Monday, November 14, 2011

Update ...

The following stories are now complete:
A Will To Survive
Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
Forsaken Harvest (completed as of 11/14/11)
Over the Mountain and Through the Fire
This Is Me Surviving

Stories Currently in Progress:
All Roads Lead Somewhere
Carry On
Gurl
Mom's Journal of the Zombie Years
To All Things There Is A Season
Il Agita Di Amore
And the Geek Will Inherit the Earth

I plan on a very short break and then will begin to try and complete another story. I hope to have at least two more completed before the end of the year.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 97

Chapter 97

“Blast! These new fangled pens are completely useless!”

“Not again,” a female voice chuckled.

“Don’t you not again me young lady. Why on earth they have to make these things with razor point tips and so small a person can barely …”

“Mom, I’m married with kids of my own. Don’t you think you should give up calling me ‘young lady’? And besides, I already hear it from Anne every chance she gets. Ford had them shipped in special to prevent any of us having to put up with what they are running into on the coast with those techno pirates. You know why you have to do the financial papers with those special pens; it’s for fraud prevention. If you and Uncle Stro wouldn’t insist on holding them like they were going to bite …”

A voice, older but still strong, called from the kitchen, “Hah! Don’t draw me into this ‘Chelle. I hate those things even worse than your mother does. I don’t care if there is nano techno whosiwhatsits in that ink, anyone that even tries to take the farm by falsifying a deed will wind up down a deep hole just like all of the other idiots that have tried it over the years.”

“Uncle Stro! You can’t say things like that! What if someone heard?!”

“Well if they had any sense it would make them think twice.”

“Ack!”

“All right, all right, that’s enough. If the two of you brangling make my cake fall …”

“Me?! I’m not the one who started this!” But rather than be angry ‘Chelle at her mother and uncle she laughed and just reveled in being home for a visit. She missed this. Missed it terribly. All of the kids being under foot until they were sorted out and sent back to who they belonged to at the end of the day. The fresh air, the freedom, the good food … all of the noise and shenanigans everyone seemed to constantly be up to. But when Ford had been offered the job in Roanoke it was something they just couldn’t turn down, not when credits were getting so hard to come by, not even their metal investments seemed to keep up and they promised the kids they’d help them get into a decent school though Tyler seemed changing his mind and thinking about accepting his great uncle’s offer of an apprenticeship. Damascus was still Damascus, little more than a dot on the map and there just weren’t enough jobs to go around for those that needed them.

After her mother left the room ‘Chelle asked her uncle, “How is she doing?”

“She hasn’t said anything to you?”

“You honestly think she would? You know how Mom can be.”

Strother Hefling shook his head, “Of course I do. And you know how hard she’s taking it. It missed so many, and then to have this happen out of the blue …”

The old woman wasn’t near as deaf as they seemed to think she was, she just wasn’t in the mood to talk about it. Besides, she’d promised the grandkids that she would finally get around to writing the story out and they were bound and determined to hold her to it this time. She didn’t know whether to consider it a foolish waste of time or admit that the memories were just hard to dredge up, even after all these years.

She checked the cake and found it ready to come out and once she had put it in the pie keep to cool she quietly went down to the basement and then into the tunnels. The grandkids all goggled every time she told them of how she had helped her father to dig the early tunnels and how most of the concrete that smoothed those walls was left over from that time. They’d installed lights some years back after they had been able to increase the farm’s energy output with a bank of those super efficient solar generators that had been invented during the war. She set the switch to motion detection and slowly made her way from the basement to the barn so that she could avoid the dampness left over from yesterday’s rain. It had taken a while but her body had finally started to call in payment for her years of abuse and lately it seemed it had been adding on late fees as well.

As she walked, the pool of light following her every step, she thought it felt like she was going back in time. The memories weren’t all bad of course but the ones that she was about to get reacquainted with hurt and she’d rather take them out for a look see when no one was around to watch her do it.

Looking down she noted that’s where Lady had lain so hurt and frail. Jimmy Ray had lain there, at the base of the ramp … he’d been gone what seemed like a long time and yesterday at the same time. He never had remarried after Gloria had died from weaponized tuberculosis during the war. All he had cared about ever afterwards were his kids and his dogs; and some days it had been hard to tell them apart as wild as they all were. Going to Jimmy Ray’s place was like trying to wrangle a sack full of puppies, no matter which way you turned it was all paws and tails, snouts and teeth, and all of them in need of a bath.

A black and white cat met her at the top of the ramp, a descendent of ol’ Boots, the terror of every dog in the tri-county area. While not quite as ferocious as his ancestor, this one was a darn good mouser which was why she didn’t shoo him out of the barn and away from the area she kept the incubators in. She had more orders than she could fill now that they’d finally used some sense and relaxed the ordinances in the cities and allowed small livestock again and mice in the chick feed was the last thing she needed. The little business was bringing in some much needed credits, something rare after the sickness had made a hash out of things. Her family hadn’t done as well as some had after the war, being uninterested in building a salvaging business. To really make those pay you had to either live in the urban jungle or be willing to travel a lot and neither one was appealing as it would take them too far from the farm.

She finally got the door laid back down without dropping the flaming thing and Rocky sat down on a milking stool to rest and think. She still kept several cows. With better refrigeration she didn’t have to ration it the way she had in those early years. And unless the grandkids were over she even managed to have enough to make cheese with. Annie would bring her students out to the orchard during harvest time for a class picnic and the kids were always fascinated at how everything was done “the old fashioned way.” Every year it seemed she’d get at least one smart aleck that would want to know why they were so poor they couldn’t buy stuff at the store “like normal people did.” That’s all the opening Rocky needed and she’d take the kids back to what most everyone called the Twelvers War … a time when terror was more abundant than clean drinking water.

Those years had been lean and hard beyond what most people had the ability to describe; beyond what most of the folks of her generation even wanted to describe much less remember. Even as somewhat insulated as they had been here in the mountains they still felt the terrible toll that the war had taken on the whole country, on the world. The radio was a window open on what was going on that was sometimes difficult to look through. Things were better now … at least in some ways … but the shadows were still there, especially in the bigger cities where they seemed to lay in wait to suck the life force out of the people that had too soon forgotten the lessons of the past; or those that were trying to escape the past only to wind up repeating it.

The cat darted out a gap in the door drawing her attention. The big doors on the barn weren’t new but they weren’t the originals either. They’d been forced to make do and repair the ones that had been battered down that dark day for almost a full year before there was enough wherewithal to fashion new ones. Truth be told the barn was made up of parts from so many different time periods that it was a wonder it still stood at all. The roof was the newest, made out of panels that Stro had leftover from a big construction job on the newest incarnation of the Damascus consolidated school system. They’d finally enrolled enough kids to need to separate the younger ones from the older and Stro’s company had been tapped to do the work.

But none of the primary beams were less than a hundred years old and some of them were so old and dark that they could have passed for something from a petrified forest. She walked over to one beam in particular. There, right there. She ignored it when she could but sometimes it still drew her unwilling eye. You could barely see it these days but that dark streak was where the nearly red hot barrel of the Bushmaster had charcoaled a gouge in the wood.

Rocky bent down and remembered. That night had ended leaving her at a point so far from where she had started that she never did quite make her way all the way back. Oh, she’d acted like she had but in reality something had shattered and she’d never managed to find all the pieces and glue them back together. She had been beyond fear or terror. Beyond anger. Even beyond revenge although that had come back to her eventually.

Rocky closed her eyes and it was all too easy to picture how it had been, to step back in time.

----------------------------------

The air that night had been crisp with a nasty little bite to it. I heard the cruel jibes of the captors, smelled the odor of pain and terror, and the sharp metallic scent of blood.

Johnson stripped and strapped down and for all he’d already endured in torture his eyes rolled in their swollen sockets and I sensed he was feeling the panic only a young man could at what they had promised to do to him. Thor tied to the hitching rail; beaten, tortured, and shorn. No sound came from him. He made absolutely no movement. I lost what hope I had that he still drew breath. They’d cut him viciously and even in the dark I could see the ground beneath him was wet with coagulating blood.

Finally I saw Stro, thrown to the side like a broken toy. His arm bent in a place arms weren’t meant to bend. His back was shredded just like Thor’s. But he hadn’t gone quietly any more than Thor had. His big hands were torn and bloody from what must have truly been a battle. Two of the enemy lay near him their faces unrecognizable masks of gore, a testament to how hard our side had fought. There was no sign of Mr. Dink and I could only pray that my father’s old friend had somehow escaped with Lawson and gone for help.

The three men – my husband and the brothers of my heart – were bent and subjugated; their captors making comments unfit to wipe dog poop off your boots with. The man I had dubbed The Torturer picked up the emasculator from the brazier of red hot coals and started to make his move which was what I took as the signal to make a move of my own.

His head didn’t exactly disintegrate as two bullets from the bushmaster impacted his face but it wasn’t exactly in the same shape it had been the moment before either. His arms flew up and back and he released the tool he’d intended for Johnson. The force subsequently propelled the tool directly into Cliff’s eye. But Cliff wasn’t dead. He shrieked and stumbled around and knocked the brazier over and into one of the other captors that hadn’t quite figure out what was going on. I didn’t give him, or the other men, the chance.

I could have been more controlled but I wasn’t; my shots became a little wild. About all I can claim is that I managed to keep them high enough that none of them hit the bodies of my people. Cliff had finally managed to get the emasculator out of his eye socket but he was still stumbling around screaming when I stepped out of the barn. With his one remaining eye he spotted me and then shrieked like he’d seen a nightmare … and maybe he had.

My steel was starting to leak cold fire from where I kept it tucked and hidden, so much of it in fact it must have shown on my face. Cliff back pedaled and then turned and ran into the woods. The woods I knew as well as I knew my own hands.

“Rocky! Rocky girl!”

I looked and what I saw made me smile … but it was a terrible smile, the smile of a mountain banshee that had sighted the one she was to wail her unspeakable lament to. Mr. Dink though wasn’t as afraid as he should have been. He took the bushmaster gently from me and then placed in my hand Thor’s FN SCAR-IAR battle rifle. I stroked it the way I would have my lover if he’d still been with me. I turned and headed into the forest leaving Mr. Dink to tend to the survivors and greet the cavalry.

I could hear Cliff quietly blundering through the forest trying to escape the predator I had become, maybe had always been. He had once been a good woodsmen; not great, but certainly better than average. Dad had regularly used him as an example to follow and he’d shown a lot of promise; but his skills must have atrophied when he quit our crew. Or maybe my own skills had simply improved beyond what his had ever been. I had no trouble following him.

I should have needed a light in the forest but didn’t because God had provided one for me. The moon shown down turning everything silver and gray. The cold, dry night air aided me as every sound seemed to carry for miles. Every few feet I saw an inky blackness painted on a leaf, a tree trunk, in some lichen. Cliff was bleeding … but then again so was I. I felt the dampness that told me I’d left my own care too long. If Cliff was being drained of his life, so was I. As much as my heart hurt this was no suicide mission for me. I had a daughter that needed me and I intended to be there to raise her. I told myself it was time to end things and tend to the living as much as the dead.

I picked up my pace and tried to ignore the various discomforts in the various places that I was feeling them. Then it came to me. I knew where he was going. A place in some of the oldest of the old growth forest that had been used as a camp site for so many decades there were places in the ground where grass would never grow and smooth indentions in a few of the boulders where buttocks had sat so many times – even before this country was a country – that they were more like chairs than rocks.

Now in addition to sound the wind brought me the smell of campfires, too smoky for good sense or stealth. I slowed down and then turned off the path to a hidden place that Dad and I had used as a hunting stand. It gave me the perfect view of the camp in the hollow below.

