The tongue rested within the mouth, thick and stale. A gurgling came from the dry hole that housed the engorged muscle. When it stopped, the tongue would exit and attempt to moisten the lips that framed the mouth. He awoke during one of these attempts; as if the moistening attempts were finally deemed futile enough to bring him to full consciousness, he opened his eyes. They fluttered, focused on the blue abyss above, and flickered again. He was lying on his back and continuing to stare into this nothingness. The raspy, gurgling sound commenced again. This time he closed his mouth, squinting against the pain that came when he attempted to move the scaly, engorged tongue that seemed to fill it. He ran his tongue along the backs of his teeth. He could feel the grit and buildup on the enamel. He tongued it gently and thought about water. The pain, still present when he shifted it side to side, brought him into great awareness. It wasnʼt understanding of his place physically, but recognitition of being, of his abstract nature.
There werenʼt many shooting stars. The reporter said there would be. So we drove into the night, far from the city to the roads barely passable by two cars at one time. We parked there, directly on the pavement. No one would come at this time of night. The road didnʼt have a name; it was something like "county road 1-72". Towards the west, you could see the city. The clouds over the valley made the lights look like they were breathing. A strange and slightly lonesome thought, a city just below that pulsating mass, all those people wandering, running. All those people were there, even when the reporter said the shooting stars would only be visible there. I saw the lights illuminating the clouds above the towns across the border. We walked into the field in no particular direction. We reached a point in our trajectory across the open field where I could no longer see the car. It was early spring, and the field grass hadnʼt yet grown coarse. I could feel the gentle leaves brushing against my exposed calves. It didnʼt tickle, but the sensation brought a smile to my face. The shooting stars were less than spectacular, but a certain feeling in the night made waiting and expecting worth the trip. As we stood in that field, I could see the line of trees that made up one of the borders. Turning around, I could see the small, protruding telephone lines that ran next to the road where we had parked. Following them the length of the road, I noticed two symmetrical lights moving slowly in our direction.
Johnny, I said.
I said my older brother's name in a low tone as if I wanted to simply hear what his name sounded like, as if Iʼd forgot.
He turned. As he did, I could hear the young grass give under his weight as he shifted it. Damn. He said. His tone was similar to mine.
Johnny and I stood there watching in that silent, open field.
Johnny turned to me and then back to the car. Wait here, he said without turning around to face me.
I watched as his figure cut its way back across the field. His back went from the figure I recognized with its broad, youthful shoulders to geometric shapes obscured by night to a barely visible mass that shifted and became smaller until it wasnʼt sure if I was still looking at it.
I turned to the sky and waited for a shooting star. I wanted desperately to see one. I wanted to tell Johnny I had seen one.
I could see the headlights moving again.
After some time, Johnny approached and stood beside me without saying anything. I didnʼt break the silence. I couldnʼt tell if he was looking at me or the sky above that hadnʼt yet produced a shooting star.
I heard him shift his weight. The spark of his zippo lighter blinded me momentarily. I looked at the flame as it danced before the end of a cigarette held between Johnnyʼs lips. He eyed the cigarette too and, just before flipping the lighter lid closed, cast his intense gaze upon me.
You want one? He asked, cigarette clenched between his teeth. He seldom smoked around me. I sometimes smelled it on his clothing or found butts strewn here or there on the dirt drive leading toward our house.
Okay, I said.
Before snapping the lighter closed, he handed me a cigarette and held the flame to the end. I sucked the warm smoke into my mouth a few times. I watched him watching the cigarette. The metallic lid closed harshly. The jarring sound ran across the field and disappeared into the night.
I could hear him taking long, methodical cigarette drags and, with equal intensity, pushing the smoking from his lungs into the dark sky above. I didnʼt try to mimic him. My drags were small, few and far between, and I only took a little of the smoke into my lungs as I didnʼt want to break the silence, especially with a cough.
I heard the flicking sound of his two fingers, flesh upon flesh, and watched as the hot cherry soared into the night sky. It landed on the grass, burned brightly briefly, and stopped. It was the closest thing I had seen to a shooting star that night. Letʼs go, kid, Johnny said.
We made our way back to the car. The ride home was silent. I didnʼt say a word about the other vehicle or the shooting stars.
He rolled slowly up to our house and let the car idle. I could tell he wasnʼt coming in. his hands still rested on the wheel, his eyes fixed ahead, lost in thoughts and conversations.
Bye, Johnny, I said and got out.
