Chapter 38

I couldn't make out much when we arrived at the cabin; it was closer to two a.m. than midnight due to a slight detour we had to take around an old cattle gate that had failed and left an impassable gap prior to a bridge across a narrow but deep gully.

Carmine got out and looked it over before we bypassed it and the gully. "Looks like rust and not intentional destruction by human hands; but, rust can be manufactured using fairly simple ingredients. Stay on triple red until we are sure."

I was already keyed up driving into the, what was for me, unknown. It felt like I was back in the city or at SEPH ... triple red was my perpetual state of being. But there is a cost to living like that. It takes a lot of energy and focus and I grew silent and uncommunicative; and though Carmine talked I had a hard time responding. Soon he was as silent as I and after we finally pulled up in sight of the cabin - though sight isn't really the correct word since it was pitch dark outside - it seemed to cost us both to break the silence to plan our next move.

Quietly Carmine whispered close to my ear, "Time to reconnoiter. You right, me left. Stay low. Not just humans we need to check for. Any opening is a hole for animals to get inside. Last thing we need is to run into ..."

Slightly irritated I interrupted with my own whispered, "Don't try and teach this rat a lesson already learned. Let's just get to it."

I jumped but didn't squeak when he leaned closer and nipped my ear and growled a little though I didn't feel especially threatened. I turned to look at him and had to inch back to keep our night goggles from clacking together. Warningly he breathed, "Saloli ..."

Acknowledging the unspoken I told him, "You're sec, I'm rat. Give me some credit. I'm not green. I can follow, just lead already."

He relaxed imperceptibly. "No risks. Not worth it. If the place already belongs to someone else I have a few other places in mind."

I nodded showing I understood.

Our concerns were groundless; it took less than thirty minutes of investigation to become completely convinced that the property remained as desolate and unused as it had been when Carmine had last been through the area.

Carmine and I were bringing in our gear from the solar wagon when he stopped me briefly and said, "You can be on my team any time. There are few I've see as sneaky as you."

I turned still wearing the goggles and some imp grabbed me as it seemed to from our first meeting. "You say the sweetest things."

He snorted. "No I don't and I'm not ignorant enough to miss that I singed your tail a bit back there. But while we've worked together before, and hunted together, we've never cased a place together. You can slither in and out of places that would be too small for me to even get my arm in good."

I sighed then decided it wasn't worth wasting energy being aggravated at the fact that sec boss wasn't just something Carmine did but it is a good part of who he was. "Practice. And I'm double jointed in a couple of places I keep limber." A bit wickedly I added, "I thought you had noticed that already."

That made him "harrumph" a bit like he was trying to hide some embarrassment which only made me grin. He briefly took his goggles off so he wouldn't have to see my toothiness, feigning the need to clean them, and I had to turn away myself to keep from laughing. Carmine is a really big mix of bold and bashful and I get a kick out of tweaking him about it some.

By the time we had brought the last in that we meant to bring in at that point, moved the wagon into what remained of the garage and covered it with a camouflage tarp, the light was creeping into our world and we were both dead dog tired.

We took shifts the rest of that day and our first night, both of us needing to recuperate from the move and being out in the cold. Carmine insisted on taking the first watch and I wasn't going to argue with him; I still didn't feel one hundred percent no matter how I tried to keep that to myself. We started with two on and two off, moved that to three on/three off throughout most of the day, and then when the sun set four on/four off for the remainder of the night.

While one of us slept the other would be quietly looking around and working. I woke up to breakfast and a fire in the main fireplace and our water barrel refilled and sitting in the kitchen. Carmine woke up to find I had started to clean the main bedroom upstairs and both the downstairs bathrooms though they were far from sparkling. When I woke up next he'd managed to rid the bedroom of what was left of the mattress and while he slept I finished the bed and cleaned the walls and had moved into the kitchen area after putting a pot of stew to cook in the fireplace.

It wasn't until the evening that we really talked. "What do you think Saloli?"

"Rich man's play house," I responded agreeing with his first assessment way back when. "Well built. Expensive materials. Seems to have weathered well inside and out structurally. But full of useless frou frou that hasn't stood up as well. The antique furniture pieces seem ok except for two or three spindly tables but the stuff out of particle wood is falling to pieces. I tried to move a dresser in that room beside the kitchen and it just about fell to sawdust in my hands."

"Umph," he agreed around a bite of hot cornmeal dumpling. "Servant's room ... like a maid or cook or sumpfing. Whoo, this is hotter than it looks ain't it." Smartening up and blowing on the next bite before it went in his mouth he added, "There's a shed that the saplings have grown up around about 50 yards behind the garage that has a similar room in it, but in worse condition. Dresser listing to the side, couple of rotten chairs, but the built-in bunks should be salvageable for something."

I told him, "Found some mice skeletons in the kitchen cabinets and in an upstairs closet but not too much damage. There's more dry rot than stuff destroyed by gnawing."

