Where I’ve Been – Part 11

When it rains it pours. Got an inspiration to do some writing when I c ouldn’t sleep this weekend. As usual, no idea where this story is going, just puttin’ it out there. Decided to leave my blog the way it is for awhile, see what happens. Tired of “running” to maintain my privacy. I can choose to look past the shenanigans.

Enjoy the visit with Barley and Nessa.

Where I’ve Been – 11

The last of them filed through the big beams of the gate, and it was slowly pushed shut. The line of men on horseback and various others on foot waited a moment more for the dust from frozen ground to settle. It was over. Chris scanned the assembly, and felt the tension slowly lift from his shoulders, like shedding a too-long worn coat in a rainstorm.

His eyes rested on Barley, held tight by Nessa, her arms though his, her head rested on his shoulder. He looked torn in two. Chris was worried for the young man, but secretly pleased he had decided to stay.

Another man to keep the town running was important now that Turner was gone. He needed every able bodied soul to keep food on tables, the solar infrastructure repaired, the water flowing,  and prepare for the inevitable coming of the Government forces. He had no idea what would happen then. He was afraid to think it. Their time of peace and simple life was at an end. He could feel it in his bones more than winter. There were ominous changes coming.

When everyone turned to walk back from the camp, he noticed the young girl, Lisa, had stayed put at the gate yard. She was standing stock still, her hands dangling sadly, her head bowed, her shoulders bunched. On her feet were old Sunday shoes, at her side a hip-knife, jutting out from her ill fitting clothing, her army cap jammed on her head. The juxtaposition of girl and soldier mashed together, and he moved his horse over to her.

“Young lady, you should come back to town for some lunch.”

She looked up, the end of her nose pink from the cold, her eyes rimmed red. She nodded, and turned wordlessly away from the gates. A few steps later, she stopped, holding one foot up, then the other.

Chris moved his horse up beside her again and held a hand out wordlessly. She looked up, caught it, and he hefted her birdweight up into the saddle, feeling her toe of patent leather hit the skirting before she settled behind the cantle.

“Thank you.” she mumbled. “My feet are cold.”

Chris suppressed a chuckle as he clucked to his horse to move along.

——————

Barley sat, his back to the wood stove in the living room, watching Jessica darn some clothing for the new children. His father was reading the Bible, his own feet up in a recliner, soles pointed towards the fire. It had started to snow mid-afternoon, and once the chores were done, everyone had gone into their homes, hunkering down. The sky looked ominous, and several of the older folk said it was going to be a long snow.

He thought about the men and women that had left three weeks past, wondering if they too had made camp to ride out the storm, or if David had pushed them on. He had wanted to make it as far east as they could, as quickly as they could. The maps had indicated they would meet up with what had been called Interstate 40, and eventually, that would take them to the 95, which was a road that led to an entry-point to the south, on the border of what was once South Carolina. His thoughts wandered to memories of camping in the snow, the fires bright against the stark white of the forest around them, and the constant worry, punctuated by sniffling and coughing. Winter was a hard time to be travelling. He had hoped they would stay longer, perhaps until Spring, but David was adamant they wanted to be South by then. He knew his decision was the right one, but his conscience still niggled him. Nessa said it was because he was a kind heart. She believed in him so much, why couldn’t he believe in himself that way?

A knock on the door startled everyone, pulling Barley out of his navel gazing, and he stood immediately, waving his father down.

“I’ll get it.” He said as he reached the door at the back of the house. The days had been long, and Maury was feeling the ache from farm chores as well as preparations for the government forces, should they arrive. He wished he could spare his dad the hardship sometimes.

One of the young children from the UCA camp stood dripping in the doorway, hat in hand.

“Beg your pardon, Mister, but I was told to come get you and your Dad.” He said.

Barley raised his eyebrows and ushered the small child in. “Come in out of the weather first. Now, where are we supposed to go?”

Jessica rushed into the kitchen and immediately put a kettle on, then fussed around the small boy for a moment, getting his coat off, so he couldn’t answer Barley’s question. Maury eased onto a stool at the kitchen island, his own interest piqued at the late visitor. Barley turned for a tea towel and handed it to the boy.

“Mr. Wooler sent me over. He said to tell you a relay post has spotted people.” the muffled response came as the boy toweled off his face.

Barley looked at his Dad. His Dad slumped somewhat, and then rose to put on his boots. “Let’s get the horses.” He mumbled.

