Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
To say that dragging my body out of the sleeping bag in the middle of the night was hard would be an understatement. Going to sleep had seemed impossible, yet there I was, being shaken awake by a hand stuck through the door of my tent. I had slept in my fatigues, partly because I was too tired to take them off, and partly so I would only have to put my boots on when awakened.
I stumbled down to the house, and gratefully accepted the hot cup of coffee thrust at me by Garcia.
"You look like hell, Gavin," he said, unsmiling.
"Yeah, well you ain't no prize yourself, Gunny. When did you sleep last?"
"I think I got about fifteen minutes sometime after we landed here yesterday."
"Hey, don't worry about how I look. Get some sack time. I don't want to see you out of that tent before sunrise unless the mountain's caving in - that's an order."
"Aye, aye, sir," he sketched a salute that was nothing like the mil-spec salute of the previous evening, and shuffled off toward the mine.
"Say, Gav?" He stopped and turned back.
I raised a questioning eyebrow, too sleepy to waste words.
"You know that little Mexican spitfire that came with Amanda's group? I think her name's Carmen."
"I only know what Amanda's told me of her, why?"
"You think she'd, you know, have anything to do with a beat-up ol' Marine?"
His face fell when I answered, in a serious tone, "Probably not, Gunny," I took a sip of my coffee before letting him off the hook, "but she'd be a damned fool not to want a fine upstanding Marine such as yourself. I'd say, talk to her about it - after you get some sleep. You really do look like shit right now."
"Thanks, Gav," his grin was back and there was a little more spring in his step when he left this time.
I saddled Humphrey and made the rounds of the guard posts, quietly exchanging a few words with Gunther, at the top of the road leading up from the desert. He was shivering in his fatigues and I relieved him long enough to go to stores and get a field jacket. When he returned, I made my way down the road to where Matt was manning the first outpost. He was dressed for the weather and had brought a thermos of coffee with him.
"Have a cup, Gav?" he offered.
"Thanks, no," I replied. "Just had one up at the house. You're kind of at the point of the sword here, so save it to keep you alert. Garcia brief you on procedures?"
"Yeah. I did a stint in the army, too, so I know the drill. Never saw combat, but did okay in basic and on maneuvers. I was tempted to re-up when the second Iraqi war started, but somethin' didn't smell right about it. By '06, when everybody else figured out that it was a scam, I was pretty happy I hadn't let my patriotism go to my head."
"I know what you mean. Hey, you said you've done some blacksmithing, if I remember correctly, right?"
"Yeah, kinda liked it, too. It's pretty cool to take a nondescript lump of steel and make it into something useful."
"Can you harden and temper steel?"
"Some. I mean the basic techniques are pretty straightforward, but there are all kinds of subtleties that can be worked in with different materials, heating, cooling, folding and re-folding, and so forth. I never tried a lot of that stuff."
"Do you think you could come up with a list of things we'd need to build a forge and a smithy?"
"Well, yeah, but why don't you just use the one in the back of the stable?"
"There's one in the back of the stable?"
"Yep. Looks like this Archie was pretty self-sufficient. Got an electric blower and a good sized anvil. Any tools I know how to use are there, too. You won't be doing any smelting, but most any other iron work that one man can do can be done. There's a drill press and a lathe, too. How come?"
"I'm not sure. I mean, we'll need horses shod and maybe some basic hardware made, but that German guy came up with an idea for making hydroelectric power from the waterfall, and I'm just thinking about how we might have to make some things to make that work. Right now it's just pie in the sky, but it may come down to some work for a good smith before it's finished."
"Sounds interesting, but you don't have to wait for something like that. If you want me to pound something out, just let me know."
I made a circuit of the compound and eventually caught up with Carmen Sanchez as she paced off her beat.
"How are you holding up, Ms. Sanchez?" I asked, after the formalities of the challenge/response had been completed.
"I'm not the best I've ever been, Mr. Thompson," she answered, "but I'll survive. Jorge wasn't much, but he was all I had. It's funny. Seems like we fought every time we were together, but I still miss the bastard, you know?"
This was a little more than I had intended to solicit, especially so soon after my own meltdown, but having gotten her started, I didn't know of a good way to stop her without making things worse. I supposed I was going to have to deal with all sorts of emotional problems as people began to realize just how much they had lost.
"Jorge was your husband?"
"Nah, he was just my boyfriend, but we were together for a long time. When I came out of the fever and found out that the son of a bitch was dead, I told myself 'Good riddance!' but damn if I don't miss his sorry ass. Pretty screwed up, huh?"
"Not really. He was familiar. We tend to stick with the familiar, no matter how unpleasant. Best thing you can do now is move on."
"Yeah," she snorted, "like there's somebody on this trip that wants to hook up with a Chicana from the barrio. Thanks, anyway, Mr. Thompson!"
"Actually, someone was asking me about you, not too long ago. I don't want to betray his confidence, but I wouldn't be surprised if you hear from him in the next couple of days."
"You're messin' with me, right?" She gave me a skeptical, sidelong look.
"Nope. Not here. Not now. Don't know for sure if this guy's got the cojones to talk to a girl - some guys are like that, you know, but I suspect you'll be hearing from him."
"Thanks, Mr. Thompson," she smiled. "I still think you're full of shit, but I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt."
