Life’s a funny thing, isn’t it.
You know, most days I wouldn’t think twice about putting one foot in front of the other. After all, I’ve done it all my life – since way back when I was a just a little feller with a runny nose and a wobbly gait. My ma used to love telling me the story of how the doctor in our town said I’d never walk like the other kids because my feet turned in. She sure proved him wrong. And knowing her, she probably told him so a dozen times each week. She made me wear that leg brace till I was seven or eight. If it had been left to me, I probably would have thrown the doggone thing away long before that. But my mother always had more than enough grit for the both of us. So I did what she said. And she was right.
A pity that, for all her work, she couldn’t teach me to walk a straight line.
One step. I take my time. Doesn’t seem any point in rushing this. Besides, I can still feel that set of eyes on my back and I don’t aim to make it look like I mind any of this.
Yep, Ma straightened out those legs of mine. I can still see her standing by the door of our house. Well, it wasn’t really much of a house. More like a shack I suppose. But she scrubbed it morning, noon and night and I still say her floor was cleaner to eat off than most plates I’ve supped from. She used to have this look in her eye, like she was real proud of me. Real proud. Then one day I remember noticing that look was getting kinda frayed around the edges. Oh sure, there was still some hope in that look of hers but I could see I was what you might call ‘something of a disappointment’ to her. Not that she ever said anything, mind you.
“You shouldn’t go askin’ around town,” she’d say to me. “We have enough for our needs and when the rains come, we’ll have even more.”
Well, I never could figure out what her needs were, but I sure knew what mine were, and going to bed with a gnawing pain in my gut that made me curl into a ball sure wasn’t one of them.
“Ma, the townspeople want to help.” They sure did. All I had to do was stand out front of the general store and look kinda forlorn and some old biddy would hand me a few coins or come out with an apple or a candy stick.
“We don’t need their help. I don’t want their help,” she’d say and cross her arms tight across her bosom like she was trying to hold onto what little she had. Only thing was her her elbows poked out like arrow tips and her hands were like chicken feet they were so scrawny. Sometimes the tears would come into her eyes and she’d blink them away. But I’d just pretend not to see them. I was learning pretty fast that money in your pocket was the only friend you could trust. I sure wasn’t gonna wait until the rains came. And just as well - because they never did.
My feet feel a little heavier as I take the next step. I left my mama in a dusty grave and rode away on a borrowed horse. I never did get around to sending that nag back.
I drifted from town to town. For some reason, folk seemed to think I had the makings of a lawman in me. I was handy enough with a gun I guess, and in those early days, something of my ma was still in me because I took my work seriously enough. I even ended up in Abilene with Murdo as my deputy. Now they were good times. Some men just seem to bring out the best in a man; one day you find yourself standing in front of a looking glass and there’s a lick of gumption staring right back at you and you never knew you had it. Maybe some of them just rubs off onto the folk like me? Course Murdo didn’t know a thing about being a deputy – and I didn’t know much about being a sheriff. I don’t even know why I took him on now that I come to think of it. But he’d ridden into town without a cent to his name, a blown horse and an ache in his heart. And once I heard his story I knew he was never going to get rid of it. He was looking for Maria’s boy. The wench had up and left and taken the kid and Murdo was a mess all right. Anyway, I convinced him if she’d come to these parts, sooner or later she’d land up in town and if he was my deputy I’d make sure he got the kid back. Course she never did show. Biggest shock of my life finding young Johnny, all growed up and living at Lancer. Who would’ve thought I’d finally get to Lancer and find Murdo had sons crawling out of the woodwork? Not just the one, but two of them for pity’s sake.
This time I notice the way I put my next foot down. Not too rushed but not too slow either. I try to keep my eyes down but old habits die hard I guess. Heck, I’ve had a life time of being paid to notice things, haven’t I? Even got the scars to show it. The set of a man’s shoulder’s, where the calluses hardened on his hand; the state of his rig, that something in a man’s eyes that let you see clear through to his soul. And counting, I was always counting; how many bullets had been fired, how many left in my own piece, how many coins left in my drawer, how much money I had owing to me and the worst of all, how much money I owed everyone else. Got to the point where I practically owed the whole damned town of Portland. Of course, the odds were rarely in my favour, whether it be the bullets or the money. But that was a lawman’s lot, wasn’t it. So there it is: no chance in hell of me keeping my eyes down and I’ve got to admit I’ve seen some prettier sights ahead of me in my time.
