Evans’ words warmed me, driving out the cold that had taken hold. “So,” I smiled “any particular reason we’re flying in the night like this?”
“Getting while the getting is good . There’s been some stories of people getting paid and then all of a sudden they are told they’ve been fined or owe some local fee or other, or the goods they contracted for are suddenly more expensive than they were led to believe. They wind up broke all over again, or worse, in debt and working for the city to get free of the debt.”
“Wind up owing their lives to the company store?” A wink barely visible in the reflection of a fire we passed told me I’d got it right.
He looked at me speculatively and said, “I’d say we ride double but if you’re trying to avoid talk …”
I grimaced and then sighed, “I’ll keep up unless we have to run. I’m long legged and fast for my size but I won’t out last a horse. I’ll probably just pull the kids or gear in the pony cart or …”
“No you won’t.” The dead certainty in his voice left no room for discussion. “Chuckri can figure it out. He wants them kids then he and that Delia can start taking care of them now. The sooner the better.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Well I do. He could’ve at least checked on ya; for that matter I should have.”
I didn’t like my one true friend feeling bad. “Hey, it’s no biggie. And even if it was it’s not Trish and Mickey’s fault and I won’t hold it against them. They’re just kids.”
His voice was gruff and a little awkward when he said, “Well …”
I stopped before we got to the warehouse and pulled him into an even blacker pool of darkness so we wouldn’t be seen. “Evans, don’t let this … this knowing what I am change things. I’m the same me I’ve always been. And we both know I’m not the fragile type and that I can give as good as I get. There’s a price for letting people think I am a guy and I knew it before I even started. I appreciate you taking my part but I don’t want to cause problems. I keep being told y’all have been together as a crew for a long time. I don’t want to mess that up. It’s enough to know it matters to you.”
He shook his head. “It’s too easy to fergit how all fired young you really are. Just remember what I said, you stick with me. I don’t cotton to the way Thor and Chuckri handled things this time. It could have gotten out of hand real easy. Now you mind me on this, ya hear?”
“I hear,” I told him knowing from past experience he wouldn’t lay off until I did.
“We’ll keep our eyes open and snag ya something to eat as soon as might be. We’ll keep our eyes out for that fishing gear too … if you’ve still a mind to.”
“Of course,” I told him.
That made us both smile and that’s how we entered the warehouse.
“You two happy about holding us up?” Thor snarled.
I just looked at him and suddenly I was coldly angry with him all over again. I walked over and picked up my pack and put it on while saying, “As I recall my participation in this crew was to get that wheat to market. Evans told me the buyers finally came to finish the transaction with no warning and just left not that long ago. Well guess that means your need to tolerate me is over. You sure weren’t obligated to look for me or wait no more. Can’t even imagine why you would expect me to think you would. Your message was pretty clear before now, yesterday jut reinforced it.”
I walked to Trish and Mickey and knelt down in the uncomfortable silence. “I won’t be far. Not if I can help it. I’ll keep my promise and make sure you get settled. OK?”
“Now hold on here,” Evans broke in. “See what you’ve started Thor? You left the Kid up on that roof all day, no water, no food … and Rocky still ain’t had nothing to eat …”
“Evans!” I didn’t want anyone’s pity or the kind of attention he was generating on my behalf.
“You hush up Kid. I’m gonna have my say. I ain’t the best example but I wouldn’t leave a buddy hanging like they done. It went from joke to meanness just because you didn’t cry and admit defeat, or maybe they just plain forgot about you which ain’t no better. Makes me wonder how much noise the rest of ‘em would be making if they’d been treated the same way. Also makes me begin to wonder what they’ll do to me when I ain’t useful to ‘em no more.” Then he turned to Thor and Chuckri. “I been with this crew longer than anybody here. Watched men come and men go; some by choice and some the hard way. You two are supposed to be the leaders now. We’re supposed to follow what you do and be able to trust you are looking out for all of us. I expect some tomfoolery like what’s happened from the Kid, Rocky’s only just eighteen. I don’t expect it from the two o’ you. Don’t fergit I was around when you were both that age. Both of you were a couple of pains in the @##$%. I cain’t count the number of times us older guys wanted to drop you down a well someplace and leave you there … ‘specially that time in Fallujah. I never heard such a bunch of complaining as we used to get out of you that first year.”
