Chapter Twenty-Three

XXIII  -  High Noon in Zephyr

MY NOSE WaSN'T BROKEN, THOUGH IT SWELLED UP LIKE a MELON and turned a ghastly purplish-green and my eyes puffed up into black-and-blue slits. To say Mom was horrified about the whole experience is like saying the Gulf of Mexico has some water in it. But I survived, and I was all right after my nose shrank to its regular size.

Sheriff amory, who'd been called by Miss Grace, found Lainie and me walking back to Zephyr on Route Sixteen. I didn't have much to say to him, because I remembered Donny yelling that the Blaylocks owned him. I told Dad about this when he and Mom came to pick me up at Dr. Parrish's office. Dad didn't say anything, but I could see the thundercloud settling over his head and I knew he wouldn't let it lie.

Miss Grace was okay. She had to be taken to the hospital in Union Town, but the bullet hadn't hit anything that couldn't be fixed. I had the feeling that it would take an awful lot to put Miss Grace down for the count.

This was the story about Lainie and Little Stevie Cauley, as I learned later from Dad, who found it out from the sheriff: Lainie, who'd run away from home when she was seventeen, had met Donny Blaylock while she was a stripper at the Port Said in Birmingham. He had convinced her to come work for his family's "business," promising her all sorts of big money and stuff, saying the air Force boys really knew how to part with a paycheck. She came, but soon after she arrived at Miss Grace's, she'd met Little Stevie when she'd gone to the Woolworth's in Zephyr to buy her summer wardrobe. Maybe it hadn't been love at first sight, but something close to it. anyhow, Little Stevie had been encouraging Lainie to leave Miss Grace's and straighten up her act. They'd started talking about getting married. Miss Grace had been in favor of it, because she didn't want any girl working for her who couldn't put her all into the job. But Donny Blaylock fancied himself to be Lainie's boyfriend. He hated Little Stevie anyway because as much as Donny wanted to deny it, Midnight Mona could leave Big Dick dragging. He'd decided the only way to keep Lainie working was to get Stevie out of the picture. The crash and burning of Midnight Mona had been the wreck of Lainie's dreams as well, and from that point on she didn't care about what she did, with who, or where. as Miss Grace had said, Lainie had gotten as rough as a cob.

The last I heard of Lainie, she was going home, older and wiser.

Sadder, too.

But who ever said everybody gets a happy endingi

Some of this information came right from the jackass's mouth. Donny was behind bars in the Zephyr jail, which stood next to the courthouse. He'd been found, dancing with a scarecrow, by a farmer with a very large shotgun. The sight of iron bars in front of his face had squared up some of Donny's raggedy edges, and he had come out of his madness long enough to admit running Little Stevie off the road. It was clear that this time a Blaylock was not going to escape the long arm of the law, even if the hand on that arm was dirty with Blaylock cash.

November had touched the yards of Zephyr with frosty fingers. The hills had gone brown, the leaves falling. They crackled like little fireworks when somebody came up the walk. We heard them on a Tuesday evening, when a fire burned in our hearth, Dad was reading the newspaper, and Mom was poring over her cookbooks for new pie and cake recipes.

Dad answered the door when the knock sounded. Sheriff Junior Talmadge amory stood under the porch light, his long-jawed face sullen and his hat in his hand. He had the collar of his jacket turned up; it was cold out there.

"Can I come in, Tomi" he asked.

"I don't know," Dad said.

"I'd understand if you didn't care to talk to me anymore. I'd take it like a man. But... I sure would like to have my say about some things."

Mom stepped up beside my father. "Let him in, Tom. all righti"

Dad opened the door, and the sheriff came in from the night.

"Hi, Cory," he said to me. I was on the floor next to the fireplace, doing my alabama history homework. a certain area where Rebel used to lounge in the hearth's glow seemed awfully empty. But life went on.

"Hi," I said.

"Cory, go to your room," Dad instructed, but Sheriff amory said, "Tom, I'd like for him to hear me out, too, seein' as he was the one found out and all."

I stayed where I was. Sheriff amory sank his slim Ichabod Crane body onto the couch and put his hat on the coffee table. He sat staring at the silver star that adorned it. Dad sat down again, and Mom-ever the hospitable one-asked the sheriff if he'd like some apple pie or spice cake but he shook his head. She sat down, too, her chair and Dad's bracketing the fireplace.

"I won't be sheriff very much longer," Sheriff amory began. "Mayor Swope's gonna appoint a new man as soon as he can decide on one. I figure I'll be done with it by the middle of the month." He sighed heavily. "I expect we'll be leavin' town before December."

"I'm sorry to hear it," Dad told him. "But I was sorrier to hear what Cory had to tell me. I guess I can't kick you around too much, though. You could've lied when I came to you about it."

"I wanted to. Real bad. But if you can't believe your own son, who in the world can you believei"

Dad scowled. He looked as if he wanted to spit a foul taste from his mouth. "For God's sake, why'd you do it, J.T.i Takin' money from the Blaylocks to shield 'emi Lookin' the other way when they sold their 'shine and suckered people into that crooked gamblin' deni Not to mention Miss Grace's house, and I like and respect Miss Grace but God knows she oughta be in some other line of work. What else did you do for Biggun Blaylocki Polish his bootsi"

"Yes," the sheriff said.

