One

The first time Tommy Marks stared down the barrel of a gun was on a Monday.

About three weeks prior, Tommy had held up a poker game. He and three other boys had rolled in, cocked and loaded, and had taken off with about forty dollars in cash, some plastic chips, and a man’s pocket watch. They’d also put a bullet in Wesley Nigel Lee’s brain, killing him dead. So it goes. Tommy, as dumb as he is lucky, grabbed the first horse he saw and blew clean out of town. The other boys (as honourable as they were scared) handed themselves in to the Sheriff’s office almost immediately. The assumption being that their prompt admission of guilt would afford them the luxury of clemency. The next day they were strung up by their necks and hung ‘til they were dead and dangling. So it goes. The town’s attention then, naturally, turned to the whereabouts of the other boy, now long since fled. The cries were for blood, and that would’ve been the case. But Tommy, as lucky as he was dumb, happened to have emanated from the loins of the Mayor Chester Marks. This complicated matters to no end. On the one hand Chester Marks had his civil duty to appease the desires of his constituents. On the other he was struggling with the reality of condemning his own son to death. A closed door meeting was called to determine the fate of the absent boy. Assembled around a stately table were an oilman, an attorney, a publican, a respected private citizen, a trader, a banker, the Sheriff, the Sheriff’s deputy, and the Mayor himself. They convened in the morning at half past the hour of nine.

The debate, like the sun that beat through the open window, was hot. Fortunate it was then that all firearms had been sequestered at the door, as there were times where they would surely have been drawn in anger. Through three days and through most of three nights the arguments of both sides were laid out. It was agreed upon that the boy likely had no part in the slaying of Wesley Nigel Lee, and that he’d likely had no prior knowledge of any gun slinging that were to take place. He was generally of good character, but had fallen in with the wrong crowd. But it was also agreed that, for better or worse, the boy was a party to a murder, and that consequences should be suffered for such transgressions. On the afternoon of the fourth day, a vote was finally taken. By a margin of seven-to-two, the boy was to die. Mayor Chester Marks, being one of the two hands against the proposal, was distraught. The panel set about the task of employing a bounty hunter to seek out the boy and deliver his punishment. They found their man in the form of Terrence “Bootleg” Foster; a vile, vicious sort of man who’d spent the better part of his sorrowful life cutting down straying Mexicans with the Border Patrol in South Texas. He was the one that they’d enlist to seek out the boy and give him his swift comeuppance. However Mayor Chester Marks, being a father first and foremost, still had other ideas on the matter and issued a compromise to the board. He would acquiesce to the sentence of death imposed upon Tommy, and the hiring of Foster. But in return, and as a favour for all his years of loyal public service, the board would place the restriction upon Foster that would see him delivered one bullet and one bullet only for use on Tommy. Should that bullet leave the gun of Foster and strike Tommy down, then so be it. But should it leave the bullet and fly past Tommy, leaving him unharmed and still standing then, by the grace of God, Tommy would be allowed to keep running free from fear of retribution. The board, compelled by Mayor Chester Marks’ years of loyal public service, agreed to this stipulation.

Terrence “Bootleg” Foster left the town limits on a Wednesday, setting off to the North. The hushed word was that, hours after fleeing, Tommy Marks had sought refuge in a known and frequently-used hunters’ cabin nestled deep in the mountain range that flanked the horizon. Bootleg, who’d gotten the name from his well-known but never seen habit of bootleg moonshine to taverns across the county in times of waning supply, knew the area like he’d created it himself. He arrived at the cabin in under a day’s riding, and settled in for the night. The rumours appeared to be truthful. There were signs of recent life to be seen inside the cabin. The bed was unorganised. There were coals still in the fire. And the chamber pot, which hadn’t been emptied, had yet to smell the place out. The boy Tommy Marks might’ve been slippery, but he seemed to be sloppy. In the days that would follow, it would be that fact, and that fact alone, that would prove to be his undoing. Foster again checked the barrel of his gun; the sight of only one round greeting him yet again. He knew the boy couldn’t have gone too far. But for now, Foster laid his head down and rested. He’d set off again come morning.

