When the man called "El Gato" arrived in the town of Clifton Mesa, he was not needed.
El Gato was a vulture and a thief and a magpie of a creature who circled trouble until the trouble had passed and then he sought to fill his belly on the scraps and remains that had been left behind. When there was something to steal he could steal it and he was proud of his as any tradesman proud of his skill hangs out his sign to prove it so and beckons any in to see the proof upon his anvil or under his plane. But El Gato was a thief and he was named in his younger days for his way of walking across the terracotta roof tiles of the houses in cities and towns wherever he wandered like a cat himself. And like a cat himself he could slip through railings and bars on windows and through locks on doors and nothing could be said to be completely safe from his hands. His face was known and he did not care because he did his work in the dark and no one could know where he passed and what he did and they would only see that he had been there and what he has done there but none would see him so do. There was no proof but there were stories and he had had them told to him by those who did not know him and he laughed. He still clambered on rooftops and pulled apart the tiles shaped out of red earth to find his way out of the night and into the darkness inside this house or that one. But now he was known because he could shoot and he could fight and he knew the mechanics of locks that used keys or locks that used wheels or locks that used any number of contrivances balanced out of gears and tumblers and corkscrew springs that went spinning in the darkness in between what was had and those who wanted it in those moments before what was hidden was revealed and it still remained near infinite in the darkness. He wore silver rings on any finger that could hold them so long as they did not interfere with his getting of more silver or, better yet, of gold. He could open anything with his kit of delicate tools and his jars of acids. And when he opened something he would take his share and this was how he made his way across the deserts and why he had come to Clifton Mesa.
The city was like so many in that same region kept alive by whatever ore or mineral or roots or blood could be dug out of the ground and feed or taken from at odd times by the railroad where the hulking iron steam engines balanced on the twin spires of the railroad tracks until both tracks and train dwindled and withdrew into themselves to their narrow focus at the terminus of the horizon. The town was fed by the railroad and unto that railroad did it give of itself in the hopes of some sustenance, though little was to come. It was rawboned and rough, the shambled structures raised out of lumber hauled to that place by the railroad before the place was a place and then set up again and shingled in a day or an afternoon. And now they were sustained in their sagging shapes by another nail or another plank and the rows of them faced one another across streets of dry dust or sodden mud like the sunbeaten and leathern faces of rivals now too old to fight but yet with eyesight to see and the windows of the upper rooms glowered like hollow eyesockets from either side of the wide ways. The old structures were dark and brown and silver with age and season, and the new ones were raw and pale and smelled of sap and of cut wood. But a year or two in this place with its climes and its temperament would dry and gray even the brightest plank down to the same exhausted shade as all its neighbors. And so the place was raised of wood in a place of dust and rock where no tree as newcomers to this place would think of trees could grow but a town of wood had still be cultivated in that place and cut trees had been raised up again in roofbeams and in walls in abject disregard of the nature of the place. And it was through these narrow streets that the man called El Gato guided his horse and looked around him and was to learn that he was no longer needed.
This town was a town without a master and without a leader whether he should be chosen from amongst its own citizenry or set down among them from some order or risen up from within or without to rule this small place where it lay sprawled in its dusty plain. Instead there were two who would rule and where there were two to rule there would be none to rule.
Two men had come upon the town from their respective horizons and each had decided that the town would suit them. And for a time they had lived quietly in the way that thieves and killers will live quietly for even wolves will keep a kill away from their own den so as to discourage other scavengers and to keep near to them whatever else their sharp teeth and taste for blood might demand. There were two men and they were called by names that were not their names: Bloodworth and Santa Fe Jack.
Bloodworth it was often said had been a gentleman and was one yet. For bloodshed he was said not to have such a taste save for when such an act was unavoidable or particularly desirable. He was, it was said, a man of taste and wealth. He was perhaps then more clever than one would suspect so as to avoid such a thing. But he was yet a thief and a murderer and kept the towns in such parts of the desert and the plains and the hills as he considered his in fear of him and collected from them dues owed for his protection and so carried out his robbery with care and courtesy. It was said widely and without whispering that he kept a woman and his son in a house he had had built at a spring in the desert somewhere beyond this town along with a strongbox of all the bills and coin he had ever collected over the course of the years of his work. This was known and this was said and this was believed even if no one had ever seen woman or son or coin. Of the house had many seen and its place was known to all and to approach was to court death with the sharpness of eyes that hid behind shutters and in shadows and one did so only advisedly. Of the money and woman and son, this was believed and this was enough. And in such belief he had accumulated a following of men loyal either to him or to his gold but loyal enough.
