red wing – 10/29 version

Here is the slightly revised, final (I hope) version of my short story “Red Wing,” written for John Michael Greer’s contest:

Red Wing

I.

Riggs paused for a moment to rub his aching wrist.  The weird crud encasing the clapboards seemed to defy simple physics.  Sweat dripped off his brow in the July sun.  Riggs gazed again, as he had a dozen times that morning, at the scraper in his hand.  Which would give out first?  The scraper, or the crud?  Or would it be Riggs himself?  His rueful smile hinted at the answer.

“Why are you trying to scrape that off?  Why bother?” 

At first, Riggs thought that his own thoughts had somehow managed to give themselves a voice.  That the voice was female was a surprise, but not a jarring one.  Why not?  Why shouldn’t his more rational ruminations speak in a pleasing, feminine lilt? 

But a slow look down from his makeshift scaffold, suspended from a second story window, revealed the source of the questions.  Peering up at him was a woman he hadn’t seen before.  She was pretty, not too thin, youngish, barefoot, with brown hair tied in a pony tail.  Her buff-colored homespun dress was given shape by a braided sash.  She held a basket of cucumbers on her hip and shaded her eyes with a tanned hand that was missing its pinky finger.  Riggs found the hand strangely endearing.

He answered her.  “I’m an artist.  My masterwork will be the liberation of this house from the evil shroud that encases it.”  Riggs was surprised by the truthfulness of his answer, and at his willingness to offer it up to a stranger.  He was surprised, also, that he knew the answer.

The young woman considered Riggs impassively.  “What is that stuff?  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It’s a high-tech coating from the late nineteen-hundreds.”  Both Riggs and his interlocutor smiled at his use of the term “high-tech.” “People sprayed it on buildings to save themselves the trouble of painting.” 

Her brow furrowed slightly.  “But doesn’t it protect the wood from the elements?  And it might even produce some insulating effect.”

Riggs, coming to himself now, was self-conscious.  How dirty were his clothes?  How wild was his hair?  He usually at least glanced at the mirror as his day began, but he hadn’t this morning.  “My objection to it is strictly aesthetic,” he replied.  “It makes the house look fuzzy—out of focus.  It deserves to be seen as it was.”

The woman held her injured hand before her and gazed at it.  “Does my hand deserve to be seen as it was?  No matter how I look at it”—she turned it this way and that—“it’s still missing a finger.”  She turned her eyes upward again to Riggs and awaited his reply.

The silence lengthened as Riggs considered his answer.  Finally he spoke.  “The loss of your finger was accidental, or so I assume, and can’t be undone.  The application of this goop was deliberate, and ought to be undone.”  Riggs paused.  “And anyway, your hand suits you just as it is.”

The woman smiled with sudden shyness at the awkward compliment, and looked away from Riggs.  She pulled a cucumber from the basket and laid it on a stone next to the walk.  As she strode away she turned back to Riggs.  “That’s nice and crisp.  But you should eat it today.”  She turned away again and hastened her step.  Riggs barely heard her say “My name is Lizzy” as she moved toward the market square.

II.

There wasn’t much light in the cellar, just that which came through the narrow windows high in the concrete walls, but it was enough for Riggs to see what he needed to see.   He pulled back the coarse cloths covering the two big crocks on the trestle table and sniffed the yeasty contents.  Another day or two for the blackberry, he thought, and a little longer for the peach.  They were coming along nicely.

A shadow fell across the open southwest cellar window and Riggs could see someone kneeling down outside, looking through it.  She spoke, and Riggs recognized Lizzy’s voice.  His pulse accelerated slightly.  “Wow, where did you get all the big bottles?” she asked.  She gestured to the shelves arrayed along the cellar wall opposite her, where about twenty five- and six-gallon clear glass containers sat stolidly.  Most were full or nearly full of clear liquid, shimmering faintly in the morning light, in shades of pink and amber and purple.

“They’re called carboys,” answered Riggs, “and most of them I inherited from Nick Stavos.  He taught me how to make wine.  When he passed away he willed them to me.”  Riggs stepped to the window.  His eyes were just a little lower than Lizzy’s.  Riggs caught a whiff of lemon verbena from her dress.

Lizzy settled back on her haunches and tilted her head slightly.  “Are you Mr. Riggs?” she asked. 

Riggs was embarrassed.  Twice he had encountered this woman, and still he hadn’t managed to tell her his name.  What a knucklehead.

 “It’s just Riggs,” he replied.  “No one ever calls me mister.”  He wiped his hands absentmindedly on his shirt.  “I apologize for failing to introduce myself before now. I know that you’re Lizzy, and you live out south of town, but that’s about it.”

Lizzy looked to her right, toward the street where Riggs could hear a horse and wagon pass by.  “I just recently came to live with my grandmother, the lady you folks call Miss Sue,” she said. 

Lizzy was Miss Sue’s granddaughter!  Everyone thought she was a spinster lady—with a name like Miss Sue, what else could you think?—but now Lizzy pops up out of nowhere.  Riggs admired her for putting up with the irascible old woman.  He was sure it wasn’t easy.

Lizzy looked again at Riggs and asked “Do you mind if I join you for a closer look at the winemaking operation?”

“Please do,” said Riggs, “the cellar door is at the back.”  He moved to the door as Lizzy did the same outside, and he let her in.  She stood for a moment, her basket of tomatoes and squash on her hip, as her eyes adjusted to the dim light.

Riggs regarded her intently, but politely.  Up close, she looked older—thirty, maybe?—and her eyes were more wary than he had realized before. 

Lizzy stepped softly to the racks of carboys.  “Wow, some of these look pretty old,” she said.  “Is there any way to tell when they were made?”

“With some, yes,” Riggs replied.  He hoisted an empty six-gallon carboy from the rack, grasped it by the neck to turn it bottom-up, and held it so the light from the window struck the base.  “You can see the manufacturer’s mark molded into this one,” he said as he pointed to a diamond shape with “O-I” inside the diamond.  “That’s Owens-Illinois, a company that made this at a plant in Alton, about fifty miles north.  And down here”—he moved his finger under the diamond mark—“is the year they made it.”

“Nineteen fifty-six!” said Lizzy.  “This thing has been around for nearly a hundred and fifty years!  Are they all that old?”

“Some are older still,” said Riggs, “but most manufacturers didn’t bother with markings like this.  Too much trouble and expense.  But Owens-Illinois was big—the biggest in the world—and they wanted to tell the world.”  Riggs turned the big bottle right side-up and set it down again.  “Can you imagine the gigawatts it took to make molten glass and mold these bottles, hundreds or thousands in a run, for hours and days and weeks on end?  What a time that must have been!”

