It was more than a little passed dawn when the wheels finally started moving and Thor was not pleased to put it mildly. When you have a whole bunch of kids, a few injured people, and a couple of elderly folks … though I don’t think Uncle Bedros would appreciate being called elderly … it’s not the same as seven men (and a girl) getting up and putting feet to trail. Still, it was pretty obvious that some improvement needed to occur, particularly in the area of organization and meal prep and clean up.
It whole kit and caboodle was a mess. There was the wagon that Delia had been driving and since she knew its quirks and the team that pulled it she continued to do so; in it she took most of the younger kids except for Vika who was kept close by Elsapet. Delia seemed to be in heaven from what I could see. She never lost patience with the kids’ antics or their never ending questions. I don’t understand why God would put such a love for children in the body of a woman that couldn’t have any, seems kind of cruel; or maybe it was since she couldn’t have any she’d developed that love and patience so that it would be enough for some children that really needed her and didn’t have anyone else. I don’t know, those kind of thoughts always did make my head hurt. It was funny to watch though when Mrs. Chuckri climbed up in the wagon with the children after the lunch break. I think she did it so she could get to know Delia better. After that mess that Churcki made with his ex-wife Linda I can understand why.
There was another wagon for Grandmother Chuckri, Uncle Bedros and Ani, and Elsapet, Vika, and Pilbos; Tovmas drove that wagon and his shoulders hunched lower and lower as the day wore on. Whether it was from Pilbos’ comments about the bumps or Uncle Bedros’ helpful suggestions (aka back seat driving) I’m not sure. I did what I could be riding over there and distracting them but it didn’t always work. They carried most of the food that was rescued in that wagon which made for a rather lumpy seating arrangement.
Soghomon drove another wagon with the rest of the food and Chuckri sisters and some feed for the animals in case we came to a barren area. Ludvig drove yet another wagon with the household goods while the remaining Chuckri brothers and older cousins road the family’s work horses that weren’t being used to pull the wagons. Joan drove the pony cart with more stuff, only instead of a pony it was being pulled by a young bull that was well yoked. David, Taniel, and some of the other older children and teenagers took turns driving the animals which was a completely new level of complicated compared to the way we’d been traveling before, made especially worse by the stupid sheep. Only the three family dogs seemed to have any sway with those animals and thank goodness for them. They were under foot, under wagon, and under hoof at every opportunity or so it seemed.
You could tell that while some of the family considered the trip an adventure, others were reluctant to leave what they knew behind and some were simply frightened at what might lie ahead. It was hard to watch and put me in mind of the stories I’d heard about the early pioneers of this country.
Thor’s comment that we wouldn’t get far that day proved true. We barely made eleven miles; only making it back to the interstate and then under it to a little deserted town called Oak Grove. The town wasn’t too ransacked so I took a few kids and we went salvaging. It got the kids doing something constructive and gave the other adults a break. I played it up that they were doing a real service for the family so even the kids felt good about it despite not really finding too much useful; but a couple of bushels of odds and ends of food was a couple of bushel of things we didn’t have. When the kids came back the women wanted to go and they hit the feminine hygiene stuff first and then, baby items, and then under clothing for the family. Joan had an inventory she was working from and though they were far from being restocked on what they’d lost, every little bit helped.
Everyone was exhausted that night. Unfortunately the wind was blowing out of the west and we could smell Kansas City on it. The children in particular seemed to be the most adversely affected by the sights we were seeing and their reactions ranged from unhealthy silence, to hyperactivity, to extreme irritability and aggressiveness. Not the most auspicious beginning I could have imagined, but due to the salvaging operation it wasn’t completely depressing. I warned everyone still awake while we were banking the fires that there was no way we could count on salvaging at every stop so we’d need to be careful. It was working on the fifth month since the collapse and most places that were going to be salvaged from had pretty much been worked over pretty well, at least for convenience foods and commercially canned goods.
I’m embarrassed to admit that the worst of it for me was the fact that I hadn’t ridden a horse in so long that I was tender in places that I would rather not have been. That more than anything was why I was willing to take the kids and get away from everyone. Walking bowlegged was a little embarrassing. You would have thought that riding a bike would have helped with that but a bike seat is a little thing and a horse’s back is most definitely not. I did my best not to let it show but Thor couldn’t help but make a couple of less than helpful suggestions as we bedded down for the night after a dinner of soup and bread. I tried to tell him that he didn’t need to sleep quite so close, it didn’t get that cool at night, but he gave me a look which told me he didn’t need the out I was trying to politely give him. “You know good and well I’m not sleeping here because it is gonna get cold so don’t get coy.”
