My mouth may not have been hanging open but my face must have given me away because Coach said, “Take it easy Rocky. You aren’t the only one that has had to take a good long look at our town, our home, the people we grew up around.” He shook his head sadly the sighed. “I’m more sorry than I can ever tell you girl that I didn’t … didn’t …”
“Coach?” I was getting a sudden weirded out feeling. Coach had never spoken to me like that.
“Girl, what I’m trying to say is I knew there were people in this town that gave you a hard time for something that wasn’t your fault. What I didn’t … understand for lack of a better word … is what that really meant about those people. People I called friend except for that one bit of attitude on their part. I glossed it over, made excuses, rationalized it. But that was only the bit I saw wasn’t it … the attitude. How many times did you have to keep your mouth shut trying not to hurt other people when someone would do or say something to you or your parents?”
I wouldn’t lie, not at this point, not after all I’d gone through. But at the same time I felt this was a chance to let some of it go, to bury it in a very final way. I was being presented with a choice and I took it. “Coach, it’s over with, in the past. There’s just no sense in digging up those bones.”
“Bones? Some of those people are still alive and living cheek by jowl with us.”
It was a statement and not a question. “Perhaps. But if they are still around I’m willing to let bygones be bygones so long as they spend their energy someplace else besides making me waste mine dealing with them.”
Mr. Hefling cocked up an eyebrow, “Generous of you. But get one things straight Rocky girl … Rochelle …” I had to grit my teeth. Thor was changing my world in so many ways and having people see me as an honest to goodness female was rocking it in ways I didn’t find comfortable. “Several us now understand, and maybe better than you … or your folks … ever wanted us to. You and your people kept things private, maybe too private. Sometimes you need to make people back up and back off or they never learn where they’re wrong. You don’t have to go it alone anymore. Strother tried to explain to me a few times what it was like to be you in this town but I just didn’t get it and he gave up since you seemed to be able to handle it. But something tells me that you and him maybe have some … history … of covering each other’s backs that not too many people know about … or at least not too many are willing to own up to.”
“Ohhh,” I said putting my head in my hands. “Mr. Hefling don’t start saying stuff like that. Please. Stro and I have always just been friends and nothing more. Other people hear you say stuff like that and they’ll get the wrong idea. Stro and I never … absolutely never … saw each other … er … in a romantic way. It was never like that.”
“That’s not what I’m saying girl.”
Relieved I said, “Well thank goodness but other folks might not hear it that way so let’s just not raise none of that again.” We heard something in the building behind us. “Honestly, they’re like bulls in a China shop. They’re going to bring the whole town up here to see what the ruckus is.” I turned back to and said, “Please sir … just let it go. People are funny about things like that and … well … let’s just say I’m willing to give folks a chance to make other choices.”
He shook his head in exasperation, “Fine girl. But don’t forget what I said. You ain’t got to walk the roads around here alone no more.”
Honestly I felt he was exaggerating things a bit but there was no way for me to tell him that without explaining things I’d rather not explain. See it wasn’t just Stro that had my back a few times, I did have other friends … some from the Venture Crew and some from football … those two overlapping somewhat … but it was hard to explain to folks that had only recently accepted me into the ranks of adulthood that kids have their own ways of dealing with stuff. To survive a kid learns to shut stuff out, compartmentalize it different from adults. And that’s what I did, just compartmentalized it. Sure there were people that ruined things for me but I didn’t let them ruin my whole life. But I wasn’t a kid anymore and I was learning that people wanting to help could be just as much trouble as people wanting to hurt.
Coach bringing the conversation back around to the original topic said, “OK, so you feel that a winter meet isn’t ideal. What were your other two ideas?”
Knowing I was going to have to tread carefully if I wanted to accomplish my goal I said, “First off as far as the meet goes … like I said, I’d be willing to plan one for the spring. That will give me time to organize things and get other people lined up to help and … and frankly as winter progresses we’ll see who is going to be there come spring and who won’t. We could also use the organizing part as a guise for taking supplies around. Or do it in secrecy or whatever, that’s really not my thing. Thor and I may ‘adopt’ some folks … Mr. Dink and Ms. Louise for a start … but I don’t really want any part of a plan that creates a bunch of hurt feelings, envy, and jealousy. All that will do is give us more problems to face in the spring than we already have.”
