Then it was down to Thor and another guy who was sweating bullets. I didn’t know whether he was sweating because of the competition or from the leather get up he was wearing. The thing is, if you look you can tell a poser from the real deal and this guy … he was the real deal. Then something else caught my attention on the opposite side of the competition area … new comers. Only, these guys weren’t with the first ones, you could tell by the insignias. And they made the first group of baddies nervous and agitated.
I wasn’t the only one that had noticed and I took a step back and tilted my head a bit so that I could hear what was being said by two of the game officials.
“Why couldn’t they all have just died off?” the first one muttered.
“We wouldn’t be that lucky,” the other answered.
“Get the watchers ready, there’s going to be trouble. I can feel it in my bones,” ordered the first one.
“Already done. But think on this Bart, we ain’t gotta handle them with kid gloves any more. We tried the live and let live way and they’ve thrown it back in our face. Now if they use anything approaching deadly force and it’s not going to be a earthly judge they are standing before but the Heavenly One.”
I sensed rather than saw the first one’s nod while he said, “That’s true, that’s true. But I don’t want no innocent bystanders hurt in the process.”
“Looks like most of the people from around here have recognized the problem and are backing away slowly. The panic won’t come unless there’s trouble and that will mostly be from non-locals.”
“Still …” I stopped listening. I’m sure that Thor was already aware of the situation but I wasn’t going to just stand in the shadows and not do anything if it came down to it.
My hatchet was on my belt as was my Bowie as I’d dressed before Thor had made his decree. Neither one would appear to be much use in a battle but I also had my pistol, the wagon shotgun, and I was holding Thor’s rifle as well. The problem lay in that my potential enemy was just as well armed and likely more experienced in fighting than I was. My size and strength was an asset if it came down to a one-on-one brawl but I was no more interested in getting a knife wound than one from a bullet.
While I was trying to keep myself positioned to cover Thor’s back the two opposing groups of men were starting to crowd each other and in the process kept getting in my way. Then I heard a nasty female voice behind me say, “Your man is dog food.”
The menace in that voice chilled me but it also hardened the last little bit of softness left in me. I couldn’t afford to look away from the events unfolding in front of me so without turning around I calmly told her, “You or anyone else touch Thor and they’re fertilizer.”
“Thor? You ain’t Buff’s b!@#$?” she asked surprised.
“Not this side of Hell’s gate,” I snorted, extremely affronted at the very idea.
“You and that other ‘un huh?” the voice said less antagonistically.
“Hate to be the one to tell you but you’re about to be a widow. Buff don’t take losing well at all.” Of course she really didn’t sound sorry to be the bearer of such news, actually seemed to be enjoying herself too much.
I snorted again at how cartoonish her behavior was. “Buff better find a brain. Thor’s a professional and those other guys don’t even start to compare. Warn your people to stay out of his way, ‘specially that curly headed kid that looks like he might want to prove something. You guys are welcome to whatever’s left.”
“You’re bragging awful big,” she said obviously not knowing the truth when she heard it.
I shrugged and said, “Just keep on thinking that for as long as you can if it makes you feel better.”
I could tell the rubber band was close to snapping and it irritated me that I had to split my attention between what was in front of me and the little trollop behind me. I didn’t have long to wait for either one to finally snap. I felt the female behind me move at the same time as Buff’s men rushed the field. I turned fast putting an elbow into her temple and grabbing her hand with the shank with my free hand. I’m not sure how much damage I had intended to do but my hand was bigger and stronger than hers and I basically crushed it and wrenched it all out of shape when I ripped the blade from her. She’d stupidly fashioned a weapon that was shaped a bit like brass knuckles; it had finger holes and a fold out blade like it came from some novelty shop. She fell to her knees stunned and keening in pain, cradling her bleeding appendage.
Chaos reigned as I looked around for Thor and saw him in a fight for his life. I was so done playing nice. The shotgun sprang into my hands like it had always been there and I pumped several rounds into the crowd of men whooping it up and cheering, thinning their ranks considerably.
