On a wind-battered ridge overlooking a great plain, there stood a single-room cabin built from pine. In this home lived a dying man on the far side of his life, with white hair slicked back over his scalp and dry wrinkled hands lined with ridges and grooves. His eyes had lost their shine but not their focus, and his knees cracked like twigs when he stood to draw the windows shut each night.
On the small table near his bed lay an old grey revolver wrapped in its holster and belt, coated in nearly a dozen year’s worth of thick silver dust. The chamber still loaded with shells as old as the house itself. Sometimes he would watch it lay there as he waited for sleep to overcome him, remembering time spent and lost. Achievements and regrets. But he would never touch it; would not blow away the cobwebs and the dust. Not yet.
From sunrise to noon he would spend time on his porch, tipping back and forth in a rocker he’d built for himself years before. His bones and the chair would creak together in tandem as he gazed across the dirt and grass that spread out for miles before him. A silent watcher slowly approaching the final vigil.
It was during one of these mornings that a young man approached the cabin on foot. Each step gave rise to a small cloud of dirt which had stained his pants with a tan hue up to the knees. His black hair stuck to his forehead in shiny, sweaty strands and his smooth, taut fingers were hooked into the belt around his waist. Though the old man’s ears were only half of what they used to be, the wind helped him hear the man approaching from nearly a half mile away; the whistled tune of Yankee Doodle being carried by a gentle breeze.
The old one didn’t turn to face the stranger until he’d reached the bottom step of his porch, where he stood and waited, weight shifted back onto the heel of his right foot. Two Colt 1851 Navy revolvers hung off either leg, the same model that rested on the nightstand inside the old man’s cabin. The stranger waited a moment for the old man to speak, but he did not.
“Greetin’s,” the stranger said at last.
The older man watched the younger one like he was just another one of the many birds and rabbits that sometimes scurried past the same spot. He neither smiled nor frowned.
“You ol’ Smith Sunderson?” the young man asked.
The older one remained silent a moment longer as he sized up the visitor; deciding that he was no more than twenty years of age. He continued his slow rock and drew a deep breath, his chest quivering a bit as he did so, but neither man seemed to notice.
“Might be,” he said, speaking as he exhaled. “Who’r you?”
“They call me Paul Robinson.”
There was a brief moment of silence, each man studying the other with a varying degree of interest. Finally the old man turned his gaze back to the plain before him.
“Whad’you want, boy?”
“I’as just lookin to talk.”
No answer, but the young man continued undeterred.
“They say you killed Red Bear and his whole crew in the time it took them to even touch their guns. Thirteen fellas.”
He waited for input from the old man, but again received none.
“They say you once freed an innocent man from the gallows, right when his feet came out below’im. Shot the rope from a hundred yards far. They also say you held off a tribe of Apache all by your lonesome. Kept your wits and your life for a whole day before they finally ran off.” He scoffed. “They even say you can shoot another man’s shot outta’ the air and tend to summon lightning when you take a piss.”
A sliver of a smile crept over the old man’s face, unseen by the boy; the first in a long, long time.
“The last might be true” he commented quietly.
Paul didn’t seem to hear the comment.
“I could walk from here in any direction for two hundred miles, spoutin’ yer name, and even the damn children would know it. Smith Sunderson, the legend. The watcher.”
“I don’t watch nothin no more, ‘cept this patch o’ dirt.” He nodded toward the flat plain beyond the ridge. “It seems to be doin’ just fine.”
Paul glanced briefly at the plain, then the cotton-ball clouds hovering above it. He then drew out the gun on his left leg, slowly, and without pointing it anywhere near the cabin. He cradled it between both hands and inspected the handle, the barrel, the grooves around the cylinder...
“I have a problem Mr. Sunderson, and I was thinkin’ you might help me. There’s this man-”
“And you want me to help you kill him?”
Paul looked up, his surprise showing. “That’s right. I thought you might teach me something. Help me take him in a fair fight.”
He finally put the gun back in its holster, not sure why he had been holding it.
“I don’t want to be no coward; shoot him in the back or some other yellow-bellied shit. I want him to know me.”
The old man was not hesitant with his answer. He did not question who the man was or what he had done to deserve such a sentence, but he could tell this young man really meant to kill him. Needed to kill him, and would try whether he helped him or not.
“Fine,” he said. “Come back tomorrow.”
The young man lingered for a moment, perhaps unsure if there was anything else to be said or perhaps surprised at how quickly the old man had offered to help. It was probably a bit of both.
The old man watched as the younger as he turned and left the way he had come.
Paul Robinson returned a few hours after dawn, and the old man was waiting. He sat in his rocker, and for all Paul Robinson knew, he hadn’t left it since yesterday.
But he wasted no time.
“Show me yur draw.”
