Many thanks to Margaret P for the beta.
You know how the color washes out when you look at something inside a cabin and the only light is what sneaks through the chinks? Morro Coyo gets like that—gloomy and colorless—whenever Day Pardee and his gang ride in.
Their faces keep changing and we never get to know any of their names, except Pardee’s and his second in command, Coley, but to a man, they’re meaner than snakes. If they admire your hat they take it right off your head, and you don’t get it back. If a good woman passes by they move way too close and speak indecent words. They shot the saloon keeper in the shoulder for not filling up the glasses fast enough.
So we all pretty much try to blend into the dust and not get noticed.
It’s hard for me to stay out of the picture, owning the livery and all. They come riding in from wherever their camp is, up in the foothills somewhere, and hand over their lathered up horses. The boy and me, we cool ‘em down and water ‘em. If there’s time, we dry ‘em out under the saddle blankets, clean their feet, all the things you do…Half the time I don’t even get paid. I asked for my money once, and got spit on. I guess that’s better than getting shot.
They rode in this morning and Pardee disappeared inside the cantina, leaving six or seven of his gang outside. They’re pretty quiet. Sergio and I tend to their horses, who aren’t quite as lathered up as usual; they must not have been in such a big hurry today.
“Hey, boss.” Sergio leads the last of the horses into the barn from the corral, and he jerks his head for me to look outside. Morro Coyo is all closed in on itself. Everybody’s staying out of sight, except old Vittorio. Vittorio comes shuffling back from the well, singing his water song, happy like he always is because he’s simple. He doesn’t remember that Pardee and his men are here. He turns the corner and there’s the knot of them in front of the cantina.
Sergio swears under his breath and stops brushing his horse. I stop, too, and step behind the sliding door of the livery so I can see what’s going on.
Vittorio keeps singing and the outlaws laugh at him. When they shoot a hole through one of his buckets he cries at them to stop; they laugh harder and plink his precious water, splashing it out of the bucket.
I’m too cowardly to do anything except pray, and it seems that prayer gets answered when a rider on a flashy gold horse shows up. The palomino is rank, tossing its head and dancing around, but the man on its back is relaxed and in control.
“Quién es ese?” Sergio keeps his voice low; I shrug, because I don’t know who it is. Pardee’s vultures sit tight, watching the newcomer. With his Mexican jacket, concho pants, and Anglo Stetson, this man is not trying to blend into the dust.
He rides straight to Vittorio, who pleads with him while he steps off the horse and looks up and down the street. When he sees the outlaws he takes up one of the buckets, sends Vittorio away, and heads toward the cantina. Now I see the stranger’s gun belt is fixed low and the holster tied down. Why is this gunfighter protecting Vittorio?
Like wolves eyeing fresh meat, the gang starts up again; they shoot the bucket. The guy jerks it away from his legs but other than that, he doesn’t turn a hair. His palomino shies and snorts, though, so he leads it over to the side of the street where I’m watching from behind the door. He hooks one rein around a post but never takes his eyes off Pardee’s men.
I guess that’s why he did a bad job of it. When the horse pulls loose and tries to follow him, I surprise myself by sneaking out to lead the palomino out of harm’s way. For a second I consider taking it to the livery but decide the rider probably expects to find it where he left it, so I don’t. Instead I tie it to a sturdy post that’s weathered gray except where it’s been chewed by bored horses.
The water leaking from the bullet hole leaves a silver trail as the stranger walks right up to Pardee’s gang. He doesn’t look afraid, but I am—afraid if I move away from the horse I’ll call attention to myself. I sneak a look where Sergio lurks at the livery door, biting his lip, and I decide to chance it; I back up slow until I‘m safe.
Just before I go back into the livery, Day Pardee comes out of the cantina, smiling so big I can see his metal tooth. Looks like he and the new gunfighter know each other. They go back inside together and that little ray of hope I felt when the stranger helped Vittorio bleeds clean away.
The last thing Morro Coyo needs is another gunfighter working with Day Pardee.
I go back to work. In the cool of the stable all the horses look gray, but when I go out to scoop the corral I see the gold horse hitched outside. Turned out to be a real nice horse to handle, once the gun fire stopped.
Soon Pardee and some of his boys come to collect their horses; he tells one of them to pay me. The guy reaches in his pocket and comes up empty-handed. They laugh and that seems to be the end of it. Off they go, and after a bit Coley and the rest claim their horses and ride out without so much as a thank you. There’s no sign of the new man.
You can feel the change in the air after Pardee leaves. Folks start moving around again and there’s more noise in the streets. After a while the stranger comes ambling down the street, head bent like a man deep in thought. He looks up to see where I’d moved his horse; he sees me shoveling manure from the corral, and he gives me a nod.
When he checks his cinch it needs tightening, so he knows I looked after his horse. The gunfighter looks back at me, fingers his hat in a kind of salute, and flips me a coin. There’s a glint of yellow and the coin drops into the dirt. I bend to pick it up while he settles easy into his saddle. By the time I have the coin in my fingers he’s loping back the way he came in.
And the coin I hold in my hand turns out to be an honest to god double eagle – twenty dollars of pure gold that more than makes up for what the other gunhawks have cheated me out of. And for some reason, that ray of hope comes back.