My horse ain’t at all well. His chest started clunking yesterday—he’s drying out. De-hy-dration. I pinched his neck, and the skin stayed raised up too long. That’s a sure sign. Worse today. I need to find water. Still have a long way to go to get out of this desert. My tongue is sticking to the roof of my mouth now, and I got a headache that could drop a buffalo.
At least I got what I came for. Scanlon’s head is stuffed into my saddlebag. No flies on him, it’s that hot. Or maybe his soul was just as damned as everyone said it was, and Old Scratch won’t have anything to do with him.
The land play tricks on you when it’s this hot. The desert doesn’t want me or him to leave it—would have me tracking in circles until I shriveled into jerky. I just keep riding east. Every morning, I make sure to line myself up with the sun. East means life.
My side itches, and I scratch, and my fingers come back tacky. There’s a dark stain down my side. Lots of blood. Scanlon shot me and I didn’t even notice. I laugh and the sound gets sucked away quick. So hot.
I open my shirt to have a look. Looks worse than it feels. Creased a rib or two, that’s all. Belly’s not puffing, and I’m not coughing up any blood, so the bullet must’ve missed all the important stuff.
I reach back and punch the saddlebag. I know Scanlon can’t feel nothing now, but it makes me feel better anyhow. I punch again and start to black out. Need to face forward and calm down. Need to focus and get out of this desert. I think about all the money his head will get me.
Scanlon liked injun women. Sometimes they liked him back, most times they didn’t. Those that didn’t I found what was left of them when I was trailing him, reminding me that Scanlon was worth every bit of the bounty on his head. ‘Dead or alive’ made me think it would be easy.
Easy’s what twenty or more other bounty hunters thought, too. A few names I heard of went shooting for him before me—Parson Green, the ex-preacher, for one. They found his corpse three months back, chest peeled open and his heart gone missing. They found one more body the month after that. Looked like a scarecrow made out of charcoal standing out in a field. Crumbled to pieces when somebody tried to take it down. It took the local dentist to figure out whose body it was. Henry Samson used to be the biggest, meanest son of a bitch I ever knew—charred down to no more than ash and bones. And Frenchie the Frenchman, a fancy shootist who dressed in silk shirts, I heard was the only one who came across Scanlon and lived. Frenchie they found screaming with his eyes torn out. Word is, he done that to himself, but nobody could get out of him just why. Wouldn’t stop screaming to tell.
Scanlon left a trail of bodies everywhere he went. Easy enough to track, just followed the smoke and screaming. Slippery devil must have known I was after him though, because he dodged me for mor’n a month. Wearing me down, I suspect.
Four nights ago, he made his move.
My eyes were normally good for seeing under even a thin sliver of moon, but it was damn close to pitch out there that night, with only the stars to see by. Had to stop riding. Horse kept stumbling. Couldn’t risk a broken ankle or worse. Lots of desert around me and not a good place to get stuck.
The coyotes and crickets were louder’n I ever heard. When they get hungry enough, coyotes get brave and come in close, but when I heard a crunch it sounded heavier than any coyote.
“Who’s there?” I said, drawing my pistol on the dark, knowing full well who it was, but not wanting to admit. And here I was half naked in my bedroll, didn’t make no fire so as to not attract attention. Bastard found me anyhow.
Wasn’t sure there was anything out there at all until I heard something hit the ground near me. Then another. And another. Hail? No, way too hot. Another, closer. They rocks? I rolled out of my bed away from the sounds and crouched. Another. Scanlon was out there throwing rocks, trying to find me in the dark.
Between the animal ruckus I heard the chuff of fabric and shot. In the flash of my gun, I saw his face in the scrub. I shot once more and ducked. He got off one shot, then he fell over, coughing. The coyotes stopped their yelping right then. The crickets seemed to take a pause to reflect, too. I stepped over, following his gurgling and scuffling in the gravel. My gun was cocked and ready.