"Yes whati"

"I did. Polish his boots." Sheriff amory gave a wan, tired smile. His eyes were black holes of sadness and regret. His smile slipped off, leaving his mouth twisted with pain. "I always went to Biggun's house to get my money. He had it for me, first day of the month. Two hundred dollars in a white envelope with my name on it. 'Sheriff Junior.' That's what he calls me." He winced a little at the thought. "When I went in that day, all the boys were there: Donny, Bodean, and Wade. Biggun was oilin' a rifle. Even sittin' in a chair, he can fill up a room. He can look at you and knock you down. I picked up my envelope, and all of a sudden he reaches to the floor and puts his muddy boots on the table, and he says, 'Sheriff Junior, I've got me a mess here to clean up and I don't rightly feel up to doin' it. You think you could clean 'em for mei' and I started to say no, but he takes a fifty-dollar bill out of his shirt pocket and he puts it down inside one of them big boots, and he says, 'Make it worth your while, of course.'"

"Don't tell me this, J.T.," Dad said.

"I want to. I have to." The sheriff peered into the fire, and I could see the flames make light and shadows ripple across his face. "I told Biggun I had to go, that I couldn't be cleanin' anybody's boots. and he grins and says, 'aw, Sheriff Junior, why didn't you name your price right offi' and he takes another fifty-dollar bill out of his pocket and he slides it down into the other boot." Sheriff amory looked at the fingers of his traitorous right hand. "My girls needed new clothes," he said. "Needed some Sunday shoes, with bows on 'em. Needed somethin' that wasn't already worn out by somebody else. So I earned myself an extra hundred dollars. But Biggun knew I'd be comin' that day, and he... he'd been stompin' around in filth. When his boots were clean, I went outside and threw up, and I heard the boys laughin' in the house." His eyes squeezed shut for a few seconds, and then they opened again. "I took my girls to the finest shoestore in Union Town, and I bought Lucinda a bouquet of flowers. It wasn't just for her; I wanted to smell somethin' sweet."

"Did Lucinda know about thisi" Dad asked.

"No. She thought I'd gotten a raise. You know how many times I've asked Mayor Swope and that damn town council for a raise, Tomi You know how many times they've said, 'We'll put it in the budget next year, J.T.'i" He gave a bitter laugh. "Good ol' J.T.! Ol' J.T. can make do, or do without! He can stretch a dime until Roosevelt hollers, and he don't need no raise because what does he do all dayi Ol' J.T. drives around in his sheriff's car and he sits behind his desk readin' True Detective and he maybe breaks up a fight now and then or chases down a lost dog or keeps two neighbors from squabblin' over a busted fence. Every blue moon there's a robbery, or a shootin', or somethin' like that car goin' down into Saxon's Lake. But it's not like good ol' harmless J.T.'s a real sheriff, don't you seei He's just kind of a long, slumpy thing with a star on his hat, and nothin' much ever happens in Zephyr that he should be gettin' a raise, or a half-decent gasoline allowance, or a bonus every once in a while. Or maybe a pat on the back." His eyes glittered with feverish anger. I realized, as my parents did, that we had not known Sheriff amory's hidden anguish. "Damn," he said. "I didn't mean to come in here and spill all my belly juice like this. I'm sorry."

"If you felt this way so long," Mom said, "why didn't you just quiti"

"Because... I liked bein' the sheriff, Rebecca. I liked knowin' who was doin' what to who, and why. I liked havin' people depend on me. It was... like bein' a father and big brother and best friend all rolled up into one. Maybe Mayor Swope and the town council don't respect me, but the people of Zephyr do. Did, I mean. That's why I kept at it, even though I should've walked away from it a long time ago. Before Biggun Blaylock called me in the middle of the night and said he had a proposition for me. Said his businesses don't hurt anybody. Said they make people feel better. Said he wouldn't be in business to begin with if people didn't come lookin' for what he was sellin'."

"and you believed him. My God, J.T.!" Dad shook his head in disgust.

"There was more. Biggun said if he and his boys weren't in business, the Ryker gang would move in from the next county, and I've heard those fellas are stone-cold killers. Biggun said that by acceptin' his money I might be shakin' hands with the devil, but the devil I knew was better than the devil I didn't know. Yeah, I believed him, Tom. I still believe him."

"So you knew where his hideout was all along. and there you were makin' everybody believe you couldn't find hide nor hair of him."

"That's right. It's near where Cory and the boys saw that box change hands. I honestly don't know what was inside it, but I do know Gerald Hargison and Dick Moultry are Klansmen from way back. But now I'm a sinner and slime of the earth and I'm not fit to walk the streets with decent people." Sheriff amory directed his hard gaze at my dad. "I don't need to be told I've messed things up, Tom. I know I was wrong. I know I've shamed the office of sheriff. and shamed my family, which is killin' me when people I thought were our good friends look at Lucinda and the girls like they crawled out of a spittoon. Like I say, we'll be leavin' town before long. But I've got one last duty to perform as the elected sheriff of Zephyr."

"What might that bei Openin' the bank vault for Bigguni"

"No," the sheriff said quietly. "Makin' sure Donny goes to prison for murder. Manslaughter, at the very least."

"Oh," Dad said, and I know he must've felt an inch tall. But he grew back quickly enough. "What's Biggun gonna think about thati after he's been payin' you to lay offi"

"Biggun didn't pay me to protect a killer. and that's what Donny is. I just thank God he didn't kill Miss Grace, too. I knew Stevie Cauley. He might've been a tough guy, and he had his share of scrapes with me, but he was decent. His folks are good people, too. So I'm not gonna let Donny slither out of this, Tom. No matter what Biggun threatens me with."

"Has he threatened youi" Mom asked as Dad stood up to shift a fireplace log with the poker.

