I must have been in some kind of shock or fugue state because time passed without my registering it. I had fallen to my hands and needs and hadn’t heard Reggie’s clicks on the radio trying to get a status update. He’d heard the explosions and gunfire through the open window of the cupola … then the protracted silence. He’d called Ginger to man the radio – I didn’t know it at the time but Jax and Aston weren’t responding either – and then took off to find out what had happened to me.
A foot sensibly kicking my LCP out of my reach snapped me back to awareness; Reggie had called my name twice with no reaction but he later told me he’d decided not to take any chances revealing more commonsense than he normally showed. I rolled over trying to pull the Bushmaster into my hands only to see Reggie jumping back and saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!”
I stopped and then fell back to my knees. Reggie ran forward asking, “Are you hurt?”
All I could do was shake my head. Then I realized he was where he wasn’t supposed to be. “What’s wrong? Why are you out here?”
“What’s … what’s wrong?! You never called in! You didn’t respond to my clicks! Is your radio out?”
In what felt like slow motion I checked my radio then handed it to Reggie who looked at it then gave it back to me irritably. I croaked, “Sorry.”
His voice still an octave or two too high he asked, “What happened? I was seriously freaking.”
Tossing a thumb back in the direction of the trucks I gave him a brief explanation. Reggie called in to Ginger. “Odd Man to Big Red. Odd Man to Big Red. You copy?”
I could hear the strain in Ginger’s voice when she answered, “Big Red to Odd Man. I copy.”
“Situation stable but requires hands on attention. Maintain your position. Relay as necessary. Do you copy?”
“I copy. Big Red out.”
Reggie turned to me and with more understanding that I was ready for asked, “You OK?”
Shaking my head to try and get rid of the buzzing in my ears I told him, “Yeah … or will be. What’s the word from Jax?”
He gave me a closed look then admitted, “No word, not yet. Doesn’t have to mean anything though.”
Ever the realist I said, “You know it does. We just don’t know if what it means is good, bad, or neutral.”
Patting my arm awkwardly he tried to reassure me by saying, “Ginger will let us know if something comes in. Let’s check the trucks.”
We took everything out of the trucks worth salvaging at that point and stuck it in the blind. We also stripped the men. In the middle of this Reggie jumped back, dropping the upper body of the corpse he’d been turning over. “Double D!”
Looking over yet trying not to see I said, “He was going to kill me Reg. He was cursing me … he … I … I saw his eyes. He knew who I was and he still was going to kill me.”
Reggie shook his head. “Double D?! But … but …”
Badly troubled as I hadn’t considered being forced to turn arms against those I’d once considered friends I snapped, “I know. OK?”
Reggie took a close look at me and then reached out. “I … OK … I … sorry Lydie. Just …”
Sighing in regret I nodded. “I know.”
We finished the rest of that task silently and then stood contemplating the trucks. “We gotta get them out of the way. Pray they’ll start ‘cause they are too freakin’ big to push and until Jax and Aston are home safe I don’t want to break out a tractor.”
Climbing into the first truck was almost more than my stomach could handle. Despite that fact, it did start up after a couple of tries but ran so rough that all we could do was move it off into the trees a little ways. We talked about it and if worse came to worse we’d push it a little more and send it down the ravine after we’d drained the fuel tank. The second truck wouldn’t even turn over. Reggie looked underneath and said, “Fluids and truck guts all over the ground. This one isn’t moving unless we help it.”
Too wiped to feel much of anything – Ginger related that she’d heard noise from the Houchins farm but there was still nothing from our guys – I was ready just to sit down and give up. Reggie though still had his brain in gear and told me, “Put it in neutral and then try and straighten the wheels. We’ll use the little bit of incline here to roll the truck back to the black top and into the ditch to get it out of the way.”
Putting it in neutral was easy; turning the wheels not so much as the power steering had been shagged by the claymore. The rims bogged down in the clay and gravel of the entrance road and it took both Reggie and I to turn the steering wheel. When I was to the point of swearing Reggie said, “This isn’t just a fluid loss. Bet you bent something too.”
“I don’t give a frell,” I growled. “Let’s just get this done.”
Reggie stopped and had me get out of the truck and then handed me a canteen of water and told me to take a break. Normally I would have told him where he could stick his canteen but I was way beyond that and just desperately needed someone to be a good friend. “Lydie, I know why you’re rushing but we can’t go looking for them so … so don’t flip a switch. I know you want to … heck, I want to … but we could walk in to the middle of something and make a mess of it.”
Calmly I handed Reggie his canteen and then lost it a little and kicked and punched the truck several times. I finally stopped, heaving to keep from puking again … and to keep myself from crying. When I had myself as under control as I was gonna get I took a deep breath and turned to Reggie to say, “Let’s get this done so you can go back and relieve Ginger.” All he did was nod as he understood my tantrum was a form of acceptance. Soon enough we had the truck in motion but Reggie had to jump in the cab to steer it and keep it from going off the road too soon.
Like I’ve said before, anything that starts out too easy is usually the prelude to something really hard. The truck moved smoothly then as it hit the bottom of the road, tailgate first, became the beginning of the next phase of Lydie’s very bad no good day.
The truck shot onto the blacktop immediately in front of a 1979 El Camino. The El Camino t-boned the truck so hard it nearly turned the truck over on its side. The front end of the El Camino was buried in the truck’s side panel. Its front passenger hung half way through the windshield. The driver wasn’t coming out without a giant-sized industrial strength can opener … and a scoop. Four people had been riding in the back of the El Camino and were all ejected on impact and were little more than bloody skid marks on the road.
In shock I ran forward and was helping a shaken Reggie from the truck when another vehicle, this one a small Toyota pickup, came around the curve and hit the back of the El Camino slamming both Reggie and I to the ground. Reggie’s forehead clipped the hood of the truck on the way down, knocking him into my right side. As we started to go down, I tried to break our fall with my left arm and as we hit the pavement I felt a wrenching pain. I didn’t have much time to do anything but feel it because the three guys in the Toyota had piled out cursing right as another vehicle nearly barreled into the back of them.
