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CHAPTER 28 – Lessons

Charlie hooked his arm around Vonnie’s waist and winked when she smiled up at him. Her smile could still get his blood pounding. However, with everyone standing around them, he resisted the temptation to start something. Instead, he turned to his other side where Billy Ray stood mumbling and grumbling.

“Aw, come on, man,” Charlie said. “Quit your gripin’ and give the guy a chance. You just might learn something.”

“Humph! Not likely he ….”

Billy Ray’s words beyond that were unintelligible, so Charlie turned his attention to Nate who stood before the gathering in a large expanse of brown lawn that was part of the Victorian’s back yard.

Most of the current inhabitants of The Judge’s house were present. Evan Holm’s considerable recovery from his loss was largely credited to Leroy Abernathy, who had taken the lethargic man under his wing. About equal in medium height, with Leroy outweighing Evan by at least fifty pounds, they made as odd a pair as Charlie and Billy Ray. Charlie seldom saw one without the other.

Even Lila sat nearby in the shade of a tree next to Ronald. The little guy sure seemed to have taken to the girl, and she to him. Every once in a while, Charlie noticed Matti glaring at Billy Ray’s friend – just like she was doing now – and he couldn’t understand why. He seemed to be just a nice little guy, kinda quiet and polite. Maybe Matti was jealous of the attention he gave to Lila and Emmie. He did always seem to be with one or the other.

Jared had started out next to Lila, but then had moved forward a bit to see and hear better, and also to stand next to Rachel. Charlie suppressed a chuckle at the sight of the boy’s face whenever his eyes lit on the beautiful blond girl that was fairly close to his age. As his memories recalled how he had reacted when he first met Vonnie in high school, Charlie could almost feel the butterflies fluttering in the boy’s stomach.

Claire, from the kitchen, claimed she was too old and slow to be trying to learn how to fight, so she stayed inside with Charlie’s new son. Claire’s usual kitchen helper, Doreen, was even older and slower, so she stayed inside, too, where they worked on putting lunch together.

When he had everyone’s attention, Nate said, “I’ve only got four swords; although, I have hopes of finding others. I may have mentioned a time or two that I had a friend here in town that was also involved in my role-playing hobby.”

Charlie was pretty sure that everyone had heard more than a time or two, either firsthand or second, Nate’s descriptions of the treasures he had been retrieving from the ruins of his friend’s house, and a wave of light laughter swept through the assembly.

The leather-faced old man went on, “He had quite a collection of medieval weaponry, many authentic pieces and quite a few replicas. Now, when I say replicas, I don’t mean just cheap pot-metal or flimsy sheet metal imitations. These replicas will be worth the search. If I can find them, we will have a real treasure. They’re blades of the best modern stainless steel, crafted by fine sword makers to exact specifications, quality weapons not just equal to the originals but surpassing them. They’re called replicas only because they’re patterned after actual or legendary weapons of old. Old Tom’s house was pretty well destroyed. It appears, though, that a good many of his things probably survived, the metal ones, anyway. It’s just a matter of digging through the ashes. It was a big, old house, not a lot different from ours, here, and he didn’t have all of his things in one spot, so it may take awhile.

“However, not everyone will find a three-pound, three-foot long butcher knife all that easy to use. Many of you – if not all – will probably find it difficult to actually go hacking at another person. And, swords really are butcher knives. Despite the glamour that Hollywood lavished on them, actual medieval battles tended to be pretty gruesome events. It would take a stout heart to pursue the fight after the stench of that first, gory gush of hot blood, even if it’s from the other fellow. I’ve found a few battle-axes, too, but they’re even messier than swords. So, unless your opponent is coming at you with a sword, you having one but reluctant to use it would likely even be a disadvantage. Once I’ve seen how you handle things, I’ll probably have a better feel of who might be able to use the few swords and axes I find. So, instead of passing out the swords I’ve been able to salvage, I want to show you something else.”

He reached down to a pick up a wooden pole from among several piled near his feet.

“If you have ever seen a Robin Hood movie, you will have seen a quarterstaff in use. Friar Tuck was pretty handy with one. They’re nothing but a length of strong, seasoned wood, not a lot different from a shovel handle. As a matter of fact, that’s what these are, a bunch of shovel handles from a hardware store. Most of them are hardly charred at all.

