The body that leaned against the front of the hut was headless, and it was only when Crane kicked it aside from the door that she realized it was facing the wrong way, its back to her, legs buckled and broken, spine bent wrongwise. Crane positioned himself on the far side of the door and crouched down into a bundle of limbs with Wolves opposite, pistol pointed up. Wolves motioned Rachel behind her, but Rachel couldn’t move her feet.
These weren’t the first bodies she’d seen. But there’d never been this many. And it wasn’t the smell, it was the lack of smell. There was a bleachiness in the air alongside the copper but just a trace. The man Crane had kicked aside left a bloody smear on the wall like a child’s fingerpainting.
Wolves motioned again for Rachel to move but then from inside the hut came a groan. Crane’s flat boot hit the hinged metal door and he and Wolves were inside in one smooth motion. It banged shut then yawned open again and Rachel saw a man sprawled on the floor raise a hand up and heard the report of Wolves’ pistol before his head cracked down on the ground. When the door hit the limit of its hinges it began to swing shut again but got stuck on the dead man’s hand. Rachel took uneasy steps toward the hut and heard Wolves say, “What happened.”
Crane was in the corner of the shack. He knelt and examined bodies while Wolves stood in the opposite corner, gun drawn and held on a man older than Nash but otherwise his mirror image—scrawny, with a fuller beard, but the same sunken eyes, the same harsh liquid voice when he spoke.
“They came this morning. Early.” There was blood and dirt caked to his face, at the corners of his lips, in his eyes, everywhere. He held his side together as he lay slumped on top of boxes stacked in front of other boxes.
“They. Who’s they?”
The man who must have been Shamil winced in pain as he sat up straighter. Wolves raised her pistol.
“It’s always the same they. It’s the not-you. The not-yours.”
“Talk sense,” said Crane. He was stripping ammunition from the corpses, going through the rifles and pistols strewn about the ground. There was no floor, only the asphalt of the road.
“I am. She knows it.” He motioned with his head toward Wolves. His eyes came alive. “I expected her. But I didn’t expect her to bring you.” The “you” left his mouth like a curse through the tight slit between his lips and he narrowed his eyes at Crane, then cut them toward Wolves. “You think Nash is any better than I am? That he’ll treat you better?”
“No. There are only two kinds of people left out here: threats and tools. What did they want?”
“They? They wanted what we had.”
“And what’s that.”
Shamil’s cough was wet and dark, but he couldn’t raise his hand to cover his mouth. Blood flecked the corners of his mouth, spotted on his chin. His eyes rolled back and when they came down they rested on Rachel. No matter how harmless, their focus made Rachel fumble for the Colt. She brought it down to her side and placed her index finger along its burnished barrel, close to the trigger guard.
She had practiced that motion for hours as she walked with the gun in one hand, Ezekiel’s small hand in the other, until she came to feel there was little point in the gesture. The kinetics of it became comfort, now flooding back into her veins as protection.
“Who’s this?” Shamil said.
The sting of an itch tracked its way up Rachel’s arm from the left hand, which hung loose by her side. She rubbed it once, hard, against the worn denim of her pants. Her jaw clicked her mouth open, the breath already moving in when Wolves raised her pistol and fired.
In the tiny shack the report was deafening.
Rachel exhaled without a sound. Whatever she was going to say—and there had been something there—was gone.
And then came a series of things that piled so fast onto one another that Rachel couldn’t separate them into distinct events. The muzzle of Crane’s pistol caught a flash of light through one of the cracks between the hut’s ramshackle planks and she could almost smell the cordite before she heard the shot. And then Rachel fired. The hollow-point bullet flattened itself into Crane’s face and then it and his face were gone.
She turned and saw Wolves crumpled against the far wall, a bloom of blood on the shimmering jersey, the satin darkening. She knelt by her side.
“Oh God,” said Rachel. “Oh God.”
“No.” Wolves’ voice was still strong, unpanicked. “Listen to me: Find whatever you can here. Take this.” She unslung the duffel bag from her back with difficulty and slung it at Rachel’s feet. “Get your boy.
“But… I can help you. Don’t you have, I don’t know, nurse stuff in here?” She clawed through the nearly empty bag and found a roll of dirty gauze. It was better than nothing. But Wolves’ hand shot out and wrapped around Rachel’s.
“Save it. You’ll need it. This… this was always going to happen. Without my son it’s just… just empty.” Her voice hollowed out there and her eyes clouded over. In the silence of the hut, a dull humming rose. “They might have heard the shots. They could be coming back.” Wolves unhitched the knife from its sheath and handed it to Rachel. “Make it quick, but quiet.”
Rachel held the knife. Her breath was shallow and she felt like she could see everything from very high up, from impossibly far away, like looking out the window of a jetliner passing over an endless sea of dirt and scrub. She could see down into the camp, and it looked like nothing more than a junkyard from that distance, the little shack no more noticeable than any other. She would never see the Earth like that again, at any kind of distance. It was all up close on her skin.
Rachel slid behind Wolves, nudged her forward with a knee and placed the blade at the soft of her throat. She thought of saying something but couldn’t think what. A goodbye, a prayer? Wolves gripped the arm that encircled her and that seemed like enough. No one else was there to hear or answer.
She slid the blade and the blood’s sticky warmth pooled and gurgled along her fingers. Wolves’ body tensed but didn’t kick or resist and Rachel held her until it was done.
With urgency, Rachel scoured the hut, taking the clips and bullets from Crane’s body, throwing them into the duffle. In the dark back corner she found shelves stacked with cans of beans, corn, beets and she took them all. She pushed aside thoughts about why whoever had stormed the camp had left them. When she thought she had gotten all she could into the now lead-heavy duffel, she paused to survey the room. The dull humming rose again. She cocked her head one way, then the other, following the sound back to the dark corner and its shelves. She overturned them in a clatter and there on the ground was the outline of a door, a recessed handle.
She cranked it open and a breath of held frosty air spilled out and up into the heat of the shack. A feeble light clicked on and Rachel could see inside a tiny refrigerator no bigger than a weekend cooler. It was filled with fresh strawberries.
They were small, no bigger than the tip of her thumb, and she reached down delicately and picked one up by its fragile green stem, covered in light fuzz. She put the flesh of the fruit just between her teeth and bit down. The taste came tart and forgotten. Fresh. A word she had scraped from her thoughts.
There was no way to carry them. They’d be crushed in the duffel. She took one more from the stash, stuffed it roughly in her mouth this time and bit hard. It flooded her mouth with sweetness—more than the last one. She had forgotten, forgotten how each bite could be something different.
Whoever had come through before and ruined the Gullies was out there, and could be coming back. But the place where these strawberries had come from was out there too, and couldn’t have been far away. They were a small thing, but enough. A thing to hold on to, to show Zeke.
Rachel kicked the refrigerator closed, gathered the duffel and left. Darkness fell around her and she followed the compass in reverse across the desert, the sky open, uncaring and brilliant with stars.
Front page image by Ximena.