Paybacks were satisfying but I knew mine would eventually turn on me, they always do. I sobered up when I remembered the two guys I had stuffed in the shed. It was time to deal with that situation. I hadn’t decided what to do yet when I got to the shed only to find it opened and empty. A militiaman was standing there and I asked, “Weren’t there some prisoners in there?”
“Prisoners? We don’t take prisoners. If there were combatants in there they’ve been executed for crimes against the community.”
I opened my mouth to say something that likely would have proven unwise when I was crowded from the side.
A gruff voice said, “You’re getting paid to work, not stand around getting in the way.”
Chuckri turned me and then with an apologetic look at the militiaman, steered me well away from the scene. When we were several yards away he said in a whisper, “Don’t cause trouble.”
I looked at him and asked, “You think what that guy said was right?”
He shook his head at me. “Doesn’t matter what I think. This is their town and they’ve got the power and clout to run it their way. And the people like it, they keep asking for more and more. This situation tonight will only reinforce the idea in the minds of the people here that they need someone to take care of them, to stand in the breach and protect them.”
“But … that’s stupid. The people here could have done the job we did. It wouldn’t be any easier for them than it was us but … but … execution? Without a trial? That’s not even constitutional.”
“Where have you been Kid? The Constitution only works when there are enough people who willingly live by it. When you have to enforce the Constitution by forcing submission of the majority by military might you run the risk of becoming the very type of tyranny the Constitution tries to protect us from. People can only be free when they are willing to be free. You can’t force people to think like free men should.”
We’d gotten way deeper than I had meant. “I know all that. My dad was a Constitutionalist.”
“Good for him and no offense but he ain’t here and we are.” He shook his head, probably at what he considered my naiveté. “Things are going to be a while changing, settling. You need to be more careful Kid if you want to stick around long enough to influence how they wind up.”
I didn’t know where we were headed until I saw the pony cart. For a moment I thought he meant to put me on the road but then he said, “Here, help me gather up everyone’s gear and take it over to the warehouse. Your idea of being a roof spotter was a good one and we’ll continue using it until we can get outta here.”
I looked at him to see how he’d known and he must have read the question on my face. “Delia told me. That was you that picked off that guy with the rocket launcher.”
It was more statement than question so I just shrugged.
“I also heard it was a roof top sniper that alerted the militia to the pirates going after the vault.”
He cocked an eyebrow as we each pulled a side of the pony cart. “Now you’re playing smart. Keep your mouth shut about things when you can. For example, you’re better than you let on obviously. And that rifle you carry isn’t anything worth bragging about so it makes me wonder what you could do with a decent weapon and scope. Where is it anyway?”
“Dad always told me an empty gun wasn’t nothing but a fancy club.”
He asked, “You out of ammo?”
“Yeah. We took a haul from those gamblers but it got spread thin when it was divvied out. Picked up some more when I found the kids but a night like tonight will burn through a supply of any size.”
He nodded in agreement. “I hear that. You got your casings?”
“Most of ‘em. A few rolled off the roof. Plan on reloading when I get home assuming no one found Dad’s equipment room.”
“You can reload?” he asked surprised.
Instead of a direct answer I told him, “Ammo’s not cheap and we weren’t rich.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” He stopped by a pile of bodies that I had been studiously trying to ignore. “Good. They haven’t started stripping them yet. Look for any replacement equipment you need. Focus on anyone that looks like they were a pirate first. They’ll be more likely to have what we need. Don’t touch the militiamen at all. No need to cause problems when we don’t have to.”
It wasn’t pleasant but I understood the necessity. It wasn’t any worse than going through an abandoned house; in both cases the previous owner was gone and never coming back.
By the time we’d gotten all of the men’s gear we’d also pillaged enough body piles that I had enough ammo to fight another battle, twice as many to reload when I got a chance, and was praying that it would be the end of Juvember before I ever laid eyes on another corpse.
