House Call

an Emberverse story

By Eric Oppen

©2011, Eric Oppen

This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World, known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Eric Oppen in 2011, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental, except where it is intentional and has the knowledge and consent of the named persons, who already know who they are and are mentally ready for the nasty things done to their namesakes.

September 20, 2020 AD

Change Year 22

(Provisional Republic of) Iowa

“It’s good to be back home!”  Allison Cleveland sat straighter in the saddle, drinking in the clear air with relish.  “I mean, I loved Iowa City, and medical school… but there’s no place like home!”

“It’s good to have you back,” Nick Cleveland replied.  He smiled at his daughter.  “And now, you’re a doctor!  I can’t tell you how proud I am!”  His horse snorted, as if in agreement.

“You can’t be any prouder than I am, darling,” his wife, Melinda Yang Cleveland, put in.  She guided her horse closer to her daughter.  “I just wish our parents… your father’s, and mine… could have lived to see this.”

Nick and Melinda had been high-school sweethearts, and had been up at his family’s property getting it ready for the summer when the Change had hit; their parents had been faculty at the University of Iowa, and had been at a conference in Boston.   They had stayed together, and had married shortly after the Change, once it was apparent that things weren’t going to go back to the way they were.  Allison and her twin brother Allan had come along just afterwards.

Allison had just graduated from medical school, and was home for the first time in a while.  She would soon head out on her first assignment; one of the conditions on which the Iowa government had paid her way through the University of Iowa’s medical school was that she work for them for five years afterwards.  Her twin was still in Ames, at the State University’s engineering school.

Nick looked around, just enjoying the day.  Autumn, at least a crisp clear autumn day like this, was one of his very favorite times of year.  No bone-chilling cold or deadly snowstorms, no endless stuffy humid heat or life-threatening tornadoes… he wished it was like this all year around.  He could see pheasants buzzing into the air as he and his family rode by.  It was nice just to be out riding for once.

Of course, he was a Deputy all the time… and he stiffened in his saddle as a faint, familiar noise came to his ears.  “Hush!  Do you hear what I hear?”  All of them went still, straining their ears.  Even the horses seemed to understand, standing very still and making no noise.  Sure enough, it was a bell, ringing out a steady, repetitive rhythm.

“That’s a tocsin bell, and that’s the Johnsons’ ring!”  Nick’s apprentice, Selene Lieber, turned her horse’s head down the road.  Since the Change, a system had grown up where every large farm in Iowa had a distinct rhythm to be rung on a large bell to summon aid in a real emergency.  The penalties for misuse were strong enough that nobody abused the system on a whim.

“The Johnsons’ farm is just a couple of miles away!  Ride!  Ride!”  Nick urged his horse forward, into a gallop, and his wife, daughter and apprentice were soon following.  They pelted down the gravelled road, crouching low over their horses’ necks as they urged the animals on to greater speed.   The bell clanged on, louder and louder as they came closer.

Nick thought bitterly, as he urged his mount to go even faster: Trust the damn Johnsons to ruin my day out!  The Johnsons were not really suited for the role of lords of a feudal-style manor, and their Vakis were either cowed or else running wild.  Nick had totted up the figures, and without the Johnsons in his township, he’d have about half the real work to do that he actually did.  And that didn’t count their son and heir, Mark, or his oldest sister, Betsy.  Mark Johnson was always in some sort of trouble, usually relating to chasing some woman who already had a boyfriend or husband, or else trying to swindle someone over a horse trade.  Before Betsy had married a Farmer several counties away, she had taken malicious pleasure in playing apple-of-discord among the local Farmers’ sons, deliberately causing many fights and ill-feeling that hadn’t died down even after she was gone.   One of Nick’s favorite fantasies was hauling brother and sister in for a long stint as guests of the Provisional Republic.

