A WELCOME HOME

by C. B. Thatcher

Will future war be worse than present-day warfare?

     Were one-armed men more common on the frontier world called Windsor’s Hold, perhaps Harry Winkleson—early maimed in the war and early returned again—should not have stood out quite as much; had this world’s other young men not been whisked away to the war as if seized by a greatly selective and deadly plague, then it were improbable that the citizens in the village and farms about, several of whom now puffed up the steep, winding road to his small but handsome cottage, would have called upon him to lead their search for the enemy pilot of the bellied-in Vintigan craft. Twice the little group, shuffling wearily upward, paused in the afternoon heat of the pleasant world’s suns; twice, the journey thus suspended, each of them peered suspiciously right and left, left and right, toward that suddenly grim border between shadow and light where green, sun-lit fields met the dark of the hard-tangled woods.
    “Hot as the devil,” Mr. Gowers, the village banker, his double chin wobbling, muttered, “Why the deuce a man would want to live way out here…”
    “Well, out here he ain’t got no trouble with the bank,” Gordon Crawford said, looking slyly out at Mr. Gowers from under the wide brim of his dirty grey hat. The three others in the party grinned uncertainly, looking first at Gowers and then back to Crawford. Mr. Gowers, his cheeks flushing noticeably beneath a thin coat of brown dust, turned abruptly toward the speaker. His lips parted but only the slightest wheeze escaped him.
    “Damnable hot,” he complained, turning away to stare once again into the dark of the woods. “We should be going, I guess.” He delivered this in a questioning tone, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.     The others being less worn from the climb, Gowers had soon fallen a few meters behind, his authority, from this undignified position, gradually failing. Even his antique shotgun—the group’s sole weapon—propped now on one shoulder and a minute later the other, seemed more an encumbrance than a functional tool.
    Frank Olmstead nodded. “It’s a far piece,” he remarked, squinting up the path to where it disappeared into the undergrowth.
    “And since he got back from the war, he ain’t had no one for company,” Bart O’Malley added.
    Walter Salomine, the group’s youngest, groaning a little as he rose to his feet, said, “Why, he ain’t got no wife, or about to get one, either. He ain’t even whole.”
    “We can always go back,” Crawford said. “But we were agreed.”
    “Well, we’ve come this far,” muttered the banker, falling in at the rear of the group. He blew out a hard breath and stared up at the rising path. “It can’t be much further.”
    “And he does know the Vintigans,” Olmstead added. “Guess he hates them enough.”
    “That’s why we’ve come, ain’t it?” Salomine asked a little viciously. “Half your age he is, and just cause he’s got but one arm…and I heard he’s a man full of hate.” He stomped onward, each new thought beginning with each new smashing step. “And a man who can’t get a woman, sure as hell is going to be a hating man…sure as hell….”
    “He’ll know what to do,” the banker said, holding to his hopeful note anent distance.

     Winkleson, in high leather boots, stood on the porch, watching the group struggle closer. He neither called out nor waved. A long-barreled hunting rifle, its metal glistening blue in the rays of the suns, leaned against the rough wooden boards of the cottage behind him. Two windows, uncurtained, staring like blank, square eyes, open in the heat, flanked the half-closed, hand-planed door. Drawn low over his forehead and shading his face was an old, crumpled army cap. His shapeless jacket, the left sleeve unfilled and its end tucked neatly into the pocket, impressed some among the little group—having now come sufficiently near to pick out its details—as having about it a superior air of hardy sophistication denied their own finer garments. Gowers called a hello from the rear of the group, paused, held his red kerchief above his head and, as if it were a gesture more meaningful than mere greeting, flashed it back and forth in the still, warm afternoon air. Crawford greeted Winkleson with a single nod; the other responded in a soft voice, “Hot as blazes.” Gowers pushed forward to the front. He tucked his kerchief into a side pocket and repeated it in a lower tone.