Carmine nodded. "Surprised me too last time until I found how well the house had been sealed and then laced with poison bait. From what was left of a container in the garage it looked like the poison was laced with something that caused mutations and then infertility in rodents. Probably killed off the more immediate population of rodents and the local predators keep the rest of them in check."

A reminder of SEPH, backwards though it may have been, I did not want so I passed over that bit of info. "Most of the stuff in the cedar chests and cedar lined closets looks salvageable. What isn't we can use for stuffing and maybe get another pillow or some batting to make a summer weight bed cover. Bet them furs are going to be too warm come late spring time."

"Thinking long term about this place? That easy to leave the other one behind?"

In the firelight I could tell he was teasing, but only half way. "The other could have been good but it was getting crowded. Your family is all right Carmine but you are the only person I have ever been able to be around for more than small doses."

"What about Asa?"

"What about him?" I asked a little irritated that he had brought it up again.

"You went off with him and …"

"Ok Carmine, let's hash this out once and for all. I made a mistake with Asa. I know I made a mistake. Will you stop tweaking my whiskers over it? What more do you want? It got to where Asa was gone so much I didn't even realize I didn't have to look for alone time because he was just flat out leaving me alone because he couldn't stand to be around me. What is this about or are you just trying to find a way to say that maybe you feel like you've made a mistake and …"

I was getting wound up and hating it. It meant that I felt something beyond what I had control over feeling. But I didn't even get to finish because Carmine did that swooping thing that only big men seem to be able to pull off and I went from standing with my hands on my hips to sitting on his lap in a grip that told me that I realize he wanted to make tighter but had too much sense to try and lock me to him.

When he didn't say anything but hold me I finally had to ask, "What gives Carmine? If you're sorry I … I need to know."

He grumbled something unintelligible and then said, "The only thing I'm sorry about is having brought it up in the first place." He sighed. "I don't want you thinking I kidnapped you and brought you out here so you can't escape … can't get away from me."

I thunked him a little harder than was strictly necessary with my shoulder and told him, "Look, if I didn't want to be with you I wouldn't be. I mean you're really great at the … er … sleeping buddy part of this." I could have been more graphic but I didn't want to push my luck and make Carmine go all turtle on me. "But I hope that after SEPH and everything else I've got more sense than to think that is all that there is supposed to be. I may not be worth much but I'm worth more than trading sex for food and a roof over my head. I've never done that, not even when it would have been real easy like in the city; I could have made a place for myself in the adult gangs if that was all I wanted." Carmine blanched. For all his tough guy exterior and for all the fact I knew he could be deadly, there were still bits of him that had too much honor to take what I had experienced with equanimity.

"Don't know what the problem is. Open mouth insert foot every time I get a chance on this stuff."

I punched him again but more lightly and told him, "No you don't. Which is why it is so weird when you do it. Let it go Carmine. Asa is a history that never went anywhere for me. A mistake that I didn't have to really live or die over. If I think about it too hard it still chaps me that … forget it, I promised myself I wasn't going to wallow in it. There's no sense in it 'cause I don't intend on ever making that kind of mistake again. I've got you now and … just don't go there no more. If you have something to say, just say it."

He pulled me to him and rested his chin on my head. "Keep waiting to wake up from this and have you go running to … I don't know … someone else …"

Starting to see it I said, "Well, I ain't your first wife. I'm your this wife. I'm sorry your first one hurt you and soured you a bit. I'm even sorry she died the way she did if that makes any difference. But she's gone and Asa is out of my life in that way and won't ever be coming back. I don't know about you but looking back only gives me a headache and acid indigestion. The past comes back to haunt us all on its own enough, let's not go looking for it all the time. I'm sorry our little cabin in that town wasn't what we expected. I'm sorry to have to leave the apple trees too. I'm sorry for all the work that got wasted. There's things about leaving there that would be easy to get angry about but maybe Some One is looking out for us and putting us in a better place … some place that is just right for you and me. Can't we just look at it like that and not bicker about the why and the how comes?"

"Just like that?" he asked me.

I nodded and said, "Just like that."

After a moment Carmine sighed and tightened his embrace for a brief moment before letting me go. "It is a mite bit hard for me to turn loose of but I'll try. I got some angry I ain't worked off yet. I'm tired of being pushed down the road. When and if we left I wanted it to be on my … our … timetable and not because we were having to rush into anything."

I shrugged and put the last of the stew in his bowl having already had my own fill. "Running is all I remember. I want shed of it too, but I don't feel like coming out here to look over this cabin as really running."

The stew had grown cool enough that he didn't have to blow on it. Around a bite of venison he asked, "And then what would call it Saloli?"

Thinking about it, wanting to phrase it just right I finally answered, "A strategic reevaluation of our location."

He almost choked on the last cornmeal dumpling. It took me pounding on his back before he could draw a good breath and then he spent it laughing. "You something else Gurl, you surely are."