You may remember that I ran a short story contest back in December and January, and the winner was my cousin Juliet Lauser. Now, at last, here is the winning story, after I provided her with a critique and she edited it. Enjoy!
Chapter One – Walking In the Snow
It was only six miles now, as the crow flies. But he was walking. With a broken leg. Jock tried to laugh after a second. But it turned into a cough, sending streams of white breath boiling into the air, and he tried to stop, gripping a tree branch to hold himself upright. His chest felt raw inside. It was beginning to hurt worse than his blasted leg.
People noted Jock for his luck. He hadn’t played a hand of cards for six months, because no one would deal him in. But this last gamble was a definite failure.
He heard something, and he twisted around, his heartbeat quickening until it hurt. The snow crunched as he took half a step back. Then it gave way. Jock only had time to bite back a scream as the branch jerked out of his hand and he fell down the slope.
He was a fine woodsman all right. He picked himself up out of the snow – but didn’t try and do anything with his leg. It didn’t hurt anymore – it was too cold – and he was ignoring it as long as he could. But he caught a glimpse of bone showing when he shoved himself up, and he couldn’t help but feel a little queer. He slipped when he tried to go on again, chapping his knuckles on a dead branch. That didn’t hurt either. That meant he was frost bit, or he was dead, didn’t it?
There were no more sounds from the forest around him. He had thought he would be dead before he got this far, when he broke his leg. He paused and glanced at the shadows. He worked out that it was some time after five.
Well, there was still plenty of time for the Rat-catchers to find him before the sun went all the way down. Kemper was being uncharacteristically lazy at hunting renegades today.
Chapter Two – The Hospitality of a Back Door
He reached the back doorstep of the tiny house and dropped onto it, panting heavily. He had told himself that if he reached it, he would reward himself by giving himself a rest. He hadn’t bothered to tell himself that if he didn’t make it he would still, obviously, get a rest. He didn’t need the discouragement.
This was the first house he had seen on his trek. There were a deal of them around about the hills, but they were easy to miss. He leaned his head on the wall. When he had sat down he had pushed aside some shoes…. What kind of folk would leave their shoes out on a cold, snowy night?
He stared at them until he realized that a pair of them were man’s shoes – a bit small, but he had always been small himself. He’d bet a dime they’d keep him warmer than the old ones he was wearing. After a moment’s further staring at them, he pulled them over and changed shoes. His hands fumbled constantly, and he gave up on the laces. They were fine as it was. He wasn’t going to do any walking.
Well, he might. He could sure use them the rest of the way to Muck Cross.
Becoming a thief now, was he? Well, that’s what they say…when you spend time with people, you end up like them. The Rat-catchers were top notch bad company.
After all though, he could bring them back, and it would just be borrowing.
He leaned his head on his arms, blocking the wind off his cheeks.
Chapter Three – A Christmas Present on Christmas Morning
Someone screamed. The sound went in both ears with such suddenness that it sent him into consciousness like a bullet from a gun. He tried to get up, and discovered that his lack of motion had deprived his leg of some blood flow, making it decidedly worse in every way he could think of. And he was dizzy too. He sat back down with a choking grunt.
“Warren!” said a girl.
“I’m not Warren,” muttered Jock. Everything was doubled, and he was trying hard to find a girl in all the houses and trees everywhere.
“Warren, Santy left a man in your shoes for Christmas!” screeched the girl.
“Santy?” said Jock, shaking his head and sending the three girls he had found crisscrossing everywhere.
A tall young man jogged around the corner of the house, then stopped short and hooked his thumbs in his belt, contemplating what he saw.
“Hey, Jez,” he began. She danced up to him and began jumping up and down like a lit cat.
“Warren, I told you Santy would give us something for Christmas – he always does!”
Chapter Four – An Invitation to Stay the Day
“You can’t leave, Santy-man!” Jezebel gurgled with tears like a little spring, and Jock hit his head on the wall. He wanted to hit it on something harder. Then he decided he probably shouldn’t have hit it at all. The world play acted at being a carousel. He stifled a cough, but it ripped out when he tried to breathe, and he buried his mouth in his sleeve for a second. His chest ached when he finally stopped heaving.
