We’d been travelling on Skyline Road shortly before turning onto CR4 as we entered Keene. After the overnight in Keene we stayed on CR4 until we got to this area that used to be fancy golf clubs and the courses that members played on. There were a few that said “open to the public” but most of them look like they used to be those members-only types. The only reason that I knew they were golf courses at one time was because the signs because they sure didn’t look like it any more. And that’s where the trouble started. People had plowed up the greens of the golf courses and planted large gardens … and those gardens were well guarded.
Seems from what I eventually found out that it worked three ways. Some of the greens were “rented” to people living in the city. For those plots you either paid in some kind of currency such as precious metals and stones, jewelry, fuel, or the locally issued credits; or, you could pay in a percentage of your harvest similar to what share croppers used to do. Some of the other greens were actually worked by the remaining local government with the resulting produce used as salary (as opposed to salad) to pay municipal workers. The remaining greens had been taken over by whoever could hold them. That last group was the most dangerous as they tended to shoot first and ask questions later and because they were gradually getting taken over and absorbed by what amounted to a land baron turned gang leader.
I was running beside the tagalongs, warning them they were getting near to their disembarkation point – that is what the caravan bookkeeper called it not me, it sounded kind of snooty but I guess it was better than saying, “Hey y’all, we’re about to dump you on the side of the road.” Out of nowhere a series of shots rang out.
At least one of the shots hit the wheels of the truck with the balled tires and there was a pretty good bang as the tire gave out and the truck tipped in my direction. I hit the ditch to avoid the falling belongings that had been piled at the top of the already unwieldy load of goods that it was carrying. I’d warned Thor that I thought the load would be a problem but there hadn’t been time – or inclination – to unload and reload it better.
“Whoa … whoa … whoa!! Stand down!!” Thor bellowed at the top of his lungs. I wanted to ask him who he was talking to, us or the shooters, but was out of breath where I had hit a glancing blow on a concrete culvert on my way to find something close to a fox hole. I was trying to decide whether to crawl out of the ditch or not when the big man strode down the road. Another shot rang out and I rolled to the other side and took aim in the direction the shot had come from.
“Parnell! Either get your people under control or I’ll shoot them myself. Your boss already isn’t going to be too happy after I find him and take the cost of this equipment damage out of his hide!” Thor bellowed. “And if any of my people are hurt I will exact a more personal payment out of you!”
Some serious distrust of this Parnell character was beginning to set in for me. Suddenly I spied a rifle trying to get a better aim in Thor’s general direction. I was tracking the movements when the guy popped up fast and purposefully. “Thor! Down!!”
I got mean cold and then let fly. May not have been what Dad meant me to do when he was teaching me to hunt but then again I’d shot dangerous animals before and this was no different. The man was flung back behind his cover so I wasn’t for sure that I’d killed him, but I wasn’t exactly worrying the idea that he might be to death either.
My shot hadn’t even stopped echoing when a blow horn sounded. “Next person that takes a shot at this caravan will be arrested and taken before Judge Harold for prosecution by order of the First Topeka Militia and the City Council!”
“Hold still Kid,” Thor told me. “Don’t move and just do what the man says when he comes over.”
Several armed men in a mix of hunting gear and urban camou spread out into the fields ordering people to stand down if they hadn’t done so already. I saw one man try and back talk get a solid punch that sent him to his knees and he had his weapons confiscated before being hauled away. I decided to take Thor’s advice and stay down in the ditch. Besides my shoulder was really starting to sing from the stupid culvert. A man came over and was speaking to Thor and for some odd reason I started feeling dizzy.
“Kid. Hey Kid. Kid?” I turned to look up at Thor and then decided I would rather sit down even if it meant sitting down in a muddy ditch.
Thor jumped down and then said a few words that I had a hard time understanding since they kept slipping away from me. “What have you gone and done now?”
I tried to explain but was having a hard time focusing. “Think I might have … hey … will you stop moving?”
Only Thor wasn’t moving. Apparently what I had thought was a glancing blow of landing on the concrete culvert was actually where a bullet had skipped across my shoulder.
“Medic!” bellowed the guy that had been talking to Thor. I’ll admit though that his bellow wasn’t near as loud or pretty as Thor’s.
I was in the middle of trying to figure out whether I wanted to panic or puke when this woman nearly as big as me jumps down in the ditch, takes one look at me and asks, “What’s your name?”
I swallowed and said, “Rocky Charbonneau.”
Then she gives me this sorta double look like you can’t quite believe what you are seeing or hearing. “You’re kidding me. The football player?” I eyed her real tight. She rubbed her hands together like she was planning something. “I got a couple of cousins that wanted to play against you so bad they couldn’t stand it. Can you walk?”
