Animal (Chapter 19 - Part 2)
John turns at the sound of the door opening behind him. Rose passes through the archway.
"Rose, where have you been? I was worried sick."
John holds her close and kisses the top of her head. Rose smiles up at him, her eyes shining in the soft light. She leans her head against John's chest and closes her eyes, listening to the beat of his heart. John waits for his chance to speak.
"Shh…I want to hear your heart."
John sighs. He sits down on the bed and holds his love close. A summer breeze drifts through the open window, ruffling the curtains as it spreads through the room. John looks out past the shades and watches the moon sail through the sky as it casts its silver light across the fields.
"Rose," he whispers.
Rose stares into his eyes. She’s so quiet.
"I went to the doctor today about why I've been feeling so sick."
John holds his breath, bracing himself for whatever may come.
"He said he thinks I'm pregnant."
"What?" John asks.
Rose hugs him tight, laughing and kissing his lips.
"You're going to be a father. Can you believe it?"
"No,” John sputters, the thought spilling over him, “I—uh…no."
Rose smiles. She slides her hand across his chest.
"Our child. He'll hold the beat of your heart, John, strong and steady."
John lies back and stares at the ceiling. A stupefied grin remains plastered across his face as Rose crawls up beside him. He holds her hand in his.
* * *
“John, wake up."
John opens his eyes. The last rays of a falling sun greet him. He grasps feebly for the memory of the dream but it fades like all dreams do. He raises the worn Stetson from his head and looks to the marshal.
Roy sits atop his horse with reins held loose in hand. His body rocks from side to side with the shaking of the animal’s back. He turns his gaze from John to the settlement ahead.
“Sorry to wake you but we’re almost there.”
“It’s okay,” John replies, wiping flecks of sand from his eyes.
“You were talking in your sleep.”
John lets out a lengthy yawn and stretches his arms wide.
“Well that happens.”
Roy nods. He leans forward and rests his arms across the nape of his horse’s neck. The clomp of hoof against earth creates a steady rhythm beneath him.
John glances over at the marshal, trying to appear nonchalant in reply.
"No one of consequence," he says, shrugging off the lawman’s stare. He taps the steed’s side. Roy picks up speed in turn.
The settlement grows close. Unlike Lawton, no figures busy about. No one moves through the streets. Citizens of sand and rock and dust prevail.
"Was she such a woman that you'd go through all this?" Roy asks as they reach the outskirt.
"She was like the sun."
"I can imagine the pain, being absent her warmth."
"No, Roy, I don't think you can."
The two press on. The rotted and ancient wood of the surrounding buildings groans against the wind. A bar with dirty windows lies to the back of the main road. A dozen horses stand hitched outside its doors, the only signs of life in the otherwise desolate place. They lead their steeds to the front of the building beside the others.
"Trust me, son. I can," Roy says. He dismounts and makes his way up the steps, not bothering to tie his horse down.
Roy glances through the cracked window. Four men gather round a chipped card table playing a hand of poker. Two don weather-beaten shirts. Revolvers hang from their sides.
"That them?" John asks.
The lawman nods.
* * *
Roy stands beside the table. He reaches up and removes his hat, smoothing back his hair and shaking his head.
"This seat taken?"
"It clearly is, mister."
"That's a shame."
The marshal leans forward between the four men and places his hat over the tiny mound of bills in the middle of the table. The two armed men set their cards down and meet his gaze. One can’t be past his teens. No hair exists to mar his baby smooth skin. A toothy grin forms beneath eyes that dance. He rapidly taps his hands across the tabletop, untrimmed nails scrapping unpolished wood, focus darting between John and Roy. He scratches the side of his face and turns to his partner.
The second man sighs. Evidence of cuts new and old mark his face. He slides his hands across the table and takes back his bet. A curved scar slopes across the top of his wrist. He leans back and studies the two arrivals.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" he asks.
"I asked if we could join your table."
"Game's full, mister," the younger outlaw sneers.
Roy reaches into his pocket and draws his hand back, clenched into a fist and hiding its contents. He opens it over the pile of cash. Two silver stars bounce against the bills.
The two men sit in silence. Seconds pass. No one moves.
"I think you'd best be on your way," the elder remarks to his company.
They don't need another warning. The players stand, scooping up their winnings and shoving the contents into their pockets. They cross the bar, exit the saloon, and take to the streets. The dealer gestures towards the now vacant chairs.
