I was trying to scramble out of the culvert but Reggie pounced on me right before he blasted my already abused ears by yelling, “Point them pea shooters some place safe Spiker! I’d like to live to have grandkids to tell about today!” Using our code names was supposed to be the all-clear sign but I think our audience was so freaked out that they forgot.
We heard scuffling in the debris field left by the explosions coming our way. Reggie still wouldn’t let me go first but cautiously stuck his head up above the culvert. From my angle I saw his frown turn into a smile and heard him say, “Wow, you guys are a righteous mess.”
I’d had enough and head butted his gut hard enough to make him fold over. I snapped, “Move!” to add to my point – which he did – then I climbed onto the blacktop.
Barely registering anything but the fact that Jax was home I flew at him. Aston grabbed my arm as I went by nearly swinging me off the ground. I nearly swung at him to put him on the ground until he explained, “Don’t jump him Lydie. Jax took a bullet. It was just a through and through and Mrs. Houchins cleaned it out but …”
I wrenched my arm away and ran forward meaning to stop and examine his wounds but before I could, Jax reached out and grabbed my vest and pulled me into a kiss that melted my brain. However, the resulting pudding had no time to leak out of my ears because Jax stumbled and I had to brace to keep us both standing upright.
In extreme alarm I said, “Jax?!”
“I … I’m fine,” he sighed with his forehead resting on mine. Then he jerked upright and indignantly started shouting, “But not for long if someone doesn’t tell me what in the jumped up granny panties happened here!!” He ended by grabbing his side and nearly doubling over again.
Reggie couldn’t seem to help himself. He barked a laugh and said, “Jumped up granny panties? Man what kind of drugs are you on for the pain?”
He continued laughing until Aston knocked him in the shoulder and said, “Just the Tylenol that was in the emergency kit of our truck so knock it off. He passed out when they were cleaning the hole. Mrs. Houchins started on one side and pushed through some gauze on the other side that caught threads and other crap that had been driven in by the bullet. From his jacket man; look at the hole in it. I nearly puked helping to hold him down; I don’t know why he isn’t on a stretcher some place … that’s where I’d be.”
My eyes felt as big as saucers and I shot a look at Jax’s pale face. He just shook his head and grumbled, “It’s not as bad as he’s making it out to be.”
The look on my face must have told him in no uncertain terms that I realized that was a clanker of a huge magnitude because his only response was to grimace and shut up. Still holding him up I turned to find Reggie nearly shouting, “When?!”
He was on the hand held to Ginger and only her response of, “Don’t strain something Odd Man” kept me from going into overdrive again. Instead the audible emphasis on the word odd almost made me smile. She finally continued, “It was about ninety minutes ago and the rest of our team was apparently busy so Big Red terminated the peril with extreme prejudice.” Her tone held both satisfaction and a little awe at her own actions. The next transmission however showed that she was frazzled and reaching emotional capacity to deal. “But hear this, if Odd Man thinks that Big Red is going to clean up that mess then Odd Man has another think coming and he better return to Home Base asap or risk becoming another extremely prejudiced statistic. Does Odd Man copy that?!”
All three of the guys were just staring at the hand held with shock on their face. Under any other circumstances I would probably have laughed at them. They looked like they’d just watched a cute and fuzzy kitten gut a buffalo with one swipe. Apparently they had failed to understand the significance of Ginger’s name and hair color. I pulled my own handheld, noted that the battery was running a little low and said, “Henny Penny to Big Red. Henny Penny to Big Red. Do you copy?”
“Big Red to Henny Penny. I copy.”
“Rest of team seems to have lost their tongue to a particularly ferocious cat so I’ll check status. Besides some straightened curls, is Home Base intact?”
It took a moment before she came back and I could tell the blow up had been averted. “Big Red to Henny Penny. Home Base is intact. You owe me.”
Nodding even though she couldn’t see me I told her, “More than I can count Big Red, more than I can count. What about the Hobbits?”
“Big Red to Henny Penny, the Hobbits are resting with the aid of a little bit of mother’s helper. Do you copy that?”
