By the time James and Dodds reached the alley that ran behind the Griff house, they could hear shouts and screams even above the rain.
    “He’s there,” Dodds said, pulling his Navy Colt from his holster. “You said you weren’t going to shoot him,” James said, panic filling his chest.
    “Son, I said I’d try not to shoot him. But I didn’t say I’d be foolish. He’ll be armed and so will I.” He nodded to a small garage to their left. “You could always go in there and stay till it’s over.”
    “I want to go with you. I want to talk to him.”
    “All right,” Dodds said, “c’mon, then.”
    They went up the alley. Even the cinders were squishy underfoot. A hundred feet away they saw Septemus come into the alley, Eloise Griff pulled close to him, the Winchester not far from her head.
    Dodds shouted, “Stop right there, Ryan.”
    Dodds and James started running toward the man and the little girl.
    Around the corner of the barn came Mrs. Griff and her husband.
    Griff was crudely bandaged; blood soaked through several places in his shirt and trousers. He looked as if he were about ready to collapse.
    Mrs. Griff was slowly, painfully pleading with Ryan to let her little girl go.
    When Dodds and James reached them, Dodds walked as close to Ryan as Septemus would let him.
    Ryan put the muzzle of the Winchester directly against Eloise’s head. “I’m going to kill her, Sheriff. Stand back.”
    James stared at the man who’d once been his uncle. This impostor bore no resemblance. “Uncle Septemus,” he said.
    As if recognizing his presence for the first time, Septemus glanced over at him and shook his head. For a brief moment there, he did resemble the old Septemus. Concern filled his eyes. “You shouldn’t have come, James. I shouldn’t have brought you along. It was a mistake. You shouldn’t have anything to do with this.”
    “Uncle Septemus, you can’t kill that little girl,” James said, stepping up closer to Dodds.
    All of them stood there in the rain, cold now and soaking but unable to take their eyes from the man and the girl.
    “I know what I have to do, James. I have to make things right. I’m sorry, this is the only way I can do it.” Septemus pulled the girl tighter to him. “Now stand back, James. Stand back.”
    “Please, Sheriff, talk to him,” Mrs. Griff said. One could hear how hard she was working at keeping herself sane, fighting against the impulse to be hysterical.
    “Ryan,” Dodds said, advancing another step or two. “Hand me the Winchester and let the little girl go.”
    “Don’t make me shoot you, Sheriff,” Septemus said. “I’ve got nothing against you. This is between Griff and me.”
    Griff hobbled up closer himself. “Just take me, Ryan. Just take me and let Eloise walk away.”
    Dodds, seeing that Ryan was momentarily watching Griff talk, took another step.
    Ryan lowered the Winchester and shot him in the shoulder.
    Dodds flailed, pieces of his shirt and his shoulder exploding. He went over backward and lay in a puddle in the middle of the alley.
    Mrs. Griff went to him much as she’d done with her husband. She had his head up against her forearm. Dodds’s eyes were open and he was saying something to Mrs. Griff in a slow, small voice. James couldn’t hear them. Now all he could hear was the rain; the rain.
    As James turned back to Septemus, he noticed the Navy Colt that Dodds had dropped.
    Impulsively, he bent and picked it up.
    Septemus watched him.
    When James turned back to his uncle, he held the Navy Colt.
    “You go on, now, James,” Septemus said. “You go to the depot and get a train back to Council Bluffs.”
    “I want you to let the little girl go,” James said.
    He stood ten feet from his uncle, the Colt in his hand.
    “Put the gun down,” Septemus said.
    “Uncle Septemus, you can’t see yourself. You can’t know how you look and sound. I know how much you loved Clarice but this isn’t right. Not with this little girl.”
    Septemus looked down at Eloise a moment. His grip seemed to loosen.
    “Please, Uncle Septemus,” James said. “Please, let her go.”
    To his right, James could see the Griff woman saying a silent prayer that Septemus would just let the girl walk away.
    Septemus’s grip let up considerably now.
    James could see Eloise start to slip away.
    “No!” Septemus shouted.
    It was as if some spell had come over him suddenly. He was no longer James’s uncle but the crazed, ugly man he’d been a few minutes ago; the one that he’d been back at the cabin where he’d killed Dennis Kittredge.
    He grabbed the girl and jerked her back to him and slammed the Winchester against her temple once again.
    James started walking toward Septemus, the Colt level in his hand. He wasn’t even sure he could fire it properly. At this point he didn’t care. Now that he knew how insane Septemus had become, all James could think of was freeing the little girl. He loved the man who’d been his uncle too much to do anything else.
    “Let her go, Uncle Septemus,” James said, advancing.
    “I’ll shoot you, James,” Septemus said. “Don’t think I won’t.” Two, three, four more steps.
    “Let her go, Uncle Septemus.”
    “You heard me, James.”
    Five, six, seven more steps.
    “Let her go, Uncle Septemus.”
    “Please, James; please don’t come any closer.”
    Septemus pulled the Winchester from the little girl and leveled it directly at James.
    James dived then, not knowing if his uncle would fire or not; dived directly for the little girl.
    He slammed into them hard enough that Septemus’s grip on the girl’s shoulder was broken.
    “Run!” James shouted to her.
    Eloise ran, stumbling across the cinders and puddles.
    Her mother ran out to swoop her up.
    By now, James was flat on the ground.
    Septemus had run into the darkness of the barn. He stood in the shadows, holding the Winchester at his side.
