The silence in the Hog Trough, as Gael Carolina set the terms of the duel with his son, was profound. Into that silence, Señor Carolina spoke again.
"Yes, with swords," he said, glaring around at the dozens of closed faces, "and to clarify, I do not mean to spar with protected points. I accept Tonio's challenge -- to the death. You all believe so deeply in this barbarity that you mis-name 'freedom'? Well then, observe the consequences."
He turned sharply on his heel and strode out of the restaurant. Mirabelle stumbled in his wake, panic-stricken and still trying to clutch at his arm.
As the door slammed behind them, the Hog Trough erupted into hubbub.
* * *
It would be a slaughter. Everybody who learned about the duel understood that. We didn't even have to wait for Charlotte Carolina's confirmation that, yes, her ex-husband had studied fencing. Extensively. For years in his youth. And Tonio, of course, knew no more about sword fights than a boy learns watching Zorro.
Yet, Tonio had issued the challenge and Gael had accepted -- and it had all been done in public. Their choice. Their right. There could be no doubt.
According to the ancient rules, each man nominated a second -- a representative to set time and date and arrange all particulars of the deadly encounter. Before Tonio even had a chance to ask, Carty stepped forward on his behalf. Finding a second must have been harder for Gael Carolina; he'd made few friends in town. But eventually, Carty was contacted by Dermot Harvard Halloran, vice-president of the Second Bank of Hardyville. With an air of apology -- that of a lawyer who knows his client is scum but still believes he's entitled to the best possible representation -- the rotund little banker began emailing Carty with proposed terms.
Carty stalled. He gathered his Minutemen. He asked everybody: "Do you have any kind of swords? Do you know anything about swordfighting techniques?" His efforts turned up a couple of souvenir Katanas, a pair of slightly bent epees inherited from a grandfather, and a vast crescent-shaped monster with a faux-jeweled hilt whose owner had once belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism. But absolutely not one person in Hardyville -- other than Gael Carolina -- knew anything more about sword fighting than the Internet or old Basil Rathbone movies could tell them.
While Tonio, his friend Christian Goodin, and several young men studied films and practiced exhaustively with wooden makeshifts or the wobbly epees, the puddle jumper flew in with a tooled leather case in its cargo hold. The case, exactly the size and shape to hold a pair of swords, disappeared silently within the walls of the Pickle Manse.
* * *
Don't imagine that Tonio's mother Charlotte was silent all this time.
"You are not serious. You are not going to do this," she informed Tonio, having driven to Nat's ranch where her son was now boarding in a spare bedroom of the ranch house and learning to wrangle horses. Her hands trembled. Her whole body shook. "I forbid you to do this stupid, stupid, stupid thing!"
"You can't, Mom," Tonio said wearily, pausing with a coil of rope dangling from his hands. Behind him on the other side of a fence, a knot of half-broke horses eyed the rope suspiciously. "I'm sorry. I'm not doing this to hurt you. But you can't forbid me to do anything. I'm an adult now. I earn my own living. I've moved away from home."
"Adult. Adult! Do adults go around fighting with swords like something out of a comic book? Tonio, this is suicide. Don't you understand? Your father isn't going to back out at the last minute or play 'lets pretend.' You're in his way and now he's going to kill you. And you walked right into it. I tell you ..."
"Mom. Somebody has to stop him from ruining Hardyville. And nobody else has figured out how. Can't you see that?"
"And how exactly is getting yourself killed going to stop him from doing anything?"
Tonio shrugged, "I challenged him. I hoped maybe it would ... change his mind or something. Now I have to do the honorable thing."
"I thought ... I thought," Charlotte gasped, "that when we came over Lonelyheart Pass we were supposed to be heading into a better life. Yet all that we've gotten here is heartbreak and risk. And now this."
"Mom, have you talked to your daughter lately? Have you seen how this place has changed her? And it's changed you and me, Mom. You've got your own store. I've got ..." he swept his hand, with its rope coil around to indicate the mountains and sky. He sighed. "I'm really sorry. And I admit, I'm scared. But safety isn't freedom, Mom. And freedom comes with risk."
* * *
"Fire him, Mr. Lyons. Please. Fire him," Charlotte pleaded, as Nat checked an incoming shipment at Lyons and Yale Good Foods. "And throw him out of your house. If he doesn't have a job and he has to come back home, he's not considered an adult, right? He'll have to stop this foolishness."
"Mrs. Carolina," Nat said sadly, "Tonio's one hell of a young man. He's got a future like ... well I wanna live t' a hundred to see what he's gonna do with himself. If there's any clean way to keep him from gettin' killed, I'll do it. Count on that. But ... I'm not gonna yank all the pride an' manhood outa him just t' keep him safe. Y'r a mother. Y'r not gonna understand that. But I can't force a man t' try t' be a boy again. Can't do that."
