Friday, September 14, 2007

Forty Seven

Diana saddled her horse in the pre-dawn darkness. She strapped on her rucksack, canteens, food, tarp and blankets. She checked that everything was properly balanced and tied on tight. When she picked up the bridle and went to slip the bit into Flecha’s mouth, the horse shook her head.

“You know what this is about, don’t you?” Diana rubbed Flecha’s nose and tried again. This time the mare took the bit.

She led her into the yard, looking around as if someone might come after her and ask her to reconsider. It was still too early. This close to Christmas, Amalia probably thought she had changed her mind. It would be a cold journey, but there wasn’t much snow. The drought was good for something, at least.

Diana headed north on a little-used trail through the woods. This path would take her away from the better-maintained trails on the south side of the mountain. It wasn’t likely anyone would follow, since the school had no one with both the ability and the inclination to track her.

The trail wound up through the trees, and with only her flashlight to pick out the hazards, it was slow going until the sun came up and the morning light filtered through the bare branches of the aspens. Mid-morning found her near the peak, a fork in the road before her and the empty northern valley spread out below. Diana reined in and nibbled a few piñones from a pouch at her waist.

She had lied to Amalia. She had no plan. Or rather, she had several, and all of them frightened her. Whatever road she chose, whether back to the school, south to Cobre, west to Castaño, or north to nowhere, the things she would give up would be tremendous. As soon as she urged Flecha forward, no matter what her direction or intent, the decision would be made, perhaps irrevocably.

She considered the matter so long that she grew stiff and cold. Finally she shook herself. She couldn’t sit here forever at the summit. She had to choose, and was there really any such thing as forever? As long as she remained alive, she could remake her life over and over, until she got it right. If you couldn’t re-create your existence, what was the point in carrying on? Life would just be one great tunnel to nowhere, and surely it wasn’t that.

Diana jerked on the reins. “Come on, Flecha. It’s a big world.”


Want more? Diana's travels, which are the sequel to this story, are available online and in print! Additional information about the print version here.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Forty Six

Will left a few days later to join his unit in a valley near the southern town of Cobre. Miguel sent word of his departure via radio and Harley promised to send Coyote and Dell to meet him halfway. Diana put on a brave front, but when Will’s horse disappeared around a bend in the mountain trail, Amalia thought she detected a note of panic in her eyes. Before she could approach her with questions or reassurances, Diana offered to make Kitta a special breakfast and led her into the house as if nothing had happened.

Over the next few days Amalia tried to get Diana alone, to no avail. She kept herself busy with Kitta, household chores, and practicing her marksmanship. It didn’t help that Amalia’s own work never seemed to allow her much time. Finally one day she caught a break in her busy schedule and tracked Diana to an empty field where she was working on her archery. Amalia paused to watch, remembering Diana’s former skill and comparing it to now. “You’re doing better than I realized,” she said, after Diana managed a tricky shot into a crosswind. “Will gave me the impression you couldn’t hit a barn door from three feet away.”

“That wasn’t too far from the truth the first couple times I came out here. I’m getting my strength back, though.” She strung another arrow, took aim and hit the center ring. She was nocking another when she paused and lowered her bow. “What brings you out here? This can’t be interesting.”

“I was just curious. . .” Amalia began, wondering why she felt like a nosy old biddy. She looked into Diana’s clear, serious eyes and realized with a shock that this was no longer the little girl she had raised. “I’m sorry. I’ve got no business prying.”

“No, you don’t.” Diana strung the arrow again, drew back hard and let it fly, paying no attention to where it landed. “But you do have a right to wonder. And yes, I’m still leaving.”

“Why? Don’t tell me you don’t feel anything for Will.”

Diana toyed with the string of her bow, running a finger back and forth along it.

“He only wants to show how much he cares. You’ve both had hard lives and he wants to make things easy for you.”

“But I don’t want to live someone else’s idea of a good life.”

“Then what do you want? Would you like to stay here? You can, you know.”

Diana jerked her head in exasperation, slung her bow and quiver over her shoulder and walked toward the target, looking for her arrows.

Amalia tagged after her. “What’s wrong with here?”

“Nothing.” She picked up an arrow and examined it before dropping it in the quiver. “Except that this is your dream, not mine. Maybe someday this will be the right place for me. Or a town house with Will, or a band of mercenaries in the mountains, or. . . who knows? But I’m getting awfully damn tired of all of you trying to decide my life for me.” She picked up another arrow. “It’s about time I started living like a grownup, don’t you think?”

“Nothing would please me more,” Amalia said. “So tell me what you think is so grown up about running away?”

“I’m not running away, I’m seeking my own way in the world, and it was you who once told me I should.”

