The day after she arrived at the Stewert farm, Malila’s interrogation began. Her inquisitor was the man she had seen with Jesse in the village square. He was sparse with intense dark eyes behind rimless spectacles perched on a hawk-like nose, generous lips rescuing his face from severity. Instead of a close-fitting suit of black Produra, as she expected of a soldier, he wore a drab forest-green camouflage pattern with shoulder patches and “Captain Delarosa, Xavier C.” over the right breast pocket. He seemed harmless enough as he accepted a cup of Sally’s coffee and a fresh-baked biscuit. After a short while, Sally made some excuse to busy herself and left the front room to them. She made it clear to the officer that she was never farther away than a loud voice might summon.
Delarosa looked down at his coffee cup and rotated the handle clockwise by a few degrees, picked up a morsel of biscuit with a remaining smear of blackberry jam on it, and popped it into his mouth.
“Sally makes the best biscuits I know … Has she shown you her secret recipe?”
“Chiu, Malila Evanova, acting second lieutenant, serial number 59026169.”
“I see that Sally’s secrets are safe. A shame. The world would be a better place if we ate more biscuits together, don’t you think?”
“You are speaking nonsense. It is absurd talking about biscuits; you waste my time trying to make me betray the Unity.”
“That is saying a good deal, you know, wasting the time of a failed junior officer sent to the middle of nowhere. Sent because you were more expendable than a machine?”
“I am a loyal member of the Democratic Unity Forces for Security.”
“You are the first prisoner of war I have interviewed. And that explains nothing. But I must say you have made quite an impression on Captain Johnstone. It is not very frequent that Jesse voices such strong opinions.”
“And where is Captain Johnstone now?”
“Captain Johnstone asked … well, was given … a detached assignment in Lexington. I don’t know when he will be back. It is me you have to deal with, Lieutenant Chiu.” He did not smile.
After talking with Sally, Malila had recognized just how worthless the old man’s assurances would be. He had promised to look after her when they arrived, but instead he had managed to get assigned somewhere else. She should have known. Sally had said as much.
“If I’m such an incompetent, why don’t you just send me back to the Unity?”
“I would if I could, Lieutenant. We have not had any contact with the … Unity in generations. If we get close to your wall, they send hunter-killer teams after us. It is not the best way to negotiate.”
“Then let me go near the gate, and I will find my way.”
“We have tried that in the past. Those not shot out of hand were captured, restrained, and injected with something that gave them seizures. What might that be, do you think, Lieutenant?”
“That is just an outlander lie! Sapp hasn’t produced seizures in years.”
“Sapp? That’s the agent that you give your foot soldiers, isn’t it? Makes them zombies. It still doesn’t sound very good, does it?”
“I don’t know what you mean. CRNAs are loyal troops. They no longer have the cognitive abilities that got them into trouble in the first place.”
“I see. Very poetic. I didn’t think you Union types had a sense of humor. I was wrong.”
“Do you have anything to ask me, Captain Delarosa?”
“That’s more like it! Brittle, formal, and hostile to lower life-forms. Maybe I can answer a question of yours, instead?”
“What was in the buckskin roll that Captain Johnstone gave to you when we arrived?”
Delarosa’s eyes shot open. “Right to the point! You really don’t know? Okay, Acting Lieutenant Chiu, since you asked so nice. How do you think Jesse used the pulse-rifle without a registered fingerprint and ID chip?”
“I don’t know … He never said.”
“He harvested the ID chips and the fingertips of all your troopers after he captured you. That should be obvious. He tanned them in some awful stuff he carries, like salt, acid, and oil. The ID inserts have to be shared among your troopers, right? Anyway, he made a glove to use with the rifle. Man’s clever; you gotta hand it to him.”
Malila heart sank. Jesse had been carrying the key to the signature locks under her eyes … and nose … since she’d first awoken in the lean-to, bound and naked. The old man was no doubt telling all who would listen about the gullible Uni he had captured. Malila swallowed her shame.
