It was high noon.
The sun beat down on the dusty earth, surface fragments cracked like scales on the back of a rattlesnake. A woman in a simple but well-tailored smock was retrieving water from a well.
Her dark, wavy hair shone in the bright sunlight as she hummed a song from her childhood, a jovial tune about blackbirds, or was it blackberries? No matter. She was happy, lost in the nameless melody her mother had taught her.
She had many things to be thankful for, but it was the little things that stood out in her memory: The rough comb he’d given her, carved by hand, on which three letters, M-A-L, had been etched lovingly into the alabaster; the sign post he’d put up at the boundary line, when he’d grinned from ear to ear and said, “This is it; we finally have a home of our own”; the wildflowers he’d brought in from god knows where, in a land barren and thirsty, sitting complacently in a vase on the kitchen table.
But when he came, the man with no shadow, she didn’t falter. She said hello unblinkingly, smiling into the face of the reaper. If I am to die, then to die at the pinnacle of happiness is not the worst of fates, is it?
A single shot rang out. The birds flew out of the sparse bushes, wings beating the air. Then all was silent, save for the drip of rose-tinted water as it seeped back into the parched earth.
The doors of the saloon swung open, kicked in by a man of medium build and stature, hat hung low over his face as he was engulfed by the roar of chattering, drinking, and smoking. Several heads turned, brows arched quizzically at the stranger as if they recognized him from some bygone era, but their eyes darted back as if to say, “Nah, couldn’t be.”
He paid their stares no mind, the clopping of his spurs against the wooden floor drowned out by the buzz of activity. He placed a silver half-dollar down on the counter and the bartender poured him a drink wordlessly.
Cobb surveyed the evening crowd out of the corner of his eye. A man was playing the piano near the staircase leading up to the rooms of the inn. Groups of men were shuffling cards, discussing the fate of the new territories, and flirting with the ladies of the night, trussed in flamboyant reds and greens, skirts hiked up coyly to reveal the ruffled hems of bloomers. As a visual spectacle, they resembled preening peacocks.
But to Cobb, they were no more than a passing glow, two swatches in a panoply of colors dulled by the dust in his eyes. He was disheveled, his lips chapped and dry from days spent in the hot sun, riding horseback from town to town.
Mal. If you could see me now... would you want me to go on?
His shirt and jeans, once a clear blue, were now dusted an unmistakable ochre, the same shade as the desert that stretched out for miles in every direction, as far as the eye could see. Any eyes but his, which had yet to recover from the image of dark locks wet with rose-tinted water burned into his mind like a cattle-brand.
He’d just returned from a day out breaking in the new horses—Mal had fallen in love with the feisty brown one coated in white spots—and left a cloud of dust behind him in his rush home.
“Mal!” he called, expecting her to burst from the door with that smile of hers, that smile that told him things would be all right.
There was no answer.
He dismounted and pushed open the gate, his hand instinctively dropping to a holster that hadn’t hung on his belt for years. Shaking his head, Cobb stepped forward into the yard. “Mal?”
Then, despite the dry desert air, he felt a cold chill permeate his bones.
“Mal…” It was a half-whimper, half-cry, whole embodiment of all the sorrow humanity had ever mustered as Cobb rushed to her side, dropping to his knees and cradling her in his arms. “Mal…”
He kissed her cheeks, but they didn’t flush like they always did, when she’d grin shyly and gently graze her lower lip with her teeth. He kissed her eyelids, but they didn’t open like they always did, in the mornings with first light. He held her hand, but she didn’t squeeze back like she always did, intertwining their fingers until you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
She was gone. And the shock of that fact had yet to loosen its grasp on his mind.
He’d been an outlaw for weeks now, taking abandoned trails and snaking around populated towns to evade the authorities. Luckily a neighbor had alerted him that the sheriff of the neighboring town was coming with a U.S. Marshal to arrest him for his wife’s murder, just hours after he’d buried her with his own hands, watering the fresh patch of soil with his own tears.
At that point, he was ambivalent. Why live, why go on, when all that he’d cared for had been taken away from him? His heart and fists contracted with bitter hatred. Maybe he had a reason after all: to find the son of a bitch who took his Mal away from him and to pay him back for what he’d done.
