The Last Gasp
Third Place Winner of the 2009 Be Your Art Writing Competition. Co-published with the North Shoreian Magazine, December 2009.
By Micki Peluso
Hank’s eyelids opened with aching slowness, blinking away the bright wash of sunlight spilling into his room. He squinted out the window at a high, pale sun. Past noon. Damn. He’d overslept. Most mornings he enjoyed watching the sun rise over the Palo Duro canyons, deep below the Texas plains—last night’s binge at the Rock n’ Bull Saloon had laid him low.
Rubbing a hand across his face, Hank swung his feet over the side of the bed and reached for his boots. He frowned as he looked for the other one and found it on his foot. He’d slept, shirtless, one boot still on, caught up in his pulled down denims which hung at his knees.
Bleary-eyed, he found the bottle on the table beside the bed and took a long swig to quell the shakes. He dragged his worn chambray shirt from the foot of the bed. Blood stains spattered the front. Nothing hurt much, no cuts far as he could see. Wonder what the other guy looks like? His stomach lurched, reminding him other things required more immediate attention. Half a dozen eggs, hash browns and a rasher of bacon would settle his rocky stomach. Hank tried, but couldn’t remember much of the tear he’d been on last night. Scary. The blackouts were becoming more frequent. Gotta cut down on the booze. Not as young as I used to be. He chuckled hoarsely and scratched at a day’s worth of stubble.
He needed a shave. But not yet—way too shaky for that. Ain’t aiming to slit my own throat.
Mail would be in by now. A little fresh air might help clear his muddled brain. He half-walked, half-staggered toward the door. Walking plumb down to the box wasn’t happening.
“Where are my damn keys?” he muttered. His dog, Alpha Blue, raised his shaggy head and Hank bent and scratched his ears. The animal grunted and went back to sleep. He’d seen it all before. No keys on the table. Hank threw open the door and peered suspiciously at his dust-coated jeep. It leaned precariously close to the gnarled trunk of the scruffy pine tree in front of the house. Nearly hit that one, huh? Tarnation; would have been just his luck if he’d wrecked his only vehicle. Drawing a deep breath of hot, thin air jolted him from his lethargy. He swung into the four-wheel vehicle, revved the engine, and headed down the long, rutted driveway to the dented silver mailbox standing at the edge of the road. Hank shuffled through junk mail and bills, planning on dealing with them on a full and sober stomach, when a large flyer caught his eye.
What the hell is this? Yard sale poster? Scrawled on a rough rectangle of cardboard, a personal message in large letters stated: MEET ME AT THE CORRAL BEHIND YOUR BARN ONE HOUR BEFORE SUNSET. I PLAN TO SHOOT YOU DEAD. IF YOU REFUSE, I WILL SHOOT YOU IN YOUR SLEEP. YOUR CHOICE, MISTER. I’LL GET YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID.
No signature. Damnation! What did I do last night to deserve this?
Try as he would, little after his arrival at the saloon seemed clear. He strolled in, got a drink, talked to the bartender. Then? Slowly images flitted across his vision—a young raven-haired woman with sensual green eyes and a body a man would die for. Would he? He shook his head, unable to recall enough to solve the puzzle or jog his memory of what he might have done to be challenged to a shootout. Who does shootouts in this day and age? A chill down his spine warned him not to take this threat lightly.
Hank showered, then searched the fridge for something to fill his grumbling, queasy stomach and settled for toast, eggs, and a pot of strong black coffee. Wispy flashbacks of dancing with the dark-haired beauty floated elusively just beyond his mind’s reach. He remembered dancing, then leaning her back for a long, hungry kiss, just as a huge, bearded man with red hair swung the saloon doors open and strode across the room. Hank laughed briefly, thinking he looked like an actor in a spaghetti western. The first punch slammed him across the floor. The woman screamed. The bits of memory felt disjointed, surreal. More screams.Then the big man had charged him as he’d tried to get up and landed a brutal blow that laid him out cold. After that—nothing.
The grandfather clock that had been in his family for generations chimed the hour—four o’clock. The sun set early above the canyon. He’d need to face whoever wrote that note soon, try to make him see reason.
Had to have been a jealous boyfriend, or worse, an irate husband. Hank usually steered away from married women . . . he couldn’t rightly recall why he’d messed with this woman. She sure was pretty, though. Well, nothing for it. He’d have to make the fella understand it was a mistake, nothing more.
