If the first time is a tragedy, and the second is farce, what's the thousandth repetition?
“Hell,” Tuco says, slamming his revolver against the table. One sharp, heart-searing crack, careless enough to make even the most hardened gunslinger wince. A few ladies squeal, fainting prettily against their partners. Miners grope for the reassurance of their own blued steel.
They thought they knew this show, these bored young dogs. Parlour tricks to amuse them, as they whiled away an afternoon’s drinking: mesmeric rods, a little laying of hands and gossip about ghost dancers. Rambling tales, of a West that now softly rots beneath civilisation. So much for cowboys, they whisper to each other, why should we care about tumbleweeds and silly lowering cattle? Here the open sky will kill a traveller in a night, and risks still win fortunes...so tell us a story fit for our twilight north, and make it bloody.
“This is the gun that brought down the Sentenza, my friends."
Six minutes to five, his watch says. Right on schedule, between the patent medicine man and the dancing girls.
"And every year since, on the anniversary of our duel, his ghost comes to drag me down with him! Down to share his damnation- but I am a pious Catholic,” Tuco tells them, picturesquely virtuous. “I carry this black rosary with me, always. God help me if I ever forget it.”
Ripple of laughter. Good stolid Protestant horse sense, tickled by this foreigner's superstition- until the ghost rises. A white shapeless horror, coming across the stage with slow menacing intent. Breaths shorten, go quiet, as the bandit begins to play the ghost with a matador’s grace. A wave of rosary beads here, a teasing flick of the gun there-
“You liar,” a man says, breaking through the silence with comfortable insouciance.
A man who throws off his woolen overcoat in one crisp movement, to reveal an unmistakable poncho of many colours. “You never shot Angel Eyes, Tuco Ramírez. I did.”
He seizes a handy poker, running it through the shape like a sword. A thick smell of burnt linen fills the room; the spirit crumples downwards into a bedsheet.
“Now I’ll tell you the story my way,” Blondie says, with a nod to the audience. “How it truly happened, instead of this jumped-up, no-good, milk-lapping bandito's lies- how about that, Tuco, hey? And if we need any more quilts exorcised, we’ll know who to ask.”
There is a pause- and then a delighted shout, hysteria turning to laughter and relief, as Tuco sullenly yields the stage to the real hero’s entrance. Just the way they’ve always played it, over fifteen states and thirty years. It ought to be second nature by now.
eight hours earlier
Here is a story those adoring audiences would not care to believe about the Man With No Name, that he is capable of such banalities as patchwork. But a poncho does not survive thirty years without occasional repairs, and he has never allowed anyone else to touch the garment.
Tuco coughs himself awake with sleepy discomfort, trying to guess the number of times they’ve done this. Him in bed, wringing little warmth from incompetent blankets and counting off prayers on his rosary, while his partner sits up plotting, repairing the guns, doing all the heavy thinking. Too many nights lost this way, too many lonely days.
“No sense to it,” Blondie says morosely, adjusting a bone thimble on his finger. “The gun fights, the murders we’ve seen, and you expect to save your soul with a few lacquered beads?”
Any quarrel is better fun than that. “Blond-ie,” he drawls, pleased by the old familiar whining. “You did not bank the fire last night. I was cold.”
“You snored like a hog, all night long. If you were cold it was only in your dreams.”
“And am I a young man, to sleep deep and dreamlessly? I saw visions of disaster. Cattle stamping their way through snow drifts tall as a house, it would turn your stomach to hear the way they bellowed. All your fault.”
Blondie ignores him and ties off the last stitch, deftly tossing the garment over his head. The man still wears it finely, enough to excuse vanity that would put a peacock to shame. The picture of graceful dignity.
Dignity, yes: better shoot a gringo than offend their pride. Down in Sonora is a ranch, well-watered and well-tended, a warm sleepy place crawling with children and grandchildren and bastards of all stripes. Any sensible man would have lingered on there, content to sink into decrepitude, but that was never Blondie’s style. God and all his angels forbid that the Man With No Name simply fade away; the man was not born to die in bed.
A hell of a reason for them to spend winter in this frozen wasteland, all the same. “I am still wondering. About that share of the money...”
