First thing I had to do was tell myself there wasn’t time to sit down and cry. It almost worked. I still managed to get things started but only after I was able to tell my hormones they would have to wait to take their turn. I was shook up, upset, thoroughly grossed out by some of the jobs that were before me and scared that the other man was gonna come back around for another go.
That last fear went away for the most part when the dogs finally came back, all three of them with something in their mouths. Umph, I’m here to tell you that I was some scared to take a looksee at what it was but it was just pieces of clothing without any parts inside them. The pieces what looked like they were from the stranger’s shirt were only dirty and torn; no blood. The boss dog had a good strip of pants leg and he had done some damage getting it off the man. Boss dog set it at my feet and grinned a big ol’ wicked doggy grin. I thanked all of them proper and told them what good dogs they were and how proud Dino was going to be of ‘em. They seemed to take it in stride and went off to tend to other doggie business. But from the sounds I knew they hadn’t gone far, only over to the kennel to tell the females what they’d been up to.
I was still in a quandry. I needed to do something with the pig and quick. But I didn’t want it contaminated by the corpse of the dog or the man. If I didn’t get the pig bled out it was rurnt. If I tried to do it right here next to the corpses it might get rurnt anyway.
Well first, I didn’t see any choice. I couldn’t move that hog someplace else before I bled it so that meant that I had to move the dog and the man. First though I had to get that hog up off the ground. She was a small one, barely two hundred pounds, but still weighed way more than Kerry did and I didn’t dare lift him anymore or risk splitting something inside. Then I remembered the old hoist thingy Ajax and one of Chester’s boys had brought up out of the basement for me. It still sat where they’d left it under a canvas tarp with some other, similar items.
When I’d asked Dino what it was – it looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place it right away – he told me it was called an engine hoist and was used to lift engines and other heavy pieces out of cars and small tractors. When I asked him what it was doing in the basement he had no more idea that I did since it was kind of a silly place for it. It was supposed to have been moved to the barn but had been put on the bottom of the priority list until after the harvest. For once I was mighty glad that men can get creative at ignoring their honey-do lists.
The engine hoist was even on wheels though pushing it around in the dark and trying to angle it just right was no pleasure I can tell you that right now. It was even less pleasure trying to wrangle the wide straps around the hind feet so that I could put butcher hooks in so the carcass could be lifted without tearing out. If I hadn’t been doing this since I was eleven I could tell you I’d have been in a worse fix than I already was. I swear I was huffing and puffing and … yes, saying a few choice words about having to do it all on my lonesome. I think the anger is what got me through the first little bit and God let me have it because I needed it.
What I was aggrieved about most is that with hog butchering as with anything else there is supposed to be an order to things and the order of things are in that order for a reason. The first thing you are never supposed to do is get a pig or hog overexcited before you kill it. It just isn’t right for one thing and for another you can taint your meat that way.
I finally got that hog fixed so that when I started raising it, it would stay where it was supposed to and not come tumbling down and so that the cuts in the ham would not tear any more. I went to the jack that operates the hoist and slowly raised the carcass up so that the snout was several inches off the ground and the feet were well over my head. I said a quick prayer and then moved the kerosene lamp a bit so that I could do the job right. I stuck the butchering blade and then made the cut that opened up the main arteries and then stood back and let gravity go to work.
I then turned to the other two carcasses. I had worried that I would have some trouble from Dino’s dogs but they were well trained hunting dogs and left the prey to their human when they were finished doing their part. I got the wheelbarrow and then got the dog’s body – surprisingly heavy – into it and rolled it to the pit that we burned things in. I knew under the dirt and ash in there would be bits of bear bone from where Dino and Harry had been forced to destroy one several months back. With things being too wet to burn I had no choice but to just dump the dogs body in there until it dried up enough or until Dino could come home and manage it some other way.
Thoughts of Harry had me wondering where he was at and what he would be thinking if he knew where I was at. I missed him. He could get some kinda wound up on occasion but he had always been good to me and willing to take whatever load I asked of him, and some I hadn’t asked. On the other hand, wherever he was at was likely to be dangerous and I wanted him fully focused on surviving. I prayed that he wasn’t lying on the ground somewhere cold and dead like the man I was about to have to deal with was.