As they tore up the driveway to the main house, they could see that there was trouble.  Instead of working, most of the Johnsons’ Vakis were gathered around the house, parting to let Nick and his family ride through.  As they dismounted, hands reached out to grab their horses’ reins and tie them to the porch railings.   They ran up the stairs to the big porch that wrapped around the whole house.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were waiting on the porch.  They cried out with joy when they saw the Red Cross on Allison’s tabard, proclaiming her status as a doctor.  “Oh, thank God, you brought a doctor!  You’re a miracle-worker, Nick!”

Nick didn’t bother to correct them.  He’d just planned on a ride with his daughter, wife and apprentice, but if they thought he’d somehow anticipated their need, that was fine with him.  “What’s the matter?”  Privately, he thought: This had better be awfully good!

“It’s little Peter Lewis!  His mother and her boyfriend brought him here!  They said that he fell… and he’s hurt bad!”  Nick’s eyes narrowed.  Peter Lewis’ mother was one of his regular troublemakers.  He had hauled her home when she’d wandered off, drunk, more than once.

By herself, Susie Lewis wasn’t all that bad.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t resist what she, herself, called “bad-news boys,” and under their influence, she’d do more than the usual drunk-and-disorderly.  She’d already done some time keeping the roads clear of snow over a matter of some livestock going astray, and only uncertainty over whether her alibi was valid had kept her from a stint in the coal mines after another incident.

Unfortunately, her little boy, product of one of her brief liaisons, was often caught up in his mother’s craziness.  No more than three-and-change, he was, in Nick’s considered opinion, one of the sweetest-natured little boys he’d ever met, and he included his own son in that assessment.  Nick had noticed various bruises and cuts on the little fellow over the years, and thought they seemed a bit excessive, even for an active, curious child growing up on a farm.   He knew that children living with Mommy-and-boyfriend were at risk, but there wasn’t much he could do without proof.

Allison had already gone running in to see to her patient.  From inside, Nick heard her shout:  “Mommy!  Come help me!  I need another pair of hands, here!”  Melinda paled and hurried in.  Nick knew his daughter, and he knew that tone of voice.  This was very serious.  He turned to the Johnsons.  “Okay.  Where’s that damn-fool mother of his?”

“She’s in the living room, with her boyfriend.”  Mr. Johnson stared at Nick, his face pale.  “We… we honestly didn’t know about this… ”

Nick gave him a long, considering look.  “When this is over, I plan to have a long, long talk with the two of you, about keeping a better eye on your Vakis.”  Reflectively hitching his sword-belt, he walked on into the house.

Susie Lewis was sitting on a couch, with her latest boyfriend sitting beside her.  Nick shook his head slightly at the sight.  Susie was pretty enough, but was already showing signs of bloating from all the cheap alcohol she swilled down. Nick could smell the stink of white liquor on her, and her red eyes told of a night of drunkenness.  She also had what, to Nick’s experienced eye, looked like the beginnings of a spectacular shiner, her bare arms dotted with clumsily-applied tattoos.   Her face was smeared with the primitive makeup, made with animal fat, ochre, plant dyes and charcoal, that some Vakis made for their own use.

Beside her, her current boyfriend looked up sulkily at Nick.  Nick knew him all too well.  Gary Muller was one of the worst troublemakers in Hardee County, in and out of the road-repair crews on a regular basis.  His piggy little washed-out blue eyes peered out from under his thick dark-blonde bangs, and he brushed some of his hair back out of his face.   Like his girlfriend, his arms and hands were covered with crude tattoos.

Mr. Johnson glared at them both, and behind him, his twelve-year-old daughter Julie scowled.  Unlike her older siblings, Julie Johnson was a fairly nice girl.  She did well in school, unlike her spoiled brother and sister, and Nick had never heard a word against her from anybody, Vaki, Farmer or Deputy.

