Chapter 2

homestead 

Chris Donner brooded in the front room of his dilapidated farmhouse lost within himself. The structure groaned from the stiff winds sweeping the desert plains outside, rattling windows behind drawn shades. What light did slip through was feeble and pallid streaming over the outline of a man obscured by a premature twilight. The plaster walls, barely visible in the murk, were riddled with cracks. Debris peppered the floor. The room itself was sparsely furnished and largely empty. On the worn table in the center of the room were a foreclosure notice and a handbill for California. A cold fireplace yawned on the right, ashes thick in its mouth. Above, a scored mantle supported numerous picture frames placed face down on the wooden ledge, many threatening to spill over and shatter on the floor.

Chris sat slumped forward in his chair holding his Medal of Honor, a frown dominating his unshaved face. His thumb gently rubbed the eagle’s wings atop the five-pointed star, his hand obscuring the word “valor” inscribed upon its surface. What pride had once been evoked by the medal was spent long ago. Chris’ tired eyes could see the gleam was gone from his award, tarnished by time and memory. It had become more a leaden weight than a golden treasure.

The faint sound of artillery fire softly boomed through the walls. A noticeable quiver caused the medal to shake in Chris’ grip as another salvo followed and incoherent voices began to echo through limbo. The drumbeat of his heart increased forcing him to gasp for air. The walls began to press in, their groan turning to splintering. Chris’ eyes tightened and closed. He withdrew deeper into himself, bunkering down until the sounds faded. Soon, even the wind went silent and there was nothing but blackness.

A car crunching up the gravel driveway roused Chris from his torpor. A grimace twisted his features when he heard a car door open and then shut. He tossed the medal absently on the table before grabbing a shotgun from the corner and heading to the front door. He wrenched the door open and blindly brought the weapon to bear against the day.

“Whoa! Now you just put that down right now,” Sheriff Mark Brady ordered, pulling his pistol. Staring down the barrel of Chris’ weapon, his graying moustache twitched nervously.

Squinting, the khaki-clad sheriff slowly came into view as Chris’ eyes adjusted to daylight. Chris let the shotgun slip from his shoulder. “Sorry, Mark. I thought you were someone else.”

Mark huffed, holstering his weapon. “That’s why I’m here. Mike Reynolds came to see me.”

Chris rested his shotgun against the house. “Yeah? Well, what did he have to say?”

“He said some crazed bastard tried to shoot him. Naturally, I thought of you.”

“I gave him a warning shot,” Chris countered, hands in his pockets as he shuffled to the edge of the porch before stopping at the precipice.

The sheriff gave Chris a cynical look. “Is that a fact?”

Chris’ jaw tightened. “If I’d really meant to hit him, he’d be dead.”

“Maybe.” Mark leaned against his car, motioning to the house. “What would you have done with that shotgun if it had been Mike instead of me? Give him another ‘warning shot’?”

Chris crossed his arms. “I would have shot him dead for trespassing.”

“Chris-”

“This is still my land until the end of the month.” Chris stomped on the wood porch to prove it.

“That it is and woe to the man dumb enough to challenge your ornery ass for it. But you can’t go around pulling a gun on someone who’s doing their job.”

“Mike deserves to be shot. Dispossessing all those families. The guy ruins lives.”

“That’s still not a reason to shoot him, Chris.”

Chris came off the porch, kicking up dust. “You didn’t see him, Mark. Coming on my land. Giving me notice. Treating me like I’m some bum. Telling me I had to leave. Him. Telling me I have to leave my home. My home!”

“So it’s true?”

A stunned expression paralyzed Chris’ features, his eyes losing focus before he looked away. “I was only defending myself,” he mumbled. “I heard about what happened to Ben Hubbard – beaten near dead in front of his wife and kids when they refused to leave their farm. Doing that in front of a man’s family.” Chris shook his head.

“I heard about it.”

Chris spun around, spearing Mark with his accusing stare. “And you didn’t do anything?”

