That crunch, that glorious soft crackle underfoot. Powdery dirt and pebbles smashed into tiny bits with each and every step. Allivare swept his left foot over the dirt in an arc, watched the dust swirl up and disappear in the air around his shins. Somewhere, miles away perhaps, this dust would land at the feet of another young shooter, who would grow to marvel the ground he walked on after such a fight as the one about to commence.
Allivare looked out over Main street, up to the end of town where Route 79 swerved around Boulder Hill. A condor glided overhead, brushed its wings perpendicular to the ground before swooping back to the east. There were no horses around the bend, no approaching carriage cars, and any man or woman worth their weight in gold was locked away behind their home shutters, ears braced for the crackle of gunshots mere moments away.
Tucking his derby brim down to shade his eyes, Allivare glanced up to the clock, which ticked past five. The shadows and deep hints of nightfall creeped into the doorway of Biddegan’s Smithing shop. Bud normally wouldn’t allow customers in after sunset, but today is a different day.
Today is the day that someone dies.
Allivare shuddered at the thought of it all; at how a simple tradition had evolved over the last five years into this monstrosity known as a Rite of Passage. He scratched the back of his neck, grown red under the day’s burning sun. The patch of bumps had worsened, and the itch was more prominent. He pulled his hand away, wiped off the specks of blood from his fingernails, and shifted his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.
Ignoring the tug at his waistline, Allivare paced left, then right. He glanced again at the clock, then to the trough in front of Biddegan’s. Flies buzzed in circles just over the surface of the water. The smell of shit and wet hair filled every inch of the air around the trough, such that even the horses were overwhelmed, ignoring the sweet relief of refreshment and instead snatching the tiny bits of fresh air available even a few feet away.
Walking steadily to the trough, Allivare cursed his dry skin, the infection worsening with each step. He dipped his hand in the trough, scooped up a grimy puddle of mud which was frosted with droplets of the remnants of water. The feel was cool and smooth, a small relief on the back of his neck, relief from the itching, and the pain of the rising bumps. The one doctor who volunteered to diagnose Allivare exclaimed, through a shaky voice, the cause of the irritation.
“You’ve been bitten, sir. Horribly, it seems, by fleas, perhaps, or mites from your bedsprings.”
“Fleas? Mites? Doctor, you’re looking me in the eyes right now telling me this blood on my fingertips is the result of an insect no bigger than a nosehair?”
“Quite, sir, that’s quite right.”
The Doctor will never walk again, and Allivare’s skin remains in the same sorry state.
He felt the tug at his waist again, and looked down at the nuisance — only to find his own hand the cause. His left hand had been scratching at the bumps at his waist, tearing through the fabric of his pants over the last ten minutes.
Blood and pus poured forth from the irritation, through the fabric and dripping towards his ankle. Droplets of blood leading back to his spot in the road told Allivare the condition had progressed substantially since his visit to the doctor this morning. Time was running out. Once the sun set, Allivare would most likely be lost for good.
“Well? What say you, boy?” Allivare had waited to speak these words, hoping that somehow the tradition would have changed, that perhaps the townsfolk would forgive it this one year, when all hope seemed to be lost anyhow.
For months now the dry desert sand had wiped clean most of the crops, cattle had been grazing and thinning for the prior two weeks, and rabbits and rats had grown too scarce, meaning that only crumbs and broken cacti were consumed in small cups of soup for the majority of the town.
All hope had trickled towards today’s lottery, and Allivare had drawn the unlucky ticket. His gun held the one bullet that carried the future of the town, as it had for generations now. One tug of the trigger, one loud bang to echo for minutes, and then the completion of the ritual to the gods. Then the rain would fall.
In the east, clouds had already begun to gather. But they would remain past the borders of the town until the rite would be completed. Allivare had dreaded this day ever since watching his father fill these shoes over forty years ago. The day after, Allivare had run into the hills beyond Route 79 and remained with local Natives who had settled in their own village. For years he remained, learning survival and the skills of a hunter. When he abandoned that village, it was in the nick of time. Soldiers from the Confederacy had overtaken the Chief and his family, the village burned to the ground without fanfare.
Allivare had returned to Boulder City on his own accord, and was welcomed with open arms. He’d settle with a wife he hardly spoke to. They had a son, who Allivare had adored and watched grow these last few years into a strong and confident young man, one who would never go near a gun even if his life depended on it. Allivare made certain to shield the boy from violence, from the wafting desire to kill, even for survival. The massacre he’d seen, the Chief and the village overtaken…he was certain had changed him forever, and until this day, the day of the lottery, Allivare had avoided his own gun like the plague it would soon cure.
The other half of the Ritual, the important half, stepped from Biddegan’s shop, knees shaking, pants soaked through with urine. The boy collapsed when he reached the middle of the street, his gaunt face smiling and hopeful. “Am I the cure, Papa?”
Allivare pulled his gun and fired, eyes closed. It all came back to him, the skill, the proper way to handle a weapon, how to aim without looking down the barrel.
As the echos of the gunshot faded, Allivare held his stance, his eyes shut against the breeze. He felt dust brush his face, the wetness trickling on his cheeks. He fell to his knees.
Then the rain came.