The paint was tired and looking for a fight by the time Bruce rode into Alvareza that afternoon. The town was quiet as he went up Main Street, sitting tight in the saddle and feeling the people on the sidewalks stopping and staring, their eyes boring holes into the back of his blue shirt. They would notice the dusty horse, the notched gun, the callous set of his shoulders. He never could figure out the uncanny way these small town folk could know a man for what he was at first glance.
Across the street a man in a suit, carrying a leather pouch under his arm, stopped so suddenly that the boy skipping behind him almost bumped into him. He stared at Bruce for a moment, and then rushed off into one of the buildings.
Bruce didn’t look in his direction as he reined the paint to a halt in front of the saloon.
His feet cramped painfully when his boots hit the dust and his shirt was clinging to his back with sweat. He held on to the pommel for moment, chuckling darkly when the paint shouldered him out of the way to reach the water trough.
“Get at it, ya nasty animal.”
His feet accustomed themselves to the solid ground, and he slapped the horse on the rump as he passed it and trudged up the steps.
As he stood there for a moment, his back to the saloon and just looking at the dusty street, two men on black horses came galloping by.
Bruce locked eyes with the nearest of the two for one short moment. Black eyes in a pasty face. Sneering teeth under curled lips. It was just a fleeting moment, but he had long since learned to recognise evil in a man’s face. And this one made his skin crawl.
He turned from the street, suddenly cold, and walked quickly into the saloon.
It was dark and smoky inside, the smell of sweat and cigarettes and beer hitting him in the face with a pleasant sort of familiarity. Once again he was conscious of the sudden quiet around him, eyes boring into him.
The barman had only one eye, Bruce noticed as he leaned onto the polished surface. The other was covered with a rakish black eyepatch.
“Beer and a room, please,” he said.
The clink of his money was loud in the quiet.
The barman went to the taps, returning a moment later with a mug of golden liquid and a rusty key.
“First room on the second floor, mister,” he said.
“Thank you,” Bruce said politely, even though the drag of exhaustion threatened to garble his words. “You have a place I can put my horse?”
“Jist round the back.”
The man moved away to serve another customer. Bruce lifted the mug to his lips and started gulping down the cold liquid.
The conversation had picked up again, and at the far end of the room a young man with red hair laughed rambunctiously.
Bruce contemplated ordering a plate of food, as he sipped on the last dregs of his beer. The smell of beans and frying meat floated through the open kitchen door behind the barman. But the thought of a bed and sleep made him reach for the room key.
A shadow loomed at his side.
“Yer Bruce Trelawney, ain’t ya?”
The woman was large. That was all Bruce could think for a moment. She was standing next to him, peering at him through polished glasses. The man with the leather pouch lurked anxiously at her elbow.
The barroom was suddenly quiet again as Bruce turned towards her and took of his hat.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Yer one of them gunslinger, ain’t ya?”
Bruce could feel his tired shoulders straightening, his spine tightening into steel.
“Them Clancy boys just rode into town.”
It was always like that, wasn’t it? Bruce wanted to ask. You ride into town. You feel the people staring at you, and you how it was going to go down. Sometimes you get chance to finish your beer and hunker down in the hotel room before they come. “Mister, jist speaking for the town. We’re peace lovin’ folks, and we jist don’t want your kind around.” “Mister, them Clancy boys just rode into town. We don’t mind yer stayin’, at least not until you’ve saved our sorry hides. Why don’t ya jist step out, kill a few bad guys and be on yer merry way?
He turned away from her and picked up the key.
“And I don’t want any part of it, ma’am.”
A low murmur went through the room.
The woman nudged the man with the pouch, and he put it down on the polished wood next to Bruce.
“We’ll pay you good money, mister,” he said.
Bruce didn’t even look at the bills the man stacked in front of him.
“I’m not for sale,” he said.
He glanced at the woman, and their eyes locked for a moment.
“Yer a coward, Bruce Trelawney,” she said.
