John Doyle stood looking out the saloon window as noonday sun baked a dusty deserted street. He hated these moments and wished he’d never gained fame as a gunslinger. Slapping leather and spilling blood was fun when he was young, but now it was an obligation he’d rather not fulfill. These days, he craved whiskey and loose women over violence but couldn’t outrun his reputation, even in backwater towns like this one. His horse was tired, as was he, and riding away again after killing someone wasn’t what he’d planned. He needed rest but could find no respite.
The barkeep put another shot on his table and scurried away after Doyle flipped him a silver dollar. Most of the customers had fled the bar and were seated on the shaded porch awaiting the action. The piano player sat idle, nervously flexing his fingers as if anxious to play a jolly tune instead of a funeral dirge. Doyle tossed him a coin as well and continued looking out the fly-specked glass brought by wagon from St. Louis.
When the lanky young cowpoke appeared at the end of the street, Doyle was overcome with pity. What would the young man become were he to not kill him? Would he marry and sire champions of great pursuits? Would he bust broncs and string barbed wire for decades? Would he be a wastrel wallowing in self-indulgence and pity? Whatever might have been would end when bullets pierced his heart. Doyle never missed, and though long in the tooth, his reflexes were still lightning quick. Survival was a harsh taskmaster and he’d learned his lessons well.
When he rode into town earlier in the day he’d prayed for anonymity but the young buck at the livery stable recognized him despite layers of trail dust and lack of a shave. Evidently, newspapers with tales of his exploits reached beyond where he could ride. “Hey, old man. I can take you,” he said. Now it was showdown time and bloodshed lie on the horizon. Reluctantly, John Doyle raised the shot to his lips and relished the whiskey’s fire burning its way to his guts. After a soft caress to his pistol butt, he pushed the saloon doors aside and stepped onto the porch planks. The townsfolk wanted him to lose and said so. The young man was one of their own and they wanted a legend to talk about. When he stepped into the wheel rutted street, dust rose from his footsteps and a soft breeze quickly blew it away. It was symbolic of what his life had become.
It felt like time stood still as he faced his opponent. The boy hadn’t had his first shave and his peach-fuzzed cheeks still carried the glow of youth. How could he hope to triumph over someone who’d put down hardened criminals and ranch hands with itchy trigger fingers? What was it about young people that consigned their elders to meaninglessness? As he brushed his long coat aside and prepared to draw, he hoped the young man would repent his folly and walk away. When it became apparent the boy was hell-bent for destruction, he sighed and squared up.
There was only one gunshot. When her son fell to the ground and bled out in the dust a mother raced from the crowd to embrace her progeny but couldn’t alter his fate. John Doyle hated seeing her tears but understood that if he hadn’t fired he would be the one felled. His survival was guaranteed, but once again he was a pariah without comfort or a place in society. All he could do was walk back in the saloon and order another shot of whiskey before plodding to the livery and saddling a horse who longed for green pastures and an end to desolate trails.