A little ways down the road, about a day and a half’s ride to be exact, Tommy Marks was sitting huddled over a campfire. Above him a full moon shone. He was cold, tired, hungry, but most importantly alone. Tommy had never known loneliness like this before. It was dark and all consuming. The horse he’d stolen provided little comfort, as it’d yet to accept Tommy as its’ new owner and master, which made most forward progress painfully slow. Tommy had had no idea of the intentions of those other boys that night, and now feared the retribution that was surely brewing for him back at the town. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. He figured whatever it was he had coming to him, his running would’ve increased it tenfold, which made turning back an impossible option. All he had to guide him was a crude map he’d found at the hunter’s cabin, and an even cruder trail that had been stomped into the ground through years of hooves treading it. The trail wound through the mountain ranges to the North. Tommy hoped that at some point it’d steer him nearer to water; the ground here was cracking under the strain of the summer sun. It was arid and unforgiving. He had no idea how long he’d survive out here. He knew that he’d have to keep moving. He just knew it. If only he could summon the muster to press on. Too awake to sleep, Tommy roused his uncooperative ride and saddled forward, pressing on until morning, and again through the day with no regard for trail; both the one in front of him, and the one he was leaving behind.

Terrence ‘Bootleg’ Foster caught up to Tommy Marks on a Friday. Tommy had finally sought refuge from another night in a secluded log cabin by the river he’d long hoped to come across. Foster had forgone sleep and had ridden through the previous night from the site of Tommy’s previous open campfire, along the tracks to where the water flowed. There, without much trouble, Foster found Tommy sound asleep. On a small stool inside the cabin he sat and waited, but not before making sure the door was firmly shut and locked should Tommy try for another quick escape. Through the night hours, Foster’s eyes never once left Tommy Marks. Tommy awoke with a start at around daybreak; the sight of Foster at once flushing his face with fear.

“You must be the boy Tommy Marks,” Foster’s slow drawl was partially muffled by his lustrous moustache.

“I am,” was Tommy’s stammered reply.

“Name’s Foster. Mother named me Terrence. Most people call me Bootleg. You can call me what you want; it’s of no concern to me.”

Tommy’s face dropped. He recognised the name, and the reputation that preceded it.

“Are you gonna kill me?” Tommy’s voice was rife with the stench of fear.

“That’d be what I was sent here to do,” was Foster’s assured reply, “Though that said I ain’t decided for sure yet.” Foster struck a match off his boot and masterfully lit the small pipe he’d been tending to. “Truth is you were sentenced to death. Ain’t no arguing that. But you being of Mayoral blood and all seems to have afforded you a liberty.”

Tommy’s forehead beaded slick with sweat, as the mountainous Foster calmly puffed away.

“What liberty?” Tommy stammered, swallowing the grapefruit sized lump that had settled in the back of his throat.

“The instructions I got were that I was to track you down. Which I did. But the men who hired me gave me only one bullet for the task at hand. I figure that to mean I should make my own mind up as to how that bullet gets used.” Foster said, leaning back in his chair a little to let his face soak up the first of the morning sunlight that was beaming in through the cabin’s sole window. Puzzled, Tommy replied,

“How will you know?”

“Couple of days up here and the answer should present itself.”

“What do I do in the meantime?”
“Sweat it out, mostly. The time’ll help you find your peace. Seems wrong to send a Man to his grave without at least giving him the chance to repent. Should the coin not fall your way, that is.”

Tommy, perhaps out of bravery, perhaps out of stupidity, pried Foster further.

“Weren’t you in the Border Patrol?”
“That’s different, boy.”

“How exactly is that different?”
“The Mexicans are not real people, and therefore should not be treated as such.” Foster barked, arching forward, an accusing glare boring from his eyes through Tommy’s. Tommy sensed the fire rearing up in Foster’s mind, and tried to ease off.

“How many men have you killed?”
Foster, perhaps amused by this, humoured Tommy.

“About eighty, maybe eighty-five now I guess.”

“You don’t know exactly how many it is?” Tommy sat up, as frightened of this statement as he was in awe of it.

Foster enjoyed this reverence, and chose his next words with great care.
“It’s best you stop counting after two.”

“That seems ridiculous.”
Deliberately, Foster removed the gun from his holster and placed it on the table nearby, never once pointing the barrel at Tommy, but never once removing his hand from it. “There’s a lot about death that you don’t understand, son.”

