The Return Of The West
A Man Came Walking...
Bevis Neadle picks up his phone and checks the local public alerts. The main one today is an excessive heat warning, cautioning temperatures in excess of 108 Fahrenheit, worse deeper into the desert with no cloud coverage and minimal winds to carry the heat away. The alert has been active for two days, and warns of a further four to come before some kind of relief; those who can are advised to remain sheltered from the sun, and hydrate with a steady of supply of water, avoiding salty foods. Bevis’ AC is running full kilter, and still when he sits he can feel drops of sweat beading down his face. The water from his taps comes out lukewarm at best, and is unpleasant and un-refreshing to drink, but he drinks anyway, sometimes filling up a few glasses and setting them in his fridge for an hour or two just to have some cool water in the house. His dog has not moved from in front of the unit, and Bevis had had to move the food and water bowl closer to his spot so that he would eat and drink. The curtains are all drawn to block sunlight from entering the house, and he moved his pillow downstairs two nights previous to sleep on the cooler wooden floor of the living room, no blanket required.
With all this in mind, Bevis picks up his binoculars and looks out of the back window to watch the lone figure currently walking at a steady pace out of the desert towards his house. He has no idea who the man is, dressed in slacks, boots, shirt, vest, and a ragged but impressive hat, and Bevis can see from here the distinct shape of a pistol hanging on the figure’s hip, but he is sure the man should be dead. Bevis noticed him this morning, waking up as the heat began to rise and made sleep too uncomfortable to be possible, but he had been a distant blur dismissed as mirage then. Over the course of the day Bevis had kept checking though, and when the blur gained a solid outline, he knew it was no mirage. Someone was walking out of the desert in near-120 degree heat.
Bevis went out to greet him at 8PM, some 100-odd metres from his property line. This close he didn’t need the binoculars, and he could see the man was covered in dirt and sand, sweat staining his clothes and his boots covered in dust kicked up by the desert winds and his own feet. He looked old - not age wise, just not of the modern era - his garments battered and worn and not like any contemporary fashion Bevis knew about, simple but sturdy in their construction. He looked like a cowboy from the old stories. His face was...his face was a mess. Bevis averted his eyes as he called out to the man. He was nervous, knowing something unnatural was at play but not wanting to acknowledge or address it. The cowboy had long since spotted him, and came to a halt at Bevis’ fence, resting a single hand on the gate. Bevis allowed himself to be reassured by his rifle, leaning against the wall of his house just behind him.
“H-hello there, stranger!” Bevis began. The cowboy regarded him through his one good eye. “Been watchin’ you most the day. You come a long way there.”
The cowboy snorted and spat at the ground, Bevis glancing at how the horrific disfigurement stretched up and beyond his mangled ear as he turned his head.
“Might I ask where you’ve come from?”
The question hung in the air.
“The grave.” The cowboy’s voice was deep, gravelly. He spoke with a survivor’s grit. Bevis processed the answer and decided to discard it.
“Then you’re lookin’ pretty fine all considered. You need water?”
“I ain’t thirsty.”
Bevis swallowed, his throat dry. The whole situation was wrong, but his mind rebelled against the knowledge.
“Ain’t hungry neither.”
“Where you headed?”
“To find some answers.”
Bevis was close to officially checking out of the entire circumstance. He eyed the pistol on the cowboy’s hip. The cowboy noticed.
“Ain’t got no reason to draw ‘less you give me one.”
“I ain’t lookin’ to give you one.”
“Then I reckon we gon’ be just swell.”
The cowboy lingered at the gate, surveying the landscape ahead of him beyond Bevis’ small house.
“We in Arizona?” He asked. Bevis stuttered, befuddled by the question.
“Then if you would be so kind as to point me in the direction of Armadilla, I would tip my hat in gratitude and be on my way.”
“We are in Arizona?”
“Y-yes, but there ain’t no Armadilla ‘round here.”
Bevis just nodded. The cowboy sighed.
“Then if you just point me toward the closest drinkin’ town, I’ll make do.”
“Just tell me where in the goddamn hell I can get some liquor, boy!”
Bevis jumped at the cowboy’s sudden shouting, and took a step back towards his rifle. The cowboy slowly laid a hand on his holster.
“A-Ajo town’s 30 miles. T-Tucson’s another hundred after that.” He finally spat out, his voice shaking.
