November 19th/20th – This has been a long two or three days. I think it is after midnight so technically I guess you could say we are into our third day.
Yesterday, day before yesterday depending on which clock you are looking at, Rand and I were up before the chickens. I didn’t do more than heat water for breakfast – coffee for Rand’s thermos and hot spiced tea for mine. I baked a thick and hearty cornbread the night before that had bacon bits, cheese, and bits of dried apple in it and what we didn’t eat for breakfast I sliced and added to our nosebag lunches. I was glad that I did too considering how things turned out.
We rode the mules. We were going to ride Hatchet and Dilly … I named the filly Daffodil but she seems to answer better when we call her Dilly … but Hatchet tried to get frisky the first day of searching and take Rand through a thick stand of blackberry canes. Hatchet scratched himself up and Rand decided that it is better to keep him away from other horses until he’s healed. In hindsight I’m glad because even though Dilly is a sweet pea for a horse I needed Lou’s protective stability and he minds me better too most of the time.
The morning was pretty eerie. Mist lay draped like a thick veil on and around everything. It wasn’t cold but it was coolish and we wore our jackets; I could feel mine getting heavier as it picked up the damp in the air. The mist held back the morning until we reached the trading shack and when the sun finally found the sky the mist acted as a million tiny mirrors and it suddenly seemed far brighter than it should have been.
The whispering started as soon as we rode up and increased in volume as I dismounted and went over to Julia where she sat wrapped in a quilt on the wide veranda of the Shack.
“Julia, I’m so … to be honest I don’t know quite what to say. I’m not here to cause problems. I just want to help. I want you to know … “
Julia gave a small, sad smile and said, “It’s all right Kiri. I understand. And … and thank you.”
“Has there been any word?”
“No … none.”
Looking around I asked, “Should you be out here? It’s a little damp.”
“If you can get my daughter to go inside you’ll have had more luck than the rest of us,” Mr. Winston said as he stepped up to the railing.
“Daddy … you know I … “
Ron came over and interrupted what was obviously an overplayed argument. “We’re going to start heading out. Sawyer has a map drawn. Any group that forms after these do will be sent to a different sector.”
An older lady I didn’t recognize came to sit with Julia and I went back to Rand who was visibly bristling. The guy he was facing might have been heavy at some point but he had lost a lot of weight and not in a healthy way. “Well, well. And what little girl do we have here?”
“The girl that is gonna turn you from a scrawny looking rooster to an even uglier hen if you don’t back out of my personal space.”
I’d caught Rand off guard and he barked out a big laugh at the look on the guy’s face.
“My gawd Joiner. You done married a … a … I don’t know what you done married. It’s a cross between a porc-a-pine and a Chihuahua.”
Before Rand could get angry again I looked at the guy, smiled my best stewardess smiles and said, “So long as you remember that we won’t have any problems. Just don’t forget that I can shoot a gun just about as well as I can shoot my mouth off.”
We got back on the mules and left the guy … found out they used to call him Sasquatch but his given name is Arnold McPhee … standing there laughing.
“Babe, you are something else. I’m gonna be bald before I’m 25 if you keep doing things like that. But I wouldn’t have credited it, you just got one of the guys on your side that I never expected to see happen. If Arnie likes you then hopefully he’ll be able to talk some of the other guys around. Not too many run up against him.” To be honest I could care less but if it makes Rand happy then whatever. The guy just seemed like a pompous blowhard to me; all wind, no substance.
I was the only female in the eight-person group we were in. There was Rand and I, Ron, Hoss, and four other guys that Rand wouldn’t let get too close to me. Only one of those guys seemed to be more of a donkey’s behind than our mules’ hindquarters were related to – a guy they called Mercer – but he was easy enough to ignore. And I noticed as long as I ignored him everyone else seemed able to as well.
Eventually the guy shut up and we rode slowly in a side-by-side line from morning to noon. A short break for lunch and then we remounted and continued. A brief halt was called when a piece of torn material matching the description of Mrs. Winston’s nightgown was found stuck in a devil’s walking stick bush.
“Well Ron, what do you think son? Continue on? Send someone back with the info?”
“Hoss can you and Joe ride back and get folks to converge on this area? We’ll keep heading this way until we hit the river. If we don’t find her before then we’ll wait there for the dogs.”
Mercer tried to offer up his two cents on the subject but everyone pretty much did the opposite of what he suggested. What was irritating was how he always seemed to try and draw our group off course, saying he saw stuff that turned out to be a shadow or nonexistent at all.
There was another bigger strip of the same material caught on the barbed wire that marked the boundary of Ichetucknee State Park. All the men sighed and Mercer started running his mouth saying that there was just no way that “the old bat” could have climbed the fence and gotten into the park. I dismounted and pulled out my wire cutters. Ron looked at Rand and Rand just shrugged.
