by Rebecca A. Smith
Just because Mary Ellen hated guns didn’t mean she didn’t know how to use one. We all did, startin’ as soon as we were big enough to learn how. Some of us were better at it than others (poor Jane and Tim had trouble hittin’ a barn at point blank range) but we all knew how. Mary Ellen was one of the best shots in the family. Better’n me, if the truth be told. The kids all knew better’n to touch a gun without permission; it was one of the few things that would get’m a whooping, and well they knew it.
It had been so long since I’d seen Mary Ellen with a weapon in her hands that for a moment I just stared. “Mary Ellen? What the hell-”
She set the gun aside, rushed down the steps, and threw her arms ‘round me. “Thank God you’re back. I was afraid you were dead, or worse. Or that anyways you wouldn’t be back in time.”
She was crying. I had never, ever seen Mary Ellen cry. I took her hand gently. “What’s goin’ on? Where is everyone?”
“Over at your place. Everyone but me and Daddy, that is. I figured if there’s goin’ to be trouble, it’s here they’ll come first. Your place is more defensible, on that hill.”
“You’re not making any sense, Mary Ellen. What trouble? Why is Sharkey here if there’s trouble?” And where was Todd, I wondered, when he should be between Mary Ellen and whatever caused her to pick up a gun?
“He’s too sick to go anywhere.”
“He’s sick again?”
“Not again. Still. He’s dyin’, Eddie.”
My stomach did a strange kind of flip-flop and ended up somewhere around my knees. No. Sharkey couldn’t die. We needed him too much. Just then Mary Ellen saw the boys, or noticed ‘em anyhow, and lickety-split she rounded on them. She cuffed Bobby and then grabbed him by one of his ears. “Robert Earl, do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve caused? And you, Timothy Joseph, runnin’ off to see the ocean! You ain’t got a lick of sense between you. I should turn you both over my knee –But I’ll do that later. There’s no time, now. Come in, all of you. And who is that?” Daffodil had been standing back, looking shy.
The house was pleasantly cool. The ac was running, which was strange enough. Mary Ellen explained quickly and coolly, in that matter-of-fact way she had, though she was obviously hurtin’ inside. “It started two days ago. Jane’s tooth finally got so bad she couldn’t put off goin’ to see the dentist anymore. She wouldn’t let anyone go with ‘er. Except for you, and you weren’t back yet. She’d be fine, she said. But she wasn’t. On the way home Jeremiah –curse the man; he’d better hope I never get my hands on him –ambushed her. They beat her pretty bad, Eddie, and did worse’n that to her.”
I winced, thinking of the things someone like Jeremiah would think would be fun to do to a person like Jane. “Is she all right?”
“I don’t know about all right, but she’ll heal. She’s at the clinic, and the Doc says she needs to stay there awhile. She’ll live, which is more’n can be said for some others.” Her voice caught on a sob. I put my hand on her arm. “What happened, Mary Ellen?”
“We couldn’t let that go, and the militia couldn’t either. They decided to arrest Jeremiah and hold ‘im on charges. Todd and a couple of others went up yesterday to fetch ‘im. But there was trouble and Jeremiah-” Her voice broke again. “He killed Todd. Shot him dead. They beat Joe Cratchett bloody but let ‘im go. Now the whole militia’s gathering at Jim Bo’s and they’re going to go after ‘im. It ain’t going to be pretty, Eddie. Jeremiah has almost as many in his crew as the militia. A lot of people are goin’ to die tonight. And if the militia loses Jeremiah’s boys will be sure to start trouble with the rest of us.”
“I’ll see what I can do to stop that. I’ll have to go, Mary Ellen.”
I fired up the shortwave and called Jim Bo’s. “Ed?” He asked in disbelief. “Yore back?”
“Right ‘nough. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
On my way back down the hall I passed Sharkey’s room. A familiar voice called from inside. “Ed? That you?”
