Friday, September 30, 2011

Chapter 39

Chapter 39

“Daniel?”

“Yeah?”

“You know how Abel lives with us and stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“I want him to live with us forever and ever.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“So, if …”

He interrupted me but stayed focused on the mushrooms he was separating into piles. “Are you and Abel gonna have Grandfather Isaac or Brother Clayton say Bible words on you and get married?”

Carefully I answered him, “Uh … yeah. I want to.”

He nodded his head and started pulling the caps off of the mushroom stems in one of the piles. “I think you should. This way when you look at each other it won’t look stupid.”

That blew me away sine it was so un-Daniel-like. “Wait. You notice how we look at each other?”

“Yeah. Your face looks pretty stupid … like Dog when she wants a bone but can’t have one.”

Whether I looked stupid or not Daniel’s words made me feel stupid. “O … K …. So, you don’t have a problem with me and Abel getting married?”

“No.” After a moment he asked, “Will you give me a little brother or sister so I won’t be the baby anymore?”

Well that was just going way further than I had been thinking about and told me that Daniel’s thought process was a lot more mature and complicated than I’d been giving him credit for. “If Abel and I have any kids they’d be your niece or nephew.”

He persisted, “But I wouldn’t be the baby anymore, right?”

“That’s right.”

“OK, that’s good. Abel and I will teach it what they can eat and what they can’t and we’ll teach it how to hunt and track and stuff like that.”

Trying to go with the flow of the conversation I told him, “Sounds like a plan. But … babies are … uh … kinda a ways off.”

He asked, “So you don’t have a baby in your belly?”

Outraged I said, “No! What gave you that idea?!”

“I heard some people talking,” he replied like it was no big deal.

“Well, isn’t that just nice,” I snarled. Then I told him, “Next time you wonder about stuff like that you come ask me or Abel. I swear, people don’t know half what they’re talking about. Abel and I will tell you the truth so you don’t have to wonder about it.”

“Figured that. ‘Sides, you and Abel haven’t done the chicken dance, you know when the rooster and chicken …”

“Ack! I know what you call it and no we haven’t and you just watch your p’s and q’s buster. I swear the sooner we get you out of here the better, you’re picking up all kinds of talk that is just plain rude.”

I marched off to find Abel and when I did I let my feelings show. “I don’t know what you’re planning but I want it done so we can get out of here. I swear, Daniel asked if I had … I mean he’d heard people say … I mean … doggone it. There’s people that think we’re getting married because we have to. And wipe that look off your face, it isn’t funny.”

He was manfully trying not to smile but all he did was make me feel like I was ready for the top of my head to explode. “Querida, I tried to tell you people would talk.”

“I don’t care about people talking. I care that my innocent brother is picking that sort of nonsense up. At least he had the sense to know we hadn’t done the chicken dance yet.”

Abel was in the middle of taking a drink of water from his canteen and the water must have gone down the wrong way because he was spitting and wheezing and coughing all of a sudden. “He … he said that?”

Wiping some of the spit off the front of the dress I was wearing I gave him the evil eye. “Yes, he said that. In fact he’s already got it all planned out. We’re going to give him a baby brother or sister so he won’t be the youngest anymore and then you and him are going to teach it all sorts of stuff.”

“I swear Querida, I didn’t mention any such thing to him.”

I relaxed, “OK, just making sure. But seriously Abel, I want us to go home.”

He sighed. “You really do not want this wedding do you?”

“I’m doing it because it is the only way I can have you Abel but to be honest … no, I don’t want to turn this into some big production that gets all confusing.”

“You are a very different girl Querida. Even the two brides for in the morning are sad because they cannot have a special white dress and the party and gifts and a cake.”

“Well if they think that’s what a wedding is then they better rethink getting married. A wedding is just supposed to be an outward sign that you’ve made inward changes to your life. One of my aunts had two big, fancy weddings with all the trimmings and neither one stuck. My Dad and Momma had a small, simple ceremony and they stuck through thick and thin. It isn’t the showy stuff that tells the tale in the long run, or at least that is what Momma always said when we’d get invited to a wedding. I don’t even know how many wedding dresses and such she sewed over the years. She used to say it didn’t matter what kind of dress you were wearing because everyone had on skin underneath.”

It took Abel a moment to catch up but he finally smiled and said, “I will be very glad to go home with you and Daniel tomorrow. But I am also very glad to have words said over us. As you say, it is not the show that is importante … but my … my skin wants a man of God to bear witness … Si … that is the words. I want a man of God to bear witness to my promise to you. It makes me feel better about not having the other to give you.”

I understood what he was saying but I still didn’t agree. On the other hand it wasn’t gonna hurt anything to go along with it and I thought that maybe someday I might care. I already like that Abel wanted to marry me the old-fashioned way; I just saw wanting and need as two different things. If nothing else I was happy that Abel was happy and that had to count for something.

The rest of the day was spent in clean up and community service type projects. There was a lot of work to do before winter. I stayed in town to help people living there and Abel went with Grandfather Isaac to help him move some his things to be closer to Josef and Monica. Apparently Josef’s grandmother was getting frail and if winter was going to be as hard as some thought, his grandfather had unbent enough to recognize that having Josef there to take care of her could be the difference between her making it through the winter or not.

Josef nixed me doing much of anything that required lifting or getting dirty because of the stitches in my arms. I didn’t want to complain but I was grateful because my arms had been hurting. They really stung after he cleaned them again. I decided to help Daniel – and didn’t that tickle my funny bone – and let him lead what we did.

I’m glad I showed up when I did because he was getting bored and restless, losing interest in the task before him. He and I went to look for some forage in the area and though I was hampered by the dress I was wearing if felt good to get away from all the people for a bit.

“When are we going home Dacey?”

“Tomorrow, right after the wedding. We won’t stay for the dinner or celebration. We’ll have our own when we get home.”

“Good.”

“You miss your stuff?”

“Uh huh.” After a moment he added, “It’s hard not to talk about the grow rooms and our food. They don’t have that kind of stuff here.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good job Daniel. Abel and I knew we could trust you.”

That made him smile real big and Dog seemed to sense it and wagged her tail. “I didn’t tell no one nothing. But I’m hungry Dacey, can we eat when we get home?”

“Sure thing, it might just be a snack until we can get settled but I’ll find you something. Abel is probably hungry too.”

Daniel nodded, “He sure is, I heard his stomach growl.”

It was nice to be with my brother again. He was such a huge part of my life that the few days we’d been apart had seemed a lot longer than they really were. It also reassured me that Daniel really was OK after his ordeal. I wasn’t going to raise it if he’d decided to put it behind him or decided to treat it as a bad dream. I think in this instance, his strange way of looking at time was a blessing. In his mind it was over so it happened a long time ago and wasn’t something he needed to carry around in his short term memory.

“Daniel, what kind of stuff have you been eating? I really haven’t had anything but two cups of broth.”

“Yeah … that. Soup and greens, greens and soup. I’m hungry Dacey. Let’s go home real quick.”

I reminded him that we’d go tomorrow. We gathered a few things here and there trying to not take too much. Sustainable foraging is a lot of work, as we had already found out. I wasn’t sure how a whole community was going to be able to pull it off and chose not to think about the consequences if they couldn’t. I had enough taking care of my own responsibilities.

I did notice that evening that the small meal everyone had included a lot of herbs that I knew to have appetite suppression as one of their traits. Chickweed, Evening Primrose, and Cayenne certainly was in there. Mushrooms filled space without really adding too many calories. The protein came from a stew made of whatever wild meat could be found such as rabbit, squirrel, quail, and pork. And everyone ate from a communal cooking area to get rid of waste and to make sure everyone got something.

I didn’t get to see much of Abel, being unmarried we were pretty well segregated from one another. Add to that the men seemed to be picking his brain as much as he was picking theirs and there simply wasn’t time or opportunity for a talk to compare notes.

It was a weird feeling being thought of as “just as girl” again. Being on my own had been hard and sometimes scary but I realized it had also been empowering. In Amish Town people tried to put me in the box they last had me in but I’d outgrown that box a long time ago. It didn’t stop them from trying to put me back in it though and wanting me to stay there. When I acted different from what they expected it made them uncomfortable.

Bed time was early and I was ready to go. I was frustrated at the limitations people wanted to put on me and I was also just plain tired and sore. I slept well enough all things considered but morning still came early. I was trying to enjoy myself but the nerves of the girls all around me – I’d been given a bed in a communal girls’ dorm since I no longer needed the “hospital” – was driving me a little crazy.

“My family would absolutely never approve of me marrying someone like The Montoya.”

I wanted to say it wasn’t something she’d ever needed to worry about because she didn’t seem the kind of girl Abel would be interested in but I kept my mouth shut. For one I really didn’t know if it was true and two, last thing I needed to do was act like a donkey’s back end on my wedding day.

More comments like that one floated around and then they talked about who they were interested in and what their families would have or will think of it. Blah, blah, blah. Oh, they were nice enough but I was just ready to get the show on the road. I was honestly getting kind of anxious about it all. Turns out I was getting a case of the wedding jitters after all.

Monica came over and asked me to come over to her house until the ceremony. “Dacey, I heard the other two are going to have wedding dresses. I don’t have a lot but you’re welcome to …”

I smiled, gratified that someone at least seemed to really have my interests at heart. “No, really, it’s OK Monica. He’s seen me covered in muck from head to toe and in raggedy and mismatched clothes. Anything is bound to be better than that. Besides, this is a nice dress all though it isn’t exactly what you might expect to stand up in for a wedding.”

“Are you sure?”

“Totally. I wanted to ask but … I mean … are you and Josef doing OK?”

She thought for a minute. “Josef’s good to me and for me. He’s … he’s not my first love and he knows it but … he said he refuses to be jealous of a dead man.” She clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh Dacey, I’m sorry … I didn’t mean …”

“Relax Monica. Jeff wasn’t the kind of guy that would have wanted you to pine after him your whole life. Just imagine how well off he is right now up in Heaven. He wouldn’t want you to put off finding some goodness here on earth.”

She did relax and then smiled. “Josef is … is calm. I need that. Sometimes I tend to spin and get upset over things that don’t make any sense in the scheme of things. He may not be some wild-eyed romantic like like Jeff was but I know where I stand in importance to him and I need to that.” Then she grinned subconsciously. “I never would have guessed how much I enjoy taking care of the kids and that was his idea. I never could understand Jeff’s devotion to Daniel, or yours either for that matter, but I think … I think I understand it now. Some of these kids, they’ll be with us for a long time. I’d give anything to save them. And it helps him to see me a part of what he’s trying to build here.”

