In this excerpt from Rob Ziegler's new postapocalyptic novel Seed (Night Shade Books), the action is starting to get intense. You're coming into the story at chapter 7, so here's a quick plot summary to get you up to speed:
It's the dawn of the 22nd century, and the world has fallen apart. Decades of war and resource depletion have toppled governments. The ecosystem has collapsed. A new dust bowl sweeps the American West. The United States has become a nation of migrants—starving masses of nomads roaming across wastelands and encamped outside government seed distribution warehouses.
In this new world, there is a new power: Satori. More than just a corporation, Satori is an intelligent, living city risen from the ruins of the heartland. She manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, and bio-engineers her own perfected castes of post-humans Designers, Advocates and Laborers. What remains of the United States government now exists solely to distribute Satori product; a defeated American military doles out bar-coded, single-use seed to the nation's hungry citizens.
Secret Service Agent Sienna Doss has watched her world collapse. Once an Army Ranger fighting wars across the globe, she now spends her days protecting glorified warlords and gangsters. As her country slides further into chaos, Doss feels her own life slipping into ruin.
When a Satori Designer goes rogue, Doss is tasked with hunting down the scientist-savant—a chance to break Satori's stranglehold on seed production and undo its dominance. In a race against Satori's genetically honed assassins, Doss's best chance at success lies in an unlikely alliance with Brood—orphan, scavenger and small-time thief—scraping by on the fringes of the wasteland, whose young brother may possess the key to unlocking Satori's power.
As events spin out of control, Sienna Doss and Brood find themselves at the heart of Satori, where an explosive finale promises to reshape the future of the world.
Their ninth day out of Amarillo brought them to the small town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, little more than a few building foundations and the echoes of giant parking lots etched into desert hardpan, abutting the freeway. They didn't stop. Angled the wagon off the freeway and north along the trace of an old highway whose number had long been forgotten. Up into the New Mexico foothills, into an expanse of dead junipers baked grey by the heat.
It was quiet, the trickle of snowmelt running in muddy rivulets down deep gullies on either side of the road, the whine of the wagon's motor the only sounds. There was no grass to rustle in the wind. No small animals scurried out of their path or hid trembling out of sight. No hawks or vultures circled overhead. Tightness gripped Brood's gut as he worked the tiller. It was a dead forest.
"We're levitating," Pollo said. He lay on his back, eyes closed to the sun. A small rattler coiled languidly around his wrist. He'd spread a handful of Satori seed on his chest, mashed into a golden disk occupying the tattooless spot over his sternum. The black hieroglyphs of animals surrounded it. Deer, rats, turtles, lizards, most of which he'd X'd out. Goners. "Satori keeps us floating." He sat up suddenly, careful not to startle the snake, and let the seeds fall into a cupped hand. "That's lonely." He pulled his blanket over his head and folded in on himself. Began to hum, weird and tuneless.
Hondo punched up some Tijuana lounge on the stereo, but it felt wrong, laughter in a cemetery. After a few moments he killed it. He sat down and laid an arm across Pollo's shoulders.
At dusk they camped on the road rather than risk sinking the wagon into the muddy ditches. They built a fire as the temperature dropped and made a stew by dropping hot rocks into a pot with canned potatoes and the last of Pollo's snake meat. Nobody spoke.
The meal's warmth settled Brood. He lay on a blanket by the fire, watching desert stars blaze, so bright they seemed to sing. They were three days shy of Ojo Caliente. His mind wandered with visions of Rosa Lee. Her bracelets jingling as she knelt beside him in a long furrow, planting. Pollo and Hondo would be there, too. Settled and safe, the road's long miles vague in their memories. As his thoughts turned to dreams, Brood saw a life long enough to have a baby with Rosa Lee. A girl, with Rosa's black hair, who would smile and squeal and grip his fingers and call Pollo her tio and Hondo her abuelito.
He woke to find Pollo standing over him, chest bare to the chill night. Pollo's little snake wormed slowly over the boy's knuckles, lethargic in the cold. Brood shivered, glanced at the sky. Orion had set, but dawn had made no overture yet at the eastern horizon.
