Saturday, March 17, 2012

The New Geek Empire: Part Ten

“Lonny Houchins!! You put that gun in my face ever again!!! I oughta … I was holding a baby!!”

I was so mad I was boiling, nearly literally, giving serious consideration to turning one Lonny Houchins and his brother from roosters into hens, and my hands were shaking like autumn leaves in the wind. The only two things that kept me from getting up and scratching their eyes out was the fact that Kelly had cried herself into hiccups and I was on the ground cleaning up Jax’s bloody face where he and Lonny and his brother Ronny had just gone at it like three starving mongrels after the same bone.

Of course I didn’t really need to because Mr. Houchins had already knocked Lonny and his twin brother Ronny together by their foreheads. Just grabbed them by their scruffs and slammed them together. I swear that was just about the most satisfying sound I had ever heard … even after all these years I still rank it in the top ten.

Mr. Houchins walked slowly and carefully over and bent down to check Jax over and said, “Boy, you don’t look too bad to have taken on both my knuckleheaded grandsons at once; their wimmens gonna have a fair piece to go to clean them up. You wanna fight on my side you can do it anytime you ownto.”

Jax for his part had me grinding my teeth nearly as much because the gudgeon cracked a smile and said, “Nice to know Sir. I’m sorry about your boys but I couldn’t let it pass that they had that gun on my daughter and Lydie.”

Mr. Houchins gave him a hand up and he stood before I was ready for him to and Kelly and I both squawked. The crazy old man smiled and nodded and said, “Done the same thing myself in your place.” He turned to me and said, “Lydie, I told you you shouldn’t be coming around for a while. Boys are a little itchy about strangers.”

Finally, feeling like my head was going to explode, I told him in a righteous huff, “Well I was trying to do what Dad would have done which was come check on neighbors after that storm last night. We didn’t get any damage from it but between the lightning and the wind I wasn’t sure what it did to anyone else. There could have been a tree down, your animals could have gotten out, you could have lost a silo, someone could have gotten hurt like Roe Tate did when he worked for you, just anything. You and Dad were always friends and he would have had something to say if I hadn’t checked even if you did throw me off your place before. Now look at what has happened!”

Growing concerned Mr. Houchins said, “Now Lydie Girl, I didn’t throw you off … I just didn’t think it was a good thing for you to be coming around for a while.”

“Well I wasn’t coming around for a social call like before. I was coming around to check on you like Dad would have done.” I admit my feelings were hurt all over again.

At least they were until Mrs. Houchins showed up with two girls I figured were Lonny and Ronny’s “wimmen” a couple of seconds later. She said, “Honey, you don’t know the heartache that caused him, you really don’t. But never mind that, you’re here and just trying to do what your parents would have done in your place and I think that is just about the sweetest thing. And look at you Ajax Remington, I haven’t seen you since … well, I can’t remember when. And look at this baby. Awww, Rupert look how big she’s gettin’.”

You could always count on Mrs. Houchins to calm things down. I’m not sure how she did it but she’d come in and smooth things over like warm butter. And she was always really good to Mom; she and Mom belonged to the same Quilt Guild.

I was holding Kelly because for all of it Jax was still a little wound up and looking protective and the poor little thing was still sucking on her bottom lip in a pet over the ruckus. But just like magic as soon as Mrs. Houchins started cooing to her she smiled and reached out to be held. I looked at Ajax and he gave a barely visible nod and so I let Mrs. Houchins hold her while I got some wipes out of my pack to clean her face up with. When I turned back Mr. Houchins was giving Jax a look and Jax was turning uncomfortable so I just said by way of conversation with Mrs. Houchins, “Jax and Kelly here are living with me. I tried to look up … well, old friends … but that didn’t work out. Jax wanted a better place for Kelly and … well … this is working out for, all of us. Dad and Jax worked together at the mill and it is nice to have someone around that remembers him fondly and with respect the way I do.”

