Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 15

Chapter 15

The next two weeks it continued cold and to rain off and on … mostly on. Since we were stuck inside I thought it was going to be hard but it was easier than I thought to get used to Abel living with us. I’m sure at least in part because all of us wanted it to work. The new company made things more interesting. It wasn’t like having Jeff around – I’d almost forgotten what that was like – but Abel filled a hole that I’d only half way understood was empty. We did have to compromise but the compromising wasn’t hard. One of the few things that bothered me was that Abel was trying a little too hard to make it easy and that gave me a few things to think about, like what had his home life been like back in Spain and maybe he’d been just as starved for company as I was and felt like since the cave was “ours” he was the one that would have to do all of the changing to make things work. Some small niggling piece of me also wondered if he had ulterior motives but the longer Abel was around the less and less likely that was. It is hard to explain but a person knows after a while whether another person is really committed to something or whether they are just playacting.

Daniel and Dog were inseparable except for the two times that Abel insisted on hunting. The first time he wouldn’t let us go and was so exhausted when he returned with the carcass of a feral pig that I got the butchering and processing nearly completed before he woke up from a “short nap.” He tried to be embarrassed by that but I wouldn’t let him. More and more I found he had a driving need to be a contributor and not just a beneficiary of our life in the cave. Partly I’m pretty sure that was one of those male pride things but I’m also sure that it had at least as much to do with being a kind of protector personality which was a lot like my dad. Since he wasn’t obnoxious about it I didn’t tell him to knock it off; it was actually nice to share some of the burden for Daniel with another person. I never resented Daniel, but sometimes I was scared I wasn't going to be able to meet all of his needs.

The next time it was easier to convince Abel that it would be easier all around if all three of us (four if you count Dog) went hunting together. We were blessed on the hunt which made it easier for him to see the wisdom of not trying to do everything himself. We managed to spook two sows and a young boar over a steep embankment killing all three when they landed on the rocks below. Hunting was a challenge because you didn’t want to use a gun or you might draw attention to your location. Bow hunting could be challenging and I worried about running out of arrows trying to hunt larger game that way. The way we did it left no trace other than blood on the rocks below which was quickly washed away in a cold rain. It reminded me of history class when we covered ancient tribal people who were hunter-gatherers.

I suppose in a way we were more like a tribe than not. There were lots of similarities but there were some differences as well. Even at my age I knew it was going to be unreasonable to expect a grown guy like Abel to be bossed around by a teenage girl. I know if Abel had come in and simply tried to take over it would have been next to impossible for me to live with. We managed to work our way through that stuff without talking about it too much. Abel pretty much took over bossing about the heavy chores … cutting wood, leading our hunts, the big repairs that I just hadn’t managed to figure out how to do in the cave, and things along those lines. I still controlled the kitchen and supply rooms, gathering the wild forage (what was left of it for the season), organizing keeping the cave – and our bodies – clean and clean clothed, and of course anything that had to do with Daniel. There was only one thing that there seemed to be no compromise on for Abel; he was a fiend about security. He never seemed fully at ease unless all three of us were locked in the cave. It didn’t matter what I said he was just that serious about it all. He took it into his head to be our protector and guardian. It was kinda sweet yet annoying at the same time. Be careful what you pray for ‘cause sometimes you’ll get it. I would sometimes get bad scared that I wouldn’t be able to do what had to be done to keep Daniel and I safe. I already knew that Abel was capable of it, and being ruthless if necessary, and so now that I had someone that could be that way I had to learn to live with the answered prayer.

Abel was also a really big help with the chickens. It seems that his Abuela ran her own part of the farm and sold eggs and chickens to several restaurants in the nearest towns so that she could buy what was necessary to send all of her grandchildren to school and keep them clothed. The hens rarely gave him the trouble they seemed to enjoy giving me and the roosters never flew at him with their spurs. I was more than happy to have help with the culling of the flock because it was one of the few farms jobs that made me heave.

The weather was so bad that we stayed close to the cave on most days except the two we went hunting. There was an overhang down in the sink and Abel suggested that we use that area to deal with the chickens. It wasn’t fun working in the rain but at the same time the rain washed away the smell that I really hated. We culled nearly two dozen hens and two of the nastier roosters. Abel told me that one of the reasons the chickens were so cranky is that I had too many competing for two small an area. He separated the roosters from the hens to give them a break as well. When I asked whether it was the hens or the roosters that were getting the break Abel rolled his eyes and his ears got a little pink. I don’t think the girls where he came from were quite as bold as I was, or maybe it was just being raised by his grandparents instead of in the big city by his mother.

Despite it seeming like the culling went on forever it was no where near the number of feather dusters that I had done every year with Momma, but I wasn’t going to complain. I hated the smell of culling and butchering chickens, especially removing the feathers, but it was a fact of life. Daniel absolutely refused to have anything to do with it so for the last couple of times I’d been stuck doing it all by myself. Sharing the burden somehow made it easier to take and I only gagged a couple of times. Plus Abel already knew how and was even faster at it than Momma had been. He offered to do it all but then it was my turned to be prideful about something; I wasn't going to let him turn me into a girly-girl at that stage in my life.

It was also great to have someone bigger and stronger that could lift the large pressure canner when it was full. I had only been able to use the smaller one which took more turns of filling and processing and which also meant that I had to use more fuel. This time around even though I was processing much more than what I had done the previous year it took less time.

While we worked I found out that Abel was from a place in Spain called Andalusia. He was really proud of where he came from. He said that many things that people think of as “Spanish” actually originated in his region of the country like flamenco dancing and bullfighting. In addition to the chickens his grandmother kept his grandfather had an olive tree grove, a small vineyard that they made their own family’s wine from, a small herd of goats, and a larger herd of black Iberian pigs. Sometimes they had a family cow but most of his dairy came from the goats he and his cousins tended. Beef was a rarity on their table, in fact they ate more seafood than beef as one of his uncles was a fisherman in the Mediterranean.

I told him, “It sounds like you had a huge family. I keep hearing about all of these uncles.”

“Si,” he sighed. “My grandmother had fifteen children and they all lived to be adults except the one son that wanted most to be a farmer like his padre. The others … the farm was too small for them and too much work. They wanted more than to be a poor farmer or poor farmer’s esposo their whole life. As each grew old enough they went to the cities to work and then married there. But several, like my own dear Madre, would send a child or two back to the farm to be raised for whatever reason. Mi Madre was not the only one to lose their spouse too soon. Life is very hard and very uncertain.”

I took away from the things I was learning that Abel had been raised to be a fatalist. Dad had said that some people were like that; they only expected life to be hard and they learned to live with it early on and not be surprised by it. On the other hand he said that it could be taken too far. Saying that “life was hard then you die” didn’t mean that you shouldn’t at least try and affect your own fate. God did create us with free will and gumption and He expected us to use it.

In the evenings after all the day’s chores were done I enjoyed having someone to talk to. Daniel would tolerate it for a while but he was younger than me and simply wasn’t interested in wondering what was going on out in the rest of the world; his world was enough for him and the idea of anything else was beyond what he was able to think about in any kind of abstract way. Daniel’s world was a narrow one and he was happiest with it being that way.

I on the other hand needed to know what was going on and I wasn’t afraid to quiz Abel to find my answers.

“What are the cities and towns like now? I haven’t heard anything on the radio in forever.”

“Like?” Abel stopped and tried to translate his thoughts into English. “Different places are different. For a time they were all Infierno; all of them. It mattered not whether large or small. That was the burning time when fear and anger ruled and no one could stop it. There was no place to hide and believe me we all tried as we just tried to survive the multitudes who sought to take their miedo … their fear … out on those they thought responsible. Eventual the worst was over because many of the weak died or were rounded up and put under control. The Peacekeepers … the Blue Hats as you call them … and the American soldiers helped to calm the violence for a time. The ciudads were blockaded – to keep people in, to keep people out – and slowly even the strong became weak and the newly weak began to die just like the others had. This cycle has been repeated many times. Only the strong or the monstrous truly survive in the larger cities. The smaller ones not so extreme but still they can be bad. People hide their children from the canibales. It is horror. I have seen these things. The cities are full of fantasmas … ghosts, though they realize not they are dead.”

I told him, “That’s … that’s horrible. Daniel and I never saw any of that here.”

“You were blessed by God Himself. He hid you from the monstruos and canibales. You are a young girl and even now they would take you and do … bad things to you, things that would make you wish yourself dead. And Daniel would have been the subject of a hunt and you would have died trying to save him. The … the … retardado were some of the first to become victims.”

Angrily I told him, “Daniel isn’t retarded or anything like that and that isn’t a nice word to use anyway!”

“Si Chica. I know. I know. You know. Even Daniel seems to know what he can do and not worry too much for what he cannot do. But bad people are muy mal and they care not about what we care for. They only live to make others miserable to make themselves feel less so.”

Slightly mollified I said, “I … I know that. I just hated it when people assumed that because Daniel was different he wouldn’t ever amount to anything or wind up as some kind of burden on society. Some of the things supposedly nice people would say was awful and they didn’t even seem to realize it.”

“You are … how do you say … preaching to the choir. Si? Those of the words?”

I had to laugh. Abel’s English was improving but sometimes it sounded funny the way he said things. I suspected sometimes that he even did it on purpose. Him trying to distract me didn’t stop me from asking the question I’d been longing to ask him most however.

“What about my town? What it is like out there?”

Abel answered with a question of his own. “Why do you wish to know these sad things? Will they not break your heart?”

“Maybe. But I’d rather know than not. Dad always said that hiding from bad news never stopped the bad news from being true.”

Abel nodded. “More and more the words of your padre remind me of mi own abuelo. He too would say denying that bad happens does not stop bad from happening.”

He was still trying to distract me and I was having none of it. “You’ve already told me it’s bad out there but what does ‘bad’ mean? What has happened here?”

Abel looked into the fire but didn’t see it. “Before I came here I had already atestiguado … witnessed … so much bad. I was entumecido … what you call numb. But at the same time I was in so much pain … for what I had seen, for what I had done. Even still I could see that the worst had happened around here just as it had in other places and that more continued to happen. The old woman was proof of that.” Abel gave another one of his expressive sighs. “How do I tell you? Many are gone. Many houses are empty or destroyed in some way. Dead? Probably. Hiding? Probably. Captured, possibly enslaved? Maybe for such things have happened and happen still if the words of the Blue Hats are to be believed. Will your friends be changed? Definitely.” Then he looked at me hard. “Do I know what happened to your primo, your Jeff? No. Too many bads are out there and you must not go looking.”

I had already realized that last part a long time ago. “Abel, I’m not talking about seeing for myself. I … I trust you to be honest. Besides I have Daniel to look after, and now you.” A laugh got away from me at the look in Abel’s face when I said that last bit.

