Sean stumbled, and nearly fell before getting his rubbery legs under and continued walking. His stride had shortened everyday he walked and the pebbles he had put in his boots were making him limp and stumble. The pebbles seemed like a good idea at the time, his progress had been too easy. The way Sean figured it, if he had wanted easy, he wouldn't be doing this. Facing responsibility wasn't supposed to be easy.
It had been several days ago when he first noticed that his hat was missing. The burning desert sun beat down on his unprotected head and sapped what little strength he had. Where his flesh was exposed from under the thin wisps of his fair hair, it turned a bright red and blistered. Despite the heat, his skin was cool and clammy. Sean had stopped sweating a long time ago. His lips were split and his eyes sunk in the deep pits of his skull.
Spider webs of mineral deposits, residue from his long departed cooling fluids, spread along the black cotton of his jacket, creeping from beneath his arms like ivy climbing a rock. The heavy gun belt at his hip had eroded a hole through the thick material of his pants and into his leg. Occasionally a sharp motion or halting step helped the pendulous weight crack through the healing shield of the wound to draw forth a new rivulet of blood to run down his thigh.
Sean felt nothing. Although he walked through and bore witness to ours, he was lost in a different world. Our world assaulted him with his eyes and broke against his diffidence. The yellow sun was merciless in its attack and curled everything in sight like a dim memory seen hazily from behind old glass. The wind whipped about him and spoke of great secrets, whispering in his ear the mysteries of his madness.
Brown hills, gray rock and pale green scrub brush spread as far as he could see. In the distance, a town rose from the sepia tinted horizon, so faint as to be easily mistaken for a trick of the eyes. A mirage, nothing more.
A town it was though, and it grew larger in Sean's vision with every stunted, faltering step. As time passed, the details of the small collection of buildings became clearer. They mutated from vague shapes to linear blobs with the potential for texture and finally they resolved as wooden shacks and timber structures.
The town was small and seemed out of place in such a flat space. It was the kind of town that rose from the desert in support of a railroad depot or mail route. No doubt there was an equally small mining camp in the nearby mountains that provided all the commerce necessary to justify this sun bleached wooden boil of civilization.
On the outskirts of town, near the livery stable were the eternal soldiers of a graveyard. The stone officers stood in close rank with the NCO's, wooden crosses in a neat parade formation that would last longer than the remains they guarded. Making an abrupt detour, Sean walked through the rusted iron gate to review the troops of his trade. At each solemn soldier, he knelt and brushed the dust and grime from the names scratched in the crosses and chiseled in the stone.
When he found the name of the interned, he said a quick prayer. Mentioning their name to the Father, and begging for their salvation, he fingered the only vestment of his former office left to him, the white collar at his throat. He repeated this ritual at every marker till he came to one small stone, no different from any of the others. His dry and bleeding hands revealed the name of Suzanne Childes.
He prayed again, but this time he said his own name, and begged for his own salvation.
As the sun trod towards its burning zenith, he rose awkwardly and wiped the muddy tears from his face. Futilely attempting to brush the dust from his knees, Sean turned and left the graveyard without investigating the remaining markers. Sean's pace had grown erratic and it took him an inordinate amount of time to close the short distance to the center of town. All the while the buildings crushed towards him and wavered in his vision. The signs that hung about the stores and parlors attacked him, screaming their persistent slogans.
Two nights for a dollar!
Borax gets it clean!
Overwhelmed by the empty hostility of the dusty streets and weathered wood, Sean began to spin. Or maybe his world was spinning and ours remained still, much like it always does. He stumbled, teetered and this time he did not recover before falling to the sand.
Sprawled in the street, Sean garnered no more attention than any other bit of wind blown detris. After a few endless moments of disorientation, he slowly drug himself first to a sitting position, and finally to his feet.
A drink. That's what Sean decided he needed; a drink for his parched lips and unsteady nerves. It was only a matter of seconds before he located the saloon that every town like this had, and a moment more before his unsteady gait carried him over the threshold and into the cool dark interior. After a moment to adjust to the dim light, he signaled for the bartender's attention and ordered a whiskey and a pint.
Sean killed the whiskey with one easy toss and took a moment to relish the warm glow that cascaded towards his center before following with a draught of the ale. It was an adequate beverage and even though it wasn't the best, it did catalyze memories that rushed forth unbidden.
