The doorman was new, and he flinched at the sight of the man in the mask now approaching with the gait of the self-assured. The sight was alarming, like the stories told to frighten children into behaving, and he wondered lamely if he had committed some heinous breach of manners and was about to receive his punishment. It took the doorman a moment to regain his composure—the guest had reached the awning before the attendant thought to do his job. He looked up at the man apologetically; was that a sneer on his grotesque lips, or was it just a sad side effect of whatever terrible affliction had caused his mutation? The doorman chuckled nervously and waited for the man to cross the threshold.
"Thank you," the stranger grunted, his throat clicking like some sort of hulking automaton. The voice sent a chill down the doorman's spine, and it was only after the guest had strode towards the stairs that the doorman realized he had been holding his breath.
"I've left several messages already. Are you sure she's not there?" Nucky clutched the receiver to his ear, the lines of his face reflecting the stress of recent days.
He looked up at a soft rap on the door. Jimmy's companion, Mr. Harrow, stood in the doorway, crushing his cap in his ever-active hands.
"Well, tell her I called—again." Nucky slammed the receiver onto the cradle and straightened up to address his visitor. "Mr. Harrow. This is a surprise."
"I'm sorry. To disturb you."
"Nonsense. To what do I owe this pleasure?"
A low hum escaped Harrow's throat before the words followed. "I need to. Speak with you."
Harrow took a tentative step towards him, causing Nucky to take an instinctive step back. The man had always proved disconcerting to Nucky, what with his curled lip and that awful mask; in light of recent events, his presence cast a cloud of apprehension over the room. Nucky broke the mounting silence by posing a question to which he already knew the answer. "The other night, at the Artemis Club—that was you?"
"I did. What I had to do."
Nucky extended a hand to the soldier. "You did me a great favor. I want you to know how much I appreciate it."
"I. Didn't do it. For you."
Nucky pursed his lips and nodded gravely. From the moment Tonino had described the bloodbath, he'd had an idea of the assailant's motivations. "Can I assume Tommy Darmody is safe?"
Richard swallowed, clearly a challenging task. "Yes."
Nucky raised a pacifying hand. "You don't have to tell me where he is. He's lucky to have you protecting him."
Harrow turned away, refusing to acknowledge the compliment as he avoided Nucky's gaze. "How. Is Gillian?"
The boss rolled his eyes. "She'll live." He moved to the wet bar and poured himself a drink, raising the bottle to the masked man imploringly. Harrow shook his head, and Nucky wondered briefly how the man before him even managed such a simple task as drinking with the mask covering such a large portion of his left jaw and the strange droop of the corner of his mouth. He tossed back his drink without a further thought. "You still haven't answered my question."
Harrow's throat released a small, questioning hum.
"Mr. Harrow, forgive me for being…cautious, but—"
"I told you. Before. Your family is safe."
Nucky glanced up at him as he lowered himself into a chair, overtaken momentarily by exhaustion. "My family is gone."
"Can you. Get 'em back?"
Nucky shot him a look, and Harrow offered an understanding grunt.
"Sit down. You're making me nervous, standing there."
Harrow took a seat opposite Nucky, the cap still undulating in his busy hands.
"So? Why are you here?"
"Your man," Harrow started, "Sleater. He's been killed."
Nucky's face darkened. "Yes."
"I can work. For you."
Nucky's brow furrowed in curiosity. He knew what the man meant by work without need for elaboration—hell, everyone gangster in Atlantic City knew what Richard Harrow was good for. "Why would you want to work for me?" He needn't add after Jimmy.
Harrow didn't answer.
"You should know that things are changing around here. This is not the same city it once was." Still, Harrow avoided his eyes. Nucky sighed. "But I could use a man I could trust on my side."
Harrow nodded curtly. "I can. Protect you."
"I know," Nucky snorted. Harrow's abilities had never been called into question, even before all of this mess. "I'm impressed with how you took down Rosetti's men. Bolder men than you weren't up to the task."
