I've heard talk of those men what got lovin' wife and kids. Lovin' dog and home. Never met one, but I heard talk. No, all I ever met are men like me. Men to afraid to whip their boy lest they grow to be a killin' man. Men like me who try to hide their faults in a long neck bottle and keep them their to stay. Ya see, where I come from, you either quick or your dead. But, no matter how quick you are, you can't run from who you're born to be.
Time has done me poorly, so I decided to do him the same. I shoulda died years ago, but I won't let it happen. A hot wind and dust clouds have been the only guests for years til today. I don't count the dead crops. The moisture on my lips dries away, leaves em cracked and flaked, as I try to stomach the first flesh and blood visit I've had in a long, long while. It speaks.
"Daddy... Daddy, I missed you. I missed you real bad."
Yep. The boy I raised so right I raised him wrong. Protected. Sheltered. Weak. He's got his father's Western cluck in his voice, and not much else. It speaks some more.
"Now, look... I know you got nothing you owe me. I know I don't deserve a thing from you..."
"What trouble are you in, son...?"
I cut him off. Even in the dimmed candle light I can see the sharp pain shoot through his face. Why else would he come home after all this time?
"Daddy... I did bad things... A lotta bad things... To women... But, I realize you was right..."
The whimpers. The tears. How old is he now? Thirty? Thirty-five? The heat keeps my clothes damp enough to remind me constantly how uncomfortable I am. I don't need his sobbing making it any worse.
"What trouble are you in, boy..."
His face goes quiet. No point in sorries now...
"There... There's a man what I wronged... Him and his boys is tailin me..."
For a second, my brow dries up and my lips moisten a bit. I know where this is headed.
"Daddy... I never shoulda left home. Hurt ya like I done... You and mama..."
"Don't speak a word about your mama, boy!"
Slipped. Don't let him see you get that angry again, Old Timer. Stick to the issues you got at hand, then send him on his way.
"How many men are tailin you?"
"Only three of em, Daddy! Only three..."
The stressed excitement in that boy's voice - "Only three." I should hand him a gun and kick him out for good. "Only three." The tension around the table tells me he wants me to kill em. And, I'm an old man now. Not a killin' man no longer.
"I begged em for forgiveness... just like mama taught me. But, Daddy, these ain't good men. No one'll miss em. I just thought that if you went back to how you were in the old days... back when you were a... a... I mean these are wicked men, Daddy."
A worm of a man. This is my bloodline. I feel my guts curdle and roll over just lookin at him. I gotta look away. Make the silent excuse of rollin and lightin up a cigarette, and taking one heavy drag.
"If you ain't man enough to ask me straight out what you're after... you ain't man enough to have it done."
"Daddy... I just... I need you to..."
A boy who can't even say the words. And he's mine.
"You want me to murder them. Three boys, because you say I should... right?"
"Daddy... I feel like I might..."
"You want me to clean up your dirty dishes. That it, son?"
I feel the blood fill my face. A vein throbs in my forehead. Rattles my bones. Here come the tears.
"Daddy, I'm so sorry I hurt you!"
Can't tell what's tears and what's snot. But he's makin plenty of both.
"I never shoulda left you! You're the only one I got in the world now, Daddy! I know you don't love me no more... I'll pay you. Whatever you want, just please help me! I don't wanna die!"
He lunges like he wants me dead. Squeezes me like he wants my dinner. I buckle.
"Be eased, son. Daddy will make it all better. Be eased now..."
I'm a weaker man than I thought. I been fighting to keep the beast inside so I could just wrinkle and die in a natural way. Way a man ought. But, I'm a Daddy and I buckled. Time to open the cage. One last time.
"Boy... I'm doin you a favor and I need one in return."
"Anything! Whatever you want, Daddy, I'll get it. You want money?"
"No, son... I don't want your money. Just, when I face these men I want you to hide in the bathroom... and while you're in there, the whole time, I want you to look at the mirror. That's all. Nothing else."
Yep... I can see he don't get it.
"Daddy, I don't-"
"Do as I say, son. Hands on the sink. Look at that mirror. Nothing else."
I head up to my room. Son says they'll be here at dawn. I look in MY mirror and I see it. The Reaper. This'll be my swan song. My final ride. That boy'll be alone come lunchtime tomorrow. I don't know how long he'll survive after that.
Dusty old closet of mine. Too long since I opened it. Even in the black, where I don't know what's where, the smell is strong whip me back to those dirty days. The killin days. I roll another cigarette and use it to light my candle. Time to get ready. Ready for my closing charge. My final lesson to my boy.
