Chance loved the spring. The last of the mountain's snow had melted and the streams were cool and full this time of year. The greenery had begun to push through the brown and the flowers were just showing their curiosity for the world. He and his father had been riding all day; they must have covered twenty or thirty miles looking for where the cattle had been mysteriously escaping. Chance's shirt stuck to his back and his hair was matted under his hat with the sweat of a hard day’s work, but he didn't mind; riding in the springtime over their property was one of his favorite pastimes. He figured he could do it for a lifetime, and for many years now, he planned to do just that.
He dismounted from his chestnut and splashed some water from the nearby brook on his face and then dunked his hair.
“Chance,” his father called. “Over here. ”
Chance grabbed the reins and led his horse over to where his father was. Jack Clayton stood over a patch of fence, examining the state of the barrier. He was a man that looked like he was carved from granite – solid jaw, fine wrinkles that lent his face more a look of painted texture than of age. But, despite the stoic exterior, his calm demeanor and kind eyes put to rest any idea that he might be mean. With Jack Clayton, it would be a mistake to confuse kindness with weakness.
He took his hat off and wiped his brow with a faded handkerchief, then wagged a finger toward the fence they had been riding along. “Look at that. That storm last week must've blasted that old tree.” A massive branch had come down from one of the ravine's trees and smashed the barricade. Posts and wire lay flat against the ground leaving a perfect escape route for the cattle. “This is where they've been getting out.”
“Lucky we had them GPS’-ed, eh?” Chance said, smiling an I-told-you-so smile. “And you said, what was it you said? Oh yes, you said that it was too—”
“Too expensive. All right, I know what I said. I formally eat my words. How about this? As compensation, I'll actually help you round up the last of our escapees and mend the fence tomorrow morning.” He smiled as he turned his horse about. It was apparent where Chance got his own winning grin.
“Oh, you'll help me, huh? If that's being right, I'd hate to be wrong.”
“Now you're catching on.” His father laughed, his eyes sparkling mischievously. “All right, let's head on back. I'm starving and we got a while to go before we get supper on.” He turned his bay and kicked into a gallop.
Chance leaned back, belly full, while Jack took a satisfying drink from his coffee mug. The sparse remains of a hearty stew spotted their plates.
“Well, that was a meal full deserved, I'd say,” Jack said. “Once we clear that tree and fix the fence, Mr. Daly will stop pestering me about the cattle grazing his land.”
“All that man does is complain about other people’s problems. And never takes care of his own. Have you taken a good look at his barn lately? That barn of his looks like it’ll catch fire if you breathe on it funny.”
“Now, I like Daly just fine. He's a good man. He's just unhappy, that's all. And that's how unhappy people behave. They try to make the rest of the world look like their feelin' on the inside.”
“Well, I wish he'd stick to himself, then.”
“Consider it a good lesson. You're going to have to deal with plenty of people in this world and most of them are far worse than good ol' Mr. Daly. Trust me.”
Chance grabbed a plate and stacked it on his own. Then an idea dawned on him. “What's say we flip for who does the dishes?”
His father thought for a second and then smiled the slightest of smiles; so slight, in fact, that if Chance didn't know him he would have thought he hadn't been listening at all. “You're on,” he said, adding an impish squint to the grin.
Jack fished in a breast pocket and produced a gleaming gold coin, one about the size of a half-dollar. Chance could see that the coin was definitely not of American make—multiple raised symbols and strange writing ran along its perimeter. His father carried that coin wherever he went, but try as he might, Chance could not get him to say a peep about where he got it. The two of them had been inseparable since Chance’s mother had run off and abandoned them both. The origin of this coin was the only mystery he was aware of in his otherwise straightforward father.
Jack expertly spun the coin over his knuckles, first one way and then the other; it danced like it was magically flowing over the man's hand all by itself. “Heads or tails. Call it in the air,” Jack said as he snatched the coin with his other hand and tossed it aloft. It flew upwards, the light of the setting sun shining through the kitchen window and catching the bright gold piece as it flashed end over end.
“Heads,” Chance called. He always called heads—he didn't like to be near the backside of a wild horse, and he certainly didn't like the backside of spinning coins; you never knew what you might end up with if you called tails.
Jack caught the coin as it tumbled and slammed it down on his wrist. He paused dramatically, and then peeped under his hand. “Well, I'll be-“ he said. “Heads it is. That's gotta be nine out of ten times you've beaten me, son.” He scooped the coin back into his breast pocket, careful to not let Chance see that it had been tails, and began stacking the dishes and silverware. “You have to be the luckiest son-of-a-codger I have-” He trailed off. As he moved to the sink he caught a glimpse of something through the kitchen window.
