I saw the pale rider up on the cracked ridge, silhouetted by the San Velasquez sun, his shadow a dark
finger pointing across the shrubland at me as I rode my painted horse across the desert. We had found
each other, back in the crowded saloon in Chapequa. I had been dealt a dead man's hand and looked up
over the edge of the cards to see his eyes, flared and white, locked onto my face with a grim reckoning.
I thought he meant to shoot me right there. Probably would have, but guns weren't allowed on the streets
of Chapequa. A fact I recollected as my fingers closed around the air above my holster. My fingers
drifted down towards the knife in my boot, but the pale rider he just stood up, his chair calling for
silence as it screeched against the wooden floor. He squared himself to me and made as if to say something.
In the back a dancing girl who was being dandied on the knee of some cowboy let out a laugh and the spell
was broken. He turned and stalked out into the night and I returned to my cards.
Tonight the dead man's hand was good luck. No feller would bet against a man who had just escaped death.
The game broke up after that hand, but the pot was rich and I did alright for myself. Paid the barkeep
for my repast, the madame for a room, and the piano player to keep me in a right fair mood that night
with my favorite melodies. Old and timeworn, a little bit sad. The whiskey tasted better that way. I awoke
the next morn to a scraggly old face in a cracked shaving mirror. I washed myself with the water that was
already in the bowl, eased back into my empty holsters and my duster, caked with the grit of a thousand
nights sleeping rough. My old hat was beaten down and I propped the crown back up with my finger before
resting it on my head. It needed a reblocking to restore its shape but I wasn't sure it could take it. I
knew the feeling as I traded floorboards for stair steps and found myself back in a now mostly empty hall.
A couple of dancing girls smoked listlessly at the counter, the makeup and the frills gone, small town whelps
trapped on the wrong side of nowhere. The barkeep stood his vigil like no time had passed since the evening
before. I expect he was standing there polishing a glass before the place was even built and he'll be there
surveying the scene long after the town of Chapequa has returned to the earth, dust to dust.
"Got biscuits and bacon and strong black coffee if you have another two bits."
I threw a coin on the counter. Some Mexican vintage I didn't recognize. "Alright."
From the speed with which the barkeep snatched the coin into his apron I surmised I'd overpaid. The money had
come easy so I didn't mind that it spent easy too. Besides, now that I'd seen that pale rider I didn't reckon
on being around too long. The biscuits were mixed with sawdust, the bacon tasted like horse, and the coffee
didn't come from no bean. I held the cup out at the barkeep.
"You must've known from how far you rode in. There ain't a railway for a hundred miles, even wagoneers avoid
the San Velasquez desert, what with the snakes and Injuns and no a drop of sweetwater to be had. What little
we have gets packed in, by Mexicans mostly."
"Or found, on travelers what expire here in Chapequa." The girls giggled to themselves.
"We make do with what the desert gives us."
I nodded at the cup again.
"Boiled root of a plant we call Devil's Garter. About the only thing that will grow round here."
"Beautiful to look at, toxic to touch," one of the girls breathed at me.
"Boiled like this, it has a kick to it, that's all. You taste the raw flesh, through . . . been
known to drive a man to strange behavior. You get stuck out in that desert you won't have much choice."
"Most don't develop a liking for it until they been here a while. Say they can still taste the devil's sweat
in it." The girl made to take the cup from me. I drank it down in one gulp.
"I like it fine."
Something in my belly now, I proceeded to the livery. Pleased by my mount's clean coat and satiated demeanor,
I flipped the boy another one of them coins. He tipped his hat to me and then slipped the coin in the band.
With a skip and a jump he ran to his master and produced a wholly different coin from his bib pocket. The man
bit the coin and placed it in his apron. Lead in hand, the horse and I proceeded to the Sheriff's station. I
presented my claim stub and he retrieved my weapons from lockup, two pistols and a rifle. He asked me where
I was going and I said nowheres, I was expecting to be met in the desert.
"Ain't nothin to meet in the desert except death. Head you back up north. Man can make an honest living back
in the green grass. Stake out a bit of land to build a life on."
"I think a man like you understands when I say that ain't for me."
He gave me a hard look and then closed the station door.
I headed south, seeing nothing but the sun and the flat land and the town of Chapequa disappearing behind me. I
let go of the reins and simply let the horse walk. Around me the horizon shimmered and the rifle across my lap
became too hot to hold. I'd felt only a little buzz from the Devil's Garland at the saloon, but instead of
sweating it out under the sun my head was getting muzzier. The heat waves dancing at the periphery of my vision
became flames, the sky became black and I heard another set of hooves ride up beside me. I turned my head, feeling
the whole world swoon around me. I expected to see the pale rider sighting me down the barrel of his gun. Instead
I saw a massive beast, horned and red, its hooved feet clomping on the ground. Its body was that of the greatest
bull I had ever seen, but from the shoulders of the bull sprung the torso of a man.
