Friday, August 29, 2014

They Just Don't Make Emperors Like They Used To - Part 3


“That’s a nasty bruise Lydie.  If I had seen this last night …” 

Like I said, sometimes it’s nice to have a fella looking after you.  I got lots of early morning attention for the bruise one of the devil dogs left on my calf.  “I’m fine.  I put some Preparation H on it last night and …” 

Jax wound up having to bury his head under the pillow so he wouldn’t wake Kelly.  “I swear, I know it works but every time I hear you say it …” 

Smiling I told him, “Yeah, yeah.  I know how it sounds myself you big goof but my parents swore by it as a home remedy for bruising and you know yourself that it keeps the blood from spreading and spreading under the skin.  Not to mention it has some analgesic power to it.” 

The pun set him off again and let me know that it was time to roll my wicked body out of bed because there was no more talking to him; he was practically inhaling the feathers right out of the pillow case.  I dressed in a hurry and then headed downstairs only to find Ashley and Aston ahead of me. 

“Sorry Lydie … but I was starving.  Hope you don’t mind that I started things early.” 

I told Ashley, “Do I look like I’m complaining?”  Then with a smile I set about getting the rest of breakfast finished while Ashley sat the table and Aston and Jax went outside to start morning chores.   

The intercom from the cupola chirped and then Ginger asked, “Please tell me someone started something hot to drink.  I’m freezing my butt off up here.” 

Everyone else in the house finally came down, including Reggie who had stopped off in our bedroom and grabbed Kelly who’d obviously woken up in a good mood.  While I broke up a day old biscuit and covered it with country gravy and crumbled sausage to keep Kelly’s volume below a dull roar, Reggie turned around to head back upstairs with Ginger’s drink and plate of breakfast. 

Gennie groaned and said, “Why does he have to walk so loud?” 

I asked her, “You hung over or something?” 

“No,” she muffled, not even rising to the bait.  “I’ve got a headache.” 

I looked at her and then at Alexis who was also looking at her surprised.  I walked over and put my wrist on her forehead but it didn’t feel hot.  She whispered, “Not THAT kind of headache.” 

“Not that kind of …?  Oh,” I said realizing what she was referring to but was unwilling to say with all the guys wandering around.  “Hang on and I’ll make you some cinnamon and honey tea.” 

Great big tears appeared in her eyes and suddenly she started bawling.  “How did you know?!  Mi abuelita used to make that for my mama.” 

She laid her head on the table and just cried.  I stood there with my mouth hanging open but Alexis managed to get Gennie up out of the chair and then upstairs.  “Oh Glory,” I whispered.  “I am really, really glad I’m not going to be around today.  Are we sure she’s really fourteen?” 

It was Janice of all people that said, “To be honest I think she is lying about that.  You’ve never seen her in the locker room but she’s not built like she’s been in puberty that long.” 

There were days when Janice sounded every one of her nineteen years and then some and this was one of those times.  Remembering what both of them had endured I shuddered and ground out, “Those bastards.  I hope their boy parts get chewed off by their own devil dogs.” 

Her normally vacuous expression turn to one of cynicism and with a nasty twist to her lips she told me, “You aren’t the first person to make that wish.”  I was glad I had had a pleasant start to the day because that just washed about all of my feelings of kindness towards humanity right out of my system.   

After breakfast I filled Jax in on my suspicions, gave him the recipe for the cinnamon tea and then told him to make sure that one of the girls made it. 

He gave a tug on my pigtail as I tried to tuck it under a camouflage painted piece of muslin that I used as my hunting bandana.  “Ha ha.  I can boil tea.” 

I nodded and said around the bobby pins in my mouth, “Uh huh.  Sure you can.  I still remember that fire you almost started when you let the water boil out of the tea pot.” 

In pretend outrage he said, “Hey, that was a long time ago …” 

“A couple of weeks.” 

“Oh hush woman,” he said with a grin and a kiss. 
Our tomfoolery at an end he went over my guns and day pack one last time like a good Father Goose and Reggie and I hopped in the pick up we’d chosen to drive that day and we headed out.  
 

“I was beginning to wonder if he was going to let you go,” Reggie said with a teasing grin. 

I shrugged.  “I don’t mind him double checking things.  It makes him feel better and it says he cares.  Before he and I … well … it sounds really gross just to say we hooked up because it is more than that but you know what I mean.  Before he and I hooked up it had been a while since anyone had cared enough to do that for me.” 

Then I could have bitten my tongue because Reggie’s home life hadn’t exactly been rife with demonstrations of caring and affection.  He saw the look on my face and nodded.  “My mom used to do stuff like that but … I don’t know … it didn’t come naturally to her; she had to think about it too hard and would go way overboard to try and make up for the fact she just wasn’t feeling it.  She never should have had kids until she got herself straight and she sure didn’t have any business marrying a guy like my ol’ man.  One of the reasons I don’t want to …  Look, just … can you feel things out with Ginger for me?  I’m almost positive I’ll say something to hurt her feelings and I don’t want to do that.” 

I shook my head at how we had gotten off on that subject again.  “You’re nuts.  If you were going to hurt Ginger’s feelings it would have happened a long time ago.  She knows what you’re like.” 

“Maybe.  But just tell her for me that … that I don’t mean to hurt her feelings if I do.  I’m not making excuses but I … this is too important.  OK?” 

I rolled my eyes but said Ok.  I didn’t like the idea of being turned into Cyrano de Bergerac but what the heck.  Reggie was a friend and Ginger was a friend.  I just didn’t want to get blamed if the two of them wound up mucking it up somehow.  But saying I would put Reggie at ease and we both needed to focus on the day ahead of us. 