I was scared to death I was going to have to deal with the law but there wasn’t anything I could do about that at that point; what’s done is done. I did know however that just dumping the body in with the dog’s carcass just wasn’t the thing to do. Most folks don’t kin to treating human remains the way you do animal remains, no matter if the human acted no better than an animal.
The man’s dead weight – no pun intended – just did not lend itself to being lifted into the wheelbarrow but I couldn’t just leave it there not the least of why because I didn’t want Kerry to see it come morning. And the smell coming off his gut was just about to give me the pukes; even remembering has me near about there again. I tugged on his arms but he was too heavy that way so I went around and grabbed the feet and slowly drug it that way. I didn’t go far with it, just to the wagon parking area. The corpse would be on gravel and up off the dirt and that was just the best I could think to do with it. No way was I taking it down to the ice room. Uh uh. Sorry. Was most definitely not gonna happen. Consequences be danged.
The hog was still draining at that point and I was getting the shakes again. I had just run for the corner of the house to puke when I heard horses. I prayed, “Oh think you Lord, thank you for bringing Dino home.” Only it wasn’t Dino … it was Chester and his two oldest sons.
They’d come to check and see if the storm had done any damage. I didn’t know what they were talking about but apparently closer to their place there had been some heavy hail in with the wind and rain. That didn’t do nothing but roll my stomach again praying that there hadn’t been any damage to the grapes. When Chester found out Dino hadn’t come home and that I’d had to shoot a man he got real stern.
As he sent one of his sons off to get Alec he said, “And you do it quiet son. No need to be getting anyone’s interest up over this until we get things squared away. And ask if Missus Nichols can come see to Miss Riss.”
I tried to tell him I was fine but he made me go inside and lay down. “And … well not to be too particular, I’d appreciate it if you stayed off your feet until Missus Nichols tells me you ain’t … er … strained something.”
Chester is normally the most easy going fellow I’ve ever met but that night I felt like I couldn’t have not minded him had I wanted to, he just had that much authority in his voice. I went on inside as he bid me and I only meant to lay down on the sofa to ease his mind. Next thing I know though there’s pink in the sky and Cheryl’s draping a sheet over me.
“What? I …” Took me a couple of seconds to remember what I was doing where I was. “Has Dino …?”
“Come home? No Honey. Alec finally got word about an hour ago that the line of storms that came through here had a tornado in it earlier and took out a bridge late yesterday.”
I tried to get up but she said, “You stay put. You’ve had a shock whether you know it or not.”
“But Kerry is going to be up …”
“Kerry is already up and I’ve caught him creeping in here half a dozen times. It’s a wonder he didn’t wake you up before now.”
“Oh good brown gravy, let me guess … I was snoring,” I said in disgust.
She laughed having heard the story more than once. “No Honey. He was actually upset you weren’t and kept coming over to see why you weren’t.”
Thank Heavens for small blessings. I still had to get up though as sometimes I have to make a quick break for the bathroom or there would be dire consequences. “I was the same way with Ajax,” Cheryl said sympathetically.
I came out with Kerry waiting there anxiously. “How come Uncle Alec and Aunt Cheryl are here? How come Daddy didn’t come home? How come them army men are outside? How come you was sleeping on the sofa? How come …?”
“Whoa Squirt. Need to clean the cobwebs out of my brain OK?”
It wasn’t OK, at least not according to Kerry, but he did allow as how if I was gonna give him the answers to his questions he’d need to leave me alone long enough to find the answers out for myself first. I told him that if he played in his room for a bit that I’d find out everything that I could and report to him. That of course made him feel important so he obliged me by going upstairs.
As I was stepping into the kitchen Alec was coming in from outside. He looked at me and asked, “You doing OK, up for talking?”
“Depends on to who and for what,” I answered cautiously.
