The Skull and The Saber

The Skull and The Saber

Seth Rankin stood with his fists raised over a heap of a man glowing orange in the light of a bonfire. A roar of voices filled his ears and washed out a whimper coming through a mouth full of blood. The man at his feet began to crawl away. As Seth’s hands lowered to his sides, blood ran down his fingers on to the trampled grass below.

As the chorus behind him swelled, the whimpering man began to growl like a wounded animal trying to summon up what was left of the fight deep inside. Gathering his feet beneath him, the man slowly staggered back up to his feet, and Seth Rankin, once again, clinched his bloody fists.

* * *

- Four Days Earlier -

Seth Rankin tore through the hills of North Georgia headed for his hometown with a beautiful woman sitting in the passenger seat. As the small highway straightened out in front of him, he stole a glance at his girlfriend. Rina Shah stared ahead, lost in thought. Her jet-black hair laid softly against the brown skin on her face.

She caught Seth looking and shot a smile back at him.  His knuckles were ghost white in the afternoon sun where they clutched the steering wheel. Whatever sunlight touched his Scotch-Irish skin never stayed for long. Seth was milk pale with dark brown hair and his gray-blue eyes could almost seem cold if you didn’t know the warm heart behind them. Seth returned the smile and cast his pensive gaze back toward the road. Shade fell back on the car as the forest seemed to rise up and form a wall of pines around them.

After a few miles, the woodsy corridor receded into a clearing. At its outer edge, a large wooden sign stood to greet the would-be guests of the small southern berg. On the sign, was the town seal, carved and painted, big enough to be seen clearly by incoming traffic. Within a circle bearing the town’s name was a winding river flowing from a range of green mountains. At a break in the mountains, the sun shone through, casting its beams on a saber standing at the edge of the river. “Oh my God, there it is!” Rina exclaimed.

“Yes,” Seth replied, “there it is.”                                   

Most people didn’t see it right away. Some people never saw it at all. Those that did see it, would forever direct their gaze to the place in the ground where the saber came to rest. To the casual glance, it looked like a rock, next to a few smaller rocks, but all you had to do was tilt you head a bit the left and you quickly realized that what the sword had come to rest in was no stone. What it really was, half in the ground, was a human skull.

The words on the sign read “Welcome to Garfield’s Crossing. Gateway to Appalachia.”

Not far beyond the sign, the tiny highway began to bend. Several rows of rooftops appeared on the horizon separated by the roads that branched out like veins coursing down the arm of the small town. Barring the high clock tower of the courthouse, no building was taller than two stories.

“This looks nicer than you described!,” Rina said.

Seth looked over the landscape and replied, “They spend a little money from time to time. Gotta keep the buildings pretty to keep the tourists coming in.”

Putting on his best tour guide voice by cranking up his already notable North Georgia accent, Seth began to give his infamous ten-cent tour of his home town, “So what you see before you is Classic Americana with a light smattering of Old World Europe. See...the townsfolk have always been of two minds. On one hand, we can try to be like Helen to the East, a quaint reproduction of a Swiss-German village. On the other, we don’t quite have enough Germans to get the Town council on board, so it’s more just a general sampling of Western Europe. At least what we think it would be because most of these folks don’t travel and have never been to Europe or anywhere else outside of the South.”

“But what about the tourists?” asked Rina.

“They come from all over. As tourists do,” answered Seth, continuing with his friendly-tour-guide-voice. “However, the people that live here, mostly don’t travel too much. And certainly not to those sissy countries in Europe.”

“You have a much more diverse crowd here than I would have thought,” Rina said.

“Playing your favorite travelling game again?” Seth inquired.

“Yes,” Rina said with a laugh. Anytime Rina travelled to somewhere that was not a large urban metropolis, she liked to play a game she called “Count The Brown People.” Being South Asian, Rina could often go places outside the big cities and sometimes count the number of people who looked like her on both hands with a few fingers to spare.

Seth continued, “As I said before, we do get tourists from all over, in all shapes, sizes and colors.”

“Well color me impressed,” she quipped. “I was expecting a much more redneck crowd, based on how you described it.”

“Keep in mind, this is the main drag. Out in the residential areas, things lighten up a bit.”

“Duly noted. Are the crowds always this big, or just during the holiday seasons?”

“The crowds always get big in the Fall. Like all mountain towns, we got to have a big fall festival. Bikers come to get in few last rides before the weather gets too cold and before the leaves drop off the trees.”

A group of bikers came rumbling down the road. Rina winced at the roar of the engines.

“Do they have to be so loud?” she asked.

“Loud pipes save lives baby,” Seth said through a smirk. “Stick around here for a few days, that roar will be music to your ears.”

“Don’t count on it,” she answered with a sly smile.

At this time of the year, the downtown area of Garfield’s Crossing looked like a motorcycle and car show. Every other parking lot housed its share of bikes. Mostly Harley’s and Victory’s, with a smattering of Honda or Yamaha cruisers thrown in for good measure. Even the occasional chopper made an appearance. Seth’s favorite pastime when visiting his hometown was to walk down main street in the fall admiring the parade of iron horses that came to town in a thunderous line, only to leave again, allowing the roads to become oppressively quiet save for the occasional swish of cars passing through.

