The rumor that the tip of Ol’ Tom’s blunderbuss barrel is cut into the shape of a heart is true. I know this even before he presses it against the base of my neck and growls his greeting. He did it when Leanne, the love of his life, ran off on him. She was a waitress at the bar we went to and once she disappeared Ol’ Tom was so heartbroken he offered a Mexican gunsmith a hefty amount to carve the tip of the barrel into a little heart. The smithy did it but was too scared of Ol’ Tom to take the payment. Most people were. Better in Ol’ Tom’s favor than his debt. Now, when the bullet goes through the barrel, it shaves just a bit of the sides, carving it into a little heart which, upon impact fractures more than a regular bullet. The blood spray is impressive. Lord knows I’ve seen it enough.
“Howdy, Tom.” I place my hands on the table in front of me. I hadn’t even heard him come in the room. Not a single footstep. Ol’ Tom could scare a cat out of hell – that’s what the kids like to say.
A hock of brown spit lands on the floor by my foot. “Howdy, Dave.”
“Wanna sit?” I ask, motioning towards the chair across the table.
“That’s awful nice of you but if it’s all the same to you I’ll stand.”
Ol’ Tom and I met years ago, back when we were both shot-nosed shits playing bad ass and trying to hold up the central store. We spent many a night in jail together then. When we stole the horses and the warrant went out, we just about sealed our doom. But hell if we weren’t happy about it. We crossed the border out of Arizona that year and hid out down in Mexico. We used our own wanted posters for target practice which we believed made us very tough. I wasn’t much of a shot, wasn’t much of a leader either but Tom kept me around. Said I was loyal and that was good enough for him. Tom on the other hand was a pistoleer, a god given talent that the even the devil couldn’t have stolen. It was a beautiful thing to watch him pick off bottles from 1,000 feet and even better when he graduated to picking off the law.
“It’s good to see you again Davey,” Ol’ Tom says, the barrel still pressed against my neck. The tip is hot, and I wonder if it will leave a scar. Assuming of course, that Ol’ Tom doesn’t blow my brains clear across this table, which I am pretty certain he’s aiming to do.
“You too, Tom. You sure you don’t want to take a seat. Maybe I can fetch you a drink. I got a bottle of whiskey stashed away in the other room.”
“No thank you, Davey. Sorry to say, I don’t believe I’ll be staying too long.”
“Well I’m sorry to hear that Tom.”
“No, she left a while ago. Just me here now.” I scan my small place. Two rooms. Kitchen and bedroom. From where I sit, I can see the rumpled sheets on the bed. It wasn’t much but May said it was more than enough for her. We found it not long after I left the employ of Ol’ Tom. I spent all I had on it, with just enough left to purchase some horses. I was sure I would find the life I was meant to be living. Hell, May said she even wanted to have children.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Davey. I really am. I always like May. She was a right pretty girl and sweet as anything.”
“That she was.”
“So what was it, Davey, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Don’t know Tom. I came here to build her a normal life. That’s what she said she wanted.”
“A normal life? Ain’t no such thing. There’s only life. May was a smart girl. She should have known that.” Ol’ Tom shifts his weight pressing the muzzle of his gun harder against my neck. I feel it like it’s my own arm, like a thing that was always a part of me, just now finally finding its way back to my body. I guess I knew this would happen. All I did was buy a little time for myself. Maybe May knew that. Maybe she knew that one day Ol’ Tom would come knocking, would want back what he had unwillingly parted with. Maybe she just didn’t want to be here to see it. Hell, I can’t blame the woman for that. When I did what I did there was no going back. I knew it took, stuck to me like the putrid smell of death. That kind of wrongdoing don’t wash off. I knew the minute I led my horse away from camp there was nowhere on earth I could hide from Ol’ Tom. Might take a week, might take twenty years. But Ol’ Tom will find you. And he’ll being Hell along with him. That’s another thing the kids say.
“I think, in fact I might sit down,” Ol’ Tom says then, with an exhale that almost makes me sad. We aren’t boys anymore. Far from it. Not because of the killing or the stealing but because of the years. I’m tired, hell Ol’ Tom is probably ten times as tired as I am. He moves around me and pulls the chair out. I look him over as I sit down. Another rumor about Ol’ Tom, the one the kids who play shoot ‘em out in the street like best, is that he’s got a mouth full of canine teeth. Dog fangs. That one, god help me, is also true. Hell chances are most of the rumors about Ol’ Tom are true. Especially the sick ones.
“You want that whiskey, Ol’ Tom?”
“Indeed, I think I do. I’ve got this trained on you though, so be quick about it.” Ol Tom smiles at me, a mouth full of yellow fangs. Been years now since he did that, since he threatened and pushed that ol doctor into doing it but seeing it now, it’s still un-nerving. Made him look unnatural, like a demon, if you know what I mean.
My gun is in the bedroom but there isn’t any point in bringing it out. Tom would have the drop on me before I even knew which way was up. Besides, like I said, I’m tired. If this is the way it’s got go down, then so be it.
