High Noon

It was hot. Damnable hot, the Sherriff would have said. Not that Anders approved of such language, but looking at the dust that occasionally swirled in under the saloon doors, he thought it apt. He sipped at his beer and watched the man across from him fidget with his pocket watch. It was gold, the case worked with an intricate scroll. The man’s fingers were deft and made the watch walk around his palm and over the back of his hand, then into his pocket and back again. The man flipped it open and scowled at the time, as though he could cow it into changing in some way, then closed it again and resumed playing with it. Anders looked up at his eyes and the sweat beading on his forehead.

“Tell me,” Anders said.

The man across from him, Burton, was lean. His eyes showed a bit too much white and were bloodshot, but they were sharp. He sat in his chair with an ease that belied his hands, the midday heat in the saloon not fazing him. Occasionally, a patron would walk through the doors and belly up to the bar, and Burton’s eyes would follow them, tracking them like a hawk might track a mouse. His free hand hung over the back of the chair he was leaning in, his hand close to the big gun he wore on his hip. It was a Colt, like the officers wore in the War. He flipped the watch over and over in his free hand for a moment, then heaved a sigh and looked up at Anders.

“I ent crazy, so you know,” he said.

Anders shook his head. “I’m not here to make judgments, Burton.”

“Aye, ‘spose so. Still, I can’t have a man of the cloth thinking I’m crazy when what I need is absolution. Why I liked Chalmers. He ‘us a good ‘un. Listened and kept his opinions to hisself. Judge not lest ye be judged – you know that ‘un?”

Anders nodded. “I know it well,” he squashed his impatience, “What’s troubling you?”

“Didn’t used to be much of a godly man,” Burton began, “Nowadays, I believe, but I’m not sure I can forgive Him.”

Anders let a slight frown crease his forehead. “You think the Lord has wronged you?”

“Aye, but not before I wronged him.”

“So, it’s a punishment,” Anders said.

“Aye, but not as you’d think, and harsher than that, too.”

“What do you consider harsh, Burton?”

“You wouldn’t believe me,” Burton said.

Anders eyed the man and wondered if he were being strung along. He hadn’t the time to be played for a fool and didn’t cotton much to being taken for one.  Burton shifted in his chair and checked his watch again, his tongue reaching out and touching his lips tentatively. Anders thought that then again, maybe the man was simply uncomfortable telling another man what was obviously a deeply held belief. He also thought it possible the man hadn’t called him here to debate theology.

“Why did you call for me, Burt?” Anders asked.

Burton picked up his beer and took a long swallow.

“Ent never confessed before now. Figgured it might make things different. Maybe get me some forgiveness.”

“Here?” Anders asked.

He looked around. It wasn’t a booth in the church, but it was as close to private as you could get in town. The tables were spaced a fair distance apart, and the men who were there talked among themselves in low tones. It was too early for carousing, and most of the barmaids were still off shift. He leaned in, his elbows on the table as Burton nodded. Then the other man took a deep breath and began.

“I’m not a bad man, pastor. You see, I ent got nothing against nobody that ent got it coming. I ent never killed a man that didn’t need killing. Except…,” his eyes shifted to his watch, and the saloon doors.  “It ‘us the Cutler boy. Had to have been four, mebbe five years back. I was walking the boards here – back then I ‘us the night watchman. Sherriff was off in Carson, or Reno – I forget.

“Anyway, I had just made my round when I stopped at the depot – ‘usn’t much back then, just a set of rails and a saltbox. I remember the moon was big that night, and the stars were tossed across the sky like sparks when Gemmel’s hammer hits that anvil of his. The desert was quiet – seemed like sommat had scared off the coyotes, and all you could hear was that wind scraping across the desert, like a knife on stone.

“I’m ashamed to admit this, preacher, but I ‘us scared that night. The Gantry boys had been seen just a few miles west – big boys, and mean, and accused of everything that rhymes with rape and murder. So there I ‘us, smokin’ my cig and watching that sky, and I hear something behind me. Sounded like a footstep, like someone sneakin’ up, like a thief in the night.