"Pollo? Que onda?"
"Time to go," Pollo said. His voice was strange, mild but insistent. He stepped over Brood, hopped the gully and disappeared into the woods.
Brood heard whispering. He squinted, glimpsed movement off the road opposite from where Pollo had gone.
"Hondo!" he hissed.
Lightning flashed a few feet away. Everything went white. Thunder pounded the air. The smoldering remains of the fire exploded beside him. Hot ash showered him.
He leapt to his feet. Something hit his shoulder. He staggered. He saw people now, dark shapes running out of the trees. Pain shot down his arm. He screamed Hondo's name, heard nothing besides an awful ringing in his head.
Another impact, this time against his sternum. It knocked the wind from his lungs. He gasped, wretched. A shadow loomed before him, wielding something over its head. Brood's palm tightened on the .32. He didn't remember picking it up. He raised it, fired three times. The shadow staggered back, dropping what Brood now saw was an aluminum bat.
Another strobe of white light. This time Brood felt the concussion in his bones. Dirt kicked up at his feet. He looked in the direction of the flash. A girl stood a few feet way, eyeing him down the barrel of an ancient bolt action rifle. He backpedalled. Three men struggled on the other side of the fire. Brood leapt, driving his shoulder into a body. It dropped. Dreadlocks flew.
"Cojer!" Hondo yelled. Brood ducked as somebody swung at him. He pulled the old man up by the arm.
Gunfire popped like heat lightning in the trees. Brood grabbed Hondo and yelled into the old rat's face.
"Run!" And they both did, in opposite directions.
He found Hondo the next morning, naked except for his sandals, sitting cross-legged atop a boulder up on a hillside overlooking the spot where they'd camped. He had his eyes closed, his face turned contentedly into the low morning sun. Sweat and dirt streaked his ribcage. Below, the wagon sat where they'd parked it. He nodded as Brood approached.
Pain throbbed in Brood's shoulder, stabbed his chest with every breath. He shrugged.
"Nothing serious. You?"
Hondo shook his head. "Just catching some sun. That your gringo?" He pursed grizzled lips at where a body in stained FEMAs lay face down beside the extinguished fire. Brood recalled firing the pistol, which now dangled empty in his right hand.
"Might be. You seen Pollo?"
Hondo smiled, inclined his dreads towards the wagon. Pollo sat there against the water tank. He held his snake in cupped hands and appeared to be having a serious conversation with it.
"Pollo!" Brood called. "Esta bien?" Pollo did not look up. He transferred the snake delicately to one hand and with the other raised a thumb high. He continued talking at the snake.
They found everything intact. Brood's bow and quiver hung where he'd left them on the tiller. He inspected the batteries and motor, checked the food crates, the drive train.
"Everything's good," he told Hondo. Hondo wrapped a knuckle along the water tank, checking the seed, then slid under the wagon to check the water barrels. He reappeared a moment later and stood, brow furrowed, picking the scab on his cheek.
"We good?" Brood asked. Hondo said nothing, instead stepped to the spot where he'd slept. He pushed the blanket aside with a toe, revealing the Mossberg.
"Que pasa?" Brood demanded. Hondo bent with a long groan and picked up the shotgun, then turned to Brood. Gave him a look like he'd forgotten his own name.
"Think it's all good, homito."
Brood scanned the dead trees on either side of the road. Fat black flies had begun to gather on the body beside the fire.
"We chased them off," Pollo explained, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. Hondo thought about this for a moment, then his naked ribcage puffed out like a lizard's throat. He placed a hand on a hip, showed Brood slick black gums.
"Course we did."
"Sale vale." Brood found his sandals beside the fire where he'd left them, slipped his feet inside. "Ain't La Chupes, though. Chupes would've had us."
"True." Hondo sobered. Propped the Mossberg on one shoulder, eyed the surrounding forest. "Who you think then?"
Brood killed the motor, let the wagon coast to a halt. He leaned across the water tank, squinting at an intersection a half-mile down valley where their road crossed another, barely more than a game trail. A small band of people had broken camp there and now trudged slowly east in the dusty wake of two grinding trucks, one water and one cargo.