He sighed, “The who is an Army Colonel and the for what is because the two men you had a run in with last night were escaped military prisoners.”
“Oh glory,” I said nauseous all of a sudden. Then I shook myself and said, “Before I go out there do you know anything about Dino and Ajax?”
A slight softening around his mouth and eyes gave me some relief even before he said, “They’re fine, just stuck on the other side of the Little River bridge. Dino is fit to be tied and swears he’ll get here before nightfall but I don’t see how. They’ve got three wagons and they are going to have to go all the way around to Pewter Junction to cross to this side.”
I wanted to ask how they had three wagons when they started out with only one and two drivers but I could see that Colonel through the window looking rather fearsomely impatient. I stepped out onto the porch and all in a glance I saw that the pig was gone and the yard scrapped clean where it needed it. I got a bug eyed glance from some of the young boys with the Colonel but only a cold one from him.
He tried to stare me down and something in me bowed up and said I didn’t do anything wrong and I wasn’t going to let this man treat me like I had. I looked at him square and the eye and said, “I beg your pardon for keeping you waiting sir. I’m afraid I was rather overset by the events of last night.”
“You can drop the honey, sugar, or anything else young lady. I am immune to those types of theatrics,” he said with a voice that told me he was so Yankee he probably bled blue.
Still gentle I said, “I’m sorry Colonel but this is how I talk. Don’t ask me to drop my R’s and I won’t ask you to go find yours.”
He jump like a bee had stung him on his flanks. “Now see here young woman …”
“Colonel, flashy uniforms don’t impress me none, only the good men inside them. My Daddy gave his life at the First Battle of MacDill so I know the difference between a hollow soldier and a real one. Real ones aren’t nearly as likely to overcompensate when dealing with civilians.” My voice had turned to steel. “Now from what I understand you wish to talk to me about some military prisoners that you people misplaced and I unfortunately found. Exactly what is it you want to know?”
I thought he was going to blow his stack and then he wet his whistle and twitched his lips and said, “I can find out if you are telling the truth about your father you know.”
“No doubt you can. Look for Sgt. Beauregard Keehn. He was an air traffic controller,” I told him right back refusing to be intimidated.
He looked at a squeaky clean, nervous looking kid and nodded. The kid ran off and then the Colonel turned to me and said, “My name is Colonel Kanton. If you lie to me you will rue the day you learned it.”
“And my name is Damaris Keehn and you’ll likely regret that no matter what you do.”
Alec couldn’t stomach anymore and said sharply, “Riss!”
I sighed but settled back off my high horse. I looked at the Colonel and repeated, “You were going to ask me some questions?”
The Colonel sighed as well and pinched his nose. “I need a full accounting of last evening’s events Ms. Keehn.”
“Miss will do,” I told him. At a pained and whispered “Damaris, please.” From behind me I turned and told Alec, “I just don’t want the Colonel to think I’m one of those girls that have to wear the britches all the time.”
Alec squawked but held his ground to support me. There was also a strangled sound that came from a man wearing Sergeant stripes standing off to the side of things. I sighed again and asked, “How much detail do you want Colonel?”
Refusing to look straight at me for some reason he answered, “A brief overview first if you please.”
“Hmm. Well, I’d worked all day and was some tired after fixing supper. I was also worried that Mr. Pappas hadn’t returned as planned.”
He interrupted with, “Mr. Dino Pappas? Your … uh … employer?”
“My … uh … particular friend,” I corrected him. “How kind of you to be interested.”
Alec sighed and said, “My cousin and Damaris have an understanding. They’ve just been moving slowly as Damaris was abandoned at the altar and …”
It was my turn to squawk and give Alec a look for letting that particular cat out of the bag. Turning back to the Colonel I said a little more loudly than strictly necessary, “Be that as it may … I’ve been housekeeping for Dino for several months now but yesterday was the first time I had been left in full charge of things to the extent I was. I know all about what it takes to keep a farm going but my condition restricts me from going as much as I would like.”
The Colonel, whose mouth was definitely twitching said, “Hmmm. And?”