I sighed thinking my life was over. “Yeah.”
“Well then don’t just sit there like a knot on a log, I don’t plan on carrying you out of this ditch. A big tough like you should be able to rock and roll all day long and not complain about it.” I rolled my eyes thinking this woman has got to be kidding. Even had I been inclined to let my ego get that big my parents, Coach, or my team mates would have brought me back to reality. Throwing a thumb in a general direction she told me, “Get to my buggy and I’ll run you into the clinic. Thor, stop acting like a fuss budget. You’ll get Rocky back in one piece.”
“I can’t leave. My kids …”
“No way, I never heard that part of the story.”
I sighed, “Not mine mine. I mean I picked up a couple of kids that … oh never mind. I was bringing them to their aunt and uncle around Sherwood Lake.”
She gave me a look like my brains must have been leaking out of my ears. “The name of the aunt and uncle. I’ve got the latest roster here on my clip board.”
“Oh. Marshall … Beth and Henry Marshall … or maybe Elizabeth Marshall.”
As soon as the name was out of my mouth I knew something was up. She said quietly, “Beth was a Nurse Practitioner in my clinic. Henry died the day the chems fell … Beth died less than a week later when some junkies hit the clinic looking for a fix.”
Too late did I see a pale little face peeping from behind the front bumper of a truck a few feet away. I wasn’t the only one that had suddenly noticed her. “Oh crap. Was that the kid?” the woman asked as the tail of Trish’s braids disappeared.
Sadly I said, “Yeah, the girl. Her name’s Trish, little brother too half her age.”
“We can’t take any more orphans,” the woman said in a dead voice like she'd said it too many times already. “No exceptions. And before you say anything else the rule isn’t mine. We’re overflowing with kids and we just can’t take anymore in.”
From the direction Trish had gone Chuckri came out and said, “Not a problem.”
We all looked at him and he threw his chin up daring anyone to say anything. I asked him anyway. “Chuckri, you sure? What about your plans?”
“Don’t have to change my plans, just adds to ‘em. Besides Delia and I … we want ‘em.” Like he was daring me he asked, “You got a problem with that Kid?”
Wondering what the heck his attitude was bout I said, “I’ve seen you with them ‘Mr. Chuck’." At his continued snarky facial expression I added, “But it looks like I’m your buddy until you get to a stopping point because I promised the kids that I’d …” My steam was running out and I stumbled.
“OK, you can play Who’s Is Bigger when I get Rocky patched up.” I had a feeling that under any other circumstances I would have really liked this woman. But for right now she held my fate in her hands and I didn’t like anyone having that kind of power over me.
It was Thor that boosted me into the woman’s buggy. “Thor, I don’t have a problem with Chuckri but try and figure out what his problem is with me. He makes good dad material so I don’t get why he is so defensive about it. And watch my gear. And …”
“Shut up Kid,” he told me quietly. “Nona, I’ll be around to pick the Kid up as soon as I dump this load.”
“Listen to the man Rocky. You’d think it was a threat,” said the woman apparently named Nona.
“Yeah. Well …” the last was left hanging in the air as I started to hang onto the buggy strap. Nona didn’t appear to believe in the adjective slow.
As soon as we were far enough away the questions started. “OK, now want to tell me why the Butch do on your head and why for some unfathomable reason those men think you are male?”
“I’m so dead meat,” I groaned.
“Not if you can give me a good enough story.”
"Why is it just my luck that you would recognize my name?" I looked at her and decided I didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter. I gave her an abbreviated version of my life since the world started falling apart. I ended by saying, “I’m not so full of myself that I don’t know that just because I was the Freight Train on the playing field that my reputation would do a doggone thing for me out in the real world. Under these clothes and this dirt I’m still a girl and there are still men that would get off on … er … putting me in my place the hard way.”
“I hear you.” I expect the big woman did understand. She stopped and thought about it for a while as we tooled through heavier traffic now that we were in the city. “All right, I’ll keep your secret. On one condition.”
Suspicious I asked, “And that is?”
“You don’t give that guy grief that wants the kids.”
I was getting progressively dizzier but that didn’t make a bit of sense to me. “I never said I was going to give him any grief. He was the one that started up with me.”
“Then you be the one to back off. I know Delia and if she is still with the guy it is serious. Delia can’t have kids, something wrong with her ovaries, these kids would give her an in.”
