(Originally published in the first issue of Weaponizer Magazine)
It was hot and dry and dusty that day.
It was hot and dry and dusty every day in Epitaph. There was a general consensus that the little border town lived up to its name, at least in spirit. It felt like the summation of our lives, the final word on an existence so barren of love and decency that it led us here to die.
It had been years since I had fought in the war between the north and the south. It was a war that changed everything and, in many ways, a war that changed nothing. The divide that had split our country still existed. We just didn’t talk about it much anymore.
The horrors of that war had done something to those of us who survived them. Something undefinable, something that led us away from the civilized towns and cities of the booming west and to places like Epitaph.
Would I have come to Epitaph if I had known what would happen on that day? If I could somehow have glimpsed into the future and seen the cloud of death and despair? I think, even knowing the price I would pay, that I would have.
But there was no hint on that hot summer day of what was to come. No foreshadowing. That was the stuff of fiction, of dusty dime novels full of melodrama and gun smoke. Real life didn’t work that way, at least not in my experience.
I had spent the day working on a fence for Lloyd Bennett and had worked up a mighty hunger, otherwise I would have gone home that night. As it was, I found myself at the Standing Horse, drinking whiskey and devouring a thick slab of steak.
Andrea, who ran the saloon, took special care with my supper each night, and it was cooked just the way I liked it. She made sure my glass was always full and often forgot to charge me for the exact number of glasses that I consumed. She was a slender girl with sharp features, but the softest eyes I had ever seen. I had sometimes thought of courting her. One more in a long line of regrets.
When I finished my supper, I sat by the back wall, drinking my whiskey and listening to the murmurs of drunken conversation that drifted from the other tables. The Standing Horse was a quiet little place, with an air of desperation that hung about like a cloud of smoke.
Nobody really wanted to be there. Nobody really wanted to be in Epitaph. Yet we had all ended up there and we were all trying, in our own weak ways, to make the best of the situation.
I don’t know what it was that drew my attention to the opening door, but I wasn’t the only one who stopped to look. The room, already quiet, fell completely silent as we saw the stranger standing in the doorway. He was a tall man and his visage was frightening. Time and hardship had taken its toll on him. It was impossible to tell his age.
He looked around the saloon, taking everything and everyone in, no emotion betraying his thoughts. It felt, to those of us in that room, like judgment was at hand. His gaze settled on a young cow hand who sat by himself, near the piano.
“What’s your name, son?” The stranger’s voice was like broken glass in the silent room. It carried a weight with it, as if it was tangible. A sound you could reach out and touch, if you dared.
“Charlie. Charlie Richards.”
The stranger nodded. “Stand up, Mr. Richards.”
The young man was frightened, but doing his best not to show it. “Why?” he asked.
“I aim to kill you. Best to do it with you standing and prepared.” The stranger spoke deliberately and his words seemed devoid of inflection or emotion.
Charlie broke into a sweat and his own voice pitched a bit higher. “Mister, I don’t even know you.”
“Don’t matter. Die sitting or die standing, choice is yours.” Then the stranger did something that made him seem even more frightening. He smiled.
Andrea came out from behind the bar, furious. “Mister, you leave that boy alone or I’m going to get the Sheriff.”
“Sheriff’s dead.” He turned his frightening gaze upon her. “You’ll get your turn, little lady. No need to be in such a hurry to die.”
Andrea stepped back, her face contorted in shock, as if she had been physically slapped. The stranger turned back to poor Charlie Richards. “Well, boy, what’s it going to be? You going down like a man?”
Charlie pushed his chair back and slowly got to his feet. “I don’t see why we’ve got to do this,” he whispered.
“You don’t have to understand. You’re only concern now is putting a bullet in me before I put one in you.”
Charlie was fast, I had seen him draw down before, but he was nowhere near fast enough to beat this man. He had barely cleared his holster when we heard the thunder erupt from the stranger’s gun.
Charlie rocked back as the bullet struck him and his gun dropped to the floor. Then the pain washed over him and he clamped his hands over the spurting hole in his gut. He tried to speak, but only a gurgling noise came out.