Lizzy frowned.  “Well, they used up the juice mighty quick, I’ll give them that.  Seems like they might’ve saved a bit for all the folks who came later.”

Riggs rubbed his chin reflectively.  “Well, I don’t know.  I’ve thought  about it a lot.  They probably just figured if they didn’t use it up themselves, someone else would, someplace else.  And what would be the point of letting that happen?”

Riggs absentmindedly cracked his knuckles and smiled.  “Anyway, nothing goes away forever, Lizzy.  There’s a fellow over near Breese who salvaged some molds and now he hand-blows bottles nearly this size.  I even helped him, once.  Who knows, maybe they’ll master fusion power one of these days, and he’ll be as big as Owens-Illinois ever was!”

They both laughed.  “If I didn’t know better I’d think you were a cornucopian,” said Lizzy.  “But really, what do you do with all this wine, Riggs?  Is it strictly for your own consumption or does it serve some other purpose?”

Smiling, Riggs replied, “Oh, it’s just for me.”  After Lizzy tucked her chin slightly and regarded him skeptically, Riggs continued, “Actually, I trade most of it for things I need, or give it away.  Would you like to try some?”

Lizzy smiled broadly.  “I thought you’d never ask.  What do you recommend?”

Riggs opened the door of what seemed to be a closet to reveal shelves crowded with glass wine bottles, earthenware jugs and canning jars, all apparently full.  After considering for a moment he chose two standard wine bottles filled with pale reddish-purple fluid and pulled them out.  “This is blackberry from a couple of years ago,” said Riggs.  “It’s just about my favorite.”  He lifted one bottle and then the other.  “one for us and one for you and Miss Sue.  The corkscrew is upstairs.”

Riggs stepped to the open staircase and let Lizzy ascend first.  They emerged into the kitchen, bright and cheery in the morning sun, where Riggs pulled out the corkscrew and two small jelly-jar glasses.  He removed the cork from the bottle with a satisfying “thunk”  and poured out about a half-cup into each glass. 

Lizzy took hers and sniffed the contents delicately.  “”A very nice aroma, Riggs.’ she said.  She took a sip.  “Wow, this is good.  Like velvet.  How do you keep yourself from plowing through the inventory like a hot knife through butter?”  Lizzy arched her eyebrows as she waited for his response.

“That’s not one of my weaknesses, luckily,” replied Riggs.  “I just have a couple of glasses a day.”

Lizzy, glass in hand, had wandered from the kitchen, past the woodstove, into what was once the dining room, presumably.  It was now, together with the adjacent parlor, a library, with hundreds and hundreds of books, floor to ceiling, on shelves that were homemade, but rudely handsome.  In the center of the sunny parlor was a worn leather sofa with a low table before it.  “Riggs, you’re a bibliophile, or possibly just a librarian,” said Lizzy.  She ran her finger along the backs of a few dozen volumes, staring intently at them as she did.  “It’s an eclectic gathering, for sure.  How-to, history, fiction, biography, self improvement, reference works—did you inherit these from Nick, too?”

“Only a few,” replied Riggs.  “About half came from my dad, and most of the rest I traded for in St. Louis, back when I was young and stupid and thought I was immortal.  It was pretty self-indulgent, really.  Who needs all these books?”

“Riggs, don’t apologize for being yourself,” said Lizzy.  “Books are wonderful!  They’re the best way humans have to communicate with one another across time and space.”  She sat on the sofa, took another sip of blackberry wine, and crossed her legs.  There was nothing overtly sexual about it, but Riggs was stirred as he hadn’t been for a long time.  “So, Mr. Librarian, who’s your favorite author?” 

Riggs thought for a moment.  “I guess I’d have to say Jane Austen,” he said.  “Her stuff is real predictable, but I love the dialogue between the characters.  I wonder if anyone ever actually talked that way.”

Lizzy set her now-empty glass on the table and smiled.  “Probably not,” she said, “but I’m glad to learn that you’re a romantic.  So am I.”  She got up, walked to his side, and kissed him softly on the cheek.  “I have a terrible suspicion that you’re just as innocent and noble as Jane Austen’s men were.  I commend you for it.”

Riggs’s eyes shone with longing.  He could say nothing in reply.  Lizzy moved back to the kitchen and stood with her back to the sink.  “But now down to business,” she said.  “Believe it or not, my visit has a purpose beyond mooching a glass of wine and quizzing you on your literary taste.  Granny says I snore, which is a foul and contemptible lie, but she has directed me to hire you to build a lean-to onto her cabin.  She says you aren’t the most talented handyman around, but you’re diligent and less of a chatterbox than most men.  Will you take the job?”

Disappointed at the practical turn the conversation had taken, Riggs was silent and slightly crestfallen for a moment.  But he brightened at the thought that he could at least be near Lizzy as he did the job.  “How big a lean-to?” he asked.  “And what does Miss Sue want it sided with?”

“Eight by twelve,” replied Lizzy, hands on hips.  “Granny says she has enough old pine boards in her pole barn for clapboard siding, but you’re to procure lumber for the framing.”

“Sure, I’ll take the job,” said Riggs.  “I’ll round up the lumber and have Ben Wallace drop it out there day after tomorrow.  And I’ll be there the day after that.”

Lizzy moved toward the kitchen door.  “So what’s your price, Riggs?  Granny will want to know.”

Riggs smiled.  “Now you’re pulling my leg, Lizzy.  Miss Sue knows perfectly well that my price is whatever the customer wants to pay, after the job is done.”

Lizzy laughed, a deep, satisfied laugh that made her eyes crinkle.  “Yes, that’s what Granny said, but I didn’t believe her.”  She picked up the unopened wine bottle from the counter and put it in her basket.  Then she put several tomatoes and squash on the table and pulled open the kitchen door.  “I don’t know how you’ve managed to struggle along so far, Riggs.  God must be looking after you.  Thanks for the wine.”  She pulled the door closed behind her and was gone.

III.

Riggs checked his measurements one last time and began sawing the two-by-fours before him.  The smell of the sawn pine was sweet and clean.  He would’ve preferred two-by-sixes for the rafters of a lean-to, even this little one, but these studs were all he could find on short notice.  And Miss Sue, characteristically, was in a hurry.  She wanted a lean-to added to her shack, and by God she wanted it yesterday.  Riggs felt a little light-headed.

Lizzy was weeding the cucumbers and tomatoes, some fifteen yards from Riggs as he knelt in the shade cast my Miss Sue’s cabin.  The morning heat was just beginning to take hold.  There was a buzzing in his ear, but when he swatted at it, Riggs could detect no insect present.  He ran the back of his hand across his forehead and squinted his eyes shut.

