CHAPTER FIFTY THREE
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
From last week’s episode:
Somewhere just ahead of her, the crack of gunfire shatters the still afternoon air. Abruptly, Koda pulls up just short of the edge of the trees, unstringing her bow and sheathing it and its arrow even as she shrugs her rifle off her shoulder and into her hands. Carefully she steps to the edge of the treeline, keeping a pine trunk between herself and whoever has fired the shot. Squinting into the sun, she can make out only the rippling billows of short grass, interspersed here and there with clumps of scarlet sage and mountain globemallow, thick with rose-colored blooms. Behind a screen of the tall spikes, something moves. Something large, bending down now toward something else on the ground.
Koda steps away from cover, gun leveled. She is not quite prepared to kill another human for her supper, but neither is she prepared to give it up without protest. Not when she has done the work, not when she has given fair chase. Keeping the muzzle of her gun pointed toward whatever or whoever crouches on the other side of the dense shrubs, she gathers her breath and bellows, "Hey! You over there! Stand up! Slow! Or I’ll shoot!"
Two seconds pass. "Now!" she yells, and pumps a round into the ground at her feet. "Next one won’t be a warning!"
And now, the continuation of The Growing.
"Okay! Okay!" It is a man’s voice, rich and resonant. He steps out from behind the sage spires, black curling hair and close-trimmed beard glistening in the sun, a sheen of sweat silvering his bare chest and the hard muscles of his arms and shoulders. He is tall, taller than she is, and made like a wrestler. For a moment he looks as though he might be made all of bronze, something cast by Michelangelo or Bernini to taunt their bloodless patrons tripping along the halls of the Lateran Palace. Then a sheepish grin splits his face and his hands spread open at his sides. "I’m sorry. Was that your pronghorn? I thought a cat might be after it, that’s all."
"Yeah," Koda says, more equably, the muzzle of her gun never moving from its aim at his belly. "W— I’ve been after him for a couple miles or so, now. From back on the other side of that treeline." Go on, be a good boy. Give it up.
"Look," he says, the ingratiating smile never leaving his face. "You chased it, I shot it. Share?"
It is not, under the circumstances, a bad bargain. Half the antelope is still a substantial prize. "All right," she says, lowering her rifle without taking her finger from the trigger guard. "I’ll help you field dress it." She may have to set down the gun, but she will still have a knife in her hand. The sudden gleam in the man’s brown eyes tells her he understands and is not offended.
Far, it would seem, from it. He extends one huge paw toward her. "Ariel Kriegesmann. Call me Ari."
"All right," she says, shifting her 30.06 to her left hand and offering her right. "Koda Rivers."
He gives no sign of recognizing the name, merely nodding in acknowledgement. His shake is firm, but not the finger-crushing grasp that she has encountered from men out to prove their macho. "Welcome to Elk Mountain, ma’am." He gestures toward the line of hills that rises to the west across the miles of grassland. The peaks of the Medicine Bow Range lift into the sky beyond them, glittering even now with late snow.
"Koda!" The shout rings out from behind them, punctuated by furious barking. Asi streaks across the distance from the trees, Kirsten following more slowly, her own weapon at the ready. Koda’s vagrant Stetson perches on her head, casting hard shadows on her face. "You all right?"
Kriegesmann’s eyes dart between the two of them. One eyebrow canting upward, he
"Friends," Koda confirms, not at all sorry to have the back-up. "Asi," she says, "Annie, meet Ari. We’re gonna split dinner."
With a quick glance under her lashes at Koda, Kirsten extends her free hand, and Asi allows a quick scratch of his head and ruff. "Nice dog," Ari says, admiringly, turning his thousand-watt grin on Kirsten. "You taking good care of your ladies, are you, boy?"
"Need help?" Kirsten asks, slipping their packs from her shoulders. Asi stretches out beside them, tongue lolling. Koda shakes her head, and Kirsten sinks down crosslegged onto the makeshift cusion, rifle still propped across her knees.
