Look at the man. He is bony and ragged and his cheeks are hollow and blackened by a pepperish thin stubble because he hasn’t shaved in a long while, hard to tell how long exactly. He wears a tattered cotton shirt stained with urine coloured shapeless patches of stale sweat. The shirt is unbuttoned and opened wide, revealing his emaciated rib cage with ribs like brittle fish bones which only a fine layer of pruney skin protects from total exposure. He is alone out here in the desert and knows that if he dropped dead right this moment there wouldn’t be a solitary soul living on this earth that could come and recognise his face afterwards, after it’s been picked apart by giant birds and sand-dwelling lizards, let alone shed a tear and bury his dried-up corpse in a decent plot of earth somewhere.
But he isn’t going to die right now, the man’s telling himself with absolute conviction, even though he thought he would, just a minute before, all because just now a new hope has been born and he has his eyes on it and with the two rusty bullets left in the steel barrel of his case-hardened Colt six-shooter he is going to seize that moment and run with it, you just wait and see.
It was a good fortnight ago that they’d kidnapped him from his farm in northern New Mexico, right at the border with Arizona, and driven him all the way to Texas. They wanted to know where his sister Ellie had gone off to, seeing how she was Maxwell’s wife and that wherever she was, he was probably to be found there too. And they didn’t realise they might as well have asked someone in China about that, because the man hadn’t spoken to Ellie since God-knows-when and so he couldn’t be of any help to them. He tried telling them that, telling them the truth, but he quickly found out that wouldn’t work—he was their surest lead and he was going to give them what they needed, whether he knew it or not. They pulled out his nails and burned his tongue with cigarettes, at first, vowing to make him reveal Ellie’s location one way or another. And so he had to make something up, just to save his skin, just to survive. He talked of a house in Tucson and a shack in Albuquerque, he even said he remembered Ellie talk abut a bunker somewhere deep in Wyoming. They called his bluff each time, breaking a finger of his left hand for each lie. But then he mentioned Texas. Now Texas, for some reason, sounded reasonable to them—maybe they had suspected Texas before but didn’t let on. That way, they could test their suspicions if Texas was finally brought up. The man couldn’t be sure. All he knew is it worked, and away they went, down to El Paso.
The man blinked and felt his sticky eye lids touch one another with painful slowness. He sat down behind the rock and breathed. He was severely dehydrated and it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, being stuck in this desert, worse that having his fingernails pulled out and his ribs broken.
The thing dehydration does with you is it prevents you from forgetting, maintaining the lust for water at the centre of your field of vision every second of your waking hours. And then when you put your head down on the sandy rough ground beneath your feet (this boundless Texas desert so desolate and harrowing) and sense your mind drifting away somewhere to a place of sweet rest and blissful emptiness, after barely two minutes have passed you find yourself dreaming of water again, of vast oceans and seas and lakes and bountiful life-giving rivers and you’re awake once more, dry and solitary.
The man didn’t keep count of exactly how many days ago he’d entered the desert but it must have been weeks, weeks, years, even. Last time he spoke with anybody it was to his horse as it was dying and breathing in its ultimate breath and then when its heavy eyelids fell he knelt down in the steaming golden grains below and said a prayer for the horse, a short simple prayer made up of words that just came to his head, like God if you are watching over us please take the soul of this here horse and deliver it straight to Heaven because it’s been a faithful &good animal, so much better than the people you’ve put on this earth along with it. And then when the horse’s heart stopped beating he took out the bowie knife strapped to his diminishing waist and cut its stomach open and drank the metallic blood, all sticky and gummy like moist gelatine, because the horse hadn’t drunk any water in so long, too. And that was the last time the man drank anything at all, and he remembered to make sure he filled his belly with as much horse blood as he could take in, like a camel before a difficult journey, and he thought if he could see himself from afar he’d throw it all up.