The jerky, unsure movement with which he brought his hand to his face alarmed him. The sand from the winds stuck to his face, clinging to the salty layer and creating an artificial epidermis. The blood from the wound on his forehead had dried over his left eye and caked his hair forming thick clumps that stood stiff, protruding at random angles. He let his fingertips fall on the stiff hair upon the abnormal locks that pointed this way and that. His fingertips moved along the hair and found their way to the base, to his scalp. Gently he massaged the hair at the roots. This dissolved some of the blood and allowed the hair to move more freely. It also felt good. Moving his hand from the hair to his forehead, he did the same thing; he let the tips of his fingers move gently along the flesh that encased him. A wave of exhaustion washed over him. He let his fingers gently fall upon his eyelids. As his mind moved from one independent thought or image to another, he could feel his eyes shifting under the fleshy lids. He wanted to pull the images from his mind, one thought after another, to bring them into reality.
He thought of Johnny's boots on the porch boards. The measured pace with which he walked from one end to the next. He was young, just a boy hiding underneath the house. He had fled out the backdoor and immediately crawled underneath the house through a hole in the latticework. In the summer heat, he would crawl under and lay in the raw dirt with the dogs. The old hounds would spread themselves out, bellies resting directly on the cool, damp soil. He would mimic them. His scrawny body, bare except for his shorts, sprawled out between the two old hounds. This time was different; he wasnʼt escaping the heat of summer. It was an autumn day, the air crisp with the smell of burning brush that wafted over from the neighbors roughly a mile westward down the dirt road that ended abruptly in a crude turn-around. He crawled on his hands and knees to the far side of the house and, from there, continued underneath the porch. From here, he could look through the spaces between the wooden boards. He could smell Johnnyʼs cigarette. He could hear him exhaling each drag. The smell of tobacco mixed with the scent of the controlled brush fire.
The cruiser pulled up alongside the house and parked on the drive. As the door opened, he heard the radio crackle and hum as dispatch called in more information. Johnny stopped pacing the porch and returned towards the center, positioning himself in front of the main door to the house.
Johnny, we gotta come in, The officer said.
Another cruiser pulled up, followed by the coroner.
The hell you do, Johnny yelled. She is our mamma. You ainʼt takinʼ her til our daddy seen her.
He could hear Johnny breathing loudly; every other breath cut premature as he sucked another drag from his cigarette. The radio crackled in the first cruiser.
I’m sorry, Johnny, son, but your daddy ainʼt cominʼ back here. One of the officers said, his boots landing heavily on the porch.
Fuck you, Thomas!
Your kid brother called and says he found her on the kitchen floor. You need to let us in, Johnny.
The two other officers from the second cruiser made their way up the stairs and stood behind Thomas.
I awoke to the sound of Johnny entering our room. I rolled over and watched him. He sat, semi-slouched, on the end of his bed. Elbows partially resting upon his knees, staring at the wall across the room.
Did I wake you? He asked without turning towards me.
No, I was waiting up for you.
I watched as he slid off his two boots, removed his jacket and shirt, and slipped off his jeans. He stood there for a minute, lost in thought, standing motionless in his t-shirt and shorts.
He walked between our two beds and placed his wallet on the nightstand that divided them.
Move over, kid. He said as he sat on the edge of my bed. I could feel his weight shift the mattress as he released his legs from the floor.
We were both lying on our backs, looking at the ceiling.
Did we find all the animals? He asked, pointing to the knots in the wood grains. I watched as his arm moved about, motioning toward the entire ceiling. It was then I noticed he had been drinking. His breath smelled of cigarettes which partially obscured the smell of alcohol.
I found a raccoon, I said, holding his arm with mine and directing it towards a larger knot in the far corner where the ceiling met the wall. One had to stretch the imagination a bit, but it was a raccoon to me.
That is one funny lookinʼ raccoon, kid. Ainʼt you saw one in real life?
We laughed. He let his arm fall and placed his free hand on top of mine, securing it to his forearm.
I gotta knock-knock joke; you start it, He said.
I ainʼt fallinʼ for that one again, Johnny.
He laughed and gently squeezed my hand.
You wanna help me with somethinʼ? He asked, the seriousness ousting any kind of amusement from his voice.
We need to get ourselves some money.
He paused momentarily and then gently squeezed my hand again as if to indicate his seriousness and the severity of the situation.
Daddy owed a lot of people, more than momma ever told me. What we gonna do ainʼt wrong, kid.
