He rides into town one evening in the late spring, a quiet man in a worn jacket of buckskin and clothes of soft brown cloth, on a tall black horse. He’s wirily built, almost slender, his thin face gravely serious. He dismounts outside Merrick’s General Stores and Emporium and enters.
The storekeeper looks askance at him when he says he’s seeking work.
“Ain’t nobody hiring round here but Krennic, and all he wants is more heavies. You a heavy, mister?”
“Depends what you mean by ‘heavy’,” says the stranger. His English is good but accented. “I’d say I weigh about as much as any other man my size. Maybe something heavier about the heart.”
That sounds suspiciously like poetry. Merrick is having none of it. “Heavy as in heavy-handed and heavy-shooting. If you’re a gunslinger you’ll find work and to spare at the Krennic ranch.”
“A gunslinger?” Dark eyes regard him levelly from under the grey hat-brim. “No, I’m not one of those.”
“I notice you don’t show a gun.”
“I do not.” The stranger gives a single nod. “Well, I’ll trouble you no more then, sir. Thank you for your time.”
He’s about to go – and gun-belt or no there is something in the man’s poise and quiet that tells Merrick he is danger and trouble, all kinds of trouble, maybe even Krennic’s kind – but just the same he comes out and says it, since it’s no more than the truth: “If you head out to the Rook place, other side of Cemetery Hill, folks there might give you a bed for the night in return for some labouring work. Heard they was looking to fix a corral and lay a load of fences, and that’s work for two. The wife may be a feisty little thing but even she’s not got the strength to sink fence piles all day long.”
“The Rook place?” The stranger hesitates, a silhouette in the doorway. For a moment it looks as though he may turn away from the idea. A strange thing for a man to consider doing, when he says he’s seeking work. But then, it is the Rook place…
Slowly he says “Thank you. I’ll do that, then.”
Dusk is falling when he arrives at the last farm in the valley. Just beyond it, the trail strikes off into the hills again.
It seems a prosperous, homelike place. There’s a good-sized cabin and barn, and a palisade of split logs; he sees horses on a picket, goats in a pen, a vegetable garden neatly tended; and in front of the stoop is a plough, upended. The blade of the plough-share is out and being sharpened by a short brown man, all whipcord muscle and crow-wing hair, seated at a bench, working in the pool of light from a lantern. He glances up once at the sound of hooves, the rider approaching in the gathering dark. His face is calm, large eyes quietly cynical, though he speaks with a trace of a stutter.
“If you’re Orson Krennic’s latest messenger boy, you c-can tell him from me, the answer is still no. Always will be. He can save his people a deal of riding, the day he accepts that.”
The man in the buckskin coat dismounts and walks his horse in through the opening in the fence, towards the lamp-lit bench, and the house. There’s more light inside, gleaming warm as gold around the closed shutters; and a high, tuneless singing comes from within, an innocent tumbling sound like the voice of an unobserved child.
“I’m not here from Krennic,” he says.
The black-haired man starts and stares. Very slowly, as if no longer trusting his own hand, he sets down the whetstone, then the ploughshare, on the cold dirt. He rises to his feet. “Cassian?”
The stranger pulls off his hat, and stands, suddenly awkward, his brown eyes soft and tired. “Hello, Bodhi…”
“My god, it is you. Oh, my god. We thought – we thought you were dead.”
Cassian’s eyes slip past him to the window for a second. “We?” he repeats, questioning; but his tone is that of a man who both guesses and fears the answer that will come.
Bodhi Rook takes two quick strides suddenly and embraces him. “I c-can’t believe it! This is wonderful news!” And then, turning away, he calls out “Jyn! Jyn, honey, you gotta come out here!”
Cassian takes a half step backwards as the door opens; and she is there.
He would know her anywhere, even like this, silhouetted against yellow lamplight. Her head up, arms akimbo, her whole bearing assertive to the point of belligerence. Fierce as an Amazon. The memory of her hidden gentleness is precious and painful as he looks up at her standing over him like a glare. He says her name, and sees how her body stiffens and her chin tips, at the sight and the sound of him. Ready to fight. Unchanged; except that now, it seems, she’s ready to fight him too.
It’s strange to see her in skirts to the floor. She never used to have a moment’s doubt about wearing that short riding skirt at all hours and everywhere, about showing her legs practically to the knee. Her hair is up, not hanging about her shoulders anymore. She was scarcely more than a girl when she was his. Now she looks what she is, a homesteader and a home-maker, and a woman grown.
Bodhi picks up the storm lantern and the light falls across Jyn’s face. Her jaw is tight, her lips set; but, dear God, she is still so beautiful. It’s a shock almost beyond comprehension, seeing that face again after so long.
Ocean-coloured gleams catch from her eyes and for a second he imagines there is a sparkle like tears. But when she speaks her voice is unmoved.
“Cassian. You here. We didn’t know if you were even alive.”
She doesn’t sound angry, and he supposes that is something. But he’s heard enough men and women speak flatly and without feeling, in these years of war and war’s aftermath. Has spoken that way himself, many times. Lack of affect does not mean a person is unaffected. Quite the reverse, as a rule.
“How long have you been looking for us?” Bodhi asks; and he does not know how to answer. He cannot take his eyes off Jyn as she steps down from the doorway. Her matronly dress, her apron with little stains from cooking on it, the flour on her hands. The wedding band on her finger.
He takes a single deep breath and opts for the truth. “I didn’t know you were here till I rode into town today. I’ve been looking for a long time but I’d almost given up ever finding you. Forgive me. I didn’t come here to cause you trouble. I’ll ride on.”
“What?” Bodhi is shocked. “No, good God no, I won’t hear of it! You’re not troubling us in the slightest. Is he, Jyn?”
She’s crossed the yard and is almost beside them now, looking up at Cassian with a quiet, puzzled gaze that confuses him, because surely now she must be angry with him, surely…
Before he can speak again there’s another footstep on the stoop, and another figure appears in the doorway. “Mama?”
A child; he runs down into the lamp-light, all coltish skinny limbs in clothes cut-down and neatly-remade from a man’s things. He looks up at Cassian from under a mess of wavy dark hair, half-shy and half-bold. “Who’re you?”
“This is our old friend Cassian, from before you were born, Galen,” Bodhi says cheerfully.
The little boy is hovering just behind his mother, fidgeting and smiling past her skirts. He’s about seven or eight, and handsome; and such eyes, clear brown and huge in a heart-shaped face. His mother takes him by the hand, and he pulls away awkwardly and stands on one leg for a moment before grinning up at the newcomer.
“Hello, Galen,” Cassian says.
He looks battered, Jyn thinks; battered and broken. All those years she’s tried to accept losing him; has hoped he’d lived, and made herself hope he’d found a happy life, back home in Mexico or somewhere even further away. All these years she’s worked to live her own life and be a good mother to Galen, a good wife to Bodhi, and resigned herself to never seeing Cassian Andor again. The man she’d called her true love once, and not in jest.
Was it true only then, and now no more? Then why is her heart pounding every time he looks at her? Why does her blood run hot with anger and sick with joy, knowing he’s alive?
Inside her something is fluttering back to life now as she welcomes him to her home, to her table, as she serves him food she’s prepared for her family. Why does her soul want to cry in grief at the sight of Cassian?
He eats like a starved man. Head down, fast, silent. His plate scoured clean within minutes. When she offers a second helping she can see the effort it costs him to accept politely and wait while she serves out more food to Bodhi as well.
It’s plain enough fare; chicken pot-pie with a thick crust, potatoes boiled and dished with butter and herbs, dried beans cooked with tomato preserve and hot pepper. But with bread and cheese on the table and a jug of milk, and apples from the store, it’s a good filling meal. Their careful husbandry is paying off at last.
Bodhi has worked so hard these last three years, to build their claim up from the three miles of bare valley floor they came to, to make this home, this thriving farm. He’s endured so much, and made so many sacrifices. She’s done her best to be a good helpmeet, but she knows he knows the truth, that he isn’t the one she really wanted, the one she dreamed of sharing her life with. He’s always known. He took her on those terms, like the saint he is.
So long as it was just the three of them it seemed liveable. But now? This changes everything and she cannot pretend otherwise, even to herself. It shakes the ground under her feet. It’s a bomb going up, a flash-flood roaring down on her.
Why didn’t he ever write? Why did he never answer my letters? How could he not have cared enough to write even once, and yet have looked for us, now?
She cuts up Galen’s bread and butter for him and slices his apple. When she looks up at the men, Cassian has finished his second helping already and is watching the pot on the table as though he thinks it might get up off the trivet and run for the hills. God have mercy, how long has it been since he ate a square meal? His glass is empty too. She stands up to pour him more milk and his eyes fly to her. Sweet life, such hungry eyes.
He always could turn up a pleading gaze if he wanted to. But this is altogether a different thing. This is nakedly open, a look vulnerable as a prisoner condemned to the cells for life, desperate as a dying man.
She pours the remainder of the milk back into the can and sets it on the cool shelf in the north wall of the cabin. It’s ill-omened to think of dying men. Jyn remembers the skeleton-face of the dying; her mother twenty years ago, her father in his last weeks, four years back. His bitter eyes, their expression cold and hard even when he tried to smile. His voice, forevermore angry. You ask me to be kind? But you’re the one who had to have your will and go your own way. You had to marry that half-breed, had to bear his mixed-race brat. You couldn’t have honoured your mother’s memory just this once…
How much angrier yet would he have been, if he’d known his grandchild was conceived out of wedlock and lucky to have the name of Rook?
Jyn realises she’s been staring down at Cassian again for a good half-minute, over her husband’s head. When she turned back to the table he was watching her, and she fell into his eyes and was lost there. She has been gazing down at him, and he has been gazing up at her with that desperate look, neither of them able to look away.
She’d like to be able to convince herself it isn’t him. But it is. This is no imposter.
Little Galen looks more and more like him each year.
She’s known how alike they were for years, watching her son, but it was an abstract thought, like knowing one springtime was very like another. She’d never thought to have the original in her sight again, never thought she’d see those eyes look up at her like this.
“Cassian,” she says, and sees him startle as if out of a dream. His gaze drops for a moment before fluttering back helplessly to her face as she says “Help yourself if you want more pie. It’s best finished, the leftovers don’t keep.”
Her own voice sounds strange inside her ears; smaller than usual, as if compressed by something she cannot see. In front of her Bodhi nods, and his voice is as warm as hers is cold and tight.
“No shame in having a good meal when you can get one. Jyn’s pot-pie is the best, huh?”
Cassian smiles wearily; and again she can see the minute hesitation, the eagerness reined-back hard, as he reaches for the spoon and serves himself.
She comes round the table, picking up the dish of beans to bring them to him. When she sets it down and reaches to take up the serving spoon his hand comes to rest on hers and he says huskily
“Jyn, you don’t need to wait on me, I can –“
“I’m not,” she tells him, all her thoughts going brisk and sore. “Just making sure you’ve got enough.”
He curls back into himself, his eyes turning dark, face still as a shield.
Ah, too harsh, Jyn! - why are you snapping so? Are you a little turtle now, to bite his hand?
She’ll cut her own heart in twain if she does that again, if she speaks to him so thoughtlessly she has to see him bleed inside like that.
She tries to hold his eyes, tries to tell him she didn’t mean it; to say things she doesn’t know how to say. Once they could speak like this, with their eyes, with their hands. Now no more, it seems. He stares at her with a ghost’s look. She has no notion where to find the words she needs, or the touch, to bring him the truth she will have to tell, one day.
His hand is resting on hers, for a second more than is needful. A warm hand, and strong despite his thinness; she feels the touch of dry skin, callused fingers. She looks away from his unhappy eyes and see that there’s a scar across two of his knuckles, but his hand is otherwise unchanged, the long fingers bony and blunt-tipped, nails square, pared-down short. And he is touching her. The sense memory comes so violently that her breath catches; this same hand once tipped her head up and held her while he bent to kiss her lips gently. This same hand once cupped her breast like a chalice, once stroked her bare skin and set her shivering with excitement.
Why did he never write?
All this time, when hoping he’d forgotten her and found some other happiness was the best she could wish; when she’s feared learning one day that he’s been dead these five years, these seven, these ten, has known it was bound to happen, has revolted from knowing it. All this time, she’s never forgotten the feeling of his touch. Never stopped wishing for him to come back to her.
And now he has.
I’ve been looking for a long time, he’d said. I’d almost given up...