Seth drove down the remainder of Main Street down to where condos and hotels lined the river that came down from the mountain and cut through the town. He turned the car around and took a side street back across the big roads that ran through the “business district” as most called it. When the rows of buildings came to an end, a cross road came into view that ran long and straight all the way back to the woods.

“They call this Red Line Road,” said Seth pointing at the road running west toward the river. “Lots of car and motorcycle people come out here at night and have drag races starting back across the river.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” asked Rina.

“Not if you pay the sheriff’s office, from what I hear.”

“I see.”

“Some people even say it’s haunted.”

“What?”

“Yeah. They see if you come out alone on the right night, you can hear a car roaring down the road. You might even see it. More than a few people have had wrecks claiming they saw another car racing alongside them, but they never can find the other car.”

“Crazy.”

“You almost never see anybody come out here alone. At least not too late at night.”

“Didn’t you say that have ghost tours up here?” Rina asked.

“People come out this way in groups, but rarely after midnight. Same with the mines too. Actually, the old mines may be even worse. Hell, the whole Northwest side of town has seen more than its share of shady shit. From what I hear, moonshiners used to love this area back in the day.”

“You said your friend that lives here is on the northwest side of town, all by himself, right?”

“Not all by himself. His wife lives with him.”

“Oh. Well then…”

“Trust me. When you meet them, you’ll see. Even the meanest spirits would steer clear of that house.”

“I can’t wait.”

“Today the parents. Tomorrow, we visit Lord Vulcan,” Seth said reaching over to hold her hand.

***

The Rankin family had been waiting to meet Rina. Seth’s car was barely parked in the driveway before they came out to greet them. Even if she hadn’t already seen photos of them, she would have known that Keith Rankin, who led the greeting party, was obviously Seth’s father. He was just an older version of his son. Tall and lean, but slightly heavier in the middle, like a stick insect with a belly. The man had fierce brown eyes and grayish white hair that was longer than you would expect for a man his age.

Keith was followed by Seth’s mother, Elizabeth, who had a round, kind, face framed by short red hair with a thick white streak in the front.  Keith gave his son a hug and gave Rina a gentlemanly handshake.  Elizabeth gave both Seth and Rina a hug.

Elizabeth turned to Rina and spoke, “We heard you met Lisa in New Orleans, on one of your first trips together.”

“Yes ma’am.  She was very nice.  A really talented musician too.”

“Yeah, Seth’s baby sister went to New Orleans right after graduating college and never comes back to Georgia except on holidays, when she can afford to.  She was really sorry she couldn’t be here today. And she had nothing but nice things to say about you.”

Rina smiled “Aw, that’s very sweet of her.”

“Well, she claims to be a great judge of character so take it as high praise,” Elizabeth said kindly.  Up close, Rina could see where Seth got his eyes from.  Like her son, Elizabeth Rankin’s eyes were icy puddles that could positively light up with a smile. “What do you say we carry on this conversation indoors?”   Everyone agreed and made their way inside.

After Rina got the tour of the house, they all sat down to chat for bit.

Elizabeth turned to Rina, “Seth tells us you were born in London?”

“Yes, I was,” Rina answered. “But I grew up in Florida.”

“I was about to say, you don’t have an accent at all,” Keith chimed in.

“I actually sounded like a hick for a while, but I managed to shake it in college,” Rina said with smile.

“What part of Florida did you grow up in?” Elizabeth continued.

“Just outside of Orlando.”

“Lots of tourists and rednecks,” Seth said.  “I told her she’d manage just fine in this town.”

***

The cafe was nestled up against the Crimson River which ran through the town on the western side, sometimes referred to by locals as “The Handle.” While studying a map of the town in Keith Rankin’s office, Seth pointed out to Rina that Garfield’s Crossing was shaped like a hatchet. The business district, along with the outskirts of the city, formed “the handle” and the residential district formed “the blade.”

“You want to see the heart of this town, you come to the Crimson River cafe,” said Keith. “Here’s where you get to see all the locals with a mix of all the tourists.  You can practically get a snapshot of what the town is like at any time of the year. Especially in the fall.”

On the opposite side of the river, the fall festival was in full swing.  Tents stood in rows forming little alleyways for tourists to roam through.  A few rides were scattered in the middle of all.  Tall lights were also set up to light the place up and night.

Seth had assured Rina that this was the place for people watching, if you did not want to just sit on a bench on Main Street randomly gawking at the passersby. While the inside of the restaurant was probably on the larger side of average, it did have a large covered, almost outsized, porch area that rarely seemed to go unfilled, especially on days when the weather was nice. The family had been seated somewhere in the middle of the porch. While they were waiting on their food, Seth scowled as his eyes locked on a group of people sitting at the outer edge of the porch.

“You see an old friend out there?” Rina inquired.

“Not exactly,” Seth said with an air of menace in his voice.

