Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guns of the Border Region -- Chapter Seven


[Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman]

This isn’t over by a long shot. Such was Pops’ assessment of the situation when informed of the gory details of Shadow’s encounters with Karla and Sailor Clanton. He kept his thoughts to himself for the time being, however. There would be time enough to deal with matters and make future plans on the morrow. For this evening, he busied himself preparing a hearty supper. He knew Shadow and Christian would sleep better with a good hot meal in their bellies. He wanted them to be refreshed and rested when they drew their plans for the trouble that lay ahead.

Shadow and Christian retired to Pop’s bedroom once again. There Christian unrolled his sleeping bag by the bed. So we’re back to that, Shadow thought.

“It’s better this way, at least for now,” Christian said by way of explanation, “I know I let you down.”

At first light, Pops set out for Leon’s cabin. Leon and Arthur had returned there on the same day Shadow and Christian had gone to Eden. Pops needed to inform them of recent developments and to learn if they had caught wind of any news that might have come drifting down the trails from the north.

Back at Pops’ cabin Shadow and Christian took turns freshening up in the bathhouse. Shadow went first.

While Christian made use of the facility, Shadow selected a change of clothes from a trunk of her belongings left in Pops’ keeping. Standing before a mirror she admired her reflection clad in the late Sailor Clanton’s red mesh tank top. This thing shows pretty much everything I got, she mused, It would look just hot enough if I wore it over one of Steffy’s black bras. But there’s no way I could fill one of those out. Upon further reflection, she just decided to get rid of it. She really didn’t need any reminders of Sailor Clanton after all.

She also decided that it was getting a little chilly for crotch-huggers. She switched those for a pair of waist-high leather pants. The top she selected was a simple black sleeveless t-shirt with a scoop neck. Shadow completed her ensemble with a new pair of unadorned wrist gauntlets that covered half the length of her forearms, furnishing protection and stability for her gun and knife hands. Now she felt ready for business.


It was late afternoon when Pops returned with Leon and Arthur. Pain’s bark alerted Shadow as they rode up. She greeted Leon and Arthur with warm hugs. Christian couldn’t help but notice that she seemed especially glad to see the latter. Presently they all gathered around Pops’ table to discuss matters. Leon and Arthur had already been given a summary of events. Now Shadow related a fuller account.

“This touches us all,” she told the group, “So you have a right to know everything, and that means the ugly stuff.” She then proceeded to narrate her recent misadventures, omitting only the tryst with Christian. As she told of her abduction and rape by Clanton, she felt the mood in the room grow grim. She noted the firm set of Leon’s jaw and the outrage blazing in Arthur’s eyes. Most of all, she was acutely aware of the tremor of Pops’ tightly clenched fists. It was as though he was fighting to control their independent urge to rend and smash. Shadow hastened to the part of her tale that concerned her bloody revenge. She sensed the group’s mood shift again in light of that revelation and their growing awareness of her ability to give payback with liberal interest. All the men, except for Pops, grew very quiet and still after glimpsing this frightening side of her.

“Anyway,” she concluded, “There’s more trouble on the way. Sorry, guys. The shit-storm about to come down is all my fault.”

“That’s bullshit,” Leon objected, “This started when Clanton trespassed on my property, shot up my home and wrecked our still. He might not have actually been trying to kill Arthur and me, but it could have happened real easy.”

“Maybe so,” Shadow admitted, “But there was no actual bloodshed until I got into the act. I went up the trail and left five bodies on the ground before I came back down.”

Christian didn’t hesitate to correct her, “That’s just four bodies, actually. One of them was my doing, God forgive me.”

Shadow favored him with a warm smile, “Thanks, Quick Draw.”

“And Karla got dead by her own choice,” Leon added, eager to offer encouragement, “We heard about that the next day. You didn’t go for a weapon until she did. There were any number of people there who saw it and will swear to it.”

“That’s all well and good, Leon. But what I did to Sailor Clanton’s boys was sheer murder.”

Christian spoke up again, his voice uncharacteristically stern, “Shadow, I was there and didn’t lift a finger to stop you. If you’re guilty of something, so am I. But I’ll never forget how I found you.” He vividly recalled the sight of her bound, raped, flogged and pistol-whipped. The others could see the gun barrel-shaped bruise that marred her face. “They would hang in any state in the Confederacy,” Christian concluded.

Now it was Pops’ turn. “Sailor Clanton has been running amok for years. There was bound to be a bullet with his name on it sooner or later. I say good riddance. The world becomes a little more like Hell every time an asshole gets his way.”

“Who actually knows that you killed Clanton?” Arthur asked Shadow.

“Just you guys,” she said, “But everyone in Eden knows I was looking for him. And somebody would have investigated the burnt cabin. The smoke could be seen for miles.”

“So what kind of trouble are we looking at now?” asked Christian.

“Feud,” Pops said simply. And to Leon and Shadow, that one word spoke volumes. It told of bloody ambushes, of furtive shapes skulking through the night, shots in the dark fired at silhouetted figures in cabin windows, men treading softly and looking ever over their shoulders. It told of creeping paranoia, fear, suspicion and death.
Once started a feud could drag on for years, even decades. Many people could be drawn into it before it was all over. People in isolated frontier regions grew to depend on one another in ways inconceivable to those dwelling in a more civilized milieu. Ties between members of large extended families remained strong. Bonds of friendship were forged of steel. Therefore, if someone on the periphery of a feud --say, the friend of a relative of one of the main combatants-- were to fall, then one of his friends could take up the vendetta and the whole bloody business would ripple outwards. Pops, Leon and Shadow had all spent enough time in the New Settlements to be familiar with such strife, but none of them had actually become embroiled in a feud. Until now.

Pops explained the grim nature of mountain feuds to Christian and Arthur. They both sat silently and absorbed it all. After digesting it all for a moment, Christian asked, “So who’s going to be on the warpath?”

“Mad Dog Clanton,” Pops grunted. The words seemed to hang in the air like the rumble of distant thunder. “That’s Sailor’s old man,” he added after a meaningful pause, “And he is one nasty son of a bitch.”

This was an understatement. Mad Dog Clanton was a veritable devil. He had been likened to a walking mass of muscle and rage. The elder Clanton was not quite as tall as Pops, but more broadly built and decades younger. Though powerful, his physique was not comely and symmetrical like that of his son Sailor or his rival, Pops O’Rourke. In places he looked almost grotesquely overdeveloped, his terrible thews bunched and knotted like those of a gorilla. Adding to his bestial appearance was the unkempt shock of thick black hair and a bristling black beard. Wiry black hair covered his massive chest, broad back and wide shoulders as well. When his face was contorted by rage, as it frequently was, it was enough to make demons take fright. Mad Dog Clanton would not have looked out of place lurking in a cave and wielding a stone axe.