Because the way they were going to El Paso was long and winding and neither the man nor those who took and bounded him slept at all for fear of the horses getting stolen and they were going as fast as they could. Precisely because of that they were no match for when the Indians attacked them, hollering and shooting from every direction, blood spilling and puddles of it forming on the ground. So desperate were they one of the kidnappers even untied the man and gave him a Colt revolver in the hope that he’d be more likely to help his kidnappers rather than shoot them and get scalped afterwards. And he was right that the man would do anything to escape the Indians but wrong when he thought he’d help the kidnappers who were set on murdering him too, once they found out he knew nothing about El Paso and where his sister was. So the man, having no alternative, took the revolver and managed to mount one of the horses, and, holding the gun firmly, charged forward and rode and rode, shooting like a madman, one, two, three, four, so that the Indians wouldn’t chase him, and he knew the place he was charging towards was the desert but then nobody would follow him into the desert, no one.
And now there was a lonely dried-up tree, big and tall and branchless, standing strong in the distance out there and beneath it sat a Mexican with his daughter and next to them, roped to the tree trunk, was their mule. They were eating dried berries and telling jokes and talking in Spanish, of which the man understood a few words but not too much. They had two canteens filled with water there as well, lying on the ground, wrapped in brown cow leather, and the man saw all this from behind a great wind-polished rock where he was hiding away from their gazes. The man held his Colt in two hands, the left with the fingers still twisted in all direction,and he clenched the barrel, turning it around to make sure the two cartridges were right there where he needed them, first up and ready to go.
He didn’t want to kill, he wasn’t that type, but he was prepared to shoot, if only to show that he was serious. He muttered a prayer under his breath even though his words weren’t making sense anymore and the only thing he could think of was water water water and then he stood up and walked towards the tree.
‘Hey you, get the fuck up, now,’ he said to the Mexican and the girl when he reached the tree, the skinny arm barely strong enough to hold the .45 without trembling. He needed to be serious, he knew, though inside his heart wasn’t in it. ‘Ahora, understand? Ahora, now.’
‘Is OK, is OK,’ the Mexican was mumbling, desperately, a strong paunchy guy with a black moustache and a balding scalp. ‘No dispares, no dispares por favor. No shoot, OK?’
‘I’ll shoot if you fucking make me do it,’ the man told him, pointing the Colt’s muzzle at the little girl’s head. ‘Tell her to stand up too, quick. And hold your hands up high. Hold your fucking hands up I said.’
The man turned to his daughter. ‘Carmelita, haz lo que dice el hombre por favor.’
The girl got up unwillingly, short dark ponytail swinging left to right. She glared at the man like she could kill him with her eyes. She didn’t seem scared at all.
‘Give me the water,’ the man said. ‘I’ll shoot her first if you don’t do what I say, comprendes? Go on now, throw this canteen to me.’
‘But señor please,’ the Mexican was begging him, clasping the hands like in church. ‘This is desert, please. We need water, please.’
‘Do what the fuck I say or I shoot her through the head, alright? Now throw the canteen over to me. I don’t want to do it but if you force me to, I’ll do it.’
The Mexican did as he was told and the man opened the canteen and drank from it with voluptuous pleasure, sweet sweet water streaming into his hungry throat, but then the canteen turned out to be only half-full and so he told the Mexican to toss him the other one, and that one he drank just a third of, letting some of the water flow down his cheeks and even onto his shirt. All the while, with the other hand, he kept on aiming the Colt at the girl’s forehead, standing maybe five feet away from her.
The next thing the man wanted to do was take their mule. That’s all, just take the mule and leave because he saw the mule carried some food tied to it in cotton bags and he just wished he could disappear with it all and eat their food somewhere safe. He thought that the Mexican knew the desert well and would manage to escape anyway, even without the mule, and that he’d have his conscience clean.