"Cuantos?" he asked.
"Cinco." Hondo stood at the wagon's bow, scoping the intersection through binoculars. "They got a dog," he said after a moment. Brood squinted again, saw a dog trotting beside the second truck.
"They our friends from last night?"
"You seen anyone else out here?" Hondo pushed back dreads and gravely sucked a thumbnail. "They look hungry."
"Hide or roll?"
"Roll," Pollo sang. He sat on the wagon's edge, feet dangling. He stared out at where cloud shadows scudded like apparitions across the valley floor. The last stretch of desert before the mountains. "They got a dog."
Brood and Hondo exchanged a look. Hondo shrugged, picked up a flak jacket off the wagon's deck and tossed it to Brood.
"Chale," Brood muttered.
They met the group just east of the intersection. A girl with aviator shades and a rifle slung over one FEMA-clad shoulder spotted them, yelled something to the others. The trucks jerked to a halt, heaving on their chassis. Motors spooled down.
Brood pulled the wagon in a long curve through the brush and hardpan, parking across the trail behind the small caravan. He killed the throttle, kept the motor switched on. Gripped his bow, an arrow already nocked.
The lead truck consisted of the teardrop of an ancient helicopter cockpit cobbled atop a heavy tractor chassis. Welded, bolted, tied with wire. Its door cracked open, caught for a moment on rusty hinges, then swung wide as someone inside kicked it. The unmistakable fuzz of a Ham radio issued forth.
A gringa stepped out. Brood saw grey hair pulled back tight, a sleeveless denim vest over FEMAs. She raised a tentative hand in greeting, her face pinched in the morning sun.
"See?" Pollo whispered urgently. He pointed at the small dog, which wiggled, skinny and nearly hairless, around the woman's shins. It spasmed with pleasure as she leaned down and scratched it behind the ear.
"Who the fuck got a dog?" Brood wondered. Hondo shook his head.
From the other side of the truck emerged a tall man dressed all in denim. He stood there, a pistol held partly visible behind one hip.
The girl with the aviator shades said something to the group. They idled for a moment, wrapped against the sun in filthy canvas blankets. Then, one by one, they sat, exhausted heaps on the broken road-all except the girl and a square-jawed boy with corn-rowed hair. They unslung rifles.
"Where you out of?" Hondo called.
"Baja." The woman's voice sounded choked, as though dust caked her throat. She coughed, stepped slowly forward, palms open. "Baja," she repeated, narrow jaw thrust forward, vibing defiance, determination, need. Brood guessed her to be a little older than Hondo, maybe fifty.
"First we've seen from Baja," Hondo said. The woman swallowed hard, clutched her throat with fingers thin and gnarled as a raven's claw. Her face stretched as she did this, outlining her skull. "You try to rob us last night, chica?" Hondo asked.
The woman glanced at her small troop. They watched with hollow faces, their eyes fevered and unfocused. They had the look of people with few miles left in them. The woman gave Hondo a frank look.
"Sorry about that," she said. She eyed the wagon's water tank. "Spare any water?" Hondo looked her up and down, head tilted speculatively to one side.
"Shit." He looked from the woman to Brood and back, then his lips stretched over his gums and he rasped out laughter. "Shit," he said again, and turned serious. He pointed his gaze at the small group's water truck-so rusted it looked like it had been dredged from the sea floor. "You out?"
"Just about," the woman said. They eyed each other. A hiss of static came from the Ham in the woman's truck. Wind kicked dust out of the trees. Finally Hondo's dreads swayed as he nodded.
"Homito." He gestured at Brood.
Brood reached into the footlocker, withdrew a jar full of water and tossed it to the woman, who snatched it deftly out of the air. She uncapped it and drank, long and desperate, throat flexing. Paused eventually to breathe, then kept drinking. When the jar was empty she held it up to Hondo, childlike with both hands.
"Got any more?"
"Shit," Hondo mused.
"Shit," Pollo echoed.
