Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chapter 99

Chapter 99

The water closed over my head so fast I never had time to inhale. I sank and sank and … You know, that life flashing before your eyes thing is real. It wasn’t like a movie; more like silent pictures played across the inside of my eyelids. Half the pictures were of stupid stuff that I hadn’t even realized had meant something to me but then a picture of Rand and Austin flashed on my personal slide show and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I couldn’t give up.

I struggled to the surface but then had to accept that I wasn’t going to make it. And that’s when an arm brushed against me and then grabbed me, dragging me the rest of the way up.

A voice shouted in my ear, “We have to move away! She’s going down and she’ll take us with her in the vacuum effect!!”

The problem was that I didn’t know which direction “away” was. The rain was coming down so hard I had yet to see the face of my rescuer. I felt him drag something over my head and then realized it was a life vest. I could feel some vibration in the water and a deep groan issued off to my left. With that my rescuer started pulling me to the right trying to get back to the cutter but it was impossible.

I’m not sure how long we were in the water but it was long enough for me to realize that the water is only warm at the beach. The water out in the middle of the Gulf is cold enough to sap your strength away. We were swept this way and that with the debris that bobbed up from the sunk slave ship.

A particularly large wave suddenly picked us up and as we came down a piece of debris slammed into the side of my rescuer’s head. Now it was my turn to encourage him, to rouse him when he would fade. And then out of the blue a yellow inflatable rammed us. How my rescuer found the strength to grab it while still holding me will probably remain a mystery until Judgment Day. It was a struggle but I finally managed to climb into the life raft and hold on. But no matter how hard he tried my rescuer could never succeed in getting himself into the boat.

The waves were growing worse and his hands were bloody where the rope sawed into his skin. And he was weakening. He no longer had the strength to even pretend that he was trying to climb in the raft.

Whenever the waves would permit I’d lean over the boat and try to help him but then he said, “It’s no use. I’m done.” I railed at him not to give up. He took something from around his neck and somehow tossed it over mine. “Tell her I’m sorry!” I looked down to see what it was and saw he’d given me his dog tags. I looked up and asked, “Tell who …” But he was gone.

I fell back into the raft emotionally hysterical but too physically spent to express it. The lightning crashed, the thunder rolled, and if the waves hadn’t been tossing the raft so much it would have filled with rain water and taken me down with it. I was left with nothing but to scream and cry out to God, asking … no demanding … to know why he was letting this happen. After all I had been through in my life I thought I deserved a little more consideration. Did God think it was funny that after losing my family, surviving the pandemic, and those first brutal months afterwards he offered me what appeared to be a shot at sublime happiness only to jerk the rug out from under me again? And what of my baby? Was it fair to let that little life come so far only to snuff the spark out before he’d even drawn his first breath?

And then I thought of Austin and of Rand and I stopped mattering. I begged and pleaded, “Just let me get home to them. Just let me get home. They need me. Austin can’t handle losing a mother again so soon and Rand needs to have someone to look after to make it through the day. We need time to fix the mess we left things in or he’ll let it eat at him the rest of his life; the guilt would kill him.”

Focusing on my prayers was the only way I didn’t slide into the madness of fear. And then, though it didn’t seem possible, the storm got even worse. I lay in the raft and I seemed to be rising and rising and rising and then I was in free fall and I hit the water so hard I was knocked unconscious.

I have absolutely no recollection of what happened in the hours after that. Had I been awake I probably would have died of fright. I was never a big fan of open water and storms to begin with and to have to deal with both of those things on top of what I had experienced during the preceding days would have just been too much. In hindsight it has given me a much greater appreciation for the story of Jonah.

How long I was unconscious is also a mystery. By rights I never should have lived to see the sun come up. The hurricane should have handed me over to the keepers of Davy Jones’ locker several times over. At the very least it should have left me adrift in the middle of nowhere to die of dehydration and exposure.

Instead I shuddered awake at the feel of something disgusting hitting me in the head; like a water gun filled with slime. I brushed my hand across my forehead only to have it come away with bird poop. A seagull was resting on the edge of the raft and soon opened its beak to laugh at me.

“Why you …!” I tried to sit up only to feel like something sharp and hot and alive had been stabbed into my abdomen. I shrieked even louder than the gull had.

“No. No, no, no, no! This can’t be happening!! God, did you save me for this?!” I cried.

I finally caught my breath and was able to sit up only I wish I hadn’t. The bottom of the raft had a couple of inches of water in it that was tinged pink. I started crying but stopped abruptly when what I saw in front of me finally penetrated.

The raft kept bumping against some barnacle encrusted wooden posts. I looked left and right but the water line kept me well below the wooden planks above my head. I could see that they were attached lengthwise to some kind of concrete wall but that was it. But this had to mean I’d washed ashore in a town of some kind.

I screamed myself horse trying to get someone’s attention. It was no use, no one was coming. I was going to have to rescue myself.

I pushed and pulled and finally maneuvered the raft to a rickety looking ladder that went from the water line up to the top of the boardwalk above my head. I had just grabbed the first rung when another pain ripped through me. I was getting slightly dopey by that point. “Hang on Junior, Momma just needs to get out of this raft, up this ladder, and find a nice soft place so that you can come into this world. Though why you are in such an all fired rush all of a sudden is beyond me. You aren’t due for a few more weeks.”

Huffing and puffing I finally managed to pull my salt sticky body onto the boardwalk and when I looked around I was nearly sick.

The little town on the water was nothing but a skeleton. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the hurricane that had done it given the fact that it actually looked like a fire had done most of the damage. I was on my hands and knees trying to convince myself that walking was better than crawling to find some shelter. Then I heard something. It was a rhythmic beat of some kind. It reminded me a little of the sound that was made when Rand was chopping wood.

From somewhere I got the energy to head towards that sound, like it was calling me onward, hoping against hope that I’d find people. But the closer I got the less it sounded like I thought it had and when I finally turned the corner I saw a storm shutter banging against the wall of its building in the tidal breeze.

I was fast approaching the point of giving up again but something continued to pull my feet forward one at a time. Just as I reached the door and pushed it open to step inside big, fat drops of rain began to fall as if cutting off any possibility of retreat.

I looked around and realized I was in a little summer cottage, the kind that had been popular in the 40s and 50s. There was hardly anything to it. I’d seen sheds that were bigger than this one room efficiency that measured barely ten by ten. There was a small three-legged table in the corner of a barely there kitchenette, a small brazier that was supposed to be a fireplace, a door, two tiny windows both missing their glass, and a bed … a blessed bed ... pused against the opposite wall from the eating area.

I wasn’t thinking very well, I admit it. I sat on that sheet-less mattress with no thoughts to mold, mildew, or bed bugs. And then lay back and drew my knees up and rocked myself as another pain stabbed me in the gut.

I didn’t pay much attention to how long I lay there I just remember it lasted through several pains. Then from outside I heard a growl that had me sitting bolt upright. I struggled off the bed, made my way over to the door and slammed it shut, threw the distinctly out of place modern bolt, and just managed to push that pathetic little table against it on the pretence that it somehow would keep me safer.

The scare had gotten my brain working again. I knew I didn’t have much more time to prepare. I looked frantically around to see what I had to work with and nearly laughed at the ludicrousness of my position. Nothing, certainly nothing that I could start a fire with, but at least I could get out of my clothes and try and save them against what was going to happen.

As I struggled to remove my one remaining shoe I saw pushed under the pedestal kitchen sink a speckleware dish pan. I finished getting out of all my clothes except my cotton muumuu like undershirt and then, after breathing through another pain, reached under the sink and pulled the pan out. It was a lot cleaner than I had any reason to expect.

Sticking the pan out of the frameless hole that had once held a window I used the rain to wash away what little dust there was and then I filled it and drew it in and sat it on the miniscule night stand next to the bed. That’s it, that’s all the time I had. From that point forward all I remember was feeling like one giant corkscrew of pain was ripping me apart.

After another time warp I lost control of my body and just let nature run its course. I pushed and pushed whenever the urge struck and eventually this baby just sort of gooshed out of me. I had absolutely no real idea what to do after that but I was fascinated with the slime covered package I’d just delivered. I knew I had to disconnect the baby from the placenta that came shortly afterwards. I pulled a string from the hem of my dress and tied it off tightly and then rubbed the edge of one of the metal dog tags on the rough limestone wall above my head, rinsed it in the pan, and then used the newly sharpened “knife” to cut the umbilical cord awau.

It was only after I’d finished that and brought the yowling baby up to nurse like I had seen LauraBeth do that I finally realized I had a son. “Your Daddy will be so proud of us. And just wait until he get a load of you. You may be small but you sure are feisty.”

I was exhausted but strangely unable to settle. All the women that I had listened to had said as soon as they had given birth and made sure the baby had all its fingers and toes they were so exhausted they fell into a dreamless sleep. Not me.

I tried to put it down to the mess. I hate sleeping in a messy bed and a blood soaked mattress certainly qualified as messy but it was more than that. I didn’t know what was wrong but I was beginning to freak out … and beginning to hurt again. I couldn’t tell if my fear was causing the pain or if the pain was causing the fear.

I know I’ve written several times of being afraid since I had been kidnapped, even petrified and ready to die but this fear, there is no describing it. I didn’t know what was going on. My baby was here, I couldn’t get sick, I couldn’t die. There was no one to take care of … to take care of … and out of nowhere I knew exactly what my baby’s name was. There was no one around to take care of Beau. I had to be OK. I had to be the one to put Beau into Rand’s arms.

