It was very tense for the remainder of the day. Asa alternated between depression and anger. When I didn’t respond to either one he accused me of some very uncool things. When I didn’t react to that he later apologized and I think he was honestly sorry. But he then tried to cuddle when we went to bed and by then the very idea made my skin crawl. I didn’t push him away but I didn’t participate either. When it turned into the disaster I had come to expect he blamed me for what didn’t happen. I refused to let any of it hurt me.
The three-day ride back to Gill’s settlement wasn’t as bad; it wasn’t like it used to be but it wasn’t near as awful as the last day at Asa’s homestead had been. I had hopes of us being something close to friends; I had enjoyed the feeling and while I knew that is all it would ever be I didn’t want to completely burn all of my bridges. Asa was smart and he was good at what he did, I hadn’t minded learning from him.
We were less than a mile from the settlement when we were stopped by three men that Asa knew. They were a sec patrol and they greeted him cordially; me, not so much.
“Robbie … Jordan … I thought you two worked at O’Doul’s,” Asa said with a polite but confused smile.
“Did … come up in the world some thanks to Hendricks,” one of them answered.
The other guy agreed. “Sure ‘nuff. What are you doing out this way? Last I heard you were going to over winter someplace else.”
Asa shrugged, “Rob called a couple of times with a list of things that needed work at the settlement. That’s my business so here I am.”
The three men looked at each other and nodded. The guy that Asa had called Robbie asked me in an oily voice, “And what about you little lady? Huh? Heard O’Doul himself was looking for a few new girls to liven up the place.”
I ignored the insinuation and their rude laughter. I knew O’Doul’s was the settlement’s one and only saloon. It was a bit of information I’d tucked away from one of Asa’s soliloquies about all the things he didn’t like about Gill’s town. Then the other guy, the one I hadn’t caught the name of said, “Hey, that looks like Carmine’s horse and tack.”
I shrugged, “That’s because it is. He lent them to me short term. I was supposed to bring it back when I came back this way.”
“Sure you did girlie,” the guy named Jordan said. He tried to jerk me out of the saddle. When I wrenched free Robbie struck me from behind. After that it was on with Asa and the nameless guy trying to stop the fight. Robbie and Jordan were decent but I fought like a girl which is to say mean, dirty, and vicious. I was already shorter than them but I made it even harder by staying low which gave them an even smaller target. It also meant they had to bend which threw off their center of gravity and made them clumsy. I stayed around my horse who knew me and was used to me around her legs. I rolled under her and when one of the guys tried to follow me he got a painful kick to the collar bone for his trouble.
That only made the other guy madder. I held my own but his arms were longer and he got a solid punch to the back of my head in that really took me to my knees. That’s when there was the sound of a revolver being discharged.
Asa was furious. “I ought to gut you worthless low-lifes right here.”
He pulled me to my feet and behind him. The nameless guy was laying into the Robbie and Jordan too. “You idiots!” He said a few other choice words but they all amounted to the same general idea and it wasn’t God bless you. “Asa, this just got out of hand. We’re all jumpy. Carmine was ambushed and some other things are going on you don’t know about.”
I felt Asa stiffen where I was using his back to keep my balance. “How bad?”
“Carmine? He’s alive but he’s a mess. Just got outta the clinic this morning. Foul as a bear with a snout full of bees. We got squatters on the eastern border; refugees from the Outlands because they’ve started to shut down the refugee camps and send people back to the cities … and some are running because they don’t want to go. McCollough raided us from the north – their oats and barley didn’t make – and Carmine got ambushed on the Western border. You see how it is.”
“No, not like this. Whatever troubles there are is not excuse for this. Gurl isn’t even five feet tall and a stiff wind blows her over if she don’t keep sand in her boots. And not one but two sec team members …”
The guy called Jordan mumbled through fat lips that I’d given him, “She didn’t do so bad.”
Asa nearly pistol whipped him before I said in as indifferent a voice as I could manage, “No biggie Asa. They got their licks in, I got mine. It’s over. I just want to take the horse and tack to Carmine, put what lecture he tries to give behind me, and then do what I said.”
