It took me three days to catch sight of the refugee group and its size had nearly doubled. They were camped outside the town of Fossil and I found out they’d been there for as long as I had been intentionally tracking them. I made an average of eighteen hard miles per day hiking on those three days and it had given me time to distance myself from the pain and step into the persona I’d created for myself. I was also prepared to spend some of those coins from the money belt to buy my way in but it never an issue so I kept their existence to myself.
I was hiding behind a building that flanked the entrance to Fossil Butte National Monument when I heard a noise behind me. I turned and found myself facing the big guy I’d seen giving orders several days before. He didn’t look any friendlier than he had from a distance, if anything less so, especially now that he had a rifle held casually in my direction.
Something in my eyes must have given me away. “You look too much like you recognize me. How long you been tracking us boy?”
I was too worried to fill triumphant that my disguise was working. I’d promised myself to stick with the truth when I could. “Nearly a week. You passed us on a narrow stretch of the highway. You were complaining about only making fifteen miles a day.”
He looked at me hard and then asked threateningly, “Who’s ‘us’?”
“My best friend and his grandmother,” my voice breaking despite my best effort.
He showed no signs of hearing it. “Where are they now?”
I wasn’t as prepared as I thought. I couldn’t seem to push the answer out. The big guy grabbed my shirt front and actually lifted me off my toes, no small feat of strength. “I asked you a question punk.”
I refused to cry or blink and I did my best not to fight back; this guy could squash me like a bug. “They ran out of medicines they needed. Nana’s pacemaker stopped working the night of the EMP and Jonathon’s asthma just … just … get off me already,” finally snarling and nearly messing up my own plans. When he wouldn’t let go I said, “They’re gone. I don’t … I’m not from around here. I was just looking to hook up until I can get through these mountains. All you had to say was no mister. I’m not looking for trouble.”
He let go suddenly and stepped back, I imagined seeming a little surprised when I didn’t stumble because of it. “Not my call anymore. We ran into some federal monkeys that took over running the circus.”
His accent and phrases sounded like a bit of home out here in the middle of nowhere. “Sounds like a warning. You saying I should just keep going, that there’s nothing for me here?”
He kept staring at me and then said, “Nah. Safety in numbers and they’ve managed to rig a few working vehicles. They’ve got food too … of a sort anyway. Just don’t believe all the promises they’re making. And don’t expect a free ride either. They accept you in, you’ll pull your weight.” The last was said with a smirk while he looked me over.
“Not a problem,” I replied though I wanted to find something that would wipe the look off his face. I bent down, hefted my pack and the rifle I had chosen to carry. Its mate was broken down inside the pack since trying to carry more than one rifle was too awkward.
People stared as he escorted me into camp. Out of the blue I saw a football barreling our way and instincts too over. I caught it one-handed before it could disrupt some ladies who were tending some very young children and then tossed it back to the boys who had been punting it back and forth. “Top of the foot, not the toe. Work on accuracy first then distance.”
We continued walking towards a large tent set apart from all the others. “You play?”
“In high school,” I admitted.
“That ain’t so long ago as you’re making it sound,” he chuffed.
“I am … was … a senior. I’m eighteen.”
“Bull. You may be a big kid but I can barely see the peach fuzz. No way you’re old enough to shave yet.”
Crud. “Believe what you want. The men in my family just aren’t hairy.” At his continued skepticism I blurted, “Look, I got big early so they put me on some medicine that slowed stuff down. Not having whiskers at eighteen doesn’t make me weird.” It was the truth but I was still embarrassed and I felt my ears grow hot.
That got me another hard look. “Boy, I know you’re lying about something but … that’s the truth and I can see it. You keep telling me the truth and there won’t be problems.”
There wasn’t time for him to interrogate me more because we’d reached the check-in station. He was called away and I was left talking to a woman that took herself way too serious. After agreeing that I could join their “refugee caravan” she asked me for some personal data starting with my social security number. I’d been playing slow for her benefit now I decided was a good time to compound it.
“I don’t know what it is. My mom always did all that stuff.”
“What stuff?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Putting the numbers in.”
“Putting the numbers in what?” she asked like I was giving her a hard time on purpose.
“Papers when people asked for the numbers.”
Since this wasn’t the first time I’d talked her in a circle her patience was wearing thin. She pinched the bridge of her nose and said, “Fine. We’ll leave that place blank until we can get back online. Now what’s your proper name?”
She gave me a strange look. “Not your nick name.”
