All three of us tensed; all four if you count Dog whose ruff was standing straight up. I saw Abel’s brief look of resignation and how it bowed his shoulders with the weight of his feelings. Then he put on that person that he doesn’t like being just like he shimmied into clothes that were too tight for comfort.
He looked at me and started to say quietly, “Querida …”
I forestalled what I knew was coming by saying, “Whatever is happening is taking place further up the hill, probably at that clearing we found the mountain laurel in last time. There’s some boulders between here and there and we’ll tuck Daniel in with Dog to watch him.”
He saw I wasn’t going to just stand by and let him check things out alone. He’d been alone in the fight too long and I was just the person to fix take and watch his back too. He sighed, “On my orders … Si?”
I agreed to follow his lead. If he wanted to go in first I wasn’t going to argue, but I wasn’t going to let him do it all alone. Even knowing how things turned out I would still have given a lot not to have seen what I did when we reached the level area.
It was a camp of the wrong kind of people. They had a bunch of kids tied up and one little girl was separated from the rest and they had her tied down. She was unconscious now and I thanked God for it. What I saw turned my stomach. Suddenly that old joke about the farmer and his prize pig being too good to eat more than one ham at a time wasn’t funny anymore.
I don’t know what I looked like but Abel looked like what I imagined an archangel might as he stepped out and started shooting any adult that wasn’t tied up. I followed his lead and when I emptied the magazine in the Beretta M9 that I was carrying I picked up a machete from a woman that I had shot just in time to stop an attack by a man that looked more than half crazed. The guy was inches away from sinking an axe into Abel’s back.
I know it didn’t take long, barely minutes. The crazies didn’t seem to have much strategy beyond mob warfare. That’s when I heard, “Dacey! Dacey! Help me with Duncan … please!!”
I looked at who was calling my name and had to blink my eyes a couple of times. For a second I thought it was Monica then I realized she was too young. It was snobby Charlene … only she didn’t look too proud anymore. Her clothes were ripped, her hair matted, and she was streaked with stuff that I didn’t even want to know what it was. I walked over while Abel checked the perimeter of the clearing.
“Charlene?” I asked just to make sure.
“Yeah. Look, we need to get out of here. The guys from town will be here soon.”
I called Abel over at a run and asked her to repeat what she’d been trying to say. “I’m not sure where all the kids here are from. Some are from town but a lot of them are from Amish town and then there are some strays.”
I looked at Abel and explained, “Amish Town is what everyone called the area where the Amish and Mennonites tend to congregate and have all of their own stores and such.” What I didn’t need to explain is that it was where Monica and Josef had been heading.
“Yeah. And we’ve got to get out of here. These Old Order kids won’t fight … a lot of them are in no shape to anyway … but we can run and we’ve got to do it fast.”
Abel let me do the talking so his accent didn’t bring up questions he’d rather not be asked. “Have the cannibals taken over the town?”
“Kinda yeah, kinda no. This weird guy came along and started this cult thing. Real bizzare-o , repent and you’ll be saved by him kind of stuff. A lot of people bought into his act because he fed them. He is Almanzor’s enemy so a lot of people swung his way for that reason alone. Mom was like that … only once you’re in it is too late. You don’t figure out until later that they aren’t giving out meat but … well, look around and you’ll get the picture. Mom followed this guy into the cult because he said there was all the food we could handle but … anyway they tried to take us from her and segregate us with the other kids. When she fought them over it they killed her.” Her voice dripped with contempt when she added, “Most of the people in town play dumb but they all know what’s going on. A group is supposed to come up to get the next batch of … supplies.” She looked around. “This group had just started putting things together when you guys busted in like the cavalry. We appreciate it and all but look we’ve gotta get out of here!”
I didn’t hear anything but Abel swung around and nearly gunned down the men that came out of the forest until he saw how they were dressed. An older man with a beard stepped forward and said, “We mean you no harm. All we want are our children.”
“Josef?” I asked. “Do any of you know Josef? Or Monica?”
Another party of men dressed in a similar fashion rushed into the clearing breathing hard. “Well … Uncle you can tell Grandfather that God answered his prayers.”
Abel stepped away as the men gathered up the children from their families. Charlene’s eyes had gone hard with suspicion when she’d heard her sister’s name. I told her, “Don’t blow a gasket Char, this is Josef.”
“I know who he is. Jackson said he killed our sister.”
Josef looked outraged before shutting down. I looked at her and said, “Jackson is full of pig manure.” I turned to Josef, “Will you take these two. I think Duncan is hurt.”
Josef shook himself and immediately went into medic-mode. He told us over his shoulder, “Monica is fine. Angry that I insisted on taking some of the young, single men and coming after the others in case …”
The older man walked up and finished his sentence for him. “In case God did not answer our prayers Josef?”