I felt like I was splitting wide open all over again and then I realized something in a very disconnected way. My stomach had never gotten flaccid, there was something still in there. I pushed and pushed and pushed to get it out thinking I'd somehow missed a descriptive step in one of the books or that there was more than placenta left in me. I even thought, "Tumor." Whatever it was it was so much harder get out than Beau who lay there crying pathetically while I was unable to comfort him. And then finally with one last herculean effort I finally succeeded in gettingit out of me … and it started crying too.

“Two of them?” I thought, thunderstruck at the very notion. “What the heck am I supposed to do with two of them?!”

But I repeated the process of detaching the baby from the umbilical cord and placenta and brought the two babies up to my bare chest trying to warm them since the night air had a weird chill to it despite it being the middle of summer.

A boy … and a girl. Beau … and Belle. As I juggled the tandem nursing the babies demanded I thought, “Rand is so going to freak out. Someone needs to have a movie camera going when I show up with not one but two babies in tow.”

But it wasn’t to be that easy. Sometime during the night I started feeling sick.

Chapter Ninety-Eight

Chapter 98

No matter how hard I try to focus on details that first day and week is still kind of hazy. I don’t know if it is shock or what but it feels like there are chunks of time missing, or maybe I was just “gone away” trying to deal with my terror.

I remember sitting in the orchard, trying to escape some of the heat. I remember feeling full as a tick from eating the first of the ripe plums. I can even remember how juicy and delicious they were in contrast to my expectations; I was surprised that the drought hadn’t done more damage to them. Rand and Austin had come and gone again and then I heard a noise like they’d come back for some reason and that’s when I was attacked.

A large man back handed me hard enough to set my ear to ringing, cause a gash inside my mouth and bloody my nose all in just a single swat. I tried to grab my gun but it was kicked away from me by another man and in the process it felt like a couple of my fingers had been broken although it turned out they were just badly bruised and sprained.

I remember Fraidy squalling as she leapt from the limb she’d been laying on above where I had been sitting. She raked the face of the man that had hit me and he shouted and threw her off and then shot at her. I was too disoriented at the time to know whether she had been hit but I later found out that she’d collapsed on the spot, bleeding profusely for an animal her size. That and shock is what killed her, I just didn’t know it then.

Before I even had time to register the questions of who and why in my mind a sledge hammer sized fist caught me on the side of the head and that’s all I remember clearly for what seems a long time.

I must have been in and out of consciousness several times because hazy pictures, like phantasms drifting in front of me, give me the feeling that I was lifted up onto a horse and held there in a vice like grip. Then there is a sense of being transferred to small boat, maybe a canoe or bassboat and covered by something that crinkled and smelled bad. But that was the last thing until I came to completely and found myself in the dark. I could tell it was night after I sat up and peered through the small, mesh covered windows used to ventilate the box that I and several other women and girls were being held in. I could also tell we were being transported on some type of wagon by the sound of wheels, hooves, and the creaking the wood made as it swayed.

“Where are we? What’s going on?” I asked the woman I knew was beside me though I could not see her face clearly.

“Shhhh,” several of them shushed. “Don’t make noise.”

I didn’t have time to wonder why because something loud was banged on the box we were in and an oily voice said, “Last warning. One more cluck out of you hens and I’ll pull to the side of the road and let my men use you until you grasp the concept of obedience.”

I felt a hand, a calloused but definitely female hand, cover my mouth. Not hard enough to hurt my busted lip but firm enough for me to get the point that this wasn’t the first warning that had been given and that the group didn’t want to pay the consequences for one captive’s actions.

The motion of the wagon was nausea inducing and I fell into a stupor just to escape feeling ill and frightened at the same time. As a few days passed, and we continued being transported like livestock, I learned that I wasn’t the only pregnant female in the group. In fact almost three-quarters of the dozen women were obviously pregnant but I was the one furthest along. It made no sense but no answers were forthcoming. We were forbidden to speak or make any sort of noise or communicate with each other in any way.

It was a strange existence. We were let out of the box three times a day under heavy guard. While we were out of the box we took care of our bodily functions and were fed surprisingly well. I don’t know about the other women but I was so numbed that I really wasn’t living in this dimension of time and space. I thought of Rand and Austin and everyone else but it was like I existed in a fog that protected me. It was a lot like the fugue state I had survived in after the accident … I was insulated and protected and was able to function to a primitive degree that helped me to survive without drawing unwanted attention. But even in my state however I could tell some of the other women weren’t fairing as well.

On my fourth fully wakeful day one of the women finally collapsed completely. She was one of the pregnant ones. She started cramping and bleeding. The other women tried to hush her cries of pain and fear but I’d gone beyond the level of simple acceptance.

Despite the other women practically begging me to stop I tried to get the Oily Man’s attention. “Excuse me …. Hey Mister … excuse me … we have an emergency and …”

The wagon stopped, “What did I say was going to happen if you hens gave me any trouble?” he snarled.

Forcing myself to behave in an ingratiating way I said, “Yes sir, I know sir but one of the women … she’s bleeding pretty badly.”

There was a great deal of cursing that was followed by, “You better not be yanking my chain you little @#$%& or I’ll guarantee you won’t be fit to serve a man for the rest of your life. Cardo, see if we have a sick hen in the box.”

The guy the Oily Man had called Cardo opened the larger window on the back door of the box letting enough light in that we all had to shield our eyes. One look was enough to convince him there was a problem and he let out a string of foul words that would have peeled paint if there had been any on the box.

It was over in less than two hours and they hid the body of the woman and her stillborn daughter in a shallow grave that wouldn’t have kept out the laziest scavengers. We were all sniveling and crying if we weren’t in shock and that’s when the Oily Man gave another one of his terror inducing ultimatums.

“Listen up you buncha broody hens. I won’t accept the loss of any more profit. You feel the baby coming you cross your legs and you hold it. We’ll be where we’re going in less than a day. Anyone of you do what that one did and before you expire you’ll wish you’d never been born. I’ll gut you and take the baby out of your body myself before I let another one of you spoil this haul for me.”

We were all forced to eat even though none of us had an easy time of choking the contents of the MRE down. But either we all ate or we would all reap the consequences. Peer pressure was how they’d started out controlling us and they still haven’t deviated from that tactic. After that we were made to drink some kind of electrolyte drink and the remaining eleven of us were forced back into the box while my back and tail bone ached in protest.

It still didn’t make a bit of sense to me, none of it did. I’d never heard of slavers that actually sought out heavily pregnant women. It would seem to be a contradiction. We couldn’t do the kind of work that would make our purchase worth it. Certainly we weren’t fit to be a part of some male fantasy racket. And the way they were feeding us and taking care of our needs … relatively speaking anyway … made even less sense. We had nothing in common with the Sabine women of Roman folklore. All I could think of was the stories like the women of Jabesh-gilead, the Midianites, the victims of the Canaanites … all the stories that my Aunt had used to criticize in painful detail the treatment of women in the Bible. I had to stop after that because I couldn’t handle my own thoughts anymore.

It was some hours before dawn of the following day when I started to hear water … big water as in moving water and the kind of wind you only get along a shore line. I hadn’t known whether it was fresh or salt water until I smelled the tendrils of air that penetrated our prison.

The briney smell got stronger and then we could hear and feel the wagon switch from the rutted dirt and paved roads that we’d gotten used to to some type of wooden planks. And then the wagon stopped.

We were left to wonder what was going on because no one bothered to tell us. In fact it was eerily quiet except for the creek and groan of what I was to learn were the ropes that tied a ship to a dock at the abandoned and derelict yacht club where we waited.

After nearly half an hour the back door of our box flew open and we were ordered to climb out and line up. Our only connection to our past soon drove away as the Oily Man and his minions left without a backward glance and were replaced by men that were even harsher. A man whose voice and grammar belied his rough nautical appearance said, “Well ladies, times a wasting. Follow Mr. Hempley to the holding area so you can receive your promised ticket for a free cruise.” When none of us moved the formerly benign smile turned into a shark’s grin. “Move. Now. Some of you aren’t so far gone that the men on this dock wouldn’t be happy to spend some quality time with you.”

We moved.

We were driven into two chain linked cages that reminded me of large dog runs. The first one held all of the non-pregnant women, all young and relatively pretty under the dirt and grime of their captivity. Those of us who were pregnant were ushered to a cage on the other side of a warehouse where we found even more of our kind. Here it didn’t matter what your age or looks were, just so long as you were healthy and obviously well into or passed your second trimester.

Rough looking men walked around with the kind of automatic weapons I hadn’t seen since my run in with the Russians. But these weren’t foreigners. The few times I heard the men speak they had American accents … most of them were kind of mid-west but a few stood out … Kennedy sound-alikes from Massachusetts, Minnesota with their long drawn out O’s, a beach blonde “Dude” from the west coast. The deep south had their fair share of representatives too that sounded too much like home to me not to bring a tear to my eyes.

Every so often two men would come in, separate one or two women out of the group and push or drag them down a hallway where they disappeared never to be seen or heard again. I tried to catch the eye of some of the women but they were all too frightened and cowed to do anything but avoid me. Finally I was too tired and too sore to try anymore. The fingers on my right hand were still swollen and discolored and hard to bend. I found a relatively clean piece of floor, sat down, leaned against the fence and re-entered my protective fog.

I don’t know how long I was like that but at some point I started noticing that I could hear snatches of male conversation coming out of a broken window one floor up from where I sat.

“This will be quite a manifest Mr. Hempley. I do believe that I’ll be able to refill the coffers of my retirement plan as planned.”

A bored snort was his only response.

“And yourself Mr. Hempley? Do you still wish to buy me out as soon as the season ends?”

“Ayuh. You wouldn’t be thinking of backing out of the deal now would you?” A man with a Maine accent asked with a dangerous edge to his voice.

“Oh perish the thought. Why would I do such a thing? I have other plans for my life that do not include this two-bit dog and pony show.”