Why did he look at all, when he’d never cared enough to write one letter?
She pulls her hand away without speaking, to cut him another slice of bread.
“You’ll stay the night,” Bodhi says, pitching his voice consciously to sound confident of it. He isn’t asking a favour, he’s offering one. And it’s clear Cassian needs somewhere to stay, and a chance to find his feet. Bodhi can provide that; where once he had to live on others’ charity, now he can be the one who gives it. And who better to give it to?
“We don’t have a guest room, nothing so fancy, but there’s a good dry loft to the barn and we can find you a blanket and quilt.” There’s still no answer, and he fights to keep an anxious note from his voice. There was a time Cassian Andor was someone he went in awe of, but it’s a long time past. He can help. Let me help you. “Say you’ll stay?”
“I can’t ask that of you.”
“You aren’t. I’m offering. We’re offering – aren’t we, Jyn?”
He turns to where Jyn stands with her back to them, washing the dishes in a pan of hot water. Sees her pause, sees her spine straighten for a moment before she half turns her head. She says simply “Yes. Please stay.”
“Please stay!” adds Galen in his sweet light voice. He’s been sitting quiet through supper, admirably well-behaved in his slight awe of their guest. Cassian’s haunted silences would be enough to hush a more boisterous child by far; but Galen though gentle is trusting, and his instincts are good. He slides off his chair now and comes to Bodhi’s side. “Papa, I could show Cassian the animals.”
Bodhi rumples his hair. “You could. When you do your chores in the morning. What do you say, Cassian? Meet three goats and two kids, a cow and a c-calf, two pigs, nine rabbits and three horses? How can you resist that?”
“And the chickens, Papa.”
“And the chickens, of course the chickens. How could we forget them?”
He pulls the little boy in for a hug; and when he glances up, Cassian is watching with an expression of guarded longing.
Well, if he hasn’t guessed already he surely soon will. He can do that math as easily as anyone else. But for sure, he has to see what a fine, happy boy Galen is, and maybe that will heal something in him. He has the look of a man that needs healing.
And if he doesn’t guess, what then? - do I tell him? Or leave it to Jyn?
Why did he leave her in such desperate need, all those years ago, and never even answer a single letter? What the hell happened to Cassian to make him do that?
No, I must say nothing, do nothing, till I can talk to her about it. She may not want him to know at all. It is her choice before it is mine.
Cassian swallows hard, like a man hauling his heart back down underwater, dragging it deep and drowning it with all its cargo. “I’d like that, Galen. Would you teach me their names?”
“They don’t all have names,” Galen says. “The horses do, and the cow and the goats, and the mama pig. But the babies don’t and the rabbits and chickens don’t. We’re going to eat them, you see.”
Cassian flinches. It’s a strange sight in a grown man, a man who went for a soldier. It’s not as if Galen is talking of things he’d never known.
Jyn is drying her hands. “Well, I hope you’ll enjoy the farm tour, Cassian, but all that’s for the morning.” She takes down one of the lamps from its hook on the wall, speaks to Galen cheerfully. “Come on, young man, time for you to wash, and then you can read your story book for me before bed.”
She pats her son’s shoulder as he runs to her, and steers him from the room. The door to the other chamber shuts behind them quietly.
There’s a silence. The room seems darker than the loss of just one lantern should have made it. The other two still burn bright, on the table and the mantel above the hearth. Cassian sighs and leans back in his seat. His face is exhausted beyond reason.
“You will stay?” Bodhi asks him.
He sighs again. Nods, quickly, guiltily. “I will and I – I don’t mean to be ungrateful. It’s only that I don’t want to impose.”
“You’re an old and dear friend and you aren’t imposing, I promise. Cassian, how can you worry about such a thing? We are all so very glad to see you! It’s true that Jyn doesn’t – doesn’t show her feelings so much these days but I know she’s happy to see you alive after all this time. She’s always wondered, worried about what happened to you. So have I. We’ll be so very happy for you to stay with us. Not just for the night. As long as you need to – to –“ ugh, he’s talking himself into deep trouble, digging a hole with his tongue. Cassian’s eyes are more shaken by the minute. “To - get back on your feet.”
“Thank you,” Cassian says in a small voice.
There’s another silence.
“So, ah – where were you, before this?”
“Travelling.” He’s looking down at his worn boots, and doesn’t say more. Just as Bodhi is about to give in, to get up and look out some bedding for him, the sound of Galen’s voice comes through from the next room, reading hesitantly.
“King Arthur and the knight Oway - Owain?”
“Owain, that’s right,” says Jyn’s voice, a gentle murmur.
“King Arthur was holding a feast at Christmas for all the knights of the Round Table…”
Cassian speaks again, his voice sharpening, as if he’d like to cut himself free from the child’s voice. “I’ve been travelling a long time, a long road. I’ve seen too much; too many dark things. Bodhi, are you sure you want me in your home?”
“…and the table was set with good things to eat…”
“We heard a bit about the war in Mexico, the French invasion, all that,” Bodhi says. “It sounded bad. Pretty much as bad as things here in some ways.”
“It was bad. It was – terrible. It’s felt like the whole world has gone insane, sometimes, these last few years.” He doesn’t go on; he’s looking at his boots again.
In the next room Galen says carefully “Queen Gwennie-veer was sitting with her husband…”
“I never placed you for a farmer, Bodhi. What happened to the teaching?”
“The boy who wanted to be a teacher had to get real. I was a dreamer. I had to wake up. You know how it is.”
“But you were good at it. It sounds like Jyn still is, too. I’ve been looking for you in places with a school, proper towns, not little nowheres like this. Does this place even have a name?”
“The town? Yes, of course! - it’s called Rogue. And it is a proper town, good enough for us, anyway; Merrick’s store and saloon is more than we had here when we came, and the stage-coach stops three times a week. There’s going to be a railhead coming through the Pass at Massassi by next year, too, they say. So then we’ll have a railroad in the Llavin Valley, and you can’t call a place with a railroad nowhere. There are other families, other children Galen’s age. He’s growing up in a safe place and that’s all that matters in the end. If I’ve had to short-change my dreams a little to reach that, it’s a sacrifice worth making.”
“…so Sir Owain mounted the white horse and he set off to the magical forest to look for his cousin…”
“I went back to Jedhaville,” Cassian says softly. “I saw Galen’s gravestone, Jyn’s father. How did he die?”
“Ah.” It’s a hard memory. He doesn't want to speak ill of the dead. “He had a – a wasting sickness. Dr Oropin said it was in his liver. And he was bitter. Sometimes I thought, when he got sick, that he didn’t want to live. He – he changed; he c-could never really accept things, you know? The world being the way it was, and - Jyn being – being the kind of girl she was, going her own way all the time, so like her mother and so unlike what he wanted. He never forgave her for –any of it. We moved away as soon as he was dead.”
“That old woman wouldn’t tell me anything,” Cassian tells him. “What was her name? The one with the –“ he gestures “the growths on her face. Do you remember her?”
“Missus Nail? But - she knew where we went, she knew we came to California! The old bitch. What good did it get her not to tell you?”
“Just mean, I guess.”
The gentle voices in the next room have fallen silent, and Jyn emerges as he’s speaking, with the lamp in her hand and a book under her arm.
“Well, we’ve got Sir Owain as far as the well in the forest of Broceliande, and he’s worn out and so is Galen,” she says. “And so am I. Let me find you some bedding, Cassian.”
When he wakes, the air is full of dust motes; the morning light catches on them in barred lines, and they gleam as they drift down from sun into shadow again.
The straw under him is soft and clean-scented and his blankets are warm, and he can hear the peaceful sound of hens clucking somewhere nearby. It’s hard to remember when he last slept so well, or so deeply.
The light comes streaming through the half-open shutter of the hayloft. When he looks that way, the first thing he sees is the hills, far off and bright; and the second is the little boy, sitting astride the post-and-paling fence in front of the barn. Galen is fiddling with something. He can’t quite see what, it looks like a bit of wood but it’s hard to work out why it absorbs so much of the child’s attention. Then he raises it and puts it to his lips, and a thin, reedy squeak comes out. Galen pouts and frowns, and goes back to picking at the tiny whistle he’s trying to carve himself.
Cassian rolls over and leans out of the hayloft. “Is that a pipe you’re making?”
He’s rewarded with a broad smile and the boy waves his handiwork proudly. “Yeah, it is! Or it’s gonna be, if I can make it sound right. It doesn’t tootle right at the moment but if I had a better knife I just know I could make it work!”
“I’ve got a good whittling knife you could borrow, if you’d like.”
“Aww!” Galen’s face lights up. “Yes please, mister Cassian! That’s be so swell!”
When Bodhi comes round the corner of the cabin half an hour later they are engrossed in trying to make the little piece of hollow reed sound sweeter. With a proper mouthpiece cut and the sounding holes nocked a little larger, it’s already giving louder notes, but the tone is still on the shrill side and Galen is still frowning.
Cassian let him use the knife at first, but he soon passed it back, shyly asking “Please will you do it? You know how to and I don’t.” So at least his papa won’t have to see him wielding a blade sharp enough to take off half his hand with a single slip. It wasn’t slipping – Cassian had taken care to show him exactly how to hold the knife, how to angle the cuts away from his body. But to a father’s eye, will it be that he sees, the dangerous tool safely handled, or the potential for a disastrous accident?
“Are you still working on your flute?” Bodhi says. “It’s sounding good now. Coming on quickly, too.”
He’s carrying a handful of brown eggs. “Time for breakfast,” he tells Cassian with a smile. “Come on inside, Jyn will be wanting to see you too.”
Though he’s sad to put Galen’s pipe down and get up, he closes his heart to the acknowledgement of feeling. He’s been lucky to have those few minutes in the sun with the little boy, to be able to act like a normal regular friend of the family. Trusted, liked, wanted. Able to help.
He follows Bodhi indoors and prepares himself to make his goodbyes.
And is pushed down gently into a seat at the table, and given a mug of coffee and a slice of buttered toasted bread. Jyn places a bowl of oatmeal in front of him and bumps down a jug of cream. He looks up at her and sees her taking the eggs from her husband; smiling at him, kissing him good morning, turning back to the stove. Her slim straight back, her apron tied firmly at the waist of the practical brown pants she’s wearing today. Jyn busy, happy, working hard; as he hears her cracking the eggs he fights against the emotions pushing themselves onto his face. This is not his life, this is what comes with a life of real work at real things, with real commitment. This is what they deserve, Jyn and Bodhi and their little boy. Their beautiful open-faced child. They dedicated themselves to achieving this. Hard work, yes, but also a straightforward happiness, of being a family together, of seeing a future and growing towards it.
He could never have given her this.
He starts to say “I really must –“ and Jyn glances over her shoulder and hushes him.
“No ‘musts’ before you’ve eaten a good meal,” she says. “Tuck into that porridge; I want to see a clean bowl. You’re as bad as Galen for wanting to run straight out into the day before it’s even begun. You always were, don’t think I’ve forgotten.”
How can she take that kindly, mothering tone with him? Joking, almost. Loving.
He left her and rode away, promising her everything when he came back; and then she never wrote once. Never answered a single one of his letters. He stopped writing, had to stop, he was seeing, was living, such terrible things, and going such terrible ways; and then, after Oaxaca fell, when he was in prison; after that, he knew he could never reach out to her again. Not with what he had become.
But he’d never stopped wishing, and regretting. And hoping that she was happy, somewhere, somehow. As he now knows she is.
She serves him a fried egg; a wide bright thing on his plate, golden-hearted and savoury, cooked in melted butter. There’s one for each of them. “I’m glad the hens are laying so well again already,” she remarks to Bodhi. “Spring’s certainly here now. I should start getting the garden prepared for planting, get some new seed. It’s May Day soon and the soil will be warm now.”
Her husband is nodding. “I’ll take you into town in a day or two. We can find out if Merrick’s got his seed corn in stock, and seed for spring vegetables; and I need to see if that wire I ordered has come in yet. Maybe Galen would like a soda-pop for a treat?”
“That would be wonderful, sweetheart,” says Jyn.
“Thank you, Papa!”
Yes, Cassian thinks again, slicing the egg in two and shovelling it into his ungrateful mouth, they deserve this. I cannot blame her for having given up on me and found a better path, one that would lead to a good, safe life. Nobody would want the road I’ve trodden.