And the day ahead of us turned out to be more bitterly cold that we had expected.  We stopped by the Houchins farm and Lon and his sixteen year old son Cal were waiting.  “Cool.  Dirt bikes!  Why don’t we have dirt bikes?” Reggie opined. 

“Because the one time I rode a crotch rocket like that I took a header over the handle bars and decided I preferred the safety of a truck cab around my body.  Not to mention there was only so much money to go around and toys weren’t part of my day-to-day; not much farm work can be done from the seat of one of those things.” 

Reggie punched me lightly on the arm.  “Don’t get so defensive.  I didn’t mean you did something wrong.  I meant why didn’t any of us think about having a few dirt bikes on hand.  I’ve seen bikes and four wheelers all over the place.” 

“Several of the four wheelers were brought back.” 

“Yeah, but having some bikes on hand would be a good thing too.” 

I shook my head wondering where he thought all the fuel was going to come from to run everything considering I would need a lot of it to run the tractors during planting through harvesting seasons but didn’t say anything.  When Reggie waxed enthusiastic it was best just to let him work through the problems on his own.  He’d either come to the same conclusions or come up with a possible remedy for our fuel shortage.  Either way it wasn’t what we needed to be thinking about right then. 

Mr. Houchins, bundled up against the cold, asked, “You kids got everything you need?  You know what channel to call on?  Got your guns on safety?” 

Not even giving a hint that the big retired Navy Seal was the least bit upset at being called a kid Lon answered, “We’ve got everything Sir.  Vern has our reporting schedule and plans to stay by the radio.” 

“Good enough.  Just stay out of trouble or I’ll catch it from Mother.  She’s not too happy about this plan of yours as it is.” 

I pulled out as he rode a mule back towards their farm house.  Reggie climbed in the rear seat of the extended cab with Cal while I drove and Lon rode shot gun.  I was wondering what to say to end the silence that was growing uncomfortable when from the back Cal said, “Don’t mind Peepaw, Meemaw’s really been giving him heck about it all.” 

“You mean Mr. and Mrs. Houchins?  Mr. Houchins I can see it from but Mrs. Houchins is a sweety.” 

Cal’s mouth fell open in the back and Lon was fighting back a smile.  He said, “That ‘sweety’ rules the family with a will of iron.  And she’d much rather us stay safe out here in the country than go to town and risk getting hurt.” 

“But she was all for us blowing up the roads.  I thought that would have given her palpitations if anything would since we were playing with explosives and such.” 

Lon shook his head.  “That just meant that town was further away.  It made her feel her family was safer.   She doesn’t want to see that sooner or later, if something isn’t done, that gang of refugees in town will get so powerful that nothing will stop them.” 

After a moment he asked, “Jax explain why we are gonna have to come into town from the other side from where you were used to going in at?” 

I nodded but drove as Reggie said, “Yeah.  River Road is getting taken over by Matt and some of the more important gang leaders.  Matt is building water wheels – well, he is having other people build what looks like water wheels – and has some other construction projects underway as well.  Probably plans on using the river as a means of transportation for trading and stuff too.” 

“I’m not too sure about that last part,” I said for the dozenth time though no one really wanted to hear it.  “The locks in the dams on the river require a lot of electricity.  Not all of them have their own turbine system set up, only the big one that was built to control the flooding along River Road and the surrounding countryside back in the 1930s.  It has had several retrofits done since then but it still wasn’t enough to keep it online when the power went down.  Unless Matt can get that up and running he is SOL.” 

Lon nodded, “I’ve heard you raised that point before.” 

I snorted.  “You meant someone was listening? Didn’t seem like it.” 

“Vern agrees,” he said surprising me.  “But he also seems to think that Matt might have an in to getting those turbines up and running.” 

Curiously I asked, “What kind of in would that be?  If the turbine is fried, it’s fried.  That is a lot of wire to replace and who knows what else it took with it.” 

Cal said in his own surprise, “Jax said you were smart and could give that Matt a run for his money.” 

I shrugged off the comment and just asked again, “What’s the in?” 

“The gang looks to be turning the town into a major drug hub.  Some they are making on site but it looks – and sounds like from some recent radio transmissions – like that they are importing a lot via the old drug trafficking routes.  You need to understand that this was already occurring prior to the war breaking out.  The cities were getting too hot for them so they started moving out into the suburbs and rural areas where there just isn’t the same infrastructure to combat those kinds of activities.” 

“Yeah I can see it if it was pot or crack,” I told them.  “Dad and Jax told me they’d run into problems every once in a while with pot farms or cookers on the forestry lands.  Dad and I even cleaned out someone’s small patch they’d been growing that spilled onto the back corner of our place.  Anything else though is going to have to … are you telling me it is coming across the border or by plane internationally? I just can’t see people having the money for that kind of foolishness these days.  I can’t even tell you if money is still any good.” 

Lon said, “Oh it’s still good, it just isn’t worth very much.  It is still the primary method to transfer goods and services from one owner to the next.  And I’m talking fiat currency not precious metals.  Gold and silver were confiscated and right now the black market just isn’t giving people very much for them as far as units of exchange.  The government has price controls in some areas but that’s only made things worse for what they don’t have price controls on, hence the black markets.  The Midwest is like one huge government camp where the military are protecting the big grain farms out there and enforcing very strict regulations.  Quite a few camps out that way that are made up of people that were on the dole.  Thought the government was coming to save them when they were literally just picked up with one suitcase per person and sent to work at the farm camps.  If you want to eat, you work.  You don’t want to work then that’s fine but you get kicked out of the camp and you get blacklisted from government assistance from now until forever … or at least that’s the way we’ve heard it.” 

“Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.  Wait ‘til those folks realize they can revolt.” 

Lon nodded.  “Some have already tried it.  That’s why they take the kids and keep the men and women segregated.  No new babies to worry about and the kids get put into education camps until they reach puberty and then from there they get segregated into their own kind of boot camps.” 

“Holy shades of Hitler’s Youth Batman,” I whispered in outrage. 

Lon chuckled but it wasn’t a nice sound.  “I’d be lying if I said all the camps were the same.  It’s not that bad in most of them, at least for the kids.  The military camps are just physically and mentally hard for the most part since it is the first real discipline a lot of them seem to have had in their lives.  The military wants trained potential soldiers that can run the high tech gear that is common these days, not idiots that do nothing but sit around and use up scarce resources.  It’s not just a war of attrition but one of who has the better toys and better soldiers to operate those toys.  However, some of the government camps … especially those in the Northeast and along the West Coast … are said to be pretty radical.  We aren’t talking about the Khmer Rouge … at least not yet … but if the moral boundaries get forgotten and the goals become both the means and the end, I wouldn’t put it beyond the possibility of happening.” 

The next ten minutes were fairly silent as everyone began to check their equipment and go over the plan in their head.  Finally we reached the destination where we planned to start laying the first cache.  Lon reminded us, “This isn’t about engaging the enemy.  We are out here to lay the caches and observe.  For our plan to succeed the element of surprise is absolutely essential.  If they feel threatened they might change their patterns or reinforce their security system and that will add an additional layer of danger we don’t need, might not be able to overcome.” 

We all nodded and then set out to do what we came to do.  It was determined that while I was strong – for a female – it was still a silly waste of time to expect me to be able to move as much dirt to hide the caches as the men could.  That left me on guard most of the time or mapping out or setting boobies. 

When we stopped to take a brief break I brought up a point I’d been thinking about all morning.  “It isn’t going to do any good to lay traps on the side of town that isn’t used very often.  I can see putting the caches here as a resupply point or a backdoor escape hatch … and I can see booby trapping the caches to keep them from falling into the wrong hands on the slim chance they get found.  However, laying a lot of boobies over here is a waste of resources.  If we want to make best use of those types of material we need to be able to put them in the path they are likely to use themselves … maybe a funnel point that they can’t go around very easily.  And another thing …” 

Reggie muttered, “Here it comes.” 

I kicked out at him from where we were sitting and grabbing a bite to eat.  “And another thing, if you are going to have boobies you might as well make them blow up something useful. There’s the water tower, the canal bridges in town, knock over power poles so that when they come down they fall on other stuff and make a mess.” 

Lon just shook his head.  “Jax has already warned me that you’d want to try that.  After we get these last two caches hidden we’ll head over to an observation point so you can take a look and get some ideas but we aren’t going into town today.” 

Rolling my eyes I said, “I didn’t say it had to be done today.  Besides I didn’t bring enough supplies to blow up River Road bridge or …”

 

All three of them made some kind of noise that reminded me of gobbling turkeys.  “Oh for pity sake, don’t tell me y’all hadn’t thought of it.  I can’t have been the only one to see movies like “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Bridge at Remagen,” “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” and …” 

Lon interrupted saying, “None of them were exactly happy movies as I recall.” 

Getting frustrated I told him, “No kidding.  War is hell and yada, yada, blah, blah, blah.  I’m not trying to say it isn’t.  I just mean that bridges are important.  If we can take out the bridges we’ll be able to slow them down.  We might even make it impossible for them to use the town as a transportation hub for the drugs or whatever you say they are moving.” 

He gave my words some thought while he chewed some jerky.  Reggie picked up the conversation.  “You’re right and we all know it Lydie.  And yeah, we’ve already talked about it.  But we’re trying to balance the risks here.  We’ve got a much smaller force than the gang does, especially if they get reinforcements from outsiders, other gangs.  And we are trying to not get noticed.” 

“Not noticed by whom?” I asked finally having untangled the testosterone wall of protection they’d obviously been throwing up around certain bits of their plan. 

Reggie blanched and tried hard not to look at Lon.  Cal looked on wide eyed like he had no idea what I was talking about and I realized that maybe he didn’t so I said, “OK, don’t tell me.  Let me guess.  I said the other day that we didn’t know how far we could really trust some of the local militias.  Like humans everywhere they come in all shapes, sizes, and ideals or lack of for that matter.  On the radio we’ve also heard certain ethnic and racial groups are coalescing into certain geographical locations trying to set up their own … I guess you’d call it their own governments within the government kind of thing.  It’s said that parts of the state of Michigan don’t even recognize the Constitution anymore but operate solely on Sharia Law.  Atlanta is burning just like it did during the Civil War once the rioting got beyond the ability of the military to contain.  And the Texas border is said to look like the freaking 38th Parallel.  At this point, with as freaked out as the world is, it just might be possible that if we throw too much action against the gang one of two things could happen.” 

I looked at them and saw I had their attention.  “First, the gang could run to the national guard, the military, or some other authority and cry that some big ol’ baddie is beating up on them for no reason when they are just a bunch of poor defenseless refugees.  Or two, we could wind up with the gangs forming an alliance when they might not have otherwise done so and coming after us in force.  Either one has the potential to rain fire and brimstone down on our heads.” 

