Three Steps

I’m three steps from meeting my maker. Three more steps to the noose. I am ready to die; I reckon I deserve to die. I have killed before, but never for such a frivolous reason as brings me to these last three steps.

The whole mess started down El Paso way when I walked into that little cantina. It was a bucket of blood, a real dive. But I had a thirst and it was the first saloon I saw as I rode into town. Once inside, it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. When I could see again, I saw a bar against the far wall. Two men were leaning against it, staring into their drinks. A few tables were scattered around the room—all empty. It was mid-day, so that was no surprise.

I made my way to the bar and put my foot on the brass rail. The barman was a little slow in coming my way. I had just rode twenty-five miles and the dust was thick in my throat. I had no patience for a slow-movin’ barkeep. When he was opposite me, I grabbed his shirt and pulled his face to mine. Looking him dead in the eye, I said, “Give me your finest rotgut and if you dilly-dally, I’ll put a bullet in your leg.” As I said it, I drew my .44 from its leather and pointed the barrel at his right leg. His eyes widened and he reached under the bar and came up with an almost full bottle of some good stuff. “Here, mister, it’s on the house,” he stuttered.

With that taken care of, I picked up the bottle and, leaving the glass where it was, took a good pull. I had ridden my horse almost to death. I had to move fast, they were on my trail. I mean the posse. Yes, I had killed two men, but they were trying to kill me. I finally lost the posse in the badlands. Now I’m only a few miles from Mexico and freedom. But as it turned out, I might as well have been a million miles from the border.

I don’t know what she was doing coming into that hellhole of a bar, but when I saw her, my plans changed. She pushed through the swing doors as though she owned the place. And, in a way, she did. She was tall and blonde. Her figure had more curves than a coiled rattler. Her hair was up—her smile could kill. Her eyes were gray and they looked my way.

She strolled right up to me and in a voice that would have made strong men weep, she said, “Ain’t you the big one.”

Without a word, I took the empty glass from the bar and poured some of the amber liquid into it. She took the proffered glass and said, “My name is Rose and I like a man that will buy a girl a drink.”

When we had worked the bottle down to half empty, she told me to grab it and took me by the hand. She led me to the stairs and we ascended to the second floor, to a door at the far end of the hall. “This is where I call home,” she purred. By now I had forgotten about the twenty-five dust-coated miles, the posse, the killings—everything.

Once in the room with the door locked, she pointed to a table and said, “You’ll find some glasses over there. Pour us a shot.” I found the glasses, blew the dust out of ’em, and did as I was told. When I turned back around, she was sitting on the bed. Patting the mattress, she beckoned softly. “Come and sit by me.”

Well, partners, that was all she wrote. For the next three days, we barely left that room. We had our hooch and food sent up. I had never known a woman like her. I’d mostly only been with whores, but she was no whore. She told me that she loved me. We spent three days exploring every inch of each other’s bodies, and I fell in love for the first time in my life.

It was on the morning of the fourth day that my head started to clear. We were lying in bed. I was on my back and she was propped up on one elbow running her finger down my chest when she said she wanted to go to Mexico with me. I told her that was fine by me, but there was no rush. That’s when she got a funny look on her face and exclaimed, “No, we have to leave today!” Before I could say anything else, there was a knock on the door. I got out of bed and slipped on my pants. I knew who it was; it was the little Mex boy who had been bringing us our food and booze. I usually took the tray at the door and handed him a dollar. But this time was different. He beckoned me out into the hall and asked that I shut the door. When it was closed behind me, he whispered, “Señor, you have been good to me, so I must tell you that you are in great danger.”

I took the tray from his hands and said, “Don’t worry, son. This is the kind of danger I like,” and winked at him.

I started to turn, but he grabbed my arm. “You do not understand. She belongs to another man, a bad man. She has done this before and three men have died. Her man will be back tomorrow, so today she will ask you to leave and take her with you. If you are here tomorrow, José will kill you.”

I put the tray on the floor and asked the boy to tell me all that he knew. He told me people were making bets with each other if I’d get away before José got back or if I’d be planted up on the hill with the other three. It seemed Rose, my great love, was using me to get away from José. In this country, a woman can’t travel alone. And besides, as the boy told me, José leaves her with no money when he goes away.

The news kinda punched me in the gut. I gave the boy a five-dollar gold piece and thanked him. Picking up the tray, I entered the room with a smile on my face.

“Where have you been? I missed you, big boy.”

Still smiling, I placed the tray on the bed. “You chow down. I’m gonna have me a drink.”

I had me some thinking to do.

As I sat in the chair and watched her eat, I weighed my options. We could leave together and avoid this man José, or I could leave alone. Or, we could stay and I could have it out with José. The problem was I didn’t know if she was worth it. She had played me. If I took her with me, would she ditch me once we were in Mexico?

I was still thinking on those thoughts when she broke my reverie by saying, “I want to be out of here by noon. I’m going to take a bath; you pack and then settle our bill. I’ll meet you at the livery stable.” Still smiling, I answered, “I’ll see you at the livery.” She gathered up some clothes, got herself dressed, and left to take her bath.

When she had gone, I sat there in thought and added another option to the other three. I could just kill the lying bitch and be done with her. What to do? What to do?

I put on my shirt and boots, strapped on my .45, and went downstairs still undecided. By the time I reached the livery, I had decided that I’d leave without her. She was a fine-looking woman and the sex was good, but I had enough trouble in my life without no crazy man coming after me. I saddled my pinto and started down the street at a slow pace. As I passed the saloon, Rose pushed through the swing doors and saw me. She dropped her bags and ran up, grabbed ahold of the saddle horn, and walked alongside. Looking up at me, she implored, “Where you going? Wait! I’ll get my horse.”

“I’m sorry. It was nice, but this here is where we go down our separate trails.”

She wouldn’t let go, so I picked up the pace a mite. She still hung on. Then I saw her look down the street and the look on her face said it all. She let go and hightailed it back to the saloon.

I didn’t have to look, but I did. Astride a sorrel rode a big man, a big, mean-looking man. It had to be José. As we came abreast of each other, he grabbed the reins of my horse. There we stood, eye to eye, neither one of us speaking. Finally he said in a very deep voice, “Whatcha doin’ with my woman?”

“Nothing, just tryin’ to get outta town,” I answered.

I saw it in his eyes; he was going to draw on me. I may be slow when it comes to women, but I’m fast when it comes to gun play. I had a bullet through his forehead before he cleared leather. That was my mistake, that and taking up with Rose. I should have let him draw first. The whole thing was seen by the town marshal and I was quickly arrested. I thought for a moment of killing the marshal before he arrested me, but I never did kill no man that was not trying to kill me.

For three days, I knew of love. In three steps, I die.

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