"Dot-gov?" Gael Carolina sniffed, gazing evenly at Tonio across the plain of his walnut desk. "Of course it's possible I've had some correspondence with people in government as part of my function here. After all, Señor Delaval had to negotiate an arrangement with them -- the very arrangement that continues to protect this valley from further federal incursions. So yes, perhaps I've had some dealings with government representatives.
"But," he added, "I don't recall anything specific. I'm sure any contacts I had with 'dot-gov' would have been strictly detail-oriented."
Tonio met his father's gaze, son as steady as father. "I don't believe you," he said.
Their gazes locked in a contest of wills. Then Gael looked out the window, to where a lone cottonwood swayed in the garden. Turning back, he informed his son, "You may not believe me. But you know from experience that you cannot believe your sister -- whose self-admitted bad behavior provides the only witness to this alleged correspondence."
"No. She's telling the truth. And you're not."
Gael Carolina's elegant European pallor yielded to angry red. With an effort, he controlled his voice. "I see that this place ... this uncivilized backwater with its primitive ideas ... has corrupted even you. Even my own son, for whom I had such high hopes. Tonio, I urge you to think again about where you place your loyalties and to whom you give your allegiance. I can do much more for you than ..."
"Dad, stuff it." Tonio swept to his feet. "Cut the bull. You're never going to do anything for me. You never planned to do anything for me -- not give me a job, not send me to college. Nothing. You've lied to me since you laid eyes on me -- and I was stupid enough to buy it. Well, no more. That's it. Screw you."
He strode toward the door of the study and flung it open. But before walking out he paused long enough to say, "But you know what? I'm going to stop you from doing what you're planning. I'm going to stop you if it's the last thing I do."
And he walked down the hallway and out the front door, brushing aside Mirabelle. As he slammed out, Mirabelle exchanged looks with Gael. Hers was filled with anguish. His, unreadable.
* * *
Time passed slowly for Tonio. He knew he should be looking for work, but he felt defeated. He felt like a fool for not seeing through his father right from the start. His stomach churned with the rage of the deceived, with the impotence of a boy who wasn't yet enough of a man to save the things he cared about.
But he wasn't a man. That was just a fact. He didn't know what to do. So the weight of the days lay heavy on him. When not at the range with Jen or giving Charlotte desultory help around the house, he stayed shut in his room. He played video games until he was bored, cramped, and crabby. Then he turned to the old books and movies on his shelves, things he'd had around since he was a kid -- anything to escape the frustration.
But there was no escape. The books and movies made him feel worse. So many of them seemed to be about heroes and revenge. The Count of Monte Cristo. The Scarlet Pimpernel. Even modern stuff like V for Vendetta ... it was all about strong people, making a difference. Instead of giving him an escape route, the stories and movies made him feel more helpless.
He switched to history, reading about the American Revolution and its aftermath. But history hit him just the way the stories did. Those were men. I'm not. People lived in those days. Even a little creep like Aaron Burr knew how to deal with enemies. But me? I'm good for nothing.
Snap out of it, he ordered himself. But he was sunk in despair for days before he thought of a way out.
* * *
"A job?" Nat asked.
"Yeah, a job," Tonio nodded. He stood with Nat beside the old man's pick-up truck, just outside the shooting range. "On your ranch."
"Well ... c'n ya ride?"
"I can learn."
"I can learn."
"Run fence wire?"
"Why the ranch? Why not apply down t' the store. Educated boy like you ..."
"Don't want to live at home. For now, anyway. And Mr. Lyons, I'll work cheap. As cheap as you want. I just need a job that'll let me move away from home -- without having to wait until I've saved up a lot of money."
"Somethin' wrong between you and your ma?"
"No. Not that. It's just ... time."
Nat regarded him appraisingly. At that moment Jen came up, now sporting a borrowed Glock 21 on her hip.
"I asked Nat for a job," Tonio said. "On the ranch. So I could live out there."
Jen nodded, as if she'd expected it. "He works his tail off," she assured Nat. "And I could use the company and the help."
"I'll work cheap," Tonio repeated. "And I learn everything. Fast."
Nat shrugged. "Well then we'll give it a try. Be nice to have another Carolina kid out there; they're a good bunch." He grinned at Jennifer, who grinned back.
The two men -- for they were both men now -- sealed the deal with a handshake.
* * *
The following day, in town supposedly to pack his things (over Charlotte's puzzled protestations), Tonio borrowed the family car to run errands. His only "errand" was to shadow his father. He waited down the block for the man to emerge from the old Pickle Manse, then discreetly followed. He followed as his father made a brief stop at Hardyville Land and Title. He followed as Gael and Mirabelle went into a lawyer's office, followed as Gael waited and Mirabelle went into Lyons and Yale. At their next stop, Tonio finally hit it lucky. They went to a place where he'd have an audience. An audience was crucial for his plan.
At the height of lunch hour, such as it is around Hardyville, Gael and Mirabelle entered the Hog Trough to make a quick purchase of take-out iced lattés. Tonio left his car and followed them in.
There are a lot of ways to walk into a room. Some get you noticed. Some don't. From the moment he flung back the door, Tonio aimed for memorable. The very energy of the door swinging caught attention. Heads raised across the crowded restaurant.
Tonio strode straight to his father. Gael, sensing angry energy behind him, turned, startled. His eyes flicked to the Colt on his son's hip, as if he well understood what Tonio had worked himself up to. But Tonio didn't touch the gun.
Instead, after an endless moment of anticipation, Tonio raised an arm and swung a pair of old work gloves. Empty leather fingers slapped Gael's face.
As if he'd been rehearsing the words for a long time and they were finally ready to explode out of him, Tonio snapped, "Dad ... I challenge you to a duel. To the death."
* * *
Mirabelle cried out and clutched Gael's arm. Gael started to laugh ... but his mirth died. The room was silent. Deadly silent and serious. He looked at Tonio, taut as a wire before him. He looked at the expectant faces.
Mirabelle, who recognized the seriousness, started to protest, "Tonio, don't ..."
Gael's glance came back to Tonio, cold and imperious. "This is not amusing, young man."
"I didn't do it to be 'amusing.' I challenged you. If you're a man, meet the challenge."
Gael's eyes scanned the diners again. He watched them watching him, awaiting his answer.
"You barbarians," he finally sneered. "You utter barbarians. You actually believe this child can do this, don't you? You and your medieval codes of behavior."
No one responded. Tonio waited. "I'm not a child," he said. "And I'm waiting for your answer."
"Preposterous," Gael muttered. "Laughably preposterous. But ... if you insist. He smiled sardonically. "All right, Tonio, I'll play by your romance-novel rules. I accept."
"No!" Mirabelle cried. He brushed off her clinging hand.
"I accept," Gael repeated with a mock-courtly bow. "And in accepting, I embrace your quaint little code duello. That code, as I recall, specifies that the challenged party selects the weapons to be used. Is that not correct?"
Tonio looked around for support. Everyone was silent. Remembering the old books and movies, he realized his father was right. He nodded.
"Well then," Gael continued, waving a dismissive hand at Tonio's Colt. "Since all this amuses you, I'm sure you'll be even more amused by my choice of weaponry. I choose ... rapiers."
"Rapiers?" Tonio croaked, baffled.
One of Carty's Minutemen rose from a nearby table and came to Tonio's side. "A sword," he murmured in the young man's ear. "Your dad wants to fight you with swords."
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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