Mar 26 • 15M

Nowhere Ch. 12 - The Attack

Patrick E McLean
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Short fiction every week and serial novel "A Town Called Nowhere"
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Squatting on the bank of the river, Archie offered one word of description for the wooden ship that was bearing down upon the Town of Grantham, “Trireme.”

Sheriff Dance paid no attention to Archie. His eyes were locked on an imposing figure at the rail, who was looking down on the town and the people frolicking in the water. Even at a distance Dance could see that this man was not smiling.

In the shallows, Mack stared at the ship in wonder. On the bank, his sister turned a cartwheel in the mud.

The figure on the deck of the ship raised his hand and uttered a guttural command. The oars closest to the shore stopped moving and the boat turned in the wide river and headed for the shore. The townspeople scrambled and stumbled back up the muddy bank, retreating before the ship.

The hollow drumbeat stopped and the prow of the ship came to rest on the mud with the craft stopped 30 yards offshore. The imposing figure at the rail made a speech that Dance could not understand. But as the man gnashed out the words, he could see the white teeth flashing amid the man’s thick, black beard.

This man, surely the Captain of this vessel, finished his speech by raising his open hand and making a downward motion in conjunction with his last word. Which sounded like “Klahpheem!”

When no one on the bank moved, the Captain raised his hand and repeated this command,

This time Penelope shouted back, “Klahpheem!”

Embarrassed, Mack said, “Hush up.”

Archie said, “We don’t understand you!”

The Captain turn his head sharply with a bird-like motion and fixed Archie with his gaze. He smiled and then barked another command, “Ekidst!” Archers filled the rails around him.

Archie began shouting. First in one language and then another. But he got no response from the ship. The townspeople stared on in confusion and disbelief.

*Don't you do it*, thought Dance as he cocked his rifle and brought it to his shoulder.

In desperation, Archie asked, “You don’t think they’re going to?”

"Yeahp," said Dance.

“Well, don’t provoke them!”

“I think we’re past that.”

“What should I do?" asked Archie.

"You could try running,” said Dance.

On deck the Captain let his arm fall. Dance fired before the first arrow was released. As the Winchester roared, the Captain fell back onto the deck almost in time with the dropping of his own arm.

Further down the bank, Speedy Pete drew slow and opened fire with his pistol. At that range, even a good shot would have a hard time hitting anything with a pistol. And Pete wasn’t a good shot.

Archie looked up at the cloud of arrows, considered the futility of running, then muttered, “Never a phalanx when you need one.”

The townspeople screamed and ran, some slipping in the mud of the river bank. But there was no outrunning the arrows.

Penelope, oblivious as she always was, prepared to turn another cartwheel on the bank. Mack tried to run to protect his sister, but the mud sucked at his feet, and he stumbled, crawling on his hands and knees through the water.

As the arrows flew, Dance’s rifle boomed out again and again. And Archers fell at the rail like targets in a shooting gallery. He caught one of them low in the belly, and the archer slumped forward and fell into the slow-moving river.

Instead of running, Archie straightened his waistcoat and stood tall, ready to receive fire as bravely as any soldier in any line.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. There was the little blond girl, tresses flying wildly, throwing herself into a cartwheel.

Everything slowed. The arrows flew. The girl turned. A noble fear grew in Archie and he started to run towards the girl. She spun upright, landing on her feet again, holding her arms up in triumph.

An arrow on a high trajectory punched through the left side of her chest, knocking her from her feet.

Archie slogged through the impossible mud and came to the girl’s aid. The arrow had gone right through and pinned her to the ground. Her mouth opened and closed as if she was trying to scream, but the pain made it impossible. She gasped infinitesimally small breaths as tears rolled down her cheeks.

She grabbed the shaft of the arrow that protruded from her chest and stared down at it. Archie whispered that it would be all right and that she should be brave, that she should not look at it.

She called out for her mother in a voice that was barely a whisper.

Mack was at her side. He said, “Is she okay?”

Archie looked up at the boy’s face and had to look away before he could say, “No. Get a doctor.”

Mack hovered above his sister, unable to move. Archie said, very gently, “Do you love your sister?”

Mack nodded as tears streamed down his face.

“Then run.”

Dance kept firing until his rifle was empty. The rail of the ship was clear, and the rowers had started backing water. Dance realized that many of the townspeople were now firing from the bank. He even saw a gambler, giving the attackers both barrels of his tiny derringer. It wasn’t worth a damn, but he grinned at the man’s spirit.

As the ship made speed upriver, he saw the bearded face of the Captain appear at the rail, holding a cloth to the right side of his head. Dance brandished his rifle above his head, sideways, showing it to the man and thought, I’ll see you again, you son-of-a-bitch. And next time I won’t miss.

He turned back to the townspeople to see how badly they had fared and then saw that Penelope had been shot. *God, not the child. *

As Archie held Penelope in his arms, Her head lolled backwards and she drifted into unconsciousness. Archie said, "No, no, dear girl, you mustn't go to sleep. You mustn't." She tried to speak but was unable to move enough air through her lungs to manage it. Then she was asleep. As Archie tried to revive her he saw that her lips were blue. This was a terrible sign and he was terrified by what it might mean. "Where is the damn doctor!" He yelled.

"He only went to bed a couple hours ago,” said one of the townspeople, waving his empty pistol back towards the town, a staggeringly fine example of a three–day drunk.

