He sat at the bar, a column of empty glasses beside him.
His soft brown suit jacket was draped over the chair, its finely tailored tails resting on the dusty floor. His silk red waistcoat was stained with the dribbling of the fine brandy he was currently drowning in.
His small black bowler rested in his neatly combed hair, despite him being inside with many ladies present.
The saloons bat-wing doors swing quietly in the wind letting the sounds of horses and people in from the dusty street outside. It wasn't busy this time of day. The little piano sat unused by the bar, the few patrons and working girls didn't seem to mind the silence.
He sat in silent misery shrugging off all the stares and gentle engagements offered to him. He just wanted to cry. It was his last day alive, he could do what he wanted.
For the first time in hours he moved more than his drinking hand. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a half opened letter. The black mark at the top was all he could look at. He had seen it before, many times.
His aunt had received a letter like this one. She never opened it on account of having hung herself in the barn, just like the letter had said she would. He had seen his gramps get his black letter too. He read it by the fireplace then walked outside, looked at the moon and then died. Collapsed right there coughing and choking on his own blood, the war had caught up to him. It seems the bullet stuck in his chest had finally moved to his lungs, it only took a moment at least.
One by one the Gibbonses' were dying. Most at a ripe old age, some in strange occurrences like crushed by an ox or hit by a train. But every single death, was preceded with a letter that told them exactly how it would happen. Only half ever read their letter, most just saw the mark on the top page and waited knowing that what was to come would come soon. A few tried to run, to avoid their fate, it had never worked. It was better to simply wait for death.
A lot of gold and favours had been paid long ago by a foolish ancestor who wanted this very thing. But he never realized that every descendant would receive the news too. It didn't matter that the mystic was long since dead; she made certain her contract was fulfilled. It didn't matter that no one ever delivered the letters or that some were completely alone when they got them. All that mattered was that Mathew, had received his this morning.
It had been there on his freshly ironed bankers suit. It had his name in scratchy black ink on the front, other than that it was a plain white envelope. Inside was plain paper folded in three, he had opened the letter unfolded the first part and froze.
That black mark was there staring him in the face. The whole world was that mark, it meant his death and there was nothing he could do. Helplessly, his arms numb his heart beating like an Indian war drum his eyes crept past the mark to look upon the first few lines visible before the folded paper covered it.
"At Noon August 3, 1886; Mathew J. Gibbons (Banker) of Springfield in the American state of Indiana will die. He will die of"
The rest was beneath the fold, he couldn't bring himself to look at it. If he was going to die he wanted it to be a surprise. Who knows maybe he would be lucky and die from the drink. Then he wouldn't have to be sober when the reaper came for him. Maybe that would make it less frightening to face. Or maybe it wouldn't, unfortunately he kept thinking about it.
He put the letter back in his pocket, glad no one else in town knew he had gotten it. His friends would tell him to run, but a Gibbons cannot run from death. Besides he wasn't known for being quick in any sense of the word. The townsfolk wouldn't understand; they would ask questions till noon when he dropped dead before them, and then they still wouldn't understand. Better he was alone.
He waved another drink to himself, a hand caught the sliding drink before it reached him. Dam his slow reflexes again.
"Thanks partner." Said a dark gravelly voice.
Mathew turned to see who was interrupting his misery. He could see from his cow painted boots, rusty spurs and patched together pants that the man was a cowboy. As Mathews eyes drifted upwards he could see a shiny army colt in a worn leather holster peeking from below his patched brown jacket. His dusty unshaven face sneered at Mathew from below a wide brimmed hat and above a stained red bandanna. He gulped down the drink before leaning on the bar and pointing to Mathew.
"You better get me another one partner." He growled. "I'm thirsty and one little drink ain't gonna be enough."
Mathew looked at the man. His face was scarred beneath the beard. He could see old wounds, and a crooked face worn into hard leather by the elements. It was a tough mean face.
"I said you better get me another drink partner. Or do I need to get my friend here to get you motivated." He barked patting his very large gun.
Matthew cleared his throat and waved to the bartender. Then he looked down to the watch on his waistcoat. 11:48. Darn, he had hoped it wouldn't be something like this, but it seemed this big dumb ox was going to kill him.
When the drink arrived the man took no time at all to swallow it down. While he did Matt felt for his trusty silver derringer, a bankers friend. It was small and weak but its aim was true; like a banker really. He trusted the man who had sold it to him, he wouldn't lie about that. Matt had never fired it before but he felt comfortable knowing it was close. The brute caught his motion out of the corner of his eye. With snake quick reflexes he grabbed Matts arm and threw him from his chair. Matts tiny derringer firmly in his hand.