There was some quiet and then the Educated Man asked, “Any trouble makers in this group? If there are the sooner I know the sooner they can be culled from the inventory.”


“No there aren’t any or no you think there aren’t any?” the Educated Man asked in a slightly irritated voice.

“Nah, theyah all numb from the shouldahs up.”

I could almost see the satisfied look on the Educated Man’s face. “Good, good. The fewer culls the higher the profit we’ll turn. As it is I have more orders for brats than I could fill in a year.”

I felt my stupor draining from me. Brats? Were they talking about us … or about our babies?

“Got sahm that are close tah poppin.” I was beginning to get extremely annoyed at the casual disregard for humanity in that New England voice.

“Too close to transport intact?”

“Ayuh. Mebbe.”

Again I could hear the irritation in the Educated Man’s voice. “Well, which is it, yes or no?”

“Where I in chahge I’d put ‘em on the next ship out.”

“Hmmmm.” A brief silence and then, “Done. It will mean running heavy on an already overloaded packet but needs must when the devil drives.”

“Barometah’s droppin.”

With the business over with the Educated Man’s attention was on something else. “And?”

“Weathah’s turnin.”

“Oh Lord, not more of your heathen weatherlore.”

“Ayuh, but I’m not the bahsmahn.”

“And don’t you forget it. You show me the money and you can buy me out, maybe even sooner than you think. But until then go get the next packet ready for loading and shipping out.”

A grunt and the sound of a chair dragging across a floor and the conversation was over with. Trying to appear nonchalant I looked around to see if anyone else had heard and not one of them appeared to have done so until I looked into the eyes of a dark skinned woman who was also leaning against that part of the fence. Our eyes looked questions at each other, hers wiser than mine. I looked at her belly and she was even bigger than I was.

It took fifteen minutes but she slowly maneuvered until we were near each other. It was another few minutes while she repositioned herself and pretended to sleep while the guards passed by our position. I nearly jumped when she finally whispered from nearly unmoving lips, “We’ll be next.”

Looking around I saw she was right, we were the only two that looked big enough to fit the description of being ‘ready to pop.’

I nodded as I scratched my nose. I hid my lips behind the same hand, “Do you know what they mean?”

It took forever but I finally pieced together her disjointed phrases and my own questions uttered like code so that no one else would be able to tell we were having a conversation. “These slavers, they kidnap pregnant women and sell them to these places called brood farms. One of the pandemic vaccines given in Europe during the second wave seems to have affected the fertility of a significant number of people that got that particular shot. So many children were lost and there are still plenty of people in the world with money to buy a baby to raise as their own and inherit their wealth.”

“If it was a vaccine given in Europe what’s the problem here?”

“A lot of rich people went overseas to get the shot that the FDA refused to approve and import for US distribution." As soon as she said it I vaguel remember the scandal of it when the cat was let out of the bag. "It did protect people from the second wave but when the third wave rolled around some mutation in the virus got mixed up with the vaccine antibodies and it attacked the reproductive organs of the vaccine recipients.”

“How do you know this?”

“My brother is a radio tech in the Army in the Keys and I worked at the Base medical center. I got taken during a pirate raid to take out the Station on Key Largo. I’ve been here longer than most of the others you see in this pen. My husband was a Norwegian ex-pat and I made the mistake of thinking that it would be harder to place a bi-racial child and I hoped to hold on long enough to be rescued. Only it turns out the reverse is true. My baby is considered an ‘exotic’ and the bidding really gets jacked up when they have one that is guaranteed.”

I was … well I don’t think there is a single word in the English language that described what I was at that moment, mostly though my mad was coming back and erasing the protective fog I’d been drifting along in. I still had enough sense though to hide it when I was ordered, at gun point, to take my own walk down the long hallway.

Something must have shown though because at the end of the hallway the body that belonged to the voice of the Educated Man stopped me and my escort. “Hmmm. Looking a little … militant. Are we going to have trouble with you?”

I did the first thing that popped into my head. I started breathing faster, closed my eyes shut tight and muttered, “I’m not going to be sick. I’m not going to be sick. I’m not going to be sick," like I'd never heard his question.

A rather contemptuous look followed by a jerk of his head telling us to move along told me that I’d managed to pull off my subterfuge. But my anger was warring with my fear as I was taken onto what looked like a pleasure craft that used to take cruises out into the Gulf. It wasn’t big as far as cruise ships went … one of those dinner, dancing, and gambling boats they used to scam the tourists and retirees with … but it was bigger than anything I’d ever been on.

I was taken to and then locked in a room with several other pregnant women. A few moments later the woman I’d been whispering with was also ushered into the room. The only positive to mention was that the room had a bathroom attached to it and it was used well and frequently by all of us. A few hours later we were given food but my new friend – her name was Taylora – shook her head and only played at eating while putting some of the fruit and sealed packages into her pocket. I pulled the same ploy while the other women acted starved to death and fell on the food like hyenas.

“What gives? Is it drugged?” I whispered.

I could see her nostrils flare while she looked at the other women, “No. You don’t have much experience of being on the water do you?”

“No,” I whispered back.

“Trust me, until you know how your stomach is going to act the last thing you want to do is fill it up with unfamiliar food.”

Made sense at the time. Made a lot more sense after we had headed out into open water. Taylora and I were the only two not puking our guts up as the waves got rougher and rougher but it was close for both of us. The smell and the sound of retching was almost more than I could stand.

Then it started to rain and thunder. Taylora appeared frightened for the first time. She crossed herself and said, “Someone has lost their marbles. We need to find a safe harbor and fast. This is some bad ju-ju. Can’t you feel it?”

“Yeah but maybe they’ve figured it out. We seem to be going a lot faster than we were before and … ACK! … Lordy, what is the deal with trying to operate this thing as a wave runner? We’re too big for wave … oomph … hopping!”

Taylora and I both would have been knocked to the ground if she hadn’t told me to make sure I always had something close at hand to grab in case a freak wave rocked the vessel. The other women weren’t quite as lucky though and now instead of being able to puke into the toilet or sink they were heaving onto the floor where they’d fallen.

Then there was the sound of an explosion. Taylora shook her head. “This isn’t right, the engine is the other direction. I hope those fools haven’t let any explosives just roll around in this storm.”

And then one of the starboard windows gave a huge crack as something slammed into at high velocity. Taylora shouted a fairly imaginative curse regarding the origins of the male species and told us all, “Get down and stay down! We’ve got some fools shooting at us!”

Now you could hear the sounds of large caliber, automatic weapons going off and frantic running up and down the hallway outside of our locked door.

“Taylora, let’s try and get the door unlocked!” I shouted above the chaos.

“And go where?!” she asked like I’d lost my mind.

“No where for now but at least it would give us other options! What do we have to lose?”

The only problem was there wasn’t anything left in the room that would make a good weapon. I took off my boot and tried whacking at the knob but because of my hand and the rocking of the boat I couldn’t hit it hard enough to do any good. And then suddenly there was a huge noise and it felt like we’d hit a sand bar or reef or something.

I only got it partially right … we hadn't hit, we'd been hit by something but that something was another boat ramming us. All of the women screamed and cried and prayed to whatever they believed in. Only Taylora and I seemed to still be capable of constructive thinking. A battle raged over our heads and then it got closer. Occasionally a bullet would penetrate the thin walls, once even coming close enough to me to crease the calf of my leg. I was down on the floor with Taylora trying to tie a makeshift bandage from strips off both of our dresses when there was sudden silence.

Then the boat did some kind of strange twist followed by a sudden list to the port. That got the other women screaming again. Taylora and I helped each other to our feet and I had just drawn back my arm to go at the door knob again when the door was actually wrenched open from the other side.

An apparition stood in the door frame and said, “Ladies, we need to go … now!”

Several men in sailors’ uniforms rushed in and started hauling the gapping women out and up the stairs to the main deck. Taylora and I struggled up the stairs both of us gasping for air and holding our stomachs by the time we’d reached the last one. That’s when Taylora bent over and groaned.

“Taylora?” I asked, worried for my new friend.

“Oh why didn’t I listen to my mother?! She said if I married Jarl all of our sons would be born on the water. I am so going to kill that man!”

A pink faced boy that didn’t look as old as I was got a panicky look on his face and asked, “Ma’am? Are you say …?”

Taylora squinted at him and asked, “What do you think I’m saying boy?! I’m in labor!!!” before nearly falling over.

“Medic! Medic!!!!” the boy yelled, his voice cracking.

“What’s the problem Murphy?” asked the man who had busted down the door after running over.

“She’s having a baby!”

“No kidding … oh … Oh @#$%!! Here, get her over to the railing. We need to get these women off. The storm is growing worse and she’s starting to list badly.” Even as the words left his mouth the boat shuddered and shifted under our feet and the rain was now coming down directly onto the deck making it slippery.

The calm removal of the woman from the damaged vessel suddenly became chaotic and the screams and cries of the women competed with the wind and rain that had definitely grown worse.

Taylora was across as were half the other women when one of the lines linking the cutter and slaver vessel snapped injuring two of the sailors on our side. They were sent over and then the rest of the women went across, each accompanied by a sailor to try and speed up the evacuation process. Then it was down to me and the last sailor.

The waves were fierce and the salt spray stung my eyes so bad I could barely see. Both ships were rocking and even over the roar of the storm I could hear how tortured the ropes sounded. And then the slaver ship seemed to completely give up the fight and started listing to the port and showing its underside. I held my breath so long my chest hurt as the cutter was pulled over. As fast as they tried to bring us on board it wasn’t fast enough. The tension finally broke, the remaining ropes snapped and the sailor and I dropped into the waves below us.