A knock told us it was time to go to the commons – the green space in the center of Amish Town – and wait for the ceremony to begin. It was short and sweet. It was a combination of the words from “English” weddings and some were words from the traditional Amish wedding season. We were each asked if we did took such and so and if we promised to stay married “til death do us part.” We were asked if we would be loyal and care for each other during adversity, affliction, sickness, and weakness. Then Brother Clayton took our hands in his, gave us a blessing, and said, “Go forth in the Lord’s name. You are now man and wife.” There was no public kiss for which I was eternally grateful. I’d been getting enough stares to last me a lifetime, I didn’t want to give them one more reason to be a bunch of lookie-loos.

There was going to be a stone soup celebration afterwards but Abel and I gathered up Daniel and said some quiet good byes. Surprisingly Grandfather Isaac stopped us before we left and said, “You are welcome to come back. We will all need to work together, especially come spring.”

That was a good note to take our departure on. Abel had gathered our gear and hidden it some ways up the trail. As soon as we got to it I dashed into the bushes and took the dress off and got into some comfortable hiking clothes … but I folded the dress and tried to protect it from the other stuff in my pack thinking that maybe I was getting silly and sentimental.

It was Daniel that got me moving again when he said, “Are you ready yet Dacey? I’m starving. Let’s go home.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chapter 38

Chapter 38

Abel’s face was … passive. Yeah, that’s the best word for it. Like someone who was trying not to be upset because to be upset might cause problems best avoided. It immediately made me put my guard up.

Now don’t get me wrong, I always respected Brother Clayton. He’d proved himself trustworthy and a real Biblical man, or so said Dad … but that was before everything had fallen apart and I was carrying some baggage I suppose. What he said next didn’t exactly make me any more inclined to relax. “Dacey, I’d like to speak with you.”

I looked at Abel which only caused Brother Clayton to say, “Alone.”

I looked a question at Abel and he nodded so I decided it couldn’t hurt to hear what Brother Clayton had to say. I told Abel, “Daniel is over helping with the garden. Would you mind keeping an eye on him please? And thanks … I heard you carried him in yourself.”

I got the first real smile out of him when he said, “Daniel was very upset. I would not let anything upset him more.”

I smiled and told him, “I know.” Glancing at the man beside me I told Abel, “I won’t be long. We need to figure out our plans and get some things settled.”

He went serious again and said, “Si, we do.”

I looked at Brother Clayton who nodded for us to take a walk down the road a bit. When we’d gone a little ways he said, “Dacey, I’ll admit, I’m not convinced this is the best thing for you. I’m not sure how your father would react to all of this.”

Trying not to let my irritation show I told him, “Dad’s not here … and mostly because no one from the town stood up before good people died. My Dad and Mom were only the first but there shouldn’t have been any.”

He looked sad. “I realize that is how you see it.”

“Brother Clayton, I not only see it but saw it … I was there. I spent too long in that re-education camp and saw it there too. Where were all of the adults then? Why didn’t anyone step up? Not just for me but for the other kids. You knew Dad … there’s no way he would just set back and done nothing. You know they shot Momma first? For just trying to protect Daniel. Dad went kinda crazy. If it hadn’t been for Jeff protecting us, putting himself between us and the guns we coulda easily died too.”

Uncomfortably he asked, “And your point is?”

“That Daniel and I needed someone. First it was Dad but he died. Then it was Jeff and he left and then died. Frankly I needed someone; I knew I couldn’t take care of everything all by myself for much longer … not because I couldn’t do it, but because I could do it all at the same time all the time. I was alone taking care of Daniel. I was alone trying to feed us and I’m sure you know what that’s like. I was just plain alone. I prayed about it Brother Clayton, really prayed about it. And I really believe my prayers were answered. God might have sent someone from town but no one answered that call if it was made. So He sent Abel. And right from the get go Abel has been everything we needed him to be and then some.”

“Dacey, do you know …”

I interrupted him which might not have shown good matters but I was gonna cut to the quick of it. “That he is supposed to be some kinda boogie man, a former Peacekeeper? Yeah. I knew it from the beginning … but I also knew the hurt man that refused to take charity, that refused to take advantage, that has a cousin … or had … just like Daniel. Her name is Rosa and she’s autistic too. Have you seen him with Daniel? I can’t believe some of the things he’s been able to help him to learn; stuff that will help him survive in case something happens to us. And yes, I know that Abel’s done some things that aren’t very nice, but so have I. Things I’m not inclined to talk about … but Abel understands. I think Abel is more broke up about the stuff he’s done in his past than I am about the things I’ve done. I don’t know what that is, I just know that it is.”

With a sigh he said, “I see I can’t persuade you to be worried about this man’s past but you can’t have known him for very long. And you’re … what … barely sixteen?”

“I’ve known him for a year, or close enough that it doesn’t make much difference. We ran into each other a couple of times before we got to know each other well. And yes sir, I’m sixteen but I’m an old sixteen. Probably most of us from my group – the ones that have lived this long – are old in spirit if not in body.”

“But why child? Why are you agreeing to marry Montoya?”

I could tell he didn’t understand though in all fairness he seemed to be leaving room for me to persuade him. “Brother Clayton, I’m not just agreeing to it … I want it. We already do things together that most married people do … I mean except sleeping together. And in the interest of complete honesty, it’s been Abel that’s been a lot more stuck on the idea of putting that part of it off than me. We don’t share a bed or bedroom or even anything close to it.” I could see him wince. I guess he hadn’t expected me to be quite so bold about it all. “But everything else we do share. Taking care of Daniel, the chores, protecting each other … you name it.”

“If it is only loneliness or help with Daniel you are concerned with you are more than welcome to move to Amish Town.”

Oh I’d been afraid that was coming. “No thank you. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer but we’ve already got our set up and Daniel is used to it. He’s been all right here – barring the situation yesterday – but he’s asking to go home and that’s exactly where I aim to take him.”

We finally took a seat up on the porch of another empty building. “I’ll admit, Montoya … well he isn’t exactly as I pictured him. He’s rather … earnest.”

“Yeah, he is that for sure. Look Brother Clayton, if Abel thinks that the grown men around here have good reasons to object to him being with me he’s gonna bow up and refuse to come home with us. You might think he’s just playing that up but I can promise you he isn’t. We’ve worked things out between us up to this point but you could come in and just mess it all up. I don’t know how I’m gonna work him around if he doesn’t think he can get some kind of wedding. He can be so stubborn about things that don’t make a hill of beans to me.”

He sat back, “Dacey, I’m surprised at you! Marriage is the foundation of much that we hold dear in this life. One of the building blocks that …”

“I said wedding not marriage. I know being married to someone you want to give yourself to is important but like I said, I’m being honest here, a wedding isn’t all that big of a deal to me. I’d be just as happy if we said our words between us and God with only Daniel as a witness. Just Abel seems all set to have someone say words over us. I’d just as soon not and save the trouble but … well, I care about his sensibilities enough that if a wedding is what he wants then I guess that’s what we’ll do. He seems to believe it’s important that other people hear him say his promise to me; it’s that honor thing he has. He can be such a guy about things; just as bad as Dad was in that respect.”

Brother Clayton sat looking at me and then thinking a bit before saying, “I find myself in agreement with Montoya on this subject. A wedding could very well be important for a number of reasons Dacey. Perhaps some that might not mean anything to you right now but they could down the road. A marriage is a contract between a bride, and groom, and God. It is always important to have witnesses for a contract because often that contract is the foundation for how the relationship – whether business or personal – will operate and function. It is also often used for purposes of inheritance, to determine the proper heirs and who receives part of a estate and how large a part.”

I said, “You’re talking about trust.”

“And respect,” he said adding another trait. “A contract sets a precedent, one that both spouses should consider a good one. And with God as the third party involved in the contract, there are certain expectations there as well.”

I told him, “I do understand what you’re saying sir, but I don’t necessarily agree that the contract has to be a piece of paper that gets signed off on by someone.”

He kinda bobbed his head and said, “I respect your opinion even if I don’t share it; it’s one held by a great many people that do not like the government being involved in what should be a personal issue. However, we are back to the fact that with things in such upheaval that having a piece of paper as a form of continuity may very well be important down the road for multiple reasons.”

Thinking about what he’d said I admitted, “OK, I can see that part of it, but that’s not why Abel wants a wedding.”

He sighed and gave a small smile. “Hmmm, I did rather get that impression as well. As I said, Montoya is rather more earnest and … and ,,,:

“Stubbornly determined?” I finished for him.

He tried to cover his laugh with a cough. “Ah … um … yes. Yes that does rather describe him doesn’t it?” Then he sighed. “Are you sure Dacey? Marriage is a very serious matter with or without a wedding. You’re so young … and you’ve essentially been alone for almost three years.”

“Less than that because I’ve had Daniel and … and Abel too for the last year. And as for being young … like Dad always said, time will take care of that.” Looking at him I said, “Brother Clayton, I want to go home. It’s where Daniel needs to go too. And our place is a home, in part, because Abel is there and shares it with us. If you get in the way, I’m worried that I won’t be able to talk him around to coming back with us. Please don’t put some kind of bee in his bonnet like you object. I don’t expect people to understand though it would be nice if they’d give us the benefit of the doubt but Abel and I … well … we fit. We know what each other are thinking a lot of the time. I trust Abel to do the right thing whatever comes up. And I know for a fact he’d do whatever it took to protect Daniel – and me – from anything and everything. Do I know what I’m getting myself into? I think so. Momma explained a lot of things to me when I started … er … maturing. She and Dad both did; they didn’t want me to make some of the mistakes other girls my age were making. And one of the biggest things that tells me Abel is the one is that he’s never been jealous of Daniel, of the place Daniel has in my life and probably to some extent will always have to have in my life. He’s not gonna run off, I’m actually more worried about him running himself into the ground this winter … it’s gonna be a bad one I think.”

If possible his face got more serious. “Some of the elders are saying the same thing. Is it fear that’s driving you to this marriage?”

Thinking he was being silly I told him, “No, not hardly. But I do need him. He fits a spot that was empty before he came … in my life and in Daniel’s.” Feeling a little silly I added, “I guess I’m just not romantic but I think it is much cooler for a guy to be able to bring down a boar and clean it and all that stuff than one that talks a pretty line or has a pretty lineage … that stuff is for breeding dogs and horses, not building a marriage on.”

I got another cough-covered laugh. “Yes … well … uh hmm. I can see that you are set on this so … while I might have reservations I … I withdraw my objections.”

I wasn’t ready to do the happy dance yet. “What about Grandfather Isaac. From what I gather he’s got some say around here.”

