Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 53

Chapter 53

I remember what a big deal it was when they rebuilt the Kentucky Lake bridge. My dad said it was a one of a kind for Kentucky; something called a basket handle bridge. I could see why they would call it that although the basket handle seemed to be about the only thing that was relatively intact since the Kentucky Dam gave way.

I was saying such to Thor when a rider from Ft. Campbell came by. “No … er … ma’am? Uh …” I cut him some slack and kind of laughed it off though Thor looked to be on the verge of getting upset on my behalf. “Sorry ma’am,” he said with a blush that made his ears nearly as red as his hair and freckles. “The Kentucky Dam didn’t give way so much as the earthen levees on the end of the concrete portion of the dam did. The dam is supposed to be earthquake proof so the terrorists blew the levees.”

“Then why so much damage to this bridge?” Thor asked. “We’re a long way from the dam.”

“Combination of things; heavier rains than normal had water backed up for quite a ways as no more could be let out the spillways without causing more flooding. Lots of boats and debris just free floating on the lake. And then this bridge had already been attacked by a local domestic terrorist group who had a grudge against the TVA and the LBL area in particular. So when the earthen levee went … it took over six hours for the water to get passed Calvert City … it sent some heavily muddied water and debris into the pylons.”

It was my turn to ask a question. “Is it really sound enough to cross?”

“The bridge is plenty sound. All that you see is really just cosmetic, even the missing guard rails. The problem is that people don’t want to wait their turn or they try and pass slower moving wagons or carts. Then you have all of the single riders and pedestrians. We’ve had some people get pushed off and we’ve had to take these actions to ensure commerce can continue from one side to the other. We are starting a ferry for pedestrians but we have to secure a fuel source before we can implement it completely.”

“Sounds like a right mess,” I said.

“Yes ma’am. I see you are the lead wagon in your caravan. We’re going to need you to stay together and keep it tight. You’ll be moving slow but at a steady clip. When you exit the bridge at the other side you need to keep going. Unless it is an emergency there is no stopping until you get to Fenton. And we also had word this morning that Golden Pond is quarantined; some kind of dysentery is running rampant and they suspect a compromised water source is making it worse so you’ll have to detour down the Trace and then over into Dover, Tennessee.” And with that he took off to count heads so that we could get our whole group over in one batch.

I looked at Thor. “Detour?”

His brows were lowered and then he said, “Take the reins. This is going to take some discussion.”

He got on his horse and slid back to talk to Chuckri, Uncle Bedros, and Ludvig. Unfortunately he didn’t get back before we had to get on the bridge and the lanes had been narrowed to the point that a full size wagon was a tight squeeze. I understood the why of it but I hadn’t planned on being alone as I went across the bridge.

I’m no coward but being that high up over water with no guard rail was pretty intimidating. Heights don’t bother me; I’m from the Smokies for pity sake. The bridge didn’t bother me. Driving the wagon didn’t bother me as our horses were all too tired to misbehave. It wasn’t even the crowded conditions that bothered me though I wasn’t too thrilled with how close I had to drive to the oncoming traffic lane. It was all of it combined slathered over with the story of how one of my great great grandfathers fell off of a bridge when one of his appaloosa mules that he bred got spooked by a car that tooted its horn. The memories of the people where I’m from are pretty long lived and stories get handed down over and over. Heck, they still call the US civil war the “War Between the States” and make no apologies for it.

I wasn’t sweating bullets but my pits were a little damp and not just from the heat of the day. Everything had been going fine and I was beginning to feel relaxed. I had just edged beyond the main span that made up the “basket handle” section when there was a ruckus in the oncoming traffic lane. It started with an individual rider that had his horse spook; the poor thing was so sway back I’m surprised it had the energy. That horse kicked a wagon – looked like it tried to climb up into it actually – and that set those animals off not to mention all the screaming of the people in that wagon that found a horse trying to act like a lap animal.

From there it was just a plain mess; it spread into the lane I was in and the animals in front of me started bucking in their traces. Then the individual riders, instead of playing it safe tried to rush off the bridge which sent the pedestrians going in every which direction trying to avoid flying hooves and half-crazed animals. All the screaming and carrying on made the chaos even worse. All I could do was try and keep my own animal and wagon under control.