Elizabeth turned around looking over her shoulder to see what had caught her son’s eye. “Oh, it’s just him,” she snorted as she turned back around with her mood darkened considerably.

“Who is that?” Rina insisted.

“Nobody,” Seth said almost as if he was spitting the words out of his mouth like rancid food.

“Doesn’t sound like it’s nobody?” Rina asked.

Keith pointed to a man about Seth’s age with a muscular build and short sandy blonde hair. “That, my dear, is Jason Cozart.”

“Who is that?” Rina pressed.

“Did Seth ever tell you the full story behind our town seal?” asked Keith.

“He said it had to do with your family fighting for the Union during the Civil War,” Rina answered.

“So, he did but he didn’t,” replied Keith. “My son. The journalist. The writer. The storyteller. And yet he doesn’t seem to have any interest in his own town’s history.”

“Can we even prove that it actually happened?” Seth challenged. “Or is it just something we liked to tell people to get them off our backs because our family wore blue during the Civil War and most of the families around here wore gray.”

“Since you don’t want to tell it, I’ll tell it,” quipped Keith.

“If you insist,” said Seth, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands.

“The Rankin family was not always in the South. Just before the Civil War, we lived in Ohio. My great great grandfather James Rankin served with one future president James A. Garfield. As the Union Army came into Georgia from the Northwest, shortly after the Battle of Chickamauga, James Rankin made his way to the area that would one day become Garfield’s Crossing.”

Keith paused and looked back at Jason Cozart, who was downing a beer with his friends. He turned and continued, “Now, as legend has it, there were some Rebels who were intent on not going quietly into that good Southern night. Orders be damned.  A small group of them were caught on this very field behind us. Chiefly among them was one Henry Cozart. Now they say Henry and his band of miscreants were determined to die with their boots on. And even though James and his troops tried to get them to surrender to save what little honor they had a soldiers, the men fought. They said Henry Cozart was all but beaten right at the edge of the river, when he reached for a weapon and James Rankin put his saber through Henry’s skull.”

“And you guys made this your town seal?” Rina asked incredulously.

“Some of the locals always saw this as the ultimate defiance of the Confederacy and the very symbol of the North’s ‘aggression’ toward their way of life,” Keith elaborated.

“Being dead does kinda interfere with your ability to own slaves,” Seth interrupted.

“The Cozarts were once a prominent family in this town,” Keith curtly went on. “But after the war there wasn’t much left of them or the town. The other part of the story was that James met a woman passing through the town and he fell in love at first sight. After the war was over, James and a few of his men returned. James married that girl, hence this handsome family before you. And in spite of being carpetbaggers, they used their connections from up North to rebuild the town, which they eventually renamed after President Garfield after he was assassinated.”

“In a weird way, each side saw the town seal as a not-so-subtle-screw-you to the other,” Seth interjected. “The Yankee transplants saw it as their way of reminding the Rebels who actually won the war, and the Rebels saw it as a symbol of their undying devotion to the Great Lost Cause.”

“So, you do know this story,” Keith said with an air fatherly pride.

Seth looked at his father with a sly grin, and then back to Rina. “Now even though the Cozarts supposedly lost almost everything in the war, they were folk heroes to some of the people who still inhabited the town. Word has it that they even left for a brief time, but they came back. Right around the turn of the century. And sure enough, they had not forgotten the demise of their most famous Confederate kin. One night in the 1920’s, a few members of the Cozart family ran into the a few members of the Rankin family, back when bootleggin’ and moonshinin’ was all the rage. The problem of course that my great, great uncle, Abe Rankin, was a deputy and he caught some of the Cozarts at one of their stills. At least that’s what the legend says. While it was never proven, it was believed that one of the Cozarts shot and killed Abe. And because it was never proven, nobody went to jail for the crime.”

“Some time later, William Cozart, who was always thought to have been the shooter, turned up dead himself,” said Keith.

“How many times did you have to fight Jason’s father, Hollis growing up?” Seth asked his father.

“More than a few,” Keith answered. “One of those times was how I got this.” Keith pointed to a faint scar above his left eyebrow and smirked. “If you ever meet Hollis Cozart, you’ll find a scar on his cheek that I gave him in return.”

Rina turned back to Seth. “So that’s why you’re so into martial arts.”

“Growing up in this family you have to learn how to fight” Seth said.

“And what about the local cops?” Rina asked, frustration bubbling up in her voice.

“As long as nobody gets severely injured or killed, neither family ever really reports it,” Elizabeth chimed in, staring back coldly at her husband and son.

Rina could tell they had had this conversation before, but the pride of the Rankin men had won out.

Not far away, Jason Cozart and his crew got up from their table and exited the restaurant, leaving by a side exit on the porch. The Rankins watched him as he left. Rina noticed this, suspecting that a Rankin must always be aware of a Cozart.

***

After lunch, Seth and Rina drove westward past the river until they came to a large tract of land with a yet another modest ranch style house on it, but what made this home different was the large metal shed not too far away, painted jet black.