"By all means."
John and Roy take their seats but keep their hands at their sides, ready to draw at any moment. The elder outlaw scoops up the deck and reshuffles the cards, dealing each man in.
"My name is Frank. My associate here is Jack. Just Frank, just Jack, I don't think last names are needed."
"And why would that be?" Roy asks with eyebrows raised.
"A lot easier to be found when people know your last name."
"That's assuming the ones you gave us are even right to begin with."
"You sure are a lawman.”
"Figured the badge would have given it away."
"Can't be too careful."
Roy tosses a card into the pile, drawing a single card from the deck. John follows with two.
"What's your bet?"
"I didn't come here to bet money," Roy replies.
"Winner takes all, then?"
Frank sifts through his hand. He selects two cards and lets them drop in the pile. Jack passes him his replacements. He accepts without reply. Jack draws next, rearranging the cards in no particular order.
"We never intended to fire on your deputies. I can't be held responsible for what the men I travel with do," Frank remarks. His eyes drift towards his companion. Jack doesn’t seem to notice. "That doesn't change what happened. Blood was spilt."
"Blood is always spilt, the amount determines the size of the tragedy."
"Clever," Roy replies. He lays his cards down, three kings.
John lowers his hand. The smile fades from Jack's lips as he eyes the two hunters.
"I guess I win," the marshal says.
Frank sighs. He rises from his seat and wrings his wrinkled hands.
"I'll be back in a moment. Old age doesn't bode well on my body. Bathroom's in the back, just ask the bartender and he'll tell you I ain't lying."
He places his hand on his partner’s shoulder in passing. "Don't do anything stupid."
Frank heads to the end of the bar, rounding the corner and moving down the hallway to the rooms beyond.
The men sit in silence. Jack picks at a scab atop his arm leaving a streak of red behind. He looks to John but his gaze soon returns to the marshal. He speaks with voice slick and taunting, as though a laugh could rise from his throat at any moment.
"I killed them. You know that, right?"
Roy tenses. His chest rises and falls in quickened rhythm. The outlaw continues. "Frank there didn't want no casualties, but I say that's where the most fun comes from. I mean, why pull a heist if there ain't any risk involved, am I right?"
He takes a long draw from his bottle, grimacing at the strength of the drink.
"Must’ve been hard, losing your boys like that," he says.
"They were good deputies."
"No. A man don't go recruiting others to hunt down a petty killer over a simple deputy, that's something personal."
Jack snickers. His lips peel back to reveal crooked teeth.
"They your only kin?"
Roy shakes his head. He clears his throat and loosens his collar. John's eyes dart between the clashing men. His hands continue their descent.
"Now they were too young to be your brothers, less your mother was a real fertile women, but I doubt it. You see, I don’t think those boys were just any other boys, I think they were your boys."
"I'd stop your talking right now if I were you," Roy replies. His nails dig into the tabletop. Thin lines mark the wood.
"Losing kin can compel a man to do the darkest of things, but what about losing all he's got?” Frank says, putting a hint of singsong in his words, drawing out the time, “Now that's a right dangerous man."
John places his free hand on Roy's shoulder.
"Roy, he isn’t worth it."
Roy nods, but his eyes shudder with fury. Jack continues, twisting his head from side to side, loosening his shoulders. His eyes dance between his enemies.
"They're dead, Roy, your boys, and I…I'm the one who killed them.”
"There's something wrong with you, something poison. Can't help yourself, I guess."
Jack raises his head and lets out a piercing laugh, his voice cracking the near silence. All eyes fix upon him. The bartender stops wiping the tables. The drunks turn from their glasses.
"Is that what you think, that I'm disturbed? That why you think I do the things I do, steal, murder, rape? Do you think I was tortured as a child, abused and soiled and beaten? Do you think it's some insatiable urge I'm compelled to satisfy? Is that it? No."
Jack raises his finger and wags it back and forth, voice deepened, eyes dark.
"No no no, I do these things because I enjoy them. They make me feel alive, make me feel good. They satisfy me. The robbery was enough of a rush, but killing your boys? That was just icing on top of a big old cake."
Roy reaches for his weapon.
The word of a gun answers. Jack fires into the marshal. The impact of the blast sends Roy reeling back in his chair, his revolver going off into the ceiling. John draws his weapon and levels it inches from the outlaw’s face. Chaos surrounds them; screams and cries and the trample of boots. But between the two men, there’s silence.