"I am. A soldier. I was. Doing my job."
"You're a damn fine soldier, Mr. Harrow. You'll follow my orders from now on, no questions asked. Is that understood?"
Harrow nodded once, his good eye narrowed with determination.
The door to his room creaked as he pushed it shut behind him. It was a modest room in a quaint boarding house: a bed and a desk and a closet, plus a porcelain bowl for washing and a small window through which he could just make out the darkening sky. One in a long succession of temporary respites, rooms filled with the longing of countless tenants with secrets of their own. He'd arrived at dawn, after passing Tommy to Julia's arms and breaking into the American Legion to wash the blood from his face and mask, and as he had settled into bed that first night, he'd considered his beloved scrapbook, its pages brimming with clippings of happy families and other such glorious dreams, and wondered how many before him had laid in this very spot entertaining their fantasies of their own.
That was three days ago. The first two were spent alone in this room, within the prison of his thoughts. His first act, once his few belongings had been stashed neatly away, had been to add the Artemis Club's body count to his tally—15, by his count, bringing his grand total dangerously close to 80. What would the bright-eyed farm boy have said of the hardened murderer he would become? Richard felt his heart sink in his chest as his hand flew reflexively up to the cold plate of tin pressed against his flayed cheek, aware as always that he had become the monster long before he'd looked the part.
Tonight, in the quiet of the evening, he began the meticulous process of undressing. The remnants of his lips betrayed a smile as he remembered a day, so long ago now, when Julia had poked fun at him for his careful manner. He hadn't responded beyond an easy joke, unsure of how to explain that his attention to detail was borne of necessity in the blinds. He had learned quickly that preparation was key, though perhaps, he thought sadly, this was merely an excuse. The truth was that he needed to perform these seemingly menial tasks just so. The logical part of him knew that no dire fate would befall him for failing to fold a shirt just so, but he needed to do so, nonetheless. It gave him some semblance of control over the unpredictable chaos of his life—the nature of his work, the constant worry when approached by an unfamiliar face. It never hurt to be careful, and so many things hurt these days. And besides, the looks he was wont to receive were bad enough without looking like a pauper to boot.
So it was with painstaking care that he removed his jacket, vest, shirt, and trousers, hanging and folding each with all of the appreciation of a man with few possessions to his name. Next came the mask, that hateful reminder of the suffocating darkness constantly bearing down on him. He rested it gingerly on the nightstand, his mind flashing to that night on the beach, so recent yet so far away—how scared he had been of her reaction to his terrifying visage, and how surreal it had felt to be bestowed instead with a tender touch and a gentle kiss. He shook the reminiscence from his head as he felt the familiar stirring of desire begin to take hold; this was too sacred a memory to sully.
He retrieved a flask from his coat and took a swill, glad for the solitude of his room as the amber liquid leaked from the corners of his mouth (neither of which functioned as they should). It did him no good to think of her now; Gillian had warned him of the danger of entertaining impossible dreams and, though her scorn had been more than apparent at the time, in the afterglow of the days since he couldn't help but agree. What had come of his short, sweet taste of the life he so desperately craved but a body count that left even Nucky Thompson quaking at the sight of him?
His body ached for rest. He stretched his long, lean frame across the tiny bed, his feet dangling over the end of the mattress—he couldn't remember the last time he'd had a good night's sleep in a bed that could accommodate him. With a deep sigh, he pulled his hands behind his head and for a moment let Julia's face fill his mind, but then quickly dismissed it. He knew better than to let himself pretend that he had any place in her life. She, with all of her goodness and light, deserved better than a stone-hearted killer like himself. She deserved a provider, a protector—but wasn't he both of those things, as well? Those killed at his hand were sacrifices for the wellbeing of those he loved. A soldier's duty was to protect, and yet he still found the familiar knot of shame building in his stomach at the thought of his line of work, and knew he was only kidding himself. However noble his intentions, he couldn't risk resigning the woman he loved to a fate like Angela's.
