The Unholy Roamin’ Empire
Jax nodded and sighed. “Yeah, me too. But unlike Reg I’m thinking that maybe Matt is better able to pull it off than he thinks and might not fail. And I also agree that he’s a fast learner too. It is how he has been able to keep so many things under control and separate from one another … how he has managed to keep things from blowing up. So maybe, just maybe, he can set himself up to be indispensable to these creeps or close to it. I’m not sure how that is going to play out though.”
Shaking my head in frustration I said, “Fine. Whatever. Say I’m willing to accept at least some of what the two of you believe; I’m still not seeing how that has anything to do with whether or not we are going to have to worry about these barbarian invaders – oh for Pete sake, I’m done with hyperbole – the refugees. What has Matt got to do with whether or not the refugees come out into the county?”
Reg explained. “Unlike the barba …”
“Reggie let’s stay planted in the real world. Call them what they are … they’re just refugees.”
“Whatever Lydie. Call them the Golden Horde or anything else. A rose by any other name. OK?” At my groan of irritation he finally caved. “Fine. They’re refugees. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating the damage they can do or over sympathizing with them. Yes, they’re displaced people and are hard up … but they’re using it as an excuse to run amok.”
“Obviously,” I replied sarcastically. “But you still haven’t connected the dots for me.”
Then Reggie being Reggie said, “Then let me lesson you on it Grasshopper and stop being so hard headed and wanting to believe the best of everyone … and that includes the refugees you just took in.” Sensing I was ready to walk in irritation he reached out and after a couple of misses managed to grab my forearm. “It isn’t that I don’t appreciate it Lydie because I do and I know the others will when they get their head on straight. But have you even thought about what four extra people is gonna mean for you guys? Are you prepared for the added strain on your supplies of food and water and everything else?”
Trying to calm down I told him, “If you are worried about being tossed out because I start having second thoughts then the answer is you are worrying over nothing. I went to town the first time prepared to invite a bunch of people to come live here. It might not have been realistic but I was prepared to do it and had worked out most of the logistics. But only Jax and Kelly … well, sometimes things happen the way they are supposed to even when you don’t think so at first. And while it is going to take some smoothing out we can get through the winter just fine on the supplies we already have and in the spring we can plant and work from there.”
“You sure?” he asked.
I realized he wasn’t just being a donkey’s behind on purpose but was honestly unsure and worried. “Yeah Reg, I’m sure. You can’t see things right now but … but it is a good set up my parents left me.”
Hesitantly he asked, “Sweet enough that Matt will want it?”
That startled me. I looked at Jax and realized he’d already been thinking along the same lines for some time. “Oh for …,” I growled. “Do you really …? Geez, you do. Look, I’m saying you’re wrong for a couple of reasons. One, Matt has never been to the house. Two, Dad’s rules were that I … well I didn’t talk about what we had; family business was family business and no one else’s. You’d be amazed how everyone assumes that everyone else lives the same way they do and never thinks to ask. Three … and yes, OK, I’ll admit it … Matt could be a real snob. The few times him coming to my house for something came up he always talked his way out of it and I got the impression that he thought we lived in some really old, ramshackle house that ran on a generator because we couldn’t afford to keep the power on any other way. That I made my clothes because I couldn’t afford … just … look, for whatever reason I never corrected him or when I tried to he thought it was cute and then changed the subject because he acted like he didn’t want to embarrass me. At the time I thought he was being nice, but now I’m not sure. He always did believe what he wanted to believe. I’m not sure of a lot of things where Matt is concerned but the one thing I do know is that he is probably pretty clueless about the home place.”
Jax asked, “Are you sure Lydie? This is important.”
I turned to him and answered, “I’ve told you several times how things stood. Besides, he didn’t have a car and I did. When we got together it was because I drove to town, not because he came out here.”
Reg was unwilling to give up on the idea and said, “He could look up county property records, survey maps, that sort of thing.”
