Right after the “kicked” feeling my leg went numb and then out from under me. I went down grabbing onto Abel in the process and partially taking him down with me. We made no noise. Neither Abel or I yelled. Dog didn’t bark. And Daniel just stood there staring at me and pointing. For some reason I felt woozy and then things got confusing.
I can’t tell you the exact order that things happened over the next few minutes as even now it feels disjointed, like I’m looking at a bunch of pictures all scrambled together like one of those puzzles where you move the little squares around to try and put the pieces in the right order. There was the sensation of being lifted up and carried off the trail and into the underbrush. I remember worrying about Daniel but then he was right there with me. Dog was licking my face and whining and Abel was frantic, trying to do a million things at once. Slowly the buzzing sound left my head and I realized my leg was bleeding.
“Abel, don’t cut my pants!” I cried as I realized what he was about to do.
In a voice I had never heard him use before he said, “Hush Querida. I can only guess where the shot came from and we cannot give our position away.”
Shot. That’s what had happened. I’d been shot. Sitting up – which caused no small amount of dizziness – I pushed his hands away. It made me nauseous to look but I was relieved as well to see that the bullet sat just under my skin. In an unnaturally calm voice I said, “Get it out Abel.”
Now it was his turn to look nauseous but before he could say or do anything a woman came out of the surrounding cover and said, “Wait, our medic is on his way.”
Abel immediately got between Daniel and I and the newcomer. She backed up a bit at the look on his face and said, “Easy there. Just take it easy. Hey, Dacey … don’t you recognize me?”
I looked and knew that I had to be missing something and then she smiled and I remembered. “Monica? Monica?! Wait, have you seen Jeff? Do you know …?”
Her smile faltered and I had my answer, or at least part of it. She said, “We can talk about that later, just as soon as they take care of that ambush you practically walked into.”
Abel was like a stone wall, refusing to budge even after I explained who Monica was. He wouldn’t even move after the medic arrived. I realized I recognized him too as one of the nurses from the office where we took Daniel when he got sick. “Hey Buddy,” he said in Daniel’s general direction. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to get in your space until you say I can.” Looking at me he added quietly, “Dacey, can you get your friend here to stand down? The longer that bullet stays in the worse it is going to be and the more likely infection will set in.”
Picking my way through the sudden and unexpected situation I muttered quietly back, “I don’t make him do anything. And he won’t move until he knows you aren’t a threat to Daniel and me.”
Monica smiled slyly, “That way is it. Well, to be honest we are probably why you got shot. Almanzor got a little testy after our last raid and sent several of his Holy Fighter Squads after us.”
I felt Abel stiffen up even more. I wasn’t sure why until I remembered that Almanzor was what the Peacekeeper commander that had the axe to grind with Abel called himself. “Oh just great,” I snapped. “You just had to lead them this way Monica? Now on top of everything else we are going to have to deal with that dork?”
Abel snapped me a look. “We,” he said with emphasis. “Are not dealing with Hakim. I will find a safe place for you and Daniel and I will …”
“In your dreams,” I hissed. “You,” I said with the same emphasis “Will not leave us and go tearing off on some vendetta or whatever it is you call it. This,” I said pointing to my leg that was beginning to really throb. “Is not a big enough deal to suddenly make us go changing all of our plans.”
He saw quick enough that trying to force me wasn’t going to work. He sighed and signaled that the medic could come near but Abel and Daniel were still at my back. The medic gave him a suspicious look and said to me, “You’re a little young.”
Unwilling to play stupid I told him, “And you’re a little nosy with no right to be. This is our family and no one else’s business.”
Perversely Abel said, “He is simply trying to protect you Day-cee.”
Irritated and in pain where the guy was doing things to my leg I gritted out, “He can spend that kind of energy on someone who needs it. I don’t.”
Monica chuckled quietly under her breath and said, “Give it up Josef. Dacey’s mind is made up and if you remember her at all you’ll know it won’t do you any good to try and change it for her.”
And with that Josef shrugged and just let it go for which I was heartily glad. I was struggling to keep from puking and didn’t really want to have to fight at the same time. I heard Abel order, “Do not cause her pain.”
“Wouldn’t if I didn’t have to,” Josef told him calmly. “See what you can do with Daniel. He looks like he is about to have a meltdown.”
That snapped me back. “Daniel, don’t … absolutely do not … have a meltdown. You know that Abel and I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
Daniel finally found his voice and said, “And Dog … Dog won’t let anything bad happen to me. But you have blood on you.”
