The expression on his face never changes, as the sun goes down. I holler at him a few times, kick him at least once, but it doesn’t matter; he just absorbs it with the bare minimum motions to still register as living…
Since there’s no traversing the Devil’s Pass in the darkness, camping here for the night’s inevitable. I won’t sleep though; no matter how much I need it; not with him this close by; even if he’s all tied up. As I’m growing weary though, and the hours go on, I really don’t know why I’m still letting him live.
I ‘spose that killin’ him would require me to drag him away from camp so as not to spook my horse; I don’t have that kind of energy right now. There’s something else beyond that though; something unfinished between the two of us.
I don’t really know what I expected our final skirmish to be like, but I didn’t picture the formidable Levi Dumont, best gunfighter ‘round these parts, being all broken and helpless, with no horse, no guns, nothing. Why should the last of the McRaes meet the last of the Dumonts under such anticlimactic circumstances? Surely no one will bother tellin’ stories or writing ballads about this final showdown.
Anyway, it’s growing so dark that I can’t even see the expression on his face anymore. I light a small fire, castin’ light on his body, but his head’s still just hanging down, so I get up and kick him off the rock. He’s unable to catch himself, falling face first into the dirt, where he doesn’t move. I holler at him sayin’:
“Don’t even think about sleeping! As soon as the sun rises, your life is over! Whether that happens real fast or painfully slow is my decision, but I’ll let you say what you need to rest your soul; you better speak up now though.”
He raises his head and his voice emerges slowly, cracked and not quite audible. “Louder!” I shout, and he manages to muster the word: “water”. I sneer at him. “The little water I have, wasted on a Dumont? That’s a rich one.”
Dropping his head, he says nothing more. So I sigh, take one of my last canteens with just a swig or two left in it, shove it in his face, and he drinks it with obvious relief. After the last drops are gone, I rip it away sayin’: “Well, anything else?”
He pauses for a long time and I’m thinkin’ maybe he’s fallen asleep again, but eventually, out of his mouth comes the words:
“Everything could have been different you know?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I’m just saying, if we didn’t have Dumont and McRae attached to our names, we’d have been just Levi and Silas; two lonely kids playing Old El Dorado under that big pine tree. Lying here, waitin’ on death, I’ve been thinkin’ an awful lot about that.
Well, I’m just thinkin’ that this day of scorchin’ sun has given Levi that heat-stroke delirium, until suddenly it hits me what the hell he’s talking about. Then he opens his eyes, and in the moonlight I get this flash of a boy I once knew; that same brown cowlick castin’ that deep shadow ‘cross his left eye and the lines of his crooked smile still visible in the firelight. Someone I swear I’d forgotten even existed, whom I met by accident when we were both just schoolhouse age…
I’d been waitin’ around with my pa, who was trading goods in town. He’d sent me on another errand to get supplies, but I knew he wasn’t leavin’ soon so I was in no rush to head back. I saw Levi sittin’ there, sprawled out on the ground, waitin’ by some horses in the shade of that big pine. As I passed by, he hollered at me:
“Howdy, friend! I’m Levi Dumont! What’s your name?”
“Uh… Howdy. I’m Silas McRae.”
“Nice to make your acquaintance! You look as bored as I am. You wanna play a game?”
I shrugged. “Sure; I guess.”
“It’s called Old El Dorado and it’s my favorite!”
He explained the rules as he placed a bunch of sticks into rectangles, picked up some rocks to toss, and also some pine needles to keep the count. It was confusing at first, but I caught on real quick and we played for what must have been hours, chattin’ all the while.
I asked him: “You from this town?”
“Nah. Just arrived in these parts. You?”
“We’re in for the day, from just north of here.”
“We might be headed that way in the near future. You come into town often?”
“Every week, with my pa, selling livestock at the market.”
“Yeah? We’re a ranchin’ family too. Had to leave our place a day’s east of here. Draught finally got us. Now we’re looking to settle up your way.”
“I’m glad. I hope I’ll see you often! I don’t really know anyone else my age.”
“Well, we should be here most Saturdays. You wanna meet here next week? Middle of the day? I oughta be able to get away by then?”
“Yeah! That’d be mighty fine!”
After that, we kept chatting, until finally I had to say: “Levi, I gotta head out”.
“Okay Silas. It was real nice to meet you, I’ll see you next week my friend.”
“Yeah. I’ll see ya real soon!” I reached out my hand, but he surprised me and embraced with a hug, which made me smile real wide.
