“Well Stro?” I asked again when he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
Thor broke the silence my waiting was creating. “Hon, if Strother did what you only suspect he did then he probably thinks you’ll blast him for it. Or maybe he thinks the less you know the better he’s protecting you.”
I snorted. I responded like I was talking to Thor but I was looking dead at Stro. “Well, if that is what he’s thinking he needs to unthink it. One, I don’t need protecting. Two, I don’t want protecting. Three, the only reason I would blast him is for thinking that I wouldn’t give him a chance to explain. Four, if he thinks his reasons are good enough he ought to know I’d want to help. Five …”
Mr. Hefling gave an unwilling chuckle and Lawson looked at his brother and said three of the most irritating words ever spoken. “Told you so.”
Thor hid a smile behind wiping his nose as Stro groaned. I whapped him with one of my gloves. “You are gonna tell me, but I guess it can wait until after we take care of this mess,” I said pointing to the bodies. “And discuss what we learned from Bart.”
Mr. Hefling gave me an approving look and said, “Good girl.” Thor’s hand brushed my hair which was his own silent signal of approval. I wanted to say I’m not letting Stro off the hook but since it would have been obvious I let my raised eyebrow tell the tale.
We took the quickly cooling corpses behind the building and stripped them before putting them in a large dumpster back there. After the last one was dumped in I threw the locking latch to keep animals and the curious out. Clive and Cockrill were better outfitted than the wuss-man or the two spotters than Thor had dealt with. Five dead men meant that each of us salvaged a full complement of gear and ammo.
“Cockrill was a local but these others … I don’t recognize them,” I observed.
Mr. Hefling said, “At first Kemper had a lot of the locals with him but those that were smart got out.” I saw Stro wince and I thought of Janie. “It created some hard feelings and some of the locals
That left Kemper and tried to become part of the community again have moved on rather than deal with their actions. Those locals that remain with Kemper … I got theories.”
Thor said, “We’re listening.”
Mr. Hefling nodded as we started gathering stuff in the supply shop that we’d come for. “I think Kemper keeps ‘em scared and dumb. I’ve overheard some conversations and it seems he has them thinking that all of the free locals have turned against them.”
“You said there were hard feelings,” I told him.
“There are, but Kemper has them thinking … all of his people … that if we see any of them we’d kill ‘em on sight. No parlay, no nothing. That we have it so bad, and that we’re so jealous of what they’ve got with Kemper, that we can’t act reasonable.”
I shrugged, “That is dumb. Seems like a waste of good ammo to me.”
Stro and Lawson gave me a surprised look. I fired at them, “Well … I know what I sound like but it’s true. There’s no gain to it. Now if they were stealing or trying to hurt someone that would be different but anything else is just a waste of time and resources. Being dumb isn’t a crime.”
Stro grumbled, “Even I could argue that one.”
I threw a small spool of wire at him. “Academics isn’t part of this. You’re smarter than a lot of people I’ve met; you’re talents just is with stuff outside the classroom. Too many people get stuck with thinking that the classroom is all there is in this life. The classroom or the office … same thing; lots of people stuffed into a room sitting at a desk doing busy work at least half the time.”
“Mebbe,” he muttered.
“No maybe about it. Mr. Hefling? Seriously, how bad is it between … what did you call ‘em … the free locals and Kemper’s locals?”
“Hard to say Rocky Girl. It ain’t good. Those that left Kemper early on … some run off when they couldn’t face what they did and some stayed and are just making the best of it. The earlier they left Kemper the easier it has been for them to shake off the separation. But by now … don’t know if you could reintegrate many of them. What you got to understand is it was a big deal when everyone realized what was going on. Side were being taken and families were split, marriages broken, young siblings separated. It’ll take a lot of healing to pull this town completely back together. There’s been a lotta pain and there is a lotta resentment for the way things happened. People died because of the way it was handled. And Kemper’s locals … they got more problems than just living Kemper; their homes may not be there to go back to as most if not all of them have been salvaged over pretty roughly and winter is going to make a lot of places uninhabitable as pipes burst and vermin take over.”
That gave me something to think on. I took the food we found on the men – it wasn’t much – and put it together to make a rough stew that I added to the rice I had cooked that morning to bring for Thor and I to eat. The Heflings in turn put in the crackers and pemmican that had been their rations.
“Did pretty good Rocky Girl,” Mr. Hefling said before stuffing another bite into his mouth. The others nodded as they had mouthfuls already.
When the edge of everyone’s hunger had been dulled Thor and Mr. Hefling started talking. I pulled some apples out of the coals that I had baked and it made the men even more comfortable and willing to work together constructively. Men are just build like that. A full belly puts them in a good mood, an empty one leaves them cautious if not downright cranky.