Five steps is all I have to take. Just five. Now I have three steps to go, including this one. Just three.
I’ve long since come to hate this time of day. Mostly because of my rheumaticky bones. Even a lumpy mattress and a moth eaten blanket feel like your best friends when the moon’s still waiting for the sun to get up. Yep, they sure could have chosen a better time for this affair.
Well, at least my boots are polished. To tell the truth I’m not sure why I went to so much bother last night. It filled in time, I guess. So of all the things I could’ve done last night, I spend a half hour polishing my boots. First polish they’d had in years.
My Uncle Tom always told me I had a big mouth. And take it from me, he spoke the truth all right. I sure shot if off boasting about my good friend Murdoch Lancer.Why the hell didn’t I answer that letter of his when he first sent it? I scrunch my eyes tight. Sometimes that helps shut out the pain or whatever it is that swamps me when I get to thinking. Can’t say it helps this time.
I pause for a second or two before taking the next step.
Regret. There’s no hiding it, no getting away from it. I’ve got too many damn regrets. It seemed like there was always plenty of time to get things done – tomorrow. And I meant to answer Murdoch’s letter. Went to do it a hundred times but something always got in the way of my getting around to it. ‘The way to hell is paved with good intentions.’ That’s what my ma used to tell me. She’d take my face in her hands and say, “Make something of yourself, Joe. I can’t do it for you, boy. Not me or your pa.” Course Pa couldn’t help me none. I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since I was three years old.
It’s a bit hard to see the next step. That old regret’s got hold of me again. I guess I let Ma down. I let a lot of people down. And it wasn’t as if I’d had a bad life. Better than some. Just as well Ma isn’t here to see me now. There isn’t anyone I care about to see me now.
My legs are starting to feel kind of heavy. A bit like how they go when you’ve been in the saddle five days straight. I did that. Well, me and Murdo. Caught our man, too. Young Eddie…Volks or Folks or something like that. And up another step I go.
I can hear a bit of a murmur down below but I’m not looking. I’m not giving them the satisfaction. No siree. Besides, there’s not anyone there I want to see. It don’t matter much. I made my peace with the Lord. I’ve got to admit, I’m not too sure of my welcome up there but the padre seemed to think once I’d said the sinner’s prayer I had a pretty good chance of making it in. And just thinking of that makes my hands start to sweat. The good book talks a lot about forgiveness. And there’s that ‘thing’ swamping me again. I feel like it’s drowning me. If only I could go back to that night. What was I thinking? What in God’s name was I thinking? When did I stop seeing right? What the hell, let’s be honest here, I never did see too right. If there was an easy way I usually took it. Oh sure, maybe not when I was young, when the badge still had its freshly minted shine. When Murdo knew me. When I was someone.
When I was someone…
And here it is. The last step.
My legs feel surprisingly steady now. Well ain’t that something. At least until I look ahead. I’ve got to hand it to them – it looks like a perfect fit, good and solid, barely swaying with the breeze.
So, this is it. This is how it finishes. Apparently they don’t take too kindly in Sacramento to lawmen going bad, especially ones that get another lawman killed. The judge said he had to make an example but it sure feels like it’s me who’s doing the exampling.
I don’t know how many are watching below but they’ve gone real quiet now. I know that quiet. And soon they’ll be all holding their breath – as I lose mine. I hope I don’t jerk around too much. I might’ve messed up in life but I surely don’t want to mess up in…well, you know what I mean.
I wasn’t going to look down. I’m not sure why I did. After all, I couldn’t think of a single person who’d shed a tear. Sure, there’d be plenty who’d jeer – that’s what you do to the town joke. But I did look down, and there he was. Murdoch Lancer himself. The man I’d tried to swindle, the father of the boy I’d tried to send off to Mexico for a murder he didn’t commit. I guess there’s a certain ironic justice to me being the one who’s about to swing.
And that feeling washes over me again and this time I know what it is. Shame. Shame because, in spite of all I’d done, Murdo hadn’t turned up to jeer like everyone else in town. My eyes lock on his and he mouths my name. And that’s just about my undoing. Good old Murdo.
Well, here I am – and I’ve got no more steps to take.