Lame Deer, Montana.
The smell of blood was unmistakable. It caught in her throat and clung there, sweet and metallic. Her stomach turned over and she held her breath, swallowing back the urge to dispense her last meal on the front porch.
She had known something was wrong the moment she answered his call. It was the command imbedded into a toddler's curious ears and never repeated until now. Yet she had understood the order completely and her world had stopped spinning.
No matter what happens. Do not come home.
She had sat in her room in silence, staring at the cell-phone in her hand and unable to believe what she knew had to be true. The unimaginable had happened and all she could do was wait. Wait for further instructions, wait for someone else to call, wait the allotted 24 hours. And if there was nothing ... then nothing was left.
Seconds had ticked by slowly. Minutes had gradually turned into hours. She had missed that evening's rehearsal and ignored the persistent knocking on her door, covering her ears to block out the worried shouts from her friends.
She had heard the shrill ringing of other tones on her cell-phone as calls went unanswered, unable to explain to anyone why she could do nothing more than lay on her bed and stare at the ceiling, tears trickling back along her cheek and pooling in her ears. And each time the vibration alert had started up, her heart would stop and a flicker of hope would stir somewhere inside her. But it would never be his assigned tone that then began and hope would leave her with a weary groan.
Evening had moved into night and the warmth of the day had faded. It had somehow become so much worse to wait in the darkness and she had made her decision. Yes, he had given the command. Yes, she had known since childhood that she must obey. But she could not be still and patient while every fiber of her being had screamed that she had to go. There was always the chance that she could help and, if not, then at least she would know for sure.
Careful to avoid speed traps and taking all the quiet back roads she could, she had driven across the three states as fast as she dared. Backtracking and retracing her route to ensure no one was following, the way he had taught her. And every mile had seemed never ending. But when she had reached the entrance to the narrow, muddy turn off and seen the house in darkness, something inside her had died.
Approaching the house with the headlights dimmed and the windows open, every sense heightened to the slightest movement or noise, she had taken in every detail. The open curtains, the damage to the front door, the broken chain where once Max had been tethered. Tears building in her alert eyes, she had parked up away from the house and then crept amid the shadows to the front porch.
And now she stood before the partly open front door, her pulse throbbing in her head and her body shaking with adrenaline. For a second she paused, his teaching reminding her that her current situation was dangerous, let alone the perfect trap. But she had to know.
Easing the door a little further open and listening for any sound other than her rapid breaths, she stepped inside the house. Flicking on the torch she gripped tightly, she swung the beam around the hall and saw her first confirmation that the worst had happened.
Winina. Her body huddled in an awkward position against the far inside wall and her head lying a few feet from her torso, eyes wide and staring in terror. Sprayed up the wall and soaked into the tapestry runner was what filled the air; dark, thickly clotted blood.
The first tears trickled down her face and she covered her mouth with her free hand, choking on a sob as she leaned against the wall and felt the turn of the earth beneath her trembling legs.
It took a few minutes for her to regain the strength to stand. Tearing her eyes from the horrific sight of her aunt's mutilated body, she made her way through to the lounge. In here the smell of death was not as potent and the light from her torch found only broken furniture, scattered books and smashed ornaments. Whoever it was had been looking for something and she dearly hoped that they had not found it.
It was the same in the immense kitchen that took up the back half of the house. She peered round at the mess and swallowed back her tears. Trailing her torch beam along the hug oak dining table, she recalled endless happy afternoons with her family and the shared meals that would be filled with laughter and stories.
Tears blurring her vision, she crept back into the stench of the hall and made her way up the stairs. Evidence of a fight could be seen on the wall and varnished wood floors and she started trembling as she followed the bloodstains. Anger flooded through her as she walked along the landing to one of the many bedrooms and saw the shattered wood of the door to the room that she had once lived in. Her thoughts bombarded with images of innocent childhood and the smiling faces of her cousins, she pushed open what remained of the door and covered her mouth as her stomach heaved.
There must have been warning enough to grab the phone but not to get everyone to safety. Choking on the bile in her throat, she moved the torch light up over his bloodstained body and sank to her knees on the floor. Knowing all too well what she would find if she looked any further, she let the small forms in the four beds remain unseen. It was enough to now know what had happened to her family, she did not have the will to look upon what was left of the slaughtered children.