Then to make matters worse a man was trying to push through with a crying young girl struggling in his arms. She saw me and reached out. Vika. Someone was trying to use the chaos to steal one of our kids.

I stood up in the wagon, reached out and kicked the stranger in the head sending him down. I managed to lean over and grab her while holding the reins one handed, pulling her up beside me.

“Who was that? What happened?”

The girl sobbed, “I … I don’t know. Uncle Lud said to hold on and that’s what I was doing and then this guy just pulled me out and started running.”

“Take it easy. Bunch a jerks in this world right now. Look back and see if you can show them that I have you. I’ve got to keep …”

Then our wagon was rammed by another on our side that had tried to push through the line. I had some uncomplimentary things to say but just managed to keep my religion by praying hard.

“We’re on the edge!! We’re on the edge!!!”

“I know Vika. Just hold on. Here, hold onto the back of the seat and onto my belt if that makes you feel better … just don’t scream in my ear. I’ve got to be able to concentrate.” She wound up holding onto me more than the wagon seat which was fine but a little disconcerting all things considered.

By the time we got off the bridge the disaster was even worse. The military was trying to control brawls and everything else. The road was unlike anything I’d ever seen or experienced before. I heard one guy holler to his mate, “Worse than the worst traffic out in LA!”

I wouldn’t know about that, all I can say is that it was bad. More than a few guns had been pulled and used though I’m not sure how constructively. I got a bee sting on my forearm from a piece of shrapnel that flew off a wagon that had been shot accidentally on purpose.

It took hours and I don’t know who was more frantic to get out of the mess … the animals or the people. There had been several runaway teams and more than a few accidents. The Ft. Campbell people were doing their best to get things straightened out and help to the truly injured but it was also a case of some good Samaritans causing more problems than they helped to cure. Wagons were parked all willy nilly, teams were unattended which made them temptation to the unscrupulous, and more and more messes like that.

There wasn’t any place to just pull over. Even when we got passed Fenton the road was just a horrible mess. People in the west bound lanes were constantly asking questions of those of us in the east bound lane. At the intersection of the Trace and highway 80 Thor came forward.

“You OK?”

I couldn’t even afford to give him a look. “I will be. What’s the plan?”

“Don’t have any choice at this point. Head south at the intersection up ahead. The Trace will be a lot less travelled going south than going north would be.” More quietly he said, “I heard from one of the Ft. Campbell people that with the right coin we can get a camping spot and maybe some trade goods.”

I nodded but kept my eyes on the road. He asked, “Vika, you want to go back to …”

“No!” she said and grabbed me around the waist hard enough squeeze some air out of me.

I told her, “Easy. You can stay if you want but at least give Thor a message for your people. And your dad. If he keeps circling us any more even his horse is going to get dizzy. And if David hops in and out of the wagon one more time I’m going to swat him. He’s going to fall out and do damage to that hard head of his.” I saw her bite her lips out of the corner of my eye and I knew she was determined to not smile even when she wanted to.

Don’t ask me what had suddenly turned her around and I wasn’t sure I completely trusted it but she was just a little kid and little kids can flip flop in a heartbeat and mean it through and through. She eventually started nodding off but I couldn’t hold her up on the seat.

“Vika, let your Dad take you back to your wagon so you can rest. You can come back when you’ve let them make a fuss over you if you want. I just don’t want you to get hurt sliding off the seat. OK?”

She sighed, “I guess. But I can come back … you know … sometimes?”

“I don’t see why not so long as you don’t annoy Thor too much,” I told her with a wink.

“You … you aren’t like they said.”

I didn’t even bother asking her who “they” were. “People make mistakes.”

“They did it on purpose.” She said it like she knew I was trying to make something better that shouldn’t be.

“Maybe. But they’re gone and you’re not and you can’t let what they said eat you up.”