 “Why are you sawing those by hand?”  The querulous voice interrupted his thoughts as Miss Sue approached Riggs from behind with her little sparrow-steps, dragging a rusty child’s wagon behind her.  She held her walking stick as if to strike him.  “Why don’t you use this?”  With a flourish, like a salesman with a wonderful new gizmo, she used the head of the stick to pull a scrap of burlap from the bed of the wagon to reveal an old hand-held electric circular saw beneath it.

Riggs picked it up admiringly.  “Craftsman” he said as he read the name stamped into the motor housing.  It was one of the really old ones, with a cast aluminum body.  The black cord with a three-pronged plug dangled on the ground.  Riggs moved the blade with his thumb.  The movement was stiff, but Riggs thought it was from long disuse, not a failure of the bearings.  Not that he was any expert. 

“This is a nice piece of machinery, Miss Sue,” said Riggs.  “But how are we going to fire it up?  Do you have a generator out here?  And fuel?  Ethanol, maybe?”

“Stop asking all these fool questions, you nitwit.  You stick that thing”—she gestured at the plug—“into the wall socket and away you go!  Even a feebleminded child knows that.”

Riggs considered Miss Sue’s outburst carefully.  He knew he had to tread lightly.

“Maybe that was the way of it when you were a little girl, Miss Sue,” he replied. “But these days we have to sign up for a dollop of juice at the next generation day in town.  And it comes pretty dear.”

The obstinate old face crinkled in annoyance at Riggs’s objections.  “Hang the expense!  I’ve got silver!”  Miss Sue pulled a little leather pouch from somewhere inside her shapeless dress and shook it up.  Sure enough, Riggs heard the silvery tinkle of old, old dimes.

“Miss Sue, you oughtn’t to let folks know that.  There’s still thieves about.” Riggs felt the first stab of sticky heat behind his eyes.  His throat was dry.

“Let’em come,” cackled the old woman.  “I’ve got silver and lead both!”  Reaching into yet another fold of the dress, she pulled out an old .38.  The bluing was almost gone, but Riggs could see the coppery tips of the bullets in the cylinder.  They were all too easy to see since Miss Sue was pointing the pistol at his face.  Her eyes were bright with purpose.  Lizzy, kneeling among the tomato vines, seemed to be observing her closely with sidelong glances.

Riggs closed his eyes and ran his free hand through his hair.  His thoughts were thickening and blurring.  Was there nothing this old biddy didn’t have in that lumpy dress?  He imagined her pulling out six scrapers with six hands, Vishnu-like, and de-crudding his entire house in a few minutes. 

His tongue was a furry lump inside his mouth.  “I need to gather my tools and get on home.”  That’s what Riggs said, but all that Miss Sue heard was an incomprehensible mumble.  With jerky urgency, Riggs dropped the old power saw on the ground and packed his tools in his worn canvas bag and began walking the three miles back to town.  His gait was stiff and fussy, like a marionette whose operator was indifferent to actual human motion.

Miss Sue watched in disbelief as Riggs moved off.  “Where in the hell do you think you’re going, you lunatic?  Get back here and finish the job!”  She cocked the pistol with both hands and took jittery aim at his back as Riggs reached the raggedy copse of trees and undergrowth near the road, some sixty or seventy yards from the cabin.  Miss Sue’s index fingers tightened on the trigger.  Lizzy hastened over from the vegetable garden and lifted Miss Sue’s arm as the hammer fell.  Riggs was just out of sight as the shot reverberated in their ears.

“That boy isn’t right in the head,” said Miss Sue. 

“You’re a fine one to talk!” replied the younger woman.  “He’s got more of his marbles than a certain elderly lady I know.  And now he’s lying there in the weeds, bleeding to death, thanks to you!”

“Nonsense!” said Miss Sue, obduracy tracing every line of her features.  “Just a warning shot, well over his head.  The rounds always go where I want them to go.”

Lizzy shook her head in exasperation and hastened into the old woman’s shack.  She emerged moments later with a satchel full of clean towels and sheets.  As she ran toward the road to town, there was a worried look on her face.

IV.

The morning sun shone on the wall opposite his bed as Riggs came to consciousness.  The hot needles behind his eyes were almost gone, and the throbbing aches in his joints were receding again into memory.  And, most tellingly of all, he felt hungry.  The worst of the malaria attack was over.

Riggs looked down at the robe he was wearing.  He couldn’t remember putting it on, or taking off his old clothes, for that matter.  He didn’t even recognize the robe.

Riggs ran his hand over the nubby sheet.  It was crisp and clean, so somebody had changed the bed linens at least once since it began.  On one previous occasion, about two years ago, the wife of Riggs’s upstairs tenant had looked after Riggs while he was bedridden, but had found the experience insufficiently rewarding to try again.  And even then, she hadn’t changed his sheets.  The current situation was just a mystery.

Riggs closed his eyes again.  Through the open window he could pick out the songs of sparrows and robins and finches.  The whir of a hummingbird near the petunia patch.  A horse’s whinny.  Someone hammering nails.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  It was wonderful to lie here these few minutes, on clean sheets, in his own house, feeling better again.  He said a silent prayer of thanks, awkwardly.  Riggs tried not to bother the Lord excessively, one way or the other.

Suddenly a new sound appeared.  It was a scraping noise in or on the house, near the back.  A squirrel in the gutter or downspout?  No, there was no metallic note to it.  A mouse, scampering along inside the frame walls of the old house?  No, the sound was too heavy and insistent.

Then it hit him.  He got out of bed and stepped gingerly to the window.  Sticking his head out, he looked down the north side of the house to see Lizzy, standing on a chair, scraper in hand, laboring away at the clapboards.  Flecks of the strange coating were fluttering to the ground, like a little space-age snowstorm. 

The remaining fuzziness in his head, or perhaps something else, made it difficult for Riggs to think clearly.  What he managed to say was “Persistent stuff, isn’t it?”

Lizzy smiled as she turned to him.  She stepped down off the chair, placed the scraper on the seat, and walked to the window where Riggs stood.  “It certainly is.  But it’ll give way eventually–to a true artist, that is.”  She looked intently into his brown eyes.  “So, it’s back to being you now, is it?  I’m glad you’re feeling better again.”

“So am I,” said Riggs, “but I’m sorry to put you to the trouble of looking after me.  The malaria hits about once a year, though some years I get lucky and it doesn’t come at all.”  Riggs paused.  “How did you manage to change the sheets?”

