I was still coughing the next morning but mostly knocking the stuff loose and able to spit it out. It was disgusting but much better than the alternative. I wasn’t hungry but since I didn’t have any real fever to speak of Thor insisted that I at least eat a scrambled egg and a piece of toasted bread.
I was dozing in the chair by the stove when Lady let out a sound that was half way between a bark and a bay. Thor had been cleaning our guns at the kitchen table and we both jumped about three feet. He pushed me back into the chair as he flew up to check on what had set her off. He was peeking out a window on the front of the house when he started laughing. He opened the door and stepped out but I still heard him holler, “Need some help?”
I was still trying to slide my shoes and jacket on to see what was happening when he came back inside followed by Stro whose hair was standing up in every direction. Thor was still chuckling as he picked me up and sat me back in the chair. They’d brought cold air in with them and though I was dressed I started dragging the heavy quilt back over me.
I tried to respond to Thor’s, “You up for company?” but the cold air finally hit my lungs and I started coughing again.
“Wow, she does sound bad,” Stro said in surprise.
The look I gave them both would have peeled paint if they’d been the sides of buildings. “Knock it off. What’s wrong to bring you out here?”
“Nothing that won’t keep if you’re really sick,” he said looking at Thor for some help.
“I swun I’m gonna throw a table at you two. I’m not made out of spun sugar. I won’t melt. And for your information my brain isn’t made of mush. I may not be up for another repeat of the last couple of days but …”
Thor and Stro raised their hands in mock surrender, “All right, all right. Man Rocky, don’t get your tights in a twist.”
“Sorry,” I grumped. “I just don’t like being sick.”
“Ha! Like I’m supposed to be surprised by that.” He turned to Thor. “If she ever really gets sick you better have some flame retardant long johns because she’ll toast your tail for sure.”
Thor smiled and said, “Found that out already. Want some coffee?”
“Are you serious? I’d like to take that cup back for Dad instead if it won’t put you out, but I wouldn’t just go around talking about coffee casual like. I’m as fond of it as the next person but there’s a couple around the area that swears they would kill for a cup and knowing ‘em I’m not too sure they’re just joking about it.”
While Thor poured him a cup, Stro got introduced to Lady. She agreed he wasn’t a danger but she never completely warmed up to him either, preferring to watch him from under the chair I was sitting in. Like most southern conversations hello’s and how-de-do’s were exchanged before the main topic was gotten around to. “Dad is pretty anxious to hear how you made it. He and Coach were really relieved to find out that it had been the weather and not the fire that delayed you. Granny C is gonna want to know what you’re doing for that cough too so you might as well write it down for me.”
I rolled my eyes but reached into the junk drawer and pulled out a notepad and pencil. Thor asked, “Were we the only ones that had a hard time getting home?”
“No, but you were the only ones that didn’t make it to a house. I’ve gotten stuck out in an ice storm before, it’s a wonder you didn’t freeze.”
I coughed before saying, “Fit in one of those alcoves for protection. It did for us well enough.”
Thor’s face remained innocently placid but he came over in the guise of putting the coffee pot back on the warming tray and patted my shoulder approvingly. He asked, “Had any more trouble from any of those in Kemper’s camp?”
“Uh uh. Fire run most of ‘em in the opposite direction from what we can tell. Did have a few locals try to return to the fold so to speak but their family is deciding what to do with ‘em, none of our business unless they start trouble with us.”
To change the subject I asked him, “What were you laughing at anyway?” And then looking at Stro I asked, “What did you need help with? And how did you get mud all the way up in your hair?”
Stro rolled his eyes and Thor chuckled again. Stro snorted then said, “If you think this is bad you should see my coveralls and hat that I left in the vestibule.” But then Stro added his chuckle to Thor’s. “But then again trying to run three hogs through the muddy forest on lead ropes doesn’t exactly make for easy traveling.”
“Hogs?!” I yelped and then had to cough again.
At my point Thor handed me my cup of mint and honey tea – I’d coughed so much my throat had gotten irritated – and I drank a few more sips as Stro explained, “We think the fire drove ‘em down from the ridge. We woke up with ‘em banging around in one of the sheds and making enough noise to wake the dead. Knocked one of Dad’s ratchet sets all over the floor, whole set of wrenches came off the wall too. And they knocked over a trashcan we had the dog’s extra kibble in and they were going to town. I don’t know who was angrier, Dad or the dogs. Granny C had a good laugh at it and then started shoutin’ orders. We’ve got most of ‘em quarantined from the rest of ours but Granny said to bring those three to you since I was coming this way. She said if you don’t have the feed you can rake together some acorns and stuff like that and it’ll get ‘em through the winter until you can on fodder and garden scraps in the spring.”
