“Lydie,” Jax said in a voice that was devoid of emotion yet full of it at the same time. “I’m … I’m pretty sure I killed a man ... maybe more than one … probably more than one.”
I was cleaning the cuts and bruises on his hands and face while Ginger did the same for Reggie. Aston was teaching Ashley how to clean the guns that had been used so that they could be reloaded properly.
Reggie added, “You ain’t the only one Bro. I mean we knew we’d eventually run into others just like in town. I knew I could pull the trigger. I … I just … man … I wasn’t expecting this … this feeling it leaves behind.”
I sighed and told them, “I’m just thankful neither of you were hurt.”
Reggie exclaimed, “What do you call this?!” He pointed to some road rash running down his ribs where their attackers had tried to drag him away from the truck.
In a sternly quiet voice I told him, “I call that better than being shot.”
Green Bean suddenly interjected a faux tommy gun sound making us all jump. I thought about parrot fricassee while from the sofa where she worked to help Aston Ashley said, “I still don’t understand how the military got involved. They aren’t supposed to get involved with … with civilian stuff are they? I mean, The military and the CIA aren’t supposed to … you know … operate on … I don’t know what it’s called I just know they aren’t supposed to do it.”
Aston said, “They aren’t supposed to operate on US soil but I’m not sure how valid that is when we’ve been attacked and there is a congressionally declared war.”
“Is there a congressionally declared war?” I asked, surprised. “I thought that … well … I haven’t heard that it’s official.”
We all just kind of looked at each other uncertain. I mean they were calling it a war. The government had been evacuated from DC. We’d had terrorist attacks on our home soil. But none of us really knew how official things were. But that was someone else’s problem that day, a sharp hiss from Jax as I cleaned out a deep scratch near his belt line from where he’d run through a bunch of old blackberry canes reminded me we had more immediate problems on our hands.
The way things started was that Jax and Reggie had decided to locate one of the last of the Caulderman caches and try and bring it in for relocation into a cache of our own. The cache was located off the road and on a hunting lease the brothers’ uncle owned in the next county over which meant that the guys would have to park and walk in to reach it.
When he and Jax had started their nightly excursions Reggie had suggested, just to be on the safe side, that a cover story that they were out hunting would be sensible. They’d used it enough that they could say it and have it really sound like the truth. In a sense they were hunting, just not a traditional kind of quarry. Unfortunately the type of men they ran into weren’t looking for an explanation; they were the shoot-first-and-who-cares-about-anything-else types.
Details were and have always remained a little sketchy of that night but it goes something like this: They were walking in, using a significant amount of care like there might be wild animals on the loose. Turns out there were a few over a dozen of the vicious kind, but luckily for our guys they were mostly either toked up on weed or on their way to being drunk. Later Reggie hypothesized that the group had been looting, and probably practicing home invasion, for quite some time.
Jax and Reggie might have been townies to a much greater degree than me but that didn’t mean that they hadn’t spent their fair share of time in the woods playing games like man hunt or going camping and fishing with friends. They knew how to walk in the woods without attracting a lot of attention and that skill had come in handy a couple of times since they started their enterprise. As they worked their way towards what Reggie had said was the main base camp on the acreage Jax had spotted a semi sober patrol of three men about five seconds before the patrol spotted them; that five seconds probably saved their lives. They started running pell mell back to the truck which was luckily down slope.
Jax was both taller and faster and made it to the truck before Reggie and had gotten it started. Reggie stumbled and got up but it slowed him down just enough that as he was jumping into the truck the fastest of the bad guys grabbed him and dragged him back across the gravel road; that’s when he got the road rash. Jax went into action and there was a brief shoot out while Reggie broke free of the one that had started to pound on him and reached the safety of the truck. Reggie then drew his own gun and covered their escape while Jax put the truck in gear and took off.
The truck bore several shotgun scars but luckily from that perspective the only other damage was a crack in the rear window that was small enough it could be repaired with one of the DIY kits Dad had stocked for our farm equipment. I wasn’t really concerned about the truck having shotgun holes in it but was more concerned that the guys had almost had shotgun holes in them. There is no simple DIY kit for that kind of injury and I was glad they’d been able to escape.
The rest of that night’s trouble came when as they were barreling down the highway and nearly ran smack into a military convoy clearing the roads outward from Ft. Campbell. They were in the process of meeting another convoy coming from Chattanooga direction. Jax flew under an overpass and then around a bend to find a roadblock ahead of them; but before they could get turned around the overpass had been blocked off behind them essentially bottling them up with no way to get across the deep ditch on either side of the roadway. Well of course the guys were ordered to stop with the most persuasive part of the command coming out of a barrel of some freaking big gun mounted on one of their Humvees. It took about thirty minutes of hard questioning for the military patrol to buy their story. But buying their story came at a price; the guys had to lead a squad back to where the crapheads were camping out.
