Four men rode up on horses right as they reached the steep incline of the mountain. Aben was surprised to see that one was Cassie’s uncle. She must be on a nearby farm. All the men had guns, except Cassie’s uncle. He carried a pitchfork. Aben remembered how Raven’s pitchfork had bounced off the dragon’s hide.
The neighbor from the farmyard approached Aben again, and Aben vaguely recalled his name now. Mr. Dyami. “Are you sure it was a dragon, boy? During the day?”
“Damn,” said another neighbor, a Mr. Yeats. “No one is safe now.”
“I think… maybe we woke it up.”
Harmon seemed to flinch at that.
“We’re all going to have to be careful,” Dyami said. “It could still be around. Where are the twins?”
Aben led them to the bottom of the thicket. “We hid under here.” Aben kneeled down and crawled under. “Hey, Raven,” he called softly. “Raven, can you hear me? Your dad is here.”
“Did you get him?” Raven yelled. “Where’s Kayne? You bastard. You let him die.”
“Come on. Your dad is here. Time to go home.”
“Liar. Just waiting to kill me, too. Get Kayne.”
“Raven,” came Harmon’s rough voice beside him. The large man had thorn scratches on his forehead leaking droplets of blood to roll down his face.
“Dad!” Raven twisted, throwing his bloody body toward his father. Harmon grabbed him. “It had him! I tried to get him. Aben wouldn’t do anything. He just stood there. Then he kicked me.”
“I pushed him into the thicket, hoping the dragon wouldn’t get us here.”
“You kicked me, you bastard. You just stood there and watched. Didn’t even help.” He lashed out, but his weak fists only landed on his own wounds.
Slashing was taking place above them, as the men were cutting their way through the thicket to get Raven out. “Keep your voices down,” Dyami cautioned. “We don’t want it coming back.”
They made it to them, and the other men helped them to their feet, but Raven was too weak to stand. “You bandaged him up?” Dyami asked Aben.
“As best as I could,” Aben admitted, now seeing what an inexpert, sloppy job he’d performed.
“Get him on my horse,” Yeats said, already mounted, but holding his arms out toward Raven. “I’ll get him to the doc.”
Harmon lifted his son into Yeats’ arms.
“Get Kayne,” Raven said, his words slurring.
But no one answered him. They all knew. At least Aben thought they all knew. But as soon as Yeats and Raven galloped across the field away from them, Harmon whirled around and grabbed Aben’s shoulders. “Where is he?”
Aben could only stare up into Harmon’s face. Surely he didn’t think….
Harmon dug his fingers into Aben’s shoulders but Aben was used to working under pain, and he did not show Harmon any sign of his discomfort.
“Where is he?”
“The… the dragon….”
“Where? Show me where.”
Dyami touched Harmon’s shoulder. “Hey, if we get closer we could be next.”
“I want my son’s body!”
The other men glanced nervously at each other, but Aben realized that they would not deny him.
Aben shook his head. “There isn’t….” Harmon’s face contorted in pain. Dyami looked a bit green.
“Show me where,” Harmon demanded in a hoarse whisper.
And since legally he was required to do whatever Harmon Archer asked, he turned and found the path they’d taken. Then he walked up it. At the small landing at the top of the thicket, Aben stopped. The saw was still on the ground, and Raven’s blood soaked the spot where he’d stood.
Aben pointed up beyond the berry bush. “He heard a noise. Thought to go hunting. We waited back here.”
Harmon started up the slope.
Dyami grabbed his arm. “Hey, that could be its den. Let’s get out of here.”
Harmon shook off his arm. “You go back then.” He took the two steps back to Aben and grabbed his arm. “My sons are killed and maimed, and you’re whole and alive. You show me where my son died.” He pushed Aben ahead of him, but kept a hold on his arm.
Aben glanced back as Frank joined him. “Mr. Archer. Sir. Don’t risk him. He saved Raven’s life, didn’t he?”
Harmon Archer’s fist shot out, knocking Frank’s head so sharply it jerked back and Frank fell against the tree Aben had landed against earlier. Dyami crouched to check on him.
Harmon jerked Aben forward. Aben’s eyes burned. He wanted to make sure Frank was all right. He’d actually tried to stand up for him. Frank who never wanted to make waves had tried to save his life. Aben stumbled up the slope.
Harmon hesitated to grab the pitchfork. “This what he was hunting with?”
“Raven tried to kill it. That’s when he clawed out and threw him back down.”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do?”
Harmon shook him. “Did you run? Did you try to save Kayne?”
“I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t move.”
Dyami was again with them, apparently willing to brave even the dragon for his grieving friend. “Harmon, the boy was terrified.”
Harmon lifted his arm, but dropped it when he met Dyami’s gaze. “Raven said you kicked him.”
Aben shook his head. “No. It wasn’t like that. I wasn’t trying to hurt him.”
Harmon pulled Aben up the slope. Beyond the berry bush the sun shone on a flat sandy ledge. The sand curved into a bowl which was broken and pock marked by the large indentations of dragon paw prints.
Dyami swallowed. “Hey, let’s get out of its bedroom,” he whispered.
Harmon released Aben and kneeled beside the edge of the berry bush reaching out into it. Aben saw it then. Kayne’s boot. Had he actually fallen out of the dragon’s mouth? Harmon grabbed the boot and pulled back, bringing up Kayne’s leg to his knee.
