Thursday, July 28, 2011

Last Man Standing

A man sits by a campfire.
The flitting light reveals in turns a face ravaged by
the sun and winds, speckled with grizzled stubble.

"It's a long lonely road that I bin walkin'
"It's a long lonely road that I bin walkin'"

Frayed guitar strings buzz along with the tune.

"It's a long lonely road,
"It's a long lonely road..."

There's movement in the distance.
Another man approaches, leading a horse,
but the campfire singer seems unconcerned.
Just as the other man and his horse step
into the circle of light,
the singer cracks into the refrain,
strumming the strings furiously:

"Last man standing!"

The new man doffs his hat.

"You can sit down if you like,"
says the guitar-player.
"It's warm here by the fire."

"The name's Luke," says
the interloper, a much younger man.


Luke ties up his horse next to Ben's
and sits by the fire.

"What's it mean?" asks Luke.

"What's what mean?"

"Last man standing?"

Ben smiles shyly. "Oh that.
It's just a little ditty made up
off the top 'o my head. Don' mean

"So where you headed old man?"

"T' California. I've heard there's work
in the plantations. Pickin' fruit.
And you, kid?"

He hesitates.
"There was a war back East."

"You's on the losing side and now
you's a fugitive," finishes Ben.

"How'd you know that?"

"I ain't been livin' under no rock.
And you don' sound like no Yank.
You take it easy. Here in the West, there's
freedom and you don' have to worry about
bein' no fugitive."

"What about Indians?"

"Ain't never had no trouble with no Injuns."

They share each other's food readily,
more grateful for the company than avaricious.
For a long time they say little.

"So where you headed, old man?"

"Thinkin' a headin' to California.
Hear you can pick the fruit off the trees
and there's plenty work in the orchards and farms."

"You need someone to ride with?
We could make a good team, you and me..."

Ben chews his thoughts for a moment.
"I guess we could ride together for a couple days."

Two riders in the desert: a young one on an almost black horse,
an old one on a mottled white one.
A village on the horizon draws nearer.
As cracked siding and dried out thatch comes into relief,
an animal extracts itself from the corner of a building
and darts away.

Ben reigns his horse and dismounts.

"Coyotes. Ain't a good sign." He looks around as if sniffing
the air.
Luke stares at him. His horse prances, eager.

"We'll tie our horses outside." He leads his
animal to a stunted tree, barely more than a shrub.
Reluctant, the younger man complies.
After only a few minutes, both are sweating with the effort,
for it is a hot day.

The village is derelict. Rubbish is piled
in the middle of the street, buildings heave
from neglect.
"Wonder how long..." the old man mutters.
"Ain't nothin'"

The old man starts walking towards the threshold.
"We're you goin'?" calls Luke. He sits down
on a porch and pulls out pipe and tobacco.
When he's finished, he goes looking for his
new companion.
He sees him by a pile of rocks.
Is he kneeling? Perhaps he is crying,
or praying!

"There you are!"
The old man is muttering something.
"The real one is out there somewhere."
He makes a vague gesture.
"Say what?"
"Ain't nothin' Okay, let's go kid."
He picks himself up and starts walking towards the horses.
"Hey, where we goin' old man? We could just as easy
camp in one of them old buildings there."
He looks at the sun, amber in the Western sky.
"We ain't stayin' here."
"Why not?"
"Well you go ahead then. I ain't stayin' here.
This is an evil place."
"What, you sayin' it's haunted or something?"
"Look, I ain't superstitious or nothin'..."
Ben is holding his hat with both hands.
Luke feels a twinge of fear, like when he used to
ride with his old man in the woods.
"Keep your pistol ready," he would tell him.
"Ain't been a bear or mountain lion in these parts
for some time, but you never know..."

Dancing flames, dancing shadows
on the faces of the two men
in the cold desert night.
Prancing light, wicked licks of light
on the faces of the men alone
in the twilight campsite.

Ben has no need for trite rhymes.
Every word has rhythm.
Every chord rings with authenticity.

"Man, how you get to play so good?"

"Just practice I guess.
Look, it's only two chords."

He forms his fingers across the fretboard,
"First, go like this,"
runs his fingers across the strings,
then makes another gesture to his music machine.
"Then like this."

"You could do it easy."

He hands the guitar over.

Luke slowly accepts it.

He tries strumming as Ben does.
Strings rattle against the fretboard
and buzz against his fingers.