"Yes. Warned me, is more like it." Sheriff amory's brows merged, the lines between his eyes deepening. "Day after tomorrow, two marshals from the county seat are comin' on the Trailways bus. It's bus number thirty-three, and it comes in at noon. I'm to have all the transfer papers ready, and they're gonna take custody of Donny."

The Trailways bus came through Zephyr every other day, on its way to Union Town. On rare occasions it stopped, under the little Trailways sign at the Shell gas station on Ridgeton Street, to pick up or disgorge a passenger or two. But most days it sped on, going somewhere else.

"I found a little black book in a pocket under the driver's seat of Donny's car," the sheriff explained. Dad fed another log into the fire, but he was listening. "It's got names and numbers in it that I think have to do with gamblin' on high school football games. Some names are in there that might surprise you. Not Zephyr people, but names you might know from the newspapers if you keep up with politics. I think the Blaylocks might have been payin' a coach or two to throw games."

"My Lord!" Mom breathed.

"Those two marshals are comin' to pick up Donny, and I've gotta make sure he's there to meet 'em." Sheriff amory ran a finger along the edge of his star. "Biggun says he'll kill me before he lets me put his son on that bus. I figure he means to, Tom."

"He's bluffin'!" Dad said. "Tryin' to scare you into lettin' Donny go!"

"This mornin' there was somethin' dead on our front porch. I think... it might've been a cat. But it was all chopped to pieces and the blood was smeared everywhere and on our front door was written Donny won't go in cat's blood. You should've seen the girls' faces when they saw that mess." Sheriff amory lowered his head for a moment, and stared at the floor. "I'm scared. awful scared. I think Biggun's gonna try to kill me and spring Donny out of jail before that bus comes in."

"I'd be more afraid those damned snakes would go after Lucinda and the girls," Mom said, and I knew she was heated up about it because she hardly ever cursed.

"I sent 'em to Lucinda's mother this mornin', after what happened. She called me around two o'clock, said they'd gotten there fine." He lifted his face and looked at my father with a tortured expression. "I need help, Tom."

Sheriff amory went on to explain that he needed three or four men to deputize, and that they'd all spend tonight, tomorrow, and tomorrow night at the jail guarding Donny.

He said he'd deputized Jack Marchette, who was at the jail pulling guard duty right this minute, but that he was having trouble finding anybody else. He'd asked ten men, he said, and been turned down ten times. It would be dangerous work, he said. The deputies would each get fifty dollars out of his own pocket, and that was all he could afford to pay. But there were pistols and ammunition at the jailhouse, and the jailhouse itself was as firm as a fortress. The tricky part, he said, would be taking Donny from his cell to the bus stop.

"That's the story." Sheriff amory gripped his bony knees. "Can I deputize you, Tomi"

"No!" Mom's voice almost shook the windows. "are you out of your mindi"

"I'm sorry to have to ask this of Tom, Rebecca. I swear I am. But it's got to be done."

"ask somebody else, then! Not Tom!"

"Can I get your answeri" the sheriff urged.

Dad stood next to the fireplace, the logs crackling. His eyes went from Sheriff amory to Mom and back again, with a quick dart toward me. He slid his hands into his pockets, his face downcast. "I... don't know what to say."

"You know what's right, don't youi"

"I do. But I know I don't believe in violence. I can't stand the thought of it. Especially... not the way I've been feelin' for the last few months. Like I'm walkin' on eggshells with an anvil strapped to my back. I know I couldn't pull a trigger and shoot anybody. I know that for a fact."

"You wouldn't have to carry a gun, then. I wouldn't expect you to. Just be there to show Biggun he can't get away with murder."

"Unless the Blaylocks murder all of you!" Mom fairly leaped from her chair. "No! Tom's been under a lot of stress lately, and he's not in any physical or mental shape to-"

"Rebecca!" Dad snapped. She hushed. "I can speak for myself, thank you," he said.

"Just tell me yes, Tom." Sheriff amory was pleading now. "That's all I want to hear."

Dad was in pain. I could see its grim mark on his face. He did know what was right, but he was all twisted up and hurting inside, and the chilly hand of the man at the bottom of Saxon's Lake clutched the back of his neck. "No," he said, his voice raspy. "I can't, J.T."

May I be forgiven. I thought one word, and that word was Yellowstreak. Immediately I was overcome with shame, and my face was burning as I got up and ran to my room.

"Cory!" Dad called. "Wait a minute!"

"Well, that's just fine!" Sheriff amory stood up, and he plucked his hat from the coffee table and jammed it on his head. The crown was crushed, the silver star awry. "Just damn fine! Everybody wants the Blaylocks put behind bars and they kick my ass for takin' his dirty money, but when it comes a chance to actually do somethin' about 'em, everybody and their brother, sister, and uncle runs for the hills! Just damned fine!"

Dad said, "I wish I could-"

"Forget it. Stay home. Stay safe. Good night." Sheriff amory walked out the door into the cold. The leaves crunched under his shoes, the sound fading. Dad stood at the window and watched him drive away.

"Don't worry about him," Mom said. "He'll find enough deputies."

"What if he doesn'ti What if everybody does run for the hillsi"

"Then if this town doesn't care enough about law and order to help their sheriff, Zephyr deserves to dry up and blow away."

Dad turned toward her, his mouth a tight line. "We're Zephyr, Rebecca. You and me. Cory. J.T. The ten men he asked who turned him down, they're Zephyr, too. It's people's souls and caring for each other that dries up and blows away before buildin's and houses do."

"You can't help him, Tom. You just can't. If somethin' happened to you..." She didn't finish, because that train of thought led to a desolate destination.

"Maybe he did wrong, but he deserves help. I should've said I would."