I watched Cliff stumble up to a guard and nearly get shot for his troubles. His hysterical tone was so shrill it almost hurt the fillings in my teeth to hear it, even from that distance. I watched as several men came up to him and then one who bore himself with a real competence, a leader among men that they all obviously listened to. The men all parted before the man who was walked like a leader as he approached Cliff and I could see the calming affect he had on them all. I had found my first target.

I took a breath. Aimed. The leader turned and I saw his face; a man of power, of control, one who reminded me for a fleeting moment of Thor when the battle was on. And then I pulled the trigger and the face was obliterated and the sound in the wake of my shot told me Cliff was no longer the only hysterical one.

“Control Hon. That’s what you need the most. You have to turn loose of any idea you have of judging your target. It’s nothing but an unnecessary distraction. Once a person becomes your target the time of judgment is over with and what you are dealing them is fate.” Thor had tried to explain to me every time I asked how he could do what he did for pay and live with himself but it was this last explanation that had stuck with me the most. The time for judging these men was over with. I had already judged them and found them guilty. They had chosen their fate and I was here to deliver it.

My shots were Spartan; there was no need to waste ammo, no need to simply burn the clip off with one pull of the trigger. I didn’t shoot unless I had a good target. The thing was I had a lot of good targets; there were too many men in too small an area. It was quite literally like picking cherries out of a bowl. The men and women would run this way and that but I kept them pinned in. I also gave off enough random shots that it kept them running around in the middle as well. The clearing was only so big and up against a face of pure granite that there was just no place for them to escape to. Maybe that leader hadn’t been as smart as he appeared at first glance.

I sunk to a lower position and then lay prone. They’d finally gotten themselves together enough to start shooting back; however, the idiots shot their own more than they ever came close to shooting me. Through it all I kept my eye on Cliff as he ran to and fro and finally collapsed in a heap.

When the shooting stopped bodies were strewn everywhere below me. Only a very few were left alive to escape. I let them go knowing they wouldn’t escape for long. Someone had the dogs out; they bayed at the moon like hell hounds and I watched the fear kindle in the eyes of those that finally dug up enough courage to run.

Cliff stayed where he was, a pathetic mess. I had almost given up, thinking that maybe he had died from shock, when he lifted his ruined face and shouted as he started to crawl into the shadows, “I know it’s you! I’ll get you for this! I’ll give you to them that want you and then sell that brat of yours to the scientists! It’ll live in a cage for the rest of its unnatural life!! It …”

The battle rifle in my hand barked only once. Just a squeeze, that’s all it took. And Cliff was no more.

I was forced to use the trunk of a hickory nut tree to help me stand. With my part of the battle over with I was dizzy but whether from blood loss or the last of the adrenaline seeping away I couldn’t tell. I don’t really remember that fumbling march back to the farm, all I am sure of is that it took a lot longer to get back than it had to hunt Cliff down. After the gun cooled down I was able to sling it over my shoulders but that meant I was without a crutch.

I stumbled from tree to tree, from boulder to boulder. A brief wade through a cold stream woke me up enough that I realized I needed to adjust my course and then finally I was within sight of the homestead. There was a cacophony of sound rolling towards me but I was hearing it through ears suffering in the aftermath of heavy rifle fire.

I was spent but unreasonably I felt like roaring with laughter at the irony at realizing my milk had started to come in. My chest was straining at the buttons of the gown I had never changed out of. When I realized the yard was full of strange people there was no way I was going to go out amongst them. I wasn’t fit to be seen and I really had not interest in making even more of a spectacle of myself than I already had. And if any of them were my friends the stains on the gown and the rest of me would give them cardiac arrest.

Through the rows of corn, behind the wagon, and then as I tried to cut through the horses that seemed to be milling everywhere they shouldn’t be I heard the baying of a hound. It wasn’t loud. It was pretty pathetic actually. But the roar that followed the bay wasn’t. I told myself I couldn’t be hearing what I thought I was hearing.

--------------------------

“Ro-chelle … you having a staring contest with that post or what?” I was yanked back to the present with such ferocity I nearly fell over.

“Thor! What are you doing out of your bed?! You know what the doctor said.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said and I could hear the wheeze beneath his words. “No one knew where you were at. Wound up having to get Brunhilda to find you.”

I put my hands on my hips, more ample than they used to be despite a still very active life, and told him, “That dog’s name is Daisy, not Brunhilda.”

“She doesn’t answer to Daisy,” he said with a wicked twinkle still bright despite the passing of the years.

Getting irritated at his refusal to go back in the house despite me trying to turn him that direction, “That’s because you’ve confused her. Whoever heard of a hound being called Brunhilda? Honestly you and your strange starts.” To the dog I said, “Yes, you found me you great big goof. Now if you could find the rabbits that keep getting into my cabbage you’d have something to be proud of.”

Thor wrapped his arms around me and I let him for all that the grandkids would probably start making their silly gagging noises and run off and tell their parents that Ra Ra and Grandpa were doing it again. But as he did so I noticed his arms were thinner, too thin no matter if he’d finally put some weight back on since they’d let me bring him home from the hospital in Abingdon. He saw me noticing and said, “I’m fine. Give me a little bit more time and your good cooking …”

I was in no mood for play. “I nearly lost you. Again.”

“Maybe. But since it didn’t turn out that way though, maybe not. Looks like God isn’t quite through with me yet.” We leaned into each other, thanking God yet again neither one of us had been forced to learn what it was going to be like to live without the other. We knew that time was coming, given our age perhaps sooner rather than later, but that time hadn’t come yet and I was praising and thanking Him for it. “Now you going to tell me what’s got you looking like you do?” Thor asked with a hint of concern in his voice.

I thought about lying but I still couldn’t pull it off with a straight face even after nearly four decades of marriage. “I got tired of the kids pestering the daylights out of me to write down the family history. I’d gotten so far … I just seemed to get stuck and couldn’t get passed …”

I shrugged and that was all. I didn’t even have to finish explaining. That night was one neither of us has ever been able to talk about often or with equanimity. It took both of us months to heal up from our ordeal. Thor still limps if his foot gets too cold for too long. While my constitution was sorely tested I suffered no permanent damage though it took much longer than it should have for me to fully recover from the birth of our first child. I got a cold that came and went that whole winter but was blessed that it never went into my lungs.

We named our baby Anna Joy though for the most part she went by Annie or Anne. She was tall, actually ending up an inch taller than me, but where as I grew up thick and muscular she was willowy taking after Thor’s side of the family. There was a little over two years between Anna Joy and her brother Erik. Erik grew to be a carbon copy of his father in nearly every way including his wanderlust as a young man. He did settle down, he just didn’t do it early like the rest of his siblings. After Erik came Evans then Ethan and then Everley all in quick succession. Those four boys were holy terrors and I loved every minute of it. Thor and Annie would sit and watch us and just shake their heads while I rough housed with the four boys. Stro and I took great delight in teaching them to play football.

After Everley we lost a couple and we thought there wouldn’t be any more but once God surprised us with Dovie it seemed to pave the way for Lydie, Corder, Brooks, and Malissa. We were for sure that Malissa was the last. I’d had so much trouble with that pregnancy towards the end that it didn’t surprise us when three years passed with not so much as a nibble.

Then I got a chest cold that turned into pneumonia. The war was over with but things were still very hard to come by, especially antibiotics and professional medical care. I was over six months along before we realized that one of the reasons it was taking me so long to get my health back was because I was going to have a baby. I fought and cried and really cut up a fuss but in the end I didn’t have any choice but to be admitted to the hospital.

It caused a stir and a bunch of the old stuff was brought up when my identity was leaked by a self serving orderly looking to make a buck. The results of the tests I went through also caused me palpitations. Someone … several someones … from the government showed up and tried to talk Thor and I into being some kind of spokespeople for the anti-environmental movement that was a popular fad at the time but there was no way I was having anything to do with it.

The stress of it all put me into labor early which strangely enough turned out to be a blessing, one that may have saved my life; one or both of the twins, and possibly me, would have died in the trying. I was pretty blasted for over a week, nearing meltdown stage. I’d had to endure the Roman cut and all had agreed that it was simply safer for me to have my tubes tied at the same time. I was at peace with the decision, it was everything else that was turning my brain inside out. I had thought all of the GWB stuff was behind me, behind the family. I had been wrong.

When they were born the little girl weighed almost thirteen pounds even though she was over a month premature. The little boy was half a pound smaller but half an inch longer. I suppose it doesn’t speak well of me but I just couldn’t get my head around things. The doctors wanted Thor to leave the twins and I in the hospital indefinitely but I begged him to get us out of there. Thor called on some old friends and we were whisked home and I didn’t leave the property for months, afraid that history was going to repeat itself.

Slowly the night terrors and dreams stopped and I could appreciate what Thor had chosen to name the babies when I wasn’t in any shape to do much more than gibber. The girl he named Rochelle though we call her ‘Chelle, and the boy he named Jonathon.

We weren’t the only ones left with lasting effects from that night. Stro was left with some heavy scaring including some in his left ear canal that caused some loss of hearing. When his business became successful he had something done about it letting us know that it had always bothered him more than he had ever let on. He and Tina remained married though several rough patches; it seemed to take them a few years before they were truly and completely easy in each other’s company. They had a houseful of big noisy boys, best friends of our older boys, and Tina finally laughed one day and told me that it used to be that she didn’t know how to cope with all of the noise and ruckus but that now she didn’t know what to do without it.

Lawson, who brought the cavalry … literally since it had been a military convoy he’d run into first … turned serious and enlisted. He lost half a foot in the war and was sent home where he went to work for Stro, eventually meeting a girl that he settled down with. We see them at church nearly every week.

Jimmy Ray seemed to be the least traumatized of the group. He just got up, went home to Gloria, and carried on with his life as if nothing had ever happened. They had four stair steps and then out of the blue, the war was brought home to all of us. Gloria was still acting as an intermediary between the military and our local militia. Somehow she was exposed to a biological weapon. Our entire area received mass inoculations and tight quarantining, stopping the TB in its tracks but for Gloria it was too late. Jimmy Ray nursed her to the horrible end. And when she passed she seemed to take a good chunk of the old Jimmy Ray with her. He saw his children raised, grew his business, and then one day his youngest heard all of the dogs howling. She ran out and found Jimmy Ray; he’d had some kind of stroke or aneurism, we never did find out which. Two of his kids continued the dog breeding and training business their father had built and those animals are some of the most prized on the market for search and rescue workers.

If Jimmy Ray was the least affected, Johnson was the most. He suffered from nightmares and night sweats for months afterwards. He tried to build a normal life but he could never quite pull it off. The girl he married gave him two children, a boy and a girl, but no matter how he tried he couldn’t ever quite find peace. Two years after Lawson enlisted Johnson left to do the same. He never came home. Sandford, at his brother’s memorial said, “Sometimes you fight the good fight and die quickly anyway. There’s no shame in it and such people are often called heroes. But I think it’s just as true to call those men heroes that die slowly, bits at a time, from battles long forgotten by everyone else. They get up every day and try. They never completely surrender even though it would be so much easier to do so. They fight the same war every day, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Which one of us can say that we could be so strong even knowing that eventually the scars that no one can see may kill us one day anyway?”

Sand and Tina only had their one child. For whatever reason Tina never could get pregnant again but they raised Johnson’s two as if they were their own when their mother, too young to deal with a husband that was so damaged that he’d all but abandoned her, had left to start a new job in Richmond. She had promised to come back but never had and eventually stopped leaving forwarding addresses.

