I was trying to remember why the name Cliff should bother me when I heard breaking glass and a loud crash that happened near simultaneously followed immediately by a baby’s wail. Now that woke me up and then some. In that same second I felt Thor picking me up and running with me down the stairs to the basement.
“Can’t Hon.” Turning to Lawson and Johnson – better known as the ones who had tried to destroy the stairwell with their big booted feet – Thor said, “Grab the ladies. Ms. Hefling you’ve got the baby. We’ve got a raiding party and they shot out the window and I expect them to continue to behave in similar fashion.” Paying attention to me again as I struggled weakly in the quilt that was hampering my movement he added, “Now I want you to listen to me and I don’t want any discussion. Take care of the baby and yourself. Ms. Louis and Ms. Hefling are here too and I expect you to mind them. No matter what, I love you. Remember that.”
I nearly slapped him but he ran off before I could untangle myself enough to get him. He left me hanging on words that sounded like he wasn’t sure he’d be coming back. As I finally managed to sit up I nearly shrieked. My body reminded me in a sharp and painful way that I was some tore up in a place that God only built women with.
“Rocky Charbonneau! Girl get some sense in that head of yours. Louise had to sew you up and you’re foolishness is going to tear you open again!”
Miz Louise added in a calmer and less irritable voice, though one still distressed, “Rocky, you had a second degree tear. You are inviting more damage and worse – infection - if you don’t calm down.”
Gasping I told them both, “I am calm but I need to be able to …”
Granny C said, “You don’t got to be able to do nothing but be still girl. Right now. Or did you fergit you done had a baby?!”
Miz Louise put said baby in my arms and I was stuck between having the driving need to go to Thor and the driving need to nurse the squirming scrap of humanity that I had birthed only a few hours earlier. As in most households, the baby won.
Nursing was both pain and pleasure; it calmed me as no words could have but at the same time it proved to me that I was in no physical shape to fight. I also seemed to have developed the disturbing new habit of crying at everything and nothing. I could vaguely hear the “pops” of weapons fire as well as the occasional crash. I alternated between an almost hysterical need to know what was going on and a fierce drive to protect the baby at all costs … including what it was costing my pride and spirit to stay hidden like a helpless child. I was physically ill with the conflicts raging inside of my body and soul. Miz Louise made soothing sounds and told me it was just normal baby blues as our current stress level warred with my hormones.
Normal was something I had completely lost touch with even if I had ever had it and “baby blues” left me clueless. All I knew is I hurt in places – both physical and mental – that I was not used to hurting in and that figuring out what to do about it was just about beyond my ability at that point.
The door to the basement opened and closed quickly letting Mr. Dink into the room. Miz Louise immediately ran to him and I was still dealing with the strange and world upending picture of the two of them cuddling when Granny C yelped, “Stop yer honeymooning. Adolphus, what is happening out there?!”
Mr. Dink and Granny C had a bit of a spicy friendship; she was the only female I’d ever heard him really lip off to but Dad had told me they were some kind of cousins and it wasn’t really meanness between them but over familiarity … whatever that meant. “Oh, loosen yer girdle. It ain’t pretty but tisn’t near as bad as it twere.”
“And?” asked Granny C in impatience. “My boys are up there and …”
“Well, if you’d draw a breath between complaints and questions and you might get an answer sooner rather than later.” Granny C clamped her lips together in a comically exaggerated way but she still shot daggers with her eyes.
Miz Louise rolled her eyes and flapped her apron. “Behave. Both of you. You’ll upset Rocky and the baby.”
They both looked slightly embarrassed the way older folks can look when you’ve caught them acting like kids. “Well …” Mr. Dink started. “There’s a break in the fighting at the moment. Them raiders are trying to regroup and Thor’s stepped out to make sure they don’t. The boys are all fine, even that crazy one Jimmy Ray. He has the dog and most of the animals down in the tunnels and didn’t that surprise ‘em.”
That made me yelp, “Thor showed them the tunnels?!”
“Easy there. Tweren’t much choice, the bullets were flying. As it is ya lost two hens. I cleaned ‘em and have ‘em in a stew pot. Thought p’raps you wimmen could get a fire going down here and maybe stew us up some food. No sense in letting the meat go to waste and them boys are spending a lot of energy running around.”
“Is anyone hurt?” I asked before the other two “wimmen” could.
“Oh, we’ve all got our cuts and scrapes but nothing serious so far. And the enemy is some worse off. What they don’t know is that Sand has got a group coming and they’re going to catch the raiders betwixt and between. Hear tell on that radio box that a buncha the locals have done turned the air blue over the Dunkirk boy bringing this trouble in. His step daddy is heart broke but has told ever’one they must do what needs doing and he’s comforting the boy’s mother til then. I ‘magine she lost that boy a long time ago but is just now finding it out for sure.”