They filled a galvanized gallon bucket and gave it to the woman. She gave it to her people. She policed it, making sure no one drank more than their share before passing it on. Her hands trembled as she passed Hondo the empty bucket.
"Thanks, amigo," she told him.
"They got any food?" called a boy with a black ponytail. He was Brood's age, maybe a little older.
"Shut up, Raimi," the boy with cornrows told him.
"Billy…" the ponytailed boy started to say, but the cornrowed boy gave him a hard look and he went quiet. The woman stared up at Hondo, held out her hands like she had no cards left to play.
"Well?" she asked. "Can you spare any food?" Hondo's dreads swiveled from side to side.
"I could skin up that dog for you, you want," Brood told her. The dog, panting at the woman's feet, canted its head to one side as though considering the idea. "That'd get you a few miles at least." The woman went rigid.
"Touch my dog, I'll skin you."
"Just a suggestion."
The woman turned to Hondo. Her face softened.
"Mucho gusto." Hondo's tone made clear his indifference.
"You could roll with us. We could help each other."
"You mean we could help you," Brood said.
"Where you headed?" Hondo asked.
"Kansas." The woman tilted her head towards the truck's cab, where a distorted voice now squawked from the HAM. "We're going to find the Corn Mother. She's building a permanent colony. Going to recrop the entire state."
"We heard." Hondo gave the woman a sympathetic look. Motioned at the road north. "We heading that way."
"Nothing up that way but snow and more of this…" The woman held up her hands and with a sweeping look took in the surrounding forest, grey and empty.
"They're not levitating," Pollo mused. His eyes came alive-something long sunken rising to the surface-and stared at Brood. "Satori don't carry them."
"You could come with us," the woman insisted. Her eyes, scared now, pleading, pinned Hondo. Hondo shook his head. The woman stepped forward, hands reaching. "Please, amigo." Hondo leveled the shotgun at her face.
"Ain't your pinche amigo, girl."
"Don't," the girl in the shades called. She sounded tired. Both she and the corn rowed boy raised their rifles.
Everything froze like that. The woman reaching. The mouth of Hondo's shotgun parked the width of a bead of sweat from her nose. Pollo, emergent, staring at Brood.
A gust of wind peppered them with needles of sand. Brood rubbed his eyes. Reached once more inside the footlocker. Produced a jar of pickled radishes. He tossed it to the woman, who caught it tightly in both arms.
"We ain't going with you."
Brood cranked the throttle. Hondo staggered as the wagon lurched forward. The woman said something else, but her words evaporated beneath the motor's whine. Brood pulled hard on the tiller, steering the wagon in a wide u-turn and away.
They kept rolling. After a moment came the mosquito buzz of a bullet winging past, followed by a single rifle report. Brood looked back. The woman sat on her knees, the jar cradled close to her chest. Beside her stood the girl in aviator shades, now slowly lowering the rifle from her shoulder. Brood raised his arm, extended his middle finger.
"Ain't floating," Pollo mumbled, his eyes vacant again. He wrapped his arms around himself, bringing the snake close, and began rocking back and forth.
The air turned cold that afternoon. White clouds built over the mountains. Brood tasted metal in the wind, then the snow came.
They holed up at the leaning remnants of a gas station. Brood gathered dry-rotted juniper and built a fire in the corner of what had been two walls. He passed around a jar of eggplant, which canned had the consistency of axle grease. They scooped out black globs with their fingers and sucked them. Pollo tried to feed some to his snake, which coiled and rattled.
"You keep that thing away from me, manito," Brood told him.
"Esta bien, Carlos. He's friendly." Pollo held the snake up as though to show Brood its true, benevolent nature. It rattled and struck. Brood flinched and Pollo laughed, eyes bright and fixed on the cracked concrete wall behind Brood's head.
"Ain't kidding," Brood said. "I ever see that thing out of your hands I'm gonna stomp it and eat it raw. Entiendes?"
Pollo's face darkened. "No, you ain't. You good, homie."