“Thank you for pointing out my failures, Captain. I had not noticed,” she said as icily as possible. Delarosa’s candor struck her as ominous.
“Are the outlands so chaotic that they don’t try to hide their defenses?” she asked.
“Is the Unity so blind as to what constitutes a defense?” Delarosa relied, smiling.
“You talk in riddles. I am done for today. You may starve me or beat me. I will not say anything more.”
“Admirable, Acting Second Lieutenant Chiu, admirable! Let’s get another cup of coffee while I schedule you for flogging. If we are lucky, we might find cookies.”
To Malila’s surprise, Delarosa neither coerced nor threatened. He asked direct as well as subtle questions about her, her unit, and the Unity. He shared far more information than she did: he was a city kid from St. Louis, a town situated on the same Mississippi River Jesse had mentioned, as absurd as that seemed. He had grown up in a place called the Hill with his breeder-mother, donor-father, and siblings of the same parentage. The arrangement made Malila queasy.
“What are you doing in the outlands, Captain?” Malila asked.
“A good question, isn’t it? I’m not much of a country boy, but my wife, she was a farm girl from Illinois … so that is where we went to live. I worked as a federal marshal, and she and her brother ran the farm. It was a nice arrangement … as long as it lasted.”
Delarosa turned to look her in the face, his acute eyes capturing her own. “She was killed in the Meridosia Raid ten years ago. I’m guessing you’ve never heard of it. War breeds a lot of casual death.”
Malila had no answer to this and hurried on to her real point.
“Jesse acted as if the outlanders were all like him … old, primitive. Why are you telling me about the city?”
“I think he might have figured he was protecting you. He was operating kind of off the lead. He didn’t want to let the genie out of the bottle. Good policy that, in general.”
“Oh sure, protecting me from the truth … that does sound like him.”
Malila glimpsed an odd look on the captain’s face.
“You don’t like him much, do you?”
“Why should I like him, Captain? He captured me, cut me, beat me, and nearly killed me. Why should I like any of you?” she flared at him.
“Depends on how onerous you choose to make your captivity, Acting Lieutenant Chiu. Jesse suggested that you might enjoy the company of a woman close to your own age. Sally Stewert is a nice lady. I think you may have fallen onto your feet here, Lieutenant.”
“I like Missus Stewert very much, but if it hadn’t been for Jesse, I’d be back home! He made me miserable for weeks. He almost got me raped and sold to a brothel.”
“You do know our two countries are at war, don’t you, Acting Second Lieutenant? He doesn’t owe you anything.”
Before she could answer, Delarosa shrugged and changed the topic to Unity sidearms. Malila was delighted, as she was able to refuse to answer.
It was her anticipation of Delarosa’s visits that surprised her. Unity men were either her superiors, sizing her up as a protégé, or her competitors, watching for some chink in her defenses to exploit. Worst of all were her subordinates. They were ingratiating, saccharine, and looking for eventual patronage from a rising star of the Unity. Malila sighed. The hope of her having any patronage to distribute had vanished months ago.
However, Delarosa amused her. At first, he challenged her to tell stories of her homeland. Malila related the few narratives she knew, the Storming of the Hoover Building and the Battle for Wilmington, confident Delarosa was already familiar with them. Then she went on to tell him of her friends and Maddow Crèche #213, all useless information to him.
Delarosa reciprocated, not by telling stories but by relating wonders. He would set the scene with words and the pitch of his voice. He impersonated each character with distinctive accents and phrases.
“Who goes there afoot on my land, you bold foeman? Approach, if you dare, and be tried by the Strangler,” boomed an alien, brutal voice.
Malila felt her heart race.
“Oedipus of Corinth, out to seek my fortune, to foil a worse fortune at home than abroad. And what of this trial to each stranger you give, O Sphinx?” said another voice, smaller yet manly, forthright, and noble.
“Mere words, fainting man, but the forfeit is death. Take you the wager?”
Dread seized her as the foundling Oedipus endangered himself to save his family. Malila applauded Oedipus’s cleverness, his success, his noble struggle with Apollo’s plague … and wept at his downfall. It left her exhausted.