Okay, Johnny, I said, I'll help you.
With a jerky motion, he sat up. The momentum almost forced him to double over, buckling and folding in half like a ragdoll. He lifted his head towards the horizon, attempting to fix his gaze on one object or another, hoping this would ease the throbbing sensation between his temples. He noticed the object resting stiffly in his right hand.
Now just squeeze it gently as you breathe out. Don't pull it; just squeeze it.
I squinted slightly and lined the sights up over the can that rested on the fence's top rail that no longer served any purpose. Following the barrel towards my firmly clasped hands, I noticed the hammer that waited, cocked. The precarious nature in which it remained, lost in a timeless place, struck me. That single piece of metal was held back by a spring action and a lever, just waiting to be released. I thought of the time between its discharge, the contact with the firing pin, and the explosion that would send the bullet in any direction I chose. That time, the space between my freeing it and the blast could last forever. The gun trembled slightly; the weight of the magnum became almost unbearable. My gaze left the cocked hammer and moved forward again to the front sights swaying over the can awaiting its fate. At that moment, the notion of time struck me; I envisioned it as one continuous motion, an eternity that wasn't limited to being stretched between two points, nothing so definitive as the distance between the revolver and the can. It’s coming for us. That much was true; it’s cyclical, and time and the bullet are coming for us. I could feel my pulse beating within my white-knuckled fingers that gripped the weapon. The rhythmic beat intensified and sent the nose of the gun dancing upwards with each pump of my blood. One. Two. Three. My heartbeats were counting, music to the dance of the gun barrel. I did as he said and squeezed the trigger, using my breath as guidance. The powerful recoil sent both my hands rocketing upwards.
Well, god damn! Johnny exclaimed excitedly.
I opened my eyes. The rusted can on the fence post deemed killable was no longer there. I kept thinking about the bullet, its journey, and ours.
Within his white-knuckled fingers was a pistol. He rotated slightly in his slumped position and was able to bring himself closer to the object. He swayed and, aiding his attempt at seeing the weapon more clearly, stiffly brought his arm to his lap. It was a six-shooter. He cupped it in both hands. He released the chamber a noticed one singular bullet. He closed it and moaned. The realization of his circumstances became apparent.
The bar was dingy. The smoke was so thick in the air that it looked like fog. The jukebox played only one song, and the speakers were so old and worn that it sounded like the song was coming from underwater. When the song ended, before it started again, billiard balls bounced around warped tables and cracked against the cold hard surfaces of their fellows. Multi-lingual conversations were taking place in every corner.
El gringo, alla.
I ignored the drunk locals, pretending I didnʼt notice them, hear them, or give a damn about them, none of which was true. Johnny returned to the table and playfully smacked my upper back as he passed and retook his seat. My eyes followed him, drunk. I became silent when drinking. On the other hand, Johnny assumed some masculine role, the origin of which I was never entirely sure. I heard him and Daddy on the porch one night, their voices a low hum, one hum, and then another as they passed words between them. I couldnʼt make out the words; the sounds of summer were too loud and drowned out what they said. I wanted to hear. I crept from my bed and made my way to the window. I could smell cigarette smoke, and a single word became audible now and then. I awoke later to the sound of daddysʼ car as he drove away. I pretended I was sleeping when Johnny came in. My back turned to him. I made mental notes of his actions and knew he was sitting on the end of his bed smoking the day’s last cigarette.
I could feel him thinking. I could sense a tenseness in his muscles. The next day he was a grown-up, an adult. I assumed this is how it happens, one day, you are a boy, and the next, you are a man. But Johnny became a man prematurely, and his actions and mannerisms gave this away. His strength was paper thin. That is not to say he didnʼt have muscles on his lean frame or know how to handle himself well in a good fight, but that, at any moment, his strength would fold or tear, and the boy would come running out from the wound.
A slight breeze came from behind, ruffing the sweat-stiffened cotton shirt that seemed too large for his frame. The wind cooled him. He brought his hand to his forehead he brushed the dried blood. Initially, he softly did this, then realizing that the pain momentarily eased his thoughts from his current affairs, he increased the pressure and rubbed the dried bits of blood more firmly. He brought his hand down and noticed dried specks of crimson. He attempted to locate the wound's whereabouts again and patted his forehead. He felt the sticky wetness, fresh blood coated his fingers. He placed his pointer and middle finger into his mouth and sucked at them, and rubbed his large tongue over the tips. The blood was salty. His tongue hurt, but the blood soothed something within him. He rolled to his side and rested upon his hands and knees. The hand holding the pistol caught his attention again; he rose to his feet and staggered in the sandy dunes, the slope barely noticeable, but the rise was just enough to unsteady his stance. The landscape changed. As he rose, his point of view allowed the vista to unfold; dunes upon dunes and sandy valleys that yielded more dunes. He turned around one full circle. He turned around again, placing his fingers in his mouth to produce saliva. As the dunes became recognizable, he whirled around once more. Falling to the sand, he rolled into a fetal position and wept.