“I’ve said a lot of stupid things in my life. That doesn't mean you should listen.”

With a faint smile, Diana began walking toward the barn. “I’m sorry you think I’m making a mistake, but love and family aren’t always enough. Don’t you agree?”

Amalia had never seen Diana like this and it confused her. “I have no idea.”

“Sure you do. You left Harley to come here.”

“This was a known entity. I didn’t just go traipsing off to. . .” She looked at her sharply. “You’re not still thinking of running away with Robert, are you?”

“It’s crossed my mind. He’s smart, he has connections, and I don’t think he would try to turn me into a hothouse flower. But I haven’t decided anything yet. I might get halfway down the mountain and come back. I might decide to try again with Will. Or maybe I’ll ride off into the desert, never to be seen or heard from again.” At the look of concern on Amalia’s face, she paused. “Or I might not go anywhere at all. I don’t know yet. It’s a big decision, and I intend to think it through and be prepared this time.”

“You thinking things over would be an improvement over your usual method.”

“Yeah. I thought you’d be happy.”

“Happy? Just because I’m glad you’re thinking doesn’t mean. . .” She shook her head, held open the door to the barn, and followed Diana inside. She watched her hang her bow and put her quiver away. “What am I supposed to do if you leave?”

“What do you mean?” Diana looked at her in confusion. “You’ll enjoy your new man, play with Kitta, teach your students. . .”

“And what do I tell my son?”

Diana pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. “I don’t know. Is it really my problem? And do I have to know now?”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Forty Five

Will couldn’t stay much longer. Harley had already sent two messages. Things weren’t going well in the south, and being short his best marksman was putting a strain on operations.

It was Miguel who finally brought matters to a head, looking across the dinner table one evening and asking Will point blank when he intended to return to his unit.

Will ducked his head. “Soon.”

“How soon? Before or after one of your friends gets killed?”

“It’s not my fault they don’t have enough marksmen.”

“But it is your fault they’re expecting you back. If you hadn’t told them you were returning in September, they would’ve planned accordingly. And now here it is nearly October—”

“My wife needs me, and she comes first. Besides, September’s not over yet.”

Diana pushed the food around her plate. “You don’t need to stay here on my account.”

Will set down his fork and looked at her in exasperation. “You’re not even riding your horse yet. You’ve got no range with your arrows, and—”

“I’m doing great with my rifle and I’ll keep practicing while you’re gone. It’s not like I need any of those skills here, anyway. I can keep training on my own.”

“You said you wanted your own command,” Miguel reminded him. “A commander doesn’t let inappropriate sentiment keep him from his duties. If Diana were ill or her life in danger, no one would question your decision, but you can’t keep stringing them along. Go back and fulfill your commitment, or let me radio a message that you’ve gone soft and are quitting.”

“I’ve not gone soft.” Will pushed back his plate and stalked out of the room, leaving Miguel, Amalia, and Diana staring at each other.

Diana got up.

“Stay and finish your dinner,” Amalia said. “Let him think things over in peace.”

“I know what I’m doing. I was through eating, anyway.”

Half an hour later, Amalia and Miguel wandered toward the living room and paused in the doorway at the sound of Diana’s voice. She was saying something they couldn’t quite make out about horses, goats and corn yields.

“Don’t be silly,” Will said. “I need to go back. You and I have to put in our time and win this war so we can get good jobs afterward.”

“But don’t you think. . .”

“You don’t have to be a farmer ever again. I’m going to set you up with a house in town, so you can have nice things from the train and our kids can go to school and not have to work so hard, like we have.”

“Bridget said I might have trouble having kids.”

“We’ll adopt some."

“I think I’d rather be out on the land.”

“You’re a crazy girl, you know that?"

Amalia and Miguel waited until the conversation turned to less serious murmurings about weather and other mundane matters. When they went into the room, Diana was sitting on a cushion in front of the fire, Will lying beside her with his head in her lap. She was toying with his hair, saying something about aspen leaves. At the sound of footsteps, they both looked up. Will didn’t change position, but closed his eyes and said, “I’ll leave on Sunday.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Forty Four

Will and Diana walked toward the house. When they came near the garden, Diana stopped. "Do you mind if. . .?"

“Of course not.”

The grave lay under the branches of a sapling, ringed by a neat border of stones. Diana had been coming here each day, but hadn’t shared what was on her mind. Today she leaned into Will, as much for shelter from the wind as for the comfort of his body. “I did wrong, didn’t I?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. I didn’t take care of myself. I didn’t tell anyone in time that maybe they could’ve saved her.” She frowned. “I had been so sure it would be a boy, and that made it easy to be hateful, but. . . I don’t know. It’s hard to be a girl. I feel sorry for her, like I betrayed her.”