Chapter Ninety-Seven

Chapter 97

A young girl nudged Rand, waking him from an accidental doze.

“Peepaw, you promised after you finished your glass of tea you would tell us the rest of the story of your first true love.”

“Oh I did did I?” he playfully teased as he hugged his sweet little granddaughter. He looked over at his daughter in law and saw that she was about to “rescue him” from the rest of the story telling but he shook his head. Everyone in the family knew that he’d been sensitive about what had happened for years, still was if he was honest with himself. After they’d stolen his bride away and her big and pregnant he’d gone through a bad time that took a long while to get over. He’d turn hard against anyone that he thought was a threat and he wasn’t near as generous or forgiving when he thought someone was trying to take advantage of him and his.

Uncle George, Ram, Ken, Bill, Mitch … and their families … they all stood by him during the worst of it and eventually, slowly he healed and could once again interact with people without immediately assuming the worst. But here he was, an old man … probably older than he had any right to expect he'd get to be considering the world he’d lived through … and still he’d wake up in the night in a cold sweat searching for his lost bride in the dark of the house.

Austin, despite being just a boy and a young one at that, was a lifesaver during those early weeks and months. He remembered being so tore up there were days he’d have a hard time getting all the farm work done and would have let it go and hang the consequences if he hadn’t needed to be a provider. Even his health was affected and in the fall of that year he got a bad case of pneumonia that almost took him off. But he survived and despite everything Sparkleberry Ranch had grown and prospered.

Austin never did leave home except for a brief spell when he’d worked with Ram. He’d gotten a chance to see a bit of the world but in the end chose to come back and eventually marry a local girl. During that time the rule of land was that if you could fence it in and maintain it then it was yours whether you had a piece of legal paper to prove it or not. When Austin married they’d finally finished fencing in one of the eighty acre plots next to Sparkleberry Ranch’s original forty and they built a little house so that Austin and his wife could have some privacy. These days it was Austin’s sons that did a lot of the heavier work around the home place leaving him to rest on his laurels a bit. Seems people age faster than they use to and when he looked in the mirror in the mornings he didn’t see a man in the prime of his life, not yet sixty, but a grizzled and white haired old geezer that he nearly didn’t recognize.

Last week a rare inland hurricane had taken most of the roof off of Austin’s house and now this house was filled to the rafters with kids and household goods like it hadn’t been in years. As much as he loved having everyone around every so often the children sometimes rattled his nerves. Yesterday had been one such day and he’d sought peace and quiet up in the hidden room, a space that rarely saw use except in times like these. Mostly it had become a repository of everything that no one used but didn’t want to throw out just in case it might one day come in handy again.

He’d been cleaning out and organizing some piles of such debris when he saw her old portable desk. The rain that day had ruined it. He’d tried at various times to repair it but the water damage had mangled the joints, swelled the lid so badly the hinges didn’t work, and thrown the whole box out of square. He’d finally given up on it and he still remembered when Austin carried it upstairs because his inability to repair it and make it like new upset him.

He’d picked it up and when he’d tried to open it the whole thing fell apart in his hands. It shook him up pretty good and as he was picking up the pieces he noticed her journal. When she’d first gone missing he carried it everywhere with him and then after a while he’d practically enshrined the thing like a religious artifact. He flipped through the pages and even found some leaves and flowers that she'd pressed and used as bookmarks. He remembered he’d even written in it once but never had again feeling it was somehow sacrilegious. But there it was again, and in pretty good shape too considering its age and lack of special care to preserve it.

He didn’t have a clue what made him do it but he sat down and read it, once again reliving that first year and remembering all the bad things but finally found he had survived long enough to accept the comfort of the good of those times as well.

This morning the little girls had been pestering him for a story and nothing seemed to suit his mood except for him to tell them about how things used to be. Oh he’d glossed over some of the horrors, they were just little girls and he didn’t want to give them nightmares, but now he’d come to the worst part of the story and he’d been struggling to find a way to finish it. He wanted them to know the truth so they could really appreciate what life had been like but …

“I swear Rand Joiner, nearly forty years and I still can’t get you to leave your muddy boots out on the porch. Look at my kitchen floor. Now I’m going to have to mop it before I can start cleaning this corn so I can get it canned up. And get that innocent look off your face Austin, your boots are just as bad as his.”

Austin grinned, “Yes Momma.” Turning to Rand he said, “I’m going to go check the triticale, see if that back corner of the plot is salvageable or not.”

Rand grumped, “You going to leave me to be the only one tortured for dragging in mud?”

Austin laughed outright at that, “You love and you know it. Momma, if the kids get to fretting you, send ‘em out to the field and I’ll work off some of their energy for you.”

Austin kissed the gray-haired woman on the cheek and left the house. She turned and noticed the book in Rand’s hands. “My word, where on earth did you find that old thing? I haven’t seen it in years. I thought it must have gotten put in the compost pile.”

The little girl was now getting very impatient with the adults. She’d been promised a story and a story was what she wanted. “Memaw, Peepaw was telling us the story of his first true love.”

The old woman cocked an eyebrow at the old man, “Oh he was was he?”

“Yes ma’am. It was so exciting; full of adventure and love and bad guys and good guys and all sorts of stuff. They don’t tell us these kinds of story in school, they make everything sooooo boring. But now he won’t finish, he just wants to take a nap.” The little girl was a little spoiled, she was the youngest of the Austin’s children and they’d gotten lax with her.

“And with that attitude you may never hear the rest of the story. You want me to send you out to the field like your father said?”

The little girl knew when her Memaw used that tone of voice you’d better rethink how you were behaving. “No ma’am. I’m sorry but … but he was just getting to the good part, the part I never get to hear about because everyone thinks I’m too little.”

“Oh,” the old woman said in understanding. She looked over at her husband of so many years and saw he’d been reliving those awful weeks all over again. She turned to the little girl and said, “That was a bad time for everyone Joy. It was when your father was still a little boy. And it was the summer right before Peepaw got so sick we didn’t know whether we’d lose him.”

“But I know that part of it, Mr. Lester has assigned the highschool class to do a recitation of the community history for the county fair tomorrow. I just want to hear about the rest of it … how you escaped and survived and eventually came back to Peepaw and lived happily ever after. I’m a big girl now, it won’t give me bad dreams like Paulie says, I know it won’t.”

Kiri looked at Rand and then reached over and ran her calloused fingers through his thinning hair. “I tell you what Joy, you help me skin this corn out of their husks and help me get all of the silk off and I’ll tell you the rest of the story. We’ll let Peepaw sit and rock a spell and just listen. That sound good?”

And the little girl jumped up and grabbed a large woven basket made from palmetto fronds and put it on the floor at her feet and picked up the first cob and began to husk it with a will. “Yes ma’am. I’ll help do all of it just please, please, please tell the story.”

Kiri just laughed and shook her head and pulled up a chair to do her share of the corn while Rand rocked and listened with half an ear while he remembered what was written on the last few pages of the journal.

July 31st – Rand is finally asleep. He watches me like a hawk and it makes me nervous how intense he is. I move just a little bit and he jumps a mile. Ken was by this morning; the off and on bleeding has finally stopped all together and the fever hasn’t come back for over a week now. He agreed with me that it wasn’t going to hurt for me to get out of this bed and get a little exercise and I thought Rand was going to come unglued.

I finally managed to get him to go check on Pretty Boy for me to see if he was healed up from where that stranger cat had come around looking for an easy dinner. The cat lost in a very permanent way once Woofer got to it but it was costly battle for my bantum. It seems like a lot of varmints have made it their business to know Fraidy isn't around anymore. I still miss her even though I know she was just a cat. I need to domesticate one of her kittens but they are all so feral I haven’t got the strength or patience to tame one of them yet.

While Rand was out of the room I asked Ken about how Rand was acting. “If I had to diagnose him I’d say he was suffering from PTSD. That’s …”

I brushed his explanation off and I told him, “I know what it is, that’s what they thought I had after the accident. But why would he have it and not me? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Kiri, Rand was in … he was in very bad shape while you were gone. A couple of us were really beginning to wonder if we wouldn’t lose him too. I expected him to just fade away or ride off on that horse of his to wander forever looking for you like some ghost of who he used to be. If it hadn’t been for Austin I expect that is exactly what he would have done.”

“I know. You aren’t the first person that has told me that. And I can see with my own eyes the truth of it. But what I want to know is what I can do to help him.”

“There isn’t much you can do except to try and give him some time and understanding. This will either resolve itself or it won’t; either way it is going to take time.”

I’ve tried to get Rand to talk about it some to try and bleed off some of the bad feelings but what do I know? I can remember resisting everyone’s attempts to get me to talk after the accident that killed my family; I shouldn’t be surprised that Rand is doing the same thing. But I am. Rand is supposed to be the level-headed one, the steady one. Now it feels like we are reversing roles and I’m just about too hurt and tired to manage it right now.

I got up to change my gown this morning when I stumbled across my journal. My desk is a lost cause even though Rand swears he’ll fix it for me. That’s a fairy tale if ever there was one but he seems so insistent that I don’t have the heart to try and argue him out of it as a waste of time.

I read what he wrote after that day and it worries me as much as the way he is acting now. I have a feeling that we have a long hard row to hoe in front of us. Mrs. Withrow, who came by a couple of days ago, says this whole area does. Between the storm damage and the civil unrest that reminded everyone of the worst days after the last pandemic wave there is just so much work to be done and nowhere near the resources to get it done like there used to be. The abandoned properties have long ago been picked over and picked apart for scrap building supplies, firewood, or burnt down to deal with rodent infestation. The remnants of the government and military are almost solely focused on trying to keep other countries from pilfering what resources we have left. Ram was saying the other day that we can’t count on recycling forever, that we have got to rebuild some type of manufacturing base or we are going to really fall back into the Dark Ages and that it might last longer than the first one did.