Koda lays her own gun down and draws the knife that hangs at her waist. Kneeling beside the antelope, all his grace and beauty now still, she begins to chant softly:
Antelope, little brother,
we thank you for giving your life
so that we might live.
Walk the Blue Road in peace.
May you have green grass
and clear water,
may you run free
"Han," Kirsten repeats softly. She has seen Dakota do this before, and can follow the sense of the prayer if not yet all the words.
Kriegesmann listens respectfully, his eyes lowered. Looking up to meet her eyes, he asks, "That was Lakota, wasn’t it? You traditional?"
She nods, bending to her work as she opens the antelope, picking out the liver and kidneys for Asi, who comes to her whistle and settles down to his meal with obvious pleasure. Ariel glances from Koda to Kirsten. "Both of you?" he asks.
"Both of us," Kirsten answers. The tone of her voice is crisply authoritative, and Koda smiles silently. Translation: Keep off my turf.
"I can dig it." Kriegesmann shrugs, unperturbed. "My community’s pretty traditional, too."
"About fifty of us, mostly from Caspar. A bunch of us from my bank were up here
snowshoeing, snowmobiling and like that when the uprising hit. We’ve picked up a few more survivors since."
"Your bank?" Koda gives him a disbelieving look.
"First American. I’m an accountant. Or was."
"You don’t look like a banker," she says bluntly.
"That’s ‘cause you haven’t seen me in a jacket and tie. See that?" He grins and points toward one eye. "That’s the true capitalist glimmer."
He is either amazingly disingenuous or going out of his way to be charming. Koda has known very few disingenuous bankers in her life. None, in fact. She waits for what she is almost certain is coming next.
It does. Kriegesmann sits back on his heels and wipes the sweat off his forehead, his hand bloody to the wrist. "Say. Why don’t the two of you come on back to the camp?" Asi looks up from his feast, growling and laying his ears back, and Kriegesmann chuckles. "It’s okay, boy. The three of you. I don’t know where you’re headed, and I’m not gonna ask, but you might want to spend a night under a roof. We’ve got a generator. And we’ve got hot water and showers."
"Thanks," Koda says evenly, "but we need to get on."
"We also," he says, and his voice turns serious, "have a couple sick kids. The way you’re dressing this buck, you’re either a professional meat-cutter or you’re a doctor. We’d appreciate it if you’d look at ‘em. And we’ll send you on your way with a full pack when you leave."
"My sister’s girl and a couple others. They had something with spots a few weeks back, before the weather broke. Now it’s like they’ve got a permanent cold."
Spots and a lingering respiratory infection. All sorts of unfortunate things can happen in the aftermath of measles or chickenpox. With the near-disappearance of many childhood diseases, more parents than not have chosen to avoid the possible side-effects of vaccination. Worse things can happen with scarlet fever. Not good. "You got any antibiotics?"
"Just what was in the first aid cabinet at the lodge. They’re gone."
And probably misused, and overused. She looks up at Kirsten. "What about it?"
"Okay by me," Kirsten says. "How far is it?"
Kriegesmann points at the rising slopes of Elk Mountain in the distance. "About three hours, maybe a little less."
Koda wipes the blood from her knife on the grass, then gathers a handful of stalks to cleanse it more thoroughly. "I’ll cut a pole. We were headed that way anyway; we won’t lose time if we stay over for the night."
Ten minutes later, the rough-dressed antelope is securely lashed to a straight branch of aspen. Koda shoulders one end, Kriegesmann the other. Asi paces beside them as they set off across the expanse of prairie, Kirsten pacing with the rifle still cradled in the crook of her elbow. Shadows lengthen as the sun begins to slip behind the mountains, and the breeze turns cool. Clouds darken the horizon to the south. Above them, a hawk rides the thermals, wings and tail spread as she coasts the currents of air. Her call drifts down to them, sharp and bright as steel. Kriegesmann glances up, admiration in his face. "Red-tail," he says. "There’s lots of them around here. Golden eagles, too. Only you call them spotted eagles, don’t you?"
"Wanblee gleshka," Koda answers. "Wakan."
