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Country Justice
by Darrell Whitney


Aloysius Harding's mother had given him his rather pretentious name in the hope that it might lead him to great things, or at least steady work that kept a roof over his head and food in his stomach (and who knew, perhaps space to take care of an aging mother?). His companions on the street were infinitely more perceptive, for when he was no more than six years old they gazed into the depths of his soul and declared Aloysius to be "the Rat." A more philosophical mind might have instead likened him unto a jackal feeding off the flesh left by bigger, stronger carnivores, but it is doubtful if any of the Rat's friends had, either as children or adults, likened anyone unto anything. Nor would they have recognized a jackal if it had bit one of them on the leg.

Leg-biting, ironically, was one of the foremost things on the Rat's mind at that moment. Having fled Aiedo one step ahead of the hunters, he'd been forced to make his traveling plans in haste, so by the time he got to the village of Mile he'd been starving. Accordingly, he'd tried to swipe some food from one of the local farmhouses, figuring that anyone who could grow crops themselves surely should let him have some (although his attitude towards property in general followed similar lines, so Mr. Harding could not be noted among the great economic theorists of Motavia). The family dog, a large brute of bloodlines as dubious as its temper, took exception to his reasoning, not only jumping at him barking and snarling but going so far as to pursue Aloysius out the door as the Rat made his getaway with two loaves of bread and a ham.

Aloysius gasped for breath as he ran; he was not used to endurance work, being more accustomed to the short sprint from back window to alley, and as he wasn't a large man the weight of the ham wasn't helping matters. Apparently the dog liked to play, for instead of running him down it stayed a few feet behind him, snapping helpfully at the Rat's calves whenever the thief thought he might have a chance to slow up.

Now, a man being chased by a large, angry dog is not an inconspicuous thing, especially when man and beast alike were given to loudly voicing their displeasure with the situation. Since Mile was a small village and the majority of its citizens had little chance of seeing anything as interesting for at least the next few weeks, a number of them came out to watch and to cheer alternately for Rat and dog.

"Looks like Bolton's hound got out again," observed James Teller, pointing the stem of his pipe at the beast.

"Hound?" snorted Dick Pilchard, who was as white-haired, leather-skinned, and cantankerous as his friend. "Act of mercy to call it a dog, Jim."

The dog appeared to take offense at this; at least it turned its head and barked once in the old men's general direction. Then again, it could have been barking at Pilchard's cat, who prudently decided to take its nap indoors.

"Bolton should get himself a wife," Teller noted.

"A wife? Look at that young rascal's armload. Man's a thief, no doubt about it. Now tell me, what would a wife have done about that?"

"Wife would've caught him by now."

The Rat's flight rounded a cottage where, as if in answer to his prayers, there was a fenced-in yard. Not worrying about such trivialities as gates, a good thing since this one was not latched but tied shut with rope and on the other side of the enclosure anyway, Aloysius stepped up on the lowest rail, then the next, then swung his leg over to the other side.

It was at this point that the mongrel decided to educate the Rat in the jumping abilities of dogs. While the thief was still astride the fence a good hundred and twenty pounds of canine bounded up and smashed into his side. Since this was perhaps ten pounds less than the Rat's entire body weight, ham notwithstanding, and since he did not have the use of his food-laden hands to balance or catch himself, he fell over into the yard. Denied support, the dog fell over too, and both tumbled with a splash into a pool of mud.

A large hog looked up with interest at the unusual invasion. At first it seemed placid enough, Aloysius saw as he got to his feet. The dog, with considerably less experience than the thief at being hit, kicked, and knocked down, seemed to be having more trouble recovering, which did the Rat's heart good. Less pleasant for him was the sight of the bread and the ham, coated with mud. Least pleasant of all was when the pig snuffled at the ham and took a bite. Apparently this was a hog of a philosophical bent, for rather than happily cannibalizing its late relative it turned baleful eyes on the pork-bearing intruder, who was fiddling with the rope securing the gate.

The Rat, never before having been to the country, knew little of pigs, but he did know that this one was quite large and coming right at him. With remarkable speed, helped this time because his hands were free, Aloysius went up and over the fence. Instinctively he breathed a sigh of relief, sure that the pig, at least, could not jump the fence.

In this assessment, the Rat was correct. Unfortunately for him, the hog did not attempt to jump but instead ran full-force into the gate. The rope, too old for its task, snapped under the impact and the gate swung open. The thief turned and headed for the proverbial hills, the swine charging after him and the dog, not willing to abandon the chase now that it was getting more interesting, got to its feet and took off barking. A passing mini worm, meanwhile, popped its head up and insured that the ham would not go to waste.

Aloysius was really gasping for breath, arms pumping as he sprinted around the corner of the cottage and out in front of what had developed into a nicely-sized audience.

"Not a bad trick," one of the watchers said to the woman beside her. "Man goes behind a house with a ham and comes out with a pig."

Now, anyone who has tried to help a farmer run down a loose pig will know that the porcine species can get up a good head of steam when properly motivated. However, this particular hog was being fattened for slaughter and would soon be taking up a new career as bacon. Thus, it was a good starter but poor in the stretch and the dog soon overtook it. Somehow, Aloysius did not find this comforting. Apparently the dip in the mud had gotten the mongrel out of its playful mood, and from the sound of its growls it was going to get down to some serious chewing when it caught up to the Rat.

That event would be coming in the very near future, realized the thief. In desperation, he cast his eyes about for a way of escape--and he found one! There was a well not ten feet away, and the Rat made for it at full speed. Scrambling over the side, he grabbed the rope that held the bucket and let himself drop, landing with a splash in the cool water. Seconds later the cur appeared above him, snarling and barking down at the Rat but unable to do anything worse. Soon, Aloysius thought, it would get bored and go away, whereupon he could climb up the rope and make his escape.

The minor flaw in this master plan was revealed less than five minutes later when the thief found himself being reeled in as strong hands cranked up the bucket. Since Aloysius wasn't the kind of expert crook who was likely to be able to scale the walls without the rope, he had no choice but to hold on and allow himself to be pulled out of the well. A white-gloved hand seized the Rat's shirtfront and hauled him out onto dry land. Looking around, Aloysius noticed the element his plan of escape had failed to take into account--namely, that he'd been doing it in front of an entire village full of witnesses.

He looked up into the amused blue eyes of the tall brunette in the red dress who had a hold of him.

"Well, I can't say this job wasn't entertaining, although I may have to wait until you're done here before hauling you back to Aiedo to collect my fee," Alys Brangwin remarked, "at least if my friend here has anything to say about it." She nodded towards the brawny farmer who'd winched Aloysius out of the well.

"Name's Belton," the big man said in a dour voice. "Local constable. My food you stole. Under arrest." Evidently Mile's law officer was a man of few words.

"I suppose," the Rat said with a sigh, "that it can't be any worse than dealing with the dog. Or is he the magistrate?"

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