I picked up Uncle Bentley’s map that Thor had thrown on the dresser the previous day and tossed it to him. “Yeah, I believe the coins, old jewelry, and possibly some of the junk we didn’t bring back with us are the remnants of the original treasure. Somehow … maybe through clues handed down through his family or maybe just by accident … he found it during one of his trips into the mountains.”
Thor nodded his understanding and then waited for me to continue while he unfolded the map. “I was looking at that the other day, trying to decipher all of Uncle B’s symbols and I noticed that one of those marks is different from all the rest. It is the same mark we think he used for caches but the one I’m referring to is drawn in yellow. I almost didn’t see it because of that and because it is on that crease right there.”
Looking at where I pointed Thor asked, “You think Griffey took the treasure and buried something in its place. And you think that place is located at this one symbol.”
“Maybe. Worth a look anyway doncha think? One last adventure before we turn into an old married couple and start spitting out kids like they’re watermelon seeds?”
Thor nearly choked on the mouthful of lukewarm coffee he’d just put in his mouth. It took him forever to stop snorting and spitting so he could get his breath back. I had to move the map because he was making a mess. “Woman! The things you say!!”
We both wound up laughing at absolutely nothing. Finally he asked, “And just when do you want to start this treasure hunt?”
Crawling back under the covers and giving Thor an innocent look I said, “Oh, we’ll get around to it. Right now I think we’ve got more important things to … er … think about.” Thor’s slow smile showed a great deal of approval for tabling the issue.
It was three days before the snow and slush were gone but after that there was mud. Lots of mud. There was no going anywhere with the tractor or the wagon but after several days stuck at the farm I could tell that Thor wanted to get out a bit. His arm was rocking along at better than eighty-five percent and the rest of it would come as he used it and the strength came back. He wouldn’t be lifting anything heavy with it for a while but the danger of infection had passed and he could go around with his arm in a sling and just a minor bandage to keep the new skin from getting irritated.
Rather than go off on foot we took the horses, who were also getting a little antsy at being cooped up, and rode to town to see if there was anything that needed securing before the weather ruined it.
“Are you sure it’s the transfer switch on the generator?”
“No, I’m not sure, at least about that being the only problem, but it is at least one of them. Its frozen into utility mode and preventing the generator from coming on. What I don’t understand is why none of the systems are coming on. It’s possible that there was a lightning strike that put just enough voltage into your dad’s set up. I can’t get the solar back up to come on … none of the power redundancies to come on even though everything looks like it should be charging away. I’m going to pick up a new breaker panel just in case that is the problem.” He blew air out that looked like he was smoking a pipe. “It’s times like this I wish Alfonso was around.”
“Miss ‘em?” I’d asked him before and it was probably a stupid question to ask again but sometimes I really wondered how Thor was going to get used to be away from everything he had known for so many years.
Thor didn’t really answer but instead said, “Doesn’t matter if I do or not. They aren’t here and I am and I’m wishing I had paid more attention when Alfonso was putting together the backcountry power units we had access to every once in a while. It’s too easy when you are the boss to order someone to do something but never learn to do it yourself.”
It took a little longer to get to town because we were careful with the horses. Last thing we needed was for one of them to stumble and get hurt; it’s not like we could just go out and buy another horse which got me to thinking about how were we going to eventually replace them.
Since it was a priority we hit the electrical supply house operated by the transformer manufacturer first and then we rode down to the scrapbooking hobby shop. Thor said, “Be right back” and then took off around the building. I thought he just wasn’t interested in what I was going in there for but then I heard the distinctive sound of a zipper and understood what he’d meant. The bathrooms in most of the businesses were really rancid and dark so bodily functions were easier to take care of in a more natural setting.
I was in the hobby shop for about ten minutes and starting to get concerned that Thor hadn’t returned when looked out the window and I saw him being marched along by three guys who were all pointing guns at his back. There was blood running from his hair line and around his ear. When I got a better look at the three behind him all I can say is I was red hot and real close to popping my rivets.
I didn’t even bother being careful I was just that shocked and PO’d. When one of them jabbed him in the ribs and said, “You are either going to tell us where your friend is or …” I completely lost it.
“You poke him one more time Strother and I’m going to rip the scalp right off your skull!”