Pops thought of Mad Dog Clanton as an atavism, a throwback to some dark lost age. He was an outcast from civilization. Even in the wilder towns such as Weirton he would have been shot dead had he chosen to linger there. The more organized criminal elements would have scant tolerance for such a loose cannon rolling around on their deck. In areas and communities still struggling to rebuild atop the ruins of war, he would be even less welcome. But the New Settlements were home to those who, for whatever reason, had chosen to turn their backs on everything that had come before and hew out a rude new world in the midst of virgin forest.

It was in this backwoods setting that Mad Dog Clanton had made his home. A grim, towering figure, he could win a dominant position in such a society. He assumed the mantle of a lord and raised his eldest son, Sailor, in the manner of a prince. Sailor’s Adonis-like good looks had been an immense source of pride to his brutish father. Mad Dog especially enjoyed basking in the reflected glory of his son’s sexual conquests. He had egged Sailor on, had urged him to take what he wanted, had fostered a sense of entitlement in his son by asserting his “God-given right” to this or that. Mad Dog had no small hand in making Sailor Clanton the monster he became.

Pops said little of this to the others, but was careful to emphasize just how tough and dangerous the elder Clanton was. “They don’t call him Mad Dog for nothing.”

“So how much trouble is this guy going to be?” Arthur asked, “I mean, who would side with someone like that? Who’s backing him up?”

“The bad elements mostly. The McCleans, the Martenses, the Wolanskis.”

“Anybody on our side?” It was an innocent enough question, but it evoked a strong response from Pops.

“I’ll be damned if there ain’t!” Pops replied testily, as though his integrity had been impugned, “I’ll walk right out of here and head straight into Hell if my name doesn’t carry more weight in these settlements than some piece of psycho scum like Mad Dog Clanton.”

“So who can we count on for certain?”

“The Woods, the Nixons, the Parkers. The Gormans for sure.”

The latter were distant kin of Shadow’s. Centuries earlier the Gormans had drifted south and west and finally settled in West Texas. After the War, most of the Southwest seceded from the Old Union and rejoined Mexico. The Gormans then relocated once again, this time to the Border Region.

“So what do we do now?” Christian asked.

“We assemble our allies,” Pops told him, “I expect that’s what Mad Dog Clanton is doing even as we speak. So there’s no time to lose. I’ll be on the road first thing tomorrow. I’m going to travel through the Settlements and talk with those people I mentioned, and some others. There are plenty who are spoiling for a fight with Clanton and his ilk. Others will offer support and backup. I intend to bring as many as possible into the fold. Leon and Arthur will accompany me. Christian and Shadow will stay here with Pain to guard the cabin. I suggest we all turn in early. It’s going to be a busy day.”


Pops slept in his own bed that night. The others bedded down in their sleeping bags. Before retiring, Pops took a moment to reflect.

I swear I don’t know if the New Settlements will ever amount to anything, he thought. What have we wrought here? A log-walled, dirt floor hell? Why did we do it? There was plenty of challenging work to be done in the years after the War. Most anywhere in the Border Region, in the city-states, in the rural areas, a man could carve out a niche for himself in any number of new societies springing up from the ashes. Why take to the deep woods with axes? Why take it all the way back to frontier days?

“A clean break with the past” was an expression that had been bandied about often. But Pops had been well aware, even at the outset, that Americans had always tended to romanticize the frontier life of the early pioneers. Yet such a life must have entailed no small measure of dark, grim, primitive squalor. Perhaps that was why the New Settlements drew dark, grim, primitive men like Mad Dog Clanton. As for Pops, he had been a restless giant seeking to grapple with the greatest challenge a brave new world had to offer.

Still had plenty of juice back then, even though it was only twenty-odd years ago, he recalled. Can’t believe Steffy went along with it, considering the world she came from. Still, she had that adventurous spirit.

The trouble was, Pops mused, that the New Settlements may have started as crude clusters of log cabins, but they shouldn’t remain as such. Maybe if certain undesirable elements --for instance, Mad Dog Clanton-- were taken down, the Settlements might yet amount to something. But a bloody protracted feud in these hills would only make matters worse. Pops did have a plan for ending the feud before it really got rolling. The only problem was that it probably wasn’t going to be pretty.


Pops arose during the darkness that foreruns the dawn. He, Leon and Arthur set out shortly after the first glimmer of daylight.

Christian and Shadow remained behind with Pain. At first a tense awkward silence hung between the man and woman. Christian attempted to engage in idle conversation. Shadow remained sullen. Gradually, however, she warmed to his boyish charm. She relaxed and began to engage in some small talk. It still seemed like something was bothering her, but he didn’t ask what it was. Following a lull in the conversation, she let him know.

“Christian, I want you out of here,” she said bluntly, “This is no place for you. Bad shit is about to go down. It could make the trouble you’ve seen so far look like a church picnic. You can get yourself killed or really, really messed up.”

Christian paused for a moment to digest this before raising any objection. At length he said, “But I’m a part of this too. The blood isn’t only on your hands. I killed that guy Chester.”

“Chester was a nobody. No one will give a shit about him. The riff-raff around here shoot and stab each other all the time. You saved my life. You’ve done more than enough.”

Another pause. Christian seemed to choose his words carefully before he spoke. “That may very well be true. But I can’t leave you. I cast my lot with you when I came to the New Settlements. I would not have left you before, and now, well…honor demands that I stay.”

Shadow rolled her eyes at the last part. “Okay Galahad, have it your way. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”


It was early afternoon when Pops and the others came riding back at the head of a dozen men on horseback, all heavily armed. Shadow recognized members of the Nixon and Gorman clans. The men dismounted. The newcomers began to unload gear from some spare horses and to pitch tents here and there on Pops’ property.

Pops briefed Shadow and Christian concerning recent developments. “These men are solidly in our camp. Still others are out on the roads spreading the word. I’m hoping to herd as many as possible on our side, packing as much heat as possible. It’s not that I’m preparing for slaughter. On the contrary, I hope to avoid or minimize bloodshed. But it’s advisable to negotiate from a position of strength. It’s the only thing a man like Clanton understands. I mean to confront him with a really formidable show of force. My plan is to set up a meeting with Clanton. Douglas Parker is riding up to his territory under a flag of truce, with some tough hombres to watch his back. Doug’s a good man, respected by all. Leave it to him to arrange the meeting. Once it’s set, we’ll ride up in force. These men will go with us, and our other allies will muster at the location point.”

“And where might that be?” asked Christian.

“Jericho. That’s in the place we around here call Heaven. Neither side will hold any special advantage.”

For Christian’s benefit, Pops explained the significance of those place names. Jericho was a log cabin settlement similar to Eden, only bigger. Its largest structure was sufficient to serve as a meeting hall. Because of its central location, Jericho was utilized as a gathering place for residents from throughout the settlements to address common concerns.