I was shaken and shaking. Mr. Dink tried to go back up the stairs but I stopped him with one last question. “What’s the damage so far?”
He looked uncomfortable which didn’t help me any but then he sighed and said, “It ain’t as bad as it could be Rocky girl … but some of yore garden was tore up out of meanness. They’ve knocked down a bunch o’ the corn but I think it is still salvageable if we don’t get rain. They tried to burn down the barn and silo but that Jimmy Ray was able to put it out before it did too much damage … but you got an open corner and one of the mules was injured, but not so bad it needs to be put down.”
“The house?” I asked remembering the crashes I’d heard.
“We’ll get ya some glass and you can hang pictures over the holes if we can’t find no plaster. Now stop yer worrying, like I said it could be worse. You just settle down, you don’t look so good. Ya ain’t got no roses in yer cheeks.” And with that he did leave.
Roses in my cheeks. Bah! I needed a gun in my hand. Or a pitchfork. Or an axe. Anything that would hurt them like they were hurting us. But all God seemed to have left me were my prayers. I leaned back and the tears continued to stream down my face no matter how many times I tried to scrub them away. I knew what Thor was doing. You don’t light a fire with a whole log, you whittle it down to kindling first. My problem lay in that I’d never been forced to sit back out of a fight. The entire way I viewed myself was taking a beating. People always wonder if they are strong enough to fight; rarely though have I ever heard anyone mention that sometimes you have to be just as strong to know now to handle that you can’t fight. It is a real ego beater.
While I lay there in a daze Mr. Dink brought the chickens down and also left a bundle that turned out to be stuff for the baby. Good thing too because baby had figured out how to poop though she was still too young for it to stink. I was not unfamiliar with how to take care of babies as I’d helped in the hospital as a volunteer. I stayed hidden from the others and since it was usually in a specialty ward of some type … babies born with an addiction to match the ones their mothers had at their birth, babies born with deformities that kept them out of the “normal” baby ward, sick babies, abandoned babies … not too many “normals” cared. Human beings can be cruel even when they don’t mean to be.
I took care of the baby, fed her when she wanted it, did what I could to help the older ladies make the chicken into something besides a boiled mess, and then waited … and waited. I wanted Thor. I wanted to hear his voice, see his face, make sure that he was OK. Hear him tell me things were OK and that I was worrying for nothing. I wanted to go upstairs and do my part in shooting the bad guys; this was my home too.
But there was no going up stairs; at that moment I could not have climbed them on my own and certainly no one would help me. Thor didn’t come and I thought it was unlike him to not at least stick his head in to put my worries to rest. He didn’t come to check on his baby daughter either which sounded like him even less as he’d seemed already strangely attached even before she’d popped her way into this world. It always made me laugh to see this great giant of a man talking to my stomach in goofy baby sounds. I began to wonder if I’d ever laugh again. And then worse, after what sounded like a major battle over our heads no one came to check on us at all and the quiet that followed sounded far from healthy.
The older ladies wouldn’t let me go check. They wouldn’t go check either claiming it to be their duty to obey Thor’s orders and to protect the baby and keep me from taking any rash actions. I fed the baby once more and then the night seemed to trickle down into the basement as it must have by that point upstairs. The older ladies were exhausted and slid into a deep but troubled slumber.
Something was calling me to act. I knew with a certainty that I was going to catch heck from Thor but at the same time I had to act. Something was screaming at me, from outside of me; not literally but it was not a still quiet voice calling me either. There was purpose in that voice that gave me strength I shouldn’t have had. Seeing the ladies asleep and noting that the solar powered lamps would soon be out of juice I slowly and carefully made my way over to the exercise equipment.
One of the things that Thor and I had done was to secret weapons throughout the house. Since we didn’t exactly have a limitless supply of weapons and ammo by the time we got to the basement our choices had narrowed. If I had been in most any other room I could have put my hands on a semi-automatic pistol or some type of rifle or shotgun; down here we had been forced to resort to Dad’s antique gun collection. In this case it was an old 1920’s Mossberg Brownie pepperbox. It took .22lr’s which was a plus as far as ammo went but the four barrels of the hand-sized gun made it look passing strange, like something out of one of those old Dick Tracy or James Bond movies.
Beggars can’t be choosers however and I was ecstatic that the ladies hadn’t located it and put it out of my reach as they had the rifle that Mr. Dink had left us for security. Granny C knew me too well and was practically sleeping with the blasted thing and I wasn’t going to go over there and wrestle her for it. In my condition she might well have won and I’d rather not have to live with being beaten by a woman who was close in age to my own grandmothers.
