-A Chance Encounter
The horizon curved gently, arcing maternally over rows of dunes. It lead the eye, entranced, all the way along its arc of ethereal glow. Above that amber glow stretched the sky, a weak pale blue but breathtaking in its unbroken expanse. No clouds. Not ever. Only the sun sat fat in the sky, a golden god in his dominion.
If there was a god in these lands- and the general consensus was that they were godless and godforsaken- it was the sun. It’s holy visage sent hot spikes of pain through the eyes to the back of the brain with its divine brilliance. It’s righteous power baked the earth, baked the air, baked its people. Baked them until they were forced to crawl reverently underneath its gaze. When blood was spilled- and under this sun it was spilled often- the sun baked it down to a black scum that some classically minded man had coined ichor. The smell of the freshly spilled blood, still warm from the body and roasted under the sun, was pungent and metallic. The smell was known as desert steel.
Blood was going to be spilled under the sun today.
The man, a teenager-made-old, stood stock still on the crest of a dune. The wind caught his dusty cloak, the colour of sand, and lifted it up and away from his body, revealing the clothing and the body beneath. He was lean, the water sucked from his flesh, but with a tight and often underestimated sheath of muscle. He stood tall, perhaps an inch or so over six foot.
His shoes were desert army boots, bereft of adornment and well worn. A pair of no brand jeans, the knees worn white but not torn, fed into them just above the ankle. He wore two belts, one for his jeans, with a large square buckle that was once shiny but now worn and scratched. The other was an ammunition belt, lined with pockets containing cartridges. It sat at a jaunty angle on his hips, starting high on the right hip, crossing the other belt just after the buckle, and ending in a holster sitting low on his left hip. In the holster was a revolver, small calibre, some modern remake of an old cowboy six shooter.
His collared short-sleeve shirt was a pale washed out blue only a shade removed from the sky. It was buttoned up and tucked neatly into his jeans. It was patterned by regularly spaced rows of small five pointed white stars, each row a half-step off from its neighbours. The wear of the fabric and the decoration gave the clothing an old and alien look. It was as though it was sown from a museum piece of Old Glory itself.
Around the neck of his cloak was a square of woollen fabric. It had a central square neck hole and sat so that its corner hung at his sternum. It was simply patterned, like a poncho’s, in red and gold, with tassels lining its edges.
On his head, pulled down tight to his ears so as to resist the wind, was a leather hat. It had a wide and stiff brim that didn’t bend an inch under the wind or its own weight. The crown was short, flat-topped and cylindrical. Round the front of the crown the star motif continued with one large yellow five pointed star. The star had alternating red and yellow sun beams radiating out from it. The bottom of this design was obscured by a black band, so that only the top three points showed. From the right end of the brim a small plastic star hung from a short piece of nylon string.
Beneath the brim, shadowed from the sun, a coldly calculating face looked out across the desert. His brow was heavy and his eyebrows rectangular and perfectly flat. His eyes expressed a deadpan expression that ran from apathy to boredom to psychopathic ruthlessness, like a train track with three stations. Currently he was leaving Boredom and steaming ahead to Ruthless. His mouth, on the other hand, was alive and playful. It was currently quirking into a satisfied smirk. His eyes were wide and flat, matching his eyebrows. His irises were a striking battleship grey. If eyes were windows to the soul, his had some bombproof metal shutters down.
His eyes stared straight ahead, fighting hard against The Haze. On Earth, heat haze is a minor occurrence, a shimmer of air or the appearance of water on tarmac. Here, the air, from the ground to a hundred metres up in the sky, danced and jived. Light bounced around randomly. Images swam into view, distorted and refracted. Out of The Haze, a kilometre or two straight ahead, a shadow swayed and grew.
The man, although he could have been as young as sixteen, cursed quietly. But only as a matter of course. He’d screwed up, yes, but only in a minor and unimportant manner. He felt confident and comfortable in the chances of his continued survival. He was highly visible on the crest of the dune, but his threat was two kilometres out. Plenty of time to run. Plenty of time to hide. To a distant observer, The Haze bent the light harshly, the shadow on the dune wobbled, and was gone.
Twenty minutes later and a man on horseback rode steadily and cautiously up the same dune upon which the star studded stranger had stood. He was straight backed and alert. His gun, a high calibre revolver straight out of an ’80s action flick, was drawn, barrel up. He was around twenty. He wore a cotton long sleeved t-shirt with great doughnuts of spongy fabric sown to the back and sleeves and an inappropriately warm beanie.
