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Storm of Locusts
Four men with guns stand in my yard.
It’s just past seven in the morning, and in other places in Dinétah, in other people’s yards, men and women are breaking their fast with their families. Husbands grumble half-heartedly about the heat already starting to drag down the December morning. Mothers remind children of the newest Tribal Council winter water rations before sending them out to feed the sheep. Relatives make plans to get together over the coming Keshmish holiday.
But these four men aren’t here to complain about the weather or to make holiday plans. They certainly aren’t here for the pleasure of my company. They’ve come because they want me to kill something.
Only it’s my day off, so this better be good.
“Hastiin,” I greet the man on my front steps. He’s all weathered skin and hard, lean muscle in blue fatigues, skull bandanna hanging loose around his corded neck, black hair shorn skull short. He’s also wearing a small arsenal. An M16 over one shoulder, a monster of a Desert Eagle at his hip, another pistol in a clip holster in his waistband. And I know he’s got a knife tucked in his heavy-soled boot, the left one, and another strapped to his thigh. He didn’t used to do that, dress for a worst-case scenario. But things have changed. For both of us.
“Hoskie.” Hastiin drawls my last name out. Never my first name—Maggie—always just the last, like we’re army buddies or something. Likely his way of trying to forget he’s talking to a woman, but that’s his problem, not mine. He shifts in his big black boots, his gear jingling like tiny war bells. His fingers flex into fists.
I lean against my front door and cross my arms, patient as the desert. Stare at him until he stops fidgeting like a goddamn prom date. I’ve learned a lot about Hastiin in the last few weeks, and I know the man shakes like an aspen in the wind when he’s got something on his mind. Some remnant of breathing in too much nerve gas on the front lines of the Energy Wars way back when. Which doesn’t bode well for me. I can see my day off slipping away with the edges of the dawn. But I won’t let him have my time that easy. He’s going to have to work for it.
“You lost?” I ask him.
He chuckles low. Not like I’m funny. More like I’m irritating. “You know I’m not lost.”
“Then I’m not sure why you’re here. Thought we’d agreed this was going to be my day off. I promised Tah that I’d . . .” I frown, scanning my yard. “Where’re my dogs?”
Hastiin’s mouth cracks slightly in what passes as a grin, and he jerks his chin toward one of his men farther back near the gate. Young guy in fatigues, a fresh-scrubbed face that I don’t recognize, hair tied back in a tsiiyéél. He’s kneeling down, rubbing the belly of a very content mutt.
“Traitor,” I mutter, but my dog doesn’t hear. Or doesn’t care. All three of my mutts don’t seem to register Hastiin and his Thirsty Boys as a threat anymore. If we keep this business arrangement going, I’m going to have to work on that. I turn back to Hastiin. “So, what’s this all about?”
He squints dark eyes. “Got a bounty come in. Something big and bad over near Lake Asááyi.”
Most of the lakes around here have dried up. Red Lake, Wheatfields. But Asááyi has stuck around, fed by an underground aquifer that even this record drought couldn’t kill. It seems doubtful that whoever or whatever Hastiin was hunting over by the lake couldn’t be done without me. Which means—
“If this is you trying to apologize again for not having my back at Black Mesa . . .”
“Shit.” He drawls that out too. Spits to the side like it tastes bad in his mouth.
“I’ve already said you don’t owe me anything. You can stop offering me gigs to try to make it up to me.”
“That’s not it.”
He shrugs, a spare lift of a knobby shoulder. “It’s worth big trade,” he offers. Unconvincingly.
“I don’t need the money.”
“Thought you might. What with Grandpa staying with you.”
“No, you didn’t.”
He scratches a knuckle across his scruff. Sounds somewhere between resigned and hopeful when he says, “Could be something big and bad. Maybe fun.”
“And your Thirsty Boys can’t handle it?”
“You’re the Monsterslayer.” He gives me another squinty stare. “Me and the Boys are just a bunch of assholes with guns.”
He’s throwing my words back at me, but he says it with a small smile, and I know he doesn’t really mean it. And it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, this is his idea of friendly. He’s inviting me because he does, in fact, want the pleasure of my company. Something inside me shifts. Unfamiliar, but not entirely unappealing.
“All right,” I say with an exaggerated sigh. No need to let him know I’m pleased at the gesture. “I’ll go. But at least tell me what the job is.”
“Tell you on the way. Clock’s ticking and all.”
I look over my shoulder back into the house. “One problem. I promised Tah I’d take him up the mountain to cut some good logs. He wants to build a new hogan.”
Hastiin blinks a few times. “In Tse Bonito?”
“Here. On my land. He’s staying.”
He nods approvingly. “Tell you what,” he says. “You help me with this bounty today, me and the Boys’ll help Grandpa build his hogan tomorrow.”
It’s a good trade, and better than me hauling the logs down the mountain by myself. In fact, I’d call it a win, and it’s been a while since I had one of those.
“Let me get my shotgun.”
