Eye for an Eye- Tales of the last Gunslinger

But it was long ago and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far, and if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…
(1993) Album notes for Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell by Meat Loaf [booklet]. Virgin (CDV2710 – 7243 8 39067 27)

It was obvious from the stench that the animal had been dead for at least a week, distended abdomen, matted fur, riotous feeding frenzy of flies playing tickle and tease with the foxtail lining the ditch.

For fear of death he chose to steer clear.

High overhead the sun beat down on the highway, the countryside, life in general, like a hammer against an anvil, without mercy but with purpose. It had been ninety degrees plus for more than a month now, and it looked like today would be more of the same. There was no breeze to speak of, only cloudless sky, as expected. Over his left shoulder, dual strips of asphalt bled off into the distance, motionless except for their watery haze. Before him lay much of the same, which is why he chose the off-ramp in the first place, he needed to find someplace else, someplace different then before.

With the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and what remained on his back, he continued his slow shuffle west, one dusty footstep at a time.

‘No one ever said it was going to be easy, or this hot.’ He suggested to no one but himself. But what could he really do about it other than complain. “I guess I could always break into some sort of rain dance…?” Then again, one look at the heavens said no, deadpan and steel blue with not a cloud in sight. It would take a hell of a lot more than a rain dance to break the current drought. It would take a miracle.

Having reached the top of the off ramp it was time to make a decision. He could cross the road before him and return to the highway below, in essence continuing his previous journey into the sun, which, at the moment was the direction his shadow seemed to be leaning- he could hang a right and head towards more of the same low rolling hills previously traversed, or he could veer left towards the town of Summersville and its citizens, whose sign said numbered around six hundred and thirty some souls- Despite the promise of his water running low, judging from the hollow slosh hanging from his left shoulder, the last thing he needed was to be around people. He remembered what happened the last time he was around people, ‘bad days’ as he put it, ‘bad days ending in gunfire.’ And the last thing he needed was more gunfire.

“Looks like I’ll be hanging a right after all.”

An hour later found the highway he’d just exited all but swallowed by the hills he had just entered. In an effort to escape the heat, his shadow had all but fled, what with the sun now directly overhead.  During his journey he’d stopped once, long enough to take a sip of water, brush the hair from his eyes and shift the pack on his back. His tee-shirt, weathered and worn, lay thin on his shoulders, and continued its pattern of stick, un-stick, and sticking to his back. ‘It is a little warm to be wearing blue jeans,’ he thought, though at the moment he was wearing his Sunday best. Soon or later he would have to stop and change back into the only pair of shorts he still owned.

Whether blistering hot or chilly as all get out, this part of the country couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind- and the further west he went, the worse this condition became.

He had been born in Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, to a good solid family. His father, though strict at times, had taught him everything he would ever need to know on how to survive and become a man. His mother had taught him all the finer things in life, such as what herbs to pick to flavor a soup just right, or how to care for his wounds, and also how to enjoy some of the simpler things… how shadows grew long in the fall, or how a particular beam of sunlight can break free from the clouds and hi-light a particular patch of ground in the distance, (such as after a gentle spring rain.) Or how the clouds seemed to roll and roil just before a mid-summer’s storm, building white upon white, higher and higher until swollen with violence they would suddenly let loose what had built them up in the first place-

The silence in the fields around him momentarily drew his attention elsewhere, away from his memories, until he realized that these fields were the same as all the other fields he had recently passed thru, non-descript and knee high in weeds and rolling green.

A single speck trolling a sullen sky caused him to absentmindedly reach for his journal. He had a habit of chronicling his journey, had been since the beginning. He often found comfort in the art of sketching what he saw, nothing grand or all that inspiring, but like his mom, he found joy in the simplest of things. Once he’d discovered a wild flower, white petal, green leaves, struggling against the elements, eking out its existence between the cracks of an old asphalt highway. Another time it was a weathered and oddly tilted fence post. The fence itself had long ago vanished, having returned to rust and dust, but in mute testimony the post had remained, another bent and aged squatter dotting the greater plains, much as himself. According to his latest figures and calculations, he had covered almost three hundred miles since his journey began, thirty since this morning. Not bad considering that his feet ached, his back ached, his shoulders ached, in fact, it would be a whole lot easier if he were to list what didn’t ache at the moment, rather then what did.

