Lady’s call was for “friend” but Thor and I looked at each other and went into defensive mode before answering the door at the second set of bangs. Thor jerked the door open and I covered him. Lawson stood there with Stro nearly bending him double trying to hold his brother up.
Thor reached out and pulled both men in and once we had the door bolted they lifted Stro up onto the table and I went to work on him while Thor asked for a report. I could tell Stro wasn’t unconscious but he wasn’t completely with it either.
“Everything was going as planned. Stro and Sand met Johnson and I. Hunting was good,” Lawson wheezed. Hearing that I looked over and then threw Thor a smaller first aid kit and he started cleaning Lawson’s busted nose clogged with drying blood and his swollen mouth. “We each got two good sized bucks; two deeper in the forest that we field dressed and hung in the trees and two that we had at the pick up point. I told Johnson he could have those two and that Stro and I would take the wagon home and then go get the other two since it was closer to our place than theirs.”
Thor asked, “Was it a bear?”
“Been easier if it was. It was some men … I guess about a half dozen to maybe ten of them. I never got a good count.” Lawson looked over at me where I was still working on Stro. “I only recognized one of them. It was Cliff Dunkirk.”
That made me pause briefly and look up before pulling a pre-threaded suture kit from the big bag Mom had always used when a field hand had gotten hurt. Stro moaned and I said, “Be still Stro. Your eyebrow is split worse than that time you face planted on that rock on the Chatooga. I have to stitch it up.”
I got another groan then it was obvious he was trying to brace himself before saying, “Go ahead but make me pretty. I don’t want to scare Tina.”
Lawson seemed to deflate with relief. He tried to stiffen back up and finish telling Thor what had occurred but it was a losing battle as reaction set in.
“They jumped us. We were being real careful just in case there were any bears so it isn’t like we surprised them. They were hiding in the bushes waiting for us. I think … I think it was an ambush. They meant to Rocky. I can’t believe that Cliff …”
Thor looked at me and asked, “Whose Cliff?”
“One of us … or was one of us. You’ve met him once I think. Remember the first time you met Sarah? All the boys coming out of the woods? He was one of them. I haven’t seen much of him but didn’t think too much of it because I was always hearing about him from Johnson or Lawson or one of the other younger guys. The Dunkirk place is even further out than Jimmy Ray’s, closer to Abingdon.” I shook my head trying not to let my anger get the better of me while I was working on Stro. “His dad was a Deacon in our church.”
Lawson added, “He died at the school. Cliff’s mom … she eventually got together with Mr. Llewellyn. But as far as I know Cliff was cool with it. Mr. Lew is a good guy, totally about the family and all that. Mr. Lew’s wife died at the school too. The families had been friends like forever and … you know … Granny said it was all good. Why would Cliff …?”
Thor asked, “And you sure the guy you recognized was definitely this Cliff?”
“Yeah. Absolutely. He’s hard to miss. He’s got this birthmark that looks like a red patch covering his right eye.”
“That’s the guy? The one with the port wine stain on his face?”
I said, “Yeah, that’s him. He is … was … a lot of girls used to think he was a sweetheart.”
Lawson rolled his eyes before muttering, “Oh geez.”
I rolled my eyes at Lawson’s exaggerated words as I snipped the thread on the last stitch as Stro asked – and was refused – some help to sit up. So he laid there and said, “Yeah, it was pretty boy Cliff all right. The one with the gorgeous hair.”
“You guys are such dorks. It wasn’t just his hair that the girls liked.”
With a slightly conspiratorial grin Lawson said, “But you never did Rocky.”
I shrugged, “All of you guys were like brothers. I never thought of any of you all like that. And Cliff was a real puppy most of the time. That’s why Coach had him on third string; he wouldn’t play hard enough because he said he was always afraid of hurting someone.” I looked at Thor and explained, “Don’t let these guys fool you. Cliff could have been good, maybe better than all of us, but he didn’t have the heart for it the way he needed to. He had great hands but he wouldn’t fight hard enough when it really counted. Almost every time he could have won the game, he lost it for us instead.”
