I turned to grab the horse that one of the older kids had accidentally let loose when they’d become startled and that’s the last thing I remember before hearing some strange man’s voice laughing derisively, “Honestly Thor, when did you start swinging that way? What happened? Did Maggs really spoil you for all other women?”
Now my head felt scrambled but not to the point I didn’t understand the crudeness I was hearing. It wasn’t the first time that I’d been mistaken for a guy but it was the first time that particular assumption had been made. I cracked my eye open and saw some guy with a gun lazily pointed in Thor’s general direction while braying like a mule’s hind end after it ate something that disagreed with it. Two guys had Thor pinned but didn’t have their weapons drawn. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Someone was more than a little over confident.
Trying to see what was going on I rolled my eye to the limits of my peripheral vision and saw there was a group of men and they had our people contained by threatening the kids of the caravan, but again they didn’t seem to be as serious as they should be. A couple of the Chuckri family looked banged up and Alfonso’s nose was running red like a faucet but otherwise I didn’t see anything serious.
The guy talking brought my attention back around. “Drop the altruistic act old friend, you can’t pull it off worth a @#$%. So again I’m gonna ask you, who are you working for?”
When Thor wouldn’t respond one of the guys holding him kicked him in the kidney. Thor grunted painfully but gave his captors as little as possible to satisfy their sadistic streak. I made sure no one got another chance to beat on Thor. I put everything I had into making sure the tip of my steel-toed boot made contact with Mr. Chuckle’s knee resulting in the maximum damage possible.
There was an audible snap and then a shriek. I vaulted up and my not insubstantial fist met one of Thor’s captors upside his head. Thor took the other one down. I didn’t need him to tell me “no mercy” this time.
The guy I’d knee capped was trying to get his weapon aimed and since it had been so satisfying the first time I did him again only this time putting him down with a kick to the temple. I grabbed his weapon but turned to find the crew really didn’t needs guns to be lethal.
Suddenly there was a wrenching pain as my back spasmed; like I was getting swarmed by yellow jackets all in one spot. I swiped my hand back there, felt wires and yanked. I turned and jerked the box they were attached to out of a woman’s hands and then reached for her.
I managed to grab a handful of over processed hair and shook her like a rag doll. She complained loudly. “You can’t do this to me! I’m a woman!!” the little poodle headed female yelled at me.
“So am I you dimwit.” I told her calmly in return as I picked her up and then slammed her down to the ground in a classic wrestling move I’d practiced with a couple of my guy friends much to my mother’s displeasure. My adrenaline level was really pumping as the endorphins practically flew through my system.
Thor and I backed towards each other. I asked, “So what did I miss to wake up to the party already in full swing?”
He groaned, “Don’t play with me right now Rochelle. My heart nearly ripped out of my chest when I saw you go down.”
“OK, then can you at least tell me why I went down? All I remember was grabbing for a horse that was trying to take off.”
I growled, “They shot you with a dart.”
Flabbergasted I responded, “Well apparently their dart was a dud, or close to one. I couldn’t have been out long.”
“You were out freaking forty minutes!” he growled menacingly. “I was beginning to wonder if …” He wouldn’t finish what he was saying but I could imagine. We were too busy trying to see out into the dark to check for any more surprises but I bumped him from the behind and rubbed my shoulders against his back.
When our perimeter had been secured I waited while Thor did his thing and Richards gave me the once over. He found the bruise from the dart on the back of my left arm but that seemed to be the only visible damage. My back hurt worse than my arm did. I gave Alfonso the remains of the wired taser and then asked him, “That guy seemed to know Thor. Who was he?”
“Ask Thor,” was the only answer I got and not just from Alfonso. Even Richards’ lips were sealed tight over the information they obviously had.
When I saw Thor rolling the guy I’d knee capped over I realized that I’d done even more damage than I had meant to. I walked over slowly, throwing a long shadow from the fire that was being put together to light the camp as the sun went down.
“Thor?” I asked hesitantly.
“Don’t you dare regret this Rochelle. He wouldn’t if your places were reversed.”
I thought about that for a moment then asked, “Who was he? He knew you and none of the crew will tell me.”