My old duster. That old merc long coat kept many a ranger shootin at its tail instead of my belly. My old rider's hat. Dusty and patched like I just picked it up off the battlefield. Kept many a man guessin where my eyes was lookin to shoot, and never lettin em know to soon. Moan and Lucille - the two redwood hilt pistols General Rowan had made for me after I killed a whole Apache village what was stealing his units water supply by night cover. Both eight shooters. The extra bullets always catch em by surprise. Neither never locked up once either. Beauties. My silver repeater rifle. Double barrel shotgun. And two mason jars full of gunpowder, one each stuck in a kettle half filled with oil. Overkill? Yessir. But, I'm an old man now. Moana and Lucille are likely to break my wrists with a single shot. Been years. Probably cobwebs in their barrels. Poor girls. The attention'll hold em over for a good long while.
Time to get to work. I set the shotgun up as a rig at the stair railing near the door. All I gotta do is run in, close the door shut, and hook the trigger to the door handle. String runs up over the door in case it gets kicked in and not opened. Either way, it'll fire. Sap who follows me gets a chestful of buckshot. Don't forget, Old Man. I run some fuse through the jar lids and out the mouth of the kettle's. Dirty trick. You light it and launch it far as you can. The impact shatters the jar, and you got injuns or whoever full of glass and iron. Picked it up from a mounty lost along the Mississippi. Overkill. But, everything's ready.
No sleep tonight. The boy takes the bed. I sit. All night. Sit and let my blood boil and my anger toward my worm boy brew and make me the mean son of a bitch I have to be to empty what's left of my soul into taking three lives. Then comes the dawn.
The boy jumps up.
"Ah! Daddy!Daddy, it's them!"
"Hush up, son. To the bathroom. Look at that mirror. I'll come get you when it's over."
The stairs are louder today. Must be my senses, filled on that red killin fuel. Makes me aware. Good. I check the shotgun rig again. Remember to rig it, Old Timer. Hook it when you get inside. Say it again. And again. And again. Remember. Don't forget. The door's lighter than usual. Good. Old strength coming back. In my doorway one of the funniest lookin fellas what ever walked the earth, I swear. Greasy, slicked back, jet black hair. Big, circle lens glasses what made his eyes look bigger than his face. A dirty white blouse lookin shirt, with a brown leather vest, draped over by a black long coat. Young guy. Too skinny. And no pistol. A killin man with no shooter? That ain't the scariest part. Behind him? Fourteen of the meanest lookin dogs of men I ever saw. Each one armed to the teeth. That boy best hope this kills me, or I'll kill him myself. Fifteen men total. The odd speaks with that solid Kentucky gentlemen's twang.
"Good morning, sir! And how are you on this finest of country mornings?"
Stunning. This is the man what wants to kill my son?
"Can I help you?"
"Well, I believe you can, kind sir! My colleagues and I have certain business we must tend to concerning a former associate of ours taking lodge in your most pristine of humble abodes."
All of em look mean enough to off a wife and kids without blinking. Cept the spokesman. Gotta swallow a lump in my throat to make room for words.
"Move along, boys. Any wrong my son has done you, he's begged forgiveness from, and I've forgiven him. So there's no business to be done here."
"HahaHA! I'm afraid it won't be that easy, Old Timer. Ya see? He took something from me, something that can't be given back. So, we figured we would return the favor."
Some of his dogs cock their guns. The Leader shows his yellowed teeth and browned gums. This isn't a scare.
"Well, I returned it for you. The boy's forgiven. Now like I say, move along."
The Leader's face churned. He spat and raved on.
"A man after my own heart - as they say in this fine state. A man of family! A bond that can't be broken."
This man is silly. He's got no gun. But, his eyes. Like pale stones that don't shimmer or glaze. The kind you get when the only love you got left is vengeance.
"Would you like to know what you're boy took from me?"
Quick and heavy. It hit me like a sack of bricks dropped on my gut. I raised my boy to weak. He wasn't a killin man. Not many sins worth avenging apart from killin. I hadn't asked, and now I can't remember if that was on purpose or just my old mind forgetting. I didn't wanna know my boy's trespass.
"I have no interest in sins past-"
"He took away the innocence... of my seven year old daughter..."
My worm boy. My flesh and blood. I shoulda raised him to kill. The look on my face must've looked like a hand drawn map to Hell. Swallow the vomit, Old Man. Don't let em see it. My son. He deserves to die. More than any of these men, he deserves it. My little boy.
"Let's just kill him!"
A voice from out in the field shot over the Leader.
"Be quiet! This man won't be hurt. He's an innocent. And, I can see now that he feels the same way about his son as we do."