Jax said it was like they were drafted and he was worried they wouldn’t be coming home one way or the other. They weren’t exactly under arrest but they weren’t free to go their own way either. Basically they were told to do their duty as citizens and join the party clearing the area of bad guys. When it was over with neither Jax nor Reggie could agree on exactly who fired the first shot and which bad guy fell first.
They led the military personnel to the overgrown pull out they’d used to hide the truck, found evidence that there had been a shoot-out in the form of a few blood drops but no bodies were around. That reinforced that our guys were telling the truth but it only meant that they would have to lead them deeper into the wooded terrain towards where they had run into the baddie patrol.
Like cannon fodder, Jax and Reggie were put in the front but neither one of them played the fool. Quietly as they could they moved through the trees and underbrush until they could hear some cutting up, cursing, and raunchy laughter. When they saw a bunch of men around a firepit drinking and carrying on Reggie told the military squad what he remembered of the set up. Two guys from the squad did recon and agreed with Reggie’s drawings in the dirt but they added a few details like some vehicles parked about twenty yards off from the three trailers that were grouped in the clearing behind the fire pit.
A trained military unit against a surprised dozen or so bad guys? No contest; it was a massacre. Even with their ability to return fire with upgraded weaponry the bad guys didn’t stand a chance against a trained and cohesive force; especially given their inebriation which slowed their reaction time down significantly.
“When it was all over – and if I had to guess it didn’t even take twenty minutes from the first gun shot to the last and then clean up – the leader of the military squad just made a call to something named the aid and litter team and told them they weren’t needed and that they’d be back shortly. They just started walking away like it was nothing,” Reggie said with a little bit of reluctant awe in his voice.
Tiredly Jax had agreed. “I had ran to catch up and ask what they were going to do with the bodies that were just laying everywhere and what were we supposed to do. I didn’t know if they expected us to wait for the authorities or what. The gut shot ones were already starting to smell gassy and I knew something would be at them before morning.”
Shuddering since I’d smelled that smell a few years earlier when a cow on a neighboring farm had panicked when it had stepped on a wasp nest and caused them to swarm and had subsequently ripped itself open trying to go over a cattle fence. “What did they say?” I asked.
“The guy I took for the squad leader was maybe about mid to late thirties and had this piercing stare; hard to tell with him all decked out in combat gear but I’ll admit I was honestly rethinking opening my mouth. Then he just looked at me and Reg and shook his head before saying, ‘We’ll inform the local Guard Unit of the location. As for the rest of it, I can’t tell you the smart thing to do but were I you and I had a few hours like you’re going to, I’d take advantage of it. Times aren’t going to get any easier. If these scum bags used our caliber we wouldn’t be standing here talking but since they don’t I fail to see the good of us wasting any time around here. I wouldn’t leave that truck unprotected for long though. You never know who might be out on the road these days, curfew or not.’ I was going to ask him what he meant but Reg came up and elbowed me and told the guy, ‘Yes sir.” I swear I’ve never heard him that polite for as long as I’ve known him.”
I had decided that I loved Jax, that I really did, but he had a streak of idealism that looked great on a live hero but just plain sad on a dead one. Reggie saved me from having to reply and let my opinion slip out by filling in the final piece. “As soon as they left the clearing I was gathering anything that looked remotely worth salvaging. Jax started to help as soon as he’d accepted reality.”
“I still don’t get why they did what they did,” Jax had mumbled as I had slathered his lower back with a mustard plaster to get rid of the soreness he’d been feeling. I taped it over so that he could put a shirt back on without staining it yellow.
I looked at Reggie and he at me then I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could. “You two got lucky. Had those guys had anything that military squad had needed or wanted they would have been on it like locusts on a field of grain. I suspect had they known about the Caulderman cache they might not have been as generous.”
Reggie added, “Kinda sloppy of them not to have checked out the trailers if you ask me. They didn’t even check out the vehicles to see if they had any gas in them.”
Jax said, “They did check them … but I think all they were looking for was to see if there were any more of the bad guys, nothing in the buildings seemed to register.”
“Well it sounds like if Reggie hadn’t known about the hole under the workshop floor it would have been easy to miss. And if they were city boys I’m not sure they would have recognized the still. You told me the trailers just had a mess of beer and canned goods in them with sleeping pallets and packs of personal items belonging to the baddies. Remember, the military is supplying the squad’s daily needs. God help us all if it ever comes down to the military units being forced to provide for themselves; either they’ll go AWOL and run home to their families or they’ll take it any way they can just like during the Civil War. It will be the War Between the States and Sherman’s Army all over again.”
Everyone had gotten a troubled look on their face at the historical reference I had made. You just didn’t grow up in our neck of the woods without knowing what I meant; not unless you were dumb as a post and three-quarters blind at the same time.
