Who is Dominic Garcia?



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danko_icon.gif finn_icon.gif johannes_icon.gif odette_icon.gif tara_icon.gif

Scene Title Who is Dominic Garcia?
Synopsis Dominic Garcia rolls into Sedro-Woolley.
Date Throughout May, 2018

Sedro-Woolley Colony

Early morning blankets the Skagit Valley in mist. It undulates like lazy waves across the rolling fields and obscures the shapes of dilapidated farmhouses and barns that stand out against the desaturated green backdrop. Here, nestled between the foothills of the Snoqualmie Mountains and the Puget Sound, rumors of a unified militia led by a group of four heavily-armed men in FRONTLINE armor have taken hold, terrorizing the surrounding ghost towns, Humanis First holdouts, and nearby settlements.

Unnamed roads wind through forgotten tangles of overgrown woods, separating parcels of similarly abandoned farmland, although the tall grass and wild blackberry bushes need no human assistance to flourish. Every corner is the perfect spot for an ambush, and the rickety suspension bridge that crosses the roiling, milky-green Skagit River is no exception.

As Dominic’s rusted 1989 Mustang with its peeling black paint and rattling fender thunders across the divide, none comes.

What does happen is the inevitable.

A deer and its fawn dart out into the road, startled by and unaccustomed to the road of the Mustang’s engine from where they’d been grazing among the too-tall ferns on the riverbank.

He has only seconds to react.

He doesn’t have the radio on. There’s no point out here. But Dominic has his own music being sung as he rattles down the road, in one way to keep him awake and alert, in another simply to do just that - entertain. And nobody in the car to tell him how he does or doesn’t sound like Marc Anthony.

Just as the chorus hits, so does the doe and fawn come out to the road. Dominic swears. The Mustang swerves, missing the mother, but the crunch and double-thudding of tires going over a smaller body sound the inevitable. Dominic sits for a few anxious seconds that stretch into almost a minute of catching his breath. Nobody saw that, right?

He shoves the door open, keys taken with, looking for the body. “Fuck,” he says at first to the fawn. The second “fuck” is for the body of the car as he runs his hand along the dented front, checking the seriously bent fender and engine front, one broken headlight.

Whoever’s to come upon him shortly will find the man with an open car hood and an opened can of the six pack he had originally in the trunk, now in the passenger seat of his car. He’s moved Bambi off the road at least. Let Nature take its course where Man had plowed a path.

What comes along next on the road is an old jeep. It's worn, scratched here and there. Nothing's really new out here, though. Seeing the trouble on the side of the road, the jeep pulls to a stop next to the mustang. Blocking the road, but who's even going to be coming along this road?

"Run out of gas?"

Tara grins at him from the driver's seat, hair in a sloppy bun, t-shirt worn just like the car she drives. Her nails, though, are a perfectly lacquered black and shaped into points. She puts the jeep in park and hops out, a shotgun coming with her, although she doesn't carry it very threateningly. More like a baton in a parade.

"Lost?" This question is a more serious one.

Dominic’s into the bottom of the can by the time the jeep comes around, and neither has he bothered to move the car off to the road side. He’s got a clear view of the jeep long before it pulls up, and when it does he strolls over to the passenger side, leaning on it. An easy smile ticks up at the corner of his mouth. The gas question gets a short shake of his head. “Nah.” Once the woman steps out, he straightens to take a few steps back in the direction of the Mustang, regarding the shotgun in her hand first, then her. Distance maintained.

The second, more serious question gets an equally serious answer and a short shake of his head. “Nah.” The next gesture he makes is a nod towards the cooling fawn on side of the road. “My pony got in a fight with Bambi. Took a hit, but got the win.” Mostly serious, that one, but it’s the truth.

He shakes the now practically empty beer can in hand. “You want one?”

"Oh, not lost?" Tara says, sharp nails tapping against her gun as she considers him for a long moment. "Then you mean to be heading this direction?" She nods her head ahead, down the road in the direction he was pointing. "Going someone in particular?"

When he describes the events, Tara can't help a laugh. She leans over to spot the fawn, then looks back to him again. "Bitch, please. You got lucky. This pile still run?" For all that her word choice might be combative, her tone is jovial, like she were talking to an old friend and not a total stranger. Her gaze falls to the beer and she nods. "Hell yes, I do. Normally I wouldn't accept anything that didn't come from the tap, but these days, beggars can't be choosers."

The gun drops a bit to her side, held in one hand as she comes over toward him. Not threatening, but there is the impression that he probably shouldn't try anything. She holds her hand out toward him, but not like she's ready for a handshake, more like she's a princess ready for him to bow over it. "I'm Tara. Kind of a big deal around here."