I put the bottle on the table and Tom removes his hat, slaps off the dust, and places it next to the bottle. He leans back in his chair just a bit, letting the blunderbuss lay easy and calm in his lap as if she were a real life lady. I pour us each a glass and Ol’ Tom shoot his back hard and fast. I pour another one.
“Why Davey?” he asks.
“Right to business, eh, Tom?”
“Don’t see no reason to dance.”
“I don’t know.”
“Shit, if you don’t. Had you asked I’d have given it to you. All you needed to do was ask. You of all people should know that.”
“Tom, you’re the closest thing I have to a brother. Hell, you’re my only real family now with May gone but you know sure as I do that you’re a fucking liar right now.” I stare across the table as Tom drops the leg of his chair back to the floor and puts the blunderbuss on the table between us. He runs his thick hands through his sandy hair and I catch sight of just a few grey ones in the mix.
“You had to know I would come. You had to know I couldn’t let it stand. Not with the rest of the boys knowing.”
“So what’s the goddamn point, Davey? That’s what I been trying to wrap my head around all this time. On this long ride out from Arizona to this god forsaken wasteland you found out here. What was the fucking point?”
“Fucking peace?” Ol’ Tom picks up the blunderbuss and waves it lazily around my cabin showing me what I damn well already know. “You find this shit peaceful? Out here, growing old alone. Out here without May?”
“Well I had sort of hoped she’d be here.”
“May’s smarter than you are, you old cur.”
“That she is. And that’s why she’s gone. But Tom, I couldn’t take it. I got a hole inside me and nothing is filling it. Not the thrills, not the money, not the woman or the drink or the fucking sunset. Not the freedom. And hell, now the peace ain’t even doing it. I’m black and charred and rotting away.” I shoot down another tumbler of whiskey and pour again. “I’m rotting, Tom from the inside out.”
“Damn boy, I’ve known that since you were just off your momma’s tit. But you made something didn’t ya? Together you and I? Didn’t we have something?”
“Yeah Tom, we did. It just stopped being enough.”
“So you rob me? You rob me like you wasn’t some ball busting sonofabitch scumbag pretending to be loyal for all these years?”
I don’t answer that.
“I ain’t never took you for the frontier type.”
“Well bless your soul, Ol’ Tom. Or the black dead space where your soul used to rot.”
Ol’ Tom lets out a dog howl of a laugh and pours himself another. “That’s why I like you Davey. Godamnit, I can’t help myself even after all the bad blood now between us you can still make me laugh. You are one funny sonofabitch.”
“Yeah, well, looks aren’t everything.”
Ol’ Tom smiles his dog teeth and shakes the whiskey bottle in front of us. It knocks back and forth on the old wood table. “What you doing with this anyway? Last time you was in camp you told the boys you was abstaining.”
“That was for May. She didn’t like all the drinking and cussing.”
“Just the drinking and cussing? The killing was okay?”
“Well, rightly she didn’t mention that part.”
“But now she’s gone…”
“Now she’s gone I don’t really see no point in sobriety. Can’t imagine on my deathbed I’ll be sorry about getting lit up.”
“Am I what Ol’ Tom?”
“No, I ain’t. And I guessing I’m on my deathbed.” My eyes flick over to the blunderbuss and its heart-shaped tip. A beautiful gun is a thing of wonder.
Ol’ Tom nods. “It’s time I be going.”
The muscles in Ol’ Tom’s hand jump in anticipation and right there I can see my out. I can see myself lifting the whiskey bottle, splitting it open on the table and having his neck slit before he could even cock back the hammer. I only have a moment, a split second. It’s now or never to save my own skin.
But I don’t move. And now the moment is over and Ol’ Tom is up and out of the chair and behind me again, the heart-shaped blunderbuss in his hand and its barrel pressed against the back of my neck just as it was in the beginning of this tale.
I watch the black fly at the window, desperate to get out, banging itself again and again against the glass. I can hear it buzzing. Outside Ol’ Tom’s horse, Sadie, nickers, her feet paw gently at the ground. The smell of the whiskey fills my nose and for a moment I think I might be sick. Tom hasn’t spoken. He’s waiting for me.
I should beg. This is the moment of begging. That’s what he’s waiting for, standing behind me his hand holding the gun against the brainstem of his oldest friend. He wants me to say something, some magic combination of words that will unwind everything bad that has happened between us and take us back to the beginning. Take us back to loyalty and fidelity and friendship. But I don’t have the words. And I ain’t interested in going back.
“You forgot your hat.”
“It’s fine where it is,” Ol’ Tom says. I look at the hat on the table. In a few moments it will be covered blood and brain and bits of bone.
“I reckon it ain’t. It’s a mighty fine hat, Ol’ Tom. I hate to see you ruin it.”
“It won’t be ruined.” Ol’ Tom says. “It’ll be a reminder.”
“Of friendship.” He sighs softly, a brief exhale of life and love, and my own breath catches just a moment before he squeezes the trigger.
Ally Malinenko has been writing stories and poems for some time. Occasionally she gets things published. Her poetry book, The Wanting Bone was published by Six Gallery Press and her novel for children Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb was published by Antenna Books.