Here we walk plain. Our worn boots drive wedged depressions into the dull dust that covers everything, and clouds of it come up from the earth with each step like the mist over the river at the bare break of morning. There is no man here unarmed. Rifles are constant companions - broken at rest, coiled like snakes waiting for the whipcrack of action, the quick dart of an eye, a nervous finger twitching. Between every man there is distance. Fifty paces equal one second to think; one second for the impulse firing down the nerves to translate into movement. There is value in keeping men at arm's length, because you can only kill what you can reach.

For now there is one man against twenty. In a few hours it may be thirty coming down from the hills in a cloud of dust. Twenty or thirty men armored in dusty flannel crusted bone-white with the salt sweat of the last ten murders dried into it. Devils descending on great black horses whose eyes are like milky eggs. They move all at once, hidden amongst the swirling dusty plume like nightmare shapes visible through the murk of dreams.   
    The man with the badge sees all this in his mind. He squints and lines spider out from the corners - long lines like the splits on the alkali flats where ancient oceans lay and then receded. His face is drawn, and he wears the pinched grin of an animal waiting. Behind his eyes he sees them coming, moving down the giant red hills that wall up around the town, slipping through scrub that stubbles the face of the earth and reaches at the sky like skeletal fingers. He has dreamed of them for many nights, and today there is some wild electricity in the air. When he rises, his old bones creak and crackle, but the loudest crack belongs to his rifle snapping closed. 
    There is no fear. He does not know the bold face of that black emotion. They could all come - ten, twenty, thirty, keep coming in waves that crash upon the town, and those behind could clamor over the bodies of their dead who dared to close the distance, and still he would not flinch. They could keep coming like red ants streaming out a blackened stump and he would keep firing over and over until there were no bullets left to fire. Then they could set upon him like wolves and the valley would still echo with their screams.
    And then they come.

Here we walk plain and our blood keeps the dust down. Those who are left drag themselves back up the hills. They have come and made their mark upon the earth, deep boot wedges and cloven-hoof depressions stamped deeper still. The red sun boils low in the sky and casts long shadows across the town studded with spent copper jackets.
    Nothing remains now but the ghost image of flames playing out behind his eyelids, and the black blood trickling into his boots. He takes them off, then sets them by the doorway where they will wait for him until, until, until. There is no pain. He slips away silently and the wind shrieks across the desert to the north.
    The distance breached, the sun sets on a nation struggling into its own boots. The valley remains as it was - a great yawning wound made when something came and left its mark.

Grant Loveys is a freelance writer/columnist working in St. John's, Newfoundland, a beautiful little place perched on Canada's eastern edge. His work has recently been featured in Paragon.

Copyright 2009