I’m not sure what woke me exactly. I don’t know if it was the unnaturally quiet night or the fact that Dog was as stiff as a board beside me. I reached across Daniel to nudge Abel but found he was already awake. My hands brushed his and I felt the big rifle he clasped. I was quietly pulling my bow into my own hands when Daniel woke up and clamped onto me like a vise. Unfortunately he also kicked my leg which I had to up to that moment forgotten about.
I nearly broke my teeth trying to hold in the yell that wanted out in the worst way. Peeling Daniel off of me wasn’t exactly easy either. Whatever was out there Daniel sensed it and it scared him. Then I heard it; something made a snuffling noise and then it was pushing through the underbrush. Great, just absolutely great, I said after identifying what it was.
I prayed fast and hard that the bear would just go away. I thought it must smell our dinner, but it couldn’t have been a very strong smell. Abel had cleaned the blackbirds well away from camp and had buried the few scraps left over in the same location. We had gone well away from camp to take care of our personal business as well and I wasn’t on my monthly thank goodness. There was no bug spray, perfumes, or soaps to draw attention to us … not even toothpaste. And our packs were strung up in the trees high over our heads.
The bear never took particular interest in us but it wandered around for several hours before finally lumbering off around three in the morning. I couldn’t relax however until the sun was up and we’d broken camp and put our boots to the trail going home and even then I still had both ears cocked for any noise out of the usual.
Both Abel and I were exhausted. Daniel on the other hand was wide awake and wired enough for everyone. He’d gone back to sleep after the bear hadn’t taken action after foraging for about thirty minutes and had decided that the incident was just a bad dream. We let him continue to think that since neither one of us had the energy to deal with him if he got it into his head to start running home in fear.
About a mile from our camp Dog caught a scent and went all stiff legged in the middle of the trail. She didn’t block Abel’s path but wouldn’t let Daniel go any further. We set Dog to guard Daniel in the bushes with a piece of jerky to keep him occupied while we eased up around the bend. Abel motioned for me to stay where I was and then turned off the trail. I was beginning to worry but then Abel rushed out and called me to come help.
Scattered in a small clearing were the bodies of a whole group of Blue Hats but there were also several of Jackson’s group as well. I saw Josef bending over a bloodied Monica but when I turned I realized Jackson wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
“Josef?” I asked hurrying over to him.
“Don’t let Daniel see this mess.”
“Dog is keeping him safe someplace else. What happened?”
Josef shook his head as he put a splint on Monica’s wrist and tied it in place. He laughed a little, obviously in some shock. “What didn’t happen? What a fool’s play this has turned into.”
Abel came back after checking the others over and said, “They’re all dead or soon will be. There’s nothing you can do for them; the two that still barely live have gut wounds. How long has it been since the bear was here?”
Flabbergasted I asked, “Bear? This was all done by a bear?!”
Monica could finally talk once Josef had stopped moving her bones around. She gasped, “Mother bear and two yearlings … all three of them mean and hungry.
I turned to Abel and said, “That’s not the one we saw. It wasn’t a yearling but it wasn’t big enough to have cubs that old either … at least from what I could tell in the fog.”
He nodded in agreement, “Different one.” Turning to Josef who had insisted on making another inspection of the bodies he asked, “What drew it? Did you leave food out?”
In an unmistakenly disgusted voice he said, “In a manner of speaking. They left Derek tied up over there once they were through torturing him. And Ray is, or rather way, hung over there. I think the mother bear pulled him down and drug him off.
While Abel and Josef muttered together I turned and helped Monica sit up and tried to see to her other needs. It was obvious her brassiere was in ruins beneath her torn shirt so I brought the pack she identified as hers and asked if she wanted me to help her change. “What? No … no … I …” Then all in a rush she blurted out, “Don’t believe everything that Jackson said Dacey. I’m not angry at Jeff … at … at least not anymore. Jeff … Jeff had … had dignity at the end. He just sort of faded away. I think it was the betrayals that finally did him in more than anything else.”
She looked tired, like an old woman that had seen too much. “Yeah. I didn’t know about it for a long time. He refused to name the person that’d turned him in. They … they made him an Example. When he didn’t die from shock they threw him back in the prison pens. I … I took care of him the best I could but … but he was so tired Dacey. He just … just needed … he just needed to rest.”
It felt like there was a shaft of ice in my chest. “Who was it?”
“It took me a long time to figure it out. I’m still not absolutely sure. But after what happened …”
“Who?” I asked again.
“Jackson and his buddy Derek. They … they ratted us out. They took the radio from the pack where Ray had stowed it. I guess they must have used it to call this group of goons and … and we walked right into an ambush. It didn’t go the way they expected it to though. Apparently this troop commander thought that anyone that would betray his own people wasn’t trustworthy.” She chuckled bitterly. “Derek was the first guy they tortured. He lasted a nice long time.”
