A Fantasy-Western Serial
#8 - THE HANDSHAKE
Sheriff Troy could barely stand, his wounds bleeding deep red through his trousers. Reed rolled over a barrel for him to sit down on. He nearly kicked it away, but sighed heavily and set himself down as gently as possible.
"Damn that Reinheart! If I was ten years younger I could have slaughtered him!"
"Let me help you."
The old man sighed again and waved him away. "Don't worry about me. I'm done."
"No! Uncle Troy, don't die! I don't got anyone else left," his nephew said.
Troy smiled patiently and motioned for the young boy to come over. He gave him a comforting hug, "Now, now. Don't mean I'm done with life yet, Curtis. I'm just done being Sheriff, that's all."
"But what about your niece, and the others?" Reed asked.
"Well now, can't do much for them draggin along a bleedin leg, now can I, Mr. Reed?"
"Then who will go?"
"Look around, seed for brains." Troy gestured to the people around them.
The wounded were getting up now, dragging themselves about, helping others where they could, leaning on each other for support as those not so lucky wasted away on the ground, some with hands reaching to the sky even as they breathed their last.
"You holler if you see anybody fit to take on that posse. Cause I don't see nobody. Besides, we gotta bury the dead here. Don't need disease on top of everything else."
"Then I shall go."
"You're serious?" Troy glared at him in disbelief.
"Of course." Reed couldn't understand his response.
"Heh, then you're crazier than you look! Dagnabbit, you're not even armed! Matter of fact, you even know how ta shoot a gun in the first place?"
"I do not know."
"Ha! And you're all set to just run in there, huh? Reinheart's men will gun you down before you even get to his gates, greenhorn," he said, emphasizing the green aspect. Reed didn't understand that word, but had a feeling it was a human insult of some kind. He frowned.
"Then perhaps you can teach me how to wield a gun," he offered.
"You? You want me?" Troy threw back his head and laughed long and hard until it hurt too much, clutching first his stomach and then his leg. After a few moments he got a hold of himself. "Teach you, huh?" He said after wiping some tears away, as if it was a great joke he wanted to hear again.
"Why is that so humorous?" Are all humans like this, he thought to himself.
"Awful thick, ain't ya?" he said, but Reed had a feeling it was another of those rhetorical questions humans were so fond of. He wisely did not reply.
"And mighty serious too, by the looks of you. You truly mean to be a gunslinger then?" He asked, this time the mirth gone from his voice.
"If that is what it takes to face Reinheart, I will do it."
"Tell you what, greenhorn," he said, finally being serious, Reed could tell by the look in his eyes, "I might take you up on that offer. But you gotta do something for me first to show your willing to get your hands dirty."
"Right then. First off, gather all the ladies from their hiding place. Make sure they're alright. We're gonna need their help for sure, patching up whoever's not dead or carried off. Then, since you're the most able-bodied of us men-folk, you get the honor of buryin' the dead. All of 'em, mind you, don't matter none which side they were fighting for. It's the proper thing to do. There's a wheelbarrow behind the saloon and our makeshift cemetery we started at the end of the street. You do that for us and I'll consider your application as my pupil. Agreed?" He offered his hand.
Reed understood this gesture and shook his hand, wincing when Troy squeezed his hand hard. He quickly pulled away, afraid he would rip off his hand.
"You call that a handshake!? You're a floppy fish!" He laughed again and now Reed realized this was an insult, although he didn't understand why.
"A man's only as sturdy as his handshake. Remember that, greenhorn. Think of it as a free first lesson for ya. Now, try it again."
Reed flexed his fingers gingerly before nervously taking hold of Troy's hand again.
"Now squeeze like you mean to pop my fingers off!"
Unsure at first, he gripped a little harder, but strengthened when he felt Troy's fingers clamp down like a vice. He could feel his veins pulsing, shaking his palm. "That's it, greenhorn! Now shake!"
The difference such a thing made to the odd gesture shocked him. It had power behind it now. It meant something to him. It took a long moment before they let go.
"There! That's how you shake a man's hand. Now I know you're serious. You shake like that from now on and people will respect you for it. I guarantee it," Troy said, showing off a grin that seemed more fitting for a timber wolf. For some reason though, it made Reed smile too. There was something about this old man he definitely liked. It was then he realized it was what he meant by respect.
Reed focused intensely on his duties and did not stop until he had done everything that Troy had asked of him. After all, he was no stranger to the dead and had buried so many of his kind. Even so, as he buried the men, something stirred deep within his heart. Maybe they were more than mere humans to him now. Not in all ways but some, even in death, they were like his own kind. He thought on this for a long time.
When he had finished his tasks, the sun was beginning to set and a cold wind blew through the town as the villagers set up a makeshift bonfire at the end of town where he had arrived. He walked slowly, feeling the aches echoing all over him. He was so tired, but he kept going. Tonight he would sleep well at last. He was sure of it.
Troy was looking much better now that his leg was bandaged up. His cheeks were even rosy as he sat on an old rocking chair that faced the fire, but not close enough to catch any of its sparks. Reed didn't dare come any closer than he had, still feeling a primal fear of the open, unbridled flames, their heat pressing against his face in waves. Bits of the broken furniture peeled off in ashes within the fire's core, curling, still glowing hot.
"First thing tomorrow," Troy said as he offered Reed a bit of food, "I'm gonna make a gunslinger out of you, greenhorn."
Continue to Part 9?