Friday, March 4, 2011

FICTION: The Death of Hank Markin by Ryan Kauffman

It was rumored that my father was the fastest draw south of the Mason Dixon line. Stories traveled from town to town (by way of the various saloons and inns) of his quick and efficient skill. These stories were always hard for me to believe. In all the days of my youth, the most I’d ever seen him do with a gun is put a horse down when the time came. That was before I met Hank Markin.

“I’m lookin’ for John Welts.” The voice rumbled throughout the saloon, causing a couple of on-lookers to drop their glasses. My father’s head rose from his bourbon to see the man in the doorway, he stayed silent as I shot him a worried glance. His lips curled underneath his mustache and he gave me a comforting nod. I turned to see the man for myself. The other people in the saloon appeared more surprised and shaken by the man’s voice than what had been displayed in the wrinkles of my father’s weathered face.

The man stood just inside the doors that squeaked as they creaked back and forth. He was a big man, nearly filling the doorway with his height and width. Scars outlined the prominence of his jaw-line and acted as mini valleys to catch the perspiration that flowed from under his faded hat. His black, lifeless eyes wandered the room as he struck a match off the ruble on his cheek and lit his cigar, the pinky finger missing from his right hand.

“Who knows John Welts?” He roared. Not even a whisper escaped the mouths of the people sitting around the rickety saloon. He took a couple thundering steps into the room, the floor boards vocalizing their pain underneath him. “I know John Welts is in this room. He killed my brother. I’m here to pay him with my vengeance.” The crowd remained silent. My father took another shot of bourbon and winced as it went down his throat. “If nobody’s goin’ to talk, then I guess you all need some persuading.”

He took another quick step and grabbed the bar-girl by the arm, snapping her up in his grasp. A couple of men at the nearest table stood and were halted when the large man drew his gun. “Sit back down,” he scolded. “My grudge is not with you men.” His thumb kicked back the hammer and he lifted the revolver to the girl’s head. Tears flowed down her cheeks and she squirmed until he squeezed her tighter, but she was a smart girl; she didn’t make a sound.

I shot a look at my father. He sat, not even watching the situation in front of us. His eyes stared off into the distance just beyond the ceiling, as if he was deciding what he would do. Why won’t you get up, father? I found myself enraged. What could you be thinking about? That girl’s in trouble and you don’t even care? His eyes too had become lifeless, making my spine tingle.

“I’m goin’ to count to three. If you don’t come forward by then, I’ll pull the trigger.” The girl wiggled and he tightened his grip around her crushed mid-section. “ONE!”

“Pa,” I whispered. No response.


“Pa,” my hand reached toward his arm and he met me with a nod. His lips were turned slightly upward at the corners. You’re just going to let her die, I asked him with my eyes. Fine, I’ll do what’s right! What kind of man does nothing?


“I’m here!” I rushed to my feet, the bourbon making the room spin around me. Jaws dropped, the man lowered his gun, and I could feel my father shake his head behind me. My fingers danced in my palm. The man’s eyes narrowed to examine me. Butterflies ate away at my stomach.

“Ha, ha, ha,” the man released a chuckle that shook the glasses on the saloon’s tables. He threw the girl to the side and squared me up. My mouth was dry and my hands felt clammy. “Who do you think you’re protecting, boy?” The force of his words almost knocked me down.

“You asked for John Welts,” I said. I allowed a moment’s pause to steady my posture and voice. “Here I am.” My hands ached and my vision blurred.

“Hmmm.” He put the gun in his holster, his eyes still beaming directly into mine. His chuckle had turned into a low rumbling grunt and his mouth tensed with his shorter breaths. I wanted to turn away, but I stood strong. “I expected you to be older, a little more seasoned.” He slowly stepped closer to me; I smelt the foul stench that came from his mouth, a mixture of cigar smoke and whiskey. “By the looks of you I’d say you had to have snuck up on my brother and shot him in the back. That makes you worse than the scum I thought you were.” His hand slowly reached up. I stood my ground, unable to move. His fingers dug into my chest and pushed as he continued, “That means you must be just a yellow coward. I’m goin’ to enjoy killin’ you.”

