The campground looked like I remembered yet at the same time it didn’t. It was neat and tidy with each site having its own picnic table and fire ring. Some of the sites even have hand pumps and utility hook ups yet no RVs were in sight except for the one the campground hosts were living in. In fact there were no motorized vehicles in sight at all unless you counted a couple of solar charged golf carts whipping around faster than a man could jog.
I was deep into comparing my memories to the present and looking around but being careful when without warning two young kids ran out of the hedgerow and into the road and I had to pull on the reigns hard enough that my horse stood up in the traces. I hadn’t been going fast but you just don’t stop a large horse and a fully loaded wagon on a dime. Everything happened so quickly but I still remember everything in what my Dad called bright Technicolor. Thor rode quickly forward and grabbed the horse’s lead to calm and control him. I saw that the kids were nearly under the hooves of my horse and were screaming in fear. Thor kept pulling the lead of the poor thing to try and keep him forced up on his hind legs to give the kids a chance to move but they had frozen. I tied off and jumped down and ran to snatch the kids and felt the brush of a hoof against the back of my shoulder.
I was still bent over breathing through the bruising pain when Thor reached me though the kids had jerked away from me and run as soon as I had them safe. I looked up through watery eyes to see a couple of older boys had come to hold our horses and calm them while a man and woman jumped out of one of the golf carts beside us. I was thinking we were dead meat ‘cause we’d scared some of the local kids when I got an unexpected surprise.
“Oh my Dear, are you all right?!” the woman asked.
The man growled, “Of course she’s not all right Tess. When I get my hands on those two kids they aren’t going to be able to sit down for a week!”
Thor hadn’t said a word but I could see his jaw clinched tight and the sweat beaded above his lip on a face paler than normal. I patted his arm and told him, “It’s not bad, more the shock of it than anything. I’ll have a bruise but nothing’s broken.”
“You can’t know that,” he rumbled, brushing the hair from my face where I’d lost my bandana in the tussle with the kids.
I snickered a little bit at my memories making all three of them give me a careful look. “Hon, you sure you didn’t get kicked a little higher?”
I laughed a little harder jarring my arm. “Ow, stop making me laugh.” Thor’s surprised look told me he was getting more worried at my response, not less. “No, I didn’t get kicked in the head. I’ve just been kicked before. Dang ol’ mule at the fair. Someone set off a black cat a couple of stalls over from where I was brushing the tail of a horse that was about to be shown in the 4H competition and the nag blamed me for it. I was in a sling all spring.”
“Seriously Thor, I’m fine. Let me up so I can shake this off.”
I stood up with his reluctant assistance and when I got fully upright the man and woman stared. The woman finally said, “Well my, aren’t you to a matched pair. Let’s get you to a site and take care of business so your man can fuss over you in private like he is obviously itching to.”
The older boys had the horses well in hand and Thor and I thanked them. As one rushed off after saying “no problem mister” the other remained there looking shamefaced. “I owe you more, sir. Those two little kids are my brother and sister. I’m real sorry for the trouble they caused you.”
Thor only rumbled but the man said, “Caleb I’ve cut your mom and dad all the slack I can. They’ve been warned to keep your siblings more under control and I know for a fact that those two are supposed to be at the school house … you too for that matter.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Paris. When I noticed they’d run off again I told the teacher and he gave me permission to go find them and haul them back.”
Mr. Paris sighed and shook his head. “I’d like another dozen like you son, and your oldest sister too, but your parents and other siblings …” He stopped, shaking his head. “It’s out of my hands now son.”
The boy was obviously scared but said, “Yes sir, I know.”
I watched him walking away, shoulders bowed under the weight of what I didn’t know, and felt bad for something that wasn’t even my fault. Thor must have noticed and worrying that I could be a soft touch about things like that quickly turned the conversation in a different direction. It was abrupt enough that I have him the eye to tell him I may have been a soft touch but I wasn’t stupid and would have kept my mouth shut. His look in turn told me, “yeah sure.” Our silent exchange was so quick the man and woman guiding us never noticed as we walked our animals and wagon to a secluded site that Mr. Paris had led us to.
“This should do for you. It’s been over two weeks since we’ve had horses on this site so the grass should be ready for cropping again. Hand pump works fine and the water is crystal clear but we still tell everyone to boil their water and to put it through a filter if you have it just to be on the safe side. Early on we had some folks get sick but we think it was from their lack of hygiene and bad food and not the water, but since you never can tell for sure we put the warning up anyway. A fire’s worth of wood comes with the sight. The facilities still work but you’re expected to clean up after yourself and Tess will give you what for if you don’t. Showers are on the other side of that building. You’ll get five gallons of hot water and five gallons of cold water each – both of which have already been through the boiling process. How you use ‘em is up to you but that’s all you get. Dinner’s in an hour and a half and I’d be pleased if you’d sit with our family to make up for the trouble you’ve had.”