I sighed and closed with, “While I admire the sentiment, what you are trying to do is cut the head off of the snake without the tail finding out about it and it just ain’t gonna happen.  If we are going to get hung, it might as well be for a pound as for a penny.  Taking out Suicide is going to leave a vacuum.  Something is going to fill that vacuum, and with our luck it is going to be something worse.  If we punch a big enough hole, a vacuum won’t be able to form.” 

Cal looked at his dad and asked, “Is what she saying true?” 

“Not here.  We’ll talk about it at home.  Right now we have work to do.”  The look he gave me let me know that he was finished talking about it.  He wasn’t being nasty or anything, it simply was not up for debate at that point in time.   

I didn’t push it.  I knew I was being included only out of necessity.  Reggie and I were the naughtiest when it came to creating boobies.  We also had the least emotional attachment to the morality question regarding what those boobies cost in human suffering and death.  It isn’t that we were totally without feeling because we weren’t the least sociopathic, we simply had come to terms with what we viewed as the necessity of doing what we did best.  It was basically the same way I justified running the ‘shine; I only ran it for people for personal use and those that were responsible adults.  I wouldn’t run it for those where there was a risk they’d turn around and sell it to minors or drunks and I only ran the good stuff, not the crap that would turn you blind.  Yes, it was a rationalization, but it was one I could live with and felt I could answer for on Judgment Day.  I knew in my heart it was situational ethics but I hadn’t figured a way around that yet. 

Within the hour we were at a point that overlooked the town but left us at a safe enough distance that we wouldn’t be observed.  We were in luck, if you want to call it that.  We got to witness an exchange of goods right below us just on the other side of River Road. 

Cal said, “Dang.  I wish we could hear what they are saying.” 

Reggie said seriously, “No need to hear them.” 

I sensed Lon looking at him because of his tone of voice.  Reggie then asked me, “You recognize him?” 

I whispered in anger, “Yes.” 

Not even Reggie was used to me putting that much venom into one word.  Lon, not being a local, wouldn’t understand so I explained.  “Look at that group.  You see the guy in the University of Tennessee colors?” 

“Orange?  I thought that was a hunter’s jacket,” he said. 

“It is probably but it is still the UT colors of orange and white.  Anyway his name is Delorey Baumgarten; most people call him Del and he is a very, very, very bad man.” 

“And you would know this how?” 

I shrugged.  “His dad worked out at the Paper Mill with Dad until he had a heart attack that caused a major equipment accident in the plant.  The insurance company was not a happy camper and the mill owners … er … encouraged Mr. B to retire and he moved out to Pheonix or someplace like that.  Dad used to tell me how Mr. B – who was a very, very, very nice man by the way – used to be sad and ashamed at how his son had turned out.  Del is your typical bad seed story.  Juvie never did a thing to him but make him meaner.  The day Del turned twenty-one he walked into the state pen for killing some guy for running over his dog … the dog he refused to keep chained up.  The dog had chewed on this guy’s little girl and the city took the dog away.  Del stole it back but it got out again and went after someone else.  The authorities had no proof supposedly so the other guy took the law into his own hands.  You can guess what happened from there.  All the State Pen did was make Del a better and smarter criminal and give him contacts … or so said my Dad.” 

Lon said, “But you make it sound personal.  This Del and your father ever run into each other?” 

After a moment I mumbled, “No.” 

Reggie asked, “It have to do with your late night highway runs?” 

Once cautious, always cautious so I said politely, “More than likely.” 

Lon said, “Spit it out.  If there is a danger I need to know what it is in case it needs to be included in the plan.” 

I gave him a very brief explanation of the fact that I might have run ‘shine a time or two (or more) and as soon as he rehung his jaw from where it had been swinging in the breeze – and knocked his son in the back of his head who had been staring at me like I was some rare breed of jungle cat – he said, “In what way does that Del guy have to do with … what you just told me.” 

“Let’s just say we came in conflict a time or two.  When I beat out his drivers on a regular basis he tried to … let’s say he tried to hire me.  Dad never knew or he would have taken Del out over his … er … terms; even if it meant turning states evidence and getting into all kinds of trouble.  Very, very few people knew what I did.  And Dad never knew about some of the things that happened or he would have stopped it even if it meant having to mortgage our home to pay for my brother’s treatment.  But every once in a while I would run into trouble and Del was the worst.  Not even Jax knows but that is only because I thought Del was gone or dead.  To be honest I thought he was in jail for beating up some woman in Chattanooga.  I’ll have to tell Jax about it tonight.  He knows who Delorey is and more than likely he’ll put a flaming bell around my neck once he finds out the rest of it.  Del is just not someone you mess with.” 

Ignoring my aside about Jax’s likely reaction Lon asked, “What makes the guy so dangerous … besides obviously packing enough fire power for a small Mexican cartel.” 

Reggie snorted and as I continued to look for potential boobie locations he explained.  “The guy is just bad.  Even my ol’ man never had anything to do with him.  The Caulderman Brothers avoided him too.  Anything that Del Baumgarten gets involved with he tends to go in and take over.” 

Looking through my binoculars I said, “Which is what he might be positioning himself for here.  Anyone know if that idiot without a coat on is Suicide?” 

“Yeah, that’s him,” Lon chuckled despite the situation.  

“Does he think his tats are going to keep him warm or something?” 

Another chuckle.  “Apparently.  You should have seen it when the weather was warmer.  He’s has enough tattoos that he looks like he is wearing a full body stocking.  He even has them on his face and inside his ears.” 

I turned and looked at him.  “And you’re complaining about me getting close to town?  How close did you have to be to see inside his ear?” 

“The cup of his ear Lydie,” Reggie explained.  “And he wears these ginormous gauges in his ear lobes.  The rest of him is pierced too … nipple rings, bars, chains attached to I don’t even want to think about it places.” 

