The horizon glowed with the blaze of the great fire that was sweeping through Gilead. Down below in the lower quarters of the city, the last remnants of the gunslingers were doing their best to fend off the dwindling swarm of the Good Manís army. The cries of the wounded and dying even reached up to the manor houses belonging to the nobles and elder gunslingers up on High Hill. But, in the house of Chiles Hartford, there were more pressing issues than the battle down below.
"Just do what you need to do to keep my son safe," Chiles pleaded.
He was pacing in front of the huge stained glass window that dominated the wall behind his desk. The firelight created a dazzling display through the image of Arthur Eld carrying a flaming Excalibur through the ranks of some poor unfortunate army that had dared to stand in his way.
In the shadows, paying no heed to the picturesque setting before him, was a man in tattered scarlet robes. A hood was drawn over his face, keeping his identity secret from the gunslinger.
"I will do my best, my lord. These are perilous times about us, and I cannot guarantee my fellow Manni can keep him secure even in the far reaches of End World. But, as we have served your father, his father, and his father before, so shall we serve you now, sai Hartford."
"That is well," the frazzled gunslinger said as he handed over a wriggling bundle of blankets.
"His mother... ?" the Manni asked.
"Dead below," Hartford replied somberly, strapping on his guns.
"The same might soon be true for me as well."
Growing up in rural Nebraska is never an easy thing to do. One can say the same for larger cities like New York, but they have problems a little more different than country life. There are chores to do before school, chores for after school (or extra curricular things), and chores to do before bed. However, William Watson always seemed to get more than his fair share. One could argue that he had younger siblings to help share the work, but one would also have to contend with the strict, almost harsh response from Max Watson, Williamís foster father.
William never knew his birth parents, and the only thing he knew of them were that they were coat-tail relatives to his foster parents, and that they had died in a car wreck. He was sure that he would be able to know more, except whenever he brought it up, Mr. Watson would tell William to "Shut up and go clean up the horse stalls," or some other similar, demeaning task.
Of course, living in the country does have its advantages. Whenever he wanted (when he wasnít at school or slaving away for his father), he could take Mr. Watsonís guns out into the pasture they owned outside of town and shoot at beer cans and bottles to his heartís content. Mr. Watson was of the firm belief that every boy needed to know how to shoot a gun, and be able to hit his targets most of the time. All William had to do was tell his foster father that he was going to go shooting, and Max would hand over his two revolvers with a box of ammo, and tell William to not come back until the bullets were gone.
William always did well in school, and was planning on going to college in Sioux City, Iowa after finishing high school. The small town he lived in lay ten miles west of Sioux City in Nebraska, and was called Jackson, after some sort of settler for all William knew. He knew his away around Sioux City, and wanted to teach math at one of the high schools in town. His parents heartily agreed to this, because they both knew he wasnít cut out for farming his life away. Even though he wasnít of their blood, in their own way, they did care for him, and didnít want to see him trapped behind a plow or in the cab of a combine his entire life. Their children, however, were destined to carry on the family business of struggling farmers and herdsmen.
In Jackson, there lived a man by the name of Crazy Ted, who lived on top of a hill and only went "down town" to drink at the bar or buy food. He always walked, and didnít own a car. No one seemed to remember when he started living in Jackson. It had just seemed that heíd been a permanent fixture even two generations ago.
William always felt uncomfortable around him whenever they ran into each other, but he couldnít quite decide why. Ted had a weird way of talking that he only reserved for William, and it always made William think of some distant memory that seemed to elude his grasp just as it became clear in his mind.
One day during the beginning of summer break between his senior year at high school and college, William had to go get the mail from the post office, when lo and behold, Ted was sitting out on the bench out front. William walked up the short sidewalk leading to the front door, and knew what was immediately coming.
"Hail and well met, sai Watson," Ted said as he tapped his breast with his left hand. Oh, great. Here we go again, William though as he came closer to Crazy Ted.
"Good morning, Ted," Willaim responded, offering Ted his hand.
"Uh, um... good morning," Ted said as he took his hand. A perplexed look was always on his face whenever William greeted him that way, but it soon would pass over as if it were never there.
"So, what is young Watson up to today? Going around town performing chores for his daddy-o? Mayhap looking for that charming young Elizabeth? Or is he just looking for a tired old man to help him get out of town?"
William thought to himself, Well, everyone seems to know that I get the shaft on chores back home, and itís no secret that Elizabeth and I are seeing each other, but what the hell does he mean? "Uh, Ted, Iím just getting the mail. Nothing special."
Ted looked back over his shoulder at the post office. "Oh, so you are, young sai. Well, I wonít interfere then. Long days and pleasant nights, gunsli-- I mean, William," Ted said, and started to walk away. "Oh, by the way... happy birthday tomorrow, if I donít see you," Ted finished as he headed towards the street that led up to his house.
"What do you mean... " William started as he turned around to get a better look at Ted walking away. Ted just seemed to disappear at weird moments, and this was just another one. William shrugged, and went to get his familyís mail.
