[this page is a mirror of this original]

Homecoming


Part 3 of 3

by
Nathan Barton

Lead, Twincities Corp

She looked again at the print-out. Francis Marion Smith had withdrawn fifteen dollars in cash from a machine in Deadwood, three miles away, late yesterday evening. He is alive. He is, was, here!

The manager was holding a voice-only phone at her. "Here, Sergeant Wilson, call over to the Bullock. It's worth a try."

Eagerly, she dialed the name supplied by the teller. On the phone, she explained. Her face fell as she heard the reply. "No one by that name. No one of that description. Sorry, ma'am."

Her face told the manager. He gave her an unexpected hug. But when she left and went back out on Main, she felt deeply grieved and inordinately disappointed. To be so close. To be so close.

She decided that she was going to sit down somewhere, get a bite to eat, and decide what to do next. Unbidden, her feet carried her to the edge of the Open Cut, where she had seen a cafe last night. This time, the scum bags that had accosted her last night were absent. Evil hates the light of day. And people willing to fight for themselves.


Open Cut - Reprise

Kathleen felt blinded by the bright balcony as she emerged from the relative darkness of the drift. But even after her eyes adjusted to the light, she still ignored the spectacular view of the vast expanse of the Open Cut. She paid scarcely more attention to the balconies and galleries above the cafe, or to the abandoned working floor and the new factories below. What can I do with this latest datum?

She stepped to the counter and ordered the first meal on the menu. Still mostly oblivious to the world around her, she turned to find a chair.

"Kathleen Wilson?" It was the voice of Douglas Calvert, that voice that sounded so familiar, but that she could not place. He waved his hand at her and she walked to his table, one of those next to the guardrail. "Really, milady Wilson, fancy seeing you here. Please, join me. I do hate to eat alone, but I don't know many people here in Lead, so I'll take what I can."

Against the instincts of her internal warning system, Kathleen sat down next to him, where she could see the entrance to the balcony. There was no connection between this balcony and any other, sideways, up or down. It bothered her to be sitting with someone she was more convinced than ever was military intelligence. But she tried to be polite.

"Certainly, milord Douglas. Thank you for asking me. Are you about finished up on this trip?"

"Yes, milady. I finished my meetings here and in Deadwood. I'm leaving for Chadron after lunch, in fact. I'll be catching the one o'clock south." Out of habit, they both looked at their watches. Kathleen's read 1205. "Plenty of time, I think."

"Certainly. You're leaving from Lead West Station?" He nodded.

"How about you? Have you been able to make any more progress on finding your fiancÚ?"

"Everything seems to come to a dead end sooner or later, I fear. I am running out of ideas, and running out of time. I may have to give up for right now, and get more time after reporting in at Camp Rapid. There is some indication he may be down in Dawes County." She thought about mentioning her latest news, but something made her not say anything. "Even though I've got several people still looking, I don't expect much from them."

He nodded sympathetically. Just then, the cook delivered Kathleen's food and they paused. After a few moments, he said, "Look, milady Wilson, I realize I'm just a chance acquaintance, but would you mind telling me a bit about this entire thing? It might help to have a sympathetic ear. Your fiancÚ, Francis, how did you meet him, and how did he get hurt?"

Why does this man disturb me so? He is just trying to be helpful. Perhaps it will help to talk this over again with someone. And if he is Intel, well, who knows? She began telling him how she and Francis had met, how they had fought together, how they had fallen in love, how Francis had been wounded and invalided out. Through her story, Douglas listened attentively and sympathetically. As she continued the story, though, he started asking questions, disturbing questions.

"Did he write you?" She explained about the loss of commo that had bedeviled the entire northwestern front. She was telling him about the messages she found on her computer when he suddenly pushed his plate away, burying his head in his arms. She stopped in mid-word.

"Milord, are you okay? Citizen Calvert?" She started to stand up and move to check on him, thinking he had choked.

But he spoke. "Your finance fought in that big battle in Schoolhouse Gulch."

"Yes, that seems to be the case. That much, everything agrees on."

"He fought again in that battle, even though they didn't think he could fight again. He was proving them wrong, you see."

She started to say that might have been part of it, but he continued. After that, she couldn't get a word in.

"He felt he had to prove that he could still contribute, that he wasn't worthless. He wanted to show he could still be worthy of you. And he was. He fought as part of a very successful scratch team of local defenders. Unfortunately, they were outflanked by a Cody recon team."

"How do you know..."

"There were five of them that had fought together. Two of them died right after that attack from the rear when a shell exploded overhead, a third died just minutes later, as they escaped back to their supplemental position. They thought the other unit was protecting them, and didn't realize those were Cowboys approaching. But your fiancÚ and one other person were captured, rather than being killed. Your fiancÚ was again badly wounded, as was the other person. The Cody and Hardin troops didn't have much medical support by that time, and they had little to give to prisoners, especially to civilians who were so rude as to fight against them."