Thor and I switched; he helped Stro up off the table and into a chair by the stove and I went to work finishing up Lawson.
Thor nodded, “Finish the story and we’ll worry about why your friend Cliff pulled a Mr. Hyde later.”
Stro said, “It was getting kind of late. I knew by the time we got back home it would be full dark and had turned to say something … I forget what … to Lawson when it felt like a rock had been slammed into me.”
Lawson explained, “Someone had taken a shot but caught his pack. I looked inside and his mess kit is pretty well useless … the heavy duty one that your Dad gave us Rocky.”
I nodded remembering the mess kits Dad had picked up at a Surplus store on one of our adventures. “Are your bruised?” I asked Stro.
“Not too bad. I’ll be sore tomorrow but I’d rather be sore than dead. Mostly it just startled me. Lawson figured out what was happening and pushed me to the ground and then aimed at some bushes where the shot had come from. I don’t think they had much ammo or they lost their heads or something because they wound up rushing us rather than trying to shoot us again.”
“Did you stop shooting?” Thor asked them.
“Heck no,” Stro said outraged. “Lawson got one and I got one before we both got piled on by the rest of them. They were big guys and knew what they were doing. One of them had a club and caught me good and I was out of it but not so much that I didn’t hear when Lawson got his rifle back up and took out two more of them and then the rest run off. I just couldn’t seem to focus and answer when Lawson kept calling me. Nothing wanted to work. I was totally cracked and scrambled.”
Thor wanted to know, “Lawson did any of the others besides Cliff look familiar?”
“No, but it was getting dark up under the trees. But if I had to swear one way or the other I would say no, I’d never seen them before.”
Thor went downstairs with Lawson and put the call out to the others on the radio chain. And they named names in case Cliff or his cohorts tried anything again … or had tried anything in the past that hadn’t been reported.
I asked Stro, “Are you sure it was Cliff?”
“You mean because him and Lawson didn’t always get along?” At my nod Stro said, “It was Cliff. You can’t miss that birthmark. And even if someone tried to frame him by painting their face that way they couldn’t do it all. The hair, the build, the voice … it was definitely him. Jimmy Ray is going to be upset when he finds out, Cliff was courting his cousin and they were talking about a spring wedding.”
“Oh good gravy, that’s all we need.”
Thor and Lawson came back up and asked, “What’s all we need?”
“A feud.” I washed my hands and then got a pot of water boiling to clean the first aid gear and another of cider to make a hot punch. “Apparently Cliff and Jimmy Ray’s cousin were seeing each other. If it does turn out that Cliff has gone to the dark side Jimmy Ray is going to pound him hard and I don’t even want to know what his uncle is going to do.”
I could see Thor trying real hard not to say the wrong thing so I took pity on him. “Mountain feuds don’t have to make sense to occur but this one will to most folks and that will only make it worse. If we can keep people from picking sides based on old loyalties it might just die a natural death but only if Cliff is proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt and receives some kind of punishment. If it turns into a killing feud before real justice gets done it could undo everything the town has been working towards.”
Thor had a few choice words for knuckleheads that I won’t repeat. They were colorful, colloquial, multi-lingual, and more true than not. When he was finished Lawson said, “Dang Dude, that was impressive. I thought Dad could lay it all out but I think you might just have him beat.”
I rolled my eyes once again and tried to remember that Lawson was my age and not still in middle school. Stro wasn’t grinning though and I asked him, “Blurry vision, trouble hearing … anything?”
“My head hurts but that’s about it besides getting angry. You know if it was just the venison they could have had it. I’m not going to begrudge helping someone who is starving though it would have been more polite to have asked. It is the rest of it that is making me mad. Who would take care of my littles if something happened to me? What would happen to Tina? She’s already been through enough, we all have. Dad needs both Lawson and I … so do Granny and Gramps. Who would take our place? I just want to know why those guys did what they did … and then I want to pound them into the ground for it.”
