The boy returned home at dawn the next morning. The reluctant, uncertain sun slid left to right on the horizon very slowly. There were two suns in the boy’s blurry eyes, and they came together and separated over and over, until he blinked them back into one.
He went inside and went over to Lucy and knelt down next to her. She wasn’t moving and he could not hear breathing and for one startling moment he thought she was dead. He knelt and checked her and realized that she was only sleeping. Her breath was raspy, but not loud. Weak and very shallow. The boy stood and looked at her. She was almost as thin as nothingness. She should be dead, the boy thought. The heart cannot pump blood through bones.
“Did you get your hand fixed, boy?”
The boy looked up, startled, at the sound of the satisfied voice. The man mother had brought home the day before was there, at the edge of the hallway which led down to the bedroom. The boy had not seen or heard the man when he walked in. The man was very quiet. All men like him were quiet men most of the time.
The man was rolling his white sleeves down and putting on his cuff links. His black coat and black hat were on the chair near the window.
The boy was very surprised to see the man outside of the room.
They usually did not come outside of the room. Except to leave. And they never stopped to talk. This man talked a lot for a man from Dakota Inc., the boy thought. He was not as quiet as the others. And it was strange to the boy. All the talking. He did not like all the talking that the man was doing. The boy did not know how to respond to the man’s words; the words that fell dead on the floor at the boy’s feet before they even reached his ears. The boy tried to find answers for the man’s dead words, but all he could think about was the gun that was tucked tightly in his belt. He could feel the handle pressing into his stomach.
The man looked at the boy and smiled at him with something like acceptance. Acceptance and fearlessness. The boy felt like a melting candle. The flame was there, and sinking down and down to the metal base. Why is the man talking, the boy thought. They do not talk. They only leave and come back again.
“Yes, my hand is clean. There is no stinging,” the boy said. Lucy did not stir.
“Where is the bullet?” the man said.
“I don’t know. It went through my hand. Maybe through the wall.”
“You don’t have it?” the man said. “Oh, yes. I remember now. Yesterday. Yesterday you told me it was not in your hand. We spoke briefly about the bullet.”
The boy stood. “All bullets are brief,” he said.
The man nodded and looked down to adjust his cuff links. “Yes, they are impatient. It is the afterwards that drags on and on.” He sighed and put his hands down at his sides.
The boy tilted his head and looked strangely at the man. “Is this why so many bullets are needed?”
“Needed? No. It is why so many are possessed. Men are fickle. They do not know what they need. The only solution is to have an abundance of everything, just in case. Nothing lasts. Everything is brief. The first bullet could be the last bullet, but there’s no way to know. So we have many.”
The man stopped and the content look on his face vanished. For a very brief moment he looked at the boy and looked uneasy.
The boy nodded and turned his eyes away from the man. He looked around the room.
“This bullet is outside my hand,” he said, pointing to his bandage. “It is somewhere around. If I find it I will let you know.”
“No. Do not tell me. Do not look for it. Wait. Where is the bandage your mother said to bring home?”
“I left it with the doctor. I remembered eventually, but it was too far to go back.”
The man nodded, and his uncomfortable look softened.
“So you left it in Shadow, and you ignored your mother?”
“I left it, and forgot what she said.”
The man nodded again. He understood something of bloody bandages and leaving them behind and forgetting promises and the words of his mother, and his friends, and some other people he had known along the way.
“I must got to Shadow,” the man said. He walked over to the chair, his boots making a heavy, hollow sound on the wooden floor, and his spurs chiming like a triangle at dinner time. He put on his coat and hat. “You may stay and look for your bullet. Whatever. We will be back when your mother comes for us tonight. You can do whatever you like. Come into Shadow, and get some things if you like. You will not need any coins. Dakota Inc. has plenty of them if you need them. But soon you will see that coin or no coin, it will not make any difference.”
The boy said nothing. He was appalled at all the talking.
“I will be outside in the wagon, smoking,” the man said as he stood at the open front door with his back to the boy. “Your mother can come to take me back to town when she is ready. I’m in no hurry. I might take out my gun and shoot around to pass the time, so don’t worry if you hear it.”
The boy said nothing. Worry. No, he would not worry about all the shooting. He could fall asleep to the sound of bullets. But the talking. This man talked too much, and the boy did not know where it came from. He did not think the man did, either.