I’m sorry. I’m a doer. Sitting around waiting and wringing my hands doesn’t do it for me. It was obvious that the fence had been stretched out a little. And there was another small fluttering string hung up in a cedar tree on the other side of the fence. I wondered what kind of evidence Mercer would need to admit the obvious. Ron led us though the gap I had created and the going quickly became much more difficult. A couple of the horses started to balk and eventually even Bud and Lou bogged down in the overgrowth.
Those of us with machetes dismounted and starting cutting a path. It didn’t take long for me to start coughing. I was able to hide it for a while but eventually Rand noticed and came over and called for another break. It was when we stopped moving and stood quiet and still that we heard it.
There was a shriek and then some rough laughter by several men. The alert level in our group spiked. Weapons were quietly drawn and checked. We tied the animals off to a tree and waded through the vegetation heading in the direction we heard a second and then third shriek followed by a very audible moan and more cruel laughter.
Rand and the other men looked at me. There is a time to argue and a time to just shut up and be the little woman. I stepped off into some bushes and took up a rear guard type position. I saw Rand relax a little and give me a wink to let me know he appreciated what I was doing. The men then headed deeper into the very overgrown park, eventually disappearing from view. If things had been any less serious I might have been upset but I wasn’t. I was however wound tight and listening for trouble which turned out to be a good thing.
Several feet to my left and behind me I heard, “Where’d them guys go?”
“Shut up Skeet. Fizz is checking their mounts and he told us to ambush ‘em when they come back. How we gonna ambush ‘em if they hear your mouth flapping?”
Skeet and his partner were so skanky that I found them by smell before I actually got a good look at them. Their BO was a combination of sour armpits, unwashed feet, and vomit-covered drunk. They reminded me of how the dumpster behind the diner smelled when the BYOB club at the other end of the strip center would sneak some of their garbage into ours.
For some reason their odor made me just as angry as their words. There was some of the cleanest open water in the area flowing within the park and here they were stinking up the place and not even noticing.
“I think they had a girl with ‘em. How ‘bout we hide out with her for a while?”
“Forget it. Fizz has already called dibs on her and you know DC will give him what he wants since he found that old hag for them to play with last night.”
I prayed right there that Mrs. Winston’s mind was too gone for her to understand what had likely been happening to her.
“Hey, where you think DC got those rigs full of stuff from? I … “
“Shut up man. DC don’t like nobody askin’ questions about his business. You want to keep breathing, you better stop talking. DC will use you for games next time.”
“Sure man. It’s cool. I just thought … you know … you been with ‘em even longer than Fizz. You’re smarter than Fizz too.”
“Yeah … and don’t you fergit it either. Fizz’ll get his someday, someday soon and … “
I was shocked and nearly screamed when a hand suddenly appeared from behind the man that was talking and in the hand was a knife and the knife did what knives were designed to do.
“Geez Fizz. You didn’t say you was gonna kill ‘im.”
“What did you think I was gonna do idiot? We’ll blame it on those guys and no one will be the wiser. You mess this up and you’ll follow … “
“Sure Fizz … sure. No problems here. I kept my mouth shut about everything else haven’t I?!”
“Shut up you idiot. Let’s set up here and we’ll catch those guys on their way back. You do what I tell you to and I’ll see you get a piece of the next one we find, maybe even let you go first.”
My blood was boiling but it was a cold boil … felt like liquid ice was flowing through me. Everything got sharper and clearer. I could feel that “gone away” feeling coming on and this time I was saying hurry up. I was still trying to decide what I was going to do when the decision was taken out of my hands.
I could hear gunfire coming from the same direction that the shrieks had come from. Both men jumped, obviously they hadn’t expected our men to fight. Fizz ordered, “Come on, we’ll catch ‘em in a crossfire.”
I thought, “Oh no you won’t.” I was already braced and ready. I fully admit that I shot them both in the back without a second thought. It is what they had planned for Rand and the other men. It may not have been fair but at the moment I felt like I was at war … and I intended on our side winning.
Something told me that I needed to go check the animals to make sure they hadn’t been moved. I ran back and could feel my chest starting to tighten up but I kept going. Sure enough our mounts weren’t where we left them but it was easy enough to follow the trail through the bushes using the kukri and I found them tied off in a new location. I was debating whether to move them back or wait for the men when my braid was grabbed and used to swing me around into a fist that felt way too big.
“Next time you shoot darlin’ make sure the guy isn’t wearing Kevlar.”
That’s an affirmative. Fizz grabbed me but was still suffering the effects of my shots to his back and the wind that got knocked out of him. But a vest doesn’t cover everything. It certainly didn’t cover his legs which is what I started slashing at with the kukri once we’d started to tussle. I dropped with a rabbit punch to my kidney … why do the big jerks always like to hit the most painful spot in the most painful way possible? I tried to brace for the rest of the fight but that punch was the last real move that Fizz made. I guess I had raked the big artery in his leg during our fight and he was down and in a pool of his own blood staring at nothing by the time I got my breath back.