Surrounding the property was a fence made of gray wood and lined with barbed wire painted black. They arrived at the gate to find that not only was it lined with barbed wire as well, but there was also a galvanized bull’s skull that had been bolted onto the top beam of the gate. An intercom stood in front of the door at the side of the driveway. Seth pushed a button and looked back toward the house.

“Who is it?” a deep male voice growled through the tiny speaker.

“It’s me you ornery old fart! Let me in,” Seth barked.

Without a reply, the door slid open, and Seth drove up to the house. A slender woman with platinum blonde shoulder-length hair came out of the front door and walked toward them.  The few wrinkles she did have betrayed her age. Somewhere in her 40's, but bartenders had not yet started carding her as flattery for extra tips. Her pale skin looked even paler next to the black t-shirt she wore tucked neatly into tight blue jeans which were, in turn, tucked into a pair of wicked, black cowboy boots.

Seth stepped out of the car, walked towards her slowly, and  gave her a hug.

“How you doin’ hon’?” the fair-haired woman said as her face broke into a large smile.

“How the hell are you? Still kickin’ around with that grumpy old bastard, I see,” Seth replied with a puckish grin.

“Can’t seem to get rid of him.”

“Like I told you, you keep feeding him he’s not gonna go away.”

“I guess,” she said with a sigh. “So is this the girl I’m hearing so much about?”

“This is Rina.”

“Hi Rina, I’m Jamie,” the pale-skinned woman said.

Rina smiled and went to shake Jamie’s hand, and instead got a hug.

Jamie stepped back and gave Rina a good look over. “My goodness you are pretty.”

“Thank you. You’re not too bad yourself,” Rina said almost visibly taken aback by the compliment.

“I do the best I can with what God gave me,” Jamie said. She looked back to Seth. “Well done, sir. I think you can find Sam on your own.”

“I have a sneaking suspicion as to where he is,” he chuckled starting back towards the shed.

Looking at the shed up close, Rina saw the black paint on the shed shimmering like obsidian. A sign hung above the door. Painted in white, a bull’s skull with the horns wrapped in barbed wire was at the center of a black background, surrounded by the words painted in white: “Blaylock’s Ironworks, Veteran Owned & Operated. Est. 1999.”

Seth and Rina entered the structure, and Rina’s eyes went wide. Lining the walls was an arsenal of custom made weapons of all kinds. Knives, swords, and axes each with their own unique details. Enough to equip a Medieval army.

“That is amazing,” Rina said, unable to take her eyes off the wall.

“Thanks,” replied the low growling voice that they had heard through the intercom.

Rina turned to see a short man with a thick beard, a cross between a redneck biker and an oversized dwarf from the Lord of The Rings movies.

“Rina Shah, meet Samuel Houston Blaylock, a.k.a. Lord Vulcan. He is the proprietor of this establishment and the maker of all these bad-ass creations,” Seth motioned to the stocky fellow slowly approaching them.

Rina smiled and stretched out a hand toward Sam. “Hi, it’s so nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Don’t believe a word of it,” grumbled Sam. “It’s probably all true.”

Sam wore a black t-shirt and black cargo pants behind a black smock that was covered in dirt, soot, and what appeared to be wood shavings. His beard was black with heavy gray streaks at his chin. It was neatly trimmed at the sides and long in the front. His head was covered by a black bandana. He pulled off his work glove and extended his hand to Rina, reaching out with a well-muscled arm covered in tattoos. “And if I may say so,” continued Sam, “you are way too pretty for this stretched-out runt.”

Rina smiled and laughed politely. “Your work is really impressive. Seth showed me some pictures online, but I don’t think they do it justice, and the pictures are really good.”

“Thanks,” said Sam.

As they looked around the shop, Rina could tell why Seth liked Old Sam so much.  Judging by his work, Mr. Blaylock was a man of wide interests with a taste for things both classically American and exotic. There were weapons of all kinds from various European and Asian cultures. While it was easy to see why these two get along, Rina wanted to know how they met.   

As the story was told, one day while Sam was puttering around on the outskirts of town looking for a place to build his shop, a skinny little kid came running through the woods followed by a few more kids who were not so skinny. Seth had been on a run, practicing for the high school cross country team, when Jason Cozart and a couple of his goons saw him and decided to have some fun at his expense. Seeing as Sam didn’t like the 3-to-1 odds Seth was facing that day, he intervened. When one of the larger punks took a swing at him, Sam put him down with some nasty arm lock he had learned in the Philippines. Made him cry like a baby.

Hearing of his good deed, Keith Rankin went to thank the newcomer to their town and learned he was keen to start a business. Seeing how Sam may have saved his son from serious bodily harm, given the history between the Cozarts and the Rankins, Keith agreed to invest in Sam’s business on the condition he taught his son some of the moves he learned from his time in the Navy. As it turned out, Sam knew quite a bit, and because he was set on staying in town and building a home for himself and his new lady, he took the offer. The rest of the story was what now stood before them.

In spite of his eternal fondness for his home state of Texas, Sam had become quite the student of the history of his adopted home. He was chock full of random facts and trivia involving Garfield’s Crossing.