I don’t like blackmail. “Look, I’ll risk it if you are trying to blackmail me. I’m not going to turn those kids over to just anyone. Nor will I sit back and watch a friend get used. I haven’t got all the details but Chuckri has already had enough grief from one woman over kids. I won’t …”
“Geez, relax with you. If you are backing Chook-Ree or whatever his name is I’ll back Delia. The kids will get the best of both.”
I told her fine but in my head I knew I had one more thing to check before I let it rest. I was in and out of the busy clinic in less time than it had taken to get there plus her grilling and I was left woozy and wondering just how I was going to get back to the crew.
“Didn’t I tell you I’d pick you up?” growled an irritable voice.
“Don’t Thor. Just don’t. My shoulder aches like a son of a gun and my head hurts from all the screaming and hollering going on in Saw Central,” I told him throwing my thumb back towards the clinic. “They were doing an amputation without anesthesia. And some guy came in burned to a crispy critter but he was still alive; I saw his eyes. And I don’t even want to know what else. Plus that crazy woman … Dr. Nona Schmitz … I had to pay in good silver to get out of there or she threatened to put me in the lock down ward.” Every bit of it was true but I was unnerved enough that I needed to turn it into a joke so that I could distance it a bit.
Thor snorted, “Sure Kid. Can you ride on your own or …?
“No doubles. I’ll stay on if I have to tie myself on. Just I hope you don’t have any dainty pony or donkey for me to ride. My feet might drag the ground.”
Thor just shook his head at my attempts at humor and asked, “Did the gargoyle shoot you up with something or did you hit your head too?”
“Neither though I’m wishing for one or the other right now. I’ve got some Tylenol in my pack. I’ll knock back a few when we get back.”
It wasn’t fun for me to get in the saddle but I did. It was Evans’ horse so I knew he wasn’t skittish which helped me to relax a bit. At least until Thor started in on me.
“Kid, I’m asking you to take it easy on Chuckri and not give him a hard time over the two little ones,” he started out quietly.
My temper could get the best of me even when I was feeling my best. But the way I was feeling right then he wasn’t halfway through the sentence before I was boiling. I jerked the poor undeserving horse to a stop and then turned to Thor. “Dat burn it already. Why is it that everyone is assuming that I’m going to give Chuckri any grief?! I’m not the one that started that crap. He did. I’m standing there feeling like crud, my head was spinning, I manage to remember my responsibilities to the kids and put them first, and he comes up and makes me look like the bad guy. Tell me please, what the heck did I do to deserve that?! And now you on top of everything else? What next? Evans going to read me the riot act too?”
I turned the horse again and just headed off down the road we were on. I was fighting hard to reign myself in if not the horse. It was Thor who grabbed the bridle and said, “Whoa!” despite the fact I hadn’t been going much more than a fast walk. “Don’t get so bent out of shape Kid.”
“You don’t get so bent out of shape. And go tell it to Chuckri too. And that Dr. Gargoyle who just happens to know Delia and read me the same story. If I hadn’t trusted Chuckri … and by his word that Delia woman … then the kids would never have been riding in the truck with him. If I hadn’t trusted you to know the right thing even if I didn’t I wouldn’t have had us join the caravan at all. So you and everyone else can go stuff it. I’ll make sure of what the kids want and if they don’t want to be here then nothing anyone can say will make me break my promise to them.”
I’d finally managed to shut him up. I clammed up and he didn’t say anything else. I followed him to the camp and then got off Evans’ horse. I was going to take care of the beastie but every time I tried to take the saddle off I pulled my shoulder. “Here Kid, just move out of the way.” It was Montgomery that had come up and I was hurting bad enough that I didn’t object.
I walked away stiffly without a backwards glance to see where Thor was and went in search of my gear. I spotted it off to the side by the pony cart and quicker than you could say Bob’s your uncle I broke into my first aid kick and was inhaling the pills I’d stashed there. The tent was already set up and I saw Mickey asleep inside and then jumped to look around for Trish. She was beside the tent and it was obvious she’d been crying. I could see Delia a little way off keeping an eye on the two but I decided it was best to ignore her for the moment.
I sat down more heavily than I had meant to. “Trish I need to talk to you. Do you mind?” A little shake of her head was all I got. “I know this whole thing hurts. I guess I might have gotten your hopes up by bringing you this way.”
A small voice said, “Sorta, but it isn’t your fault I guess. I wanted to believe that they were all just here waiting for us. Even Mom and Dad.”
“Aw Honey,” I said then sighed knowing I had to get to it before I got sidetracked in her pain. “Look, the timing isn’t great but I made you a promise and no matter what I am going to keep it. I’ve heard what everyone else wants for you and your brother. Now I want to know what you want.”