I was hurting all over but especially my back. I leaned against Lou trying to catch my bearings. Bless that mule, he was shaking but didn’t move away from me and let me hold onto him without a whinny of complaint. I heard some men and thought it was Rand and the others but it wasn’t. A couple of the guys in this group were definitely nothing I could handle. I stayed as quiet as I could but one of the horses got shook up from all the blood and noise and broke loose and went charging into the open. The guys started fighting over who was going to get the horse when the gunfire started up again and was coming closer.
Within a few minutes I didn’t have a flaming clue what was going on, who was fighting whom, or which direction the bullets were coming from. Iooked for Rand in the fray but so no one that I recognized. When I heard automatic gunfire and a bullet grazed another one of the horses I didn’t feel like I had any choice. I loosed the animals from our hiding spot and sent them as away from the fighting as I could figure out for them to go and then I took off too.
I didn’t have time to worry though I know a part of me was thinking that Rand was going to be so upset about Bud and Lou. I didn’t really know where I was heading either; all I knew was that it was away from the heavier and heavier gunfire. I panicked for a moment but then realized there was nothing I could do except do for myself at the moment; and I prayed Rand wouldn’t do anything crazy looking for me. The gunfire was getting close again so I kept running.
Boy did I run. And run. And then fell when I tripped over a fallen signpost on an overgrown trail. It said Blue Hole Spring. I blinked rapidly a couple of times trying to get my brain to work on something besides the sounds of battle and discovered I could finally orient myself. I’d spent enough time holed up in that snack bar staring at the map on the wall behind the register and from those memories I concluded I was at the far north end of the park near the upper tube launch. That made sense; we’d come into the park near the old family campground at the north entrance but somehow I had wound up on the east side of the river instead of the west. I must have been running in circles part of the time.
I stopped, pulled myself together and knew I needed to head back north or I wouldn’t be able to cross the river until I reached US27. The problem is that there was no going north. The fighting was heading my way again. I kept the river on my right so that I wouldn’t turn in circles again. At Missions Spring I had to stop. I was getting the shakes and getting dehydrated. The day was getting later and cooler but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t sweating.
At this point I heard the big guns and engines approaching again; it was like a freaking war zone. Everything was noise and confusion. I prayed that Rand was all right as I knew he’d be praying for me. It seemed so huge, like the fighting had taken over the whole park but in truth the fighting was in a concentrated area that moved, I just happened to always be on the leading edge of it. If I had been able to get out far enough ahead and then tried to break away and to the east I could have let it pass me, but moving as slow as I was on foot I had a different reception of what I thought was happening.
I tried to break away at Mill Pond Spring but got hung up trying to go around the river spur. By the time I was around it the fighting was practically on top of me again. Right after Mill Pond Spring I picked up the park’s shuttle road and I not only mentally knew where I was but visually knew as well though things were even more overgrown than last time I was there. This was the midpoint tube launch area and where the developed area of the park started.
I was halfway to the park’s main entrance, but nearly empty of all energy. I needed to find a place to hole up and I needed to find it soon. It was getting dark. I thought of how safe the snack bar had felt … solid block walls, metal doors … and that is where I headed with what little speed I had left to muster.
I reached Dampier’s Landing and found the boardwalk. It was a good thing I had to stop or I would have walked straight into what would likely have been my death. The gloaming evening saved me and so did an broken shoe lace I knelt to re-tie.
“DC … DC … what we gonna do? Them squatters from before we took the park have got them some guns this time.”
A big, rough looking bald headed man turned and looked coldly at what was obviously one of his underlings. It was a sight out of that crazy movie Mad Max in Thunderdome. They were dressed in a mish mash of what they must have thought was cool survival clothes that made them look tough. Baldy had all sorts of junk clipped to his jacket too that gave it a pseudo-authoritarian look. He said, “We’ve got guns.”
“Not guns like these Boss. They musta got them off some military or National Guard unit.”
A low, impatient growl followed these words. “I’m not leaving my stuff. They were too slow to take it themselves. Now it is mine. They can’t have it now just because that they’ve decided they want it after all.”
“No sir but … “
This is where I finally found out that I was in the middle of what amounted to a gang war of some type. The guy DC was the leader of one gang and took something before the “squatters” – the other gang – got around to taking it, whatever “it” was. I figured “it” must be in the big truck trailers that I could see lined up in the picnic parking area. It is also where I found that there weren’t nearly as many people involved in this “battle” as I had expected. There were definitely dozens on each side but not the hundreds I had imagined.
Three jeeps and some dirt bikes came out of the bushes and the fight was on. I kept my head down and crawled through bushes … and dead bodies, some new and some not … trying to get to the snack shop. I did some shooting of my own the few times I was discovered.
