The Lawman’s Boy

There weren’t enough people to hold her husband down while Palla took a bone saw to his leg. Palla had her deputy and bookman tie him to the table instead, then lean their weight onto him to keep him from squirming. Beads of sweat dripped into Palla’s eyes. She twitched them away while she sawed, trying to amputate, to save him from a life-threatening injury.

Nevermind that his flesh looked exactly like the cut of meat she had butchered for the Longnight feast.

Kitche wailed and cried, gurgling through the wooden spoon the bookman had put between his teeth. If he died on that table, his soul, with all its hate and hunger and unfinished business, would slip into his son’s body. Scientists and artists prayed for such a bloodline so their work could continue. Lawmen married to criminals prayed for any other fate. But then, neither Palla nor Kitche had ever found much use for praying.

When the sawing was done, and the patching and sewing done as well as could be hoped, the three lawmen carried Kitche to a cot in one of the tiny jail cells.

“You can go home,” Palla said to her exhausted deputy. “Should be with your family on Longnight.” She rinsed the blood from her hands in a clay bowl that sat on the hearth. It had been full of snow a few hours ago. She dabbed blood from her leather vest and then, giving up, tossed the rag into the fire.

The bookman, a giant of a man who had gone a bit doughy with age, joined her by the fire. “You too, Palla. Go be with your boy. I’ll make sure Kitche lives through the night.”

She handed him the clay bowl.

“He’d better,” she said. She glanced at her husband’s abandoned leg on the table, and sucked her teeth. A haunch of meat cut from below his knee, slicking the table with blood. Weren’t the first coating that table had seen.

“Get rid of that, too,” she said, pulling on her long coat.

The wind howled against the shuttered windows, flicking up enough snow to insulate the wall and silence the rattling panes. She grimaced, putting on her wide-brimmed hat. She pulled gloves from her pocket and felt holes in the lining at the fingertips.

Last season for this pair.

Wind tried to rip the door from her hands and suck her into the swirling morass of snow. She shouldered it shut behind her.

The sun wouldn’t be back for another fourteen hours. More than enough time to find the cache of whatever he stole and draw up formal charges, but the leg complicated things. He might not see morning.

Palla stutter-stepped down the slope for a while and found divots in the powder where his footprints had been. She circled around the tree, looking for the scores in the bark that indicated how far, how deep, and in what direction the cache was. This was one of their first hiding places, at the base of some granite chunks. It was half-stowed under a leaf pile, not quite yet covered by the snow. She felt the briefest flicker of pity for her husband — couldn’t tell if he were too stupid, drunk, or desperate to pick a burrow this obvious. The haul was a sad collection in a threadbare sack. Chunks of cheese and jerky, a few bits of jewelry, and a half-empty box of bullets. The pieces weren’t grand, but they’d be enough to get him passage on a cart over to the next valley. Maybe farther, if he spent the rest of winter doing honest work and took a cart with other fools who thought far was the same as better.

Palla shivered and pulled her scarf up over her nose. No point in trying to talk sense to him in her head. It was a bad habit, now that the years had crushed doe-eyed love into contempt, and then weariness.

The scant light that glittered off the snow cast an odd gleam within the open box of bullets. She fished around in the base, and pulled out a curve of jawbone, human, with tiny bits of gold embedded in the teeth. She sneered. Another idea of hers that he had stolen, but this time, a bad one. Bad work for little gold.

Palla put everything back in the sack and slung it over her shoulder.

When she got back, she recorded the contents, and wrote a message for a courier to take to the shantytown. Stolen goods to be returned. Trial before the New Year. Merry Longnight.

Once that was done, and she had warmed up by the fire, she went to check on her newly crippled husband.

The bookman looked hopeful he would be dismissed, but Longnight or no, they had a prisoner that needed minding.

She rapped on her husband’s cell door.

“Kitche,” she called. “Found your cache. Sloppy work, using that old one. “

“You shot me,” he said in a thick voice.

“I shot your leg. None of the lawmen you’ve shot has got the lineage we do, praise be, otherwise their sons and daughters would be here with their guns on you rather’n mine.”

“I was trying to leave,” he said. “That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? Maybe you and the boy’d be free of me, then.”

She peered through the slat at eye level. He lay on the bed. His dressing looked well packed. It would last a bit longer without changing. His chest rose and fell as he breathed. Maybe if things had gone a different way, it would have been her stowing goods under trees and bivouacking under frozen stars — or in a cell, bleeding.

