Published on Friday, January 1, 2013
By Paul Miller
Shelby Levin didn't think much of it when seven men wandered into the general store he tended, asking after an outlaw. They were obviously violent men, covered in travel-worn clothes and with Springfield and Remington rifles--that had seen a fair bit of use--casually resting on their shoulders. Shelby had long dreamed of living such a life himself, but after years of having it beat into his head, he'd finally come to agree with his pa's words: "A life of violence is only for them not smart enough or good enough for something better."
"He killed my brother in a gunfight. Aint ever too late to see justice done for killin a man's kin." The other men nodded agreement at the speaker's words.
"Was it a fair gunfight?" Shelby asked.
"That aint the point."
Shelby nodded. "Well, I wish I could help, but there's nobody in this town could possibly be Quick Tom, and I would know."
The one doing all the speaking sighed. "We'll wait around for a spell just the same. Our friend swore he'd seen the man livin here, goin along like he aint a cold-blooded killer. If you come by any new information, just let us know." With that, the seven men turned and walked out of the store, pushing through the swinging doors to the dust-filled street beyond.
Shelby shook his head and chuckled. What a fool's errand, hunting a man that nobody had seen in such a long time. He dropped to one knee and whipped out a rag from his shirt pocket, wiping up the brown spit on the floor. He couldn't wait to tell his pa about the whole thing. The two of them would have a good laugh about it for certain.
When Mr. Rawlins--the owner of the general store--showed up to take care of things for the rest of the day, Shelby hurried home with an extra bounce in his step. He burst into the small cabin he shared with his pa with a wide smile on his face.
"Hey pa! You aint gonna believe this. Seven armed men showed up at the store today askin after an outlaw aint nobody heard from in more than twenty years. Aint that the craziest thing?"
His pa sat in a creaky wooden rocker in the corner. His eyes narrowed beneath bushy white brows.
"Quick Tom?" the old man asked quietly.
"Yessir. That's the very one."
Shelby froze just inside the doorway. Something was wrong. His pa wasn't smiling. In fact, he'd adopted a sort of crazed look on his face that Shelby didn't think he'd ever seen there before.
"What is it, pa?" he asked. "There's nothing to worry about. I'm sure once they realize they've come to the wrong place they'll be on their way."
"Who says they've come to the wrong place?"
Shelby laughed. "Of course they have. The only one here might've gone by Tom when he was younger is you, and that's just crazy. You're a harmless old . . ." He trailed off as his pa's expression darkened.
Thomas Levin slowly climbed to his feet. Thinning white hair topped a rail-thin frame with a stooped back. He was not a very impressive man, but Shelby loved him something fierce anyway.
"Son," he said. "I am Quick Tom."
Shelby's breath caught in his throat. It couldn't be."But... you just aint the outlaw sort, pa."
"Not since you've been around, no. But I used to be a wild one. As wild as they come." The older man limped over to a hunting rifle propped against the wall and grabbed hold of it. As he was lifting it, however, the muscles in his right hand seized up and the weapon clattered to the floor.
Such attacks had been occuring more and more often the past few months.
"You all right, pa?"
"Yes. That thing wouldn't be worth much in a fight anyway. I better go get my old gear."
Shelby's eyes widened as the words sank in. He stepped forward quickly and grabbed his pa's arm to stop the older man from making his way to the back bedroom. "Fight?"
"Quick Tom never backed down from a challenge, son. Haven't you heard? And I don't intend to start now."
Shelby was still reeling from the shock of his pa being a famous outlaw, but he was plenty focused enough to know what would happen if his pa faced seven armed men alone. "You aint talkin sense. Don't do somethin like this out of some misguided, foolish pride. Because that's what it would be."
His pa's eyes found his, and there was a dangerous light behind them. "Sometimes pride's all a man has. Without it, what good is he?"
"What about the things you always told me?" Shelby pleaded. "You said good men find better ways to spend their lives than killin folk."
His pa slowly pulled Shelby's hand from his arm. "I know what I said, but that was to keep you from following my path. I wanted better for you." He sighed. "The thing is... I'm still a fighter at heart. Always have been, even though I buried it deep. But sometimes... sometimes a man just has to be what he is. I'm sorry."