Lizzy laughed, a wonderful, melodic laugh.   “That’s an old nurse’s trick my mother taught me.  It’s not hard to learn.  The real challenge was getting you to swallow some water now and again.”  She brushed a wisp of brown hair from her forehead.  “I bet you’re famished, but I’m ready.  I went to Granny’s house yesterday and picked up some eggs.  And I have a little bread from the lady upstairs here.  And some ham from your cellar.  A few minutes over the rocket stove and we’ll be ready to eat.”  She moved toward the back of the house, picking up the chair and scraper as she went.  “I’ll see you in the kitchen in a few minutes.”  She paused a moment and added, “I feel terrible that Granny took that shot at you.  But I’m glad she missed.”

Riggs moved slowly to the closet to find clean clothes.  So the old woman did fire at him!  He had thought the memory was just an artifact of his fevered dreams, but it was real.  He wondered if Miss Sue was getting dangerously out of hand.  Less than a year earlier, she had plugged a fellow she said had tried to steal her bicycle.  That story seemed a little unlikely—the bicycle was rusty and immobile, and would have made for a plodding getaway—but no one could identify the dead man, whose pockets were suspiciously empty, and the sheriff finally decided to bring  no charges.  Was it safe for Lizzy to live out there with the old woman in her belligerent, perhaps murderous, mental state? 

So his thoughts ran as Riggs combed his hair in the bathroom mirror and worked up a lather with his shaving brush.  The price of safety razors was coming down, but they were still too pricey for the frugal Riggs.  He stropped his straight razor on the leather strap hanging from the wall, and shaved carefully.  From the length of the beard he cut, he surmised that the attack had lasted three days.

Riggs moved closer to the mirror and gazed intently at the clean-shaven face before him.  It was much the same as ever, angular with high cheekbones, deep-set pleasant brown eyes, but with a few more crinkles here and there.  He was thirty-six now, nearly thirty-seven.  No spring chicken, he told himself.

The enticing smell of ham and scrambled eggs filled his nostrils as he entered the kitchen.  Riggs inhaled deeply and sat at the old pine table.  Lizzy was smiling as she served up a fair facsimile of an old-fashioned farm breakfast.  There was even a little pot of tea, presumably brewed from Riggs’s stash of the precious stuff.

“I hope you don’t mind about the tea,” said Lizzy.  “I found it in one of the cupboards and couldn’t resist.”  She poured steaming cups for Riggs and herself. 

“Not a bit,” said Riggs as he surveyed the table, mouth watering.  “It’s always worth celebrating when the malaria fades out again, but usually I do it alone.”  With a shy glance at Lizzy, he added, “and with you here there’s even more reason to celebrate.”

Lizzy’s cheeks colored a little, possibly, as she sat down catty-cornered from Riggs.  “So just where did you pick up malaria, Riggs?  I didn’t think it was widespread in southern Illinois.  Do you have a mysterious past as a pirate in the tropics?” 

Riggs swallowed a bite of ham and eggs, washed it down with tea, and smiled.  “Nothing so exciting, I’m afraid,” he replied.  “It’s a little leftover from our last grand national adventure, in Brazil.  I signed up because I didn’t have anything better to do, and a year later I was back home with a disability pension.  Not bad for an ignorant country boy.”  He speared another forkful of ham and eggs and chewed contentedly.

“Were you in combat there?” asked Lizzy.

“Some,” said Riggs.  “Enough to be grateful to have it behind me.”  He shook his head slowly.  “I have to say it’s overrated.”  He sipped his tea.  “So what brought you here, Lizzy?  And from where?”  He looked at her expectantly.

“I was living in Utah with my husband Dave”—she glanced at Riggs—“when he was taken by the flu.  That was about a year ago.  My plan was to stay there, on his brother’s ranch, where Dave had lived his whole life.  But Dave’s idiot brother, Brigham, took the whole polygamy thing way too seriously—there’s a lot more of that there these days—and insisted that I either join the harem or leave.”  She sipped her tea.  “So I left.  Packed my worldly belongings in a little carpetbag and came to join Granny.  At least Brigham paid the train fare, the jerk.”

“I’m sorry you were widowed, Lizzy,” said Riggs.  “I hope that things are”—he groped for the right word—“acceptable to you at Miss Sue’s place.”

Lizzy knitted her brow as she thought.  “Acceptable,” she said.  “I guess things are—acceptable—for now.  But I don’t think Granny is overly fond of company.”  She took another sip of tea.  “Maybe the lean-to will help.”  She smiled archly at Riggs.  “If it ever gets built, that is.”

“I promise to get at it day after tomorrow,” said Riggs with a smile, “if Miss Sue doesn’t cut me down.”  He paused and fiddled with his fork.  “Incidentally, it might be best not to mention her last shot to anyone else.  After she killed that fellow last year, the sheriff might start thinking about locking her up in the county home, and I’d hate to see that.”

Lizzy gathered the dirty dishes and moved to the sink.  “So Granny really did kill a thief!” she said.  “She told me so, but I thought she made it up.”

Riggs and Lizzy stared thoughtfully at one another, she standing with her back to the sink, he sitting at the kitchen table.  There was plenty for each to think about.

V.

“I’m very flattered at the offer, Riggs—it was sweet of you to make it.  But I think you’d be miserable.”  Lizzy sat close to him on the pine bench and sniffed delicately at the corsage on her wrist.  “I’m hard—hard through and through.”  The fiddle player launched into “Red Wing” and was joined by the dulcimer and guitar players after a couple of bars.  Several couples moved to the plank dance floor on the town square.  “Before long, you’d be wishing you had Granny’s boldness with a pistol.”  She playfully pointed her finger at Riggs and pantomimed the fall of a pistol’s hammer with her thumb.

Riggs laughed and took another sip from his wooden cup.  He generally preferred hard cider, but he was sticking with the soft stuff tonight.  He wanted a clear head.  He set the cup down in the grass and took her hands in his.

“You’re about as hard as a week-old puppy, Lizzy, and you know it,” replied Riggs.  “Why not just give in and admit that this is our best shot at being happy?”  I love you with all my heart, and I always will.  Just open up, and let it be.”  Moonlight played across his face as the breeze stirred the leaves of the old oak tree that spread above them.

“I can’t do it to you, Riggs,” she replied, “but we’ll always be the best of friends.”  Her eyes were locked on his.

Suddenly, all of his fears, of her and of his desire for her, left him.  A great calm and self assurance descended upon him.  He felt as he had before combat, when the anxiety and agitation had been replaced by quiet resolve, and a firm confidence that he knew what had to be done.

“You’re right, Lizzy, we will always be the best of friends,” he said with a smile.  “But first we’ll get married.”