 Nick looked around, and had an idea.  “Mr. Johnson, I need to use your office.”  Mr. Johnson nodded and opened the door.  Nick went on in and sat down behind Mr. Johnson’s desk.  “Selene… show these two idiots in, one at a time.”  He didn’t want them cooking up a story between them, and knew that if he questioned them separately, they might trip up on their own lies.  Selene nodded, her usual slightly spacey manner gone and her mouth grimly set.  Susie and Gary both looked at her, and went pale.  They knew her well enough to know that meant she was seriously angry, something very few people had ever seen.

While Nick was always willing to believe the worst of Gary Muller, and had no use for Susie Lewis, he was always aware that there was a chance that this time, they were innocent.  Had he been asked, he’d have said that the only thing they’d ever been innocent of was the Lindbergh kidnapping, but there was always a chance.  He didn’t want to be the sort of Deputy that some counties had… the kind who just hauled in anybody whose looks they didn’t like.  And  he did want to clearly establish their guilt, or, just possibly, their innocence.  Even if he’d had no other reason to do so, the thought of Sheriff Graves’ displeasure at finding out he’d abused his authority stayed his hand.

Susie Lewis was in first.  “Look, Deputy, you’ve got to believe me!  Peter just fell off that woodpile!  You’ve had kids!  You know they can hurt themselves!”

“Yes, I do know that.  I also do think that three is a little young to be climbing.  Neither of mine were at that age.  And which woodpile was this he fell out of?”

“It was… it was the big one, down by the corner of the north cornfield!”  Nick nodded and made a note of that.

“Okay.  I’ve got this all written down.  Would you look it over and sign it if you think it’s correct?”  Susie peered suspiciously at the paper Nick handed her, but nodded.  Nick handed her a pen, and she scrawled her signature at the bottom of the page.  Nick took the paper back, and leaned back in his chair.

“Can I go now?”

“Very well.  Go back on out, and tell Selene to send Gary on in here.  Don’t say anything to Gary.”  Nick wished he had a few more people working with him, but he thought he could handle this situation.  Susie nodded and scurried out, and in a few minutes, Gary Muller was slouching in the chair opposite from Nick.  From the red tinge to his eyes, and the way he moved, Nick could tell that he was nursing one absolute whopper of a hangover.  Even though most farms’ production of white liquor was meant for use as a solvent, fuel and disinfectant, there was no way to prevent some of it being diverted.  Almost every farm, and every town, had at least one speakeasy, mainly catering to the Vaki trade.  Nick had been trying to track the one in his township ever since he’d taken up his duties, but it moved frequently and was run by some very clever, suspicious people.

“Oh-kay… let’s hear what happened.  Start at the beginning, go on till you come to the end, and then stop.”  Nick smiled grimly.  “Keeping in shouting distance of the truth would be a very good idea.  This sort of thing puts me rather… out of sorts, shall we say?”  Absently, he flexed his fingers, in their gloves with the built-in knuckledusters.  “I had planned on a nice day out with my family, and I’m not happy that it got interrupted.”

Gary peered at Nick from under his shaggy dark-blonde hair, his piggy light-blue eyes full of cunning.  “I was asleep, when Susie came in, screaming that her brat had fallen off a woodpile.  I’ve warned that brat, time and again, to stay off things, but it never works.”  He straightened up slightly.  “I went running out, and found the brat lying by the woodpile, crying.  I picked him up, and we came up here to the farm house, to get the Johnsons to call you.”

“Which woodpile was this?”  Nick had been writing down what Gary had told him.  He had pricked up his ears unobtrusively upon hearing the repeated references to little Peter as “that brat.”  He knew that wasn’t a good sign.

“It was… ”  For a second, Gary looked slightly nonplussed, before his eyes lit up.  “It was that one behind our cabin.”  Nick nodded, and wrote that down, concealing his inner leap of triumph.  Got you, you lying scumbag! he thought, but he kept his face impassive and his voice even and calm.