It was at that moment that one of the bad guys spotted us as I was trying to pull Reggie into the trees and back to the blind to hide. “Dang it! Move Reg!” I told him. “They’ve seen us!”
It was at that moment that I realized Reggie was more than just shook up. Blood was dripping from a gash on the side of his head. I would later find out it was where the seat belt has slung around during the initial wreck and connected with his noggin’. “Hey Reg,” I huffed as I dragged him. “Hug this tree.”
“Wha …?” he slurred as he tried to blink the blood out of his eyes where it was already making his lids and lashes sticky.
I turned to the men whose brains had finally caught up with their backsides and were in the process of chasing us. I took out the first couple in the lead with the Bushmaster. That made the rest dive for cover which gave Reggie and I some more time to beat feet.
Reggie was finally back in the same dimension as me and shook off my arm as he tried to jog and tie a khaki colored bandana on his head to keep the goo off is face. As we ran he said, “Separate and try and keep them away from the house.”
Some might wonder why I automatically obeyed a guy that had just nearly had his brains scrambled but it was instinctual. I’d already followed his lead several times when we’d have big paint ball battles between different cliques from school and I knew that Reggie was a strategizer and could already see a possible repeat of his old tactics. So I nodded and said, “We’ll use the boobies. I don’t know for sure how many there are. I stopped counting after thirteen.” He nodded his understanding and we split up right as the whole group of them came whooping and hollering into the woods like a bunch of baying hounds on the scent of a coon. Well this bit of prey was gonna try and turn the tables on the hunter.
Please don't stop here!!!!!!
Whats happening at the Houchins????
What happened to Jax and Ash?
What nasty surprises does Lydie have for those no account thieves?
Does Lydie get hurt?
OK guys, I didn't mean to leave you on another cliff ... really I didn't ... but I don't have time for another section tonight. Thing is tomorrow hubby and I are taking the day off and celebrating our wedding anniversary ... 24 years. Whahoooo! LOL!
So, without further ado here it is and I'll pick back up on Tuesday. Thanks for reading.
The Unholy Roamin’ Empire
As I ran I tried to formulate a plan and realized there were just too many variables. I heard Reggie call Ginger on the hand held and tell her to batten down the hatches and to head to the storm cellar if things got too close to the house. I was thankful that Jax had convinced me that, ugly or not, shutters on the exterior doors were needed. The bad guys would need explosives to get in. But I was going to show them some explosives before they could show me if they had any of their own.
I ducked behind a tree and then down, pulling out smoke bombs from my vest pockets three at a time. I ran, lit, and dropped which blanketed the woods in a nauseating kaleidoscope of colored smog. Reggie was doing the same thing; it was a common tactic during the many paintball battles we’d both been combatants in.
I heard a sudden gagging on my left followed by several vulgar expletives and the question, “What’s that smell?!”
Finally getting a whiff I realized that Reggie had added stink bombs to his mix. The smell was an eye watering combination of rotten eggs, brimstone, and rancid cow flatulence … powerful enough to gag a maggot. The complainer and his companion stumbled in my direction and the Bushmaster welcomed them to my forest and then sent them to their Judgment.
I ran forward and rolled them off the path and into a depression created by a fallen log. I didn’t want their buddies finding them too soon and helping themselves to any ammo. In this battle of attrition we needed every advantage we could scrape together. I changed magazines and realized I would need to be more cautious; burning too many bullets on each target would leave me empty with too many targets left.
Then I heard a horrible series of screams from the direction of one of the most wicked boobies we’d set. The directions for it had come out of one of Dad’s multitudinous number of military survival manuals (http://www.stevespages.com/page7c.htm ) and we’d set it in a small gravel pit created by the leftover stuff we’d bring in from the rock quarry to smooth the road. Basically it was a cross between a land mine and a napalm bomb. The results were not nice at all … but then again we hadn’t been trying to for nice.
Then there was another scream this time from the direction of a large hole left over from where a tree rotted leaving a pit where its root ball used to be. We’d filled the hole with punji sticks and then camouflaged it. The result would be worse than a bear pit for whoever fell in. Either the men had accidentally stumbled into the boobies or Reggie was going crazy on ‘em. It turned out to be a bit of both and I knew it was passed time for me to join the dance in earnest.
I headed for one of the hunter’s blinds built into the trees and scrambled up the tree – my shoulder thumping wildly – to get above the smoke. Reggie was still lighting and tossing every chance he got so the smoke was thick but I still saw barrel flashes shooting the direction I’d spotted him running. Time for another claymore.
It blew before it hit the ground in the midst of a small group of baddies with predictably dire effect. I grinned a little madly, glad that I’d shorted a couple of fuses. The three that survived that blast stumbled away in opposite directions; one of the men straight into a homemade landmine and the other two straight into Reggie who gave them a short burst from the AR15 he’d liberated after the Caulderman Cache Raid as we had begun to call it.
A bullet hit the tree right next to my face sending splinters into my cheek and I nearly fell from my perch. At the last second I was able to grab onto the tree with my boots and slide down the trunk rather than fall onto my head. If I hadn’t had gloves on my hands would have been ruined but they did so I didn’t ruminate on it. Ducking into an animal tunnel in the adjacent briar thicket I crawled out of the other side with only a few scratches. While my attacker was still looking around the tree trying to find where I had got to, I popped up and put two bullets in his center mass. He wasn’t immediately dead but he would be shortly.
Loud noises to my left startled me … and the two men that had been trying to sneak up on me. At their yelp I pivoted, the Busmaster still leveled in the right direction, and burned too many bullets out of fear. As I fussed at myself for being stupid, and changed clips once again, I finally recognized what the noise had been after I heard another one; Reggie had set off a couple of our homemade flash bangs.
I flattened myself on the ground because I had heard multiple pairs of boots running in my direction. I saw Reggie come out of a cloud of smoke and reached up and yanked him off the path. That was dumb because he’d fallen on me and the impact tore hard at my already sore shoulder. I covered my own mouth to keep from making any noise. Once Reggie saw the problem he put his hand over mine and I breathed through my nose as the bad guys ran passed us.