I just sort of leaned against the picnic table, listening but not really participating in the book of do’s and don’ts that the Paris couple was throwing at us. When they were finished Thor took care of the payment then insisted on setting up the tent so that he could look at my shoulder while still giving me some privacy.
“It’s already bruising,” he growled.
“It’ll get uglier before it gets better and we both know it. Give me a couple of those Tylenol and tonight before bed I’ll make some cowslip tea; I don’t like to drink it on an empty stomach.”
Thor shook his head, “You and your teas. Some of that stuff you’ve had me drink …” He shuddered comically but it let me know that his temper was back under control. I worried for a while that he was gonna go after the kids and take care of what Mr. Paris threatened to do to them. Thor was OK with little kids but, from bitter experience when he was off doing whatever it was he did as a job, he knew that even young children could be as dangerous as feral dogs and handled them accordingly.
We then took turns taking our showers which did as much for my shoulder as the Tylenol had. Afterwards we had a good laugh at ourselves. When he came back to camp after using the facilities Thor said, “I feel about ten pounds lighter and three shades brighter.”
I chuckled at his tomfoolery and told him, “I’d forgotten what color my hair was under all that gray dust. My feet were so muddy by the time I washed off I had to step out of the shower to finish getting clean.”
We both pulled out some of the last clean clothes that we had and I knew that on our next rest day, if at all possible, I was going to have to do some laundry. I was dreading having to go to bed in dirty linens but there wasn’t any alternative and before that we had dinner to face.
I was tired and sore and my stomach was rubbing on my backbone but we had priorities that came first. “Is it safe to leave everything like this?” I asked worriedly.
“We’ll take the horses and …”
A shuffling in the leaves on the road told us someone was coming. We looked up and saw the boy Caleb. “Um … mister? Mr. Paris said that if you want I can watch things for you while you go grab some food. We never have any trouble around here … the militia makes camp here at night so people leave us alone … but I’ll groom your horses while you’re gone if you want and if they’ll let me.”
Thor gave Caleb a thorough once over. “Boy … Caleb … if we come back and find out any of our gear is gone or has been tampered with …”
“Oh no sir. Mr. Paris would have our heads if we did that. See he’s got a reputation and he aims to keep it so that the business will be here next season. That’s the rules … and you don’t break the rules around here if you want to stay.” The last phrase was said quietly and sadly.
I couldn’t help myself and I could tell Thor was thinking of pinching me when I asked, “Trouble at home?”
The boy looked at me startled. “Don’t have a home no more. We used to live in Atlanta but we had to run from that place. It got bad real quick … the gangs and stuff. My grandmother is the one that got us out of there and when we found this place she helped start up the kitchen. But she had the blood pressure real bad and … and before the militia got everything under control there was an attack from some bad people and … and she died. They let us stay on and my sister Keisha and I like it, my folks not so much because …”
“I can guess. Some people just have problems with rules and stuff like that,” I told him trying to give him a polite out.
He sighed, “Yeah. Anyway, you better go or you’ll miss the salad and Mr. Paris and Aunt Tess are expecting you.”
Thor gave the boy another look to put him on notice and then we started walking, following the directions we’d been given earlier. Thor was saying a whole lot of nothing and to forestall any more nothing I told him, “Yeah, I know. You think I’m a sucker. I wasn’t offering to do anything for the kid I just felt the need to know his story.”
“Fine but take it with a grain of salt until you get corroborating evidence,” he muttered.
“I’m not stupid.”
He sighed and then stopped me and turned me towards him being careful of my shoulder. “I wish you would stop saying that. I don’t think you are stupid at all. Soft hearted, yes. Stupid, no.”
I smiled and stood on tip toe and kissed his cheek. “I know that. It’s just a saying Thor.”
“Yeah well …” Now it was his turn to look uncomfortable. “Just … don’t say it so much then. It bothers me. I don’t want you to start thinking that I think you’re stupid.”
I looked at him and wanted to hold his hand as we walked but I knew that it was safer since I had a bum shoulder for a bit for him to have both hands free in case he needed to pull his gun. “Thor, you make me feel smarter than just about the whole world put together except for my parents who always gave me credit for having sense … and called me on it when I didn’t act like I had any. Don’t take this wrong but aren’t you being just a little … um … sensitive about it? Like I said, it’s just an old saying.”