I took the pepperbox over to my baby and looked down. Seeing that sweet little face I almost changed my mind, like a temptation that was almost too much to bear. I kissed her and did my best to stand back up straight. It felt quite literally like my insides wanted to fall out, something Miz Louise was said was a result of things trying to go back to where they belonged. I took two steps and realized I’d need to take care of some pressing personal hygiene before I went anywhere. This left me mentally growling about the physical realities of being a female.
Eventually everything was as taken care of as I could manage for the moment and I was finally able to do what I’d started out to do. The ladies and the baby were all still slumbering. I eased up the stairs one at a time while parts of my anatomy called me every kind of fool in the book. By the time I got to the landing I was almost sick and had to stand there while I mentally forced myself to get beyond the pain.
Steeling myself I carefully opened the hidey hole in the door and peered out and saw … nothing. I should have seen something even if it was just shadows but I saw nothing which isn’t what I should have been seeing. My dad had positioned this door and the peep hole so that it would have a very wide view of the kitchen and the side door. The nothing I was seeing that I shouldn’t have been seeing was wrong.
I realized with a start that my brain was misfiring and getting stuck so I stopped, took a deep breath and looked at that nothing again. And then I realized that I wasn’t seeing nothing, I was seeing the back of a something. Which was still wrong but at least it was less wrong. Something was in front of the door, or at least in front of the peep hole.
Thankfully the door opened towards me. I carefully opened the door and saw the back of the something. It was a big something and then I realized the something was my moveable pantry cabinet. It didn’t exactly move easily which made me stop and think again. And then I remembered Thor complaining after I had it move it for the umpteenth time that the only thing it was truly good for was for hiding whatever was behind it.
So, Thor … or possibly Stro … had moved the cabinet in front of the door. And left it there. To block us in … block me in. I asked myself if they trusted me so little but that didn’t fit what I knew … that was just the hormones talking … I hoped. Besides Thor knew I would be able to get out through the tunnels and it was possible that the other guys knew as well since they now new about the tunnels … or maybe some of the tunnels or ... Boy was my brain fried. I nearly had another crying fit. What bit of good was I going to do in my condition? I was physically weak and unfit for combat. My tear ducts were stuck in the on position. And the one thing that I’d always counted on to help me stay above all of the trials and tribulations I faced … my brain … was taking an unexpected vacation to hormonal land.
Suddenly I heard a sound on the other side of the cabinet and then a groan. An emotionless voice asked, “He talked yet?”
“Nope. Looks like we’re going to have to take him outside for the promised gelding,” replied a man who sounded like he was enjoying the situation more than a sane man should.
Something kicked in. I asked the Lord for strength and wisdom and then backtracked down the stairs and over to Granny C who I shook awake as gently as I could to keep her from making any noise.
“Girl! You scared me.”
“Granny, there’s no time. Something has gone wrong. Bad wrong. Someone has hidden the door down to the basement and I heard … look, I need you to look after the baby. I’ve got to go …”
“Oh no you don’t girl. You just had a baby!”
“Shh! Granny, I don’t need you to tell me how unfit I am. I need you to just do what I’ve asked you to do. And I need that rifle.”
Granny didn’t give me the rifle … Miz Louise did. She just looked at me and the look on her face reminded me of Mr. Dink when he was at his strangest and I realized they were even more suited to each other than I had realized. When Granny C started to complain Miz Louise put her hand on her arm and I don’t know what passed between them but I was able to leave with no more fussing. I wanted to stop by the bassinet where I had laid my child but I knew if I did I might not have the will to leave her and go do what needed doing.
I managed to get into the tunnel and then shut the door. It was dark and I fumbled for the flashlight that should have hung on a hook within easy reach … only it wasn’t there. Something brushed my leg and I nearly screamed then I realized it was the cats. I slowly bent over to touch them and they were sticky damp. As I stepped forward my foot brushed something and it turned out to be the flashlight. How it had wound up there on the floor I didn’t know.
Then turned the light on and I look at the cats and nearly screamed again. Their normally white paws were rust colored. Then I saw Lady. She lay on her side. She was breathing but injured and dazed. She hadn’t growled at me since I had first found her but she did at that moment and I realized she was wrapped up with some bandaging. The professional look of it told me it was done by Jimmy Ray. From the marks on the floor she must have dragged herself this far and then collapsed. I would cry later and fuss over her if she made it.
The cats followed me and seemed to guide me down the tunnel to the barn. I was becoming detached mentally. The closer I got the worse the smell. The animals were lined up in the alcoves, all of them scared and quiet, even the rooster who barely took the time to hiss at me as I passed by. Jimmy Ray had used whatever was at hand to pen them in. And then I saw him. He looked like he’d just rolled down the ramp.
“Jimmy Ray?” I asked bending down the best I could, almost afraid to turn him over. He’d been pounded pretty heavily and there was a bullet wound in his left arm and another wound of some type on his right calf. “Don’t you dare be dead,” I whispered.