"Right," says Kriegesmann, and keeps walking.
Dusk lies thick about them when they reach the lodge. Kirsten has limped for the last mile or so, and even Koda’s muscles are beginning to stiffen. The thought of hot water, faint temptation at first, has grown into a massive obsession. . Steaming water. Real soap. Standing under the shower while the spray pounds against her skin, working the knots out of her neck and scalp. Baths for the last several days have been cold-water exercises in endurance, hygienically adequate but a long way from comfortable. Even further from comforting.
I’d kill for a hot bath. No, not kill. Maybe maim somebody, though. Starting with Hunk-boy here.
A guardpost blocks their path about halfway up the mountain. A taut chain strung across the road at knee height bars wheeled traffic any larger than a bike. Both halves of the gate stand upright, the faint red of rust gathering about its nuts and bolts. Koda has seen no sign of a vehicle’s passage, no twin ruts of flattened grass on the prairie, no tire tracks on the sections of pavement washed out by the snow and rain of the last months. At a guess, the guests and staff of the resort used up their gasoline early and have not bothered to lower the double bars since. The sentry on duty, scarcely more than a silhouette in the gathering dark, grunts and waves Kriegesmann by. Koda can make out the shape of a rifle leaning up against the door of the booth, the motion of his head as his gaze follows them around the chain and onto the overgrown shoulder of the road, staring still as they head up the last, steeper, ascent. Perhaps it is the antelope he finds so interesting.
Then again, perhaps it isn’t. With her free hand, Koda loosens her handgun in its holster, watches as Kirsten furtively does the same.
"Hang in there, ladies," Kriegesmann says cheerfully. "We’re almost there."
"Oh, goody," Kirsten answers, her voice flat.
"You okay?" Koda stops in her tracks, almost pulling the pole of Kriegesmann’s shoulder. He comes to an abrupt halt, a quizzical look on his face. Koda lays a hand lightly on Kirsten’s arm. "You still okay with this?"
"Yeah. We’re almost there. Let’s do it."
Koda stands silent for a long moment, then "If you’re sure."
For answer, Kirsten nods, and they resume the climb. Kriegesmann has said nothing, only watching. At the very least, Koda reflects, it should have made a thing or two clear to him. She grins to herself. No poaching here. And I don’t mean antelope.
"There," when they slog round the last painfully steep switchback and emerge onto the more or less level top of the mountain, consists of a sprawling central building surrounded by a dozen or so smaller cabins set among century-old pines and balsams. Some show the A-frame silhouette popular for vacation homes forty years ago. Others, like the main facility, are constructed of redwood logs and wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glass and decks on at least three levels. Through the windows, Koda catches a glimpse of leather-upholstered sofas, pine-wood tables burnished to a golden glow, Navajo rugs hanging against the walls. A dozen or so people seem to be moving about in the common room, but Koda cannot see them clearly. It is precisely the sort of place where a clutch of affluent suburbanites would come to rough it for a couple weeks of winter sports, enjoying room service in the morning and the ski instructors at night.
Precisely the sort of place she’d never be caught dead before the war. It remains to be seen what its resident survivors have made of it.
Kriegesmann leads them around to the back, where a windowless building stands among garages, a couple of barns and other service buildings. "Meat locker," he says, shrugging the pole off his shoulder. "I’ll hang this up, then we’ll get some supper. We can finish dressing it out in the morning."
Glancing about her, Koda asks, "Where are your windmills?"
"Down on the floor of the valley on the other side of the mountain," Kriegesmann answers from inside the cold house. Condensation billows out of the door, though the temperature has begun to drop rapidly with the oncoming dark and the increased altitude. "This place was originally supposed to be an off-grid retreat—you know, meditation gardens, resident gurus, drumming, that kind of thing. Not much money in it, though, and the bank wound up with the property."
"Foreclosed on it, you mean," Kirsten says suddenly. She has not spoken since they passed the gate, and Koda glances at her sharply.