“Did he say what kind of people?” Barley pressed, himself headed for the back door and his coat and boots. “And how far away they are?”

The young boy shook his head, and looked glum, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Barley grabbed his coat and hat, hefting the weight on, then slapping his leather gloves together. He looked at Jessica, and she nodded, their eyes meeting for a moment, then she focused back on the boy.

“Make sure he’s fed.” Barley said and then he and his father slipped out the door into the storm.

——————–

The wind creaked around the corner of the house as Nessa closed an old, beat up thermos of tea for her father, and handed it to him. She shivered at the thought he now had to go out in that, on a horse, to the gates.

“People?” She said once more as her father did up the toggle buttons on his overcoat. “In this weather? Are they insane?”

Chris snorted and shook his head. “Likely a false alarm, but we have to take each sighting seriously. I’ll be back soon.”

Nessa moved closer to the stove, and her mother, and they watched him open the door, snow swirling in as it always did, across the floor. Harriet, sensing the draft, popped her head into the kitchen and smiled “Have fun Dad!” She called as she went back to the fireplace in the livingroom, friends over and her mind elsewhere.

Nessa felt uncomfortable staying. She eyed her medicine bag by the door, kept ready in case, and her boots beside it. She looked down at her patchwork denim pants and sweater, and around the kitchen. Then, she decided. Something about tonight, despite her admission of doubt, was making her gut instinct tingle. What had Barley said? Go with your gut. Well, her gut was telling her she would be needed.

She dashed for her coat, jammed her hat on her head, and stuffed her feet into her boots, hastily doing the laces. Mittens fell out of her hood, and she bent and retrieved them in her haste, picking up her kit at the same time, banging into the wall. She felt clumsy and rushed, and before her mother could utter a word of protest, she was out the door into the cold, slamming it behind her like a yearling bull moose too clumsy to walk a straight line.

The wind bit into her face as she ran the short distance into the stables, the light piercing the dark as a perfect, yellow square. She fumbled for her hood, and gave up as she reached the door, stepping inside.

“Dad, I’m coming too. Don’t say no.” She breathed.

“Put your kit in the back left pack then.”

He yanked the cinch up as she buckled the packs back into place, shaking the saddle, the horse grunting in response. A canvas back sheet strapped onto the saddle, covering the horses rump shifted, and Chris reached back to adjust it, brushing Nessa in the process. They looked at one another, and he stilled for a moment. She put her hand on his arm.

“Its ok. I understand its dangerous.” she said. “I’ve just got this feeling.”

Chris nodded once more. “I know. I have it too. Lets go then.”

Nessa walked out beside the horse, into the night, and Chris wound the flashlight he had clipped to his parka several times. A beam of light, muted by the falling snow, peeked out past them, towards the front gate. He mounted up, and then Nessa put her foot onto his and vaulted behind him. She adjusted her hood, closed the button, and with a cluck, they set off for the town square to meet the rest of the welcoming party.

————–

“Sentry says its not people, but one person.” London said, as he shuffled his horse back to the line of waiting men. Nessa burrowed deeper into her coat, peeking out around, seeing Barley and his father, Hammond, Peter, and young Percy grouped together, talking, guns slung casually. The snow had abated, and with the snap and crackle of torches, it almost looked festive, if not for the tense overtone.

“A person?” Maury replied, shifting in the saddle. “How did people become person?”

London shrugged. “Don’t know. But that’s a might less dangerous, wouldn’t you say? We can be back in our beds sooner than we thought!”

“Unless they’re sick.” Hammond interjected. “How far away are they?”

Just as he asked, the gate sentry shouted, and Chris motioned for Nessa to get off their horse. She slid to the ground, watching him spur forward to the side of the gate, snow spraying out from the horse’s hooves.

“Ok boys, let it open.”

Nessa felt a wave of apprehension hit her, and the group of men turned their horses, now milling about her, to face the slowly opening gate, mounds of snow growing behind the big logs as they slowly curved in. She forgot about the cold, and her frozen toes as she heard guns being cocked around her, and horses brought to attention.

As soon as the gates were open a crack, a lone figure fell limply through, obviously leaning against the other side. Nessa started forward.

“Nes, wait.” Barley said. She stopped and looked up at him. He shook his head and pointed. “Just wait a moment.”

