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Published on Monday October 12, 2009

Till Death Do Us Part

By Kenneth Mark Hoover

 

The driving sleet caked windows and hitching posts in a blue, hardtack glaze.

   

"He's holed up, Marshall," Piebald said. We stood outside the Texas Star. A dun gelding with a McClellan saddle was tethered to the icy rail. "I was headed home when I spotted him going inside. When I heard the shots I ran to get you."

"You sure it was Lee Skall, son?"

The nine-year old boy kept his back to the howling wind. The sidewalk posts and plaza pump were sheened with ice. "Sure as I'm freezing here. Remember last month when I was in your office reading those dodgers? It's him, Marshall."

"All right, Piebald." I checked the loads in my gun. "You run along home now."

"I want to watch you take him, Mr. Marwood."

"You do like I said, boy."

"Yes, sir." He frowned. "Sure would like to see you take him, though."

"If you want to help, find Doc Toland. We'll need him, one way or the other, when this is finished." I waited until Piebald disappeared around the corner.

   

I took a deep breath and went through the swing doors, shoving past heavy buffalo hides tacked to the frame.

Inside the saloon the room was a warm, cherry-red Hell. Antelope and bison horns decorated blood-splattered walls. The mirror behind the bar -- a pine board on empty nail barrels -- was festooned in red, white and blue bunting. A ribbon of fire from a smashed oil lamp burned across the rough hewn floor. The iron stove in the corner was red hot, reflecting like a thousand dragon eyes in the stacks of glasses and bottles behind the makeshift bar. The muslin curtains were smoldering. White, acrid smoke hung like discarded spider silk between the dark rafters.

"Hello, Marshall," Lee Skall said. "I waited for you. I reckon I've waited all my life to meet you."

He sat backwards in a hardback chair, long arms folded along the top, back against the wall. His heavy black hair was parted down the middle and tied with gold rings. The shifting light from the separate fires highlighted the angular planes of his face, his black polished boots, and a Mexican silver belt buckle. He wore a black winter coat with half-hidden glints of metal on the underside. I didn't see a gun, but I knew he was armed.

The dead people around us gave testament to that.

"I fanned 'em all." Skall pulled his coat aside to reveal a holstered Cavalry pistol with the trigger tied back. "You can check them if you want. I'll wait."

I walked across the slick, bloody floor. Two riders were crumpled against the far wall, shot through the head and jaw. Another lay by the iron stove, legs twisted, spurs tangled. Jonah Hake, the owner of the saloon, was face down below the ice-caked window, shot in the back. A thin stream of crimson seeped from his chest and dripped between the cracks of the rough floorboards. I knelt beside him, took my glove off, and touched his cold face. He was alive. Barely.

"Plugged him as he was reaching for the shotgun behind the bar," Skall explained. "Rushed my shot, that's why he's still breathin'."

"Skall, where's Esther?" Esther Lake worked for the Texas Star. She had decided to winter in Haxan until she built up fresh clientele next spring. "You kill her, too?"

"Course, not." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "She ran out back when the shooting started."

I stepped through the narrow hallway past the storeroom and stairs leading up to the second story. I forced the back door open through a crust of ice. A single set of hurried tracks disappeared through the alleyway and across the frozen expanse of Front Street. I closed the door again and re-entered the main room.

"Anyone upstairs?" There were two rooms above us.

Skall shook his head. "We're alone, Marshall. That's how I want it. And if I know the man you are, that's how you want it, too."

"Maybe so. One way or another we're going to resolve this."

He watched me with eyes like black, fractured glass. It wasn't only his eyes that were broken. It was a fracture that impaled his outlook on life in a crooked way, forcing him to live with the hurt the only way he knew how.

Well, I could relate to that, too.

I stood in the middle of the room and faced him, letting him see my bone-handled Colt Dragoon holstered crossways. "What do you want with me, Skall?"

"You know why I'm here, Marshall. You're a lawman."

"I've seen government paper on you if that's what you mean."

"I guess that's why you haven't told me I'm under arrest. But you won't be any different than the other men I've killed. No different at all."

The wooden chair creaked as he stood. Without taking his eyes off me he poured himself a shot of Black Adobe whiskey. When he put the bottle back his coat flared open, revealing tin badges and ribbons pinned and sewn to the underside.

He followed my eyes. "Yeah," he admitted, "I've got a lot of them." He gulped his drink and pulled his coat lapel aside. He was proud of his trophies.

"Got this star off a sheriff in Dallas. Still got blood on it. Here's a badge from a constable in Kansas. Tore this tin off a Pinkerton man in New Orleans. This brass button is from the cap of a conductor working for the Sante Fe." His hard brown fingers caressed each one. "This necktie is from a circuit judge in Hayes City. Ten in all."

"Skall, you're a sick man. Why do you do it?"

"You really want to know?"

He already knew the answer to that question. It was just his way of making conversation. He propped one boot on the bar rail and poured another drink. His hand was steady. "It's because of you, Marshall."

"Me?"

He nodded. "I've been looking for you since the war. Before that, come to think on it." His eyes ranged across the room, assessing the dead and dying that lay at his feet.