    Walter Salomine’s gaze was for a time held by the empty sleeve of Winkleson’s gray jacket. O’Malley stared intently at the one end of the porch, Olmstead at the other, and Crawford looked down at the ground, shuffling his right foot in the dirt. “It’s a hot day to walk so far,” Winkleson observed. Though shaded by his cap, his eyes yet seemed to sparkle, as if their owner, having chanced upon a strangely ludicrous sight, were constrained only by sheer courtesy from bursting into a well-deserved chortle. “It is,” Crawford, looking up, assented. “It’s a very hot day.” Salomine, tearing his gaze away from the vacant sleeve, also glanced up at the younger man. Impatiently, scowling, he said, “There’s a Vintigan crashed his ship five days ago not a kilometer from Hank Farrel’s farm. We was wondering…”
    “We don’t know nothing about how to go about capturing a Vintigan, truth be told,” Olmstead said.
    “Ah, we could do it alone if we wanted,” Salomine objected, “but we figured we’d do it quicker with your help. We know the pilot bailed out, all right; weren't no canopy and no seat and no blood.”
    “Will you help us, then?” the banker asked politely.
    Winkleson stood motionless without replying.
    “We’ve come a ways,” Olmstead said.
    “You have, indeed,” the veteran, his expression inscrutable, allowed. “The well’s around to the right, if you’re thirsty.”
    They were. Salomine said, “Thought you might want to be in on the kill.” He fell quiet a moment, then went on. “If I’d lost my arm to them bastards, I’d suren hell want to be.”
    “Did you hear it…the Vintigan ship, I mean?” Crawford asked, looking at Winkleson.
    “I did.”
    “You did!” Gowers exclaimed. “Well…”  He retrieved his kerchief, wiped his face.
    “You heard it!” Salomine said sharply.  “And you didn’t look for the pilot?”
    “My war’s finished. And besides…”
    “What?” Salomine, anger tightening his already tight features, asked.
    “My war’s finished,” he said again, his expression unchanged, any amusement ebbing.
    “Ah…what kinda ship…”
    “A single-seat torp thrower, Mr. Olmstead.” He stared down at Salomine.
    “It was,” Gowers said admiringly. “That’s exactly what it was.”
    “And I saw it, saw the pilot eject, high, nearly over the village, and he floated west till the chute disappeared behind the mountains. At that height, with the wind blowing the way it was, why he musta drifted a good thirty klicks from here if not more…”
    “You sure?” Salomine, rubbing his chin, peered at Winkleson. “Fran Kramer’s boy told us he saw the chute east of the village.”
    “Did Kramer’s boy ever see a pilot eject from a torp-thrower before?” asked Winkleson.
    “I guess he didn’t,” Crawford admitted.
    “I’ve seen scores”—Winkleson touched his empty sleeve—“and one even strafed us once…during the invasion of Fastergone’s world…and killed my best friend, Carl.” He took his hat from his head and held it against his chest. “Carl…why, Carl was older than you, Walter.” Winkleson, something indefinable but nevertheless fierce rising in his eyes, looked squarely at Salomine. “And Carl wasn’t the oldest in the regiment, not by a long shot.”
    Salomine’s cheeks flared red and he snapped his head to the right. “We’ll have water.”
    Gower’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, water’d be just the thing. Just the thing.”