Darkness decended and I never did make it to the snack shop. I crawled into a stand of palmettos and asked God to send all the snakes someplace else for a while. The fighting wasn’t quite as heavy during the night but it never let up completely. Every once in a while I would catch myself falling asleep but not for long. A scream that came from close by or a round of automatic gunfire and I was awake with a pounding heart. The one thing that the night gave me was time to worry. I remember what Momma used to call worry … it is taking tomorrow’s clouds and to hide today’s sunshine. I don’t deny that to be true but I doubt Momma ever imagined I would find myself in quite the predicament I was in.
The night seemed to last an eternity. I worried about Rand, prayed he was all right. Tried to keep myself alive so that any worrying that he was doing would be for nothing. I wondered what had happened to Bud and Lou, they had given us such a head start over other people. I prayed the ammo I had would last as long as I needed it to. And I tried to stay warm.
The weather must have dipped down into the 40s, maybe even the upper 30s since I was so near the river and under bushes that never saw much daylight. I sucked starlight peppermints that were so old not all of the plastic wrap would come off of them; trying to keep my coughing from getting so loud someone would hear me. I snuggled into my jacket and used the backpack to keep my hands and face warm. I also ate the snacks and jerky that I had brought to keep my strength up and to stay warm. The last of the spiced tea helped me get through the coldest part of the night. And thanked God that I had thought to wear two pairs of socks – a thin inner pair and a thicker outer pair – rather than just the one I normally wear at home.
The fighting remained sporadic until dawn and as the sun rose it briefly picked back up. That’s when I saw him; the baldheaded guy, the one called DC. He didn’t look so good; he was never a beauty queen but he looked a little denuded having lost a lot of his little pretties off of his jacket and he has little rivulets of blood running down his face from cuts on his head. At some point he must have gotten one of the big guns from the squatter gang. He was shooting anyone he saw, I doubt it mattered whether they were from his gang or not at this point. He looked as crazy as Mrs. Winston did at her worst.
Then DC was hit once, then twice and as he spun around he sprayed bullets everywhere catching his killers off guard and taking them with him into the abyss. I laid flat on the ground trying to wait out the chaos. When DC fell that seemed to drive everyone that much crazier. There was running and screaming and some hand to hand fighting. I was stepped on twice in the lunacy but no one seemed to notice but me when they did it.
DC’s mouth was still moving and I could just read his lips though it was more than my life was worth to actually hear what he said. “It’s mine. You can’t have it. Finders keepers.” What a way to end a life, reverting to selfish childhood while your guts leaked out onto the ground in an abandoned parking lot.
Suddenly it was just over. It was like détente was reached catching everyone by surprise. Enemies looked at each other then ran in opposite directions. They didn’t get far as the few survivors started squabbling over the motorcycles and few operating vehicles. More gunfire and then the ranks of fighters had thinned so much everyone got their own bike or jeep and high tailed it out of there. It was like the now bullet riddled trailers were invisible.
I must have stayed on the ground another twenty minutes expecting someone to think of those trailers and come back. I knew I needed to get back to Rand. I knew he would be frantic. I was frantic … but I’m afraid I’m also as nosy as a cat.
I picked my way over to the closest trailer and opened the back. The door was heavier than I expected but I managed to stop it from clanging open hard. The air wafting out of the trailer nearly made my eyes water. As the outside trailer it had taken a lot of bullets and the bullets had broken what was inside. Liquor … lots of it and not just beer; I could tell by the smell. Beer has a yeasty smell to it, the harder stuff smells like … well, like alcohol. I didn’t climb up in the trailer although there was room. Last thing I wanted was to get booze and beer foam all over me.
The trailer was far from full. If it was full when it was moved here they’d been drinking a whole lot of the stuff. I closed the door and moved to one of the two remaining trailers. The middle trailer was harder to open; the latch was bent. Then when I got that open I had to pull on the door and it squeaked rather than swung freely. This trailer wasn’t full either. Wasn’t even a quarter full but what it was full of nearly made my eyes fall out of my head. It was ammo cans loaded up on wooden pallets and wrapped in plastic. The one that was closest to me was unwrapped and most of the cans were sitting around and opened. Most of the ammo I didn’t recognize but I dipped my hand into one and pulled out 9mm and I saw boxes in another that were definitely .22LR. I thought about it and then looked around. When I didn’t see anyone I pulled out my ammo pouches from my backpack and refilled them both.
Then I got a naughty idea and I’m really, really glad I did. I knew the palmettos where I hid were far enough off the trail that it wouldn’t be an obvious place to look. It took me about twenty minutes but I moved all the ammo cans that I could find that had 9mm in them off into those palmetto bushes then I did the same thing to the .22LR … I left the rest alone because I didn’t recognize them and I needed to get moving.
