Near the bottom of the mountain the boy and Lucy stopped to rest and to eat some cornmeal. Lucy could not keep any of it down. She would just cough it up, and it would run down the blankets and make her filthy. The boy covered her up tightly and put her in the back of the wagon. Then he laid down next to her and they tried to sleep for a while. But it was hard because of all the coughing.
The boy worried. He wished he could cough for her. He laid close to her, trying to keep her warm, his chest pressed tightly against her back and his arms over her. When she coughed her bones rattled, and the shuddering was so bad that the boy’s body moved, too. Then she would breath and he could feel the deep, raspy vibrations as if they were coming from inside his own lungs.
He closed his eyes and pretended that it was him who had the sickness, not Lucy. It was easy to imagine because he was so close, he could feel everything from her in his own body.
After a moment he leaned over and began to stroke her ash covered forehead with his bandaged hand. He spit on it a little and some of the ash came off. He thought about how they were out of food. He’d only brought a little cornmeal. Just whatever he could grab and put in his pockets on the way out the door. They would need more food.
He did have his gun, and he had remembered to bring extra bullets. There were some in the room with the hole in it, in a drawer in a table near the bed, and he had taken them.
If Lucy could survive the setting sun and the night, there was food in the mountain, and he would go and hunt it tomorrow. Maybe there would be a rabbit, or something bigger. Like a deer. A deer that had become separated from the others.
But when morning came, the light of day began to make the boy nervous. The slight bit of confidence he’d had about this day slowly vanished as the sun rose. It was very cold. The boy checked Lucy’s forehead and she shuddered and gasped and then went back to sleep.
He wanted to make a fire, but the thought of even more light, even so much as a little burning candle, made the boy afraid. A fire would make them warm, but it would also be a signal to those looking for them. The smoke, the smell, the light. It would lead Dakota Inc. straight to them.
No, the boy thought. If they built a fire to get warm then they might as well just throw themselves on it.
The boy decided that they needed to get up the mountain as fast as they could. Maybe they could build a fire up there, high enough and covered enough so that no one would see. Or even better, they might get up the mountain quickly, and there would be another road down the other side and they could just keep going. Out of South Dakota and all the way to the ocean if they could.
The boy climbed out of the wagon and gave the horse a little water and fed her some gritty oats from a small pail that they kept in the back of the wagon. He checked her foot to make sure it was okay from where she had stepped on the head of the man from Dakota Inc.. It was fine. Nothing but a rock or a bump in the road to her.
The boy heard men coming as he was climbing back into the wagon. His heart stopped for a moment, and then it began to race. He held his breath and turned to face the horizon, away from the mountain. It was flat like the edge on an ax. He couldn’t see anything. But his ears were very good and as he listened closely he was sure he could hear them. The voices of the men resonated off the rocks of the mountain and it made them sound as if they were all around.
Voices. A leader. Commands. Then, just the feet of horses. Many horses, and then, just one. Pulling away. Coming faster than the others.
A moment later, just barely, the boy saw their heads on the horizon. Blurry dots, going up and down in unison, parting the horizon like a mouth opening. Eight of them coming. One was out in front.
The boy grabbed the reigns hastily and turned the horse towards the trail that led up the mountain. It was bitter cold outside, and up the mountain, it was sure to be even colder. But the boy did not notice how cold it was because he was too busy looking behind at the men coming after them. Lucy did not notice either because she was in the back sleeping or unconscious, and not even the rocking of the wagon could wake her.
The trail started up gently, but quickly became steeper and steeper. It burrowed into thick trees and made the boy feel as though he were diving into a rabbit hole that went up instead of down. A short while later, the road tapered and flattened and ran alongside a shallow river. The road was smoother there, with the mud packed down and the rocks on the shore relatively flat.
Lucy and the sparse supplies in the wagon made for a very light load, so the horse was able to move quickly. The boy drove her with urgency, and she sensed it, and for the first time the boy noticed that she could move exceptionally quick for her age.
