“Please don’t patronize me Thor. I know I sound like a stupid cartoon character, or that I secretly believe I have super powers, but I’m not making this up. Dad learned to hunt from his father and grandfather and a lot of their friends from those generations. I’m talking really backwoods – only come out into the sunshine once or twice a year to get their kerosene refilled and trade for some reload supplies and tobacco kind of backwoodsmen. He taught me the same way he learned. I’m telling you it is real.”
“Rochelle … Hon … I’m not doubting you.”
“Yes you are,” I said turning from him.
“Don’t call me a liar woman,” he said with just a little irritation in his voice. “I’m not doubting that you feel something. But in order for me to respond to the threat you perceive I have to be able to quantify it. If it is just a generalized feeling with nothing overt to it there is no constructive way for me to address it.”
I turned back to him and tried to see his eyes in the dark. “You don’t think I’m crazy?”
He sighed and pulled me closer. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I don’t think you are making it up. But unless you can give me more intel my hands are tied.”
I tried to think about what I had felt during the day. “Just … just make sure everyone is on guard. I don’t mean this casual stuff everyone has fallen into but the way we used to be when it was just the crew. Tighten things up. Make sure the people shepherding the animals don’t get complacent; I noticed today that they were too easy to pick off. The kids should stay in the wagons instead of running here and there; and those in the wagons need to stop sitting on the sides and making themselves an easy target.”
I could feel him looking at me in the dark. “Good observations. Chuckri and I both said the same things earlier. You feel that strongly?”
“I feel that strongly Thor.” I stopped and then tried to explain it more. “I’ve never walked the dangerous lands you have. I’ve never been in the kind of battles you have. I’m not trained the way you are. But I’ve walked our fence at night when there were poachers around and knew what they were capable of it I wasn’t careful. I’ve had to hide from drug runners who were using the AT and forestry roads in the area to move their stuff and didn’t want anyone to know; more of that stuff goes on than most people realize. I’ve been stalked by animals and people, both out to do me harm. I know that feeling. And I felt that feeling today.”
He surprised me by saying, “OK. I’ll be right back.”
I was left sitting there with my mouth hanging open. Ten minutes later he was back. “Now, we’re going to lay down. I’m going to hold you. And we’re both going to get some sleep. There is nothing else that can be done tonight. If something is going down we both need our rest.”
“You can just … fall asleep? Like nothing is wrong?”
“No. But I’ve done what I can for now; addressed the potential threat as constructively as I can for now. And if I am going to continue acting constructively I need to get some sleep … and so do you. Tomorrow I want you to try and see if you can refine whatever you are feeling. I want you to continue talking to me about what you feel. What I do not want you to do is keep this all bottled up inside because whether something comes of it or not, I want you to know I’m listening to you. Understand?”
I believed him and remembered that I could have confidence in him; and with that I was able to relax enough to get some rest. However the next morning it didn’t take long for that feeling of being watched to come back … and I noticed I wasn’t the only one that had started to get that feeling on the back of my neck.
Before we got back on the road Thor called a quick meeting. “Listen up people. For the next several days we are heading into an area that has the potential to be problematic. Cape Girardeau is the next major city and it is a large one. My preference would be to avoid it but the plain fact of the matter is that we have to cross the Mississippi at some point and that is about it for this area … and we better hope the bridge is still passable or we are going to have to make a very, very long detour so Uncle Bedros if you’ve got any pull with the Man Upstairs I’d start asking for some favors.”
Thor looked around and then put on a forbidding expression. “Next order of business. Things are getting sloppy. We’ve been lucky and that’s all we’ve been. I do not intend on basing my safety, the safety of my men, or the safety of this caravan on luck. From here on out until I say otherwise we will be working with double guards. And another thing, those caring for the animals either need to stay sharp and keep close or we’ll have to leave the animals behind.” At the murmur of outrage this brought he said, “That isn’t my preference either but the fact remains that the safety of a person outweighs that of an animal. And speaking of, no more letting the dogs wander away. Either they stick close and do their job or they get leashed up and put in a wagon.”
He continued running through his new list of do’s and don’ts and by the time he was through the group’s mood had changed and everyone was very subdued. After Thor and the crew left to finish loading up for the day I saw Uncle Bedros and Ludvig stop Chuckri. I felt like I was being nosey so I turned my head and found myself confronted by Pilbos.
“Is he serious?” The question was more wary than angry.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Look, so maybe I’m not crazy. Last night when I was out taking a … er, taking care of some business … it felt like someone was watching me. I thought at first it was Taniel because he likes to jump out of bushes and try and catch me off guard. It’s stupid. But, after … you know … and I kept waiting but nothing happened. I tried to tell myself he’d just given up or was trying to freak me out but … it didn’t feel like that you know?”
“Did you tell … Tavit?” It got confusing switching back and forth between calling the guy Chuckri and by his given name when talking to one of his family members.
“I was going to after breakfast but Thor started up first. You think I should still say something?”
“You should have said something last night,” I told him, a little outraged that he hadn’t.
