Well la de da, some folks sure do think a lot of their junk once they put it on sale. And looking around at the other shoppers I saw that I wasn’t the only one just rubbernecking through the booths. There was a lot of picking up and looking but very little actual buying going on, at least at the tables and blankets on the side of the market I entered first.
The market was a maze of people, wagons, blankets, and folding tables and containers holding items for sale. At first it appeared to be nothing more than pick-a-spot-where-you-could-find-one but in actuality it was fairly organized despite initial appearances. If you could have gotten a look from above you would have seen that the market was set up in a large square grid pattern. At every major “avenue” and “intersection” there were people that controlled the chaos – for a cut of the profits naturally – and I saw “enforcers” going around making sure things stayed on the up and up and any ruckus was squelched and dealt with quickly. People were encouraged to keep their casual conversations to a minimum or to take them outside the market to a picnic area that had been set up just outside the four gates into the market.
The four sections that made up the square were broken down into small, medium, and large lots where people rented space to barter or sell their items. The four sections were further organized into types of items being sold or bartered. I’d entered through the “household goods” gate and that term could be applied to just about anything from useless brick-a-brack to toys and sporting goods to books to more useful kitchen tools. There was a sub-section devoted to linens and clothing and another to shoe, boots, and head gear. Most of that area would trade back and forth in barter goods and the deals were only limited to your ability to haggle. There were also a large number of booths devoted to gardening where you could buy plant starts, seeds, garden implements, and there was even a booth there that was doing soil and water testing.
Then there were the areas that were “cash-only.” For example, there was a section for hunting and fishing and it had a couple of booths where guys were selling and producing reloads. There was a gunsmith and a gun dealer too. This area of the market had an extra heavy security detail. Some of it seemed to be provided by the market managers but some of them also looked like private security forces. They wore the same aura that Thor and our crew wore like a second skin. If we hadn’t found that ammo from the ambushers’ camp I would have been doing some serious bargaining at the reloading benches but as it was I had plenty and I knew that unless something had gone wrong Dad’s stuff would still be waiting on me at the farm.
The other area where it was primarily cash-only was the food booths. There were lots of booths with lots of fresh produce, a few baked goods tables, a table that was doing a heck of a business selling cheese, and then the big wagons that were selling grains and root crops by the bushel full. I just hung out for a while trying to figure things out. Finally I gave up the courage and just approached one of the security guys and asked for some directions to someone that could tell me what the exchange rate was.
I must have startled the guy because he jumped and then grinned, “Hey! You’re a girl.”
“Uh … yeah … last time I checked anyway.”
“Wait … you’re with that crew that took out the Roads Gang.”
Oh brother did that ever that start everyone rubbernecking at me. I tried to get out of there but there was no getting after people started cornering me with questions.
“Um, hey, look everybody I just … you know … want to see about some supplies for my group. If someone could just explain those little round coins y’all are using …”
“I’ll explain ‘em to you if you’d like to come over here,” a middle aged man told me.
“No! I’ll do it!” a guy standing at the booth next to him said.
A third guy tried to get in on the action with an affronted, “Hey! You can’t have her all to yourselves.”
I was getting a little freaked out. “That’s enough! I ain’t never had a buncha boys fight over me my whole life and I’m not about to start. This is getting silly. I’ll just come back when everyone is in a better frame of mind.”
I went to leave and ran nose first into Thor’s shoulder. “Now you show up? Really?” I complained at him.
He realized I was upset for real and not just playing and he asked, “What’s wrong?”
He raised an eyebrow in disbelief before saying, “That’s the somethingest ‘nothing’ I think I’ve ever heard from you.”
I wasn’t in the mood. “Knock it off Thor. Let’s just go.”
I tried to get through the crowd but too many people were still nosing in my direction. I did not like it at all and am not ashamed to say stuck to Thor like a burr. “Did someone upset you?” he asked starting to go all growly where anyone nearby could hear.