“Mother will be out,” the boy said. “But she is tired and moves slow these days. If you run out of bullets, maybe there will be another way to pass the time.”
The man gazed out at the South Dakota dawn. He grunted and nodded, then walked out.
The boy’s face went white and he stared without blinking for a long time. He couldn’t move. He was part of the floor of the drafty ranch house and stuck in South Dakota. Then, he closed his eyes and remembered the blue soldier. He was sitting there on the log in the night, leaning on his musket with its barrel to the ground. Comfortable, and watching the fires in the distance with weary eyes, and the boy came up behind him with the knife. It was all so quiet. A quiet memory for both of them. For the boy, it stung his mind like lightning without the thunder.
The boy went to the window and watched the man from Dakota Inc. through the wavy glass. The man pulled out his pistols and began firing them all around. Into the air, into the ground, into nothing. After a minute, the boy ran over to Lucy. He shook her by her shoulder, which was as thin as the end of a broom handle. He shook her roughly to wake her. Perhaps too roughly for her health, but he was frantic.
“Lucy, wake up!” he hissed, turning his head to the window where the shooting continued. “We must leave. We must go now. I don’t know where. Maybe to the mountains. Not back to Richmond because the only way back there is through town.”
He stood up and ran to the window. The man was sitting on the wagon. He was checking the bullets in his pistol, spinning the chamber deftly in his palm. The boy turned to Lucy.
“I will go and get mother. We’ll leave now before more men from Dakota Inc. come.” He paused and his voice got quiet. He pressed his hand to the cold glass of the window. “And they will come. They will come by nightfall, if not sooner. Several of them.”
He ran back to Lucy and knelt down beside her.
“We will go now, and leave the great trunks. There is no time, and they are too heavy.” He sighed and caressed his sister’s shoulder gently. “It will be okay. We don’t need them. We’ll bring your quilt, and I can give you a coat.”
Lucy did not move. Her head was buried under the colored quilt. She opened her eyes, but she did not speak. She looked out the little fuzzy holes in the quilt and saw that the front door of the ranch house was hanging open slightly.
She could see part of the wagon and she saw the man sitting on it. He had two pistols in his hands and he was firing them across the plains of South Dakota. Neither Lucy or the boy were startled by the shooting. The boy continued to speak urgently to Lucy, and she continued to lay and stare out at the wagon and the man from Dakota Inc.. After a moment, she smiled.
A few minutes later the shooting ceased. The man was out of bullets. He put his pistols back in their holsters and pulled out a cigarette.
Mother would not leave the bed. No matter what the boy said, she would not leave. Not for the boy, not for the man outside or for any other men from Dakota Inc.. Not for Lucy. Not for Richmond. Not for herself.
Mother was lying naked and still on the bed. Her blood had become the temperature of the air in the room, and she could feel nothing. The boy averted his eyes and pulled the thin sheet over her.
“No, I will not leave with you, Jason. They will have to come and take me away like they took father. I will no longer go out to them.”
The boy pleaded with her, but she just shook her head.
“Cover my face with the sheet, Jason. Everything is cold.”
But the boy did not. He took her by the arm instead and began to gently pull her from the bed.
“No!” mother screamed, and jerked her arm back. “Do not pull me! No more of this, Jason! Do you understand? No more!”
The boy let go quickly and stepped back.
“Take Lucy and go far away,” mother said, her voice quiet again. “Go cover yourself in the ocean if you must, but don’t go back to Richmond. Don’t go back through the town. Go the other way.”
The boy nodded sadly, but he did not bother speaking. He took his hat from his head and put it to his chest and walked towards the bedroom door.
The boy stopped.
“You cannot go back to Shadow ever again. There is no good reason to go there. There are other places, understand?” mother said.
“I know Dakota Inc. will try to give you a reason. But the only reason they can give is themselves. In Shadow there are no slaves to free. There is no new country to build.”
Mother nodded and closed her eyes. She turned her head towards the ceiling.
“No. No good reason at all. In fact…” she paused and a little smile came to her face. “All I have learned from this place, Jason, is that it is both the beginning and end of reason. But who can live like that?”
She laughed a little.
The boy began to cry.