I guess I’m still weaker than I want to admit because to even start thinking about all of that stuff makes me physically ill. And when Rand notices it, especially after someone has come for a visit and I’ve gotten a little bit of a view of what is going on beyond my own front porch, he starts swearing up and down that there isn’t going to be another visitor come through our door until they learn to watch their mouths.

I’m still finding it so hard to understand how I could go through what I went through and come out better off than Rand has who only experienced it from the outside. Wait, that isn’t fair. He just experienced a different part of the situation, a different facet. This is so confusing. Maybe if I write out what happened I’ll be able to understand things better, more objectively.

Chapter Ninety-Six

Chapter 96

June 15th –

I swear that I’ll find you. If it takes the rest of my life Kiri I will find you. I won’t let it end this way, I won’t let this end at all. I feel so guilty Babe. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t here when you needed me … again. When Austin and I got back and couldn’t find you I didn't know what to think. I got mad; I thought you had gone off on your own. But I know you wouldn't be this cruel, you wouldn't have gone this long, worried me like this, if you could help it.

It was Austin that found the blood in the orchard when he heard Woofer start howling. We did everything we could for Fraidy but it wasn’t enough. I don’t know how I’m going to tell you when you get home that your poor cat is gone.

I saved your journal. It got a little wet in the rain but not too bad. I swear I didn’t mean to read it, not at first. I was just cleaning it up, setting your pen and ink in their slots in the portable desk, putting everything back together so you’d know where it is when you get home. But once I started I couldn’t seem to stop. It was like falling in love with you all over again. I learned things about you that I never knew. So many times you worried for nothing and the times you should have been worried it doesn’t even seem to have registered. We have a lot to talk about. Soon. When you get home.

The raiders are all over the place. There are so many of them. There was some kind of escape off of one of the prison barrier islands and they let loose some of the prison barges. It’s been like being swarmed by bees. I need you here, where I can see you and know you are safe. Where are you?!

Ram is crazy. Crazier than he normally is. He and Bill, they’ve interrogated a few men but no one knows what we are talking about. There’s been rumors … seems like the slavers are joined up with the escaped convicts. I pray that you are safe. You have to be. You need to come home. The baby will be here soon and I want you to sit down and rest before that happens. You have to be here so I can take care of you, tell you I'm sorry ... so we can make up.

Austin is finally asleep. He’s so shook up that he doesn’t know whether he is coming or going. I wanted him to go stay with Uncle George but he nearly came unglued at the mere suggestion so I didn’t push him.

I haven’t been able to sleep. I can’t sleep. How am I supposed to sleep with you not here?

Chapter Ninety-Five

Chapter 95

Jun 4th – Things have been real quiet. We were supposed to go to church today but the weather has looked so scary that Rand doesn’t want to leave Sparkleberry Ranch. I can’t blame him. I hate when the sky has that nasty green tinge to it. Still no rain but I’m thinking we might see something soon; there has been some really odd, cold breezes come out of nowhere.

June 5th – I’d no sooner written those words last night than we had a brief hail storm followed by a heavy down pour that lasted almost an hour. It was scary the way the wind whipped and shook things. Rand went out this morning and two huge limbs were in our road. He used the mules to pull them to the side and then he and Austin went to check on folks.

It wasn’t good. Not many people saw the hail but the heavy down pour caught a lot by surprise. Momma O’s family was okay and so was most everyone else on our side of the county but word at the Shack was that down in Mayo and further south outside the county in Bell and Trenton, the damage was pretty extensive. Lots of downed trees. Both the rivers were able to hold the water and keep any flooding at bay. Maybe that was the reason for the drought, so that the rivers and streams and ponds would be low enough to hold the rain to keep something worse from happening.

I’m just beat all to pieces. Scared myself for one. I thought I really was in labor but with both Rand and Austin away I didn’t have any choice but to let things be whatever it was going to be. But it stopped. It must have been that false labor, those Braxton-Hicks contractions, that the books and the other women have spoken to me about. The worry did more harm than the scare did.

I never realized, not really ever given myself a chance to realize, that I’m scared. I’ve hurt before and I know you survive it, especially since I know that it will be over with at some point, but I’m scared all the same. To think that some little person is going to come out of me, possibly ripping me to up in the process … I can’t tell you the dreams I’m starting to have about it. If I write the dreams down it means that I’m going to have to admit to being scared.

I haven’t told Rand about it because I already know he is scared and worried. He hasn’t said as much in so many words … well, maybe a little … but he’s been trying really hard not to show it. He still thinks about LauraBeth and what she went through. And I think he thinks about the other stories we’ve heard about how the birth is going OK one minute and then suddenly there is some major emergency and no one to help with it. Sometimes the stories still come out all right but a lot of the time they don’t. I guess that is why the old cemeteries are so full of babies and women who have died giving birth to them.

Gak … morbid. I just have to have faith. But at the same time I can’t be blind to what might happen … not what will but what might.

I’ve been making a notebook. I haven’t told Rand about it, nor Austin. It is a book about a lot of stuff that if something happens to me, the last of my family, I would want someone to remember. Most of the stuff in the notebook is good. And it has been good for me … therapeutic … to remember it and write it down. But some of the stuff hasn’t been good. But, it has still been good to write it out. It is the kind of stuff that teaches life lessons, about my mistakes that I don’t want my kid to repeat.

If something does happen, that notebook will be for whoever is left … the baby … or Rand. Gosh, I’m making myself cry. Better stop before Rand asks why.

June 7th – I’ve finally got everything for the baby finished. All the stuff for the cradle and the baby bed. All the little clothes. I’ve gotten the diapers sewn and the little covers to go over the diapers. I decided to do everything in yellow and green. Actually I didn’t have much choice to do everything in yellow and green, it is the only yarn and embroidery floss that I had in any quantity.

I finished the edging on the last spit up rag as Rand and Austin were sitting down to a late lunch. And get this … Rand asks, “Why are you bothering to put a lace edge on a rag the kid is going to puke on?”

“Because I can. I want the baby to have … stuff to use that doesn’t look like it comes out of a rag bag.”

“But it did come out of a rag bag. Right? You didn’t use trade goods to buy something like that … did you?”

So what if I did. I contribute plenty to the stuff that goes to the Shack. I don’t know why Rand had to get so bent out of shape about it. He’s never acted that way before. I don’t know why he had to act that way today. He got all snippy and started lecturing me … me of all people … about being more frugal and being responsible.

I was so surprised that I just sat there and took it. Then he got up and stomped outside and went back to work. I sure as heck don’t know what burr he sat on.

June 8th – Rand is still foul and now I’m foul. We got in this really big … well it was big but we had to whisper so that Austin couldn’t hear us … argument. It was after we went to bed last night. He wanted to cuddle and I have to tell you I was just too tired and hot to cuddle and well, one thing led to another and he started acting all weird and saying stuff that totally isn’t true. Like I only think of the baby. Or, I never pay him that particular kind of attention anymore and don’t want to either.

Personally I think he’s lost his marbles or something. I’m fat. I’ve got stretch marks that are competing with my scars, neither of which will ever go away. I’m hot. No matter what I do I can’t get away from it. I can’t even enjoy a cool bath anymore because Ken says that it might not be such a good idea. I’m so big and so far along I can’t get in and out without a lot of help and I could get hurt. None of my shoes fit so I’m barefooted or in tired sandals all the time which shows my legs and only a couple of pieces of my clothes fit … and that’s if I don’t mind that they’re so tight you can see my stomach ripple with the baby moves. And I feel like I have an alien inside me. Yeah, I’m going to feel like doing that sort of stuff when I feel like this. Right. Sure I will.

We’ve only been talking to each other because we don’t want to upset Austin. I suppose that is something to work with but still … first the lecture on money like I’m some kind of spendaholic bimbo and now he acts like I don’t have any consideration at all for his feelings.

Oh no … more thunder. That’s all we need.

Jun 9th – Rain. And rain. And some more rain. Either Rand is going to go out of this house for a while or I am. I’m so mad I could just about spit. You know, if he is scared that is one thing but he’s making me feel like I’m disgusting or something and I’m … I’m …

I think I’m gonna cry. What did I ever do to wind up in this kind of situation?

June 10th – Wash day … in the rain. It was either wash or watch all the dirty clothes mildew and ruin. Rand acted like I was out of my mind and then complained that I had laundry strung all through the house like a hillbilly housewife … and threw in the barefoot and pregnant remark just to get a little dig in.

We aren’t speaking to each other at all now. He made me so mad I threw a pair of his wet underwear at him and they caught him in the face and the look of surprise caught me off guard and I started to laugh.

Then he really went off how I didn’t appreciate anything. That he was stressed out and it was shaving years off his life and had I seen that he’d actually started having gray hair and … and then I lost it and left the room and went upstairs to the hidden bonus room and locked the door and had a long cry.

He did try to come up a couple of times but I was still pretty wasted and I screamed at him to stay away and leave me alone since I didn’t seem to suit him anymore. He stopped after a while and I guess I fell asleep on the pallet up here. I got up because I had to use the outhouse but it was too dark and the house was all locked up so I used the bathroom that Austin uses at night.

He just went to bed, left me up in that hot attic space. I guess I can’t blame him. I don’t know what is wrong or what we are coming to. I thought having a baby would be joyous and happy, make us even more of a family but it is so scary and it seems to be doing just the opposite.

I’m so tired I just don’t know what to do anymore.

June 11th – Church day. Doesn’t seem any day is restful any more. I couldn’t sleep hardly at all last night. My back was killing me and I doubt I’ll sleep much tonight after what I heard at the services.