There’s a faint sound outside, far off, and Galen looks up at the same time as Cassian. “Mama, someone’s coming!”
She glances Cassian’s way. “His hearing is so sharp, it’s amazing.”
Bodhi is hastily swallowing the remainder of his breakfast. He pushes his chair back and swigs the last of his coffee as he stands up. It strikes Cassian again how much his old acquaintance has changed, from the dreamy, musical boy, almost overwhelmed by his stutter, who only wanted to study and be a school-master, to this muscular, decisive man looking after his family. “I better see who it is,” he says calmly as the sound of hooves draws nearer.
He goes out. Jyn looks worried, though she turns her face downward to mask it when she notices Cassian looking at her.
He draws his own seat back quietly and rises, to move to a spot where he can see out of the window. Bodhi is standing on the stoop now, and a trio of horsemen are approaching the gate to the property.
He sees three tall white men, all of them well-built and well-dressed, and with good horses. The animals all have the same brand on the left flank, the letters OK in a many-pointed star. The men ride high, looking down at Bodhi as if at a servant; and all three are wearing six-shooters at their hips and carrying rifles in saddle-holsters.
“That’s a good deal of weaponry for a few neighbours dropping by,” he murmurs.
He looks back at Jyn and Galen; and she shakes her head, a tiny movement. “They’ll be from Mr Krennic’s place, I expect,” she says in a tightly controlled voice.
Galen is chopping his egg very small and piling it onto a slice of toast, oblivious to the adults exchanging a speaking glance over his head. Cassian steps close and touches her hand quickly. “I’ll just be out back…”
He slips out through the rear door, and goes silently into the barn; in the space of a moment he’s up the ladder to the loft and turning out his saddlebag.
As he comes around the side of the cabin he can hear the voices in the front. Jyn and Bodhi are standing side by side now, with Galen between them. The little boy looks round, his face full of anxiety, as Cassian appears.
The three strangers look round, too.
“Who’s this, then, Rook?” says the leader, a pale, ill-tempered looking man with smart-slicked hair and long sideburns.
Bodhi looks around with an air of surprise. “Who, this? Just a friend of the family. No-one you need worry about, Kallus.”
“Just a friend?” queries the oldest of the men in a surly tone. “Seems mighty strange for you suddenly to pick up friends out of nowhere. What’s your name, Mister?”
“Andor,” Cassian says, shifting one hand casually to his hip. To the navy revolver holstered there, hanging from a leather gun-belt bright with old silver.
“And who are you, then, Andor?” The sleek-haired man Kallus again, his tone stinging with contempt. “You another of Rook here’s Injun brothers? You don’t sound like an American, that’s for sure.”
“I’m a friend of the family. An old friend, come to visit. That’s all.”
“Well, I hope you’ll see your way to talking some sense into your old friend,” says Kallus, cold. “Cos he don’t seem to have enough of it to take proper care of his little lady and his boy here. Well, good day to you, ma’am,” and he touches his hat to Jyn with a humourless smile. “Come on, boys, let’s be off home. Mister Rook and his friend don’t have the time of day for us.”
They ride off, into the morning heat.
Jyn is holding Galen’s shoulders, her hands tight in his shirt. Bodhi stands beside her shaking with rage. “Three of them , against the one of me, and a woman and child? Sons of – damn them! Damn Krennic! We will not be moved!” He glares after the receding horsemen; shouts angrily “We own this land!”
“Bodhi, hush,” Jyn says in a tight voice.
“We are not abandoning our claim!”
Cassian comes round to the doorway and steps up onto the stoop again, beside them. For the first time since Kallus and the others appeared they all turn to look at him; their faces change as they take in the gun, and the way his stance has altered now he wears it.
“Bodhi, Jyn,” he says “I think you’d best tell me what’s going on here.”
Yes, I know he isn't a Rogue One character but he fits the bill (even to a similar name - the original character in "Shane" is called Calloway) - so please forgive me introducing Kallus into this!
“You’ll hear the same story all over the west,” Bodhi says bitterly. “It’s caused bloodshed in more than one place already and I’ve no doubt it will again. Maybe here, even.”
“Hush, don’t say such things.” Jyn seems more calm, but her face is pale. “You’ve worked so hard to stop the situation getting worse. We’ve no reason to suppose it will come to violence if we can all just keep calm.” She draws Galen back into the house. Her husband follows, still speaking.
“No reason? You heard them, Jyn! An ultimatum, that’s what it was! Come around to Krennic’s way of seeing things, persuade the rest of the town likewise, or face the consequences!” Bodhi sits down heavily at the table, pushing his plate with the unfinished remains of his meal aside.
“Who is this Krennic?” Cassian keeps his face thoughtful and his voice quiet. He’s conscious all the time of the little boy with them. Is Galen even aware of what is being threatened here? Certainly his mother and father are. Jyn looks almost ill with anger and fear.
He doesn’t want to cause her any more distress; he schools his face to look calm, as though barely bothered by the confrontation. The six-shooter at his belt will be enough of a weight on her heart. Time was, when she’d been the one getting into fights, he had been almost as gentle a man as Bodhi.
“Are you gonna whip them, Papa?” Galen chirps. “Is Mister Cassian gonna help you teach them a lesson?”
“No, Galen, that’s not what we’re going to do.” Bodhi’s face has fallen at the excitement in the little boys voice.
Cassian says carefully “I just happened to remember to put on my gun this morning, that’s all. I haven’t come here to whip anybody and nor has your Papa.” He pulls out a chair for Jyn but she steers her son into it instead. She doesn’t look at him; starts picking up the breakfast dishes quickly.
“So who is Krennic?” he asks again. “I heard the name in town as well as here. Seems like he’s a bully. Is he another farmer?”
Bodh shakes his head. “Land manager is all. Though the way he acts, you’d think he was the king of California. Have you heard of Empire Holdings? Big outfit, an Austrian guy called Siegfried Palpatine owns it. He was one of the first white men out here, thirty-some years ago. He’d say he was taming the place but I’d call it more of a land-grab. He owns great tracts of good land all over; getting on for half the Llavin Valley is his and a big chunk of Dutch Valley, here in Rim County, and most of Corus County, across the ranges yonder, and almost all of Coreville, the county town, too. And that’s not the half of it. Empire has property spread across half the State; a holding here, a holding there, all Palpatine’s people. They run cattle through it all, beef cattle. Drive ‘em to the railheads twice a year, ship ‘em off to Chicago for slaughter and start again. They need open range land, and land managers who can get it for them. They call us sodbuster and dirt-eater and a lot of other names besides. We’re in their way and they don’t care that we’ve bought our claims fair and square from the government.”
Cassian sighs; it is indeed a familiar story. “So they try to buy smallholders like you out?”
“Buy us out, bribe us out, scare us out, they don’t care how it’s done so long as we abandon our claims. Empire Holdings wants the land, don’t mind the details of getting it. Coreville tried to unite and take a stand, and Palpatine took it like a personal challenge. That was less than two years ago. He came in with money and men, pressure from both fronts, never letting up.” Bodhi shrugs expressively. “Almost every business in Coreville belongs to Empire now; and all the land thereabouts? – nothing but beef.” He gestures, a wide sweep of his hand that seems to say far as you can see… “Orson Krennic is just their local man here in the Valley. They bought the First Star ranch about six months ago from old man Knight after his son died, put Krennic in there straightaway. He’s been trying to get us all out ever since. Started with the Pamlo sisters, figured no-one would stand up for two black folks, I guess. Well, he figured wrong! We’re sticking together, the Rogues, we’re not going to let him and his thugs harry those two brave girls out of house and home. This town was well-named, Rogue, most of us are misfits of one kind or another. Immigrants, negroes, mixed marriages –“ he glances up at Jyn, who is busily scrubbing out the oatmeal pan now, with her back turned “- There’s a guy they pick on a lot, old Saw. He’s already an easy target, seeing as he’s a cripple, and besides that he’s a diehard old soldier who won’t accept the war is over. He’ll up and pick a fight with anyone who has the smallest breath of a southern accent. He’s so paranoid he’s near crazy. We keep an eye on him though, see him safe. Can’t say as many of us exactly like the man, he’s such a cussed old coot, but we stick by him ‘cos we stick together round here…” He’s getting heated; he reins himself in with an embarrassed mutter of “I c-could go on about this all day, I’m sorry!”
“So does this mean you’re not being targeted especially? It’s the same for everyone?” Cassian asks.
Bodhi hesitates, and into the tiny pause Jyn speaks up. “No, it’s not the same for everyone!” She sets down the pot and turns, holding a wooden spoon upraised like a weapon. Her voice has gone from anxious to hard. “They are targeting us – they’re targeting Bodhi – much more than the rest. Different than the rest. They know he’s an educated man and they reckon he’s a leader. A rallying point.”
“I’m not,” Bodhi says quickly, spreading his hands on the table. “I’m not any of those things.”
“Why do you sell yourself short?” Jyn speaks angrily, waving the spoon for emphasis. “Everyone round here looks to you as the spokesman. You’re the best speaker, the best reasoner, the one who can argue a point best. You’re the only one who’s got a hope of understanding what’s said if they get lawyers involved –“
“But they aren’t getting lawyers involved,” Bodhi says. “Krennic doesn’t use that tactic. I think we can say that with certainty now. He uses bribes and threats, he’s a bribe-and-threat man!”
Cassian looks from him to Jyn, and then across the table to where Galen sits, wide-eyed and silent, listening. It’s their right to have this conversation now; but he wishes it weren’t happening in front of the boy. The bright smile of the early morning has vanished. He’s just a child, he has the right to have sunny mornings and friends, and a bamboo whistle, and a peaceful life…
He sighs again. “So which was it these guys were offering you, today?”
“Bribes. Krennic wants me to work for him. It’s a good offer, I’ll say that for him. Decent pay, we’d be relocated to a place on the First Star ranch, fine little two-story cottages they’ve built for their people. He takes care of his men. But it’s a matter of principle. It’s not just about looking out for myself, it’s looking out for all of us.”
“And if it comes to threats?” Cassian is watching Galen again, and Jyn moves towards him, taking up a stance behind her son’s chair, with the heavy wooden spoon held up as though she’ll fight all comers with it.
“We resist,” she says. Her eyes are alive with that fearful anger once again.
The squabbles and battles that Jyn Erso ran into once like a game are all-too real, all-too serious, now. She’s a wife and mother now, and no longer looks so eager for the fight; but it seems Jyn Rook still has a touch of the warrior in her.
He remembers her Amazonian defiance of her father; and how she laughed afterwards. That was the day he called her grey-eyed Athene, and made her smile; and she came into his arms… Jyn used to laugh so much. And he would hold her when she laughed. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met.
She still is.
There’s a smile rising in him, something like joy surfacing unbidden at the sweetness of the memory. He kills it. He’s not her man anymore. Not a fit man for a woman like her, even if she were free; nor for any good woman. He fixes his eyes back on Bodhi.
His old friend is nodding. “That’s right. But not by fighting. We stand our ground. We show them that little people can stick together. Krennic won’t manage to divide and rule us, the way Empire did in Coreville.”
“Was that the same guy, in Coreville?”
“No,” Jyn says. “Coreville fell to a man named Tarkin, one of Palpatine’s oldest buddies from the way-back days and the Indian wars. Everyone says he’s terrifying; cold, doesn’t care who gets hurt, how many people die, so long as he gets what he wants.” She suddenly seems to see the spoon she’s holding over her son like a truncheon. She sets it down quietly on the table and instead bends to wrap both arms round Galen and cuddle him close. He looks away, going rigid for a second with embarrassment before leaning back against her and letting himself be hugged.
“So these men, just now – they were what?”
“A reminder. They told me Krennic’s a patient man but the offer wouldn’t stand forever. Last time, it was just Kallus. Sending him with back-up makes the point just a bit firmer. And now they’ll report that we have back-up too. I appreciate you meant well, Cassian, showing yourself, showing your gun. But to Krennic, this will look like a challenge, and I’m not sure we’re ready for that yet.”
“In a war, you can’t always choose when and where the fight begins,” Cassian tells him sadly. “Only try and influence how it ends.”
“We need to be ready to fight, when that time comes,” says Jyn, bellicose and frightened. “Whenever things start. We mustn’t give in to their terror tactics.”
Galen looks ready to cry, and it breaks Cassian’s heart to see the little boy so unhappy. God knows how many times he’s had to listen to his parents talk about this. Words like war, like fight, like terror. A war just fought in this land, and here’s another one already brewing; it must seem that way to a child. A world where there will never be peace.
