(Part 3: “The Metal Scrape Gentle Across the Wood.” “Some Velvet Morning” begins here.)
I gave it some thought, then answered him honestly. “No. I don’t. Do you?”
“Let me put it like this: You believe there’s something out there that means to eat you alive, body and soul?”
I sat silent for a while, trying to figure out just what the hell he was getting at. Before I could answer, he leaned in close, and said, too calm for my liking, “I think I saw Hell out there. But…I’m not sure it was Hell. Don’t know what it was, or where, but…”
He didn’t add anything to that thought for a while.
So finally I asked him, “Bill…what the fuck are you going on about?”
He must not have caught my tone, because he just started his story. “I was riding for days, Joe. Felt like days, anyway. Somewhere along the way, I started losing time,” he told me.
I looked in his eyes. Sure enough, he looked like he hadn’t slept in a dog’s age.
“Shit, Bill, that’s not crazy,” I let him know, since he seemed to need hearing it. “You ran yourself too hard, that’s all. Ain’t so young as you used to be. None of us are. Maybe you just need to learn to set up camp a little more often when you’re out on the range.”
“That ain’t…shit. I weren’t riding more’n a few hours. I checked my watch. I knew for truth, it was only a few hours. But this feeling just crept in on me like I couldn’t remember when I left or where I was goin’.”
He reached into his pocket, took his watch out. Then, in a quick, angry pull, he ripped it off the chain and slammed it down on the bar. “The time was just…gone!” he barked.
I won’t lie, I jumped when he said it. Can’t blame me. I’d never heard the man yell, long as I’ve known him. I think he knew that, too. I think that’s why he did it, so I’d understand he was serious.
But I didn’t. Not even when, silent as a church, he slid that watch over. And as I heard the metal scrape gentle against the wood, I cottoned to the fact that everyone in the bar was quiet, too. Bill had gotten the whole room’s attention. And I didn’t like that one bit.
If this was a private confab between the two of us, that was fine. But something was wrong with my friend, and I didn’t need other folks listening in.
Bill didn’t seem to notice. Or at least, he didn’t seem to care. He just tapped the counter next to the watch. I opened the face. It was stopped at 12:00 sharp. I looked up from the watch and met Bill’s glance. He tipped his head at it. His eyes signaling at me like I was supposed to twig onto a bigger meaning. But damned if I could see it.
“Looks like you need to wind it, Bill,” I said lightly. He nodded at it again. I caught the meaning that time – I thought, at least. I started winding it. But the hands stood dead still, no matter how much I twisted.
“So maybe you need a new watch. Richie Noonan, he can help you out, order you somethin’ from his store….”
“The sun was settin’ when it stopped,” he whispered. “Stopped at midnight. And this weren’t no sane sunset, Joe. There was green in it. Green as fresh grass. The sun set green, and brown and black and red. I never seen anything so…hell, Joe, only word for it’s ‘unnatural..’” His hand shook as he poured a shot.
This was getting outta hand. Whatever he’d been through, I had to bring him back to the real world. “Bill, listen to me. I understand you’re spooked. But there’s plenty a’ reasons for what you saw, and it’s like you ain’t thought of any of ‘em. ‘Fore you left town, anyone get ahold of your canteen? Someone with a grudge, and maybe some peyote?”
Without taking his eyes off the drink, he coolly answered, “Anyone with a grudge against me would wanna face me head-on. And I’ve taken peyote. This…heh. This weren’t that.”
He took a shot, then a deep breath. After a long moment, his shoulders untensed. I felt mine loosen up, too.
Staring at himself in the mirror behind the bar, he spoke with a calm that, after all the yelling and slamming of things, put me back on edge.
“Joe, just listen. I’m gonna tell you what I saw, best as I can. And I just want you to do me the kindness of keeping quiet till I’m done. Can you do that?”
I nodded and didn’t bother making another noise. If I had, it would’ve been the only other sound in the room. All attention was on Bill. So he went on ahead:
“The watch stopped at midnight. And then the sky went wrong. And my guts were just screaming at me, ‘Run. Get on your horse and ride fast as you can, because the Devil himself’s come for you. Mount and ride.’ So I turned to go. But my horse was dead. Real dead. Flies nippin’ at him. Buzzards circling. Like he’d been dead at least a day.
“And I turned away – couldn’t bare to look at him. But what I turned to, it weren’t…
“It was, I was looking at this field of…it was beautiful, really. I weren’t on the range no more, I was…somewhere green, verdant. Flowers everywhere. Red, purple…green. That same green again. But there were some, I never seen colors like ‘em. I don’t mean a different kinda red. Or like leaves in autumn. I mean I never. Seen. Anything. Like ‘em. There ain’t names for these colors.”
I never heard a man sound so terrified talking about flowers before.
“And standing among ‘em was…well, she was more beautiful than her surroundings, even. That kinda dead gorgeous that…like, it hurt, to look at her too long. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t take it all in at once and every time I tried, it was tearing me up. But looking back, I ain’t sure it was a woman I was lookin’ at. I ain’t sure it was a person I was lookin’ at. There was something…not wrong, about her, just…like those colors.
“She was something this world’s never seen.”
(To Be Continued.)