The final tally of the dead was worse than I had hoped but not as bad as I had feared. Six dead laborers, a dozen dead nomads, and two dead Wayfinders. Most of the injured survived, except the one Wayfinder whose wounds claimed him about two hours after the battle ended. Most of the dead had been in the farmhouse, where the bandits had crashed through the door on the tail of their flashbang.
The nomads’ medic was one of the guards in the basement, so he got to work right away after we gave them the all-clear and was instrumental in saving a couple of the more injured laborers and nomads. He worked with Jonathan, our medic, to stabilize everyone we could before we moved them all into the barn to recover, rest, and hide while half of the uninjured Wayfinders scouted to make sure there were no more bandits around.
I personally led the squad to follow the tracks of the group that snuck up on us. It was relief to discover they had split off from the main force before they were in sight of the bandit’s base camp, even if it was frustrating to see how our scouting had failed us. We got back to the farmhouse around ten a.m. and immediately went to work digging graves with the other able-bodied Wayfinders. A mass grave for the bandits and individual graves for everyone else.
Around noon, the laborers and nomads emerged from the barn and started lending a hand. They knew as well as we did that the bodies needed to be buried by nightfall, and they wanted time to lay their friends and family to rest. They just needed more recover after the firefight than we did. Around five in the afternoon, the last shovel of dirt was placed, the last words were said, and any Wayfinder not preparing to leave in the morning was busy hiding all traces of the battle.
Camille was busy with after-action reports and Natalie was updating the supply logs with Jonathan, so I took Lucas aside to help me scatter snow over the graves. We worked in silence as the sun set until the last glimmers of light were disappearing through the haze of clouds coating the sky.
“You should have checked with me first.”
Lucas didn’t say anything. He stopped working and started off toward the setting sun. I let him have his silence for another minute before speaking again.
“I know the nomads would have been captured or worse if we hadn’t done anything, but we’ve lost six of the people who paid us to get them safely across the tundra and you broke one of the biggest rules of the Wayfinders. Again.”
“What do you want from me, Marshall?” Lucas turned to look at me, his usual grin replaced by a mixture of sadness and anger. “I see people in need, and I want to help them. You would do the same thing, if you found people running for their life.” Lucas sighed and looked down at his feet. “Or at least you would have. I don’t know anymore.”
I stared at my oldest friend and tried to keep my roiling emotions off of my face. “We have rules, Lucas.” His head snapped up, eyes meeting mine and face as carefully neutral as mine. “Over the past fifteen years, we’ve added more and more rules as what we’ve done has turned from a past-time to fund our searches into something bigger than-”
“Than helping people?” Lucas stepped toward me, lowering his voice so no one would overhear. “We started this whole organization in order to help people, Marshall, or have you forgotten that?” I clenched my hands but kept my face neutral as the roiling was replaced by indignation and anger. Some part of me knew that we were both tired, Lucas especially so since he hadn’t gotten much rest the night before all of this had started, either. I took a moment of silence to try to calm down a little, to resist the urge to knock him down, but he took my silence as an answer.
He took another step towards me, getting in my face and dropping his voice to a hiss. “Are you so caught up in playing ‘King Cowboy in the New Frontier’ that you don’t remember what this was all about?”
I punched Lucas in the solar plexus and swept one of his legs. It felt good to be standing over him, but I knew he was just as angry as I was, if not angrier. I relaxed my fists and arms, looked up at the sky, and took a deep breath. I acknowledged the part of me that knew I messed up and tried to get the anger I felt under control. This wasn’t the first time we’d had this argument and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
When I looked down again, he was still on the ground, clutching his chest and gasping for breath. I squatted down next to him and, after he’d recovered enough to stop squirming, I grabbed his shoulder. “Dude, you can’t keep saying stuff like this. You know I don’t think that. You know why I started all this. You know why I’m STILL a Wayfinder after almost twenty years of fruitless searching.”
“That’s…” Lucas gasped and coughed. “That’s no excuse. If anything…”
I felt the anger creeping back and tried to keep myself calm. “You know better than anyone else what this disaster has cost me. You’ve got family and friends you could be living with instead of wandering around out here. You chose this life. This life is all I have.” I sat down next to him and rubbed my face.