We pulled the pony cart into the warehouse through a roll up door. The sun was coming up and I was just about as tired as I’ve ever been. Most of the wounded militia were gone and the few that were left were being loaded into hand wagons by their personnel. Chuckri stepped away to talk to someone with some stripes on his uniform. I looked around and spotted Barkley coming down from the ladder.
“How the Sam Hill did you get on the roof Kid?”
“Out the window and …”
He shuddered. “No. Don’t tell me. @#$% I hate heights. I have to spell Alfonso who is out there now.”
“I’ll do it,” I volunteered.
“You sure Kid? What do I have to trade?”
“Huh? Oh … nothing. Consider it doing me a favor. The further away I am when Thor gets in the mood to let me have it the better.”
A tired chuckle was followed, “No truer words have been spoken. Seriously Kid, you sure? About the roof I mean.”
“Sure, don’t sweat it. Heights have never bothered me. We have any water so I can fill my canteen?” The morning was young but already turning warm.
He pointed me towards a large plastic barrel that I hadn’t noticed before. I walked over and saw Evans had tucked himself out of sight behind a couple of crates. I went back and got his gear and then unrolled his bedding right beside him. All he had to do was roll over and he’d be in bed. He woke up just enough to mumble “thanks” before falling back to sleep. I finished filling my canteen and to stuff my pockets with the last of my gorp; and then went over to the caged ladder.
Barkely said, “You’re sure?”
“I said I was didn’t I? Hey, before I go up … Thor is all right? For sure all right?”
“Yeah, he’s a tough one. Nona bandaged him up but …,” he snickered a moment. “She seemed kind of disappointed that he didn’t need stitches.”
“What a shame … I mean … lucky for him huh?” I deadpanned drawing another tired chuckle.
“Kid, if I were you I’d be looking for a way to get back in Thor’s good graces real quick.”
“Naw, I like taking my life in my hands. Where is he anyway?” I asked looking around cautiously.
“Sleeping off whatever Nona dosed him with. All joking aside, he’s gonna be moving slow for a while. Between you and me I think we need to get out of this town sooner rather than later. It don’t seem too healthy around here. I just don’t know how long it’ll be before Thor, and Evans too, will be able to sit a horse. I got me a bad feeling this ain’t a good place for us to be right now.”
“I won’t disagree with you. Besides it’s already June and it’s going to take me forever to get home and I wanna do it before it gets too cold. The longer we stay here the longer it takes to get where I’m going.”
“You still set on heading east?”
“That’s the plan and so far nothing’s changed it. What about you?”
“I’m a Midwest boy myself but don’t have no family left to speak of. Chuckri’s offered me a place and I’ve taken him up on it. We’ve all been together for so long we’re like brothers.”
“Yeah … I got that. Look, tell Chuckri I’m up on the roof spelling Alfonso and if Evans wakes up cranking tell him where I’m at. I think Thor has made him babysitter in charge and I really don’t want to give him any grief in his condition.”
I grabbed my rifle and took it with me when went up and exchanged places with Alfonso. I also took stuff to give the rifle a basic cleaning and glad that I did, it kept me occupied so I wouldn’t focus on how hot it was and how tired I was. If I had been the kind of girl that enjoyed sunbathing that would have been the perfect spot to fry myself up on both sides. My canteen had long ago gone empty and I was really starting to doze when I heard my name called.
“Rocky! You still up here?”
It was Richards. “Where else would I be? You got a second to get me some water? My canteen’s been dry a while and I’m …”
Richards rarely swore so when he let off a string that would have made a salty old sailor proud I thought something was wrong. I slid down and then hung over the end getting an upside down look at his tired face. “What’s up?”
“Who was supposed to spell you after Alfonso?”
“Don’t know. About the water …”
“Get in here.”
“I said get … in … here. How long have you been without water?”
“Don’t know … awhile.” I told him flipping around and coming in through the window. “Trouble?” I asked again looking around for anything out of the ordinary.
“Down. Now. Move.”
“Not another word. Do you realize it is getting on towards four o’clock?”
I shrugged, “Sure. I remembered to wind my watch.”
“You’re as red as a lobster.”