We all watched as he tried to stagger forward and then collapsed to the floor. He lay there, not yet dead, but dying, his body convulsing. Andrea started to go to him, but the stranger shook his head.
“Leave him where he lies. It’ll be over soon enough.”
Nobody said a word. Most of the room watched Charlie as he bled out on the old wooden floor. I kept my eyes on the stranger, knowing that the night was far from over. I could already feel the guilt building inside me. The feeling that I should have done something.
Yet I had seen the stranger draw and I knew I couldn’t beat him. I would just be another body on the floor. That’s all any of us would be, there were no real gunfighters in the room. If the Sheriff was really dead, what chance did we have?
“Bring me a bottle of whiskey.” The stranger’s voice echoed across the room. He was looking around, searching faces for someone to challenge him. I never thought it would be Andrea.
“You can go to hell,” she yelled, and threw a bottle at his head. He caught it smoothly with his left hand and as Andrea brought up a shotgun from beneath the bar, he fired with his right.
Andrea’s face exploded in a mist of blood and flesh and bone and I felt a part of me die with her. I turned my head to the door, hoping the deafening gunshots had drawn some attention from outside.
The stranger looked at me and grinned. “You can stop looking at that door. No one’s coming. There’s no one left to help. I’ve killed them all.”
“The whole town?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well, it’s not like there was a lot of them. Barely took an hour or so.” He holstered his gun and pulled the cork from the whiskey bottle. I watched him take a long pull from it then set the bottle aside, instantly forgotten.
“But, the whole town?” I couldn’t get my head around the thought.
“Yes, the whole town. There’s nothing outside that door but devils and dust.” Hand resting on his gun, he slowly walked around the room, taking the measure of each of my fellow patrons. There were eight men left, beside myself, and not a one of them could or would hold his gaze.
He laughed in contempt at them and finally stood before my table. I looked into his eyes and saw nothing there save death, but I didn’t look away. He nodded his approval.
“So,” he asked, “are you the hero?”
“No, I’m just a man.”
He looked me over as if he was unsure of what he had found. “There’s something in your countenance. A soldier?”
I nodded. “Once upon a time.”
“Union or Confederate?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not. Are you armed?”
“I wear a revolver on my right thigh.”
“Are you any good with it?” he asked.
“I usually hit what I’m aiming at.”
“Think you could outdraw me?”
“Why don’t you unhook that revolver and lay it on the table in front of you? Slowly, of course.”
“Of course.” I did as he asked, but lay the gun close to me, the barrel pointed in his direction. He took no notice of my precaution and I knew then that he didn’t consider me a true threat.
“Colt Peacemaker,” he proclaimed. “That’s a lawman’s piece. You a lawman?”
He studied me now, unsure if he believed my words. “Where did you get the gun?”
“Off the body of a man I killed, during the war. Seemed a shame to let it go to waste.”
“Ah. A pragmatist. I like that. What’s your name?”
“No last name, Henry?”
“I see. A man running from his past. Is that what brought you to Epitaph?”
“No. I’m not afraid of the past.”
He laughed, a hideous little laugh that made my skin crawl. “Then what are you afraid of, Henry?”
“Well, let me put you at ease, my friend. You don’t have a future. Nobody in Epitaph does.”
“Because I’m going to kill every last one of you.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I understood that. I meant why are you doing this? Killing a man is one thing. But this. This is something else altogether. Why are you doing it?”
“Would it be easier for you if I had a reason? Something you could comprehend?”
“No, but it might make it easier for you.”
He thought about that for a moment and I could actually see a flicker of something in his eyes. Around us, most of the other men sat unmoving at their tables, as if they had been mesmerized in some way. All except a young farmer named Kabe, who was waving his hand at us.
The stranger saw my puzzled look and glanced back over his shoulder. Kabe stop waving and cleared his throat. “Something I can do for you, son?” the stranger asked.
Kabe pointed at his empty glass. “I’m just really scared, sir, and that makes me thirsty. Can I get some more whiskey?”
I thought the stranger was going to shoot him on the spot, but he seemed more amused than angry. “Help yourself, son, no need to go into the next life sober. Just stay away from the door.”