Blanching I said, “No wonder Del is acting like he can’t stand the guy.” 

“Huh?” Cal asked at my non sequiter. 

“Del is a major homophobe.  He thinks a few tattoos here and there are manly but once you get into any other body art or take something over the top and you get on his never-to-be-respected list of potential queers.  It’s real easy to get on the list, almost impossible to get off.” 

Reggie pondered, “I always wondered how he stayed alive in prison with that kind of attitude.” 

I kicked out at him, “Little inappropriate conversational topic.” 

“Huh?” 

I looked at Lon and apologized.  “Sorry. Ol’ Reg seems to be unable to understand the concept of tact.” 

Lon blanked his face and went back to looking over the scene but Cal said, “Jax told us it would be like having Abbot and Costello for company when you two get going.” 

Reggie and I had developed an unusual friendship.  I could pick on and criticize him.  He could do the same to me.  But neither one of us would put up with anyone else doing it to the other.  Kind of like siblings.  I looked at Reggie through my lashes and decided to get a little wicked.  “So what about it Reg?  We’ve got a clean slate below us.  We’ll have to be able to set the boobies in the dark and not trip them as we evac.  I’ve spotted two dozen potential trip line locations.  Twice as many pressure or vibration-trigger placings.  The bridge will be a cinch but that’s all boring and ordinary stuff.  Where do you think the sulfuric acid traps would go best.” 

“Wait,” he said getting into the spirit of things.  “I wanna play with those Bangalores again.” 

“You just like to blow stuff up.  We need victim-activated devices not something we have to activate ourselves, though having a few in reserve is a good idea in case we get cut off.” 

“Fine, have it your way.  What we need to do is boobie the buildings that look out this way to keep gang members from being able to use them as cover or vantage points to shoot from.  Forgetting about how we’ll get close enough for a second I say that all of the steps and thresholds need to be boobied with pressure switches.  Even the footpaths around the buildings should have some surprise packages in place.” 

Cal’s face was priceless but Reggie and I had already forgotten about him and gotten serious about the job we were sent to do.  “I wish there was time to dig pits but I can’t see how if the move is going to be made soon.  It took longer than I expected to dig the holes that we did for the caches.  The ground is already frozen solid in places and there is too much clay and gravel around here to make it easy at any time of year.  I think they lined this hill when we were little because of erosion.” 

“Yeah, they laid a metal net before putting the erosion control in place too until the grasses could take over and hold the soil,” he reminded me. 

“Pooh.  That’s right.”  Thinking I said, “What about some widow makers hung in the trees around here with some trip lines attached to them.  Trip causes the rope or wire to swing free.  Widow maker comes down.  Poof … imbedded spikes or thin glass bottle with acid or something along those lines.  Wouldn’t be a killing device – unless the guy was just unlucky – but those types of things cause damage and might encourage panic or something.” 

“I like it.  They’ll be looking at the ground and suddenly stuff will come at them from above.  Keep them off balance.” 

We continued on in that vein with me eventually pulling out a hand drawn map of the immediate area and we started penciling in what could be done as well as adding some tactical information and some additional details to specific landmarks such as the number of pilings on the bridge, the number and placement of windows on specific buildings, and the composition of the ground in various locations.  Lon looked at Cal and said, “I wouldn’t go bragging about this where your mother will find out about it if you ever want to go on another run.” 

Cal shook his head, “I ain’t stupid.  And if Meemaw finds out about any of this we’ll all be on stone soup and water until she can change our minds.” 

Not wanting to see any of my sex belittled for being protective which is our nature I said, “She has a job to do just like we do.  She just goes about it different.” 

Cal asked, “So you’re ok with all of this?  Even though you’re a girl?” 

“Being a girl doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it, at least not for me.  And I wouldn’t say that I’m OK with it.  I look at it as we have a choice.  We can either sit back and let the poison fester and build to the point that it will kill us or we can amputate the infected flesh.” 

“But didn’t some of those kids down there used to be your friends?” 

I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could manage despite how the question made me feel.  “Some of them.  But we all have choices to make.  If they’ve sided with the gang then they are responsible for the consequences they face because of their choice.  If they are victims … I’ll do what I can to make sure their life doesn’t get worse but right now I can’t tell one from the other and until I’m sure then I don’t have much choice but to treat them all like they are infected and find some way to quarantine them.” 

After that Cal gave me space that I hadn’t asked for.  I guess I was kind of strange as far as females go but I’d been forced to deal with the aftermath of what terrorists, both foreign and domestic, could do to simply leave the battles up to someone else.  And if we were going to win I wanted the victory to be decisive, not one that we would have to continue to fight over and over until way more people got hurt than would have been necessary had we done it the right way the first time around. 

It wasn’t long after that that we packed up and started back to the Home Place.  I was about to get in the truck when I stopped and realized that while the cold had made everything quiet, it had become an unnatural quiet.  Lon and Reggie noticed it at the same time and Cal picked up on it as soon as he observed his father’s reaction.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

They Just Don't Make Emperors Like They Used To - Part 2


Marty didn’t last out the week.  Three days after Jax brought her to me she slipped into a comma; her body unable to support the damage that had been done to it, the mental stress of her ordeal, and the symptoms of withdrawal.  I dug a grave for her in the family cemetery not too far from the memorial for my parents and brother.  I still make sure and put fresh flowers on her stone for her birthday every year, more for me than her; I’m sure she is some place far better and probably doesn’t care one way or the other. 

