We pretend to be anything but cowboys. All our lives we’ve been the sons of cowboys, the outlaws, the doomed ones.
We pretend to be pirates instead, the five of us. We each take a tourist map from Big Harry’s gift shop, bubbly pastel charts that don’t look like the town we know, all dust and sepia-tones. We wear eye-patches. Affix parrot Beanie Babies to our shoulders. Logan makes a peg leg out of a chair that’s been wobbling in his kitchen. Logan loves breaking things to make something else, despite his parents’ protests.
“What if there was a pirate with two peg legs?” Cole says, busting us up. “And two peg arms? A peg nose? A peg weiner?”
We sail across desert sea, dodge cacti jellyfish. We swashbuckle. We walk planks. We swear with the briny mouths of sailors, except Dylan who insists that cussing is how you get scurvy. We dig holes in hidden corners of town, bury treasure, junk we swiped along with the maps: magnets, key chains, snow globes. Red Xs mark the spots on our colorful maps. Only Mike buries possessions he actually cares about, we don’t know why. He refuses to show us his map.
“A pirate can’t trust nobody,” he says. “Least of all fellow crewmen.”
We pretend during the week. On the weekends, everyone else does.
Come Saturday, the town transforms. Inflates with people, turns tiny metropolis, a town on its way up, booming. It’d be unrecognizable if it weren’t for the grid of parallel streets going up and down, side to side the same way as always, the boring rows of wooden buildings, the old west storefronts, the big signs and swinging doors, the old water tower looming and beyond that, the dilapidated entrance to the mine, long since stripped of all its precious metals.
Tourists come from all over, rush to be a part of this rush, as though romanticizing the wild past were a finite resource, a second silver, dwindling. They drink ginger beer at the saloon, eat prickly pear fudge, visit Reptile Pete’s snake room. But the main attraction, of course, is the gunfight. It goes off at the top of every hour.
We used to ditch Saturday morning cartoons and go down on Fremont to join the gathering crowd, to watch our fathers get shot, murdered. Or worse, in my case: to see him run away. When we were younger, we understood it wasn’t real but couldn’t quite comprehend why it always happened the same. We held out hope that this time, this time would be different. This time, our fathers, those outlaws, those doomed cowboys, would get the drop on the marshals, shoot the pistols out of their hands, the brains from their heads.
But they never did. They were always the criminal instigators who got their just deserts, despite some conflicting historical accounts that claim the marshals fired on the cowboys first when they tried to surrender. And shooting a man who’s surrendering, that makes you the biggest coward of all. Man who does that might as well be dead himself.
Instead, the same scene unravels each time. The cowboys stand beside their horses. The marshals approach, asking for their guns. The cowboys draw down—“Not exactly what we meant,” says one of the marshals—and the firing begins as soon as they cock their pistols. Cole’s father is shot in the stomach. Dylan’s father is hit in the right hand, has to toss his gun to his left. Mike’s father pulls a hidden revolver and is dropped immediately. Cole’s father takes his horse by the reins and tries to retrieve his rifle, but loses control of the horse. A marshal comes around Logan’s father’s horse, shoots Logan’s father in the chest with a double-barreled shotgun. Dylan and Cole’s fathers keep shooting in the middle of the road until they, too, are brought down.
In the midst of all this, my father has thrown up his hands, saying he doesn’t want a fight, and a marshal, with boomerang-sculpted moustache bristling, tells my father to get out of the damn way. My father runs, swan dives into a barrel of water to hide. He peeks his head out every few seconds, soaking wet, much to the gathered crowd’s delight. Comic relief in the midst of the bloodbath.
In real life, the gunfight was over in half a minute, but every Saturday, they drag it out for fifteen, with ducks and dodges, pistols spun on fingers, the shot men groaning in dramatic fashion as their blood packets pour out onto the ground. My father running and hiding, me watching my father run. The crowds cheer for justice served and go on their way. Then our fathers get cleaned up, a new crowd gathers, and they do it all over again.
We don’t bother going to the gunfight anymore.
Instead, we pretend to be spacemen. We walk in slow motion out to the old water tower, fishbowl helmets under our arms. We climb up the crossbeams as close to the rocket-tip top as we can.
“Blast off!” Cole shouts. He puts his palms against his mouth and lets fart sounds rip.