Josef sighed. “No Uncle. In case God wanted to act through us for you and the children.” He turned to Charlene and told her, “You are welcome to come. Your sister has been very anxious for you.”
Charlene looked at me and asked like she was afraid to believe it, “Is Monica really alive?”
“A heck of a lot more alive than Jackson will be if I ever see that scum dog again. I know he is your half-brother and all but I’m pretty sure he turned traitor and nearly got us killed.”
Charlene and Jackson had never been particularly close and it was pretty easy to swing her against him. I heard her whisper to herself, “So Monica was right and Mom was wrong.” She nodded like she had answered herself and then looked at Josef. “Do you swear to take us to Monica?”
Josef looked slightly uncomfortable at her words but said, “I don’t swear to anything however … I will tell you that I will lay down my life to get you there.”
While Josef went around checking other former captives Abel leaned down and asked me to ask something of Charlene. I turned back to her and said, “Charlene, I’ve got a couple of questions. I know you want to get going as soon as possible … and you will … but we need some answers.”
She looked at me suspiciously but sighed and said, “Go ahead.”
“How much of the town is involved?”
She shrugged, “You mean with Almanzor or Richard?”
“Who is Richard?”
“The cult guy I told you about. Richard King; I doubt that’s his real name. He sure doesn’t look like a Richard and he likes to dress up in weird Renaissance clothes and for people to call him Richard the Lionhearted or Richard the Great.”
“Oh,” I said. There wasn’t much more to be said since “Richard” did sound a few French fries short of a Happy Meal. “But how many people are involved either way?”
“Almanzor still controls the biggest section of town but not most of the people. A lot of the people are loyal to Richard because he feeds them. They’ve been so hungry for so long that they pretend it isn’t what it is. It’s like they’ve hypnotized themselves so that they can’t see or admit the truth. What Richard’s people don’t have are the guns – which is what Almanzor does have - so it is kind of at a stalemate and Richard and Almanzor seem to like it that way. I heard these warped freaks,” she said kicking one of the corpses. “Say that Almanzor will sometimes give them a prisoner when he wants to get rid of them permanently without actually doing the killing.”
Shocked by the answers I was getting I asked, “How many people are left in the town?”
She shrugged like she could care less. “How am I supposed to know? Not near as many as there used to be but probably a lot if you are talking about attacking it. Which would be stupid if you are. Even if you could knock Richard the Nut off his throne you still have Almanzor’s group to deal with.”
Josef came over to talk with Abel and I ran to check on Daniel who was waiting patiently eating a pickle. I brought him back up with me and went over to the man that Josef had called uncle.
“Excuse me … sir … excuse me.”
He turned to look at me and then smiled at Daniel who seemed to recognize him. “Daniel.” Daniel gave the man a hug and big smile. He turned to look at me and said somberly, “Your father was a good blacksmith.”
That was probably the closest he could come up with for saying that he was sorry my father had been killed. I never have understood all the social rules that the Old Order Amish have and even the Mennonite kids I went to school with didn’t always say what you would expect them to say under some circumstances. Their grief is very private and they don’t memorialize people in any way … for Josef’s uncle to tell me something good about my father as a way of commiserating was pretty liberal in that community.
I answered simply, “Yes sir. And he was a good father. He spoke of the work you did together.” The man nodded. “Sir? I … I have a favor to ask. Could Daniel come stay with you for a few days?”
He tried to hide the surprise from his face. I rushed on to explain. “I know it is a lot to ask but … but he’s like you and your family. He isn’t meant for … for the kind of work that Abel and I are. He’s innocent of that stuff. He’ll be a good helper, just tell him something specific. He’s especially good with plants and foraging.”
Abel and Josef noticed my conversation and came over. “Day-cee?” Abel asked.
I looked at him. “You’re going to need help and someone to cover your back and these people need to shepherd the children away from all of this.”
Abel’s face went blank while Josef’s eyebrows went up into his hairline. I looked at the other young men who had gathered around whose expressions ran the gamut. Addressing them all I said, “I know. I understand. God sets people missions … jobs for them to do here on Earth. Your mission is what it is and Abel’s and mine is what it is. Just don’t forget, we’re both getting our orders from the same place.”
There was a little more back and forth but in the end Abel understood that there was no way I was letting him go off on his own. When Daniel found out that Dog was going with him and that there would be chickens to take care of and things to build he was as easy as a lamb. That as much as anything told me I had done the right thing.
The injured children, and some of them I couldn’t look at their injuries without knowing the cause, were carried or helped along by the uninjured ones. The adult men surrounded and acted as guides and helped them down the trail. Josef stopped before he went into the tree line and assured me, “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
I wanted to curl in on myself for a moment as I watched Daniel wave before going happily off with the rest of the children but I knew that I was doing the right thing. Where Abel and I were going was no place to take him and Dog would have been another burden; better to send her to keep an extra eye on Daniel.