The trail began to turn upward again as it wound throughout the mountain, and soon there was snow under their wheels. The trees were not as thick there, the leaves having fallen from them, and the snow on the naked branches looked like sleeves.
The feet of the horses of the men behind him had finally faded away. The mountain was quiet except for the sound of the wagon and the feet of the horse in the snow, and the occasional crack and swish of branches and leaves as the wagon brushed past them. Snow shook free from the branches and fell upon Lucy in the back of the wagon. Another blanket on top of the many she was under. But she did not stir.
For some reason, the boy began to feel a little confident. He felt that he had escaped the men. He had killed one. His gun felt long and sure in his belt. He decided that soon it would be safe to stop and rest and make a fire. Then he would go and take his long gun to find some food as Lucy and the horse rested. He slowed the horse and wagon down so that they were no longer running.
The boy was quiet and contemplative. Lucy was quiet. She no longer coughed or shuddered in the back of the wagon. She was resting well and quietly, which was very good for her. Everything seemed peaceful now. Even the horse did not snort or breath too heavy.
The boy turned to look at Lucy and saw how quiet she was. He tilted his head a little and watched and listened. There was no sound or movement from her. The blanket no longer seemed to rise or fall with the breath of her weak lungs.
She certainly was quiet, the boy thought.
Then he realized that Lucy was gone, and she was as quiet as she had ever been or would ever be again. Gone from Richmond. Gone from South Dakota.
There was a white line of snow on her forehead that had melted and washed away the ash, but it had since refrozen. Her eyes were now the color of the gray sky, and grainy, like sand. They were open to the sky and they examined it with the deep, deep indifference the dead.
And all of a sudden, everything was new. With her. With the boy. With South Dakota. The boy could feel it, but he had not the imagination to describe it. For he was a fool, and a dullard, with the imagination of a pure white beach.
The boy stopped the wagon by the river and cried bitterly as the snow fell. He removed his hat and tossed it to the ground and ran his clawed fingers through his hair slowly and tightly. Then he climbed into the back of the wagon and shouted over her body. He didn’t know what else to do.
He remembered she wanted flowers, and wanted her corsage. But he had no imagination, so he asked her what he should do.
‘Oh, Jason, my brother,’ she said. ‘A dullard and a fool with an imagination like the flick of a dog’s ear. Don’t you remember how lovely the flowers are? And I will have one when my soldier returns. And he will give me the corsage and the ring, and I will make the sweet muffins, and he will have saved us from the blue soldiers, and there will be no blood on him. If you can remember this, Jason, you can remember the flowers. This is the way it shall be, if only we listen to father and go with him out West.’
“Yes, Lucy,” the boy said. “Yes. Should we continue to go West? What do you see there? What do you think father sees?”
‘See how lovely South Dakota is,’ Lucy continued, as if she did not hear him. ‘See, my brother, all the pretty flowers! And they have grown in the ground from Richmond to South Dakota, popping up as in a line.’
Then there was only the sound of the snow falling. The boy shouted over her body some more, and then he began to sing a loud song, tangled in spit and tears. He did not care who heard him. And when the song was over, he wept over Lucy’s body bitterly until the sun was at its highest point in the sky and he could not continue any longer.
For some time after that he lay across her body in silence in the back of the wagon. Trying hard to sink down into her, and into the earth, to disappear. But the snow on his neck reminded him that he still lived, and that he needed to move on.
He pulled the blanket up over her face. He wished he had not accidentally burned the colored quilt back at the ranch house. It was beautiful, and he would have liked to bury her in it. This blanket was only black and white, but it would have to do.
The boy let out a great scream into the air, and then removed his gun from his belt. He placed the barrel of the gun against his bandaged hand and fired. He screamed again in great pain as blood poured and splattered onto the black and white blanket, and turned the bandage on his hand red.
“Here are your flowers, Lucy,” he said through clenched teeth and tears. Then he took his bleeding hand and patted red spots on the blanket. All over it, from Lucy’s head to her feet. He looked at his bleeding hand and said, “It is a corsage.” Then he threw his gun to the ground outside the wagon and lay across his her body for a long time.