Mr. Hefling is still around. Watching Johnson fight his demons revealed something to him. I’m not sure what it was but he met a young woman and then married her. She had two children by her first husband who had died in the early days of the Green terrorist attacks then she and Mr. Hefling had a child together. I thought Stro and Thor were going to give themselves hernias at the look on Mr. Hefling’s face as he tried to explain that he was going to be a father again after he’d already become a grandfather.

Granny C passed away in her sleep right before Everley was born. It was a blessing. Her arthritis had crippled her up so badly that even breathing had become a misery by the end. I’ve never spoken of it but I saw a cup of tea by her bedside that Miz Louise had given her. The leaves I had seen steeping had been from an herb known for its strong narcotic affect. Or maybe it hadn’t been Miz Louise but Granny herself; her mind had still been sharp for all it was locked up in a body wracked with pain. She would have known what she was doing. I’ll let God sort that one out.

Miz Louise and Mr. Dink outlived Granny by nearly five years though we finally convinced them to move into the cabin near the house. They died within a week of each other and it was like the end of an age for those of us that had grown up knowing them.

All through the years Thor and I have had our ups and downs, but praise God mostly ups. His recent illness scared me badly. We still don’t know where he picked it up at but I suspect it was on the trip to Kentucky. I was still fat with Erik when out of the blue a young man rides up and shouts a halloooo at our gate. I don’t know which of us was more stunned, him seeing me pregnant or me realizing I was looking at David Chuckri.

“Dad! Dad!!”

Thor had just come from the barn and started running towards me when he saw I was in distress, “Is it the baby?”

“No … I mean I don’t think … Thor, I’m … I’m losing my mind. I could swear I just saw …”

At that time several riders thundered down the road, Sand leading the way in front of familiar faces I hadn’t thought to ever see again. That night was amazing. The whole crew was reunited except for Evans. The men were on a trading expedition and had taken the chance following up a lead they’d heard through the military grapevine, had gotten turned around and then run into Sand and the rest as they say is history.

We still see them occasionally though we write much more often; David even came to live with us for a season before returning home a little older and wiser than he had arrived. Ludvig is now the patriarch of the family. The Chuckri’s are one of the larger land holders where they are but it hasn’t been easy. During the Twelver War many people suspected them of being spies just because of their complexion. When the old crew started helping the military things eased up but the occasional flare up still happens. Just like us they’ve seen sadness and tragedy but Uncle Bedros taught them well and they haven’t let any of it break them.

So many things have happened over the years of our lives that I’ll probably be the rest of mine trying to record it. I keep searching for some great bit of wisdom that I can impart to the kids so that they won’t make the mistakes we have but really, none of it is original. All the good wisdom comes from the Good Book. But if I did have to come up with something I would say to live life regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in. Search for the light in the dark. And sometimes there are fights worth fighting.

And now I am putting down this pen for a while. Thor is going to be asking for his dinner before I know it and I still have that cake to frost. Think I’ll split it and add a layer of filling of apple butter to it; the boys have always been partial to my apple butter. Maybe after dinner I’ll see if any of the boys want to toss the football around before the bugs come out. After all I may be getting older but I’ve still got a few plays left in me. And after we get all the young uns to sleep tonight I think I’ll take some time and remind Thor of that too.


THE END

Chapter 96

Chapter 96

I was trying to remember why the name Cliff should bother me when I heard breaking glass and a loud crash that happened near simultaneously followed immediately by a baby’s wail. Now that woke me up and then some. In that same second I felt Thor picking me up and running with me down the stairs to the basement.

“Wait!”

“Can’t Hon.” Turning to Lawson and Johnson – better known as the ones who had tried to destroy the stairwell with their big booted feet – Thor said, “Grab the ladies. Ms. Hefling you’ve got the baby. We’ve got a raiding party and they shot out the window and I expect them to continue to behave in similar fashion.” Paying attention to me again as I struggled weakly in the quilt that was hampering my movement he added, “Now I want you to listen to me and I don’t want any discussion. Take care of the baby and yourself. Ms. Louis and Ms. Hefling are here too and I expect you to mind them. No matter what, I love you. Remember that.”

I nearly slapped him but he ran off before I could untangle myself enough to get him. He left me hanging on words that sounded like he wasn’t sure he’d be coming back. As I finally managed to sit up I nearly shrieked. My body reminded me in a sharp and painful way that I was some tore up in a place that God only built women with.

“Rocky Charbonneau! Girl get some sense in that head of yours. Louise had to sew you up and you’re foolishness is going to tear you open again!”

Miz Louise added in a calmer and less irritable voice, though one still distressed, “Rocky, you had a second degree tear. You are inviting more damage and worse – infection - if you don’t calm down.”

Gasping I told them both, “I am calm but I need to be able to …”

Granny C said, “You don’t got to be able to do nothing but be still girl. Right now. Or did you fergit you done had a baby?!”

Miz Louise put said baby in my arms and I was stuck between having the driving need to go to Thor and the driving need to nurse the squirming scrap of humanity that I had birthed only a few hours earlier. As in most households, the baby won.

Nursing was both pain and pleasure; it calmed me as no words could have but at the same time it proved to me that I was in no physical shape to fight. I also seemed to have developed the disturbing new habit of crying at everything and nothing. I could vaguely hear the “pops” of weapons fire as well as the occasional crash. I alternated between an almost hysterical need to know what was going on and a fierce drive to protect the baby at all costs … including what it was costing my pride and spirit to stay hidden like a helpless child. I was physically ill with the conflicts raging inside of my body and soul. Miz Louise made soothing sounds and told me it was just normal baby blues as our current stress level warred with my hormones.

Normal was something I had completely lost touch with even if I had ever had it and “baby blues” left me clueless. All I knew is I hurt in places – both physical and mental – that I was not used to hurting in and that figuring out what to do about it was just about beyond my ability at that point.

The door to the basement opened and closed quickly letting Mr. Dink into the room. Miz Louise immediately ran to him and I was still dealing with the strange and world upending picture of the two of them cuddling when Granny C yelped, “Stop yer honeymooning. Adolphus, what is happening out there?!”

Mr. Dink and Granny C had a bit of a spicy friendship; she was the only female I’d ever heard him really lip off to but Dad had told me they were some kind of cousins and it wasn’t really meanness between them but over familiarity … whatever that meant. “Oh, loosen yer girdle. It ain’t pretty but tisn’t near as bad as it twere.”

“And?” asked Granny C in impatience. “My boys are up there and …”

“Well, if you’d draw a breath between complaints and questions and you might get an answer sooner rather than later.” Granny C clamped her lips together in a comically exaggerated way but she still shot daggers with her eyes.

Miz Louise rolled her eyes and flapped her apron. “Behave. Both of you. You’ll upset Rocky and the baby.”

They both looked slightly embarrassed the way older folks can look when you’ve caught them acting like kids. “Well …” Mr. Dink started. “There’s a break in the fighting at the moment. Them raiders are trying to regroup and Thor’s stepped out to make sure they don’t. The boys are all fine, even that crazy one Jimmy Ray. He has the dog and most of the animals down in the tunnels and didn’t that surprise ‘em.”

That made me yelp, “Thor showed them the tunnels?!”

“Easy there. Tweren’t much choice, the bullets were flying. As it is ya lost two hens. I cleaned ‘em and have ‘em in a stew pot. Thought p’raps you wimmen could get a fire going down here and maybe stew us up some food. No sense in letting the meat go to waste and them boys are spending a lot of energy running around.”

“Is anyone hurt?” I asked before the other two “wimmen” could.

“Oh, we’ve all got our cuts and scrapes but nothing serious so far. And the enemy is some worse off. What they don’t know is that Sand has got a group coming and they’re going to catch the raiders betwixt and between. Hear tell on that radio box that a buncha the locals have done turned the air blue over the Dunkirk boy bringing this trouble in. His step daddy is heart broke but has told ever’one they must do what needs doing and he’s comforting the boy’s mother til then. I ‘magine she lost that boy a long time ago but is just now finding it out for sure.”

I was shaken and shaking. Mr. Dink tried to go back up the stairs but I stopped him with one last question. “What’s the damage so far?”

He looked uncomfortable which didn’t help me any but then he sighed and said, “It ain’t as bad as it could be Rocky girl … but some of yore garden was tore up out of meanness. They’ve knocked down a bunch o’ the corn but I think it is still salvageable if we don’t get rain. They tried to burn down the barn and silo but that Jimmy Ray was able to put it out before it did too much damage … but you got an open corner and one of the mules was injured, but not so bad it needs to be put down.”

“The house?” I asked remembering the crashes I’d heard.

“We’ll get ya some glass and you can hang pictures over the holes if we can’t find no plaster. Now stop yer worrying, like I said it could be worse. You just settle down, you don’t look so good. Ya ain’t got no roses in yer cheeks.” And with that he did leave.

Roses in my cheeks. Bah! I needed a gun in my hand. Or a pitchfork. Or an axe. Anything that would hurt them like they were hurting us. But all God seemed to have left me were my prayers. I leaned back and the tears continued to stream down my face no matter how many times I tried to scrub them away. I knew what Thor was doing. You don’t light a fire with a whole log, you whittle it down to kindling first. My problem lay in that I’d never been forced to sit back out of a fight. The entire way I viewed myself was taking a beating. People always wonder if they are strong enough to fight; rarely though have I ever heard anyone mention that sometimes you have to be just as strong to know now to handle that you can’t fight. It is a real ego beater.

While I lay there in a daze Mr. Dink brought the chickens down and also left a bundle that turned out to be stuff for the baby. Good thing too because baby had figured out how to poop though she was still too young for it to stink. I was not unfamiliar with how to take care of babies as I’d helped in the hospital as a volunteer. I stayed hidden from the others and since it was usually in a specialty ward of some type … babies born with an addiction to match the ones their mothers had at their birth, babies born with deformities that kept them out of the “normal” baby ward, sick babies, abandoned babies … not too many “normals” cared. Human beings can be cruel even when they don’t mean to be.

I took care of the baby, fed her when she wanted it, did what I could to help the older ladies make the chicken into something besides a boiled mess, and then waited … and waited. I wanted Thor. I wanted to hear his voice, see his face, make sure that he was OK. Hear him tell me things were OK and that I was worrying for nothing. I wanted to go upstairs and do my part in shooting the bad guys; this was my home too.

But there was no going up stairs; at that moment I could not have climbed them on my own and certainly no one would help me. Thor didn’t come and I thought it was unlike him to not at least stick his head in to put my worries to rest. He didn’t come to check on his baby daughter either which sounded like him even less as he’d seemed already strangely attached even before she’d popped her way into this world. It always made me laugh to see this great giant of a man talking to my stomach in goofy baby sounds. I began to wonder if I’d ever laugh again. And then worse, after what sounded like a major battle over our heads no one came to check on us at all and the quiet that followed sounded far from healthy.

The older ladies wouldn’t let me go check. They wouldn’t go check either claiming it to be their duty to obey Thor’s orders and to protect the baby and keep me from taking any rash actions. I fed the baby once more and then the night seemed to trickle down into the basement as it must have by that point upstairs. The older ladies were exhausted and slid into a deep but troubled slumber.

Something was calling me to act. I knew with a certainty that I was going to catch heck from Thor but at the same time I had to act. Something was screaming at me, from outside of me; not literally but it was not a still quiet voice calling me either. There was purpose in that voice that gave me strength I shouldn’t have had. Seeing the ladies asleep and noting that the solar powered lamps would soon be out of juice I slowly and carefully made my way over to the exercise equipment.