He dreamt of the hounds; they came to him first. Johnny had opened the door to the house and called his name, and then let the two hounds out. Their wet noses woke him. They nuzzled him gently. Johnny crawled through the dirt, making his way over slowly; the light from the flashlight bounced around the cave-like space with its earthen floor and dampness.
I knew they'd find you; I thought you might be under here.
Johnny had found him under the house at other times. When their father would lose his temper after a drinking spell, this is where he would come until the storm passed. Johnny stopped talking and produced a woolen blanket he had wrapped up and carried under his arm as he crawled. Johnny placed it around his tiny frame and pulled him towards him. They didnʼt talk for a long time. It was Johnny who broke the silence.
It wasnʼt your fault, kid. Ainʼt no one can blame you for nothinʼ. Momma wanted to leave, and that's how she chose to go. We all have choices to make, and that was one she made. You hear? Decisions make up our lives; our lives are a series of them, kid, and that was hers.
There was a lengthy pause. Johnny pulled him closer to his chest and rewrapped the blankets, tucking them tighter around his small shoulders.
That's how she chose to leave, he said once more.
The sound of church bells chimed the hour in the town square. We must have been close to it; doves’ wings flapped madly between chimes. I was staring at the wall. I awoke so closely to it that an intricate pattern was beginning to emerge from the wallpaper, a design that would undoubtedly go overlooked had one not been a few inches from it. Or perhaps it was my current state that made me consider things such as wallpaper design in some unknown room in some strange place. Sickly yellow stains covered the paper, a hue from years of smoking inside, neglect, or decay. I decided it was a mixture of the three. I heard the sound of boots shifting on the floor planks. My head, resting directly upon the same floor, picked up the vibration. I rolled partially to my back.
Hey, kid. He said.
I sat up. The room swelled and swayed gently. I could taste stale beer on my lips, and my head throbbed.
Johnny squatted next to me and ruffled my hair with his thick hand. He chuckled and handed me a cup of coffee.
The wind swept aimlessly past him. He rolled over and opened his eyes. The sky had changed, and the sun's intensity was no longer overwhelming. Wearily, he rose to his feet and began walking. His limbs felt like weights. As he swayed, the pistol, still clenched within his hand, slapped the outside of his thigh. The sand still held the heat from the passing day. Forced to use his free hand to steady himself upon the incline, he hoped to make his way to the crest of a small hill. The granules rolled past his feet and, when there was a lull in the sounds caused by wind, could be heard collecting in sandy pools at the bottom of the incline. Upon the crest of the hill, he righted himself. His body felt stiff and ached. His thigh muscles quivered, and his attempts to inhale caused a burning sensation within his chest.
Just keep the car running, Johnny said, his voice distant and preoccupied.
We had the car parked in the alleyway. He sat on the passenger's side, arranging his gear. He hadnʼt broken his gaze from the alleyway's exit. A few people walked by, an older lady with a small boy; he ran circles around her, his mouth moving incessantly. I looked over at Johnny; he was looking through a few small items in a duffle bag. He zipped the bag securely closed and doubled checked the shotgun that rested in his lap with its barrel towards the floor. He lifted his jean jacket and slightly tapped the tops of several buckshot shells. I couldnʼt tell if he was counting them or just reminding himself of their location.
Johnny? I said, my tone slow.
There was a pause. I could tell he had stopped rummaging through things and was waiting for me to say anything.
I looked back towards the exit, where the alley spilled onto the main road; the older lady had reached the other side of the street. The small boy had stopped in the middle of the intersection and stared down the alley at us. He didnʼt move, his thin arms dangling by his sides.
Johnny? I said again, though I couldnʼt remember if he had responded the last time I had called his name.
The elderly lady disappeared out of sight. The small boy looked in her direction and back toward our car before running after her. Before disappearing, he turned again to throw one last questioning glance in our direction.
