“Said the Axe Man” by Tam MacNeil

You will have ridden for three days before the canyon narrows and you have to leave the horse. The rest of the way you’ll travel on foot. You’ll drop your gear—the gray curl of your bedroll and the blackened pot with the mismatched lid, even the punched-leather satchel they gave you in Arthurstown. But you’ll keep your gun, the five-pointed badge that you wear on your chest, and the bandolier the dark-haired señorita gave you.

The canyon’s red-banded rocks look smooth, but up close you’ll find they are like sandpaper. Your gun belt will twist and twist and twist and you’ll have to keep righting it with your raw hands. The badge might catch and skitter and you’ll probably lose a button from your shirt. That bandolier, with its big buckle, will certainly scrape a fingernail passage when you suck in your chest to pass. But those things, the badge and the gun and the bandolier, you’ll keep them just the same. Which is a curious thing, because that gun will not avail you, that bandolier is going to kill you, and the five-pointed star of purity is the reason that I came for you in the first place.

Trust me when I tell you, this is how it always is. I’m the Green Knight, and I have seen this time and time again. There’s something about the receding border of the west that makes folk wild. Makes all kind of folk who in another time and another place would be sane and quiet, a shop clerk who hardly dares to smile at a young and pretty widow, a craftsman working in his shop alone. But the west is big, and it makes men big. They go around claiming to be the fastest draw, the longest shot, the steadiest hand, and each one of those in turn gets killed by the next; the fastest draw has a slow day, the longest shot doesn’t notice the glint in the grass a half mile away. People look after that sort of thing themselves, no intervention needed. But when someone claims to be a just man and the people laud him as the perfect sheriff, then you enter my domain.

Every time I’ve offered a sheriff the chance to play a dueling game they’ve come out into the main street and shot me dead right then. Nobody minds an easy win when a township is huddled and afraid. But when I pick my body up and remind the sheriff to come to me, come get the same in a year, well then those men they rue their haste and the town laments, as if open murder was somehow less despicable than a miracle.

Every man jack of you who plays the game starts to feel the dread almost as soon as I’m gone. Even before someone can throw a shovel of ash over the blood on the floor, that dread comes stealing in. Some of them run, and some of them don’t. In the end, though, every one of those honest men eventually comes down over that green ridge. He’s glad to water his horse there at the ranch, glad to take a bed, drink the coffee, eat the bacon. Every one of them agrees to give any gift from the señorita back to her father, but aside from you no one’s ever grassed it up.

When most folks figure it out, they panic. Sometimes they’ll take a cheap shot, drawing quick when they see me waiting with my axe under the tree. Sometimes they crawl on bruised-up knees and beg. When I swing the axe they shy like mustangs, some raise up their dirty hands as if that could protect them. And so they lie all jumbled moldy bones, on the floor of the Green Chapel; it’s how the place got its name.

You, though, you’re an altogether different sort. Of all the men who’ve met me here, you’re the first to play the game very nearly fair. You gave me all the kisses you had collected, in exact proportion, and returned to me every gift you won. Well, almost.

See, I know the bandolier that falls across the shoulder sinister, for my daughter made it. What good is it to you? When you agreed to play the game you shot me dead, so now I know your bullet is already spent, and my weapon in this year-long duel is an axe. I suppose she told you that the bandolier was lucky, that it could preserve your life.

I cannot fault a man for loving life, for once upon a time I did too. But a life too long is wearying, and sometimes a little envy passes with me through the chapel green. So when you come before me and I slice your neck, not deeply for your faults aren’t deep, but enough to scar your face, will you understand that the suture of a broken bone, the knit flesh of a scar, these imperfections are by far the tougher place?

I’ve played the game so long I began to doubt that it would ever end. It’s weary work, all this baiting of sheriffs, all this chopping off of heads. You’re the nearest thing I’ve seen to goodness, flawed and toughened as you are. I am old and my perfection makes me brittle, like an apple branch in winter, like stained glass above an altar stone. I can’t say that I’m tired of it all, I don’t think tired is in my nature. But I’ll tell you, boy, I’m not sad to see you coming sideways through the red-stone canyon, to see you picking your way over the uneven ground all mossy-green. I’m not sad to see you standing there, head down like the head of a man in prayer, but the hand on the grip of your gun taut as dried leather.

I pit your honor against my cunning, your will to live against my numbered days. So bare your neck to me and be ready at last to trade a blow for a blow, and call the Green Knight’s bluff.

Tam MacNeil is a writer of fantasy and science fiction, and a fully-oathed, VP16-graduated imbiber of whiskey and gin. She lives in Victoria, BC.

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