Mrs. Houchins nodded and said, “I bet it is nice to have a man around too. I always heard that raising this baby turned Ajax respectable and responsible.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw both men watching us and Jax’s ears couldn’t have been redder than if they’d been spray painted the color of the VFD’s fire engine. “Yes ma’am. He sleeps in the guest bedroom because it has the little sitting room for Kelly that we’ve set up like a nursery. About the only thing Jax doesn’t help with around the place is the cooking.” I threw a mischievous look his way. “He can make noodles and help clean up after Kelly but that’s about the sum total of his talents in the kitchen.”

Jax mumbled, “I didn’t mean to burn the toast. And it wasn’t all that bad.”

I laughed out loud at that fib. “Jax, one of the pieces were burnt all the way through. How you could stand to eat it I don’t know. You should have let me crumble it and feed it to the chickens like I said.”

He sighed. “That would have been wasting food and since I burnt it, it was my place to eat it.”

I made a face thinking about how awful it had to have tasted and Mrs. Houchins chuckled and Mr. Houchins seemed to relax. He clapped Jax on the shoulder and said, “Man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do sometimes, that’s for sure.”

Jax relaxed after that as well and turned to Lonny and Ronny and asked, “No hard feelings?”

Mr. Houchins didn’t give them a chance to answer, “Heck no there ain’t no hard feelings. Men do what men have to just like I said. Now, about last night … had one of our old pecans come down but it was going to take it out come spring anyway. Good Lord just gave me a helping hand by taking it down early. Laid down so sweet, didn’t hit anything else, not even another tree which only He could have made happen. We’ve got enough that can get it cut up and piled after we get the corn brought in. Did y’all have any problems?”

Jax looked at me and I let him do the talking. “Naw sir, just a lot of fruit that got knocked off the apple trees and the outside row of corn got laid over in places but I’ve already cut that and leaned it together to dry.”

Lonny, the more vocal of the twins, added, “Daddy said that he thought he saw a twister during one of the lightning flashes but that it was off toward town. Reckon we should go check?”

Mr. Houchins didn’t look pleased by the idea and Jax didn’t either. He said, “Unless it hit the school or that old church out on Haines Road it shouldn’t have hurt anyone. And you said he only thought he saw one. I’m certainly not dragging Kelly and Lydie through any mess in town even if there was one. I can only take care of so much and right now they’re my priority.”

Mr. Houchins clapped Jax on the shoulder again and drew him off to the side. I could hear bits and pieces of what they were talking about but not the whole conversation. Seeing my irritation at being left out Mrs. Houchins looked at me and with a twinkle in her eyes commented, “They always try and pretend we are so fragile.”

I snorted, “Humph. Mom always said that if a man had ever experienced childbirth they wouldn’t think we were so fragile.” I rethought that real quick. “Not that I mean to experience it myself too soon.”

Mrs. Houchins laughed gently and asked, “Not that I mean to … hmmm … how did my grandaughter put it … get into your business … but are you and Jax ….?

I cringed. This was my mother’s friend, old enough to be my grandmother, and talking about that stuff with her was very unsettling. “No ma’am, we … uh … aren’t. But … uh … we … we … uh … are … are kinda …”

“Seeing if you suit?” she asked gently helping me out.

I didn’t know whether to be grateful or cringe even worse. “Yes ma’am, basically. I mean we kinda already know we do but it’s … it’s happened awful fast and there’s Kelly to think about and so much other stuff going on. But we really aren’t … you know … in the … uh … same bedroom.”

She gave me a hug and said, “The good Lord put us on this earth to be fruitful and multiply and there’s only one way to do it. You just make sure that Jax is the right one to do it and with then I say what will be will be. He doesn’t strike me as the type to run off and leave a girl high and dry … look at this baby girl he fought so hard for when it would have been a lot easier to turn the other way. But life happens Honey and sometimes you don’t get the choice of whether you have to try to go it alone or not. You know Mr. Houchins isn’t my first husband; that Marilee’s father died overseas?”

“Yes ma’am, Mom once said something to that effect.”