“You’re a fool for riding on maybe,” she said. “Miles don’t break the bond between you and your son.”

“They do in the ways that matter,” he said, his hinterlands accent grating on her. “He’s all you now, damn him.”

“I chose, you chose. It’s done,” she said. Same thing she said when he’d walked out on her and the baby, sixteen years ago. It had made it easy to sell him out, along with all the other thieves she knew how to find. “We’re gonna do this lawful. Go to trial, they’ll execute you proper, and get your soul sealed away. Tie up all the loose ends of your frayed, sorry life.”

“You talk too much,” he murmured.

Palla slid the slat closed, checked the bolt, tipped her hat to the bookman, and left.

• • •

Palla helped her sister Temre bring out the Longnight pig, off the spit, seasoned, and dressed. The family sat together on benches around the low table, dangling their feet into a recess in the floor, warmed by geothermal heat.

Clove, cinnamon, fat, and sage permeated the air in a mouthwatering mixture that carried generations in its history. Feast smell was supposed to be family, belonging, but it only made Palla’s stomach churn. The whole ritual felt like a farce, the family keeping vigil against the darkness with song and feasting. Palla and Temre had put their mother in the ground last year with no issue; their father, four years earlier. Lives well-lived stayed finite. Palla was glad they’d met their peace without seeing her like this — what her little family had come to.

Temre pulled one of the pig’s legs free at the joint. It didn’t have much meat on it. She gnawed a small remnant of fat and skin, then passed it to Colt, the eldest child at sixteen. He took a bite also, then passed it around to his cousins, Temre and Atna’s children. It was a symbolic gesture, gnawing the bones of the same creature, to remind them what it was like to winter without food.

Palla took the bone from her brother-in-law, now nearly stripped of flesh. She gave it a perfunctory scrape of her teeth, and the sound was like the first chew of the bone saw. She grimaced, wiping her lips and trying not to taste human blood in her mouth.

Colt, who had soft brown eyes like his namesake, leaned toward Palla. “Ma, I need to tell you something.”

The grate under Palla’s foot vibrated. Colt always bounced his knee when he was nervous. “Sounds important,” she said, lightly.

His voice lowered. “You know Lela, the Tanners’ youngest,” he bit his lip. “I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”

Palla cocked her head. “Little soon, ain’t it?”

“You haven’t been around, ma. She, um … well, she and I—” He made a sharp intake of breath, and the tremor in the floor grate stopped. He sat stock still for a moment, then, without moving his head, glanced around the room, as though seeing it for the first time.

The scent of cloves went tinny as Palla watched her son. He had gone stock-still, the way Kitche does when he’s looking for a mark.

Did.

“Colt?”

Colt caught Palla’s eye, and the next thing anyone knew he was kicking and pushing his way out from the recessed seat.

Palla squirmed free of her place just as Colt found his feet and headed for the door. She dived across the table and tackled him. Colt wriggled and kicked, shouting to be let go.

“Temre, rope!” Palla cried.

Temre slid free of her seat as well. “What—”

“Rope!” Palla screamed. “Now!”

Palla wrestled her son’s arms behind his back.

“Get off me, Palla!”

The stream of obscenities frothing from Colt’s mouth could never have cut more deeply than hearing her son use her name. He wasn’t her son anymore.

“What did you do?” She screamed. “You were fine! You weren’t even seeping!”

Nieces and nephews leapt to intervene, to break them apart. Temre and her husband joined in, trying to restrain them. The whole house brawled, stomping and scraping against the musty wood floor.

“Off, everyone off!” Palla, Temre, and her husband Atna bound the boy and hauled him out into the frozen night.

There was a small but comfortable house in the back of the compound. Colt had been born there. The lush garden had been reduced to a few gnarled stalks poking out of the snow drifts.

Colt twisted to get free. Palla shoved a handful of snow into his mouth to shock him into quiet. Once inside, they dumped the boy on the ground near the hearth, Temre and Atna shuffling back while Palla checked his ropes. The main room was barely large enough for the four of them.

“Get back to the children, tell them everything’s all right,” said Palla.

“I can’t do that,” said Temre. “There are no lies on Longnight.”

“There are about to be.” Palla turned from her son and worked a pump near the hearth to open the subterranean dam that kept their floor heated with the earth’s warm blood.