“That’s enough, Hank Markin.” The voice came from behind me, strong and distinct. My head turned to see my father standing, his eyes piercing through the big man. With them each standing it was easy to see that the man had about fifty or more pounds on my father, though my father was tall enough to look the outlaw in the eye. “You leave the boy alone. This is between us.” The man grinned, dark and toothless. “If you want to settle this, I’d suggest we step outside,” my father said. His stance gave a meaning to the word fearless, one foot barely in front of the other; his right hand loosely hung down to his side. “There’s no need for innocent bystanders to get hurt in our disagreement.” The man nodded and gave a grunt of approval. He turned and walked towards the door.

My father grabbed me by the arm and whispered in my ear, “If I fall, son, don’t be a hero.” My eyes were glued to the man exiting the bar. My father gave my cheek a light tap to turn my head towards him. “Did you hear me, son? Don’t be a hero, no matter what happens.” It was obvious that he saw the worry that I felt draped over my face. “I love you, son.” He gave my back a comforting pat; then headed out to meet Hank Markin.

By the time I was able to stumble outside, the road was packed on both sides, faces eager and ready to see the draw. There was a man shouting at the end of the road, gathering as many spectators as he could. I heard some of the townspeople talking amongst themselves, referring to my father as ‘Quick draw Welts’. It seemed very few people knew the other man. It was obvious that he was some kind of outlaw. The whispers of those around me let me know that my father wasn’t exactly thought of in the best light himself.

There were no rules to this draw. No regulations. It began whenever one man started to motion. No law, just man against man, outlaw against outlaw. Twenty feet separated the two of them; their stares forced the distance closer.

Hank Markin stood in a ready position, with his knees bent and his arm cocked and eager to draw. By the stance I could tell that he wasn’t graceful. Nervousness seeped out of the pores that surrounded his scars. My father stood straight, the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes flexing their talons, his left foot slightly in front of the right. His arm dangled at his side, calm and collected. It occurred to me that this wasn’t an unpracticed position for my father. The witnesses that lined the road looked ready to combust in anticipation. Hank drew first.

Two shots echoed throughout the town almost simultaneously. I blinked with the sound and kept my eyes closed as a gasp spread through the crowd. I didn’t want to look. I wanted to wake up from the dream, but I didn’t wake up. I opened my eyes. A couple seconds past as I struggled to focus my vision.

Hank Markin was on his back, a hole between his eyes. My father stood casually in the spot where I had last seen him, the sun reflecting off of his wind-worn face. His hand was still holding the pistol just above his belt-line. The crowd stood still, waiting for his next move.

“Pa,” I said. I quickly stumbled out to him. His smile greeted me. “Are you okay, Pa?” He slid his weapon into its holster.

“I’m fine, son.” His eyes looked empty as they guided my stare to his stomach, his shirt stained red.

“Pa?” My eyes swelled with liquid.

“It’s okay, Gavin. Just support me with your arm and help me on my horse.” His look was stern. “I’ll be fine once we get home.”

“But, Pa, the doctor’s here in town.” His eyes shot through me.

“No doctor. Let’s just go home.” It was an argument I couldn’t win. He was too stubborn to accept any help. I did what I was told. The crowd cheered for the display of skill and he tipped his hat as we approached our horses and I helped him into the saddle.

It wasn’t until we got home when I asked him why he didn’t want the doc to help him. He looked me straight in the eye as he lifted a shot to his mouth; his wince wasn’t from the bourbon.

“I’m tired, son. I’ve seen too much bad in this world and killed too many good men over nothing. I’m an outlaw. I don’t want it anymore. I see good in you, son. I’ll be damned if you end up like me on account of my evils. I’m a gun fighter, Gavin. You are not. I know it doesn’t make sense to you now, but going out like this is the best way for a gun fighter, shot down in a duel, done in by his own kind. I’ve raised you as well as I could, tried to teach you to use your mind instead of a gun. I love you, Gavin. Don’t be like me. Be better than me.”

He left me that night. I’ve replayed that day countless times in my head. Sometimes I think I’m the one who killed Hank Markin. Sometimes I wonder if I’m any better than my father was. I can’t help but hear his voice every time I strap my guns on; his head doubtlessly shaking in disapproval. My father was ‘Quick draw Welts’, an outlaw, and the man that taught me that no man is inherently good or evil, but it’s the choices we make that dictate which side we’re on. I am ‘Sheriff Welts’.

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