She told me, “Well, I was alone in this world with a little girl and my parents weren’t around to help. My brother was a good man but he had his own he could barely keep clothes on. I took a job in the old Feed Store because they let me bring Marilee to work with me which meant I didn’t have to find and pay for a babysitter. Six months later Mr. Hounchins and I were married and I’d never known him before the secretary at the feed store introduced us, six months after that I was carrying the twins’ father. Life don’t always just crawl at a snail’s pace so you have time to think about it; sometimes you just have to have faith that what the Lord puts in your path is what He means for you to have.”

She’d certainly given me something to think about and then Jax came back over and asked politely, “Are you ready to head back to the house? Mr. Houchins needs to get back to work and I think we do too.”

I checked his eyes and he didn’t seem upset or hacked off so I said, “If you are.”

As we got on the bikes and started to pedal away Mr. Houchins told Jax, “You think on what I said,”

Jax waved and said, “Yes sir, definitely mean to.”

We were far enough away down the road that no one could have heard us and I rode up beside him and asked, “Just what did he want you to think on?”

He told me, “He knows about your biofuel set up and thinks we should be driving for safety sake rather than riding around on the bikes.”

I asked, “And what do you think?”

“If he already knows I don’t see any reason not to use your truck as long as we are careful. It isn’t like we plan on hot rodding all over the county; we’d be able to go further faster and bring more back than we could with the bikes and little trailers. It would be safer in case we do run into other people too.”

“And?” I asked.

“And?” he repeated. After a glance at my face he said innocently, “He just asked what I knew about what had been going on in town. Apparently he knows some of it because he’s in contact with a man still living on the stub end of Haines Road about a mile from the church where that other group is living together. I’m thinking we should listen to the radio when we can. I know it will use power but I don’t like the idea of being totally deaf to what is going on, especially if other people like Mr. Houchins already knows things.”

After he had fallen silent like he’d said it all I told him, “Ajax Remington, do not make me ask again and you know doggone good and well what I’m talking about.”

He sighed, “Fine. If you want an exact quote he told me that if I didn’t do right by you he’d be happy to see to my gelding if I needed it.”

Confused I said, “You don’t have a horse do yoouuuuu … oh … Oh …. OH!!! He so did not say that!! Oh God, I’m gonna die … I’ll kill him first but then I’m just gonna die!! And after Mrs. Houchins was so nice and sensible about it. Oh geez … oh …”

Jax started chuckling. “Stop being such a drama queen. That’s mild compared to what your dad would probably have said in his shoes and you know it. I assured him I did plan on doing right by you but not until after you decided exactly what that meant and that I had sense enough to know that no one was going to push you until you were ready … me, him, or anyone else … and that your dad had done enough good turns for me that even if you didn’t decide on me that I’d still look after you in your dad’s memory.”

I finally risked another glance in his direction and realized he was chuckling at how I had reacted but he was serious at the same time. Slowly I relaxed. “Well, for the record, my mind’s made up but I’m still concerned about the … er … possible consequences and I’d like to get a few chores out of the way before we … uh … see to the rest of it.”

His bike wobbled briefly making Kelly squeal but then he said calmly, “Sounds like a plan.”

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

After getting home we did a few chores but nothing major. I went through the garden again, picked what was ready and couldn’t wait and made note of what would need to be looked at again the next day or two. It wasn’t as warm as it had been but the day was still hot enough that cooking at lunch time wasn’t my idea of fun but Jax surprised me by saying he wouldn’t mind just eating salad.

“You sure? You’re gonna wind up so hungry tonight you’re not going to be able to stand it.”

He shook his head, “Actually I don’t like working on a full stomach. Gives me heart burn.” Could we have that vinegar and oil dressing you made the other night? It was really good.”

I grinned, “Glad you like it because it might be all the dressing flavor we are down to eventually if I can’t figure out how to make anything else. I can make Italian too if you prefer but stuff like blue cheese or green goddess might not be happening anytime soon.”

“It’s not a problem, trust me; I don’t like a lot of goop on my food.”

“Yeah, I noticed that you don’t use a lot of gravy or sauce on anything I’ve fixed. I thought maybe you didn’t like it at first.”