Mr. Hefling, arguably as cautious as Thor, started. “Well the boys told me they let the cat out of the bag.”
Thor nodded and said, “They mentioned something but it doesn’t have to be named again. Either way it doesn’t go any farther.”
Mr. Hefling nodded, “that’s good. Seems like you and I might share some experiences.”
“Seems like,” Thor agreed.
They went back and forth like that and unless you knew what they were talking about you would have been lost and bored. But I knew. Stro and Lawson knew. And we were all excited by the possibilities but doing our best not to let it show by word or expression in case someone was watching or listening. Mr. Hefling palmed a folded paper to Thor during a handshake and I later found out it held frequencies, times, and code words.
We changed subjects from there to talk about the people that were left in the area and I made a few mental notes. We also invited the Heflings, after we had made our way out of town, to come with us to the orchard. It was a job gleaning the last of the apples from the large orchard and I had a feeling this would be the last chance I had. The day had never warmed up and the wind was starting to get an angry bite to it.
After we got there and got to work I said, “Stro …”
He sighed like an old man before telling me the story. “Look Rocky, I just couldn’t let it go. When Lulu was born I promised her I’d take care of her, keep her safe. I didn’t just do it because of Janie. I mean I was right there when Lulu tried to take her first breath. I was the one that took that cord off her throat, cleared that gunk away, blew air into her until the ambulance got there. Me. Like we heard about in Sunday School … God had shown me what one of my purposes in life was to be. It was my job and then made it so I could do it even though I didn’t think I could at the time. Nothing about that has changed. It’s still my job to take care of her. I tried to let Janie go, tried to see her side of it but she … dang it!! Just because it was what was best for Janie didn’t make it best for Lulu!”
Thor was listening too as we all stripped the remaining apples from the tree and put them in the back of the wagon. I put my hand on Stro’s shoulder and said, “Keep goin’ … I’m listening.”
He pulled himself back together and then with utter contempt of the idealistic he said, “I’ve watched Kemper’s group; sometimes with Dad but on my own a lot too trying to get a look at Janie and Lulu. It ain’t right what they do. The ‘soldiers’ of the group get fed first. Next comes the folks that are useful somehow or that are Kemper’s butt kissers. The kids and old folks always get fed last … I’ve seen it Rocky, more than once. And I’ve heard ‘em talking about it afterwards. There’s never enough left when it gets down to the oldest or youngest so they add water to the soup pot. It’s so bad the kids fight amongst themselves, the strongest taking from the weakest and the adults don’t do anything to put a stop to it … they just ignore it; except for the old folks that look scared of some of the kids.” Suddenly he leaned against the trunk of the tree we were under. “I shoulda done it sooner. Oh Rocky … you can see her little bones. She just lays in the bed like she ain’t got the strength to sit up. And … and she barely seems to remember me.”
The horror in his voice was contagious. “The other kids? How do they fit in?”
“They were just stuck in this room with one woman looking after them and another room of kids that still had energy enough to be up and around. Lulu was walking before all this started, now she’s as helpless as when she was first born. I did it. I admit it. I snatched all them kids. But I don’t regret it … their parents weren’t doing the job God gave ‘em.” He cleared his throat. It was hard for him to admit that when it included Janie. “Granny C has already found the other five homes and no one’s talking. A couple of the kids she recognized the families they belonged to and maybe someday they’ll get back with one of their parents if the family gets put back together. Now wouldn’t be a good time for them to try though ‘cause folks are real angry now that they’ve got physical proof of what was only rumor before.” He looked at me and I didn’t know what to say when he spat, “I never thought Janie would let something like this happen. She’s let that guy she’s taken up with destroy a bit of her. The Janie I knew was a momma grizzly … I don’t what she is now but she ain’t fit to have Lulu.”
Mr. Hefling came over, “Son, don’t let that anger eat you up like I did. There’s no profit to it. Be the better man and you ever be afraid to answer Lulu’s questions when she gets old enough to ask ‘em. Count your blessings and pray Janie will come to her sense before it’s too late.”
I looked at Thor who knew what my eyes were asking since he gave a small nod and then told Mr. Hefling, “Fill your packs full of apples.”
“Now see here …”
“Do it for Lulu. And the other little ones too. Granny C will use ‘em to make applesauce with an hopefully they’ll be able to hold that on their stomachs until they’re ready for something more substantial.”
When put to him like that he could agree without it pinching his pride. But I also knew that Granny C – Mr. Hefling’s aunt who raised him and became his de facto mother – would know how to make the best of them for everyone’s sake.
