Animal (Chapter 19 - Part 1)
John pulls his horse to a stop beside the carriage and dismounts. The town of Garrison sits far behind, reduced to a black spot on the horizon.
Jesse steps down from the coach ladder, letting go of the reins and laying his rifle across the seat. He turns to face John at the sound of his approach.
"I want to thank you for what you've done,” he says.
John waves the apology aside.
"Don't. I couldn't save you all, but I think you're going to be safe now. As hard as this is to bear, your brother was all they truly wanted."
"That doesn't make things any better," Jesse says. He peaks inside the carriage. Mrs. Carlyle sits holding Ben. He's fallen asleep, exhausted from his weeping.
"How's the boy?" John asks.
"I don’t know, I just don’t know,” the uncle replies, “He won't be forgetting this."
John watches the widowed women as she strokes the sleeping child's hair.
"At least you'll have someone to help.”
Jesse smiles at Mrs. Carlyle. He studies her for some time, his face suddenly turning red as he looks away and back to John.
"At least there's that. She’s a hell of a woman. Don't think she'll be coming back to Garrison any time soon. I don't see why anyone would ever want to go back to that place."
"I don't think the place is evil, I think the man who controlled it was. Perhaps one day these people will see the errors of what they've done."
"Perhaps, but evil's grasp stretches a long way," Jesse whispers, staring at the shapeless form of Garrison.
"That it does."
Jesse holds out his hand. John grasps it.
"You sure you don't want to ride with us?"
"I have other business to take care of."
"I'm sure you do."
Jesse climbs onto the carriage. He sets the rifle aside and breathes deep. It's up to him now to keep them safe.
"Be careful, John," he says, cracking the reins.
The horses break off into a trot, pulling the shaking carriage in their wake. The carriage gains speed as the horses take to the desert earth. Jesse raises his hand and waves. John waves back, bidding them safety in their travels.
Perhaps not all who cross paths with the Riders are destined to die. Perhaps some are meant to live.
"Perhaps I can still save these souls," John says as he mounts his steed.
John spurs the horse’s haunches and the animal moves on. In the distance, the rail lines rise. He tracks The Tall Man once more.
* * *
The flaps to The Tall Man’s tent slide back without warning as the man in the suit enters. He holds one flap up, letting in the unfiltered sounds of roaring laughter and upbeat fiddle music. He shoots The Tall Man a slick grin and motions back.
“Quite a party you got going here, Varlyn. Must be one hell of a thing you’re celebrating.”
“New recruits passing tests,” The Tall Man replies, “Don’t recall inviting you.”
“Well I just assumed you misplaced my invitation.”
The man in the suit takes a seat beside the Rider and leans back across his cot, legs outstretched. The Tall Man studies the tent entrance.
“I noticed the guards aren’t with you today.”
A casual wave dismisses the comment.
“I’d expect they’re mingling with your boys right now. You know, I’m getting to enjoy their company. They’re not the best conversationalists but it beats sitting alone in a hotel room. Or a tent.”
The Tall Man ignores the quip.
“What are you doing here?”
Two envelopes appear from the man’s suit pocket in response.
“Heavier one’s your payment. The other’s your next.”
The Rider accepts his offering and slips both into his bag. The man in the suit leans over his shoulder, staring at the framed picture of John’s mother.
“Still pouting over that girl?”
The Tall Man pushes the frame out of sight. He glances down to see the man in the suit’s hand resting upon his thigh. A serpent’s grin accompanies the next words.
“You know, I feel terrible about how we last left things. I want you to know that.”
The Tall Man grabs the scruff of his guest’s shirt and pulls him from the cot. A sharp shove sends the man to the dirt.
“Sometimes I wonder if you ache for a beating.”
The man in the suit rises slowly, patting away the dirt from his knees. His composure remains unflappable as he pulls open the tent flap, pausing at the entrance to speak his peace.
“You ought to get out more, Varlyn. Enjoy yourself. Who knows when this is all going to end?”
* * *
John slows his horse to a trot. Long has he been riding. The afternoon sun flutters beyond the clouds. The sheen of the railway glitters atop whirling sand. A series of specks emerge in the distance; the buildings and streets of Lawton. The tracks curve toward the sturdy settlement, another stop on the Black Rail’s journey.
The town edges closer as John continues his ride. Thin trees sprout up from the dry land, pressed close to the building’s sides, their bodies twisted from drought. Small, leaved branches cast flickering shadows, merciful bouts of shade from the unforgiving heat. Tufts of grass rise from the earth, an oasis in the desert.
John gasps. His heart leaps in his throat. His hands tighten on the reins. Docked in a small station, its fierce metal body glowing dull in the sun’s rays, sits the Number Eight Black Rail.