“Don’t start. It’s bad enough that some of those ol’ boys were acting like I was a bone to be fought over. I don’t need you acting just as bad. I swear there has got to be something in the air all of a sudden. I never had to deal with this kind of silliness before.” I really wasn’t in the mood. I hated being stared at and there seemed to be way too many people doing it. I know some people would wonder how I played football if I didn’t like being watched but that was different. I can’t explain just how it was different but it was.
Obviously though I’d activated Thor’s protective gene and he started giving the folks I’d backed away from what I called the Viking Eye. Give the man a sledgehammer and he might have passed for his namesake only without the winged helmet you used to see in the comic books. Well, without the cute spandex outfit though I had a good imagination … a really good imagination; made me wonder what Thor would look like in a football uniform. I wound up having to shake my head to clear it and give myself a really good talking to.
After Thor made his claim on me obvious this one older man grinned good naturedly and said, “Well, you can’t blame ‘em for trying. You’re woman is a right sturdy thing and luckily ain’t that hard on the eyes. Story says she’s also good at taking care of herself. Several men around these parts are needin’ a wife like that and all the ones that are available right now are puny little things whot needs too much taking care of. A man needs to bring himself less work, not more.”
After I’d heard that bit of nonsense I’d been completely happy had a hole opened up under me so long as I got to pull it in afterwards to hide myself. Thor didn’t help when he said, “You bet she can look after herself and any man fool enough to think otherwise ain’t long for this world.”
Now it was my turn to give Thor the eye. I said through gritted teeth, “You are not helping at all. Knock … it … off.” All I got in return was an unrepentant grin.
Suddenly it became a guys’ club and everyone was all joking and carrying on … more than a few times at my expense. I suppose I could have made a fuss but they reminded me too much of the men where I grew up. As long as they were making a bunch of noise they were fairly harmless. When they got quiet is when you needed to watch them.
We got a good story after the men finally got around to explaining the little coins they were using. Turns out that it was too complicated for people to accept jewelry as payment despite the fact that is what most people had their gold and silver in the form of so what the local economy did was to start melting the jewelry down and turning it into stamped blanks that were various sizes and karats which corresponded with a certified weight.
What most people did was turn in their jewelry and real silverware to the blank makers who would melt it and pour it, weigh it and stamp it. That standardized everything making trade easier.
One of the men that had embarrassed me earlier said, “Don’t get it wrong though, real coins still are worth more than these stamped blanks.” He held up a couple of the plain metal disks. “Any one of us will take a real coin over a blank during any deal for obvious reasons.”
Hearing that I nearly grinned. I’d already taken several of the coins out of the money belts I still habitually wore. Thor had asked me about them but we really hadn’t gotten into particulars. I think he assumed it was something that had belonged to Evans. I was going to have to explain things in more detail but not until I had worked on him some about the money issue. As it was I was hoping that he’d forgive me for what I proceeded to do.
I asked, “You mean like this?” I reached down into Thor’s front pocket making him jump and then pulled out a silver coin that I’d “found” there. He stiffened up and made to grab my hand which really added to the act and made it more convincing.
Thor got some good natured ribbing about leaving his wallet where his woman could get at it but he was also suddenly taken much more seriously in terms of barter. I sat back and watched a master haggler at work. He got wheat, corn, some potatoes, and beans and even managed to get some bulk rice.
Uncle Bedros and Ludvig had come up during the haggling and when it was all done they agreed to pay Thor for the greater bulk of what he’d managed to obtain. They couldn’t pay in coin but they’d work out something. After everything was agreed on Ludvig went to get a couple of helpers and they hauled the food stuff to our quarters for the evening. Thor and I walked towards the other areas of the market and he bought us a couple of sausages on sticks, paying for this with a couple of .22 bullets.