Bodhi is shaking his head. His eyes are distressed and angry. “I don’t want things to come to a fight if we can find a way to avoid it. We’re outgunned and outmanned, it’s unrealistic to imagine we could win if it comes to that. We need to have a talk for once that doesn’t have men with guns hanging over it. Empire have to learn that they can’t just dictate to everyone like this! They’ve had their own way for so long, they’ve got used to just throwing their weight around and seeing the world crumble. It’s time someone talked some sense into them.”
Galen bites his lip. His mother is still hugging him from behind, but she’s watching her husband and she can’t see his stricken little face. Cassian wants to wrap his arms round them. To gather them both in, to hold her anger and his misery, and all of their fear, and protect them with all he has. That’s all I’m fit for, after all. This wreck of a life I’ve lived has made me good for one thing; I can still be another body, to shield the innocent.
Bodhi looks round the table, at his fearful son and belligerent defensive wife, and at Cassian watching impassively. He sighs in obvious frustration and stands up, drawing himself together into a resigned calm. “Come on, we still have a full day’s worth of chores. Cassian, can I get your help with some of the heavy jobs? We’d love for you to stay – I’m sure I speak for Jyn too – and another pair of hands around the place would be appreciated, no matter what. What d’you say?”
“Please stay, Mr Cassian?” says Galen, very small.
He can’t refuse. He nods, and makes himself smile.
When he looks up at Jyn, she meets his eyes with a look of inexpressible sadness, before nodding too. “Thank you,” she says.
Jyn cannot tell if it’s a dream come true or a nightmare. Every hour seems to bring some new fluctuation in her emotions, and she feels sick for half the day, seeing her husband and her former lover together at every turn. Cassian, helping haul logs and split and cut the wood for the new corral. Cassian digging holes and helping to sink and fix the posts. Cassian, not dead; Cassian here, passing by the window, speaking in a low voice to Bodhi, making a quick joke to Galen; working all day, till he’s running in sweat; working without a word of complaint, till his hands shake with exhaustion. Cassian taking a basin of water outside to wash himself before eating at their table.
Cassian jumping like a man slapped when Galen drops his reading book on the floor behind him, springing up from supper and reaching for his hip, quick as a rattler; then going quiet and apologising as though it were he who’d made such a crash.
Cassian going quietly to the hayloft to sleep that night.
How can she be comfortable with this? It’s insane; to have the two men who have known her in her body, both of them here working together like this. They were all friends once, yes; but that was so long ago, and so much has passed since then. Things can never be the same, surely Bodhi must see that?
And yet, if the dispute with Krennic and Empire Holdings comes to a head while he’s here, at least there’ll be one person standing by them who knows how to shoot. Because it’s horribly clear that Cassian does. There’ll be one person here who isn’t just a farmer with a shotgun and a nervous hand, or an angry woman screaming her defiance and hitting out.
She has to try and make it work, somehow. For her family’s sake.
He rides into town, the second day, to buy himself some working clothes and pick up nails and a delivery of wire from Merrick’s store. He promises to get a bottle of strawberry-flavoured soda-pop, a treat for Galen, as well. Jyn watches him go, and watches her little boy watching, too, sitting astride the fence, playing three merry notes over and over on his new bamboo pipe.
It’s unnerving how utterly Galen has taken to the new arrival in the household. He’s thrilled by his new friend and delighted with every single thing about Cassian. The likeness between them lurks like a troll in her thoughts each time she sees them together. No-one has ever doubted Galen is Bodhi’s son, after all, with his tan complexion and dark hair and eyes, and his heart-shaped face that is more like hers. But seeing him beside Cassian, everything looks different, and she cannot help but remember the young lad who first arrived in Jedhaville all those years ago, just a few years older than Galen is now.
And if she can see it, what if others can…
Jyn cannot face the possibilities, if that were to happen. To be known for a woman who’d palm her by-blow on an innocent husband; even here in Rogue, that would surely be seen ill.
How thin the thread by which her safe life hangs, now this bright blade, this man she once loved, is here.
No matter if she’s in danger, at risk of shame; she deserves it, she can’t deny the truth. But she must protect her son, no matter what.
She calls Galen in from watching for Cassian, and gets him settled him at the table with a pencil gripped in his fist and a page of arithmetic problems. He concentrates furiously, his little lower lip sticking out and a tiny frown between his brows. So like his father. Her heart is crying at that picture of the boy Cassian, doing the exact same thing at her parents’ table, so long ago, so very long ago now… Surely he must see it too; and surely he must love Galen, for how can anyone not? Yet it cannot be, it cannot be permitted to be.
Surely she can be allowed to hope that they won’t all be torn apart by this? Surely Rogue’s little community will not turn against her when they’ve all stuck together through so much? Surely she can hope that old friendship will reassert itself, and old love be enough to sweeten the years of loss between? – enough to sweeten the loss and soften the knowledge, of all the things that cannot be…
She spent most of yesterday working over the vegetable garden, weeding and preparing the soil, digging out the last of the over-wintered root vegetables and the onions. It was good to have some steady task, to keep her thoughts occupied. Nightmares toss through her mind like storm-clouds every time she stops thinking.
Now she sits at the table and checks through all the seeds saved from last year, keeping an eye on Galen as he works down his page of math. With two people who’d planned to be teachers raising him, at least her boy will be literate and numerate. He’ll have the opportunities that can bring. He will have a good life; he’ll have safety, stability, freedom, hope, he’ll have every tiny advantage she can claw for him, if it kills her. Else what has this all been for?
He’s still puzzling over the last few questions, counting surreptitiously on his fingers, lips moving silently. She takes a second sheet of paper to make a list of the things she needs to buy next time she’s in town. Seeds, sewing supplies, salt and sugar…
Galen looks up with a jolt and his eyes shining. Next moment Jyn hears the soft sound of hooves and horse harness.
“Mister Cassian is back, mama, please may I go and talk to him?”
“You don’t have to call him Mister all the time, dear, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind just Cassian…”
“Please may I go and talk to him? Please? He -he can help with my math maybe?”
Of course; the soda-pop. She can’t help smiling. “Go on then, sweetheart.”
He thumps down from the table and dashes outside. The little frown is all gone, just a happy beam of anticipation on his face.
Jyn doesn’t follow. She’s counted and sorted all her old seeds and re-wrapped them in the twists of paper they were stored in. Plenty of beans, lima and dwarf climbing and runners, and plenty and to spare of fat peas; and the marrow seeds look sound, and the pumpkins and squashes, big and flat like smooth ochre pebbles. But some of the tomato seeds are so shrivelled she’s not sure if they can be viable anymore; and the spinach beet and lettuce seeds look weevilly. She picks up Galen’s abandoned pencil, noticing that he’s still chewing the end despite all her efforts to teach him better. Begins adding to her list. Carrots, onions, peppers, and tomatoes for salads and for canning; all the salad stuff, cucumbers, lettuces and arugula; musk melon if they can get it, and sunflowers and linseeds if possible. That makes a fair amount, before she’s even come to the sundries. Add on a paper of needles and several colours of cotton, and sugar, pickling salt, peppercorns, and writing paper and another pencil for Galen; and can they afford to order him another reading book? All this is going to add up, yet all of it is needed.
She’s still thinking and jotting notes when she hears his voice outside, excited and awed. “Wow! Are you alright, Cassian? Don’t it hurt at all?”
Is he alright? Jyn is on her feet and out of the cabin on the instant. What on earth – surely no-one would – he’s so new in town, why would anyone hurt – but if he met some of Krennic’s people –
Cassian is tying up his horse as she reaches the door. Galen bounds around beside him like a colt, clutching a glass-stoppered bottle of Monique Merrick’s best vibrant pink soda. Everything looks quite normal and calm; she can see the two big reels of fence wire hanging one on either side of his saddle, and Cassian is wearing a plain stone-coloured shirt and denim work pants, new and practical. His buckskin jacket is a rolled up bundle on the saddle-bow. He looks down at Galen with a grin and she sees them both in profile; and there’s the likeness again. Fear and love tug at her mind, her heart, fingers of emotion pressing home hard on all the tender places in her.
“I’m fine, Galen,” Cassian is saying; but then he straightens and turns, and she sees it at once. Split lip, bruised cheekbone; and on the front of the new shirt there’s a spot of blood, and a damp patch as though something was spilled on him.
He flinches slightly as their eyes meet, and she wonders what is written in her face, to make him look so.
“What happened? Cassian!”
She reaches him at a run; half-raises her hand to his bruises, and pulls it back quickly.
There’s a pungent smell of liquor drying in the sunshine. Surely he hasn’t been drinking?
“What happened?” she repeats, scared and angry.
“I met that man Kallus and some of his friends and they bought a drink for my shirt. It’s nothing, it’ll wash out…”
“You’ve been fighting? –“ her hand moves again towards his face and the marks of blows. She reins herself in. I must not touch him, I must not let myself…
Behind her there’s a loud pop! as Galen opens his treat, and he exclaims gleefully “It’s so bubbly!”
“I didn’t start it, Jyn, I promise you. I tried to talk him down but he wanted to start something. If a man hits me I have to hit back, you must see that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.” He looks amazed to hear her say it; but surely he must have seen how they’re trying to keep things calm, to avoid stirring up any more trouble? “Things are bad enough already with Krennic’s people.”
“It’s only me. I’m used to it. And it was just a couple of punches thrown, nothing serious.”
“I bet you hit him good, didn’t you, Cassian?” Galen is jubilant. His tongue is already pink from the soda. “I bet you knocked him right down on the floor!”
She’s angry with Cassian and with herself, with Bodhi for sending him alone, even with her son though his delight is utterly innocent. She doesn’t want to be angry, seems like she’s an angry woman so often these days; but then she is, she is. She was the one who got in fights once, it’s true, but that was a long time ago and this is different… “I’ll decide what’s serious, Cassian – we need to keep the peace here, not take any provocation to break it! Bodhi’s worked so hard to bring everyone together to stand up as a community and things like this risk smashing that before we’ve even got started! He’s out right now, calling on all the other farms, arranging a meeting for tonight to talk about how we can take a stand against Empire and their thugs! The last thing we need is for them to be able to say any of us is causing trouble!”
“I didn’t cause any trouble,” Cassian says, low and sad-sounding. He looks at her with worried eyes. Can’t he see how she’s changed, how she’s had to change? “I promise you, Jyn, I didn’t start anything. All I did was face it when it came.”
“We need to keep the peace!” she repeats, angry with him and with herself. Hell and damnation. She’s always angry. Yes, she would like to fight, Christ knows she would. Everything feels better when you fight against what traps you. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, and she has had to learn this lesson!
He never had to; he’s never had to slide all of his dreams out under the door of life and leave them to die in the cold because your child comes first. She has had to; and she’s had to give up fighting; Bodhi has worked so hard and explained so many countless times to everyone; she owes it to him, to her goddam husband, the man who loved her no matter what, the man she goddam well loves, she owes it to him to keep things peaceful.
And she still wants to fight.
She’s breathing as hard as a runner and her jaw feels tight, as though she’s the one who’s been slapped. And somehow the wrong words come out, something that cannot be unsaid, because she’s so angry that the truth is all she can hear, even though she’s speaking in front of Galen and she’s tried so hard, she’s tried… “If we end up fighting it needs to be because we had no choice!”
Cassian’s face goes from puzzled to mute, and he doesn’t reply. Christ. Christ! She’s meant to be keeping the peace, not talking like that. Dear God, forgive me, what have I become…
She hurries Galen inside. He hasn’t noticed a thing; he’s still laughing about the bubbles in his nose.
Behind her in the yard Cassian begins slowly to say something – it sounds like her name, but she hardens her hearing and disciplines herself. Ignore him, let him go as he let you go. He has no claim on you or yours.
Jyn sits down again, with her hands shaking, and tries to make sense of her little list, and work out what all these necessities will cost.
Come evening, when the others arrive after supper, Cassian stays with them at first. There’s a spring storm blowing in down the valley, heavy rain gusting in the wind as the evening settles to darkness. When Hiram Raddus arrives his grey hair is so wet he looks sleek as a fish. The Pamlo sisters come next, side by side in their wagon, Tynnra driving while Taris holds a tarp over their heads; and the eldest Antilles boy rides in right after them, making sheep’s eyes at Tynnra Pamlo as usual. He’s here, he says, to speak for his father and his family. Eighteen years old and filled with undisguised pride to be a man. He cuts another glance at his dream girl and it’s impossible to miss the tiny smile they exchange.
