The streets of Hell Gate were laid out like the trails of my life, and I’d lived it as one blundering through heavy undergrowth at night scaring up would-be gunmen eager to make their name and brag of murder or righteous vengeance. This night soon turned darkest of all.
When I rode in on the dun mare, I wanted only a sizzling steak and a silent whiskey, to give me rest on a mattress that wasn’t sand. The dun mare, though, was notable, what with the brown stripe connecting mane and tail along her pale back. The young cowboy knew her before I knew him.
Looking to make his name by my death, he drew down on me right then with nary a warning shout.
Why didn’t I let him carve his initials on Devil’s Rock? If he lived long enough he’d learn how time eroded them all. His trigger finger might as well write in sand and watch the winds wipe them out. If he’d wanted glory, he’d have done better to’ve stayed home, gone to meetings, sung his Hallelujahs.
I was weary of his kind. “Stop and —” I wanted him to bethink himself, but we were out of time. His weapon slid out of its holster smooth as a snake on oil.
Before its single eye could find my heart, some instinct of self-preservation warring against desire acted before the gun cleared, and another young fellow no more’n twenty-one stared inward, surprised at his fading light.
I asked his friends, “Why’d this boy waste his life? No one will remember me. No one will recall if he or another had been the one who killed me.” Their answers left me on the ground, and I let my questions drift away, lost among all my other “Why’s.”
The law must have been fairly close to have heard the shot and come so quick at a jog, but the weight of him had him puffing. “Who fired first?” he asked.
They told the truth, and their confession made him shake his head. “Self-defense.”
He gave me a hand to rise, and I was free to go.
Maybe I would have ridden away, but I needed that steak, and the whiskey more. The dun was tired so I stabled her, paid long in advance for her keep, and set out to locate an eating house that served decent scotch.
Dusk thickened toward night as I wandered through wrong turns amid gleams of lamplight flickering from upper windows. The .45 weighed heavy on my hip. When I heard my foot slosh in its boot though the ground was dry, I knew he’d shot me after all. I pushed through heavy air loaded with rotgut and lonesomeness, the odors of sin and despair.
When I turned yet another corner, six men shuffled toward me, humming a mournful cadence to a dirge of clashing disharmony. They carried the young cowboy I’d killed, now wrapped in a grey and splattered sheet and lying as still as could be.
I held my hat over my heart and stood aside to leave the bearers’ way clear. If I’d had the words to express regret, they would have come too late.
When the second pair drew even with my hat, the cowboy raised a bloodless hand, and the procession came to a stop. Perhaps he spoke, or maybe I only wished he lived to absolve me of my guilt.
“Mister, let that pistol go. You’ve used it many times, and now I’m one too far. If you wait until tomorrow, you’ll follow where I’m bound ─”
Where? The question lay in my mind unspoken.
“─ to join an infernal cattle drive and chase an ungodly stampede.”
What he wanted was, I thought, too much to ask of me, for I was bound to meet another one on some not distant day. “I can’t take off the gun,” I said. “You of all men should know I’m alive because I’m quick. If I take it off, I’ll die.”
“Come daylight, then, they’ll find you, and no one will play you a dead march. Sure as living ends, you’ll join me on that devil’s drive. We’ll race forever through canyons of anvil clouds, our horses’ hooves striking sparks that set the sky aflame, and never amid that awful fire will our parched lips taste the rain.”
Humming their discordant song, the bearers lifted each a foot, intent to step ahead as if time pressed them onward. Their boots hit the ground in the beat of a muffled drum. When they would have passed me by, he seized my arm in a fierce, chill grip.
“You took a wrong turn a few streets back,” he whispered.
“Let go.” I pulled against his grasp. “I’ll find my own way back to where I’m going.”
“Not like you are now. This alley has just one way out, and it’s where they’re taking me.” The mourners, standing, hummed their dreadful tune that rose in volume, a distant thunder drawing near. The cowboy’s voice was fading, though I could hear him plain: “You could still have tomorrows.”
Then I knew what I’d done, for he showed me plain.
Robbing him of life, I’d stolen all his might-have-been. If I asked one thing of him, though, for a mercy he might yet be pardoned from his eternal ride.
The bearers’ jangled dirge faded to an echo along the edges of the night, and before it died away, I knew I’d soon be riding on that cattle drive without him as my due.
Then he said, “I forgive you. And may God forgive me, for drawing on you first.”
Laying my hand on his shoulder, I said, “There’s no more murder in me.”
His hand let go my arm and dropped on the pallet. A smile lighted his face. “Carry me home,” he ordered the bearers. They set out walking, a softness in their step, and their dirge became music that resembled an old camp meeting song, though I couldn’t name the tune and didn’t know the words.
A breeze swept through the alley, drove out all the stink. A moonbeam emerging from the clouds shone on a blank, brick wall. I walked toward it, not knowing why. I’d passed it on my way perhaps a dozen times in my search to find a way out. This was a fruitless errand, but something pressing against my back urged me on. As I came close enough, almost, to touch the wall, a pulsing brightness outlined a door I hadn’t seen ere now. The light swelled and faded as though keeping time to the music of countless voices singing, blending together into a harmony like sunshine on a flowing stream.
How I knew, I can’t say, but my choice was clear as light. If I dropped the gun and belt, I’d walk free through that door. If I tried to wear it, there would only be a wall, and I’d have only one way out — borne by those same six bearers.
The sloshing in my boot, the bruises on my side no longer gave me pain as I laid hold of belt and buckle, pulled them free, and let them drop in the dirt.