“Not a problem Daniel. I’ll be fine in just a bit. You remember Josef, he helped fix you up that time you fell off the roof.”
Daniel gave Josef a close inspection and then decided that perhaps, maybe he was all right but he still stuck like glue to Abel. Then off in the distance we heard something that sounded like weird yodeling. Abel pushed Daniel behind me and faced outwards toward the noise heading our way. Josef looked like he wanted to cursed but didn’t and quickly finished knotting the bandaged he’d fixed on my leg after pulling the bullet out with long tweezers. Monica did curse and it was rude and surprisingly graphic.
“Hey!” I muttered, still a little giddy. “You mind? I don’t want Daniel repeating that kind of stuff.”
Monica huffed and rolled her eyes and then deliberately said another curse word though it wasn’t as nasty as the first ones had been. “Grow up Dacey. There’s no place in the world for your goodie two-shoes act anymore.” I was thinking a particularly nasty word myself but it never left my mouth. She turned and said, “C’mon Josef, there isn’t time for anything else. We’ll have to run when the others get here.”
Abel said in a deadly voice, “There isn’t time for running. How many men have you got?”
Josef would have answered but Monica said, “I would tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”
It was an old joke but something on Monica’s face said that it might not be the joke she was playing it off as. “Shut up Monica. If the goons chasing your people are as wound up as they sound they might not be expecting a turn around.” Dad had taught me strategy and Abel had taught me more than a few things as well just listening to the stories of his life on the run. I hadn’t really thought I would ever use it but I fell into it like it was an old and well-practiced habit. Abel glanced my way and his grin was predatory.
“Very good Querida.”
As I watched him prepare himself I crawled, painful though it was, to add my position to his. “Daniel, Dog … lay flat behind that rock and stay out of the way. Understand?”
The noise was getting closer. “Monica, give the number up already. We need to know how many will pass by before we start shooting.”
Monica still refused but Josef came up beside us and said, “We have six out with us today, unless any have been picked off.” Monica complained like an irritated cat but Josef ignored her. “They’ll be dressed like us … ragtag civilian … Almanzor’s men will be mostly in urban camou with those light blue scarves worn like a keffiyah.”
“Like a what?”
“Like a man’s head scarf.”
There was no more time for talking as men started coming down the path. Monica moved to pulled them into our hiding place and a couple of them literally tripped when they spotted us. No time to really comment on that though because their pursuers were now in range. Abel fired first but rather than taking out the man in the lead he took out two men that were towards the back. The ones that I later discovered had the radios. They also turned out to be the ones leading the group and Abel had chosen them instinctually.
There was immediate chaos when the bullets hit the two men. I fired into the cluster of over a dozen remaining but don’t know if I hit any of them. The others all followed Abel’s lead and it was only a matter of minutes before all of the pursuers were down and on the way to their Maker. It started to hit me what I had been doing and I crawled away to hug Daniel who was in a fetal position with his hands over his ears.
“We need to get out of here,” Monica snapped. “The other groups will have heard the noise and be radioing in. When they don’t get a positive response they’ll be all over this place like ants on … Hey! Where do you think you’re going?!”
Her question was addressed to Abel who was making sure that no one was playing ‘possum amongst the fallen. He grabbed the radio from one of the men he shot and tossed it at the first man to follow him out. Monica whispered frantically, “Jackson! Did you hear me?”
So she and her brother were still together. I asked her, “Are Charlene and Duncan part of this crowd too?”
She looked at me sharply but didn’t answer. She was growing more frustrated as the rest of the men, except for Josef, began to follow Abel’s example and stripped the corpses of anything useful including boots. It didn’t take long for the men to get what they were after and they blended back into the scenery.
Daniel was beginning to calm but he was still tense from all of the loud noise and the strangers that surrounded us. Josef looked over and said, “That’s good.”
When I looked at him with the question in my eyes he answered, “That you’ve been able to handle him … teach him how to control himself better.”
I shrugged and didn’t say anything else as Abel sat down, intentionally putting himself between Daniel and I and the others. Dog covered out backs.
Josef told Abel, “Her leg is going to hurt worse before it gets better. And it needs to be kept clean or it will get infected.”
Abel just nodded and Josef backed off again to check on the minor injuries the other men had brought back with him. As soon as Josef left Jackson took up his spot. “You’re Jeff’s kid sister.”
