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Justice
by Michelle Witte

Seems his parents knew he would be a lawman from the moment they set eyes on his blotchy, misshapen face. At least his mama did. She looked deep into his dark brown eyes, as though she could see straight into his head where his proper name waited to be called.

"Jury," she said.

His papa took one look and nodded. "Jury."

As with any kid who'd been saddled with such a big name, he worked damn hard to grow to fit it. He broke up fights in the schoolyard, and took care to bloody a nose or two while he was at it. Wasn't a boy in town didn't know Jury would not be deterred from keeping peace.

As a runt of a kid, I hid in the shadow of his protection long before he taught me to stand alongside him. But that's exactly what Jury did, though I can't say it was his intention. Even then, that man engendered loyalty, and always through his ever-watchful but intense gaze. The peace of that town belonged to Jury long before the tarnished star of authority rested upon his breast.

He started as a young deputy, but as his confidence and determination grew, so did his reputation. It served him well, for a time, though that reputation nearly cost him a wife.

Some say that old banker should've known not to stand in Jury's way when he wanted something. The fool didn't know any better, so even though he forbade the match, it happened anyway. While some might've eloped and run far from their troubles, Jury saw to it that everything was done well and proper. Even got the stodgy father to give the gal away, though no promise of dowry or money was ever made. Jury didn't care. He had his intended prize and was content.

Now Mabel wasn't an ordinary woman, either. To stand toe to toe with such a man-even on simple domestic issues-required a strong constitution and will. She had both, and plenty more. They were never doe-eyed sweethearts, but there were times when Mabel and Jury looked into each other's eyes from across the room, and you could see a beam of light connect them. Sentimental women called it love, but I think the preacher said it best: "It's a meeting of minds, just like the Good Book talks about. But this is the only time I've seen it so literal."

I reckon he was right, because the farther Jury got from Mabel, off on some search party or manhunt, well past the farthest reach of the county, that lightness in his eyes would start to fade. Came back same way, too: the closer to her, the brighter they got. At times, it was the only reliable way to tell how far we were from home after tracking down whatever was hidden or lost.

Then one manhunt, searching for a bandit wanted for robbery and murder, that light went out completely. We found our man right quick, with Jury turning bloody furious and fuming till the bandit gave himself up from fright. Had he not been sheriff by that time, Jury'd have taken off for home much sooner than that. As it was, we chased a bat from hell in the form of Jury as we raced back to town. But the light, it never came back.

No matter how strong and good and brave Jury was, there was one thing he couldn't stand against: Death. Some say Jury took that on as his mission, after Mabel died, taking with her the little blue boy just pulled from her womb. He became a zealot for justice, in life and Death. There was no justice for him, not on this Earth. But that didn't stop him from giving it to everyone else he protected in that county.

Maybe we should've known his fight with Death wouldn't end quite right. No one took on the destroyer without some damage to body and soul. Even if we'd known, none of us would've seen it coming in the form of quiet Mrs. Turner and her girls.

Her husband had passed some five years before. Together they'd created some fine-looking daughters, three in total. By the time Jury's wife had been in the ground two years, those girls had somehow turned to angels in the form of young women. Each as lovely as her sisters, they were different in body but not in spirit. When the family came to town for church or the occasional festival, the Turner girls captured the awe of every man, woman, and toddling child in those parts.

Maybe we should've known angels don't belong on Earth.

No matter. What's done was done, and the good Lord knows better than any of us what to do about it. Every man within a hundred miles took a shine to at least one of the girls, and more often, all three. While that wasn't a problem by and large, it became one when those Thomas ruffians first saw the girls. They were love struck, but that wasn't an excuse. Those boys were the devil's spawn, pure and simple.

After that first sight, they took to hanging around town more frequently. For years they'd contented themselves to drunken revels with whatever illicit woman they could conjure from the outskirts of town. Rumors of brutality and death followed them about like a half-starved mutt begging for some meat. But they kept those troubles outside the county lines, for though they might not respect the law, they feared Jury all the same. Then came the day those men stumbled upon the beauty of heaven, and hell had less appeal than before.

Jury had eyes on that band of miscreants, but he couldn't do a thing if they didn't do something wrong first. Jury was a man of the law, and he held to it, too, no matter the man or his crime. Everyone in the county knew that. The Thomas men knew it, too. So Jury kept watch and those boys kept to themselves and their debauchery for a time.

The girls, on the other hand, continued to grow in the grace of God, and their beauty rivaled that of all of the other creations. No spring nor mountain nor birdsong could compete with the perfection of these girls, and even God seemed to know it.

The oldest had the voice of an angel, opening the heavens with her righteous strains of a Sunday. Her kind words held even more power, often knitting together the pieces of broken spirit. She was near an age to marry, though her mama was as yet unwilling to part with her, despite the many pleas from hopeful men, young to old.

The middle child had the hands of an angel, tending to the weary with a touch lighter than the sweet air she breathed. It was she who nursed her papa to his grave after a horse threw him down a gully. Hands that holy could heal, and there was many a weary male heart in town that wished a touch from those gentle fingers.