Brother Clayton nodded. “Yes he does, but since we are ‘Englishman’ – not Amish or Mennonite – he has left the ultimate decision up to me; however, he seemed rather more inclined from the very beginning to allow it.”

I had to bite my tongue over the idea that anyone was going to allow me or not allow me to do anything. Instead I said, “Guess that just leaves Abel to deal with. And I guess figuring out how and when we are going to get this all done. I’ll be truthful, I’m not waiting a week or anything like that.”

Rather dryly he said, “So I have sensed. Tomorrow is a rest day for the whole community and there are two other couples that will be married in the morning. If you don’t object to sharing, I believe they would have no objects to adding another couple to the mix.”

“Let me talk to Abel about it but I certainly don’t mind. Doesn’t look like we are going to get far today anyway.”

*****

Nope, talking Abel around wasn’t easy. It was what Dad would have called an exercise in patience. But good sense finally won out.

“Querida, are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure, that’s what I’ve been saying haven’t I? Is it because you don’t want to share the day or something?”

He shook his head, “No, it is not that. I simply do not want you looking back and regretting … “ He chewed his lip a moment. “I do not wish for you to have sorry that we did things like this.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. “I swear Abel, if anyone is gonna be sorry it might be you. I’m not sure I have a romantic bone in my body; and I’m not much of a girly girl. I don’t care about all of that other stuff – the wedding and all that. All I care about is you. I want you to feel like we are good and married so that I don’t have to worry about you feeling like you have to leave or something like that.”

“I will not leave or something like that.” After a moment where we relaxed and enjoyed the fact that the decision had been made he asked, “Do you wish me to speak with Daniel?”

I’d been thinking about that very thing but told him, “Let me talk to him first. As his sister I owe him that. I want him to really believe that all this means is that you’ll be staying with us forever now.”

“Si … forever.”

Chapter 37

Chapter 37

Benji looked at me and said, “Athk Frankie. I’ve got to see a man about a horthe.”

Irritated I asked towards his back as he walked away, “What in the heck is that supposed to mean? And who’s Frankie?”

A voice from behind me said, “That would be me. And make it Frank please. I left Frankie behind when I went off to college.”

I turned and saw a guy with barely-there hair so blonde it was almost white. He was pretty scrawny which told me that he’d been held longer than Benji had been, but he was definitely a prisoner if I didn’t miss my guess. “Ok. Frank. What gives?”

“I’m a cop … was a cop. A city cop I mean. I’d just gotten hired when things fell apart. I’m pretty sure I met your father a couple of times before but I don’t think we ever met. I would have sure remembered you if we had.”

“Oh please,” I said rolling my eyes.

He gave a tired grin. “Seriously. I’ve got a sister just like you … did have a sister … do, I think … step sister … our parents divorced so technically we aren’t brother and sister anymore … uh … I’m … I’m rambling.”

He said the last with confused embarrassment. I could tell he had issues; not like Daniel had issues but more like one of the guys that Dad knew. Mr. Matthews had been in the military and Dad said he had something called PTSD. That meant he went off sometimes or would get rattled. People who had experienced extreme physical or mental trauma could get this PTSD.

I decided to handle him about like I would Daniel and just take it all in stride. “Rambling is not a problem. You’re still rattled and getting used to your freedom probably. Give your brain time to believe you can do what you want when you want – barring normal, civil behavior of course – and you’ll get used to things again and your brain won’t stutter on you so much. So anyway, can you tell me what’s been going on?”

He just looked at me for a second then started laughing. “Definitely like Leann.”

A young woman about Monica’s age walked up at that point and said, “Who’s taking my name in vain?”

Frank turned to me and said, “Dacey this is my sister Leann … Leann Higginbottom. Leann this is Dacey … Jeff’s cousin.”

“Got it,” she said with a smile in my direction. She turned back to Frank and said, “Dad’s looking for you. Wants to get your opinion on whether a lawn mower engine is salvageable or not.”

Frank’s eyes cleared a little and became a little more focused. He said, “I can do that. But …” He stopped and looked at me.

Trying not to let my frustration show I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll ask someone else.”

He said, “Ask Leann. She can tell you and she’ll give it to you straight.”

Leann looked at me and asked quietly, “Ask me what?”

“Benji left me to ask Frank what’s been going on. Frank …” I stopped then decided just to be completely honest. “I can see that Frank has been through a lot and maybe Benji needs a good kick for dumping me on him. But if you’ve got a minute I’d really like to know what’s been going on. It’s eating me up.”

She nodded but smiled and said, “It’ll take more than a minute but I’ve got it to give you. And the only reason I don’t want to kick Benji is because he got Frank home to us otherwise I’d help you put the boot to him and good. Why is it that Benji can be so nice one second and then a real jerk the next?”

I smiled and explained, “Because he tries a little too hard to live down the infamy of being a preacher’s kid. When he isn’t thinking about it he can be pretty OK … at least as far as it goes. I wouldn’t want him under foot all the time if you catch my meaning.”

She laughed, “She, I think I do. Besides I hear that you’ve already got somebody underfoot.”

I’m not much of a blusher but sharing Abel with other people was a lot harder than I’d ever thought about it being. I shrugged, a little pink around the ears, and told her, “He’s different.”

“Yeah, I expect so all things considered. Let’s go sit over on that porch. The house is empty and hopefully we’ll get through it without interruptions.”

“That bad?” I asked.

As we sat she told me, “Hard is a better word for it. It could have been real bad but you and Montoya came barreling in like no body’s business. I don’t know what my face looked like but everyone else was just plain shocked I can tell you that.”

Still a little angry I asked, “What in the heck was everyone doing standing around? There were more of y’all than of the crazy Richard’s people.”

She shook her head, “They had all the kids in that store down there.” She pointed to an old glass store front at the end of the street we were on. “Here, let me just tell it in order.”

At my nod she started. “I don’t know how much you’ve heard but what all the early stuff boils down to is the town eventually got split between Almanzor and that guy Richard King. Almanzor had most of the town but Richard had most of the people. What kept the people from rising up against Almanzor is that even before he took over from Sevmire all of the guns and stuff like that had been confiscated by the Peacekeepers. But there was always this small group of people that didn’t want anything to do with either Richard or Almanzor. With Almanzor the reasons are obvious but it took too long for some of us to catch onto what Richard was doing, and by then it was too late. There were too few of us that managed to keep our souls so we came out to Amish Town and the people out here, while they didn’t exactly give us a parade to welcome us, made room for us and we’ve learned to help each other. Most of us have some ties to the Mennonite community already or have done business with them in some way. It wasn’t all that hard to get along.”

I can’t believe that Hakim – that’s the real name of that guy y’all call Almanzor – left Amish Town alone.”

“Ask most people and they’ll tell you that God had put up a hedge of protection around here. But ask some and they’ll tell you that Almanzor was just too busy and hadn’t gotten around to it yet.”

I nodded. “But I take it from what little I heard Benji say he eventually did get around to it.”

“Yeah. Well, kinda anyway. By that time he didn’t have that many men to spare on raids and such; didn’t want to risk leaving his stuff unattended for Richard to take it over. He made two raids. The first one he killed the family and took all the animals. The second one was where most of the guys got taken because they fought him off some Amish guy’s farm. People around here call him Grandfather Isaac.”

Surprised I said, “That would be Josef’s grandfather … I mean his real grandfather, not just … you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, and yeah that’s him. You’re from around here so you know how it is. The closer a family is to being Old Order Amish the more pacifist they are. Well, that’s fine, and I guess there is a place for people like that, but a lot of us think that it’s our place to protect them if they won’t protect themselves. I mean we need to be able to remember what life could be like if we all tried to act like Jesus; I may not understand all of the why’s of their choices myself but I can see their point and their right to make those choices. And they’re our friends, we’ve all learned a lot about how to do things without electricity and stuff.”

I told her, “Hey, you don’t have to justify it to me.”

She grinned sadly, “I guess not but it isn’t always easy to understand why things are like they are.” She sighed and said, “Anyway, everyone was overjoyed to find out Benji and the other guys were still alive cause we had kind of started to doubt it. And the fact that they brought out some of the guys like … like Frank. They’ve been like POWs for almost the whole time. Frank, he’ll get better with time I hope … no I know he will … but a couple of those guys might not. Josef thinks some of them have been starved so long their brain was affected and two of them were beat on so much that they are crippled. Josef amputated the foot of one guy and said he’d be better off and able to get around better without the constant pain it obviously caused him.” She took a deep breath and then blew it out. “We were so busy being happy that our people had come home that we didn’t think about what would happen if they were followed. And they were.”

This had been a big concern for Abel and I. What would happen if people from the town escaped out into the woods and beyond rather than follow the one remaining bridge out of town on their way to someplace new to occupy.

“They hit during the night and rounded up all the little kids. I know it seems stupid to you but … it just seemed to happen so fast.”

I shook my head. “I didn’t say it was stupid. How do you fight someone that has your son or daughter hostage?”

“You didn’t let that stop you. We all heard you yelling at Montoya to keep fighting, that they’d kill you one way or the other if you didn’t keep trying.”

I shrugged. “That’s me. Besides, I was hot as a steel aggie that’s been sitting on a stove top. Likely that means I wasn’t thinking too straight at the time. I don’t know what I would have done if I had known they were holding a bunch of little kids like that; all I saw was Daniel.”

“No, it’s OK. I get it. It was weird. As soon as you said that and then Montoya kept fighting something happened in the crowd. You know even some of the Mennonites will fight, they just don’t fight to kill … but they will wrestle someone to the ground to prevent them from doing harm. My dad grabbed a hold of this guy and suddenly, I don’t know, our whole family was just piling on this guy. All the families seemed to single out someone and work together to take that person down.”

“Well,” I said. “I reckon that is one way for families to work together. Was anyone hurt? I mean besides Richard. I remember … him screaming. But … but that table already had blood on it.”

She looked at my face for a second then got an understanding look. “Hey, it’s OK. That was from a horse. A family donated it hoping that if Richard’s people were fed they’d let the kids go. We promised them whatever they wanted if they would just let all the kids go.”

I shook my. “Appeasement never works.”

“No kidding, but when you are in the middle of it you think you’ve got the control to just make them go away if you find what they want.” She shook her head then said, “Montoya went berserk when he saw you and Daniel all crumpled up. He wouldn’t let anyone near you until Josef got through to him. He carried Daniel while you were carried on a stretcher. That’s the last I saw of you until just now.”

The picture that raised in my mind was disturbing so I asked, “What about Richard and his followers?”