After a pause, she laughed, a laugh that rang like a glass bell.  “All right, Riggs.  First, we’ll get married.”  She turned her head slightly and blew out a long breath of relief.  “Thank heavens you pressed on, like a good soldier, through my ridiculous objections.  But I had to make them, to save face after throwing myself at you these past weeks.”

“Throwing yourself at me!” said Riggs.  “Why, we haven’t even had a decent kiss yet.”

Lizzy had a mischievous gleam in her eye.  “We’re going to fix that right now, Riggs, right here on the Mascoutah town square during the harvest hoedown.”  Each pulled the other close.  The dancers applauded as the last notes of “Red Wing” faded in the soft night air, and Riggs and Lizzy shared a long, satisfying kiss. 

 

 

 

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red wing

Red Wing
I.
Riggs paused for a moment to rub his aching wrist. The weird crud encasing the clapboards seemed to defy simple physics. Sweat dripped off his brow in the July sun. Riggs gazed again, as he had a dozen times that morning, at the scraper in his hand. Which would give out first? The scraper, or the crud? Or would it be Riggs himself? His rueful smile hinted at the answer.
“Why are you trying to scrape that off? Why bother?”
At first, Riggs thought that his own thoughts had somehow managed to give themselves a voice. That the voice was female was a surprise, but not a jarring one. Why not? Why shouldn’t his more rational ruminations speak in a pleasing, feminine lilt?
But a slow look down from his makeshift scaffold, suspended from a second story window, revealed the source of the questions. Peering up at him was a woman he hadn’t seen before. She was pretty, not too thin, youngish, barefoot, with brown hair tied in a pony tail. Her buff-colored homespun dress was given shape by a braided sash. She held a basket of cucumbers on her hip and shaded her eyes with a tanned hand that was missing its pinky finger. Riggs found the hand strangely endearing.
He answered her. “I’m an artist. My masterwork will be the liberation of this house from the evil shroud that encases it.” Riggs was surprised by the truthfulness of his answer, and at his willingness to offer it up to a stranger. He was surprised, also, that he knew the answer.
The young woman considered Riggs impassively. “What is that stuff? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It’s a high-tech coating from the late nineteen-hundreds.” Both Riggs and his interlocutor smiled at his use of the term “high-tech.” “People sprayed it on buildings to save themselves the trouble of painting.”
Her brow furrowed slightly. “But doesn’t it protect the wood from the elements? And it might even produce some insulating effect.”
Riggs, coming to himself now, was self-conscious. How dirty were his clothes? How wild was his hair? He usually at least glanced at the mirror as his day began, but he hadn’t this morning. “My objection to it is strictly aesthetic,” he replied. “It makes the house look fuzzy—out of focus. It deserves to be seen as it was.”
The woman held her injured hand before her and gazed at it. “Does my hand deserve to be seen as it was? No matter how I look at it”—she turned it this way and that—“it’s still missing a finger.” She turned her eyes upward again to Riggs and awaited his reply.
The silence lengthened as Riggs considered his answer. Finally he spoke. “The loss of your finger was accidental, or so I assume, and can’t be undone. The application of this goop was deliberate, and ought to be undone.” Riggs paused. “And anyway, your hand suits you just as it is.”
The woman smiled with sudden shyness at the awkward compliment, and looked away from Riggs. She pulled a cucumber from the basket and laid it on a stone next to the walk. As she strode away she turned back to Riggs. “That’s nice and crisp. But you should eat it today.” She turned away again and hastened her step. Riggs barely heard her say “My name is Lizzy” as she moved toward the market square.
II.
There wasn’t much light in the cellar, just that which came through the narrow windows high in the concrete walls, but it was enough for Riggs to see what he needed to see. He pulled back the coarse cloths covering the two big crocks on the trestle table and sniffed the yeasty contents. Another day or two for the blackberry, he thought, and a little longer for the peach. They were coming along nicely.
A shadow fell across the open southwest cellar window and Riggs could see someone kneeling down outside, looking through it. She spoke, and Riggs recognized Lizzy’s voice. His pulse accelerated slightly. “Wow, where did you get all the big bottles?” she asked. She gestured to the shelves arrayed along the cellar wall opposite her, where about twenty five- and six-gallon clear glass containers sat stolidly. Most were full or nearly full of clear liquid, shimmering faintly in the morning light, in shades of pink and amber and purple.
“They’re called carboys,” answered Riggs, “and most of them I inherited from Nick Stavos. He taught me how to make wine. When he passed away he willed them to me.” Riggs stepped to the window. His eyes were just a little lower than Lizzy’s. Riggs caught a whiff of lemon verbena from her dress.
Lizzy settled back on her haunches and tilted her head slightly. “Are you Mr. Riggs?” she asked.
Riggs was embarrassed. Twice he had encountered this woman, and still he hadn’t managed to tell her his name. What a knucklehead.
“It’s just Riggs,” he replied. “No one ever calls me mister.” He wiped his hands absentmindedly on his shirt. “I apologize for failing to introduce myself before now. I know that you’re Lizzy, and you live out south of town, but that’s about it.”
Lizzy looked to her right, toward the street where Riggs could hear a horse and wagon pass by. “I just recently came to live with my grandmother, the lady you folks call Miss Sue,” she said.
Lizzy was Miss Sue’s granddaughter! Everyone thought she was a spinster lady—with a name like Miss Sue, what else could you think?—but now Lizzy pops up out of nowhere. Riggs admired her for putting up with the irascible old woman. He was sure it wasn’t easy.
Lizzy looked again at Riggs and asked “Do you mind if I join you for a closer look at the winemaking operation?”
“Please do,” said Riggs, “the cellar door is at the back.” He moved to the door as Lizzy did the same outside, and he let her in. She stood for a moment, her basket of tomatoes and squash on her hip, as her eyes adjusted to the dim light.
Riggs regarded her intently, but politely. Up close, she looked older—thirty, maybe?—and her eyes were more wary than he had realized before.
Lizzy stepped softly to the racks of carboys. “Wow, some of these look pretty old,” she said. “Is there any way to tell when they were made?”
“With some, yes,” Riggs replied. He hoisted an empty six-gallon carboy from the rack, grasped it by the neck to turn it bottom-up, and held it so the light from the window struck the base. “You can see the manufacurer’s mark molded into this one,” he said as he pointed to a diamond shape with “O-I” inside the diamond. “That’s Owens-Illinois, a company that made this at a plant in Alton, about fifty miles north. And down here”—he moved his finger under the diamond mark—“is the year they made it.”