“My hands are tied, Chris. Ben defaulted. I hate it as much as you, but Reynolds had legal rights to that property. They said Ben got belligerent. What do you want me to do?”

Chris took several steps before stopping to look over his sterile fields. “People like Reynolds, they’re ruining this country. Stealing our homes out from under us when we’re weakest. Heartless bastards. Nobody cares. This country is damn near empty now. The Great American Desert.” Chris took a halting breath. “I hope they choke on it.”

“I’m sorry about the farm,” Mark offered. “But the law’s the law. You pull that shotgun on Mike again and I’m gonna have to take you in. You get me?”

Chris nodded sullenly in surrender. Losing the farm had taken a noticeable toll on him, both mental and physical. A pathetic figure who looked like he was melting away in the daylight, Donner had lost a noticeable amount of weight, his shirt hanging loosely off his slouching shoulders. Chris’ emaciated face made him appear older than his thirty-four years, his visage lean, hollow, and haunted. The dark circles under his eyes nearly eclipsed the whites at their center while his skin, once ruddy, was now waxen and sickly.

Mark came away from his car and walked partway to his friend. “You want to talk about it?”

Chris didn’t reply, gazing instead at the arid Kansas plains, the still breadth of land undisturbed by ripples of any sort. The slate sky loomed cloudlessly overhead, the sun lost somewhere past the horizon. The fields themselves were dry and barren, a desolate stretch of wasteland stripped raw by trying times. Gone was the rich, black dirt that bore harvests year after year, ruined by greedy fools who cut the earth too deep, bleeding her arid. The following droughts marked the end of everything, baking the life right out of the fields, leaving blasted, crumbling wastes the winds skinned at their leisure, stirring the sands into obscuring dust storms that burned the eyes as they darkened the heavens. Shriveled scrub now choked in the pale soil. Lines of rusted barbed wire stretched along the property line, marking the boundary of Chris’ worthless piece of desert, an ironic claim on nothingness. Furrows carved through the dust, more from habit than in hope, resembled unmanned trenches with stillborn seed lost in their slits. “It looks so much like Europe. Nothing but death out there.”

Chris peered into the distance, memory gradually shrouding the real. “You know, I remember when these fields were bursting with wheat. Wheat up to your chest swaying in the breeze. This beckoning wave, a sea wanting to carry me away to the horizon. I dreamt of what waited there just beyond. I would dive through these fields when I was a kid. Just run blindly, thinking there was no end to the adventures ahead. I was gonna see the world, make my mark.

“Then came the Great War. My chance to be a hero. I was gonna come back with a chest shining with medals and a tale to tell about each of ‘em. My own crusade.” He blinked against the grit, licking his chapped lips while rubbing his breast. “I was so headstrong. Only sixteen and wanting to be a man before my time. Why was I in such a rush?” Chris asked himself, running a hand through his receding hair, unbidden memories of No Man’s Land flashing through the desolate acres before they faded out and the dying plains returned. “I did everything I could to get away from here, only to go through hell to get back. For what? There’s nothing left now but memories.”

“Depression’s been cruel,” Mark stated in empathy. “Everyone has fallen on hard times.”

“Some more than others.” Chris kicked at the dust. “Why did I have to survive the war?” he grimly croaked.

“What kind of talk is this? You’re a hero to this town.”

“I ain’t no hero,” Chris murmured, briefly meeting Mark’s gaze. “I tried to make it work, but the dust took everything.” A tear swelled in his eye. Donner quickly wiped it away before glimpsing back over his shoulder. “I just can’t give this place up. Not even after this past year. Pa’s cancer.” Chris knelt down and grabbed a handful of dust, watching it run between his fingers. “All I could do was watch him waste away. Slip through my fingers. Like this farm. It’s nothing but dust now. Nothing I do can save it.”

“Then why stay?”

“Because it’s all I got left. Something to remind me there were once good times. Second chances. But not now – I’ve lost everything.” Chris surveyed the emptiness. “Whole world is dying.”