Robinson dropped both hands to his hips, wrapped his fingers around both handles and flicked the barrels up and out of their cracked leather holsters. To anyone other than Smith Sunderson, the draw was quick. He frowned.
“Lose one of those guns, buckshot. A man only needs one.”
Robinson returned both weapons to rest, but not before a short twirl of each weapon by the trigger guard.
“Cut that bullshit too, boy, or you’ll blow yur chin off.”
The younger looked up to the older as though he meant to say something, but caught himself. Reluctantly, he removed the gun and holster hanging over his left thigh. The trousers beneath had a hard fade-line left over from the hot desert sun, leaving a dark blue shadow of the holster.
The old man reached into his shirt pocket and brought out a red-brown stone. He held it up over his lap at chin-height.
“I’m gonna let go this stone. Draw out your gun before it hits my leg.”
The younger rested his hand on the butt of his remaining gun. It was a subtle movement, but the hawk in the rocker was forever a marksman.
“Hand at your side,” he grumbled.
The hand fell away.
A few heartbeats later the stone dropped. The boy managed to get his finger around the handle before the stone made a soft pfft against Sunderson’s trousers. His gaze was disapproving.
“Don’t come back ‘til you can draw so fast.”
Robinson’s mouth crept open once more, flustered.
“How? How’em I spose to do that?”
Lessons such as this continued for weeks.
Robinson returned to the cabin six days after the draw-test to prove that his hand was fast enough. It was, but just barely. The old man only let them continue after displaying repeated success, which took Robinson most of the day to complete.
The next lesson focused on the eye. Sunderson would find something on the vast plain below the ridge with his hunter’s gaze, something far and minute, and ask the boy to find and describe it in further detail.
A brief pause as the boy searched.
“Broken. In a patch of wildflowers. They’re small and white.”
“I don’t know flowers.”
“What’s the sign say?”
It was nearly a mile away. He squinted.
The old man nodded.
Two more weeks passed before Sunderson instructed the boy to fire his gun.
He had walked out to the broken sign post on the plains one day while Robinson had been away practicing. He drove a nail into the top of the post, which took him a great deal longer than it should have, he thought, and pinned one of the white wildflowers to it. The walk back took twice as long, an hour perhaps, and he collapsed into his chair. His knees and ankles throbbed and put him in a sour mood. Not grumpy, but angry. Angry at his body for growing old.
When Robinson came the next day, he demonstrated his ability to reload his gun with unparralled speed. The motion was graceful and fluid, like a flag in a gentle breeze. It was the first thing about the boy to impress Smith Sunderson, but he gave no compliment.
Instead he moved on to the next lesson.
“There’s a flower on that beaten sign,” he said, his voice dry and with a slight gesture of his head, “Hit it.”
The younger stepped up onto the porch alongside the old man and his rocker. It was the first time he had ever done so, and he didn’t know why he had chose to do it now. Perhaps he had seen through the old man’s stoic mask; had seen the surprise dancing at the corners of his eyes as he watched him feed bullets into the chambers of his gun, graceful as a flame.
He brought up his weapon, leveled it with his eye, took a deep breath and fired. It took the bullet a couple seconds to strike the ground just a few feet away from the sign, behind and a little to the right of it. The impact left a small breath of dust that soon faded on the breeze.
There was some instruction from the old man, brief as usual, and the boy lifted his gun once more.
This time the bullet struck the base of the sign. The wood was old and dry, and the shot splintered it to pieces. It fell over silently, briefly leaving another dry cloud of dust in its place.
The old man’s eye remained on the broken post as he spoke.
“Fix it. Then come back when you can shoot straight.”
“It was already broken.”
He turned his head.
“Don’t get curt with me, boy. You read it damn well enough a bit ago. What makes you think some lost hopefuls haven’t as well? I won’ have no scraggly vagabonds come knockin looking for directions and a cup of my coffee. Fix it.”
It was the longest thing the boy had heard him say, which was reason enough to abide.
That night, Smith Sunderson lay in his bed with the sheets pulled to his chin, both anxious and afraid. He watched the moonlight slowly creep across the gun on his bed-side table, wrapped in its holster and ammo belt thick with rounds.
He thought of days long past, when he had been a symbol of a sort for the local people. It hadn’t just been the children who had called him a hero. The smiling faces, the thanks-yous and gracious dinners were easy to remember, but those were not the things he missed so dearly.
He longed for the excitement. The thrill of a good exchange of hot lead between two tough sons-o-bitches. Things that got his blood running so hot he thought it might be a relief to just take a bullet and let a bit drain out, if only to cool off for a moment.
But those feelings were hard to grasp anymore, especially when it had been so long since he’d last felt the weight of a gun in his hand and a life on his conscious.