“We’ll be back to check on you,” said Temre, tugging Atna’s arm. She and her husband pulled their shirts tight about their shoulders and ducked back into the storm. When the door met the frame, it sounded to Palla like the slamming of prison bars.

“Momma?” said Colt.

“Don’t.” said Palla. “How did you do it? You were fine when I left you.”

Chill vapor shot from Colt’s nose when he snorted his contempt.

For an hour, they said nothing to each other.

The snow met the warming walls and crystallized on the tiny windowpanes. The wind roared and ice tinkled in turn, while the shadows shifted over and through the little house. Colt could never have held still this long; but Kitche could. He sat as still as he needed to, and had done, when they cased banks together.

“Go see for yesself,” he said, in the hinterland accents of his father. “Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Nice and quiet like.”

“You bastard. You utter bastard,” she whispered. “I should have patched you up in the judge’s sitting room and put a bullet in your brain the second he sealed your soul.”

“That’s something you’re gonna have to live with, Palla. Your guilt ain’t on me,” he replied, in that languid way of his. Colt shifted to sit up, resting his head back against the stone wall. “I hated this place. Too damn small. Damn kid crying day and night.”

Palla was grateful he was talking rather than trying to bolt, but it unnerved her. This wasn’t her son anymore. This was Kitche wearing Colt’s skin, Kitche’s words coming out of Colt’s face — her husband coating her son’s every gesture.

Palla leaned forward, elbows on her knees. “You should’ve stayed out of this valley.”

“You shoulda let me go.”

“Can’t do that when you’re shooting up lawmen a town over from me.”

“You chose your life, I chose mine. You should have left the kid here and come with me.”

“You wound up exactly where I thought you’d be — tumbled down a hill and bleeding into the snow, you damned idiot; you should have stopped when I did.”

“And become what? A miner? Or worse, a lawman?” Kitche shook his head. “Not a chance. I’m too good at the other thing.” He slid his eyes from the gray stones toward her. “Remember?”

He had been good at stealing, when they were younger. But it was winter. The cold ached in her bones these days, even with a reliably comfortable bed each night. She didn’t miss the road, or trying to hunt down someplace warmer, quieter, and on the beaten track of the supply wagons once they’d done the last poor citizen in fall.

“Why don’t you cut me loose, huh, Palla? I’m not going anywhere. Door’s too narrow for me to get past you. I’ve got no coat. I know when I’m done.”

“Not a chance.”

“Well then,” he began, holding his wrists out. Pale light reflected off the snow so Palla could see what Kitche showed her. He ground his skin against his bonds until a dark smear slicked the inner coil.

Palla’s stool scraped the stones when she stood. She lifted her son by his collar and dragged him into his room. It was sparse; a bed, a chest of clothes and a window too small to shimmy out of. She cut his hands free.

She returned the knife to the sheath hidden beneath her coat. “Colt, if you’re still in there you can hear me, fight him. Fight him as hard as you can. It’s your body, not his!”

“He’s gone, darlin’.”

“Colt, throw him off,” Palla shouted. “Throw him off, son!”

Her husband screamed through her son’s mouth. “You did this. You think you’re so smart, so good, but you’re nothing! You’re cheaper than the bed I rolled you on!” They were chest-to-chest, now, and nearly of a height. She could smell the remnants of sweet wine on her son’s breath even as he roared at her. “I should have planted my seed in a thousand girls like you so I could have my pick of the litter when I died rather than this skinny, pathetic—”

Palla’s fist shot out, slamming into the boy’s jaw. He stumbled back, hit the wall, and crumpled. She advanced, lifting him up by his shirt and drew her fist back again.

This was Kitche. This was only Kitche.

“Momma,” the boy choked, flecking her face with his blood.

Palla punched him again. “Colt hasn’t called me that since he was five years old,” she screamed. “Damned if I ain’t tired of running you down, Kitche. Our boy’s in there somewhere. No matter how much you hate me, he’s just as much yours as mine. Let him go.”

His face was already swelling. She dropped him. She was no stranger to hitting her son — he had been trouble since he was old enough to walk — but she only ever pinked him enough to hold his attention, never to mark him. Never to hurt him. She felt sick.

“Wouldn’t change nothin’. He knows what you are now. Colt’s got all my memories. Everything I done, everything I saw you do. He knows you’re no better’n me, lawman. ” He licked his lips, running his gaze over her body in a way that made her skin crawl with revulsion. “He’s even got the knowing of his making, if you know what I mean.”

