Thursday, January 28, 2010

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.

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