In his dreams, he was whole.
This dream had begun several years previously, when he had first arrived in Atlantic City and his heart still held the promise that Odette had been more than just a dutiful whore. Though the dream recurred every so often, it had evolved over time into something deeper than before. When he awoke this time in a cold sweat, he realized that he had been dreaming again of his face as it was, and Julia had been by his side as they strolled along the shore. He had leaned in for a kiss and pulled away to see that the left side of her face that been suddenly ripped away, leaving a gaping hole where her lovely eye should have been and angry streaks of shiny red flesh in place of a sun-kissed cheek. He had awoken horrified, in spite of himself. It had taken hours for the sleep he so craved to return.
Morning returned, slowly at first and then all at once, and Richard rubbed both eyes instinctively. His sleep had been fitful, punctuated by visions of people he had loved but were no longer his concern. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and began stretching each aching muscle in turn. His stomach growled for sustenance, but he would need some time to build his resolve before venturing down for breakfast. Not that he would dream of eating in mixed company, but he would at least try to stash some snacks for later, to nibble when alone and out of sight like the vermin he was thought to be by so many of his peers.
With an unconscious hum in his throat, he retrieved his newest scrapbook from the drawer of his nightstand and smiled as his eyes fell on the familiar photograph. Her face had been so vivid in his dream, the freckled surface of her milky complexion as real and as lovely as the first time he'd seen them. He remembered with a smile the night of their first kiss, when he'd helped her from her car and had longed to tell her how beautiful she looked in the waxing moonlight, but instead had grunted, "You came," as if that was all that mattered. He supposed, with a sigh, that it was. She had come, and with her sheer presence had renewed some of the hope he had lost in the blast that had taken his face and future with it.
His eyes fell on Tommy, his innocence marred by countless tragedies well beyond his few years. He studied the way the boy's hand clutched his own, the trust on display in that one small gesture. Unlike most children, who stared or screamed at the sight of him, Tommy had always accepted him without fear or hesitation. He had delighted in seeing Richard appear at Jimmy's doorstep, eager for a new playmate. He had delighted in seeing Richard everyday in the Commodore's mansion, eager for some reminder of the home he'd been forced to abandon. He had delighted in seeing Richard on the boardwalk, shooting targets and winning prizes and causing the carnies to grumble. But mostly, Richard knew, he had delighted in seeing him that night, the night of all of the shouts and scary noises, even when he'd been instructed to close his eyes.
Suddenly Richard missed the child more than he could bear. He'd known, from the moment Jimmy had walked out of his life forever, that Tommy was his responsibility from then on. Gillian never had fit the role of the guardian, pushing Tommy into Richard's care whenever every chance she got, but Richard welcomed the charge. It was up to him—even now, from afar—to insure that Tommy's life from this point forward carried none of the weight and sorrow to which he had no doubt grown accustomed. It was the closest he would get to a family of his own, he supposed, and he would not let the boy down for anything.
He closed the scrapbook gently, his resolve restored, and rose to begin the day.
He rose with the sun, a creature of habit even at ten years of age. The chickens needed feeding, the cows needed milking, and he knew the plow would take some time to fix. It had only been a few weeks since the vagrants had shatter Pa's leg, but the farm couldn't wait. There was work to be done.
The boy was small for his age—smaller than his sister, though indeed she was older (but only by a few minutes)—and the milk pail was heavy enough on its own. He struggled to drag it towards Bess, their trusty old cow. The pail caused him frustration, but thankfully Bess' udders did not. The milk flowed in smooth, silken streams into the waiting bucket. He licked his lips as a thunder grew in his stomach. He hoped that breakfast would be ready soon.