“Ah. A broma … a joke,” he said after catching on. “Listen to me Chica. Though you may laugh I still do not understand how I came to be here. The world out there is … is … infierno de la tierra for many souls. Here I am warm, I hunger no more, the bed is soft … all things I … I do not deserve. The things I have done with these two hands, and thought with this mind …” He didn’t seem to have the words in English for what he was trying to say.

He made me want to comfort him the same way I tried to comfort Daniel when the world got to be too much for him. “Don’t worry at it so much Abel. I was tired of Daniel and I being alone. I prayed about it and you showed up like an answer to that prayer. Can’t that be reason enough?”

His face lost that awful blankness that held in so much pain and it felt like maybe he was seeing things for the first time without a veil of guilt and confusion. He looked up and said, “Gracias dios. Y bendiga la inocencia de niños. Ayúdeme a ser lo que debo ser.”

It took me a while to translate that and I was a little chagrinned to find that he thought of me like a child but if it helped him to cope then I could live with it.

When the rain ended it seemed to usher in the cold weather for real. It didn’t snow, it was a dry cold that seemed to settle inside via your lungs. There was no help for it, Abel had to accept making over Dad’s clothes so he’d have something more than rags to wear.

“I don’t understand Abel, how did you make it last winter if this is the only thing you had? And the old woman too?”

“I would steal rugs from abandoned houses. When I could find them I would take lengths of carpet and line the inside of shelters for us. We could not stay in one place long so there were many such shelters in many different places. Sometimes we would come back only to find that the shelters had been destroyed or taken over by others. We did whatever we had to without make a notice of ourselves.”

Make a notice of ourselves? Oh. He meant without doing anything to get noticed. Sometimes it took me time to understand what Abel was trying to say. “Abel, are you not telling me stuff about the town because you don’t think I need to know or are you not telling me because you don’t know?”

This time it was his turned to take a moment to understand. “Ah Chica,” he shook his head yet again. “You really will not give this up?” At my look he shrugged and said, “So be it.”

He was sitting on the floor leaving the sofa to me. I looked up to see that Daniel and Dog had both fallen asleep in dad’s recliner. I thought Abel was being foolish but he was just old-fashioned enough that no pushing would get him to sit on the sofa if Daniel wasn’t sitting between us.

“Chica, your town … she is a bad place. I tell you this not to make you sad but to cause you understanding. There are many Peacekeeper factions in this area. They are autonomous but have some loyalties to the Blue Hat commander that still controls what food supplies there are. This commander calls himself Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir though I know it is not his name. He was merely Hakim when he was a Peacekeeper. The Al-Mansur name is one he took for himself from history and it is one to cause fear and to let others know what he thinks his destiny. Do they teach of Almanzor here?”

I stood up and went over to a set of books on the shelves in the reading corner and took down volume one of an old encyclopedia set. Almanzor was an Arab that through political manipulation eventually became the military power of the Moors in Iberia which later became Spain before 1000 AD. The encyclopedia didn’t say much but it did make the man out to be an enemy to anyone not a Muslim, at least on the surface. He hired Berber mercenaries to do his dirty work so that meant that he was also a hypocrite both religiously and politically.

When I had finished reading the entry and summarized it for Abel he said, “Yes, that is what they taught us in school as well although they are perhaps not as polite about it. Andalusians are independent people and do not like any idea, even if it is just from history, that they were ever captives. But mark the part about Almanzor making war against any that are not Muslim for that is what Hakim is doing. He is consolidating his power over others and using religion as one of his weapons. Sharia law is the supreme law and Hakim adds more as he claims to be divinely led. He is setting himself up as a prophet or as a caliph in the old-style of the muslim world. He has taken many of the young women of the area and put them in his personal harem. He gives them to those in favor and then takes them away again if the men fall out of favor. You … must … not … ever be seen or captured. You cannot even trust your own people for they would give you to Hakim to curry favor.”

I snorted, “I learned the day my parents were killed that I could trust a townie. They stood by and let it happen.” Then I sighed, “I suppose that if Jeff had seen any of this happening he wouldn’t have been able to just stand by; his sense of honor or whatever you guys call it wouldn’t have let him … and it probably got him killed quick and hard. I hope he didn’t suffer.”

The look on Abel’s face told me I was probably dreaming a fantasy. If that Hakim man was as bad and brutal as Abel made him out to be Jeff probably died hard but maybe not quickly, something I didn’t want to think about.

I was glad that Daniel didn’t over hear us talking about it but I was sad and had stopped asking questions.

“I should not have told you.”

I wouldn’t let Abel feel bad for being honest. “I asked. You answered. We both know … or you’ll learn anyway … that I can be … er … obstinado.”

At the look on Abel’s face I had to smile. “I told you I understood Spanish, just didn’t sound very good when I spoke it.”

“Er … no … no Chica that is not what … ah, well, si … you do sound very … er … American. And you should not worry, that is as it should be for that is what you are. But I thank you for trying. But … I am in America now so I should speak ingles … English. Si … yes … and that is as it should be as well. And perhaps we should both do as Daniel and get to sleep. I wish to fill that room with as much wood as I can now that the rain has stopped.”

It was the nicest way anyone has ever told me that I stunk at speaking Spanish so I let him boss me around about it being bedtime. Besides he wasn’t the only one that had a ton of work ahead of them; it was getting close to Christmas and I finally felt like celebrating again.

Chapter 14

Chapter 14

I was in the mood for lemon pie … or something lemony … but since I didn’t have lemons I did what Momma had told me her great grandmother had taught her to do when lemons were out of season or too expensive. I made Sheep Sorrel Pie. I had gathered a pretty good bundle of it before we ran into all the trouble and I wanted to use it before it wilted too much more than it already had.

I took Momma’s common lemon pie recipe but instead of adding lemons like it called for I added a cup of finely chopped sheep sorrel and continued on from there. It looked a little funny to people who weren’t used to eating wild forage but it sure tasted good. When I had the pie in the oven I started on our next meal. The chickens were pretty much finished laying until things warmed back up so I decided I needed to go easy on the fresh eggs. I wasn’t sure what Abel had been eating but something told me that he could use some vitamins if he’d been doing nothing but eating meat and maybe a few wild greens. I decided I needed to ask him and compare notes.

I wanted something easy to fix and decided to make wheat burgers. I had cooked a cup of wheat when I fixed “breakfast” and it was finally cool enough for me to fool with. I took the cooked wheat and put it in a big bowl along with a can of cooked kidney beans, a whole egg, and some salt and pepper for taste and a little bit of bouillon and a couple of drops of liquid smoke for good measure. I started with a pastry knife and mixed the whole, ugly mess together. When it was cut up into small enough bits I started mashing it with my hands until I got a lump of stuff that was kind of the consistency of raw hamburger. I thought about dumping in some onion too but wasn’t in the mood to watch Daniel pick them out, not with company sitting at the table. I turned the goop in the bowl into hamburger type patties and set them to the side for a moment while I fried up some canned bacon in a skillet.

I set the skillet to the side and then used the bacon grease to fry the patties in. I heard a scuff behind me and turned to find Abel standing there looking a little sick.

“Oh … hey … you don’t look so good,” I told him, concerned maybe he was coming down with something.

“No … I am … well. The smell … I … it has been so long …”

“Oh!” I should have realized that the smell might get to him if he’d been on short rations for a long time. “Sit down. Let me get you some milk … that should settle your stomach.”

“M mm milk? Real milk?”

“Well, it is real dried milk … or real before it was dried or … well … you know what I mean. I keep a pitcher cold for Daniel.”

“Then if it is Daniel’s …”

“Remember rule number one? I wouldn’t offer it to you if it was going to take something away from Daniel so just drink it already. If you don’t like it plain I can put a drop of flavoring in it or …”

“No … no this is …,” he stopped, worried. “Am I dreaming this? Have I gone mad?”

“If you don’t drink this milk and on top of it make me burn the dinner I’m going to be the one that is mad,” I told him. Gosh he could be as stubborn as Daniel on a bad day. “Just sip it though, no need to make yourself sick on purpose. And there is more if you want it.”

I went back to flip the patties in the pan. “Abel?”

“Hmm?” he answered, really into savoring the milk.

“What did you and the old woman eat? You said you hunted but you couldn’t have just been eating wild game surely?”

Abel gave one of his expressive shrugs. “We ate what there was to eat. The old woman … she never would tell me her name so after a while I gave up asking … she seemed to know some of the things we could eat. We were sick a few times and we learned not to eat whatever had made us ill again. But mostly yes, it was the wild … cerdo … you know the …”

“The hogs, yeah. But they are mean. I’ve only managed to bring down a couple. Daniel and I got treed a couple of times by them too.”

“Yes, we as well. I tried not to hunt the ones too close to where people once lived. I saw a few of them … doing what wild things do when they find …” he stuttered to a stop, concerned I guess that he was treating me too much like an adult.

“Abel, don’t get upset but … the girls you are used to might be like hot house flowers but I won’t break or cry just because you speak the truth. Hogs will eat anything if they get hungry enough. When I was little I saw a big farm hog bite a man’s thumb off ‘cause he wasn’t paying close enough attention. And I grew up on a farm; around animals and real life … you did too. It doesn’t make sense to pretend life hasn’t been what it is.”

He opened his mouth, likely to say something silly like some guys tend to do but then he stopped and just nodded, accepting that straight talk would be better.

“Si … yes … the wild hogs were … being what they were. Those hogs tend to be the meanest of them all … that have tasted what they should not have. There were such people as well that did the same thing. I used to put them out of their misery when I could but … there became too many of them. I learned to watch for their traps. I would spring them, destroy the traps, but the rest I left to God.”

“Daniel and I never ran into anyone like that. In fact you and the old woman are the only two people that we have talked to since Jeff went away.”

Curious he asked, “You have seen no other people?”

“We’ve seen a few but none to speak to. And we didn’t let them see us.” I put the last of the patties on a plate and put them in the warmer while I finished the rice, gravy, and corncakes that would round out our meal.

Daniel walked into the kitchen. “Dacey, Dog wants to go out.”

I was momentarily flustered trying to figure out how to finish cooking and take Daniel and the dog out at the same time. Abel said, “I will do it.”

“Not in just a shirt! It’s cold out. Daniel? Show Abel the storage room; you’ll need a lamp back there. Abel, there are three boxes that I left open; I think Dad’s old coat is in there and …”

“Your …?” I could tell Abel was concerned and embarrassed at the same time. Daniel must have sensed it to.

“It’s all right Abel. Daddy is in Heaven. They don’t need coats up there. Come on … I think Dog needs to go bad so we better hurry or Dacey will make us clean up the mess.”

Leaving my little brother to manage any of Abel’s reluctance I turned back and finished everything up, happier … or at least a whole lot less lonely … than I had been in a long while. I had someone to talk to, someone that seemed interesting … and who was at least trying to be nice and not take advantage. And someone who could help with some of the work that was hardest for me to do. I figured I’d be a fool to ask for any more than that.