"If you want to put it that way." Kriegesman shrugs, grinning. "We call it—called it—assuming the burden of the investment. Très, très touchy-feely and all that." He waggles his fingers at her as he emerges from the locker, snapping the door shut behind him and padlocking it.. "A kinder, gentler takeover, with full-color brochures and lots of western art on the walls."
"And you run this place like you did the bank?"
"More or less. Most of the people here worked for us before. The rest, the hunting parties that were here when the uprising began, the skiers, the Christmas vacationers were almost all business people, too. They speak the language."
Kirsten gestures toward the hasp and chain. "You ration out the food?"
"Not to raccoons and wolverines. Or bears. A couple years ago a yearling grizzly wandered into the lobby somehow. Scared half the guests and himself out of ten years’ growth. We’ve reinforced doors and double-locked everything on the ground floor ever since."
It is not an unreasonable answer. Raccoons have no need for opposable thumbs to open doors and get into pantries, and bears and wolverines are notorious for raiding campers’ food supplies. Wolverines, especially, have nasty habits, fouling everything they do not eat or carry away with their overwhelmingly pungent musk. With the conservation policies and the reforestation work done under the last two federal administrations, they have re-established themselves along the spine of the Rockies and in the northern tier of states bordering Canada. With the near-eradication of the human population, their range is likely to expand even further. Kriegesmann’s explanation is plausible, makes excellent sense, and still leaves Koda with a vague sense of unease.
She cannot quite put her finger on it, and her left brain refuses to sort out the information into neat data points and conclusions. Something about Kriegesmann bothers her, beyond her general distaste for the sort of old-style coroporate solipsism he seems to represent—and, to be truthful, she has no firm evidence for that except for his offhanded contempt for the spiritual community whose property his bank (His family’s bank? There is that recurring ‘us.’) has apparently managed not only well but conscientiously.
Whatever it is, it cannot be her concern. She and Kirsten will have a good supper, she
will look at the children as requested, and they will be back on the trail tomorrow after a night in a comfortable bed, richer by half an antelope.
Still, she intends to sleep in her boots, with one hand on her gun.
Kriegesmann sets off up the stone-paved path toward the rear of the lodge, waving them ahead of him with an exaggerated deference and a small bow. Closer to, the smell of meat and herbs wafts along the air, together with the scent of cornbread baking. Kirsten’s stomach rumbles audibly, and Koda flashes her a sympathetic grin. Whatever the ethical shortcomings of their host, his family and their corporation, they have evidently managed a comfortable sort of survival. Like every such enclave, they will have gathered in what livestock they could, raided what supermarkets and warehouses they could. Perhaps she can barter her veterinary services for some cornmeal and flour, maybe even a pack horse.
The door opens onto a substantial receiving area stacked with carboard boxes almost to the ceiling. Some few appear to be empty, but most, everything from canned beans and tomatoes to stomach acid remedies, are still stapled shut. Koda glances back at Kriegesmann. "You pretty much clean out Caspar, or what?"
"Or what. We got down to Boulder, too, before the gas ran out."
"How bad is it in Caspar?" Kirsten asks, her eyes running over the piles of supplies. Koda can almost see the numbers cascading in her head. How many refugees at Elk Mountain? How long will this feed them? How long until they turn to preying on other survivors?
"It’s bad," Kriegesmann answers, grimacing. "Even worse in Boulder. Lots and lots of droids for such a back-to-nature place."
"Looks like you’ve got enough here to do you for a while."
"Yeah. We found some seed, too, and some farm stuff. We’ve started growing what we can."
Koda raises an eyebrow at him. "Kind of a change from banking, isn’t it?"
"I don’t do dirt." Kriegesmann flashes her a grin. "I hunt. Lots more fun." He bangs on the door that leads to the kitchen. "Yo! I’m back! There’s company!"
