“I shouldn’t have left her,” growled a voice quietly.
“Boy, I’ve heard you sing that song until I’m down right tired of it. Now sit and put some food in that body of yours or when Rocky wakes up she is going to be highly perturbed,” said an older woman in a kind but firm tone.
“Her name is Rochelle … Ro-Chelle. You all treat her like … like I don’t know what. But she isn’t some …”
“Now you listen to me, what we call that child is what she has always been called and she’s never seemed to mind it. In fact you’re the only one that has ever been able to call her Rochelle without receiving what for. It’s a name, that’s all, and one she has done proud. My own sister was called Fred or Junior by everyone, including our father and grandparents. She hated the name our mother gave her … Frederica. She just plum wouldn’t answer to it from the time she was little enough to have an opinion, wanted to get our daddy’s notice so insisted people call her Fred like him, or if he was around people would call her Junior. Wasn’t nothing spiteful to it, just was the way it was. And you know that there is nothing spiteful about calling her Rocky, you’re just upset ‘tis all.”
A rumbly grumbly sound was the only response I remember hearing. Then some more time passed.
“It’s been three days.” This time the voice sounded cracked, lifeless.
“Aye, it has. I can count same as you. And aye, it’s … worrying … but she’s been trying to respond nearly ever’ time you’ve called her. You ain’t let that poor child go more than an hour without trying to wake her up. Look there, even now she hears you and is trying … Sit her up quick boy. I think she is trying to cough that stuff up this time.”
In fact that is exactly what I was trying to do. It took me most of the rest of that day but it must have finally broken free because all I seemed to do was gag on crud that I was coughing up. And thirsty … it seemed like I could have drunk the North Fork dry.
“Rochelle if you ever … ever … scare me like that again …”
I was too tired to do much more than pat his hand but it made Granny C and Miz Louise smile. They stayed about half of the fourth day and then Stro fetched Granny C and Miz Louise went back with Mr. Dink who’d been a shadow in the house as well when he could stand to be inside. Right after they left we had a pretty intense snow storm but it kept everything quiet and company away though there were questions every evening when Mr. Hefling and Thor exchanged messages on the radio. I was finally able to get up and move around but I still felt like a newborn colt … all knobby knees on legs that didn’t want to do what I told them to.
It had been an upper respiratory infection brought on by stress, fatigue, and finally the dunk in the river followed by a night in the cave. It wasn’t exactly unheard of for something like that to happen but I felt somehow weak and embarrassed that it had happened to me.
“I told you I don’t want to hear it,” Thor said when I tried again to say I was sorry for causing a fuss.
“No. I don’t know what I would have done if Ms. Hefling hadn’t wanted to check on you when Stro and I brought that load of wood back here. I hadn’t even set the brake on the wagon when I knew something wasn’t right; Lady was howling fit to bring down the house.”
“Where is she? I remember she was here. You and Granny C kept telling her to stay out of my face. Her nose was cold in my ear.”
“I finally managed to get her to stay in the barn for a little while. First she was throwing a fit when I was trying to get you up to bed, tripping me, tripping over her own ears and feet. Then every time I tried to put her out of the room she would start howling again. I literally had to pick her up and stand outside with her to make her take care of business and she all but took down the door when she was finished and wanted back in. Miz Louise told me I was fighting a losing battle and to just let the pup stay on the bed where she could see you.”
Distracted I asked, “Miz Louise talked?”
He was lying beside me on the bed, stroking my hair. “Uh huh. She still doesn’t talk much but she does talk.”
“Are she and Mr. Dink managing?”
“Uh huh. Strother, Sand, Johnson, and Lawson and a couple of other men that know Mr. Dink came by one day and helped to get some of the most important repairs finished on the Stone House, including opening up the root cellar. I saw it when I took Miz Louise home. Did you know she was a nurse for almost fifty years?”
“No. I kind of remember … something … but …” I stopped because my head still felt sore and tender from the high fever I had run, like I had a sunburn on my scalp that went all the way to my brain. Then something else struck me. “Who all did you say was there to help?!”
“Easy, don’t get yourself worked up. Strother and Sand insisted on taking the road from what Sand called the old Darnall place.”
“My maternal grandparents farm.”