I heard them come back in just as I was going out to call them. I was surprised to see that both Daniel and Abel had their arms full of wood and even Dog had a stick in her mouth. The wood was fresh chopped too.

I put my hands on my hips, “You did not just split that wood. In the rain. With your back the way it is. Are you trying to get sick?!”

Not for the last time would I run into Abel’s overdeveloped male pride. “If I stay here I share in the work,” he replied getting all bowed up.

“Well fine then … make me feel like a monster. It isn’t as if someone didn’t just try to torture you to death and stuff yesterday.”

Daniel saved us from getting in a tiff. “See Abel, I told you. Girls are funny about that kind of thing. She makes me wear socks and mittens. Momma did too.”

I humphed and shook my head and told Daniel to go get washed up for dinner. He put his load of wood down in the box near the fire place and I showed Abel where the wood box in the kitchen was.

“You really didn’t need to do that Abel. I mean yeah, when your back gets better I’d like the help but … I bet you busted some blisters and that has to sting.”

He tried to shrug but it hurt and I wound up helping him to take the coat off. It smelled strongly of cedar and going through the pockets I pulled out a sachet that Momma had made to keep the bugs away. All things considered I could have really ragged on Abel but figured he was going to be hard headed about it no matter what I said so I saved my breath.

When everyone was washed up I had them sit down as I put the food on the table. Abel was shaking his head so I asked him, “Aren’t you hungry?”

He swallowed a couple of times and then said, “Chica, you … this … must be a dream.”

He would have said more but Daniel interrupted and said, “Hurry and say the blessing Dacey. I’m hungry!”

“Daniel! That’s rude,” I admonished him. “It’s not nice to interrupt.”

Abel said, “Nor is it nice of me to keep him from his meal. You speak over your meal?”

I wasn’t about to get embarrassed over something I’d been doing my whole life. But I needn’t have worried.

“Si, mi Madre … my mother … and then my Abuelo … it was forbidden to eat until we dijo un rezo … said a … um … a blessing … on the food, saying thank you to God since tomorrow more might not come. Yes?”

“We just say a simple one that Daniel has memorized.”

“Yes, simple is best … viene del Corazon … from the heart it comes. It has been … a long time for me …” His voice trailed off and his eyes became troubled.

“Daniel,” I said quickly. “Say Grace for us?”

He’d barely said the last syllable before he picked up his fork and started shoveling food into his mouth. I was a little embarrassed but Abel didn’t notice … he was too busy tasting everything that I put on his plate.

“You still have the cows?”

“Huh? Oh … oh no … those are just …” It took me a minute to try and explain that the patties didn’t have any meat in them except for the scrapping from the bottom of the pan that I had fried the bacon in. “Mostly we eat pork. We have some canned beef but I only fix it a couple of times a month so that it’ll last. We still have a lot of canned chickens … and I really need to cull some of those biddies now that the weather is cold.”

“But this is not meat?”

I laughed at the look on his face. “No it really isn’t. But it can pass for it and Daniel will eat it better than he ever would a hamburger so sometimes …” I just shrugged. I knew I tended to spoil my brother by giving him whatever he wanted but I figured one of these days maybe I couldn’t so I’d do it now while I could.

I had made a lot expecting Abel to eat as big as Jeff always had but he seemed to be struggling to finish what was on his plate. “Are you sure you feel OK? Or maybe it’s my cooking? I didn’t even think to ask if you liked …”

“No … no Chica … my mouth, it wants more … my mind, it calls me a fool … but my stomach, it fails me. Um … how do you say … it grew smaller?”

After thinking a moment I said, “Oh, you mean shrunk? Your stomach shrunk? From not having much to eat?”

“Si … I mean yes.”

“Oh,” I said disappointed. “Then I guess you aren’t going to want any pie.”

Abel’s face nearly made me laugh out loud but I was afraid of hurting his feelings. “Pie? You mean empanada? You fixed … uh … postre?”

“Postre …,” I thought trying to remember my vocabulary. “Pastry? No … dessert … postre means dessert … pastels means pastry. Here, let me just show you.”

I got up and then brought the pie back to the table. Daniel was happy. He said, “Sheep pie!”

Abel had a funny look on his face as he tried to follow what we were saying. “Look, let me slice you a little piece, to celebrate maybe?”

He didn’t say no so I cut him a little piece and put it on his plate. He had to take his teeth and rake the spit back into his mouth. Then he saw the bits of plants in there.

“What … this is … grass pie?”

“No, sorrel pie.”

“Sew .. reel.”

“Close enough. Take a little taste.”

He put a smidge in his mouth and both Daniel and I finally did bust out laughing at the look on his face.

“This … this is lemon! Lemon pasteles!”

“No it’s not,” I laughed. “I told you, it is Sorrel Pie. It just bites like lemon does.”

It wasn’t hard to get him to finish his small piece but I could tell he was having to force down the last bite.

“It’s all right. I’ll put the leftovers in the cooler and we can eat the rest later.”

He insisted on helping to clear the table even though I could tell he was still hurting and just a little sick to his stomach on top of it but when he saw the cooler all thought of his discomfort left his mind. And of course the cooler led to the pantry and from the pantry to the big food storage room and from there to the grow rooms. We lost Daniel and Dog somewhere along the way and I heard them playing in the living room. Abel’s eyes could barely keep up with everything.

“My head … it spins and spins. Su padre era brillante.”

“Yeah, Dad was smart … but commonsense smart, not university smart. He never got a chance to go but if he had I know he would have been great.”

“It was the same for my Abuelo. There was little he could not do … but we were forever poor because there were so many of us and because the government took so much. I was supposed to go to university but …” he gave one of his shrugs. “Some day … maybe … if my past does not … I was bad and will have to pay one day before I can go on living.”

I didn’t like the idea of that. “Soldiers that go to war don’t pay for what they have to do to survive. It sounds like war out there to me. But anyway, you are safe here, with Daniel and me.”

He got a sad look on his face and something told me he was thinking of the old lady. “What happened? How did they catch you?”

When he answered I knew I had been right. “They found the old woman. I heard her screaming. I was foolish and did not think. There had been a bear … I thought …” another one of those shrugs. “I ran … straight into them. You saw the rest.”

“The old woman was not your fault. You must have been taking care of her for a while. I know how hard it can be to take care of Daniel. It would be worse if I had to hunt for all of our food. I don’t know if I could do it, not alone. The Blue Hats, the ones that hurt her, they’ll have to answer for it. They already have most likely.”

He looked at me, “You … you forgive so easily.”

“If you mean about you being a Blue Hat? Maybe … maybe not all of the Blue Hats are bad … there was this woman … when Daniel, Jeff, and I were taken … I think she meant well … I don’t know, maybe thinking of the Blue Hats like monsters was wrong. They are people, good and bad … but it seems mostly bad … or at least mostly wrong.”

“The ones who wanted to help … they did not last long. Accidents they were called. Or … or they changed as force was put on them. I changed. I …” I hadn’t ever meant anyone that could put as much meaning or feeling into simple gestures such as a sigh or a shrug as Abel could. He almost didn’t need to talk for me to understand what he meant or how he was feeling.

“Abel?”

“Hmm?”

“Why do there seem to be different kinds of Blue Hats?”

“Different … ah, you would not know. As things got bad, the UN … it became every man – or woman – for themselves. During this time the petty things, and the big things, that had made the people fight before becoming part of the UN came back. People looked for others that spoke their language, were from the same country, or the same religion. The UN was made of many parts but the parts no longer chose to work together as before. There was much infighting with the officers and commanders. There were assassinations. A group from Pakistan and Yemen started it and it spread from there.”

“None of them seem to like you very well.”

“No for I cared not who they were, where they were from, or what god they worshipped. If they were doing bad things, or not stopping their brethren from doing bad things, I did bad things to them. But after days, weeks, months of this … I could not continue. My soul ached. But what I did has followed me. I pray it does not follow me to your door Chica.”

“Well … they aren’t exactly my favorite people either so if they come to take you we’ll fight.”

I said it and I found as soon as I had that I really meant it. He may have worn the Blue Hat uniform, but he was never really a Blue Hat in his heart. Or maybe I was just making rationalizations. Either way it didn’t matter; even if he had been one of “them” in the past, Abel was now one of “us.”

Chapter 13

Chapter 13

He went real still and got a closed expression on his face.

“I also figure you can talk … or at least some semblance of it. You can holler pretty loud so your vocal chords work just fine. You’ve acted like you were gonna say something then just stopped like you’d thought better of it. Even yesterday you looked like you were chewing on words you were dying to say but didn’t. If you stutter or something like that then don’t worry about it, it isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Or maybe you have a lisp or something. Just whatever it is give it up already. I’m not going to bite your head off just because you put words together funny.”

He looked away and all I could do was shake my head.

“And something else … twice now the Blue Hats have seemed to call you ‘Montoya’ or something like that … like they knew you.”

He paled like he was getting sick.

“So anyway, if we’re going to be friends and you hang out here with us I just think it would be mannerly to be honest and upfront about any potential problems we might run into.” That got a reaction. His mouth fell open and I got the impression if he hadn’t already been sitting down his sitter would have hit the floor.

Then he looked at me, took a deep breath and said, “¡Madre de dios, usted es una muchacha loca! I wonder the men of your family ever let you out on your own.”

I wasn’t sure what I expected the young man I called Abel to sound like but the deep, chocolaty tones of his Spanish accent sure wasn’t it. But if he was Spanish … what the heck … why … then I got an awful feeling … and the Blue Hats seemed to know him so well … and my suspicions must have shown on my face.

“You will hear my story? Wait to decide how much to hate me?”

All I could do was nod while I called myself every type of fool in the book.

“Mi nombre … my name … es Abelardo Montoya. I was born in Madrid. My father was un conductor de camion … what you call a truck driver. He drove a bread truck but he was killed during a labor strike when I and my brother were very little. My mother sent us to live on our grandfather’s granja … his farm. It was a good life until the putrefaccion, what you call the Heart Rot, came to our ciudad … our little town. When the farm died so did my Abuelo. Then my uncle came from the city, bringing his family, to take over. I don’t know what happened to mi Madre; she just disappeared like so many others in the big cities. My uncle, he said there were too many of us to take care of, some would have to go. He put the girls to work in the soup kitchens … his sons he kept at home … but my brother and I and two other cousins … we were sent to the army for to pay the taxes.”

I did not want to feel anything for the person in front of me but I did, against my better judgment.