Trying to head off any problems I said, “I knew you could do it. Gosh those guys were making me uncomfortable. Who would have ever thought in a million years that someone would think of me as a real girl so quickly. And did you see Uncle Bedros’ face?”
“Rochelle … give it up.” I calmed down waiting for the explosion but instead he put his arm around me and then pulled me in close enough that he stole a bite of the sausage that I’d been eating.
He just laughed wickedly and I could only roll my eyes and grin in relief.
He leaned in close to my ear and said, “You can stick your hands in my pockets anytime you want to.”
“Oh you!” I said and then tried to push him away but he refused to go. He just laughed at my outrage and we both ended up laughing and just enjoying the next couple of hours as we went from table to table. It was the closest I’d ever really come to doing something couple-y. The time spent with Jonathon didn’t count as I realized for me it had still all been about friendship and nothing else. It was nice but kind of funny too. We must have made quite a picture as people tended to scramble out of our way pretty quick as we walked along.
Most of the stuff we saw really was just flotsam leftover from the way people used to live their daily lives but there were a few decent things; we did manage to pick up a few things like some small waxed cheeses, some dried sausage sticks and jerky, a half pound of salt, and Thor traded a pocket knife he’d picked off one of the ambushers for a pile of hair doodads for me. Not long after that Richards walked up with Elsapet.
“That Major is waiting over at the camp. You want me to tell him to pound sand or you gonna meet with him?”
Thor didn’t take a half second to change gears and go all business, leaving to go tend to our obligations. But he told me, “Finish out your turn. No sense in both of us going back.”
The market wasn’t near as fun after he’d left. Richards and Elsapet wandered away together leaving me grinning for the moment over the idea that Thor and I weren’t the only ones taking advantage of time out from under the strict eyes of the Chuckri elders. It wasn’t that they were rude or mean, but it was certainly like being babysat by the preacher’s wife on occasion. I did manage to make a good sized deal of my own but Thor pitched kittens after he found out how it had come about.
I was going through the aisles faster than I had when Thor had been with me, making note of a few items here and there that I would come back for tomorrow to see if the price had come down. I had stopped to look at a pile of denim material and sheets of leather because several of the crew were wearing thin spots in their gear but I lost my train of thought when something caught my eye. I’d noticed these two guys when Thor was around because people seemed to be giving them a wide berth the same as they did us. I caught the guy behind the table watching them as well and refusing to meet my eyes when I dickered with him about the price.
I had been the butt of too many attempted practical jokes to miss that something was up. I decided that it was as good a time as any to head back to camp but I decided to do it the long way around just to be on the safe side. Unfortunately I couldn’t shake the two guys. I got held up by an argument at another table blocking the walkway and then they were soon crowding me.
“Hey, back up already,” I told them trying to bluff my way out of it.
“Now what is a pretty little thing like you doing out here all alone?” one of the guys asked, only he didn’t really mean what he was saying. I could tell by his tone that he was doing his best to insult me with the opposite meaning.
The other one tried to come up behind me but I kept moving to avoid it. “All right, what is it you guys are after?”
The second guy said, “I like her. Direct. To the point. Saves us some time.”
“Maggs said play with her,” the first guy responded.
“Yeah, well Maggs isn’t here and this is boring. Let’s do her and go have some fun.”
“Fine,” the first guy agreed. He turned his full attention back to me and said, “Maggs sent us to give you a present. Hope you enjoy it.”
Then they both rushed me. Idiots. They failed to know their enemy. These guys weren’t small but they weren’t big either. Mostly they won their fights by being bullies and using fear and intimidation. I’d spent a few years going up against guys bigger than I was and who packed a whole lot more weight than those two little rats did. The one thing that I didn’t like was that the first guy had a knife. I focused my attention on staying out of his reach.
Our ruckus melted into the fight that the argument behind me had turned into. Then the whole thing turned into a regular brawl. But those enforcers knew their job and soon they had everyone contained. I didn’t fight them. I had noticed earlier in the day if you just stopped and let them do their job they didn’t beat on you and I was ready to just let them take care of the two guys since I didn’t have any back up from the crew.