Abel put his hand on my shoulder. “Querida, you do not have to do this.”
“Neither do you. But where you go, I go. Your mission is my mission.” I looked up into his face and saw a kind of closed expression. “What?”
“You will see me … do things, things I never wanted you to know that I was capable of.”
Catching him off guard I hugged him though we were both weighted down with our packs. “Oh Abel … I’ve known you could be a boogie man from the very beginning. It’s the only way you could have survived. I’ve got a little boogie man in me too.” Stepping back I gave him a serious look. “The difference is you only guess at the townies being corrupted and I know they are. I know what and who they used to be. And I believe Charlene about what things are like now, just like I believe you when you tell me what a bad guy that Hakim dude is. What I don’t know is what you plan on doing about it.”
He sighed and we started up a path that would take us over the shortest peak so that we could go down towards the town. “I need to see for myself that these things we have been told are true. If they are … if they are then we will need to see if we cannot cause some problems for them but it will be hard.”
I smiled a little wickedly. “Maybe not as hard as you think. Dad used to say I was as good at making trouble as he was when he was my age.”
He turned briefly and nearly stumbled when he got a good look at my face. “Day-cee … this is not a game.”
Trying to look less like I was ready to start a war told him, “I know it is serious. Very serious. Did I treat it like a game when I … uh … caused a diversion so that you could escape?”
He snorted, “A diversion? You nearly brought a mountain down on us.”
“Oh I did not!” I told him huffily. “It was just a big ledge and it was only because the rock outcropping that was holding it up was looser than I expected it to be.”
“Uh huh,” he said disbelievingly.
After a mile of hiking I asked him, “Just how big are the problems that you want to cause?”
I didn’t think he had heard me but then he said, “I am not sure. It would be good if Hakim and this Richard turned against each other but if they are truly stalemated we will have to see which one to help first. Give the wrong side the push then they will simply take over before the other side can muster enough strength to retaliate.”
“Hey, how come you speak more fluently when we are discussing strategy?”
I couldn’t see his face when he answered but it sounded like the truth. “Because those are the words I know best. I was an interpreter between units.”
Teasing him a bit I said, “Sure. And you never used your helpless routine to get your way with me?”
I could hear the grin in his voice when he said, “Ah, Querida, I never said that I didn’t. Abuelo told me that a man must use the tools he has, poor though they may be.”
We were both grinning stupidly when we hear movement just up ahead of us. Abel turned and put his finger to his lips to hush me and then we faded off the trail. We watched as six men came over the rise and then stop and rest.
One of the men complained, “Whew. This trail gets worse every time we have to take it. Why does Richard want the pig farm so far from town anyway?”
Another answered him and said, “Because he does; besides it would stink things up and people might take notice and feel like they’d have to do something about it.”
The first man said, “Still …”
Another added, “Don’t question Richard or you might go one day and never come back.”
That shut the complainer up. Two of the men looked like they were in a stupor. Their cheeks were sunken and they walked with a strange gate. Of the six, I never heard those two utter a sound. They sat when the other sat and stood when they stood. They had a vacant look like their mind was on a vacation.
The group of six was obviously the ones from town that Charlene had spoken of. I only recognized one of them, a young man that came to our church with his grandparents when he was on break from his college. He was one of the ones walking in a stupor.
Abel raised his rifle and prepared to shoot. I put my hand on his arm and showed him my bow. I whispered next to his ear. Let me go above a few more yards. I’ll pick off the ones in the back, block a retreat, and you’ll be able to take the ones in the front without so much worry that they’ll be able to get away. He nodded.
I carefully made my way up pushing through the rhododendrons that had just finished blooming. As I watched the men pass I did exactly what I’d told Abel I would do … only not for the reasons I gave him. I wasn’t after revenge but there was some vengefulness to my feelings. I’d grown up around the town. Dad always said that you are responsible for something once you claim part ownership of it.
The town was mine even if it was only a small part. If it had become diseased by something it was my responsibility to do something about it. It was my place to open the dance. And I did not want Abel to always think that if he hadn’t pulled the first trigger we could avoid what was coming.
The problem that Hakim represented was different. He was something from outside. Something that the grown ups should have dealt with back when he came. But they hadn’t. In fact many of the adults seem to have helped the Peacekeepers out by either doing their dirty work for them or by doing nothing. But what Charlene told us was like a cancer inside. The townspeople were the malignant tumor. I didn’t know why I had to be the one to play doctor but I wasn’t going to turn down the job either.
I’m very good with my bow and at that distance a killing shot was as easy as if a deer had stood there with a target painted on them. I decided to think about the fact that I was shooting men and not deer some other time. I felt what I was doing was a mission … one that wasn’t very nice but that was necessary … but I also knew even the best soldier needed to keep the communication lines open between them and God or the harsh things they had to live with would weigh them down and eat them alive.