The saloon was riddled with a hundred and one bullet holes, standing like some great museum to the history of chaos. Tables lay smashed on the floor and shattered, bottles were strewn across the bar. Five men were already dead, their blood running in the cracks of the splintered floorboards like minute rivers. Two remained.
Shaky Tom cowered behind the bar; he fumbled with the ammunition he was slowly loading into his pistol.
“Six against one, Shaky,” the other survivor shouted from behind an overturned table. Myth called him The Gorilla, his father called him Jake. He slotted the sixth bullet into the chamber of his Remington. “Ya’ll should know that even drunk I aim to make ya my bitch. I smelled yer coward scent in my morning eggs before you even had the thought to gun me down.”
Shaky Tom dropped a round on the floor. It rolled underneath the bar and disappeared from view. He cursed quietly.
“What was that, Shaky?”
“Shut up, just shut yer goddamn mouth!”
“Ha! Y’know, I reckon I could fire off’a round that there mirror and have it deflect down straight between yer eyes,” Jake said with a grin. The angled pane gave him a perfect view of the bumbling deputy.
Tom looked up at the large, slanted mirror that loomed over him like a death sentence.
“That’s right, Tom, I can see ya. Can’t see me though can ya, ya sniveling yella bitch dog.”
“Wouldn’t work, Gorilla, yer bullet would just shatter the glass… I… I reckon,” Tom shouted.
“I s’pose yer right, Tom, I s’pose yer right,” Jake said with a sigh. “How ya figure we resolve this then? Like gentlemen?”
“What you reckon bein’ a gentleman means to the Gorilla?”
“I don’t rightly know, Shaky. I’ve heard the word used plenty when I’m robbin’ trains and coaches. Them fancy dressed men ramble on and on about handling matters gentlemen-like. I always figured it meant they desired a few more days of livin’. I don’t know about you, Tom, but being gentle ain’t no way to live. You gotta step on necks to git anywhere. Whatya think of that?”
“I reckon you’ve done your share of neck steppin’, Gorilla, and that’s why you deserve a hangin’. It’ll happen one day, you’ll muck up real good and the law’ll catch up with ya.”
The whir and click of bullet chambers jamming into place cut up the conversation. Both men pulled back on the hammers of their guns.
“Another dance then, Shaky Tom?”
“Ayup, though I’d sooner it be a bonny lass than a murdering psychopath, but you take what’s given ya.”
“Yer sharp as a whip, Tom. Pity you’ll be dead by dawn.”
“Never know Gorilla, I may get lucky.”
“Sleeping with yer sister don’t count!”
Jake bolted up and fired at the mirror. It exploded in a cloud of shattered glass, falling from the roof in a shower of jagged edges. Tom lunged over the bar to dodge the rain of mirror and fired at the Gorilla before rolling behind a battered piano. Splinters of wood spat out from the table in front of Jake as the bullet chewed into the surface.
Jake let loose with two quick shots and narrowly missed the wily deputy. He ducked behind the table again, pulling it to face the piano for better cover.
“Are ya scared, Tom?”
“Honestly? Yes,” Tom replied. He took deep gulps of air and tried to fight the fear that threatened to strangle him. His hands were shaking. “You killed the sheriff like he were a lame, blind horse. Struck down two hired guns like you was God Almighty. I ain’t much of a shot; I reckon you already know that.”
“Well, ya narrowly gutted me, ya slippery varmint. If you’d mastered yer fear, I betcha I’d be lickin’ daisies. Until ya do that, Shaky, yer as good as dead.”
“You ain’t afraid of death?” Tom asked as he leaned his back against the piano. He tried to calm himself by inhaling long and regular breaths.
“Sure as hell am, Tommy boy, but I learn’d ta put it down. I kick fear on the floor and show it the long end of my barrel. You gotta make it yer enemy. The perty boy gentlemen of this goddamn earth never control it. S’why I’m the renegade and they’re the victims. If’n ya own fear, it becomes a weapon. You wear it like a fancy new hat fer all to see.”
“It’s a might bit difficult to own yer fear when it’s got you at the end of a barrel.”
“You’re a good boy, Tom. It’s a goddamnn shame you chose law. I reckon the West wouldna had a worser villain than Shaky Tom had he chose a bandana over a shiny star.”
“Law chose me, Gorilla. My momma said I always had a good heart; it ain’t in me to kill another for the dollars in his pocket. How did you own yer fear, if’n ya don’t mind the askin’?”
Jake clicked the bullet chamber open and fed two empty slots with rounds from his pocket. He gave it a quick spin and flipped it shut.
“My pappy was a whisky brewer, made shit that blinded the toughest, meanest bastards this side of Wyomin’. He also so happened to be a worldy man, wiser than you’d reckon from an unlearned cowboy. When ma died, pa told me that if I ever was afraid of the big ol’ world around me to put it in a bottle for safe keepin’.
He used to fill his whisky in these purty blue bottles, I’ll never forget ‘em. So, it’s kinda stuck with me since then, an’ I made his pearly wisdom my own. Blue bottle yer fear. Catchy, ainnit?”
“Your pa sounds like a good man,” Tom said as he pulled himself up onto his haunches. “What happened to him?”