Abel shrugged, “My brother died. He became so hungry that he ate old leather that had been boiled and it poisoned him. One of my cousins died during entrenamiento … the training, where they teach you to be a soldier. No one cared. Men were dying in the camp every day. It was fewer to feed. Then the UN came with promises of food and fuel for every soldier – that they’d give our honor back to us – if we volunteered to help save the world. We were told our families would also be taken care of if we did this thing. Even though my cousin and I were scared, we volunteered. We were tired of being hungry and knew our Abuelo would have sacrificed everything for his familia, had died for his family, died for us that we might eat.”

He sighed again, this time looking ashamed.

“We came to America. It was so different from what we had left. Everyone had so much. We became jealous. We were also too proud, thinking that we were making things fair for everyone by making the America share what she had. We were fools. When the rot came I felt bad. People were very scared and worried and they reminded me much of my family and the place I had left behind. My cousin and I expected to help set up feeding stations and other programs like had been done in other countries. Instead it quickly became every man for himself. Some of us did try and do good but … it was so hard. The officers would punish us and call us soft, or tell us we were being brainwashed by the enemy. I hadn’t realized America was the enemy. Then the killing started … and other things you are too young to hear about.”

This time it was me who snorted, easily understanding what he was trying not to say. All I had to do was remember the early radio messages and the look I had seen in the eyes of the men who had put the burning sticks to Abel’s back.

“We were torn. Many of us kept asking when we would go home. Soon, soon they would say. Then my cousin found out something terrible. They had lied to us … about feeding our families. Word got out and we were angry, so angry. There were riots in the camps. When they found out who had told they shot my cousin dead and told us to get back to work and to shut up, that our families were likely dead so now they were our families and we would do what we were told or die just like my cousin had.”

His hands were curled into fists so tight his knuckles were bloodless and white. The look on his face was terrible.

“I made a vow to get the man who had killed my cousin, for all I knew my last family, and to also get revenge on all of those who had lied to us and brought us so far from home for what was nothing but evil deeds.” He quieted briefly and then said, “I have done terrible things Day-cee, so terrible I fear the day I will have to confess them. I lived only for revenge for a long time. But then I grew to hate myself, sickened by what I had become so I escaped … ran until I could run no more. I fell in a ditch and would have been happy to have died there and never drawn another breath.”

He refused to look at me, I guess not willing to see what he thought he would see on my face.

“Unfortunately, God did have me wake up; I was not to escape myself so easy. When I woke there was the old woman there going through my belongings. She thought I was dead and then cried because I wasn’t and thought I was going to kill her or worse. I do not really understand how it came to be but she and I walked into the wilderness here and … and I did my best to atone by taking care of her. She was … loca I think … a little crazy. Sometimes she would talk to people who were not there or wander off and I would have to find her again. That is what happened the second time we met, I found her and had tucked her into a camp to sleep while I hunted something to feed us with. The animals are becoming fewer and harder to catch. I had fed her what little we had; the food you gave me … it was like … like my abuela’s. It had been so long since I had bread … and you were very sneaky to hide that other sandwich in my pack. I worried that you gave me too much of your food.”

At his hangdog expression I relented enough to say, “You worried for nothing. I’d never let Daniel go hungry. There was enough to share so we did.”

“Si … yes, you were very strange to me. A girl and a young boy, wandering around by themselves but the old woman she said you would have familia, that you could not take care of yourselves. I think them careless to let you wander … there are bad men … and women … who would do unspeakable things if they caught you. I tried to find you but could not and soon we were driven deep into the higher parts trying to avoid the … what you call the Blue Hats … that were looking to make me an example. My commander … he is still alive and hates me even more than I hate him I think though why I do not know.”

“Well, hopefully they’ll think you are dead after that landslide. It pretty much took any evidence of what happened with it.”

“Do you think?” At my nod he said, “I am tired of running. I would like to be still just for a while.”

I was pulled in two different directions. This person was the same Abel that he had been before I knew his story but at the same time I had Daniel to think about. I didn’t know what to do.

Abel must have sensed my problem. “I will leave, but I have one favor. Will you look after the perro … the dog? I am not sure that I can look after her any longer and she seems to like your Daniel. Maybe your men …”

I’d had enough. “OK, here it is and if you take advantage of it I can guarantee I will hurt you.” He startled at my angry tone. “There aren’t any ‘my men folk’ or whatever you are trying to say. For that matter there aren’t any women folk either. There is only Daniel and me. The Blue Hats killed our parents. We … Daniel, and I and our cousin Jeff who’d be about your age I guess … we were sent to a re-education camp but some Chinese came along and there was a fight and the whole camp pretty much ran for it. My family … the three of us left … came here, to this place my father had built. Then after a while Jeff left to go to town and try and see what was going on … he never came back. I don’t know what happened to him but I figure he’s never coming back.”

The look on Abel’s face was priceless. “And you can get that surprised look off of your face. Just because I am a girl doesn’t mean I am helpless. I bet your grandmother and mother could have told you a thing or two about that.” I calmed down, afraid that if I didn’t I’d wake up Daniel and scare him.

I stood up and Abel stood up too. “Oh sit down before you fall down. I think better when I’m moving but don’t think I’m going to make it easy on you.”

He sat and just stared at me like I was something he’d never seen before. “OK, ground rules. You can’t draw them Blue Hats here. I don’t know what you were doing before to get them so bent out of shape … probably something I’ll wish I had done … but no more. I’ve dreamed of getting back at the Blue Hats for a long time but I’ve also had Daniel to look after. Daniel comes first … always … got it?”

At his nod I continued. “And another thing, you have to help share in the work. I don’t know what the girls were like where you came from but I’m not about to turn into your maid. I’ll keep cooking and stuff like that but I wouldn’t mind some help with the laundry, the chickens, and getting the firewood cut up. And you can help clean the bathroom too.”

He just continued to stare at me like he was wondering if he was hallucinating.

“And about me being a girl … don’t go pulling any tricky stuff … with me or with Daniel.” He was confused for a moment then looked like he got a little angry himself.

“I would never do something so dishonorable … so evil …”

“Yeah, yeah … and Benji Clayton the preacher’s son didn’t try to spy on the girls’ shower at Bible camp every chance he got. I don’t care who your daddy or … or abuelo … was or how they acted … I’m just worried about how you are going to act. So no … no peaking or anything like that. We only have one bathroom and sometimes Daniel forgets to knock but he gets freaked out if he thinks the door is locked so … so …”

“If the door is closed I will knock, or call out. I had girl cousins that were like sisters to me … they screamed very loudly … and could make life mismo malo if you did not act as you ought,” he said so seriously I had to look to see if he was joking. He was not. Good for his girl cousins.

“I’ll … I’ll probably think of other things later but for now that will do … just so long as we’re clear.”

He nodded but then said, “Chica, are you sure? You do not know me. I could be a liar.”

“If you are, you are a good one … even Dog likes you. Daniel thinks you are OK and he seems to be able to sniff people out that aren’t on the up and up.”

“About your Daniel …”

I had been waiting for him to say something and was ready to tear into him but what he said surprised me, “I had a cousin, she was like him … different, gentle. Rosa. She hated going to work in the kitchens … all the strangers, they upset her. Autistico, but worse than your Daniel I think.”

“Daniel … he’s my little brother and I will never let anyone say anything bad about him but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that he has … issues. Yes, he’s autistic but we always hoped that one of these days he’d learn to cope with everything and then maybe lead … I don’t know, they used to call it a ‘normal life’ but I don’t know if that exists for anybody anymore.”

He had a very expressive sigh. “Si … but the rot … it cannot last forever. We just need to outlast it. I still look here at you … at this place … I still do not understand.”

I grinned despite myself. “It was my Dad. People used to call him paranoid but he’d say ‘Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.’”

It took Abel a minute to translate what I’d said in his head then he nodded. “Si … si … there are many bad things in life. We would all have died very quick if Abuelo and Abuelita had not stored much food on the farm for our whole family.”

“Exactly. The Blue Hats took everything from our house … everything … furniture, clothes, everything … except for what Dad had told us to move here. We were going to move into the cave within a couple of days but … but …”

I hadn’t cried over it in a long time and I wasn’t about to cry about it then either but I couldn’t talk about it either. Not to him. Not yet.

“S’OK Day-cee. I still … it hurts … to think of my brother … and my cousin … both who died but who did not need to.”

“I don’t cry much. I had to get over that early on or I would have flooded this cave out completely. Look … this is just … I haven’t had anyone but Daniel to talk to in a long time. I’m not sure I should be telling you all this stuff now … but I can’t seem … my mouth is getting unhinged at finally …,” I stopped and sighed not quite able, nor willing, to put how I was feeling into words.

“We will both have to figure out how to talk again I think.”

I asked a question that just occurred to me, “How come you speak English so well? All I hear the Blue Hats … and people on the radio … talking is gibberish.”

When he didn’t understand what I meant by gibberish I said, “Languages that I can’t understand.”

“Ah,” he said after figuring out what I meant. “I took English in my escuela … in my school. Then I learned more … better … when I came to America and had to talk for my officers to make other people understand what they wanted. I took books and read them when no one was looking. And the old woman … she never seemed to stop talking but it wasn’t always to me.” He tapped his forehead with his finger.

“I know a little Spanish. I took it as an elective in middle school but everyone always laughed when I tried to speak it.”

“Cruelty.” I looked again thinking he might be making fun of me but I couldn’t tell if he was or not.

“No, I really do sound pretty bad. I never could make my r’s trill or use the tilda over the right N.”

“Ah,” he said again. Then after a moment he asked, “Do you wish to learn?”

“Maybe … probably … but only if you promise not to laugh at how bad I am.”

“If you promise not to laugh when I do not understand the words you use. You put them together strangely sometimes.”

It was a deal … on everything, not just on the not laughing stuff … but since Daniel chose that moment to walk in we left what we had really been talking about unsaid.

I fixed both Daniel and Dog breakfast and that kept me busy but still listening to Abel answer all the questions that came his way, occasionally translating a phrase or word into something Abel could understand. Daniel was fascinated with Abel and how he suddenly just started talking. “Dacey can make anybody do anything. She just wears you down.”

I looked over at them, giving them both the evil eye, but all it did was make them both laugh. Abel wasn’t laughing for long however. He’d started hurting so bad he couldn’t hide it from me. I brought him a bottle of ibuprofen and asked him if he was allergic to anything.

“No, I’m strong.”

“Strong doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Hmm? Ah … no … no mi salud … it is very good. No alergias … none.”

“Fine, then take a couple of these and go lay down. Wait … not in … look, if you are going to stay here you can’t sleep on the sofa. That’s stupid.”

I led him back to my room, “You can sleep here. I’ve been sleeping with Daniel for such a long time it doesn’t matter anyway.”

“I cannot take your room Day-cee.”

“It’s a bed and a dresser, no big deal. I just hope your feet don’t hang off the end. You’re taller than Jeff is … was …,” I stopped and just shrugged.

We had a stare down contest which I won … maybe only because he was so tired and hurting.

