Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 67

Chapter 67

I refused to panic. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t leaning that direction, just that I refused to fall off the precipice. I had to make some serious decisions – in as little time as possible – before I took another step.

Were the men’s conditions stable? Yes. Stable enough to move? Yes. Thor was pale, but that was to be expected. I could still see color beyond the paleness though and another plus was that while his pulse was a little erratic, it was strong with no fluttering to it. I worried about shock, and I could tell he was chilled, so I wrapped my jacket around him more securely. He tried to stir but his eyes only rolled around a bit; the movement it still gave me hope and when I kissed his forehead I swear he smiled a bit. Uncle Bentley, on the other hand, was much worse than I had realized at first glance. I was shocked to see a wrapped stump where his right foot should have been when his boot fell off. The bandages were relatively fresh, or so it appeared, but I could see that the ace wrap that covered them showed places had been oozing at some point. His pallor was gray and pasty which worried me. Still and all I assumed if he was strong enough to be out shooting it up in a graveyard I’d be able to move him with no catastrophic effects.

But move them to where? What was my destination? With the men stabilized I had the option of staying at Uncle Bentley’s place or continuing on to the farm … or anywhere in between as well as going back to the town, maybe even the clinic. I gave this one lots of thought while I moved both men closer to the wagon. Uncle Bentley was obviously in the worst shape. Ge didn’t regain consciousness when I carried him and in addition to the amputation and two minor bullet wounds, I realized he had lost a significant amount of weight. He had already been built like a banty rooster, slighter of build and shorter than my father, but now he felt bird breasted and hollowed bone. I moved him on the lee side of the wagon, out of the wind, and covered him up with blankets I had ripped off of his own bed.

Thor did regain consciousness briefly which was a relief. What was annoying was his insistence on me leaving him to find a hiding spot. “Something … wrong,” he groaned.

Trying not to snort at the obvious while I bore most of his considerable weight I said, “You were shot. Be easy now and don’t fight me or we’ll both take a header.”

“No … something … else. Not me. Place … wrong.”

“Easy Thor. I know something crazy is going on. I’m trying …”

He moaned as I put him down through I know he tried not to. That hole hadn’t been made by any little 22lr and I was sure it needed cleaning asap. “Not here. Get to the farm. Hole up there,” he whispered and then he was out again though it was obvious he was fighting his weakness.

That was one vote for the farm. Part of me wanted to say, “Heck yeah, let’s go!” On the other hand Thor wasn’t completely with it and I needed to be sure of my choices for us all, especially since I wasn’t sure what I would find if we did go to the farm.

Despite the amount of thought I was putting into each step, things were moving very quickly. The one thing I was sure of was that I wasn’t going to leave those guns in the graveyard for anyone else to pick up. I ran back over and just threw weapons and ammo into a burlap bag I’d grabbed from the wagon. It was when I was tearing the gun out of the last woman’s hand that I saw it; a green and blue braided wire bracelet.

The eco-movements used symbology a lot but had few major symbols that were distinctly their own; even the recycling symbol had started out as a non-verbal sign rather than as an environmental logo. But when the eco-terrorists known commonly as the “greenies” came out from under their rock they’d started using a green and blue braided circle to identify their members. It became a bit of a fashion trend … like the old peace sign … and most people who wore it didn’t understand what it really stood for. But I was betting she had, right down to her hemp jeans, recycled plastic t-shirt and wool-felt Birkenstock clogs worn with unbleached cotton socks.

I ran back to the wagon and put the burlap bag under the wagon seat. My mind had been made up, especially after I double checked the house and found more circumstantial evidence supporting my theory. There was no way I was going to stay in a house that was a known greenie hang out.

As I stormed through the house – all but swearing at Uncle Bentley for being fool enough to fall for a piece of eco-trash half his age – I gathered up odds and ends; more ammo, coffee, the medical supply box on Uncle B’s dresser, the few cans of food left in the pantry, extra sheets from the hall linen closet. I tied this stuff onto Thor’s saddle, threw more bedding in the back of the wagon and only by the grace of God managed to get both men back there and secured without hurting them or myself.

