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Authors: Steve Gannon

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BOOK: Stepping Stones
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At first Pa didn’t reply.  He knew he’d been backed into a corner.  I could see it in his eyes
,
and
I
knew he was trying to figure a way out.

McClintock kept pushing, not giving Pa room to back out.  “What’s the matter, John?” he
taunted.  He reached into his pouch and slammed
two gold coins on the bar.  “You say your boys moved that rock?  Hell, they shouldn’t have any trouble with a couple McClintocks, then.  Or maybe you were just shooting off your mouth
,
as usual.”

Finally Pa spoke.  “Even money?”

“Even money.”

“You’ve got a bet.”

That was just like Pa.  He figured it was better for Georgie and me to take a beating than to back down himself.  Seething, I watched as he
tossed down
his drink and ordered another.  I could see his face in the mirror.  He looked mad and sick and stubborn, all at the same time.

After
finishing
his fresh drink in one gulp, Pa turned and peered unsteadily into the smoky room.  Then, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he walked back to where Georgie and I were sitting.

“Thanks, Pa,” I said when he arrived.  “Thanks a whole lot.”

“Button your lip, Seth.”  Pa pulled up a chair and sat with his back to the room, facing Georgie and me.  Georgie was still eating.

“Listen, boys,” Pa whispered, lowering his voice so’s only we could hear.  “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna lose this bet to old man McClintock.  Here’s what I want you to do.  Seth, you’re smaller’n Georgie, so Jake’ll probably take you.  Keep away from him as long as you can.  He’ll get you, but make him work for it.”

“Great plan,” I said, shaking my head in disgust.

“Georgie, Caleb’s gonna go for you,” Pa continued, ignoring my sarcasm.  “I want you to use that power of yours to keep from gettin’ beat.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.  “Pa, no!”

Pa glared.  “Seth,
you
shut the hell up!”  Then, to Georgie, “Can you use that power of yours just a little, so’s nobody can tell?  Just enough so’s he can’t beat you?”

Georgie seemed confused.  “I . . . I guess so.”

“Pa, it’s not worth it,” I said.

Pa was close to drunk by then, but still plenty quick.  In a blink he backhanded me across the face.  I didn’t even have time to flinch.  “I told you to shut up,” he barked, slurring his words.  “Don’t make me tell you again
, boy
.”

My face stung like fire, but I looked him straight in the eye.  “It’s not worth it.”

“You’ll do what I tell you,” he warned, his voice laden with menace.  “Georgie, you know what to do?”

“Yes, Pa.  Don’t let him beat me.”

“Right.”  Pa rose from the table and clapped Georgie on the back, then turned to me.  “We’ll show them bastards.  Right?”

I didn’t say anything, glad Ma wasn’t there to look into my heart and
see
what I was feeling.  Pa glowered another warning at me, then stumbled back to the bar.  Georgie finished his stew.

Within minutes
a group of men had
cleared the
center
of the room—stacking chairs against the walls and pushing tables to the corners—forming
an open area
in the
middle
.  Extra lanterns were hung so
there would
be plenty of light.  Men stood expectantly around the perimeter, waiting for things to begin.

Pete Jenkins was bartending that night.  He agreed to hold the wagers, keep time, and settle any disputes.  Although in his stubborn pride Pa had foolishly given Abe even odds, most
side
bets
in the room
were weighed heavily in favor of the McClintocks.  Just about everyone had money down, and you could feel
the
tension mounting as Georgie and I stepped
forward
.

Jake and Caleb were already
waiting

They had
taken off their sh
irts so’s not to get them torn.  We
did the same.  As I said, Georgie was a big kid for nineteen, but Jake had twenty pounds on him, and Caleb was even bigger than that.  Next to them we looked puny.

The rules were simple:  no kicking, biting, or gouging.  Everything else was okay.  Jake and Caleb had five minutes to put us on our backs, either wrestled down or knocked unconscious.  From the way the McClintock boys were grinning, I knew they intended the latter.

“Hey, swifty, c’mere,” said Caleb, smacking his big-knuckled fist into his palm.  “I’ve got somethin’ for you.”

“Aw, Caleb, you know my name’s not swifty,” Georgie replied with a smile.

“The match begins in thirty seconds,” Pete yelled, staring at his pocket watch.

Balancing lightly on the balls of his feet, Jake squared off against me.  “I’m gonna enjoy this,” he said quietly.

“Fifteen seconds,” Pete called, eyes still on his timepiece.  “You boys ready?”

None of us said anything.  I concentrated on Jake, watching his hands.  The room had
turned
so still I could
almost
hear the blood pounding in my ears.

“Go!”

Jake charged in fast and low, trying
to
circle
me
with his arms.  I sidestepped.  As he went by I shoved down hard on his shoulders, slamming his face into the floor.

“Atta
boy, Seth!” Pa hollered.  “Now s
tay away from him.”

Damn right
, I thought.

Jake rose, blood streaming from his nose.  He cupped his hand to his face, staring in
disbelief
as his palm filled with blood.

By now everybody was shouting.  Old man McClintock yelled something at Caleb.  Pa shifted to the other side and I could hear him yelling, too.  A deafening mix of grunts and cheers and clamors resounded in the room, beating at me from all directions.  Ignoring the roar, I focused on Jake.

Anger
slowly
replaced his
look of surprise.  I think he had
planned to end it quickly by sweeping me off my feet.  Now things had changed.  I could see it in his eyes and the way he balled his fists.  Now he wanted to hurt me.  Bad.