“I had pulled something when I was milking and after taking care of all the other household responsibilities I sat down to wait for what I thought would merely be a later arrival by Mr. Pappas. But I must have dozed because the next thing I know there’s a commotion in the yard. I go out, it’s two men and a dog. The hunters – that’s the dogs – run one of the men off, deal with the stranger dog, and I shot the other man. Chester and two of his sons came to check on me and then send for Alec. I crash and burn until I wake up and find out you want to ask me some questions.”
The Colonel coughed and said, “Perhaps … well it appears I will need more details than that to fill out my report.”
I nodded, “More than likely. My father used to say that military reports had to be so thorough they’d even ask you the color of the lent in your belly button.”
That caused the Sergeant to start wheezing like he was having an asthma attack. The Colonel deadpanned, “Just so. So since you are obviously aware of the problem Miss Keehn perhaps this time we could simply walk through everything.”
Oh I walked him through it all right, giving him just about more details than his little clip board boy could keep up with, and was doing just fine until I got to the point where and the location of where I had drug the man’s body to and when I saw it covered with plastic and all the flies that were buzzing around it, not to mention the smell had gotten no better, I turned and ran for the bushes.
“Well … Miss Keehn … I am relieved that you are not as detached from the episode as you at first appeared.”
If he hadn’t had the power to cause the Pappas family trouble I was half way tempted to puke on his highly polished boots next time he said anything at all. Instead I gathered my pride and said, “I wasn’t detached last night nor am I now Colonel but I’ve yet to think of anything good that could have come out of having hysterics over a man twice my size coming at me with a bloody k-bar. He wasn’t looking for a flaming kiss, that’s for sure.”
The Colonel, suddenly serious said, “Don’t be too sure Miss Keehn. One of the things the man in question was under arrest for was rape; given his character or should I say lack of your condition would not have deterred him. His partner is not quite as violent and more of a coward but …”
I didn’t like how he left it hanging like that. “Well, if the other man thinks he got a rude reception here, just imagine when he runs up against someone like Dino.”
“Mr. Pappas? Ah yes, former marine …”
“That too I suppose but I was more referring to the fact that the men around here do not take kindly to their families or their livelihoods being threatened. He’ll get desperate, all stupid men do eventually, and he’ll make the same fool mistakes he made this time around. But he’s been chewed on pretty well, why don’t you get a local with some hounds and go find him before he does any more mischief. The boss dog brought back a hunk of his pants and it is bloody like he got some meat with it. A good hound can track him with that.”
He turned to look at clipboard boy who was still a-scribbling away and at the Colonel’s nod the boy ran off. “Thank you for your time. Good day … Miss Keehn.” He turned to the Sergeant with a nod and then went to sit in the transport making the young driver look anxious.
The Sergeant directed that the body get stuffed into a body bag and then carried off to the back of the transport. Then he finally looked at me and smiled before saying, “You just won’t do girl, you just won’t do.” Definitely a Georgia boy I realized. He chuckled and then said, “The Colonel isn’t normally so …”
The Sergeant guffawed once and said, “That’s a good word for it.” He shook his head and then with a look asked Alec and Chester to join us. Much more seriously he said, “Now I’m going to pass along some caution since you folks seem to have a good head on your shoulders. We’ve got people leaving the cities. Not a lot of them but no small dribs and drabs either; the checkpoints help with some of that. They think getting out to Granny or Uncle Joe or one of the commune farms that have sprung up is going to save them. What most of them don’t know is that the time for that sort of thing is long past. Nevertheless you’re likely to have problems out this way either from strangers passing through or moving in or from your own homegrown trouble. You need to get and stay prepared to protect your own ‘cause your county LEOs are more than likely going to have their hands full with their own problems. Some of the bigger cities are going to be allowed to burn … but unlike when the war first started, it will be a controlled burn designed to split factions up before they can form into a group large enough to become a serious movement; that’s what the CSP was created for. And the war is likely going to heat back up for a time as well. We’ve been told to expect several revenge attacks for the new policies in all theaters including here at home.”
