The air was thin and made his mouth dry as he stepped into the hot desert sand. A snake was winding and slinking down the sand dune to the left. This place was foreign to him. He could feel the burning heat of the beating sun and the scorching sand between his toes. The rolling waves of endless sand stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction, broken only by the twisted stump of a gnarled tree on the horizon. In the distant sky, an eagle was circling, screaming and screeching in the shimmering air. He watched it spiral slowly down, until it disappeared behind the dense wall of sand. The crisp dry air was tinted with the stench of burning cacti and animal flesh. He was alone here in a place that was so strange to him.
This was San Carlos jail, a small establishment with only ever as many as four prisoners, due to the high execution rates or just plain murder, in the town. This was the deep west and the prisoner knew how the town worked, he had spent the better part of his adult life here. Eugene Wakeley had been convicted of murder, accusations burned into him by his peers. He sat with his back against the cell wall, his dark hair strewn across his forehead. No one knew the town better than he did, it was a pity, he thought, that he did not know its people so well. Eugene stretched out his arms, like the jail, the cells were small and constricting. He had stood outside them a thousand times before, never dreaming that he would be sitting inside. A pungent smell wafted through the cell, Eugene shifted uncomfortably. Manure, he thought. The town stables backed onto the jail, on occasion, tales had been told of prisoners escaping that way. The stories being passed down the bar on one of the many arid desert summers. He thought of those times, laughing and drinking the days away in the saloon. Chatting to the barmaids, watching the shoot outs between the occasional dissatisfied customer.
“That smell you again Rozzo…” Eugene shot a crooked smile at his companion. “Sure smells like you.”
“At least I smell better than your brother will now…. Rotting away in the desert.” Rozzo spat. “He always was a poor excuse for family.”
Eugene glanced across at his companion.
“What did you say old man?”
“I said…” Rozzo sniffed “He always was a poor excuse for family… Couldn’t even look after his own little brother.”
“Shut up!” A heavy chunk of wood flew from Eugene’s hand. “Never speak of my brother like that again. He was a good man, much better than you’ll ever be.” He spat at his companion’s boot.
“Your brother? Your brother? Ha!” Rozzo burst out into laughter, his speckled grey beard covering his chest.
“You know you’re even uglier when you laugh Rozzo.”
Eugene turned away from him throwing another chunk of wood that had been kicked in by the horses outside. The old man began to laugh once again, as he spoke.
“Wake up! He’s not comin’ back, you should have put a bullet in his back when you had the chance. And now where is he… gone. While you’re stuck here. They have you now amigo” Rozzo laughter bellowed through the building echoing off the cold stone. “And this time you’re gonna die!”
Eugene sat back against the wall again. It was the same conversation every day. The argument could last for hours, until Rozzo shut up, whether the old man wanted to or not. Eugene didn’t exactly consider himself lucky to be stuck here with him. His name was Jeremiah Rozzo, he had killed over forty men in his day. He had been a notorious criminal in his time, the kind Eugene had read about as a little boy.
“You’re getting’ too old, go to sleep grandpa.” Eugene glared at Rozzo. He knew that it was his brother’s fault that he had become San Carlos jail’s newest inhabitant. But he also knew his brother was not a bad man, and in this town, good men were either cheated or killed. Imagining the immense midday sun beating down on his brother’s back in the desert Wilderness, he turned round enough to keep the sun out from his eyes.
“I’m gonna get out of here old man, just you wait and see…”
It had been countless days and nights since he had seen another human being. The man’s horse had been killed, and he had been exiled, left stranded in the desert with no food, very little water and only the shreds of clothes upon his back. This was the life of the lone ranger- fighting for survival. Only he was used to winning. This time the cards were stacked against him. He wiped the sweat from his eyes. He had played a fair bit of poker in his time, but never a game of life and death. He had abandoned his life and his brother when he set out for the desert, away from the glaring eyes and pointing fingers. The guilt weighed him down as much as the heat of the glistening sun. From that day, when he had been forced out of his home by high-powered bandits, the weight had been building. They had been lying in wait for him, in the desert. With nowhere to run, he had lost the fight that followed. Now the man was crawling on hopelessly, looking for anyone who might take pity on him. In this sea of danger, he was a man alone. He was not used to the loneliness, it was driving him mad. With nobody to talk to, nothing even to look at except sand. The man felt the absence of his brother Eugene greatly. The close brothers, together since Eugene had been born. He sighed, pulling out his flask, and in an instant, the last precious few drops of water were gone. The eagle circled, looking down upon him from above. To it he was a single tiny figure picking his way across the arid landscape, painfully slowly, lurching and staggering, fighting to go on. The eagle watched as the disfigured shape pitched towards the ground. It stopped, still and unmoving. The bird could sense death on the wind.