Mother did not seem to notice. She continued speaking with her closed eyes to the ceiling.
“So go over the mountains. But you cannot give that man the wagon and the horse. Oh yes, he will try to keep them. He will try to take what he wants, but he must only take what you give him this time.”
Then she turned her head and opened her eyes, and her dark, red eyes were like bullets, and hot. The boy’s tears began to dry as he looked back at them.
“And you can give him anything, Jason,” she hissed. “Anything else you want. Just not the wagon and the horse. Do you understand?”
There was silence in the room for a few moments. Not even the cold wind of South Dakota was blowing.
“Goodbye mother,” the boy said. Then he left the room.
The boy walked past Lucy and the fire, and went to the open door of the ranch house. He stood at the doorway, off to the side, and watched the man some more. The man was looking slightly impatient by this time. He flicked his cigarette to the ground and pulled out a gold watch from behind his vest. The man was in a hurry, the boy thought. A hurry to get to Shadow, so that he could be in as equal a hurry to return to the ranch house.
The boy continued to watch him curiously. After another moment, the man spat out a profanity and then threw his gold watch angrily to the ground.
Without turning to look at her, the boy told Lucy to keep her head under the quilt and to never mind what was about to happen outside.
“Pretend you are back in Richmond, Lucy,” he said. “Or make believe it is the popping of the embers in the fire.”
Lucy whispered something back but the boy could not understand it. And then there was something like small laughing and then only the sound of her breathing under the quilt.
The boy turned to look at her and he noticed that one of her bone-thin hands was sticking out from under the quilt. He went to her and knelt down and took her hand.
“I must go out for a moment, Lucy,” he said. “I am the smiling soldier that you dream of. And I must go outside for a moment, but I will return soon. And after I return all will be well. All the fighting will have stopped, and my uniform will be clean, okay?”
There was a small laugh from under the quilt.
“And then we will leave this place. I will be you soldier and I will come and ask for your hand in marriage and we will leave. We will…we will go away to our honeymoon. Yes, our honeymoon, Lucy. Where everything will be quiet and sweet, like the smell of your fresh muffins. And mother will stay here, of course, because she cannot come on our honeymoon with us. Do you understand?”
There was another laugh. Then Lucy’s hand slipped back under the quilt. The boy stood and pulled the pistol from his belt. There was a little stinging under the bandage in his hand from where the gun was pressing on it, but mostly it felt okay. He turned and went to the door of the ranch house, but this time he didn’t stop at the doorway. He walked determinedly out into the fresh South Dakota morning, directly towards the man from Dakota Inc., who was still sitting in the wagon. As he walked the boy stretched out his hand and pointed his pistol at the man, and held it very steady at the man’s heart. He continued walking until he was right next to the wagon and pointing the gun up at the man.
The gun was high. It led the boy as if it were his own head. His body simply followed it around and did what it was directed. There was no face. Just a gun. A floating, faceless gun.
The gun was very steady. The boy learned that much from the War of the States. The boy once heard one of the older boys say that if you raised your hand and your gun was not steady, then you should simply turn the gun around and shoot yourself so that you could at least be sure of hitting something. Better that than make a waste of it. The boy had no intention of making a waste of it now.
The man turned to the boy. He quickly went for the guns in his holster, but then he remembered he was out of bullets. So he did not bother taking hold of the guns. He just held his hands over his holsters. His eyes looked lost for a moment, and they wandered around frantically along the ground and then out to the horizon as if the man was looking for something but not finding it.
“You must leave right now and you must leave on foot,” the boy said. “Mother says you cannot have the wagon.”
The man could not see the boy’s face too well from behind the gun so it was hard to read his eyes. This was too bad, he thought. Hard to know for sure when you can’t see the eyes. But he thought he knew the boy pretty well from their earlier conversations. He was not yet convinced he needed to be too worried.
“Your mother will take me into Shadow. Then I will leave,” the man said.
“She is not going to Shadow.”
The man thought about this. After a minute, he nodded.
“I see,” he said. “I see that you have found your bullet after all. Truly, you must be a rare kind of fool.”
“I’ve heard it before.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing. Shooting a man. You think that’s all? Then you get to keep your wagon and a couple of women, and I am dead right here in your front yard? Then that’s the end of it? You could have stayed in the east, for that kind of foolish thinking. You outsiders are all the same. You never understand what it means to fit in.”