The only person that gave me a hassle about how I’d done everything was Lil’ Miss Queen of the ‘Tudes.  “It ain’t no good.  You didn’t even have a wake or funeral for her.  No one even said no words over her ground.  Her ghost is going to come back and punish us all.”  Not even Alexis knew how to respond to Gennie’s blatant superstition so I gave it a try after she had pushed me once too many times.   

Getting off the ground from where I’d been setting a temporary cross that Jax had carved for Marty I brushed the dirt off of my numb with cold hands and finally snapped.  “Her last few weeks of life were nothing but a wake.  Funerals are for the living, not the dead.  They are supposed to bring closure.  They don’t.  Only time does that.  I didn’t say any words over her grave because I said everything there was while she was still alive and could hear me.  That piece of decaying meat in the ground is not my friend; she’s gone to a better life.  And she knew I loved her and will not be coming back to haunt anyone because she’s too busy being happy where she is.  Now knock it off and I better not hear another word on it.  Marty made mistakes but God knows she’s paid for them and I won’t let anyone turn her into some kind of monster, living or dead.  You try it and I’ll bust your butt so hard that it will be next Juvember before you can sit down in comfort.”  She opened her mouth on an outraged retort but I stopped her.  “You want to act mature, I’ll treat you that way.  You want to act like an unfeeling brat with a tongue that is hung and the middle and running at both ends I’ll treat you that way too.” 

This time when Gennie tried to open her mouth it was Alexis that intervened.  She didn’t yell but she wasn’t exactly gentle either.  “Enough Gen.  We each have to handle this crap in our own way.  You burn candles and pray to saints.  Who’s to say which one of you have the direct line to heaven?  Just let this one go.  Besides, Lydie is right about one thing; Marty wasn’t the type to mess with people by turning into a ghost.  Wasn’t her style.” 

After Gennie left … surprisingly running off to Johnson of all people … I turned to Alexis and reluctantly said, “Thank you.” 

“Don’t,” she responded. 

“Don’t thank you?” I asked still woozy enough from emotional overload that not everything around me was making sense. 

She nodded.  “I didn’t do it for you; I did it for Marty who apparently liked you for some bizarre reason.” 

Sighing at the bitter sweetness of the memories I explained, “Marty, Matt, and I have known each …”  I stopped and then shook my head sadly.  Quietly I continued.  “Marty, Matt, and I knew each other from kindergarten.  I’ve known most of the town kids since elementary school barring the few that came and went up until high school.  Some I knew well … some not so much.”  I shrugged.  “You know how it is; cliques and clubs.” 

It was obvious she didn’t want to like me but thankfully she wasn’t nasty about it.  “Why did you throw her to the wolves?” 

That did pull me up short.  “Huh?” 

“You’re rich as that old fool Midas and you left her to get eaten alive by that freak.  Why didn’t you come to town sooner?  Why didn’t you ever invite her to live here with you?” 

I told myself that I didn’t owe her an explanation but back then I was a little more sensitive to people’s opinion of me than I was willing to admit.  She’d also caught me at a low point when I’d been wondering the same thing.  I was about to open my mouth when we all heard Gennie scream and Johnson roar. 

I grabbed my rifle and adrenaline had me running and jumping the low hedge of shamrock inkberry holly that I had planted near the fish pond, one of the last landscape projects that Mom and I had done together.  As I got nearer I saw that Johnson was in trouble.  He must have tried to defend Gennie from a dog pack that had slunk up on her.  I never even stopped.  There was too much going on for me to fire and shoot; the danger of hitting Johnson was too great.  I heard Jax and some of the others coming at their own run but I never even slowed down.  I used the stock of my rifle like a bat and came in swinging. 

I felt a dog try and get me only for it to discover my habit was to wear knee high work boots because of snakes and spiders.  The bite hurt but more because it was like a vise clamp rather than a knife stab.   

Jax was there beside me in seconds.  He grabbed Johnson whose hand was bloody and having a hard time not going down under the onslaught of the dogs.  I kept swinging trying to keep the dogs off.  Aston and Aiden waded in and soon we had the dogs dispersed enough that the others could shoot them as they tried to run off. 

“Get him to the house!” I said.  “Lay him out on the floor in front of the fire place.” 

“Easy Hon,” Jax said.  “He’s more shook up than chewed up.  They didn’t get passed his coat for the most part.” 

I opened my mouth then cringed.  How on earth I had forgotten Jax’s EMT training I don’t know.  “Sorry,” I mumbled. 

He gave me a searching look and then said, “I’m not.”  I relaxed in relief that I hadn’t hurt his pride.  He added, “Do me a favor and check the dogs.” 

I knew what he meant … check for rabies or mange or some other disgusting thing that could be transmitted to humans.  I could find no evidence that they weren’t anything but a dog pack but I was more than a bit upset.  This was the first one that had come onto the Home Place though Mr. Houchins has mentioned that they’d had a few sniffing around their farm.  I was even more upset when I found every dog had a collar on that looked exactly alike. 

I turned to hear that Gennie wasn’t making sense and I wondered why.  I asked Alexis, “Is she bit?  Or afraid of dogs?” 

Alexis was a little pale herself.  Her answer didn’t make me feel any better either.  “She’s afraid of those dogs.” 

Gennie was shaking like a leaf and mumbling something I realized was in Spanish.  “Did she just call these mutts devil dogs?” 

Alexis smoothed out her face trying to appear calm and cool.  “Yeah.  See those collars?  Those are some of the dogs that the gang used to use to guard their crap and mess with prisoners.” 