"Claro." Brood looked to Hondo. The old man still wore his flak jacket. He hadn't spoken since they'd put the beleaguered caravan behind them. He sat staring into the fire, the Mossberg cradled upright in his lap, his cheek pressed to its barrel in way that made Brood feel lonely.
"Por qué tan pensativo, viejo rata?" he inquired. Hondo kept his eyes on the oscillating firelight.
"Sometimes I pray." He aimed the words at the flames, as though he'd rather they burned up than touch the world. The confession hung in the air. "Those poor motherfuckers," he said after a moment. "Desert going to take them. They going to watch each other die, and ain't nothing none of them can do about it." He spread his hands open on his lap and stared down at the tough leather of his palms. "Didn't used to be like that."
"I pray," Pollo sang. Maybe the boy meant it, maybe he was simply parroting. He'd settled by the fire and now stirred charcoal with spit in his clamshell. As Brood watched, he began etching something with his needle along a bare hipbone. His snake lay coiled in his lap, soaking up heat.
"Momma prayed," Brood said. She'd prayed incessantly at the end. Staring up at the empty white sky, watching day turn into night and back again. Fever had burned through her, beading her skin with sweat and turning it yellow as the Oklahoma hardpan on which she'd lain. Her mouth had been stretched open when Brood had awakened that final morning. Her face wrapped her skull like leather, as though her last breath had pulled taut a thread, drawing her flesh tight as it escaped. She'd bloated in the heat. Her eyes had milked over and flies had covered them. Brood gazed flatly at Hondo in the oscillating firelight. "Can't say as I do, though."
"That shit today," Hondo said. "I'm sick of it." Brood tossed a piece of juniper on the fire and settled in beneath his blanket, using his flak jacket as a pillow. The snow had quit and stars shone through the clouds.
"Ojo Caliente," he said quietly.
"Ojo Caliente," Hondo agreed. Brood closed his eyes, tried to conjure Rosa Lee's face. Instead he recalled the fear in the gringa's eyes as they'd rolled away from her. Bitterness gripped him.
"Who the fuck got a dog?"
The weather had cleared by morning. The air felt clean. The sun warmed Brood's face as they ascended further into bone-picked foothills. Pollo held the snake in his cupped hands and clucked at it happily while Hondo quietly sang old corridos at the wagon's bow. If the road held, they'd make Ojo sometime the next morning.
It was afternoon when they smelled the cook fire. The road cut low through a swath of dead juniper between two long, low ridges. They rounded a bend and found two boys sitting beside a fire pit they'd built in the road's center.
They wore red sashes tied over their heads, red splashes on their FEMAs. Hondo swore, made chopping motion with one hand.
Brood killed the throttle, but it was too late. The Chupes rose to their feet, faced the wagon. One of them put fingers to his mouth and whistled. The sound pierced the dead forest like a stiletto.
They swarmed over both ridge tops. Thirty-odd Chupes, brandishing machetes, iron rock bars, clubs and five or six AK-90s, banana clips curling obscenely forth. They yelled and whooped, red sashes flying. Pollo rose to his feet and moaned. AKs barked, spitting up droughted clay all around the wagon. In seconds, La Chupes had surrounded them.
"Kill that fucking motor," one of them ordered. A spindly girl with strings of teardrops tattooed down her cheeks. She eyed Brood down the smoking barrel of an AK. Brood switched off the motor.
Hondo'd stood, but hadn't bothered to grab the Mossberg. He wheezed quiet laughter.
"Fuck you laughing, old man?" Brood asked. Hondo shook his dreads and held up empty hands, black gums gleaming.
"Ojo Caliente," he said, the punch line to a sad joke.
Brood put a hand on Pollo's shoulder. The boy trembled, moaned.
"He hit?" the Chupe girl demanded. "Goddamnit, we're supposed to shoot near them, not at them. Who fucking did that?"
"He ain't hit, chica," Brood said. "He just like that." The girl squinted up at Pollo, then at Brood. She pointed at the ground near her feet.
"Come down off there."
Brood looked around at the glowering faces, the eagerly brandished weapons. So many of them.
