“We can’t do it, Boss. Water’s too high!” The cowhand struggled to keep his horse under control as the swiftly flowing river pulled at its feet.
“Got to do it. People countin’ on us.” The man turned his horse, kicking it. Together they scoured the bank for some safer place to ford. “Here! We’ll cross here.” He waved to the other hands.
“You got a death wish or somethin’, Boss? Tryin’ t’ git us killed?” The cowhand grinned, teasing the grizzled rancher.
“Tryin’ to get our cattle to town, is what.” Patch Fields gave his horse a nudge with his heels, urging it into the water. “C’mon, before it gets worse.”
The cows and horses and men made it safely across, not a head lost. Soaked through and chilled to the bone, but alive. The rain finally stopped two days later as they rode into town. It wasn’t just the usual cattle drive commotion that greeted them, but something more urgent, something that generated a tension thick enough to cut with a knife.
“What’s goin’ on?” Fields asked the foreman at the stockyard. Boxes were stacked around town, ships loading quickly.
Fields looked around again, the ominous words hanging in the air. He’d known it was coming. Everyone did. He swallowed hard, then turned back to the foreman “Who’s in charge of signing up?”
Soon after, he was standing in front of his men. “Army’s buyin’ the cattle. Got a good deal.” He held up the envelope. “Here’s your shares, more’n we agreed. Take it and git the hell away from here, if you know what’s good for you. If you don’t, send it home and join up. We could use some good men.”
“We, Boss?” The lead hand asked, confused.
“I’ll be shippin’ out t’morrow. Roscoe, this here’s a note for Missus McMurphy. See she gets it.” The letter also contained Fields’s portion of the pay.
“Ain’t your boss no more, Roscoe. I’m Wu Ming Shao Jwu, now.” Fields grinned, his one eye twinkling, despite the solemn discussion.
“Chen! Nee Tzao Se Mah? Tian Fuhn Di Fu. Jio Weh Sung Chiuh!” An explosion rocked the ground, raining dirt and debris around them.
The small man turned to look back at his commanding officer. “My family! This my village! Dohn-ma?”
The anguish was clear on his face and it only took a heartbeat for Fields to join him, running towards the cluster of buildings.
They found them, huddled in a back room, or what was left of it. Chen’s wife was cradling a girl whose scalp was covered in blood. She rocked back and forth, singing what sounded like a lullaby. A young man stood as they approached, brandishing a broken board in his hand, shaking with fear.
“Father!” The younger Chen dropped the board, not noticing the other man with him at first.
There was no time for introductions. Chen helped his wife stand, but she cried out in pain. Her ankle twisted in a way that ankles aren’t supposed to. The girl started to cry, adding to the tear tracks covering her cheeks.
Fields swore under his breath, the direness of the situation making him forget his manners in front of women and children. “There ain’t no part of this that’s good. We need to make tracks and now. Chen, you carry the little one.” He stepped forward, tugging at his helmet in greeting. “Ma’am. Much as I’d like to get acquainted first, ain’t no time.” With that, he bent and picked up Chen’s wife, arranging her across his shoulders. He looked at the young man. “Get ready to run Jien Ta Duh Guay. Stick close.”
The young man looked at his father who nodded, telling him, “Do what Captain Fields says. We will be all fine. Rung Tse Fwo Tzoo Bao Yo Wuo Muhn.”
They made it to the transport. Some might say God was watching out for them, but Patch Fields knew it was better to run fast and keep your head down instead of waiting around for divine aid.
Fields turned, scanning what remained of the village, looking to see if there were more survivors when a ship flew overhead, far too low for comfort. The crash took out what was left of the temple. Perhaps the oath that followed was appropriate under those circumstances. Fields was off and running before the debris settled, Chen not more than two steps behind him, despite his family needing him, too. Fields didn’t expect anything less.
He raised his arm against the blast of hot air from an explosion that took off most of the starboard side. At least that answered how they were going to get inside. He pulled up his bandana around his face as he shouted instructions. At first, he’d been ribbed by the men about it, told there were no cows where they were going. That bandana had been in turns a sling, a tourniquet, a bandage, a poke and now, an air filter. The japes hadn’t lasted long. Soldiers arrived with fire extinguishers, smothering the flames in thick gas. They climbed into the wreckage, hopes dwindling with every minute.
It wasn’t until Fields checked the cargo hold that he found something. Someone, rather, still breathing. Still in one piece, instead of several disconnected pieces. Mostly unburnt, even. “C’mon, Lucky. Let’s get you out of here.”
Chen hadn’t been so lucky. He had been caught in another explosion when the heat found the reserve fuel tank. Fields and the girl he’d found had been thrown by the blast and by the time Fields got back to his friend, there was nothing to do but look him in the eye and wait for those last moments. Promise me. Look after Zhàozhōu. He’d promised.
Now, Chen’s wife sat in the chapel of the troop transport ship, saying prayers while his children stayed in the cargo hold with the other refugees, the older boy doing his best to keep his little sister occupied.
Why just the boy? Why not ask for the promise to look after all of them? Fields pulled off his helmet and tossed his gloves inside as he slumped down in an engineering corridor. No one came down here if they could avoid it. Too loud, too many vibrations, smells of oil and kerosene and smoke. It was a good place to think.
“What’s going to happen to me?” came a small voice at his elbow.
Fields opened his eye and turned his head to look at the girl. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen or fourteen.