* * *
"My ex husband is going to slice my son to death with a sword and you're telling me that's perfectly legal?" Charlotte stood at the counter, shaking anew and trying not to scream at the sheriff.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Carolina. But they're both adults and they entered into the agreement voluntarily. Your son has the choice to back out if he wants to."
"My son has more pride than brains."
"I'm sorry. Dueling is an old tradition. People don't do it much, true. But it's between them if they want to. It's better than shooting each other in a bar fight and maybe hitting random strangers."
Charlotte snapped. "I'll kill Gael before I'll allow him to slaughter my son!"
"If you do, Mrs. Carolina, I'll have to arrest you for murder."
* * *
The front door of the Pickle Manse remained closed, despite Charlotte's pounding. Even if she had come to kill her ex-husband (which she had not), she wouldn't have been able to.
When pounding with one fist wouldn't do, she pounded with both, "I know you're in there," she cried, heedless of any listening neighbors. "I know you are, you coward! You and your latest little trophy! Both of you! Both of you should be ashamed of yourselves! Come out and face me!"
But the door remained resolutely closed until she finally wore herself out, turned and trudged away, exhausted.
Charlotte didn't see the curtain that twitched aside nor the sad, dark, red-rimmed eyes that stared upon her retreating back.
* * *
Nat turned to Bob-the-Nerd. "Have you got anythin' yet? Anythin' on the source of the money Carolina's usin' t' buy the Harbibi ranch?"
"Nat, like I told you, this is beyond me. This looks like an offshore corporation owned by another offshore corporation that might be owned by ... who knows? I'm not getting anywhere. And I don't think I'm ever going to get anywhere."
"But we know who's gotta be behind it. We know. It's just a matter o' provin' it."
"Yeah. I know. But we can't prove it, Nat. I can't. So you'd better have some other idea for stopping Gael Carolina and his plans to turn the Harbibi place into a hotel-casino. Because," he sighed, tapping the Toshiba laptop, "it's not going to happen here."
* * *
The weeks passed. And the scheduled day for the duel drew closer.
* * *
"Tonio," said Jennifer as they both sat atop the sturdy rail of Nat's corral, watching the horses in the lowering sun. A hard-working Thursday was ending. Saturday, at the traditional hour of dawn, Tonio would meet his father on the field of honor. "I know we never got along much. And that was mostly my fault, I guess. But ... well, you're not a bad brother."
Tonio chuckled. "Thanks. You've turned into a halfway decent sister, too."
Jen looked at her hands. "Do you really think ...? I mean, he's our dad. He might not be a very nice person, but do you actually think he'd ... you know?"
"I guess we'll find out, won't we?" This time, Tonio's chuckle was bitter.
"In a fair fight, I bet you would win."
"Jen, by the rules, this is a fair fight. And I'm the one who started it."
"Oh, cut it out. You know it's not fair. Tonio ... you can still get out of it. All this 'honor' stuff. I mean, I understand but ..." she started to sob, "b-but I don't want to lose you."
"I don't want to lose me, either," he said, draping a comforting arm over her shoulder. "But there are worse things to lose than life."
* * *
Friday, the day before the duel, dawned dusty and hot. Hardyville went about its business in a daze, as if ordinary activities were mere illusion.
Charlotte rose, showered, dressed, and pushed her granola around in its bowl as if the motions of normal life could make tomorrow's reality go away. She hardly had the strength to drag herself around the house. But she forced herself to step into the burning sun, start her car, and drive to the shop. Moving through molasses, she made herself unlock the door of Sassy Frassy's Hemp Boutique. Inside, in the dim coolness, she went through all the proper motions of a business owner, readying her store for a busy day.
But no customers came. Who would want to stand across the counter, handing silver coins to a woman whose son was going to die in a few hours? Three or four acquaintances stopped briefly in the morning to give her a hug. But clearly no one wanted to stay, to buy, to chat, to console. All day, Charlotte moped about the shop alone, fitfully rearranging things on the shelves, flicking imaginary specks of dust off the merchandise.
Finally, all strength drained away, she slumped into her chair behind the counter. Nothing left to do but wait for the hour when she could return home to even more dismal isolation.
A few minutes later, the bell over the door tinged for the first time all afternoon. Charlotte raised her head wearily. For a second, she couldn't see who had arrived, silhouetted in the bright sun of the doorway.
Then she gathered what small strength she could marshal, rose to her feet and snarled at the intruder, "What the hell do you think you're doing here? Get out. Get out! I said get out!"
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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