I had the rifle off my arm and aimed.
“Whoa! Put it down Kid. It’s me … Hey … Kid … @#$% … Richards!!”
I pulled the barrel up when I realized who the boogey man was. The surge of complete relief and gratitude caught me off guard. In fact I was so overwhelmed with relief my knees almost gave out. Thank goodness it was dark enough that the shadows would hide my expression. I back pedaled and tried to remember I couldn’t jump up and grab him like I was some kind of helpless female. “Oh for Pete’s Sake. Don’t go calling him, he’s worse than an old woman. Trish, stop crying. Remember the men I told you about that helped me get to Nebraska? Back up a little Thor, they’ve been through a lot.”
Trish stopped crying on a hick up and gave a wide-eyed stare at all of the men that had suddenly come out of the dark. Then she got a funny look on her face and wrinkled her nose. “What cool randomness. But … they really do stink just like you said.”
It wasn’t just Thor who stank. Nor was it Richards and Evans that came running at Thor’s bellow. There were several strangers amongst the group that eventually piled around us and I was starting to get real nervous real fast. I knew I was too tired and wasn’t thinking straight but I’d given a whole lot just to deal with Thor or Evans than the prying eyes of all of these other men. The more there were the higher the chance for someone to see through my disguise. But the old axiom that people only see what they expect to see was holding. And apparently Evans, and even Thor, had described me enough as a “he” that a “he” is what they saw.
I shrugged Richards off but turned to him and said, “Check the kids out first. They seem OK enough with I found them but …”
I stepped between him and the kids and muttered for his and Thor’s ears only. “They’d been alone since March. They got off the school bus but the parents never came home. Nearly all the food in the house was gone and local wildlife had taken all their livestock. Girl is 10, boy is 5. The girl has a lot of gumption and isn’t a cry baby but after being alone so long you can imagine she’s fragile.”
Thor told the other men, “Break it up. We’ve got a job to do and I don’t expect to see a lot of bodies standing around doing nothing. If you have enough energy to do that then I’m not working you hard enough.”
I heard a few of the men groan but they all filed off leaving the three men I knew best, me, and the kids alone. Seeing that Richards was pretty doggone good with kids I pulled Thor and Evans to the side. “Look, I know I have no right to ask – and I’m willing to trade what I have to – but … but I need some sleep. It’s been rough since Salina and I still need to get them to Topeka. Just one good night’s sleep, that’s all I’m asking. The kids won’t be a problem; they’ve been bedding down in the tent with me when I’ve been able to get any sleep. Just one night …” I tried not to sound like I was begging but I think I would have at that point.
Evans said quietly, “Shoot kid, you don’t even need to ask. I’ll spell you.”
I was feeling relieved when Thor said, “No you won’t.”
Evans got a mean look on his face until Thor said, “Rocky will bring the kids over and we’ll take turns the way the rotation is meant to.”
At that Evans grinned, slapped Thor on the shoulder and ran to make sure there was a space in the caravan to fit us.
Richards turned when Evans ran off and said, “Little malnutrition but not nearly what I expected to find. Trauma yes, but again, not nearly as much as I expected to find. For a ten year old child, the young girl certainly managed far better than I would have thought possible. She’s a keeper. Little boy seems to have some developmental delays but it could be the result of the trauma, can’t tell in a five minute diagnostic. I’ve personally heard stories with similar beginnings that ended a great deal worse. Good thing you found them when you did Rocky. If she had been forced to leave the house … it would not have … well, I’m not even going there. Now I’ve got to get back to that fool that drank that poisoned hooch. I’m still not sure whether he is going to pull through or not.”
The kids had gotten over their initial fear of the unexpected company but were still noticeably overwhelmed. I reintroduced them to Thor and then told them we had a place to stay for the night. Before I could pick up the full weight of the cart Thor helped me to lift it. Before I could object he said quietly, “Don’t be a hard head. You’re all done in.”
It wasn’t long before I had a quiet corner surrounded by the gear of Thor’s men to set up a small camp for the kids and I. I got a few disgruntled looks from the others, and a lot of curious stares from the guys with them, but no one was openly hostile. I made sure the kids were tucked inside the tent and then gave them time to go to sleep. I was nodding off in front of the flap when Thor came over again.