I could see he was shaking a little though he was trying not to show it so I pulled a blanket off the shelf in the mud room where I keep a couple of extra in case we have to strip in there and draped it over Stro’s shoulders. “Take it easy. You’ve lost some blood and you’re a little shocky. I’m not convinced you don’t have a concussion either. Here, sip on this punch … you too Lawson. You need some warm and sweet in your system.”
“What did Dad say?” Stro wanted to know.
“They were just getting worried. Your Dad said he’ll be over at first light but that it isn’t safe to blunder around in the dark in case we have another group of highwaymen in the area.”
Lawson snickered, “Tina said you better mind Rocky or she’ll know why not.”
Stro started to calm down and said, “Yeah yeah. She was worried?”
“Like an old hen,” Lawson confirmed.
I looked daggers at Lawson who suddenly ducked his head and excused himself as needing to go to the necessary. I told Thor, “I’ll go fix the guest room up.”
I was half way up the stairs when I had to stop to catch my breath; Junior had just pole vaulted into my diaphragm. That’s when I heard Stro tell Thor, “Sorry to dump on you like this, specially now.”
“Not a problem.”
“Look, before Lawson or Rocky get back I better tell you something about Cliff. Rocky’s dad swore me to secrecy. See I accidentally overheard … well something I shouldn’t have overheard. When we were kids Cliff went to Rocky’s dad for help because he was too scared to go to his own dad. Cliff … uh … he ain’t exactly the choir boy everybody thinks he is. Lawson will back that part up but I don’t know if Rocky knows about it. Her dad kept her pretty … uh … insulated from some of the stuff us guys would get into. Anyway, Cliff … geez … he … you know … was experimenting with … girls … and … uh … not girls. He decided after a while that he only liked girls after all but one of the older guys that had drawn him into that whole lifestyle thing or whatever you call it was threatening to tell everyone about it if he didn’t do what he was told to do.”
I could sense Stro nod, “Yeah, I guess that’s what you’d call it. Rocky’s dad convinced Cliff to confess to his dad and then the cops got brought into it … you know adult taking advantage of someone that was underage. The guy was like in his forties and Cliff was only like fifteen at the time. Everything was hushed up after that so I don’t know what came of it.”
Thor was quiet for a second before saying matter-of-factly, “It happens. I’m not saying it’s right but it happens. But what has that got to do with now?”
“Look, I’m not sure how to say this. Cliff … could be … off. All the girls really liked him but the few local girls that he got involved with … you hear things if you listen to the right people. There was a girl that Lawson really liked and Cliff stole her.” Thor must have made a face because Stro said, “I know it sounds stupid man but that’s really what happened. One day she and Lawson were fine and the next day it was like the girl didn’t look at anyone but Cliff. But then the girl got messed up and Cliff dropped her like a hot rock. How does a girl go from being fine and happy and normal to being a totally messed up skank in two months and the guy she is supposedly with has nothing to do with it? She told my Mom who was sometimes a counselor at the school that Cliff introduced her to people that got her hooked on drugs.”
“Still not making your point,” Thor rumbled though to me it didn’t sound like he was giving Stro a hard time so much as wanting him to make the connection so he could act on it.
“Cliff was like Teflon man … nothing stuck. Everyone – well the girls – thought he was all sweet and crap like that. But you ask some of the guys and they’ll tell you there was something just off about him. When Cliff dropped out of our Venture Crew Rocky’s dad didn’t ask any of us to try and get him to come back. That was unusual, not the way it normally was. I’m not saying Cliff was a bad guy for sure but I can tell you he hung out with some people that were bad … not locals but friends of his cousins that lived over in Abingdon. The other thing is he used to make fun about church and some people behind their backs, people that might not be able to defend themselves very well. He was careful who he did this with … Rocky would have nailed him if she’d heard some of the things he said … so even today I bet there are people who wouldn’t believe me. Just …”
“Just what?” Thor asked quietly.