Both Jericho and Eden lay within the area locals referred to as “Heaven.” When Westsylvania seceded from Pennsylvania, the old Commonwealth fractured along county lines. Heaven was a notable exception. It was carved out of the southwestern corner of Centre County by mountaineers who refused to abide by the county’s Islamic majority and refused to locate further west. Authorities in the sparsely-settled county eventually abandoned the area. One mountaineer referred to their new domain as “a little piece of Heaven” and the name stuck. The New Settlements were lawless enough, but Heaven was wholly without legal authority.

Christian was incredulous. “And this is where you hope to avoid a bloodbath? I’m sorry, Mr. O’Rourke, but this all sounds like a blueprint for disaster.”

Pops chuckled in spite of the gravity of the situation. The lad had a point. There might have been a very slim microscopic chance that Mad Dog Clanton could be persuaded to reason had both sides suffered casualties. But the bloodshed had been one-sided --thus far. The best Pops could hope for would be to get Clanton to agree to settle the matter by single combat or one pitched battle between groups of chosen warriors. At least that way the strife would remain small and short-lived.

Pops admitted as much to Shadow and Christian. The latter remained skeptical. “I still don’t think this meeting or council or whatever you care to call it is a good idea. You’ll have all these angry men waving guns around. One shot and the whole thing turns into a massacre. I mean, what’s to stop it?”

“The Amish,” Pops replied, smiling once more at Christian’s look of astonishment. “We’ll be arranging for some of the Amish Elders to preside over the meeting. This is customary when arbitrating disputes. The Amish are held in high esteem in rural Westsylvania. They were instrumental in teaching folks to become self-sufficient during those horrible years just after the War. You’re too young to remember. A good bit of the eastern part of the Old Union was buried in rubble back then. Just ruin and utter devastation. But it was the Amish that helped survivors get back on their feet. Today, they’re untouchable. None will raise a hand against the least of them; the person who did so would be totally ostracized, even by family members. Now by tradition the counsel of their Elders is sought. Even a fiend like Mad Dog Clanton will respect that tradition.”


A messenger came riding into the O’Rourke camp at daybreak the following morn. The rider dismounted. Pops strode forth to greet him. The men clasped hands.

“Good to see you, Doug,” Pops said warmly. He introduced the man, Douglas Parker, to Christian and Arthur. “So what’s the good word?” Pops asked.

“It’s all been set up,” the man replied, “The meeting will convene in Jericho as soon as everybody’s there. The Amish have agreed to send a couple of emissaries.”

After breakfast, the O’Rourke faction broke camp and prepared for the trek to Jericho. Leon and Arthur loaded the wagon with provisions and some items Pops supplied. The dog Pain rode in the wagon. When everything was in readiness they all moved out. Pops rode at the head of the column.

They rode north to Jericho passing through Eden. In Eden the sullen residents peered silently from cabins or stood about on the unpaved streets to watch the horsemen go by. Along the way the column was joined by others who had come up separate trails.

The O’Rourke party arrived in Jericho early in the afternoon. Unlike Eden, where dark woodlands pressed in ominously on all sides, Jericho stood in the midst of a wide clearing. Its rough-hewn buildings were more numerous and better constructed than those of the smaller communities. There were several corrals for horses. Pops led his riders towards one of these. He saw another group assembling at a corral on the other side of the settlement.

“Those would be Clanton’s men,” Pops informed Christian and Arthur, “But I don’t see Clanton himself.”

Before long O’Rourke’s group was joined by other allies who had come down from the north. These included members of the Wood and Nixon clans and their kin. Still others had come to Jericho. These were of old Pennsylvania German extraction like the Huffmans and the Holcrofts. They were sympathetic to O’Rourke or neutral, but definitely no friends of the Clantons. When all were assembled, the O’Rourke faction numbered almost a hundred men and a few women. All were heavily armed, toting M-16s, Uzis, AK-47s and various other assault weapons including some very advanced models that had seen service in the War. This was in addition to the sidearms that all wore on their belts. The Clanton group was similarly outfitted. To Christian it seemed like half the guns of the Border Region were in the hands of these men.

By Pops’ reckoning his group outnumbered Clanton’s people about three to one. Well, that’s good, he thought, Makes it less likely that Clanton will try to turn this into a gun battle.

Pain leapt down from Leon’s wagon and trotted over to Pops. The beast growled as Pops forced it to submit to wearing a chain and collar. “Easy, boy,” Pops said soothingly while stroking the animal, “We just don’t want anyone around her getting antsy.”

Elsewhere in the corral Shadow was introducing Christian and Arthur to a young girl of perhaps nineteen years. This was an attractive redhead named Cathy Gorman. Though not quite in Shadow or Karla’s league, Cathy could hold her own in most any kind of a brawl.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” Cathy said cheerfully, “Keeping all these handsome men to yourself.” Cathy seemed especially attracted to Arthur, but he was uncertain of how to respond to the girl’s flirtation. “I hope to see you again soon,“ she told him, offering encouragement when they parted. It was the only light moment of a very grim day.

Pops’ conversation with other of the newcomers was of an altogether more somber nature. As he had suspected, Chester, Mike and Lyle were as completely forgotten as though they had never existed. On the other hand, the popular Sailor Clanton and Karla were already being accorded the near-mythological status of Tristan and Isolde, Antony and Cleopatra, and other such star-crossed lovers. This did not bode well.

“Still no sign of Mad Dog,” Pops muttered as he scanned the enemy camp. Probably waiting to make an entrance when things gets started. And he’s probably been told that I’ve arrived. It was then that he noticed some activity. The man had started to file out of the corral and head towards the settlement’s large central structure.

“It’s on,” Pops informed his allies, “Let’s go.”

The O’Rourke contingent now left the area about the corral where they had been congregating. A few men were left behind to guard the horses. Pops left Pain behind with Cathy Gorman, who had known the dog since he was a puppy. Everybody else began to make their way towards the central building. They moved slowly and warily, keeping pace with the men approaching from the opposite direction.
Jericho’s central building was a massive structure solidly built of sturdy timbers. Even from the outside it was apparent that the structure housed a single large room intended to serve as a gathering place for meetings, celebrations and other communal events. The building was rectangular in shape, with sets of double doors on either of the longer sides. It could hold about a hundred people. That meant that a number of those who had arrived in Jericho today would have to wait outside and observe the proceedings through windows and open doorways.

Clanton’s men had already begun to enter the hall by the time O’Rourke’s group reached it. Douglas Parker insisted on going in first accompanied by some formidable companions to make sure that none lie in wait to bushwhack Pops or Shadow. Pops saw the wisdom of deferring to his friend’s prudent judgment. A large number of his party preceded Pops into the hall.

Inside the hall local residents had made arrangements for the meeting. Two rows of benches had been set up with an aisle running between them. Clanton’s group had already taken seats on one side of the aisle and O’Rourke’s people were now filling the opposite row. Locals and other neutral parties occupied standing room in the rear. At the front of the hall a table had been placed on a raised platform along with two chairs reserved for the Amish Elders.