    James got to his feet, picking up the Colt again. He felt an idiotic happiness that Septemus was still alive.
    Dodds saw what James was about to do. Still lying on the ground, Dodds raised a hand and said, “Don’t you go in there, son. Wait till some deputies get here.”
    But James didn’t listen.
    He went through the barn door. Rain dripped and plopped off the door into the silver puddles.
    Septemus stood in the shadows.
    He said, “I’m glad I didn’t kill that little girl.”
    He started crying then.
    James had never heard sounds so terrible.
    After he had sobbed for a time, Septemus raised his head and said, “Do you love me, James?”
    “You know I do, Uncle Septemus.”
    “Then will you help me?”
    “I’ll do anything you want me to, Uncle Septemus.”
    “You know what they’ll do to me. The trial and all. It won’t be good for anybody. You know what something like that would do to your mother.”
    “She loves you, too, Uncle Septemus. She knows how Clarice’s death affected you.”
    “Raise that Colt, James.”
    “Raise that Colt and shoot me.”
    “Uncle Septemus-”
    Septemus shook his head. “It’ll be better for everybody, James. You can see what all this has done to me. I’m not a killer, James, yet I’ve killed two men and I almost killed a little girl. I don’t want to live anymore, James, yet I’m not sure I can take my own life because I’m afraid I’d be damned to hell.”
    “Uncle Septemus, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t.”
    “I can hear her, James. Clarice, I mean. I want to be with her again. I want to hold her in my arms and sing to her and tell her how much I love her.” Then his eyes in the gloom took on the clarity of the insane; that terrible vivid truth that only they can see. “Take the Colt, James. And do it. You’ll be helping everybody.”
    “I can’t.”
    “Just raise it up to my chest, James.”
    “I don’t want to, Uncle Septemus.”
    “It’s your duty, James. I was wrong about you helping me kill the others. But this time I’m not wrong, James. You need to grow and take the responsibility for the whole family, James.”
    “He’s right, son; it’ll be better this way.”
    From the door, Dodds hobbled inside. The blood on his shoulder was faded from the rain. His scratchy, wavery voice told how weak the gunshot had left him.
    When Ryan saw him, he said, “I’m sorry I shot you, Sheriff.”
    “I know, Mr. Ryan. I don’t hold you accountable. Not really.” Dodds looked at James. “I’m going to get some deputies, son, so we can take Mr. Ryan into custody and so I can get somebody to do something about my shoulder. But I want to tell you something.”
    James shook his head. “I don’t want to do it, sir.”
    Dodds said, “He’s right about it, son. It’ll be better for everybody. He can’t help the way he is now and about the only thing we can do for him is to get him out of his misery.” Dodds nodded to the door. “I’m going to walk out of here and I won’t have any idea what happens. If your uncle gets shot and you tell me it was self-defense, then I’m just going to have to take your word for it, won’t I, son?”
    Dodds looked at Septemus then. “I’m sorry about your little girl, Mr. Ryan.”
    He left the barn.
    They stood alone facing each other. In the stall in the back they could hear the horse get restless with nightfall.
    Somewhere beyond the rain there would be stars and the vast darkness of night. James just wanted to be a boy and sit in his bedroom window and dream idly about all the mysteries of the universe.
    He did not want to be standing in a barn smelling of hay and horseshit and oil and facing his uncle in this way.
    “You’ve got to help me, James,” Septemus said, and fell to crying once more.
    But this time he let the Winchester fall from his hands and he came over to James and embraced him.
    James had never heard or felt this kind of grief before. His uncle’s sobbing was too painful for either of them to abide for long.
    “Help me, James; help me,” Uncle Septemus said, leaning back from the boy.
    Septemus took the barrel of the Colt and raised it to his chest and said, “Please help me, James. Please help me.”
    “Uncle Septemus-”
    “Please, James.”
    James shot twice, the first shot not seeming to do anything, Septemus just hovering there, his face that of a stranger again.
    With the second shot, however, Septemus fell to the ground on his back.
    He looked up at James. “Thank you, James. You did your duty.”
    Then it was James who began to cry, wild with grief and fear, filled with disbelief that he might have done such a thing.
    “Uncle Septemus!” he cried.
    But it was too late.
    Septemus’s eyes had closed. In death he was himself again, the lines of his face softer, gentleness joining the intelligence of his brow.
    “Uncle Septemus!” James cried out again.
    But only the horse in the back was there to hear.
    James rose then and went to the barn door and looked out through the rain. In the distance he could hear the slapping footsteps of men running. In the gloom their shouts were ugly and harsh. The deputies.
    He felt so many things, and yet he felt nothing. He thought of his mother and Marietta and Liz; he thought of his dead cousin Clarice and the sound of the gunshot back there at the cabin where Kittredge had died; and he thought finally of Septemus, of the terrible things that can happen to human beings and of the terrible things those very same human beings are then capable of visiting on others.
    If this was being a man, perhaps he didn’t want to be a man. Maybe it was better to be a dreamy boy, passing by Marietta’s house on a night of fireflies and banjos, her idle flirtations making him happier than he’d ever been before.
    But something had changed in him now; and no matter how much he yearned to be the boy he’d been, he knew he could never be that boy again. He possessed some terrible knowledge now, some insight that would stay with him forever like a curse.
    Then the men were there, the deputies, and the air was filled with the harsh barking curses of men who tried to convince themselves and each other that they were in control of things.
Jack Dwyer #07 - What the Dead Men Say
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