As Abel’s brows drew down I said, “Cousin, not sister.”
“And your Dad’s name was Jeff too.”
Rolling my eyes I told him, “You are too obvious for words Jackson. My dad’s name was not Jeff, it was John. What’s with the ignorant questions?”
He snorted, “Yeah, you’re her all right. Monica said you were but you can’t be too careful.”
“Duh,” I told him rudely. “Besides maybe I should be the one all suspicious and junk. We met maybe one or two times, why would you know all that stuff about me?”
He smiled and said, “Jeff used to tell stories about you.”
“Wait, I … I thought …”
Jackson nodded and added gently, “Yeah, Jeff’s dead.”
Monica pushed her way into the conversation. “We … do … not … have … time … for … this. We need to get out of here!”
Jackson shrugged casually and asked, “And go where? We’re out of food. We don’t know where their main camp is to raid for more. We’d be out of ammo too if Abel here hadn’t started stripping it off the dead. Face it Monica. We knew this could happen. It’s been a good run and we’ll take as many as we can on the way out … but there isn’t any place left to run to.”
I really, really don’t like the fatalist’s approach to life. I looked at Abel and could see the wheels spinning in his head then when he looked at me it was as if we could read each other’s mind. No way did we want to lead them back to the cave but we couldn’t just leave them blunder around up here waiting to get taken by the Blue Hats either. We also needed the information about what was going on that Monica and Jackson’s group obviously had.
Abel asked me quietly, “Can you stand?”
I gave it a try. It hurt. It hurt even worse to put weight on my leg but it didn’t kill me. “Stand and maybe get as far as the lake as long as I don’t have to run. I might need a hand up the steepest part of the trail but … but I’m pretty sure I can make it to the springs area.”
He nodded and then asked Jackson, “Are you in charge?”
He shrugged, “Technically that would be JR over there but … he kinda abdicated the job a couple of days back when he and Monica got into it.”
I could see that Abel didn’t think much of that. “Then who is planning?”
“Planning what? We did what we set out to do which was to take out at least one of their teams. Only thing left is to get back to …” Monica cleared her throat to stop him from saying what he was going to.
I shook my head and muttered, “Geez.”
Abel was getting frustrated and I was just plain getting angry. “Abel, let’s go. They obviously don’t know what they’re doing and we need to get Daniel some place safe for the night.”
It was Josef that stepped up and asked Abel, “Do you have a plan?”
Giving Josef another once over he said quickly, “There is a place approximately four kilometers from here, by a lake. There will be water there and hopefully game or fish. The place I am thinking of would be large enough to hide everyone from prying eyes.”
Josef asked suspiciously, “What’s the catch?”
“None. We’ll trade you the location and help to feed us all if nature cooperates and you give us information on what has been happening since the snow started to fall.”
One of the men said, “You are outta touch Buddy ain’t ya.” At Abel’s silent stare the man said, “If there’s food I’m in. What about the rest of you guys?”
The other men agreed as well. Abel looked back at Josef and he said, “All right, I’m in as well.” When Monica objected Josef made a motion with his hand and said, “Enough. If we are going to get out of here and back home we need to regroup and get some rest. If there is food that is even better.”
We took the most direct route to an old fish camp known to only a select few of the locals. It took longer than expected because the lake had spilled over its banks in a couple of places and we had to make a couple of rough detours. We were within sight of the rocky overhang when someone ahead of me on the trail led a limb come snapping back and it caught me square on my thigh. It took everything I had not to scream and I wound up rolling around on the floor of the trail trying not to holler or cry.
Abel picked me up and carried me the rest of the way and I didn’t care worth a flip. I was in the land of pain. When he laid me down I heard him tell Daniel to stay with me and in a minute he was back with a cold, wet bandana that he put on my forehead. It was so cold that I knew he must have dipped it in one of the springs that gurgled out of the ground near the camp.
Gradually I got myself back under control but it felt like someone had let all the air out of my tires. “I’m OK Daniel. Really, I’m OK.”
“Abel said you was to stay right here. He said sit on your if you didn’t behave.”
I wanted to ask since when had he started to take his orders from Abel but I knew it wasn’t nice. Daniel loved Abel and had taken to him immediately. The fact that Abel was also his teacher in ways that I could never be wasn’t his fault or anyone else’s. I needed to be happy that Daniel had more than just me but I wasn’t feeling particularly happy at the moment. Daniel had the stubborn look on his face that said he would do exactly what Abel told him to do if I tried to get up and move.