He stood upon the dune's crest and again noticed the pistol in his hand. Turning it over, he opened the cylinder and let the bullet fall into his palm. It was still warm. He held it between his thumb and forefinger. Squinting his eyes, he looked past the shell into the landscape sprawled before him. Within the assumed nothingness was a tree and, next to that, another rose from the arid landscape. He dropped his arm and opened both his eyes, and took to the vision upon the horizon -- life. Returning the bullet to its cylindrical housing, he made his way with a renewed sense of energy down the hill and, with the same ease, began ascending the next dune.
With each ascension of the small sand hills, the vision of salvation became more life-like. After crossing three hills, he stopped atop the fourth and peered into the lush haven. He squinted; he could now make out the trees more clearly. Looking harder, he noticed the extent of the growth and vegetation. He scanned the horizon that led to the lush haven amidst this bleak, arid gray nothingness. Shielding his eyes with his free hand, he traced the thin horizon line to the left and right of the oasis. There it was, to the left of the oasis, and perhaps equal distance to it as he, was the unmistakable shape of a man.
Johnny came running around the corner, arms flailing, eyes filled with awe and pain. The zipper on the bag he had fiddled with so intently before exiting the car was open. Bills and wads of cash fell from the pack. He began signaling something, but his eyes had already managed to convey it. I heard the shots, one and then another. Holding my breath, I awaited something, anything. He stopped, his free hand moved to his side. I could see the patch of red seeping through his t-shirt. The blood was rich, dark. It flowed fast; I could see it trickling down, leaving lines and droplets on his jeans.
Go, I said. Go! I yelled aloud into the empty car, Go!
Johnny had told me, holding my gaze so intensely I had to look away; Promise me you’ll fucking go! You better fucking promise to go.
That was the plan; should anything go wrong, I was to flee. Put the car into gear and haul. Those were his words: put the car into gear and haul.
I sat mesmerized, his staggering legs attempting to bring him to the car, his eyes screaming without words. I heard the shot and, at the same time, saw the explosion through his chest. The force made him stumble forward, though his momentum didnʼt cease, and his jelly-like legs still carried him until he fell to his knees. The unzipped bag lay just out of his reach; its contents were strewn upon the ground and fluttered in the dirty, almost non-existent breeze. Some of the wads of bills had dark crimson stains on them.
Go! I yelled again.
But I couldnʼt go. My body felt foreign, and my arms disconnected. I watched, expecting Johnny to stand up, but he didn't. I watched his lifeless body. I could see the thin stream of blood escaping his being and pooling on the sand. I turned my head and heaved onto the passenger seat. I had nothing to release, just a violent heaving motion that produced nothing but bile.
When I sat upright again, I noticed the figures moving toward the car.
Go! I yelled. But I knew I couldnʼt.
The stride and pace of the figure on the horizon was direct and determined. He removed the bullet again as if reminding himself he only had one shot. He returned it to its cylindrical home and raised the gun toward the figure. He squinted and held the front sight on the nose of the gun barrel directly over the human shape. Dropping his arm, he wheezed, turned his head, and spat a large mass of rich, dark blood onto the sand. He turned his attention again to the figure and noticed his progress. Beads of perspiration accumulated on his forehead and rolled down his cheek, creating lines in the dust from the blowing sands. He wiped the sweat from his brow, descended the dune upon which he stood, and scurried halfway up the next. Using his free hand, he clawed at the sand. Once at the crest, he righted himself again. The fertile island became more visible, and he could now make out individual trees. He tilted his head upwards, sniffed the air, and held the smell of vegetation and life in his burning lungs. His eyes furiously attempted to locate the man who threatened his salvation. His pupils darted back and forth until they fell upon the motionless figure facing him.
My tongue felt heavy and awkward. How long had it been since I had water? How long was it since I had eaten anything? I couldnʼt remember how long it had been since my head felt clear or my thoughts focused without this throbbing sensation that seemed to bounce between my ears. I couldnʼt fix my attention on any one idea or thought. The car stopped. I heard the doors on either side of me open. As they did, a hot, dry wind swept through the vehicle. It felt like death. With a swift, strong pull, a large hand fell upon my shoulder and yanked me from the car's back seat. I fell heavily onto the sand. It was hot, and I could feel it shift under my weight, changing its shape to accommodate my body and position. Rough hands fumbled with something behind my neck, and the rough fabric blindfold fell away, allowing the flood of blinding daylight to enter. I squirmed and tried to shield my face from the sun's glare. This seemed to amuse a group of men standing around; they all laughed at the silly gringo who tried to rob a bank south of the border but couldn’t stand the bright sun.