One of the things that Thor and I had done was to secret weapons throughout the house. Since we didn’t exactly have a limitless supply of weapons and ammo by the time we got to the basement our choices had narrowed. If I had been in most any other room I could have put my hands on a semi-automatic pistol or some type of rifle or shotgun; down here we had been forced to resort to Dad’s antique gun collection. In this case it was an old 1920’s Mossberg Brownie pepperbox. It took .22lr’s which was a plus as far as ammo went but the four barrels of the hand-sized gun made it look passing strange, like something out of one of those old Dick Tracy or James Bond movies.

Beggars can’t be choosers however and I was ecstatic that the ladies hadn’t located it and put it out of my reach as they had the rifle that Mr. Dink had left us for security. Granny C knew me too well and was practically sleeping with the blasted thing and I wasn’t going to go over there and wrestle her for it. In my condition she might well have won and I’d rather not have to live with being beaten by a woman who was close in age to my own grandmothers.

I took the pepperbox over to my baby and looked down. Seeing that sweet little face I almost changed my mind, like a temptation that was almost too much to bear. I kissed her and did my best to stand back up straight. It felt quite literally like my insides wanted to fall out, something Miz Louise was said was a result of things trying to go back to where they belonged. I took two steps and realized I’d need to take care of some pressing personal hygiene before I went anywhere. This left me mentally growling about the physical realities of being a female.

Eventually everything was as taken care of as I could manage for the moment and I was finally able to do what I’d started out to do. The ladies and the baby were all still slumbering. I eased up the stairs one at a time while parts of my anatomy called me every kind of fool in the book. By the time I got to the landing I was almost sick and had to stand there while I mentally forced myself to get beyond the pain.

Steeling myself I carefully opened the hidey hole in the door and peered out and saw … nothing. I should have seen something even if it was just shadows but I saw nothing which isn’t what I should have been seeing. My dad had positioned this door and the peep hole so that it would have a very wide view of the kitchen and the side door. The nothing I was seeing that I shouldn’t have been seeing was wrong.

I realized with a start that my brain was misfiring and getting stuck so I stopped, took a deep breath and looked at that nothing again. And then I realized that I wasn’t seeing nothing, I was seeing the back of a something. Which was still wrong but at least it was less wrong. Something was in front of the door, or at least in front of the peep hole.

Thankfully the door opened towards me. I carefully opened the door and saw the back of the something. It was a big something and then I realized the something was my moveable pantry cabinet. It didn’t exactly move easily which made me stop and think again. And then I remembered Thor complaining after I had it move it for the umpteenth time that the only thing it was truly good for was for hiding whatever was behind it.

So, Thor … or possibly Stro … had moved the cabinet in front of the door. And left it there. To block us in … block me in. I asked myself if they trusted me so little but that didn’t fit what I knew … that was just the hormones talking … I hoped. Besides Thor knew I would be able to get out through the tunnels and it was possible that the other guys knew as well since they now new about the tunnels … or maybe some of the tunnels or ... Boy was my brain fried. I nearly had another crying fit. What bit of good was I going to do in my condition? I was physically weak and unfit for combat. My tear ducts were stuck in the on position. And the one thing that I’d always counted on to help me stay above all of the trials and tribulations I faced … my brain … was taking an unexpected vacation to hormonal land.

Suddenly I heard a sound on the other side of the cabinet and then a groan. An emotionless voice asked, “He talked yet?”

“Nope. Looks like we’re going to have to take him outside for the promised gelding,” replied a man who sounded like he was enjoying the situation more than a sane man should.

“Do it.”

Something kicked in. I asked the Lord for strength and wisdom and then backtracked down the stairs and over to Granny C who I shook awake as gently as I could to keep her from making any noise.

“Girl! You scared me.”

“Granny, there’s no time. Something has gone wrong. Bad wrong. Someone has hidden the door down to the basement and I heard … look, I need you to look after the baby. I’ve got to go …”

“Oh no you don’t girl. You just had a baby!”

“Shh! Granny, I don’t need you to tell me how unfit I am. I need you to just do what I’ve asked you to do. And I need that rifle.”

Granny didn’t give me the rifle … Miz Louise did. She just looked at me and the look on her face reminded me of Mr. Dink when he was at his strangest and I realized they were even more suited to each other than I had realized. When Granny C started to complain Miz Louise put her hand on her arm and I don’t know what passed between them but I was able to leave with no more fussing. I wanted to stop by the bassinet where I had laid my child but I knew if I did I might not have the will to leave her and go do what needed doing.

I managed to get into the tunnel and then shut the door. It was dark and I fumbled for the flashlight that should have hung on a hook within easy reach … only it wasn’t there. Something brushed my leg and I nearly screamed then I realized it was the cats. I slowly bent over to touch them and they were sticky damp. As I stepped forward my foot brushed something and it turned out to be the flashlight. How it had wound up there on the floor I didn’t know.

Then turned the light on and I look at the cats and nearly screamed again. Their normally white paws were rust colored. Then I saw Lady. She lay on her side. She was breathing but injured and dazed. She hadn’t growled at me since I had first found her but she did at that moment and I realized she was wrapped up with some bandaging. The professional look of it told me it was done by Jimmy Ray. From the marks on the floor she must have dragged herself this far and then collapsed. I would cry later and fuss over her if she made it.

The cats followed me and seemed to guide me down the tunnel to the barn. I was becoming detached mentally. The closer I got the worse the smell. The animals were lined up in the alcoves, all of them scared and quiet, even the rooster who barely took the time to hiss at me as I passed by. Jimmy Ray had used whatever was at hand to pen them in. And then I saw him. He looked like he’d just rolled down the ramp.

“Jimmy Ray?” I asked bending down the best I could, almost afraid to turn him over. He’d been pounded pretty heavily and there was a bullet wound in his left arm and another wound of some type on his right calf. “Don’t you dare be dead,” I whispered.

A ghostly voice muttered, “Hurt too bad to be dead.”

I was relieved beyond words to express it. “What’s happened?”

“Group was bigger than they first looked,” he told me in a breathy voice. “Us, then the first group, then Sand’s group … thought we had them dead to rights. Then another group came in behind Sand’s group. Worst mash up you’d even want to see. They over ran the farm. Oh God Rocky, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault … wait … what are you sorry for?” I had to know but at the same time I didn’t want to.

“Thor … they … they got him. They caught Stro and then started torturing him, trying to get the rest of us to come out of hiding. O’ course Johnson and Lawson … they buckled. They tried to rescue Stro … right in the middle of Thor making his move. Everything was mucked up. They threatened to kill all three if Thor didn’t come out. He did … but he’d already been hit a couple of times. Thor came out shooting and Lawson got away in all the craziness. They still took Thor down. Then Lawson, Mr. Dink, and I hooked up. I’d already hurt my leg so I sent Lawson to go get us some help as the fight had moved on further away. As I was covering him I got hit in the arm. Lost some blood. Mr. Dink disappeared into the night, don’t know where he is. Those men … they’re wanting to … to know …” I could tell he didn’t want to tell me, to explain the worst of it.

In a dead voice I asked, “What do they want Jimmy Ray?”

“You. Seems like you … you got a price on yer head. Some folks want you real bad for some reason. Think you can identify them or something to the authorities.”

“There aren’t any authorities.”

“Yeah, yeah there are … Gloria has been telling me what she finds out. I’ve been passing it to Thor. Hasn’t he been telling you?”

“No. I can imagine why though and I won’t hold it against him.”

“But … Rocky … They got him Rocky. I saw it all and couldn’t … I tried but … I got a couple but my vision keeps … it gets dark … I’m the only one left but I have to … it’s … it’s my duty …” But Jimmy Ray wasn’t doing anything. He’d collapsed again. I arranged him carefully and told the cats to leave him alone. Then I eased up to the trap door in the floor of the barn. All was dark inside and I crawled out. Not an animal or insect was making noise. It was like they sensed the embodiment of Death itself was walking the Earth, searching for even their small life forces to snuff out.

I was heaving by the time I had gotten all the way out. I crawled my way over to the barn door. It was torn half off of its hinges and the bar was splintered on the ground beside it. A tree trunk lay on the ground in front of the barn and I realized it had been used like a battering ram.

I nearly puked from my own pain and from the fear and disgust that rose up in me at what I saw. They had Johnson all trussed up for gelding. The tools of that trade were all lined up and a man stood there taking his time and milking the terror that was so thick in the air you could smell it.

Then I saw Cliff. He stood off to the side and the look on his familiar face truly did sicken me. It was a toss up to what he was feeling more … terror or glee. He said, “C’mon, you can stop this man. Tell them what they want to know. That’s all you got to do. They’ll stop the hurting. Trust me, I know.” But no matter what the words were coming out of Cliff’s mouth he couldn’t hide his unnatural anticipation.

Then by the firelight I saw a man tied to the hitching rail. His arms were stretched out on either side of him so tightly his chest was stuck to the cross beam. He was unconscious, his shirt torn from his bloody back. One boot and sock off show a bloody foot. His legs were collapsed but unable to fully sink into any kind of comfortable position due to the height of the rail and the man’s great stature. They’d sheared his unruly long hair off in a haphazard fashion making him look like an inexpertly shorn ram.

I went cold, so cold it didn’t feel like I’d ever warm back up again. Then before I even realized I’d gone looking for it I found it, that place inside me that was made of hot fired steel. The one that God let grow there for a purpose I’d never fully understood … but I was beginning to. It took the world coming to a screeching halt but I was finally beginning to.

I really tried not to hate folks. It’s not like I was still the innocent I had been that night in San Francisco. I’d done my share of killing over the last year and more. I’d hurt people and meant to. Even been disappointed a few times when those I’d hurt hadn’t hurt long enough before they’d left this world. Passed judgment and taken revenge when that was God’s job. I’d managed up to this point, or at least I thought I had, to keep that under control, to temper it with the compassion that God calls for all of us to give others, even our enemies. But the only compassion I was able to find for Cliff was the desire to release him from this life that had twisted him so badly. Whatever came afterwards for him was not my problem, nor my business. For the other men standing around I felt nothing, not one blessed thing. It was like they were nothing but gossamer shadows that I intended to rend out of my way.

The rifle I held in my hands was something that Thor had called a prototype of a new type of Bushmaster ACR. He never would tell me exactly where he’d picked it up but it had been one that he’d had in his stuff outside of Clarksville. I’d shot it a few times. It was a mean, nasty, powerful semi-automatic weapon and it suited my mood to a tee.

Chapter 95

Chapter 95

I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or throw a hissy fit. I must have wasted a good five or ten minutes just standing there leaning on the mantel asking the Good Lord above what I could possibly have done to have such wretched luck in my life. Then I reversed course and realized that God had blessed the heck out of me and every once in a while you simply had to walk through the fire to get to the next blessing so you’d appreciate it as you should. Being alone when I went into labor wasn’t the end of the world I told myself, but it still smoked fresh cow patties.

I finally opened my eyes and told Lady, “Well, since it isn’t like I have much choice I might as well get to it.”

Where babies and having them are concerned there is just no getting around the gross factor. Both Miz Louise and Granny C had told me living in fantasy land was just plain foolish and solved nothing. There was going to be a mess of bodily fluids of one sort or another to take care of so it was necessary to be prepared for them. I already had a hearth rug to wash; minimizing the rest of the mess I knew was coming was my top priority. Last thing I wanted to have to do was have the baby and five minutes later have to do a load of wash just so I could rest comfortable.

Lucky for me the hearth rug had a thick backing that had kept the wooden floor beneath it from getting wet. I picked it up and took it to the hallway bathroom and hung it over the shower rod. It didn’t smell as bad as wet dog but it didn’t smell fresh as daisies either so I sprayed it with a little disinfectant to keep it from souring before I could get around to cleaning it properly. I changed into a short, loose, cotton gown as well as an old scraggy robe that I belted for a little modesty. I also grabbed the pads and other birthing supplies recommended by the older ladies from the closet where we had stored them and started setting up my old twin bed for the inevitable. Sure, it might have been more traditional to have the baby in the master bedroom but traditional isn’t always practical. If I ruined a mattress I figured it was better that it be a spare one. The twin also was easier to find extra sheets and padding for; and most importantly for me at that moment was that it was easier for me to get in and out of in my condition.