Pops O’Rourke entered the hall flanked by Leon and Arthur, followed by Christian and Shadow. Muttering in the Clanton section died down as the giant O’Rourke strode in, but started anew when Shadow glided in after him, clad all in black, her duster billowing out behind her. A slender man rose and pointed an accusing finger.

“That’s her!” he cried. It was Danny Martense, a high-strung youth with a reputation for being a hothead. “That’s the witch! That’s the witch that slew Sailor and Karla! Devil spawn! Devil spawn!”

This was bad. It was just the sort of thing that could turn an already irate crowd into a howling mob shrieking for blood. One spark in that tinderbox could ignite a conflagration. This had to be stopped, and fast.

In the space of a second O’Rourke stepped up to confront the youth, covering the distance with a few long strides. A single mild blow from Pops’ sledge-like fist was sufficient to knock Danny Martense back onto his seat with a fractured jaw.

“Sit down and shut up!” Pops roared. He raised his clenched fists high. The gesture was a signal, understood by all, both that he held no weapon and that he would take on any of them mano a mano. He transfixed the crowd with his volcanic gaze. Pops didn’t know what to expect, but at least he had shifted the focus from Shadow back to himself. For a tense moment the tableau held. Then another spoke.

“Let everyone settle down and be seated.” It was a rich, clear solemn voice laden with calm authority.

All heads, including Pops’, turned toward the speaker. Two tall old men clad in the somber garb of the Amish stood framed in the doorway. Both were ancient, with long white beards reaching to their waists, but stood as straight and sturdy as oaks. They assumed their appointed place behind the table on the platform. The Elders had arrived.

Pops and his companions seated themselves in the front row of their section. “My God,” Pops said in a hushed tone, “That’s Abner and Ebenezer.”

Catching the note of awe in his voice, Arthur asked, “So are they, like, pretty big?”

“There are none bigger.”

Pops knew whereof he spoke. Yet his simple statement to Arthur failed to do justice to the true stature of Abner and Ebenezer among the Amish of Westsylvania. They were much more than community elders; they were patriarchs and living legends. Each had taken on the mantle of Moses during a latter-day Exodus.

After the War, the Special Election of ‘81 established Islamic law in Pennsylvania. This in turn sparked the Pennsylvania Uprising that led to the secession of Westsylvania. However, the Amish of Lancaster County and environs remained isolated in the midst of what had been the eastern half of the old Commonwealth. If they remained there they would be obliged to accept Islamic rule. Abner had taken the initiative in planning and successfully orchestrating their relocation. He led his people westward into the mountains.

Ebenezer had assumed a similar role, only in his case the circumstances were more complicated. In addition to those in Lancaster and the eastern part of the state, there were Amish enclaves in northwestern Pennsylvania as well. Most were centered around Spartansburg in Crawford County. Had Westsylvania come to include all the western counties of Pennsylvania the Amish there would have been able to continue to dwell there as before. Their brethren from Lancaster might even have joined them there. But as fate would have it, the northwestern counties became the subject of controversy.

Westsylvania secession was ultimately achieved without bloodshed, but not without compromise. Secession leaders met with government officials in the state capital of Harrisburg to hammer out an agreement allowing for a peaceful separation. A major point of contention concerned the northwestern counties of Erie, Crawford, Warren and McKean. Political and religious leaders were already looking to the day when the Islamic States would achieve full independence. It was important to them that those four counties remain part of Pennsylvania to form a corridor linking the eastern Islamic states with those in the Midwest. In this way the future nation would encompass a single geographically contiguous area. Secession leaders agreed to this compromise in order to settle the matter while they still held a strong position.

This development did not go over well in some quarters. Although the secession movement originated in the southwestern portion of the state, it had ardent supporters in the northwestern counties. The most militant resided in the town of North East, located in the northeastern portion of the state’s small panhandle that extended to Lake Erie. Secessionists there complained that the movement’s leaders had betrayed them. Both state officials and movement leaders pointed out that the majority of Western Pennsylvania’s Muslims resided in or near Erie; therefore the compromise made sense. In any event the disgruntled numbered too few to mount an effective counter-movement. They ultimately had little choice but to relocate. A number of them opted for the hardy frontier life of the New Settlements.

Thus the Amish of Crawford County faced the same dilemma as their brethren far to the east in Lancaster County. Ebenezer took on the leadership role in their subsequent migration. During the following years Ebenezer and Abner worked together to establish new Amish enclaves along the eastern fringe of the Border Region. As patriarchs they became the stuff of legend. It was as though Pharaoh’s daughter had plucked twins from the bulrushes.

The significance of their presence here and now at this meeting was not lost on Pops. It meant that the Amish Elders were taking the recent turn of events very seriously indeed. They knew as well as he did the potential of a protracted feud to rob the Settlements of some of their best blood, leaving women and orphans to wail for their dead.

When all were seated Abner said, “Let the proceedings begin.”

Already there was an objection. “But they cain’t begin,” someone shouted from the Clanton section, “Mad Dog …I mean, Mr. Clanton… ain’t here yet.”

As if on cue a ruckus suddenly arose in the rear of the meeting hall. Heads turned towards the source of the commotion. A small group of newcomers was making its loud way through the rear entrance. At the group’s center was a massive bear-like man clad in buckskins. A wild tangle of thick black hair hung to his shoulders and his heavy beard was split by teeth bared in a perpetual snarl. His small bloodshot eyes darted about, habitually scanning for enemies. The man bellowed curses as he strode down the center aisle. Mad Dog Clanton, for this could be none other, had arrived.

“Where be the bitch that murdered my boy?” he demanded.

Shadow shot to her feet; she hid from no man. “Right here, asshole!” she spat back, “Your ‘boy’ kidnapped me and raped me.”

“Is this true?” Ebenezer the Elder asked sternly.

Clanton growled but held his temper. He was outnumbered and outgunned by his foes, and the authority of the Elders was almost tangible. “We have only her word for that!” he snarled.

“Not so!” A new voice rang out. It was Christian. He rose and took his place alongside Shadow. “I saw Sailor Clanton take her away. I found her tied to his bed after he violated her. I swear to it by God and my Lord Jesus Christ, and I do not make such an oath in vain!”

Christian’s voice carried the ring of truth. His tone of righteous sincerity evoked nods among the listeners, including some in the Clanton camp. Even Mad Dog himself was taken aback slightly. He was far from mollified, however. He switched to a different tact. Grasping the first thing that came to mind, he stabbed an accusing finger at Shadow.

“You took the law into your own hands!”

Some of Mad Dog’s supporters had to stifle cynical laughter. Shadow grew visibly angry. She seemed ready to launch herself at Mad Dog Clanton despite being physically outmatched.

“There is no law in Heaven!” she roared, “And what passes for it in the rest of the Settlements is a joke. And you know it.”

