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Murderous

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Nearly every evening when he retires, and especially if he is agitated or has over-extended himself, John falls into fever. It is not a surprise but a symptom of his disease. He accepts it, sometimes even welcomes it for the insight and strange perspective.

Brutal Leadville, the latest town of the gambling circuit. This has been the worst time of his life, even during the war when he at least had Mattie at his side. There had been a terrible fire the last year. Fire devastated these frontier town as the dry wooden buildings, thin as kindling, also acted as kindling for the larger beams. John had fought the fire with the rest of the townspeople. But though he had been quite heroic - as the newspapers remarked - smoke inhalation had destroyed his already ruined lungs, and he came down with pneumonia. This had killed Eddie Foy's actor friend Vivian in the same town the year before.

His consumption had flared up worse than it ever had before. The chest that had been merely bony broke for the first time in hideous bloody blooms, the disease within eating its way to the surface, he imagined, remembering the last days of his mother, terrified. And John had been ill - no amount of will could serve to get him through a night of work. No amount of will could make up for concentration and memory, the uncontrollable shaking that prevented him from manipulating cards or keeping track of the games as his head swam. He had been let go from his job dealing Faro. All his jewellery and things had gone into soak - pawned.

The only reason he is still alive was that Hyman had given him a poor but free room, almost a closet, above the saloon. And somehow, somehow he has returned to life, still weaker, still thinner, his chest healing, breaking open, healing again, leaving those scars like bullet-holes. In a daze, desperate, he had borrowed $5 from Billy Allen. For food - John who had been casual tens of thousands. And now he cannot repay it.

Fever. He knows it is fever. Sometimes his friends - dead or gone - visit him as conjurations of his overheated mind. Sometimes a persistent thought or worry repeats itself in permutations and reiterations, trying to trick his senses. Tonight the all-consuming fear of being 'done up' makes his teeth ache and his fingers numb.

Tonight there is a visitation by a familiar figure. Who or what he does not know, but it is familiar. Like a black bird, a man perching on a chair watching him, white shirt, black suit. If he is a gambler - John is in too much turmoil to bother with 'sporting man' - John doesn't know him. And yet... The man's eyes are unreadable, more luminous than opaque but alien in their dynamic unmoved curiosity. Something about him. John sucks the scar in his lip then lets the matter of his identity lie. No one he has ever met could balance folded in like that on the back of a wooden chair.

"Are you the ghost of murder past, murder present or murder future?"

The head cocks at him, alert, focussed but on something beyond him. "All three I think... John."

The use of his name has no effect whatsoever. "I am to be murdered tomorrow. Unless I can murder him first. In which case my murder will be delayed... a week or a month while I am caught in jail, poked with sharp sticks by men who may as well be boys. If I can survive that." He sees himself dead in a cold cage before he ever reaches Arizona, a limp heap of blood and ruined tissue that no one dare touch, not even having had a blanket to comfort him as he coughed, shaking himself apart, rotting inside and out.

The figure waits as John winds himself up.

"Five dollars. Five dollars. Behan's finally going to get me through his boys for five dollars. Five! Wyatt broke his bank in Tombstone. Took him for thousands. And now... I can't believe I was so stupid. Well, hungry, ill, but... Five Dollars! And no one to lend it to me, give it to me, help me, save me from dying. No one! Sam Houston was supposed to be my Friend! A fellow Southerner! He turned away. Not a single person. I asked, pathetic, made myself low. To ask is bad enough - to be refused something so small!

"He's going to do me up because I owe him five dollars - Billy Allen. Billy Allen! Nothing - a lackey! And I, after I destroyed myself trying to save their town... nothing. I can't even fight. I'm weaker than a child. I can barely stand or walk. I begged the police for protection. Nothing. They shrugged and again warned me not to carry guns. Do you know what it means to 'do you up?' Easy words, primer words. Its not just general threat. It means - exactly - to gouge out my eyes, rip off my ears, then stamp my face and head into a bloody mass of pulp, bone shards and brain tissue. An old gambler's vengeance. For Tombstone. It's still Behan's gang. I can't... I can't even... think about it without..." Tear of fear then, tears of rage.

"My life is as much to me as his. I thought death... I never feared it, but... being beaten to death like that. It's not dying but the manner of death... and at the hands of... scum. Leadville won't allow guns to be carried. If I do... they'll send me back to Behan in Tombstone, and his crooked judges and lying witnesses or we would be ambushed and I'd be just dragged off in irons and killed.

"I hate Behan. We never touched him, for Josie's sake, because she had once been sweet on him. And now it comes to this! I hate them all. And Billy Allen, at the end. Billy Allen who was nothing is to kill me like that. I can't countenance it. He's... nothing. I'd kill him first..."

The figure is quiet, not sympathetic, not condemning. Nothing but the cocked head, the incising implacable stare. "Go ahead! Kill them all!"

"All right. I will kill him. Maybe I can't carry guns, but...If I weren't carrying it, but only held it while I shot him... Self defence. Everyone's heard what he's going to do, what he means to do.

"Someone can take my gun, put it behind the counter at Hyman's and when Allen comes to collect his debt, take my life in return for it... I'll just take it out and kill him. He's not worth half of me. He's not worth a hair or a fingernail. He wants do me up? Well, I mean to kill him first! I will kill him first." John rose and began to pace, consumed by this new idea. He paused by the perfectly balanced quiet figure. "Any advice?"

The other man reached out his hands, took John's head and pressed his lips to his forehead - a blessing. "Go ahead! Help yourself, kill me some more monkeys - I like your spirit! Are you sure you can't raze the whole town while you are at it? No? Pity. Well, then..." He uncoiled and opened the window to leave. John moved to look out after him but there was nothing to be seen.