“What would you want with me?” he protested faintly. The girl was picking his heart to pieces, as all girls so loved to do; but off-setting his plaintive desperation was a cold fact that he couldn’t forget. He had gone to sleep, and slept for hours. Hours. There was no earthly reason but sheer luck that he was still alive.
“Santy gave you to us,” said Jezebel, falling onto her knees and creeping up to him, “because he knew I was afraid. You can protect us from the Rat-catchers – you’re older than Warren, you’re a grown up adult man.”
Who was scared of Rat-catchers. Jock closed his eyes so he didn’t have to look at her. She held onto the lapels of his coat. Blast it all, he was running from the Rat-catchers….
“Well,” said Warren, and Jock glanced at him. He was still leaning on the fence post, still half grinning bemusedly. “I don’t think he can leave.”
Chapter Five – A Spice of Tragedy
Jock made himself lay down, his stomach flipping. The bed was softer than the snow had been…and it smelled like grass.
He winced when Warren pulled away his ripped pants leg and touched him. Warren’s hands were cold. It was only when Jezebel whimpered and he saw the look on Warren’s face that he decided he had better look too.
Well, it was definitely broken.
“I’ll get – I’ll fix it up,” said Warren. He went out the back door. He looked a bit white.
“He knows how,” said Jezebel. “Father taught him.”
“Why can’t your father do it then?” muttered Jock, closing his eyes. But when she didn’t answer he opened them again. “Hm?” he prodded.
“He’s not here,” said Jezebel.
“When’d he leave?”
“He was here Christmas three years ago,” said Jezebel. She cupped her chin in her hands.
That kind of not here.
Jock closed his eyes.
Chapter Six – A Christmas Card
“Here is a Christmas card for you,” said Jezebel, walking up to him finally after pretending she had nothing on her mind for about five minutes. She dropped it on him and he picked it up. He prepared himself to like it a lot, it was his habit when little kids gave him things. It always scored a point.
“Nice,” he said.
“Merry Christmas,” said Jezebel.
He opened it with his thumb. There were several bars of scribbling covering most of the space inside. They had obviously been writing once, but were thoroughly obliterated.
“What’s that?” said Jock. It was sort of puzzling. Kids were just puzzling altogether.
“Oh, well,” said Jezebel, “I gave it to Warren too, but he only likes to look at it the first time so now it’s for you.”
“Oh,” said Jock. “Right.” He laughed and tried to make out the new writing, penned awkwardly in curves and chunks around the original stuff. “Merry Christmas. Wish you a – happy – New Year. You’re – my – favorite – ” he paused to swallow back a grimace and hurriedly tried to work out what exactly he was – “visitor. Ask me what I want for a present.”
Jock forgot about pretending to love it and dropped it, reaching up to run his fingers through his hair.
Jezebel stood there waiting.
“Well, dearest angel,” said Jock finally. “What do you want?”
“I want you to stay for a month.”
“You sound so business like.”
“You couldn’t stay forever, of course. You’ve got family and things.”
Jezebel bounced her knees forward and back, and began sucking on her lower lip. Jock hoped she would be equally business like about a refusal. But she wasn’t. She tried, but that only made it worse.
“Jez,” called Warren. “Set the table for breakfast.”
She turned and ran across to the dishes hutch.
Chapter Seven – A Pressing Invitation to Stay Longer
“I have to leave soon.”
“I’d love to see you try.” Warren handed the roll of cloth to Jez and snipped it off of where he had been bandaging Jock’s leg. He began to tuck the end into the bandages. “Think, man. It’s six miles to Muck Cross, if you cut through the country. I don’t think you could walk three yards, and you won’t be able to for at least a couple weeks. You – man, hold still, you’re very sick,” he broke off, and pushed Jock back down onto the bed. Jezebel helped, climbing up and sitting on his good leg imperiously. “I know about these things, Jock, please. I helped Father, and he knew about it.”
“He was going to be a doctor,” said Jezebel.
“And even if people didn’t call him one, they treated him like one already.”
“He was in a war!”