Chance had noticed the same thing; a cloud of dust was rising from the dirt road leading to the house. It was a far ways away, but the sun had caught the dust and cast it in an orange light making it easy to see from this distance. Behind this, in contrast to the lit sky, a series of light gray clouds condensed in a defined wall. Faint flashes of lightning populated the clouds' overlapping edges.
“You expecting someone?” Chance asked.
“Nope,” was all his father said squinting into the light, but this time there was no mirth behind the look.
“That's some odd weather. You see that?”
“Yep.” Jack put the dishes down and disappeared for a moment into another room. Before long, he returned while pocketing some small items into his jeans, a grim expression having gathered on his face.
Chance joined his father on the porch and waited as the car crunched down the drive and rolled to a stop. It was an old car, something Chance had seen on TV when they played reruns; it had a rounded black chassis with large chrome headlights. The dust it had kicked up blew past as the driver door opened — a silver-tipped cane stabbed into the dirt, followed by the man wielding it. He wasn't a physically imposing man; in fact, he was of rather small stature, but Chance felt his father tense in his presence. The man's hair was a silver-gray, his suit similarly colored, well pressed with a perfect cut. He shut the door behind him and took a limping step forward, using his cane for support.
The clouds concentrated in the sky and Chance could feel the cool precipitation filling the air—it smelled the same as the precursor to any storm, but something in the scent was off, too electric for his liking.
“That'll be far enough,” Jack said, dead serious.
The man stopped where he was. “Mr. Mallory,” he began politely. “It has been a long time.”
Chance shot a look at his father. His face remained sober. Mallory? That was odd. Their last name was Clayton. Whoever this stranger was, he didn't know his father. Or he had the wrong man.
“I am pleased to see you are well.” The man placed both hands on his cane in front of him. “Won't you at least show me the courtesy and have me in for a cup of coffee or a sip of brandy? It has been quite a long journey to find you, Mallory.”
That name again.
“I told you that'd be far enough, Solomon. If it's a drink you need there are plenty of places down the road that'd be happy to take your coin.” Jack held the man fixed in his gaze. Chance noticed that it only wavered a single bit from the man's eyes to his hands and back again. He had never seen his father like this, and it began to make him nervous.
The stranger paused for a second. The wind brought up a small cloud of dust and ruffled his coat. “Well, Jack, I see your son has grown up quite nicely. You don’t know me, Chance, but your father and I are old friends.”
Before Chance could respond, his father interjected. “Leave him out of this.” Then to Chance, “Go inside. This man and I have business — the ugly kind. I don't want you coming out, no matter what the reason. Grab the shotgun — if anything other than myself enters the front door, shoot it. You understand?” Jack's voice was firm and unwavering.
“I got it,” Chance said without hesitating.
Chance backed up into the house and shut the door behind him. A remote peal of thunder resounded over the fields.
Chance grabbed the shotgun from the rack, checked to see that it was loaded, and crouched at the nearest window, peering out through a small slit where the shade had been drawn low. A heavy wind had suddenly blown in, obscuring his vision in a cloud of dust and leaves.
“You knew this day was coming, Mallory,” Chance could make out Solomon saying above the blowing wind. “Give me what I’ve come for and I’ll be on my way”
Jack eyed him coldly, but said nothing.
“You're old and weak—don’t make me take what’s mine.”
“There is nothing here for you, Solomon. I may have gotten a bit gray, but I can still handle myself just fine in a dog fight.”
Then Chance saw something he would never easily forget—Solomon reached in his pocket and drew forth several small coins from his pocket. He threw them on the ground and after they bounced to a stop, the unbelievable happened. The coins began to transform. Seams split one of their middles and folded outward in expanding metal sections, while another began to froth and bubble—a third popped on its side into a humming spin and expanded outward in a translucent blur.
As they grew in size they took shape. The first coin finally folded and refolded like origami into a scorpion the size of a car. The spinning coin faded and in its place left a flying creature with glittering eyes and wicked claws. The last erupted into a hulking, dusky beast on two legs carrying a massive stone club.
Chance's father, without missing a beat, had already reached into his own pocket and pulled several coins of his own. He threw them to the ground just as the massive ogre lumbered forth to attack. One of the coins flashed into a six- legged creature made entirely of metal, the other a shaggy behemoth with four arms wielding four wickedly curved swords, and the third coin exploded into a cloud of glowing fireflies which darted and hovered around Jack’s form.
The wind continued to stir up dust, obscuring Chance's view even further. He darted from window to window trying to catch a better glimpse of the impossible action. He could hear the roar of the creatures and felt the ground shake percussively as they engaged one another.