I immediately went on high alert.  I scanned the tree line but Alexis stepped up beside me and said.  “Look at the dogs.  See how skinny and unkept they look?  There ain’t no gang members out there.  They usually treat their dogs good.  These either escaped or were turned loose.  They ain’t on a leash neither and back in town the dogs were always kept on a leash because they was so vicious.” 

Reggie came over to tell us, “Johnson won’t settle until he knows that Gennie is being looked after.” 

Gennie took off at a run towards the house.  I tried to keep the look off my face but Alexis saw it.  “Nah.  Ain’t that kind of thing.  Johnson just treats her like he treats Janice.  Gennie eats that crap up.  She had an older brother that got drafted but he was killed in his first battle.  Gennie has kind of forced Johnson to take his place … and he kinda let her.  Know what I mean?” 

“Yeah,” I said.  “Thanks for explaining.  I hate guessing about that kind of stuff.” 

She looked at me funny but then turned and followed Gennie back to the house.  Reggie sighed and I looked at him and then gave a grim chuckle.  “Go on back to the house.  I’ll clean up the carcasses.” 

“Uh uh.  It wasn’t that.  I just hate the smell is all.  Dang, the last time we burned this many bodies it took forever to get rid of the smell.  If there are more dogs they’ll be attracted to it.” 

Thinking I said, “I’ve got lime.  We can take them out to the gravel pit and just … but I hate to waste the stuff when I don’t know where we’ll get more.  I wanted to save it so we could have it for an outhouse.  I’m not sure how well the septic system is going to handle this many people.” 

Reggie shrugged and said, “Let’s just burn them.  I’ll talk to Jax about the outhouse thing later.”  We loaded the carcasses into the four-wheeler’s pull behind wagon – the one that Dad and I had always used to bring game home with when we were hunting on our own acreage – and in no time we had a very smelly bonfire going on the remains of the gang members that had attacked us weeks back. 

“Lydie?” 

“Yeah?” 

“Uh … hmmm …” 

I looked at Reggie and wondered what was up.  He wasn’t normally hesitant about anything. 

“Lydie … what … er … look, you think me and Ginger are a good thing or a bad thing?” 

I blanked my face as fast as I could.  “I don’t know if it is exactly my business,” I told him. 

“I’m making it your business.  So what do you think?” 

“I think that it is more important what you … and Ginger … think than what I think.” 

“So what if we both think it is a good thing but that I’m worried that maybe I’m too close to the situation to see it for what it is.” 

I turned and looked at him and sighed.  “Reggie, Ginger is crazy for you.  She hasn’t been put off by you running in circles trying to figure out if she’s been serious or playing you.  She isn’t put off by the fact that you are about as trying on the nerves as anyone can get and that you do it on purpose.  She doesn’t get bent out of shape when you need some space because you are in a mood.  She doesn’t care what your home life was like except how it affects you.  She’s also strong enough not to take that crap you can dish out when you go a little overboard … but she doesn’t hold it against you.  What more are you looking for?” 

He shrugged and then changed the subject.  “She says she isn’t ready to wind up like Ashley.” 

“No kidding, neither am I.  Too much crazy going on in the world right now and I feel like I’m in the middle of it.” 

“But you and Jax … I mean … you do it.” 

Trying to decide whether I wanted to hide or hit him in the head with a handy tree limb I simply said, “Yeah?  And that is your business how?” 

He rolled his eyes and scuffed his boot in the muddy snow that could still be found in the shade of the forest.  “Don’t get bent, you know what I mean.” 

Looking away I said, “I guess I do, that still doesn’t mean it is any of your business.” 

“Well pretend like it is for a minute and give me some help here will you.  I … I think I love Ginger but I’m not Jax or Aston … I don’t want kids right now.  I don’t know if I want kids ever, at least not while the world is really, really flaking out.  What if Ginger and I do it, she catches preggers, and then I like get drafted or something and go KIA.  What kind of old man would I be to do that to my kid?” 

I shook my head.  “You wouldn’t do it on purpose Reggie.” 

“That’s not the point.  Aren’t dads supposed to think of things like that before they happen?  Did Jax pick you because you’d be a good mother figure for Kelly or because you know, he wanted you?” 

A little uncomfortably I told him, “You need to ask Jax that.” 

“I tried.  He threatened to bust me in the mouth if I went and said something about it to you so for God’s sake don’t tell him I asked.  I like my teeth right where they’re at thank you.” 

I nearly laughed because I could see Jax saying just that thing to Reggie.  I shook my head.  “Reg, I’d like to say that Jax and I have it all figured out and that we’re all righteous and holy and that we’ll never goof up with Kelly or with each other but I’d be lying if I did.  Jax and I … we worked things out between us.  We know how we feel about each other.  We’re going to try and do the rightest thing for each other and Kelly that we can.  And for us, that right thing isn’t having kids yet.  I don’t even know if we can … not all the women in my family had their own biological units.” 

“No?” 

“Uh uh.  Two of my grandmother’s sisters never had babies; they raised their husband’s kids from an earlier marriage.  Another one of her sisters didn’t get married until she was in her fifties.  Some of the women on that side of the family had female problems and only had kids after medical intervention.  So it isn’t a given.” 

“I didn’t know that.” 

I shrugged.  “The guys on that said and the ones on Dad’s side were pretty prolific though so I’m not sure.  Either way Jax said he … well … you know … not until after Ashley pops we’re just being careful.” 

“Careful how?” 

I cannot express how uncomfortable and embarrassed I was trying to explain that sort of stuff to Reggie but when I’d finished he just sat on a stump and said, “Huh … little more complicated than I imagined it.  Protection and calendars and …” 

“Reggie!” 