The boarding house's dining area was cramped at the best of times, and this morning swelled to bursting with boarders tearing into a sumptuous spread. The tantalizing aroma of eggs, bacon, pastries, and fresh brewed coffee wafted through Richard's nostrils, urging him to move from the spot on the stairs where he now stood, frozen with trepidation. His envy was palpable; how easily they all dismissed such a simple activity as little more than necessity, while he yearned for the ability to eat without drawing looks of disgust from those around him. But eat he must, and the rumble in his empty stomach quickly overtook his embarrassment. He moved into the room.
"Mr. Harrow," Mrs. O'Brien chirped, her Irish lilt strong, "How lovely of you to join us this morning. Are you enjoying the room?"
A smile spread across her plump, cheery face. "I am glad of it. Please, have a seat. There's plenty more."
He hesitated, as much compelled as repulsed by the expectant looks on the faces of those seated at the large table. The buzz of conversation had eased upon his arrival, and his heart pounded in his ears in its absence. But Mrs. O'Brien was already loading a plate with delectable goods, and temptation pulled him to an open seat.
As the activity around him resumed, he stared down at his heaped plate and weighed his options. It would be nearly impossible to eat his fill with the mask on, but impossible for those around him to finish their meals with his wound in full view. But the eggs were still steaming, the sausage succulent; he longed to sate his appetite. His mind flickered to Easter Sunday, and how touched he had been by Julia's simple gesture of kindness. He hadn't said a word to betray his nerves beforehand, yet she had prepared a plate for him to enjoy in the privacy of her kitchen. Had he not already felt the pangs of love for her growing somewhere deep in the dark recesses of his empty heart, he definitely felt it that afternoon. He had prayed for the first time since the war, that day, thanked the good Lord for this angel of kindness and wished for her to have all that she so clearly deserved.
He was shaken from his reverie by a gentle hand on his back. "Is it not to your liking, Mr. Harrow?" He looked up to see all eyes again on him, all plates cleared aside from his.
He had no idea what to do.
She leaned in close to his ear. "You take all the time you need, dear."
He nodded, touched by the simple gesture of human decency. Before he could waste another labored breath, the other tenants began to rise from the table. He watched them each leave the room in turn, bellies filled and ready for a day's hard work. When the last had gone and Mrs. O'Brien had left to busy herself in the kitchen, he carefully removed his mask and set it face up beside him. Each bite was chewed carefully, deliberately, and it tasted as delicious as it had smelled.
From the solitude of the old barn, the familiar clang of Ma's triangle was a welcomed sound. His stomach grumbled angrily and he gave Bess a loving pat on her massive haunches as he rose to make his way towards the house.
The table was heaped with delicious treats. Eggs, sausage, potatoes—all fuel for the grueling day ahead. Richard took a seat and reached for a hot, buttery roll, only to have his hand slapped away by his mother's wooden spoon. "Wait for Pa," she admonished. He eyed the roll with the narrowed eyes of a hunter on the prowl.
Pa appeared in the doorway, a crutch under one arm and his doting daughter under the other. "Morning," he grunted as hobbled to the table.
The boy waited patiently, hands folded neatly in his lap. He couldn't remember a time when his father's presence hadn't filled him with a sense of foreboding. The man was reserved, with dark eyes he had passed on to his children. He ran a tight ship, emphasizing the importance of a hard day's labor and respect for authority. Until the accident, his children had thought the man invincible, but now his son studied him closely with a burgeoning awareness of his fallibility. Sis still doted over him, a daddy's girl to the end, but there was a darkness to her now that alarmed her brother. It was as if a fuse had been lit, and he awaited the coming explosion with baited breath.
With Pa seated, there was only the morning prayer between the boy and his deserved bounty. Pa bowed his head; his wife and the children dutifully followed. As Pa muttered grace, the boy's eyes wandered to the window, to the sunlit fields and the woods just beyond. What he wouldn't give for a day of fishing, or laying lazily on the porch with his nose in a book, or running through the trees with the sun on his shoulders. The air outside was sweet with the deepening summer, and the boy could almost feel the sunshine on his cheeks and the thrill of a day to spend however he saw fit.