Dominic lifts a shoulder, indicating with another nod that he did indeed mean to be headed in the direction the Mustang points. “Heard there was people this way. Gas. Food.” An edge of his mouth twitches up. “Necessities.” He means to sound a little risque with the last part. But he also reaches out his free hand to pat the black car beside him lightly, saying, “I’m not saying I wasn’t lucky.”

Her acceptance of the beer offer has him leaning into the open driver’s side and pulling one of the cans off the plastic rings. Instead of a handshake, he’s pressing the can into it. “Dominic,” he replies, “and no shit? I believe it.”

“And yeah, this pony’ll still outrun your Jeep,” claims Dominic as he crunches his empty can into a smaller disc and tosses it into the car. Not worried about getting caught out here, apparently. “I’ll even race you back to where you wanna go.”

"You heard right. Need a place to stay, or just passing through? There's a lot of good people up ahead and not one of them is one of your necessities," Tara issues a warning in her tone. Because she looks after some people. Not all people. But the colony houses pretty much all of them. "If you can behave yourself, then you're welcome to come refuel and rest up."

Tara takes the beer, it seems like this is an acceptable alternative to a greeting. "I know you do," she says, a smile creeping into her expression, "you're already buttering me up." She gestures with the beer, then grins at him. "I will take you up on that race; it'll be a good test to see how well you take losing by an embarrassing margin." She's quick to hop back into her jeep, gun and beer sat on the passenger seat before she guns it and heads toward home.

Warnings are noted by the slight angle of Dominic’s head. He at least looks like he’ll behave, in exchange for the food, the fuel. “I’m that obvious huh?” he then grins back at her. A glint of competitive challenge in the man’s eye when she takes him up on the race. He’s quick to slide over to the open hood of the mustang, dropping it with a bang as she’s starting the jeep up.

It’s like the starting gun.

And then he’s jumping in to the driver’s seat, swinging the car back onto the road properly to race after the retreating brake lights.

Tara doesn't play nice. She speeds off and has no intention of letting him get ahead of her. But she doesn't get so far ahead that he can't follow her right to the edge of the colony. And he knows when they get there because Tara slams on her brakes, stops the jeep parallel to the road while a group of militia come into view on horseback.

They have guns.

They point their guns right at him and the horse he rides in on.

He can see Tara talking and gesturing toward him, looking frantic and windswept and generally like she was just running for her life from a madman in a Mustang.

The consistent roar of the mustang engine behind the jeep shows that Dominic really isn’t playing around either, and that he has the competitive streak in him. But given that he’s not aware of the track’s course, he surely won’t be first across the finish line. He might, in his haste, have missed some signs of the change in the forest, evidence of human civilization creeping into the periphery.

Especially not when Tara suddenly slams on the brakes.

With a new swear, Dominic throws his car to a side, emergency brake yanked, tires turned until he drifts into a turn and skids to a stop before the mustang is run off road. The beer cans have fallen into the well of the passenger side. Nobody drink those any time soon, or open with caution.

He stares out the window in the direction of Tara and her jeep, blinking at the sight of the woman looking frantic, gesticulating wildly at the armed men. It looks bad. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” he groans in exasperation to himself. He restrains himself from kicking the door open, instead emerging from the vehicle, though keeping the vehicle between him and the riders, and putting on a straight face.

“Yo, what was up with that?” he calls out to her, “Come on, I thought we was having a good time, Tara.” He makes a point to say her name clearly, with an air of familiarity.

Tara looks from the militia to Dominic, then back to the militia again. Distressed. The guns don't move. One man speaks up, though. "Hands where we can see them. And stay where you are." He turns to Tara. "Don't worry, we'll take care of him. Stay in the jeep."

Two of the militia trot over before dismounting. One moves to the car to start searching it. The other keeps his gun trained on Dominic. They have very little regard for his car, or his things. The beers are taken— confiscated, things are tossed every which way. The trunk gets left open with everything in shambles. Before they turn back to him, the car is trashed.

He's next. Patting him down for weapons, digging into pockets, all rough hands and shoves. And invasion of personal space.

The command to keep his hands visible is readily followed. Hands up in the air and fingers spread, palms visible, Dominic shuts his mouth as the armed men on horseback approach. He can only watch as the Mustang is tossed, alternating attention among the other men on their horses and guns to the militia soldier rifling through the items in the trunk.

They come away with just the four-pack of beer, an M9 Beretta semi-auto handgun, unloaded with a couple of 15 round magazines, camping tools including a serrated hunting knife, and his duffel bag of rolled clothes that is now thoroughly unrolled in an unpacked mess.

Dominic endures the body search which finds nothing but a box of floss in a back pocket and his wallet. The driver’s license is an out of state, New York circa 2010. The listed name shows him as Dominic Garcia who lived in the Bronx part of New York City.

