STERLING, COLORADO ((c) 2021 Mark Munger)


S
he was a plain looking girl with an extraordinary mind living an ordinary life.

Lucinda Clark sat on a hay bale, the fibers dry and prickly against the bare skin of her ankles. Her hazel eyes scanned the valley of the South Platte River flowing meagerly through the drought-impacted landscape. The knoll she occupied was littered with several hundred bales of hay cut for the upcoming winter. The squares were strewn randomly across the stubble of a mown alfalfa field no more than two hundred feet above the river’s course. The land climbed from the river bottom to Lucy’s vantage point in gradual fashion.

She was dressed in denim jeans. Lucinda favored Lee’s, straight-legged and baggy despite her solid shape. She wore a long sleeved “Colorado Avalanche” sweatshirt, and beat-up discount store tennis shoes. Seventeen years old and a senior at Sterling High School, Lucinda Clark was amply chested, more so than she liked, boasting shiny brown hair with auburn highlights that, when they caught the sunshine, sparkled like rare gems under a jeweler’s lamp. The color of her eyes matched the hue of the prairie sky standing thin over the grasslands surrounding her family’s ranch.

It had been a tough day at school. No one understood her. She wished that her mother was still around but Gayle Clark was living somewhere down south, near Santa Fe or thereabouts, having met a man, a poet that she claimed to be in love with. They’d bumped into each other, leading, apparently, to a lot more serious bumping into each other, when Dale Eckhardson gave a reading at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Cherry Creek last February. Gayle began to sneak around, making more and more obvious excuses to escape the smallness of Sterling for the bustle of Denver at odd times, seemingly during the moments when Lucinda needed her mother the most.

The girl watched a herd of Black Angus mosey from one dry patch of grass to another. Though her eyes were locked on the cattle, her mind was on other things.

Harold Clark, the girl’s father, tried hard with Melinda, Lucy’s ten-year-old sister, and Lucy, tried to fill in the emptiness and the void left by a departed mother. He wasn’t much good at the empathy and soul- unburdening part of that equation, though he took a concerted stab at it when asked. Mostly, Lucy found herself turning inward or to God when she had questions. She tried to help Melinda out as much as she could, imparting whatever wisdom her seventeen years of life could impart.

The thing at school troubled her. For the first time it pitted her humanity against the Divine in clear and contentious ways.

“What do you think of President Bush’s response to the events of September 11th?”

Mrs. Blanchard, Lucy’s 12th grade civics teacher, had posed the question to Lucy’s class during second hour. The students were deep in the midst of hashing out what should constitute an appropriate military response to the terrible acts of Bin Ladin and his cohorts when the question came Lucy’s way. Up to that point boys in Lucy’s class had directed the discussion.

“We oughta nuke those stinking towel heads back to the Stone Age,” Benny Morrison had postulated.

“Benny, are you suggesting we use atomic weapons on Afghanistan, against innocent women and children?” Mrs. Blanchard interjected.

“Why stop there? I’d blast every last freakin’ Muslim country on the planet. Let ’em know who’s boss.”

“That’s bogus,” Emmett Carlson chimed in. “Some of the Muslim countries are our allies, like Saudi Arabia.”

Benny had grinned.

“Ya, but if we blew them to little pieces, we wouldn’t have to beg them for oil. Plus, that’s where Bin Ladin and most of the suicide guys came from. I say nuke ’em.”

The discourse centered upon military tactics, upon the necessity of sending in American ground troops, of what the public’s reaction would likely be to scenes of dead American soldiers coming home in body bags. Through it all, Lucinda Clark, the brightest kid in the senior class, and usually one of the first to join a debate, had maintained her own counsel.

When the question was finally turned in Lucy’s direction, she understood why the teacher wanted her involved. The Clark’s were Friends. Quakers. Pacifism was an integral part of her family’s faith. There was history here, in little Sterling: an invisible line ran between the three Quaker families located in and around the town and their neighbors. Mrs. Blanchard clearly knew that history and was drawing upon it to spur discussion.

Trouble was, Lucinda, normally eager to swagger into a verbal fray, wanted to shrivel up and disappear rather than discuss the finer points of America’s response to September 11th. The reasons weren’t complex. The reasons were simple. Somehow, what had taken place in the peaceful autumnal atmosphere over New York City on that fateful day was so vastly different, so incomprehensibly evil, when considered by a seventeen-year-old young woman from a Colorado ranching community, that the old guideposts and measures of her religion no longer seemed useful.

“Lucy?” the teacher had repeated, staring hard at the young woman’s face.

The girl’s eyes moistened slightly as she watched Beau Gunderson, the next-door neighbor’s seventeen- year-old son, lope across the dusty grassland on a spirited black and white paint towards the cattle. The Angus stood complacently, their heads turning in unison towards the on-rushing cowboy, the slope of their strong, thick backs appearing as dark humps against yellow ground.