“No point worrying about it now. It would’ve probably turned out the same, anyway. Mother seems to think so.”

Diana considered. “She went straight to Heaven, right?”

“She didn’t do anything wrong, so I don’t see why not. I wouldn’t trust a God who would punish a little kid. Maybe she was kind of lucky, in a way. She never had a chance to screw things up and go to Hell."

“Yeah. Like me. I suppose that’s where I’ll end up."

“I hope so.” When Diana gave him a quizzical look, he added, “I know that’s where I’m going, and it won’t be any good without you there.”

Diana smiled. "It’s not supposed to be good. That’s the whole point."

"Then I guess you’ll go to Heaven and I’ll go to Hell and spend eternity missing you."

She turned back to the grave, serious again. “No. I’m definitely going to Hell.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

Forty Three

It was a slow convalescence, but an indulged one, and Diana accepted everyone’s attention with unusual good grace. The times she had been wounded in battle or in training hadn’t prepared her for the bone-wrenching pain of childbirth. She had been so confident, so sure she could withstand anything. Now she understood that there really was no end to the suffering a human could be asked to endure. She realized too, that she could die, not just from enemies in battle or raiders in the woods, but from the betrayals of her own body. Having come so close to death, life was now infinitely precious, and she was grateful for help, having finally come up against a battle she couldn’t fight alone.

The midwife stayed on for a few days, monitoring Diana’s bleeding and plying her with antibiotics and herbal teas. Amalia prepared Diana’s favorite meals, and Miguel’s staff provided every little whim Diana needed, and a lot she didn’t. Kitta appointed herself nurse with a confused notion that this involved reading to her several times a day, so Diana found herself subjected to The Cat in the Hat in the morning and Goodnight, Moon each night.

Will could hardly bear to leave Diana’s side, unless it was to get her another cup of soup or an egg, or whatever else he decided was the perfect food to make her strong again. He ignored her protests that she was drowning in all the chicken broth he gave her, and he rearranged her pillows and blankets on a bizarre schedule of his own devising. He was so solicitous that Bridget had to finally put her foot down. “Let her walk,” she said, catching Will carrying her to the outhouse. “You don’t want her getting blood clots, do you? She needs to move around.”

“But she—”

“It’s okay.” Diana motioned for him to set her on her feet. “How about you let me lean on you? Wouldn’t that be best? Give me your arm.”

At night she lay pressed against him while he repeated the stories they had heard around the campfire when they lived on the reservation. Sometimes he told other stories, ones she had never heard before, about his life on the streets before he came to Amalia’s farm in Valle Redondo so many years ago. And late at night he touched and kissed her with a love and absence of need that moved her to tears.

Diana was ashamed of her body, appalled that it hadn’t immediately reverted to how it had been before. Will didn’t seem to notice the bloat, pleating and stretch marks, and his fingers caressed her skin with a reverence that both puzzled and gratified her. But after a few weeks, even he admitted to some concern. “I can’t go back to Harley until I know you can take care of yourself,” he told her one night as she rested in his arms in front of the fire.

“It’s safe here," she said.

“That’s not the point. I won’t have you dependent on others.”

The next morning, Diana struggled into her riding pants and followed Will to an empty paddock, where he set up some targets. He handed over her bow and quiver. “Let’s see what you can do.”

“Probably not much. I haven’t trained since July.” She fit an arrow to the bowstring and took aim, disgusted at how hard the draw felt. She loosed the arrow and it fell limply in the grass, several feet short.

“Try again.”

She did, and again failed to reach the target. “It’s not fair. How come women lose their strength so much faster than men?”

“It’ll come back. Move a little closer and work on your aim.”

Diana practiced for half an hour, growing increasingly frustrated, even though her aim and range improved as she became familiar with her weapons again. Finally she handed Will her equipment, rubbing her shaking arms and flexing her stiff fingers while he put everything away. “I can’t believe how much ground I’ve lost. It’s embarrassing.”

“It’ll come back faster than you think. You’ve got talent, remember?”

“I wish it was in something else. Death isn’t a good thing to be talented at.”

Will studied her. “You’re going to be here all this fall. Why don’t you go to school?”

“Me? In a classroom with all those little kids?”

“Why not? Who cares what children think?”

“I’m not smart."

“Sure you are. You’re smarter than me. You can read and write. I bet you’d be a real good student.”

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Forty Two

Half an hour later, Bridget let Will into the room. The stench nearly brought him to his knees. It was more than just the smell of blood, but of feces, vomit, and something he couldn’t place but hoped never to smell again. In the darkened room, the basin covered with a bloody towel, and the rolled-up sheet oozing into a basket suggested things Will didn’t want to know.