“Are you still praying? Otherwise there’s a show for us to plan.”
“Ave Maria,” Tuco says, very weary; and abandons religion for graft.
sixteen hours earlier
It has to happen soon. It always does.
They have been fucking each other for a quarter of an hour now, soundless except for the patient rhythms of mingled bodies, and their methodical thumps against the tick. Long enough for him to begin hoping that they’ll finish this way, that he can get on with finding his pleasure in blessed serenity-
“Let me tell you something,” Blondie says, abruptly; and only considerable practice stops Tuco from barking out in frustration. A certain hideous inevitability about it, that the man cannot open one hole without beginning to dribble out the other; but mere understanding isn’t the same as liking.
Two kinds of fucking, he has always reckoned. Wife and whore. One is sacred, languid, full of easy talk and familiarity. The other is unhallowed, desperately purposeful, existing only because a man has certain needs to fulfill in this world; and most men understand that when they are together, they will always be whores. Whether or no they exchange chinking silver dollars.
But then, most men will let themselves laugh at times, or sing a little on the trail. Discharge their tensions occasionally, instead of keeping everything hidden behind hat and poncho and that thin expressionless line of a mouth.
So with Blondie it all comes spilling out at night, in great long blathers of nonsense. About Blondie’s past (stories which do not interest Tuco a whit, as he wasn’t in them). About newspapers and politics (once was enough, to make the mistake of asking about the Cross of Gold; how could anything with such an enticing name be so dull?) About their intermittent lives, a partnership that has lasted because they were always smart enough to separate just before murdering each other (stories that Tuco was in, but which he has heard so often now they don't interest him either).
By way of compensation for the chatter, the Man is still trim, firm, deliciously tight from hard riding and frugal living. No hardship there, no hardship at all…an ecstasy that would be better than gold, if it weren’t so damnably fleeting.
“Well?” Blondie demands, lying limply fulfilled besides him; and Tuco, groggy and sated, can only grunt by way of temporization. What the question refers to, he has not the slightest notion.
The Man does not complain but only sighs, reaching out to touch the old scars on his neck, and stroke his mustache (for all his age it is still a magnificent affair, and more than sufficient explanation for why Blondie puts up with him). “I asked why you came north with me. I didn’t know if you'd ride so far, this time- why should you come again?”
His brother would understand, abbott of a monastery purchased with blood-splashed gold. His brother is a good Católico and mexicano both, and knows the cost of empire without needing to ask.
“You’re bad luck, Blondie,” Tuco says lazily. “As good an excuse as any, to run far off- and why not Alaska? Any farther away from Mexico, we'd have to take ship. And I am too old to enjoy seasickness.”
Empire: or the finest cattle ranch in Sonora. He has not enjoyed his possessions for this long without a deep awareness of their fragility, a delicate haven in a world overrun with men like- well, himself. Without Blondie, there would have been no gold and thus no ranch; but with Blondie, death always follows. No winning there. He does not intend for his family to inherit this same blood curse.
So for years, whenever his old partner has so much as crooked a finger, he has followed and expected el Ángel de la Muerte; and every time, it has caught up another in its net. Only a few more years remain to them; after that, his many-named legacy will be safe from this particular evil. More than enough opportunity in this world for them to seek their own ills, should any take after his tastes- a thought he already suspects of one or two. One beloved grandchild, with such a winning voice but a bitter mouth, and a daughter who eyes men and women with the same greedy savour-
“You old bastard,” Blondie chuckles, with that thoughtless hollowness signifying his closest approach to contentment. “A break away from the little woman, you mean. Well, better men than you grow bored sometimes…why you ever tied yourself down like that, I’ll never know.”
That, also, is true.
Certainly true enough to agree with, for the sake of flattering his partner into another little death.
This is when the Man talks to an empty chair. He gestures at it, swears, makes sly and insidious comments about its invisible occupant.
As a piece of stagecraft, Tuco’s never approved. Too risky, inherently ludicrous, and yet the stunt’s never failed them; the energy of the room rises instead of faltering, growing viciously tense and keen. Every two-bit wench, every hardened sourdough, believes unquestioningly that the ghost of Angel Eyes lurks there in fuming impotence. It works well, because Blondie believes it himself.