“My toothbrush still in there?” Finally unable to resist a quip to try and break the tension, Dominic asks the soldier that inspected his car this. It follows with a wry smile and stare in Tara’s direction as she sits in the safety and comfort of her Jeep.

They do come away with them, too. Goodies are tucked away in packs and pockets. He gets to keep his clothes. And his toothbrush.

When he looks in Tara's direction, he catches her assessing gaze trained on him much like the guns are. But his smile gets a sly curl at the corner of her lips.

"Okay, boys, that's enough. If he was gonna lose it, it would have been at the beer," she says, time full of good humor all of a sudden. She climbs out of the jeep as the militia lower their guns and comes striding over. "Haul his car in, see if we can help that dent. Don't get a bunch of grease all over his stuff, bad enough your hands were on it." Her words are orders, seeing as they start to follow her directions, but everyone seems to also take them as friendly banter. Like they're just doing what she says as a favor to her.

"Welcome to Sedro-Woolley. Come on, I'll drive you in." She motions him to follow her back to the jeep. "Sorry for the show. For some reason they think I'm good at finding out who is easily frustrated and who isn't. I'm sure it's a compliment." It's possible that there are several personalities in the colony who have to fight the urge to smack her every now and then. "We like to know who we're letting in."

Making a note of the soldier who’s confiscated the Beretta and ammo, Dominic remains with hands up until Tara finally orders the men to lower their guns. As she strides over, he releases a thin line of tension with a roll of his shoulders and a scratch at the base of his neck. “Hey if I knew it was going to be this big a party, I might’ve brought more than just a six-pack.”

Her motion to follow obeyed, he steps after her back to the Jeep, rounding to the passenger side. Dominic smirks through the window at her, the apology and reasoning behind all this roughness getting a short nod. “Gotta protect your own, I get that,” he says, “and you do got a certain way with people, I can tell.” A chuckle later, he gets into the jeep.

Inside, he leans the seat back a bit to adjust for his height, and leans back into it. As they head into the colony, he keeps his eyes forward, taking in the surroundings, the people. Observing just how different the colony is from the Safe Zone.

Rustic is the first word that comes to mind.

Canvas tents with high ceilings supported by permanent iron rods are scattered along the colony's fringe, and Dominic can see men and some women in wool and leathers socializing around oil drums that look like fire might spring from them after dark. Others on horseback weave down one of the hills that shelter the settlement from view: a unit on patrol, armed with rifles slung over shoulders or attached to their saddles.

There is some new construction visible through the trees like wooden skeletons the deeper Tara drives in past the check-point, but even with the window rolled down the sound of electronic machinery humming away in the background is noticeably absent. There are saws, none of them powered by electricity. Muscle, instead. At one point, another deer cuts across the road in front of them.

Tara does not hit it.

Dominic notes older buildings, too, dating as far back as the turn of the last century, recently reclaimed and outfitted with solar panels shining under the midday sun. Children chase chickens or help their parents pluck them and string their bodies up by their feet in view of a structure with multiple billowing smoke stacks. A kitchen, he guesses.

When the jeep comes to a stop in front of a stately manor, laundry hung on a wire between the trees and flapping in the warm summer breeze, a willowy woman with dark hair and cruel eyes is there to greet him.

To show him inside.

To introduce him to the ghost known as Iago Ramirez.

Days later…

It’s another afternoon in Sedro-Woolley. Everyone is going about their day, helping each other out, getting food and supplies, keeping the horses groomed and fed, but one of the smallest residents is snooping. With a raggity stuffed turtle held by the leg, Odette is not out and about like she has been on other days, giving everyone a bright smile, her hair pulled into ponytails that hang over her shoulders— no. Instead she’s in a tent that doesn’t belong to anyone she actually knows well. Though she’s seen the newcomer in passing.

With one hand free and the other dragging the faded green plush around, she pokes around the inside of the tent as if she might be looking for something or someone. But whoever that someone is, they would have to be very tiny indeed, because she’s doing things like lifting up the foam pad that keeps the moisture from the ground from soaking through any of the things.
She doesn’t even look guilty when the tent flap opens, just looking up with big brown eyes toward the one who is actually supposed to be in this tent.

He’s a pretty big guy, the newcomer. And having secured a private tent for himself somehow, Dominic Garcia doesn’t expect to be having visitors just yet. He’s just getting back from a short run that took him through some unfamiliar territory in order to make it familiar. A run of a sweat towel over his face shields the young girl from his vision until he pulls the fabric away and… startles back with a grit toothed suck inward of breath and sharp “Ay!” of surprise following right after.