"No, you shouldn't have. You're not a fighter, Tom. Those Blaylocks would kill you before you could blink."

"Then maybe I shouldn't blink," Dad said, his face stony.

"Just do what J.T. said, Tom. Stay home and stay safe. Okayi"

"Fine example I'm settin' for Cory. Did you see the way he looked at mei"

"He'll get over it," Mom said. She made an effort to summon a smile. "How about a nice piece of spice cake and a cup of coffeei"

"I don't want any spice cake. I don't want any apple pie, or coconut muffins, or blueberry fritters. all I want is some-" He had to stop speaking, but the rush of emotion choked him. Peace might have been the next word he was going to say. "I'm gonna go talk to Cory," he told her, and he came to my room and knocked on the door.

I let him in. I had to. He was my dad. He sat down on my bed, while I held a Blackhawk comic book close to my face. Before he'd come in, I'd been remembering something Vernon had said: Sheriff amory's a good man, just not a good sheriff. He lets the birds fly when he's got his paws on them. I guess it could never be said that Sheriff amory wasn't trying to do well by his family. Dad cleared his throat. "Well, I reckon I'm lower than a snake's pecker, is that righti"

I would've laughed at that any other time. I just stared at my comic book, attempting to climb inside the world of sleek ebony airplanes and square-jawed heroes who used their wits and fists for justice.

Maybe I betrayed myself somehow. Maybe Dad had an instant of reading my mind. He said, "The world's not a comic book, son." Then he touched my shoulder, and he stood up and closed the door on his way out.

I had a bad sleep that night. If it wasn't the four girls calling my name, it was the car going over the red rock cliff into black water, and then Midnight Mona raced through me and Biggun Blaylock's demonic, bearded face said I threw in an extra for good luck and Lucifer's shotgun-ripped head screamed from his grave and Mrs. Lezander offered me a glass of Tang and said Sometimes he stays up until dawn listening to the foreign countries.

I lay staring into darkness.

I hadn't told Dad or Mom about Dr. Lezander's distaste for milk or his liking to be a night owl. Surely that had nothing to do with the car in Saxon's Lake. What earthly reason would Dr. Lezander have to kill a strangeri and Dr. Lezander was a kind man who loved animals, not a savage beast who had beaten a man half to death and then strangled the other half with a piano wire. It was unthinkable!

Yet I was thinking it.

Vernon had been right about Sheriff amory. Could he be right about the milk-hating night owl, tooi

Vernon was crazy, but like the Beach Boys, he got around. Like the eye of God, he watched the comings and goings of the citizens of Zephyr, saw their grand hopes and mean schemes. He saw life laid bare. and maybe he was aware of more than he even knew.

I decided. I was going to have to start watching Dr. Lezander. and Mrs. Lezander, too. How could he be such a monster under his civilized skin, and her not know iti

The next day, which was cold and drizzly, I pedaled Rocket past Dr. Lezander's after school. Of course he and his wife were both inside. Even the two horses were in the barn. I don't know what I was looking for, I just wanted to look. There had to be more to tie the doctor to Saxon's Lake than Vernon's theories. That night, the silence at the dinner table couldn't have been cleaved with a chain saw. I didn't trust myself to meet Dad's gaze, and Dad and Mom were avoiding looking at each other as well. So it was a merry dinner, all around.

Then, as we were eating the pumpkin pie that we were all getting so heartily sick of, Dad said, "They let Rick Spanner go today."

"Ricki He's been with Green Meadows as long as you!"

"That's right," Dad said, and he picked at the crust with his fork. "Talkin' to Neil Yarbrough this mornin'. He hears they're cuttin' back. Have to, because of that damn... that supermarket," he corrected himself, though his curse was already flying. "Big Paul's Pantry." He snorted so hard I thought pumpkin pie might come through his nose. "Milk in plastic jugs. What'll they figure out next to mess things upi"

"Leah Spanner just had a baby in august," Mom said. "That's their third one. What's Rick gonna doi"

"I don't know. He left as soon as they told him. Neil says he heard they gave him a month's pay, but that won't go very far with four mouths to feed." He put down his fork. "Maybe we can take 'em a pie or somethin'."

"I'll make a fresh one first thing in the mornin'."

"That'd be good." Dad reached out, and he placed his hand over Mom's. With all that had been going on-said and left unsaid-it was a heartening sight. "I have a feelin' that's just the start of it, Rebecca. Green Meadows can't compete with those supermarket prices. We cut our rates for our regular customers last week, and then Big Paul's Pantry undercut us two days later. I think it's gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets any better." I saw his hand squeeze Mom's, and she squeezed back. They were in it together, for the long haul.

"One other thing." Dad paused. His jaw clenched and relaxed. He was obviously having a hard time spitting this out, whatever it was. "I talked to Jack Marchette this afternoon. He was at the Shell station when I stopped to fill up the truck. He said-" again, this was a thorny obstruction in his throat. "He said J.T.'s only found one more volunteer deputy other than Jack himself. You know who that isi"

Mom waited.

"The Moon Man." a tight smile flickered across Dad's face. "Can you believe thati Out of all the able-bodied men in this town, only Jack and the Moon Man are gonna stand with J.T. against the Blaylocks. I doubt if the Moon Man can even hold a pistol, much less use one if he had to! Well, I suppose everybody else decided to stay home and be safe, don't youi"

Mom pulled her hand away, and she looked somewhere else. Dad stared across the table at me, his eyes so intense I had to shift in my chair because I felt their heat and power. "Some father you've got, huh, partneri You go to school today and tell your friends how I helped uphold the lawi"

"No sir," I answered.