She studied the far reaches of the valley, where newly turned soil appeared black. The dirt would eventually dry beneath the unfamiliar November sun and turn the color of coal ash; becoming nearly identical in color to the powder that settled over the horror-stricken faces of the people Lucinda watched escape the collapse of the Twin Towers on network television news.

“Yes, ma’am,” she had answered.

“I know you must have something to say about what’s happening in Central Asia.”

“Not really.”

The teacher’s eyes widened though her temper didn’t rise.

“Surely you have something to add regarding what will likely turn out to be the most memorable event of your generation,” Mrs. Blanchard coaxed.

“Come on, Luce,” Barton Morales, one of a handful of Hispanics in her grade, had chided. “You’re always ready to give an opinion, even if it’s bogus,” he added, a wide grin showing white against tawny skin.

Others added their derisions.
Lucinda drew a deep breath and thought of a response. “Let’s say that Bin Ladin, and maybe even the Taliban, is responsible for what happened,” she began.


“Maybe? Where you been hiding girl, in a cave?” Carla Morales, Barton’s twin sister castigated. “They’ve got old Bin Ladin dead to rights. All that’s left is the finale to his sorry little one-act play.”

Lucy had smiled. She liked Carla, liked her assuredness and her natural ability to cut to the chase.

“Fair enough. Suppose, instead of sending 50,000 Special Forces to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, we send a couple of hundred thousand civilians: men, women, kids like us, over to Pakistan. Then we all march across the border, unarmed, seeking a parlay with the Taliban. Do you really believe that they are so inhumane, so brutal, that they’d attack us?”

Missy Forestall, a cheerleader and a short, finely proportioned blond with athletic thighs and deep brown eyes set in an exquisite face, laughed.

“Carla’s right. You’ve completely lost it if you think those animals would be willing to listen. Especially to women. Don’t you follow the news? Don’t you understand how they beat, mistreat, and subjugate women?”

Lucinda frowned. Mrs. Blanchard attempted to reassert control.

“Keep your critique positive, folks,” she admonished. “I see you have your hand up, Edgar. Go ahead.”

Edgar Brewster, a slow thinking, large-boned tackle on the varsity football team cleared his throat. His voice was soft, at odds with his stature.

“I dunno. Maybe Lucy’s got something here.”

Noisy objections erupted from the class. The instructor raised her hand.

“Lucy?”

Thin strips of white, fingers extending two-dimensionally from a bank of high clouds resting to the north, up near Cheyenne, reached across the high atmosphere. The rancher’s daughter detected the beginnings of the foothills from her perch, gentle peaks immediately adjacent to Fort Collins, visible though seventy miles away as the crow flies. The spine of hills rose above the flatness of the western terminus of the prairie as a magnificent apparition.

“God, why did it happen?” she asked softly, a faint breeze beginning to stir. The answer, she knew, was in the hearts of men and not in the mind of God.

At the edge of the Gunderson pasture, Beau and his Border collie, Blue, drove cattle through an open gate towards a watering station. Several hundred yards away, a windmill spun violently despite the meager wind. A horse neighed from the ridge behind her.

“Obligation,” she murmured, turning her head, her hair jostling as she moved. She whistled to her horse.

A blaze of white broke across the drab landscape. Dust churned from beneath the Arab’s hooves as the animal raced towards the girl, its shoulders undulating as it ran, gray mane and tail trailing the effort.

Lucinda had formulated a feeble response to her teacher’s inquiry .

“It’s a puzzlement, to me, being Quaker and all. My faith tells me that war is something that, only in the direst of circumstances, should be engaged in by humankind,” the girl whispered weakly.

Mrs. Blanchard stood next to the young woman.

“Well, isn’t this such a time?” Barton Morales had challenged. “I mean, the son of a…excuse me, Ms.Blanchard…bee killed civilians. What we’re doing isn’t really going to war. It’s more like a police manhunt.”

There were murmurs of approval from other classmates.

“That’s one way to look at it,” Lucinda Clark demurred. “But what about all the Afghan women and children who’ll be killed or hurt? Dropping bombs indiscriminately looks an awful lot like war to me.”

“There’s no right or wrong to any of your positions,” Mrs. Blanchard had concluded. “But I do think that Mr. Morales has brought up an interesting approach. If the acts that were committed were against civilians, isn’t Barton right? Isn’t this really a case of a criminal act and not an act of nation against nation, an act of war? Lucy, does that make sense to you?”

The young woman regained her feet. Stroking the soft nuzzle of the Arabian, her mind wandered from the death and the destruction, focusing instead upon an image of her mother.