“No, ma’am. Jist tired.”
He stepped into the street moments later and unfastened the paint’s reins. The street was quiet, a lonely old woman rocking on a porch chair at the end of the street. Bruce shielded his eyes against the sun and looked towards the other end, where two black horses were fastened to the front of the Palace Hotel.
Then he turned around and led his horse towards the stable.
He looked down at his own hands, viciously shaking on the reins. The big woman spoke the truth, he thought, he isn’t just tired. Bruce Trelawney had lost his nerve.
Bruce settled himself onto the small hotel room, after he had habitually locked and bolted the hotel room’s flimsy door behind him. He removed his boots, unbuckled his gun belt and crashed onto the narrow bed.
He half expected to immediately pass out from sheer exhaustion, but instead he laid staring at the stained roof.
The big woman. The one-eyed barman. The young red-headed man laughing without abandon. The old woman rocking on the porch. He wondered which one of them would die or lose somebody close to them.
He didn’t know if there was a lawman in Alvareza, but he prayed that the man knew his way around a gun.
Bruce woke from a fitful sleep in the cold darkness just before sunrise. He laid there for a moment, listening for the sound that had awakened him. The next burst of gunfire sent him halfway across the room, clutching for his own gun. He crouched there, listening, feeling the familiar stillness of the iron in his hand.
He put down his gun on the bed, after a few moments, and then reached for his boots.
He slipped them on, picked up the empty gun belt from the chair.
Bruce grimaced, almost, at the familiarity of the leather settling onto his hips, and the weight of the gun as he picked it up and slipped it into its holster.
Damn Alvareza and the Clancy boys and all the little towns before them that had sucked the life out of him. Damn the tiredness for making him want to lie down and not go out there and kill a man. Damn the nerves for making his hands shake. And most of all, damn the little voice in his head that refused to let him sleep quietly in his room while innocent men are getting killed out there.
There was a rush of footsteps in the hall outside his room, two pairs, coming fast.
Bruce opened the door before they could knock.
“Where are they?” he asked.
They had an old man with a tin star on his bleeding chest cornered when Bruce walked up to them. They were alone, just him and the two black-eyed brothers and the old man laying panting in the dust.
“Well, if it ain’t Bruce Trelawney.”
It was the one that had locked eyes with Bruce in the street yesterday, and in a sudden burst of clarity he realized that this all was about him. It wasn’t about Alvareza or the dead man laying in the sheriff’s office or the money in the anxious man’s pouch.
“Your name is Clancy, I believe,” Bruce said.
“Nimrod Clancy,” the man said. “And this is my brother Joe.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Bruce grinned at them, and he saw the twitch in Nimrod Clancy’s shoulders a moment before he went for his gun.
Something hit Bruce under his ribs, knocking the breath out of him. But even as he fell sideways his own gun spit fire. Joe Clancy was still standing when Bruce hit the ground. He fired another bullet at him, and the young man’s shot went wide as he fell onto his back.
Bruce struggled to his feet, his hand clutched tightly over the bloody hole in his side.
He stooped over Nimrod Clancy.
Clancy turned his head sideways and spat at his boots.
“Why do ya think?” he rasped. “There was good money being paid. Somebody wants you dead pretty bad, Brucey-boy.”
Clancy shivered and closed his eyes.
The street was suddenly full of clamouring people. The big woman trying to catch Bruce by the sleeve. The young red-headed man shaking him enthusiastically by the hand. A beautiful young woman whispering thanks to him as she kneels to bandage the old sheriff’s wounds.
Bruce rode into the grim paleness of the dawn, a cut-off piece of his own shirt wrapped around his bleeding side. He can’t wait. Sooner or later the thankfulness will turn to wariness and then to fear, he knows that.
He slapped the paint on its rump and spurred it towards the mountains.
At least, this time, he didn’t kill for money.
(Inspired by the song Frightened Town by Lorne Green. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3OWQ4OH_TM)