Through the tears in my eyes I saw Reggie’s questioning look. I nodded my head to let him know the yell was under control. Then we both belly crawled to a depression about twenty feet away while the bad guys stumbled around in the trees cursing and in general giving their positions away without what seemed like a fear in the world. Then we both froze as three of them stopped practically right on top of us.
The first guy gibbered, “I’m tellin’ you Risky we gotta go. This place is worse than the other ‘un. No tellin’ how many guys they gonna put on us. They got bombs man! And Reaper came outta da woods with his face meltin’ right off man! This is just messed up!”
The one called Risky answered, “We can’t you idiot. If Suicide finds out we bailed on him he’ll kill us.”
The third guy shook his head and said, “I vote we don’t go back to that pissant little hole. They ain’t got nothin’ left but some hoes and I already done most of ‘em twice … a few a whole lot more ‘n twice and I’m bored wid ‘em. Let’s go get some new hoes that ain’t all wore out.”
Risky said, “Now whoa man. They got that dude that says he can get the power on.”
The complainer asked, “You heard how much work that’s gonna take?! F*** that s***. Let’s just head south like we talked about, pick up some jack and a couple a sin nor ritas – fresh young ones – and hang on the beach all winter drinking mojitos. Let the cops and pansy soldiers do they jobs and clean this s*** up. It ain’t our problem and ain’t no way I’m gonna bust my a** like that brainy freak wants. I can’t believe Suicide put him in charge. I know they white and think they run the world but who the f*** does that pasty faced piece o’ jail tail think he is?”
Reggie and I were both all ears and as tense as a sheet of concrete board. They shut up when a fourth guy ran up and joined them. “C’mon. Dingo says head to the rides. We’re leaving.”
The guy who’d already warned about “Suicide” once asked again about him. The newcomer said, “Dingo done said he’s gonna do for Suicide and take over. Says that weird kid told him where to find some supplies left by the military and then we’re gonna sit pretty ‘til it warms back up. By then all this crap’ll be over and we’ll need to get back home so we can hook up with some ol’ ladies what’ll qualify for some fat checks and are looking to make some kids to replace the ones they lost.”
Jittery guy says, “Yeah, I’m done playing in the woods man. I heard some of them punk kids talkin’ how there’s these real bunch of redneck freaks that live out here and they get off on hunting people and skinnin’ ‘em.”
Risky shook his head and said, “Ijit … that’s only in the movies.”
Jittery shook his head and stuck his hand up like he was swearing on the Bible. “No man … I heard it all. See, this is where they got that idea for those moves. These people have been livin’ around here for like a long time and they’re like the result of experiments and s*** by the government. Like that Tuskegee place my momma’s preacher was always talkin’ about. That’s why you never hear about it on TV. It’s like a conspiracy or something. I heard they like to bring brothers down here and they …”
Their voices faded and I elbowed Reggie who was twisting and turning like a worm in hot ashes trying not to laugh. I hissed, “Knock it off. This is our chance. If they’re going to leave let’s try and use the Bangalore on them.” Reggie sobered slightly at my words but didn’t bother wiping the tears that made tracks in the dirt on his face.
We took the safest route down to a hollowed out tree not too far from the blind and pulled out some prefab devices that looked a bit like poles from a cyclone fence … these fence posts however were filled with explosives. Each “torpedo” was basically two lengths of twenty-gauge pip joined in the middle with a coupler, stuffed with a few sticks of dynamite, then capped at both ends with one of the ends drilled to allow for a fuse.
Even stopping to get the Bangalore’s we still made it down and in position in the ditch with the torpedoes all lined up before the bad guys came stumbling and gasping out of the road entrance looking a bit like worn zombies. The reason being that obviously they’d gotten turned around and run into a couple more boobies, at least one of them one of the splatter type that had been full of sulfuric acid we’d harvested from old car batteries.
Seven men … well six and a half if you counted the one that was badly wounded … stumbled out of the end of the road and ran and limped for the two vehicles at the end of the pile up. Reggie and I stuffed ear plugs in our ears, lit our fuses, then dived for the culvert just in case we’d miscalculated. There was this strange WHUMP and then an explosion almost too loud to hear. Stuff started raining down all around us, not all of it glass, metal or plastic if you know what I mean.
The culvert pipe hadn’t been the brightest idea; it echoed the explosion nearly knocking us out. Thank God for earplugs but we could still barely hear at first. When we could hear again what penetrated first was the sound of a couple of gunshots.
“Should have left them to suffer. And look, you’re bleeding again.”
“Can’t descend to their level. Won’t. Besides until …” Coughing preceded a harsh gasp of pain.
I was trying to scramble out of the culvert but Reggie pounced on me right before he blasted my already abused ears by yelling, “Point them pea shooters some place safe Spiker! I’d like to live to have grandkids to tell about today!” Using our code names was supposed to be the all-clear sign but I think our audience was so freaked out that they forgot.
We heard scuffling in the debris field left by the explosions coming our way. Reggie still wouldn’t let me go first but cautiously stuck his head up above the culvert. From my angle I saw his frown turn into a smile and heard him say, “Wow, you guys are a righteous mess.”
I’d had enough and head butted his gut hard enough to make him fold over. I snapped, “Move!” to add to my point – which he did – then I climbed onto the blacktop.
Barely registering anything but the fact that Jax was home I flew at him. Aston grabbed my arm as I went by nearly swinging me off the ground. I nearly swung at him to put him on the ground until he explained, “Don’t jump him Lydie. Jax took a bullet. It was just a through and through and Mrs. Houchins cleaned it out but …”
I wrenched my arm away and ran forward meaning to stop and examine his wounds but before I could, Jax reached out and grabbed my vest and pulled me into a kiss that melted my brain. However, the resulting pudding had no time to leak out of my ears because Jax stumbled and I had to brace to keep us both standing upright.
In extreme alarm I said, “Jax?!”
“I … I’m fine,” he sighed with his forehead resting on mine. Then he jerked upright and indignantly started shouting, “But not for long if someone doesn’t tell me what in the jumped up granny panties happened here!!” He ended by grabbing his side and nearly doubling over again.