When we descend back to the ground, we’re not in the desert anymore. This expanse of dirt is cratered moonscape. We bound along, light as feathers. While everyone else looks to the past, we’ll be the future.
“I’ve made first contact with aliens,” Logan says, chasing a lizard.
“We’ll start a colony here,” Dylan says, crouching beside a succulent. “I’ve found edible plant life.”
“Let’s stop the evil empire,” I say, my hands becoming ray guns, blasting the dark dreadnoughts of saguaros. We all start shooting from our fingertips, we are thirty-first century gunslingers, we are the explosions we cause.
Mike doesn’t say anything, his finger blasters are silent, but he sometimes moves his mouth as though speaking, trying to tell us something. He’s very committed to sound not traveling in a vacuum.
We know our father’s gunfight is pretend, a scripted performance, but the roles they play still set us apart. We know it’s an act, but there is still a certain shame. Our classmates’ parents portray generic wranglers or barmaids or shopkeeps or preachers or prostitutes—no one pays them any attention. We, on the other hand, can’t blend in. We’re the famed sons of infamous losers.
The sons of the town marshals pick on us, born into their own roles. At lunch, Stephen Mayhew squirts ketchup packets onto Mike’s shirt.
“Hey, look!” he yells. “They’re getting started early!” The rest of the marshals’ sons laugh. We’re all staying quiet and still, hoping they won’t turn their attention to anyone else.
“Let’s see your death knell, dweeb,” Danny Stubb says, jabbing his finger into Mike’s forehead. Mike doesn’t like conflict, so he gets out of his seat and lies down on the ground silently. This cracks up the sons of the marshals.
“That’s it?” they say, smacking each other on the backs. “He’s still got a lot to learn. Better ask your daddy how to die for real.”
“Leave him alone, guys,” I say. I mean it to come out my throat with the force of a bullet, but my voice gets lost in the white noise of the cafeteria.
“Speak up if you got something to prove, huh?” Stephen Mayhew says.
“Don’t bother, Taylor,” Logan says to me under his breath. He gets up and dumps his food. The rest of us follow, even dead Mike, ketchup wound dripping onto his Nikes, and we make our way out of the cafeteria. Before the doors swing shut, I hear someone say, “Yeah, run! Just like your pops.”
“My older brother says it’s worse in high school,” Dylan tells us. The halls are silent except for our squeaking sneakers. There’s a tension quivering like heat bending the air. It’s like my friends are mad at me instead of the marshals’ sons.
We don’t attend the gunfight but we might as well, we see it happen, every time Stephen Mayhew talks shit, every time a car backfires in the night, every time we pretend to be something, anything else: The marshals approach. The cowboys draw. My friends’ fathers killed. My father runs.
I watch my father pull on running shoes. A sweatband circles his head like a crown.
“Have to stay fit,” he says. This feels like a cruel joke, to be reminded every morning.
Once I asked him how he felt about his job. What he had to do.
“Dad, how do you feel about your job?” I asked. He thought for a moment.
“You don’t feel anything about your job,” he said. “It’s a job.”
“But how do you feel about what you have to do?”
“No sense feeling some way about something you have to do,” he said. “I’m grateful I can feed you and your mom. I like to make the crowd laugh.”
I felt like I could hear it in the space between his words, his urge to stay and fight and die like his friends, or maybe to change history, to win. But then he stretched his calves and jogged out the door, practicing at running away.
We pretend to be zombies. Of course our town has a graveyard, albeit a fake one—the headstones are Styrofoam spray-painted boulder gray and feature punny names like “Butchered Cassidy,” “Clammy Jane,” “Dirty Buried.”
We dig our own graves, a few inches deep. We lie down in them, pull dirt on top of us. We lie perfectly still. Mike holds his breath. Then, because of a warlock’s curse or a leak from the nearby chemical plant or a group of teenagers chanting words from an ancient book, we come back from the dead.
We’re better than our fathers, for even though we died, we also returned. We shuffle around, limping on half-rotted legs. We imagine the flesh sloughing off our fingers, the maggots crawling through holes in our cheeks. We thirst for brains and indicate this in slow drawls.