Surprised he asked, “You kidding? Man it is soooo good not to have to cook all the time and on top of it, eat my own disasters.” I had to laugh at the face he made, mostly because it was true. Even Dad and Will had cooked better than Jax could. It was nice to know that there was more than just that one thing he needed me for.

It was difficult but we both tried to nap a bit after lunch while Kelly took her nap; to be honest it made me almost more tired than if I had just stayed up. By dusk we had loaded up my old Ford and attached the farm wagon to the ball hitch. We had decided that I would drive since I knew the roads in the dark best and that Jax would ride shotgun … literally. We were both well-armed and loaded for bear. It felt very, very strange but Jax felt it was a given necessity.

“Humor me Lydie.”

“I’m not fighting you on this,” I pointed out.

“Not in words … ok, not at all, but you still don’t think it is necessary.”

I sighed. “I’m not sure what I think about it. But … I trust you. You think I need to arm up like Lara Croft then I guess that is what I’ll do. I mean … wait … you do know who Lara Croft is don’t you?”

He sighed, “Tomb Raider.” Then he shook his head. “Lydie it is more than about being armed, you need to be able and prepared to use what you’re armed with. You’ve proven you can shoot … heck, you’re as good as I am and better if we are talking long distance. Which by the way I intend to fix with some practice.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I laughed. “Playing RPG does have its benefits.”

“Mebbe,” he admitted. “So long as you can bring it to the real world. Can you shoot a real life human being or just an animal or a character on a screen?”

I wanted to be able to say I would do whatever I had to but the honest truth was I wasn’t sure. Now it was my turn to sigh. “Jax, I know I’ve got to work on it but I’m not intentionally gonna let you or Kelly down.”

He reached over and ran his knuckles down my arm. “I know. Just you’ve got to remember, this isn’t a game. You didn’t see the violence and crap that went on in town like I did. I’m glad you didn’t but it might also mean you don’t understand just how dangerous people can get. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” I wouldn’t call the issue a bone of contention between us but at that time I was still absorbing what had happened to my life. I knew that violence existed – of course I did, look what happened to my family. But trying to really equate it with my immediate world hadn’t happened all the way yet.

Kelly was dozing in the car seat between us – I had found the car seat in the attic just like I had found the other baby stuff – and it seemed to take no time to get to the mill after traveling at the speed of bike for so long. I pulled the truck and trailer right into one of the storage buildings after Jax jumped out and got it open using bolt cutters and WD40 on the doors. He said quietly, “I’ll keep Kelly in the truck while I work on getting the tanker up and running. You think you can … I mean I hate to ask you to go off on your own …”

I told him, “Relax Jax. The dark doesn’t scare me and never has. I’ll go back over to the break room to start with and then work from there to see if there is anything I can get on my own.”

“Keep your radio on.”

I saluted and said, “Aye aye Sir!”

He rolled his eyes but I didn’t give him a chance to rethink it. I slid the LED headlamp onto my forehead but left it off to keep from losing my night vision which was really good. The moon was full and I had been running without headlights on the truck most of the way which gave Jax the sweats a few times until he asked me suspiciously, “You’ve done this before haven’t you?”

I gave a wicked grin and said, “Let’s just say Dad and I moved a few items for Luther McGraw.”

Which of course required an explanation because Luther McGraw was a big time moonshiner … or had been in his youth. And if certain people were suspicious he was still running it wasn’t his fault; or at least so he said since he told anyone that asked that he wasn’t running anymore which was technically true in a manner of speaking.

As I sat out some empty corrugated boxes in preparation of filling them I remembered Jax’s reaction when I told him, “Dad acted as LM’s middleman and took a cut of every run.”

“Your dad?! Razor straight and all that?!”

I sighed. “Don’t think bad of him Jax. He hated doing it but Will’s treatments were expensive, especially the bone marrow transplant. He didn’t want to mortgage our home because without it we had nothing else. The runs were just down to his brother’s place and was just to a group of old guys that still liked their homemade and kicking it like the old days.”