The sun was a good three fingers from the horizon when he came across the unexpected mile marker, a reflective green and white rectangle approximately twelve inches long and half as wide. The sign itself was attached to a galvanized metal pole and held approximately five feet off the ground by two galvanized bolts; it read ‘Mile Marker 244’.  Allowing the pack to slide from his back, he gently lowered it to the ground before opening two of the three top straps. Reaching in, he quickly and carefully retrieved the first of three objects.  The first was the most important, his father’s ancient sextant- this instrument he kept in its worn and threadbare padded black bag. The second object was equally as important as the first, but for an entirely different reason, his journal, chronicler of all events. The third and last object to be retrieved was his well worn and much thumbed copy of The Farmer’s Almanac dated 1982.

Three quarters of the way through his journal lay a thin red ribbon. Opening it at this point; today’s entry, he hesitantly lifted the ribbon, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.

The faint scent of lilacs remained, and continued to amaze him even after all these years. The girl it had belonged to, long since forgotten.

Lowering the ribbon, he set the opened journal across his knees and removed the sextant from its protective bag. With nary a shadow behind him, he raised the sextant to eye level, sighted in on the Moon, merely a silvery smudge barely a fingers width above the horizon, and measured the angle between it and the sun. Locking and rocking the instrument, he made note of the indicated angle in degrees and seconds in the left hand margin of his journal. He then opened the Farmer’s Almanac, cross checked the angle he had just measured to the correct table to find his current time in Greenwich Mean, he then scribbled this figure down, before comparing it to the intricate watch he wore on his left wrist.

‘I’m still off by more than a minute,’ he thought. Considering that his watch was constantly being updated by the atomic clock buried deep beneath the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington DC this seemed all but impossible… a possibility he chose to ignore.

Things had changed; the world was a different place now.

His next two measurements, which he also jotted down, indicated his current location in the world, 38°25’2.08″N by 96°33’25.35″W. Finished with his recording, he carefully repacked each and every item, tightened each strap, and then re-shouldered his backpack before continuing his journey once again. There was a place he needed to be, sanctuary some would have called it, others Nirvana. He simply called where he was heading, home. According to his latest calculations, he still had a very long way and time to go.

Nightfall would catch him stretched out in a local grotto, his eyes heavy, and with his heels kicked up to a velvety dark sky full of unknown stars spinning high overhead.

That night he dreamt-

When he was yet a child his father would take him out into the great dark night and point his face towards the heavens.

‘Do you see that’, his father would ask?

He would shake his head no, ‘See what Daddy?’

With, his father’s voice only inches from his ear his father would answer, ‘Those seven stars right there?’

Following his father’s lead, he quickly spots them.

‘That is the Big Dipper, a very important group of stars, son. So important, in fact, that they could save your life one day.’

‘But how Daddy…?’ How could pinpoints of light possibly save his life?

‘Do you see how those first three seem to form a handle, while the last four form the dipper portion itself? Now let your eyes follow those last two stars son… the last two stars of the dipper.’

He was confused- but did as his father asked.

‘Now imagine a straight line being drawn across the sky with its beginning, its point of origin in those two stars of the Big Dipper.’

‘I can see it now Daddy.’

‘Good. Following our imaginary line, notice that after only a few degrees, we run into what appears to be a much smaller dipper, one in which the handle seems inverted, as if flipped inside out.’

‘Yes-

‘That bright star, the one the Big Dipper points too, that’s Polaris, son, what we call the Northern Star.’ His father, now fallen to one knee is facing him. ‘If you are ever lost, my son, if you ever loose your way, just seek out the Northern Star- it will lead you home.’

This would be a lesson he would never forget.