He wasn’t entirely stupid, that much was clear. He’d spotted the shadow on the dune, and he’d drawn his gun in anticipation of conflict. But he’d made three mistakes, excluding his clothing, and he was going to die. The first mistake was that he’d kept moving. The static opponent, the defender, is almost always safer then the moving one, the attacker. The second mistake was he’d stayed visible. This made his arrival predictable, his path traceable and his self vulnerable. The third mistake was he’d gone to where he’d seen a person, instead of detouring around. The third was most understandable. Even slight deviations from a straight path in a featureless desert could make one lost and doomed. Besides, since he was travelling so visibly any ambusher could adjust to meet him anyway.
Within ten seconds of arriving upon this one dune of many, the doughnut man turned his back on another dune of many. The star studded stranger popped his head over the dune. His left arm was resting on the warm sand of the crest, and his revolver was in his left hand. His battleship grey eyes sighted their target unblinking despite the sand and the sun. His mouth quirked into a victorious half-smile. There was a bang and a flash and a cloud of smoke and a spray of blood and a man’s life ended on top a horse beneath the cruel scorching gaze of the sun.
The surviving man, the teenager-made-old, the star studded stranger, the Old Glory, rose from his place at the turn of the dune. Sand poured with a toneless hiss from his hat, his cloak, his trousers, his shirt. His gun, still smoking, was holstered. The smell of gunpowder and metal made hot by sun and by fire was also known as desert steel. In a way it was merely a precursor to the other desert steel; by the end of a battle the two kinds intertwined to create a greater desert steel.
At some point the term was expanded, and desert steel became slang for a gun. Specifically, the revolvers everyone used because they were far less likely than others to jam from the fine sand and dust that was pervasive in the desert. The dead man’s own desert steel lay unused at his side, its heavy barrel pitched forward into the sand. The victor gave a quick but thorough search of the corpse, turning up a flask of water and a wad of notes. Both were quickly stored away into the man’s own belt and pockets. Finally, the man turned his attention to the gun. He flicked the cylinder open and unloaded it into his hand. He reloaded it with just one cartridge, discarding the rest. In an act of childish blasphemy and defiance, he pointed it up at the sun and fired.
The recoil tore the gun from his hands and flung it over the side of the dune. The man laughed once, a short, sharp bark, and started walking from where the corpse had ridden. He ignored the horse which had reared up at the gunfire, dumping its rider, and had trotted a few metres away. This was what the man loved, in a perverse kind of way. He walked efficiently and steadily, wasting no energy. He drank only little sips, and only when he had to. The horizon wavered and shivered in the heat but he kept his eyes straight on it, never moving. His breath came short and hard and laboured, but it came. But what he loved most of all was that his mind shrivelled. Shrivelled in the fierce heat, in the tedious movement, in the repetitive landscape, and in the dehydration. It shrank and its thoughts dried up until all there was, was the desert and the next step. He loved it because it freed him from himself.
He was a hard man, had to be. Had to be to enjoy trekking on through endless desert, had to be to shoot a man dead and keep on walking. The one thing everyone agreed on , no matter their reasons or motivations for being in this desert, was that you had to be hard to survive. You wanted to be hard. You wanted your friends to be hard. You wanted your enemies to be soft but if they were hard by god you admired the son of a bitch.
Iron was hard, and hard men carried guns, and used them and shed blood, creeks and streams of blood. So you called hard men of the desert ‘desert steel’ too.
The man, slowly chasing the horizon, would have been irked by that and argued with it as he had in the past, had his mind been on and watered. This was because his nature was pedantic, and his knowledge vast, a combination that could make him somewhat of an annoyance. ‘Steel?’ he would have asked disbelievingly. ‘Why steel? Diamond surely holds the distinction of being harder. And if we’re to say it must be a metal, then tungsten is far more deserving for the moniker.’ But of course he would make no leeway, and besides he knew himself that those words did not flow so well from the tongue, nor did they carry the same symbolic baggage and other meanings as desert steel did.
At this point of linguistic evolution, with desert steel meaning everything from the smell of blood to a hard man, the phrase ballooned again. It expanded so that it meant all its meanings at once as well as none at all. It became an exclamation, or an observation, for when the shell-shocked mind could offer no others. For when words couldn’t effectively convey the cocktail of emotions the desert steel hard man couldn’t admit to feeling. When hard men rolled into a town and bullets zipped across the street and through the houses. When blood ran from under doors and pooled in the gutters. When gunpowder smoke still hung in the air over a row of bled-out corpses. When all this happened, a man could turn to his friend, say ‘desert steel’, and be understood.
Life in this desert was desert steel.
The sun having beaten him to the horizon, the man settles down for a brief sleep. There’s no light pollution here. A whole galaxy of stars stretches out above him, an orchestra of light and majestic beauty. Lying there on his back, alone and small, the star studded stranger feels, for one brief, exquisite moment, at peace. When he falls asleep, there is a smile tugging at his lips.