Cobb paced back and forth, kicking at stray clods of earth with his boots. But first, he needed time. Time to track down this cold-blooded killer and to formulate a plan of attack. He had to find some sort of safe haven to hide out in until he’d gathered enough resources and information to strike where it hurt the most.
He’d barely managed to ready his horse with a meager assortment of supplies, galloping away from his family home, his cattle, the ranch he’d built with his own hands, and all of his dreams, before the sheriff and his posse showed up, knocking on his door. Unfortunately for you, no one’s home, he chuckled bitterly, heading southward for the state line.
His face was everywhere the law was. Federal law enforcement had been none too amused by his slippery escape. Posters were plastered over every wall in the West, all of them bearing the same message: WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE. Dominick Cobb: MURDERER, HIGHLY DANGEROUS.
Even when his rations were low, his canteen nearly empty, he’d skipped out on any town with active deputies. There was nothing he could do for Mal if he was caught.
But he’d finally stopped in Tribune. Why? Well, one, because it was notorious for lawlessness: the last two Sheriffs had found their hands more than full—the first had been shot in a bar fight turned deadly while the other had been run out of town by a band of two-bit criminals, with his tail between his legs. And two? Two was more curious.
He’d awoken in his encampment just outside the town of Wallace with a letter tucked into the band of his hat. He broke the wax seal hastily, ashamed at his uncharacteristic inattentiveness, and read:
“Dear Mr. Cobb,
You may not be inclined to believe me, but I am your only way out. I know that you are innocent of your wife’s murder, and I want to help you obtain immunity in exchange for a simple service. You have nothing to lose and much to gain. If you choose to disregard this message, then so be it. But keep in mind that if I can track you down, then sooner or later the law will find you as well.
If you should decide in favor of my offer, please meet me in Tribune. And for your sake, please come armed.
A concerned friend”
He’d stuffed the letter into his back pocket indignantly, but as much as he wanted to ignore it and trudge on alone, Cobb knew the mysterious sender was right. He’d be out of water in a day and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to remain incognito, even in a place renowned for lawlessness like Tribune. The price on his head was most certainly not a deterrent.
He raised an eyebrow at the cryptic final sentence. Armed? Why it’d been ages since he’d handled a gun…
“Son?” The bartender, who’d previously remained silent while scrutinizing the stranger, took pity on his forlorn figure. Cobb shook himself reluctantly from his reverie.
“Son, what you doin’ in this here ghost town? Ain’t gon’ find no fortune here. Gold’s further west, law’s forsaken us, there ain’t nothin’ left here but these cutthroat bandits.” He wiped his hands on his apron before gesturing out into the general ruckus.
Cobb said nothing.
“Look, son, I’m lookin’ in yer best interest. I reckon yer type best get out of town ‘fore they decide ta start trouble.”
“I appreciate your concern, sir, but I can take care of myself,” he stated bluntly, downing his drink in one gulp.
As if on cue, the hyena pounced. Attuned to his posture as a loner and painfully aware of his being new to the local community, a man swaggered over to Cobb, commandeering the seat next to him at the bar with a predatory grin.
“Ain’t seen you ‘round these parts,” the belligerent said with perverse excitement.
Cobb tapped the counter. The bartender eyed them both warily before pouring him another shot of watered down whiskey.
“Oh, ho. A quiet one. Yer kind’s known for shuttin’ up, but when it comes ta cryin’ for mercy, you’ll be the loudest, I bet ya,” he taunted, taking Cobb’s glass and sliding it in front of himself, the alcohol spilling over the top. He spit into it and slid it back just as carelessly.
Cobb glared at him through slitted eyes, but he was able to retain his calm composure.
”Not even man enough to defend yerself, eh?” He unsheathed the knife dangling from his belt loop, boasting a wicked grin marred by missing and yellowed teeth. He rested his arm on Cobb’s shoulder, which tensed up but didn’t move. “Then takin’ from you should be like sneakin’ candy from a—“
In a flash, Cobb had him pinned to the wall at the end of the bar, the edge of his own blade braced against the man’s throat. The bandit reared his head back, eyes wide with sudden terror, his matted, unkempt hair shaking with his nerves. The rest of the saloon fell into a stunned silence, the onlookers more than a little surprised at some newcomer besting one of the local bullies.