“But they said awful stuff … and I believed them and did awful stuff …”

“Vika. It’s over and done with. I don’t hold it against you and since they’re … they’re not around to do anything anymore it would be a waste of my energy to carry a grudge. I won’t forget … because it was a pretty big thing … but that doesn’t mean that I can’t forgive. You need to find some way to forgive your mom too. I don’t know why she did what she did … maybe she really believed it … but she …” I stopped long enough to wonder if I was saying too much. “Look, she reaped what she sowed. I’m sorry that you got hurt in the process. I’m sorry other people got hurt … including me. But she’s gone and it is over with. I don’t think it serves any good purpose to keep digging those bones back up.”

She gave me a funny look. “What do you mean digging the bones back up?”

I shrugged. “I consider it … over … done. So I’ve … well I’ve buried it. You know like people say ‘bury the hatchet’ and things like that? We’ll, I’ve buried it. It makes no sense for me to go digging it up to touch and feel it all over again when to get healthy I’ll just have to go back and re-bury. That’s too much work and doesn’t make any sense.”

“Oh. I … I get it … I think.”

I tried to smile even though I was concentrating on the road. “That’s just how I think of it. It helps me to see the picture of how I want it to go in my head. But that doesn’t mean that you have to think of it the same way.”

“OK.”

She finally let me call Chuckri up and she must have ridden with him for about ten minutes before she fell asleep hard. After putting her to sleep with Elsapet to watch over her Chuckri came back up to me. “What did you say to her?”

“Nothing.”

“That was a lot of talking for it to be nothing.”

I laughed, “Girls are good at that. It is one of our primary weapons at keeping guys confused.”

“Oh yeah, now that I believe. Seriously though Rocky …”

I sighed. “It really wasn’t anything. I just let her see that I wasn’t some monster by just … just being me and doing what I had to do. I’m big and solid and I guess once she’d gotten up here she didn’t want to leave. Not to mention she is probably bored out of her head riding in that wagon day in and day out. It was a change of scenery for her. Right there at the end she mentioned that I wasn’t what she had thought but I’m not going to get irritated at the poor kid over that so I hope you don’t either.”

“No … I just … she seems like she is getting better but Delia says she still has nightmares.”

“No kidding. I dreamed of that fire the other night too. Things happen in life that you have a hard time putting behind you. But I have and I hope that by seeing that I have she’ll be able to do what she needs to do.”

He gave me a lopsided grin, “You aren’t half bad Kid, you know that?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I laughed right back at him.

And I could laugh because the further away we got from Hwy 80 the fewer and fewer people there were on the road. That’s not to say that people weren’t parked along the road because they were. People pulled over as soon as they could find a spot. Everyone was pretty washed out and shook up from that wait in line for the bridge and then the accompanying mess. Everyone included the animals too.

It was getting late when we finally got near a road block for the Homeplace. I saw some coins change hands between our group and those manning the gates and we pulled in and were directed into a grassy area and we could hardly get the animals unhitched for the fact that they were pulling at the grass like lunatics.

And speaking of food, two boys hauled over a large pot on a stick between them. “You’ll have to return the pot … cleaned and dried … before eight o’clock or you’ll hear from Mrs. Houchins and trust me you don’t want that. Breakfast will be biscuits with busted down gravy, grits for those that want them, and depending on the chickens we might also get a boiled egg in there … half one for kids under ten. You’ll have to provide your own drink if you want anything besides water … but we check the water twice a day and boil it too so we don’t get the sicknesses here you see other places. Three more rules and then we’ll leave you in peace. Use the latrines and not the trees; that’s one of the ways we control any sickness. Discharging a fire arm without a doggone good reason might get you killed dead around here so use some commonsense. And no ruckus after nine o’clock and none before five in the morning; some of us need our beauty sleep and get cranky without it. Now these next two ain’t official rules per se but you’ll keep the staff on your side which could go a long way to making your stay more pleasant … keep control of your kids; we don’t want to have to go looking for them and there are things in these woods that could eat ‘em up and some of ‘em are of the two-legged variety. Keep control of your animals and clean up after ‘em for the same reason. ‘Nuff said, y’all have a good evening and don’t forget about that pot.”