He left his head cradled in his arms as he talked. "The invaders took them back to Sundance, and started trying to get some information out of them. They were sure that there were secret routes through that maze of hills and gulches around Tinton and Moskee, and that these two could tell them where.

"They tortured them, with drugs and physical devices. The tortures were unbelievable, but mercifully, they didn't have to endure them very long. Someone helped them to escape, and they were dumped back, almost dead, near Green Mountain. A Cav patrol picked them up and got them back to a medical station. Somehow, your finance survived, at least physically.

"The medical treatment was a miracle, actually. The combination of drugs, injuries, lack of food, and plain old-fashioned brutal torture was a hard one to beat. Among other things, extensive plastic surgery was essential to reconstruct his features, and the damage was so bad that the surgeons couldn't restore his appearance." He suddenly fell silent.

Kathleen took his arm in her hand. "Look, just how do you know all this? How do I know you aren't making this all up? You're not Hank Fish; he died. Who are you? Were you there when they were found? Did you know Francis?" Even while asking, she knew some of her questions were foolish. This is what she was hoping for! But why is he acting so strange?

"No," he said with his head still on the table. Around them, people were turning to look and offer help. "No, they couldn't repair all the damage. Especially not all the internal damage, so they..." Again, he stopped, and suddenly, pushing her hand away, he raised his head from the table.

This man is insane. Madness showed in his eyes, and blood suffused his face. A hideous network of scars, previously mostly hidden beneath the surface of his skin, disfigured the face beyond recognition. His mouth hung loosely, and he had to pronounce each word carefully. And his voice still sounded vaguely familiar. The faintest glimpse of truth began to dawn, ghastly in its implications.

"They administered drugs to keep them alive and to try and get them to talk." His voice grew very soft and forced. "They gave them a witch's brew of the stuff. Francis and Hank babbled a lot, but nothing the enemy wanted to know. Even after they were freed, they thought they were being tortured by the Cav unit, and when the medics treated them."

He again stopped speaking. Kathleen had pushed back from the table, unsure of what to do. "Are you MI?"

"MI," he echoed. "No more, no more. Too much torture, too much killing." But he looked at her as if he was planning to resume those activities, and fear flashed through her. He was mad, through and through. She thought of drawing her gun, but wondered if the man was sane enough to react properly to the threat. Around them, the on-lookers, what few there were, had returned to their conversations when Douglas had taken his head off the table. She glanced around for help, for something to act as a distraction.

He couldn't have killed Fran, because how could Fran still be alive if this madman had killed him. Is he hunting for Fran too? She looked at Douglas again. He stared back, eyes bright and wild, in that face out of a nightmare. "Citizen Calvert, what is happening to you? What are you trying to do? Can I help?"

"Help?" Suddenly, his voice sounded lost, uncertain. "Yes, I would like some help, but there isn't anything anyone can do. We are past help, past hope."

Like the flicking of a switch, the madness in his eyes suddenly seemed to die. He looked at her as though he were seeing her for the first time. He closed his eyes, blinked several times.

She backed up further, ready to throw herself out of her chair. The entire situation was insane, unreal. "Douglas Calvert, what are you doing? Are you sure I can't help?"

"Kathleen Rebecca?" His voice was a scratched, harsh whisper. "Is that really you, Kathleen Rebecca? My love, is that you? I love you, Kathleen 'Becca. Time to saddle up, though. Got to move out."

The voice was unrecognizable, but the way he said her name (the first time Calvert had ever addressed her by her Christian names) was heart achingly familiar. "Fran! Francis?" No, you can't be Francis...

"Francis Marion Smith, Staff Sergeant Retired, 703-45-6782. I request medical assistance under the North American Mercenary Convention."

"Francis, is this possible?"

"Kathleen Rebecca, that can't be you. I must be hallucinating. It's these drugs they've got me on. I have got to resist."

Douglas, or Francis, or whoever, suddenly came out of his chair and leaned over the table. "You are not going to trick me like this," he whispered hoarsely. "You should be ashamed to try and trick me like this..."

Kathleen forced herself to keep her hands away from her knife and pistol. He hadn't even made a motion towards his own weapons, which he wore high up on his belt.

He was now whispering to himself. "I can't let myself believe this; I have got to get out of here, got to try and escape. If I can get hold of a weapon." He looked around, his eyes now wild again. "I need a weapon." He acted as though he did not realize he was carrying a pistol and knife.

