Home > The Pact (Kate Burkholder #11.5)

The Pact (Kate Burkholder #11.5)
Author: Linda Castillo

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The blade left a trail of blood across pale flesh. Not too deep, but it hurt plenty. Twelve-year-old Aaron Kuhns didn’t flinch. He didn’t make a sound or look away. Didn’t so much as blink. To show any reaction would brand him as weak and lessen the solemnity of the moment.

“You ready?” the other boy asked.

Aaron looked at his friend, the glow of the campfire playing gold light across his face. Kevin Dennison might be small for his age and an Englischer to boot, but he was smart for an eleven-year-old. He knew where all the good fishing holes were along Painters Creek. He could track a buck through the thickest woods. He was a fast runner, and he could build a campfire and have it lit in two minutes flat.

Of course, Aaron could do all of those things, too; he was Amish, after all. He’d grown up on a farm, where the out-of-doors—hunting and fishing and the like—was a big part of his life. Still, he was duly impressed by his friend’s skills.

“I’m ready,” Aaron murmured.

Yellow light glinted off the blade of Kevin’s hunting knife as he folded it and slid it into the sheath at his belt. Aaron’s heart thrummed in his chest as his friend knelt next to him.

Grasping Aaron’s hand, Kevin gave him a long, meaningful look and pressed their bloodied wrists together, held them.

“We’re brothers now,” the English boy said.

Aaron grinned, and in tandem they recited the words they’d memorized over the last few weeks: “Bound by blood, our code of honor, and our warrior hearts, we vow to fight evil and pursue good at all costs. We are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend and protect our fellow man.”

The passage was straight out of the graphic novel they’d finished last week. The one in which the two main characters became blood brothers and devoted their lives to righting wrongs and saving those who needed saving.

“Amen,” Aaron murmured.

He knew the mixing of their blood didn’t really make them brothers. It was symbolic, but close enough. He’d longed for a brother as long as he could remember. Of course, God had had different plans and blessed him with six sisters. He liked the girls just fine; he thought the world of them, in fact. But he’d always longed for a brother—a kindred soul who liked to do all the things he liked to do. Finally, he had one. If only their parents saw it that way.

Two weeks ago, Kevin’s dad had told him they weren’t allowed to be friends anymore. Those Amish are dirty people, he’d said. They’re religious fanatics, backward, and uneducated. You can do better.

It wasn’t the first time Aaron had heard that sort of thing. He’d done a pretty good job of laughing it off so Kevin didn’t feel bad. Still, it hurt.

“We’re brothers, man,” Kevin said, his expression revealing a combination of wonder and awe. “We did it.”

“About damn time.”

Kevin laughed. “You cuss pretty good for an Amish kid.”

“That’s what my mamm says,” he muttered.

Around them the woods were fully dark now, the air as cold and sharp as an ice shard. Leaning forward, Aaron warmed his hands over the fire. “You ready for what comes next?”

Kevin nodded. “I was born ready.”

“Our parents are going to be worried.”

“They should have thought of that before they said we can’t be friends anymore.” Kevin shook his head. “My dad laid down the law again last night. He said you’re not allowed to come over anymore. And I ain’t allowed to go to your house. No more fishing. Nothing.”

Aaron hadn’t mentioned it to his friend, but his parents didn’t much care for him hanging out with an English kid, either.

This wasn’t the first time they’d discussed their parents’ Amish-versus-English point of view. For six months the boys had pushed, testing the boundaries, and gotten into trouble for breaking rules set forth by parents determined to break their bond. And so last weekend, Kevin and Aaron had met secretly at their favorite fishing hole on Painters Creek and come up with a plan.

“So we run away,” Aaron said. “Just like we talked about. It’s the only way.”

Kevin looked at him, eyes wide. “What about our mission?”

“We do it tonight.” Aaron remembered perfectly the afternoon they’d sat at a campfire much like this one and mapped out their strategy. At midnight, they were going to sneak over to old man Henderson’s place and free the magnificent ten-point buck the old man kept locked in a pen.

“I brought wire cutters,” Aaron said. “Two pair.”

“I got gloves.” Kevin patted the backpack on the ground next to him. “You know the way?”

“Been there twice now.”

Picking up a stick, Kevin prodded the fire. “I hear the old man’s mean as a snake. Got a rifle, too.”

“Yeah, but old people go to bed early. He’ll be sawing logs by midnight.”

Aaron recalled the first time he laid eyes on the buck. Last summer he and Kevin went hiking on the trail along Painters Creek, looking for a place to fish. They’d ended up at old man Henderson’s place. The man lived alone in a dumpy cabin deep in the woods. Aaron had no idea how the old man had captured the buck. It was a magnificent animal, muscular and proud, with ten points and eyes that looked right through you. It spent its days pacing the confines of its prison and making the most god-awful grunting and bleating sounds. Tonight, Aaron and Kevin were going to set it free.

The boys fell silent, lost in visions of the quest ahead, nerves simmering, anticipation building.

Aaron was thinking about the piece of date-nut cake in his knapsack when the rustle of dried leaves a few yards away drew his attention. He squinted into the darkness, aware that Kevin had cocked his head, too.

“You hear that?” Kevin whispered.

“Deer probably,” Aaron said, his voice sounding more certain than he felt. “Rutting season.”

Kevin laughed, but it was a nervous sound. For a minute, both boys listened, pretending their attention wasn’t on the sound they’d heard just outside the circle of campfire light.

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