“My nickname is Cajun,” I told her with a goofy grin.
“So you’re Cajun?” she asked, her hand hovering over a section on ethnicity.
My face turned confused. “No.”
“No?” she asked, her turn to be confused.
I shrugged. “Uh uh, people just thought I was ‘cause of my last name.”
She sighed deeply and looked up to the heavens like she was seeking guidance. “Let’s try this again. What was the name you were born with?”
“I done told ya, Rocky Charbonneau.”
She rolled her eyes. “No one names their child Rocky.”
I let my mouth hang open like I was surprised at her opinion. “Sure they do.” Right as she’d opened her mouth to deny it again I said, “Dad liked the movies a lot.”
She ground out, “Fine. What is your middle name?”
“Ain’t got one. Daddy didn’t want his kids to get uppity.”
She had that now-we-are-getting-somewhere-look on her face and leaned in. “So you have siblings?”
“Naw. There’s just me.”
She was about to explode. She carefully closed the laptop she’d been typing on but the way she did it made it as good as a slam. Her chair flew back when she stood up. She looked like she wanted to say something to me but then turned and bellowed, “Thor!”
The big guy who’d brought me in stepped from behind a boulder and she told him, “This … one … is … yours.” She was so near melt down that while there was sound coming from her mouth, her lips and teeth were barely moving.
I tried to keep a straight face while Thor stood there and just looked at me. He finally jerked his head and I followed. As we walked away he asked, “Rocky really your name?”
“It’s what people have called me my whole life,” I said giving him a non-answer and then asking a question of my own. “Is Thor really your name?”
“That’s what they call me. You really as slow as you played at?”
“Me? Slow? I thought it was her. She kept asking the dumbest questions.”
There was a raspy sound coming from him that I took to be a rusty laugh. He looked at me, looked forward, and then suddenly jerked his head to look at me again. He shook his head then asked, “When’s the last time you ate?”
“I’m good.” A hard, swift forearm bent me backwards hard across a piece of rock as high as a kitchen table. “Don’t smart mouth me boy. I asked you a question. I better get a straight and honest answer.”
I looked him straight in the eye giving him the same look I’d given the opposing team players when they tried to use their size to intimidate me. “This morning,” I told him in a bored voice that caught him off guard.
He backed off and let me up. “You want to watch that mouth.” I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know what he was playing at. The worst that could have been said of my answer was that it was incomplete; it wasn’t the sass he was trying to make it out to be. He didn’t have the feeling of being a natural born bully either which only made his actions more of a mystery. I would have ignored it if I could have but it was too soon to say if he was going to turn into a problem for me or not.
He started walking like nothing had happened. “Two meals are planned; one before we break camp and one after we stop for the day. Anything else you provide for yourself but not at the expense of the speed of the group. Water containers get filled from that tank,” he said pointing to a truck under guard, “during first meal. You got a tent?” At my nod he said, “You’ll pitch it beside mine. You want to watch who you associate with. Don’t trust anyone.”
“It’s not my habit,” I told him dryly.
“Good. You’ll stay out of more trouble that way.”
We walked over to a small knot of men all of whom were a couple to several years older than me. Thor introduced me around. None looked too happy to see me. They were obviously a tight group and I was the interloper. Thor pointed to each man as he said their name, “Evans, Barkley, Alfonso, Montgomery, Richard, Chuckri.” Then he pointed back at me, “Charbonneau.”
I said into the silence, “Rocky.”
One of the men raised an eyebrow and asked, “Think we’re too dumb to say your name right?”
I raised my eyebrow right back and told him, “No. It ain’t rocket science. I just hate how it gets shortened to Charb or Bono by some people. Rocky isn’t near as easy to slaughter.”
My attempt at conversation fell flat and the men turned away from me. I shrugged my shoulders; it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had to deal with the good ol’ boys club before. To be honest I think the more distance I keep with these men the more likely my chances are of hiding my sex.
I was in the middle of wondering what to do next when the same boys as before got under foot causing some of the grouchier adults to start swearing. I shook my head and picked one up out of the dust that had just fallen out Thor’s feet and carried him out of the danger zone. “You midgets got a death wish?”
There was a lot of mumbling and then a loud, “We’re bored. No one will play with us.”
I rolled my eyes and looked back at Thor who was now ignoring the whole lot of us but I did notice that some of the adults were still shooting venomous looks at the boys. Obviously they’d been underfoot more than once and in the wrong place too. I sighed, “Come on before someone really gets ticked off at you and does some damage.”
