These things traditionally happen in misty green clearings, where men in ruffled shirts meet to test their courage -- or their hatred and stubborn pride. But verdant glades are hard to come by in Hardyville.
On the morning of the duel, Gael and Tonio Carolina, with their seconds and a hundred jeans-and-boot clad spectators, assembled in an old gravel quarry southwest of town.
Pickup trucks, ranch-dusty SUVs, and even a few passenger cars jammed the entrance and the curving road leading to it. The crowd was heavy with men, this sort of thing not being a woman's sport. But Jennifer was there to support her brother, and a few bolder, hard-bitten women came with their men to show they had the stomach for a real fight.
To one side stood Gael Carolina, rapier lightly in hand, stance springy and elegant. Fifty feet away, Tonio clutched its twin as if it were a two-by-four.
Between them stood their seconds, Carty for Tonio, banker Dermot Harvard Halloran for Gael. Halloran mopped sweat from his jowls with a kerchief as the two men went over the final details. It was still shadowy in the quarry, but the day already had the relentless feel of an end-of-summer scorcher. It would be a day for iced tea and resting in the shade, a day for shooting the bull with buddies or staying inside with air conditioning and a good book.
But one of the men present might never again enjoy such ordinary pleasures.
All was set. Carty stepped back to Tonio's side, Halloran to Gael's. Each second conferred briefly with a dueler. Then father and son took seven steps toward each other. They paused. Gael saluted smoothly, raising his sword in a crisp, vertical line. He seemed to kiss the steel as he bowed toward Tonio. Tonio's attempt to mirror the gesture brought a mocking glint to his father's eye.
The two lowered their rapiers to horizontal and began ...
A horn blared. Into the quarry bucketed a dented pickup truck, rooster-tail of dust soaring behind it. Slowing, it poked its way amid the chaos of parked vehicles. Unable to get closer, it skidded to a halt as a little man flew out, clutching a sheaf of papers.
Two shadowed figures remained in the truck's crew seat as Nat hurried forward, cussing all the way.
"Damn, dammit!" he shouted. "Damn cattle drive on the road, or I'd a' got here 15 minutes ago. Everybody stop. Just stop right now!"
Tonio and Gael stepped back, Gael frowning, Tonio confused and trying to hide his sense of momentary reprieve.
Chest heaving, Nat inserted himself between the duelers. He waved their seconds to his side. The three men whispered at each other and inspected the papers Nat brought. The seconds nodded and faded back as Nat announced loudly, "A duel's a matter o' honor, right?" Everybody, including the combatants, had to nod at that. "Well," Nat went on, waving the papers, "somethin's come up that speaks t' that very thing. Honor, I mean. This needs dealin' with before anybody cuts anybody up here this mornin'."
"I object!" shouted Gael Carolina. "This violates all protocol. This ..."
"Scared, are ya?" Nat demanded, holding up the papers in his fist as though they were a cudgel.
"Of course not."
"Well," said Nat, "mebbe you should be." He then took the crumpled papers in both hands and looked down. "These are emails," he said. "To," he paused. "G.R. Carolina. From," he read slowly, followed by another pause. He looked up, scanning the crowd, making sure of their attention "somebody named J.B. Johnston at Dee-Oh-Jay dot Gee-Oh-Vee. Dee-Oh-Jay dot Gee-Oh-Vee," he repeated. "That's Department o' Justice, innit? The fed'ral one?"
Nobody spoke. Everybody knew Nat knew what it was. They were just waiting for the explanation.
"Subject," he went on, "Contingency Plan: Worst Case."
Jennifer gasped. She and Tonio locked eyes. Everybody else just waited -- except for Gael Carolina, who started angrily forward but, to his own evident surprise, was held back by his second. The pudgy banker had materialized at his side as Nat began to read, and now held Carolina gently but firmly by the sword arm.
"There's a bunch o' these emails," Nat told the crowd. "Some to this man here. Some from 'im. Some was written before them fed boys went into arbitration and some after. But the whole thrust of 'em is the same. You can all look if you want. But what it says here, to put it short, is that if Señor Carolina ..." he pronounced it "seen-yor" ... "will help bust the DEA five out of Hardy County, the fed'ral gummint will partner with him on a hotel-casino."
The crowd murmured angrily.
