“Men perspire, women glow” … or so I was told by one particular Southern lady on a warm Sunday afternoon while we were sitting out food for dinner on the grounds. Pardon my French but what a load of manure. I may not have been the most ladylike lady that ever walked the earth but I still considered myself one to some degree and I wasn’t glowing or perspiring … I was sweating like a pig. Who would have thought that it could get that hot in Illinois of all places? When I thought of Illinois I always pictured Chicago in the winter with wind blowing people and snow sideways, not humidity that reminded me of summer vacation back home.
The heat rash prickled under my arms reminding me that I was stupid to have given into vanity and shaved there a few days earlier after catching some of the other women in the caravan prettying themselves up. Dumb. It’s not like Thor was gonna see ‘cause I wasn’t wearing tank tops at night since they posed a temptation I sure as heck didn’t need to encourage. Not to mention the skeetters would have just had new skin to aim for.
“You know,” I said to Montgomery after having to duck a sudden barrage of bullets, “I am just about to get fed up and fired up.”
Montgomery gave me a rather cautious look and said, “Kid, if you ain’t been fired up yet remind me to avoid you if you get that way.”
“It’d be the smart thing to do,” I agreed.
Running and ducking and weaving and bobbing will take it out of you but we didn’t have any choice. “How much ammo do those jerks have?!” I complained.
“About like us I reckon,” was his answer.
“That was a lot of help,” I said sarcastically.
“Aw, don’t get your knickers in a knot Kid. This ain’t half bad. Don’t seem none of ‘em are what you would call good shots.”
I snorted and would have replied but we had to hit a ditch to avoid yet another round of bullets. I looked up and said, “Who on earth names a road Goodbread Road?”
“Does it matter?” Montgomery laughed. “You know, we ought to let a couple of them guys get close just so you can work off your bad mood. I ain’t never seen you like this.”
“Those … those …,” I sputtered. It was too hard to come up with something bad enough to call them without losing my religion. “Those so-and-so’s shot Thor. They better hope they’ve got sense enough between ‘em to stay out of my way or the crunching I gave the two that did get close will be a pretty picture compared to the way I’ll leave them.”
Since our enemy was still shooting we continued to stay ducked. Montgomery said, “First time you’ve had to face something like that?”
“Danger to someone you’re close to.”
I sighed, “Sorta yeah and sorta no. Living in the backwoods … it can be dangerous at some points, especially with poachers, meth labs, drug runners, and things like that passing close. We had illegals made a camp in the national forest not too far from our place and they were stealing from our fields … and didn’t want to move along. One of ‘em took a shot at my dad and another bothered my mom at home when Dad and I were gone. Then … you know … stuff that’s happened since the collapse. Evans.” I hunched my shoulders at that memory. “But never anything quite like this I guess. Thor’s … different … special.” I was a bit embarrassed at talking about it while we were trying to avoid getting shot.
“Good for you. But the one thing you need to remember Kid. Thor is a man that has for the last decade and some spent most of his time in dicey situations. He’s been hurt before. He’s been hurt bad before. He knows how to handle it and handle himself. And if you and him are gonna stay together you need to be able to let go enough to let him do his job. My old man was a cop and my mom’s job was being a cop’s wife. They made it work. My uncle was a cop too but I watched him and his wife destroy each other because they couldn’t find a balance in there. If you and Thor are gonna be able to be together and work together at the same time you’re gonna have to find that balance. If you care about him you’ll do it.”
“So since I’m the girl …” I rolled my eyes.
“Life’s hard Kid. And God put women together different from men. Don’t ask me why because I ain’t that smart. All I know is that women seem to got more give in that area than men do. That ain’t to say that Thor ain’t got his work cut out for him too, but you’ll make it easier on both of you if you find a little more bend a little quicker.”
I blew the hair out of my eyes – I had stopped cutting it back at the Chuckri farm and true to form it was growing fast. “Fine. But I still want to crunch something … preferably someone. I’ll turn all meek as soon as I get that out of my system.”