“One benefit of quarterstaffs is that they serve equally well as walking staffs, so anyone can carry them about without looking like you’re looking for a fight. Once you learn how to use them, you will find yourselves taking them everywhere. And, you should. With the way things are, and getting worse, you should always be able to protect yourself without having to rely on someone else coming to your rescue.

“I’ve already given Rachel and Matti some instruction with these, so I’ll ask them to give you a demonstration.”

While doing their best to look fierce, the girls went through some basic moves, attacks and parries, feints and dodges. Although they showed some flair in their moves with the double-ended weapon, at Nate’s instruction, they always went into slow motion at the moment of impact. After he remarked that it made it easier for him to high-light the precision of the battle, he added, “Keep in mind during practice that a blow insufficiently pulled is asking for injury or even quick death.”

After several minutes of whirling staffs clacking against each other, Nate motioned the others forward to receive weapons. After he instructed them to pair off, he said, “We’re going to take it nice and slow. I’ll show you each move; then each of you try it a few times with your partner. We’ll start with –”

Billy Ray dropped his shovel handle on the ground and said, “Danged if those two didn’t look like a couple of twirly-bird majorettes spattin’ over a date with the school’s star pitcher. You’re gonna teach us how to slap each other with sticks? I think I’ll pass.” And then he started to walk away.

“Hey, come on,” Charlie pleaded. He had just gotten his shovel handle and was looking forward to taking a good swing at his old drinking buddy.

With a wave of his hand, Billy Ray said, “You can wave that puny little thing around if you want. Give me a axe handle and I’ll make kindling out of it.”

Nate picked up the staff Billy Ray had dropped and extended to him. “Here, come on. Just give it a try.”

Billy Ray looked at the piece of wood and said, “Look, I ain’t gonna waste my time learnin’ to twirl that thing. If I’m gonna whale on someone, I’ll use something that’ll get his attention.”

“Okay,” Nate said. “We’ll let you give us a demonstration of how to put an axe handle to good use. Charlie, mind if he uses yours? I’m afraid I don’t have any in my arsenal.”

It was the weapon Charlie had found when he returned from the visit to the museum after Erin found them, and it was seldom far from his side since the day he found Jared and Lila. He handed it to Billy Ray who turned to look back at the gathering with a grin spreading across his face as he joined Nate in the open space.

Billy Ray let the thing swing back and forth with its own weight a couple of times before flipping it onto his shoulder. Turning to Nate, he said, “Okay, what d’ya want me to whack?”

“Well, why don’t you take a good swing at me?”

“Ha! Hell, man, I don’t wanta kill one of our own.”

“No, it’s all right. I’ll defend myself with my staff.”

“Well, like I told Charlie, that stick’d be kindling in about two seconds. Plus, I’d probably break your head for ya.”

“Betcha can’t,” Nate said as he assumed a defensive stance.

“You kiddin’ me?”

“Betcha can’t even touch me.” Nate bobbed and weaved a bit as he pumped his weapon. “Come on. Try it.”

“Look, I told you, I ain’t gonna swing a axe handle at an old man with nothing to protect himself but a silly baton. Man, a axe handle can be lethal!”

“And I can whip your ass with a baton.” And, with that, Nate jabbed out with the quarterstaff to poke Billy Ray in his belly.

Charlie scrunched up his face and shook his head. He was pretty sure it wasn’t hard enough to hurt, but Nate might as well hold a flaming torch to Billy Ray’s short fuse. It was only because Billy Ray hadn’t been drinking that Nate wasn’t already picking up his teeth.

Charlie glanced over at The Judge, but The Judge made no move to defuse things. Then he thought he detected a faint twinkle in the old jurist’s eyes. Charlie knew the old guy had developed a pretty good sense of character judgment after all those years on the bench, but still ….

Billy Ray’s voice was a low rumble, almost a growl. “Nate ….”

“Whatsamatter, Billy-boy. Never been poked by a baton before? Never made a pass at a pretty majorette and got poked?”

Nate’s staff poked Billy Ray in the belly again.

“You don’t have to back up, Billy-boy. This is just a little old stick. It can’t hurt you.”

The staff again poked Billy Ray’s belly.

Charlie was pretty sure it still couldn’t hurt, no more than a finger poking his chest. But, it sure looked like the words were stinging.

“Stop doing –”

“Well, then stop backing up. You’ve got a weapon. Protect yourself.”

“I don’t want to –”

No, Charlie thought, and you don’t want him to, either.