The cowboy nodded, removing his hand from his gun to tip his hat. “Then I hope Ajo’s got a reputable whiskey-slinging establishment.” He said, letting go of the fence and beginning to walk again.
Bevis watched him go, not moving from his porch as the cowboy slowly and steadily disappeared from view over the horizon, never wavering in his gait. When the sun had finally gone down, and the cowboy was completely lost from view, Bevis went back inside, drunk directly from the tap, wiped himself down, then fainted.
The sun was rising as Jonah walked past the first residences of Ajo, Arizona, and when his boots went from sand to the asphalt of the road, he stopped, and looked down. He’d seen brick roads and cobbled streets in his day, even seen a few buildings made from cement, but this was strange. He brushed a hand across the surface of the road and found it to be coarse; cracks ran deep, and where he’d brushed the desert dust aside it was deep black. He’d never seen anything like it, and while it was harder than the sand it felt smoother, stabler to walk on.
“Hmm. Alright.” He muttered quietly to himself, before standing again and surveying his surroundings. The houses around him were small and one-storey, with smooth, single-colour walls. Nearly all of them had chain link fences, and the one that didn’t had a fancy-looking mix of brick and iron that looked very out-of-place against the desert and its neighbours. A few houses had next to them what looked like second houses, but with wheels, and some kind of cabin at the front. Jonah didn’t want to think about that just yet.
Instead, he walked to the nearby intersection where the roads converged and looked down each street, checking the houses on either side for where the buildings became more frequent and better-repaired; that would lead to the town’s main street, and hopefully a saloon. It was quiet, save the desert winds pushing the sand along the ground. A small pack of coyotes trotted a little ways down the road, sniffing around but not finding anything. Jonah watched as one got up on its hind legs against a large metal bin and used its nose to push the top off; the crash-clang of the lid on the road spooked the pack and they all ran. Bright light sprung from the windows of the house; Jonah could hear movement from within, and quickly moved on, not looking for any unpleasantries with the locals. He followed the road, heading further into town.
From an alleyway Jonah heard someone tumbling to the ground, swearing and hitting metal. He investigated; a man stumbled to his feet, leaning on a large metal container to steady himself, and then threw back a swig from the bottle in his other hand. The man went to move, then tripped over himself again, and hit the ground hard. The bottle rolled away towards Jonah, and he stopped it beneath his boot. He picked it up, inspecting the label - ‘beer’ was about the only word amidst the barrage of adjectives that felt both familiar and necessary - and slowly approached the man, who had given up on getting up, and had merely rolled himself over to sit up against the container he had previously steadied himself on. Jonah handed the drunk the bottle, and then crouched down next to him.
“Son, you are just full as a tick.”
The drunk looked at Jonah and squinted, taking another swig of his beer bottle. He slurred his words.
“I ain’t no bug.”
Jonah raised an eyebrow. “I mean you’re drunk, boy.”
“Now...to THAT I raise a toast..!” The drunk swigged again and emptied the bottle, tossing it aside. He looked Jonah up and down. “You’re funny-lookin’, mister. Just roll in from the wild west?”
“I’m gonna let that slide on account of your being roostered, and ask you to point me in the direction of a saloon.”
?” The drunk guffawed, hiccuping between laughs. “You really are a rootin-tootin cowboy, man! Yeehaw, ride ‘em!” He laughed again, and Jonah hung his head and sighed in frustration. He carefully undid the clasp on his holster and brought the barrel of his pistol up into the drunk’s chin. The drunk stopped laughing pretty quick, then.
“Listen here, ya damn drunk mudsill. I have had a long, dry
, few days, and I would much care for a quiet place to bend my elbow and make sense’a what the hell’s goin’ on. Now I need you to understand you have woken up the wrong passenger, and you are gonna tell me where I can wet my whistle, or I am gonna knock galley west before I empty my six.” Jonah leaned forwards, his face coming into the light of the moon. The drunk whimpered as he eyed Jonah’s scars.
“Wha-what happened to your f-face…?”
Jonah cocked the hammer back on his pistol.
“Turn left at the end and 3 doors down! Jessie’s! It’s a dive, but it’s open 24 hours!”
Jonah nodded and holstered his pistol. The drunk sighed in relief, then gasped when Jonah instead reeled back and struck him across the jaw. He slumped over, out cold, and Jonah walked away following the directions.