Richard died of shock an hour after you boiled him.” I grimaced at more unpleasant mental pictures. “The rest that lived were marched out of town.”

Shocked I asked, “They weren’t just let go?!!”

She had a funny look on her face, “Not … exactly. They were going to be to be but …”

“But?”

“There were military troops as the bridge. The military took custody of them.”

“Military,” I gasped. “Real US military?”

“Yeah. Seems they’re rounding up all of the so-called rogue agents here in the country. But that’s all they’re focused on right now. They made some people mad at first but now that it’s been discussed around maybe it isn’t so bad.”

“Taking the cult members?”

“No, that part was a relief. It was that the military said that their only job was to focus on battling the people that are trying to compromise our sovereignty. They don’t plan to offer any help as far as food, water, or anything else.”

“Well, everything else isn’t their job. The US military is only supposed to protect our family. They aren’t supposed to operate on our soil anyway but I guess this is war.”

She asked, “You know a lot about this stuff?”

“My dad kinda had a thing for it. But back to what has been happening.” I didn’t want to get into that part of it, drawn into a discussion before I talked to Abel to compare what she was saying versus what he saw.

“That’s it. Basically we’ve been in clean up mode since then.”

Leann was called away and I went back to where Daniel was. I left him be because he was happy and the old lady he was helping seemed happy to have him helping. That’s when I saw Abel coming back with Brother Clayton.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chapter 36

Chapter 36

I gingerly sat up and then had to wait for the blood to stop draining from my head. “What time is it Daniel?”

“Time to say good bye and go home.”

I know his reply sounded funny, like he was making a joke, but that was literally how Daniel saw time. It was measured by events, chores, the things in nature. It was my own fault for not being more specific.

“Daniel, what dime is it on the clock?”

Looking out in the hallway where I remember a grandfather clocking stood, he told me, “The big hand is on the five and the little hand is on the eleven.”

Immediately upset that I had slept so much longer than I had meant to I spit out, “Oh gollywobbers! Daniel, where are my clothes?”

“Hangin’ on the clothes line.”

I wanted to say something worse than “gollywobbers” but didn’t dare. I was saved by Monica who came in carrying some clothes – not mine – and shooed Daniel downstairs. “Grandfather Isaac is looking for you. His arthritis is acting up and I bet he would like you to help catch the rest of the chickens that got loose.”

Daniel started to run but looked at poor Dog and slowed down so she could keep up. Monica watched him go and then said, “He’s better than he used to be. Josef expected him to be a complete mess after yesterday. Even some of our kids are traumatized and uncommunicative this morning.”

Curious I asked, “Your kids?”

“Josef and I, we take care of kids that haven’t found a place in the community yet or who are too injured or … or out of it to be able to cope yet.”

Finally getting myself untangled from the covers and voluminous night gown that had my legs trapped I said, “So this place is in Amish Town.”

“Uh huh,” she confirmed. “Look, are you really ready to get up? If you are maybe you should go see Abel. He’s getting a little frazzled around the edges.”

That had me hitting the floor. Bad idea. Moving too quickly made the room spin and one of my legs buckle.

Monica grabbed my arm to keep me upright but luckily had the presence of mind for it not to be the arm with the stiches in it. “Whoa. I said frazzled, not dying.”

She put the clothes in my hands and then pointed me towards a screen in the corner of the room. I walked behind it, forcing the kinks out of my body as I went. I noted the details of the modest, no-fills nightgown I was wearing; so different from the large shirts I normally wore. Then I looked at the serviceable, dark blue dress in my arms.”

“Monica? Am I taking someone’s stuff?”

“No. It is from the church clothes closet. Brother Clayton takes care that … um … that …”

Understanding her hesitancy I asked, “Am I being shunned?”

Her immediate response reassured me that she was telling the truth. “Oh no, not at all. It’s just Grandfather Isaac is in town and he’s a bit of a stickler. We’re all trying real hard to get along and work together so we just do what we can to keep things comfortable for everyone.”

I snorted and asked, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

A small chuckle preceded, “Better on some days than on others.”

I stepped from behind the screen so I could sit on the bed and pull up the black knee socks she had given me and put my boots back on. Monica couldn’t resist saying, “That’s a new look for you. With your hair braided like that you could pass for one of the Old Order kids.”

I sighed and tried to picture of myself since there were no mirrors around I told her dryly, “No kidding.” Then I asked, “Besides the obvious, why is Abel frazzled?”

She got a concerned look on her face and asked, “Do you really know he is a UN Peacekeeper?”

“Was. Was a UN Peacekeeper. He turned in his membership card when Hakim – that guy you called Almanzor – killed his cousin for spreading the truth that the UN wasn’t delivering on their promise to take care of the families of people that signed up.”

Still unsure she said, “So you know he’s really Abelardo Montoya.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, that’s he’s given name but Abel is shorter and easier to say.”

As we left the room and walked down the stairs she said in something like fear, “He’s The Montoya.”

Wondering at her tone I said, “No, he’s Abel Montoya. My friend. Daniel’s teacher. Our … protector I guess you’d say. Well, at least when I need the help with protecting Daniel anyway. Mostly we lived and work together and help each other because we want to.”

A man’s voice from the front of the house asked, “And nothing more?”

Ignoring the invasion of personal business of the question I smiled and responded, “Brother Clayton! Wait, did Benji and the boys make it back OK?”

I heard from outside, “We’re men now Dathey, not boyth.”

As I pushed open the screen door to step outside I said, “Benji, just because ya’ll have the wherewithal to grow fur on your face these days doesn’t make you a man. And if you don’t stop glaring at Abel like he’s some kind of pervert I’m gonna do something that makes it take that much longer for you to earn your man-status.”

Monica hissed, “Dacey! Totally inappropriate!”

I rolled my eyes and said, “Sorry Granny.” I knew for a fact she was being a hypocrite because I remember some of the stories that Jeff used to tell.

I could see Abel wanted to be shocked at my behavior but his lips twitched proving the other side of him was winning. “How are you feeling?”

He shook his head. “Should that not be my question?”

“Fine, and thank you for asking. Now are you gonna tell me what’s hurting you or not?”

All the while I had been talking I’d been trying to get close to him but he’d sidestepped and backed up anytime I came close enough to touch. Frustrated I told him, “You aren’t really going to make me chase you around this yard are you? All I want is …”

Abel interrupted me and tried to get all proper. “Day-cee, these are the men of your community. They have every right to try and protect you.”

“Uh actually, no they don’t.”

“Yes they do.”

“No they don’t.”

“Si.”

“No.”

Daniel chose that moment to stroll over. “She’ll wear you down Abel. You know she will.”

I looked at Abel with a smug smile. Abel blathered a string of Spanish so fast I couldn’t even catch one word. Then in English he said, “Fine. If you will not let them protect you then I must. I give them the right to say whether I am good enough.”

Upset I said, “Oh no you don’t. You’re not getting out of this that easy. Now I want to know where you’re hurt, how bad, and then I want to know what all I missed. Then we’re going home. Where we belong.”

Abel said in a growl that had a bit of desperation in it, “Day-cee …”

“What?”

Abel pinched the bridge of his bruised nose like he had a headache coming on. “I am fine Day-cee. My ribs are bruised and that is the worst.”

Trying to be helpful Daniel added, “Better tell her about the cuts. You know she’s gonna find out soon enough and then she’ll get mad and make you do extra chores.”

I saw Abel’s lips twitch despite the situation but all I heard was “cuts.” “What cuts? Where? How bad?”

I came at him again intending to look for myself but he evaded me by stepping behind a couple of austere looking older women. “I am find Day-cee. Josef, he has made them better.”

Frustrated I looked around for Josef to ask him myself and saw him over in a knot of kids younger than Daniel, several of whom were disfigured in some way. I knew I couldn’t confront him right that moment. Then Benji’s expression caught my eye. “Leave your mouth hanging open like that and something nasty is gonna fly in.”

Benji shut his mouth with a snap but it was his father who spoke. “My child, I believe most of us share my son’s feelings. It is very difficult to reconcile the stories of The Montoya with the young man you are … are … er … handling so … er … deftly.”

Trying to remember my manners I said, “Please don’t take this the wrong way Brother Clayton but I’m no child. That was over the day the people of the town didn’t step up and stop my parents from getting killed. That was over when the grownups didn’t stop the kids from being rounded up and put in a reeducation camp. As for the rest of it I don’t know what stories you are talking about but more than likely that is all most of it is … stories. Just like that Hakim fella had to make himself out to be bigger than he was by calling himself that stupid name Almanzor, he made Abel out to be an even bigger baddie so he wouldn’t have to admit what a scaredy cat he really was. Abel has done some things that aren’t very nice but I reckon plenty of us have by now, I know I have. But the bad stuff that happened isn’t what defines who he is.”

Abel finally stepped over and said, “I told you Querida there would come a day when I would have to pay for what I have done.”

I said, “You already have. And God has forgiven you. You’re the one that has the problem and won’t forgive yourself.”

Abel got a pained look on his face and shut his eyes briefly. “I hear your words but … it is not so easy as you say.”

I shook my head, “I never said it was easy. We’ve both done things that are going to be with us for the rest of our lives. Sometimes you have to accept the consequences for doing what you know to be right. I don’t claim to know everything. But what I do know is that I prayed for some help and God practically had you fall in my lap. Nothing that you have said or done has changed my belief that you’re my answered prayer. Now let’s get our stuff and go home.”

He shook his head. “As you say, it is not so easy. Before there was no one to object to me staying with you and Daniel but now it is not right.” He looked at me and said quietly, “You are not a child anymore and I cannot pretend to just be a big brother to you.”

Daniel joined the conversation and said anxiously, sensing that we were losing Abel, “Grandfather Isaac knows all the Bible words to say.”

Caught off guard I asked Daniel, “What?”

“Abel keeps telling you he wants to say words in a church with you and you say Bible words in a church. Grandfather Isaac knows lots of Bible words. And there’s a church,” he added pointed to a small chapel down the road.

I don’t know who turned redder me or Abel. I mumbled to Abel, “Sorry, I didn’t think he’d been listening.”

Still red but smiling, “Si, Daniel is very smart. I would like very much to … uh … have Bible words in a church with you.”

A sober looking old man limped forward. “The chapel is unfit for anything for now. The roof leaked and the floor is unsafe. But … if you are sincere and wish to join together I am sure that Brother Clayton and I can do it properly as it was done for my grandson.”