“Yeah, well ‘that sort of thing’ would probably lead him on a wild goose chase even if he had GPS.” When it was obvious they were waiting on an explanation I told them, “It was the utility co-op’s fault. Dad had a running battle with them and when the county resurveyed out on our end for those subdivisions and infrastructure changes they purposely fudged things to pay Dad back. Only what they didn’t know is that Dad couldn’t have been happier about it. Somebody would have caught it eventually but when the economy really tanked and those subdivisions never got built and were abandoned the county folks kind of avoided coming out this way to check on the shape things were in … because if they did they might have to do something about how everything was deteriorating. The aerials and surveys for the last forty years would have shown trailers and farms out this way that aren’t there anymore. Some were bulldozed by developers, some were gobbled up by other farms or bought as investment property or as hunting preserves by out of state people. But either way, you’d need to really know geologic land features to be able to figure out what you were looking at. Even the roads have changed; for example, what I call the driveway replaced another road that got washed out in a flood about five years back; the maps still have the old drive that no longer exists and doesn’t show the new one at all. The further back in the county records you go the fewer aerials you are going to have until finally you are just using hand drawn maps and plot lines and some of the old landmarks don’t exist either so trying to follow something that says ‘seven paces north from the east bend in Ruckman’s creek’ will get you nowhere … especially since Ruckman’s Creek dried up back in the 1920’s and never came back.”
Reggie said, “But they could still follow other landmarks. I bet Ruckman’s Creek used to be where Deep Hole is now.”
“And you’d lose that bet. Everyone knows that Deep Hole is connected to the Ruckman family but not everyone knows it is only because it used to be a rock quarry they owned and operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The flood of 1936 caused the Ruckman-Delaney Canal to back up and collapse. The canal was the water way they dug to drain water out of the quarry when they hit a series of natural springs during their excavations. The quarry was already going bankrupt when the flood struck so they never tried to drain it and it filled up and eventually got renamed Deep Hole. Dad knew the Ruckman’s, they’d been good friends with his grandparents, and the quarry is where we used to dig out gravel for here on the farm and where he got the granite to line the sluiceways for the fish pond which is why I know all the back story.”
Jax interrupted me. “We’re drifting off the topic. Not that I don’t appreciate the history lesson Babe but … Look even if you are right and Matt doesn’t know anything about this place specifically – which I still find hard to believe – he does knows that when they run out of food in town the only place left for them to salvage from is going to be the countryside. And generally he will know where to look to find out where the biggest farms are that would have supplies, possibly even including some fuel.” He looked at Reg. “You got even a guess as to how long that is going to be?”
Reggie seemed to be relieved to finally have someone to really discuss it all with because obviously he’d been thinking about it for a while. “It depends. We were still finding stuff every day before the … er … the refugees arrived. We had a pretty good stash before they arrived and Matt has some tucked away in various locations as part of the backup plan he’d made in case we had to abandon the school for some reason. I’ll give him points, he made mistakes but he rarely made the same one twice and he did at least try to seem like he cared about everyone’s well-being. I don’t know, listening to you maybe I am being too hard on him but … but at the same time I think it is more that he needs to see himself a certain way so he does what he has to live that fantasy … Geez, I thought I had this figured out and then you come along and …”
He was grimacing and gently rubbing his head like it hurt but was too sore to touch. “Reg, you should be in bed,” I told him.
“Not until we finish this. This is important.”
“Not as important as your health.”
He snorted cynically. “I might not have any health to worry about if we don’t get some things ironed out. I know you might not think so Lydie, but I … Jax and I both … think that eventually the refugees aren’t going to have any choice but to look outside of town for food. We’ve got a month … maybe … before things get bad enough that the guys that are in charge now get their people ready to rock and roll and look for places that are easy pickings.”
“Couldn’t they just pick up and move to some other town?”
Jax asked, “With what? Their looks? Remember they don’t have any fuel and somebody is likely smart enough to know they need to settle on a base of operations before winter settles in.”
Reggie said, “Some of them have talked about heading south for the winter but I don’t know how really invested they are in the idea. Some of them seem to be worried if they go too far south and the military or DHS catches them they might be close enough to the border to simply be deported … or maybe even ‘shot trying to escape’ if you catch my drift.”
I sighed and decided to stop being so difficult and cooperate since Jax and Reggie were obviously really serious about it. “There is only one farm family out this way that I know of and we aren’t talking a handful of people but a few dozen. I don’t know for sure but I suspect that the Houchins clan has already picked a lot of the big farms clean. They would have had to just to keep their crew and their farm animals fed and provided for. I don’t even know for sure how many there are but I know it’s a lot … enough that they can patrol not just their gates but their whole border and do it in shifts. And they’re armed, even their women and girls. They also don’t like visitors so I wouldn’t look to them for help.” The last I said a little angrily but then shook it off.