In a kind of daze I said, “We didn’t hear anything.”
“They had us all muzzled. One sound from anyone and they beat us all. One for all and all for one.” She laughed bitterly. “They were really wound up, drinking that horrible stuff they drink … that Arak … and were having too much fun to go to sleep. We were all forced to watch what they were doing. If they caught one not watching we all got slapped around. Every once in a while one of them would finally get so drunk he would pass out. But there were a couple of them still up and preparing a new victim when the bears walked into the clearing. We saw them but because we were tied up we couldn’t get get away. The guys still not drunk enough to fall down were tying Jackson down for their next round of entertainment when the mother bear came at them from behind. I don’t know exactly what happened after that. The bears were in some kind of frenzy. They’d take a bite out of one guy and then just move onto the next one like they were sampling a buffet. Someone passed me trying to get away and one of the yearlings ran after him and knocked me over. I hit my head and that’s the last I remember until I heard Josef calling my name. He was half way out of his ropes when your man came onto the scene.”
Josef came over to us and asked Monica, “You think you can hike? We’ll head for my uncle’s place …”
Monica yelped, “Josef, we talked about this. They’ll disown you.”
“No they won’t. I told you we met last month so I could give him some of the books from the town congregation so they wouldn’t be desecrated. That’s when we talked about whether I could come, and whether I could bring someone with me. We won’t go to services but my uncle said he will stand by me if I’ll come practice healing in the community and watch my p’s and q’s. Father and Grandfather will either come around or not but I’ve known that since I was sixteen and left to go to the school in town and then went and lost my religion in college.”
Then a few things clicked into place. Josef had never lifted a gun against the Blue Hats. Further back in my memory I recalled a time when he told Dad that his uncle wanted to know if he would do some old style smithing out on their farm as their community’s blacksmith was down sick. That’s when Dad explained to me that most of Josef’s people were very strict Old Order Mennonites but that Josef’s uncle was considered a bit of a radical because he would do business with people outside of the Peace Churches.
“I’m needed there Monica … but I won’t go until you are ready to go as my bride.”
I looked at Monica and at Josef. Monica looked at me and I could see she felt guilty. I don’t know where it came from but I said, “You know Monica, Jeff wouldn’t want you to wait around for a ghost. You stood by him the best you could under horrible circumstances. You were just kids in school. But school is out now and Jeff has gone on.” I swallowed passed the lump in my throat. “Live. If you can’t do it for yourself right now then do it in his memory … and if it means going with Josef then I don’t think … no, I know … that Jeff would be happy for you from where he is at now.”
Monica blinked back tears then slowly turned to Josef and put her hand in his. “Your grandparents are going to hate me.”
Josef said, “I don’t think my grandparents know how to hate. They just don’t know how to accept things that are different from the ways their grandparents taught them. Maybe we can teach them that different doesn’t have to be bad or shameful. I’d like to give it a try anyway.”
I could see a thousand questions in Abel’s eyes but I also saw urgency. I asked him, “Do you think the bears will be back?”
He nodded, “The bears and maybe more men. The radio I had was damaged in the fighting. I do not know if they were able to get any message out to their commander.”
Josef said, “It didn’t seem so. Every time one of the men wanted to use the radio to call someone the rest of them would say later – or something to that affect – and go back to their party.”
Disgust showed on Abel’s face. “Hakim’s men are getting over confident and sloppy. They wanted their fun before they had to turn over the prisoners … assuming there were any of you left to turn over.”
Monica grimaced. “They were saving me. I’m not sure what they said but I was off limits because I think they planned to give me to Almanzor or something to that effect.”
“Be glad they did not,” Abel said.
Monica snorted, “Trust me, I would have killed myself first. I’ve had to clean up after he was done with one of his ‘wives.’ She died … but it took a while.” She turned to look at Josef again and asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yes. If Jackson had not been watching you like a hawk we would have slipped away days ago. I think he suspected something”
Monica shrugged and then gasped in real pain. Josef calmly sat her down and created a sling to hold her arm. “You won’t be able to carry a pack so let’s put your things in with mine.”
Abel had been making two piles but turned when he heard that Monica would not be able to carry a pack. He called Josef over to rearrange things but as Josef tried to take all of the guns out I could see Abel’s confusion mounting. I walked over and asked, “Josef, do you hunt?”
He looked at me like he was prepared to defend an old argument. I shook my head. “I didn’t ask if you hunted people or hunted for sport, I asked if you hunted.”
He got a suspicious look on his face. I don’t know why people do that, it’s not like I set out to irritate them … well, not most of the time anyway. Finally he answered, “To put food on the table, yes.”
“Would you shoot a wild animal to defend Monica?”
Seeing where I was going he said, “Enough already Dacey. I’ll take one of the rifles and will take one of the small caliber guns for Monica but I won’t be loaded down like I’m following Sherman’s army.”