In turn, Delarosa became a dying emperor, a Saracen maiden, the village drunk, and an oriental sage. Soon Malila gave up all pretensions at exchanging stories and just listened as she was moved to laughter, tears, and longing.
Malila had thought she was sophisticated. With Luscena’s help, she had experienced the best of Unity performing arts: magnificent productions of light and sound. With each elaborate program, a boutique ThiZ, tailored for the performance, was distributed. The shows had been marvelous, but Malila couldn’t remember them now. Her heart pounded as Delarosa painted with mere words.
After two weeks at the Stewerts’, Malila saw that some special event was approaching. Moses cleared out a barn before throwing sawdust on the floor. More confusing, he cut conifer boughs to decorate the house and the barn. Wagons arrived with townspeople, who assembled long trestle tables. Sally made more succotash than they could consume in a week.
The Coming, as Sally called it, was a great day of celebration, leaving Malila’s ignorance undisturbed. She meant to bring it up with Xavier the following day, but it slipped her mind when Moses insisted on showing off the new milking program to Xavier and her.
On their return, nearing the front of the house, they heard muffled shouts. The front door banged open. A hunched figure of a man in a black-and-red-checkered wool coat hastened out, scolded and savaged by the diminutive Sally wielding a broom. The man halted only when he found himself outflanked by the woodpile.
“… are a vicious, hard-hearted, rough-handed waste of skin. You are a nasty, crooked, old, dried-up, slant-faced, scant-bodied, shameless, lying, bloody-minded, evil-scheming abuser of your betters and worse for it!”
At this point, Sally sputtered in her assault, apparently having fired off all her ammunition on the first salvo and awaiting resupply. Moses rushed by Delarosa to intercept and disarm her. A hissed conversation ensued.
Malila was shocked. Gentle, loving Sally had become this angry, red-faced fury. The man must have done something horrible. After Moses wrapped up Sally in his long arms and almost carried her into the house, the miscreant unfolded himself. He was tall and clean shaven, with his long white hair caught up in a ponytail.
Without his beard, he looked even thinner than the last time Malila had seen him. His eyes were brighter, more brittle. He had none of the gray-skinned apathy that had frightened her during the final week of their journey. The old man stared along Sally’s line of retreat as if gauging the possibilities of a renewed attack from cover.
He turned as she approached, and his face blossomed into a smile, the tableau of the preceding few seconds seemingly forgotten.
Sweeping off his hat, he said, “Malila, lass, there you are. I came to see if the Stewerts were doing right by you! I hope I find you well.”
Malila was amazed. The old man, who for weeks had threatened her life, made it miserable, betrayed her by making the ghoulish signature patches under her very nose, and abandoned her in body and spirit, was attempting to act as if he were the wasteland’s concierge. Malila burst into laughter.
Jesse froze and then straightened up, his hat circling in his hands.
“Ah. I see you are in good spirits, Lieutenant. I’ve been told how much help you’ve been around the place, especially with young Ethan. Is there aught you might need?”
Infected with the oddness of his formality, wearing one of Sally’s dresses that she had yet to alter, a pair of cast-off trousers, and an old coat of Moses’s, the sleeves falling over her hands in lieu of mittens, Malila dropped an unsteady curtsy to the old man.
“Captain Johnstone … or is it doctor again? The Stewerts have been truly marvelous hosts. It seems that Mrs. Stewert has the same high opinion of you that I do.”
The old man looked up at the front door again and scratched his chin.
“She was fair exercised, at that, wasn’t she, lass? Sort o’ glad she didna keek Moses’s 30-30 over th’ door,” he said, giving her a watery smile.
“It is a marvel that anyone can resist your charms, Doctor, or are Sisis not held in such high esteem in the outlands as you imagined?”
Ignoring Captain Delarosa, Malila moved close to the old man and pressed herself to him, letting a hand move to fondle him as the surest way to embarrass. Jesse, anticipating her maneuver, caught her hand. It was amusing to be in the driver’s seat with the horrible old man for once.