Jyn has made a couple of pots of coffee and everyone accepts a cupful gladly; the rain and wind are enough to make the night unseasonably cool. From outside, the sound of hooves and wheels comes again and she opens the door to find Noah Jebel, glowering miserably as usual, with rain running out of his beard. Behind him stands Saw Gerrera, leaning heavily on his cane. The old man hooks up a rare smile for her; it would seem he’s in a warm mood today, despite the weather. Perhaps he’s enjoyed goading Noah as they made their way over here; Jebel looks sour enough for it. Everyone knows Saw’s tongue can be mighty sharp, and Noah’s temper can veer sideways in an instant.
But with them both here, that’s every farmer in the valley, all of them gathered together and packed in her little cabin. She serves up the last of the second pot of coffee and washes it. By the time she’s done, Saw is bristling at some joke from the Antilles boy trying to impress Miss Pamlo, and Jebel is arguing with the Swede, something about Krennic’s man Kallus at the store yesterday. Jyn says briskly “I’ll leave you ladies and gentlemen to it then, my little boy may know how to put himself to bed but he won’t go to sleep without his bedtime story.”
They’ll bicker and wave their pride at one another, and show-off in front of those two pretty girls, for a good few minutes yet before they get down to anything like real business; and then they could argue for an hour or more before coming to an agreement. She hasn’t the patience for it. Bodhi will do what’s best for his family and she has faith in him.
She slips out past Cassian. He’s sitting near the back, with his head down, not speaking; neither in the meeting nor out of it.
In the little box-room Galen is sitting up in bed in his nightshirt, and she gets him to settle properly, and tucks him in. She picks up his book of Arthurian tales. “How about I read you the next bit, instead of you reading it to me, for a change? Would you like that?”
“Yes please! You read much quicker than me, mama. More story!”
“Hush, then, dearest. Now, where were we?” Jyn turns up the lamp a little and opens the big old storybook. She turns the pages, finds the spot where they left their current story. Last night Sir Owain had been busy having knightly exploits, with a lot of jousting and winning at archery and sword fights and chess games, and a few courageous slayings of dragons and trolls. He’s about to go home to find his beloved Laudine believes him dead. Jyn is smiling as she reads how the lady is so hurt and angry that she banishes him from her side and orders him to prove he has been loyal in his long absence. Good for her.
From time to time the voices in the next room are raised, ringing sharp against the steady soft sound of the rain. She tries not to eavesdrop, but when they shout it’s hard not to listen. It’s chiefly Saw, of course; arguing, disagreeing, finding fault and picking fights. Young Reginald Antilles is not helping, mocking him with jokes and then with merry tunes on his harmonica; and one of the sisters is laughing and encouraging the boy, when she could have quieted him with a single look.
She can’t blame the two of them for being tempted into flirting. Young Wedge is handsome and witty, and makes his admiration clear; and Saw is a tired old paranoiac and something of a bully besides, a man who tries to make the sisters feel guilty for preferring the good-looking white boy to his crippled self. But there are serious matters to be debated tonight, and this tomfoolery distracts everyone, and shortens tempers all round. Seems she was right to decide not to stay in the meeting. She would have been wanting to knock heads together by now.
The third time the voices rise in anger she hears Cassian’s name spoken, and pretty fast after that things get to yelling once more; then there’s a bump as the main door of the cabin is opened and shut again quickly. Someone has left the gathering.
Galen sits up in bed, wide-eyed and worried. The storybook sinks into her lap as she looks over at the window. The door was closed, not slammed; shut firmly but quite sensibly. She wants to see who it is that’s leaving.
“What’s happening, mama? Why are they angry with Cassian?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. I’m sure he hasn’t done anything wrong.” Why she’s defending him to her boy she can’t say; a few hours ago she almost shouted at him herself, yet it matters painfully to her that there should be no ill-feeling between Galen and Cassian. “Maybe he just didn’t have anything to say to Papa’s friends.”
She’s still looking out of the window. The shutters are open though the glazed window itself is shut. The lamplight illuminates the first few yards outside, the yard full of puddles and the rain shining bright as a cascade. A lone figure comes into view; it’s Cassian, heading to the barn. The light catches on his clothes, gleams on his wet face and hair. He glances round, looks in at the window; stops in his tracks for a moment. She can’t put a name to the emotion in his eyes. Rain running down his face. It’s as if his soul is utterly naked and yet he’s utterly guarded too; it’s the look of a spy betrayed, a man facing the end of everything, holding all feeling back even from himself in order to die calmly.
She stands up, impulsive, wanting again to reach for him and knowing she cannot, and should never wish to. Lays a hand on the shutter, a hand on the chilly glass. Sees him see her, and see Galen sitting up in bed behind her.
Very softly, muffled by the glass and the rain, he says “Good night, Jyn. Goodnight, Galen.”
“Goodnight, Cassian,” she says, and watches him as he looks for a moment more and then turns to go. He moves out of the pool of rainy lamplight, and his figure is no more than a shadow; a shadow which walks quietly down the side of the cabin and goes into the barn to sleep without a light.
“But why are they angry with him? Cassian didn’t do anything wrong, did he?” demands Galen from his bed. “He only hit that man ‘cos he was hit first, right?”
So he was listening to the argument too. Jyn sighs. She thinks of the cut on Cassian’s lip that afternoon, the blood scabbing like rust in his beard, the bruises purpling above. His eyes, so hurt at her reprimand and her bottled anger; so lonely just now, looking in from the night and the rain.
“I’m sure he did the right thing, honey,” she says. And then, because sooner or later she will have to say it, before she is too haunted to let the words out: “Galen, dear, don’t get too fond of Cassian. He’ll be moving on, someday.”
It would have been good, Bodhi thinks, to have gotten more agreeing done, and less arguing, last night. But at least everyone came to the meeting; even old Saw, even the Pamlo girls, who once had protested that these things were men’s business and they would rather not be involved. And for all they all may have bickered a little and some things may have been said that were better left unsaid, none of it was so harsh as to make a real rift, and the plan going forward is still to stick together, to try and stand their ground. Even Jebel agreed, though he’d taken some persuading.
Saw had argued that he’d carry on as he pleased, of course; he’d do as he wished and be damned to anyone trying to choose safer options for him. That was hardly unexpected; the day Saw made a cautious choice was a long way off. His pride was bigger and stronger by far than his war-battered body. Maybe he’d come round on his own, left to think things through, with no-one playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic behind his back on the harmonica and laughing.
In the meantime, Saw aside, the rest of them had agreed that they weren’t going to go anywhere alone, not into town, not anywhere off their own land.
Cassian had reported that the new seed corn and seed wheat had been delivered at Merrick’s. And there was May the First to plan for, the Raddus’ little springtime party they held every year. Which meant a group visit to Rogue and Merrick’s Stores was in the offing. And then the decision had been made that if the rain stopped, today would be the day for that.
He needed to think of a present to buy for Jyn, too.
Seven years married, next week. More than seven, since that dreadful day she’d confided in him and he’d done the only thing he could think of to help, and offered to make an honest married woman of her. Considering that was its beginning, and how much they’d had to weather - her father’s anger and his miserable death, and the sadness of accepting there’d be no more children after Galen - yes, all things considered, they’d had about as happy a marriage as any man and woman could hope for.
But Jyn is struggling just now, he can tell. Having Cassian here is just one more burden when she’s already torn between the urge to fight like a hellion and the desperate need for them all to have peace. There was a time her fighting side would have won; but she’s grown steadier for the years of hard work and its hard-won fruits; she knows now how much more you can harvest if you stand your ground and are patient.
He wants to show her how right she is, to stand steady, hold on for peace. How much he will always love and respect her. She’s grown into this woman she is now, for him and Galen, and even now sometimes she fights her own nature for them.
Perhaps it’s mad to ask Cassian to stay with them. But Krennic’s threats scared the last two hired hands off, and to have someone who’ll stick by you no matter what is important in times like these.
The way Jyn sticks by him, and he by her.
And thinking of that, he’s glad again, remembering how it’s been with them these seven years, together through happy days and sad.
Well, they’re all going into town today, the whole lot of them, all the farmers; a proper show of unity. Even Saw agreed to take part this time. Krennic’s men may lounge about in Merrick’s saloon at all hours, sipping his Tennessee whiskey and trying to ruffle his Missus’ cool; but Anton and Monique Merrick know it’s not the Empire boys but the farms in the valley, and the farming folks working them, that are the mainstay of their custom. They’ll insist on keeping the peace; they’ll send word a hundred miles to the nearest Federal Marshall, sooner than allow these flickers of conflict to grow further, much less blossom into an outright range war like some of the feuds he’d heard of, in Texas and points east…
It’s a fine morning. The rainstorm had blown itself out by dawn and the whole valley looks newly-washed. The low foothills and bright far-off mountains draw a pristine line against the sky. Bodhi hitches up the pair to the wagon and boosts Galen up the side of a wheel to sit on the driving bench and keep watch on them.
As the last farm before the wild trail and the hills, it’s for them to set off first. They’ll pick up Hiram and Profondita Raddus and their boys, and then work south along the creek towards the Antilles place, then sweep by to collect the Jebels and the Pamlo sisters, and old Saw last of all.
With all those womenfolk confederating together, and more than half a dozen children coming along too, the Merricks should do a rare trade in pop and candy today, and get a fair few orders for hair-ribbons and pins. He remarks as much to Jyn when she emerges from the cabin with her freshly-washed hair spread over her shoulders, still drying.
She gives him that withering look he’s so fond of.
“Hair-ribbons? Maybe. And home-medical supplies, and findings for sewing and mending, and whetstones for our kitchen tools, and pots and pans, and sugar and vinegar and peppercorns and cinnamon quills for bottling and pickling. And seed for our vegetable gardens, and spades and trowels and rakes and hayforks. Don’t forget all that when you’re talking about the little ladies’ needs, dear.”
He laughs. He loves teasing her when she ruffles herself at him warmly like this. “It’s early in the year for bottling, surely? It’s only April, Jyn!”
“Oh, you’ve a cheek! Mind now, or I’ll bottle every strawberry I grow this year to pay you back. Not a single fresh berry shall you get, or I’m a Tartar!” She’s grinning as she threatens. He smiles, saying
“I’ll do it, I will!”
“But mama,” pipes Galen from behind him “They’re no good if you don’t have them fresh…”
“Ah, but with so many plants now, sweetheart, and all those runners I transplanted last year – why, we might have too much fruit to eat by June. I might have no choice but to bottle it.”
Bodhi pouts jokingly at the thought, guessing that above him on the wagon Galen will be doing the same. Her eyes dart between the two of them and she laughs and relents, and kisses him. “Take me shopping, then; and you can buy me a new hair-ribbon, since you want to, you frivolous man!”
“Well, it is almost our anniversary, you know.” He kisses her back.
“So it is. And that means it’s almost May, too; I need to buy dried fruit for a cake to take to Hiram and Profondita’s party.”
“We’ll buy as many raisins and dates and almonds as you could possibly want, I promise you.”
They’re standing by the front wheel of the wagon, with Galen laughing from above and saying “I want some raisins too!” There are little birds singing in the meadow and a gentle breeze lifts Jyn’s thick brown hair and blows strands across her face. He strokes them back for her, smiling at the warmth in her eyes. Yes, not a bad marriage, all things considered. He’s grateful every day that Cassian’s errors brought him the best helpmeet a man could ever have, the brightest and the bravest.
“It’s been a good seven years, hasn’t it?” he asks.
Jyn takes his free hand in hers and squeezes it; she nods, silent, smiling.
When he looks round, Cassian is coming out of the barn.
He’s wearing the brown work shirt he bought yesterday, and the denim pants. The silver-buckled gun-belt is notable by its absence and Galen calls out at once “Aww, you’re not wearing your six-shooter, Cassian!” His face is drooping with disappointment and Cassian gives an awkward laugh, and says nothing.
Bodhi hands Jyn up into the wagon and she hushes their son affectionately. “Cassian isn’t coming out to shoot anything, dear.”
“But what if we see a buck? He might want to hunt it!”