He was quiet then said. “I never even thought. Insurance covered Kelly’s birth and all. I … I didn’t mean to judge him like that.”

“Judge him and me,” I told him. “I ran all of the runs once I turned sixteen and could drive by myself because those that cared were usually expecting a man to be transporting. LM and his brother Mr. TD were the only two besides Dad that knew and we kept it really, really quiet. Mom never even knew. And before you get whacked out I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Take it however you want to.”

“What I take it as is that there’s more to you than I thought … the good kind of more.” I left it at that by not commenting on what he said. I knew he’d either deal with it or wouldn’t but I felt comfortable telling him in a way I would have never been able to tell Matt and I was hoping that meant something.

It took a surprisingly short time to start filling the boxes with stuff. Office and cleaning supplies took up a lot of room but if we were going to scavenge I figured we needed to do it right the first time around rather than constantly cherry picking things. I found an empty and clean blue plastic barrel and used it to start collecting clothing in; lockers had jackets, protective gear, and then there were a bunch of stuff with company logos in the back office. I figured we’d find some use for the stuff eventually. I was just going to put cedar and some moth balls in the barrel and shut it up until we needed anything out of it.

The owners’ office’s provided a few fancy coffees and their secretary’s desk gave me some fancy powdered creamers and flavored instant coffees. Found a couple of bottles of vodka in there too which told me the rumors about her issues were likely true.

From the main offices I wandered out into the mill proper and came across a large stack of rolls … some of plastic and some of what looked like paper so thick it was almost cardboard. I keyed the mic on the radio and Jax came on and asked, “Everything OK?”

“Yeah, just letting you know I’ve moved out of the offices and into other areas. And to ask, do you think we have room on the trailer for a couple of these rolls of … I don’t know … this thick brown paper? You know what I’m talking about?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “It’s a type of packing paper. We should have room. Don’t try and move it though, they’re heavy and if they fall on you it will do some serious damage.”

“Understood,” I said into the mic. “I’ll leave this area until you can come with me.”

“Yes, please. And watch out … there’s some big ol’ rats wandering around here. I had one surprise me by running across my legs when I was under the tanker and I almost tipped the truck over trying to get up and figure out what it was.”

That made me laugh as it was meant to and I let him hear a little bit of it before I signed off and decided to go out to the parking lot. Besides, I did not want him to hear the kind of noise I would make if I ran into a rat that was big enough to startle him.

I turned the headlamp off and gave myself a few seconds to adjust my eyesight before going outside. I wandered back to the employee parking lot only to return to the office to get a 16” heavy duty screwdriver I had seen in the foreman’s office. There was also a rubber mallet in the same tool box and I knew how to use the two to do what I wanted to do.

All of the cars left in the lot were older models that had a visible key lock for the trunk. If they’d been the newer ones that could only be opened from the interior latch I would have had to break a window and make a lot of noise. I might still be doing that to pop the hoods and get to the batteries but I was going to start with the trunks; and mostly because it was fun to play “locksmith” with the hammer and flathead screwdriver.

I found a few things … tools, bottle water, a few blankets and such … but nothing to get hysterically happy about. Found a rat nest in the back end of one and lucky for me it was the last car on the lot and was empty of its residents but man did it stink to high heaven.

Next I checked the cars over to see if anyone had been crazy enough to have a magnetic spare on them and sure enough one of the cars did. Easy Peasey Lemon Squeezy … that was one hood popped. The others weren’t as easy.

There is the tried and true sticking the screw driver into the window frame and jiggling it around until you get the window to shatter but I was going to try something that Dad taught me that was way cool. I stripped a spark plug out of the car that I had been able to pop the hood on already. With the large, heavy duty screw driver I broke the ceramic part of the spark plug so I had pieces that were about as big as my pinkie fingernail. One good, solid plink with that piece of ceramic and the car window shattered. Dad said it was because the ceramic has a negative charge to the window’s positive charge. Beats me if that is true, all I know is that it works.

I keyed the mic just in time to keep Jax from running to the rescue. “Sorry. I’m breaking into cars.”