“Nay, lass. Don’t do this,” Jesse hissed to her as she tried to press forward.
“Ooooww!” she shrieked. “So strong, you don’t know your own strength, Dr. Johnstone. And after all those weeks together!”
With her free hand Malila stroked the old man’s cheek and marveled that he still blushed.
“Sally is a good judge of character, don’t you think? She isn’t fooled by you,” she whispered into his ear. “You’re not so brave now, are you? Why come back for me now, I wonder?”
Jesse tried to pull away, but Malila was having too much fun at his expense to let him get off the hook. If she humiliated him in front of his amateur army, so much the better.
Delarosa, silent until now, interrupted her by taking her arm.
“Excuse us, Captain Johnstone. Stay here for a few minutes, would you?”
Malila, pleased to be able to leave the field of combat uncontested, allowed herself to be piloted toward the house. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the old man hunker down beside the woodpile and replace his hat.
Malila heard the muffled shouts of Sally and the low and urgent rumblings of Moses erupt as Xavier knocked on the front door and then let them in when there was no response. Ethan, absorbing the hostility in the air, had started a descant shriek of his own.
“I won’t have that vicious old fraud on our property or anywhere near our son!” Sally shouted at Moses, dramatically pointing a finger at Ethan.
“Sally, it’s only because of Jesse that it is our property,” Moses answered.
“I don’t care!” she said before looking up at Delarosa and Malila. Her pale features suffused with the dull red of rage, she turned away to scoop up Ethan and into the hallway. Malila heard the bedroom door slam.
Moses turned to Delarosa, looking pained. “Captain, I’m sorry you had to be here for this. I don’t know what’s got into Sally; I really don’t. She doesn’t like Jesse, but that just means she ignores him.
“Seems Jesse knocked on the door and let himself in. That’s a bit rude, I know. When I was proving out this section, he got used to coming in, more or less, like he owned the place, which, at the time, he did, but Sally blowing up like that … I just don’ understand.”
Sighing, Moses sat down in his old rocking chair and put his head in his hands.
Delarosa turned to Malila, her arm still in his gentle but unrelenting grip. “What might you know about this, Lieutenant Chiu?”
“Me? I just told Sally how that old Sisi treated me! Sally told me how people think he’s so important, but he’s just a Sisi. He killed all my men, and you told me how he saved the fingerprints for you. That’s just grotesque. He went out of his way to humiliate me.” She felt her outrage build now that it had an audience.
Xavier had no reaction, so she went on. “He had me strip naked every night! He hit me if I didn’t drink this or do that. It was one humiliation after another. Sally can tell you. She’s seen the marks!”
Delarosa interrupted her in a quiet voice, “I read his report on the trip, Malila. Perhaps I can add a little light to this story. Moses, would you get Sally back here? I’d like her to hear what I have to say as .
It was a command. Both Malila and Moses looked at him in surprise. It was a second or two before Moses stood and disappeared down the corridor.
Delarosa and she had yet to speak a word more by the time, minutes later, when a sniffling Sally returned, her eyes red and swollen. Malila pulled her arm away from Delarosa and went to stand beside Sally, who grabbed her hands with both of her own.
“I’m going to tell you what Jesse’s orders were when he left here last summer. Moses, you may not be aware of this, but I can show you the orders themselves if you want,” said Delarosa.
Moses shook his head at once.
Nodding to Malila, Xavier continued, “We needed to examine your new troop rifles, but we have known for a long time about the inserts … the implants your country uses to track its people. We couldn’t afford to have a raiding party intercepted by taking any implants along with us. I am sure you understand that, Lieutenant.”
Malila, despite herself, understood immediately.
“All your troopers were better armed than Moses or Jesse. You invaded the sovereign territory of America. Killing you and them in combat is the usages of war. Jesse’s specific orders were to allow no one with an implant to survive to compromise the mission.”
Delarosa let the statement float for a moment until its significance set Moses’s head to nodding.
