Animal (The Final Chapter - Part 1)
John and Roy enter Lawton. The ride has passed in silence with no words spoken. None needed be.
Early rays of sunlight pierce the clouds. People no longer crowd the streets. The innocent voices of the children have vanished, the men gone from their work. Candles light the windows of the surrounding homes. A few late-working rustlers hop fences and split apart, waving each other off as they return to their waiting families.
The monotonous clank of falling hooves marks their presence as they approach the jail. John looks to Roy who rests against his animal’s neck, arm wrapped thick with bandage. Roy rubs his wound and spurs his steed onward. They stop before the empty jailhouse and dismount, pausing only to tether their horses.
Roy moves on without words, up the stairs and into his office. He heads to his desk and pulls the whiskey out, taking a draw direct from the bottle as John approaches.
“I never killed a man,” he says, shaking his head, “Twenty years and my gun had never left its holster till last week.”
“Well now you have. What do you do?”
Roy wipes his eyes and takes another gulp.
“The man wasn’t even armed. I didn’t know.”
“Then it wasn’t your fault,” John says.
“I wanted him dead.”
“No one can blame you for that. I’d have done the same and had no qualms. If you hadn’t done what you did, those men would have just killed again.”
“I’m not so certain about that Frank.”
“Well I am.”
John pulls the chair back and takes a seat. He motions towards the marshal’s bandaged wound.
“You should get that checked.”
“Doc will fix it up in the morning.”
Roy finishes the last of the drink and stares at the empty bottle. He turns it over in his hands, watching the light reflect from its edges. With a sudden shout he hurls it to the ground. John doesn’t move. He waits for the lawman to calm.
Roy paces across the floor, cursing beneath his breath and biting his trembling lip. Shards of glass part the path he treads. He touches the star upon his chest and traces the edges of its points, then falls back into his chair, the strength of the drink at last beginning to take hold.
“You did good, John.”
“I did what was needed. What was needed wasn’t good.”
“But it needed to be done.”
Roy stands and offers his hand. John accepts. He releases his hold to break the handshake but Roy refuses to concede.
“Where will yours end, John? When Varlyn is dead? When they’re all dead, every last evil man on earth?”
John pulls away. “It’ll end when I’m back with Rose. When everything is right again.”
“That may be sooner than you think.”
Roy digs into his pocket. His hand comes back clutching the badges of his dead sons along with a single square of torn paper. He lets the stars slip from his grasp and land on the scratched wood below, then leans forward and stuffs the sheet into John’s hands.
“There's a house about twenty miles from here where his men hole up when injured. There'll be hurt men there who can point you the way with a little persuasion, maybe even Varlyn himself if you’re lucky. If he’s there he’ll have guards.”
“I know,” John says. He pockets the strip.
“Just head east and you’ll find it. There’s a grouping of tall grass that surrounds the area. You should be able to use that for cover.”
John turns towards the entrance. Roy follows the young man, his head bowed and voice lowered.
“How many men does one need to kill before he becomes no better than the thing he hunts? How many deaths before you’re sentenced to your fate, condemned as well? You travel too long on a path for revenge and your motivation changes from justified acts to simple bloodlust. How many men have you killed, John?”
Roy waits for a response but receives none. He groans from the dulled pain of his arm. In the distance, the dogs cease their barking and the roosters do not call. He reaches up and grasps his star, fingers fumbling with the pin. With a sharp pull he yanks the star from his chest and tosses it down across the desk beside his sons’.
“How many?” he asks.
John doesn’t reply. He lets the door swing open and exits without looking back, stepping from the porch and into the road. He approaches his horse and pulls a couple of canteens from his pack and the rifle with its sheath. He slings the contents over his shoulder. The horse knickers as he rubs its neck.
“Watch my horse, would you? Make sure she goes somewhere safe. Belonged to friends,” he says, tightening the strap of the rifle against his chest, “I’d like to see her treated right.” “I’ll see it done.”
John turns to leave. He stops suddenly and removes his hat, handing it back to the marshal. Roy waves a dismissive hand.
John makes his way around the edge of the jail and crosses through the patches of grass that surround the town. Roy calls out to him.
“There’s a storm coming, John. Try to be hidden when it hits.”
