Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chapter Eighty-One

Chapter 81

February 24th – I’m dreading tomorrow. Just dreading it. I don’t know how ready I am for this. There’s a church service and it is going to be a community wide memorial service. So many dead, especially now that there has been time to check all of the homes along the river.

Tuesday was a beautiful day to end so tragically for so many of us. Us. What a word. So many “us”’s have been torn apart.

Rand, Austin, and I were enjoying the day by sitting on the porch letting a lunch of fried rice and egg rolls settle. I had cut the first bunch of bok choy just that morning and couldn’t wait to use it. Suddenly Rand cocked his head which told me I needed to focus on some sounds beyond Austin talking about Woofer’s latest adventure. I had to hold my hand up to quiet him so I could hear what had caught Rand’s attention.

It was gun shots. Not an unusual sound with so many people having to feed their family by hunting; however, it was the pattern and frequency that was unusual … and the fact that we were hearing it from at least two different directions.

Rand ran inside and turned the radio on that Bill had gotten for him with shares from the stuff I had taken to the last swap meet. He tuned it checking some of the frequencies that he knew Henderson’s men used and brought it out to the porch. As soon as he heard what was going on we began to put the animals in the barn and go into lock down.

“Babe, I want you and Austin to stay in the house. Take Woofer in with you. Fraidy is in the loft so don’t worry about her. I’m going to get in the hunting blind I built up in that old oak. I don’t want you to come out for any reason … I mean it, for no reason.”

No, I was not happy but what he was doing made the most sense and it was a plan we had discussed several different times. Before we locked ourselves in we agreed that today was a good as day as any to show Austin the dormer room and that’s what I spent the next little while doing and explaining that this was something else, just like the pantry and storage space in the barn, that was ours to know about and no one else’s. Austin is a good kid. The last few days have been very trying on all of us but not because he has given us any trouble. Rand said that Austin said as bad as things have been he still feels safer with us than he has since his step-brother had given him to the blue helmets.

The day was nerve wracking. Rand came back to the house a couple of times and then we locked down for the night. By morning it was all over and we never saw even a single shot on our road. But it didn’t take a bullet to wound our spirits.

Rand hadn’t really slept during the night. I tried to stay up with him but I just couldn’t; my body refused to obey. We were up for good about three thirty in the morning and he was packed and ready to hit the road when dawn was still just a hope on the horizon. Hatchet was saddled and the animals taken care of earlier than usual. I was standing outside watching him lead hatchet around the screen when we heard another horse coming at a full run; a crazy thing given how dark it was.

Rand nearly shot but the rider was small and leaning over the neck of the animal barely able to hang on. Rand got the animal under control just in time to keep Tommy from being thrown. He slid down to the ground in a heap. Between sobs we made out, “We need help. You gotta come, you just gotta. They’re all … “

Rand picked him up and carried him to the porch and then into the house, into the kitchen. In the light of the lamp we saw it; the blood. None of it was his but by the time we got the bare bones of the story we still didn’t know for sure who it belonged to. Life changes so quickly, sometimes it even ends before it begins.

Laurabeth was the first attacked and she is still the worst off. Or maybe it was Jonathon, Tommy didn’t know for sure. Jonathon had left right after breakfast to hook up with a cousin, he was trading work for the use of some tool or other, what it was no longer important. Everyone in and around the house were busy doing whatever the day called for and then suddenly Laurabeth screamed followed by the booming of a gun.

Tommy isn’t sure of anything after that except that they were far outnumbered. Raiders were trying to take the animals … and in broad daylight. That’s bold … or desperate … or maybe both. They also attacked the Shack and most of the other occupied dwellings on their road which is why it took a while to organize mutual aid for the neighbors; there wasn’t a house that didn’t have some kind of injury. At the same time River Road was being hit and hit hard. Over there it wasn’t individual hits on homesteads so much as they threw fire bombs in houses and barns creating complete confusion. As people ran out to take care of the fires they were ambushed. The pirates-turned-land-raiders were smart enough to avoid the Henderson Ranch and the military compound.

It’s been days and we still don’t have a good timeline of events. Maybe that will come later. We’ve been too busy tending to the injured, burying the dead, and holding the hands of the grieving.

The injury to Laurabeth wasn’t life threatening, not then. Brendon is hurt and he lost a toe when he was shot in the foot by a raider trying to keep him from running off. Alicia and Missy are all right but in no condition to try and manage the household they have been left with, especially not with two infants, both needy; Ken has ordered them to bed as much as possible simply because he is worried they are still within the risk zone of a post-birth hemorrhage.

Uncle George is stoic. There isn’t much else to call it right now. Brendon and Mick are both hurt, Mick worse but not by much; he was kicked and clubbed in the head and is still suffering bouts of vertigo to go with his broken ribs. Charlene and Janet are both shook up badly. Charlene had to escape a couple of men … you can imagine what they were after. Anthony is the one that saved her; he got injured in the process and it will be some time before he is able to go on a road trip with Ram. Janet, after initially looking like her frailty was going to be the end of her, has found strength from someplace and has been an unbelievable help in tending to the wounded of which there are still way too many.

Ram and Bill left a yard full of dead raiders that tried to attack the Shack. Concha, Marta, and Rubio have been welcomed into the community with open arms after they came to the aid of many of the community that had been standing in the Shack’s yard when it was hit. Rubio, fortunately or unfortunately, is an old hand at street fighting having survived the mean streets of Little Havana and Little Haiti during the post-4th wave period when you did what you had to to feed and protect those under your care. I heard stories that are hard to believe, but which Bill says are true, how he took on armed raiders with only a large knife. More than half a dozen were found nearly decapitated.

I believe that Clyde and Melly may finally have gotten over whatever was holding them back. One of the few good things that has come out of this nightmare. Clyde nearly tore one of the raiders to pieces with his bare hands when he threw Roo against the side of the house. The little boy practically bounced off. His little arm is broken and Ken thinks his kidneys may be bruised as well. After getting Melly and Roo to a reasonable amount of safety Clyde took off and along with Ram and Rubio cleaned up the remaining raiders around their immediate farmsteads. Bill handled the radio and tried to coordinate some type of response with Henderson and with the military who were split between River Road and all the clean up between there and the Crenshaws.

Mrs. Withrow’s little house and the big house have both sustained quite a bit of damage. Rand and I finally convinced her to come home with us last night just until we could get her windows fixed and some working shutters built that she could manage by herself. She may not be by herself for long though. There is a special needs boy who lost the aunt and uncle he had been living with; he’s fifteen and strong as an ox and loves Mrs. Withrow to death. I guess even calling him special needs isn’t the right thing, his IQ is a little low but only noticeable if you see him try and read or do math. He’ll always need someone to help take care of him but only because he is more interested in other people than in taking care of himself.

I haven’t named everyone in the family, that part of it is tied up with what happened over on River Road.

The raiders hit nearly every place over there at the same time. Lots of fire damage, lots of death by ambush as people rushed out to save their animals and their buildings. Mr. Winston and Aunt Buzzy died instantly, cut down by the cowards that had thrown the fire bombs. Then one was thrown into the main house. Julia and the baby were upstairs.

Why does this have to be so hard?! Something just isn’t right that things like this can happen. I just don’t understand.

Ron had been out in their far woods hunting some dinner when he saw the smoke, by the time he made it home the barn and the house were raging infernos. He saw his aunt and his father in law dead of gunshots and he ran around looking for Julia and the baby. And he found them when he heard a puny little cry coming from behind the old fruit house. He slowed down as he noticed a trail of blood from the back yard porch to the small structure.

He turned the corner and there was Julia and his son. She was clinging to life just long enough to tell the story and to make sure that someone would come for the baby. The fire had traveled up the old wooden structure in moments, preventing Julia from being able to escape down the stairs. She’d thrown some of the baby’s things and a few other odds and ends out the window and then climbed out onto the verandah roof in an attempt to get away from the fire and jump down without hurting the baby. She made it to the edge when a raider stepped out and shot her in the leg. The roof was just thin sheet metal and when she fell, one of the trusses broke, the roof came down and a burning beam pinned her legs. She was able to save the baby and crawl to safety. She died in Ron’s arms of shock and whatever other damaged she had sustained from the bullet and the fall. But mostly from the fire. I overheard Ken telling Rand and Uncle George that she’d been burned clear down to the bone on one leg and he doesn’t even know how she got free much less as far as she did.

Ron is a mess; some say close to being certifiable from grief and shock. At one point Ken even suggested it might help to get him drunk but Ron won’t go near the stuff. He says never again, everything that has happened is payment for his past sins; that it is his fault that his family was killed and his farm burned to nothing. But for a little while after Julia died he still had enough left to think about getting the baby to Ken to make sure he wasn’t hurt. The military were coming in by that time after the raiders, but there were no medics there at that time. He was able to reason out that the baby would need to be fed and the only one that could do that was a woman that was already feeding a baby. He thought of the Crenshaws and after gathering up some of the baby’s things he started walking that direction as his own grey had run off.

About a mile after crossing some fields he saw a horse hung up in some bushes. It’s sides had been lathered and the reins hung to the ground. The saddle was cockeyed as well. The poor thing was too tired to do much more than skip to the side a little as Ron approached it. Then he recognized the horse. He’d traded it to …

There's just no good way to say this. Jonathon is dead. Somewhere between the farm and his cousin’s place he was shot once with a large gauge shotgun. Death would have been near instant but when his body fell from the saddle, one leg hung up and his body was drug by the fear crazed horse … a long ways. There wasn’t much … forget it, this isn’t a memory I want to save anyway. Whoever reads this sometime a million years from now will just have to use whatever passes for an imagination then.

It was bad, so bad even in his state Ron puked. It was the sound of his being sick and the baby crying that brought him to the notice of one Henderson’s patrols. Ron wasn’t the only one that got sick. Mitch was called and a wagon was sent out. Jonathon’s remains were gathered and put in a long weapon crate so that the lid could be closed.

That is what sent Laurabeth over the edge. She’d been asking for Jonathon and was sure that despite everything he was safe. She dozed, recovering from her initial wound but must have woken up and heard the men quietly talking out in the yard. Somehow she made it downstairs and out to the wagon in the dark without being noticed. Ron looked up and saw her, grabbing her just in time, all she saw was some bloody and tattered shirt material she recognized ... but that was enough. She started keening and … there aren't words for the emotions she must have felt.

During the night the shock – both physical and emotional – caused her to go into premature labor. The baby was small, smaller than even Ken thought it should be given when her due date was. The baby never even breathed once. Rand told me crying that it’s possible the baby was already dead before Laurabeth went into labor but no one is to know that. Only Uncle George, Ken, Rand, and now I do and we’ll take it to our graves. There is no need for Laurabeth to wonder about something like that when she is already as over the edge as she is.

Over a hundred people in the community are dead and that doesn’t count any raiders. No one knows for sure how many raiders were killed. At least forty but maybe more. Whole families were put into the same grave. All the graves were marked as best people could. Many new graves were opened in old church graveyards but just as many took place in back yards and fields. The bodies of the raiders were burned in a large pit; when the ashes cool they’ll be used to fertilize a community garden planned in memorial of the innocents who died.

We’ve been every day from sun up, leaving just in time to get home before sundown, trying to help people as best we can. Gardens need to be replanted. Houses need to be repaired. Meals need to be cooked. Animals need to be tended. Blood needs to be scrubbed away.