All three of the guys made funny yelping noises and turned in my direction. Thor had turned around ready for a smack down but backed off when he saw me standing there on the steps of the store glaring at the three guys who’d suddenly gone for big bad dogs to whipped puppies.
“Lawson, if your brother doesn’t have any sense I would have hoped that you would have let him borrow some of yours but obviously not. And Johnson I’m more disappointed in your than the other two put together. Just what the Sam Hill do you three stooges think you are doing manhandling my husband like that?!”
A whole bunch of gobbling started coming out of their mouths making absolutely no sense at all. Thor finally whistled for quiet and asked me, “I take it you know these three?”
“Know them?! Of course I know them! I played football with them forever and we were on the same Venture Crew. But if you are asking me if I know where they’ve parked their brains you’ll get a completely different answer. Of all the lame brained, numb skulled …”
I thought their teeth were going to fall out when Thor said, “Now Hon … no harm no foul … I don’t think you need to flay the skin off of ‘em.”
“I’ll flay more than the skin. Is your arm …?”
A warning look told me Thor would prefer I not mollycoddle him in public so I stopped. I did however go down the stairs to stand firmly by his side and glare at the three young men that I’d known my whole life while I wiped the blood off of his face. And then out of the blue by anger evaporated and I had to hold onto Thor to keep my knees from quaking.
“Uncle Bentley told me everyone was dead. Oh Lord.” I was having a bit of a reaction and was struggling to maintain my composure.
Johnson started looking around carefully while asking in a too casual voice, “Mr. Griffey with you?”
I shook my head but it was Thor who answered, “Johnson right?” When Johnson nodded he said, “Griffey’s dead.” He didn’t give any details but his tone of voice had a quality that conveyed enough that my friends understood that it was a touchy subject not to be broached unless necessary.
I patted Thor’s arm and said, “It’s OK Thor. They aren’t greenies, they’re too much the carnivore for that.”
Strother half grinned and said, “Only you would look at it that way Rocky.” He turned to Thor and said, “Look man, sorry we got off on the wrong foot. Things have been crazy around here for a while. You two look pretty good though.”
I turned and told him, “Anybody would look good compared to the three of you. What have you been doing? Rolling around in dog mess? Lord, take a bath already.”
While Strother and Johnson blushed at my frankness Lawson said, “We’ve been trying to track down our hogs. They busted down a piece of their fence and we just finished rounding them up.”
I was afraid to ask but I had to anyway. “Uncle Bentley really did say that everyone … that everyone was dead. That those that hadn’t been poisoned had been hunted down and killed.”
Strother, the more volatile of the two Hefling brothers, asked, “Yeah, and did he tell you what part he played in that?”
Thor growled at the implied criticism and I had to put my hand on his chest to get him to back down. “Knock it off Strother. It just about killed me to find out …” I stopped and drew a deep breath. “I didn’t know about Uncle B’s … tendencies or whatever you want to call them. He was nearly as crazy as a bed bug by the time we got to town and found him and found out what had been going on. Can we sit down some place? If there are going to be more revelations I’d rather not be standing if it is going to … to be … to be worse than it already is.”
Johnson knew me probably better than the other two did and said, “Knock it off Stro. You know Rocky and you know she wouldn’t have ever put up with that kind of BS and neither would Mr. Charbonneau.”
All three looked at me and I couldn’t answer them. Thor did it for me, “Rochelle’s parents died in the first attack out in San Francisco. She’s gone through a lot to get home. We’ve all gone through a lot. She’s just now coming to terms with some of it so cut her some slack.” The last was said with an edge of steel and they got the message.
Johnson said, “Coach is going to freak.”
That brought my head up and around. “Coach?!”
He grinned a big farm boy’s grin, “Yeah. They didn’t get as many people at that school meeting as they thought. Just because they checked names off didn’t mean people stayed for the party after they came through the door. A lot of kids from school said they’d go to the meeting but then we were supposed to meet up to say hi and junk, kinda trade stories and see if we could help each other out. We signed in with our families but when everyone was milling around waiting for the meeting to start we’d sneak off one or two at a time and rendezvoused in the locker rooms. Coach found out about it somehow and came to round us up to keep us from getting into trouble. His wife was with him ‘cause he thought … you know … we had some girls and stuff going on. But we didn’t and that’s when Stro’s little sister comes running in and crying and saying people are starting to get sick and falling over and that she can’t get their mom to … you know. It was bad.”