“Thor,” I whispered. “Never mind … if you feel you gotta lecture me then go ahead, just keep it down so the kids don’t get scared.”
“I ought to. I ought to whale the tar out of you … but Evans … aw @#$%. Listen Kid, just because every one of us would likely have done the same thing at your age doesn’t make it right. But … I’m gonna leave it at that and just say pot, nice to me you, my name’s kettle.”
I snorted an involuntary laugh at that. “I … look Thor … I’ll be out of your hair in the morning. I … can’t imagine how I run into you all here but it is too flaming providential. I’m no fool … stupid and stubborn on occasion but I hope not a fool.” I could have said more. I wanted to say more. I was afraid more would have given me away.
Evans showed up and offered me a bowl of some kind of stew. “Have the kids eat yet?”
“Yeah.” I looked inside the tent. “Besides they’ve already crashed and burned.” I looked at the bowl and then up and said, “I don’t wanna take something out of anyone’s mouth. I’ve got my own supplies.”
“Don’t sweat it kid, there was enough. You look like you need it.”
I shrugged and dug into the bowl hungrily. I’d wanted to do some hunting but was worried that the sound of a rifle would draw unwanted attention even if the area had any wildlife left in it.
“It’s none of my business but what are you all …” I cracked a huge yawn. “What are you all doing here anyway? And in the company of these other men? I heard you mention a job.”
“Guarding a grain shipment. It gets us from point A to the next stop along the way and buys us food in our belly and some for the road.”
“OK, I know I’m stupid tired but did you just say a shipment of grain? If there is grain why are all those people on the road going hungry?”
“Because all of those people on the road are sitting around waiting for someone to give it to them instead of finding a way to earn their keep. They’re just waiting to be rescued and no one is going to do it, not now. That’s the next big wave of dead coming up. When winter kicks in people are going to be hurting something fierce and the weak aren’t going to make it. Medium and small towns are doing best as long as they can get supplies. The big cities … not so much although most of them seem to be trying. Little dots on the map aren’t anything but bandit bait.”
I thought of the family farm and wondered if our orchards and berry patches were going to get run over before I could get back home. I wondered if I even had a house to go back to. Nana having spilled the address to strangers was my secret fear.
“Whatcha thinking Kid?”
I was so tired I didn’t even object to him calling me Kid. “Home. The closer I get the further away it seems.” Then I sighed and said, “Thanks. I know you have reason to turn me away but for the little kids’ sakes … thanks.”
He shook his head. “You are stupid tired. Get some sleep. We have another day of layover and you might as well rest up. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
I didn’t like the sound of that but was too tired to come up with a snappy comeback. I was asleep before I could even take off my boots.
Suddenly I was stuck under a pile on of miniscule proportions. “Listen you little monkey, that is not a nice way to wake someone up.”
All Mickey did was laugh as I tried to figure out why the light was so bright. “Whoa, not again or one of us is going to have an accident.” I looked over at Trish who was trying not to laugh. They really were good kids all things considered.
“Let me up so I can get you two fed.”
“Mr. Chuck already brought us something but he told us to stay in the tent ‘til you woke up. Mickey thought it was taking you forever to wake up.” I looked at my watch and realized it was close to noon and that Mickey probably wasn’t the only one that had been wanting me to wake up if she’d been stuck in the tent.
“Mr. Chuck?” I asked trying to wake up.
“Yo … Rocky … you back amongst the land of the living yet?”
I tried to crawl out of the tent but wound up having to do it with a small rodent by the name of Mickey clinging to my back. “In a manner of speaking,” I told Chuckri.
“Mister Chuck!” both kids cried out when they saw him.
I raised my eyebrows at the red creeping into his face. “My kids … would be about the same age.”
I opened my mouth on a question and then closed it when I saw the fear in his eyes. He was afraid he was going to get to Independence and his family wouldn’t be there. At least, as bad as the ending to that part of my story was I knew for certain. Chuckri didn’t … not yet … and like Trish and Mickey might not ever, not for sure. There are worse fates than a life time of not know, but not too many. Even if you learn to be at peace with it a small candle flicker must still be hiding back there to give you nightmares. A few people do come back after you think they are gone for good … the names Dugard and Smart swam into my memory … but usually the brutal truth is they don’t. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy yet I had a feeling that there were a lot of people all around me experiencing that … maybe for the rest of their lives.