Reggie couldn’t seem to help himself. He barked a laugh and said, “Jumped up granny panties? Man what kind of drugs are you on for the pain?”
He continued laughing until Aston knocked him in the shoulder and said, “Just the Tylenol that was in the emergency kit of our truck so knock it off. He passed out when they were cleaning the hole. Mrs. Houchins started on one side and pushed through some gauze on the other side that caught threads and other crap that had been driven in by the bullet. From his jacket man; look at the hole in it. I nearly puked helping to hold him down; I don’t know why he isn’t on a stretcher some place … that’s where I’d be.”
My eyes felt as big as saucers and I shot a look at Jax’s pale face. He just shook his head and grumbled, “It’s not as bad as he’s making it out to be.”
The look on my face must have told him in no uncertain terms that I realized that was a clanker of a huge magnitude because his only response was to grimace and shut up. Still holding him up I turned to find Reggie nearly shouting, “When?!”
He was on the hand held to Ginger and only her response of, “Don’t strain something Odd Man” kept me from going into overdrive again. Instead the audible emphasis on the word odd almost made me smile. She finally continued, “It was about ninety minutes ago and the rest of our team was apparently busy so Big Red terminated the peril with extreme prejudice.” Her tone held both satisfaction and a little awe at her own actions. The next transmission however showed that she was frazzled and reaching emotional capacity to deal. “But hear this, if Odd Man thinks that Big Red is going to clean up that mess the Odd Man has another think coming and he better return to Home Base asap or risk becoming another extremely prejudiced statistic. Does Odd Man copy that?!”
All three of the guys were just staring at the hand held with shock on their face. Under any other circumstances I would probably have laughed at them. They looked like they’d just watched a cute and fuzzy kitten gut a buffalo with one swipe. Apparently they had failed to understand the significance of Ginger’s name and hair color. I pulled my own handheld, noted that the battery was running a little low and said, “Henny Penny to Big Red. Henny Penny to Big Red. Do you copy?”
“Big Red to Henny Penny. I copy.”
“Rest of team seems to have lost their tongue to a particularly ferocious cat so I’ll check status. Besides some straightened curls, is Home Base intact?”
It took a moment before she came back and I could tell the blow up had been averted. “Big Red to Henny Penny. Home Base is intact. You owe me.”
Nodding even though she couldn’t see me I told her, “More than I can count Big Red, more than I can count. What about the Hobbits?”
“Big Red to Henny Penny, the Hobbits are resting with the aid of a little bit of mother’s helper. Do you copy that?”
It wasn’t something that we had developed a code for but I knew what she meant. I had worried about Ashley’s stress level and Kelly’s state of mind during a battle and had looked at my mother’s books as well as the medical books in Dad’s library and along with what Jax knew had come up with a very, very mild sedative to mickey their koolaide with if things got really hinkey. It would make Kelly take a nap but would simply cause Ashley to feel detached and a little groggy. Kelly wouldn’t be given a choice but Ashley would … which likely meant that Ashley had come close to her breaking point if she agreed to take it.
“That’s a copy Big Red. Will update as soon as arrangements have been formulated. Henny Penny out.”
All three guys then stared at me. I could see Jax was just about to bow up and get the man pride thing going. We all knew what the next step was and so I told him, “Please don’t Jax. I had to let you go off and do what you had to do. I wanted so bad to be the one to go with you, not get left behind, but we’d already worked out the details and how things would go if it had to happen. Ashley had to do the same for Aston. That was the plan and we stuck to it. Now this is the next part of the plan and you know it. It doesn’t have … strike that, it does have a little bit to do with you being injured but most of it is just because this is the plan.”
He shook his head. “The so-called plan didn’t include this … this … whatever the bloody heck happened!” He grimaced again.
Quietly I told him, “And it didn’t include you getting shot either. We just have to be flexible.” He was still not liking what I was going to suggest but I didn’t see any other way to do what needed doing. I looked at Reggie and Aston. “I’m going to jog up to the house and grab the Case with the front loader and come back here and clean this up. Aston are you fresh enough that you can jog up with me?” At his nod I said, “Good. You can stick your head in and put Ashley at ease and then drive the John Deere 4x4 Gator back. While we’re gone Jax and Reggie can man an outlook. When we get here you and Jax can load up the salvage from the blind. Reggie can drive it and Jax …” Jax gave a growl at my words but didn’t actually object which I was thankful for. “… back to the house. Jax can look in on Kelly and then give Ginger and Ash something to do while Reggie goes back to monitoring the radio. Aston, if you don’t mind, you can cover me while I … while I clean up this mess here on the road so that we can get our truck back home. We’ll load the rest of the salvage in the bed of our truck. You drive it back and I’ll smooth out the road the best I can with the Case. To be honest I had no idea how big of a mess those bangalores were going to make; if I had I would have stuck to just one. What about you Reggie?”
Jax half growled, half groaned and said, “Don’t change the subject Lydie.” I just looked at him and he finally sighed. He wasn’t admitting defeat exactly, but he was agreeing that he’d follow along because it was close to the plan we’d come up with.
Aston was no fresher than I was so our lope back up the mile long entrance road was slower than either one of us would have normally run it; but we still jogged it without stopping. I remember those youthful days when my energy reserves and health seemed endless and without exception. Reggie had called the house to let Ginger know we were on our way. I left him as Ashley fell into his arms – she’d practically swooped on him from the porch – and headed to the tractor barn. I thought he would take longer than he did and he startled me coming over so soon.
He chuckled a little and said, “Ash is pretty toasty … but that’s a good thing I think because … Hey! What are you doing?”
I’d tried to guiltily shove everything back into the first aid chest when he’d come into the barn. “Nuthin’.”
He came over and before I could nonchalantly get rid of the evidence he yanked the pill bottle out of my hand. He looked at me and then using a serious tone he asked, “Where are you hurt?”
“I don’t need a lecture Aston.”
“No you don’t. But we don’t leave until I get an answer.”