He snapped his head toward his father's rough voice. "Yes, Pa?" he answered meekly.
"Bess get milked?"
"Pa," Emma chirped brightly, "Can Richard and I go to the forest today?"
The twins smiled hopefully. Pa and Ma exchanged a knowing glance, the unspoken understanding of a couple long tuned into each other's thoughts. "The plow still needs fixing."
The children's faces sank towards their plates. "I just thought," Emma said quietly, her voice small but clear as a bell, "We've been working so hard to keep the farm running, since the accident. And it's such a lovely day." She brought her large eyes up towards his, her face cherubic in the morning light. "Please, Pa?"
The man closed his eyes. Richard bit his lip and looked at his sister, who hadn't taken her eyes from her father. He thought he saw a flicker of a smile cross her lips.
Finally, Pa sighed heavily. "If you finish your chores, then I suppose—" His words were drowned by a chorus of thank you's.
"Now, now, children," Ma warned. "You can't go anywhere until you finish your breakfast. Eat up."
Richard shoveled food into his mouth as if he would never eat again.
His appetite sated, Richard returned to the sanctity of his room. He dug into his pocket for a slip of paper, on which were written several names and addresses—men who had, he assumed, betrayed Nucky in some way or another throughout his battle with Rosetti. The nature of the betrayal was a mystery to him; it was not his job to know why he was killing them, only that they needed to be killed.
From his closet, he pulled a wooden box marked "US Army." He set it square on the bed, opens it, and gently lifted the green felt from each side, revealing three pistols nestled neatly within. It took him a moment to make a selection—to the untrained eye, he supposed they appeared identical, but each was suited to a particular use—and finally picked up the one on the right. He studied it, twisting his hand back and forth to gauge the weight of the gun in hand. It would more than serve its purpose today.
"This way!" Emma called, charging ahead of him through the thickening trees. Richard stumbled, eager to keep up, but his sister had always been faster than him. Faster, stronger, quicker to learn; their father often wondered aloud which one of his children was really his son. His comments lit a fire of shame in Richard's chest, but he had never held it against his sister. She was the only friend he had.
After breakfast, Richard had hurried back to the barn to begin work on the damaged plow. It was a complicated job, but one he was determined to complete. He had been hard at work when his sister had appeared, eyes sparkling with mischief. She clutched a large burlap sack to her chest and smiled impishly. "Ready to go?" she had asked him, giggling when she saw his eyes fall on the bag. He had scrambled to his feet and followed her from the barn without another word.
They darted through trees and over tangles of roots, delighting in the enchanting woods. Whenever Richard caught up to her, she surged ahead, always with a childish giggle. It didn't anger him in the slightest; he admired his sister's lust for life, as he admired so many things about her.
Emma skidded to a stop at the edge of a hillock and crouched down, the bag at her feet. Richard approached her, confused. "Why'd you stop—"
"Shh!" Emma scolded in a lively whisper. "Be quiet or you'll scare him!"
"Scare who?" he whispered back. Emma pointed over the mound of dirt and roots, and Richard's eyes widened in wonder.
A deer stood some two hundred yards away, perfectly still and illuminated by shafts of golden sunlight shooting through the trees. The majesty of the scene, the tranquility of the precious life before him, was truly breathtaking. The deer looked up at him, and as their eyes met he felt a surge of pure, innocent love for the gentle beast, a need to protect it, to cherish it, as if it held all the world's goodness in its deep, sorrowful eyes.
The gunshot took him off guard. He whipped his head towards his sister, who clutched a rifle to her cheek. A stream of smoke wafted from the barrel, and Richard followed it to where the deer had stood mere moments ago. The animal lay prone on the forest floor, a bullet beneath its left cheek.
He looked back at Emma, horrified. A wide smile had spread across her face. For a moment, neither uttered a word as their heavy breaths punctuated the silence around them.
