Josh stood in his stirrups stretching his cramped and lanky legs. Shading his eyes from the hot afternoon sun he squinted at the horizon. At the far edge of the high desert plateau, over clumps of paloverde and proud spikes of saguaro he could make out dust clouds and smoke mixing with the mid-day mirages. That’d be Tucson, he thought to himself. In only a few hours the first phase of his quest would be over. He was nearly 17-years old, and ready, even rarin’ to take on the world.
It had been a couple of days of steady riding, long enough to almost forget his guilt and homesickness. He wasn’t one to rush into events. The slow, purposeful gait of his horse was just perfect for his manner. He’d learned the art of patience from his steadfast father, an educated man who’d given up the safe life of the East to try and scratch a living from the dead sands of the Southwest territories.
A sudden movement in the brush to his right and impulsively his hand snapped to the revolver strapped on his side. In less time than a scorpion’s sting the gun was out, cocked and aimed, ready to do battle. But his enemy only proved to be a jackrabbit startled awake from its mid-day nap.
In a smooth and practiced move Josh relaxed the hammer of the Colt and the trigger within himself. He felt a little silly, and knowing he was getting closer to town he reminded himself that he would have to bow to the rules of chivalry and keep his weapon sheathed until it was time. The right time.
He cradled his gun with both hands and looked at its nicked, blue finish and roughened,
worn walnut grips. He had always thought there was something feminine about his revolver, although he wasn’t really sure since he’d only seen a few women in his life. But its bulging, suggestive curves; smooth, warm touch; its buxom cylinder; the sharp smell that lingered around it, and of course its innocent appearance masking the explosive danger all suggested the kind of women the cowpokes around his ranch warned him about.
Years earlier, when the spread of his hands was smaller, Josh rescued this Colt from the personal effects of a dead ranch hand. The old guy had been a quiet sort, just a drifter who’d passed through one summer and stayed to work. He’d died of natural causes, pa’ said. Together, father and son gave him a decent Christian burial up near where Josh’s mother and sister were buried.
But before Josh told his pa’ about finding the body, he’d swiped the revolver, holster and a few boxes of shells from beneath the cowpoke’s bunk. Pa’ didn’t notice, and Josh carefully hid his booty of sacred icons from his disapproving father. Like any Wild West rancher, they always kept a loaded rifle and shotgun near the front door of their one-room cabin. But pa’ didn’t like handguns, “instruments for lowly men, brigands and highwaymen,” he’d say with a sneer.
For several years, after the chores were done or when pa’ was rounding strays in the high country, Josh would take the gun up to the barn loft. He named it “Excalibur,” after the famous sword from the stories his father was always reading to him. There, in the shadows and quiet he’d reverently weigh Excalibur in his hand, take it apart, clean it, reassemble it, load and unload it until the copper shell casings were buffed gold. Barn mice became desperadoes and black knights, and he’d draw the sights down on them with a speed he knew would win any tournament and protect Camelot from evil-doers.
Josh artfully slid the gun back in its holster and adjusted his posture in the saddle. He recalled the time when his father left the spread for a few days to do ranch business. Josh waited until his pa’ was well out of hearing range, then he gathered his weaponry and rushed to the arroyo. Even though he was alone for a thousand miles, he checked to see if anyone was watching. Satisfied he was alone he took aim on a nearby clod of packed dirt and for the first time fired the Colt. The shock of the explosion and recoil left him shaking, excited, even thrilled. He’d missed his target by a few feet, but where the 44-bullet crashed was a small crater of dust that somehow still filled him with pride.
He carefully examined what he had done, retracing the bullet’s path in his mind. He knew he had only so many bullets, not enough for trial and error testing. He’d have to be real “methodic,” like his father was always telling him. He removed the remaining bullets and practiced with the unloaded gun, noticing his tendency to jerk left when he pulled the trigger. Once he corrected this he placed one bullet in the chamber, aimed and squeezed. For some reason this time the report didn’t seem as loud, the recoil wasn’t as severe, and best of all, his target was a thing of the past. From dust to dust, he thought, just like pa’ said over the grave of Excalibur’s original owner.
For the next few years, Josh practiced his secret knighthood art with a passion that gave his young years focus and wisdom. Once his hands were large enough, and his arms as strong as Lancelot’s, he began to earnestly study the art of fast-draw. He practiced everywhere. He greased and massaged his holster until it gave no resistance, and filed down the barrel sites so they wouldn’t catch. And he continued to practice until he was faster than his own thoughts, and that’s when he knew he was ready for the tournaments in Tucson.