“What I know is that you’re a mass murderer. You murdered that fine woman Karla as well as my boy!”

“That’s a lie!” This was shouted from one the neutral factions standing in the rear of the hall. “It was a fair fight!” exclaimed one of the men, “I was there and saw the whole thing. Shadow didn’t go for her bowie until Karla did.”

“Enough of this.” Now it was Abner who spoke. At the sound of his voice the others fell silent. He turned to Pops. “Mr. O’Rourke, it was you who arranged this meeting. What is it you hope to accomplish?”

Shadow and Christian took their seats. Pops rose and addressed the Elders. “I hope to forestall further bloodshed,” he told them, “It seems insane to me that this began as a dispute over whiskey. As all know, there are no laws pertaining to the home manufacture and sale of spirits in these parts. Sailor Clanton wrecked a still on the property of my good friend Leon Jackson and fired shots into his home. His goal was to eliminate competition in the moonshine trade. He admitted all this to Miss Lane while she was his captive. Miss Lane was Mr. Jackson’s partner. She went in search of Sailor Clanton in the hopes of talking things out. For her pains she had to defend herself in a fight to the death, then was kidnapped and raped.”

The Elders mulled this over. Ebenezer addressed Mad Dog, “Mr. Clanton, death is harsh but so is the outrage of a woman. Would ye be willing to forego vengeance?”

“I’ll be damned if I will!” Clanton thundered, “Beware, Connor O’Rourke! I mean to have your hide and that of your girl.”

Pops face betrayed no emotion, but inwardly he felt relief. Had Clanton readily agreed to a truce, the situation would have been decidedly more dangerous. There was no chance whatsoever that Mad Dog Clanton would keep such a promise. O’Rourke and his friends would be in constant peril. Their lives would be spent looking over their shoulders. None would know when shots would be fired from the dark. Blood would call for blood, and on it would drag. The feud would cast its gloomy pall over all. No, it was better that Clanton declared his intentions openly. This gave O’Rourke the chance he had been hoping for all along. As he saw it, his best option lie in settling his differences with Clanton with one quick, decisive bloodletting.
In response to Mad Dog Clanton’s wild oath, Pops said simply, “I’ll not have my people dragged into endless feuding. I propose we settle this once and for all, the way our ancestors in the old country did.”

Clanton eyed Pops warily. “Are ye callin’ for a faction fight?”

“I am.”

Faction fights were common in 19th Century Ireland. These were pitched battles between rival clans, gangs or communities. A faction fight could erupt over property disputes, debts or various sorts of grudges. Weapons usually consisted of sticks, stones and similar primitive implements, although the use of swords and even guns was not unheard of. There was a certain structure to the battle, the main rule being that the sides be evenly numbered. Hundreds or even thousands of combatants could be involved. The largest faction fight on record took place in County Kerry in June 1834. Three thousand fought that day. When it was all over two hundred of them lie dead. Irish immigrants to America were known to engage in faction fighting. In old New York the Dead Rabbits and rival gangs fought for turf in the Five Points section.

Mad Dog Clanton readily agreed to a faction fight. Ever the schemer, he saw a rare opportunity to utterly crush his rival O’Rourke. Then, unopposed, he could pretty much call the shots in the New Settlements. He would be a king ruling from a palace of logs.

Pops addressed the Elders once more. “There can be no peace between me and Clanton. I see long years of feuding ahead. That’s something to be avoided. I propose to settle it once and for all in a day. Clanton’s people will fight mine. All will abide by the outcome.”

Abner conferred briefly with Ebenezer. It was Ebenezer who spoke. “It would be a vain hope for you to forsake your blood-mad ways. If violence there must be, let it be as a summer storm that passes swiftly. Better that than unending feud.”

Pops turned back to Clanton. “We will have our battle. How many can you field?”

“There be only thirty I can count on for sure.”

“Then I’ll meet you with thirty of my best. Weapons?”

“Blades and bludgeons!”

“Very well. I call time and place. Bender’s Field. Noon, the day after tomorrow.” Bender’s Field was a central location not far from Jericho. Both parties would travel an equal distance to reach it. A full day would give them plenty of time to prepare.

“I will meet you on Bender’s Field,” Mad Dog Clanton growled, “And then I will see you in Hell!”


Two days later the factions gathered on Bender’s Field. A fog hung over the field as the hosts assembled throughout the morning. As the noon hour approached the fog cleared and the clouds parted. The day was warm and fine.

The factions had formed staging areas at opposite ends of the field. In O’Rourke’s camp, Christian found Shadow practicing with a curious looking weapon. It consisted of two hardwood sticks just over a foot long joined by a short length of cord. Apparently it was designed to be used as a flail. Shadow held one of the sticks and used it to whirl the other about. She whipped the sticks around faster and faster, switching from hand to hand. Christian asked her what the weapon was called.

“This? It’s a nunchaku,” she said, “It’s an Asian weapon like the manriki-gusari I gave you. Haven’t you ever seen old Bruce Lee movies?”

Christian explained that in the Christian South the Asian martial arts were associated with pagan religions like Buddhism and therefore not widely taught. As for movies, his parents had frowned upon violent entertainment.

“What in God’s name are you doing here, Church-boy?” Shadow exclaimed in exasperation, “I told you before to stay the hell out of this.”

“I don’t recall you asking Arthur to leave,” Christian replied.

“Arthur’s Border Region. He lives in the Settlements. He has a stake in what goes on here.”

“Well, so do I,” Christian said. He looked at her meaningfully.

Shadow rolled her eyes. “Oh, all right. Go see Pops and get outfitted with a weapon. And if you get your head bashed in, don’t come crying to me.”

Christian wandered over to a wagon where Pops was standing with some of the Gormans and the Woods. O’Rourke was clad as Christian had first seen him --grey tank top, jeans, knee-high leather moccasins. With his massive physique and long white hair, he once again reminded Christian of some pagan god of mythology.

“Good morning, Mr. O’Rourke,” Christian said casually, as though they were meeting for breakfast, “I guess I’ll be needing a weapon.”

“Glad to have you with us, son.” Unlike Shadow, Pops made no attempt to dissuade Christian. That meant a lot to the younger man. “We’ll try to make short work of this.”

Pops rummaged through an assortment of weapons he had in his wagon. He presented Christian with an axe handle.

“The axe handle is a more versatile weapon than the axe itself,” Pops explained, “Better balance. Much easier to wield. You can strike with either end. Also, you can thrust with it as well as swing it.”

Christian practiced with the axe handle for a few minutes and seemed to get the hang of it. Curious, he asked, “What sort of weapon will you be carrying, Mr. O’Rourke?”

Pops showed him a stout black walking stick with a knobby head.

“This is a shillelagh, cut from an Irish blackthorn stem. It’s light, but hard as iron. I actually have several. Originally a shillelagh was a short cudgel about the length of a police baton. It was the traditional weapon of rural Ireland. In time it evolved into the blackthorn walking stick, which was socially more acceptable. Be that as it may, taking a hit from one of these is like getting hit with a piece of pipe.”