Sharkey was so thin now he looked like a living skeleton. He was lying in bed, propped up by numerous pillows. “It’s me, Sharkey. How you doin’?”
“Not so good. Would you turn up that thermostat? We don’t need to be wastin’ the juice.”
When I didn’t move he rolled his eyes. “No one listens to me anymore. How was yore trip?”
“Awful. But I got the boys back. And I had an insane desire to burn down the City Hall over in Huntsville.”
“Did ya do it?”
“Pity. The world needs less useless bureaucrats.”
“I need to go, Sharkey.”
“I know. Eddie –make sure it’s justice. Not a lynch mob. You’re Cap’n of the militia now. I’m resigning, as of now. That makes it your responsibility.”
“I know. I’ll make sure it’s done right. Sir.”
“I told you not to ‘sir’ me anymore.”
“You deserve it.”
Before I left I made sure both the boys were armed and knew they had to listen to Mary Ellen. She had more sense in one finger than the two of them put together. I made Toby stay too. If worse came to worse he’d be a good guard dog. Mary Ellen hugged me ‘fore I left and buried her head against my shoulder for a long moment. “You’d better come back.” She whispered. “I couldn’t stand to lose you too.”
The entire militia was at Jim Bo’s warehouse when I got there, all fifty of ‘em, including Joe Cratchett. He had a busted lip, a black eye, and a lot of bruises. I glared at him as I came up. “What the hell were you two thinkin’, going up there like that?”
He shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
I had no intention of just walking up and takin’ the Captaincy. For one thing, it was an elected position. For another, I didn’t really want it and wasn’t sure I should have it. But it got taken out of my hands. ‘Fore I’d even got out of sight of the house, Sharkey had hobbled out of his room and radioed ahead. By the time I got there I was all ready elected. I wasn’t happy about it, but there wasn’t much I could do at that point and we had work to do anyhow.
The Mayor was there too (Sharkey had resigned several years before this) and she was nervous that we were going to have a lynch mob. Several of our boys and girls were of a mind to do just that and I had to put my foot down.
“There’ll be no lynch mobs on my watch,” I told ‘em. “If that’s what you want, get yerself another Cap’n. You hear?”
Jeremiah had thirty-seven men on his side and that was too close for my likin’ if it came to an open shoot-out and they had the advantage of knowing the land over that way better. I wanted to avoid that if possible. I sent our two best woodsmen over to Blackberry as scouts. One of them was Jim, and I hated to send him since he was only nineteen, but we had no choice. We had a couple of advantages Jeremiah didn’t; they didn’t have any power over there, and so no shortwaves or the walkie-talkies I sent with the scouts. When they were gone I turned to Jim Bo. He was in charge of the inventory. “What else we got that they don’t? We still have that tear gas we liberated from the trooper station?”
In the end it was almost anti-climatic. Jeremiah had no intention of causing anyone any trouble that night. With me gone, Sharkey dyin’ and Todd dead, he assumed he had us pretty well licked. He left about a dozen people at his mama’s farm to mind the still and took the rest into Blackberry for a party at Janey’s Pub. We went and rounded up the men at the farm first. I had no intention of lettin’ anyone responsible get away and the only way to make sure that didn’t happen was to hold ‘em all until we could sort it out. Jeremiah’s mother was there, of course, and she insisted on talkin’ to me.
“What do you want with my boy?” She demanded.
“He’s wanted for assault and battery, murder, and attempted murder. Ma’am.” I added the last as an afterthought, for she didn’t much deserve the title.
“My boy wouldn’t do that. There must be some sort of an explanation.”
“No ma’am. That’s about it.”
I left some of our people at the farm to guard the prisoners and headed to Blackberry with the rest.