Jack smirks. Smoke curls from the barrel of his weapon. Roy lies on his back hurling curses at his attacker. He clutches his shoulder where the bullet found its mark. Jack looks from John’s revolver to his own. John shakes his head.
Jack closes his eyes. His finger makes its way to the hammer of his revolver. With a soft click, it slides back. John fires once into the side of the outlaw’s head. Jack falls, ruined face turned up to his killer.
John sits lost in the smell of gunpowder and blood. The roar of the gunshot rings in his ears. Roy’s curses drive him back. He kneels beside the marshal to inspect his wound but Roy shoves his hand away.
“Get the other. I’ll be fine,” he says, motioning back to where Frank passed.
John crosses the bar, ignoring the whimpers of the patrons, and makes for the hallway. The bartender approaches from a separate room with a rusted shotgun in tow. John raises his arms to signal his intentions.
“This is lawman business. Stay behind your bar unless you feel like getting shot.”
The bartender nods stupidly and shuffles aside, shotgun still held in his white-knuckled hands.
John passes down the hall. His boots make quiet taps against the floor as he inches forward. Straight ahead, a single door sits halfway open. No sounds emerge from the other side.
John presses his hand against the wood and pushes forward. Frank stands before an open window, his back turned to John. He raises his head at the boy’s approach.
“Jack did something stupid, didn’t he?”
“I’m afraid so,” John replies. His finger rests against the trigger of his weapon, ready to pull.
“He was always reckless.”
Frank leans forward and shifts his palms along the bottom of the window. Outside, the sun drifts lazily through the open sky. The sound of a screeching bird echoes overhead.
“You know I was actually contemplating leaping through this window onto my horse? Make my grand escape. Wouldn’t be the first time either,” he says, smiling back at the boy.
“Then I’m reminded that I can’t move like I used to. I’ve gotten old and tired, shouldn’t even be doing this sort of work. People don’t think anymore. They just burst in and open fire. So much killing.”
“That what happened with Roy’s deputies?”
The outlaw nods. He turns to face the young man and rests his hands upon his hips.
“You come here to shoot me down?” he asks.
“I’d prefer it didn’t come to that.”
“You’d prefer it. We all would, son—”
Frank stands tall. He straightens his shirt. John's hold on his weapon loosens. Frank wipes the dust from his clothes and stares ahead, his eyes drifting from John to the area beyond.
“—but sometimes things are destined to end in blood.”
Gunfire erupts from behind. Frank stumbles back with a gasp, bullet buried in his chest. He chokes out a weak chuckle as he trips over his own feet and slams into the wall, sliding to the floor. Blood dribbles down his shirt. He breathes out in a thin wisp. His head falls forward.
John holsters his weapon and turns to face the shooter. Roy stands in the doorway, mouth slanted open. The hands that clutch his pistol shake with the rush He drops his weapon and meets John’s gaze, tries to speak but can’t.
Roy presses his hand to his wound and heads back down the hallway. John follows, pausing only to retrieve the marshal’s revolver.
* * *
The Tall Man sits across from the stranger, head bowed and eyes set upon the dripping steak before him. The stranger watches him without words, tracing his movements. No other customers grace the empty diner. The waiter has disappeared into the back room wishing not to share the presence of the Rider. Several tables adorned with plates and silverware await guests that will never come. A breeze sifts through the cracks in the windowpane to rustle the guest's hair. A loose screen door taps against its frame.
The stranger speaks.
"So how do you feel about killing?"
The Tall Man cuts away a strip of meat and places it against his tongue. He responds, not bothering to glance up.
"I think death is a natural process."
"Not death, murder."
The Tall Man shrugs. "No difference. Hunting is murder, fishing is murder, you step on an ant and it still loses its life."
"So what about human?"
The Tall Man wavers a moment but does not fall.
"Wouldn’t know," he replies.
The stranger’s plate remains full, knife and fork set in their original place. He raises his glass to his lips and drains it. The ice within clinks against its side.
"You a God-fearing man?" he asks.
"I do not fear the wrath of God, whatever it may be, but I offer respect. I can accept the Almighty but I am not His servant."
"God is the ultimate servant and the ultimate king."
The Tall Man chuckles. "As it is."
The stranger's hands rest flat atop the table. He slides one against the glass. Water spills across his palm and down his skin to the wooden surface.
"And your view of murder?"
