Josiah “Fast Hands” Crabtree III … and he wasn’t just called “Fast Hands” on the field if you catch my drift. For some reason Joe … his preferred name … had taken a liking to me despite all of the controversy at the time. Even after our game we’d kept in touch via Facebook, ICQ, and Skype. I remember him saying that, “It’s a good thing that was the last game of my senior year or they would never have let me live it down.”
For Joe football had been a past time not a passion. After graduation he’d joined the military and left “to see the world.” I hadn’t heard from him in about a year because of the nature of his deployment. His Facebook page had notified his friends that he’d gotten injured but not to what extent. The eye patch was shocking as was the scar that ran from under the patch to his ear.
I thought all these things while I stood there with my mouth hanging open. His smile had started to falter when I said, “Joe? Is that really you?”
That lit him up. His pearlies were still as big and shiny as ever; he’d always reminded me a bit of a wolf like in that story. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten me.”
“Not likely,” I muttered which caused him to laugh.
Then I turned around to see whether it was a problem I was holding the men up … only I wasn’t, because they weren’t there. I turned in a circle and saw them heading away at a pace that had folks parting like the Red Sea. What the heck? The only one that looked back was Evans who saluted in his smart aleck way and then turned it into a wave that was more subdued … and maybe I imagined it, a little sad too. He nodded before turning back around and never looking back. I couldn’t believe it. The one guy that had given me the most grief was the only one that bothered to say goodbye.
“Hey, those friends of yours?”
It took me a second before I could say, “I … I guess not.” Then I pulled my defensive line together and said, “What are you doing here?”
“Came out here to help move my sister and her in-laws to my parent’s place in Nebraska. Aren’t you pretty far from home?”
“Not as far as I was. I was at a conference in San Francisco when everything started.” I still wasn’t ready to go into details, not that he’d asked, but at least I could say that much now without falling into a blue funk.
I was still trying to process that the men had just walked away, abandoned me. But then I reminded myself they didn’t know I was a girl, I was supposed to be an independent young man and apparently I’d pulled it off, maybe too well. On the other hand, out of the blue here was someone that knew I was a girl and before I’d had time to even worry that I was going to be outed it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
“Hey, you OK? You look a little shell-shocked. And what’s the deal with the hair, I thought you swore it would be Judgment Day before you would ever cut it.”
I sighed, “Long story.” Then I just kind of stood there trying to figure out what to do.
Joe saved me from having to think too hard. “Come on. I want to introduce you to my wife.”
I nearly swallowed my teeth. “Your what?!”
His grin got big and goofy. “Sheila.” One word but it told me either he was really and truly in love or something really close to it.
Joe wasn’t quite as big as I was but he was no small boy either and the years since highschool and whatever he had experienced had changed him into a grown man which gave him a certain presence that made up for his few missing inches. As we left the intersection where we had met I realized I was leaving another part of my life behind again; my childhood in San Francisco, my real female identity was buried with Jonathon, and now I was losing the one that I’d put together to replace the one I had buried. Who was I now? What was I now?
It took over an hour, and we weren’t really able to talk that much because of the crowds and noise, but finally we came to a quieter area. “So tell me, what’s a girl like you doing traveling with men like that?”
I heard the big brother tone in his voice and I had the sudden urge to laugh at the whole cosmic joke. “A girl like me wasn’t traveling with those men, a young man named Rocky was.”
He looked at me three times before he said, “Are you telling me that they never knew who you were? That you were a girl?”
And just as suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. “They’re all dead Joe. All the people in the world I had to care about. I didn’t have anyone. And if any are left they are back home and that is all I’m trying to get back to. A girl by herself is going to be an easy target, even one my size … a girl in a group doesn’t stand that much of a better chance. I just didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. It’s not like people haven’t been mistaking me for a boy for years.”
“Only the blind and the idiots,” he snorted. Then after looking me over, “Although, with your hair cut that way … and you’ve changed how you hold yourself too. I’d have to see you in action to see if you really pulled it off.”
“Trust me,” I said wryly. “I pulled it off. Those guys would have used any excuse to get rid of me.”
“I thought you said they were friends.”
After a pause I said, “You can get used to nearly anything and start believing what you want to. We were traveling companions. We worked together clearing roads. They were already a group of long standing before I came along.”