Then I moved in and people were too close to use a gun effectively so I pulled the hatchet with one hand and the Bowie with the other. I wasn’t out to kill anyone, but if they got in my way as I waded through the mass to get to Thor I wasn’t above maiming them. I used the back of the heavy hatched and the butt of the Bowie when I could but it wasn’t always possible. I heard more screaming than I care to remember.
I finally made it to Thor and we stood back to back. Sure enough that curly headed kid wanted to earn his colors and was aiming right for us. And just as surely as I had warned the woman that it was a bad idea to mess with Thor, the kid learned the same thing in double measures.
Obviously we weren’t the only two fighting; it wasn’t us against the golden horde or anything unbelievable like that but between the two of us we kept the ones after us at bay and then finally put enough of them down to turn the tide for ourselves and have them on the run. The locals were doing their own share of damage to the baddies. A few of the baddies gave up but many seemed intent on trying to escape or possibly regroup to come back in a more organized attack. That’s when Thor took his rifle from me and put a period to the ones that got beyond the reach of the last local authorities.
It never ceased to surprise and amaze me for some reason just how good Thor was and to wonder yet again why this man picked me of all the women he could have had with so little effort. He managed the local authorities like he’d had a lot of practice at it, which he probably had considering his former job. He even managed the admiring looks from the local females without getting a big head which told me he had a lot of practice at that. It made me feel small to be so jealous but at the same time I knew Thor was giving me any reason to feel that way. Maybe it was a reaction to the day’s events, maybe I really was being hormonal, but either way I both wanted to get away from everyone including Thor yet I couldn’t seem to get more than a couple of feet from him before I got the shakes.
There was clean up of course and Thor and I were part of the crews trying to put things to right since we’d helped to make a lot of the mess. Surprisingly few locals had sustained serious injury but they had a medical station set up and both of us visited it to get the cuts and bruises we’d sustained seen to and cleaned out; no sense taking chances … or using our own supplies when we didn’t have to.
From town gossip we found out that the two groups of baddies were known in these parts. The local cops had been good about keeping them in check prior to that year but when things went south and so many law enforcement officers died in the following riots and sicknesses their membership grew and they started getting out of hand. The groups migrated through the area as they went in smaller and smaller circles gathering the fewer and fewer illegal products they generated in their backwoods drug labs, committing other heinous acts in the process.
One man whose brother had been a county deputy told us, “They started running out of supplies the same time the rest of us did. We thought it would stop giving them a reason to be violent and turn their energies to planting and growing real food instead of weed but it didn’t. We even left them alone and agreed to ‘legalize’ all drugs and drug use with the thinking the violence and waste of manpower would stop for us. That didn’t stop the violence either. Their drug trade was just an excuse. People like this … they never stop. At least not until someone plants them hard and deep.”
One of the worst moments for me came when I heard they’d had to do several amputations from my shotgun blasts and also suspected they’d have to eventually amputate the hand of the woman that tried to stab me in the ribs. I hadn’t been using slugs but at that range the violence of the blasts still could destroy bone and medical attention had returned to the era of the US Civil War “saw bones.”
Thor’s philosophy was pretty simple. “Today was war. They made a choice to become our enemy. They’re responsible for the results. Our goal is survival and we have just as much right as they do to seek it.”
I knew he was correct from a certain perspective but I also knew that I was a product of a war for all that it had been called a “Green War” and would never be able to ignore or take lightly the potential for unintended consequences no matter how valid my position from a human perspective. I would always question whether the end justifies the means. When I stand before God for the final judgment and answer for my works, how will He view what I’ve done and what I haven’t done?
I knew I was saved, that wasn’t one of the questions that ate at me on days like this. I had a problem with reconciling my chosen warrior lifestyle with what I thought should have been my choices if I was “Christian enough” starting all the way back when I fell in love with football. It became so much of my life I had to stop on occasion and evaluate my actions for a couple of different reasons. I’d learned to accept – well mostly – that I was born different. I’d learned to honestly concede that my gender sometimes came in conflict with my talents. I had to figure out what kind of example I was setting and how that affected my witness as a Christian.