"You see, ever since I was a boy I knew I was different from other folks. Even shot my gun differently, fanning the hammer like I do. I'm fast, and I can throw a lot of lead before a man can clear his holster. That gives me an edge. I had no fancy ideas about myself. I rode the wrong side of the law. So I figured it was right and proper I take down those men who rode the other side of the fence. But, as I killed my way across the frontier, I came to realize there had to be one man who was my equal. A lawman as good and fast as me." He drank his whiskey and put the shot glass down a final time.

"At first, I thought it might be Bill Hickock or Wyatt Earp. But while riding through the Dakotas I heard about a hard-nosed U.S. Marshall working the Montana Territory. Man by the name of John Marwood. A lawman who was so mean he killed other men without blinking. A man more like me than not, even though he carried a badge."

The smoke from the smoldering curtains had thickened above our heads. The rafters and beams were ghost-like in the swirling haze.

"I couldn't get you out of my mind," Skall went on. "It was like a brand that burned deep in my hide. Here, at last, was someone I could face, once and for all. A man to test whether I was as good as I figured I was. In St. Louis, I bribed a government official who worked for the U.S. Marshall's office. He let me in late one night, and I read all the official paper he had on you. Then I came back West and started across the frontier, trying to find you. Hunting you."

He stepped away from the bar. "Every man I gunned down, I saw your face in his. I saw you in the sky and the land and every morning in my mirror when I shaved. Everyday that brand burned a little hotter. A little deeper."

He pulled his coat aside, revealing the handle of his Cavalry pistol. "I looked for you throughout Montana. Sometimes missing you by a day, once by a few hours. Then I got word you were working the law in New Mexico territory. People said Haxan was the new Sodom and Gomorrah, as bad as a town can get. That's when I knew we would have our showdown. In a place like this, it just has to be."

He took a breath and let it out in a slow hiss. "And when I kill you, Marshall, I won't see your face in the sky and the wind and the rain anymore. That brand will be lifted and I can get on with my life instead of chasing you around the fires of Hell, stabbing you with my hate."

The smoke writhed in thick, snake-like coils over our heads. The fire was laddering up the boards and along the bannister of the stairwell. One of the windows upstairs must have been open, causing a draft, because streamers of smoke spun down from the ceiling and danced through the room like wraiths.

It was getting hard to see and harder to breathe.

"Skall, when you put on a badge you have to be prepared to die. But you can't kill like you have without the scales finding a balance."

"Marshall, I live with the men I've killed." He motioned to the badges. "They're with me everyday. I've beaten them and I'm going to beat you."

I was ready. "You'll have to prove it to me -- and to the men you've killed."

He put his feet apart. His hands were at his side. "I'm calling you out, Marshall. I want your badge."

The smoke wraiths were descending from the ceiling again, spinning in the cold draft that pulled at our faces. "It's your bid, Lee. You dealt this hand, you play it."

The burning wood popped and cracked. One of the smoke pillars descended by his side, touching his gun arm. He didn't see it. He made his move.

His hand was a blur, and he had me beat by half a second when the hammer of his gun caught on the necktie looped inside his coat. He was tugging with desperation and I had a funny idea it was the smoke wraith gripping his arm when I took a bead on him and shot him twice through the chest.

He staggered back and crashed into the bar, knocking the wooden plank off the empty barrels.

I walked up on him, the smoke wraiths dancing around us like wild ghosts. I dragged Jonah Hake out of the burning saloon and ran back inside for Skall, dragging him outside, too. There were several townsfolk milling about, including Doc Toland and Esther, weeping with terror and hugging herself against the driving cold.

"I can't take this," she said. The icy wind tore her red hair and whipped her green dress against her legs. "I'm leaving Haxan tomorrow and going back east. People...people shouldn't have to live this way."

Doc Toland was already working on Jonah.

"Doc?" I asked.

"Touch and go," he said.

I knelt beside Lee Skall.

"You came back for me." His mouth was full of blood and it bubbled thick when he spoke.

"Easy, Skall. The doc can fix you up. Save you for your hanging."

His smile was filmed with crimson. "I've shot enough men to know different. You got me through the lungs." He fought for breath, drowning in his own blood. "Marshall, did you see that pillar of smoke jump from the ceiling and hold my arm back?"

"Your gun caught on the judge's necktie. That's all."

"I guess...one of those dead men reached out. I guess...it was only a matter of time, seeing as how that brand burned so hot." He couldn't focus on my face any longer. Sleet caked the side of his face. "I shouldn't have let it burn me so hot."

"It's true for me, too, Skall. That's how it always is for men like us."

He didn't hear me, though. He was already dead.

And in a way, with the howling wind and ice stinging my face and Esther sobbing, I went with him.

THE END

 

Kenneth Mark Hoover has sold over forty short stories and articles to professional and semi-professional magazines. He is a member of SFWA (Science Fiction Writer's Association) and HWA (Horror Writer's Association). His first novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press in 2005 and sold out its first print run. His last two sales have been to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is a professional writer currently living in Dallas, TX. To contact him, visit his website at: kennethmarkhoover.com

 


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