Shelby was struck dumb by the suddenness of it all and couldn't think of a thing to say, so his pa continued.
"Why don't you run along and fetch those men here so we can have done with it." With that, the older man disappeared into his bedroom. A moment later, there was the familiar scraping sound of his pa's trunk being pulled out from under the bed. Shelby had always wondered what was inside of it. Now he wasn't so sure he wanted to know.
He felt as if his entire life was a lie. And he wasn't about to sit idly by while his pa got himself killed. Was he?
With a helpless sigh, Shelby hurried out of their cabin to do as he'd been told.
A short while later, Shelby returned with the seven men from before, as well as a good amount of the townsfolk come to see what all the fuss was about. Those folk hung back while the seven men lined themselves up a ways away from the cabin, facing it with rifles in hand. They were hard men, all of them, and there was murder in their eyes.
Shelby went inside. His pa was still holed up in his room.
"I brought those men like you asked of me," Shelby said. "But maybe it aint too late, pa. Maybe we could come to some sort of agreement with them. Aint no use you dyin over somethin that happened so long ago."
"Too late for talkin son," his pa called. "I've got me some killin to do. Head on outside and I'll be along shortly."
Shelby swore in frustration but did as his pa said. On a whim, he grabbed their hunting rifle on the way out. The seven waiting men eyed him hard, so he held a hand up in a placating gesture and moved to the side.
Nobody made a sound.
Then his pa stepped out of their home, and Shelby gasped. The decidedly unimpressive man he'd lived with all his life was gone. In his place was someone... dangerous. A heavy brown duster masked his pa's wiry frame, and a thick leather gunbelt sat comfortably on his waist, the sandalwood grip of a revolver displayed boldly at one hip. A wide-brimmed hat was pulled low on his head, casting his face into shadow, the brimstone glow of a cigarrette lighting his strong jaw.
This wasn't his pa.
It truly was Quick Tom.
And now that Shelby saw him this way, he realized it was a much more natural fit for the man. He only wished he'd had more of a chance to get to know this side of his pa. He tried desperately to keep from trembling.
"You killed my brother," the man who'd spoken up at the general store said.
"I ain't never killed a man that didn't have it comin," Quick Tom said back.
The man's eyes narrowed. "You sayin my brother deserved to be shot down like a dog?"
"I reckon I am."
There was a brief silence.
"SHOOT HIM!" the man shouted. He and his friends raised their rifles.
Shelby was watching Quick Tom. One moment, he was standing there, calmly eyeing his adversaries. The next moment, his revolver was in his hand and men were dying. Shelby never even saw him draw.
The shots rang out, deafening in the silence, and six of the seven men dropped to the dirt, sightless eyes forever locked in expressions of surprise.
The final man, the one whose brother had been slain, smiled at Quick Tom's empty weapon. "Better than I expected. Good thing their were seven of us." He took careful aim.
In the blink of an eye, Quick Tom reholstered the weapon and drew an identical revolver from a hidden holster at his back. He returned the man's smile.
Shelby held his breath, allowing himself to believe that his pa would survive the day after all.
Just then, Quick Tom's hand seized up, and his second revolver fell uselessly to the ground. He watched it fall with a stricken expression, and all at once he seemed an old man again.
A single, thunderous shot broke the silence.
Everyone watching waited for Quick Tom to go down.
Instead, the last of the men hunting him collapsed in an awkward heap.
Everyone's eyes turned slowly to Shelby, to the smoking hunting rifle gripped in his trembling hands. He couldn't remember choosing to act or aiming; it had just happened. He'd killed a man. In the back of his mind, he supposed this would put him on the wrong side of the law too, just like his pa.
He felt better than he had in a long time.
"You all right, son?" Quick Tom asked.
After a brief silence, Shelby shrugged. "I guess sometimes a man just has to be what he is," he said.
The ghost of a smile flashed across Quick Tom's lips, and he nodded.
Paul Miller lives near Dallas, Texas with his beautiful wife and three small children. His work has appeared in various online and print publications, including Silver Blade and Kzine. Find links to more of his stories at paulmillerfiction.wordpress.com.