Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
The People began arriving early in the morning on the day of the celebration, and, as always, brought their own contributions to the festivities, including, this time, their own homemade 'firewater' as John Hipa jokingly called it. In truth it was a quite respectable 'white lightning' sometimes mundanely labeled 'corn liquor'.
Since the heat precluded starting the party until the sun went down, the People pitched in to help wherever they could. We had set up canvas shelters, complete with water misting apparatus for those tending to the barbecue and setting up for the celebration, and Amanda and I mostly walked around feeling like fifth wheels.
The disarmament party had returned two days after the battle, and we had tried our best to fill them in on what had happened, and to integrate the fifty-two new people they brought with them into our society. Somewhere along the way, Nick Leahy had transformed himself from a career desk jockey into a passable soldier, and he and Arthel Washington had fallen in love during their journey.
For once, there were more than enough people to do what needed to be done for the party, so we wandered over to see how the new construction on the house was coming. As we approached the construction site, we found a crowd gathered around a pair who seemed to be engaged in settling their differences in the usual manner. It was merely curiosity that led us to push our way through the crowd to see who was fighting, since this sort of thing was commonplace in our society. I was appalled at what I saw.
One of the new people who had arrived with the returning disarmament team was being severely beaten by one of our own.
"Carmen Sanchez!" I said loudly enough to be heard over the encouragement of the onlookers. "Stand down!"
If she heard, she paid no attention, so Amanda and I wrestled her off of her dirty, bloody victim. The adrenalin flowing through her almost made Carmen take a swing at us, but when she saw who had dragged her away, she desisted.
"What is the meaning of this?!"
"Sir," Gunny's wife panted, "this goddamn fuckup isn't pulling his load! Instead of looking for something to do, he goes off to find some shade every time no one's looking!"
"I see," I said, turning to the man as he slowly regained his feet. "Do you have anything to add?"
"It's fuckin' hot out here, man!" the guy whined, dabbing at the blood on his lip. "I'm just tryin' to keep from fryin' my brain!"
"I see," I told him. "So you're more delicate than the rest of these people, or do they not give you enough water?"
The guy shuffled his feet and brushed at the sand on his clothes.
"It's nothin' like that, man," he said. "I just don't like all this heat!"
"You read, and agreed to abide by our rules, did you not?"
"Well, yeah, but I didn't know it was going to be this hard."
"Do you recall the provision in the rules about not shirking your duty?"
"Since you're new, I'll give you a choice: You can take a public flogging, or a travel pack as your punishment."
"Public flogging? For a little goofing off?"
"Everyone else in this community pulls his or her weight. You haven't been. You're lucky. I'm giving you a choice of punishments."
"My mama didn't raise no fool! You can take your flogging and shove it where the sun don't shine!"
I got on the walkie-talkie and asked Cora to assemble a travel pack and send it down to the house. We hadn't had a lot of use for them, but every one of those who had been with us for any length of time knew what a travel pack meant, and a hush fell over the crowd. The two combatants stood catching their breath as we waited silently for the pack to arrive.
Heather soon came limping across the compound carrying the pack. It probably would have been easier for her to have worn it, but nobody wanted to be seen wearing one of those if they could help it.
"Thank you, Heather," I told her, getting a brief smile before she turned and headed back toward the mine.
I walked around behind Carmen's victim and put the pack on his back, then moved to the front and adjusted the straps so that it hung properly with the weight high on his back.
"There is enough food and water in that pack to get you to Barstow if you eat and drink sparingly," I told him. "When you get to the bottom of the trail, head west. This map," I took the hand drawn map from a side pocket of the pack, "will guide you the rest of the way."
"Y-you are kicking me out?" The man stammered.
"I gave you a choice of punishments," I told him calmly. "You refused the flogging. Since there were only two choices, you get the second."
"B-but it's miles to the nearest town!"
"Drink only when you really need to, travel at night as much as possible, and find shade during the day, but be careful that you don't share it with a sidewinder," I told him, giving him a gentle push in the direction of the trail. "Good luck."
I radioed the trailhead to let them know to expect him, and when they radioed back that he had passed them, I turned back to Carmen. I glared at her for a long moment, chewing over in my mind how best to address the issue. Finally, quietly, I addressed the crowd.
"We like a good fight, here in the Citadel, don't we?" I began.
There were a few laughs and some good-natured jibes, but mostly nods and murmurs of agreement.
"I'm like the rest of you. Hell, I'm the one who told you to settle your differences this way. It's made us tough enough that nobody wants to screw with us, right?"
Another round of responses, louder this time, accompanied by hand gestures, mostly clenched fists.
"We need that toughness. We need it to survive. But we also need to temper it with compassion, or we're no better than the people we came here to avoid. Tell me something: If any of you saw someone beating up one of the kids, what would you do?"
A chorus of 'Kick his ass!' and 'Beat 'im to a pulp!' as well as more crude responses came back.
"And what about you, Carmen?" I finally turned my attention to the remaining combatant. "Would you ever, even on your worst day, beat up one of the kids?"
