Ghosts & Memories Past ~ Chapter 29
Disclaimer: Y'all know the deal by now. Nope, they ain't mine. Nope, ain't makin' coin off 'em. And yup, Joss is still Boss! Purely for fun, to satisfy the Muse…
Thanks to everyone following and commenting on this story. Unbeta'd, so all mistakes my own. .
~Meade, lunar homeworld on the Rim~
His chest itched. His arms ached. His feet burned. His legs writhed slowly from the fire dancing up his calves.
It took every ounce of determination Mal had not to claw at his face, for fear of making gouges that would let Mother Cobb's infernal salve into contact with his blood stream. He didn't want to contemplate on what kind of hell the concoction would create, if it was traveling around inside him, too.
Angry red welts marked every inch of skin that had been exposed to the hateful stuff. He must look a sight, hopefully enough of one to be convincing without close interrogation. Breathing hard through his nose, Mal strained to hear what was going on downstairs.
The Feds had arrived, their muffled voices terse yet polite as they questioned Jayne's mother about her son's whereabouts. Mal kept one hand under the covers, the revolver in his grip, cocked and ready to fire if need be.
With any luck, the situation wouldn't come to that. The three of them would have a devil of a time taking down a dozen or so Feds. Any what got away would call the whole garrison down on them. Even if Mal and the Cobbs could take down every man here now, there'd still be a heap of explaining to do when the patrol didn't check in on time.
And he'd really hate to have endured Mother Cobb's salve for nothing.
The sounds of the agents filtered up through the window. He could hear them rummaging through the barn and outbuildings, with the slamming of wooden doors and the thump of hay bales hitting the ground. He'd wager credits to dim sum, they'd leave the mess for the old woman and young boy to put back in order.
"…cousin's boy, took ill with a bad case of Spotsy..." Radiant Cobb's voice grew louder, laced with a little huffing and puffing as the elderly woman trudged up the stairs. Mal bit back a smile at her acting skills. The tough old bird had nearly sprinted that staircase earlier. "…lend me your young arm, there, dear boy. I'd hate to delay your duties by taking a spill… there's a good lad. You kin to the Thomasons over Hillview Township way?"
"Yes'm, born an' raised," the officer's thick accent confirmed he was a local. "Do hate to be troublin' you with all this, Ma'am, but I got my orders, and… well, we just need to get some information from him. You know how it is, higher ups get a bug up their pi gu- er, beg pardon – get a notion in their heads, they won't let us workin' men rest 'til they get it answered."
"Oh, I know all about it, Lieutenant Thomason. I just can't understand why they think my boy Jayne knows anything 'bout no Cortex fraud tomfoolery. He's a good boy, my Jayne is. Wish he could make it home sometime to see his old mother. But like I told you, he ain't been round for a long spell, now. Ain't nobody up here 'cept my kin from Castle Township, an' he's in an awful bad way right now."
"I understand, Ma'am, but regulations are regulations," the young Fed said, his tone so apologetic Mal almost felt sorry for the bastard. Almost.
"An' if any of these new fellas report that I didn't do a thorough, by-the-book, regulation search, it'll be trouble for me that I don't like to think on. My wife's already in a tizzy 'bout me getting' conscript- er, recruited… her brothers fought for the Independents, you know. Bad enough I come home in this uniform every night; she's like to take herself and the four young'uns to live at her momma's, if I get my pay cut on top of that, or transferred to the back end of nowhere."
"Well, you just go on an' have a peek, honey. I know a young husband has to provide for the family he's made. You're a fine young man, an' I don't want to cause yer pretty missus no worries. It's just…" Mother gave a loud stage whisper, like she didn't want to upset 'Cousin Richard'. "He's got it fair bad, the Spotsy. I'd never forgive myself, if'n you was to carry that home to them babies. So you have a care, now, hear me boy? Don't you go gettin' too close to 'im, you know well as I do how catchy Spot Fever is."
Mal closed his eyes a bit as the door eased open a crack. Writhing a little, not entirely for show, he sucked in shallow breaths, letting them wheeze back out. "Momma?"
He could hear the young lieutenant's gasp from the threshold.
"No, darlin', it's Cousin Radiant," she said softly. "You just stay there an' rest, dong ma?"
"Momma… I don' feel so good," Mal slurred.
"It's the fever," Radiant said sadly to the Fed as Mal moaned in agony.
"Any chance he'd have seen your son in passing while he was on the road?"
"Poor child don't know where he is, or hardly who he is, Lieutenant. Thinks he's still at home with his Momma."
"Momma?" Mal called out softly. "Momma, I'm gonna be in big trouble."
The Fed perked up. "What kind of trouble? Did you see Jayne Cobb recently? If he's threatened you to keep you quiet, we can protect you sir."
"Big trouble," Mal said. "He… he… won't like it a'tall."
"He's not in his right mind, Lieutenant, I told you that," Mother said quickly.
"Gonna be so mad at me… said he'd… thrash me next time…"
"You can tell me, Cousin Richard," Thomason urged. "I won't let him lay a hand on you."
"Can't go t' school today, Momma. Teacher gonna be so mad. Math test, gonna whup me fierce, I miss th' math test. You tell 'im, Momma, tell 'im I don't gotta go school t'day. Hurts…"
Radiant shushed him softly. "There now, child, I'll tell the teacher you're too sick for school. You ain't gotta worry 'bout that math test. You just rest now."
"Don' wanna whuppin'," Mal whined, closing his eyes. "Hurts all over, Momma. Like fire all over me. An' Martha May done marked on me with her red marker. Got… li'l spots… all over… test…"
Mal feigned drifting off into feverish sleep, his finger still poised on the trigger under the blanket.
