I heard snickering … a very familiar snickering. The yard was lit by the battery-powered lanterns carried by the men with Commander Blankenship. I carefully stepped to the porch railing and looked over. I had found Jude.
“That’s my gentle Dove,” he snickered as he tried to stand up then fell back, grunting in pain. “Wish I had kept you in sight. You coulda tapped a few for me.”
“Oh Lord, I didn’t hit you did I?”
Then he looked up. “Nope.”
“Oh … my … gosh!” His face didn’t look like road kill but it wasn’t far from it either. I took off down the stairs and nearly wound up on my rear bumper. “Clewis! Don’t just stand there! Get down here and help me!”
I had my shoulder under Jude’s arm prepared to help him up when a man came over quickly and said, “Just a moment. Let me take a look.”
I turned to snarl but stopped when I realized he was wearing winter Army gear. I gave him a hard look which he returned with equanimity. “Capt. Lucius Munch … I’m a doctor.”
“Flight surgeon?” I asked. He looked at me closer and I said, “I’m a military brat. My dad was stationed at Ft. Campbell for about a year.”
“Where’s he stationed now?” he asked as he examined Jude.
“The family cemetery … along with my two brothers.”
Several men that were milling about turned to pay too much attention to me when my words reached their ears. They got quiet and I got uncomfortable and reminded myself a uniform didn’t automatically make a friend and to shut my loose lips. Capt. Munch asked, “Recently?”
Since I had already opened the conversation all I could do was answer honestly but succinctly. “No. The beginning of the war.”
Commander Blankenship appeared behind me with some skinny dude at his heals. It was too dark to see if he had any rank but I doubted it as the Commander was civilian … or was supposed to be. “She is a double negative as are the children in the household.”
The Captain nodded. “I read the report.”
There it was again, the idea that there was some kind of report floating around telling all my business. My face must have shown my thoughts because Captain Munch … or doctor or whatever … looked at me and said, “SOP. Medical needs to know what we are working with in any given area. We’ve got good herd immunity in this sector and I intend to keep it that way.”
I was two seconds away from “Moo-ing” just to get his goat when Jude got a look at my face. “Dovie,” he said gently but warningly. I rolled my eyes but complied. Munch finally told him, “You got pounded but you’ll live.”
I growled, “He better. Now y’all move so I can get him out of the snow so he doesn’t come down sick.”
“Easy Dovie … they’re the cavalry this time, not the enemy. No need to snap.” I shut my jaws but was too upset to do much more than nod in acquiescence.
As we entered the house so that I could get a better look I called, “Paulie. Tiff. I know you’re lurking so you might as well come help. Bobby, you keep yourself and the rest of the littles upstairs, you got me?”
I heard a chorus of, “Yes Dovie.”
Paulie and Tiff came down in their PJs and robes and out of habit I checked to make sure they had socks on inside their slippers before telling them, “Paulie, get the stove going hotter but not like a rocket … I’ve had enough explosions for one night. Tiff, fill the kettle then throw in a couple of packets of peppermint tea then bring out the man-sized mugs, not them frilly things that will make them act like they are holding dynamite.” I turned to find the Commander, his skinny shadow, and Capt. Munch had followed us in. Also out of habit I looked at the floor and winced. It was a wet and muddy mess. I’d be spending a good part of the coming day scrubbing and trying to take care of the damage.
“Gentleman, if you’d care to have a seat the tea will be ready in a moment.”
Jude gave me a wink through his swollen eye and said, “I’m fine Dovie, really. But you better have something for Dad when he gets here. He’s gonna birth a pineapple when he sees this mess.”
“You’re lucky I got a chance to expend some energy or there’d be worse than Uncle Roe to deal with.”
A none too happy voice coming in the room said, “Watch your sass Little Sister and let me see my boy. I’ll let you know when you’ve come along far enough to be worse than me.”
I made way for a highly agitated Uncle Roe who was in the process of snapping at Jude, “And what in the Sam Hill are you doing out so late on a night like this?” Uncle Roe hates to be worried.
“Uh … well, it started out ‘cause I wanted to bring Dovie home some reeds. Mom had mentioned that you’d cut her some to put on the porch to keep mud out of the house and Dovie is about like Granny Cherry when it comes to the floors.” Uncle Roe, and Clewis who had just walked in, nodded their understanding. “So anyway, I was down there and suddenly felt eyes on me. I decided to beat feet but I kept feeling like I was getting trailed. I doubled back around and sure enough there was a group of ‘em. I was out as long as I could but the cold was getting to me. I lost ‘em but they must have picked up my trail again. The only way they would have made it through between Watch Out and the duck pond this time of year is if they have someone real local with them or they’ve been scouting the area for a long time; horses usually get bogged down half way through.”
I saw Commander Blankenship raise an eyebrow at his skinny shadow and the young man left the room at a trot.
“Um, Commander Blankenship?” He raised his other eyebrow which I took for permission to ask my question. “Excuse me but it seems awful strange to see you out on a night like this, much less playing cavalry. I thought you would have been shaking the dust off your boots and more n’ half way to your new assignment by now.”