But when he told them he was going to take the mule and leave, and when he stepped forward to untie the animal from the tree, the man saw the Mexican lower his right hand and place it on his hip and what he saw there, in the space between his stomach and trousers, was a Colt .45 revolver, just like his own.The daughter saw all that too, and she jumped forward forcefully to prevent the man from shooting her father but it was too late for that, the man’s bullet had already pierced through the Mexican’s chest and hot blood was oozing from an invisible hole below his heart, darkening his shirt in waves, like black water. The next moment more blood gushed forth from the Mexican’s mouth and he opened his eyes so wide his eyeballs almost popped out, in shock, after which he fell down with a loud thud, his blood mixing with the sand of the desert where he lay.
‘Fuck!’ the man yelled out. ‘You stupid fucking bastard, why did you have to do this, you bastard, you bastard!’ He held his hands to his cheeks.
Down on the ground, clenching her father’s unresponsive hand, the little girl sat weeping, showing emotions for the first time.
‘My God, my fucking God, what the hell did I do, what the hell…’ the man was going on to himself, pacing around deliriously and irregularly but then, all of a sudden, he stopped. He’d heard a sound of metal clinking and looked down rapidly. ‘Shit, no no no no no.’
He knelt and touched the ground. He had accidentally knocked over the second canteen and the water had spilled from it and was already getting soaked in by the famished Texan desert. ‘Please, God, oh God,’ the man lamented, tears in his eyes, inspecting the canteen and seeing that it was indeed absolutely empty, not a drop left.
The little girl crawled over to the man and stared at the ground where the canteen lay and where a dark stain was still visible from when the water had spilled. In a few more seconds, the stain vanished completely. The girl’s uncertain eyes were like pebbles or coals. The man peered into those eyes and they seemed to him like a black sky with no star on it, and for a moment he thought he saw in them Hell and Heaven and everything that mattered in this world, united somewhere there.
The man held the revolver in his crippled left hand and he was pressing his palms to his eyes, wiping away the tears that wouldn’t stop flowing. He glanced at the mule to his right, unperturbed and primitive such as animals of its kind always were, and then to his left where the girl sat motionlessly, not even murmuring a prayer for her late father, waiting patiently for what was to come next. The man leaned his back on the lonely tree and looked at the corpse in front of him, the dead man of whom he had just rid this unjust world. The tears still wouldn’t stop flowing.
The man remained paralysed for a couple of minutes, unable to gather his thoughts, and then he suddenly jumped to his feet and clasped the little Mexican girl by her shoulders, staring her right in the eye.
‘Listen,’ he was saying with a mind suddenly clear, though unsure if the girl even understood a single word that left his mouth. ‘Listen. Take this mule, understand, take it, take it now. Go right there where I point you to, yes, see, and don’t stop going. You gotta keep going, si? Don’t ever stop and don’t eat the food all at once, you gotta ration it, ration it carefully even if you’re very very hungry, yes? Nod your head if you understand.’
The girl was nodding vigorously but her gaze was unfocused and lost.
‘Just keep going straight,’ the man went on.‘That way as far as your legs take you. Three days should get you to somewhere, ok?’ He didn’t know why he seemed so sure of that claim but it seemed that it must have been true.‘Just walk on until you see someone and you gotta keep going straight and never turn. You might reach Galveston in three days if you don’t stop.’
The man gathered up all the strength left in his shrinking muscles and he put the girl on the back of the mule which he had untied and then hit on the side with his fist so it would start marching and take her away. The girl didn’t say a single word throughout, just as though she wasn’t able to believe all this could be happening in the real world, just as though she was still thinking about joking around with her father, eating dried berries under that big tree in the middle of the desert.
After a while, the girl and the mule were so far away they seemed like a lonely bird far on the horizon. And the tears still wouldn’t stop flowing.
The man waited until there was nothing but silence in his mind, then he stood up with his back to the tree, buttoned up his tattered shirt, and looked into the barrel of his .45 Colt, face to face with the last remaining bullet.