Nick shoved a piece of paper across the table at Gary, who peered at it suspiciously.  Nick did know that he could read; all Iowan children were sent to school, and he’d seen Gary reading other things before.  “Just for the record… would you mind signing this, if this is what you say happened?  I like to keep things clear for the Sheriff.”  Nick’s tone turned conspiratorial, man-to-man:  “He’s a hard guy to work for if you don’t dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’!”

Gary glanced over what Nick had written.  “Sure, I’ll sign this.”  Nick handed him a pen, and he wrote his name under what Nick had written, confirming that what Nick had written was what he had said.  Nick put that paper with the one Susie had signed.  “Okay.  I think I’ve heard all I need to hear.  Why don’t we go back out into the living room?”

Once they were gathered together, Nick looked at Gary and Susie.  They were not acting too friendly; he noticed that even on a small love-seat, they sat as far from each other as they could.  “Well… I think that my investigation into this event is just about concluded.”

Just then, Melinda came out.  She had a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms, and her expression… Nick would have given a lot to never have seen that look on her face.  “Nick… it’s no use.  He’s going, fast.”

Nick peered at her burden, and felt his blood run cold, then hot with rage.  There was no way in Hell that these injuries were the result of falling out of any woodpile! There were a few little scratches and cuts on him, but nothing out of the ordinary for an active toddler on a farm. To his eye, it looked a lot like Peter had been punched in the chest and stomach, very hard. Nick had seen worse, but on grown men and women who’d done things like fall afoul of livestock.  He had never seen or imagined such things befalling a little child.

Peter was just barely clinging to consciousness.  He opened his eyes and murmured: “Auntie… Minda… ” before closing them again, with a sigh.  Nick looked up, to see his daughter looking at him, tears running down her face.  Allison silently shook her head.

“He’s not breathing!  Oh, God… ”  Melinda gently put the little corpse down on a table, before dissolving in tears.  Allison went to comfort her mother, and for a few minutes, the two women wept together.  Nick knew that part of Melinda’s grief was her unfulfilled longing for more children.  She had wanted more, and had been heartbroken when she was told that the twins were all she’d ever have.  Selene had helped fill up that void in her heart, and she had also dealt with it by becoming “Auntie Melinda” to all the children they knew.  When she came along on Nick’s rounds, she was always welcomed by the children they met.

Selene was crying, too, Nick noticed, but her usual impassive mask was firmly in place; all that betrayed her sorrow was the tears running down her cheeks.   Mr. and Mrs. Johnson gasped, then held each other and began to sob, as Julie slipped out toward the back of the house.  Nick heard a screen door open, then close.

Nick knew he should feel sorrow, too.  Instead, he felt nothing but anger… raw rage at the two callous people sitting in the loveseat.  He knew perfectly well what had likely happened.  He fought against the urge to whip out his katana and behead the both of them on the spot.

Susie looked blank at the news of her child’s death, then, noticing Nick’s expression, began to weep rather stagy tears.  Gary didn’t even do that much; he sat back and fumbled in his shirt pocket as if to find his pipe.

After a few minutes, Melinda and Allison stopped crying, and bent a terrible glare on Susie and Gary.  Susie and Gary were not bright, but they were more than cunning enough to know that they were now in a lot of trouble.  Susie gulped, and said:  “It wasn’t our fault!  He fell!  You said yourself you can’t watch kids every minute… ”

“Ah, yes, he fell off a woodpile, didn’t he?”  Nick grinned unpleasantly.  “Tell me… where did this fall take place, now?”

“The big woodpile down by the corner of the north cornfield!  I told you that already!”  Susie flushed with pretended or real anger.  “Are you saying that I’m lying?”

Somebody is,” Nick drawled, smiling a triumphant smile.  “Because your dear, dear boyfriend assured me that he fell out of the pile behind your cabin!  Those two piles are nearly half a mile apart, and he can’t have fallen from both!”  He leaned forward, skewering them with his stare.  “At least one of you is lying, and I’d bet my best horse that you both are!  If I were you, I’d come clean… right now!”