Miraculously most of Ron’s animals survived and they’ve been brought over to Uncle George’s. His feed silo suffered only minor damage and all of it has been combined with Uncle George’s for the time being. No one is quite sure what to do about Ron. See, a strange thing happened.

Last night Laurabeth heard baby Stevie … everyone calls Ron’s son by his middle name … crying. For a little while she thought it was her baby, she has alternated periods of being lucid with periods of fantasy. Apparently whatever happened to ultimately cause Laurabeth’s baby to die, she had enough hormones in her system that the baby’s cries caused her milk to come in. She’d watched Missy and Alicia enough to know what needed to be done.

Missy was horrified when she went to get the baby and found Alicia feeding him but Marta who had been there helping said to leave her alone. She said it would be good for her body, help her uterus recover faster and to stop some of the bleeding, and it might help her mind as well. The only thing is that Laurabeth won’t let the baby out of her sight. Most of the time she knows that Stevie isn’t her baby but sometimes she doesn’t.

Everyone has been waiting for Ron to say something but the only thing he does is a few times a day he goes up to the room where Laurabeth is and sits and rocks the baby while Laurabeth sleeps. He hardly sleeps himself. The only time he is still is when he is rocking Stevie; otherwise he is working, doing anything that requires all of his physical strength and attention.

I’ve heard the whispers. They’re calling him cold – no one has seen him cry – or crazy; or worse they say he is both. I even heard that Lucretia woman, now a widow for the second time; that he got what was coming to him after the hellion he’d been as a kid and young man. I walked from around a trough being used for laundry and smacked her across the face with a heavy, wet dirty diaper. I haven’t seen her around since and other folks have learned to step lightly when I’m around and the subject of family comes up.

I could, as easily as any of them, spend time saying Ron got what was coming to him. I’m hardly likely to forget the welcome the Harbingers gave me when I was still new. But the problem is, I’ve walked in his shoes. I’ve lost everything – home and family – and been left in that twilight where grief doesn’t ever seem like it is going to end, in that place where the pain of never ending grief is more comforting than the possibility that it might one day end. There’s nothing I can say to him, not yet anyway. There aren’t any words that will make this better. But at least he has finally been able to cry.

Rand started watching me like a hawk. He’d heard about what I had done to Lucretia. I guess he figured I was just full up and that it was getting a bit much for me to handle. Ken was always watching as well. I couldn’t go near Laurabeth because the one time I tried she took one look at my big belly and started screaming at me to get out. It hurt but I can live with that. I said some pretty nasty things when my family died to people who didn’t deserve it. I know that isn’t Laurabeth talking but the pain.

I did manage to slip their leash twice. The first time was when I went snooping through the few things that Julia had managed to throw out the window and Ron had salvaged from the yard. That sounds awful but I had a purpose. The second time was when I basically cornered Ron in one of Uncle George’s small hay barns.

I handed Ron the one thing that I had taken out of the pathetic bundle of things left from his home. “Ron, don’t believe anyone who tells you this is going to be easy or that it will ever go away. They’re smoking dope. Don’t let anyone tell you that this is all your fault either. Sometimes bad things happen and there are so many layers of reasons that we just aren’t capable of understanding it all the way. God doesn’t do things to pay us back, he does things to bring us back. The rest I lay at the door of the poor choices of other people that bleed into our lives.”

When I was sure I had his attention I continued, “I didn’t let anything help me for a long while. I forgot that the people I lost loved me, loved me enough that they wouldn’t have wanted me to be miserable, not even for their sake.” Then I handed him Julia’s Bible. “Out of all of the things she could have picked to save, Julia took the time to put this in with the baby’s things. There are some verses underlined in there, strange that the note beside the verses is in your handwriting and not hers. You know which ones I’m talking about?”

Ron’s voice was rusty but he finally answered, “Yeah. It’s those in I Thessalonians 4. I remember them from her mother’s funeral. She was crying and crying and crying. I didn’t know what else to do. At first nothing seemed to help and then … she read those verses at least once a day. Seemed like they were the only thing that would chirk her back up when she got in one of her moods. I never did understand it, I was just glad it worked.”

“Stop wondering why for a while … about everything. Just take what comfort those verses offer and let the rest wait.”

As I left I heard him sit down and flip some pages and then before I was too much further I heard the kind of painful cries that only a grown man can make.

February 25th – The services were as bad as I imagined they were going to be, at least for me. Other people seemed to find them comforting or cathartic or something. The thing that was different about this funeral was that there wasn’t a single person there that could look at someone else and say, “But you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t understand!”

Because we all did. The flu, bandits, raiders, hunger, disease, pain, suffering, grief unimagined … we’d all been there, every one of us.

I was going to go back tomorrow and help at the Crenshaws; help with the garden that needs tending and putting the harvested food up. But it looks like I’m not. Uncle George came to Rand and asked that I not come around for a while. Apparently Laurabeth said some pretty awful things last night. I think Uncle George is just trying to protect his daughter, maybe both of us, from any more hurt. Rand was furious but I told him not to be and he’s finally calmed down. I try to put myself in Laurabeth’s shoes and it hurts so much I nearly went into hysterics myself.

February 26th – How do you find normal after what we’ve been through? Rand says he’s going to give it one more day and then if Laurabeth keeps saying nasty things that he’ll just stay home from there on out, or at least stay away from the house for a while.

I also got in a bit of hot water with Rand about what I said to Ron. Apparently Ron told Laurabeth how I'd shared those verses and he shared them with her and now she's focused on it for some reason, but not in a good way. “How did you know he wasn’t going to go crazy and hurt you? You saw the way he was acting? You know what he is like?”

“I know what he used to be like. But to me he’s been changed longer than he was the way he used to be. I didn’t grow up knowing him Rand. When I look at Ron … he reminds me too much of the person I used to see in my mirror every day.”

That brought Rand up sharp. He sucked on his teeth for a while, obviously not wanting to let go of being upset but he finally said, “OK, I can see your point. But, please see mine too. I never would have thought Laurabeth could say the things she’s said to me the last few days. The only time she acts half way like her old self is when she is holding that baby. I don't want you around her until she is more stable. I just don't trust her not to strike out in the state she is in.”

“That baby has a name. It’s Stevie. And none of this is that baby’s fault. I know you did your best to forgive Julia for what she did to you but you can’t be holding that against the baby?”

He sighed and said, “No. No I’m not. I’m sorry if you or anyone else thinks that. This whole situation … God!” He pulled his hair like it would hurt less than what was going through his head. “You want to know what I see when I look at Ron? Me. That’s what I see. It could have been me. I could have been him. I look at Laurabeth and I see you. I look at Stevie and I see Austin or our baby. I feel so bad … I just feel so bad … “

And then I realized Rand hadn’t taken the time to grieve and it was a while before either one of us could get up off the barn floor. Austin stood there for a while with his eyes shuttered and scared until Rand looked up and opened his arm and the kid ran over and crawled into our hug.

Maybe I am too young to be a wife, a mother … maybe young isn’t the only thing I’m too much of. But God put me here and I am a wife and a mother and I’m going to protect this the only way I know how … by giving it absolutely everything I have and then some. There may be people out there planning on trying to take it from me, from us, but they are going to have a fight on their hands. And it’s a fight I plan on winning, even if I have to fight dirty.

Chapter Eighty

Chapter 80

February 12th – It’s been a week since I’ve been able to put pen to paper. A long, hard week. I’m plenty worried. I guess, let’s see … yeah, I haven’t even written about Missy. The reason we didn’t hear last Monday is because it was Tuesday before the baby was born. Missy and the baby are just now finally out of the woods.

Apparently what happened is William Jr. … they’ll call him Billy until he is older … turned out to a big baby, a really big baby. Ken had warned both Bill and Missy about the possibility due to her size but they had kept it to themselves. She was in labor over twenty-four hours. If they’d been able they would have done a caesarean before the labor had gotten that far. Both Missy and the baby were in a lot of distress and Ken had to actually use forceps to get the baby the rest of the way out. He was blue and floppy when he finally made it but they got him breathing. I’ve been over and he sure doesn’t have any problem breathing now, I don’t think he stops crying except when he is latched onto Missy.

Missy is just off her rocker. She is very independent and suddenly to never be able to get away from the little person she had inside her is a huge learning curve for her. Sometimes all she needs to do is be able to walk away for a few minutes but Jr. starts crying to be fed. Missy is still in bed for the most part because of some sewing up Ken had to do (and no, I don’t want to even think about that part of it) and because she is just so tired from the baby wanting to nurse all the time. He’s a big boy.

Stress and being really sore is making it hard for Missy to … I don’t know, it has to do with making enough milk to keep the baby satisfied and some other stuff I heard Julia and the other women talking about in whispers. I suppose I should be listening but I don’t have time to get freaked out about that right now. I’ll get freaked when it is my turn and that will be soon enough.

We were both up early Tuesday morning, I hurriedly cut some mustard greens and pulled some radishes, and as soon Rand finished morning chores he rode Hatchet over to his uncle’s to find out about Missy. He got there and saw Uncle George crying on the porch and he thought the worst. It was actually just relief, Missy had just finished giving birth about thirty minutes earlier and the baby had finally started crying and was taking its first feeding.

Mrs. Withrow and a couple other ladies were over there cleaning things up and were happy to see the greens; Missy needed the iron. Everyone there was exhausted so Rand helped with their outdoor chores and helped a terrified Brendon to settle down. It’s hitting him that this baby stuff is for real. He could lose Alicia though of the three of them she seems to have had the least amount or problems pregnancy wise.

When I asked about how Jonathon was taking it Rand said that he thinks Laurabeth can do anything better than Missy and having a baby shouldn’t be any exception. Well, I figure whatever it takes to get you through the day. If that is what he needs to believe so be it, though I hope for his sake he keeps it to himself. Missy may be tired right now but one of these days she’s going to get up and then all heck could break loose.

While Rand was gone most of that day I had Austin help me start placing the seedling trees we had potted back in October in the places that I wanted to plant them. I had to do something to keep from chewing my nails off in worry. I guess I can understand why Bill didn’t put the info about Missy out over the radio, you never know who might be listening and looking for a weak spot to take advantage of, but it just underlines the problems with communication that we continue to have.

Most of the cedars I was able to save went into a line around the home site. I’m trying to add more of a privacy screen to what we already have. There are plenty of places around here that have cedars on the road side of their fence lines as a sound and privacy barrier so when these grow up they shouldn’t look too unusual.

We are taking over the remainder of the 80 acre section next door. We are already using a chunk of it for the cows and to take over the year round pond … which is about twice the size it normally is right now from all the rain we’ve been having. According to Rand we got nearly ten inches in January and we’ve already gotten six in February which is two inches more than we should have gotten the whole month. The garden is in a good high and dry area thank goodness or we would have lost some of it. We already lost a small section of the rye in the utility easement from too much standing water but the sink hole is keeping the worst of it drained off.

I had Austin help me to put the agave and then Spanish bayonet around the edge of the pasture since that isn’t something that the cows will eat. Rand had already laid out a grid where we could plant more fruit trees in the new area and I got the pots arranged and Rand and Austin have been planting them as time allows. All but a few are now in the ground.

Austin and I were both happy to see Rand come home and to hear that Missy and the baby were doing as well as could be expected. What we didn’t know was that two days later Alicia would go into labor early. They had a little boy.

Alicia is very sick. She developed some kind of fever. It was gone in forty-eight hours but the house was upside down. The little boy is … well he is very small and they aren’t sure what is going to happen. One day he will seem like he is strong and the next day he seems to be failing, almost gasping for air. They’ve named him George Randall Crenshaw and we pray every day that he survives.