Another big bang in the school building had me half way getting up to go see but Mr. Hefling snorted, “Honest to Pete, you’d think they’d use more sense. I bet they tried to carry too much and turned something over.” I shrugged thinking that, knowing the boys like I did, that was the likely answer since I hadn’t heard any hollering.
Coach shrunk down what I had been saying into one basic sentence to get us back on topic again. “All right, so it’s pretty much agreed … a winter meet is out but a spring meet might be possible. What’s this other idea you have.”
“This is where it is going to get sticky because I don’t know what everyone else’s plans are or if anyone else even needs this. Here it is flat out, Thor and I have an issue … animal feed. I haven’t talked to Thor about this yet so this is strictly an idea to be discussed not a plan to put into action.” Gathering my thoughts I said, “There are animals that we need to survive the winter. We really can’t slaughter any of the chickens this season as too many were lost while I was away and to be able to keep a viable flock we need them all. The three feral hogs we’ll need to keep for the same reason and I can dig out acorns and they’ll eat the dregs of just about anything we can pull together. The milk cow we need to keep and for the sake of argument I’m going to say that we can breed her in the spring to someone else’s bull. The horses and mules will have to get what grains we’ve got left as their health is an absolute necessity for spring planting and general getting around. The cats can fend for themselves, Lord knows there are enough rats and mice running around right now, and I’ll feed Lady by hunting and table scraps if necessary; her potential worth as a hunter and tracker is too great.”
Mr. Hefling said, “You want to salvage all the feed in town and redistribute it?”
I shook my head, “No. The profit in something like that isn’t big enough to make it worth the effort … at least not right now. I’m talking about doing what most farmers do, culling what you can’t support or what you must for your family. I’ve gone over it and over it. I have one big eater left … a steer. He isn’t good for anything as he isn’t a breeder and he’ll just be scrawny by the time spring comes and it will take longer to fatten him back up assuming he stays healthy on so little feed as we can give him. I’m not so sure he wouldn’t starve to death to be honest.”
“Well, I was wondering if any of y’all are in the same boat? Too little feed and needing to cull animals.”
Mr. Hefling cautiously admitted, “Could be.”
“But that’s easier said than done isn’t it?” I asked. “Slaughtering a big animal – or multiple animals – is a lot of work and …”
“No. I know where you’re going with this girl but no.”
“But you haven’t even heard me out all the way.”
“I’m sorry but no. We need to be careful. Other folks will hear about it and …”
About that time I heard a piercingly sharp whistle. I got up, spun around while pushing the two older men down closer to the ground. I had never heard Thor make that whistle though I’d heard it from other men in the crew – it was the sound of RETREAT and DANGER!! all in one. I saw Thor come bounding out of the school and yelled, “NO!!” I saw Mr. Hefling grab Lady who was trying to follow me into battle. I’d told him not to run except as a last resort. The blasted beasts could clock 30 mph when they put their minds to it.
A young, lean black bear followed closely by another one slightly thicker around the middle had Thor in their sights. I put the second one into a skid and slowed it down with a well placed shot from my grandfather’s Winchester Model 70 that was loaded with .375 HH Magnum. I was had that particular gun just for the simple fact that it was the one Dad had taught me to carry this time of year just for bears. Dad always said that not all habits are bad and some good habits could save your life or the life of someone you care about. He wasn’t just whistling Dixie when he said it either.
The problem was the other bear was on Thor’s heels. Time slowed for me. I thought to myself, “Larger bear was a sow. The lead bear was a second year cub and a big one from the looks; they must have been eating good. She was either teaching him to hunt or they had taken up considering humans as part of their food chain due to all of the corpses they probably ravaged over the summer. There, zag Thor and I hope the bear zigs. Aim. No flinching even though you know the rifle would kick like an ornery mule. No! No time left! There ….” BANG!! “Throw the bolt and reload. Hurry up girl. Your love’s life depends on this.” BANG!!
The lead bear lay where it had fallen on top of Thor. I through the bolt and chambered another round and jumped as a couple of other shots hit the sow bear who had been giving too serious consideration to getting up.