I heard Stro sigh. “I can’t prove nothing man but when dealing with Cliff, be careful. Lawson may have been surprised that he recognized Cliff but the more I think about it the more I’m surprised that he hasn’t gotten involved in something like this before considering some of the people he used to hang with. And another thing … when Rocky wasn’t around … Cliff used to say things about her too. Nothing any of us could beat him up over … but questions and stuff that didn’t seem too bad when he said them but add them all up together and looking back they seemed kind of … uh … this sounds stupid … but they seemed kind of … sly.”
Sly was not a word I could ever remember Stro using before so it made an even bigger impression because of it. Thor didn’t say anything so I continued up the stairs doing some hard thinking. My parents … and apparently even Stro and the guys … had always seemed to be under the impression that just because I didn’t react to something I must not have heard it. That wasn’t true at all. Some of the stuff about Cliff was news to me, but some wasn’t.
I remember the day … and the reason … that Cliff dropped out of the Crew. We were on a camping trip with a couple of other Crews at Stone Mountain in Georgia. Some of the boys in the other Crews tried to be cute and act all freaked out by me which only made them look like idiots. I wouldn’t rise to their bait so they just kept escalating. I could see that my friends were starting to get antsy … not reacting was starting to ping their pride buttons. Geez, even then I knew all about testosterone poisoning being a problem in the male population. I went and told Dad and said flat out that if he couldn’t get the other crew leaders to call their boys (and a few of their girls) off that I’d wind up having to do something just so my friends didn’t do something stupid and get in trouble.
Dad was off talking to the other crew leaders but by then it was too late. The idiots went too far and touched me in ways and places that weren’t appropriate. I flung the one that had touched me into a knot of his friends that had been standing around laughing and when two of them rushed me … like I said they were idiots … I slugged one and had the other hung upside down by his ankles by the time the leaders got there. But I had noted who in our crew was laughing at my predicament and who wasn’t. Over the next week I confronted them one at a time in private; thanked the ones that needed thanking and put straight the rest of them. Cliff was one of those guys that needed straightening.
The problem was that I unintentionally caught Cliff in a private moment of his own so to speak. A certain type of magazine fell out of the math book he’d been using to hide everything with. A casual observer wouldn’t have noticed anything but a pretty boy studying hard in a clearing near the park. The whole situation had embarrassed us both. He said some pretty nasty things to me like I’d been following him around, spying, yada, yada; that I was infatuated with him and some really stupidly untrue things like that. He tried to hit me but missed when I let a laugh escape at the very idea and I defensively and without thought hit him back … and didn’t miss, sending him sprawling in a very undignified fashion. He ran off after that cursing and swearing in words I wasn’t sure I knew what their definitions were at the time.
I knew I was in hot water and out of my depth on top of it so went home and told Dad everything. Dad was pretty calm all things considered and then told me he would have a talk with Cliff’s father but that I was to keep the incident to myself, that Cliff had some personal issues that he was working through. I gathered from that that Cliff’s problems hadn’t started with me and they weren’t my fault and at that time and place that is all I wanted to know or cared about. The whole incident was disturbing enough … especially as there was no way I was going to tell Dad what had been on the cover of that particular bit of literature Cliff had been so enthralled with.
When Cliff didn’t come back to the Crew I asked Dad only once if it was my fault and he said, “No. But I want you to give that boy some space from here on out. His problems aren’t your fault and they aren’t your business either. His parents have him in counseling and it is a private family matter for them. If you want to do something then pray for him and them. We hate the sin, not the sinner. Cliff is being given the opportunity to heal from some … situations he found himself in. He’s got a package of trouble to work through. You don’t want me catching you gossiping about this, ya hear?” I smiled, remembering how Dad really cared about things despite having been handed his own package of trouble in the form of me.