I could feel the growl rather than actually hear it in his voice. “Little warning would have been nice.”

I thought for half a second and then said, “You’re right.” After another hesitation I asked, “Having a hard time with the tanker?”

“No,” he said in a short voice. “The valve is jammed on the storage tank. I’m working it loose.”

“Uh … want some help?”

“No,” he said distinctly and then didn’t say anything else. I was pretty sure his knuckles were going to look like ground beef and decided it was a good thing for me to be far away from him until he completed his mission. My dad had a few not nice things to say about the mill equipment on occasion and I knew when it was time for me to be someplace else until he cooled off.

Getting back to the breaking and entering was more fun anyway. I disconnected all the batteries and used the dolly to move them to a pile near the boxes that I’d already stacked. I was just finishing that when Jax called me. “Got it. Finally.” I could hear the relief in his voice. “I’m gonna fill the tanker so you’ll hear the pump. After that I’ll come help you. Kelly is still asleep.”

“Then just let me bring the stuff to the trailer instead of you having to go all over the place. I’ll … oh my gosh … I think I just saw one of your giant rats! It’s as big as a dog and is slinking this way!!”

“Lydie,” Jax said urgently. “I was joking about how big the rats were. Get your gun in your hand. Now!”

I wasn’t able to answer him because I was too busy scrambling on top of the closest vehicle which happened to be a powder blue Chevy truck older than I was. I was surrounded by three big dogs and I must have been wearing a sign that said chow time. They were jumping for me but I was high enough that I had time before they figured out how to leap into the truck bed and I picked the first two off easily enough and got the third one as it was running away.

“Lydie! I’m coming!!” Sqawk out of the radio.

“No … no don’t! Really Jax, I’m fine. I don’t want Kelly to see this mess I made but you be on the look out. There were three big ol’ dogs.”

“You swear you’re OK?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t lie to you about that. But you know, I swear I’ve seen these mutts before.”

After a moment where I could imagine Jax was debating what to do since he did have Kelly’s safety to consider he asked, “What do they look like?”

“Mutts … but big ones. One is almost all black except for some brown on his muzzle and front paws and a big old square head that looks like a battering ram but the fur on his butt is curly. Next one is kind of a short grayish white fur, barrel chested with a skinny butt and stubbed tail, long pointy face and a mouth full of teeth. Last one is …”

“White, brown saddle and paws, curly furred?”

Startled I asked, “Yeah, how did you know?”

“They belonged to that guy that lived next door to my aunt and uncle’s place. Matt must have told you about the time they broke out and tore my aunt’s garden up right before they voted on that ’best looking house in the neighborhood’ contest she won every year.”

Then I remembered. “That’s them! I knew I’d seen them before … they were plastered all over the newspaper because your aunt threatened to take the neighbor to court because they had let the dogs out on purpose.”

After a moment I asked, “Matt, you still there?”

“Yeah, just thinking. Food must be scarce in town if they came all the way out here. Not a good sign. We better put a note on Mr. Houchins’ gate post and make sure nothing can get at the animals.”

I blanched even though he couldn’t see me. “Better check the goats tomorrow if we can find them … assuming something hasn’t eaten them.”

I was about to sign off when he said, “Don’t touch the dogs Lydie; they could be carrying something.”

I wanted to ask him if he thought I was stupid but I didn’t. He’d let me handle the dogs without too much fuss so I figured he was just making up for it by being guy-bossy afterwards. Looking around the mill some more I went to the parts shed and found good quality plumping and fixtures. Some were too big but their handles might come in handy. I also found some full welding tanks. Best of all in another shed I found enough lye to last for a long time. In a separate location I also found a lot of very high strength peroxide that had been used to bleach paper. The lye was for making biofuel (http://journeytoforever.org/biodiesel_make.html ) but the peroxide was to go in the water treatment mechanism Dad had installed for Will just to be on the safe side since he couldn’t risk any kind of organism getting into his guts. I could also use it in place of bleach for the white clothes. The peroxide likely wouldn’t be good much longer since it has a relatively short shelf life as such things went so I figured the sooner it was used the better.