Mark put a hand on Chris’ shoulder for reassurance. “It’ll be green again one day.”

“Not by my hand.” Chris sighed. “Everybody’s left. Given up. Maybe I should, too.” He dropped the last of the dust and wiped his hand on his pants before standing to face Mark.

“If you need a place to stay -”

“Don’t worry about me, not about this. I’ve got more important things to worry about.” Chris thumbed at his nose, a hint of levity lifting his words. “I’ve got a fight tonight over in Garden City.”

“Yeah, Denny told me. Still takin’ beatings I see.” Mark feigned a few punches.

Chris smiled, defending against the jabs. “Only honest job I’m qualified for these days.”

“Odds are against you.”

“Aren’t they always?” Chris’ smile spread to Mark. “You gonna come?”

“I wish I could. It’s just -”

“Yeah,” Donner sullenly nodded. “Yeah, I understand.”

“Look, I gotta get back. You take care, okay?”

Chris gave a mock salute before heading back to the house, head bowed. “Thanks for stopping by.”

***

manchukuo 

Within the crescent of the Khingan Mountains rested the Manchurian kingdom of Manchukuo, ruled by the Emperor Puyi in the age of Datong, under the auspices of the Japanese Empire. South of the Songhua River was Jilin province, noted for its agriculture, pine forests, and herbs. To the west was Hsinking, capital of Manchukuo. To the east were the rich jade plains fringed by scattered woods through which traveled the South Manchurian Railway, the jugular of the kingdom, which ran from Lushun Port to Harbin.

Li Chen knelt beside the train tracks near the village of Beiyinhe, his hand gingerly stroking the steel in search of a pulse. He was a runt of a boy, barely fifteen, whose baggy peasant garb only exacerbated his already small stature. Li Chen was an energetic, almost hyperactive lad who always seemed to be in a hurry. If he wasn’t tripping over his feet, he was babbling excitedly about his latest thoughts, which few could audibly untangle. Li Chen’s ruffled, rarely combed raven hair, hid bronze eyes glowing with mischief. Behind those eyes was a restless mind prone to detrimental wandering. His inability to focus on the now, and a readiness to abandon his duties for dreams, had led to many reprimands, all of which he quickly forgot whenever the next surreal wind beckoned to carry him away.

tracks 

To Li Chen, the dusk’s rays made the rails shine like silver, forging divine tracks stretching off to the sun itself. His imagination followed those tracks all the way to the golden horizon, mesmerized by that blazing disc waiting within reach. It was not long before dusk approached and the sun began to slip away. Absently, he reached to save it from oblivion.

Jee Hae stood nearby, fidgeting in the face of the coming night. The same age as Li Chen, she lacked his vibrancy. Her manner was much more restrained. Her round face carried simple features belying a serf’s spiritual submission to thoughtlessness, resulting in a poverty of speech or action. Fair skinned and shy, she possessed an aura of fragility lacking among other villagers long coarsened by hard peasant life. Innocence best described Jee Hae, a girl yet untouched by Life in any way.

When the sky turned crimson, Jee Hae could remain quiet no longer. “We must hurry back, Li Chen,” she urged. “The curfew -”

“Do you see these tracks, Jee Hae? They are the road to Harbin, to prosperity.” Li Chen strained to see the cityscape. “They say factories spring up everyday like weeds and the city is starving for workers. So much money to be made there. So many possibilities.” He nodded to himself. “If I go there, I may find a job. And if I save, I might open a restaurant or general store. Wait.” He slapped his thigh. “Why must I limit myself and choose a single business? If I work hard enough, I could have both. I could have dozens.” Li Chen smirked, giddiness overtaking him. He patted the steel reassuringly. “I could become a respected man, one of power and wealth with a house greater than any king. Many would know my name, revere me. The village would herald me for my achievements. From peasant to great man.”