Jax asked, “No one else?”
“Jax, don’t you think by now I would have told you if I suspected anyone else was out this way? Mr. Houchins might know if there is anyone left elsewhere and I suppose we need to let him know what is going on in town so that he can prepare.” I tried not to be resentful that I was going to yet again do for the Houchins when they’d turned me away but I knew it is was the right thing to do and what my parents would expect of me. That led me to my next thought. “When Dad’s aunts and uncles sold out and moved away it was during a time when a lot of family farms were going under. Plenty of places were allowed to go fallow and just were never brought back online. The interstate is closest to the other side of the county. We’ve got one state highway that runs through this area and even that is still closer to town than to us. Everything else is either county roads or farm roads that have become common use. I don’t see how they’d maximize their results by starting on this side of the county.”
Reggie said, “Let’s hope that if Matt has started helping the refugees to plan their salvaging runs that he thinks along those same lines.”
Jax said, “Hope is good to have but it isn’t a plan. We need to figure out what we are going to do from now forward.”
Irritated that the plans Jax and I had been making would have to be put on the back burner until we could ensure we were safe, something I hadn’t really had to be concerned about until that point which shocked and depressed me more than I was willing to show. “Well we can’t sit around waiting for something that might never happen. The potatoes still need to be brought in. The last of the apples and pears need to be harvested. We have two trailers filled to the gills that need to be unloaded. The last of the corn needs to be brought in out of the field and the over winter grains planted. I still want to try and catch those goats and we still need to do some hunting … especially feral pigs … so we can stock the smoke house.”
Then Reggie added another worry to our pile when he said, “Hopefully there’ll be some pigs left for us to hunt. The refugees bring in at least one or two every day to feed themselves with. If they knew about your animals they probably wouldn’t last a week before they were all dead and in the camp pot.”
Jax said sarcastically, “Great, now we have to worry about them over-hunting the animal populations.” He growled, “So what are they killing the pigs with?
“Guns,” Reggie dead panned.
“Very funny. Ha. Freaking. Ha.” After another growl Jax said, “Seriously Reg … rifles, 9 mils, shotguns, what?”
Reggie shrugged and then winced a little and rubbed the back of his head again. “All of the above. These people aren’t really hunters so if they waste some meat it isn’t any big deal to them. All they care is see it, kill it. There’s pigs all over in town so they hardly have to even hunt them. They are desperate but dumb, know what I mean?”
We both sighed and said, “Yeah.”
Jax asked, “But they have guns? How many and what about ammo?”
“Yeah, they’ve got guns … or at least about half of them do. As far as ammo I haven’t been able to get close enough to anyone to ask. They don’t seem worried about running out though.”
Jax said, “Which means either they have a good supply or they are dumb as stumps and can’t think beyond the end of their nose.”
“Or both,” I said.
Reg cocked his head and said, “You sound concerned. Don’t you have guns around here?”
I saw Jax squint at him suspiciously but all he said was, “It isn’t a matter of what you have but if you have enough of what you have.”
For some odd reason Reggie gave a huge grin and said, “Finally, I can bring something to the table that buys me in.”
“Excuse me?” I asked feeling a little insulted without quite knowing why though in hindsight it was because it’s like he didn’t trust our hospitality was real and without strings.
Jax told him, “Stop fooling around Reg and make sense.”
Grinning like a fool Reg said, “You got more fuel for that big truck right?”
Stilling grinning Reg said, “You know the Caulderman Brothers?”
Jax and I both stiffened up and little. I said, “I know who they are but I wouldn’t brag about actually knowing them.”
“The older one … Bud … he and my dad graduated highschool together. They … kept in touch.”
Impatiently Jax asked, “Is there a point to this Reg?”
Being too tired to keep the game up long Reggie sighed and slumped back. “I’m not bragging just explaining how I knew them. They were in county lock up when DHS rolled into town and they got hauled off to where ever they took the rest of the prisoners that day. But I know for a fact that they’d just taken a big delivery – I heard Dad and Bud talking about it over beers out in the backyard a couple of nights before the brothers got arrested for not paying some court ordered fine or other.”
Jax said, “We don’t need drugs unless you plan on poisoning the refugees and turning them all into addicts.”