Gayle Clark’s eyes had been filled with sorrow and remorse as she sat behind the wheel of her Mazda 4×4, the vehicle’s off-road tires worn smooth and resting on the gravel of their driveway. Melinda clutched her mother’s hand, refusing to relinquish
her grip, unwilling to let Gayle leave. Lucinda stepped up and pulled her little sister away, the child convulsing in grief as the pick-up truck disappeared.

A strong odor of horse disbursed the memory. Lucinda stood quietly beside Obligation, massaging the horse’s velvety skin, inhaling the animal’s distinct musk. Lucy’s eyes steadied on the flatness of the land. Footsteps echoing off the wind-hardened surface of the ground interrupted her reflection.

“Thought I might find you up here,” her father said as he approached from behind the girl, his lanky form in marked contrast to his eldest daughter’s square stature. Harold Clark’s rugged face looked down kindly at his oldest child. His eyes, shadowed as they were by the brim of his Stetson, the off-white felt of the headgear worn and smudged from the business of ranching, looked diligently at Lucinda.

She pointed towards the Gunderson boy as horse and rider galloped across the plateau.

“I was just watching Beau and his dog work.”

“Looks like Obie was giving you some comfort as you eavesdropped,” the man remarked, dispensing a wad of chew into the warm air through tobacco-stained teeth.

Harold kept his eyes on his daughter. “I’m worried about your baby sister,” the rancher admitted, his words soft. Lucy patted the belly of her horse and sent the animal off to graze.

“How so?”

“She doesn’t seem to be coming out of her spin since your mother took off.”

There was no sugar coating it. Their mother, his wife had done simply that. Taken off, leaving them all to fend for themselves with only intermittent telephone calls as the singular connection between them. Gayle didn’t write or use the Internet. There were no letters, no emails, no photographs depicting Gayle’s new life in New Mexico as a reminder to the girls that their mother cared.

“I guess,” was all the girl replied.

“You seem troubled,” Lucy’s father observed, a task- roughened hand coming to rest on the back of her right wrist. “What’s eating you?”

Lucinda thought about dodging the issue. Instead, she met the question head on.

“Dad, why do we have to be Quakers?”

A look of mild injury crept into her father’s eyes. “Why would you ask such a question?”

She shuffled her tennis shoes over the soft topsoil. “Today at school we were talking about President Bush’s response to the Trade Center thing. Everyone but me pretty much thought going to war over what happened was well within our rights.”

The man’s hand loosened on her arm.

“I see. What did you say in response?”

“Some lame suggestion that we send a few hundred thousand pilgrims over to Afghanistan to show Bin Ladin and the Taliban that we’re peaceful, reasonable, God-fearing folk.”

Wind blew her father’s curly black hair loose of his neck and ears.

“Doesn’t sound lame to me. Sounds like something Christ would say himself. Remember your scripture:

‘To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Love your enemies, do good, hoping for nothing in return.’

Luke, Chapter 6, Verses 29-35.”

The young woman frowned and kicked at the ground. “And what if what happened on September 11th wasn’t an act of war but an act of murder?”

The man smiled. “You really do need to go to law school, young lady. I see your point. Your argument has an attraction. But aren’t you simply replacing the word ‘war’ with the word ‘murder’?”

She returned the grin. It was the longest they’d spoken since her mother had left. Her eyes studied the tanned outlines of her father’s profile against the glimmering sunset. Red, yellow, and gold tendrils ignited the western horizon. Shadows began to spread across the lowlands.

“Didn’t Jesus also say ‘render therefore to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s?'” she asked.

“Luke 20, Verse 25. But how does that relate to remaining a pacifist and steering clear of militarism?” the rancher postulated.

Lucy adjusted herself on the hay bale. Her father lifted his right leg and placed a well-worn cowboy boot on compacted alfalfa.

“If the law, which is Caesar’s, requires a penalty to be paid for a crime, an earthly sin, shouldn’t we then obey Caesar’s law unless it speaks against our faith?” the girl asked.

Harold stroked the haggard skin of his chin, his jaw thick and prominent, the only portion of his face that mirrored his daughter’s. He patted his child on the top of her shoulder.

“Girl, you really do need to go to law school,” the cowboy muttered through a devilish grin.

The rancher and the young woman watched the sun settle. Dusk descended. Twilight faded. Evening prospered and crept eastward until it enveloped the rancher and his eldest daughter in twilight.

(Sterling, Colorado appears in the short story collection, Ordinary Lives. You can find it above under the “Books” tab and, if you like what you read, order your own copy under the “Buy Books Direct” tab. But the point of this post isn’t to sell books: It’s to reflect on what that day meant to you, your family, our nation, and the world.)

About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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