“Old saying or not I don’t like it. My mom’s dad …” He stopped, still not inclined to talk about that part of his life much.
“Oh. Well then if that’s the case I’ll try and be more careful. But Thor, I don’t think you are anything like the way you’ve described that mean old man. Just because you’re big like him and you might have had the same coloring as him. And just because you might have a hot temper on occasion … that doesn’t mean that you’re like him. You’re mom just had problems that she couldn’t seem to, or didn’t want to bad enough, dig herself out of … stuff she’d had since even before you’re dad and then you came along. We’ve all got baggage we carry around with us, your mom just had better than average reason for it. Now, if you want to talk about a hot temper, I’ve got a couple of cousins that have you beat hands down every day of the week. One of ‘em got so hot so fast that he was literally spitting and foaming at the mouth while he was fighting this guy and when the cops got there they put one of them mouth guard things on him as he was transported to the hospital – he wasn’t through being angry and kept on acting crazy even after the fight was over – and then he was stuck in the hospital while they tested him for rabies.”
Thor just looked at me before asking incredulously, “Is that another one of your tall tales?”
“If I’m lying I’m dying. This was down in Florida and they Baker Acted him – threw him in the state hospital at Chattahoochee for three days until he cooled down. I warned you a while back that I’ve got some crazies running around in my family Thor … but it’s too late for you. I’ve got you now and I’m not letting go,” I told him as I stepped in front of him and got his attention real good.
“Play fair Rochelle,” was all he said mildly but since he said it with a rather goofy male smile I knew that any “danger” was over with. Thor wasn’t often touchy about things – he had amazingly thick skin about things that would have sent me over the falls in a barrel with no life preserver – but every so often I’d run up against something and when I did I wanted to make sure that he knew I was paying attention so that it wouldn’t happen again … or at least not happen any more often than I could help.
It wasn’t all one sided either. It was taking us time, but he was just as apt to smooth my feathers as I was to smooth his. We were learning how to have a real relationship and not just one based on how hot we could make each other; not just one based on adrenaline and necessity either.
We walked into the outdoor dining hall area in good spirits, the smell of grilled meat drawing us as fast as our feet could carry us. My eyes widened and my mouth started watering as soon as I saw the trestle tables of food.
Tess Paris saw us and called us over, “You’ll sit with us won’t you?” At Thor’s nod she said, “Oh good, I’m so glad. And how’s your shoulder?”
An older man nearby said, “Shoulder? Whose shoulder and why are you asking how it is?”
Tess smiled even as she looked at us and rolled her eyes. “Now Doc …”
“Don’t you now Doc me young lady,” which was very funny considering Tess was every bit of a woman pushing sixty which told you just how old Doc himself was. “I heard someone had gotten kicked by a horse.”
The man’s eyebrows were so white and bushy they reminded me of cotton boles but he wore a knit cap on his head because that hair was so thin his shiny scalp showed through. I smiled down at the stooped old man and said, “It’s fine. It was a brush and not a solid kick or more than likely you’d have had to set the shoulder. Thank you for your concern though.”
“Hmmm. A southern belle by your accent and manners … and one raised right or I miss my mark.” He looked at me with piercing eyes that didn’t reflect his age at all. “I would appreciate if you would allow me to look at the shoulder after you’ve finished this excellent meal that Mrs. Paris has prepared for us all.”
Tess blushed and told him, “Oh Doc, you know good and well I only oversee things … that others do the cooking.”
He finally took his eyes from me and smiled at her, making her blush even brighter, “Be that as it may, without your supervision a great many things would not occur around this place. And speaking of which, you must remember not to let yourself get run down again my dear. Several of the younger children are experiencing some kind of respiratory ailment and that is something that you do not need to contract yet again.”
Mr. Paris chose that moment to come up and ask, “Are you flirting with my wife again?” His mock outrage was pretty comical.
Doc could give as good as he got and asked, “And what if I am?”
“Well, I’d say you had good taste that’s what.”
Tess rolled her eyes but only blushed that much harder and said, “Would you two behave. Thor and Rochelle are going to think you’ve lost your minds.”
But Thor and I were smiling so she only shook her head and told us all to sit down so everyone could start eating. After sitting I was rather impressed to find that Doc stood up and offering a prayer before the food was actually served.