The sound of Rozzo’s snoring made its way across the room to Eugene. Pulling his poncho tightly around him, he got up, heading to the window. The stars shone their naked light on the buildings, highlighting the broken roof tiles and cracks in the stone of the walls. Eugene spotted a figure stood by the church, its hat pulled low over its face. Turning his eyes away from the man, he drew back from the window. That church carried many memories for him, he squashed his eyes tightly shut, trying to block out the thoughts of his brother.
“Damnit brother, you’ve really done it this time…”
“Talking to yourself friend?” The voice came from the shadows.
Eugene could hear breathing behind him, but this wasn’t Rozzo. The sound was different. He half turned.
“No, I don’t think so partner, the view out of the window was mighty nice. Now I know you ain't got no gun so don’t try anything or we’ll be paining this cell red.” The stranger was panting slightly, obviously he had gotten into the cell in quite a hurry.
“And what about Rozzo?” Eugene stretched his eyes to see the stranger, whilst trying to distract him with conversation.
“He wasn’t in my plans.”
“Shouldn’t you have shot me by now?” Eugene searched the room with his eyes for something to use, then he stopped. A thought was forming in his head.
The stranger flashed him a glinting smile in the darkness, there was something menacing about him. He had a single missing tooth. Stood against the wall, Eugene refused to let his mind think of how the stranger had gotten this particular injury. Eugene shuddered as the stranger kept talking.
“I am going to do you a favour…” The stranger grinned as Eugene stepped back in shock. That was the last thing he had expected to hear.
The man opened his eyes to the desert sands. How long had it been? Putting his hand to his forehead, he traced the cut there with his finger. It was healing quickly. He winced as he remembered the grin on the face of the bandit that had put it there. The man had had a crooked smile with one missing front tooth. He remembered the way the man had stood, the contempt for his victim clearly showing in his face, taking away the dignity from the exiled man. His brother Eugene lying hopelessly on the floor. He shook off the thought, to concentrate on the unrelenting desert. If only he could find the strength to go on. There should have been a town a few miles west. However, he had no way to know how far he had walked. He had hoped to find refuge there before nightfall, although that was becoming increasingly unlikely and he was getting increasingly desperate. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun and looked away through the shimmering air to the distance. He tried to tell himself that if he just kept heading west he could make it, but part of him just wanted to rest and await his almost inevitable death. He had told his brother before he left that he would be alive and well to meet him again, he didn’t want to break that promise. He crawled on ignoring the part of him that wanted to give in to the dying heat of the day. As he trudged up the golden sand dune and neared its peak, he saw an object, way into the distance. He was filled with a sense of purpose and a new lease of energy, the fight for survival. Some how he knew if only he could make it there he would be saved, and make good the promise to his brother. He trudged on under the desert sun.
In the distant west, the last breath of fading smoke made its way up from the tired chimney of a desolate building into the darkening sky. The town was on its last legs. The last person to set foot there had since left and now only the wind carrying echoes of the past, walked the dusty streets. The town was once, again alone, belonging as it did in the beginning to the desert, on the border of nowhere, surrounded by immense rolling hills and golden desert sands.
The desert was becoming greener. The hardiest of shrubs lined the man's path. For him it was the difference between life and death. Between the tiny green dust covered plants, the essence of all life in this harsh environment, and the scorching unforgiving sands beckoning him to his demise. This was not the kind of life he had envisioned for himself when he set out with his brother twelve months ago, to make money in the west. That had always been their dream, to travel west and make a fortune for themselves as business partners. Even in their childhood games, playing at cattle ranching with the other kids, playing pretend with made up shops. All had been going well, each new day saw the dollars roll in and the brothers’ future brighten. However, out in the west a man with money is a better target than most, and he had been that man. The business seemed set to go on making profits day by day providing much more than food on the table. Much more than either of the brothers had ever dreamed. However, risk was also a way of life, to live for danger, for adventure, that was the west. It had been one fateful night in his town when every thing went wrong. He never wanted to remember that night, when he had brought shame upon his brother, and himself. The temptation of riches had been too much for him and he had gambled his money, his honour and very nearly his life. Now, he was in exile, far from the place he knew, and called home and all the family he had ever had. He was alone in the wilderness, his brother Eugene more than likely dead.
The door of the old barn creaked painfully. It had been many years since anybody had bothered oiling it. In the distance, the faint rhythmic sound of weary footsteps accompanied the slow creaking door. Awakening the town for the first time since it had been left to fall into ruin. The town watched, in anticipation of the new arrival.
Starting in shock for the second time that night, Eugene could feel the cold barrel of a gun pressed against his back, another man had entered the room.
“If you wanna get out of here, stay still and keep your mouth shut.” Eugene froze, he had no idea who this was, or why they should be holding him at gunpoint in this stinking cell. The other stranger stood across the room, still smiling that terrible piano key smile. The grinning figure stepped away from the wall to join his new companion. He opened his mouth to speak.