“Jesse wasn’t supposed to take any prisoners,” Sally said seconds later, her voice flat and almost unrecognizable, her words falling into the silence of the room like a pebble into a vast sea.
Malila knew the Unity seldom took prisoners. Those they took, they Sapped.
Sally interjected, “Jesse wouldn’t shoot unarmed prisoners! He is an arrogant old geezer, but he doesn’t kill like that!”
“He didn’t, did he?” said Delarosa. “Lieutenant Chiu, your Unity soldiers were all armed. They outnumbered Jesse and Moses by twenty to one. They should have been more than capable of defending you. You lost, and they won.”
Malila nodded to him, one soldier to another.
“Once you were secured, Jesse sent Moses back to the summer camp with the rifles and the ID chips. That took all the horses. So Jesse followed his orders to the letter, if not the spirit. The rifles we are examining back at Colonial. The fingerprints Jesse delivered two weeks ago. He had to start processing them right away, but you might have sabotaged that work, had you known.
“From Captain Johnstone’s report, he seems to have been rather resourceful in saving your life … several times, Lieutenant. Let me ask you … the last three weeks of the trip, after you tried to kill him, how did you think Captain Johnstone was doing physically and mentally?”
Sally interrupted and turned to look at Malila. “You tried to kill …”
Jumping in before Sally could finish the thought, Malila attempted to make her story sound dry and military. Even as she spoke, Moses’s long face hardened, and a pallor invaded Sally’s flushed features. With a pang of remorse, Malila felt Sally release her hands.
“Did you have any problems with bleeding, mental depression, joint pains, or loose teeth by the time you got to Morganfield?” asked Delarosa.
“What? Of course not! But Jesse starved me. Sally can tell you. Do you know what I had to eat? And he made me drink his poison tea every day. I was sick of it,” Malila said, wondering at the direction the discussion had taken.
“Captain Johnstone arrived in town and turned you over to me two weeks ago. He was examined and invalidated to Lexington for treatment of scurvy.”
Malila watched Moses and Sally look down embarrassed.
“What’s scurvy?” Malila blurted.
“I am sure Sally would be glad to tell you. Jesse needed to take that nasty tea he makes to stay well while traveling. Instead he gave it to you. He could have died. Many have. He nearly did as well. We sent a guard with him to Lexington to make sure he got there. He took well to the treatment and got out of hospital and back to town just yesterday.”
Moses nodded in agreement, and Sally started to twist the small handkerchief into which she had been weeping.
“I learned last week that one of the Unity’s enforcer bands had disappeared, just east of the Illini-Indi line. They found five bodies, or pieces of them anyway, under a bridge at the Route 41–Interstate-74 junction,” Delarosa said as if to change the subject.
“You have any idea what happened to those five men, Lieutenant Chiu?” Delarosa asked with a smile.
Malila began to recite her story, feeling her outrage avalanche with the memory. “Jesse abandoned me and let those men capture me. He left me to them, like a piece of meat! They were going to …”
Malila looked at Sally, before saying, “… abuse me.”
A hum in her head accelerated, making it hard for her to hear.
“It was all Jesse’s fault. If he had stayed with me, we could have fought them off. We had a pulse rifle! I took a chance and ran away from them. Jesse found me and put me into a cave in the snow. He abandoned me again, and Bear caught me again. Bear cut me; Sally saw the scar. He tried to kill me, but I killed him first.”
“And how is it that you and Jesse connected up again, before or after you tried to kill him?” Delarosa asked.
Malila began to explain. She backtracked, amended, and reworded her story. In the middle of her recitation, she started to hear her own words, to glimpse the trip from an outlanders’ point of view. Moses was watching her, his face set as if he were watching the death agonies of some insect. With a shock, Malila recognized for the first time how dangerous a burden she had been. The old man had brought her out against reason, orders, and his own interests. Her account petered out when she caught herself relating her horror at her first bleeding cycle. She blushed, hesitated, looked at Sally for some moral support, and stopped.
Sally said, “Oh, dear.”