Susie and Gary stared at each other in horror.  Then they both broke out indignantly:

“It was her fault!  She hit Peter because Peter was crying!” yelled Gary, pointing at his now ex-girlfriend.

“Like hell it was!  You were the one who did it, and you always were!  You wouldn’t even let me feed him; you took the food that was supposed to be for him and traded it for white liquor!”  Susie shouted back.  The two grabbed at each other, snarling, and began to fight, rolling around on the floor.  Gary was getting the best of it, but Susie was landing some pretty good punches, and sank her teeth into his shoulder, making him yell aloud.

Melinda snarled wordlessly and yanked out her saber.  Nick knocked the blade up with the blade of his own sword, a second before it would have struck home.  The clang of the swords snapped Susie and Gary out of their fury at each other, and they looked up, their faces pale with terror.

Nick snapped:  “Get back up on that loveseat and civilize up.”  It may have been his firm tone.  It may have been his aura of authority.  It was almost certainly the sight of his sword’s tip an inch from their faces, combined with the expression on his face, that cowed the two.  Humbly, they clambered back up onto the loveseat.  Outside, a low murmur came in through the windows.

“Nick… can’t we just deal with this ourselves?  I hate child abusers, and Peter was such a little sweetie!”  Melinda’s voice told Nick that she was deadly serious.  Selene nodded, and caressed the hilt of her own saber.  That seemed to scare Susie and Gary even more.  Selene was generally known to be the most easy-going member of Nick’s household; she was usually a voice for moderation and mercy.

“I hate them too… but I’m a deputy.  An officer of the law.  And as such, I can’t afford to act on my hate, and neither can you, since what you do reflects on me.  As a deputy, I can’t hate them.  As a matter of fact, you, and I, and Selene here, have to be the best friends these poor, misunderstood child abusers ever had.”

“Why is that?”

Nick jerked his thumb toward a window.  “Because, unless my ears deceive me, you, Selene and I are the only things standing between these poor, misunderstood child abusers, and what’s shaping up to be a good old-fashioned lynch mob.”  Nick narrowed his eyes slightly.  “I noticed Julie slipping out the back way when the bad news came, and she’s almost certainly told the Vakis what’s happened.  I’d better go on out there and deal with this.”

“Can I come, too?”

“Can’t see why not.  You too, Selene.  I don’t think these two lovebirds are going anywhere.”  Nick gave the two on the loveseat a nasty smile.  “Oh, they might be able to slip out the back and make a run for it… but the fields are full of stubble, and that’ll make it harder to run.  Not only that, but when the mob chases them down, which it would, I don’t think I could stop them being lynched with a full company of State Police.  Right now, the safest place for these two is right where they are.”  He leaned close, staring into Susie’s eyes and making her flinch back.  “Got me?”  She nodded frantically.  “All right, my loves… let’s go out and talk some sense into those nice folks.”

Outside, Nick could see that he hadn’t been wrong.  The Vakis were not yet coalesced into a full-scale mob, which was some small relief, but he was quite aware that he, Melinda and Selene were badly outnumbered.  They had their armor and swords, but that wouldn’t do much against fifty-to-three odds.

“Well.  Nice to see you all out today.  What can I do for you?”  Nick leaned on the porch railing and looked at the crowd as though they had all met at the County Fair.  “Anything in particular keeping you from your chores?”

“We want those two!”  a voice yelled from the crowd.  “Give them to us!  We can deal with them!”  A ragged chorus of cheers greeted this.

Nick smiled, and raised his eyebrows slightly.  “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.  I have a duty to do, no matter what.  You try taking them, and I’ll have to fight you.”

“There’s fifty or so of us, and one of you!”

“Make that two!”  Melinda stepped up, putting her hand proprietorally on Nick’s shoulder.  “I swore an oath once; ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,’ and I keep my promises!”