Aben fell to his knees and finally wretched up what he’d been too terrified to release before. Dry heaves shook him, and he felt a hand on his back. Dyami’s hand. But then Harmon swung around. “You let my son die! You hated him, and you let him die!”
“Harmon!” came Dyami’s shocked voice.
But the blow struck Aben’s face, sending him tumbling down the path until he landed beside Frank. Aben stayed still until the spinning in his head subsided. When he opened his eyes, he saw Frank gazing down at him, the right side of his face swollen.
Harmon stalked past them, carrying Kayne’s leg. The third neighbor and Cassie’s uncle standing beside him both looked ill, but they turned to follow Harmon down.
Dyami stopped beside Frank and Aben. “He’s just hurting now,” Dyami said quietly. “You did good, boy. You saved Raven’s life by pushing him into the thorns and by bandaging the worst of those wounds. Harmon’s a fair man. He’ll see that when he’s not hurting so much.” He helped Frank and Aben to their feet, and they slowly followed Harmon home.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
At home Dyami suggested that Frank and Aben attend any necessary chores. Harmon took his wife into the city to the doctor’s clinic. He insisted on taking Eddie also, although Lena, after her sobs of anguish, suggested Eddie might be happier with Mrs. Little.
When they were all gone, Aben’s mother ran to them. She hugged Aben and cried over both his and Frank’s injuries. She insisted on treating them with the first aid supplies in the house before she let them manage the chores.
“Amanda,” Frank said softly. “We can’t do anything to further upset them. We don’t have any place to take Mia if they decide to kick us out.”
“But they wouldn’t. Didn’t Aben save Raven? Didn’t….”
Frank shushed her. “Raven didn’t see it that way. You work at making things good for Mrs. Archer, and I’ll make sure the animals are cared for.”
Aben followed Frank to the barn. It was easy working with him. No one lashed out or changed the rules. Frank even asked if he was up to the work, but Aben wouldn’t tell him how his head ached and his stomach churned. He’d worked with pain for the last month and a half. He wouldn’t leave Frank to do it all. Every time he saw Frank’s swollen cheek, he remembered he’d gotten it trying to keep him from the dragon’s bed and death.
That evening Harmon Archer and his wife arrived home at dusk. Amanda had their dinner ready. Frank and Aben had the cows, goats and horses in the barn, and they were just finishing the milking. Harmon put away the wagon, glanced over the animals, and left them to finish up.
The next morning he spoke little, but he did the milk deliveries himself, leaving Frank and Aben to take care of the morning milking and chores. Then he came back for his wife, and they went into town. Although he didn’t speak to Aben, he knew he was expected to clean the empty milk bottles and ready them for the next batch of milk. Which he did. He usually did that every day anyway.
That night Harmon tapped on their door, and then entered their small living area as they finished their evening meal. He glanced around and then spoke abruptly. “My wife still needs you, Mrs. Little. I need help in the barns, Frank. But your son cannot stay here.”
Amanda rose from the table, as Aben felt the food in his stomach rebel. “But he saved….”
“No he did not!” Harmon said sharply. “You both know our sons did not get along from the beginning. Raven is afraid of him. I will not let your son stay here biding his time until he can kill him. He must be gone before we bring Raven home tomorrow evening.” He turned and abruptly left the room.
“No!” Amanda cried to the closed door. She rushed to Frank who stood to hold her. “He can’t make Aben leave.”
Aben looked from his mother and Frank to his little sister Mia. She was only six. She’d never be able to survive out in the wilderness. “Mom,” Aben said, and his voice sounded strange to him. “Mia needs a home. I have learned to hunt.” It was only a slight lie. He’d watched Kayne trap animals to torture. How much harder could it be to catch food? “I can make a home in the trail barns. I have faced dragons and lived. I will be fine.”
“No!” she pleaded, but Frank understood. He let her cry, but Aben could shed no tears. He only felt numb.
After they were in bed, he went through his pack, trying to determine what he should take. Frank joined him, his mother apparently sleeping. He brought a sharp knife, a plate, a fork, and a pan from the kitchen supplies. “Wish there was a better knife. I’ll leave anything I see you might use in that old tree down by the river. You know the one?”
Aben nodded. “Don’t know how close I’ll stay.”
“Let us know you’re okay.”
“If Harmon or Raven see me….”
“They can’t keep you from the river. That’s the edge of his land.” Frank pulled the money pouch from his pocket. “This is all we have left from when we got here. Get yourself a good gun.”
“I can’t buy a gun. I’m on probation.”
“I’m on probation, but… at least get something. A better knife, a bow, something. There’s got to be enough to help you do something.”
“But if you and mom need….”
He ignored his protest. “Harmon supplies all our needs. Maybe you can get a job. Dyami seemed impressed with you. Go to him. And all the barns are unlocked at night. Everyone is supposed to keep at least one door open, remember? For people running from dragons.”
Aben had remembered. He just wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to slip in and out of someone’s barn unnoticed. And using someone’s barn without consent was a good way to be accused of whatever went wrong next.
Frank gripped his arm. “You’re a fine, strong man. I’m proud of you. You’ve always been a better son than I deserved.”
Aben gripped Frank into a hug and let his tears fall. No one would see them in the dark. When Frank went to bed, he finished packing, taking his few pages of his books from beneath the couch. Then before the sun rose, he slipped out of the house and walked along the river toward the city. He could not say goodbye to his mother.
Go to Chapter 8
© 2013, 2000 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.