When he finally spoke, the words came in slow, hushed tones. "Where did you learn to do that?"
Emma's smile faltered. "Pa taught me."
"Oh." Richard turned his back to the hillock and slid down until he was seated on a root jutting out at its base. He should have known, those days when Pa and Emma would disappear for an entire day, that he had been teaching his favorite child something Pa didn't think Richard had needed to learn. Pa never did think much of him.
Emma slid down next to him and reached for his hand. "I can teach you, if you want." He looked up at her and couldn't help but smile.
The car sputtered to a stop before a decrepit tenement hall. Richard studied it carefully. It was indeed the address Nucky had given him; Richard wondered how much of a threat a man could really pose from a place like this, but who was he to judge? The pistol was nestled in the glove box; he retrieved it and checked the chamber. Fully loaded, though he doubted he would need more than a single shot. He climbed from the driver's seat, tucking the weapon safely into the band of his trousers and pulling the tail of his jacket around to conceal it from view.
The narrow stairs were dark and dingy, littered with food scraps and half-smoked cigarettes. He skirted a sleeping man on the third flight with ease, his eye on the proverbial prize. Five flights up and two doors down the hall. He could feel his heart rate rising in anticipation and waited for the familiar calm to wash over him. He never felt surer of himself than when on a job.
"Arms up, shoulders square." Emma placed guiding hands on her brother's shoulders and steered him into position. The target, a crabapple, sat perched on a stump a hundred yards from them. Richard trembled. "Don't be nervous," Emma soothed. "Just pull the trigger."
Richard did as he was told. The bullet soared past the apple, leaving it unscathed.
"Damnit!" Richard was glad his father couldn't hear the unexpected profanity that had escaped his lips in the face of defeat. At home, it would have guaranteed him a sound lashing.
Emma giggled. "You're too tense. It was only your first shot. Just relax and try again."
Richard looked at her, reassured by her kind smile. He repositioned himself and shot again.
The bullet skimmed the apple's flesh. It rocked back and forth in place but otherwise remained whole.
The boy looked crestfallen. It was only Emma's hand on his shoulder that urged him to try once more.
He closed his eyes, raised his arms, squared his shoulders and feet, and held a deep breath in his chest. He could see the apple so clearly before him, begging to be pierced by his bullet. He opened his eyes and slowly exhaled as he squeezed the trigger.
The apple flew off of the stump. The look of sheer delight on Emma's face was matched only by his own, and he propped the rifle against a tree to follow her towards his fallen target.
She held the apple up to her eye, looking at him through the clean hole carved through its center.
She smiled wide. "Nice shot."
He knocked softly on the door. "Yeah?" a gruff voice responded from the other side.
Richard waited, his hand grasping the pistol without a tremor.
He knocked again and heard a flurry of activity inside. Finally, the door opened a crack to reveal a man's rat-like face.
"Are you. Vincenzo Perugio?"
The man eyed him suspiciously. "Depends who's asking."
Richard felt a cooling calm flow through his veins. He pushed the door open, sending the man stumbling back. "Nucky Thompson. Sends his regards."
He was in the stairwell before Perugio hit the floor, a teardrop of blood oozing from the fresh hole below his left eye.
The sun was sinking behind the trees as Richard and Emma began the long trek across the fields towards the safety of their tiny farmhouse. Neither spoke, afraid to spoil the magic of the day. This time, it was Richard who carried the bag, and Emma held his free hand adoringly in both of hers.
Ma was in the kitchen when they finally arrived. "How was the forest?" She was a stern woman, never one to shower her children with affection and as hard a worker as her husband, and they sensed a note of scorn in her voice for their day of freedom.
"We saw a deer!" Emma exclaimed. Richard waited for her to add what had come next, but she said nothing more.
"Deer are stupid animals. Now, go and help your father to the table."
They hurried down the hall, but Richard stopped his sister before they reached their parents' bedroom door. "When are we gonna go practice some more?" he whispered, conscious that they might be within earshot of their fearsome father.
