The Long Way Home
The electric crimson moon hung low in the grey sky over the pitch-black plains. A blanket of clouds papered over the shimmering stars. Peering out from under his blanket for hours at the plains and the big sky, Ayden Thompson, a young man with a tired child’s smile and a thin scar over his right eye, didn’t see—besides the man and some bright spots on the moon—any other shape, colour, or shade for miles around the stark landscape, until he saw the wide brim of a hat break the horizon.
The cowboy started as a silver spark of light, which Ayden thought was a hallucination or a dream, but Ayden saw it again, and then, a few minutes later, Ayden saw his tiny silhouette rise out of the deep purple between the charcoal earth and the wide heavens. Ayden never felt the same way about darkness after seeing the light and the shape of that cowboy come out of the ground. A gust of wind sprinkled Ayden’s tarp with sand and jingled his spurs.
Yelling out to the cowboy, ‘hey, you… out there,’ Ayden heard himself, like a stranger, breaking the silence, ‘over here… I’m thirsty!’ He trusted the flash of light and the silhouette from a mile away—he didn’t have a choice, really—and he heard the horses hooves start to pound harder and faster into the rocky dust. He heard a gunshot, and then another, and then a cacophony of noise out of the south. He couldn’t make out any of the words, but he knew they were nasty threats and he knew the voices and he knew most of them were drunk.
The cowboy made it to Ayden’s camp. Ayden couldn’t see his face in the dark, but he could see that he had a little paunch and narrow shoulders, and he could tell by how he dismounted his horse that he was old. He didn’t say anything and neither did Ayden. The guns were still going off. He felt bizarrely at ease beside this old cowboy in the dark commotion and loud, booming noise.
Ayden Thompson came to Dark Rapids to make a name for himself in the West. He did all the sordid things he expected to, but nobody took him seriously. He was just the skinny kid from Canada that couldn’t shoot straight or hold his liquor. He rode his horse funny too. He still drank his whiskey and got his ass kicked now and then; it took him about three weeks, though, to figure out he didn’t fit in and that he was never going to be a big shot in Dark Rapids, or anywhere. He was on his way out of town, stopping to catch some panfish out of a pond, when he witnessed Dawson Braggs and his outfit beat Marcus Forbes to death. Ayden testified, but the judge was corrupt, and everyone knew it, so Ayden made sure to slip out of town as soon as he testified to get a head start in his getaway back home to Ontario. It didn’t take Dawson and his outfit long to catch up to him after they were released.
He enjoyed a charmed childhood in Ontario. He remembered chasing Spring Azure butterflies as they hopped along in the valley by his homestead. He would often look up at the hills in the mist from the cold creek that lazily slinked its way across the valley and take in one good, deep breath before he started thinking about himself again and how out of sync he felt with it all. He would fish the stretch of riffle before the creek made its way into the deep bush. He had better luck fishing for brown trout in the pools, but he would rather get skunked fishing the faster water for speckled trout.
The old cowboy’s canteen seemed to give off its own light when he handed it over to the kid. Ayden greedily tipped it back but only a couple drops hit his tongue. There was a hole in it from one of the bullets the old cowboy dodged to make it to the kid’s camp.
‘You look like an old gunfighter,’ Ayden whispered, breaking another silence, but his voice sounded more like his own this time.
‘I am…’ a gust of wind came through and jingled Ayden’s spurs again for an instant before the old cowboy muffled them, ‘old.’ The old cowboy noticed there were burs on Ayden’s shoelaces.
‘I’m tired of running. I’m going to take them on right here.’
The old cowboy didn’t ask any questions about why the kid was running. ‘You must have some of that moonshine rolling round in your head, son. How long have you been running?’
‘This is my first night’
‘You hardly been running, then’
‘I like my chances, especially now that I have a gunfighter…’
‘I told you, son, I’m an old timer, and, anyhow, I would never take on a posse that size on open terrain. You just need to throw them off your trail a bit and get some water. We’ll work on that tomorrow. You’re delirious.’
The kid nodded and started snoring. The old cowboy plugged the kid’s nose. The kid stirred and turned over.
The hot sun came up, turning the sky into a lava lamp of pink space and purple clouds. The old cowboy didn’t have to use any old tricks because they got lucky. He heard a few stray donkeys neighing and rounded them up as they were passing by their camp before the kid woke up. The old cowboy came back and kicked the kid. He told him to get on the donkey. The kid laughed and the old cowboy kicked him again. They tied their horses together and sent them east, and they headed north.
Dawson and his outfit were hot on their heels, but by the time Dawson reached the kid’s camp he saw horse tracks diverging with donkey tracks and he couldn’t distinguish anything from the vapour in the horizon. He felt for a second like he was stranded in the middle of the ocean. He told his fastest rider to follow the donkey tracks and backtrack if they are just strays, and he told his biggest and slowest hand to try his best to keep up with him in case there’s trouble. Dawson followed the horse tracks.
Dawson’s fastest rider quickly caught up to them and found Ayden and the old cowboy down in a spring and shot at them, winging the old cowboy. The old cowboy dropped to his knee, pumped his Winchester, and shot Dawson’s herald off his horse.
Ayden and the old cowboy packed up but, as they were leaving, they heard a loud fart behind some rocks to the south. The old cowboy shot in that direction and the bullet ricocheted loudly off the rocks and winged the fat straggler. He stood up from behind the rocks with his good hand waving his handkerchief in the air.
When the old cowboy took the fat man’s gun away from him, the fat man threw a heavy wide right hook. The old cowboy ducked and countered, almost simultaneously, with a knee to the groin and a head butt, squashing the cartilage in the fat man’s nose.
The old cowboy and Ayden took their horses. It would take the fat man the whole day under the blazing sun to get back to Dawson and the rest of the outfit on the back of one of the donkeys, so they just left him alone.
They weren’t far from the border when they heard shots ring out below them and one ricocheted off the rocks under their feet.
The bullets kept flying but they were all wild now, and Ayden could see Dawson making his way up hill under the cover of his outfit’s gunfire. Ayden tried to shoot him, but he kept ducking behind rocks or under ledges. The old cowboy said that Dawson was going to be up here any minute and told Ayden to hightail it across the border. The old cowboy’s eyes didn’t welcome disagreement, and Ayden just put his hand on the old cowboy’s back with a soft touch and mounted his horse.
The next afternoon, he was looking up at his family homestead on the hill, and then he looked down at the burs on his shoelaces. He stopped every hundred feet or so to pick some off before he made it to the back door.