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Patching Percy

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Patching Percy

When word came that Percy had been snatched out of Absolution and into the sky by fire-breathing demons, and that Mr. Dolarhyde, Nat, and a bunch of hands had taken off after them, Irene started naming days.

Day One was the day before, when Percy and his pa had fought over Percy drinking instead of working on his sums or his marksmanship, and the boy had taken off for town. Apparently he’d gone and downed whiskey at Doc’s, unhindered, to his heart’s desire, then started shooting up the nearest false fronts, nobody knew why – but Percy had turned out to be an angry drunk, Irene’s mama said, and angry drunks didn’t need reasons. Day One had ended with demons and destruction and half the people she knew swept up in it, including little Emmett’s grandpa the Sheriff, and Maria, who’d always been nice to her.

Day Two, word had come early to the ranch about what had happened, and that Mr. Dolarhyde himself was going after Percy and the other folks the demons had taken. Irene and her mama had spent a frantic half-hour throwing together all the food they had on hand that would keep; then, the rest of Day Two, and then Day Three, were spent waiting and worrying. And worrying even more when a few Dolarhyde horses wandered back without riders.

The ranch house and the inner fences soaked the worry in; when she could, Irene stroked the walls, the posts, murmuring “shhh, shhh” to the wood like it was a baby. Feeling a little foolish, because why would the house believe her words, when she was as torn up inside as anybody?

“Do you think it’s really demons Mr. Dolarhyde’s chasing?” she asked her mama; a little scared, because she’d asked about spirits before, and her mama’d gotten mad and said that white folks liked to torment people like them with stories about ‘spooks,’ and that Irene must never give anyone the pleasure of seeing her react to those sorts of tales. This time, though, her mama’d just shaken her head. “We’ll see,” was all she’d said.

Day Four had started like the day before it; and then there’d been distant rumbling, like thunder. But the hands murmured “explosion,” and Irene’d wondered who’d picked today of all days to start up mining again. And then someone’d pointed out a strange cloud in the sky and everyone figured that it and the explosion were somehow related. But how did anything get up so high? Could a bird have flown off with some dynamite, or something?

The sun set on Day Four with no answers; but Day Five dawned with a shout from Old Buddy Chavez, who’d been standing watch atop a hillock that afforded good views east and north: Mr. Woodrow Dolarhyde was heading home, and it looked like Percy was sharing his mount.

By the time the horse and its riders reached the gate, everyone had congregated, and Irene hung back a little, not wanting to be surrounded by that much unwashed cow hand that early in the morning; but once they could get a good look at the mounted men, her mother rushed forward, and Irene followed.

“Sally, take him,” Mr. Dolarhyde said, and her mama reached up and practically lifted Percy out of his pa’s arms and got him to the ground with only a little help.

“Sir?” her mama asked, looking up but with her hands still on Percy.

“Exposure. Dehydration. Exhaustion. That’s all, I hope,” said Mr. Dolarhyde, and her mama said, “Then let’s get him off the ground, boys! To his room!”; then, to Mr. Dolarhyde, “You, too. Irene, you see he takes care of himself.”

Mr. Dolarhyde nodded that he’d do what she said, but then put up a hand and started shouting about sending wagons the way he’d come from, for the living and the dead, and preparing space for “incoming casualties.” The hands just stared for a moment, but he hollered for them to get moving and they did. Then he slumped, cast a glance after his son, and let Irene lead his horse to the closest trough.

Buddy Chavez appeared and took over the horse, and Irene accompanied Mr. Dolarhyde into the kitchen and got him some bread, jam, and coffee, then some water for a quick wash-up.

As he was finishing, her mama came in and she and Mr. Dolarhyde worked out that her mama would take over prepping for an onslaught of people in about as rough shape as Percy. And that, therefore, care and feeding of Percy was being given to Irene.

“He – well, he might seem a bit confused,” said Mr. Dolarhyde. “Likely he might not even know your name. Just talk to him, keep him calm. Don’t let him use his right hand for anything – his thumb’s taken a bad break, I don’t want it sliding around no more until Doc can take a look at it. And that might not be for some time yet.”

“Let him sleep,” said her mama. “Feed him what he’ll take. Holler if he takes a turn for the worse.”

- - - - - -

So Irene grabbed a dime novel from the book-share shelf and slipped into Percy’s room, where her charge seemed to be sleeping peacefully. She’d never liked having to go into Percy's room, for tidying or to fetch him for his father – it was too dark, too unsettled from soaking up years of Percy. Would she have to spend all day in here, while things were happening outside? But unlike most of the hands, she’d always fundamentally liked Percy himself – he’d never been mean or anything, and unlike some, he’d never tried to take advantage of her. If her mama, and Mr. Dolarhyde, thought he needed minding, she’d mind him.