Jee Hae stared back towards their village as the world darkened around them with the passing of the sun, the red sky bruising purple then black. She desired to head back but hesitated in her retreat, not wanting to leave Li Chen behind.

Li Chen turned to look at her. “Why so quiet? Do my dreams strike you senseless?”

“They do you, silly goat! You have so much hope, Li Chen, too much at times,” Jee Hae chastised, her bluntness surprising Li Chen as she unleashed her frustration. “Sometimes your hope clouds the reality around you. You become intoxicated by it, forget important things.”

Li Chen stood, balling his fists. “There is nothing important about our village. It smells of dung and the villagers are no smarter than their livestock. Chop off a chicken’s head and it is still smarter than my father.”

“You should not say such things, Li Chen.”

“Why? It is the truth. There is no future here, only an endless cycle I intend to break. Knowing what awaits across the horizon, how can I turn from the breaking dawn? All that possibility. To guide my destiny rather than be controlled by it -”

“It’s a dream, Li Chen. Nothing more. Do not gamble your life away,” Jee Hae pleaded.

“It is more of a chance than I would ever have here. A chance to become something more than a peasant. There is more to life than crops.”

“The life of a farmer -”

“Is not for me. You know this.”

“Yes, I know it, Li Chen.” Jee Hae’s voice softened. “That is why I love you. The things you see. You can bring light to darkest day. Your dreams are surely a blessing from the heavens. So big our village may not hold them, maybe not even the world – and they will carry you away.” Jee Hae turned away to hide her sorrowful face.

Li Chen approached Jee Hae and stroked her back. “Is that what you fear? That I will forget you? Jee Hae, I could never forget you. That first time I saw you…I have never forgotten your face. You are the source of my dreams. I want this for you, a better life for us both.”

“You would not leave me?” Jee Hae looked over her shoulder, her puffy eyes searching his face.

Li Chen covered his heart. “You are the sun which shines upon my heart, causing it to spring with life. Without your gaze, it would surely grow cold and turn to clay. How bitter would I be if all that remained was your ghost, a pale moon where once there was golden sky.”

Jee Hae looked to the darkening sky with derision. “You speak too highly of me.”

Li Chen prostrated himself. “I pay you reverence, blessed goddess. You are the source of my dreams, creator of my happiness.”

Jee Hae blushed, slapping at Li Chen. “Silly goat.”

Grinning, Li Chen stood, only to receive a light shove from Jee Hae. “Have I embarrassed you? You blush so fiercely as to blaze in the moonlight. Truly, you put the fiery sun to shame with your radiance -”

“Fool.”

“I almost forgot,” Li Chen said while rummaging through his pants. “I have something for you.”

“What is it?”

Li Chen pulled a jade comb from his pocket. Exquisitely carved from rare silky white nephrite, it shone with an ethereal quality in the moonlight. “This is for you.”

Jee Hae gasped at the wondrous sight of the comb. “Li Chen, how did you afford such a thing? Surely it was expensive.”

“It’s a treasure I’ve held…for a long time. I want you to have it.”

“But why give it to me? You could use it to pay for your trip to Harbin and invest in your dreams. Surely it is worth a great sum.”

“You are worth much more.” Li Chen placed the comb in Jee Hae’s palm without hesitation and closed her fingers over it.

“Thank you,” she bashfully replied.

Li Chen laughed softly. “Here, let me see you wear it.”

With a wry grin, Jee Hae took the comb and used it to tie up her long hair. “How does it look?” she asked, spinning around to model it for him.

“Beautiful.” The tender, wistful tone of Li Chen’s voice caused Jee Hae to stop spinning. He delicately touched her cheek, staring deep into her eyes. “Would you come with me to Harbin when the time comes? Would you follow me in my dreams?”

Jee Hae did not hesitate. “I would follow you anywhere, Li Chen.”

Li Chen’s lip quivered. “You believe in my foolish dreams?”

“I believe in you.”