"There's our bandito, cursing the air blue while he digs up this grave. An empty grave!"
And everybody laughs.
(That is not how Tuco remembers it- in his mind it was a blur of sweet motion, and angels singing- but he would never be able to describe that sacred moment, and so has not bothered to try.)
(Not like Blondie.)
"See, he doesn't know that yet. And then you come along, Angel Eyes. Throwing me a shovel so I'll start digging, too." Blondie raises the sharp-tipped spade, chews his cigarillo. "But I know a trick worth two of that."
(Once upon a time, they'd played this scene in real paddocks and dirt corrals, places where they'd never have used a chair. Who would have believed in a useless prop like that, under the open sky?)
(On the other hand, back then they didn't know about trick breakaway nooses, for which invention Tuco has been grateful more than once.)
"I told them, the gold wasn't there. It was in the grave next to Stanton's," Blondie explains, unnecessarily.
(Their next-to-last quarrel was about this very point, that Blondie's succinct part in the drama keeps growing, that he has taken to stealing all the best lines, and reordering events in a way that makes sense to him and not to their listeners.)
("You are not a man who should talk too much," Tuco had explained after one show. "You are the hero, but I am the one telling the story- and you know why? Because I am human and you are not.")
("You think I'm something else? Better, or worse?")
("Angel, demon," he had shrugged, paused to drink a little beer. "Who cares? But they are men themselves, they recognise a man when they see one. Maybe they want you to win, but they want me to get the money.")
("We split the money. I gave you half.")
("Which is what makes you the angel," Tuco had told him, and even half-drunk had known to duck the punch.)
"...but I didn't write anything on the rock. Because the grave said unknown, you see the joke?" Blondie asks, tossing a prop stone in the air, and Tuco's stomach goes sour inside him. Such humor is painful to watch. The first time, the time in the cemetery, their duel had been an honest thing. Blood in the ring, and a corpse at the end. Every time since has been only pretense, a fake, a remembrance, and the story has lost all its dignity in endless retelling.
So what if Angel Eyes is a real presence, haunting Blondie all these years later? A ghost cannot shoot anybody. No meat on that bone.
"But you'd like to try again, wouldn't you? Suppose I gave you that chance, to fight the duel one last time?"
(Now that is funny, and Tuco laughs, although he is the only one.)
The stage is too small for what it represents, but they make do. Blondie on the right, Tuco on the left, the empty chair making up the triangle.
"And we looked at each other for a long time," Blondie says. "Like this."
He is trying to describe the indescribable, make a picture of the divine, their trinity of death, and this maybe is what makes Blondie the Good, that he wants others to understand the way it happened, the sacrifice that had to be, to save this one dim-witted bandito, who has somehow been made to stand in for the whole human race. The trio, the singing. The blessing.
(If his former partner had ridden off with four bags and they had never seen each other again, Tuco reflects, he would have been a very happy man.)
The audience does not understand Blondie's halting, frustrated explanations. They are restive, their tolerance diminishing - and so it is a moment of great relief for them, when Blondie points his revolver at a chair that is suddenly full.
Angel Eyes rises, and tips his hat just so.
(This is why their show is a success, and they never have trouble getting bookings. Old cowboys are a dime for the dozen, but how many can boast such literal ghosts? How many relicts could survive for so long? Only Blondie, Tuco is sure. Only ever Blondie.)
He crosses himself, as he always does, and checks that his revolver is still in his pocket. It is.
Angel Eyes does not speak. He doesn't need to.
Blondie twirls a revolver at him (a recent affectation) and the audience is well pleased again, soothed by the promised outcome. Good wins, Bad loses, the Ugly stays to the side and makes a prize ass of himself. It is a good, clear, simple story, strong enough to survive the most self-serving narration, and everyone will be happy when it is over. The audience shall touch the miraculous, Blondie will exorcise his ghost for some little time, and Tuco will go home and sleep in peace awhile, until the day his partner calls him again.
Everyone will be happy except Angel Eyes. Of course.