Though her mama said Mr. Dolarhyde was wealthy enough to afford finery, the room was put together simply, with just the bed, a writing table (seldom used), a bureau, and a few chairs. One wall was practically covered with posters of wanted outlaws, some older than she was probably: Jesse and Frank James, Rufus Henry Ingram, Jake Lonergan, to name a few. Her mama had wondered whether they ever bothered her, all those killers looking straight at you, but Irene had always found that the image of a man didn’t hold anything of his soul, no matter what people in far-off lands might think (or so she’d heard).

The few toys Percy still kept on his bureau, on the other hand, had a lot of feeling about them, particularly the nesting dolls that Percy had once said had been his mother’s. Irene now slipped them apart, then took the smallest and placed it behind Percy’s neck, where it couldn’t be seen. He stirred a little and stretched his head into it; good.

With nothing else to do, she pulled a chair over to the window and lost herself for a spell in the pages of the novel; a chapter in, she heard rustling, and turned to see Percy looking straight at her.

“He’s dead,” said Percy. “Nat’s dead. I brought the demons and they killed Nat.”

“I don’t…” she started, but before she had to figure out what more to say, her mama was right there, sitting on the edge of Percy’s bed, stroking his hair back. Ignoring the tiny doll Irene had placed, if she even saw it. “Yes, Nat’s gone to glory,” she said. “But it wasn’t your fault. You go back to sleep, okay? Irene’s here with you.”

Then her mama was gone again, leaving Irene and Percy staring at each other.

Nat was dead? It seemed impossible. Nat had always been there, a friend since the day eight springs ago they’d ridden in from Virginia with Mr. Dolarhyde. Nat had been the one to tell their boss that his wife hadn’t survived the winter, and Mr. Dolarhyde had screamed at him, and Nat, though probably not much older than Percy was now, had calmly nodded and told Mr. Dolarhyde that he knew what it meant to lose both parents and that Mr. Dolarhyde had better get his mind right and be a father to Percy now that he was back from the war. And then he’d led her and her mama to a little shed attached to the bunkhouse and seen that they had the basics they’d needed. And her mama had hugged her and said that she was very glad they’d come; that they’d found good people.

“So, um, how’d you bring the demons?” she asked. It probably wasn’t the most politic thing to start with, but if this was something Percy had developed a talent for – well, best she knew how he did it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t remember.”

“But you know who I am?”

He nodded. “My hand hurts.”

“Your pa says your thumb’s broke. Do you remember how it happened?”


“Do you want some whiskey?” A little might help.

“No. It’ll bring the demons, maybe.”

- - - - - -

Percy’d been sleeping quite a while, and Irene’d just about finished the novel (and, frankly, thought she could’ve done a better job herself of tying the threads together) when Mr. Dolarhyde slipped into the room and sank into the other chair. It looked like he’d slept, though maybe not too well.

“He’s doing alright,” Irene said. “He talked to me about demons. He thinks he brought them.”

Mr. Dolarhyde shook his head. “Maybe he did,” he said. “Maybe we all did.”

“I’m… I’m reasonably sure I didn’t,” said Irene. Maybe it was a proud, boastful thing to say, but Mr. Dolarhyde always demanded truth, and there it was.

Mr. Dolarhyde laughed a little and said, “No, Irene, with all due respect to Original Sin, I suspect you’re in the clear, you and your mama both.”

He paused, and then said, more soberly, “Maybe it wasn’t all of us that brought them; maybe enough of us’ve sinned enough for the entire community.”

“I’ve never seen you sin,” said Irene. “Never seen you build an idol, or dishonor your parents, or…” And she stopped because she realized Mr. Dolarhyde might not actually do so well against the Ten if she listed them all out.

“Have I been good to you, at least? And your mama?”

“You brought us out here,” she said. “Mama says we might’ve starved in Virginia. Here, we have a place to live, and a little money in our pockets – more then enough, given how little there is to spend it on.” She stopped speaking; she hadn’t meant to say that last bit, at least like she’d said it.

“You’d like more things, wouldn’t you?” asked Mr. Dolarhyde. “I’ve seen you at Blake’s General. You like things.”

That wasn’t quite it. “I like to hold things,” she said. “I like to see how they’re made.” She knew not to say, “Feel how they’re made.” Some people understood, but, well, most didn’t.

“Surely you’d like some pretty things for yourself.”