“That’s what I gathered. It was shorter for them to do it plus it kept them off of the main road to the farm here. And before you ask, they didn’t go by the orchards either and Sand said he doesn’t even think anyone thought about the old orchards being anywhere near.”
Still distressed I asked, “What choice do I have? I suppose we couldn’t stay hidden forever, not if people are going to start to branch out and … wait, I remember Stro said they were going to start salvaging in town … Ohhhh, I can’t just lay here like this. We’ve got to …”
“You’re going to lay there just like this,” he said putting an arm across me to keep me from trying to sit up. “Granny C gave me permission … even encouraged me … to tie you down if you try and get up to anything for another week.”
“But Thor …”
He carefully pulled me into his arms. The reason he was careful is because I was so sore the rest of me felt as tender as my head did. “No ‘but Thor’ will get you out of this one. Hon you were sick … sicker than you were last time. Mr. Dink said your lungs were your weak spot. Why didn’t you tell me that?”
I sighed, “Because the last couple of years it hasn’t been so bad … not at all like when I was little. So what if I get sick a couple of times a year, so did every other kid I knew. And I’m not stupid; I know what is good for me and what isn’t. I don’t take unnecessary chances. And when I do start to get sick I know what to do about it. It just got away from me this time. You want me to start telling you that you can’t carry a knife or gun because someone might expect you to fight? That you can’t get into a boat ‘cause you might get seasick again? Don’t ask me to stop working or going with you places because I might catch a cold.”
Completely flabbergasted Thor said, “That is the worst piece of female logic I’ve ever heard. You honestly expect me to …”
“Unless you want to eat burnt cornbread and underdone beans for the rest of your life that is exactly what I expect. You’ll kill me faster trying to cage me than just letting me go and allowing me to use my common sense. As much as people seem to think I longed to be ‘just a normal person’ the fact is I never did, not really. If the only real weakness I’ve got from being a GWB – I mean besides the same human ones as everyone else – is the occasional run in with a chest cold then I’m fine. To me I am normal. Didn’t I come all the way across the country – some of it by myself – without acting like a glass ballerina in an eggshell music box?”
Thor was obviously frustrated. “Well … don’t expect me to just get over this because you say so.” He drug me as physically close as he could without actually smothering both of us. I could tell he wanted to say something else but the words just didn’t seem adequate.
I told him, “I’m not saying that you can’t pamper me on occasion.” Only my voice was all nasally from my nose being pushed into his chest. The sound of it caught us both off guard and for some unaccountable reason we both laughed.
“You’re a mess girl. How can I possibly be laughing at a time like this?”
“Because it is at times like this that laughter is what saves us. And because you … you love me just … just the way I am?”
He murmured “no fair” in my hair and then held me for a moment.
Feeling it was either push the advantage now or have to battle a gilded cage for much longer I said, “How’s this? I promise to not take unnecessary chances and when life happens I promise to address it as soon as possible. You on the other hand promise not to expect me to sit around with my feet parked up on some little poof cushion like I’m too good to work. I’ll eat right, take care of myself, and I’ll go back to making sure I get enough aerobic exercise to strengthen my lungs. OK?”
“Aerobics? Like I get to watch you climb into some skimpy little outfit and bounce around?” he leered.
I pushed back out of his arms. “You’re insatiable. No … well I suppose I could just to give you a charge every once in a while … but basically it just means upping my heart rate for at least twenty minutes per session. It works on lung capacity and heart health. I have a trail that takes about thirty minutes to walk … level at first then it goes very steep ascent for about half a mile and then a more gradual descent. It’s gotten overgrown but I used to hike it once a week … it’s that trail behind the storage barn. During football season I would run it almost every day.”
He shook himself and then kissed the top of my head. Finally he sighed and said, “I know that you don’t like it when … when I treat you …”
I had him help me sit up and as I did I asked, “Like a real live girl? I’ve learned to live with it but too much of a good thing is still too much.” I patted his chest and continued, “Thor let’s just get passed this. I’m not normally a frail or fragile person and … and I really don’t like this at all. I’m trying not to be cranky. I’ll admit I like the attention you’re giving me … but I prefer to get it as an equal and not because you suddenly don’t feel like I can pull my own weight.”