And then- the unexpected. The thousand-to-one chance, the flight too cocky and near to heaven, or maybe just the trembling hand of old age; Blondie drops his gun. It clatters against the stage, slides off with a crash like the stroke of doom.
The Good is vanquished, their hero has failed them, and what happens now?
One heartbeat. Long enough for a brash, sharp-eyed youngster to try a trick shot from the balcony. The bullet runs clear and true, but meets with nothing solid until the wall.
Two heartbeats, and Angel Eyes is smiling, ghostly weapon in hand. Maybe his revenge is not so immaterial. And yet that satisfied expression reveals nothing demonic, no great hatred fit to burn beyond the grave. Only the petty, hungry sadism of one who delights in small tortures, not for the sake of wealth or family or even anger-
three heartbeats, and Tuco has fired first.
"When you have to shoot," he begins. Starts to cough, leave the rest unsaid.
No matter. Angel Eyes lies still now, doubly-dead, and the bartender frowns during his reluctant approach towards the corpse. "You said you were going to kill him, Blondie," he mewls, with all the indignation of a weak man cheated. "Not the bandito."
Blondie does not say anything, nor shrug, nor acknowledge in any way that he has noticed the bartender and the audience beginning to hiss. He wraps the poncho about himself and begins walking to the door, while Tuco hesitates. Half the fee was owing after the performance, and all their belongings are packed upstairs. Suitcases, maps, the unheeded paraphernalia of life. Homely things.
What the hell. You only have one chance, to make a hero's exit.
Grabbing Blondie's overcoat, he trots on after, catches up by the door. Together they disappear, into snow and myth.
For all anybody in Skagway will ever know, they die out there.
Chapter 2: Epilogue
"You shouldn't have done it," Blondie says eventually.
Eventually is not until they are back in Sonora. It is a good and restful thing, to have a partner who remembers how to hold his tongue again.
"Why not?" Tuco challenges him. "Maybe I wanted to be the hero for once, what do you think of that?"
"Suppose Angel Eyes takes to haunting you instead?"
"Then what do I care? I have my rosary, I know a whole monastery that will pray for my soul, if I give my brother enough gold. You gringos don't know how this is done."
"And how did you shoot him at all? I unloaded your gun the night before. I said so."
"Yes, you said that. Not the same as doing," Tuco says, pouring out tequila from the pitcher. He drinks deeply, shoves a second glass across the table; Blondie accepts, sipping cautiously at first. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a thousand times...I would always reload it afterwards, every morning. But you were too quick drawing in the ring, you always were."
(If Blondie had not been such a hero, if he had been a little more human, maybe the man could have saved himself thirty years of hauntings.)
(Better him than me, Tuco muses; this is what comes of trying to be the Man With No Name. Wise parents name their children for protecting saints, and the more the better.)
"I still want to know. A hundred thousand dollars in gold, what the hell must a man do to lose all that?"
"It tied me down too much," Blondie says, upending the empty glass. "You start to look over your shoulder, you start to think about settling. Staying in a place like this...I got rid of it. Gambled, gave it away, threw it out windows. It took a long time."
He does not think his partner has ever said anything so stupid before, Tuco reflects. He is quite positive he hasn't.
"I'm leaving tomorrow. Don't expect me back."
If this was thirty years ago, he probably wouldn't. But they are neither of them young men now, and if a penniless Blondie is not back inside a month to beg a hanger-on's existence, he is a dog's dinner. "Then I won't."
Blondie's horse is gone in the morning, and so is Blondie. There is no sign of an angry-eyed ghost. Everything in Tuco's life is good.
Everything, barring one small thing. When he kneels down at the foot of his Black Madonna, there is no rosary in his pocket. Not exactly a surprise: those were gold beads, under the hardened lacquer. Melted Confederate dollars, a first offering to break the blood curse. Maybe Blondie took it with him for protection, and then again, maybe he took it to sell.
Maybe he took it for sentiment.
"Maybe I am an old fool," Tuco says, and counts off the prayers on his fingers instead.
(And if one of those prayers is for an idiotic old partner who likes ponchos too much, well, no one except the Virgin will ever know.)