For a brief moment I hear nothing. Nothing at all—my mind and my senses blank, and it’s the most peaceful I remember feeling for the last thirty years. Through the corner of my eye I spot my satchel riding on the seat beside me. The burdens of the moment flood back in as I return the bag to the floorboard.
Straightening up, I grip the wheel with both hands, finally realizing the engine isn’t running. I take a deep breath and crane my neck to look back up the hill. With no signs of pursuit I turn the key. The baby starts right up, never skipping a beat.
After a blessedly uneventful couple hours, I arrive at Fort Belknap. Abandoned since shortly after the Civil War, not much of the place remains, but it makes for a meeting place I can control. Driving past the crumbling stone pillars of the entrance, my mind replays the same thoughts it’s been brooding on for the last hundred and twenty minutes—whether Isabella and Abby were able to make it. Whether they were safe. And healthy.
I hadn’t seen any signs of the plague since Breckenridge, where a sign had been posted more or less telling people to stay the hell out. I roll past the stone building that served as the magazine and park behind it. Three times I tap my dead watch, hanging again from the mirror. Turning off the engine, I step out onto the frozen ground with effort—my old body stiff, frozen and bruised. The groin pull forces me to drag my left leg like a cripple, leaving a trail through the light powdering of snow.
I duck under low-hanging live oak branches until I reach the mostly intact remains of a small stone house. In the past it might have been an officer’s. At the moment, it’s wrong. I told Isabella to light a lamp. A shiver ripples through my aching body. They didn’t make it.
I limp up to the front door. Lifting my hand to push it open, I hesitate with my fingers resting on the rough wooden grain. The clouds break, pierced by moonlight for the first time that night. Something’s not right. I glance at my feet where tracks lead to the door. It takes me a moment. A heavy boot print sunk a quarter inch into the spongy ground couldn’t be Isabella’s, and I know it ain’t mine.
A branch snaps in the trees behind me. Putting my shoulder down I burst through the door and three strides inside the single-room building before slipping in a puddle. Re-pulling my groin, I dip awkwardly to one knee and barely catch myself before tumbling into the far wall.
A skittering object comes to rest in the far corner, swept there by the door. Men’s voices drift inside, barking gruff orders and getting closer. My mind is afire with anger and fear. This isn’t the plan. Why won’t they leave us alone? Why couldn’t God honor one solitary man’s plan to protect his family?
I scuttle toward the far corner, groping for the mystery object, groping for a scrap of hope, anything. What I find is little Abby’s shoe—pink with a white buckle, her favorite. My fingers stick to it, the shiny surface smudged with blood. My whole hand and my foot are dripping with coagulating blood.
My mind screams, then my lungs, my throat, giving voice to the rage, the grief. The darkness that had been hibernating within my soul, licks the insides of the stone walls like tongues of fire, like dynamite tearing at the surface of the earth bursting through a hidden seam and into the light of day.
“Go in and get him!” The voice is Vezzoni’s. And if there is a hell, I know in that moment that it’s my new mission to put him there. Even if I have to introduce him to the devil personally. Ignoring the signals sent from my exhausted muscles, I pick myself off the floor and lunge for the back window and the trip wire set to spark off 35 pounds of TNT.
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