I watched the young man as he dashed behind the bar, but the stranger turned his attention back to me.
“My dog died,” he said.
“Pardon?” The oddness of the statement caught me completely off my guard.
“My dog died. I know it don’t seem like much, but it was sort of the last straw, if you know what I mean.” He took a deep breath as he turned things over in his mind. “A long time ago, I did some bad things.”
“We all did.”
“I’m not talking about the war. I used to be a terrible man. I took what I wanted and I killed anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. I had no regard for civilization.”
I nodded, encouraging him. “What changed?”
“Everything. There was a woman, but it wasn’t just her. At some point, something inside me turned and I decided I wanted a simpler life. Didn’t want to be looking over my shoulder as I grew old. I spent some time in church. That’s where I met her.
“Her father had just passed away, left her a piece of land, some crops. Turning farmer seemed like a good idea. So I hung up my gun. We married and I started tending the crops. We had a son.”
“I’m getting the idea that this doesn’t end well.”
“If it did, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”
“I guess not.”
“I wasn’t much of a farmer. Never had the know how. Crops eventually faltered. They didn’t fail altogether, mind, they just weren’t producing enough. Made it tough. Boy got hurt when he was ten. Fell off a horse. Wasn’t nothing they could do for him.”
“Yeah, I heard that a lot. Wife couldn’t handle the loss. Took to drink. A couple years went by and one morning she just didn’t wake up. Then it was just me and the dog. You going to say sorry again?”
“Wasn’t planning on it.”
“Good. Hate that fucking word. Anyway, I was still trying. The gun was still hanging in the closet. I had lost damn near everything, but it seemed I still favored living a good life. And I still had that dog. He was a good dog, made my life bearable. That dog loved me like I was the greatest man that ever walked the earth.”
“Coyotes. I couldn’t help him, my gun was still hanging in the closet. Hadn’t worn it for almost twenty years. They tore him to pieces.”
“That’s a shame. I can see how that might be the last straw for a man. I can even see how you might want to take your own life. Just not sure I understand where killing everyone else comes into play.”
“Way I see it, I made myself a deal with God all them years ago. I’d go straight, lead a good life, and he’d provide for me and mine. Make it a life worth living. That was his side of the deal, what he was paying me to cease my life of violence and mayhem. Well, he didn’t live up to his side of the deal.”
“So you’re making up for lost time? Causing all the destruction that would have been, had you not made your deal with Him?”
“It’s a little bit more complicated that that in my head, but that’s about the size of it.”
“You realize that you’re insane?”
He shook his head. “I think we’re about done here, Henry.” His eyes turned dark and his hand twitched just a little over the butt of his gun.
When you’ve been to war, or you’ve led a life of violence, you learn to recognize the important moments. The moments that keep you alive. It has nothing to do with bravery or heroism. It’s entirely a thing of opportunity. A moment seized.
Kabe must have been listening intently to our conversation and the note of finality in the stranger’s voice must have been more than his nerves could handle. The bottle he had been pouring from slipped from his fingers and shattered on the wooden floor.
It was just enough. The stranger couldn’t help himself. His head snapped around toward the offending noise.
I seized the moment.
In a single motion I snapped my pistol from the table and fired, hitting him high in the back, penetrating his right shoulder. The impact spun him around and he was once again facing me, a look of profound disbelief upon his face. He drew his gun like lightning, but before he could fire I shot him again, square in the chest.
Blood burst from his back like a fountain as he hung there for a brief piece of eternity, then he collapsed to the floor.
I stood up from my chair and walked over to his body, kicking the gun away from his hand. He laughed again, that horrible laugh, now punctuated with a horrible pain.
“You don’t look happy, Henry,” he gasped. “You should. You beat the devil.”
“I made a promise, after the war, never to take another human life.”
“Human? Do I still look human to you? I’m a monster, Henry.”
“No. You’re just a man.” I pointed my Colt one final time and blew a hole right between his eyes. Then I lay my gun on the table and walked out of that saloon. Outside, in the distance, I could hear a coyote howl.
I took a deep breath and began walking out of Epitaph.