     Gordon Crawford led the little group as it descended down the twisting path from the cottage. Gowers, somewhat refreshed by the cool well water, followed closely; Salomine, unspeaking, brought up the rear. Crawford set a hurried pace. The sky to the west glowed faintly orange in the sunset, the deepening shadows of evening spreading silently across the rolling green fields. To either side of the narrow path, the dark of the woods seemed to press ever closer. A queer blue diaphanous smear of light tinted the eastern horizon, presaging the rise of Cheris, Windsor’s large moon, and the first, confident stars of night, set in a sky unsullied by ground lights, emerged overhead. “Drifted west,” Frank Olmstead mumbled. “Damn waste of time, coming all this way.”
    Gowers, head down, agreed, adding, “I wish Winkleson had come back with us, though.”
    “Can’t expect he would have.” Crawford, straining to see the land ahead through the darkness, replied. “I guess he’s done his share, after all.”
    “And the war’s damn near over, anyway,” Olmstead said. “Vintigans are through…”
    “They’re still the enemy,” Salomine growled. “It’s our duty…”
    “How old are you, Walter?” Crawford interrupted.
    Olmstead chuckled; Salomine, slipping back a step, declined at first to answer, then, a minute passing, said, “Well, tore up like he is, ain’t no woman gonna wanna be courted by him, that’s sure.”  When no reply met this observation, he went on, “It’ll be good to get home to my wife…after chasing around for nothing all day.”
    “It will be good to get home to bed,” Gordon Crawford said.
    Mr. Gowers said, “It will be good to get home to supper.”

     Harry Winkleson watched the men descend down the path to the village until their dark shadows vanished amid the darker shadows of evening. He stood unmoving tor a minute longer, facing the path; then, smiling a little, he grabbed the long-barreled hunting rifle and went into the cottage. He placed the rifle on two brass hooks imbedded above the stone fireplace. Raising the wick of an oil lamp sitting on the kitchen table, he held a match to it and the room’s interior was illumined by the lamp’s dull yellow glow. In the sudden light, a red, rosy bundle of silken cloth, folded neatly beneath the kitchen table, contrasted with the interior’s stark, unpainted wood. He looked down for a moment at the cloth, then called out softly, “They’re gone.”
    The figure of a woman very little younger than he appeared in the frame of the door separating the kitchen from the cottage’s small bedroom. Her eyes, peering curiously out from soft falling streams of long brown hair, were the slate-blue of a polar sea, set strikingly against the clear pale skin of her face. Draped across her shoulders and reaching nearly to her knees was a jacket similar in style and shade to Winkleson’s. She wore neither socks nor shoes, revealing a discolored left ankle.
    “You shouldn’t walk on that ankle yet,” he said.
    “It’s not as sore as yesterday. Are they really gone, then?”
    “They are.”
    “I do not know what to do now,” she said, looking fully into his face.
    He did not avert his own, rather looked back just as openly. But, suddenly gone dumb, he did not immediately answer. He dropped his gaze to the floor as if he had lost something there of middling value. She, too, lowered her head to stare at the same spot as he. “We’re enemies, after all,” she said in a whisper, not raising her head.
    “But the war…the war’s all but done, and I’ve certainly had enough of it.”
    A night bird, hunting, cried out, its mournful call echoing across the hills and the forest and slipping, eerie, through the opened window and into the warm, cozy, yellow-hued room.
    “I shouldn’t…” she began, then faltered. “I shouldn’t like to be lost in those woods tonight.,” she at last said quickly. When she raised her head to him her eyes shone brightly, and she reached out to the doorframe to steady herself.
    “You could stay here,” he said, amending that hastily, “Until the war’s over, anyway.” He absently kneaded his useless sleeve. “And after two years sleeping on the ground, well, the bed’s too soft and I really prefer sleeping on the floor.”  She agreed. “Maybe tomorrow you help me get my fake arm attached…if it wouldn’t upset you, mind. Thought I’d best go out hunting…what with having another here.” She said it wouldn’t upset her. They decided to turn in. “I have some thinking to do,” she said. “Goodnight, then.”

     In the slanting rays of the afternoon’s suns, the front of the cottage seemed oddly different. Winkleson eased his body out of the vel-deer from his shoulder and onto he floor of the porch and rested his rifle on the deer’s light-gray coat. He was unused to the prosthetic and his shoulder ached and he unfastened the plastic arm and laid it next to the rifle. Smoke drifted lazily up from the stone chimney; a pungent odor of coffee wafted through the open door. He looked at the cottage. A fine breeze from the north rustled the leaves.
    He suddenly grinned. Stirred by the breeze, silky red curtains danced merrily in the windows, welcoming him home.

CONTENTS