Being armed is overrated. Cobb grinned.
But the story didn’t end there: the bully had his cronies, of course. Three men who were sitting in the shady area near the piano like napping lions stood abruptly and marched toward the two of them in unison, circling Cobb.
“Before you take another step,” Cobb warned, craning his head back slightly, “you might want to ponder the consequences of your actions.”
They exchanged looks and sneered at his bravado. “You shore use big words, stranger,” one of them piped up, “but are ya big enough to handle all three of us?”
Thump. Thump. Thump.
All heads turned toward the staircase. It creaked as an unknown figure descended with heavy, authoritative steps. Newly polished black leather shoes, grey pinstriped three-piece suit, freshly barbered hair and mustache: a rich gentleman emerged fully into the lamplight. But there was something different about this one. He didn’t look quite like the ones Cobb had known in his experience: spineless, no-good, greed-driven exploiters of the western territories.
“Mr. Saito! I ‘pologize for the tumult tonight; it’s jus’ this here stranger come to town and I warned’im ‘n’e’rythin’—” the bartender sputtered, his face turning sandstone red.
Saito raised a hand, waving him off and instead fixing his eyes on Cobb. He stepped over, still with that calculated, unhurried rhythm, until he was right in front of Cobb, who’d since relinquished his hold of the bandit. Not a ringlet was stirred nor a cigarette inhaled as everyone in the room waited anxiously for Saito’s next move.
His stone-faced expression softened into a satisfied smile to the tune of a hundred sighs of relief.
“Come with me, Mr. Cobb,” he said cordially.
“A drink, Mr. Cobb?”
Lavish couldn’t begin to describe the room in which the wealthy businessman was lodging. Mr. Saito had, by way of introduction, revealed that he was in the business of cargo transport, more specifically of valuables and luxury goods from the eastern United States, and the furnishings in his suite seemed to have benefited greatly from the arrangement. A chandelier hung precariously above them as the two sat across from one other around a cherrywood table. Cobb had been afraid to sit down, considering his dirt-caked state, but Saito had nonetheless beckoned him to the seat as if unaware of their sartorial disparity.
“Um, sure. I mean, yes, please, sir.”
Saito gave a curt nod and stood, filling a couple glasses at the cabinet behind them with spirits, the cost of which Cobb could only begin to imagine. He set one of the glasses in front of Cobb, who promptly took a grateful sip of the smooth amber, and reseated himself.
“Now, I know that you are an intelligent man and that you have figured out by this point the reason for our meeting.”
“You’re ‘a concerned friend’?”
“That I am.”
“How’d you track me down?”
A smug look crossed his face. “You expect me to put all my cards on the table?”
Cobb decided not to press the issue, still ashamed at his fallen guard back at the encampment. There would have been dire consequences if it had been a less friendly visit. “Alright, I’ll just assume that one of your men saw me near a town a few miles back. But still, I don’t understand.”
“And what puzzles you, Mr. Cobb?” Saito asked, twiddling his drink in his hand.
Cobb released all the confusion that had been building upon within him but retained his suspicion. “I just… You didn’t know me. Why do you care one way or another what happens to me? For all you know I could be the killer everyone says I am.”
“I know you’re a killer,” he said matter-of-factly after downing half his drink, grimacing lightly at the bite. “That’s why I need you for a job.”
Cobb nearly choked. “Wait a second there, sir. You’ve got it all wrong if you’re thinking what I’m thinking. I’m just a humble farmhand, nothing more.”
“You know you owe me a little more credit than that, Mr. Cobb. Your speed at the draw and your marksmanship are the stuff of legend. And I employ only the best in the business.”
Cobb studied his steely gaze before falling back against his chair. It was futile to pretend any longer. “Okay, so I have a past, don’t we all? But that’s why it’s called a past. It’s over and done with. And I’m not going back to it.”
To Cobb’s surprise, instead of countering his rejection, Saito merely chuckled. “Isn’t it every man’s dream to be young again? To reprise his youth and vitality? Don’t suggest to me that you’re any different.”
“Maybe for some, but I’m done with that era of my life.” More trouble than it was worth, he thought sullenly to himself.
“Even when the alternative is to seal your fate? I doubt you want this to be the last chapter of your life…”
He narrowed his eyes. “Is that a threat?”