The woman who opens the door stands not much taller than Kirsten, but the legs below her running shorts are brown and tightly muscled. Her tank top does nothing to conceal washboard abs; the tendons in her hands and wrists run rippling under tanned skin. Her grey eyes slide past Kriegesmann, hardly acknowledging him. Her gaze lingers, though, on Koda herself and on Kirsten, appreciative but cool, almost aloof. She gives Kriegesmann a tight smile. "So I see. I’m Tanya Kriegesmann. Come in. You’re just in
time for supper."
"Sis, this is Dakota Rivers. Doctor Dakota Rivers. And meet Annie—" He pauses, his hand describing small circles in the air.
"Rivers," Kirsten supplies, firmly. "Doctor Annie Rivers."
"Funny," Kriegesmann says, "you don’t look like sisters."
It is either dry humor or stupidity; Koda opts for the former. "We aren’t. We are hungry, though. Chasing that antelope right into your sights was hard work."
Tanya gives a small, amused snort. She says, "Ari’s good at shooting things. Particularly if he doesn’t have to get off his ass to do it." She gestures toward a double swinging door, steel clad and further reinforced at the bottom for waiters with their hands full. "Supper’s this way."
She leads them through the kitchen, still equipped to feed perhaps a hundred guests. Industrial-sized pots hang from tracks anchored to the ceiling; the sinks, all shining steel, are deep and long as bathtubs. A dusting of flour remains at one end of a polished pine workbench that anywhere else would pass for a banquet table. Kirsten walks between Koda and Tanya, her shoulders drawn in, hands on the straps of her pack. Consciously or not, she appears to avoid touching anything in the room, and a wisp of memory floats through Dakota’s mind. Persephone in the underworld, condemned to remain if she ate or drank from the table of Hades. For half a second she considers bolting here and now. Beside her, sensitive to her mood, Asi whines, and she reaches down to pat him.
Food first. Then a bath. If we still feel spooked, we can leave before dawn, no one the wiser.
The kitchen opens onto the dining room, its tables still white-draped like ghosts. In the darkened lobby, a cavernous room with exposed rafters, stuffed animal heads punctuate the walls. There are deer and elk, bear and buffalo. A pair of moose antlers over the mantle stretches almost the width of the large fireplace. Through the window Koda can see half a dozen children chasing a ball down the driveway, shepherding it for a stretch between their feet, then kicking. A woman follows them slowly, her body heavily pregnant. Her face, a little bloated with the nearness of her time, seems peaceful in the fading light, her hands clasped under her breasts as she paces. A golden retriever lopes along the path, shuttling between her and the children. Asi, his interest pricked at last, trots to the window and utters a sharp bark. The retriever looks around, puzzled, then resumes her care of her human family. "Shall we let him out?" Tanya asks, running her own hand down Asi’s back. "Or would you rather have him with you since he doesn’t know the area?"
"His feet are tired, too," Kirsten says with a smile. "Let’s let him rest."
A smaller room leads off the lobby to one side of the hearth. Bottles still line the wall
Behind the antique walnut bar, but half the shelves stand empty. Attrition has set in among the glassware, too; the stems for alexanders and whisky sours that hang above the bar show chips on some of the rims, and here, too, many seem to be missing. "Family dining room’s this way," Kriegesmann says, turning to open a door carved with a line of quail, the young ones strung out between their parents as they make their way through a jungle of columbine and lupines. A discreet sign beside the jamb names it The Covey. "This used to be the VIP club. Still is, so to speak."
The room is brightly lit by lamps and candles. Seven people sit at a long table in the center, staring at them as they enter. Tanya crosses the small room to a sideboard and begins to set two more places, while her brother introduces them. "My dad, Julius Kriegesmann." The man seated at the head of the table, his white beard and hair impeccably trimmed, nods in greeting. "My mother, Harriet." Harriet looks decades younger than her husband; not, in fact, much older than her son. Kirsten smiles at her, murmuring "Beaucoup Botox," under her breath so quietly that even Koda barely hears her. Another sister, Diotima, who is evidently the mother of the two children lately afflicted with spots, waves and gives a blinding smile when introduced; neither offspring, however, can be coaxed to look up from their mashed potatoes long enough to greet the visitors. "Errolllll," their mother whispers. "Vanesssa. Manners. Please." Humphrey Smith, Diotima’s husband, and a black haired woman with uptilted black eyes, introduced merely as Elaine, round out the company. Tension hums around the room, running a three-pointed current among Harriet and the two daughters, between Julius and Elaine, between Tanya and Ariel.
