November 27th -- “Fear not! He is mighty. Nothing and no one can stand against Him. Even the mountains bow before Him. He conquered the grave. He is the Author of salvation. He values His children more than all His other creation and will protect us all of our days.”
Pastor Ken preached on that at one of the first services I went to around here. It is something that has stuck with me. But there are days when I have to keep reminding myself of those words. The days are so full it is a temption to just stop keeping track of them. And sometimes what the days are full of remind me of all I’ve lost. After that comes the worry about what I have left to lose.
Rand isn’t home yet. I finally put all of the animals up and I’ve closed the last shutter and lowered the last roll down door. That … that hurt. Every crank of the handle felt like I was tightening a vice around my heart. It has been a very cold day, the warm up that Rand expected hasn’t arrived yet and it even rained off and on, though not hard. It is raining harder now that darkness has fallen.
We were up even earlier than normal despite how late we had been the night before. Rand got the bleary eyed animals moving and fed them and put them in their respective pens. I made pancakes for breakfast, mixing in some of the acorn meal and a little corn meal as well to make the flour go further. Both Rand and Ram ate well and as usual Ram had to make a comment. “Hey Shorty, you can still cook. I can remember though the first time you tried to make chocolate chip cookies. You couldn’t reach the oven controls ‘cause you were still in your chair and you hadn’t learned to cook with your aunt’s non-something or other flours. Instead of chocolate chunks it was carob. It was like trying to eat a Frisbee.”
I told him everyone makes mistakes in the beginning and if he wanted to keep on eating what I can cook these days he better knock it off with the memories. Aunt Wilma used all of these non-gluten, non-corn flours and it takes some getting used to when you are trying to bake with them. I packed both men a bag lunch while giving them the eye letting them know that I better not hear any complaints.
Ram’s lunch was for his long ride on the hospital train. Given some of the things that he said, not outright but I can read between the lines, rations are slim to none at some stops and he is so thin that it is probably contributing to his length of convalescence. I wished there had been time for Pastor Ken to take a look at him.
Rand was going to go see a couple of people he hadn’t seen in a while, something about trading work, and then he was going to pay our respects at the Harbinger place. The last I saw of them was as they pulled out with the wagon.
I milked the cows and then went about the daily chores required to keep our place running smoothly. Lucky for me the garden is between seasons. Things start picking up again in January but here at the end of November and for most of December I’ll have a little vacation except for improving the soil by turning under some compost. I would have picked up some wood today but it was just too wet to be worth it. I picked up the stuff that had shed in the yard but that was it.
I had some time on my hands with the rain here and Rand gone so as a surprise I finally got around to making the soda pop I have been promising to make. I started by pulling out a couple of the empty two-liter soda bottles that I stored at the very top of one of the spare bedroom closets. They are bulky but light and getting them up and out of the way keeps me from going ballistic over the mess they make when they fall over like bowling pins. I had cleaned the bottles really well before we stored them but I cleaned and sterilized them again just to be safe.
While the plastic bottles dried I mixed one cup of sugar and one-quarter teaspoon of regular old yeast then shook it up really well to mix it evenly. I funneled this mixture into one of the now-dry plastic soda bottles and then filled the bottle half full with plain room-temperature water. To that disgusting looking mess I added a tablespoon of extract. I screwed the lid onto the bottle and rocked it back and forth to mix it all up. Then I filled the bottle the rest of the way up with water until there was an inch of head space and then rocked it some more until all the sugar dissolved. I used vanilla extract for a cream soda, something that Rand likes. I also made a bottle of Rootbeer flavored soda and orange flavored soda. If this works out I’ll make other flavored sodas as I have a bunch of different extracts between Momma’s leftovers (she bought the good stuff so it lasts years), Aunt Wilma who was a fiend for experimenting with natural this and natural that, and all the junk I found when we were cleaning out that eccentric house at the end. The recipe itself was in Momma's files and said it was from a friend name Phyte. I don't remember anyone by that name so it must have been one of Momma's online acquaintances.