Aston had gone on to continue an earlier conversation on how important it was to start caches of our own and create camps where we could rendezvous in case the home place got over run. Finally though the guys were patched up and everyone was completely busted down tired. I thought I had everyone but Aston convinced to go take a nap and they filed away. Ashley and Ginger went to “freshen up” or something like that before laying down for a little while. They promised they’d take care of dinner. Reggie went up the stairs as did Jax while Aston moved to the front porch with some binoculars to keep an eye on the road coming in.
I picked up Kelly and put her in a sling on my back and went to continue the chores for the day. I was coming up from the fruit cellar when Reggie nearly scared me out of a year’s growth. At his mischievous look I told him in an irritated tone, “I thought you were going to lie down.”
“Tried. Too keyed up,” he muttered turning serious.
I nodded then when he still didn’t say anything I asked, “You ok?”
He shrugged. “Getting over it.” He looked at Kelly. “Can she understand what we’re talking about?”
I shook my head. “No, she’s too little and is blathering something about the ducks and geese. Let me put her in the swing if you need to talk; she might not understand but she’s getting heavy as all get out.” We walked over to the fish pond and put her in the little swing we had set up over there so she could be distracted by the ducks. “So, what’s up?” I asked him.
He sighed and asked, “Is Jax really up for this?”
“Up for what?”
“This. The way things are.”
“Of course he is. What makes you ask?”
“Don’t get me wrong, Jax is a good guy and he’s someone I’d trust with my back in a fight. Just he seemed … lost … or … or … I don’t know.”
“You mean when that military squad blew the baddies away.”
“Not that exactly. More like when he had to do it … make the kill shot himself rather than someone in authority or whatever.”
“You didn’t exactly sound that untouched by having to do it yourself.”
He shook his head. “Like I said, I’m surprised how it made me feel but I’m … it … Look, it just isn’t bothering me like maybe it should. Like it seems to be bothering Jax. Those guys would have killed us if they’d had the chance. Probably have killed their share already because I know for a fact about half what we took away from the camp didn’t belong to the Caulderman family … specially not that all that jewelry and money we found.”
With absolute conviction I told him, “Thinking about the consequences and understanding them doesn’t stop Jax from doing what he has to when he has to. He’s just a lot deeper than people have ever given him credit for being.”
Reggie shrugged, “I just don’t want to see the guy struggling like Aston is.”
Admitting it yet trying not to be judgmental I stuttered my reply. “Aston is … is …”
“Yeah, he is,” Reggie said so that I didn’t have to find the word I was looking for. “That’s the problem. Aston has always seen himself as a good guy. He hated it when an opposing team used unnecessary roughness to score. It’s not only that he thinks it’s wrong, he thinks it is in bad taste or something stupid like that. You get what I’m trying to say?”
I nodded, “Sure, but he’ll come around. You just can’t ask him to do something that goes against his principles. Same with Jax.”
He smiled cynically, “You mean unlike you and me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Stop trying to get everyone to think of you like a jerk with no morals. You aren’t like your dad. You aren’t a sell out like your brother. And you aren’t like your mom either. You aren’t unprincipled, you’re just a realist. Even if you did know the Cauldermans that doesn’t mean you would ever act like they did.” I snorted when he turned a bright shade of pink. “What you are Reg is a survivor; so am I. The difference between us and the others is that we’ve had more practice at it than they have. Jax has too, he just has Kelly to think of and set an example for and that’s always in his mind. Back off and cut him some slack. Did he freeze when those guys almost had you or did he do what needed doing?”
Reggie nodded. “Yeah he did and that’s why … look, I just don’t wanna see nothing go wrong with what we’re building here. I don’t … don’t …” He stopped, wiped his mouth then scowled at the ducks in the pond. “I just don’t want to lose anyone. We got something good, we could have something great. That’s worth fighting for. I just … need to know if other people see it like that too.”
“Well ask him Dork,” I told Reggie. “I can say what I think but you’re so hard headed you aren’t going to be satisfied until you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth.”
Reggie turned his scowl on me and said, “Maybe I will.” He then limped off towards the house finally leaving me in peace to think about what he’d said. I fed the fish and decided it wouldn’t hurt anything to catch some of the finned population so that I could filet and can it. I had my note pad out and writing down a few ideas like also making some fish jerky (http://www.dehydratorbook.com/fish-jerky.html ) when Kelly chirped, “Dadddeeeeee!”
I jerked my head up and saw Jax leaning against a tree. “Hey! Shouldn’t you be resting? Or are you too keyed up to rest too?”
I nodded, “Yeah. Reggie was out here just a minute ago. I hope he went back to the house.”
He nodded but asked, “What did he want?”
I snorted. “Just Reggie being Reggie. I think he is more affected by that fight y’all were in than he is willing to admit and he’s projecting or something.