There was a commotion behind me but I was too busy grabbing my husband under the arms and pulling. I realized quick enough that he’d had the wind knocked out of him and banged his head but he wasn’t truly hurt. I was on my bottom hugging him to me when a commotion caught my eye. Stro came limping out … correction, all of the guys came limping out or being helped out.
Jimmy Ray sputtered, “I swear this place is just plain bad news. I gotta get outta here.”
He really was sweating and upset. “Jimmy Ray, this place ...”
“… is cursed,” he finished.
“Do you want me to bang you up worse than you already are?” I asked fiercely.
My tone of voice caught all of them off guard. I continued, “I am not going to let my big he-men type friends turn into mindless old women without a fight. Now get your head straight. A couple of bears … that’s all it was. A couple of bears that are now dead at our feet … not the other way around. Now get a grip and I mean it. I swear you made less noise when they were sewing your head of from where you fell out of the stands trying to get a look at that Richmond’s girl’s cleavage.”
Since the incident was well known to all of us several of the guys bit their lip not to laugh and I saw some shoulders shaking. Even Jimmy Ray was starting to smile. “Some scars are worth getting,” he grinned. Then he shrugged. “OK, so maybe this place ain’t cursed but it sure isn’t making me any healthier.”
Lawson was banged up enough that his daddy was worried about him and Coach was checking them over while Thor, Sand, and Stro got the bears strung up to field dress them. I took Lady and went to the kitchen and got more pots and pans to put stuff in. By the time I tramped back Thor was his normal self but I could see that his pride was ouching him some.
“Now is someone going to tell me what happened or do I have to put it out of you a word at a time?” I asked growing impatient.
Lawson answered me, “They were in the play room. We were just in there looking around and talking and all of a sudden they were just there.”
“You didn’t smell ‘em?!” I asked incredulous.
“Everything stinks back there. There were some bodies and there was mildew all over the place.”
“Then why were you in the little kids’ play area?”
Stro said, “I was looking for some stuff for Lulu. She don’t have hardly nothing to play with and she’s a girl, she ain’t gonna want to play with my foot … uh …”
I gave him a look that would have melted concrete. “I’d hide that foot you’re pulling out of your mouth or I might just decide to shove it someplace else.”
Thor leaned over and kissed my neck right under my jaw line making me jump. “But see, you’re extraordinary and Stro may not know what to do with a daughter that turns out as special as you.”
It was such an obvious schmooze that I had to laugh. “Oh stop it, you’re just plain impossible. Seriously though, how did you miss a couple of bears in the room with you.”
He shrugged and went back at one of the bears with something that look a little like vengeance. “They were behind some overturned tables. When we realized what they were we backed out of the room and if it had just been fat momma over there we would have been fine but this one here acted like he had something to prove.”
Sand for his part added, “They gave a couple of false charges with us trying to retreat and get out of what they obviously considered their turf but they never let us get far. These bears are … were … very aggressive. They’ve gotten too comfortable around people, probably spent all summer scavenging corpses. When that food source starting disappearing they turned to live prey and continued to see humans as part of their normal diet.
I left the guys to it and took Lady for a walk inside the school, glad to be away from it. I was still recovering and the end of the adrenaline rush left me feeling weak and a bit nauseous from nerves. A little while later Lady let me know a friend was getting close and I turned to see Thor looking for me.
“Hey, you shouldn’t have gone so far.”
“Had to get away.”
With one of his now clean hands he tilted my chin up and looked into my face with concern, “You OK? You’re pale.”
“First day out.”
“You … you sure that’s all?”
Since we’d already discussed my rather irregular cycle I told him, “I’m fine as of this morning if you’re worried about us getting caught sooner than we planned.”
“Naw … well OK … I was a little worried. You were sick and drinking all of those herbal teas and then the excitement … I just … I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”
I would have walked into his arms for a hug but he had some splatters of bear on him so I just patted him with the hand that wasn’t holding Lady’s leash. “I thought about it too but like I said, I’m fine. But I am kind of wiped out and I guess we have to go home anyway now that we’ve got the bear to take care of.”