We continued to meet week after week whenever our families came to market. After heading off on our errands, we’d keep a look out for each other and when I’d see that cowlicked face and crooked smile, I’d feel myself instantaneously brighten up. We’d start with some games of Old El Dorado, talk about our lives, and share our lunches with each other, staying as long as we could, even risking getting whupped by our pas, who were waitin’ on us. We always managed to make excuses though; never even tellin’ our parents about each other, and these times with Levi became what I looked forward to most every week, especially as the tensions grew around the McRae ranch.
Some months after Levi and I first met, I kept hearing the Dumont name being thrown out in fits of rage from various family members. I was real curious to talk to Levi about all this when I finally made it to the pine. He was there with a horse and as soon as he saw me, he hollered saying; “Glad you came Silas! No El Dorado for me today. I gotta walk this horse over to the saloon. You can come along with though!”
“You bet!” I said, not really caring what we did. We talked about what was happening with our families, but since we were just kids, no one had really told us much of anything.
When we got to the saloon, the owner took Levi’s horse and left to get some goods for his pa. Right after he disappeared, I heard my name yelled from across the way. I was startled and saw my pa lookin’ real angry as he made his way over to us.
“Silas! What the hell are you doing? I’ve been lookin’ all over for you!”
“Pa, I was just talkin’ to my friend. We were just –“
But Pa cut me off, staring at Levi as he demanded: “Who are you?”
“Uh… I’m Levi Dumont. Nice to make your acquaintance sir.”
“You’re a Dumont? … Silas get over here!”
I followed orders, but was pretty confused. He then added: “Go back to the wagon!”
Suddenly, my pa pulled out his gun, grabbed Levi and put the gun to his head. Levi was terrified and froze up, with tears streamin’ down his face. I ran up to them, grabbed my pa’s arm and shouted: “No! Pa, No! He’s my friend! He didn’t do nothin’ to nobody!”
“Shut your mouth Silas! I told you to get on outa here!” Then he shoved me to the ground real hard, and I fell on some rocks bustin’ open my lip. When I looked up, pa had Levi face-first on the ground, his foot on top of him and the gun pointed at the back of his head. Pa was yellin’: “If I don’t kill you now, you’ll just grow up into another one of them and that’s the last thing this earth needs.”
At that time, I heard a click and the saloon owner held a rifle pointed at my pa’s head as he was sayin’:
“His pa left him here with me and I’m not returning him a dead boy; at least not without his killer’s corpse too”.
My pa paused, put the gun away, and let Levi loose.
Without another word, he grabbed hold of me, draggin’ me off towards our wagon. The last vision I had of young Levi, was the pained and terrified look on his face, staring out at us, as the saloon owner pulled him inside.
When we got back to the wagon, pa took out the bullwhip and tanned my hide harder than he’d ever done in his life. At the end of it, I fell to the ground, bawling my eyes out, and he told me: “I oughta leave you out here for the buzzards to eat. No son of mine will ever defend a Dumont. You are never to see that boy ever again, unless it’s to put a bullet in his head; I reckon that’s the only way I could ever see you as anything more than the disgrace to our family name.”
For weeks after this incident, none of my family would speak to me. I was banned from leaving the ranch for a real long time and they made me do all the worst chores. Even when I did the best I possibly could, I still got taken out to the barn and whupped, and all the while, with each lash, my pa would carry on about the Dumonts and what they had done to us, as if bloodyin’ up my body, somehow hurt them too.
I guess this whole feud started after the Dumonts moved their ranch to border ours; then some dispute got started over water usage. This led to a Dumont threatening my father, who then threatened Levi of course, and it just escalated from there. It wasn’t but a month or so after that day, when we buried my uncle from some sort of skirmish with the Dumonts. Levi’s older sister was next to go, taken down in a confrontation just outside of town. We couldn’t go much more than a year or so without another McRae or Dumont been buried. I was probably 12 when one of their bullets first grazed my ear, and was 17 when a Dumont died by my hand. Levi though, was a terror to my family, and had already killed two McRae’s and landed a half dozen shots on others before he was even 15.
I suppose it’s doubtful that this unchecked violence could’ve ended any other way than it did. No one will likely ever know how the fire started, but the long drought certainly ensured that there wasn’t much left of the McRae or the Dumont ranches. I only survived ‘cause I was out on an errand, returning just in time to catch glimpse of all the destruction, before the fire forced me out onto this road through the Devil’s Pass. From what I saw, I’d gathered I was the only one to make it out alive, but as I was ridin’ along this nothin’ of rocks and sagebrush, I happened upon Levi, layin’ by the side of the road, after being thrown from his horse.