“Did you know there’s actually a law on the books that allows you to challenge someone to ‘mutual combat’?” Sam said.

“You’re kidding me,” Seth said. “When did that happen?”

“It’s been around for a while. Something to do with all the bikers in town. I think they wanted to just be able to have it out, without getting arrested all the time. Local government likes to keep it quiet for fear of rampant violence, but if you invoke the law, you’re good to scrap as long as there is a member of law enforcement around and you don’t actually kill the other guy.”

“And the sheriff knows about this?”

“Know about it? From what I’ve heard, he’s refereed a few of them from time to time.”

“Abernathy Jackson?” Seth asked incredulously.

“Indeed. He knows you gotta let folks blow off steam from time to time. As long as nobody dies or goes to the hospital, he’s a pretty reasonable guy,” Sam answered.

“I wondered how a black guy managed to become sheriff of this little redneck town,” said Seth.

“Your sheriff is black?” Rina blurted out.

“Surprised?” asked Sam with a big smirk.

“Actually, yes.” Rina sat back, letting this information sink it. “This town just gets more interesting by the minute.”

***

In no rush to get home after leaving Sam’s, Rina and Seth stopped by a bar that fancied itself an Irish pub. The owners named it the Blarney Stone. Most people in town just called it the “BS.” Rina and Seth took a seat at the bar. Rina ordered an old-fashioned, while Seth began by sampling whiskeys. After Seth finished his third sample, Rina excused herself and went to the restroom.

As Rina disappeared into the ladies room, a familiar voice rose above the hum of the patrons.  “Marty! Get me another beer!”

Seth knew the voice without having to see his face, and then suddenly the voice saw him.

“Well, well, well. Look who it is.”

Seth turned to see Jason Cozart standing right next to him.

“Seth Rankin, back from the big city! Are you drinking one of those sissy-ass cocktails they serve to try and impress the city folks?” Jason slurred having obviously had more than few drinks of his own.

“Just straight whiskey” Seth replied now suddenly more aware of his buzz than before.

“I heard you are out travelling the country working for newspapers and magazines and such.”

“I work as a journalist from time to time,” Seth answered.

Jason snorted. “Figures. You bastards are trying to ruin the goddamned country, with all your fake news bullshit.”

“Yeah. God forbid we tell people about what’s actually going on.”

“God damned country is under siege and fuckers like you just wanna give it all away.”

“I don’t want to give all away. I just want people that don’t look like me to have a shot at some of the good shit we have. And besides, it’s not like peckerwood assholes like you haven’t had the run of the place for a few hundred years.”

Rina walked back up to the bar and recognized quickly who had come to visit.

Jason turned to face the brown-skinned beauty who had come to stand at his rival’s side. “My, my, my, aren’t you pretty? Is she with you, Seth?”

A scowl began to set in on Seth’s face. “Yes. This is my girlfriend Rina. Rina, meet Jason Cozart.”

Jason laughed. “But of course, you had to be with a fucking Muslim!”

“Watch it,” said Seth sliding off his chair, coming to stand between Jason and Rina.

“Actually, I was raised Hindu, you moron,” Rina replied sharply.

“Where were you born, if I might ask?” Jason said casting his drunken gaze firmly on Rina.

“London, if you must know,” Rina answered.

“That don’t sound like a British accent you got there, honey.”

“I actually grew up in Florida.”

“And what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a lawyer,” Rina said.

“A lawyer and a journalist! Hot damn!” Jason laughed.

“And what do you do, Mr. Cozart,” asked Rina.

“If it please the court, I am between jobs,” Jason answered. “I am currently unemployed because they shipped my job off to a country full of sand niggers, like you.”

“Oh, fuck you!” Rina snapped.

Jason reached out and shoved Rina, knocking her to the floor. Before Jason could turn, Seth grabbed his arm and threw a hard palm shot into Jason’s face. Cozart staggered back with blood pouring from his nose and tears from his eyes.  

Seth looked to Rina, who was being helped off the floor by some people nearby. He reached out to help her up. “You okay?” he asked.

“Look out!” she shouted.

Seth felt a fist land hard against his neck. He doubled over as a loud ring filled his ears. Dizzy and dazed, but still he stood. Cozart had backed away to admire his handy work, but further retreated  when Seth turned around.

“Still standing,” Seth said, as the room and the patrons nearby gradually came back into focus.

Jason Cozart looked down at his shirt, at the trail of blood, and touched his sore nose. He leered at Seth, “I’m gonna kill you, and that brown whore of a girlfriend.”

“Not if I kill you first,” Seth answered.

A loud voice boomed, “What the devil is all this?”

Everyone turned to see a large black man in a policeman’s uniform making his way through the crowd. Abernathy Jackson stood six foot three and was built like a linebacker.

“Well God damn, if it isn’t the prodigal son of Garfield’s Crossing and my favorite weekend resident of the county jail,” sneered Abernathy.

“Evening, sheriff. I was just getting reacquainted with my old friend here,” said Jason.

“I just bet you were, Mr. Cozart.” Abernathy came to stand between the two men, and looked back toward the bartender. “Give me some details, Marty?”