Half hunched at the tent flap, he stands there looking puzzled for a few seconds, then enters the rest of the way. And then remembers some words that echo in the back of his mind. Smile more. And he does, eventually making his way into the tent to sit upon his bedroll, folding himself up to a smaller, less intimidating size. Commence hugging of an arm around a knee. “Hola niña, what’re you up to in here?” he asks her in a curious tone, one that hints to let him in on whatever quiet quest she’s taken upon herself.

Hola,” the little red haired girl says back without even thinking about it. She must know at least that much Spanish. Odette pulls the stuffed turtle back up so that the little face is looking at the big man. “Mister Tortie wanted to say hi.” She acts as if she didn’t just get caught in the act of doing something she shouldn’t. “Mister Tortie wants to meet everyone.” Her voice is soft, her words fairly articulate for the lacking of a school to go to.

“Mister Tortie wants to know if you have a horse yet. All the best ones get horses. I have one, but I can’t ride it by myself.” She steps closer, that fearlessness that some youngsters have very much present in her manner. She might be five, give or take a year either way, small and potato-sack-like in build. Her dress is nicer than most, as well, as if someone took special care to make sure she had a pretty dress and regular baths and laundry. Even as a kid there’s only the smallest amount of dirt on the bottom hem, obviously recent.

“Ahhh,” Dominic nods his head slowly, as if understanding were dawning upon him. “Mister Tortie, was it? Hola, Señor Tortie. I’d shake your hand but turtles have feet.” He’s amused by her shyness, taking the turtle plushie as a serious second personality. But he also glances to Odette herself, the little girl getting a smile as well. “And what about you, nina, what’s your name?” Who is Mister Tortie’s friend?

The question of whether or not he has a horse gets an arch of his brow. Dominic shakes his head. “I don’t have one,” he admits, “but sure enough I’ll get a horse too, and then we can ride together.” The man’s smile broadens with confidence. “So how come you can’t ride by yourself yet? Is there some secret we need to find out?”

“Señor Tortie Tortuga!” The young girl adds on to give her stuffed animal’s full name as she extends his flipperfoot forward so that he could actually shake it if he wanted to. And yes, in a way, she is hiding behind Tortie the Turtle. Whose name is apparently in partly in Spanish. “I don’t ride by myself cause dad and aunt Leenie don’t want me to get hurt. But they take me for rides when I ask. Maybe you can too sometimes. When you have a horse.”

She doesn’t exactly have any trouble with pronouciation of most words, so the nicknames might just be nicknames.

“Tortie says you look nice, so, I’m Odette.” This time, like the flipper foot of the stuffed turtle she held forward, she juts her own hand upward in offer to the tall dark man. Whose strange language doesn’t seem all that strange to her.

Gingerly taking the flipper foot in his fingers, Dominic shakes Mister Tortie’s foot anyway, a genuine smile of good humor settling into his features. “Mucho gusto, Mister Tortuga. You’re the first turtle I’ve met and I like you already.” Odette gets a hand held out to shake as well. The man nods his understanding of her reason on not being able to ride a horse on her own.

“Well Odette, it’s very nice to meet you. I’m Dominic. And all you need to work on right now is being a cute kid,” he says lightly. “I don’t think I’ve met your Daddy yet. What’s his name?” Given that he’s the only one listed amidst the girl’s people without a name, the man fishes.

“Nice to meet you Mister Domie,” The young girl shortens his name, much as she has everyone. But when she’s asked about her dad she pulls the stuffed turtle just a little closer. “Daddy’s daddy.” That’s who daddy is! She just calls him daddy. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t pay attention to what other people call him. “The others call him Joshua or Lang or Sir, but I call him daddy.”

So his fishing got him an answer. “Are you going to stay? If you stay and do well you will get moved into the building. It’s nicer there. My room is really nice. Mister Tortie has a lot of friends.”

Then she asks a question that’s weird. “Where’d you learn to talk like that? Hola.” Kids, always a mile a minute with their mouths.

Keeping his cool by pulling a smile a touch further back than he ought, Dominic takes in a long breath. That was not the name he expected to hear. But there it is. And here is this young girl, little Odette. “Oh, I think I’d like to stay for a while,” he answers her, hands cupping his kneecaps as he leans forward a little to show his interest, “and meet all of Mister Tortie’s friends. And you know, I’m glad I met you too, Odette. And maybe they’ll let me stay and meet a bunch of friends.”

He pauses, but adds that slight caveat with a glance towards the tent flap, “If I do well.”

Her question swings his attention back, and Dominic cocks his head, an amused twist coming to his mouth. “Like that? That’s how my daddy talks and my mom and family. It’s a different language, Spanish. Different way of talking, but a whole bunch of people can talk like that.”

