the man most responsible

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what it means to be a man

Submitted: December 20, 2016

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Submitted: December 20, 2016



The Man Most Responsible

Orin Rook


A man and his wife are traveling west on a dirt road, closely pursued by a trail of dust which becomes displaced by the kick of heavy hooves. The particles of which fly into the air before resettling next to the grains with whom they had once formed a stone, a boulder, a mountain.  The woman is delicate with hands that could only be touched gingerly, as though they might wither away like the wings of a butterfly.  Her eyes are shimmering emeralds which never dull, not even in the light of the moon.  She is a flower you might expect to wilt out here in the arid desert, but her roots draw life from a source more precious than water: the man who holds her close as he steers the horses. 

They are not bound by rings of gold, having given them up for a chance at a new life.  He told her that which binds him to her is far stronger than any metal and she believes this with no second thoughts.  He is like the face of a cliff, undaunted by the endless onslaught of waves crashing upon him, standing tall and unflinching against the unjust.  His face is one carved of stone, usually expressionless but her ever-glowing presence reveals cracks and crevasses in his façade which turn to canyons, expressing an incredible depth only she can ever bring to light.  They were perhaps synonymous with the phrase “as god intended”.

As the sun turned from gold to bronze they came upon a crossroad. It didn’t matter there were no signs, for west was their direction.  They decided to camp here for the night and as the stars poked holes in the black, they lay cradled in each other’s arms.  As was their tradition they stared together at a singular star, until they could not see any others and fell asleep. 

She never awoke.  The man remembers a glint of moonlight caught for a second on the silver barrel of a revolver.  A demand to put their hands up.  Reaching for his own rifle.  A series of flashes.  A bullet through his chest.  Falling.  Watching scarlet flow from her head.  The parched grounded gulping greedily the droplets, though they bore no life to nourish.  Shimmering emeralds being dropped down a bottomless pit, lost in its depths, treasured no longer.

And then, sometime later although how long he knew not, boots of a sleek crimson.  They kicked him on his back.  The figure wore a three piece suit of regal purple.  Its pale skin was indistinguishable from the moon light which enshrouded it.  Its face unrecognizable as human, the features seeming to change shapes seamlessly like oil upon water, swirling and breaking apart, reforming as hideous shadows.  When the figure spoke its words seemed to be exhaled in one drawn out breath, collecting in silky clouds like tobacco smoke, hovering a moment before dissipating as though they had never been there at all.

“I reckon the only real justice is that which a man takes into his own hand.”  The man said nothing, trailing his fingers down his chest to the hole where his heart had been.  “I can give you that justice.”

The man lay there continuing to say nothing, feeling nothing.

“She’s a pretty thing, a treasure unlike any in this world or the next.”  The figure made no motion towards her, it didn’t have to.  The man’s chest began to burn.  “Don’t you feel robbed?” 

The fire in his chest grew hotter.  “Seems to me a man of true justice might want to stop this from happening again.”  The flames rose and licked heatedly at his lips, but still he held back.  “These men ain’t gonna get caught, these men gonna do it again."

"I’m dead!” the man screamed.

“Dead men don’t talk,” the figure said, as a smile seemed to stretch the entire circumference of its face.  “Now you a man of justice ain’t you? Or you no man at all? Did they take that from you as well?” the figure asked.  The words seemed to slither like snakes crawling into the man’s ears and down into his depths, where their poison spread like wild fire.

“A man. A man of justice,” the man said hoarsely.

“I knew that, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” The man made to stand up.  “Oh partner, steady now. I’m a man of justice myself, I got my own laws you gotta follow. See there are rules to this,” it said, sliding to one knee beside him. The words carried upon them a hint of putrid sulfur.  “You got three days to find the man most responsible for this inhuman atrocity. Midnight three days from now the old hanging tree.”

As it spoke the words, mist from an unknown source seemed to appear and form in the shape of a decrepit tree which bore a noose swinging side to side hypnotically in the dead air.  “You bring the man and put this here bullet in his head,” it said, as it reached into the woman's skull and extracted a bullet still coated with ruby blood. It placed it into the chamber of a revolver whose barrel was engraved with twisting serpents.“You got one shot. Do you accept this proposition?”