"You should have. Should've told Ben, Johnny, and Davy Ray."

"I don't see their fathers linin' up to get themselves killed by the Blaylocks!" Mom said, her voice strained and unsteady. "Where are the people who know how to use gunsi Where are the huntersi Where're the big-talkin' men who say they've been in so many fights and they know how to use their fists and guns to solve every problem in this whole wide worldi"

"I don't know where they are." Dad scraped his chair back and stood up. "I just know where I am." He started walking toward the front door, and Mom said with a frightened gasp of breath, "Where're you goin'i"

Dad stopped. He stood there, between us and the door, and he lifted a hand to his forehead. "Out to the porch. Just out to the porch, Rebecca. I need to sit out there and think."

"It's cold and rainin' outside!"

"I'll live," he told her, and he left the house.

But he came back, in about thirty minutes. He sat before the fireplace and warmed himself. I got to stay up a little later, since it was a Friday night. When it was time for me to go to bed, between ten-thirty and eleven, Dad was still sitting in his chair before the hearth, his hands folded together and supporting his chin. a wind had kicked up outside, and it blew rain like handfuls of grit against the windows.

"Good night, Mom!" I said. She said good night, from her Herculean labors in the kitchen. "Good night, Dad."

"Coryi" he said softly.

"Yes siri"

"If I had to kill a man, would that make me any different from whoever did that murder at Saxon's Lakei"

I thought about this for a moment. "Yes sir," I decided. "Because you'd only kill to protect yourself."

"How do we know whoever did that murder wasn't protectin' himself in some way, tooi"

"We don't, I guess. But you wouldn't get any pleasure from it, like he did."

"No," he said. "I sure wouldn't."

I had something else to say. I didn't know if he wanted to hear it or not, but I had to say it. "Dadi"

"Yes, soni"

"I don't think anybody gives you peace, Dad. I think you have to fight for it, whether you want to or not. Like what happened with Johnny and Gotha Branlin. Johnny wasn't lookin' for a fight. It was forced on him. But he won peace for all of us, Dad." My father's expression didn't alter, and I wasn't sure he understood what I was driving at. "Does that make any sensei"

"Perfect sense," he replied. He lifted his chin, and I saw the edge of a smile caught in the corner of his mouth. "alabama game's on the radio tomorrow. Ought to be a humdinger. You'd better get on to bed."

"Yes sir." I started toward my room.

"Thank you, son," my father said.

I awakened at seven o'clock to the clatter of the pickup truck's cold engine starting. "Tom!" I heard my mother calling from the front porch. "Tom, don't!" I peered out the window into the early sunlight to see Mom in her robe, running to the street. But the pickup truck was already moving away, and Mom cried out, "Don't go!" Dad's hand emerged from the driver's window, and he waved. Dogs barked up and down Hilltop Street, roused from their doghouses by the commotion. I knew where Dad was going. I knew why.

I was scared for him, but during the night he had made a momentous decision. He was going to find peace, rather than waiting for it to find him.

That morning was an exercise in torture. Mom could hardly speak. She stumbled around in her robe, her eyes glazed with terror. Every fifteen minutes or so she called the sheriff's office to talk to Dad, until finally around nine o'clock he must've told her he couldn't talk anymore because she didn't dial the number again.

at nine-thirty, I got dressed. Pulled on my jeans, a shirt, and a sweater, because though the sun was bright and the sky blue the air was stinging cold. I brushed my teeth and combed my hair. I watched the clock tick toward ten. I thought of the Trailways bus, number thirty-three, on its way over the winding roads. Would it be early, late, or right on timei Today such a thing as seconds might mean life or death for my father, the sheriff, Chief Marchette, and the Moon Man. But I pushed thoughts like that aside, as much as I could. They came back, though, evil as poison ivy. I knew near ten-thirty that I would have to go. I would have to be there, to see my father. I could not wait for the telephone call that would say Donny was on the bus with the two marshals, or my father was lying shot by a Blaylock bullet. I would have to go. I strapped on my Timex, and I was ready.

as eleven o'clock approached, Mom was so nervous she had both the television and the radio on and she was baking three pies at once. The alabama game was just about to start. I didn't care a damn for it.

I walked into the pumpkin-and-nutmeg-fumed kitchen, and I said, "Can I go to Johnny's, Momi"

"Whati" She looked at me, wild-eyed. "Go wherei"

"Johnny's. The guys are gonna meet there to..." I glanced at the radio. Rollllll Tide! the crowd was cheering. "To listen to the game." It was a necessary lie.

"No. I want you right here with me."

"I told 'em I'd be there."

"I said..." Her face flamed with anger. She slammed a mixing bowl down onto the counter. Utensils filmed with pumpkin slid to the floor. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she put a hand over her mouth to hold back a cry of anguish.

Cool on the outside, hell-roasted in the guts. That was me. "I'd like to go," I said.

The hand could no longer hold. "Go on, then!" Mom shouted, her nerves at last unraveling to reveal the tormented center. "Go on, I don't care!"

I turned and ran out before the sob that welled up rooted my shoes. as I climbed onto Rocket, I heard a crash from the kitchen. The mixing bowl had met the floor. I started pedaling for Ridgeton Street, the chill biting my ears.

Rocket was fast that day, as if it sensed impending tragedy. Still, the town lay quiet in its Saturday drowse, the cold having chased all but a few hardy kids indoors and most folks tuned to Bear's latest triumph. I leaned forward, my chin slicing the wind. Rocket's tires thrummed over the pavement, and when my shoes lost the pedals the wheels kept turning on their own.