I choked back a cough at the very idea someone would have thought of me as trying to be coy. “You’re crazy. That’s not what I mean. People are going to talk,” I said trying not to draw attention to us.
“So let ‘em.”
I sighed. I guess it really didn’t matter to him but I was realizing that it mattered to me. All of it was just so new and unexpected … not unwelcome at all, just I didn’t know how to deal with it a lot of the times. Thor could be pretty intense when it wasn’t being irritating or cute on purpose. I wondered if he thought I was cold and didn’t feel the things he was feeling. I was afraid of hurting his feelings so I stopped trying to get the point across that people were going to think we were doing a lot more than we were.
The addition of Chuckri’s family really helped with duty rotations. Sure there was more work, but there were also more people to do the work and in particular guard duty. That meant no one had to be on every night. I worried at first about it looking like Thor was doing favors for me when I wasn’t on duty that first night.
“Are you going to settle down at all? I’m tired.” Thor complained in a quiet growl after I had tossed and turned for about an hour because I couldn’t get my thoughts to settle.
“Then go sleep someplace else.” I whispered back.
Some of my upset must have made it into my voice because he asked, “What is this all about? Changing your mind?”
“Changing my mind about what?”
“You’re either playing dumb or coy and I don’t like either one.”
“Well, I’m not playing. Wait … I mean I’m not being coy and I’m not dumb. I haven’t changed my mind about anything. I … I’m … people are going to talk Thor. Can’t you see that?”
Running out of patience I used my elbow to back him out of my personal space a little bit. “People are going to talk and even if you don’t care I do.”
“You ashamed of me?”
I rolled over not expecting him to have gotten so close again. “Omph! Will you back up a bit? No, I’m not ashamed of you. I know we’re not doing … you know … it. I know that you are giving me some time to get used to all of this and to focus on the priority which is getting Chuckri’s family where they’ll be safe. I know that … and I appreciate it. But … other people don’t know that and other people will think … doggone Thor, you know what they’ll think.”
He finally started to get I wasn’t playing. “And that really bothers you?”
I shrugged. “You’d think after having people talk about me my whole life it wouldn’t phase me. But I’ve always tried to be so careful not to give ‘em more reason to talk than they already had. And when they did talk about stuff that bothered me I tried to pretend that it didn’t or I could get away from them and ignore them. I can’t do that here. And … and …”
“And what?” he asked after I trailed off embarrassed at trying to explain it to him.
“And I wonder what my parents would say … OK? My mom seemed to be thrilled with Jonathon started acting … er … partial to me. My dad, not so much. And he was on the other side of the country, my age, and just about as harmless as they come. You’re none of the above – you’re right here and in my space and in ways no one ever has been, you’re older than I am, and the last thing you are is harmless.” I leaned forward in the dark and put my head on his shoulder. “Maybe that is what I need but I’m not sure exactly how that makes me look.”
He growled and then pulled me closer. “What you need hmm?”
I thumped him on his chest pretty hard, “Do you ever think of anything else?”
“Sweetheart, how you could have played sports with highschool boys and not learned that nearly everything eventually leads back to sex in some way for most guys is beyond me.”
“Neanderthal,” I called him but without too much heat to it. “Of course I realized that. However, I thought it was just because they hadn’t matured very much, I didn’t realize even grown men were that hormonally challenged.”
He gave a wicked little laugh before getting serious himself. “People are going to talk no matter what we do or don’t do. You were the lone female traveling in the company of several rough men. Not everyone will believe that you hid your gender as long as you did or that you are capable enough to handle the work load without … special help and accommodations if you catch my drift.”
“That’s … that’s …” then I sighed, accepting the inevitable. “Fine. People are going to think I’m a loose woman. But don’t expect me to like it or encourage it.”
He ran his hand over my hair, “Rochelle, if I could stop them I would since it seems to both you but I can’t. And frankly what they say doesn’t bother me because I know it isn’t true. Despite it all you sure are a modest little thing.” I snorted with laughter when he called me a little thing but he continued. “If they started upsetting you too much I’d do something but if no one does anything more overt than think I’m not going to turn into the thought police. You do understand what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, pretty much. They can think what they want to think but if I try and force them to think something else they’ll only think the other even more.”
He kissed my forehead in the dark but I could tell it wasn’t to push any boundaries. After a moment he continued. “I’m not moving Rochelle. I fail to see why I should deny myself what pleasure and comfort I get from being close to you just because there are some idiots left in the world. If your parents were here the situation would be different because your father would be the man in your life and he’d be your protector and I’d probably never gotten near enough to get to know you in the first place. But that’s not the way it is. I’m the man in your life and I’m your protector and I’m going to have the pleasure of torturing myself until you’re ready for anything else. Understand?”
