Western — “Above the Snakes”

Leagues ahead, as if justification for the old man’s suffering, was a boat. How could refuge exist out here in the abandon? The red dust and crags. Would he find whale bone, and coral, and mermaid skulls, and impossible Lemuria?

He drew near the boat. A thing of wood and shadow, like a coffin, or a cradle. Beneath its keel, he said, I’ll lose them. Or maybe despair waited for dry bones to rest on canine prayers.

A starving Colt 45, unholstered. The storm-stained old man fingered pockets, finally slipping a solitary shell into the loading gate. It would probably end up lodged between his eyes before biting his pursuers. It’d been a long ride through the desert, and when the horse died, a long hike.

He wanted visions. Begged visions. Maybe his wife dead somewhere on the trails. Holden and the fellows. Forget the orange cascades of sand, the tumblebrush, the wolves irate as bishops. The dead, come. Father, come. Mother, childhood faces. Watch an old man die.

But he knew they would stay whispering things in the crevices in his mind. Out here it was only the tangible – the old man, the gun, the four riders only pinpricks in the horizon, and the boat, tall on the dunes, Spanish-make, for the transport of Orientals.

Back in Mississippi there were stories for folks on hard times. The old man recalled one in particular, a tale of a fiddler with the audacity to summon vipers when he played. Once, to impress a beef-city mistress, the fiddler stood atop a hill and played and all the snakes began slipping out of their holes and trees and secret dens. They came fast a million lightning bolts, their rattles making an awful thunder. They came right for their savior on the mount.

The fiddle broke. The lady laughed. And here these snakes on their way, expecting the good news.

Shadows encased the old man.  A yeast touched his nose, a stench of something begging to be buried. In the galley, a rattler. Brown holster of a head, skin like the finest rope. It was cooling by stool water in a pale jug.

The old man approached, hands splayed like to warm by a fire.

You might not know men, said the old man. Out there their lives are cheaper than a cigarette.

The old man skirted the snake. It stared at him, sizing up this blistered scarecrow. The man, most creative when near the end, kept up his croaked whispers.

One reckoned it was going to flood, see. Said this desert ain’t staying hot and salty. There’ll be a Biblical flood coming like Rapture’s behind it, and we best prepare. This man, he builds a boat. But not any boat. The biggest damn boat in the whole damn country. And guess what happens?

Gun stock came raining down on a holster of a head.

Forty years and the man died trembling from his thoughts.

The snake thrashed some, even as the man peeled back its skin to expose its tender bits. I’m above the snakes, the old man thought. Above the ground at least.