Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Forty

Amalia examined her sister with trembling hands. Carina was breathing lightly and rapidly, but at least she was alive. Her pulse was irregular, but maybe that was to be expected. She pressed down gently on the bump that was already swelling on her temple and suppressed an urge to retch into the weeds. It was a soft lump, swelling fast. Almost certainly a fracture. Even under the best of circumstances, with all their arsenal of medicines and equipment, there would've been little she could've done but hope. In this first moment of shock, she couldn't grasp what was happening except in the most academic terms. Amalia knew the pain would come later, but for the moment, she could still turn a dry and defiant face toward Strecker. "Aren't you finished here yet?"

"Not quite. I have a special entertainment for you." He motioned to an aide. "Have they found a place yet?"

"The trees are awfully small, sir."

"All we need is one good one, you fool. Did they find it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Lead us there."

A soldier tried to jerk Amalia to her feet, but she fought him. "I'm not leaving my sister."

Strecker gave her a disbelieving look, but motioned to a couple of his men.

"Don't move her!"

"Shut up," Strecker said. "I'm starting to get tired of you."

With the aide leading the way, they headed toward the apple grove, the two soldiers and Donovan bringing up the rear. Amalia's heart sank as they drew near the largest tree — a lone cottonwood that towered over the scrawny fruit trees. Hanging from a limb was a noose, swinging in the breeze. In spite of herself, she shuddered, but in this moment, bereft of everything and everyone she loved, and too stunned to think in any terms but those of the moment, death didn't seem like such a terrible thing. Her only worry was that the drop didn't look as if it would be enough to break her neck and end her life quickly.

The soldier dragged her in front of the noose while the men carrying Carina dropped her unceremoniously onto the ground. Amalia cringed. Surely this would complete the work the rifle blow had begun. She gathered her courage, looked up at the noose, noted the step ladder below it and turned to Strecker, a cold question in her eyes.

"No." Strecker turned to Donovan. "It's time."

Donovan's eyes widened in shock. "But you promised!"

The captain smirked, a glint of giddy satisfaction in his eyes. "Yes I did, didn't I? Tell us where you've been, tell us what they have, if your story checks out, we'll let you live. That was the deal, wasn't it?"

Strecker turned to Amalia. "You see how shallow human nature is? This is why people can't be allowed to hoard things and run their own affairs. They can't be trusted."

Amalia's voice was low and bitter with contempt. "There’s nothing you or anyone else could've done to me that would've made me betray the ones I love."

"Perhaps not. All the more reason I wish you were on our side."

"Fuck you." Amalia threw herself onto the ground beside Carina but didn't bother to check her vitals again, since it was a needless exercise in futility.

Donovan's captors prodded him up the stepladder and wrapped the rope around his neck, then both stood back to await Strecker's signal. Instead, Strecker came forward to do the job himself. "You see, Private Sloan, we've got no use for a man who betrays his country." With a sweep of his arm, he indicated Amalia and Carina, the house, barn and fields. "And a man who betrays his friends doesn't deserve to live."

Amalia turned her face away as Strecker pulled the ladder out from under Donovan's feet.

* * *

A winter wind blew down off the mesas. Amalia knew she must be cold but her brain refused to process that information with any degree of urgency. As she sat watching the transport trucks leave in clouds of fumes and dust, nothing seemed very urgent at all. She kept waiting for the grief to tear into her, but for now she was blessedly calm, each thought passing through slowly, as if under water.

She looked at Carina, her face marred by the lewd purple lump on her temple, her body scratched and bloody. Her hands were still bound together in front of her, and Amalia bent over the knot, tearing her nails down to the quick. She unwound the rope, threw it aside and rubbed Carina's chafed wrists. That was better.

Thoughts began trickling in, as slowly as the plumes of smoke rising over the Petersons' place. She should've killed Donovan on sight. First instincts were always best. But then, was it such a terrible thing they had done, taking in a stranger and caring for him?

She suppressed the urge to look at the body still hanging from the tree. He could stay there and rot for all she cared. She wondered absently what it had taken to break him. Alma Red Wing had once said he was weak of spirit. What had she seen that they hadn't? Once again— her mind kept returning to this point as if it were the center on which the entire wheel revolved— where had they erred? Something had gone wrong with the world, and it went deeper than the catastrophes of war, oil and economy.

Amalia brushed a lock of hair out of Carina's face, then got to her feet and looked out across her land. They hadn't burned the house, at least, and even if they had contaminated the well, there was the creek for water. But what would she eat with her stores and animals gone and nothing left with which to buy more? She couldn't work the land by herself. Was there any point in living at all?

Her gaze drifted toward the distant mountains and mesas, and a memory stirred. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. But no help would come from these hills. That was where death arrived in the last of the oil age's diesel trucks. She closed her eyes and held her breath. With all her options taken, all she was left with was the choice to live or die, and there had been enough death. That left life, and she would have to be strong enough for it.

Amalia looked out across the land again, this time seeing it in her mind as it used to be, before she was born, before her family had chosen it as a quiet haven where perhaps they could wait out the turmoil undisturbed. Before the depredations of the wars, it had been dotted with peaceful farms and ranches, with people who felt safe traveling country roads to towns where they could always be sure of fair treatment.