I rolled my eyes. “I pulled something in my left shoulder. It isn’t bad but if I don’t take something now it is going to be thumping in a little while. Banging around on the Case isn’t going to make it any better.”
He made me face away from him and he moved my arm and pushed on my shoulder a little. It was sore but it only really sung a couple of times. He said, “I think you only pulled a muscle, maybe a strain or sprain, but you shouldn’t take any chances.” I had forgotten that Aston had been interested in Sports Medicine or Physical Therapy as his college degree until right at that moment. He continued, “I can’t make you stop right now … and wouldn’t if I could because we need to get Jax to come to the house and lay down. He’s worse than he is trying to let on. Hopefully Ashley will sweet talk him into taking a Percocet and he’ll doze and get away from the pain long enough for his body to start healing.”
I had been too afraid to ask until then. “How … how bad is bad Aston?”
He shook his head. “Scared-the-crap-out-of-me bad. I’ve never seen anyone get shot. But Jax acts like he’s freaking Super Man. He didn’t even react when it first happened. Mr. Houchins’ said the bullet probably didn’t have enough velocity to do any kind of internal damage plus it is in that meaty place … you know, the love handle spot only Jax doesn’t really have much meat there … but still. The in and out holes aren’t even that far apart but it is all bruised and looks nasty. We’d managed to work our way around and catch a group of the bad guys in a cross fire with Junior on the other side. Then one of them got in behind us and shot Jax in the back … well, not the back but you know what I mean. Everything after that is a blur until Junior and I got Jax down to the gate and they worked on him while the rest of us did clean up. Then we headed back.”
“Why didn’t you guys call in? We were worried sick,” I told him as I took the keys from the lock box and tossed him the ones for the 4x4 Gator.
I was putting in empty fuel containers to hold any fuel we could syphon while he answered me. “Things were crazy and then we thought it was on your end until we got in the truck to head back and realized we couldn’t hear Houchins either. By the way, Mr. Houchins had a happy fit over the fact that we named his place Bonanza.”
I sighed and said, “I figured he would.”
“Yeah,” he said nodding. “But when we got close and saw smoke … and then all of a sudden the explosion. Man, I thought Jax and I were gonna have to change our drawers. What did you two do?!”
“It wasn’t us … I mean it was but us using the Bangalore torpedoes. I’m not sure I want to use those things again except in extreme circumstances.”
“Was it not extreme this time?”
Not ready to explain my part in everything I told him, “Go on down ahead of me and have Reggie explain it. I need to concentrate. It’s been a while since I’ve driven the Case and I need to think of the best place to actually move all of that debris to. We don’t want it right at the drive like a neon sign announcing were the Home Place is.”
He looked at me a second but did as I said instead of giving me a hard time about it. I waited while he moved out first and then I took my time going down for two reasons. One was I really was thinking where the best place might be to get rid of the battle evidence and two, I wanted to give Reggie time to explain without me there.
I had pulled out and was about to start nudging truck #2 from the original run in when I had to break and swing the front loader out of the way real quick because Jax stepped up to the Case and practically jerked me out of my seat. I was half in and half out of the glassed in cab but didn’t even have the breath to squawk in complaint because I was drowning in another soul shaking kiss. Then he had me in a one armed hug and I was getting slobbered on some more between him saying things like, “I never meant for you to have to …” and “I don’t know what I would have done if something had …” He never seemed to be able to finish a sentence so I used my imagination to fill in the rest and just hugged him back to let him know that the feeling was mutual and appreciated.
Reggie and Aston had moved to give us some privacy and had started going over what was left of the cars and trucks to see if there was anything worth salvaging; we learned to do that quickly in those days, nothing went to waste if possible. Then Reggie came over and said, “Hate to break you two up but we got storm clouds on the horizon.” I looked over to where his thumb had pointed and he was right and it looked like a bad one would hit us a little after the sun went down. Explanations and regrets would have to wait, the work had to get done … and done quickly.
Temporarily I piled the vehicle and vehicle parts around the corner of the road and down a side road where a small utility easement was. It wasn’t visible from the main road but at the same time was close enough that it wasn’t a trek to get to it when we had time to decide what parts to keep. I knew we’d need the leaf springs out of the vehicles for some projects that Jax had thought about and I was sure that Reggie wanted to see what could be made of the some of the other guts. Knowing Aston I figured he would have plans on eventually cobbling together at least one new car from parts of all the old ones … wheels came in third in his life only behind Ashley and football.
Less than an hour later I saw Reggie driving the 4x4 Gator with Jax as a passenger but he was having to go slow; he wouldn’t want to bounce out any of the stuff tied down in the back end or Jax who was I trying really hard not to worry about. Now it was down to Aston and I and while I continued to tractor things around he split his time between guarding and tossing smaller pieces of debris into the front loader. I carried the last load over to our dump spot and then came back to find that he’d pulled the truck into the end of the drive and was loading a pile of salvage into the back in. I hopped out of the Case’s cab and was glad that Aston had been looking the other direction; the Tylenol was wearing off and I’d joggled my shoulder more than I should have.
“I’ll help you load. When we get back to the house hopefully Reggie is fresh and he and I can walk into the woods and try and clear the … the …” I stopped.
Aston looked at me strangely and said, “Reg wasn’t telling stories.”
I looked at him and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just know what has to be done and I’m not looking forward to it.”
“I’ll go with Reggie and he and I can do it. You haven’t had a break yet.”
His volunteering surprised me but I shook my head. “Trust me I’d let you if it made sense but since I know what I did and Reg knows what he did we’ll be able to walk things a lot faster. I don’t know about you but the weather feels like it wants to finally get cold and damp.” He grunted an affirmative and we turned back home.
I could give you chapter and verse what Reggie and I did for the next couple of hours, how we both took turns puking until we finally learned to simply accept and deal with it all, but the honest truth is I don’t want to. Bad enough to remember the feel of the bodies dead weight as we dragged them to the front load of the Case. Bad enough to remember the smell of some of them. Bad enough to remember what it sounded like when I dumped the … the bodies … on the pyre we built. I’ll never forget that first battle. Never. Doesn’t matter how many years go by. But I chose to never wallow in it and I’m not going to start at this late point in my life; there’s just no sense to it.