“I assure you, Mr. Cobb, that letting you walk out of here without seriously considering my offer would be far more injurious to your lifespan. I can promise you immunity from the law and a return to your idyllic life on the ranch post-completion,” Saito smirked. “How many others could deliver you this?”
Cobb unclenched his fists, which had tightened of their own accord. Maybe Saito had a point. What were his alternatives, after all? Flitting from town to town hoping to escape unscathed and undetected? Circumstances had already shown that he could slip up… and to do so would be to ensure that Mal’s death would never be avenged.
“So,” he inquired, with defeat, “you want a hired gun?”
He sighed. “Okay, who would you want me to take out, if I for some reason agree to this arrangement?”
“Anyone who gets in the way.”
“Listen, sir, I’d appreciate it if you stopped playing games and just gave it to me straight.”
His request fell on deaf ears. “I see you disregarded my warning and came empty-handed. No matter,” Saito said. He reached down to the side and rummaged through a valise next to his chair, “You can use this.” He placed a shiny black Colt Navy in front of Cobb with a clink. “We’ll get you a holster too, of course.”
The steel glinted at him like it was winking. The tease. Cobb laughed weakly as he raised open palms. “Sir, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m past my prime. I doubt I could shoot a bucket across the road if you asked me to.”
Saito stood, his expression perfectly solemn. “I am not asking you, Mr. Cobb. I am telling you. This is an audition that I don’t believe you want to fail. Follow me.”
Cobb took the revolver and trailed obediently after Saito. He knew that, as far as the businessman was concerned, he might as well have been a fish in a barrel. Resistance would do him no good.
Feeling the weight of the gun in his hand, the cool metal warming up against his skin brought a pang of nostalgia to Cobb’s already emotionally fragile psyche. He hadn’t really told anyone why he’d given up his glory days as a quickdraw; he’d simply retired into anonymity, leaving those following the legend to wonder if he’d ever existed at all. Of course, Mal had known. But he never had to explain things to her. She’d simply understood.
Past the staring faces in the saloon and into the darkness that was a night in the plains, they went. Cobb shook himself from his ever-consuming thoughts to glance up at the bucket Saito was gesturing to, hanging on a pillar on a shop down Main Street, barely visible under the crescent moon.
Saito nodded to him. Cobb checked the cylinder: fully loaded as he expected. It had been a long time indeed, but he hadn’t forgotten a thing. He took a deep breath and closed one eye, lifting the revolver and cocking it before pulling the trigger.
A blast rang out, and he thought he heard metal against metal, although he couldn’t be sure. He and Saito exchanged glances before starting down the road. When they arrived at the pillar, there was a clear hole through the middle of the aluminum bucket.
Saito smiled approvingly. “I would say that you passed.”
As they retraced their steps, Cobb, mired in the curious glow of rediscovery, asked, “So what exactly is the job?”
“There will be a stagecoach waiting for us at Dodge City in a week’s time. The details concerning the driver, other passengers, and cargo are already taken care of. All I need is for you to guard our passage down the Totem Trail by riding shotgun. A simple task really.”
“Except for the bandits.”
Saito laughed curtly. “You didn’t need the explanation after all.”
When they reached the inn, Cobb rested his back against the wooden post in front of the swinging doors of the saloon, the dim light flickering faintly over his face, “Okay, this all sounds well and good, but—and I mean no offense here, sir—the question still remains: why should I trust you?”
“You can’t,” Saito responded without missing a beat, evidently in anticipation. “But I’m your only hope.”
Cobb mused over his options. Although Saito was… painfully handsome, to be frank, his demeanor exuded a love of power. Still, he did seemed restrained by the bounds of principle. He could tell—he had to believe that Saito was an honest and just man. With the kind of money and resources he commanded, Cobb’d be halfway to the gallows by now if it suited him. And really, what did he have to lose?
Cobb stared back up at Saito, who extended his hand. “What do you say, Mr. Cobb? Are you willing to take a leap of faith?”
All that he could be sure of at this point was that this man meant business. And if somehow he means to betray me at the end, he thought with a sly smile, I’ll be the one with the gun.
Cobb clasped his hand with a firm grip. “It’s a deal.”