There are three of them. Riding up the hillside in the evening, glimmering, shimmering almost imperceptibly. They think they can’t be seen or heard, but I see them. I know all about them. They don’t know I’m here. Now should be the time to do it. My powder is dry, my aim is good. I could take them all, one, two, three. Pop, pop, pop. Why should I not?
A shout. They cannot have seen me, it doesn’t even cross my mind even though my pulse quickens for a beat or two. One of their mounts has stumbled, but all is well, and they continue. The hillside casts a long shadow almost to the far side of the valley, and soon it will reach the top and the sun will be gone. Then they too will reach the top of the hillside, and they will stand out like puppets in a shadow show. That way I will know that they are all gone. Pop, pop, pop. Pop – one man’s life, Pop – one man’s life, pop – one man’s life. Each pull of the trigger erasing all of their knowledge and memories everything that they and only they could ever have known, removing them their grieving families and friends forever.
Why good? Well, why good? What does good even mean any more? There was a time, perhaps, when it meant something, a time, back in the nursery, when snatching and biting and refusing to share were so firmly proscribed by the women. But not now. Not when so much has been taken, snatched from me, stolen from me, and openly with gloating contempt. Not when violence has been done to everything I have ever worked for, to everyone I ever loved.
Did I love? Did an emotion that rich and fulfilling ever flood my mind and body?
All of the memories in my head tell me so, but the reality of it seems so hopelessly remote that it is like a dream related by another – laughably absurd, and tiringly tedious.
Was there really a woman there in my life, affection and warmth? Was that true, or is it a film I watched, a song I heard, something that maybe happened to someone else? Persuade me that it was real and I will answer you just as surely that nothing of it remains, that maybe in some way you know better than I, but that I am that same man as if none of it were true.
But even that is too generous. Of course I am different. People who don’t know the truth of these matters like to talk of scars. Scarred by his experience. They know nothing of scars or of experience. I have scars, well enough: the knife marks on my ribs from childhood scraps; the gash on my thigh where the long-haired boy bettered me just the once and it was the last thing he did; the gunshot wound which was inches from delivering my end, but they are marks on my body that declare me to be a man who won’t be wronged. Much that good that declaration will do unless I am true to them.
But experience? Experience is not a scar. It burns in my mind like a regularly fed fire, and it will not let me rest with its heat.
The girl at my feet is restless. She has seen but eight summers, and things which none should have to witness. She is not mine. At least, I did not father her, though she has become mine by proxy, the way that we wanderers nowadays fall into step together. She is convinced that I am her protector, but it was not for her that I sent Culvert’s brains out of the back of his skull when he tried to use her. No, it was not for pure moral good, either. When you know me better, you will see how ridiculous that is.
‘Ain’t no point,’ she mutters, knowing that I will not listen. ‘There’ll just be more ‘n em on the morrah.’
The three riders were harder to see as the sky went slowly orange. Any chance I had to take them earlier was gone. I would have to wait until they breasted the hill. And wait I would.
‘And then they’ll wanna know who done it. ‘n you’ll have to do them too. When’s it gonna stop? For they ain’t never going to stop, the way I figure.’
‘Quiet now,’ I say, ‘you don’t understand.’
But that was bullshit. She is right. She understands only too well for a child her age. Much too well. She knows. She’s seen it. Her pa had died mining before she was two, before she understood, but her mother and four brothers – well, easier to understand those ones, when they happened before her eyes, and she saw the way they were changed from people who loved her into carcasses by nothing more important than a man with a gun. At least the boys just got hot metal. Her mum – well, you don’t want to know. Maybe I’ll tell you when we’re better acquainted. I figure I’ll have to eventually.
‘Understand right enough. ‘f you kill ‘em now, they won’t be back. But others will. They’re ten a penny, I reckon.’
Ten a penny is treating them as treasure compared to what they really are worth. They aren’t just worthless, they are worse than that. I don’t know too much about how to make the world a better place – the whole world is mighty big – but it’s plain as day that these parts will be improved just fine by ridding us of these three.
‘Don’t it seem strange that there’s some folks as wanna kill me, like them, and some folks as wanna save me, like you, but I sure as hell can’t tell why one’s better than the other in any other way.’
For the first time, I look down from the hillside.
‘What’s all that, you crazy maid?’
‘Told you plain enough.’
She comes out with stuff like this sometimes.
‘Well if that’s the way you feel, why don’t you run after them? I’m sure they’ll love to have the company.’
She did the closest she did to a smile.
‘You know I never meant that. I don’t mean I ain’t glad of your protection, I just oftentimes wonder what’s in it for you. With you bein’ all – amoral and shit.’
‘What have I told you about that word? That’s not a word for little ladies, you hear me?’
‘Amoral? Learned it in a book’
‘It’s not natural. What kind of books they give you?’
‘True though, ain’t it? You don’t care what’s wrong or right. You care about your stuff. About your house and your woman. What they took. Just wonder why it is you care about me.’
‘Now you be quiet!’ I put my eye to the sight once more. I can see their heads just above the edge of the hill. The trees stop short of the brow, and it makes it perfect for seeing them. They didn’t know it, but they were entering the last few minutes of their lives.
Experience like a fire. Burning. Burning inside my head. A rage. Like a fire because it eats up whatever is thrown at it, even when it is nothing to do with what started it.
‘Like I said, there’ll be more ‘n em on the morrah. And they never wronged you.’
That was the bit she doesn’t understand. The bit that I hope that she will never have cause to understand. I have to wait for each one of the heads to rise fully above the brow of the hill.
I have exactly three chambers full. But I will not miss. My bullets will be guided to their homes by the sheer force of my will if nothing else.
‘Seems like you wanna kill anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knew him. I can’t count much, but that’s a lot of people.’
I ignore her. She doesn’t understand.