Jandrax 23

Then Baylor struck my father – or my father struck Baylor. I have never been quite sure who struck the first blow, nor are my impressions of the melee that followed clear. In seconds the entire village was engaged in a general brawl. I rushed to my father’s aid and was promptly smashed down, whether by friend or foe I am not sure. He and Baylor stood toe to toe trading blows with their staves until Baylor fell. I remember staggering to my feet and being caught up in my father’s arms as he retreated with me.

He dropped me to the dirt floor inside our house, and I sat holding my head while he and my mother argued. He was rummaging in his chest, that same chest he had carried two decades earlier when he emigrated. I could make little sense of my mother’s words for she was hysterical. I stood, swayed, leaned against a table and watched as my father pulled out the automatic pistol he had taken as plunder in some war. He checked its load, drew back the cocking bar and strode out. I can see his face as if it were before me and even now, as then, the expression is unreadable.

He left the house at a run and I heard the bullroar of a heavy rifle. My father was not the only one to have gone for better weapons. Then I heard a scream and it went on and on, high-pitched, mad, the cry of a woman bereaved. More shots echoed, different pitches distinguishing different weapons, some of which I recognized. I heard more screams as I staggered outside. Buildings intervened between me and the fighting, but I could see flames where someone’s house was burning. My mother caught my arm and held me back.

The flames had spread to other buildings, or were being spread. Alan crouched beside my mother; he was ten. I realized that Jennie was not with us. Someone ran up our street, staggered, and fell. Then he began to crawl forward, and when he raised his head I recognized him. Mr. Thoms! I broke away and ran to him. He had been shot through the leg and was bleeding badly. I stopped the wound and helped him drag himself inside the house. Wounds were nothing new to me, even then, for Hallam was still a frontier world.

His face was white from shock and loss of blood.

“Anna,” he said, gripping my mother’s arm, “it’s terrible. Those damned new people . . . ” He broke off, too angry to continue. The smell of smoke had reached us now. Firing was sporadic, but unrelenting. Apparently both sides had taken cover to snipe at one another. Two women herded a group of children into sight, heading toward us. Our house was one of the town’s original structures, of full hewn logs set on a mound with an open field of fire, a relic of first ship days when the cannys had not yet been killed off. It was apparent that they intended to take shelter here. I took down Papa’s single-shot hunting rifle and loaded it, cursing myself for not having remembered it sooner, and went down to help.

The women were Mrs. Thoms and her daughter Margaret, but the children were a mixed lot, her own and a round dozen from other families. She saw her man as she entered the house and ran to him with tears of relief on her face. Margaret was all dry-eyed business, herding the children to an inner room and threatening dire punishment if they whimpered or left its security. Then she came back and walked to where Mama and Alan were crouched. Her face was white; she seemed in greater shock than her father, though there was no wound on her. She looked down at Mama and said, “I saw Jennie. She’s dead.”

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