I reached the gas station just past eleven-fifteen. It had two pumps and an air hose. Inside the office part that connected to a two-stall garage, the gas station's owner-Mr. Hiram White, an elderly man with a humped back who shambled around his wrenches and engine belts like Quasimodo amid the bells-sat at his desk, his head cocked toward a radio. at one corner of the cinderblock building a yellow tin sign with TRaILWaYS BUS SYSTEM on it hung from rusted screws. I parked Rocket around back, near the oily trash cans, and I sat on the ground in the sun to wait the coming of high noon.

at ten minutes before twelve, my fingernails gnawed to the bone, I heard the sound of cars approaching. I edged around the corner and took a peek. The sheriff's car pulled in, followed by Dad's pickup truck. The Moon Man, wearing his top hat, was sitting beside Dad. Chief Marchette was in the passenger seat of the sheriff's car, and seated behind Sheriff amory was the criminal himself. Donny Blaylock wore a gray uniform and a smirk. Nobody got out. They sat there, both engines rumbling.

Mr. White emerged from his office, scuttling sideways like a crab. Sheriff amory rolled his window down, and they exchanged some words but I couldn't hear what was being said. Then Mr. White returned to his office. a few minutes later, he was leaving wearing a grease-stained jacket and a baseball cap. He got into his DeSoto and drove off, blue smoke in his wake like dots and dashes of Morse code.

The sheriff's window went back up again. I checked my Timex. It was two minutes before twelve.

Two minutes later, the bus had not arrived.

Suddenly a voice behind me said, "Don't move, boy."

a hand seized the nape of my neck before I could turn my head. Wiry fingers squeezed so hard my nerves were frozen. The hand pulled me, and I retreated from the building's corner. Was it Wade or Bodean who had mei Lord, wasn't there some way to warn my dadi The hand kept pulling me until we were back at the trash cans. Then it let me go, and I turned to see my adversary.

Mr. Owen Cathcoate said, "What the damn hell are you doin' here, boyi"

I couldn't speak. Mr. Cathcoate's wrinkled, liver-spotted face was topped by a sweat-stained brown cowboy hat, its shape more of a Gabby Hayes than a Roy Rogers. His scraggly yellow-white hair hung untidily over his shoulders. He wore, over his creased black trousers and a mud-colored cardigan sweater, a beige duster that looked more musty than dusty. Its ragged hem hung almost to the ankles of his plain black boots. But this was not what had stolen my voice. The voice stealer was the tooled-leather gunbelt cinched around his slim waist and the skeleton-grip pistol tucked down into its holster on his left side, turned around so the butt faced out. Mr. Cathcoate's narrow eyes appraised me. "asked you a question," he said.

"My dad," I managed to say. "He's here. To help the sheriff."

"So he is. That don't explain why you're here, though."

"I just wanted to-"

"Get your head blown offi There's gonna be some fireworks, if I know what the Blaylocks are made of. Get on that bike and make a trail."

"The bus is late," I said, trying to stall him.

"Don't stall," he countered. "Get!" He shoved me toward Rocket.

I didn't get on. "No sir. I'm stayin' with my dad."

"You want me to whip your tail right this minutei" The veins stood out in his neck. I expect he could deliver a whipping that would make my father's seem like a brush with a powder puff. Mr. Cathcoate advanced on me. I took a single step back, and then I decided I wasn't going any farther.

Mr. Cathcoate stopped, too, less than three feet from me. a hard-edged smile crossed his mouth. "Well," he said. "Got some sand in you, don't youi"

"I'm stayin' here," I told him.

and then we both heard the sound of a vehicle approaching, and we knew the time for debate was ended. Mr. Cathcoate whirled around and stalked to the building's corner, the folds of his duster rustling. He stopped and peered furtively around the edge, and I realized I was no longer seeing Mr. Owen Cathcoate.

I was seeing the Candystick Kid.

I looked around the corner, too, before Mr. Cathcoate waved me back.

My heart jumped at what I saw. Not the Trailways bus, but a black Cadillac. It pulled into the gas station and parked at an angle in front of the sheriffs car. I dodged away from Mr. Cathcoate's restraining hand, and I ran for a pile of used tires near the garage and flopped down on my belly behind them. Now I had a clear view of what was about to happen, and I stayed there despite Mr. Cathcoate motioning me back behind the building's edge.

Bodean Blaylock, wearing an open-collared white shirt and a gray suit that shone with slick iridescence, got out from behind the wheel. His hair was cropped in a severe crew cut, his mean mouth twisted into a thin smile. He reached into the car and his hand came out with a pearl-handled revolver. Then Wade Blaylock, his dark hair slicked back and his chin jutting, got out of the passenger side. He was wearing black pants so tight they looked painted on, the sleeves of his blue-checked cowboy-style shirt rolled up to show his slim, tattooed forearms in spite of the chill. He had a shoulder holster with a gun in it, and he pulled a rifle out of the Cadillac with him and quickly cocked it: ka-chunk!

Then the rear door opened, the Cadillac wobbled, and that big brute heaved himself out. Biggun Blaylock was wearing camouflage-print overalls and a dark brown shirt. He looked like one of the November hills come to life, ripped loose from its bedrock to roll across the earth. He wore a toothy grin, his bald head with its tuft of gray hair gleaming with scalp oil. He breathed hard, winded from the exertion of leaving the car. "Do it, boys," he said between wheezes.

Wade leveled the rifle. Bodean cocked his pistol. They aimed at the sheriff's car and started shooting.

I almost left my skin. The bullets hit the two front tires of Sheriff amory's car and knocked them flat. Then Wade and Bodean took aim at Dad's truck even as Dad threw the gearshift into reverse and tried to skid the truck out of danger. It was fruitless; the two front tires blew, and the truck was left lame and rocking on its shocks.