He rolled his eyes. “All right, I get it, don’t yell. I’ll go tell him now … but he’s going to think that I’m making it up. I’m like, the brainless younest brother.”
“If you wouldn’t act brainless they wouldn’t treat you like that,” I told him without regret.
“Gee, thanks for the support.”
He started to walk off but I stopped him by saying, “Pilbos, this is serious. For you and me … play time is over. Maybe it’s not fair that the world is making us grow up faster than we would have had to before but we didn’t get a vote. We don’t get to be kids anymore. I’ve figured my way through it and … and I’m pretty happy with the way things are going for me now. You need to … hurry up and figure it out too or … or you may not get a choice in the direction you have to take.”
He nodded, as serious I was. I saw him go up to the three older men, even if reluctantly, and start to talk. I went over to my horse and started to double check to make sure my gear was secured.
“What’s up with you and Pilbo Doughboy?” Thor asked. I noticed his face was carefully blank and wondered if maybe it was possible that he was a little jealous.
“Last night he was … you know, doing his business … and he thought someone was watching him. He thought it was Taniel at first but then he wasn’t so sure. He was going to mention it to Chuckri but he was worried that no one would take him serious, especially after you finished talking. He thought they would think he was just making it up to get attention or something.”
Thor ran his hands over the saddle to check on my double check and asked, “What do you think?”
“You mean do I think he was doing it just to get attention?” At Thor’s nod I answered, “No. It could have been Taniel, I’ll leave that to Chuckri to figure out, but I don’t think he was making anything up. He was too embarrassed.”
He sighed, “Well that cinches it. Alfonso and Barkley said they felt the same thing last night while on guard duty. Alfonso can be a little jumpy but that’s not Barkley’s style at all.” I could see he was battling with something. I understood what when he finally said in a clipped voice, “Rochelle I need you to run point for part of the day. Same thing you did when Evans was still with us. It’s going to put you on foot … I …”
“I’ll be careful. How far up do you want me?”
“Within easy hailing distance. You and Barkley instead of Evans. You know the drill. You move forward, wait for him to catch up. He moves forward, you wait for the rest of us then head forward and pass him. Never so far out a shout or whistle won’t raise an alarm, but far enough that you can give a trail advisory well in advance of any problems. I’ll put Pilbos on your horse and Ludvig’s son … not Taniel, the other one that’s so quiet … on Barkley’s mount. That’ll give us two more riders to guard the animals.”
“Will do,” I said falling back into the personality I’d used when I had been playing at being a boy.
Suddenly I was getting kissed in a way that reminded me rather forcefully that the last thing I was was a boy. Thor pressed me all down the length of him and then said, “Be careful.”
All I had the breath to do was nod before I went off to confer with Barkley and see if he was ready.
We left Jackson but we never really left the city sprawl behind. The corridor between Jackson and Girardeau wasn’t long … only about nine or ten miles – but it was lined with businesses and subdivisions.
We had crossed under I55 and had switched to the I55 Loop that would take us straight to the Shawnee Parkway Bridge where we would cross the Mississippi. Being point was nerve wracking in one respect but in another it gave me something to do with all of my pent of energy, gave me a focus to use it on and made me feel more useful which also helped. I had stopped at the County Memorial Park to wait for Barkley and was checking it out as a likely place for the caravan to pull over.
That’s when I smelled it. Death … or something close to it. But it was fresh. You could still smell the metallic, almost copper, smell of fresh blood … a lot of it. I followed the road and then heard the buzzing. Let it be an animal I prayed, please let it be an animal.
There was an area that had been trampled down so much that the grass no longer grew and it just looked odd. Things were disconnected like they didn’t belong together. There were mounds of fabric on the ground, pink and white. I thought, “Someone is dumping carcasses here? This is a strange way to do it.”
God help me I don’t know why I did it, it certainly didn’t make could sense. I bent down to what appeared to be the newest bagged up carcass and realized that a lot of it was buried in the dirt for some reason. “Too rocky to bury it all the way? Trying to keep predators for carting it off?” The longer I looked the weirder things appeared … and I still had that wiggy feeling but not like someone was watching me.
I pulled out my Bowie and sliced open the fabric bag and then fell back in complete disgust. I looked around me, at all of the white and pink piles and I blanked for just a moment, hearing nothing but the roar of the ocean in my ears. I was in the process of crawling away from the horror behind me when I heard a sound … thin mewling that was coming from a clump of bushes nearby. God help me but after seeing what was in the cloth behind me I couldn’t ignore it.
I quickly made my way over to the bushes but was careful after that. There was another bag in the bushes but it was a garbage bag … and it was moving fitfully. I didn’t have any choice, I ripped the bag open with my bare hands and there, laying in a pool of its own mess, was a little baby … and little baby girl to be more precise. Not a newborn but it couldn’t have been that old either … a couple of months but on the scrawny side. It didn’t have that newborn cry anymore. I reached in and plucked it out, naked and filthy.
I scrambled back towards the entrance of the park to find Barkley just arriving.
“What have … you ……. Got? Kid?”