That was how things must be again. Once the convulsions of this time of change passed, there would be peace again. Of this one thing in all the confused and hateful world, she felt sure. To her surprise, she found herself hoping that she would live long enough to see it.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Part Two, Chapter Thirty-Nine

Malone dragged Amalia out onto the front porch and prodded her down the stairs. Up ahead was a vehicle slightly different from the others. A lean man with blazing red hair stood outside the passenger door, overseeing operations. As they drew near, Amalia heard him say to a sergeant, "Well, catch the little Paul Revere, dammit! Shoot him if you have to, but don't tell me we can't move faster than some kid on a fucking donkey!"

Malone forced Amalia to her knees and saluted. "I caught one of the hoarders, Captain Strecker. She says she's a colonel's sister."

"Oh, really?" Strecker gazed at her with mockery in his eyes. "Where's your stockpiling certificate?"

"He didn't give us one," Amalia snapped.

"Well that's too bad, isn't it?"

"Can I shoot her? Bitch pulled a gun on me."

"No. Finish cleaning out the house. Dismissed."

Malone kicked Amalia in the knee, saluted Strecker again and went away. A few other men rushed up to the commander with questions, then made for the barn. In a lull amidst the confusion, Strecker assessed Amalia with a calculating smile. "So are you the veterinarian?"

Amalia felt sick. He knew everything. "No, that would be my sister."

"And are those your animals?"

Amalia twisted around in time to see a group of soldiers herding a pair of frantic goats toward a transport truck. "It would appear they're yours now."

"Yes. As a colonel's sister, you should've known better. Hoarding creates want and envy. You've been stealing from the people."

"What people? We don't take what we didn't earn. We don't beg, and at least we share with the poor. What will you do with your take of our things? Buy your wife a pretty dress?"

The commander gazed at Amalia coolly. "Stand up." As she struggled to her feet, Strecker grabbed her and pressed a blade against her throat. "Impertinent little bitch. I ought to kill you."

Amalia closed her eyes. "Go ahead. I'm not afraid to die on my own land." She held her breath, waiting for the knife plunge in and was startled when instead Strecker stepped back, chuckling, and began sawing at the rope that bound her wrists. When he was done, she faced him, rubbing her chafes and bruises.

"Aren't you going to thank me?"

"For what?"

"I could've killed you."

"You still can. You're obviously a rogue who doesn't care about due process, so go on and get it over with. Quit making a game of it."

"No, I don't want to kill a colonel's sister. It's bad policy and could turn into a messy business, even out here, where no one in high command would ever have to find out. Besides, I actually sort of like you. You'd have made a good soldier. A better one than your cowardly friend." He motioned to some men in the distance. "Bring Sloan over here."

Amalia's eyes widened as two men standing guard down the drive flung open the door of a truck and dragged out a man in rumpled khakis. They each took an elbow and marched him up to Strecker. Only the captain's hand on her arm and the presence of an aide a few feet away kept her from flinging herself upon Donovan with no other thought but to kill.

Donovan had been tortured, of that there was no doubt. One whole side of his face was swollen and rope burns ringed his neck. Amalia would've been moved to pity, except for what he had done.

He raised his head and looked at her and the shock of his pleading eyes was so great, she found herself saying the words before she even knew she had planned them. "What a shame I didn't kill you when I had the chance."

Strecker grinned like a cat. "Would you like another chance? I can arrange it."

Donovan looked at the captain, startled, but Amalia sneered. "I'm not playing your sadistic games."

The captain was about to comment when a commotion on the path commanded his attention. It was a group of several soldiers, some of them carrying dead chickens and one of them leading Carina by a rope tied in front around her wrists. She was stumbling and screaming curses, which the men found funny. They dragged her in front of Strecker, where she stood gasping, her face so streaked with tears that she didn't recognize Donovan and barely noticed her sister. "So this is the veterinarian?" Strecker asked.

Donovan nodded slightly while one of the men in the group said, "She's just a stupid cunt who cries over dead animals."

Carina turned on him in a fury. "You killed my alpacas!"

Before the soldier could respond, Strecker silenced him with a shake of the head. "I'm sorry my men got carried away. I was hoping we could do a little business."

"Business?" Carina spat. "Give me back my animals. That's the only kind of business I want with you."

"I'm afraid I can't do that." He looked her up and down. Her clothes were torn and she was covered in cuts and scrapes that would be deep blue bruises by morning. He took the rope from the soldier's hands and accepted his belated salute. "You know, we have a lot of animals in the Guard. Cavalry, mule teams, livestock for food. Trained veterinarians are hard to come by, and I'm willing to forgive a war widow who made a little error in judgment by hoarding a few things. I think we can make a deal, don't you?"

"Me look after your animals? I'd kill them before I'd ever think of caring for them." She launched herself at him, butting him with her head and kicking with her sturdy work boots.

Amalia made a grab for her. "Carina, no!"

A soldier caught Amalia and pulled her back while other soldiers threw Carina to the ground in a flurry of fists and kicks. One man raised his rifle over his head like a club and brought it downsquarely on Carina's head. Amalia lunged for her, twisting and kicking at her captor until she felt the muzzle of a pistol at her ear and heard a soft click.

Strecker tugged his cuffs and collar back into place, trying to regain his composure as he stared at the still form on the ground. He darted a glance at Donovan, slumped between his captors, eyes shut. Then he motioned to the man holding Amalia. "Let her go." The lines of his face and body were a study in fury, but his voice was as smooth as polished stone. "I don’t need to be defended with such enthusiasm against an unarmed woman. Leave us. Go catch the rest of those goats."