Christian watched as Pops hefted the stick and whipped it about as though striking at imaginary foes. Satisfied, Pops turned to the younger man and said, “Come. I’ll introduce you to some of the others who will be joining us today.”


Across the field, Mad Dog Clanton observed his enemies making their preparations. Near him stood a sallow youth of medium height and nondescript appearance. This was Mad Dog’s second son Joel, upon whom no one had bothered to bestow a nickname. Dull, timid, and sad, Joel had withered in the shadow of his adored older brother.

“Do you think we can whip ‘em, Pa?” Joel asked.

“Shet up!” Mad Dog growled, “To think that Sailor’s gone and you’re still here. Just do your part when it comes to avenging your brother.”

“I will, Pa,” Joel said meekly.

Mad Dog wasn’t listening. He was focused on the battle looming ahead. He had stripped to the waist, exposing chest and arms as hairy as those of a gorilla. In his eager hand he gripped his weapon of choice. This was a tomahawk cut in one piece from a sheet of steel, the handle wrapped in strips of leather. Mad Dog customarily carried it on his belt in place of the bowie knife usually worn in those parts. Now he practiced smiting blows with it.

“Today will be a day of reckoning!” he vowed, “I kill O’Rourke and that girl of his loses a man who was like a father to her. Or I kill her and O’Rourke loses a daughter. Either way one suffers a loss like the one I’ve suffered. But not for long. No, not for long. Before the day is done I’ll see both of ‘em dead!”


As the sun neared its zenith the battle lines began to form. Each faction fielded thirty combatants chosen from volunteers. Other allies of either faction retained their firearms and formed a loose perimeter about the field. Beyond the perimeter some of the frontier physicians had set up a triage unit using military field hospital equipment. Here the wounded would be received and treated.

Christian noticed Arthur standing in the O’Rourke lines, but Arthur did not seem to notice him. Arthur had a far-away look in his eyes, as though fixated on something no one else could see. He was prepared for the battle ahead. His clothing looked padded, the better to absorb the shock of blunt instruments. He wore a heavy leather jacket with metal strips attached to the left sleeve to afford him some protection against edged weapons. In his right hand he gripped a broad-bladed knife as big as a bowie, but double-edged like a dagger. The blade tapered to a diamond-sharp point. Christian had heard such a weapon referred to as an “Arkansas toothpick.”

The dog Pain remained behind with those who formed O’Rourke’s part of the perimeter. Cathy Gorman held the dog’s leash. The slim girl had no trouble keeping the beast in check even though the great hound outweighed her; she had doted on the animal since it was a puppy. Just before the battle commenced, Pops told her, “If anyone pulls a gun or does anything dirty…unleash Pain.”


At high noon the thing got underway. There was no pre-arranged signal; everyone just knew it was time. The lines advanced towards one another slowly at first, stalking grimly forward, then began to pick up speed as they closed distance. There was no yelling yet. The factions closed on one another in stony silence.

It was Arthur who drew first blood. He abruptly broke from the pack and ran to the nearest foeman as though rushing to a long-separated sweetheart. Arthur collided with the man, who rebounded roughly from him. As the man staggered off-balance, Arthur drove the deadly Arkansas toothpick home. The man groaned and pitched headlong. Before he had even struck the ground, Arthur was already lusting for a fresh kill. Demons drove him. He now sought to drown a lifetime of repressions in blood.

When the first man fell, the field erupted in a dreadful cacophony of screams and shrill battle cries that chilled the blood of those on the perimeter. The lines crashed together like waves and broke into small clumps of combatants.

Christian found himself in the midst of a swirling chaos, but did not lose his bearings. When a foe leapt to confront him, knife in hand, Christian struck first with the axe handle. A glancing blow to the head stunned the attacker. Christian followed through with a hard smash to the thigh that sent the man down, his nerves screaming in pain. He was relieved to have put the man down without doing him grievous harm. But any such relief was short-lived.

Another foe instantly sprang to the attack. Christian recognized him as Danny Martense from the Jericho meeting. Martense came right at him swinging what looked like a small aluminum bat. Christian raised the axe handle to block. Stung to fury, Martense struck at the axe handle again and again. Christian felt his arm growing numb under the repeated impact. An especially hard blow broke his grip. The axe handle flew spinning from his hand.

Fortunately Christian had spent too much time with Shadow to dumbly watch his weapon fly away. His eyes never left his opponent. Thus he was able to avoid the follow-up swing of the bat with a desperate backward leap. Hard-pressed, he was at a loss as to how to counter. Then he remembered the ninja chain.

With a practiced motion his hand flashed down and yanked free the manriki-gusari. As Martense chambered the bat for another swipe, Christian surprised him by suddenly rushing in and closing distance. Swinging the manriki-gusari up and about, Christian struck Martense a vicious blow across the face with both weighted ends of the chain. Martense was momentarily stunned, enabling Christian to grab the arm that held the bat with his free hand and hold it immobile.

With a flick of his wrist Christian wrapped the ninja chain about his hand and used it like brass knuckles as he punched Martense repeatedly in the face. A blow to the jaw previously fractured by Pops caused Martense to howl and drop the bat. With an audible sigh of relief, Christian kicked it away. A few more stout blows caused Martense to sag and drop to the ground. Christian kicked and stomped him to make sure he stayed there.

Christian stepped free of his fallen foe. Gripping one weighted end tightly in his palm, he let the ninja chain play out at full length as he spun it to generate centrifugal force. Then, with the manriki-gusari whirling in a deadly gyre, he waded back into the fray. Enemies on the receiving end of a head blow from the chain went down as though struck by a bullet, or were rendered easy pickings for Christian’s comrades. Christian was now part of the madness that swirled about him. When one of the Nixons went down yowling, Christian instantly stepped into take his place.

Christian and Arthur were both fighting on fringe areas of the battle. Pops O’Rourke was in the thick of it. He held a blackthorn stick in either hand, wielding them simultaneously in the Filipino style. Pops moved through the enemy host like a juggernaut, striking down foes like a reaper cutting grain. He was working his way inexorably towards Mad Dog Clanton.

Clanton awaited him. He stood to the rear with his son Joel. Mad Dog was hanging back deliberately. He knew O’Rourke was coming for him and was positioning himself as bait. He wanted to draw O’Rourke into his own lines where he’d be surrounded. However, surrounding O’Rourke proved to be no simple task. Shadow guarded his back with a flailing nunchaku.

Mad Dog Clanton saw that there would be no trapping O’Rourke. That was fine; he was loath to leave the work of dispatching his rival to minions in any event. Hefting his tomahawk, Clanton strode forth to meet his foe half-way. An O’Rourke ally who tried to bar his way went down with a split skull.