Bridget draped a cloth over a bowl of metal instruments soaking in murky water, and went to open a window. “It’s never a pretty business,” she said, shrugging out of her bloody smock. “Even when it goes well.”

Will forced himself to look at the still figure on the bed. When Diana had fallen silent and the women’s voices had risen in increasing alarm, he had been certain she was dead. From the way Amalia was sitting by the bed, bent over Diana’s limp hand, he had every reason to believe his suspicions were correct. His first instinct was to turn around, get on his horse and ride into enemy camps where he could slaughter people at random until he cooled his rage or until someone with good aim took him out of this hell.

Amalia looked up and motioned to him. “It’s okay. She’s sleeping.”

Relief washed over him. He stretched out on the bed and pulled Diana into his arms where she lay limp, like a doll. When he kissed her, he could feel the faint warmth of her breath and was reassured. He closed his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. After awhile, he felt Amalia’s eyes upon him and looked up. “She’s going to be okay, isn’t she?”

“She’s young and strong. With proper care, yes, she’ll be all right.”

“But there were some. . . difficulties,” Bridget said. “She may have trouble having children after this.”

Will shifted and pulled Diana closer. “I don’t care about kids. I only want her.”

Amalia began helping Bridget with the suspicious-looking bundles and bowls on the floor. Will tried to ignore them as they whispered to each other, but he raised his head when Amalia said, “That’s too far. How about garden, where the ground is soft?”

“Is the baby dead?” Will asked.

“Yes,” Amalia said, darting a glance at Bridget. “There was nothing that could be done.”

Will could tell by the way the women looked at each other there was a lot they weren’t saying, and he was glad they didn’t offer details. He smoothed Diana’s damp hair and waited for Bridget and Amalia to leave. It seemed like hours before the women went away bearing their bloody burdens and leaving Will and Diana alone.

The wind outside picked up and a sweet-smelling breeze filtered into the room. Will got up to put an extra quilt on the bed, then got under the covers and pressed his body against hers, seized with a notion that he must keep her warm at all costs. If he could only hold her tight enough, maybe some of his strength would pass through to her and things would be like before. She stirred and tried to speak. Will silenced her. “You’re safe, and it’s going to be all right.”

Diana nodded and closed her eyes. Will kept his arms tight around her until her deep, regular breathing told him she had gone back to sleep. By now the night air had filled the room with the clean scent of pine, and moonlight was streaming in the window. Will closed his eyes, expecting to fall asleep, too, but oddly, he could not. For once, just having her near wasn’t enough.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Forty One

It took until nearly dawn for Will to guide the midwife up the narrow path in the darkness and by then Diana had long since given up being brave. Her screams echoed through the rooms. With scarcely a glance at Miguel, who was trying to keep a worried Kitta distracted in the living room, Will and the midwife hurried down the hall.

Amalia's relief at Bridget's arrival was almost tangible. In a shaking voice, she rattled off the time between contractions and number of hours Diana had been in labor.

"You're kidding me, right?" Bridget opened her bag and began taking out instruments. Suddenly she turned around. "Will, it's better that you wait outside. This isn't the sort of thing a man needs to see."

"But she's my wife and—"

"And you'll wait on the other side of that door."

"Do as she says," Amalia said, pushing him into the hallway. "This will all be over soon." She closed the door and went to take Diana's hand. But when Diana squeezed so hard it seemed her bones would break, she gave her the tail of her shirt to hold, instead.

Bridget washed her hands, arranged Diana's hips under a sheet and examined her, murmuring in soothing tones. She frowned.

"What is it?" Amalia asked in alarm.

The midwife sat back. "You needed me much earlier," she said. "This baby is stuck."


Bridget tried everything she knew. With the baby positioned wrong and wedged against the pubic bone, the forceps were no use, so she tried to reach inside and turn the baby. Diana screamed and fought her until they tied her to the bed posts.

They tried to give her some laudanum in the hope that they could ease the contractions long enough to move the baby into the correct position. But Diana threw up the laudanum, and the midwife had no other drugs.

"She's been without food since yesterday," Amalia observed at one point. "Shouldn't she eat? She needs her strength."

"I doubt she'll keep anything down, but we could try a little water or juice."

Amalia went to the door, where she found Will pacing.

"Is it over?"

"No. Get her a glass of water and some apple juice."

A few minutes later, Will tapped on the door. He tried to peek past her as Amalia took the tray from his hands. "I brought some honey, too. Sometimes that goes down better than juice."

Diana threw up the juice and wouldn’t touch the water.

"We've got to do something," Amalia said, trying to keep panic from creeping into her voice.

"There's only one thing left we can do," Bridget said, digging in her bag and taking out a cruel-looking instrument. "I’m sorry, but we can only save one of them."