He had been speaking directly to Abel when he said it. I didn’t want to flub anything so for once I kept my mouth shut. Abel looked at me to make sure it was really what I wanted and I nodded. I wasn’t worried about who said what so much or where it took place or even if there was a ceremony but I knew that Abel did and sometimes compromise can be a good thing.

Josef’s grandfather and Brother Clayton led Abel over to a building across the road and I was left to stand there. Daniel had gone over to an older woman and from there followed her over to a table filled with greenery. I joined them and saw that it was forage. As I went to warn the woman about one of the plants that was mixed up in a small pile Daniel beat me to it.

I left my brother to do what he was good at and felt all at loose ends. Monica and Josef were shepherding the knot of children over to some benches and I knew I’d be intruding there. I looked over and saw a group of people I used to go to school with so I walked over but several of them left when I got there.

“Geez, do I smell or something?”

“Thomething,” Benji admitted.

“Fine. Whatever.”

“Ith Montoya really not … not …”

Sighing, “Look, stop trying to turn it into something it isn’t. I don’t know what Hakim – Almanzor – said about Abel but he had to come up with some excuse as to why he was so afraid of him. Abel isn’t a saint but he’s no demon either. I’m sure you guys did a few things to get back at that guy Sevmire and Hakim.”

Benji shrugged. “Thure¸but that’s different.”

“Why? How? Hakim killed his cousin.”

Benji shrugged again. “OK, tho maybe it ithn’t different. Thome people are thtill thcared of him though.”

“Hopefully they’ll only be that stupid for a little while.” Sighing I asked, “Anyway, what happened. Things have been moving so fast that I can’t find the time to catch up.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Chapter 35

Chapter 35

As I looked down from the trail we had been following we could see an oblong table had been set up with something dark leaking off of it. It was beside a half of a metal barrel that was over an open fire. I didn’t know it then but I was to learn that the barrel was full of boiling water. There were a lot of people standing around, some looked like they were in charge and some looked plenty cowed by the men with the big knives. It didn’t take long to put two and two together when we saw a kid tied up on the table. Even from that distance I could see it was my Daniel.

Something popped inside my head. I vaguely remember Abel yelling for me to stop but I just had to get to my brother whether it made good sense or not. I ran full tilt down the trail, shucking off my pack and anything else weighing me down as I went. I heard a couple of shot and vaguely remembering a few people going down but by that point I was in the midst of the crowd. I barreled into the men around the table knocking most of them over. I punched, kicked, bit but it wasn’t enough. Eventually they got me and held me but I made sure it wasn’t easy on them.

When they got me they put a knife to my throat and that stopped Abel. “We’ll kill her. See if we don’t.”

I could see Abel hesitate and I yelled, “They’ll kill me one way or the other and you know it! Keep fighting!!”

I was proud of him because that is exactly what he did and soon there was a lot of wrestling going on as Richard’s followers were taken down by unarmed men and women who decided that a knife wound was preferable to what was about to happen. Richard, ever the lunatic showman, jumped up on the table and was trying to blather on about how it was ordained and all sorts of nonsense while flapping around in this cosmic colored cape he was wearing.

I kept moving like a greased pig and finally wiggled and twisted enough that the guy holding one of my arms let go. I immediately jammed the heel of my hand up into the nose of the guy with the knife. He let out a howl and backed into the table nearly knocking Richard off. It gave me an idea and with the idea came renewed strength from some place.

I yelled at Daniel, “Roll off!!”

Even though he was all tied up Daniel did roll and fell to the ground all in a lump. I finally got away from the guys trying to hold me though they ripped most of my shirt off in the effort and then grabbed the end of the table and heaved it upwards. Then time seemed to slow down. I felt something hard hit the back of my head and I started to go down. But I wasn’t the only one going down.

As I had lifted the table upwards, Richard’s legs had gone from in under him. As I continued to lift the table, he slid down the slick top. As I managed to turn the table completely vertical he slid right into the waiting barrel of boiling water.

My ears were ringing and the dark was closing in from the sides but not before I heard him scream … and scream and scream and scream. Even after he was dragged out of the boiling water he kept screaming but I didn’t hear him after that. I don’t remember it but I’d crawled to Daniel and had basically collapsed on top of him.

*****

I came to in a bed that was softer than any I had ever slept in. The sheets were white, crisp, and clean and smelled of cedar wood. For some reason I sensed that I was clean as well. My head was throbbing and when I lifted my arm to touch it I felt lots of little pulls and twinges, starting with the stiches I saw running down the inside of my arm.

The memories slammed down and I sat up with a scream. “Daniel! Abel!!”

I was flailing around and falling out of the bed, trying to find them when several people rushed in and gathered me up and hushed me and told me everything was all right.

“Don’t tell me everything is all right. Where’s my brother? Where’s Abel? Where’s …?”

Someone shooed the women out of the way and put me back in bed much more firmly. “Hush Querida. Daniel is fine and sleeping after drinking some tea that Josef gave him. You will see him in the morning. And I am right here. I have not left you. So let this kind women make sure you have not torn open the … the threads on your arms. Look at me Day-cee. The bad man is gone. Si? I promise.”

My breathing slowly returned to normal and my heart stopped banging around in my chest like a ten-pound hammer. “Is … is Daniel … OK?”

Understanding my question he said, “Si. But he is shaken. He rocked and rocked and I worried he would hurt himself so Josef gave him a tea and now he finally sleeps. He is downstairs with the other boys. I stayed with him until I knew that he would not wake up afraid. In the morning he will probably pound up the stairs in search of you so you must be rested and ready for him.”

“I’m … I’m fine. I need … absolutely need … to see him Abel. Please,” I begged.

Abel looked over at an older woman who smiled kindly and said, “For a moment only. And please don’t wake the other children. They’ve been through so much already.”

I tried to get up and walk but Abel picked me up, quilt and all, and carried me down the stairs. I didn’t make a sound after Abel put me down just long enough for me to walk over to a bed. I knew it was Daniel’s bed because Dog was guarding it. She lifted her head and blinked and then laid her head back down.

When I walked back out of the room I had to sit in a chair by the door. I was shaking. “What happened to Dog? Why is she all bandaged up?”

“She fought the men that took Daniel.” The person who answered me was Monica. When I turned to her she said, “Josef is going to have a fit when he hears you’ve been out of bed.”

I said quietly, “I’m fine.”

She ignored me and turned to Abel. “You can get her back to bed? That’s where you should be too.”

I looked at Abel who suddenly looked far too innocent. I asked Monica, “Why does he need to be in bed?”

“Because he’s been worked over pretty hard … twice from what I heard.”

I didn’t see any new bruises but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some under his clothing. I refused to let him carry me back up the stairs so we hobbled together. The older women wouldn’t let him come in the bedroom and I was just about to get miffed when he shut me down. “They are right. I have no business being in there. Now get some rest and we will talk in the morning. Si?”

I don’t’ know how but I fell asleep as soon as I laid my head down. The next morning something woke me up, probably Dog’s breath. I opened my eyes and both Daniel and Dog were peeking over the edge of the mattress.

The first thing out of Daniel’s mouth was, “We didn’t make any noise. We were just waiting for you to wake up.”

I was so happy I cried which worried Daniel more than most anything else could have. Finally I got him to understand it was because I missed him and was so glad to see him. He grinned and said, “I’m hungry Dacey. Let’s go home.” Now that was a plan I could get behind.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Chapter 34

CHAPTER 34

The one admonition from Abel besides promising to wake him up at the end of the agreed upon watch length was to be aware that people could be moving through the area to escape what was going on in the town. I also knew it would be important to watch for fire jumping the river. I didn’t think it would happen but if a spark drifted just right anything was possible.

The smoke was pretty thick in places but we were over on the other side of the river – and yes, getting across had been in the not fun category of life – and up a fairly steep incline. That gave us some altitude to view any incoming intruders and it also helped with the smoke. We still smelled it but the worst of it stayed low in the geologic bowl that contained the town because there was barely a breeze to rustle a leaf.

There used to be vacation cabins around but the years of economic downturn had seen most of them foreclosed on and fall into disrepair … some even being burnt down by their owners to spite the banks. I thought that people might try to head for this building, dilapidated though they might be. But since we were near the top of the most accessible trail into the area I’d have nearly a bird’s eye view of anyone trying. I also turned my eye to what was going on in the town.

The fire damage was even more impressive than the light of the flames had revealed during the night. Whole sections of town were just shell after shell of what once had been houses and businesses. Many still burned but most were just embers. I could see a few people wandering about but not many. There was no way to recognize any of them from the distance I was but even had I been closer I doubt I could have told a townsperson from one of Hakim’s people because of the soot that covered everything and everyone.

I suddenly realized I had started to nod off as I watched the remaining flames eating what was left of the town so I shook myself and started going through the boxes of things we had taken from Hakim’s cache. The box of spices and seasonings was good though the selection isn’t what I would have picked if I’d been given the choice. Then again I hadn’t a clue about where the man had really come from or what he had eaten prior to coming to this country. Allspice, anise, basil, borage, cardamom, cayenne, chamomile, cinnamon, citric acid, cloves, cumin, curry powder, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, marjoram, mint leaves, nutmeg, orange peel, oregano, paprika, rosemary, sage, sumac powder, tarragon, turmeric, valerian root, and whole black peppercorns was the inventory of the spice box.

The other box contained couscous, dried figs, green tea bags, fennel tea, something called halva that looked like a candy, hazelnut cream, rosehip tea, dried hummus mix, dried leeks, pickled mango, spicy walnut cream, orange blossom jam, bottles of orange blossom water and syrup, pomegranate dressing, red wine vinegar, dried shallots, sour grape juice, roasted squash seeds, tahini, apricot paste, grape leaves in a jar, almond powder drink, lemon syrup, melon syrup, rose syrup, mint syrup, and vanilla syrup.

I hadn’t a clue what to do with over half of the stuff I found. I mean, I’ve always been adventuresome when it came to food but I was not even sure I wanted to taste pickled mango and I thought valerian root was used as a sedative, not as a seasoning. I was wondering if Abel knew what it was all used for when I saw movement on the path well below our position.

I nudged Abel. He took a second to wake but then he jump to where he saw me crouching and looking below. He put a hand on my shoulder to let me know he was there and then watched as several people tried to make their way through the heavy brush and steep incline of loose soil and gravel. I was setting an arrow on my bow when I saw the one in the lead take a tumble. Rolling down the trail he knocked the legs out from under the two people with him.

I could just make out the voice of a woman as she complained bitterly, “This is ridiculous. There’s nothing over here. We’ll starve, die of exposure, or get eaten by something or someone. Let’s go back and try the other end of town. Maybe we can make it over to New Vale before it gets dark.”

