The hoof falls sounded measured as time, sixty beats to a minute, 3,600 to the hour, stretching out behind and ahead of them, inexorable like the past, like the future unforeseen, perhaps inevitable.  Time neither slowed nor accelerated in approaching the good or the bad, though sometimes you could swear it did one or the other.  Reining the horse back did no good at all; spurring it forward did no harm.  He who dies today is quit for tomorrow.

The country was magnificent.  He had that to appreciate anyway, and Rich Core tried to make it sufficient.  Black and leaden in winter, the sharp blue mountains floated free at the horizon on a shimmering mirage above the spaced clumps of freshly green acacia and mesquite receding in ordered pattern across the gravel hills.  Jeweled small birds perched on the ends of the blooming yucca stalks; the sky was high, clear, and silver blue; and the air, cool still at early morning, was cloying and unfresh, pungent with the musk of a myriad desert loves.  A good day to die, as the Sioux liked to say.  For a Sioux, any day was a good day to die.  That was only one of a number of reasons Rich could think of for not wanting to be a Sioux.  

He was making this trip on account of his vow to Dave Travis, and he wouldn’t have vowed any such vow if he’d had reason to expect that he’d be a married man when the time came for him to honor it.  Life was unfair, and accepting that unfairness and living with it was a part of being a man, or woman.  Most of the time, it didn’t offer you a chance at being heroic.  It did occasionally provide opportunities for simple bravery, and Rich supposed this was one of them.  Three or four hours now and the business would be settled for good and all, one way or another, just as the wedding itself was an accomplished and irreversible fact.  And Gwyn had been understanding about everything and acted very brave.  It was a hell of a way to begin a marriage, though.  You had to admit that.

Rich Core and Dave Travis had been in the cattle business together for thirteen years before Rich sold out to Dave and moved from the Douglas, Arizona, area to the Animas Valley in the New Mexico bootheel for a little peace and quiet.  In the beginning, it had been the mules, mainly: squat, underbred-looking mestizos carrying drugs across the border in daypacks.  Later on, the invasion arrived— hundreds of people each night, slipping like determined ghosts among the mesquite trees and creosote bushes, cutting fences, poisoning dogs, breaking into outbuildings and homes, hotwiring vehicles, and depositing their offal along recently created paths worn deeper than long-established game trails.  Rich and Dave had complained to the Border Patrol station in Douglas and, later, to the sheriff’s department.  They rebuilt their fencelines, fortifying them in places with razor wire, and bought a pair of police dogs to guard the ranch house.  They wrote letters to the newspapers, to the governor, to their congressmen, and to the President of the United States.  When the foreman and owner of a neighboring ranch joined a citizens’ patrol, Dave and Rich joined too and got up after midnight two nights a week to work the graveyard shift together, passing hot coffee in a Thermos bottle across the guns stacked between them on the truck seat as they drove the washboard roads along the international border with the headlights off.  After two years on the patrol, they had made over a hundred and fifty arrests, when an immigrant-rights lawyer, encouraged by the Mexican consul in Douglas, filed charges against them for allegedly violating the civil rights of a party of illegal aliens by firing warning shots over their heads when the men tried to rush the patrol.  The incident occurred some months before Rich made the decision to sell out and move to New Mexico, but after he and Dave encountered for the first time the man who called himself Barba Azul.

Barba Azul was a whoremaster in Agua Prieta, Mexico.  Since he was also a wealthy drug lord with connections in Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Mexico City, and South America, it was obvious to everyone that women were only his avocation: a pursuit he loved better than the career that paid for his three mansions, his yacht in the Sea of Cortez, and a small fleet of Rolls-Royces and Mercedes Benzes.  In his late thirties or early forties, Barba Azul was an obese man with delicate hands and feet, who dressed in black corduroy pants in winter, satin ones in summer, and silk shirts at all times of the year.  He wore three gold rings in each ear and one in his nose, and his close-shaved head contrasted with the luxuriant beard, blue-black and lustrous as an oil spill, that would have fallen as far as his groin had it not been deflected by the whalesome belly above.  Barba Azul, who enjoyed the night life of Tucson and El Paso, was an Ameriphile—a compliment not returned by the state governments of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, too many of whose legislators had been compromised at one time or another by their professional associations with Barba Azul’s girls, most of them South American beauties of a type local politicians from Carlsbad, New Mexico, and Holbrook, Arizona, rarely encounter.  For this and other reasons, Barba Azul was persona non grata on the same American soil that received his girls graciously though furtively—usually by limousine, equipped with diplomatic plates.  The border guards, knowing the girls would be safely home in Mexico after the long weekend, always looked the other way.  On the night the truck’s searchlight picked out an expensive-looking white sedan parked beside the two-lane highway north of Naco with one rear door open and a lion-colored girl in evening dress squatting at some distance from it behind a growth of pancake pear, Rich Core and Dave Travis were staring straight ahead.

They were reminded of the incident a month later when they were drinking at a cantina in Agua Prieta, a few hundred meters on the wrong side of the border and just fifty from El Castillo, the headquarters of Barba Azul’s single respectable enterprise.  They were hardly aware of the sudden hush along the bar and the significant looks thrown in their direction by the other patrons before Barba Azul’s bulk swelled in the backbar mirror, accompanied by a blonde who would have inspired Peter the Hermit to cut his hair and take a bath, and who appeared somehow familiar to Dave and Rich.  

Buenas noches,” Barba Azul said.

Buenas noches,” Travis told him.

“You know who I am?” Barba Azul wanted to know.

“Sure.  You’re the creep that launders cathouse bedding through your own drug syndicate and it comes out smelling like fresh-mown hay in June.”