Moses stood and confronted Delarosa. “Captain, first let me say that it was me as killed the zombies; Jesse was keeping Malila quiet. That should be in the report. I know Jesse thought we would be passing her over to headquarters once we rendezvoused. It was you, Captain, as asked me to billet her here. I was glad to do it, even if Sally wasn’t.
“Now I’m withdrawing that offer. Lieutenant Chiu has brought discord into my house. She needs to leave,” he finished.
Sally interrupted. “No, Moses! Where will they take her? You don’t have any idea where she’ll go. I need her! … She needs me!”
Malila froze at the last outburst. Sally lapsed into miserable silence, sat, and wept into the hard-used handkerchief.
Malila turned to Delarosa.
“I will be ready to leave in a few minutes, Captain Delarosa.”
Without looking back, she went to the ladder and climbed into the loft. Malila collected the few items the Stewerts had given to her. She wouldn’t take the dress. She was a soldier, a captive soldier. She knew how to take orders, and she would not make it any more difficult for Sally. She took up the baby’s clothes she had taken to mend. Malila pressed the small garments to her face and inhaled the faint scent of the infant before grief overwhelmed her. Malila sank to the pallet in the loft under the eaves in the small house along the frontier of the outlands and wept.
“There is only one way Lieutenant Chiu can stay. She’s no believer. Who would accept her apology anyway?” Moses announced in a low voice to Delarosa.
“The girl’s lies have almost killed Jesse more than once,” Moses finished … an epitaph.
Miserable, Sally stood and faced Delarosa. “But it was me that took out after Jesse, not Malila.
“It’s true I don’t like Jesse Johnstone, but it was his walking in unannounced that just set me off. He was the cause of all Malila’s pain and humiliation … there, in my front room. The poor girl had suffered so much during her trip. She had so little to begin with.
“And I’ve made things so much worse for her,” she said.
“Sally, you’ll have a chance to apologize to Jesse too, but if he doesn’t forgive you, I’ll report him to the association. See if I don’t,” Moses replied.
This appeared to galvanize her. Sally sat up and buffed the tears from her eyes before dropping the twisted handkerchief to the floor and standing stiffly.
“No time like the present. I was in the wrong, and it’s not getting any righter, my talking about it,” she said as she threw a shawl around herself and left the house to find the old man.
Only after Sally closed the door did Delarosa ask, “Does she always go from hot to cold so fast?”
“She knew she overreacted even before we heard what you and Malila had to say. She never asked me about this last trip. She was so tied up with the baby and with babying Malila. Those two really hit it off, and I think she swallowed anything the girl said. Seems Malila believes some of what Sally said as well. I guess she thought there was no way it could be explained in Jesse’s favor.”
“Malila Chiu is lucky to be alive … luckier to have run into the old man instead of me. I would have followed orders,” said Delarosa.
Moses nodded. Jesse was always following his own drummer … always had if you believed the stories, Xavier thought.
“Malila might try to apologize. Why don’t you explain it to her, Moses? She’s not a believer, but she might understand and agree. It’s hard to guess with these Union types; it is all about hierarchy and status with them.”
“I dunno, Xavier. This is serious. I can’t have the girl spreading lies and be under my roof, like I agree with her. Jesse doesn’t deserve it … and neither do we.” Moses flung himself down onto his rocker.
“So far it is just among the five of us. If Jesse accepts her apology, will that serve?” Xavier asked.
“You heard what she said! How many times has she broken faith with the old man?” Moses replied at once.
“But if he does accept her …?”
Moses stopped as if considering. It was a few seconds later before he looked up.
“If he does, I do. I’m not gonna be out-Jesse’d by the man,” replied Moses with the shade of a smile crossing his lips for the first time since the old man had exploded out his front door.
“Let me go talk to him, and you talk to Malila.”
Moses nodded and rose.
Delarosa opened the door and stepped out into the cold air of the front porch.
“… and I had no right to accuse you of any action I didn’t witness myself. I have no excuse. I was wrong to believe the words, to voice the words, and to act on the words. God be a witness to my sorrow and sincerity. Jesse, please, forgive me.”