"You keep me waiting," said the thing.
"What is a matter of days against the dark canyon of eternity?"
"Nothing," the thing said amiably as we rode along together.
"Is there a place in Hell for them what sell sawdust as biscuits and horseflesh as bacon?"
"That weren't horseflesh."
"I know it." I said, spitting. I had tasted the flesh of a man before. "It was polite to pretend."
"He has bloody vengeance burning in his heart. I placed it there."
I had nothing to say about that. The rain began then, burning liquid embers fat and wet, like all the
fireflies in the world didn't want to live anymore. I looked again at the thing.
"Sometimes I think our suffering comes not from our nature, but from our awareness of our nature and our
inability to change it."
"Is that why you let the pale rider live?"
"It is why I let him come for me." The thing stopped while my horse kept plodding. As we moved away the
embers became raindrops, the flames splashes of water upon the dry earth. Dry even in a deluge, the water
sucked deep below. My hat, my coat, my guns, and my horse were washed clean. My hands stayed dirty. Before
me the ground became rutted with tracks. Cattle and wagons and men each left their scar upon the earth, now
pooling in the rain. Before me rose up the town of Delavista. If San Velasquez could be said to have a capital,
this was it. The banditos around these parts had become so rich, robbing the armies of two countries, as well
as every mining baron and railroad tycoon who tried to connect one ocean to another, that they had become the
very genteel folk they once abhorred. They had mansions and mineral rights and grandchildren to protect now.
What was once the most lawless place in America now operated with the inflexible surety of a police state.
As I rode in a pair of uniformed men rode out to meet me. They demanded of me my business.
"None, except a warm bed and a hot meal. I'd be moving on tomorrow."
"Anything to declare?"
"No sir, I travel light, as little as possible truth be told."
"A drifter?" I showed them my change purse, fat with my recent winnings. "We'll hold onto your weapons.
You'll not need them here, you are under the protection of the Territorial Army."
"There's a pale rider who wants to kill me. He has vengeance burning in his heart."
"You can rest easy, señor. Death will not be visiting Delavista tonight."
I laughed. The men escorted me directly to the Presidential Hotel. The manager gave me a sour look that
turned sweet when I turned my purse upside down. Soon I found myself eating a lobster dinner from a
golden tray attached to the biggest bathtub I'd ever seen.
"Where do you find lobster in a desert?" I asked.
"Mayor Blanco, his family owns the ground this town sits on. Beneath it runs natural caverns farther
than any man has dared go. There are natural pools down there, underground grottos. The Blancos, they
stocked the pools decades ago. They go fishing down there, they have their own private haciendas. This
lobster, of course, was not caught by a Blanco but by one of the fishery managers down there. I have
heard they are never allowed to leave, and eventually their skin turns translucent and their eyes go
blind, like the very cavefish they tend."
I looked down at my plate and thought about how I'd eaten the horseflesh of a cowboy earlier. I wondered
what the fishflesh of one of these subterranean gamekeepers would taste like.
Outside the open window, I has been listening to the orphans across the street singing and playing games.
Now my reverie was interrupted by a man shouting and a whip cracking. The children screamed and then I
heard a woman's voice. I looked out the window to see a nun facing down a trio of vaqueros in the street.
The leader struck her with a whip and laughed cruelly. The men said something to each other but it was
lost on the wind. I leapt through the window and climbed down the trestles, my bare body still dripping
with perfumed water.
"On what account do you crack that whip?"
"On account of never you mind." The bandito sized me up. He wore white and silver from head to toe, even
the jewel in his bolero was pearl. He stood a man and a half tall. I wore nothing but the scars of my trade
and the bathwater of a presidential tub. I dripped, he twitched. With a smirk he turned away from me and
raised a thick arm to strike the nun again with the whip. I grabbed the end out of the air and yanked, the
bandito toppled over like a rockslide. His companions turned to me and crunched their bony knuckles against
their meaty palms.
"Run, señor!" the nun cried. "You do not know these men!"
"These men, Blancos I take it. Foxes in the henhouse."
The first man lunged at me with a knife, trying to stick me like a pig. A single deadly point aimed straight
at my heart. I slapped the blade aside and spun through bringing my elbow into his soft nose. He stumbled
across the street blind with pain and fell into a watering trough. The second man grinned and what few teeth
there were was gold.
"I sees you is faster than a whip and a knife. How about a bullet?" The man shot his cuffs and out slid a
holdout pistol for each hand. As he raised the first to fire I made a slow serpentine motion with my hand. When
the man fired I caught the slug in my palm. As if in a daze he raised the other pistol and I waved my other hand
in a reflection of the first. The second bullet found my second palm. I stepped towards the man and he lit off
like he was on fire. The whipman heaved to his feet. The orphans jeered and threw trash at the man. He looked at
me with murder in his eyes and skulked back into the night. I flexed my hands and the slugs fell to the ground.