“And you’re a couple of creeps that spy on a girl taking a p- – s in the desert and bust her afterward.”

Rich and Dave never looked at each other.  It didn’t seem the prudent thing to do at the moment.

“The desert’s a dangerous place for a lady,” Rich said.  He was looking at the girl as he spoke.  She wasn’t disappointing seen from up close, with high cheekbones, a red collagen mouth, and yellow jaguar eyes.  “We figured she was safer back at home across the border, with her daddy.”

Barba Azul nodded, as if he were considering the wisdom of this.  The barman set a martini down in front of him and a glass of white wine before the girl.

“Next time, my driver will shoot to kill,” he remarked, affably.

“He didn’t do so good with that Glock of his the other night,” Dave suggested.  “Maybe you ought to sign him up for shooting lessons.”

He reached inside his coat as he spoke, and Barba Azul, moving with the speed and grace of a ballet dancer, stepped behind the girl and pinned her around the middle in a fat embrace.  Without appearing to notice, Travis calmly withdrew his billfold from an inside pocket, counted out a few paper notes, and laid them on the bar.

“Of course, if he’s a coward he don’t need to know how to shoot,” Travis finished.  “All he has to do is grab the best-looking human shield around and hide behind her.”

“After tonight, Teense’s hombres will have their orders to shoot me on sight,” Dave had remarked as they strode along the line of traffic waiting to cross into the United States.  “If they do, Fat Boy will have me to answer to,” Rich promised.  Two-and-a-half years later, the time for Barba Azul to answer up had arrived.

Rich Core had left the truck and horse trailer up an arroyo early in the day to ride the last fifteen miles across the desert to Barba Azul’s hacienda, trusting to the wildness of the country and the rough terrain for cover in the approach.  There was no hope of penetrating the heavily guarded compound itself.  For that reason, he brought along the .338 rifle firing a necked-down version of the .416 Rigby case and mounted with a telescopic scope, accurate up to fourteen or fifteen hundred yards.  Even at a range of more than a half a mile, a man four-feet wide divided down the belly by a black beard three-feet long would be an unmistakable target.  He needed only the proper vantage, an even trigger pull, time enough for the escape, and luck—much luck.  It was a lot to ask, Rich understood.  Which was why he prayed to God in Gwyn’s name, instead of his own.

With Gwyn, he had begun to understand the peculiar bravery of women, which had to do with not worrying or even thinking about a situation until it was actually present.  It was a quality peculiarly developed in his wife, who broke and trained problem horses, some of them known killers.  He’d told her before their marriage he had a job to do either before or afterward, and they’d decided together on after, which would have been his own individual choice.  So they were married and honeymooned for two weeks horsepacking in the Gila River country, enjoying the wilderness and each other while time discovered a new pace for itself—quicker than before the wedding, when it had seemed almost to stand still, but not yet the headlong rush that had brought him to the dusty environs of Naco, littered with trash blown across the border from Mexico on a hard wind.  While knowing better, at times he felt wounded nearly to the point of anger by his wife’s quiet unconcern.  He could not fully understand how, loving him, she seemed able to put the future from her mind.

“Don’t you see?” Gwyn had asked him.  “It’s because I’m content.  When a woman is content, she doesn’t need to look any further beyond her own contentment.”

But we could be separated in just a few weeks now, he had wanted to say, but didn’t.  But was there truly anything more than the firelight on her red-gold hair and in her green eyes tonight, the scent of juniper smoke, the stars wheeling above the black silhouette of the hills, and the river slipping past camp in the moonlight and into the shadow of the giant cottonwood overhanging the bank?      

“See,” Gwyn said, placing her bare freckled wrist beside his brown hand, “how exactly alike our coloring is?  Anyone would think we were brother and sister, rather than husband and wife.”

Definitely not brother and sister, Rich thought—men and women belonging to that sole unscientific category reserved for members of different species who were capable nevertheless of mating.  Women were natural consenters, unlike men.  Even brave men, or those who tried to be brave.  Today, as he rode across the unmarked border into Mexico, his bride was working out a green barrel-racer at the annual spring rodeo at Sells, on the Papago reservation west of Tucson.  

The big thing, Rich Core reminded himself when the red-roofed compound came in sight, a mile ahead behind the gated wall under the rusty palm trees, was not to let yourself be captured by a coward.  He almost added, a coward like Barba Azul, but all cowards were cowardly in the same way.  So were suicides, who were not consenters but insisters on their own will.  If the worst happened and an honorable choice were available, he assumed it would be shown him in the crucial moment.  He wasn’t going to think about choices, for now.

Now time stood still as the spring sun overhead, still as his heart fitted securely at the center of his chest.  A hundred yards ahead, an outcrop of rock, fringed by yucca and mesquite, overlooked the valley below.  He rode to it and dismounted, snubbed the horse behind a boulder, and drew the rifle from under the saddle skirt.  Bent double at first, finally on all fours, he crept to the stony summit and raised himself carefully behind it.

Angle of sight offered a view over the wall into the compound, where a gravel drive coming up from the closed gate swung round before a flagstone patio fronting the main entrance to the house.  A white Lincoln Continental and a yellow Mercedes convertible stood parked at the bottom of a short flight of stone steps rising to the patio.  Rich swung the tripod out from the forestock of the gun and settled himself on his belly in a sandy depression in the rock to wait.  The range finder gave him a distance of 1,197 yards.  If Barba Azul were the type to wear a pocket watch on a chain across his vast paunch, he should be able to drill him through it with a single shot.

Yes, today was a good day to die.  And perhaps, if it were a lucky day, to live.