“What if I’m wrong?” the man asked. “What if I get the wrong man?”

The figure twisted its face into a grotesque smile, as it flipped the revolver in the air catching the barrel and extending it to him.  “Then I get your soul.”  The man took the handle and stood silently for a moment before turning south on the road. Even though his feet felt cumbersome and dragged against the ground, he kicked up no dust. 

It was daylight when the man entered town.  He was covered in blood, which dried as hard and solid as scabs.  People seemed to pay him no mind, even though his chest had a gaping hole clean through, so that the shadow which stretched before him had one tiny pin point of light surrounded by blackness.  Whether by instinct or magnetism he was pulled towards the saloon.

He walked through the open door and into a room which contained an ancient chipped bar made of wood coated with fading polish.  The air was hazy with tobacco smoke and ripe with the putrid smell of sex and vomit.  As he sat at the bar the bandit strutted in and with a loud commanding voice placed his order to the bar, “Whiskey and beer chaser!”

The man recognized the voice instantly, the words “hands up” rang in his head like a cavernous echo.  He stood up and grabbed the bandit by the scruff of his shirt.  The bandit’s eyes opened wide with the shock of recognition as the man put the revolver to his head and pulled back on the hammer.

“Tell me why you are not the man most responsible,” he demanded.

“P-p-please,” he stuttered, tears in his eyes, “I have a family, there’s no honest money here. I gotta feed them. Please, I didn’t wanna kill nobody, I just got scared.” His head twisted about frantically, but the scene went unnoticed among the sparse patronage.

Realizing no one would help him, the bandit let out a sigh of defeat.  “I may have pulled the trigger, but the banker's the one who pointed the gun.  He got all the money, but he hoards it all for himself in that vault of his.  It’s his fault.”

The man dragged the bandit to the crossroads and tied him to the old hanging tree.

Night had fallen and day had risen when the man made it to the town again.  Again he walked among the residents like a ghost, making his way toward the only brick structure in town: the bank.

As he pushed his way inside, he was hit by a cool air, crisp as a freshly printed bill.  At the marbled counter with a partition of bronze bars there seemed to be a discrepancy.  A fat man in a black three piece suit stood across from a thin man in rags.

“I’m sorry Mr. Wright,”  the banker said in a sympathetic yet stern voice, “but it’s been six months. I have to take your farm.”

“But what will I get by on?” the farmer pleaded.

“I’m sorry, I will inspect the property tomorrow, if it seems like a wise investment I may keep it open under new management, you can still work there but only as a farm hand.”

The farmer swallowed hard.  “And if you decide it’s not?”

“I will sell your animals and get back what money I can.” The farmer began to weep as the banker turned to a young man in a black vest and bolo tie.

“Please see Mr. Wright out,” the banker said.  The man walked directly through the counter and grabbed the banker.

“Tell me why you are not the man most responsible,” he said, pointing the revolver at the bankers head and pulling back on the hammer.  The banker stared in surprise.

“W-wh-what?” the banker said, his voice quivering. His eyes made contact with the man’s, and suddenly the harsh features of shock rescinded into a look of understanding, as though he needed only that one moment to understand fully.  “The welfare of this town is a concern of mine.  I came here with nothing.  I built this business for my wife and children from the ground up.

“Why, my careful investment built this town from a population of 50 to 500.  If it wasn’t for me everyone’s money would be in the saloon's safe instead of mine.  I give people a chance to prosper, give loans to start businesses, it’s not my fault if they fail.

“I’m just a business man, I may have pointed the gun but it’s the sheriff who loaded it.  It’s his job to keep people honest, not mine.”  And so the man dragged the banker to the crossroads and tied him up next to the bandit at the old hanging tree.

The light of the third day shown brightly, as again the man slipped through town unseen by it’s many residents.  He made his way to the dingy jail.  The air inside felt like fire, tension and frustration raged across battle lines divided by wrought iron bars. The gazes from the two sides were deadly, intense, reminiscent of two ancient galleons side by side exchanging shot for shot as their hulls heaved against turbulent waves.  The volley had reached it’s peak.