“Nineteen fifty-six!” said Lizzy. “This thing has been around for nearly a hundred and fifty years! Are they all that old?”
“Some are older still,” said Riggs, “but most manufacturers didn’t bother with markings like this. Too much trouble and expense. But Owens-Illinois was big—the biggest in the world—and they wanted to tell the world.” Riggs turned the big bottle right side-up and set it down again. “Can you imagine the gigawatts it took to make molten glass and mold these bottles, hundreds or thousands in a run, for hours and days and weeks on end? What a time that must have been!”
Lizzy frowned. “Well, they used up the juice mighty quick, I’ll give them that. Seems like they might’ve saved a bit for all the folks who came later.”
Riggs rubbed his chin reflectively. “Well, I don’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot. They probably just figured if they didn’t use it up themselves, someone else would, someplace else. And what would be the point of letting that happen?”
Riggs absentmindedly cracked his knuckles and smiled. “Anyway, nothing goes away forever, Lizzy. There’s a fellow over near Breese who salvaged some molds and now he hand-blows bottles nearly this size. I even helped him, once. Who knows, maybe they’ll master fusion power one of these days, and he’ll be as big as Owens-Illinois ever was!”
They both laughed. “If I didn’t know better I’d think you were a utopian,” said Lizzy. “But seriously, what do you do with all this wine, Riggs? Is it strictly for your own consumption or does it serve some other purpose?”
Riggs smiled and replied, “Mostly I trade it for things I need, or give it away. Would you like to try some?”
Lizzy smiled broadly. “I thought you’d never ask. What do you recommend?”
Riggs opened the door of what seemed to be a closet to reveal shelves crowded with glass wine bottles, earthenware jugs and canning jars, all apparently full. After considering for a moment he chose two standard wine bottles filled with pale reddish-purple fluid and pulled them out. “This is blackberry from a couple of years ago,” said Riggs. “It’s just about my favorite.” He lifted one bottle and then the other. “one for us and one for you and Miss Sue. The corkscrew is upstairs.”
Riggs stepped to the open staircase and let Lizzy ascend first. They emerged into the kitchen, bright and cheery in the morning sun, where Riggs pulled out the corkscrew and two small jelly-jar glasses. He removed the cork from the bottle with a satisfying “thunk” and poured out about a half-cup into each glass.
Lizzy took hers and sniffed the contents delicately. “”A very nice aroma, Riggs.’ she said. She took a sip. “Wow, this is good. Like velvet. How do you keep yourself from plowing through the inventory like a hot knife through butter?” Lizzy arched her eyebrows as she waited for his response.
“I’m not prone to that particular weakness, luckily,” replied Riggs. “I just limit myself to two or three small glasses a day.”
Lizzy, glass in hand, had wandered from the kitchen, past the woodstove, into what was once the dining room, presumably. It was now, together with the adjacent parlor, a library, with hundreds and hundreds of books, floor to ceiling, on shelves that were homemade, but rudely handsome. In the center of the sunny parlor was a worn leather sofa with a low table before it. “Riggs, you’re a bibliophile, or possibly just a librarian.” She ran her finger along the backs of a few dozen volumes, staring intently at them as she did. “It’s an eclectic gathering, for sure. How-to, history, fiction, self improvement, reference works—did you inherit these from Nick, too?”
“Only a few,” replied Riggs. “About half came from my dad, and most of the rest I traded for in St. Louis, back when I was young and stupid and thought I was immortal. It was pretty self-indulgent, really. Who needs all these books?”
“Riggs, don’t apologize for being yourself,” said Lizzy. “Books are wonderful! They’re the best way humans have to communicate with one another across time and space.” She sat on the sofa, took another sip of blackberry wine, and crossed her legs. There was nothing overtly sexual about it, but Riggs was stirred as he hadn’t been for a long time. “So, Mr. Librarian, who’s your favorite author?”
Riggs thought for a moment. “I guess I’d have to say Jane Austen,” he said. “Her stuff is real predictable, but I love the dialogue between the characters. I wonder if anyone ever actually talked that way.”
Lizzy set her now-empty glass on the table and smiled. “Probably not,” she said, “but I’m glad to learn that you’re a romantic. So am I.” She got up, walked to his side, and kissed him softly on the cheek. “I have a terrible suspicion that you’re just as innocent and noble as Jane Austen’s men were. I commend you for it.”
Riggs’s eyes shone with longing. He could say nothing in reply. Lizzy moved back to the kitchen and stood with her back to the sink. “But now down to business,” she said. “Believe it or not, my visit has a purpose beyond mooching a glass of wine and quizzing you on your literary taste. Granny says I snore, which is a foul and contemptible lie, but she has directed me to hire you to build a lean-to onto her cabin. She says you aren’t the most talented handyman around, but you’re diligent and less of a chatterbox than most men. Will you take the job?”
Disappointed at the practical turn the conversation had taken, Riggs was silent and slightly crestfallen for a moment. But he brightened at the thought that he could at least be near Lizzy as he did the job. “How big a lean-to?” he asked. “And what does Miss Sue want it sided with?”
“Eight by twelve,” replied Lizzy, hands on hips. “Granny says she has enough old pine boards in her pole barn for clapboard siding, but you’re to procure lumber for the framing.”
“Sure, I’ll take the job,” said Riggs. “I’ll round up the lumber and have Ben Wallace drop it out there day after tomorrow. And I’ll be there the day after that.”
Lizzy moved toward the kitchen door. “So what’s your price, Riggs? Granny will want to know.”
Riggs smiled. “Now you’re pulling my leg, Lizzy. Miss Sue knows perfectly well that my price is whatever the customer wants to pay, after the job is done.”
Lizzy laughed, a deep, satisfied laugh that made her eyes crinkle. “Yes, that’s what Granny said, but I didn’t believe her.” She picked up the unopened wine bottle from the counter and put it in her basket. Then she put several tomatoes and squash on the table and pulled open the kitchen door. “I don’t know how you’ve managed to struggle along so far, Riggs. God must be looking after you. Thanks for the wine.” She pulled the door closed behind her and was gone.
III.
Riggs checked his measurements one last time and began sawing the two-by-fours before him. The smell of the sawn pine was sweet and clean. He would’ve preferred two-by-sixes for the rafters of a lean-to, even this little one, but these studs were all he could find on short notice. And Miss Sue, characteristically, was in a hurry. She wanted a lean-to added to her shack, and by God she wanted it yesterday. Riggs felt a little light-headed.
Lizzy was weeding the cucumbers and tomatoes, some fifteen yards from Riggs as he knelt in the shade cast by Miss Sue’s cabin. The morning heat was just beginning to take hold. There was a buzzing in his ear, but when he swatted at it, Riggs could detect no insect present. He ran the back of his hand across his forehead and squinted his eyes shut.