“Well … how the heck is a guy supposed to know if you people that do know won’t share the data?!” 

I couldn’t help it.  He looked so outraged I had to chuckle.  “I swear Reggie.  Just go talk it over with Ginger.  If she doesn’t kill you then you’ve got a keeper.” 

Looking serious and thoughtful he said, “I think maybe I already do but … but I don’t know if I’m ready to … you know … settle down yet.  How do I know I’m not going to screw up like my old man and brother did?” 

I shrugged.  “All I know is that you aren’t them, you’re you.  You’ll make mistakes but they don’t have to be those kinds of mistakes if you make different choices.  Just go talk to Ginger and let me alone already.  Maybe she isn’t ready to settle down either.” 

He sighed.  “But it’s hard to be around her and not want what you and Jax and Aston and Ash have.  And now comes along Aiden and Janice … and Johnson could have that Alexis chick if he bothered to make an effort.” 

“Leaving poor Jules with Ginnie?” 

“No way.  Johnson would kill Jules if he messed with that piece of jail bate.  Besides Jules is still mourning his girlfriend Susie that threw him over for one of Suicide’s buddies.” 

Surprised I asked, “Where did you hear that?” 

“Aiden told me.  I was … uh … ribbing him a little bit over Gennie.  It kinda came out.” 

I shook my head.  “Sounds like your teeth nearly came out.” 

He gave me a truthful half smile and admitted, “Nearly.” 

The bonfire was finally dying down when a whistle came from up the road.  I whistled the signal back and Jax walked in without startling us.  Reggie saw him first and walked over and handed him the dog collars before saying something I couldn’t hear and then walking up to the house. 

Jax came my way and said, “I’m NOT checking up on you … or at least not because you are out here with Reggie.” 

I relaxed and said, “Good to know.  But in case you are wondering Reggie is just still weirding out about Ginger a little.” 

“Having second thoughts?” 

I shook my head.  “Can’t get passed his first thoughts … or should I say worries.  I think Ashley getting as big and as miserable as she is kinda has him spooked.” 

Jax made a face and said, “He asked you about us didn’t he.” 

I walked over and tucked myself under his arm because it was turning chilly.  “Yeah.  It’s like having a little brother and having to explain the facts of life to him, only Reggie is older than I am the big dork.  Reggie means well but he has absolutely no tact.” 

“He bother you?” 

“Nah, not really.  I suppose if I was in his shoes I’d probably be trying to find someone to ask about it too.  It just makes me feel …” 

“Old and tired?” 

I looked in his face and realized being two years ahead of us and with a lot of life experience he’d probably felt like that more than a few times.  “You must feel like you are living in a house full of puppies that all want to pull your tail.” 

I got an honest grin from him and he said, “Sometimes. “  She stood there watching the fire turn to embers.  After a little while he asked, “You OK?” 

“Yeah.  What I said to Gennie was the truth.  I … I don’t want to talk about it … not yet … but don’t feel like I’m dying or anything.” 

“Good.” 

“How’s Johnson?” 

“Better.  Seeing the dogs go after Gennie scared him worse than the dogs going after him did.” 

I nodded.  “Sounds like Johnson.  He would have probably come totally unglued if the dogs had gone after Janice.” 

He snorted.  “He’s already laying down the law to both of them.  They aren’t to get x number of yards from the house without an escort, blah, blah, blah.” 

“I’m happy for them,” I said sarcastically.  “So long as it doesn’t stop them from helping out around the place he can chain them both for all I care.” 

“Getting on your nerves already?” 

“Yes and no.  Janice isn’t so bad.  She’s been through a lot but honestly she was like this even before.  Sounds awful I know but … but she’s a real shrinking violet.  Johnson does too much for her and when he isn’t she has her nose in a book instead of taking some initiative to help.  You know she intentionally failed the same grades Johnson did so that she wouldn’t have to go to a class without him?” 

“Aiden told me.  He makes it sound like something heroic.” 

I shrugged.  “Each to his own I guess.” 

“Yeah … which leaves us with Gennie.” 

I groaned.  “No, let’s not.” 

“She’s really getting under your skin.” 

“Yeah … or at least sort of.  I just don’t know why she has to be all in my face so much.  I’m not sure what I ever did to her.” 

“Probably nothing,” he said.  “She’s an inner city kid that has had really horrible things happen to her and if that wasn’t bad enough she’s like a fish out of water.  Put her back in the city and she probably wouldn’t be so bad.” 

“If you say so.” 

Another few minutes and we kicked wet snow around the edges of the fire and left the embers to die.  Jax asked, “You ready for tomorrow?” 

“Yeah.  You ok with it being me going with Reggie instead of you?” 

He nodded as we walked back to the house.  “One of us needs to stay here and since all of the new guys are staying Aston and I are going to watch how they act when there are fewer than us.” 

Suddenly uncomfortable I said, “Maybe I should stay.” 

“Uh uh.  I need you to look over the lay out and our plan, see if you can add anything to it.  I don’t like you getting that close to town but Lon will be with you so I’m not as worried as I could be.” 

Sometimes it is nice to have a fella look after you and sometimes it isn’t.  This time it was a mix of both but I didn’t complain.  I was going out tomorrow and that was that.  I was going to help lay out caches so that they could have them in case they needed them.  It wasn’t going to be pleasant work to be digging in cold mud.  The other thing I was going to do is Reggie and I were going to throw in with Lon and come up with some presents for anyone that tries to follow our group out of town after the raid was complete.  We hoped to make it as interesting for them as the time we gave to the gang members that had tried to attack the Home Place.