“Lawman shot him accidental while chasin’ some yellow bellied bank robber.”
“That why ya hate the law?”
“Nah, my uncle was the lawman. Saddest funeral you ever did see. I just like robbin’ and shootin’ people and the law don’t like that none to much.”
“Blue bottle yer fear, huh?” Tom asked, aiming the question at no one in general. Jake just happened to be the only person alive to hear it.
“Blue bottle yer fear. Though, I figure I might be takin’ it literal these days. I ain’t ever sober. Hell, I’m drunk right now.”
“That might be my advantage,” Tom whispered as he bolted to his feet and fired a shot at the table across the room. It erupted in tiny wooden fragments.
“Gah, you put a splinter in my eye you swarmy bastard!” Jake shouted.
Tom acted on Jake’s momentary distraction and ran towards cover closer to his adversary. By the time he heard Jake laughing, he realized too late that he had been fooled. The Gorilla leaned over the table and let loose with three lightning quick shots.
Tom screamed as bullets tore through his shoulder and thigh. He crashed to the ground and rolled into a pile of chairs. Tom heard the Gorilla chuckling from behind his table.
“Lesson number two, Tommy boy; don’t trust no one. My wife taught me that one, the cheatin’ whore. Just cuz I say I got blinded don’t mean it’s so. Hell, your little stunt nearly gotcha killed. Good thing I’m drunk, ey Shaky?”
Tom fought to stay conscious, but he was losing blood fast. It spilled onto the floor around him. Dark, pulsing stars peppered his vision. He knew he needed to keep his mind sharp or else the darkness would envelop him and then it would be over.
“You sure done tricked me, Gorilla, you got me good,” Tom groaned. “I figure… I figure you done me in. Alotta blood spilling outta me.”
“Sorry about that, Tommy boy. Not a nice way to pass on, but at least you ain’t shit yerself yet. Didja shit yourself, Tom?”
“Ah, then you oughta be proud and I guarantee them funeral boys appreciate that too. You wanna know what my first crime was, Shaky?”
“I gunned down an old fella for his hat. It was real fancy, one of those imports from over the ocean some goddamnn place.”
“Your ma must be proud,” Tom grunted.
“Nah, my ma’s dead. We’ve been through this Tommy.”
“What was his name, Gorilla?” Tommy asked. He pulled himself upright and gasped at the pain shooting through his body. He was wide open; only a smattering of chairs and broken table legs offered him cover. Tom wondered why the Gorilla hadn’t finished him off.
“Why in all hell would I know that, Tommy?”
“Do you regret not knowin’?”
“Yer a strange feller, Shaky,” Jake replied. “Bastard was old; he lived a long life and god dangit, I needed a new hat. That’s the beginnin’ and end of it.”
“Funny how… fleetin’ life is, ainnit?” Tom asked, falling further away from consciousness.
“I mean, look at ya Gorilla. Yer a rough bastard who… lives his life on the edge, choosin’ when one man lives or dies. But, if ya really think long and hard, you’re just like the guy at the end of your barrel. Someone will choose when the Gorilla lives and dies. It’s only a small matter of time.”
“Er… whatrya getting’ at Tommy boy?”
“I reckon I could own my fear and be just as good a killer as ya’ll, but then I’d lose somethin’ far more important.’
“Uh huh, and what would that be?” Jake asked. His curiosity had been piqued and he wanted to get a good look at the dying deputy as he gave his final words. He peered over the table edge.
“My humanity. Everyone fears you, but people respect me. No one respects you because you’re a murderin’ dog, Gorilla.”
Tom gritted through the pain and leaned on the edge of a nearby table to pull himself to his feet. His gun felt limp in his hand. Tom could see the Gorilla’s eyes peeking out over the edge of his table.
“There ain’t many men who got the guts to say that to me,” Jake growled as he jumped to his feet and pointed his Remington at the deputy.
“Your threats don’t scare me no more cuz I can already taste the dust of my dirt nap,” Tom said, swaying slightly as he struggled to stay upright. His eyes were drawn to a glittering blue whiskey bottle that sat on a table between the two of them. Tom managed a grin. “You can talk about bravery all day long, but your greatest fear is never knowin’ fear again. Deep down, you know that being scared is what makes a man dangerous. Yer not dangerous, yer goddamn predictable.”
The Gorilla stared long and hard at Tom. He was bleeding bad and there wasn’t much holding him up. Jake was furious; his finger twitched on the trigger of his pistol.
“That’s enough, snake, you shut yer mouth!”
“And because of that…” Tom started, but lifted and fired his pistol before he finished. The bullet passed over the table and blew the bottle into a thousand tiny shards before finding its mark between the villain’s eyes.
The Gorilla dropped to the ground dead.
“… I will kill you when you least expect it.”
Tom slumped over on the table before crashing to the ground. His mind was drifting and his thoughts were barely more than random images and anecdotes. One in particular made him smile. It was something his father had said to him when he was a boy.
“Tommy, when you feel afraid, embrace it as a friend. Make peace with your fear and there will be nothing that can surprise you.”
There was a little smile on Shaky Tom’s face, pleasant and peaceful. It’d be the last thing he ever thought of, but it was a good way to go. A hero’s way, even in the dying.