“I’ll watch the kidlets. Thor wants to talk to you.”
Lovely, I wasn’t even upright for five minutes before I had to prepare myself for being raked over the coals. I sighed. “Might as well get it over with. Just watch the guys and the F-bombs. These kids were raised right. OK?”
Chuckri was already being handed a book and getting a story demanded out of him but he did manage to throw a “Sure thing” at me before I walked away.
I spotted Thor off to the side with a man I didn’t recognize so I leaned against a tree to wait while I chewed on the last piece of jerky I had. I figured chewing on that would keep my mouth shut. Instead Thor called me over with a jerk of his head.
“Rocky, this is Jute Carlson. Jute, Rocky Charbonneau.” I kept chewing and nodded my head as the nervous little man danced from foot to foot, obviously anxious about something.
“Big ‘un ain’t ya. Musta made your momma cry for sure.”
Oh brother, not two second in that cretin’s company and I was ready to chew on more than the jerky.
Thor headed off Jute’s mouth by saying, “Jute signed on to go to Topeka but he got a better offer from a caravan heading south to the Gulf Coast. His contract stipulates to get what pay is coming to him he needs to find a replacement before he can accept the new offer.”
I looked at Thor. “I made a promise to those kids.”
The man called Jute broke in nervously and said, “I’ll give you a quarter of my earnings up to this point.”
“That must be some sweet deal,” I said trying to figure out what was going on.
“OK, a third, but I can’t afford no higher. I’m going to need the silver and the seed when I get where I’m going.”
I pretended to think about it and looked to Thor out of the corning of my eye and saw him give him half a wink.
I sighed like I was sure that I was getting the short end of the deal somehow but then said, “Allright I …”
Whatever I was going to say was buried underneath all the jabbering coming out of Jute’s mouth and then him flying lickety split to get his gear and catch up with the boss of the other caravan. “OK, so exactly what did I just sign on for. I’m serious Thor, I promised those kids I’d do my best to help them find their aunt.”
“And if she isn’t where she is supposed to be?”
“Depends on what I find. Either way I promised I wouldn’t just abandon them.”
Thor flipped me in the head with his hat. “Mush brain. You don’t go around making promises like that.”
“Not to adults, but those kids would have been eaten up by something … or someone … if I hadn’t taken them on. I have to live with myself every day, not just when it is convenient. So again, what is this job or did you just need a way to get him off the team?”
I surprised Thor yet again. “What makes you say that?”
“He doesn’t seem the type you would have much patience for and he gave up a third of his pay too quick. Either the job going south is just that much better or he was desperate to get away from this one for some reason.”
Thor looked at me for all of two seconds and then let out a laugh that was starting to make me hear more of it. That … that was a bad sign. I could not get friendly with this guy; not any friendlier than I already was. I wasn’t chuckleheaded enough to make him mad at me on purpose just to keep him at arm’s length but I needed to be more careful. I hadn’t done anything to make him laugh on purpose though so I just waited.
“Kid, it’s … well @#$%, it’s good to have you back even if you are a pain in the @#$.”
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically. “But do me a favor and give the foul language a rest in front of the kids if you can. I know I shouldn’t ask but … they’re just little kids. And Mickey is a freaking parrot. If I do find their aunt I don’t want to be run out of town on a rail because he turns into a pint-sized foul-mouthed sailor. And you still haven’t told me what the deal is. Or are you avoiding it?”
“Nah. It’s actually a pretty decent gig … if you’re willing to work. Standard stuff … road security, baby sitting the tagalongs, making sure no one tries to snitch any of the load at night or on the road. Problem from here on out will be that we are traveling straight down the interstate. There are a lot of beggars. There’s an advance guard that goes out in front of us and clears any obvious problems … road or human … but there’s still a risk. We’ll put the kids with Chuckri in the middle third truck. The thing is built like a tank and they’ve reinforced the paneling and flooring just in case anyone gets too creative.”
“Is it Topeka that is bad or is it just a bunch of desperate people?”
