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Hounded by Heritage

by Kevin McFarlane

part 2 of 3

They dragged him into the barn and surrounded him in a circle. Fourteen men. All heavily armed.

Most were familiar faces, old-timers who had known Russel’s father. Simple men leading simple lives.

Only what he’d stumbled upon didn’t seem so simple. As his eyes took in the bullet-riddled heap on the barn floor, it didn’t seem so simple at all.

There was no way of telling what had met with such a horrible death. Too big to be a dog, to small for a cow, the buckshot had smashed and torn, pummelled and punctured so much of the body that it was no longer recognizable.

A completely unexpected irritation arose within him when he spotted a hand amongst the gore, splayed out in a feeble attempt to stop the onslaught. His irritation bubbled up into an angry resentment as he carefully studied each man in the circle, trying to decide what possibly had gone so terribly wrong to have caused this.

Fourteen faces stared back with a grimly unified determination.

“What are you doing out there sneaking around in Bernie’s field in the rain?” one of them wanted to know.

“A delivery,” Russel stammered suddenly scared for his own safety. “I was supposed to drop off a package.”

“You called it in?” Max Scurving asked Bernstein.

“I thought maybe we could get the serum in time.”

“Not this again.”

“The medication makes a difference.”

“Only for a while,” Max said with a frustrated bounce. They’d obviously been over this before and not made much headway on a compromise. “But it just makes things worse in the end.”

“We could have tried. At least given him a chance.”

“Too late now.” Max turned back to Russel. “How long were you out there?”

Russel didn’t like the way Max was looking at him, as though he’d already made up his mind on how to handle Russel’s intrusion. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, how much did you see?”

“Nothing. Honest. With the rain and the thunder, and...” Russel realized he was babbling but was helpless to stop himself.

That these men were treating him like some sort of sneak caused a bubbling bit of anger to begin to stir and stew. What right did they have to treat him like he’d done something wrong when he was only trying to do his job? If anyone had some explaining to do, it was most definitely the men holding the guns.

Only, Russel suddenly knew they weren’t about to explain away the slight misunderstanding before sending him on his way.

We found a bear that wandered into the barn... We tracked a wolf that’s been attacking hen houses... We had a sick calf and put it down...

None of these very plausible excuses were forthcoming. Instead they warily watched Russel while awaiting Max’s decision on how best to handle Russel’s unexpected arrival.

“Where’s the medicine he was supposed to be bringing?” Abe Gable asked.

Almost everyone’s eyes turned hard with suspicion. “Now hold on just a minute,” Bernstein finally, mercifully, interjected. “All of us here have known Russel since he was a young lad tugging at his daddy’s beard. Maybe he isn’t the sharpest axe on the block but even he isn’t dumb enough to be out in this weather without a good reason.”

Russel wasn’t sure how much he appreciated the inference he was an idiot but at least it seemed to sway some of the gathered men toward his side of the argument.

But not all. “Maybe he sniffed out the beast and came to check it out,” Billy Joe Kins said. “Their instinct is to find each other after all.”

“Or maybe he’s found out the truth,” Max suggested.

“How could he find out?” Bernstein asked.

“Maybe Doc Wren decided Russel deserved to know. Doc is getting on in his years. How much longer is he gonna be able to keep producing the antidote in the lab? What if Doc figured it was better to come clean about what we’ve been doing before it’s too late?”

“Then we’ve got ourselves a whole mess of trouble,” Billy Joe insisted.

“Oh no we don’t.” Abe Gable pumped a round into the chamber and levelled his gun at Russel’s chest. “We’ll take care of this right now.”

“No! Wait! I dropped the bag... it’s in the field... we can go and find it... I’m sure we can... and I don’t know anything about any lab.” Russel felt completely ashamed by his blubbering but his fear drove him forward. “Mr. Wren just asked me to bring some medicine for Mr. Bernstein. I didn’t mean to get in the way.”

“Hang on now, Abe.” Maurice Smith, Marm’s cousin and a third generation cobber, stepped forward to carefully push the barrel so that it pointed at the floor. Luckily, the patience required of his profession also spilled over into the more practical aspects of his life. “Tonight’s been bad enough already. There’s no need to do anything we may end up regretting. Chances are if Russel had found out, Marm would have let us know.”

How dare they bring Marm into this. They had no right even to suggest she would try and hide anything from him. Marm told him everything. From her morning ritual of curlers and mascara to her opinions of the latest late-night replacement for Johnny, there was no topic off limits or that they didn’t share.

His poor wife. How would she ever get on without him? Russel really should have taken her more seriously when she’d said she would wind up a lonely old widow.

“If she’s been able to keep Russel from finding out the truth all this time, then what makes you think she won’t hold out on us?” Max wanted to know. “Especially if she thinks she is protecting him.”

It angered Russel to think Marm might have been holding something back from him, but even more so that these men would suggest her capable of such a thing.

Or was she?

Russel hated the doubt bubbling up to bite at the back of his throat.

“So if he knows then maybe he can help.”

Help them? Russel wasn’t sure why he’d even want to.

Nor did they seem overly enthusiastic about accepting his help. The idea caused quite a commotion. Numerous objections were immediately voiced, some even calling for Maurice’s head. To suggest such a thing was treasonous, Smith’s blood would boil in the pits of hell.

“Have you lost your mind?” Abe nearly spat.

“Help us?”

“Last thing we need is his kind running around loose.”

“Think about it for a minute. How long we been hiding this now?”

“For over three generations.”

“And during that time, how many hounds we been able to save? Anyone keep a count?”

There was a general murmur from the crowd, although none of the numbers matched up. Finally they were able to agree there had been hundreds over the years. Enough to keep the bloodline healthy but not so many as to draw unwanted attention from those who would cause harm.

“When we first started out there were only a few,” Maurice continued. “But because of our protection their numbers have been able to grow and they have remained safe from those who would rather them dead and erased from the face of the earth.

“By keeping them close, where we could keep an eye on them, we have been able to keep them hidden from the hunters sworn to exterminate them. But as their numbers increase, maintaining that control becomes more and more difficult. As we saw here tonight.” Maurice pointed at the shredded heap on the floor. “Maybe by bringing in one of their own we can prevent this from happening again.”

Max tried to quiet the rousing objections, and when he couldn’t, fired a shot into the loft above. Russel certainly hoped there wasn’t anyone hiding up there, spying on them.

“Being a Shepherd is a birthright passed on to us by our fathers and handed down only to those who come from us. There has never been an outsider to take the position, especially one of them.”

“And how many of our boys have taken on our responsibility?” Bernstein countered. “Ed and Mavis didn’t have any boys. Me, Trent, Vic, and Fred couldn’t convince ours to stay. We can hope that someday they’ll realize what’s at stake, but the fact remains our numbers are dwindling. Maybe Maurice is right, maybe we should let Russel in.”

“With Russel’s help, maybe we could convince them to look after themselves,” Maurice added.

“You can’t teach a dog not to bite, no matter how hard you hit it,” Max replied.

Though he was normally quite inclined to help out in any way he could, Russel wasn’t actually sure how he could make any difference with what these men were doing. He was quite convinced he didn’t want any part in whatever it was and was ready to walk out of the door and forget he’d ever seen anything in old Bernstein’s barn. But apparently they weren’t about to let him go before making some sort of decision for him.

Which was something else that was bothering him. Why’d they think it was up to them to decide?

Because they had the guns. That’s why.

“He’s already too involved,” Abe said. “After what he’s seen here tonight we can’t just let him walk out.”

“If he told anyone else, it could compromise everything,” Bernstein had to reluctantly agree.

“But I won’t say anything. I swear I won’t. You guys know you can trust me.”

Didn’t they?

Russel hated the pathetic tremor that worked its way in to choke his words. He had never felt so hopeless or helpless in his entire life. And he had managed to find his way into some strange and peculiar situations over the years.

Again his thoughts found their way to his loving wife. No matter how badly Russel seemed to mess up, Marm had always loyally and wholeheartedly stuck by his side. Without question she was one of a kind, and he’d been lucky to find her. How he wished she was here right now so she could bail him out, cursing the foolish old men for their senile games and putting such a scare into her Russel before taking him home where she would put him to bed.

But the next comment would drag him from his fantasy and stick him right back squarely into the reality of his current dilemma.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2009 by Kevin McFarlane

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