I was right, getting Stro downstairs the morning after his beat down was not easy. Legitimately he probably should have stayed in bed but that would have been like trying to convince me to stay in bed under similar circumstances so I didn’t bother wasting my breath. We were all getting nerved up with adrenaline, so much so that for me I was nauseous for the first time in months. My back ached as well which had been happening more and more often for the past month. Between that and the nausea I wasn’t the least bit hungry despite the hard work of the day before.
My lack of appetite however didn’t change the fact that I had to get breakfast on for the guys but I made it easy on myself by making pancakes. I also fried some apples I asked Thor to bring in from the wagon on his way to do some of the morning chores as well as a little smoked venison breakfast sausage leftover from a nuisance we’d cleared from the corn field. For morning “coffee” Thor had to forgo his normal pot of the real stuff but I made chicory and rye coffee as a replacement using some wild forage that I had harvested over the last few weeks. He’d already cut back to one or two cups a day so it wasn’t too much of a trial for him but I hated that he had to do it at all; we just didn’t want to show our hand as far as all of our provisions went. Coffee could have probably brought gold into our coffers but we didn’t need it since we already had a little bit plus a good bit of junk silver. I never did spend everything that was in the money belts that had belonged to Jonathon’s grandmother.
Mr. Hefling had not been able to wait until full light because it was still dim and foggy when Thor found him at our gate just about ready to bust in and check on his boys. Tina was with him which was something I hadn’t expected though I don’t know why not. She’d already seen a lot being on her ER rotation for her medical certification but still, I had trouble balancing who she was now with the girl I had known her to be when we were in school together.
After they’d gotten there and Tina and Stro had their reunion and Mr. Hefling had assured himself that his sons were still in one piece the guys sat around chewing on how they were going to address this latest threat to our community’s safety. I just kept filling plates until they were full and then I sent them into Dad’s study … no, Thor’s study … so that I could clean up without them under foot and in the way. Tina helped.
I looked at her and asked, “Wow what?”
“I don’t know. This … this just isn’t how I ever saw you. I figured you’d be in the middle of all that.” All that was her way of referring to the heated discussion the men were having.
“I do what has to be done regardless of where and what that is,” I told her.
She tilted her head and said, “Yeah. But you have to admit that cooking breakfast and cleaning the kitchen doesn’t exactly fit people’s perception of you.”
“Which just shows you people aren’t near as smart as they think they are.”
She made a face. “I didn’t mean to … geez … Stro said basically the same thing and I guess I wasn’t listening. Look, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“You didn’t,” I said with a shrug. “I’m me. I’m different from everyone else. I got over that a long time ago; it’s everyone else that has the problem, not me.”
“Which I guess is why you didn’t tell anyone you’re pregnant,” she said with unexpected perception.
Admitting that I said, “One of the reasons and because of the other reasons I’d appreciate you not saying anything to anyone either.”
She gave me a penetrating look. “It’s still hard to tell you’re really pregnant. Are you sure that you are as far along as you think you are?”
I chuckled, “If you felt how much squirming Junior was doing you wouldn’t ask. He feels big …” I stopped at the look on her face. “… Or at least bigger than a figment of my imagination.”
She made a face. “I’m doing it again. Sorry. Stro keeps trying to tell me that no one knows you as well as they think they do.” I shrugged but her next words really threw me. “I was jealous of you you know.”
I had to cough because I’d swallowed my spit down the wrong pipe. “What?!”
“I was,” she shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong because I’m not now but I used to be … even before Janie came into the picture.”
“If you would have said something I could have set you straight. Stro is my friend and that is all he has ever been … or ever will be.”
She gave a sad chuckle. “Yeah. I get that now. But let’s be honest, I didn’t exactly have any right to be jealous after … well, after what happened. It was harder for me to get over being jealous of you than of Janie though.”
The phrase does-not-computer flitted through my head. “You’re crazy.”
“I’m serious. I could understand Strother’s attraction to Janie, he has this … complex. He was always pulling someone’s bacon out of the fire and he is a lot softer touch than people think he is. But you, I never understood it.”
