CHAPTER 18: SMITH’S ULTIMATUM
The shining sun was directly overhead when the smoke cleared and the smell of gunpowder began to evaporate from the blood soaked town of Harmon. The Returners were preparing for the trip home while the Doc assessed injuries for those who managed to sustain their own lives. Ray and Clyde had no choice but to stay behind with their injured brethren.
Lock stood there at the west entrance waiting to leave, counting less than a third of the soldiers they had arrived with. He saw the look in everyone’s eyes, not knowing what they were going to do next; Lock knew exactly what he was going to do. Tara stood with Lock in shock of what had happened to Ruthie, Is she dead? Will she be dead?
“What will they do to her?” asked Tara to Lock.
“I don’t know, but I know what I’m gonna do,” answered Lock being ambiguous.
“I vowed to protect her from the second she was born,” said Lock as he began leading the troop’s home to HQ.
The long trip home took longer than before due to the level of exhaustion that flamed inside of everyone, but they wanted to get home. The intensity of battle and the lives lost caused the soldiers to not speak a word the whole way home. Tara walked alongside Alex wondering what Lock was thinking while Lock and Pearl led their soldiers back to HQ as the afternoon sun got hotter and hotter.
“Halfway!” yelled Pearl back at her followers assuring them they’d be home in about three hours.
“Anything I can do?” asked Pearl sincerely.
“You can be quiet. I’m trying to think,” said Lock tranced in thought.
“I know as well as you do that you’ve already made up your mind.”
“Yes, I have.”
“Smith won’t go for it.”
“Too fucking bad.”
“You’ll be banished.”
“Ruthie means more to me than Smith does. I value Ruthie’s life more than I do my own.”
“Please, just be quiet.”
Pearl didn’t speak another word the whole way home, but she was concerned for Lock.
“He’s going after her,” said Alex abruptly with eyes forward.
Tara looked to her left where Alex was walking.
“Yes, she’s like a daughter to him.”
Tara had come to the same conclusion, but Alex saying it also confirmed her beliefs. Tara realized that Ruthie was right about Lock; he’s a good man beneath the rough exterior. Tara’s eyes canned those in front of her, so few had survived. There were only about fifteen soldiers left after the Pan’dier soldiers went home and another ten staying in Harmon to recuperate as well as Ray, Clyde, and Eve; Eve stayed behind for Ray’s sake; to make sure he was okay.
When they arrived at HQ, Smith was waiting in the dining area for survivors. Pearl, Lars, and Tara went to talk with Smith, the Velxeer archers went to gather their property for the trip home, and Lock ran straight to his room.
“So few left,” said Smith to Pearl as he looked at the people returning to their designated rooms.
“Many stayed behind to treat their wounds as to avoid infection,” said Pearl.
“The outcome?” asked Smith inquiring about who ‘won’.
“We were victorious…Sam died, sir,” said Pearl in a consoling way knowing that Smith had known Sam a long time.
“My Jehovah, anymore Returners?”
Pearl rubbed her neck, not wanting to mention the abduction.
“Well, Ray and Clyde were badly injured but alive, in Harmon recovering.”
Tara was slowly getting angry and even Julius, who was standing next to her, could tell.
“What the hell, Pearl? They took Ruthie, Smith!”
“Dammit!” yelled Smith at Pearl as he ran to Lock’s room knowing what Lock intended to do.
Pearl looked at Tara with a stern eye.
“That’s why I didn’t tell him.”
Tara’s lips tightened as she ran to the women’s dorm.
“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?” asked Julius who was confused about the whole exchange.
“Lock raised Ruthie and he thinks that she’ll still be alive when he reaches her,” started Lars, “When Smith knows that she’s already dead, which is a valid conclusion. Lock will try to go after her anyway and Smith can’t have that, because he’ll most likely die trying to save her.”
“Ah,” said Julius finally understanding,
“Well, I’m gonna go pack. Unless I’m needed here.”
“I’ll help you,” said Lars following him enthusiastically.
Alex was now alone in the dining area and decided to walk to the kitchen for a little whiskey. She got a bottle and began drinking while she stood in the kitchen and smoked a rolled cigarette. Wisco and her two cooks watched Alex relieving her stress from within the kitchen, knowing that it was a tough battle.
Smith peeked in Lock’s room to see him stuffing herbs, vials, bottles, and clothes into a duffle bag.
“What are you doing?” asked Smith.
“I’m going out.”
“You just got back.”
“Yeah, and now I have to leave again!” yelled Lock looking up at Smith with tear filled eyes.
“She’s dead, Lock!”
Lock shook his head in disagreement.
“No. She’s alive, they need her. They wouldn’t kill their hostage.”
“Lock! She’s gone. Accept it. That’s the penalty of war; you lose the ones you love. You know that.”
“I’ll be back, I’ll get Ruthie and we can start preparations for our next attack in Pan’dier,” said Lock lifting the duffle bag over his right shoulder.