"Sad to see it, a growed man like him an' all," she said ruefully. "Man's smart as a whip, writer no less, but now he's blabbering like a baby, dadgum fever. Still, you gotta search the room if you gotta. Just… try not to breath, if'n you can help it. I can give ya a hankie to cover yer mouth, but doctors say that don't do much good anyhow."
Thomason shuffled his feet at the doorway. "I… I'd hate to disturb Cousin Richard. Could give him a set back, y'know. You done said your boy Jayne ain't here, I got no cause to think otherwise. We'll just… we'll just head back to base, let this poor man get healed up. Sorry to bother ya, Mrs. Cobb. Just orders, you know."
His voice faded back down the stairway. Mal could hear the man exiting much quicker than he'd entered.
"No trouble at all, Lieutenant Thomason," Mother called down the stairs. "You just be sure you an' yer men wash up good fore you go home to yer families. Heed what I said, now, hear?"
"Yes'm. Sergeant! Pull back the men, he ain't been here."
Mal stayed still until the whine of their hovercars retreated into the distance. Throwing back the covers, he peeked out the window until the last speck of them had disappeared.
"Well, that went easier than I 'spected it would," Mother Cobb said from the doorway. "Though I guess it was still dreadful slow for you. Now you just wash all that goo off with this medicinal soap here, an' you'll be right as rain."
Mal took the cake of homemade soap and pitcher of water the old woman carried. "Not that I wasn't ready for some relief, but I'd say it went a little too quick."
"'Fraid you was gonna say that."
"Tell Mattie to keep his eyes open. I'd be a touch disappointed if your fine young lieutenant didn't leave a man or two to watch the place, dong ma?"
Mother nodded as she turned for the door. "'Spected somesuch myself."
Mal downed the last drink of buttermilk when Mattie came up the back porch, stomping his feet to knock the snow off his boots. A blast of cold air burst through the kitchen door.
"Storm's kickin' up," Jayne's brother said, though Mal could hear the wind start to screech outside.
"Good and bad," Mal said easily. The boy had something on his mind, and Mal could guess pretty easy what it was. "Most like, Zoe and Jayne had time to get to safety before the worst of it hit."
Gorramit, he felt about useless right now. Two of his own, out there in the storm. Him sitting here, luxuriating in the toasty warm, cozy Cobb farmhouse, full up with a hot country supper, and a soft bed waiting upstairs. Useless. But without a way to get the Cobbs and his folks out from under Fed eyes, he had no choice but to sit tight. Couldn't be seen up and 'healed' after convincing Thomason he was ate up with the Spotsy.
"Hope them hundans up on the ridge is freezin' their gorramed asses off right now," Mattie nodded. "Serve 'em right, spyin' on decent folk, lickin' Alliance's boots."
"That'd be a bit of good luck. But I can't say all of 'em had much of a choice 'bout that."
Mattie snorted and shot Mal the same smart-assed smirk Jayne wore so often.
"Don't let little Thomason's 'gosh- Ma'am' act fool ya. That hundan weren't conscripted no more than you was," Mattie said, unwrapping the thick knit scarf from his head. Mal recognized the handiwork, even if Mother Cobb hadn't used the bright reds and oranges she'd made Jayne's hat from.
"Funny, how all their neighbors what supported the Browncoats seemed to move, or suddenly die off one by one, especially after the war. Ol' men what couldn't fight themselves, but could lend supplies or a safe house, just gone in the night. 'Cept for old Thomason. An' all a-sudden, here he's got all this coin to spend, to buy up the property after the menfolk was gone, an' widows couldn't pay the loans. Them what could, the old bastard used his pull with the assessor, got the taxes hiked up or 'found' back taxes owed. Hadn't been for my brother…"
The young man trailed off, turned and busied himself with getting unbundled from his scouting excursion.
Mal placed his dishes in the soapy sink and washed them. Jayne seemed to have a hard-on for anything that would bring him coin. Took him a while to realize the man wasn't just greedy, but was sending a hefty portion of his earnings back home. A twinge of guilt panged in his gut at how often here lately the pay had been weak, or short, or rendered in goods instead of cold hard coin.
Or how many jobs had dried up since their exposure of the Miranda Massacre.
Jayne made his own decisions, coulda dropped anchor at any number of ports. Skills like he had, man like him wouldn't be long outta work. He'd stayed on even when work got thin, by his own choice. Still, Mal figured it was a captain's duty to keep his boat in the air and his folk paid. Couldn't change a thing now, and he was sure the rest of them felt like he did… the murder of thirty million souls and the creation of cannibalistic monsters couldn't be kept a secret. Jayne had chosen his lot, just like the rest of them had.
"Your brother's a good man," Mal said over his shoulder. "Saved my life, more times than I can think on. Just you remember that, son, no matter what comes, nor what you might hear."
Mattie paused in taking off his snow boots, looking a tad confused at the captain's turn of conversation. "Course he's a good man. Ain't no warrants nor wanted posters gonna make me think bad on him. Reckon I think any less of him cause he ain't here all the time?"
"I'm just sayin', is all," Mal clapped a friendly hand on the boy's shoulder, wondering if Radiant had broken the news of Jayne's origin to Mattie yet. He figured she hadn't when the elderly woman appeared in the doorway looking like she was struggling with something on her mind.
"No matter what, your brother loves you and yer Ma. I'm gonna head up to bed, catch a few winks before my watch. You wake me before midnight, sooner if anything seems out of place, dong ma?"
"Yessir," Mattie said.
Mal squeezed Radiant's shoulder as he passed her in the doorway.
To be continued…