He knew his time was coming to a close, but he could not stand the thought of dying an old man’s death, taken in sleep by night or in sickness by day. He wanted the death of a man in his prime, by a blazing bullet or a twirling tomahawk. A left hook to his temple or a knife to the heart, face to face with another man who secretly yearned for the same.
When he finally succumbed to sleep, he dreamed of a glorious end fit for a hero.
Paul Robinson did not return to the cabin for a week, but came while the old man was chopping wood, his swings far between. The boy did not speak, but began stacking the wood into a pile near the house. As to where the old man had gotten the wood, he could not guess.
When he had finished, the old man laid the ax against the woodpile and hobbled to his rocker. His back creaked with age just as the chair did; just as it had every day for many years.
“Think you can shoot straight?” he asked.
The younger nodded.
Paul Robinson turned his body to face the ridge, swung his revolver up and out, and steadied it. A breath, and he fired.
Even with a light breeze, the bullet was on target. The flower disappeared from the top of the sign in a silent death, leaving only a single white petal that fluttered gently downward.
Sunderson watched the petal until it fell into the dirt. Paul thought he saw a smirk creep across his face, but realized he had been mistaken. The old man was simple chewing his tongue, his brow clenched.
“’Right. I think I’ve helped you enough.” He stood from his rocker and began hobbling his way into the house. “Come back tomorrow. One more time.”
“We’re done?” Robinson asked. “It’s only been a few weeks. You taught me ev’rything?”
“Much as you need.” The old man’s back was to him now, and he was already through the door.
“I want to know ev’rything, dammit!” he shouted. “Don’t you turn your back on me, old man!”. His gun was still drawn, loaded with five bullets too many.
Sunderson turned immediately, and for a moment the boy forgot that he was in the presence of an old man. His gaze was startling, the hunch in his posture momentarily absent. He roared.
“You know what you need, boy!”
“I’m no child! Stop calling me that!”
Now the older took a step forward, his wrinkled hand falling to the holster that wasn’t there.
“I don’t owe you anything,” he said. “I didn’t have to teach you shit,” though some secret part of him knew this was a lie.
The boy briefly tried to stare him down, but ended up holstering the gun in his hand and turning away. There was a fire in the old man’s eyes once more.
Without another word, he turned and walked back the way he had come, the breeze pulling his hair askew and dusting his clothes in a desert mist. The old man watched him until his silhouette melted away into the shimmering heat of the sun.
Paul Robinson did not have far to walk. The closest settlement, San Miguel, was nearly half a day’s trip away, but he had been living out of a tent only a mile from Sunderson’s cabin, hidden from sight between two rocky hills.
He sulked his way into the camp and dropped to the ground near a cold fire pit. Brooding and cursing the old man, he removed the pistol from his holster and began dismantling it for cleaning.
The words of the old man still burned fresh in his mind, irritating him and causing his hands to fumble. The cylinder dropped into the dirt.
“Damn it to hell!” he cursed, tossing the rest of the gun to the other side of the fire pit in frustration.
His head dropped into his hands, and for the next few minutes a passerby may have saw him as a mere boy, lonely and hopeless. When he finally looked up and felt the hotness of his face and the wetness in his eyes, he only grew angrier; partly at himself for appearing weak.
That damnable Smith Sunderson wasn’t a hero, he thought. He was a murderer, and an old bastard looking to soak in the power and glory the people threw at him. Who was he to judge a man’s life and reap justice with his own hand? It was a crime! But the people didn’t care. They didn’t give a damn for a fair trial, so long as the men he killed were hated by more folks than they were liked.
He rose and ducked into the tent to retrieve his other pistol, which he tucked into the holster at his thigh. Storming out of the tent, he took twenty or so steps away from the camp before he stopped.
The sun was already dipping below the west horizon, and soon it would be dark. A calmness had overtaken him once more, and he thought better of marching off across the desert wastes in the dark. Instead he retrieved his flint and set to starting the fire.
As he spit roasted a rabbit he’d caught that morning, he mulled over what might take place the next day. Death, he knew, was an inevitability. But for whom, he couldn’t say.
The next morning, Paul Robinson returned to the cabin to find Smith Sunderson on his porch, gently tilting to and fro on his rocking chair. His gun lay across his lap, holstered and wrapped in the belt.
When he saw the boy approach, he took his gun and slowly rose from the chair; his knees quivering not so slightly. When he had stood to his fullest, he was still hunched over like a sickle blade. His age was never more apparent to the boy then it was at that moment.
Robinson waited in front of the house about thirty paces from the porch stairs. He wore only one gun on his right thigh, as the old man had taught him. The old man strapped on his own gun, slow and methodic, before making his way down the porch stairs. Step by step.
That the old man had his pistol did not surprise the boy. He thought Sunderson was many things, but a fool was not one of them. He only wondered if the old gunslinger had known his intentions from the beginning.
