Animal (The Final Chapter - Part 2)
“My, my, my, what have you done to yourself, Varlyn?”
The Tall Man opens his eyes and groans. The man in the suit sits atop a stool at his bedside. His polished dress shoes rest atop the Rider’s bed, bowler hat atop the bed stand. His two guards stand on either side of the doorway with Hanson beside them, mixing medications and trying his best to ignore the room’s new occupants.
“Didn’t I tell you no visitors, Hanson?” The Tall Man asks.
“They didn’t give me much of a choice.”
The man in the suit nods as if suddenly remembering something. He lifts a hand and waves vaguely behind.
“Mr. Hanson here has been filling me in on your condition. You had yourself quite a tumble.”
“If by ‘tumble’ you mean he was shot in the throat,” the doctor mutters.
The man in the suit turns sharply and eyes the doctor. He glances over towards his guards. They take position on either side of the doctor. Hanson sets the medications aside and crosses his arms. The well dressed guest’s reveals a blank mask of a face, betraying nothing. Finally, a twitch makes its way across his lips and he lets out a coyote’s howl of a laugh. Hanson, the guards, even The Tall Man twitch at the unexpected response.
“That’s a good one. That’s really, really good,” the man says, wiping away pretend tears from his face, “Friends, please escort the good doctor out of the room. Me and Varlyn here need to have a little chat.”
The guard’s massive hands lock around Hanson’s arms before he has a chance to protest. He rolls his eyes and exits in accordance with their insisted path. The door shuts behind.
The man in the suit lowers his legs and slides up beside his associate.
“Alone at last,” he says.
The Tall Man shifts against his pillow, pushing himself up as high as his drugged body will allow.
“Why are you here, Samson?”
“Why Varlyn, I was simply worried. I heard you had yourself an accident and I wanted to stop in and see how my number one employee was doing.”
“I don’t work for you.”
“Of course you don’t.”
The man in the suit draws a well manicured hand across his lips, pulling his fingers across perfectly smooth skin.
“So why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“You already know,” The Tall Man sneers, “Nothing gets past the men you wait hand and foot on.”
“But I’d like to hear it from you. So what happened, have a little gun fight? Who with?”
“Someone I crossed a long time ago.”
“First that John boy, now Mark, was it? Quite a list of loose ends rearing their ugly heads.”
“There’s always going to be loose ends,” The Tall Man replies, “That is until you tie them off. That’s what you have the Riders for.”
The man in the suit leans forward and rubs a hand across The Tall Man’s cheek. His words come as a whisper, almost mournful.
“You know he’s coming for you, correct? He’ll find you too, wherever you go, long as he’s still alive. You made him that way, Varlyn. He’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth and torture you till every bit of the lust for revenge he holds has been fulfilled.”
The man in the suit reaches into his pocket and draws forth the silver razor. He unfolds it slowly, as if making a show, and sets it down atop the bed stand beside his hat. He stares at its form a moment longer than returns his gaze to the wounded Rider.
“I could do it, you know, cut your throat and leave you to bleed. It’d be quick. Painless. And all that worry, all that paranoia, all the years you have left of killing and running and looking over your shoulder, all that will be gone. Just say the word.”
The Tall Man spits in his face.
“You pull that blade on me and I’ll put you down, no matter how small I seem.”
“I believe you,” the man in the suit replies, returning the sharpened steel to its silk-lined resting place, “As much as I hate to admit, it pains me to see you like this.”
The man retrieves a folded handkerchief from his breast pocket and slowly dabs the side of his face.
“Take your time resting. Meanwhile, my employers will be busy reevaluating just how vital you and your little gang are to our organization.”
The man in the suit rises from the bedside and turns to leave. The doorway opens on his word. Hanson passes the man and returns to his medicines. As the man pulls the door shut behind him The Tall Man calls out.
“You take care, Samson,” he says, “When I’m gone there’s no telling who’ll be coming for you.”
The man in the suit continues unabated, pausing only to tip his hat and mutter a goodbye to the doctor.
* * *
The Tall Man lies motionless, staring up at the ceiling and counting the holes in the aged wood. His chest rises with effort at every breath. He swallows, the motion stinging the sewn wound across his neck. The creek of hinges meets his ears as Hanson enters.
"How are you doing?" he asks, setting his bag of supplies down and snapping it open.
"No," The Tall Man replies, grunting as he turns his head to face the man.
Hanson carries a fresh pillowcase tucked tight underneath his arm. He straightens his collar, pulls the stool over with his free hand, and takes a seat before his patient.
