Animal (The Final Chapter - Part 3)
John rises from the grass, his rifle steady and aim true. Two guards stand outside the building turned away from him. Several more must wait within. The fight will not be easy. The men will be trained and ready to kill. Then there will be Varlyn himself. He casts all fear away. He is ready. Air hisses through clenched teeth. His finger tightens around the trigger. He fires the first shot.
The side of the closest guard's head bursts open, spraying blood and bone across his partner. The Rider draws his weapon without hesitation, his face stained fresh with blood, not bothering to wipe the gore away. He steps down from the porch and fires wildly in John’s direction. Bullets kick up dirt around John, biting and tearing at the earth. The man is not focused, does not take the time to react. John has all the time he needs. He lets off his second shot.
The bullet catches the man in the stomach. He sinks forward only to have a second shot fling him backwards into the dirt. John lets the rifle fall and draws both his revolvers. They shine with the glory wrought from battle. They await blood. They shall have it.
John advances with one weapon trained upon the fallen man, the second scanning the windows of the house. A curtain drifts back and the form of a man in white cloth emerges from the dark. John sets his aim on the man but does not fire. He holds no weapon. The curtain closes and John returns his focus on the rotted doorframe ahead.
Shouts of fury emerge from inside the house as he approaches. The second guard lays groaning on his back. Blood paints his lips. His eyes widen as John passes. His hand slides to his weapon.
John fires into the man's face without breaking his stride. He continues onward, mounting the steps and pressing his back against the side of the house. He holsters his second pistol and frees his right. He reaches forward, wrapping his hand around the knob of the door and inching it open.
A blast of gunfire strikes the doorframe, blowing it back and showering the ground with debris. John swerves for cover. His Stetson drops. He leans in with back pressed against the wood and arm extending past the doorway. He fires two blind shots and rounds the corner, passing through the entrance.
A Rider stands in the hallway. He lets off a shot that catches John in the shoulder and buries deep. John curses and pulls the trigger, catching the man in the throat. The Rider sinks to his knees, gurgling and clutching his wound. Life spurts through his fingers. John fires again into his chest and he drops.
John dives into the nearest doorway and scans the room, drawing his second revolver once more. Eight shots remain between the two. The house is silent.
He’s entered the kitchen. A pot of stew boils atop an iron stove, bubbling over and filling the air with steam. He crosses the room to the next door. His spurs jangle as they tap against the wood. John wipes his watering eyes. Still no sound. He cocks his hammer, hoping to draw a reaction from anyone who may be listening. It works.
A flurry of shots burrow their way through the door tearing holes in the wooden frame and shattering the window beyond. John waits for pause then steps in front of the door and fires twice from the revolver in his left hand. The chamber clicks dry and he replies with four more rounds from the second. Beyond the doorway a body hits the floor. John kneels and peaks through the holes created by the shots. A fourth Rider lies motionless in a puddle of blood. John breathes out and lowers his weapon. The beating of another set of boots rises from behind. He turns round, realizing too late his mistake.
The Rider breaks through the door where John entered, his weapon already drawn. John steps forward. The Rider fires first.
John flies back from the force of the blast, the bullet buried in his stomach. He gasps in pain and drops his empty weapon, pressing a hand to his gut to stop the flow. He fires with his second, hitting the man through the wrist, tearing clean through. The Rider shrieks in pain as blood sprays from burst veins. He drops his gun and falls upon John before he can take another shot, lifting him like a ragdoll and hurling him across the kitchen into the broken window. John drops from the pane and onto the counter, shards of glass buried in his back.
John rolls from the countertop, kicking out and catching the man's ankle. The guard drops to his knees, ducks the next swing, and buries his fist in John's wound. John screams in fury, spitting and cursing, his vision blurring from the pain. He shoves the Rider away and stumbles back against the stove. The Rider draws his second weapon and fires into John's leg. Bone splinters under the skin.
John crumples to the ground clutching his ruined limb. The Rider advances, laughing and lowering his weapon. He places his heel against John's leg and digs his spur into the wound. John shrieks, his free leg flailing out to no effect. He grabs hold of the pot atop the stove, hand burning red from the heat, and hurls it forward, showering the Rider’s face with boiling water. The man falls to the side and lets out an inhuman scream, face bubbling and eyes burned black. He reaches blindly for a weapon.
John drops to his enemy’s side, placing his knee against his back to keep him steady. He locks his arms around the man's throat and jerks back. With a crunch the Rider’s neck snaps and he falls limp against John's hold. John lets the man drop.
He drags himself across the floor, leaving several trails of blood in his wake, and scoops up his guns, sliding the empty one into its holster. He rises on shaking legs. The shattered bone shifts under his weight and he trips against the wall. A whimper escapes his lips. He pushes against the sides of the structure, moving beyond the door and to the stairs. Nothing meets him. No sounds. No whispers. No clink of spur against wood. Everyone is dead.
"Varlyn!" John screams as he stumbles up the stairs, holding the railing for support.
Blood trickles from his wounds and spills to the ground below. Drops of blood patter with every step he takes.
John mounts the final stair. His body shakes but this time it’s not from fear. He breathes through clenched teeth, spitting out the sweat that runs down his skin, ignoring the pain and burying his hand against his gut.
"Face me, you bastard!"