I felt the stiff leather of a boot as it connected with my midsection. The force knocked me over onto my back; I heaved and remained motionless. I couldnʼt breathe in, and my primal instinct kept warning me to prepare for another blow, but none came. The blazing orange behind my eyelids was so bright that my eyes started to water. I could feel two solitary tears roll from the corner of either eye. Then, without notice, my body lurched upright, allowing me to take in a gulp of arid air. The laughter began again, and the hands of an unknown owner roughly tore at the abrasive rope that bound my hands behind me.
He watched. The man stood motionless. The once mere silhouette was now a distinct being, whether of the flesh or a nightmarish hallucination brought on by his situation; it didn't matter. The man was standing between him and his oasis. Noticing the other without a weapon, he raised his arm again and brought him into sight. He breathed; the pain was more severe now than before. The gun barrel quivered uncontrollably. With an air of indifference, the unarmed man turned slowly and started again towards the lush haven. His pace was measured and did not indicate being wounded or tired. The barrel, although shaking, followed him slowly until the arm fell limp. He stood erect and held the gun again, squinting his eyes against the pain. His arm fell, and he doubled over in pain and began to whimper. Resting his elbows upon his slightly bent knees, he rose again, wiped his eyes, and spat blood-laden spit. He watched again as the wad gently tumbled, collecting granules, before settling. Inhaling slowly, he set off down the dune and crested the following without much effort. He stood in awe at the fertile land that seemed so close. The tears that fell from his eyes followed the same path down his face as the beads of sweat.
Two figures moved towards me. Like a slow camera shutter, my vision chopped their movements into a jerky, abnormal dance as they approached. They stepped over Johnny’s body. I wanted to call out and ask them to see if he was Ok, but I couldn’t make out the words. I sat watching them approach. Two more men entered the alleyway; next to them was a young boy. He looked on with great interest until one of the men patted him on the head and shooed him away.
I wanted to go under the porch and curl up with the hounds. It’s so hot. But I was here; the hounds weren’t, and Johnny wasn’t either. My vision shifted between hints of blue and blinding red and glaring yellow. I blinked, squinting, my eyes incapable of adjusting. It moved again, and my attention was brought back to the moment. The men were standing next to the car; one had his forearm resting on the roof and was peering in the window. He was saying something, but it sounded like the jukebox in the bar, garbled and muffled like he was speaking through water. Then he realized I hadn’t taken my eyes off Johnny’s body. When the speaking man noticed my gaze, he opened the car door and gestured for me to get out. I did. I stumbled out. My limbs felt awkward. The man hoisted me up with large, rough hands and dragged me over to where Johnny was; he was face down in the dirt, a pool of blood continuing to collect under him. When the man released me, I couldn’t stand upright, I collapsed. I don’t remember how long I sat there. The church bells chimed once, and the sound roused me. I wiped my eyes as if something was obscuring my vision. It was then that I felt the presence of the men. I turned and looked up. The man who had all but dragged me to Johnny’s body gazed at me for some time. Then he nodded to his compatriot and turned to walk away. I saw a shadow cross over Johnny’s body and caught sight of an object cut through the air from the corner of my eye. The blow forced me to my side, positioning me next to Johnny. He looked so young. I thought about the raccoon I found in the wood grain and wondered what animal he might have seen if he had more time and if life didn’t steal him away and forced him into manhood so quickly—then blinding red. Darkness. Shooting stars.
The unarmed man continued without turning. His pace was assured, direct. So close was he now that he could hear his competitor's disturbance of the sand as he moved swiftly towards the luscious grove of which the smell of fresh vegetation filled the air. Gathering his strength, he raised the pistol again and brought the figure into its sight. The pain, this time, was far too great, and his arm fell almost immediately. He caught his reflection in the worn steel of the pistol barrel. His eyes looked tired yet menacing. Lowering himself to his knees, he placed his free hand on his chest and slowly took a shallow breath. It burned. He raised the gun once more yet let it fall before he even sighted the other man. Placing his free hand before him on the earth, he let himself fall onto the sand, the warmth from the day still lingering. He rolled wearily onto his back and raised the gun just enough so he could again look at his reflection once more. Moving it from his line of sight, he brought the gun barrel to his temple. The steel was warm against his flesh.