They scrambled down faster than they had been coming up and we lost them as they reached the river’s edge. Abel whispered, “What is this New Vale?”

“Nearest town along the interstate. But that lady is crazy if she thinks they’ll make it before dark without a ride of some kind.”

“She is crazy for more than that. If it is the town I think of, months ago it was emptied of people by the gut disease. The water, it went all bad.”

It had been a while since I’d thought about any place beyond the town. My world had shrunk. Yes Abel did make it bigger but the day-to-day struggle kept both my hands and mind too busy to constantly worry at problems someone else might be having.

For the rest of the day Abel and I took turns but we only saw four more people; one during my watches and three during Abel’s turns. By the time that late afternoon arrived, it had been several hours since the last person had shown themselves. The fires had also moved to block that route though they stayed on the town side of the river.

Abel and I decided to begin moving the cache. The wind had changed and the smoke was getting pretty bad at that location anyway. It took eight trips to move the entire cache to the new location up over the top of the ridge; eight exhausting trips of up and down and up and down and up and down. I felt like a mountain goat. But the air on the other side was easier to breathe and didn’t smell quite so bad.

It was near midnight by the time we finished moving everything. The trail had turned treacherous or we might have continued as we’d caught our second wind … or the fourth or fifth one, I lost count. We were anxious to get everything closer to home so that we could go check on Daniel. We both admitted it wasn’t happening that night and snuggled up under a small overhang to do our best to escape the damp fog that rolled in.

Condensation woke me when it dripped into my ear. If Abel hadn’t wrapped me so tight with his arms I would have sat up straight into a rock that would have probably knocked me right back out again. “Good morning Querida.”

“Morning,” I grumbled as I tried to wipe the cold wetness out of my ear canal. “What time is it?”

“Too early.”

I stopped what I was doing and rolled over in his embrace. I said, “Hi.”

He said, “Hello.”

We both realized we weren’t thinking about moving much so that’s what we forced ourselves to do. I knew we had been running low on rations so the previous evening I had picked out a few things around our camp that were edible and as daylight came I put together a reasonable facsimile of something that looked like food.

“Let us move this cache within sight of the meadow and then go get Daniel. We need to rest and then get back to preparing for winter.”

I was in one hundred percent agreement but no matter how hard we worked there was no way we were going to meet that goal. Oh, we managed to move the cache. And thought it was approaching evening, we even managed to hike to within sight of Amish Town. But what we saw when we got within sight made both us both boil over with fury.

Chapter 33

Chapter 33

Abel and I looked at the fallen man and then shook ourselves, realizing that if we were going to get his gear and get gone we better do it quickly or there wouldn’t be anything left for us to get.

We ran for the warehouse but I stopped to get my arrows. Two of them were salvageable but the shaft on the third was bent. I ripped it out of the corpse anyway so that I could have the fletching and the broadhead tip. I put the gore covered arrows in my quiver and followed Abel into the warehouse.

The only light in the cave-like interior came from the orange glow of the fires that illuminated the doorway and came in through the ventilation windows set high in the walls. Not much light but enough for Abel to find his pack and rifle that had been thrown into the corner. You could tell it had been gone through but nothing of import except the food I had packed for him was missing.

“Day-cee we have a little time I think. I have cached a good bit in the woods but what would be your wish if you could have anything?”

I said the first things that sprang to my mind. “Powder and primers, shotgun shells of any caliber, .22lr and 9mm ammo, lead ingots, spare firing pins, spare magazines for the guns we already have, gun oil, any spare brass for our handguns and rifles … and … some web belting, and new holster for you … and … and ….” I stopped, shrugging. “This is ridiculous. Anything Abel … whatever we get will be more than we had before.”

“Si Querida. As always you are wise. But I wish for to show you something I did not have time to take before I was captured. I hid it back here.” He handed me a gun and I knew it was a Springfield 1911.

I said a bit puzzled, “I didn’t know they came so small.”

“Si. It is .45 caliber but is named a micro-compact.” I could tell he was repeating what he had read because he was enunciating the words slowly and precisely. “So … it will fit in your hand. Yes?”

I’d never had a .45 of my own so it felt a little strange but if Abel thought it would be good to have then I thought so be it. Couldn’t imagine I’d take the thing hunting any time but it looked like it would pack a wallop against a person if I needed it to.

We didn’t take too many guns; mostly what we were after was ammo and reload components for those we already had. The few new guns that Abel had wanted were already in the cache. I thought of something. “Abel, do you think they’ve cleared out the food yet?”

Abel nodded, “Si. It was probably the first thing everyone ran for. But … yes, I think there is time.”

I looked at him and asked, “Time for what?”

“If I know Hakim he will have a cache of his own some place near. He would make sure that he had an … an escape route. Si?” As I hefted the really heavy pack onto my sore back he asked me, “Too heavy?”

“Yeah, but I can go a couple of miles with it if you don’t expect me to go too fast. This stupid thing probably weighs close to seventy pounds. I’ve never carried much more than fifty. I’m not complaining though because I know yours is heavier and you’re banged up more than I am.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I will be an old man before you truly let me hear you complain without reason. But you are right, these packs … they are too heavy. Let us get to the cache and lighten our load. Then we will go looking for Hakim’s treasure.”

We had to wait out three more groups of men coming in to grab all they could carry and then run away. Finally we couldn’t wait any longer; the fire was so near that we could feel the heat from hit when we stepped out into the night. It was aggravating to leave so much behind but we didn’t have any choice. We couldn’t carry any more and the few operational vehicles were already long gone; they wouldn’t get far due to lack of fuel. As it was I was struggling before we’d gone half a mile.

By the time we reached the cache both Abel and I were shaking. We hadn’t eaten real regular the last couple of days and the adrenaline and stress had left us with very little reserves.

Huffing, trying to catch my breath I said, “Abel, give me a minute.”

Regretfully he said, “We do not have a few minutes Querida. We must needs go find Hakim’s …”

“… treasure. I know. But I’m not asking for a rest I’m asking for you to give me a sec so I can make us something we can eat while we are walking back. I don’t know about you but I’m toast.”

“Toast?”

“I mean I’m beat, running low on energy, getting to the point I’m not going to be able to go any more.”

He sighed. “Si Querida. I am this toast as well.”

In spite of how I felt I had to smile at his upside down grammar but that didn’t stop me from popping open two zip bags, throwing in some rolled oats, and then squeezing in some nut butter. I zipped the bag shut and squished the oats and nut butter together. “Just rip open the corner of the baggie and squeeze the stuff into your mouth a little at a time. It will destroy the bag and the oats are going to be chewy but at least it will give us some energy.”

True enough as far as things go but we were both still hungry by the time we got close to Hakim’s living quarters. Peeking in we could see that the place had already been ransacked. I told Abel, “If there was something here before it’s gone now.”

“No,” he told me. “He would not keep supplies here because of this very thing. He would want to be able to get away quickly and arrive at his cache to resupply before …”

Something occurred to me. “Wait … I know where we are at.”

“Si … we are at Hakim’s quarters.”

I shook my head. “No … not that. What I mean is this used to be the ranger’s house … the guy who took care of the park. Him and his son took turns operating the fee gate. Let me think.”

I turned this way and that trying to picture everything in my head from what I remembered. Abel asked me, “Querida, what is it you do?”

I was frustrated trying to remember exactly and then put it in terms of what was here now. “It’s a story that Dad and one of his friends told me one time. Hang on … he said it was behind the house about five hundred yards.”

Abel left me to think while he went over what little was left in the house. He came out carrying … I had to look again to believe what I was seeing. “Abel! What is that?!”

He grinned hugely and said, “It is the sword and dagger that Hakim used for show. It is now mine.”

I looked at it. Dad had a thing for well-crafted knives and I could tell the ones that Abel held were the real deal. “That’s not a ceremonial sword, that’s a real one … and not cheap either.”

“It is … hmm … Turkey Sword … a scimitar. The dagger is match, yes?” The blade of the scimitar was thirty-two inches long but the scimitar’s full length was forty-eight inches. The hilt was made of wood and steel and was beautiful in its simplicity. The dagger was its match only smaller.

“Yeah. You can probably find something similar to them in one of Dad’s knife and sword books in the library.”

He nodded while he put the sheathed sharps into his pack. Once done he said, “Now, what is this that had you twisting and turning to remember?”

“Like I said, it was a story from when my dad was a kid. If you think I can get up to stuff the stories from when Dad was a boy would make your hair fall out. He didn’t have much adult supervision until his step dad came along but that didn’t last because the man died. Dad would sometimes stay out all night and … wait … now I know. Follow me.”

We went into the tree line … trees that hadn’t been there when my dad was a kid … and eventually came to the foundation and chimney of a very old house. I said, “OK, we need to be careful, there is an old cistern here someplace.”

Less than a minute later I heard a crack and then a mild curse before an eerily hollow voice called, “I have found it.”

I fumbled my way over in the dark in time to see a dark outline of Abel push away the covered top of a hole. I bent down beside him but before I could look at what he had found I was on my back and looking skyward being thoroughly kissed.

“Uh … Abel …?” I gulped when I caught my breath.

“Look in the hole Day-cee.”

I took the small penlight from him and looked down to see several small metal barrels. Disgusted I sat up. “It’s just beer kegs.”

I could hear the smile in his voice. “Kegs yes, but not of beer. When we first came to this country we found that vermin were very strong and wicked and would chew through all paper and plastico. The orders came and many of these kegs were … were … adaptado … to hold grains and liquids not beer or wine. See?”

I looked where he was pointing with the penlight and could see that where a tap should have been there was a kind of cap. There were five of them down in the hole. The kegs weren’t very big but for a single man and the right ingredients, and supplemented with hunting and fishing, it could have gotten him through a normal winter.

Abel reached down into the hole and brought out one of the kegs with some difficulty. He said, “Twenty-five kilograms, perhaps a little less.”

Being in the habit of converting his metric measurements to American measurements I said, “Fifty pounds or thereabouts … but of what.”

He rocked the keg back and forth and you could hear rattling but not loud. “Some kind of grain … but not corn I think. Probably wheat.”

He pulled out another and rocked it back and forth. It sounded like small marbles. Abel said, “Chickpeas.”

He went to grab the third one and nearly fell in. “Are you OK?” I asked him concerned at how he rubbed his shoulder after he sat back up.

“Si, just a strain. It is much more than 25 kilograms. I think easily three times that.” Looking at me he asked, “Are you too tired to take this back to our cache? I would like to take this away from here in case the fire spreads before we can return for them.”