I climbed in the wagon and had to pray for forgiveness when I spat in the direction of the bodies in the graveyard as we passed. When I had been running around the side effects of the adrenaline pumping through my veins hadn’t been too bad. Now that I was sitting in the wagon seat again and trying to stay calm so I could drive along the narrow and winding forestry roads I was starting to shake like a leaf. It didn’t help that my jacket was still wrapped around Thor and the temp in the shade of the trees was cool enough without adding the wind that was starting to kick up as the sun made its way toward late afternoon.

Trying desperately to focus on the immediate priorities I kept my eyes on the road and my ears open for any potential pursuers. Twist, turn, switchback, grade up, grade down, backtrack for a small slide, move that tree out of the way … and ... what the heck is that?! A box van was literally stuck between two trees facing down towards the ravine that edged the piece of road I was currently on. I nearly passed on but stopped as Thor had heard me muttering.

“Ro ... chelle,” he said through gritted teeth.

I jerked the horse to a stand and turned with all the words tumbling out of my mouth. “Thor! How do you feel? Dumb question, sorry. Are you in pain … no that’s another dumb …”

“Breathe,” he wheezed. “Now go see what is in that van.”

“Thor …”

“I’m fine and the old guy beside me is still out of it.”

Rather than argue with someone that could be as stubborn as a stump I hopped down and slid through the damp fallen leaves to the spot where the van had hung up. What was left of two bodies were scattered in and around the outside of the cab. When I saw that I backed up and started to watch where I put my feet. There had been plenty of stains all over inside the cab so I’m guessing they died and had started to decompose before the bear – and I could see it was a bear from the claw marks on the door – had gotten inside and done what bears do.

The back of the box truck was only closed with a door lever but the angle was weird and I had to put some muscle into lifting the door. The back was full of cardboard boxes. I pulled out the first one I could grab without a hassle and used my pocket knife to open it. After I had determined what was in the box I carefully shut the door and locked it with the lever. If no one had broken into it by now I didn’t really worry they would any time soon. I carried the box back to the wagon and set it beside me, climbed in, and slapped the reins to get us going again.

“What?” Thor asked, seeing the tears in my eyes.

“Jonathon’s grandmother. She really had sent some things out to the farm, they just never made it. They may have been driving too fast and missed the curve. It happens all the time around here, even the local kids get complacent and do it.”

“And?”

I tried not to laugh sadly, “Same sort of stuff she considered survival food when we had been traveling together. The box I opened was freeze dried ice cream and an expensive brand of trail mix. Lord alone knows what is in the rest of the boxes.”

“You … you know what this means,” he wheezed.

I nodded, expressing some gratitude in my tone as I answered, “It should mean that no one found the farm but that’s not a guarantee yet; someone could have come overland and stumbled into the place.”

I heard him moving around, or trying to. “Don’t Thor. You need …”

“You need back up more. You need me … to … to …”

Exasperated I stopped the wagon again. In the end I was forced to pull back some of the wagon canvas and prop him up so he could at least pretend that he wasn’t so hurt that he was more hindrance than help.

“Honest to Pete you’re going to kill yourself at this rate,” I told him, not even trying to hide my impatience with his bullheadedness.

“You are not going to do this by yourself. Now stop giving me lip woman and let’s get going.”

I grumbled, “Backseat driver.” In reality I was a little ashamed at how pathetically grateful I was that Thor, even in his state, would put himself at risk to support me.

“How in the …? No wonder no one can find your place,” Thor said in disbelief.

Completely understanding what he meant I said, “It actually isn’t that hard after you’ve been walked through it a couple of times. It is just a matter of cross and recrossing and then going through a couple of places that don’t look like you can go through … optical illusions sort of. Once you know they’re there though you wonder how you didn’t see it to begin with.”

The wagon was on the part of a gravel and dirt road that ran beside a tributary to Laurel Creek. Most of the year hip waders would get you from one side to the other without getting a drop on you but there were a couple of rocky places that were good for some fast kayaking and closer to the back of the farm there were a couple of small waterfalls. Then the main gate stood tall in front of us.