* * *
The Tall Man opens his eyes. He lies inside his tent, stretched out on a bare cot. He sits up and turns in the direction of the voice. One of his men stands at the entrance holding the tent flap open. Outside, the sun shines through the opening, splashing across his face. He raises his hand to shield his eyes. How long has he slept?
The man stands on weak knees humbled by both respect and fear. He speaks with cracked voice.
"S…sir, I'm sorry to bother you, but…a man has requested audience."
"An audience? Is he wearing a fancy suit?"
"Yes, he wishes to speak with you."
“He wearing a fancy suit?”
“Then I don’t know him. He tell you he came to speak with me specifically?”
The Rider nods.
"Well he's got grit, I'll give him that,” The Tall Man remarks, “You get a name?"
The soldier swallows hard. The color drains from his cheeks. He bows his head and speaks in a hurried, stuttering tone.
"I—I didn't think to ask. He d-didn't give one."
"Be on your way."
The man doesn't need another word. The Tall Man sits up and pulls on his boots. He grabs his belt and latches his holstered revolver, then stands buckling the belt about his waist, and exits the tent.
A stranger stands in the center of the camp, arms at his side, guarded by two Riders. A tipped Stetson hides his face. He scuffs the dirt with his boot as The Tall Man nears. A loose coat covers his form. Revolvers hide beneath it.
The Tall Man offers his hand. The stranger locks the Rider in his grip, an exchange that cannot be more than a few seconds, but seems to last a lifetime.
"What can I do you for?" The Tall Man asks.
* * *
John stands frozen beneath the monstrous structure of the Black Rail. The station lies deserted, absent passenger or guard, The Tall Man gone. He turns from the locomotive and heads by main road into town.
Crowds gather. Men barter goods, shouting of rarities and claiming bargains beyond any other. A woman leads two children by the hand as they cross to the school. Bells ring in the distance.
Men wrangle horses in nearby pens. Some busy about the branding of livestock, others whoop and holler, smacking the sides of hogs as they lead them from their pens. Beyond the settlement’s borders a herd of cattle graze on bailed hay and the scarce amount of grass that grows. Dozens of voices echo through the town, each caught in their own world. John gazes in wonder at this place of bustling life.
A whistle blows and a hush falls over the town. John scans the area. The people stand as statues, all previous activity stopped. Men set down their goods and remove their hats. Women gather children close to their chests. Eyes set upon one place.
A small building painted black stands between the markets. The front door creaks on rusted hinges and a group of men exit, stepping slowly down the steps, heads bowed in respect. They wear dark suits and do not speak. Four move forward carrying a plain wood casket. A second group of pallbearers emerges.
The crowd parts to allow passage for the dead. Crossed breasts and muttered prayers follow. From the house three more men emerge. The undertaker and priest pass first, standing shoulder to shoulder, bodies bent with sorrow. The final man pauses on the top of the steps as the others move on. He wears a tipped hat that hides his neatly parted hair. A stitched vest, worn with age, clings to his form. From his belt there hangs a single revolver. A gold star, absent its shine, rests against his breast.
His eyes come to rest upon John as he steps off the porch. He studies the newcomer but a moment then continues on his way, tracing the path of the caskets.
* * *
“You don’t recognize me?” the stranger asks.
“I do not.”
“That’s a shame.”
The Tall Man strokes his unshaven face, trying to comprehend the stranger’s motives. He does not recognize the face, the scent, the feel of the man. The stranger shrugs and reaches into his jacket.
The Tall Man's guards raise their weapons and prepare to fire, the hammers of their weapons clicking back simultaneously. The man draws from his coat a rolled cigarette. In his other hand he holds a single match. He strikes the head with the tip of his nail and raises it to the cigarette. Smoke rises from the tip as he inhales, savoring the flavor.
The stranger glances around at The Tall Man's guards who lower their weapons in embarrassment. His eyes drift to their leader.
"Pretty jumpy, these boys,” he says, “They really Riders?"
"Not in any true sense of the word."
Shades of red tint the cheeks of the lesser men.
“You must know who I am,” The Tall Man remarks. His eyes travel the length of the man’s form.
“Indeed I do.”
“Then you know how foolish it is to wander into this camp unannounced.”
“I announced myself when I entered.”
The Tall Man laughs. His hands drift towards his revolvers. The men step back, clearing a path for gunfire.
“It would not be wise to play games here, son. You may find you don’t have the stomach for them.”
The man raises his head and tips his hat. A thin scar runs down his cheek, another sloping across his throat. The mark flexes with his muscled jaw, shaping itself into a slanted grin. His good eye shines bright blue and piercing, the other a dull, milky white.