Those questions continued to ring true with me. What I could never learn to be was complacent. Questions were as much of a natural part of me as my height was. It meant that sometimes I didn’t fit, and could bring up uncomfortable issues. Sometimes though I knew I needlessly complicated things instead of just turning them over to God but I was still learning and figured I’d probably go on learning until I hit the Pearly Gates.
Thor and I had returned to camp to allow the last bit of adrenaline to drain away and to gather our thoughts when we found that he had been declared the winner of the competition by default even though the last round hadn’t been played. I wondered how on earth people had even had time to consider the issue but I guess the games were really important to folks in those parts. The pig that was supposed to be the prize had been killed and all of the other prizes had already been presented so in place of the pig and because we took out a large number of the baddies after we were the victim of their unprovoked attack Thor was given the rights to first dibs on the belongings of the two gangs.
There was absolutely no way we could have hauled off everything in the two camps. There was absolutely no way would I have wanted to either. When we visited the two places the next day, after the locations had been “acquired” from a couple of the surviving gang members, it was like walking into a dump or junk yard. I’d been around some trashy home sites but never anything quite like we found. All I could say is that they’d at least been smart enough to dig their cat holes well away from camp and their water source.
I left it up to Thor to go through the weapons and ammo and other weaponry since that was his specialty. Most of the good weapons had been taken off of the gang members when they were captures but there were still some in the camp. I looked through everything else and it was certainly a motley collection of junk. I set aside the little bit of sealed food there was and turned all of the open bags and containers over to the town reps that had come with us. I also grabbed a second coffee percolator, an extra cast iron skillet and one of the biggest cast iron dutchies that I had ever seen. It dwarfed what we had in the wagon and was even bigger than the biggest one that we used when we had field hands during harvest time. The thing almost looked like a cauldron when the lid was off and no one seemed to have any idea where it could have come from.
If I’d had more time and space I might have taken a few other things for barter or trading but those two commodities were in short supply. That isn’t to say we didn’t get some treasures. Thor was happy to take the ammo that fit our weapons and some of the other calibers for, as he called it, just in case. I was happy to finally find a warmer coat for Thor. It was beat up and ratty, needed cleaning and some tailoring, but it gave me a shell to work with which was more than I’d had to start with. And we both got a couple of extra pairs of boots.
What we didn’t keep was also useful. We traded some of the scrap metal to a blacksmith who had a brother that was a Ferrier and had him look at our horses. They needed some serious hoof care from all of our travelling. The man told us, “Cain’t and won’t tell you your business but if you keep pushing these animals one of ‘em is going to wind up lame. You’re lucky they ain’t got sensitive feet or you’d had trouble with ‘em before now what with all that traveling on concrete and pulling this loaded wagon. And I heard you say you’re headin’ east which means steep grades.”
He was right and we both knew it. That afternoon we sat down with the maps and tried to figure out some type schedule and to solidify our route. After all was said and done we’d stayed in Williamsburg several more days than we had intended but we had gained some benefit from it so I tried not to worry. I had washed all of our clothes and bedding as well as the jacket that I’d found for Thor and just in time too.
The morning we got back on the road wasn’t a record breaker but it was still surprisingly cool for September. Worse it was damp as a heavy fog lay over everything.
“Looks like home,” I told Thor.
“You walk around in pea soup off did you?” Thor asked playfully.
I rolled my eyes and said, “You have no idea.”
It was midmorning before we left the clingy, patchy stuff all the way behind. We made it to Yaden, Kentucky and then to Dixie where we agreed it was time to stop for the day. Neither one of us was happy that we’d barely made eleven miles that day, even with an early start but it was what it was and we had to live with it.
We’d seen next to no one as we had travelled though we had occasionally smelled smoke which meant there were people near. Thankfully the day and that night were uneventful. We weren’t quite as lucky when it came to a camping site. That morning everything was damp and we couldn’t just pack up and haul away.
“Thor,” I said trying to get his attention. It was one of those mornings when you tread light around a man who is missing his coffee.
He grumbled a, “What?”
“I think it might be better if we tried to sleep in the wagon from here on out, at least so long as the weather is going to be like this. It’ll save time packing up since we won’t have to let everything dry out.”