"Yep, partner with him," Nat nodded. "They promise to pay 'bout a half million paper fed money into his account in the outside world. Down payment, y'see. He'd buy gold and -- in the name of some Bahamian outfit called Paradise Unlimited -- persuade Mardi Harbibi to sell out to him. Then he'd spring the five feds from their hog sloppin' duties. After that, the paper millions'd roll in, he'd turn it into Hardyville spendin' money, and together him an' the fed'ral gummint would be the first to take advantage of the Delaval organization's new 'management' -- that's the word they use, 'management' -- of Hardyville."
"Those bastards!" somebody called. "Those Delaval bastards!"
But Nat waved the increasingly restive crowd into silence. "Nope, nope. Now put the blame where it belongs." He pointed firmly at Gael Carolina. "The seen-yor here is doin' Delaval as dirty as he's doin' us -- wantin' t' build a resort with the fedgov as partner."
"Lies!" Gael Carolina shouted. "Absolute lies designed to rouse mob hatred. The money I shall be using -- to help improve this blighted community, mind you -- is entirely my own." He appealed to the crowd. "Those papers Mr. Lyons is holding -- whatever they actually may be -- are not my correspondence."
"Yes they are," Jennifer said in a quavering voice, stepping from the crowd. "I saw them on your computer."
"Little liar," he sneered. "You saw nothing. Even if I had written or received such messages, all my business emails are encrypted against prying eyes like yours."
Jennifer looked uncertain. "I only saw the headers," she admitted. "The messages were all scrambled. But ..."
"Yes, you saw the headers. You jumped to the worst possible conclusions. And now you and this man ... your employer who did you favors in exchange for your collusion in this matter ... have concocted a preposterous ..."
While Gael and Jennifer dueled with words, Nat nodded toward his truck. In response, the two shadowed figures emerged from the crew seat. Emerging separately, one from each side, they reached the front of the truck and clung together as one. Charlotte Carolina, nerve-wracked herself, supported the tremulous Mirabelle, who approached with tears running down her cheeks.
* * *
The afternoon before, as Charlotte sat slumped in her chair at Sassy Frassy's, the bell over the door had tinged. When she saw who had invaded her sanctum, she leaped to her feet and shouted, "What the hell do you think you're doing here?"
And Mirabelle had whispered, "I'm here to save your son's life. And my husband's."
Now Mirabelle faced Gael, braced by Charlotte. She looked her husband in the eye and said, "I'm sorry, Gael. I know you'll hate me and I don't blame you. But I gave the messages to Charlotte. And we gave them to Nat."
"But you couldn't possibly break ..."
"Yes," Charlotte interrupted as Mirabelle sobbed in her arms. "She could. Really, Gael, it's not very nice to keep an old mistress' photo on your computer as wallpaper. And it's not very wise to use the slut's name as your encryption password."
Gael glared at Mirabelle. "You traitorous bitch."
"I did it only to save your life," Mirabelle cried. "I love you and I don't want you to die!"
"You're not saving my life," snapped Gael. "There's no chance that this arrogant, ill-trained young man-child could ..."
"But Gael, don't you see?" she pleaded. "It's not just him. It's ..." her eyes and gesture took in the entire waiting crowd.
Nat interrupted. "Speakin' of that ... yeah, it's not just Tonio you got a problem with. He beckoned Jennifer forward. When she came to his side, he placed an arm around her. "I think you got some explainin' t' do t' this young lady, don't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"You know 'zactly what I'm talking about," said Nat. Charlotte prompted Mirabelle, who pulled a cloth-wrapped bundle from her shoulder bag and handed it to Nat. Nat handed it to Jennifer. Who unwrapped it and stared down in surprise.
She held a decorative abalone-shell comb, a small roll of coins, and a handful of other small items, all wrapped in a gold-lace shawl -- items whose disappearance, together with the discovery of an opal necklace under her pillow, became an excuse to throw her out of her father's house.
"I found them in the back of his desk drawer," Mirabelle confessed. "I did not know, Jennifer. I am so sorry."
"You were making a pest of yourself, always looking over my shoulder," Gale shrugged.
What could anyone say? We all stood and stared wondering at a man so craven he'd frame his 15-year-old daughter for theft.
Nat took Mirabelle and Jen gently by the arm and escorted them, with Charlotte, to the edge of the crowd. The three women fell together into a weepy embrace.
Walking back to his place between Gael and Tonio, Nat went on, "Now, Mr. Carolina, time t' do the honorable thing for once -- and withdraw. From the duel and from y'r plans for Hardyville."
