Flash Fiction: Last Man at Bad Water
I tasted bile and the coppery tang of blood on my tongue as I ducked into the alley by the stable. The corner of the building exploded, shattering in splinters that I felt burrow into the nape of my neck and across the shoulder of my battered duster. I could hear the cackle of Black Tom Bratton as he thumbed more shells into the breach of his scattergun. I didn't pause as I turned the corner though, but barreled hell sped down the alleyway, rounding towards the rear entrance of the stable. I threw all my weight into the door, busting the thin hinges off the frame and crashing headlong across the floor. I felt my Henry Repeater slip from my fingers as I landed hard, my left knee twisting the wrong way. I planted my left hand on the ground and forced my self to my feet, biting down as a wave of pain shot up my leg. I heard Bratton and his gang moving down the alley, making no attempt at subterfuge, and after casting a furtive glance at my Henry, I left it on the floor and limped towards the nearest stall.
The few short steps sent a wave of nauseous pain up my body, made me think my damn knee may have been broken, but in light of the current situation pain was the least of my worries. If I didn't do something quick, Bratton's boys would finish what they started at the Bank in Conception. Sheriff Marsh had taken two deputies and myself after the gang, and we ran them down here in Bad Water. Or so we thought. It seems Bratton knew we were coming, having bought off one of Marsh's deputies. The Sheriff had been pretty quick, and between him and his other deputy, they had killed 3 of Bratton's boys, though for me, that still left three of the motherless bastards, including Victor Lagen, Marsh's former deputy.
I pulled up behind the first stall and pulled out my pistol, an old Schofield Revolver that my father had purchased new once. The gun had seen a lot of action over the years, mostly by my father, but lately, it had come to know my hand as well. I softly clicked back the hammer and waited, peering one eye around the corner. The stable was dark, illuminated only by the doorway I'd bashed open. I kept the pistol close, not allowing the sliver of moonlight to catch a gleam on the old pistol. I could feel the warm trickles of blood from the splintered wood in my neck and the thick salty beads of sweat run down my brow, my entire body tensing for the next moment. I forced the throbbing in my knee down and swallowed another bout of coppery bile, as I let out one last long breath, finding that single moment of calm that comes just before you kill a man.
I saw the first silhouette fill the door and creep in. It wasn't Lagen or Bratton, the shadow cast by the long rifle he had in his hand marked him as the third man. I snugged closer to the wall as he bent down, looking at the Henry I had left on the ground. He left the rifle there and crept closer to my hiding spot. I could practically see the fear in his eyes, undoubtedly compelled by Bratton to follow me in here. I knew as soon as I struck, Lagen or he would be in the doorway to pepper wherever I was. I had to react fast, and hope that my knee could hold up just a bit longer.
I waited until he was nearly on top of me before spurring from the corner and grabbing him. My free hand shot to the stock of the rifle, forcing his first instinctive shot high. I used the hand with the pistol to wrap around his neck, resting the inner part of my elbow into the nape of his neck and forcing his body around. After the first shot I drove the rifle butt into his stomach, but he pushed back and I didn't get enough leverage, especially with the pain radiating from my knee. The blow did allow me enough time to bring the rest of my body around in a three quarter turn though, forcing his body in front of me. It was just in time too as Lagen burst through the entrance, his thin figure a black shadow against the door. I saw the glint of his pistol through the shadows and braced my arm hard against Bratton's thug. Lagen didn't hesitate as he fired, hammering the pistol back and again. I felt the first two bullets hit Bratton's goon and heard his cry of pain.
Using him as a shield, I reached down with my free hand and pulled the revolver loose that he'd kept tucked into the front of his waistband. I pulled it free as I felt the furrow of hot lead crease against my cheek. My thumb felt the cold steel of the hammer and my finger the welcome caress of the trigger and I returned fire. My first shot went wide, punching a hole in the thin wood of the stable wall overhead but my second and third shot found home. The first shot burying into Lagen's gut while the second shattered his kneecap. Lagen fell, but not before getting off another shot, a lucky burst that burned a hot hole into the meat of my shoulder. My left side was on fire as I dropped Bratton's man. I watched Lagen stumble to the ground, his right leg sticking out at an un-natural angle. I dropped my borrowed gun and used that hand to grab the wall of the stable and shuffled backward into the darkness.
I fell over a short wall, separating the entrance area of the stable and the individual pens and pulled myself along it. I could feel the hot trail of blood run down my cheek and shoulder as I gritted my teeth, forcing the pain down again. There'd be time enough for that if I lived. And right now, that was one hell of an if.
I heard Bratton laugh as he walked through the rear door of the stable. I clung close to the short wall, trying to keep my sounds of movement to a minimum. The man I'd used as a shield had started sobbing, begging Bratton to help him, to fetch a doctor. I listened for the click of the scattergun and didn't have to imagine what happened next. The shot sounded as I reached the edge of the wall and rolled myself into the small space the farrier used as an office. The only furniture was a scarred and scratched desk and a chair, both of which were more kindling than much else. Still I used the corner of the desk to pull myself to my feet and leaned my back against the wall, a fresh wave of pain shooting through my shoulder. The pain wasn't the worst part though, was Bratton's continued god damn laughing.
"William...William... Billy me boy. I know you're still out there, hiding in the dark from ol' Black Tom. Why don't you come out and we can finish this like men ought to eh? I'd hate to have to shoot you in the back. Though I gotta be honest with you..... and I've always been honest with you, I'd hate NOT shooting you even more."