He's right. He's got those eyes for good reason. And, I'm old. This? It just makes me too sick. Can't do anything more than stand. I tried to rush the thoughts of my boy diseasing an innocent little girl with his evil from my head. But, I am overwhelmed.
"Let us pass, Old Timer. We mean you no harm. From what I hear, my daughter wasn't the only child he hurt. We all know he abandoned you and your wife. He bragged about it nonstop. All the money stole up from the both of you. Called her a birdy old fool of a whore. His own mama. Let us deal with him in our own way. We won't do it here. We'll take him far away and you'll be done with his wicked nature forever. You can even tell yourself he's run off again, just like before, only he's not comin back to burden you with his faults. If you are even half the man you appear to be, you won't be able to sleep at night knowing his sin's have gone unpunished. He's not worth dying over. Just think... No more of his dirty dishes. How does that sound?"
Silence. My head's gone cole, but my heart's heating my chest like it's got fever. I see the dog's lick their chops. Anxious to kill. So am I. The boy deserves it.
"That... sounds fair..."
"Again! I say, 'A man after my own heart!' A just one! A reasonable one! Boys?"
My single word puts thirty knees to quake. The man from Kentucky looks more scared than the rest.
"But... He's my son."
Stunned. Taken back. I don't know enough words to describe the company I faced.
"Your... Your son? Listen here, Old Man! The boy dies today! You can pas with him if that suits you best, but if you don't stand aside, we'll have to move you. And the boys don't play nice."
Don't budge, Old Timer. Don't let em know how scared you are. How shaky. Don't even breathe.
"*Sigh* Shame to see you go. Shame to see such a good man cursed with suck evil seed. Boys?"
The rest of the weapons cock.
Test time, Old Man. Two of the biggest boys step forward. One with a magnum with a barrel what looked like it belonged on a rifle, and the other with a single shotgun. I play the helpless old daddy hand. And I play it well. Let the fear shake your hands, just til they get close enough. Let your hands miss Moana and Lucille a few times.
"Oh, this is gonna be fun."
The shot gun bully said. The moment was perfect. Couldn't have planned a full family Thanksgiving better. They drew closer. I said the line. I couldn't help myself.
"Yes... It is."
Quick draw! Moana and Lucille are light but kick like cannons. Regardless, my wrists don't snap. My shots don't miss. Two less ugly faces to look at. The Leader gets mad.
"Tear the house down! Kill them both!"
I dash back inside and kick the door closed. I was supposed to remember something...
The shotgun! Rig it, Old Timer. Quick! Wood chips fly from the door as some idle shots pass through. Throw the rig just in time, and shoot out a window to draw them in. Thirteen of em left. Long road. I head up the stairs.
Door just got kicked in. Planned for that. Twelve of em left now. No upper half left of the guy who did the kickin. One shell still left in that shot gun. Remember that, Old Man. Remember. The men are moving slower now. Scared of traps. I shoot a few rounds at the doorway to keep em at bay and reload. For a second or two there's no movement at all. Complete peace. Calm. Then I hear the word "Now!" from outside and six of em blast in and spread out. I fire wildly at two I choose to pick. Too late. They all know where I am now. Gotta get into my bedroom. I move fast, let the duster get in the air. Distract em. Firing wild shots behind me, I hear one stick a man's neck. You don't ever forget that sound. Wind through the duster. Perfect. That's why it's so long. The railing of the stair is just going up in bits and pieces. Sticking in the wall paper. Some in my legs. Don't worry about it, Pa. No good to worry. Roll into the bedroom. Remember, you put the kettles on the bed. Now's the best time. You're too old to keep up a firefight for long. Gotta keep em away from the bathroom. This'll do the trick. Book of matched in my left pocket. I light a kettle and lob it out the window. Light an already rolled cigarette I had on my night stand while I'm at it. Oh, how I miss the old days. The explosions are louder than I remember. I dash to the broken glass to see the damage. Two men legless. One wounded to where he can't stand. He's crawling away. The Leader is on his knees, but don't look to bad. That would put eight in the house. Gotta get em while they're not oriented. Confused. Give em that surprise. Gotta keep em from the bathroom. The boy hasn't learned his lesson yet. I kick open my room door and fire a rifle shot. A puff of red mist rises from a shorter man's shoulder, while my duster flag whips back in the room like some crazed gunslinging matador blanket. Gotta make this fast. Remember, you're old. Make it fast, but don't break yourself. I jump out the window and roll off the balcony roof. Hit the ground on one knee and charge the front door, before the man from Kentucky outside has enough time to yell to his boys. I pull the shotgun from the rigging and fire the second shot at a man on the stairs. Destroyed him. Not much left. The guy behind him doesn't have the stomach for this. He can wait. One of the boys is headin near the bathroom. Guess they figured they could kill my son easier than me, so I throw the empty shotgun at him. Hit him in the back of the head. Knock him down and out. Easy kill. Splinters shoot off of the dining room door. Boy holed himself up in there, I take it. So, I shoot through the wall. Catch him off guard. I hear him fall. Remember to check that kill later, Old Timer. How many are left? Four? Maybe five. I'm moving up stairs again as fast as I can without breaking. A barrel stick outa my room and opens fire. Cursed Old Man. You quit paying attention. Cost you a couple fingers. I drop Lucille. I'll be back for you, darling. Don't you worry. Don't worry about the fingers, Old Man. Charge the shots. Scare him. Shoot back. I empty Moana into him. There's another behind him. Gotta pull the repeater. Quick.