"Let's talk some business, Sheriff Junior!" Biggun thundered.

Sheriff amory didn't get out. Donny's grinning face was pressed up against the window glass like a kid looking at fresh cakes in a bakery. I glanced over to see what Mr. Cathcoate was doing. But the Candystick Kid wasn't there anymore.

"Bus ain't comin' for a while!" Biggun said. He leaned into the Cadillac's rear seat and came out holding a double-barreled shotgun in one ham-sized hand and in the other a camouflage shoulder bag. He put the bag on top of the Caddy's roof, unzipped it, and reached in. "Funniest damn thing, Sheriff Junior!" He broke the shotgun open, brought out two shells from the ammo bag, and pushed them in. Then he snapped the weapon shut again. "Damn bus had two flats 'bout six miles down Route Ten! Gonna be hell fixin' them big mothers!" He rested his weight against the Caddy, making it groan and sag. "always hated changin' tires, myself."

a gun spoke: crack crack!

The Cadillac's rear tires exploded. Biggun, for all his bulk, jumped two feet in the air. He made a noise that was a combination of hootenanny yodel and opera aria. Wade and Bodean whirled around. Biggun came down with a concrete-cracking concussion.

Smoke drifted around a figure that stood behind the Cadillac, next to Mr. White's parked tow truck. The Candystick Kid was holding his pistol in his right hand.

"What the fuckin' hell of a shit-!" Biggun raged, his face swelling up with blood and the tip of his beard quivering.

Sheriff amory jumped from his car. "Owen! I told you I didn't want you around here!"

The Candystick Kid ignored him, his cool gaze riveted to Biggun. "Know what this is called, Mr. Blaylocki" He suddenly spun his pistol around and around his trigger finger, the sun glinting off the blued metal, and he delivered the gun to its butt-first position in the left-sided holster with a shricking noise of supple leather. "This is called," he said, "a standoff."

"Standoff, my ass!" Biggun shouted. " Nail him, boys!"

Wade and Bodean opened fire as Sheriff amory yelled, "No!" and brought up the rifle he'd been holding at his side.

The Candystick Kid might have been an old, wrinkled man, but whatever was in him that had made him the Kid now showed its mettle. He dived behind the tow truck as bullets crashed through the windshield and pocked the hood. Sheriff amory squeezed off two shots, and the Cadillac's windshield blew out. Wade yelped and went for the ground, but Bodean turned around with fury contorting his face and his pistol popped. Sheriff amory's hat flew off his head like a pigeon. The next shot from the sheriff's rifle put a part in the side of Bodean's crew cut, and Bodean must've felt the heat of its passage because he hollered "Yow!" and dropped to a snake's view.

Mr. Marchette climbed out of the sheriff's car, holding a pistol. Dad scrambled out of the pickup truck and threw himself to the pavement, and a thrill of mingled pride and fear went through me as I saw he was gripping a gun, too. The Moon Man stayed in the truck and ducked his head, only his top hat showing.

Boom! the double-barreled shotgun said. The tow truck shook, pieces of glass and metal flying off it. Biggun was on his knees beside the Cadillac, and it came to me that he shouldn't destroy that tow truck because he was going to need it to stand up again.

"Daddy!" Donny shouted from the sheriff's car. "Get me outta this, Daddy!"

"ain't nobody takin' what belongs to me!" Biggun yelled back. He fired off a shell at the sheriff's car, and the grille exploded. Steaming radiator water spewed like a geyser. From the back seat, where he must've been restrained by cuffs or a rope, Donny hollered, "Don't kill me 'fore you save me, Daddy!"

I saw where Donny got his smarts from.

Biggun reached up and grabbed the ammo bag's strap, and he hauled it down with him to reload. another bullet smacked into the Cadillac, and a taillight crashed. The Candystick Kid was still at work.

"ain't no use!" Biggun said, snapping the shotgun shut again. "We're gonna go through you like shit through a goose! Hear me, Sheriff Juniori"

Dad got up. I almost shouted for him to stay down, but he ran alongside the sheriff's car and crouched next to Sheriff amory. I could see how pale his face was. But he was there, and that's what counted.

There was a lull as everybody got their second gulp of courage. Bodean and Wade began firing at the sheriff's car again, and Donny hunkered down in the back seat. "Stop that shootin', ya damn fools!" Biggun commanded. "You wanna blow your brother's head offi"

Maybe it was my imagination, but neither Wade nor Bodean stopped firing as fast as they should have.

"Get around behind 'em, Wade!" Bodean yelled.

"You get around behind 'em, dumb ass!"

Bodean, proving the cunning of a poker player did not translate into common sense, stood up and sprinted for the building's corner. He got about three strides when a single gunshot rang out and he grabbed at his right foot and fell sprawling to the pavement. "I'm shot, Daddy! Daddy, I'm shot!" he whined, his pistol lying out of reach.

"Didn't think you were fuckin' tickled!" Biggun roared back. "Lord God, you got the brains of a BB in a boxcar!"

"Gimme somethin' else to shoot at!" the Candystick Kid urged, well-hidden in the shadow of the tow truck. "I got a gun full of lonely bullets!"

"Give it up, Biggun!" Sheriff amory said. "You're washed up around here!"

"If I am, I'll make you choke on the soap, you bastards!"

"ain't no use anybody else gettin' hurt! Throw out your guns and let's call it quits!"