“Make that three!”  Selene stepped up on Nick’s other side, staring out at the crowd with her usual impassive mask firmly in place.  This set off a murmuring in the crowd; Selene was popular, both as Nick’s “cute little apprentice,” and as a Vaki-born herself, unlike Nick and Melinda.

“We don’t want to hurt you, Deputy.  Just give us those two assholes, and turn your back if you don’t like what we’ve got cooked up for them!”  That was Greg Bahr, who was often a spokesman for the Johnsons’ Vakis.

“Oh, I could… but there’s problems with that.  First, I’d have to report a lynching to the Sheriff, and while I'd be on the hot spot for not preventing it, he really wouldn’t be pleased with you all, either.”  That took the crowd aback.  They all knew Sheriff Graves, and nobody at all wanted to be in his bad books.  “And you could just kill us… me, Melinda, Selene, and my daughter Allison.  But the word would get out.  If nothing else, us not reporting in would be noticed down in Goldfield, and Sheriff Graves would investigate himself.  And there’s too many witnesses.  Every one of you’s a witness.  Someone would talk.”

“Yeah, but you’d still be dead!”

“No doubt, I would, Greg.  And who would come in my place?  Who was it that hauled your kids back home, that time they were caught out hunting by that blizzard that blew up?”  Greg blushed and looked away.  “Who was it that went easy on your father, when he got into that brawl over in Standish, Jane Saunders?  Who was it that talked your son out of running off with that girl from the traveling show, and persuaded him to get married to that nice girl and settle down instead, Fritz Meyer?”  The crowd had gone very quiet.  “Someone that looks a lot like me, maybe?”

“We could just gang-rush you, and overpower you!  Those swords you have don’t scare us, and we’ve got farm tools!”  That was Jim Showalter, whom Nick knew as a hot-headed sort; he’d had to break up several brawls between him and other Vakis over the years.

“I bet you could, at that.  I don’t think we could really stop you.”  Nick shook his head, as if in sadness at the stupidity of the human race.  The crowd growled, and Nick could feel the lynching mood come back.  “Before you do, though, I have one last question.”  The crowd went quiet.  His reminders to them of the good things he’d done for them over the years had at least directed their hostility away from him and his companions.

Leaning forward, Nick pitched his voice to carry.  “You say you want to lynch those two trashbuckets.  In a lot of ways, I understand.  I had to keep Melinda, here, from carving them into collops with her saber.”  Melinda blushed, as some of the Vakis whooped approval and blew her kisses.  Nick held up his hand for quiet.  “Tell me… why do you want to go so easy on them?  Do you secretly sympathize with them, maybe?  Maybe think that poor little Peter got what he had coming?”

“No!  We want them to suffer for it!”  That was Peggy Roth, the farm’s chief of dairy; her cheeses had won prizes at the State Fair again and again.  “We want to see them suffer!”

“Oh, I understand.  But… ” Nick spread his hands, “if you lynch them, they’ll only suffer for a little while.  I don’t know how long it takes to die of being hanged, but half an hour’d be stretching it… in more ways than one!”  As he’d hoped, his rather macabre sally got a laugh from the crowd.  “If you let me take them in, on the other hand… well, coal’s gotta be mined, doesn’t it?  Not to mention, the limestone quarries are always in need of more workers.”

That got through to the crowd.  Nick could see their expressions going thoughtful, then predatory.  They were really angry, as he was, but his little speech had got through to them.  The mines and quarries had evil reputations.  Inside, he gave a long sigh of relief.  “Okay, Deputy, go ahead, bring them in.  I think you’ve got a point.”  Peggy Roth turned and walked back toward her home, and the other Vakis slowly followed, as the crowd broke up.  Once they were gone, Nick went back in, and gave way to a second’s worth of the shakes.  He had been terrified all the time he was out there; he had seen mobs in action before.