He taps a finger on his bedroll, then offers, brows lifted with humor, “Do you and Mister Tortie want to learn?”

“I thought it was called español,” the kid says as if she is trying to correct him, or just otherwise confused as to languages and how things are supposed to be said. But it’s obvious from that that she at least knows a little. More than hola and senor and tortuga, but maybe not enough to claim she actually knows it. Or that it’s what people who don’t speak it would call Spanish.

“Mister Tortie wants to learn more, yes!” She adds on to respond to the question. While the stuffed turtle learns she will too. “His name means Turtle.” In Spanish, even. Something that she sounds quite proud about. Without even saying another word she jumps over to the bedroll and plops down on it, positioning the stuffed turtle in her lap so they can both listen and learn.

Her correction draws a light, amused laugh from Dominic and he nods. “That’s right. That’s how you would say it if you were talking in the language. You’re very clever to know it was called Español.” There’s no doubt some Spanish speakers around the colony, but he’s humored by the sharp ears of the young child. When she pops up onto the bedroll beside him, he scoots his larger frame to make room for Mister “Tortie” Tortuga just in case, though the plush animal is in her lap.

The man shows patience, starting with random objects around the tent that he can provide the vocabulary for, from lantern to bed, books to blanket, the array of clothes from his duffel down to the tentpoles. They go through other things like colors and numbers, horses and turtles, going so far as to open up the tent flap and point out a few buildings. She even gets the phrase, Como se dice en Español for the growing Q&A session.

“You’re getting pretty good at this,” Dominic says with a grin as they resume sitting back to on the bedroll. “I got one more for you, nina. And then we better go make sure lunch is ready. OK? Okay, listen closely now.” After clearing his throat lightly he launches into a silly sounding song:

En la ciudad donde vivo yo, hay muchas cosas interesantes,
Hay un cine y una catedral y hay diecinueve restaurantes.
En la ciudad donde vivo yo, hay muchas cosas interesantes,
Hay un bar y un centro comercial y hay diecinueve restaurantes…

The melody stays simple for both verses, the pace kept deliberate so she can catch on.

It doesn’t take long at all before the little girl starts rocking a little where she sits, making the turtle bob his head to the slow deliberate beat and she starts to sing along. Odette’s pronunciation is pretty correct, too, if accented slightly in a kiddish way more than anything. She stops when she doesn’t know the next words, but sings what’s obviously a repeated. Her voice isn’t practiced, but it’s obvious she’s sung a little in her short lifetime. Enough that she doesn’t seem shy about singing along.

The following week…

Some time within the early hours of the morning, a note was dropped to Dominic to report to the stables after breakfast set up. The man’s arrived in his usual dark-tee-and-jeans combination, expecting an assignment of mucking. Or tack cleaning, or hay stacking, or any number of stablehands duties that go into the operations side of the stables and maintenance.

Over the past couple of weeks since he first arrived, he’s not made complaints about the work. That’s the job of the rookie, and like a student trying to rush a fraternity of brothers, he’s taken on as many challenges as he’s able to prove that he wants this.

Not unlike his welcome into the police department, all those years ago that now seem far away. And less likely to result in a bullet to his chest if he were to mess up.

Johannes’ broad-shouldered mass is there to greet him, as it always is, but Dominic can tell there’s something different about this morning the moment he sees the twinkle in the larger man’s eyes.

“I want to introduce you to someone,” he tells Dominic, leading him past the stable’s gates and inside the darkened structure with its low roof and cement floor blanketed in a layer of damp, pungent hay. It isn’t an unpleasant smell — it’s robust, earthy, reminiscent of a simpler time populated by simpler people.

They come to a stop midway down the row of pens, which are illuminated by the soft glow of an oil-burning lantern that hangs off a hook mounted on a wooden beam overhead. A shadow swings around to face the men with a low snort and a shake of its large shaggy head.

It’s a gelding, lean and cut, with a coarse reddish-brown coat and a mane that shines like a candle’s flame in the firelight. The horse fixes his eyes on Dominic, watching him from beneath the fan of his dense lashes.

“This is Fernet-Me-Not,” Johannes says. “He used to be a racehorse back East, retired right before the war broke out. A little chippy, but nothing a firm hand can’t fix. I think you two’ll be a good fit.”

“Yo-Yo-Yo-Johannes!” calls out a jovial voice before the tall, broad-shouldered frame of Finn Shepherd appears in the doorway. “Tell that asshole of a horse of mine to get ready, because today is the day that he becomes my bi-I need to rethink this sentence.”

He grins as he sees the man he knows already introducing the newcomer to Fernet-Me-Not. “Well, howdy, stranger,” he says, dipping his hat to Cesar-slash-Dominic, and he comes to the stall next to Fernet’s, which happens to belong to the buckskin Warlander that he’s affectionately named Stewmeat.