A ghostly voice muttered, “Hurt too bad to be dead.”
I was relieved beyond words to express it. “What’s happened?”
“Group was bigger than they first looked,” he told me in a breathy voice. “Us, then the first group, then Sand’s group … thought we had them dead to rights. Then another group came in behind Sand’s group. Worst mash up you’d even want to see. They over ran the farm. Oh God Rocky, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault … wait … what are you sorry for?” I had to know but at the same time I didn’t want to.
“Thor … they … they got him. They caught Stro and then started torturing him, trying to get the rest of us to come out of hiding. O’ course Johnson and Lawson … they buckled. They tried to rescue Stro … right in the middle of Thor making his move. Everything was mucked up. They threatened to kill all three if Thor didn’t come out. He did … but he’d already been hit a couple of times. Thor came out shooting and Lawson got away in all the craziness. They still took Thor down. Then Lawson, Mr. Dink, and I hooked up. I’d already hurt my leg so I sent Lawson to go get us some help as the fight had moved on further away. As I was covering him I got hit in the arm. Lost some blood. Mr. Dink disappeared into the night, don’t know where he is. Those men … they’re wanting to … to know …” I could tell he didn’t want to tell me, to explain the worst of it.
In a dead voice I asked, “What do they want Jimmy Ray?”
“You. Seems like you … you got a price on yer head. Some folks want you real bad for some reason. Think you can identify them or something to the authorities.”
“There aren’t any authorities.”
“Yeah, yeah there are … Gloria has been telling me what she finds out. I’ve been passing it to Thor. Hasn’t he been telling you?”
“No. I can imagine why though and I won’t hold it against him.”
“But … Rocky … They got him Rocky. I saw it all and couldn’t … I tried but … I got a couple but my vision keeps … it gets dark … I’m the only one left but I have to … it’s … it’s my duty …” But Jimmy Ray wasn’t doing anything. He’d collapsed again. I arranged him carefully and told the cats to leave him alone. Then I eased up to the trap door in the floor of the barn. All was dark inside and I crawled out. Not an animal or insect was making noise. It was like they sensed the embodiment of Death itself was walking the Earth, searching for even their small life forces to snuff out.
I was heaving by the time I had gotten all the way out. I crawled my way over to the barn door. It was torn half off of its hinges and the bar was splintered on the ground beside it. A tree trunk lay on the ground in front of the barn and I realized it had been used like a battering ram.
I nearly puked from my own pain and from the fear and disgust that rose up in me at what I saw. They had Johnson all trussed up for gelding. The tools of that trade were all lined up and a man stood there taking his time and milking the terror that was so thick in the air you could smell it.
Then I saw Cliff. He stood off to the side and the look on his familiar face truly did sicken me. It was a toss up to what he was feeling more … terror or glee. He said, “C’mon, you can stop this man. Tell them what they want to know. That’s all you got to do. They’ll stop the hurting. Trust me, I know.” But no matter what the words were coming out of Cliff’s mouth he couldn’t hide his unnatural anticipation.
Then by the firelight I saw a man tied to the hitching rail. His arms were stretched out on either side of him so tightly his chest was stuck to the cross beam. He was unconscious, his shirt torn from his bloody back. One boot and sock off show a bloody foot. His legs were collapsed but unable to fully sink into any kind of comfortable position due to the height of the rail and the man’s great stature. They’d sheared his unruly long hair off in a haphazard fashion making him look like an inexpertly shorn ram.
I went cold, so cold it didn’t feel like I’d ever warm back up again. Then before I even realized I’d gone looking for it I found it, that place inside me that was made of hot fired steel. The one that God let grow there for a purpose I’d never fully understood … but I was beginning to. It took the world coming to a screeching halt but I was finally beginning to.
I really tried not to hate folks. It’s not like I was still the innocent I had been that night in San Francisco. I’d done my share of killing over the last year and more. I’d hurt people and meant to. Even been disappointed a few times when those I’d hurt hadn’t hurt long enough before they’d left this world. Passed judgment and taken revenge when that was God’s job. I’d managed up to this point, or at least I thought I had, to keep that under control, to temper it with the compassion that God calls for all of us to give others, even our enemies. But the only compassion I was able to find for Cliff was the desire to release him from this life that had twisted him so badly. Whatever came afterwards for him was not my problem, nor my business. For the other men standing around I felt nothing, not one blessed thing. It was like they were nothing but gossamer shadows that I intended to rend out of my way.
The rifle I held in my hands was something that Thor had called a prototype of a new type of Bushmaster ACR. He never would tell me exactly where he’d picked it up but it had been one that he’d had in his stuff outside of Clarksville. I’d shot it a few times. It was a mean, nasty, powerful semi-automatic weapon and it suited my mood to a tee.