I nodded then had a thought, “I’m sure we appreciate it but there has to be folks worse off than we are, though we’d be grateful if you didn’t say anything to the others.”
“Nah, don’t sweat it. The folks with sense know your family has always took care of themselves and made do. My family is the same and there’s several more that are the same … us, Coach’s family, the Lindenhalls, Sand’s people, a few others like that. Then there are the folks like Jimmy Ray’s family that mostly have it together but are gonna have to get used to not having all the modern stuff to help ‘em through.”
Thor asked something that I’d been meaning to ask since we’d gotten back but almost been afraid to. “How many people are left in this area, just the ones that we’ve seen?”
“Lord no. Dad figures there’s as many as five hundred people between here and Taylor’s Valley … maybe more … it’s just that they’re all spread out. Ask Rocky, there’s families that go up into the mountains and only come down a couple of times a year to restock. Kemper’s group was the most organized … or well that’s not exactly what I mean; more like that was the biggest number all concentrated together. Some of us have talked about what this winter is going to do to folks. And Rocky, you may not agree with what was decided but you haven’t been here and while me and the guys will listen to you it may take a while for the others to.” He glanced briefly at Thor.
I said, “In other words that just like before, they’d be more likely to listen to Thor than that strange Charbonneau girl.”
“Aw Rocky …”
I shook my head. “It’s all right Stro. I’ve explained to Thor how things were. To be honest … I didn’t expect it but I know I should have.”
Stro had the look of a person that wanted to deny the truth but couldn’t. “Not everyone is like that and … to be honest Sand has said that people would be stupid to keep acting like that, especially with Thor here around. Your dad was a good man Rocky but he didn’t like fighting so avoided it by keeping you home as much as he could. They fought in different ways than out in the open. When you wanted to do something he or your ma would head it up to give you a chance, to make it safe for you. All except for football, that’s the one thing you did on your own. And in the end you know how that turned out.”
“Yeah, a lot of good things happened and I made some great friends.” Stro smiled a little and we bumped fists. “But Stro, I never pretended to be anything other than a girl. I never figured I’d go to college on a football scholarship or play in the pros like some of you guys dreamed of. It hurt to get sidelined but it didn’t kill me. I always knew my life would change.”
He mumbled, “Don’t reckon any of us figured that our lives would change this much though.”
“No. That’s a certainty,” I agreed. “So what was this decision you were talking about?”
“What it boils down to is the resources are going to the folks that are most likely to use ‘em best and hold ‘em longest.”
Thor asked, “Survival of the fittest?”
“Yes … and no. It’s just ... look, it sounds bad but like I said, we’ve been over this and over this and if you’ll let me explain I think you’ll understand.” At our cautious nods he started. “You already know about the riots and how many people we lost and the sickness. Resources got used up. Everyone kept wanting to believe that someone would show up and make things right. Even Dad had a hard time believing what was happening at first. Mom … Mom absolutely refused to accept that FEMA or the National Guard or the military weren’t going to come riding in like the cavalry. Believe it or not there are still people like that; the ones that check the tv and the light switches every morning. There aren’t many of them left but there are still some. Thankfully most of them have either left or … or gone on.”
Thor said, “You mean died.”
“Yeah, pretty much. Those of us that are left … like I said, you got some good ones and then, some variety of others. We don’t know yet how Kemper’s death is going to affect things. But the bottom line is there is only so much … stuff left to go around until we can plant again in the spring and after that it is probably only going to get worse for a while. Those of us strong enough will last through the winter. For some though it isn’t going to matter how much stuff they have, they aren’t going to make it. We … all of us … are trying to keep the strong strong so that come spring we’ll still be strong and can plant the bigger fields, help the weaker families that are just holding on. Most of us that qualify as strong have been fighting from the beginning to survive. There is … I don’t know exactly, but Granny said that folks are entitled to keep what they’ve worked for and earned and that charity should be willing and not at the cost of the whole kit and caboodle as she put it.”
Thor seemed to understand more than I did. “You’re talking about triage. The ones that can be helped best are helped first and the more help it is going to take the further towards the end of the line for resources.”
Stro shrugged, “Yeah, Dad might have called it that.” He looked at me and saw the face I was making. “Rocky, please understand. None of us like it either … well, most of us don’t like it. We’re saving what we can so that come spring we can help out those that have been able to pull through.”
“You could help everyone a little and …”
“No. That’s the thing Rocky, we can’t. We just can’t help everyone. We tried, it didn’t work. We planned it out on paper six ways from Sunday. Those of us that were breaking our backs to make a go of it this summer couldn’t keep helping those that weren’t helping themselves and be able to keep our own fed at the same time. We encouraged families to move in together and try and cut some of the work load but you know how that goes. It’s never a good idea unless it’s their idea first.”
