Doc Morris stepped forward. He would have said "Mrs McGinley, let me tend the boy" but the shot drowned the first and only syllable he uttered and he fell to the floor clutching his thigh.
Lucy McGinley smiled.
"Stop making me waste bullets, Doc!" she said quietly, then screamed at Cole as he stepped forward "Stay where you are!" Her gun barrel moved smoothly from his chest to his head. Then, speaking quietly once more: "Sit on the floor, Sheriff. Or I'll kill you."
Slowly, he sat down.
"The girl's dead." Lucy McGinley laughed. "And the truth died with her"
On the floor at her feet Clint groaned and his hand moved towards his head. Lucy McGinley swung the barrel of the rifle up then forcefully back, hitting Clint's head with a resounding crack. He moaned, barely semi- conscious. The barrel returned to its place, pointing at the back of his head.
"Move again, I'll kill you," she said. Her voice was as cold and unrelenting as the night.
"Your bitch is dead," she continued, her face a picture of triumph. "Stay still, unless you care to join her in Hell."
Clint didn't move. His breathing shuddered back into unconsciousness.
"You're stupid, Joshua McGinley. So slow. So very, very blind."
"Lucy!" McGinley's voice pleaded.
"It's true, Joshua. You see only two alternatives, don't you?"
He didn't reply.
She screamed at him, the sudden shout startling everyone: "Don't you?!"
"Either our sons hang. Or you do. That's it, isn't it, Joshua? But there's a third alternative.
Cole stared at her, trying to get some sort of handle on what was motivating her, but he couldn't. Joshua McGinley avoided her fiery gaze.
Lucy McGinley continued, her voice calm and steady.
"I'm in charge here. And I'm choosing a third alternative."
"Nobody's hanging nobody."
Mrs McGinley's statement was spoken quietly but it carried the force of authority. Against the howl of the wind shrieking around the building and the driving of the rain against the window, it was only just audible: but audible it was, because it bore the gravitas of fact and the potency of truth. She had stated a reality, and said it with utter conviction. At that point, in that room, it was just about impossible to disbelieve her.
Minister McGinley spluttered loudly, his words trembling yet forceful
"I will hang, Lucy. I will not allow the alternative!"
The room was filled with the violent howling and flailing of the torrential storm and the bitter sobbing of Minister McGinley, his head in his trembling hands. Near him, Zeke put his arm around his father's shoulders as fear and confusion fell in the tears from his eyes.
"If you've finished now, Joshua - " Lucy McGinley began.
"I h-haven't finished," McGinley replied, his voice now barely a hoarse whisper. "I killed them, Cole. That's the truth of it. I did it! Not Ezekiel. Not Samuel. Not nobody else. I murdered them. In the name of God, let me hang."
And if she was the moon and stars, well she aint here tonight. Thank God! Her old bones wouldn't stand up in this hellish storm.
I'll get to the house, see what's going on. Leastways get shelter.
Only yellow lamplight in the McGinley window to guide me. Still a ways away. Can't see much in this rain.
Cant hear much in this wind neither. Talking of hearing things, it's good I aint no cougar stalking its prey. I squelch real loud every step I take, it's enough to warn any prey. Or waken the dead.
Hope that won't be necessary.
The longer I wait, the more teeth that wind's got.
I could sneak down to McGinley's place, check everything's fine.
I'm used to sneaking out at night. I love walking under the moon and the stars.
I'd check Grandma was fast asleep then slip out quietly. And every time when I got in, I'd close the door, silent as dreamin', and sneak into bed. And always when I lay there, shivering and slowly getting warmer, I'd hear Grandma say quietly
"G'night, Anna Cody."
And I'd wonder if perhaps she wasn't just Grandma. Maybe she was the moon and stars, too.
"You're a fool, Joshua," his wife said coldly.
But it was rage that spoke through McGinley now and it was a rage that would not be ignored.
"I'll hang for this, Lucy! And my death won't be a good thing for our boys, will it? Will it, Lucy?" He screamed that last question but didn't wait for a reply.
"Nobody's death is ever good!" he bellowed. "Not Prendergast, not Two Horses, not Bowen. And, oh Jesus help me, not the young, defenceless Cody girl."
Tears streamed down his face. Outside, icy night rain pummelled the window, as if in sympathy.
Joshua McGinley slammed his fists down onto the table.
"Shut up, Lucy, in the Lord's name, shut up! That's not right talk." His voice was high pitched and shrill and his face burned and trembled with rage and fear. Veins in his forehead bulged as control deserted him and his words came out without thought to guide them.
"If our boys have... murdered - if one of them has...tha-that's my own fault - they've been misguided... I - I haven't... been there for them - no murder is a good thing! For God's sake Lucy, nobody's death is ever, ever a good thing!"
All the time she was talking to Zeke her eyes didn't leave Cole and the other men, except once, briefly, when Samuel moved the weapons on the floor. When he'd positioned the guns and belts behind her, she began again.
"You know what she'd do then, Zeke, when she knew everything? She'd steal your innocence, boy. She'd smile and touch you and make you touch her and make you do things that are unholy outside the marriage bed- "
"It's true, boy, she's a woman. It's good she's dead, and better that everything she knows died with her."