“Whooeee, and won’t I believe that when I see it,” Montgomery snickered.
Suddenly we both went dead serious. The bullets had stopped and six men came out of the tall grass they’d been hiding in. The area had definitely missed it’s bush hogging and grass, tall weeds, and bushes grew every which way. Montgomery tapped me and held up five fingers. I counted the ones I could see as they came ever closer and put up six fingers after I’d spotted a short guy in the very back.
Their robes where covered in burrs and hitchhikers. Their beards had more than a few in them as well. Feeling my own hair I realized I was going to have some fun running a comb through it before bed that night. Montgomery tapped me and started counting down, when he got to zero we popped up and due to the element of surprise Montgomery’s shotgun and my semi auto rifle cut all six down. Montgomery took a burn across the top of his hand but otherwise our strategy had paid off.
Montgomery picked up a gun that had belonged to one of our followers and finished the work on those that still drew breath. “No sense in using our ammo for that,” he said. “Gather up what you can, especially … well, lookie here. A shamshir.”
“A what?” I asked as I picked up what I could carry.
“A shamshir. It’s a kind of Persian sword. Wonder where this guy got this one, probably a pawn shop. It’s too new to be a family heirloom … even if he could have snuck such a thing into the country. Here, we’ll take it to Thor, he’ll get a kick out of it. He’s been collecting knives and swords as long as I’ve known him.”
Well, knock me down with a feather. I had no idea. I wondered what he would think of my dad’s Bowie and Buck knife collections.
Being loaded down only made the slog through the weeds worse but we finally made it to an open space and took one step into and nearly got shot.
“What they hey?!” I yelped as we jumped back into the tree line.
Then I heard Chuckri’s whistle so we cautiously stepped out again and then made a run for it. We should have realized we hadn’t gotten all the clowns. Montgomery grunted and went down. I turned and two of them were practically on top of us. They must have been out of ammo because the guy with the gun was swinging it like a club.
I was mad. I don’t like to let loose too much because I tend to scare people. I mean I understand there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with anger but I’ve also got a duty not to give people heart palpitations that don’t deserve it. But I was done … just completely done.
I let off a rebel yell that would have curdled Grandmother Chuckri’s goat’s milk. The two men stopped and then jabbered. The only word I caught was “shai-taan” or it sounded something like that, then I was on them. I slammed the bigger one to the ground and then stomped him and then grabbed the little guy and used him to beat on the bigger one some more.
Then out of nowhere Pilbos was there and screamed in my ear, “Thor needs you.”
That brought me up short. I looked over to find Chuckri and Barkley dragging the two guys off and then putting bullets into them. “Hey! I wasn’t done with them.”
Montgomery said, “Sure you are Kid. Now stop messing around and give me a hand. I don’t intend on having made it this far to bleed out in a field of stinking sida.”
I piled all of the guns and ammo that I’d dropped into Pilbos’ hands and then picked Montgomery up in a fireman’s carry. He grunted and threatened to puke all down my back if I started jogging but it was more to take his mind off his real pain than a real threat … but just to be on the safe side I kept it to a smooth walk while the other three men covered our entrance into a tall gate.
I carried Montgomery over to where Richards was already trying to sit on a highly irritated Thor. “I ought to …”
There is only one cure for that kind of thing. I fell to my knees gave him a breath stealing kiss and promptly burst into tears. “Don’t … (hiccup) … you ever … (sniff) … scare me like that … (nose blow) … again! You hear me?!” Then I kissed him again and pretty much left him speechless and forgetting exactly what he’d been meaning to say to me.
The next little while was more of a blur than any kind of linear memory for me. I remember that Abe Rhodes came out and said we were welcome to stay behind the wall for the night so long as we didn’t get up to any shenanigans. He left for a while to give us time to settle down and take care of our wounded but came back later with some other folks that were interested in trading news and for some of the guns that Montgomery and I had collected.
“We’ve got guns, ammo, and reload capacity … but spare parts are nothing to sneeze at,” said the man who turned out to be the community’s armorer, or whatever you call the dude that takes care of the guns and knows all about them.