It was well after dark before we got there, but the moon was almost full and that gave us more’n enough light to see by. The bar was in an old run down building on the main street. It only had two ways in or out, both visible from the roof of the old warehouse across the street. I sent Sammy up there with her high-powered rifle. At sixteen she was the youngest member of the militia and also the most unlikely. She was short and slim, not the sort you’d want with you in a close fight, but she was a crack shot. Before the troubles she would’ve had a good career as a sharpshooter. Her papa had been an Olympic-class shooter. I hoped we wouldn’t need her but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Jeremiah wasn’t entirely stupid; he had a guy on guard outside each door. We shot them with some tranquilizer darts Jim Bo had found as we surrounded the building. Then Joe shot a canister of tear gas through one of the windows. Clouds of smoke came billowing out, followed shortly by almost two dozen people, all coughing and gagging.
“Hold it right there, all of you,” I shouted. “Hands in the air if you don’t want to get yoreself shot.”
I sounded so much like a cop I felt like gaggin’ myself.
“Ed?” An all too familiar voice called, fear in his voice as he fought not to gag. “What the hell? I thought you were gone.”
“Obviously not. You’re under arrest, Jeremiah Rhoades, for the murder of Todd Stephenson and the assault on Jane Stewart.”
It was then that Jeremiah grew a backbone for the first and only time in his life. He reached for his gun. There was a loud crack and a bullet hit the dirt less than an inch from his big toe. His hands shot into the air.
That was the end of that. We hanged ‘im, of course, after the trial. We didn’t have much choice. We no longer had the spare resources to waste on keeping someone in prison and you don’t let a mad dog go loose. It didn’t take months or years like it would’ve taken ‘fore the troubles, either. Just a couple of days. It took some work to find a jury that could be considered at all impartial. Jeremiah had pissed off a lot of people. But in the end we did a fairly good job of it, considerin’ the circumstances.
There were a lot of witnesses, both to the murder and to Jane’s assault. Several of Jeremiah’s buddies sang like canaries to keep themselves from swinging too.
I did it, in the end. It was my responsibility and I’ve never been the sort to ask anyone else to do my dirty work. It was private; no public spectacle for us. Only a few members of the militia, the mayors of both towns, Pastor Joe, and Jeremiah’s mama. Mary Ellen was invited but she declined, sayin’ it was enough that justice was being done. As for Jeremiah’s buddies, the ones that were directly involved we exiled and the others we let go and told ‘em to stay out of trouble. Most of ‘em did.
That was the most eventful month we’d had in a long time. When it was all over I went up to see Sharkey. He was clinging to life with the same fierce tenacity that had kept him alive after the explosion that had taken his foot.
“Mary Ellen and the Doc both say yore dyin’,” I told him after we had set in silence for a few moments.
“I reckon they’re right,” He said after a pause. “It happens to all of us, eventually.”
“Yeah, but you’re too young. Mama Jo was nearly eighty.”
“Mama Jo didn’t spend several years being exposed to DU, either.”
“There is that.”
After a few moments of silence I pulled his bottle of birthday whiskey out of my pack. “I reckon you should enjoy this before you go, don’t you?”
He glared at me. “I told you to trade that.”
“I would’ve if I’d ’ve needed to.” I’d held it back in the hope of brining it home so he could enjoy it. Now I broke the seal before he could object and poured him a glass.
“You have some too.”
It was good whiskey. Better’n anything Jeremiah had ever made. Etsell’s was about as good. We sat like that in silence for some time, sippin’ on the whiskey. Finally Sharkey spoke up.
“I’m glad you came to see me, Edna Jean. I’ve got some things I want to say to you.”
“I’m listenin’. Sir.”
“How many times I ‘ave to tell you not to ‘sir’ me?”
“Not many more, sir.”
“Hmm. Listen, with me gone you’re going to be in charge of this crazy lot.”
“I don’t want to be.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want. You’re it, like it or not. Someone has to make the hard decisions. There’s been plenty of ‘em in the past years and there’ll be more in the years ahead. You’re the best one for it and I’ve made that clear to the rest of ‘em. They all agree. I’m kinda glad Todd’s not around to have his feeling’s hurt. He was a good man but he couldn’t ‘ve done it. I’ve got a bit of advice for you, if you want it.”