I took them to what was left of an artificially grassy area, now brown and dry from lack of care, and started doing drills with them. A few complained and I told them, “Put up or shut up. You complain that no one will play with you and now that someone is you whine like a buncha babies. You wanna play or you wanna knit baby booties?”
One boy stuck his bottom lip out and walked away but then came back when none of the other boys would join his boycott. After that things ran better and I wore them out until their parents or whoever was acting like it for them called them to the dinner line. I had to get rid of the smile on my face real quick so no one would see it. I didn’t know if guys my age were supposed to like playing with kids.
Everyone else seemed to be grabbing utensils and stuff from their own gear so I pulled the bowl and spork out of mine and followed Thor and the other men to a line that had already formed. The evening meal consisted of a piece of cornbread and what I think was supposed to be thick corn chowder. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t particularly good either. The chunks of potato in the chowder was the best part. When Thor looked over and asked if I’d gotten anything to drink I didn’t risk the “I’m good” response again and instead lifted a nalgene bottle and sloshed it around for him.
The only thing that threatened to ruin the meal for me was this girl that had been in line behind me. She kept sniffing. At first I thought she had a cold then I caught her mumbling to a couple of other girls with her about people who needed to bathe “desperately before we all gag to death.” OK, so I didn’t exactly smell sweet after being on the road and hiking and then playing scrimmages with the boys but as far as I could tell no one was exactly odor free in my general vicinity.
I turned around and stared her down. Then she had to over react and start crying like I verbally threatened her or something. I hunched my shoulders feeling guilty for dishing it out so hard even though I knew I hadn’t been that rough. Thor pulled me over with a look and told me to tone it down. “Buncha whiners in this crowd but they’re whiners with friends. Enough of ‘em get together and you could have one of them problems you were looking to avoid.”
“Don’t want any problems,” I mumbled. “Just wanna be left alone. Barbie dolls like that girl make me wanna be left alone even more.”
“I hear that,” he nodded then whispered me a quiet piece of advice. “But that ‘Barbie doll’ has an old man that is making up to the new people in charge and do I need to say any more?”
“No,” I whispered back. “I’ll stay away from her and her friends. Last thing I want is trouble.”
Thor nodded and then left me to go talk to some guys that I hadn’t been introduced to yet. Suited me fine, I’ve never been real big into socializing off the field. But in a way it tickled my cynical bone to realize how quickly I had fallen into my role of over-sized male Neanderthal and how readily other people believed it … even other girls. I reminded myself that I had to be careful not to let myself start believing it so much I unintentionally slipped up.
After the meal everyone took care of their own gear which I’d already learned to do with as little water as possible. I got an approving nod from the guy called Chuckri. He seemed the most accessible of the group so I asked him, “Thor said that I’d need to pull my weight. I don’t want people saying I’m free loading on your guys. What am I supposed to do to help out?”
He stopped sharpening a knife and looked me over before answering. “Keeping the @#$% kids away was a start. They’ve been driving everybody bug &*(% for days.”
“Fine, but that still doesn’t tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
Another look and he scratched his very stubbly chin. “We did provide security and kept the people moving along. These feds, we ain’t sure what they want from us. They’re holding it pretty close to the vest until we get on the road … which is tomorrow in case no one’s mentioned it.”
I shook my head, “Probably trying to prove who the boss is.” I sighed and looked around. For the first time in days I wasn’t dead dog tired and I knew if I just sat around my brain would start racing and I’d start remembering.
Chuckri’s eyes widened an instant before I was barreled into from behind. I went down to my knees hard and then came back up prepared to fight.
“See, I told you he was big but easy to take down.” A grown man was talking to a couple of the boys I’d been playing with earlier. “Size don’t matter,” he said snidely while glancing Thor’s way. “It’s all in the leadership and who you can get to listen to you.”
This guy wasn’t exactly small himself but he was carrying a lot of his size in a spare tire that didn’t look like it had always been there. He reminded me of an armchair quarterback who used to be the darling of all the cheerleaders but who had gone to seed after school when he didn’t get picked up by any teams.
“Hitting a guy from behind isn’t exactly what you would call a fair play,” I said.
The guy was standing several feet off and hee-hawed as he told the boys, “See? Didn’t I tell you that he’d start whining about …”
The boys saw what was happening before the guy did and jumped back. I barreled into the guy’s gut shoulder first, lifting him off his feet and then laying him out hard on the ground. “You want to watch your bragging friend. You might just find out that you were good at one time, but not no more.”