It was with a troubled heart that I drove the wagon back home. “Thor …”
“You’ve done what you can for now. Step back and wait to see how things start to shake out.”
I knew Thor was making sense but he stopped me before I could get a full thought out. “I don’t have a problem doing that. I’m not fool enough to think I can save the world. Remember, I did just finish crossing this country and I saw the same stuff as you did.”
“OK, so I jumped the gun. What’s got you so upset if it isn’t the situation with those kids? I may not have known you as long as your friends but I think in some ways I know you better.”
“Of course you do. And that’s because I let you know me better. And it is in part those kids. But it’s also just all of it. We’ve seen both the good and the bad of how towns can go. I guess … I guess I’m just disappointed in the direction that Damascus took. I expected … more … better I guess you could say out of the people that I grew up around. And I know that sounds really crazy when I’ve seen the backsides of a lot of them with their prejudice – unintended and intended – against me. They had their problems but most of ‘em weren’t bad people … at least as far as I knew or experienced. Damascus wasn’t perfect – especially not for me – but it wasn’t the pits either. What happened? How could everything just fall apart like this?”
Thor nodded, “I’ve seen it before. All it takes is people to stop doing their best, to turn the control of their lives over to someone else, to become dependent to the exclusion of their personal freedoms.”
“The eco-terrorism created the stressor. It made cracks in the façade of people that only appeared strong. Then you add to that the specific events that happened here … the greenies trying to build a base, loss of power and resources, the sickness. All of those things could have become a rallying point for the people but then came the canker from inside.”
“Exactly. A common enemy usually unites people even when they are polar opposites. It may not unite them long, but it can unite them long enough. But people like Kemper … they are the flaw in the stone, the weak link in the chain, the poison that grows from the inside out. Kemper created a kind of civil war here in Damascus. Rather than working together they chose sides … the side that they believed would be better for them and theirs on a personal level rather than seeing how they were better served by pulling together for the whole. They split their manpower and resources … not just physically split it but emotionally and mentally … and spiritually I guess … split it and rather than one side or the other becoming stronger for the split, both sides ultimately became weaker.”
I thought about what he’d said for a few moments. “I guess I must sound pretty young and dumb.”
“No Hon, just too close to the situation because you know these people.”
I sighed and then said, “I thought I did.”
“Don’t let it get you so down. Everyone has hidden or unexpected weaknesses. Look at me, last thing I ever thought I would be was jealous but …” He ended with a shrug.
I looked at him. “You don’t have any reason to be. You know that don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Doesn’t stop me from making a donkey’s behind out of myself on occasion though. You ever been jealous of me?”
I tried to be honest with him and with myself. “There’s been a few women I took a disliking to, not because of the way you acted but because of the way they did. Or your history with that one we don’t need to talk about. Mostly I just keep finding myself surprised that you did pick me over the others. It’s not like things started out easy between us.”
He snorted, “No they didn’t but you hooked me before I was even sure you were a girl and you just try and imagine how that drove me crazy. He had his horse walk closer to the side of the wagon I was driving on and then reached out and took my hand for a moment. “I’m grateful too. Not just for how you feel about me but for having the sense to give this between us a chance when there were days I wanted to run you off. But now that we’re a team, I don’t think there are too many that will be able to stand against us.”
Knowing what was going through his head I said, “You’re thinking we may have trouble with Kemper and his group.”
“Depends on how many strong ‘lieutenants’ he has besides the two we took out today. From the sound of things the group will fall apart on its own over the winter if it is up to Kemper alone. It won’t be easy on anyone but we could let it take a natural course like that. On the other hand, if there is another strong-willed man …”
“…or woman,” I added.
“Or woman,” he agreed. “Another person strong enough to turn the group into something dangerous to their neighbors … then we’ll have to rethink that. And if others don’t have the stomach for it I …”
“… we,” I interjected again making him laugh.
“OK, Ok … if others don’t have the stomach for it we may have to take a hand in that group’s direction. We just need to be careful we don’t get caught in the middle of all of these emotions that people are going through right now. And is it me or is it a lot colder than it should be.”
“You ain’t just whistling Dixie. Let’s park the wagon in the storage barn so that I can use the tunnels to cart them to the house and get them processed. I’m glad we finished nailing up the last of that chicken wire in the barn. It’s not that I don’t trust Barney and Boots but there’s no sense in creating a temptation. The animals can share warmth but we don’t have to worry about them eating each other. And something is tracking us off to the right.”
“Big or small?”
“Small so it isn’t a bear or a cougar.”
He nodded and suddenly he drove his horse onto the edge of the road and I had to pull hard on the reins as a small hound was flushed out into the road. “Aw …”
I tied the wagon off and got down. The poor little thing was shivering and skittish but she wanted some attention so bad she might has well have been talking.