The boy was taken aback by this a little, and the gun wavered. Then the boy closed his eyes and shook his head. The gun steadied.
“I know what I’m doing,” he said, and opened his eyes.
“Boy, you would not be here if you knew what you were doing.”
The man sighed and sat up straight and looked around.
“No one would be here,” he muttered. And then, “Richmond,” he scoffed and threw his cigarette to the ground.
The boy shook his head. He turned a little to look at the ranch house, then quickly turned back to the man. “I am sure there are a lot of words for you, but I don’t have time. I’ve got…I’ve got questions. But there is just no time for you, man. Just leave. Leave, and leave the wagon.”
“Your mother told you to shoot me, did she?” the man said. “Is that it? Son, your mother is a stranger. A stranger’s words don’t mean anything.”
“But the wagon means everything,” the boy said.
“A stranger’s words and a stranger’s face,” the man continued.
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t care?” the man asked.
“Well, what do you care about, then?”
The boy’s pistol went off five times. The man fell backwards with a burst of escaping breath that sounded like all of Lucy’s breaths put together from the day she first got the sickness.
The tired horse that was hitched to the wagon suddenly came alive. Her eyes went wide and her head reeled up and she pranced nervously for a minute. It was the sound of the bullets, which cracked upon the South Dakota air like a hammer on a railroad spike.
The man slumped forward, his white shirt beneath his black coat soaked with blood. His body then fell forward and landed on the horse’s back, which startled the poor animal even more. She jumped and shook and the man’s body slid off of her and landed with a thud on the ground.
There was blood on the wagon and on the poor, tired horse, but the man was gone. There was no one to force the boy, or his mother, or the horse, to go back to Shadow.
The boy looked down at the dead man and was relieved. South Dakota was rid of him, and the boy was thankful. Ten thousand blue soldiers had burned Richmond to the ground and none of them had the feel of an enemy like this man. The boy’s heart raced with fright, then slowed in relief, then raced in fright again. He put his gun in his belt and took a few steps back.
A moment later he realized his bandaged hand was throbbing. Then he remembered Lucy. He must take his sister and the bloody wagon and go. There was no time to clean the wagon. No time to clean the horse.
He turned and ran back to the house. He got to the doorway and stopped. He thought he saw something. He went to the window, then let out a frightened cry. There was a face in the window, with an open, moaning mouth, and it startled him. But then he realized that it was just his face. The glass in the window was wavy, and the reflection was strange. The boy calmed himself and closed his mouth and looked at the window. Just his reflection. But when he closed his mouth, the mouth of the reflection seemed to stay open. Open and gaping and gray like the sky.
The boy remembered his sister again and ran back inside the ranch house. She was still under the colored quilt, and staring out the door. She was still smiling a little, and her blinking and breathing told the boy that she was alive. The boy ran to the bedroom to speak with mother one more time, but she was gone. She had left the bed, and the boy did not see her anywhere.
There was no time.
He ran back to Lucy and knelt down and pulled her gently but quickly from under the quilt. She was not asleep, but she also wasn’t quite awake. Embers popped from the fire and landed in her hair and even some on her face, but she didn’t notice. The boy brushed them furiously from her hair, and they smeared black on her forehead. And he remembered his sister’s imagination and how mother always said it was like lightning. But now it was only smeared embers on her head, and this made the boy angry.
He smashed his fists in the fire and this sent even more burning embers over his sister, onto her hair and face and quilt. The boy screamed in fright and frantically brushed them from her, but the quilt was burning. He flung it off of her and stomped on it until the flames were out.
He looked around for something to cover her with, now that the quilt was finished. There was nothing in the room. An empty tin cup. The broom. An open door. The dying fire. He ran to the back bedroom and pulled the blanket from the bed off of the floor where mother had put it. He ran to the window of the bedroom quickly and peered out. There was the mountain in the distance. A clump of trees. Gray sky. Mother was nowhere.
He went to the room with the hole and took a pillow, moist with the morning dew, and also the blanket off the bed. In the corner of the room was a coat stand and he grabbed one of his old, gray woolen coats off of it. Then he went back to Lucy and lifted her up gently. She was shivering and coughing at this point, and her thin white nightgown was wet with a cold sweat so that it stuck to her skin like a paste. The boy put the wool coat on her and also one of the blankets.