“’Course I want it.”
“Yer a bright girl, Eddie. Always have been. A woman, I should say. You grew out of girlhood some time ago. The first thing is, just do the best you can and don’t worry ‘bout it, you hear? That’s all anyone can do. It’s a heavy responsibility but someone has to do it. Just do it with honor. And last, start trainin’ some of the others to take over right away. You can’t be sure you’ll live to old age or that they’ll outlive you either.”
“Hell Sharkey, I’m plannin’ to live to be at least a hundred. But I’ll do it. We need more of us able to lead, anyhow.”
“Yep. You can see that, which is another reason I want you in charge. I should never have been more than a non-comm, certainly not a CO.”
We set and talked for a long time. I told him all about the trip and gave him the letters Fred and Jason had sent.
The rest of that summer was quiet, thank God. We had three more hurricanes come through. By the time they reached us they were no more than heavy rainstorms and didn’t do much in the way of damage. But all the reservoirs, wells, and ponds were full for the first time in years.
Jane hid at the clinic for over a month. She was afraid to come home, especially with her face as scarred as it was and her hair all cut. She had some silly notion that we didn’t want her anymore, and nothin’ we said made any difference. Finally we’d all had ‘nough of waitin’. I borrowed a buggy from the Amish (along with one of their boys to drive it) and went to fetch her, along with Mary Ellen. We both dressed up in our best clothes and took a new dress Beth and Amanda had made just for her. The combination of the gift and the romance of the buggy ride finally did the trick. She came home, and none too soon, for Sharkey was declining fast. As he did so people came to me more and more often for help or advice. They’d come to me for a long while when Sharkey wasn’t available. But now they were comin’ to me by preference, and that bothered me. I really didn’t want Sharkey’s job, no way no how. But it seemed I was stuck with it. He was right; someone had to do it if we were all goin’ to hang together as a family.
Tim and Bobby spent the summer doin’ the hardest, dirtiest jobs on both homesteads. They were banned from fishin’ all that season. They also spent a LOT of time on the new pedal-powered washer. It turned out Beth had a whole list of things she wanted laundered that hadn’t been washed in a while. Mary Ellen too. And some of the neighbors.
Our colt came from the Corys. I spent a lot of time workin’ with him. He was a sweet horse and by the end of the summer I had decided horses weren’t so bad. Toby settled right in. He went with me everywhere, on and off the farm. He was incredibly gentle with all the kids and left the stock alone. Daffodil settled right in too and quickly became one of the family. She missed her parents but having people around who cared about her helped.
‘Bout the end of July I sent Jim and Amanda down to Etsell’s place to try and convince her to come live with us. She finally agreed, and they moved up, lock, stock and still. She said she did it more for Neil than anything, so that he would have kids to play with and a chance to go to school. She certainly wasn’t plannin’ to die anytime soon. She intended to dance at his weddin’, she said. (She did, too. She died in her sleep at one hundred and five, three weeks after the wedding.)
Sharkey lasted longer than anyone thought he would, him included, I think. But one evenin’ in early August I got the call I’d been dreadin’ and we all headed up there. I was the first to say goodbye, even ‘fore Mary Ellen and Jane. He had some things he wanted to say to me, he said.
The old man was thin as a skeleton and looked about as gaunt. I sat next to the bed and slipped my hand into his. He squeezed it. “Don’t worry ‘bout me, Eddie. I’m not afraid to die. You’ve been doin’ a good job with the family.”
“You mean that?”
“Sure ‘nough. Everyone thanks so, not just me.”
“I’ll miss you, you old codger.”
“Pup.” He coughed, causing Mary Ellen to come runnin’ from the next room. “I’m all right, I’m all right,” he told her and when she was gone he turned back to me. “I got something important to talk to you about, Edna Jean.”
“I’m listenin’ sir.”
He coughed again and this spell left him weak and shaking.
“You should sleep.”