I was shaking, with fear or fury or disgust I couldn’t tell. “It was in a garbage bag. Back there. Barkley … I think … I think …” I stopped and looked at the baby I held in my hands and finally pushed out, “I think that is a stoning field back there. Like in the Bible or something. There’s dozens of these … white … or sort of white … bags. I opened one. There was a woman in there. And there are these rocks all over the place, like baseballs.”
Barkley’s face was impassive. “Stay here. Keep watch but try and get some of the stink off that kid if you can. It’s not healthy for it. What is it anyway … a girl?”
“Yeah, how …?”
“Figures. Just stay here.”
He went off into the bushes and followed my trail back. It didn’t take him long. “Listen Kid, I’ve got to get Thor and bring him forward. Is the baby still alive?”
“Yeah … but I don’t … I mean … she doesn’t look too good.”
“Understand something here Kid, there might not be anything you can do for her. They could have fed her something before they dumped her. Or maybe not. She could be too far gone down the trail. Just do the best you can and I’ll bring help back as soon as I can. You going to be OK here? They’ve done their business … and not too long ago. Doubt anyone will be back this way soon.”
I nodded and he left at a careful lope. I looked down at the little life I held in my hands. She had curly black hair; it was so black that it absorbed all of the light rather than reflect it. Her brows and lashes were the same sooty black. Her eyes, when they briefly fluttered open, were also dark. Her skin tone wasn’t pink but had more of an olive tone though it was hard to tell under the filth that I was trying to wash off. She would mewl every once in a while but didn’t have the strength left to really cry.
It was nearly forty minutes before Thor and Barkley came back and I kept thinking that this little baby couldn’t make it but she hung on. Thor didn’t say anything, not then, just ran his hand across my head and cheek. I nodded and he and Barkley faded into the bushes.
When they returned to the spot where I was Thor sent Barkley back to the wagon while he stayed with me and looked at the baby. “The caravan should be within ten.” I nodded. “It was a killing field. We … we investigated some of the other mounds and you were right. They all appear to be stoning victims. Most of them … appear … to be female but some males mixed in there as well. It fits the profile we’ve seen before, but never in this country. And I’ve never seen them leave their victims to just rot like this.”
We both sat and watch as the little person I held struggled to stay alive. A few minutes later Elsapet and Richards ran up fast enough that Thor and I both nearly fired on them. Thor was very close to chewing them out but Uncle Bedros came up and ask, “Is it true?”
Then the confusion grew even worse when Grandmother Chuckri walked up and demanded, “Take me to this place.”
No one knew what to do with the fierce old woman. I stepped forward and said, “It’s not a good place Grandmother Chuckri.”
“Such places are not. But still … I will go … and you will take me,” she said looking directly at me.
I looked at Thor but he was dealing with Uncle Bedros so I held my left arm out so that she could balance herself and kept my rifle in my right hand. I looked at the baby for a second but then turned and did as the old woman had commanded me.
It wasn’t a long walk and she just stood and looked for a while before covering her face with her hands and saying something in Armenian. Her face was wet with tears when she turned to me and said, “I thought to never see such a thing again, to be free of such fear for the remainder of my life. Take me back to my son.”
When I got her back she looked at Bedros and said in one of the saddest voices I had ever heard, “It is as it was.”
While Thor, Barkley, Chuckri and I found a place a little further up and off the road that could conceal us the baby was put into the elder wagon. I was almost afraid to ask about her but then I saw Markrid caring for here. I didn’t want to approach so I looked from a little way off but she caught me and called me over. Vika sat near her but turned her face away when I got there.
“She lives. Look,” she said as she pushed the blanket down that she had been swaddled in. “My sister Anoush still has milk.”
The sister in question rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, but you will do the raising of this one. I have enough children of my own to care for and a husband who has in mind to give me more.”
Markrid smiled in a way I had never seen her smile before. “She will grow strong. God heard my prayers.”
I saw Vika’s mouth set mulishly before saying, “She’s a devil baby. Just like the one who found her. You don’t even know for sure …”
“Enough.” Markrid’s voice was like steel. “Vika, we have spoken of this already. Rock-ee is old enough to defend herself but this baby … she is an answer to prayer, my prayers, and you will respect that – and respect me young lady – whether you agree or not.” The baby started smacking her lips and sucking on her fist distracting Markrid. “Ah, she is hungry again. Anoush …”
“They are always hungry at this age Markrid. You will see.” But Anoush still smiled at both the baby and her sister. I remembered that Markrid’s husband had left her and never returned. It looked like she’d wanted a child more than the husband.
Thor and the other men were still worrying at the idea of whether to go forward or risk adding weeks to our travel time by finding another way across the Mississippi. Then a whiff of something caught my attention. The men wouldn’t be smoking, they knew better than to draw attention to us in this kind of situation … but still, I smelled tobacco. I tried to casually turn and look into bushes but it didn’t take long to find what I was after.
As soon as he figured out I’d pegged him he stepped forward with his hands out. He reminded me of Evans for some reason. “You ain’t one of them. I … I thought some of you might be … but they wouldn’t have taken in a baby … not one they’d already thrown out.”