Published on Thursday, November 19, 2009
Three Wise Men
By Kenneth Mark Hoover
I was reading the territorial newspapers when Clay Wise rode into Haxan. He tied his claybank mare outside the Quarter Moon, walked to the middle of the plaza, and waited.
I checked the loads in my gun and stepped off the wooden porch. I crossed Front Street, my boot heels kicking up puffs of gypsum sand.
He watched me come with the glare of the westering sun over his shoulder. I had to squint to make him out.
He had a bleak, wind raw face. A white planter's hat with a torn brim was tipped low. He was dusty from his long ride and rigged with a Schofield sixer in a Mexican holster.
"Far enough, Marshal Marwood." He measured me with grey eyes. "I see you got my wire."
"You're making a mistake, Clay. I didn't kill your brother."
The day was fading, and with it the wind. Those few people who remained on the street melted indoors. A deep lull rolled through town until you could hear the cattle lowing in pens beside the railroad spur.
"You as good as killed him, Marshal. I'm going to do for you."
There was no anger in his voice. You can handle the angry ones. Their emotion hampers their draw, and it leaves you options other than outright killing.
But a man, cold and focused, could meet me on level ground.
"You can't argue facts, Marshal. Sam was just riding through when he stopped for a drink. He had to knife that big Indian who tried to roll him. Then you came, all high hat and collar, and whipped that big horse pistol 'cross Sam's head to break up the fight. By the time he got home, it was pus-festered. He died of fever."
Clay drew a deep breath. "Yes, Marshal, you killed my brother. So now I'm going to roll the hammer on you."
"Clay, do yourself a favor. Get on your horse and go home."
"I'm where I need to be, Marshal. Now I'm sending you there, too."
He was snake fast. As he pulled his gun he spun his body to present a dueling profile against the sun. It was this last defensive move that gave me the fraction of a second I needed.
He had his Schofield cocked when my first bullet smashed his shoulder. His gun discharged into the ground. He rolled the hammer back and brought the pistol up again as he was falling backward. My second shot caught him under the chin and took his face away.
I walked through the haze of burnt gunpowder drifting through the empty plaza. I shucked my duster and covered what was left of him.
Mayor Polgar and Doc Toland ran toward me, along with gawking patrons from the saloons and sporting houses.
"We saw it, Marshal," Polgar said. "He left you no other choice," Doc Toland chimed.
"Keep his body," I said. "His family might want him."
Feeling their eyes on me I walked to my office and locked the door behind me.
"I've come to kill you, Marshall."
He occupied a corner table in the Sassy Sage. He didn't have his back to the wall, but he had a bottle of cheap rye at his elbow. His hands were shaking whenever he touched the dirty glass. He looked like he hadn't slept in a week, and he smelled of dust and sweat from the trail.
"What's your name, son?"
"Tom. Tom Wise." He had the same bleak, raw look as his brothers. His long blond hair hung in a snarl over his eyes. "I've been waiting all day. Where you been?"
He wasn't more on the high side of sixteen.
"I had to ride to Fort Providence and deliver government papers. I'm here now."
"I waited all day."
"Can I sit down, Tom?"
"You know I'm going to burn you for what you done to my brothers."
I didn't say anything.
"I guess you can sit. Won't change nothing."
I pulled a chair. He poured another whiskey and drank. Half the bottle was gone.
"You armed?" I asked.
"I wouldn't come for you if I wasn't heeled."
He let his mackinaw fall open. I saw the butt of a .36 Navy Colt thrust in his pants.
I wondered where he got the gun. "You fought in the war, Tom?"
He was defensive. "I've done some killing, never mind about that."
His eyes were bloodshot. There was a sallow tinge to his face, too. He was scared, but he had come anyway. He had arrived early and when I wasn't there he had started drinking. But he had stayed. He was scared, but he had stayed.
"You did my family wrong, Marshal. Sam, he had a good wife. You near broke her heart. She's going to have a baby come spring. Mother drifts from room to room in that big old house, without talking or eating, or lighting a lamp. Mister, you've been killing Wise men left and right. Well, I guess I have to stop it."
He looked at my face, right into my eyes. He quickly poured himself another drink. I watched him wash it down with a grimace.
"When Father died last year he willed me this here gun." He touched the butt with his forefinger. "You killed everyone else in my family. Now I got to be the man."
"There are other ways of becoming a man, Tom."
He sat with his arms crossed on the marred, beer-stained tabletop, his head hung low.
"Mebbe. But you need to get what you gave my family. Else, there's never no end to it."
He looked like he wanted to cry. But he wasn't going to let himself do that in front of me.
"Tom," I said low, "I'm sorry about your family. But that's the price of this badge."
"I don't get you, Marshal."
"Every time I take a life I know I'm cutting a part out of every person who knew that man. When you shoot someone, Tom, you're not only shooting him. You're shooting everyone who knew and loved him. Do you understand?"
"And it takes a certain kind of man to carry that around, Tom."
"I can kill if I must."
"Any man can kill. It's the easiest thing in the world to do. But the living that comes after, that's awful hard."
He licked his lips. "They say you've killed a lot of men, Marshal. They say sometimes when you get to killing there's no stopping it."
"That's right." I paused. "But I don't want to fight you, Tom. Not now, not ever."
He had drank a lot of whiskey so it took time for my words to sink in. He had a weird light of hope flickering behind his eyes.
"Marshal ... are you saying, between us, you will let me back you down?"
"I'm saying I don't want to fight you. I'm saying I've done your family enough hurt for one lifetime. That's all."
He started to pour another drink, thought better of it. He watched me and I nodded. He pushed the bottle away and corked it. He got up from the table, unsteady.
"Thanks, Marshal." His voice was calm. "I guess like you say this is best left between us, you backing down on my call. The way men understand things."
"You said it plain enough, Tom."
I followed him through the swing-doors. We stood on the wooden sidewalk and stared at the blue sky.
It felt good to be alive.
"Works both ways, don't it, Marshall, that killing you mentioned? You gave me an honorable way out, and my life. And I gave you a little peace of mind. Somehow, I think yours is the heavier load to carry. I guess I'm sorry for you."
"Tom," I said, "I wouldn't worry about becoming a man. You're already there."
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