“Why are you sawing those by hand?” The querulous voice interrupted his thoughts as Miss Sue approached Riggs from behind with her little sparrow-steps, dragging a rusty child’s wagon behind her. She held her walking stick as if to strike him. “Why don’t you use this?” With a flourish, like a salesman with a wonderful new gizmo, she used the head of the stick to pull a scrap of burlap from the bed of the wagon to reveal an old hand-held electric circular saw beneath it.
Riggs picked it up admiringly. “Craftsman” he said as he read the name stamped into the motor housing. It was one of the really old ones, with a cast aluminum body. The black cord with a three-pronged plug dangled on the ground. Riggs moved the blade with his thumb. The movement was stiff, but Riggs thought it was from long disuse, not a failure of the bearings. Not that he was any expert.
“This is a nice piece of machinery, Miss Sue,” said Riggs. “But how are we going to fire it up? Do you have a generator out here? And fuel? Ethanol, maybe?”
“Stop asking all these fool questions, you nitwit. You stick that thing”—she gestured at the plug—“into the wall socket and away you go! Even a feebleminded child knows that.”
Riggs considered Miss Sue’s outburst carefully. He knew he had to tread carefully.
“Maybe that was the way of it when you were a little girl, Miss Sue,” he replied. “But these days we have to sign up for a dollop of juice at the next generation day in town. And it comes pretty dear.”
The obstinate old face crinkled in annoyance at Riggs’s objections. “Hang the expense! I’ve got silver!” Miss Sue pulled a little leather pouch from somewhere inside her shapeless dress and shook it up. Sure enough, Riggs heard the silvery tinkle of old, old dimes.
“Miss Sue, you oughtn’t to let folks know that. There’s still thieves about.” Riggs felt the first stab of sticky heat behind his eyes. His throat was dry.
“Let’em come,” cackled the old woman. “I’ve got silver and lead both!” Reaching into yet another fold of the dress, she pulled out an old .38. The bluing was almost gone, but Riggs could see the coppery tips of the bullets in the cylinder. They were all too easy to see since Miss Sue was pointing the pistol at his face. Her eyes were bright with purpose. Lizzy seemed to be observing her with sidelong glances.
Riggs closed his eyes and ran his free hand through his hair. His thoughts were thickening and blurring. Was there nothing this old biddy didn’t have in that lumpy dress? He imagined her pulling out six scrapers with six hands, Vishnu-like, and de-crudding his entire house in a few minutes.
His tongue was a furry lump inside his mouth. “I need to gather my tools and get on home. Malaria, you know.” That’s what Riggs said, but all that Miss Sue heard was an incomprehensible mumble. With jerky urgency, Riggs dropped the old power saw on the ground and packed his tools in his worn canvas bag and began walking the three miles back to town. His gait was stiff and fussy, like a marionette whose operator was indifferent to actual human motion.
Miss Sue watched in disbelief as Riggs moved off. “Where in the hell do you think you’re going, you lunatic? Get back here and finish the job or else!” She cocked the pistol with both hands and took jittery aim at his back as Riggs reached the road. Lizzy hastened over from the vegetable garden and lifted Miss Sue’s arm as the old woman pulled the trigger. The hammer fell, and the round went whistling out over the vast fields. As the shot reverberated in their ears, the two women watched Riggs totter townward, unscathed, and seemingly oblivious to the shot taken at him.
“That boy isn’t right in the head,” said Miss Sue.
“You’re a fine one to talk!” replied the younger woman. “He’s got more of his marbles than a certain elderly lady I know. Imagine trying to gun him down when anyone could see he’s not feeling well!”
“Nonsense!” said Miss Sue. “Just a warning shot, well over his head. The rounds always go where I want them to go.”
Lizzy shook her head in exasperation and turned to the old woman’s shack. There was a determined look on her face.
IV.
The morning sun shone on the wall opposite his bed as Riggs came to consciousness. The hot needles behind his eyes were almost gone, and the throbbing aches in his joints were receding again into memory. And, most tellingly of all, he felt hungry. The worst of the attack was over.
Riggs looked down at the robe he was wearing. He couldn’t remember putting it on, or taking off his old clothes, for that matter. He didn’t even recognize the robe.
Riggs ran his hand over the nubby sheet. It was crisp and clean, so somebody had changed the bed linens at least once since it began. On one previous occasion, about two years ago, the wife of Riggs’s upstairs tenant had looked after Riggs while he was bedridden, but had found the experience insufficiently rewarding to try again. And even then, she hadn’t changed his sheets. The current situation was just a mystery.
Riggs closed his eyes again. Through the open window he could pick out the songs of sparrows and robins and finches. The whir of a hummingbird near the petunia patch. A horse’s whinny. Someone hammering nails. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was wonderful to lie here these few minutes, on clean sheets, in his own house, feeling better again. He said a silent prayer of thanks, awkwardly. Riggs tried not to bother the Lord excessively, one way or the other.
Suddenly a new sound appeared. It was a scraping noise in or on the house, near the back. A squirrel in the gutter or downspout? No, there was no metallic note to it. A mouse, scampering along inside the frame walls of the old house? No, the sound was too heavy and insistent.
Then it hit him. He got out of bed and stepped gingerly to the window. Sticking his head out, he looked down the north side of the house to see Lizzy, standing on a chair, scraper in hand, laboring away at the clapboards. Flecks of the strange coating were fluttering to the ground, like a little space-age snowstorm.
The remaining fuzziness in his head, or perhaps something else, made it difficult for Riggs to think clearly. What he managed to say was “Persistent stuff, isn’t it?”
Lizzy smiled as she turned to him. She stepped down off the chair, placed the scraper on the seat, and walked to the window where Riggs stood. “It certainly is. But it’ll give way eventually–to a true artist, that is.” She looked intently into his brown eyes. “So, it’s back to being you now, is it? I’m glad you’re feeling better again.”
“So am I,” said Riggs, “but I’m sorry to put you to the trouble of looking after me. The malaria hits about once a year, though some years I get lucky and it doesn’t come at all.” Riggs paused. “How did you manage to change the sheets?”
Lizzy laughed, a wonderful, melodic laugh. “That’s an old nurse’s trick my mother taught me. It’s not hard to learn. The real challenge was getting you to swallow some water now and again. I bet you’re famished, but I’m ready. I went to Granny’s house yesterday and picked up some eggs. And I have a little bread from the lady upstairs here. And some ham from your cellar. A few minutes over the rocket stove and we’ll be ready to eat.” She moved toward the back of the house, picking up the chair and scraper as she went. “I’ll see you in the kitchen in a few minutes.” She paused a moment and added, “I feel terrible that Granny took that shot at you.”
