Also cowboys. For some reason... cowboys.
"It's simple," he told me. "All I gotta do is draw faster than him and aim truer."
I shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. It didn't sound simple to me. But what did I know? I was a wide-eyed little girl in a creased, second-hand dress, and he was an unshaven cowboy, his leathers caked with dust, his hat and overcoat battered and torn by the harsh wasteland winds.
"You got something you wanna say?" he asked me, taking a sip from his gin.
I shook my head. "No sir." But I never could keep my mouth shut, especially not around the cowboys. My mother often exclaimed – in jest, I only realised when I reached adulthood – that I wouldn't be happy until one of them threw me over his shoulder and abducted me, whisking me off to a life of wrangling renegade machines in the dead cities. And that was just fine with me, sounded a whole lot more exciting than waiting tables in this dingy saloon. So I contradicted myself with the naïve slyness of childhood, by adding, "It's just..."
"Just what?" the cowboy asked, looking at me with dry blue eyes.
"Why you gotta go and try to shoot him anyway?"
He laughed. It didn't seem very funny to me, two men going to try and blow one another's brains out at high noon, but I was under his spell, so I smiled along with him, if a little uncertainly. "Well, sweetheart," he said, "it's kinda complicated. See, I said something, after I been drinking a little too much, I'm sure you know how it is."
I nodded, keen to demonstrate my maturity in that one unfortunate respect.
"Something that no man who hears it can keep his temper. He's gotta get satisfaction – revenge, you see. He's gotta shoot me dead to make things right. And since I don't want to be shot dead, I gotta try and shoot him dead first. And so that neither of us does anything underhanded or dirty, we set a time when we'll both stand in front of one another and try to shoot the other. That way, the best man wins. I win my life, or he wins his honour."
"That is complicated," I agreed.
He shrugged and took another sip from his gin. I watched carefully so I could offer him a refill as soon as he finished.
"But..." I said.
He waited a moment and then said, "Zeus, girl. Talking to you's like pulling teeth. You ever finish what you're sayin'?"
"Well," I stammered, blushing, "I was only wondering why you don't just apologise to him."
"It ain't that simple."
"It just ain't." He swallowed the last few mouthfuls of his drink and handed me the glass. "Now close your pretty mouth, girl, and get me some more of this stuff."
I took the glass, but didn't budge from where I stood. I put one hand on my hip, a pose of authority my mother used, and addressed the cowboy sternly. "You got a whole lotta things backward if you think apologising to a man is more complicated than shooting him before he shoots you."
"Just get me my drink," he said curtly. He wasn't talking to me as an equal anymore, but as a cowboy addressing a helpless little girl. "And ask your mother for what price she'd be willing to entertain a man who's counting his hours."
I half-turned and raised my nose in the air. "Mister, I may be a kid, but I ain't stupid, and this is a re-spect-able e-stablish-ment."
It was a moment that would linger and have a strong effect on me as I grew up. The moment that I, a little girl, stared down a gun-slinging cowboy. He looked almost ashamed, and, I suddenly noticed, a lot more soaked through with gin than I had realised. I kept my eyes on his down-turned face, determined not to let him know that I only half understood what we were talking about.
"Simple things," he said softly. "Fighting and... Those are the simple things in life, girl. You find your ox, your rat, your scorpion, and those two things are the most difficult things they can do. Apologies, forgivin', talkin', those are complicated. You remember that, little girl. And I hope to Zeus you don't never have to find it out for yourself."
He stood up, the chair scraping loudly. He checked his gun was still in its holster, straightened his hat and coat, and nodded to me politely. "Ma'am," he said, making me blush again.
And then he turned and left.
Come noon, I went to the window, looking out onto the uneven, dust-covered street, littered with the rusted skeletons of ancient automobiles, hoping to see the two men fight. My mother made me jump when she put her hand on my shoulder. She stood over me, tall and golden haired. Like any rebellious little girl, I both hated her and aspired to be just like her.
"I don't know where they're doing it," she said firmly, "but you ain't gonna see anyway."
"But mom..." I whined.
"No buts. It's not for children. There are some things you don't yet need to know or see, and believe me you don't want to. Now there's dishes need cleaning, and they ain't gonna do it themselves."
I dragged my feet all the way to the kitchen and did such a half-assed job I knew I'd have to do it a second time. Sullenly I listened out, keen to hear the report of a gunshot, a yell of triumph, a scream of pain - not really, it must be said, understanding what they would mean.