He loaded his 22 caliber pistol, shoved it into his holster and headed for the door. Alpha Blue rose and stretched, eager to follow. “Not this time, big guy.” Hank patted his head, then locked the door. Alpha Blue whined and scratched the screen, and Hank hurried toward the corral before he gave in to the dog’s pleading and let him come along as always.
He spotted a small figure walking toward the corral. Sagebrush tumbled across the barren plains and the setting sun glared brightly in his eyes. Facing west probably wasn’t the best position for a shootout, Hank considered wryly. Then again, it’s my first. He squinted to make out the approaching figure, but it grew no taller. Must be one of those ‘little people’—a midget—or else a kid, a boy maybe ten or twelve years old, dressed all in black. Like a tiny Johnny Cash, Hank thought with a grin. Black vest over a black t-shirt, black jeans tucked into too large black boots. Even with three inch heels on those knee-high boots, the lad couldn’t be five feet tall.
“What can I do you for?” Hank called out, fighting a chuckle at the way the kid lugged a shotgun over half as long as he was tall, wrapped in both arms.
“You caused my mama to die. Now you’re gonna die too.” The steely cold voice was deadly and resolute.
“What’re you talkin’ about, son? I ain’t killed no one.” Hank motioned to the boy. “Put down that heavy gun and let’s talk some.”
“No need for talkin, Mister. And this gun ain’t heavy. You die today,” his voice quavered, “same as my mama died last night.”
What the devil was the kid talking about? Hank racked his scattered memories to no avail.
“I’m no angel, boy, but I never kilt no one in my life, whether they deserved it or not.” Hank started toward the boy, but jerked to a stop as the boy leveled the shotgun straight at him.
“I saw you with her last night. Disgusting. Dancing and kissin’. I followed her to the saloon to get her home before it was too late. Before Pa found her. But he did. And Pa dragged her home and slit her throat and” . . . the voice trembled, hitching with suppressed tears. “Mama died in my arms. When my Pa fell asleep, drunk like always, I took the axe Mama used for beheading the chickens, and cut him across his throat.”
A stab of regret rushed through Hank’s heart. He never hurt the woman, but his actions played a part in her dying. “I’m sorry—“ The blast of the shotgun ripped through him. He dropped to his knees, his hand closing on his 22. He could pull off a shot, but had no heart for it now. It was just a boy, avenging his mother. God, he couldn’t shoot the boy for that. Not firing, even as he felt his life slipping away, seemed right…as if it somehow atoned for his part in this tragedy. “Justice served,” he choked, as his lungs filled with blood and his pulse slowed to a flutter of a beat.
Hank rolled to his back, clutching his gut, staring into the eyes of the child standing over him. Eyes as blue as the Blue Bonnet blossoms of Texas brimmed with tears.
“We’re even now,” the child said, sobbing. “I would wish you could rot in hell, but I asked God to forgive you your sin against my mama. I hope He’ll forgive me too, cause killin’ is a big sin.”
The kid knelt and pressed something into Hank’s hand, then rose and walked slowly away, shoulders slumped with the weight of sorrow beyond his few years, lazy clouds of dust raising where he dragged the shotgun behind him. A gust of desert wind caught the big hat and yanked it away. Long raven curls fell loose around the thin figure, blowing in the breeze.
Lord Almighty, I’ve been shot by a snippet of a young girl. May God forgive us both. Hank stared after her, his blood a sticky river against his hands, his breath coming in gurgling gasps. He could hear Alpha Blue howling in the house, slamming against the door. The sun dipped toward the canyons at last. Wonder if Hell really is hotter than Texas.
Hank’s drinking buddies found him a few days later, after he’d not returned their calls. Alpha Blue lay at his side, fiercely protecting his master from the buzzards and coyotes that swooped to feast on his corpse. He lifted a weary head at their approach and whined softly.
“Come on, boy. Ain’t nothing you can do for him now.” One of the men knelt, covering his nose and mouth with one hand as he pulled a crudely carved wooden cross from Hank’s half-closed fist. He patted Blue’s head and got to his feet, tracing his finger along the words etched into the wood.
“Wonder what that means?” he asked, handing the small cross to the other man. “Just says, ‘Forgive me’.”