Tommy Marks escaped from the cabin on Monday morning. For three days, Terrence ‘Bootleg’ Foster had held him captive, sitting hard up against the locked door, not once taking his eyes off of him, not even to sleep; completely still and unblinking. On Friday, Tommy was overcome with shock. He paced around the cabin endlessly. His mind fogged over, and his body shook with cold despite the heat. Unmoving, Foster just stared. On Saturday, Tommy’s emotions boiled over, and he railed against his situation. He yelled, and he pounded, and he hurled anything that wasn’t nailed down across the cabin. Unmoving, Foster just stared. On Sunday, Tommy huddled himself in a corner and wept through the day. He wept as the sun rose, and he wept as it moved across the sky until it finally settled beyond the horizon. Unmoving, Foster just stared. As the night settled in, and the moon cast its’ dull light across the land, Tommy slumped onto the floor, near the brink of resignation. The hours passed, but Tommy did not sleep. Silently he sat, his back against the wall, and he waited. Unmoving, Foster just stared. At around daybreak, however, things changed. Foster, as powerful a man as he was, quietly drifted off to sleep; his head drooping down, his hands falling by his side. Tommy watched this, and then he waited. He waited until Foster’s nostrils begin to flare and roar with din of sleep, and he waited until the spit began to cascade out of his mouth and pool on his chin. Then Tommy made his move. He stood up slowly, with the greatest of care, and began to push the only window in the cabin open as quietly as he could; one eye permanently trained on the snoring Foster. Without so much as a sound, Tommy slipped out through the window and into the night. Foster had hitched the horses away from the cabin, so Tommy fled on foot. He trod softly, weaving his way between trees. Then, suddenly, the sound of the cabin door pierced the trees as the new days’ sun began to do the same. Foster’s heavy steps boomed on the wooden planks of the cabin porch. Tommy heard this, and ran. He ran without direction, or care. He ran fast, and he ran hard. Behind him, Foster gave chase.

“You shouldn’t have done that!” Foster’s voice cannoned through the dense forest, “Running’s only gonna make it worse!”

Tommy tried to ignore it, his feet now flying, pounding the rough surface of the forest floor. His shoes, already well worn, weren’t standing up to the task. Branches, thickets and rocks were penetrating through the thinned leather sole with ease. Tommy’s feet were bloodied and crying out in agony, but Tommy still ran.

“You can’t run forever, boy!” again Foster called out from behind him.

But Tommy still ran. With panic now flooding his eyes, he ran. He crossed a shallow creek bed, and kept running, his head now forever looking behind him for signs of Foster’s whereabouts. His chest heaved, his heart pounded, his breath whined with fear.  His shoulders slammed against trees as he failed to round them properly, and his foot caught a stray root, sending him tumbling to the ground. As Tommy Marks rolled over and brushed the dirt from his eyes, the shadow of Terrence “Bootleg” Foster loomed large over him. Tommy crawled back, cowering. Foster unholstered his revolver and lowered it squarely at Tommy. His crooked thumb pulled the hammer back with a hellish click, and Tommy, now robbed of all dignity, soiled himself.

“P… please!” he stammered.

“What’d I tell you about running, boy?” Foster demanded, “You can’t outrun fate.”

Tommy’s eyes shut tight as his panicked mind spun images through his head at a rate of knots. Foster eyes narrowed, disgusted by the all-too familiar sight of a man reduced to nothing before his very eyes. He’d ended a man like this before, and doing so had made his own soul die a little too.

“Get up,” Foster seethed.

Unmoving, Tommy just wept.

“GET UP!” Foster roared this time and Tommy responded out of nothing but instinct. He shot upright, his legs threatening to give out from under him at any time; tears streaming down his face, and urine down his legs. Tommy’s eyes remained slammed shut, unable to look his fate in the eye. Foster again levelled the gun in Tommy’s direction; his finger poised on the trigger. Foster’s eye locked onto Tommy through the gun’s sight, and Tommy let out single whimper. Foster sighed; his calculating mind had only one end to this situation in mind.

“Say a prayer, son.” Foster sneered, and Tommy’s chest began heaving; sobbing uncontrollably, his lips quivering.

Foster exhaled slowly and pulled the trigger. With an earth-shattering bang the gun exploded, firing its sole round out through the barrel. It curled and spun as it pierced into the light of day, ripping its path through the fabric of the air that surrounded it. It clawed its’ way closer to the frozen Tommy, the tip red with horrific friction. And before the sound could even reach Tommy, the bullet flew past him, not one inch aside his left ear.

The echoes of the shot careened through the woods, and birds in the trees above scattered. Tommy still stood bolt upright, and one eye slowly began to open. There Foster stood, smoke curling from the barrel of his gun, eyes burning holes in Tommy. Tommy felt himself up and down, desperately trying to confirm his own living presence.

“I done a lot of bad things in my time,” Foster sighed, holstering the gun, “But I ain’t never, and will never, kill a Boy.” He leaned on the last word as if it were the worst insult a man could use towards another.

Tommy, confused, remained still. Foster shook his head and turned to leave.

“Get out of here,” Foster yelled, his words trailing off in the distance as his presence faded from sight.

On this Monday, the first time he’d stared down the barrel of a gun, Tommy Marks didn’t need to be told that twice.

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