Not quite ready to give in I told him, “I don’t need you to be my protector. I’ve managed fairly well so far.”
“Too bad, that’s the door prize you get with this package. You’re my woman and that’s all there is to it.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the smugness I heard in his voice. “So I’m your woman?”
“Oh yeah. And if that boy doesn’t stop his sniffing around he’s going to lose some vital parts.”
The change in subject caught me off guard. “What boy?”
“Pilbo doughboy,” he said with such disdain I had a hard time not laughing.
“What are you talking about? He’s riding in a wagon, I’m riding a horse and the only reason I was talking to him was to keep Tovmas from committing fratricide.”
Thor wasn’t appeased. “He keeps watching you.”
I shook my head, “OK, you are too tired. You’re getting silly.” Then more seriously once again I said, “Thor. I’m sorry that this bothers me but I can’t help it.
“Don’t worry about it. I’d probably wonder why it didn’t bother you if it didn’t.”
“Thor, can I ask you something?”
He chuffed a quiet laugh, “Have I ever been able to stop you?”
“Smart aleck. Look, maybe this is … I don’t know … not my job or something but … where … where is this going? Between us I mean. I know you’re serious … and I’m serious too … about us … together … and stuff like that.” I shuddered, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake. “But the rest of it. You said you’d come home with me … but … but do plan on staying? Or … or are you just kinda … waiting … to you know see if something else comes along … or … or you know …”
Suddenly I was pinned like I was under a dog pile and I was caught between surprise and fear at just how close he was all of a sudden.
“Now you listen here Ro-chelle. You will not let this crazy fear you have of what other people say get you thinking along the lines of any kind of escape what so ever. I have been all over this cotton pickin’ world several times over. I’ve been offered just about any flavor imaginable when it comes to women and what they have available. None of them … and I mean absolutely none of them … has ever done it for me the way you do and that’s even before we’ve done much more than tease each other. I consider myself a smart man so it doesn’t make a lick of sense for me to go off searching the world again to find what I already have. You got that?”
“I can’t breathe you oaf, get off me.”
He shook his head, “I’m not moving until you understand what I’m saying. I won’t put up with you trying to get away from me … not because you think it is for my own good and not because you are just afraid of whether I’m serious or not. I’m more serious than I can show you until you’re more ready for it. You’ve changed how I see the future. You’ve changed what I want from the future. Now I don’t even see the future at all without you in it.” He stopped and said, “Now I’ve got a question for you. How do you see this playing out? Between us?”
Suddenly I felt bolder than I ever had. “Like I asked you to come home with me but … but if you really hadn’t wanted to come I would have followed you where it was you wanted to go. I never thought beyond that. I was too afraid to.”
He finally got off of me and I was a little sorry for it but a little relieved too. “Well, there’s no need to be afraid. I’ve developed a real curiosity to see the place where you grew up. I’ve never lived in that area of the country but what I’ve seen of it seems to make it a good place to have a home … a family.” When he said that last it seemed like some kind of deal had been sealed between us. There was almost a audible sound of something being locked.
“You’d … you’d really want a family with me … a GWB?”
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a flaming flip what you’re called just as long as you stay who you are. And don’t tease me about wanting a family with you; you’re supposed to be reminding me that I’m a patient man, not one that wants to make a family, remember?”
I smiled as another one of those knots I had inside me and didn’t know it untied itself. “That has to be the worst Clark Gable imitation I’ve ever heard.”
“Then it’s a good thing I didn’t make my living on the stage. Now can we get some rest? Tomorrow is going to challenging enough without having to do it on half rations of sleep.”
I was finally able to let everything settle for the night and get some sleep. It wasn’t that I had stopped caring about what other people thought we were doing – that still gave me the heebie jeebies especially since we weren’t doing anything – but a thought had been dealt with that I hadn’t really dared to think. Thor wasn’t just serious, he wasn’t just in this for the long haul … he was in it for the forever haul and believing that made a huge difference for me.
The next night saw us in a place called Lone Jack and then the next a place called Pittsville. We’d been heading south to try and get away from the interstate because though it was the more direct route, it would have likely been the more dangerous one as well. I wasn’t real sure about turning east when we did as we’d have to go by Whiteman Air Force Base. My concern was born out when we tried to stop for the next night at a town called Warrensburg.