The other patrons were now again alarmed, and several of them had slowly stood and moved away, hands ready near their pistol belts. The counter girl was talking on the phone, softly but with excitement on her face. Suddenly, two men in white Medical Corps uniforms walked out of the drift. Several people already on the balcony suddenly moved to get out of the way. The medics each carried dart stunners, and one had a field stretcher slung over his shoulder.

Kathleen's eyes flicked in their direction momentarily, looking back at Douglas Calvert just as he launched his body in an attack. Oh, no, he's coming after me... but he wasn't going after her. Instead, he lunged towards the man two tables over, who had stood and wore his pistol on the side nearest them. In an amazing leap, Douglas reached the man, ripping the pistol out of the holster. Douglas then rolled over the table and behind it, squeezing several unaimed shots in the general direction of the medics. They dropped and froze. Douglas turned slightly and sighted down the barrel of the .45 at Kathleen.

"Before I escape, I have to make sure you can't trick me again. You have to die..." He fired at her and she felt and heard the impact of the slug on the flagstone floor.

Kathleen had thrown herself back and rolled over on her shoulder, while clawing for her pistol. She started bringing her pistol up.

Too late; he's got me dead in his sights. From above, a intense red line suddenly flashed, and Douglas fell back against the guardrail, twisting away from the searing heat. The pistol boomed again, unaimed. This shot was well above her, and ricocheted against the ceiling of the kitchen. Blood sprayed from his shoulder from the laser; it had hit something, but didn't seem to slow him. A second beam flashed, hitting next to his head and sending tiny drops of molten metal flying from the guardrail. But Douglas was already lining up for another shot at Kathleen. She was jammed up against a fallen table, unable to move.

"Fraud! You can't fool me. She's not here, she's with the Old Guard! I'll escape or make you kill me."

Bleeding from his shoulder and with burns on his face, again showing the vivid marks of hidden scars, he held the pistol with both hands and sighted directly on Kathleen. She braced and fired, once, twice. Blood blossomed on the yellow shirtfront, just below the extended pistol. He sagged back against the guardrail, and his next round shattered stone just a few feet in front of him. He pushed himself suddenly upright, even while the pistol was sagging in his grasp.

Bloody froth bubbled on his lips, and he was pulling the pistol back up by sheer guts. He was dead, she knew of a certainty, but just wouldn't stop moving. He brought the barrel back on line with her. Two more shots rang out, from people on the balcony. He acted like they had not touched him, even though more bloody spots appeared on his torso. Again the laser flashed, and Kathleen saw the beam burn into his forehead momentarily before the back of his head exploded. She didn't fire again, but a half-dozen other rounds hammered his upper body, and the impact knocked the lifeless body over the guardrail.

"Top, are you still with us?" In surprise, she looked up at the balcony above. There, leaving over and with a laser pistol in his hand, was who looked like Captain Crane. Couldna be. He's at Camp Rapid. She grunted and tried to stand up, and when she looked again, Crane, if that's who it was, was gone. Now I'm seeing things. There was dead silence.

She pulled herself up with her free hand on a table, and tried to clear her throat. The harsh bite of cordite and ozone filled the area. Shaking her head, she stepped forward and fell flat on her face. Her left leg had folded under her. Looking at it, she saw a jagged tear; one of the madman's ricochets had torn into her thigh just below the hem of her kilt. It had been bleeding profusely; there was quite a pool of blood on the flagstones. She shook her head and tried to roll over, but one of the medics was there and kept her from moving.

"Let me look at that. Other than the berserker, you seem to be the only person wounded." He gently rolled her over, as the other medic came over. "Ah, milady, you seem to have lucked out. The bullet went right through."

She looked down at the wound where he was sponging blood away from her ruined bodysuit and exposed flesh. It was not as jagged as it had seemed, but it was nearly six inches long and deep into the fat layer, but just grazed the top of her muscle. It still didn't hurt, at least.

"Looks pretty straight forward, milady," the medic told her. Do you want me to patch you up here or do you want us to take you in? Homestake Clinic's only about a hundred meters in, and we can carry you on the stretcher."

She looked at him, an older man, maybe mid-forties, with a Nurse First Class rank badge over his name tag, and the blue and white checkerboard of Emergency Medicine. He had four silver stars and a gold one sewn on one sleeve: seventeen combat tours, eight and a half years. Just as she started to answer, the other medic came back and joined them.

He wore a MedTech Chief's badge with Psychology colors of blue and gold. The Psych Service was nicknamed the "Cub Scouts" because of that combination. "Meat wagon crew on the way down there now, to pick the body up, sir. Excuse me, milady, but could you identify the man?"

