The sun had become the old man’s worst enemy.
It beat against him without any remorse, lashes of heat hitting his back and sending painful jolts up his shoulders. Reaching into his coat pocket he took out a handkerchief and wiped it across his forehead.
The barren plains of the desert hadn’t changed much ever since he stepped off the bus a couple of hours ago. The old man reached into his coat pocket and took out a watch. It was a cheap thing, the sort of watch one could pick up from one of the many aldeanos that made their living selling trinkets and assorted mementos from bus stops. It had cost him one big coin, two small ones, and a medium sized one. He killed the first hour of his journey trying to figure out if that was a good price to pay or not.
He could have taken the bus all the way towards his destination, but the combination of a driver blind to all the speed signs, loud Mariachi music, and a ride with more bounce than a grasshopper had made him get off in the first station they stopped at.
Plus they’ll be watching the buses. Better this way, he had decided.
He almost reached into his pocket again but stopped himself. The gun would still be there. Its cold barrel pressed against his ribs, a little piece of heaven in this hell. The old man took no breaks. When he became thirsty, he reached into the small backpack he’d bought at the bus station and took out a bottle filled with water. Hunger wasn’t much of an issue, but he forced himself to eat the sandwich he’d packed. The old man timed his chewing with his footsteps just to have something to do.
It was in the third hour that he got company. He knew it was the third hour because he had just checked his watch to see how long he’d been walking, and when he looked up a stranger was standing out in the distance.
“Hello,” the old man said when he was within speaking distance, his fingers already snaking around the grip of the gun.
“Hey,” the kid turned and looked at him.
He was young, a kid in the old man’s eyes. Good looking too, with that dark brown skin that most of the people around here seemed to have. His hair reminded the old man of the beans he’d had for breakfast every day for the last twenty years, black and greasy.
They spent a moment in the type of silence that strolled casually into a conversation and made itself comfortable like a big lazy cat. The old man wondered how far the sound of a gun would travel. Far enough to reach the ears of the man the bullets were really intended for?
“Taking a walk.” A statement rather than a question from the kid. He enunciated each word carefully, as if every sound was a work of art in progress. The old man imagined that was the sort of thing the tourist girls swooned for.
“Yes.” The old man’s voice on the other hand sounded like that of an old man who drank and smoke too much.
Tilting his head, the man looked past the old man and whistled. “Hell of a long walk.”
Shrugging, the old man said, “I done longer.” For the last twenty years he’d been walking. The only difference since stepping off the bus was that he was finally getting somewhere. “You? Waiting for someone?”
An important question, the old man ready to use the gun if necessary. But the kid just mimicked the old man and shrugged. “Not really. I just like to come out sometimes and enjoy this place. It’s beautiful don’t you think?”
The old man had a limited vocabulary, and as such he hated to use beautiful on a piece of land like this one.
“You live nearby?”
The man showed his teeth, a sliver of white that didn‘t belong in the desert. “Yep, not to far from here.” He pointed towards the mountains and made a general gesture, “Nice little place. Got the necessities. A bed to sleep in, a hole to shit in, a bottle to drink out off, and a woman to fuck. What about you?” The kid asked, “Where’s your home?”
“Far away from here.” It really wasn’t his home anymore, but it been for so long that the old man figured he would always think of it as such.
“Then you must come to mine! I’ll share the bed and the bottle. The woman, you’re out of luck.”
The old man shook his head. “There’s someone I have to meet.” He took out the watch, and looked at the time. “I gave them my word.”
The kid eyed the old man’s watch and nodded. “Appointments must be kept, especially if those bonded by your word. It’s the only thing a man really has, right?”
The old man nodded. That and a backpack, a watch, and a gun.
“Still, at the very least I can keep you company for a while. You’re walking towards the mountains?”
“Past them, to Cerro Gordo.”
“Perfect, my home is on your way.” As if that settled everything, he begun to walk towards the mountains. The old man followed.
“So what’s your name?”
Recluso numero 787. The old man threw out a name he hadn’t used in a long time and figured he wouldn’t use again.
The kid pointed to himself, “Alacran.”
“Strange name to have.”
Alacran smiled, “It fits me. You ever heard of the ballad of the gunman?”
The old man shook his head.
Clearing his throat, Alacran began to sing. His voice rose and sank with the words of the song, filling the stillness around them. It was a strong, confident voice, but not necessarily a good one. If he wanted to he could probably make a nice tidy living joining a Mariachi quartet and working in some restaurant, moving from table to table and interrupting private conversations with the same three songs.