John nods. Lawton fades as he walks, glancing back occasionally to watch as the people of the town rise to greet the new day, already forgetting he’d ever been there.
* * *
The Tall Man awakens. He feels cold, surrounded by darkness. His head spins. He opens his eyes, ready to face whatever awaits him.
He finds himself upon a bed of silk. He tries to sit up but can do nothing more than raise his arms. Breaths come shallow and harsh like that of a wounded dog. He reaches up towards his throat where a large bandage wrapped with thick gauze presses against his wound. The pillow he lays on stains dark with dried blood. He calls out for his men. In response, a figure steps through the white door in the corner of the room.
The stranger dons cloth yellowed with age but worn with severity. Pride. A doctor’s gown. Cropped hair leaves his large ears exposed. A pair of round glasses cut into the bridge of his nose. He carries a pitcher of water and several surgical tools which he sets down upon the nightstand beside the bed. The Tall Man studies the newcomer, his sunken eyes shifting in their skull, following the man’s every move.
“Are you supposed to be my nurse?” he asks with a grimace.
“I’m your doctor, sir.”
“You, a doctor? This the best my men could get?”
The young man ignores the remark, instead concentrating on arranging his tools. He pulls a line of string from a spool, cuts it free, and threads a needle.
“Closest doctor in the area. You wouldn’t have made it any farther. I had to come out here to take care of you. Mind you, your men didn't give me much choice in the matter.”
“And I am the best,” the man says, continuing his work without smirking or waiting for response.
He stoops down over The Tall Man and lifts the compress to inspect his wound.
“Looks like your stitches have broken. You must have torn them in your fever.”
“How long have I been out?”
“About half a day. Not long at all considering the damage. I need to restitch this. Try and lean forward for me.”
The doctor pulls up a stool and begins to unwrap a roll of fresh gauze, placing his hand behind the wounded man’s head for support. The Tall Man leans forward, careful not to show his strain.
“Why am I so weak?”
“I gave you a sedative to keep you from moving about too much, should wear off soon. For now you need your rest,” the doctor replies as he pushes the needle into The Tall Man’s skin and closes the wound once more.
The doctor works in silence, cutting the thread and rebandaging the wound. He passes a cup of water and waits while the Rider drains the glass. Once The Tall Man has finished, he returns his tools to his bag and heads for the door. The Tall Man calls after him.
“You know who I am?” he asks.
“I know who you are.”
“Then all that remains is that you introduce yourself.”
The doctor sighs. His body tenses. He does not turn back to look upon the man he tends.
“You can call me Hanson.”
The Tall Man nods. He watches the man for some time before speaking.
“Don’t you fear me, Hanson?”
“I do, sir.”
The Rider closes his eyes and turns away from his caregiver, laying his head against the bloodstained pillow.
* * *
“Are you ready?”
“As much as I ever will be.”
“But will that be enough?”
John sits alone in the room. The sheets are stitched, the blood never spilt. The single bulb shines with a blazing glory, lighting every corner. Dust has left the surfaces. The sounds of birds echo beyond the walls.
His reflection sits across from him dressed in the same black garments, now clean and pressed; its form complete.
“Would you sacrifice everything to destroy him?”
“He’s already destroyed everything I have. My sacrifice has been paid,” John says. He rubs freezing hands together despite the warmth of the room.
The reflection kneels before him. Its eyes shine white. It presses a hand to John’s chest.
“No. As long as you stand there is a chance for you to move on. Do not think that this is the end for it does not have to be. Not all men have their revenge. Perhaps that is for best, revenge is a fickle thing and its end will not bring those whom you have lost back. It will only leave you with a deeper emptiness than you could have ever known.”
“But he will be dead and no more will suffer.”
John’s hands close around the weapons at his side. So long has he carried them. So many lives have they taken. The silver handles shine beneath his touch. They weigh him down.
“Do you really believe that?” the reflection asks.
“I have to.”
“And if you fail?”
John shakes his head. His hair spills across his eyes, not unkempt and wild, but carefully parted.
The reflection stands. John rises with it. They grasp one another’s hands and embrace. The sound of the world greets them. Light spills through the windows.
“Then this must be where we part.”
John’s reflection steps back. It does not grab the wire that hangs from the bulb, cutting it off and dimming the world. The light remains, bright and free.