Rather than answer me he started to walk towards the woman. I grabbed his arm. “Don’t. She’s playing ‘possum. Her eyeballs have been rolling around under her lids.”
A pathetic little moan that would have wrapped most men around her finger issued from her rosebud mouth; it had the opposite effect on me. I told her, “Get a grip or did I knock your brains out as well as your breath?”
I saw her nostrils flare and knew that I’d scored but she was intent on playing her role. She was still acting pathetic though Thor did seem to be keeping his distance. Richards went to go over to her and I asked, “Do you guys have a death wish or something? That chick jabbed me in the back with some voltage. She looks cuddlesome but my guess is she is more like a viper.” Then quick before she could have reacted if she hadn’t been watching and listening I kicked a hot ember at her.
Boy was she quick. She was up and running but I was on her and she went back down, this time with my knees in her back. She made this unladylike oomph noise as the wind left her again.
I looked at all of the guys who were just standing around gapping and said, “What? Are you guys waiting to get your jollies from watching a cat fight or is someone going to give me a hand here?”
It was Shoushan that came over with some rope and helped me tie the woman up and then surprised me by giving her a very thorough pat down and throwing some nasty toys off to the side out of reach. She nodded silently at me and then went back to her family but not before putting a less than sisterly elbow in Chuckri’s side.
I decided sitting on the woman was rather easier to do that watching her try and wiggle off into the bushes. “Now … will someone please explain why the lot of you look like you’ve been hypnotized by a cobra? Or do I get the answers from the beauty queen here?”
Thor raised an eyebrow and asked, “Since when did you start to be so blood thirsty?”
I didn’t have to answer because Pilbos said, “You’ve obviously never seen her play man. She can seriously kick …”
“That’s enough,” I told him mildly but my face must have told him exactly what I would do to him if he didn’t knock off being my defender. One, I didn’t need it and two, I didn’t need it from him. He took the warning good naturedly enough and went over to help his brothers and cousins.
I turned and just continued to look at Thor with my eyebrow raised. He finally broke first with a grin he totally fought giving me. Then he sighed. “The man was Rick Roads, part time contractor, full time mercenary. The woman is his sister, Margaret Roads.”
Well, well, well. “Hmmm. And I take it ‘Maggs’ was a particular friend of yours at some point in the past?”
I got an unhappy grunt. I turned to look at Ms. Maggs and caught her looking daggers at me. “How do you do? My name is Rocky. You even think about sinking your claws into Thor again and I’ll strip the skin from your body and stretch it for curing. Sorry about your brother … oh wait … no I’m not.” That got her kicking up a fuss but all I did was bounce up and down on her a couple of times and she stopped real quick. “That’s better. Now, would you like to answer some questions for the nice men here or do I employ your brother’s methods of persuasion?”
A sudden electrical clicking followed by a intercom squeal had the entire crew going on even higher alert than we already were. Several of the children started crying.
“Hellooo the camp. Carol? Carol Sneed? Are you in harm’s way?”
The woman named Carol suddenly beamed. “Not any more Charlie!” She turned to Thor. “It’s a patrol from Whiteman. I would like to go with them if you’ll give me a hand getting the other woman out of the wagon.”
Maggs was fighting furiously to escape. “My goodness, it’s totally rude to leave the party so soon,” I told her and then I bounced once really hard making the air leave her in a funny bark. “Tut, tut, tut. Miss Manners would be so disappointed.”
I found Thor giving me an odd look but then he was distracted by a man coming out of the bushes waving a white … well, not white exactly but it was close enough … handkerchief. “Carol?” he called.
“Hang on Charlie. Give them some space. You really don’t want to make these guys twitchy.”
Introductions were made and a truce was called which was soon turned into an out and out offer of safe passage when they relayed Carol’s rescue, the destruction of the ambushers, as well as the eradication of what was locally known as the Roads Gang to base command.
The man Charlie said, “We’ll take Maggie Roads back to the base and put her on public trial. Carol and that other woman will be taken to the base hospital for treatment but it will have to wait for morning for our reliefs to get here with a vehicle.”
