“Charlotte Annice Birchfield.” The man with the badge on his shoulder growled as he read. He stood as tall and broad as he could manage while still looking down into his data-com. The dusky orange sun created a glow around him, transforming him into a chiseled black silhouette in uniform. “As a representative of the United North American Territories, I request that you submit your property to a voluntary search.”
Annie clinched her jaw. Nobody called her Charlotte. Charlotte was her mother’s name. She was Annie Birchfield. Annie. She tightened her grip on her daddy’s old cattle prod until her knuckles turned white. She stood guard in front of her family home, wearing a pair of ragged blue jeans, a faded tee shirt, and a worn pair of work boots. She knew she looked no more threatening than a hissing cat, but she intended to make her hiss count.
“No, sir, I won’t,” she spat. “My parents don’t like having folks here when they’re out.” She raised her voice loud enough to cover the fifty feet of driveway that separated them.
She wished her brother was home. He’d know how to handle this guy. Cody would be back anytime, but for now she’d have to stand her ground like daddy had taught her.
Authority took a step away from his automobile and tapped on the device in his palm. “Charlotte Annice Birchfield: seventeen,” he read again. “Mother: deceased three years. Father: deceased one year. Resides with brother, Cody Alan Birchfield: twenty three.” He recited her personal stats to serve as a challenge.
“All I said was they ain’t here.” Annie squared her shoulders and took a step toward Authority. “But that don’t change the fact that you’re not welcome.”
He gritted his teeth. “Charlotte…”
“Jus’ stop.” She thrust the electrified pole forward. “Do you have a warrant of compulsion?” If he wanted to use the law to threaten her, then she would do the same.
The man took a deep breath. “I do not. I have a request for voluntary compliance.”
Annie took a few steps closer, raising her weapon to shoulder-height of her petite five-foot-three frame. “I don’t much feel like volunteering, and it’s fixin’ to get dark. Why don’t you just tell me what you’re lookin’ for?”
The man’s eyes formed black slits under his thick brow. He glanced down at his device. “You have a quarter horse in your possession, registration number 1138-AA-23. I would like to inspect this animal.”
Annie’s heart slammed in her chest. She had been expecting a call for over a month, since the news reported that all registered horses would be seized. Just like daddy predicted. Just like when the government took their cattle all those years ago – for the health and safety of the country.
She pressed her lips together into a thin, tight line. “My horse died last month. It’s too dark already at the barn, an’ we don’t have good ‘lectricity out there. Why don’t you just go back to town and see if you can get a warrant tomorrow? That’ll give me a chance to talk to my brother about what to do with you.” It would also give her the chance to hide her horses.
Authority tucked his device into the nylon pouch on his belt and crossed his thick arms over his chest. “Miss Birchfield, I would advise you to comply with my request now. As it stands, I could charge you with attempted assault on an officer. I don’t want to do that. If I have to get a warrant, I will add as many charges as the law allows.”
“Well, right now the law don’t require me to let you on my land.” Annie squeezed the trigger on the grip of the cattle prod until she could feel the vibration of the rod. She could hear it hum through the quiet of twilight. “And if you come back here without a warrant, you can save yourself the trouble of adding the word attempted to the assault charge. I’ll do you in.”
“Threatening an officer is not becoming, Miss Birchfield.”
“I s’pose it’s a good thing I don’t care much what you think.”
The man sighed. “I had hoped you would be reasonable about this matter. We just want to inspect the animal to see if it is healthy. There have been reports of some kind of outbreak…”
“I guess since he’s dead and buried, an outbreak won’t bother him much.” She hated being dishonest, but she knew he was lying, too. Authority had only brought a sedan. He couldn’t carry a horse back with him, healthy or otherwise. He was here to kill her horse. She extended her narrow chin and glared. “You need to leave, now.”
Annie silently prayed that he would get into his car and go. She had never had to use the cattle prod before, and she didn’t want to use it on a lawman, even to defend what was rightfully hers. Annie held her breath and waited.
“I will return tomorrow, Miss Birchfield. I’ll have my warrant for the search – and for your arrest.” He looked her over once more and then shook his head as if disappointed.
Annie refused to give an inch, leaving Authority no choice but to go. She watched him back into the road, and then stared after him until he was out of sight. When she finally lowered the cattle prod her arms began to shake.
Another set of headlights appeared down the road and she raised the weapon again. A wave of relief washed over her when she recognized the rust and green-chipped paint of her brother’s battered pick-up. She stepped aside to let him drive to the weathered old farmhouse. As she followed in the cloud of dust, she turned her head back to look over her shoulder, fearing the lawman might return.