The soda will be finished after it is left on the kitchen counter and gets “tight” the way a fresh bottle of pop would feel on the grocery store shelves. If this works out this may be going in people’s Christmas baskets. It doesn’t take that much yeast and it takes less sugar than doing a lot of baking does and I’ve got enough of those two-liter bottles to start my own landfill. Well, it’s good to be hopeful about the future … isn’t it?
Why is it we only seem to remember to pray this hard when something feels insurmountable? I’m praying that nothing has happened to Rand and that for some reason he has just had to find a place to hole up for the night. Maybe it was one of the mules. Maybe it’s a wagon repair. It doesn’t have to be for a bad reason … does it?
Am I asking for an answer to prayer or for a miracle? I don't know if I could handle knowing the difference right now I'm that shakey.
I haven’t been able to sit still. It wasn’t until about three o’clock that I started to wonder where Rand was. As evening began to fall I became concerned but not worried. Everyone is late on occasion and I know how to take care of the animals. They all mind me, even crazy Taz; all that is except for Hatchet who has become a pain in my backside. The mules are less stubborn than he is. Rand needs to ride him more but there isn’t the time for that there used to be. The mules are work animals; Hatchet is a recreational animal built for speed rather than real labor. Rand feels bad for the horse. He says it must be like he is a Ferrari that only has back country dirt roads to travel down.
I put the animals into the barn, gave them whatever care was required, and then shut them in for the night. They all seemed content to come in out of the cold and damp. Then I closed most of the shutters on the house that stay open during the day for light and air. I left the shutters on the summer kitchen open and as it got to be pitch black outside with the clouds covering the moon, I added a lamp in the window as I tried to keep dinner warm.
But it got later and later. I blew out the lamp, closed the shutters, and put down all of the roll-downs except for the side door where I stayed in the kitchen. The stove grew as cold as the dinner and I finally knew he wasn’t coming home. I am now upstairs, despite the bone numbing cold up here, listening to the radio. There isn’t much noise out there but what there is depresses me and leads me to think about what we learned from Ram last night.
Ram said when he and his group arrived down in south Florida they found an already entrenched population of foreign troops. They had gotten so entrenched, Ram explained, because they had landed not as invaders but as a humanitarian aide group made up of an international coalition. And they did provide aide … in the beginning.
Someone was smart. Someone was very, very smart. They knew human nature, or at least the nature of entitlement that exists in many people. The locals fell for their act hook, line, and sinker. Then the “humanitarian mission” began to morph into something more insidious. Turn in those dangerous guns for food and fuel. Identify the gang members and criminals to the local authorities (a puppet organization set up by the coalition). Then, be good citizens and turn in your neighbors for infractions of the new "laws"; you are getting paid to do so with extra points in your ration books.
Then the screws tightened even more. The fuel originally offered as part of the regular aide became reserved for only the most helpful and loyal of the friends of the coalition creating a ruthless competition of sorts. Food assistance was no longer supplemental; soon food was only available through the coalition’s “stores” and then only if you were on an official list. The only way to get on that list was as what amounted to an informant; and it was easy to be punitively removed. And private gardens could only exist by permit and were often confiscated in total anyway.
Some people began to realize what was happening but only about half of them even cared. They gave their loyalty to whatever group gave them the most “stuff.” It wasn’t long after that however that the coalition began to overplay their hand and move too fast. They thought they had eradicated all resistance at this point when they really hadn’t met any yet.