The next day-

In many places he went, like old bones; shale, granite and limestone had thrust themselves upward from the barren earth, while high overhead continued the same desolate sky.  He would be destined to suffer three more days of this same heat, this same desolate terrain, before running across any first real signs of ‘them’ since coming across the diner all those many days and miles back.

Like a mausoleum, it had been raised from the rocky soil, with its sand blasted walls, dusty brown paint and aged and streaked glass. An abandoned, long abandoned, filling station, shadow streaked in ochre blush and bone white. One large garage door was all that remained of its three, and it was closed. The remaining bays, minus doors, were nothing more than blotches of darkness glaring out across the highway-

Like a dead man dreaming in the noonday sun, the entire structure seemed to be slumbering. The large plate glass window in front, amazingly, had remained intact, and was streaked in ripples of gold and blue… rainbows of refracted and reflected light. There were no signs hanging in those windows- at least none that he could see.  The stations pumps were long since gone, only the twisted remains of rusted pipe poking up through an oval shaped concrete island beneath what used to be a canopied awning, itself now skeletal and torn. All that remained were four large posterns pointing at odd angles towards the sky. Beneath all this lay asphalt, broken and shattered, with tufts of prairie grass waving in-between. In and around were mounds of debris, yellow and stiffened newspapers, some folded, some burnt.

As a whole, the filling station was pretty much a pop-up picture opened to the American countryside in a book about dirt.

Forty years prior, however, things had been different- the first time he had come through-

Entering the station proper, with my father by my side, my senses were immediately overwhelmed by a variety of smells: the deep damp stench of oil, gasoline and compressed air- the sharp tickle of fresh rubber, and what was that, Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum?  There was something else as well, something I couldn’t quite place- not back then anyway, the slight odor of decay perhaps?

Across the grease smeared and much scratched counter top stood a register, unattended of course, much like the station itself at the moment, beside it set a three-tiered rack of the aforementioned Wrigley’s chewing gum, with rows of green, blue, and yellow.

On the other side of the register lay a stack of ratty edged road maps, a cup full of broken and chewed on pens and pencils and one of those four by four boards with a nail driven through its center. Impaled on the nail lay a mish-mash of old receipts stacked at least an inch thick.

The wall across from the counter held a dusty black rack of Ever-Ready car batteries, beside it a dented can overflowing with greasy shop rags. A tattered year old calendar turned to the month of December seemed to round things out, hanging limp above the battery rack. Other than an overturned swivel chair behind the counter, and a coat rack holding an umbrella beside the door, there was not much else to catch my eye or hold my attention-

Like I said, that was forty years ago. The world had moved on quite a bit since then.

With one hand on the door frame, I cautiously enter the station. This time, instead of oil, gas and compressed air, my senses are assaulted by the stench of dry rot, disuse and dirt. Yellowed wallpaper, peeling in great curling strips, lay on the worn linoleum floor along with mounds of dried grass clippings, an old bird’s nest of daub and mud and a few tumbles of weed. A stack of thumb worn and much fingered phone books lay haphazardly stacked against the far wall. The glass countertop of yesteryear had been replaced with a piece of old plywood, and was covered in much disturbed dust. There was no register to be seen. Also gone, were the days of Wrigley’s chewing gum, paper widgets holding business receipts, and the year old calendar opened to December-

I paused a moment to gather my senses, freeing my left hand while reaching with my right-

Sudden thunder, thunder, thunder… as the wall next to me hammers twice; ragged clumps of sheet-rock lift outward and explode, disintegrating in a cloud of powder and white dust.  Instantly my hearing is gone, as what was initially sharp pain has become muffled silence. My ability to see clearly, as I immediately dropped to the floor, with fragments of wall raining all around, had been broken by the three brilliant flashes, strobes of brilliant light which seemed to reach out towards me in ever expanding rolls, breaking free from the darkened confines of a backlit back room.

My world has become one of cordite and gunpowder, smoke, dust and debris.

The entire time all this is going on I’m instinctively reaching with my right hand, before suddenly finding and bringing forth lex talionis. In one smooth motion I bring the comforting weight of its steel to bear.

