Kid, Sundance and Butch. The journey to get here must have taken him days, across open desert. If there’s a trick to survival then nobody knows it more clearly than him.

He can feel their expectation as an extra layer, a further stratification to the pressure of the heat. He tilts his Stetson down deeper, concealing his face with the cool and the shade.

The sun’s drawing higher, almost directly above.

His shadow is short.

The duel’s set for midday. Not a second too early, nor a second too late. It is only right that the one rule of this contest should involve punctuality, given the nature of this particular, resilient foe. That opponent’s proclivities, methods, and past.

The gunfighter narrows his eyes and sweeps back his poncho, revealing his gun.

The clock ticks.

Further out, beyond his enemy, beyond the last building, the track takes a turn and a rise, to Boot Hill. Rickety crosses jostle for space. Crows and big vultures circle and screech.

The clock tocks.

The madam of the brothel, filling and even overspilling her corset, cracks the powder on her forehead as she looks up to God. Breathes the word: Please.

The clock ticks.

His fingers crack as he clenches, unclenches his deadly right hand. Holds it there, steadying, above the Peacemaker’s handle. Sweat drips from his palm, hits the hammer and glistens.

The clock tocks.

A young boy, on the town hotel’s porch, brandishes a pop-gun, begins to take aim at the tyrant himself. Just before he can fire it, his mother grabs him and hugs him. She doesn’t want the gunfighter distracted right now. Doesn’t want him to lose. For her son’s sake. Her own.

The clock ticks.

A sudden change in the breeze carries dust in a wedding veil over the street. It covers the crowd and adheres to their sweat.

The clock tocks.

Up on Boot Hill, the gravedigger’s working. It isn’t disrespectful, it simply makes sense. In this heat you can’t leave a corpse for too long.

The clock ticks.

The town’s priest leads some cowboys in feverish prayer.

The clock tocks.

The town’s doctor clutches his black leather bag.

The clock ticks.

The madam’s make-up bubbles and rivers with tears.

The clock tocks.

Ticks.

Tocks.

The gunfighter’s fingertips brush on his pistol.

A hungry crow screeches; a vulture replies.

The boy buries his face in his mother’s frilled skirts.

The priest wraps up the prayer with the sign of the cross.

The shovel hits stone and the clang of it carries.

The clock ticks.

Tocks.

Ticks.

The train in the distance trails steam like a ghost.

 

His eyes narrow further.

 

The clock tocks.

 

The clock ticks.

 

The bell tolls.

 

A gun fires.

When the smoke clears, the echo fades, the crowd all look up at the town’s clock, expectant.

Inspecting.

There is a bullet-hole there, and cracks radiate out.

He has done what they wanted. All the money they scrounged and they paid has been worth it. All the trouble they went through to track this man down.

Overjoyed and delirious, the boy laughs, the madam woops, and the priest leads the cowboys in a chorus of howling – they rush into the dust of the street to embrace him.

But before they can get there, the gunfighter drops to his knees in the dust.

He was the fastest they could find; as fast, perhaps, as there had ever been, so the dime novels said. And yet as he falls backwards, and his blood fills the furrows dug out by his spurs, they come at last to appreciate this didn’t matter.

That it never would matter, and never had done before.

Regardless of how many gunfighters they’d sent to Boot Hill.

As they call for the wagon to take him as well, they realise, finally, they’ll just have to face it.

 

The clock ticks.

 

The clock tocks.

 

Time is not on their side.



This story originally appeared in Story Emporium #1 (as 'The Duel').


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Dan Micklethwaite

Dan Micklethwaite daydreams and writes in a shed. Multiple genres. Never expect to find two tales alike.