I circled right, trying to keep space at my back so
I would
have room to move.

Jake charged a second time, swinging as he came in.  I slipped his first punch and ducked inside, ramming my head into his face as hard as I could.  Something crunched
against my skull
.  I dropped to the floor and tried to roll away, but Jake got a grip on my ankle.  I kicked and connected again.  Jake loosened his hold.  I twisted away and scrambled to my feet.

Jake was panting, his mouth spraying red with every breath.  We were both spattered with blood.  Jake’s.

Abe screamed at Caleb.  “Damn it, boy, finish him!”

Hearing this, I glanced over to see how Georgie was doing.  Caleb was trying to wrestle Georgie down but couldn’t seem to get a grip.

Without warning, Jake was on me.  I never should have taken my eyes off him.  He got his arms around me and lifted me off the floor and slammed me down on the wooden planks so hard I thought he’d broken my back.  I couldn’t move.

Dripping blood from his nose and mouth, Jake stood over me, eyes brimming with hate.  Old man McClintock yelled something.  Jake ignored him.  With a snarl, he lifted his boot over my face and stomped down with all his might.  I turned, taking
most of the blow on my temple.

“No kicking!” yelled Pete.

Ignoring him, Jake used his boot again
,
catching
me in the ribs.  The blow lifted me off the floor.  My head was ringing.  I couldn’t breathe.  I lay helpless, retching.

Jake’s lips curled in a grotesque red grimace.  Reaching down, he grabbed my hair and jerked me up.  I saw him cock his fist.

“Damn it, Jake, he’s down!” Abe shouted, bursting into the circle and shoving his son aside.  “Go help your brother!”

Reluctantly, Jake left me puking and hurried over to Caleb.

Eventually I got my breath.  The spots before my eyes cleared.  I rolled over and peered across the room.

Somehow Georgie was still up, even though both Caleb and Jake were now trying to bring him down.  Everybody was yelling.  Pa and Abe were shouting at each other—Pa contending two against one wasn’t fair, McClintock arguing
that
it was.  Pete called out the time. 
There were still
two minutes to go.

I could see what Georgie was doing.  He wasn’t throwing any punches.  He was just trying to stay on his feet, and he was using his “skin” to do it—employing it occasionally to break a hold or slip a punch.  I smiled, recollecting just how slippery that “skin” was.  Nonetheless, Georgie was having a tough time keeping track of both the McClintocks at the same time.  One would approach from the front while the other threw a punch from behind.  Some of
them were landing. 
Georgie was getting tired.

Most in the room had money on the McClintocks, so naturally they were cheering for Caleb and Jake.  The mood of frustration turned ugly as the final seconds slipped by.  At one point Caleb and Jake piled on Georgie together, slid down his “skin,” and wound up
sprawled at his feet
.  If you didn’t know what was happening
,
you’d
have thought
they were clowning around.  Abe was furious.

Pa was laughing, catcalling the McClintock boys, mocking them.

Caleb and Jake didn’t like getting laughed at any more than they liked getting beat.  They looked ready to explode.

In a fig
ht, five minutes is a long time.  Nearly exhausted, t
he McClintock boys made one last run at Georgie, closing from opposite sides.  It seemed as if Georgie just put out his hand and brushed Caleb aside, then neatly sidestepped Jake.  Once again they wound up sprawled on the floor.  Above all the shouts of anger and derision, I could hear Pa laughing.

“Time!” Pete yelled.  “John Neuman wins the wager.”

“Hold on,” Abe shouted.  “Jake got the younger one down.  That makes it a draw.”

Pa stopped laughing.  “The bet was you’d get
both
my boys down.  One ain’t both.”

At that point everyone with a money interest began voicing his opinion.  I was fed up with the whole thing.  Georgie started over to
join me
, a big grin on his face.  He knew he’d done good.

Georgie
was almost there when I saw Caleb
sneaking
up behind
him
,
his
eyes blazing with fury. 
Caleb
had a wooden stool from the bar clenched in
both
hands.

“Georgie, look out!” I screamed.

Too late.

Caleb slammed the stool down on Georgie’s head.  I heard a sickening thud as the heavy oak
stool
connected with
Georgie’s
skull.

The next few moments seemed like a horrible nightmare.  It was as if a noiseless explosion
suddenly detonated
in the bar . . . with Georgie at the center.

Caleb was the closest.  He
got hit the hardest.  It looked like an invisible fist just picked him up and hurled him across the room.  And he wasn’t the only one.  Every man there got knocked flat, as did
several
wall
s
near the kitchen
.  The front door
was
ripped from its hinges and blasted into the street.  Every bottle behind the bar shattered, sending glass flying everywhere.

I was close to Georgie when it happened.  I think what saved me was that I was
partially shielded
by a heavy support post, but I was still slammed to the floor

Hard. 
Shakily, I rose to my knees.

The room was silent.  All t
he lanterns had been blown out.  A few
lay on the floor
leaking
kerosene.  Luckily nothing caught fire.  There was only one light
left
shining.

Georgie
.

He lay unconscious, jerking like a poleaxed steer.  As I watched, his back arched and his head began thrashing from side to side, as though he were fighting
some
unseen hand.  There was something else, too.  Georgie was floating
a foot
above the floor. 
And he was glowing.

“Oh, Georgie,” I whispered.

Then it started.

“God save us!”

BOOK: Stepping Stones
12.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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