All I got was a rumble in return but that night when we stopped in Siler after another ten mile day I did my best to arrange it so we’d have a comfortable bed. I thought to soothe his nerves with a little personal attention but he simply rolled over and went to sleep leaving me wondering exactly what was going on. I found out the next morning when I woke before he did to hear an odd wheezing noise mixed in with his snores.
“Thor! Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t feeling good,” I told him sharply.
“Stop yammering at me, I feel fine.” The fact that the statement was punctuated with a wet cough made me just stand there looking at him with my hands on my hips.
“Yeah, you sound fine all right. Here, I found some unopened Mucinex mixed in with the hallucinogenics at one of the camps. They must have robbed a drug store early on and just taken whatever fell off the pharmacist’s shelves.”
“I don’t need …”
“Thor, I’m out of patience with your he-man stuff. A wet chest is nothing to fool with, especially now that cooler weather is setting in. I’ll let you do all of the security planning and strategy but trust me, on this I know better. You are used to the dry weather of the Middle East, you’ve forgotten how bad winter colds can be and with no doctors …”
He said sharply, “Oh all right … just get off my back already. You’re giving me a headache.”
I knew I wasn’t the one giving him a headache. More than likely it was sinus pressure or lack of good rest. I didn’t blame him for the headache, I was however getting irritated at his attitude. I also made him drink some ginger and honey tea. He was hacking up globs of gunk and blowing his nose so often that he went through all of the clean bandanas we had but by that night he was all cleared up.
He took the soup I handed him and said rather sheepishly, “Sorry Hon, don’t know what came over me.”
I decided it wasn’t worth making him feel any more guilty than he already did so I just said, “Hey, if you can handle the occasional bought of PMS from me then I don’t see why I shouldn’t be overlook the occasional crankiness for you. Now eat your soup and then get some rest. I’ll take first watch since I have to wash a few things anyway.”
“I’ll do that since I dirtied them up.”
I shook my head, “No you won’t. You’ll get some rest like I politely asked you to. You want to get rid of this and not set yourself up for a relapse.” A little grumbling followed but he did as I asked and by the next morning he seemed to be his old self though he could have still used some more rest.
That day was a hard one. We had no choice but to head due south down 190 and cross into Tennessee before turning northeast again Hamlin Town, heading back into Kentucky and stopping for the night in Fonde. It made for a fifteen mile day and man, woman, and beast were all extremely tired.
“One more day Hon and then I think we’ll need to take a break for the horses if nothing else.” Thor’s gravel voice registered fatigue and I continued to worry that he was trying to relapse no matter how many times he claimed to feel so much better.
“Sounds good. If we can I want to find a barn, warehouse, or garage to stay in. We need to get out of this damp and so do the horses.”
God blessed us and we made good time the next day. We’d thought only to go as far as Edgewood but we made it all the way to Cumberland Gap and even through the park. I suggested and Thor agreed that we stay in the Wilderness Road campground and picnic area. It wasn’t easy but I maneuvered us to the furthest group picnic site and we rearranged the tables and used the space to keep the worst of the damp off of us and the horses.
The next day I left Thor sleeping in camp and went exploring down at the visitor center to see what I could find. He was mad as the dickens when I got back but mollified when I told him what I’d found and even went so far as to snuggle for a bit.
“You know this doesn’t excuse you going off on your own,” Thor said.
I sighed, “Yeah. But look, we are trying to rest the horses and you need to finish getting over that chest cold. At the same time we should take advantage of what salvage we can. I left you a detailed note and this time it panned out.”
“This time,” he said.
I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. I’d been hiking the Smokies for most of my life, with and without my dad for company. It was hard to suddenly change the way I did things but for Thor I would try. “OK. I get your point. I’m just used to being more independent.”
“It’s not about independence Hon,” he said, understanding my viewpoint despite not agreeing with it. “The world is a different place. I know this is closer to what you have grown up with as far as landscape but you need to remember that more than ever because of it. The people are going to be different … perhaps even those you know, those you used to call friends. You can’t know for sure so you need to be more careful, think further ahead.”