“Actually … about that …”
Thor had given the bear meat to the others. When I asked him he said that we had enough and if it remained as cold we’d just go ahead and slaughter the steer rather than waiting any longer which would give us plenty to deal with. “Besides,” he said. “I have a feeling they can use it … maybe even need it. By the time they split it between them it won’t be all that much meat, honestly seemed a lot of trouble for a little return. You … I … er … didn’t ask if you …”
I decided to hug him from behind which made him smile. “Thor, stop trying to handle me with kid gloves. I mean if I’m around to talk something over with that’s good. Don’t run rough shod over me but I trust you. If you think the bear was better off going to them then that’s fine by me. I’m not real thrilled with the idea of eating something that’s been eating people anyway.” I shuddered as I had to swallow a bunch of sour stomach acid that had suddenly tried to climb up my throat. “Let’s change the subject.”
“You really aren’t feeling good are you?” I just shrugged and he said, “All but Strother have left and he just wants a word before he catches up and helps get Lawson home. He … speak of the devil …”
Stro had come to find us. “Hey. Rocky, Dad told us … look, we didn’t mean to put you in a bad spot.”
“Don’t worry about it. But I meant it, I’m willing to put together a spring meet.”
“Yeah, I was kind of reconsidering maybe it hadn’t been the best idea. Sarah really list into us asking us if we understood how much work it was and … well, you know how she can go on and on and on. I think Sand and Johnson were pretty much in the doghouse; they sure did look relieved to come to town this morning.”
Rolling my eyes, “Hormones obviously aren’t helping Sarah’s nerves any.” Then I added, “Just so long as you understand. If it had served a better purpose and …”
“No … geez … we shoulda thought about it more before we said anything. It’s just hard to watch people go through the hard times without wanting to do something about it. As it is, there’s bare spots in the pantry that have never been there in my memory. Hopefully Granny C will be able to can some of this bear.” He looked around real quick and then said, “And Dad let slip about what you said about trading work to get the animals slaughtered before the cold weather really sets in. I don’t agree with him. I understand why he thinks like he does but that doesn’t mean I agree with him. I’m going to be hung up here in town tomorrow but if … you know … if you want to slaughter the steer day after I’ll make my way over there early. Maybe … you know … I could … um … bring Tina and Lulu … and the twins. She hasn’t been away from the home place since her house was attacked and before that her dad kept her pretty well under his thumb.”
I looked at Thor and he nodded. We would wait another day to kill the steer. “OK. Assuming no bad weather come on as early as you can. If you can’t come we’ll understand.”
“Deal. And ya’ll be careful heading home. People have already been giving us the hairy eyeball for coming up to the school. I’m just gonna go grab that bag of stuff from the kids’ area and then I’m off. See ya.”
After Stro had headed down to the little kids’ area Thor turned to me. “Found anything you want to pack out of here?”
“A few things,” I told him. It looks like you guys already divvied up the supplies we found earlier but I found a few more things in desks and a lot of stuff in the lockers. But before we leave I want to hit the girls’ locker room.”
“Tell you what. You give me those bags and I’ll load them and then stay with the wagon and you grab what you want and then come back.”
I understood that he meant that he didn’t want to leave the wagon unattended so I took Lady and hurried to the last place I was really interested looking that day and wound up spending a good thirty minutes making a pile of stuff to haul off. First off I found where they stored the leftovers from the school fund raisers and we’d had a bunch of them the last couple of years … popcorn, chocolate bars, wrapping paper, and a ton of other stuff. The woman who had been head coach for the girls for years had retired last year and moved to Florida but she had been a fiend about sticking everything in plastic tubs and containers that she would pick up at yard sales and thrift stores. There were glass gallon jars, old Tupperware containers, and lots of other stuff all organized and neatly on labeled shelves. The new coach that the school had hired was young and pretty but pretty dumb too. She never seemed to get around to doing much of anything that she’d been asked to do. The other girls seemed to love her like a big sister but I really didn’t care for her much. I didn’t dislike her just we never warmed up to each other.