He laughed again and I heard him load a fresh cartridge in the scattergun. He was to damn fast for me to try to take head on, even if my shoulder and leg weren't a busted up mess. I kept myself to the wall, listening for sounds of him moving closer, though all I could hear was his damnable soft chuckling.
"You're gonna make me do this the hard way are you Billy? You always were a stubborn little bastard. But hey, I always told you if one day you wanted to be the hero, that would mean facing down some bad men. Yeah, and you may have killed some men before, bad men even, but trust me... little brother... ain't no man badder than me."
I heard him move out again, away from me. I risked a glance around the corner, trusting the distance to be to great for any kind of an accurate shot with that scattergun, and saw Tom Bratton lift a stubby cigar to his mouth, striking a match along the barrel of his gun. I saw the red embers catch fire and watched his chest expand as he took a deep drag. His eyes shown, like black oil catching a spark, as he exhaled the smoke from his lungs in a long curl. He laughed again, not the manic cackle he normally used, but an almost soft laugh of genuine amusement. He stood in the doorway, his bulky frame filling it, the slow light of the cigar cast against the moonlight.
"Billy, it's about damn time we ended this. Your men are dead, my men are dead, why don't we finally figure out which one of us is the good guy. You take your time, I'll be waiting."
He walked out the door, leaving me alone in the darkened stable. I leaned my head against the wall and let out a long ragged breath, before stumbling over to the rickety chair in the office. I eased into it, my leg and shoulder protesting in waves of pain. I gingerly shrugged off the battered duster, throwing it across the desk. Lightly, I prodded the bloody hole in my shoulder and counted myself lucky that the bullet had passed straight through. Still, I used a part of my shirt sleeve and a bottle of whiskey I found in the desk drawer to clean and wrap the wound as best as I could. Hell, it only had to last a little while more anyway and then it wouldn't matter, one way or another. The wound on my cheek and the splinters along the base of my neck were fairly superficial and I cleaned those as well, dousing a bandanna with the whiskey; though not before taking a hearty slug myself.
As I cleaned my wounds, I thought to what he had said. One of us had to be the good guy. Growing up, our father had told us stories of fighting the Rebels at Bull Run, or hunting Indians with the cavalry after the war. We'd been young then, but Dad told us the gory details of war. Of what it meant to kill a man. I'd always kind of been scared to hear what Pa had done, but Tom.. well Tom loved those stories. Whenever we had played as children, I was always the Indian. Or always the Confederate. Tom was always the good guy.
When Tom got kicked outta the cavalry, it was inevitable that his cruelty and mean streak would have led him down this path. Even though I had tried to live a good life, working the farm that Pa had left, Tom's life always spilled over into mine. First, the death of my son, then, the death of my wife, both because Black Tom Bratton didn't like not having things he couldn't have. Tom had claimed that his son's death had been an accident in the woods, but there was no mistaking what he'd done to his Adeline. It had been six years since my son was killed, Caleb would have been almost 14 by now, nearly a man grown, but Tom had ended all that. I wasn't proud of the things I'd done to get here, but I'd be damned if this is how I'd let things end.
There wasn't much to be done about the knee, so I cut the duster into several strips and wrapped it as tight as I could. It hurt like hell, but at least I could put a little weight on it. I checked the load in my Schofield and started for the door, the front door this time. I limped out into the main street of Bad Water. It was a pitiful little town, mostly built around a copper mine that had dried up several years ago. A few stores and a saloon filled out the rest of the main street, but few people called this shitbox home anymore. I didn't have to look far to see my brother. He was leaning against a hitching post, smoking the nub of that cigar, the sawed down scattergun resting on his hip. The old bastard hated doing anything small, rifles and pistols were too small, to pretty he'd once said. He liked what that old scattergun did to people. He liked the look in their eyes when he killed a man. He cast the cigar to the side and made his way to the center of the street.
"Well, well little brother. You got more stones than I gave you credit for. I was sure I'd have to drag your sorry ass outta that stable. You've been a burr in my ass for too god damn long and frankly, I wanna send your sorry ass to hell the same way I did your wife."
"Tom, I don't give a shit what you have to say. One way or another, one of us is gonna be the last man here. This ends."
My finger eased over the pistol, index finger dancing along the tip of the trigger guard. Tom didn't even move, like cold stone, some kind of damn statue, grinning that fucking grin at me. We never broke eye contact, me looking into that liquid blackness. It's a helluva thing to kill a man, let alone kill your own brother. I forced the throbbing in my leg and shoulder, the roar in my mind, all down, burying those feelings somewhere deep; beyond my thoughts. I let out that final long breath, drawing on that calm one more time, just one more time, and flashed for my gun.
The sound of thunder filled my ears and shots fired. I felt my chest grow hot and wet as black edges crept around my vision. I remember falling, my hand clutching a pistol still smoking, my bullet, to slow. I hit the ground but by then I didn't feel it, even my leg and my shoulder felt numb. I saw my brother standing over me, both barrels of that scattergun smoking, and lean down to whisper to me, in that fucking chuckle of a whisper.
"I guess we know who the good guy was at last little brother."
I vaguely remember him loading another shell into the gun as a bright light filled the sky above me. I thought I saw my wife, my sweet Adeline, before the twin barrels of the moon thundered one last time.
End of Line.