One of the enforcers just shook his head. “You know, I’m getting tired of this. All of you head to the ring. Now.” Not knowing what the “ring” was I was more than reluctant to go, especially as some of the brawlers started to look nervous.
Outside the market on the extreme outer edge of the picnic area was an honest to goodness fight ring only it was for caged fighting. “Please tell me I’m seeing things,” I mumbled under my voice.
One of the enforcers overheard me and said, “Sorry to disappoint you sweetheart.”
“You people are really going to make us fight? I didn’t want a fight in the first place. I was attacked.”
He shrugged, “Then you must have done something to provoke the fight. Playing one guy off the other maybe?”
“Are you kidding?! Look at me. I’m not exactly what you call a fem fatale. This is ridiculous.”
“Doesn’t matter either way. When you entered the market you agreed to the rules of how we operate. We have a strict code about disrupting other people’s business. One of the possible penalties is doing time in the ring. You just happened to draw the short straw.”
I snorted getting irritated and concerned in equal measure. “OK, what are the rules?”
“Only one rule. Winner walks away.”
I couldn’t possibly have heard right. “Excuse me?”
A female enforcer walked over and looked at me in some sympathy. She turned to the other guy and said, “I’ll handle it. Why don’t you go help Ernie deal with those three crybabies up front.” She turned to me and said, “Can you take a beating?”
“You’re kidding. Right?”
“No Hon, I’m not. They treat women that try to start trouble extra harsh around here so if you don’t want to go before the Council and likely get … worse … I’d just try and hang on as long as I could in the ring. Think of this as the Roman Coliseum but we don’t usually let the fights go to the death.”
“Usually?! Do I look like a freaking gladiator to you?” At her honest perusal and look I told her, “Never mind. Are weapons involved or are we just supposed to beat the snot out of each other?”
“No guns but anything else you have on you is fair game.”
“Lovely. Just do me a favor. If a big guy shows up – about a head taller than me – stay out of his way because he is so not going to be a happy camper. Don’t even bother trying to talk to him. Between him and the rest of the crew you’ll have your hands full.” I shook my head at Thor’s likely reaction.
“Yeah, he’s over talking to some Major or other from Whiteman. Crud. Looks like they are really going to dump us all together,” I said watching the action at they started forcing all of the people they’d caught into the ring at the same time. I turned back to the woman, “Like I said, if he shows up, just get out of the way. Fewer people will get hurt that way.”
She started to say something else but one of her co-workers got behind me with a rifle and I figured it wasn’t worth getting shot over to find out what she’d been saying. Besides I needed all my attention on what was about to happen in the ring.
What a mess. I thought at first that it would be every many for themselves but it turned out that people would gang up. The strongest would gang up on the weakest. The weakest would gang up trying to take out one strong guy at a time. I dodged and weaved for a few minutes managing to stay out of the worst of it though I did wind up having to toss a couple of people over the fence when they tried to play rough. The two guys that had gotten me tossed into the Mad Hatter’s tea party were tracking me again and I could see they were trying to make their move so I decided it was time for me to make mine. I just hoped my head was up for it. I did not relish the idea of running into the cyclone fence posts at full speed.
My primary objective was to take out the guy that had the knife first. It turned out to be relatively easy. I simply bull dozed him into one of the heavy metal support posts. I definitely missed my pads and helmet but the guy’s middle was fairly squishy so the landing wasn’t that bad. Guy #2 was harder because he kept using other people to shield himself with. Then some guy jumped on my back and all heck broke loose.
I never did see who took out the second guy but it wasn’t me. By the time I had a chance to notice the fighters were down to just three with me being one of them. The other two turkeys tried to tag team me but they were running out of steam. They got in some good licks but I eventually managed to grab them both by the scruffs of the necks and slam them together. It sounded like I was knocking two sticks of wood together when their foreheads met. They still had a little bit of wiggle to them so I did it once more and then another time after that for good measure.