"Go ahead, Nurse Edwards, and patch me up here. If you don't think it will take anything you need to do in a clinic. And it's Sergeant, also. All this 'milady' routine really is starting to get to me.

"Sorry, Chief, didn't mean to ignore you, but I'd like Nurse Edwards to start on this before the shock wears off and it starts hurting. I knew the man as,... as Douglas Calvert, of Chadron."

The tech swore under his breath. "Those silly twits in Rapid really mucked it up this time. He was more than twenty-four hours overdue in Chadron, and he'd missed two doses, and they just tell us now that he needed to be picked up."

The nurse chose that moment to spray Kathleen's leg with a numbing burst of disinfecting local anesthesia, and her head swam from the fresh shock. She let her arms sag and her back and head rest on the flooring. She turned her head and the cool stone felt wonderful against her cheek.

"What do you mean, he was overdue?"

"He is, well, was, a psychiatric outpatient on a Code Brown, which means he needs to have medication on a regular basis to remain stable. They are supposed to notify us if such a patient is more than twelve hours late in returning to his normal area. Now, Sergeant, you are?"

"First Sergeant Kathleen O'Rourke Wilson," came another voice. This belonged to a third man in Med Corps white who now joined the tech by Kathleen's head. "Sorry to interrupt, Chief, but I'm afraid I'll need to step in here. I know a bit more of the whole picture. Chief, if you would, could you explain the situation to the Public Safety Proctor over there? She seems just a bit tense, and with good reason. But I think we have enough witnesses, with our testimony, to avoid a formal inquiry and trial."

The newcomer wore an insignia Kathleen had never seen before, on a black background. That, she remembered, was Pathology's color. He knelt down and looked at her, taking her hand in a typical doctor's habit.

"I am really sorry about this, First Sergeant. Sorry that you didn't get the explanations you deserved, sorry that we didn't make it in time, sorry that we caused such a risk to you. I'm Administrator Second Cotton, from the Division Headquarters at Fort Meade Hospital. I am the person you have been trying to find for the past two days. I can fill you in on why and what just happened. I am sorry to have to be doing this like this."

Kathleen saw the nurse mix the skin glue and start to work on stitching up the wound. Even through the remnants of shock and the anesthetic, she felt the cold bite of the glue. She looked back at Dr. Cotton. "Yes, doctor. Douglas Calvert was Francis Marion Smith. He was also apparently completely insane."

His eyes widened. "How did you know that, First Sergeant?"

"Well," and then she gasped with a particularly nasty poke into her leg, "well, he told me. But I think I would have figured it out in a fairly short time, but I didn't need to."

"Do you know the whole story then?" He looked at her in alarm, but his voice was low, and she replied the same way, as if repeating a briefing she'd attended.

"Enough to figure out the full thing, I think. He fought in the battle in Schoolhouse, Cody or Hardin troops captured him, nearly killed him with drugs and torture. He escaped, was found, and wouldn't give up and die and keep everyone satisfied with a dead hero, like poor Hank Fish. Instead, he lived, but he was insane. He kept flashing back, thinking he was back in enemy hands and trying to escape. So you did something to him with therapy and drugs that could keep him sane and give him a false history that didn't cause him to flash back. But you couldn't expunge him from your records, since F.M.Smith was not really dead, and every time someone tried to track him down, you had to fake up some more records to keep him from finding out his own secret and to keep him isolated from anyone who might trigger a relapse. Since he already required extensive reconstructive surgery, you just had his appearance modified.

"I don't know if that's the complete story, but I'd bet it's close. I'll never trust a doctor again." She glared at him, but he didn't lose his expression of concern and regret. Well, at least he's a sincere little tin god. ...or a good actor.

Finally, he spoke. "I am amazed that you have figured out so much of it. What you say is mostly true. It was done with good intentions, but there are several pieces of information you don't know, that will put the Med Corps in a different light, at least a little bit better.

"Your fiancÚ," and he nodded when her eyes flared. "Yes, I know you were engaged. Your fiancÚ was a most remarkable man; he had a ferocious will to live. I was the chemical/bio specialist called in to treat him when he was evacuated to Spearfish, and later to Fort Meade. He should have been dead, Sergeant. They had overdosed him on a witch's brew of pharmaceuticals that still amaze me. His face was a total ruin; they'd fractured his skull in a dozen places, broken his jaw twice, and worked on him with knives. They lost count of how many units of blood he took, and when the fighting picked up again, he was triaged as 'comfort and ease.' But he lived; without life support, without anything but minimal treatment.