The never ending rain isn’t helping things. Lots of colds and sniffles going around. I ought to know, I’ve seen it while working in the Shack. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so tired.

See with both Bill and Missy out of commission and Alicia and Brendon as well … the guys try but they are so distracted and constantly running to check on their ladies and babies … that has created a real problem. Uncle George and Jonathon and Mick and Tommy are doing what they can but they all seem distracted too. But that still left the Shack unattended and the community needs the Shack.

So Rand and I talked it over with Bill and this is what we have come up with. We get up early, get our animals taken care of and I put food on for Rand and Austin through the day. Pastor Ken comes by and picks me up on his way to check on Missy and Alicia … he’s looking rough around the edges again, he needs a helper of his own, this house call stuff isn’t what I would call easy. I ride with him, work in the Shack with one of the local men standing guard on the porch and Bill running in and out throughout the day. Rand and Austin show up about mid afternoon, help do a few chores for Uncle George and then I ride home with them where I try and get my own house chores completed.

I don’t know how much longer Rand and I can keep this up. We are both exhausted. I don’t even know what you want to call what Austin is. Rand just let him sleep this morning, the poor kid just can’t keep up with this though he is finally started to put a little more meat on his bones; but none of it is fat.

February 15th – Missy and Alicia have been given a clean bill of health though neither one of them is what I would call frisky or one hundred percent back to where they need to be. Billy has gotten better as well and Missy’s milk finally came in all the way and he is a much more contented baby now that Missy has gotten the feeding him thing more under control. Georgie … that’s what they are call Alicia and Brendon’s son … is still frail but with the cool weather mostly gone, and plenty of helping hands to keep an eye on him, Ken expects him to do better as the weeks go by. He was technically a preemie but nothing too radical – somewhere between three and four weeks. His lungs were fully developed, he is just really weenie in size. All of the baby clothes Alicia and Brendon had for him swallowed him up so mostly they just keep him swaddled and I sewed him some fleece booties and caps during lulls at the Shack.

I don’t have to work at the Shack anymore and the reason why is pretty fantastic. I mean that in more than one way. It is hard to believe but it is kind of cool at the same time. On Tuesday who should show up on our doorstep but Ram. It wasn’t just Ram though; it was Concha, her little boy, and her mother and her new husband and her new husband’s seventeen year old son. I had already left for the Shack so poor Rand was stuck filing Ram in on what had happened and getting Ram’s story in return.

Things aren’t going so good for the federal government. They really can’t afford to keep a huge standing army housed and supplied with all of their needs much less pay them. What they’ve done is allowed a large number of troops to revert to reserve status; they can be called up at any time but aren’t full time solders any longer. Fewer troops took this option than was expected, a lot of them simply have no home to go home to these days, or none that they want to go home to. Some are also counted on their military benefits to feed their immediate, and sometimes extended, family. Ram had been building his options up just in case something like this occurred and he was ready. The only thing he hadn’t been able to do yet was create a good home location to work out of.

While south Florida had its appeal it was seeing constant fighting between different ethnic gangs and incursions by foreigners. The military was a big presence down there but in a sense that was dampening his ability to set up his supply pipelines. The interior of central Florida had its own set of problems including transportation of goods and services. He had a lot of contacts around Steinhatchee but that wasn’t an area where he wanted to raise a family and have his main holdings. He’d been talking to Mr. Henderson about settling in this area and negotiations were under way but circumstances had speeded up faster than either man had expected.

Word had been relayed to Mr. Henderson through one of his patrols and he and Mitch had come to check out who the migrating family was. Round and around things went and when a potential solution was worked out Mitch rode over to talk to Bill about it. There was a square eighty on the other side of Bill and Missy’s place … Bill is no farmer and never will be but uses the acreage he and Missy are on as forage for Uncle George’s animals … that has been abandoned for months. The plan is to have Ram and his newly enlarged family move onto that land. There is no house on the land but from what I understand Ram had planned in advance that he might need to build a house on whatever land he finally settled on. Right now they are camping out in very rainy weather but from what I understand everyone is so happy to be out of all the fighting down in Miami that they hardly notice the damp.

While all of this was going on I was working in the Shack without a clue. When Rand came to pick me up – I had been wondering where Bill was and whether I should just lock up early because of the rain that had set in and run all the customers off – he and someone else were backing into the Shack carrying a big crate between them.

“Hey Babe, look who the cat drug in.”

“Ram!” I was so surprised. But not near as surprised as Ram was. I thought he was going to choke on his one teeth for a second.

“Hermanita! How are you … what?! When did this happen?!!!” and that was followed by a lot of fast and hot Spanish that I’m not even going to bother writing it down. When he found out how far along I was he got hot all over again. As soon as he calmed down enough for me to get a word in edgewise I told him to get over it since Rand and I had already had enough fits over things for all of us combined and it was time just to go forward.

“Are you sure you are alright little sister? I mean, you are so small and … and … there are no … no … doctors … and …”

“Ram, I’m warning you, my nerves aren’t going to put up with any more smothering than I’m already getting.”

“Already getting? Ah, so Rand has things well in hand hmm?”

What a chauvinist pig. But somehow he’d grown into even more of a big brother even with him not being around. That’s when it was my turn to be surprised as I had all the details filled in. Ram had brought the whole family with him and I was reintroduced to Concha who introduced me to her little boy who was asleep, to her mother who’s name was Marta. Marta was a handsome woman in her late forties and she introduced me to her new husband Rubio (also named Diaz but no relation to Ram) and his teenage son Anthony. Uncle George, Bill, Brendon, Clyde, Jonathon and several of the other neighborhood men showed up right after that and we got the Shack closed down for the night and got Diaz families set up in tents and tarps on a piece of clear land between the Shack and Uncle George’s place.

I couldn’t stay any longer, Rand needed to get home and he said so did I. I thought he was picking up Ram’s bad habits until we actually did get home and I saw what Ram had brought us.

Rand pulled back a tarp from off of some cardboard cases and mesh bags he had locked up in the barn and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, limes, loquats, and even some lemons … I was in citrus overload. I realized real quick it was going to be more than we could eat fresh.

“Babe, whatever you can do to preserve this you better try and make it last. Ram said this may very well be the end of these types of gifts for a while, especially the citrus. The feds have taken over most of the remaining citrus groves to try and prevent scurvy in the troops and for special WIC programs around the country.

“Scurvy? Isn’t that something pirates get?”

When Rand was finished laughing at me – and I guess it was kind of stupid, I wasn’t really thinking when I asked the question because I was busy counting the crates and bags and imagining what I could do with their contents – he told me that scurvy was something sailors used to get yes but it was also a bad problem for everyone that didn’t get enough Vitamin C in their diet. It’s just that all I could think of when he said scurvy was a pirate waving his cutlass around shouting, “Avast ye scurvy dogs!” Oh well, maybe my brains are leaking out of my ears. I accidentally put salt in the tea yesterday too. Luckily it was my own small pot of mint tea and I don’t intend on telling anyone else about it.

I was so tired that night that I went to sleep before Rand did which was a rarity. He said he was in the middle of telling me some of the stuff that Ram had been sharing and he looked over and I was curled up on the end of the sofa with my head tucked into the crook of my arm. I don’t even remember going to bed.

Yesterday I went back to the Shack only to find out that Bill, Ram, and Rubio had been making arrangements. Bill and Ram had been planning to go into business together in some form or another all along. They’d been conducting some salvaging operations and using Mr. Henderson’s connections to get things back and forth … for a cut of the profit of course. Ram hadn’t been able to do much up to this point because he had to be careful in his position on the Colonel’s staff but now that he was out he intended on really going to town.

How they are going to arrange things is that Missy and Concha would help Bill with the storefront. Marta and Rubio – both of whom grew up on small working farms in rural south Florida – would manage the eighty acres, growing food for the family as well as for trading at the swap meets and at the Shack. Ram is going to be the traveler. He’ll hunt up salvage himself or hook up with people to make trades with. Anthony will ride with him – which I think is going to be a relief to Uncle George because Charlene took one look at Anthony and developed an instantaneous crush on him according to Rand.

I have to admit I was feeling a little left out of all their plans until Rand acted like he was relieved no one expected us to be heavyweight enough to play in their game. They didn’t think less of us but Rand said it was nice to know that we still had a few secrets. After I took the time to think it through I suppose he is right. And besides, I like our privacy and like that we can call our time our own for the most part. I was going a little bonkers having to be nice to all those people that came and went at the Shack on those days I was there. Having to make conversation with all the family also made me itch. I like them, but at arms length most of the time. I like it best when it is just Rand and I … and Austin.

Austin seems content for it to be just us as well as long as he can see either Rand or I (and Woofer naturally). He enjoys being with Mick and Tommy but he doesn’t get lonesome when they aren’t around either. I think the way he was forced to grow up made him a loner; not as bad as me but he learned to be content with whatever he had at any given moment and isn’t upset too much if it isn’t there the next.

Today I’ve been canning citrus. Or actually what I’ve been doing is going through all of our food storage and what a job that has been. First I found a bunch of dried apricots that I had to do something with so I decided to try and experiment and it really paid off.

I rehydrated enough of the dried apricots so that I wound up with four cups once I chopped them up. Then I grated the rind off of an orange and then seeded the orange and chopped the pulp up. I put the apricots and orange through a food mill together then added two tablespoons of lemon juice to the resulting mess and then three and a half cups of sugar to that. I mixed it well and then put it in a pot and cooked it until the pulp was thick as apple butter. I ladled it into prepared jars and got about three half-pints to process. I had maybe half a ladle that wouldn’t fit in the jars which I gave to Rand and Austin to put on their biscuits at lunch.

I also made some lemon marmalade, lime marmalade, orange marmalade, tangerine butter, orange sections, grapefruit sections, tangerine sections, and loquat preserves. I juiced and canned all the juice I could, especially the lemon juice. I also preserved some lemons and limes using a recipe I found in Momma’s files.

You take as many lemons or limes as you wish to preserve and stud each with 6 cloves. Pierce the skins with a skewer to save your thumbs because I can guarantee you that poking those little cloves in my hand hurts. Place the clove-studded fruit in a glass jar and cover completely with oil or white vinegar. You have to put this someplace where it will stay cool so I stuck it in the cabinet where the hand pump is. They are supposed to be ready in 3 to 4 weeks; I didn’t do many just in case it was a flop.

I didn’t let anything go to waste, or not much anyway. I’ve got all the citrus seeds that didn’t get cut saved and even though Rand thinks it is a waste of time I’m going to try and sprout my own citrus fruit. If they do sprout – and even I admit that is a big if – I’ll need to grow them in pots and then build a large greenhouse to keep them in during the coldest months. Wouldn’t it be something though if in a few years we had a tropical garden conservatory or something like that.

Some of the peel I grated and dried to refill my spice bottles that I empty faster than I can find a substitute for. I can make my own lemon pepper seasoning or orange tea.

And the peel I didn’t grate I candied. You take the peel off of any kind of citrus you have, just make sure you cut away any of the white pith. Make sure it is washed also; no one wants to eat sand or dirt in their candy. The best sections are a quarter inch wide, almost like a string of peel. Put all of your peel in a pot and cover with water, cover it, and bring to a boil for thirty minutes. Drain this water (I used it to make my tea with) and then to the peel left in the pan add one box of fruit flavored gelatin (six ounce size), two cups of water, one cinnamon stick, and ten whole cloves. You are going to bring all of that to a boil, put a lid on it, and then simmer it for fifty minutes or until most of the syrup has been absorbed by the peel. You have to stir this a lot, especially towards the end, to keep it from sticking.