The nun, she took in my naked, ravaged body and the wounded hands I held outwards and cried "Dios mio!" She took
me in the church. That night I loved a woman who had forsaken all men.
The next morning I found the whiphand and an older man waiting outside with my horse. The whiphand still had murder
in his eyes. At least that was honest. The other man was somehow awful to gaze upon, despite his fine clothes,
adorned with more silver than most folks here probably earned in a lifetime.
"Morning good sir," the awful man said, taking me by the arm. "I am Mayor Blanco. I see you have been enjoying
all of the hospitality Delavista has to offer." He gestured back at the church. The nun hugged herself and
looked away. I just about punched the Mayor right then. "It has come to my attention that there has been a
misunderstanding between yourself and my son." The whiphand spat. "By way of apology I have taken the liberty
of filling your saddlebags with all of the provisions you will need. To go somewhere else."
The saddlebags were full. The Mayor had been riding a desk too long. Any range hand would know to never touch
another man's saddle bags. I was within my rights to shoot him right there. I saw whiphand rest his giant palm
on the grip protruding out of his holster. For that matter the Mayor proudly wore a sterling silver bandolier
with two more pistolas protruding backways from the hips. It looked like today was one more day the rules
didn't apply to the Blancos. I rummaged through the saddlebags and threw the rations to the orphans. In the left
bag there was a bank sack of golden coins. I hefted it. Mayor Blanco smiled. Quick as a snake I pulled the Mayor's
pearl handled knife from his belt and stabbed the bag. My eyes never left the Mayor's, his smile never faltered.
I lifted myself up into my saddle.
"You ain't welcome in Delavista no more," the whiphand said.
"I'll be back anyway, if I hear of any more trouble for these people. Next time I'll be in a planting mood."
"My men will return your weapons when you are out of town." The Mayor slapped the flank of my horse and we were
off at a trot. I gave that unctuous face one last look. If I saw it again I'd bury it good where none in this
world would ever have to see it again. As we made our procession south, a thousand faces turned towards us.
Some from windows, some from doors, some from bushes, and some the were just there. I could see that they did
not know if I had done a good thing or a bad thing, if I were angel or demon, if I had made life in Delavista
take a turn for the better or the worse. I held the bank sack out and began trailing gold coins. Whiphand made
to grab some until I stopped him in his tracks with a steely look backwards. Now the orphans ran forward, and
the old folks, and the mothers burdened with squalling babes. Each took a coin, none more than the rest. I
looked back one last time at the nun, maybe her name had been Maria, maybe she had just been praying. I tipped
my hat to her and she blew me a kiss. I had thought about leaving the gold at the Church but I didn't want
anybody to misunderstand. I wondered if I'd left anything else behind.
If you rode south from Delavista far enough the desert became jungle and in the jungle were savages that built
pyramids and cut out still-beating hearts to sacrifice to their pagan gods. They met death with a roar and defied
death to control them. Their calendars were wheels what kept spinning. No word in the void, no judgment by hellfire.
Just a wheel what spins forever. I didn't figure on getting that far south, not with the pale rider up there on
that cracked ridge, shadow pointing right at me, accusing. I watched that shadow creep until it touched me, wrapped
around me, cast a little night in the bright endless desert. I heard the hooves behind me now, felt the pale rider's
gaze upon my neck. Was he figuring on how he was going to do it or was he just going to let events unfold? Over the
horizon came the vultures, hearing that silent siren song of death. They would feast here in this place of famine.
The click of a cocked hammer echoed through the empty air.
"That's enough. I can't let you carry on as you has been."
"The vengeance in you heart was placed there by the Devil."
"I don't care."
"I'm not making excuses but I am what I am and I done the only thing I could do."
"Taking a mama and her defenseless babes from this world, I thought you'd be cold. Unfeeling. But I
seen what you done for them orphans. Why?"
"Why'd you take mortal injury to save them orphans and yet my darlings had to die?"
"I don't decide these things, I just am what I am and I make the best of it, like anyone."
"That don't tell me why."
"Far as I know there are no whys. No big ones, anyway."
"Why don't you run when you know I'm coming for you? You got a guilty heart that hopes I catch you?"
"I don't know from guilt or fear. They just aren't in me."
"Why, then? Why you just let me ride up behind you like this. You've known I was coming a long time
and you ain't done nothing about it."
"I wondered what it would be like for a man to outlive his days. When you walked out of that killing
in Chaperqua my little experiment began. I've had the Devil nipping at my heels, but I've also known
some luck at cards, enjoyed some sad music and the loving of a saintly woman. Been about the closest
to freedom I'll ever know. I wish it could have gone on forever."
"Now that I've caught you, got you here face-to-face, I'm about to put an end to all that."
"That you are. I can't stop you and I know it. You asked why I let you catch me? It wasn't a choice."
I made a grasping motion at the pale rider and felt his soul wriggling in my grasp as his body fell to the ground.
"Death rides a slow horse."