"Once we knew he was going to live, we started trying to correct the chemical imbalance in his body. He was psychotic; he'd start on some chain of thought and end up in the interrogation cell in Sundance. Someone came up with the idea of working with the damage, which would create an amnesia. We created a totally different personality for him, one that didn't go to war even in nightmares, and didn't end up in Sundance. But he was far more resourceful than we gave him credit for. Three times in the first year, he ended up "accidentally" discovering the case of F.M.Smith, then finding that he was Smith, and going down the same path to insanity.

"The problem is, our entire computer system is designed to be as foolproof as possible to keep from loosing records or changing data already entered into the record. We can't just go in and delete F.M.Smith from our records. It's a very good system.

"We started doctoring the medical records because he was hacking the system and extracting them to learn about himself. It was his subconscious trying to survive so he could escape. We finally buried Francis Marion Smith's records so well that he couldn't get to any that made sense. He stopped going insane every quarter. We kept him on medication to keep his body in shape, and his mind as clear as possible, as Douglas Calvert. Until this week, we thought we had him stable. It had been six months since the last spell. He seemed happy, seemed able to do the things that were important to him, both as Francis M. Smith and Douglas Calvert. He was a very upright man, Kathleen, a good and faithful christian. I am proud to have known him. Yes, and proud that I kept him alive even this long, because he contributed a lot to people, to us, and he deserved some happiness.

"We made a mistake, no, we made a lot of mistakes. But one in particular. We knew that a lot of people would be concerned about Douglas, about Francis. We had a list of people that should be told what had really happened if they came and asked. There were about a dozen people on the list, a list in an interrupt program on the Med Corps net. You were on the list; were, but got dropped off by accident when the entire system crashed that dozen times or so during the second series of attacks on the commo systems in the last raids. Something hiccuped and your name was removed. That wasn't part of the protected data the way an individual's medical data is. Nobody noticed, not since others were removed because they were dead; his sister, a body here, one there.

"What should have happened and didn't was that when you first inquired at Moskee, I or another doctor, Jim Hansen, down in Chadron, were to have been notified and gone to meet with you. Instead, I found out about this early this morning. By the time I found out what was happening and got the nurse and tech dispatched to find him, it was noon.

"Your efforts to find out about Francis were very, very similar to the methods he used to find out about himself, so the computer merely implemented the plan designed to foil his, your efforts. You seem to have more of a knack for the search than he usually did, I might add. He's never found himself as fast as you have. If he hadn't been here on business, by sheerest dire coincidence, I might have gotten to you first, before you found him. But he was here on business and met you, and learned enough to deduce his own history once more. When we started getting inquiries concerning Francis Marion Smith, at first it appeared that he was trying once again to track his history. Usually, with the medication he is on, it takes him a while to get to the point where the process is irreversible and he slides completely into the berserk phase. This time, actually seeing you and hearing about himself must have accelerated the process. We never dreamed you were involved."

The nurse was now wrapping her leg in an issue bandage. She lay silent.

"I have his real medical records, both as Francis and as Douglas. You, by the way, are still legally Francis' heir. I don't think Douglas could have an heir, but he had what may be an invalid will giving everything to a church in Chadron. But as the heir, you are entitled to the medical records, which had been kept on a separate computer in my office and at Chadron."

For a minute, no one said anything.

"He was insane," she finally said. "He was insane, but he loved me." I loved him, and I will always love him. Francis, God keep you.

"Yes, he did," Cotton said.

The nurse gave her his hand, and Cotton assisted her to stand up and then sit in an uprighted chair. Most of the people were gone, but the counter girl flashed a smile at Kathleen as she stood. The public safety proctor had disappeared, and nothing except some blood, some ricochet marks, a gouged rail, and some melted metal remained. The hum of the city was clearly heard around them.

"Thank you, Nurse, Chief. I appreciate the help, and I understand your concern. You did your best. Thank you for trying."

She turned to Cotton. Her tone was cold, and she didn't try to hide it. "Doctor, I assume I can reach you through Pathology at Fort Meade?" He nodded. "Very well. Thank you for the information. Good-bye."

She picked up her pistol, fed fresh rounds into it, and replaced it in the holster. Sword, belt pouch, keys, everything still there. I've got to get out of here. She stood up and walked off the balcony, still ignoring the view. She tried, less successfully, to ignore her own thoughts.


Now abideth three... (Lead and Deadwood)

Kathleen made it to the little courtyard of the Homestake Center with its rock garden and found a bench. She had found an elevator that got her back up to street level, but even so, she was as weak as a kitten as the combat shock took her.

She sat on the bench, head bowed. Her wounded leg was stretched out in front of her, and blood had already seeped through the brown bandage, darkening it with a wet stain the size of her fist, and thus making it contrast more with the torn fabric of the bright green body suit. My brand new outfit already ruined. I might as well go back to wearing a uniform. She then let her mind go blank, searching for relaxation to let her body stop the seepage of fluid, and trying to ignore the world around her.