I started a fire in the Franklin stove and set a couple of pots of water to warm. I was fighting nausea worse than I had that morning so I added a bucket and lid and then sat in the rocking chair we had moved in there and which I had also covered with an old quilt and more padding.

I looked around at the room reasonably satisfied. All of the nursery stuff was fixed up thanks to Thor’s patience though we both nearly threw the crib out of the window before we found the old and faded direction for putting it together.

I remember Thor asking, “What in the world? This thing looks more like a cage than a crib.”

Looking at what had been my bed for the first two years of my life I explained, “A regular crib didn’t work with me. I was too big and too strong. I tore two regular cribs up before one of the doctors snuck a hospital crib to my parents.”

“You tore up two cribs?” Thor asked disbelievingly.

“Yep. I could kick the bars out with no problem before I took my first steps. According to Dad I did it because I didn’t like being left out of things and when I was awake I had to be kept an eye on or I got into all sorts of trouble.”

It took me a long time to learn to walk but once I did I drove my parents crazy. They took turns with Mom taking the brunt of it when Dad had to drive the tractor or other farm equipment that I was too little to hold onto while it moved. She kept me safe and always knew just what to say to distract me from the pain that was nearly my constant companion when I was little. A tear rolled down my face. Suddenly I wanted my mom so bad I couldn’t hold it in.

It was two labor pains before I could pull myself back together. There’s no use crying over what you can’t have but I swore I was going to give Thor a little what for if the baby came before he got home. I also decided there was absolutely no way I was going to sit around feeling scared and sorry for myself. Canning was out since I was too worried about lighting the oven up and having a batch going so instead I decided to prep some apples for the cider press.

The stairs were no fun but once I reached the kitchen I was happy to have the distraction after being swamped by another pain that felt like someone was trying to play my spine like an accordion. I attached the apple peeler to the table and grabbed two five-gallon buckets. The peel would fall into the first one. In the second bucket I made a wet solution to prevent the apples from browning from oxidation.

I actually made it through two bushels of apples before I admitted that I was slightly demented. It was no fun cleaning up the kitchen but it was a lot more fun than climbing the stairs while it felt like Junior was banging on the door to be let out with a war hammer. That thought gave me the giggles. I looked at Lady who was following me everywhere as usual and said, “Appropriate don’t ya think?” The dog in turn gave me a look that told me she thought her human was losing it. I pretty much agreed with her. I sat on the top stair and laughed, cried, and groaned all at the same time.

It went that way all night. I did try twice to call on the radio but being able to transmit is only good when someone is on the other end to receive. No one was monitoring at the Heflings or in town and I wasn’t just going to cry out for help to complete strangers.

The pain increased and then ebbed several times until about four in the morning when it was like it changed. Lord have mercy I thought my insides were going to change places with my outsides, but after that a true rhythm began to set in to my labor. I tried to keep hydrated but if I drank anything I wound up spewing it back up when I was in the middle of a bad contraction. Having a contraction and throwing up at the time was too much like torture so I tried a different strategy. I washed my face and slathered my lips with thinned down honey to keep them from splitting open from dryness. I had the shakes pretty bad and I cried a few times wanting Thor home immediately.

I was out of water and I knew that I needed more or I was going to get dehydrated. I crawled down the stairs; there was no way I was able to walk down them. I was in the floor in the kitchen trying to not scream when Lady howled. I knew that call and added my voice to hers. “Thor!!”

No longer was the person at the door quiet. The lock turned and then practically flew off its hinges as it slammed into the wall.

“Rochelle!!” He rushed over and knelt beside me, “What’s wrong?! The baby? Is it the baby?!!”

I turned to him and if looks had physical weight he would have been crushed. I grabbed him by the collar and jerked myself up into his face and growled, “You … are … so … lucky. Had you missed this you have no idea how … upset … I would have been.” My voice sounded like ground up broken glass and the look on Thor’s face would have been priceless had I been in the mood to appreciate it.

“Uh …”

Then I heard another voice. “Lawson, Johnson run and get Miz Louise. Carry her if you have to but get her here now! Jimmy Ray can you do something with Lady? I don’t think Miz Louise is gonna appreciate a dog in the middle of the delivery. Thor … Yo, Thor!”

“Uh …”

“Man,” Stro chuckled. “Seriously Dude, you need to get her up off the floor and take her upstairs. And don’t look at me for help. Janie sprained my shoulder when she was in labor, I don’t even want to know what Rocky can do.”

I looked at him and he actually ducked and jumped back out of the door. That made Thor laugh and come back to himself. “That’s my Ro-chelle.”

I looked at him and told him, “Seriously? Do you have a death wish? Now is not the time to irritate me.”

“Nope, no death wish. Ro …” He gasped and held me as another pain took me over. I was gasping and panting like I’d been on the bottom of a major dog pile with no pads or helmet and barely registered that he picked me up and rushed up the stairs with me but as soon as he tried to put me down in our bed I redirected him to my old bedroom.

“How long have you been in labor?” he asked as he grabbed a cloth and started wiping my face.

“Yesterday, after you left. It just sort of happened.”

From out in the hall Stro asked, “She OK? Need anything?”

Another pain started to roll over me and I snarked, “Oh no, everything is just hunky dory … you doofus! I hope Tina beats you regular. Now go away and leave me some dignity.”

“Thor?” Stro asked like he hadn’t heard me.

“Eh …” Then after looking around he got up and grabbed one of the empty pots. “Here, get some water from the barrel in the kitchen. It has already been boiled and treated.”

I heard them whispering in the hallway. “I’m not dying you dopes,” I called out. “I know what is gonna happen. I’ve delivered enough farm animals that I’m not surprised here but … oh, oh, oh, oh …” I had to stop and breathe through another pain. “Just go away Stro and keep the boys out. If I’m gonna to lose my religion I’d rather not have anyone else hear it and hold it over my head for the next couple of generations.”

“Sure thing Rocky. And we’ll get the chores done. You just focus on doing what you gotta do.”

Suddenly the quiet left when Stro went downstairs started to feel poisonous. “Distract me.”

“Huh?” Thor asked like he was still trying to figure out what was going on.

“Dee … stract … me.”

“Don’t you need to concentrate or something?”

I looked him dead in the eyes and asked, “If you were trying to pass a large kidney stone with no pain killers would you want to be distracted?”

“Oh. Gotcha. What do you want to talk about ‘cause you really don’t want me to try and dance or sing to you or anything like that.”

I snorted a tired laugh since I knew for a fact that his tunes and buckets never met. “How about what happened last night?”

Thor sighed, “Hon …”

“Not liking being told no right now,” I said in a dangerously sing song tone of voice.

Thor shook his head. “OK Pistol but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” So between pains Thor pieced his night together for me. He went back to where the men had ambushed Stro and his brother. “The trail was easy to find. They dragged their dead for almost a hundred yards before rolling them down a steep ledge. After that it was a little harder but not much. By the time it got dark and I was starting to lose the markers I saw several small fires in the distance. There’s a large camp … couple dozen of them. While I was looking them over that guy Cliff showed up. Confirmed his identity based on my memory and your description, that birthmark is hard to miss even with just firelight.”

He went on to tell me how that while the camp was well armed they didn’t have much training. “They’re just a bunch of hammers looking for nails … but no real brains as far as I could tell from my initial impression.”

“What are you not telling me? And how did you hook up with the boys?”

He snorted, “Those ‘boys’ were doing the same thing I was only from the other side. Strother and I spotted each other and then we hooked up. Sand went back to report and the rest of us came back this way.”

“You still aren’t telling me everything. How do pigs come into this?”

“Oh. You heard.” I heard the hesitation and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to like the cause.

Another pain, this one worse than the previous ones interrupted his explanation but he finally said, “Well, your boys were according to Sand ‘het up’ and looking for some pay back. After the camp went to sleep they basically took anything that wasn’t nailed down that they could get away with. The last thing were the pigs they found penned up some yards distant from the camp and …”

“What on earth are you doing boy?!”

That voice caught Thor in mid story. Apparently Granny C had been visiting Miz Louise early in the day since they planned on gathering some herbs and they were both standing there with hands on their hips giving Thor a look that could have melted granite.

“She asked to be distracted!”

“Out. Now. And don’t come back until you are clean. You smell like you’ve been rolling around in a bear den … and look like it too. Is this the way you want to look when your child gets their first look at you? Sakes alive, a man your age ought to have more sense.” Granny C always did know how to manage the male of the species and put them in their place.

The long and the short of it is I labored for several more hours. I heard them murmur a few times but mostly all I could do was deal with the pain I was in. A few times I got up and walked around but my knees kept giving out. The only thing keeping me from kissing the floor was Thor’s own strength.

I must have been getting a little delirious towards the end. I remember hearing Thor ask the ladies if they thought the baby was too big but didn’t hear their response. It was about that time that it felt like I was being split in half. I don’t care how tough you think you are, trying to shoot the proverbial watermelon through a straw will make anybody scream.

I remember being told to push and push and then not push and to hold off and then to push again. There was a huge pressure in my pelvis and then … goosh. Don’t remember a whole lot for a little bit but I knew that something wasn’t quite as it should be. Thor was just holding me and saying something over and over. “It’ll be ok. It’ll be ok.” Finally after longer than it should have been I heard the baby give a weak cry and Granny C brought the baby over and laid her on my chest.

I must have been pretty loopy because I said, “Hey, look, a pink elephant.”

Thor kissed my forehead and said, “Don’t you call our daughter that.”

I complained, “You always get what you want. She’s …” I looked at Granny C and Miz Louise would was apparently stitching me up though I was too numb down there at the time to realize it. “Is … is … she like me? I mean …”

Granny C broke into a smile, “You have yourself a heifer dear but I think she’ll be fine, she’s just tuckered from trying to arrive in this world. Eleven pounds and some if I don’t miss my guess, one of the bigger babies that I’ve delivered but certainly not the biggest. I delivered that Hansel girl’s baby before you were born and it was certainly bigger than yours … but she had gestational diabetes. Let me measure my marks over here and … Lord have mercy, no wonder she looks like a string bean. Twenty-four inches, my lands. And those feet … I doubt those newborn socks are going to fit her at all.”

I croaked, “Poor thing, I think she takes after me.” I did feel sorry for the baby because I could imagine all of the difficulties in front of her.

Thor on the other hand had a completely different take on it as witnessed by his words, “Thank goodness. I’m not sure what I would do if we had one of those small, peanut sized ones. I’d be afraid of breaking it.”

His tone of voice was so serious and so relieved it stopped my tears in their tracks and I had to chuckle but that was about the last I had left in me. The baby girl I held in my arms picked that moment to really squall and I had to learn real fast about how to nurse her or she seemed like she was going to bring the house down. Thor was mesmerized by the whole process but boy howdy, every time the baby sucked there was a hard tug on my uterus ... my very, very sore uterus. If not for the endorphins that nursing leaks from the brain I would have been in some serious pain. Instead I had a hard time keeping my eyes open and doped up look off my face. Eventually the baby was satisfied enough to turn loose and I all but collapsed in exhaustion. I remember someone taking the baby and telling me to rest but for the life of me I can’t remember who.

I slept for a while but woke up when boots thundered up the stairs. “Thor! There’s more of them and I spotted Cliff too!”