But Ted was right... tomorrow was his birthday, but William couldnít figure out how he knew that. Lately, William was hoping that since he was turning eighteen, that Max and Sherry would let him move out of the house and get an apartment in Sioux City. He was already going to school there, so he might as well live there a few months before school started. But, he knew this was a long shot; Max had been going on one of his long drunks again, and life was getting tough around the house. Sherry often walked around with bruises on her face nowadays. So far, William had been lucky in the fact that Max hadnít tried to lay a hand on him, but he suspected that would soon change.
And, he was right. The very next night, which proved to be the strangest night in his life, it had happened.
It all started with William coming home late from "Elizabethís house" (actually, they had both been out on one of the many gravel roads around Jackson... ), and walking into his living room, seeing Sherry crying on the couch. Max had apparently been using her for a punching bag again, and was down at the bar regaling his friends with the story.
"Mom, is everything alright?" he asked. Even though he had known Max and Sherry werenít his real parents since he was seven, he still called Sherry mom. Max didnít get the same courtesy. William felt sorry for Sherry for being caught in the relationship she was in with Max, and while Max treated his real children better than him, Sherry loved William equally as her own. William was brought to them when Sherry and Max had been trying to have children for years but couldnít kindle a life. Sherry had gotten pregnant soon after, but William was a relief to the both of them.
"Yes, Iím fine," she replied, trying to choke back more tears. She got up and tried to walk to the kitchen. "Your dinner is in the oven, sweetie. Let me go get it... " she started. Upon seeing her try to walk, William noticed her trying to hide the fact that she was limping. He walked towards her, and put her arm over his shoulder.
"Let me help you out, mom," he said softly as he helped her into the kitchen. The light in here from the fluorescent bulb was to bright for Sherry, who flinched upon setting foot onto the yellowed linoleum that matched the peeling wallpaper and old appliances. William sat her down by the table, and grabbed his food. Sherry was an excellent cook, and William would severely miss her cooking in college. He got out some silverware and put them and his food on the table. "What started him up again?" William asked.
Sherry was a little more collected now, and was able to stop squinting in the light. "Itís a long story, Billy. Better to not tell you."
"Why not? Mom, I know you. You need to get this off of your chest. Itís just going to keep eating at you, and youíll eventually tell me because of it. Might as well head it off at the pass, mom."
"I canít. It means to much to everyone--"
"What do you mean, everyone?"
"The town, William--"
Just then, the back door leading into the pale yellow kitchen smashed in. Max stood there, bottle of rot gut in hand. He had a look of flaming rage on his face, and his eyes resembled the heat lightning that had been flashing on the horizon that night. Max was lucky to be getting home at this time. Even the young children in town would be able to tell the "city folk" that a big storm was brewing and was going to hit any time now.
"Just you never mind telliní Ďim, Sherry. He doní need to know a thing about thaí," he hissed drunkenly. His body seemed to be absolutely seething with anger at this point. "The boy doní need to know a damn thiní. Itíll bring nuttiní but trouble to you people."
Sherry jumped out of her chair, despite her sore legs. "Max, do you think we want to keep him in the dark all his life? Itís ka, Max!"
Max reached back to backhand Sherry across her face. His fingers were splayed out by his face. "Never mind about your voo-doo, bitch!" he yelled, his drunken slur lost in the pits of rage. Suddenly, his hand flew through the air--and was caught by William inches from Sherryís face.
"Iím sick of you hitting her, Max. Sheís the only one of you two to treat me like one of your children, and I wonít let you hurt her again."
"Boy, watch who you talk to. Iím still your father, and I need to be respected as such!"
With that, Max swung his other arm out and connected a solid fist to Williamís chin. White sparks flew out into his vision, and his back slammed into the floor. William lay there, staring up at Max as if he was a bull about to gore. He finally came to his senses, and started to scramble back on his elbows like a crab. He only made it about three feet before Max was on him again.
Max always seemed to be wearing his work boot wherever he went, including church. Now was yet another one of those occasions. His foot connected to Williamís side, punctuating each word that flew out of his mouth.
"You (whack) need (whack) to (whack) be (whack) taught (whack) a lesson (whack-whack)!"
William lay on his side, tears almost falling down his face as he went fetal in the corner. Thoughts and plans tried to form in his buzzing head, but nothing seemed to come to his mind... except...
The guns. I have to get the guns, William thought. He knew where they were, but he had to get to the barn... the barn.
Suddenly, William swept a leg out a knocked Maxís feet out from under him just as he was rearing up for another kicking session. A satisfying crack rang through the room as he fell unsupported to the floor. Blood was already starting to pool on the floor.
"Mom, it has to be done," William replied coldly, gaining his feet. He headed toward the door, and as planned, Max sprang up to follow, despite the crack in the back of his head.
"Come here, you son of a bitch!" Max shouted. William had already cleared the door and was doing his best to run the fifty yards between their house and the barn. The storm that had been brewing on the horizon was finally coming to a head, and rain started to pelt the ground. William skidded once or twice in that short distance, taking time to look back once he reached the barn. Sure enough, Max was also stalking across the field, shoulders shrugged and head tilted forward like some sort of beast that time forgot.
"You die tonight like you should have years ago!" Max yelled as William slid a huge barn door open and stepped inside.
...to be continued