“Daniel, help me change the sheets real quick and …”

“No … they are fine. I’ve been sleeping on the ground for so long anything is a pleasure.”

I wasn’t going to argue with him. I hated changing sheets. It’s the only time being short bothered me. “Fine, just don’t say I didn’t offer. Daniel, leave him to sleep. I expect Dog needs to go out pretty bad but we’re going to have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t take a liking to the chickens and she’ll be wet when she comes back in so you’ll have to dry her up. I don’t mind Dog staying inside but I’ll be doggone if I’m going to live with a wet smelly dog. Got it?”

“Got it Dacey. Come on Dog. Dacey says you can go outside but you can’t play with the chickens. That would be bad.”

I turned to make sure that Abel didn’t mind Daniel taking his dog out but he was already asleep which I figured was the best thing for him. I turned the solar lamp off but left it beside the bed for when he woke up and then followed Daniel outside. It was so cold that none of us wanted to be out for long. I checked on the chickens again and they got insulted so I left them alone.

Daniel was tired again but he was way past being willing to take a nap “like a baby.” Instead I told him that Dog looked like she needed a nap but wouldn’t if she thought he wanted to play so maybe he could trick her by lying down with her. He was out like a light in less than a minute. I wanted to curl up and go to sleep too but there was no time for it. I had a lot to think about.

Chapter 12

Chapter 12

What was I supposed to do? I wanted to take Daniel and run away from what I saw. I wasn’t a cop. I wasn’t a soldier. I wasn’t a grown up of any flavor. I was just fifteen … a kid … a girl on top of that … I wasn’t strong enough. What did I know about how to stop the bad guys? I looked heavenward and told God how much I didn’t particularly appreciate it that he’d show me something I was so powerless to stop. I was really cranking up to get angry when my head got all quiet and a strange thought entered it like a whisper. “Who said you are powerless? It is written ‘all things’ and that means ALL things … assuming you are willing to try.” Yeah … that’s what the Book says – ALL things. So, did I believe It or not?

Then I remembered what I had done at the camp where Daniel, Jeff, and I had been taken. I remembered that I had not just sat down and given up, told myself that I was too young to do anything or waited from someone to rescue me, and I had been even younger then and certainly less experienced looking after myself. I looked around and opened myself up to the possibilities.

There were four men torturing Abel but as I looked more closely I saw two unarmed men standing far back looking more than a little green around the gills. I wasn’t sure if it was because of what was happening to Abel or from the smoke that kept blowing their direction. They had on street clothes rather than the Blue Hat uniforms but they were wearing some kind of vest looking thing that reminded me of what the old school crossing guards had worn, only UN blue in color. They were standing by what looked like the packs of the other four.

I made my way down closer to those packs, trying to avoid all of the loose rock on the steep side of the ridge; I didn’t want any rattle drawing attention to me. I needn’t have bothered as they were both so appalled and fascinated by what they were watching that nothing else seemed to penetrate their senses. That’s when I realized I had seen the two unarmed men before. One of them had been a coach at the highschool and the other guy had been a manager at the grocery store where Momma had taken most of her business. I left off thinking about that for the time being as I couldn’t let it get in the way.

I had to do something to stop the men from hurting Abel any more than they already had. If I started shooting more than likely they’d start shooting back. I wanted to save Abel but I needed to stay alive to do it. And in all of the ruckus a bullet could hit Abel and any risk I took would be for nothing.

The smoke from the fire as well as the smell from the green wood they were using to make the fire hot kept blowing back at me; it was irritating my eyes and throat. The idiots had thrown some sumac branches on their fire and it smelled nasty. The torturers didn’t notice because of the wind direction and because they were having too much fun but the two townies were sure noticing. They must have been scared spitless though of those Blue Hats because they never moved or complained which I found odd. While I was complaining to myself about the commonsense some people seemed to be missing I spotted a butane canister – the kind used for small camp stoves – that had rolled out of one of the packs.

After that things must have happened very fast though it seemed like I was moving through molasses at the time. I reached through the underbrush and snatched up the butane canister holding it like a brick of gold. See, Dad had taught me more than just how to shoot and how to hunt; first he had taught me how to be safe around the farm and in his workshop where he kept his tools, especially the different tanks he used for welding and other sorts of farm work. That butane canister was my ticket to cause trouble by doing the exactly wrong thing with it.

At the base of the shale rock that layered the side of the ridge I built a quick small fire and put the butane canister in it. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen someone trying to hunt a nonexistence hole to avoid the consequences of something they’ve just done. I’m sure I looked cartoon stupid but I didn’t care, I knew what was coming as Daddy had shown me once just for kicks when he had to blow a big stump out of a field he was clearing.

The four men had stepped back to admire their handiwork when one of their packs made a squawking noise that startled me. Dang blasted but they had a radio which meant there were more of them somewhere around. The four men came over to the packs and picked up the radio before quickly retreating as they finally noticed the smoke. The guy with the ratio jabbered into it for a few words and then got a real bent out of shape look on his face. He turned to the two townies and told them in English, “Cut Montoya down. He is to be returned and put on public trial.”

The townies hustled over to Abel, avoiding the body of the old woman. They cut the rope loose and Abel just fell over and lay limp though I could just make out the sound of retching that he made from the pain and shock he must have been in. I didn’t have time to be confused that they’d called him by a different name; that would come later.

It took longer than I thought it would but the bang of the exploding canister was just awful when it did happen. And so was the damage. Dad had told me that an exploding butane canister reminded him of an exploding claymore. When I asked him how he knew that he got a self-conscious grin on his face and said for me to never mind about how, just that it was. That usually meant that it had something to do with some naughtiness he’d gotten up to as a teenager. I’d overheard stories from some of Dad’s old friends that came around once in a while and Dad sounded like the kind of boy he would never have let come near me which was kind of ironic if you think about it.

A lot of the power of the explosion went into the hillside but rather than be a good thing for bystanders it was the exact opposite. Loose shale rock went pelting in every direction like shrapnel from a bomb explosion. The four Blue Hats never stood a chance. They were cut down where they stood and a bloody mess they were too. I didn’t dwell on it though as I was too busy trying to survive the rain of rocks and dirt that came down on me. I was lying in a little ditch several yards away but I wasn’t able to avoid all of the power of the explosion. My ears were ringing and I had some cuts on me, a particularly bad one on the back of my left wrist where a sharp rock had come down and cut me where I was trying to protect my head. I remembered to keep my mouth open but I was still rattled.

The two townies were down and pretty beat up but not out. I was trying to figure out what to do next when there was another rumble. I jumped back into the trees just in time. Some large boulders from further up started sliding down the incline and the men panicked and started running away, thankful not in the direction where I’d left Daniel.

There wasn’t any time left. I ran out of the trees and over to Abel to find that he was still breathing but not real together mentally. Something cracked behind me and I saw a big chunk of rock outcropping give way. I thought we were bug guts for sure but it slid down and blocked the trail behind the townies. It would slow them down if or when they came back but I wasn’t counting on it slowing them down too much.

“Abel … Abel … listen, this is going to hurt like the dickens but I’ve got to get you out of here. If you can help me keep you on your feet I’d appreciate it.”

No response but he did seem to be trying to pick his feet up and move them about half the time; the rest I simply dragged him. Abel, though he was skinny as all get out, was no lightweight. His bones must have had a core of lead in them.

“Dacey! There was a big boom and …,” Daniel started losing his speech. It got a little worse when he saw Abel’s condition.

“Easy Daniel, don’t lose it on me, you are going to have to help. I need you to watch him for a sec. I’ve got to go back for Dad’s gun. Give him a little bit of water if he comes to.”

I don’t know if I was being too hard on my little brother or not, but the truth was it wasn’t just Dad’s gun that I was going back for. I ran down the trail, picked up the rifle and then went straight to the automatic rifles that the men had dropped during the explosion.

I had to keep myself from looking at the gross mess I’d made. Between the rock shards and their proximity to the explosion … well they were just a grade A mess and there is no need to go over it all again. I would have simply dragged all four packs away with me but they were too heavy. They had to weigh at least forty to fifty pounds each. I ran what I gathered in dashes back to where I’d left Daniel watching over Abel. On my second dash back I found Abel conscious, on his stomach, and pawing at one of the rifles.

“Are you crazy? Look, you aren’t in any shape to try and load one of these puppies. Your hands are all icky and sticky and you are shaking like a leaf. I’ve only got one more run and then we’ve got to figure out a way to get out of here. Save your energy for that, you’re going to need it.” I’m not for sure he listened to me but he did stop fidgeting so much and I was able to finish what I had been doing.

I ran back down for the third and last time, threw the remainder of what I’d decided to take in a now empty pack that I’d upended onto the ground and then stood looking around trying to decide how to cover up my crime. If someone came back they would see four dead men whose bodies had been … well, not desecrated exactly but I had forced myself to go through their pockets and swipe some of the stuff they carried. They’d be able to tell that the packs had been dumped on the ground and gone through and that two of the packs were actually missing. They’d also see that four automatic weapons were missing as well as any kind of ammo. I had no idea what story the townies would tell but even if they didn’t suspect someone set off the explosion then they’d sure suspect it after they came up here after their dead.

Just then I felt a vibration through my feet and the tree that Abel had been tied to started leaning over and out into nothing. I realized then that the whole clearing was actually nothing more than a large ledge. Oh rubber baby buggy bumpers. I back pedaled and then turned and ran as the ground started to give way. It felt like the falling ground was following me down the trail. I stopped when I got back to where I had left everyone and turned to look. A good chunk of the mountain side had slipped and taken everything with it. Both Daniel and Abel gave me a wide eyed stare.

I tried to shrug nonchalantly. “Ok, so maybe I made an even bigger mess than I expected to.”

Abel made a really odd snort, like a piece of a laugh that got pushed out of his nose accidentally, and then sighed as his head kind of lolled to the side; he was out of it again.

We were safe, at least for a while, but that didn’t change the fact that I still needed to find a way to get all three of us … make that four as Dog had come to though she was still obviously weak … back to the sink in one piece. We were already going to be pressed for time and I worried that we would have to stay a night out in the woods.

There was no way that Abel was going to be able to walk back home. A picture of an old cowboy movie jumped into my head. These dudes had a friend that had gotten shot but they couldn’t stop traveling through the badlands or they’d run out of food and water. They built a travois kind of contraption, something like an old hospital stretcher, and they dragged him. Man it was a good thing that Dad taught my scout troop lashing. That is where you take rope or vines and tied things together to make other things.

I took the cord that I’d swiped from the dead Blue Hats … and their ax too … and cut down two saplings and some branches and then lashed it all together to make something that looked like I remembered from the movie. Abel, when he was conscious, looked like he wanted us to go on without him but I decided to simply ignore him. Just because someone wants to play hero doesn’t mean you have to let him.