“If you walk out that door, don’t bother coming back!” yelled Smith as he walked away and headed for his room.
Alex was down the hall listening the whole time. When Lock approached his door to leave his room, Alex was staring into his eyes.
“Let me go too,” she asked.
“I need you here,” whispered Lock, “Watch over things for me. You’re our only defense if an attack were to take place. An imperial could have followed us home. Protect the families and Smith, you’re worth twenty soldiers.”
Lock kissed her lightly on the cheek and breezed past her.
“Lock?” Lock turned around expecting her to beg him to stay.
“They most likely would take her to our internment camp southeast of Velxeer,” smiled Alex wishing him luck.
Alex saw the hate that enveloped Lock and saw how focused he was on his missing friend, whom he saw as a daughter. It would take some time before Sam’s death would hit him and when it did, he would most likely snap.
Lock nodded and went into the dining room.
Lock waited several minutes for Velxeer to come to the dining room; he hoped to catch a ride with them to Velxeer aboard their vessel. Lock had Pearl pleading in his ear the whole time.
“We need you here,” she kept saying, but Lock’s mind was made up.
Finally, the Velxeer archers and Reuben entered the dining area, changed into their spare clothes and holding their bags.
“Captain Antleon,” said Lock rising to his feet.
“Yes, Commander Lock?”
“May I accompany you to Velxeer? I’d like to deliver the news to Chuck personally. That he may return home. I have other business as well,” asked Lock respectfully.
“Certainly, I’d enjoy traveling with such a fine warrior,” said Reuben shaking Lock’s hand out of respect.
“I’m going too,” said Tara walking into the dining area holding a duffle bag and wearing her favorite skirt.
“No,” said Lock sounding like Smith did just a few moments ago.
Tara walked up to Lock as she looked into his eyes.
“It’s not a request. Either let me go with you or I’ll go alone my own way.”
Lock looked at Pearl, blaming her for Tara’s newfound courage.
“Let’s go,” said Lock walking towards the front entrance with Reuben as Tara and the Velxeer archers followed.
“Should I tell Smith I’m leaving?” asked Tara to the back of Lock’s head.
“If you do, you’ll miss the train,” he retorted.
Jillian stood in the dining area as the rest of them left. Reuben stopped and turned to Jillian.
“What? Get in line soldier!”
Jillian hesitated, then followed. Alex stood at the ‘Returners’ door glaring at Tara as she walked out following Lock. Pearl was downtrodden as they left HQ.
They stood at the tracks waiting for their transportation to arrive; everyone was quiet.
“How are we going to find her?” asked Tara.
“We’ll start in Velxeer and obtain horses for travel, then we’ll head south east; there’s an imperial camp there.”
“How do you know that?” asked Tara.
Lock was about to answer when he saw captain Antleon looking at him as well.
“I’ll tell you later,” mumbled Lock silently at which Tara nodded.
“Are you sure she’s alive?” asked Tara.
“She has to be.”
In the dining area of HQ, Pearl and Alex were sitting with each other drinking from the bottle of whiskey. Smith walked in the room and took a look around the desolate area that was devoid of habitation.
“Yes sir,” she said standing up respectfully.
“You’re second in command now. Lock is to be turned away if he should ever return. Understood?” spoke Smith.
Pearl paused for a moment as her heart dropped.
“Yes, sir,” she said halfheartedly.
“Where’s Tara, I’d like to speak to her,” asked Smith.
“She’s gone,” said Alex not looking at him.
“What do you mean?” asked Smith angrily at Pearl who was now his go to ‘guy’.
“She went with Lock,” said Pearl nervously.
“Damn that Lock. Enlisting people to take part in his suicide mission? It’s a death sentence.”
Alex couldn’t hold herself back any longer, she sprung up and turned to Smith; red in the face.
“Are you insane? They are trying to save their fellow Returner, it’s called teamwork and if you can’t understand that, go join the Empire…if you haven’t already,” hissed Alex at Smith just before storming off to the dorm.
He looked at Pearl after Alex left.
“Never mind turning Lock away. Kill on sight.”
Smith turned around and started for the ‘Returners’ door.
“What if Ruthie comes with him?”
Smith opened the door and peeked out again.
“She won’t,” he said before slamming the door.
Lock, Tara, and the Velxeer archers watched as the Velxeer train slowly ceased movement in front of them; the Velxeer archers and captain Antleon boarded first. Lock picked up his Damascus and his baggage, then walked to the train’s door and ascended the steps. Once atop the steps he turned back to Tara, who hadn’t moved from where she was standing.
“No turning back, partner,” said Lock.
She watched him walked into the train and could see him through the car windows walking to the middle of the car and taking a seat by the window. She looked down at the blue bandana wrapped around her right palm. She took a deep breath and walked to the train and climbed the steps.
“I’m coming, sister,” whispered Tara to herself.