Reg snorted, “More than a few of them already are addicts of some flavor or other though they are being forced to detox and it isn’t pretty to be around. And besides I’m not talking drugs. Bud and his brother had gotten out of that line because they didn’t want to have to deal with the Mexi and Puerto Rican gangs. They had gotten into something more profitable.”
“More profitable than drugs?” Jax asked in disbelief but I knew what he meant.
“They were running guns.”
“Ding, ding, ding. A lollipop for the little girl that for some strange reason knows a lot more about those things than she should.” His statement was almost a question inviting an explanation but no way was I going to explain that I’d run ‘shine and heard stories and been propositions a couple of times to do some other running; not even Dad had known about that.
Jax looked at me suspiciously and I shook my head. I told him, “You hear things sometimes. And it’s not like it should be that big of a surprised after the interstate commerce restrictions they’d put on guns and ammo. People don’t like it when their 2nd Amendment rights get messed with.”
Reg broke in and said, “Sure. But it isn’t all altruistic. Certain types of people are more than willing to make a profit off of that type of outrage. And the Caulderman Brothers are just that type of people and I happen to know the likely locations of several of their stashes and I’d like to see us get them before anyone else does. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t actual guns this time but parts and ammo supplies … small stuff they planned on moving quickly.”
Jax asked, “Are you sure about this Reg? We don’t have time for a wild goose chase.”
“I’m as sure as I can be. I overheard my dad tell Bud one time that he’d give me up if I screwed a deal up so I always acted spaced or stupid about it and Bud was just a big scary guy my dad knew that I didn’t want anything to do with. Nothing of them to be suspicious of so they didn’t need to notice me or anything. But I still listened in because no way was I going to wait around for the house to fall in on me if one of my dad schemes blew up in his face.”
I was having a hard time reconciling what I thought I knew about Reggie’s father with what I was finding out. It and everything else was giving me a headache. “There’s too much to do in too short a period of time. You say we have a month maybe. Let’s just say we do have a month because they’ll start where it is more profitable to salvage from first which means the other side of the county. During that time we have a lot that has to be done. The crops need to come in. The trailers need to get emptied so I can get to the tractors. You want to go collect goodies from a criminal’s stash. But you’ve also spooked me and I don’t feel safe leaving the home place unattended anymore. Add into that the girls at least need some more clothes which means more salvaging and more being away from home. And I suppose it might not be a bad idea to salvage a few other places if we are going to have to be out anyway so long as it is away from an area the Houchins might have staked a claim to. And speaking of, we need to let them know what it going on so that they can make their own preparations. All of that and I haven’t even touched on finishing the canning for the season, taking care of Kelly, and all of the other day-to-day chores that need to be kept up with and I’m sure I’ve left things out.”
Jax scooted over and put his arm around me. “One step at a time Lydie. Stop looking at the list as a whole and break it down into bite-sized pieces.”
I had a smart aleck remark on my lips but I held it back because I didn’t want Jax and I to be at sixes and sevens, especially not with everything else that was going on. Reggie added his bit. “My eyes already feel better just from you putting those hazel things on them.”
“Witch hazel pads,” I corrected without even thinking.
“Yeah, those. Anyway maybe another day, two at the most, I should be able to see well enough to help go after Bud’s stashes with Jax. We move at night, maybe take Ginger with us for some extra hands, and that leaves you to hold down the fort, help Ashley with Aston, and do what all you gotta do. In the meant time we plan the rest of it out as well as we can.” Then he stopped and got a little uncertain, “I mean if … uh … if that isn’t … look, it’s no big deal …”
Jax looked at me and I rolled my eyes. Simple animals my behind; guys and their feelings are even more complicated than girls are. Jax reached out and fist bumped Reggie’s shoulder. “Good to have you on board Reg. Too bad Matt preferred to be a dictator; we could have kicked butt operating more like a council.”
A slow smile spread across Reggie’s face. “You got that right. Share the load, make it lighter for everyone. If everyone brings something to the table you’ve got more resources to work with. We’ll kick …”
Wanting to gag on the testosterone wafting on the air I interrupted and said, “Yeah, yeah, yada, yada, cave man, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know about you all but I’m getting hungry and since the kitchen isn’t magic that means I gotta cook. Let’s go back to the house and check on the others and I’ll get started.”