Pops battered his way through a final group of foemen to stand face-to-face with Mad Dog Clanton, who awaited him with dripping tomahawk. He threw back his head and roared, “Let the fighting cease! This is now between me and Clanton!”

The booming voice of Connor O’Rourke swept across the field like a thunderclap. Even the most frenzied combatants were arrested by its power. Struggle ended within moments. All eyes turned to the two giants in the center of the field.

“Single combat, Clanton,” came Pops’ challenge, “No more need shed their blood this day. All this can be settled between you and me.”

It was a challenge Clanton could not ignore even if he had wanted to. And he didn’t want to. He felt certain he could best O’Rourke in any form of single combat.

“I accept,” Clanton snarled.

“Let these be the weapons!” Pops declared. He brandished both blackthorn sticks aloft in one mighty fist. With his free hand he unbuckled the belt that held the big Alaskan bowie and let it drop to the ground.

Mad Dog Clanton cast his tomahawk aside. “Shillelaghs it is!”

Bataireacht, or Irish stick fighting, was the first martial art Pops had ever trained in. He had learned it from his father when only a lad. He knew that Clanton was versed in the art as well. He also knew that Clanton would be caught up in the drama of moment.

Pops tossed one of the blackthorn sticks to Clanton, who gripped it in eager hands. Oh, this will be epic, Mad Dog thought. They will tell of my vanquishing of O’Rourke for a hundred years!

Pops and Clanton squared off. The others stepped back to give them room to maneuver. Each man held his stick horizontally in front of him, gripping it with both hands spaced shoulder-width apart. Held in this manner the ends of the stick could be used as extensions of the fists to deliver sharp blows while infighting. Or one end of the stick could be released and snapped out to strike at greater range.

To the stunned spectators it seemed that less than the space of a heartbeat had elapsed from the time the fighters squared off before they erupted into violent action. There was no circling about to take each other’s measure. The fight was on in an instant.

Mad Dog Clanton launched himself at Pops, swinging and snapping his stick in a blinding blur. He came in fast and furious, hoping to smother his opponent and force him into a defensive posture from the outset. His aim was to overwhelm Pops’ superior technique. Mad Dog laughed maniacally as he came on, but there was method to his madness. That laughter was meant to rattle Pops and psych him out. Nor was Clanton by any means lacking in technical skill and discipline. Despite the fury of his attack, he was always in control.

Though not exactly caught off guard, Pops was forced to give ground before the suddenness of Clanton’s assault. He backed up a few steps. Emboldened, Clanton sought to press his advantage and redoubled his exertions.

Pops wielded his own stick to fend off Clanton’s swings and thrusts with icy precision. Clanton was unable to penetrate his defenses. And when Clanton left an opening, Pops instantly went on the offensive to exploit it. Clanton dared not let himself grow reckless.

Clanton realized that he had lost the initiative. Now he and Pops were fighting on more or less equal footing. The sticks flashed out and back, cracking against one another. They were driven by sinewy arms that never seemed to tire or falter. Thrust, parry, riposte; so it went for many long minutes. Those closest to the battle noticed a slight scent of burnt wood hanging in the air. It was from the friction caused by the rapid, repeated contact of the two blackthorn sticks.

There was no laughter now as Clanton strove against O’Rourke in deadly earnest. Each sought some way to break the stalemate. Pops tried lulling his opponent into a pattern, but Clanton proved too wary. Clanton offered what appeared to be a convenient opening in order to tempt O’Rourke into a trap. However Pops refused to take the bait.

Clanton felt his energy begin to flag, but could detect no loss of precision in O’Rourke’s technique. He sensed victory slipping from him. Desperate, he threw caution to the wind and staked everything on a bold gambit. God help him if it backfired.

Clanton feinted a low blow, as though striking at his opponent’s thigh, then abruptly went high with it. O’Rourke caught the move and raised his weapon in time to check Clanton’s stick as it came humming at his head. He got his guard up a split-second too late to deflect the stick cleanly away, however. Instead Clanton’s stick merely slid past O’Rourke’s. Owing as much to luck as skill, Clanton managed to angle his stick towards his rival’s face. The point of the stick struck O’Rourke’s chin with enough concentrated force to dislocate the jaw of a lesser man.

O’Rourke reeled back, momentarily stunned. It was all the break his enemy needed. An instant later a white flash exploded inside Pop’s skull as the knobby end of Mad Dog Clanton’s shillelagh crashed sickeningly into his temple.

Dazed and semi-conscious, Pops struggled to remain on his feet. He saw the ground rushing up at him and dropped to his knees to avoid crashing headlong to the earth. He raised his stick to ward off further blows, but a brutal hand-smash caused the weapon to slip from his fingers.

Mad Dog Clanton now began to rain heavy blows about O’Rourke’s unprotected head, back and shoulders. He struck gleefully as though attempting to pound his enemy into the ground like a tent peg.

Pops saw the world spinning and growing black. He knew he was about to go under.

“Too old,” he muttered, “Too old…”

With those words Pops slumped to the ground in defeat. Darkness overcame him.

Mad Dog Clanton howled in savage glee. With both hands he raised his shillelagh on high like some angry god’s war club. He stood poised to bring it down on his fallen enemy’s skull with bone-crunching impact.

He was but a second from delivering his coup de grace when Shadow flung herself across Pops’ prostrate form. Clanton stayed his hand due to stunned amazement rather than any impulse to mercy. He stood bewildered as Shadow dropped her nunchaku and looked up at him. She raised her open hands in a wordless plea for a time-out. Curious, Clanton lowered his stick. He glared down at the pale upturned oval of her face, but said nothing. It was her move.

Around them, the ring of spectators awaited the next development in the same tense silence they had borne witness to the battle between Clanton and O’Rourke. The crowd seemed to hold its breath.

With slow deliberate movements, Shadow picked up the blackthorn stick Pops had dropped. Just as slowly she rose and backed away from Pops’ fallen form. As she did so she looked Clanton in the eye, holding his gaze, and issued a challenge.

“Finish the single combat with me!” she said boldly, “I’m the one you want. I killed Sailor. I killed him, then I cut his balls off!” Her bearing was deliberately haughty. She was going all out to provoke him.

Mad Dog Clanton snarled as though livid with venomous rage. But in his black heart there surged a savage joy. His most blasphemous prayers were being answered.

Already he had decisively beaten Connor O’Rourke in single combat, for all to see. Now he would kill his girl and avenge Sailor. She would lie dead at his feet and O’Rourke would be a broken man.

Clanton brandished his stick in a menacing fashion, swiping at empty air to put the scare into his new opponent. Then he began advancing on the girl.

Shadow backed away, but not in fear. She was ready for the fight and just needed more room to maneuver. Shadow had only a little training in Irish stick fighting, but was thoroughly versed in the Filipino stick fighting art of kali. She knew she was physically outmatched by the hairy giant who now stalked bellowing towards her. Her plan involved delivering a hand-smash to Clanton’s weapon hand, using a snake disarm to pluck the weapon from his loosened grip, then wielding both sticks to batter him down as she had done to that guy in Wheeling.