Stro made his way up the stairs on his own two feet but he was slow enough that I wondered if he’d be coming down them that way in the morning. Thor and I were both exhausted by the time we got our guests bedded down for the night. It was really strange having guests overnight and I had a hard time settling.
“Come here,” Thor murmured in the dark.
“Not with people in the house Thor!” I gasped, shocked.
A wicked chuckle was my response before he said, “That’s not what I was thinking about.”
I tried to find him with my elbow in the dark but he was too used to my moves and instead gathered me up close to him and said, “Relax. You’re shoulders are as stiff as that scarecrow’s out in the garden.”
At his gentle message I did try and relax and succeeded somewhat but I wasn’t ready to let it go. “Stro is right … about Cliff I mean.”
I sighed, “Yeah. Why everything thinks that I walked around with cotton in my ears I don’t know. All the things I know about people in this town … it would curl your beard.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“Look. I heard in some movie that ‘peoples is peoples’ and that’s true. Everybody is human. If I held that against folks I’d have no friends. Everyone makes mistakes and bad choices at some point. Some of the mistakes and bad choices are really dillies but my grandmothers and Mom always tried to teach me to use discernment rather than self-righteous judgment and because God had forgiven me I was required … not encouraged but required … to give the same thing to other people. Cliff … yeah, he made some dillies and I’m not sure he was ever really sorry for some of them … but they always seemed more self destructive than that he was out to hurt other people on purpose.”
“But if that has changed … that he is now hurting other people rather than himself … then the way he gets handled has to change too.”
“Do you feel sorry for him?” Thor wanted to know.
“Cliff? Uhhhhh, I’m not sure. Do you feel sorry for someone that reaps the results of the choices they make? Part of me does I guess but part of me … I don’t know. I just don’t want this to turn into something it doesn’t need to be. It should be cut and dry … Cliff and those other guys tried to kill or at the very least do serious bodily harm to Lawson and Stro therefore they should be punished for it. I don’t want Cliff …” I wasn’t sure how to finish.
“You don’t want Cliff …?”
I turned over and tried to see him in the dark. “Be careful with Cliff. He’s an excuse maker. The few times he has gotten caught the situation always winds up being someone else’s fault. That older guy … and yes I did know about that sort of … that wasn’t Cliff’s fault but the fact that he kept … er … experimenting with that kind of stuff as he got older, that was his personal choice and responsibility. The girls being all over him? That wasn’t his fault but their choice. But how he treated them and the things and people he introduced them to? That was his choice and responsibility. When things went badly there was enough blame to be shared by all parties involved but Cliff didn’t seem to see it that way.”
“Or he didn’t want anyone to see it that way.”
Thor explained, “See if this jives with what you know. Cliff was a victim when he was young enough not to know how to deal with it or escape from it. But at some point after that Cliff chose to victimize himself as well as to become a victimizer of others because it empowered him.” I nodded. “It is a bad cycle to get into Hon. I heard the same excuses in my family from my Mom even though she knew what my grandfather was doing was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t disciplining me he was … he was abusing me. My mom used to say that was the way he’d grown up so that was all he knew.”
“That is bull poop.”
I could feel a slow smile against my hair. “Yes, it is. But as a kid I didn’t know what to think. Cliff … the abuse may have been different but he does know the difference between right and wrong and if he is now involved in something that is making victims of other people … and he is willingly involved in it regardless of the justification … then Cliff has a very serious problem and unfortunately I’m the man that has to come up with the cure.”
“You don’t have to,” I told him.
“For my own self respect I do. When I agreed to take a lead role in the security of not just our home but this area I knew exactly what I was getting into. I’ve spent all of my adult life at this sort of thing. Turning my back at this point would be hypocritical.”
I don’t know why God creates some people the way they do but I’m glad He does.