Bandits are getting really bad. You can't go anywhere anymore unless you are armed and most people won't travel alone anymore either ... and won't leave their homes unattended. The cause is supposedly the drought that has ruined a lot of peoples’ gardens. People have reverted to taking what they need whether anyone else wants to give it to them or not just like after the collapse.

The heat, the humidity, the drought followed by these intense rains we’ve been having, the bandits … the news is sobering. I didn’t like the news but at least it took my mind off of my own troubles.

Then the service. Talk about guilt tripping. I swear I wonder how Ken knows just what to preach to make me squirm. It was all about family and how husbands and wives are supposed to treat each other, how men and women are supposed to act. It made me feel worse because it didn’t look like Rand was feeling anywhere near as guilty as I was feeling.

I was so uncomfortable on those old metal chairs. Rand snipped at me to stop squirming and distracting him. I felt the tears welling up and he looked like he was so satisfied by that. I escaped to help with the dinner on the grounds as soon as I saw some of the other women leaving. As soon as I got to the tarp that had been set up all I heard from several ladies was, “Aw Honey, we didn’t expect you to help. We didn’t put you down for anything. Why don’t you just go back inside.”

Well, going back was the last thing I wanted to do so I wandered off behind the building to find a little shade even if I did have to fight the mosquitoes for a share of it.

“Child, come out from them bushes. You’re gonna get chiggers if nothing else.” Nothing like Mrs. Withrow’s commonsense to put me in my place. “Now, you walk with me over to that fountain and you tell me what’s wrong.”

“I didn’t say anything was wrong,” I protested.

“You’re mouth didn’t but I can tell it all the same. And that husband of yours doesn’t appear to be acting himself either.”

I was going to lie to her. I really was. Then it all just came pouring out. All of it … how I was feeling, how Rand was making me feel, how only thinking of how I felt made me feel selfish and therefore worse, how I didn’t understand why Rand was acting like he was acting, just all of it. I kept waiting for her to laugh or tell me I was overreacting, that it was nothing but hormones.

“Come here child. Let’s go sit on that bench over there.” When we were settled, neither of us particularly comfortable on the hard stone, she said, “Now, I can’t tell you why Rand is acting like he is acting. It does sound out of character. Could be for several reasons or he might not have a good reason at all. He might be tired. Or he could just be worried about all the new responsibility that will be coming his way with this baby … and he could be scared that he might be facing those responsibilities on his own if the Good Lord decides to call you Home. Do you want someone … maybe Ken … to speak to him for you?”

“No!” I told her. “Definitely not. I can only imagine that would make it worse, embarrass him … and me. I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong. And If I’m not doing something wrong, what the problem is all of a sudden. I mean the world might be going crazy but Sparkleberry Ranch was a place that … that separated us from all of that. It was out there but it didn’t come home with us. Do you understand what I mean?”

She nodded her head like some kind of wise Buddah, “Sure do. Your house is your home and your home is your haven from the world.”

“Exactly,” I told her.

“But you know you can’t just run away and hide from what is going on. And Rand is out in it more than you. He’s more than likely bringing the worries home with him and you are sensing it even if you don’t know for sure what you are dealing with.”

“So that means that I’m the one not cutting him enough slack.”

“Not necessarily,” she said. “Like I said, I can’t speak for Rand. I do remember what it felt like to be this far along. And I imagine you are pretty worried about what is shortly to come.”

“It’s … it’s not the pain, not really. I’ve lived with pain off and on for a long time … well, a long time to me. I know that pain comes and pain goes. I think … I think I even have the idea of being a mother down now. Austin helped with that a lot. So did remembering my own Momma and how … how she wasn’t perfect but she loved me with her whole heart. I don’t know what it is exactly … just kind of a feeling of … of impending doom.”

“Why child? Why do you think you feel this way?” a thread of concern in her voice.

“Because the other shoe always drops,” I told her finally putting into words what I’d only been dancing around even when I talked to myself. “Things always happen to take away … to take away … “ I couldn’t finish it. Then I whispered, “I’ve been happier these last months than I think I ever have been my whole life, even with all of the bad stuff that has happened. But nothing lasts forever. Nothing. At least not in my experience.”

There. I’d said it. Nothing lasts forever.

I think she was going to say something but then there was a scream, not of fear but of anger. Mrs. Withrow and I moved at about the same speed these days so we limped our way over to where the ruckus was going on. There was a crowd and I heard a woman’s voice screaming, “I don’t care! Take it away!! Get rid of it. I don’t want it!!! It just about killed me and now it is sucking the life out of me. I can’t take this anymore!! If you don’t get it away from me I’ll do something to it. I swear I will!!”

“Oh dear,” I heard Mrs. Withrow whispered. “It’s that woman from over on River Road. She just had a baby … her man left a few months back and hasn’t come back … her mother has been worried about her, said the birth turned her brain.”

“It” turned out to be her baby. The only time she would calm down is when the baby disappeared from her sight.

Then another woman went and picked up the baby where it had been flung to the ground and drew it to her like it was the most precious thing in the world. I saw her look at the man with her with pleading and pain-filled eyes. Mrs. Withrow whispered to me, “That’s Margaret Timberlake. She had a baby girl but it died the next day and Ken still isn’t sure why. It only just happened. Look at her dress; she wants that baby so bad.”

Mrs. Timberlake's bosom area was drenched and likely not from sweat. I guess the baby crying had made her milk start up and all the emotions and everything with it.

It was two hours before things were settled. We stayed the entire time to continue the dinner on the grounds, people need to eat and this was the only really good meal some of them got between services, but also because Rand had been asked to be a witness to all the papers and everything that the Judge eventually wrote out and had both families sign and the witnesses too to make sure no one was being coerced.

The little girl, called Daisy, was going to go live with the Timberlake family for at least a year with no recourse by the birth mother. This was to ensure that Daisy would be nursed until she could be safely weaned with no danger to her health. At that time the birth mother had one week to make known her intentions to ask for Daisy to come back to her and the request put before the Judge and a group of responsible citizens of the district. If she did not object, or was found to be an unfit mother for some reason, the adoption would become permanent. The birth mother’s parents were heartbroken until Margaret Timberlake said that she would never think of excluding Daisy’s maternal grandparents from her life and hoped, that if their daughter ever did take Daisy back, that she’d be allowed to keep in touch with the little girl.

I don’t see that it was a perfect solution, given all of the unknowns of the future, but it looks like the best one that could have happened with the options that were available. I overheard several women discussing the possibility that the birth mother was suffering some kind of post partum psychosis. There used to be drugs and psychotherapy to help women that suffered from that. I bet there were a lot of women who were locked up in asylums in the old days that could have suffered from something like that. Rotten hormones causing a chemical imbalance in the brain … you didn’t have any say over it happening or not. How horrible to have to protect your baby from yourself.

June 12th – From bad to worse.

I’m sitting here in the orchard trying to catch a breeze after check on the plum trees. That hail storm didn’t help them but the damage doesn’t look catastrophic now that the trees have had a few days to heal. But that isn’t what I was going to write about. It has been a rough morning and it is either sit down and write it out or just fall down.

If it wasn’t bad enough at church services yesterday, news of a major raid at the Henderson Ranch had us scrambling this morning. You know the raiders are bold and arrogant if they did something like that. Rand was called to help first thing this morning. I didn’t want him to go but I couldn’t very well tell him not to, Mr. Henderson and Mitch and the rest of them have done so much for us. And it bothers me that we still haven’t quite made up though we are being carefully polite to one another. I hope that is a good sign. I’ve determined that no matter what Rand and I are going to talk it out tonight.

He and Austin came back for a few minutes to let me know that it was mostly OK. Some injuries but the attack was so odd. Maybe they were desperate but they did more cosmetic damage to the ranch’s wall than real damage to the ranch itself. Rand and Austin went back to help clean up some more and to try and see if they could figure out the weirdness.

That’s odd … they just left and now here they are again. Why would they …………………….

Chapter Ninety-Four

Chapter 94

May 23rd – Blueberries, blueberries, blueberries …. Actually I’m having a blast and probably shouldn’t be. The last two days Alicia and Brendon have been over here and I’ve had so much fun. Brendon was grinning like a fool when he came in and found us both acting silly. Last night when we went to bed I asked what was up with Brendon acting so … so … like it was such a surprise. Rand said that Alicia has been real slow to come back from her brother’s death. It has brought up a lot of unresolved stuff from her childhood.

I get that. All of my “unresolved issues” started after my family was killed and I still run smack dab into it every so often, even now. Thank goodness Rand understands and gives me room to get my head on straight when I’m having a bad day. Looks like Brendon is taking a page out of his playbook and doing the same. I’m just glad Alicia is coming around. If I could have picked a sister she is pretty close to what I would have picked. We don’t get in each other’s business but we are certainly more than friends; a weird feeling for me considering that isn’t something that I ever thought I wanted.

She and I traipsed all over the place while Brendon watched the baby. Well we traipsed as far as all of the parcels of land that immediately surround ours – finding wild blueberry patches and sparkleberry patches to piece out the domesticated blueberries in the orchard. We did that early in the morning and then in the afternoon we preserved them. We had to walk since I can’t ride the mules but we did have one of the burros with us to haul the berry buckets and all the water we had to carry. We were totally drenched in sweat by the time we got back to the house both times. First day I was fine but today I had to rest before I could start lunch and then start on the berries. No berry picking tomorrow though which as much fun as it has been I’m ready to let go of doing.