“Annie, we don’t have much time,” Cody hollered as he hurried from the cab of the truck, followed closely by Buffalo, Annie’s blue heeler puppy.
“Authority was just here,” she said, interrupting. “He asked to see Jefferson. Make sure he’s healthy. Prob’ly to kill him.” She scoffed, following her brother into the house.
Buffalo jumped up onto the couch and Annie scratched his lopsided ears for a minute. She watched as Cody rushed around the room pulling out their parents’ most prized possessions and arranging them on the kitchen table.
“What’re you doing?” she finally asked.
“The law passed, Annie. I just heard it in town this afternoon.”
Cody’s pale blue eyes looked wild with excitement. Annie imagined hers matched his right about now.
“What’re we supposed to do?” she asked.
“If you want to keep your horses… if we want to keep anything… we have to leave.” Cody walked to her side, and his nearness helped. He inhaled deeply and raked his fingers through his sand-colored hair. He started again, but this time his voice sounded softer. “I made arrangements for us. I found a small ship that has enough room for us and our animals. The pilot agreed to carry us off-planet at dawn.”
“Suits me,” Annie said. “I hate to leave Momma’s house, but I am not lettin’ anyone take my horses.” She glanced around the room at everything for which her parents had worked themselves to death. She knew if they left earth, the Authorities would torch it all, but right now, she didn’t care. “The man that came said he’d be back tomorrow with a warrant,” she added.
Cody grabbed her hands. “He’s coming back tomorrow? That’s what he said?”
“Yeah.” Annie shrugged. “Said he’d arrest me, too.”
An instant sweat broke over Cody’s brow. “Shoot, Annie, we gotta move. He’s likely to show up here at midnight, and he probably won’t be alone. We only have a couple of hours to get out. I hope Dhabi won’t be mad if we show up early.”
“Dhabi Ramal. The guy with the ship,” Cody explained. “I’m sure he’ll be jus’ thrilled if we show up with the law on our tail.”
Annie’s thoughts raced. Would Authority really come at midnight? Could they possibly get anything packed so quickly? How could she prepare her horses for a jump out of the atmosphere in just a few hours? “Will the horses be okay? Can you give them something?”
Cody nodded. “Once we get them into the ship’s hold, I can sedate them. They should be fine. But we have to hurry. You can’t take everything. Just bare minimum.”
She looked down into Buffalo’s huge brown eyes. “Yes, you can come,” she said, more for her own sake than for the dog.
“I’ll get the horses into the trailer, and as much of my med gear as I can carry,” Cody said as he headed to the back door. “You get a bag of clothes for each of us, and all of Dad’s guns and Momma’s jewelry. Pack the trunk with whatever you can fit.”
“I’ll get the cash from Daddy’s box,” she said.
“I already did. I had to pay for our trip upfront. Just get the rest.”
Annie watched as Cody left for the stable. She clicked her tongue and Buffalo followed her down the hall to Momma’s bedroom. Annie flipped the switch and looked around the room for one last good-bye. She reached up to the small wooden box on the dresser and snapped the brass latch closed. All of her mother’s jewelry – what little there was – now rattled about in the box in her hand.
She pulled a lace pillowcase loose from the bed and wrapped the box in it. Dropping to her knees, she slid a long box from beneath the bed and found her father’s collection of firearms. Once she had both boxes in her arms, she went back to the hall and stacked them at the arch to the main room.
Buffalo trotted behind her as she hurried to Cody’s room for his clothes. She smiled as she culled through the shirts she hated and packed only the clothes she liked best on him. She held up a short green jacket and frowned. “This is why you still don’t have a girl-friend,” she said, tossing it to his closet floor.
She rolled the clothes up and packed them into the grey duffle he kept on the low shelf. As she closed his bedroom door, she tossed the bag to the end of the hall with the other things. Now to her treasures.
Annie prided herself on a simple life. Her wardrobe was modest. Mostly work clothes and just two dresses for parties and church. She really only had one weakness… her boots. She looked at the dingy work boots on her feet and kicked them off quickly. She’d have to choose carefully, and these didn’t make the cut. After a few moments, she had narrowed down her selection to four pair of cowgirl boots, all in brilliant hues of quality-dyed alligator.