“Like that was it?” When I looked at him he said, “I’ve been there Rocky. You can be a buddy to someone without ever being able to create a friendship with them. It’s not your fault, it just is.”
I thought about it a moment and then said, “Yeah … maybe. Whatever it was it is over now. And I have to find some way to keep going without winding up dead or wishing I was. I’ve got a lot of miles ahead of me still.”
And he grinned again and said, “And I might just have a way to get you some further down the road. The team that was going to help me get my family to Llewellyn got made a better offer than I could top. I can’t pay much but I’ll feed you and you can travel with us. And I’ll have an extra hand that I know I can trust and that I know is a team player.”
It didn’t even take me two seconds to decide. I stuck out my hand to shake on it and said, “Deal.”
Two days later Joe’s sister’s family was as packed as the wagon could hold and the horses could pull. I had asked Joe to keep my identity to himself … or at least my sex. He insisted on telling Sheila but after meeting her I had no problem with it. She was everything I was not and could never be through no fault of my own or hers; but she was nice and didn’t mean to make me feel like the ugly stepsister of the Bride of Frankenstein. She was petite, fair skinned, blue eyed and graceful, reminding me that Joe had said she’d studied ballet until they’d gotten married.
Joe couldn’t find another team to help out that didn’t want an arm and a leg for their services so he teamed up with another family that was also heading to Nebraska and everyone agreed to share chores and security. The first night Joe, Orland who was the head of the other family, and I sat and looked at my maps and started planning the route. I was calculating mileage when I got a shock.
“Why do you all keep saying take the highway? Wouldn’t it be faster to continue on I80 and then cut north?”
Joe looked at me and said, “I guess you haven’t heard about Cheyenne.”
“Haven’t heard what about Cheyenne?”
“It isn’t,” Orland said.
“Isn’t what?” I asked
“Excuse me?” I asked thinking I couldn’t have heard what I thought I’d heard.
Joe said, “Well that’s not strictly true. Cheyenne is still there, mostly. But it’s messed up. Several smallish dirty bombs went off. Anyone that tries to go through that area either comes out sick or never comes out.”
“But …. But Laramie is only about sixty miles from Cheyenne. What are you all doing sitting here so calm about it?!”
“They bombs were in the basements of some buildings. The radiation is very localized for the most part. It was worrisome at first but what little bit made it this far dissipated as soon as we had that gully washer that settled the dust.”
Orland added, “But I will admit the thought of getting out of here and putting more distance between us and that place doesn’t exactly make me feel bad.”
For some reason that night I dreamed of Thor and the other men. We were at that same camp where I’d suggested that Evans soak his feet even at the risk of getting a cold. In the dream he was doing it again only the basin was full of blood and sores were creeping up his legs. “Bought me some new boots from Cheyenne. What do you think of them?” When he lifted his feet out of the water/blood they were nothing but bones. I sat up with a jerk.
“Just a dream,” I reminded myself. But the dream started me to wondering. And the wondering started me thinking.
No … they wouldn’t not hear about Cheyenne. They’d hear about it and go around. I hope they’d talk about it before they hit the road. But what if no one would talk back? Let them know?
There was absolutely nothing I could do about it but it still made me queasy. The memory of the dream bothered me; so did the realization that I was more hurt than I wanted to admit by the fact that they hadn’t bothered to feel like a real goodbye was in order. It left me feeling too much like a girl and that was something I could no longer afford the luxury of.
We started early the next day after a breakfast of biscuits and ham that had been fixed the night before. We headed out of town eventually getting on SR34. It was sixty miles to Natwick and it took us a week to get there. I had thought I was done moving road blockages but it was a good thing I hadn’t lost the skill. I had it down to a science and only rarely did I need some extra help. It isn’t that there were many roadblocks but the ones still there were vicious. Sometimes all I could do was move the debris just enough for the wagons to squeak by.
It wasn’t just the blockages. The wagons were loaded down. Eventually the families started unloading a few things to make it easier on the animals and safer on the uncertain conditions of the road. The first to go were the sofas and then the larger electronic items that really didn’t mean anything anymore; people were just holding on to them “just in case.” Dressers were left behind unless they were an antique or a good quality solid wood. Large bed frames and box springs were left on the side of the road and only the best mattresses kept.