“You don’t shoot deer with a revolver, Galen. That’s what hunting rifles are for,” Cassian says. “And I’m sure your papa has one of those. That’s the kind of gun a man needs who has a farm and a family to shoot for. Are we ready to go?” He leaps up beside Bodhi; looks around at Jyn and Galen on the rear bench. “Your hair looks beautiful, Jyn.”
She looks away after a second. “Thank you.”
Bodhi flicks the reins. “Let’s go!”
The Raddus farm is a fine place, a good spread of land and a fine two-storey house. They’ve been here probably the longest of the settlers now that old man Knight is dead and gone. Hiram and Profondita have planted blue Indian corn and raised Swedish saddleback hogs and their three boys peacefully for near on sixteen years by their own account. Only Henrik, the eldest of their sons, was born when they arrived; Erik and Maximilian have never known any other home. Four of the family are ready, sitting in their big wagon, when Bodhi drives up the track to their gate. Henrik is staying behind to guard the house. He waves them off, his father’s Winchester rifle slung over his shoulder.
Their next pick-up is at Alder Farm, the Antilles place; a large wooden cabin and a string of lean-to outhouses, all colourfully-painted and surrounded by flowers. It’s cheerfully untidy, a contrast to the Swedes’ neatly plank-boarded property. Wedge and his younger brother are waiting on horseback beside their parents and sisters in another wagon. Again, all but one of the family are coming into town; old Gerrit, papa Raymus’ father, shouts something cheerful in his breathy Dutch from the stoop as the little caravan draws away.
They trundle on, going down the slope and along the creek bank as far as the sandbar where the water runs shallow enough for crossing, and through a belt of trees, towards the red cedar shingles of the Jebels’ roof, and the sparkling stream that runs past their home.
There’s a wagon waiting there, too, but no happy group smiling and anticipating a trip to the store. The wagon has its canvas cover up, and the whole family are working to load it, Noah and the three elder children ferrying furniture and sacks of stores while his wife Mary rounds up chickens amid the remains of a broken pen. Her face is tear-streaked and pale. As she catches each of the frantic hens she passes them to her youngest daughter, and little Alice pushes them into a wicker cage. She’s crying too.
Bodhi reins his team in. “Noah! Mary! What’s happening?”
Mary Jebel stumbles, chasing the rooster, and falls to her knees in the mud with a sob. Alice and one of the boys run to her. Noah shoves a crate onto the wagon bed and turns to look across the stream with a bitter face.
“Krennic’s lot raided us last night, while I was up at your place listening to a load of chatter ‘bout freedom and justice and the Lord knows what else besides. They killed my sow and all three of the shoats, drove off half my chickens and trampled our spring corn into the ground. Mary and the children were hiding under their beds in fear of their lives. I’ve had enough. No, don’t start! - we’re quitting, don’t try to talk me round again.”
“Noah, please, you don’t have to c-cut and run like this…” It’s hard to keep the shaking from his voice. This is a disaster. No sooner have they all come to an agreement and set themselves as an alliance than it’s all broken again, just like that?
Behind him in the next wagon, Hiram Raddus picks up the thread of his argument. “Noah, Mary, we can stick together, if we all help each other we can make it through.”
“No, no more. Don’t you dare tell me what I have to do. You men have got wives and kids too, why don’t you think of them, ‘stead of your own damned pride for once?”
“He does think of us,” Jyn says angrily. “That’s why we’re standing our ground, that’s why we’re staying and building a life here.”
“Well, you stay if you want, Jyn, you want to be a firebrand, you go right ahead and risk everything you’ve built. We’re leaving. Andrew, Susie, Grace, come on. Don’t dawdle. We don’t have time to waste gossiping.”
“Noah, please think again,” Bodhi says helplessly. How can he bear it, that their little united front has gone already? Are they really so weak of purpose that they can be snapped by just one push?
“I want to see my children grow up,” comes the angry, unhappy reply. “Not lay them in the earth in this damned valley! No parcel of soil is worth risking your life over.” Noah Jebel chivvies his kids before him, back towards the house and the row of trunks and baskets by the door, waiting to be packed for travelling. He stops, shoulders heaving, as the kids get to work again; when at length he turns slowly, Bodhi sees there are tear tracks on his face. Jebel draws in a deep breath and says “Listen, Rook, I don’t begrudge you, you think you know best, and that’s fine, you’re an educated man, I ain’t any such thing. I’m skeered is the darned truth, skeered and scuppered. I lost my nerve for this kind of fight a long time ago. Don’t try to make me stay.”
“If you give in to them –“ Jyn begins.
Jebel interrupts her. “No if about it! We have no choice but give in. They’ve won. Cain’t you get it through your heads? There ain’t a federal marshal within a hundred miles of here. Empire is always going to be stronger than us, Krennic is always going to have the men and the firepower to do what he wants, and in the end that’s all there is to it.”
Bodhi tries to think of something more to say, but the despair on the man’s face silences him. He knew that Jebel was the weakest link, and now that link has broken. How long before another family gives up and gives in?
They have to salvage what they can from the day. He says quietly “God go with you, Noah. Mary, kids. May your journey go safely.”
There’s another wagon approaching from the south; he squints into the sun and makes out the Pamlo sisters, and Saw riding with them. Wedge rides on a little way ahead, to warn them about the Jebels’ decision. As they drive up Bodhi can hear the old soldier, grumbling about injustice and cowardice and the Rights of Man, and Colonel Shaw and Sergeant Harvey, and brave men that laid down their lives at his side in years past. He’s settling-to for a good rant, by the sounds of it, harping on this and a string of other familiar stories of his. Saw will never take things quietly; best for everyone’s sake if they move on quickly, before there are any more hard words uttered than have been said already.
Bodhi flicks the reins and urges the team on.
Cassian, beside him, is silent, and so is Jyn on the back seat. When he looks round, he sees she is watching Galen. Her son has twisted round on the bench seat to look back for as long as possible, waving goodbye to the Jebels with a fierce little frown on his face.
Behind them, just one of the children, fair-haired little Alice, waves back, standing alone in the muddy wreckage of the hen coop. Her parents and siblings work on, clearing the rest of their lives, clearing and retreating from the field, with all hope lost.
The farmers' trip to Merrick's General Stores and Emporium starts well, but things turn nasty pretty quick.
Cassian tries to sit relaxed as they approach the settlement. It isn’t easy. He glances up and down the row of buildings and disciplines his hands not to fidget, his fingers not to seek the Colt, that is not hanging at his hip. His mind not to remind him in sweating fear that once again he’s come unarmed into the enemy’s territory.
Bodhi pulls up alongside the store. One by one behind him the other drivers rein in their teams and halt their wagons, until there is a whole line of them waiting, and passengers piling out on every side. Eager voices scatter in the brisk spring air.
Jyn scrambles down using the spokes of the back wheel like a ladder. Little Galen clambers after her, chattering with excitement.
Cassian is still surveying the street.
Half a dozen men are lounging outside the store and the adjacent saloon, and occupying the bench outside the barbers. He recognises the sour-eyed man Kallus and the two older fellows who’d ridden with him. The others are strangers. They’re all armed; revolvers at their hips, rifles propped behind them or slung across their spread knees. Cold eyes scan the farmers’ families, as if counting heads and tallying them.
From the boardwalk by the wagons, as many eyes look back, growing bright with tension as they realise the ill-will that watches them. The initial happy chatter begins to fade, and though the children still bucket about oblivious, on holiday for a few hours, their mothers and fathers collect themselves and begin to file into the store.
Cassian climbs down from the Rooks’ wagon, keeping his eye on the watchers.
A voice with a strong Georgia accent calls out mockingly “Why looky here, sodbusters’ve brought their women and children to protect them!”
“Don’t fergit the cripple!” another voice adds, to gleeful laughter.
At the back of the group of farmers, Saw thumps his crutch on the wooden sidewalk and says loudly “Getting so’s you can’t breathe round here without smelling goddamn southern rebs…”
Cassian positions himself on Jyn’s flank in the little press heading in to the door. She is bristling yet as he looks down at her she relaxes, as though something in his presence is calming. She leans in towards him, saying in a low voice “Don’t worry, Cassian, I can control myself these days.”
There’s still a fire in her eyes but it is more rueful than blazing. He manages to give her a taut smile.
He’d like to kiss her hand, but he can’t. He moves back to allow old Saw to follow her inside. Steps into the store last of the small party.
It’s crowded inside, men and women clustering at the different counters and shelves of stock. Soft voices murmur, discussing everything from whetstones to crockery. The indifferent cool daylight falls on the bustle of people and the goods on display, dull cloth and gleaming glass, sacks of grain bulging or hanging soft and half-empty, bright paper labels on the stacks of canned goods and bottles of liquor and medicines. At the far end of the store in a staircase to the upper storey, and here on the ground floor there’s a set of swinging half-doors to the left, leading through into the saloon bar.
Several people, Jyn among them, have gathered around the big seed merchants’ catalogues, and storekeeper Merrick bustles over to them with a smile and an order book.
The Pamlo sisters have found a tiny display of hats and are trying them all on one by one. Taris finds one that fits her neatly, a boyish boater with a wide straw brim; as he watches, she sets it back on the crown of her head so that the brim frames her face and her smartly braided hair. Her sister coos with delight and holds up a coloured ribbon to the crown.
Wedge Antilles and Erik Raddus watch them and smile bashfully. The rest of the men seem more interested in another catalogue, a collection of new-fangled farm gear like seed drills and mowing machines; all bar Saw, who stumps over to a seat and settles with a grunt of discomfort, stretching his crippled leg out awkwardly.
Profondita Raddus and Silvia Antilles are exclaiming over dress fabrics, with several of the children at their feet shrieking with delight at a pair of calico kittens that roll and play tag on the floor.
It all seems calm, and harmless, and happy.
“Please, Mr Merrick,” Galen pipes up, tugging the storeman’s sleeve. “I brought the bottle back, sir.”
Merrick looks down and smiles through his blond moustache. “Just pop it through to Mrs M at the bar, then, and I’ll get you your deposit. Is it to be the usual? - which flavour would you like? Or is it to be a penny, this time?”
Little Galen shakes his head solemnly. “I’d like the candy stick. May I have peppermint, please?”
Cassian suddenly remembers having an appalling sweet tooth at that age. How unreal it seems, that picture of the past. His own life, once upon a time. A world where his biggest challenges were to finish his homework and earn a penny to buy candy; where if he had two pennies it meant enough candy for both him and his friends. Not that Jyn ever ate much of it, though she would devour anything salt...
When he glances through the swinging half doors into the saloon, he sees four of the idling men are now inside, including Kallus. Seated with them is a pale-faced fellow in a long white duster coat, a man whose smile barely reaches his thin lips. As Galen makes to climb up the high wooden steps to go through, the men catch one another’s eyes. The man in white nods imperceptibly to Kallus.
All kinds of wrong and ill-will lurk under that tiny twitch of a stranger’s head and Cassian moves on instinct. Springing up the two steps and catching the little boy around the waist he swings him up as if in play and deposits him back down onto the shop floor. “I can take the bottle back for you, don’t you worry. You go get your peppermint cane – look, Mr Merrick’s got one out of the jar for you already!”
“Okay,” says Galen happily, and trots away for his payment in sugar, leaving Cassian in the open half-door, with the empty bottle in his hand and every eye in the saloon on him.
The grey-eyed woman at the counter at least is not hostile. He greets her measured smile courteously. “Good morning, Mrs Merrick. Just returning your soda bottle. Galen’s already collecting his deposit.”
She nods and holds out a hand without comment; but from the far side of the room a voice snipes “Enjoy your soft drink, sodbuster?”
There’s a ripple of laughter as Cassian turns.
Kallus and two of the younger men are moving up as if to flank him. So it’s to be more of the same trouble as last time he was here, then.
“I warned you, Mexican, if you came back I’d have your hide. Guess you just liked the idea of getting beat some more, huh?”
“I don’t recall that I was exactly beat,” Cassian reminds him.
His split lip and the other bruises are still tender, but the return blows he landed have left Kallus with a blacked eye and a succession of purple welts from temple to jawline.
“Why, you dirty lying son of a –“
If he can make the man lose his temper as quickly again, this will be over the sooner. Cassian leans back against the bar, making sure he can see everyone in the room. Glances round the whole group, getting their measure. Most of the party from outside have come in now. There are the two older men he met before, then Kallus and his two younger assistants, and a lad of fourteen or fifteen with the merest smudge of facial hair; and the man in white. All bar the latter are on their feet now.