I think between the last two days we have gotten about all the blueberries we are going to get. The dry weather hasn’t done us any favors. Neither have the moochers. Well, I know that might sound a little mean but it sure does seem that people are just doing stuff because they can rather than because it is the right thing or not. On the other hand it is hard to justify being mad at someone for picking berries when it isn’t on your land. I’ve heard that some folks have set watches on patches of berries that they’ve staked out. I’ve even heard of berry rustling of all things. Getting in gun fights over a few pints of berries just seems pretty extreme but more than one feud seems to have started over it.

With the weather people aren’t much better off than they were this time last year. What they are however is wiser in the ways of surviving and being self-sufficient. At least most of the people from around here are; some of the immigrants still not so much since they’ve been surviving on handouts at the government camps. Surviving means getting out there and finding it yourself which in turn means to support your family you have to cover a pretty large area. So far no one has actually come onto our land – maybe my reputation does some good after all – but Rand worries that it is only a matter of time. Desperate people will act desperately.

May 24th – Isn’t it strange? I talk about desperate people and how Rand was worrying and sure enough doesn’t someone have to go and act stupid. Maybe I shouldn’t write anything like that down. Too many times I’ve caught myself wondering about something in this journal only to have it come true a little bit down the road. Makes me wonder if there really isn’t something to the concept of jinxes.

I overdid it yesterday for sure and was all used up by the time I finished writing in my journal. My problem was that I wasn’t just done over by the heat but all that bending up and down had caused my back to ache. Every time I tried to lie down something would start pulling. I knew from experience that when my back was drawing that bad I might as well get up and just sit on the sofa until the muscles relaxed enough for me to go back to bed.

So there I am sitting in what amounts to my all together, swollen ankles all splayed out and wearing the thinnest and shortest sundress I’ve got and nothing underneath if you catch my drift. I had just finished putting a fresh sheet on the sofa, sat down, and leaned my head back when Woofer pads up to me and makes that weird noise he makes when he needs water or to go out to hit the bushes. I had just gotten semi-comfortable and wasn’t happy about having to get back up.

I eventually leavered myself up – no small chore – and stumbled to the kitchen because by then a cool drink of water was sounding good to me as well. The pump is by the side door and I heard a bang. Woofer immediately goes into guard mode, pushing against my legs like he is trying to back me out of the room. All I’m thinking is that I’m going to have me a Coon Skin Jacket next winter if they’ve gotten into my flower pots again. Only, upon closer listening I realized that raccoons don’t curse … at least not in a thick Boston accent.

First voice asked angrily, “Plan on waking the dead Phil?”

“Hey, isn’t my fault these hillbillies don’t pick up theyar yad. I thought you sod that the wada would be easy to lift,” another man hissed.

“This is the one that is able to irrigate his fields. He can affod to miss a liddle,” responded a third man.

Back to the first one who said, “We not gonna get a thing if you fools don stop with your nonsense. The well must be around heeya someplace.”

I waddled as fast as I could to the bedroom and shook Rand awake while Woofer kept watch. Of course the looby thought it was the baby and I had to yank on his ear pretty good to get him to stop acting like such a guy and actually listen to me.

“Ow! God almighty girl, do you have to do that?!”

“Then will you stop it? I’m not having the baby. And be quiet, I heard someone outside the kitchen door,” I hissed practically inside his ear.

He stopped dead, shook himself, and got down to business. After listening to me whisper what I’d heard he said, “Wake Austin up then I want you to get upstairs.” I opened my mouth to object and got the look that said to not waste time arguing. “Don’t Kiri. I can’t think if I’m worried about you and the baby.” Throwing me a bone he added, “And if you are upstairs you might see something I miss from the ground. Now go.”

I got all right but I wasn’t too happy about it. On the other hand I’m no fool even though I may act like one on occasion. I wanted to keep the baby safe and I didn’t want to take any of Rand’s concentration away so that he and Austin could stay safe. Humph. Still didn’t mean that I had to feel good about not being able to provide Rand with any back up. And I still don’t. I feel more like a liability every day. I’m used to carrying my own weight but as heavy as I am right now … and the why of it … there is no way I’m going to be doing that for a while.

I didn’t see any of the action but I heard the commotion, especially the five live rounds that went off, and it was one of the hardest twenty minutes of my life to wait for Rand to give the all clear. I came down to find Austin and Woofer standing guard over two men while a third had been drug a little ways off, obviously dead from a shotgun blast to the chest.

It was a long night after that. The men trying to plead their case and us doing our best to ignore how pathetic they sounded and looked. Austin was the one that told me only the dead man had fired on their side and he had reaped the reward for it too.

“Momma, he really meant it. I could tell from the look on his face. He was angry. Real angry.”

Austin has got into the habit of calling me “Momma” in times of stress. If he is thinking about it, or there are other boys around, he still calls me Kiri. I didn’t let the men or Rand see but I gave him a hug and thanked him for looking after Rand and Woofer and helping us to defend our home. I swear if he didn’t turn around and give me the same look Woofer does when you find his itchiest spot and scratch it until he is content.

At first light Rand rode out and caught one of Mitch’s patrols going by. It got a little complicated after that. Used to be that we could deal out justice without anyone outside the community getting involved and even though I still have the occasional nightmare from the hanging I’ve come to terms with the necessity of it. But these men were migrants and claimed to be under the protection of the men in charge of the military camp.

From there we had to wait until some MPs could come out and get things cleared up. Those two men would have been better off keeping their mouths shut. I was … well not horrified by their fate or anything like that but I was sure as heck surprised. Seems the three men had gone AWOL after being issued passes to attend the Swap Meet. Word had just come down that austerity measures were in effect. From now on if someone was caught during the commission of a crime AND found to be AWOL they were to be immediately tried, convicted, and put on the nearest boat out to the barrier islands or prison barges, whichever was closest and least crowded. That is all but a death sentence for most folks.

See what happens is that those places are like prisons without walls or wardens. Supplies are shipped in weekly, assuming there are any supplies to ship. Whatever the population was they had to make it last the whole week or use whatever snares, traps, etc. that they’d been able to cobble together to live off of the sea life that surrounded the prison.

The prison barge is worse than a barrier island; some of the populations on the barrier islands are actually making something of themselves, have gardens, and a thriving barter system. The barges are just plain nasty and remind me of that old sci-fi movie called Escape From New York. If you aren’t crazy when you get put on one of those and you live, you’ll be next to crazy when you come off.

The whole situation has taken up most of the day and I wasn’t too happy or comfortable having strangers coming and going from our land. It isn’t that we hide away from people on purpose but I like my privacy and Rand and Austin have come to appreciate it as well. Not even Mr. Henderson or his men come around as much as they used to. Guess they’ve got too many other irons in the fire. Rand says they’ve got problems of their own.

Mr. Henderson isn’t ailing exactly but he isn’t coming back from being hurt the way a younger man would. There is this whole “preparing the heir for his power” kind of thing occurring too. Mitch knows his stuff out in the field for sure but I guess there are still family things going on behind the closed walls of the ranch. And Mr. Henderson getting married so late really shook some folks up even though the relationship was an open secret for years. None of my business really, at least so long as whatever the problems are doesn’t roll down hill to us.

I’m just glad our bit of trouble is over with for now. I’ve only catnapped today and I’m feeling particularly heavy, like everything is starting to shift. Uncle George came by to check on us when word reached the Shack, so did Ram, and Pastor Ken also came by. They all keep looking at me sideways. What? Do they think an alien is going to pop out of my belly at any point? Serve them right if it did. I’m getting ready for this baby to pop out myself.

May 28th -- Had a really nasty storm come through day before yesterday. Just what we needed to top off an already sour time. Seems those immigrant men had families and they were trying to set up some kind of homestead to take them to. It is a bad, sad business. Rand told me one of the boys went AWOL to come hunt us up and was asking over at the Shack. Luckily Ram took the boy aside and held onto him until he calmed down some and could hear the explanation of what had really happened.

The boy is still angry but Ram doesn’t think he’ll get violent. Besides, he made the boy an offer he couldn’t refuse. He offered him a job down in south Florida as a courier of sorts on one of the supply trains that Ram is an investor in. If the kid sticks it out he’ll be able to earn more than his father could have stolen in a much shorter amount of time.

“Ram! A boy?! I thought you told me those supply trains were dangerous.”

“Yeah, and you’re such an old woman,” Ram snorted at me.

Still upset I tried to continue, “But …”

“Kiri, don’t tell me my business and I won’t tell you yours. Giving that boy a job, even if it is a dangerous one, will keep him out of trouble and away from the family. I get tired of having to sleep with one eye open every night.”

“Then don’t get involved in such shady business deals.”

“It puts food on the table Hermanita … for all of us. You like the spices and stuff that I bring you don’t you?”

More than upset I said, “I hope that you aren’t trying to buy me Ram. That’s insulting.”

“No … no Baby Sister, not that. I hope I’m smart enough to know that you are the last person whose affections could be bought. But think on this … I like being able to provide those things to you and the others. And I like the profits to be made even if they are at a slight risk to me.”

I rolled my eyes, “Slight risk?”

Ram just smiled and shook his head all machismo and testosterone. He’s just impossible to reason with. Not having to worry so much about sugar is nice but I could learn to do what was needed with the sorghum if I had to. I like the spices and stuff that he is shipping in from the Caribbean too though I’m not really sure I want to know how he is pulling that off. I don’t like that the last shipment he brought in included several barrels of rum but almost everyone, even Mrs. Withrow, all but told me to stop being such a prude about it. I guess there are always going to be trade offs but seems to me that sooner or later all the little risks are going to catch up and something bad is going to happen.

But for now it is the storm that has taken up most of our time. The little bit of rain we got out of it certainly wasn’t worth all of the wind damage we suffered. And there was a lightening caused fire in Columbia County that got up into the city proper and did no small amount of damage to the buildings, even if they were empty.