“I called out. I says ‘Hey if you’re there, let me know.’, and they didn’t say nothin’. So, that sound comes again, and I say again, ‘Hey, let me know you’re there. I got this Colt, and I don’t wanna shoot ya.”

Anders stopped him. “Why didn’t you turn around?”

Burton’s eyes looked wet.  “I ‘us afraid. No man wants to see his end comin’, and I figgered if it were the Gantry boys, let ’em shoot me down while I was lookin’ at that sky.”

Anders nodded. “Go on, Burt.”

Burton heaved another sigh and continued. “So I calls out a third time. I says, ‘Damn it if yer gonna shoot me down, do it, ya yellowbelly.’ That sound came again, and I’d had it. If he ‘usn’t man enough to end me, I’d end him.  I drew, and spun, and shot him dead in the eye.

“Wasn’t ’til the smoke cleared that I saw what I’d done. There was the Cutler boy, dead as a doornail in the street.”

Tears rolled down his face. “‘Usn’t my fault, preacher, you gotta believe me! That boy was deaf and dumb, and prone to wanderin’.”

“What did the court say?” Anders asked.

Burton sniffed and wiped his eyes. He took another long swallow of beer and tried to get himself under control.

“They said ‘usn’t my fault. I couldn’t have known if it was a Cutler or a Gantry, and since the boy was touched, I might’ve just done him a favor.”

“You ever do anything for the family?”

“Aye, I paid for the boy’s burial.”

“How’d they take that?”

“Not well. The mother, she ‘us never a talker. Now she barely utters a word. The father, well, he’s never forgiven me.”

He seemed about to say something else, but just then the bell over the schoolhouse chimed once, loud and deep.  Burton looked down at his watch and closed it, then put it away. He stood and straightened his clothes and his gun belt then tossed a few coins on the table.

“Thanks for the time, preacher. I’ve gotta be going.”

He walked to the saloon doors and hesitated. He looked back and called to Anders.

“You should come, preacher. I might need rites.”

Anders realized what time it was. High noon. He stood and paid for his drink, then met Burton at the door.  After a moment, they walked through, Burton into the street, Anders taking up position outside the saloon doors. Outside, the sun was harsh and high and threw the world into stark relief. Dust eddied and whirled in little devils, and here and there men and women shuffled up against storefronts or into buildings, seeking shelter. A little ways down a man stood tall in the sun, his shadow long before him. He wore a gun like Burton’s and looked ready to use it. He called out.

“You ready?” The man called. Anders could just make out his features – it was the Cutler man.

Burton just nodded. They stood, frozen in readiness across from each other. Anders imagined he could see the sweat trickling down Burt’s face. He pulled a handkerchief and wiped his own. Time seemed to stretch, each moment an eternity, each eternity an infinity. Somewhere further down the road, leather on a harness creaked.

The bell tolled, true noon. The men moved in a blur, their hands reaching for iron, their fingers twitching. There was the sound of thunder, and smoke filled the air. Anders heard a body hit the ground, and when the smoke cleared, he could see it was Burton. The man lay with his pistol beside him, the iron glinting in the sun. A red pool spread from under him, turning the sand and clay to red mud. Down the street, Cutler holstered his weapon and walked away. Anders went to the dead man.

His eyes were fixed open, the pupils pinpricks. He was staring at the sky, the blue above indifferent to him. Anders reached out and closed his eyes. He checked the man’s breath with a small mirror. No mist marred its surface. He took the small Bible from his pocket and began to read.

Forgive us O Lord, as we forgive those who trespass against us -“

               A gurgling gasp beside him interrupted him. Burton sat up, his features contorted in pain. He clutched his chest, and his free hand grabbed Anders’ shoulder. His grip was painful, and his eyes frenzied.

“No forgiveness.  NO FORGIVENESS,” he wailed.

Anders fled.

 

 

 

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