Riggs moved slowly to the closet to find clean clothes. So the old woman did fire at him! He had thought the memory was just an artifact of his fevered dreams, but it was real. He wondered if Miss Sue was getting dangerously out of hand. Less than a year earlier, she had plugged a fellow she said had tried to steal her bicycle. That story seemed a little unlikely—the bicycle was rusty and immobile, and would have made for a plodding getaway—but no one could identify the dead man, whose pockets were suspiciously empty, and the sheriff finally decided to bring no charges. Was it safe for Lizzy to live out there with the old woman in her belligerent, perhaps murderous, mental state?
So his thoughts ran as Riggs combed his hair in the bathroom mirror and worked up a lather with his shaving brush. The price of safety razors was coming down, but they were still too pricey for the frugal Riggs. He stropped his straight razor on the leather strap hanging from the wall, and shaved carefully. From the length of the beard he cut, he surmised that the attack had lasted three days.
Riggs moved closer to the mirror and gazed intently at the clean-shaven face before him. It was much the same as ever, angular with high cheekbones, deep-set pleasant brown eyes, but with a few more crinkles here and there. He was thirty-six now, nearly thirty-seven. No spring chicken, he told himself.
The enticing smell of ham and scrambled eggs filled his nostrils as he entered the kitchen. Riggs inhaled deeply and sat at the old pine table. Lizzy was smiling as she served up a fair facsimile of an old-fashioned farm breakfast. There was even a little pot of tea, presumably brewed from Riggs’s stash of the precious stuff.
“I hope you don’t mind about the tea,” said Lizzy. “I found it in one of the cupboards and couldn’t resist.” She poured steaming cups for Riggs and herself.
“Not a bit,” said Riggs as he surveyed the table, mouth watering. “It’s always worth celebrating when the malaria fades out again, but usually I do it alone.” With a shy glance at Lizzy, he added, “and with you here there’s even more reason to celebrate.”
Lizzy’s cheeks colored a little, possibly, as she sat down catty-cornered from Riggs. “So just where did you pick up malaria, Riggs? I didn’t think it was widespread in southern Illinois. Do you have a mysterious past as a pirate in the tropics?”
Riggs swallowed a bite of ham and eggs, washed it down with tea, and smiled. “Nothing so exciting, I’m afraid,” he replied. “It’s a little leftover from our last grand national adventure, in Brazil. I signed up because I didn’t have anything better to do, and a year later I was back home with a disability pension. Not bad for an ignorant country boy.” He speared another forkful of ham and eggs and chewed contentedly.
“Were you in combat there?” asked Lizzy.
“Some,” said Riggs. “Enough to be mighty grateful to have it behind me.” He sipped his tea. “So what brought you here, Lizzy? And from where?” He looked at her expectantly.
“I was living in Utah with my husband Dave”—she glanced at Riggs—“when he was taken by the flu. That was six months ago. My plan was to stay there, on his brother’s ranch, where Dave had lived his whole life. But Dave’s idiot brother, Brigham, took the whole polygamy thing way too seriously—there’s a lot more of that there these days—and insisted that I either join the harem or leave.” She sipped her tea. “So I left. Packed my worldly belongings in a little carpetbag and came to join Granny. At least Brigham paid the train fare, the jerk.”
“I’m sorry you were widowed, Lizzy,” said Riggs. “I hope that things are”—he groped for the right word—“acceptable to you at Miss Sue’s place.”
Lizzy knitted her brow as she thought. “Acceptable,” she said. “I guess things are—acceptable—for now. But I don’t think Granny is overly fond of company.” She took another sip of tea. “Maybe the lean-to will help.” She smiled archly at Riggs. “If it ever gets built, that is.”
“I promise to get at it day after tomorrow,” said Riggs with a smile, “if Miss Sue doesn’t cut me down.” He paused and fiddled with his fork. “Incidentally, it might be best not to mention her last shot to anyone else. After she killed that fellow last year, the sheriff might start thinking about locking her up in the county home, and I’d hate to see that.”
Lizzy gathered the dirty dishes and moved to the sink. “So Granny really did kill a thief!” she said. “She told me so, but I thought she made it up.”
Riggs and Lizzy stared thoughtfully at one another, she standing with her back to the sink, he sitting at the kitchen table. There was plenty for each to think about.
V.
“I’m very flattered at the offer, Riggs—it was sweet of you to make it. But I think you’d be miserable.” Lizzy sat close to him on the pine bench and sniffed delicately at the corsage on her wrist. “I’m hard—hard through and through.” The fiddle player launched into “Red Wing” and was joined by the dulcimer and guitar players after a couple of bars. Several couples moved to the plank dance floor on the town square. “Before long, you’d be wishing you had Granny’s boldness with a pistol.” She playfully pointed her finger at Riggs and pantomimed the fall of a pistol’s hammer with her thumb.
Riggs laughed and took another sip from his wooden cup. He generally preferred hard cider, but he was sticking with the soft stuff tonight. He wanted a clear head. He set the cup down in the grass and took her hands in his.
“You’re about as hard as a week-old puppy, Lizzy, and you know it,” replied Riggs. “Why not just give in and admit that this is our best shot at being happy?” I love you with all my heart, and I always will. Just open up, and let it be.” Moonlight played across his face as the breeze stirred the leaves of the old oak tree that spread above them.
“I can’t do it to you, Riggs,” she replied, “but we’ll always be the best of friends.” Her eyes were locked on his.
Suddenly, all of his fears, of her and of his desire for her, left him. A great calm and self assurance descended upon him. He felt as he had before combat, when the anxiety and agitation had been replaced by quiet resolve.
“You’re right, Lizzy, we will always be the best of friends,” he said. “But first we’ll get married.”
After a pause, she laughed, a laugh that rang like a glass bell. “All right, Riggs. First, we’ll get married.” She turned her head slightly and blew out a long breath of relief. “Thank heavens you pressed on, like a good soldier, through my ridiculous objections. But I had to make them, to save face after throwing myself at you these past weeks.”
“Throwing yourself at me!” said Riggs. “Why, we haven’t even had a decent kiss yet.”
Lizzy had a mischievous gleam in her eye. “We’re going to fix that right now, Riggs, right on the Mascoutah town square during the harvest hoedown.” Each pulled the other close. The dancers applauded as the last notes of “Red Wing” faded in the soft night air, and Riggs and Lizzy shared a long, satisfying kiss.

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