Then you take the peel out of the pan with tongs and roll it all in about two cups of sugar. You want each strip to be heavily coated with sugar. Cool the strips on and then store in an air tight container. I did three batches of this; the first with orange jello, the next with lemon jello, and the last with lime jello. I suppose I could have done something different like a strawberry or grape jello but I decided to go the traditional route.

Since Rand had to go back over to help Uncle George again I asked him to ask Ram if I could have any of the peel and seeds he didn’t want. Marta and Concha sent me a bunch and I’m sitting here waiting for the last batch to dry so that I can put it away and go to bed.

I found weevils in one tin of pasta shells but I was lucky that was all. By the end of March I think we’ll have used up all of the commercially packaged foods that we got from salvaging except for stuff like boxes of Jell-O, pudding mixes, and odds and ends like that. I think I’ve pieced things out just about as far as I can. Of course I still have stuff from Momma and Daddy’s stuff and the stuff that Aunt Wilma had stashed in the box springs but even that is getting used up. I really need to increase the chicken flock this year if I can. I’d like to be able to have a chicken dinner every so many Sundays and we definitely need to have more eggs. Warmer and more regular milkings has brought the milk production back up but Austin drinks a lot of it and for that matter so do I. It also is getting used up making butter and cheese.

Looks like I don’t have time for another cup of tea after all. The candied citrus peel is dry and as soon as I put it up I’m going to bed. Even with my slippers on my feet are cold.

February 16th – Couldn’t be helped, I had to harvest the spinach, turnips and the first of the lettuce in the rain today.

Rand is really upset. It looks like we may have lost a quarter of the rye harvest to this rain. The field where it was planted is flooding on one corner. He’s dug a trench to try and get the water to drain into the sink hole faster but the sink hole itself is nearly full.

The pond where the cows graze spread even more during the night. Rand had to clean the cows off when he brought them in. Taz and company enjoyed some buckets of water being poured on them and a good rub down as well. Rand wound up putting a ring through Taz’s snout and puts a leading string on him when he gets testy. Won’t have to move them too much longer; Rand almost has their own little barn all finished. Next he needs to make one for the goats, especially now that the nannies have their babies. We now have Ol’ Billy, the two nannies, and three kids. The kids are nearly as feisty as Ol’ Billy and worse than Fraidy as far about getting tangled up in my feet. I think they like me because they know when I bring stuff out to their mommas that they’ll stand still long enough for them to suckle until they are satisfied, usually the nannies make the kids run after what they want.

The garden is looking good despite all the rain. We do need a little sun but so far so good. I’m just tired of wet feet so I imagine some of the plants are too. Even though it isn’t too cold outside anymore we have to keep a fire going someplace in the house to drive off the damp.

February 17th – Doggone this rain. No swap meet today because of it. I can’t remember the last time I saw the sun for more than just a few minutes.

February 18th – We’ve had to start moving wood into the barn and onto the porch so we have some dry to burn. No church today but we still heard the news. Ram came over and wanted to know if he could borrow the donkeys that he’d left here last time. They have started clearing the land for the house but it is mostly just scrub in there and they just want to load it on the donkeys and take it out to the burn pile they’ve started.

Rand and I couldn’t see why not and it meant that we wouldn’t have to feed them for a couple of weeks while Ram had them.

“I like what you’ve done to the place. One of these days we’ll have one too. Maybe not a brick house but something nice that will fit the family.”

“Is it OK? I mean living with Concha’s mother and her husband?”

“Oh sure. When I wasn’t in foster care I lived with my abuela and it was her and three of my uncles and their families. All under one roof. There were two bedrooms for all of us kids to split; one for the girls and one for the boys. My two married uncles had their own bedrooms and the babies slept with the parents and my unmarried uncle slept on the lanai unless it rained or was too hot or cold and then help slept on the sofa. Abuela had the small bedroom all to herself. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either. Concha didn’t have it quite so tough growing up but Marta is a good woman and I like Rubio. He’s even tempered, we get along. Anthony is a good kid, a little too serious, but his life hasn’t been easy. He’s actually Rubio’s grandson but it’s not really talked about if you get my meaning. His momma was a wild one and then ran off. The state wasn’t helping so Rubio and his first wife just adopted him to keep him from going to the biological father’s family.”

“Ram I didn’t mean to get into your business.”

“Hey, no problem chica. It was just easier to tell it all up front than playing the twenty questions you hate so much. So, when is this baby supposed to get here. I hear from Rand’s family it was a big surprise.”

“They tell me the middle of July but who knows. And yeah, big surprise.”

“And the boy? The one out helping Rand in the barn?”

“That’s Austin. I was … I had a …”

“Yeah, the blood pressure thing. George said it was bad.”

“Bad enough but no problems since and I wish people would stop spreading my business all over the place.”

Ram laughed, “Chica that’s never going to stop happening. You are too interesting. But really … no more problems?”

“Really. No more problems.”

“And you two have everything you need?”

“Ram we’re fine.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know you have … look, I didn’t even think … Rand is not angry that we did not include him in the … “

Rand came in and said, “Don’t sweat it Ram. I’m no shop keeper. I wouldn’t mind being let in on some deals but … “

“That’s a sure thing. Dios mio, it wasn’t until I heard how your family talked – like you were just sitting out here in the woods with nothing – that I thought that maybe I was wrong. Don’t they know how much you have and how far you’ve come?”

I said kind of sarcastically, “Family can be blind like that.”

“Hmmm. Maybe. Or maybe they are … never mind. It’s none of my business and from the look on your face Rand the less said about it the better. I wouldn’t have made it as long as I did in the position I was in if I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. But they won’t be blind for long my friend. Once the weather lets up people will be begging you to come help them put in their gardens … I know Rubio wants to talk to you himself.”

It wasn’t long after that Ram left with the donkey’s on leading strings behind him … and a big gun across his saddle. I asked Rand, “Should he be out by himself? When I was at the Shack I heard all kinds of stories.”

“He’ll be fine Babe. Hoss is going to meet him up at the county road and ride with him. It’s his day to go visit his family over there. And speaking of news, we may have to go without the radio tonight. I don’t think we’ve had enough sun to replenish the batteries. Bill is looking for a couple more so we can have a larger bank of them but those deep cell batteries are getting hard to come by. I hope none of the ones we have go bad.”

“Don’t even think it. The only thing worse than hearing some of the stuff we’ve heard would be to be left wondering what is going on.”

Rand grunted in agreement and kept fiddling with the radio, trying to see if there was anything to pick up. Mostly all we heard about is the flooding of the rivers. The river has spread out and boats are getting caught on hidden snags that used to be part of the river banks. With the river spreading the current has slowed down so even those willing to be on the river in this area are having a hard time.

Heard a woman in north Georgia claim to have seen several caravans of people heading south. Most of them look pretty pathetic but she guessed that it wouldn’t take much to rile them up if there was something they were looking for.

The Caribbean is boiling over again as many of those island nations don’t have the natural resources to support even their shrunken populations. South Florida is definitely having problems but the military has reverted to zero tolerance down there and rumors on the airwaves say that every night sounds like a battle. You’d think eventually they’d run out of bullets but that seems to be the only thing they can find in sufficient amounts. They say the battles are over resources like food, fuel, and medicine but it seems to me that if they put as much energy into creating things as they did into destroying them there wouldn’t be the shortage that they have right now.

February 19th – It’s official, I am half way through this whole having a baby thing. Austin went to bed early tonight; he’s got a cold or the beginnings of one. If it gets any worse I’ll dose him with something, depends on where the cold tries to settle … his head, his throat, or his chest. After Austin fell asleep Rand and I got to talking and he pulled out the booklet. Or maybe I should call it The Booklet the way he treats that thing. The pages are dog eared even.

Last night as we lay in bed I could say for absolutely sure that I felt the baby moving. It was just so weird. I’m not even sure I could explain how it felt. Rand wants to feel the baby move so bad. I think it will be a little while yet before he can but he has made me promise to tell him every time I feel the baby move. It tickled me because he was so serious. It’s a little bizarre because sometimes he makes me feel like a science experiment and other times he makes me feel like I’m some treasure he is responsible for. The booklet says the baby is now about ten inches long and weighs about the same in ounces. I guess … I guess … well suddenly the baby is a lot more real than it was before.

February 22nd – Just when I start to think of my baby as a real live person something … we’ve lost so much. Why do some people think that life is so cheap?

Tuesday was a beautiful spring day. The rain had finally let up but there was still a lot of flooding all over the place; the rivers were high, the ponds flooded, the ditches full, the potholes still muddy.

I suppose we should have realized that all the flooding would push them out of their normal routes, make them desperate … or bold, depending on how you looked at it.

I thought I was ready to deal with this. I just can’t.

Chapter Seventy-Nine

Chapter 79

February 3rd – I swear! What is it about getting a group of people in one location? I think it must bring on a touch of the crazies. All I can say is this time it wasn’t me that had the crazies though on second thought a few of them people were close to driving me that direction. And it really wasn’t people from our community; it was mostly the strangers that came in and really wonked up the chemistry.

Up early, doing the breakfast thing, the chore thing, yada, yada, yada. Loaded up the wagon and off we went. I offered to let Austin sit up with Rand but he wanted to sit in the wagon bed with Woofer. Those two are nearly inseparable now. I can’t say I mind. I know Woofer needed a lot more attention than he was getting, I just didn’t have it in me to give him more and Rand didn’t have the time either. Even Fraidy seems to be enjoying the space she is getting now that Woofer isn’t constantly trying to get her attention. I haven’t seen her swipe at his nose for several days now.

As soon as we got there we noticed a completely different feel to the air than last time. At first I felt guilty because I thought it had to do with what I did … until Mitch came over.

“Lots of strangers around and some of them are a bit odd. We’re setting up a guard on the cattle and wagons. Kiri … look, I don’t want you taking this the wrong way but … “

“Mitch, just spit it out. I’m OK with straight talking. You worried about a repeat of last time?” I asked my boldness catching him a little off guard.

“Well … you want the truth then the answer is yes and no. Don’t get bent out of shape Rand. I know what happened last time was … unfortunate. But … well … you just hafta see these people. I’m not too sure but that some of them aren’t aiming to cause trouble intentionally later on. To what purpose I don’t know but it could be misdirection or they could be checking us over to see how strong we are. One in particular matches the description of a bad character some of the river communities have passed along as a warning.”

Rand grumbled, “Great. You think I should take Kiri and Austin home?”

Mitch, noticing the boy and the dog peeking up over the edge of the wagon said, “Hey Austin, how ya doing buddy?”

“Fine Mr. Peters,” Austin answered but he looked quickly at Rand to see if we were going to turn around and leave.

“Rand, I can’t tell you what to do but if these swap meets get as successful as we hope we aren’t going to be able to control all the folks that come to ‘em. We need things from outside the community. We need to open up some lines of communication so that news – both good and bad – can be passed around faster. We can only feed on ourselves for so long.”

I could tell Rand was still on the fence so I said, “If it’s me you are worried about I’ll stick with Momma O and Mrs. Withrow or maybe I’ll help Missy. Bill should be around there most of the time and when he isn’t didn’t you tell me he hired some security?”