The Sergeant, after making sure all of the other uniforms types had been collected, went to climb in the transport himself but the Colonel sent him back over. “Miss Keehn, the Colonel would like another word if you please.”
I almost said well I don’t please but that was only because my nerves were strung tight. I walked over to the Colonel who was leaning out the window. “Sir?”
There was a completely different look on his face when he said, “Miss Keehn, your father’s service record states that he fought with honor and died a hero.”
A soft spot I still had started feeling bruised and my eyes watered up a bit when I replied, “You didn’t need to tell me that Sir. My Daddy was the man he was and could not have done anything different.” The Colonel paused and then gave me a respectful nod before directing the driver to head out.
Alec kind of guided me back into the house and remembering my promise to Kerry I called him down when Cheryl nixed the idea of me climbing the stairs. I explained that there had been a ruckus but that it was over and that we’d have to be ready for his daddy to be upset over not being here when it happened but that everything was Ok.
He looked at me and said, “Then how come your face looks the color of my school paste?”
Cheryl tut-tutted and said, “He’s right. Come here and sit down and eat something right now.” I think that something was a piece of toast and a scrambled egg but I wasn’t paying too much attention to be honest. Cheryl finally accepted that work was better for me than sitting around and we fixed some dinner for the field hands that had shown up to see if there had been damage and then stayed to help set things right so Dino wouldn’t come home to a yard that looked like a slaughter house.
Someone doused the dog carcass with ‘shine and finally got it going and the smell of it nearly had me running for the bushes again which only proved to me that I was more stressed out than I would admit to anyone else. It was like my cast iron stomach had taken a vacation and left a weak and puny cousin to take its place.
Cheryl went home to take care of her brood not long after dinner and Alec came and went a few times before I finally told him, “It’s obvious Dino isn’t going to make it home tonight like he wanted. Just go on home, we’ll be fine. I finally convinced all the field hands and everyone else that has been stopping in to go on home and that’s where you need to be too.”
It wasn’t easy to convince him but he went after making sure that I had all the windows locked and all the downstairs shutters closed and bolted from the inside. It made things so stuffy that I wound up sleeping in Kerry’s room with him which he got a kick out of.
Alec and Chester both came by in the morning to check on me which was sweet but I shooed them off telling them I was fine and that we all had work we had to catch up with before the last of the grapes needed to come off the vines. Knowing how true that was they went about their business and I went about mine.
I was determined to accomplish something constructive with my time and the produce was only piling up. What could be left in the cool of the root cellar I did but the pumpkins and watermelons were starting to take up a lot of room. The planters had planted them all at the same time and that is how they were coming in; all at the same time.
I started with the watermelon just because Kerry was begging for some. I cut all of the flesh off of one and let him eat until he was full as a tick. I took the rind and sliced the green off of it and made watermelon rind pickles which was something my little brother was partial to. Another thing us kids had been partial to was dried watermelon which I made a large batch of. Even a great big ol’ Dixie Sweet watermelon dries down to practically nothing as all the water evaporates out, but there’s a ton of sweetness left behind and eating dried watermelon is about like eating candy, only without the cavaties.
I made watermelon jelly out of another melon but left the rest of them until I knew how many Dino would need for the big batch of watermelon wine he told me he had an order for. The rind off of the one I’d made the jelly with also went into the pickling syrup except for a few piece I kept out to fritter. I battered them with a bit of seasoned cornmeal and then deep-fried them and Kerry was only hesitant until he saw me threatening to eat his share if he didn’t hurry up.
It was mid-morning and from the breeze coming through the windows there was rain off somewhere close. I worried that it would cause problems for the harvest but could do nothing but pray about it since I didn’t have any power to shoo the clouds away. And at least the breeze was blowing the heat from the kitchen.
I started on the pumpkins next. I made pumpkin pie leather, pumpkin butter, pumpkin jam, pickled pumpkin, and plain canned pumpkin. I wasn’t sure when Dino was going to return but in case it was between dinner and supper I fixed something that would hold over. I fried up some of the pumpkin, cooked a few slices of ham, and made up a pan of cornbread.
