He had only one bullet, so he shot his horse. Ned, known in some places as Jake, had been careless and had to escape into the desert without stopping for water. Owing to this, he and the horse would die, but he thought he could at least spare the horse some suffering. He had briefly considered saving the bullet for himself but dismissed the idea. Since early youth he had been assured by many people, his own family foremost among them, that he would surely meet his end at the end of a rope. He had never doubted it, and if he returned to town now the townspeople would be more than happy to fulfill that prophecy. He had never, even at his lowest point, seriously considered killing himself. He believed in playing the cards he was dealt, and so he would let this decidedly poor hand play out.
He had spoken softly to the horse, and patted it on the side of the head for some time. At last he stepped back, raised his gun, and fired. It is curious to consider that a man, such as Ned, who would not hesitate to shoot a man nevertheless has a hard time bringing himself to shoot a horse. It may be that since earliest time man has been man’s worst enemy, but there existed no such primordial enmity toward the horse. It is a subject that would benefit from further study.
Without knowing why, he walked on. He told himself, “it won’t be long now.” He had already lost his color vision. His feet dragged, raising clouds of dust in the still hot air. As he had many times before, he took the canteen that was slung over his shoulder, unscrewed the cap, tilted his head back, and shook the canteen over his gaping mouth. Not one drop of water fell from the canteen. In anger, he tossed the canteen aside. It rattled across the hard ground, then disappeared over the edge of a cliff. He heard it clanging down the side of the cliff, and then he heard a faint splash.
Ned hobbled to the edge. Far below, hugging the base of the cliff, was a small stream. He spidered his way down the cliff face, sometimes sliding when a foothold gave way. Once at the bottom he fell flat and plunged his face into the stream. When he had swallowed as much as he could he wiped the water from his eyes. He was astonished to see a horse standing beside him drinking, and more astonished still to see that it was his horse. He fell back. “It can’t be,” he said. “I shot you.”
The horse looked up and said, “you’re dreaming.”
As he had many times before, he took the canteen that was slung over his shoulder, unscrewed the cap, tilted his head back, and shook the canteen over his gaping mouth. Not one drop of water fell from the canteen. In anger, he tossed the canteen aside. It rattled across the hard ground, then disappeared over the edge of a cliff. He heard it clanging down the side of the cliff, and then he heard a shout.
Looking down over the edge Ned saw that there was no stream at the bottom of the cliff. In its place stood a large man and two horses. The man at the bottom waved the canteen and called out, “Need water?”
Ned tried to reply but his mouth and throat were so dry that “yes” came out more like “ehhh,” but he shook his head and began climbing down. The large bearded man dressed all in grey held a full canteen out to him. Ned accepted the canteen, took a sip, then hesitated.
“Am I dreaming?” Ned asked.
“How would I know?” said the man.
That was a good point, Ned thought. How would he know? How, for that matter, was the horse so sure it was a dream? Well, it was a horse, and it was dead, and it was talking, so yes, that probably was a dream, but this seemed real enough.
Ned took up the canteen again and drank greedily until the man pulled it away from him, saying, “That’s enough.” He was tall, and so wide that his arms hung poking out at his sides like pigtails.
“Sorry,” said Ned.
“Water doesn’t grow on trees out here,” said the man. “You lost?”
“Nah,” said Ned. “Horse died.”
“Ah, that’s rough.”
“Where are you headed?” asked Ned, looking at the two horses.
“Me, I’m a bounty hunter. Been trackin’ a feller. Maybe you seen him?” He took a paper from his back pocket and handed it to Ned. Ned unfolded a wanted poster that had his face crudely drawn in the center. It was a good likeness, he thought, except for the chin and jaw. The chin was all wrong. When he looked up he saw the man was pointing a gun at him. Ned began to reach for his own gun when he remembered he had used his last bullet.
“Easy, there,” said the bounty hunter. “Hands in the air.” He reached over and took Ned’s gun. “Funny thing about that paper. Says, ‘wanted dead or alive.’ Why you s’pose that is? Never ‘alive or dead.’ Always ‘dead’ comes first, like it’s a preference. Dead man’s a lot less trouble all around, I expect. Reward’s the same. So, nothin’ personal mister, but I’m obliged to shoot you.”
As he had many times before, he took the canteen that was slung over his shoulder, unscrewed the cap, tilted his head back, and shook the canteen over his gaping mouth. Not one drop of water fell from the canteen. In anger, he tossed the canteen aside. It rattled across the hard ground, then disappeared over the edge of a cliff. The sound stopped. He peered over the edge but did not see his canteen anywhere. As he stood wondering, a voice behind him said, “Here.”
Ned turned. An old woman in a long black dress was holding out a canteen. Behind her stood a small horse-drawn wagon. Ned took a short drink and began handing back the canteen.
“No, go ‘head,” said the woman. “I got plenty. Saw your horse a ways back and thought you might be in a bad way, so I followed your tracks.”
Ned resumed drinking. If this is a dream, he thought, I’ve got to find a way to stay in it. “What brings you out here?” he asked.
“I’m a fortune-teller. Travel from town to town.”
“My people are from Louisiana, but if folks like to think fortune-tellers are gypsies, then I’m OK being a gypsy.”
Drinking had enabled him to start sweating again, and Ned wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
“You’re lookin’ a might puny,” said the woman. “Maybe you’d best sit down.”
Ned sat heavily, his back resting against the back wheel of the wagon. The woman took a small wooden stool from the back of the wagon and sat beside him. “I could tell your fortune.”
“No thanks ma’am.”
“Oh, come now. It’s what I do. Let me see your palm. No, the other one.”
Ned extended his right hand.
“This here is your lifeline,” said the woman.
“Is it always so short?”
“No.” She peered intently. “Oh, my.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t say.”
“Go on,” said Ned.
“You done some bad things, mister. Some real bad things. And now someone’s going to shoot you.”
“Me,” said the woman, taking a pistol from a pocket in her dress. “Now.”
He stepped back, raised his gun, and fired. The bullet struck a metal clasp on the horse’s bridal and was deflected, striking him in the chest. Ned fell onto his back and lay still, watching the light drain from the sky.
The horse leapt away, shaking its head. It circled around, sniffed the dead man, then turned and started walking back toward the town.