Chris had stepped off his horse, his own rifle loose in his ungloved hand. She watched as he prodded the body. She clenched her jaw, watching her father take that first, risky step. If it was Sickness, she prayed that the winter would keep it on this traveler, and not jump to her father.

“Close the gate. I need a horse.” Chris barked, beckoning. “He’s still breathing.”

Nessa began to run forward again, Chris already pulling what looked to be her bag out of the saddle pack. She reached them, hand out for the bag, as the gates creaked shut. Chris dragged the young man out of the way, and in front of Nessa, leaving a trail of disturbed snow and dirt behind him as he did. The rest of the group had now crowded around.

“Who is it?” Maury asked, stepping down from his horse, handing the reins to Barley. “Is he going to live?”

Nessa was in shock at the abject starvation and filth of the man in front of her She peeled back the hood on the threadbare jacket and shook her head, unbelieving. His eyes were sunken, his nose frost-bitten, and the stink coming off of him, even in the cold, was indicative that he either had a wound that was festering, or had not bathed in some time. She looked at the cap on his head and gasped, shrinking her hand back.

“Oh my God.” She uttered, then looked up at Barley, squatting down beside her. “Its-”

Barley closed his eyes and then took a deep breath to finish her sentence. “Its Justin. From the army.”

——————-

“Put him there, on the table.”

She turned as Justin’s boots thumped down at the end of her examining table, almost masked by the shuffle and creak of snow-soaked men across the floor. The men arranged him so he wouldn’t fall, and then they backed away, all looking at her.

“OK then.” She barked, taking command. “Someone start a fire in that stove, make it hot. I need light, so candles and some lanterns, and I need an assistant.”

Barley automatically moved to Justin’s feet, and began unlacing his boots. Maury moved to the stove, and Hammond and Chris rummaged through the cupboards for candles and holders. London, was, as usual, out with the horses, Percy with him.

She moved to Barley’s side and watched as the first boot came off. Justin was wearing no socks, and a few toes looked mangled, blistered, and frozen. She groaned, and cast her eyes over the supplies she had pulled out onto the old kitchen counters when she had arrived.

“Get some of those towels over there warming by the fire, and lets get one over his feet now. I need to get the rest of this filth off of him to find that festered wound.” She said, her hand on Barley’s arm. She felt a surge of comfort that Barley was beside her, knew what she needed.

“what in God’s name happened to this boy?” She whispered, looking up his frame to his gaunt face, slack, exhaustion keeping him thankfully asleep.

the room slowly lit with candles and the  few lanterns that had been stashed. Water was put onto boil, and in no time, Maury had the pot-bellied stove in the corner roaring. He had gone out, and Percy soon appeared with more wood. The whole team worked quietly, no one wanting to say much. It was too shocking to see the young commander in such a state, and wondering at how he had made it back to here, and why.

Soon, Barley and Nessa were by themselves, the rest of the men gone back to the town, leaving them to work. Chris mentioned he would be back with some hot tea and food for them when he could. Nessa was grateful for that, and watched her worried and tense father walk out the door, his hulking shoulders held tighter and higher than normal. All this was weighing in him. He was their leader, and it was up to him to protect, this she understood. She couldn’t fathom the helplessness he felt at the oncoming unrest.

Bit by bit, silent except for the crack of the fire and creaks of the floorboards, they pulled and cut the sodden, dirt-crusted clothes off, throwing them in a heap in the corner. They weren’t worth saving.

A gash ran up Justin’s side, red and angry, crusted and oozing pus. Bruises covered the rest of him. There was not one spot they had found that was not. As Barley rolled him up on his side to remove an arm of his shirt, more gashes and marks showed on his back, the ribs poking out through them.

“This looks like he was tortured.” Barley muttered, and Nessa looked at him sharply.

“What?”

“These are whip cuts.” Barley said as he pointed to the criss-cross of gashes, some puffy and as angry as the gash on his side. “And this over here looks like a burn.”

Nessa ran her fingers over the palm-sized oval patch of scabbing on the man’s shoulder and cocked her head. “Isn’t that where your regiment tattoo is?”

Barley’s face went rigid, and he put a hand over his back to his shoulder. “Yes, it is. Whoever did this, they burnt it off.”

They laid warm towels underneath him as they eased him onto his back, and began the long process of cleaning the massive number of wounds and cuts, scrapes and bruises. As Nessa pulled a chair over to place her disinfectant bowl on, she saw Justin’s eyelids flutter, and heard a groan.