"First Sergeant. Top! Kathleen Wilson. Kathleen. Kathleen Rebecca."

At the third calling of her name, she finally looked up. With a gasp, she stood up and snapped to the salute.

"Captain Crane, it really was you," she said in a surprised tone.

"At ease, Top Solider," he said with a waved salute. He was also in civvies. "But it's not 'Captain Crane,' it's Daniel, Kathleen Wilson. You need a friend more than a commander right now, eh?

"Sorry I took so long to get to you. I took a wrong turn, and then the public safety proctor, and another wrong turn..."

"Sir, you always were lousy with a map." She tried not to show how touched she was by his concern and coming after her.

He knelt down beside her and looked at the leg's damage. "We need to get that bandage changed already. And it looks like some new clothing might be in order."

He helped her to her feet. "Come along, let's get you out of here. I've got a room in Deadwood. I'll find a taxi."

"Nay," Kathleen told him. "I've a car, a runabout. In the parking garage across from the museum."

"Right." They started uphill, leaving Lower Downtown and Lead-in-the-Cut behind them. It was slow, as Kathleen was finding the aftershock was hitting hard and the leg produced a sharp, stabbing pain with every step. She leaned against him.

"How did ye know?" Kathleen's words were labored and slow; the pain was starting to wash over her in waves. Neither of them saw that MedTech Richards was following them on the opposite sidewalk, knowing that soldiers were sometimes overoptimistic on how they would fare after a wound. But Kathleen didn't notice him, or even the morgue wagon as it hissed by.

"How did ye know?" she asked again.

"How could I not know, Kathleen? The Black Hills are still a pretty small place, after all. I knew you were having trouble, that you couldn't find Francis. You are friends to a lot of people, you know. You are also easy to describe. I thought you might need some help, some moral support if nothing else, so I left Jim Graham in charge and came."

"I did need help. I'm glad you came."

He looked at her dirty, torn clothes, stinking of cordite. Her face was smudged and hair matted. Her eyes were withdrawn, shadowed. "You're welcome. I'm glad I came when I did."

In the dim coolness of the parking garage, she pointed out the little blue runabout with Crook County markings. He helped her into the right side, paid the meter, and climbed in. Kathleen had already punched in the unlock code, and turned on the main power. He backed and pulled out, turning right on Main and continuing uphill.

"Perhaps you need a rest and then we can start looking for Francis together. What happened there, anyway? Who was that?"

She leaned back in the seat. "No, Daniel. We don't need to look any more. That was Francis. I just killed my fiancÚ." There, I said it, I admitted it. And I will have to live with it for the rest of my life. "I just found out; I thought he was a man named Calvert. But he was insane. And I killed him."

In fits and starts, as she rode blindly through Lead, through Central City and New Terraville, and into Deadwood, she told Daniel Crane about the last hour. She caught a glimpse of a clock at the first main intersection in Deadwood: it was 1250. It took less than an hour to destroy my world. To finish destroying my world, at least. After ten years of war, everything I fought for disappears in an hour.

Daniel turned south past the railroad station and between the old Post Office and the Courthouse, and accelerated south on Sherman Street. Traffic was heavy and they had to wait for a train. They wended their way through Ingelside and up to the Deadwood Gulch Lodge. They sat in the runabout while Kathleen completed her story, including what she had found that day, and what she now realized it mean. After a while, he came around the car, and helped her out and into his room. Fortunately, it was a ground floor room with an outside door. Any numbing shock was completely gone from the leg wound, and it seemed to be hitting her worse than a normal combat would have.

"I dinna know, sir, just what I could have done differently. But the fact is," and it was harder to say it a second time. "I killed Francis, I killed my fiancÚ. There's no other way of putting it."

"Lay down on the bed, Kathleen. I've got to change that bandage." He seemed to be ignoring her words, but then he said. "Look, I know what you are saying, Top, but that is not the way I saw it.

"First, he shot at you, and even I heard him say he had to kill you. You had no choice unless you were going to die yourself, as well. But also, I fired the first shot at him, and I fired the beam that killed him. Your two shots would have probably killed him, but he was already dying, and I and the other half-dozen people in the place finished him off. As we had to; he was insane; he was mad and no hope of saving him, in anyone's judgment. He was trying to kill you, just as easily would have killed a half-dozen others. I don't think that was your intended, I don't think that was Fran Smith. I am afraid he died a long time ago, no matter that his body was still alive."

She gritted her teeth as he pried the bloody cloth from her skin. He looked, set the bandage aside, and went to his duffel bag. She grinned, or rather, grimaced. Captain Crane always came prepared. He pulled out his personal first aid pack. It had everything you could imagine: she'd thought him quite the hypochondriac the first times she'd seen it.