“Yes, awhile ago.” Warren glared at Jock. “Stay still.”
Jock stayed still, breathing a little quickly and staring at the ceiling. He knew the kid was right…and even if he did make it, he would lose his leg if he went much longer without letting it heal. It was inevitable. He was stuck. Blasted luck.
Chapter Eight – A Mug
“Stay still,” said Jez. “I will get you your dinner. It’s almost noon.”
“You would think Santy had put me in your shoes,” said Jock, leaning back and rubbing his hand over his forehead. Now he had a fever. Luck. What luck.
“They were too small,” she said.
Jezebel took out some dishes from the hutch and brought them to the table Warren had put beside the bed. Then she went back to the little black stove and bustled about it as busily as any housewife Jock had ever seen. He couldn’t make much of what she was doing, and looked at his dishes idly. Until the painting on the ceramic mug caught his eye. For a second he just stared at the fragment of the name that he could see, then reached out and turned it abruptly. What – the –
“Jez,” he said finally, ironing the tension out of his voice. “Whose mug is this?”
“Oh,” said Jez, turning around and then putting her hands behind her back. “That was Daddy’s.”
“Hm,” said Jock after a second. He had to say something.
Jezebel turned away finally, and Jock leaned back and closed his eyes. But he opened them again, and read the name again. Seamus Kilberry.
What sort of – He lay back again, and tried to loosen the tenseness in his muscles before it made him cough again. He felt like…like nothing. What kind of – luck.
Chapter Nine – A List
He watched Jezebel walk out and then sat up. A wave of dizziness nearly decked him. The slanting sunlight coming through the window didn’t help – he’d just sat up into the beam of it. He turned a little, rolling cautiously so he lay on his side, and stifling a groan at his leg. Then he dug in his pocket, closing his eyes so the dancing room wouldn’t be so disorienting. After a bit he had the scrap of paper in his hands. He’d almost thought it wasn’t there for two seconds – the list he’d spent months writing, and had broken his leg trying to deliver, like no mail man ever did. It had better not be blasted lost.
His gaze went down the well worn paper, and he breathed a little heavy. Kemper Linton. Kiel Nacker. Royce Salado. Jud Rush. Neb Beese. Samson Dooridge. Seamus Kilberry.
Rich stuff for the authorities. Tickets to the identity and credit and security and a whole blizzard of the paper trail of the Rat-catchers.
“Every man I wrote on here has a life sentence ahead of them,” he whispered, trying to understand himself. He stroked the paper with his thumb, trying to think. Trying to think. But he couldn’t think. He could just remember.
He heard Jez slam the woodshed door and started slightly, sending a shot of pain through his leg and into his abdomen. His stomach clenched, and he shifted a bit. He dug his finger into the paper just above the last name and laboriously tore off the thin strip. It fell onto his lap when it was finally disconnected. His eyebrows knitted and he reached out to the chest of drawers beside him. He shoved the scrap into the middle of the assortment of odds and ends that filled the top drawer, and closed it. Then he brushed the little strip with Seamus’s name on it onto the floor and adjusted himself, leaning back.
He was crazy. He was just crazy. That was all…. But he couldn’t get the idea out of his head, so he just did it. The authorities wouldn’t care much – Seamus was just an accessory. Just one man.
Chapter Ten – Christmas Candles
“Light the candles, Jez,” said Warren.
“But it’s not quite dark yet,” said Jez.
“It’s Christmas.” Warren sat down and pulled his shoes off, smiling in her direction.
Jezebel jumped off Jock’s bed and ran to the hearth. She took the matches down and hummed while she lit the candles around the room.
Jock watched the sunset through the window. He didn’t go in for scenery, but it was queer enough that it caught his interest, and there was nothing else to look at in the tiny house except floor boards and furniture. The sunset was a purple and yellow combination. You would think it would be ugly, but it managed to be weirdly quaint and even majestic.
Warren went out through the small door to the woodshed. Jezebel sat by the window and looked at the candles.