Rand and Austin had thinned out some of our woods felling trees for the fire wood that is so necessary for every day life nowadays. Even still, we lost to good sized oak trees when they just laid over from where their roots had died back because of the drought. We also had one snap off at the top and blow down across the main gate. Now that was a mess. The metal gate is mangled and Rand isn’t sure that he can hammer it back into good enough shape to re-hang. That’s a kick in the pants we didn’t need.

The roof was also ripped off the goat shed in several places. Rand said he’ll just have to make it with wooden shakes to replace to the asphalt shingles that had been on the roof. There are a couple of large cedar trees growing in an area that he wants to turn into another field for next year. He’ll saw the trunks into lengths that he’ll then split lengthwise. I asked him if he had ever done it before and he said, “The summer I worked for Bud and Lou. A lot of Mennonites still do everything old school. They aren’t necessarily opposed to using some stuff that is out on the market, they just … “ At that point we got interrupted by Mitch Peters and Hoss coming down the road. And shock of all shocks Cassie was with them.

“Hi!” she sang out just about as cheery as I’ve ever heard her.

Cassie is a lot nicer than I gave her credit for being in the beginning but there still feels like there is a gulf between us. Not what I would call a bad one just, I don’t know if we’ll ever be “best buds” or anything approaching it.

Rand met the group on horseback while I waddled around to the kitchen side to make sure there was cold water and some cups in case they were thirsty. The weather was hot enough to steam vegetables still on the vine and everyone was wringing wet from sweat.

I was coming out when Cassie came around the side of the house and took the pitcher from me. At least she left me the tray and cups so that I didn’t feel completely useless. “Here, let me get that. I’m surprised Austin isn’t around to help.”

She didn’t mean it the way it sounded, that was just Cassie’s way. “Rand has him out trying to round up a little bull calf that was born a couple of days ago. He’s worried at how the mother isn’t letting it nurse enough. She’s an ornery thing to begin with but if she keeps this up she may be burger before this winter. We need another bull but we don’t know which of the two that were born that we are going to keep yet.”

Cassie nodded knowledgably. “Poppy is having the same problem. This drought is stressing out the cattle. We’re having to move them between pastures pretty quick so that over grazing doesn’t happen. It isn’t like we can go down to the feed store to pick up new seed.”

“Is your grandfather irrigating the fields?”

“He is considering it but that is a lot more time and work for our people not to mention that much water would need to come from the river. Two of our creeks have dried up and Mitch is worried about stressing the two ag wells we have managed to keep going, we need them for watering the animals.”

We walked up as the men were discussing the damage the storm had done. Even with the goat shed and the tree over the road we got off lightly. Lots of drought-stressed trees have “laid over,” some of them in inconvenient or dangerous locations.

Hoss told us, “A tree came down on the orphan barracks at the refugee camp in the middle the storm completely crushed one end of the building. Destroyed about a half dozen bunk beds before it was through falling. Lucky for the kids though that it was a slow fall and the barrack monitor heard it when it first hit and got everyone out before anyone got hurt. But they have a mess to try and rebuild. Those kids always get the last of everything.”

I noticed Cassie was standing next to Mitch with a really angry look on her face all of a sudden. Before I could open my mouth and ask she burst out, “If they’d just let the folks around here that have offered to take them it have them those kids never would have been in danger to begin with.”

Mitch put his arm around her and drew her close like he was trying to calm her down or comfort her. “Cassie, easy now. Hoss checked and Lola wasn’t hurt. She didn’t even wake up apparently, just go carried out in her sleep.”

Apparently everyone but me knew the story. I elbowed Rand gently and after figuring out what I meant he clued me in. “Oh, yeah, you weren’t there that day. Lola is one of the orphans. What she’s four?”

Cassie said, “Three. Her mother just up and went AWOL with one of the river men and never came back for her.”

“Anyway, Mr. Henderson takes stuff over to the camp when he can and sometimes they bring some of the orphans out to the ranch to play. Lola has an older brother that wants to come work for Mr. Henderson … he’s good with horses and would like to learn to be a Ferrier. Problem is he is only thirteen and the rule is that kids have to be fourteen before the feds will let them sign up for a work program of any kind. He comes to the ranch every chance he gets and he started bringing his little sister.

“You should see her Kiri, she is the most adorable little thing. And smart … she already knows most of her alphabet. She minds better than most of the ranch kids do.” Cassie gushed, a look of adoration on her face.

Even Mitch nodded, “She is a cute kid. Follows Cassie around like a puppy. And it looks like she might have the same talent with horses her brother does. Most little kids don’t realize that even the foals can hurt them. We had a mare that got in a bad fight with a stallion when the dang mule got his dander up and broke into the paddock where we keep the new mothers and foals. We had to pull her out so we could see whether we’d have to put her down or if she could be patched. The foal got scared and then I’ve never seen the like … Lola went up to the fence before anyone even thought to stop her and started talking to that foal and if you believe it the little fella just calmed right down and leaned up against the fence where she was the whole time until we came to fetch him to take him to put in the stall beside his Momma.”

Not that the story wasn’t interesting but I thought seeing Mitch put his arm around Cassie and the way those two were acting even more so. Rand just shrugged his shoulders when I asked him what was up so that means a trip to Momma O’s or some questions for the ladies at church this coming Sunday.

May 29th – Too dang hot to write.

May 30th – Still too much heat to make anything worth doing. Heard from Pastor Ken … that man seems bent on pestering the life out of me … that an old man over off of River Road died of heat exhaustion. No one knows much about him. He was a squatter that moved into what was left of the old Harbinger place. Ron had gone over to check on the place when he found the body. He’d been dead a couple of days and apparently the dogs he’d kept had been at him. How Ken could tell he’d died of heat exhaustion I don’t know, maybe there are signs on the body that don’t disappear in death.

That was nasty bit of news. Also some bad news came that the river folk are getting restless and moving inland again. I’ve said many times that most of them are decent people but they seem to be easily stirred up by the bad fish amongst them. The Suwannee River is running very low as are several other rivers. Because of the drought crop production is down so even if they could navigate the rivers they wouldn’t have much to transport.

Rand said the heat is making everyone testy if not actually downright nasty. It’s just too hot to ask the mules to pull the heavy thresher long distances and when Rand told a man that had ridden out to get him to bring the thresher the guy just went berserk . It scared Austin who was up at the end of the road with him clearing the fence line so that they could run a new fire break. I’m getting a little tired of how entitled people feel to take advantage of our good fortune. Rand is smart and we hit the ground running when it came to setting our place up. I don’t want to be uncharitable but why should that mean that we simply give away what we’ve worked so hard for? Sharing is one thing but that is a two-sided coin with each party giving and getting. Some people, like that man today, seem to think they have the right to just take what they want and offer whatever they feel like in return, if anything at all.

May 31st – That man from yesterday came back today and this time he brought friends. I’m still shaking. Rand and Austin had gone up to the road early to do some more of the fence line. We let it go too long and it is a horrible mess in some places and they were restringing the barb wire in a couple of sections as well because it had become stretched out or actually broken. I fixed a basket of biscuits and a jug of cold ginger fizz for them (not as good as store bought ginger ale used to be but on a hot day you don’t really care) and I was going to drop it off to them and then head on to Momma O’s to see if she could help me figure out what I was doing wrong on a bodice of this little baby overall I am trying to make.

Rand has a set of stairs for me to get into the pony cart that I hook the most docile burro to. I was thinking about what I could have done wrong … I cut down a larger size pattern but nothing seemed to be working right for some reason … and was going slow because the last thing I wanted to do was have the baby by jiggling him out head first on a rough wooden seat. The burro wasn’t inclined to go fast anyway considering how hot it was.

Actually it was a good thing I was going so slow otherwise I would have turned the corner before I was aware of the trouble I was driving into. The men had Austin by the arms and Rand and some other guy was going at it pretty good. I recognized the guy egging the fighting on as the guy from yesterday. I was in a quandary what to do … sometimes just a female showing up with make the guys knock it off … but when I saw the one guy getting his gun off of his horse I kinda took the Kiri road mentally.

By the time I was down from the pony cart … it isn’t getting down that is the problem so much as getting up into it … I heard a lot of rough laughter and when I peeked around the tree at the corner of the road they’d swung Austin away and to the ground. A guy was getting ready to kick him and I aimed for his head but hit him in the rear bumper instead. Talk about your fancy stepping. He reminded me of the old sound clip where the Disney character named Goofy falls from some great height.

The rest of the idiots made grabs for their guns and I just didn’t even bother to try and figure out exactly how hostile they were. I just emptied the magazine one shot at a time. Only three of them wound up being death shots, but I did enough damage with the rest of them to make them knock off what they were doing. I was in the middle of reloading when Mr. Henderson himself road up with several of his men.

My stomach got real tight and all I could do was sit down on the ground right there … thank goodness not in an ant pile … and try and stick my head between my knees to keep from being sick. I didn’t even realize it but one of Henderson’s men, I don’t know which one, had ridden back to see who’d been shooting. Next thing I know Rand is there, not quite a bloody as I expected, and he was putting me in the back of the pony cart. Between there and home I made him stop so I could sit up and puke, not once but twice.

I’ve been in bed since with Ken hovering around like a doggone vulture. I’m not ready to have this baby so it can’t come out yet. I still have the bed linens to finish, more diapers to try and make, and just everything. I’m just not ready and that is all there is to it. And now, on top of everything else, I’m on bed rest again.

June 2nd – I’m on ultra light duty for the duration. Austin helped me to plant the okra, black eyed peas, and some sweet potatoes that Rand got in trade. I don’t know why we are planting, no rain. And tell me why, even though I haven’t done much I am so tired?! Gosh I’m cranky. I don’t even feel like writing anymore so I’m not.