Gods. We’ve gone through the rabbit hole and landed in a Faulkner novel. Or maybe Flannery O’Connor. Good country people, for sure.
Koda acknowledges the introductions politely, slipping into a seat across from Elaine, Kirsten beside her. Ariel, standing with his hand on the back of one of two chairs to the right of his mother, shrugs and accepts his plate without comment. Julius serves both Dakota and Kirsten with thick slices of the meat from the platter, and Koda is pleased to find that it is venison, excellently prepared with red wine and bay leaves. A helping of mashed potatoes follows, together with disappointingly insipid pea-green peas from a can. Beside her, Kirsten tucks into her supper with enthusiasm, leaving Koda to make conversation with their hosts. It is as much tactics as hunger, Koda realizes; while no one here has apparently heard of the battle of the Cheyenne, these are precisely the sort of people who might well recognize Kirsten despite her lengthening hair and bronzed skin. A turn of phrase, a tone of voice, could give her away as easily as her face.
So Dakota is left to answer the inevitable questions. They are traveling west from Minnesota, aiming for Salt Lake and Annie’s family there, if they’re still alive. Medical school? Sorry, vet school, at U Penn. Yes, she has some experience with human medicine, too; veterinarians dissect human cadavers along with animal corpses as part of their training, studying human infections right along with distemper and feline leukemia. At this, Harriet winces and reaches for her wine glass with fingers that still show traces of a professional manicure. The children’s eyes, in contrast, grow large as their plates, and Errol pronounces his approval. "Hey, that’s cool. I bet it’s really, really, gross." This last is aimed at his sister, who smiles sweetly and rubs a handful of her potatoes into his face.
Koda aims a sharp glance at their uncle, two seats further up the table. "Looks to me like they’re making a normal recovery."
"Yeah," Kriegesmann answers shortly. "Pass the gravy, would you?"
"Recovery?" says Diotima, at the same time, frowning. "Oh, those spots." She turns to Koda. "They have allergies, that’s all. They got into some poison ivy or something awhile back, and now it’s sniffles. Nothing serious."
"I’m glad to hear it," Koda says thoughtfully. "They’re not used to the mountains in summer?"
"No, we usually go to the beach in June. We come here in winter, just like we did last year. And now—" Diotima shoots a resentful glance around the table—"we’re stuck. We can’t get out. We can’t go back. We’ll die out here in the middle of nowhere, all because of some stupid, stupid robots. The government never should have allowed Peter Westerhaus to make those things. He’s rich, but he’s crazy, you know?" She makes a circular motion around one ear with a forefinger. "If Clinton had stopped him, we wouldn’t be here now—"
"Dio," her father says repressively, setting his fork down beside his plate. "We’ve been through all this. Make the best of it."
"And how many droids did you have, Dio, dear?" Tanya looks up with a bite of meat halfway to her mouth. "At least your children were here with you. And your husband." Her smile is pure acid as she gazes at Humphrey. "Such a comfort, I’m sure."
"So many comforts," Elaine sniggers. "A comfortable masseur, a comfortable tennis pro, a comfortable ski instructor. . .."
"Like you’d know," Dio shoots back at her. "At least I’ve got kids."
"And how about you, Humph?" Elaine asks. "Are you comforted that she has kids? At least you have a chance to have some of your own now."
Smith, arrested in the act of cutting his venison, slowly turns the color of old brick, the blood rising under his tan from neck to receding hairline. "I have," he says, biting off each word as if it were the texture of pemmican, "fulfilled my obligations to this family and to the corporation. I will continue to do so."