“Ah reckon I’ll sleep soon enough. Longer than I want to.”
“I love you, old man.”
“I love you, too. But I don’t have much time. This is personal. What’s honor, Edna Jean?”
“Doin’ what’s right no matter what it costs.”
“And what’s the right thing to do when you love someone?”
“Take care of ‘em and treat ‘em right.”
“What if they don’t know? What’s the right thing to do then?”
“Tell ‘em. Generally,” I added, thinkin’ of Mary Ellen.
“So why haven’t you told Mary Ellen how you feel about her?”
I was so startled I fell off my chair and had to pick myself up.
“I, uh, how do you know about that?”
“Most of us know. Even Todd knew.”
“Then how come he never said nothin’?”
“He trusted you, ‘course. Well?”
I thought about it. “She was married-”
“Not always, she wasn’t. You loved her long ‘fore she and Todd got hitched.”
That was true enough. My feelings for her went back considerably farther, to the first day we met. I was eight and she was ten. She caught me filchin’ apples from one of their trees. “What do you think you’re doin?” She demanded that day, hands on her hips. I looked down, met those emerald eyes, and nearly fell out of the tree.
“She doesn’t feel the same way.”
“How do you know if you ain’t asked?”
“There’s the not so small matter of my gender-”
“I got ‘bout as much chance with her as –as Jane has of findin’ a man, ‘round here.”
“Jane doesn’t want a man. She wants a woman. And she’s got one, too. She and Jim Bo’s youngest girl are gonna get hitched. She told me last night. Mary ain’t happy ‘bout it, but I reckon she’ll get over it.” He grinned. “I might end up with grandkids out of that one, after all. Who knew?”
I felt flummoxed. Jane was, well, Jane. Unpredictable. Herself.
Sharkey was looking at me expectantly. “Well?”
“She’d never speak to me again.”
“You really believe that?”
I shook my head.
“So tell her.”
“Her husband’s not been in the ground even two months-”
“Well, wait a decent time. Then do it. Even if she doesn’t feel the same at least it’ll be out in the open and you won’t be walkin’ on eggshells ‘round her anymore. I want you to promise me, Edna Jean. I won’t have you twisted up like this for the rest of yore life.”
Tears sprang to my eyes. Somehow he wrung the promise out of me. I went back out into the living room to let everyone else have a turn. When we were finished Sharkey slipped into a deep sleep. Somehow he’d been holdin’ on just long enough to say his goodbyes. His breathing quickly became irregular. All night we waited, keeping the old, old, death watch, all crowded into the house so tight we couldn’t move. Nearly three dozen of us, counting the kids. We put the kids to bed. Someone brought out some bottles and we passed them around. An hour before dawn Mary Ellen came to the door. “He’s gone,” she said, tears in her eyes.
We buried him in the woods, like he’d asked, and planted a pine tree on top. He loved pines. Then we went home and got back to work. No matter what, life goes on. Even when yore hurtin’.
And that was the end of that summer.
I turned twenty-six that summer. It seems like a lifetime ago. Oh, that’s right. It ‘twas (Laughs.)
What? You want ta hear more? You’re insatiable, son. I’ve been talkin’ all day. It’s the middle of the night. Come back tomorrow. I need some sleep. I can’t stay up all night like you youngsters. Not anymore, anyhow.
Did Tim ever see the ocean? You should know that. ‘Course he did. His grandson did so, too. Different oceans, but still. That don’t make no difference. That’d be your papa, wasn’t it? Good. I was ‘fraid I’d missed a generation. That happens sometime when you get to be my age. You’re the spittin’ image of your great-grandfather, Tim.
What happened with me and Mary Ellen? Ah, you know that too. But it’s another story, for another time. Let me sleep now. We’ll talk more later.
About the author:
Rebecca Smith is a writer, activist and small-scale organic farmer who lives on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Her previously published works include the novella Crossroads, published last year in Fantasy Gazetteer. She is currently working on her first novel.