“Fine, but what about Austin?”

“I could come with you Rand. Really. And I’ll be quiet. I won’t make trouble. Honest!”

I knew that Rand was sunk just as soon as Austin looked at him with those begging puppy dog eyes. Rand can be such a sucker.

Giving in Rand told Austin, “Fine. But if I catch you wandering off without permission I’ll send you to the wagon. You got that?”

“Yeah. You bet Rand. I promise. Um … is … is Mick and Tommy going to be here?”

I tried really hard not to smile. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Rand was having the same problem. Rand made sure that Woofer’s rope was securely tied and gave Austin his marching orders … that’s what Daddy called it when he set the rules before we went some place; all the can’t do this and can’t do that and the might be able to do something or other only if we followed the first two to the letter. Daddy was strict but only because he loved us enough to go to the trouble. I didn’t appreciate then but it’s weird how when you don’t have it you miss knowing there is someone in the world that gives a heck how you turn out.

I asked myself more than once today when did I turn into a real live grown up and get old. I am seventeen and I acted more mature than some of the people at the swap meet that were a lot older than me. Is it getting married? Is it suddenly having to act like a parent for Austin? Is it the baby growing inside me, changing me? Or is it all of that, or more than that combined?

I still feel like I’m the same me that I’ve always been but at the same time I’m a different me. Writing it down makes it sound kind of - what’s that word - pretentious. Yeah, that’s it. Writing the questions down like that makes me sound pretentious, like I’m trying to put on an act and make myself sound better than I am. But that isn’t what I mean. I know what I mean but just like when I’m talking sometimes it’s hard to make it come out the way I mean it to. I feel old and that is all there is to it.

After Rand agreed that we were going to stay I grabbed my basket out of the wagon, we made sure the picnic basket and water bottles were covered with hay, and then we walked towards the area where several tables were already set up and ready for customers.

I looked around and then I had to look around two more times before my brain would believe the pictures my eyes were sending it. I’m from Tampa, no one could claim it was a small town. I went to highschool in Tampa, one of the largest in the school district. I lived in a foster home and worked in a diner frequented by all sorts of interesting characters. I’m used to weird, odd, and eccentric … but even I was having some trouble computing some of the folks wandering around in the park.

My stars! I think some of those people were playing like Mad Max had come to life. The way they dressed was everything from your semi-normal goth persona to a metallic punk-style to some that looked like they were trying to look like their favorite video game character to a … a … I guess they were some type of religious group. I never did figure out if they were a primitive Christian sect or if they were some kind of earth-worshippers or if they were something else all together; they weren’t making their message real clear if you know what I mean. They were dressed in real simple cotton sack dressed, even the guys. They were wearing sandals made out of tires and walked with staffs. They looked like they had found a trunk of ancient shepherd costumes. Add to that we had real off-duty military folks – a few of them – and had some river folks that look like they’d just come in from a hunting expedition.

Of course the locals weren’t looking exactly what normal used to be either. There were plenty of regular day clothes but in general they were mixed in with wardrobe pieces made of hides, furs, gator skin, etc. For instance, there was a guy dressed in leather-patched jeans wearing a western-style shirt with snaps instead of buttons, snake skin belt, gator boots, and a woven palmetto frond hat with a hat band made of what Rand said were wild turkey feathers. Rand said the guy looked like he had a hangover from drinking some Wild Turkey also. Well, he was something all right but I wasn’t sure if it was a hangover or not.

I suppose I shouldn’t be talking. I look like a reject from that old show called Hee Haw. I mean seriously. Seeing the other people made me realize that I didn’t look so much funny as ridiculous. What made it worse was there were some ladies there that had tried to make themselves look nice even with a limited wardrobe and some of the non-local girls looked … well, even I noticed they looked really nice with make up on and everything. I looked down at my rolled up overall pants, my striped socks above my beat up work boots and I still wonder if I’m not embarrassing Rand.

And the day just kept getting better ….

“Come on Austin, we’ll walk Kiri over to Missy’s and then we’ll … Holy crow! Stay close!“

There was a crowd forming around the Trade Shack trailer. Rand tried to push his way through the crowd. It was Austin who spotted a way around the crowd by coming in behind the wagon. We almost didn’t get where we were going because of the security guards (I heard Rand mutter something like “Mall Cops” under his breath) and then I saw Missy leaning against trailer trying to catch her breath and heard Bill shouting, “One at a time !@#$%^, one at a time!!”

Boy was Missy big, I mean so big she really had no business trying to do what she was trying to do. “For once Missy, just tell me simple, what can we do to help.”

Rand went to one side of their table and worked pre-orders – orders that had been agreed upon at a set price before the swap meet – so that Bill could haggle with new customers. Austin and I bagged or tagged outgoing and incoming items or folded them so that people could put them in their own carriers. Woofer played watchdog and wouldn’t let anyone get too close to Missy who was in a chair still trying to catch her breath.

After about an hour the opening crowd thinned out and spread out to encompass the rest of the swap meet leaving Bill able to handle the front desk but Missy really wasn’t in any shape to do anything yet. “Bill, why don’t I stay and help? Rand really doesn’t want me wondering loose and … “

“I didn’t say it like that!” he huffed.

I laughed, “I know but it amounts to the same thing.” A little conciliatorily I added, “I don’t like the crowd of strangers anyway and this will give me something to do besides sit around moping that I didn’t bring anything to do.”

Bill said with relief, “Kiri, if you’re willing to stay I’m more than glad to have you. Rand, I can use the help if you don’t mind and you can see the security we have stationed here. I tried to talk that hard headed woman into staying home with Alicia and Laurabeth but she wouldn’t listen.”

Missy’s stubbornness is even more legendary than mine. So, Rand appeased about my safety, I stayed while he and Austin went out looking.

“I hope he hasn’t missed out on any deals with the late start but I’m glad you two popped in. Do me a favor, at the next lull check on Missy for me. She won’t tell me how she’s really feeling. All she does is say ‘fine’ every time I ask her and the last thing she looks like is that she is feeling is fine.” Bill said under his breath so only I could hear.

It was another thirty minutes before I could get back to Missy. Bill was right, she didn’t look good but there wasn’t any getting her to admit it. “I’m pregnant and as big as a freaking elephant. How am I supposed to feel? Like Cinderella at the ball?”

I changed the subject real fast and handed her the basket I had brought. That distracted her all right. She wanted to know what everything was and what it contained.

“Next time write down the ingredients you used or at least make me a card that I can keep on file. We’ve got people that come in with allergies and stuff that are always asking if stuff has this, that, or the other in it and most of the time all I can do is guess. We’ve got this kid who comes in that is allergic to milk and he has to …”

“So teach him how to make soy milk.”


“Well, I figure if he could have goat’s milk you would have said so teach him how to make soy milk from soy beans. I know you’re bound to have a ton of those.”

“Not a ton but close to it in the silo. Are you telling me you know how to make soy milk?”

“It’s not rocket science Missy.”

“Maybe not but I’m thinking that maybe I need to keep you on staff as a consultant.” After I snorted at her comment leaving her with a pretty clear idea of what I thought of it she said, “Seriously girl. Give me the directions for soy milk and I’ll give it to the kid next time he is in.”

Soy milk really isn’t that hard to make. For a full pitcher of milk you take a pound of uncooked soybeans, a half cup of sugar and a little flavoring … a slice of orange, a vanilla bean, etc. You cover your pound of soybeans with water overnight until they plump up. Next drain the beans in a colander and then get you a blending contraption. I have an old fashioned crank blender but last swap meet I saw that people were converting some new appliances to crank power … sort of what the Amish and strict Mennonites do. Put a little over a cup of beans in your blender and add water … one part beans to three parts water … and then blend until you have a fine pulp.

Pour the pulp into a non-stick pot and bring it to a rolling boil for twenty minutes. Skim off any foam that forms. You should also add your vanilla bean or whatever at this point. Put some cheesecloth over the colander and sit it in a large bowl. After you finish boiling the pulp pour it into the cheese cloth lined colander. Let the “milk” strain out of the pulp. Lift the four corners of the cheesecloth out of the colander and squeeze it to get as much “milk” out of the beans as possible. The leftover pulp can be fed to animals or used to make bean burgers or something like that.

If you don’t have a vanilla bean or slice of orange or whatever, you can use extracts but if you do that don’t add the flavoring until after the pulp has been strained out of the liquid. The liquid is then ready to be put into a pitcher and put someplace to cool. Homemade soy milk is only good for two or three days at a time so people should only make what they need during that time period unless they want to waste food.

After I finished explaining it to Missy things started hopping again and I went to help Bill. About twenty minutes into the rush I looked back and saw Missy talking to a couple of women and showing them the ladies’ stuff I had made. They were both counting out Sand Dollars. I hadn’t even realized those things were still being used. At the next lull I asked Bill since Missy was still messing with customers.

“Um Bill … “

“Hmm? Oh, those are special customers, don’t worry about it. Missy will handle them and they won’t give her a hard time.”

“But they’re using Sand Dollars.” I whipsered in case it was a secret or something.

“Yeah. We don’t see too many of those but some of the people around town still have them. We take them in when we can and then trade them in at the military compound.”

I was still confused. “But I thought they were just paper now.”

“All they ever were was paper. They have the value assigned by the state government. They don’t mean much for general trade and barter but if we can accumulate enough we take them to the military compound and place a large order for some commodity and it is an easier transaction for us.”


Missy came up then and said, “Kiri, please tell me you are taking orders.”

“Why?” I asked suspiciously.

“Because I’m standing here with an even dozen pre-orders for your undergarments and twice that many for those mixes you brought in. Every time I try and sit down I have someone else come by and want to know if we have any more of either. Bill, talk to her.”

“Bill doesn’t need to talk to me. I’m willing but what do Rand and I get for doing this?”

“What do you want?”

“Have you found any of those boys’ clothes yet?”

“Don’t worry about that, it’s already covered and it’s bagged up in the trailer. Rand came by and gave Bill a hand with some security stuff at the house and the Shack.”

“Then let me talk to Rand, or put it on our account some way.”

“I’d really rather not owe you Kiri, bookkeeping is tricky enough as it is.”

“Let me think on it Missy. I’ll let you know before we leave, OK?”

It was getting close to lunch time when Rand back. “You hungry yet? I’ve got all the boys and they are about to eat me alive.”

Bill said, “Go on. We are gonna shut down and take a break for a little while too. May not even open up if the crowd starts to thin any more.”

So I went and was glad to, anything to get out of the crowd. We got back to the wagon just in time to see Mitch Peters dragging a drunk over to a wagon and throwing him in. “Haul him down the road a piece and dump him with the others.”

Rand asked once we caught up to where Mitch stood watching the wagon pull away, “Others?”

“Yeah, you saw where they set up that bar of so-called ‘adult beverages.’ We’ve had some real fools acting up today.”

I asked, “Who on earth would do something like that? Don’t we have enough trouble without making more?”

“Don’t know ‘em but they fit the description of the trouble makers I told you about. You can just about smell that stuff before you get over there. Kiri you were well out of it. They were smart enough to set up a ways away from the main loop of tables but it still caused no end of trouble, especially when some of the women found out their men were spending what little trade they had on cheap corn liquor. Sorry Rand but I can’t talk. I gotta go, I just got radioed we have a brawl over there now.”

Austin, Mick, and Tommy climbed into the wagon bed and then helped me in while Rand boosted me. I felt ridiculous. And boys are honest to a fault about some things. “Wow Kiri, you’re getting big. Good thing we were all here to help Rand get you into the wagon.”