I looked around and there was no one left standing inside the ring. I spit and saw pink and was tempted to cuss then figured I had enough to ask forgiveness for though Dad had always said that a thought was as good as the deed when it came to sinning. Yep, I was in trouble.
I was finally able to shake off most of the adrenaline still pumping through my system at light speed and kept waiting for someone to say something.
“What?” I snarled. “Do I have to knock myself out too to escape from this zoo cage?”
The woman that had explained things ran up and jerked the keys out of the hand of a guy that was just standing there with his mouth hanging open. “I … cannot believe …. (oomph, dang this lock needs some graphite) … that you’re still standing. Most of the time even the winners look like they’re about to pass out.”
There wasn’t anything worth saying to that and I was still trying to get my anger under control. I didn’t want any more trouble and acting like an enraged giantess was a sure way to get it.
“Hey … that guy never showed up.”
“Yeah, so I see. Lucky for you. I’m stuck still having to explain this to him.”
I tried to walk off but she stopped me. “Hey, don’t you want it?”
I looked at her. “There’s a prize? What for?”
I just shook my head. “You’d think not getting the crud beat out of yourself would be incentive enough.”
She laughed, “Some of these ol’ boys are too hard headed to get that so there’s an incentive.”
I wanted to tell her hard headed isn’t what I would call people around those parts. Insane was more like it but I was too busy mopping the blood off my chin where someone had run into my nose with their head and caused it to turn into a faucet and trying to feel if my eyes was bruised or just sore where someone else had caught me on the side of my head with their shoe … luckily a tennis shoe and not a boot.
Everyone was pretty much keeping their distance. I was tempted to turn around and growl at them and give them crazy face just to see if I could make any of them run but I figured that would be taking things a little too far.
“Well, tell me what this incentive is so I can get going. I’m late as it is.”
She laughed, really laughed. Apparently she was enjoying how a bunch of guys were now scared of some girl. “You know, I’ve warned them for months that one of these days some woman was going to turn around and give them what for. I do believe there will be a change in attitude just as soon as this story gets around.”
“Gee, so glad I could aid your cause.”
She just laughed more and walked me over to an older man who didn’t say squat but gave me a drawstring bag and then hurried away.
“Odds are made and bets placed at the beginning of the fight. The more people fighting the greater the odds and the higher the betting pool gets. Each fighter has a bet placed in their own name and the winner gets that as the prize. The more likely a person is to win, the smaller the prize, and vice versa. No one figured you’d be the one to be left standing.”
I opened the drawstring and said, “No kidding.” There was a pretty good pot of the market currency in that little bag.
“I’d get rid of it as quick as you can. Spend it back into the community. That usually builds good will and all is forgiven. Actually, I’ve gotta go myself … you won me a nice little pot and I have a man that I’m going to spend it on.”
She left with a smile on her face and I ignored everyone else the best I could and headed to one of the stands that I had meant to go back to the next day. Honey. The real stuff. The stand had several barrels of it but it was nearly worth its weight in gold and silver. I had only meant to get my bear filled back up but with the prize I bought a five gallon bucket full causing quite a stir. The owner of the stand even gave me a discount because he’d won some money on the fight.
That blasted bucket was heavy so I hiked it up onto my shoulder and headed back to camp. When I got there I was really nervous about facing Thor. I even thought of hiding out for a while ‘til it got dark so my face wouldn’t look quite so rough but I heard thunder and felt the first couple of drops of rain as I stood there debating. I ultimately decided just to face the music; the sooner confessed the sooner mended.
I entered the warehouse and said to Thor’s back, “Hey Sugar, you’ll never guess what …”
Then he turned around. Uh oh. It appeared that the tale had reached him sooner than I expected.