“I’ve done some bad things to get here,” I admit through cracked and bleeding sunburnt lips.
The man I have chased across the desert lies captive and silent at my feet, his hands tied behind him with rope, his naked ankles cinched together with rawhide strips.
I take a sip of water from my canteen and refuse to wince as the hot metal burns the sores that have plagued my mouth for days. I distract myself with memories of her and the pain subsides, but in deference to hatred rather than love. My boot swings back, then finds its way forward in an instant, connecting with the man’s stomach. He folds in on himself and coughs blood onto the ground.
“Several months back I was a decent man. I spent weekdays behind a clerk’s desk, Saturdays with my family, and Sundays in the presence of the Almighty. A good and kindly married fellow, I was happy to be a father, content to be simple, and determined to be God-fearing. I had never so much as yelled at another man, let alone shooting one in the gut and watching him die, like I did to your brother. I shunned confrontation, hid from violence, and tempered my emotions. Modeling myself after meekness, I hoped to one day inherit the earth.” My throat dry with confession, these last words sound gritty and desperate.
I take another sip of water from my dwindling supply.
My prisoner, the father of who I have become, looks up, his eyes squinting in pain and sunlight. I move to cast some shade across his face, then ignore his pain while searching his eyes for terror. There is none. Not yet.
“But then you came and murdered the meekness, strangled the temperance, and filled my path with confrontation and vengeance,” I explain, before spitting blood and bits of burnt lip onto his cheek.
He shudders as the gob of blood, spit, and skin trails down across the bridge of his broken nose. I chuckle with dark pleasure and walk over to my horse. She is a beautiful grey that until last week carried someone else, someone now dead and unburied. I pull a small leather pouch from my saddlebag.
Returning to his side, I squat low beside him. The knife stuck in my belt fills his view, and his breath escapes in sudden bursts of panic as he struggles to turn his face away from my reach. Small clouds of dust rise with each desperate gasp. The red drool of the broken and beaten drips from his lips. I watch, a tickle of satisfaction running up my spine. Terror is rising within him, I can feel it like a warm breeze on my face.
“Ever been a father?” I ask quietly.
He stops struggling and drops his head into the dirt. Comprehension has paralyzed him.
"I'll take that for a yes." I shift my weight, and my heels dig deeper into the dust. I fumble with the leather pouch, and the soft cloth figure falls out into my hand.
She is a simple affair, hand-made from love and left over cotton scraps, her face painted on with patience and blueberry juice. Her red and white checked-gingham dress remains clean and bright, but its time inside the protective leather pouch has pressed it into wrinkles. Looking down at my daughter's doll, my eyes fill with tears.
"I don’t expect I'll ever inherit the earth; I've resigned myself to eternal hellfire with the dark sins I have committed since the day you rode into my life," I hear myself saying.
The man on the ground begins to sob. His body trembles in the dust. "Please Mister, don't kill me," he cries.
The sound of his despair is beautiful to me. Her doll rests still and soft, cradled in my left hand. I slide my right hand down to my gun.
His sobs grow louder and more wretched. I look at him; he has turned his head to face me. His eyes fill with sweet terror as they dart from mine, to my gun hand, and finally, to her doll.
Thunder rolls. I look up at the clear indigo sky. No clouds. And then I feel it, the gun in my hand, my finger on the trigger, the barrel clear of the holster.
Her doll stares up at me with those blueberry eyes.
----This short was inspired by the terribly painful sores now coating my sunburnt lips, my boyhood love of "The Sacketts" paperback book series (written by Louie L'Amour and gifted to me by my mother), and the fact that my daughter is away this week and I miss her.