Finally I started hauling everything to the trailer where I found Jax cleaning spit up off himself and the seat of the truck. “I’ll clean it Lydie. Kelly threw up her dinner.”

I stopped the dolly and ran over. Jax tried to clean faster and I tried to slide by him. “I told you I would clean it up Lydie. Kelly didn’t mean to.”

I gave him a look that would have peeled paint. “Of course she didn’t mean to!” I turned to Kelly to ask if she was feeling bad only she was asleep. “Hey, should she be out like that? I mean she just puked! Does she have a fever? Oh no … did something I fed her spoil? Did I feed her too fast or something?”

After Jax finally shut his mouth he said, “Don’t freak. She gets a sour stomach sometimes when she is teething.”

Worried I said, “Should I have not given her the chicken noodles? Was it too much for her?”

“Hey, it’s ok. I just don’t want you to be mad about the seat.”

I nearly popped him. “The stupid seat is almost as old as Methuselah’s nanny and has more duct tape on it than vinyl. What is your problem? I’m not going to holler at a little kid because they got the pukes, especially if I’m the one that fed them what they threw up.”

He swooped down and kissed me before I could say anything else. When he let me up for air I asked, “What the heck was that for?”

“Because. Now let me finish wiping the sick up.”

“Maybe we should wake her up so she doesn’t … I don’t know … choke or something.”

He smiled then said, “Trust me, she’s fine. I’m a worry wart where she’s concerned but I do know that now that she has her stomach empty she’ll sleep better and is better left alone.”

He tried to kiss me again but I backed away from the paper towels full of spit up in his hands. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to say thank you for caring about my daughter more than about your seat cushion.”

Looking at the seat and knowing for a fact that it was more spring than cushion I rolled my eyes and made a face. “How about a rain check. The uck in your hands isn’t exactly … you know … conducive.”

He blanched. “Oh … yeah. Bad timing. Let me throw it away and I’ll help load.”

With both of us it didn’t take long to get stuff into the trailer but then I found out he’d located some pipes and fittings he wanted to bring back and we loaded that in there as well because even though my truck was long bed with the trailer hitched I wouldn’t be able to turn the corners with the pipes in the way. After that I took a break and watched Kelly while Jax took the foreman’s keys and grabbed up all the batteries off of the company vehicles and got them loaded, some of them being pretty doggone heavy. He also loaded all of the miscellaneous fix-it type stuff from the mechanical storage area including the stuff he used to keep the vehicles running.

We both sat after that and reviewed our plan to go home. “You sure you can drive the truck loaded down this much plus a trailer?”

“Done it plenty of times before. What about it, think you’ll need another night on the tanker?”

“No. There wasn’t as much tall oil as I thought, just the one vat and I’ve pumped that out and into the tanker already. But I’m not gonna fly without lights like you did even if the moon is full.”

“I won’t be flying going home either, not with that trailer loaded like that. If the load shifts it’s gonna be a bear to pull without messing up the truck. So just this one load?”

“Actually I do want to come back tomorrow.”

Looking around I tried to figure out what we’d left. Jax tapped me and then pointed over to some of the big trucks and I realized he’d left one untouched and it was still loaded, with hardwoods no less. I smiled and threw up my hands like a touchdown had been made. “Free firewood for the win!”

He nodded, though not as enthusiastically which told me he was worn out. “I can drive it, have my CDL, but we’re going to need to bring some fuel. I’ve got the pri-D in the tanker cab. I still ain’t looking forward to splitting that much wood.”

“Actually all we’ll need to do is saw the logs into two-foot lengths and then load them onto the log splitter. It’s still work but you ain’t gonna catch me taking an axe to all that stuff if I don’t have to.”

He leaned his head on my thigh where he was sitting on the ground and I was sitting on the truck’s running board. “You’re an angel.”

“And you’re silly. I don’t know about you but I’m ready to hit the road.”

“You and me both. Shower then bed. Kelly’s alarm clock is gonna go off way too early.”

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