Tess said, “We used to do it buffet style but we found some were getting far more than their share. Now the food is served and we’re careful to measure out equal portions for everyone. Tonight’s a good night. Usually we have a soup or stew over a grain or rice. Tonight we are actually having what amounts to a banquet. We had to kill a buffalo that started charging the golf carts for some reason; we couldn’t ignore him anymore and since the freezers and smoke house are already full to bursting we have to eat him up fresh. The migration is slowing down as well as people are trying to hunker in place and get ready for winter so there aren’t as many people here as there’ve been in the past few months. Use to be nearly every site was filled, now we’re lucky to have them half full. We’re an east/west route, most of the remaining migration is heading south.”
Thor asked, “Where do you come by your information?”
“My husband’s nephew is in the local militia and works on the bridge and lake patrol and lets us know what the general trends are.”
I nodded and Thor said, “Actually, I believe he may have been the one to recommend this place as a stopover.”
“He’s a good boy. Just wish we could convince him to settle down a bit. The winter is going to be lonely and hard for him at his parents’ place with them gone now. How is your salad?”
I told her, “Delicious. What’s this dressing?”
“It’s a vinaigrette; an old family recipe. We used to have more variety but …” She shrugged and there wasn’t more to be said. If you couldn’t make it yourself it was pretty much gone, likely never to be seen again for a long time if ever.
After the salad came the steak and vegetables … chucks of seasoned potatoes, green beans and corn on the cob, and some pickled beets which are some of my favorite foods … and it was one of the best things I’d ever put in my mouth even though I’d never tasted buffalo before. “Where did the buffalo come from?”
Mr. Paris answered, “There is a really large herd, or was, at Kentucky Lake and then all those out west though I’ve heard that starving people have taken to just going after those like any other big game. Around here there was a trend to breeding them with cows to make beefalo though it was reduced to a hobby during the droughts. They are mostly animals of the flat plains but we got some that are beginning to show up in the foothills like that one that took a dislike to the golf carts. Stupid thing. I’d have left him to be fruitful and multiply but when you have a large freight train baring down on you, it’s no longer the time to be nice. We can’t afford to lose any of the carts either.”
After the main course there was a bowl of apple cobbler with a dollop of real cream on top. I don’t get full to bursting very often but that night I could have gone to sleep right in my chair and been mighty happy.
Thor and I were about to walk back to our camp – I’d already found out that a dinner pail had been sent out to Caleb so I didn’t have to worry about that – when Doc reminded us that he wanted a word. I sighed at the look on Thor’s face because it told me not to even think about trying to wiggle out of it.
Doc’s place was actually one of the cabins near the parking lot and the small front room doubled as his “office.” After a perfunctory exam he agreed with my assessment though he did caution me to be careful of lifting anything for about a week or two until the muscle had a chance to repair itself. “And you’ll need to pick a different side to sleep on if you want to be able to move in the morning.”
“Yes sir,” I told him while I finished buttoning up. Thor had been there the whole time and I was a little embarrassed. That got a raised bushy eyebrow from Doc but he didn’t comment on it.
“Now,” he said. “The real reason I asked you to come see me.” Thor didn’t stiffen even though I did. Apparently he’d suspected what I hadn’t. “You’re a GWB.”
I jumped to my feet and went to stand by Thor suddenly not knowing what to make of the situation. Thor asked, “And if she is?”
Instead of a direct answer he said, “Never had any children myself. My sisters had enough to populate the state and I didn’t figure they needed my help any. I was rather fond of a couple of my nieces and nephews however and was rather proud when some of them entered the medical profession. One of my nieces was a researcher and her specialty was genetic anomalies. She wrote several papers on the subject, not a few of them on how society in generally tended to fear the different they could see more than the different they couldn’t see and how that affected patient treatment. She had a great deal of sympathy having been born in a cleft pallet.”
He looked me up and down. “We used to have long discussions on the subject and over the years she told me of the pleasures she’d had interviewing several of the GWB children and observing them unnoticed. She was also outspoken in her dislike of the eco-terrorists that continued to persecute your group.”
I asked, “What’s her name? Maybe I remember her.”
“It doesn’t matter now. Three years ago they blew up her office after she spoke to Congress quite eloquently on how some of the laws that were in the pipeline were thinly disguised attempts by certain groups to deny the Constitutional rights of people who were born different.”
My heart fell to my feet. “Oh. Doctor Muriel Jackson was your niece?”
I’d surprised him. “You knew her?”
“I met her a couple of times. My parents really didn’t go in for all of that publicity stuff though so they never wanted me to participate in her studies. They tried to give me as normal a childhood as possible. My … my friend Jonathon and his family knew her quite well though. The Marshalls sponsored some of her work.”
“Ah, that explains it. So my Dear, how are you doing? Really doing? I heard of San Francisco of course.”