He reached the outskirts of the dusty town, winding through scattered adobes and darting, brawny chickens. A hot breeze smelled of the city’s secrets, scents he could only imagine: whiskey, women, tobacco, as well as odors he knew well, like men’s sweat and onions cooking. He grew excited as the exotic mixed with the familiar.
Would his father ever forgive him, he wondered? In his haste to leave before his father’s return, he’d left only a fragment of a message: “Gone to the Tournaments to make my fortune and find my fate.” He knew his father would understand what he meant, but would he understand why? Pa’ loved the eloquent stories of the Round Table, the heroic deeds of the men of yore. But Josh didn’t know what pa’ thought about these new times when swords and lances were exchanged for Colts and repeating rifles and sawed-off shotguns.
It made no difference. He’d make his father real proud, of that he was certain. He’d live strictly to the Code of Honor and go slow in his contests. He may be fast, but since he’d never seen another man draw, he didn’t know how fast the best could be. No, he’d happily start in the lower ranks and work his way up in a careful, methodic kinda way.
An old man stepped out of one of the squat adobes, stopped and looked up at him, then tucked his head and scurried away. Josh knew he wouldn’t be recognized, not yet at least. But he’d make a good first impression, and he straightened his posture and held his reigns high. He was satisfied knowing it wouldn’t be long before word about his victories and speed would be the talk of the land, and men such as that geezer would smile and salute him.
The main road into Tucson was long and thick in fine dust. Someone was baking. A sweet, intoxicating smell reminded him of the last few days of salted meat and sour bread. Josh inhaled deeply and remembered back to his last desert cottontail he’d out gunned on the trail. Nothing left but a pair of twitching ears and some ready meat for the greasewood fire. Times would be different soon.
Closer to the center of town his excitement grew. It was all so remarkable, probably not much different than Camelot, and so many people that they couldn’t possibly know one another. He was surprised that in the cooling brightness of the day there were no gun duels in the streets. He’d expected to find tanned and spidery gunslingers facing each other at dusk. And when the sun set, the final victor would collect up his winnings, his piles of guns and belts, his sets of new boots, hats and a fresh horse, and whatever money he collected from the purse of the losers. Then the victor would stroll back to the bar to be greeted with applause, warm embraces from the bar girls, and the winner would join the hallowed circle of champions.
Other than a leathery dog that chased out of a stable barking at his horse, no one seemed to notice him on this most important day. No messengers raced ahead to announce his arrival. No peasants asked to see him perform. No boys begged to be his page. But none of this really mattered. His invisibility would work in his favor in the early rounds. He had it all figured. He’d challenge a few beginners to duels, and then when his reputation was established he’d proceed to score against some of the older masters, at least those who’d dare to face him. He remembered the lessons his father told about the vain knights who’d rushed into contests too early, too ill prepared and how they paid for their foolishness with their lives, a fate Josh was in no hurry to share. No, he’d live by the rules, faithfully follow the Code, and work his way up to a point when he could return to pa’ and the ranch rich and respected, a trusted warrior of the Territory.
In the middle of town Josh found a collection of dirty, boisterous cantinas scattered around the main street. Music poured from some, while in others old men sat around tables playing checkers, cards or just talking in clouds of cheap cigar smoke. He made a random choice and tied his horse to a hitching post outside one of the more ramshackle establishments. It was a loud place, and he saw that it was active as a summer anthill as he stepped inside.
Nobody looked up, which was fine with him since he was standing there gawking like a horny toad on a desert rock. In the dim light of the smoky room he saw it was filled with men, more people than he’d seen in a lifetime, all talking and laughing and drinking. He boldly lunged towards the dark wood bar, and rested his elbows on the polished surface as if he’d done it a thousand times.
“What’ll ya’ have, son?” The portly barkeep approached him.
“Ah, nothin’ just yet.” Josh didn’t want to admit that he had no money, at least none yet. Besides, he had never taken a drink before and his pa’s warnings made him careful to do nothing that might affect his quick draw technique.
The bartender glared and walked away to serve another paying customer. Josh used the moment to turn and size up the other men standing around the bar. It was then that he noticed that none of them were wearing guns.
“Hey, cowboy, didn’t you read the sign? Or can’t you read?” It was a woman’s voice. “If you wanta stay, you gotta buy a drink and check in your gun.”
He reeled around to face a pockmarked, mustached, heavily powdered woman. He suddenly felt boyish, thick tongued. He had no idea what to say, so he did what seemed normal and ducked his head and fled past her towards the swinging doors.