Lawson continued the story. “They caught a lot of people. They did. But not everyone had been willing to be bribed with the food so not everyone had eaten everything. It was real crazy. My Dad … he hadn’t wanted to come because him and mom were fighting about the child support again but he did and … anyway he’s having a hard time with Mom being dead; it made his PTSD come on and he couldn’t tell whether he was in the gym or back over there. He doesn’t remember much but the people he saved said he kept telling them to play dead and then crawl over in the dark behind the bleachers and go out through that little mechanic’s door that is there. You know the one the kids always used to go catch a smoke.”
I nodded. Stro picked up the story from there. “We were doing OK, not great, but OK. Those greenie fools may think they are all mother nature and crap but they get lost in the woods the same as most city folks … worse because no one cares if they get lost and die. It was easy to fool them and sometimes make them do something so stupid they kilt themselves dead doing it. They were easy to freak out in the dark too which was kinda fun.” Lawson and Johnson looked a little irritated at Stro’s words but didn’t say anything. Stro was who he was and no one was ever going to be able to iron his wrinkles out. “But then that sickness came and it was all we could do to not die ourselves.”
Thor said, “Griffey claimed that a large Greenie group released it trying to clear out all of the refugees from the cities that were on the highway.”
Johnson nodded and said, “That’s something close to what Coach thought. Or at least he was sure the greenies did it but he thought the refugees brought it with them from the cities.”
I asked, “Did … did the town lose a lot of people that way?”
“What, the sickness? No, hardly any. The only ones who died tried to come into town looking for food and stuff too soon. The bodies of the dead people hadn’t even done much more than start to rot. We figure they were still infectious for up to a month after they died. The wetter they decomposed the longer they were a threat. People learned mostly. There were one or two stupid ones but mostly we just holed up and waited for it to be over. We’d already been hiding anyway … hunting cabins, family farms way back in the woods, you know the drill.”
I nodded and then looked at Thor. He said, “We don’t want trouble but I have to ask. Does anybody hold that GWB crap against Rochelle?”
I tried to say something but he gave me a quick look and I stopped. Lawson said, “Wow. I didn’t know anybody but Mr. Charbonneau and Coach could do that.”
“You want me to plant you Lawson?” I asked, embarrassed that they’d noticed.
Johnson smiled, “It’s funny to hear someone besides a substitute teacher call you Rochelle too.” They knew me well enough that they’d gone just about as far as I was up to tolerating at that moment. All three suddenly got serious but it was Stro that answered. “Rocky, I’ll be honest. My dad ain’t too with it some days. He says things sometimes he really don’t mean when he is in his right mind, but he’s the only one with that excuse. And by that I mean that most folks don’t think what has happened is your fault but there are a couple that maybe you shouldn’t … you know … trust and stuff until you get a feel for things around here again. Damascus ain’t the same place it was. People are … are sad and angry … mostly they’re scared though. The winter is going to be hard and maybe some won’t make it. A few have turned kinda funny in the head and all paranoid and junk; they aren’t really the ones we worry about.”
Thor asked, “Who do you worry about?”
“Couple of family have relatives from out of town. They don’t act like us and they don’t really think like us. All they care about is theyselves and what somebody owes them.”
Johnson muttered, “At least they aren’t as bad as Kemper.”
“Kemper? Mr. Kemper … the guy that owned the Laundromat?” I asked surprised. “The guy any little kid could talk into giving a donation to their fund raiser?”
He nodded, “One and the same. He was slick as owl … er … crap about it at first. He wasn’t the type you know that people thought to be careful of. First he got people on his side by getting organized before everyone else. Then he started doling out ammunition saying he’d make sure things were fair, that everyone could protect themselves … only after a while he promised to protect ‘his’ people and the ammunition started going to only certain of his friends that kissed his butt. And he’s got food and medicine too.”
Stro muttered soto voice, “Buncha boot lickers.”
His brother shook his head and said, “You know it’s more than that Stro. Folks are desperate. And Janie’s little brother needed those inhalers.”