Jonah found the bar quickly enough. He opened the door carefully but with purpose, and stood in the half-shadow of the doorway, the electric bulbs illuminating his front and the moonlight shining on his back. The bar was mostly empty, one or two patrons already collapsed across their table, sound asleep and snoring, and there was a single disinterested bartender at the far end. The bartender idly picked at her mouth with a toothpick, barely even glancing at the open door where Jonah stood. Jonah took two steps in, his boots landing heavy on the wooden floor and spurs clinking, and let the door swing shut behind him. The bartender looked up properly this time, and furrowed her brow as Jonah approached the counter. They eyed each other as Jonah stood silently. The bartender consciously ignored Jonah’s scars and odd getup. She’d seen enough to know what not to ask about.
After a beat, Jonah sat down.
The bartender turned wordlessly, selecting a bottle of something brown and unlabelled from the shelf and pouring a single shot out. Jonah took the glass and the shot quickly, showing no reaction.
Same again. Jonah drank it like water.
“Just take the bottle. I ain’t standin’ here and pourin’ it out for you eighteen times in a row. I’m busy enough.”
Jonah took a look around the bar. The fella in the booth had slicked the table with drool. Jonah nudged the fella at the bar next to him with his boot, and got only a snorting start before he returned to snoring.
“Yeah...flush off yer feet.” He replied, taking the bottle all the same and pouring another drink.
“You know what day it is?”
“Ma’am, I’m at sea to know even what year it is.”
“Saturday. Early hours of, in fact. Which means the night worker boys will be here soon, and then I will
Jonah nodded, staring ahead, taking his fourth drink.
“Three dollars a drink, by the way, so the math is on you.”
Jonah almost spat out the liquor in shock.
“Three dollars for this damn swill? I said cheap!”
The bartender eyed Jonah quizzically.
“That’s the cheapest shit I got, and I ain’t even waterin’ it down.”
“Don’t reckon there’d be any whisky left if you did…” Jonah muttered, picking up the bottle and looking at it through the light. Same colour as piss, he thought. Even still, he’d had worse. Jonah reached for his pocket and seized what money he had, pulling it out and slamming it down palm-first on the counter. The sleeper next to him jumped, waking and frowning, but returned to sleeping quick enough. Jonah removed his hand to reveal his net worth.
“Two dollars?” The bartender asked, disbelief in her voice. Jonah considered the coins, the silver dull and dirty. Sand speckled the dark wood of the bar.
“Two dollars.” Jonah confirmed. The bartender sighed. She picked a coin up and turned it in her hands.
“Wait a minute...these are old. Really
old. Does this say 1820?” She spoke in an excited, but hushed tone. Jonah looked at the other coin before dropping it back on the counter.
“Reckon it does.”
The bartender raised both of her eyebrows.
“Just where the hell are you from, mister.”
“Uh-huh, sure thing, sure, so just how the hell did you end up in a shitty dive bar in the middle-of-nowhere Arizona looking like a damn gunslinger with 200-year-old coins jingling around in your damn pocket?”
Jonah shrugged, taking another drink, this time forgoing the glass to swig directly from the bottle.
The bartender growled in frustration and put her head in her hands. Jonah watched her, faintly amused.
“Alright, look,” she finally said, a tone of finality in her voice, “here’s the picture. Some stranger, dressed up to the nines in his cowboy best, gravelly-voiced and battle-scarred, walks in to my bar covered in sand and sweat at god-knows in the damn morning. He doesn’t ask for water, or for food, he just wants the cheapest liquor I can give him, and then he pounds the bottle like a alky vet and then tries to pay for a 3-dollar drink with 2 silvers, both of which are worth over a grand, and yet he has no idea that they’re as valuable as they are. Then he says he walked across six states. Walked.
Jonah leaned back, swallowing the image.
“That is about the all of it.” He concluded.
“You got anywhere you’re staying?”
Jonah shook his head.
“Alright. I’ll take these coins as payment, and you can drink whatever you want to drink. And I’ve got a room too. But if you’re gonna stay, you do me a favor first.”
Jonah finally chuckled slightly, though when he spoke, his voice was cold as the grave.
“Been a long time since I worked for free.”
“We’ll split what I get for the coins, then. Either way, if you need a room, I’m the only option, and I need something done.”
Jonah regarded her through his good eye.