Cole picks up a small pumpkin on which we’ve drawn Stephen Mayhew’s face. He sniffs at it, raps it with his decaying fist. “Nothing in here,” he says, and tosses it away. Dylan wants to be a vegetarian zombie. He doesn’t like the thought of eating his loved ones, but we convince him it’s the only way and, if he leaves their bodies mostly intact, they’ll join us soon as well.
“Brains,” we say, with ever-increasing need. “Brains,” we say, drawing out the vowels.
“Should Taylor be here?” Mike asks, breaking character. “His dad doesn’t even die.”
Nobody else says anything. They look at me as if waiting for me to weigh in.
“Brains?” I try, but the magic is gone. Logan kicks at the gravestone of Billy the Killed. We go home for dinner, young and alive.
We get a little older and we don’t pretend much anymore. We stop pretending to be pirates after a tourist’s toddler is tripped up by a hole we dug and chips a tooth. We stop pretending to be spacemen, we stop pretending to be zombies. All that stuff’s stupid. All that stuff’s for babies. The marshal’s sons get tired of taunting us and instead go about their lives as if we don’t exist, which is, in some ways, worse—the not existing. And our fathers’ gunfight happens the same as always.
But then something entirely different happens. Stephen Mayhew’s father gets a job at a big amusement park in California. The Mayhews will be moving away, and Stephen Mayhew’s father will leave his position as town marshal. And my father, my father is the one chosen to take his place.
My father begins rehearsing as a marshal, killing those same men he used to run with. How easy it is to betray them. I wonder what they think of him. If they resent him. He still plays poker with them every Thursday night, still runs the fantasy football league. Maybe all that’s beneath them. Maybe it is just a job.
Still, I swear Dad comes home happier every day. Pretend to be a coward long enough, you might start to believe it. Now he’ll be a hero. He seems prouder, no longer taking long sad swigs from warm bottles of beer. He pours them into chilled glasses now.
To my friends, it’s not just a job. They won’t look me in the eye anymore. “Your dad is going to kill our dads,” they say. “We can’t just ignore that.” They pretend not to see me when we pass each other in the halls. They pretend they’re saving the seats beside them for somebody else. But the other sons of the marshals, they have no interest in being my friend either.
One time Mike stops me on my walk home. “Wait, Taylor,” he calls, and hope careens erratically around my chest, wings bent and broken against my ribcage—maybe they had forgiven me, or at least Mike had—of course. Mike, sweet Mike, he’d never let an old friend down.
“Hey,” I say. “Want to come over and play Punch Fighter II? I just unlocked all the characters.”
“Oh,” Mike says, surprised I would ask, and I realize I’ve misinterpreted the situation. “Maybe another day. I was just wondering if you knew whose dad replaced yours in the gunfight.”
“Some guy who was a wrangler,” I say. I look away. A hot wind bites at my eyes. “He doesn’t have a son.”
“Shoot,” Mike says. “It would’ve been cool to hang out with him, you know? Well, later.” Mike trots off in the opposite direction. I walk home alone, again.
Alone in my room, I find my tourist map fallen behind my dresser. The glossy color has worn away where it was folded, leaving white lines cross-sectioning the town. I look at all the landmarks where we used to go: the graveyard, the water tower, the silver mine. I return to all my Xs, turn over dust looking for the trinkets I buried, I want to break them or burn them, throw them away. But I don’t find anything. Dug up by dogs, shifting sands. I’m not sure the answer really makes a difference—wherever they’ve gone, they’re gone.
The night before his debut, my dad comes into my room. He is already wearing his outfit for the morning, a long frock coat, a vest, high leather boots, a silver star pinned to his chest. All that’s missing is the hat. And the guns. He tucks me in.
“Dad, I’m too old for that,” I say.
“I know you’ve seen your old man in a lot of gun fights,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, even though I’ve never seen him draw down. “A lot.”
“But it’d mean so much to your mother if you came tomorrow,” he says, and untucks me a little. “She’d like someone to watch with.”
“Sure,” I say. “I’ll come.” But this is just pretend. My dad nods solemnly. I might be imagining it, but he seems to know I’m lying. He seems to understand.
“Stay out of trouble, you hear?” he says. He walks out, boots heavy, and closes the door behind him, slowly, sheering away the yellow light from the hall lamp until my room is left dark.