After shutting that trailer back up I went to the third and last trailer and opened it up in the same way. It was full of boxes stamped with the letters FEMA, CERT, and FLNG. It was obvious that DC had been a baaaad boy. He really had taken stuff he shouldn’t have. Some of the boxes had things called “Grab and Go” kits. I threw one of each type of those cases into the palmettos and followed it with some of the other stuff in there that I thought I could manage. I left the cots alone as they wouldn’t do us any good. The hard hats weren’t worth the trouble either. I grabbed a couple pairs of safety goggles and shoved them down into my back pack. I found boxes of hand warmers, those cheap rain ponchos, silver emergency blankets, bottles of alcohol and antiseptic and stuff like that, tube tents, cable ties, work gloves, fluorescent safety vests in several different colors, flares, glow sticks, medical responder kits, boxes of plastic food trays, rope, duct tape, folding shovels, garbage bags, empty sandbags, and … empty body bags. I couldn’t even get to everything to see what it was but what I could grab cases of I took out of the trailer and hid deeper and deeper into the thick sea of palmettos. I got cut all to ribbons until I thought to use a pair of the gloves I found.
It was now at least an hour later and I was starving. The one thing I hadn’t found was food, not even clean drinking water. If there was any in the trailer it was far in the back or might have been eaten up by DC’s gang … certainly they had to have been living on something besides the liquor.
I could have spent all day going over the corpses I had been studiously ignoring but I didn’t have all day. I had a long way to walk to get home … or at least get back close enough to the Henderson Ranch that I could catch a lift and wouldn’t have to walk all the way home. I grabbed the rifle that was lying beside the corpse of the man called DC as well as the magazines that lay on the ground beside him. I looked at the bullets and remembered that there had been an ammo can half full of these types of bullets too which I then hid with the rest of the stuff in the palmettos. The rifle was going to be heavy to carry back to Rand but I figured that coming with gifts might just get me out of some of the hot water I was sure that I was going to be in.
There was no help for it, I started putting one foot in front of the other and headed towards the main gate only to find an awful mess that took me a while to walk around. DC was some kind of paranoid. He’d converted the front entrance of the park into a real end of the world wall and gate using cars that they had somehow piled on top of one another. It looked nothing like the last time I had been there.
I thought about climbing over the cars but after trying twice and feeling the wrecks shift and slide I decided it was safer to go around than over. That was easier said than done and I had to backtrack, go around to the parking area where tubers got out of the river and then cut out of the park towards US27 that way … and it sucked. I finally cut through the last fence and could see the road.
I also thought I was seeing a mirage. There was Lou grazing on the other side of the bike trail that parallels 27.
“Lou? Come here boy, come on.”
Lou pricked up his ears and trotted across the road to me. And then Bud came out of the grass further away and followed Lou. Halleluiah I thought, ”At least I could take Rand his mules back.” Both animals needed their manes and tails combed out badly, they had hitchhikers all over them. Lou had some scratches on his forelegs but nothing bad. Bud was just irritable and snapped at me which started both mules acting like two year old boys in a tussle. I finally grabbed both of their reins up close and got them back under control. Lou was ready to follow me but Bud took more convincing to get moving and then when he started to move he all but dragged me down the road.
“Whoa you dang blasted mule! I said Whoa! We’re doing this my way, not yours.”
Well, it wasn’t as easy to do as it was to say, eventually however Bud got the idea that I was trying to take him home and since that was where he wanted to go anyway he decided to cooperate. It took a couple of tries but I was finally able to mount Lou and keep Bud’s reins in my hand. The first time I tried that Bud pulled me backwards and I fell on my butt before I could even swing my leg over Lou’s saddle. That jarred my bruised kidney enough to make me want to cry. The second time he nearly pulled me up and over Lou by my arm. I think he was doing it on purpose. Third time was the charm and I made it up and got sat.
The sun was nearly straight over head but at least we were finally moving. I was nervous and the mules picked up on it. It made it even harder for me to keep them in line. They startled as easy as I did; a coyote almost made them run when it darted across the road and when a fly bit Lou on the rump I nearly went flying.
Then as we turned onto CR49 I started to smell smoke … not the fireplace kind of smoke but an acrid bitter smoke. Then about where I knew the Henderson Ranch to be I saw it, thick and black above the trees.
I got off the road and rode the mules along the old property lines. I got close enough that the smell was making my eyes water and the mules balked at going any further. I tied them off to a handy tree … really tied them off so they couldn’t run away … and snuck up for a better look. Some idiots were trying to burn their way into Mr. Henderson’s property. Several of the railway storage containers that where their front barricade were damaged by fires that were still burning. Behind the trees on my side of the road was a big truck looking thing that had a big machine gun mounted on it … like one of those things the squatters had used against the DC gang. The bullets were belt fed and were bigger than any that I had seen anyone else use. There were about a half dozen men with that truck using it to fire at the ranch and anyone that tried to put the fires out.