If I hadn’t been so tired I would have laughed; it was like being home in a really good way. I had shown Joan how to make cornpone in the spider skillet when we first got on the road. I had also shown the kids how to make a thick rope of bread and wrap it around a stick and cook it that way. Both of those activities were under way while the thick vegetable soup was kept warm giving the rest of us time to finish taking care of the animals. The poor things barely had the energy to swat flies with their tales.

A man who turned out to be a blacksmith slash farrier came over and listed his prices and Uncle Bedros was happy enough to pay him after seeing him do some work on one of the horses that had picked up a stone.

I told Thor, “There’s no way he’s going to see to all the animals today and it’ll break the bank if …”

“We’ll be staying another night. The animals need to recover and we need to go over the wagons to check for damage. Bedros is trading one of the male sheep and one of the male calves that need to be weaned.”

“What?!”

“Easy. Needs to be done. They’ve got too many animals to winter over with and it will create more genetic diversity or some such for the people here. Win-win. We’ll be getting supplies too since the animals are so valuable.” He stopped and then I saw how truly tired he was.

“Thor, you’ve been riding since early this morning when you were supposed to give that leg more rest first. I know I can’t make you but at least let me set up the tent and take first watch. I’m too wired to rest anyway.”

It pointed to how tired he was that he didn’t even make an attempt at a half-hearted protest. After the dinner, which was so good I nearly scraped the spots off of my speckleware bowl, most everyone made an early night of it. When my turn finally came I was very grateful and slept the sleep of the dead until I felt Thor getting up the next morning.

“Sleep. I’ll bring you breakfast when it’s ready.”

“No though I do appreciate the thought. If I start doing something like that … well … it might not set well with the other women. I’ve got a foot in both worlds and I have to be careful.”

“Huh?” Thor asked like it was too early for philosophy.

I have him a tired grin. “I’m a girl now and I need to help with the girl stuff … but I’m also one of the crew to a certain extent and have to keep up with that as well. Makes me life complicated my foine buck.”

“That … was a terrible Irish brogue.”

“It wasn’t an Irish brogue but backwoods Scots-Irish speak. I wonder if Mr. Dink is alive.”

We were putting our puts on after making sure nothing had crawled in them during the night. “Mister who?”

“Mister Dink. He’s one of the old timers that my dad used to trade tobacco to. Mr. Dink was … different. Dad said he’d suffered some kind of accident during the Korean war and came home a changed man. He just isn’t very good in certain company but he was always good to us. Most people would have called him homeless but the reality is that his home is where ever he lays his head at night. He’s got a couple of places that are his favorite and Dad had to fetch him to the doctor a couple of times but since before I was born he’s been tramping back and forth from our place and managing to stay out of trouble with the law. I think he was some kind of friends with my grandfather and Dad just kept the friendship up after his dad died.”

“What was your grandfather like?”

“Hmm? Oh, I never knew my grandfather, he died when my dad was little. Kinda … well … wild and stuff. My great grandparents helped to raise Dad and his siblings. I remember my mom’s folks though. Granddaddy was a self-made man and had a good farm going until a couple of the big ag conglomerates made it hard on him. After that they were strictly dependent on the local restaurants and tourists who came through. Their farm adjoined my dad’s land … it’s how Mom and Dad met. Their farm got split between the siblings and my aunt and uncle sold out and moved away but Mom got the section with the terraced orchards and … hey!”

“What?”

“If we can get home before October those orchards should be full of apples. We may have to eat apples all winter but at least we won’t starve.”

“Mmmm. Apples. Sounds like a plan Hon … and now that you’ve got me hungry, let’s get the chores done and go eat.”

The biscuits, gravy, etc. were as good as dinner had been. I was at loose ends afterwards so I helped to chop wood. I got some stares but they weren’t unfriendly ones and soon enough the women and I were talking since I showed them I knew what they were talking about. We exchanged a few recipes and I got to hear some of the local gossip and then it was time for me to get back to my own group.

I had just walked up to the caravan when a little spitfire asked, “Where did you go?!”

“I was cutting wood Shorty. What did you do with your day?”

“Oh. Nothing, I was bored.”

“All this work that needs to be done and you were bored?”