I was thankful not to have had to do any more milking of that ornery cow. Chester and Alec had taken care of it for me and I was hoping that Dino would be home to do it before she needed milking again. The cow didn’t scare me none but the chance of getting kicked did I will admit. That thought brought me around to realizing I had a lot of cream I needed to do something with so I told Kerry to fetch the butter churn while I brought up the pans of cream.
The butter church was actually one that belonged to my family. It’s not that I didn’t know how to use the old fashioned wooden one that Dino’s family had used before I came along but I preferred the more mechanized one from my grandparents’ things. You pour cream into a large, wide-mouth jar and then screw down the paddle and crank. Turning the crank handle turns the butter paddle and soon enough you have butter. Kerry was usually good for a batch of butter and that day was no exception but his arm tired after one batch and I had two more after that.
Even I was tired afterwards and after taking the butter down to the ice room and scalding the butter churn and putting it away I asked Kerry if he had any objections to resting on the porch for a spell. He smiled real big and said, “No ma’am!”
Of course he knew what I really meant was me resting on the porch while he played in the yard, usually with Stinky. I was rocking and feeling pretty dozey. Stinky barked once and then I heard the jangle of a wagon. I opened my eyes to see two wagons coming down the road faster than commonsense dictated and was levering myself out of the rocker. By the time I was up and on my way off the porch Dino had the wagon parked and just about on top of me.
Kerry was wrapped around his leg and got his fair share of attention but I swear Dino was giving me such a thorough check over that I felt like a horse on the auction block. “I’m gonna bite if you start looking over my teeth Dino Pappas.”
“You act like your worried I’m not all here and in the same shape you left me.”
Rather than reply with words I got thoroughly kissed before God and everybody. He looked down in my eyes and said, “I’m home.”
All I could say in return was, “Uh huh, you sure are.”
Kerry was giggling but it was about that time I realized the laughing man on the other wagon wasn’t Ajax. I coulda died of embarrassment but on second look I realized the man looked familiar for some reason.
He came down off the wagon seat and said, “AJ Nichols. And you must be Damaris.”
For some reason Dino continued to hold me close and I couldn’t reach out to return the handshake the man had offered me.
“Nichols?” I asked, wondering.
“Alecsander’s younger brother,” he said by way of explanation only smiling bigger at Dino’s odd reaction.
Well that was the first I’d heard of a younger brother, or at least one old enough to be the man in front of me, and he seemed to realize it. He laughed and said, “I’ll leave the explaining to you Dionysius. I’m going to take my horse and be on my way now. I’m sure my nephew has had time to get home and let my mother and brother know I’m coming for a visit.”
Dino said, “Warning them you mean.”
Dino's smile was real but on the cautious side as he said goodbye. With the man gone it was like he’d taken a lot of what was holding me up with him and I just sort of fell into Dino’s arms and let myself get held tight for a few minutes.
“Are you OK?” Dino asked in an intensely serious voice.
“Oh I’m fine as a frog’s hair, just so glad to have you home and safe I’m a bit overcome with it.”
“I never would have left if …”
I wasn’t going to have any of that. “Dino no one could have predicted that those men would have acted the fool exactly where and when they did. If you want the truth I’m more glad that it happened to me than some other woman that might not have been as prepared to take the necessary steps. Can we talk about this in a bit? Little pitchers have big ears,” I added with a glance in Kerry’s direction. With a nod from him I asked, “Are you hungry? I have some set back from dinner.” He didn’t have to say a word, his stomach did his talking for him which set Kerry to laughing so hard he near about fell over.
While we sat at the porch table which had become our favored breakfast and supper location he shoveled in the food so fast I told him, “You’re going to get indigestion. I’ll fix more if you are that hungry.”
“I am,” he admitted. “But I think there is more rain on the way and I need to get the wagons unloaded and tend to the horses. They’ve been peaches and deserve some extra tending.” It wasn’t until he’d tended to the beasties that we were able to exchange our stories.