Back on the street he found a secluded corner out of the hustle and traffic where he could sit, think, breathe. This wasn’t what he expected to find in the big city. He felt rattled, cheated. This wasn’t at all like what he thought it’d be. It wasn’t like pa’s stories or the book his mother had toted from their Eastern home, the book with sweeping illustrations of maidens and proud men in armor atop muscular steeds. Maybe he’d just gone into the wrong place. Surely, even in Camelot there must have been rotten people and evil places. It was time to try some other saloons around town. He’d need to win at least one man’s purse and booty by nightfall in order to find a room and meal, and it was gettin’ late.
He stood, dusted off his arms and thighs, and continued his quest. The next bar was nearly empty except for a short barkeep and a stout, well-dressed gent who was probably the town banker. They both glanced at him as he stepped inside, and nothing was said as he quietly retreated back to the street to seek the next place.
The third bar was a low ceiling, dirt floor cantina. A few senoritas pressed through a crowd of low-life men passing out short glasses of amber drink. Several men played cards while others hunched over a crude wooden bar. All wore pistols and looked tough, rowdy, ready for a challenge. He immediately knew this was the place he sought.
Josh stepped inside. The smell of thick smoke and unkempt bodies nearly stopped him, but he was determined to get his first challenge over with, get the day over with, collect his reward and maybe, he was surprised to admit, even head back to the ranch for a few days with pa’. He threaded his way through the mob to a small gap at the bar. Before the bartender could ask him what he wanted Josh turned around and faced the room.
“Is there anyone daring enough to accept my challenge?” His voice felt strangely weak and thin compared to the whiskey drenched roar around him. No one seemed to notice.
“I said, is there anyone willing to accept my challenge!” This time he shouted and the room grew immediately silent.
A dusty cowpoke a few men away asked, “What’s that you say?” A few others chuckled as he stepped away from the bar and repeated his question, “What was it you jus’ said?”
Josh looked around trying his best to not show his pity for the rumpled fellow.
“Once again, I asked if there was anyone who wanted to accept my challenge.” He pointed to Excalibur on his hip then raised his hand and motioned past the swinging doors. “It’s getting late in the day, we’re losing light.”
Out of the throng clumsily stepped a particularly vile cowpuncher. He wore a greasy and spotted kerchief over a frayed denim shirt. But around his waist was a shiny black gun belt, and hanging in the holster a sparkling, silver six-shooter. This would be a good first prize, and dispensing with this man would feel OK, to boot. The man approached Josh in only a few steps. Suddenly he was standing directly in front of him, pushing into his face.
“What da’ya’ mean with this here ‘challenge?’”
Josh figured his foe wasn’t used to challenges, or maybe in Tucson they had a different word for it. Plus, who’d want to challenge this loathsome creature anyway, even for such a new looking gun set.
“You know, out on the street, ten paces, face to face.”
“Are you trying to say you wanna gun fight? Out on the street?” His adversary turned and addressed the crowd in slurred speech, “This little shit wantsa gun fight! Didja’ all hear that?”
The crowd laughed, and Josh turned red and angry.
“Yea, you heard me. Usual rules. Best man wins the other man’s goods.”
“Usual rules, you says….” He was still shouting at the other men of the bar, “Usual rules? Does that mean no shootin’ at peckers?” He suddenly turned and pressed his face within inches of Josh’s. “You want usual rules, you got ’em. I accept.”
For a brief moment Josh realized that his knights of yore probably had to start like this too, sparring with riff-raff and cleaning out the ranks. But he was looking forward to the day he’d be past this lowly form of challenge, to the time when it would be more dignified, mannerly, when his opponents would be more refined, like he was.
“Well come on sonny boy. Like ya’ said, light’sa fadin’.”
He swept his burly arm towards the door and the men in the way stepped aside clearing an aisle that led to the street. Josh didn’t wait for a second offer. Boldly and filled with the confidence of any 17-year old on the first step of his fate he marched ahead. Just as he reached the swinging gates he heard a loud explosion behind him, and in that instant felt a powerful punch on his back and a burning ripping through the core of his chest. The force plowed him through the doors and face down into the dusty street in a limp pile.
He couldn’t move and he was feeling very cold. The world suddenly felt hollow, filled with echoes and shadows. Out of the corner of his vision he could see the spreading blood leaking from somewhere inside him. It was brown and matted down the street muck. Behind him he could hear a pile of men rushing through the door to look. They were laughing, slapping his foe on the back and mumbling something about the usual rules.
Josh tried to protest, tried to yell and that he’d been cheated and claim the Code had been broken. But nothing on his body worked as he felt the cold take hold and Camelot fade in the distance.