Shaking my head I told her, “That’s because there was nothing to understand. We’re friends. And if you don’t mind I’d like to just drop that. It’s kind of creepy.”
She grinned good naturedly. “Actually I do understand it now … and I want to say thanks for being Strother’s friend. You never short changed him like other people, myself included. My dad used to use you as a reason why Strother wasn’t right in the head, how the two of you were so much alike and why it would never work out between us. Dad was right about the two of you being alike … just for all the wrong reasons. So … thanks. I’m glad Strother has good friends he can count on.”
I just stood there for a moment wiping out the skillet I’d used for the sausages. “OK … but no more weirdness. The idea of me and Stro being anything other than friends … it’s not good for my stomach right now.”
That did cause her to chuckle but then she asked, “Have you had a lot of trouble being nauseous?”
“Off and on, this morning it is on. Hand me that kitchen towel.” After she had done as I asked I finished the top of the stove with a polish while she asked me all sorts of the same questions that Granny C and Miz Louise had been asking.
“Do you know what to expect?” she asked.
“Technically? Yes. I’ve got the strategy all planned out. In reality? I doubt it since I’ve never run this particular play before so I’m trying to keep an open mind and stay flexible so I can change up if necessary.”
She laughed again, “You still talk in football.”
She asked for a general tour of the house – she’d never been inside – while I gave the guys a few more minutes of my patience. “You’ve got a nice set up,” she said wistfully.
“Stro said that he and Gramps were going to try and plan something out this winter so that you all could have a place of your own.”
Embarrassed she said, “I don’t mean to complain. I’m really trying not to but … we’ve got zero privacy. I’m so embarrassed when we … you know … it’s … geez.”
More than a little embarrassed myself at the sudden direction the conversation was taking I said, “Uh … yeah. I can see where that might be a problem. The Hefling’s house isn’t exactly built for that many people.”
“Lawson is on the sofa because we needed a room for the kids. I feel so bad about Mr. Hefling too. He feels crowded and escapes from the house every time he is able.”
“That’s just his PTSD, he never has been able to stay inside for long at least so far as I remember ir. I assumed you knew all this but maybe no one ever mentioned it, it’s a sore subject with Mr. Hefling. Those issues are why he and Stro’s mom … well, she liked fancy and socializing and all of that stuff and Mr. Hefling just couldn’t do it much after he got back. It would get on his nerves and then he’d have one of his spells. She’d over react and do the Drama Momma thing which only made it worse. It was really hard on the boys.”
That broke the tension and she smiled, “Lawson was complaining the other day that you still call just about all of the guys from school ‘boys.’ I wish you could have seen the look on his face, he reminded me of the twins.”
I chuckled. “I guess I do still do that. I don’t mean anything bad by it but to me most of them are still boys. You get them together and it is like a big wiggling sack of puppies, all paws, tails, and tongues. They’re a mess.”
We both had to laugh at that because it was just plain true. Of course there were a few truly grown men I could say the same thing about.
“Is Thor like that?” Tina wanted to know.
“Like wha … Oh … no … not really, at least not in the same way. The pressures of his job and leadership kind of ironed that out of him. He can still whoop it up and have a good time but when you get to know him you’ll find that he is always ‘on’ even when it seems that he is acting just like all the other guys.”
“I already know what you mean. Mr. Hefling is like that too, so is Sand but not quite as much. Sometimes I worry that Strother is going to get like that too.”
I shrugged, “It’s not such a bad thing so long as you both learn to live with it and learn your limits. Even Thor knows that he needs down time and we set it aside, we’re just … I guess you could say we are just careful about when we take it.”
And speaking of the gentlemen in question they chose that moment to come out of the study. Tina took a good look at Stro and immediately went to his side. “You sure you won’t let me put that liniment on you now?”
Stro told her, “Maybe when we get home, which is where we are heading for a bit.”