"Whats this rich boy? Thinking o' being a hero now? Thinking o' grabbing the hundred dollar bounty on my head? Or is you just stupid?" He asked pulling his own heavy colt out and cocking the hammer.
The whole bar fell silent, only the dusty wind outside made any sound. The brute looked around the bar, every eye filled with terror as each of them recognized the counties most wanted murderer before them.
"Get a good look y'all, your about to see murder number eight as I kill this little hero here." He said resting the barrel on Matts trembling nose.
"I ain't a hero." Matt found himself mumbling.
The brute paused, dust fell from his hat. "What you say?"
"I, I said, I, Uh, I ain't no hero." He mumbled back.
"Oh I see, then why you reaching fer this little pea shooter huh? You got a death wish?"
Sweat trickled down from his brow and made his neck itch. The heavy canon sized barrel resting on his nose was growing hot. His eyes didn't drift from the trembling hammer held back by the mans filthy thumb. The brute pondered his words for what seemed hours. Matt never blinked.
"Alright. I'll give it to ya then." he said putting his gun back and tossing Matt his own much smaller one.
"On yer feet, if I'm gonna kill a funny man I want to do it right." He said.
He pulled Matt to his feet and pushed him out the saloon doors fumbling with his coat and gun. At least he would be buried in a nice suit, that was something.
The brute pushed him to the middle of the quiet street then turned and marched twenty paces.
Matt struggled with his buttons, his gun held in the crook of his elbow.
"Quit fooling and get ready funny man. We gonna do this right." The smelly man bellowed, his hand hovering above his well kept colt revolver.
Matt spared a glance at his watch, 11:57, before tucking the barrel of his gun in his pocket. He was going to be the second Gibbons killed by a gun it seemed, and somehow all the excitement had sobered him up. He wouldn't even be drunk to help keep him brave, but somehow that didn't matter anymore. Nothing really seemed to matter bu the man before him and his own tiny toy gun.
The world faded from his mind, the heat of the relentless sun on his back was forgotten. The ache in his knee from the fall was gone now.
Even his hands had stopped shaking. A new thought entered his empty mind. If your gonna die, at least take this idiot out with you. Matt smiled, his fear forgotten, maybe he wouldn't have to die alone today. His gun was weak, he only had two shots, but if he made each one count he could kill this man and rid the world of his stink. And he could do it too, his gun was small but it was supposed to fire straight like the salesmen had said. He just had to be quick. He had never been quick before but maybe this was the one time when he would be.
Quicker than a snake.
Quicker than lightning.
Quicker than death.
And he was.
With a blur of motion he pulled his derringer and fired a shot straight into the mans chest. A heartbeat later the man fired his own cannon. A spurt of blood and a puff of smoke and it was over.
The murderer fell flat on his face, a tiny hole in his black heart, he was dead before he hit the dirt.
Matt fell too. He felt no pain. It was all so quiet and the dirt was soft on his back. How blue the sky was, a nice cheery day to die on.
The town clock struck twelve, twelve chimes sounded one by one. Each quieter than the last.
Matt reached into his waistcoat and pulled out the letter and whispered, "Ha, quicker than death."
And then he was gone, his last breath went out with the final chime.
The prophecy fulfilled.
* * *
The priest came to Matts quickly cooling corpse, the sheriff went to the other dead man.
"He's dead Patrick, shot right in the heart, a one in a million shot with that terrible little gun." he said to the priest kneeling over Matt.
He picked up the gun. "Ah yes, these little guys can't hit anything past the barrel. A miracle really it didn't explode."
The sheriff walked over to Matt, he was clearly dead there was no need to check. Blood pooled around him soaking his coat and wetting his hair.
"Yeah a great shot with a crappy gun, but the big man barely grazed his arm! How did the kid die? There ain't another mark on him!" Said the sheriff.
The priest pulled the letter from Matts hand and opened it up. A shiver ran down his spine at the sight of the black mark. Something familiar to the priest who had served the Gibbons for twenty years and seen five letters.
He read it now.
"At Noon August 3, 1886; Mathew J. Gibbons (Banker) of Springfield in the American state of Indiana will die. He will die of" The priest unfolded the rest.
"of a .45 gunshot to the kidney, killed by wanted murderer William Douglas reward $100 for seven murders, on the Springfield main street."
"Well that ain't right. He killed Bill a second before noon and he never got hit in the kidney." Said the sheriff also familiar with the Gibbons family secret.
"I guess he never read the letter, he didn't know he was faster than death." The priest replied.
"First time Matts been faster than anything, never thought the kid could outrun death." Said the Sheriff.
"Seems he didn't Sheriff. Death took him anyways. It didn't need a bullet." Said the priest, noting the worried look across the Sheriffs face.