His mouth twisted in brief humor. “Yes, I’m sure it does. Suffice it to say, as one of my last duties, I was introducing Colonel Carillo and his men to some of the local families. We were actually on our way here when a military patrol reported tracking an unknown group, larger than currently allowable. I’m simply along for the ride as they say.”
I nodded. “Hence you being the cavalry and all. Well, thank you very much for your assistance. I hope I didn’t swat any of your men.”
The Captain, overhearing my concern, chuckled. “A couple, but they’ll live. It has been a nice introduction to what happens when you don’t properly identify yourself before entering a private property. I don’t think either the Colonel or the Major could have come up with a better lesson had they tried.” He turned to Commander Blankenship and some unspoken comment went between them. The Captain nodded respectfully to the Commander, then after nodding to the rest of us he left the room.
If I had to guess Uncle Roe and Jude didn’t miss the unspoken communication, they were simply better mannered about it than I was. “Commander? What’s the military doing escorting you places? I thought you were top of the food chain in this area … uh, or were … are I mean?”
With a wicked glint in his eye he admitted, “I was until at midnight on January 1 Mr. Carlsburg took the reins I held; however, his command will be different from mine in several respects.” And that’s when he dropped the bombshell. “His command will be restricted to city limits within the sector. He will have no provenance outside of any city limit. That will now be maintained by the military.”
My mouth fell open. “Well isn’t that a kicker.”
“Dovie!” Uncle Roe snapped.
I knew I would have to pacify Uncle Roe later concerning what he saw as poor manners but for now I was playing the slightly brainless girl that I had in the Commander’s office when I had been called in for needing an ID. “Well it is. There’s pros and cons to it for both sides and I’m sure there’s as many people complaining as there are being thankful. You know how people like to complain; they feel it gives them something constructive to do.”
Commander Blankenship snorted a surprised chuckle. I’d seen men get like this on terminal leave when someone who used to jealously guard their authority got real relaxed about it. “I believe your sentence hits the mark exactly as things currently stand. Allow me merely to add that it is not the military that is the enemy.”
His comment wasn’t for me; in fact it was likely intentionally meant to go over my head. He looked at Uncle Roe and Jude when he said it, further reinforcing that idea. For a sharp man, I’m thinking that Commander Blankenship either never had teenage daughters or didn’t know much about the female species generally. I decided to not educate him and let him keep his innocence.
Tea was soon served and drank, and then the skinny shadow was back and whispered something to the Commander. He stood up and nodded saying, “Thank you for your hospitality but Colonel Carillo appears to be ready to remove the prisoners so I must take my leave.” Looking at me he asked, “Do you keep your ID on you as per instructions?”
“Yes sir,” I told him pulling the key ring out of my pocket that I keep all of the IDs on which in turn is tied to a string on my belt so that they won’t fall out and get lost. “Just like you told me to.”
He nodded approvingly. “Very good. Tell Captain Munch that I told you to show those to him.”
He left the room and I looked first at Jude then at Uncle Roe for confirmation that I should. Uncle Roe said, “Girl, what are you waiting on?”
Jude more cautiously nodded and accompanied me back outside after I told the kids that were hanging out in the stairwell pestering Clewis to knock it off and get upstairs. “I’ll be up there as soon as I can, until then stay put.”
When they scattered Clewis shook his head. “How do you do that? I told them to go and they just looked at me like I was crazy.”
“That’s ‘cause you are,” I told him. “But they’ll mind me if they want to get fed.”
Clewis snorted. “Granny Cherry used to say the same thing. For you to be no blood kin of hers you sure do seem to be her doppelganger.”
“And don’t you forget it,” I responded only giving him part of my attention. Instead I stepped out onto the porch and tried to locate the Captain in the lantern light. Spotting him I made my way carefully off the porch and then waited to get his attention.
“Yes?” he said finally noticing me.
“Commander Blankenship said that he wanted me to show you our IDs.”
The Captain looked over to where the Commander was mounting his horse. “He did did he?”
“Yes sir. I reckon you need it for your paperwork. I remember that going to the hospital on base was always one piece of paperwork right after another. Don’t see how war would make it any better and likely makes it some worse.”
The Captain looked at me sharply and I realized here was a man that wasn’t the least bit fooled. He confirmed it when he said, “I have a sister just a little older than you and a step-daughter just a little younger.”
“Oh. Uh … that’s nice.”
“Can be. Can also make my ulcer act up.” But he took the bite out of his words with a smile. He was a nice man for all the fact that his uniform seemed to be starched all the way through to his skin. He shook his head. “Let me see.” I handed them to him though kept them attached to my belt. He didn’t seem to mind that and after looking at them he nodded. “I thought so.”
Looking at him suspiciously I asked, “Thought so what?”
“The Commander has a soft spot for kids.” At my surprise the Captain gave a chuff of humor. “I know. You’d never guess by looking at him. He doesn’t have much use for most adults but kids … yeah, he’s got a soft spot. He has made a real effort to prioritize supplies going to families with children. Let me stick my head in and verify all these kids and then I’ll get it taken care of.”
