Paired Prose: Desert Heart

This week’s Paired Prose prompt is “calcify!” Be sure to check out Aaron’s entry, “Stone Man.”

With a muted whisper I urged my pony down the red brown slope toward the creek rolling gently along and the haggard fugitive sipping from its waters, bent over as if in supplication to its ceaseless flow. His shaggy gray mule stood nearby, laden with a meager saddle bag. It looked up and flicked one air through the still air when it heard my pony’s hooves scuff against the ruddy earth. The mule followed us with its eyes all the way down the slope but never made a sound to alert its master.

The fugitive finally heard us halfway down the hill to the creek. He straightened quicker than I gave him credit for and reached for his gun, but I was already leveling a pistol at his back.

“Don’t,” I warned, cocking the hammer so he could hear it. Shoulders slumping, his calloused hands fell to his sides and the fight seemed to go out of him. He deflated. “Turn round so I can see you.”

The fugitive turned and faced me. Rough black whiskers covered his cheeks, and the skin of his forehead was raw and peeling from the sun. He was dressed in a worn out pair of trousers and a threadbare shirt, all of it covered in a patina of dust. When he saw how young I was he let out a dejected sigh.

“Knew someone would catch up to me sooner or later,” he said. His voice was low and hoarse, yet firm. “But shit, you’re just a boy.”

“I’m sixteen,” I said, bristling because I was the one holding the gun.

“Sixteen,” he repeated softly, as if to himself. “What would your ma say about you hunting down outlaws out here in the desert, waving that six shooter around like you’re king of creation?”

“Ain’t got a ma,” I said. “Pa neither.”

He lapsed into silence after that and we spent a moment considering one another beneath the the hot afternoon sun. It didn’t make sense for me to get scared now after trailing him out this far and getting the drop on him, but looking into his sad brown eyes spooked me all the same. There was something hard and metallic behind his defeated expression and it gave me the first fright I’d had since I left town.

“You’re wanted for murder,” I put in eventually.

“I know,” he said. “I done it, too. That’s why I ran. Last thing I want to do is hang.” He licked his chapped lips. “I ain’t gonna go quietly, kid.”

“Poster says ‘dead or alive,’” I informed him.

“Well then, I guess you know what you gotta do.”

My hand trembled. I realized now what I was afraid of. It wasn’t the fugitive, but what I had to do to him. I guess on the ride out here I never really thought he’d let me hog tie him and drag him back to town, but I hadn’t ever killed a man before and until now I’d been trying not to think about it.

He didn’t give me much time to ruminate on the issue. The fugitive’s rough hand darted for his gun and had it halfway from the holster when I let out a yell and squeezed my trigger. The hammer dropped with a crack and a violent jolt shook through my arm. The fugitive spent a bewildered second staring at the smoking barrel of my pistol before he fell face down in the dirt.

It was over just like that. I sat astride my pony looking down at his motionless body, knowing I killed him, or near enough that he’d be dead soon anyway. My first instinct was to be sick, but I choked down the bile in my throat. Somehow I knew – premonition, I guess – that this wasn’t the first outlaw I’d gun down before I was through. I felt bad for the fugitive, even if he was a murderer, but feeling bad doesn’t put food in your mouth. It seemed like hours passed by with me looking down at the corpse, trying to rationalize what I’d done, and gradually a firm shell grew out of my soft flesh and hardened around my heart like an oyster.

Eventually I got down from my pony and checked out the body – stone cold dead. Now he was just a heap of meat worth thirty-five dollars if I could drag him back to town. His beleaguered gray mule – strangest creature I ever saw – hadn’t moved an inch during the whole affair. It only brayed softly, almost sadly I thought, while I slung the fugitive over its back and tied the body to saddle so he wouldn’t slide off on the way back.

I got a drink of water from the creek before I left. It was the nicest water I ever tasted. Seemed to me as I gazed at my own reflection in the current that it wasn’t a sixteen-year-old kid looking back up at me, but some older and wearier creature altogether.

It was a long ride home. There was plenty of time to feel remorse for the killing and ask God for forgiveness, but I didn’t do any of that. Mercy and goodness don’t come with a cash reward. I didn’t ask to be born into a world like this, but I was sure as hell going to do my best to stay alive until, inevitably, I ended up dead and slung over the back of a mule myself.

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