Mad Dog Clanton did not know what skill the girl possessed, and did not much care. He was confident that his greater size and strength would easily vanquish her. He aimed to smite her down with one blow, just like swatting a fly.

Clanton swung his stick up and over in a great swooping arc with the intention of bringing the knobby end right down on the girl’s head. Shadow instinctively raised her own stick in a roof block to defect it. The impact of his stick on hers nearly broke her grip and tore her weapon from her grasp. Clanton’s stick barely glanced off hers and went whistling past her head, missing it by inches.

Shadow had nearly lost the fight right then and there. Even so, Clanton’s reckless move provided her with an opening that she was quick to exploit. Swinging her stick out and back, she delivered a swift solid blow to Clanton’s unprotected side. Clanton winced as the hard stick impacted against his ribs.

Now it was his turn to back up. Not even Mad Dog Clanton could take too many clouts like that. Adjusting his strategy, he now strove to match his opponent’s technique while bringing his superior strength to bear.

Clanton went right back on the offensive with a speed belying his massive bulk. Shadow found herself hard-pressed to counter his moves. He came in and out so fast that there was no opportunity to strike his hand and secure his weapon. Clanton knew he held the advantage. He taunted his smaller foe.

“Ha ha, girly! O’Rourke himself could not stand before me. What chance have you?”

Shadow was all too aware of her imminent peril. She could not withstand Mad Dog Clanton’s power and ferocity for long. She had to find some way to take him down, and fast.

In the back of her mind there flashed the old maxim, “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” That was the plain truth of the matter. One could not afford to play games with a bigger, stronger enemy. Physically outmatched in a life-or-death struggle, one had few options. The most viable was to attack the enemy’s most vulnerable spots --eyes, throat, groin, knees. As Pops had once told her, “It doesn’t matter what kind of badass some joker is if he can’t walk, see or breathe.”

Shadow got her chance when Clanton took a swing at her head. Instead of blocking with her stick she ducked under it. As she did so she lashed out with a side thrust kick aimed at Clanton’s knee. The unexpected move worked. The kick connected right on target. There was a sickening crack of splintering bone as Clanton’s knee bent opposite the way it was designed. Clanton toppled like a dead tree blasted by lightning.

Clanton hit the ground with a heavy thud. There he writhed helplessly on his back and howled in pain. Shadow strode over to him and raised her blackthorn stick. She stood poised to bring it down in the center of Clanton’s face.

Before she could do so, Clanton raised his hand. “Quarter!” he cried.

Shadow looked down at her fallen foe. She had dealt him a terrible injury. A break like that could never fully heal. Clanton was going to be permanently disabled. He would never fight again.

“All this ends now,” Shadow said sternly.

But before Clanton could respond, the harsh voice of another grated in her ears.

“You witch!”

Shadow whirled to confront what could only be a new source of danger. She found herself looking down the barrel of a revolver held by Joel Clanton, Mad Dog’s forgotten son. The spindly youth’s body trembled with rage and tension, but his gun hand held steady. There were tears in his eyes as he said, “You killed my brother. You crippled my father. Now you’re going to hell.”

Shadow saw his finger tighten on the trigger, saw the chamber of the revolver begin to turn, saw her death upon her. But then, as the hammer fell and the gun boomed, there was a blur of motion as another hurled himself into the space between Joel and Shadow. It was Arthur. Shadow could only watch in sick horror as Arthur fell, stuck by the bullet meant for her.

Joel had no chance to try a second shot. Before the echo of the first one died, a huge dark canine shape came hurtling through the air and struck him like a cannonball. Joel was bowled over and borne to the ground by a great black hound. He dropped the gun, freeing his hands to fend off the slavering jaws that came a mere instant from tearing out his throat. Following Pops’ instructions, Cathy Gorman had unleashed Pain.

Shadow ran to Arthur and knelt beside him. Joel strove with all his desperate strength to keep the dog from his throat. And at the sound of the gunshot, Pops had begun to stir. He shook his head, lion-like, and began to rise. Onlookers could only marvel at his toughness and resilience. Pops straightened and stood erect. He was a little wobbly, but his fierce blue eyes were clear. He took in the situation at a glance.

Pops had barely gained his feet when he heard someone calling out to him. It was Mad Dog Clanton, writhing on the ground and clutching his ruined leg. “O’Rourke… O’Rourke,” he croaked, “Call off your dog. Please, O’Rourke! Spare my boy!”

Pops glowered down at him, his face grim. “It looks like your boy shot down a good man.”

“To both our everlasting shame!” Mad Dog wailed passionately, tears flowing from his eyes, “But he’s all I have left! Spare him.”

Joel was now shrieking as though he were being chased by devils. The dog’s fangs had already mangled one of his arms.

Mad Dog continued his impassioned entreaty, “I beg of you, O’Rourke. I’m going to be a cripple. I can trouble ye no more. For the loss of your man I forgo vengeance for Sailor. It’s over. I swear it on my dead wife’s grave.”

Pops took a somber moment to reflect, then said, “Pain. Heel.”

Instantly, as though a switch had been thrown, the great hound broke off its attack and glided over to its master.

Shadow looked up from where she knelt cradling Arthur’s head in her lap. Her face was an expressionless white mask. “Pops…” she hissed.

O’Rourke shook his head sadly. “This must end somewhere.”

Joel rose unsteadily and staggered over to his father. One arm hung uselessly at his side dripping blood. He raised his father into a sitting position. With no little difficulty, Joel gradually managed to help his father to stand. Mad Dog placed one arm about his son’s shoulder for support. With his other hand he gripped the blackthorn stick he had so recently fought with. Now he used it as a cane.

Together Mad Dog and Joel made their slow painful way off the field. They headed towards the triage center where other participants in the day’s big fight had already gone for treatment.

“Lean on me, Pa,” Joel said, “I’ll take care of you. We’ll be okay.”

Watching them go, Pops mused, “This could be the best thing for both of them.”

Shadow paid them no heed. All of her attention was on Arthur. She cradled his head in her lap and stroked his hair. Shadow had seen enough gunshot wounds to know he was done for and sinking fast.

Arthur looked up at Shadow and spoke softly. “I don’t regret a thing,” he told her, “Couldn’t stand to lose you. Shadow, you are… I found a world where someone like you can be…” With an effort, he focused his thoughts. “This is where I truly lived, finally. Glad to die here. Become a part of it.”

His eyes closed but his lips continued to move, whispering now. Shadow realized he wasn’t talking to her anymore. He had gone somewhere else.

“Sabrina. Oh Sabrina. You’re a good woman. Don’t listen to those assholes. You help people. They don’t…”

And then he died.

[Next: "Homecoming" --the conclusion!]

No comments: