Here is Chapter 1 of MARIGOLD’S END. I hope you enjoy it.
To nine-year old Phineas Caswell, the branch made a surprisingly realistic musket. A little twig stuck down just where the trigger might go, beneath a tiny boll that made a perfect priming pan. True, the stock was a little thin, but the barrel was straight and true. He raised it to his shoulder and sighted down the barrel – Leftenant Remington, Royal Navy, had said there were half a dozen Massachusetts warriors in the bushes on the other side of Wharf Creek.
Phineas scanned the thick tangle of chestnut trees along the opposite bank.
“Perhaps they’re on the island,” Phineas whispered.
“I say, old wart, that’s capitol thinking,” Leftenant Remington whispered back.
Phineas suppressed a giggle. Old wart. That was a good one. His best friend Nigel Remington threw those in whenever he could. So far today he’d heard old bean, old whistle, and old crow. Old wart – that was a good one.
Nigel pointed his bent stick, which looked rather like a pistol, towards the island.
“Methinks perhaps we should attack ‘em front-on.”
Phineas shook his head. Wharf Creek thundered past them in the late spring sunshine, swirling and snapping as it rushed like boiling quicksilver into Duxbury Bay. Swollen to the limits of its banks by two straight weeks of rain, the creek positively terrorized little Everson Island, tearing at the roots of the trees that crowned the hump in its middle.
“You’ll have to count me out of that one, matey,” Phineas replied.
“Matey? Mind your manners, sir, I daresay!”
“Forgive me, sir,” Phineas replied airily.
“You sound like one of your father’s sailors!” Nigel laughed.
Phineas did not laugh, but looked down at the ground.
“I say,” Nigel said very seriously, “I saw something move on yonder island.” He knew he shouldn’t have mentioned Phineas’ father, and tried to change the subject. “Cha-blam! I rather got the rotter, I did!”
Phineas didn’t answer, but stared across the water, trying not to think of his father. His mind drifted to another time. So long ago now.
“Watch her, now, son… watch that boom,” Father had cried urgently.
But he had been too late.
Six-year-old Phineas turned his head too slowly to see the small sailboat’s boom swinging towards him.
The wooden spar chucked him firmly under the chin, knocking his head straight back. The boat’s gunwale caught him behind the knees and he somersaulted backwards into Duxbury Bay.
“Phineas! Lad!” Father yelled in a panic.
His voice bubbled and gobbled above Phineas as the waves closed over his head. Warm saltwater stung his eyes and filled his still open mouth.
He gasped and coughed, and water seemed to be everywhere. He thrashed his arms wildly, and kicked and clawed at the water, trying to get back to the surface. But the water was getting darker, not lighter.
“He…” he opened his mouth to yell for help, but it was full of water. He tried to breathe in, but only water filled his lungs. The water was dark, and the bright sun above it sparkled an odd gray color. He wanted to cough, but he couldn’t feel any air. Kicking for the surface seemed so hard. So hard. So… hard. He coughed again and big bubbles came out. So… hard.
The water churned around him, foaming and roiling. He barely noticed the resolute tug on his shirt collar.
“Oh my God,” Patrick Caswell panted, thrashing and flailing towards the boat. He himself could not swim, and it was all he could do to keep his own head out of the water. He slashed out ferociously with his free hand for the boat’s gunwale. A mighty kick with his legs brought him near the little skiff. With the last of his strength he lunged for it.
“My God, son,” he muttered as he dragged the still boy with him against the side of the boat. “I’m so sorry, boy.”
The skiff canted wildly and threatened to turn over when he threw himself over her side. Phineas’ head banged on the gunwale when Patrick dragged him in and laid him on the warm thwarts.
“Live, boy, please God, live,” he chanted over and over, rubbing the boy’s arms and legs.
The water was so warm. Phineas felt so sleepy. It would be so nice just to sleep right here in the warm water. A sudden wave inside him broke inside his nose, and his eyes sprang open.
There was no air, only water. He gulped and gulped but found only water. Water rushed in his nose, and down his throat. Water pulsed inside his ears.
“Help…” he gasped, and a shaft of air opened at the top of his mouth. Water suddenly gushed out of him, flooding up the back of his throat. He curled on his side and the water poured out of him, hurting and screaming and flooding out of his mouth from deep in his insides.
His forehead burned in pain. His stomach convulsed and shuddered. His lungs ached and he coughed and coughed and coughed.
Tears ran down Patrick Caswell’s cheeks. He’d lost men to the sea, but never dreamt it would be his son.
“Oh my God, son,” he cried, holding the boy to his chest. “I’m so sorry, boy.”
Phineas shivered in his father’s arms, enveloped in the warmth of his bear hug. The water receded from his insides, and he wanted to sleep and sleep. Father had saved him, just a second before he had died. Father saved him.
“I’ll never let ye go, son,” he cooed. “Not ever in life.”
“He’ll come back,” Nigel said gently. The make-believe pistol hung at his side. “You’ll see. Maybe he’s sailed to Cathay or Borneo, or the Great South Sea. Imagine sailing to the Great South Sea. Did you know they have talking whales down there?”
“No they don’t,” Phineas answered gruffly. He didn’t like to think about his father, who had sailed away that long ago summer, never to return. He had promised to come home, had promised to take Phineas to see a herd of manatees so thick you’d think the beach was made of them, had promised they would sail together. Had promised. Had promised. Had promised. Father hadn’t come back.
“Your father’s left us for sure,” his tough, practical mother had said. “It is the sea that has his heart. Always did. You and me, darlin’. That is all there is in the world.”
Water, deep and treacherous and unforgiving, stilled his soul to this day whenever he thought of it. It had tried to kill him, had swept into his lungs and almost taken him. As it had taken Father. He shuddered to think of it.
Still, Nigel was sorry for bringing him up, and was trying to make things better. Good old Nigel.
“Do they?” Phineas replied with a slow grin.
“My uncle Carver said he knew a sailor who had once had a whole conversation with a whale as big as a house.”
“That can’t be so.”
“‘Twas! They talked about all manner of things. My uncle said the whale preferred Legrenzi to this fellow Vivaldi,” Nigel said with a broad wink. “Or something like that!”
“I see another one!” Phineas bellowed suddenly, stepping back into the game. “Behind that dead tree, see him!”
“I say, old pork, I must needs reload. Take care of the blighter will you?”
“Cha-blam! Got him! Look! A canoe!”
A long, narrow branch from some unfortunate tree far upstream swam furiously towards them, twisting and splashing in the thundering water. A long, thin limb, no more than six inches in diameter but easily three feet long, pointed at them like a bowsprit. Several more stuck out from the branch’s sides, and one more stood straight up like a truncated mast. The thing wallowed and bounced on the waves, but pointed straight at them as it veered towards their shore.
“A ship full of buccaneers!” Nigel yelled. “Pirates! They be pirates! It’s axes and cutlasses, lads!”
He leapt from the cover of the trees and threw himself on the muddy riverbank, waving his stick wildly over his head.
“At ‘em, lads! No quarter!”
Phineas moved to follow, but didn’t want to get too close to the raging water.
“I’ll provide covering fire!” he called. He pretended to reload his musket.
“Taste my steel, ye heathen…”
The musket loaded, Phineas raised it to pick off the pirates in the ship.
“Firing over your head…” he called.
Something was wrong. Nigel was gone. The pirate ship was past, and Nigel wasn’t on the bank.
“Nige?” Phineas called. His heart thumped, and he swallowed hard. “Nige?”
He stumbled through the trees and down the riverbank. The water sucked at his feet, swirling in angry ridges that tore at the muddy sand beneath him. He stepped back, making sure to stay out of the angry creek.
Nigel’s arm waved above the floating branch. He thrashed wildly in the water next to it, his head bobbing beneath the surface with each ripple.
“Nigel!” Phineas screamed.
He leapt through the bushes, shoved past the trees and through the drowned reeds that lined the thundering waterway, racing to catch up to his best friend.
Nigel waved weakly. It was hard to see him through the wildly turbulent stream, but then the branch lifted up over some underwater protrusion, and Nigel, sodden and streaming and frantically trying to get his arm out of a knock in the branch, kicked and flailed with his other arm. And then the branch splashed down into the roaring creek again.
Phineas ran as fast as he could to try and get ahead of the racing branch, but trees and bushes scratched and clawed at him, forcing him to jog and sidestep. Several large rocks thumbed out into the course of the stream.
The branch’s long bowsprit slid up onto the sandbar at the tip of the rocks, far out in the roaring water. She paused there, rocking in the wild current.
Nigel coughed weakly, and tried to pull himself on top of the branch. But his arm was pinned at the shoulder by one of the smaller limbs, forcing his head down, just above the water’s wild surface.
Phineas skidded to a stop. He could slip into the water at the base of the rocks and work his way around them, or he could run up onto the shore and behind the trees that covered their landward side.
The water at the base of rocks was sheltered behind the sandbar, and reasonably calm, almost smooth. He looked at the path through the trees on the landward side – it would take forever to go that way.
“Hang on, Nige!” Phineas yelled.
He stepped boldly into the water, slosh-sloshing his way towards his best friend.
The sun seemed oddly gray. He felt water in his lungs and began to cough – water that had receded three years ago and lay only in his memory. But it seemed so real.
“H…hold on,” he croaked.
The steely cold liquid grasped his ankles and plucked at his legs, filling his good buckle shoes and soaking into his stockings. It pulled at him, dragging him down, down to where it was dark and deep and the sunlight went away.
With no more thought he turned and scrambled back along the rocks, panting and sloshing and kicking his way out of the deadly water and back towards shore, towards the trees at their back side. He pushed through their fallen branches; the thick, broken bushes caught between them, and dragged himself, scratched and bleeding, around the shoreline on the other side. He skidded to a stop at the water’s edge, panting
“Nigel!” he bellowed.
The pirate ship branch was gone.
He spotted it, far out in the race of the creek where it entered the bay, sailing purposefully out towards the open sea.
The single tree limb stood above the smooth branch like an amputated mast. Next to that limb stood a shorter, human limb, its owner still under the water.
“It is hard to understand why a life, so young and vibrant, is taken by Thee, O Lord. But we trust and have faith that young Nigel Patrick Remington is safe in Thine arms, Lord. That he is home with Thee now, and his suffering in this world is at an end. We thank Thee, dear Lord. Amen.”
The pastor carefully shut the bible and closed his eyes in silent prayer. The mourners, a large clump of darkly clad people starkly at odds with the brilliant morning sunshine, precisely the kind of morning Nigel Patrick Remington lived for and delighted in, stood in silence as the short, black wooden casket was lowered into the grave by the boy’s father and uncle.
“God bless ye, son,” Leland Remington whispered as the casket dropped out of his hands and into the deep hole in the earth. “Thou wert a good boy.”
“O, Rock of ages…” the mourners moaned in a largely a-tonal dirge. A few could sing, and did, but most rolled out the song in a nearly perfect monotone.
Phineas did not, could not sing. His heart was full of lead, and his eyes would not lift above the plain hole in the ground in which his best friend lay.
He had tried to convince himself that Nigel wasn’t dead, that he somehow escaped from the branch, but his wounded heart couldn’t remove the image of that one arm, limp and unmoving, standing up from the branch as it headed out into the bay.
“Bless you, boy,” Leland Remington said, and placed a work-hardened hand on his shoulder as he passed. “You were the brightest thing in his life.”
Phineas couldn’t look into the earnest blue eyes, rimmed red with sorrow, or see the resolute set of the man’s chin, forced by hard work and heritage to carry on.
“Dreadful sorry, Phin,” Putnam DeVry whispered as he passed. Putnam was everybody’s best friend, and the tears he shed at the side of the grave fell with the sincerity of the sky itself.
“Sorry,” Phineas muttered in replied. Sorry that Nigel was dead. Sorry that Nigel got killed playing by the creek. Sorry that he had done nothing to save Nigel.
“Bless ye, boy, ‘tis a miracle ye didn’t go a traipsin’ in after him and get thyself killed as well,” Mother had said.
Phineas was a little bit of a town celebrity after he ran for help, announcing in panic that Nigel had been swept into the bay. Everyone, from Nigel’s younger sister all the way to the Lord Mayor himself, thanked him for his swift action in getting help.
A pair of fishing boats had launched within minutes of Phineas’ cry as he ran along the bay shore. They were of course too late, and had quite a difficult time extract poor Nigel’s battered body from the waterlogged limbs. But all were glad to know what happened, glad to know that at least Phineas hadn’t been killed, and glad to have a hero, who tried to help, to offset the terrible loss to their community.
He was secretly relieved that no one asked why he wasn’t soaking wet, why he hadn’t thrown himself in the raging water. No one knew that the branch had balanced on the sandbar for several precious minutes while he hemmed and hawed over getting wet. Minutes made precious because they were Nigel’s last.
That horrible reality bobbed to the top of his thoughts every now and again. That awful truth that he could not bear to confront directly: if he had waded out to the sandbar, Nigel would be alive. The sea hadn’t killed Nigel Remington – Phineas had.
Tears rolled down his face as the mourners streamed past, some touching him on the shoulder, some patting his head.
“Poor lad,” they said. “Lost his best friend.” “Such a tragedy for the boy.”
“Watch it, now, ye knock-kneed guttersnipe,” Mr. Santorini muttered. “Ye’ll get them signatures out of order.”
12-year-old Phineas had clumsily knocked a stack of 16-page printed packets off of the workbench. He was thinking about Susannah Kilburn, a girl he knew from church, and wondered idly what she was doing on this fine Wednesday morning. Perhaps she had a lavish breakfast in their lavish estate, lavishly spread along the road that led to Boston. Perhaps she was reading a lavish book purchased from Mr. Santorini, perhaps a book Phineas himself had bound.
He was getting pretty good at it. He was only a little sloppy with the sewing frame, and had gotten good at cutting the knots between the signatures so that he could get them into the right order after he mixed them up, usually before Mr. Santorini found out. Sometimes a book got finished with pages 225 through 240 following page 80 and before page 81, but that was getting rarer.
But in July of 1706, taking care of signatures was the farthest thing on the mind of the young bookbinder’s apprentice.
“I’ll get them,” he said dreamily and stooped to pick the jumbled papers up from the dusty floor.
“Ye should be sweeping more often in here, I’m thinking,” round Mr. Santorini said absently. “I’ve known pigs that kept a better shop.”
“Yes sir,” Phineas replied through his long, shaggy hair. Tall and frightfully thin, the boy managed a vague smile on his thought-worn face. His bright blue eyes sparkled with intelligence, and Mr. Santorini shook his head with a smile.
“You are a hundred miles away and more this morning, Phin,” the older man said kindly. “Get those signatures in their proper order and get yourself out into the fresh air. Come ye back tomorrow, when your head is attached to your shoulders.”
“But Mr. Westshire’s book…” Phineas began.
“I’ll lace ‘em up for ye. Don’t you worry about that,” Mr. Santorini replied with an inward grin. “At least that way I’ll know the pages will be in the right order.”
“Yes sir, thank you sir,” Phineas replied excitedly. He quickly scooped the bundles of papers onto the workbench and ran for the door, pausing only to hang his apron on the hook on the boot tree before he dashed into the brilliant morning sunshine, the door slamming behind him.
The morning air was delicious, full of warmth and the sweet smells of blooming flowers and moist earth, and he filled his lungs to capacity as he walked quickly home. Mother would be there, perhaps baking cookies, or a meat pie, and she would delight to see him so early in the day.
Duxbury, Massachusetts, was by no means as large as Boston, it’s massive neighbor just to the north, but it was big enough to support a number of fine brick edifices, public buildings designed to withstand the ravages of time, a lovely central square, and dozens of handsome clapboard structures, most whitewashed, along the main road that led to the thrumming metropolis of early Boston.
Phineas ran cheerfully along until he came to the Fox River Bridge. There he slowed, as he always did, and crossed the bridge in a solemn silence. He missed Nigel again at that moment, good old Leftenant Remington, as he did every time he crossed over any of the streams bordering Duxbury.
“Bless you, old spud,” he whispered.
The Caswell cottage lay not far beyond the bridge, and Phineas cheerfully resumed his trot down the muddy road.
Mr. Hankins waved cheerfully from his hay cart as he rumbled past, while Phineas waited patiently between roadside bushes for Nancy, Mr. Hankins’ brown old mare, to meander her way past.
He returned the wave and called “good girl” to Nancy, and trotted his way home.
“My stars, has the day passed by so quickly?” Mother gasped in surprise. She was a stout woman of twelve or so stone. Her deep red, gray-streaked hair flew about her face as she turned to him with a smile, her gray skirt flapping gently in the morning breeze.
“Mr. Santorini let me go early,” Phineas panted as he approached the white picket fence. The chestnut trees, stately and lovely, dappled him in shadows, and made the dusty sunlight seem magical.
“As I can see. Well, thou art just in time to help me with beating these quilts.”
Her eyebrows rose sharply, and that scowl, the dark, big-trouble-ahead glare, clouded her face, shoving the smile away into some dark corner.
At first Phineas thought the scowl was pointed at him.
“Wha…” he began, but then followed her gaze. It passed over his left shoulder, and there, having crept up quietly behind him, stood Alfred Townsend.
He turned around to see an odd leer on Alfred’s hatchet face. Taller than Phineas, Alfred was narrow, with a thin chest that rather matched his long bony chin and nose. Orange hair curled like a wig above his high, freckled forehead. A sneer decorated his unhandsome face.
“Morning, Mother Caswell,” he said in a syrupy sweet voice.
“Now, you just be running along, Master Townsend. We have no time for thee this morning.”
“I will, ma’am, in just a moment.”
He stepped up close to Phineas.
“What are you doing here?” Phineas whispered fiercely.
“I dropped by old man Santorini’s, but you were not there,” Alfred replied slyly. “I said to myself, where could Caswell be when he is supposed to be working for his master? I knew you would be home at mamas. Did you forget about today? Is that it?”
“No, I did not forget,” Phineas lied. He raced through his memory, trying to recall what Alfred had wanted. The memory crashed in on him like a falling tree. Of course, that was it.
“I didn’t see Putnam today,” he said quietly.
“Didn’t see Putnam,” Alfred repeated snidely. “Let me see… you didn’t see Putnam today, yesterday you were too busy to see him, and the day before that you told me Putnam was out of town with his father.”
He put his hand heavily on Phineas’ shoulder.
“Something is telling me that you don’t want to see Putnam.” The hand became heavy. “But if you don’t see Putnam, you can’t convince him to lend you one of his father’s pistols.” The hand became heavier still. “And if you don’t get the pistol, how are you going to give it to me?”
“I, uh, I’ll give it to you on Sunday, before church,” Phineas whispered. “I just need to find the time to see him.”
Alfred did not remove his hand.
“I need that pistol, Caswell.”
“Well, why don’t you ask him yourself?” Phineas asked weakly.
The hand did not move.
“Because, Caswell, that wouldn’t be right, would it.” Alfred pressed down with even more pressure, and Phineas shrank under the painful weight. “Would it?”
“No,” Phineas whispered.
“You’ll give it to me at dawn on Sunday, on the commons. Understand?”
Phineas nodded, wincing under the pain of Alfred’s hand pressing on his shoulder.
“If I don’t get it, Caswell, there will be real trouble. Understand?”
Phineas nodded again. Alfred released the pressure on Phineas’ shoulder, but smacked him on the ear as he pulled his hand away.
“Real trouble,” Alfred repeated. Then he turned back to Phineas’ mother. “A sweet day to be alive, Mother Caswell.”
He bowed deeply and walked away down the lane, hands in his pockets, kicking at stones in the mud.
“Phineas,” Mother said in her darkest voice – the voice that was reserved for broken windows. “What was all of that?”
“Just a game we’ve been playing,” he said quickly.
“Is that Townsend boy giving ye grief?”
“No,” he lied. Again. How could he tell her that Townsend hung around him like a vulture circling a dead rabbit? When Phineas came out of Mr. Santorini’s shop, Alfred was there. When he tried to talk to Susannah Kilburn at church, Alfred was there. And now he showed up at their house.
How could he explain that he was afraid of Alfred, of the way Alfred used his words, the way Alfred always implied that something bad would happen to Phineas, or worse, to his mother, if Phineas didn’t do what Alfred wanted?
Sometimes it was a stupid task, like breaking a picket off of Mr. Chatterham’s fence and throwing into his chestnut tree. Sometimes it was serious, like taking one of Mr. Santorini’s books and giving it to Alfred. Each request came with the same pressure on his shoulder, and finished with the same slap to the ear. And each one came with the threat that something bad would happen.
How could he explain that he was too afraid to find out what that bad thing would be? How could he explain that he was a coward, and Alfred Townsend knew he was a coward, and that he didn’t want anyone else to know it; least of all his mother.
“Ye should be staying away from the likes of him,” she continued in the same dark voice. “Them Townsend folk have a lot of money, but that doesn’t make them good souls.”
“Yes, Mother,” he quietly answered.
The pistol made an uncomfortable lump in his pillow. The mattress was old and lumpy, and the pillow had been worn flat by years of use. The eider down comforter was warm and familiar, but it couldn’t disguise the disquiet of having a pistol under the pillow.
Phineas tossed and turned, waiting for the sun to come up. He had scarcely slept at all, wondering and wondering what he could do about Alfred.
He knew he couldn’t fight Alfred – Alfred was bigger and Phineas was a terrible fighter. And Alfred had a lot of friends, and they always backed Alfred up, so fighting was out.
No, fighting was out. He had tried to charm Alfred, make him like a friend, but Alfred only tried harder to use him. He’d tried to ignore Alfred, but Alfred only pushed harder. He’d gone to his mother about Alfred, but that simply led into a tearful tirade about Phineas’ father being away to sea for so long and never raising his son proper.
All night he tossed and turned, trying to think of a way to get away from Alfred. Perhaps running away. But where would he run? No, that wouldn’t work. How could he live with himself, knowing he could never go back to Duxbury just in case he ran into Alfred again?
He had not slept a moment, but lay under the comforter in his clothes, his best clothes, because he was going to execute a plan, some plan, some idea that would get him out of having to deal with Alfred Townsend any further. But the plan would not come.
He sat on the edge of the bed as the first hint of dawn illuminated the eastern sky out his bedroom window. With the resigned sigh of a dead man, he slipped is feet into his best buckle shoes.
A dead man, he sighed, for no good could come of Alfred having a pistol. And he, Phineas, would be responsible for giving it to him.
He stopped suddenly.
“Wait a minute.”
What would happen if, when the time came to give Alfred Townsend the pistol, Phineas gave it to him, but the thing would accidentally go off just as it was pointing at the red-haired buffoon? Alfred’s nasty leer would change to a look of surprise, and then he would fall over, the ball from Putnam DeVry’s pistol wedged firmly in his chest.
Then the bullying would be over. Then Phineas would be free from Alfred’s tyranny. Alfred would be dead, and Phineas would be free.
The plan ran around and around in his head. What would he do if Alfred ducked? He would shoot so fast that Alfred would never have the chance. Would he be brave enough to do it? Of course he would – anything to end this tyranny. Would he be blamed for the murder? Heavens no – everyone would see that Alfred had been bullying him. And they would certainly see that the gun went off accidentally– it was just plain bad luck that the silly thing was pointed right at Townsend’s stinking, putrescent gullet when it happened. Just bad luck, that’s all. An accident.
When Putnam had given Phineas the pistol, it came with the admonition that he had to have it back. Putnam’s father was sure to notice that it was missing from his collection, and he was sure to take it out of Putnam’s hide.
“Promise me, Phin,” he had said earnestly, his long horse-face deadly serious. “Promise me you’ll bring it right back.”
“I promise ye,” Phineas replied with equal sincerity. He knew he would have to beg Alfred to give it back to him, but he figured he could do it. “Ye will have it back.”
Of course, Phineas reflected in the growing gray light, the pistol would be returned to him by the constable, as he was sure to be brought in on the accident that killed the son of John Townsend. Accident indeed.
“What are you all dressed up for?” Alfred sneered in the gray morning light. He stood in the tall grass of the commons, the large public square in the center of the city’s official buildings. It was so early on Sunday morning that they were all deserted. There was no one in sight beyond the two boys.
“Well,” Phineas began, “I thought that since this was such a big…”
“Forget about that. Did you bring it?”
Phineas had thought about that question every step of the long walk from his house through the gray morning. How would he answer that? What could he say that would have hidden meaning and yet be a good answer? What would be the clever thing to say?
“Oh, yes, yes I did.”
He had planned to say, “oh, you’ll get it, all right,” but forgot all about it in the excitement of the moment.
Alfred looked excited; his face flush and pink under his orange hair. He held out his hand as he walked towards Phineas. His gray coat covered a simple nightshirt that wasn’t even tucked into his trousers.
The nightshirt made Phineas pause. He didn’t look so mean in his nightshirt. He just looked like a twelve year old kid. He just looked like a kid, really.
Phineas shook his head. Don’t lose your resolve, Caswell, he told himself. You have to do it.
“Give it here,” Alfred demanded.
Those harsh words broke the spell. Alfred was a bully, and there would be no living with him once he had that pistol.
Phineas reached into his coat, the nice navy one, and pulled the heavy pistol out of his belt. The long barrel took ages to pull all the way out, but finally the thing was in the air, firm in his hand. The time had come.
Alfred suppressed a titter of excitement. He cleared his throat.
“Give it here,” he repeated harshly.
Phineas quickly pulled back on the hammer with all of his strength. One click. Another click. The weapon was cocked and ready to fire.
It was heavy. He had to use both hands to heft it up and point it at Alfred’s skinny chest.
“Oh, you’ll get it,” he whispered hoarsely.
“Hey, watch it, would you?” Alfred groaned and reached for the gun.
Phineas took a step back so he couldn’t reach the barrel.
“What the…” Alfred began angrily, but then stopped. Just as the sun was rising to their right, so the realization of what was going on spread across his face.
“Are you going to shoot me, Caswell?”
Phineas had not even considered that Alfred would ask such a thing.
“Wh… what does it look like?”
“It looks to me like somebody thought he was going to be a big man and make trouble. Give it here!”
Alfred lunged at Phineas, who quickly leapt backwards. Alfred fell face-first into the tall grass. He threw himself back up on his feet angrily, his face wet with the gathered dew.
“Give it here, you coward,” he glowered.
“N… no,” Phineas stammered and took another step back.
Alfred, the regular twelve-year-old kid in the nightshirt, was gone. In his place stood the mean, arrogant bully that had given Phineas so much grief.
“Give it to me, you stupid chicken. I’ll break every bone in your body if you don’t give me that pistol this very second!”
Voices rumbled softly behind Phineas, but he paid them no mind. Alfred Townsend took his full attention.
“I’ll hit you so hard you’ll think a house fell on your stupid head,” Alfred roared. “Now gimme that!”
“No,” Phineas replied angrily. “No I won’t, you, you bully. You are a big fat coward, you always have been, and I won’t put up with it any more. You are a big pestiferous bag of, of… “ he tried to think of something nasty… “of skunk juice!”
“Skunk juice?” Alfred crinkled up his nose and sneered. “That’s stupid. Give me that gun!”
“No. You have taken it too far, Alfred. I thought I was being nice by helping you out with your little plans, but now I see it was all a big mistake. You are a mean and nasty boy!” Tears filled his eyes just when he didn’t want them, but now he was really mad. “I hate you!”
“Phineas, old friend,” Alfred cooed suddenly. “We’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we? I mean, you know, what with Mr. Santorini’s book, and that time we took the axle pin out of Mr. DeFleur’s hay cart? You could say we’re old friends, huh?”
Phineas eyed him warily, but didn’t lower the pistol.
“You’re not going to shoot your old friend Alfred, are you?”
Alfred took a half step towards him with his hand outstretched. Phineas noticed it was a dirty hand, with thick black bands under the fingernails. He took a large step backwards. Alfred humphed in frustration.
“Give me that blasted pistol or I will pound you into dirt!”
Phineas realized he had to shoot Alfred Townsend right then and there. He wanted to turn and run, but Alfred would catch him and get the pistol, and probably shoot him with it.
Nigel Remington’s voice floated into his mind.
“You’d best get it over with, old anchor.”
Phineas tightened his grip on the trigger.
Alfred suddenly looked panicked and took a large step backwards. He turned and fled.
“As well you should run, you blighter!” Phineas roared after him. “A ball in the back makes no difference to me, you miserable coward!”
He raised the pistol and sighted down the barrel. His finger tensed on the trigger. The moment had come.