Alfonso broke in to ask, “You have cars?”
Charlie rolled his eyes, “If you want to call them that. We cobbled together some stripped down buggies to use as haulers outside of the base. I’d as soon make Maggie here crawl but Carol and that other woman aren’t in the shape for walking and we avoid riding the horses double when we can help it; we’ve found it puts both rider and passenger at too much risk.”
Charlie and his group continued their patrol while our camp made to go to sleep. I personally took a great deal of pleasure in using way more rope than necessary to secure Maggs to a handy lamp post. While no one was looking I also added two more strips of duct tape across her mouth. Yes, I knew I was being vindictive. Yes, I knew that I was acting like a jealous shrew. I won’t make excuses for it but I will say that I would not have been too keen on anyone that had been part of treating me first like a zoo animal and then second like a science experiment.
I was debating whether I wanted to throw my bedroll out and sit on it to keep watch on the woman or whether I’d just remain standing when Thor took the decision out of my hands. Barkley was set to watch the prisoner since he’d never fallen for her.
“Are you telling me he is the only one?” I asked incredulous that such seemingly smart men could behave in such a brainless way.
“No.” The quietly he said, “Evans never liked her at all.”
Caught in a moment of grieving I looked up to realize Thor had pulled me off to the dark side of the camp. “Hey what …”
Thor was pulling my shirt tail out. “Hold still. I want to check to make sure you aren’t hurt.”
“Richards already checked and …”
Then his hands were where they shouldn’t have been and I ended on a strangled sigh. “You have got to stop doing that.”
“Not a good enough reason. Does this hurt?”
“You know doggone good and well it doesn’t hurt and in fact feels just the opposite. You’re doing that on purpose just to drive me crazy. How am I supposed to think when you insist on not behaving?”
“I thought I already told you … I always behave, I just don’t always behave well.”
I snorted and finally found the wherewithal to put his hands someplace safer for both of us. “You never did get around to telling me how you knew that man … and his sister.”
Thor sighed deeply. “Rochelle there are some things I’m just going to leave in the past and how I met up with those two is one of ‘em. Suffice it to say that we were assigned to work together before I knew what their character was and in the process I made some choices I wished I could unmake. The only regret I don’t have over it is that it made me a wiser man in several different ways.” He held me, kissed my temple, and then asked, “Can you let me leave it at that?”
“Are you over her?”
I thought about it and then said, “OK … but I make no promises not to get a little jealous and thump you hard if you start saying her name in your sleep. You don’t even want to know what I’ll do to you if you accidentally call me by her name.” He smiled and kissed me like he thought I was joking. I didn’t do anything to change his mind even though I knew that I wasn’t.
The next morning it was barely light but our camp was ready to roll and only waiting on Charlie’s relief patrol to show up so that they could provide the safe escort that was promised. He came up and said, “Look, there’s a farmer’s market of sorts going on today and tomorrow in Knob Noster. There’s been a fair amount of trading going on and it would give the Major time to get out here and talk to you as well. He’s authorized me to get you set up in one of the buildings reserved for any base personnel that wants to attend the market. You’ll have the place to yourself as we have two such lots but we rarely need them both at the same time. The Major really wants to talk to you.”
Thor looked at Uncle Bedros who nodded slightly. Turning back to Charlie, “This place have space for our wagons and animals?”
“Yeah,” he said. “The one that I’ll lead you to has a tall chain link fence in the back. It was a building supply warehouse. We use it when we take the haulers to town. You’ll have to bed down on bare floor though. We stripped the inside when it got overrun by fleas. Watch any little ones you have, there might still be some borax around the baseboards.”
I was curious but not particularly thrilled by another delay. My back and arm was also sore. My lack of enthusiasm must have shown.
“You don’t want to spend the day shopping?” Thor teased.
I gave him the dead eye look. “Shopping brings me no pleasure and never has. You try finding appropriate female attire for this body a few times and you’d feel the same way.”
He made a face that told me he hadn’t thought of it like that. “OK, but why don’t you look around and see if there is anything that we could use. We’ll work out paying for it somehow.”