Zeke coloured up. "Ma," he pleaded, "She is my friend- "
"Zeke, you'll learn! You're still young. Only one thing that bitch wanted and that's information, and to get it she made you feel like you were a god, and she was your best friend and your ma and pa all rolled into one."
Mrs McGinley's voice was getting more and more high pitched, but Sheriff Cole saw no lessening of her focus, no movement of the gun barrel on him or the rifle barrel on Clint.
"And when she got all that information from you, Zeke, she'd use it."
"Lucy," The Minister's voice was plaintive and pleading, "This aint going to save me either!"
Lucy snapped back "You old fool, save you from what? From hanging, because you say you murdered the girl? You think the Sheriff believes you? He's a fool, sure, but he aint as much of a fool as you are. So that girl's dead, so what? The way she wheedled stuff out of Zeke, she deserves it, the bitch, using her eyes and her smile on my boy, pretending to be his friend so my innocent child will tell her everything he seen and done!"
Joshua McGinley tried again.
"Lucy, this aint going to save our son..."
She wasn't interested and spoke over him.
"Samuel, get those weapons. And put them down behind me."
"Ma, I- " Samuel looked about the room uncertainly.
"Please. Do it, son." Her voice was reassuring, its tone strangely out of place in the situation.
He stepped out from behind the desk.
Cole weighed up the possibility of grabbing the boy when he picked up the weapons. That might make for an impasse, an improvement on the present situation.
Lucy was ahead of him.
"Samuel. Kick 'em over here, son."
The odds were stacked against Clint coming out of any gun battle alive, so Cole let his gun swing down on his trigger finger so the upside-down barrel was pointing at himself. Then he crouched slowly and placed it on the floor.
"Lucy, this isn't - "
She had no idea what her husband meant to say, but she didn't want to hear.
"Shush, Joshua. I'm in charge here." She hadn't even turned her head to look at him. Instead her eyes were fixed on Eddie Sherman, Doc Morris and Mickey O'Donohue. "Now you, gentlemen. Y'all drop your gun belts."
But this wasn't just man to man.
Lucy McGinley was in a heightened state. Staring eyes, dry mouth, clenched jaw. But there were no trembling hands: the barrel of her pistol pointed steadily at his chest, and, more importantly, the end of the barrel of the Winchester - the most conspicuous indication of any tremor - was steady and securely positioned just a foot above the back of Clint's head.
She was in a heightened state sure enough, but she had complete focus and concentration. One sudden move and Cole knew that he would get the first bullet and Clint the second.
There were a few moments of... Nothing.
No action. No words.
Then Lucy McGinley, one-handed, deftly flicked the Winchester's lever action, inserting a bullet into the barrel.
The metallic ratcheting clicks traumatised the whole room.
"Do it." ordered Mrs McGinley. "Now!"
Man to man, without an unconscious kid slumped at his adversary's feet, Cole would have taken a chance. A dive to his left and two bullets into the woman's chest before he hit the ground - if the dice fell for him, he'd have moved slightly before she fired; chances are she'd just wing him or even miss entirely.
It's wintry. And I'm soaked through. Grandma will kill Doc Morris, he's supposed to look after me. Sure, she'll kill Doc Morris, but that'll be nothing compared to what she's gonna do to me.
I can't just sit here, getting wetter.
A light's just come on in the window.
A warm yellow glow; the glow from Grandma's window, that's what it looks like. Dry and warm and safe.
It's been so quiet for too long.
Silly... me just waiting here.
They might have forgotten I'm here. Might have. No, okay, Clint wouldn't, but maybe he's been beat up or something.
All eyes were on the Minister and his boys leaning over him, so the groan and thud from the doorway went almost unnoticed.
"Yes, go on, you cry. Weep your tears of weakness, Joshua! That's all that's left to you, you poor old sod!"
Framed in the doorway, an 1873 Winchester rifle held between her elbow and her side and aimed directly at the unconscious body of Clint, stood Lucy McGinley. Her pistol, whose butt had cracked across the back of Clint's skull, now turned to face Sheriff Cole.
"Drop your gun, Cole, or the kid gets it!" she rasped.
"Maybe I failed my boys, Cole," McGinley explained. Yes, maybe he had. But if he'd failed them in the past, he'd fail them no longer. He'd sacrifice himself for them now.
"Jesus did it for His Father, I'll do it for my sons."
"Joshua?" Cole was confused.
"You wouldn't understand, Cole. Look, I'm admitting their murders and..." his voice began to quaver "that girl... I never meant..."
The thought of the dead girl became confused with the thought of his own death and his sons left fatherless and without guidance, and he laid his head on his desk and wept.
Seeing his two sons standing just behind, one on each side, made him proud. They were fine kids, he thought, but something, somewhere, had gone wrong.
They were strong, able. Always ready to help. Leastways, they always used to be.
Could be, it was their age made them look inside themselves too much. Could be the coming of the railroad? Could be I haven't given them enough guidance?
"Everyone needs a father's hand, don't they?" he said aloud. "The Lord knows I've needed His merciful hand enough times!"
"What?" asked Cole.
Yellowed raindrops flushed ground dust off the window pane.