Melinda came up from behind, wrapping her arms around him and resting her chin on his shoulder; they were almost exactly the same height.  “Nick,” she murmured, too low for anybody else to hear, “there have been times when I could cheerfully strangle you.  And then there are times like this, when I realize yet again what a lucky girl I was, latching on to you before the Change.”

“It’s me that was lucky, Melinda.  However, we’ve got work to do yet.”  Gently detaching his wife, Nick strode back into the living room.  Gary and Susie were sitting side-by-side, white with terror.  They had heard every word said outside, and knew just what a narrow escape they’d had. “You aren’t exactly off the hot spot… either of you!  You both’ll be working for years and years… and won’t enjoy one minute of it!”  Nick smiled reminiscently.  “Down the coal mines, they often don’t come up or see the sunshine for days.  The air’s hot and close, and there’s always the possibility of a gas pocket or cave-in.  And anybody who doesn't work gets to find out what those whips the supervisors are carrying can do.”  He paused for a second.   “Or there’s always the limestone quarries.  Plenty of fresh air and sunshine there.  However, there’s also the supervisors, and their whips work just as well as the coal miners’ version.  The quarry workers also get all the fun of keeping the roads well-gravelled in summer… and in winter, they get to keep them cleared!  Hours and hours out in the cold wind, chained together, shovelling three-foot-deep snow, with the whip waiting if you slow down!”

“No!  Please!  I didn’t mean for this to happen!” sobbed Susie.  “Please… ”

“Nobody ever does, do they?  And yet, they happen!  I warned you, that time we had to haul in your last boyfriend after he beat the stuffings out of you, that your taste in men had to improve!  Well, looks like I was right!”  Melinda flexed her fingers in their gloves, clearly aching to tear into Susie.

“Cuff them, Selene.  We’ve got miles to travel.  Mrs. Johnson?”  The lady of the farm came bustling in, from where she’d been laying little Peter out.  “Please have your buggy ready to go; I’ll be wanting you and Allison to take Peter down to Goldfield and report in to the Sheriff.”  At her hesitation, Nick purred: “You’re going to Goldfield.  You can go in your own buggy, with my own daughter and yours beside you, for this sad journey… or you can go the way these two idiots are going, walking along tied behind my horse.  The choice, ma’am, is entirely yours.”  She went pale and headed for the back door, and the stables.

Nick smiled as she left.  She was in for a rough time of it.  Sheriff Graves, as well as the local State Police commander, took a very dim view of Farmers who allowed their Vakis to get as out of control as Susie had been.

Once Gary and Susie were cuffed, Nick ran lariats through the cuffs, and led them out onto the porch.  “Say goodbye to your neighbors.  I somehow doubt you’ll be seeing them again soon.”  They waved hesitantly, and were answered with a forest of upraised middle fingers and loud booing.  Nick made the lariats fast, one to his saddle, the other to Melinda’s; Selene’s horse was rather mettlesome and Selene did love to gallop when she got the chance.

Looking at his prisoners, Nick smiled.  “It’s about fifteen miles from here to Goldfield, all of it over gravelled roads.  I hope for your sake that your shoes are in good shape.”   He unhitched his horse and mounted up, as did Melinda and Selene, just as the buggy came past them with Mrs. Johnson, Julie Johnson and Allison aboard and a small box in the back.  As it passed, everybody took off their hats and bowed their heads silently, before giving Gary and Susie glares that should have left them lying dead with smoking holes where their chests should have been.

“To Goldfield!”  Nick walked his horse out of the driveway, with Susie in tow, and Melinda came behind him, towing Gary.  Selene took up the rear, towing Allison’s horse, with her saber at the ready in case the prisoners somehow managed to escape, and they headed out, down the road to Goldfield… and a speedy trial followed by years of misery for the prisoners.  Nick privately thought it was well-deserved, and only regretted that it had taken a little boy’s death to make it happen.

❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