Dialogue: What's Owed


"Hey, Broncodaddy!"

"Are you really okay?"

"Yeah, 'reeeeally.' Stop asking. It's just some scrapes and bumps. Blackholt poked all my legs and ribs, just in case I'd lie about some being broken. I'm fine."

"It's just that was quite a spill you took. Honestly, we don't know how Madeline got over there. It seemed one second she was with my folks and then she was on the track. In front of you."

"She was putting out a good roar, right after. I didn't clip her, did I?"

"Not a scratch. I'm afraid she's forgotten all about it. My mother's talking about a harness and lead. And my father sent you this."

(Carlin receives and opens an envelope.)

"Oh, Jesus! Christopher on a crutch, no! Absolvo! Ego te absolvo! No deal!" (Carlin crumples the letter.)

"Did he–?"

"An oath! 'I, Marcus John Henri Fells do swear by my name to Julien Hector Eliott Carlin– How'd he learn my middle names?"

"I don't know. What did he swear to?"

"I don't know. I stopped before that. And it's off. No deal! You heard me! Does your dad throw oaths around like that often?"

"No, but he was really scared. I, uh, I thought it was just an apology."

"It was that, too. Well, let's see what he was going to... Uh-huh, he was going to pay my medical expenses. Well, there aren't any. But listen to this: he was going to 'do his utmost' to 'ensure that no member of my family endangers you again.' Idiot! You're a member of his family. We're soldiers! We play with guns! And arrows! We spar in marital arts! With big sharp hooves! Even if he'd kept it to your kid, that's way too broad. Idiot!"


"Sorry, Fells. Don't mean to insult your dad, but... Idiot! Sorry..."

"No, no, I understand. But he was really scared, and he doesn't deal in oaths much at all, normally."

"I can see that. At least he didn't list any penalties. But–"

"I'm really sorry, Carlin. He was trying to do right by you, but it looks like he's made things worse."

"I'm no worse off! It's your dad could get screwed this way. You know what I did in London?"

"Well... Well..." (Something shifty, since you've never talked about it before.) "Not really."

"I worked the docks. Trade and stuff."

"You were a trader?"

(Sighs.) "Small-time. Mostly, a high-level errand runner. Expediter is the posh name. Thing is, oaths are a big deal there. People from all over, home-zone and out-zone, half of 'em solitaires, half of the other half from places you'd swear were just rumors. How do you make sure deals get done? Oaths."

"Don't the Whittingtons–"

"Nary a bit. They don't rule London; they're just the biggest gang in London. They play the oath game down on the docks with everyone else. And it can get like a knife fight. Blood chess. Pulling in favors for maximum damage. Inventive penalties. Losing your temper and swearing yourself into a vendetta. Plain cursing. Bad for business. Bad for your health. You keep your dad out of it, if you can."

"I will. But you miss London, don't you?"

"Why d'you say that?"

"Your expression when you first mentioned it."

"Well, yeah. I liked London. I knew how to work London, or I thought I did. Born there. Don't suppose I'll ever see it again."

"Why not? Go in disguise."

"Have to be a hell of a disguise."

"Then get a hell of a disguise. The Sundering will make sure it doesn't slip."

"If it doesn't swat me down."

"Why should it?"

(Grins.) "You're not much of a one for giving up, are you?"

"Not allowed. Not. Allowed. At all."

(The grin widens. He salutes.) "Yessir, Mister Fells, sir! Did Fletcher chew you out? Or your folks?"

"Not really. I went to apologize myself, and he said they'd already come to him, and he could see they were doing a great job of beating themselves up. Said something about the number of times he'd almost trampled his own nieces and nephews. My da had given him that letter, so he passed it to me. I asked him if he wanted us to keep Maddy away from the base, no visits in the car park. He said no, but I think my mother's idea of the harness and lead might be good until she's a little older."

"Just keep her on your back. Best place for her. If she gets bored, do that little bouncy thing. That's why you're Broncodaddy! She's fine with your transformation, by the look of it."

"Oh, yes. That went well. My folks took her to the edge of the exercise field and showed her the rest of you, from a distance. And Fletcher made a point of coming over and saying hello. Dragged Danny over, too. Explained they were regular guys who had asked to be changed. That was the day before. Afterward, my folks told her I'd asked to be changed, too. I don't know how well it registered.

"The next morning, they brought her to the car park. I came up from behind the hedge to say hello, then told her again I'd changed, then showed myself. She was fine. Especially after a ride.

(Sighs.) "It might have worked as well as it did because I was something of a stranger. Seeing me was an occasional treat. I haven't been around as much as I should have. Me changing shape didn't matter to her as much as if, say, my father did it. He and my mum are the ones she sees every day."

"Yeah, that's military life for you."

"... You know that's not it. This goes back to before I joined. I was ill for a long time. It's a little like Horsepower's case."

"Yeah, well, I didn't think you wanted to talk about it. And I don't have to know! Anyway, don't give that tumble a second thought."

"Well, we still want to make it up to you, my family and I. Listen, would you like me to ... keep a lookout for you?"

"That's a funny offer."

"Well, I'm in the car park most days, meeting with my family on breaks, and I notice you often come by when anyone drives in."

"You know me: restless. Just part of being a stallion. Always roaming around. Always blowing off steam on the track."

"Running. Yes. But I know what anxiety looks like."

"Okay, I see. You think some Big Bad Bloke from London is going to hunt me down to settle some score. Very dramatic. No. That's about as crazy an offer as your dad's. Crazy-generous, but crazy. And there's no Big Bad Bloke."

"You do seem anxious at times."

(Sighs.) "Restless. Always was, man and boy. Man and beast. And, yeah, maybe I still freak out a little when I look down at my feet and see hooves, or when I head off somewhere and I'm going so fast. And then even the whole base, or the whole village, seems real small. That's all.

"Listen, you and your folks want to give some pay-back? They were tailors, right?"

"Yes. Especially formal wear. They're going to try to set up again here."

"Have them give me a hat. A stetson, but one that fits better than my cavalry issue one. Maybe with an Australian curl to the brim, or a feather. Something like that. Something jaunty and snappy, to wear into town on free time. Then we'll be more than even."

"Okay. They'll like that. It'll be a great hat."

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017