In an instant I knew what had Stro all bent out of shape. “Stro?”
He turned around and snapped, “She just up and took the baby. Just left. I told her I was going to go to Abingdon and find some medicine for him but she didn’t think I would come back. I came back from hunting and they just were like gone. She didn’t even leave a note or nothin’. And now she’s like in love with this really old guy over there and I can’t even get close enough to ask how the baby is. Last time I tried they shot me. If Dad hadn’t found me I’d still be laying in the middle of the road where they left me. Just because Shelly ain’t my blood doesn’t mean she ain’t my little girl. I was there when she was born. I’m the one that changed her diapers and fed her when Janie was too tired or sick. Don’t nobody listen to that though. They just say, get over it.”
I put my hand on his arm and then hugged him. I saw Thor stiffen a bit but I’d have to explain later. Stro fought me at first but then he stomped his feet and cried, “Nobody understands! Nobody cares!”
Still hugging him I said, “Sure we do. But it’s hard to see how much you’re hurting and it makes us want to make it go away for you so stupid stuff gets said not realizing it is only hurting you more.”
After a few more seconds he hugged me back hard and then stood back up straight and looked away while he got himself composed. With a look I told Thor I’d tell him the story in a bit and looked at Lawson who nodded his head then at Johnson who gave me a fist bump before saying, “If you two can hang around a few more minutes a few more people should be coming around.” When Thor went on alert he added, “These people are OK … Coach, my brother Sandford, and Mr. McCarter. They know Rocky from school and it’s all cool.”
Sandford was Thor’s age and at first bristled about him being my husband but when I threatened to knee cap him and Thor only rolled his eyes and told me to stop abusing the rest of the male species; and then a moment later we started picking at each other and Sand and the other men stood down and actually shook Thor’s hand and wished him luck. I wasn’t too sure I appreciated the inference but on the other hand it meant that Thor had been accepted even if it was in a backhanded way.
Coach asked me, “Rocky? Your parents?”
I should have been expecting the question since I’d already been asked it once but all of the emotions of the moment left me unable to answer so Thor did it for me again. Unlike the guys however Coach and the other two men needed more of an explanation. That however would have to wait as it was getting later in the afternoon and when you aren’t driving it takes a bit longer to get where you’re going.
It was Sandford who pulled me aside and asked, “Rocky, you sure … I mean, you’re home now. If … um … that guy …”
Knowing Sandford since he’d been my Dad’s assistant crew leader after his own father had been forced to give it up due to bad knees I knew what he was trying to say. “It’s all good Sand. Thor is … he’s the other half of me. He’s protected me probably more than I know … and as weird as it sounds I’m actually OK with that. I could say a lot of stuff about it but … he makes me feel like a girl … female … a … a woman. Please don’t … don’t make this into something nasty. It’s not. Under any other circumstances I can’t seeing us ever having met … but God set it up so that we could. And it’s good.”
After a thoughtful moment and a sigh he said, “OK. It just seems strange. And you don’t seem yourself either.”
“I’m definitely me … I’m just the me no one around here could ever seem to see. Thor makes it easier to be me but at the same time makes me want to be a better me. He didn’t push me into anything. I promise. It’s a real long story and there’s no time for it but he’s put his life on the line for me way more than once and was there for me even when I wasn’t being totally honest and up front with him.”
“Sarah is going to want to hear that long story. If it isn’t raining tomorrow, you think you two could meet us at the old fire ring? Around lunch time? I’ll try and make sure it’s just her and I but Johnson might wind up tagging along if he suspects something.”
I saw Thor nod out of the corner of my eye which meant he’d been eavesdropping despite giving half an ear to something Mr. McCarter was saying to him. “Sure Sand. You and Thor can put a line in the water while Sarah grills me on the girl stuff.”
Sand sighed a half grin and said, “You know her so well.” Then Thor and I were alone again heading the direction we needed to go.
“You OK Hon? You’re awful quiet.”
Rather than answer him I asked, “Thor, what did you make of them?”
Thor seemed to give my question careful consideration. “The boys seem a little young. The man everyone calls Coach is … reserved but in charge. McCarter? Not sure what to make of him. As for that Sanford fella … who’s Sarah?”
