"I need you boys to wait here," Jerocobish said, handing them each a coin that was as dull as rust. "Get yourselves something to eat."
On the strip of the duelsosseum there were enough stands to choose from, as well as hungry patrons to fill them. Each with a line that extended near twenty bodies.
Boone asked, "Where are you going?"
"I need a word with Leslie." She was approaching their position beneath the Crockernard sign. "Stay within eyes reach...now get."
The boys scurried off.
Leslie face twisted to their departure. "Where are they running off to?"
"To grab some grub." Jerocobish took a puff of his pipe. "My how you've grown," he smiled. Leslie stopped and leaned against the post, arm above her head. Though a woman she still seemed like a kid in his eyes. Maybe that feeling never leaves, no matter the age, Jerocobish thought. He held out the pipe, "I don't offer it to just anybody."
Leslie waved a hand warding of the cheery smell. "Never did much like black air." She smiled. "You need to ask me something, Jeroco?"
His jester got him caught, he knew. The old man nodded. "I need you to take the boys."
She stared past him trying to locate their whereabouts in the lines and stands, listening for their voices in the chatter of people; loud and obnoxious as apes.
"You in some kind of trouble?" Jerocobish felt his eyelids pull upward; the Sheriff noticed, raising an eyebrow. She reached out a hand, squeezing his arm. "You can tell me."
If only it were that easy...
He placed the pipe between his lips and inhaled, feeling the smoke warm his lungs and chest. It helped keep the cold away if only for that moment. They locked eyes.
"Ma Jean is sick..." The words came out with a mouthful of black air. "And I'm not certain that she'll make it."
Leslie placed her hands over her mouth and gasped. After a minute she collected herself. "We should all go together...I am to accompany the Mayor on our track back but not until tomorrow-"
"She needs space," Jerocobish said. "And I don't want the boys to see it-death does funny things to the young."
Leslie wasn't one to back down, he knew, but something about his words made her obedient as a well trained horse. She nodded. "Where am I to take him?"
"Sundown City," He lowered his head. Should I tell her? He knew she was somebody he could trust. Somebody who'd protect Boone with her life. There weren't many friends out there like that...but, then again, the less she knew the safer they were. He rubbed his beard. Stupid...That never made true in the past, he thought. "I reckon she's been attacked."
Leslie didn't take the news like he'd imagine; she stood cool as ice. "You have proof?"
"And what draws your conclusion?"
Jerocobish allowed himself time to find the right words, and once found, the moon seemed brighter in the sky. "Poison..."
"Poison?" Leslie said. "You need to speak to Jostice-"
"No," Jerocobish said forcefully.
"He has a right to know-"
"He is no longer a part of this family."
"Because you disowned him..."
Jerocobish raised a finger as his lip trembled. He still remembered those words...the words of his son admitting his crime. It was me, Jostice told him. I killed him, Pa. The words still ripped at him day and night. Blood or no blood...There was no forgiveness to be had.
"Jostice died with my son," He said.
Leslie crossed her arms while her eyebrows furrowed. "You'll do it or Boone will ride back with ya." Her words hit like bullets. "You can't hide from the past forever..."
The Duelosseum cleared and the crowd had gone back to their wagons, partying until the mornings' dawn; prepared for the long track down the mountain.
Jerocobish stood by the sign humming to a fiddle when the sound of approaching boots caught him.
"You've gone gray, old man."
His ears perked. Jerocobish knew the voice though it'd been lost in memory; only found amongst the wild and the drunks. Just where it belonged, He thought. Where he belongs...
Jerocobish saw the moonlit silhouette of a man; the man he hardly knew. "You were slow."
Jostice laughed as he faded into the torchlight, skinny as he ever was. "I still got him."
"And nearly paid the price." Jerocobish spat. "Why don't you ever listen, Boy? Stay on your guard...Shoot qui-"
"Quick, I know." Ace shook his head. "Easier said than done when facing off against a friend."
Jerocobish head burnt like coals beneath a cauldron turning his face red. "Is that what you did for your brother? Take your time?" He couldn't stop himself, "you butchered him, and for what, an Alpaki bitch..." Jerocobish felt the mans swollen eyes boring through him. How could he be so cruel? Say things that drove flesh deep...And to kin at that? This wasn't what he wanted...To destroy him further. "I'm Sorry...my tongue got the best of me."
"Don't be. You're right, afterall...you were always right." Jostice looked to the wagoners who were in a ruckus. "I think I've earned myself a drink." And headed towards the fiddle.
"Wait." Jerocobish grabbed the man's coat. The material felt rough and torn between his fingers; rough and torn as the man before him. "It's your mothers...she's been taken ill."
Jostice yanked his sleeve free. "She'll recover. She's the strongest woman I know-"
"It's poison...A dark alchemy, one I've never seen before." Jerocobish shook his head. "I've spent my whole life studying elixirs, hexes, and spells yet this one eludes me."
"You've never studied poisons..."
"True. But I know Alchemy and Jeans been hexed."
Jostice turned towards the old man. His face pale as the moon. "What makes you certain?"