“Get what taken care of?” I asked, not caring for the busybody tone that was creeping into his voice.
I opened my mouth again but Jude put a gentle elbow into my ribs. I wanted to hiss in pain but kept my mouth shut. He hadn’t meant to hit a spreading bruise where a fist had caught me a glancing blow during the ruckus. And what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. I was going to keep my bruises to myself thank you very much.
We stepped into the foyer and Clewis made room by going out onto the porch to keep an eye on things. Capt. Munch told me to “Call them down please.”
“Paulie. Tiff. Bobby. Lonnie. Mimi. Come down here. And y’all bring Corey too, just make sure he is wrapped in a quilt.”
They weren’t far back so it only took a sec for them to stick their heads down the stairwell. I crooked an eyebrow at them letting them know they were caught but I didn’t say anything. The Captain looked at me and then at them. He shook his head then asked the kids. “Are each of you healthy and happy with your living arrangements?”
Paulie stepped in front of Tiff who was holding Corey and said, “We’re fine.”
“Easy son. I’m not trying to take you away, the question is merely a formality. No one have any complaints? I need each of you to say yes or no.”
All at the same time they said, “No sir.”
“Well, you’re polite I’ll give you that.” He turned back to me. “Is that the last of them?”
“You haven’t adopted anymore?”
“All right.” He turned to Jude. “Mr. Killarney, I understand that you are acting as … as …”
“I help Dovie keep things going around here.” Boy, was that an understatement but I let it pass since Uncle Roe was around.
“All right then I’ll just mark you down as … hmmm, co-signer since you are living in the residence as the legal adult but don’t have legal guardianship. If you’d come with me so that you can sign for the packages we’ll get this done and over with. You’ll get what remains in the supply wagon since a good bit of it is perishable.”
Confusion and pride reared their heads but Jude gave me a “don’t say a word” look so I kept my mouth shut but it was a near thing.
An hour later they were all gone. As they were moving out I wanted to ask who the bad guys were but Jude and Clewis both shook their heads to tell me not to. After the military patrol left and passed by the farm on their way out rather than risk a return trip through the frozen bottom lands, Butch and the other men rushed up to see what had happened. While they bumped their gums I tried to sweep up the worst of the mess on the floor and could have cried at the damage that had been done … but I didn’t.
Came close to it again when they all pitched in getting the door back in the frame. The hinges had held but the door frame had taken a beating and lost. A new piece of wood would have to be cut and shimmed into place for the door bolt and a few other cosmetic things to make it look decent again. There was a dent in the front where the original door kicker had landed a boot and the paint in that area was destroyed. I wasn’t sure where I was going to get the paint to fix it but I would have to do something after everything was sanded and repaired. The plaster was cracked in a few places also but I knew how to fix that and had the supplies down in the basement to do it.
“Boys, full day tomorrow,” Uncle Roe reminded everyone. “Words gonna get out soon enough and then there will be a lot of coming and going as people come by to hear the news. I was already told about some trouble over at the blacksmith’s place so we’ll give ‘em a day off to recuperate and let their people tend to them before any of you head back over there. Jude, did you get the news from Clewis?”
“Yes sir,” he answered tiredly.
“Likely they’ll find those yahoos that messed with us are the same that tried to terrorize them folks. And Dovie, you check that skillet afore you use it again and make sure it ain’t cracked. I saw the damage you did to some of ‘em and no sense in taking chances. Come along boys, Frances is probably waitin’ on news.” He stopped and gave me a last look. “You sure about this Little Sister?” gesturing to the two boxes they were taking with them.
He nodded again before adding to Jude, “Doc was right boy, you got pounded. But … I’m glad to say you pounded a few yourself. You did your family proud. Don’t come down tomorrow, you need to have some quiet time to take it all in and shore up things around here. Your momma might be up but maybe not, depending on what this storm lays down on the ground for what is left of the night.”
Jude could only blink as Uncle Roe and the rest of them stepped off the porch and mounted up, turning their rides towards the gully. I looked at Jude and said, “I have to go see the kids.” He just continued sitting there and it worried me a little.
Upstairs I stuck my head in the door of the kids’ communal bedroom but found them all piled together puppy fashion in one bed and asleep. Paulie cracked his eye open but I shushed him silently with my finger on my lips. “Everything is fine. Morning is soon enough to sort it out.”
His eye closed again but I swear he seemed to relax a bit. I added a quilt to cover them all from the other bed and then I came back downstairs to find Jude heading towards the basement stairs. “You aren’t going to want to climb those. I’ll go down and check on them.”
He asked, “You sure?”
“Yeah. Sit at the table and I’ll get you something for the pain.”
“Strong is what you need.”
“I need to be able to think.”
“Then think … just leave yourself enough energy to explain. We’ve been too busy to go over it, but I suspect them girls and those bad men might just have something to do with one another.”