The prospect planted a small seed of doubt in his mind, but he swept it away quickly; with rain and wind that carried the soil away and left only solid bedrock in its place.
The old man was first to speak.
“Paul Robinson,” he said.
The boy was silent, brooding.
“That’s your name, isn’t it?”
He kept his silence, boring holes into the old man’s forehead with his gaze.
“George Robinson was your father, wasn’t he?”
A brief flicker of surprise crossed his face, and while he hoped the old man wouldn’t notice, he knew better.
“I don’t forget the lives I’ve taken, kid.”
Robinson wasn’t sure if the word was meant to offend him or if it was simply the old man’s habit. He no longer cared.
“He was gettin’ on his years, I remember. Not old, but there’s some grey in his hair. He had that same walk you got, head down like a bull, moving on his toes.” He paused. “Do you know why I killed him?”
The boy’s silence seemed to suck in the air around him.
“He was trying to rob some family as they was passing through to California; a couple and a young boy. I happened by, and found them kneeling in the dirt ‘n all tied up while he picked through their wagon. He’d killed one of them, and older son or brother by the look of-”
“Liar!” the boy snarled. “You’re a lying old bastard.”
“Don’t interrupt me, buckshot.”
“No. Me and that boy ended up workin’ together at the McNally’s ranch for over a year, few years after that. He told me everythin’! How two grizzled old men held them up. His father killed one of ‘em with his huntin’ rifle ‘fore the other one grabbed his mom and held his gun to ‘er.”
“You weren’t there,” said the old man. “And that boy must’ve been no more than four, five years old. Kid going through something like that can get things confused.”
“He ‘membered ev’rything perfect. He was a sharp kid.”
“Well then he must’ve knew the rest, didn’t he? How he made it out of there?”
“He…” his confidence wavered. “Some old man helped him back to town, ‘fore the McNally’s took him in.”
Smith Sunderson waited, his normal frown replaced by a smug smirk, knowing the boy had said everything for him. The boy knew it, too.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” he realized. “Of course you’d walk him back. You love lookin’ like a hero, don’t you?”
“Safely returning the only witness to my supposed crime?” he wondered aloud. “You’re just bein’ stubborn, kid. And stupid. Let it go, and maybe you won’t get hurt.”
Paul Robinson rested his hand on the butt of his gun, looking to the ground and searching for answers.
“No. You said yourself. Kid goin’ watchin his ma and pa get shot can get confused. Could’a messed with his head.”
Smith Sunderson wiped a bead of sweat from his brow, slowly, and rested the hand at his holster.
“I’m gettin’ hot in this son, kid, and these old legs can only hold me up so long. Now are you gonna shoot or are you gonna walk?”
For a brief and terrible moment, Sunderson thought the kid might actually go home. He stood there motionless for a few moments, with his hand twitching along the back of his gun. After a long while he turned his body, as if to leave, but stopped midway. The gun at his thigh was now between them.
A gentle breeze came through to relieve some of the tension, but only a little.
Robinson’s head was facing away from the old man and his small home when he finally asked, “Do you swear it?”
Somehow, the old man managed to crease his brow even further.
“And what should I swear to?” he asked.
“…your god? Your honor? Your gun? What do I care. Do you swear it?”
The old man took a deep, deep breath. Time passed, be it seconds, minutes or hours.
But Smith Sunderson did not speak.
Paul Robinson drew his weapon, his hand snatching it from its holster like a snake taking it prey. Smith Sunderson tightened the muscles strung between his bony fingers, rubbery and dry-rotted as they were, and summoned up his own weapon.
He drew the weapon as quick as he had ever, with the slim hint of a smile between his wrinkled cheeks, and the gun leveled off at the kid’s heart.
But the kid’s bullet had already found him, piercing through the papery skin below his adam’s apple with only mild resistance, crossing through the pit of his esophagus effortlessly, and lancing through the brittle spinal cord at the back of his neck like driving a nail through an eggshell.
His knees cracked as he collapsed upon them, and his head lolled back onto his shoulders as the blood began to soak his collar and chest. The gun hung locked in his late hands, the barrel dug into the dirt. And as he died, the smirk turned into his last smile.
Paul Robinson waited to see the old man’s body collapse into the dirt, but it never did. When he finally left, the man was still on his knees with his head rolled back and his normal hunch inverted as his old bones kept him propped up. His lifeless blue eyes watched the sky, still sharp.
As he walked back toward his camp, he briefly thought of going to the McNally ranch to tell the boy what he had done. He also thought, for no particular reason, of blowing his own brains out, right there under the hot noon sun between Sunderson’s cabin and San Miguel.
In the end he did neither, for he didn’t know which Smith Sunderson he had killed.