And that’s what we did. It took us four trips and by the time we were finished we were falling down exhausted. The first trip we carried the first two kegs that did indeed have wheat and chickpeas in them. The second trip was a keg of something that Abel told me was dried fava beans; and wonder of wonders a keg full of green coffee beans. I shuddered at the smell but Abel acted like he was gonna get high on the odor alone. The third trip was the hardest.

We were already tired and the last keg was the heavy one. We finally rigged a pole and sling and carried it on our shoulders; Abel in front and me in the back. I was ready to drop it over the edge but in the end it was worth it because the keg contained honey.

We had thought there were only the five kegs but when we got them out of the hole we found there were a few metal ammo boxes below the kegs, a metal box containing what turned out to be spices, a small metal tub of pistachios, and a small metal trunk of stuff I couldn’t even read the labels on. All of the last bits went into our packs or the sling for our last trip.

When we got back to the cache site I could tell that Abel needed to sleep. I wanted to sleep as well but I had enough to do to satisfy my curiosity and keep me awake for a couple of hours. The sun would soon be up so I told him, “No sense in trying to go anywhere right now. Let me take the first watch and …”

Right at that moment the sky light up like the Fourth of July. After we’d gotten over being startled out of a year’s growth Abel said dryly, “The munitions dump went boom.”

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing … and laughing and laughing to the point of tears. “Shhhhh,” he said as he rocked me. “It is time for the resting. It is all over for now. We are safe. You will lay down …”

I pushed off of his chest and wiped my eyes. “No … really I’m fine. It just all kind of struck me. It reminded me so much of my other birthday and I just … just … lost it for a bit.”

“You’re other …? Es su cumpleanos? Why did you not tell me Querida?”

I shrugged. “It’s no big deal. No really, it’s not,” I told him when he tried to object. “Daniel never cared about birthdays … that time thing he has … and I don’t know … it just didn’t matter much after a while when it was just him and me. Besides you didn’t make a big deal out of your birthday.”

It was his turn to shrug, “I told you, there were so many of us that our cumpleanos was never … well … Abuelo … the cost you see.”

“No, I get it. My folks didn’t break the bank either. We always tried to do something together as a family and then … well, they’re gone now.”

I tried to shrug it off but he whispered, “But I am here now. And you are diez y seis … sixteen. Yes? I have heard that it is important for girls.”

“You mean like a Sweet Sixteen and all that?”

He nodded. “Si … like a Quinceanera at fifteen for my cousins.”

“Sure, sixteen is a … kind of a benchmark age I guess you could say for kids in this country but not everyone has a big party for it. Let’s just let it go. Besides, I think I’ve had plenty of excitement to mark the day, don’t you?”

At my hug he said, “Si, we both have. But now I will remember the day and next year we will do something … as a family. You and me and Daniel. Si?”

I grinned and after a bit of dickering he agreed that I could take the first watch while he rested.

Chapter 32

Chapter 32

I belly crawled towards the fence. Only a few guards were around and they were as fascinated as the prisoners by whatever spectacle they were watching. I had no idea what was going on but knew I needed to find out. I was slithering around the fence edge when a voice hissed at me from inside it, “I should spank you!”

I nearly yelped with joy. “Abel! I was so worried!”

He was very angry but still trying to be as quiet as possible.“Silenciele mujer loca! This was not the plan.”

I whispered back, “Neither was you getting caught so stop complaining.”

“Shhh. You will attract the guards. Now listen to me carefully. This fence is electrificado. It is very strong and will do more than sting should you touch it.”

Thinking that over I asked, “What’s everyone staring at?”

Obviously frustrated Abel answered, “Hakim and another man are fighting. Hakim is winning so …”

“Uh … maybe I can do something about that. I still have some of those grenades left.”

I could just make out Abel’s face and he looked like he was having a heart attack. “When I get out of here I swear I will spank you.”

“Not in this lifetime you won’t Mr. Macho, not if you want to keep your skin intact. Besides I oughta spank you for getting into trouble like this. Look at you, you’re all beat up and stuff.”

If Abel could have pulled his hair out he would have. His frustration reached a peak and then something strange happened; his head fell forward and his shoulders started to shake. I asked, “What’s wrong?”

He answered, “Usted me ha conducido obviamente insano. I cannot believe I am agreeing to this.”

“I didn’t drive you insane, you were already crazy. And what are you agreeing to?”

A deep southern drawl came from behind Abel and I jumped though Abel’s reaction told me he’d known the guy was there. “I hope thith fella here ith agreeing to let you do thomething that ith gonna get uth outta here.”

The voice was deeper than I remember it being but the speech impediment that came with the words was the same as it had always been. “Benji?”

Another boy told Abel, “Told you she’d remember us.”

“Us” turned out to be a few of the boys I had gone to school with. Abel said, “Shhh. Now is not the time for the reunion like old friends. Day-cee, how many grenades do you have left?”

I told him, “Half dozen of the real ones and nearly two dozen of my other goodies. I’ve got some napalm left as well.” Before Abel could say something I added, “But whatever it is we better get a move on because, well, like I went and started a … um … few fires and the wind kinda seems to be blowing this way.”

Benji muttered, “Daffy Dathey.”

I growled, “Call me that again Benji and I’ll leave you here.”

Abel broke in and said, “Day-cee, I will happily die a crazy man if you can blow up the shed that houses the generator.”

“Sure, where’s it at?”

Another voice muttered, “Oh sure … she’ll just go blow it up. No big deal. There’s only like several men with machine guns guarding it.”

I didn’t recognize the voice but I wasn’t worried about it. I guess their voices had changed since I’d seen them last but they were still the same boys and still more than a little ornery. That told me they probably hadn’t been Hakim’s prisoners for too awful long. In the general direction of the boys I said, “Shut up and leave the mayhem to me.” I took some of the matches and extra lighters I had and shoved them into the crocker sack with the BB grenades. “Heads up,” I told them right before I tossed the bag over the fence.

Abel caught it and I caught it from him. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?!”

I ignored his overprotective streak and whispered, “Stay low to the ground because if one or those real grenades will put you on your hind end, then the two I plan on tossing at the same time will do it even quicker I guess. Share those things out with the boys; they’ll know what to do with them.” Whispering to Benji I told him, “Them are some non-standard toys right there; not just plastic BBs but some metal ones in there too. Be careful none of you take out your own eyes.”

I was about to crawl away when Abel said, “Querida … be careful. I could not live with myself if you were hurt because of me.”

“And I couldn’t live without you period so plan on escaping and following the rest of our plan … K? Daniel and I both need you.” I crawled away to the sound of gagging which was just plain typical of boys of a certain age which is why I’d never been partial to them in the first place as anything other than friends.

I was getting tired of slithering along the ground like a snake but since it was the safest place to be I kept any complaints to myself. I wasn’t real sure how far away I should be when the two grenades went boom but I knew I needed to find some place where I could avoid as much flying debris as I could. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for.

The guards on the generator shake weren’t nearly as oblivious as the prison guards had been. They were nervous and as a result their eyes seemed to be going everywhere at the same time. And the shack or shed wasn’t really either one of those things, but more a small concrete building. I realized it was actually the old bathrooms for the city park. I was almost exactly at the spot I had been three years ago … and that is what reminded me it was my birthday.

That thought cleared my head. Too many things had changed forever since that night and this wasn’t a game. Abel and I were fighting for our lives. My focus sharpened and then I felt a shark grin grow on my face. I took out one of the penny bombs I hadn’t given to the boys and I lobbed it on the other side of the guards’ positions.

BANG!!

Sure enough it startled the guards enough that they all ducked and then turned in that direction looking for the enemy. I stepped from around the corner of a concrete memorial plaque and rolled one grenade like I was bowling all the way into the generator shack and then the other so it fetched up at the door frame.

I ducked just in time. Two short explosions followed one on top of the other. The first grenade pulverized everything inside the shack and most of the roof. The grenade at the door destroyed most of the front wall and the guards standing directly in front of it. The pressure and debris took out the other guards but I wasn’t sure if they were dead or not, but they sure as heck were down for a while. The huge sound of a transformer blowing followed the two grenades and what lights had been lit around the camp immediately went out plunging everything into pitch darkness. It was only that dark for a moment however because the glow of the structural fires quickly replaced the artificial light.

I was dazed and banged up. The memorial plaque hadn’t been all that great as a place to hide. My ears were still ringing when my brain finally got the signal through to my legs that they needed to move.

And move is definitely what I needed to do. I could hear all sorts of people hollering, I just couldn’t make out what they were saying. I think it was partly due to my clogged up ears but some of it was because not all of the people were speaking English. I slowly made my way back to the fence section to find Abel and the boys trying to help the weakest prisoners over it.

I reached into my pack and threw a multi-tool at Benji who went to town on the fence, clipping out just enough wires so that people could go through rather than over. Abel took the tool from Benji, obviously not inclined to trust him any more than necessary. I grabbed Benji as he ran by and told him to take people towards Amish Town. “They aren’t going to just going to give charity away – you can’t expect them to put their families in danger – but those that need it can get patched up.”

“Don’t tell me how to thuck eggth Dathey. We were living in them construction portableth at the new thchool thite before we got taken for getting into a fight with thome of Almanzor’th people that came to take what thupplies we had thtashed. We’d left town when Richard King thowed up and my dad figured out what hith game wath. My mom and dad thould thtill be out that way if they’re alive and I plan on finding out. We’ll take thethe other guyth with uth and bury the oneth that don’t make it. You’d better run and find a hole too.”

So saying he grabbed the arm of the guy nearst him and hauled him down a path that lead in the general direction of Amish Town. I almost called to him to tell him about the foot bridge but it would have been a waste of my breath, Benji was even worse about mischief making than I was. If he couldn’t get where he was going one way he’d get there another. I wasn’t the only one that had reason to know where you could cross the river without using the bridges.

Abel picked me up and started walking at a fast but limping clip away from the prison yard. “Hey, I can walk.”

He stopped and put me on my feet behind another building. “Are you sure Querida? You … you do not look so good.”

“Yeah, well you don’t look like you’ve had a walk in the park either.”

He shook his head, “No.” Looking into my face to see if I was fibbing about being OK he said, “We need to get to the warehouse. My gear is there and there are other things that are … useful.”

“Fine,” I mumbled.

Concerned he asked, “What is wrong?”

I told him, “This isn’t going the way I expected it to. I don’t know if people are going to the interstate or if they’re going into the woods. I don’t know if we’ve done any good at all. I lost crazy Richard in the crowd and now we don’t know where Hakim is at.”

We began limping towards the warehouse in question when Abel said, “Battles never go exactly as planned. And this one is not over yet so do not give up.”