Rolling Abel onto the travois was not fun for either one of us. First I had to roll him over onto his back which made him nearly break his teeth to keep the scream in and then I had to roll him over again so that he was face down on the branches. We laid Dog beside him and then I tied the two extra packs across Abel’s legs to hold him onto the travois and keep him from sliding off.

There had been a tow strap in one of the packs and I used a length of it to tie to the end I was going to lift so that I could carry the weight balanced on my shoulders rather than in my hands. Daniel’s job was to follow behind us with a branch destroying the drag marks we would make.

At first I had to stop every five minutes or so to try and rebalance the load but eventually I got into a rhythm. It was dusk before I finally admitted that I wasn’t going to make it much further.

“Daniel …”

“No Dacey, I don’t wanna sleep outside.”

“Daniel, I don’t want to either but …”

“It’s gonna rain Dacey.”

I looked up and sure enough it seemed we were in for more wet stuff. If it had just been rain I was worried about I would have bullied my brother into setting up camp whether he liked it or not but the weather was turning bitter cold and I could feel the sweat on my body drawing what little heat I had away from me. It wasn’t rain we were looking at but sleet, or maybe even an early dusting of snow.

“OK, we keep on, but if you fall behind or get out of sight of me I’m going to be totally hacked.”

“OK Dacey,” he answered, glad just at the idea of not having to stay outdoors.

Three more hours, and in total darkness, we finally got to the sink. I had felt icy drops of wet falling off and on for about twenty minutes but he hadn’t really opened up on us yet. Daniel was exhausted beyond speech and he was so cold to my touch that it scared me. I reached down and touched Abel to feel the same thing.

“Daniel … Daniel …,” he finally looked at me. “Listen to me buddy, I want you to go down and wait in front of the door. I’ve got to bring Abel down.”

Daniel pointed at Dog and she must have seen him. She got up weakly from the travois and tried to go to him.

“Oh for pity sake. Go Daniel, I’ll carry Dog.” That’s what I did but instead of leaving them there I opened the door and shoved them both inside the little anteroom and then went back up for long, tall, and heavy.

“Hey Abel, you in there anywhere?” I asked trying to see if he’d respond. He opened one eye a crack but it kind of rolled around in the socket like he couldn’t focus.

“OK, this is so not going to be fun. First off, I have to trust you not to tell anyone about this. I wouldn’t like doing anything bad to you but Daniel is all I have in this world and his safety is more important than my wishing to not have to be bad.” I could tell he was hearing me but I wasn’t sure he was understanding me at all. “Second, you weigh a ton and I can’t carry you down so unless you help me some here I’m going to have to roll you down and with your back being like it is I can pretty much guarantee you won’t feel too good afterwards.”

He didn’t move. I really didn’t want to hurt him but I really couldn’t carry him down and trying to slide him down on the travois just wasn’t going to work. I started untying him and then from someplace he must have found the energy to move but I could tell that he wasn’t going to get far.

That was definitely not the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life. I basically had to walk backwards holding onto the guardrail while he walked forward leaning on me. We made it into the anteroom but I hadn’t thought that Daniel would still be there. I tripped over his feet and we both went down. Abel squashed me flat and drove all the air out of me. In the process he busted his nose against my chin and it started bleeding like a gusher.

I’m not going to bother describing the rest of the comedic routine of digging Daniel’s foot out of my back, wiggling out from under Abel and then dragging both him and Daniel to the living area where I lit the fire and hoped they’d thaw out while I finished dealing with things.

Dog came limping cautiously into the room. “I hope ‘cause you are a girl it means you’ve got manners and won’t make a mess. I’ll bring you a bowl of water in a bit. Do your best to keep them from acting stupid will you?”

It is pretty sad when you are down to talking to a dog like it can understand you all the way like a person could. I left and drug down the packs and left them in the anteroom. I went back up to get the travois and pull it out of sight and got soaked for my trouble. I also had to make sure the chickens were going to be warm enough and did what I had to do for them.

I didn’t care about much after that but I still had sense enough to know I couldn’t sleep in wet clothes so I changed and then walked out to fall across the sofa. I was asleep before I even got comfortable.

-----------------------------

The fire was just coals but I could hear scratching around. My eyes cracked open and for a brief moment I was back to when Jeff lived with us. Then I jumped as everything came back into focus. I rolled off the sofa and went over to where Abel was trying to put wood on the fire. Dog was there too and I remembered I hadn’t gotten her any water.

“Sorry girl I’ll get some in just a minute. Abel, stop fooling with the fire and lay back down, I’ll get it. I’ll bring back some water … might as well clean your back too.”

Abel’s eyes were glassy with pain but he knew me and let me take the wood from his hands and push him over to lean on the poofy chair that matched the sofa. I stood up, not too steady on my own legs, and went and got everything I needed. I put a bowl of water down for Dog and she lapped at it eagerly but with dainty manners that I appreciated. At least I didn’t have to worry about dog slobber all over the place on top of everything else.

Abel sat on the floor, leaning on the chair. I saw that he’d taken what was left of his shirt off and I felt guilty again. This would have been a lot easier on him if I’d done it as soon as we got in. I sat down to start cleaning his back when with more speed than I’d expected he turned and snatched the wet rag from my hand.

“I so don’t think so. I bet you can’t even reach most of the dirt on your back much less be easy enough not to open those blisters up. I’ve given Daniel a bath more than a few times so washing your back isn’t going to be that hard … so long as you cooperate.”

He kind of drew back from me like I’d hurt his feelings and then looked at me kind of strange, closed his eyes, and shook his head. “I sure hope you aren’t shaking your head no because if I can wear Daniel down I can wear anyone down.”

A soft snort was the only response until he opened his eyes and handed me the rag before slowly turning his back to me. “Now I’m not saying this isn’t going to hurt but I’ll be as easy as I can. I’ll be as gentle as I would with Daniel.” That got me a look out of the corner of his eye, one I didn’t understand but I was too tired to go after figuring it out.

It took me nearly an hour to clean him all up proper but after a while he drew the line. I finally agreed it made more sense to show him the bathroom and let him clean the rest of him up.

I knew that his clothes were filthy. They didn’t stink, but they were dirty. And though some of Abel reminded me of Jeff it wasn’t because they were built the same. Actually Abel reminded me more of pictures of Dad when he was younger. I hadn’t looked through Dad’s things in a while, only Momma’s when I grew out of my tops and such. I opened the chests and slowly pulled out a few things and realized they’d swallow Abel whole. Then I remembered Dad’s box of jeans and work shirts that he swore he was going to get back into. I finally found them way in the back of the storage area and at the same time I remembered how Momma would sigh and shake her head every time Dad insisted on putting something into those boxes. “John, just give them to the church closet. You know you’re never …”

“Never say never. Do I complain about all them dresses you keep on the off chance they come back into style?”

Mom would humph, “That’s different.”

The memory made me smile but sad at the same time. I shook my head and said to heck with it and pulled out some of the smallest waisted jeans in the pile and a couple of the shirts and walked back to the door of the bathroom where I knocked.

He jumped and then groaned. “Abel, don’t take this the wrong way but those clothes you were wearing need a good wash. I’ve put some stuff on the doorknob here … uh … you might have to … uh … hold onto your … er … um … your under things but if you don’t mind the smell of cedar here are some pants and shirts that might suit you.”

No response but I could imagine Jeff would have been outraged enough to give me the silent treatment if I’d said something similar to him. I walked away but as I turned into the kitchen I heard the bathroom door click open and then after a moment click shut. A little while later as I stood at the stove fixing an omelet I turned to find Abel holding himself up by his arm on the wall.

I walked over and took his dirty things from him and saw he was in real pain. He’d left the shirt half unbuttoned and completely untucked. “I hope you don’t get cold. It stays cool in the cave all year long.” I looked down to see his feet were tucked into moccasins but they weren’t laced up. I helped him over to the table and had him sit on the bench since it didn’t have a back.

“I don’t mind if you want to lay your head down until … hmmm … I think it is close enough to breakfast to call it that. Thirsty?”

A dry click of a swallow and a nod told me yes so I poured him some water and then put some powdered Gatorade in it. “This may taste nasty but burns can knock your electrolytes out of balance.”

I got a confused look from him. “You know, your salts. When you lose a lot of fluids.”

He shrugged and then winced in pain. I set the drinking cup at his place and then turned to flip the omelet that when it was cooked I would split between us.

He remained silent but gazed longingly at the plate and stood quickly as I went to sit down. “Uh …” I didn’t know what to say; he was acting weird. He finally looked over in the direction where Daniel still slept and I said, “I’m going to let him sleep for as long as he wants. He did a big job covering our trail and it was cold.”

Abel got all shamefaced and I told him, “You know, just because I said my brother did a big job didn’t mean I was complaining or saying something to upset you. It was what it was, that’s all. Now please sit down and eat, you make me nervous when you pop up and down like that.”

He did sit back down and I was glad to see it. He was getting a little gray around the edges again and I didn’t want to have to clean him up off the kitchen floor. He ate the food I put on his plate like it was the best thing he ever put in his mouth; it was kind of embarrassing but at the same time I was getting a charge out of it and when I offered him some cold biscuits we hadn’t eaten and some of Momma’s preserves to go on them he acted like he’d found the lost Ark or something.

“Look, now you’ve eaten and while Daniel is asleep I think we should … get a few things straight.”

Abel nodded his head cautiously.

“I may be young but I’m not stupid,” I said eyeing him. “Since the beginning of this whole mess I’ve seen Blue Hats three times since they killed my parents and we escaped their re-education camp … and all three of those times have somehow had something to do with you.”

Chapter 11

Chapter 11

I never figured out exactly what was out of whack with my thigh, all I know is that it hurt badly and it took four times as long to get back to the sink as it should have. It was over a week before I could move around enough to get out of the cave once I had climbed down into it. I had to leave the eggs because I couldn’t even get out well enough to collect them and a couple of the stupid hens went broody.

I figured some of the older hens would need to be culled before the cold weather came back so I let them have what they wanted and eventually we had a bunch of yellow puff balls to look after on top of everything else. That meant more work, primarily in building them their own little run that was predator proof, but I guess it was worth it … especially as I remember the look on Daniel’s face as he sat, fascinated by them.

Lucky for me I was finally completely healed and was able to start pulling all of the grass seed heads we could find to add to the chickens’ own foraging efforts. Lucky too, in a way, that that summer was also a grasshopper summer. The chickens had all of the protein they could catch and boy, were they funny. Every once in a while more than one chicken would go after the same hopper and the silly things would plow into one another. Once a whole bunch of them spotted the same grasshopper at the same time and when they were finished it looked like a multi-car pileup; they were all squawking and complaining as they got themselves untangled and straightened their feathers out. Both Daniel and I laughed a long time. It felt good.