Too slow. I take another shot. To the shoulder this time. It pushes me over the railing. The crash is enough to tell the whole house where I am. I land right next to a boy, and without even thinking, blast his face off. There are those old killin reflexes. Shot shoulder. Missing fingers. Still took him before he could even know he was in danger. Get up, Pa. Gotta get back up stairs. Gotta end this. The man above is shooting holes in the floor. Hoping he'll hit something, I spose. I fire back with the repeater, but grab Lucille on the way back up. Angle at the top of the steps is too odd. Can't see him. Think fast. Shoot the second kettle. Get some oil out of it. Then light the whole book and smoke him out. I shoot the kettle, light the book, and charge. Poor guy musta got oil in his eyes. He was too busy worrying about seeing to shoot at the sound of me. I threw the matchbook and dashed back quick as I could. Hope the duster doesn't catch. Calm again. Then the storm.
Everything's quiet now. Getting louder. Just a long silver sounding tone. Ringing. Louder. Can't hear nothing else. Ah, I feel the glass and iron now. All over my side. I slip in the blood. Get yourself up, Old Man. Get yourself up. Too hard. Take time. Gotta check the house. Probably on fire. All I got left is some ammo in the repeater rifle. I stand slow. Shake all over. Gotta search the house. I think I killed em all.
The boys in the bedroom are definitely dead. Can't even see em no more. The boy at the bottom of the steps and at the door way. Four dead. Downstairs. One in the dining room. I put lead in his brain just in case. Five dead. The one in the hallway is dead. Six. The one underneath the stairs when I fell makes seven, the two blown up outside makes nine and the two dead at the beginning makes eleven. One crawling outside that can't stand and the Leader's got no pistol. That leaves two... Must be quiet. I hear only the fire crackle upstairs. The house won't be up much longer. Clear it out. Only place they can be is near the bathroom. The bathroom with your son in it, Old Man.
Sneak. Be quiet, like you once were. Too old. Bad knees. Cramps. Can't get down low. A loud clang. A pain in my back. Before I know it, I'm on my knees. But, before I hit the ground I spin and fire a shot into a young boy's head. Just a kid. He shot first. Fourteen. One left. Get up. Check the bathroom. The door's gotta shot gun hole in it. Bad sign. It swings open too easy. Empty. No one looking at the mirror. They got him. Got him outside. Hurry, Old Timer. I rush out the door.
No one but the Leader on his knees and the one crawling away. So, I walk up nice and lose to that crawling boy, and blast his head away. Then I walk up to the Leader. On his knees. Has been since the first kettle blew. Poor fool's a father, not a soldier. Not a ranger. Or an outlaw. Just a father.
"What is wrong with you, Old Man? Why protect that worm? He's a thief! A liar! A rapist! He hates you! What do you have left?"
I hear a door creak behind me. No time to think. Reflex. I spin and fire. I put a bullet right in his eye. The red in my face makes it hard to see. The boy falls to his knees and I hear it.
He falls. Forever. The Leader's still got things to say.
"Hahahahaha.... Oh, my! A slip of the trigger? Or are you really a just man after all...? Your boy. He did alota wicked things, but he never killed a man. So, what kinda man does that make you? Hahahahaaaaa...."
I run up to him. I look nice and close. It's him. My boy. My evil worm son. And, I know at this moment, I loved him. Love him. Despite what he is. Was. And, I don't know why. Blood and tears run down my face. Hot and cold. The Leader is still laughing behind me. I walk up to him slow. I put a bullet in his brain.
How old's a dog got to be before he can't learn tricks no more? How many brittle bones has he got to break before he just learns to quit trying? When you're a man like me, you fall and you take your whole world with you. When you're a killin' man. A killer born.