“Now who said that is how I felt? Did I say that?”
I admitted, “No. But that’s what it boils down to.” In the end he gave in but I also did my part by using that common sense I claimed to have. After the snow cleared I stayed home for the rest of the week and played the dutiful and obedient wife for a few days while Thor went off with work crews to salvage in the town.
I say played the part because on the inside I was cutting up a ruckus. I felt so angry at what I felt was the unfairness of it all that I’d get the shakes … but never when Thor was around. My temper could be as oversized as the rest of me but like Dad raised me, my attitude was my responsibility and other folks didn’t deserve to be hurt by it. The issue of submitting to my husband was going to be one that challenged me. I knew that there was a balance to be found between husbands and wives but Thor and I were still new enough at it that I wasn’t exactly submitting because I really wanted to or was comfortable with it, more because I knew it was the right thing to do.
I trusted Thor and respected him which went a long way towards helping me but I was used to being my own boss and there were very few people I’d ever given any say over me. At the top of that short list had been my father. But obeying Dad had been easy based on a life time of habit. Letting Thor have that same position in my life was like learning to trust him all over again in a completely different way. I had to learn that submitting wasn’t bondage but respect. If I could trust that Thor wouldn’t break my trust and would in turn respect me – all of me – then we’d have an easier go of it. For me though, that was a hard place to reach even though I loved Thor with every fiber of my being.
It didn’t help that reality slapped me in the face with the fact that I was in no fit condition to be out and about in the cold for the first few days I was holed up feeling sorry for myself. I was tired and weak and every time I over exerted myself I only got more tired and weaker. Eventually I did stop feeling sorry for myself and pouting that I couldn’t go play with the big boys but it took some effort on my part. I looked around and realized that there were a lot of things I could do here in the house.
I finally and forever put most of my parents’ personal items away after setting some aside to give to Mr. Dink and Miz Louise. I made sachets of cedar chips and dried lavender and put our summer clothes in the trunk at the foot of the bed and hung up our winter togs instead of the inconvenient baskets they had been piled in. When I became dizzy from too much standing I darned socks. It wasn’t my favorite activity in the world but I had learned to do it quickly and neatly when Mom said if I was going to wreck my socks then I was the one that was going to mend them. After one particularly nasty hole in Thor’s sock that I’d already darned twice before I made a note and pinned it to his pillow that he was either to trim his toenails or I would trim his toes.
I went through the house making sure that moths weren’t getting into anything and switched out the pillows on the bed in the master bedroom with the pillows on the bed on my old room. I worked on the inventories, calendars, plans and just about anything else I could get my hands on to keep me busy rather than sulking. My crankiness went away in direct proportion to my strength coming back. I’m not proud of it but Stro was pretty much correct – when I’m sick I’m a little on the other side of cranky, maybe a lot on the other side of it. Which is probably why I was outside kicking at mud clods instead of paying attention to what was going on around me.
I was waiting around for Lady to finish sniffing around in the bushes for the cats when I heard her give an odd call, one I’d never heard her give before but it was cut off with a yelp and then nothing. All I could think was bear. Then a distinctly male voice yowled and said, “Get this hell cat off me!!”
I didn’t recognize the voice and no one with sense would ever sneak up on me. I put my hands in my pockets. In my left was the pistol and in the right was my Bowie. About that time I heard the distinct sound of a shotgun being shucked behind me.
“Slow and steady, hands out where I can see them.”
I left the pistol in my pocket but palmed the Bowie and slid it up my sweater sleeve, out of sight but close at hand.
“Hey you fools, get out here!”
Three men stepped out of the bushes, one of them supported by the other two and bleeding profusely from slices all over his face and ears. One of the supporters looked at me and then did a double take, “Hey! It’s a girl!”
The one behind me said, “If you want to call it that.”
Trying to figure out what they wanted … besides the obvious since the three I was facing had perked right up when they found out I was female … I told the one behind me, “You know me but so far I haven’t got a clue who you are. You think that’s fair?”
“Fair?!” He snarled. “That’s rich. Fair it says. What do you know about fair? You got my boy kicked off the team.”