Daniel and I were very careful after running into the old woman and the rest of those people … although I’ll be honest and admit that in hindsight I really never thought of the Blue Hats as “people” but as monsters, monsters that could be done away with without thought or consequences.

After seeing people for the first time in so long, and having it be the kind of encounter that it was, I wondered whether we should go out anymore at all. After thinking it through however I knew that really wasn’t feasible. I wasn’t going to let one bad experience lock us up in the cave for the rest of our lives. So slowly, as my leg healed and the chicken chores were complete, we ventured out exploring again … but not near that valley that I had told the old woman about and not to the campgrounds. I wasn’t going to let the Blue Hats win, but I wasn’t going to be foolish either.

A part of me was terribly curious about the old woman and the young man with her. Where did they come from? I didn’t recognize them as being from around here. How had they survived? I didn’t get the impression that they had a place like we did to hole up in. Why were the Blue Hats after them? It just seemed awful coincidental that they had been found out like they had.

Every once in a while I would find signs that someone had been around deeper in the BLM area. Freshly cut cattail sprouts … one of the forage items that still were making what could be eaten … was the first time I really noticed but once I’d seen that I started looking around more carefully. There were flat prints in dusty spots, similar to Daniel’s moccasins but too large to be his and I still had tread prints on my shoes. I’d see string or hair caught on branches and bushes. We found the skeleton of an animal that was too neatly laid out to have been done by another animal predator. And every once in a while I’d get jumpy because I swear it would feel like we were being watched. When I would get that feeling … or Daniel would … we faded into the underbrush as quickly as we could and then took a long and winding path back to the sink and remained there for a couple of days to be on the safe side.

Towards the end of summer I took a good, long look at the food we had remaining in the cave. By my reckoning when we first went into the cave there was food for five people for over three years but we didn’t have five people because my parents had been killed and Jeff left shortly after that never to return. That meant that from near the beginning we had nearly eight years of food storage for just Daniel and I. I was thirteen and several months when we went into the cave and I turned fifteen early in July of that summer making it about a year and a half since our world had gone all messed up. I figured between what we grew in the grow rooms and what forage I managed to bring in over the past year we still had around seven years of food.

I could have given up the grow rooms, not bothered with the chickens, and forgotten about foraging and still been able to put a decent meal together for the two of us … for a while. The problem was we just didn’t know how long that Heart Rot was going to be around and even after it left – if it left – how long it would take to start producing enough food to feed us again. And a lot of the long term storage stuff that Daddy had squirreled away was powdered, dried, and strictly staple type ingredients. There was a lot of rice, grains, and beans but that doesn’t make for very interesting meals if you don’t have other stuff to add in or at least to vary the flavor with. So I decided that even if things started looking like they were getting better, and especially if they did not, we would continue the grow rooms and the chickens, but we’d also continue to forage for what we could.

It turned out we were the only ones though. As the summer turned into autumn Daniel and I had a few close encounters. Along the road the home place faced … though it wasn’t easy to even see the old road top anymore between the grasses and the tree debris … we saw what looked like a gypsy group. I don’t mean they looked like gypsies exactly, they just seemed to live like them.

They had what looked like rickshaws – some pulled by hand and some by pedal powered wheels – that they used as wagons for their personal items. There were more adults than children and none of them looked healthy or happy. If I had to pick an emotion they looked resigned but intent. They didn’t make much noise though they made more than Daniel and I did and that is how we avoided running into them as I had been out looking for mints and other greens to bring back to the sink to dry for winter storage.

Much to my personal displeasure they found the walnut tree next to the road that I’d been watching over and they stripped it bare, taking even the greenest nuts not out of their husks. One woman fell down crying and thanking God. I was so angry that I looked up where God is supposed to be and asked why he’d given those walnuts to them when I’d been the one taking care of it since last autumn. It just didn’t seem fair. I didn’t get an answer but maybe a non-answer was still an answer in a way. Maybe it was just none of my business why He did some of the things He did them. And besides, there were other nut trees in the area, that one had just been fuller of nuts than the others had.

Nuts were an important part of my plan. They provided fats and oils that some of the powdered and dried foods didn’t. They also were full of protein and that was important because Daniel and I used our muscles a lot. Most importantly when I couldn’t get Daniel to eat anything else I could always get him to eat a nut butter sandwich. There was peanut butter powder in the big cans of storage foods but it wasn’t the same as making fresh, creamy nut butter like I could with nuts that we foraged.

I eventually was able to really stock up on nuts by spending a couple of weeks just working Daniel and me to pieces. And it seemed to take twice as long to do it too because the nuts were half the size they normally were.

In my mind we couldn’t afford to let anyone else have any more of “our” food. I wouldn’t say we covered every acre in the BLM but we covered every one that we could and wound up with bushels and bushels of nuts that I left in the shell and stored in the coldest part of the cave. At night while Daniel played I would spend some time cracking nuts to get at the meats inside before starting work on the bottomless basket of sewing and mending. That basket was the bane of my existence; no sooner would I imagine that I was nearly the end of the pile when I’d find a bunch of new stuff that needed to go into the basket. I began to wonder if I would have enough thread and yarn to keep up with the work that had to be done to keep us in clothes and under things. Thread and yarn wasn’t the only things that I started to worry about running out of.

It was a crisp, late October morning and Daniel was so frisky that I completely gave up on the chores I had planned for that day and decided we might as well go on another exploring run. We’d pretty much exhausted the nearest roads and the area immediately surrounding the sink so I decided before it got really cold to go deeper into the BLM than we ever had. I stuffed our packs with lots of in-case stuff and enough rations to last us in case we got caught out overnight for some reason. I didn’t like it when that happened any more than Daniel did but it did happen on occasion. I made sure everything was locked up and taken care of and we headed off into the forest.

I was doing my best to make notes on any potentially useful sights when we came across them. I also tried to make note of the landmarks so that we could make it home. I had forced myself to learn to navigate with a compass by reading a book in Dad’s library but Daniel either wouldn’t or couldn’t make heads or tails of it so it was just easier to point out landmarks to him. He had a head for things like that so it worked out to both of our advantage.

Further and further we went into the unexplored territory. This area was very different from the area of the BLM around the sink. The elevation was higher so it was cooler and that also meant that the trees and plants were different too. I found stuff in that area that I hadn’t seen since spring time down near the sink. And there were plenty of conifers up there and that meant cones so of course we wound up picking up a back of them.

Daniel didn’t enjoy arts and crafts very much but he loved to build things. Even though a lot of people would have thought him too old for it, he still played for hours with blocks, Lincoln Logs, and lego blocks. He also like to play with pine cones and the like. He would build really strange looking structures with them, or imagine them to be things they weren’t such as cars, but his favorite thing of all was to turn them into animals like cows, dogs, goats, and chickens by attaching little sticks for legs and leaves for ears. The really small cedar cones he would sometimes create baby chicks out of.

The biggest difference between that area of the BLM and where we normally explored was the general terrain and the lack of real trails. I was breaking a path through some underbrush when my hair snagged on some dry branches. Within a step my bandana had been ripped off and the clip I used to keep my braid up off my neck had opened. As my braid fell out of the clip the twigs of the limb I got hung up in somehow tangled even worse in my rubber band and then pulled it off the end of my hair.

There is very little worse that getting tangled up in the underbrush. It is why I kept my long hair braided and tucked up under a bandana in the first place … not to mention it helped so that I wasn’t constantly have to wash dirt and debris out of my hair. Daniel had finally let me keep his hair cut short so long as I was quick and only used scissors and not the clippers that buzzed near his ears.

Losing my patience I yanked the rubber band without thinking about anything except putting it back in my hair before I had to completely re-braid everything. But when I pulled the rubber band popped and broke. I must have stood looking at the now useless piece of elastic for thirty seconds before sitting down and trying not to cry like a baby.

“Aw Dacey, don’t cry,” Daniel tried to console me. He didn’t understand why I was upset but he knew that I was and just wanted to comfort me the way that I would do the same for him.

“I’m not going to cry Daniel but that was my last rubber band. Now how am I supposed to keep my hair from going all over the place?” I looked at Daniel but he wasn’t looking at me, but behind me.

Feeling a sudden panic I turned, bringing up the cross bow at the same time. There stood the young man with the straight, dark hair. He stood very still and then slowly raised his hands to show he had no weapon in them. Still moving slowly he reached in his pocket and pulled something out. It wasn’t a gun; it was a piece of string that looked a lot like the leather laces out of my father’s work boots.

He stretched out his hand and tried to give me the piece of shoe lace. I just looked at it, suspicious that he was trying to make me put the crossbow down.

“Dacey, he wants you to take it.”

“I know. I just don’t know why.”

“Because you were crying about your hair.”

“I was not crying.”

“Yes you were.”

“No I wasn’t …,” I started to argue and that’s when I noticed that the young man, I remembered the old woman had called him Abel, was smiling like something was funny but sad at the same time. I could tell that whatever he was feeling was genuine and despite my own commonsense I lowered the crossbow.

I could tell right away that I’d surprised him from the way he blinked his eyes and raised his eyebrows. I shrugged and said, “I’ve seen you fight. If you meant us harm I guess you could have snuck up on us and had your way without going to all this trouble and letting me hold a bolt on you.”

He slowly lowered his hands and shrugged in response.

“Where’s the cranky old lady?” Daniel asked before I could.

“Daniel!”

Abel just shook his head as he grinned. I said, “Please excuse him, uh …” but I wasn’t sure how to finish what I’d been trying to say.

Abel wasn’t offended, you could tell by the real humor still in his eyes but he didn’t say anything either. He did make a chirping noise with his lips and then the dog came out of the bushes. I stiffened up at the sight of her but all Daniel remembered was the wet nose tickles that she had given to him.

“Dog! Look Dacey it’s the dog.” The dog looked as thrilled to see Daniel as he was to see her. After looking at me to make sure it was OK, Abel made another noise and the dog then went up to Daniel to sniff him again and before long they were both sitting on the ground making a complete mess of themselves. Even with the lack of a tail I could tell that the dog was having a blast; her back end was wiggling ninety to nothing.

Obviously this was going to take some time so Abel swept off a rock and then pointed to me and then to the rock like I was supposed to sit. It was kind of funny but kind of sweet too. No one but my dad had ever pulled out a chair for me to sit on but this felt like the same kind of thing. After I had sat down and Abel had taken the time to look around a bit he sat too on the ground near my feet.

“Your name’s Abel, right?” I asked.

He looked up at me and after a brief hesitation nodded. I was going to ask him something else but Daniel piped up, “Dacey, I’m hungry and so is dog. Can we have lunch now?”

My breath caught. Both the dog and the young man were rail thin. I was in the middle of figuring out what to say when Abel pulled a hunk of raw hide out of his pocket and tossed it to the dog who snatched it out of the air and walked off a few feet to start chewing on it.