Jesse was standing uncovered in the cold, his hat lying on the ground. Sally was kneeling with her hands held out palm down on the old man’s open palms. She was looking up into Jesse’s face with new lines of bright tears on her cheeks.
“I accept your apology, given freely with no threat or reward asked or offered to you, my sister, and I guarantee that our communion is intact and unaffected. I forgive you, Sally.”
At the last words, she rose to her feet with the help of the old man, Jesse leaning down and quickly kissing her cheek. She, in turn, hugged him, before turning away to hurry back into the house.
When they were alone, Delarosa turned to Jesse.
“Moses is pretty upset with Malila. He won’t have her around telling lies about you.”
“Not all of it was lies. I was pretty hard on her. The last two weeks I was holding on by my toenails. I saw the signs. I was getting hazy and apathetic. It would be a terrible thing to make the girl walk for six weeks and then to die alone at the last go-round. I was getting weaker and stupider. It was a pretty close-run affair at the last.”
“Anything that you ought to be ashamed about?”
“Me? I stopped blushing after they convicted President Bokassa. No, Xav, I was the very soul of a good jailor. Yes, I stripped her, I winkled out her implant, and I didn’t ask ‘Mother, may I?’ neither. She’s pretty enough, and I won’t say I wasn’t tempted, but I never touched her that way. I wasn’t easy with her, but I wasn’t easy with me. That is why General Thomas hired me.
“Did I tell you that the implants keep women from having their cycles? When she started her first period, the poor thing near came apart at the seams. I can see how she thinks I planned to humiliate her, but …”
“But she gave her parole, her word of honor, and then tried to kill you. She shoulda too! Save us all a lot of trouble. You dumped her into an ice-water bath instead of killing her. Why?”
“Nearly did kill her, Xav. Seemed like the thing to do; she’s just a kid.”
“She has been a soldier since she was ten years old, you know, Jess. People in the Union only live to be about forty-two or so. She’s nearer being middle-aged.”
A smile flitted across the old man’s face. “So what are we to do if Moses won’t put up with her anymore? If you move her, you just set her up for another blowdown, doncha know? You want me to accept a phony apology from her?”
“No, I want you to accept a real apology from her … and I want you to really forgive her.”
“She doesn’t like me much, Xav …”
“Yeah, I noticed. But Sally thinks she needs to stay. I agree. Tough as she is, she’s still a kid. She can operate in a group, but she dissolves on her own. If I move her, she’ll be a basket case and useless to us.”
“Is she worthwhile to you now … I mean the intelligence?” asked the old man.
“No way to know. I’ve already gotten a lot out of her just by what she doesn’t know.”
“Moses is okay with her staying?”
“Only if you are … It all comes down to whether she can apologize to you and you can forgive.”
“Don’t worry about me, Xav. It’s that time of year.”
“Are you warm enough, huddled out here? This may take a while.”
“I’ll be fine, Xav. Go on and see what you can do. If you get a moment to send out some of Sally’s cookies and coffee, they won’t be wasted, I promise.”
“This is a waste of time. It is just another way for that old man to humiliate me,” said Malila, waving her hand into the air.
Even as a gleam on the dark horizon of her despair began to show, Malila refused to trust it.
“No, you can’t think like that. Jesse can be hard as nails, but he has forgiven things in people that would make my heart stop. This is important, and you have nothing to lose,” Sally pleaded. “If you don’t try to apologize, you have to leave. If he forgives you, you get to stay with us. It may not mean much to you, but getting to act like the Shepherd, even a little bit, is important for us … and Jesse.”
Malila thought that being a sheep organizer was no great reward but said nothing. She rehearsed the phrases with Sally. The foreignness of the ideas was difficult enough, but the restrictions were burdensome. If Jesse perceived any insincerity, he would not agree.
With little enthusiasm, Malila went outside. Jesse sat huddled near the woodpile. An empty cup was at his elbow.
Jesse’s face was grim as she approached, like that of a magistrate. She was on trial now, and she had to admit her guilt.