Reggie and I had dragged the last of the salvageable mess we confiscated from the bodies into the tractor barn and then had to go out in the quickly turning nasty weather and drag the last body from the front yard back to the gravel pit. I’d been putting some of my homemade napalm on the bodies as we layered them up so that when we threw the last body on the pile and lit it up, there was something to catch all the way through the noxious mound.
Reggie and I had tied dust masks across our face and stepped back. With a FWUMP we lit the pyre up and black smoke crept up to the sky. The smell was horrible but if we hadn’t dealt with what was causing the smell it could have turned even worse. I was beginning to slip into a dead zone in my head and nearly came unglued when a hand clapped onto my right shoulder.
“Whoa Lydie! It’s just me.”
I huffed, “Don’t sneak up like that Aston.”
He nodded and said, “It’s getting really nasty out here. The only reason you aren’t feeling the drops yet is because you are under these trees. Come on back to the house. The girls have warm drinks and soup.”
I asked, “How’s Jax?”
I looked at Reggie. “Go on. Ginger will be relieved to see you. I want this … this … stuff to burn down a little more before I … just go on.” Reggie, who wasn’t feeling too hot, nodded and headed back to the house. I saw Aston follow him out and thought I was finally alone.
It didn’t take long, I’d felt it coming ever since we’d dumped Double D’s body on the pile. Slowly my knees buckled and I wound up sitting in the middle of what felt like a nightmare and had a hard cry. I finally made myself stop when I came to realize the rest of the noise was just gratuitous and unconstructive. I got up and was turning my pockets out trying to find something clean to wipe my nose with when a hand out of the dark handed me a bandana.
I wanted to run the opposite direction but knew I’d just have to live with him seeing me that way. Aston asked, “You done?” But there wasn’t any cruelty or teasing to it.
I wiped my nose and face and said, “Pretty much.”
He was silent for a few moments. “Today pretty much sucked.”
I sighed. “Yeah.”
“Tomorrow’s gotta be better.”
I answered, “Let’s hope.”
He grunted. “Coach always said hope wasn’t a plan.”
I nodded, “Coach always had sense. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with hope.”
I looked at him and he looked at me. Nothing more was said. We simply turned back to the house and trudged home. There were warm drinks and soup waiting on us, but more importantly that’s where the people that we loved and that loved us were waiting.
Kathy, I have followed your story telling for a long time and am pleased at the growth you are showing in your ability to paint a vivid picture of what is happening. Your story telling is on a par with or exceeds many professional authors that I have read.
We were a long while internalizing and coming to accept what we had done. Reggie and I didn’t like what we did, didn’t harbor any kind of pride in it, but I think the two of us handled the personal acceptance part better than the others did.
There was no self-loathing or anything like that. I, despite the absurdity of going through all that I had in my life yet still having the occasional rose-colored blind spot, handled things a bit by getting angry at the people that had put us in the situation where we’d been forced to choose between two very unsavory options … giving up and letting the bad guys roll over us and abuse our “Hobbits” or stand up and defend ourselves with fatal consequences for our enemy. Reggie seemed to add it to his ledger of being different; he seemed to accept that it put him further away from everyone. Didn’t he get a surprise when Ginger handled what she’d done by working her way further into his life and not letting him put any more distance between them.
Jax’s way of dealing with it was looking at it like he had a responsibility to Kelly and to me. He loved us. His reason for being was wrapped us in being our protector and provider. What bothered him more than killing or getting shot was that he wasn’t here when I had to go through that. It wasn’t that I had done it but that he hadn’t been a shield to blunt the consequences. It is hard to explain to someone that never met the man. Jax cared. A simple concept but a true one. He cared more about how what I did made me feel than about what it was that I did, more than about how what he did made him feel. We both held it together during the day or when we were around other people but when we were alone in our room a piece of paper wouldn’t have fit between us. The warmth and contact of another understanding human being helped more than any number of platitudes possibly could have.
The first two days after the battle we were all high strung. We took that energy and focused it on defensive measures. We rebuilt a lot of the boobies, repeating the ones that worked and dismantling the ones that didn’t. After talking to Mr. Houchins who admitted that his family was going through similar to what we were we developed the plan to blow the bridge and pass roads. We laid out the explosives and then Aston and I completed it.
Blowing the bridge and the span around the Pass gave us all a little bit of peace of mind. It made it harder for people coming from the direction of town to reach us. The number of dead bad guys that Mr. Houchins let us know through Junior and Aston meeting up to exchange information and antibiotics and herbal remedies for one of Junior’s little brothers who had developed a bad case of bronchitis gave us more peace of mind. Between our original battle with people that hadn’t shown up for the attack on the Houchins clan combined with the second group that was men fleeing from that losing battle Reggie and I had done for quite a few more bad guys. And I suppose in a way that added a touch more to our peace of mind though it came at a cost I could have done without. But we were never completely at peace … only at a piece of peace as they say these days. There were still too many bad things and potential bad things going on in the world around us; all we had to do was listen to the radio to find this out.
There was considerably more ham radio traffic than there had been once communities set up radio stations to try and stay apprised of what was going on in the world around them. Regular radio also made a return as the government and large corporations tried to fill the vacuum that the terrorists and war left in their wake. Not all stations had twenty-four hour schedules but during the day there were some fairly decent shows, some of them even being useful in ways to make do and being frugal with what resources were available.
“I bet Matt is chomping at the bit to get the community radio station up and running,” Jax said one night over dinner.
Reggie thought about it and said, “Sounds like something he’d want to do. Widen his sphere of influence or whatever.”
At the same time Aston barked a laugh and asked, “Start it up with what? His looks?”
I said, “He won’t do it unless he’s sure that he can control the content of what is broadcast. So long as he isn’t in control of the bad guys …” I ended on a shrug.
Ashley asked, “What do you mean in control of the bad guys?”
