Cowboy Paladin (part 8)
Patience was spying on Jethro and his friend Elliott as they stood talking out by the corral, but she couldn’t help herself. For one thing, she’d never had two attractive men as dinner guests before. They were sure enough a pleasure to look at. Both were ruggedly handsome although Elliott was built along leaner lines. There were also strong similarities in the way the two men moved, and neither one ever stopped scanning the horizon as if always expecting trouble to come riding their way. She also liked that they took things like duty and honor seriously.
Indeed, they were a puzzle, that was for sure. She also suspected their conversation was centered around how little they could get by explaining to her. Patience would bet her last dollar that they knew far more about the strange men who had attacked her and killed her pa than they cared to admit.
Then there was Elliott’s strange comment about being dead but not staying that way. As jokes went, it wasn’t at all funny. Not only that, she had the strangest suspicion that he had meant what he said. Certainly Jethro hadn’t appreciated his friend’s comment, acting as if Elliott had revealed something he would just as soon have kept secret.
When Jethro and his friend headed for the porch, Patience ducked back from the window, not wanting to be caught staring at them. She hurried over to set the kettle of stew on the table and then added the plate of freshly baked biscuits along with a fresh pot of coffee. She poured them each a cup, and then with everything arranged, she wiped her hands on her apron and waited for the two men to join her.
Jethro was the first through the door. He paused to take a deep breath and then smiled. “I hope you made plenty because we’re both looking forward to a home cooked meal.”
“Amen to that,” Elliott said as he stepped around Jethro to smile at her. “I’d apologize again from showing up unannounced, but I’m not a bit sorry to be here in time for something that smells that good.”
She suspected she was blushing. Her pa had always said she was a fine cook, but she’d never taken him seriously. That didn’t mean she didn’t take pride in her biscuits being so light and flaky. “Have a seat, gentleman, and help yourselves.”
To her surprise, Jethro pulled out her chair for her. A man with real nice manners, something else she wasn’t used to. If she felt a bit awkward, neither of the men seemed to notice. It was gratifying to see them both dig right into their dinners, stopping occasionally to pay her another compliment. It wasn’t long before they’d each finished off a second helping of the stew along with the last of the biscuits.
All right, it was time to make her move. “Gentlemen, I have an apple cake cooling in the window. I’m sure you both would enjoy it, but I’m going to feed it to the raccoons if you don’t tell me what’s really going on here.”
Jethro sipped his coffee in order to buy himself a little more time. For his part, Elliott leaned back in his chair looking resigned to the fact that they were both in trouble. They’d talked about this very situation outside, but neither of them had come up with a feasible plan for not revealing the secrets they’d both vowed to protect. If anyone else had put them on the spot like this, they would have lied and not thought a thing about it.
But this was Patience, and she deserved better. She meant too much to him, even after such a brief acquaintance, for him to lie to her. Of course, it was highly likely that she wouldn’t believe a word of the crazy tale that was the simple truth. The situation actually struck him as a bit funny. No matter what he told her, she was bound to think him either a bold faced liar or simply insane. He wasn’t sure which possibility was worse.
Elliott spoke up first. “I seem to have put my friend Jethro here in a right tough spot, Miss Patience. For that, I apologize to you both. But while you two have a discussion, I think I’ll go patrol the area. It’s getting dark outside, and those renegades could show up at any time.”
As he stood to leave, Patience stopped him. “Be careful out there, Elliott. If you have need of Jethro, don’t hesitate to yell for him. I will also save you a big piece of that cake.”
Elliott tipped the hat he’d just put on. “That’s mighty kind of you, ma’am.”
When he shut the door behind him, Jethro poured himself a little more coffee and then topped off Patience’s cup as well. “This could take a while, Patience, but I’ll tell you what I can. All that I ask is that you don’t share this information with anyone else. Both Elliott and I swore to keep what we do secret, but you’ve already seen a lot for yourself. Besides, lying to you even by omission doesn’t sit well with me.”
Patience wrapped her hands around her coffee cup, absorbing its warmth or perhaps she simply needed something to hang on to. “I’m listening.”
Jethro launched into his tale, telling her about the Regents he worked for and the Paladins he served with. She might have been surprised to hear that there was a secret organization that existed to fight against a specific bunch of marauders, but they weren’t so different from any other law enforcement agency or even investigators like the Pinkertons.
“Now for the hard part, Patience. I know what I’m about to tell you will sound crazy, but I’m asking you to believe me.”
To his surprise, she reached over to lay her hand on his arm. “I promise to listen with an open mind, Jethro. You’ve kept your word so far. There’s no reason for me to doubt you now.”
He so wished that were true. All he could was lay it all out for her and cross his fingers that she didn’t throw him out of her house.
“Those men who showed up the other night aren’t from anywhere around here. They crossed through a barrier of shimmering light that separates their world from ours. There are bits and pieces of that barrier in different places all over our world, mostly in caves or tunnels under mountains. When the barrier goes down, usually when there’s been an earthquake, those crazy bastards come pouring across ready to kill anyone who has the misfortune to cross their paths.”
She made no comment, but at least she wasn’t laughing. That didn’t mean she believed him, either, but he continued with his story. “When we’re defending the barrier, we fight with swords because a stray bullet can further damage the barrier. Otherwise, they can be killed with bullets just like ordinary human beings.”
Patience frowned and bit her lower lip as if mulling over something she wanted to ask him. He gave her the time she needed to puzzle it out. “You said ‘ordinary human beings,’ which makes me think some people aren’t exactly ordinary. If I were to guess, that would be true of both you and Elliott.”
Maybe a small demonstration was in order. He pulled out his pocket knife and used it to make a small cut on the palm of his hand before Patience could stop him. He showed her the cut but kept his hand out of her reach. “Just watch, Patience.”
After letting the blood well up out of the small wound, he used his handkerchief to wipe it away. The skin was already closing up. A minute later it was completely healed, leaving behind only a faint line. This time when she reached out, he laid his hand in hers and let her examine it.
“How is that possible, Jethro?”
He shrugged. “No one seems to know for sure. All I know is that my father had the same ability, and so did Elliott’s, so it runs in families. Every Paladin heals like that. Really bad injuries can take a few days, but nothing like the time it would take a normal man to heal.”
Patience got up from the table without a word. When she started clearing the dishes, he stayed out of her way, figuring he’d given her a lot to thing over. Finally, after she’d dried the last bowl and put it away, she cut the cake and set a piece down at each of their places.
“He wasn’t kidding about not staying dead, was he?”
Lord above, he didn’t want to admit how really strange he was, but he’d already come this far. Before he could confirm or deny that statement, a volley of shots rang out.
A second later, Elliott burst through the door. “Grab your guns, Jethro! It’s time to dance! They’re coming and in number!”