Now here I am, in only the light of the moon, staring at the spots of blood on his cheek, all dried and forgotten. I’ve had nothin’ but enmity for him all these years, but now I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we could’ve kept on meetin’. I imagine we’d have stayed friends, been best friends even, rather than seeing each other as enemies poisoned against each other by our family names. It made my blood boil; not at him this time, but for what could have been.
I could see us both in some sort of alternate life. Maybe we’d have left that awful town together, like I’d always wanted to; two cowboys crossin’ the open frontier, cattle herds in tow. Just riding the days in open prairie air and spending the long nights by the fire. We’d swap stories and laugh, and even throw together an occasional game of Old El Dorado, just to remember our younger days.
At that thought, my eyes drift down from the dying flames, and my hands must have been following along or something, ‘cause there in the sand were some sagebrush twigs making perfect little rectangles. I look up at Levi; his eyes are all lit up by the fire and he’s watchin’ me. Despite this whole night, and how I treated him, there’s no animosity in his gaze; it’s more of just an acceptance of the circumstances with the kind of expression that asks: “Where can we go now?” Without even thinking about it, I take a pebble and chucked it into one of the rectangles and I could swear that when it landed, I caught Levi grinning at me with that same crooked, troublesome smile. Now he’s getting up from the dirt and tossing a rock my way, and we’re both acting like there are no years between us. We toss a few more stones, until I hear my horse makin’ noise behind me and Levi says: “you oughta go check on her”. At the sound of another real loud whinny, I turn around, and wake up with a jolt…
Levi’s still just lying there, tied up where I left him, so I head over to my horse. A coyote comes tearin’ out from the brushes, startlin’ me, and by the time I make it over to her, all my full canteens are layin’ in the sand, busted open and spilling their water out. I frantically fall to the ground and catch some of the last drops of liquid into my mouth.
Levi stirs awake from all the commotion, but I’m payin’ him no heed. Without that water, I won’t last out here; I’ll be just another victim of these months of drought. I hang my head and then try rein in these thoughts. All I can think of in this moment though is: “what a waste”. These pointless years of revenge have led me here, with no water, no hope, just dyin’ in the desert with my blood-sworn enemy. I take a deep sigh and strangely realize that it’s that last part of this whole thing, which actually makes this situation slightly less bleak.
After another long moment, I look over at Levi, and he’s eyein’ me closely in this early morning light. I stand up quickly, head over to him and cut his binds. “C’mon. Let’s get on our way before the sun hits us hard.”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand. You’re taking me with you?”
“Well, I could kill you, just to satisfy the will of a dead father and a cursed family name; then die alone with the insatiable heat of vengeance burning me hotter than the hottest desert sun, or… we could just bury the hatchet once and for all, because Levi, I never hated you; not really; not when I was allowed to be me. I’d say I liked you better than anyone else I ever met; you’re maybe the only real friend I ever had. So if we’re gonna die out here, and we probably will, I’d rather live these last hours together in hope that some part of you is that same Levi Dumont I once knew.”
He’s stunned for a moment, then looks me right in the eyes. “Silas. I tell ya, I’ve had lots of time lyin’ here, thinkin’ back on my life, and through it all, those days of playing Old El Dorado with you were the memories I kept lingering on the longest. I kept hating myself for being too weak to make my own choices, and joinin’ in the feud, and all the blood I spilled, and maybe worst of all, playing the part of an enemy to you; betrayin’ someone whom I never saw as anything but a friend. I’m sorry Silas.”
“I’m sorry too Levi, but we gotta leave that behind us now. I got no water left, and the sun’s not going to be easy on us, so I reckon all we got is a day or so if we’re lucky. Still, I say let’s leave this place and at least we’ll die together on a journey to something better right?”
“Yeah; I guess I’m ready then, my friend.”
Offering him my arm, I help him onto my horse, then load her up, get on, and we take off. In our thirst and exhaustion we don’t say a whole lot more to each other, but there’s a peace in this silence that hasn’t been there in ages. As we’re ridin’ out of the pass though, I feel Levi raising his head and a fleck of his sweat hits my ear.
“You feel that?” He asks.
“Yeah, I guess. Uh. Or, what do ya mean?” Then another drop hits me. More drops after that and quicker now. I stop the horse, turn around, and look towards him. He smiles and we both crane our heads upward toward the sky. As the drops keep on falling, we grab the empty canteens and we both laugh together, freely, like two young boys without a care in the world.