The timer buzzed. Jennifer Carolina whipped her arms down from surrender position, spun on the ball of her left foot, drew, and confronted three targets. She had done this 50 times, over days. Every time, she stumbled or fumbled or flinched or forgot to do some part of the exercise.
But this time was different. She felt it the moment she began to turn, and felt it even more strongly as she drew the Charter Arms Bulldog from its holster.
Blam! Blam! Two to center of mass in the first bad guy. Blam! Blam! Two to center of mass in one of his companions. The gun bucked in her hands, then right back on target, as if of its own will. She kept on shooting. Ejected. Slammed in five more cartridges with a speedloader. Shot some more. Reloaded. Shot. A 12-shot drill was rough with a five-shot revolver. But this ... it was smooth.
When she lowered her firearm and looked, she saw 12 holes, right where they ought to be.
"Sweet," Brad nodded.
But Jennifer didn't need an instructor's approval. She felt her hands and body in a whole new way. She felt herself in a whole new way ... a person who could do something, and do it right. The energy coursed through her like nothing she'd ever felt before in all her life.
* * *
Nat pulled his pick-up truck into a space near the statue of the Drunken Cowboy. With the gait of a man who's been on horseback all his 80+ years, and the determination of a man riding to the rescue, he headed toward the miniature patio outside the Bon Mot ice cream parlor, where Gael Carolina was indulging Tonio and Mirabelle in summer treats. They looked up as Nat came storming at them.
"Like to talk t' you. Alone," Nat told the startled man, without preliminaries. "Soon."
"And what is this regarding?"
Gael glanced uneasily at his companions. "I am quite busy this week," he said. "But perhaps next week I can ..."
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Lyons. But time does not ..."
Gael's face clouded, his voice hardened, "I will not be ordered ..."
"Yeah? Well, mebbe it's true I won't be orderin' you. But a coupla guys named Serrano and Delaval might."
"What are you talking about?"
Nat glanced apologetically at Mirabelle and Tonio. "Jus' this," he said. "I called Serrano. He said you got no budget for buyin' land, no auth'rization f'r buildin' hotels or whatever it is y'r up to. He said all you got's a salary and per diem and th' job of makin' recommendations before Delaval gives you a budget for hirin' anybody or buildin' anything."
Neither man saw the dismay that creased Tonio's face. Mirabelle sat with her head down, delicately toying with the rosebuds atop her sundae.
"Mr. Lyons," Gael riposted smoothly, "You don't seem to practice what you preach. My private business is mine. And I assure you," he added, scanning the faces of Tonio and Mirabelle as if assuring them more than Nat, "that I am doing my research and making my recommendations in a manner fully satisfactory to my employers. Nothing in my agreement with the Delaval organization forbids me from making my own strictly private investments as long as they don't interfere with Mr. Delaval's interests. Which they do not."
Nat had played enough poker to know a bluff when he saw one. "We'll let Delaval decide that. What I wanna know is where's the money comin' from? Where'd you get the kinda cash to make an offer on the Harbibi operation? Where'd you get the kinda cash to be bringin' some arch'tect in and plannin' God knows what?"
Señor Carolina rose smoothly from his chair and glared imperiously upon Nat. "Mr. Lyons. That is none of your business. This entire conversation is an act of hypocrisy on your part. You and your fellow townspeople puff yourselves up with pride over your so-called 'freedoms' -- which you then squander in idleness and license. Your utter lack of rules serves only to corrupt, as my daughter's pathetic example demonstrates. When someone finally comes along with the intention of using those freedoms productively, you respond with ignorant scorn and mistrust.
"And now ..." he inhaled deeply, " ... now you show your true nature by demanding to know the very things you claim are no one's business -- how I earn my income and on what I choose to spend it. Mrs. Harbibi, might I remind you, is voluntarily negotiating to sell her land and I am not forcing anyone to comply with my plans and hopes of improving this wretched, inbred, congenitally deficient dust-bowl of a town. I am, in short, embodying precisely the values you claim to cherish. And I will continue to do so regardless of what anyone -- anyone -- else thinks of the matter. Now, good day, sir."
He motioned for Mirabelle and Tonio, threw a handful of silver coins onto the table, and strode away. Mirabelle meekly left her melting sundae and followed. Tonio stood, then hesitated, looking after his retreating father, then at Nat. His normally dark complexion had the pallor of vanilla ice cream.
"I'm sorry, boy," Nat told him. "Shouldn'ta done that in front of ya."
"I ... yeah. Probably not. But that's okay, Mr. Lyons. I'm glad I heard it. I'm not upset with you." He paused as if he wanted to say more, then thought better of it and started after his father.
Nat put out a gently restraining arm. "Another thing. Diff'rent subject. Y'r sister's doin' real good out there at the range. Think mebbe it's time to put her in with a group o' kids. You int'rested in takin' an intermediate shooting class?"
"I don't have ..."
"At my expense. My treat."
Tonio brightened. "Are you sure? Really?" Nat nodded. "Heck, yeah, Mr. Lyons. Just tell me when and I'll be there."
* * *
Nat and Brad went around town over the next few days, choosing teenagers and a few younger kids to share Jen's shooting classes.
Nat also had a few other talks.
He talked with Charlotte Carolina, who confirmed what he already guessed. "That man? Have millions of dollars -- or even thousands of Hardyville dollars -- of his own? Don't kid me! He's always liked living big, but on other people's funds. Anything he ever got of his own, he squandered. Trust me, this I know. Investors? Maybe. But who? I have no idea."
He talked with the Grieving Widow Harbibi, who unwrapped herself from the arms of John Davis Melvin long enough to say, "None of your business. I'm just tired of hogs and hog slop and think I might like to ... oh, take a sea cruise. Visit Paris. Live a little, you know?" She giggled grotesquely.