Chapter 94

Chapter 94

I was right, getting Stro downstairs the morning after his beat down was not easy. Legitimately he probably should have stayed in bed but that would have been like trying to convince me to stay in bed under similar circumstances so I didn’t bother wasting my breath. We were all getting nerved up with adrenaline, so much so that for me I was nauseous for the first time in months. My back ached as well which had been happening more and more often for the past month. Between that and the nausea I wasn’t the least bit hungry despite the hard work of the day before.

My lack of appetite however didn’t change the fact that I had to get breakfast on for the guys but I made it easy on myself by making pancakes. I also fried some apples I asked Thor to bring in from the wagon on his way to do some of the morning chores as well as a little smoked venison breakfast sausage leftover from a nuisance we’d cleared from the corn field. For morning “coffee” Thor had to forgo his normal pot of the real stuff but I made chicory and rye coffee as a replacement using some wild forage that I had harvested over the last few weeks. He’d already cut back to one or two cups a day so it wasn’t too much of a trial for him but I hated that he had to do it at all; we just didn’t want to show our hand as far as all of our provisions went. Coffee could have probably brought gold into our coffers but we didn’t need it since we already had a little bit plus a good bit of junk silver. I never did spend everything that was in the money belts that had belonged to Jonathon’s grandmother.

Mr. Hefling had not been able to wait until full light because it was still dim and foggy when Thor found him at our gate just about ready to bust in and check on his boys. Tina was with him which was something I hadn’t expected though I don’t know why not. She’d already seen a lot being on her ER rotation for her medical certification but still, I had trouble balancing who she was now with the girl I had known her to be when we were in school together.

After they’d gotten there and Tina and Stro had their reunion and Mr. Hefling had assured himself that his sons were still in one piece the guys sat around chewing on how they were going to address this latest threat to our community’s safety. I just kept filling plates until they were full and then I sent them into Dad’s study … no, Thor’s study … so that I could clean up without them under foot and in the way. Tina helped.

“Wow.”

I looked at her and asked, “Wow what?”

“I don’t know. This … this just isn’t how I ever saw you. I figured you’d be in the middle of all that.” All that was her way of referring to the heated discussion the men were having.

“I do what has to be done regardless of where and what that is,” I told her.

She tilted her head and said, “Yeah. But you have to admit that cooking breakfast and cleaning the kitchen doesn’t exactly fit people’s perception of you.”

“Which just shows you people aren’t near as smart as they think they are.”

She made a face. “I didn’t mean to … geez … Stro said basically the same thing and I guess I wasn’t listening. Look, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“You didn’t,” I said with a shrug. “I’m me. I’m different from everyone else. I got over that a long time ago; it’s everyone else that has the problem, not me.”

“Which I guess is why you didn’t tell anyone you’re pregnant,” she said with unexpected perception.

Admitting that I said, “One of the reasons and because of the other reasons I’d appreciate you not saying anything to anyone either.”

She gave me a penetrating look. “It’s still hard to tell you’re really pregnant. Are you sure that you are as far along as you think you are?”

I chuckled, “If you felt how much squirming Junior was doing you wouldn’t ask. He feels big …” I stopped at the look on her face. “… Or at least bigger than a figment of my imagination.”

She made a face. “I’m doing it again. Sorry. Stro keeps trying to tell me that no one knows you as well as they think they do.” I shrugged but her next words really threw me. “I was jealous of you you know.”

I had to cough because I’d swallowed my spit down the wrong pipe. “What?!”

“I was,” she shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong because I’m not now but I used to be … even before Janie came into the picture.”

“If you would have said something I could have set you straight. Stro is my friend and that is all he has ever been … or ever will be.”

She gave a sad chuckle. “Yeah. I get that now. But let’s be honest, I didn’t exactly have any right to be jealous after … well, after what happened. It was harder for me to get over being jealous of you than of Janie though.”

The phrase does-not-computer flitted through my head. “You’re crazy.”

“I’m serious. I could understand Strother’s attraction to Janie, he has this … complex. He was always pulling someone’s bacon out of the fire and he is a lot softer touch than people think he is. But you, I never understood it.”

Shaking my head I told her, “That’s because there was nothing to understand. We’re friends. And if you don’t mind I’d like to just drop that. It’s kind of creepy.”

She grinned good naturedly. “Actually I do understand it now … and I want to say thanks for being Strother’s friend. You never short changed him like other people, myself included. My dad used to use you as a reason why Strother wasn’t right in the head, how the two of you were so much alike and why it would never work out between us. Dad was right about the two of you being alike … just for all the wrong reasons. So … thanks. I’m glad Strother has good friends he can count on.”

I just stood there for a moment wiping out the skillet I’d used for the sausages. “OK … but no more weirdness. The idea of me and Stro being anything other than friends … it’s not good for my stomach right now.”

That did cause her to chuckle but then she asked, “Have you had a lot of trouble being nauseous?”

“Off and on, this morning it is on. Hand me that kitchen towel.” After she had done as I asked I finished the top of the stove with a polish while she asked me all sorts of the same questions that Granny C and Miz Louise had been asking.

“Do you know what to expect?” she asked.

“Technically? Yes. I’ve got the strategy all planned out. In reality? I doubt it since I’ve never run this particular play before so I’m trying to keep an open mind and stay flexible so I can change up if necessary.”

She laughed again, “You still talk in football.”

She asked for a general tour of the house – she’d never been inside – while I gave the guys a few more minutes of my patience. “You’ve got a nice set up,” she said wistfully.

“Stro said that he and Gramps were going to try and plan something out this winter so that you all could have a place of your own.”

Embarrassed she said, “I don’t mean to complain. I’m really trying not to but … we’ve got zero privacy. I’m so embarrassed when we … you know … it’s … geez.”

More than a little embarrassed myself at the sudden direction the conversation was taking I said, “Uh … yeah. I can see where that might be a problem. The Hefling’s house isn’t exactly built for that many people.”

“Lawson is on the sofa because we needed a room for the kids. I feel so bad about Mr. Hefling too. He feels crowded and escapes from the house every time he is able.”

“That’s just his PTSD, he never has been able to stay inside for long at least so far as I remember ir. I assumed you knew all this but maybe no one ever mentioned it, it’s a sore subject with Mr. Hefling. Those issues are why he and Stro’s mom … well, she liked fancy and socializing and all of that stuff and Mr. Hefling just couldn’t do it much after he got back. It would get on his nerves and then he’d have one of his spells. She’d over react and do the Drama Momma thing which only made it worse. It was really hard on the boys.”

That broke the tension and she smiled, “Lawson was complaining the other day that you still call just about all of the guys from school ‘boys.’ I wish you could have seen the look on his face, he reminded me of the twins.”

I chuckled. “I guess I do still do that. I don’t mean anything bad by it but to me most of them are still boys. You get them together and it is like a big wiggling sack of puppies, all paws, tails, and tongues. They’re a mess.”

We both had to laugh at that because it was just plain true. Of course there were a few truly grown men I could say the same thing about.

“Is Thor like that?” Tina wanted to know.

“Like wha … Oh … no … not really, at least not in the same way. The pressures of his job and leadership kind of ironed that out of him. He can still whoop it up and have a good time but when you get to know him you’ll find that he is always ‘on’ even when it seems that he is acting just like all the other guys.”

“I already know what you mean. Mr. Hefling is like that too, so is Sand but not quite as much. Sometimes I worry that Strother is going to get like that too.”

I shrugged, “It’s not such a bad thing so long as you both learn to live with it and learn your limits. Even Thor knows that he needs down time and we set it aside, we’re just … I guess you could say we are just careful about when we take it.”

And speaking of the gentlemen in question they chose that moment to come out of the study. Tina took a good look at Stro and immediately went to his side. “You sure you won’t let me put that liniment on you now?”

Stro told her, “Maybe when we get home, which is where we are heading for a bit.”

I heard that “for a bit” and looked at Thor whose expression told me he’d explain after we got everyone else gone. We saw them to the gate and out it, closing it behind them, and then Thor said he needed to make some calls to give him a few minutes. Knowing that the “few” minutes could turn out to be longer I finished my morning chores that had been delayed and was leaning back against a tree trying to use counter pressure to ease the ache in my back when Thor found me.

“Hey, you OK? Back hurting again?”

“Yeah but it’s OK. So why didn’t you want to tell me with them around?”

A mild grin told me I’d been on the money. “Caught that; thought you would.”

“Still doesn’t tell me why,” I said following him to the storage barn where he started helping me to unload apples from the wagon. Some would go into the apple house – basically a shed for the long storage apples – but some of them would also be sorted for the cider press, the drying shed, and those that I wanted to can.

He took his time answering so I told him, “Just spit it out Thor. Don’t worry about making any of my friends sound … bad. They aren’t as good as you are at this and if you have suspicions I want to know what they are so I can help.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way Hon but I swear you are getting too good at reading me.” I just smiled and let him squirm a bit and then he finally got around to explaining but he started with a question. “So you think Lawson really saw this Cliff guy?”

“Stro confirmed it,” I reminded him. “Lawson may not like Cliff for his own reasons but I don’t think it was ever bad enough for him to try and set Cliff up on purpose. Lawson was also shocked by it being Cliff in with that bunch.”

Thor nodded. “That was my take as well, at least as far as Lawson went. It also makes me wonder who else I haven’t met despite being here about a year.”

I thought about it. “Yeah, I suppose it is weird that we haven’t seen more of Cliff. I just put it down to an issue of distance and the fact I haven’t exactly been out in public much lately. You think Cliff might have been avoiding you on purpose?”

“It’s a possibility, and one Strother agreed with when I brought it up and he had a chance to think about it. Hon …”

“If you are going hunting tonight you should go inside and rest.”

He just looked at me. “Woman, you are getting scary.”

“No, I just know you … and I know how serious you take your job. I also know that some things may best be dealt with … quietly. I just wish I was able to cover your back. I feel … I feel like I’m letting you down.” For some reason I was on the verge of tears.

“Hey … Rochelle …” I’d managed to shock him.

“I’m all right,” I said wiping my eyes. “It’s at times like these though that I … miss the others the most. Chuckri, Barkley, Alfonso, Montgomery, Richards … I would be a lot happier to have even one of them here right now. I’d give a whole lot to know how they are doing, if they’ve got it as good as we do.”

Thor sat his bushel basket of apples down and took me in his arms, “We do have it good Rochelle. And if you still regret …”

“I don’t regret anything, not really. I just would feel better if you had some back up. I can see in your eyes you are going to do this on your own no matter what the Heflings might think. What about Sand?”

He shook his head. “Sand is a good man but he doesn’t have the depth of training for something like this. And well-meaning or not that Sarah has a mouth on her and I’d rather not have to come up with a story to satisfy her about why her husband has to be out all night. She could complain to the wrong people and we’d lose any advantage we had. She knows just enough to be a danger in situations like this but doesn’t have restraint enough to keep her mouth shut.”

“I won’t deny that. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t tell her I was pregnant to begin with. Sarah is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a sister I guess but her tongue is hinged in the middle and runs at both ends when she is upset about something. It gets away from her and she’s sorry afterwards but by then it’s too late.”

“So long as you understand I’ve got my reasons for keeping this under tight wraps. Last thing I want to start is one of them mountain feuds you are always worried about.” I nodded then turned so that he could press the sore spots on my back. “No more lifting. You sit over there and I’ll move the rest of these myself,” he said with finality.

“Sitting is no better and you need to rest too,” I objected.

“I will rest … after I take care of this.” I sighed but conceded the point to him but I wasn’t exaggerating, it wasn’t any better sitting and I was soon up and moving around again. He caught sight of my pacing and misinterpreted it. “Hon, I’m not going to ask you not to be concerned but don’t worry it to death. You’re getting jumpy.”

