fiction

Sung Home: Chapter Three. {fiction}

 

The next morning they set out again, hunched in their saddles against the brisk spring wind.

They first clustered together on their horses just outside the compound, apparently debating which direction they should go. To my dismay, they headed off in pairs in four different directions, including one pair coming west.

Straight towards me.

To my dismay, I saw them head off in pairs in four different directions, including one pair coming west, straight towards me. My breath felt crowded in my chest, as if my ribs had suddenly shrunk two sizes.

I had been careful to drag a branch behind me and Burl, and sprinkle sticks and leaves now and then so that we could not be tracked. I was sure the seasonal morning gusts obscured our trail even more. And yet seeing the two lean, rangy men headed straight for us caused my stomach to clench and dried my mouth. The horsemen threaded their way through the creosote and mesquite, closer and closer.

I perched like a wary squirrel, high enough in the hills that there was little chance they would come up exactly the way I did. Then, realizing I may have to get out of there quickly in case they came too close, I darted through the sparse dry foliage, locating two possible escape routes to the west that I could take, just in case. I returned to my roost to check their progress.

The two men ambled along, still heading my way. They were moving pretty slowly for guys who were supposed to be hunting someone. The sun was high in the sky when they finally arrived at the foot of the hill.

I hadn’t realized I had been following a faint wash as I traveled here. My efforts at covering our tracks had not kept their horses from following the natural indentation in the soil, the easiest route, just as I had. I felt like such a fool, dangerously foolish.

It was Lem and Jeff, two scraggly brothers whom Darian had picked up a few months ago. Though they were many yards below me and Burl, they were still close enough that a well-aimed spit could have hit one on the head. I looked again at my escape routes, calculating which would be the best to take.

I decided on the path that dropped over a sharp western ledge right away instead of the one that crossed the flat first. It would be good to step below sight as soon as possible. I quickly tied my bedroll onto Burl’s back, cinching it firmly, patted Burl encouragingly, then hoisted my satchels onto one shoulder. I took one more peek over the edge and saw the men had stopped.

The two had tied their horses to a tree and sat down in the shade of the granite hillside. In the mid-day stillness, I could just hear their voices drifting up to my perch. Alarm bells rang in my head, urging me to make my getaway, but I was transfixed, fascinated. What were they doing?

“He’s such an idiot, sending us here,” said Lem.

“Like that ‘lil gal would come up these hills. She wouldn’t get nowhere this way. She probably ain’t that bright, but probably not that stupid either. She’s gone, and why does he even care? What a waste of time!” said Jeff.

“You know, we could do a better job leading this gang than him. He don’t have no ambition. We could be raking in way more than we are now,” Lem agreed, nodding his narrow head vigorously, white blond hair bobbing heavily with grease.

“I know, I know. It’s a good gig for now though. Let’s just take it easy. Later maybe we can get our own compound.”

Jeff, stockier but just as tow-headed, pulled some jerky and apples out of a saddle bag and they had their lunch. Then they sprawled out in the dirt and granite gravel and fell asleep, Lem snoring loudly.

I found it hard to believe, and felt a little insulted, that they would just stop looking for me like that. I squelched a brief impulse to toss pebbles down at them. Then, scared by that impulse, I watched them more anxiously than ever for a couple hours while they napped, afraid that if I relaxed even a little bit they would be upon me minutes later.

Burl munched fine spring grass contentedly, oblivious to the specter of danger. The men didn’t stir again until the sun was halfway down the sky. Lem and Jeff were just humoring Darian. They didn’t care if I were caught or not, and just took the day off. Breathing more easily, I slept a little myself after seeing them pack up and head east again.

When the sun hovered low in the west, I saw the others coming in from their expeditions as well, converging just outside the corral. From the horses’ slow pace and the men’s slumped postures, it seemed like their mission had lost steam. I decided to sit quietly for another day just to make sure.

“Well, Burl, it looks like my plan is working. At least so far.” Burl blinked his long thick lashes at me, then closed them for a nap.

The third morning after my escape, I peeked over the rocky eastern edge of our campsite but didn’t see anyone leave the compound. I slept as much as I could through the day, so as to have as much energy as possible for the evening’s travel.

Though I had only nibbled at my food supply, Burl had eaten so much spring grass I could’ve sworn I saw a few more pounds around his middle. I was glad he had the extra food, because for sure he’d wear it off soon enough. Now that I believed they would not search for me again, I wanted to put as much distance as I could between myself and that place as I could, for real.

The molten magenta sunset lit our way as we gingerly picked our path down the rocky slope, irrationally concerned as I was about making noise. By sundown, Burl and I had turned north, roughly paralleling the broken-up, weathered, northbound road out of Columbus from a safe distance.

Darian’s men always went east for their raids because there were still more people between Columbus and El Paso than any other direction. To the west there had been practically no people even before the virus had come, so they had no reason to come my way now they had given up on finding me.

I fixed my gaze upon Cooke’s Peak, dead north, noting its relationship to the surrounding terrain so that I could head that direction even in the three-quarters-full-moon dark.

We trudged across the desert dirt for the first couple of hours, now angling slightly east, until we intersected with the broken northbound highway that would take us towards Cooke’s Peak, also called Standing Mountain by the Apache.

Though there was some chance of crossing paths with other travelers, it was easier going on the pavement, and we wouldn’t leave any tracks on the off chance Darian’s men came looking again.

The southernmost end of the Florida Mountains loomed darkly to the east, on my right. Bats flocked and dove before us, and an owl hooted nearby, perched in a tall piñon pine. Burl seemed unconcerned, though he would stop for a second and listen hard when we heard coyotes in the distance.

I felt relieved to be free of the compound, though I felt its threatening presence at my back acutely. Running away from danger, and the only people on earth who loved me. I wondered what Robert thought of me now, and of our last conversation. We’re going to get through this, I had told him. Offering reassurance just before abandoning him and Emma.

I wondered if Emma would ever pull out of her grief-stricken stupor. If Robert would ever forgive me for leaving just when he needed me most. The sharp coolness of the spring night air filled my lungs, and I looked up for the millionth time in my life at the stars strewn across the sky like bits of glass glittering near a campfire.

The owl hooted again, and a moment later it swooped down upon a scurrying in the brush. Every so often I turned to look back the way we had come for some sign we were being followed, as unlikely as that was. As much as adrenaline and the elixir of freedom spurred my steps early in the evening, my feet were heavy and my mind dull by the time the soft welcome glow of dawn whispered its presence in the east.

We had reached the northernmost tip of the Floridas, the Cooke’s Range filling the view ahead. I looked around for a bush or rock big enough for Burl and I to rest beside without being seen, and found a largish mountain mahogany that would suffice. I curled up on top of my blanket, soothed to sleep by the rising sun’s warmth.

This is an ongoing series from a forthcoming fiction novel by Laura Ramnarace.
Tune in weekly for the next chapter in ‘Sung Home’.

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Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has published a book on inter-personal conflict, ‘Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship’, published a newspaper column also titled ‘Getting Along’, and submits regularly to Rebelle Society. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. ‘Sung Home’ is a work of eco-fiction set in southwestern New Mexico.

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