“Gee, thanks boys,” I said but it flew over their heads. Rand looked at me when they weren’t looking and got a big ol’ guy look on his face and made me blush. I’ll say one thing for Rand, he sure is getting a kick out of the changes my body is going through. They fascinate the heck out of him which is bizarre to me. I look at me and feel like a beached whale, when he looks at me he makes me feel like a queen. Just too weird.

For lunch I had brought a quart of salsa and a bunch of homemade tortilla chips that I made last night after dinner. They weren’t as good as if I had just fried them up but they weren’t bad either. I thought Mick and Tommy were going to go bonkers when they saw them and they listened to Austin like he was telling an adventure story when he explained how he had gotten to help make them. Austin’s scrawny little chest was all poked out and so proud of what he had done, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was no big deal; to the boys it really was.

There was also queso blanco grilled cheese sandwiches and apple juice to drink. For Rand I brought an extra sandwich made of the leftover BBQ venison we had for dinner last night.

When we walked back we found out that Bill was closing the Shack trailer and taking Missy home. “She won’t admit it but she needs to go home and lay down. It’s not worth the worry to stay here any longer; all the pre-orders have been picked up and we already did about three times the business we expected besides. Rand, anything you want me to tell your uncle?”

I heard Missy yell out from the trailer, “Bill, don’t you let Kiri leave until that business is taken care of.”

Rand’s eyebrows hit his hairline, “Wow. She sounds … cranky.”

Bill rolled his eyes, “You’re telling me. She’s trying to do too much but will she listen? Let’s finish up before she decides to come out here and take care of things herself. Where’s … oh here it is. This is the bag of clothes. Missy put a note in there too. And about that other stuff …”

“What other stuff?” Rand asked.

“The stuff in the basket from this morning,” I explained. “I was going to use it to pay for the clothes but you took care of that already. Missy doesn’t want to leave it on account so is there anything you need?”

“Actually,” and Rand pulled a note pad out of his pocket and tore off a page and handed it to Bill. “You think you can get any of that stuff without us going broke in the process?”

“Yeah … yeah, as a matter of fact I just got some of this stuff in the other day. If you want to come by tomorrow I’ll see what all I can pull together between now and then.”

We left, me remembering to grab my basket just in time, and started walking and looking at the booths that were still open. “Sorry Babe, I should have come back sooner. It looks like a lot of people are starting to close down and head on home.”

“That’s all right. It’s not like …” and about that time I got knocked into from behind sending me to my hands and knees suddenly and hard.

Woofer went crazy and Austin had a hard time hanging onto him. I was trying to drag myself up when someone ran over and told me to stay down, it was Julia. “Are you crazy? Where’s the baby?” I asked her.

“With Ron’s aunt already heading to the wagon. Just stay down, Pastor Ken is coming and Rand and Ron are about to put a whooping on …”

“Oh no, not another brawl! I’m not hurt, please tell Rand I’m not hurt. We don’t need any more fights.”

“Stay down Kiri and let the guys handle this one. There have been one too many drunks starting fights. I guess they didn’t realize you were a girl with your hair up in your hat and the overalls on.”

“Come on, do I look tall enough to be a guy?”

“They’re drunk Kiri. Drunks don’t have a lot of sense. They were just spoiling for a fight, a lot of drunks are just as nice as nice can be when they’re sober but put a drink in their mouth and they turn into Mr. Hyde.”

Rand and Ron didn’t really have a chance to do much more than back the drunks up because Mitch and a couple of his guys ran over. But suddenly there was a pile on and all heck broke loose. Julia and I crawled out of the way as best we could but I was frantic because I couldn’t find Austin or Woofer.

“Easy Kiri, we got ‘em.” That was Mick and he looked set to be a white knight with a baseball bat. Tommy was helping Mrs. DeLois wipe some blood off of Austin’s knees.

She said, “Thank goodness I convinced Momma to just stay home today. She wasn’t feeling well this morning and this would have been more than she needed.”

If you weren’t in the fight and didn’t have menfolk involved in it, you got gone as fast as you could. I don’t blame them but on the other hand, running from a fight just doesn’t set well with me, especially if you are able bodied.

When it finally settled down I heard Mr. Henderson cussing a blue streak and then he said, “New !@#$ rule – NO LIQUOR AT THE SWAP MEETS!! Anyone caught bringing it in will answer to me personally.”

Then I heard another voice, “Who are you old man to tell anyone what they can and cannot do?” I found the voice attached to the guy Mitch said to watch out for.

“I’m going to be your worst flaming nightmare if you start messing in my territory George Corday. Word has already come down. You aren’t nothing but trouble. You make trouble here you gonna find it the last thing you do in this life. You got me?” The sounds of shotguns and rifles being made ready sounded all over the park. I even saw Rand pump his shotgun which made my mouth fall open.

“Geez Kiri, close your mouth. You ought to know how Rand is. And you’re the last person to be surprised by this happening,” Julia whispered in my ear.

I didn’t know whether to be insulted by that or not. I let it go either way as it wasn’t worth it and she was right. I thought Corday had some sense when he left though it isn’t the first time I’ve been wrong. Mr. Henderson called out, “OK folks, it is getting towards time to break it all down. If you still have business, let’s get er done and we can all get home and get some food on the table before it gets dark.”

Rand rushed over while Mr. Henderson bellowed out his “suggestions” and I had a time convincing him I was fine; a little scuffed up but just fine. Suddenly a shot rang out and there were some screams and I saw Mr. Henderson stumble and grab his gun with his off-hand. Then there was more gun fire and people were running and screaming all over the place.

Rand pushed us behind some trees and told us to stay there. The gunfire was making Woofer crazy and I couldn’t blame the poor thing. No living thing wants to get caught in a battle, but he’s a good dog and stuck close to Austin’s side. Then I did something that wasn’t exactly … well … OK, here it is. Ken said I couldn’t practice shooting every day. He didn’t say anything about if the necessity arose that I couldn’t defend myself. Out of my fanny pack I took two of the old hi-points that I took off the gangbangers what feels like a lifetime ago.

“Mick.” When he saw the gun his eyes got … old. “No cowboy moves. This is for just in case, understand?”

“Yeah Kiri. Dad wouldn’t let me bring the rifle or you wouldn’t have to do this.”

“Your Dad just wants to give you a chance to be a kid for a while still.”

“Sure. I understand. But I’d like the chance to grow up too and I’m not going to get that chance if some jerk shoots me up.”

Good grief. I felt old right then. I feel old right now. Where did our innocence go? Was it stolen or did we give it up ourselves?

I heard Mitch call out, “They’re making for the river. A military patrol is already on their tail. I want a head count people, check for wounded.”

I didn’t hear Mr. Henderson and that worried me. I didn’t see him either. They’d already whisked him and the rest of the family back to the ranch. Rand is going to go up there tomorrow to check on them.

For all the bullets flying we really didn’t have too many injuries. The few we did were being looked after by Ken. I wasn’t allowed to go any place until he’d checked me over as well. I told him the only thing I needed to do was get the boys home. “Rand, she’s fine, no blood pressure problems beyond what I would expect under the circumstances. Just get her to keep her feet up for the rest of the day.”

I hate it when people talk like I’m not there but Rand started hustling us all toward the wagon. We made sure Paul had collected his mom and didn’t need help. We met Brendon over at Clyde’s trailer of reloading equipment; the man was frantic because he couldn’t find Melly. A moment before we were going to go look for her she stumbled up with Ron Harbinger. “Clyde!”

Oh boy. Clyde had an awful look on his face but it changed to surprise when Ron stepped in close and shook his hand and said something not meant for anyone else’s ears. Clyde nodded so hopefully nothing bad is coming from that. Maybe little Roo will get a chance to have two fathers.

February 4th – I went to sleep last night before I finished the story but basically all’s well that ends well … at least yesterday. We got to the wagon and loaded up.

Mick ran over and slipped the hi-point back to me out of sight of Brendon or Clyde (and Rand or so he thought). Rand gave me a look but didn’t fuss. All he said was, “Next time bring the Ruger and the Smith and Wesson. Mick can handle either one. I’ll start Austin on the bigger pistols this week.” Rand may have agree with Ken about me not practicing every day but that doesn’t mean he intends to hinder my ability to protect myself (and the baby). This made me feel better than I realized it would. Up to this point all I’ve been hearing is “you can’t do this, that, or the other” and it’s been making me … not exactly unhappy about the baby but kind of hemmed in like suddenly the more pregnant I get the less sense people seem to give me credit for having.

It wasn’t until we got home that I got a chance to go over the clothes Missy had been able to get for Austin. They aren’t anywhere near new but they aren’t as wore out as I expected either. And they are pretty good quality. There were a couple of pair of cargo jeans and some decent shirts. I’ll have to sew him some boxer shorts which may embarrass us both but better than him going commando. The undershirts are the tank top variety which is ok during summer but he’s going to need something a little warmer for a while yet even if the thermometer did hit 75 degrees F today. I’ll also need to make him a belt and some suspenders and put a deep hem on the jeans but that is a lot less work than I expected to have to do after looking close at what people were wearing yesterday. Also in the bag was a list of pre-orders and a note that said to make a list of materials I needed and to have Rand bring it to the Shack as soon as he could.

After yesterday I decided my wardrobe needed attention before I went any further on Austin’s or started on the pre-orders. I looked through Momma’s patterns and found a full skirt. It wasn’t long enough so I had to add some paper at the end before I pinned the pattern pieces to the material and cut them out. The material was this heavy cotton twill; it wasn’t denim but it was real close.

I’m tired but can’t seem to sleep. I know why and it … it is … well, I feel stupid but at the same time I’m … jealous. There. I wrote it down. I do trust Rand. I do. But I can’t seem to stop feeling like I feel.

We sat down to eat dinner. I made a venison pot pie and we were almost finished and I was thinking that it was time to bring the sorghum molasses pie to the table when Austin said, “Rand you think that SueLinda and her puppies got to a safe place?”

I couldn’t place the name so I asked, “SueLinda?”

“Rand’s friend from college.”

That was news to me. I looked at Rand and he had a shuttered look in his eyes even as he smiled at Austin and said, “I’m sure she did buddy. Kiri that was a really good meal.”

Tell me that doesn’t sound like a definite change in topic. I looked at Rand and he knew he’d been caught. “Her name is SueLinda Adcock. Her sorority and my fraternity participated in many of the same Greek activities at UF. She’s working on one of the river boats and it was just an accident running into her.”

I waited for him to say more … anything … but that was it. The conversation was closed and I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it though he tried to act casual and like it was no big deal. Maybe it isn’t a big deal but something about how … aw heck, I’m giving it up for the night. Rand wants me to come to bed and I guess I’ll just have to forget about it.

February 5th – I hate heartburn. Ew. I think dinner was a little too spicy for junior … or juniorette. As for the other stuff from last night, boy do I feel stupid. Or maybe not, there is some reason for me to be worried but not because of Rand. He was mostly embarrassed because he doesn’t think the full story reflects on him very well but on the other hand he feels so bad about what he almost did, almost fell for, that he can’t seem to keep enough distance from her and in fact strongly dislikes even the mention of her name.

That’s the short version. The long version is more complicated. And the only reason I’ve got it is because of Julia and Cassie. See, it started because I needed more mulch.