I let Reggie explain what we’d overheard about Matt being put in charge of some project or group of people by someone called Suicide. It was a sobering thought for all of us that one of our old friends would turn like that. It was already hard to accept Double D’s change, but being put in charge of the bad guys was a much higher level of betrayal. It gave us even more to think about and consider when it came to our plans. Eventually someone would likely challenge us again and we would need to be ready.
While it was true that it would take people longer to get back to this part of the county with the main travel routes as compromised as we had left them, it didn’t mean that we were completely cut off. As awful as it was we were left hoping that the bad guys would go after closer, easier pickings … or even better, move along to some new place to ride roughshod over. I wasn’t comfortable wishing bad luck on someone else but I just wanted the bad guys to go away; to go away and stop doing things that had us choosing to do things that were hard to live with.
The drastic change in weather we were experiencing was a blessing, but for some reason I’ve never understood blessings always seem to come in the form of two-edge swords. The harsh cold and damp was probably a bigger deterrent than anything manmade to keeping the bad guys away. Even with vehicles they still would have been forced to fight in this weather if they wanted to take us. Thankfully the bad guys that we were then faced with seemed to be of the source that preferred as much comfort as they could get with the least amount of work so battling out in the icy mud and sleet didn’t encourage them to do anything but hole up whether they were. At the same time however that weather kept us bottled up more than we had been as well.
There’s good and bad things about being cooped up when the weather is too cold and damp to spend a lot of time outside. It is good because you are kind of forced to relax in the same way the cold weather forces the plants and trees and animals to relax a bit before spring time brings new life and new challenges into the world. But it can be bad too … especially when it gives people time to start thinking.
“Wow. Hey Lydie … look at this. It says worms are a good way to compost kitchen scraps.”
Turning to Ashley who was engrossed in the books I had been using to try and plan out a larger garden for spring I replied, “I know. Mom used to have a really active worm bed on the other side of the chicken yard.”
She asked, “What do you mean used to?”
Wiping my hands on the apron I was wearing after washing and scraping carrots to go in that night’s stew I told her, “After … after they died I couldn’t seem to keep it up? I let it go.”
Truly perplexed she asked, “Why?! The books say it is super easy. I mean even I could do it.”
I shrugged. “I just didn’t have the time I guess.”
Aston and I almost ran into each other in the hall. He’d had his face buried in one of the old magazines that was normally in a basket in the bathroom and I hadn’t seen him over the load of towels I had just folded and was taking to the linen closet. “Hey Lydie, what do you know about wood gasification?”
Grimacing at the feeling of having scratched my knuckles on a door frame when I’d tried to save myself from dropping the basket and having to start all over again I told him, “I know there should be some books on it in the library that are more detailed than that old magazine is. Dad and I had one three-quarters built before … Anyway, I just never finished it.”
“Why not?! It seems like a perfect way to clean up the old wood that doesn’t get used after winter.”
Shrugging and moving past him I answered, “I just didn’t have the time.”
I was measuring the ice down in the cold room, trying to decide if it was worth putting containers on the back porch at night and bringing the resulting ice down to the cellar in the morning or if it was work that could be put off when Ginger cornered me. “Hey Lydie.”
“Yeah Ginger?” I asked only half way listening.
“Ash and I have been reading your mom’s recipe files and some of her cookbooks and gardening books and she’s got all sorts of notes crabbed into the margins about wild foods and where to find them, how good they are, and how they save on the regular gardening work. How come we never did any of that stuff? How come you only told us to work in the garden or pull stuff from the edible landscaping around the house?”
“I asked you to help in the garden I didn’t make you,” I told her defensively after what she was saying caught my undivided attention.
“You know what I mean,” she replied breezily. “Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier if we had just been able to gather stuff from the woods instead of trying grow everything we needed?”
“I don’t know … maybe, but probably not. It’s a lot more work than you think; more time too. I used to do stuff like that with Mom but I haven’t done it in a while.”
Giving me a curiously birdlike stare that made me feel a bit like a bug under observation she asked, “How come?”
“I … I just didn’t have time I guess,” I said still feeling defensive.
“Hey Lydie.” I almost cringed when Reggie found me in the attic trying to finally make the time to organize the salvage and other supplies that had been moved up there because there was no room for them any place else once the guys had taken over half the basement for the armory.
“I was looking at …”
“At what?” I said, almost snapping, knowing that a critique of my lack of something was in the offing.
Startled at my tone he said, “Uh … never mind.”
I shook my head. “Sorry … just been one of those days. What was it you needed?”
“Didn’t need anything, I was just wondering.”
“About?” I asked as I went back to taking fabric off cardboard bolts and folding it up to put on cedar lined shelves.
“Well I was trying to come up with some ideas of things to do when the weather warms up and I’ve been meaning to ask about the beehives that are stacked out in the orchard. I mean, they’re empty. Did you all used to keep bees?”
I sighed. Yup … another critique. “Dad did but then we lost a couple of hives to some bee disease or other … you can find it in Dad’s farm account books on that shelf behind his desk. After the hives failed we started getting all of our honey in trade from the Mennonites. Dad had ordered new bees to start our hives up again but then … anyway, when they came in I just gave them to Mrs. Mulcher at the Extension Office for her 4H Club.”
“Why?! We’d be sitting pretty right about now and not wondering where all of the sweetening and sugar and stuff was going to come from next year.”
Closing my eyes in exasperation I said, “Because I didn’t have the time and hindsight is 20/20.”
“Didn’t have …? You didn’t even have a job Lydie. You …”
I was in danger of blowing a gasket and throwing a royal tantrum but Jax saved the day by coming down from the cupola. “Hey Reg … you up here to relieve me or what?”
“Yeah … coming,” he said. I could hear the mild disgust in his voice. It wasn’t quite a judgment on the fact that he thought I’d missed a prime opportunity and he didn’t understand how I could have; nevertheless it rankled and I had a hard time not giving in to the temptation to throw something at the back of his head as it disappeared up into the cupola.
He went up and I just kept folding, trying to plow through what needed to be done. I wasn’t listening to what they were saying but I caught the tail end where Reggie said something to the effect, “Yeah, yeah already. I get it.”