"Kathleen, I will not let you blame yourself for this situation, and for doing what you had to do. I will not let you condemn yourself for saving your life. It might not be what you wanted to happen, but it's better than a GI coffin. You have no guilt for his blood."

He sprayed the entire area with a multispray while checking the sealing. "Well, they did a good job of gluing you up, at least. You just leak a lot, and they just don't seem to have the same kind of field dressings that we are used to. I guess we have priority. But you aren't going to be running very much for a while." He applied a fresh gauze pad and began wrapping the leg carefully.

"This pad has a sealant on the top side, Kathleen. Let's leave it on for about six or eight hours, then change to one that'll let the skin breathe. Now we need to see about getting you something a little less beat-up to wear. While I'm doing that, I'll let you go ahead and rest, if you think you can." He looked at her from where he kneeled by her leg, elbow on the bed.

"Cap'n, Daniel, thanks for the help. But I need to go and let you get on back to Camp Rapid. Actually, I'm going to go ahead and come on down tomorrow.

"But Daniel, I... I need to know. How did you know I was in Lead? I'm not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, but..."

He patted her knee in a comradely gesture. She took it in the manner intended. "Let's just say I called in some favors from people. You are not the only qualified investigator in this unit, after all. And I only had a few hour's trail to follow. Furthermore, young lady, you really are easy to describe and remember. 'Easy on the eyes,' is how one of the men described it."

"Who?" Her voice actually sounded indignant.

"Nay, milady. You'll never know."

She sighed. "Just my luck. Somebody thinks I'm pretty, and I can't find out who it is."

"Hold on, now. I think you're pretty."

"You don't count," she was trying to tease. "You're an officer."

"Right. You had another question, before I come up with some nasty extra duty for you?"

She realized she was giddy now, her body's reaction to having survived another firefight. I could stick my tongue out, but lying flat on my back it just wouldn't communicate the same thing. "Aye. Why did you come after me? You know that I can usually take care of myself, and getting shot at in a civilian incident is not all that common, surely. What made you come look for me?"

He looked at her, and stood, sliding back into the chair that faced the single bed. He cocked his head to one side, thinking. But he did not answer, and after a good half minute, she grew worried.

"Well, ye dinna have tae tell me, if..." He waved his hand at her.

"No, I will tell you. It's just that I want to make sure that what I say doesna sound stupid. Top, I had a hunch, a feeling that you needed help... sounds a bit spaced, eh? It started the evening of the day you left, and got stronger yesterday and last night... I had a hunch and..."

"Yes," she prompted. "There's more to this. You came because you had a hunch, but there is more to it than that, Captain. I know you too well."

"Do you?" he asked, looking at her steadily. "Aye, I guess you do, at that. We've been through a lot together. I had a hunch, yes, a strong one, that you needed help. And I had a feeling, and I had to tell you something..." He looked away.

Kathleen felt a cold shiver run down her spine. This is the most outspoken, blunt man in the Forces. What is the problem? What does he have to tell me that is so bad that he hesitates so to say it? Kathleen, lass, you are in deep kimchi. She searched her conscience, thought about what she might have left undone.

"Look, Cap'n. Whatever it is cannot possibly be that bad... I mean, I didn't really expect to keep the diamond, if that is what you're worried abo..." A thought occurred to her. "You didn't find out about Francis, did ye?"

He shook his head. "No, nothing like that. Nor are you being replaced as First Sergeant, unless you want to be. Nothing at all like that." He took a deep breath. "Top... Kathleen... I had to come and find you to tell you... to tell you that I love you."

At first, his quiet, matter of fact words didn't sink in. "Oh, was that it?" She lifted her head, and then let it fall back on the pillow.

"So you came sixty miles and spent all this time tracking me down to tell me that you love me. After we have been living in the same tent for over two years, you have to wait until now to drop everything to come and tell me that... that you love me..." And I thought that I knew this man all these years.

He looked away. "And because I had a hunch that you were in big trouble. When I saw you about to get yourself shot, I just thanked God I had let the combination of the hunch and this make me come after you.

"Actually, I wasn't certain but that you'd already found Fran and might even be hitched by the time I found you. But... but I still had to tell you. Even if it is the hardest thing I've had to do in a long time."

There was a long pause again, and as his words really sank in, Kathleen found herself still stunned by this.

"I love you, Kathleen Rebecca O'Rourke Wilson.

"It's not something that I just realized. I know this sounds really weird, but I think I half fell in love with you that first day I took command from Lieutenant Richardson. It's just that I didn't know it for a while, and then I didn't know how to say anything, and didn't think I should while the war was still on, and I learned how you felt about Fran...