“This is it, my pal’s arrived.” The gunman shuffled uncomfortably at his partner’s comment.
“What you been sayin’ about us Eli?” The new man’s voice rasped.
“I’ve been talkin’ to our friend here, tellin’ him why it is that we’ve come to pay him a visit… And don’t call me Eli.” He stopped smiling and shifted on his feet. “I think he’s gonna want some answers off you.” He turned away from his armed companion to face Eugene, pulling at his poncho. “You see… We knew your brother.”
“…We killed your brother,” The gunman laughed “ And you’d be amazed at how much some folks’ll pay to get rid of someone.”
“And now you’re gonna kill me?” Eugene spoke uneasily, he didn’t want to believe his brother was dead, he couldn’t. and he didn’t want to find himself dead either. He swallowed. ”Who is it that wants to get rid of me?”
“Rid of you…” The gunman rasped, “That’s up to me. ‘ They’ want you out of this town, and they’re paying me to pull it off.”
Across the room Eli chuckled, “That’s why I’m here. Elijah Redblock at your service… supervising this operation. And I think we should be leaving.” He gestured to the gunman. His companion however would not budge.
“I think it’s time Eli, for you to eat some bullet!” The gunman raised his weapon, and in a single shot, Eli sagged against the wall. Eugene stood back looking at what the other man had done, he swallowed again. Eli’s once stocky frame lay in a lump on the dusted cobble floor.
Eugene shook his head quietly. “So that’s how you get rid of your friends, personally I am mighty glad I’m not one of them.”
“You should see my enemies!” The gunman’s body shook with laughter, “I have yet to see which category you fit into.” He turned to Eugene. “Now walk!” Eugene stepped forward, the gun pressing further into his spine.
The gunman spoke once more, “Now we’re gonna go slow. So don’t try anythin’ or you’ll end up like my pal here.” Eugene took a last glance at the man.
“Who was he anyhow?”
“Eli?” The gunman paused. “He was my brother.” Eugene shuddered, the sound of the man’s words echoing into the night.
Closer The Man thought, closer. From the sand dunes, he could see the outskirts of the town with its ramshackle buildings. He could hear the creaking of a barn door on the breeze. As he looked to the town, he let a single tear fall into the sand. He had waited for what felt like forever for this moment, for the freedom from the endless exile of loneliness. The Man had never been here, yet it felt familiar. Even the smell of the dusty roads made him feel at home. His Feet were raw and blistered from the long trek, but he was happy. He had found a town, found an oasis in his desert.
Slowly Eugene and his unknown abductor edged their way out of the cell that had been keeping him captive for so long. Under the black cover of darkness, he was safe, safe from the prying eyes of the townspeople, safe from feeling ashamed of his own reflection. Yet, with each step Eugene grew more fearful. He had never been a strong character. That was his brother. Eugene was the young entrepreneur, full of ideas and incentive, but never bravery. That was why his brother had escaped the bandits, Eugene so hopeless that all he could do was watch his brother leave. Now his brother was now out there alone, probably fighting for his life, or already dead. Eugene didn’t like to think that perhaps if he had stuck with him, instead of sticking with his cowardice they both would have managed to get out safely. But Eugene knew his brother was out there, he knew that if he could find his brother he would make it up to him.
Night was falling quickly on the man. He wanted to find shelter and water in this new town. The nearest house looked in enough disrepair to be abandoned. It looked as if it had been that was for a number of years. However, it would be enough to shield him from the cold of the night. The roof had started to collapse, but it looked sturdy enough. He walked up to the house, the door creaked on its hinges, and woodworm had obviously started to set in. The whitewashed walls were dirty, covered in a layer of thick desert dust. Wiping away the cobwebs, the man took off his tattered coat, setting it up to sleep on. He walked across the terracotta floor to the window. Peering out he could just about glimpse the rolling desert plains that had been his home for the past few days. He shuddered, suddenly feeling the cold of the night. Laying down he closed his eyes, colourful thoughts swirled and danced before him, until the cold hand of sleep finally took him.
Eugene wondered for an instant, where his captor might be taking him, but he dared not ask. Thinking about it he allowed himself a small smile under the blanket of the night, anything would be better that living in that cell with Rozzo. He would not miss the old man’s snoring and even less what he had to say whilst he was awake. Despite all this, Eugene was terrified. Terrified that he might not see his brother, so alone in the desert, ever again. His captor stopped, Eugene bumping into the back of him.
“Sssssh!” The gunman gave Eugene a glare that would melt steel. “Do you want to be back in there pal, ‘cause I can arrange that.”
Eugene grimaced. “I think I’ll stick with being out here.”
“Then please be quiet. We ain’t never gonna get anywhere with those thunder feet of yours.”
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Copyright © 2003 Aidoann McCoy