She grabbed her clothes and began rolling the pieces up and shoving them into her boots. “This will help save space,” she explained to Buffalo, who watched with a doubtful tilt of his head. She took the stuffed boots and carefully laid them across her bed quilt. She stacked them into a compact square and then tied the quilt corners together over the whole pile. “Good enough.”
She dragged the large bundle down the hall, snapping off all the lights as she left each room and closed each door. She tossed toothbrushes, combs and anything else she thought might be a necessity into a towel and made another smaller bundle with that.
Back in the main room she found her father’s trunk and filled it with their personal papers, the jewelry box, the gun box, and the last family photograph that hung over the mantle. She picked up her grandmother’s Bible and a few other books from the shelf, and arranged them into the gaps in the trunk. Nothing more would fit.
“The horses are in the trailer, and the truck is running,” Cody said, bursting through the front door.
Annie jumped; startled at the sudden break in the quiet of the house she was deserting.
Cody glanced up at the mantle clock. “We don’t have time for much else. I’ll load the cab and you grab whatever food stuff you want.”
“I’m takin’ my bike,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
Cody gasped and shook his head. “You don’t have time to get it ready. And there’s no room for it on the trailer – not with all four horses.”
“I’ll ride it out to the ship,” she said. Annie knew she was probably being selfish by insisting they take her motorcycle, but she rationalized the necessity. “We don’t know what conditions we’ll find ourselves in. We may need something small. And it’s too valuable to leave. If nothing else, we can sell it for cash.”
Cody grabbed the trunk and his duffle bag. “I’m loading this stuff and then I’m leaving.”
Annie hauled her bundle of boots and clothing over her shoulder and followed him out to the truck. “It won’t take me five minutes to get it going. I’ll follow you out.” She dumped the pack in the bed of the truck. You go through the house and make sure I didn’t miss anything important. I’ll get the bike and pull it around front.”
“And if it doesn’t start right off?” he asked.
“Then I’ll leave it,” she replied. She probably wouldn’t, but that’s the response she knew he wanted.
She ran to the lean-to at the back of the house and rolled out her antique Indian motorcycle. It was her baby, apart from Buffalo and her horses. She checked it over and nodded. As she closed the door to the shed, she remembered one last thing she needed. She took a step inside and climbed up on the narrow bench against the long wall. She stretched to reach over the ledge at the top of the wall, and her hands found the blue steel sawed-off shotgun her daddy had placed there for safekeeping.
“You’re coming with us,” she whispered, slipping the gun into the loops on the side of her bike. She pulled her dark auburn hair into a low ponytail and straddled the bike. With a quick flick of the kickstand, she had it started and rolling around to the front of the house.
Cody whistled for Buffalo to join him in the cab of the truck. The spotted dog turned his head from brother to sister and back. Annie smiled and whistled, patting the little stretch of seat in front of her. Buffalo ran quickly to the bike and jumped into place, propping his front paws on the low handlebars. Cody shrugged and got into the truck. “I’ll see you at the loading dock. Dhabi’s ship is at the far end of row six.”
Annie saluted as Cody and everything they possessed rolled toward the back road away from the only home they’d ever known. Annie made a short turn around in front of the house before she noticed a pair of headlights turning into the driveway from the road out front. As the bright white beams caught her, she looked over her shoulder, making sure Cody was away. She left her bike running, but propped on its stand, and pulled the shotgun from the loops on the side.
A red and blue light flickered from the hood of the automobile, and Annie knew for certain the lawman was back. As he opened his door and got out, Annie raised her weapon.
“Miss Birchfield,” the now-familiar voice growled. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said.
“That’s a lie,” she said. Her voice revealed a tremor of fear, which triggered a fierce stream of barking from Buffalo. The dog jumped down from the bike and charged the Authority.
“Call off your dog,” he ordered.
“I told you not to come back.”
“It’s now past midnight, Miss Birchfield,” he said, looking sideways at Buffalo. “I have my warrant of compulsion, as well as your arrest orders.” He took a step in her direction. “I can rightfully seize any animal on your property.”
“I’m warning you to leave now while you still can.” Annie leveled the gun on her shoulder and aimed the business end toward Authority. “Get back, Buffalo,” she whispered.
“You name your animals,” the lawman muttered. He raised his brow and grinned. “We advise against that, you know.” With a sudden flick of his wrist, he raised his right arm and fired a bright blast from a small weapon in his hand. A blue-white fireball shot forward and hit Buffalo in the shoulder.
“NOOO!” Annie screamed.
Buffalo let out a single yelp and was down. Still and silent at Annie’s feet.