In the morning, I don’t join the gathering crowd down on Fremont. I walk toward the outskirts of town, past the graveyard, past the old water tower. No zombies or spacemen in sight. I want to find my friends, the friends I used to have. Maybe they’re waiting for the gunfight to begin, to bear witness to my father, the turncoat. I can’t face them there.
I come to the ore quarry, where the old silver mine shaft opens like a yawn. When we were younger, this place was a magnet to us, but we listened to our parents, to the red and yellow signs warning of danger, of cave-ins. We’d sit outside and stare into the maw of it as though it would reveal something to us.
Now, I pretend to be a miner. I descend into the mine.
The light from outside shrinks behind me as I walk, until I have to find my way with my hands against the walls. Nothing glitters in the dirt, all the silver has been taken, melted down and shaped into other things.
I map the tunnels in my head. I’ll need to if I want to find my way out. They spiral and wind in unexpected ways, rollick like a current, so distinct from the neat and predictable rows of buildings I know are above me, the perfectly assembled stage set where my father performs, where I’ve lived my whole life.
I’m sure I must be in the center of town. This passageway is so small I’m almost crawling. I press my ear to the dirt ceiling. I pretend I can hear—no, if I listen hard enough I’m sure I can hear it all, the shouts, the gunshots, the soft thuds of bodies on the mesa above, where hundreds of years ago this town was built and where a real gunfight happened almost as long ago, as the men my father has killed, seven or eight times by this point, once more crumple hard against the ground.
Mike’s father. Logan’s father. Dylan’s. Cole’s.
I stay there I don’t know how long. It must be dark outside, though it’s impossible to tell here. I have to rely entirely on my mind-map to navigate out, the light touch of dry air that breezes by me from the entrance, like my father’s hand across his freshly shaven face in the off-season.
Aboveground, my father will be done for the day. He’ll revert back to a man and not a marshal, he will worry about where I am, and my mother, she will say, “Let him be a kid. Where is he going to get into trouble around here?”
When the opening of the mineshaft comes into view, it looks like I’ll emerge from a warp-speed wormhole into star-tangled space. Only as I’m climbing out does the flat desert come into view, the curve of the planet, untouched by the soft glow of town somewhere behind me. In the distance, the silhouettes of mountains are darker than the sky behind them.
And there are footsteps, boots crunching in the dirt, the clanking of spurs.
“Well, well, well,” a voice says, echoing from somewhere unseen. “Look at what we got here.”
“A marshal’s son if I’m not too mistaken,” says another.
Four figures appear from the shadowy angles of the quarry. Four young men about my age. They wear wide-brimmed hats, bandanas masking their faces. Big belt buckles and empty holsters on either hip.
“Yes,” I say. I am eager to play along. “I am a marshal’s son. Take me. Take me for ransom.”
They laugh a cruel laugh, all together. Their laughter piles up on top of itself, bounces around the mineshaft so that it emerges behind me, transformed into the twisted sound of some beast following me out.
“We don’t want no damn ransom money, not from no damn marshal,” one of them swears. The four figures, they stalk closer. They draw down from their empty holsters, their fingers elled into pistols, pointed at me.
Something like joy fills my chest. I drop to my knees, throw up my hands. “Please, have mercy,” I cry, but my smile hangs on my face like a sliver of moon.
“No mercy. Not now. Not ever,” the last figure says. All four of them, all at once, their mouths a spitflash of gunshots, flip their index fingers back to their palms and out again, over and over. I feel every one put a hole through me, a beam of hot light. I fall to my knees, my body Swissed and jerking like a marionette.
They’re still firing well after their six-shooters should be empty. Sounds I didn’t know I could make bubble from my throat. It’s a glorious death. I’m going to drag this one out as long as they let me.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Sam Martone lives and writes in New York City.
Buffalo Chip Saloon and Steakhouse
6823 E Cave Creek Rd
Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Once during the four years I spent in Arizona, I went with a group of friends to a bull-riding bar. I don’t mean mechanical. This was a dancehall with an outdoor restaurant and a real live miniature rodeo. As we watched men thrown from the backs of great beasts, I warmed myself by a firepit. It was winter, just before I’d head home for Christmas, about the coldest it gets in this part of Arizona. For a moment, there was the tiniest hint of snow swirling in the air, but it may have just been ash from the fire.