I did understand but there were times understanding that only made me want to kick over my traces even more. Nevertheless I told him, “It won’t happen again.”
He shook his head, “I’m not your crew boss Hon and I’m not your father. I love you and life as I knew it would be over without you in it. I only want you to be careful … for both our sakes.”
I hugged him realizing I had scared him more than made him angry. “I said it won’t happen again. Even if I want to head off and explore on my own I hope I’m considerate enough to keep my word for your sake.” We hugged to seal the deal and then turned back to going through what I’d managed to haul back … after I started a percolator pot of coffee.
The coffee was only one of the things that I found by scavenging through the desks and credenzas I found in the “staff only” sections of the visitor centers. Along with the coffee were packets of sugar and powdered creamer, some of those fancy “international” coffee blends, napkins and paper cups. In the area that housed the cleaning supplies I found a couple of boxes of feminine hygiene products, liquid soap, gallon jugs of “all natural” type cleaners and a couple of plain old bleach as well. There weren’t too many paper towels since the bathrooms had used the blowers to dry with but there were some commercial rolls of toilet paper that fairly had me dancing a jig when I found them.
“I’d like to take the horses down and get the rest of the supplies that I couldn’t haul back by hand. It will give me the rest of the day to try and arrange the stuff in the wagon.”
“Is there going to be room? And if room isn’t a problem what about weight?”
“I’ll manage it. We are eating the potatoes at almost every meal … and yes I know you are getting a little tired of them but it’s what we’ve got for now to keep our carb levels up to balance out the protein of the wild game we are eating. If I can put up with eating tree rat all the time you can eat potatoes. Anyway,” I continued after being interrupted by Thor’s unspoken complaint. “I’ve made up my mind to leave that ridiculous dutchie. It takes up too much room and weighs too much. I’d rather cook in two or three dutchies at the same time than try and deal with that monster.”
“You sure? You were awful excited to have found it,” Thor reminded me. “We leave it behind there won’t be any coming back for it.”
“It was a case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach … or in this case my good sense. It’s too much of a novelty to really be useful on a regular basis.”
So it was decided. We went back down to where I had found everything and it took three loads with both horses to bring everything up. It wasn’t just the food and cleaning items though that would have been treasure enough. There were a few clothing items that fit Thor and I snagged them to add to his cold weather wardrobe. We were still missing long johns and good socks but I was hoping to find a clothier that carried backwoods gear along the way.
There were also some things in the gift shop that I took though I felt guilty for it every time I passed the cash register because they weren’t strictly necessities. And I grabbed all of the office supplies. From a locked cabinet Thor took several boxes of shotgun shells though the shotgun they were meant for wasn’t to be found anywhere on the premises.
“It’s weird how untouched this place is,” I said that night as we sat warming by our campfire.
“Maybe not. You saw how trashed Middlesboro was. They had some kind of staging going on at the hospital and airport but whatever they were trying to contain escaped and ran rampant. Those two churches were loaded down with bodies, like they knew they were going to die and just wanted to do it someplace sacred. When I saw that I would have detoured if the option had existed. No telling how long some of the nasties that were released are going to hang around in the environment waiting to strike the unwary.”
“Now that’s a comforting thought,” I told him and flicked a twig at him.
“Yeah, I thought it would be,” he told me flicking the piece of debris right back.
I sighed and looked at the amazingly star-filled sky. “I wonder how many people are seeing stars like this for the first time.”
Thor scooted closer and we just enjoyed each other’s company, him with the last cup of coffee from the pot and me with a bug of hot chocolate that had come from the same credenza. Then Thor said, “We’ll take the Wilderness Road tomorrow. You ever been on it?”
“Sure, it’s … well I don’t know if you’ll call it a main thorough fair exactly but it is one of the primary byways. We’ll leave the Daniel Boone portion of it in Bristol and then take the Frontier Trail route.” I tried to think of what he’d want to know about it but about all I could think about was tomorrow we would enter Virginia.
Sensing my thoughts Thor asked, “Excited?”