The invaders, on short supplies themselves, began to get stingy … and corrupt, bypassing the established system of distribution, stiffing the very people who secured their power base. They began to treat the locals like cattle and ration aid only to those that qualified as special friends … and the favoritism had no obvious rhyme or reason. It was both stick and carrot depending on the situation and the logic was lost on the masses who had envisioned the invaders as some type of kinder, gentler version of what they were used to before things fell apart. The elderly, children, and otherwise “non-contributing” members of the community suffered greater deprivation at the hands of the coalition than they had before their arrival. Single, unattached females were treated like chattel and all females needed a strong or connected protector to prevent the unmentionable. The “redistribution of resources” moved from keeping the resources local to exporting them back to Venezuela, the base of operations for the coalition. Rebellion did occur on occasion, so did public executions after make believe trials.
This is the situation the military found when they arrived. Again, someone was very smart; they used the locals’ fears of their situation becoming even worse to confuse them as to who were the legitimate authorities; better the devil you know. There were few open battles in the beginning. Once the military arrived however it didn’t take long for things to start hopping.
Ram said it could have remained the way things were progressing … battle upon battle with no clear winner … if the coalition’s supply lines hadn’t been shut down, if US forces hadn’t followed the supply lines back to a particular port in a particular country, back to a road that led from the port to a militarized base. The disruption by destruction wrought by the long range missles deployed by the US military gave the ground troops in south Florida the ability and time to whittle the coalition down to the point they retreated. Then their ships were sunk off the coast by our Navy and Coast Guard reinforced by the military leaders now at least back in partial control of our national administration.
Even with the military coming in and trying to help restore order and repair infrastructure some people are still idiots. Not everyone was happy our side won. When the coalition pulled out abruptly some lost their status, and some of them their basic needs as their neighbors took revenge. They didn’t want to realize they were already being shafted by the coalition.
That is how Ram came to be injured. His patrol was reclaiming equipment left behind during the enemy’s retreat when they were attacked by locals; not because they were after the equipment, but because they were trying to reinstall the coalition.
While Ram was in the mobile hospital, and nearly ready for duty again, he received the Dear John letter from Sherri. She didn’t even have the nerve to tell Ram in person and she could have quite easily since she worked on that ward as a discharge clerk. She was there and his "loving wife" one day and simploy gone the next. He was devastated but it went even further. He learned that she had been having an affair with one of his best friends. The other men that had wives and girlfriends – they were a close knit social group – avoided him, too afraid his circumstance would become their own by association, like the sickness that eventually ravaged his body.
Reading between the lines I can tell that hurt Ram nearly as bad as Sherri leaving. Men who fight side by side have a unique bond. They become a close knit type of family. To have this relationship fall apart just like his marriage was too much. Stress flayed Ram’s body leaving it open to infection the same way his pain had flayed his spirit leaving him open to depression. I think Ram would have been better off to stay with Rand and I for a while. He needs to remember he isn’t alone so he won’t do anything crazy since he doesn’t feel like he has much to live for.
Gosh, just listen to what I’ve written. I sound like some of the psycho-babble I was forced to endure when I was in counseling. Ew. But … I recognize the feelings that Ram has all too well. And that’s terrifying because it would be so easy for me to feel that way again if …
Stop it girl. Stopit, stopit, stopit! It doesn’t have to be as bad as you are painting it.
November 28th – Still no Rand. No anyone for that matter. By mid-morning after I’d taken care of the animals … it is still raining so I left them in the barn, but even there I could see their breath in the cold … I couldn’t stand it anymore. I put on the best rain gear I had and trudged up to the end of our road to see if there was any news.
That was when I began to feel something strange is going on. There was no one at the patrol shack. Actually there wasn’t a patrol shack. I stood there out in the open like a fool not quite believing what I was seeing … or actually what I wasn’t seeing. The shack wasn’t just gone; it was like it had never existed in the first place. No wood, no chairs, no table, no posts where they strung their horses, no latrine … no anything. The bare earth was covered with fallen leaves and pine straw in a haphazard and natural pattern all the way back to the road bed. Grass and branches were bent over and you couldn’t really even see the small clearing where the shack had been. It was enough to make me doubt my sanity for a moment. Weird.