“It’s not that, if anyone is prepared for this job it is you. It’s just adrenaline. There’s a fight coming and despite my head knowing I can’t my body seems to be gearing up for it anyway. It was the same way before a big game, only I knew then I’d have something that I could do about it. I can’t even go for a run right now to let off some steam.”

He moved the last bushel and then we walked into the house. “I’d be lying if I said I’m not relieved you understand that you can’t do this thing tonight.”

I elbowed him lightly. “I’m not a baby Thor, I’m just having one. I guess that’s a big enough job for me to handle right now. I’m not going to whine because I can’t go play with you but you had better be careful. I know that you consider some of the people around here to be inexperienced hicks, and they are, but that doesn’t mean some of them aren’t dangerous and mean.”

He looked at me, “You know good and well that I know that so what’s with the lecture? Something in particular bothering you?”

“Yes it is. I don’t like our forces being split like this. I also don’t like you going into a situation without someone to cover your back. Mr. Hefling’s leg is bothering him. Sand … well we’ve already discussed that. And Stro is in too rough a shape. Johnson and Lawson … I hate to say it but I don’t think they have the stomach for what you might have to do. Jimmy Ray would be my next choice but you two don’t get on well enough which is something we need to fix. Jimmy Ray has what it takes to be as mean as necessary and would be good at this … he just likes to eat regularly and is a little spoiled.”

For some reason Thor started laughing. “What?” I asked irritated.

“You’re something else girl that’s what. We’re a perfect match. I love that you can do this.”

“This what?” I asked still irritated though slightly mollified at the “perfect match” comment.

“Compartmentalize enough that even though someone is a good friend you can be brutally honest about their faults and talents and not hesitate to do what is necessary. Had you been in my crew from the beginning I would have marked you for extra training so that you could eventually run your own crew.”

“Yeah, right, like I could see those men taking orders from a female. Even when you gave me any authority when we were still on the road they always looked at Evans or you to confirm anything I said or they gave me the she’s-just-the-boss’-bed-chick look, like I had slept my way into authority instead of earned it regardless of what the true facts were.” At Thor’s look I added, “I don’t begrudge them that. I know I didn’t do anything to earn that kind of thinking. I also know they did give me respect even if it was grudging on occasion. I suppose in their experience that was how females got to whatever level of authority they had but it used to irritate me that they didn’t give us credit for having more sense. Besides, I don’t mind being second in command; it’s not such a bad job to have, especially not when I trust the boss as much as I do. Now back on topic,” I told him still a little cranky because I was worried. “What about that guy from town, Martin Kildare? Or any of his people?”

Thor gave it serious consideration but in the end continued with his original plan. “This is just a recon and I don’t want any talk until I can confirm something. I don’t disbelieve Lawson but I don’t want to create a situation or make it harder to deal with if it isn’t necessary. I don’t plan on engaging the enemy at this point; I just want to know what we are up against.”

I wanted to argue, but on the other hand I knew that once Thor had his mind made up I’d be wasting my breath and his chance to nap. He also had considerably more experience than I did and if I really trusted him as I said I did then I needed to follow my mouth with action. I determined that if he was going to go out on his own that he’d go out with my full support and a full belly. While he rested I went over his clothes and gear and worked on the apples and a good meal. I still wished that I was going with him but since that wasn’t the case I did the best I could.

I must have done something to my back picking the apples; might have happened when I went off on those ravens. As the day wore on my back hurt worse but I didn’t let on to Thor. He commented on my lack of appetite again before he left but put it down to nerves.

Dark came before I was ready for it. Lady kept whining that I was taking too long to do the last of the day’s chores and come inside and bar the door. Finally I had everything secured and just stood there in the kitchen breathing through yet another muscle spasm. I thought to myself that this is getting to be ridiculous and that I might have to have Granny C have a look to see if I’d really done something to hurt myself. It was getting to where the pain was a drawing one rather than a sharp prick like they had started as that morning.

I was antsy but tired and didn’t know what to do with myself. The night had turned cool so I went upstairs and started a fire in the bedroom and when another pain hit me I almost couldn’t stand up. When I did I looked down at the wet hearth rug and then over at Lady and said, “It figures.”

Chapter 93

Chapter 93

Lady’s call was for “friend” but Thor and I looked at each other and went into defensive mode before answering the door at the second set of bangs. Thor jerked the door open and I covered him. Lawson stood there with Stro nearly bending him double trying to hold his brother up.

Thor reached out and pulled both men in and once we had the door bolted they lifted Stro up onto the table and I went to work on him while Thor asked for a report. I could tell Stro wasn’t unconscious but he wasn’t completely with it either.

“Everything was going as planned. Stro and Sand met Johnson and I. Hunting was good,” Lawson wheezed. Hearing that I looked over and then threw Thor a smaller first aid kit and he started cleaning Lawson’s busted nose clogged with drying blood and his swollen mouth. “We each got two good sized bucks; two deeper in the forest that we field dressed and hung in the trees and two that we had at the pick up point. I told Johnson he could have those two and that Stro and I would take the wagon home and then go get the other two since it was closer to our place than theirs.”

Thor asked, “Was it a bear?”

“Been easier if it was. It was some men … I guess about a half dozen to maybe ten of them. I never got a good count.” Lawson looked over at me where I was still working on Stro. “I only recognized one of them. It was Cliff Dunkirk.”

That made me pause briefly and look up before pulling a pre-threaded suture kit from the big bag Mom had always used when a field hand had gotten hurt. Stro moaned and I said, “Be still Stro. Your eyebrow is split worse than that time you face planted on that rock on the Chatooga. I have to stitch it up.”

I got another groan then it was obvious he was trying to brace himself before saying, “Go ahead but make me pretty. I don’t want to scare Tina.”

Lawson seemed to deflate with relief. He tried to stiffen back up and finish telling Thor what had occurred but it was a losing battle as reaction set in.

“They jumped us. We were being real careful just in case there were any bears so it isn’t like we surprised them. They were hiding in the bushes waiting for us. I think … I think it was an ambush. They meant to Rocky. I can’t believe that Cliff …”

Thor looked at me and asked, “Whose Cliff?”

“One of us … or was one of us. You’ve met him once I think. Remember the first time you met Sarah? All the boys coming out of the woods? He was one of them. I haven’t seen much of him but didn’t think too much of it because I was always hearing about him from Johnson or Lawson or one of the other younger guys. The Dunkirk place is even further out than Jimmy Ray’s, closer to Abingdon.” I shook my head trying not to let my anger get the better of me while I was working on Stro. “His dad was a Deacon in our church.”

Lawson added, “He died at the school. Cliff’s mom … she eventually got together with Mr. Llewellyn. But as far as I know Cliff was cool with it. Mr. Lew is a good guy, totally about the family and all that. Mr. Lew’s wife died at the school too. The families had been friends like forever and … you know … Granny said it was all good. Why would Cliff …?”

Thor asked, “And you sure the guy you recognized was definitely this Cliff?”

“Yeah. Absolutely. He’s hard to miss. He’s got this birthmark that looks like a red patch covering his right eye.”

“That’s the guy? The one with the port wine stain on his face?”

I said, “Yeah, that’s him. He is … was … a lot of girls used to think he was a sweetheart.”

Lawson rolled his eyes before muttering, “Oh geez.”

I rolled my eyes at Lawson’s exaggerated words as I snipped the thread on the last stitch as Stro asked – and was refused – some help to sit up. So he laid there and said, “Yeah, it was pretty boy Cliff all right. The one with the gorgeous hair.”

“You guys are such dorks. It wasn’t just his hair that the girls liked.”

With a slightly conspiratorial grin Lawson said, “But you never did Rocky.”

I shrugged, “All of you guys were like brothers. I never thought of any of you all like that. And Cliff was a real puppy most of the time. That’s why Coach had him on third string; he wouldn’t play hard enough because he said he was always afraid of hurting someone.” I looked at Thor and explained, “Don’t let these guys fool you. Cliff could have been good, maybe better than all of us, but he didn’t have the heart for it the way he needed to. He had great hands but he wouldn’t fight hard enough when it really counted. Almost every time he could have won the game, he lost it for us instead.”

Thor and I switched; he helped Stro up off the table and into a chair by the stove and I went to work finishing up Lawson.

Thor nodded, “Finish the story and we’ll worry about why your friend Cliff pulled a Mr. Hyde later.”

Stro said, “It was getting kind of late. I knew by the time we got back home it would be full dark and had turned to say something … I forget what … to Lawson when it felt like a rock had been slammed into me.”

Lawson explained, “Someone had taken a shot but caught his pack. I looked inside and his mess kit is pretty well useless … the heavy duty one that your Dad gave us Rocky.”

I nodded remembering the mess kits Dad had picked up at a Surplus store on one of our adventures. “Are your bruised?” I asked Stro.

“Not too bad. I’ll be sore tomorrow but I’d rather be sore than dead. Mostly it just startled me. Lawson figured out what was happening and pushed me to the ground and then aimed at some bushes where the shot had come from. I don’t think they had much ammo or they lost their heads or something because they wound up rushing us rather than trying to shoot us again.”

“Did you stop shooting?” Thor asked them.

“Heck no,” Stro said outraged. “Lawson got one and I got one before we both got piled on by the rest of them. They were big guys and knew what they were doing. One of them had a club and caught me good and I was out of it but not so much that I didn’t hear when Lawson got his rifle back up and took out two more of them and then the rest run off. I just couldn’t seem to focus and answer when Lawson kept calling me. Nothing wanted to work. I was totally cracked and scrambled.”

Thor wanted to know, “Lawson did any of the others besides Cliff look familiar?”

“No, but it was getting dark up under the trees. But if I had to swear one way or the other I would say no, I’d never seen them before.”

Thor went downstairs with Lawson and put the call out to the others on the radio chain. And they named names in case Cliff or his cohorts tried anything again … or had tried anything in the past that hadn’t been reported.

I asked Stro, “Are you sure it was Cliff?”

“You mean because him and Lawson didn’t always get along?” At my nod Stro said, “It was Cliff. You can’t miss that birthmark. And even if someone tried to frame him by painting their face that way they couldn’t do it all. The hair, the build, the voice … it was definitely him. Jimmy Ray is going to be upset when he finds out, Cliff was courting his cousin and they were talking about a spring wedding.”

“Oh good gravy, that’s all we need.”

Thor and Lawson came back up and asked, “What’s all we need?”

“A feud.” I washed my hands and then got a pot of water boiling to clean the first aid gear and another of cider to make a hot punch. “Apparently Cliff and Jimmy Ray’s cousin were seeing each other. If it does turn out that Cliff has gone to the dark side Jimmy Ray is going to pound him hard and I don’t even want to know what his uncle is going to do.”

I could see Thor trying real hard not to say the wrong thing so I took pity on him. “Mountain feuds don’t have to make sense to occur but this one will to most folks and that will only make it worse. If we can keep people from picking sides based on old loyalties it might just die a natural death but only if Cliff is proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt and receives some kind of punishment. If it turns into a killing feud before real justice gets done it could undo everything the town has been working towards.”

Thor had a few choice words for knuckleheads that I won’t repeat. They were colorful, colloquial, multi-lingual, and more true than not. When he was finished Lawson said, “Dang Dude, that was impressive. I thought Dad could lay it all out but I think you might just have him beat.”

I rolled my eyes once again and tried to remember that Lawson was my age and not still in middle school. Stro wasn’t grinning though and I asked him, “Blurry vision, trouble hearing … anything?”

