“Ten.” I squeezed the trigger smoothly. His steely look of anger fizzled as lead buried into the meat of his thigh, dropping him unevenly to the hospital floor, his pistol still in his belt. The deafening roar of my .45 flooded the tight confines, gratefully washing away the horrors for several seconds, replacing them with a more pleasant ringing.
The cowboy clutched his leg. Dragging himself toward the counter, he left a slick trail of bright red. “Someone help him. He’s a little slow with his numbers, that’s all.” An orderly emerged hesitantly until I lowered my weapons. “Just remove his pistol and slide it over. Then take him and get the hell out of my sight.” Seconds after the orderly and cowboy had gone, Doc emerged from a mechanical lift. “Doc.”
One look at us and he started barking orders like he ran the place. “Stop gawking, you dipsticks, and get this man a gurney, dammit.” No one else wanted to be in charge, so they took to his orders fast enough.
“Hell, J.T. What happened?” Doc strode to help me, but the look on his face said he didn’t need or want an answer.
“You gotta help him.” I lowered my father onto the gurney, while the man who’d brought it disappeared.
Doc shook his head as soon as the blanket fell away from my father’s face. “John. Not you, John.” He stood there and shivered.
“There’s nothing I can do, J.T. It’s the twitch.” He locked me with his eyes, dripping with grief and apology. “It’s taken him. And there ain’t no coming back.”
“Doc.” The same pinch burned behind my cheeks and in my chest. “I got him here. Just have a look.” He relented, going through the motions. He slipped the stethoscope from around his neck and into his ears.
Leaning close to my father’s face, he brushed the small, metal disk against his chest. With the touch, my old man’s eyes shot open, a snarl on his lips. Never in all my days had I wandered closer to the gates of hell than those two lust-filled eyes. Whatever the twitch was, it had consumed my father already, and was hungry for more.
Frightfully fast, the old man’s brittle frame snapped taut, muscles jerking his head and arms off the gurney. He latched his jaw onto Doc’s collarbone with a grinding fury. And what happened next, just happened—a trained reflex.
The shot had been at such close range, powder burns scarred the fringes of the opening where his heart exploded in his chest. Doc clutched my father’s limp body in his arms, a warm, red mist covering his face. He looked up at me, my ears still ringing, and mouthed three words, “It’s a prison.” His eyes darted toward the front entrance, and I gathered his meaning clear enough.
“I’m taking him with me.”
Doc nodded at the same time he shoved the gurney toward the doors. “Hold your fire!” He turned toward the others who were watching from their hiding places and waved his arms.
I pushed the gurney with my butt, backing out the way I’d come as fast as I could while keeping my irons trained on anything that moved. But I didn’t need to pull the trigger again that day.
Two hours later, after hooking the mules in tandem and tying my father’s shriveled shell on the back of the second one, I found Nanette resting on the edge of the property. Her eyes sank when she spotted us, but she never asked or spoke of the happenings of that morning beyond her own involvement. I got down and walked, letting her ride the rest of the way to the house.
As hard-headed as my father had ever been, Nanette couldn’t be convinced to leave with me. She wanted to carry out my father’s last wishes, make sure the land remained free of development and exploitation. I promised her I’d send backup within a few days, and that I’d resolve the transition of the land legally into my name. And then leave it just the way it was.
But the thing that had taken my father in the end, the demon curse both Nanette and Lipscomb had tried to warn me about, posed an even larger threat. For all that Doc wished he could have done, he managed one thing.
The twitch, he’d called it. And then the one simple sentence. Maybe he meant the hospital was a prison. Lipscomb had certainly indicated as much. But I took him to mean the infection. A bullet wasn’t the cure, but it was release. Freedom from a hell no man deserved.
My father said he’d seen things that wouldn’t let him live. Well so had I. But at a certain point, a man’s got to accept it’s either him or the bones.
Dark settling again, this time under a warm wind from the south, I tugged my bandana over the lower half of my face and stroked Chester on the shoulder. All afternoon I’d mulled over something my father had often told me. “Life isn’t black and white, son. Someone isn’t either all guilty or none at all. But everyone’s guilty.”
Taking a last look at the place where my dreams of being a Ranger had sprung to life, I willfully left the memory of being one buried there with my father. He’d been right about my mother. I’d been so busy blaming him, I didn’t realize I’d carried that burden myself. And in the end, her death was neither of our faults.
But about the other, I couldn’t take his words to heart. For a man who has the courage to look life in the teeth, everything is black and white. Any prophecy can be the self-fulfilling kind, if you fulfill it yourself. And Lipscomb had most certainly hit the nail on the head. Eventually, it would be hell for the likes of me, but I wasn’t ready yet.