She got close enough to the old man to kneel and reach out, palms downward. If Jesse did not take her hands, nothing more could be done … her apology was discarded out of hand. Malila watched his face for some telltale sign of reaction but could find none. She closed her eyes and waited. It was still a shock when she felt Jesse’s warm, dry palms under her own. She could not bring herself to look up into his face as she began.
“I’m a stranger here, and I don’t understand your customs. Sally says that I have to ask your forgiveness for what I said about your treatment of me on the trail. I may have exaggerated some things, and I’m sorry that she took them the wrong way.”
It was already going wrong. Telling Jesse about her own feelings wasn’t going to work; Sally and Moses both had warned her of that. Malila’s heart sank, and her hands started to slip off Jesse’s warm palms. She tried again.
“I lied to her, and she believed me. I lied about how you treated me. I broke my promises to you. I’m ungrateful. You saved my life.”
“But you embarrassed me; you got me drunk; you gave me your tea; you fed me … You didn’t force me; you didn’t want me; you helped me when I bled; you sang me songs … You hit me,” she said, taking events at random and throwing them up like a makeshift barricade against the old man.
“I admit all that. I thought you were better than your promises. Breaking them surprised me … made me angry, lass. That is no excuse. I’m sorry for hitting you, for humiliating you. Please forgive me.”
Only then did Malila realize she was glaring up at Jesse, and she quickly looked down. This was not going as Sally had told her it would. She was doing it all wrong. She was not supposed to try to justify it or explain. Now Jesse had apologized to her instead. Sally had said he might “forgive” her, but Malila had no concept of what that would entail. All she knew was that if Jesse forgave her, she could stay. If not, she would be adrift in this chaos beyond the Rampart. She hesitated. The silence stretched away in front of her. Her palms greased with sweat, and her heart raced.
At length, Jesse said, “Will you forgive me for hurting you when I was angry? There is no excuse for that, and with my God’s help it will not happen again.”
The old man’s voice was low and modulated. Malila looked up in surprise. Jesse gazed at her with a steady, almost detached look, but beneath the look Malila knew he was all quiet intensity.
“I don’t know how to forgive you. I should have kept my promises, Jesse. Sally says I need you to forgive me.” The pale-gray eyes of the old man watched her. His face gradually changed into a mask of perplexity as the silence continued. Malila broke her gaze, feeling her eyes fill, and contemplated the old man’s boots, even as they blurred with new tears.
“Forgiveness is tough, lass. Forgiveness doesn’t make things like they never happened, but it makes things right … Can you see that? It means I give up feeling bad about your breaking your promises.”
His image swam as her tears fell. She felt better hearing the words, not knowing why that should be. She looked up and tried to buff her tears away with a coat sleeve without removing her hands from the warm palms.
“Jesse, I forgive you for hurting me when you were angry. I give up my feelings about that. You have saved my life, fed me, clothed me, and cared for me. I owe you for that … I’m so sorry …”
Even as she spoke, the litany of the old man’s actions—his decision to spare her life despite the danger to himself, despite the actual cost to his welfare—convicted her. He’d pulled her away from suicide. He’d looked out for her better than he had for himself. It was so unanswerable. She would always be in his debt. She could never repay it. A flash of dismay and grief raced through her as she recognized the truth.
Jesse’s face swam as she looked up before again bowing her head with racking sobs of regret. She had done it all wrong, she knew. Jesse would never forgive her; she had bungled the whole thing. She had taken too much from the old man, and now she would be turned adrift. It was several seconds before she sensed the old man beside her with his red bandana pressed into her hand and his solid arm around his shoulder.
“Malila … it’s all right. It is … I accept your apology, lass. I do.” Then shifting to another gear, he said, “And I thank you for forgiving me.”
The bland words worked another miracle on her. Her sobs morphed into gentle hiccups as the old man cradled her in his arms. Malila found her breath coming in ragged sighs as Sally came over and shooed Jesse away, helping Malila to her feet. Minutes later, when she looked around, they were alone in the yard.