"This God, if he exists, created all that we see and hold and touch. People argue over whether animals have souls. How can a tiger that murders to survive be saved? Are we to be judged more so by our own actions?"
The stranger clasps his hands together. Tendons morph tightened skin. The corners of his mouth twitch.
"That how you feel?" he asks.
"That’s how I feel."
The stranger pushes his coat back to reveal a single Colt holstered at his side. The weapon glistens in the dim light, reflecting the stranger's scarred face. His free hand tenses against the table.
"So what about Lee?"
The Tall Man ceases his meal. He swallows and sets his fork aside, dabbing the corners of his mouth. He continues to speak, his head bowed, the dirty napkin splayed over open hands.
"I want to thank you for the meal—"
"What about Draper and Julie?"
"It was delicious."
The stranger swipes his glass, tipping it over the table’s edge. It drops to the ground and shatters. The crash reverberates through the empty diner. Neither man moves.
"Answer me," the stranger says, voice hoarse and shaking.
"I already have. Why do you insist upon hearing it again?"
"You say you believe in God."
"I believe what I believe."
"So you believe in Hell."
The stranger's hand drops to his side and hovers over his weapon. His fingers graze its rusted handle. Despite its age, the trigger slides back without sound.
"So why do you smile?"
"Because I know you believe too. It's been so long I didn't even recognize at first sight, but I know who you are. I know. Been hunting me a long time, haven’t you? Well now we’re here and you have your chance. Only question is how it all unfolds."
The Tall Man slides his coat away. The wolf carved into his revolver’s sides seems alive, eyes burning and teeth bared.
"I ain’t scared of you no more," the man says. His eyes follow Rider's hands.
The Tall Man glances up with empty eyes. He raises one hand upon the porcelain and pushes his plate aside. His second rests steady against his gun.
"You’re still cowering in the fields, Mark."
"And you’re still burning them."
"Smoke’s rising. Time’s winding down."
Mark whispers the words so few have dared to speak. "You’re nothing."
A shimmer of life dances across the Rider’s eyes. He licks his lips.
"I’m The Tall Man. The Ghost. The Rider. The Savage. I am The Servant and I am God."
Mark's hands shake. He repeats the words with rising voice. "You’re nothing."
"Then why am I still here?"
Mark's bites his trembling lip. Soft beads of sweat form along his brow.
"You’re hanging on wire."
The Tall Man smiles. His tone is playful, prodding, yet the words dig deep. "Pull the trigger, son. End me."
Mark shoulders shudder with disgust. His voice continues its rise, peaking in fury. "You’re nothing!"
"I’m worth a bullet. Am I worth your soul?" The Tall Man responds with voice no longer soft, eyes burning cruel.
"I’m not an animal."
The hammer of the Rider’s weapon clicks back.
"You’re no better than one. You’re weak."
Mark breathes slowly. He forces himself to swallow the fear. The shaking fades. The two sit in near silence punctuated by the rhythmic beating of the screen door beyond.
"Hell’s waiting, mister," Mark says.
"I’ll meet you there.”
They draw. Two shots ring out.
Dust and smoke fill the air.
Mark lowers his weapon and slumps forward. A patch of red spreads across his shuddering chest. He gasps for air that doesn’t come. The revolver drops from his hand and bounces across the wooden floor. He slides from his chair.
The Tall Man rises from his seat holding the base for support. He lowers his smoking weapon and stands over the fallen man. Coldness wells.
"I…I ain’t an animal," Mark whispers. Blood fills his lungs.
The Tall Man presses his hand to the side of his neck. Blood pours between closed fingers. He smiles despite the shock.
"You ain’t a saint neither."
Mark breathes out. Red seeps up through the cracks in his teeth. Blood spills over the sides of his lips as he speaks.
The Tall Man fires into his face. Mark twitches once and lies still.
The Tall Man holsters his revolver, turning and stooping to grab his coat. Warm blood soaks the fabric as he slides it over his form. He reaches into the pocket and pulls out several crumpled bills. Fingerprints of red cover the paper. He tosses them on the counter.
The Rider turns and makes his way to the entrance, bumping into tables that block his path. He places his hand upon the rusty door and exits the diner. The world rushes to meet him.
The Tall Man stumbles out towards the desert sun, blood dripping in the sand, blinking from the blinding light. He hears the muffled cries of his men as they approach. The world spins without moving and he feels as though he is flying.