He sang of a pistolero. A good man that death could touch, the song said. That is, until he headed out to the desert alone one night and lay down to sleep. That’s how the townspeople found him the next day, still lying on the ground, his right hand holding his gun, on his other hand an alacran, the scorpion’s tail still wedged on the gunman’s palm.
“Everyone cursed the scorpion,” Alacran said, “cried of how it made a mistake and killed a good man this time, but do you think the scorpion cared? The way I see it, the scorpion didn’t sting the gunman because he was good or bad. It stung him because it was just following its nature.”
“And that’s how you are?”
“Yes. Not that it’s hard to do living like I do. It isn’t like I get many chances to test myself, but I like to believe that no matter the situation, I would always do what’s in my nature and nothing else.”
The old man said nothing.
“For example,” Alacran continued, seemingly not bothered by the old man’s silence. “The other day I get this Mafioso looking guys knocking at my door. Drove up in white Cadillac car, wearing nice pressed suits and dark sunglasses. I told them that the car was going to look like crap by the time they rode back up to town, but they didn’t care. They were more interested in asking me if I’d seen anyone pass by lately.”
The click of the gun’s safety being turned off was lost in the old man’s suddenly loud shuffling footsteps.
“I told them, ‘look around you, how many people do you think cross the desert instead of taking the highways?’ They said that if I saw anyone, I should give them a call. I laughed and said sure, when the telephone company gets around to installing some lines here, you’ll be the first I call. So you know what they did?”
The old man shook his head. One bullet. Maybe two if I’m slow.
“They gave me a cellphone! Tossed it to me like it was nothing. They even put their number in speed dial.”
Alacran stopped and reached into his back pocket. The old man’s heartbeat quickened. He was about to pull the gun out of his pocket only to see the phone in Alacran’s hand.
“I’m thinking of selling it once I go back into town.”
It would take two bullets.
“You could probably get a few coins for that.” The old man said.
Tossing it into the air and catching it, Alacran resumed walking. “You think? Anyways, thinking back to that, they could have shot me right then and there. I mean, it wasn’t like I was being very cordial. But it just isn’t in my nature to get into the middle of things. That’s why I live here. The desert is too big to find yourself in the middle of things.”
“More people should move to the desert then,” the old man said. In his mind he practiced the motion. Pull, turn, squeeze. Pull, turn, squeeze.
“So this appointment you’re walking to, is it a friend?”
“Old business partner.”
“Been a while since you seen them?” Alacran still had the phone in his hand, his thumb mindlessly running up and down the key pad.
Twenty years, two months, three days. “Too long.”
“You going to kill him?”
They stopped walking. The old man turned and faced Alacran. “I‘m going to try.”
Looking into Alacran’s face, the old man thought he saw actual curiosity in his eyes. “He robbed me of twenty years of my life by sending me to prison. I’m going to rob him of the last twenty he has left.”
“And if he has more than twenty to live?”
Alacran looked to be thinking. Then he asked the old man, “Are you a good man or a bad man?”
“I thought you didn’t care.”
Alacran shook his head. “The scorpion in the song didn’t care. Me? I like to know if I’ve been talking to a good man or a bad man.”
“I was good to my family. Went to church every Sunday, never forgot to pay the bills or anyone’s birthday. I also killed people. I’d like to think they deserved it, but I don’t know.”
Staring out into the mountains, Alacran said, “You still have a long way to go. A little way after my house it starts to get civilized again. You’re going to have to pass two more towns before you get to Cerro Gordo.”
The old man said nothing.
“Maybe you should just give up on this idea of revenge and come to my home. Share my bottle like I asked you to. If they came talking to me, they also went to those two towns, so chances are someone’s already keeping their eye out for you.”
The old man shot him then. He surprised himself by being quicker than he expected himself to be. The first bullet hit Alacran in the chest, sending him back. The second one struck his shoulder, and it wasn’t till the third one slammed into his forehead and blew out the other end that Alacran went down, his blood already staining the dull brown of the desert, seeping into the ground and marking a new territory.
The old man’s hands were shaking as he put the gun back in his pocket. Kneeling next to the body, he picked the phone off the ground and turned it on, searching the tiny glowing menu. It took him a few minutes, having never handled a piece of technology like this, but soon enough he found what he was looking for, the call log.
No calls sent or received.
The old man stood and turned away from Alacran’s body. Like he told Alacran, he’d liked to believe everyone he ever killed deserved what they got, but he wasn’t a fool. One more innocent person wouldn’t change things.
Alacran’s song came back into his mind, carried perhaps by the wind, or maybe just guilt. But at the end, the old man started walking again. His own journey would come to an end soon enough, and he doubted it would be as peaceful as the one gifted to gunman in the ballad.