Jax left the tree and came over to help me to seal of the metal drum where I kept the fish food. “Projecting? Projecting what?”
“I think he was trying to ask if you felt the same way he did about what happened but he got all squirrely about it. He all but said he’s worried that something is going to mess up what we have here.”
Doing a little projecting of his own Jax asked, “And he thinks I’m going to do the messing up?”
I shook my head. “No, not really. I think he is more worried about Aston. Just like Aston sees himself as the good guy, Reggie has always seen himself as the outsider and borderline bad boy though he could never quite pull it off to those that really know him.”
“And you really know him?”
I was starting to get some weird vibes and looked at Jax’s face which was a little on the chiseled side at that moment. “Tell me this is not about … uh uh … you wouldn’t go all … all weird on me at this point would you?”
Jax turned to look at me and saw how I was reacting and relaxed. “Maybe,” he admitted. “A little bit. I feel like I’m … I don’t know … maybe a day late and a dollar short. Reg and Aston have known you longer and …”
I snorted. “And more to the point I’ve known them longer. Aston still carries a bit of a chip on his shoulder about him being forced to accept my help in school. The boy has too much pride just because he comes from the poor side of town. Reggie … to be honest I think he and I are almost too much alike in some respects. We’d kill each other eventually if there weren’t other people around to take some of the heat off of us.” Leaning against the tree with Kelly on my hip I asked, “You want to hear how stupid I felt for a few minutes when Ginger was asking about what our relationship was?”
He grinned and I swear to goodness it was a little bashful. “You were?”
“Yeah I was,” I admitted. “But I got over it really quick because I trust you. Don’t make me feel stupid for it.” I abruptly turned and started walking to the barn leaving him staring at my backside and thinking on the fact that I didn’t particularly appreciate his worry.
He caught up and took Kelly from me and put her on his shoulders. She loved it when he did that. He also put his arm around me. I didn’t point out that it left Kelly’s boot-covered foot bouncing perilously close to my face. “So … I know you have to be thinking about stuff,” he said.
“If by stuff you mean I’m wondering how many more times you guys are going to run into baddies and how long it will be before the baddies start running into us then you’re right.”
A little chagrinned he said, “Actually I was talking about how we were going to find some privacy to take care of … of the fact that we haven’t … uh … anyway I suppose what you’re talking about is more important.”
Guys, I swear. I pulled out from under his arm and grabbed the bucket I used to fetch chicken feed with. “Actually I think they are at least equally important but what I was thinking about might interfere with what you were thinking about so I’d like to do something about the problem.”
He grinned and said, “Yes’m, I’ve about had my fill of things getting in the way.” Then he got serious again as he put Kelly in the little run we’d built so she could work off some energy. He offered to help but I shook my head so he sat and said, “I’ve been worried about the refugees from town coming out this way when it looks like we’ve got homegrown trouble that is just as bad. I … I recognized one of those guys as someone who used to work at the mill.”
“Did it make it harder? To shoot at him I mean.”
He shook his head. “Actually made it easier because I knew just how mean that guy could be. I wasn’t guessing what he’d done and if he really was a baddie but knew it because I’d seen him take a pipe to one of the foremen. It’s what got him fired. The guy had anger management issues in spade.”
“OK,” I said as I scooped the feed into the five-gallon bucket. As I put the bucket on the dolly to make in easier to move I said, “We need an early warning system.”
“You’re right. No way we can pull off the same thing that Houchins and his group are doing. We can’t watch our borders and at the same time get any work done. We just don’t have enough people.”
I asked, “You think we need more people?”
“Right now? No. And I’m not sure in the future either. We’ve got enough going on under one roof with just the six of us … plus Kelly and plus Ashley is what four months along now? We’ve got to be thinking of that coming event too.” He disentangled Kelly’s fingers from his hair and then said, “I’ve got some ideas. First off, those wireless cameras like they used in pawn shops. If we can get them placed in strategic locations and then set up a security desk in the house …” He stopped on a sigh. “It is going to take power and I’m not sure how to pull it off.”
“We could deal with the power issue with solar panels but a wireless system has some limits to it. They normally only come with four channels which means that you can set up four cameras. Closer to the house we can run wires and have wired in cameras … assuming we can find the cameras.”
“OK, then on that same vein how about trip alarms?”
“You mean like driveway alarms?”
“Yeah. Definitely for the road in and out but I’m thinking some in the woods as well. We’d just need to figure out how to set them so animals wouldn’t set them off. But we also need to think about reinforcing the house and outbuildings. I know things are already pretty tight but they could be tighter.”
Yeah, they could be. We spoke of some things that could be done but eventually I finally got him to go lie down and rest when it was time for Kelly’s nap. In truth I needed him to give me some space. I had some much to think on. A lot was going to be asked of me in the coming days. A lot was going to be asked of all of us.