I waited to see whether he was going to get up but all he did was whimper. I shook my head in disgust and turned to find Thor and several other men looking at me. The one called Montgomery said, “Dang kid, you run like a freaking freight train. What was your position?”
“How many QBs did you chew up?”
I couldn’t help it, a wicked grin snuck out as I said, “A few.”
The men laughed and the whole incident was over with. “Amazing,” I thought. Guys had a totally different way of handling things. I wasn’t too sure that I didn’t prefer it.
With nothing to distract me I went and put my tent up where Thor had told me to earlier. I had thought to just put up the Noah’s Tarp and sleep out completing my manly man persona but I needed a little privacy after the tussle. The stupid pancake band around my bosom was slipping.
It took a long time to get dark. By my watch it was getting past 10 pm before it really qualified for the night time that I was used to. Most people had long since crawled into whatever they were using as shelter and I did my best to turn my brain off long enough to get some rest. Unfortunately it didn’t last long.
“Psst … kid.” I recognized Chuckri’s voice and stuck my head out. “Good, you’re dressed. Someone went to take a leak and thought they heard something or someone off in the bushes. They want us to do a perimeter check.”
Here is where I started earning my keep. I slid out of the tent and into my boots as quick as I could but the other men still beat me and were looking at me in disgust. Thor just asked, “You know how to shoot that thing?” He was referring to the rifle I had in my hands.
“Does a flea-bitten hound scratch?” I asked irritated that he’d made me feel even dumber than the other men had already made me feel.
Then Evans, who hadn’t even acknowledged my existence more than once asked, “But can you kill a man with it?”
I looked at him real hard and said, “If I have to.”
Thor quickly separated us, putting us into two different groups. Evans went with the group led by Thor and he stuck me in Chuckri’s group. As Thor walked away he muttered for my ears alone, “Don’t make me sorry I didn’t run you off when I had the chance.”
As the two groups moved apart I realized it was different terrain but it wasn’t that much different than walking the fence line with my dad when we’d had problems with the occasional poacher. I’d never actually had to shoot anyone but I’d come close and that incident played in my head as slipped quietly around the camp reminding me that people were a whole lot more dangerous than most animals could ever be.
It was a whiff on the wind that alerted me. I tapped Chuckri and mimed smelling the air off in the direction of the road. I hadn’t realized until I’d smelled it that I hadn’t noticed anyone smoking in camp. The smell wasn’t strong but it was out of place which is what caught my attention in the first place. Suddenly three men came out of the darkness liked they’d been flushed out by a hunting dog. I just reacted. I grabbed one and threw him to the ground hard enough that I heard something snap and caught another in the face with the butt of my rifle. One of the other men had done something to incapacitate the third.
I was standing on the neck of the guy I had thrown down just to make sure he stayed down when Chuckri said quietly, “He ain’t going nowhere kid. Move forward about six feet and give us some cover so we can see what we have.”
I was running on adrenaline and the night sounds weren’t helping my nerves any. Chuckri’s voice from behind made me jump. “Listen. Here that? Thor’s coming through so don’t put a hole in him. He wouldn’t like it.”
Chuckri made some kind of chirp and the other group of men filed into the small clearing almost overcrowding it. I continue to do as I’d been told until Chuckri patted me on the shoulder letting me know we were heading back to camp. I brought up the rear as I couldn’t shake the feeling that those three hadn’t been the only things out there.
They were making a mess dragging the three men and I hated the noise of boots being dragged on gravel. I elbowed the man behind me and we switched positions. I stopped and then lifted the guy over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Thor saw what I was doing and he and … I think it was Evans … did the same with the other two.
We walked quietly up to the feds who had their own security force and gave them the men. They were hauled away and then without a by-your-leave we were dismissed to go back to bed.
Chuckri pulled me along. “What’s wrong kid?”
“What are they going to do to those men?”
“Ask ‘em a few questions and if they don’t answer the questions right, dispose of them most likely.”
I stumbled and was glad no one could really see my face in the moonless night.
Evans mumbled, “What did you expect kid?”
All of them expected an answer. Instead of giving them what they wanted I mumbled, “Teach me to ask questions, and remind me to never volunteer again.”
Thor’s baritone floated to me as he was climbing back in his tent. “Too late now kid. Maybe next time you’ll look before you leap.”