Gael Carolina must have felt terrifyingly outnumbered at that moment. But he must have realized mob violence wasn't in our makeup. And he still had his pride.
"Any gold I possess is mine," he insisted. "It is not your business how I obtain it. Mrs. Harbibi and I are negotiating voluntarily. Voluntary action. Enterprise. Privacy. Aren't these among the things you claim to prize? And if this young man ..." he flicked the point of his rapier toward Tonio, "believes he can stop me, I'm still more than willing to demonstrate the error of his ways."
Tonio, who had been silent through all this, spoke boldly and with only a slight quaver. "And now that I know what he's really like, I'm more willing than ever to fight him. I hope I kill him."
Nat turned from one to the other. It appeared that the prideful, stubborn Carolinas were determined to battle each other, no matter what anyone said.
The sun swung over the lip of the quarry, glaring into naked, sweating faces.
Nat shrugged in resignation. Carty nodded at Dermot Halloran, who released Gael Carolina's sword arm and stepped aside. Tonio and Gael approached each other again.
"Just one thing before you begin," Carty said calmly, eyes leveling on Gael. "I want you to know that if you kill your son, five minutes later, I'll be the one challenging you."
"And if Carty dies," spoke one of the young Minutemen from the edge of the crowd, "I'll challenge you."
The voices echoed from all over the crowd. First one. Then two at a time. Then three, four, five. The promises flowed through the crowd like a wave. Then, when the pledges stopped, Jennifer pulled free of the embrace of her mother and Mirabelle, turned on her father and promised, "And if you stab every person here to death with your sword, you rotten bastard, then I'll challenge you. And no matter what weapon you want to fight with, by then I'll know how to use it as well as you do. And I'll beat you, Dad. I'll beat you into the ground."
You've got to give Gael Carolina this. Rotten bastard he may have been. Sneak he may have been. Double-dealing, child-framing, ruthless monomaniac he may have been. But the man had guts. Even after all that, he still stood defiant, graceful, and poised to strike.
At that moment, another pickup truck rattled into view. The driver, far less urgent than Nat, parked at the back of the line. Driver and passenger emerged and, as Charlotte and Mirabelle had done, merged at the front of the truck.
"Oh yeah, I forgot," said Nat. "I invited Mrs. Harbibi."
Mardi Harbibi simpered toward the gathered crowd in the quarry, hand firmly in hand with John Davis Melvin, formerly Herr Kommandante of the federal multi-jurisdictional task force, now her indentured servant, not to mention her main squeeze. She beamed with smug happiness, barely noticing the drama taking place before her. But Melvin's face, as he appraised the situation, froze. Still, in the Grieving Widow Harbibi's grip, he had no choice but to advance.
"Well, how nice of you all to wait for us." Mardi Harbibi mugged, thinking herself the object of all attention and perhaps even envy. "Sorry to hold you all up, but we were having a nice little breakfast. Nat, did you say you had something to show me?"
"Yep. That I did." From the back pocket of his grubby jeans, Nat pulled several more rumpled pieces of paper. Mardi Harbibi released John Davis Melvin's hand to take them, failing to notice that her lover immediately began to back away.
Hands grabbed Melvin from behind. Two burly men held him in place.
Mardi silently read. Nat explained, loudly enough for everyone to hear, "Th' details are all there. But th' story is that the seen-yor over there was in cahoots with the fed bosses to keep them murderin' fed'rals from makin' their proper restitution to you."
She glanced up, alarmed, but continued reading.
"And," Nat added (still playing to the audience and seeming quite pleased with himself), "part of the plan was to have ole Melvin here soften you up real good so you'd sell out without askin' too many questions."
For a moment, it seemed she hadn't heard. She continued to scan the messages in her hands, flicking from page to page with no visible reaction. The sun climbed imperceptibly higher.
Then the Grieving Widow Harbibi rounded on John Davis Melvin, papers flying, left hand clenching into a fist. She belted him so hard that spectators across the quarry heard his nose break. She'd have done worse, too, except his blood-spattered captors dragged Melvin backwards.
Other hands reached to grab her. But for a fat, middle-aged harridan she was fast. She wriggled out of the grasping hands. She bared her teeth at Melvin. Then, seeing that he was too well protected, she barreled straight at Gael Carolina, roaring like a lioness.
The last anyone saw of them that day, Carolina was backing desperately out of the quarry and between the parked cars, attempting to fend off a crazed and shrieking widow with the point of his sword.