I just looked at him. When he didn’t get it I raised my eyebrows. He still didn’t get it. I looked at him harder and then jerked my head towards the saddle bags on my horse. I rolled my eyes when he finally got it.
“Just hang onto that. You might not need it. I’ve got some stashed away.”
My mouth fell open. “Oh please tell me you aren’t going all guy on me are you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Oh yes he did.
I sighed and grabbed his hand and pulled him so that we could have a little privacy without getting stared at in case we were about to have another fight. “Thor … OK, instead of lying to me or telling me what you think I want to hear, just explain it to me. If I don’t like what I hear then we’ll deal with it but c’mon … don’t treat me like a kid. I thought we were passed that at least.”
He looked at me before saying, “A guy wants to provide certain things for his woman.”
“Yeah. Got that. Watched my dad do the whole he-man thing with my mom. But what’s this all about?”
“I just told you,” he said.
“No. You just told me one of the few things I already knew about guys in general. But we’re not talking about guys in general. We are talking about you in particular.”
He was losing his patience. “I’ve really got to spell it out for you?”
“Isn’t that I what I just said? C’mon Thor … I wouldn’t ask if I understood. Give me some credit that I wouldn’t be annoying you just to get a reaction. I’m not senile. I want to do what works for both of us. I’m not liking what I’m hearing but I’ll back off if it is something non-negotiable. But if it is something non-negotiable I at least deserve some kind of explanation I can understand. Doncha think?”
He leaned against a tree and just looked at me. Then chuffed a small laugh and shook his head. “Rochelle, I’m following you to your land, to your home. What do I have to offer compared to what you’ve already got? A guy likes to bring something to the table and provide something that keeps his pride from getting eat up.”
I looked at him finally getting it. “OK but before I completely cave here I want to remind you of a few somethings. You’ve been bringing stuff to the table since the beginning. One, you’ve been giving me your protection in one form or another whether I thought I needed it or not … even when I wasn’t being completely forthcoming about who and what I was. Two, despite all the problems associated with the who and what of being me you’ve still offered me more acceptance than 99.9% of the human population pre-collapse and post-collapse and Evans’ death you are now registering at 100%. Three, and don’t expect me to say this too often while we are in company, I am so hot for your bod in a way I’ve never experienced before that I still feel jealous enough of that wench to go take her head off. Four …”
I never got to four as Thor decided to take the conversation in a different direction. By the time I was allowed to come up for air I’d forgotten what four was supposed to be. “Rochelle … what do you do to me?”
“I think you’ve asked me that before. I still don’t have a clue.” I don’t know how he expected me to answer and make sense when I was still clearing the stars from my eyes.
“Just check the market out. We’ll deal with the other on a case-by-case basis. But I won’t be a kept man. Just remember that.”
Determined to tease him into a slightly less serious state of mind I said, “Kept man? You mean I don’t get to keep you? So, are we talking a short term or long term lease then because I really …”
“… am about to get turned over my knee,” he finished. “Stop teasing me or you’re going to wind up making us all late.”
I smiled as I stepped back out of his reach before telling him, “We’re already late. What’s a few more minutes?”
He growled, “It’d be more than a few minutes.” Then he made a playful grab at me and I knew we were all right again. Geez, learning all of this guy stuff was a lot harder than I had thought it was going to be. Being friends with a guy was turning out to be a lot different than being a lot more than friends with him.
It was about three miles from Montserrat and Knob Noster but I think I could have walked it faster with both my legs in casts than the speed we drove it. We finally got off of 50 and turned onto Hwy 132 and then over to a building that faced a green space that was rapidly filling with people.
Charlie said, “We’ll go get you guys settled and then leave you alone for a bit. If you’re willing, the Major will be around later this afternoon. The market will run two days and I know from experience people sometimes wait until the second day to bring the best stuff out. Oh … and just got a call with the info that the barometer is falling so it looks like we might be in for a storm. We can get humdingers this time of year so keep an eye out.”
With the incentive of getting a chance at the market, setting up an indoor camp went more quickly and smoothly than it had up to that point. People were soon divided up into groups and we began to take turns seeing what was available.