It wasn’t something that we had developed a code for but I knew what she meant. I had worried about Ashley’s stress level and Kelly’s state of mind during a battle and had looked at my mother’s books as well as the medical books in Dad’s library and along with what Jax knew had come up with a very, very mild sedative to mickey their koolaide with if things got really hinkey. It would make Kelly take a nap but would simply cause Ashley to feel detached and a little groggy. Kelly wouldn’t be given a choice but Ashley would … which likely meant that Ashley had come close to her breaking point if she agreed to take it.
“That’s a copy Big Red. Will update as soon as arrangements have been formulated. Henny Penny out.”
All three guys then stared at me. I could see Jax was just about to bow up and get the man pride thing going. We all knew what the next step was and so I told him, “Please don’t Jax. I had to let you go off and do what you had to do. I wanted so bad to be the one to go with you, not get left behind, but we’d already worked out the details and how things would go if it had to happen. Ashley had to do the same for Aston. That was the plan and we stuck to it. Now this is the next part of the plan and you know it. It doesn’t have … strike that, it does have a little bit to do with you being injured but most of it is just because this is the plan.”
He shook his head. “The so-called plan didn’t include this … this … whatever the bloody heck happened!” He grimaced again.
Quietly I told him, “And it didn’t include you getting shot either. We just have to be flexible.” He was still not liking what I was going to suggest but I didn’t see any other way to do what needed doing. I looked at Reggie and Aston. “I’m going to jog up to the house and grab the Case with the front loader and come back here and clean this up. Aston are you fresh enough that you can jog up with me?” At his nod I said, “Good. You can stick your head in and put Ashley at ease and then drive the John Deere 4x4 Gator back. While we’re gone Jax and Reggie can man a outlook. When we get here you and Jax can load up the salvage from the blind. Reggie can drive it and Jax …” Jax gave a growl at my words but didn’t actually object which I was thankful for. “… back to the house. Jax can look in on Kelly and then give Ginger and Ash something to do while Reggie goes back to monitoring the radio. Aston, if you don’t mind, you can cover me while I … while I clean up this mess here on the road so that we can get our truck back home. We’ll load the rest of the salvage in the bed of our truck. You drive it back and I’ll smooth out the road the best I can with the Case. To be honest I had no idea how big of a mess those bangalores were going to make; if I had I would have stuck to just one. What about you Reggie?”
Jax half growled, half groaned and said, “Don’t change the subject Lydie.” I just looked at him and he finally sighed. He wasn’t admitting defeat exactly, but he was agreeing that he’d follow along because it was close to the plan we’d come up with.
Aston was no fresher than I was so our lope back up the mile long entrance road was slower than either one of us would have normally run it; but we still jogged it without stopping. I remember those youthful days when my energy reserves and health seemed endless and without exception. Reggie had called the house to let Ginger know we were on our way. I left him as Ashley fell into his arms – she’d practically swooped on him from the porch – and headed to the tractor barn. I thought he would take longer than he did and he startled me coming over so soon.
He chuckled a little and said, “Ash is pretty toasty … but that’s a good thing I think because … Hey! What are you doing?”
I’d tried to guiltily shove everything back into the first aid chest when he’d come into the barn. “Nuthin’.”
He came over and before I could nonchalantly get rid of the evidence he yanked the pill bottle out of my hand. He looked at me and then using a serious tone he asked, “Where are you hurt?”
“I don’t need a lecture Aston.”
“No you don’t. But we don’t leave until I get an answer.”
I rolled my eyes. “I pulled something in my left shoulder. It isn’t bad but if I don’t take something now it is going to be thumping in a little while. Banging around on the Case isn’t going to make it any better.”
He made me face away from him and he moved my arm and pushed on my shoulder a little. It was sore but it only really sung a couple of times. He said, “I think you only pulled a muscle, maybe a strain or sprain, but you shouldn’t take any chances.” I had forgotten that Aston had been interested in Sports Medicine or Physical Therapy as his college degree until right at that moment. He continued, “I can’t make you stop right now … and wouldn’t if I could because we need to get Jax to come to the house and lay down. He’s worse than he is trying to let on. Hopefully Ashley will sweet talk him into taking a Percocet and he’ll doze and get away from the pain long enough for his body to start healing.”