“Don’t rightly know yet. S’pose you’ll go to the camp, same as the others.” He offered a kindly smile, best as he could after such a long day full of blood and gore and flames and death.
“I don’t want to go to the camp. I want to stay with you.” The girl sank down next to him, pulling her knees up to her chest. “I don’t know anyone else.”
Fields chuckled. “Hell, darlin’, you don’t even know me.”
She lay her head on her knees. “I don’t even know who I am.” Her head jerked up, eyes wide with fright. “Don’t tell them that, okay? They’ll think I’m Shiang Jing and lock me away!”
“Calm down there, little sister. Ain’t nobody gonna lock you away.” Fields reached over to pat her hand, friendly-like, not taking it personally when she flinched. War did things to people.
“So, I can stay with you?” she asked, after a moment of studying him.
This time, he laughed. “You’re as persistent as a hound on a hunt. Tell you what. You figure out what your name is, you can stay with me.” He raised a finger in warning. “But you sleep in the hold. Ain’t havin’ no wet behind the ears calf gettin’ me in trouble on account of rumors from small-minded folk.”
“Ain’t no calf! I mean, I know what I’m doing.” There was a stubborn set to the girl’s face, one that Fields knew better than to argue with.
Still. “Cargo hold.” Fields didn’t get where he was by caving in to pouting women or stubborn girls. Of course, where he was at the moment wasn’t exactly grand. Still.
After a moment, her shoulders slumped. “Fine.” A grin spread over her face, one that spelled trouble. “You can name me.”
“Oh, no. You ain’t ropin’ me in so easy. It’s like with strays. You can’t feed ‘em or they never leave.” He knew that was the wrong thing to say just after her face fell, lower lip trembling and eyes welling up. “Now, hold on, Mei-Mei. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Just talk, is all. I’ll think up a name.”
She brightened again, far too quickly. Damn. Hornswaggled by a baby girl. Damn. He rubbed at his jaw to hide his chagrin. “Should be somethin’ pretty, but not just pretty. Hold meanin’.” He looked at her for a moment. “Temperance.”
Her nose wrinkled. “Chastity.” Her face scrunched up more. “Prudence.” That earned him a stuck-out tongue and an eye roll. The next was considered for a few moments before it was offered. “How about Verity? Means ‘truth’. You need to look for yours, so seems fittin’.”
“Verity. I like it. What about the last name? I could be Verity Fields.”
“Oh, no. I told you, there’s enough tall tales about me without adding grist to that mill. We’ll call you.... Zephyr, after where we found you, Zephyr Valley.”
“Verity Zephyr.” The girl turned the name over a few times before giving him a bright smile. “I like it.” She put her chin on her hand. “How’d you lose your eye? Was it in the war?”
Fields studied her, much like she’d looked at him. “No. Were long time ago. I couldn’t have been much older’n you.” He grinned. “Was campin’ out, see. My pa told me a man could see his destiny writ in the stars and I aimed to read it. Woke up to some rustlin’ noises. Now, I knew there were bear around but that didn’t bother me none, so--”
“Wait, you weren’t afraid of bears?” Her eyes widened.
“Course not. Everyone knows bear only eat fish.” He rubbed at his jaw again, getting himself back on track. “So, I closed my eyes to go back to sleep and I feel hot breath on my face.” He turned towards her, stroking his fingers along his cheek with the words. “I looked up to see a huge pig standing over me and before I could say ‘lickety split’ the bastard bit out my eye!”
The gasp came, just as he knew it would, hands flying to her mouth in shock and horror. Perhaps it was too soon to tell grisly stories. Maybe he should have gone with one of the others. But hell, the girl had to grow up sometime and the sooner, the better it would be for her. Still. Fields lay his hand on her knee. “It’s all right, Verity. Don’t hurt none now. Besides, it’s right handy for pretendin’ I don’t see folk I dont’ want to talk to.”
“I dunno. Looks like the back end of a mule to me. My engineer here says it might just fall out of the sky on us.” Fields tucked his thumbs in his belt loops and rocked back on his heels.
Joshua Chen made a small squeaking sound and leaned in close, whispering quickly. Fields waved him off, giving him a stern look. These were negotiations.
“This boat’s as fine as any, better’n most. But if you don’t want it, I know ten more spacers who do.” The seller chewed on the end of his unlit cigar, shrugging his shoulder. “Ain’t no skin off my nose you don’t buy her.”
“That so? Word is you’ve got five more like this to get rid of before tax season rolls around. I hear those tariffs add up.” Fields suppressed a grin at the grimace that flickered across the seller’s face. He’d guessed well. “I’ll give you 4,000 and you fill up the tanks for us. Deal?” The seller nearly tripped over his feet to shake the man’s hand in agreement.
“Captain. That ship is top shape. Good flyer. I told you this. Why’d you tell him I said it fall from sky?” The slight man had to walk quickly to keep up with the captain’s long strides.
“Because that’s how you buy a ship for half price, Zen.” Fields grinned.
“Hey!” The seller called after them. “Why you want this ship, anyway?”
Patch Fields turned to look back. “Because there’s work to be done.” He nudged his engineer. “C’mon. We’re burnin’ daylight.”
 Nameless little foot soldier
 You wanna die? Everything’s crazy. Retreat!
 Like you’ve seen your ghost.
 Merciful Buddha protect us.
 Nuts, crazy
 Little sister