High noon, and there he was, just like Whistlin’ Pete told him he’d be. At least, he thought it was Whistlin’ Pete. With the sun directly overhead, he could just barely make out the silhouette of a man in a cowboy hat sitting on top of his horse. The distance between them, it was doing that optical illusion, where the horizon looked like it was made of wavy lines comin’ up from the ground.
He was hoping that nobody’d show up, that the whole, “Meet me out in the desert, high noon,” was more of an intimidation tactic than anything else. But here he was, here they both were. A couple of lizards ran out from behind a rock to his right. Their sandy color made the little animals blend in almost perfectly with the ground. In fact, if it weren’t for their shadows, he wouldn’ta been able to make them out, scuttlin’ across the imaginary line that connected him with Whistlin’ Pete, kickin’ up tiny little lines of dust as their tails dragged along the ground.
The silhouette started moving, the horse’s hooves up and down, comin’ in a little closer. Was there enough time to run? Maybe. But that wouldn’ta settled anything. Whistlin’ Pete’d find him right back at the town, maybe he’d even beat him back to the inn where he was stayin’. And what would he do when he got back, keep runnin’? The only train out of town left hours ago, and his horse wouldn’ta made it too far, not in this heat.
Another three or four lizards ran across, these ones just slightly bigger than the first two. Whistlin’ Pete sure was taking his time making his way over. Was this part of the process? Just prolonging the suspense, makin’ him sweat it out? He thought to himself, well, if it’s all an elaborate scare tactic, maybe that’d mean Whistlin’ Pete’d let him go. Otherwise, what would be the point of putting him through all of this anticipation? Yeah, maybe he’d give him a good old fashioned desert spook, and then he’d let him go, runnin’ away, free to tell his story all across the territories. Maybe that’s what Whistlin’ Pete really wanted, a reputation, a name that’d strike fear anywhere.
Now he was getting close enough that he probably could have called out something that he’d hear, but what could he say? And how did this all get started anyway? Does Whistlin’ Pete really take seats that seriously? “Hey pardner,” he could still hear Pete’s voice in his head, tapping him on the shoulder at the saloon, “That’s my seat.”
And why did he have to be so confrontational? His memory from yesterday was interrupted at the sight of eight or ten more lizards running right in front of him, the same right to left direction as the others, the same color. But these guys were noticeably bigger, maybe the size of squirrels, or small cats. Were he and his horse standin’ on their habitat? Were they tryin’a run away? For the first time all day, his aversion to all of these reptiles caused him to worry about something other than Whistlin’ Pete.
When he looked up, Pete was waving, and it didn’t look like he was tryin’a say hello. “… iza … ey! … own! …” but he was too far away to hear clearly, and Whistlin’ Pete wasn’t exactly known for his enunciation anyway. Even if he had a full set of teeth, even if he didn’t make that whistlin’ sound every time he tried to talk, he couldn’t imagine his words being too much clearer.
But there was something else, though. He couldn’t hear any individual words, but he could definitely make out a sense of … was it panic? That didn’t really mesh with the hardened image he had in his mind of the showdown-challengin’ outlaw. But yeah, Whistlin’ Pete had both of his arms in the air now, so no gun probably, and there was definitely some flailin’ around going on.
Then he noticed that same line of shadows and dust getting kicked up in front of Whistlin’ Pete. Only, from this distance, those lizards must’a been a lot bigger. Now he was really getting a little freaked out. Pete’s horse did one of those moves where it stood up on his hind legs and kicked the front ones in the air. He could make out Pete strugglin’ to hold on, but two or three bucks and he was on the ground. Now there were more lizards running right in front of the both of them, dozens, or hundreds even, several lines running between them and, when he looked behind, there were even more.
And getting bigger, the size of dogs now. The little ones earlier weren’t payin’ any attention, but now some of the bigger ones were stopping for a couple’a seconds, just to kind of eye him down, pay him just a half a minute of consideration. In the distance, Pete looked like he was strugglin’ with something.
And the bigger they got, the more and more time those lizards stopped to look, to make eye contact even. Now he was gettin’ the sense that something progressive was happenin’ here, that this was something primal yet unnatural, a whole line of little lizards runnin’ away from bigger lizards, and they were only gettin’ bigger. One of them had to be the size of a Shetland pony, and when this one stopped to look, he didn’t start runnin’ again, he just stayed and stared.
In the distance, Pete was gone. It was just those shimmering wavy heat lines at the horizon, which was gettin’ increasingly difficult to see anyway, on account of all of those lizards. And to his right he was startin’a hear something like a stampede, and he could sense that his horse was gettin’ pretty spooked. He didn’t want to see how big the biggest of these things got, and he didn’t want to get bucked off of his horse like Whistlin’ Pete did.
And so he let out a big, “Ya!” and steered himself in the only direction he could. Not in front, not behind, because there were lizards as far back in the other direction, but just left, just runnin’ alongside all of the other lizards. He looked back and the big ones that had stopped before were right on his tail. And behind them, there wasn’t even a horizon anymore, it was just shimmering, squirming, dust-brown scales, all of them. And he just hoped that his horse could outrun these things, that maybe he’d find a way out before they got to the canyon’s edge, as long as the big ones didn’t catch up, and as long as he could hold on in case the horse bucked suddenly. He had that feeling like it was right about to buck. Any second now and he’d be on the ground if he couldn’t hold on. “Ya!” he kept screamin’, hopin’a maintain some control, kickin’ the horse in the side, “Ya! Ya!”