"That's about all I can ask for, Ms. Sanchez. Keep your eyes open while you're making your rounds. I don't expect any people to be coming around any time soon, but out here, Mother Nature can send some pretty serious threats our way, so your job is to give us warning if anybody or anything that poses a potential threat shows up. People's lives are in your hands."
"I'll do that, and thanks again."
Heather Billingsley was sitting on a boulder worrying at a broken nail with a nail clipper. Her M16 was propped against the rock beside her and I approached within ten feet without her hearing or seeing me. I dismounted and picked up a fist-sized rock and threw it against the boulder beside her. The crack when it hit was drowned out by the girl's terrified scream. The scream only got louder when she saw me.
"Having a relaxing evening, Ms. Billingsley?" I asked in a moderate tone.
"M-Mr. Thompson! What the hell are you doing scaring me like that! I almost peed my pants!"
"Wet pants would be the least of your worries if a cougar or an intruder showed up while you were doing your goddamned nails on duty!"
"But I broke it! I was just trying to fix it so it wouldn't look so horrible and get caught up on my clothes!"
"I see. Let me see your clipper." I held out my hand, and, reluctantly, she dropped the shiny implement into it.
"Give me your right hand."
She stuck the hand out, fingers spread so we could admire her manicure. I grabbed her wrist and stuck it under my armpit with my back to her. "Be still!" I commanded, and through her shrill protests I clipped all five nails back to the flesh. Without a word, I took her left hand and did the same, leaving her expensive manicure lying in the dust of the trail.
"Now, get this through that thick skull of yours, girl!" I told her harshly, just as people awakened by her scream began arriving to see what the commotion was about. "There are no more beauty salons, red carpets, or fashion runways. You pick up your share of the load here or get the hell out, understood?"
"B-but, I'd never survive on my own!"
"Then you'd better goddamn well learn how to be part of the community that's trying to help you survive, hadn't you?"
"Y-yes, sir." Her bottom lip trembled artfully, and her voice sobbed pitifully, but there were no tears in her eyes. It was all an act.
I saw Amanda in the gathering crowd and motioned her forward. "Please find someone to relieve Ms. Billingsley. It seems her broken nail is more important to her than our lives. I will find somewhere to confine her while I determine a suitable punishment."
Another of Amanda's original group, Wanda Somers, came forward, saying, "I'll take the rest of her watch, Mr. Thompson."
Amanda and I exchanged glances. I don't know how to describe it, but it was like, in that single glance, I could understand what was going on in her mind - she trusted Somers and thought her a good choice for Heather's relief. She was apparently on my wavelength, too, because she handed over the watch belt and the M16 without a word being exchanged between us.
"She had the west side patrol, right?" Wanda asked as she strapped on the belt.
"Affirmative. And Ms. Somers, thank you for stepping forward. I know everyone has had a long day, and your taking this extra load is appreciated."
I turned to Amanda and said "Please see that Ms. Somers gets some time off from work tomorrow. If necessary, Ms. Billingsley can double up, doing her own work as well as that of Ms. Somers."
"Will do," my second replied. "What do you intend to do with Ms. Billingsley?"
"For the rest of the night, she will be confined to the stables," I answered, wondering briefly if she intended this as challenge or a way for me to let the crowd know how I worked. I finally decided it was the latter. "Tomorrow I will make public my decision on her punishment."
"Please go easy on her, Mr. Thompson," Somers said softly. "It's not easy to learn in a couple of days what they don't teach in those fancy Hollywood schools. She needs to learn to carry her load, right enough, but keep in mind where she's starting from, okay?"
"I will keep your comments in mind as I make my decision. Thank you for your insight. Ms. Billingsley, would you like to say anything to Ms. Somers?"
"To a wannabe actress who couldn't keep her panties on?" Her voice dripped disdain, as she tossed her head and looked away from her benefactor. "I don't think so!"
"Would you like to reconsider your request, Ms. Somers?" I asked.
The redhead's eyes held only pity for the young blonde. "No, Mr. Thompson. She'll learn or she won't. If she doesn't she'll be very lonely and then she'll be dead."
I shooed those who had come to see what was going on back to their tents. Several of them gave Heather contemptuous looks as they left. Amanda hung around.
I frog-marched the young blonde, complaining the whole way, to the stables. In an empty stall I tied her hands together, then threw the end of the rope over a beam and secured it out of her reach. She could stand comfortably with her hands above her head, and even lean against the rails, but unless she was more athletic than I gave her credit for, she would not be able to worry at the rope around her wrists with her teeth, nor would she be able to slip her hands out of it.
"Hey!" she shouted as I turned to leave. "You're not going to just leave me here! Get back here! Hey!"
I turned back long enough tell her tersely, "Since we do not have resources to spare to build a jail, this is your cell for tonight. Tomorrow you will be punished for dereliction of duty. If you do not keep your mouth shut and allow those who have actually been trying to do their part to sleep, I will gag you as well. Is that understood? I will be honest, Ms. Billingsley, at the moment I am undecided whether your punishment will be extra work or a public flogging. The more I hear from you, the more I favor flogging!"
She swallowed hard. "F-flogging?"
"Yes. Being whipped with a bullwhip, in public, on your naked back. I assure you that if that is your punishment, the first stroke of the whip will open the skin of your back and it will only get worse from there. Now, do I need to gag you?"
Her tears were real and copious this time.
Amanda stared at me as we walked away. When we were out of earshot she asked, "Would you really flog her?"