Irene shrugged. Yes, if he was offering, she’d like – well, lots of things. Another dress, jewelry, even books of her own. But she sensed that wasn’t what Mr. Dolarhyde was getting at. “I have enough,” she said.

“But is enough – enough?” Mr. Dolarhyde asked. “I try to be decent – do you think Nat was happy?”

“Yes, I think he was,” she said with confidence. But her spirits sank a little – poor Nat! Did being killed by a demon send you to straight to heaven? Or – to hell?

- - - - - -

Percy awoke again just after sunset, and agreed to try sitting up, with her help. Moving made him want a trip to the privy, which he managed on his own once she helped him get steady on his feet; then they made a joint raid on the kitchen, which was overflowing with bread and the first carvings off a lamb that Irene had been smelling roasting all day.

When Percy made to climb back into bed, he noticed the doll. “Sorry,” said Irene, “I put that there.”

“That’s okay,” said Percy. “But I don’t need it.”

“How about I just put it down here, under the bed and back a ways? I’ll move it before I sweep.”

Percy looked a little relieved. “If it makes you happy,” he said.

- - - - - - -

Much later, Old Buddy Chavez came in and told her to go get some sleep, that he’d sit with Percy. Irene reckoned Percy really didn’t need minding anymore by any of them (well, more than he ever did, but that was a whole other thing), but making sure Percy was okay was maybe how all of them were atoning for whatever’d brought the demons and killed so many – not just Nat, Buddy said, but also the preacher, some hands she didn’t know well, and a bunch of people from town.

It was a lot to take into her mind all at once, Irene thought. Part of her wondered why she wasn’t wailing on the ground, like the women in the dime novels sometimes did.

But she was just too tired to cry properly, though she couldn’t figure out why, since she hadn’t really done anything all day. And besides, she thought as she lay in bed, the ground was dirty. No sense mourning expansively if it just meant there was more laundry to do. The preposterousness of this line of thought set her giggling into her pillow; soon enough, the giggles let through some tears.

- - - - - -

Like its predecessor, Day Six began with shouting, accompanied by a whole lot more commotion; the “incoming casualties” had arrived. The next few hours were filled with helping strangers – holding their hands steady while they sipped cups of broth or ate bread and lamb, helping the women out of filthy clothing and into whatever would cover them, showing them to berths in the outbuildings and bunkhouse.

“I don’t know any of these people,” she whispered to her mama when she got the chance. “Where’d they come from?”

“They’re people the demons grabbed from all over, that Mr. Dolarhyde rescued,” her mama answered. “Some were carried to the territory in a huge riverboat, the size of every building in Absolution put together! It was dropped not ten miles from here, they say.”

“Where are the people the demons took out of Absolution?”

“They went straight home, honey,” said her mama. “But we’ll go in and see them in a few days, once things calm down here. And Doc’s going to come out as soon as he can, I understand, to see how we’re doing out here, and look at poor Percy’s thumb.”

- - - - - - -

It was close to sunset when she noticed Doc had arrived. She ran over and gave him a hug and he laughed and said she was getting so pretty she was going to make Maria jealous.

“How is she? Is it okay to leave her?” Irene asked.

“She’s fine,” he said. “We got home early yesterday. The center of town’s been wrecked so she’s staying with Sheriff Taggart and they’re helping each other out. She wanted to know how everyone who came here’s doing.”

Mr. Dolarhyde rushed past her and shook Doc’s hand as warmly as she’d ever seen him with anyone. “Fine, fine,” he said. “Well, nobody’s died. Can you come right quick and see Percy? He’d right-handed; he needs to be able to write.”

Irene followed as they headed into the house and to Percy’s room; she was curious as to how to deal with a break other than by simple splinting. Percy was at his table, staring at “Elements of Geometry and Trigonometry,” opened to somewhere in the middle, Irene surmised randomly.

Doc looked at the page and laughed. “Preparing to go east for college?” he asked.

Percy closed the book and pushed the chair back with his feet sideways until he collided with the wall. “No! Just, I just thought…”

Was he scared of Doc???

“Look at his hand,” Mr. Dolarhyde urged. “If it don’t heal right…”

When Percy didn’t offer his hand his pa grabbed it and placed it on the table, not ungently but Percy’s distress didn’t lessen. Doc took Percy’s hand in his own and poked and prodded, asking Percy to move his thumb and fingers this way and that. After a few minutes, he shook his head sadly. “It’s set itself wrong,” he said. “If you want full use of your hand, the only solution is a rebreak, then a cast. But it’s your lucky day – on the way here I did a little exploring of American Grace…”

“What?” asked Mr. Dolarhyde.

