The Last Bullet
“The Wild West, that’s what they called it,” said the Ranger, his breath rasping like a blacksmith’s file on a horseshoe.
“Called it, you said. Called it. Called, not call,” said the figure in buckskins, kneeling beside him. The Ranger drew in his breath sharply and winced, his eyes shutting hard and his teeth clamping together in a rictus. When the pain eased a little, he opened his eyes again and looked long into the face of his kneeling companion.
“Yes, Tonto,” he said softly, “Past tense. The Wild West is dying, just as I am.”
His companion did not contradict him, did not say anything for several minutes.
“How come we got so old, you and me, Kemo Sabe?” he said at last. “How come the world got smaller the older we got?” There was no trace now of ‘Fort Indian’ in his voice, there was no one around to object to his talking like a white man – the only white man for miles was lying there by him, his head resting on a saddle, and that white man was his brother, as good as. Gently he tried to staunch the blood that ran from the deep gashes in the Ranger’s side, with a piece of cloth torn from a spare saddle-blanket. The Ranger winced again, and turned his head to look at the corpse lying about ten feet away from them.
“I never killed a man before today,” he said.
“You didn’t kill a man today,” said Tonto, looking over at the corpse as well. It seemed to be shrinking in size, becoming more emaciated, as though the desert sand was trying to claim it. A wind nagged at the clothes that covered it – the Levi’s, the old cattle duster pulled up around its waist, the battered sombrero that covered its head, the bandana knotted loosely round its neck. The corpse’s fingers were curled, as though they were clawing at the sand. It’s frame was big and broad still, even with the illusion of shrinking. Tonto did not want to lift the sombrero to check. He knew what he would see, and knew he wouldn’t like it. He shivered a little and told himself it was the fault of that nagging wind.
“That wasn’t a man,” he went on. “More like – my kin have a word – more like a Wendigo.”
“What will you do, Tonto?” said the Ranger, softly and hoarsely, changing the subject.
“Me? Go back to Canada, I guess.”
“You never told me what brought you to Texas in the first place.”
“You never asked.”
Tonto continued to press the piece of blanket against the Ranger’s side, but the Ranger pushed his hand away.
“No. No. I’ll hold that,” he said. “There are three things I want you to do for me, Tonto, and you have to do them without question. First thing is, dig a grave for me, while there is still daylight. No, no, just do it. Second thing, once you’re through doing that, take my mask off, let me show my old face to the setting sun. Last thing – here! – take this. Take my gun. There’s one bullet left. One silver bullet.”
Tonto reached for the gun, but stopped.
“No. Not that. I can’t,” he said.
“Tonto, you must! You must! Or you’ll have no peace, ever. You can go to Canada, or Alaska, or China if you want to, but you’ll have no peace. This gun, this last bullet, they’ll protect you, and they’ll end this once and for all. They’ll put the final period at the end of an old legend, one we shouldn’t have been in. This is one story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto they’ll never tell, and by golly I’m glad of that. Leave me riding off into the sunset of some other tall tale, with someone asking who the masked man was. Let the other thing, that thing over there… well… I guess that’s died its own death… part of a different legend. With luck, me too.”
The Ranger’s voice had become very quiet, barely a whisper, as though giving these instructions to his companion had taken what remained of his strength. Tonto tucked the six-gun into his belt, propped the Ranger against the saddle with his face towards the setting sun, and untied the mask. Then he fetched the shovel an old prospector had given him, and set about digging a grave. He knew why he needed the grave. It would buy him time. From time to time he stopped digging and looked over at the Ranger. There was still something there in his sere face of the young man he had been at their first meeting, but it was buried beneath a few decades’ wear-and-tear, and now beneath pain too. Each time Tonto stopped to look, he listened for the Ranger’s breathing. Eventually there was none. He laid down the shovel and half-carried half-dragged the Ranger’s body to the grave, letting it fall in as gently as he could. But down in the grave it looked broken and untidy, nothing of his old friend left, so he quickly shoveled the dirt and sand on top.
When that task was over, Tonto sat with his back against the saddle. He took the pistol out of his belt and checked it, checked it again, and checked it a third time. He looked over at the corpse of the rougarou – there was no danger there, it was dead. It had taken four silver bullets from the Ranger’s gun and had kept coming. The fifth, fired at point blank range, had found its heart, but not before its teeth had ripped into the Ranger’s flesh. The sixth was still in the chamber. Tonto checked it again.
A little way off, the Ranger’s white horse – the third to have been given the name ‘Silver’ – whinnied. It was getting dark. The last glow of sunset faded from the horizon. The moon had risen behind Tonto in a cloudless sky, lighting up the desert, casting a shadow behind the little mound of earth he had piled over his dead friend, his dead brother. It was the last night of the full moon.
Tonto blinked a couple of times, wiped away something wet from his cheek, and cocked the pistol. Any disturbance to that little mound would give him some warning, he would be ready. This night’s watch was his. He would do what he had to do.