"You shouldn't lie. I won't know how well you're progressing."
"No pain, only numbness."
"Numbness. Alright," Hanson remarks as he places his hand behind The Tall Man's head and lifts him forward, "I'm going to need to change this."
The Tall Man shakes himself free and shifts away from the doctor.
"No need. Leave me be."
"I'm not going to have my patient sleep on dried blood. I don't care who you are or why you're here but this is how it goes."
The Rider relaxes against the man's grasp. Henson tosses the bloodied sheet to the floor and replaces it, tucking a clean pillow behind The Tall Man's head and laying him back.
The Tall Man closes his eyes. Hanson does not exit. He lifts his bag and places it in his lap.
"How many of my men have laid here before me? How many have you treated?" The Tall Man asks.
"More than I can count."
"And now I lie here, weak and beaten."
"Just because someone is weakened it doesn’t mean he has been beaten."
"There is no difference, not to a man like me."
"And what kind of man are you?" Hanson asks. He reaches into his bag, drawing forth a thermometer and a new set of bandages.
A grin forms across The Tall Man’s lips. "You're bold, my friend, very bold.”
"Speaking the way you speak. Most people do not dare confront me, those who do often suffer as a result."
Hanson leans back and studies the wounded man.
"Will I suffer?" he asks.
* * *
John tramps his way through the briars of dead plants as he travels the crude path towards The Tall Man’s resting place. A wall of clouds passes in front of the sun, offering a cool shade to the land.
From atop a low hill three figures emerge. John doesn’t move. He draws one revolver, keeping it leveled at the earth. His free hand rests against the second. The men before him continue their march, heedless of the armed man. They do not bear the black cloth of the riders. No revolvers hang from their hips. Their leader dons a buttoned suit, clean and pressed, civilization in an uncivilized place. His guards dress down in comparison, matching vests and matching rifles pulled tight to their chests.
They begin to slow, shuffling feet before coming to a stop in front of John. The man in the suit removes the top hat that covers his head and draws it to his chest. A quick glance at the young man’s weapons is all he needs.
“John, I presume?”
“You presume correctly.”
John senses the danger the man before him poses, yet he doesn’t make a move. His hand doesn’t tense along the revolver’s handle.
“You’re the one who’s come for Varlyn?”
The man in the suit tips his head back.
“Keep going the way you’re going and you’ll be there in two miles.”
John eyes the men that stand behind the stranger. Veins bulge atop the back of their hands as massive fingers wrap around the rifles they hold.
“You two friends?”
The man smiles. “Varlyn doesn’t have friends. Consider us business associates.”
“The kind of business Varlyn deals in?”
“Exactly, just less dirty work.”
John’s finger curves around the trigger guard of his weapon.
“I feel I should probably kill you.”
The man in the suit lets out a hearty laugh and shakes the shoulders of his guards. He returns the top hat to its resting place.
“Maybe you should—”
The man draws the golden watch from his pocket and checks the time.
“—but I have a schedule to keep. As do you, I imagine.”
He offers John a slight curtsey and sets on his way. The guards that follow him don’t pay John a second glance.
“I wish you luck, kid. Give the old dog a good last fight for me.”
* * *
John stands in the midst of the desolate plains. The house lays far ahead, a speck in the distance. High above, the clouds have left the sky. The sun shines down bright.
John lifts the rifle from his back. He removes his canteen next, snapping the straps and letting them hang. He unscrews the cap and drains the last of the water, the cool drink soothing his parched throat. He lets the empty container fall. The final drops dampen the burning sand. He slings the rifle back around his shoulder and stands once more, continuing on towards the shelter.
The soft sounds of his boots hitting the earth echo in his ears, a quiet tap against his focused mind. A second set joins them. John does not turn with revolver drawn and poised to fight. Instead, he continues on. His father’s voice rises from behind.
"This where it ends?" the figure asks, its shadow cast beside John’s own.
"And where does that leave you?"
"It leaves me exactly where I need to be."
The building takes shape in the distance, inching closer with every step. Specks of movement, guards and their horses, navigate the perimeter, tracing a path around the house. The Tall Man must be there.
A large patch of dried grass rises from the dirt and spreads out before John. He sinks to his knees, undoing the straps of the rifle and letting them fall away. The bed shifts underneath to wrap his form. He reaches up and draws bullets from the strap across his chest, sliding them one by one into the breech. His father kneels behind him. The metal of his spurs clinks as he steps against the earth. John snaps the rifle shut.
"What will you do when it's over?" his father asks.
"Whatever I can."
"And if you die here?"