After thinking a moment Thor said, “Topeka isn’t heaven on earth, that’s for sure, but it ain’t so bad as most cities that size should be under the circumstances. The city got sprayed with some kind of toxic chem. From what they say it wasn’t a gas and only made you sick on contact. Problem was that it came down in an oil and it took a long time to find and clean it all up. Mass die off in the beginning but most of the chem seems to have degraded and most cases of poisoning are now mild and few and far between. We had just rode into town when we got approached by this enclave out around Sherwood Lake. We picked up this load of wheat and in exchange we get paid in metal and grain. We need both if we are going to make it all Independence. We’ve got to bypass Kansas City and come up into Buckner.”
“Wait … I thought that Chuckri’s family was in Independence?”
“Just the other side of by a little over a dozen miles, by the Missouri River. So, you in kid?”
“Yeah, into Topeka. But I don’t want to promise more than that in case I have to go looking for the kids’ aunt … or … or if I have to keep them with me for a while more.”
“You know what you could be getting yourself into? Eighteen isn’t very old to be taking on that kind of responsibility.”
“There you go again, sounding like you are the Old Man of the Mountain,” I said even though I’d already told myself once that it was dangerous to be playing with fire. My thoughts about Thor had taken some warmly uncomfortable turns in my dreams lately and I was gonna get burned to death if I wasn’t careful. “Seriously though, I’ve got lots of experience with kids. Peewee League, scouts, and just about everything else my parents ever volunteered for.”
“They drag you along?”
I sighed. He already knew about me being a GWB so I decided to be honest. It made my parents look better and I wanted someone to know all the sacrifices they’d made for me. “My parents volunteered to work with children’s programs so that I’d have someone to play with. All of my cousins were at least ten or more years older than me and there weren’t that many of them to begin with. Parents of the kids couldn’t say too much and it gave the kids a chance to get to know me in an organized activity.”
“Did it work?” he asked.
I thought about it then shrugged. “Sometimes. But when it didn’t it was more the adults’ faults than my parents or the other kids. It wasn’t until I made it in highschool football that suddenly I had more so-called friends than I knew what to do with. Suddenly my folks didn’t need to tie a proverbial pork chop around my neck to get the dogs to play with me. But by then I’d made my own space and was satisfied with it. Besides, there was always Jonathon.”
Thor grunted. “You’ve had it harder than people think haven’t you?”
“Huh?” Then I started laughing a little. “I didn’t tell you to turn it into a sob story. I’m not out for anyone’s pity … nor their sympathy either. My parents made a good life for me and now I’m trying to make one for myself. No one has it perfect. I imagine everyone – you included – could tell a sad story if they tried, and some even if they didn’t.”
This time it was his turn to shrug. “Actually I didn’t have it too bad when I was a kid. The only wrinkle was my old man was a lot older than my mom and wasn’t really into kids by the time I came along. It was a good life until he died when I was fifteen. His ticker just gave out. We had to move into my grandmother’s place and she never let my mom live it down. I was out of the house the day after I graduated and never went back. I moved Mom out with me after a year but then she got sick … mostly I think she gave up. My dad had done everything for her and she just didn’t want to learn to cope after he died. After that I got a job with a contracting unit and I’ve been around the world enough to know I’m tired of traveling. I want to settle down, just don’t know where yet.”
That was a lot more than I thought he was going to tell me and it turned me inside out. Lucky for me the kids came running up with Chuckri. Trish crowded me and Mickey tried to climb me like a tree.
“Thor … trouble. The advance team came back, some of them any way.”
The kids were shaking so I knew it was bad. “Come on you two. Let’s go clean up our camp. Always …”
It was Mickey that responded, “Leave a place better than you found it.” Like I said, a little parrot. But I thought having him repeat something that that Dad had drilled into my head was better than some of the other things I’d heard him repeat.
I didn’t like being left out but I had responsibilities however I didn’t have to wait long as Evans came trotting up. “Ightmay antway otay etgay the idskay inay the enttay. Itsay adbay.”
“OK, nap time.”
“Awww,” Mickey started to complain.
Trish said, “Don’t Mickey. I want to go in the tent. I’ll lay down if you will. You can even hold my pillow.” I looked at her and she said, “Dad and I used to speak Pig Latin as a joke. I don’t want to see it if it is bad.” Then she zipped the tent shut tight despite the heat of the day.
I turned to Evans and he said, “It ain’t good. This is going to change our plans.”