"There isn’t any corporation any more, you idiot!" Dio wads her napkin into a knot and
throws it, violently, into her plate. "It’s over. It’s gone! There’s nothing left but this—" the sweep of her arm encompasses the lodge, the mountain, the empty months and valleys between this spot and an urban existence as dead now as Babylon— this hellhole! I want out! I want out now!" She swings around on Kirsten and Koda. "When you leave in the morning, I’m going with you. The rest of you can stay here and rot!"
With a sob, Dio pushes her chair back so violently it rocks on its back legs and stumbles across the room, both hands over her face. She jerks the door open and slams it behind her; hanging upside down in its rails above the bar, the crystal chimes gently. Julius Kriegesmann’s face, stony pale where his son-in-law’s is a shade just short of purple, half rises from his own seat. His wife lays one hand over his, clenched around his wineglass. "Well," says Kirsten calmly, "now we know what happened to the glassware."
Julius turns his gaze on her, his face still thunderous. Then Ariel’s head comes up from what has seemed to be an earnest contemplation of his meal. He stares at Kirsten in the silence, then begins to laugh, a chuckle that begins somewhere around the middle of his chest and gathers force as it rises, shaking his shoulders. "Dr. Annie Rivers," he says between spasms, "you’re okay."
The tension in the room snaps, and Julius carefully sets down his Burgundy. The two children return to their suppers with only perfunctory mayhem, overseen by Smith. Julius rises to offer after-dinner brandy to the adults, pouring Courvoisier into the bottoms of ample snifters. He hands Koda hers with a smile, half rueful. "Sorry about the fireworks. It’s been stressful since the uprising, especially for a city girl like Dio who’s used to all the luxuries. She’ll be fine in the morning."
And we’ll be gone in the morning. Long gone. By ourselves. But she accepts her drink and the elder Kriegesmann’s oblique apology with a smile of thanks. The gathering breaks up into knots after that, the three men and Harriet huddling around the fireplace, Julius and Ariel gnawing the ends of expensive cigars. The Smith children—putatively Smith, at any rate, escape to play in the larger space of the lobby, where thumps and thuds attest to their energy. Tanya and Elaine seem to distance themselves from the rest, holding hands as their voices become quieter and more intimate. Letting her own hand linger on Kirsten’s arm, Dakota says, "You about ready to turn in? Tomorrow’s gonna be a long one."
Tanya looks up from her conversation with Elaine. "I’ll show you to a cabin. Unless you’d rather stay here, in the main lodge?"
"Thanks, we’ll take the cabin," Kirsten answers almost before the other woman finishes her question, and Tanya grins in silent agreement.
"It’s not always this bad," she says. "But it’ll be quieter up the road." To Elaine, she adds, "I’ll be up in a bit."
"I’ll be waiting." Elaine gives her a sultry look over the rim of her glass, all fire and smoke.
As they gather their things, Asi darts to the door ahead of them, whining. Ariel yells "Sleep tight!" to the accompaniment of quieter good nights. In the lobby, now well lit, the furniture shoved together in an improvised jungle gym, Tanya glances at her watch
and announces, "Fifteen minutes, kids. Time to hit the books."
"Awwwww, Aunt Tanya, that’s mean!"
"Pleeezzzeee, just half an hour?"
"Fifteen and not a second more. Suck it up, guys!" She lets Dakota and Kirsten out the main door onto the deck, and Asi shoots away, racing full out up the drive, turning and cannoning back at speed, only to hurtle off into the woods that line the road, barking furiously. Tanya laughs. "He’s off on one of the rabbit trails. I don’t blame him; it got pretty thick in there, didn’t it?"
The conflict on Kirsten’s face is almost comical. If she agrees, she insults the Kreigesmann family; if she does not, she contradicts the most normal one of the lot. Dakota rescues her. "People get on each other’s nerves when they get too close. Your mom and dad seem to have a pretty firm handle on it, though."
"They’re used to managing hostile takeovers. Even our family’s a breeze after that."