Jerocobish puffed his pipe, eyes glowing red. "Boone was attacked the other day at his Alchme trials-I believe the Silent Shepherds have returned."
He nodded. "Grotknot crossed mountains at my heeded words and I've made him a believer." The old man looked eastward, beyond the perch, towards his cottage. "If not for me, do it for your mother...and for Boone. You owe them that much."
The old man watched Jostice shift, staring towards the mountains peak. "Don't make me regret this..."
They made their way down the mountain in the dead of night, having to stop three times in order to tend to the horses, help a wagoner whose wagon tipped, and clear branches that fell across the road. Going down was faster than going up, but much harder to see and predict what was ahead. Darkness played tricks on the men's eyes; at moments making it seem as though the path led straight off the cliff. This was where the drunkards and the untried met their untimely demise. But Jerocobish knew to always trust the horses. They could lead a blind man down and a thirsty man to water-all you need to do is follow their lead.
After a few hours they pulled up to the cottage, brought the horses to the barn, and made their way inside.
Grotknot stood head down by the native boy; both with a look of concernment. "The doctor?"
"I was unable to find him," Jerocobish said, defeated. He looked to of aged from the trip. His wrinkles deeper and eyes blacker than before. Could've been from the cold, but likely due to the stress that clung to his mind and tensed his muscles. "How is she?"
The short man drew his lips back and shook his head.
Jostice headed towards the back, giving both Grotknot and the native boy a hand shake as he passed.
Jereocobish took a deep breath, and for the first time in a long time, placed his pipe on the table. He then pursued him into ma Jeans room—
He hung in the doorway and made a low, hard cough. Choking from what he saw. No... He thought, looking upon her; Jean's skin was black and glistening in the candlelight like oil. As if burnt by hellfire. On approach he'd noticed her eyes, yellow as corn. The twinkle gone. Still as stones. "My dear," he walked up and took her hand.
Jostice stood on the opposite side of the bed with his eyes down upon her; Jerocobish recalled how Jean would look upon her sons in this way when they were sickly. A look only a Wardman had and no Rigger possessed. Jostice wore the look well; his eyes trembling and lips quivering...But no words spoken. Just an internal battle within oneself-the look of grief.
Ma Jean raised her lips weekly, smiling. "my prayer has been answered." She coughed and her body shook violently. "To see you two together-" there was a rattle in her throat and a peaceful silence thereafter...
...Ma passed, he knew.
Jereocobish fell to his knees and his body collapsed across hers. "Why is God so cruel," he said, squealing as his beard drew wet from the clear liquid streaming down his cheeks.
He stayed there for a long while, weeping and rubbing her face, telling stories of the old days while Jostice and the others waited at the table. Once he'd drain all his tears and was out of kisses and I love you's he found them and drew up a seat.
"Sigress, make some coffee, will ya, Lad." Grotknot asked. The native boy did just that. "I'm sorry for your loss-"
"The Shepards did this?" Jostice crossed his arms. "I don't think so...it doesn't make a lick of sense."
Jerocobish slammed his hand down, "who else would it be? They'd gone after Boone before...or had you forgotten?"
"You said they attacked Boone-attacked Ma Jean." Jostice looked between the two men. "Why would the Shepherds retaliate after all this time?"
Grotknot raised a bushy eyebrow and shrugged. "Revenge stays in the heart, Lad...Like it or not."
Jerocobish said. "You're heads turning but it ain't going nowhere." He grabbed his pipe and found the bowl empty. He checked his sleeves and pockets...Nothing. "Damn, all out of Tabacci...God will sure punish a man of proper decency."
"The four boars of Onyx are just as cruel." Grotknot reminded him.
Jostice snatched the pipe and slammed it to the table. "Maybe God's telling you something..."
Telling me something?
The native boy set three mugs on the table that steamed and smelled of fine, caramelized-nutty freshness only found in the farthest southern regions of Texionya.
"To Ma Jean," Grotknot said, raising the mug. "A woman who loved her coffee as much as her Kin."
Jerocobish felt his legs push him off his seat as his arm came forward, slapping the mug; it flew across the room and crashed against the wall. Black liquid dripped everywhere.
"Don't drink that!"
Jerocobish rushed to a drawer in the kitchen and withdrew a round piece of metal with reflective glass attached to it. He opened his mouth and lifted the mirror, turning it until the candlelight shown to his likings. He squinted; deep inside his throat he saw the black-splotchy sickness corrupting his pink flesh.
He turned to Grotknot and Jostice who were both on their feet. Dull in the face. "The Witch Doctor," His eyes fell to the pipe. "He's the culprit...Give me an hour."
Jerocobish went into his room where Ma Jean lied gave her a soft kiss then went to his closet. There he extracted a pair of scissors, one black top hat, his finest black tailed coat, white trousers, black bow tie, white vest, black pair of shoes, and a chained watch.
It took just under an hour; his beard and hair trimmed, the shavings left to the wind outside. Jeroconish fixed his tie, placed his hat on his head, and wrapped his gun belt around his waist fitted with two long-barreled revolvers.
He came to the front where the men stood armed and ready. Jerocobish nodded. "Let's go, Gentlemen...The Brotherhood of the Bastyoun has returned."