“What the heck is that?” Thor asked, completely flummoxed.

“We use it to keep King Kong out,” I told him with a small laugh at his surprise. Actually it wasn’t a wooden gate at all despite how it looked. My dad had found a whole pile of these artificial “logs” made from recycled plastic that the NPS had dumped on our land and then hadn’t been able to find again. It was supposed to be for trail rehabilitation but they’d missed the trail by nearly a mile. We sure as heck weren’t giving them directions since we’d already been having problems with them criss crossing our fields and disturbing some new plantings, but we did give them through spring to claim them, they just never did. We took the abandoned “logs” and rebuilt the main gate, one of the docks, and a few other things and saved a ton of money in the process.

As we’d driven I’d already noted how the grass had grown rampantly along the road though it had died back from at least one frost. It was no different beyond the gates of the farm. After about sixty feet of narrow drive the land opened up and I could hear Thor gasp. The farm nestled in a hollow. The house was built into the mountain side that was least suited for terracing and the cabin was directly below it on a piece of flat, rocky soil. The barns and other outbuildings were built in the same way except for the old cantilevered barn that sat between the yard lot and kitchen garden and the fields closest to the house. Some of the fields were terraced as were the orchard, the berry hedges, and the grape arbor. Everything had a nasty, neglected feel to it that made me bitter and sad.

“Thor …” But he was out again and despite that I could see the pain etched in his face like it had been cut with jagged glass.

I pulled the wagon over to the house and looking carefully around I made my way to the side door. One of the things I had grabbed at Uncle Bentley’s place was the spare keys that were right where he always hung them on the nail inside the pantry. The locks were stubborn from disuse but I finally heard the click as the bolt pulled back and the door swung open with a soul jarring squeal.

My mother would have cried in disgust and dismay but from what I could see in the few rooms I walked through it was mostly dirt and dust. The bathrooms had some mildew in them but I knew how to take care of that. There was one cracked window but that wasn't the end of the word either since it was down in a corner instead of through the center. We’d drained the water lines before we had left – plumbing was my father’s bane but it was better to be safe than sorry – and I didn’t see any water damage anyplace.

I wasn’t ready to take over my parents’ bedroom yet so I went to my bedroom and made sure that I could put Thor in the bed. He wasn’t a treat to get up the stairs but I did manage it despite or perhaps in spite of him trying to help. I promised him I would be back soon to take care of him then ran down and carried in Uncle Bentley. I had thought to put him in one of the spare rooms … Dad had built the house when he and Mom had planned to have a large family … but then thought better of it. I made a soft pallet for him in the living room on the fold out sofa and then lit a fire in that fire place before going up stairs and lighting a fire in the small wood stove in my room.

Both men were unconscious again so I ran out to take care of the horses. My eyes skimmed the nearby chicken coop but didn’t see a single bird … not even a feather. But I nearly wet myself when I walked into the barn. There were chickens roosting all over the place and they were none too happy that I was letting the cold air in. I looked over and had an idea of what had happened. A panel had fallen off of the small feed silo my dad had built in the corner and after putting the horses in separate stalls I walked over and looked inside. There wasn’t much left, maybe a week’s worth at most.

I looked around and came face to face with Foghorn, the king of the hen house. “Well you and that corn certainly explain a few things. Here you’ve been sitting fat and sassy with your harem, not a care in the world, and I’ve been fighting everything but zombies to cross this country feeling bad about how your feathery backside suffered before you died.”

All Foghorn did was peck at me before strutting towards one particularly plump Rhode Island Red. I looked away, giving them some privacy and finished taking care of the horses as quickly as I could.

I brought more wood with me to keep the fires going, found the kerosene lamps Mom had always kept handy, and banished the dark from the rooms I would be working in. I needed the light; it wasn’t pleasant work.

It may have been selfish but I took care of Thor first. I didn’t find any dirt in his wound but I did pull out a couple of strings of thread and a small bone chip which meant I’d have to clean it again. I’m glad that Thor passed out the first time around. Then I did what I could to disinfect and protect the wound so it could start healing. I'd taken care of animal wounds in the past but it was another kettle of fish for me to do it to a human.