The boy noticed with fear that Lucy seemed to weigh no more than the gun in his holster. And she seemed every bit thin enough to fit into the holster as well. Light and thin enough to carry on his hip. What had become of her? Her full lips were now like the flap of an envelope over her teeth. Her teeth were stained red with the blood of her coughing. Her hair was thin and sticky and stringy, and it was plastered in formless, unsolvable tangles against her pale neck and forehead. She coughed and shivered. Then she smiled, and she said “Yes, yes, why thank you, sir,” over and over again.
The boy carried sister to the front door. In the corner of the room in the shadows he saw a corner of one of the great trunks. But there was no time. None. No time to go pick through it to find anything useful. Too heavy for him to drag to the wagon. He left it where it was, untouched.
He took his sister and the pillow and extra blanket to the wagon. He put his sister on the bench where he could drive the wagon and she could lean on him. The other things he put in the back. There was a sharpness on the breeze. Winter was blowing down the mountain. But they were going up, the boy thought…up the mountain to meet whatever they would meet there, winter or otherwise. There was nowhere else to go. It was the only place around that looked any different to him. Everything else was the same. Except for Shadow, which was a grave.
A blast of wind came upon them as the boy climbed in the wagon next to his sister. The razor sharp cold cut at the threads of his coat and he shivered. The horse lowered her head and shuddered and waited for her directions.
“Good girl, good girl,” the boy said quietly.
He turned to his sister.
“Lucy,” he said. “What should we name her? We have never given her a name.”
Lucy smiled and shook her head.
“I’ve no idea,” she whispered.
The boy turned away from his sister and stared straight ahead. It was a long way. He lowered his head and put up his collar.
“Good girl, good girl,” he said, then pulled on the reigns and they started.
The boy ignored the road that led toward Shadow and took the wagon around the house, out the back. The horse still had the streak of the man’s blood across her back. But it was browning now. Drying quickly, and growing lighter and lighter in color, like the color of the South Dakota dirt, with each passing moment.
The man from Dakota Inc. still lay on the ground. And face down with eyes open he examined, with the deep, deep interest of the dead, the ground beneath him. When the horse started moving, one of her hooves struck the man from Dakota Inc.’s head, and pushed it down, crushed, into the dirt. The boy just shook his head and held onto his sister. No wonder the horse did not have a name, he thought. She couldn’t tell a dead man from the road in South Dakota. What do you call a horse like that?
Soon they were moving quickly away from the ranch house, bumping and lurching along, toward the mountain. The boy hoped to reach it soon. Perhaps they would stay there for a while in a shelter that he would build. Maybe they could even stay there forever if they needed to. Maybe no one would bother looking for them there. Maybe no one ever went to the mountain. Maybe it was just something South Dakota looked at to pass the time. Or perhaps he and Lucy would see what was on the other side and keep going.
Lucy drifted in and out of consciousness and lucidity as they went. She opened and closed her eyes slowly, like a drunk man on the verge of sleep. At one point she looked down at his hand with the bandage as it held the reigns.
“You have come for me, but where is your flower? The red flower in your hand is gone. Am I too late?” she said.
“No, Lucy. We have just left. We have a ways to go still.”
“Oh. Good,” she said with a sigh, her unfocused eyes closing again. “Then it is you, my soldier. And we are leaving Richmond, then. And the war is over and we are off to be married, and I will bake you muffins and they will be sweet. But then where is the flower you brought for me? I could have sworn I had seen it.”
The boy felt very sad. He tried hard not to cry.
“Lucy, you are not too late. We are still in Richmond, and are not quite away yet. And the war is not over. So there is plenty of time to bring you more flowers. As many as you want.”
Lucy sighed and smiled.
“Then I am not too late,” she said. “Thank you Jason. The soldiers are still to come in their very clean uniforms. And when I awake I will be married, and I will cook for my soldier and he will bring me flowers.”
“I love you, Jason.”
“I love you, too.”
More flowers, the boy thought. Flowers everywhere. In the hands and on the ground and in the eyes and on the wagon and everywhere.