“Jason came over and started talking to this guy,” pointing to Seth “they exchanged words and he pushed her,” pointing to Rina. “Next thing you know he drills him” pointing back to Seth and then to Jason “and then this asshole sucker punches him while he’s seeing to his girl.”

“Is that right?” Abernathy said, looking over Jason Cozart. Turning back to Seth Rankin he asked “you want to press charges Mr. Rankin?”

“No,” said Seth. “I want mutual combat.”

***

The following day, Seth Rankin and Jason Cozart were both at the sheriff’s office. Abernathy Jackson was a man of the law, and two men declaring their desire for mutual combat was something he took quite seriously. Once you invoked that particular law, your grudge became a de facto legal proceeding.  Both men had to be on record of some sort, either a signed document or video, declaring their intention to fight one another.  Rina accompanied them to the proceeding, because she was a lawyer and she wanted to see Jason Cozart get his face beaten without any legal repercussions towards her boyfriend.

While half of people in this situation backed out after they had some time to cool off,  in this particular case, Abernathy knew that neither man would be deterred, and actually hoped it might prevent something worse from coming down the line. When he first came to town, he had been told all about the famous feud between the Rankins and the Cozarts.  He laughed when he first heard it, but judging by the looks of the other officers that told him, he quickly realized it was not a joke. He had gotten to know members of both families. The Rankin’s were pleasant and seemed to pride themselves on almost being a little too cultured to be in this tiny mountain hamlet. And yet they stayed, for one reason he supposed: The Cozart’s, who were about as close to the stereotype of redneck Southerners as you could get. Legend has it that after the Rankins helped found Garfield’s Crossing out of the ashes of the Civil War, the Cozarts tried to come back with some good ol’ Klan to get things back in order, either out of spite or some misguided attempt to take back what they figured was rightfully theirs. At every turn, the Rankins opposed them along with their allies from up North. Someone had once said to Abernathy that Garfield’s Crossing was a town with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  The Rankins had the wings. And the Corzarts held the pitchforks.

***

Seth and Jason had agreed to fight at the edge of the fairgrounds in the field by Crimson River. Word had already gotten around town and a crowd gathered quickly when word got out both men were on the premises. Past the stands, past the rides, and the tents where the festivities were held, an empty field beckoned.  It was flat, grassy and had enough room for bonfires to be lit without the threat of burning everything else down.  A warm orange glow with streaks of artificial white light permeated the empty space awaiting the two combatants.  

Seth arrived with Rina, as well as his father and mother. As much as Keith did not want to watch his son fight, he’d be damned if he didn’t show and Jason’s father did.  Sure enough, Jason arrived with his father, Hollis Cozart, in tow.  Keith hadn’t seen Hollis for quite some time. Word had it that Hollis had moved over to Lafayette, not too far away in the same county. There was nothing left for him in Garfield’s Crossing except for his hatred of the Rankins and he had his son now to do whatever dirty work was left for him. Keith had heard that Hollis’ wife had died of cancer years ago and that was the only time in his life that he’d ever felt so much as a twinge of sympathy for the miserable bastard.  All he had left was only his son, ne’er-do-well that he was.

Sheriff Abernathy Jackson arrived at the predesignated spot with his deputy, Mazzy Euler, at his side. In contrast to the Abernathy, Mazzy was a short wiry white guy who looked like he only ate one meal a day and it was probably a snack. Mazzy didn’t look like much to most people, but Seth recognized something in him. Something about the way he walked with a sort of quiet confidence of a man who really did not want a fight, but would fight like a wildcat if he was forced to.

As a crowd gathered around them, the sheriff turned to face the fighters and the crowd. Abernathy was intimidating in bright sunlight, but in the ghostly hue of the flames, he looked almost terrifying. His fierce eyes discouraged any challengers.

“We’re here tonight to witness this fight in accordance with the laws of Garfield’s Crossing,” he said in a booming voice that quickly cut through the hum of the crowd. He looked at the fighters and continued, “gentlemen, step forward on either side of me.”  

Abernathy took a minute and looked both men over to make sure they were wearing proper attire in accordance with the law.  Each wore jeans with no belt, as belts with metal buckles were forbidden.  He made sure neither of them were wearing jewelry or hard toed shoes.  Seth wore a t-shirt and Jason wore a tank top, probably to show off his well-muscled arms. At the sheriff’s insistence, both men had their hands wrapped like professional boxers.

After finishing his inspection,  Abernathy spoke “Seth Rankin and Jason Cozart, you have both expressed your desire for to fight under the town law of mutual combat.   You have both agreed to the following rules. No eye gouging. No fish hooking. No biting or no kicks to the groin. In accordance with the law, if either of you surrenders by tap out, yells stop, or falls unconscious this fight will be over. Otherwise, once we begin the fight will continue as long as it has to until it is finished. Do you both understand?”

Each man nodded his head in agreement.

“Okay gentlemen,” Abernathy shouted. “On my command, you may begin.”

Seth raised his fists and got in his fighting stance. His right leg moved forward has he came up on his toes just a bit, getting ready to move. Jason raised his fists and stayed square.