There was a strange sound from outside the house, like a crunching of something in the forest. Jock wondered what it was. But Jezebel stood up, and he could make a good guess of what she thought it was when he saw her face. He relaxed against the pillow and looked at the floor boards as if it was their fault. He wasn’t surprised when Jez climbed up onto the bed and sat against the wall. After a bit she suddenly went down on her hands and knees and crawled up closer to him.
“Will you protect us if – they come while you’re still here – even if you won’t stay?” she whispered.
When the Rat-catchers came, he would be dead anyway, so would it really matter if he died as ‘Jez’s hero’ rather than just ‘that cussed spy’?
“If you and Jez can get along,” said Warren, coming to the door again, “I need to do some work around here.”
“D’you have a gun?”
Warren paused, his thoughts shifting tack. Then he slowly went across the room to the cupboard over the hearth. “Do you want it loaded?” he said, taking down an old, white-handled pistol.
Chapter Eleven – Waiting For Guests
It was dark. He lay there with his eyes open, staring at the black shape of the puma skin on the wall beside him. It would be easier to listen better if he closed his eyes. He could focus that way. But if he did he would probably go to sleep.
His thumb ran down the handle of the pistol, and his finger slipped into the finger cage, lightly touching the trigger. He’d done it a hundred times…. His finger would slip into the cage, pull steady on the trigger, the first man would be dead. Two seconds.
Jez didn’t think about killing the Rat-catchers. She just wanted to be protected, and of course a gun was what you protected people with. She never thought about how. That was up to Jock. He must’ve been getting sleepy, because for half a second he felt annoyed at how selfish that Jezebel was…for not thinking about it herself.
He looked at the faint light in the window for half a second, then glanced away again quickly. He wouldn’t ruin his eyes. He looked at the black shape of the stove against the wall instead. It was one of the blackest shadows in the room, because it really was black, even in the daylight.
He closed his eyes for two seconds, just to rest them, then opened them again. For the first time he realized that if he didn’t get any sleep tonight, and the gang didn’t come, then he would be trashed tomorrow, and they would be able to do what they liked, he guessed. Daylight wasn’t as dangerous as the night though – he suspicioned that they’d wait til dark, even if they had to wait til tomorrow night.
He moved slightly, adjusting his leg, and the world started going in circles again. He ducked his head into the crook of his arm and clenched his teeth. It made him feel sick.
It finally balanced out, and he glanced at the window again. There was nothing there still.
His finger slid into the cage, fingered the trigger, then slipped back out again.
He looked at the old clock the kids had hung on the wall across the room. It was too dark to see the face. He just looked at the shape of it against the wall.
Chapter Twelve – The Last Chapter
Jock cocked it and waited. The door swung open, and someone came in. Jock’s finger pressed against the trigger. The man saw him and stopped dead. He thought he was going to die. But Jock’s wrist was paralyzed. Lying there for hours, training and steeling himself to shoot on sight, and now this…. He was vibrating between the mechanical decision to shoot, and the sick feeling when he imagined Warren and Jez coming in to find their father dead on the floor.
“I thought it would be Kemper,” he said finally, forcing his finger off the trigger and straightening it against the barrel.
“He took ague an hour after you struck off,” said Seamus.
“So that’s why it took so long,” said Jock. “I was wondering.”
Then neither of them said anything, and Jock could not think what to do next. He knew that there was a solution. But he couldn’t see it through the fever. He just waited. He hated waiting, though.
Seamus finally cleared up the difficulty with all an Irishman’s cheek and contempt.
“City-slick, lolly-gaggin’, double-crossin’ sneak.”
“Murderer,” returned Jock.
The candlelight had bleached Seamus’s ruddy face out, but it almost looked normal again when Jock said that. His gray eyes flinched, and kindled indignantly.
“Kemper’s a murderer, and Royce’s a murderer, but I’m not a —– murderer, Jock. I’m an honest thief. Say another word like that and I’ll – ”
“Then why are you with ‘em?” interrupted Jock.
“I’m not as lucky with cards as you are,” said Seamus finally.
“Huh.” Jock lay there and pretended he was thinking. But his thoughts just went in circles. “Have any family?” he said.
“Just what my wife left with three years ago,” said Seamus.
Jock didn’t say anything for a second. That wasn’t what he’d imagined.