I tried to remember that as we got near our destination. Men were running every which direction and in and out of the warehouse too. I sighed, “Looks like we’ve started a war for real.”

After a moment Abel said, “No. Look. Men go in but they come out with only what they can carry and then run off. I think we’ve done it Querida. Hakim’s men are deserting him and taking what they can before they flee.”

That is when several men ran up and started shooting and punishing those that had been taking stuff out of the warehouse. I heard Abel give a sharp, indrawn breath. I knew one of them must be Hakim but I didn’t know which one. Abel was cursing the lack of a gun. I knew what I had to do. I took my compound bow off my pack and took out three broadhead tipped arrows.

In a calm voice I said, “Tell me which one he is Abel.”

“What? Day-ce …”

I shook my head. “We’re wasting time. This way we’ll know for sure and won’t have to hunt him down again.”

Abel closed his eyes briefly then nodded once. He pointed out a man that looked just a little younger than my father had been. I had expected someone imposing looking but he just looked … ordinary. He was short, maybe five foot seven. His skin looked like old leather and his hair, or at least his beard, was streaked with gray. He was dressed in faded military fatigues but he also wore one of those strange scarves on his head. He was just a no-body that had gone and tried to be a somebody for a while. Well his time was up.

The glow from all of the fires gave me enough light to shoot by but the shadows were bad. The first arrow took him in the leg, well below what I was aiming at, spinning him away into a crouch. The second arrow caught him in the back and he stood back up, arching, and spun to face me again. He was reaching for the arrow in his back when the third arrow sunk deep into his heart. He jumped like someone had goosed him and then fell forward burying the shaft even deeper into his chest.

The men all around him had finally noticed his death dance and there was silence for a moment and then they grabbed what they could and ran just like the others before them.

Chapter 31

CHAPTER 31

It didn't take me an hour to get where I was going and I was itching to get started. However, for our plan to work the way we wanted it to I had to allow time for Abel to get into his position. At exactly 11:30 pm, as planned, I started lighting things up.

It bothered me at first that it was so easy but I quickly decided to not look a gift horse in the mouth. Open a window and climb in here. Crawl under a building there. Wiggle through some bushes and skinny up an old trellis to get to a loose attic vent. Jam a doorstop under a door so it couldn't be pushed open from inside. My strategy was to do what I could to funnel people into the road that led out of town rather than have them running into the woods in the opposite direction. My goal? Controlled chaos.

I came close to being seen a couple of times but was protected by the fact that nearly everyone acted half awake, like they had no energy and less concentration. My best guess, it was due to a lack of a meal for two days running after an already restricted diet. I wasn’t going to complain about their missed meals all things considered but it still went to show how debilitated people were becoming; they were literally starving to death one missed meal at a time.

It had taken a long time for the town to get to that point because of the reserves that the Blue Hats had stored and used to control the people but time had finally run out; the same way it was running out for everyone. People will do crazy things for food when they are truly hungry, including the most debauched imaginable. Food was the new drug and everyone was an addict. I kept reminding myself of that anytime I started to feel the least bit guilty about what I was doing.

It didn't hurt my escapades that I blended in with the townspeople. Abel would have stood out a mile, not so much because of his coloring - though his swarthiness did set him apart - but because of the way he carried himself and the fact, that though lean, he was obviously healthy. I was lean as well and I was healthy too, but you could see it only if you got beneath the layer of dirty I was wearing. I looked rode hard and hung up wet. I hadn't bathed or brushed my hair for a couple of days and I’d been mucking around in a dump; that alone was worth a couple of inches of filth. And my clothes were ill-fitting, stained, and mismatched. I don't know if my own parents would have recognized me at a first, or even second, glance.

As midnight came and went, even as the first alarm were raised, I continued to light fires. I began to hear hysterical calls from the townspeople for Richard to help them as they realized the scope of what was occurring. A couple of the houses that we’d planted napalm in were discovered … but you can’t really scrape off napalm, it leaves a residue that was just as easy to light. And their scraping had actually spread it around even more than what I had already accomplished.

As the cries for “Richard the Lionhearted” increased I saw a crowd being to build around a clump of buildings I hadn't been able to sabotage because of how many people were in them. That told me where the crazy Richard most likely was hold up. The door on the two-story house was blocked by several guards holding the cult followers off. I heard the guards yell that Richard was in consultation with god … little “g” … and deliverance would soon be at hand.

Yeah right. I bet the kook was in there preparing for ye ol’ getaway and would only come out when he could make the biggest impact. I decided to give him a reason to come out on my time and not his.

Using the crowd as cover I made my way over to the building nearest to the crazy Richard and went inside it. While everyone was running outside to see what was going on I snuck inside and then ran up the stairs and then into a converted attic space. Lucky for me it was a historic building and it still had a roof access up there to clean the chimneys. I used the access to climb onto the roof. Once up there, and settled as safely as I could manage, I lobbed a stink bomb threw an open upstairs window of the other building. The first was followed by a couple of smoke bombs of a particularly putrid green that was wasted on the crowd below because of the dark night. All they could really tell was that there was smoke pouring from several of the upstairs windows.

The smell inside was pretty bad if the gagging of the people coming out was any indication. Even the large crowd backed away from the place with several people covering their nose and mouth or rubbing their eyes. Once people started rushing out of the building I threw in a Molotov cocktail through the same open window. Now that stirred things up. At that same moment the first gunfire could be hear coming from Hakim’s side of town.

Briefly my chest tightened as I worried for Abel but I knew we both had a job to do and I had to have confidence in his skills and in my own. I got my first chance to instigate real trouble between the two groups when someone in the crowd below me cried, “Almanzor! It’s Almanzor!! He’s attacking!!”

Boy, and I had kicked the ant hill with the fires. I took a penny bomb and simply tossed it over the side near a knot of people. The subsequent bang had people screaming and carrying on like you wouldn’t believe. One guy even swore up and down, “I’ve been shot! Halp! I’m hit!!”

Then there was a nearby whoosh as an older, one-story, frame house kind of exploded as something still flammable caught. Yowzer. I could feel the heat from where I was on the roof several houses away; I couldn’t imagine what the people closer to the house must have felt; several had been knocked down by the percussion. As burning debris rained down around me I realized I wasn’t in such a good place.

There was another crescendo of noise as someone yelled, “There he is! There’s Richard!!”

I couldn’t tell if it was adulation or anger that made the crowd rush off after a man I barely got a glimpse of before he was swept up by his followers. I used the chaos to get off the roof, which wasn’t nearly as easy as it had been to get onto; the access door had shut and latched at some point. As I exited the building I decided to go ahead and start another fire. I squirted a blob of hand sanitizer where some floor length drapes hung, and then lit the alcohol based gloop and left at a run. I couldn’t stay around to watch but I hoped the sanitizer would stay lit long enough to catch the drapes which were made out of this gauzy nylon stuff that was sure to go up like dry tender and drip fire on the carpet beneath and maybe even catch the papered walls.

I had to jump into a small room that wound up being a bathroom as people started stampeding in the building apparently gathering belongings just in case the fire spread. I felt like saying, “day late and a dollar short” but I was too busy hiding. To my chagrin someone did find the fire upstairs so I was stuck escaping from the bathroom window and nearly breaking my neck and losing an eye by falling into the dead rose bushes below. Lucky for me the scratch at the corner of my eye wasn’t bad but it stung like a son of a gun but the gouges in my buttocks hurt worse after I removed several thick thorns.

I got to a better vantage point and saw that the crazy Richard must have been more charismatic than I thought. He’d started to organize his followers to take the fight to Hakim … I heard something about food and guns and realized that he was really getting them wound up. But all they did was talk, not at all what I wanted them to do. I decided it was time I gave them a little more reason to move rather than sermonize by throwing another penny bomb following by a BB grenade. The penny bomb just made people jump and holler but the BB grenade made a few of them scream in real pain.

The sky was taking on an orange hue as the fires I had started consumed anything they came in contact with. Heat was building. Smoke drifted all over the place and I was beginning to have a hard time breathing without coughing. As I tried to visualize an escape route so I wouldn’t get roasted alive a real enemy for the Richard to take on entered the game. That weird yodeling sound preceded even more real automatic gunfire. People in the crowd around Richard screamed, developed red blossoms on their clothing, and fell.

It was soon apparent that I hadn’t really had a clue what hand to hand combat would mean for me. I was stuck on the far side of the rendezvous point with both Richard’s group and Hakim’s men between me and it … between me and presumably where Abel was waiting. I noticed that too many people were running the wrong direction from where I wanted them to go so I took out one of the real grenades that Abel had confiscated. I shifted my position and then lobbed it at the back of a crowd that had been running for the trail area.

Unfortunately I made an oops and the grenade also took out most of the footbridge that went across the most narrow point of the river that surrounded the town. Abel and I were going to have fun getting back home but I tried not to let that freak me out too much. There were other places to cross if you knew them; we’d just need to build some kind of skiff and a pole to push across using the underwater boulders.

I couldn’t stay in one spot too long and I must have had some bad luck because everywhere I moved to try and get through the battles all around me things would shift and I would get blocked from going the direction I wanted to go. I finally resorted to going around but because of the fires and the spread out nature of the fighting it was more than a short hike. The route took me in the same general direction that some people had started to go … across the only remaining exit from town that a vehicle could have cross.

Instead of crossing the bridge I passed through the thin ranks of people and across towards the Hakim side of things. I’d done just about as much damage as I could on the Richard side and wanted to see if Abel needed some help. The first thing I noticed was that while there were some fires there weren’t near as many as I knew we had planned on.

Sliding into one of these unlit buildings I found that someone had tried to remove the napalm. I left quietly and then went to a similar building and found the same thing. I wasn’t sure what it meant but I knew it couldn’t be good. I wondered where Abel was. Because I was worried that maybe he was tied up in one of the booby trapped buildings I had to search each one before lighting it up using a Molotov cocktail and the slimy remnants of the napalm that had been removed.

It wasn’t too long before I realized that someone had gotten sloppy and simply dumped most of the napalm over the porch rails at each building or beside a set of outside stairs. Well I wasn’t wasting good supplies and smeared it where ever it lay, doing my best to have the fire disappear under a building so that the new mischief wouldn’t be noticed immediately. Hakim or one of his men would know one person had been out and about, but hopefully they wouldn’t think there could be two of them.

I carefully made my way closer and closer to the obvious center of Hakim's camp. Still no Abel. Still no new fires except the ones that I was lighting. Then I saw them … the prisoners. They were lined up along the fence facing one direction and my heart sank.