Set in the Depression, The Tree Solider is a mainstream novel.
A catalyst in the death of a woman and his brother’s disfigurement, Park Hardesty finds redemption in the deep forests of the Pacific NW, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the love of Kate Alford, a local outdoorswoman. Ready to seek his brother’s forgiveness, his new found self-worth and life purpose is threatened when he is falsely accused of rape and murder by a camp officer who refuses to let Kate go.
From inside the farmhouse, John Hardesty heard the car door slam and the engine roar to life. He got off the floor and rubbed his sore cheek. Paul had hit him hard, but it hurt more to think about the rift between them. They were so close. It was all Marie’s fault. Well, it was his fault too. He started it.
He staggered to the front door and turned on the porch light before going out. The snow was falling in a steady sheet of soft flakes, the wind on the rise. On the passenger side of the ‘29 Chevy coupe, Marie Bertin got in, her cloche hat already collecting a thick layer. Between the snow and the dim light of mid-winter dusk, he could barely make out the ruff on her fur coat enfolding her neck like a lion’s mane. No time to be leaving.
He jumped down off the porch, slipping in his street shoes as he came alongside the driver’s side. He pounded on the door. His brother rolled the window down.
“Paul. Wait. You’re in no shape to be driving.”
“Too bad, pal. Why don’t you shut up? S’matter of fact, good riddance to you.”
“Marie?” John stared into the car.
The woman gave him a weak smile. “I am going, cheri. C’est la vie.”
Paul hit the accelerator. For a moment, the car’s wheels spun around before they got footing, sending out clods of packed snow. It fishtailed down to the main road and gathered speed. There was nothing to guide it. The rail fences were piled up with snow.
Hardesty watched the red tail lights swish and weave, then suddenly bump up into the air.
To his horror, the car skidded across the snowy lane before it hit the corner. Its back end went out first like the Chevy was trying to slide into home plate backwards, going slowly, slowly, then suddenly the front end swinging hard to the right. There was no sound, just the snow coming down. The car spun until it hit the snow-clogged ditch and bounced. Then the screams began.
John ran as fast as he could. The frigid night air knifed his lungs. In the ghostly light, the car lay half way on its side like it was just resting, but the windshield was broken, naked headlights beaming into a void. The only thing real to John was his brother’s yelling and the strong odor of gasoline.
“I’m here, Paul,” John shouted as he pulled the awful weight of the door up. Paul struggled inside, screaming, smelling of alcohol. John caught a flailing arm.
“Marie!” Paul’s voice was chaotic agony.
Underneath him was Marie. An odd, flickering glow highlighted her bloodied head which had broken through the car door window and was shoved into the snow bank. Her shoulders hunkered in, like she was trying to get into the fetal position. He wondered if she was already dead.
There was a sudden bang and in an instant a bright flash licked up from the passenger side and underneath the dashboard. Flames grabbed hold of his brother’s coat sleeve, exploding like a winter’s night bonfire. John pulled. His brother pulled back, shouting,
“I hate you! I hate your bloody guts! You killed her, you bastard. You killed Marie.”
“Stop! You’re not making sense. Let me get you out. Then I can get her.”
Flames engulfed the whole inside of the car now. Like a maelstrom of roiling fury, it caught Paul’s coat sleeve and collar coming off the cloth like a line of seraphim wings, searing the skin on Paul’s face, scorching his hair. John tried to pull him out, but his brother fought him, scratching his face, and screaming obscenities at him. Finally, other hands appeared to pull his brother out onto the snow.
A neighbor from the farm next door rolled Paul around, giving John the freedom to go back into the car. When he touched the handle of the car door, he burned his hands. He tried again. Using his coat sleeves to shield his palms, he tugged and pulled, but the door stuck. A tower of black smoke poured out the driver’s window, dwarfing the mounded hills of snow on either side of the country road and flashing them with huge, golden lights. Through the flames Marie’s head seemed to have shifted, exposing a jagged piece of glass slicing her throat.
There was another explosion, this time blowing out the back window. Someone wrenched him back from the heat.
“Too late,” a voice said. His voice. John looked down at Paul. His brother lay moaning, staring up into the snowflakes. By the intense firelight, John could see that the skin on Paul’s face and neck was peeling. Then he noticed his own palms. Quarter-sized blisters were bubbling up.
“Let’s get you to the side, son. Looks like some nasty burns.”
John obeyed. He felt like he was not part of the scene, but above it. The fire flicked and flashed. The snow swirled. The smell of cooking flesh made him gag. “I didn’t think…”
“What’d you say?”
He gave no answer. He dropped into the cold, wet snow.