The two kissed in the moonlight to the symphony of crickets, the jasmine scent of Jee Hae’s hair rich and sweet. Luna looked down in envy upon those young lovers with her ashen gaze. As they parted, Li Chen motioned down the train tracks, the ballast sparkling like diamonds. “One day, Jee Hae. One day we shall follow the road to Harbin.”

The sound of breaking branches drew Jee Hae’s attention. She nervously peeked past Li Chen toward the wood line.

Li Chen felt Jee Hae stiffen in his embrace. “What is wrong?”

“We must hurry. The curfew,” Jee Hae whispered. She tugged at Li Chen to rush back to their village. Before the pair could escape, a squad of Japanese soldiers emerged from the forest. The pair attempted to sneak away.

“Stop!” the squad leader ordered when he saw the shifting shadows along the rail line. “Who goes there?”

“We must flee,” Jee Hae hissed, pulling fiercely on Li Chen’s arm.

“Answer me or we will open fire,” the squad leader threatened, lifting his lantern to better illuminate the area. The soldiers drew up their rifles.

“I was lost,” Li Chen replied in the soldiers’ native Japanese tongue, motioning for Jee Hae to lie down and hide in the grass.

“Come here,” the squad leader demanded.

“Stay here,” Li Chen whispered to Jee Hae. He started towards the Japanese, Jee Hae watching wide-eyed.

“What are you doing out here?” the squad leader asked when Li Chen came into view of his lantern.

Li Chen bowed his head to avoid eye contact. “I am sorry. I forgot the time in my wanderings. My father will be angry. If you permit me, I will return to my village.”

“I think you’d best fear me more than your father.” The squad leader paused. “How is it that you know our tongue, peasant?”

“I learned it from soldiers who patrol my village.”

“Why? To spy on us?” The squad leader cautiously scrutinized the boy. “Are you alone?”

“Yes.”

The squad leader frowned at Li Chen. “Do you know the punishment for breaking curfew? I should sever your stupid head from its shoulders.” He slapped Li Chen.

“I am sorry,” Li Chen offered after recovering from the blow.

“You do not know how sorry you will be.”

Jee Hae trembled in fear as she watched, shifting loudly in the grass, inching back in retreat. Without realizing how close she was to the tracks, Jee Hae accidentally kicked a few ballast stones loose.

The squad leader’s head snapped in the direction of the sounds coming from the shadows. He looked back at Li Chen. “Alone are you?” The squad leader took a few steps past Li Chen.

“I am, sir,” Li Chen replied hoping to draw the man’s attention away from Jee Hae. “Perhaps it is the wind.”

“I know wind when I hear it, stupid boy.” The squad leader surveyed the area with his lantern. “Whoever is out there had best show themselves or I will shoot this boy.” When there was no reply, the squad leader gave the command. One of the soldiers pointed his rifle at Li Chen’s head.

“No!” Jee Hae screamed.

“Jee Hae, run!”

The soldier nearest Li Chen caught the boy in the gut with the stock of his rifle, knocking the air out of him. Li Chen dropped to his knees, struggling to breathe. “Be quiet, boy, or next time I jab you with the sharp end,” the soldier warned, flashing his bayonet in the moonlight.

“Who is that?” The squad leader motioned for two men to follow him out into the night. Jee Hae came into view, her hands up. Li Chen could only watch as the squad leader looked Jee Hae over closely before turning back and nodding. Without warning, the soldier struck Li Chen in the head with the butt of his rifle, opening a bloody gash across his forehead. The boy crumpled to the ground. In the haze of consciousness, Li Chen saw Jee Hae struggling with two of the Japanese as the squad leader came back.

“What of him?” the soldier asked.

“We do not need him. General Ishii asked only for girls.”

“Should I shoot him?”

The squad leader swatted the soldier in the back of the head knocking his cap off. “And will you dig the hole after, fool? Come on.”

Li Chen lost consciousness as the Japanese squad dragged Jee Hae into the forest with them.

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