I heard that “for a bit” and looked at Thor whose expression told me he’d explain after we got everyone else gone. We saw them to the gate and out it, closing it behind them, and then Thor said he needed to make some calls to give him a few minutes. Knowing that the “few” minutes could turn out to be longer I finished my morning chores that had been delayed and was leaning back against a tree trying to use counter pressure to ease the ache in my back when Thor found me.
“Hey, you OK? Back hurting again?”
“Yeah but it’s OK. So why didn’t you want to tell me with them around?”
A mild grin told me I’d been on the money. “Caught that; thought you would.”
“Still doesn’t tell me why,” I said following him to the storage barn where he started helping me to unload apples from the wagon. Some would go into the apple house – basically a shed for the long storage apples – but some of them would also be sorted for the cider press, the drying shed, and those that I wanted to can.
He took his time answering so I told him, “Just spit it out Thor. Don’t worry about making any of my friends sound … bad. They aren’t as good as you are at this and if you have suspicions I want to know what they are so I can help.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way Hon but I swear you are getting too good at reading me.” I just smiled and let him squirm a bit and then he finally got around to explaining but he started with a question. “So you think Lawson really saw this Cliff guy?”
“Stro confirmed it,” I reminded him. “Lawson may not like Cliff for his own reasons but I don’t think it was ever bad enough for him to try and set Cliff up on purpose. Lawson was also shocked by it being Cliff in with that bunch.”
Thor nodded. “That was my take as well, at least as far as Lawson went. It also makes me wonder who else I haven’t met despite being here about a year.”
I thought about it. “Yeah, I suppose it is weird that we haven’t seen more of Cliff. I just put it down to an issue of distance and the fact I haven’t exactly been out in public much lately. You think Cliff might have been avoiding you on purpose?”
“It’s a possibility, and one Strother agreed with when I brought it up and he had a chance to think about it. Hon …”
“If you are going hunting tonight you should go inside and rest.”
He just looked at me. “Woman, you are getting scary.”
“No, I just know you … and I know how serious you take your job. I also know that some things may best be dealt with … quietly. I just wish I was able to cover your back. I feel … I feel like I’m letting you down.” For some reason I was on the verge of tears.
“Hey … Rochelle …” I’d managed to shock him.
“I’m all right,” I said wiping my eyes. “It’s at times like these though that I … miss the others the most. Chuckri, Barkley, Alfonso, Montgomery, Richards … I would be a lot happier to have even one of them here right now. I’d give a whole lot to know how they are doing, if they’ve got it as good as we do.”
Thor sat his bushel basket of apples down and took me in his arms, “We do have it good Rochelle. And if you still regret …”
“I don’t regret anything, not really. I just would feel better if you had some back up. I can see in your eyes you are going to do this on your own no matter what the Heflings might think. What about Sand?”
He shook his head. “Sand is a good man but he doesn’t have the depth of training for something like this. And well-meaning or not that Sarah has a mouth on her and I’d rather not have to come up with a story to satisfy her about why her husband has to be out all night. She could complain to the wrong people and we’d lose any advantage we had. She knows just enough to be a danger in situations like this but doesn’t have restraint enough to keep her mouth shut.”
“I won’t deny that. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t tell her I was pregnant to begin with. Sarah is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a sister I guess but her tongue is hinged in the middle and runs at both ends when she is upset about something. It gets away from her and she’s sorry afterwards but by then it’s too late.”
“So long as you understand I’ve got my reasons for keeping this under tight wraps. Last thing I want to start is one of them mountain feuds you are always worried about.” I nodded then turned so that he could press the sore spots on my back. “No more lifting. You sit over there and I’ll move the rest of these myself,” he said with finality.
“Sitting is no better and you need to rest too,” I objected.
“I will rest … after I take care of this.” I sighed but conceded the point to him but I wasn’t exaggerating, it wasn’t any better sitting and I was soon up and moving around again. He caught sight of my pacing and misinterpreted it. “Hon, I’m not going to ask you not to be concerned but don’t worry it to death. You’re getting jumpy.”