I had been too afraid to ask until then. “How … how bad is bad Aston?”
He shook his head. “Scared-the-crap-out-of-me bad. I’ve never seen anyone get shot. But Jax acts like he’s freaking Super Man. He didn’t even react when it first happened. Mr. Houchins’ said the bullet probably didn’t have enough velocity to do any kind of internal damage plus it is in that meaty place … you know, the love handle spot only Jax doesn’t really have much meat there … but still. The in and out holes aren’t even that far apart but it is all bruised and looks nasty. We’d managed to work our way around and catch a group of the bad guys in a cross fire with Junior on the other side. Then one of them got in behind us and shot Jax in the back … well, not the back but you know what I mean. Everything after that is a blur until Junior and I got Jax down to the gate and they worked on him while the rest of us did clean up. Then we headed back.”
“Why didn’t you guys call in? We were worried sick,” I told him as I took the keys from the lock box and tossed him the ones for the 4x4 Gator.
I was putting in empty fuel containers to hold any fuel we could syphon while he answered me. “Things were crazy and then we thought it was on your end until we got in the truck to head back and realized we couldn’t hear Houchins either. By the way, Mr. Houchins had a happy fit over the fact that we named his place Bonanza.”
I sighed and said, “I figured he would.”
“Yeah,” he said nodding. “But when we got close and saw smoke … and then all of a sudden the explosion. Man, I thought Jax and I were gonna have to change our drawers. What did you two do?!”
“It wasn’t us … I mean it was but us using the Bangalore torpedoes. I’m not sure I want to use those things again except in extreme circumstances.”
“Was it not extreme this time?”
Not ready to explain my part in everything I told him, “Go on down ahead of me and have Reggie explain it. I need to concentrate. It’s been a while since I’ve driven the Case and I need to think of the best place to actually move all of that debris to. We don’t want it right at the drive like a neon sign announcing were the Home Place is.”
He looked at me a second but did as I said instead of giving me a hard time about it. I waited while he moved out first and then I took my time going down for two reasons. One was I really was thinking where the best place might be to get rid of the battle evidence and two, I wanted to give Reggie time to explain without me there.
I had pulled out and was about to start nudging truck #2 from the original run in when I had to break and swing the front loader out of the way real quick because Jax stepped up to the Case and practically jerked me out of my seat. I was half in and half out of the glassed in cab but didn’t even have the breath to squawk in complaint because I was drowning in another soul shaking kiss. Then he had me in a one armed hug and I was getting slobbered on some more between him saying things like, “I never meant for you to have to …” and “I don’t know what I would have done if something had …” He never seemed to be able to finish a sentence so I used my imagination to fill in the rest and just hugged him back to let him know that the feeling was mutual and appreciated.
Reggie and Aston had moved to give us some privacy and had started going over what was left of the cars and trucks to see if there was anything worth salvaging; we learned to do that quickly in those days, nothing went to waste if possible. Then Reggie came over and said, “Hate to break you two up but we got storm clouds on the horizon.” I looked over to where his thumb had pointed and he was right and it looked like a bad one would hit us a little after the sun went down. Explanations and regrets would have to wait, the work had to get done … and done quickly.
Temporarily I piled the vehicle and vehicle parts around the corner of the road and down a side road where a small utility easement was. It wasn’t visible from the main road but at the same time was close enough that it wasn’t a trek to get to it when we had time to decide what parts to keep. I knew we’d need the leaf springs out of the vehicles for some projects that Jax had thought about and I was sure that Reggie wanted to see what could be made of the some of the other guts. Knowing Aston I figured he would have plans on eventually cobbling together at least one new car from parts of all the old ones … wheels came in third in his life only behind Ashley and football.