The rain was beating down but I could still smell smoke on the air. I should have been able t o. It would required a pretty large fire to waft that kind of smell even in this weather. Or a close one. But the smell wasn’t out of the south, the wind wasn’t blowing the right way for that. No, the smell was coming out of the NE with the wind and the only large structures close enough were already dilapidated and in disuse. There hadn’t been any lightening in the rain and I saw no smoke off in that direction, certainly hadn’t seen or smelled anything like that yesterday.
Then I saw … it … on the other side of the road, a little north of my position. I thought it was just some debris at first but the closer I got the more I had to cover my mouth and nose. It was raining hard but the vultures were already at it. I braced myself and took hold of my stomach with both hands. I was praying so hard sweat was popping out on my upper lip despite the cold. When I got there I still wasn’t as prepared as I needed to be. It wasn’t Rand. It wasn’t Ram. It wasn’t anyone that I knew well though something told me I’d seen them someplace before. The other body, the one half in and half out of the ditch all but hidden by the tall brown grass I didn’t recognize at all … what little was left to recognize. The turkey vultures had had several hours to do what turkey vultures do. This was where the smoky smell had come from. Whatever had burned them had been very hot from about the chest down. Stuff was actually coming off of them in flecks. But, there was no other fire damage visible so the bodies had been dumped there but for what reason I can’t even guess. Maybe they fell off of a charnel wagon.
As soon as I realized how out in the open I was standing I faded back into the over grown right of way avoiding the water-filled ditches as much as possible. I ghosted down to Momma O’s place. It took a bit of time, trying not to get any wetter than necessary, but once I got there I crossed the road and stood hidden in the winter remnants of a trellis full of confederate jasmine vines looking at the wide front porch. The screen door hung by a single hinge and the front door stood wide open. The house reminded me of a woman caught mid-scream. No one was around. What was worse was neither were the animals. There was a single dead chicken laying under the azalea bushes; not even a coyote or vulture had found it yet.
I felt guilty wandering through the house without permission but I had to know. The front parlor showed nothing except for the open doorway but I did find a few clues on my tour. There was an over turned table in the upstairs hallway. One of the bedroom doors, that I presume was Paul and Sadie’s based on décor and contents, was busted in at the latch. Down in the kitchen a pot of grits lay in a congealed mess on the floor. Remembering all the cowboy movies I watched with Daddy I checked the stove and the fire didn’t have a spark of life left in it. Whatever happened occurred quite some time before I got there.
I shut up the house against the weather and predators (human and animal) and tried to decide what to do. It was a trek to the Henderson ranch on foot and there were no other close neighbors for me to check on. I headed back to the house but cut across the woods rather than walk down the grass at our main gate any more.
I stumbled through a few more hours in the day doing what chores around the house I could while in a half daze; nothing too dangerous or I would have wound up hurting myself or breaking something most likely. Finally I just gave up and sat down and used my head for something besides a place to park my ear muffs.
I’m going out after it gets dark. I’ll leave a note for Rand just in case he comes back while I’m gone. I’ll leave a stash for him in the shed hidey-hole under the bench in there like we’ve talked about doing and slide the door pole above the inside of the shed door. It blends in and isn’t visible over the metal lip that is there. You have to put your hand up in the track to locate it. It is still raining and I hope that will help hide me from whatever … or whoever … is driving the weirdness.
I’m going to go see about the Crenshaws. I’d go to Mr. Henderson but I don’t want to get shot at if I can avoid it and something must be going on for things to be a screwy as they are. I think I'm safer trying to figure things out before I go shouting at the top of my lungs to keep a patrol from taking aim at me.
I’ve got my bag packed, my weapons and extra magazines loaded, and a cover for the rifle. Rand had his shotgun with him so I’ve brought a bag of shells for him just in case. And I’ve prayed. I’m going to rest for a few hours until full dark, take care of the animals, and then head out. Just please God, no more bodies.