“It’s not that, if anyone is prepared for this job it is you. It’s just adrenaline. There’s a fight coming and despite my head knowing I can’t my body seems to be gearing up for it anyway. It was the same way before a big game, only I knew then I’d have something that I could do about it. I can’t even go for a run right now to let off some steam.”
He moved the last bushel and then we walked into the house. “I’d be lying if I said I’m not relieved you understand that you can’t do this thing tonight.”
I elbowed him lightly. “I’m not a baby Thor, I’m just having one. I guess that’s a big enough job for me to handle right now. I’m not going to whine because I can’t go play with you but you had better be careful. I know that you consider some of the people around here to be inexperienced hicks, and they are, but that doesn’t mean some of them aren’t dangerous and mean.”
He looked at me, “You know good and well that I know that so what’s with the lecture? Something in particular bothering you?”
“Yes it is. I don’t like our forces being split like this. I also don’t like you going into a situation without someone to cover your back. Mr. Hefling’s leg is bothering him. Sand … well we’ve already discussed that. And Stro is in too rough a shape. Johnson and Lawson … I hate to say it but I don’t think they have the stomach for what you might have to do. Jimmy Ray would be my next choice but you two don’t get on well enough which is something we need to fix. Jimmy Ray has what it takes to be as mean as necessary and would be good at this … he just likes to eat regularly and is a little spoiled.”
For some reason Thor started laughing. “What?” I asked irritated.
“You’re something else girl that’s what. We’re a perfect match. I love that you can do this.”
“This what?” I asked still irritated though slightly mollified at the “perfect match” comment.
“Compartmentalize enough that even though someone is a good friend you can be brutally honest about their faults and talents and not hesitate to do what is necessary. Had you been in my crew from the beginning I would have marked you for extra training so that you could eventually run your own crew.”
“Yeah, right, like I could see those men taking orders from a female. Even when you gave me any authority when we were still on the road they always looked at Evans or you to confirm anything I said or they gave me the she’s-just-the-boss’-bed-chick look, like I had slept my way into authority instead of earned it regardless of what the true facts were.” At Thor’s look I added, “I don’t begrudge them that. I know I didn’t do anything to earn that kind of thinking. I also know they did give me respect even if it was grudging on occasion. I suppose in their experience that was how females got to whatever level of authority they had but it used to irritate me that they didn’t give us credit for having more sense. Besides, I don’t mind being second in command; it’s not such a bad job to have, especially not when I trust the boss as much as I do. Now back on topic,” I told him still a little cranky because I was worried. “What about that guy from town, Martin Kildare? Or any of his people?”
Thor gave it serious consideration but in the end continued with his original plan. “This is just a recon and I don’t want any talk until I can confirm something. I don’t disbelieve Lawson but I don’t want to create a situation or make it harder to deal with if it isn’t necessary. I don’t plan on engaging the enemy at this point; I just want to know what we are up against.”
I wanted to argue, but on the other hand I knew that once Thor had his mind made up I’d be wasting my breath and his chance to nap. He also had considerably more experience than I did and if I really trusted him as I said I did then I needed to follow my mouth with action. I determined that if he was going to go out on his own that he’d go out with my full support and a full belly. While he rested I went over his clothes and gear and worked on the apples and a good meal. I still wished that I was going with him but since that wasn’t the case I did the best I could.
I must have done something to my back picking the apples; might have happened when I went off on those ravens. As the day wore on my back hurt worse but I didn’t let on to Thor. He commented on my lack of appetite again before he left but put it down to nerves.
Dark came before I was ready for it. Lady kept whining that I was taking too long to do the last of the day’s chores and come inside and bar the door. Finally I had everything secured and just stood there in the kitchen breathing through yet another muscle spasm. I thought to myself that this is getting to be ridiculous and that I might have to have Granny C have a look to see if I’d really done something to hurt myself. It was getting to where the pain was a drawing one rather than a sharp prick like they had started as that morning.
I was antsy but tired and didn’t know what to do with myself. The night had turned cool so I went upstairs and started a fire in the bedroom and when another pain hit me I almost couldn’t stand up. When I did I looked down at the wet hearth rug and then over at Lady and said, “It figures.”