"How I know you all don't tear us up, we come down there?"
"Don't matter." The girl brought the AK up. "If you don't I'll just shoot your ass. Your choice."
"You ain't supposed to shoot us. You just said."
An AK fired close by, three sharp rounds that sounded like a hammer hitting bone. Everyone jumped. In the stunned silence Brood looked down at himself, to Pollo, to Hondo. Saw no blood.
"Sorry!" called a young boy, maybe eight years old, sunburned and freckled. The AK in his arms made him look tiny. He stared wide-eyed at a furrow the bullets had just plowed into the dirt inches from his feet.
"Bunny!" A larger boy stood beside him, clearly his brother. He snatched the AK, thumbed the safety, shoved it back into the smaller boy's chest. "Knew you was too young for a rifle." Bunny seemed about to respond, but fell quiet as a deep voice spoke from behind the Chupes crowding the wagon.
"Get off the fucking wagon." A big Chupe moved forward through the other gang members pressing around the wagon. He stepped gingerly, wincing each time his sandals touched the dirt. A makeshift rope sling bound his left arm close to his left side, where on his bare chest a spot of blood stained a fresh white bandage.
Brood recognized high Indian cheekbones, burn-mottled lips. Fear twisted in his guts.
"Hola, Richard," he said. A name he'd last spoken when the Chupe had lain trembling on the warehouse floor in Amarillo, Brood's aluminum arrow protruding from his chest. Brood figured first names were no longer appropriate, since the boy was no longer about to die. "Hijo de puta," he amended.
Richard's head bowed in greeting. "Bitches."
"Fuck'd you find us?"
Richard's eyes narrowed. A shrewd smile curled misshapen lips.
"You told me. Got some Tewa friends up north."
Brood digested this for a second, then clenched his teeth and let out a long hiss. Richard's smile broadened.
"No worries, homito," Hondo said.
Brood shook his head. "Never seen anybody live through something like that." Richard's smile faded. His jaw tightened.
"Wasn't what I'd call easy. Or pleasant." He beckoned with his good arm. "Get down off that fucking truck, or I let these boys climb up there and chop you all to pieces."
"It's a wagon," Pollo corrected, then began once more to moan, an empty sound that reminded Brood of a dead Ham station. Disconnected.
"Do it," Hondo said. He hopped off the wagon, and stood before Richard, looking up into the big boy's face. Brood cursed, and climbed down. Pollo followed. Richard leaned forward, put his face close to Hondo's.
"I got one question for you, old man. I think you know what it is."
Hondo didn't hesitate. "Water tank." Richard's eyes moved languidly to the tank, then to the small freckled boy with the AK.
"Bunny, you ever want to touch that rifle again, you get your ass up there and see if my seed's in that tank." Richard moved close to Brood. Slipped his good arm around the small of Brood's back, found the bone hilt of the hooked blade. Pulled it free and held it up, smiling as he inspected it. "Looks familiar."
Bunny slung the AK over his back and climbed nimbly atop the wagon. He unscrewed the tank's lid and stood on tiptoe to peer inside. His eyes widened; his mouth formed a black circle.
"Watch your mouth, Bunny," his brother scowled.
"That mean it's there, Bunny?" Richard inquired mildly.
"Fucking hell," Bunny affirmed.
"Bunny!" his brother growled.
"Good." Richard stared down into Brood's face. "Take off your sandals." He waved Brood's blade at Hondo's feet, then Pollo's. "You two. Sandals."
Brood felt suddenly cold. He squinted in the sun, glanced around at the dead junipers, felt their silence. Knew his body would rot slowly here, uselessly, because there were no scavengers to feed on him. It made him strangely sad. He kicked off his sandals.
"I had a son," Hondo said.
Brood blinked. "You never said nothing."
"Nothing to say." Hondo eloquently lifted one shoulder. "Didn't like him much. He was lazy. Real stupid, too. Made me sad. Me daba verguenza, like I couldn't believe he came from me, you know? I was real mean to him."
"Sandals," Richard repeated. Hondo kept his eyes on Brood.