“The riverboat. American Grace. I rode past and raided the infirmary. Among some other things, I obtained some top notch medical plaster, and lookee here!”

Doc reached into a pocket and pulled out a small bottle. Percy screamed and almost toppled his chair as he jumped and charged the door; his escape was blocked by another man Irene hadn’t noticed before.

It was Jake Lonergan, Irene realized; looking not too unlike his picture, despite the growing dim. Yes, of course a famous outlaw was standing in the middle of Percy Dolarhyde’s room; why not?

When he realized who had him, Percy’s scream became a whimper. He stopped trying to run, but rotated so that Lonergan was between him and Doc.

No, not Doc; the little bottle in Doc’s hand.

“That came from the riverboat?” she asked. “May I hold it?”

Doc handed it to her and she almost dropped it, the fear was so sharp. “What is this?” she asked.

“Laudanum,” said Doc. “It will let Percy sleep while I work on his hand.”

“You can’t give it to him,” she said. “It’s corrupted.”

They were all staring at her now, even Percy.

She swallowed, suddenly scared. This wasn’t something she ever talked about directly, even with her mama. “You don’t feel it? It’s absorbed… badness, I guess. From the demons, or from the fear of the people around it.”

“She’s right, Pa,” said Percy. “Can’t you feel it?”

“I think I might,” said Mr. Lonergan. He released Percy and took the bottle from Irene, passing it from hand to hand and then handing it to Doc. “They say the flask Reynolds had at Gettysburg when he was shot can drive a man mad.”

“And… what about Jefferson’s quill?” asked Percy. “They say anything writ with it could convince a man of anything. It’s so powerful the John Madison had it sent to Russia for safe keeping.”

“Really?” Mr. Dolarhyde was looking at Percy like he’d just sprouted a second head. “You know this how?”

“Ma told me.”

“Sounds insane to me,” said Doc. “With all due respect.” He focused on Percy now and said, “If you won’t abide the laudanum, we go with whiskey. It will dull things a little, but we’ll still need three men to hold you down. You ready?”

“No… no strong drink neither,” said Percy. “It’ll bring the demons, maybe.”

A look went between the older men; were they thinking along the lines Irene was?

Apparently. “Well, if you don’t want to risk it,” said Doc, “We’ll do this the hard way.”

Thankfully, Mr. Dolarhyde tasked her to go find the strongest hands about, so she made her escape. She quickly spotted the Bryan brothers, large men from Georgia who seemed like they could take some screaming, and sent them in, then got as far from the house as she could. Still, she could hear Percy’s howls as Doc did what he had to, though she sat, huddled, with her hands over her ears.

After, wanting to see for himself that they’d made Percy reasonably comfortable at least, she returned to the house, finding Percy, his father, and Jake Lonergan in the parlor. Percy’s right hand was secured to a curious contraption of stakes and cords; it seemed Doc was forgoing using the riverboat plaster. Otherwise, though, Percy seemed fine, if subdued.

“Did Doc take his bottle?” she asked.

“He thinks it’s safe to use on folks less attuned than Percy,” said Mr. Lonergan.

“But I’m glad you brought that up,” said Mr. Dolarhyde. “Irene, I have a proposition for you and Percy both. Would you say you’re – well, attuned, like Jake just said – to things like that bottle of laudanum? More so than most folks? Do you think you’d recognize a corrupted flask if you could get close enough to it?”

“I suppose so,” she said.

“I thought so. See, here’s the thing. That riverboat in the wilderness? It’s just chock-full of things of all sorts, and at this very minute, according to Doc, it’s being stripped by every cowboy and Indian who can find his way to it. And that means hereabouts is about to get contaminated by all sorts of fear-addled doo-dads and what-nots and God-knows-whats. What I’d like you and Percy to do, when his duties and studies allow of course, is to see if you can get a sense of where these things are landing. The more powerfully affected ones, at least. I’ll give you a budget to buy or trade for what you can, and we’ll find a cave to secure them in. What do you think?”

Irene was a bit ashamed that her first thought was that Mr. Dolarhyde was setting out to build himself an unusual arsenal. But, no, compared to a Colt or a Spencer carbine, there wasn’t much damage a little vial could do, no matter how it affected some folks.

No, this was a chance to do what she’d always wanted, she realized: to handle objects, to see and feel and understand them in every way they could be. “Yes, yes sir, I’d like that.”

"I already told him I was up for it,” said Percy, looking a bit scared but also kind of eager. “When Pa can spare me.”

“Great, then you’re a team,” said Mr. Dolarhyde. “Let’s just see what's out there for the finding.”

* * * THE END * * *