“Fight!” Abernathy shouted moving away to clear a path between the fighters.

The cheers began immediately as the two men circled each other. Jason Cozart crouched and charged forward trying to tackle his opponent. Seth saw it coming and sidestepped out of the way allowing Jason to plow into the ground, sliding on his chest as he did.

The crowd laughed and so did Seth. “Really?” he chuckled. “That’s your big move? Like I couldn’t see that coming from a mile away.”

Jason picked himself up and turned back to Seth. “You think you’re funny, huh, you little bitch?” Jason said.

“No, but that weak-ass tackle sure was,” Seth said steeling himself for the next attack.

Jason pressed forward again, this time with a little more poise. He came at Seth with his hands up, and caught a kick in the leg that almost buckled him. Unfortunately for Seth Rankin, Jason Cozart had legs like small tree trunks.  He took the pain and kept coming.

Seth threw a jab that landed on Jason’s face, which was still sore from the palm strike he had given him the night before.  He followed it with a hard cross that landed on Jason’s arms that came up and covered his face.

The young Cozart reached out and grabbed Seth, pushing forward with everything he had. As soon as Jason got his arms around Seth, he felt the young Rankin’s arm reach around his back. Before he knew it, Jason felt Seth’s hip bump him from below as his arm pulled down against him. Jason Cozart felt his feet leave the ground and he quickly was spun head over heels landing with a hard thud against the grassy field.

Seth Rankin stepped back, admiring the textbook hip toss he had just performed. Jason Cozart laid on the ground for a second waiting for the pain to wash through him.  As the crowd began to roar, Jason Cozart climbed back to his feet and came forward again. The stocky young man with the blond hair began to swing wildly hoping his bulk would win the day against the lanky dark-haired fellow who didn’t even back up as he came in.

Seth covered up against the barrage of hillbilly haymakers that rained down on him and fired back a couple of uppercuts which didn’t quite hit him. A sharp ache pierced his skull as one of the haymakers finally hit its mark. Jason clearly had no training but what he did have was size and ferocity.  He fired off shot after shot towards Seth, who could no longer just ignore the two thick ham hocks attached to the end of Jason’s arms.

As he covered his head, Seth felt a fist land hard in his side. He tried to clench the muscles along his ribs to dissipate the blow, but he was already a beat too late.  Unable to just straighten up, he remained tilted just long enough for another wild punch to find its way home to his face.

Seth fell to the ground and instinctively covered his head, waiting for a punch that didn’t come. He quickly looked back to see Jason catching his breath while admiring his handiwork and the roar of the crowd. He felt something trickle down the side of his face and reached up to touch it. Blood was now coming from above his left eye. Seth rose to his feet as Jason closed back in on him.

“Not getting tired are you, Jason?” Seth spoke.

“That’s alright, this is all about to be over anyway,” Jason laughed while still trying to catch his breath.

Cozart once again charged at Rankin with his arms out. Seth stepped outside and threw a hard knee into the Jason’s ribs. Doubling over slightly, Cozart instinctively reached down to cover his ribs, only to leave his face open to his opponent’s hard, sharp elbow. Seth’s blows tore a gash across Jason’s cheek and landed with a crack against the bridge of his nose.

Dazed, Jason tried to cover his face only to catch another knee, this time in the sternum. He tried to keep his hands up as Rankin peppered his face with punch after punch, somehow finding his way through his meager defenses. As his hands began to fall away from his face, Seth unleashed a right hook that landed with a loud packing thud on Jason’s jaw.

Abernathy Jackson stepped forward as Jason Cozart landed against the ground. He was obviously hurt but something was keeping him awake. Seth looked at his wrapped hands in the firelight. They were covered in blood. He slowly lowered his hands and looked back to Jason, with the crowd roaring behind him.

Hollis Cozart had made his way back toward his son. Mazzy Euler stood close by to make sure Hollis didn’t charge onto the field himself. Hollis shouted something toward Jason. The noise was too loud to make out Hollis’ words but Seth could easily imagine what he was saying.

That was when Jason Cozart began to groan. Quickly, the groan became a growl and Jason Cozart began to stagger back up to his feet.  And once again, Seth Rankin raised his fists.

The young Cozart turned to face his opponent. “We ain’t done yet!” he said spitting out the words along with the blood in his mouth.

“You are done. Don’t make me hurt you,” Seth warned.

“You’re the one that’s gettin’ hurt!” Jason charged forward with all his might, hammering and clubbing at Seth’s arms as he tried to push him off.  

As Seth tried to back away he felt a pair of fingers rake his eyes. Pain shot through his head and tears clouded his eyes as he pedaled back. Instinctively he raised his arms covering his face with his elbows out. He began to furiously swing his elbows while covering his face. Jason Cozart once again threw punches only to have them land with a hard crack against the elbows of the young Rankin.  

Feeling his fingers breaking against Seth’s limbs, Jason howled and tried to back up but this time it was Seth who grabbed him. Rankin fired another knee into Cozart’s unprepared gut. This one bent Jason over.

