“Should we be out this far Yulee?”
“Do you want to eat?”
“Jasmine you’ve seen how everything is picked over closer to the cabin. It is either go further out or give up anything fresh for the munch and meals. And with so many to cook for …”
The young girl groaned. “Why do they have to stay here?”
I thought that some were finally beginning to realize what work a crowd really took to take care of. “Because if they didn’t some would surely die. Which of the ones that you’ve come to know would you sentence to death? Which of your brothers and sisters would you sentence to death by sending away the extra protectors?”
“I’d never …”
“But that is what you were saying. If they leave here of their own free will that is one thing … and I think soon they may just do that very thing. Gerry has heartburn over all the lost business. But Gid and Jace can’t guard the rest of us alone – even with help from the rest of the older brothers. So when Gerry and his men go we may very well be digging graves for our own.”
“No. That’s … that’s just not fair.”
“Nothing in life ever is. One of my aunt’s men used to call it being damned whether you do or don’t. Now we should stop speaking and remain quiet. We are out to gather greens but I wouldn’t mind bringing in a hare or two to lighten the men’s load.”
The girl fell silent. In truth it wasn’t a hare so much I wanted to catch but raiders that I wanted to avoid. She was right that we were further from the cabin than normal and were taking a chance. It was a necessary chance however because I hadn’t been understating how difficult it was becoming to find edibles nearer the cabin. We were out an hour when I caught a sour smell on the air. I pulled Jasmine to me and showed her how to hide in the briers like a jackthumper. Putting my finger to my lips I hushed the questions that wanted to spill out.
I smelled sickness. The kind that comes from a festering wound or puke that’s not been buried and left to rot in the open. Then I heard them. They were seasoned raiders and knew their trade well but my father had taught me his trade as well. I’ll never be as good at it as he but life had made sure I was better at it than I should have needed to be.
Jasmine’s quivering let me know she’d spotted them as well. It was a test of my will against hers but she didn’t try and run or squeak and give our position away. The three raiders angled away from us heading toward the cabin. I wondered if there were more or if they were setting to make an assault until I caught their garbled speech.
“We all are. Supplies are running low. I’m done listening to Novak. He says we wait ‘em out or take ‘em one by one. Well time for that is over. Yesterday there was only Bonner that was sick. Today five more joined him. I told the fools not to eat that bear, that sompin’ was off about it. If ever man that did eat of it comes down with the bloody runs like these have we need to take what we can get and be gone from here.”
“I only got a few bites but I ain’t sickening.”
The other two looked at him sideways and as the third man turned away in fear I could see he lied. He held himself like one that had to go to the outhouse but who was afraid to let go. The man’s facial tattoo stood out from his gray coloring almost like it was freshly done though with a healed scar running through it I knew that couldn’t be so.
The one acting as a leader shook his head, “Don’t matter. We all gotta die sometime. Would you rather die a puking coward or as a man in battle.”
The sick man did stand a bit straighter though I could tell it cost him. “If it be my time I won’t be going alone.”
And the three then commenced building themselves up for what I knew they planned to be a deadly attack on our home. But they were overconfident. I’d have to hit them just right to get penetration with my arrows. Their furs and other bits and pieces they wore were thick like armor. It also had to be done quiet just in case these three weren’t the only ones about.
I made Jasmine stay put and close to the ground while I changed position quietly and followed them down the trail a bit. I got two before they could turn a bend in the trail and the third immediately after the bend. I ran forward and cut the throat of the one still thrashing and then also the other two just to make certain. A quick turn to get Jasmine I snatched my arrows and we ran for the cabin.
I expected a lecture and a lecture I got.
“What were you thinking woman?!”
I kept my quiet as I knew I deserved the tongue lashing for worrying Gid. It didn’t matter that Jasmine and I had brought back enough provision for a couple of days of fresh munches. I hadn’t asked him first.
“And you just sit there saying nothing!”
“There’s nothing that I can say Gid. I knew what I was doing. We need the fresh. You men can only do so much and still keep us safe.”
Almost like he hadn’t heard my admission he said, “And three … THREE … raiders?!!!”
“I couldn’t risk them getting through our line and cutting off our return.”
Gid went on for a bit more but eventually he calmed but couldn’t or wouldn’t let me far from him for the rest of the day. That night in front of the fire we all spoke more calmly about what I’d heard that day.
Gerry scratched his chin and said, “There’s sickness in their camp. Would that we could take advantage of that but we don’t know their numbers.”
Tad nodded, “A small recee would be good. Even if we didn’t attack the camp at least we could know their strength.”
Gid looked at me and then sighed. “Tell again what you think.”
I shrugged. “The same thing that happens during a siege when a commander can’t provide for his men. They’re getting dissatisfied with their lot. I couldn’t tell if this Novak was a strong man or not but I didn’t hear any fear in the voice of the man who mentioned him. He could be weak, sick, or not in the area but only having his orders followed through messengers.”
Jace said, “If he isn’t about that means there will be at least one raider group at some distance. If they don’t share the illness they will be a force to be reckoned with.”
Ern grumped, “There’s a pleasant thought to go with all the others.”
I let the men do their men talking but I knew what I would do if I wore their boots. Knowledge is power. Even if we only knew about some of the raiders in the area it would still be better than the blindness we currently suffered from.
It was frustrating not to have my say and keep my counsel. Gid and I went off to our bed and he insisted on helping me undress. He kissed the nape of my neck and said, “I yelled ‘cause you caused me worry.”
“I know. I’m sorry for you feeling worry.”
“But not for the deed which caused it.”
I was silent for a bit then said since his hands were still being gentle, “We’ve needs. The family can’t keep going like it is. The youngest are already showing signs of missing foods that keep them healthy. I’m doing my best to save them from the scurvy and rickets but I can’t do it without going further afield.”
“The littles are in danger?” he asked with quiet concentration on the problem.
“Some. All the worry and fear they see on the faces of the rest of us does not help. Ned does his best but he said their attention and ability to concentrate is being affected. The Sisters always knew when a sickness was brewing in the village children just from monitoring the school. And another cow has gone dry.”
“This siege needs to end,” he said with finality. “Need to go have some words with the others.”
I sat and took time with my Creator. I’d nearly sweated through my blouse trying to keep my words behind my teeth and needed a bit of quiet to compose myself. Slowly in my mind’s eye a memory formed. I must have been very small because I sensed my grandfather was sitting in a corner rocking and smoking his pipe. My grandmother and Old Annie sat with my mother on a bench near the door.
“Will it work?” Mam asked her Mam.
In her correct speech she said, “It has never failed to work with your father. A kind word turns away wrath and a quiet word can lead a conversation in the way you wish it to go.”
“I don’t want to tell him what to do.”
“And you won’t. You are simply leading him to the same conclusion that you have come to. Let him choose dear. He needs to be the man. Do not nag him. The men know what needs to be done, it is merely taking them longer to make the decision than it did for us women.”
And then it clicked. There had been some sort of scandal, one children were not privy to, but in hindsight I believe it was between one of the Brothers and Sisters and that enough people suspected but the men didn’t want to touch it and the women wanted it dealt with. I can’t remember the exact trail of events but I do remember that there was a wedding not long afterwards that was much remarked on.
I must have dozed because I woke with a start when I heard something outside the shutters.