Leading up to the entrance stood several box-shaped wooden structures housing peddlers who worked their tongues. "We've got the finest skewers in all the south," one barked. "Come try a hand at snakes," squandered another. They all wore a tall or wide colored hat that matched long jackets and tight trousers. And stood upright and keen faced.
"How about you boy?" a sharp voice asked, "I'm sure you've got precise aim-"
Boone looked over his shoulder. Staring back was a man he recognized. His face purple-blotched and riddled with tiny black shards. One eye held a greedy-eyed glare while the other was white as an egg. The man frowned, "You!" He yelled, swiping the air.
Boone heard a click as his nose filled with a strong, sweet odor. Over his shoulder hung an arm attached to a revolver. "You hold it there, Richie." Pappy said, blowing smoke. "Now, what happened to you was a damn shame...But if you move another muscle I'll leave you with one black eye and one white."
Richie face twisted as his lips pulled. "I was only toying with the boy." He fixed himself upright, fiddling with a blood red bowtie. "No need for irons, Mr. Rigar. Unless you'd like to see my own."
Jerocobish popped the hammer and spun his revolver into the leather holster he'd been wearing. "Nope...I'll let the gunslingers do the shootin." He looked to the colosseum then back at the man, tilting his hat. "You have yourself a better day."
"As do you," he said, devilishly.
Boone couldn't pull his eyes away. His Grandpappy yanked his coat, "get a move on," he said. And after a second tug he did as he was told.
Boone followed closely on the old mans heels. "It's my fault..." His head dropped. "And Mr. O'hare is likely worse."
"Don't blame yourself, Son. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time," His Pappy said putting an end to that.
Boone found it hard speaking problems to his Pappy. It unsettles him, Ma Jean once told the boy. The day he'd lost your father was the day he lost his spirit, she spoke. She used to tell stories about the Pappy he'd never known: who always wore a brilliant smile, was clean shaven, and appeared dapper in his attire. A charming man, she told, one well respected and well mannered. But Boone had trouble believing that. When he faced his pappy all he saw was the old man hidden behind green garments and a thick gray bush. Smoking cherry tobacci without a care in the world.
"Your arms, sir?" Boone realized they stood beneath the vaulted sign and a man shadowed over them. His face tangled in frustration, examining them restlessly. "Don't make me ask twice."
Jerocobish lip lifted allowing smoke to seep and encircle him. He placed his worn revolvers down and smirked. "You take good care of them...Their family heirlooms-"
"I don't give two shits, Mr...They'll be tagged and thrown in with the rest of em. If you've got a problem with that, take a walk." Boone did his own examination. The deputy had salted black hair and was dressed in a tan uniform; armed at the waist. His pappy was tall but this man had him by a foot at least; a scary man who reeked of morning liquor and afternoon sweat. "Papers," the man barked.
Jerocobish handed the man his own while Rynan pulled two from a pocket. "You must know my sister," the giant boy said, handing them politely. The man raised an eyebrow. "Sheriff Turnbuckle?"
Boone didn't like how the deputies eyes sparked red. The man smirked and stood loosely, "well, now...little Turnbuckle." Rynan was anything but little standing chin height with the man. "Of course. Your sister and I have been well acquainted."
Boone shifted uneasy, sneering at the way the words rolled off the mans tongue. Rynan looked on through an innocent lens and kind smile. "Names Rynan," he said, holding out a hand.
"Deputy Cornfeld," the man gave a stiff shake though Rynan hadn't noticed. His grip tightened, "Come on through, and do me a favor, Buck." He patted his back. "Say good things about me...Wouldn't want the Sheriff turning red."
Rynan chuckled, "sure thing," he said as they came through the gate. Once they found distance from the the deputies ears Rynan turned towards the boy "I didn't much like that man," he admitted.
"Nor did I."
They laughed quietly while the deputies eyes watched until they trailed off.
Boone tilted his head upwards. The walls to the colosseum stretched towards the sky, beaten and riddled with splintered holes, a grand fort, even grander than he imagined. The walls were made from the Qoiyak trees that stood around the lake prior to their excavation; used to fortify the city; trunks thick as two pine trees with bark as dense as stone. At first glance the bark appeared black but as Boone drew close he saw it'd been scorched by fire...And though he didn't know how he knew it-but he did-fire made the trees stronger.
They carried on, moving through the breach in the fort that lead into a labyrinth of dark passageways lit by oiled lamps hung on the wall.
"Keep straight," a deputy pointed.
Boone felt his body tingle suddenly; not a tingle of nerves but the tingle of excitement. He studied the history of the fort and the War of Nations; when the southern Texionya tribes attacked the Pioneers with dark alchemy and their feral fury.