“I don’t know why you’re asking, but if you’re thinkin’ of black mailing, threatening, or sweet talkin’ me into double crossing the gang, forget it,” said Seamus.
There went that idea….
He ran out of time to think, though. He took a dizzy spell again. He tried to hide it, but he couldn’t tell if he was or not. He guessed he wasn’t when something smashed his hand down onto the bed and the gun clacked on the floor. He struggled, but he didn’t know which way up was for the moment.
“Hold still, you’re very sick,” said Seamus, pinning him down.
“Seamus – my leg – my leg – ” gasped Jock, writhing. Seamus rolled off of it and changed his position. Jock found his arm twisted behind his back, now. That was only slightly less painful. Especially when Seamus kept bending it farther.
“Where is it?” said Seamus.
“What?” said Jock between pants, his brain going overdrive trying to understand.
“Don’t try to make me laugh, I don’t feel like it. Your list.”
Seamus released Jock’s arm, and he expelled his breath in a relieved hiss. He lay there heaving.
Seamus grabbed the gun off the floor and trained it on Jock. Then he pulled open the drawer with his other hand. It only took a second for the scrap of paper to surface. He picked it up and began unfolding it with his thumb. Jock didn’t move. A sudden thought had sent his brain spiraling in a new direction. He wasn’t sure where the situation was headed…but at least he’d gamble it wasn’t purgatory. He eyed Seamus’s face as he read the paper.
“So you weren’t lying,” said Seamus. “Sorry to have been suspicious, but you know how it is between friends of our warmth, Jock.”
“You forgot one,” said Seamus with crooked grin when he folded the scrap back up.
“I don’t forget things.
“My name is off your list.”
Seamus looked at him in keen bewilderment. His gray eyes gleamed very sharp.
“Seamus,” said Jock, playing his new card slowly, “go to the Rat-catchers and tell them there’s nothing here but a couple of useless children. And take that list to Muck Cross.”
Seamus rolled his tongue in his mouth, shifting his grip on the pistol. He almost glared.
“Why should I do that?”
“I’ll…give you a Christmas present.”
Seamus’s tight u-mouth tightened even more. “Christmas present, man?”
“Yah. Merry Christmas.”
Seamus shook his head and gripped the gun tighter.
“Good thing you’re not a murderer,” muttered Jock.
“Be quiet, man.”
“Turn a little to your right.”
“Why?” demanded Seamus.
“To hide your gun,” said Jock.
Jock raised himself slightly. “Kids!” he yelled. His head spun and he dropped back onto the bed.
He heard Jezebel stir, and the thump when her feet hit the floor. Seamus glanced at the door, startled and confused. Then he turned mechanically, lowering his gun a little, so no one coming in the door could see it.
“What, Santy-man?” said Jezebel. She was a little golden haloed shadow in the bedroom door.
Seamus dropped the gun and it made a smack on the rug. It made Jezebel look his way. Her eyes went still, and she stared as hard as he did.
Warren was at the door then. He looked a little suspicious, but Jez was who Jock was mostly worried over. She didn’t need to know. Not right now. She just needed Daddy to be Daddy, not – a Rat-catcher.
Jock felt strange watching Seamus and the kids. After a bit he closed his eyes and put his arm over his face. He could see the picture just as clearly on the back of his eyelids, though. It looked…sort of…like one of those ‘this is America’ pictures. Except for the gun on the floor, and Seamus’s wild chickweed beard, and Warren’s suspicious gray eyes, and Jez’s torn night dress. Aw…it was just a happy picture. That was all.
When they finished fawning, Seamus came back to his senses. His hand went into a fist around the scrap of paper. He eyed Jock.
“This is a man Santy sent for Christmas,” said Jez. “He’s awful nice, and brave, and – ”
“I have to leave, Jez.” Seamus ran his hand through her hair quickly one last time, and went for the door.
“Don’t leave – it’s Christmas, Daddy.”
“I’ll be back. By morning.”
He went out.
Jock lay back. Yep, Seamus could make it back by morning. It was only five miles, as the crow walks. And it took less time when he didn’t have a broken leg….