I took another deep breath and softened my tone a little more, trying to sound a little more apologetic. “I would have helped them, that’s not the problem. That’s not the rule you’re in trouble for breaking. You knowingly led a group of bandits back to our group. You compromised our secrecy and, as a result, people died that otherwise wouldn’t have if you had followed protocol.”
Lucas glared at me as he pushed himself into an upright sitting position. His voice was angrier that mine had been and I was glad that almost everyone else had gone into the barn. No one else would be able to hear us if we started shouting. “Protocol would have meant taking them to Chicago and they had just been chased away from there! What good would that have done them?”
“More good than this would have.” I gestured at the graves we were sitting near. “You could have taken them to Rockford instead. That’s much closer than Chicago and you would have been able to get them there by tomorrow morning if you pushed them hard enough. They’d have been safe behind the walls of the enclave there.”
“And risked getting shot at while trying to push children and elderly at a quick pace? We’d have had to leave that old woman behind in order to have a chance of making it, because she’s too big to carry.”
“At least then everyone else would have had a chance.” I stood up. “Also, I’m pretty sure that old woman could have outpaced most of the other nomads.” I chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.
“Sure, then she would have had an equal chance to get shot in the back, just like everyone else..” Lucas started struggling to his feet. I offered him a hand but he smacked it away and glared at me instead.
“Stop arguing. You know I’m right or else you’d have hit me back by now.”
Lucas slipped in the partially melted snow I’d been sitting on and he fell over again. He shot me another dirty look from his place in the snow before just laying back and covering his eyes. “I can’t even stand up, much less strike a superior officer right now. I’m too tired. Couldn’t this have waited until after we found shelter for next week’s blizzard?” He let his arms fall to the side and picked his head up to meet my eyes. “Or at least until after I’ve gotten some sleep?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry I hit you, Lucas. That was way out of line and I know you don’t really think I’ve forgotten anything. I wish this could wait, but we have to talk about this today. If nothing happens to you, if there isn’t a clear resolution about what happened, then the laborers, the nomads, and the Wayfinder trainees will start to wonder about why their friends and loved ones are dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a problem with the laborers before the week is out.”
I offered Lucas my hand again and, after a moment’s hesitation, he took it. “They paid us to keep them safe.” I grunted as I hauled Lucas to his feet. “They all know that nothing is certain out here and that we couldn’t guarantee their safety, but this will be a hard thing for them to handle. All the trainees now realize just how likely it is that they’ll die out here if they stick to guiding large groups. This will seem like a slap on the wrist to them, but you did break a rule and these are the recommended consequences.”
Lucas took a step back after he gained his feet and brushed the snow off his pants and coat. “Yeah, that you wrote.” His voice was calmer, but I knew I’d need to do more to make it up to him than apologize.
I nodded. “You’re still head of the scouts, but your pay for this trip is going into the death benefits of our dead Wayfinders and you’re demoted to Lieutenant. Once we’re back in an enclave, we’ll look into getting you promoted again since the only reason you’re not higher ranked is that we don’t have higher ranks. No matter what, though, your pay won’t change for future jobs”
I stared at him, stony-eyed, while I waited for him to acknowledge my orders. After a another few swipes at snow that was no longer there and a deep breath, he saluted. “As you say, Captain.”
“Good.” I nodded and gestured toward the barn. “Now let’s finish up so we can go inside, eat, and get some sleep.”
Once we had finished, we walked off toward the barn. Someone had set up a LED floodlight near the door so we could finished up. Once we got near the door and started taking packing up the flood light, my nose detected the first hints of someone making hamburgers. My stomach growled in response and I was suddenly struck by the realization that it had been over twenty-four hours since I had eaten. I was so focused on the hamburgers that it took Lucas pointing it out for me to realize that the noise I was hearing was shouting coming from the inside barn. I left Lucas to finish up and, rushed inside. When I saw what was going on, my heart fell.