The .44 kicked and spat its last tooth into the dirt at the deputy’s feet. He shrieked and jumped away from the impact like a startled jackrabbit, mouth wide open and face white as fresh linen. Jake had been aiming for the guy’s neck, but the mule that kicked him in the ribs just as he fired had spoiled the shot. He grinned despite the miss, deciding the terrified look on the deputy’s face was entirely worth it. The grin was short-lived, however, quickly changing to a grimace as Jake’s chest convulsed in an effort to replace the air the mule had kicked out and spear of blinding agony stabbed into his side. He gasped and tried to gulp a breath or two down around the pain, but it accomplished nothing. He just wheezed like a rotten bellows, and his lungs still felt empty. The damn mule must have broken some ribs.
Jake decided to steer clear of the beast, wherever it was, and broke for the meager cover offered by the posts sticking out of the boardwalk in front of the saloon. He made slow progress, his legs wobbling like a fresh-foaled colt’s. The deputy, meanwhile, appeared to be shouting something and pointing a smoking pistol at Jake’s chest. Jake had no idea what the idiot was saying: between the gunfire and the blood pounding in his ears, the entire world echoed like the inside of an empty rain barrel. Jake reckoned he ought to kill the deputy before the dumb shit got lucky and actually hit something.
He reached up with his left hand to pop fresh rounds from the bandolier across his chest, but could not seem to work any loose. His fingers kept slipping in something damp and sticky, and when he glanced down, Jake was surprised to see them misted in delicate crimson drops. Either the deputy had gotten lucky already, or the mule had kicked him with a bullet.
“Well shit,” Jake muttered, blood trickling from the side of his mouth. He staggered two more steps toward the boardwalk, thumbing open the loading gate on his Peacemaker and punching spent casings into the dust at his feet. He looked up at the deputy just in time to see him crack off a round that slammed into a hitching post a dozen feet away. Fucking amateur. Jake would be dead already if the jackass would stop screaming and aim, but it looked like he was going to keep on flapping his gob until someone put a bullet in it. Jake was desperate to be that someone.
He had nearly reached the saloon when his legs finally decided they had had enough and crumpled, dropping Jake to his knees. He figured that was fine. If he couldn’t make it to cover, kneeling would at least make him a smaller target while he reloaded. When two bullets whined through the air overhead, Jake’s grin returned. The deputy was as predictable as a mail train.
Jake stopped paying attention to the stupid shit and focused instead on his left hand’s fumbling effort to free a round from his bandolier. The feeling had faded from his fingers, but they were making progress nonetheless: one of the cartridges dangled loosely from its sheathe. Jake silently cheered as he watched his little finger slip into the loop and nudge the tottering bullet into his cupped palm. He flattened his hand and flicked his wrist, sending the load rolling down the length of his fingers, a thick rivulet of blood chasing the smooth brass case. He clamped his thumb down on the cartridge before it could tumble to the ground and steered it into the waiting cylinder of his .44. Once it was in place, he flipped the gate closed, pulled back the hammer, and laid his finger on the trigger.
Then the mule kicked him in the face.
The blow threw Jake to the dirt in a heap, where he lay sprawled like a weary drunk, an inferno of pain raging through his skull and charring his thoughts to ash. His jaw felt like it had been torn off completely, and he could see nothing out of his left eye. That was not entirely bad, though, since all his right eye saw was a large spray of blood soaking into the thirsty earth. His lungs were emptier than ever, their earlier wheezing reduced to a soft, wet gurgle. And though he had not drawn breath in a while, the odors in the dust swirling around his head were unusually strong. Jake smelled the coppery tang of blood mixed with the acrid reek of stale piss and the earthy must of old horseshit and knew intuitively that being able to smell so well without inhaling was a bad thing.
The goddamn mule had walloped him good. Really good.
He could not tell if he was still holding his gun, but when he tried to lift his head to check, all he managed to do was turn his face slightly. The blood-splattered street rotated out of view, and a row of uneven rooftops and empty sky took its place.
