Until the moment at which this story begins my life had been disappointing – a series of bizarre and terrible misfortunes had reduced me to a pitiable and wretched state of misery. But in this brief window of time I am a hero. I stand alone and face death and bring hope where there was none.
Late afternoon I stretch in the shade below the eaves of the bar, resting my head against the cracked plaster and watching the sunset fade into the grey light of approaching nightfall. I drink whiskey and smoke a cigarillo, listening to the murmur of voices from within and the occasional melody of the piano. The temperature drops and a cool wind runs the length of the town, creating whirlwinds of dust which hurt my eyes as I try to follow them through the alcoholic haze which I succumb to each afternoon. I will not elaborate, as it is a sorry tale, but my life has passed largely in this manner, riding between the make-shift towns of the west, doing whatever work came my way, then wasting the money in the bars and brothels along with the other godless drifters.
Out here in these remote places the people have a sullen look. The desert sun tans their skin but the shadow of violence and hard living line their faces. Some sit outside their wooden houses dressed in clothes of simple white cloth with ponchos to protect them when night draws in. They smoke and talk in whispers. The wind carries the smell of frying peppers and warm bread as the evening meals are prepared. In the upper window of a house opposite I see the whores adjusting their make-up while they wait for business.
Then the peace is broken by the toll of a bell which unsettles the horses tethered nearby and sends disquiet through the town. Shutters open and faces peer through doorways, all focused on the simple church at the end of the street where the bell swings back and forth in the tower. Nothing much happens for a while. Clouds as dark as gun-metal are rolling in from the east. I drink more whiskey and wish I was sober. Then everyone sees a trail of dust, way off, but moving closer. Horses. Ten, twenty, maybe more, riding towards us at speed. Panic breaks out. Shutters close, doors slam, the bell stops ringing as the watchman deserts his post. I hear chairs being piled behind the door of the bar and children crying and whispers of hastened prayer. Soon I am alone on the street. I know what is coming but it is too late for me to take cover. No one will unbolt their doors to shelter Jose the drunk.
So I sit and watch the dust cloud grow in the strange half-light. I see the shapes of horses then their riders – bandidos passing through to wreak havoc where there is already suffering. They wear broad hats and belts filled with bullets strapped across their chests. They slow then dismount, forming a line as they enter the street. Their spurs chime as they walk forward. Some carry a shotgun. Others have a revolver at each hip. One man walks a little ahead, the splendour of his moustache leaving his authority in no doubt.
As they move closer something unexpected happens. I stand up. My knees creak from a thousand cold nights and my back twinges to show its displeasure but in no time I am upright and walking out to meet these killers with nothing but a bottle in my hand and a gun of uncertain reliability at my side.
“A gunfighter,” cries someone. “We are saved.”
“No,” says another voice, coming from a house to my right. “It is José the drunk. We are finished.”
I hear this and feel the pain of my own existence. I remember the lonely nights by the roadside, the women who could never love me, my tears falling on my mother’s grave – I remember all these things and I am no longer afraid as I ask: “Who will stand with me?”
The bandidos look on, amused perhaps, as the people of the town stir from their hiding places. I hear guns being loaded, shutters edging open and bolts being drawn back. I finish the bottle and cast it aside. The light is fading fast. The oil lamps which hang from the porches remain unlit.
“Elijah, you get on out there,” says a woman’s voice. “You ain’t never done nothing no good anyhow.”
“I’m gettin’,” comes the hoarse reply.
And this is where you first joined me. For a moment I am a hero. Maybe it is the whiskey, but I feel no fear as I roll back the sleeve on my right arm and flex my fingers ready for the draw. They will be with me soon, I am sure, these people whose lives will be changed forever after this day when they stood and fought. Scared faces appear in doorways, gun barrels shake in unsteady hands. Courage is building. The whores gather at their window and watch with interest. Though facing death I feel more alive than ever. Perhaps I am finally happy, though how would I know?
“Are you all insane?” shouts the dissenting voice, so quick to condemn me earlier. “You’ll all die out there with José the drunk.”
“He’s right,” someone says. “And my knee don’t feel so good.”
“Mine neither,” says another.
And then there is quiet again as the people retreat to safety. There are just the horses, the clouds rolling in, the night falling and a line of bandidos weighed down with guns.
“Cowards,” shout the whores, and circle their mouths in boos and catcalls as they deride the men who will not join me. They chant my name and proclaim their love, clapping out a rhythm as it becomes clear that there will be no change of heart and I am destined to remain alone. The dark clouds finally reach us and sobering drops of rain hit my face and bring a moment of terrible realisation as the leader of the bandidos smiles and I go for my gun and the whores cheer and everyone opens fire.