“My head hurts but that’s about it besides getting angry. You know if it was just the venison they could have had it. I’m not going to begrudge helping someone who is starving though it would have been more polite to have asked. It is the rest of it that is making me mad. Who would take care of my littles if something happened to me? What would happen to Tina? She’s already been through enough, we all have. Dad needs both Lawson and I … so do Granny and Gramps. Who would take our place? I just want to know why those guys did what they did … and then I want to pound them into the ground for it.”

I could see he was shaking a little though he was trying not to show it so I pulled a blanket off the shelf in the mud room where I keep a couple of extra in case we have to strip in there and draped it over Stro’s shoulders. “Take it easy. You’ve lost some blood and you’re a little shocky. I’m not convinced you don’t have a concussion either. Here, sip on this punch … you too Lawson. You need some warm and sweet in your system.”

“What did Dad say?” Stro wanted to know.

“They were just getting worried. Your Dad said he’ll be over at first light but that it isn’t safe to blunder around in the dark in case we have another group of highwaymen in the area.”

Lawson snickered, “Tina said you better mind Rocky or she’ll know why not.”

Stro started to calm down and said, “Yeah yeah. She was worried?”

“Like an old hen,” Lawson confirmed.

I looked daggers at Lawson who suddenly ducked his head and excused himself as needing to go to the necessary. I told Thor, “I’ll go fix the guest room up.”

I was half way up the stairs when I had to stop to catch my breath; Junior had just pole vaulted into my diaphragm. That’s when I heard Stro tell Thor, “Sorry to dump on you like this, specially now.”

“Not a problem.”

“Look, before Lawson or Rocky get back I better tell you something about Cliff. Rocky’s dad swore me to secrecy. See I accidentally overheard … well something I shouldn’t have overheard. When we were kids Cliff went to Rocky’s dad for help because he was too scared to go to his own dad. Cliff … uh … he ain’t exactly the choir boy everybody thinks he is. Lawson will back that part up but I don’t know if Rocky knows about it. Her dad kept her pretty … uh … insulated from some of the stuff us guys would get into. Anyway, Cliff … geez … he … you know … was experimenting with … girls … and … uh … not girls. He decided after a while that he only liked girls after all but one of the older guys that had drawn him into that whole lifestyle thing or whatever you call it was threatening to tell everyone about it if he didn’t do what he was told to do.”

“Blackmail.”

I could sense Stro nod, “Yeah, I guess that’s what you’d call it. Rocky’s dad convinced Cliff to confess to his dad and then the cops got brought into it … you know adult taking advantage of someone that was underage. The guy was like in his forties and Cliff was only like fifteen at the time. Everything was hushed up after that so I don’t know what came of it.”

Thor was quiet for a second before saying matter-of-factly, “It happens. I’m not saying it’s right but it happens. But what has that got to do with now?”

“Look, I’m not sure how to say this. Cliff … could be … off. All the girls really liked him but the few local girls that he got involved with … you hear things if you listen to the right people. There was a girl that Lawson really liked and Cliff stole her.” Thor must have made a face because Stro said, “I know it sounds stupid man but that’s really what happened. One day she and Lawson were fine and the next day it was like the girl didn’t look at anyone but Cliff. But then the girl got messed up and Cliff dropped her like a hot rock. How does a girl go from being fine and happy and normal to being a totally messed up skank in two months and the guy she is supposedly with has nothing to do with it? She told my Mom who was sometimes a counselor at the school that Cliff introduced her to people that got her hooked on drugs.”

“Still not making your point,” Thor rumbled though to me it didn’t sound like he was giving Stro a hard time so much as wanting him to make the connection so he could act on it.

“Cliff was like Teflon man … nothing stuck. Everyone – well the girls – thought he was all sweet and crap like that. But you ask some of the guys and they’ll tell you there was something just off about him. When Cliff dropped out of our Venture Crew Rocky’s dad didn’t ask any of us to try and get him to come back. That was unusual, not the way it normally was. I’m not saying Cliff was a bad guy for sure but I can tell you he hung out with some people that were bad … not locals but friends of his cousins that lived over in Abingdon. The other thing is he used to make fun about church and some people behind their backs, people that might not be able to defend themselves very well. He was careful who he did this with … Rocky would have nailed him if she’d heard some of the things he said … so even today I bet there are people who wouldn’t believe me. Just …”

“Just what?” Thor asked quietly.

I heard Stro sigh. “I can’t prove nothing man but when dealing with Cliff, be careful. Lawson may have been surprised that he recognized Cliff but the more I think about it the more I’m surprised that he hasn’t gotten involved in something like this before considering some of the people he used to hang with. And another thing … when Rocky wasn’t around … Cliff used to say things about her too. Nothing any of us could beat him up over … but questions and stuff that didn’t seem too bad when he said them but add them all up together and looking back they seemed kind of … uh … this sounds stupid … but they seemed kind of … sly.”

Sly was not a word I could ever remember Stro using before so it made an even bigger impression because of it. Thor didn’t say anything so I continued up the stairs doing some hard thinking. My parents … and apparently even Stro and the guys … had always seemed to be under the impression that just because I didn’t react to something I must not have heard it. That wasn’t true at all. Some of the stuff about Cliff was news to me, but some wasn’t.

I remember the day … and the reason … that Cliff dropped out of the Crew. We were on a camping trip with a couple of other Crews at Stone Mountain in Georgia. Some of the boys in the other Crews tried to be cute and act all freaked out by me which only made them look like idiots. I wouldn’t rise to their bait so they just kept escalating. I could see that my friends were starting to get antsy … not reacting was starting to ping their pride buttons. Geez, even then I knew all about testosterone poisoning being a problem in the male population. I went and told Dad and said flat out that if he couldn’t get the other crew leaders to call their boys (and a few of their girls) off that I’d wind up having to do something just so my friends didn’t do something stupid and get in trouble.

Dad was off talking to the other crew leaders but by then it was too late. The idiots went too far and touched me in ways and places that weren’t appropriate. I flung the one that had touched me into a knot of his friends that had been standing around laughing and when two of them rushed me … like I said they were idiots … I slugged one and had the other hung upside down by his ankles by the time the leaders got there. But I had noted who in our crew was laughing at my predicament and who wasn’t. Over the next week I confronted them one at a time in private; thanked the ones that needed thanking and put straight the rest of them. Cliff was one of those guys that needed straightening.

The problem was that I unintentionally caught Cliff in a private moment of his own so to speak. A certain type of magazine fell out of the math book he’d been using to hide everything with. A casual observer wouldn’t have noticed anything but a pretty boy studying hard in a clearing near the park. The whole situation had embarrassed us both. He said some pretty nasty things to me like I’d been following him around, spying, yada, yada; that I was infatuated with him and some really stupidly untrue things like that. He tried to hit me but missed when I let a laugh escape at the very idea and I defensively and without thought hit him back … and didn’t miss, sending him sprawling in a very undignified fashion. He ran off after that cursing and swearing in words I wasn’t sure I knew what their definitions were at the time.

I knew I was in hot water and out of my depth on top of it so went home and told Dad everything. Dad was pretty calm all things considered and then told me he would have a talk with Cliff’s father but that I was to keep the incident to myself, that Cliff had some personal issues that he was working through. I gathered from that that Cliff’s problems hadn’t started with me and they weren’t my fault and at that time and place that is all I wanted to know or cared about. The whole incident was disturbing enough … especially as there was no way I was going to tell Dad what had been on the cover of that particular bit of literature Cliff had been so enthralled with.

When Cliff didn’t come back to the Crew I asked Dad only once if it was my fault and he said, “No. But I want you to give that boy some space from here on out. His problems aren’t your fault and they aren’t your business either. His parents have him in counseling and it is a private family matter for them. If you want to do something then pray for him and them. We hate the sin, not the sinner. Cliff is being given the opportunity to heal from some … situations he found himself in. He’s got a package of trouble to work through. You don’t want me catching you gossiping about this, ya hear?” I smiled, remembering how Dad really cared about things despite having been handed his own package of trouble in the form of me.

Stro made his way up the stairs on his own two feet but he was slow enough that I wondered if he’d be coming down them that way in the morning. Thor and I were both exhausted by the time we got our guests bedded down for the night. It was really strange having guests overnight and I had a hard time settling.

“Come here,” Thor murmured in the dark.

“Not with people in the house Thor!” I gasped, shocked.

A wicked chuckle was my response before he said, “That’s not what I was thinking about.”

I tried to find him with my elbow in the dark but he was too used to my moves and instead gathered me up close to him and said, “Relax. You’re shoulders are as stiff as that scarecrow’s out in the garden.”

At his gentle message I did try and relax and succeeded somewhat but I wasn’t ready to let it go. “Stro is right … about Cliff I mean.”

“You heard?”

I sighed, “Yeah. Why everything thinks that I walked around with cotton in my ears I don’t know. All the things I know about people in this town … it would curl your beard.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“Look. I heard in some movie that ‘peoples is peoples’ and that’s true. Everybody is human. If I held that against folks I’d have no friends. Everyone makes mistakes and bad choices at some point. Some of the mistakes and bad choices are really dillies but my grandmothers and Mom always tried to teach me to use discernment rather than self-righteous judgment and because God had forgiven me I was required … not encouraged but required … to give the same thing to other people. Cliff … yeah, he made some dillies and I’m not sure he was ever really sorry for some of them … but they always seemed more self destructive than that he was out to hurt other people on purpose.”

“But?”

“But if that has changed … that he is now hurting other people rather than himself … then the way he gets handled has to change too.”

“Do you feel sorry for him?” Thor wanted to know.

“Cliff? Uhhhhh, I’m not sure. Do you feel sorry for someone that reaps the results of the choices they make? Part of me does I guess but part of me … I don’t know. I just don’t want this to turn into something it doesn’t need to be. It should be cut and dry … Cliff and those other guys tried to kill or at the very least do serious bodily harm to Lawson and Stro therefore they should be punished for it. I don’t want Cliff …” I wasn’t sure how to finish.

“You don’t want Cliff …?”

I turned over and tried to see him in the dark. “Be careful with Cliff. He’s an excuse maker. The few times he has gotten caught the situation always winds up being someone else’s fault. That older guy … and yes I did know about that sort of … that wasn’t Cliff’s fault but the fact that he kept … er … experimenting with that kind of stuff as he got older, that was his personal choice and responsibility. The girls being all over him? That wasn’t his fault but their choice. But how he treated them and the things and people he introduced them to? That was his choice and responsibility. When things went badly there was enough blame to be shared by all parties involved but Cliff didn’t seem to see it that way.”

“Or he didn’t want anyone to see it that way.”

“Huh?”

Thor explained, “See if this jives with what you know. Cliff was a victim when he was young enough not to know how to deal with it or escape from it. But at some point after that Cliff chose to victimize himself as well as to become a victimizer of others because it empowered him.” I nodded. “It is a bad cycle to get into Hon. I heard the same excuses in my family from my Mom even though she knew what my grandfather was doing was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t disciplining me he was … he was abusing me. My mom used to say that was the way he’d grown up so that was all he knew.”

“That is bull poop.”

I could feel a slow smile against my hair. “Yes, it is. But as a kid I didn’t know what to think. Cliff … the abuse may have been different but he does know the difference between right and wrong and if he is now involved in something that is making victims of other people … and he is willingly involved in it regardless of the justification … then Cliff has a very serious problem and unfortunately I’m the man that has to come up with the cure.”

“You don’t have to,” I told him.

“For my own self respect I do. When I agreed to take a lead role in the security of not just our home but this area I knew exactly what I was getting into. I’ve spent all of my adult life at this sort of thing. Turning my back at this point would be hypocritical.”

I don’t know why God creates some people the way they do but I’m glad He does.