“They won’t let me do nothin’. I have to stay with Grandmother or Elsapet. Markrid wouldn’t let me rock the baby either.”

“Well, don’t pout, your lip will drag the ground eventually and that wouldn’t be too attractive not to mention you’d wind up with a mouth full of dirt. Try finding something that you can do. I bet those poor ol’ dogs would love to get brushed out. And the chickens look like they could really go for some fresh grass, preferably with some bugs on it. And did you know that pigs sunburn as bad as people do? I bet the piglets in particular would like to have someone build them a little bit of shade to wallow in.”

“Really?” she asked with suspicion.

“Really what?”

“All that stuff you just said. Is it true? That pigs get sunburned and I can feed the chickens bugs and the dogs will let me brush them. That stuff.”

I held my right hand up. “If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’. Just because people tell you there is stuff you can’t do doesn’t mean that you can’t come up with some stuff that you can do. I’m not much for sitting around being bored either. That’s why I went and hunted up some stuff to keep myself from getting under foot and being a pest. Because as a pest I’m can be a pretty big one.”

She bit her lips again to keep from laughing. “I know where David put the dogs’ brushes.”

“See there, no reason to be bored. And besides, the dogs may decide you are their new bestest friend and keep you company on the off chance you might decide to give them another brushing.”

Poor kid, she was so bored that she ran straight over to a box to grab the brush and practically tackled a dog to start brushing it. I laughed to myself wondering if the poor beastie was going to wind up with a bow on each ear.

I was walking passed a tree when I was grabbed from behind and was just able to stop myself from hurting my “assailant” when he whispered, “And why are you in such a good mood Ms. Charbonneau?”

“Thor! You goof, you're lucky I didn't do your leg some damage." I smiled to let him know I was playing too. "I’m just happy to be off that wagon seat for a while longer. And what has you in such a good mood?”

“Walk with me?”

“Of course.”

We walked for a little ways and then found a good sized rock to sit against. “We got clearance from the Ft. Campbell people. Tomorrow we’ve got a long drive to Tharpe where we have a pass to camp and then the next day will be Tharpe into Dover.”

“And they are being so nice to us why?”

“You’ve turned wicked suspicious of late,” he smiled.

“Maybe, but maybe I’ve been this way all along and you are just now noticing.”

He nodded, “Maybe. Either way you’re right. We’ll be carrying mail pouches. There’ll be some spotters along the way and the bags are going to be locked shut to make sure there isn’t any mishandling, but if it gets us a pass through the area with no trouble it is not going to be a hardship to do this one little extra thing.”

I agreed, “Sounds easy enough. What comes after Dover? I can just barely remember what this area looks like from the maps.”

“In Dover will pick up Hwy 79 and take it around Ft. Campbell and into Clarksville. Clarksville is in lockdown though it is still easy to come in go in parts of it though just not after curfew. The closer you are to the base the more checkpoints there are. We’ve been offered re-supply in Clarksville and from there we’ll go north … right by my friend’s land so I’ll check to see if my stuff is still there … and out of Oak Grove we’ll take Pembroke Rd which will take us straight into Fairvew which is a good thing because we’ll bypass Hopkinsville which word has is a mess at the moment. The State Hospital is there and they had some pretty bad cases that escaped and did some damage in the surrounding areas, gangs too if you can believe that, but the trouble stays pretty much in the city itself as the farmers have a habit of shooting first and then dumping in the rock quarry before asking questions.”

“Geez, are the Chuckri’s sure that is where they want to go?”

“How they are going to live there is their problem Hon. Our problem is getting them there. I thought you’d be happy we were so close.”

I climbed up in his lap being careful of his leg. “I am, just Mom always said to not count your chickens before they’re hatched. The closer we get the more excited I’ll get. But right now I’m more interested in paying some attention to what is right in front of me.”

Thor gave me a slow grin. “Well, I can’t fault your logic there.”

We spent a pleasurable hour before heading back to the group. I wanted to go over the wagon one more time and double check our supplies. We were getting closer but we had some long row to hoe before we could actually go onto the next phase of our journey.

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