* * *
It doesn’t take me long to get ready. I’m already wearing what Hastiin calls my uniform, which is fairly rich considering he and his Thirsty Boys actually wear a freaking uniform. He tried to get me into a set of those blue fatigues when I first joined up with the Thirsty Boys right after Black Mesa, but I told him that it felt like I was playing soldier, and if there was one thing I’m not, it’s a soldier. I’m surprised I’ve made it this long working with the Boys, but I guess I didn’t feel much like being alone after everything that went down. I hate to admit it, and I intend to deny it if he asks, but I like Hastiin. Well, maybe “like” is a bit strong. But I could get to like.
I do change my T-shirt. Same black, but it smells markedly better than the one I slept in. I tighten my moccasin wraps. Tuck my throwing knives into the edges just below the knee. One obsidian blade, one silver. Both made to kill creatures that might not be hurt by steel. My new Böker knife is all steel, and it goes in the sheath at my waist. It’s a recent replacement for the one I lost in the fighting arena at the Shalimar and the first thing I bought with the trade I earned hunting with the Thirsty Boys. I thumb the hilt of the big knife, memories of the Shalimar wanting to surface, but there’s nothing good there and I’ve spent enough time replaying that night in my head. What I need more than anything is a fresh start. I’m tired of carrying around old ghosts.
As if the threat of memories alone is enough to compel me, I find myself on my knees, reaching behind the narrow space between the head of my mattress and the wall. My hand hits cloth, and beneath it I feel the pommel of a sword. I know the rest of the sword is four feet long, its blade forged from the raw lightning that the sun gifted to his son as a weapon. His son who was once my mentor, once the only man I ever thought I’d love. But I tricked that man, trapped him and imprisoned him in the earth. I know I didn’t have a choice, that it was either him or me. And as much as I loved him, I loved myself just a little bit more.
So now the sword is mine.
I leave the sword where it is. It’s not meant for a simple bounty hunt. It’s too sacred, too bound in power and memories for me to take hunting with Hastiin. But one day maybe. Until then it stays put.
My shotgun rests on the gun rack next to my bed. It’s a beauty. Double-barrel-pump action with a custom grip. I take it from the rack and slide it into my shoulder holster. Adjust it so it sits just right, an easy draw from the left. Glock comes too. It rides on the hip opposite from my Böker. I pat it all down, reciting my list of weapons softly to myself, just to make sure everything’s where it’s supposed to be.
Tah catches me as I come out of my bedroom, a mug of Navajo tea in his wrinkled hands. “I thought I heard you in there,” he says cheerfully. “I’m ready to go. Just need to find my hat . . .” He trails off as he sees my weapons.
“Hastiin’s here,” I explain. “Some kind of emergency at Lake Asááyi and he needs backup. But he said he and the Boys’ll help us build your hogan tomorrow. They’ll even do all the heavy lifting.”
Tah’s thin shoulders fall forward in disappointment. For a moment he looks all of his seventy-odd years.
And I know that’s my fault, even before today’s small disappointment.
But Tah straightens, smiles. “Well, tomorrow’s just as good as today. I made some tea. Want to at least take a cup? It’s not coffee. . . .” He shakes his head, chuckles a happy laugh. “Remember when my grandson brought me all that coffee?”
“And the sugar, too,” I say. “I remember.”
I smile back, but it’s not much of a smile. In fact, it feels like I’m trying to smile past the broken place in my heart. We haven’t much talked about Black Mesa and what happened with Kai. And he hasn’t asked. But I saw him once, head together with Hastiin’s, when he thought I wasn’t listening, and I’m sure the mercenary told him what I did. Well, at least his side of the story, anyway. But Tah’s never asked me. Maybe he doesn’t want to know the truth.
“Just you wait, Maggie. He’ll come. Kai will come. And then maybe you’ll quit your moping.”
I look up, surprised. “I thought I was doing okay.”
He shakes his head. “Maybe we’ll both quit our moping.” He folds his hands tight around his mug of tea. Stares out the window at nothing. Or maybe he’s staring all the way across Dinétah to the All-American, where his grandson is alive and well.
Alive and well for more than a month and he hasn’t come to us. To me. When I asked Hastiin if he knew why Kai hadn’t come, he said, “Ask him yourself.” But I can’t. I’m too proud, or too scared to push it. If Kai doesn’t want to see me, I have to respect that. Even if I crawl into bed every night to stare at the ceiling and think about him. Even if I stumble out of bed bleary-eyed and restless a handful of hours later, still thinking about him. Even if every day starts and ends with the image of him lying dead at my feet. My last and most terrible deed, even worse than betraying my mentor. All of it eating me alive.
“When he’s ready,” Tah says quietly, more to himself than to me. “When Kai is ready he’ll come to us.”
I want to ask Tah when he thinks that will be, but he doesn’t know any more than I do. So I check my weapons again, my fingers lingering on the comfort of cold metal, and leave.