“Whiskey, Jed,” the old man said, “for both of us.”
“On the tab, Will?” the barkeep asked, and the old man nodded.
I learned two things right then: His name was Will, which didn’t sit right on him somehow, and both he and the barkeep expected him to be back to pay that tab. I nodded. The more sure he is, the bigger his surprise.
Barkeep Jed slid two shots down the bar at us. I snatched one as it passed, let the other go. He caught it smooth as silk, never spilled a drop.
I faced him when I saw him move from the corner of my eye. He raised his glass toward me, and that sly grin crinkled his face.
“To life,” he said. “May it be long and happy.”
I dipped my head to acknowledge the toast, and we threw back the shots together. It went down slick and warm, spread through my empty gullet and lit life’s fire in me. I’d been on the road lean and hard, and the brown liquid washed down like a beam of sunlight, soothed every nerve in me and settled sound in my gut.
His tongue herded the the droplets from his mustache, and he stared into the glass for a moment.
“Well, then,” he said, his voice soft again, “guess you’ll be wanting to get this over with.”
I didn’t reply. He drew a long breath through his nose and hitched up his gunbelt, pushed his coat tails back and expanded his chest with air. Then he looked me dead in the eye, and those flashing, dancing eyes I saw at the door became flat as coal and winter-grave cold.
“Let’s go,” he said, his voice stony, emotionless.
I touched the brim of my hat, and he paced out those swinging, creaky doors without hurry, me a step behind. He strode in rehearsed steps from under the common eaves that ran along street front buildings, into the dusty road that spanned the town. He headed for one end of the street, and I to the other. We squared off in the center of the powdery road, tiny dust devils rising from our heels, gunbelts jangled and rattled in time with our steps. Then fell silent and only the music of the wind remained when we froze and stared at each other.
He pushed his coat tail behind the heavy wooden handle that gleamed in the drowning sunlight under the dense overcast, and rested his hand on it.
“You sure you want this, son?” he called. It felt like the wind carried the breath of his words to me. I considered, just then — and only then — for a second. No more.
“Yeah,” I said and gave a firm nod, then noticed a crowd had poured to the boardwalk under the eaves on both sides of the road. They stood out of the weather and out of the line of fire, the cool air wet with rain that hadn’t fallen but would.
He sighed again, and I heard him as if he stood beside me. “Maddy,” he called, and one of the whores from the bar stepped to the front of the saloon crowd. A short thing, but her bosoms about popped out of her tight bustier, the big ostrich feather on her head whipped in the breeze, and her skirt was slit up the front so her milky, rich thigh showed.
“Yeah, Will?” she yelled back. Her voice sort of killed it for me.
“You count it off, hon,” he said, and she nodded. His gaze never left me.