Rand went early, on horseback, to check on Mr. Henderson and to see if there was any other news. Mr. Henderson is fine; really cranky, but fine. Everything on the ranch is under heightened security and Mitch is organizing the posses that were combing the rivers for that Corday guy that escaped. Several of his crew were captured by the military but not him. There’s a bounty on his head now; he not only tried to kill Mr. Henderson, but he and his crew badly wounded a couple of soldiers during their escape from custody.

Rand came home followed by Brendon and Jonathon as well as the boys. Missy went into labor early this morning and Uncle George basically told them to get lost, that there were too many people under foot. The older guys had some talking to do which miffed the boys off for being excluded. I definitely knew the feeling but I figured that I could get whatever was going on out of Rand sooner or later but the boys did see it that way. The only thing I could think to do was pull the girl schtick and say, “Oh thank goodness. I thought they were going to keep you three tied up too. I really need some help getting some pine mulch.”

Tommy and Austin fell for it, Mick not so much but he still went along which was good because the other boys follow his lead. We hooked Bud up solo to our little wagon, put the tall sides on and then went up to the loblollies to start gathering pine straw. I guess we had been at it about an hour when Mick came over to where I was and said, “Julia and Cassie are turning in.”

Sure enough here they came with Ron Harbinger riding a gray gelding following close behind. He stopped and talked to the boys while Julia and Cassie filled me in on things around the county, including on the health of “Poppy” and Momma O’s latest attack of arthritis.

I sucked up my courage and asked, “Did either one of you meet someone named SueLinda yesterday?”

Cassie said to Julia, “I told you he wouldn’t tell her.”

“Wouldn’t tell me what?” I asked getting worried.

Julia gave Cassie a dirty look and said, “Kiri, don’t do what I did. SueLinda Adcock is in the past. Forget her. She’s nobody.”

You can’t just say stuff like that without explaining. The facts are SueLinda was a young woman ready and eager to console Rand when he and Julia were having trouble with their long distance relationship when he was a Freshman. She was the spider to his fly for almost a full semester. It took Rand almost as long to figure out that SueLinda was one of those women that liked to make her own notches in her headboard, a female version of that stereotype.

“Nothing happened between them Kiri and Rand was pretty embarrassed by the whole thing. SueLinda was a grad student, a few years older than him. He got ribbed pretty hard by some of his fraternity brothers.”

“For falling for her lines or for not taking advantage of what she offered?”

“Does it matter? Look, I nearly ruined things with Ron always whining about things – and people – that happened in both our pasts. I’m asking you for Rand’s sake not to make a big deal out of this. Nothing good will come of it.”

Cassie put her two cents in by saying, “But I wouldn’t turn my back on the woman. If she tried it once … “

Julia said, “Cassie! Don’t make things out to be … “

Cassie just rolled her eyes. “Oh for pity sake. Saint Rand isn’t likely to fall for it twice. I’m just saying SueLinda may not know that.”

Ron picked that moment to come over and ask if they were ready to go. It was like a switch flipped in Julia. I’d never thought of her as a … well as a submissive kind of person but it was all “yes Ron” and “of course Ron” when he was there. Cassie got this defeated look on her face and said, “Sure. Why not? I need to get back to help Abuela anyway.”

So that is what Cassie settled on to call Tia Cia. Wow. After they left the boys and I finished filling the wagon and we came back to the house. Tommy and Austin were taking the last cart of pine straw out to the garden and Mick and I were putting the mules back in the corral when Mick says, “If that SueLinda woman was the one I think she is, Rand really doesn’t like her Kiri. Tommy and Austin were paying attention to the puppies she was trying to trade away but I could tell that Rand really didn’t want to be there and when that woman tried to touch his arm he would move so she couldn’t.” What do you call that? Independent verification? Whatever, it gave me more to think about.

The Crenshaw clan could not stay for lunch because they were already promised to Momma O’s but Mick and Tommy lost their mulligrumps when I sent them off with some molasses cookies and some dried fruit for the ride back home after they left from there.

Austin still needs more meat on his bones and I could tell he was pretty well out of steam for a while and so was Woofer who had loved having all three boys for company. Rand saw it too and told him to help him by keeping Woofer out from underfoot while he checked on the pregnant nannies. That gave me a chance to heat up the lunch which was vegetable-venison soup and cornbread.

After lunch they went and worked picking up all of the tree trash and getting it cut to the right lengths and I headed out to the garden to lay the mulch down and to check on what was popping up. The mustard greens will be ready starting tomorrow. I nearly cut some for today but that would have been a little too early. The other thing I’m going to pull tomorrow are some of the radishes.

Dinner was red beans and rice with the other half of the pan of cornbread. After dinner and general clean up Austin practically fell asleep on the sofa until we suggested he might want to take Woofer and “get him to sleep because he has had a long day.”

With Austin in bed and everything quiet Rand and I went off to bed a little early too. Having another person in the house has taken a little getting used to if you know what I mean. But he seemed kind of like Woofer gets on occasion; like he has done something he knew he shouldn’t have.

“I suppose you don’t believe me and you want to hear the full story.”

“About what?” I asked, because I really hadn’t been thinking about anything in particular.

“About SueLinda,” he said with a real stony face.

“No, not really. Cassie and Julia already told me.”

“They what?!!”

“Shhhhhh. You’re going to wake up Austin.”

Then in a much more moderate voice Rand spit out, “What did they tell you? I can just hear them both now. Gosh almighty! Don’t listen to … “

“Rand. You were young and she is a black widow. Let it go already.”

He just stood there with his shirt half off and his mouth hanging open. “They … you … huh?”

“Julia explained and I’m very sorry that I got jealous. I just took a good look at myself yesterday and realized again that you aren’t with me because I’m the prettiest girl in the room. I wish you would have told me how stupid I looked with my pants rolled up and those silly socks.”

“Stop. I’m confused. You’re apologizing to me for being jealous?”

“Yeah. It really was never about you. I trust you. Like I said, I just realized how I’ve been looking and …”

“You’re making my head hurt Kiri. I act as dumb as a stump over a woman that has ten years on me and you’re the one that is sorry.”

“Oh, she’s ten years older than you are? Julia only told me she was in grad school.”

“What else did Julia and Cassie say?”

So I told him and he basically confirmed it; but he sure was surprised at how they told it. He was also surprised at Julia’s advice and how she admitted that she had almost messed things up with Ron.

“But Rand, it is kind of weird too. Whenever Ron is around she turns really … odd. It reminds of this book we had to read for modern lit called The Stepford Wives.”

“Hey it’s her choice.”

“Rand … “

“Look, I know it …yeah, ok, so it is weird but that’s none of our business. That’s their private lives. I’m not going to tell them how to act and be with one another anymore than I want someone doing that to us.”

“You’ve gotten a few comments huh?”

“Uh … “

“Rand I’ve heard ‘em all. I’m bossy, loud, strange, weird, moody … “

“Don’t … even … start. We haven’t had this argument in forever and I’m not going to start it again now. Look, about SueLinda. She’s … well she was bad news back then but I don’t know what she is now. All I do know is that I can’t help but be suspicious of her and that I’d rather us not have anything to do with her. I found my brain before she could mark a check by my name in her game book but I’m ashamed to say that it was close. I would have fallen for her if one of her old conquests hadn’t warned me in time. Can we just let it go? I’m hoping never to have to see or hear from her again.”

So I let it go and we concentrated on each other for a while rather than the past. Before Rand fell to sleep he told me what he and Brendon and Jonathon were talking about. That as much as dinner’s Cajun seasoning is what set my stomach on fire. It’s a wonder that I’m not running around like a chicken with my head cut off. There just isn’t anything we can really do about it right now. The family is making plans but there is only so much we can do right now.

The winter has been terribly hard for a lot people. In many towns and cities they count the dead daily. Starvation and exposure account for more deaths than the flu did. Bad water or no water and disease account for no small number of dead either. Before spring arrives we may see a lot of strangers in this area from the northern states and they’ll be on the lookout for food and other resources. And they’ll be desperate enough to simply take what they want.

We still have a little time but not much. Winter still has things pretty well locked down but the south is starting to thaw. I hope not but they think things may go back to as bad as they were during the end of last summer and into the autumn. And that doesn’t even include all the bad guys we already have around here. The crackdown on the rivers will push some of the bad guys out into the countryside. We’ll wind up with river pirates and land pirates.

Ugh. I’m getting the shivers. I’m going to bed and hope that we’ll hear that Missy is OK in the morning. Rand and I have been stepping around that one all day trying not to think of why no one would have come to give us the good news.

Chapter Seventy-Eight

Chapter 78

January 29th – I feel like I’m still a month behind but we got a bit caught up in the gardens today. Rand wouldn’t let me go as much as I wanted but then again I didn’t feel like I was able to go as much as I used to. Constant bathroom breaks for me also held me back. Darn that booklet anyway, why does it have to be right so much of the time?

The gardens weren’t as bad as they could have been but they needed attention. We pulled all the protective covers off of things. Good thing too because some of the seedlings were getting leggy and some of the cooler loving crops were actually getting too hot in the middle of the day. Austin and Rand spent a long time hauling water barrels and then running the drip hoses to each row. I gave up on the square foot gardening for some of the stuff because I don’t have automatic sprinklers. I need something convenient not necessarily space saving now that Rand has enlarged the original garden plot. Maybe I’ll go back to it at some point but not this season. I’ve got enough to figure out.

We set the barrels up on blocks we’ve set at the head of every couple of rows. Rand installed old spigots at the base of each barrel. Attached to the spigots are old garden hoses that we scavenged. We’ve poked a lot of pin holes in the hoses and capped off the ends of each length of hose. With the barrels full we just turn the spigots to the on position and water shoots through the hoses and out of the pin holes. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s better than having to water everything by hand like we were doing in the beginning. That was a back breaking bit of work. Now I only have to water where it is obvious that it needs it.

Rand salvaged some honest to goodness black drip hose from an old tree farm but the hose was really long and meant to be hooked up to an electric well with lots of pressure. We couldn’t duplicate it so we plan on saving it for the corn rows and figure out how to pump the water through as best we can.

We did lose a few plants, I guess you can’t get away from that, lucky for us it wasn’t too much of any one type of crop to be overly worrisome so long as the February crops make. I still have seed held back and that should let us plant enough that there won’t be a shortage for next season’s seeds.

What did hack me off a bit was that I noticed, even with the fence and Woofer and Fraidy doing their share that something was nibbling around the edges. Whatever it was hit everything but the potatoes. Rand said they wouldn’t either because potatoes are kin to tobacco the same as tomatoes are and not even deer will touch them unless they are starving to death. “And Babe, there is plenty of mast even with the hard freeze we had so unless the animals over forage I don’t think we’ll have as much trouble as we did last year.”

I certainly hope not. With Austin to feed I need to increase the fresh and preserved food, especially as our “store bought” stuff goes away. Not that I’m complaining. Austin hasn’t been with us long and sometimes I still catch myself feeling weird about having him around, but on the other hand Rand seems to really enjoy it. He is used to having a younger tagalong following him around whether that was Brendon or Mick and he has the big brother thing down pat. And Austin is eating it up. His older brothers really missed out by shutting him out.

I’m so glad to be able to get back into the kitchen. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the dishes people brought by while I was off my feet but I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to look a bean in the same way again. For lunch I made egg salad sandwiches. We had a bunch of fresh eggs that needed to be used up. I suppose I could have taken them over to the Shack to trade but egg salad is what I was craving and we had it. For dinner I knew the guys at least would need something heartier so I made Root Soup.