“Beet. People who get red as lobsters are usually burnt. I’m beet colored, it’s just from the heat.”
“Naw. I don’t burn. Something about the melanin in my skin.”
I could hear his teeth grinding enamel on enamel so I shut up so we could both concentrate on getting down the ladder and I could find out what he was so bent out of shape about. As soon as his feet hit the concrete of the floor he was marching over to the corner office. When he realized I wasn’t following him he looked at me with an expression that had me catching up right quick.
“Richards what is up? If there’s trouble …”
“Trouble? You’re up there nearly 10 hours with only one canteen of water, no break, no rest, and I assume no one has even bothered to check on you in all that time either?”
I didn’t want to lie to the guy but he didn’t sound too happy. I had just opened my mouth when Chuckri stuck his head out and said, “Kid what kind of problems are you creating now?”
I tried to open my mouth to tell Chuckri that it wasn’t me that was yelling when Richards went off on him. Then they started going off on each other. I looked at them both liked they were losing their minds.
I blew a whistle through my teeth and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa … Time out! Richards, dude, I’m fine. Chuckri, chill out man, Richards is just … you know … tired and stuff after spending all night and day patching people up.”
Richards said, “Kid, I appreciate what you’re saying but it is not OK. You were up there and if I hadn’t wondered where you were there was no telling how long you would have been left up there.”
“I’m not stupid Richards. I was just about to the point I would have called down for a refill on the canteen. And heights and heat don’t bother me. I’ve been working in tobacco barns and silos my whole life. Really man everything’s copacetic. I’m sure that someone would have been up to spell me as soon as there was a break in the workload.”
I looked up just in time to see a slightly guilty look come over Chuckri’s face as well as Thor’s who had just limped into the room. “Oh.” I shrugged. “Well … er … whatever.”
I turned and left the office, shutting the door quietly behind me. I’d known paybacks were probably going to be rough but if they thought that they’d made me feel sorry they didn’t know me very well. Of course the reality was they didn’t really know me at all.
I walked over to find Evans stirring from his pallet. “Hey, whot’s all the noise?”
“Richards needs some sleep. How are you feeling?”
“Like I broke my energy bone. That soup they fixed us at lunch helped for a little while but now …” He faded out with an uncertain look on his face.
“Hey, don’t go trying to do too much. That’ll just cause a relapse,” I told him. “You were there when the dog chewed on me, about time I got to return the favor.”
I got an absent-minded grin before he said, “And don’t you fergit it Kid. I think for once Richards might be right.” A light snore soon followed as I dug for anything to eat out of my pack. Evans talking about lunch reminded me my stomach was empty. My bladder should have been full but I’d sweated too much.
I had my foot on the bottom rung when Richards stopped me, “You aren’t going back up there, I don’t care what they say.”
Not wanting anyone to overhear me I told him, “Don’t make a scene. Thor knows what I am. I think Evans might too but as far as I can tell no one else does. This isn’t hurting me any, I’m tougher that you want to realize. If I whine and complain all of a sudden people are going to talk and I can’t afford that, especially not now.”
“Why not now?”
I didn’t want to pull anyone else into my messed up problems. “It’s … complicated. But trust me if you can, it doesn’t really have anything to do with you guys per se. I wish I could explain without making things worse but I don’t think I can. I’d rather just keep going the way I’ve been going and make the best of it. You only need to put up with me for a little while longer. I promised the kids I’d see them settled and … well, that can’t be too much further off. I’ll be out of your hair after that. Until then … don’t … don’t treat me like such a girl. It doesn’t help things and I’m not sure I need it anymore.”
He sighed and shook his head but he let me go. As I climbed and went back out to the roof I could feel eyes on me but I refused to look back to see who it was. Around five o’clock I smelled the cook fires starting up but it was closer to eight before a man from the caravan I recognized but didn’t know said he had come up to take over. I was so hungry by that point about the only thing I could think of was to get down and grab something to eat.