Boone blurted out, "Rynan! This is where the Battle for Lone Creek took place. Here in these walls...the pioneers stood blood-soaked in victory."
Rynan's eyelids stretched as he walked cautiously. Peeking around corners as though the war hadn't ended and featherheads lurked within the shadows ready to swing their tomahawks with a savage blow.
Beside him, Jerocobish's face glowed with a reddish tint from his pipe. Unamused. Ma Jean likely on his mind. He moved with the intensity of a bounty hunter. Ready to take one's life if need be...Boone never saw him that tense.
They squinted as a strenuous light swept across their faces. Rynan threw up a hand up. Boone tilted his hat. And Jerocobish stared as though he'd cast it away. They emerged from the passage and their heads swiveled, coming to a halt. Boone's hairs stood on his neck. Inside was enormous; sitting thousands of people, more than he'd ever seen congregated into one place. All huddled together, heads down and looking through magnifiers at the duel stage.
"Gunslingers," Rynan announced, his eyes drawn to the arena.
There stood two men a caboose length apart. Their hands at their hips. Positioned wide legged and ready. It happened quick; the weathered battery blasting on the fort wall, echoed by gunfire, while both men laid motionless wading in their blood. Boone could hardly make out the grim sight; the men appeared as a stack of stones covered in red paint from what he could see-But he knew better-they were goners.
That didn't stop Rynan from asking, "Are they dead?"
"Pray to God, yes" Jerocobish replied. "No way to go watching your insides pour till your eyes fall shut."
Rynan whimpered quietly as the old man led them down an endless row of short steps. Boone had to watch his footing. One false step and he'd tuck and tumble down to the bottom. There came an uneasy feeling as they made their way down; Boone turned and understood why; laid on them were the eyes of the townsfolk. Their eyebrows furrowed and lips twisted. It was mighty rude to turn late to a duel or a hanging...And to many, disrespectful to God.
"To the gallows with the lot ya!" a mangy man barked.
"And parched and to the barren," a woman screamed.
Jerocobish gave the pair one rotten look and their mouths shut tight as a pickle jar. He and the boys then kicked past a family hung at the edge of the bench, near middle row, before he waved a hand at a group of squatters nestled in their seats. One asked, "What are you going to do about it, Old Mule?" He was thin and crooked-faced, wearing what looked to be garments collected over time. Pappy smiled, "nothing," and pointed a thumb at Rynan, "Though this boy's kin might."
"And whose kin might he be?"
Jereocobish drew his hand to the podium that hung as freely as the perch. "The Sheriff of Sundown City."
The men took a long gander at the aristocrats sitting in their embroidered and gilded seats. They held themselves upright and slouched. Some drunk and sore from losing coin while others barked madly with pockets-filled delight. Banners and flags of blue and gray hung, waving in the wind, marked with the Patriot of Pride, while Leslie hair blew with them, like wildfire. She stood upright and strong positioned by the mayor who appeared round and tall, draped in blue and gray and wearing a cape that waved as freely as her hair. He held a cone-instrument in his hand. And stood on the edge of the podium.
The squatters squinted deeper. It was hard to make out their resemblance but they made haste after eyeballing Rynan's head. "Hair that red suggests their blood," one said before they left.
After their seats had freed, Jerocobish grabbed each boy and spoke firmly. "You two take a seat. I'll be back before high moon."
"You can't leave just yet!" Boone grabbed his pappy's arm. "Stay. If only for one duel."
Jerocobish shook angrily, "I am not here to look-lust after blood slingers...or have you forgotten why we're here?" He kept his tone for their ears only.
Boone felt his body sink into the bench, "l'm sorry, Pappy...allow me to accompany you then-"
"No! Jerocobish shook. "You said you were now a boy of virility, so you'll stay and indulge in the hard truths of manhood..."
"Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your attendance!" Boone and Jerocobish followed the voice where the Mayor stood with the instrument to his lips."We have gathered here on this day, to be amused by the guns and blood of our subordinates." Boone could hear his vivacious tone and imagined the plump man's wicked grin. "For our final duel of the resplendent evening...I give you Morgan Dale, the Stormslinger, and Jostice Beatpost, the Iron Ace!"
The crowd leapt to their feet, lifting their hats and scarves, waving and cheering while their voices rose above the fort and echoed into the valley and city down below.
Boone felt the bench shift beneath him; he turned and there beside him was his Pappy, staring down into the arena with a grave look across his face.
"Pappy, what is it?"
Jerocobish hesitated then spoke just above the crowd. "Sometimes, no matter how hard you strive, a man cannot run from his past...And neither can I."
Boone found himself deciphering his words while his Pappy awaited for the duel to begin.