“I know of the dangers quite well, yet I feel we must speak. I know of you but you cannot recall my face. We must change that. I offer that we dine. I have words you need to hear. I think they will prove in your interest.”
The Tall Man scans his band and selects three men. They shuffle into place behind their master without words, hands stiff and faces blank.
“Lead on, stranger,” the Rider says, his smile matching that of the man’s twisted scar.
* * *
John leans against a dead tree, his back pressed against its wobbling trunk, and watches the funeral. Many gather to observe the ceremony, all dressed in mourning. They surround the fresh graves. Two white crosses rise from the earth, the names of the deceased yet to be carved. The priest reads from the holy book, spreading dirt from his fingers as he lays the souls to rest.
The coffins lower into their respective homes. The pallbearers take up spades, shifting the earth and dropping it into the pits, covering the bodies.
Women stand beside their children and sing out Amazing Grace. Their voices carry on the wind. Soft rays drift through the shade of the thin trees that surround the graves. Light shines off marble and wood and spills across the ground towards the singers.
John closes his eyes and hums along to the words. The sound of the wind and the earth disappears. Nothing but the beautiful melody reaches his ears. Peace.
"Can I help you with something?"
John turns, his long absent bliss snatched away. The man with ratted clothes stands behind him staring down at the ceremony. He does not bother to meet John's gaze as he speaks.
"They were good boys, the one's being buried, good men. Didn't deserve to go out like that,” he says, then turns from the sight, “Follow me, son."
He takes hold of John's arm and pulls him from the tree. The sounds of singing fade as they walk side by side down the dusty road. The man's spurs clank against the earth. He squints off into the sun, pulling down his hat to shield his eyes.
"Name's Roy Parker," he says, but keeps both hands tucked in his pockets.
They pass by the black building from where the dead men were brought. Roy takes a sharp turn and heads down a side road. A large structure with several barred windows stands in back. A little girl sprints across the road shrieking with both glee and fear, chased by three boys holding squirming lizards. Roy smiles as the children pass.
"This your first time here in Lawton, John?"
"It is," John replies. He smoothes his hair, drenched from the hot sun, back.
"I'm sorry this is what you were greeted with upon entrance."
"I've gotten used to it as of late."
Roy's eyes travel down the boy as though he were profiling him.
"That a fact?"
The two reach the barred establishment, passing up the porch to reach the shade it provides.
"I’ve been marshal of this town for twenty years. Nothing like this has ever happened," Roy remarks. He polishes his dulled star on the bottom of his vest, "Times are changing."
"That they are,” John replies.
The marshal motions for them to step inside.
"Seems like men are turning more and more violent as the days pass. What do you make of that, John?"
"I think it's our nature, more than anything, getting the best of us," John replies as he shuts the screen door behind him.
"You think all men are inherently cruel?"
"Not all, but most."
Roy shakes his head and makes his way back to where an antique, badly scratched desk sits. He pulls out a chair and sits down behind the structure. He raises his legs and rests his feet atop the desktop, his spurs adding a new set of marks to the wood.
"See I don't believe that. I believe we only turn to violence when there's nothing left to contain us."
"Well, you're the marshal."
Roy nods. He cracks his knuckles on both hands and removes the hat that hides his thinning hair. He plucks at a loose strand on the edge of his vest.
"What are you here for?" he asks.
"I'm looking for a man."
"That narrows the search."
"His name's Varlyn."
Roy doesn't stutter from shock nor does he gasp. His eyes don't widen. His body doesn’t shake. He offers a casual shrug and drops his boots back to the floor.
"What business you have with that man?"
"I plan on killing him.”
Roy smiles. A chuckle rises up. From under the desk he draws a bottle of whiskey, its label yellowed with age, then opens a drawer and rummages through the contents, pulling out two shot glasses. He pops the top and pours them each a drink.
* * *
"There's a little restaurant down the road. We can get something to eat while we talk," the stranger says, motioning for the Rider to keep pace.
The Tall Man follows close behind. His guards stand several feet back. The Tall Man does not keep his hand trained upon his revolver as they do. His gait is smooth. He feels not fear, but simple curiosity, towards the stranger.
There is something about this man, something familiar, though he cannot say. It's as if the memory is buried in the sand, lost somewhere in a desert stretching miles with no map to guide him.
Ahead lays the diner. A crudely drawn sign stamped with the word ‘open’ hangs from a rusted nail. The Tall Man joins the stranger's side and motions for his men to disperse. Together the two enter the establishment. They call for service and seat themselves at a table, waiting patiently as the waiter rushes to place menus before them.
"What can I get you gentleman?" he asks, noting The Tall Man’s form with nervous eyes.
The stranger flips through the menu at random. His finger trails the cheap paper.
"How do you feel about steak?"