“Easy Hon …”
“It’s a hound Thor.”
“I can see it’s a dog and puppy or not …”
“No Thor … it’s a hound. Looks like she is mostly bloodhound with a little bluetick in there too.”
“And that makes a difference?”
I laughed as the puppy finally decided that I wasn’t going to chase her off came up right under me where I had squatted down and just leaned against me. “Bloodhounds are some of the best family dogs out there that also double as a hunting dog. With that bluetick in her I bet she’d make a great hunter. They aren’t as rambunctious and noisy as beagles are and they get along well with other dogs too. She’ll be hard headed until we get her trained but …” I slowed down realizing Thor hadn’t said anything.
I looked over my shoulder, not sure what to expect, but Thor just sat on the horse smiling and trying not to laugh at me. “Just tell me I don’t have to share the bed with her.”
Relieved I smiled, “Uh uh. She’ll be happier on the rug by the fire or finding her own quiet spot. Come on girl. Let’s get you back to the farm. Bet you’re hungry.”
That caused Thor’s smile to falter, “If she’s what you say she is we’re going to have trouble keeping her fed.”
“No, it should be fine. Bloodhounds don’t do well on commercial kibble, they need real meat and veggies to keep from developing bloat. The thing is I wonder where she came from? There were a couple of hunting clubs around here and I know there were some AKC breeders around, but none in Damascus proper. And she’s mixed … not full bloodhound. Of course she’s so young she was probably conceived after all of this mess started which means that someone’s dogs were out or let out … guess it doesn’t really matter, just surprised the other dog packs haven’t found her and tore her up.”
“It might be worth putting a bit of thought to where she might have come from,” Thor disagreed. “Might be supplies and stuff she could use.”
“Yeah, tick shampoo for one,” I said pulling a big ol’ nasty one off of her ear and another one off her side. Poor thing barely whimpered.
I picked her up and she panicked for just a second before settling down. I put a bushel basket between my feet and then threw the old wagon blanket in it and then put her down in there. It took her a moment to settle but when she did she looked just about as content as a poor tired puppy could look. She got rattled again when I started the wagon moving forward but as soon as she realized I wasn’t going anywhere she settled down again though a little uneasily.
All was well when we got back to the farm and both Thor and I were grateful to finish the outside chores. Then we hauled a couple of bushels of apples to the kitchen and I started dinner. The puppy was at our heels the whole time. If we stopped long enough she’d get right up on us and lean hard.
“Is the dog supposed to be like this?” Thor asked.
“No, not really. But she’s a puppy and she’s been through a lot. She’ll get over it as soon as she starts feeling secure and I’ll start training her tomorrow.”
“She wolfed down that little bit of stew you gave her earlier … you sure she can eat that stuff?”
“Dogs aren’t really designed to eat all of the grain that is in most kibble … they’re carnivores not cattle. Some rice and veggies with the meat is OK so long as it ground up fine. Dogs literally wolf their food down rather than chewing it like humans. I’m going to feed her in small bits until I’m sure she woke hurl. But just to be on the safe side, put your boots up on the night table. She’s still puppy enough that she might need a chew toy for her baby teeth. I’m not real sure. Jimmy Ray will be good to ask though.”
“He’s dog crazy. I bet he might even be able to tell us where sweetie here is mostly likely from. Or at least have a good idea.”
Thor stretched and popped and the dog just watched him. When he sat down in a chair near the stove she sidled over and laid down with her head on his boot. He bent down and scratched her head and then picked her up and put her in his lap and got a royal tongue washing for it. “Well not tomorrow. I’m going to be most of the day changing that panel out.”
“Yeah, and I’ve got to get an good inventory of everything we have on hand and do something with these apples ... here, give her a bit of this one and see if she’ll eat it, just don’t let her get the seeds.”
Thor was laughing his head off so much as he was feeding the dog slices of apple that he dropped it and it rolled under the table. The puppy fetched it and put it right in his hand. “Praise her for turning it back over to you. Might as well start training her if she is that inclined.”
It wasn’t long after dinner that we were all so tired we decided to make an early night of it. “I wonder if she is a voyeur,” Thor mumbled.
“The dog … and what are you going to name her?”
“I don’t know yet. She’s a sweetie … I … that’s her name. Sweetie.”
“Er … you sure? How about Lady.”
“Oh fine. I guess a big tough guy like you might object to running around in the woods calling for Sweetie.”
We both laughed a little, then loved a little … and yes, I caught Lady watching … and then fell asleep as the wind howled. But we were all warm and full and safe. I knew however that not everyone was so blessed as us.