Half-blind, and with fury in his heart, Seth Rankin felt Jason Cozart’s head begin to drop. Keeping a hand on the back of Jason’s head, with all his might, he threw another knee upward. The knee landed against Jason’s skull and made a sickening crunch as Jason’s head was propelled back followed by the rest of him.

Jason landed on the ground in front of his father and did not move. Seth stood back slowly regaining the sight in his eyes. The crowd quickly died down as Abernathy Jackson rushed over to see to the young man now lying motionless on the ground. Mazzy Euler stood next to Hollis Cozart who had rushed over to his son.

Seth’s parents and his girlfriend quickly came to his side as he walked up to his fallen opponent. Staring down, blood trickled down the face of Jason Cozart who now had a dent the size of a baseball in his forehead.

The sheriff and his deputy did their best to disperse the crowd as EMT’s came and collected Jason Cozart to put him in the back of an ambulance which was waiting on the scene per Abernathy’s request. Hollis Cozart never even looked back at the Rankins, staying focused on his son as he led away by the medics and the deputy.

Seth Rankin watched this all with a sick feeling he could not quite explain. His parents had let him know that everyone had seen the eye gouge. Abernathy backed them up on it. Rina assured him that he had done what he had to do under the circumstances. God only knows what Jason Cozart might have done to him while he was blinded. Even with Abernathy right there.

The crowd wandered back toward the fall festival still buzzing about what many of them had just seen. The Rankin family rode to the hospital. Seth had to get stitches over his left eye and would now have a scar just like his father. Keith Rankin joked that the Cozart’s always did love throwing big right hands.

Word had it that Jason Cozart had been taken to a facility outside of town to be looked after, and that was all anyone knew. The Rankin’s eventually went back home, where Seth cleaned himself up and tried to go back to sleep, to no avail.

Rina found him sitting outside on the porch, long after his parents had turned in. “You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah. I guess,” he said.

“What’s on your mind?”

“He was the last?”

“What do you mean?”

“Jason Cozart. He was the last in the family. He didn’t have any brothers or sisters.”

“So you think he’s the end of the line?”

“I mean, if he’s hurt that bad…”

“Stop it,” Rina said in a firm but loving tone.  “At any point he could have stopped. You gave him the opportunity to stop, and he wouldn’t.”

“I’ve spent almost my whole life hating the son of a bitch, and now I’m just praying he doesn’t die. Or that he isn’t a vegetable.”

“You worried about his father retaliating?”

“Absolutely.”

Rina got up and stood in front of him. “From everything I’ve seen here, your family has been a beacon of light in this town. And the Cozarts live to get in your way whenever it suites them. I think part of why you’re a good writer is that you always try to see the good in people, even when you probably shouldn’t.”

“You know...Dad once told me that life is just making choices and living with them,” Seth said.

“I think you’ve mentioned that once or twice. It certainly applies here.”

“I guess it does.”

“Yeah,” Rina said sitting back down next to Seth.

“You weren’t too horrified, by what you saw out there?” Seth asked as if he were afraid of the answer.

“It wasn’t pretty, but I never have to worry about whether I have a man who’ll fight for me,” Rina answered with a smile. She put her arm around him.

Seth grunted as the pain of the fight started to sink in all over. “Definitely not,” he answered.

“Still want to leave first thing in the morning?”

“Absolutely. I wish I could choose to leave this town and never come back.”

“But I know you won’t,” Rina said. “Seems like there always needs to be a Rankin in Garfield’s Crossing.”

“Certainly seems like you get it. Us. And this place.”

“Yeah, and I chose to come along.”

“Yes, you did.”

“As long as we don’t have to live here.”

“There may have to always be a Rankin in Garfield’s Crossing, but I’m choosing to not be the one,” Seth stood up and gave Rina a kiss.

The following day, they awoke and packed up the car. Just before saying their goodbyes, Seth was called into his mother’s bedroom, where she gave him a small box. Seth opened it to reveal an antique wedding ring.

“I just wanted you to know I approve,” Elizabeth Rankin said. “If she wants the ring, it’s hers.”

“Thanks,” Seth said closing the box and tucking it away in his jacket. “It’s not like she doesn’t know what she’s getting into at this point.”

Elizabeth gave her son a gentle hug and walked him back out of the room. They met Keith and Rina by the car and said their goodbyes.

Rina sat behind at the wheel, steering the car out of town as she looked over to Seth who was leaning back in the passenger seat and starting to shut his eyes. “You didn’t want one more look back,” she asked.

“We’ll see it again soon enough I’m sure,” he sighed opening his eyes slightly. Seth said nothing as he reached up to tough the stitches above his left eye.  As they came up on the infamous sign at the edge of town, Rina took one hand off the wheel and touched Seth’s hand.  He looked at Rina, lifted her hand up and gave it a kiss.  

Seth leaned over in his seat and stole a quick glance in the rearview mirror.  As the town seal faded into the distance, he straightened up and finally shut his eyes.

 

THE END

© Novis Opera LLC 2017

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter One

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter One

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