It struck Jake as an especially boring tableau for a man’s final moments. He had always thought that his life would flash before his eyes and that he would ride again the long trail of inequity and wickedness that comprised it. Instead he got a row of sagging, unpainted clapboard against a plain blue canvas.
It figured. Why should his last earthly experience be any less disappointing than the rest of them? Only a fool would expect otherwise, and Jake had spent most of his life demonstrating to fools exactly what a cruel, stupid place the world was. Existence was strictly competitive. For one man to thrive, another must founder, and Jake had never had trouble finding someone clueless or helpless enough to founder on his behalf. He had prospered by being the most selfish, vicious bastard in a selfish, vicious lot. He took what he wanted at the end of a fist (or a knife, or a gun), and when anyone objected, he hurt them. It was simple—natural and instinctive. In a lifetime of lying, killing, and stealing, Jake had almost never known want.
It was the saps who believed the world could be a better place that had suffered—idiots like the deputy who wasted their time standing up for others, defending the meek and trying to make certain everyone got a fair share. They spent their lives deluding themselves, certain that if they fought hard enough or believed hard enough, they could change the fundamental nature of man. They never seemed to grasp the fact that in a world peopled by monsters, only the monstrous are fit to live. Jake had always been willing to enlighten such folk before leaving them to die, dejected.
From the look of things, though, the boot was finally on the other foot.
Jake considered the situation and shrugged—or tried to. He may have just twitched. It was hard to tell. Everything below his neck was numb, except for a general sense of heaviness pervading his body and pressing his limbs into the dirt. He wondered if it was the weight of the deputy’s righteous conviction bearing him down or if it was just the way dying felt. When the deputy’s shadow fell across Jake and a thin, callow face replaced the faded sky, he decided he didn’t care which one it was. The only thing he cared about was having the strength left to teach one final lesson.
The deputy was blathering even as he knelt down to see if Jake was still alive. Jake remained gratefully oblivious: the blood was no longer thundering in his ears, and he couldn’t hear anything at all now. In Jake’s mind the idiot was busily and loudly declaring how unimaginably stupid it was not to kick a wounded outlaw’s gun away before squatting beside him, and he prayed that the heavy revolver was still in his hand.
The deputy briefly laid his hand on Jake’s chest and then turned to yell something over his shoulder. Apparently he had decided Jake was dead. He turned back a moment later, lifting his hand and surveying his work. As he did, Jake’s field of vision contracted, graying around the edges and shrinking to occlude everything but the deputy’s face. An expression of triumph and satisfaction slowly bloomed there as realization dawned. The deputy had vanquished his foe. A dangerous, rampaging criminal was dead. The world was a better, safer place, and the deputy had done it with his own hands.
Jake lay immobile, staring at the deputy’s exultant face, and it was easily the most beatifically ignorant thing he had ever seen. It was like watching a crusader parade victorious through a conquered city, unmindful of the corpses littering the streets and the gutters fouled with clotted blood. It was David crowing over fallen Goliath, heedless of the army of Philistines surrounding him and clamoring for his head. It was a hunter, whistling while he skinned a wolf, unaware of the pack of hateful eyes glowering at him from the brush. It was the face of a man blissfully nescient of the truth, and it filled Jake with a sort of detached, indignant rage.
How dare the deputy take pride in something as insignificant as Jake’s death? It was no triumph. Men died every day, and it changed absolutely nothing. The loss of a single drop of water did not stop a tidal wave. The truth of the matter was that there simply were not enough bullets or men to shoot them to make the world better. That was the sermon Jake had preached with every second of his entire life, and he would be damned if his last moments were any different.
With his remaining will, Jake ordered his right hand to work. It reluctantly obeyed and raised his gun, which was miraculously still in his hand. He placed the warm barrel against the deputy’s Adam’s apple and gently stroked the trigger. The .44 kicked in response, spitting its last tooth into the idiot’s neck. The recoil knocked the gun from Jake’s hand, and a gout of blood and brain erupted from the top of the deputy’s skull. It fell on Jake in a warm ruby rain, and his ruined face twisted in one last, hideous grin beneath its savage benediction.