"Just a few minutes ago, when I learned about Fran, I'm afraid that I was not as... as sympathetic as I should have been. I was too... surprised to find out that I might have a chance after all, to..." He didn't finish the sentence, but finally Kathleen did.

"...to marry me?" she asked in a very quiet, very shocked voice.

He glanced at her quickly. "Yes."

She struggled to sit up, and he stood to help her. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, but chose to stay seated. Even so, the movements made her want to scream. I'll nay be telling my children that I was proposed to while lying down in bed. Aye, and that must mean I'm thinking he's serious, and that I am too! "Daniel, do ye ken what ye are saying? Ye wish tae marry an non-com, a professional soldier, someone whose hands are red wit' blood, even the blood o' her own fiancÚ?"

She noticed he didn't glance elsewhere but kept focused on her eyes. He stood there, looking.

"Yes, Kathleen Rebecca O'Rourke Wilson. No matter how many years ye've in, no matter how many scars ye have. We make a good team. I love you." He looked suddenly relieved. "There. I said it again. I love you. Will you marry me? Will you become my wife, Kathleen Rebecca O'Rourke Wilson?"

"I... I am at a loss for words, sir... milord... Daniel."

"Please. And I cannot believe that the toughest, the smartest, the... the best-looking Top Soldier in the Forces could ever be at a loss for words."

She kept her eyes steadily on him. He is a good man. I respect him, not just as an officer or a soldier, but as a friend, a christian brother... but do I, can I love him? Should I decide now, or do I need to wait... Is it possible to be on the rebound from death?

She realized he was kneeling in front of her, and couldn't help but smile at the picture, so hackneyed and trite. "Here," she said, patting the bed beside her. "Sit up here and let my mind catch up wit' things."

"We've known each other now, for what, three years? Since ye came to the Old Guard in June of '77, when we were dug in around Arvada, before First Sergeant Giraud bought his farm."

After a pause, he said, "Yes, when you were running Second Platoon. The first time I saw you was in that dugout we were using as a CP, with nothing but a red lamp. Lieutenant Richardson introduced you, but you were more interested in making sure he got the painkiller he needed than in worrying about some rear-echelon paper-pusher who'd probably 'get killed before he could remember how to find his way around a real battlefield.' I think that's what you said.

"You gave him the shot yourself, and I remember how gentle you were. Yet he said later that you were the toughest NCO in the unit except Giraud, and the brush-off you'd given me in a very respectful manner just didn't seem to match with someone who'd give that kind of attention to someone. I found out they are just two sides of a very rare coin."

He looked at her in profile, and she decided it wouldn't hurt to lean against his shoulder again. "Aye. I remember how angry I was that they'd probably put Lieutenant Richardson on the disabled list, and here you were, spotless uniform, clean, not even a speck of dust on your boots, and straight from Brigade. The only thing you had going for you was that you weren't movie star handsome. That would have been too much."

She looked into his eyes again, from a much shorter distance. "You showed me pretty quickly that you knew your business, and what's more, that you were anything but a garret trooper. You know, you never broke your word to me... that has always meant a lot to me."

"You've always been there for a dumb rear-echelon staff jerk, too, Kathleen. What you are has always meant a lot to me, too."

She played with the ragged threads on the ruined legs of her bodysuit for a moment. She looked around the room with its clean, relatively luxurious furnishings, warm and bright. Big difference from that dugout there by the Powder River, or fifty other places muddier and bloodier than the last. I never realized he felt this way about me. Yet I couldn't ever ask for a better friend, never had a better boss. It would take a lot of getting used to, of working things out. She watched a dust mote in the sunlight streaming through the window for a moment, enjoying the warmth of his body where she leaned against him. What was I thinking, earlier, that you need to have familiar things around you to adjust to new conditions? There is life midst death; our comrades die but we live to make their deaths worthwhile. We have to say good-bye, no matter how much it hurts.

"Yes," she said.

"Yes?" She could feel his eyes on her head.

"Yes, Daniel. Yes, you always meant, still mean, a lot to me. Yes, we've come a long ways together. Yes, I will be your wife, God willing."

He put his arm around her. They sat that way for a long time. They had the time. After all, the war was over.


________________________________

Comment on this article
View all comments on this article

________________________________

Did you like this article?
Please consider rewarding the author's
hard work with a donation.


Don't have PayPa1 yet?

Books on freedom

________________________________

Please rate this article! Knowing what you like will help us provide the content you want.

bad poor average good excellent

If there's anything specific you'd like to say about this article, please do so here. Comments may be used in an upcoming Letters to the Editor.



Copyright © 2002 by Doing Freedom! magazine. All rights reserved.