All of ‘em seemed nice enough but Hal had been right about one thing, they sure were closed off. They didn’t even want anyone standing close to the inner gates or looking in.
Thor was in a lot of pain but I learned real quick that trying to do for him was a quick way to make him irritable. So I hung around in case he needed something but I didn’t hover. By the time night had approached though I was ready to go to sleep. That long adrenaline rush had taken it out of me and so had the heat.
I had first watch with Chuckri and asked him, “I hate to seem like a wimp but … you know … do you think Thor is really OK or is he just acting OK because he needs to be.”
He nodded and said, “It’s OK Rocky. Thor really will be fine. He’s going to hurt … he won’t take any pain meds from the small stock we have so don’t bump his arm if you can help it tonight but he isn’t going to break.”
“It’s going to be rough tomorrow trying to make the same number of miles as we did today, especially if we run into more trouble.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I’d recommend against it if there was any other choice. But Rhodes made it pretty clear that his people wouldn’t tolerate that. I don’t think they’d drive us out if we had any really sick but they’d make it difficult for us.”
“They already have. I felt kind of exposed going over to that horseshoe lake to get water to filter and boil. Especially as I know they have to be getting their drinking water some other way in there.”
He nodded but was silent.
“How bad do you think Cairo is going to be?”
He sighed, “Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.”
I snorted, “Cute, but doesn’t help me much.”
“It is going to be too late in the day by the time we get there to fight our way through and then cross the bridge into Kentucky and find a safe place to stop for the night. We’ll stop in this place called Cairo Junction tomorrow night. Barkley knows the place since he grew up in Cairo.”
“Does he .. uh … did he …”
“Still have family there?” Chuckri asked.
“Yeah. That’s what I mean.”
“Naw. Barkley doesn’t have any family … I’m the only one that does as far … sorry … that didn’t come out too well.”
I shrugged, “That’s OK. It still hurts and one of these days I’m going to have sit down and have a good cry but my parents wouldn’t want me grieving my life away. I don’t know if my one aunt I had left or any of my cousins on either side of the family are still alive or not.”
“Maybe they’ll be at your farm waiting on you.”
I chuckled at the very idea. “It has been since my grandmothers died that any of them have been to the farm. And the road that they would have used then got taken out by a bad slide the next year. Forestry had to let us open a completely new one and the way Dad put it in … let’s just say if you don’t know how to get to our place you aren’t going to find it whether accidentally or on purpose. Not even the local government could ever find our place and made us keep a postal box in town so their people wouldn’t keep getting lost.”
Chuckri cocked his eyebrow, “That’s some tale.”
“You think? But I have to say I’ve personally been on three search and rescues when the county people tried to come out to our place to do an assessment and got lost. Satellite connection is so bad around that area that not even GPS helps. It works fine on the trails further off but the coordinates for our property just have ever been mapped right.”
Chuckri's face told me he still didn't believe me. OK, so I might have been exaggerating a little … but only a little. Dad and I really did have to go find those three county officials.
When I got off duty I went to the tent and found Thor grinding his teeth. I was prepared for anger but not for his pain. I went to my pack and pulled out my bottle of headache pills. There weren’t that many left in the bottom of the bottle.
“Look, being a he-man is one thing but c’mon. Please Thor … they aren’t much more than …”
“Just one … for my sake if you won’t take one for your own.”
“I’ll give you puppy dog eyes … or better yet I’ll promise to mind you for … well, maybe not forever but for a while.” I was being completely silly and we both knew it. His mouth twitched and I really did give him puppy dog eyes.
“Oohhhh, don’t … laughing hurts.”
“Hey … I was serious.” Well, sort of anyway.
“Just give me the @#$% pills and let’s get some sleep.”
"You are such a heathen," I told him while I handed him two of the pills plus my canteen.
"So come here and reform me woman. Just don't joggle the arm."
It was good to get my way because I had a feeling that tomorrow and maybe the next few days I wasn’t going to come anywhere close to that.