A single door remains shut. John makes his way down the hallway. His head spins, temples pound with each step. He places his pale hand against the knob and waits. Voices arise from the other side.
John clutches his weapon in one bloodstained hand. He does not bother to reload. The chamber holds only one bullet. That will be all he gets to use. All he will need.
John braces himself against the door, shaking his head to clear his sight. He pushes forward and swings it open, pistol raised, ready to end the hunt.
The Tall Man lies upright in his bed. Hanson stands beside him. He holds one of The Tall Man's pistols raised up awkwardly and pointed in John's direction. John trains his weapon on the doctor but keeps his eyes focused on the wounded Rider.
"Get back!" Hanson warns.
His hands shake violently as he cocks the hammer, unsure of what to do. His glasses slip down to the tip of his nose. He pulls them from his face with his free hand and stuffs them into his pocket.
"Drop the gun," John says, struggling to stand on trembling legs.
"I won't have any more violence in this house."
"I don't intend violence upon anyone but the man you're guarding. Drop the gun."
Hanson lets out a nervous laugh.
"Hasn't there been enough killing? How many men are dead downstairs?"
"All of them. Drop the gun, I only want him," John replies. He takes a step forward.
"What will killing him accomplish? No, I won't move."
"Let it go, Hanson."
Hanson turns towards The Tall Man, sees the resolve in his patient’s face. There is nothing more he can do.
"What?" he asks.
"This has been a long time coming, now it's here. Your presence will mean just another grave to be dug. Drop the gun."
The Tall Man points to the floor. Hanson nods blankly and lets the weapon fall.
"Leave the room and close the door."
The doctor collects his bag without another word. He passes by John and opens the door, glancing back only once. The Tall Man nods. Hanson shuts the door and passes on, his footsteps rising through the house. The front door slams shut and he is gone.
John makes his way forward, pulling back the chair where Hanson sat and letting his knees give way. The roaring wind fades, the sound of rocks beating against the walls. Only he and The Tall Man remain. The Rider shifts against his pillow.
"So this is it," he says.
"Not the way you pictured your end?"
"No. No, it's exactly the way I pictured my end, but even when it is our time we often fail to accept it."
"Learn to accept it quickly because I'm giving you ten seconds."
The Tall Man chuckles. He scans John, eyes moving from one wound to the next. A puddle of blood forms under the chair. John shivers beneath his clothes.
"You're looking well," the Rider says.
From beyond the window the sun begins to die.
"It's not as satisfying as you might have hoped, is it?" The Tall Man asks.
"I never thought it would be."
The Tall Man leans to the side and extends his arm. John raises his pistol, ready to fire. The Tall Man shakes his head. His hand moves past the hanging holsters and closes around the framed picture of John's mother. He pulls it to his chest.
"She was beautiful," he says.
"She was my mother, she never cared for you."
The picture slips from the Rider’s grasp and clatters to the floor. The framed glass shatters.
"You're wrong, John. She loved me with all her heart, just as she loved your father."
"Whether that is true or not, you destroyed whatever you may have had. It's your nature."
"True," The Tall Man replies. He closes his eyes.
The silence surrounds them now. Neither man speaks. The soft patter of John's dripping blood is all that remains. John trains his revolver on the injured Rider. He breathes erratic, eyes fluttering like the wings of a trapped bird, and adjusts his grip on the silver weapon, its handle stained with his blood.
The Tall Man speaks, eyes still shut. "What are you waiting for? Do it."
John pulls the trigger and fires into his chest. The sound of the gunshot rises through the house and out to the world. The Tall Man opens his eyes, focused on the ceiling but seeing something else, something more. His smile fades and he breathes out, his chest shuddering with effort. A rattle escapes his lips. His hands relax. The breath ends and he draws no more.
John sits back. His pistol clatters to the floor. The world continues moving and everything returns. Wind howls in the distance.
John rises with great effort. He feels no pain. His hand falls from his wound. With a snap, he undoes his belt and lets the second revolver join its twin.
* * *
Far off, miles from this place, a slave holds his family, lost to him for so many years, again. He cries.
A child sits in church dressed in new clothes. He holds a bible close to his chest, his life begun anew. He prays for the man who saved him.
In a world full of fire breathers, luck sellers, contortionists and giants, a couple prepares to bring a child into the fray.
Two men, father and son, tend bar. A beautiful painting of a young girl hangs above their heads. Business is good.
An uncle holds his nephew close in one arm, his free hand touching that of a widowed woman. Their eyes meet.
The world goes on.
* * *
John sinks to the ground, his back against the beam that holds the porch roof up. He does not see the dead men that surround him. They are gone from his sight. The sun drifts towards the horizon spilling out waves of orange and gold across the sky. He bleeds no more. His clothes are healed. The land thrives. Plants and trees sprout forth. Cool water flows. Life spreads before him. The sound of footsteps meets his ears.
Rose approaches with his child in her arms. His father waits in the distance, mother at his side. His brother, broad grin plastered on his face, waves wildly. Jane, the child from the oil fields, Paul; they all stand before him. Light fills the world despite the sinking of the sun.
John’s love sits beside him. She rests her head on his shoulder. He takes his child in his arms and kisses her lips. Together they stare out towards the sun. Warmth begins to spread through his body.
They do not fade away. He does not return to the desert. No dream this time. He holds his child close and watches as all the people he loved surround him. He closes his eyes and breathes.