His smile never wavers but his voice holds no cheer. Blank and direct. The Tall Man sets the list aside.
* * *
"Say I know who it is you’re looking for," Roy says, downing his second shot of whiskey.
"Say I know where he's staying."
Roy pushes the empty glass aside. He clasps his hands across his chest and studies the new arrival.
"Say I needed a favor…"
"Everyone needs a favor," John replies.
"Indeed, but say you help me and I tell you where your man is holed up? Save you quite a bit of searching."
John crosses his legs and spins his spur with the tip of his finger. The dusty metal twirls round in a blur of motion. He presses his finger down and it comes to a sudden stop.
"Maybe I'll just ask someone else around town, Roy, someone more charitable when it comes to giving a man the information he needs."
Roy stands. He walks out onto the porch and leans against the doorway, staring out over the town. Schoolchildren engage in duels with fake swords fashioned from brittle wood. Across the field of battle a teacher sits on classroom steps making sure the knights don't hurt each other. Women gossip on street corners, their shrill laughter betraying their secrets. Men busy about hawking wears, casting iron horse shoes, tanning leather hides.
Roy closes his eyes and listens to the sounds of Lawton.
"I’ve been marshal here for twenty years. I know I told you that before but it needs to be said again. The people here are good people, kind people, but there's a storm heading our way. Not the storm that uproots trees or blows the sand around you. No, this storm changes men, turns them some kind of evil. Ain’t you noticed how vile men are getting? Some kind of sickness in the wind. I'm getting older. Ten, hell, even five years from now, I won't be able to do this anymore."
He rubs a speck of dust from the point of his star and continues.
"My job is to keep this place from going wrong, keep things right, but there are wicked men out there, cruel and vicious men who crave only violence, and they've descended upon this place. Shot my boys down, my deputies. I'd like to say that’s the worst it can ever get and that they wouldn't dare show face in my town again but I know the way of these men. It's only going to get worse unless someone stops them."
He looks back to John and kicks the door with the toe of his boot. It swings shut with a crack, frame vibrating with the force.
"Two men. There’s two men out there. I need a man to ride with me."
John rubs his eyes and plants his feet on the hardwood. His hand makes its way across the surface of his revolver.
"I don't want to be a lawman, Roy," he replies.
"Neither did I my friend, I can promise you that, but sometimes that's the way things go. We end up on a path we didn't choose, forced down a road we do not wish to travel. You can't tell me you wanted to be put on your hunt, can you?"
"I see your point.”
Roy takes his seat and pours two more shots, one for himself and one for John. He caps the bottle and slides it back under the desk before raising his glass up. John lifts his own.
"So we have a deal?" Roy asks. He stares at John through the yellowed glass.
"Do I have a choice?"
"I guess not."
* * *
"There were four men who cut through our town last week. Busted into the bank, robbed it, then moved on to take the saloon, even stole a few drinks on the way out. If it was me I'd of hightailed it after hitting the bank, but that was their choice. That cost them two of their own and my deputies. Bloodbath like I've never seen."
Roy slides a shell into his rifle. He snaps the weapon shut and pulls his revolver, staring into each chamber of the cylinder, making sure everything is ready. He draws a handful of bullets from his pocket and sets them down. They roll about the tabletop, knocking into one another with soft taps before settling. He carefully picks them up, one by one, and drops them into place, continuing his speech.
“There’s two of them left. Now I’m a peaceful man, but I wouldn’t feel too bad about shooting these men dead and if it comes to that then so be it. I have a feeling these men won’t be particularly inclined towards being arrested. That’s where I need another man.”
John leans back and stares up at the stained wood ceiling.
“Why me, Roy?” he asks.
“Why you asking me to do this and not one of the folks here in Lawton?”
Roy snaps the revolver shut, holding the weapon up to his ear and spinning the chamber. Smooth clicks.
“Because as terrible as this may sound, John, I’d rather you die than someone I know.”
“That does sound terrible.”
“Maybe, but I’m sure that when whatever event that’s caused you to chase after your prey transpired, if someone had offered to take the place of whoever you lost, you would’ve accepted in a heartbeat. Am I right?”
Roy gathers up his rifle and supplies and marches out to his horse, loading up before heading back to the office. John leans against the office’s wooded side as he waits for the marshal to finish.
Roy closes the door behind him and makes sure it’s locked tight. He clutches a second Stetson in his right hand, even older than the one perched atop his head, and beats the brim against his leg to remove the dust that clings to its surface. He reaches into his back pocket and draws a small sign with a string of yarn attached which he hangs from a rusted nail embedded in the doorframe. Written across the board are the words: 'Sheriff out. Back soon.' John chuckles at its simplicity. Roy tosses him the hat.
"Put that on. You'll need it for the ride."