“Sarah is Sandford’s wife so don’t get all bent out of shape. She and mom were shirt tail cousins of some type and Mom was teaching her to quilt before … you know before. Dad and Sandford’s dad were friends and our two families used to spend a lot of time together during the harvests before Sandford and Johnson’s grandfather sold the farm. Mr. McCarter was a deacon in his church and he was one of the people that would get real bent out of shape when he’d hear some of the idiot “devil children” things that could be said on the TV about the GWBs. He could really go off on it and seemed to go in the opposite direction to make up for it to my parents and me. Funny now that I think about it but him and Uncle B never got on very well. Coach … is Coach; not my friend exactly but sure as heck was never an enemy. Kinda like a reluctant mentor, he did resent having to make any kind of concessions for me being a girl though. He was honest about it so I never held it against him. When I was one of his players he never treated me different from the guys, I had to meet all of the same requirements they did and he gave me credit for being able to do it. I respected that a lot more than people that were always trying to cut me slack just because I was a girl or challenged or a GWB. Ran into people that seemed to always turn my existence into something political and that just completely blew.”
“So this Sandford … you never … uh … had a crush on him or … or anything like that.”
Outraged I said, “Sandford? Are you kidding?! Ew. At one time Sandford and Johnson were like brothers to me. That’s … ew Thor … that’s just nasty.”
Thor cocked his eyebrow, “Don’t over play it. I know I’m acting like a jealous fool.”
“For one, I’m not over playing it. I never saw Sandford or Johnson like that. Frankly I never saw anyone like that … not really … not until you came along. I don’t know why I didn’t, I just didn’t. Maybe I was a late bloomer or something, at least in that respect. For two, you don’t have any reason to be jealous. Even if I was an idiot and willing to risk messing up what we have, I can promise you no guy around here is going to think about me like that. You saw how they looked when I said we were together. And their ears nearly fell off when I said you were my husband. The only reason … and I mean the only reason … Sandford acted like he did was because he felt some kind of obligation because of Dad and because you and he are about the same age and he can’t see me as anything other than … whatever it is he thought I was before.”
Thor shook his head and said, “I don’t know whether to feel blessed, lucky, or question the intelligence of the men in this town. Whatever it is, they are too late. You’re mine and that’s final.”
I hooted a laugh. “You’ll get no argument from me.” After a second I wondered, “It does seem strange that we’ve been here this long and not even had a clue anyone else was here until now.”
“Not too strange. If they were avoiding the town because they thought there were more greenies still around or due to possible continued infection potential. And from the sound of things everyone is out the other direction of town, we could have just missed them. That does let out us doing more salvaging however.”
I told him grimly, “Not necessarily. We don’t know how many people are left. I’m going to try and get that information out of Sandford or Sarah tomorrow. We also don’t know how well set up they are though I suspect they aren’t that well off if people are scared about the coming winter. I also don’t know to what extent they’ve been preparing or how serious any of them have been. It also means that I want … sorry … I would like your approval to start salvaging larger items before the other group thinks about it.”
Thor looks at me and says, “My approval?”
“I said I was sorry Thor. I’m trying.”
“So I see. Now do me a favor and stop trying so hard. I don’t want you to feel you have to stop wanting stuff nor do I expect you to ask for my approval for everything thing. Your idea is a good one and something I think we need to move to the top as a priority. I don’t expect you to feel like you have to act like you’ve got pillow stuffing for brains. In fact just the opposite; you’re smart and I expect that to show up in our team work … I want that to show up in our team work. Just don’t go off on your own without including me or at least telling me so I can see if I can help or flesh out the plan a little. I do have more experience in that respect than you.”
“You … you sure that I’m not making a mess out of this? I’m sorry I stepped on your man toes before and …”
He barked out a surprised laugh. “My man toes?”
“Aw come on, you know what I mean.”
He laughed and little more and said, “Yes, I know what you mean. Just do me a favor. Don’t treat me like I’m a bomb that is about to go off. I’m no more made of glass than you are. I do have my pride but that doesn’t mean my pride should have the right to overshadow yours. We’re partners. Got it?”