Not allowing another second to tick away, Annie fired her daddy’s antique shotgun. A full load of rock salt flew and spread and made a thousand tiny bee-stings in the face of Authority. The lawman went down.
Annie didn’t wait to see what he would do next. She scooped up her lifeless pup and jumped onto her bike. With blinding tears in her eyes, Annie sped away down the back road of her home place. She raced to the shipyard, finding row six only after pausing to ask directions from a working girl at the corner.
She slowed enough so that she didn’t draw attention to herself. Most of the ships and bays were dark and quiet, but at the end of the row, she found her brother arguing with a square-shouldered man of Indian descent.
“You were going to take my money and run?” Cody yelled.
“I wasn’t leaving you,” Dhabi pleaded. “I was just doing an engine check. You want to be able to take off without any trouble, don’t you?”
Annie drove her bike into the middle of their disagreement. “Authority is after us.” She held up Buffalo for Cody to see. “He shot my dog. We have to leave now.”
Cody looked over the puppy and nodded. “Give him to me, quickly,” he said. Cody carefully took the dog in his arms and hurried to the cab of the pick-up truck.
Dhabi sent Annie a dubious glance.
“My brother is a vet –a doctor for animals,” she explained. “We have to get away right now. The law is coming.”
“I didn’t agree to carry fugitives,” Dhabi complained. “I have to think about this.”
“No time,” Cody called out through the window, driving the truck and trailer into the ship’s hold. “You can return our payment or take us off-planet now.”
Dhabi shrugged and looked Annie over from head to toe. “Get on, then,” he said, pitching his thumb over his shoulder. “We can be off in twenty minutes.”
Annie’s bike engine roared inside the hollow of the ship. “Make it five minutes,” she said. “I shot a lawman.”
“I won’t take a murderer,” Dhabi said. “I won’t.”
“I didn’t kill him,” Annie said. “But I might kill you.”
Dhabi raised his brow and hit the switch for the bay door. He waved his arms wildly when he saw the train of flashing lights at the other end of the shipyard. “Get your gear secured,” he barked. “Lift off in five.”
Dhabi disappeared behind a door labeled CREW. Annie strapped her motorcycle to the rail on the wall and raced to the back of the horse trailer. She led out her four horses to the rail and helped them settle down even as the ship’s engines began to thunder around them. Cody came about the front of the truck carrying his stasis pod.
“I don’t know if I can save your dog,” he said. “I put Buffalo in my oxygen tank. He’s in a coma. He’ll stay that way for now. I’ll do what I can.”
Annie took the metal pod from her brother. “I’ll hold him while you sedate the horses.”
The ship lurched, and the horses reared and neighed. Cody opened his medical bag and within just a few minutes, he had each of the four horses calmed and secured.
“Strap in, folks,” Dhabi’s voice called out from a speaker overhead. “Less than one minute and we’ll be pulling G’s.”
Annie followed Cody to the jump seats and strapped in. She’d never been off-planet before, but Cody told her all about his three trips to First Station, where he studied prolonged orbit on varying sizes of animals.
“Go ahead and scream or laugh or whatever when you feel your stomach start to rise,” he reminded her. “It helps to keep your abdominals taught. Less likely to vomit.”
Before he could say anything else, Annie felt the pull of home, and she began to cry. As the tears flooded over her cheeks, a fury burned in her stomach. Home was gone.
She took a deep breath between sobs and dared herself to look Cody in the eye. She felt sorry that her devotion to her animals cost him so much – his livelihood, his home, his friends. When her gaze met his, she saw the shimmer of emotion in his eyes. It was almost more than she could bear.
She hugged the stasis pod, wishing…
Cody reached out his hand and squeezed her shoulder as the force of gravity shook the whole ship. “I’m here for you,” his voice assured her. “I’m not sure where we’re going, but as long as we’re together, we’ll be all right.”
“Cleared the atmosphere,” Dhabi’s voice said with an air of control. “We have about forty minutes to figure out our destination, so as soon as you have your legs under you, please join me in the cockpit, Dr. Birchfield.”
Annie realized that she was no longer crying. She loosened her grip on the pod and let it rest on her knees. She stared through the glass window at her beloved pup. Buffalo’s white-ticked fur was speckled with blood and singed around the wound in his side. The small digital screen at the end of the pod showed four blinking lights. One glowed pale green, one blue, and two yellow.
“Is Buffalo going to be okay?” she asked.
“Little sister, we should say a prayer for all of us tonight.”