He remembered the green hills of Connemara and the pub his grandfather would sneak him off to on Sunday afternoons. He would listen to the old men talk and Seanathair would let him sip the whiskey from his glass. Now that was good whiskey, sweet and smoky with a glow to warm against the chill rains.
At first the daydream brought a cracked smile to Sean's weathered lips, but it swiftly faded as he remembered where he was. Connemara was a lifetime and more away and he no longer had the secret dirty jokes of his grandfather's friends to ease the pain of his fathers switch. In the time it took him to draw another swallow of the ale, his frown had set again between his brow and chin.
Turning to lean his back against the bar and survey the crowded wasteland of the saloon, he inadvertently struck the patron next to him. His elbow had lashed out with his bobbling spin and nudged a thimble full of liquid from the man's glass. It was a small blunder and in a more civilized time and place the wound could be healed with a kind word of apology or the purchase of a new drink. This was neither a civilized time nor place and the offended seemed not the type to accept such an apology if it had been.
"God dammit! I'm gonna break your skinny little neck!" As the man turned on Sean he hesitated, noticing the white collar. "Oh. Uhm…Listen Padre, I…"
Sean cut him off with a croak. It had been days, perhaps weeks since he had spoken aloud. The pint and sudden activity helped though, and with a minimal amount of coughing he eventually spoke.
"Don't concern yourself with my vestments Son. I'm prepared to defend myself." He patted the holster on his hip for emphasis. "Let me finish my pint and I'll join you in the street shortly." He turned back to the bar, ignoring the stuttered protests of his confused opponent.
Sean followed the man's muttering retreat in the mirror behind the bar until the bright light of the day caused him to return his attention to the dusty glass in his hands and the dim interior of the saloon. Sean was surprised but not unnerved to find that the room was now vacant save one small figure. Like most children, she was short. Her blond hair framed a face strangely glowing with a golden light that did not touch her piercing blue eyes.
Her lips didn't move from a creased frown as her voice boomed and rolled through Sean. "Don't do this. Don't be here. You've done enough and no good has ever come of it."
With a trembling, begging smile Sean reached a hand out to caress her translucent, glowing mane. "Suzy, don't be that way. Please? I've come to make amends. I want to make good by you. I've come so far!"
"Then you've wasted your time. Absolution does not come from the suffering of the offender, only through the mercy of the offended, and I shall never give you that!"
Sean closed his eyes and leaned his head down into the cradle of his hands upon the bar. Tears streamed through the deep crags of his weathered face and made muddy puddles in the heavy dust that blanketed the cracked wood of the bar. With a sigh and a deep breath he straightened and seemed to shoulder an invisible burden. Avoiding the broken furniture and other discarded remnants of an age gone by; he weaved his way towards the entrance and stepped into the full light of the day.
The stranger stood at the far end of the street, and when he saw Sean emerge he called out to him. "The name's Childes, Padre, and I'm gonna kill you dead fer what ya done."
Childes stood too far away to hear Sean's whispered reply.
Sean stood as he knew he should. Shoulders straight, legs apart, left hand hung limply and the right hovered above his hip, the fingers flexing and lightly brushing the leather.
"You go ahead and make yer move Padre, I'ma ready whenever you are."
Time slowed for Sean. He could track the movement of the wind by the slow swirl of dust in the air. He could hear his own heartbeat thundering in his temple. He focused his gaze on Childes and saw every detail of the man, down to his soul.
Sean twitched and his hand dove down, grasping only the memory of the heavy pistol from the long empty holster. His vision grew dim as he fell forward in slow motion while the world sped by in complete silence, except for the rapid, irregular, thundering of his heart.
Suzy appeared, leaning over him. Her guise was strangely menacing from her position towering over the prostrate form of Sean's numb body.
"I'm so sorry Suzanne. So sorry."
She made no verbal reply, but the intent of her message was clear in her eyes and Sean had no difficulty deciphering it. It was not a message of mercy.
A blinding flash of light brought the town into focus and Sean finally saw the town as it really was. The buildings leaned with the weight of years. The glass was broken from the windows and tumbleweed rolled lazily to and fro. Neither Suzy nor her father were anywhere to be seen.
The world dimmed one last time for Sean and even as he breathed the last dry breath, his mouth was filling with the dust of time.