“Daniel,” I told my brother. “The dog is eating so don’t bother her. You know how you don’t like me messing with your food while you’re eating.”

Once Daniel had nodded I pulled off my pack and handed him a ham sandwich with sprouts hanging out of the sides. Abel eyes got big as dinner plates. I’d made four sandwiches and I knew it wasn’t going to strain us any to share with him.

“Here,” I said trying to hand him one.

He backed up like I was trying to feed him poison or something. “Knock it off; it’s just a ham sandwich. It’s not a snake, it won’t bite you.”

I could tell he wanted one the way his eyes were glued to my hand and I could also see his mouth was watering so much there was spit in the corner of his lips. But he just shook his head and pointed at the sandwich then at me.

I don’t know what it is about Abel. He never said a word yet it was like his thoughts were running in plain English right across his face. He wasn’t going to take food away from me.

I don’t think there is anything worse than when a boy sets his mind to be stubborn. Abel, now that I’d gotten a good look at him, appeared to be about Jeff’s age or maybe a little older. His beard was heavy but the hair was soft and fine like he hadn’t been shaving for long before he let it start to grow. It was also a little thin in places like his face wasn’t all filled in yet. I figured that was about like it was with my legs. It used to be only the front of my legs really needed to be shaved but I stopped bothering with it because it was such a pain and no one but Daniel to see anyway and now all my legs are just about as hairy as a guys would have been had there been any guys around wearing shorts for me to look at. Most girls shave their legs before guys have to shave their faces. All of that together is what made me think he couldn’t have been much past 20 years old.

Figuring that out didn’t help me convince him to take the sandwich so I tried to use psychology since it sometimes worked with Daniel.

“I’m not giving you the sandwich. It’s a trade. You gave me the string to tie my braid and since I want to keep the string I have to trade you something for it.”

That fell as flat as the cake that Daniel slammed the oven door on. The look on his face said that I was cracked if I thought he was going to fall for that one so I upped the ante.

“OK, how about you let my brother play with your dog for a little bit and I keep the string … but you get the sandwich.”

It wasn’t working and now I was getting hungry. “Don’t be a blockhead. Look, I’ve got a sandwich for me and Daniel is eating just fine. If Daniel wasn’t taken care of I wouldn’t offer to trade you the sandwich. Take the extra one already before I get cranky.”

Abel looked at me like I’d lost my mind but he must have seen something on my face. It was Daniel that sealed the deal however. “Abel, she really can get cranky if you don’t mind her. Eat the sandwich and she’ll stop growling.”

I turned a sharp look on Daniel just about to let him know how much I didn’t appreciate his help with a funny sound started coming from Abel. I turned back quick to look at him and saw that he was laughing but only letting little bits of air out at a time.

“Boys,” I said in disgust which only seemed to make Abel trying not to laugh even more.

I held out the sandwich to him after proving that I did indeed have one for myself and Abel gingerly reached for it. He looked at it and smelled it and then gently bit into it.

“See, I told you that you bite the sandwich the sandwich doesn’t bite you,” I told him satisfied that I’d finally gotten my way.

It was nice just sitting there. I was full and Daniel was as well as no amount of begging on my part would get him to eat the last corner of his sandwich so I wrapped it up knowing he’d probably eat it on the way back to the sink. I looked up and saw that we’d have to start heading back if we were to make it home before dark but it was hard to get up the will for what had to be.

All of a sudden the dog stopped playing with Daniel and got real stiff legged looking up the trail from where Abel had come from. Abel too had gone all strange. He turned to look at Daniel and I and then all but picked up Daniel and sent him down the mountain with a push. Me he grabbed and put my pack in my arms and shoved me down towards Daniel more roughly and when I would have opened my mouth he jerked his hand across his throat in an obvious sign for silence.

The pace he was moving wasn’t safe but he kept both Daniel and I upright and moving down away from whatever had set the dog off and then suddenly he jerked us off the rudimentary trail and through some boulders and into a depression where he had us lie prone; even the dog was belly down in the concave surface of the ground.

Suddenly Abel had a knife … and doggone big one too … in his hand and was poised to move. Then I heard it too, several people moving down the path muttering quietly in some language I didn’t recognize. And then I saw them … more Blue Hats.

I put my crossbow to the ready but a lightweight hand across mine was Abel’s way of telling me not to jump the gun. These men were as thin as Abel but not as raggedy. There equipment was used but in good shape, similar to the other group of Blue Hats from months back but that’s where the similarities ended. These men didn’t have the additional scarves on their heads and they weren’t swarthy. In all honesty they reminded me of the big blonde bad guy from the first Indiana Jones movie or the Russian boxer in that Rocky movie series that Dad had enjoyed watching over and over again. The language they spoke, the few words I caught, was different as well. I got the impression that even though the two groups of Blue Hats wore the same uniform they were somehow distinct and not necessarily on the same side.

It was thirty minutes before Abel would allow us to get up and that only after he’d gotten up himself and worked his way out to the goat trail we had been on to make sure the Blue Hats were really gone.

I could tell that Abel was torn. He wanted to get away as soon as possible which meant us going our own ways, but our way home would take us down the same path that the Blue Hats had gone. He opened his mouth a couple of times like he was going to speak and though I was eager to hear a word actually come out of his mouth I was in charge of Daniel and me, not him.

“Give me a sec to think,” I told him while looking around and pulling out my compass. “OK, just tell me … the trail Y down below us … does it have a switchback that turns on itself?”

He didn’t seem to understand what I was asking so I drew a picture in the dirt. When he understood what I was asking he nodded.

“Which branch of the Y did the Blue Hats take?” He drew his own diagram for me.

“OK, no problem. We won’t cross paths with them. Thanks for the hair tie.”

I made get up and get Daniel ready for the trail home but as I stood Abel grabbed my upper arm. I jumped and looked at him. He slowly turned loose of me and nodded his head. He had to chirp for the dog twice before it would leave Daniel’s side. It somehow made it harder when Daniel said, “Next time we need to bring doggy food Dacey.”

We made it home without incident but it did take longer than I had originally planned and Daniel was exhausted. The reason why it took so long is because I took every opportunity to turn anyone following us around.

Over the next several days I couldn’t get the whole thing out of my head. Some things just kept jumping out at me. One, I’d never heard Abel’s voice yet I had the feeling that he could speak; it felt more like he was choosing not to. Two, where was the old woman that had been with him before? Three, in all the time since Daniel and I had gone into hiding we’d only seen Blue Hats twice and both times were when we had also met seen Abel. Maybe twice was just a coincidence but it seemed a pretty strange one if it was.

November came in with a vengeance. The first week was nothing but cold, hard rain. Dad had dried the bottom of the sink out using a French drain system and by redirecting the spring runoff to a stream but nothing could keep up with the rain we had that week. Everything was soaked and overflowing. When I finally braved the cold to get out for a few moments it was to find that the stream had turned into a river and even backed up in places to create a wide, shallow miniature lake. Investigating to see why the stream was backing up I found a tree had fallen over and created a kind of dam. It was not fun trying to clear the blockage. The water and mud were as cold as ice and I was exhausted by the time I finally sawed and chopped through the tree in two different places so I could take out of chunk for the water to flow through.

And then suddenly it was the middle of November and it warmed up like crazy. And with the warm weather and all of the standing water the mosquitoes tried to hatch enough of themselves to conquer the world. It was absolutely awful. Even the chickens seemed miserable and listless from the attacks of the little bloodsuckers. By the end of November it had turned cold again which was a blessed relief, especially the morning we woke up to a frost which meant the end of this year’s crop of flying leeches.

Daniel and I had been cooped up for nearly a month and we were both just itching to get out and about again. We packed up and without even talking about it we both set off for the area we’d met Abel in. But when we started to climb I began to rethink our path. It wasn’t just a little cool; even with the sun full on us it was downright cold enough to take your breath away.

In the cold, crisp air sound seemed to carry forever … or it should have. There were no sounds that day. Daniel was the first to notice it. He started crowding me on the trail and I turned to ask him to be careful when I saw his face. I immediately pulled us both off the trail and whispered, “Daniel, what’s wrong?”

“Something bad is happening.”

Like I said, Daniel has a sixth sense about things to take make up for the senses that were affected by his autism. “Something bad?”

“Nobody is making noise Dacey. They are being quiet and hiding out.”

That’s when I noticed that the animal sounds had disappeared after we had turned the bend in the trail.

“Is it close?”

“It’s up there.”

“Up where?”

“Up where we have to go.”

“We don’t have to go anyplace Daniel. If there is danger we’ll go home,” I told him.

“No. No we have to go. We have to make sure Abel and Dog are OK.”

“Daniel …”

“NO!” Daniel startled me. It was only rarely that he threw a tantrum anymore. “We have to Dacey … we have to.” But the way he said it I wasn’t too sure he was very happy about saying it.

He would have taken off without me if I hadn’t gone along. He was getting too big for me to just pick up and drag him to make him do what I wanted him to do. And his insistence on knowing what was happening had infected me. We continued up the trail but much more cautiously; and a good thing too because as soon as we turned another bend we found Dog lying on the trail.

Daniel tried to run to Dog but I held him back; I wasn’t sure how the injured dog would react. I eased up and the dog never moved; she was breathing but unconscious and there was a bloody gash on her head. I picked the animal up and took her off of the trail then looked at Daniel.

“Daniel this is important … very, very important. I want you to stay here and not make any noise. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“We have to take care of Dog.”

“We’ll do our best but I have to see … see …”

“If Abel is like Dog?”

“Yes. Now what did I tell you?”

“You said to stay here with Dog and not make any noise and that you’d come back for us.”

I didn’t like leaving Daniel but something pulled me onwards and upwards. I was about twenty yards further up the trail and thinking of turning around when there was a scream, then another, then another all followed by rough male laughter.

After the last encounter with Abel I decided the crossbow wasn’t enough. I had gotten out some of the guns that Dad had taught me to shoot with and then cleaned them and practiced dry shooting until I was sure that I knew what I was doing. The rifle I had in my hand was the one that he’d used to kill the hogs and that he’d used for big game hunting.

I eased up the path and then stepped off of it to crawl up to the ridge that gave me a vantage of the incline where I saw them down in a little cul de sac looking spot in the trail. It only took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing but it took longer to let my brain admit it.

A little away from a group of people an old woman was on the ground, dead eyes staring at the gray sky above. I was pretty sure that it was the same old woman but whether it was or wasn’t didn’t make a hill of beans since she’d already passed. What was important was the man that was tied face forward to a tree and what the other men were doing to him.

Four men were laughing and … and cursing I guess as it was hard to tell since it wasn’t in English. They had a small fire and they’d take a stick out of the fire, shake the flames out leaving a red hot tip that they would then press against the man’s back. That man was Abel.