Chuckri opened his mouth but Evans stopped him, “I got something to say to you special. Some example you set. Or are you just one of those that wanna be a Pap only when it’s easy or fits in with your plans? Them kids been watching you. You gonna explain to them why yer treating the person whot saved their lives the way you are treating Rocky or are you gonna let ‘em think anything’s ok to do so long as it is just supposed to be a joke?”
Chuckri didn’t like that and crossed his arms and glared. Thor growled threateningly, “You got something to say to me?”
“Don’t got to. You know what you did. And you know why it were wrong. You think I’m gonna make it easy on you? I …”
Suddenly Evans seemed to lose his balance. I ran forward and grabbed his belt and steadied him. Richards stepped forward looking daggers at both Thor and Chuckri. “I told you to have someone else look for Rocky.”
“Aw, get off me,” Evans complained as both Richards and I tried to get him to sit down.
“This whole situation is on Rocky. Everywhere the Kid goes there’s trouble,” Thor snarled.
My concern for Evans made me angry to the point of nearly losing control. Lack of rest and food was loosening my lips as well. “Fine, it’s on me for not checking in when I didn’t think you or anyone else gave a rip, specially not after yesterday. But you best back up right now. Evans is the only one I trust to have my back and he needs some space … and a few too many are crowding him.”
Whatever it was they saw on my face, a couple of them backed up fast enough to step on each other’s feet.
“Knock it off, just tripped over my boot lace,” Evans complained
“Sure. But just on the off chance that wasn’t it just let Richards do his thing. You promised me some R&R and a visit to a fishing hole. Remember? How we gonna go fishing if you don’t stay well? You promised to teach me to cheat at cards too.”
Outraged Evans said, “I did no such thing. Fishing yes, cards no. I don’t want you fooling with cards, they lead to other things you don’t have no business messing with.”
I grinned at Richards, “Oh well, it was worth a try.”
“Humph” was the only sound I got out of Evans but he couldn’t quite keep a smile from pulling at the corner of his mouth.
“All right, show’s over. Finish loading your gear, we’re leaving in thirty.” Thor said more quietly than he had up to that point.
The other men scrambled off. Pointedly ignoring Thor I concentrated on Richards and his assessment of Evans. He sighed. “I don’t know. I’m no medical doctor and you know it. Some of it, maybe most of it, is fatigue but I don’t like your slowed response time Evans. You took a bad crack on the head back …”
“Yeah, yeah. If we’re leaving in thirty I need to get saddled up. Kid, if I have to tie yer over the rump of my horse yer not wandering off. You mind me now. I ain’t in the mood for no more. Now move and let me get up. I may be the old man of this crew but I ain’t exactly ancient.”
“I never said you were old,” I told him. “Neither did Richards. We’re saying you aren’t taking care of yourself.”
“Aw, stop yer fussing. You just want to get to that fishing hole is all. Let’s get Chuckri to home and I’ll rest then. Seems to me we don’t need no more delays.”
Unfortunately Evans was right. He stood up and only stumbled once going out to the horses. I made to follow but Thor and Richards both held me back. “Someone’s already saddled it for him. He’s just going to check it to save face.”
I looked down at Thor’s hand on my arm, looked him in the eye and then tightened my bicep muscles up, spreading his fingers, so that he got the idea I didn’t want him touching me. I turned to Richards and asked, “You sure he’s all right?”
“Honestly? No. There is some cloudiness in his right eye that wasn’t there before his beating. His reflexes are noticeably slower than they were before as well. Evans looks a lot older than the rest of us but he’s only forty. I can’t account for his current condition except as a byproduct of his time in the … care … of the gamblers.”
I asked, “What can I do to help?”
“Keep an eye on him. See if there is any change for the worse, even if it is mild. See if there is anything in particular that precipitates these types of episodes even if it is just fatigue. Make sure he rests. Maybe all he needs is some rest, we could all use some, but I can’t say that’s it for sure.” It was obvious he was frustrated and feeling the limits of his knowledge.
Richards left to go tend to his own gear and I went to get the rest of Evans’ so I could load it on the horse. Before I could go however Thor grabbed my arm again. “Thor, you grab me again and you might just pull back a nubbin. I’m not one of your men you can order around.”
“You never were.”
I just shook my head and made to walk away again. “@#$% you know what I mean.”