A prisoner, red faced and straining as if to split the bars of his cage yelled, “I didn’t steal no horses, old Willy done lost them fair and square in a game of cards at the saloon, Rosemary done witness.”

The sheriff whipped the prisoners words back at him with a slightly more intense magnitude, “Rosemary, the whore I seen ridden one of them horses not one hour before I hauled you in?”

“That was fer services rendered goddamnit!  He done lost 'em, bet 'em on three aces he did, but I gone and whopped him with two pair aces high.”

The sheriff raised his eyebrows.  “Whose deck you playn’ with? I know old Willy done burnt his deck and vowed to never gamble again and become a good Christian like his momma.  I done seen it with my own eyes, yes sir.”  The deputy at the desk nodded his head in agreement.

“What dern difference it make whose deck it was?” the prisoner howled.

“Well Snake Eyes,” the sheriff said sauntering towards the bars, coolly as if moving his final piece into an irrefutable checkmate, “it do matter matter cause seems to me, by your own admission if ol Willy got three aces and you got two pair aces high that there is one to many aces, you agree deputy?” The deputy nodded confirmation.  “Way I reckon, cheatin’ is as good as stealin’.”

“Willy done do that, not me! You ain’t got a lick of proof!” Snake Eyes howled in frustration.  The levy broke just then and the flood waters surged as the sheriff punched Snake Eye's in the mouth with a closed fist.

“Just confess you bastard!”

The man had seen enough. He walked to the sheriff and grabbed him by the shirt collar.  The sheriff looked with wide terrified eyes.  The man put the gun to the sheriffs head and pulled back the hammer and said, “Tell me why you are not the one most responsible.”

And as with the banker and the bandit, as soon as the sheriff looked into the mans eyes he seemed to understand all.  “You see what I’m up against.  It’s war out there with just me and one deputy in a town of 500.  I can’t hardly uphold the law when citizens are as scared of me as bandits are.  Hell I can’t even prove a simple robbery!  Can you imagine if I threw everyone who ever got accused of something in jail, I’d have to build 500 new cells! Look, I may have loaded the gun, but the bandit is the one who pulled the trigger, it’s his fault!”  And with that the man hauled the sheriff to the crossroads and tied him next to the banker and the bandit at the old hanging tree. 

It was close to midnight on the third day.  The brightness of the orange moon illuminated the vast emptiness.  The man sat cross legged, arms folded across his chest.  Before him the gun rested upon the ground as his three captives wept quietly.  Above them the noose still swung rhythmically, perhaps eternally, as midnight greeted him in the form of vultures, staring like gargoyles from the branches of the old hanging tree. The figure stepped from the trunk as if it had been there unnoticed the whole time.

“It’s time.” The smell of sulfur which accompanied it’s words was toxic, overpowering.

“I don’t know,” the man said, trying to meet the figure's ever-shifting eyes.

“If you don’t pick,” the figure said, summoning the serpent gun to its outstretched hand and passing it over to the man, “then you still will have failed and your soul will be mine. Just pick one, it’s better than not.”  Its words stung like a slow venom.

The man took the handle of the revolver and opened the chamber.  He extracted the bullet, still wet with his wife's blood, and rolled it thoughtfully in his palm.

“Pick!” the figure hissed forcefully.  Just then they heard a child wailing in the distance, crying for its father.  Before him the three men bowed their heads low and cried with no effort to contain their sobs.

“You know, “ the man said conversationally as he loaded the bullet into the gun, “I have no fear nor hatred of you devil.”  He pointed the gun at his own head.  “For it is truly a piteous thing to choose an eternity in hell.”



And with that the man pulled the trigger and fell back.  As he looked at the sky one final time, he focused on one singular star, until he could not see any others.  Somehow he knew it was the one he and his wife had stared at their final night.  As his vision began to fade, he caught a glimpse of a tiny grain of emerald leave the hole in his chest and resettle next to the star. They both hung in the sky against a silhouette of pure black like two shimmering emeralds, beckoning him to the western sky.


© Copyright 2019 Orin Rook. All rights reserved.

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