I used one of those thermometers that you stick in an ear to measure his temperature and it was running a little warm but it was still under a hundred. “Listen you, you are not allowed to get an infection. At all. Period. As soon as you wake up I’m going to give you something Dad always kept on hand for if the animals got a puncture wound. I know it is OK for people because the doc said it was that summer Dad stepped on that nail. You also need to drink lots of water so that you don’t get dehydrated and your body can replace the blood it has lost. I don’t know if you can hear me or not but I put a bell beside your hand. When you wake up, if I’m not here, you ring it and I’ll come running.”

I went back downstairs and this time it was to find Uncle Bentley awake but glassy-eyed.

“I … I thought I was dreaming again,” he croaked.

“No Uncle B, you’re not dreaming.” I tried to hug him but it was like hugging a bag of sand. I started cleaning him up and taking care of him the best I could. The bullet wounds were minor; didn’t even really qualify for much more than burns. Neither one of us spoke, it was weird but I was starting to feel a little shocky myself by that point.

When I went to unwrap the stump he said, “No!”

“Uncle B, I don’t know what has happened or when but that dressing needs to be changed.”

“I’ll change it myself when I’m good and ready.”

I shook my head, “Uncle B, please. Let me take care of you.”

In a strange tone he said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”

“Not from me you haven’t. Dad would have my head if I ever lied to you or didn’t do my best. You know he and Mom wouldn’t rest if they thought they could do anything for you.”

It took several moments but he finally let me do what I had set out to do. I nearly vomited and had to turn my back to him so he wouldn’t see my face.

“No need to hide it from me. I started smelling it yesterday. It’s been a month, I thought I had gotten it all.”

I swallowed hard and asked, “Gotten what?”

“That idiot left a wine bottle on the stairs. I stepped on it and the shards went right through my moccasins.”

“Who?”

“Willis, Jen’s brother.”

I thought and then said, “Jen was the lady you were seeing.”

“Jen was no lady. It was nothing but a convenience for both of us,” was his harsh answer. Then he continued. “The foot got infected and no matter what I did. I nursed it along and then last month I couldn’t put it off any longer when the blisters started. None of them would help me so I had to cut it off myself with a hatchet on the porch.”

“Oh Uncle Bentley!”

“Don’t. I neither want nor need your pity.”

“What pity?! I’m angry that they’d leave you alone like that.”

In a dry, gravelly voice he said, “Being alone is the only way.”

“Not the only way Uncle Bentley. I’m here now and I’ll take care of you until you can take care of yourself.”

All he did was give me a contemptuous look but he did allow me to get him more comfortable and to give him one of the pain pills I found in the box of medical supplies. He lay still and quiet while the fire warmed the room and drowsed in and out. I could see what I thought was fever in his eyes but he wouldn’t let me check or give him anything for it. I figured whatever shock he was in would wear off after a decent meal and his pain meds kicked in.

To keep him talking because his silence was eerie I asked, “What happened? I got your story from Aunt Belle but not what has happened sense.”

“Stopped there did you?”

“Yes sir,” I said using the manners my parents had always impressed on me.

“Figures. You always have been fairly predictable, that’s why I stopped there.”

I just looked at him waiting for him to explain but he never did. I finally had to ask again, “What happened after you left Ewing?”

“Are you stupid? Went overland and made it back to Damascus of course.” I winced. Uncle Bentley was really off his rocker. He’d never talked to me like that in my whole life and in fact had protected me nearly as much as my parents had when he’d been around.

“I met their roadblock and with Jen there it was easy to get through. She was young but she knew how to work people. But what I want to know from you is how did you survive San Francisco?”

So I explained to him. All of it down to the smallest detail, reliving that night like I was living it for the first time, up to when Jonathon and I had made it to his grandmother’s house. Then I broke down and cried. “Oh Uncle Bentley, it all feels like it was my fault.”

In a voice nearly unrecognizable he said, “Of course it’s your fault.”

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