Red Country Extract
They were laughing when they clattered over the rise and the shallow little valley opened out in front of them. Something Lamb had said. He’d perked up when they left town, as usual. Never at his best in a crowd.
It gave Shy’s spirits a lift besides, coming up that track that was hardly more than two faded lines through the long grass. She’d been through black times in her younger years, midnight black times, when she thought she’d be killed out under the sky and left to rot, or caught and hanged and tossed out unburied for the dogs to rip at. More than once, in the midst of nights sweated through with fear, she’d sworn to be grateful every moment of her life if she ever got to tread this unremarkable path again. Eternal gratitude hadn’t quite come about, but that’s promises for you. She still felt that bit lighter as the wagon rolled home.
Then they saw the farm, and the laughter choked in her throat and they sat silent while the wind fumbled through the grass around them. Shy couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think, all her veins flushed with ice-water. Then she was down from the wagon and running.
‘Shy!’ Lamb roared at her back, but she hardly heard, head full of her own rattling breath, pounding down the slope, land and sky jolting around her. Through the stubble of the field they’d harvested not a week before. Over the trampled-down fence and the chicken feathers crushed into the mud.
She made it to the yard – what had been the yard – and stood helpless. The house was all dead charred timbers and rubbish and nothing left standing but the tottering chimney-stack. No smoke. The rain must’ve put out the fires a day or two before. But everything was burned out. She ran around the side of the blacked wreck of the barn, whimpering a little now with each breath.
Gully was hanged from the big tree out back. They’d hanged him over her mother’s grave and kicked down the headstone. He was shot through with arrows. Might’ve been a dozen, might’ve been more.
Shy felt like she was kicked in the guts and she bent over, arms hugged around herself, and groaned, and the tree groaned with her as the wind shook its leaves and set Gully’s corpse gently swinging. Poor old harmless bastard. He’d called to her as they’d rattled off on the wagon. Said she didn’t need to worry ’cause he’d look to the children, and she’d laughed at him and said she didn’t need to worry ’cause the children would look to him, and she couldn’t see nothing for the aching in her eyes and the wind stinging at them, and she clamped her arms tighter, feeling suddenly so cold nothing could warm her.
She heard Lamb’s boots thumping up, then slowing, then coming steady until he stood beside her.
‘Where are the children?’
They dug the house over, and the barn. Slow, and steady, and numb to begin with. Lamb dragged the scorched timbers clear while Shy scraped through the ashes, sure she’d scrape up Pit and Ro’s bones. But they weren’t in the house. Nor in the barn. Nor in the yard. Wilder now, trying to smother her fear, and more frantic, trying to smother her hope, casting through the grass, and clawing at the rubbish, but the closest Shy came to her brother and sister was a charred toy horse Lamb had whittled for Pit years past and the scorched pages of some of Ro’s books she let blow through her fingers.
The children were vanished.
She stood there, staring into the wind, back of one raw hand against her mouth and her chest going hard. Only one thing she could think of.
‘They’re stolen,’ she croaked.
Lamb just nodded, his grey hair and his grey beard all streaked with soot.
‘I don’t know.’
She wiped her blackened hands on the front of her shirt and made fists of them. ‘We’ve got to get after.’
She squatted down over the chewed-up sod around the tree. Wiped her nose and her eyes. Followed the tracks bent over to another battered patch of ground. She found an empty bottle trampled into the mud, tossed it away. They’d made no effort at hiding their sign. Horse-prints all around, circling the shells of the buildings. ‘I’m guessing at about twenty. Might’ve been forty horses, though. They left the spare mounts over here.’
‘To carry the children, maybe?’
‘Carry ’em where?’
Lamb just shook his head.
She went on, keen to say anything that might fill the space. Keen to set to work at something so she didn’t have to think. ‘My way of looking at it, they came in from the west and left going south. Left in a hurry.’
‘I’ll get the shovels. We’ll bury Gully.’
They did it quick. She shinned up the tree, knowing every foot- and handhold. She used to climb it long ago, before Lamb came, while her mother watched and Gully clapped, and now her mother was buried under it and Gully was hanged from it, and she knew somehow she’d made it happen. You can’t bury a past like hers and think you’ll walk away laughing.
She cut him down, and broke the arrows off, and smoothed his bloody hair while Lamb dug out a hole next to her mother. She closed his popping eyes and put her hand on his cheek and it was cold. He looked so small now, and so thin, she wanted to put a coat on him but there was none to hand. Lamb lowered him in a clumsy hug, and they filled the hole together, and they dragged her mother’s stone up straight again and tramped the thrashing grass around it, ash blowing on the cold wind in specks of black and grey, whipping across the land and off to nowhere.
‘Should we say something?’ asked Shy.
‘I’ve nothing to say.’ Lamb swung himself up onto the wagon’s seat. Might still have been an hour of light left.
‘We ain’t taking that,’ said Shy. ‘I can run faster’n those bloody oxen.’
‘Not longer, though, and not with gear, and we’ll do no good rushing at this. They’ve got what? Two, three days’ start on us? And they’ll be riding hard. Twenty men, you said? We have to be realistic, Shy.’
‘Realistic?’ she whispered at him, hardly able to believe it.
‘If we chase after on foot, and don’t starve or get washed away in a storm, and if we catch ’em, what then? We’re not armed, even. Not with more’n your knife. No. We’ll follow on fast as Scale and Calder can take us.’ Nodding at the oxen, grazing a little while they had the chance. ‘See if we can pare a couple off the herd. Work out what they’re about.’
‘Clear enough what they’re about!’ she said, pointing at Gully’s grave. ‘And what happens to Ro and Pit while we’re fucking following on?’ She ended up screaming it at him, voice splitting the silence and a couple of hopeful crows taking flight from the tree’s branches.
The corner of Lamb’s mouth twitched but he didn’t look at her. ‘We’ll follow.’ Like it was a fact agreed on. ‘Might be we can talk this out. Buy ’em back.’
‘Buy ’em? They burn your farm, and they hang your friend, and they steal your children and you want to pay ’em for the privilege? You’re such a fucking coward!’
Still he didn’t look at her. ‘Sometimes a coward’s what you need.’ His voice was rough. Clicking in his throat. ‘No shed blood’s going to unburn this farm now, nor unhang Gully neither. That’s done. Best we can do is get back the little ones, any way we can. Get ’em back safe.’ This time the twitch started at his mouth and scurried all the way up his scarred cheek to the corner of his eye. ‘Then we’ll see.’
Shy took a last look as they lurched away towards the setting sun. Her home. Her hopes. How a day can change things about. Naught left but a few scorched timbers poking at the pinking sky. You don’t need a big dream. She felt about as low as she ever had in all her life, and she’d been in some bad, dark, low-down places. Hardly had the strength all of a sudden to hold her head up.
‘Why’d they have to burn it all?’ she whispered.
‘Some men just like to burn,’ said Lamb.
Shy looked around at him, the outline of his battered frown showing below his battered hat, the dying sun glimmering in one eye, and thought how strange it was, that he could be so calm. A man who hadn’t the guts to argue over prices, thinking death and kidnap through. Being realistic about the end of all they’d worked for.
‘How can you sit so level?’ she whispered at him. ‘Like . . . like you knew it was coming.’
Still he didn’t look at her. ‘It’s always coming.’