"Soon," Emma smiled. "When Pa's leg has mended."
She disappeared into the bedroom to wake their father, leaving Richard with his daydreams of pierced targets and smoking guns.
Evening had darkened around the tenement hall in the short time it had taken to complete the job. The route back to the boarding house snaked through Julia's neighborhood—Richard had noticed this on the way there, but had pushed the realization from his mind. Now he could think of nothing but, and almost unconsciously steered the car in the direction of her house.
He slowed as he approached, but did not stop. The dining room was illuminated, and he thought he could just make out Paul's hulking figure at the head of the table, with tiny Tommy to his right. What he wouldn't have given to be seated with them there, tucking into Julia's delicious cooking. His heart sank and he drove on.
It had been several weeks since their first clandestine meeting deep in the forest. Richard had revealed himself as a natural, though not as natural as Emma, who hit each target with stunning accuracy. They traded off round by round, moving on from fruit and bottles to moving targets. Rabbits had proven tricky at first, birds even trickier, but no living thing was a match for the Harrow twins. Soon, the pang of guilt that had haunted Richard from the day of the deer was washed away in the wave of calm that overtook him with the weight a gun in his hand. The control, and the power, was exhilarating.
"The Johnsons' barn was vandalized," Pa grumbled over dinner.
"Honestly," Ma sighed, "What is it going to take for the sheriff to do something about all of this? Those vandals nearly killed you."
"No need to be dramatic, Ma. It was just a scratch."
"Just a scratch?" Emma exclaimed. "Pa, they broke your leg!"
"And it's healing, ain't it?" Pa had the final word, as always. The topic was verboten.
Later that night, Emma snuck into her brother's room and crawled into his bed. It was a ritual in practice since their parents had first separated them into different rooms. Neither could sleep well alone.
"Emma?" he whispered in the dark.
"What if the vandals come back?"
She wrapped her tiny arms around his midsection and gave him a squeeze. "What do you think the rifle's for, silly?"
In the quiet of his room, he cleaned his pistol with care. An idea was forming in his mind, a germinating seed growing stronger with each passing minute. Between Jimmy's enemies, Nucky's betrayers, and those few survivors of the Artemis Club, he knew that it was only a matter of time before someone finally had the nerve to come after him. His own safety was irrelevant; if he fell, he fell with the dignity of a soldier. It was his adopted family's that concerned him.
He would drive back to their house, he reasoned. Wouldn't even need to get out of the car. He would simply watch over them, protecting them from his makeshift blind, fighting in the name of their innocence in the endless battle of life.
He finished cleaning his gun, his mind settled.
Richard woke before the sun, a tremor of foreboding rushing through him. Without a sound, he dressed and made his way to the darkened barn.
He paused and listened, his senses sharp in the pre-dawn quiet. Voices within, though they clearly did not want to be heard. He pulled the door open just a crack, careful to keep it from creaking noisily and betraying his hiding place to the strangers within.
Two men crouched at the far end of the barn, hovering over something just out of sight.
The burlap sack, containing their trusty rifle, sat just inside the door. If he could open it a bit more, he might be able to reach it.
A faint whimpering wafted through the morning air. The men emitted a low chuckle, and Richard pushed his arm further towards the bag.
"That's a good girl," one of the men cooed. He began to unfasten his belt buckle.
The boy's fingers closed on burlap, and he pulled it toward him.
"Don't fight, sweetheart. It'll only hurt more if you do."
The men looked up at the whine of the big barn door. Neither had a chance to reach for their revolvers before Richard had driven a bullet hole through each of their cheeks.
Emma scrambled from the hay, nearly winding him with the force of her embrace. "I was so scared," she shuddered. "I thought I could take them."
"It's okay, Emma." He smoothed her hair and felt her wrenching sobs against his shoulder. "I was protecting you."
Far away, the old crow called out to the rising sun, and held her closer.
"I'll always protect you."