"Wish he'd been like you, mijo."
"That's real nice." Richard smiled and nodded like everything was good. Like he had patience to the moon. He pointed the blade at Hondo's nose and spoke slowly. "Take off your goddamn sandals, old man."
Hondo glanced down at his feet, pursed his lips as though considering. Then squared shoulders, pushed dreads back with a palm and looked calmly at Richard.
"No, young puto, you ain't getting my sandals."
Richard glanced around at his Chupes, then tilted his head to the side and gave Hondo a beseeching look. Hondo stared back, intractable.
"Alright," Richard said. He stepped back, slid Brood's blade into the waist of his torn denim pants. Then snapped fingers and pointed at Hondo.
Hondo's head whipped to one side like he'd been slapped. It spit red mist. He dropped like a sodden rag. Blood pooled instantly on hard clay around limp dreads. Brood saw something white, thought it was skin, then realized it was inside Hondo's skull. Bunny's older brother peered over his AK's sights, smirking as he admired his work, the crack of his AK still reverberating in the inert desert air. Bunny cussed appreciatively.
Pollo went quiet. A spatter of blood the shape of a bird covered his cheek. Brood watched his own hand slowly rise, watched his thumb wipe the blood from his brother's face.
"Bacilio," he whispered
"Get his fucking sandals," Richard ordered. Hondo's body jerked as the Chupe girl with the teardrop tats knelt and yanked his sandals free. Richard took a step towards Pollo, who had wrapped tattooed arms around himself and now trembled. "What's wrong with him?"
"Please," Brood whispered.
"He got Tet." Richard withdrew the blade once more, placed it gently under Pollo's chin and lifted the boy's face.
"No," Brood pleaded. His hands shook at his sides. He noted with strange detachment that he couldn't feel his own skin. "Told you back in Amarillo, homie. He just like that." Richard squinted at Pollo down the length of his arm. His face went sour with distaste.
"Nah, he got Tet. We're taking him." He motioned to the teardrop girl, from whose hand Hondo's sandals now dangled. "Tie him up. Get him on the wagon."
His fist found the wound on Richard's chest. His teeth found skin, tasted hot blood. Richard screamed and the two of them went down, Brood on top. He sat up, rained down punches. Richard's hands pressed against his face. Brood snapped his teeth at them. Something hit his back. He snarled, bit down on a finger. Something hit his head-the world exploded, La Chupe red.
He found himself on his back. Richard stood over him. Pain distorted the big Chupe's face. He held the hand of his bad arm to his neck, which trickled blood. In his other hand he held a small pistol. He glowered at Brood, brought the pistol up, fired.
Brood felt a thunderclap inside his body. Felt like he'd been ripped in two. Pollo cried out, an unwavering howl as though he'd just burst into flames.
"Jesus, would somebody shut him up?"
Breath refused to come. Richard turned and walked out of sight. Pollo's squeals muted as someone covered his mouth. The wagon's motor spooled up, whined high as some La Chupe cranked the throttle too hard, then faded, tires crunching over the cracked earth, back the way Brood, Hondo and Pollo had come. With it receded the pitiful sound of Pollo's wail. Rage filled Brood for an instant. Then pain buried him, localized now to his left side. His body curled involuntarily around it.
The Chupes dispersed, chuckling. All except Richard, whose face reappeared overhead.
"Does it hurt?"
Brood tried to speak, couldn't. He nodded. Richard winced, whether at Brood's pain or his own, Brood couldn't tell. He held something up for Brood to see: the hooked blade. It winked white in the sunlight.
"You want me to take care of it?"
Brood wondered how bad it was to die of thirst, then figured he'd bleed out long before that happened. He hesitated. Then shook his head.
"Alright then." Richard nodded once, a score settled, then turned and disappeared. Brood listened to his footsteps fade.
A few minutes later came the hum of a quiet motor. A shadow passed briefly overhead. A small zep, its side marked by smeared red paint, the letters LC. Then it, too, disappeared, and Brood knew only pain, the sound of his own labored breathing, the infinite blue of New Mexico sky.
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