“And scared,” I admitted. “I know things will have changed and I know there will be a ton of work when we do finally reach home. I want to hurry up but at the same time I’m not sure I’m ready for what I’ll have to face.”
“You think … I mean you did say you had other family.”
“They haven’t lived in Damascus for a few years. None of my cousins could handle it. It is a very small town that has a population explosion a couple of times a year when the big trail expos occur. You have to be able to put up with strangers just walking up to you asking directions and stupid questions. People get lost on the trails fairly regularly; they even manage it on the biking trails though I’ve never quite figured that one out.”
“Do they live close enough? Do you want to check on them?”
I honestly wasn’t sure. Part of me said I had the obligation to and another part of me remembered how some of them had treated me and my parents over the years.
“My aunt lives in Ewing. We’ll have to pass right by her turnoff to get home. I guess it’s about twenty miles from here. I wouldn’t mind saying hello to her and my cousin Edgard … if he’s around don’t call him Eddie ‘cause he hates it … but Cellie and Dart are a couple of pieces of work and ranked me right up there with pig snot. They were embarrassed by me because I was so different and they hated that our grandmothers pretty much told them to get over it since they were older than I was by several years and should be mature enough to handle it.”
“The more I hear about your grandmothers the more I wish I could have met them.”
“Yeah, they were something all right,” I said smiling at some of my memories. “Mom was a gentler soul but still managed to fit into Dad’s rough and tumble family, and they adored her for not being judgmental. Me, I took more after Dad’s side of the family personality-wise and the two old ladies got a kick out of it. As for any other family, I don’t know. They aren’t along the route we’ve got planned right now except for a couple of Mom’s cousins in Abington. Just … let’s play it by ear. I suppose it is better to know than not but at the same time I’d rather not have to deal with that stuff if I … we … don’t have to.”
“You tell me if you want to stop and I’ll stand by you.”
I leaned back into his chest and we wound up sharing a lap blanket to ward off the little bit of chill in the air. “But you wanted to know about the Wilderness Road. I’m hoping we can make it as far as Wilderness Road State Park tomorrow and Ewing the day after that. Highway 58 is actually a good road because of all of the historical stuff it goes by but very rural in feel at least until you get to Bristol. We’ve got a few days to get there though so I’m not sure how far you want this description to go.”
I could feel Thor nod. “OK, what about food, water and places to stop?”
“A decent number of springs and creeks if you know where to look. That’s one of the reasons I got those hiking and topo maps from the gift store. We’re still going to need to keep the water barrel topped off as often as we can but we’ve been doing that all along. Places to stop? There are plenty of those assuming not everything is inhabited. If worse comes to worse I could always chop firewood in exchange for space in a barn or back acreage.”
“I want to avoid people as much as possible,” Thor said.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that around here but we’ll give it a try. Even if we see people it won’t mean that those people will want to talk to us. Mountain people can be funny.”
My lifemate chuckled and said, “That is true the world over. Richards used to complain that that it was the altitude and thin oxygen that did it.”
“You miss ‘em?” I asked after he’d gotten quiet.
“It hasn’t hit me yet. Right now is like a vacation or a temporary assignment. I figure this winter, once we’re settled in I’ll feel it more.”
Wondering I asked, “Have you ever been cooped for a winter? Sometimes not even able to get outside much?”
“No, can’t say as I have.”
I warned him, “Some people don’t take to it. They get bored and stir crazy.”
Rather than taking me seriously he gave me a wicked grin. “I doubt I’ll be bored. There will be too much else to hold my attention.”
Well that pretty much ended that conversation and we headed to bed when a heavy mist started to form and roll in. Thor was asleep almost instantly, still recovering whether he admitted it or not. I had a much harder time of it. Seeing Aunt Belle would be … something. She tried to be nice to me but she was always so wrapped up in her own problems that we just never made much of a connection. Edgard was closer to my age and he and I had had football in common as well as scouting, but he had been away at college and I wasn’t sure whether he would have been able to make it home or not. Mostly I knew from that point forward was when I had to start facing old faces, old places, and old fears. But at least I wasn’t having to face them alone. I had Thor and that made all the difference.