Asa didn’t argue … but he didn’t put his gun away either as I shakily climbed into the saddle. Asa told Nameless Guy, “Camine’s down and the sec teams are going to the dogs. No wonder there’s border trouble.”
Nameless Guy looked reluctant to say, “Carmine ain’t sec boss no more Asa. Hendricks is. That’s what I mean by things are going on you don’t know.”
Asa snarled, “Then I guess we know what kind of sec boss that makes Hendricks.”
Riding, never my strong suit, turned into an agony by the time we rode up Main Street. The patrol had obviously radioed ahead because we were met on the street by Gill and a guy that reminded me of someone that had been used to getting by on his looks when he was younger but thought he’d toughened up with age only he had turned into a bully instead of a hero. That guy was Hendricks; good looking if you went for his type, but weasel underneath.
Right as Asa opened his mouth to really let fly with what he thought Gill, pointing to a local business establishment said, “Why don’t we discuss this over a meal at Hattie’s. Long ride and you’re bound to be hungry. Man thinks better with a full stomach.”
Despite all that had gone between us I was proud of Asa when he said so that anyone listening could hear, “So you can ignore me and pretend nothing bad happened? No way. I’m not letting this get swept under the rug. A sec patrol tried to shake us down. Two of your men attacked Gurl with absolutely no provocation. Has the settlement changed that much since last time I was here? If I knew that I wouldn’t have come. What happened to people’s rights?”
Hendricks said, “Rights get earned by citizens. You’re not a citizen and you’re starting to forget who you’re talking to … boy.”
I saw Gill try to hide a wince when the crowd that had gathered started to murmur. I didn’t make it any easier on him when I added a little fuel to the fire. “Rights aren’t earned little man, they are endowed by our Creator. When’s the last time you actually read the Constitution?”
Hendricks started to say something but Gill cut him off. “Obviously there’s been a mistake. Let’s go see what we can do about it.”
Hendricks made a bad mistake and I was glad I had avoided being on Gill’s side thus far. “Wait! I’m out two of my sec men! I know what needs to be done!”
I said, “Your men? Really? I thought they were Gill’s people, or that they worked for the settlement. You’re just a newcomer from what I heard and not doing such a hot job if you look at the danger the settlement has come to recently. Maybe they need to rethink why they hired you.”
I don’t know where it would have gone if Carmine hadn’t shown up. He came limping down Main Street and you could see the steam coming out of his ears. As soon as I saw him all I wanted to do was give him his stuff and get out of there. Throwing my leg over the saddle was a lot harder than it should have been. I slid to the ground then tried to put the reins in his hands. “Here. Returned as promised.”
He took one look at my face and then yelled, “What the Sam Hill?! What in the name of all that’s holy happened to her?!!”
Asa was giving an explanation when I noticed little black spots dancing in front of my eyes no matter where I looked. Then my ears started ringing. I would have put it down to Carmine’s shouting if I could have but when my knees wouldn’t stay locked in the upright position I knew I was in trouble. It wasn’t Asa who caught me before I hit the dirt.
“Hendricks are you telling me with your face all hanging out that two of your recruits did this? My Lord! I ain’t in top shape and I can still pick her up in one arm. She weighs less than Rosie does.”
I remember trying to tell him that it wasn’t any of his business how much I weighed but my consciousness just sort of floated off before I could form the words.
I’m not sure how long I was out but when I woke I knew it was dark and that there were two other people in the room with me.
“Are you sure this time Asa? It just killed me when you told me you were going off with her.”
“You deserve a whole man Violet. I shouldn’t do this to you but I can’t stop myself.”
Rather than dwelling on the fact that he hadn’t been with Violet because she deserved a whole man which meant he obviously thought I didn’t since he’d done to me what he couldn’t do to Violet I cracked my eyes open and croaked, “Do it or don’t but stop beating around the bush.” I could see their lover-like embrace in the moonlight and added, “Whatever problem you had with me you obviously don’t have with her.”
Asa and Violet jumped apart. “It isn’t like that Gurl,” Asa said trying to explain.
“Sure it is,” I said. “Go away and deal with it. Do it or don’t just stop with the Shakespearean tragedy.”
Violet whispered, “You don’t understand.”