"Sheeeeyit!" Biggun snarled. "You think I got anywhere in this life by callin' it quitsi You think I come up from hog turds and cotton fields to let a little tin star take my boy away from me and ruin everythin'i You shoulda used that money I been payin' you to buy a head doctor with!"

"Biggun, it's over! You're surrounded!" That was my father's voice. To my dying day I shall never forget the steel in it. He was a Blackhawk, after all.

"Surround this!" Wade jumped up and started firing with his rifle in my father's direction. Biggun hollered for him to get down, but Wade was balanced on the lunatic edge just like Donny. Bullets struck sparks off the concrete, and one of them thunked into a tire in my nest of concealment. My heart seized up, it was so close. Then the Candystick Kid's gun cracked again, just once, and a chunk of Wade's left ear spun off his head and red blood spattered the Cadillac's hood.

You would've thought the bullet had chopped off something more central, because Wade screamed like a woman. He clutched at his ragged ear, fell to the ground, and started wheeling around and around like the Three Stooges' Curly having a caterwauling fit.

"Oh, my soul!" Biggun moaned.

It was obvious that, like the Branlins, the Blaylocks could dish it out but they sure couldn't take it.

"Damn, I missed!" the Candystick Kid said. "I was aimin' for his head instead of his ass!"

"I'll kill ya!" Biggun's voice returned to the thunder zone. " I'll kill every one of ya and dance on your graves!"

It was a frightening sound. But with Bodean and Wade writhing on the pavement and Donny yelping like a sad little puppy, there wasn't much lightning left in the storm.

and then the pickup's passenger-side door opened and the Moon Man stepped out. He was wearing a black suit and a red bow tie, as well as his top hat. around his neck were six or seven strings and attached to the strings were small things that looked like tea bags. a chicken foot was pinned to one lapel, and he wore three watches on each wrist. He didn't duck or dodge. Instead, he began walking past the sheriff's car, past Fire Chief Marchette and my dad and Sheriff amory. "Hey!" Chief Marchette shouted. "Get your head down!"

But the Moon Man kept going with a deliberate stride, his head held high. He was going right to where Biggun Blaylock crouched by the Cadillac holding a loaded double-barreled shotgun.

"Cease this violence!" the Moon Man intoned in a soft, almost childlike voice. I had never heard him speak before. "Cease this violence, for the sake of all that's good!" His long legs stepped over Wade without hesitation.

"Keep away from me, you nutty nigger!" Biggun warned. But the Moon Man would not be halted. Dad shouted, "Come back!" and started to get up, but Sheriff amory's hand closed on his forearm.

"I'll blow you to voodoo blazes!" Biggun said, indicating that he indeed knew the reputations of the Moon Man and the Lady. Biggun's eyes had taken on the wet glint of fear. "Stay away from me! Stay away, I said!"

The Moon Man stopped in front of Biggun. The Moon Man smiled, his eyes crinkling up, and he held out his long, slim arms. "Let us search for light," he said.

Biggun aimed the shotgun at the Moon Man at point-blank range. He sneered, "Well, light one for me!" and his thick finger wrenched both triggers at once.

I flinched, my eardrums already cracking from the blast.

But there was no blast.

"Stand up and walk like a man," the Moon Man said, still smiling. "It's not too late."

Biggun gagged and gasped at the same time. He wrenched the triggers again. Still, no blast. Biggun snapped the shotgun open, and what was jammed into the chambers came spilling out over his hands.

They were little green garden snakes. Dozens of them, all tangled together. Perfectly harmless, but they did some damage to Biggun Blaylock, and that's no lie.

"Gaaaaakkkk!" he choked. He knocked the snakes out of the chambers, reached into his ammo bag, and his hand came out full of rippling green bodies. Biggun made a noise like Lou Costello coming face-to-face with Lon Chaney Junior's werewolf-" Wo wo wo wo wo!"-and suddenly that monstrous bulk was up on its feet and showed that he might not walk like a man but he sure could run like a rabbit. Of course, in such cases the reality of physics must eventually intrude and Biggun's weight crashed him to the concrete before he got very far. He struggled and thrashed like a turtle turned on its shell.

Tires shrieked. a pickup truck loaded with men roared into the gas station. I recognized among them Mr. Wilson and Mr. Callan. Most of the men held baseball bats, axes, or guns. Close behind them came a car, followed by another car. Then a second pickup truck skidded to a stop. The men of Zephyr-and many of the Bruton men, too-leaped out ready to bust some heads. "I'll be," Sheriff amory said, and he stood up.

They were sorely disappointed, to say the least, that it was all over. I later learned the noise of the shootout had thawed their guts and brought them out to defend their sheriff and their town. They had all thought, I suppose, that someone else would shoulder the responsibility, that they could stay home and be safe. a lot of wives had done a lot of crying. But they had come. Not all of the Zephyr and Bruton men, by far, but more than enough to take care of business. I imagine that seeing the crowd of wild men with butcher knives, Louisville Sluggers, hatchets, pistols, and meat cleavers, the Blaylocks thanked their lucky stars they weren't going to jail in snuffboxes.

In all the confusion, I came out from hiding. Mr. Owen Cathcoate was standing over Wade, lecturing him about the straight and narrow path. Wade was listening with only half an ear. My dad was with the Moon Man, over by the Blaylocks' Caddy. I walked to him, and he looked at me and wanted to ask what I was doing there, but he didn't because the answer to that would lead to a whipping. So he didn't ask, he just nodded.

Dad and I stood together, staring down at Biggun's shotgun and the ammo bag. Green garden snakes wriggled around each other like a big mass of seaweed, overflowing from the bag.

The Moon Man just grinned. "My wife," he said. "She one craaaaazy old lady."

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