John tightens his hand against the butt of the weapon. His father continues, voice barely above a whisper.
"Do you really think you can survive this? Even if you do succeed, what will it accomplish?"
"It will mean that Varlyn breathes no more. He must be ended."
The form shakes its head and lays a hand on John's shoulder.
"In the end we all fade to dust."
"But for some the dust comes quicker than others, either by their choice or the choice of another. I would rather my end come on my own terms," John replies. His eyes begin to cloud. He wipes them with the back of his hand.
Tears spill down the side of John’s cheek. He starts to shake but grabs hold of himself, cursing and pounding his chest. The fear threatens to take over, to swallow him, but soon dies as he closes his eyes and whispers to the earth, to God, to whomever may listen, to free him from its hold.
"Dying is no way to see her again."
"No. No it's not. It's a sweet temptation but it’s not. However, in the end, if that's how I fare, then at least it will be over. That's all that matters."
John raises the rifle to his chest and begins his slow crawl forward. He does not glance back upon his father’s form for he knows it has already gone.
* * *
The Tall Man sits propped up against the side of the bed, wounds sealed tight with string and bound by cloth. No blood flows from them. He glances towards Hanson who sits across the room and leans back in an old rocking chair, legs resting atop a nearby dresser.
"Who was she?" the doctor asks.
"The woman in the picture."
The Tall Man glances off to the side. His pistols hang mere feet away, dangling in their holsters from a makeshift hat rack attached to the wall. Atop the beaten nightstand sits the framed picture of John's mother, shining and untouched by dust or print. Her beauty burns forth, enrapturing him to this day. He reaches out, careful not to tilt his head or twist his back, grabs hold of the frame, and places it in his lap.
"She was just a girl," he replies.
"She must have meant something to you."
The Rider shakes his head. His fists close tight around the frame, threatening to crack the glass.
"What does it matter? Why do you care, Hanson? What possible reason would you have to delve into my life? I have no desire to discuss my past and you should know this; I would kill you the minute you learned even my name."
"I'll take the risk. I care about my patients, even ones like you, and this woman, whoever she is, obviously meant something, obviously comforts you. That is something every man should understand," Hanson says, dropping his feet to the ground and leaning forward.
"She was just a whore. Just a whore and nothing else."
Hanson stands and approaches his patient.
"No. No, she was special, that I can tell. Even the cruelest man can feel love for something. It would do you well to talk about her."
The Tall Man draws his weapon, his movement blurred from his speed, and fires once. A hole appears in the wall, inches from Hanson's head. The doctor stands still, not flinching or covering his face.
From outside the room men shout. Their footsteps echo through the thin walls as they race to their master. A flurry of beats arise against the door.
"Sir, is everything alright?" one of the guards shouts, voice cracked with terror.
The Tall Man remains still, weapon trained on the doctor. Suddenly, his face changes from its blank mask. A smile splays across his lips, but this is not one of cruelty and contempt, rather something pure. It passes in an instant.
The Tall Man lowers his arm, shoving the weapon back into its holster. He calls out to the guard on the other side of the door.
"Everything is fine. Go back to your post."
The voices die and the two men are left to the emptiness. Hanson takes a seat beside the Rider. The Tall Man loosens his hold on the picture, staring deep into his love's eyes. He speaks slowly, focus never shifting from the frame.
"She was a whore, on that I did not lie, but she was not like the others, did not belong among them. We met many years ago. I fell in love with her. I think in some way she did love me back, I have to believe that, but she was never meant to be mine. I knew that to be so but it did not stop me. She ended up in the arms of a good friend of mine and I forever cursed her for that, forever cursed the man she loved; cursed him and his kin."
The Tall Man rubs his hand across the spotless glass.
"We could have been friends, perhaps, but it was not to be. My actions guaranteed that. She was just a girl, a girl who I cared for, and I ended up destroying her the same way I have destroyed so many others. I am poison, it is true. I am sorrow and tragedy in all its many forms and my touch killed her as well. Maybe not by gunfire or steel, but it killed her."
He sets the frame back on the nightstand and stares at it a moment longer before pushing it down, the glass turned to the wood. He glances up at Hanson. His eyes shine with unfalling tears.
"Make no mistake, my friend, I am an evil man."
The sound of gunfire bursts forth outside. Shouts and screams and curses rise in the air. Hanson crosses the room and tugs open the curtain that blocks the window. He looks back at his patient. He has no words. The Tall Man closes his eyes.
"I think it would be best if you left, Hanson. My sins have caught up with me, and they’ll destroy everything in their path."