Abel asked, “Who is this Sherman and where is his army?”
Josef’s lips twitched into a half smile and he explained to Abel while they finished rearranging the piles. I went to check on Daniel and found Dog sitting in his lap. Daniel was ecstatic to see me, he’d grown worried but when Dog guards, she really guards. I brought him a little closer but didn’t let him come into the clearing. Not long afterwards Josef and Monica came to say goodbye; they had at least three more days of hiking to get where they were going.
Abel was not happy with the idea of leaving all of the supplies behind that he’d taken off of the bodies and out of their packs. I told him, “We can put them on the little trailer. It will slow us but if we tie everything down …”
I received a hard kiss followed swiftly by a demand for the folding game cart. Even with the game cart our packs were heavily loaded, even Daniel’s. As we walked I told him what Monica had said about Jackson and he said that men like Jackson only profited from their wrong doings for a short time. He said none of them could escape Judgment Day forever. I seem to recall my dad saying roughly the same thing and it comforted me and I was able to let go of some of the anger that was eating a hole in my stomach.
It was well into the evening before we reached the sink. Abel went first to make sure there were no surprises then once he was convinced all was clear he took Daniel down. Next came everyone’s packs and then he and I slowly maneuvered the game cart down to the ledge and into the cave.
Abel was tired but I was shaking with exhaustion. I also wanted to have a look at my leg in peace because I had a bad feeling. But first we had to check on the chickens … who were not too happy about being awoken before they were ready … and the grow rooms. I saw several things needed to be picked but it would have to wait.
We put Daniel to bed after stripping him and then we went our separate ways to our own rest. Only I wasn’t resting, I was waiting until I knew that Abel was asleep. When a long while had passed with no noise I crept to the bathroom, shut the door, stuffed a towel in the crack at the floor and then turned on the light. I peeled down my jeans, not even irritated by the fact that they were barely repairable, and couldn’t help but gasp at the mess of my leg.
It was swollen and red and the bandage showed where the puncture had been oozing a lot. I started shaking, almost afraid to take the bandage off, afraid of what I would find beneath it. It took forever but I finally got it off without tearing open the hole in my skin. I leaned my head on the sink and started crying.
The door suddenly jerked open and there stood Abel. “I cannot stand this any longer. I told myself I would not come in unless you fell or called for me but … but I could not. I stood here and stood here but to hear you crying …”
He saw my leg and fell to his knees. “Day-cee …”
I stopped my tears and wiped my face. “It’s all right Abel … really. I … I just got a little scared was all. I kept imagining all sorts of things but it’s all right. It’s red but not infected. There’s no puss or angry red lines. I was just so relieved I kind of lost it there for a minute. Now go away … I’m not dressed.”
He said something in Spanish that, although I didn’t understand what he meant, made me think they weren’t the kinds of words you would normally use in polite company. He grabbed a towel from the shelf above the toilet and told me to drape it across my lap. “No more words. No more excuses. I know men who could not have hiked that trail with a wound like this. How could you let me push you so hard?” he growled.
“Stop it,” I told him. “You weren’t pushing me, I was pushing me. Josef looked at it a few times and didn’t make the fuss you are making and he is practically a doctor.”
He said something totally uncomplimentary about Josef’s parentage and sanity and then pushed my hands away while he started to gently clean all the gunk from around the wound. I was sick to my stomach and threatening to puke on him if he didn’t stop by the time he had finished. I then used antibiotic ointment and rebandaged it with real gauze squares from the medicine supply cabinet.
Abel ordered, “Be still, I will carry you to bed.”
I snapped, “In your dreams.”
When I tried to stand up and hold the towel around me at the same time he said seriously, “Already have done it in my dreams now I am going to do it for real only without the happy ending.”
I squeaked when he gently picked me up and started to carry me to Daniel’s room where I had slept since before he had come but then he stopped. “You are too old to sleep in Daniel’s room with him. He forgets you need the privacy sometimes.”
I sighed completely beat. “I know Abel but until I can explain it to Daniel …”
“Explain it to him in the morning when he cannot jump on you to wake you up.” I groaned. It was a bad habit that Daniel had gotten into, bouncing on the bed to wake me up. The thought of being woken up that way with my leg like it was made me nauseous all over again. “You should have your own room,” he admonished.
I was in no shape to argue and Abel wasn’t in the mood for it. He carried me to the door I always kept closed but he let me make the final decision on my own. I turned the knob and Abel carried me into the room that would have been my parents’. I kept the room dusted but that was about it. Momma had never gotten around to decorating it as she thought of it more like a child’s play house than as a future home. The furniture was nice but Spartan; however the bed was big … and smelled of cedar from the bags I kept tucked between the sheets and under the feather pillows to keep the silverfish and moths at bay.
I only had a moment to feel strange, like I was trespassing before I was asleep.