The ogre came suddenly into view, swinging his massive club — it missed the six-legged machine, which dodged with surprising speed, and smashed full swing into one of the porch supports. Splinters blew outward as the column was shattered. The porch collapsed on one side raining shingles and debris. The fallen section crashed in front of the window and forced Chance to scramble for another vantage. As he slid to a stop, he was just in time to catch sight of the behemoth cutting at the giant scorpion — one swing after another landed just shy of the scuttling arachnid; the swords carved huge trenches into the ground casting dirt and rocks into the air. One of the swings came down on the black sedan carving it open in a shower of sparks.
The scorpion responded quickly, jabbing at the shaggy monster with its whipping tail. The creature blocked several attempts with its two free swords, but as it was distracted by the whipping tail it was caught by a pincer – before it could react, the tail stung it several times in rapid succession, the pointed stinger leaving giant holes where it had stabbed. The behemoth fell to its knees and then transformed back into a coin that fell quietly into the dirt.
The flying creature dove directly at Chance's father.
“Duck!” Chance yelled over the tumult, although he doubted his father could hear him. Jack held out his hand, his fingers spread, and the glowing fireflies moved into a formation around him. They positioned themselves equally around him in a hexagonal mesh and began to glow even brighter as a net of orange force lines ignited between them.
With a shriek, the flying creature flew headlong into the shield of force, which exploded into a blinding burst of light. Chance's father flew back through the front door, smashing it off one hinge, and slid on his back to a stop several feet inside the room. The winged-creature and the fireflies popped back into coin form and fell to the floor, Tink! Tink! Tink!
Chance rushed over to his father who steeled his gaze and reached into his pocket once more.
“You okay?” Chance asked.
“I'm fine,” Jack said. “Now stay down. Things are about to get loud.”
Jack strode out the door and tossed another coin to his side. A flash of light and a stone centaur reared back, spear and shield in hand. With a look from Jack, it charged the scorpion, deftly maneuvering past the snaking tail, and blocked its pincers with his giant shield. The centaur smashed down with his front hoofs and ran the creature through the back of its carapace with its massive spear. Black ooze gushed out as it fell into a motionless heap and then folded back into the form of a tiny silver coin.
The wind came up stronger than before blocking Chance's view almost entirely now. More shadows hulked back and forth in the dust, roars and shrieks bellowing forth from different directions. The ground shook and the sound of more smashing and splintering of wood and metal filled his ears. He could hear the man and his father shouting, but couldn’t make out what they were yelling.
Then the yelling ended and a silence fell upon the field.
There was a massive crack of lightning and the room was thrown into bright white and deep shadow. The windows shattered inward and the shades were torn from the walls as Chance covered his face with his arms. A wave of hot wind and light followed, blasting dust and dirt in through the broken door.
Chance blinked, trying to recover his vision from the explosion. His ears rang and his head buzzed. He shakily picked himself up; tiny pieces of glass fell from his clothes. Floating circles of colors danced around the periphery of his vision, so he could only make out faint shapes of overturned chairs and furniture. After a few seconds a figure lumbered into the doorway and stopped. Chance lowered the shotgun at the blurry figure, trying to aim as best he could at what he couldn't see.
“Dad?” There was no response. He could hear that the figure was breathing heavily. The shadow wavered in his vision and he blinked again to clear the image. “Dad?” He tightened his grip on the trigger—if his father didn't answer he was going to fire. He wiped his eyes of the sweat and grit and his vision started to clear. He took aim...
“Put the gun down, son.” Jack's voice was labored. “It's me.”
Chance’s vision finally returned completely—he could see that his father's shirt was torn and blood stained in several places. He dropped the gun and moved to his father's side. There were cuts along his face and hands. Jack held his side and slumped against the doorframe with a wince.
Chance had never seen anything bring his father down. Ever. He was a pillar of stone. One time a sick horse back kicked him right in the chest and Jack simply got up after getting knocked clear across the pen, dusted himself off, and made an offhanded joke about it. This was serious. Chance put his arm around his father and helped him up as he looked outside. A giant smoking crater had been blown out easily fifty feet across where their front yard had been; the black sedan was engulfed in flames now, throwing dark smoke into the air. Several small bushes and shrubs smoldered and cast off glowing embers. There was no sign of any of the creatures or of the man named Solomon.
“Are you okay? You're bleeding—” Chance asked.
“I'll live. I think I've got a few broken ribs, though. Nothing major—” Jack answered.
“Nothing major? The yard blew up! What the hell is going on?” Chance asked, flabbergasted that this wouldn't constitute something as “major.” “Who was that man? And what were all those ... things?”
“I'll answer everything. There is a lot to tell you. Now get me downstairs into the cellar, there is something I have to show you.”
Chance helped his father over to the stairs and guided him down into the darkness.