“And don’t care to. I don’t need or want the details. Just go and leave me alone. Romeo and Juliet turned my stomach the very first the first time I read it.”
Asa wouldn’t shut up. “I didn’t mean anything bad Gurl. I was going to stick by my word. I would have if you hadn’t decided to leave. I never meant to hurt you.”
His obvious sincerity was making me nauseous. “Road to hell is paved with good intentions Asa. Had I known about you and Violet I never would have said yes.”
“There is no me and Violet,” he denied even though I’d heard what they’d just said. “There can’t be. Her father …”
“Stop making excuses. Leave. Now. Before I made enough noise to get you two noticed and you have to explain before you’re ready to.”
They scuttled after that. I lay there, my chest burning. I felt shaky … was shaking. I tried to roll over to get up and felt like I was going to puke. I struggled but finally got upright. I started to put my feet on the ground when a hand stopped me. “That’s as far as you need to go. Can’t believe you even pulled yourself up as far as you did after the beating you took.”
I groaned, “Go away Carmine.”
“Can’t. The two ‘love birds’ are billing and cooing and are in my way.” His voice held all the scorn and hurt I couldn’t feel.
“Don’t.” I didn’t need his sympathy and couldn’t stand even the idea of his pity.
He helped me sit up straighter but blocked me from sliding out by sitting on the bed. He took my hand and I was close to jerking it away but stopped when he said, “I don’t know how the two of them kept it a secret unless Carlene is in on it maybe. If I had known I would have said something.”
I looked at him, one eye puffy and half closed, and strangely enough I believed him. “OK.”
Still holding my fingers in his hand he told me, “Things are bad around here. Haven’t been this bad in several years.” He sighed and though I could barely see in the dark, what I could see revealed he looked as sorry as I did.
Trusting Carmine not to lie I asked, “Which direction is the least dangerous?”
“Good question. I noticed you didn’t ask which direction is safe. Glad you didn’t because no place is safe these days. Got my own clock cleaned though I have some idea how it might have happened. And you’re in no shape to travel.”
Too tired to be angry I nevertheless said, “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Carmine shook his head. “Be stubborn all you want Gurl, but use some sense. Give it a day or two; get your feet under you. You’re hurting right now.”
I pulled my hand free of his and said, “He can’t hurt me. I don’t have those kinds of feelings.”
Quietly Carmine said, “I was talking about your bruises, not Asa.”
I cringed inside and wanted to curl into a ball. “Get some sleep Gurl while I go talk to Asa and give him a piece of my mind. I’ll be back in the morning.”
I feigned obedience – something I was good at – and refused to feel the little bit of satisfaction at what Carmine said that tried to creep in. Carmine got up and left the room, closing the door gently behind him. I knew I had very little time to get as far as I could.
Sitting up the second time on my own was easier than the first time. When I stood up I spotted my clothes and back pack on a nearby chair. I pulled out the old coverall that I had altered and shoved my other clothes into the pack. Lucky for me I was on the ground floor of the clinic and even luckier someone had used beeswax on the window sash; it opened without a sound.
I finally got out and started walking. My muscles loosened up and I headed west. Supposedly there were no settlements out that direction for hundreds of miles because of the Badlands. As the sun came up I found a hole and crawled in. I vaguely recall hearing horses and men but they didn’t wake me completely. What woke me was the temperature dropping after the sun went down.
I woke stiff and hungry. I dug in my pack for some jerky and chewed on it as I hunted some drinking water. Some One was looking out for me, there was a painfully cold seep coming straight out of a rock a half mile from where I had camped.
I walked that night until the sun started to rise. Found another hole and crawled in it. I slept both the day and night away that time. After waking up I walked in the sunlight avoiding open areas as much as possible and after another night in a rude camp I came the next day to the Badlands. Once there I headed north until I reached real forest again. I didn’t know exactly where I was but I knew my general position based on landmarks and old signs that matched the maps that Asa had given me.
By wandering around for a little over a week I finally found the old town I’d been searching for. It was long abandoned and a lot of it had been stripped clean; but I was a street rat¸ I knew where to look for things that other people had overlooked. And I was good at it.