They set off down the path, the shadows thickening about them. The wind moves through the tops of the tall trees, sighing among the pine needles. Out here, free of the power struggles and tensions of the Kriegesmann brood, Koda’s own stress begins to fade. She feels as though she has been walking in boots half a size too small ever since they came upon Ariel and has only now been able to pull them off. Relief courses through her body, and, oddly, a sense of kinship with the woman beside them. There is strength in her, and though Koda suspects the presence of a wide ruthless streak, a kind of honesty she can respect. She says, "Your mother was with the bank, too?"
Tanya glances up at her, her face shadowed. "Oh, Harriet’s not my mother. Ari’s hers, and Humph from her first marriage. Dio’s the oldest, though she doesn’t want to be reminded of that. Then me, with Wife #2. Ari’s the baby."
"And he doesn’t like to be reminded of that?" Koda finishes the thought for her.
"Or of the fact that he never made senior VP. A doorstop with a title, that’s our Ari. His talents—well, the one good thing about this situation is that he can be more useful here than he ever was at the office." A wry smile twists her mouth. "Not that that outweighs the negatives for the rest of us."
"Dio certainly doesn’t seem to think so."
"She’s a born mall bunny. Julius got down in the muddy end of the gene pool with that one."
Cabins line the main road once they pass the lodge’s turnout and parking area. Warm light spills from their windows, and the smell of woodsmoke rises from their chimneys. Though summer solstice is only a few days away, chill descends on the mountain with the dark. Here and there, women gather children into what seem to be family homes; elsewhere, two men, or three, sit late on the front decks, smoking and talking. Koda can feel their eyes on them as they pass.
Tanya follows her gaze to the men, then back. She says, "We had quite a few hunters here when the rebellion started. Some tried to get back to their families; others stayed to help defend Elk Mountain."
"You’ve fought them?" Kirsten asks. Her voice is dry, her skepticism barely concealed.
"We caught a half dozen scouts, a couple of them human. Otherwise they either don’t know we’re here, or they haven’t bothered with us. There are relatively few women here. Maybe we’re just not worth it to them."
"You know what they’re after, then."
"We know they’ve been breeding the women they capture." Tanya’s eyes narrow, her mouth tightening in a look of pure hatred. "We heard about it from the refugees who’ve settled with us. One woman escaped from a jail in Laramie, then damned near died when she took tickweed to induce an abortion.
"As to what they’re really after—hell, no, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does. Otherwise we could stop them, or at least have an idea how."
About a quarter mile from the main lodge, she leads them onto a side path. In a small clearing at is end stands one of the A-frame cabins, its weathered boards and cedar shakes blending almost imperceptibly into the woods around it. Tanya opens the door for them, switching on the light as she does so. Someone has clearly prepared the place for visitors; the woodbox by the kiva-style fireplace is full of split logs, while a basket on the counter that divides the living area from the kitchen holds dishes, a small jar of coffee, a box of cereal, sugar and canned fruit. "Breakfast is at seven in the dining room, if you want to join us. Otherwise—" She gestures toward the provisions. "Bath’s on the other side of the kitchen; bedroom’s up in the loft. See you in the morning."
An hour later, Koda slips into bed beside Kirsten, her whole body feeling polished from the blast of the water jets in the shower. Her hair, still damp despite a session with the dryer, lies heavily across her bare shoulders. The small soapstone stove fills the space under the peaked rafters with drowsy warmth. Kirsten, the quilt pulled up around her ears, lies on her side, breathing softly and regularly, already asleep. Her pale hair spread across the pillow catches the glow from the lamp, a spill of sunlight in the surrounding dark. Wishing she were not blind-tired from the day’s trek and the bizarre familial wrangling of the evening, Dakota checks the revolver on the nightstand and settles beside her lover, drawing her against her own body, back to front, fitting together as if made for each other. Love you, babe. Love to love you, but I don’t want to wake you, and I’m just tired, so tired. . .. She never finishes the thought. Sleep claims her between one breath and the next, and she slips away into the dark.
And here we are, at the conclusion of yet another week’s episode. Hope ya’ll enjoyed. (And played ‘spot the characters’. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve a mind. Until next week!
Continued - Chapter 54
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