Joe’s and Orland’s families weren’t the only ones doing this. Everywhere I looked it reminded me of a hillbilly flea market that someone forgot to clean up after. People learned fast what was a necessity and what was a luxury or they broke down and found themselves stuck on the side of the road; and there more than a few of them as well.
Horses, especially horses that could pull a fully loaded wagon, were precious property. As we travelled the road we heard of horse thieves and runaway animals which doubled the guards we had already set through the night.
The company was boring but I was still glad that I agreed to come along. Lightening the wagons and rebalancing some of the loads increased our speed. I could still keep up on foot but I was in shape for it.
Joe said, “Dang Rocky, how many miles did you say you had already done this for?”
I shrugged, “I’ve lost count but it is bound to be nearing three-fifty.” I was all but inhaling the chili that Orland’s wife had fixed. It was the hottest chili I’d ever eaten in my life but it was so good I was willing to lose all the hair off my tongue to get the last bit out of the bottom of the bowl. “I’m still going slower than I expected to. Naw … don’t feel bad. We’re speeding up. What I mean is that I’ve still got a long ways to go even after I see you all off in Nebraska. I’ve got this little bit of Wyoming left and then all of Nebraska and Missouri and once I get that far I’m still looking at the whole length of Tennessee before I hit the winding roads of the Smokies. If I can get to Newfound Gap I’m going to try and use the Appalachian Trail to cut off miles, assuming I don’t have to hole up someplace for the winter.”
“Why not … why not stay in Nebraska? Sheila has a brother …”
I almost choked on the last bean. “Don’t start Joe. Though I appreciate the thought … I just …” I trailed off and then said, “I’m looking for where I belong.” I laughed and shook my head. “I sound like Dorothy; all I need are some ruby slippers.”
“I hope you change your mind Rocky. Sheila likes you too. You know where I met her?”
“No, last I heard you were into the red-headed twins of Toledo.”
He laughed, “That was a while ago and I doubt they’d be quite as happy about showing me off, not with this face.”
He interrupted me, “You want to know what I didn’t let you know I was back?”
“It’s your business.”
“No … well it is … but … it was because you would totally understand how people looking at me funny and suddenly treating me like I was some kind of … of mutant or something made me feel. If you were there I couldn’t feel sorry for myself. You’d remind me that I didn’t have to let it stop me from doing what I wanted to do. What was stopping me was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Losing the eye ended the only career I’d ever thought of having. My parents had property out here and they retired when I went into the military. I tried to bury myself out in the sticks but one time in town I met this cute little thing and … and she may be cute and she may be little but she is one of the strongest people I know.”
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say. “She seems nice ... good people is what Mom would have called her. I can tell you two suit each other.”
“Rocky … I wish you could find something like this.”
I’d met people like this before. They’ve found something or someone that has made them happy, not just happy but infinitely happy. In turn they wanted this for everyone around them. I honestly wasn’t certain if there was somebody for me like that out there. I hadn’t even thought about it much until Jonathon turned those thoughts on inside my head. I wasn’t comfortable with Jonathon pushing me and I was even less so with Joe trying to hook me up with a guy I’d never even known existed until he’d mentioned him. No, I sure wasn’t ready for what people were wanting me to find, I had too far to go and it was too uncertain I would get there.
Lucky for me Sheila called him over to check the ropes on one of the wagons and that left me to walk around the area we were camped in before getting ready for first watch … and relieved that I was able to make my escape.
Another week, two detours, and sixty more miles found us camped on the grounds of the old Ft. Laramie national historic site. We weren’t the only ones so Joe and parked the four wagons in a square except for the opening we walked the horses through. It was tight quarters but they were placid animals. It meant that no one could simply cut their pickets and walk off with them.
It was a rough night and I got very little sleep. A large group came in with liquor and there were brawls and loud racket off and on until about three in the morning. Joe muttered to me, “If they’ve got enough energy to cause this kind of trouble they aren’t working hard enough. I swear I’m about to go over and shoot that guy if he sings one more verse of Yellow Rose of Texas.”
“Not if I get to him first,” I muttered back. “I swear that voice … no … uh uh … oh Lord ... it can't be.”
“I just cannot believe this.” After making sure I wasn't hallucinating I told Joe, "Wait here. I'll either shut him up or kill him. Either way I've got to know what he is up to."