“No I don’t and I’m done making excuses for the dumb things you say. And stop cussing at me. You get your point across well enough without it. I mean it Thor, I’m done. I’m almost clear of this whole mess. When I fulfill my promise to the kids I’m gone. I’m going to tell you this once and only once. Maybe I did enjoy it too much when Nona set on you but she is a real doc and you were hurt and weren’t listening to Richards. You’re still moving like someone’s granny. Despite it all you scared me getting hurt and then when I saw you were OK I got silly. But what you did to retaliate, you never would have done that to any of the other men. Did I really deserve that for what I did to you or was it about me being different and putting me in my place?”
“What kind of question is that?” Thor asked irritably.
“One that I’ve had to ask myself too often in my life. I just thought with the end of the world I’d be able to put all of that behind me. Obviously not. And here’s another thing, Evans is my friend whether you like it or not. I won’t interfere with your crew but I won’t be interfered with either when it comes to returning Evans’ friendship. He’s the only one out of all of y’all that never has offered me false coin. He knows what I am … or mostly … and suspect he might know even more than he’s letting on. He’s that kind of guy. But he’s had my back time after time and I mean to do the same for him. Anyone gets in the way of that and I will hurt them.”
He snorted, “Real feminine Ro-chelle.”
“You don’t know what real feminine means. I can guarantee you those silly little things you seem to think are the perfect example of womanliness are nothing but fake paper dolls and don’t look so pretty these days; and they’re probably little more than useless to their families too. Real women are just that … real, not concreted over with makeup thick as spackle and so many dye jobs they’ve probably forgotten what their real hair color looks like. Sure, I could be more girly, even women my size and bigger can do it, my aunt was one of them … but I’d be dead right now if I was you big dope. I am still the exact same person I was before. I have always been this person. It is other people that keep trying to hang a label on me.”
I nearly walked away but had to finish saying what was on my mind. “What did you expect? That you were going to reveal the fact that you knew I was female and suddenly I was going to shrink, lose a few pounds, and turn dainty and fragile and oh so grateful for your notice? If so that’s some fantasy life you have there. I am who I am and what I am by birth and by choice. You are just one of the way too many that can’t seem to accept me for who I am. You’ve made things real clear, you and the other men. Like I said, just stay out of my way when it comes to helping Evans. I’ve lost a lot of trust in you guys, maybe I shouldn’t have given it so easily in the first place.” I mumbled the last more to myself than to him.
He tried to grab me again and I elbowed him where I knew he was bruised so he’d let go quick and then walked away. I’ll admit that I was hurt and angry … hurt by him and Chuckri and the other guys too and angry at myself for forgetting all of the rules of self preservation that I’d set for myself. I grabbed Evans’ gear and made my escape.
I wasn’t the first to be ready but I wasn’t the last either. Finally we were on our way out of Dodge before the first cock crowed and anyone was awake to stop us. The rest of the caravan crew had been paid their share and sent on their way. Delia drove a little supply wagon and had the kids tucked in there as well. Everyone else besides them and me was on a horse. I suppose I could have hopped up in the wagon too but I wasn’t invited and preferred to go my own way anyway.
I would start paying for that excess of pride as the sun came up. I’d managed to fill my canteen but not my belly. I was also exhausted. I tried to stay alert but it was getting hard. I heard a whispered, “Rocky, you OK?”
I looked up to find Evans had maneuvered his horse up beside me. “I’m fine.”
“Don’t look fine.”
“Wouldn’t know. The mirror has never exactly been my friend. Always shows me what I least want to see.”
“Kid, this isn’t a joke.”
I sighed and looked up at him. “I’ll be fine. Really. I don’t think I’m even hungry any more. Just … no more scenes. I hate drama. It’s so useless.”
He wasn’t satisfied. “Yeah, well maybe you’ll get drama whether you want it or no. Them kids are pestering Delia and anyone that’ll listen near to death. Thor looks like he’s about to fall out of the saddle and him and Chuckri have had words.”
“Aw geez. And people complain about me being young. Sounds like everybody else is who needs to grow up. I’ll go make sure that Mickey doesn’t fall out of the wagon. He could be a wiggle worm when I was pulling them in the pony cart.”
We would have made better time if we had cut straight through Topeka but we wanted to avoid all of the militia patrols we could so we detoured around the city using a southern route. If we’d planned better we could have avoided half the stopping we did that day. I finally did get something to eat about mid-morning but it was just some rolls and a wedge of cheese I bought off a farmer. I offered some to Evans but he just said, “Eat it Kid. I’m chewing on some wheat and that’s about all my jaw wants right now.”
Remembering that family with the pile of wheat and not knowing what to do with it besides boil it I said, “Reckon they’d let me pop some wheat for the kids later if I got it soaking now?”