He braces himself; if they all rush at once he’s likely to take a good few hits. Kallus is clearly spoiling for a rematch but the crucial factor is whether his mates will stand back and let him do his own fighting, or wade in and help.
The man in white is smiling as he watches his bully-boys line up.
Behind Cassian, Monique Merrick says coldly “Now see here, you keep your boys in order, Orson Krennic. I won’t have fighting in this house.”
“Mrs Merrick! But of course…” A voice like a mockery of molasses. “There’s not a man among us but is here for a peaceful drink, and nothing more. At least, none of my men has any intention of causing trouble. But I guess I can’t speak for you, though, can I? – Mister? –“
Orson Krennic. So this is the man whose next action every farmer in the valley fears and awaits; he rises, smiling, affably and earnestly false, holding out a hand as if in regular greeting. He’s older than the others, perhaps in his late forties, and he has the stance of a man who relies on a hard mind and neglects a soft body. The outstretched hand is smooth and white and clean, and his smile is smooth too. When Cassian does not move forward to receive the handshake he takes a single step, still offering it, and repeats “Mister? –“ in the same voice. As if the actor in front of him has missed his cue, and he’s generous enough to cover for it.
“My name is Andor,” Cassian says after a moment. “I work for Mr and Mrs Rook.” He does not shake hands.
“Orson Krennic –“ and again there’s the proffered hand and that awkward, signalling pause; then Krennic raises his eyebrows and finally gives up the charade. His smile is suddenly gelid. “Ah, the Rooks, yes. Delightful people. Such a lovely little boy. I’m sure for someone like yourself it must feel good to have a place there.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“Oh, I think I do. Mexican, recent immigrant, looking for work, handy with your fists and quick to use them. Yes, I know your type, you see.”
“Well, you’re right that I’m Mexican.”
Krennic waits for him to go on, slowly simpering into another sticky smile as Cassian says nothing more. “I see. And laconic with it. How impressive. Well, Mr And-Or –“ he divides the syllables as if amused by them both – “I can use a man like you.” His voice changes, is suddenly icily practical. “We have plenty of work at Star Ranch and not enough hands. What do you say to that?”
“I say that explains why your men spend so much time sitting around here in town and drinking. If you’re so short of hands.”
“Ah, well –“ Krennic waves his own lily-white hand airily – “Different hands for different tasks, you know? I’m serious, boy. This is the best offer you’ll get. You’d have a roof over your head and a regular wage. Empire Holdings are a good employer, everyone says so.”
“I work for Bodhi Rook.”
“Whatever Rook’s giving you, I’ll add on half as much again. What do you say?”
“I’ve no wish to change my situation.”
“Really? You surprise me. Farming? I fail to see the attraction for a man like yourself.”
“The Rooks are my friends.”
“Ah! – the power of friendship. How touching. So, you’re not interested, then?”
Cassian shakes his head. “Not remotely.”
Krennic starts to turn away, then looks back to add in an offhand voice “Of course, the wife is a pretty little thing if you like them vicious. I’m sure she’s got energy enough for the two of you…”
“Why, you –“
He had known as soon as he turned down the desultory offer of work that the next thing would be a fight; but not that Jyn’s good name would be spat upon like that. He gets one decent swing in before the thugs rush him, so at least he has the momentary satisfaction of seeing Krennic stagger and reel back from his punch, and drops of blood spattering on the front of the long white coat. But then he’s caught between a half dozen sets of fists and everything’s chaos. Mrs Merrick is shouting, everyone is shouting. He hears his own voice shout, too, angry words of abuse at the slur Krennic was implying, then a yell of pain as one of the lashing fists connects with his shoulder.
It’s almost like a dance, but one in which no-one will consider using the proper steps or keeping time, so long as they can grapple a close touch with their partner.
Cassian slams fists and boots and knees into any exposed flesh, grabbing up a chair to beat one man down, ducking under a wild swiping attack from the youngster; dodging one blow, moving sideways to get a table between himself and Krennic, sparing a glance behind to check no-one else has outflanked him. They won’t fight fair – five onto one – so nor will he. If he gets the chance he’ll bite and gouge. His hands hurt already, bloodied with punching; and something more steely than knuckles connects with his cheekbone, so that his head rings like a stone bell and his eyes are jolted in their sockets. He can taste blood inside his mouth, feel it trickling down his face.
There’s a commotion of voices down in the store; a horrified feminine scream, a shout of “Well stop them this instant!” and another voice saying “Stay out of this, Rook!”
Someone swipes Cassian’s feet from under him in this distraction and they pile in on him as he falls. At the swinging half-doors to the store he sees Galen’s astonished face peeping for a moment.
A boot smacks into his skull. The shouting close by and further off, the anger and fear and the stamping of feet, all blurs together into a cloudy bubble of sound. Someone stomps his right hand. It feels like it’s burning.
When they haul him upright he has another brief moment of satisfaction; they may have him pinned now, but not a man among them has escaped unmarked. Then Kallus takes up a stance in front of him and as he struggles to brace himself against the rough hands holding him the man swings back and strikes him in the gut, and he’s left bent double, retching and choking for breath. There’s another scream somewhere nearby, and a sound of booted feet running. The swing doors creak.
Cassian spits blood, shaking his dizzy head.
He sees Bodhi in the doorway, staring, dark eyes snapping with fury. Sees Jyn at his elbow wielding a broomstick like a giant policeman’s truncheon.
Sees Galen behind them, spying again, candy stick in hand and an expression like that of a sportsman enjoying the moment before his team turn the tables in a fine, well-played game of football.
Bodhi barrels forward, head down and fists up; hurls himself onto Kallus. They crash to the floor, grappling and struggling and roaring. Jyn has moved in behind him, to lunge at the men dragging Cassian back. They gape at her; and the broom handle smacks into their bodies, stabbing like a fencer’s blade; striking up under one man’s ribs, then smashing down on the other’s shoulder. They both let go, yelling. Cassian lurches, swings clumsily to pummel a fist into one man’s face while Jyn recovers her guard and immediately lunges again, to strike the second man in the groin. He crumples with a squeal.
Bodhi gets a grip on his opponent’s brilliantined hair; he pounds his head against the floor hard, twice, three times, before being thrown off. Both of them scramble to their feet and they circle for a moment, glaring and swinging at one another.
Cassian drives an elbow into his opponent’s Adam’s apple. Something gives, though it’s hard to tell how much of it is his hand crunching and how much is the other’s flesh crushed under his blow. His head hurts now each time he moves and with each punch he lands it feels as though his fist has been broken and dipped in fire. He’s staggering slightly, trying to hold his balance, but he lashes out steadily, left and right.
The bullies’ boss has been hanging back, snarling encouragement and nursing a purpling cheek. But as Cassian hurls the man he throat-punched to the floor, he sees Jyn pivoting to flank his open side, and she smacks a crashing blow to the side of Krennic’s skull. The man goes down like a dropped sack this time.
And then the three of them meet in the middle of the room, himself and Bodhi and Jyn, back to back like a trained unit locking shoulders to face down a charge.
Just in time. The outer doors crash open to admit another three of Krennic’s men.
Galen is still watching, he notices; watching and beaming, a happy aficionado of the sport. One of the Raddus children is staring over his shoulder; he says something to her with a beam and crunches a big bite off the end of his candy-stick.
The newcomers square up, and the bloodied and furious remnants haul themselves up too, ready to head back into the fight. The man Cassian punched in the voice-box is clinging to a chair, gasping and mewling like a sick cat. Krennic is on his feet again, his urbane face contorted, blood dripping from his cheekbone.
“Do it!” he snaps as his men hover; and they move in.
Six onto three. We could have worse odds.
Jyn hefts the broom handle, settling into a perfect en garde, body turned sideways to the threat and weapon balanced ready. Bodhi is bracing himself for a rush. Cassian shakes his aching head once more, breathing hard and lifting his bloodied fists. But just as the men advance there’s a shout and storekeeper Merrick strides in. He has a shotgun, and a face of righteous thunder. His wife stands at his shoulder glaring at the damage to her tables and chairs.
“Call off your dogs, Krennic!”
“My men were not the ones who started this, I’ll have you know! That man – the Mexican – he assaulted me!”
“Is this true? Rook, is this true – did your man start it? I’ll not tolerate brawling in my place, do you hear?”
“I didn’t see how it started,” Bodhi says, out of breath but level-voiced. “My little boy came running and told me they were attacking Cassian here, and when my wife and I looked through that’s what we saw, the whole mob of them against one man.”
“They were only defending me.” Krennic’s tone is wounded. “I made a simple joke and the Mexican went for me. Hot-headed, like all his kind!”
“I know your simple jokes,” Monique Merrick puts in coldly. “Ten to one it was an insult in a new wrapper.”
Her husband chews on his moustache; fixes Cassian with a stern look. “That’s as may be. This is the second time you’ve been accused of fighting here, young man. What happened this time?”
“That man - he –“ Cassian nods Krennic’s way – “I wouldn’t call it a joke. He was saying vile things about Mrs Rook here and I – forgot myself. It won’t happen again.”
He’s pretty sure of that; he’s marked every one of them, even if they did overpower him for a time. Until his friends joined in.
Jyn is looking up at him with a rueful smile. She’s still holding the broom handle like a weapon.
It ought not to give him so much delight, seeing her wade into a scrap like the fighter she always was. She’s told him repeatedly that she wants to keep the peace; she and Bodhi both. And here they are backing him up in a fist-fight without a word.
Merrick lowers his gun, to a disgusted blustering splutter from Krennic.
“Very well, I’ll take your word for it that there was fair provocation. But no more of this. Is that understood?”
“We will send for the Marshall from Coreville if we have to,” Mrs Merrick adds. “He might not be nearby, but if he has to come, you may be sure he’ll see justice done. So keep your fighting out of our place of business, all of you, if you don’t want to be taken off to jail.”
There’s not a trace of apology in Bodhi’s voice as he says “I’ll pay for the damage here.” He sounds almost proud of the mess they’ve made. “Come on, Jyn. Cassian, let’s go.”
Jyn puts up her weapon; she turns it about in her hands as if checking it for quality and then passes it to Mrs Merrick. “Good stick you’ve got there. Unmarked.”
There’s a faint twitch of amusement in the other woman’s expression as their eyes meet. Then Jyn slips past her, bending down and holding her arms out. “Galen? Sweetheart, are you alright?”
“Mama, you were amazing!” The little voice thrills with pride.
“Yes, dear. Now, pick up mama’s parcel of shopping for her, will you? Don’t want to forget all the things we came here to buy, in all this hullaballoo, now do we?”
He runs to help with her purchases, still crowing at their victory. “You and papa and Cassian were just punching them out! I bet you three could lick anyone! You were so brave - you’re as brave as the knights of the Round Table!”
All the way home, he goes on celebrating; and he’s still running on two hours later, as they sit at the dining table back at the farm. Jyn hasn’t put her shopping away yet; as soon as they got back she put water to heat, to clean their injuries, and now she’s busying herself with the bottles of a small home medicine case.
Cassian is distressed to see she has a large bruise on her cheek, though it seems to be the only blow she took. But she’s mourning far more over the ripped shoulder seams of her blouse. “I don’t make my clothes to fight in,” she laments fretfully.
“You could’ve whipped them all if Mr Merrick didn’t’ve stopped you, mama! Cassian, you were amazing!”
Cassian doesn’t feel amazing. His belly is bruised purple and his left eye is blacked; the old cut on his face has opened up to keep the new ones company. “Is there any chance that they’ll back down now?” he asks.
“I’d like to hope so.” Bodhi is bathing his right hand; the knuckles are torn and bleeding, and swollen with bruises. “I think they might see that this time we’ve drawn a line. We’ve said Thus far but no further! to them. Yeah, I hope so.”
For all his talk of preserving the peace at all costs, he looks quite cheerful about things having come to a fight. But Cassian can’t feel hopeful, much though he would like to.
“You were awesome, papa, and mama was so amazing! And Cassian, you got them all! You’re a hero!”
He remembers the rage on Krennic’s face. There was no sign of acceptance or regrouping there, or anything but cold, bilked fury.
Jyn sits down between them, holding a bottle labelled Witch-hazel and a roll of bandages. She looks near to tears as she uncorks the stopper.
Cassian submits to the sting of the tincture, and the shame of knowing he brought them into this.