Well, it didn’t appear they expected anyone to come calling at their backdoor. I took the salvaged rifle and used a fallen tree to prop it on. There was no way I was going to be able to stand and shoot this thing, Rambo I was not. I hoped that a magazine was a magazine was a magazine and that they worked similarly enough that I would know what to do if I needed to change it.
I burned up the whole magazine without even trying. I’ll think about what I did later, I’m just too tired and this last two days is as close to real war as I ever want to get. Basically the shooters were no longer a danger to the ranch or anyone else. I tried to call out to the ranch hands but every time I drew a deep breath I would start coughing. Finally I gave up and put my fingers … my dirty fingers, yuck … in my mouth and gave the whistle that I hoped Mitch or someone else would recognize. It was the one that Rand had taught me to call the cows with.
I was just about to whistle again when a young man snuck up on my right. I nearly wet my pants but he grinned, “You gotta be Rand’s Kiri.”
“Oh! Is Rand here?? Where?!”
“Naw … Mitch bet a couple of the guys that it was you whistling. I heard you coughing and told the guys not to take the bet and volunteered to come out and check.”
“But Rand … have you seen him?”
“Seen him, heard him, nearly got in a fight with him when he didn’t want to stop looking for you last night. Come on. This lot was the last of them. We’ll radio over to the Shack and Rand will be here as fast as he can get a horse … or a dirt bike. Lots of those things lying around today.”
I made him wait until I got the mules and by the time we crossed the road Mr. Henderson and Mitch were there with the silliest grins on their faces. Well, what was I supposed to have done … just pass on the other side like the first three did in that parable like I was too good, too busy, too important? That’s not me and I hope it never is.
Mr. Henderson said, “Already passed the word. You could hear Joiner in the background. If it takes him more than an hour to get here I’ll eat my hat. Come here girl.” I got a big sweaty hug and was turned over to Tia Cia while the mules were taken to be watered.
The ranch had held up but there had been injuries, mostly minor but one man had died when the attack on the gate first started. “At this rate Chica, there won’t be a set of sheets left in the whole county. We’ve torn almost all we have in our reserves to make coverings for wounds. When we change bandages we are boiling them so that we can reuse them another time. Cassie! There you are mi bonita, take Kiri and you both go get something to eat and drink … now that your grandfather has decided to use some sense he is letting me dress the cut on his head.”
Cassie looked bad, her eyes were hard blue marbles sitting above dark circles. “Come on, I want to eat fast and then get back. Can you believe those jerks?! We have a dozen men … a dozen … over in the bunk house that will be at least a week before they are up and around. That doesn’t include all of our walking wounded. Jerks!! There are little kids … luckily most of them were in one place playing and parents didn’t have to go looking for them. Jerks!! What did you do to them anyway?”
“They won’t be causing any more problems … ever.”
“What? Oh. Jerks. Here, you better eat. I’d fix tea but Tia Cia keeps it locked up so that the kids can’t get into it accidentally. Water OK?”
“Water is perfect. Have you heard from Rand?”
“You could say that.” I looked at her and as I ate a tortilla wrap of rice and beans she explained, “Rand nearly killed Martin Mercer.”
I choked on a piece of rice and then asked, “Mercer … the same one that was in our search party?”
“One and the same. I’m sorry to say we all used to be friends until Martin got into some real trouble and was sent to juvie hall back when we were freshman in highschool. He came out even worse than he went in and Poppy refused to let him anywhere near me anymore. Anyway, Rand is blaming Martin for how things have blown up. Apparently he got trigger happy and started shooting when he had been asked to stand down and be quiet. And what is worse, it may be that Mercer was dealing with those people at the park and started shooting to distract things so that no one would find out about it. Bill Sawyer was left in charge of finding out whatever it is that Martin did or did not know. And then the men are going to decide what to do about the gang in the park.”
I had finished one wrap and started another one and was thinking about what I should and shouldn’t tell this new and improved Cassie when we both heard a commotion outside. I grabbed the big rifle thinking it was another attack and was out the door and then got barreled into and thrown over someone’s shoulder before I even got a look at their face. Good thing I recognized the pants pocket I had sewn up just a few days ago.
“Rand! Rand!! Put me down! All the blood is rushing to my head and I just ate and I’m going to puke!!”
Cassie lit out of the kitchen and sang, “Just call if you need any help!”
The door slammed closed and Rand and I were tripping all over each other trying to say hello, I love you, kiss, and hug all at the same time we were checking the other over for any injuries. What a mess … but it was my mess and I just about wanted to crawl up inside him and stay there forever.
Rand’s face … he’d been in yet another fight. At least his nose wasn’t swollen this time but he did have a split lip and I tried to not hurt him as I kissed him. He found all of my scratches and bruises and kissed or patted each one. Between one thing and another we finally wound up on the floor sitting in the corner of the room near the wood pile.