Thor and I gave him an edited version of my life since then. If he noticed that there were gaps in our story he didn’t seem to mind. “Well my dear, I would like to offer a warning if I may. I would continue keeping your … condition … quiet. You are certainly no longer built quite as you were before.” He laughed humorously. “None of us are. Circumstances dictate a differently lifestyle, certainly one less sedentary and less full of fatty commercial food products, than was seen in the last couple of generations. That said, you will always stand out and you appear to understand that. Having a gentleman that stands out at least as much at your side will make people less inclined to be suspicious but that doesn’t mean that some won’t be.”
“Be suspicious of what?” Thor asked as if he understood that Doc was finally getting down to it.
“As Tess mentioned, we do get news though some of it is old by the time we get it. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful. There are still active cells of eco-terrorists involved in the Green War. You’ve seen that for yourself obviously. They are not as interconnected as they once were, and they’ve lost any technological advantage they once held, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous; they are deranged and dangerous people. Most of them remain in the west and northeast from what we hear but do not take anything for granted. I would be particularly careful the closer you get to your home. It would have been a known target and there may still be some of those people in the area.”
I turned away from Thor and Doc and looked out the window and off into nothing. Every time I thought I could completely put that part of my life behind me it came roaring back. Thor and Doc talked quietly between themselves while I looked out into the fading light.
Doc got my attention by saying, “I’m sorry to be the barer of such poor news child.”
I shook my head, “It’s not your fault. And honestly, I’d rather know than not. Better to be aware of the possibilities than to completely walk into something blind.”
We took our leave and finally got going back to our campsite.
“You OK Hon?”
“I will be. This doesn’t change your mind does it? About the farm?”
He shook his head, “No. Definitely not. It does mean that we need to make a real effort to use as many of the less travelled roads as possible. It is even more important for us to avoid the cities as well.”
We walked back to camp, thanked Caleb who the quickly scampered off home before full dark came. “Who’s the sucker now?” I asked Thor having seen his sleight of hand and the two silver coins he’d passed the boy.
He ignored my jab and said, “Paris said his family would definitely be evicted by the end of the week. The committee that provides what little governance that goes on around here had already given them three warnings but they met and agreed to offer to let Caleb and his older sister stay if someone would sponsor them. The Paris’s have agreed but only if the kids want it; they won’t force them to stay against their will.”
“Caleb’s old man had done time and his mom … don’t even ask what she used to do for a … er … living. There are eight kids. Caleb and his sister are the only two that act like they are worth something, the rest apparently aren’t worth a plug nickel. Paris tried to reward their initiative but the parents took every little bit the kids brought in for themselves.”
“Then why give him silver?”
“He can use it however he wants, even as a way to buy his ol’ man off if need be though I doubt it will come to that. I met a few of those council men on my side of the table. They aren’t bad but they’ll be as hard as necessary and if the kids want to stay the parents won’t have a whole lot to say about it. The family will be turned over to the militia and they’ll be duck walked as far away as necessary and put on a watch list.”
“Harsh,” I said.
“Necessary,” Thor rebutted.
I fixed myself a cup of cowslip tea for my throbbing shoulder that had begun to dampen the pleasure of the day and then got ready for bed. Thor banked the fire so I’d have something to cook over in the morning and after securing the horses and wagon more time crawled into then tent with me.
“It’s going to be OK, Hon. I won’t let those !@#$%&!@ anywhere near you.”
I gave him a slight smile in the dark, a little drowsy from the tea and good food. “I know. It’s not that, not really.”
“Then what is it?”
I wasn’t sure how to say it. “It seems like I can’t escape the past. Some of it I don’t want to and that’s fine but some of it … some of it I’d just as soon never have to hear about or think about ever again.”
Thor kissed me and said, “I know that feeling. But Hon, think of it like this … your past is what in part at least made you who you are today. Without that past you’d be a completely different person. And we may never have met, never have fallen in love. Would you risk changing that to lose your past?”
I hugged him, “Not when you put it like that, not for all the tea in China. I just wish … wish that my past wouldn’t drag you down with me.”
“You don’t drag me down. I feel lighter than I have in a long time.”
I chuckled, “That’s just the shower you took.”
He snorted, “Hmmm. Funny. But I’m serious. We’ll get through this Ro-chelle. Just like we’ve gotten through everything else. Now let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow is a long day and I have a feeling that it isn’t going to be a pleasant for you and that shoulder.”
Thor insisted on rolling one of our blankets and putting it like a bumper so that I couldn’t easily turn over onto my back in my sleep. I felt silly but at the same time grateful for his attention. As I finally began to relax enough to doze I prayed that we were up for whatever challenges lay ahead of us in the coming days.