A week has gone by since the brawl at Merrick’s General Stores and Emporium. The morning of May the first dawns bright and sweet. Jyn is up early as always, making up the fire, setting oatmeal to cook and coffee to brew, heading out to the byre to milk the cow and the nanny goats.
She glances into the barn as she comes back with her pail of milk. The hayloft is still semi-shadowed. A few long rays of morning light pick out Cassian’s form; he’s lying on his side in the straw, shirtless, the blanket rucked around his waist. One hand is curled in front of his face, thin and brown as a branch of coral, and his hair falls over his sleeping eyes.
She swallows and looks away. Let him sleep, he’s worked himself like a slave since the fight last week. Surely I can let him rest now...
Yesterday he and Bodhi were up till past midnight, cutting and clearing a huge stump in the paddock beside the house. It’s been plaguing Bodhi since they first arrived here, that stump, and he had cheered and then danced over its final ruin by lamplight last night, had swung his hips and snapped his fingers as if his ancestors danced in him. Cassian joined in for a moment, clapping his hands above his head, stamping his booted feet. They’d both laughed at her face when she appeared at the door; laughed and danced more, singing and whistling.
She’d wanted to leap off the stoop and dance with them, let them swing her about, kick up her petticoats and stomp in the dirt too. Had had to hush them instead, before they woke Galen.
Bodhi is up already, of course; probably feeding the rabbits by now, or checking the hen-house for any eggs laid in the night. Let Cassian sleep. Today is the Raddus’ May Day party; there’s work enough that can wait a single day. Perhaps there will be dancing today, to make up for the dance she had to forego.
And it’s her wedding anniversary. The thought is almost droll, now the day has come. She glances at the utilitarian pants and apron she’s pulled on and determines to change into something pretty when she’s finished her chores.
Put the milk into the dairy-house for the cream to rise for churning. Bring through butter and cheese and a flitch of bacon, stir the oatmeal, set the table, stir the oatmeal again, put a skillet to heat beside it. Check on the vegetable patch, straighten the scarecrow, water the seed beds.
By the time she’s slicing bacon and slipping the rashers into the skillet, there’s a happy fluting outside; Galen and his little pipe, welcoming the day. Jyn looks out of the door and calls “Sweetheart, come in a moment and mind the breakfast, please? Mama just wants to go upstairs quickly.”
He trots in, sniffing at the air delightedly. “Bacon, mmm!”
“Yes, dear.” She hands him a flat wooden spoon. “Can you turn the rashers for me if they catch? Thank you… You’re looking smart today, dear. Is that your new shirt?”
“Is it alright for me to wear it today? Gallia Antilles likes the colour blue.”
“Does she, dear? Well, it looks lovely on you.” Gallia is the youngest Antilles, a rosy-cheeked child with chestnut hair and a happy nature. It’s good that losing the Jebel girls won’t mean Galen growing up without female friends. “Thank you for helping me, you’re a good boy. Careful with the hot fat! And don’t let your papa sneak himself any bits if he comes in for breakfast.”
She leaves him prodding at the meat as it sizzles, and goes up the ladder to the roof-space and her mother’s old trunk. What to change into for a special day like this? Not just Sunday best but something she doesn’t usually wear. There’s that shirt-waist with the piping down the sleeves, maybe that with her striped skirt would look nice…
There’s a sweet smell when she hoists back the lid of the big chest. Cedar wood and lavender, evocative of far-off forests and summer days in childhood, of the mounds of silver-blue flowers either side of the door in Jedhaville. Lyra Erso’s beloved lavender bushes, grow from cuttings all the way from her native Piedmont.
How far away her old home seems, and how long ago…
Jyn lifts out the big winter quilt from the top, and the scarlet table runner with the Christmas stars that she embroidered so carefully the year before her father died; and the winter sheets of heavy cotton flannel. There’s a little box underneath, wrapped in a handkerchief, and although she knows perfectly well what’s inside she opens it for a quick, happy glance at the memento. Knitted baby boots, soft blue wool - what tiny, tiny feet he had, tiny feet and tiny toes, her precious, precious baby boy!
Her nursing shawl comes next, and Galen’s christening robe. She remembers his stubby little legs kicking, swathed in broderie anglaise, and the way he’d waved his little fists and laughed, trying to play-fight the preacher splashing his face. God blessed me with a happy baby; please let me always keep him safe and happy.
And there’s the striped skirt she was looking for, peeking out from beneath something swathed in old sheeting.
A something which rustles and feels oddly heavy when she lifts it out. Jyn knows what it is, and she hesitates for a moment at the onrush of memories, bitter and sweet and confused, so much less certain than those the baby clothes had evoked.
She lays the bundle down on the timbered floor and unwraps it.
Pale blue silk shantung, a texture like butterfly wings and the tender weight of a lover’s touch; the bodice boned and trimmed with sea-green ribbons, and the skirts full, flounced out over taffeta petticoats. Her wedding dress.
The first few years, she had worn it from time to time; for high days and holidays, as her mother had always done. Easter and Christmas, her birthday and her father’s, the celebrations at the end of the war. All the random days when to be pretty is part of a woman’s duty. But since arriving in the valley she hasn’t put it on once. No call for prettiness out here.
It’s a beautiful dress, and it will make Bodhi happy to see it again. It will be good to pretend for one day that she’s a lady who can be pretty anytime she chooses. Isn’t that why she was searching up here in the first place? Something nice to wear, to celebrate in.
She lifts all the other things back into their places gently and shuts them away, back into the cedar chest, the strewn dried lavender, and the past.
When she goes back into the kitchen, climbing down the ladder carefully in her long full skirts, she finds the pans have been taken off the heat. The bacon is cooling, the oatmeal on the way to having a skin over it. Jyn stares in frank astonishment. It’s not like Galen to be disobedient and she panics at the sudden thought of what might have drawn, or taken, him away. But there’s no sign of trouble; neither the meat nor the porridge has burned and the table is undisturbed. She glances into the box room, but he’s not there. Throwing down her old pants and shirt she gathers her skirts again and goes out onto the stoop, readying herself to call anxiously.
There’s a meadow bird singing on the roof and she can hear Bodhi whistling somewhere nearby. That’s reassuring; he would have come at once at the first sign of an intruder. And further off, behind the house, the sound of Galen’s little pipe echoes both his papa’s tune and the birdsong.
Faintly with it comes the sound of Cassian’s voice.
Well, it was naughty of him to leave the job she’d given him, but he’s safe; he hasn’t gone far and he’s with Cassian, who she would trust with all of their lives. Perhaps today is to be a day for indulgence all round.
Jyn makes her way down the steps and past the vegetable beds, taking the path that leads to open ground, behind the house and the barn and byre.
The tuneless fluting has stopped, and now she can hear their voices. Galen sounds excited and admiring; she can’t make out his words at first but his delight is clear. For a moment she wonders if Cassian has been making another flute. But then she hears him.
“Guns are as good or as bad as the people that hold them, Galen. A gun like mine, if a bad man uses it – that’s a dangerous thing to be near.”
“But you’re not a bad man,” insists Galen happily. “I know you’re not.”
Cassian sounds so weary it makes her heart catch. “Thank you; but there are plenty of folks who’d call me bad.”
“Well, they’re just plain wrong.” Her son is so forthright when he’s certain of something.
Just like his father.
Oh, my traitorous heart…
“I bet you ain’t never fired at anyone unless they deserved it. And I bet you shot ‘em clean. I bet you!”
Cassian gives a faint laugh. “Are you trying to set me to gambling, Galen Rook? I’m not a gambler by nature, I’m afraid.”
Jyn has been treading as softly as she can, to hear their words. She reaches the back corner of the barn and steps round it cautiously, blue silk gathered in front of her, white underskirt showing bright at her ankles, rustling taffeta and starched net.
Galen is sitting astride the fence, his legs swinging, and Cassian beside him stands in his old brown pants and buckskin jacket, holding his Colt for the boy to see.
Oh, my dear, please, don’t. Please don’t teach my boy the lure of guns…
“I bet you can hit that thistle over there,” Galen says excitedly.
“It’s not a laughing matter.” That weary note again. No, surely he won’t teach the love of guns; he sounds as though the weight of it is killing him. But her son says “Aww, please!” and with a smile and a shake of his head Cassian casts his eyes down at the six-shooter.
He looks for a moment utterly broken. To Jyn’s relief, he holsters the gun. For a moment she feels safe again, and certain.
Until suddenly he draws and fires. All six chambers emptied in an instant. His movements quick and exact as a snake’s. His eyes cold and black and calculating.
A hundred yards away across the scrub, the tufty heads on a thistle are clipped off one by one, thrown into the air and bursting apart. Puffs of down drift away as the fragments scatter in the breeze.
“Wow!” Galen sits up straight. “Aww, wow, that’s amazing! You’re the fastest ever!”
“I’m pretty fast. There are men faster. And speed isn’t everything. In fact without accuracy it’s worth nothing.”
She can’t bear it. That quick draw, that vicious drilling shooting, the distant harmless weed shredded apart and felled. He’s a gunslinger. God only knows what he’s done, to become a man like this, in the long years since they parted. But this is something beyond toleration and she raises her voice in a bitter cry “Cassian! What are you doing?”
They both whip round. The same lightning reflexes in father and son.
Oh my Lord, please, don’t let me think of them that way, they are not, in all ways that matter they are not...
Galen pouts, reluctantly guilty; Cassian’s face is hunted. Jyn hurries forward. “Please, stop this. I don’t want guns to be a part of my boy’s life.”
“Mama, don’t be cross, he was only –“
“Hush, dear. Cassian, I mean it.”
“Jyn, a gun is only a tool.”
“That’s what every man says, right before he uses it to kill. It’s only a tool, only bad in the hands of a bad man doing bad deeds. But you none of you think yourselves bad, do you? No matter what you do, you all think you’re the one in the right and it’s the other fellow who deserves to die!”
His face has shut, like a slammed door; she can’t even see the pain inside. Knows it’s there nonetheless. Cassian was gentle, once, a kindly and idealistic boy who looked up to her father, eager and innocent as little Galen is today.
I must not think of him as Galen’s –
She is facing off against him like an enemy, her son silenced momentarily, looking on with hurt eyes; and footsteps come running, urgent on the dry ground. Bodhi appears round the side of the barn, wielding a hoe, his face a mask of anger, masking fear. He stops dead. “Oh thank God. I heard shooting –“
“Cassian was showing off,” Jyn says curtly; and sees the minute flinch her words cut from him. He was; and he knows it; and her own shame at hurting him with that knowledge cuts her too. Knives in all her words, lately.
“It was my fault,” Galen pipes up. “Please don’t be angry, mama.”
“Of course it’s not your fault, don’t be silly –“
“No, mama, it is.”
“Galen! Don’t contradict your mother.” Bodhi’s voice is gentle but the reprimand is unmistakable.
“But I asked him to show me his gun. I asked him why he doesn’t wear it all the time. I asked him to.”
Her son. Her precious son, braving her anger to own his own fault, for justice’ sake.
Cassian kneels down, looking into the anxious little face before him. “Yes, it’s true that you asked, Galen. But I should have said no, and I didn’t. Your mother is right, I was showing off to you, and I’m sorry for that.”
It’s hard to say which of them looks the more crushed; and dear God, how it hurts, seeing those two downturned mouths side by side, and those unhappy eyes. Both of them trying to do right, too late.
Bodhi sets the hoe against the nearest fence post. He’s beginning to smile. “Well, there’s no harm done in the end. And now, will you take a look at this sight! –“ he’s turning to Jyn, holding out his arms; and the smile on his face is so unabashedly happy it’s heart-breaking. “Look at this little woman in her wedding dress! I tell you, Cassian, she hasn’t aged a day.”
He takes two strides and embraces her, and she hides her head on his shoulder to escape Cassian’s eyes for a moment.
“Aww, you look beautiful, mama. Doesn’t she?”
The reply is so quiet she could almost have missed it. “Yes, Galen, your mama is beautiful.”
Bodhi plants an affectionate kiss on her forehead as she looks up. “And we have a party to get to.”
It’s good to have something to distract her focus again. “I need to wrap the fruit cake! Bodhi, dear, your breakfast is almost ready – it would have been if a certain young man hadn’t gotten distracted!”
Jyn allows herself to be preoccupied, and to be bright and cheerful again. She doesn’t look at Cassian as they go indoors.