* * *
Gael Carolina and John Davis Melvin survived their encounters with Mardi Harbibi. Carolina, a free man, if a dishonest one, slunk back into town just long enough to pack his things and drive out of town alone in his rental car.
He left Mirabelle behind. Rather to everybody's surprise she entered the parade of rejected Carolina wives to join Charlotte in running Sassy Frassy's Hemp Boutique.
Tonio stayed on the ranch working with Nat. Everybody knew he'd leave for college someday, once he'd earned more money. But for the time being, he was happy not to be battling anybody or anything to the death.
Jennifer started spending more time with her mother. You might say they even almost started sort of getting along. But not so well that Jen was willing to surrender her solitary trailer at the ranch, even after Nat said she could.
Jennifer still had doubts about the sanity of horses. But she didn't say no when Nat said one day, "Y'know, that colt Bulldog. He's not likely to 'mount to anything, scars on his leg and all. Prob'ly won't be able to sell him for much. Might be you'd like to keep him?"
On another ranch -- a hog farm, really -- on the other side of town ... well, you probably don't want to hear about what went on there. It wasn't pretty. Her arbitration agreement with the Federal Five prevented Mrs. Harbibi from doing any actual physical harm to the men working off their restitution (she paid a hefty penalty for belting John Davis Melvin in the snoot). But did I ever mention that the Grieving Widow had the personality of Hillary Clinton on a bad hair day? And that it takes a long, long, really very, very long time to work off a debt $50,000 calculated in Hardyville gold dollars?
* * *
Then one day, with the first touch of fall in the air, the puddle jumper brought another visitor to Hardyville. A familiar visitor. An old friend.
Alejandro Verdugo Serrano, personal representative of billionaire Jorge Delaval, was welcomed back with pleasure -- and a little trepidation. We all liked him. But after the Gael Carolina experience, we were more nervous than ever about the implications of our deal with Delaval Enterprises.
"I apologize profusely," Serrano told us, as a bunch of us gathered in the big meeting room in the back of the Hog Trough. "We made a grave error in our choice of project manager. We believed a man with family ties to your community would be more trustworthy than Señor Carolina proved to be. Alas, both you and Señor Delaval came very close to paying a high price for that error.
"Our arrangement to shield Hardy County from the U.S. government in exchange for your services as a financial haven still applies. We must, however, take more care. Our next candidate for project manager will be a person with deep, deep roots in this community."
His eyes flicked from Nat to Carty to Dora. They rested lightly on the remaining Carolinas and the Goodins. They twinkled at Janelle, the Hog Trough's owner, who circulated among the crowd with her small staff of waitresses, pouring coffee.
"And," he announced with another twinkle, "to ensure harmonious collaboration between Hardyville and the Delaval interests, I personally shall remain here for a portion of every year. I am retiring -- semi-retiring -- and I shall be seeking to purchase a hunting lodge in your mountains."
"And you and me can bag us some grizzly," Nat grinned.
"Indeed," Serrano smiled. "I have been looking forward to it." Then he paused and resumed in a somber tone, "There is just one thing ... one vital thing ... that remains to be done to secure Hardyville's continued freedom."
His seriousness touched us. We quieted. Some of us put down our coffee cups and leaned forward.
"I believe everyone here intuitively understands what I am about to say," Serrano went on. "Hardyville's greatest threat comes from its random overexposure to the world. This place is a treasure. Yet, however sincerely you wish to convey its spirit to the outside world, that world is unready for what you have to offer. Continued exposure will attract the very people who wish to destroy everything you stand for. You have already seen it. I'm sorry that an outsider must say this. But you know it is true."
He pierced me with a look that was filled with regret, but very firm. I felt other eyes on me. It was almost as though I could feel people's thoughts.
"You must once again hide Hardyville from the world," Serrano continued. "It is imperative. Hardyville must -- for its own sake -- disappear anew into the mists of obscurity that once protected it. You must," he said gazing steadily at me, making no pretense of addressing his remarks to the entire assembly, "stop publishing any news of Hardyville."
I sat pinned in his gaze like a still-living butterfly tacked to a display board. The whole room waited for me to say something, perhaps to defend myself and my Hardyville stories. But he was right. What else could I do?
Slowly, silently, I nodded.
This concludes publication of Claire Wolfe's weekly Hardyville columns. Claire and Backwoods Home magazine would like to thank her many loyal readers for their enthusiasm and support. Please watch for Claire's articles and movie columns in the bi-monthy print issues of Backwoods Home magazine.
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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