High noon, and there he was, just like Whistlin’ Pete told me he’d be. At least, I thought it was Whistlin’ Pete. With the sun directly overhead, I could just barely make out the silhouette of a man in a cowboy hat sitting on top of his horse. The distance between us was nothin’ but rock and sand, the horizon looked like it was made of wavy lines comin’ up from the ground.
I was hoping that nobody’d show up, that the whole, “Meet me out in the desert, high noon,” was more of an intimidation tactic than anything else. But here he was, here we both were. A couple of lizards ran out from behind a rock to his right. Their sandy color made the little animals blend in almost perfectly with the ground. In fact, if it weren’t for their shadows, I wouldn’ta been able to make them out, scuttlin’ across the imaginary line that connected me with Whistlin’ Pete, kickin’ up tiny little lines of dust as their tails dragged along the ground.
The silhouette started moving, the horse’s hooves up and down, comin’ in a little closer. Was there enough time to run? Maybe. But that wouldn’ta settled anything. Whistlin’ Pete’d find me right back at the town, maybe he’d even beat me back to the inn where I was stayin’. And what would I do if I got back first, keep runnin’? The only train out of town left hours ago, and my horse wouldn’ta made it too far, not in this heat.
Another three or four lizards ran across, these ones just slightly bigger than the first two. Whistlin’ Pete sure was taking his time making his way over. Was this part of the process? Just stretchin’ out the suspense, makin’ me sweat it out? I thought to myself, well, if it’s all an elaborate scare tactic, maybe Whistlin’ Pete’ll let me go. Otherwise, what would be the point of putting me through all of this anticipation? Yeah, maybe he’d give me a good old fashioned desert spook, and then he’d send me off, runnin’ away, free to spread the story across the territories. Maybe that’s what Whistlin’ Pete really wanted, a reputation, a name that’d strike fear anywhere.
Now Pete was getting close enough that I probably could have called out something that he’d hear, but what could I say? How did this all get started anyway? Does Whistlin’ Pete really take seats that seriously? “Hey pardner,” I could still hear Pete’s voice in my head, tapping me on the shoulder at the saloon, “That’s my seat.”
And why did I have to be so confrontational? My memory from yesterday was interrupted at the sight of eight or ten more lizards running right in front of him the same right to left direction as the others, the same color. But these guys were noticeably bigger, maybe the size of squirrels, or small cats. Was I standin’ on their habitat? Were they tryin’a run away? For the first time all day, my aversion to all of these reptiles made me think about something other than Whistlin’ Pete.
When I looked up, Pete was waving, and it didn’t look like he was tryin’a say hello. “… iza … ey! … own! …” but I was too far away to hear clearly, and Whistlin’ Pete wasn’t exactly known for his enunciation anyway. Even if he had a full set of teeth, even if he didn’t make that whistlin’ sound every time he tried to talk, I couldn’t imagine his words being too much clearer.
But there was something else, though. I couldn’t make out individual words, but I could definitely hear somethin’, a sense of … was it panic? That didn’t really mesh with the hardened image I had in my mind of the showdown-challengin’ outlaw. But yeah, Whistlin’ Pete had both of his arms in the air now, so no gun probably, and there was definitely some flailin’ around going on.
That was maybe five minutes ago. We’ve been at a standoff ever since. I’m just noticing now those same lines of shadows and dust gettin’ kicked up in front of Whistlin’ Pete. Only, from this distance, those lizards must’a been a lot bigger. Now I’m really startin’a get a little freaked out.
Pete’s horse just did one of those moves where it stood up on his hind legs and kicked the front ones in the air. I can make out Pete strugglin’ to hold on, but two or three bucks and he’s on the ground. Now there are more lizards runnin’ right in front of the both of them, dozens, or hundreds even, several lines runnin’ between us and, when I look behind, there are even more.
And gettin’ bigger, the size of dogs now. The little ones earlier weren’t payin’ any attention, but now some of the bigger ones are stoppin’ for a couple’a seconds, just to kind of eye me down, pay me just a half a minute of consideration. In the distance, Pete looks like he’s strugglin’ with somethin’.
And the bigger they get, the more and more time these lizards stop to look, to make eye contact even. Now I’m gettin’ the sense that somethin’ progressive is happenin’ here, somethin’ primal, not natural, a whole line of little lizards runnin’ away from bigger lizards, and they’re only gettin’ bigger. I swear, that one right there had to be the size of a Shetland pony, and when it stops to look, it doesn’t start runnin’ again, it just stays here and stares.
In the distance, Pete’s gone. It’s just those shimmering wavy heat lines at the horizon, which is gettin’ increasingly difficult to see anyway, on account of all of the lizards. To my right I’m startin’a hear something like a stampede, and I get the sense that my horse is gettin’ spooked. I don’t want to see how big the biggest of these things gets, and I don’t want to get bucked off like Whistlin’ Pete did.
And so I let out a big, “Ya!” and steer myself in the only direction I can. Not in front, not behind, because there are lizards as far back in the other direction, but just left, just runnin’ right alongside all of the other lizards. I look back and the big ones that had stopped at me before are right on my tail. And behind them, there isn’t even a horizon anymore, it’s just shimmering, squirming, dust-brown scales, all of them. And all I can do is hope that my horse can outrun these things, that maybe I’ll find a way out before we get to the canyon’s edge, as long as the big ones didn’t catch up, and as long as I can hold on when the horse eventually decides to throw me off. Although I have that feeling, like he’s right about to buck. Any second now and I’ll be on the ground, if he can’t hold on, that is. “Ya!” he keep screamin’, hopin’a maintain some control, kickin’ the horse in the side, “Ya! Ya!”