“Well, I’m going to just keep right on poking this little stick at you until it goes right through your belly.”

This time Nate’s jab looked like it was just hard enough to let Billy Ray know it could hurt if it got any harder.

Billy Ray raised his axe handle, although he still didn’t hold it in a threatening manner. He looked like he just wanted to remind the little twerp that he could use it.

“Back off, now, or I’ll –”

“You’ll what? Why, you can’t do anything. That’s just a stick, Billy-boy. What are you gonna do with a stick?”

This time when Nate’s staff poked Billy Ray’s belly, he responded by knocking it away with his own weapon. But, before he could do anything else, the thing was back in his belly again. He knocked it away again, and it was back again.

“Dammit! Cut that out!”

Yeah. Cut that out before he hands you your head. Charlie was really getting concerned that his friend was going to seriously hurt the little old guy who didn’t appear to have the sense God gave a pesky gnat. And, if he did hurt the old man, what would be the judgment of the others? Would they agree with him that Nate had pushed and pushed until Billy Ray simply acted reasonably? Or would they condemn the huge man who had already been jailed numerous times for fighting and beating up on other men who didn’t have the sense to leave him be?

As Nate punched his staff into what Charlie knew must be getting to be a sore belly, he said, “Or what, Billy-boy? What are you gonna do? You gonna make kindling out of my stick? You said you could. Well, do it,” and he poked him again.

Billy Ray knocked the staff sideways, and the opposite end immediately swung around to poke him.

“Come on, Billy-boy. You only good for a couple of licks? You gonna let me just keep pokin’ you like a –”

Suddenly Billy Ray charged Nate, swinging his axe handle over his head, and Charlie clenched his eyes shut for a moment. But he couldn’t keep them shut and still witness what was sure to happen. Billy Ray was going to need someone to tell his side of it when the others accused him of attacking a demented old man.

Nate sidestepped and extended his staff between Billy Ray’s legs as he went past. The big man sprawled out in the dust, but he held onto his weapon. With only a moment’s pause, he quickly squirmed back to his feet.

Nate met him with a poke in his belly.

“Goddam –” Another belly poke cut off Billy Ray’s protest.

Billy Ray knocked the staff away and followed up with a backhand swing that was meant to decapitate if he had held a steel blade.

Nate parried the blow and responded with a tap to Billy Ray’s right shin. Then, before Billy Ray could do more than yelp, did the same to the left shin.

Billy Ray knocked the staff away and drew back his club for a roundhouse swing.

Nate reached out with his staff and tapped Billy Ray’s ribs on his exposed left side.

Billy Ray yelped again and swung wild, missing Nate’s head by a good three feet. Then he yelped again when the staff got his right shin again. Gritting his teeth, he charged with his weapon held in both hands straight above his head. But the hits on both sides of his ribcage within less than a second of each other brought his charge to a stumbling halt.

“It’s only a stick, Billy-boy. Just a twirly, silly, majorette’s baton. Come on, it can’t hurt you.”

Billy Ray’s wide-swinging club suddenly went flying when Nate’s staff caught his wrist bone in a stinging, numbing rap. Before the axe handle had landed on the ground several feet away, the tip of the quarterstaff was lightly touching Billy Ray’s Adam’s apple.

“Ow! Okay – okay! I quit! Uncle! You win! Just stop whaling on me with that damned devil’s tooth!”

Nate dropped the end of his staff to the ground and reached out to Billy Ray with his hand. “You okay, buddy?” He began to massage the wrist the size of his own forearm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Naw, I ain’t hurt. Only my dumb pride. One of these days I’m gonna learn not to open my mouth when I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Charlie’s mouth hung open until he felt the light touch of Vonnie’s finger under his chin. She was grinning when he looked down at her. Apparently, she and The Judge had it figured out all along. But, dammit, they might have understood what Nate was doing, or thought he was doing, but they didn’t know Billy Ray like he did. All Charlie could do was shake his head and join the others as they gathered around the now friendly combatants, happy that the more than mock battle had gone no further.

Nate had taken Billy Ray’s stinging wrist in his two hands and was soothing the spiking nerves.

“Damn! I ain’t never been hit so many times, so quick, so light, and hurt so much. Old man, can you teach me how to do that?”

A smile spread across Nate’s face as his hand slip up the arm to pat Billy Ray’s thigh-sized biceps. “Why, yes, I believe I can,” he said.

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