I was scrambling to remember who would hate me that much. I hadn’t got anyone kicked off a team. Some had been pulled by their parents, some had left of their own accord, the closest that … oh.
“You’re Dallas’ father? Man, that was way back in middle school. And he got his own self kicked off the team. I wasn’t the only one he could have killed with that stunt in the bleachers.”
“Shut up. It was all your fault. He wouldn’t have felt so pushed and out of control if you hadn’t …”
“Hadn’t drawn breath and lived? You’re lucky that my dad persuaded the other parents not to prosecute or Dallas would have gone to juvvie in Abingdon. The sheriff nearly sent him anyway since one of the other kids that got hurt was his son.”
One of the guys in front of me asked, “Larry, what she talking about? I didn’t know you had a boy.”
Since I knew that Dallas had gone to juvvie a couple of years later anyway when he got caught selling his mother’s oxycodone at school I kept my mouth shut. Larry said, “Hold your tongue … it’s none of your business anyway.”
The guy that had been used as a scratching post said, “Don’t shoot her yet. I deserve something for my pain and suffering and I know just what I want.”
I thought to myself no way, not without a fight. On the other hand I knew I wasn’t at full strength so brute force was out, this time I was going to have to use my brain to full advantage. The Bowie was a comforting weight against my wrist.
Larry came up close and then did just about the dumbest thing he could have done. He wanted to make it personal so the shotgun came off of my back and up and away to the right in a one handed grip and he grabbed the back of my neck with his left hand and started to push me. I could tell that Larry was shorter than me and then got a picture of the man that had done his best to take my parents to court except no local lawyer would take his case.
Knowing this was probably my best chance I spun to my left as the Bowie dropped back into my hand. Larry was several inches shorter than I was and it was easier for me to go over his arm than under it. With as much strength as I had I slammed the Bowie into the side of his neck and then kept pulling it across. Instinct had him grabbing at his ruined throat and I caught the shotgun before it hit the ground and rolled just in time to avoid the rifle blasts of two of the other three men.
The shotgun was an old Winchester double barrel and kicked like a mule. I got one of the three remaining men in the gut and practically blew off the lower leg off the one standing beside him as I finished ducking and rolling away before trying to run to the storage barn, the closest structure that could provide another weapon.
I figured that I’d finished three but the fourth guy had been quick and I could feel him on my heels and had I been at full strength I could have outrun him by dodging … but I wasn’t and he was on me, swinging me around. I shoved him hard but still got a meaty fist that hit me in one of the worst places a girl can be hit. It wasn’t as bad as a guy had to suffer when his man parts took a hit but a fist to the chest still brought tears to my eyes.
Then it was on. I was fired up and ready to take it out on somebody and the poor fool in front of me would do … or so I thought. We hadn’t even been fighting a full thirty seconds when a roar split the afternoon and the guy became airborne without a license. He slammed into the side of the storage barn and then literally wet himself when he saw both Thor and I coming at him at the same time. He started to run and then got dog piled but not by Thor and I.
“Hey! Hey!! He’s mine!” I yelled.
“No! He’s mine!” Thor bellowed.
Both of us started pulling guys off. Lawson, Johnson, Sand, Jimmy Ray and Stro on the bottom still punching the guy … and then Coach started yelling, “OK, that’s enough. Let me in there. Stand back!”
“Dat burn it! Get out of my way!!” I yelped when Sand and Johnson pulled me backwards.
Stro was still whaling on the guy and shouting, “You don’t hit girls!”
Thor was looking murderous and then turned to me, “Are you OK?!”
“I’m fine but I wasn’t done,” I growled back in a fair imitation of his own tone.
Then Coach bellowed, “I … said … that’s … enough!”
All of us reacted like we’d been pre-programmed. Even Thor started and looked at the man that had handled two generations of football players at the local highschool. “That’s better. Now who is that one?” Coach asked pointing to the squashed specimen that Stro was still eyeing like a hungry bear at a picnic basket.
Dealing with a stitch in my side I said, “I don’t know. Three of them were strangers to me but the one over there was Dallas Calhoun’s father.”
Lawson remembered Dallas, and not in a good way. “Dallas?! You’ve got to be kidding me, that’s a blast from the past. The Calhoun’s don’t even live around here no more.”