I was trying not to be judgmental but all I could say was, “You’re right, I wasn’t here, I wasn’t walking in your shoes. Just don’t ask me to stand by and watch some little kid or older folks starve because they can’t take care of themselves.”
“And we didn’t either … when they’d let us help. But I’ll be honest, there ain’t that many like that left. They were the weakest and they were the first to go. Specially if they were on medications. Someone in a family would die and then before you knew it the kids had been taken in or someone had fetched the elderly and moved ‘em in. It’s mostly worked out. There’s be some abuse … kids used as free labor … but it don’t last long once the word gets out. But in the end, we’ve all just been stretched so thin we had to make the hard choices.”
I asked, a little angrily, “Then why bring those hogs to us?!”
“Because nobody is a fool. First off you and Thor … man, I don’t think you know what the two of you look like together. Next, you didn’t come in here trying to take over or bringing an army with you are anything. And you … you ain’t tried to take revenge on anyone for the way you got treated. Lotta people were actually scared when they heard you were back in town … ‘cause even you ain’t bothered to remember how some treated you others have. Our bunch, we know what you can do and we want you on our team and it looks like we get two for the price of one with the Thor here.”
Thor asked, “Did your father send you here to persuade us?”
“No but Sand suggested I explain things so that you two didn’t feel you were being used or that we expected you to join in on a plan you didn’t have a hand in making. Just think on it. I’m not the brightest crayon in the box so I might have not gotten it out right. Make a list of questions and ask Sand or Coach, they know how to answer without creating more questions. None of us is trying to tell you what to do or how to run your own business. We just … look, things are bad enough … we don’t want hard feelings between anybody. It’s just been awful difficult trying to get organized and we’re playing catch up. We want to try and organize some salvaging parties to go through the town. The people who participate share in what is gathered up, those that don’t help … don’t get.”
Thor asked one last question, “Of those five hundred you mentioned, any of them really a threat to Rochelle?”
“Honestly? If things were different I could name a few but things being what they are they don’t have time to do much more than survive from day to day. I’d be more worried about a general jealousy for what you have here than anything specific to do with Rocky.”
As they talked about people that I knew I just couldn’t seem to drum up any real interest in it. The whole triage thing had thrown me for a loop and it gave me unpleasant things to think about. I’d also coughed a lot during the night and as a result hadn’t slept well. The tea and the warmth from the fire had me drifting. The quilt must have slipped because the next thing I really remember is Thor pulling it up and saying, “Hey … Stro’s going with me to haul some wood.”
I croaked, “That’s my job.”
“Your job is to get rid of this cough. You want me to light the fire upstairs?”
“No, waste of wood.”
He nodded, “We’ll be gone most of the rest of the day. We’ll take a load to Mr. Dink, a wagonload to his place, and then we’ll bring back a load for us.”
“Good. That way we don’t owe for them hogs,” I said relieved.
“Thought so myself. Don’t try and fix dinner …”
“Don’t mother hen me. I’m just tired, not fragile.”
He cocked his eyebrow and said, “You want me to tie you to that bed woman?”
“Promises, promises,” I said on a tired laugh.
We both heard a muttered, “Geez” from Stro so we laid off the mushy stuff. When Stro went outside to put his coveralls back on Thor got real serious. “Anyone besides Strother know how to get to the farm? What about his dad or Lawson?”
Trying to focus I said, “Lawson’s been here but never on foot and never by himself. Mr. Hefling has been here but not on foot and … I … I don’t think since the forestry service shifted that road. Coach is married to some kind of shirt tail cousin to Mom so he’s been to that side where the orchard is but it’s probably been years. Sand, Johnson, and Sarah of course but …” My head was really starting to hurt.
“What I’m asking is should I worry about someone just showing up while I’m gone.”
“Huh? No … I doubt it. Stro probably had to start before daylight to walk all this way even taking the short cuts. I don’t think any of the others would bother … well maybe Sand but he’s likely got his hands full with Sarah.”
Stro had walked back to the kitchen and snorted a laugh before saying, “That there is a mouthful if there ever was one. Whoooeeee didn’t she lay into us all when she found out what we’d gone planning to do. She’ll keep Sand and Johnson close for a while if she has her way … and she normally does. Hey Rocky … uh Thor she don’t look too good.” He added that worriedly.
“Then I look about like I feel right now. It’s the tea. I need to sleep. Go. I’ll be fine. Lock the door. Take that jar of stew to the Honeymooners. But put a pan of water for Lady before …” I was already curled up in the chair and just wanted to sleep off the sick.
The last thing I vaguely remember is Thor tucking the quilt around me and banking the fire in the stove. Then there was a long quiet time. After that Lady started howling but I couldn’t seem to care too much then came some muffled voices and I was being picked up and carried and then laid someplace soft.