The hairs on the back of Palla’s neck prickled.

He spat on the floor. “No sense playing good mother anymore. You’d best let me go, like I planned. This is over.”

Someone pounded the door. Palla swallowed the coppery tang rising in her throat, left her son’s room and jammed a chair against his door to seal him inside. She opened the front door and squinted against the wind. Her sister and her husband were there, bundled up this time.

Temre’s voice quavered, but whether it was from the cold or fear of what she’d interrupted, Palla couldn’t tell. “I sent the children down the road to the Tanners’. Do you need help?”

Palla stepped back to let them in, bringing a flurry of snow and a blast of cold air in with them. Once they were in, Palla stepped out into the snow, and tugged her collar up around her jaw. “He’s in his room. I’m going back to the watch house to check on the bookman and confirm Kitche’s dead.”

Palla turned to go but Temre grabbed her elbow. “He’s still Colt, Palla.”

Palla rounded on her sister and her words came like a dog’s growl, low and full of warning. “Momma said my coming home was all she wanted ‘fore she died, and I didn’t feel nothing of daddy when he passed. Did you? You got either of them?”

“No, but—”

“Then don’t try to school me on what you don’t know.” She snugged her gloves over her hands. “Watch him. Don’t let him leave.”

Palla pulled free of Temre and trudged out into the snow. The wind slashed at her eyes, clawing at her neck and hands. The cold tugged at her like embodied doubts. She should have known that parents like her and Kitche would scar their children, one way or another. She should have prevented this. She should have made it work with Kitche, or never had the boy. The shoulds and didn’ts howled in her ears like so much snow.

She passed through the back door, retrieved her hat and coat, then slipped out the front — marching all the way into the watch house without breaking stride.

When she came upon the bookman, he had his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his vest, his hat down over his eyes, his boots crossed on the table, and a snore erupting from his mouth. The record book of the year’s arrests and fines lay open on the table near his feet. Her footfalls roused him only moments before she had him out of his chair and stumbling toward Kitche’s cell by the scruff of his shirt.

Palla ripped the keys from the bookman’s belt, unlocked the cell and shoved him inside. Neither of them were prepared for the sight of him. Greenish-pale, blood-crusted fingers, his face turned toward the wall.

His bandage dangled from the cot just under his stump. Black blood had oozed from his thigh, through the mattress, the pool thickening into a crust at the edges.

He had pushed it off.

“You were supposed to mind him,” she snarled. “Go to the judge’s house, then get you both to Temre’s and make sure nothing else happens to my boy this night.”

He nodded and scrambled out of the cell, mumbling, “Yes, sheriff.”

She gazed at the empty husk of her husband and inhaled, expecting to drink his scent, to trigger memories of once loving him. In the cold air she didn’t even smell his death.

The ring of keys slipped from her fingers, her back hit the wall, and she slid, slowly, to the floor.

Palla had been luckier than most. Both of her parents had the bloodline, making her and her sister each one in a thousand. Luckier, still, that their parents were just folk, with no great piece of music unfinished, or important edifice unbuilt. No obligation to lay on her or her sister. Their souls had passed on, clean and simple.

In the end, Palla and Kitche’s great work — Colt’s inherited glory — was the worst of what they could muster. All thwarted love and splintered lives. Colt was why she had stopped stealing. It was why she had turned herself in, and why she had helped capture so many others.

She stared at his ear, the line of his jaw and his neck, his face turned to the wall. Tears blurred her sight. Hot on their heels came the heavy, chest-racking sobs. It had all happened so fast, she was just starting to feel it now. She needed to sleep. She needed to think.

She stayed like that for a time, letting it out with no one to witness her but the man she loved, and hated, more than anyone else in the world. Even now, she had to run him down.

She put one hand to her chest and gulped air. She had never asked Kitche which of his parents had the bloodline, what mattered was that he had it. That he was special, like her.

And if he could do it, so could she. Maybe she could fight for Colt against Kitche. Even the odds.

She swallowed, and carefully pulled her revolver from its holster.

