Saturday, June 09, 2007

With Her Last Breath

Roland stood on the outskirts of the town with his saddle draped over his shoulder, the heat of the sun baking his skin into leather. The Mexican desert had nearly killed him. The cluster of buildings he saw shimmering ahead looked thirstier than he was, but he hadn't seen man nor beast since...since before Betsy died. One foot in front of the other he stumbled onward until the town lost its illusions and the hope it promised from a distance.

He walked down the middle of the street that separated the decrepit buildings. The wind snapped loose shutters closed - or did it? A life hunting men had sharpened his senses but now, in his withered condition, putting a foot forward was all he was capable of. The world swooned and he suddenly felt the sun’s blistering heat on his face. Words. Someone tugged at his saddle but couldn’t wrest it from his cramped hands. Darkness. Silence.

He woke up in the same place, lying in the same position. The sun had given up long ago and now the night was cold. His saddle was gone. A sadness blossomed inside him, and the wind seemed to stoke it. Voices. Faint but firm. He rolled onto his side and was surprised to find he had no pain, his lips wet with the heavy moisture that hung in the air. He walked in to the crowded building nearest him. The sign read, 'The Drink.'

He pushed his way through the swinging doors into a room bursting with voices. The piano tinkled on in the background, playing a listless melody with neither a beginning or an ending, it only hopscotched it’s way between the babbling cacophony that battered the walls and Roland's senses. He began to make his way to the bar, weaving through a churning sea of chattering ravens. Such sheer volume should have born excitement, but there was none here, only the sound of countless thoughts spoken aloud. He reached the bar, leaning over the lacquered walnut bar top to get the attention of the bartender, but the man did not notice him. Roland waited, listening in on the conversations around him.

“Across the border they turn water into wine.” came a woman’s voice. He couldn’t see her face, only a dry profile crowned by a flowered hat. The flowers were long dead.

“It’s the devil’s blood!” Roland looked behind him to find the voice, and matched the cackling, hacking cough lost amongst the crowd for the accusation. “They're squeezing it from the vine.”

“Thirsty?” He spun around to find the bartender suddenly standing next to him, separated by the shined walnut partition. “You want a drink?”

“What town is this?” Roland asked instead, staring into dark, swirling eyes.

“I’ll tell you after I get you a drink - first work, then play!” came a thin stab at humor, but no one laughed.

“Alright. I’ll take a beer.”

“No beer. Only wine.”

“I hate wine.”

“What’s good for the priest is good for the sinner, eh?”

“Priests can have it, it’s never done much for me.”

“Some say it's a savior, in these hard and desperate times.” came a lazy reply, and the Roland felt a pang of thirst tickle his throat.

“Alright. Just one.”

The bartender had the glass before him and halfway filled before he finished talking. “That’s all you’ll need.”

The taste was bitter, and Roland winced as he swallowed but the wine dissolved before it ever reached the back of his throat. He noticed a few heads turn his way, as if they were seeing him for the first time. He nodded back to a man in worn chaps and a broad rimmed hat, but the fellow’s eyes just glazed over as if he was tracing a stray herd over yonder.

Roland took another sip. The wine met his lips and vanished, leaving only a hint of what it once was. His mind lightened and his troubles began to fade.

“I was trying to get to Texas.” he said to no one in particular. The memory vanished in his mind as the words left his lips. Eyes turned toward him. They saw him, but they didn’t stop talking. He then realized that everyone was talking, but they were conversing with no one. Desperate eyes searched him, their faces scarred with look of the compulsive lost to his obsessive nightmare. Roland's lips traced words silently as he felt his mind unraveling. The thoughts spoken around him slurred into merciless depravity and utter hopelessness. They were spilling out the horrors of the human heart. To hear such a thing was to lose your mind. He raised the glass to his lips. “To see it helps me to forget.” It promised him peace. “That we're just born to die.”

Something stopped him. He looked back over his shoulder at the fading smile of the bartender, then turned to see the crowd casually part for a child, no more than 10 years old. She stood in front of him for a moment, studying him. He knew her brown eyes but her flawless face made her a stranger to him. She warmed into a smile, saying only one word. “Betsy.”

The word unlocked a memory - and a spreading warmth. The memory surged through him, igniting indignation and a galling cry of danger. “Betsy!” His heart ran after the memory, grasping for the hope it offered. The world around him dissolved, and he found himself lying in a room, a small boy dribbling water into his mouth. “Betsy?”

“Must be quite a woman, sir.” The boy said with one tongue wagging in concentration as another stream of water missed Roland’s lips. “Been sayin’ her name for five days now.”

Then he remembered. He had lost her in the desert. He smiled with cracked lips and peered up at the boy. “Not a woman, boy. My horse. Betsy was my horse.” He closed his eyes and lay back his head. She had called him home.

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