"No sir!" came the shocked response.
"Why not?" I asked, ignoring the incredulous expression on her face.
"Isn't it obvious, sir? I mean who would beat up a kid?"
"Why not?" I asked again, my voice leaving her no choice but to look deeper for her answer.
"Because ... Well, because they're too small to fight back, and they haven't had all the training yet."
"And how is it different if the other person is an adult who hasn't had the training we've had?"
This I addressed to a suddenly subdued crowd, but turned back to Carmen as the question ended.
"Sir, I..." the excuse died on her lips and Carmen instead squared her shoulders and said. "I have no excuse sir! It was unforgiveable of me to beat a man who didn't know how to fight!"
"And what do you think I should do about that, Ms. Sanchez?" Technically, she was Mrs. Garcia, but had chosen to keep her own name when she and Gunny married.
She swallowed hard, but looked me square in the eyes. Her voice was hoarse but strong. "Public flogging, sir. It's in the Rules."
"It is indeed, Ms. Sanchez," I told her, "but I'm faced with a dilemma. What do I do about all of these other people who didn't stop you?"
With that, I turned my attention back to the onlookers. A stunned silence swept over the crowd.
"Their crime, you see, is as heinous as yours. They watched the injustice being done and did nothing to protect a helpless member of the community. What shall I do? I don't think we have enough whip hands to do that much flogging, and anyway, I can't have all of you disabled at once. Give your names to Amanda, then get back to work, while I think about this. I will have to come up with a suitable lesson for everyone, not just those involved."
I waited while Amanda wrote their names in her little notebook, then turned and walked back toward the mine entrance. When we were out of earshot, Amanda touched my arm. I stopped and turned to face her.
"I almost feel like I'm seeing you for the first time, Gavin," she said, gazing into my eyes.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. That whole speech, taking the indirect approach to the problem, including the onlookers as part of the problem, and then taking the time to search for a solution instead of handing out summary judgment. These are things I'm not used to seeing in you."
"If this is leading up to you wanting a divorce, we'll have to work it out between us," I told her, smiling to make it a joke. "I don't think there are any lawyers among us."
"Oh stop! I like what I saw there. You've always been smart and had good instincts for doing the right thing at the right time, but that ... Well, that, I believe, showed a little wisdom."
Embarrassed, I could think of no response but to take her in my arms. As I did, I felt a hunger in her return embrace. It was not sexual, but expressed a need I couldn't quite define, like she just needed to feel my touch. Eventually, the likely reason dawned on me and I mentally cursed myself for my stupidity. I had been afraid to be too affectionate, fearing that in the aftermath of her abuse by the Russian she would not welcome my touch. It had not occurred to me that she might need another kind of intimacy.
We didn't speak, but stood there in the middle of the valley, just sharing our energy. I don't know how long we embraced this way, but eventually, we were interrupted by calls from Ruth, who was, as usual, overseeing the preparations for the evening's celebration.
For a moment, I considered denying Carmen and the onlookers at her beating of the newbie access to the festivities. It might have been severe enough punishment - everyone looked forward to these rare occurrences - but it would not have been right and would have sent the wrong message to the rest of the people. Those involved had fought alongside the rest of us, and regardless of the afternoon's events, deserved to help celebrate our victory. Their punishment would have to come in another form.
Ruth outdid herself with the preparations. Somehow, someone had managed to come up with a banner that read 'Welcome to the Citadel's first annual Victory Day celebration!'
'First annual?' Well, I suppose an event that momentous deserves to be remembered.
The party was a resounding success. I gave my speech early, before too much alcohol had been consumed, and insisted that our heroes come forward and be recognized. Most were red-faced about it and took a little ribbing from their friends, but they stood proud and tall and the kids who were old enough to understand looked at them with the kind of adoration they would have had to save for sports stars before the Sickness. Even Grey Eagle wore a grin over his normally expressionless features as he stood alongside the others to be recognized.
I thought that was not a bad thing - for the kids to have real live heroes instead of steroid shooting ball players to look up to.
Many of those whose names were called had been ordinary citizens a few years back - students, accountants, grocery store clerks, etc. In those lives, they would never have known they were heroes, and it seemed to me that in this way, at least, the Sickness had done us a good turn.
Grey Eagle, as usual, was in great demand. His new and improved Legend of Coyote Who Rides a Horse included the battle for the Citadel, and I'll be damned if he didn't manage to weave in the stories of every one of the people I had recognized in my speech, including himself, but especially Amanda. New and old community members alike sat and listened with rapt attention as the old man told his story.
The homemade hooch the People brought with them was a big hit, as was our home brewed beer. There were a few minor scuffles, but for a people as combative as we have proven to be, they were very mild, probably due to the air of camaraderie that prevailed. Spirits were high, even without the aid of alcoholic spirits.
All of the single malt Scotch that Gunny had stocked for me had gone up with the house, but I, too, felt pretty good. We had weathered our first major challenge as a society and had come out on top. The cost to us had been high, but when I considered what it could have cost had we not planned so well for our defense, I thought we had gotten our victory at a bargain.