“How did you get here so fast?”
“Motorcycle. Where have you been?!”
“Hiding in the palmetto bushes and staying out of trouble.”
“It don’t sound like you were staying out of trouble.”
“OK, I didn’t cause any trouble, or not much, and I stayed out of as much as I could. I’ve got news about what happened in the park … Mr. Henderson might want to hear this.”
“Can it wait?”
“I wish. Most of both gangs killed each other off but there are three trailers of supplies that are ripe for salvaging and it is good stuff.”
“Fine,” but I got a good and hard kiss and more to come before he got off the floor and went to get Mr. Henderson and Mitch.
We took wagons and mules and left as quick as we could meeting up with two other contingents, one from the Crenshaw’s road and one from River Road, before we could get back to the park. Mercer had broken under questioning and those that could were making for the trailers to get their share.
Despite that we had started out as quickly as we could we still had to fight with returning gang members who were already plundering the trailers. They were mostly focused on the liquor and the ammo but even the other trailer had been gotten into already. The gang members ran with what was in their hands when they saw everyone, leaving a mess behind that was then set upon by the supposedly more civilized members of our community. Fights broke out and not even Mr. Henderson nor Bill could get them to calm down and split things up more equitably.
When Rand would have entered the fray I grabbed his hand and squeezed. He turned his head and looked at me but I was too afraid to look at him with other people around; too afraid that I would give away that I’d hidden stuff because I’d been afraid of just something like this happening. Even Clyde and Brendon were acting like crazy people making me a little sad for some reason.
Rand pulled me back and away from the fray and into the shade of some low hanging trees. He bent his head down to my ear and if anyone was bothering to pay attention it just looked like we were making out after being apart and worried for each other. He whispered, “What and where?”
“Behind you deep in the palmettos. A little bit of everything but more than we might be able to get in a single little wagon load unless we load down the mules and horses too.”
“You’ll need to explain how but we’ll talk about that later. How far back?”
“At least fifty feet. Now you know how I got all scratched up.”
Then we were interrupted. “Hey you two!! Dang! Not even Alicia and I would … “
“Knock it off Brendon. You’ve never lost Alicia in the middle of a freaking gun battle either. What do you want me to do? The trailers are all but cleaned out already.”
“We got a good wagon load for the Shack and for the family. Help us to secure the load and then we are going to leave. Good to see you are safe and sound Kiri, don’t let my cousin scream at you too loud. He really has been a pain in the a …”
“Brendon … shut up. I’ve had just about my fill of it all OK?”
“Sure thing Kiri. No harm meant. And I’m serious … glad you are OK and dad and everyone else is too.”
Rand and I helped him tie down the wagon load and then Clyde came up, “There are enough empty casings around here to keep us all in bullets for a long while if I can get the other supplies I need. If not, I might be able to melt some of this crap down and make mini balls.”
I left them to the discussion and sat on a bench watching the last few human buzzards pick the corpses clean of their guns, equipment, and clothing. I was just starting to wonder who was going to take care of the bodies when I spied Pastor Ken counting them. I walked over.
“There’s too many and too few volunteers.”
I responded, “What about the concrete plant down the road?”
He looked at me and then gave a tired nod before walking towards Mr. Henderson who then donated a wagon to the cause. We loaded the bodies, some of them as dirty as their odor had indicated. I stayed at the park and waited for Rand to return. People thought it was because I was embarrassed by the sight of the naked bodies but in reality I just wanted to make sure no one accidentally stumbled across the cache I had hidden.
Mr. Henderson strolled over to my side. “Tell me again what happened.” So I told it again while he and other people were listening.
“DC was that big bald guy?”
“Yeah but I really don’t know who the squatters were. I only heard one side of that story.”
“Doesn’t matter for now. Probably leftovers from the relocation camps since you said the park had been empty when you came through months back.”
“I’ve been afraid to ask. What happened to Mrs. Winston?”
“They got her back relatively safe if even less sound than she was when she run off. Hortencia is going to help with that. There are a couple of herbs she grows that can be used as a sedative. I’ve got a man that knows someone growing marijuana and they’ll try that next if the herbs don’t work. It might not be an issue much longer. The woman was … well … tortured is the ugly word for it. She’s frail of body as well as mind now. She may not have the strength to get away another time.”
“What about Mr. Winston … and Julia?”
Pastor Ken came over and heard my question. “In their minds Mrs. Winston has already died. They are taking care of her body out of respect but they’ve already started on their grieving. They aren’t the only ones that have relatives that were functional with psychotropic meds that have since run out and left them with someone that is difficult to deal with, they just happen to be the worst example of everything that can go wrong. Thankfully Julia is finding she has more strength than she thought. Ron took her home yesterday and has kept her in bed. So far no contractions but I don’t expect her to go full term. From here on out it has to be about making sure Julia gets enough rest and nutritious food so that the baby doesn’t come too early and so Julia isn’t any more susceptible to anything than we can manage.”