Stew for short.

Despite the terrible name, he pulls out an apple from his jacket pocket and holds it out in a flat palm for the golden-coated, black-maned beast to nibble at. “‘Sup?” he says to Dominic.

“Morning Johannes,” Dominic’s first greetings come easy. The anticipation of seeing a mucking shovel fades with the lack of one in the stablemaster’s hand. Instead, the look in the taller, broader man’s eye triggers a curious and cautious glance. He leans his weight to one foot, peering deeper into the stable expecting a someone in a more human shape.

When the someone turns out to be Fernet-Me-Not, Dominic and the horse exchange looks. “Oh I get it,” he says, a hand reaching up to pet (or is it pat?) the gelding’s nose. “We’re both more than what we seem, but on the outside we’re both pretty handsome bastards aren’t we?” He chuckles, dark eyes ticking towards Johannes. “Except for a little problem,” he starts, “I don’t really know how to r—”

The confession gets interrupted by the jovial tones of Finn Shepherd. In a way, Dominic looks relieved to see the appearance of the other man. “Did you just ‘howdy stranger’ at me ‘cause we’re in a stable,” he says with a smirk and a hand sliding out for a shake. After Finn’s treated his horse though. “Dominic. And that’s Fernet-Me-Not.” The latter gets a quick regarding twist of the head. Johannes’ presence looming needs to introduction, the man assumes.

“Nice of you to join us, Finn,” Johannes murmurs around a smile. “I was hoping we’d have another set of hands for Dominic’s riding lesson this morning. Yours’ll do.”

Assuming Stewmeat doesn’t take one of them off in his enthusiastic acceptance of the offered apple. That doesn’t seem particularly likely — even the chippy gelding that Johannes had warned Dominic about is pressing his face into the spread of his palm and flaring his nostrils wide as he takes in his rider’s scent for the first time.

He stomps his hoof. Once.

“His skin feels like velvet, doesn’t it?” Johannes asks. “Their noses don’t look like it, but the only thing softer is a baby’s ass.” He unfastens the bolt on the pen’s door and offers Dominic a leather lead. “I like to start with the basics,” he explains. “Most of the men here never get up on a horse because they don’t have the right disposition for it, and we don’t have enough animals to go around. Today I’m going to show you how to lead him, how to groom him. You already know about feeding and mucking, so we can skip that and have you in the saddle by the end of the week.”

Once Stew has finished the apple, Finn wipes that hand on his jeans before reaching up to stroke the long face of the horse, from forehead to muzzle.

“Yeah, to be honest, howdy isn’t really part of my everyday parlance. Or it wasn’t until I found myself living in a western movie. It’s ironic, like hipsters drinking Pabst, right?” he says, with a grin, turning away from the horse to take the proffered hand.

“Finn Shepherd. Don’t let the name fool you. I don’t fool with no sheep. And I don’t have the disposition for horses, but I’m stubborn like Stew here, so it works out,” he says, grin widening, before he nods to Johannes. “I can help, sure.”

Dominic casts a sidelong glance at Johannes, replying with a noncommittal "Yup" to the remark about what the horse's nose is as soft as instead of what had flashed through his mind initially. He takes the lead, maintaining a respectable distance from Fernet-Me-Not at first. It's not fear so much as common sense to be cautious around the large animal, and one thing to have the had the pen door as a barrier, now no longer.

Turning to include Finn, Dominic chuckles. "Last thing I want's to be imagining anybody doing anything but herding sheep. Or to get stuck wearing a ten gallon hat and silver spurs, 'pardner'." But he's curious then, glancing from Finn to Johannes to the horse at the end of the lead." A second glance shifts back to Finn and Stew. "How long'd it take you to learn?" How to ride a horse, that is.

And to Johannes, his remark might seem overeager. Competitive, as it were. "A week's a pretty long time. Sure we're not going to get all up top sooner?"

“That depends how much he likes you,” Johannes answers, with a tip in Fernet-Me-Not’s direction. He guides both men and their horses out of the stable and into the adjacent field, which is still blanketed in a fine, silver mist that will undoubtedly burn off before noon.

There are alpacas grazing nearby: long-necked snarls of wool in neutral colors that appear to tower above the squatter, rounder sheep and goats milling around them. Somewhere else, unseen, a rooster crows from atop one of the historic buildings reclaimed by the settlement in its early days.

Tree branches are fully fleshed out with their spring leaves, obscuring Dominic’s view, but the last few weeks have allowed him to piece together a better understanding of its sprawl and how everything fits together, from the stables, to the canvas tents on the settlement’s perimeter, to the farmland and greenhouse incubating new crops for the kitchens and their billowing smokestacks.