He tries again.
Suddenly, something nips out of nowhere,
stinging his wrist.
"Awww, now look what I done!"

"No worries. Jus' a broken string.
'can see a luthier in the next town."

Ben starts to put the guitar away.
Then pauses and picks it up again.

"Just one more." Luke smiles with pleasure.

"It's a long lonely road that I bin walkin'
"It's a long lonely road that I bin walkin'

"It's a long lonely road,
"It's a long lonely road,
"It's a long lonely road that I bin walkin'!

"Last man, standing!"

The strings ring, ebbing through the darkness.

"So what's it mean?"

"Ain't nothin'"

With that, the two men roll over,
settling themselves.

After two days of riding,
the two arrive in their first real town.

The two riders arrive in town shortly before midday,
grateful for the promise of a saloon and respite from the noonday's sun.

"Howdy," calls an old grandmother from her porch.
The dust kicked up from the horses is reflected in her bright eyes.

At the saloon, Ben asks the bartender where he could buy guitar strings.
"You should ask the Deputy," he points to a lean man amid a large
gathering of the townspeople.
Their heated discussion echoes through the hall.
"Lutherie is his hobby."

The men order stew and cold beer.
Ben leads them to a heavy oak table on dais in the corner.

As the men work on their repast,
a young woman approaches their table.
"You boys are new in town," she says.
Luke looks up, but Ben just rolls his eyes.
"My name is Josee."
"Hi, I'm Luke," he says.
She offers her hand,
looking at them expectantly.

"Why don't you sit down, little lady.
You need something cold on your tongue on such a hot day."
He calls over the bartender.

"Where you boys travelling to?"

"We're headed to California. Travelling through the desert. The world's calling on us to be men," Luke explains.

"Sounds like fun."

He looks sideways. "I'm trying to escape from them damn Yankees."

"Oooh!" She shifts in her chair. "So you boys are soldiers!"

"I am, or I was," replies Luke. "But Ben here's just a hobo."
He nudges his friend, who's looking across the room.
"Ain't that right, Ben?"

Josee stared off into space.
"I love a man in uniform!" She stirs again, trying to move closer to her new friend.

After many minutes of this patter, Ben becomes extremely agitated.

"Look, I hate to interupt your party, but I think we should be going..."

"Hey, we're just getting started. Besides, we got to get them guitar strings."
He motions across the room where the Luther was now engaged in a yelling
competition with several of his fellows.

"That's what I'm afraid of..."

Josee and Luke return to their conversation.
Ben is momentarily silenced, but finally can stand it no longer.
He pipes up, "Look, kid, I really need to go. You can stay here with your new friend if you like, but I'm gonna go saddle up."

"C'mon. Just a few more minutes..."

Gunshots ring through the hall.
Someone has unholstered his six-shooter.
Ben jumps up and kicks over the table.
"Get down!" he screams.
The three of them hunker behind the oaken slab.

Shots ring everywhere, ricosheting off the walls and splintering the wooden tabletop.
Ben has out his six shooter and is trying peek out over the makeshift shelter
to assess the situation. Other townspeople arrive and fire in through
the windows from the street and the rooftops.
The muzzle of a shotgun shatters one of the windows.
The old grandmother they had seen earlier takes aim.
The blast levels three of the townsfolk.
Josee has produced a pocket pistol and is carefully picking off her fellows,
reloading every other shot. Then she is shot in the eye.

After several minutes of paralysis, Luke pulls out his six-shooter.
He tries to take aim over the tabletop, but stray shots force him down.
He gets off two shots, high over everyone's heads.

"Hey Ben!" He tries to steady his voice. "We got to make a run for it!"
But his friend doesn't answer.
Several shots have ripped through the tabletob and
he bleeds from his abdomen.

Suddenly, everything is silent. A few people still moan and shift, but no more
shots are heard. Luke looks over at his friend.
He cradles in his arms the last companion of his
broken life.

"We gotta get you to hospital." Ben shakes his head. "Now you know, kid," is
the last thing he says.

Luke stands up and walks outside. Then he walks back in again.

"What should I do? What should I do?" he moans, over and over.
He wonders if he should shoot those who still struggle to ease their
suffering. He points his gun at a man still stirring on the floor but has
no strength to pull the trigger.
He wonders if he should bury all the bodies in the desert or just let the
jackals and the buzzards finish them.

Another more rational part of his brain tells him that it doesn't matter much one way or the other.
He picks up the guitar and wanders off into the desert.

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