The last time I had been in this situation had been back at the diner- another bad day indeed! Three souls had lost their lives that day, all by my hand, and all because of ‘them.’

As always, they seemed to be ahead of me, while I remained what I felt to be, a good three steps behind. At least at the diner there had been some warning, some notice given, I simply hadn’t wandered in oblivious… not like here and now. Back then my entrance into the diner had been preceded by a star, its shape seemingly painted by a child’s hand, chalk white, on the top step just below the front entrance. Next to the crescent moon, I’d learned to keep my eyes open for them. Not this time though, there had been no star painted outside, no crescent moon above the door, no upside down ‘For Sale’ signs propped up or hanging in the front window… only ambush and gunfire.

They were definitely getting smarter-

Strained silence- after images chasing and darting, while outside a golden red coyote pauses in mid-stride, seemingly caught halfway between this side of the highway and the next, its head turns towards the station, ears cocked, tail tucked. Between one breath and the next she is gone, vanishing into the afternoon silence and glare.

The coyote had been at the diner as well, only afterwards, not before.

Rolling to my right will bring me up beyond the counter and into the space between it and the wall directly in front of the backroom’s entrance. I feel it to be my only chance at surprise, and probably what the other party feels to be my only recourse as well.  A moment before I act my eyes are drawn to my right hand, to the word ‘Justice’ tattooed in blue across the knuckles there, crosshairs emblazoned across the first and second joint of my index finger, and with this thought in mind I-

Roll out and bring ‘Justice’ to bear, at the same time squeezing off two thunderous rounds, filling the space between us with afterimages of light and smoke. I continue on through with the motion, bringing myself up next to the door frame, out of breath but heartbeat steady. My back pack remains where I suddenly dropped it, just outside the front door and in the sunlight.

Silence reigns yet again.

A quick glance back towards the highway assures me that the coyote is gone, only then do I notice the sign, a star, finger smeared in white and ochre across the linoleum floor just inside the threshold where the sunlight meets floor, where light trumps shade.

While behind me… agonized silence, countless minutes, brass shell casings on the floor-

‘Ayin tahat ayin…’ I chant, as a bead of sweat breaks free from my brow and runs down my nose. With my left hand I brush a few errant strands of matted hair away my face, from in front of my eyes.

As the silence continues, there is movement, fugitive, and then stillness. I lean to the left, just in time to catch her under the chin as she steps forth from the room. With a single shot, a thunderous roar, the top of her skull lifts, showering the ceiling and doorway with brain and splinters of bone, a literal wash of red. Just as quickly I roll to the right, sparing myself most of the mess that follows. But not all, as one tiny tear of red rolls a course down my cheek.

I wait, for most of the time they hunt in pairs, lie in groups-

Not this time though.

Afterwards…

I stand above her, my hands on my hips, lex talionis holstered. For all she has become, a child she remains, dirt smeared face, vacant eyes, with dark stringy hair in disarray. Dressed in rags she has lost a shoe in the struggle afterwards- the struggle to hold onto life as it burbled and gurgled its way past her lips. Still clasped in her left hand lies ancient iron, its barrel still smoldering, her right hand is clawed and crowned with broken, dirty fingernails, the word ‘Croatoan’ has been carved in the center of her right palm.  Her wrists are chaffed and torn, evidence of her countless bids for freedom. The hand that holds the gun also carries the smudge of white and ochre, I notice also, the long fingered smears drawn from knee to thigh of her blue jeans.

‘Close this time, so very close. One day, maybe not so close, and on that day it will be my time to lose a shoe- but not today.

Today I was lucky.’

That night, with the stars burning bright, a small fire flickering between me and the mid-night shadows closing in, I weep, not for today, not even for the girl I’d killed, though I have wept for such before- no, I weep instead for the promise of tomorrow, and all the long tomorrows to follow.

Sometimes I feel like the only thing standing between our world, and the world they wish it to be, is me. And I would be right.  ‘Ayin tahat ayin,’ be it blind or impartial, justice will find a way.

I move on.

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