She breathed in, and put the gun in her mouth. The muzzle rested against her hard palate, the barrel cold against her lower lip. Her thumb found the hammer and pressed until it clicked, a motion as natural to her as scratching an itch. It was loaded, of that she was certain. As certain as she was that there was a kettle of water set by the fire at night, so she could take her morning coffee at her leisure. Certainty was her way. There had been plenty of ripe carriages she and Kitche could have plundered, on the road. We don’t ride on ‘maybe,’ she had said to him. That certainty kept her alive as a thief, and comfortable as a lawman — but as a mother, it was entirely absent. For the first time, she wished her mother hadn’t died happy. She wished her father had some great unfinished rage to pass to her before she put him in the ground. She wished she knew what Colt was going through, and that her parents were still there, buried somewhere in her soul, to guide her.

Maybe her will could overtake Kitche’s as Kitche had overtaken Colt’s. Truth was, she had no idea how to fight this fight. Only that it was too late to stop it.

Gunpowder tickled her tongue; sharp. Peppery. Metallic. She had fired it once that evening, and it had been that shot to the leg that sent Kitche into the ravine. One mistake too many.

The gun clicked gently against her teeth as she slid it out of her mouth. Pointing it at the ceiling, she put her thumb between the hammer and the frame, squeezed and released the trigger, then freed her thumb to let the hammer fall again. She checked the chamber. Five of the six bullets remained.

We don’t ride on ‘maybe.’

The front door of the watch house creaked open. Palla pushed herself to her feet, returned her gun to her hip, and retrieved the ring of keys.

“I thought I made myself clear,” she said, turning toward the door. But it wasn’t the bookman.

Colt stood in the main room, halfway between the door and the evidence chest. He had come back for what little gear the lawmen had confiscated. Her fists had left their mark, his face puffy and smeared with blood.

She bolted for the door to block his exit. Colt ran toward the center of the room, grabbed the bone saw, and pushed the blood-soaked table toward her. It toppled, barking her knees and tripping her up. She fell, splitting her lip on the floor.

Before she knew what was happening, her son was on top of her. The bone saw bit into her back where her neck met her shoulder. She screamed and pushed herself up, slamming her skull into his mouth.

Half-panicked, half-dazed, she threw him off and scrambled to her feet — heading for the door. The bone saw scraped against the wooden floor as Colt stumbled after her; but Palla was already five steps ahead of him, reaching for the door.

In one smooth motion, she whirled, closed the door, drew her gun, and fired.

Colt dropped. The saw spun across the floor until it hit the hearth.

Blood, brain, and bone splattered the wall behind him, dribbling slow as honey on a spitted pig.

When Atna and Temre arrived at the door, calling her name and panting, she didn’t move. When they registered what had happened, Palla lowered her arm. Palla had no more accusations, and no more fight left in her. Temre gently pulled the gun from her sister’s hand. Atna put his arms around her shoulders.

Temre whispered an apology. “We let him outside for just a moment—”

“It’s done,” said Palla, silencing her.

They took her to the Tanners’ house, where the rest of the family was. Firelight glowed from the windows onto the snow, and Atna scooped up a handful for Palla to hold to her lip. Inside, Atna and Temre’s children were sitting with the others, trying to joke and play despite the adults’ somber faces.

Palla swallowed. “The judge will be here to—”

“Tomorrow,” said Temre. “It’ll all keep until tomorrow.”

A baby wailed, and Temre turned toward a pretty girl with neatly bound hair, who couldn’t have been older than fourteen. Lela, the Tanners’ youngest. She rocked an inconsolable infant, not more than a few weeks old.

Lela looked up, eyes widening at the blood all down Palla’s front. She cleared her throat and made an effort to smile, “I’m sorry, sheriff. He’s been so good, he just started crying and crying — I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Temre smiled at her. “There there, sweetheart. Babies cry, it’s just the way of things.”

The baby squirmed in Lela’s arms. In the candlelight, Palla could see that his cheeks were dry. Palla came closer, and knelt, taking one of her gloves off, her hands still clean beneath them. She gently caressed the baby’s head, soft and warm. At her touch, the baby glanced up at her and stopped screaming. He had soft brown eyes like a colt’s.

“There’s my good boy,” said Lela, smiling.

A dull ache blossomed in Palla’s chest. She couldn’t tell if it was hope or despair.

The baby watched her. Silent. Aware. And perfectly still.


Setsu writes and occasionally narrates dark fiction. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in PodCastle, Sword and Sonnet, Grimdark Magazine, Tales from the Magician’s Skull, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Learn more at their website, SetsuUzume.com