Less than an hour later I saw Reggie driving the 4x4 Gator with Jax as a passenger but he was having to go slow; he wouldn’t want to bounce out any of the stuff tied down in the back end or Jax who was I trying really hard not to worry about. Now it was down to Aston and I and while I continued to tractor things around he split his time between guarding and tossing smaller pieces of debris into the front loader. I carried the last load over to our dump spot and then came back to find that he’d pulled the truck into the end of the drive and was loading a pile of salvage into the back in. I hopped out of the Case’s cab and was glad that Aston had been looking the other direction; the Tylenol was wearing off and I’d joggled my shoulder more than I should have.
“I’ll help you load. When we get back to the house hopefully Reggie is fresh and he and I can walk into the woods and try and clear the … the …” I stopped.
Aston looked at me strangely and said, “Reg wasn’t telling stories.”
I looked at him and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just know what has to be done and I’m not looking forward to it.”
“I’ll go with Reggie and he and I can do it. You haven’t had a break yet.”
His volunteering surprised me but I shook my head. “Trust me I’d let you if it made sense but since I know what I did and Reg knows what he did we’ll be able to walk things a lot faster. I don’t know about you but the weather feels like it wants to finally get cold and damp.” He grunted an affirmative and we turned back home.
I could give you chapter and verse what Reggie and I did for the next couple of hours, how we both took turns puking until we finally learned to simply accept and deal with it all, but the honest truth is I don’t want to. Bad enough to remember the feel of the bodies dead weight as we dragged them to the front load of the Case. Bad enough to remember the smell of some of them. Bad enough to remember what it sounded like when I dumped the … the bodies … on the pyre we built. I’ll never forget that first battle. Never. Doesn’t matter how many years go by. But I chose to never wallow in it and I’m not going to start at this late point in my life; there’s just no sense to it.
Reggie and I had dragged the last of the salvageable mess we confiscated from the bodies into the tractor barn and then had to go out in the quickly turning nasty weather and drag the last body from the front yard back to the gravel pit. I’d been putting some of my homemade napalm on the bodies as we layered them up so that when we threw the last body on the pile and lit it up, there was something to catch all the way through the noxious mound.
Reggie and I had tied dust masks across our face and stepped back. With a FWUMP we lit the pyre up and black smoke crept up to the sky. The smell was horrible but if we hadn’t dealt with what was causing the smell it could have turned even worse. I was beginning to slip into a dead zone in my head and nearly came unglued when a hand clapped onto my right shoulder.
“Whoa Lydie! It’s just me.”
I huffed, “Don’t sneak up like that Aston.”
He nodded and said, “It’s getting really nasty out here. The only reason you aren’t feeling the drops yet is because you are under these trees. Come on back to the house. The girls have warm drinks and soup.”
I asked, “How’s Jax?”
I looked at Reggie. “Go on. Ginger will be relieved to see you. I want this … this … stuff to burn down a little more before I … just go on.” Reggie, who wasn’t feeling too hot, nodded and headed back to the house. I saw Aston follow him out and thought I was finally alone.
It didn’t take long, I’d felt it coming ever since we’d dumped Double D’s body on the pile. Slowly my knees buckled and I wound up sitting in the middle of what felt like a nightmare and had a hard cry. I finally made myself stop when I came to realize the rest of the noise was just gratuitous and unconstructive. I got up and was turning my pockets out trying to find something clean to wipe my nose with when a hand out of the dark handed me a bandana.
I wanted to run the opposite direction but knew I’d just have to live with him seeing me that way. Aston asked, “You done?” But there wasn’t any cruelty or teasing to it.
I wiped my nose and face and said, “Pretty much.”
He was silent for a few moments. “Today pretty much sucked.”
I sighed. “Yeah.”
“Tomorrow’s gotta be better.”
I answered, “Let’s hope.”
He grunted. “Coach always said hope wasn’t a plan.”
I nodded, “Coach always had sense. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with hope.”
I looked at him and he looked at me. Nothing more was said. We simply turned back to the house and trudged home. There were warm drinks and soup waiting on us, but more importantly that’s where the people that we loved and that loved us were waiting.