“You start popping wheat and it won’t just be the kids who’ll want some. My Mam used to do that when we didn’t have much else ter eat. How do you know about it? Haven’t heard of anyone doing it for years.”
“My great grandmother was alive until I was a sophomore in highschool and her daughter, my grandmother, was too; they only died a couple of months apart. They lived in a cabin on the other side of the yard lot from the big house. I never knew them to cook except from scratch. Mom did too mostly but she liked her modern conveniences when Dad could afford them. It was my job to help Mawmaw and Granny get their house cleaned up on Saturday before the Sabbath. They’d always have some kind of treat for me to eat afterwards … popped wheat, popcorn, ginger snaps, tea biscuits full of dried fruit. It’s a wonder I’m not as big as a house the way they fed me.” I smiled thinking of my memories.
“Mmmm. Biscuits. I ain’t had me a good biscuit in years. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve eaten some good food while we were out working but biscuits are particular; they need a light but strong hand … about like children. When we were over in Turkey a couple of years ago I had these rings of bread called Simits or summut like that. Couldn’t understand half of what them folks said. You’d get ‘em off of street vendors and fill ‘em full of jam or honey. Lordy them was good. Hey Montgomery! You remember that time you …” He was off and running, dredging up things to draw the other men into conversation. I noticed after he started they seemed to lose the mullygrubs that they’d been holding onto.
I stepped over to the wagon and grabbed Mickey before he nearly fell out head first again. “What did I tell you about minding? You’re gonna get in trouble and it is gonna be your own fault.”
“I’m bored,” he whined.
“If I’d been dumb enough to say that when my granny was around she would have told me ‘Come here Rocky and I’ll give you a board across your backside and then find you something to tie up your time plenty.’ Now stop being such a pain. It’s not nice for you to be mean to folks because they’re trying to take care of you and get you some place you can call home.”
“But I’m bored. It was fun when you pulled us in the pony cart. Do it again.”
“Demanding little monster aren’t you? We’ll see how you behave for the rest of the day and then maybe tomorrow we’ll see whether I’m up to totin’ you around for a little while; get you out of everybody’s hair. But only if you start behaving. And you better say sorry to Delia. If she wasn’t driving the wagon you’d be walking right now and I remember you weren’t partial to that either.”
He continued to pout when I put him back in the wagon but at least he’d stopped making a nuisance of himself. And once he’d calmed down Trish did as well and before too long both of them curled up in the back of the wagon and went to sleep.
“You like kids don’t you.”
Delia’s statement caught me off guard. “Well, sure. What’s not to like. They’re messy, smelly, noisy, cause trouble, and … oh wait, you said kids. Thought you were talking about the men.”
I could have kicked myself. Being female one minute and playing at being male the next wasn’t as easy as I tried to pretend it was. Lucky for me Delia didn’t seem to notice what I’d really meant because she just laughed and let me off the hook.
There was a blind bend in the road so I ran up to see what was around the corner before the rest got there. The heat of the day wasn’t too bad but I could feel the sweat caused by the heavy pack on my back dripping down into the waist of my jeans. So it was with some relief that I spotted what looked like a cistern off behind an old store. I signaled and Thor rode up while the others held back.
“Roads kinda narrow where these buildings crowd in but it doesn’t look like anyone’s home. Even the Dollar General has been ransacked. But you see that tank over there? Does that look like a cistern to you?”
“Yeah it does,” he agreed. “If it is Richards can test the water and we’ll fill up.”
I was about to go forward and check things out some more when Thor asked, “Didja eat?”
I looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “You saw me. I wasn’t the only one to buy from the farmer’s wife.”
“Yeah … well … about … Rochelle I didn’t …”
“Rocky.” The look I gave him made him sigh.
“Rochelle. It went too far. I was in and out of it yesterday. I … I didn’t mean …”
I couldn’t believe it. I think he was actually trying to apologize. Suddenly it just didn’t seem important any more. I also knew that it was in everybody’s best interest to let it go. Out in the brave new world you could get dead real fast. Having everyone cranking and angry could have unintended consequences and I didn’t want to be the cause of anything else bad happening.
“Forget it. It’s done and over with.”
“What? You want it written in blood? Just let it go. We’ve got more important things to worry about I guess.”
This time he didn’t stop me as I left to explore forward. What I had found by the time the others had arrived was that there were some seriously sick people in this world