I slid down the outside ladder and headed straight to where I’d seen the cooking pots … and head first into disappointment. The pots were empty. The people that had done the cooking were sympathetic but they’d made what they were told to make and no one had been allowed seconds. They’d even had to water things down a bit to make it stretch as far as it had.
I was mad like I hadn’t been earlier in the day. Maybe I had taken it too far egging Thor on like I had but at least I had known that he was not likely to be harmed by the likes of Nona. Leaving me up on the roof and not even having the decency to check on me … well what little fun I’d had was gone like dust on the wind and I was back to feeling completely alone and distrustful.
I probably should have known not to give my trust back so easily but I suppose you could say that I had been desperate to connect in there somewhere, lonely enough that I would have taken what little bit they would have given me. Worse I could have kicked myself for reading something into Thor’s knowledge of what I was. The sooner I could get away from everyone the better.
My attitude wasn’t helped at all by being tired and hungry. I must have looked frightening as I walked from shadow to shadow working off my frustration. More than one person startled and jumped away from me like I was the boogey man. And then when the rain started falling I knew that I needed to find a place and hole up for a while. I needed rest and food but it looked like rest was the only thing I was going to get.
And then it looked like I wasn’t going to get that either as I discovered a cranky family had gotten to my chosen shelter ahead of me. The man was whining the woman was complaining and the kids were just plain miserable. It took me a moment to figure out that all they had to eat was boiled wheat but that no one found it edible. I knew from experience that for some people it was an acquired taste and that was only made worse if it wasn’t cooked well.
“Hey, enough noise already. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Wheat is more than many will have to eat tonight.” They just looked at me in a defeated like they were waiting for me to steal what little they had. “Oh for pete sake. Here, grab that skillet and put a little bit of oil in it. Now scoop out some of the wheat a little at a time and dry it between two towels … no, like this. OK, kids get back a little further because the grease is going to crackle.”
I proceeded to show them how to cook “popped wheat.” By the time I was done with that I was sick to my stomach. The family was all but skin and bones and I didn’t have the heart to take any of their food though I could have. I crawled away looking for another hidey hole and was got soaked in the process. I finally found a warehouse where a lot of single wretches like me were taking refuge from the rain and did my best to lean against the wall and try and get some sleep to escape.
It seemed like no time later I was being shaken awake, “Kid … hey Kid.”
It was Evans. There was some cussing and groaning from those being disturbed around me. “C’mon Kid. They’re taking delivery of the wheat and Thor wants to get gone from here. I’ve been looking for you for hours.”
“What … what time is it?”
“’Bout three in the morning I reckon. Dawn’s still a ways off.” As I stumbled after him I asked, “What are you doing out in this weather? Last I saw you weren’t feeling too good. You looking to make yourself sick on top of everything else?”
I was passed caring if he realized I was female or not so I didn’t bother trying to hide it.
“Look who’s talking. Why’d you let ‘em do that to you? Then you didn’t come in when they did finally send somebody up. We’d gone ter grab something ter eat together.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered either way. I went down the outside ladder and straight to the cook fires. Everything was already gone.”
“Gone? You meaning to tell me you ain’t et in … in how long?!”
“Don’t yell. It is what it is. Let’s just get this over with. The sooner we get Chuckri to his home the sooner I can shed this group and stop making a fool out of myself thinking things have changed.”
“Ready to get rid of us?”
I looked at him and suddenly saw the man standing there and not just a man. “Not all of you.” I shook my head to clear the cobwebs, “But I’m tired of it all. There’s things you don’t know.”
“One of ‘em being you’s a woman.”
That made me smile. “No. Well that’s part of it but Richards told me you likely had figured it out and I’m grateful I don’t have to lie to you anymore. It bothers me. There’s just other stuff.”
“Does it have something to do with the way you are?”
“Yeah, some of it does. I just don’t need trouble, not … not here or now … or every anymore. I just want to go home where if there are any left alive they already know what I am and I already know how they feel about it. Can we just … change the subject?”
“Sure Kid. Sure. But you stick with me from here on out. Thought Thor had better sense. Well, his loss.”