THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN CONNECTION – snippet 24:
O’Connor’s son Neil started digging amongst the goods piled in the wagon. “I’ll find something.”
Marina Barclay swallowed. “Are you sure, Mr. Drugeth? I mean, you were saying we needed to move as soon as…”
Her voice trailed off, as it must have dawned on her that she was perilously close to “obstruction and dispute.” Nervously, she eyed the sword.
But either Drugeth was inclined to be lenient toward women—Billie Jean, still gasping for breath, supported that theory—or he was simply not given to bloodshed for the sake of it. That theory was supported by everything else Denise had seen.
Including his next words.
“They are not animals, to be left to scavengers. Time presses, yes, but God created time also. Everything we do is watched by Him.”
Noelle got off her horse, holding a small spade that she’d retrieved from her saddlebag. “Let’s get started,” she said. “Officer Drugeth is right.” She seemed quite calm, although with Noelle you never knew. She was the kind of person who clamped down her emotions under stress. She didn’t so much as glance at Drugeth.
Less than half a minute later, having found a good spot, she started digging. Drugeth came up and offered to replace her. But, still without looking at him, she shook her head.
“You can spell me when I get tired. This’ll take a while.”
Denise started digging alongside her—more like just breaking up the ground—with a heavy stick she found in the woods. Meanwhile, the two male O’Connors and Tim Kennedy dug the other grave, with some tools they’d found in the wagon and a spade that Gardiner had in his own saddlebags.
When Noelle did relinquish the shovel to Drugeth, maybe half an hour later, she finally looked at him.
“What is your rank?”
He was back to that sad-eyed sorrowful-look business. “It is quite complicated, and depends mostly on the situation. For now, ‘captain’ will do.”
She nodded, still with no expression. “Why did you kill him, Captain Drugeth? You’d already disarmed him.”
“Literally,” muttered Denise; again, having to fight off a semi-hysterical giggle.
“I am not certain,” was the soft reply. “I fear some of it was simply ingrained reflex, although I strove to contain it. First, because it would have been a struggle to keep him alive on the journey, with such a wound, and would inevitably have slowed us down. Secondly, because I decided if I didn’t kill one of them now, I would have to kill one of them later. Perhaps more. They are undisciplined people, prone to emotional outbursts. That was bad enough before you appeared to make it worse. Clearly, they have an animus against you.”
He took a long breath. “And, finally, because he was not essential to my mission. Not even important, really. Neither was Simmons.”
The two of them stared at each other.
“Just like that?” she asked abruptly.
“At the time, yes. Just like that. In the time to come, of course, it will be different. I will spend many hours of my life thinking about the deed. And praying that I did not transgress His boundaries.”
Noelle looked away, for a few seconds. “Yes,” she said. “I understand.”
She handed him the shovel and climbed out of the shallow pit. “I will give you my parole, Captain Drugeth.”
“Eddie will too. So will Lannie and Keenan, probably, but I wouldn’t believe Lannie or Keenan if they told me the sun rose in the east. It’s not that they’re dishonest. Just… forgetful.”
He smiled. “Much like several of my cousins.”
Now, he looked at Denise.
“You can take her word for anything,” said Noelle. “If you don’t mind it coming with vulgar qualifiers.”
Denise scowled. “Well, thank you very much.”
Drugeth just looked at her, saying nothing.
After a while, Denise shrugged. “Sure, why not? You’ve got my fucking word I’ll be a good little girl.”
He stroked his mustache. “Qualifiers, indeed,” he said mildly. “Do I need to insist on qualifying the terms? No attempt to escape. No attempt to overwhelm us by force.”
He even said that last with a straight face. “That sort of thing?”
Denise thought about it. “Nah,” she said. “I hate all that legal dotting-the-I’s and crossing-the-T’s bullshit. But I’m okay with the spirit of stuff.”
He studied her for a bit longer. Denise was primed to strip his hide if he started nattering about her potty mouth. Or asked her if her father knew the sort of language she used, when who the hell did he think she’d learned it from in the first place?
But all he said was, “I believe that will do quite nicely.”
By nightfall, they were well into the Fichtelgebirge. They made camp just before nightfall.
Three camps, really, separated by a few yards from each other. One for the defectors, one for Drugeth and his two cohorts, one for Denise, Noelle, Eddie, Lannie and Keenan.
After they ate, Lannie and Eddie fell asleep. Between their injuries and the rigors of walking or riding a wagon along mountain trails for several hours, they were exhausted.
Denise and Noelle and Keenan stayed awake a while longer. Mostly, just staring into the little fire they’d made. All three of the camps had fires going. Drugeth had given permission to make them. He didn’t seem too concerned they’d be spotted, given the thick woods around them.
And who’d spot them anyway? The ever-vigilant and non-existing USE park rangers? Overflying aircraft, when they’d already crashed the only one in Grantville that could get off the ground, and Jesse Wood only let even the air force guys fly at night in extreme emergencies?
But Denise’s sarcastic thoughts were just her way of coming to a decision.
“I’ve decided,” she finally pronounced. “Drugeth’s okay.”
“Scary son-of-a-bitch,” Keenan grunted. “But. Yeah. He’s okay, I guess. What do you think, Noelle?”
But Noelle said nothing. Denise wasn’t even sure she’d heard them talking. She seemed completely pre-occupied by the sight of the flames.