“I want my Mom and Dad. Or Aunt Beth. Even Uncle Henry though he used to make Dad mad.”
“I know how you feel. I want my folks so bad it’s like it won’t ever stop hurting. But neither one of us can have the first things we want. If I could make this come true for you I would but I can’t. But I want you to think on this, the only reason they didn’t come to get you is because they couldn’t. Death was the only thing that stopped them from coming to find you. That’s gotta mean something.”
She barely shrugged. “I guess. But what do we do now?”
“No one has said anything to you?”
“No. Everyone has just been so angry or busy.”
“What a buncha knuckleheads,” I muttered under my breath. “Trish, I think they are mad at me because they think I’m going to take you and Mickey away from the people that want you. Well, I’m not inclined to but I’m not going to stay out of it until I find out what you and Mickey want. You are who I made the promise to … not the other people.”
I finally had her full attention. “Trish, I need to know, do you want to be with Mr. Chuck and Delia? I know they want you … and Mickey too. I know that they seem like people that will try real hard to be good parents to you … not to make you forget your Mom and Dad but to continue doing the job your Mom and Dad were doing. They want to love you too. But I want you to have a say in it, not just what a buncha grownups tell you you have to do.”
She was quiet a long time. “Do you think Mom and Dad would be mad if we went with them?”
That choked me up a bit. “Trish, I’m not nearly old enough to have all the answers to stuff but your parents seemed like they loved you a whole bunch. I know they’d want people around that were going to take care of you and love you. And raise you right. I think Chuckri can be that person and Chuckri thinks Delia is that kind of person and I trust him to make a good decision about that kind of stuff.”
Another silence and then, “Mickey doesn’t even remember much anymore. Only me. Will I start forgetting too?”
That really hurt. “We might forget some things, that’s how God helps us to be able to live with the hurt. The memories get soft and fluffy around the edges. But we’ll always remember the most important thing which is that they loved us, that they helped us to know what love really is. It wouldn’t be a good thing though if we let their love be the only love we ever feel or let anyone ever give us. Sometimes it is just as important to let people love us as it is for us to learn to love them back.”
“Are you going to find you some parents too?”
I sighed, “Sometimes I wish I could but most of the time I remember that I’m already grown enough that I have to be responsible for myself. So instead of parents I … well, I guess I’ll have to have friends.”
“Would you be mad if I said we wanted to go with Mr. Chuck and Miss Delia?”
Getting exasperated with that particular theme I tried not to show it. “I don’t know why people keep asking me that. All I’ve ever cared about is what was best for you and Mickey. I promised to get you to people who would care for you and care about you. I was willing … am willing … to do it if that is the way it turns out but never intended on being selfish about it. I just want you two monkeys to be happy and taken care of.”
“So you wouldn’t be mad … or hurt?”
“Over what? You finding what you need? I grew up learning there is a lot of stuff about God’s plans for people that I don’t understand. I don’t know why things have happened the way they have but I do know that Chuckri and Delia seem eager to take you two on … for your sakes, not for theirs. Seems kind of senseless to fight against it unless you don’t want it and if that is the case I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure that you and Mickey get your way.”
Another silence and then she flung herself at me in a hug. Unfortunately she started crying … I nearly did too as she’d hit my shoulder.
“What did you do? Can’t you see those kids are grieving and confused?” a male voice snarled.
I guess we’d been talking so quiet that Delia hadn’t heard what we’d been saying. I untangled Trish who was still crying and sat her up. “You sure?”
She nodded and I beckoned Delia over who was staring at me like I had three heads. I recognized the look and admit that it hurt a little to be reminded of it. I stood up and turned to face an enraged Chuckri. He opened his mouth and I said, “Don’t you dare start something. Let’s go over there.” When we had walked away from the kids he started again and I told him, “Shut up before you say something that is going to make you look like a bigger donkey’s behind than you are already acting.”
He pulled back a fist and I told him, “You don’t want to do that because in the mood I’m in right now I will hurt you like no one knows I can hurt someone. The only reason I’m standing right here and trying to be civil is for that little girl’s sake. I lost my own parents not that long ago because of this stupid war or whatever it is. I know how she’s feeling. All I wanted to know, to make sure of, was that she wanted to be with you and Delia, to give her some control and power when she was feeling like she didn’t have any. I don’t know what your problem is but deal with it. I never had any objection to you and Delia and don’t know what put that into you head in the first place. I don’t give a rat’s hindquarters whether you believe me or not. And despite the fact that you act like someone has dropped you on your head recently I still don’t object to it. Keep the tent for the kids …”
He opened his mouth again and I told him, “Just shut up. Whatever you’ve got to say I don’t want to hear it. Keep the tent. And the pony cart and the stuff in it, it was theirs anyway. I’m grabbing my gear and going. You decide what you want to tell them, you will anyway.”