As he looks down toward the fence line, he sees the black tulip field on the other side of the wire, in full bloom and ready for harvest — if intended for harvest at all.

Deer at the edge of the field scatter on their approach.

“Someone’s got a gutterbrain,” Finn asides to Johannes, then nodding toward Dominic as if it’s a question as to who. He grins though, following the gentle giant out of the stable and into the cool, gray outdoors.

As far as how long it took him to learn, he shrugs, with a glance back at Dominic. “About a week in saddle before I stopped looking like I was sitting on springs. A few weeks before I could ride an hour without feeling it for a week.” He pats Stew’s neck affectionately.

As for getting “up top” quicker, Finn gestures to Johannes, glancing back at the newcomer. “One does not question the master. Remember your Karate Kid, grasshopper. Everything has a purpose — even if it just seems to make the boss man there have less work of his own to do. You do what Mr. Miyagi says and you’ll be all right. It’s not a race, right?”

Even if Fernet-Me-Not was once a racehorse.

And as the next sun rises…

Sixty seconds ago, the early morning quiet of Sedro Woolley was disrupted by the war drum of hooves beating hard-packed dirt and a ghoulish moan. A dole of doves has taken flight; chickens scatter. A few doors are already opening down the main drag, faces peering out of windows and into the thawing morning light.

At the gallows, a mean spit of a figure in black BDUs is hauling a shambled body up onto raised wooden slats by his collar. Emile Danko is breathing hard, steam huffed and puffed past the sweaty bristle of his burr, pale face drawn gaunt around the bare of his teeth as he drags his quarry up on his back.

The body he’s moving is still alive — matted thick as a rug with blood and grass and earth. He still has a rope bound around his feet.

The far end is hitched up to the saddle of a dark bay horse sweating nearby, his flanks heaving, nostrils dished wide, plumed with steam. A riderless grey horse is trailing along not far after the first, also panting. Two more with armed riders have broken off from the pack to circle around, establishing a loose perimeter.

“Jeremiah Stephenson, you stand accused of the crimes of burglary, rape and horse theft.”

Danko sweeps horsehair down off the dusty front of his jacket, glove gummy with cooling blood. A hitch of his thumb opens the strap fastened over his sidearm. He raises his voice coarse to carry further, once he’s sucked in another breath, to open ears and watchful eyes.

“Do you have anything to say in your own defense?”

Establishing himself as a potential feeder of the masses means getting up early. Earlier still, if there’s to be any time to prep oneself for the day ahead. And as Dominic is finding out, returning from an early morning jog that gives him a chance to familiarize himself with his surroundings, it’s turning out to be quite a day already.

A towel slips off his shoulder, wiping dampness away from his face and neck, shoved into a pocket of his sweats. He exhales cooling, steadying breaths that mirror the horses. His feet take him as close as the established perimeter, no attempt made to interrupt the trial unfolding. But the accusations named wrinkle his features, whether it’s in distaste of the crimes of the accused or in the manner with which the groundwork for public humiliation is established, unclear.

He conducts a quick sweeping scan of open doors and windows, then it’s back to watching Danko conduct a so-called trial.

The man on the gallows groans, one broken hand lifted, outstretched.

Danko draws his sidearm and plugs him twice in the head; the shots ring out clear through humid air and god rays filtering between buildings, echoed by the ring of brass tinkling over wood.

That’s it. That’s the trial.

“Get this cleaned up.”

A bullet casing is still rolling slow for the edge when Danko drops down off the gallows, and the men on horseback trot in. One takes the reins of Danko’s horse, reaching long to unhitch Jeremiah’s rope from the saddle. The other gives Dominic a nod on his way past — he catches the rope as it’s slung across to him, rider to rider.

Only one of them looks military despite the rifles on their backs; they both have rough hands and weathered faces for their age, one lean in a heavy jacket and the other broad and bearded. They could be ranch hands, or roughnecks.

Today they’re undertakers.

In the interim, Emile’s holstered his gun and taken notice of Dominic on the street. There are a few new faces around, since he returned to the colony. Even at a distance, this feels like a lingering look — a sizing up, as he’s caught out in the open by the grey Eye of Sauron.

Wherever he was headed next, Danko crosses the square for Dominic instead.

What visible tension there is in Dominic when two shots ring out is wrung out via his fists gripping onto the sweat towel. The fabric pulled out of his pocket is flung over the back of his neck, ends pulled tight in both hands. He remembers to breathe. And to tick his chin up at the rider wordlessly.

He’s watching the riders handling the cleanup when the eye creeping a look has trickled a cold feeling like a bead of sweat down his spine. It’s a good thing he’s already sweating. That’ll hide the rest of it. Nor does he turn to go about the rest of his day or avoid the approach of the bloody-knuckled man. To turn one’s back on a predator would be folly.