“Fine. Where is he?” I asked in a tired voice.
“Talking to Josef down by the water. I’m thirsty Dacey … and hungry. Yeah, I’m real hungry.”
Knowing that once he set off down that road it was either do something for him or he would pester the living daylights out of me. He was going through a growth spurt and was hungry all day long. Heck, he probably would have just grazed on anything he saw if I’d let him. As it was I saw him hiding a puffball mushroom behind his back.
“OK Daniel, hand it over. And where did you get this?” I asked, looking over the round fungus that was roughly double the size of a softball.
He reluctantly gave me the mushroom and pointed behind me. Sure enough I could see several really large ones partially hidden by the grass back there. In exchange for giving me the mushroom I passed him a strip of dried meat flavored just the way he liked it and he sat down happily to chew on it while Dog chewed on a piece of deer hide I threw to her.
Abel came back and I asked, “Can we have a fire?”
He nodded slowly that squatted down beside me. “Querida?”
“I’m fine. Hurts but as long as nothing hits it again I won’t act like such a baby about it.”
He gently picked a leaf out of my hair and then before I could object picked me up again and carried me over to a protected place where Monica and the other men were already setting up a camp. He told me, “I’ll build you a fire under the overhang.”
Daniel was soon fishing – Josef joined him after checking my leg – while the other men cleaned their guns. I cut the puffballs into cubes and when I was brought the first cleaned trout I threaded them onto sticks along with the fish, seasoned everything with fresh parsley, basil, and marjoram and grilled the whole of it over the fire.
There was almost a fight as the first fish came off but I settled it by feeding Daniel before the other men, saying he had caught the first one so he would eat the first one. Some of them didn’t like that at all and I noted which ones and told Daniel to stay away from those particular men. Just because we had a common enemy did not necessarily make them our friends. Finally everyone was eating but me, my appetite was just gone and I was done in.
Abel noticed and refused to eat unless I did. He would feed me a bite and then he would eat one or two bites. I tried just so he would eat but after a few bites I just couldn’t. Quietly so no one could hear us I told him, “I’m OK Abel … or will be. I think it’s just reaction. Like that time you cut your hand real bad when you were butchering that small sow. I’m going to make some tea and try and get Daniel to rest. He’s getting over excited and picking up on the men’s nervousness around him.”
He nodded. I noticed that Abel wasn’t talking much but if I asked him about it someone might notice so I let it go. I called Daniel over and asked him if he would help me to rest and that is about the last thing I remember for a while.
I woke up incredibly thirsty. I thought I was in the cave at first but then remembered and then further realized that the sun must have set. That made me jump. A hand on me made me jump even worse until Abel whispered in my ear. “It’s OK Querida, I’m right here.”
We sat up carefully. Dog, who lay on the other side of Daniel, opened one eye but then closed it again letting me know that she didn’t sense any immediate danger around. “How are you feeling? Do you have pain?”
I shrugged, “Stiff, sore, but more thirsty than anything right now.”
He handed me one of our canteens. I noticed that he’d stretched mosquito bar between two rocks, keeping the blood suckers off of us. Some of the others had done the same and were sleeping as well. Those that didn’t have mosquito bar didn’t seem to be bothered by anything so I lost interest. I whispered, “I shouldn’t have slept so much.”
“Better that you did. You didn’t have to listen to the mujer que se queja.”
The way he said it let me know he was fighting to stay polite. “What was she complaining about? Monica used to be so easy going?”
Jackson eased up beside us and when I turned sharply in his direction he said, “It’s OK. Monica is just … stressed out. She didn’t want to come on this raid but Julie – our step mom – was driving her crazy about making a match with some guy that said that if she would live with him he’d keep Julie and the kids in food. Monica … she still isn’t over Jeff … told Julie that she wasn’t going to be some man’s … er … special friend … er …”
Abel tensed up but I said, “Don’t choke on it Jackson. I think I’ve got the picture. I can’t believe your step mom would ask her to do something like that. I know Charlene’s mom was … was a snob but I didn’t figure anything like that.”
Jackson shrugged philosophically and said, “Heart Rot has changed more than the land Dacey; it’s changed a lot of people too.”
Abel put his arm around me protectively although I knew there was a little possessiveness in there too. Either way it gave me the courage to finally ask about Jeff. “Jackson … I need to know. Jeff just walked away one day and never came back but you act like you all spent time together after that … yet you say he is dead now. What happened?”