Sand said, “But they did still have family in the area … or had … I heard they’d joined up with Kemper.”
I looked at Thor who was still growling. I told him, “I was doing just fine.”
“Don’t you growl at me. I said I was doing just fine.”
Stro had to be a smart aleck. “Watch out, she’s gonna blow!”
I turned towards him, “I’m gonna blow all right …”
Then Thor grabbed me and just about knocked my socks off with a kiss that stole my breath and then gave it back. When he ended it he still held me. He looked deep into my eyes and asked, “Hon you are such a fire breather. What have I said about playing with your food?”
All I could think of was the rest of the old joke, “But they were crunchy and tasted good with ketchup.” Then I yelped and jerked out of his arms and ran. To their credit my friends were quick to get out of my way.
“What on earth?!” Thor called.
I cried, “Oh no … no, no, no. Jimmy Ray!!”
Thor must have understood because I heard him groan, “Oh Lord, it’s her pup Lady.”
Hearing it was a dog Jimmy Ray ran over and after a few moments, “Easy there. Easy. It’s OK Rocky … geez … you’re crying. Hey guys, she’s crying!”
Thor was already there but Jimmy Ray then stunned us all by saying, “Hey, you don’t need to do that. She’s OK. She was just knocked loopy and was too scared to move. Give her a chance and talk to her real easy.” Suddenly Jimmy Ray froze. I’d only seen him do that once and I looked over to see Boots slinking up on him.
“Boots! Knock it off!” The cat suddenly sat down and started washing himself like he hadn’t been thinking about having Jimmy Ray for dinner. For his part Jimmy Ray jumped up and then did a yip with a funny hop when Barney sauntered out of the bush right beside him.
“Keep them demon cats away from me.”
The other guys were trying not to laugh but they weren’t trying hard. Jimmy Ray had had a run in with the cats when they’d been kittens and he’d never quite recovered from it, somewhat similar to how most dogs felt after a run in with them.
“Jimmy Ray, are you sure Lady is going to be all right?”
Trying to pull himself back together he nodded. “Just keep an eye on her. She’s awful quiet for a hound.”
Thor said, “Oh she’s got a voice all right. A lot like her mistress.”
Lady was limping and trying to climb up in my lap and lick me. I gently picked her up and tucked her inside my jacket and she settled down to sniffing the smells in the inside pockets.
Thor was back to growling as he looked at the man who was begging for his life. He looked at me and said, “Go in the house.”
“I said go in the house and stay there.” He turned to the others. “Go on home.”
Every one of them except Sand got there back up right away.”
I said, “You can’t protect us all from what you are about to do Thor.”
That made the guys blink; like they were only getting every other word of half of a conversation. Sand obviously understood because he looked at his brother and said, “Johnson, why don’t you, Jimmy Ray, and Lawson make sure Coach gets that wagon unloaded then come back here in a bit.”
I told them, “Thor is good at what he does but you might not be ready to accept that he isn’t good because he likes it. So, the less you see and know about it the better.”
Stro caught on and looked at his brother, “Lawson, tell Dad I’ll be home when things are … dealt with.” The look that passed between them caused Lawson to blanch.
Coach said, “I’m not squeamish. Don’t think that me leaving means that. And I don’t blame you. But it’s a good strategy for now. The fewer people that can be witnesses the better.” He banged Thor on the shoulder a couple of times and then said, “I’ll take the boys and go. Strother, you sure you know what you’re getting into?”
“Yes sir.” There was a lot said in those two words.
Coach then said, “Come on boys, there’s still work to be done. Johnson, you’re driving since you’ll be bringing it back here to pick up your brother.”
After they left Thor looked at me and I at him. “I’ll go in the house if you insist on it. But you don’t need to send me to the house. I’ve been there all along remember.”
“You sure?” he asked, already finding that place in himself I knew he would need to go to do the job.
I nodded in answer. “Then go put the dog up so she don’t get scared by all the noise.”
At those words the man on the ground started crying. A part of me was crying too. I had hoped that we could put the worst of it all behind us but it looked like the world was as cruel a place as ever. There were things we needed to know and it looked like the survivor was the unlucky soul who was going to tell us. One way or the other.