Chapter 9 – The Vigil
You could see it from a mile away. But what was it? A posse? A cattle drive? A bear? Bandolero tried to make his eyes focus better on whatever it was. It wasn’t working.
“Can you see what it is?” he asked Blacky.
Blacky had also been staring into the distance. Sweat ran from his forehead into his bushy eyebrows where it gathered long enough to collect and then flow into his eyes.
“Dammit!” he muttered, raising his sleeve to his eyes to try to soak out the salty liquid and make them stop burning.
Bandolero took his eyes off the horizon for a quick glance at Blacky and quickly set them back to the horizon. “Shit!” he exclaimed. “Where’d it go?” His eyes scanned back and forth as he tried to regain the mysterious vision.
Blacky stopped rubbing his eyes and peered into the distance. His eyes scanned back and forth as he tried to regain the mysterious vision. “I don’t see it,” he said. His stinging eyes were making his nose run now. It was gathering in his mustache where it lingered and gathered long enough to collect and then drain to his mouth. His sleeve came up again, this time wiping back and forth across his mustache and nose. Now, instead of just running, his nose felt like it was streaming.
“Hey, uh, Blacky,” said Bandolero, “yer nose is bleedin’.”
“Well, shit and double shit,” said Blacky. “Borrow your neckerchief?”
Bandolero looked at him steadily. Over the years he had often berated Blacky for going without a neckerchief. They were an indispensable accessory in the badlands. You wore them over your mouth and nose to keep the grit out of your lungs when riding in a windstorm. You wore them around your head to keep the sweat from getting in your eyes when riding under a burning sun. You wore them over your face so people wouldn’t recognize you when robbing a bank or a train. They cleaned your butt after taking a dump behind a cactus. No, he thought, I really don’t think I want to loan you my neckerchief, you dumb shit.
“Sure, here,” he said, slowly untying the knot behind his neck and holding it out toward Blacky.
Blacky looked at the darkened and stained cloth that used to be bright red with white fleur-de-lis imprinted on it. He blinked a couple times as certain visions materialized in his brain.
“Nah, that’s okay,” he said. “I’ll just keep usin’ my shirt sleeve.”
Something suddenly seemed to move in Bandolero’s peripheral vision and he jerked his head toward it.
“There!” he exclaimed. “There it is again.” He pointed toward the spot on the horizon where their eyes had been focused for the past half hour.
Blacky forgot his nose and craned his neck forward toward the spot Bandolero was pointing at. “I don’t see it,” he said after a few seconds. “Nothin’ there.”
Bandolero blinked his eyes several times attempting to re-focus on the spot. “I think you’re right,” he said. “Was probably just a dirt devil or something. Whatever, it’s gone now.”
They continued gazing in silence. Various possibilities suggested themselves in each one’s exhausted mind. This had been going on all day. One of them would see something and shout to the other and they’d gallop to the nearest rise they could find to dismount and get a better look from solid ground instead of the constant motion in their saddles as the horses plodded over parched ground.
“Sure wish I had some binoculars,” said Bandolero.
Blacky winced. They used to have binoculars, and they had often come in mighty handy until one day when a posse had flanked their position and caught them by surprise from behind. In the mad race to reach their horses, Blacky had left the binoculars lying on the ground where they had been peering in the wrong direction while the posse did its flanking move.
“Fuck you,” said Blacky. “Wasn’t my fault. Are you ever gonna drop it?”
They watched in silence for several minutes while Blacky fumed and Bandolero pondered his answer.
Blacky was first to break the uncomfortable silence between them. “I’m tired of this,” he said. “I say we move on.”
Bandolero didn’t indicate that he heard. It was, in fact, the logical thing to do at this point, but he was loathed to allow that it had been Blacky’s idea. Bandolero fancied himself the more cerebral of the two, which was true, but he was never sure if Blacky accepted it.
“Okay, sure,” said Bandolero.
No sooner had the period at the end of his short sentence left his mouth than he exclaimed, “Whoa!” As did Blacky, “Whoa!” The gang, back when they had a gang, was often amazed and entertained at how often the two gang leaders exclaimed the exact same thing at the exact same moment. It was like they were joined by some metaphysical force that, when sparked, caused identical cells in their brains to generate identical responses from their mouths. The bilateral exclamation on this occasion was prompted by a sudden spatter of dirt in the narrow space of ground between them.
No sooner had their eyes moved from the spatter to each other, they heard the nearly imperceptible “pop” from the unseen distance. Realization struck them both simultaneously and would have caused another bilateral exclamation had there been time for it. A bullet from a far-off scoped high-powered rifle had hit the ground between them. The advisability of Blacky’s suggestion to move on was suddenly transformed from suggestion to imperative. You couldn’t count to three before they were on their horses at full gallop toward the setting sun.
They never did find out who shot at them that day. But it wasn’t the last time their paths would cross.