I carefully walked back to the little camp and grabbed my gear which started Trish up again. “What’s with the waterworks Shorty? I’ve got to get ready for work.”
“You sure that’s all? I thought you and Mr. Chuck were going to fight.” she said through tearful hiccups.
“Nope. I wouldn’t do that to you and Mickey. Some things are too important. Remember, we made promises to one another.” Her eyes widened and she nodded, remembering that she had promised not to tell anyone that I was female.
I tapped her head finally getting a smile, looked at Mickey still sleeping peacefully and then tried to pick up my gear. A hand went to grab it from me. I snatched it back. Chuckri said stiffly, “I was just trying to help.”
Quietly I told him, “You’ve helped about all I can stand for a good long while.” I turned and left without looking his way again.
If I hadn’t been so tall the pack would have dragged the ground. As it was it took most of what I had left to keep my own rear bumper from dragging. I was more than tired, I was heartsick and depressed. I was wondering why it is that people always have to make me feel like I’m less than they are, like I’m to blame for some heartache that they’ve suffered. As sure as I was standing there I knew that if it got out that I was GWB someone would blame me because some idiots got it into their heads to try and destroy the world. And if they found out I was female they’d blame some other crud on me.
I was beginning to yearn again for the lonely of the open plains; being lonely in a crowd felt so much worse. I stopped, looking around for a likely place to crawl into a hole and pull it in after me.
“You OK?” I jumped and then saw Evans in the shadows.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Kid, don’t that chip ever get heavy?”
“I’ve been carrying it too long. It’s gotten so ingrown it's just a lump on my shoulder these days and I hardly notice it.”
The older man chuckled sounding just about as tired as I was. “You something else Kid. Come on over here. Thor and I have a quiet corner staked out. And get that sour look off your face, at least over here you’ll be left alone.”
Rather than give a verbal answer I walked over and dropped my gear down and started to unroll my bedroll. “Good call Kid.” He stretched out a boot and toed my gear out of his way so he could get comfortable as well. “You know, you let people get to you too much.”
I sighed. “I’m going to get a lecture or a bunch of questions from you too?”
“Nope. But I’ll explain some things. Chuckri’s ex, she couldn’t stand him gone all the time. Chuckri wasn’t gone because he wanted to be, he had obligations and contracting was the only way to pay them. It wasn’t the money his ex was complaining about, she just wanted someone around to admire what she bought with it. Well, she found someone all right. Tried to have her cake and eat it too. Then when Chuckri found out he tried to fix things because of his kids but it was too late. Then she did everything she could to keep him away from the kids. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
I was too tired to be anything other than brutally honest. “Fine. Chuckri’s past gives him reason to feel the way he does. But it doesn’t give him an excuse to be a donkey’s backside. And unless his wife looks like a buzz cut football player there shouldn’t have been any mistake that I was her.”
Evans made a rather rude comment concerning the likelihood of anyone mistaking me for the ex. “So did you let him take the kids?”
“For the last flaming time, he didn’t take the kids. It had nothing to do with me leting him or not. Trish and Mickey chose who they wanted to go with. I’m cool with that, why can’t other people just be happy for the kids without turning it into some super drama and competition?”
“Mayhap you're right but I'll ask anyway. You gonna be OK with that?” I heard Evans ask as I was trying to crawl down without jarring my shoulder anymore than necessary.
“Does it matter whether I am or not? It’s what’s best for the kids that matters.”
Thor's deep rumble came from out of the dark saying, “Kid, get some sleep.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do. When am I on guard duty?”
“Go to sleep Kid.”
“Just go to sleep. And if you run off in the morning I’ll …”
“Don’t make threats Thor. I’m me and if people can’t handle that then so be it. I’m going to be living life my own terms from here on out. I’m not sure if that includes you and your little glee club or not. I’m tired of being the outsider made to feel like I’m not quite good enough, always having suspicion thrown at me and worrying what people think of me. Seems that no matter what I do nothing makes a difference. So kiss my left big toe. I’ll fulfill my promise to those kids and make sure Chuckri didn’t bite off more than he could chew. If you or anyone else don’t like it that’s just too bad. After that, my life is my own. You and everybody else can either accept that or not. I'm pretty sure that I've finally learned my lesson about giving a crap about what you all think of me.”