The last, still on the cusp of womanhood, had the soul of an angel. Her bright gaze could bring the truth to the lips of even the most hardened liar. No man withstood her sight without some thought for penance. But no matter the sin, a mortal could not see a bit of heaven in her eyes and not be cleansed.

Death, though. He never likes men to have such treasures for long, and soon enough the blood of those Thomas men churned.

The blacksmith had a son. Big strapping lad with shoulders of iron. His arms beat at boiling metal all the day long, but at night they longed for a softer embrace. After much too long by his reckoning, Mrs. Turner accepted his offer of hearth and home for her eldest. He would continue in the business of his father and take it up completely once the older man passed. As such, he could provide all that was wanted for an earthbound angel.

None can fault him for celebrating, even if it did take him to a tavern and a barroom of drunken men on the seedy edges of town. A king among men for winning such a prize. They all declared him to have the devil's own luck. But the devil doesn't need luck. He has too many eager hands to do the work.

While a foolish boy reveled in success, a posse of the devil's own took to the hills that night. Not far out of town lay the Turner homestead, nestled in its own canyon Eden. A strong creek brought life to that parcel of land, and a pair of farmhands saw to it that the women kept enough cattle and grain for them all to manage the bitter winters. Too bad those hands were holding pints of liquor that night, toasting the blacksmith's son on the acquisition of an angel.

By the time those hands stumbled bleary-eyed to their work the next morning, they knew something was off. More than one something. The cattle had gotten loose. Chickens with necks wrung had frosted the yard with their feathers. The dog had been shot out by the fence, then dragged to the threshold and gutted.

Not even the sheriff could countenance the scene we found in the home. Mrs. Turner had lain hogtied and gagged on the kitchen floor while those devils went to work. Then they'd pointed a gun at her head and fired. Doc still doesn't know how she survived, even if just long enough to commit these scenes to our memories.

Jury held the practically dead woman's hand as life staggered about inside her, screeching for a way to get out. But that woman was stubborn, and she kept it rattling inside 'til everything was told. Stone-faced and solemn, the sheriff squeezed her hand as she spoke of her angels' screams, how they'd called out to their mother for comfort, which she could not give from her stone grave upon the floor. With the last of her stolen breath, Mrs. Turner demanded justice, and by all that was holy, in heaven and hell, Jury promised it to her.

Death came to claim the woman while we went in search of her equally broken daughters. Ever the innocents, those girls had been baptized in blood. Those angels wore their beauty, even in death, though now the veil of it upon them had become a shroud. No terror lined their faces, only the utter sadness that heaven wears as it greets the face of evil.

Our eyes downcast, we left that unholy crypt when Jury bid us go. We didn't question when he came out some time later, veins of red staining the cracks in his roughened hands. Nor did we need any words as we mounted up. Mrs. Turner had given damning testimony. We needed nothing more.

The wrath of God took a good hard look at Jury that day, and then sent him on his way to the Thomas ranch. The deputies followed, dutiful and diligent. A fire burned behind Jury's eyes, but it held no light, only heat and fury and destruction. Jury took the lead, and we were amenable to let him do so. None of us dared cross that gaze.

Always the devoted sheriff, Jury knew every sector of that county, committed it to memory, noted any change. So when he bypassed the main ranch and made instead for a small cabin higher in the hills, we didn't question. The Thomas men might be fools, but they weren't stupid. They'd left a watch at home below while hiding out among the towering pines.

Jury tracked those men more ferociously than any coon dog treeing a bear. Culpability followed them like a stench, and soon we surrounded a ramshackle cabin that offered little protection to the four brothers who would meet their maker soon enough.

God's own avenging angel couldn't have done more to enact the laws of heaven than Jury did that day. The rattling rain of bullets on wood, rock, and tree echoed throughout the hills. Pinpoints of fire burst from each barrel, seeking the spark of life of any vagrant soul it could reach.

A bullet to the leg toppled me to the ground, but even a chest wound couldn't stop justice or its champion. With an almighty roar, Jury kicked down the door to that cabin. Clouds billowed inside from the smoke of so many shots fired. A final crack concluded with a last wail, and then the silence of spent rage took its place.

Inside we found Jury, kneeling with head bowed in supplication, a pistol dripping from each hand as he spoke. "It is done."

Those guns clattered to the ground as we pulled the sheriff to standing. Unsteady but sure, he walked between us as we made our way back to the horses. Soon enough, a second wave of posse clattered up the trail, and we left it to them to clean up the devil's mischief.

Jury broke that day. Oh, he lived a good long while after that, but he passed the reins of sheriff along to me. He kept himself near enough that even a hint of rancor would bring up his hound dog nose and he'd be waiting at the front door as I grabbed my shotgun, ready to ride out. But he wasn't really alive after that. Avenging angels don't live. They seek vengeance, then wait until once again they are called. Dutiful servants to a just God.

Jury was ever dutiful. He was Justice.

The End

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