In addition to the dregs of past fund raisers there was plenty of first aid supplies as well as a case … a big case mind you … of feminine hygiene products. All the girls knew where to go if they were endanger of having an “embarrassing accident.” There were also sports stuff like Absorbine Jr., cold compresses, Bengay, jock itch spray (and yes females can get it too), Gold Bond sprays and powders, calamine lotion, and antiseptic hand gel in big containers. There was a big box of a bunch of miscellaneous toiletries that were donated for kids that … er … were odiferous due to lack of access to that sort of stuff at home. And then came all the sports equipment. There was a lot of stuff for little kids like rings, bean bags, parachutes, skip ropes, hoops, Frisbees, balls of every texture and size, scooters, you name it. There was track and field equipment like hurdles of various height and batons. There was the weight room that had agility and fitness training equipment. In fact it was too much for me to take in but I did grab several items out of the storage room including all of the big tug o’ war ropes.
Seeing the pile I had made I ran back to get Thor.
“I was getting worried,” he said with a slight frown.
“You can add annoyed to that when you see the pile I made. It’ll be easier just to drive around rather than carrying it all through the building again.”
As I drove the wagon over there he growled, “If I had known where you were at I would have just driven over here in the first place.”
“I know. I didn’t think. I honestly didn’t know I was going to find much of anything.”
We loaded up and put everything under a tarp and then took off. As I drove and Thor rode his horse I asked him, “You really don’t mind? I know it is going to be a mess to bring in and find a place for.”
“I don’t see you complaining that I got all of that stuff out of the science rooms. What’s really eating at you.”
I sighed and then chuckled, “I guess I’m wondering if you are upset I asked for help with slaughtering the steer.”
He was silent so long I was beginning to worry. “No, I’m not upset. Just not sure what your game plan was.”
“Well, at least you’re giving me a chance to tell you. Mr. Hefling and Coach shut me down when I brought it up.”
“Make you made?” he asked.
“Didn’t have chance to get mad at the time but now that you mention it I am a little ticked off. I just thought we could all save some time and work hours if we combined the task. We could trade off amongst ourselves at the end of it. Like we’re only going to have beef. I’d be willing to trade some beef for some chicken or pork or especially goat. Beyond that we could have saved fuel by only needing a couple of fires going instead of every family having one or two going at their own places. We could have combined the work of rending lard, making cracklin’s, cutting the meat up, cleaning the intestines for making sausages … company would have made the work go faster. I just don’t get why they cut me off the way they did.”
After a moment Thor said, “It might not that they didn’t think it was a good idea so much as they were afraid of showing what they had … or what they didn’t have. Just like you said with the winter meet, it could have set up envy and jealousy.”
“But we have Stro coming over.”
Thor chuckled, “Strother thinks like you. Little off kilter and just different enough from everyone else that his reactions to things aren’t necessarily typical. He’ll keep what we have under his hat but we should put something back for the little girl … Lulu ... just in case. That’s probably the only thing he’d ask for if he was hard up.”
“Yep, you’ve finally got Stro pegged. And I agree, something for Lulu. Mr. Dink and Miz Louise for sure as well. We really need to get those supplies brought out of that cave but I suppose they’ve been safe there for this long they can wait a bit longer.” Following where that train of thought led me I said, “I’d like to do something with what is in those #10 cans pretty soon. I can turn some of it into soups and stews and can that. I’ll dry some of the veggies and fruits or … wait … I’ll turn some of the fruits into leather and dry them that way. I wouldn’t mind making some fruit cakes either. Oh don’t give me that look,” I told Thor when he made a face. “You’ve never tasted our family’s fruit cake recipe. And I’ll make a few cakes in jars to get us through the winter though those things don’t last too long unless they are refrigerated.”
Thor smiled indulgently, “Big plans?” I opened my mouth then closed it. Losing his smile Thor asked, “Did I say something wrong?”
“No. I just realized.”
“I’ve really taken over from Mom. The house … it’s ours now. The kitchen … it’s mine. In the spring when we plant … the garden … it’s just …”
Thor cleared his throat. “Let’s get you home. You’re tired and cold I expect. These big plans can wait. No need to take on so much all at once.”
And that’s where Thor and I disagreed. I loved him but he was not a country boy. He wasn’t afraid of work and he did have some idea of what it was going to take to keep up the farm, keep food on our table, and keep us safe … but only some idea. I knew. Oh yes I did. And it was something that was going to keep me up at night until I thought I had a better handle on it.