He went quiet. Seemed like even the stars went out. Real dark. I didn’t move. Hardly breathed. Listened real close. No way that bastard was getting away from me after all this trouble. I stood listening until morning creeped up, then I could see Scanlon staring up at me. Dead. A hole right through his neck, dead center. Scorpions sipping at his eyes.
Easy as that. No wild showdown with guns blazing—a three bullet fight. I managed to shoot him through the skinniest part on him in the pitch dark. That was worth a month or two of free drinking I figured.
“Hot damn,” I said, slapping my hat.
Scanlon was big news after all. A dime book had come out about him, and plenty of folks were waiting to hear about how he came to his end. I was eager to collect his bounty and start bragging about it, but the desert wasn’t gonna give him up so easy. No way I was lugging his injun-loving ass out of there as big as he was, but ‘Dead or Alive’ meant I needed some kind of proof. Since I couldn’t find his horse, I took his head and left the rest. Vermin for the vermin. Stuffed his head in my saddlebag and headed east.
I forgot how cold it got in the desert at night, even in August. Still no water. Lit a fire and hung my saddlebags from a tree stump. In the morning, my horse was dead and Scanlon was covered with ants. Rolled his head in the dust and waited for the sun to come up before setting my boots towards it.
Sun is still low and already it’s baking everything it sees. All this heat is turning Scanlon to goo. He’s dripping out the corners of the bag, collecting biting flies. I keep thinking about how I’m gonna spend all that bounty money and try to ignore the stink. Can’t smell much of anything else.
Must’ve blacked out. Woke up with my teeth plowed into the dust. Some big toad crawled into my mouth while I was asleep. I yank at it. Fat thing is choking me. Can’t breathe. I yank and yank until I realize it ain’t no toad—it’s my tongue swelled up.
Behind me, the red sun is hanging onto the horizon, not letting go. I watch it for a long while to make sure of its intentions. Won’t sink lower, won’t raise higher neither, just stays clung to the hills. Since I woke pointed to the opposite direction, I make a guess that it’s trying to set and call it west. I walk on.
Then I hear laughter coming from the bag. Scanlon’s an ornery son of a bitch even after he’s dead. I open the flap. His eyes is gone, but his mouth is open, laughing. I close the flap and smash him against a rock. That’ll shut him up a while.
I look down at my hands. They’re cracked and grey from crawling through the dust. Should be burning, but the gravel is cold. My shadow dances out in front of me, grey and tall. Spindly. It starts buzzing like the wings of a fly. Then it peels off the ground and runs away from me. Off ahead, I hear coyotes. My shadow heads right for them.
Jolting awake, something jumps away, kicking grit into my eyes. They yelp when I swat at them. Coyotes got in too close. Pieces of my shirt torn free.
I see some green up ahead. I cram my eyes shut, pry them open again and try to focus on it. Sure enough, green grass. I get to crawling.
Don’t know how I made it, but here I am, face inches from water. My hand stinging cold in this stream. I lift up my hand and bring it to my leather tongue. Water burns. Manage to get some in past my teeth. I choke. Feels like rotgut going down my throat, and tastes like bad meat. I bring my hand up a couple more times. A few more drops trickle down my gullet like fire.
I wake again and drink. I doze and drink for what feels like a week, or an hour. Can’t be sure. So dry, my eyes feel like sandpaper, but I’m not choking anymore when I swallow.
The cave is cool. Can smell the air. Sweetgrass. I could sleep for a month of Sundays. No coyotes or even crickets around. Not sure how I got inside this cave, but I welcome it. Still don’t believe there’s a God up in Heaven, but I thank him all the same. Just in case.
Outside, the scrub looks healthy. Tracks from all kinds of animals around here. Deer. Rabbit. Raccoon. Squirrel. They all come for the water. Still got my gun and plenty of bullets. I could eat. I could get out of here. I just wish this headache would stop.
Shit! Where’s Scanlon’s head? I pat myself down, as if he were a lost pocket watch, then look in and outside the cave. Coyotes must have run off with him. I’ll be damned if I’m leaving without his skull. The sun still hasn’t gotten any higher. I aim myself for it.