Instead, he squares up to Danko, acknowledging the man’s presence with an assessing, neutral look from dark eyes. And when he’s close enough to be considered polite, Dominic speaks up. “You know what’s good for getting out stains like that?” He nods to the gloves. “Coca-cola. It’ll take the blood right out your clothes, and the shitstains off your porcelain.” The man smiles a coyote’s grin, tips of teeth showing, lip corners twitched up.

The spring in Emile Danko’s step is pure utility, military liveliness in the kick of his stride and the fishbelly silver of his eyes. They’re whetted sharp in the morning sun, and damp as the rest of him, slick and alien to Sedro-Woolley’s woodsy charm as something fresh turned out from under a flipped rock.

“The real trick is just to wear black,” he replies, still on the approach.

A stiff flick of his right hand skips a few globs of coagulation off the tips of his fingers into the dirt; he reaches to strip off the left glove before the right, all velcro and snaps. He’s geared up for manhunting — bulletproof vest and an earpiece plugged into a radio at his hip. Grass stains and dust highlight signs of a scuffle across his knees and one shoulder. He has dirt smeared across his face.

He’s also a full 7 inches shorter than Dominic, which. If it wasn’t obvious upon his walking over here, it certainly is when he’s close enough to offer his clean right hand out for a shake, soiled gloves dangling inside-out from the left.

“I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Behind him, the corpse he left on the gallows is dragged off the edge with a flat thump as he’s pulled slowly away at the end of his rope.

Danko’s response gets a genuine, if sardonic and humorless, laugh. He’s heard it before, but to hear it from this man, right after witnessing an execution of a man. “But it’s so hard to keep the color nice and dark,” he remarks as he wipes his hands off on the towel. “Dominic,” the name accompanies his handshake and a steady gaze. “New around here, been getting shown the ropes.”

It’s not an intended pun, although his gaze then moves to the corpse of Jeremiah Stephenson being dragged off by one. The distraction is brief. “You read about what happened to horse thieves out in the West, but that,” he nods towards the dragging, “sure puts a perspective on it.”

“I hand wash it.” A humorless laugh is all a joke about laundry bloodied by an execution deserves; Danko meets Dominic’s gaze and his grip with a crook at the corner of his mouth, brows cocked together in appreciation for the effort.


He has to tip his head well back to keep up eye contact at this range, at ease and brazen as a little jackal trotted up to Dominic’s feet. His mustache is gone, shaved off and filled back in with the creep of colorless stubble cross-country travel and outdoor living inspires in a man who flat out doesn’t care anymore. The US military might be ingrained in his gait, but his posture is mercenary, lazy arrogance in the slope of his shoulders.

Intel has him pushing 60. Up close, he doesn’t look a day more undead than his last known photograph.

All it’d take is one well-placed stomp —

“I’d’ve shot him for the horse, but it’s the rape that concerns me. Bad for morale. People don’t feel safe.” Dominic knows how it goes, when the rapists aren’t kept in check, out here in the dead zone. If he didn’t before, he will now, with Emile Danko looking him in the mouth, blood still dripping sluggish off the wad of his gloves. “It’s hard on the whole settlement.”

Jeremiah’s corpse leaves a line of darkened earth behind him on his way out of the square.

“Welcome to Sedro-Woolley.”

A well-placed stomp and an escape plan. But that’s suicide, as evidenced by the manhunt and execution that Dominic’s just witnessed. “Shit, yeah,” is the man’s response to the account of the man’s purported crime. “Anybody check on the girl?” he asks after that oddly placed welcome, to which he only tips his chin in a short nod.

He wets his lower lip at a stray second thought, eyeing the trail of dark earth. “Or the guy?”

“I mean, while you were out. You know. Someone was making sure things were settling down here, yeah?”

There’s a twitch at Danko’s brow for the stray thought, suspicion fleeting through a sharper glance. The rising sun catches glassy clear in his eyes, glittering off dew and damp grass still clinging in the creases of his jacket.

“She’s with the doctor.”

Don’t worry, Mister Inclusivity.

“I’ve been out of town,” he says. Almost like an apology — taking ownership of the people here who don’t know how to act. “Playtime’s over. I’ll get it sorted out.”

It’s dangerous to assume. Dominic rolls his shoulders back, slowly working out the muscle stiffness that comes of standing still and tense after a workout without proper cooldown. That and the dark topics of death, thievery, and rape. All before breakfast.

“Sheriff’s back in town,” he acknowledges, dark eyes flicking down to Danko’s boots, a short act of reserved deference from the coyote to the jackal.

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