He talked with Marlene McCarty Lyons, his third cousin twice removed, who works at Hardyville Land and Title. "Now, Nat, you know I can't disclose anything about a pending real-estate sale. You're naughty even to ask." Then she excused herself to answer a question at the front counter -- and carefully left a file folder opened on her desk.
He talked with Bob-the-Nerd, "The offer on the Harbibi place is coming from something called 'Paradise Unlimited,'" he said. "Incorporated in the Bahamas. No officers or stockholders named. Carolina has power of attorney, but no other known connection. What c'n ya find out?"
Bob shook his head. "Probably not much, Nat. This isn't a job you and I have the resources for, not with it being overseas. Anyhow, Carolina's right in a way. I don't like what's going on any more than you do, but it's not really our business, is it?"
Nat glared at him. "Peaceful private business is private business. Agreed. Now, what if it turns out this isn't?"
"Peaceful. Or private. Do you think it is? D'you smell roses? Or fertilizer?"
"Okay, I'll see what I can find out."
The Hardyville gossip network kept churning, as news of Nat's conversation with Serrano got around.
* * *
Thirty miles west of Hardyville, Jennifer Carolina knew none of it. After caring for Nat's horses and taking her shooting lessons -- which now meant friendly competition with Tonio, Christian Goodin, two girls her own age, and a handful of younger kids -- she sat outside her trailer every evening, alone but beginning to feel a little different about it.
Some evenings she even tried reading the books somebody had left in the trailer. Reading wasn't her thing, but there were no video games, no Internet, no cell phones. Then, in a compartment under her bed she discovered a handful of nature guides.
She liked to listen to the coyotes -- and now she knew they were coyotes, not wolves. She started carrying the nature guides to identify animals she could hear scampering or slithering through the sagebrush. Pretty soon, the suburban girl who'd have been hard pressed to tell a skunk from a black-and-white kitty cat was able to identify sage grouse, pronghorns, two kinds of deer, and at least five different varieties of snakes, mostly poisonous.
She wasn't so worried about the snakes; Nat now trusted her to carry her holstered firearm everywhere around the ranch. He gave her a box of snakeshot. In fact, he turned out not to be such an awful old man. He loaned her a Leatherman multitool for odd jobs. He showed her how to groom and saddle a horse. Offered to teach her to ride, which she said she'd think about.
The horses ... they were crazy wild animals, as far as Jen was concerned. More easily spooked than white-tailed deer. More likely to strike than rattlesnakes. Their hooves, teeth, and unstable brains scared her. But one four-month old buckskin colt, long-legged and gangly, took a mysterious liking to her. Though reluctant to stray far from Mama, it watched her devotedly and increasingly yielded to temptation to follow her almost everywhere she went. Despite her doubts about all things equine, the colt's affection felt good. It was the only affection she'd had in a long, long time.
"What's its name?" she asked Nat one day as she hung on the bars of his round pen, watching him lunge a yearling. The colt stood beside her, nudging her pockets in search of treats.
"Haven't got around to givin' it one yet."
"Can I name him?"
Nat shrugged, then smiled. "Sure. Go 'head." The colt had had a registered name almost from birth, but no harm letting it have a call name of Jen's choice.
"Bulldog," she grinned. "His name is Bulldog."
* * *
Jen was alone one morning, feeding buckets of oats to the horses, when catastrophe struck.
Bulldog squealed, snorted. He began to toss his head wildly. Then he took off in a crazed, leaping gallop toward the far end of the pasture, then back. All the while he snorted and blew, flinging his head from side to side and up and down.
The nearby horses began to prance, sideways and back, sideways and back. Some reared. They threw their heads, up, down, up, down. Some of them, too, began to gallop wildly across the pasture, as if on some kind of contact high from Bulldog. In seconds, every horse in the pasture went completely insane.
Heedless of where they were running, they nearly collided with the barbed-wire fence, then wheeled and thundered back in a herd -- straight at Jennifer.
Faster than she knew she could leap, slicing the palm of her hand on a barb, Jen flew over the nearest fenceline, out of the path of the maddened animals. They charged the fence, flinging dust and pebbles into her face, then at the last second before impaling themselves, they wheeled away as one and rampaged in the other direction.
Adrenaline pumping so hard she didn't feel the blood or the pain of the slash, Jen crouched on the safe side of the fence. She felt panicked -- not understanding what was going on, not knowing what to do. She turned toward the ranch house, but she knew Nat wasn't there. Nobody could explain. Nobody could help.
Up and down the crazed animals charged, squealing and tossing their heads. Then, at the far end of the pasture, within striking distance of the barbed-wire fence, Bulldog quit running and began to buck, fragile legs flying out at random.
Jen cried out, "NO, Bulldog! NO! NO! NO!" and ran along the fenceline toward him, blood spattering from her hand as she frantically tried to wave him away from the wire.
But it was too late. Jen saw it as if in slow motion. The colt's spindly foreleg went over the middle wire. His knee hooked around the wire as he came down. Hoof touched ground on the opposite side of the bottom wire. One wire sliced into the front of his leg, the other into the back. Bulldog squealed and struggled -- and the more he fought, the more the wires sliced. Blood poured. Blood flew. Bulldog squealed and struggled harder than before.
Now Mama rushed to his side and rose to strike at the invisible "predator" that had her son's leg in its jaws.
Jennifer shouted and flung her arms as she ran toward the disaster. She had to get Mama away from the fence, had to do something -- something! -- before Bulldog broke his own leg or sliced an artery. Something. But what? She was alone. She didn't understand what had happened. She had no idea what to do.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del SIgnore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
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