I cubed up one of the last of the canned hams we have (gave me about two cups of cubes) and put it in six cups of water and boiled it for ten minutes. To that I added one-half cup of dried potato slices, one-half cup of dried parsnip slices, one-half cup of dried turnip slices, one-half cup of dried green beans, one-half cup of dried brussel sprouts, one tablespoon of dried onion pieces, one tablespoon of dried grated carrot, one tablespoon of dried green bell pepper pieces, one-half tablespoon of dried celery powder, one teaspoon of chopped garlic, one teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, and one-half teaspoon of celery seed. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but on the other hand there weren’t any leftovers when the recipe was supposed to make six servings.

What you do after you add all the dried stuff to the boiling ham broth is you make sure it comes to a boil again and then remove the pan from the heat, cover the pan, and let it sit for thirty minutes or a little longer. Then you put the pan back on the heat, bring the mixture back up to a boil, and simmer the soup for another thirty minutes until all the veggies are tender. I fixed corn muffins to go with it and there were enough left over that Austin and Rand mixed up some sorghum molasses and butter and put that on them for dessert.

Rand is definitely going to need to get that passive hot water heater set up on the roof of the barn, and maybe one on the house roof as well. The water tank on the back of the stove just isn’t going to be enough to keep up with our needs. In addition to the extra laundry that Austin is going to make (assuming I can ever get the poor boy some more clothes) the baby is going to make a lot of laundry. Gosh, all these things to think of.

January 30th – Talked to Rand and he’d rather wait before we get into having a booth at the swap meets. Seems they’ve set the community calendar so that a swap meet will follow the Saturday after a church service. This way there is something going on every weekend for those that are interested. It’s going to be more than a swap meet though; more like a social and I don’t know what else to call it. The Ladies’ Auxiliary will have a sewing exhibit and class, there will be games for the youngest kids, horseshoes for the men, and eventually lots of other stuff. I suppose we should enjoy it while the weather is nice and before the work really piles up; when that happens it is going to get hard to find the time to go to every church service and every swap meet and some of the other social events that people are talking about.

Bill and Missy close the Shack for the swap meets and they have a wagon they’ve built out of an old lightweight trailer that they will haul with goods in it. Bill has some men that he has “hired” to act as security to and from the park. I figure Rand shouldn’t be the only one trying to improve life for our little family. I made two halter tops and two “foundation garments” as my great grandmother used to call them. Not near the same as the aerodynamically designed and scientifically improved versions you used to be able to get in the store but better than nothing says I. I made them both in light weight pre-washed muslin so they should be durable, especially if they are hand washed rather than boiled with the rest of the laundry. I made them in average sizes and I guess I’ll tell Missy if she gets a lot of call for a particular size I’ll work on it somehow as long as I can get material.

I also found a bunch of old costume patterns in Momma’s stuff like sun bonnets, aprons, prairie dresses, some civil war era outfits, and a few belly dancing costume patterns of all things. I so do not want to know why Momma had those last ones although she used to take in some sewing to make extra money so maybe they are just leftovers from those jobs. There were also some lingerie patterns and bathing suit patterns that I might be able to use. The main chore is going to be getting the material I need although for the undies I can just use old t-shirt material I think. This could be where Ram comes in handy. I haven’t got it all figured out yet and the sewing is just one idea I’ve had.

My next idea has some of the same issues as the first … supplies. Only the supplies are actually ingredients. When I got tired of sewing I stopped and scrounged around in the kitchen and in Momma’s craft supplies and came up with some plastic baggies that I filled with some convenience mixes.

The first batch I made was powdered vegetable broth. I mixed together one teaspoon each of the following dried powders: onion, celery, tomato, spinach, bell pepper, and carrot. Then I added in one teaspoon of cornmeal. Next was half a teaspoon of each of the following: dried parsley, cayenne pepper, all-purpose flour, and chopped dried garlic. That will net you about three tablespoons of mix. You add one cup of boiling water to one tablespoon of the mix and you have instant vegetable broth. I quadrupled the batch and wound up with twelve little bead baggies of mix. If these don’t get any movement I’ll tell Missy just to give them back and I’ll use them for our bug bags. Tomorrow I’m going to make some muffin mixes up; but not many. There is no sense wasting our supplies if they aren’t going to bring in anything worth the outgoing effort.

Speaking of those bug bag things … or Bobs as Rand calls them … Rand pulled ours out tonight and reworked them and made one for Austin too. They are going to start carrying the small ones with them when they are out – Austin cut his hand on a devil’s walking stick today and they had to come all the way back to the house from the gully just to get a bandage for it. The cut wasn’t long but it was deep, more of a puncture, and it took me some time to clean it out. I’ve cleaned it out again since then and I’ll clean it out again in the morning. It doesn’t look like there was anything but a little dirt down in it the first time but better safe than sorry. I’m just glad we still have triple antibiotic cream to put on it.

January 31st – I said what the heck, it was raining this morning anyway, and made two more sets of foundation garments. Now that I know what I’m doing it isn’t so bad. Not only that but Austin said something that got me to thinking. Apparently his grandfather had a lady friend by the name of Miss Lucille. Austin must have overheard Rand and I talking about what I was going to wear when I outgrow the overalls and he told me how Miss Lucille used to be in charge of costuming for Pioneer Days at the local historical farm. “Some of them women were awful big, bigger even that Peepaw, and they still wore dresses. Miss Lucille just told ‘em to pull the skirts up real high that way she didn’t have to sew new ones every year. How come you don’t just do that?”

“Because I don’t like to show my legs.”

“You could wear socks. That’s what I do when I had to wear shorts for PE.”

Good grief I feel stupid. Now why did it take a ten year old boy to give me that idea? It might get a little prickly when summer comes back but that’ll be better than having to go around with my pants unsnapped all the time worrying that they’ll fall down.

The bags of mix I made today were for apple muffins. I mixed a half cup of sugar, one and one-half teaspoons of baking powder, one-quarter cup of brown sugar, one teaspoon of ground cinnamon, one cup of chopped dried applies, two cups of all-purpose flour, two tablespoons of powdered eggs and one-third cup of powdered milk. I stapled the following directions to the bag: Add one cup of water and one-quarter cup of oil and mix just until moistened. Spoon batter into greased muffin tins and bake fifteen to eighteen minutes in a preheated 400 degree F oven or until golden brown.

Today’s lunch was fried tree rat. The squirrels are coming back out and they are hungry. Rand found some in the barn this morning scrounging the feed that the animals drop. Either Fraidy had gotten fat and sassy and can pick and choose her dinners or the squirrels are so numerous she can’t eat them all, even with Woofer’s help. We don’t want the squirrels building nests in the barn so he set up a live trap in there after he took the animals out for the morning. Two hours and he had four squirrels.

That’s not a good sign. He didn’t even have to bait the cage too heavily. After the larger than expected lunch I decided to make soup for dinner. I took three cups of instant potato flakes from my LTS cans, a cup of powdered coffee creamer, a package of chicken gravy mix that I had in our food storage, one-quarter cup of grated parmesan cheese, two tablespoons of seasoning blend (I like Italian), one teaspoon of dried minced onion, and one-half teaspoon of pepper and then mixed all the dry ingredients together. I put eight cups of boiling water in a big pan and then added the dry ingredients. All you have to do is stir it up to bring apart any clumps of dry ingredients and then let stand for five minutes to thicken. I crumbled a little dried bacon on top of each serving and then put a basket of cat head biscuits on the table too. Good thing we have feed because by the time I give what few scraps there are to Woofer Taz and his harem don’t get anything at all from the table any more.

February 1st – Now today has been some kind of busy. Got the new garden planted, pretty much a duplicate of what we planted in January except for a few different varieties. Spent a long cool morning getting this done but with all three of us focused on it it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The rest of my work time was taken up by cleaning the house. I’d been putting it off knowing what a job it was going to be but there just wasn’t any way around it. There was stuff still on the porch that needed to be brought in before a good wind and rain storm came, Austin needed his room cleaned out and … well, I needed to take a good look at what we had in the baby’s room.

I think I did too much. I was ready to pop a couple of Tylenol in my mouth until I remembered what Ken said so instead I made up a warm compress and just put it across my lower back. Being pregnant changes everything.

First thing was first, I pulled all of the storage tubs and bags out of Austin’s room. I don’t see any way around it, we are going to have to store some of the tubs up in the dormer room. I’ll leave that to Rand tomorrow and he can handle Austin however he sees fit. What I want to do is move the straight back sofa (looks kind of Victorian) up to the front bonus room and then take the futon that is already in the bonus room and move it up to the dormer room in the place Rand used to put his mattress on the floor. The two cheap (aka junky) chest of drawers in the bedrooms I emptied and had Rand move them out to the storage room in the barn. I figured he could use them to organize some of his tools and supplies … or break them apart and used them as building materials. I put the nice chiffarobe in the baby’s room and put a full-sized armoire in Austin’s room.

I emptied one of the big trunks that had dishes in it and had them slide that into Austin’s room as well. I plan on putting spare linens and blankets in the chest to fit his bed which will save me the room in the regular linen closet. I did the same thing for the baby’s room and also slid a small chest of drawers into the closet to use for baby stuff.

I got everything moved out of the two rooms that didn’t belong and even managed to move a few things in there but boy howdy there was still an awful mess. I found places for all of the pots, pans, and dishes. I can’t imagine ever using all of that stuff but Mrs. Withrow said I might be surprised. I suppose but it is still hard to imagine.

I think I’ve even got spots for all the furniture. In addition to what I had them move around … I still haven’t told rand about the sofas though … I moved one of the chests to the end of our bed and I was able to move my keep sake stuff into it with plenty of room for other stuff, moved the old spinning wheel up to the craft room, put two small end tables and a low slung chest upstairs on either side of the sofa (that I’m more determined to move around the longer I think about it) and we’ll move the real book cases upstairs to the bonus room too but that will have to wait until Brendon stops by as getting them up those stairs will be tricky.

Then I found places for what I could. I still have a pretty good pile of stuff … and the sofa/futon issue … that need to be finished up but I was beat and Rand is wanting to go to bed. I think he needs a little attention. It’s going to be weird with Austin in the house but doors close. Besides I guess we better get used to it.

February 2nd – I think I overdid Baking Day a little bit. In addition to the normal loaves of bread I make I made cookies, doughnuts, an applesauce can, and some pecan brittle. I must be nuts. I had to force myself to let Austin and Rand have the spoon and mixing bowl to lick. I’d laugh at myself if I wasn’t so embarrassed that they’d ask me to explain. When I compared the baby to an alien making me act different maybe I wasn’t so far off after all.

I keep trying to imagine what my life would have been like if the flu hadn’t happened. I’d be in my senior year of highschool biding my time until graduation and praying that I got the scholarships that would get me into college. I’d probably still be struggling socially with only a few friends and none of them any closer than arms length. I probably would be captain of the debate team … assuming the coach hadn’t found a prodigy to favor it with. Aunt Wilma would still be alive and I’d probably still be lonely. I wouldn’t have met Rand and … that’s enough. Why imagine what is never going to happen, what can’t happen. Why would I miss that stuff anyway? Sure, my life is a lot different. I’m different. But I’m beginning to be a whole lot more comfortable in my skin than I ever hoped to be.

Enough philosophizing. Swap meet is tomorrow. I have to be up early to pack our picnic basket and to have the stuff ready to pass off to Missy as incognito as possible.