Blood gurgles in the gunslinger’s throat, an awful wellspring that makes my own blood run cold. The undertakers, in dark suits and tall top hats, fight through the scrum of townsfolk clambering to rob the dead man of his good boots, his guns, his hat. They load the body into a wheelbarrow and cart it away.
I drift to the boardwalk and sit. He had pointed right at me. But why? Damn the bullet catcher for ending him before he could finish what he needed to say. The gunslinger was beaten and the bullet catcher killed him in cold blood. There comes a point when all your heroes disappoint you. And this is the first time I look at the bullet catcher and think that I might not want to be like him after all.
The bullet catcher comes over and sits beside me. He produces his sack of tobacco and pinches some into a strip of paper, licks it closed, and lights it. Drawing a lungful of smoke, he says, “You’re disturbed by what you saw today.”
“A man’s got a right to his last words.”
“He said everything he had to say.”
“He pointed at me. He looked at me so strangely.”
“No, Cub, it was only the light he saw. That same one we all see at the end. You just happened to have been standing in front of it.”
The mayor comes over, wiping sweat from his brow. His white shirt is stained under his arms. His collar is dark with sweat. “You, you . . .” he stammers, but can’t get the words out, either for fear or anger.
“Say your piece,” the bullet catcher says.
“You know what you did?” the mayor says, after a few deep breaths. “You’ve condemned us.”
“How so?” I say.
“Look around. The people are dying of thirst. I made a deal with those gunslingers for water. What do you think they’ll do when they find out one of them got killed here?”
I gaze around the street. All traces of the gunslinger have been wiped away, save for the dark bloodstain drying in the sun. Dust spins in small devils down the dry lane. The paint has been blasted clean off the storefronts and signs. At the far end of the street, near the lawman’s house, a water silo lies collapsed on its side, barren. The townsfolk huddle on the boardwalk, in the narrow shade of the storefronts. Unlike the mayor, they are terribly thin.
“Your people are better off without that kind of help,” the bullet catcher says, and flicks his cigarette into the street. “Whatever the price, it was too high.”
The mayor stands before us, slack-jawed. Then he walks away, as if in a daze. When he’s gone a few steps, he turns and says, “Even if the price were our souls, at least we’d still have our lives.”
We watch him as he wobbles down the street and disappears into the saloon. Even the bullet catcher seems shaken by his words. He quickly rolls another cigarette and starts smoking.
“Now? Now we have two options before us. We press on toward The Bruise or we run.”
“We can’t return to the mountain. Word will reach Bullet soon enough that we were here. He’ll want revenge. He’ll come looking for us.”
“Who is he? Bullet, I mean.”
The bullet catcher inhales smoke and looks at me askance. “He was just a boy when I first met him. He wanted to train as a bullet catcher. He showed promise. Great promise. He was an undisciplined student and I was a hard teacher. We were losing the war then, and I was angry and I taught him to be angry too.” He falls silent.
“Then one day he was angry enough and strong enough that he left us, but not before killing as many bullet catchers as he could.”
“He killed Nikko.”
“Yes, he killed him, too.”
“I don’t want to run. I want him dead.”
The bullet catcher nods, looking grim. He stands and looks off at the horizon, where the sun is beginning to lull in the sky. He shuts his eyes as though he doesn’t want to see whatever lies out there, beyond that line of the desert.
“It’s three days’ walk from here,” the bullet catcher says. “The desert that separates us from The Bruise rolls in high, shifting dunes. The wind is hot and relentless. It will be a difficult journey.”
“Then we better get started.”
As we walk out of Los Cazadores, the people hunkered in the shade watch us go and spit.
We bed down at the end of the second day. My muscles melt into the softness of the bedroll that never seemed so soft before. The heat coming off the bullet catcher pales the sun at midday. He’s hardly said anything since Los Cazadores. He almost seems like a different person than the man I’ve come to know. On the outside, he’s as calm as ever. But I can tell he’s angry. Sometimes he seems to hardly...