And then there was a noise. Lifting her head and swinging the torch about, every sense strained to locate the sound again, her heart then leapt as she heard him sigh and she stared at his still form. Moving onto all fours, she edged closer and held her breath as she leaned over what she could see of his face amid the wide cuts and clotted blood. And then she gasped as he opened his eyes.
"Shicheii?" She urged, her voice small as she used the native word she had called him as a child. Dropping the torch and placing her hands on his shoulders, her eyes adjusted to the dark and she saw him turn his head to look up at her.
"Hey … heavohe …" He whispered.
She frowned and leaned closer, "Devils?" She echoed, "What? Who, shicheii? Who did this?"
He stared up at her and then suddenly seemed to recognize her. He groaned as he closed his eyes and shook his head a little. "No … ma'eskone … you must not … be here …"
"I'm sorry, grandfather." She nodded sadly, "I … I thought - " She hung her head and fought back tears as she began to absorb the full horror of what had happened.
Looking back up, she saw him smiling faintly and he then groaned, blood gurgling in his throat.
"Shicheii?" She placed her hand on his wet cheek and choked on a sob.
"My …" He coughed hoarsely, struggling for breath, "My little thunder child."
She smiled and nodded slowly, "I'm here, grandfather."
"I told … told you not … not to come."
"I know." She husked, stroking her fingers along what little unbroken skin remained and combing through his long white hair. "I am sorry."
"I am glad …" His smile grew a little, "Glad you still … do not listen."
She returned his smile and leaned down to place a kiss on his forehead. "Who did this, shicheii?" She asked again, resting her lips against his skin. "Tell me."
"No, ma'eskone … I cannot … let you do this …"
Leaning back from him, she saw the pain in his eyes and shook her head in reply. "They have to pay." She stated calmly.
"I tried … tried to protect you …" He frowned, trying to take a deep breath and gasping in a sudden panic.
"Shicheii?" She grabbed his shoulders and heaved him up from the floor. Holding his heavy body in her arms, she felt him shudder as he choked and tears rolled down her face. "No! Please … stay!"
Sighing in relief as the coughing fit passed, her grandfather rested back in her embrace and gave a slight moan. "You … you must do … something … for me."
"Anything." She answered easily and closed her eyes as he whispered his request. Her body shook as she suddenly could not hold back her tears any longer and she cried into his shoulder, rocking him gently.
And then he was gone. Her sobs became louder as she clutched his limp body tightly and felt him slip away. She held him for a long while, her arms growing tired and her back aching. When she could no longer support his weight, she laid him carefully back down onto the floor and rested her head on his chest, crying as she listened to the emptiness inside him.
Sitting up slowly and locating her torch, she stood on trembling legs and headed out of the room. Finding her way down to the cellar, she saw the door hanging from its hinges and her heart sank as she smelled the blood. Stepping through and descending the creaking wooden staircase, she decided to chance turning on the light and shrieked, covering her mouth in horror.
They must have all been there. Her eyes moving through the dark red puddles of blood and scattered limbs, she could see the shocked dead faces of what seemed to be the rest of the household. And it was too much. Her knees buckling, she stumbled down the last few steps and doubled over, heaving the contents of her stomach onto the concrete floor. Gagging on acid bile and her chest straining painfully, she leaned against the cold brick wall and waited for the nausea to pass.
Desperately trying to avert her eyes from the carnage around her and adrenaline making her body tremble, she followed her grandfathers instructions. Frowning in confusion, she knelt down and counted along the wall and found the single brick that, now she had saw it, was clearly different to the others. With shaking hands she pushed one corner and gasped as the loose brick moved. She pulled out the brick and paused for a moment, her head spinning. Reaching her hand into the gap, she discovered the wide space behind the wall and her fingers touched something hidden inside.
She pulled the rag-wrapped object from with the wall and sat back on her heels, staring in wonder. After a childhood full of her grandfather's teachings and adolescent years being instructed by her uncles in the ways of her unique family, she was not surprised to be holding the weapon in her hands. But after being sent away and never really understanding why she had to be hidden, she only now finally understood it all. And her mind raced as she realized that nothing would ever be the same again.