Santa Fe Jack had been given his name when he came out of Santa Fe. He had not been born there and claimed his youth in some other country far further to the east in some hill in Missouri first but later in Colorado. But his name came of the bloodshed he had orchestrated in Santa Fe against two brothers and their plan to steal from caravans and banks and railroads alike. There was no honor among thieves to this man Jack. But he had collected about himself a following of men equally scarred and equally bloody-minded and equally with such a taste for mindless violence and so he established himself and roamed the desert claiming territory for his own with this army of his own. And they were loyal to him and wore such a uniform as he would have designed so that anyone who saw them knew who they were and who they served. He himself forever wore a long brown coat brushed with dust and ragged in shape but of such a length that it would fly about him when he rode and so too then did his men and so they were known. It was also known though that it had been Bloodworth's men and not Santa Fe Jack's gang who had shot and killed the sheriff of Clifton Mesa not three months before.
Bloodworth then held the lands and towns to the east of Clifton Mesa inasmuch as one can hold such places and Santa Fe Jack held those to the west. In Clifton Mesa there was peace but only such as could last when one gang held power and the other was hidden away and licking its wounds or when both were wandering yet again. This was the course of life. The people of the town who swore no allegiance to either or perhaps only swore to the one presently in control of house and home and street had learned quickly how to shut up their windows and bar their doors and treat the wounds left by pistol and rifle. There was nowhere for them to go and they were sustained by one master or the other as each took his turn in command. And so the people of Clifton Mesa were cowed, herded quietly from one master to the other by that master's men who were like so many barking dogs with sharp teeth they need only bare to hurry the sheep. And this was the town of Clifton Mesa.
El Gato came into the town then to ply his trade in the afternoon when the sunlight was still more white than gold and the shadows of the town and all that was in it poured darkly onto the street from one side and pulled darkly away from the other.
He led his horse to a rail and tied it there among others in the quiet street and stepped up the low wooden stairs into the shadow cast from the raw board structure above him.
He paused without the saloon and considered the coin in his pockets and hidden in his shoes and tucked into the pouch tied about his neck and at last pushed apart the loose doors and entered a place where all was darkness and without definition after the brightness of the street. There were no lamps lit in the afternoon light which spilled from windows and door alike into the room and in the shadows dark figures sat smoking. He made his way across a room wainscoted with varnished boards and came to the bar. It was topped with zinc and he set his elbows and then his coin on it. The place reeked of smoke and sweat and the dried ghosts of things spilled within it. A man in a gaitered shirt approached him from behind the bar with some ceremony and set his hands on the bar across from his and looked at the rings on El Gato's fingers and took his coin and asked what he would want.
--Whiskey, he answered.
He grinned and then looked around the room from under his eyebrows to see the whites of the eyes of the other men in this same place looking at him from across their tobacco and their glasses and their cards. They wore red cloths around their necks and arms and waists and some were tied like kerchiefs and some were long and hung like scarves and some became sashes or armbands but every man bore this same mark as though stained with blood in protection or in omen or in token and it was by this that El Gato knew that he had come to the town he had sought.
When the glass came he drank its contents and set down another coin and held up one finger to signal for more. This was not the first whiskey he had drunk that day though its predecessor had been in greater quantity and poorly made and quickly drunk and this glass now was far better by virtue of those others who patronized this place and this town even now. And El Gato was not surprised by this. This was a town built on the leavings and dropped wealth of those who had wealth and though the town cowered behind barred doors in the midst of the brief and furious battles between the two factions that swept over the town from time to time they still sought out the hands that bore the gold and hoped that these hands would drop it to them. And this had become this town's trade more than any other ore or root or blood to be dug from the earth itself.
The second glass was in his hand as he turned away from the bar to face those other worthies in the place with him.
There were some standing yet at the bar with their feet on the brass rail and some were looking at him without concern. Others sat gathered in groups of two or three at tables stained and ringed from long use and innumerable glasses. Their smoke lifted up around their ears and their eyes and hung in shapes incorporeal and haunting above their heads before it dispersed into the air and to the stains of the ceiling. Farther in there were three men gathered at a table for cards but they were idle. The coin from their previous game lay at the place where their fourth player should be and the coin for their next game lay waiting in the center of the table and one among them was shuffling the tattered cards aimlessly but he did not deal or did they hail El Gato as a fourth to their game. They smoked and were silent amongst themselves.
Still bearing the tumbler in his fist El Gato swaggered towards them. He was not drunk for any reason save for the pleasure of being drunk. It pleased him. And it made him feel larger. And it made him feel strong. But the men at the table still did not hail him but only looked at him. He set the tumbler on the table and pulled the empty chair towards him.