Archie turned Penelope over and found the tip of the arrowhead poking through the back of her blood-soaked dress. The tip was steel and had cruel, flaring barbs. It was impossible to think of yanking such an arrow back out the way it had gone in. Archie wracked his brain. Surely there was something he could do to prevent this little girl from dying in his arms. Before he was conscious of thinking it, he heard his voice saying, “Knife! does anyone have a knife?" He was surprised to hear that he sounded like he knew what he was doing.

A rough-looking man slid a Bowie knife from his belt sheath and handed it to Archie without a word. He heard a woman saying, “Don't you cut her!" Archie ignored her and took a notch out of the arrow shaft just beneath the fletching. He worked as gently as he could, trying not to move the shaft in the wound.

When he had cut a significant notch in the shaft he lay the knife on the ground and snapped the fletching off the arrow. Then he turned the girl sideways on his hip and pulled the arrow completely through her. Penelope's eyes fluttered and she came back to consciousness. Archie said, “There now. Isn't that better?”

She coughed blood on his suit and started screaming. As she convulsed each new movement brought new pain and the more Archie tried to calm her, the more she was overcome by terror.

In desperation, Archie looked around for a doctor or the girl’s mother. Even that vile-tempered nurse of Jean Dumont’s would have been a welcome sight. But all he saw was the snake oil salesman from the saloon. He stood holding a bottle of his ridiculous "medicine" in his hand, opening and closing his mouth, trying to work up the courage to give his sales pitch. What a loathsome fiend thought Archie. And just look at him, he knew it. He dare not give his "remedy" for the certainty that it would be proved fake on the spot.

As Dr. Krupp moved to put the bottle back in his jacket pocket one of the gullible miners in the crowd cried out, “He's got de miracle cure!" Dr. Krupp looked around frantically. But he was caught in his own con and there would be no rescue.

"Yeah," said another voice, "that little girl needs your miracle cure!"

"Don't let her suffer," cried another.

Dr. Krupp looked hopelessly at Archie. And raised his eyebrows in a universal, what-the-hell, expression.

Above Penelope’s screams, Archie asked, "does it have opium in it?"

Out of habit, Dr. Krupp launched into his standard patter, “The exact nature of this formula is a closely guarded –"

“Dammit man, is it full of hop!”

Defeated by his own humanity (the con man's worst enemy) he gave a jowly nod and passed the bottle to Archie.

Archie unscrewed the cap. It smelled sickly sweet and bitter. He stroked Penelope’s hair, trying to calm her but she wailed all the louder. "Please drink this," pleaded Archie, "it's medicine, and it will make you feel better." But Penelope was hysterical and couldn’t hear him. “No, no. Musn’t struggle. It will make the wound worse.”

But she fought all the more. Out of sheerest desperation, Archie poured the bottle into her open mouth, then covered the girl’s lips and nose with his hands. She fought, sputtered, and bit, but finally, swallowed. A strange look came over her face and she stopped fighting.

Archie was overcome by dread. Perhaps he had done the wrong thing. The most wrong thing of all. He had never been good with people, and this was doubly true of women and children. Archie found them to be such irrational, unreasonable creatures. They scared him with their unpredictable actions and how easily they could make him feel things that he could not reason with.

Then Penelope gulped deeply and struggled to cough. Her eyes grew wide with fear once again and she coughed up and spit out a clot of blood the size of her tiny little fist. It landed in the mud next to Archie’s leg, spattering his already filthy trousers with bright red blood. Then she smiled up at him, nestled into the crook of his arm, and went to sleep.

Archie tried to examine the girl’s wound through the hole in her dress. But try as he might he could not find it. He pushed the bloody tear in the fabric around, then tore it open further, but underneath was innocent immaculate skin. He looked up at Dr. Krupp and had no words to explain.

Dr. Krupp said, "we did all that was humanly possible, mighty though Dr. Bartoleermere’s elixir maybe there are…"

“No,” said Archie, "she's fine.”

Archie heard a woman's voice cry, “Pen! Penelope!"

Someone in the crowd cried, “Over here."

A beautiful woman with her blonde hair in a braid came into view. She looked angry at Archie, but it made no difference. On the spot, Archie decided that this woman with her cornsilk hair — this fierce woman who looked like she would claw the world itself apart to get to her child — was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Had his own mother ever loved him so much as she loved this girl?

She held out her arms to Archie and said, “They said she was hurt?"

Archie nodded as he handed the sleeping girl to her mother. "She was, shot with an arrow," said Archie, "but she's fine.”

Laura gave him a wild, unhinged look. Clearly, this strange Englishman was insane. And she took her child away from the river.

"Another miracle cure, thanks to Dr. Bartoleermere’s Magic Elixir!”

Sheriff Dance said, “You sell that somewhere else or I swear I'll shoot you myself."

"But Sheriff, you saw the miracle…" but when Dr. Krupp saw the look in the Sheriff’s eye, he turned and disappeared into the crowd.

“His potion worked,” said Archie.

“Meebee so, but I don’t want to listen to him right now.”

"Who were the attackers?” asked Archie.

Sheriff Dance stared upriver for a long time before he said, “My Deputy is of the opinion, that this is all just a complicated ruse to lure me away from the Jail, so Burdock can spring his idiot son.”

Speedy Pete said, “It might just be Burdock’s men.”

Archie looked confused.

Dance said, “Which is just a fancy way of saying I got no earthly idea."