“He’s waking up.”

“Justin, man. You’re safe.” Barley said quietly, striding to his head, grabbing a hand that was now up and flailing. “You’re safe.”

“I am?” Justin wheezed, and turned his head to look at Nessa. Nessa recoiled at the sight of his open, empty eyes, searching and blinking, the whites red, the pupils unfocused, the rims crusted with what looked to be more scabbing “Is that you Sir? I can’t see you. I can’t see!”

Nessa went to his head as well, and pulled her father’s tiny wind up flashlight from her pocket. She cranked it, and shon it into his eyes. There was no reaction, and she hung her head.

“Dammit.” She muttered.

Barley looked at her, and she shook her head. “Something’s been put in his eyes. He’s been blinded too.”

“I can still see some now, its dark in here.” Justin wheezed, rolling his head back, staring at the ceiling. “They threw some sort of liquid in my eyes first night. It hurt like Hell, but then-”

He stopped as a coughing fit overtook him, and Barley eased him up to dispel it, then easing him back down.

“Who did this, man?” Barley said.

Nessa squeezed some cloth out and began cleaning the gash in Justin’s side as the fire cracked a few more times. Justin’s breathing evened out again, and he once more turned his head towards Nessa. She sensed he was looking for the fire, its light likely throwing shadows behind her. She moved a candle nearer his head, and he smiled as best he could, seeing her.

“You’re the healer. I did make it back to the right place. I’d lost hope.”

Nessa nodded, her cleaning rhythm unchanged. “I am. Can you tell up who hurt you, Justin?”

“Yeah.” he said, and closed his eyes. “I was captured by government forces. They attacked our group, I think most got away. I wouldn’t tell them nothin’, so they-”

Another coughing fit arched through him, and Barley laid a hand on his forehead. “That’s enough. You can tell us more later. You’re in need of rest while we patch you up.”

Justin shook off Barley’s hand, and opened his eyes again. He seemed to stare at the ceiling, and both Nessa and Barley watched him, shocked.

“They’re here, the Government forces. I left them two days ago. I’m hoping they didn’t follow my path too closely. But they’re here, and will likely find you soon.”

Barley and Nessa met eyes over Justin, and Nessa watched a Barley flickered anger through his face. This meant that he was not the first one they would see. And likely, come tomorrow or the next day, their lives were going to change.

“Did they take anyone else?” Barley asked quietly, deciding to press him for more anyways. He slumped, turning to feed the stove, and grab new hot towels to wrap Justin’s feet. “Did the rest of the squad keep moving?”

Justin let out a sigh, and blinked slowly again. Nessa stopped her cleaning and watched him. She sensed he was upset about something.

“No, I ‘jes saw one other. They killed him because he assaulted an officer when they restrained him. ”

“Did they take Turner?” Nessa asked quickly.

“Turner went North, he didn’t stay with us.” Justin rasped, and turned his head to Nessa once more. “He said he was going to find his boys, and he doubted they were South. So no, they didn’t take him. Or if the met them along the way, the worst they would do would be to ask for his citizenship papers. If he had none, then they would put him with the convoys headed North to the holding areas, which meant he didn’t have to walk, and he might be able to at least look there before he was reassigned, maybe find out where his kids went.”

Justin coughed again and went quiet. Nessa focused back on her task, her head bent. She worked methodically, cleaning each would, dressing it, moving to the next one. Justin fell into a restful state, wincing now and again, but not saying much. When she’d finally put the last dressing on, she stood, cracked her back, and looked for a chair. She hadn’t noticed Barley had left, and she was alone. He must’ve gone for firewood, or perhaps to get food, and she sat down, looking around the room.

Bloody rags littered the floor, discarded tweezers and scalpels on a tray beside Justin’s head. Towels were steaming on the stove, his feet large multicoloured bundles. They had packed his hands in hot towels too, just to be safe.

“Thank you.”

Nessa lifted her head. Justin was eyeing her in the dimming light, his face a relief of hills and valleys.

“You’re welcome.”

“Captain Benson was right to stay.” He added, and swallowed visibly. “The rest of the squad is running now, trying to make the South border to keep from being engaged and fighting. No one is safe. ”

“He stayed where he belongs.” Nessa replied tiredly. “We needed him here.”

I needed him here, she thought, and closed her eyes.

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