--You are in need of a fourth man. I will play.
--You weren't invited, one of them answered and looked at him only aside.
The man bearing the stacked cards cut and shuffled the deck slowly and watched the pattern of alternating corners as they lay, each in their place, in the newly remade deck. He did not deal the cards.
El Gato smiled then instead and showed all his shining white teeth in the dimness of the place and pulled the unoffered chair closer to him and sat in the empty place at the table. He bent his elbows on the edge of it and cupped his hands together as though around a struggling flame or a secret.
--Didn't you hear?
--I have heard, he said, that the man who pays you will pay others of great skill. His smile fell for the sake of gravity and then rose again for the sake of pride and he went on. I am one such as that.
The three men regarded each other quietly and with due consideration not of the offer, such as it was, that had been laid before them but of some other understanding that moved among them mutely and without movement and that understanding lay already in their faces when they turned their eyes back to this newcomer. He did not see and he did not understand. And this was his own misfortune.
--He ain't hiring.
--But he will hire me. And he laughed again. There is no lock which I cannot undo. There is no place into which I cannot go. He would be better to pay me and be certain that I am with him than to let me loose and to spend every night awake and afraid.
--He ain't afraid either.
There was a low rattle of laughter then that moved among the others in the dramhouse as all ears had turned towards this table and these words.
El Gato leaned across the table and kept himself crouched there very like unto a cat once again.
--I think he should be.
The man with the cards held his hands still though the deck was cut and lay half in each hand. He looked at the cards where they lay unmoved but spoke to El Gato.
--You got some reason he might ought to be?
El Gato swallowed what remained in the tumbler in his fist and coiled in half-spirals his longer fingers in their silver rings around the shape of the glass and used it then as a pointer and as a prop by which to emphasize his words. He was still and always smiling.
--I am the smartest and I am the fastest. At anything. There is nothing El Gato cannot do.
--Do you wish a demonstration? I will oblige you.
He took off his widebrimmed hat and set it on the table in front of him. He set the empty glass down beside it. Each of the other men in the place began to find with his fingertips the stock of his weapon and to rest what fingers or palm he chose on the same. El Gato did not reach for his weapon. He was very quick because it was his trade. Before anyone else could move or think to move, he took from one man at that table his hat and from another his cigar. He put the hat on his head and he put the cigar between his teeth and he pulled at the cigar and its smoke for a moment and he pushed the hat down over his eyes and he was satisfied with his display. The man with the deck of cards yet under his hands let fall each into its place as he flexed the corners and shuffled them again. And how like the speed of El Gato was this movement among these cards as each flickered almost faster than the eye. But still, at the end, it was clear that things now were no longer as they were. And men are not cards and these things were no longer at rights. These things had been stolen and an offense had been made.
An altercation took place. How these things end. In confusion and curses and blood. He had run afoul of others and things were done that could not be put right again. The men at the table stood up. El Gato was on his feet, swaying. The chair in which he had been sitting turned over behind him. The men reclaimed their possessions from him. The cigar was tossed aside and crushed under its owner's bootheel. The first blows were for the men at this table for the offense done them, or so proceeded their understanding. El Gato made to defend himself but he was drunk and his defense was poor where it stood at all. The men he had offended did not seek true injury on him and they shoved him and pulled at his clothes and struck him across the face. He fell across a table which fell with him and the tumbles and glasses on that table shattered around him in bright shards like clear and broken ice. He found his feet again but could do nothing. He was herded then back to the loosely swinging doors of the establishment and was pushed then from his precarious balance from under the roof of the place and down the wooden steps and into the sunlight and dust in the street.
The men he had wrong turned to one another and went inside the dramhouse door again. El Gato was left in the street where he drew himself to his feet again and cursed them for a time. But they did not answer him nor did they pay him any attention. He shouted at them and he railed at them and he threatened them but there was no answer given him and he began to look a madman in the street
After a time he was wearied and he wanted for more whiskey but knew he could not take it there. He left the doorway of this dramhouse and found a merchant who would sell him the same so long as his coin was good. And this he drank that long evening as he stalked the streets of Clifton Mesa and cursed darkly under his breath the men whom he had set out to join but who had told him that he was no longer needed.
He would crawl under the porch of a house later that evening for want of shelter and then spend that night still drunk in a hovel of a barn and surrounded by the horses and animals of the place. He would stay there for the next day and the next evening in kind and still cursing these same men. But the following day he would be awoken by the sound of horse and rider and gunfire.