I only vaguely wondered what that was about because I got a little caught up in looking at the fine legs of the fine man that I had hitched myself to as he came down the circular staircase from the cupola. They might have been hidden by the jeans he was wearing but since I knew what was there I used my imagination to good effect. He was still moving a little slow from being shot but not so’s most people would notice. But I did. As I worked my way up his torso I realized I wasn’t the only was doing some looking. I dropped my eyes and tried to appear busy when I realized he’d caught me staring. I expected him to make me blush even more but instead he said, “C’mon. This can wait.”
“Huh? Wait … I was in the middle …”
“I know. Just c’mon. Kelly will be up from her nap soon and I want to talk.”
About half the time when he said he wanted to talk, talking was the last thing on his mind. This time when he said it though I wasn’t too sure what exactly he meant. I kept my mouth shut until our bedroom door closed. “Something wrong?”
I was ready for the next person to tell me I hadn’t thought ahead or hadn’t used my time wisely. But instead he sat on the bed then pulled me down beside him. “Something is wrong all right and I want you to stop it.”
“Uh … ok … just tell me what it is I’m doing wrong.”
“Not you. Them. I know they don’t realize what they’re doing and I know they mean well and all that but I also know reading something in a book and sitting around talking about is a lot more difficult than actually putting words to action.”
I was clueless for about two seconds until I added it up and understood he meant that he’d overheard what the others had been saying. “It’s OK. They …”
“No, it isn’t OK. They’re sitting around with their nose in a book or making notes once their regular chores are done … the stuff that has to be done every day to keep things running smoothly. But I sure don’t see them looking to take care of the long list of other stuff that needs to be done around here, that while it isn’t absolutely essential that it gets done, that will become essential if it doesn’t eventually get done. Like getting the attic organized so we know what we have and where it is. Like all the extra cleaning that you do so that stuff doesn’t wear out before it has to. Like the mending and sewing that sits around not getting done because they just think they can dig into the bags of salvaged clothes for something that doesn’t need mending.”
“Uh uh. I’m talking this time.” He stopped stretched his neck and shoulders like they were tense. “I’m not saying that they are being terrible. They’ve come a long way from where they were, I’ll admit that with no problem, but they still don’t know what it takes to run a house by themselves much less a farm. It isn’t right that they are criticizing you when they didn’t walk in your shoes. They’re getting a little self-righteous when they don’t have any room to have it.”
I sighed and then climbed up into his lap and just hung on. It was like finding safe harbor in the middle of a bad storm. I sighed. “Thank you.” I put my hand on his cheek and kissed him, being careful not to knock into his side which was still plenty sore. “So long as you understand I’m satisfied.”
“Does that mean you aren’t going to say anything?”
I smiled a little smugly. “Catch more flies with honey than vinegar is what Mom used to say and I’m beginning to see her point.”
Smiling slightly I said, “Which is that come spring they’ll learn soon enough. Let them plan and read and wonder for now. It keeps them busy and from feeling all cooped up and out of sorts. It gives them something at least a little constructive to think about and spend their energy on. Keeps them from being bored and brangling with one another … and with me. Come spring when the real work starts, when they realize they can’t make up the difference with salvage or whatever, then they’ll know what being busy and not having enough time really means. C’mon, you know good and well you could have raked me over the coals a few times over how I was learning to take care of Kelly. I wanted to know why you had to carry her everywhere and why you didn’t do this and why you didn’t do that. Admit it, I knew next to nothing about taking care of little kids when you and Kelly came to live here and I probably sounded like a pompous know it all.”
He tried to keep a straight face but slowing a smile escaped. He leaned us back so that we went from sitting on the bed to laying on the bed. “OK, so you had a … uh … learning curve. But you picked it up quick.”
“Because I had to. And they’ll pick it up too. Ashley is almost six months along. Part of her wigginess is wondering about how she is going to have the baby without a hospital, doctor, or pain killers. Ginger’s wigginess is that she is still trying to figure Reggie out.” I shrugged. “What she doesn’t understand is that Reg is … is shy … kinda … at least about her.”
Jax put one hand behind his head and pulled me to him with the other. “I’m glad we got through that part before we had an audience.”
I nodded in agreement. “Reggie is … Reggie. I don’t know if he can bring himself to believe that Ginger really feels anything for him yet.” I didn’t have to go into Reggie’s family life for Jax to understand what I meant. “And Aston … Aston is finding himself and trying to figure out how to be who Ashley and their baby needs him to be at the same time. I think he’s scared.”
Jax said, “I know he is. One day it just sort of hits you that you are going to be a father and it takes everything you’ve got not to freak out about it. Maybe I won’t be that way with you … I mean if we …” He huffed, “You know what I mean. I’m not putting any pressure on you I just …”
“Relax. You weren’t upsetting me by mentioning it. I’d be pretty stupid not to realize that there is nothing that is 100% foolproof when it comes to birth control. I just … I’m just not ready to …”
He gave me a one armed hug and kissed the top of my head. “Me either. Not while things are like they are. Not while … not while I have to live with you going on patrol and … Just not yet. I’d be too … too worried that something was to happen and …” He blew air out of pursed lips. “There’s just too many things that can go wrong. Ashley and Aston are right to be worried but … but we’ll all do the best we can to help them.” After a moment he asked perplexed, “And how did you turn this around so that I’m back to feeling bad for them when I was about ready to snap their heads off?”
I rolled over and sat up and moved so that I could pull his head into my lap and told him, “Ah, that’s my secret and I’ll never tell.”
“Never tell?” he growled playfully … quietly though because Kelly was still napping. “Is that a dare?”
“Well,” I said smiling and scooting around the bed a bit. “It could be if you want it to be.”
I would have been happy to stay snuggled in the bed with Jax for the rest of the day – hang the rest of my chores – but Kelly woke up and needed her father’s attention and I had to get downstairs since it was my turn to fix supper.
Yep, I wasn’t too sorry that the cold weather was slowing things down. As it was I had more to do than I could handle. I just hoped the bad guys would stay away for some good while longer. But if Matt was put “in charge” I had no idea what that would mean for the rest of us.
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