“Let Rand and I know if there is anything we can do. I know, I know. I saw people flapping their gums yesterday when I showed up. I’m sure me disappearing overnight didn’t help. But I don’t hold a grudge … whatever happened is over with and Rand and I think it is just better for the four of us to make a clean start and get passed what used to be. We’re all changed from who were … Ron, Julia, Rand and I … there is no sense carrying on like a child about it.”
Both men nodded and it wasn’t much longer before Rand and the others came back. Mr. Henderson gathered his men and other wagons and turned and told Rand, “Take the wagon home since it is already hitched up to your pair. I’ll bring a team and collect it in the morning. Just give us time to get out of here. I suppose you’ll want to pick up some of these casings anyway and have Kiri show you where she hid.”
I swear, Mr. Henderson must read minds. I’m sure he knew somehow that I had cached some of the stuff but I’m not sure how. Maybe he didn’t and I’m reading too much into it. Or maybe I gave it away in my retelling of the story. I don’t know.
After Henderson’s teams left … to make sure I followed them and saw them leave the main gate … Rand and I waded into the palmettos and started pulling out the cases and boxes I had hidden there. More than once Rand stopped me to give me a kiss. He’s taken care of me, of us … I just want him to know that I’m trying to learn to have the presence of mind to do the same thing, to take advantage of things as they come along. I’m not the same high strung kid I was when I first biked here from Tampa. I’m not even the same girl I was when Rand and I got married. I feel a lot older than seventeen. There are days I can tell Rand feels older than his age too.
I was really starting to run down as Rand drove the wagon home. The adrenaline was gone and all the things I had done were starting to knock on my conscience and say, “Hey, remember us … we sure aren’t going to let you forget for long.”
It had taken us some time to load the wagon so that the contents wasn’t sticking above the sides and by the time we left the park and drove passed Henderson’s ranch it was dark. All we did was wave and they waved back. No one was sure if the last of the fighting was over so Rand was still on high alert. I was doing my best, but I know I wasn’t at my best by any stretch of the imagination. By the time we got home I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. We took care of the animals … Rand had stopped by to make sure they had feed and water … then unloaded the stuff from the wagon into the spare bedroom; another mess for me to take clean up.
Using the lukewarm water from the small black barrel I keep in a sunny spot I took a few bucketfuls inside to shower with. I smelled of sweat, fear, and gun smoke and desperately craved to be clean. I was lathering up when Rand startled me by climbing into the shower with me. That’s all it took. I was crying and shaking, but at least this time I didn’t puke. I think Rand did a little crying too though I’ll never say anything about it.
We rinsed off and were toweling each other dry when he rubbed across my kidney and I jumped. It had gotten dim in the bathroom because we have the shutters closed so Rand walked me into the bedroom so he could flip on the little LED track lights he’d installed. He did a little cussing that I won’t record for posterity but considering the guy was already dead there wasn’t anything Rand could do about it. Well, the inevitable was inevitable and he told me to stay in bed while he checked on things one more time.
When he came back, it was with a small summer sausage and some of the last of our packaged cheese and crackers. I lit a candle and Rand lit the wood stove to drive off the chill that was starting to creep in in earnest. I also put on a flannel sleeping shirt and some fuzzy socks. We had a picnic on the floor … Rand hates crumbs in bed even more than I do … and afterwards we cuddled and talked.
Rand asked, “Did you know that this Thursday is Thanksgiving?”
“What? Well, I mean I guess I did but it has kind of snuck up on me. Do you want to have your family over or go over to their place?”
“What would you think about it just being us this year? Would it hurt your feelings any?”
“Noooo. But is there a problem?”
“No, not really. I just … I’m tired Kiri. I want a day just for us. I want to celebrate the things that we should be thankful for but … we’ve left the animals too much recently and I don’t want to keep leaving them locked up in the barn. I’ve seen lots of wild turkey and I’d like to try bow hunting again. Farmer’s Almanac says that it is supposed to be a cold Thanksgiving this year and … I just really … this sounds bad but I don’t want to get caught up in the same old, same old that happens with Uncle George at the holidays. It can get depressing and … I need a break from depressing Kiri. I need … “
I put my fingers over his mouth gently and said, “You don’t need to justify how you feel. If you want it to just be the two of us then that is the way that I’m happy for it to be. No questions. No comments.”
Rand seemed to relax all the way after that and was soon asleep. Not me. I wanted to sleep but my tired had vanished. I had no intention of writing as much as I have but … sometimes you have to bleed it off so that you can get it out of your face and put away for a while. I expect I’m going to be paying for my long night once Rand wakes up. Either way, I’m finally ready for bed and that’s where I’m going.