That made me feel good in a way that was hard to explain without someone else thinking I was being immature or girly girl. It just felt good to be thought of as a partner … a mate … an equal, just maybe one that brought different talents and skills to the team.
After we got home there were chores and other things to take care of. It was going to take Thor more than a day to figure out why we couldn’t get the house fired up so he just took the supplies down there and left them. We were doing OK so far and it saved using the propane. Most of both tanks remained but when that was gone it was going to be gone for good.
After an early dinner we went upstairs and snuggled while making plans. We looked at the salvage map we had drawn and tried to create a route that would maximize our time out.
“It’s still too muddy for the wagon but I still think it is important that we hit the places with the tractors again.”
I agreed with Thor and then said, “Um … Thor?”
“You … you know kinda … oh brother.”
My unusual hesitance made Thor put down the map and turn to look at me. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Not sure what?”
“I … argh!”
“Rochelle if you don’t spit it out …”
Embarrassed for absolutely no reason that made any sense I said, “Thor you’ve like … you know … been with other women.”
Thor just sat there looking at me before saying, “I’m not going to discuss that with you. I … er … don’t think … Why on earth would you start talking about this now?”
I decided that since he couldn’t read my mind I was obviously just going to have to spit it out. “Look, tomorrow, give me a little time alone with Sarah, OK? I just need to ask her some female stuff.”
“O ho, no, we are not going down that path. If you have a question about something we are doing then you can ask me.”
I chewed my lip trying to say it without hurting his feelings. “I don’t think it is what you think it is about Thor. What we do isn’t … well blast it … you know I like being with you. That’s not what I mean. Just … just talking to Stro today …”
He bowed up and asked, “What the blazes does he have to do with anything?”
“Oh settle down. He doesn’t, not directly. I was just … I mean … the … little girl. Look, what I’m trying to ask is there, you know, a kinda simple way to, um, keep doing what we’re doing without, you know, paying the consequences for it right away?”
It was a moment but he finally understood what I was asking. “You don’t want kids.”
“Of course I want kids so long as they’re yours. It’s just … ding blast it … there is so much work for us to get things set up this winter. When Stro started talking I remembered how sick and tired Janie always was and how it didn’t stop after the baby was born. I’d willingly go through that if I have to but I … confound it … I don’t want to dump everything in your lap right out the chute!”
After a moment Thor relaxed and shook his head like either he or I were crazy. “Ro-chelle I swear. Look at me. Yeah, there’s … things … we can do to be a little more careful. And if you would prefer to ask your friend Sarah then go ahead. And no, I don’t have a problem with it. But you worry me like that one more time and I’ll turn you over my knee. I’ve never been the jealous type and feeling that way when it concerns a boy that doesn’t look like his brain is firing on all cylinders makes it worse. I should have thought of it myself. I need to be thinking about things like that for both our sakes.”
I would have laughed in relief if I hadn’t been worried that Thor would take it the wrong way. “Stro is all right, he’s just not real complicated. Janie always said that so long as you fed and watered him regular he was as easy as a lamb to be with. I know they did things they shouldn’t have but he was awful good to Janie after she came back from the summer she spent at her aunts in Virginia Beach pregnant. It was a town scandal and her parents threw her out of the house and Stro talked his grandmother into renting her a room and then did everything he could to get her and her parents on speaking terms again. I didn’t even think to ask about them. They must be dead if Janie had her little brother with her.”
“She’s lucky she was here in the US, she would have been stoned to death in a lot of Mid East countries. What, they’re all of eighteen or nineteen?”
“Try again. Stro is twenty-one … he graduated a year ahead of me but started school late and then failed sixth grade. Lawson is my age. Johnson is nearly twenty. He has an early birth day and graduated a year ahead of me too.”
“Those boys are older than you? Lord, now I do feel old. Maybe I am robbing the cradle.”
I laughed and then enjoyed convincing him that whatever it was that we did, we did it together and by mutual consent and that I was extremely well-pleased by how things had turned out. There were a lot of things I wondered and worried about but that wasn’t one of them. I did however, wake up in the night a couple of times wondering if I was going to like what I heard when we met Sand and Sarah. And the old, suspicious part of me snuck out and wondered if I could really trust what I was hearing or would they only say what they thought I wanted to hear.